Doctor Whooves and the House of Daring
Chapter Three: The Face of Evil
Long ago, on the edge of the magical land of Equestria...
The sound drew the girl out of hiding, and she crept between the rows of meticulously organized crates as the ear-tearing noise filled the cargo hold. She briefly cast a backwards glance at the door, only to be rewarded by an errant nail tearing some the lace of her dress. The girl sighed as she crept around a container as stealthily as she could.
On the other side of the hold, a blue box had appeared. It looked like one of the cutting edge Trottingham phone booths. The stallion outside, however, resembled a policepony not at all.
It was true that he wore a suit, but it hung on him with a carelessness that reminded her of father's look after late nights to the pub. A bowl-cut mane flopped around his head. He was whistling as he locked the phone box.
"Sir?" She stepped forward, curiosity overcoming good sense. It wouldn't be the last time. "You don't happen to be a soldier, do you?"
He turned with a theatrical spin, his eyes alight. "No, my dear. And unless Celestia has radically changed military dress codes in favor of petticoats, I doubt you are either." His inquisitive eyes searched the area quickly.
That's peculiar, thought the girl. He's in the middle of the room. He has to have seen it before.
"A ship," he said carefully. "Listen to that almost inaudible propeller hum. We're on a military airship." He stuck his tongue out for a second before giggling. "Dear me, is that jungle air I taste?"
The girl stepped backwards. He might be an eccentric officer, but more like he was some crazy pony with a box.
"That's right. We're over zebra territory now."
The stallion did a small dance and sat down on a barrel. "Ah. The Bountiful Lands. The caravans of the giraffe merchants. The ruins of the kingdom of Mfalme the Cruel." He cast a look at his blue box. "It's been so long for me, my girl."
She snorted. "Point of fact, I'm not your girl."
He giggled as a smile played across his lips. "Point of fact, I was not in fact talking to you."
"Well, you're certainly not polite," the girl said with a huff. "Also, rather uninformed. The ruler of the zebra lands is called Mfalme the Just."
He nodded. "The Princess Mailaika hasn't snuck the rebels into the castle yet, I suppose."
She shook her head with growing confusion. "Sir, you speak so very eccentrically and dress worse. Pardon my rudeness, but do you happen to be a hobo?
He paused. "Well, yes indeed. However, the scale in question is quite a bit bigger. I say, what are you doing here?"
The girl raised her nose proudly. "I happen to be traveling on this ship as a passenger."
The stallion smiled. "Hah! Not officially, most likely. Aside from this being a military ship, your dress and accent contrast with the amount of dirt you've accumulated. Not very promising accommodations here, I must say." A flat smile spread across his face. "Also, I do hope the navy isn't so hard up that it admits soldiers who've barely earned their cutie mark."
"I... haven't yet, actually," she said with a dropped gaze. Suddenly the girl raised eyes flashing defiance. "I will any day now!"
"Really?" He paused. "Has the captain made a guess as to what it will be?"
She sighed, turning away. "All right. The captain is indeed ignorant of my presence. I'm a stowaway." As she turned back to the funny little stallion, her eyes flashed. "What do you intend to do about it?"
He paused, examining the girl's face. She felt like his eyes were cataloging the corners of her soul. Without warning, he stood up and offered a hoof to her.
"The Doctor, Official Ambassador of the Hobos, is honored to meet the Royal Queen of Stowaways. Let this meeting bring fortune to our kingdoms."
She giggled, shaking hooves. "Dorothea Dinkestra Do, Your Royal Homelessness."
After pulling his hoof away, the Doctor bowed. "Let me play for you the song of my people." He immediately produced an enormous slide-whistle, performing while raising and lowering his eyebrows. Dorothea applauded.
The Doctor put his instrument back inside his voluminous coat. "So, what brings you to this lovely place, my dear Dorothea?"
She leaned back against the barrel. "Boundaries. Wherever I turn, its 'Do this, Dorothea,' or 'Behave properly, Dorothea.' It's getting to the point where I can't even stand to hear my own name."
The Doctor stepped closer, lowering himself onto one knee. "My Lady, you could change it."
"Change your name! Trust me, it works wonders. You forget who you were afraid of becoming, and remember who you want to be."
She stared at him for a moment in silence before the tolling of bells filled the room. Dorothea covered her ears.
"What is that confounding din?"
The Doctor sighed, his eyes playing along the walls of the ship. "Those would be the sounds of an alarm."
Dorothea flinched as a stallion's scream sounded out. She turned back to the Doctor.
He nodded. "The Zebra Air Navy's gliders have landed. We must be on the H.M.S. Courageous, no doubt."
Dorothea's eyes widened. "How did you manage to get on board, Doctor? And why does the ship's name matter?"
The door of the cargo compartment buckled, then opened forcefully. The Doctor quickly pulled Dorothea into a shadowy corner as fiercely-painted armed zebra warriors filled the room, escorted several injured crewmembers at spearpoint.
He leaned over to her ear. "We happen to be in a very important historical event, my dear. I do believe this is one that might require my intervention. Be a good girl, and find yourself a place to- "
"No," she whispered forcefully. "I'll not sit back while these savage ruffians attack our good sailors."
"These 'savage ruffians,'" the Doctor said with a sigh, "my dear Dotty, have a history longer than Equestria's, and mostly likely detest their orders. Still, you've been well and truly caught up in this one, I admit. Well, let's see if we can sneak out onto the deck, maybe commandeer an escape glider. If all else fails, surrender. That's a quick way to get the inside scoop on things. Are you ready?"
She nodded, an eager smile on her face, and he quickly returned it.
"Well then, my dear. It's time for some danger and daring do!"
Dorothea froze as the Doctor crept off into a shadow. As she lightly stepped behind him, she dared to whisper into the darkness. "Wait. What was that last part, Doctor?"
Just now, in a magical land of Equestria being slowly disassembled...
John Doo-Smith looked into the abyss. He was gratified to find it not staring back.
The abyss in question used to be the kitchen door. Now, it looked out over a long drop into nothing. Lights in the distance suggested stars, if it wasn't for the occasional burst of movement. John gave the retreating heavens a skeptical look. Are they moving, or are we?
Smooth Storm sidled up to his son-in-law, balancing a mug of cider. "So, Iooking at this thing- "
Wordlessly, John grabbed the cider with his teeth and threw it into the void. As it slowly floated away, the liquid spread out of the vessel, spreading out in a sparkling cloud of droplets.
"See?" John pointed, eyebrows raised. "It's not an optical- "
"I know, John."
John's explanatory brain circuits ground to a halt. "Buhwut?"
Storm peered out after his floating drink, expanding toward freedom in the void. "I saw your experiment with the pencil. You threw it in. It floated. I decided something weird was happening and grabbed a drink. I accepted the evidence of my eyes, John."
"Dad? Grandpapa? What's wrong?"
John's quickly turned away from Storm's unyielding covered glare to Dinky. She sat in the middle of the floor, staring between the two stallions and the starfield.
John swallowed, throwing on the confident smile. "Well, Muffin... "
Storm pushed in front of him. "Everything's fine. Grauntie Daring is probably playing some kind of trick."
Dinky blinked, then narrowed her eyes. "That is a no-gravity place," she said, pointing her hoof. "Stuff is floating. Daddy, is space broken?"
John turned to the door and shrugged. "It's some localized space-time disjunction, I would suspect."
Storm's gaze moved between the two, his mouth open.
Dinky nodded. "You mean a magic door to nowhere?"
"Um. Sure, we'll go with that."
Dinky beamed. "Okay. So, we should see if every door is a magic door now, right?"
Her answer was a ruffled hoof-noogie. "That's my Little Muffin! Let's grab some food and look about!"
As he stuck his head in the fridge, Dinky stared at Storm. She shook her head. "Celestia, why does every grown-up think I'm stupid?" Dinky walked over to her father, keeping him between her and Storm.
Storm sighed and poked his head out of the opposite doorway, scanning the corridor. A long hallway stretched before him, dozens of closed doors along its way. At the end of the hallway a portrait of a stern stallion in a kilt stared back at Storm, regarding all viewers with an amused smirk.
As Dinky's curiosity overcame her indignation, she went to join her grandfather. John nodded, dropping all pretense of scavenging food. Finally alone, he went back to the door.
Things started coming into view.
Far below him, some kind of funhouse floated in the void. He could barely make out a light violet filly running around on the roof. John thought he recognized her, but his brain was sidetracked by the draconequus which pulled itself out of the shadows behind her.
John blinked. "What?"
A voice broke through the void. "Twilight, I think someone's watching us."
John looked up in shock. A misty cloud had floated into view just a hundred paces away. Through the fog, John could just make out the silhouette of a minotaur wielding an axe and a necktie. The well-dressed warrior stared back in his direction. John swallowed, waving a hoof and smiling.
The minotaur leaned out of the cloud, peering at John like a displeased drill instructor. Just as quickly, a familiar lavender hoof tapped him on his back. The beast snorted, shrugged and turned away.
"Well, this can't get any weirder," John said as he wiped his brow.
Discord leaned out of the same cloud, waved at John with a grin, and disappeared back into the fog.
John blinked. He stared at the cloud. He cast a glance downwards, checking that the first Discord was still also below him the entire time on the floating funhouse. Nodding, he slammed the door.
"Feh. Alternative timelines. Possible futures. Gingerbread houses." He sighed as he stared at the closed door. For very justified reasons, he felt a universe away from the rest of his family.
An uncomfortable silence had settled over the dining room. Daring Do moved a spoon idly through her soup, scrutinizing the floating vegetables intently. This had the comforting side effect of avoiding Ditzy's livid gaze. Next to Ditzy, Sparkler sat with her head on her hooves, her mind in a time and place far away.
"Hey, Sparky! Did you want your dinner?"
Topsy sat with an entire side of the table to herself. She waved a bread basket at Sparkler, shaking it like a marooned castaway signaling to boats on the horizon. "I have your breee-aaad. You oughta eat somethin' more!"
Sparkler flickered her gaze up for a second, snorting.
Topsy bit her lip. "Muffin, dear, would you like- "
"Not now, mother," Ditzy interrupted. She kept her eyes on Daring. "I'm trying to talk to my beloved aunt."
Examining Daring, Topsy saw little hope. She pushed herself up from the table suddenly. "Fine. I can tell when I'm not wanted. I'm sorry for caring so much about everyone. I'll find a canal somewhere to kill myself in."
She ran off, generations of Bronxian mothers subconsciously culminating in the perfect guilt trot. Topsy would deny deliberately acting theatrically the same way a volcano would deny wanting to mess up the neighborhood. It was in her DNA, possibly literally. A geneticist might see the familiar bases of her spiral helix spell out the words "Would it kill you to write me?"
Ditzy rubbed her eyes. "Sparkler, please go after your grandmother. Try to make her feel better."
Ditzy heard her daughter's outtake of breath.
"Mother, I am not liking grandmother much at the moment."
Ditzy stared into her salad, taking inventory of her soul. Yup, the badge says Mom. That means I do the things that suck.
She turned to Sparkler, willing the stone weight in her height to start rolling. "Sparks, I don't like my Mom very much right now. I love her, though. You know that song I sing to Dinky when she's scared of bed monsters?"
Tentatively, Sparkler scooted her chair back to face her mother. Curiosity overcame emotions in the Doo children most every time. "She taught you the song, Mother?"
Ditzy shook her head, a smile wandering out unbidden. She turned and gently massaged Sparkler's shoulder.
"Sparks, she wrote that song." Ditzy shook her head. "Mom said it was specially sent by Princess Celestia, but I was a scared, young insomniac. I heard her staying up late, writing that song and practicing the melody. She sang it to me every night."
Daring Do was listening intently, elbows on the table and head on her hooves. Sparkler lifted a cucumber slice into her mouth and bite down, chewing over both vegetables and implications.
"So, you knew the song wouldn't work, Mother?"
Ditzy giggled into a coffee mug. "Not at all. But I did know I had a mother who'd do anything for me."
"Topsy did that?" Daring asked incredulously.
"Yes," Ditzy said proudly. "She's a horribly manipulative, neurotic mess, but she'll bite the head off a puma if it looked sideways at me."
Hailing from a time of famous last stands and battles, Sparkler understood the honor of the suicide mission. She stood up silently, marching off to the far hallway but turned just before passing out of sight. "Father was much more straightforward with the monsters in the closet."
Daring arched a brow as she turned to Ditzy. "Do tell, my niece. What did John do?"
Ditzy savored the taste of the story to come.
"John turned off the light and marched through the shadow-portal right into Closetland. He kidnapped the thirteen Kings of Torment, dragged them back into Dinky's room, and forced them to apologize on the spot. She hasn't spotted a monster since."
Laughter echoed throughout the dining room for the first time in years. As it petered out, Ditzy's brow furrowed. Her smile disappeared as she pointed an accusing hoof at Daring Do.
"You knew John! You knew John, and neither of you even told me!"
"Yes, I did. I knew 'John.' I remember the Doctor, with his ridiculous recorder playing, tramping around the universe like some aged cosmic hobo." She drew in a breath. "Of course, the next incarnation I encountered him in appeared much younger." Daring performed her best tiger growl impression, improved by years of running from actual tigers.
Ditzy went pale. "Auntie Daring, don't you dare!"
Daring blinked. "Oh, stop being a sore winner. Ditzy, my dear, he married you. Contemplate that. He married you. Out of all the girls who tried, myself included, he's settled down for you for a lifetime." She sighed. "By all rights, I should be the jealous one. Point of fact, I'm proud of you."
Ditzy clapped, leaping into the air with quivering wings. "Really?"
A joyful buzzing grey blur pirouetted over the dinner table, reminding Daring of babysitting days long past. She took a sip of champagne and watched her niece twirl in the old familiar patterns. "Well, just a bit jealous," she whispered to herself. "What's a bit of jealousy between relatives?"
Years of listening for a groaning blue box had stretched Ditzy's hearing to the limit. She slowed to a hover, biting her lip. "Auntie? What did happen between you and John?"
"Mother?" Sparkler's voiced called out from the hallway. "Something is not right. Where is Father?"
Daring nodded, slammed back the rest of her champagne, and threw the glass into the fireplace. "Time happened, Ditzy. Time always happens. Now let's see what your little girl has found."
She stretched her wings but kept to the ground as she walked off.
An irritated sigh rushed out of Ditzy. "No one really likes a cliffhanger, you know!"
The two adventurers rushed down the hallway. Ditzy's mind was focused on her daughter's safety, but she still had enough abnormal mental power to make an observation. Despite the need to hurry and her excited smile, Daring still hadn't taken to the air.
At the end of the hallway stood Topsy and Sparkler. The plaque over the open doorway read "Artifact Storage: Keep Locked." The sign was no longer accurate. A sweeping starfield stretched out as far as the eyes could see.
The four mares considered this for a moment. Daring Do leaned over to her grand-niece.
"My darling Ditzy, this was supposed to be a vacation. Your husband didn't bring some work along, did he?"
Elsewhere, in arguably the same house, Dinky sighed in exasperation. Storm and John walked ahead of her. As a matter of fact, the two were competing to see whom would be walking in front, and every so often one would try to speed up or turn the corner quickly. If she wasn't so worried, the time they both became stuck in the same arch would have amused her quite a bit.
Ever the diplomat, John tried to fan the embers of polite conversation.
"Hopefully Ditzy and the rest landed in a similarly pleasant area."
"Oh, my daughter will be fine." Storm opened up a door, peering into another void. He nodded with a smile as he continued walking. "We should be worried."
The two Doo-Smiths shared a look, and John wiggled a hoof at his in-law. "Did he just sound like me?" His daughter nodded, drawing out a roll of his eyes.
"Daddy, you have to do it." She shrugged.
For a moment, John wished he could be in his boring repair shop. He covered his eyes. "All right, fair's fair. I'll bite." He coughed into his hoof, readying himself to deliver the line.
"Why is that?"
A career of announcing had given Storm a fine sense of drama, and as he basked in the attention his primary feathers lifted in an unconscious preen. "She's a well-toned young genius. You're a washed up toaster-repair pony. They have all the assets."
A miniscule kick to Storm's well-toned leg did absolutely nothing. Dinky growled. "You have no idea what my Daddy can do!"
"Dinky," John said in a flat tone, "stop abusing your grandfather."
"Leave that to the adults," John continued with a snarl. His voice dropped to a whisper. "My dear Storm, why don't you come out and finally say what you've been holding back all those years?"
In a life that ran on manufactured emotion, Smooth Storm was never scarier than when he showed none. "My daughter," he whispered back, "was going to be somebody before she made some bad choices. You were bad choice number two. I would have never approved her marrying a second-rate tinker."
Dinky looked at the two soft-spoken stallions with frustration. "We really should go!"
John raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's mighty interesting considering what your approved choice did to her."
Storm flinched as if slapped. He snorted and pawed the ground. Over his career, Smooth Storm had seen many underdogs. Rarely do they pull off the spectacular win, and he thought of those imbalanced odds now. "John, are you really going to do this now?"
"Yes, I will. Let's start with your secret." John smiled, and Storm shivered. "Here's what I do. I think. I notice things. What I find fascinating is the fact that you seem fine with your Aunt even after she cut you off. The lovely and loud Misses Storm is the one most put out. Considering the Smooth-Daring family argument is legendary, one wonders why you're not more upset. So, logically... "
Storm moved not a muscle, at least not until Dinky whispered "What are those, Daddy?"
Both stallions obediently turned. Down the long corridor sat a landing. Nothing was there. It happened to be jerkily stalking between the furniture. The hunched, flickering figure was at least twice as tall as a pony, and it's claws dragged along the ground as it walked.
John's face went pale as he took a step back. "Oh, no," he whispered. "Not those. Not here."
Stepping next to his son-in-law, Storm whispered cautiously. "What, that thing? Okay, the flickering is weird. One point in my favor, my aunt's Daring Do. Not the weirdest thing I've seen. Well, not by much. Still, it looks like a big monkey. Monkeys are funny."
At his hooves, Dinky tensed as the Nothing Man jerkily leapt over an inconvenient couch, moving like a badly controlled marionette.
Carefully, John opened a door while keeping the thing in sight. He was gratified to see a billiard room with a door leading elsewhere, and stepped inside, waving to Storm.
"Well," he said softly with some consideration. "Yes. Well, no. More like things based on other things based on monkeys. Met those monkeys once, on a far-off blue world no one goes to. Well, mostly blue. Um, mostly no one."
"Other... world?" Storm snorted as Dinky tried to shush him. As he looked down, she shook her head.
"Trust Daddy," she whispered imploringly. "He knows about monsters."
As Storm and Dinky entered, John carefully closed and locked the door. Storm cracked his neck, punching one hoof into another. "So," he said conversationally, "why should I be afraid of monkey-things? Heck, they're things imitating monkeys. Why would you choose a monkey to imitate."
"Sticks," said John as he pulled Storm away from the door while not taking his eyes off of it. "My dear Storm, monkeys use sticks. Advanced post-monkeys use... well, advanced sticks." He swallowed. "Not every race in the universe fights their wars with pies, Storm."
Dinky walked under the pool table, keeping her father in sight. The most terrifying thing in the worlds to her was the fear in her father's voice.
By now, Storm was unconsciously keeping his front to the door they had entered through. "Sticks? That's ridiculous. Someone could get hurt."
The Doctor shook his head with a smile. "Remind me to congratulate Celestia when we get out of here on a thousand years of culture-shaping practical psychohistory well done." He reached to open the far door just as its top became nothing. Splinters of wood showered through the room as the nothing stared at them. Then it reached through the hole and placed a flickering hand on the doorknob.
While he would beat himself up about it for the rest of his life, Smooth Storm could be forgiven for freezing. Having evolved from a herd animal, his DNA carried the legacy of untold ancient proto-equines who froze at the sight of a predator. His heritage whispered into his brain, suggesting that maybe the nasty thing hadn't spotted him yet. While ponies could overcome this reaction, it has been noted that even the brave Elements of Harmony seemed to pause or run occasionally from foes they markedly outclassed. There was no shame in Storm's reaction, considering his heritage.
John Doo-Smith's heritage wasn't Equestrian. While they weren't normally proud of him, the Time Chargers of Gallopfrey would have nodded had they watched John instantly reach into his trench coat for a beeping tool, glaring at the monster with eyes of hate.
"Run," he said with a voice like iron right before he threw the gadget in his mouth. As it lit up, the doorknob clicked. A nonexistent claw wiggled the now-immobilized doorknob as John stared at it like a wrecking-ball driver examining a condemned building.
The ponies John descended from had developed a much harsher habit for dealing with predators. Shortly after meeting the Time Chargers, their predators tended to retroactively stop existing.
At John's order, Storm 's herd-mentality propelled him into the air. As he took off he pulled a pained squeak out of Dinky by grabbing her tail in his teeth.
John was still sizing up the frustrated not-thing when it gave up on the knob. Two arms made of vortex extended fully through the hole, and the angry void tensed shoulders it didn't have. The door split into two halves.
"We," said John to the advancing uncreature, "are not done here." He turned and galloped hard. "I am nowhere near done with you!" He called out as he ran out of the room.
The nearby nowhere nodded. It wasn't done with John, either.
A shimmering unicorn in a golden coat and a three-toned mane flew across the wide expanse of space with magically extended wings. Daring Do clicked her tongue in irritation and slammed the door.
"No," she said as she turned to the hopeful-looking crowd behind her. "That's just another abyss, and far too silly to boot."
She backpedalled as a sobbing Topsy grabbed her with both hooves.
"Where is Dinky? She has to be here! She was just in the kitchen." Topsy's red-rimmed eyes stared out unkindly. "This is your awful cash pit of a house! Can't you find your own kitchen?"
The trophy-studded hallway was silent as Daring slowly placed her hoof on top of Topsy's.
"My dear Topsy," she said with dripping implied threat, "please remove your hoof. Before I do."
Topsy collapsed onto the floor, and Daring shook her head, looking between Ditzy and Topsy several times. As Ditzy helped Topsy to her feet, Daring could only shrug. She turned away, keeping on hoof along the right wall. "Listen carefully, Topsy. We should be in the conservatory now. Whatever is doing this in not just taking away rooms, but rearranging them as well." She turned back as the sound of a heavy object being pulled across the floor.
A gigantic stone sun hovered in the air, its grinning skull centerpiece glittering in the purple aura that held it in front of Sparkler.
Daring addressed her in a tone that suggested reprimanding a child taking an extra cookie. "My dear little girl, that relic is over a millennium old and priceless."
Sparkler nodded. "I can tell. I know old things. I am also knowing it is heavy, many pointed, and being perfectly shaped as a shield. It's wide enough to provide cover for my mother and grandmother at all simultaneous." She returned an unwavering glare at Daring Do. "I am also no one's little girl."
Topsy ran to Sparkler's side, feebly trying to pull the object down with the strength of a lifetime of event organization. Despite her recent breakdown, Topsy was always willing to talk down to a minor, and as she strained on the stone disc suddenly nothing happened. "Come on, Sparkly-Spoo," Topsy said through gritted teeth. "Listen to your Auntie Dar-Dar."
"Mother," Ditzy said while tapping the ground and mentally counting prime numbers, "don't patronize her."
"Forget it, Topsy," came the relaxed voice of Daring.
Breathing heavily, Topsy turned to see Daring's proud smile. The aged adventurer walked over to Ditzy, hooking a wing around her shoulders. With her other wingtip, she pointed at Sparkler.
"Ditzy, my dear and darling muffin, did you do that?"
Sparkler coolly watched Daring.
Ditzy Doo-Smith straightened, nodding. "I can only take some of the credit. A lot of that is John, and even more is Sparkler."
"I definitely approve." Daring gave a wing-pat to Ditzy's back as she trotted over to the slack-jawed Topsy. "Let Sparkler keep the big rock, Tops. It sounds like her priorities are in order. She may not be family in blood, but she's definitely ours in spirit!" Looking away from Topsy's blank stare, she turned back to Sparkler. "My dear niece who is definitely no little girl, your auntie would like to know if you could use that in a fight."
Sparkler bit her lip. "It is not exactly balanced like a cart or lamppost, but similar to sweeping at slime monsters with a bench."
In response, Daring extended her wing to put a brief, firm grip on Sparkler's shoulder. "Let's see what's out there then."
"Lead on, old one," said Sparkler with a nod.
Daring took a determined step towards the grinning teen wielding the quarter-ton stone weapon. "Pardon me," she whispered, "but I happen to be a professor in dead languages, and if I place your accent right, you're older than I am, Granny."
She said something to Sparkler in words Topsy didn't understand. For a second, Sparkler trembled, and the sundial wobbled in the air. Daring pointed her wing down the corridor with a raised eyebrow. Sparkler nodded, walking side by side with her smug-looking great aunt. Topsy could hear the two whispering, but all the words sounded like waterfalls serenading each other.
Topsy gasped as the skull-faced sundial suddenly swooped in front of her. It then slid sideways through the air as it made a circular patrol around her and her daughter. She bit her lip and turned to Ditzy, who was smiling and wiping her eyes with a wingtip. Sighing, Topsy put on the face she wore at every backstage breakdown. "Come on Little Bubbles! Let's keep up!"
Ditzy obediently followed. "Mom?"
Anything was a more welcome conversation topic than the stony sentinel that encircled her. Topsy eagerly turned her attention to Ditzy. "Yes, dear?"
"You know that feeling you get as a mother when your daughter makes you proud?"
"Oh yes," Topsy lied with a grin, "absolutely."
The two Nowhere Men stalked through the library. Huge oak shelves filled over two quarters of the magnificent room. Just above them, John and his family hid. The flickers stalked them, having started on the empty side of the room.
Storm considered it luck. John had a terrible suspicion.
Storm pulled himself forward slowly and deliberately. He moved as much as he dared to as he placed his mouth next to John's ear. Risking a whisper, Storm breathed out a question. "Why are they here?"
John's eyebrows shot up. "Asking me? Admitting I have some expertise?" Realizing the futility of staring down Storm's sunglasses, John shrugged. "Well. Hmm. Um. Well. To get rid of us."
As the Nothing Men advanced across the half empty library, Storm bit his lip. "Why us, specifically?" He felt Dinky tense as the not-things drew near, and gave her a reassuring hug.
Trying to keep his eyes one the two uncreatures as they split up within the bookshelves, John continued. "When I say us, I mean all of us. The continent, maybe the planet. Very thorough. Kind of like the universe's defense system. They're- "
"Antibodies!" Storm whispered in victory. "I'm not stupid, John. They're antibodies. So why should they attack us? We're not the problem!"
"Smooth," John started.
"I prefer Storm."
"I would, too. Listen, they're more like your body's killer cells. When you first get a nasty infection the body needs time to develop antibodies. First, it sends out the killer cells. They don't seek out the intruders. They kill everything near where the intruders are."
Storm shivered. He wondered what his aunt was thinking, using a huge room like this to store such a small library. The bookshelves only took up the middle quarter of the room. He'd have to ask her about that.
"What are you saying, John?"
"I'm saying that there's been a breach in the universe so nasty something noticed, and the Nowhere Men are here to wipe the planet out of history."
Storm ran his hoof down Dinky's mane. "Should she be hearing this?"
John gave him a barely-patient look. "Information increases her chance of survival."
"They're not my first monsters, Grandpapa," Dinky whispered into her grandfather's ear.
Storm was silent a second. "What are... 'men,' John?"
John sighed. "Well, 'truly good at heart' to quote one of them. I ended up on their planet once. Briefly. They have incredible potential."
"So, why pick them-"
"As the form of the destroyer? Well, I didn't say potential for what. Potential goes both ways. If I had to pick a form for the universal eradicator... well, I'm old-fashion and would personally prefer something with scales and a tail, but there's no accounting for taste."
"Ooh, next time can it have horns, Dad?"
"I'll check the store, Little Muffin. We might be in trouble, though. I think they do more than destroy objects. I think they erase them from time."
Storm almost started to scoff, but after a second of inner struggle he gestured for John to continue.
"We wouldn't remember it," John said carefully, the Nothing Men mere feet away. "I have the sneaking feeling they're erasing things as they look for us. Making them always nothing and never something, as it were. After all, why would Daring have a library with only one shelf, and why would we ever decide to hide on it?"
A look of confusion crossed Daring's face as she sniffed the ground. "Yes, they definitely came through the billiard hall," she declared as she pawed through the splintered remains of the door. "The only question remain is, 'what was chasing them?' I'd like to know what's destroying my home." She ran a contemplative hoof down the damaged door frame.
The hallway glowed noticeably purple as the stone disc spun faster around Ditzy and Topsy. Swallowing, Topsy caught a glimpse at Sparkler's look of seething anger.
"Sparky-Spoo," she said with barely a stammer, "Grandmama wants you to put the big stone thingy down, please. Somepony may get hurt."
Years of time travel had gave Ditzy a great predictive instinct, but it was years of mothering that made her place a hoof on her mother's shoulder. "Mom, I'd lay off the nicknames right now," she whispered. "I warned you about talking down to her."
The disc slowed down, but maintained its course. "Someone will get hurt," Sparkler responded, "if they are threatening my sister."
"Oh," Topsy said with eyes of pity, "I understand. You're just worried about Dinky. You poor thing!"
Ditzy rolled her eyes in a pattern that would have made geometry professors applaud. "Oh, boy. Okay, Mom, you get to learn your lesson now."
Every object in the hallway lifted upwards a few centimeters.
"No! You will not call me that!"
Sparkler's shout and a spray of dust from behind her drew Daring's attention. Turning with a sigh, Daring prepared for the expected. "It never fails," she said under her breath. "Bring more than two mares on an adventure and you might as well pack the mud-pit and popcorn."
A snapped in half stone calendar levitated over Topsy. A quick glance reassured Daring that Topsy was still in fact breathing, and the stone had thankfully not been broken on her. Sighing, she moved to mediate. "Sparkler?"
The telekinetic teen was past listening, having pushed her nose against her grandmother's while baring her teeth. Ditzy Doo watched both of them carefully, wings outstretched to interpose if needed. In any case, Ditzy looked like she was enjoying herself.
"I have had enough," Sparkler declared in perfectly unaccented Equestrian. "I have lost both mother, father, sisters and a brother. I have watched the land of my birth burn! I may be far from where I started, but I have protected the ones who are now my family, and I am no one's poor thing!"
Blinking was the best Topsy's nervous system could manage in response.
Ditzy was about to jump in when Daring nonchalantly said, "Sparkler, do you like me?"
The young mare turned, anger deflected into confusion. A second of consideration brought her back to rationality. "I do, Grauntie Do."
A pair of wings stretched out backwards from Daring's back, showcasing the noticeable pride she took in Sparkler's answer. "Well," she explained calmly, "you currently happen to be lifting an urn my husband and I found on our honeymoon trip to the highlands of Scoltland. It's one of his family heirlooms, and I hold it very dear since his passing. I'm sure you understand remembering those you miss. Please put it down."
Wordlessly, Sparkler carefully lowered a multitude of glowing objects. Daring Do kissed her nose in thanks.
"Excellent. Let's keep looking for the rest of the clan."
As they passed through the billiard hall, Daring made sure that Sparkler was out of earshot before whispering to Ditzy. "Quick question, my muffin. If Sparkler speaks perfectly fine normally, why does she still talk like that?"
A smile greeted Daring's curiosity. "That's ancient Pombreyan syntax, Auntie. It's the last thing she has of the place she comes from." Ditzy huffed. "I got a question for you. That was a show at the door, right? You can't really track by scent?"
Daring snorted into her wing and raised an eyebrow towards Ditzy. "All right, I admit I haven't been fair at it in years. I was just making sure I wasn't crazy." She leaned in closer to Ditzy. "Is that actually... 'John's' cologne I smell? As in, 'John' now wears cologne?"
A giggle followed by a cascade of spread feathers advertised Ditzy's pride. "He cleans up well, doesn't he? You wouldn't believe what he's capable of now."
Daring gave her grandniece a contemplative silent inspection. "You know, I think I can," she concluded with a smile.
Before Ditzy could respond with more than a gasp, two halves of a stone calendar flew over her head. They slammed into the shimmering void that had stepped around the corner. Unprepared for the assault, the not-thing flew backwards like a rag doll before slamming into a wall. Two claws didn't pull themselves out of the new indoor window. It didn't look like many things, but it did look angry.
Daring sighed. "Monster?"
"Monster," Ditzy confirmed with a nod.
Daring cocked her head as the unthing pulled itself out of the wall. "Time/reality manipulator, I suppose?"
Ditzy lifted a hoof and cracked her neck. "Most likely."
The uncreated stood up, throwing its arm to the side as it roared like static on a dead radio station.
Daring nodded. She turned to look at Ditzy as they both said, "Run."
Storm screamed as he felt himself being torn apart.
"Hang on!" The edges of his vision turned red as he strained under the dual weight of Dinky on his back and John in forelimbs. He flew like a thrown brick, but as he sailed over the clutching nothings he managed to clear their grasp.
"Must go higher!" The struggling bundle beneath Storm screamed, his passenger's twin hearts beating fast as the Nowhere Men ran after them like murderous children trying to catch a ball. "Must go higher!"
A gentle field of pink particles twinkled under Storm as Dinky noisily strained, her horn glowing feebly. She heard a crack as her grandfather's wing beat down in desperation. Dinky could feel Storm's labored breath as he cleared the door, primaries bent backwards as they clipped the frame. The trio slid along the floor at a rapid (and for two of them, painful) pace before a wall disagreed with the idea of acceleration.
A full second passed in groaning immobility.
"They couldn't have erased you, John. I'm still irritated." He quickly grabbed for a fallen pair of glasses and repositioned them.
The baggage in question pushed Storm to the side and reluctantly stood. "Okay. Good. They're clearing the door, Storm. We need to get airborne again."
As Dinky jumped off Storm's back he attempted to stand, grunting the whole time. "Not gonna happen. Wings won't be good for more than passing the salt for a while."
John couldn't help grinning despite the closing void-things. "Ah, the family tradition. Well, let's count our resources. Sixty feet of distance. The end of a T-corridor. Wonderful daughter. Grumpy old mess. Thirty feet of distance."
John kissed Dinky on her forehead as he placed her on Storm. "I'll be back, Littlest Muffin. I promise."
His daughter's eyes could have swallowed his soul. "Really?"
"Can't... fly... John."
"Well then, be an earth pony. H'yaah!" Storm whinnied away as John bucked him hard at the rear. He nodded in satisfaction before turning to the speedy shimmerings.
"Catch me if you can," the Doctor shouted as he ran away from the monsters and his daughter, dashing into the unknown.
Galloping for her life, Sparkler voiced the thought Ditzy was currently trying to suppress.
"Where could father be?"
Must be Mommy. Mommy shows no fear.
"Somewhere close by, Precious, and I guarantee he's thinking of us. I know your father, and he'd do anything to save us."
Her mother's answer did not to comfort Sparkler. She'd seen firsthoof what happened to ponies who'd do anything to save others. They all had tended to only manage to do one thing, in the long run.
Ditzy kept her gaze on Daring's bobbing tail as the older mare tried to navigate the changing manor. Her brain kept driving in maternal mode, where she was allowed to consider everyone's feelings and fears but her own.
"Mother? Are you all right? Can you keep up?"
An orange-topped blur zipped past as an answer. "Ditzy, your father's never complained."
Unpleasantly distracted, Ditzy nearly crashing into Daring's rear as the older mare stopped in the middle of the trophy museum. Daring stepped sideways, allowing Ditzy to turn a suit of armor into a facsimile of bouncing, metal bowling pins. A helmet rose out of the pile, looking frantically around until hooves turn it fully around.
"Oh. Ow. Yup, I think I know what went wrong there. We all accounted for?"
A tender hoof caressed Ditzy's face. "Of course, Bubbeleh. Lucky for us, your auntie is so calm under danger."
As Topsy flew off to commune with nearly prostate Daring, Sparkler swore she could see steam coming out of the helmet. A few quick purple flashes and Ditzy was free from the armor, if not from embarrassment.
"Argh! Horsefaddle fetlock and then then magazine! I don't know why she treats me like- "
"Her child, mother?"
That drew a brief nicker out of her mother before Ditzy continued. "It's just, I mean, I can rattle off dimensional theory from centuries to come, and- "
Sparkler leaned her head on Ditzy's shoulder, apparently right on the trigger button to release a sigh long in coming.
"Mother, adults ignore the parts they are not understanding. She may assume you are being silly or making things up. After all, you do make up the words of silly all the time."
Ditzy slowly turned to look at Sparkler before gently running a hoof down her daughter's cheek. "My Precious Jewel. How did you ever grow up so fast?"
Sparkler blinked. "There was a pop quiz in geology."
Their attention was drawn by Topsy's clapping. "Well, well," she said smiling, "I'm glad to see we're all holding up wonderfully." She cast a glance at Daring, still heaving and staring at the floor. "Right? Right, Daring, Bubbeleh?"
Eyes shot up from the floor that had not yet had defiance aged out of them. "No, Topsy. Not right. I'm not dead yet though." She shivered as she stepped into the hall of dusty artifacts and preserved corpses. "Not yet a museum piece."
An observer would need a freeze frame camera to capture the frown that proceeded Topsy's professional working smile. "All righty then! Girls, let's see if we can figure out how we can get out of the house and call the police."
After Daring didn't respond, Ditzy shrugged to herself. "Mom, we don't even know if leaving the house is possible. This might be... " Dozens of high-level physics term passed through Ditzy's head before she settled on "...magic."
"Besides, Grandmama," Sparkler said while inspecting a now-opened weapons cabinet, "the police having better things to do than die."
Topsy deflated like a punctured opera diva. Coincidentally, Daring Do smiled, although she hadn't noticed Topsy's defeat. If she had, she would have only smiled wider.
"Well, girls, at least I know who's behind this."
A long-suffering sigh escaped from Topsy. "Does it really matter- "
"Please, not to be interrupting the explanation. This is being best part."
With decades of practice, Daring flip her mane around and smiled at her family. Stallions of all ages had melted at the gesture, and even Sparkler looked away with a blush. "Well," Daring said with relish. "It's obvious. Knowing every exhibit display in every museum in Equestria, I would never have that awful thing on display."
Her hoof pointed at a long and wooden zebra tribal mask hanging surreptitiously under a torch sconce.
As the Doo-Smith's tensed for action, Topsy rolled her eyes. "That's a piece of wood."
The gruesome-faced piece of art flashed as it levitated into the air. As Ditzy's wings spread and a suit of armor animated with a purple aura, Daring Do simply stepped forward and slowly clapped.
"Congratulations, Mfalme. Coming back from the dead is one thing, but leaving Topsy Turvy speechless is an entirely new accomplishment. That can't be your real form, by the way. It's still sealed downstairs."
The mask flickered, then bobbed midair in an approximation of bowing. It talked, which is to say that sound emanated from it. It's lips didn't move, which part of Ditzy's brain registered as a minor disappointment.
"Ah, your memory is remarkable, my old foe. True, I have not yet found a host for my consciousness. Still, when the storm I have gathered scours this mansion of life, it will not be too long before an errant scavenger inspects your artifacts." Two orbs of angry green flared into life behind the mask's eye holes. "To one such as I, it is a minor wait."
"Mfalme!" Sparkler stamped on the floor. "Mfalme the Unjust! The Curse of the Zebras! Mfalme the sorcerer! Oh, mothers, I know this one!"
Topsy walked next to Daring and whispered as low as her life experiences could allow her. "How is the mask talking?"
Daring rolled her eyes. "Because it's not... "
"It is not the mask, peasant worm!" The disembodied voice roared at Topsy.
Daring Do made clicking sounds with her tongue. "What a hammy actor."
The assembled mares covered their ears ineffectually as the voice boomed in their head.
"To one such as I- "
"Theweaknessofthebodyisnothin gcomparedtothestrengthofthem ind!" Daring drew a breath after delivering the rapid sentence.
There was an uncomfortable silence as the mask hovered motionlessly.
"I was going to say that," Mfalme said.
"I know. You used to shout it all the time." Daring blew an errant lock of hair out of her face and grinned.
The mask floated closer to Daring Do. "I hate you."
"Given. Deal with it."
"I'm going to kill you."
The mood of tension completely collapsed as Daring Do dropped to the floor and started laughing. Ditzy and Sparkler were helpless to resist, and even Topsy started giggling nervously.
The mask of Mfalme soared into the air. "For your crimes against my kingdom and family, I intend to kill you! I see nothing funny about that!"
Daring somehow managed to stand. Ditzy prepared for another burst of the sniggles before her great-aunt ruined the mood completely by saying, "Go ahead."
Mfalme hesitated. "What?"
The avatar of Mfalme was only a thought construct. Its destruction was barely plausible under most rules of magic and mysticism, and would have only given the source intelligence a fleeting pain similar to a bad ice cream headache. Still, the incorporeal entity doubled its distance from the ground as a livid Daring Do screamed into the air, "Kill me!"
The room was dead silent as Daring continued, all her mirth vanished.
"Kill me, you impotent old specter. You missed your deadline, my dear simple king. You should have tried harder in the jungle so long ago. Your nap was long enough to give me time for a long and happy life. "She flung her wings out defiantly. "Go on, then! End the life a terminally ill old nag whose husband passed long ago. Get as much jollies out of that as you can with my bucking blessing.
An uncontrollable giggle rose out of Daring. For a second, Mfalme felt the presence of the young mare that spent years thwarting him. It ended and she coughed something of an unidentifiable color into her sleeve.
"At the very least, I'd never have to swallow those nasty pills again. Savor your revenge. I hope you choke on it."
The mind-entity paused for several seconds. Ditzy turned to Sparkler.
"Now, if auntie's got lucky, the whole id creature will just collapse. Pay attention."
"Ah," it said at last. "I see."
The mask lowered until its flaring eyes stared directly into Daring's own. "Death is only the end to your sufferings. Such it is with decrepit warriors of my own people."
"Hey," Daring shouted. "Terminally ill is one thing, but decrepit... "
"But," the mask continued, "if I give off a high level psychic pulse... "
Nothing happen for several seconds as Ditzy scanned the room in anticipation. Then several very angry nothings barreled out from every door. Sighting the ponies, they slowly made a tightening circle. Sparkler moved her suit of armor between her family and the not-things as best she could, grinding her teeth as she turned in a circle with wide eyes.
WE COME. WE END.
"...I get to be rid of you, once and for all time."
Ditzy flapped into the air. "That's not fair! You broke the rules of mind, life, space, and stuff! They're here for you!"
The mask had no real variable features except for the eye lights. Still, Ditzy thought she heard a wry grin.
"Ah, but they detect life, not minds. I'm completely invisible to them, so you'll get the blame. In other words," it said with relish, "deal with it."
Why did I ever think this was a good idea?
John Doo-Smith nearly slid off his hooves as he turned a corner, his hearts straining to escape his chest. Behind him he heard the absence of the Nowhere Men, silence ringing with every step they didn't take.
He drank breath like water in a desert. "This one... never works well," he muttered to himself.
Down the hallway in front of him doors opened onto endless Otherwheres. He skipped to a stop as a giant black form flew out of it, burning red eyes set in the chest of a headless body. The dark, winged biped glided across the hall, sailing into a door that showed a long metal bridge over a rushing river.
John stopped to catch his breath. "Well, that's a problem for another day." He heard the nothing getting closer, and swallowed hard. Carefully, he walked to an open door. "Well, better me than them."
Looking back revealed the flickering freaks almost upon him.
"Always suspected I'd do something like this. Never thought it would be alone."
The talons of oblivion reached out for him.
"All right, then! Come on you never-has-beens! See if you can succeed where half the universe failed!"
He allowed himself a second longer than prudent to whisper, "I love you, Ditzy," and then John Doo-Smith leapt through the doorway into the void whilst the Nowhere Men tumbled after him.