The Once and Future Queen

by SaddlesoapOpera

Chapter 1: Smokeless Fire

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Dinky Hooves — or The Dink, as she preferred to style herself — rolled sidelong out of bed and stuck the landing on the floor with only a slight wobble. She yawned widely without covering her mouth, and then blearily pawed at her scattered belongings with her magic.

She watched her saddlebags in the mirror while she squinted and risked raising a hairbrush at the same time. Carefully, cautiously, she ran it through her blonde mane while sliding comic books, art supplies, her trusty notebook and a few other essentials into the bag. Nothing to it. Just-


She blew an errant lock off her face and then magicked up the fallen bag to try again.

“C’mon, now,” she coaxed herself. “In the comics, Shadow Chaser can stick-fight with TWO Earth Pony thugs while ALSO copying out a secret document. You can do this!”

Her tongue peeked out between her lips as she strained to orient the bag backwards while resuming her combing. Looking over her shoulder would be cheating, of course.

Six tries later, The Dink headed out right on schedule to just barely make it to the earliest Cutie Mark Camp activities. This was crucial; super-cool mystery hunters were never late OR early. After carefully picking her way downstairs while softly humming a rolling, urgent backing beat for herself, she slid into the kitchen and put her back to hard cover against a wall.

“Mom! I need breakfast. There’s precious little time!”

The kitchen was unoccupied. The Dink frowned. She trotted over to the icebox and checked her mother’s work schedule on the door. Evening shift today. Mom must have gone to the market square. Oh well. The DInk opened the icebox to forage for any remaining provisions — no different from an early work day.


Mom wasn’t home, but the shelves were already packed with food.

The Dink sat staring until shivers from the icebox’s frigid air snapped her out of it.

✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤

“... Nope. Even cooler,” Ruby Pinch replied. She leaned closer, resting her front hooves on the side of The Dink’s archery stump. “The thing BLEW UP!”

The Dink slowly nodded and then let her suction-cup arrow drop, unfired. “Whoa. That’s a good one. So the engine boiler failed, or something?”

Pinch grinned like a cat with a cornered mouse. “That would make sense, right? But nuh-uh. Get this, Dink: it was the BACK that blew up!”

“Oooh.” The Dink raised an eyebrow. “Okay, that’s seriously weird. I think you got me this time.”

Pinch drew back, smiled, and offered a consoling wave. “Aww, don’t sweat it. Any other day that two-headed frog would totally be tops. I just happen to live closer to that side of town, is all. Word travels-”

“Hullo ladies,” Pipsqueak said as he trotted up to the pair. “What’s up?” As somepony not destined to become a death-defying delver into buried mysteries, Pip was slightly late to camp.

“Oh nothing much,” The Dink said airily. She glanced sidelong at Pinch and gave a subtle nod.

Pinch nodded back. “Yep,” she agreed. “No big deal. Just... A TRAIN EXPLOSION!”

The boisterous revelation knocked the tiny colt off his hooves. Pip stumbled to right himself, wide-eyed.

“What…? Really? Blimey! I hope nopony was hurt!”

“Nah,” Pinch replied. “If there’d been any injuries then EVERYPONY would know about it. I heard it was a cargo train, so hardly anypony was onboard. Plus, the back blew up, not the engine.”

“Cargo?” Pip asked. “What sort of cargo?”

The Dink’s golden eyes gleamed. She flashed a mischievous grin. “Good question!”

Pip took a cautious step back. “Oh bother, I know that look,” he said.

“What? What look?” The Dink smiled more innocently.

Pip frowned. “You’re planning to sneak out to have a peek at the site of the explosion, aren’t you?”

Before either Unicorn could answer, the buzz of tiny wings filled the air, and Scootaloo skidded her scooter to a halt in front of the group.

“Are you talking about doing something dangerous?” she asked. Her expression shifted from stern to coy. “...’Cause I am totally on board!”

“You’re fast, so you can do long-range reconnaissance,” The Dink said with a firm nod.

“Yeah, and check things out while you’re at it,” agreed Pinch.

“B-But, you said a train exploded!” Pip reared up and put his hooves on The Dink’s shoulders. “That’s not like jumping in a pond or climbing a tree, or pretending to be gobbled on Nightmare Night — there could be smoke! Fire! Dangerous wreckage! And who knows what else!”

“Whoa whoa, you can skip the pitch,” The Dink replied as she eased him back down onto all fours. “I’m already sold!”

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle cantered up to the group, breathless.

“S-Scootaloo…!” Bloom panted. “Ya can’t just take off like that when we’re in the middle of a basket-weavin’ tutorial like that!”

Sweetie mournfully magicked up a tangled heap of wicker. “My example turned into a CAUTIONARY example!”

“Sorry girls,” Scootaloo said. “But I got a good feeling about this. These fillies-”

“And Pip!” The Dink noted.

“No!” Pip begged.

“...These fillies and Pip are feeling the need for action. They want to go see what’s up at the train station. What if there’s a daredevil or disaster rescue Cutie Mark just waiting to come out?”

Bloom frowned. “You just wanna check out the blown-up train.”

Scootaloo waved a chiding hoof. “Nuh-uh! I also wanna check out the blown-up train! That’s different!”

Sweetie heaved a sigh and tossed her ruined basket into a nearby tree. A sparrow immediately took a seat in it. “Well, baskets are a bust, anyway, and it’s been a long time since we did something exciting on a Cutie Mark crusade…”

Scootaloo stared at Apple Bloom with bright eyes and a broad grin.

Slowly, Bloom cracked a smile. “Awright, awright. The other Cutie Mark campers can manage on their own for a little while, I guess. If we miss out on somepony gettin’ their Mark, though, I’m gonna be real sore!”

“YES!” The Dink, Pinch, and Scootaloo said in unison. They all hoof pumped and then ran over to Sweetie and Bloom for a rousing shout of:


“We’re doomed,” Pip muttered.

✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤

The fillies and Pip walked from the camp to the damaged train station on the outskirts of town without crossing through Ponyville proper. The country lane had no traffic at all; the way was clear and quiet and bathed in golden summer sunshine.

Scootaloo took the lead on her scooter, followed by The Dink and Pinch and then Sweetie and Bloom, with Pip struggling to keep up in the rear.

“I see it!” Scootaloo called out as she crested a hill. “Oh, wow! There’s fire everywhere!”

The rest of the group picked up the pace to join her on the rise and take in the sight.

“Whoa,” said The Dink.

The train sat bunched in a jackknifed jumble half-on and half-off the tracks. The heavy engine had gouged into the earth. The rearmost three cars had all been blown to smithereens, and wood and metal debris was scattered all around. The ruined cars and the largest chunks of wreckage still burned with flickering lilac flames. The front of the station building was studded with shrapnel, and every window was shattered.

“Those fires don’t look right,” Bloom said. “Colour’s funny. And where’s the smoke?”

“Something’s definitely weird,” Pinch said.

“Yeah,” agreed Sweetie.

“Blimey, what a sight!” Pip said. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” He made a show of turning on his hooves and nodding back the way they came. “So, now that we’ve seen it I suppose it’s back to camp for us, then, right chums?” When no answer came, he turned back and found that the fillies had all headed down the hill toward the wreckage. “Oh, bother.”

“What do you think?” Pinch asked as she cautiously nudged a metal plate bent concave by the blast.

The Dink was staring down at one of the pale flames, squinting in concentration. “Hmm. Seems like a textbook case of ghost-train collision.”

“A ghost train?” Pinch smirked in disdain. “At THIS time of year?”

“Have you got a better theory?” The Dink retorted.

“Weird fire means Dragon,” Pinch said. “I bet the train was carrying, like, a huge cake or something. Dragon-sized! And then a Dragon blew open the train with magical fire and snatched it up!” She swung her front hooves for emphasis. “Kaboom!”

The Dink nodded and rubbed her chin. “Solid theory. But wouldn’t the explosion have ruined the cake?”

Pinch’s triumphant grin wilted. “Shoot. That’s right.”

“Hay! Everypony!” Scootaloo called out. “C’mere, look!”

The fillies and Pip gathered around the little Pegasus, who stood near one of the larger chunks of burning debris.

“Okay, okay,” Scootaloo said. “Check. This. Out!” She thrust a hoof into the flames.

Sweetie squealed in shock. Bloom gasped. Pip cringed. The Dink and Pinch stared in fascination.

Scootaloo stirred the flickering lilac energy, harmlessly swirling and parting the stuff. “It’s not fire at all! It just feels warm. Kinda nice!”

The Dink stepped forward and ignited her horn. Her aura gripped the debris. Where it touched the blaze the flames turned the same bronze shade as her magic. “No way…!”

“That’s not possible,” Pinch whispered. She lit up her own horn and added flickers of green to the mix.

“I don’t get it,” Bloom piped up. “What’s up?”

“It’s magic!” Sweetie Belle replied. “Unicorn magic!”

Pip crept up to the occult blaze and touched a trembling hoof to it. When he failed to burn, he more calmly joined the others in poking and prodding at the wispy stuff.

“This is all like the sparkles and shimmers after letting off a big spell,” The Dink said. “Aftershocks.”

“But it’s been HOURS since the explosion,” Pinch said, “and this stuff’s not even close to fading out.”

Bloom stared down at the multicoloured lights. “What kind of Unicorn has magic strong enough to blow up a whole train and leave this stuff burnin’ for half a day?”

The Dink snuffed her horn. “Good question!” She trotted over to a shattered wooden crate half embedded in the soil. She pulled apart the splintered slats and peered inside. “Huh. Cans of veggies, heating oil, bundles of firewood…”

Scootaloo tilted her head slightly. “Somepony was going on a trip up north?”

The Dink shook her head. “It’s mostly used up. Somepony just got back from a trip up north.”

Pinch waved her front hooves through the flames one more time. “Wow. This is crazy. I don’t even know how they’re gonna clean this mess up!”

“How who will?” Pip asked.

“You know, the firefighters, rescue workers, the Wonderbolts — whoever!”

“That’s what I mean,” Pip said as he took a few strides back and turned in a slow circle. “Where are they? We’re the only ones around. There aren’t even any warning ribbons up.”

The Dink looked around as well. “Even better question.” She took a deep breath. “HELLO…? ANYPONY HERE?”

The echoes of her call faded without an answer.

“Okay, that’s not right,” said Pinch.

“Maybe they’re on break?” Scootaloo suggested.

“All of them?” Pinch replied.

Sweetie looked down the empty street. “Is there anypony around at ALL?”

Pip swallowed hard. “C-Can we please go back to the camp, now? I don’t like this at all!”

Apple Bloom watched the breeze swirl some stray leaves. She frowned. “Yeah, I think maybe we oughta.”

The group turned and headed back the way they came. Behind them, the flame’s mingled colours slowly faded back to purple-white.

✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤

“RUMBLE!” Scootaloo called out as she streaked along the lakeshore on her scooter. “KETTLE CORN! MOCHA BERRY!” When no answer came, she gritted her teeth and turned back toward dry land.

A cabin door swung wide and Sweetie Belle skidded into view. “Nopony here, either!”

The Dink and Pinch emerged from the lake wearing goggles and snorkels. They shook out their sodden manes and tails.

Pinch spit out her snorkel. “Lake’s clear,” she said.

Apple Bloom galloped over to them. “Woods are empty! Any luck ‘round here?”

Scootaloo, Pinch, Sweetie, and The Dink shook their heads.

Pip stepped out of the main hall. The rest of the group looked his way, but the hope in their eyes wilted along with his sagging, defeated pose.

“They’re all gone,” he said as he walked up to them. “All of them!”

“What’s happening?” Sweetie asked. “They were all right here when we left!”

The Dink gave a slow, sombre nod. “Situation’s pretty obvious.”

Pinch nodded as well. “Yup. Definitely.”

“What?” Bloom said. “What is it?”

The Dink pulled off her goggles and magicked up her saddlebags. “A monster. A really big one.”

“Just ran up and snatched everypony,” Pinch added. “Whoosh!” She whipped her front legs in a scooping gesture.

Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “That’s what you two said when we forgot about the field trip that one time!”

The Dink scoffed. “I said it was monsters that time. Now it’s just the one!”

“One really big one,” Pinch said.

“So if it’s a monster, how come it didn’t leave any tracks?” Scootaloo asked.

The Dink pensively tapped her chin. “Mm. Good point. Guess this one’s got wings.”

“A flying monster?” Pip whimpered. He crouched low and craned his neck to peer up at the open sky.

Bloom groaned in frustration. “Fer peat’s sake! There’s no flyin’ monster!”

“But everypony IS gone,” The Dink said. “If it’s not a monster, where are they all?”

A shrill whistle drew the foals’ attention. They all looked back toward town, where a small skyrocket streaked up into the sky and burst in a spray of white and blue sparkles.

“Back in town, looks like,” said Scootaloo.

The Dink stepped forward and fixed a firm and steely stare up at the fading airburst. “Okay team,” she growled, “let’s get to the bottom of this mystery!”

As the foals cantered back toward Ponyville, Pip asked: “Why are you talking all gravelly, like that?”

✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤

The streets of Ponyville were still and silent, even more so than the early days of Zecora’s trips into town.

“This is really creepy,” Sweetie said. She moved a little closer to her fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders.

The Dink nodded in agreement. Ahead, unlatched shutters clattered in the breeze. A public water-pump dripped into its trough. An unattended flyer for Quills and Sofas flew up against Sweetie’s side and made her start in shock. The Dink fetched a small, shoddy camera from her saddlebags and snapped a quick shot of the empty street. “So awesome…!”

“It’s the middle of the daytime,” Scootaloo said. “Ponies oughta be running the shops, doing errands, going on visits…”

Pip eyed the skies nervously.

“There’s no flyin’ monster!” Bloom repeated.

Everypony crouched and froze as another deafening whistle blew off and more fireworks speckled the sky.

“That way!” Pinch said. “Middle of town!”

The foals took off at a gallop, navigating the wide and vacant streets easily. The sounds of other foals’ voices began to carry on the breeze, and when the group turned a corner and came to the town square they finally found their fellow campers and classmates.

All of them.

Several dozen foals crowded the square in large groups, occupied with assorted activities. Some sat on small haystacks around low tables and gorged on ice cream. Some cheerfully chased a hoofball around. Others lounged in the sunshine and flipped through books. Still more splashed in a wide foal-sized wading pool and bobbed for apples in a nearby basin.

“S’cuse me!”

The voice from behind startled the group, and they scattered to let Prickle Berry pass. The Earth Pony filly was pulling a cart piled high with crushed ice and fresh tubs of ice cream.

Bloom shook her head to clear it. “Prickle, wait!” she called out. “What’s all this? What happened?”

“And where are all the grown-ups?” added Sweetie.

Prickle giggled. “Oh, you all musta missed the song! Bad luck! It was a really good one!”

“Song?” Pip raised an eyebrow. “Well, how did it go, then?”

Prickle rolled her eyes. “Sheesh! You know how it is! You can’t just explain a song — you kinda have to be there, you know?”

The foals shared looks of consternation.

Prickle nodded toward town hall. “I’m sure she’ll explain it all again if you ask.” Before anypony could ask any follow-up questions, the ice on the cart shifted slightly and Prickle tensed up. “Uh-oh! No time to dilly-dally! This ice cream needs eating, pronto!” She cantered off, pulling the cart toward the feast tables as though it weighed nothing at all.

“So,” The Dink said. “Town hall?”

The group moved as one toward the tallest building in town apart from Princess Twilight’s castle.

“I’m still thinkin’ monster,” Pinch said as they passed by the swimmers.

“Evil spirits, maybe,” The Dink replied, half to herself. “Or some kind of disappearing flu. Or– oop!” She stumbled on a loose rock. She glanced down and saw that the smooth grey stone was shaped roughly like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle. A good omen for mystery hunting if she’d ever seen one. She slipped the stone into her saddlebags and then hustled to catch up with the group.

“Wh-What if it’s another bugbear?” Pip worried aloud. “What if the whole town hall’s one big hive inside?”

“Then I guess we’ll have plenty of honey for makin’ candy,” Bloom replied with a smirk.

“You really don’t think there’s a freaky reason for all this?” Pinch asked. “I mean, I know our town’s pretty crazy, but come ON!”

Bloom sighed. “I just don’t think it’s helpin’ any to keep makin’ wild guesses. Whatever’s in the town hall, we’re gonna hafta deal with it, and it’d be smarter to get ready than to keep talkin’ about all the stuff it could or might or maybe-perhaps will be!”

“Good point,” The Dink said. “Battle stations, girls! I’m goin’ in!” The Dink galloped toward the main doors.

The girls and Pip scrambled in confusion and then formed a rough semicircle with stances low, ready to charge or bolt.

The Dink thundered up the front steps and skidded to a halt in front of the tall doors. She sat, drew back a front hoof, and then swung it forward hard — only to stop an inch from the painted wood and politely knock instead.

There were sounds of movement inside. The Dink hopped back a whole body-length with a firm “HYAH!”, but her back legs dropped off the top of the stairs and she staggered a bit before righting herself. “H-Hyah…” she repeated.

A moment later, the left door creaked open.

“Yes, my little Ponies?” a mare called out. “How can I help?”

A shadowed form emerged and slowly stepped out into the sunshine.

The Dink braced herself. She gritted her teeth, ready for anything.

Anything but what stepped out.

It was a Unicorn. Just a Unicorn. Soft-bodied and a just tiny bit short, bright-purple-eyed and grinning warmly, with a pale hide that contrasted nicely with her wavy deep-blue locks. Her Cutie Mark was a set of five blue flowers arranged to form an X.

“Uhh…” The Dink managed. She squinted and took a closer look, scouring the mare’s form for signs of demonic horns or fangs, of black veins of corruption or the glowing sickly green-black aura of tainted magic. Nothing.

The mare stepped closer and flashed a wider smile. “It’s all right, don’t be shy,” she said. “Whatever your trouble is, I can make it right.”

“She sounds like Miss Cheerilee…!” Sweetie whispered to Bloom.

The mare looked past The Dink and spotted the rest of the newcomers. “That goes for all of you — come on, come closer! Let me see your wonderful smiles!”

Pinch stepped closer. Scootaloo did likewise. Bloom and Sweetie followed her soon after. Pip brought up the rear, but his tension was slowly easing.

“Oh, such a lovely bunch you are!” the mare said. “You three with the matching Marks, you must be the ones running the day camp, is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bloom said. No reason to not be neighbourly, at least until a reason appeared.

“What a phenomenal idea!” The mare clapped her front hooves. “You’re welcome to keep up those activities, but don’t feel bound to only the camp. The whole town is yours, for whatever pastimes you please!”

“That’s very nice of you, ma’am,” Sweetie spoke up. “But, could you please tell us where-”

“There’s ice cream and cake aplenty, all fresh and ready,” the Unicorn cut her off. “And if the swimming pool gets crowded just let me know and I’ll expand it.” She gestured at the empty streets. “There’s all sorts of room to run and play, but mind you don’t stray out of town. Those woods are not safe.”

“That ice cream does look really good ...” Pip muttered.

The Dink met the mare’s wide, warm eyes. “Ma’am, before the ice cream, could you at least tell us who you are?”

The mare tittered like the tinkling of glass bells. “Oh, but of course! Where are my manners?” She leaned way down to face The Dink at her eye level. “You may call me Majesty.”

The rest of the group stared in mild confusion, but The Dink immediately flashed a wide smile. “Wow! Nice name! Okay, uh, Majesty, that takes care of everything. We’re just gonna go have some ice cream, now!”

Pinch frowned. “But what about-”

“RIGHT now,” The Dink snapped, and shot Pinch a withering glare.

“... Yay, ice cream!” Pinch cheered halfheartedly.

“That’s the spirit,” Majesty said. “You eat your fill, no need to be dainty. You’re growing foals, after all!”

Once the group had crowded around a vacant table piled with dripping scoops in several flavours, they leaned behind the unsteady tower to whisper unseen.

“Okay, what’s the deal?” Pinch asked. “We didn’t even ask her where everypony was!”

“Yeah!” Bloom added. “Everypony’s missing! I wanna know what’s goin’ on!”

The Dink didn’t answer, since her face was buried in the ice cream mound.

Sweetie frowned. “Seriously?”

The Dink drew back and swallowed. “We need to keep up appearances. And plus, Pip was right, it’s really good.”

One by one, the foals gave in to that logic and set about reducing the size of their cover a bit.

After the rich meal, The Dink licked her chops and seamlessly returned to business:

“Okay. She seems like a nice, normal mare. Right?”

The fillies and Pip nodded.

“Well, I don’t think a nice, normal mare made all the other grown-ups vanish. But there she is!”

The Dink peered past the remaining ice cream.

Majesty caught her eye and offered a grin and a wave.

The Dink turned back to the others. “Whatever’s going on, she’s probably in on it. Ancient magic, or weird science, or worse — who knows?”

Sweetie glanced at Majesty and then back at The Dink. “You’ve said that about literally every single new adult you’ve met. She seems nice!”

“She doesn’t exactly look like a dark wizard or a mad scientist,” Scootaloo noted. “More like… Missus Cake with a horn?”

“I’m fairly sure mad science is just made up,” Pip said.

Pinch smirked. “Oh, you sweet, innocent foal.”

“I’m two weeks older than you.”

Pinch waved him off. “ANYway, they’re right, Dink. At most, this mare’s probably just, like, a pawn of the monster.”

Bloom ran a hoof down her face. “Fer cryin’ out loud…!”

“Hay. Something’s up,” The Dink said. “We know that. And if all the other grown-ups really are gone, it’s something big. REALLY big. We need to be smart about this.”

“So what’s that mean?” Scootaloo asked. “What do you wanna do?”

The Dink dug her face into a patch of melting strawberry ripple and swallowed the mouthful in one gulp. “We eat ice cream. And we play hoofball. We swim. We do all of it. All over town. And everywhere we go ... ”

“ … We do reconnaissance!” Pip chimed in.

“Yeah,” The Dink said with a nod and a mischievous grin. “And check things out while we’re at it.”

To be Continued

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