Ride the Pony - Five Dollars

by Irrespective



He could not remember his own name.

He had a name, of course, but years of walking in the Circle had bent his mind into circles of its own. It was something fresh and breezy, something that could be called out while laughing in the tall grass of a fragrant meadow.

It used to scurry around in his head, as a reminder of who he was and what he had once been. But over time, he had learned to force it down when it rose up to the back of his throat. He walked. He no longer spoke. When he spoke, people screamed. They threw things. Hard things. Speaking was pain. Conceal it. Hide it in the shadows. Every day, there were more shadows. Every bite of food, every swallow of water stole the light away from him. Stole his thoughts. Replaced them with shadows.

Then there were masters. So many Masters. They had names, but he refused to think of them as anything else. They came in circles, just like his walk. He would be purchased, put to work, beaten and abused, then sold to another. They had blurred together over time, so alike in temperament that it was like picking out a single drop of water from the ocean, and their reasons for selling him were similarly indistinct. One Master, somewhere, had tired of feeding him. Another Master didn’t want to pay for medicine when he was sick.⁽*⁾

⁽*⁾Medicine always burned his mouth and hurt his stomach, anyway.

The walking circle remained the same. He knew how many steps were in a full circle, and how many circles were in each turn. He even knew how long his stride had to be to keep the metal bar in his mouth from pulling him painfully along behind the long metal arm. The machine that moved the arms didn’t care if he was sick, or if he was hurt. The only thing it wanted was something called ‘fuel,’ which Master provided to it far more regularly than he provided hay to his slaves.

He knew that Master cared about the machine. It was expensive, and when it broke, Master did not earn any money. Master would look over the parts of the machine very carefully each day, poking and prodding with tools to make sure it would run without any problems. Master didn’t care about the ponies. They were stubborn, and Master paid scant attention to their care and cleaning. Master was supposed to feed the ponies every night, but there were many nights when Master forgot to, or had more important things to do. Master would say that the ponies would be fed in the morning, and that the ponies would be fine.

When Master did feed them, it was always the same meal of dry, prickly hay and plain, mineral-tasting water. Sometimes he had enough hay to fill his belly, but it never fully took away the hunger. He would think of creamy vanilla cupcakes and chocolate ice cream when he ate, and when the weather turned to snow, he would warm himself with the memories of fresh apple pies and minty hot cocoa, with whipped cream and sprinkles that would always stick to the end of his nose.

The water wasn’t so bad, in a relative way, but it was nothing like the water from home. Here, the water was laced with the taste of dull metals, and sometimes it was fouled with leaves and dirt. It was so unlike the sparkling fresh water he had once known, straight from the melting ice of the mountain top and as clear as a cloudless sky.

A distant roll of thunder pulled his eyes up to the cloudy sky. Even after all of this time, he still looked for the playful pegasi in those clouds, swooping and ducking among the billows as they cheerfully patched together a pleasant summer rain or the first snowfall of winter. He remembered how confused he had been when the first storm of this world had struck, seemingly out of nowhere and with an unnatural fury that could never exist at home. The lightning was sharper than knives here, stabbing and slashing at everything that dared to exist below it. He had quickly learned that being hit by the lightning was not a harmless jolt, like he had known. Here, it was so angry that it struck down ponies right where they stood without hesitation or mercy.

It was a lesson he had learned at Buttercup’s expense.

This was not his home. Buttercup was not a real pony, like he was. She could not talk, even in his own language, even after he had quietly spent many evenings in the dark trying his best. She had been a beast of this world, and the tears he had shed in her memory after the lightning strike had been wasted.

The worlds were blurring together the longer he stayed. Even the words of home were slipping away, replaced by the foul curses and profanities of Master. Long ago, he had learned not to speak, or show any sign that he was not what the others were. It had only taken one lesson, one question to Master, for him to find out just how powerful words were in this place.

The beating had been relentless, cruel, and continued even after he had fallen over unconscious. That Master was long gone, but a Master was a Master, and he would not survive another lesson of that sort. So he remained silent, listening and watching, learning the strange and harsh words of this place and only practicing them in the darkness of his stall when all were sleeping.

He kept the words he had learned tightly inside him now, as they were the only possession that he could truly call his own. Master and the other humans would try to take them away if they discovered he had them.

He would not let the humans have them. They had already taken his freedom, his health, his time, and even his memories of how he had come to this perpetually gray land.

Their stolen words were all he had left.

* * Ω * *

It was often said that familiarity bred contempt, and the truth of that statement was reinforced when Master tied his reins to the walking machine once more. Through all of the Masters in all of the different places, the machine and the circle it forced him to walk in hardly ever changed. There were some times when the machine had rainbow colored ribbons tied to it, like this one, and sometimes the current Master had to walk with the ponies instead of feeding the machine fuel to make it work by itself. One machine had been covered by a brightly colored tent, with cheerful streamers dangling from the edges.

That one had been one of his favorites. The festive colors had kept him dry, and it had given him something nice to look at while he walked.

This machine looked something like a rusty octopus, with long arms that reached out and rotated around a central hub. It dutifully led the ponies along the same path, never letting them stray to smell a flower, or to stop when their hooves began to ache and throb. It was relentless and unyielding, and he had decided long ago that it was one of the most devious and demented contraptions that could ever be invented.

Ponies were creatures that needed to move on their own. They walked down the cobblestone streets and skipped along dirt paths to meet with friends. They pranced in fields of clover, danced together in large parties, and ran as they frollicked under a golden sun.

The machine let ponies move, but only in one direction, and at one speed. It gave him something he needed, and took away everything he wanted all at the same time.

His musing was interrupted when Master threw an itchy blanket and heavy saddle roughly on his back. This too was a torture device, corrupted to serve a wicked purpose instead of simply making a sporting fashion statement. Here, the saddle marked him as a beast of burden, a mere animal who existed for the human’s sole use.

He watched with indifference as Master repeated the process for the other ponies. There were seven ponies all together, excluding himself, and all of them together were as dumb as a box of rocks. They were the reason why people screamed when he spoke, why they hobbled him with thick shackles and heavy chains when he had tried to escape. Ponies here didn’t talk. They didn’t sing, or joke, or play games. They only walked the Circle, ate, and slept.

There were times when he wondered if they had once been like him, but had been turned into beasts by Master and the people.

A welcome scent made him breathe deeply, and his eyes flicked to a small stand just outside the enclosure. The man within was selling corn on the cob, dripping with butter and just a hint of salt. If he remembered correctly, Master had said this place was called Neigh Braska, and that corn was popular here. Even though Master frequently moved to different locations for things called fairs and carnivals, the view never really changed. It was always so gray, and so flat. There were never any trees to provide some welcome shade from the sun, never any snow-capped mountains to admire from a distance, never any sparkling blue sea dotted with white sails.

A series of screeches pulled his attention back, and he forced himself to suppress a groan. There, at the entrance to the enclosure, were three reasons why he walked in circles day after day.

Children. Like pony foals, these came in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and personalities. There were the Pokers, the Petters, the Find A Weed And Try To Feeders, the Heel-Jabbers, the Mane-Pullers, and the Screamers. Oh, and the Pee-ers, the worse ones of all. Very few were Riders, settling in on the saddle and moving in harmony with his steps. Those, at least, were tolerable. Sometimes even pleasurable.

But none of them were what he was looking for. Whatever that was.

He could still remember that one thing, even after everything else was stolen away. He was supposed to find someone, or somepony. Who it was, or what they looked like had long been lost, but he liked to fool himself into thinking that he was the only one that could find them.

But by now, the reason why he needed to find them had come and gone for sure.

Master was swift to take the money from the parents of the children. The green strips of paper called ‘dollars’ were valuable, and all of his Masters were obsessed with them. With it, they bought food for themselves. They bought clothes. It bought fuel for the machine. They would buy things that brought pleasure and entertainment. People who had more money were more important than people who had less, and no human could ever have enough of it.

Master charged five dollars to let the children ride the ponies for a short and fixed time. If a child wanted to ride the ponies more, Master was happy to let them—for another five dollars. The parents never fought with him about the cost, but some would complain to others about it. They would watch from the fence, cheering and taking pictures, until the ride was over and they didn’t want to spend more money. Some children would kick and scream when they were told they couldn’t ride anymore, but unless they paid, Master would simply pick them up and push them to their parents.

Or grandparents. Human families came in different styles, he had learned. Some children were cared for by grandparents, and some by aunts and uncles. Some had only one parent, instead of two. A few of them had no parents, and were cared for by people who were paid to look after them.

Master didn’t care about any of that. Master just wanted the five dollars.

Once the money was paid and the child was put on his back, Master started the machine and the walk began. He followed the arm as the child whooped and screamed in delight. His steps were slow and measured, just like always.

In the past, he had passed the time by thinking of home. He would think of his life before the Circle, and what he would do when returned to it. He would think of his friends and of his family. He thought of everything and anything that was not connected to this place.

But one at a time, the Circle had consumed those thoughts. Thinking them was unproductive, and they would only remind him of what he had lost. That would make him sad, and he didn’t like being sad.

So now he thought of the Circle. The Circle didn’t care if he was happy or sad. The Circle was numb, it was empty. It took away his time, and in exchange, it offered the cold comfort that things would remain the same.

The machine stopped, and he stopped with it. The child on his back was removed and replaced with another. After a moment, the machine started again, and his walk resumed. Off and on, on and off. All day, and sometimes all night, the pattern remained the same.

When the day grew hot, Master stopped the ponies and gave them a drink of water. He had to, or the ponies wouldn’t be able to walk, and then the parents would be upset. Once Master thought the ponies had gotten enough, more children came, and a young girl swung herself into his saddle.

This interested him. Most children could not get into the saddle by themselves. They needed Master or their parents to help them up. He tried to twist his head to look at his young rider, as much as he could before his reins and the arm stopped him.

She was a pleasant-looking child, with fair skin and long blonde hair tied back into a ponytail with a large pink bow. He liked her bow, and he liked how she sat up straight, her blue eyes looking over him just as intently as he was looking over her.

“Look, Grandma!” she called out with a wave. “I’m riding the pony, just like you used to!”

His eyes followed her wave. The young girl’s grandma looked similar to the girl, but more worn by the years, with wispy grey hair that escaped from a colorful kerchief and deep wrinkles, particularly around her sparkling blue eyes. The old woman seemed unbowed by her long life, which showed in her broad smile as she waved back to the child.

“You are, sweetie! Remember to grip with your legs, and don’t slouch!”

His head began to buzz. Old thoughts were pushing out of the shadows, trying to escape. They wanted to remind him of something, something important…

The machine stopped his thoughts, and the Circle drove them back into the shadows. The Circle was everything, and it would always be everything. This young rider would be gone in a few moments, like all the others. Masters changed, riders changed.

Only the Circle remained constant.

But his head hurt. His thoughts refused to be smothered by the shadows and the Circle this time. They clawed and scratched, desperate to get out. There was something more here, something he had to remember.

The young rider waved to her grandmother each time they passed. She laughed and cheered. She gently patted his neck and softly scratched behind his ears, in just the right place. Before her turn ended, she leaned down into his mane and pressed her slim fingers against his neck.

I wish you were a real pony, like the ones in my grandma’s stories.”

He froze. His hooves stopped, his legs stopped, the entire world stopped. The machine screamed at him, pulling furiously on his reins. Master shouted, and his yelling made the parents scream.

None of that mattered. He dug in his hooves, and for the first time, he pulled back.

More screams came when the arm of the machine bent backwards, twisting and deforming until it began to look like a pretzel. The machine let out a crunch, a pop, and then it stopped. Master rushed to the machine, yelling that it was broken.

He didn’t notice any of it. The buzzing in his head grew louder, pushing at the back of his eyes and pulling claws through the back of his brain. She had spoken to him in a language that he had not heard for many, many years. It was the old language, one filled with magic, joy, and carefree delights. The words filled him with hope, with happiness, and with purpose.

He fought to remember. He fought his way down to the memories as they struggled to the surface, boiling up and rolling like the fresh green hills of his home. Something deep within him surged out, creating a lush carpet of tall, thick grass that ran from his hooves outwards until it escaped the enclosure. Some of the people began to run when small flowers sprouted, but others simply stared at the scraggly yet colorful blooms. A few people whispered that they had never seen such a rainbow of colors before.

He remained still, his hooves half-buried in the suddenly rich soil as parents rushed to their children on the other ponies. Master helped them to leave, but Master did not approach him or the Rider who had spoken to him.

The grandmother slowly came, her four-footed cane moving in tandem to support her slow shuffle. Master told her to stay away, but she did not listen. The grandma produced a small pill from her purse, and she quickly ate it before helping her granddaughter out of the saddle.

She pulled his face up with her hands. They were wrinkled and spotted, but soft and tender. She studied his eyes, and she stroked his muzzle.

What are you doing here?” she whispered in the old language, her free hand reaching up to touch a golden locket hanging from her neck. “You’re an Equestrian.”

He said nothing. He wanted to, but he feared what would happen if he did. Master beat him if he talked. The people threw things. They would take away his words.

She patted his muzzle, and he nickered with the warm touch. He wanted to go with her. She would be a good Master. She would be nice. She would give him treats and let him run.

Master was shouting something, but he didn’t hear. The grandma didn’t listen either. She moved slowly to his rear, and paused when she reached his flank.

“Well, now,” she softly said, her hand tracing a shape on his coat. “That’s something I’ve not seen in a long time.”

His eyes moved to his flank, and followed her tracing. There was a picture there, a dim and faded picture that he had not seen in many years. For a moment, he thought that the grandma had somehow put it there, but then a memory broke free, and he remembered.

The mark was a part of him, just like his tail or his legs. It was supposed to be there. It was him, and he was it.

“Grandma?” the young girl asked. “What is it?”

The grandma did not reply. She took her granddaughter’s hand in hers, and with a smile, they both left the enclosure.

He tried to follow them, but Master grabbed his reins before he could. He could see a furious burning in Master’s eyes. He had broken the machine. Master was going to beat him for what he had done.

But not here. Master couldn’t beat him with so many other people around. They would not let Master hurt him. Master called out to the people with a laugh, and said they would fix everything quickly. Just a few minutes, and the pony rides would begin again. He would only make them pay three dollars, if they waited.

As Master led him away, he glanced over his shoulder. The grandmother and granddaughter were walking away, but they both glanced back.

A name came out from the deep shadows of his mind. It was not his name. It was the name that had brought him here, the name that he was supposed to find.

“Megan,” he whispered.

* * Ω * *


* * Ω * *


The name would not leave him. It buzzed around in his head like a beehive being struck by a stick, and as it buzzed, it brought long-lost memories with it.

He had been sent here to find Megan. He couldn’t remember why, but somehow, he knew that she was important.

Immediately after he had broken the machine, Master had put him in the trailer. It was a large metal box, with locks on the outside that he could not reach. Master had taught him new words as they had walked to the trailer, sharp words that sounded ominous. Voodoo. Witchcraft. Satanic.

But Master used a word that he did know, too. Magic. Master blamed magic for breaking his machine. It was magic—dark, evil magic—that had made the grass and the flowers grow.

And it was magic that had brought him here in the first place.

He twisted around to look at the bare patch on his flank that still tingled with the touch of the old woman. There was a mark there, a picture that he had nearly forgotten as it had faded over time. There, in bright lines and vibrant colors again, was a picture of a rock—jagged, rough, and with a spike protruding from the top of it.

He shook his head. It wasn’t a picture. It was something more, something special. It represented something he was good at, something that he was unnaturally talented at doing.

His first Master had tried to scrub the mark away with harsh chemicals and stiff brushes. When that didn’t work, Master had painted matching marks on the other ponies. Other Masters had done the same thing, until the Circle had stolen the mark.

He could not remember what the mark meant. He wished he could. He felt like he would know why his head was buzzing if he could.

The mark would wait until later. He needed to find Megan and her granddaughter. He needed to get out of the trailer.

A tremor swept over his body at the thought of leaving the trailer on his own. Master was mad already, and if he tried to escape, Master would be furious. The beating would be worse, much worse than anything else he’d endured.

He had to leave. He was terrified, but if he stayed in the trailer, he would never find Megan. The Circle would consume him, and the shadows would eat all of his thoughts and memories. If he stayed, he would be like the dumb ponies that lived here.

He reached out and touched the metal wall in front of him with a hoof. Could he kick his way out? It would make a lot of noise, and Master would hear him for sure. The small windows had bars on them, and he could not reach them unless he untied himself.

If he did get out, what would he do? Megan had left, and he had no idea where she had gone. He would have to search for her. Master would look for him, and he had the large machine called a truck. The truck was fast, and it had bright lights. Master could find him if he ran. He would be a bad pony, and the beating would...

He fought back against the unpleasant thought. The truck had to stay on the black stuff called a road. If he stayed away from the road, Master might not find him.

His thoughts froze with his heart when he heard a voice. Master’s voice. It was too late! Master would hurt him for the damage he’d caused! Master was going to beat him for breaking the machine!

The locks clinked, and the door swung open. He backed himself into the corner and made himself very small. Maybe Master would see he was sorry. Maybe Master would see that he would never do anything like that again.

A hand came out of the darkness and he flinched, waiting for the first strike.

It never came. The hand began to scratch behind his ear, and another one began to pat him gently on the neck. “Shh, it’s okay, boy. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

The granddaughter! He let out a nicker as relief filled him from hooves to ears. If she was here, then Megan was here. Master would not hurt him, not in front of Megan. Master got in trouble if he hurt the ponies when others could see.

“I’m telling you, that… that thing is a beast straight from Hell,” Master spat from somewhere out in the darkness. “The pure spawn of Satan himself. It needs to be destroyed.”

“What happens to him is my concern, not yours,” Megan said. “You have your money.”

Guess what?” the granddaughter whispered to him in the old language. “Grandma bought you! We’re going to take you away from this horrible man. You’re going to live with us now. You don’t need to be afraid anymore. I’m going to take good care of you.”

He couldn’t believe it. He wanted to, of course, but this was simply too good to be true. There was no way that the person he was supposed to find was going to be his new Master. It was too fantastic, too amazing.

It was almost like…. He looked over his shoulder at the mark on his flank.


“C’mon, boy.” The granddaughter untied his rope from the trailer, and gave it a gentle tug. “Come with me.”

“Watch your step, Penny,” Megan cautioned, and they both waited for him to gingerly step down and out of the trailer. Master was there, a thick stack of money in hand. He thumbed through the slips individually, like he was counting the total amount. Master’s eyes burned with fury, but he did not lash out.

“I should charge you double,” Master grunted. “That monster destroyed my walker.”

“He bent one arm and stripped a few teeth off the drive gears,” Megan retorted. “It’s hardly destroyed. You’re still able to offer rides, aren’t you?”

Master snarled. “I’ll have to buy a new pony to replace him.”

“I highly doubt that you will have a problem with finding another. May I take my purchase now, or would you like to complain about something else?”

Master wanted to say more, but didn’t. Instead, Master turned and walked back to the other dumb ponies and his Circle.

“C’mon, boy.” Penny patted his neck and tugged on the rope. “This way.”

His mind whirled with a million thoughts as he followed Penny and Megan. The angry beehive in his head had mixed with a tornado, and he couldn’t make sense of what was happening. What was going to happen now? Was he going to walk in circles for Megan? Why did he need to find her? How was he supposed to get back to his old home?

His thoughts continued to crash into each other until they reached a nearby tall car. He retreated a step when Penny moved to untie the rope from his muzzle, and he let out a small whinny in fear.

“Slowly, dear,” Megan said, and her soft hand began to scratch behind his ears. “He’s been hurt, and he’s scared right now. Go slow, let him see that you’re a friend. Talk to him.”

“Will he speak to me?” Penny asked, her hand slowly scratching his muzzle.

“In time,” Megan said as she opened the back door on the car. “He probably thinks you’ll hurt him if he does say something. Ponies aren’t supposed to talk.”

“I won’t hurt you,” Penny reassured him. “Not now, not ever. You can trust me.”

He focused his thoughts on this statement. He was supposed to find Megan, and he had. Penny was Megan’s granddaughter. If Megan was good, then that meant that Penny was good, right?

It could be a trick. Penny wasn’t Megan. Penny might steal his words. Penny could be like Master, and put him back in the circle.

Penny crouched down in front of him, and held one hand out. Her soft smile removed his fears. The love in her eyes took away the shadows and the pain. Penny wasn’t like Master, or the children who rode on his back. Penny cared about him. She would be nice, and she wouldn’t take his words.

He didn’t know how he knew, but somehow, he did. He leaned forward and pushed his nose into her open hand. He was going to trust her, even if he was scared.

“That’s a good boy,” Penny said with a giggle. “I’m going to take the rope off now, okay? It won’t hurt at all. You’ll never have a rope on you again, I promise.”

He nodded and remained still as she untied the knots that held the rope on his muzzle. Once she was done, she dropped it on the ground and nodded.

“There we go. That feels better, doesn’t it?”

He looked at the rope, then back up to Penny. He nodded. It did feel a little better.

Penny’s smile grew larger, and she patted his muzzle. “Let’s get you out of here. I’ll ride with you in the back, okay? You’ll be safe with me.”

His gaze went to the open door and the interior of the tall car. He had never ridden in a car before. It looked soft, much softer than the trailer.

He took one step, but then stopped and looked down at his hoof. He had stepped on the rope, the rope that had bound him to the trailer and to Master.

Ever so slowly, he began to twist his hoof from side to side, grinding the rope deeper into the dirt with every motion.

Megan and Penny smiled together as he climbed into the car.

* * Ω * *

“So, what’s your name?” Penny asked. “I can’t keep calling you ‘boy,’ after all.”

He shrunk back and curled into a tighter ball. He knew he could trust Penny, but he didn’t want her to take away his words.

Penny waited for a moment, then scratched behind his ears. “Grandma, I don’t know if he’s going to talk. He still looks really, really scared.”

“It might take awhile,” Megan said. “But he’ll talk when he’s ready. Believe me, ponies love to talk.”

“Just like your stories, right?” Penny said with a knowing grin. “They sing and dance, too, and throw parties, and bake pies, and all sorts of other fun things. How do you think he got here?”

Megan didn’t reply for a moment, her head swiveling back and forth as she pulled up to a stop sign. “I’m not sure how he got here, but from everything that happened when he saw me, he must have been sent. It’s a cruel shame that he ended up with that horrid man, and I’m sure the ones before him were no better.”

“Master bad,” he croaked. It hurt his throat, but he wanted to speak, to prove to himself that he was not like the dumb ponies.

“You can talk!” Penny cheered. “And you speak English, too!”

“Master is bad,” he repeated, his vision being overtaken by the Circle again. His breaths came in ragged bursts, and his heart hammered in his chest. The once spacious car began to close in around him, and he put his hooves on the door to keep it away. “Master will hurt me. I broke his machine.” The Circle forced his body to the floor to conform to its shape, as if it was proving that it would always control him and his life. “Can’t go back to Master. You will be the new Master. Please, be Master. Please?”

“No.” Penny moved to the floor with him and ran her fingers through his mane in long, soothing strokes. “I’m not your master. I’m your friend. You’ll never have a master again.”

“No… Master?” The idea made absolutely no sense to him. For as long as he could remember, there had always been masters. Masters were mean, but they gave him food and water. Master kept bad animals away, animals with long teeth and sharp claws that hunted the mice who lived in the hay.

“No master,” Penny repeated. “I promise.”

He thought this over for several long moments before looking up at her. “Do you Pinkie Promise?”

Penny held out a fist with the last finger raised to him. “I double pinkie promise that you will never have a master again.”

“No master.” The idea scared him, but deep down, he liked the idea. Slowly, he uncurled himself and touched her littlest finger with his hoof. “No more master. Friends instead.”

“Right. Grandma and I are friends.” Penny affirmed. “Do you have a name?”

He shut his eyes tight, so tight that little lights began to dance on the insides of his eyelids. He had a name. He knew he had a name. It was somewhere in him, buried deep in the shadows and suppressed by the Circle. “Yes,” he croaked. “Can’t remember. Circle… took it.”

“The circle?” Penny asked.

“His time in the mechanical walker,” Megan said. “He’s been forced to act like a pony from our world so he doesn’t get hurt. All those years of walking in a circle have stolen his name from him.”

“Oh, how horrible!” Penny pulled him into a gentle hug. “That’s the worst thing I have ever heard! How could anybody or anything be so cruel?”

“How indeed,” Megan murmured softly.

“Well, since you don’t remember your name, I’m going to give you a temporary one,” Penny said. “Everybody needs a name, after all. Let’s see. You have a rock on your leg, so I’ll call you Rocky. Is that okay?”

“Rocky.” He tried out the name, but it didn’t taste quite right. It was nice, and it fit, but he knew it wasn’t his real name. But it would work for now, so he nodded. “Rocky.”

“Grandma?” Penny glanced out the window, and she pointed to something that Rocky couldn’t see. “This isn’t the way we came.”

“I know.” The old woman winced as the car bounced on the rough road. “We’re going to have to take the back roads for now.”


Megan drew in a deep and sad breath. “Penny, when I was a young girl, my mother would tell me fantastic stories about elves who made shoes and kings who could turn anything into gold with just a touch. I learned about ferocious fire breathing dragons, spiteful trolls who were outsmarted by gruff billy goats, and about bears who were quite particular about the temperature of their porridge and uninvited guests. I loved to hear about geese that laid golden eggs and dwarves who could spin straw into gold, so when Firefly crashed into my barn, it was easy for me to believe that ponies could fly, and that magic really did exist.

“But I also learned that this world is a dangerous place for magic. The fairies, the elves, and all of the fae creatures have faded away or fled many, many years ago. This world treats magic as if it were some sort of disease, and attacks it at every opportunity, trying to destroy it or wrap it up in a protective shield like a cyst. That’s why Rocky was trapped with a long line of abusive owners instead of being purchased for a farm.” She coughed once and continued. “Sometimes, I think the world doesn’t know what to make of me. I spent so much time with the ponies that some of the magic must have stayed with me, and the world must have thought I was a rash or something like that. But I was careful. The ponies trusted me to keep their magic safe, so I kept it hidden, never touched it, and waited.”

She was silent for a while, trying to drive around the worst of the potholes. “I waited for so long that I was beginning to forget about them. I started to believe they would never need it again, and all my memories were just dreams,” she added more softly.

“We do need you,” said Rocky. “I… can’t remember why, but that’s why I was sent.”

“And that is why we must hurry,” said Megan. “This world can feel it too. If you are here, loose and unrestrained, it will try its best to stop the magic before it can be released.” She laughed, a much more youthful sound than her old body seemed able to produce. “We’ve stuck a feather up the world’s nose, and we need to run away before it sneezes.”

“Run away?” Penny asked. “Where are we running to?”

“Dream Valley,” Megan replied with a determined grin.

“But… but how? We don’t know how he got here in the first place.”

“True. But I just so happen to know of a way to get back.”

Rocky’s ears perked up. “You do?”

“During my time with the ponies, I was entrusted with the Rainbow of Light,” Megan said. “But that was only one of the magical items that I was given. The Moochick also gave me a magical lasso, one that can open a portal between our worlds. I was told to never use it, except in case of a dire emergency. I think this qualifies.”

“Rainbow.” The inside of Rocky’s head began to pound, and he put both hooves on the side of his head to quell the noise. “Rainbow of Light. We need it. Need to defeat… something… or someone....”

“We’ll need to get back to my house first,” Megan replied. “It’s hidden in my barn. Once we have it, we can get you home.”

“Home.” Rocky repeated the word. “No Master. I find Megan, bring her to Home. Home needs Megan.” He paused, and Penny’s bright, eager smile brought more thoughts to him. “Maybe Home needs Penny, too.”

Penny gasped. “Can I go to Dream Valley, Grandma?”

“I don’t see why not,” Megan replied with a mischievous grin. “Just don’t mention this to your mother. It was hard enough to convince her to let me take you to the fair. I don’t think she’ll like the idea of you going to another world.”

* * Ω * *

“Grandma, can we stop for dinner?” Penny asked. “I think Rocky is hungry.”

Megan glanced into the back seat, a deep frown on her face. They needed to keep moving. The Circle would not let Rocky go without a fight, and she dreaded to think of what would be thrown at them. The evils that had plagued Dream Valley would be nothing compared to what this world could do.


A twinge of pain in both her chest and stomach distracted Megan while she tried to think. Penny had never doubted the truth of her stories about the ponies, even when others had said that Grandma Meg was slightly senile. While they needed to get back to the farm, they probably could pick up something and eat while they drove.

Besides, she was hungry, to tell the truth. She offered her granddaughter a reassuring grin. “He’s hungry, or you are?”

Penny giggled and offered an embarrassed smile. “I haven’t had anything to eat since lunch. But I’m sure Rocky wants some food, too.”

Megan nodded. “Would you like something to eat, Rocky?”

“Hay,” he automatically replied. “I eat hay.”

“Nonsense. I remember Cupcake used to make the most delicious cream pies, and Scoops would whip up decadent hot fudge sundaes and milkshakes so thick that I’d almost need a chisel to eat them. You only eat hay because that’s what you were given.”

There was a long pause as Rocky tried to think back to the time before his time in the Circle. “I used to… I liked cupcakes. With sprinkles, and strawberry frosting.”

“Ponies,” Megan said with a chuckle. “Mostly made of sugar. We can stop, but not for very long. The police are probably looking for us already.”

“Why?” Penny asked. “We didn’t steal Rocky. You gave that bad guy a lot of money for him.”

“Yes, but the police don’t know that,” Megan said, with a look of pride for her granddaughter’s youthful curiosity.

“Didn’t you get a receipt from him?”

“He wrote something out, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll just claim I forged it, and the police will believe him. Our world really doesn’t like magic.”

“Can’t go back,” Rocky said, his breaths heaving in and out rapidly. “No Master. No circle.”

“We won’t let anybody take you back,” Megan said. “We just need to be careful, that’s all. When we pull into town, hop down onto the floor. That should keep you hidden pretty well. Penny, if I remember correctly, there’s a gas station up ahead with a Subway just across the street. I’ll have you run over there to get some sandwiches while I get gas, okay?”

Penny nodded. “Okay. Rocky, what kind of sandwich do you want?”

Rocky stared at the seat in front of him as he thought. It was doubtful that he had ever been given anything but hay, since his former owners saw him as nothing more than a pony.

“I don’t eat hay,” he murmured. “I used to eat cupcakes, and pies. I used to eat sandwiches, even. Big ones, with lots of yummy things stuffed between two thick slices of bread. Could… could I have a daffodil sandwich?” he asked in a slow, quiet voice. “I like daffodils.”

Penny glanced between Rocky and her Grandmother. “I don’t think they have daffodils. They do have a veggie sandwich. Would that be okay? It’s got peppers, and lettuce, and onions, and stuff like that.”

Rocky nodded. “Yes, please.”

Penny smiled. “I’ll get you a footlong on wheat, with some chips and a large pop. Have you ever had a soda pop before?”

Rocky shook his head. “Water only.”

“You’ll like it. It’s all fizzy, so it tickles your nose and makes you burp. Mom won’t let me have it, except when we go out to eat, but Grandma Megan always lets me have some when I come to visit. Mom doesn’t like it, but she says it’s Grandma’s job to spoil me, so she lets it go. I’ll get you a Sprite, okay?”

Rocky had no idea what a ‘sprite’ was, but his stomach did, and it signaled approval with a low growl. “Okay. I will have sprite.”

“Okay. This should be more than enough for the food,” Megan said as she handed Penny several paper bills. “Remember, we need to hurry.”

“I’ll be fast, Grandma,” Penny said, and she bolted from the car.

Rocky nearly followed her. He didn’t want to be found. He didn’t want to go back to Master. Penny had said she would keep him safe, but she couldn’t do that if he was not with her. But Megan was still here, and she would stay by the car. He just needed to lie down, and be still. Just for a few minutes, and then Penny would be back with food. The Circle couldn’t find him if he could be quiet.

“I’ll be right here, Rocky,” Megan offered with a soft smile, her hand scratching that perfect spot behind his ears. “It will only take me a minute. Nothing will happen to you.”

“Okay. I will lie on the floor. I will be very quiet. I will not move.” Rocky slid to the floor of the car, and he made himself as small as he possibly could. “Is this good?”

“Perfect. I’m going to put the blanket over you for now, but once we leave, you can pull it off. I’m also going to unroll the window a little so you have some fresh air.”

Rocky nodded, and he drew in a long breath as Megan spread a large brown blanket over him. It was almost the same color of his coat, and he liked how it smelled. It was like he was in a forest, with tall pine trees and bunches of wildflowers scattered all around him.

A little part of him hoped that Home smelled like this. He wished he could remember what it had been like, but when he went back that far in his memories, all he could see was shadows and the Circle.

Had the Circle taken over his home? It had been so long since he’d left. Would Megan still be needed? Would the ponies of his home be mad that he had not found her sooner? Would they punish him for his failure?

He pulled himself into a tighter ball and shivered. Maybe they would. Maybe there was no home anymore, and he was going to a place that was worse than where he was.

He sniffled a little, rubbing the end of his nose with a hoof in a failed attempt to keep his tears in. He didn’t like being scared all the time. He didn’t like all of these bad thoughts. He used to be a brave pony, who was smart and who helped out his friends whenever they asked.

Megan said she was his friend. Penny said she was his friend, too. They were being nice, and they were trying to take him home.

He liked having friends again.

Penny hummed a cheerful tune to herself as she placed a lid on the last cup, and it took her a moment to figure out how to get all three drinks into her hands without spilling them.

This day had made her insides feel like she was on a roller coaster, and she couldn’t decide if she should be terrified or excited. She had been delighted beyond belief when her mom had said that she could go to the fair with her grandma, and if that had been the only thing that had happened, she would have proclaimed today as the Best Day Ever, with capital letters and everything.

And then she had found a Pony! A real, honest-to-goodness Pony from Dream Valley, straight out of her Grandma’s stories and in the real world! Even thinking of it now made her giggle a little with glee. She had been a little scared when Grandma bought him, since that horrible master could have said no, but thankfully they had saved poor Rocky before anything really bad had happened.

All they had to do now was get him home. Grandma’s farm was still a few hours away, and Penny was a little worried that somebody would see him. Grandma Meg’s warnings about how the world hated magic had scared her a little, but she was going to be brave, for Rocky’s sake. If they were careful, and if she stayed calm, then everything would work out in the end.

Once she had the food and the drinks secure, she pushed the door open with her back and turned to walk to her Grandma’s car. Her breath caught in her throat, and a chill of fear seized her heart.

The police.

A cruiser from the local police department had pulled up to the pump on the opposite side of her grandma’s Ford Escape, and the officer was having what looked like a stern conversation with Grandma Megan, with one hand near his gun and the other gripping the radio mic that was attached to his shoulder. Penny had always been taught to trust the police, but all of that was drowned in the horror that Rocky was going to be taken away.

Had the officer seen the pony they were hiding in the back seat? Was he calling for backup? Could it be that Rocky’s former Master had reported a stolen pony, and now her Grandma was going to be arrested for theft?

Penny swallowed hard, but on second glance, she noticed something. Grandma Megan didn’t seem to be upset or afraid at all. In fact, it looked like her grandma was just having a friendly conversation with the officer, and she even had that warm, welcoming smile that she gave to anybody that she talked to.

The sight gave her a little surge of hope, and she used that hope to give herself the courage she needed. Rocky needed her to be strong right now, to not be afraid. He was counting on both Penny and Grandma Megan to get him home again.

Penny could do it. She would do it, just for him.

I wonder if this is how Grandma felt when she first went to Dream Valley, she thought as she forced her feet to move. She didn’t have any idea of where she was, or what she needed to do. She had no way of defeating Tirek, but she found a way all the same.

Penny held her head high as she crossed the street. If Grandma Megan could do it, then so could she.

“Ah, Penny!” Megan cheerfully greeted her when she reached them, and she took one of the cups as they moved to the rear passenger door. “Any trouble getting the food?”

“Nope!” Penny cheerfully replied. “No problems at all.”

“Good. Hop in, and we’ll get going. I hope you got me some sun chips,” she said with a wink.

Penny nodded and quickly moved into the back seat, with what she hoped was a subtle movement to block the officer’s view of the lumpy blanket on the floor of the car. “Are you okay, Rocky?” she whispered.

Rocky made a soft, frightened noise that sounded vaguely positive.

“We’ll be leaving in just a minute, so don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.”

Just as she finished saying the words, her grandma hopped into the front seat and fastened her seat belt. “Are we ready back there?”

Penny quickly buckled her own seat belt and nodded. “We’re ready, Grandma. Let’s go home.”

Megan nodded, and Penny pulled the chips out of the plastic bag as they drove away from the gas station. But as they did, the officer’s radio cackled, and Penny caught the first little bit of the message through the open window as they eased back onto the main road.

“All units, be on the lookout…”

* * Ω * *


* * Ω * *

“Well, this is inconvenient,” Megan muttered.

Rocky trembled slightly as he read the Road Closed sign for the hundredth time, despite having Penny’s comforting touch on his shoulder. “Does this mean I can’t go home?”

“We’ll still get you home.” Megan put the car in reverse and glanced over her shoulder. “But I was trying to avoid taking the interstate. Looks like we don’t have a choice.”

“Interstate,” Rocky repeated. He had heard that word before from Master, but he was having trouble remembering what it meant. “Is that… it’s a really big road, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Problem is, big roads have lots of cars on them, and more cars mean there will be more police to avoid,” Megan replied. “Thankfully, it’s dark now, so if you stay under the blanket, we can keep you hidden.”

“Okay.” Rocky grabbed the blanket and threw it over himself. “I will stay under the blanket.”

“You don’t have to hide yet, silly.” Penny pulled the blanket up with a laugh, then hung it on his shoulders. “Besides, you haven’t finished your sandwich yet. Do you like it?”

Rocky nodded, and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards. “I like it, Penny. Thank you. It’s much better than hay. I like the soda pop, too.”

“I’m glad you do,” she said with a grin.

“How long will it take to get to your house?” Rocky asked. “Is it far away?”

“Well, my house is in the opposite direction,” Penny said. “My mom and I live in Kansas. Do you know where that is?”

Rocky shook his head. “Master never spoke much about where we were. The carnivals and the fairs all look the same to me, so it didn’t matter.”

“Here, I’ll show you.” Penny pulled out her phone and tapped the screen, which flared to life with light and sent Rocky cowering on the floorboards. “It’s okay, Rocky. It’s just a phone.”

“Phone?” he repeated.

“Yeah. Everybody has one. They’re harmless. Look, this one has a built-in map that’ll tell you where anything is, and how to get there. This blue dot thing? That’s us. We’re on this road, see? Now, Grandma is going to go to this big yellow line here, which represents the interstate. Grandma’s farm is way over here in Iowa. Looks like it’ll take us about three hours to get there. Now, my house is down—” Penny paused as her finger flicked across the screen to move the map “—right about… here! Manhattan, Kansas. You’d like it there.”

Rocky continued to stare at the phone, his eyes wide in wonder. “Can all phones show maps on them?”

“Most of them. The really old ones might not be able to.”

“I thought phones were for taking pictures,” he said in a soft and thoughtful tone. “Or for talking to other people. Master would yell at people on his phone.”

Megan scoffed in the front seat. “That doesn’t surprise me in the least.”

“What else can phones do?” he asked.

“They can do all sorts of stuff. I can look up information on the internet, or send messages to my friends, or even play games if I want to.”

Rocky closed his eyes and thought backward. “We don’t have phones. We write letters to each other, or we go visit each other's houses.”

“But you all live in Dream Valley together, so it’s really easy for you to meet up with your friends.”

“No. I mean, yes.” Rocky shook his head, and it took him a moment to pull a distant memory free from the Circle in his head. “I… I don’t live in Dream Valley. Or maybe I do, but it’s not called Dream Valley anymore. I have some friends that live nearby, but some have moved far away, and I write letters to them sometimes, just to stay in touch.”

“Really?” Megan asked. “That’s interesting. When I went to Equestria, the ponies had to stay together to stay safe. If you have long-distance friends, then a lot of the evils that were once there must have been defeated.”

“Evils?” Rocky asked.

“Yeah,” Penny eagerly said. “Bad guys, who wanted to hurt ponies. When Grandma was about my age, she went to Equestria all the time to help keep the ponies safe. There were all sorts of evils that caused problems back then.”

“Like who?” Rocky asked.

“Go ahead and tell him, Penny,” Megan said with a grin. “Maybe he’ll hear a familiar name, and that will help jog his memories.”

Penny let out a small squeal of delight. “Grandma was awesome! She’s told me all about all of the villains she’s beaten over the years. The worst one was a nasty witch named Hydia, who tried to destroy Flutter Valley.”

“Flutter Valley,” Rocky repeated. “That sounds familiar. How did she destroy it?”

“Oh, it was awful!” Penny exclaimed. “Her and her two daughters created this horrible monster called the Smooze. It ate everything in sight, and left behind a barren wasteland. Anybody who touched it would lose all of their good feelings and become angry and mean.”

“I think you’ve got the stories mixed up,” Megan interjected with a chuckle. “The Smooze didn’t destroy Flutter Valley. Hydia had Queen Bumble and her bees steal the sun stone for Flutter Valley.”

“Oh, yeah. The bees thought the darkness would be good for their kingdom, right?”

“Yes. When that plan failed, Hydia created the Smooze in an attempt to get revenge.”

“Smooze,” Rocky murmured. “Is that some kind of slime monster?”

“Yeah,” Penny said with a grin at having hit on something familiar to him. “Do you remember that?”

Rocky tried to remember something more about the Smooze, but the Circle was too strong, and he couldn’t get to the memories. “I can’t remember. I know I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know why I know it.”

“It’s okay.” Penny patted his shoulder and gave him a comforting smile. “You don’t have to remember everything right now. It’ll come back to you.”

Rocky hoped she was right, but he was worried that the Circle had stolen away the memories for good. “What else did Megan do?”

“Well, she saved them,” Penny said with pride. “Grandma tried to use the Rainbow of Light on it, but that didn’t work. But then the flutter ponies came, and they used their magic to banish the Smooze back to the volcano where it had been made.”

“I think you’re giving me more credit than I deserve,” Megan chuckled.

“Oh! And then, there was this really nasty bad guy called Tirek,” Penny went on, her momentum unaffected by her Grandmother’s comment. “Now he was really bad! He lived in this horrible place called the Midnight Castle, and one day, he decided he wanted to make it nighttime all the time, so he kidnapped ponies and turned them into his slaves with his magic.”

Rocky put his hooves on his head and began to push inward. All of this information sounded so familiar, but he couldn’t get his brain to make the connections. “Tirek,” he murmured. “Everlasting Night.”

Penny tried to let him think, but the excitement was too much for her, and she had to ask after just a few seconds. “Do you know who Tirek is?”

“He… he wanted pony magic,” Rocky slowly said. “He stole it all. He wasn’t trying to bring about a night that never ended. That was somepony else. Somepony important…”

“Somebody else tried to take away the sun?” Penny asked. “Who?”

“A Nightmare,” Rocky softly said. “She was… jealous of somepony. She fought, and lost. She became the Mare in the Moon.”

“Now that sounds cool,” Penny said. “What do you think, Grandma? Do you think Tirek lived, somehow, and tried again?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Megan said. “Rocky said ‘she,’ and Tirek was a ‘he.’ Besides, I don’t know how Tirek could have survived that blast from the Rainbow of Light. This had to be someone else, someone with more power than even Queen Majesty had.”

Penny gasped. “You don’t think that—”

“That Majesty was responsible? Not in a thousand years. She was the sweetest, most gentle pony I ever met. I don’t see why she would do such a thing.”

“Can you remember anything else, Rocky?” Penny asked, but he shook his head.

“No. The only other thing I can remember is that it was a legend to me. It wasn’t a real story.”

“We’ll have to ask your friends about it when we get to Dream Valley,” Penny said eagerly. “I bet you’ll remember all of these things once you get home.”

“How was Tirek defeated?”

“You’re going to love this.” Penny took a quick drink, then sat back in her seat and cleared her throat. “Tirek was the reason Grandma met the ponies. See, there was a pegasus pony named Firefly, and when the ponies were attacked and Scorpan kidnapped two of them, she was the one who went to find help.”

“Scorpan? Who is that?”

“Start at the beginning, dear,” Megan gently offered. “You’re telling him everything that happened in the middle.”

“Right. Okay. So, once upon a time…”

* * Ω * *

“...and then Catrina joined them! She had on a pink dress, and Rep was wearing a tuxedo, with a top hat and cane, too.” Penny let out a laugh. “Catrina couldn’t go down the stairs at first, since Rep was standing on the hem of her dress, but Grandma said they were a lovely couple, and all the ponies made sure to tell her how beautiful she looked.”

“What happened after that?” Rocky asked.

“Well, they all became friends. Catrina let all the Bushwoolies go, and they all kinda lived happily ever after, I guess.”

“More or less,” Megan added with a chuckle. “You left out a few details, but that’s mostly what happened.”

“I’d love to meet Catrina when we get to Dream Valley,” Penny said. “And Firefly, and Applejack, and Minty, and all of the other ponies you’ve told me about. Do you think it will be hard to find them?”

Megan didn’t reply for a few moments, and a soft, thoughtful frown pulled on the corners of her mouth. “My sweet child, I would love to introduce you to all of them, but I would be very, very surprised if any of them are still alive. If they are, they would be even older than I am, and they may not remember me.”

“Of course they would remember you!” Penny exclaimed. “How could they ever forget?”

“Time, my dear. Since I haven’t been back to Dream Valley since my early teenage years, there is a very good chance that they have forgotten me. Rocky has already shown us that many things are different now in Equestria, and when we get there, I may find a world that is just as foreign to me as this world is to him.”

Penny seemed to accept this news, but her eyes went to the floor for a moment in thought. “Grandma? Why did you stop visiting the ponies?”

Megan drew in a long, deep breath, and her eyes went to something far beyond the road in front of her. For several long and anxious moments, she said nothing, and Penny began to worry that she’d somehow made her upset. “You know, I’ve been asking myself that same question ever since we met Rocky,” she finally said. “I suppose the simplest answer is that I stopped believing.”

“What?” Penny glanced to Rocky. “How could you stop believing?”

“It wasn’t something that happened overnight,” Megan began in a thoughtful tone. “I loved the ponies, and at one time, I thought I would live there when I was grown up.

“But then the recession hit, and my parents were forced to sell my horse, the bull, and the south forty just to keep the farm out of foreclosure. My brother, my sister and I had to work extra hard to make up for the lost income and over time, I just... forgot. Even after the economy settled down, there were other things that became more important: trying to fit in, preparing for college. Boys.” She cleared her throat, but a wry grin came as well. “If it wasn't for boys, you wouldn't be here. Besides, I thought if the ponies really needed me, they would come get me. Firefly had found me once, after all, so she could do it again.

“Adulthood can be a cruel thing, Penny. Far too often, it strips away fanciful whimsy and innocent belief, and leaves nothing but the dry bones of cynical realism in its place. As I started a family and raised your mother, the adventures in Dream Valley became nothing more than entertaining bedtime stories. I forgot about the Locket, and the Rainbow of Light became a quick way to end the story when your mom started to fall asleep. The magic got buried in the minutiae of life, and I never noticed it slipping away.”

“I still don’t understand,” Penny said.

“That’s because you’re still young, and I hope you never forget,” Megan said. “But there’s a figurative Circle lurking in the background of all of our lives, just like the one that trapped Rocky. Sometimes the Circle is obvious, like the one that holds Rocky’s old master hostage. The only thing he can see is money, and that greed will keep him trapped forever, most likely. But often, it’s a bunch of little things that can pull you away. I became trapped by worldly cares and troubles, and the same could happen to you. It all depends on what you decide is important to you, day by day.”

Penny nodded, but in a thoughtful way.

Megan drew in a long breath, and her bony fingers stretched out straight for a moment before wrapping around the steering wheel again. “Rocky, we’re almost to the interstate. You’d better get under the blanket.”

Rocky started to comply with the instruction, but he hesitated when the blanket touched his ears. “Penny? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, and she gave him a grin. “Just thinking.”

“You won’t forget me once I go home, will you?”

“I could never forget you.” She reached up and scratched under his jaw. “And I won’t let the Circle trap me or you.”

“I won’t forget you, either.”

* * Ω * *

“Rocky? Are you okay?” Penny asked.

“Yes,” he said, with a soft nicker when he felt her gentle touch through the blanket. “We are on the interstate now, right?”


“The interstate feels strange.”

“It does?” Penny said with a laugh. “Why’s that?”

“It’s not bumpy and loud, like it is in Master’s trailer,” he said.

“That’s because you’re in a car. Horse trailers are just large boxes on wheels. Cars have padded seats, and stuff in the doors to keep the noise down, and better suspension.”

“Cars are nice. I don’t think we have cars in Dream Valley.” Rocky shuffled a bit, and the blanket slid off his head. “I think we had carriages, but those…”

“Rocky?” Penny twisted to follow Rocky’s gaze out the window. “What is it?”

“What is that?” he asked, his nose pointing to something outside.

“That?” Penny glanced around. “Those are just buildings. We’re in Omaha now, aren’t we Grandma?”

“We are,” Megan confirmed.

“They’re so big,” Rocky said in a breathless wonder. “How did they make those buildings so tall? I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Rocky, I need you to keep your head down.” Megan cautioned. “There’s a lot of cars, and somebody could see you.”

Rocky tried to do what Megan said, but it was very difficult for him to look away from the colorful things that were passing by. He had never seen towers that were tall enough to block out the stars before, with bright lights that make it look like the sun was still shining on them. There were large green signs that passed by overhead, some with blue shields and others with white ones, and all of them had numbers on them and arrows that pointed in every direction imaginable. Just beyond those, along the sides of the road, there were large paintings that confused and excited him. They seemed to be everywhere, and his mind whirled as he tried to figure out what they were and why they were there. One had an oversized lizard thing on it, with large white letters saying fifteen minutes could save him fifteen percent on his car insurance. One went by that showed two pictures of the same Master, but one had no hair on his head and the other one did. Another one showed a smiling woman with a toothbrush. The next one said if a person had been bitten by a dog, they should call him for help.

“Penny?” he softly asked as another sign for something called a McRib caught his attention. “What are those?”

“They’re called billboards. They’re trying to get people to buy stuff. You’ve never seen one before?”

“I could never see outside when I was in the trailer,” Rocky said, his eyes following a billboard covered with cows who said he should eat more chicken.

“Some of them can be kinda funny, but I think most people just ignore them,” Penny remarked.

“Coors.” Rocky pointed to another sign that passed by. “I know that one. It’s called beer, right? People would drink it while they watched their kids ride me. I never knew your world could be so colorful.”

“Rocky, get your head down please,” Megan ordered. “People are starting to stare.”

“What’s that thing?” Rocky pointed to a black car with a set of flashing lights that was sitting in a gap in the wall that ran along the interstate. Both Penny and Megan gasped when they caught sight of it, and Penny roughly shoved Rocky down to the floor.

“That’s the police!” she harshly whispered. “They’re looking for you!”

“Everybody stay calm,” Megan ordered as the red and blue lights swung out into the road and began to chase them. “Penny, make sure Rocky stays down, and don’t say anything unless the trooper asks you a question. Don’t act nervous, okay? That will just make the trooper suspicious.”

“I won’t say anything,” Penny said. It was going to be hard to act natural, though, since her recently eaten sandwich was trying to come back up.

The car became deathly silent as the trooper’s cruiser pulled up behind them, and Megan gently began to ease towards the shoulder. From his quasi-hidden position, Rocky began to shiver, and a whispered chant drifted out of the blanket.

“Please don’t find us, please don’t find us, please don’t find us…”

A sudden surge of power crashed over Penny, and she gasped a little as she felt the wave physically push her back in her seat. It was the same feeling she had experienced when Rocky had dug in his heels at the fair and the grass had suddenly sprouted out of the ground, and her fears gave way to curiosity. Could Rocky’s magic keep him hidden, too?

The answer came as the trooper swerved around their car and took off down the interstate at a rapid velocity. Penny cheered a bit as the flashing lights faded away, and as Rocky’s head emerged from under the blanket, Megan surreptitiously pulled a small pill from somewhere and swallowed it.

“Rocky, that was amazing!” Penny cheered, and she hugged the pony’s neck tightly. “How’d you do that?”

“Do what?” he asked.

“Whatever you did to get the trooper to go past us! I thought he was going to pull us over for sure, but then he left us alone once you started to chant. You’re not a unicorn, so how did that happen?”

“I don’t know,” Rocky said, his gaze going to the undersides of his front hooves. “I just really, really wanted to not be found. So I started to wish, and the rest of it just… happened.”

“Grandma? What do you think?”

Megan drew in a long breath, released it, and then took another one. “I’m not sure what happened, but it’s clear that Rocky has some sort of inner magic that he can use. It could have something to do with his cutie mark.”

“My what?” Rocky asked.

“The symbol on your flank,” Penny explained. “All ponies have one thing that they are unnaturally skilled at, or one thing that they can do better than anything else. For example, Firefly was so fast she had two lightning bolts for her cutie mark. Applejack was a farmer, so she had five apples for hers.”

Megan glanced back and considered Rocky’s odd mark of a rock with a nail in it as Penny brushed the hairs down around it to make it more clear. “If you were sent here to locate me, then your talent must be to find things,” Megan added thoughtfully. “And apparently, you can also keep people from finding things, too.”

“Grandma?” Penny asked as Megan grew quiet and thoughtful. “What is it?”

“I’m just thinking of what this all means, dear,” Megan said with a small grin. “If Rocky, as an earth pony, can use magic that powerful, then the magic of Dream Valley has grown stronger in my absence. I wonder what else has changed.

“But when we get back, we have to be cautious. If the magic of Dream Valley has grown stronger and they still sent for me, then the enemies of the Ponies must be stronger, too. I don’t want you to get hurt, Penny. I could never forgive myself if something happened.”

“I’ll be careful, Grandma,” Penny promised, and she hugged Rocky again. “And together, we’ll protect the Ponies, just like you always did. Don’t worry, Rocky. Grandma will save the day.”

* * Ω * *


* * Ω * *

“Penny?” Megan called out. “Are you awake? We’re almost there.”

When no answer came back, Megan chuckled after a quick glance into the back seat. Their close encounter with the Nebraska State Patrol had really rattled the pony, but thankfully, her granddaughter had provided some quiet ear-scratching and snuggling to calm him down. The treatment had been quite successful, and with such a peaceful setting, both pony and girl were curled up together in an adorable pose that really made Megan wish for a camera.

Of course, the day had been quite the emotional ride, and if there had been another adult in the car, Megan probably would have asked them to drive home so she could curl up with them and sleep as well. She had hoped that this trip to the state fair would be memorable for Penny, and it had succeeded far beyond her wildest expectations. She didn’t want her granddaughter to remember her as Grandma Megan, the slightly senile old woman who smelled like prune juice and babbled about magic ponies in a fantastic fantasy land. She wanted Penny to think of her as a fun and loving Grandma, who wanted nothing but the best for her family and who did everything she could to make them happy.

Megan chuckled to herself as she made the last turn towards the old family farm. Once this was all done and over with, there was a very good chance Penny wouldn’t remember anything besides her upcoming adventure with the ponies. There was always a part of Young Megan who constantly got confused about which world was the most real whenever Firefly flew her home or she rode the rainbow bridge back to the farm grounds.

Now there was a small part of Old Megan who was worried about what they would find in Dream Valley once they crossed over, but she had faith that the ponies of Equestria would do everything in their power to keep Penny safe, and that Penny would do the same for them. Since Rocky had been sent to specifically look for herself, Megan had to believe that the Equestrians were really after the Rainbow of Light and the power it had to defeat evil. Megan never had any magical abilities or special powers—except keeping a level head amidst a panic—so the only reason the ponies would want her is because of the Rainbow of Light. Thankfully, Penny was a calm, intelligent child, and she would be able to handle whatever Equestria had in store.

A deep scowl came as her headlights illuminated the bright For Sale sign that stood, proud and tall, next to the driveway to her farmhouse. The bold picture of the Realtor—with the smug grin and beady eyes of someone who made their living by cheating others—filled her with a deep disdain and disgust, and she refused to look at the accompanying sign that advertised an upcoming estate sale.

A glint of light in the distance dragged her away from her sour thoughts, and she quickly switched her headlights off and eased to a stop. The light had come from the direction of the house, but more importantly, the light had most definitely been a bright ruby red.

There was only one thing that Megan could think of that would be that color in that location at this hour of the night: the tail lights of a police cruiser.

It only took a few more moments of inching up the drive to confirm her suspicions. The silver outline of the Iowa State Patrol cruiser stood out against the light emanating from her farmhouse, and parked next to it was a white pickup with a horse trailer.

“Penny!” Megan hissed, a little harsher than she would have liked. “Wake up!”

“Huh? We’re back already?” Penny asked as two groans and a pair of yawns came from the back seat.

“Yes, but I need you to stay calm. The police are at the house.”

“They are?” Rocky dropped to the floorboards with a hard thud. “They didn’t see me, did they?!”

“No, I don’t think so. We can sneak around them to the barn, but I’m going to need you to hide us again, Rocky.”

“But I don’t know how I did that before!”

“Just do the same thing. Start wishing for us not to be found. Penny, you help him. Every little bit makes a difference.”

“Okay, Rocky. We do this together,” Penny said with far more courage than she should have. “We’re going to get you home. Ready? Don’t find us, don’t find us…”

“Don’t find us, don’t find us…” Rocky echoed Penny’s words.

Megan slid the Escape into reverse, and as the rush of magic swept past her, she drew in a deep breath of the power. Thankfully, the farm had several dirt tracks that led to every corner of her property, and the one she intended to use ran along the far side of the barn, and thus out of sight of the house. Once they made it there and activated the lasso portal, their immediate problems would be over.

The short trip had to be taken at an unbearably slow speed, due to the lack of light, the rough ‘road,’ and a desire to keep the crunching noises from the tires to a minimum. The less noise, the better, but it took all of Megan’s willpower to keep from punching the accelerator and making a mad dash for the barn.

After what felt like an hour but was probably closer to a minute, Megan parked the car on the far side of the barn. A collective sigh of relief was released by the occupants, car doors were opened, and the two humans slid out as quietly as they could.

“Make sure to shut that door softly, Penny,” Megan cautioned. “We’ll use the east entrance.”

“Rocky?” Penny called out to the frozen pony who had not moved from the floorboards. “It’s okay. We’re almost home.”

Rocky still didn’t move. “Home. It’s… it’s been so long, Penny. I know you and Megan said you’d get me home, but…” he hesitated. “I just can’t believe it.”

Penny started to reply, but then she stopped herself and smiled. “Okay. So don’t believe it. We’re just going into the barn, and we’re going to put you in a stall for the night. You’ve slept in stalls before, right?”

Rocky nodded thoughtfully, and he looked over the faded red slats of the structure. The pleasant smell of old straw and weathered wood ticked his nose, and he glanced up when he heard the soft hoot of an owl. “Stall. Master always put me in a stall at night. I can go to a stall.”

“Good. C’mon, let’s go. Once we're inside, we’ll get you the softest straw to lay on, and all the fresh water you can drink. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?”

Rocky nodded a bit more enthusiastically, and he slowly stood. “It does sound nice. I’ll go with you to the stall.”

“Atta boy. Here we go, watch your step getting out.”

“Okay, keep your voices down, and watch your feet,” Megan said once Rocky was out of the car. “Just around here.”

Compared to the drive, the walk into the barn was quick and silent. The large main door had been left ajar, making it easy for the three to slip in undetected. A large open area greeted them once in, and for a brief moment, Megan thought back over the many memories that had been made in this structure.

She shook her head to clear the nostalgia and moved to a far corner with the flashlight from Penny’s phone to light her way. There would be time for sentimentality later. Right now, she needed to take care of Rocky.

“So, where is the lasso, Grandma?” Penny eagerly whispered. “I bet you have it hidden in some super-secret compartment, or in something like one of those old pirate chests.”

“Nothing quite that grand,” Megan said, and she pulled what looked like an ordinary, oil-stained, dirt-smudged coil of rope from a dirty wood storage bin. “Often, the best place to hide something is in plain sight.”

“That’s the lasso?” Penny said, her expression clearly spelling out her profound disappointment. “Grandma, we don’t have time for this. Where is it, really?”

“You’re looking at it.” Megan's hand moved to her pocket for the briefest of moments before she began to tie a honda knot in one end of the rope with a grin. “Remember, I stopped going to Dream Valley, and there was no reason to let a perfectly good rope go to waste.”

The dubious look that Penny offered nearly tore her heart in half. It was the same look that everybody gave her when she insisted that her fantastic tales of talking ponies in a magical valley were true, the same disappointed dismissal that she had received dozens of times from friends and family alike.

It was the exact same expression that Penny’s mother had given to Megan just before declaring, with no uncertain words, that Dream Valley, the Rainbow of Light, and everything else pertaining to the ponies was nothing more than the overactive imaginations of an unstable mind.

But Megan had something this time that she had never had before, and she grinned as she pulled the knot tight. “Penny, I know this is hard to believe, but you have a talking pony standing next to you. If he is not enough evidence that everything I have ever said about Ponies is true, then nothing will convince you. You’ve got to trust me on this.”

Penny glanced down to Rocky, who returned the glance with his own look of trepidation and fear. Her hand gently scratched behind his left ear, and she grunted in determination.

“Okay, Grandma. I believe you. How do we open the portal?”

Megan nodded, and she began to swing the rope in front of her to create a loop. “You know, when I was your age, I could do all sorts of tricks. I even won first place in a stunt riding competition once by dancing through a lasso while riding my horse bareback. I’ll have to show you how to do it once we get done helping the ponies.”

Penny let out a gasp when the rope began to spark and surge with white bolts of energy, but Megan simply swung faster. With each successive revolution, the sparks grew in intensity, until finally, a blast of power surged inward and merged into a complete whole.

The sudden flash of light sent Rocky scrambling for cover, but Penny simply stared on in awe as a bright green meadow appeared inside the loop, with a perfectly blue sky above and a large golden sun shining down upon the new world. “Grandma! Is that…”

“Equestria,” Megan answered with a wince. “We need to hurry. I can’t do this for very long with my arthritis.”

“Rocky!” Penny stumbled over her own feet before flopping over the nearby straw bale and landing next to the trembling pony. “C’mon! Your home is right there! All you have to do is step through the portal, and you’ll be free!”

“No!” he shouted, his hooves covering his eyes. “The Circle! It’s trying to catch me again! It's not real!”

“Rocky?” Penny put her hand on his neck, and he uncovered one eye. “I promise you that this is the last Circle you’ll ever have to face. You can beat this one. I’ll be with you every step of the way. It’s time to go home.”

Rocky’s hooves moved from his eyes, and he glanced to her outstretched hand. He swallowed hard, and for a moment, it looked like he would make a run for the open barn door.

His hoof took her hand, and he nodded. “No more Circle. No more Masters. It’s time to go home.”

“Quickly!” Megan said with a cry of pain.

There was no hesitation in Rocky’s steps. With Penny by his side, he held his head high, and he jumped through the swirling energies of the portal.

* * Ω * *

He could not remember his name.

He had a name, of course, but years of walking in the Circle had bent his mind into circles of its own. It was something fresh and breezy, something that could be called out while laughing in the tall grass of a fragrant meadow.

It used to scurry around in his head, as a reminder of who he was and what he had once been. But over time, he had learned to force it down when it rose up to the back of his throat. He no longer spoke. When he spoke, people screamed. They threw things. Hard things. Speaking was pain. Conceal it. Hide it in the shadows. Every day, there were more shadows. Every bite of food, every swallow of water stole the light away from him. Stole his thoughts. Replaced them with shadows.

But he was no longer in the shadows.

He was home.

He stood, unmoving, and drank in the details of this world with wide eyes and twitching ears. He could see vibrant greens in the hills all around him, bright yellows in the flowers, and soft white clouds in a blue sky that seemed to stretch off into eternity. He could feel the pleasant warmth of the sun on his coat once again, the cool touch of a gentle, playful breeze that tickled and teased the hairs of his mane and tail. He could feel soft grass under his hooves again, instead of sharp rocks and unforgiving pavement. He could hear the cheerful songs of the meadowlarks and bluejays as they swooped and dove overhead.

And there was laughter. Not the forced guffaws of the parents who watched their children ride him with indifferent stares, nor the harsh screams of those children as they dug their heels into his sides. No, this was genuine laugher, drifting down from those airborne clouds as playful pegasi swept around and pushed them about.

It was no longer a distant memory from a time that had nearly been erased. It was here, it was now, and it was real.

“Lodestone,” he whispered, his eyes moving to focus on the small group of ponies that were moving towards him.

A soft hand touched his shoulder, and he turned to meet Penny’s excited expression. “What did you just say?”

“My name.” His gaze flicked to Megan, who was coiling up the rope and giving him the most pleased smile he had ever seen while the portal sparked and fizzed out of existence. “It’s not Rocky. It’s—”

“Lodestone!” a pony called out, and before anybody could react, the trio found themselves surrounded by a half dozen ponies of every color imaginable. A pink unicorn with a blonde and red streaked mane pushed to the front, took his face in her hooves, and studied him intently. “That was fast! Perfect! Why didn’t you come back through…” She released him and shook her head. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Quick, we don’t have a moment to waste. Megan, my name is Luster Dawn, and we are facing a crisis that only you can solve. I’m sure Lodestone explained everything, but if you have any questions, I can answer them on the way. Now let’s go!”

Penny let out a squeak as Luster Dawn’s magic hoisted her up and onto Lodestone’s back. “Wait a minute! I’m not…”

“Ready for this? Of course you are,” Luster interrupted, and the gaggle began to push and prod Lodestone into moving. “With you here, this’ll be a piece of cake. I promise.”

“Wait!” Lodestone protested. “I have no idea what’s going on! Where are we going? What are we doing? Who are you ponies?!”

“Always joking, aren’t you?” Luster Dawn replied. “It’s cute, but we don’t have time for it right now.”

“Grandma!” Penny called out, and she swiveled to face the real Megan. “Help!”

Megan shook her head with a grin, and her hand went into her pocket. “I think it’d be better if you go, dear. I’m too old to go running off on another adventure.”

“But I don’t know what to do!”

“I know! Isn’t that great?” Megan replied as she stepped up and placed something in Penny’s hands. “Go wild! Use your imagination! Be bold! You’ll never go wrong if you follow your heart.”

“What?” Penny glanced down to the object in her hand, and she gasped. “Grandma! Is this…”

“The Rainbow of Light,” Megan confirmed. “Use it well, dear, and be sure to tell me all about your journey when you get back!”

Penny hesitated for a brief moment, but then her grip tightened around the golden heart-shaped locket in her palm. “I will, Grandma. I’ll make you proud.”

“You always do. Now scoot!”

“But… but…” Lodestone protested weakly. “I don’t think I can…”

“You can, Lodestone,” Penny whispered into his ear. “Don’t you see? You’ve already won! You’re free from Master and the Circle. Now let’s show these ponies how strong and brave you really are.”

Lodestone drew in a deep breath, exhaled, and nodded with a frim grunt. “You’re right. Let’s do this. Together.”

“Together,” Penny echoed with a smile.

This statement brought out a cheer from the crowd, and before Megan could call out a farewell, the group was galloping off towards the distant hills.

All except for one. The lavender pony who remained couldn’t really be called a pony at all, since she was as tall as any Arabian that had ever been on Megan’s farm. The old woman chuckled as she studied the intricate gold accoutrements that this leggy pony was wearing, and after a moment, her eyes moved to meet the maniacal grin before her.

“You are not Queen Majesty,” Megan said with a playful huff.

“Oh my gosh, it is such an honor to meet you!” The winged unicorn nearly exploded with joy, but she somehow managed to keep her composure long enough to bow. “I am Princess Twilight Sparkle, and on behalf of the Kingdom of Equestria, it is my singular honor to welcome you back, Megan Williams. I’m sorry that we were not able to extend a proper welcome, but as you saw, we have a bit of a crisis on our hooves. Thank you so, so much for coming back with the Rainbow of Light, and—” Twilight hesitated for a moment “—and who just rode off with Lodestone and the others?”

“My granddaughter, Penny. I assure you that she is more than equal to whatever task you have for her.” Megan grunted in pain, and her right hand moved to rub her left wrist. “Though I think I will have her create the portal next time. I’m going to be feeling this for a month.”

“Are you hurt?” Twilight Sparkle asked, her magic leaping to life and wrapping around Megan’s wrist.

“Just my arthritis, Your Majesty. Nothing to worry about. However,” Megan bobbed her eyebrows once. “I would like to know what’s happened here in Dream Valley since my last visit. How long has it been?”

“Oh, this isn’t Dream Valley,” Twilight Sparkle replied with an eager expression. “These are the Everfree Fields, just before White Tail Woods. Ponyville is just over that hill. You see…”

* * Ω * *

Equestria was everything Penny had dreamed it would be, and so much more.

The young girl glanced over the gaggle of ponies as they all walked slowly towards Sweet Apple Acres, chattering amongst themselves with their newest friend riding proudly on Lodestone’s back in the center of the herd, and was amazed at how much her life had changed in just a few short hours. She had learned their names, a little bit about their personalities, and most importantly, she had seen them work together as friends to defeat their foe. It had been a thrilling introduction to the world of her Grandmother’s stories, and she was eager to see what tomorrow’s adventure might be.

But first, she wanted to tell Grandma Megan everything that had happened, and to get some sleep. The combined excitement of everything that had happened that day had taken all of her energy, and the yawns from her new friends was proof enough that she was not alone in her feelings.

“Well, that was an adventure that I’d care not to repeat. Ever.” Luster Dawn rolled her shoulders and groaned. “I’m just glad you held on to the Rainbow of Light, Megan.”

“I’m not Megan,” Penny corrected for what felt like the hundredth time. “But I can’t wait to tell Grandma about what happened. I bet she was never as nervous or as scared as I was back there.”

“You coulda fooled us.” Emerald Spark, a green unicorn who was nervous even at the calmest of times, trotted closely to her side with the occasional brush of his side against her leg for reassurance. “You looked so calm, so sure. I just knew we’d pull it off, since you were so confident.”

“Really?” Penny asked.

“Yeah,” Luster Dawn added. “You stepped up and took care of business, just like in the old days. Princess Twilight will be happy to read over my report. Once she gets done with the sunset, that is,” she quickly amended.

“Wait a minute, Luster Dawn.” Penny shook her head. “You’re telling me that Princess Twilight Sparkle, right at this very moment, is making the sun set?”

“Yup!” Luster Dawn replied with pride, and she pointed to the distant horizon. “And once she gets done with that, the Princess will bring up the moon. She took over those duties when Princess Celestia and Princess Luna retired. It’s actually really cool to watch her do it.”

“Luna,” Lodestone murmured, his gaze on his own long and fading shadow as it slowly crawled up the last hill before Sweet Apple Acres with him. “Nightmare Moon…”

“I still can’t believe you don’t remember any of this.” Melody paused to blow an errant strand of green mane out of her face, stumbled as her orange hoof hit a rock, and recovered as she came up on Lodestone’s left. “Or any of us. You were only gone for, like, fifteen minutes at best. How could you have been stuck in Megan’s world for so long? It doesn’t make sense.”

“I’m not my grandma,” Penny repeated with a shake of her head, a small huff, and a playful smile. “And Lodestone was stuck in my world for… let’s just say it was for a long time.”

“Well, we can sort through the details with Princess Twilight soon enough,” Luster Dawn commented. “Though I can’t imagine why she wanted us to meet with her at Sweet Apple Acres.”

“It’s the closest civilized location to where Lodestone and Megan—er, Penny, entered our world from.” Blue Wave nudged her perpetually sliding glasses back up her nose and drifted up slightly on her wings to get a better look ahead. “And it looks like they’re waiting for us.”

“Grandma?” Penny hesitated and shaded her eyes to get a better view of the farm below, but she gasped once she saw Megan in a rocking chair, her hands folded gently in her lap and her head resting against the back of the chair with her eyes closed. “Oh, no! Lodestone, quick! We’ve got to get down there and help her!”

“What? Why?” he asked, as he and the others took off in a gallop.

“Grandma might be having a heart attack! All of the excitement of getting you home earlier today could've been more than she could handle!”

The group said nothing more as they thundered down the hill, across the bridge that marked the entrance to the property, and up to the porch. Megan didn’t respond to the noise, and that fact sent a wave of nervousness through the ponies.

“Maybe she died,” Emerald Spark offered in a fearful tone. Penny jumped off Lodestone's back and rushed to Megan’s side.

“I’m not dead, you silly ponies,” Megan replied, opening one eye and chuckling at Penny's startled reaction. “I’m just enjoying the sunset.”

“Grandma, you scared me.” Penny let out a sigh of relief, and she smiled when Megan’s other eye opened and met hers. “Are you okay?”

“Never better, my dear,” Megan said. “I’ve had a lot of time to relax and to think things over, and Princess Twilight Sparkle has told me all about what happened here in Equestria. She’s inside, talking with her friend Applejack and helping to make fresh apple fritters for everybody. And everypony,” she added with a wink. “In the meantime, I want to hear all about your adventure, Penny. What happened? What did you do?”

Penny looked like she might burst with pride. “Oh, Grandma! It was just like one of your stories, except it was really real! I couldn’t believe it! You’ll never believe what we did!”

“Try me,” Megan said with a deep smile.

* * Ω * *


* * Ω * *

Karen Fielding liked to think that she was a reasonable, responsible, and respectful woman. Despite everything that had happened in her life, she managed to maintain a calm, pleasant demeanor, and she tried to keep things as orderly as possible, despite the chaos that surrounded her.

Her greatest joy, however, was her daughter. If she could allow herself a bit of pride, she would say that it was her careful nurturing and dutiful diligence to her education that had gotten Penny to where she was now, and with that same level of care, Karen was determined to get Penny through her teenage years, through college, and off to a life filled with opportunities she had not experienced herself.

Any good parent would want their child to be more successful than they had been, after all.

The only thing that troubled her—and that threatened to undo all of her hard work—was her mother. On the surface, Grandma Megan was a kindly old lady who liked to call everyone she met ‘sweetheart,’ and who baked cookies for her neighbors on a regular basis. Karen had to admit that her mother was a generous soul who would do whatever she could for anyone who needed help, and when she passed on, the entire community would mourn with her family.

But then Megan would start to talk about Ponies.

The stories, in and of themselves, were harmless enough. Megan had a talent for weaving colorful tales about small talking horses in a magical place called Dream Valley, and as a child, Karen had hung on her every word. The stories always felt so real, and Megan always insisted that the tales that she told were true, taken from her own experiences.

The problem was Megan continued to insist that her words were true, from then down to the present day, and Penny fully believed her. Karen always made the extra effort to point out to her impressionable daughter that Grandma’s stories were nothing more than that, but it was now to the point that she needed to intervene. Grandma’s stories were like Santa Claus: sooner or later, the truth needed to be told.

As she trudged across the wide dirt field that separated her childhood home from the old familiar barn wearing nothing more than her nightgown and slippers with a glowing lantern in one hand and her father’s shotgun in the other, Karen wondered if she should have stepped in and intervened sooner. She had allowed Penny to go with her grandmother to the Nebraska state fair so she could take care of the final affairs and paperwork needed for the farm’s sale, and it had seemed harmless enough at the time.

But now it was well after midnight, and for whatever reason, the barn lights were on. Karen’s heart hammered hard in her chest as she contemplated the two possible scenarios she was marching into: either someone was stealing a bunch of obsolete, rusted farm equipment, or her mother was up to something crazy. The shotgun would easily take care of the former, but the latter would be far more difficult to deal with, especially after the unexpected late night visitors who had stopped by earlier.

“It’s not fair,” Karen grumbled through gritted teeth. “There was hell to pay if I was out even five minutes past curfew, but she can wander around all night long and have the cops from two states after her without a care in the world. This is the last time I let Mom stay out past dark, that’s for sure.”

Karen’s muttered complaints were cut off when she heard voices drifting out of the open doorway. For a moment, she couldn’t make out the words, but a few more steps clarified the conversation.

“How was that, Grandma?” she heard Penny ask.

“Not bad for your first time, but we’ll have to practice.” Megan chuckled. “Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of opportunities, and I'll teach you everything I know, you little cowgirl. You'll be a first-rate lassoist before you know it.”

“Mom?” There was a creaking at the barn door, and Karen slipped inside, with a brief pause to adjust to the bright interior light. “Mom, what are you doing in here? The police came by a few hours ago and had some crazy story about you stealing a pony from the fair—” She came to an abrupt stop and stared at the dark brown pony with wide eyes. “Ohmygod. You did.”

“Mom,” said Penny in a sincere voice worthy of a much older child. “Calm down. This isn’t what it looks like.”

“She won’t listen to you,” said Megan with a disappointed shake of her head while she coiled the lasso and hung it back on the wall. “She never listened to me either. I was just her crazy mother with pony stories.”

“You’re having that psychotic break we were afraid of,” continued the middle-aged woman at a rapid rate. She put the shotgun down on the nearby tack bench and ran a hand through her gray-flecked blonde hair in exasperation. “I always thought your stories were harmless, but I didn’t think you truly believed them! And you dragged Penny into it too! I never should have let you take her to the fair, filling her head with nonsense. It stops now, Mom! I’m going to call the police, and they’ll take that… that—”

“Pony,” supplied the horse.

“That pony to…” Karen stopped talking and took several steps backward, her mind refusing to accept what she had just seen and heard. Despite the best efforts of her sleep-deprived and slightly panicked mind, she could not come up with a better answer for what had just happened. “Ohgod. You’re contagious. Did that pony just…”

“Talk?” the pony asked. Karen slowed to a stop and stared, then her knees went out and she dropped down onto a nearby straw bale. “I’m sorry, Megan,” he added, looking up at the older woman. “I thought you said she knew about us.”

“I told her about Equestria when she was young,” said Megan. “I’m afraid she didn’t know about Equestria until right now. There's a difference,” she added rather defensively.

“This isn’t happening,” Karen muttered, her gaze firmly fixed on the pony before her who looked as confused as she felt. “Tell me this isn’t happening. It can’t be happening!”

“Mom, this is Lodestone.” Penny motioned for the impossibility to come closer. “He’s from Equestria. He was sent here to find Grandma Megan. Lodestone, this is my mom, Karen.”

Lodestone shrunk back, as if he thought Karen might throw something at him. “Um… it’s nice to meet you, Karen. I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.”

Karen reached out and touched Lodestone’s mane, despite him flinching slightly to the left. “If I'm not crazy, then you're real. You’re actually here, and…” Karen dropped her face into her hands. “Ohgod. If you’re really real, then Dream Valley is real, and all those stories—”

“Kinda,” Penny said, and Karen glanced up slightly to her daughter. “I mean, Equestria is real, of course. We just came back from there, actually, so Grandma could grab a few things. But the Ponies don’t live in Dream Valley anymore.”

“Grab a few things?” Karen asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Why don’t we head back to the house,” Megan offered with a grin. “I’ll explain everything to your mother, and you can go get my things for me.”

“Okay, Grandma. C’mon, Lodestone!” Penny gave his back a friendly pat. “I can show you the rest of the house, too. Maybe we can take a tour of the farm later, once the sun is up.”

* * Ω * *

“Here you go, dear.” Megan passed a fresh cup of coffee to her daughter, who took it in a trembling grip. “It’s been quite an eventful night, hasn’t it?”

“I still think I’m dreaming. Or hallucinating.” Karen took a sip of the ebon liquid as her mother sat next to her at the kitchen table, and for several long moments, she said nothing. “All this time I thought you were just making it up. The bushwoolies, the seaponies, Catrina and Tirek…”

“It’s all a bit much to take in, I know.” Megan took a sip from her own cup. “To be honest, I was in denial also. Well, until I met Lodestone. Then it all came back, like a hammer to the heart.” She took a striped colorful flask out of her pocket and carefully put three drops into the coffee before tucking it away again. “It’s changed so much, and yet it is just like it was all those years ago.”

“And now Penny has been there.” Karen shook her head and chuckled. “I’m surprised you got her to come back. She always believed you, and she told me more than once that she would live there, if she could.”

“I made her promise to stay here,” Megan replied. “She needs to be with you, and the Ponies don’t need our constant help, like they did before. So long as she keeps up with her schoolwork—and with your permission, of course—I told her she could come visit me on occasion.”

“Visit?” Karen blinked once and gave her mother a confused stare. “You’re going to move there?”

“It’s far more enticing than Shady Acres Retirement Community,” Megan said with a frown.

“Mom, look. I didn’t want to sell the farm either,” Karen said, trying to keep a defensive tone out of her voice.

“I know, sweetie. I know.” Megan gave her daughter a comforting smile and patted her on the wrist with one hand. The old lady’s tendons and blood vessels stood out just as much as normal, but Karen could see a fresh life under the parchment skin and the fingers had regained much of their strength without a single worrisome tremor. “I can’t keep up with this place anymore, and all of it is just stuff anyway. You and Penny are worth more than a thousand farms, so getting it out of the way is going to be a blessing. I wouldn’t have signed those power of attorney papers otherwise.

“But the thought of moving into an old folk’s home never sat right with me,” Megan went on. “Deep down, I wanted to stay here with my family, and now I have the next best thing.” The old woman turned to look out of the kitchen window with eyes that were obviously seeing a much different night sky. "I can't help but think that Equestria wanted me just as much as I wanted it. After all of our adventures there, I came to the realization that the magic of that place is far more powerful than I really could ever understand, so maybe…”

“You’re going to Equestria and living with the ponies,” Karen softly said, and Megan nodded.

“Princess Twilight Sparkle has offered me a room in her old castle, and her friend Starlight Glimmer promised to keep an eye on me. It’ll be just like being in the retirement home, sweetie. The only difference is the staff, and visiting hours.”

“Princess Twilight?” Karen chuckled softly. “I thought Majesty was in charge.”

“A few things changed while I was gone,” Megan said with a wry grin. “But at the core, the Ponies are still Ponies.”

“Of course. I just…” Karen trailed off, and her gaze went back to her half-empty cup. “I don’t know how I feel about you living in a different world.”

“It isn’t something most normal people have to consider.” Megan said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I’ve given this a lot of thought while Penny and I were in Equestria. Really, the only thing left for me here is you and her. I can’t keep the farm, even if I wanted to. Most of my old friends have either passed on or moved away, and your Aunt Molly hasn’t spoken to me in years.”

“What about Dad and Uncle Danny?”

“The portal between worlds can be opened at any time, so I can still come for the remembrance services on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, just like before. The commute would even be shorter.” Megan hesitated for a brief moment, then cleared her throat. “Princess Twilight also mentioned something about a mirror, so you wouldn’t have to keep that old rope in your apartment.”

“Doesn’t exactly fit my decor,” Karen said with a nervous laugh.

“Sweetie, look. It’s late, you’re tired, and it’s been an emotional day. Why don’t you get some sleep, and in the morning, we’ll take you to Equestria. You can have a look around, meet the Ponies, and then you can decide how you feel about all this.”

“If Grandma moves to Equestria, you won’t have to spend all that money on a retirement home,” Penny added. The two older women turned at the sound of her voice, and she continued, “She’d be happy there, Mom.”

Karen motioned for her daughter to come closer, and she pulled Penny into a hug with a long, deep breath. “I’m sure she would be, sweetheart. I’m just grateful that you’re safe. I was worried about you.”

“Grandma would never let me get hurt,” Penny said with a return squeeze for her mother. “Just like you.”

“Does this mean I have to stay here for the night?” Lodestone asked from the entryway to the kitchen.

Karen evaluated the strange talking pony as she separated from her daughter, and she felt a twinge of sympathy when she saw the nervous anxiety on his face. Lodestone clearly did not want to be in this world for any longer than he needed to, and the way his ears folded back on his head broke her heart.

“No, Lodestone,” Karen said with a wink for her daughter. “I don’t think I could get any sleep now that I know all of my mother’s bedtime stories were true. Let’s get everything that Grandma wanted to take with her, and then I’d love to see Equestria for myself.”

Penny cheered, and she rushed over to wrap Lodestone up in her arms. “C’mon! Let’s hurry! There’s so much I want to show Mom!”

* * Ω * *

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