Alicorn or not, Flurry Heart is not doing well at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. Something's wrong with her, and she might never be able to fix it. But a young pegasus named Scootaloo thinks that Flurry Heart has a bright future ahead of her, after all.
Featuring a story-within-a-story starring the CMC, in which the newly grown-up Crusaders search an ancient cave for a lost little colt and find a lot more than they expected.
"Very well, then." said Dweomer. She was a tall, thin gray unicorn with thick spectacles and a permanent scowl. "You may have one more attempt, Ms. Flurry." She magically took the 20-pound weight off the desk and replaced it with a 10-pound one. "Begin."
Flurry Heart concentrated. Having been admitted to this famous school at a famously young age, she had a reputation to uphold. But as much as she strained, she could at most lift a corner of the weight. Her aura was the dimmest she'd ever seen it.
Finally, huffing and puffing, she said "I'm sorry, Professor. I just don't feel good. Everything feels so much harder than it was a moon ago. Can I please try again tomorrow?"
"You know the rules, Ms. Flurry." said Dweomer, scowling harder. "And they shan't be bent for anypony—not even Princess Twilight's niece."
Fortunately for Flurry Heart's feelings, she didn't understand the accusation of nepotism. She already felt awful enough. She'd now have to repeat the second year of magic training once more, for her third attempt in total, if she was even allowed to stay in the school. Turning away quickly so Dweomer couldn't see her tears, she flew from the exam room without another word.
Her one comfort was that her parents were visiting this very afternoon. It was a long trip from the Crystal Empire to Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns—which Twilight had decided not to rename, in honor of her old teacher—but Cadance and Shining Armor came as often as they could. Flurry Heart haltingly recounted the exam to them in the dormitory, trying not to cry again and not entirely succeeding, as Cadance embraced her and Shining Armor listened with concern.
Shining Armor sighed deeply. "This is just the thing I wanted to avoid by sending her to the local school." he said to Cadance. "Look how much pressure they're putting on her. Look how much trouble she's having with things that she could do before she even said her first word."
"She's a natural-born alicorn, Shiny," said Cadance, "the only one in Equestria, and she needs individual attention from the greatest magical experts in Equestria. They work here." She hugged Flurry tightly. "We just need to talk to them. They need to understand that Flurry's development isn't going to be the same as the other fillies'."
"Well, it's not normal." said Shining Armor, trying to control his temper. "It can't be normal. Even for a natural-born alicorn. She's sick, probably from the ridiculous expectations they have for a seven-year-old. She doesn't even have her cutie mark yet. If you're sure she has to stay here, she needs medical attention, and we need to keep looking till we find a doctor who can help her." He didn't mention his suspicion that the most helpful thing a doctor could do would be to convince his wife that their daughter shouldn't be in a school for gifted fillies.
"How has your studying been, sweetie?" Cadance said softly to Flurry Heart. "Have you been doing all your practices?"
"I've been practicing as hard I can, Mom." said Flurry, sniffling. "And I always go to bed early, like you said, so I get a lot of sleep. But I'm just so bad at magic."
"You're not bad at magic, sweetie." said Cadance, stroking Flurry's mane. "You're going to turn out just fine."
A nurse whispered something to the receptionist who had been reading a book with Flurry Heart, and the receptionist said "Okay, little buddy, let's go talk to Mom and Dad and the doctor now." Flurry was brought into the examination room, and the receptionist hurried out. Flurry was frightened to see her parents' own faces—Cadance's, red with tears that had obviously only just been wiped away, and Shining Armor's, downcast in a kind of utter humiliation that Flurry had never known an adult could feel, let alone her own father. And then there was Doctor Helix, a short and chubby earth pony who seemed like she ought to be jolly much of the time, but her expression was grave.
Doctor Helix bent down to talk to Flurry Heart. "So, I understand your problem now." she said slowly. "I'm going to explain it, and you can ask me whatever questions you like, okay? We're going to help you."
"Mom, Dad, what's wrong?" said Flurry Heart.
"The doctor will explain." Cadance mumbled.
"Listen, Your High—eh, Flurry Heart." said Helix. "You've always known you're a very special pony, yes? You're the only one of a few ponies with both wings and a horn, like your mom, and Princess Twilight."
"Yeah." said Flurry Heart. "I'm an alicorn."
"Well, that's caused by something called 'genes'. Genes are like… little books, in your body, that tell your body how to grow up, all the way from a tiny cell in Mom's tummy. And your mom has special genes, which she passed onto you, and your mom has very famous, royal ancestors, who have very special and rare genes, which they kept all to themselves. They shouldn't have done that, we know now, but those were different times. But those special genes are why she gets sick sometimes. And you have them too."
"But… Mom didn't have a horn when she was a filly. She told me. She got the horn later. Just like Aunt Twilight and Celestia and Luna. Are there any others like me? Alicorns when they were babies?"
"Not even Grandma's parents?"
"No. You're the first. That's still true."
"So then why me? If it's in my genies, why didn't somepony else in my family have it?"
"Well, you're very special. You have even more of the special genes."
"But why?" said Flurry Heart. "Why me?"
Helix looked nervous, and Shining Armor spoke up "I'll say it, Doc. She should hear it from me, anyway." He licked his lips. "Flurry Heart, remember Chrysalis, and what she did to me and Mom?"
"Yeah… but she's still turned into rock, right?"
"Yes, of course, baby. She won't hurt us again. But she already hurt us a long time ago, in a way we didn't know. You know that Chrysalis pretended to be Mom, and took her shape, and she did it so well that it took a long time for anypony to notice. And in the meantime, she was casting all kinds of dark spells on me. And what Doctor Helix found is that all that dark Cadance-imitating magic rubbed off on me, and… I'm still me, but I carry Mom's genes. And so when we had you, we thought we were combining our genes, mine and Mom's, but really we were just putting two copies of Mom's genes together. I'm still your dad; I'll always be your dad; but genetically, your father and your mother are just one person, and all the bad recessive alleles—I mean, the bad genes, they got all piled up, same way they got all piled up in her from her family, but more so. So you have all these rare genes, which made you an alicorn, but they also gave you a disease that's taking away your magic." Shining Armor couldn't make eye contact with Flurry Heart. "I'm so sorry."
"My magic is being taken away?" said Flurry Heart. She looked helplessly at Cadance, who shuddered and said nothing.
"Yes." said Helix. "It's an incredibly rare disease, but I found two other case reports, and the development is the same. Your magic is getting weaker, and by next year, you won't have any left."
"So… so what's the cure?" said Flurry Heart.
"There isn't one." said Helix. "I mean, of course we'll keep working on treatments—with your permission, and your parents'. But you need to understand, realistically, we probably can't do it. Your disease is just too rare. The value of research will be that we'll be able to help other ponies in the future."
"But… but how am I gonna do my magic lessons in school? And I wanted to be a great wizard, like Aunt Twilight. How can I do that with no magic?"
The adults glanced at each other uncomfortably. "We're going to take you to another school, sweetie." said Cadance. "One in the Crystal Empire."
"But… but all my friends…" Flurry Heart sucked air in through her teeth. "This…" Suddenly, she turned around and fled from the room.
Doctor Helix started for the door, but Shining Armor stopped her. "She needs some time alone." he said. "She'll know where to find us."
For lack of any better ideas, Flurry Heart took to the sky. High above the earth, she flew as fast as she could, till her mane had come totally undone and flapped behind her while the cold wind smarted her cheeks. Why'd Mom have to give me her stupid bad genies, anyway? she thought. Why'd they even have me? Mom and Dad can do magic. All my friends at school can do magic. It's not fair! I should be able to do magic as well as anypony! Gritting her teeth, she went into a dive, punching through one cloud after another as the wind whistled past her. Past the last cloud, she saw a big tree. She wrapped around the tree in a tight corkscrew and landed on the bottom branch, panting.
"Pretty smooth flying, kid!"
Flurry flapped down to the ground. There was a pony she vaguely recognized, a brown-furred pegasus with a wavy purple mane. The pony wore a blue helmet and stood by a scooter. Her wings were tiny and out of proportion with the rest of her body.
"Your Highness!" said Scootaloo. "I didn't recognize you." She bowed quickly.
"You can call me Flurry Heart." said the little alicorn, trying to discourage the use of the title, in imitation of her parents. "Who're you?"
"I'm Scootaloo. Me and my friends took lessons from Princess Twilight when we were fillies."
"Oh, yeah." said Flurry Heart, starting to remember. "Hey—what do you mean, 'were fillies'? You're just a big kid."
"Not anymore." said Scootaloo, smiling. "I'm nineteen."
"Well, you look like a kid."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Scootaloo looked around. They were in the meadow of a large state park outside Canterlot. The two of them were quite alone. "Hey, where are your parents? Do they know where you are?"
"You are a grown-up." said Flurry Heart, scowling. "You're gonna tell on me, aren't you?"
"No, no, not at all." said Scootaloo hurriedly. "I was just asking. Are you okay?"
"No." said Flurry.
"What's wrong?" said Scootaloo.
"I don't wanna talk about it." said Flurry, staring at the ground.
Scootaloo was quiet, hoping Flurry Heart might go on, but she didn't. Scootaloo peered at the towers of Canterlot in the distance. "Hey, I'm going to a Wonderbolts show in a few minutes." she said finally. "Do you wanna come? I bet that'll cheer you up."
"But… aren't the Wonderbolts in spring training now?" said Flurry Heart.
"Actually, yeah." said Scootaloo, smiling to see that Flurry Heart followed them well enough to know. "It's not a full show. But Rainbow Dash is working on a big new act and she's doing a one-mare demo for a few diehard fans."
"How… how'd you get tickets for that?" said Flurry Heart.
"They aren't even selling tickets!" said Scootaloo. "I just happen to be a close personal friend of Rainbow Dash."
"Wow." Flurry Heart mumbled.
"C'mon, it's gonna start soon." said Scootaloo. She mounted her scooter and her wings began to buzz like a hummingbird's. "Race you there!"
Flurry Heart won the race hoofily, and waited outside the little outdoor stadium until a quite out-of-breath Scootaloo arrived. Scootaloo just nodded at the royal guard standing at the entrance and they went in. It wasn't a fancy place; it was chiefly intended for local buckball games. Just a few other ponies, mostly Canterlot locals, were in the stands. Everypony got front-row seats. A suited-up and begoggled Rainbow Dash was on the field making some final inspections of the obstacles with two technicians. Scootaloo waved at her, Rainbow waved back, and Scootaloo collapsed on the bleachers.
"This is an exclusive show today, all right." said Scootaloo once she'd caught her breath, looking around. "Not even Rainbow's parents made it today."
"Well, I'm glad my parents aren't here." said Flurry.
"Oh?" said Scootaloo carefully. "Why's that?"
"I just talked to a doctor with Mom and Dad and I'm gonna lose all my magic because of all these bad genies. I can only do a little magic now, and next year I won't be able to do any."
Scootaloo thought about that. After a while, she said "Bad genies, huh? Y'know, me and my friends met a bad genie not too long ago, but we kicked its tail."
"Really?" said Flurry Heart, staring in wonder. "How?"
It wasn't long ago. My friend Sweetie Belle had just turned eighteen, and she's the youngest of the three of us—me, her, and Apple Bloom. So we were all finally officially adults, and to celebrate, we decided to go on a little vacation, just the three of us. See, we'd always wanted to travel. When we pretended to be adults years ago, that's the first thing we did, travel somewhere together—but that's another story.
We went to Saddle Arabia. Have you been there, Flurry Heart? I thought not. It's not a place your parents would take you. The weather's nuts—melting heat all day, freezing cold all night, blowing sandstorms all the time. And it's full of magic, maybe more than Equestria. You can go to the bazaar—the market—and they sell all these awesome potions and rings. Blooms got all these ingredients she and Zecora—Blooms's old alchemy teacher—had always wanted to use. Anyway, we weren't there to do any crusading—that's a thing we do, another long story—I mean, we were just there to kick back, see the sights, have fun. But we always like to help other ponies, especially fillies and colts who don't have their cutie marks, or are worried about their cutie marks, and one night we overheard that there was this colt who'd gone missing, and he had a map cutie mark and decided his special talent was exploring, and it sounded like he'd gone to explore a deep cave out in the desert, only his parents were too old for that kind of thing, so they couldn't go after him. So we said "Cutie Mark Crusader cave rescue team!" or something like that. There was this weird musk ox who heard us say that, and he said we could use this submarine he'd made, but we had to explain that we didn't think there'd be a lot of water in a desert cave, so he got angry and called us… a really bad name. I don't know what you've heard, Flurry Heart.
Anyway, that same night, we rode my scooter through the desert over to the cave. It was a… wondrous cave. We could see why nopony wanted to go in. Just the entrance was uncanny. It looked kind of like a big cat that was gonna swallow you up if you went in. But Sweetie called out, in this squeaky voice she still has—we thought that was gonna change, but some things never change—she called out that she could see little hoofprints. And there they were. So she lit up her horn and down we went. Sweetie and Blooms were so scared, but I wasn't scared, of course; I'm not scared of anything, just like Rainbow Dash. I just said we had to be careful. And I kept my helmet on, because it had a headlamp, and in case there were any falling stella… stigri… stalagoo… pointy things. I don't know; ask the dictionary.
It was so big and dark in there. Sweetie's horn and my and Blooms's lanterns were like faint little stars in a whole night sky. It was craggy and rough, too. Sweetie almost fell into a pit so deep we couldn't see the bottom of it, but I grabbed hold of her hoof just in time—I'm really fast, y'know—and Blooms threw us a rope, and Sweetie tied the rope with her magic. It looked like nopony had ever been there before, except this colt we were looking for—his name was Sirocco—but Blooms looked real close at the walls, and she said there was stonework there, really old stonework. So somepony had dug the tunnels, or some of the tunnels, but it was a long, long time ago. We could only see the hoofprints we were tracking sometimes. Sirocco could crawl through these tiny tunnels we couldn't fit through, so we had to find other ways around. I guess being a kid has advantages.
We'd been there a million years, and the map Sweetie was drawing looked really complicated, and finally we heard somepony else's hooves. We scrambled along and we found a big chamber, and there in the center was a little earth pony with a map cutie mark, just as described. He was sitting in front of a big ancient silver bottle, and out of the bottle was this thick black smoke, and these big red and purple eyes glaring at you from the smoke. And… there was a lot of talking, but I think it went like this.
Sirocco was talking to the smoke. He said "And why do you want me to do that?"
The smoke said—he had this deep, dark voice; I can't imitate it real well—"Because I've been imprisoned in this flask and buried in this cave for a thousand years, and I yearn for the sun and moon; and would you, too, not wish to be free, my little pony, were you imprisoned in a silver flask in a deep, dark cave for a thousand years?"
Sirocco said "Okay… I guess that makes sense."
I said "What's going on?" and Blooms said "What are you doing?" and Sweetie said "Don't do it!". We were all talking at once.
Sweetie was just guessing, anyway, but it didn't matter, because Sirocco wasn't listening to us, and he said "Genie, I wish you were free!"
There was this horrible laughter, and the smoke grew and changed into this vast, terrifying shape—terrifying to Blooms and Sweetie and the kid, I mean—a sort of jet-black pony, only his hind legs were just smoke, and he had a big curved horn like the evil old King Sombra. He kept bellowing out "Free at last; free at last!", and he had a long, forked tongue that made us all feel like he shouldn't have been free. Sweetie was talking a mile a minute about how sometimes things that are imprisoned for a thousand years are imprisoned for a reason, and you have to check first, but she always has her best ideas after they're useful, and she let Discord out of the statue just as much as me and Blooms, anyway. Then the genie said "Now the sun and moon shall be mine, and I shall once more crush Saddle Arabia beneath my hooves!", in case we hadn't figured out he was a bad guy yet.
Sirocco looked just as upset as we were, and he held up the bottle and said "That's not what I freed you for! Get back in here!"
But the genie just laughed its horrible laugh again, and it shot a ray of dark magic from its horn and sent the bottle flying. I'm really fast, y'know, in more ways than one, so I knew we needed that bottle. I broke into a run, and I made a mad dash for it—I couldn't take my scooter into the cave. But then there was another burst of dark magic, the earth trembled, and the cave floor where the bottle was lying crumbled into pieces. The bottle was falling down an enormous chasm and… what could I do? I jumped down after it, into the darkness.
I slammed into something with a bone-rattling thud. I hadn't hit the bottom of the chasm—I'd just come to rest on a rough chunk of rock jutting out from the wall. And my teeth were clenched around the neck of the bottle. I told you I was fast! But I looked up and the mouth of the chasm seemed impossibly high above me. I could hear Blooms and Sweetie giving the genie a good fight. Sweetie knows some good spells, and Blooms is super-strong from all those years of applebucking—her whole family is. But we're all just regular ponies, y'know, Flurry—not alicorns, not Elements of Harmony, just the CMC. I knew they couldn't go the distance against something that old and evil. We needed to get it back in the bottle, which it had told us pretty clearly it needed to stay away from. Actions speak louder than words.
So Sirocco, trembling like a leaf, lowered Apple Bloom's rope down to me, down the side of the chasm. But it wasn't nearly long enough. And I still had to get up there. Lemme tell you, Flurry Heart—see my wings? I can't fly. Never could. And there are so many times I've desperately wished I could fly, and I never wished it harder than that moment, when the distance between me and the lip of the chasm was what stood between the world and this genie. But the genie was done granting wishes.
I'd done rock climbing before, actually. It's fun. But you usually have more equipment. Ropes and hooks and things. All I had was a rope I was trying to reach. And y'know what else I didn't have? My mouth. A good climber uses her mouth like a flexible third forehoof. But my mouth was clutching the bottle. I thought of tossing it up to another ledge, but if it bounced off or rolled away, it would be gone forever.
So I couldn't fly, and I didn't have any climbing equipment, and I didn't have my scooter, whatever good it would've done me there. But y'know what I still had, Flurry? I was fast. So that's what I used. I had to go fast. I threw the bottle straight up in the air, as high as I dared. While it was up, quick as I could, I used my mouth to climb one more step up and get my hooves in position, so I could catch it in my mouth on the way down. And that's what I kept doing. I got into a rhythm. Throw, climb, catch; throw, climb, catch; leaving the bottle on the next ledge whenever there was enough room for both me and it. It was crazy, but I didn't have time to think about how crazy it was. I didn't have time to think about what I couldn't do. I had to do what I could do, and, well, I had to do it fast. I heard Blooms and Sweetie still fighting the genie, but then I heard Sweetie collapse. I went faster. I made it to the rope, but it slipped out of Sirocco's mouth and I nearly went tumbling again.
Finally, panting, I got topside. The genie was there, and he saw me, but Blooms gave him one more good flying kick—she's better at karate than she used to be—and that was the opening I needed to leap at him with the bottle. He wailed and screamed and he got sucked inside, and luckily Sirocco still had the stopper, and he wasted no time putting it back in.
So when we were all rested, we took Sirocco back to his parents, who gave him a good talking-to about going off on his own. We told him that a cutie mark of a map could be about revising maps while relaxing back home, too, and I hope that made some kind of impression on him. The bottle's in Tartarus now. So I think that's all worth a commemorative stained-glass window or two, don't you?
Flurry Heart's Letter
Scootaloo finished the story with a wink. Flurry Heart tried to wink back, but winking had never been her forte.
"Is that story true?" said Flurry.
"What?" said Scootaloo. "Of course it's true. A hundred percent."
"So then how'd you ride your scooter through the desert?"
"Desert pavement, duh."
"You mean a street? All the way to this cave nopony was in for a thousand years?"
"No, that's not what I mean." said Scootaloo, irritated. "How'd you get so—oh, wait, she's starting!"
To the cheering of the small audience—none of it more enthusiastic than Scootaloo's—Rainbow Dash began her routine. Rainbow zipped through wild, irregular assortments of rings, and she flew through series of side-by-side tunnels with incredibly sharp turns. It was her most ambitious work yet. Scootaloo always loved to see that Rainbow, even after years of being a Wonderbolt, never got complacent.
Then came the main event. A tall, narrow, funny-looking tower, festooned with rings and banners, had been set up in the center of the field. Rainbow swooped down one side, grabbed a banner near the bottom in her teeth, climbed up another side, and deftly planted the banner in a socket up top, all in a single continuous motion. Then she did it again, with a more complex series of rings and banners. But just as she was diving for a third pass, she bumped her right wing against the tower, hard.
Rainbow yelped and plummeted. Below her was a safety net. But above her, the tower creaked, and one of the big rings came loose. It fell towards Rainbow, and with how high it had been, it was going to pick up quite a bit of speed.
Flurry Heart suddenly realized that there were only two pegasi in the stadium: Rainbow Dash, who was falling, and Scootaloo, who had just told her a long story about her own flightlessness.
Flurry didn't have time to think about much else. She launched herself into the air, zoomed across the field, and slammed her forehooves into the side of the falling ring. It flew aside and embedded itself several inches deep in the turf.
Flurry Heart descended next to Rainbow Dash as the audience and the guards gathered around her.
"Rainbow, are you okay?" said Scootaloo.
"I'm awesome." said Rainbow, standing up and flapping her wings. "Just bumped the tower." She looked at the ring embedded in dirt and then at the little alicorn hovering beside her. "Pretty smooth flying, kid. I think I owe you one. Have you thought about the Wonderbolt Academy when you're older?"
"You saved Rainbow Dash!" said Scootaloo, squeezing Flurry Heart in a bone-crushing hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"You're welcome." said Flurry Heart sheepishly, wriggling free.
"Holy cow!" said Scootaloo. "Rainbow, look! Still got it!"
Scootaloo was pointing at Flurry Heart's flank, and there was a brand-new cutie mark of a falcon, flying fast and true.
Dear Aunt Twilight,
Today started out hard. I learned that I have a bad genie, and it's taking my magic away. It's from Mom, and I know it's not her fault, but I was so scared and mad when the doctor told me I had it.
Then I made a new friend, Scootaloo. Scootaloo had to deal with a bad genie, too. She's a pegasus who can't fly. But she showed me that bad genies, or not being able to do stuff, even stuff you really want to do, doesn't mean you can't do anything. You have to do what you can do, and not give up hope just because of what you can't do. If you do your best, true friends will always appreciate it.
Your faithful niece,