When Lyra reached the table, she took her seat next to Bon-Bon at the end of the table, Wang and Jinlin placing their bowls of noodles down in front of them a second later. The two humans then stood up and Jinlin said, "There you are. My husband's noodles with a side of onigiri to give you all a little taste of Chun-Nan. I'll come back in a little while with dessert."
Sonic and Tails both put their hands together and bowed their heads slightly, both saying, "Arigato." Jinlin, Wang, Hualin (who was holding her kimono in her arms), and Lin all gave a slight bow as well before leaving them to eat in peace, Sonic and Tails sitting up straight afterwards.
Twilight turned to Sonic and asked, "What did you say to them?"
Sonic shrugged, "'Thank you'."
Rainbow asked, "You said 'thank you' in another language?"
Sonic replied, "Sure, why not? Speaking in another language is cool, you know."
Applejack said, "That's fine. Just don't go actin' like Apple Bloom when she had the Cutie Pox and start speakin' in fancy on us." Sonic wasn't quite sure what she meant, but he nodded anyway.
Twilight looked down at the bowl in front of her and asked, "So these noodles are served in the broth? Not by themselves?"
Tails looked over at her and nodded, "Yeah, they're a part of the soup. Don't worry, it's a soy broth. It's not as well-known as some of the other dishes here, but it's delicious all the same."
Braeburn piped up, "And what'd they call these white things? Oni… somethin'?"
Sonic spoke, "You can just call them rice balls, Braeburn. That's all they are, really: rice packed into a triangle shape and wrapped in seaweed."
Spike asked, "That's rice? I thought they were donuts."
Rainbow said, "Well, I thought they were sandwiches."
Before this debate could go on, Applejack asked, "So, uh… how are we supposed to eat this? Is there a fork or somethin', or do we just pick up the bowl, tip it, and swallow?"
Tails said, "Well, you'll do that for the soup part, yeah. But if you want to eat the noodles separately… well, I don't know if it'll be easy for you to use them, but you could use these." He reached down with his right hand and picked up a pair of chopsticks next to his bowl.
Rarity raised an eyebrow, "Sticks?"
Sonic picked up his own set and said, "They're called chopsticks, and this is how you use them." He adjusted his fingers and then reached down with them into his bowl. He brought them out a second later, now closed around several dripping noodles. He then raised the sticks to his mouth and caught the end of the noodles in his mouth, releasing them and slurping them up. After swallowing, he asked, "See?"
Rarity replied, "I do, although that slurping was a bit… crude."
Sonic shrugged, "You know a better way to eat wet, dangling noodles?" Rarity had no response for that.
Everyone, save for Pinkie Pie (who had started eating), looked towards the end of the table when they heard Lyra grunting. The mint green unicorn was fiddling with her chopsticks with her hooves, trying to position them properly. "Lyra, what are you doing?" Bon-Bon asked.
Lyra grunted, "I'm trying to use these chopstick things, of course!"
Fluttershy offered, "Um, couldn't you just use them with your magic, Lyra?"
The mint green unicorn replied, "No! That's not the proper way to use them!" She continued grunting while trying to get them to sit right in her hooves while everyone watched.
A few seconds later, Applejack looked down at her noodles and said, "Ah, ta hay with it." She picked up the bowl in her forehooves and raised it up to her face. Holding it up a little higher, she put her lips on the rim and opened her mouth while tilting the bowl downwards, causing its contents to slide into her mouth. A few seconds later, she set the bowl down and licked her lips, "Mmm! That's hoof-lickin' good!" Encouraged by this, the other Equestrians started eating as well.
A minute later, Lyra dropped her chopsticks in frustration and growled, "I don't believe this! How am I supposed to use chopsticks properly without hands?! It's impossible!"
Pinkie called from across the table, "What are you talking about, Lyra?" The unicorn looked to see the pink pony holding some noodles up in her chopsticks, expertly bringing them up to her mouth and gulping them down before saying, "These things are super easy to use!" She then reached over with her chopsticks and grabbed a rice ball, popping it in her mouth and chewing it before swallowing. Lyra glared at her for a moment before renewing her efforts with the chopsticks.
As everyone began to make small talk while eating, Twilight noticed that Sonic still had Chip's necklace out, the bauble sitting next to his bowl of noodles. After the hedgehog swallowed his noodles, she asked, "Hey Sonic, why do you still have that, uh… bracelet out? Aren't you worried you'll get something on it?"
Sonic replied, "I guess there's a chance I could get something on it, but… eh, this brings back memories. Chip and I ate at this restaurant while we were here in Chun-Nan. I know he's sleeping and all, but maybe he'll smell the delicious food in his sleep and start dreaming of all the things he got to see with me."
Twilight asked, "You think so?"
Sonic nodded, "Sure! Until Eggman forced him and Dark Gaia to wake up early, he had no idea what the world was like. He didn't know anything about the planet he was protecting. Everything we saw, ate, and went through together… Those memories are gonna last a lifetime." Twilight nodded in understanding.
Sonic reached out with his hands, grabbing two rice balls and tossing one to Twilight when he brought his arms back, the unicorn catching it with her magic. She took a tentative bite out of it and gave a murmur of approval. Sonic nodded and held his rice ball up in front of him. "So I've been meaning to ask… How've you been doing lately, Twilight?" he asked before taking a bite out of his rice ball.
Twilight looked at him curiously as she held her rice ball in her right hoof, "What do you mean?"
Sonic shrugged, "Well, you did get… blasted or something when you tried probing my mind with your memory spell."
Twilight replied, "Oh, that. Well, I was able to find your memories of that place we were at. They were… hidden away in your mind. Not quite unreachable, but not easily accessible either. It has something to do with when you and that princess, Elise, put out that flame in the past."
Sonic said, "Huh. That might explain a few things."
Twilight nodded, "Yes. Like, you can remember Elise to an extent, but not exactly everything else. When I was using my spell, I was seeing everything from your eyes. Including," she lowered her voice and whispered, "…when you died. I felt that, and that's what 'blasted' me."
Sonic stared at her for a moment before replying, "Well, if that's all it was, then it's okay. I mean, since we put out the flame, it didn't happen. No reason to dwell on it, right?" Twilight looked surprised that he could shrug something like that off so easily, but she eventually nodded. Sonic then asked, "Speaking of dwelling, though, how's your, uh, 'other' thing? You know, what we talked about?"
Twilight hesitated a bit before saying, "W-Well… I think I know what I need to do." Sonic nodded, intrigued. "I… Well, for one thing, I should try harder. And remember to remain calm in stressful situations. And be patient."
Sonic asked, "Is that it?"
Twilight sighed, "…No." She then said, "But it's a start, right? I have to start from somewhere and work my way up to bigger things. I can see all sorts of possibilities, but I won't know for sure until I get there. We can't all be as fast as you or Rainbow, Sonic. Some of us have to go a little slower."
Sonic smiled, "There's the Twilight I'm starting to know. You go at your own pace; I'm not saying you should rush. Just remember: you gotta be true to yourself!" Twilight nodded, smiling a little at the blue hedgehog's encouragement. They both went back to eating, continuing to make small talk and talking with the others as well.
A little while later, all the bowls were empty and the rice balls had all been eaten. Rainbow leaned back in her chair and sighed contentedly. "I can say this much. They've got some interesting food here in Chun-Nan, and it's delicious," she declared.
Fluttershy nodded, "Oh yes, very good."
While using a chopstick to fish out an errant bit of seaweed between her teeth, Applejack added, "Fer sure!" Having finally dislodged the seaweed, she looked at Sonic and asked, "So where's that dessert Ah heard about?"
Sonic replied, "It should be here soon." He then leaned back in his own chair, resting his hands against the back of his head.
About thirty seconds later, Jinlin walked in with a bowl containing peach buns and a circular tray that had meat buns on it. "Did everyone enjoy their meal?" she asked. Sounds of approval came up from around the table, causing Jinlin to smile, "I'm glad to hear it. So, to top off your dining experience, here's a little dessert: our famous meat buns for Sonic, Tails, and Spike, and peach buns for the rest of you."
After Jinlin set the bowl and the tray down on the table, Bon-Bon spoke, "Uh, could somepony pass two of those peach buns over here? Believe me, this dining experience was nice and all, but I think Lyra and I will take our dessert to go."
Lyra gasped, "What, now?! But I…!" She looked up at Jinlin as the human handed Bon-Bon two peach buns and rose from her seat. Moving in front of the human and putting her forehooves on her torso like a dog, Lyra asked, "Hey, is that human I talked to earlier around? I'd love to talk to him again! I think he and I could really bond together!"
Before Jinlin could reply, Lyra yelped as her left ear was suddenly grabbed by Bon-Bon's right forehoof, the peach buns in her left foreleg. As she walked towards the archway on her hind legs, Bon-Bon said, "When we get home, I'm 'bonding' you to the couch!"
While everyone watched as Lyra was dragged away by her roommate, the mint green unicorn cried, "Not the ear, Bon-Bon! Please, let's just stay for a little longer! Come on! Noooooooooo!"
The group left the restaurant, all of them feeling satisfied with their meal, Braeburn once again wearing his hat and vest. After Bon-Bon and Lyra left, dessert was relatively uneventful until the end, when both Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie wanted the last peach bun. They both ended up getting into a fight over it, which greatly reminded Sonic of the time he ate at the restaurant with Chip. When they accidentally sent the peach bun flying, Rainbow managed to push past Pinkie and eat it, only for karma to catch up with her when she flew right into a gong. Her ears were still ringing as she walked under the arch and stood in front of the stone bridge with the others.
"Well, that was rather good," Little Strongheart commented.
Spike patted his belly as he said, "Well, they weren't gems, but those meat buns were pretty tasty."
Rarity was looking back at herself nervously, now that the blissful feeling of being full had worn off somewhat. "I hope all this eating doesn't ruin my fabulous figure," she said worriedly.
Applejack patted her on the shoulder, "Aw, relax Rarity. You'll get a chance to work it off."
Sonic turned to Tails and said, "That was pretty fun, wouldn't you say, Tails?"
The fox replied, "Yeah. It wasn't quite the same as what we were doing with everyone else earlier, but we can worry about that later." Sonic nodded while most of the others looked a bit confused, not sure what they were talking about.
Before anypony could ask, however, they heard something in front of them and turned to look. And there, standing on top of the roof of the building in front of them, was the last pony Spike or any of the girls expected to see looking down at them: the Mysterious Mare-Do-Well.
"Uh, guys? What's going on here?" Rainbow asked without taking her eyes off the masked pony.
"Who's that?" Sonic asked.
Pinkie piped up, "It's Mare-Do-Well! But we were supposed to be Mare-Do-Well! Well, not Dashie, of course! She wasn't in on it since…"
As Pinkie kept talking, Twilight turned to Rarity and asked, "Rarity, what did you with the costumes after we were done with them?"
The fashionista answered, "I kept them, of course! I could never throw something of that quality away! But they were locked up; nopony should've been able to get to them, let alone find them!"
Applejack asked, "Did ya ever check on 'em any time AFTER ya locked 'em up?"
Before Rarity could answer, Tails pointed, "Look! There's something under her cape!" Everyone looked carefully where he was pointing and saw a pair of reddish-brown wicker saddlebags on Mare-Do-Well's back.
Twilight gasped, "Those are Zecora's saddlebags!"
Rainbow growled, "So Mare-Do-Well took them and Zecora's potions! That's it, I'm gonna…!" She spread her wings and flew straight up towards the masked pony intending to tackle her, only to fly into a dark purple flash as Mare-Do-Well suddenly teleported. Rainbow managed to slow to a stop in midair and glanced around quickly, asking, "Where'd she go?!"
Braeburn soon pointed, "Over there!" Everyone looked to see the masked mare running up the stone steps behind the back gate, leaving the village.
"Come on, we gotta stop her!" Rainbow yelled as she dropped down onto the pavement and ran after Mare-Do-Well, Sonic hot on the cyan pegasus' hooves with everyone else behind him. They all followed the mare through the gate leading out of the village, heading into the rocky area beyond it.
After running for a short while, they found themselves near a small lake, but Mare-Do-Well had seemingly vanished. Rainbow growled, "Darn it, where'd she go now?!"
Everyone looked around, Sonic soon spotting the mare on top of the rock formation in the middle of the lake. He pointed, "There she is!" The mare saw everyone else look up at her; a moment later, she leapt down from the rock to the other side, disappearing from view.
Applejack said, "Come on, y'all! Let's get her before she gets away!" Sonic, Rainbow, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart nodded and started moving towards a bridge that had been built since the last time Sonic had visited Chun-Nan.
Before they could cross it, Tails called, "Wait!" They all stopped and looked back at him; he said, "I know we need to catch Mare-Do-Well and all, but don't forget we originally came here to find our friends!"
Rainbow suggested, "Well, maybe Mare-Do-Well can lead us straight to them!"
Tails asked, "But what if she doesn't? Then we'll still need to look for them!"
Rarity said, "Tails has a fair point. What should we do?"
Pinkie spoke up, "Ooh! How about we make like bananas and split! Up, that is!"
Sonic said, "Not a bad idea, Pinkie." He looked at Tails and asked, "Tails, do you remember the path Chip and I took to get to the Gaia Temple?"
Tails nodded, "Uh-huh. You guys cut through that area up ahead. It led straight there, around the Gaia Gate."
Sonic said, "Right. Why don't you take Twilight, Rarity, Spike, Pinkie, and Fluttershy and head out that way? If Mare-Do-Well doesn't lead us to our friends, my bet is they'd be around either the Gaia Temple or the Gaia Gate."
Twilight asked, "Am I correct in assuming the rest of you are going to go after Mare-Do-Well?" Sonic nodded in response.
Tails reached into his left tail and pulled out one of the radios he and Twilight had made. He handed it to Sonic, saying, "Here, take this. Let's try to stay in touch until we meet up again."
Sonic took the radio and said, "You got it, bud!" He then turned and, along with Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart, ran across the bridge, heading in the direction they'd seen Mare-Do-Well going.
Tails turned to the others and asked, "Are you all ready?"
Rarity said, "Darling, I think we were all ready when we saw Mare-Do-Well take off."
Tails replied, "Oh, uh, yeah. Well… let's go, then!" The others nodded and they followed him as he ran towards the nearby building that opened up to the path leading to the Gaia Temple. They hurried down the stone path on the other side of the doors inside the building, unaware of a shadow that was following them…
Soon, with Sonic's group
Sonic, Applejack, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart ran in a cross shape across the top of the Chun-Nan wall while Rainbow Dash flew above it, her eyes scanning for the renegade Mare-Do-Well. After several minutes of flying straight, the pegasus spotted a flash of purple and looked to see the mare standing on top of a (fake) Eastern dragon's head. She managed to yell out "She's over there!" before flying after Mare-Do-Well, the masked mare already on the move.
Applejack heard Rainbow and saw her break off her flight path to pursue Mare-Do-Well, looking to her left to see where they were going. "They're headin' straight that way!" she said.
Braeburn looked as well and asked, "How are we gonna get over there? Ah don't see any way from here!"
Sonic called back, "Just keep going! This'll take us around, but we'll get there! We'll just have to hurry to keep up with Dash's wings!" Applejack, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart started running as fast as they could at that, prompting Sonic to speed up as well.
As they neared the end of the wall, they saw figures up ahead standing in their way. "What are those things?!" Little Strongheart called as they got closer.
Sonic called back, "Egg Fighters! We can probably crash through them, or we can just go around them! Either way is fine!" The Egg Fighters saw the four of them approaching and got into position to stop them. When they were close enough, Applejack and Braeburn leapt over them like they were hurdles and Sonic and Little Strongheart simply jumped over them, the latter two landing on springs that launched them off the wall while the former two had to run to the springs.
The springs sent them flying towards a (fake) Eastern dragon that opened its mouth as they got closer. Sonic landed first and ran down the dragon's length, followed by Little Strongheart, Applejack, and Braeburn. At the dragon's tail, they had to jump to another dragon, this one having a spring at the end of its tail. This spring sent them flying over part of the mountain range, at which point gravity began to tug them back down. Sonic almost panicked when he saw there was water below them, but relaxed when he saw they were going to land on one of the large boats, all of them grunting as they landed on the ship.
Little Strongheart, Applejack, and Braeburn had just recovered from the landing when the Mysterious Mare-Do-Well suddenly leapt down from the nearest end of the boat and landed in front of them. Applejack's head snapped up at the sound of MDW's landing and she narrowed her eyes as she dashed towards the masked mare, "Hold it right there, you!" She leapt at MDW, but the masked mare jumped up onto the nearby guardrail, leaving Applejack to grab at the air. As the others moved to help the earth pony, Mare-Do-Well suddenly leapt up towards the other end of the boat and then leapt off of it, landing on the ground up ahead.
Rainbow Dash flew down to the others a few seconds later, panting. After she caught her breath, she asked, "Did she *pant* get away?"
Applejack stood up and said, "Unfortunately. She's a slippery little cuss."
Rainbow nodded, "I know! There were these spinning platforms back there, and she kept using them to dodge me!"
Braeburn groaned, "At this rate, she's gonna get away!"
Sonic said, "I doubt it. If we can keep her going this way, she's going to end up at a dead end. She'll have nowhere to go, unless she likes doing parachute jumps without a parachute."
Little Strongheart asked, "Really? Well, that's a bit reassuring."
Rainbow said, "Well, I'll fly ahead and see if I can keep her going, then. You guys just try to follow along, okay?"
Sonic nodded, "Sure, Dash." He looked at Applejack, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart and said, "You guys go on ahead. I'm gonna check in with Tails real quick." The three of them nodded and they leapt off the side of the ship, landing in the water as Rainbow flew on ahead. After they reached dry land, Sonic brought out the radio and clicked it on, "Tails, you there, buddy?"
Elsewhere, with Tails' group
Tails was walking down a bridge towards one of the roofed areas when he heard the voice through his radio. He ran under the roof, along with Spike, before he pulled out his radio and clicked back, "I'm here, Sonic. What's going on?"
Through the radio, Sonic said, "We're still on Mare-Do-Well's trail, but don't worry. The way she's going, we'll have her cornered pretty soon. How are things on your end?"
Tails answered, "Pretty good. We haven't run into any trouble yet, and Twilight and Rarity really like the architecture here. They're looking at it along with Pinkie Pie right now. I think we'll get moving soon, though, seeing as we're going to have to cross the water."
Sonic spoke, "I get what you're saying. Rarity probably isn't going to want to take a swim, so you'll have to give her a lift."
Tails said, "Yeah. I'll let you know if we find anything. Good luck, and be sure to let us know if anything comes up."
Sonic replied, "10-4, good buddy. Good luck to you too." After a moment, Tails slid the radio back into his left tail.
Spike spoke, catching Tails' attention, "Wow Tails, looks like your radios really work."
Tails shrugged, "Well, for the first time they're being used, they seem to be working well, which, all things considered, is good." He and Spike then looked back to see Twilight, Rarity, a bouncing Pinkie Pie, and a slightly cowering Fluttershy coming down the bridge. Tails asked, "What's wrong with Fluttershy?"
Twilight answered, "She said she heard a voice coming from one of your tails and thought it was a ghost."
Tails nervously said, "Oh no. Sorry about that, Fluttershy. Sonic was just calling to give me an update on the Mare-Do-Well chase."
Fluttershy relaxed a bit at that, saying, "Oh, good. I didn't know what that voice was when I heard it. It startled me."
Pinkie Pie laid an arm on the yellow pegasus' shoulders, "Aw, don't worry, Fluttershy! Little Tails-Wails wouldn't let anything happen to you! Would you, Tails-Wails?"
The fox in question replied, "Uh, no. …Pinkie, could you please not call me that? It's, uh… kind of an odd nickname."
The pink pony replied, "Okie-dokie-lokie!"
Spike asked, "So, did you girls get done looking at… whatever?"
Twilight replied, "We were looking at the architecture, Spike. And I for one think it's very amazing."
Rarity nodded, "Oh, yes! It's so much different from Ponyville or even Canterlot! I wonder if there's a place like Chun-Nan somewhere in Equestria."
Twilight shrugged, "I can look it up later, Rarity." She then looked at Tails and asked, "So where do we go now?"
Tails looked to his right and pointed, "That way. We have to go across the water."
Rarity gasped, "The water?! But what my hair and tail will get wet!"
Tails rubbed the back of his head, "Well, we don't have to swim. I mean, there's some stuff floating on the surface we could walk across… or I could just carry you."
Rarity said, "Oh, I couldn't ask you to do that, Tails. Although, if you wouldn't mind, I would really appreciate it…" She batted her eyes at him.
Tails replied, "Uh, okay, sure. Come over here." He started spinning his tails around, hovering above the ground as Rarity trotted over to him. He then held out his hands; Rarity looked at them for a moment before holding up her forehooves, allowing Tails to wrap his fingers around them. He then flew in the direction they needed to go.
Suddenly, Pinkie cried, "Hey! I wanna fly too!" She dashed over to the edge and leapt at Rarity, wrapping her forelegs around the fashionista's hind legs, causing her to let out a cry of her own as she and Tails were rattled.
Once Tails managed to straighten out, Rarity looked down at the pink pony with an angry look on her face, "Pinkie, don't do that!"
Pinkie grinned weakly, "Sorry, Rarity!" She then looked up at Tails with a look that was a mix of apologetic and sweet, "Can I come too?"
Tails replied, "Sure. Just please don't do that again." He then started flying forward again, albeit a little slower now.
Fluttershy looked at Twilight and asked, "What about you and Spike, Twilight?"
Twilight thought about this for a moment before saying, "Why don't you take Spike with you, Fluttershy? I'll, uh…" She looked down at a few segments of stone pathway floating in the water below. "I'll follow you… somehow," she finished.
Spike shrugged, "All right, if you're sure you can handle that." He walked over to Fluttershy and climbed on her back, sitting so he was comfortable and could get a good grip on her. Fluttershy looked at Twilight and spread her wings when she saw the unicorn nod at her. She then took off, following after Tails.
Twilight looked back down at the floating stone for a moment before taking a few steps back. She then ran towards the edge, leaping off with her hooves in front of her. She let out a yelp when she landed on the stone, both from feeling the cool water touch her hooves and the way the stone rocked when she landed on it.
She waited a moment before looking to the next one, noticing that it was closer than it first seemed. She took another running start and leapt to it, managing to land a little better. She then hurried to the other end of it and leapt up at the ledge above it, grunting as she tried to pull herself up. She managed to do so after a minute of struggling and sat down. Looking up a second later, she saw that Tails and Fluttershy were almost at the other end. She sighed, "Oh, forget it. This isn't the time for this." Sucking in a breath of air, she began channeling her magic into her horn.
At the other side of the water, Fluttershy landed on the submerged cobblestone and watched as Tails set Pinkie Pie and Rarity down beside her, Rarity needing a bit of persuasion to be let down in the water. Tails looked around after landing and asked, "Where's Twilight?" A second later, there was a magenta flash on top of the nearby stone structure as Twilight teleported atop it. Tails looked up at it, as did the others, and said, "Oh, there you are, Twilight."
The unicorn smiled sheepishly, "Sorry." She then leapt down into the water and trotted over to the others. "Which way do we go now?" she asked.
Tails pointed to an opening in a nearby stone wall, saying, "Once we pass under that, it won't be much farther to the Gaia Temple."
Spike spoke, "Well, let's get going, then!" The others nodded and, with Spike still sitting on Fluttershy's back, they started walking towards the opening.
Just as they were about to walk through it, they heard a faint splash behind them and turned to look. Near where the cobblestone ended and the water got deep, they saw something red floating in the water. Tails and Twilight walked over to it, Tails wondering aloud, "What's that?"
As they got closer, they could see that it was a horn of some kind. Twilight thought it looked familiar and searched her brain for information pertaining to this strange object. When they were almost an arm's length away, it clicked: the Crystal Empire. She reared up on her hind legs and grabbed Tails with her forelegs to stop him, saying, "Stay away from that, Tails!" The fox looked back at her and was about to ask what she was talking about when the horn began to glow a bright, malevolent red, causing Twilight to let go of Tails as they backed away from it. As everyone watched, the horn floated up and then fell back into the water, its sharp end pointing down at the cobblestone. It then sank into the stone itself.
"What just happened?" Pinkie asked. She soon got her answer, as a violet barrier suddenly blocked off the opening in the stone wall and purple clouds suddenly began to rise up out of the ground around her, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Spike.
Tails recognized those clouds all too well and called, "Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, get over here now!" The three mares quickly ran over to him and Twilight at that, Spike still hanging onto Fluttershy's back. As they stood together and watched, the purple clouds dissipated, revealing a bunch of monsters. Most of them were small, about Spike's size, but there were several that were taller than Tails and the ponies, and one that was bigger than all of them. And they were all mostly black, purple, and neon-colored. Before anyone could ask him, Tails spoke, "Dark Gaia's minions! But… they're not supposed to be around anymore, and especially not during the day!"
Twilight glanced back at where the horn had disappeared into the ground, remembering that it looked like part of King Sombra's horn. "It must be that horn! There must be some kind of magic in it that's causing this!" she said. She ran over to the spot where it disappeared into the ground while everyone watched, focusing her magic on that spot and saying, "If that's what's behind this, maybe pulling it out will cause them to disappear!"
Pinkie Pie exclaimed, "Look, they're coming over here!" Everyone looked to see that she was right; Dark Gaia's minions were coming closer. While they were all looking, Pinkie Pie dashed off to the side and came back with her party cannon. Stopping where she had been standing a second ago, Pinkie pointed it forward and, with a serious look on her face, said, "Get that horn, Twilight! We'll cover you!"
Twilight asked, "Are you sure?"
Tails looked back at Dark Gaia's minions. Last time he encountered them, he was all alone and they surrounded him, forcing him to hide until Sonic saved him. This time was different, however… Getting into a fighting stance, he said, "Yeah, we can keep them busy! Just focus on getting that horn out!" Twilight nodded and turned back to the spot, refocusing her magic on it.
Rarity spoke, "Fighting really isn't my thing, but…" She dropped into a fighting stance of her own as she growled, "If anything tries to hurt my friends, I'll rip them to pieces!" Spike got off of Fluttershy's back and stood between Tails and Rarity, ready to help as well while the yellow pegasus stayed behind them and dropped down, covering her head with her hooves.
The smaller minions were easy to fend off. When a Dark Fright shot towards the group in a ram, Pinkie would turn her party cannon on it and send it flying into the wall. The Little Rexes, considering they were about his size, were a bit of a challenge for Spike, but he was able to fend them off while the others had less difficulty dealing with them. The Killer Bees, however, couldn't be stopped once they started flying forward with their stingers pointing forward. Rarity was able to use her magic to deflect them slightly and Spike was able to take them out quickly since they were, surprisingly, flammable.
Due to their size, the Nightmares were harder to fend off and forced the group to work together to bring them down. Spike was able to use his small size to knock them off-balance, allowing Tails and Rarity to knock them back before Pinkie Pie used her party cannon to deliver the critical strike. When they were done, all they had left was the Big Mother.
As they watched, the Big Mother reared back and released a bunch of Rexes from its abdomen, the little creatures spilling out onto the ground. "Oh, come on! It can make more of them?" Spike groaned.
Tails looked back over his shoulder and called, "Any luck, Twilight?" While his head was turned, he was tackled by a Rex, sending him down onto his back. As soon as he landed, he started struggling to get it off and Spike ran over to help him.
Twilight, her horn glowing brightly, gritted her teeth and grunted, "It's resisting, but… I've almost… got it!" With one final grunt of exertion, Twilight succeeded, the horn glowing red as it hovered above the ground. She looked back to see that the Rexes and Big Mother were still there. "They're still coming?!" she gasped.
Tails and Spike were finally able to pull the Rex off of the fox, Spike dealing with the Rex while Tails rolled onto his side and said, "Try destroying that horn! Maybe that will stop them!" Twilight quickly turned around and, deciding not to waste time seeing if she could perform the Psychic Knife correctly, focused her magic into a beam and fired it at the horn. The horn tried to fight back against her magic, forcing her to pour more magic into her beam, but it soon lost the fight and Twilight's magic struck it. After a few seconds of being engulfed by the beam, the horn began to crack and break apart, the pieces dissipating into the air and then vanishing completely.
Spike was still struggling with the Rex when suddenly it burst into a cloud of purple smoke, causing the baby dragon to stumble a bit before regaining his balance. Looking around, he saw all of Dark Gaia's minions bursting into smoke and vanishing into thin air. "What happened to them?" he asked after a moment.
Twilight wiped her forehead and said, "I guess they were all being held together by the magic that that horn was giving off. Without it, they couldn't sustain themselves."
Pinkie appeared next to her a moment later, wrapping a leg around her as she cheered, "Whoo-hoo! Way to go, Twilight!"
Tails stood up and, while using his hands to brush off some of the water clinging to his fur, nodded, "You did it all right, Twilight, and just in the nick of time too!" Once he was sure he was dry enough, he pointed towards the opening, the barrier blocking it off having faded away, and said, "We should probably get moving, though, before we get any other unwanted surprises."
Rarity spoke, "Tails is right. We should hurry to this Gaia Temple." She trotted over to Fluttershy and lightly tapped her on the shoulder while saying, "Come along, Fluttershy dear. All the monsters are gone now."
The shy pegasus lifted a hoof off her head and looked around with one eye before standing up and saying, "O-Okay." With that, they all quickly hurried over to and under the opening, going up the stone incline beyond it. They didn't have far to go now; they'd be at the site of the Gaia Temple soon.
Not long afterwards, with Sonic's group
Sonic, Applejack, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart were running along another section of the Chun-Nan wall, Rainbow Dash flying just above their heads. Up to this point, Mare-Do-Well had proved as slippery as ever, evading them as they made their way through the mountainous region, though surprisingly never using magic to aid her the entire time. Currently, the masked mare was ahead of them, and she was running out of room to run.
As they continued running, they soon saw the end of the path: three pagodas in a small circular area surrounded in the back by part of the mountains with waterfalls coming down from the top. Braeburn, Applejack, and Little Strongheart started slowing down as they approached the small area while Sonic slid to a stop when he was close enough, Rainbow Dash landing next to him. As she, Braeburn, and Little Strongheart caught their breaths, Applejack panted, "Okay… Where is… that slippery mare?"
Sonic and Rainbow looked around, Rainbow soon spotting a figure standing atop the pagoda in the middle. "There she is!" she exclaimed, spreading her wings and flying straight up towards Mare-Do-Well. The masked mare stood motionlessly until Rainbow was just about to hit her, at which point she leapt from the top of the pagoda to the roof of the pagoda to her left, causing Rainbow to miss. Sonic, however, anticipated this and dashed towards the pagoda, making his way up to the roof.
Mare-Do-Well's head turned around when Sonic landed a short distance away from her on the roof. The blue hedgehog ran towards her, dropping down and sliding towards her when he was close enough. The masked mare leapt over him, landing on the middle of the roof and then, after they turned to face each other, tried to pounce on him. Sonic rolled out of the way, Mare-Do-Well sliding to the edge upon landing but not falling. Once she recovered, they continued trying to grab and dodging each other.
Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, had managed to avoid crashing into the mountain and, upon flying back, saw the scene taking place on top of the smaller pagoda. She quickly noticed that while Mare-Do-Well was trying to grab Sonic in any way she could (the sight reminding her of Lightning Dust), Sonic was trying to grab her without knocking her off the roof or cause any harm. She flew down to the roof to help him out, landing on the side closest to the circle with Sonic on the opposite side, Mare-Do-Well in the middle between them.
The masked mare looked between the two for a moment as if deciding what to do. Finally, she made a choice and tried to leap back to the taller pagoda. Rainbow caught onto her this time, however, and managed to hit one of her hind legs with one of her forehooves, throwing the mare off and causing her to fall short, instead landing on one of the slanted roofs closer to the ground. She rolled upon landing and slid off the side, though she managed to throw her forelegs out and hang onto the edge of the roof.
Braeburn cheered, "Ya got her, y'all!" As soon as he said that, Mare-Do-Well began to flail her hind legs, but she lost her grip on the roof and fell down, bumping into the roof under her on the way and landing hard on her back. Almost as soon as she landed, however, she managed to roll over and flip herself onto her hooves as though nothing had happened to her. "What… How is she-?!" Braeburn exclaimed.
Little Strongheart lowered herself to the ground, saying, "Come on, Applejack, let's put an end to this!"
Applejack nodded and lowered herself down as well. Before she and Little Strongheart took off, she called up to Sonic and Rainbow, "Both o' y'all stay up there in case she tries to make a break for the roofs again! We'll take care o' her down here!" Both she and Little Strongheart then took off, Little Strongheart going first to the left while Applejack went to the right.
When Little Strongheart got closer, Mare-Do-Well tried to jump over her, only for the buffalo to leap up and intercept her in midair, wrapping her forelegs around the mare's waist. Before they could land, Mare-Do-Well spun around and managed to break out of Little Strongheart's grip, throwing the buffalo and causing her to land on her back while the mare shakily landed on her hooves.
She barely had time to recover when Applejack rammed into her headfirst from the side, knocking her into the stone between the two pagodas, the mare going over the stone and landing in the plants. Applejack leapt up onto the stone a second later and looked down at Mare-Do-Well, who was lying on her side in the grass. Suddenly, she stood up and leapt at Applejack, tackling her and then jumping off of her, running away.
During all this, however, she evidently forgot about Braeburn and was surprised when he suddenly charged her, hitting her headfirst and knocking her down in mid-run. She stood up and they both butted heads, both trying to overpower the other. Braeburn managed to push her back after a few moments and quickly turned around and bucked her with his hind legs, leaving her lying on the ground in front of the center pagoda.
When Mare-Do-Well stood up next, she found herself surrounded by Little Strongheart, Applejack, and Braeburn. She contemplated escaping to the roofs again, but that plan was derailed when Rainbow Dash suddenly flew down from above, pushing her down to the ground while Sonic leapt down and landed behind Applejack. Rainbow turned Mare-Do-Well over and triumphantly said, "All right, Mare-Do-Well, this mystery is solved!" She then reached down with her mouth and yanked the mask off. And her eyes, along with everyone else's, went wide when she saw nothing underneath it! "W-what the-?!" she cried.
Suddenly, there was a bright flash that forced everyone to look away. When they looked again, Mare-Do-Well was gone, costume and all. All that was left were Zecora's saddlebags. Braeburn exclaimed, "What the hay?! She just disappeared?!"
Applejack took her hat off and threw it down, saying, "She was just an illusion, consarn it! There was no 'new' Mare-Do-Well!" She looked up and wondered, "How come Twilight couldn't tell?"
Little Strongheart looked at her and suggested, "Maybe it was because of the costume? Maybe whatever created that illusion made it hard to tell the difference?"
While they were talking, Sonic thought to himself, "She faded away kind of like King Arthur did when Caliburn and I defeated him at Avalon. When I brought back Excalibur's scabbard, Merlina said…" He spoke up, "Wait a minute!" Everyone stopped talking and looked at him. Sonic looked at Rainbow and asked, "Rainbow, while you were trying to catch her earlier, did Mare-Do-Well use any magic at all?"
The cyan pegasus replied, "No, she just kept doing those annoying dodges. Why?"
Sonic said, "When you tried to grab her back at the village, she used magic to teleport out of the way. But when you tried to grab her here, she just dodged out of the way."
Braeburn spoke, "Ah'm not quite followin' you, pardner…"
Sonic asked, "If Mare-Do-Well was an illusion capable of using magic, why didn't she use it after we left the village?"
Applejack rubbed her chin with a hoof, "Ya got a point there, Sonic. She used it before, why wouldn't she use it again?" She looked up at him a moment later and asked, "Ya think maybe somepony created that phony Mare-Do-Well to throw us off the trail?"
Sonic replied, "You could be right, Applejack. That illusion could've been made by the Mare-Do-Well we saw back at the village, which would mean she's still out there!"
Rainbow Dash asked, "Why would she do that? Why would she create a copy of herself if it was just meant to split us up?" As she thought about what she said, the answer came to her and her eyes widened, "The others! She must be after them!"
Applejack picked up her hat and Zecora's saddlebags, placing her hat on her head and the saddlebags on her back. She then looked at Sonic and said, "We gotta warn them! Sonic, can ya reach Tails?"
Sonic reached into his quills and pulled out his radio. Clicking it on, he spoke, "Come in, Tails! Are you there?" He released the button and waited a moment. When no reply came, he pushed the button again and asked, "Do you read me, Tails? It's Sonic! Did something happen?" He released the button again, but he still received no response. He looked up at the others a moment later and said, "He's not responding. Something might be jamming his radio."
Rainbow looked worried at that. "Oh man, they could be in trouble right now! We've got to help them!"
Little Strongheart asked, "Sonic, can we get to the Gaia Temple from where we are?"
Sonic tucked the radio back in his quills as he responded, "Not from here, but if we backtrack a bit, we'll have a straight shot to both the Gaia Gate and the Gaia Temple. We'd better start with the Gaia Gate in case they went there."
Applejack said, "Well, let's go, then! Lead the way, Sugar-hog!" Sonic nodded and turned around, running back across the Chun-Nan wall with Applejack, Little Strongheart, Rainbow Dash, and Braeburn in tow. They only hoped they weren't too late…
Meanwhile, with Tails' group…
Tails, Twilight, Rarity, Spike, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie walked past a small circular pond of water, which was right in the middle of the area outside of the Gaia Temple. They passed by one of the three platforms along the outside of the circle as Rarity asked, "So… is this where the Gaia Temple is, Tails?"
Tails nodded, "Yeah." As they reached the edge of the crevasse that normally separated one from the temple entrance, they came to a stop and looked at a big crater in the ground on the other side. "But it looks like it's already been uprooted. I remember, after Sonic and Chip defeated Dark Gaia, seeing the reports about the temples lifting out of the ground, before darkness covered the world, but I guess they never returned after the world became whole again."
Twilight sighed, "That's a shame. I would've loved to see what one of the temples looked like, on the outside and the inside."
Pinkie bounced over to her friend and patted her on the back, saying, "Aw, we know you would have, Twilight! You love seeing things like that!"
Spike looked at Twilight with a knowing smile before looking at Tails and noticing the fox appeared to be deep in thought. "Hey Tails, what's on your mind?" he asked.
Tails looked up and, after a moment, replied, "I was just thinking about the temple guardian."
Fluttershy asked, "T-There's a guardian?"
Tails nodded, "Yeah. Some of the Gaia Temples were protected by guardians of some sort. I know the temple here in Chun-Nan did. I wonder if…" He was cut off by a loud thumping noise behind the group and he turned around to look. "Well, that answers my question…" he muttered.
Spike and the ponies turned around to look and gasped when they saw a huge bird with bright gold fur and large purple wings standing on the circle in the middle of the ring of water, its tail feathers seemingly waving in the breeze. It spread its wings and looked to the sky, letting out a cry; once it was done, Twilight looked at Tails and asked, "What is THAT?!"
Tails said, "It's the temple guardian, the Gaia Phoenix!"
Spike looked back at the bird and asked, "That thing's a PHOENIX?!" He thought to himself, "If Peewee gets old enough, will he look like that?"
Pinkie spoke, "Okay everypony, follow my lead!" She then let out a loud scream and started scrambling around in a panic.
Rarity looked at Tails and asked, "Is it going to attack us? Darling, what should we do?!"
Tails looked at her and said, "I don't know! Sonic said the reason it attacked anybody before was because the Chaos Emeralds lost their power and Dark Gaia corrupted it! It's normal now, but…" He stopped short when he looked back at the Gaia Phoenix, and Spike and the ponies (save for Pinkie Pie) followed his surprised look to see why he stopped.
Fluttershy was snuggled up against the Gaia Phoenix's chest, her wings holding her up as she rubbed her forelegs through the bird's fur. A closer inspection revealed that she had the feather Philomena had left her tucked between her mane and right ear. "So you're the guardian that makes its nest here? Aw, you're such a beautiful phoenix. Yes you are, yes you are! Who's a good temple guardian?" the shy pegasus cooed, the Gaia Phoenix churring softly at her rubs and cooing.
Spike, Tails, and the ponies, save for Pinkie Pie, walked over to the Gaia Phoenix, standing at the edge of the circular pool. Looking up at Fluttershy, Tails spoke, "Wow. I knew Fluttershy was good with animals, but this is incredible!"
Rarity looked at him and smiled, "That's our Fluttershy. She surprises us sometimes!"
Before Tails could respond, Pinkie Pie ran behind everyone's backs, still screaming her head off. Twilight turned and called, "Pinkie!"
The party pony immediately stopped and popped up in front of Twilight, asking, "Yes, Twilight?"
The lavender unicorn said, "I think it's safe now." She looked back up at Fluttershy and asked, "Is it?" The shy pegasus nodded, so Twilight turned back to Pinkie and said, "So you can stop now."
The pink pony replied, "Okay!"
Spike spoke up a moment later, "You know, this is great and all, but we still don't know where our friends are."
Tails said, "You're right, Spike. Come to think of it, it's been a while since Sonic checked in with me. Maybe they found something, or at least caught Mare-Do-Well." He reached into his tail and pulled out his radio. He tried turning it on, only to be met with static. "That's strange. I can't get a signal. It's like there's something blocking it."
Twilight asked, "So what should we do now?"
Everyone looked up at the Gaia Phoenix as it began to churr. When it was done, Fluttershy spoke, "Um… the Gaia Phoenix said that it sensed something earlier in the Gaia Gate. It thinks that some sort of, um, tear occurred there."
Tails held a hand to his chin, "A tear? Maybe it was caused by that creature." He looked at the others and said, "The Gaia Gate isn't far from here. Let's go check it out."
Spike shrugged, "Sure, why not? We've been doing nothing but running around since we left the village anyway."
Twilight looked up at Fluttershy and said, "Come on, Fluttershy, time to get off the phoenix."
Fluttershy muttered, "Aw…" She looked up at the Gaia Phoenix and said, "Good-bye, Mr. Phoenix, and thank you." The bird chirped in response and Fluttershy lowered herself to the ground, folding her wings when she landed.
The phoenix watched as the group set out for the Gaia Gate. Before they left, Pinkie stopped in mid-stride and gasped, "Hey!" The others stopped and looked back at her as she turned around to look at the Gaia Phoenix. She reached her muzzle back into her poofy tail and brought out an open chocolate bar. She then held it up towards the phoenix and said, in a muffled tone, "Want some chocolate?" The Gaia Phoenix replied by reaching down and taking the chocolate bar from her with its beak. It then spread its wings and flew away a couple seconds later, everyone waving to it and Tails smiling as Pinkie's actions reminded him of Chip.
Tails, Spike, Twilight, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy stepped into the Gaia Gate, all of them standing in front of the door on the right as they looked around. The first thing they noticed was that, aside from some lit torches, it was dark inside. All the same, the Gaia Gate's interior looked impressive to them. "Wow… This is amazing," Twilight breathed.
Rarity nodded, "It certainly is, Twilight dear. Don't start analyzing it now, though; you'll have plenty of time to do that while we search." Twilight nodded to her; Rarity then turned to Tails and asked, "Where do we begin, Tails?"
Tails held a hand to his head as he thought about what Sonic had told him about the Gaia Gates. "Um… there should be four chambers in this particular Gaia Gate: two on the left, two on the right. If there's anything hidden here, it'll be in those chambers. We should be able to split up, search the chambers, and report back here. Does that sound good?"
Pinkie spoke, "Yep! I can take one of the chambers on the left!"
Tails nodded, "All right, Pinkie." He turned to Fluttershy and said, "Fluttershy, why don't you come with me? We can check the other chamber together so you don't have to do it alone."
Fluttershy smiled, "Okay, Tails. Just… stay close to me, okay?" Tails nodded and placed a hand on her shoulder to reassure her.
Rarity turned to Twilight and Spike and said, "I suppose that leaves us with the two chambers on the right."
Twilight nodded, "I guess so. Do you want Spike to come with you, Rarity?" The baby dragon looked eager to hear the fashionista's response at that.
Unfortunately for him, Rarity replied, "That's okay, darling, you take Spike. This place may look… a little dusty… but I think I will be able to handle myself." Spike looked disappointed at that.
Tails spoke, "Okay then, we'll meet back up here in five minutes tops. How does that sound?" They all nodded in agreement, Spike doing so a little less enthusiastically. Twilight lifted the baby dragon onto her back with her magic before they started down the ramp leading to the entrance to the Gaia Gate. They split off at the bottom, each heading to their respective chambers. Pinkie hopped into the upper left chamber, Tails and Fluttershy went into the lower left chamber, Rarity trotted into the lower right chamber, and Twilight, with Spike, walked into the upper right chamber.
As soon as they were in the corridor leading into the chamber and out of earshot of the others, Twilight looked back at Spike and said, "Spike, stop pouting already. Rarity's right next door; it's not like we're far apart and we won't be able to go to help if she needs it, so help me search this chamber. You don't know; maybe Rarity would like it if you helped out. She is the Bearer of Generosity, after all."
Spike looked at her, "You think so?"
Twilight shrugged, "It can't hurt to try, can it?" Spike looked a bit better at that. By this time, they had reached the end of the corridor and were now standing in the chamber proper. Twilight walked forward a few steps and looked to the left. She and Spike could see some kind of conveyor belt that was moving in their direction. Twilight wondered what was powering it, but decided that could wait until later. So instead, she walked over to a nearby opening in the wall and went through it, stopping for a moment under a beam of sunlight coming in through the ceiling.
Suddenly, Spike stiffened up and looked behind him, asking, "What was that?"
Twilight looked back at him, "What's wrong, Spike?"
The baby dragon looked back at her and said, "I thought I heard something behind us."
Twilight raised an eyebrow and turned around, walking back to the chamber entrance and lighting up her horn with her magic. The light brightened up the entrance a bit, but it revealed nothing. She looked to the left and right before saying, "It doesn't look like there's anypony or anything here. Are you sure, Spike?"
The baby dragon relaxed a bit, saying, "Maybe it was just the Gaia Gate…"
Twilight wasn't sure about that, but decided not to voice her opinion. She just turned around and went back the way she had been going, passing under the beam of sunlight again as she went through the opening in the wall beyond it. Looking to the left and right, Twilight and Spike saw two openings in the wall that they could search. After a moment, Twilight spoke, "See if there's anything there on the right, Spike. I'll look to the left." Spike saluted and hopped off her back, running through the opening in the wall while Twilight trotted towards the other one.
Twilight reached the opening and peered inside, only to be met with a small, square-shaped room on the other side. She sighed, "Nothing here. I'd better go see if Spike needs any help." She was about to turn and walk towards the other opening when she suddenly heard a noise from the other end of the chamber. "What was that?" she wondered as she turned to look.
At the other end of the conveyor belt, there was a portal on the wall across from it. It looked like the other portals the group had seen thus far, so Twilight leaned forward to try to get a better look at it. Before she could see what it was showing on its surface, a dark purple aura suddenly wrapped around her and pushed her forward, onto the conveyor belt! Twilight let out a yelp when she was pushed forward and she scrambled for a moment when the belt started pushing her forward.
As she was getting close to the end of the conveyor belt, she looked up and saw the Mysterious Mare-Do-Well standing in front of where the belt would deposit her. The next few moments were a blur; as she reached the end of the conveyor belt, Mare-Do-Well reared back on her hind legs and grabbed Twilight with her forelegs. The masked mare then fell onto her back, lifting her hind legs up as her back hit the ground and kicking Twilight with them, the lavender unicorn's saddlebags falling off her back as she was sent flying hind legs first into the portal!
It was at this particular moment that Spike came back from searching his room, now looking for Twilight. "Hey Twilight, where are you? I didn't find anything in there. Did you find any… thing…?" He trailed off near the end of his last sentence as he looked towards the other end of the conveyor belt and saw Mare-Do-Well standing there, holding Twilight's saddlebags in her magic grip. The masked mare looked at him for a moment before turning and jumping into the portal herself.
Almost immediately, Spike dashed onto the conveyor belt, calling, "Hey, stop!" He was briefly thrown off by the conveyor belt pushing him forward, but he quickly recovered and kept running. As he reached the end of the belt, he leapt towards the portal, only to have it close when he was an inch away from it. Spike crashed into the wall where it had been head first, landing on his rump when he peeled off of it a moment later. After rubbing his face, he looked up at where the portal had been, the only thought going through his head being, "Oh man, oh man, oh man…" He quickly stood up and ran out of the chamber, screaming, "TAILS!!!"