Chapter 9: Overshadowed
The cloud was nothing less than a mountain in the sky.
It was enormous in size, and implausibly shaped to say the least. The winding, layered sheets surrounding a gigantic, kilometers-tall pillar even made it look like a mountain. It was big enough to blot out the sun and cast a shade over the land underneath it – for the cloud indeed had a shadow in open sunlight, unlike anything else in all the land. It looked as if it was cobbled together from elements of strati, nimbostrati, cumulonimbuses, cirri and who knew what other types of cloud. It was so thick it looked hard to the touch, and its dark gray folds only seemed darker on the bright blue backdrop.
The cloud was also in constant motion, ever shifting, always growing. Most curiously, it appeared to be multiplying. Chunks of smaller clouds broke off from the main body at regular intervals, drifting off every which way even though there was no wind to carry them. Most of them were apparently headed northeast, towards the griffon border.
To Twilight, it was the single largest cloud she had ever seen. To Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash – judging by their wide-eyed stares – it was quite a bit more. From the moment they spotted it on the horizon, over the hours they watched it grow ever bigger on their approach, to when they finally fell under its shadow, none of them had been able to do little more than stare. It was a rain cloud, of that there was no doubt. The temperature was markedly lower underneath it, and they could sense the humidity of it as well, ready to burst out. The amount of water vapor that had to be created from nothing to sustain a cloud of that magnitude must have been staggering. There were only a few individuals that could manage something like this, and Twilight was thinking of one in particular.
"Princess Luna," she muttered.
"This is her doing?" asked Applejack, "She's here?"
A vaguely affirmative grunt was the only reply Twilight could muster.
Rarity lifted her head to look at them. "But that's excellent news, isn't it?" Her voice was tentative, as if she wasn't really sure whether she had permission to speak. "Having an honest-to-goodness deity on our side should be a marvelous boon, no?"
Applejack looked at her as if she'd said a dirty word. "Yeah, well..." she said, "Lucky us. What were the odds that we'd run into her here?"
Twilight ignored them both.
After briefly slowing down upon reaching the cloud, Rainbow Dash added pace again, and drew closer to the ground as well. Twilight peered down over the side of the chariot, finding yellow-colored fields and trees and grasses, and a great many hills dotted with ramshackle houses. They headed towards the center of the settlement and descended further. It was impossible not to notice that there wasn't a single pony out and about on the dirt roads below. The whole place seemed to be deserted.
Rainbow Dash was none too gentle in setting them down. The chariot bumped and skidded along before coming to a halt. Applejack and Rarity were the first to get off – the latter of them a bit shaky on her hooves. Twilight was about to follow when she felt Spike tugging at her mane.
"I could use a lift, you know."
"Oh. Right. Of course. Sorry."
She buckled her knees to let Spike crawl on her back, and then gingerly hopped outside. After a moment's hesitation, she bent forward, smelled the grass and had a taste of it. As expected, she found it to be terribly dry, but ultimately edible.
Rainbow Dash quickly relieved herself of the chariot's harness and looked around the shadowed landscape. "This is weird," she commented.
"It's so... not hot," added Rarity, shivering.
Twilight thought it was still plenty hot, but the thought of mentioning that to the others didn't even enter her mind.
The journey over from the Dragon Swamp had been trying for them all. Rainbow Dash may very well have been the fastest pegasus in all the land, but she lacked the strength and stamina to drag them all with her over a long period of time. The group had to make frequent rest stops, which had dragged out their already long journey even further. Another problem had been finding Hillside in the first place – they'd actually had to ask for directions to get to the small frontier town.
Even though the stops had made things easier for them physically (especially the convalescent Spike), bad dreams had kept Twilight from getting a lot of sleep.
"Have you got any idea where we can find Fluttershy?" asked Applejack.
"Not exactly," replied Rainbow Dash, "I've never actually been here before. She's just happened to mention her birthplace to me a couple of times. Pretty sure I remembered the name of the town correctly though."
"I wonder where everypony is," said Rarity, "It's rather eerie."
Nopony else answered, so Spike hurried to agree with her. "It really is! I didn't think this place would seem so imposing."
Applejack had a look around and marched off as if she seemed to have a destination in mind, so Twilight and the others followed. For a good long while, their hoofsteps in the low grass was the only sound in the world. Twilight was uncomfortably aware of every small twig that crunched and cracked underneath.
Twilight could feel Spike moving around on her back, looking around between the ponies around him, face no doubt etched with worry. At last, he took it upon himself to start a conversation.
"So, Rainbow Dash!" he blurted out, "Mind telling us how you and Fluttershy met?"
Twilight kept her gaze firmly away from Dash, but couldn't help but hang on her every word.
"Oh, we've basically known each other since we were both little. We met in flight camp."
"Really?" said Spike, "It's the same in our world."
"You've got something else in common too! You and she sort of drifted apart for a while when she finished school and moved to the ground, but then became better friends than ever when you moved down to Ponyville too. That's just like you meeting her again here!"
"Hmh. Why would I ever move to the ground when I could have the sky?"
Spike scratched the scales on his chin. "I'm not too sure about that, actually. You've never – that is to say – our Dash has never talked about that. It's probably because of your job. You do weather work in Ponyville while training to join a flight team in your spare time."
"Interesting," said Dash. She didn't sound particularly interested. "You know, I wish I could see one of those cloud cities for myself. There hasn't been enough cloud cover for those in this world for centuries. They all just rained down or evaporated. We pegasi used to have our own customs and a unique culture, but that's all gone now. I could get used to this, you know."
When Twilight glanced at her, she found Dash looking up at the darkened sky and smiling. Then she turned and saw Twilight look. Her expression curdled.
"We can turn all that around and get the clouds back once we've gotten rid of the Queen, right Twilight?" She stared at Twilight, challenging her to say something. Twilight ignored her and walked on in silence.
"I'm sure that's, um... going to happen," said Spike.
There hadn't been much conversation in general of late. Unlike on their journey to the Dragon Swamp, during which they had all talked and occasionally joked, the way to Hillside had been made all the more ponderous by the unwavering awkwardness. Applejack had taken a curt and business-like tone and talked only when necessary. She spent the rest of the time restless and twitchy. The usually cordial Rarity had done little but stare at the horizon, lost in thought. Rainbow Dash had made attempts at chatting when she wasn't busy flying, but her boasts and jests in camp had ultimately only descended into exchanges of glares between her and Twilight. Twilight herself had nothing to say. Spike had valiantly tried to keep up the mood and get the others talking, asking questions and regaling the others with tales of his and Twilight's native Equestria. Since he'd come so close to death's door, nopony wanted to tell him to shut it. Eventually, the general dour atmosphere had suffocated even his attempts.
"I'm guessing Fluttershy's a farmer like everypony else around here," said Applejack, "You think she'd be willing to uproot her life and come along with us to fight Queen Celestia?"
"Definitely," said Dash, "Her parents were taken away by the Secret Police when she was still a filly. She's gotta be aching for some payback. Besides, to be honest, I'm not sure she has much of a life to uproot."
"I'm a little curious," said Rarity, "Where exactly are we headed."
Applejack pointed her hoof up ahead. "There's a house with a smoking chimney over there. That's where we'll find some ponies."
The homestead was relatively large amongst the others surrounding it. There was even a detached storehouse or something like it standing nearby. The roof was half cloth, half ages-old thatched straw. As expected, the building had no windows. Applejack wasted no time in putting her hoof to the door. It wasn't too long until a middle-aged, balding stallion opened the door. He moved slowly and antsily, and his gaze immediately gravitated towards the sky. Peering over Applejack's shoulder, Twilight could see a family of four more earth ponies sitting around a dinner table playing cards, back-lit by a glowing brazier. All of them were staring at the door with eyes as big as saucers.
"Hello, good sir," said Applejack.
"We'd like to ask for some directions," Twilight forced herself to say. This was something she needed to involve herself in. "We're looking for a pegasus named Fluttershy that's supposed to live somewhere around here."
The farmer was obviously puzzled, but gave an answer quickly enough. "Fluttershy? Windy Hill."
Before they could ask anything else, he closed the door in their faces. It didn't look like the outside world was something they wanted to deal with at the moment.
"Isn't it curious?"
Twilight and the others turned around to find none other than Luna standing behind them. Even though her dark blue coat was disheveled and dusty, she still managed to look majestic enough to make Twilight's companions step back in inadvertent deference. Her starlight tresses waved high in the phantom wind, making her look even bigger than she really was. The Princess wouldn't have stood out more even in the brightest of lights; the surrounding gloom only made her seem darker. The only aspect where her majesty faltered was her expression, which was thoughtful and inattentive. Even though she was facing them, she nevertheless seemed to be looking somewhere far away.
"Isn't it curious, the way these ponies hide away in their homes? Through all the toil from the moment they're born to the moment they die, the sun is their greatest enemy. And yet, when I give them relief from it, how do they react? With fear and suspicion."
"Princess..." muttered Twilight.
"So you're Luna then." Applejack wasn't even trying to come across as polite. Her eyes were narrowed and she was jutting her snout forward combatively.
"The one and only," replied Luna indifferently.
Rarity was a fair bit more accommodating. She stepped up close to the Princess and reached up to put a small kiss to each of her cheeks. Luna only nodded solemnly in greeting.
"Are you responsible for this cloud-thing, then?" asked Rarity, "It's certainly an impressive sight. I can't imagine why these folks would be put off by it!"
"I can tell that you're lying, you know," said Luna simply, "I see you've found some of your friends, Twilight Sparkle. That doesn't surprise me. Somehow, I knew you'd feel compelled to do something about the state of the world. Am I correct in assuming that you're working on gathering the Elements of Harmony?"
"Um, right." Twilight bit her lip. "Listen, Princess, I'm sure these ponies are just a bit confused. I mean, this must be very new and strange for them..."
"I'll say!" said in Rainbow Dash, "I used to work in the Cloud Patrol and even I've never seen anything like this! It would take a full cadre turns to do away with a cloud this big!"
"Is that what the Cloud Patrol does?" asked Luna, "Get rid of clouds?"
"Well, yeah. What else would it do?"
"What else indeed?" She shook her head. "No matter. Tell me, Twilight, how have you been faring? Have you had any contact with my sister?" She glanced at Spike on Twilight's back.
"Oh yes, we have," said Twilight, "We even met her in the capital and I'm happy to say-" She realized too late what she was saying.
"Beg pardon?" asked Applejack.
"Um, right..." Twilight grimaced. "I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you. My aunt from Everfree City? That was actually Princess Celestia in disguise."
While Rarity huffed a quiet "oh dear," Applejack took an abrupt step closer to Twilight. "What? And you kept this from me?"
"I didn't think it was the right time to mention it..."
"When exactly was the right time to mention it going to be?"
"I was hoping for a time when I could be sure you wouldn't over-react. It should be obvious that I didn't want to deal with a potential argument while we were still in enemy territory and- hmh, you know what? I'm not interested in discussing this with you right now." She turned back towards Luna. "What have you been doing since we were thrown into this world, Princess? And how did you end up here?"
"I wandered here by chance. I've done precious little so far, but I believe I have a basic grasp of what we're dealing with and also made contact with the enemy. A detachment of a pony invasion force was occupying this town here. I dealt with them."
"Dealt with them how?" asked Applejack, "How many exactly are we talking about here?"
"A platoon or thereabouts. I scattered them to the four winds. Hopefully, they learned something from it.
"A platoon?" repeated Rarity, "Isn't a platoon a thousand ponies?"
"Yes. I had certain advantages however, not the least of which was the element of surprise. They broke rank quickly enough. It can be quite a boon to be frightening sometimes."
Rarity and Applejack exchanged glances, looking worried as much as impressed.
"And what are you doing here, in the middle of nowhere?" asked Luna.
"Well, like you said, I'm gathering everypony up so we could make use of the Elements of Harmony. Fluttershy's supposed to live somewhere in this area, on Windy Hill?"
Luna raised her eyebrows. "Indeed? Windy Hill is known to me. You will find it on the very northwestern edge of town. Head on until you see the ruins. Fluttershy's house should be somewhere in the area."
"Thanks for that, Princess!" said Twilight.
"Don't thank me. Best get on with it. We will speak again afterwards and figure out how to go on."
Twilight's companions and the inhabitants of Hillside might have found the shade discomforting, but she herself thought it was almost liberating. She felt lighter and more at ease, and not just because the temperature was a tad closer to tolerable. More than once in this alternate Equestria, she'd had the unaccountable feeling that she was being watched.
Some conspiracy theorists claimed that Princess Celestia had the power of omniscience and always kept sight of her subjects through the sun. There were those who kept themselves locked off inside their houses because of these beliefs, or only left their homes wearing elaborate tinfoil hats that were supposed to mask them from the ever-present light. Twilight knew those stories to be utter nonsense, of course, but she was starting to have her doubts. Daymare Sun may well have had powers that Princess Celestia had never known...
What if the Queen had had her eye on them all along? What if she knew everything they were doing?
It was a disturbing thought, but Twilight was sure she was just being paranoid. She wasn't going to bring this up with her companions.
The way to Fluttershy's cottage on Windy Hill took them past small fields of half-withered vegetables. The cottage itself wa smaller than any other they'd seen so far, consisting of no more than a single room, and was in something of a state of disrepair. There were loose panes of wood on the walls and the building seemed more slanted than it should have been.
Twilight had to admit that she felt mentally unequipped for the situation. It was hard to focus, to change modes into who she had to be right then. She was going to have to pull herself together though. This was important. This was Fluttershy.
Twilight slipped ahead of Applejack so she could knock on the door herself. It took long minutes until somepony responded.
The door creaked open slowly, but only by an inch. From the darkness beyond, an eye framed by tufts of pink hair peeked out. Twilight felt a pang of joyful familiarity, but she knew Fluttershy well enough not to push her.
"Fluttershy?" she said gently, but silence was her only answer. "Um, hello, my name is Twilight Sparkle," she went on, "Me and my companions would like to discuss something with you. Can we come in?"
Fluttershy kept up her gaze, but didn't respond. When the moment dragged on too long, Rainbow Dash stepped forward, shouldered into Twilight and knocked her out of the way ungracefully.
"Heeeeeey, Fluttershy! Remember me?"
They heard a quiet gasp from inside. "Is that you, Rainbow Dash?"
"Sure am. Why don't you come outside so we can have a talk?"
They saw Fluttershy's eye narrow and then close. A second later, she shut the door. Twilight had just enough time to feel confused and worried when it opened again, Fluttershy edged out and closed it behind herself. She remained standing with her back to her home, leaving Twilight to take her in.
Fluttershy looked much the same, but also not. It was hard to overlook the signs of malnourishment – her coat was patchy and coarse, her hooves cracked and her long mane brittle and dry. Even more so than Applejack or Rainbow Dash, she looked sun-bleached. There was a drab greyish discoloration all about her. Her cutie mark was a single butterfly rather than three. The biggest difference, however, was also the most subtle. Despite the tenseness in her every movement, and the way her eyes flickered around between the ponies she was facing, Fluttershy did not seem truly afraid. There were lines in her face that gave her a strangely hardened appearance, and the look in her big, baby-blue eyes was resigned and unfeeling.
Before Twilight could think of how to approach their business delicately, Rainbow Dash was already speaking.
"It's really great to see you again! Sorry I haven't been in touch, but it's hard to send letters when the law is after you. What's going on with you? How's your rabbit doing?"
There was a barely discernible twitch in Fluttershy's eye. "My rabbit? My rabbit is dead." Her voice was as meek as quiet as might have been expected, but also eerily calm. "We didn't have a lot of food out here and often went hungry. Even though I tried my best to keep him fed, my poor Angel got weaker and weaker. One turn, he'd simply disappeared. I think he wandered off into the wilderness so I wouldn't starve. I tried so hard to look for him, but he was gone."
"Oh, jeez," muttered Dash.
"I'm very sorry to hear that," said Twilight, and took a step forward.
Fluttershy shivered and withdrew. "What do you want from me?" she asked, "What is going on here? Do you know anything about this cloud?"
"Don't worry about the cloud," said Twilight, "Listen, we're all very happy to finally meet you. We've come a long way to discuss a matter of great importance with you. You know Rainbow Dash. These are Applejack and Rarity, and I'm called Twilight Sparkle. Oh, and this is my good baby dragon friend Spike!"
She grabbed Spike off her back, forcing a smile all the while, and held him up between her forelegs for Fluttershy to see. Fluttershy spared him a glance. Her expression didn't change, and her eyes gave nothing away. The ice didn't break.
Twilight cleared her throat and took a deep breath. "I'll get right to it, shall I? You see, I'm actually a traveler from another dimension. Me and some companions of mine were stranded in this dimension by, er, by a magical mishap. All of us here are actually the best of friends in my world. Are you with me so far?"
Fluttershy hesitated. "I think so," she squeaked.
"Now, while I'm trying to get back home, I've also decided to help set things right here. At some point in your history, something must have gone very wrong, allowing Celestia to be corrupted by a malicious magical presence. Since then on, she's warped Equestria into a horrible dictatorship that's illuminated by an unnatural, eternal day. The natural state of the world is actually diarchy overseen by Celestia and her sister Luna, with the time of day cycling between light and darkness. It's all pretty simple, really."
"Right..." muttered Fluttershy, her brow furrowed.
"But see, there's this magical weapon – the Elements of Harmony – that would allow us to rid Celestia of her corruption and set Equestria back on its proper path, effectively saving the world. I've been seeking out allies to help me in doing so."
"Pretty wild story, huh?" asked Rainbow Dash with a smirk that looked more like a sneer.
"I hope you can believe me on this, Fluttershy," said Twilight.
Fluttershy chuckled. "I believe you."
Twilight frowned. "Did you- did you just roll your eyes?"
"Oh no, not at all!"
Twilight could count on one hoof the number of times she'd heard Fluttershy express sarcasm. Perhaps that was why she was so unfamiliar with recognizing it. She could have sworn she'd heard a tinge of sarcastic mockery, but the only thing she could read from Fluttershy's eyes was purest sincerity.
"Er, you do believe me, don't you?" she asked.
"It's very important that you understand-"
"Um, could you – if you don't mind – please get to the point?"
Twilight licked her lips. "Er, okay. The point is this – we need your help. The five of us, plus one other, are the only ones that can use the Elements of Harmony. I was hoping that you could, um, find the time to come with us and..." She paused, trying to think of the right words. "And fight for Equestria."
Fluttershy's expression was slowly crumpling into a grimace of confusion and anxiety.
"What you're describing is insane. It's utterly hopeless."
Twilight could have sworn that there was a tiny, bitter smirk on Fluttershy's lips.
"It's- it's not hopeless," said Twilight, "You've been conditioned to think that way by a system with centuries of practice in oppression, but trust me, there's always hope. Right, guys?"
She looked to the others for further encouragement, but the only thing they had to offer was Dash's bluster.
Fluttershy's smirk melted away, replaced by a haunted, unseeing look in her eyes. She shook her head. "Nothing good ever comes from standing up to the Queen."
"I don't think you realize how much we have going for us. Applejack here? She's the leader of the Apple Underground. She's an expert at survival and guerilla combat, and she has thousands of troops under her command all across the country. Rarity is called the Lady of Liberty in Everfree City. She has a keen strategic mind and the resources of a major noble house at her disposal, not to mention hundreds of ponies owing her favors. And you must know all about your friend Rainbow Dash – how she's one of the best fliers in Equestria-"
"The best," cut in Dash.
"-and how there's nothing she can't steal and no place she can't break into. As for myself, I am a fairly accomplished mage if I do say so myself..."
None of it seemed to make any impression on Fluttershy.
"And I haven't even gotten to the big guns yet!" added Twilight quickly, "The Princesses of my world are both with us – Celestia and Luna. They want to set this world right, and both of them are unbelievably powerful. Trust me, the odds aren't as unlikely as you might think."
She gave Fluttershy the warmest, most reassuring smile she could muster – only to be met with more irreverence.
"Then why do you need me?" asked Fluttershy.
"Why do you need me? I'm not a resistance leader or a warrior or a goddess. I'm nothing. I'm nopony. I can't do anything. You're a fool to ask somepony like me help."
Twilight laughed nervously, taken aback by the wording. The Fluttershy she knew could be self-deprecating, but she didn't deprecate others right along with her. "Oh Fluttershy, I'm sure you have many useful skills."
"How would you know?" asked Fluttershy quietly, "You don't know me."
"Well... I know you're living out here on the frontier on your own. That already means you're resourceful and capable. Judging by your cutie mark, you have an affinity for animals as well, don't you?"
Fluttershy didn't even look sad. The only thing her expression showed was an acrimonious and unsatisfying certainty in the truth her own words.
"How am I resourceful and capable if I can't even provide for myself and my pet rabbit? I'm a failure as a farmer. I only survive by begging my earth pony neighbors for help. And I do like animals, but do you see any around? How many have you seen in this lifeless wasteland in general? Do you see how useless I'd be to you?"
"Ah." Twilight sighed. "Look. I know that you might feel... like what you have to offer is too little to make a difference, but please believe me when I say that everypony's contribution is important, no matter how small. If you keep your head up, do your best and believe in yourself, anything can happen! Even if you're not a great warrior, the magic of the Elements Harmony will do most of the work. All you have to do is to be there."
"But I don't want to be there," said Fluttershy, looking down and shaking her head. She wasn't crying, but her back was rising and falling at an irregular rhythm. "I don't belong on a battlefield. I don't want to be... hurt. I'm sorry, but my answer is no."
Rainbow Dash dragged a hoof over her face. "Come on, Fluttershy! Don't be such a whiner!"
"Dash!" Twilight glanced at Rainbow, and then quickly back at Fluttershy. "Couldn't you please just take a moment and consider things-"
"No," said Fluttershy again.
She started turning around, and Twilight felt a panic seeping through her like a chill wind in her bones. Fluttershy was slipping away and she could think of nothing to stop her. This wasn't how things were supposed to go. Fluttershy was supposed to agree and join them!
"Wait! Just wait! Pinkie Pie. Do you know where we might find somepony called Pinkie Pie?"
Fluttershy looked back over her shoulder. "I don't know anypony by that name."
The door closed not with a slam but a quiet click. It was the whimpering final note to their entire quest. They were at a dead end.
Twilight felt tired. It felt almost silly to think that – after all, she'd been tired when she'd reached the Dragon Swamp, she'd been tired at the gates of Everfree City, and she'd been tired when she walked into Trottingham. She'd been tired and beleaguered since the moment she'd reached this world. The fatigue had kept building and building, and there was hardly ever a moment of rest to be found. Most of her time had been spent on the move in less than hospitable conditions, and Twilight had never been a particularly physical pony.
Throughout it all, she'd had a goal to move towards, something to push her onwards whenever she felt her legs getting wobbly. All the hardships in the world couldn't touch her because she was on a Mission. More than that, she was motivated by the fact that was on her way to find her friends, never even considering that they might not be to her liking. Now the rug had been pulled out from underneath her. It was all catching up to her...
Twilight and the others had made their way to a ruined city nearby that Luna had "conquered." The soldiers the Princess had driven off from the place had left behind much of their equipment and supplies on their retreat. Twilight wanted nothing more to lie down for a while, so she sought out an overhang in the abandoned campsite and sunk into a messy sleeping mat that still smelled of tobacco and aftershave.
Spike took to pacing around under the overhang and awkwardly rifling through the saddlebags there. It wasn't too long before he sat down opposite Twilight and looked her in the eye.
"What are we going to do now, Twilight?" he asked with a frown.
Applejack had asked her that same question, and Twilight hadn't had an answer to give her. She'd rushed ahead of the others so she could get a chance to think about it, but so far, she didn't have anything.
"I suppose we'll write to Princess Celestia and ask her for advice."
"What can we really do without the Elements of Harmony though? Twilight?"
Twilight sighed. "I'm not sure, Spike."
"I'm just spitballing here, but maybe we could find somepony to replace Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie? I mean, there have got to be other kind and cheerful ponies out there somewhere, right?"
"Maybe there are," said Twilight, "but ponies as kind as Fluttershy or as cheerful as Pinkie Pie? Finding them would be like..." She fell silent. The old needle and haystack comparison seemed inadequate.
And besides, she and her friends were supposed to be tied together by destiny. Their bond may or may not have existed in this universe per se, but if Twilight couldn't bring together people she nominally knew, what chance was there of finding a bunch of perfect strangers?
Twilight turned around on her other side so Spike wouldn't see the inevitable look of defeat on her face.
"Are you all right?" he asked her, "You've been a little out of it recently."
"Just a little tired," said Twilight, "I'll try to have a nap."
After a moment of silence, Spike stood up. "I'll try to find some paper for that letter," he said.
"Are you sure you're up for the exertion?"
"I'll manage. You better get some rest." He was already padding away.
Twilight closed her eyes, but although her body was ready and willing to fall asleep, her mind wasn't. For once, overt brightness wasn't a problem, but sleep just didn't seem to come to her. Clearing her head of thoughts was difficult. The truth was... she was afraid.
She wasn't sure how long she spent lying there – it was long enough to lose track of time – but eventually, she did manage to find her way to slumber.
Her dreams were a fractured mess of familiar imagery: a hundred misshapen scorpions waddling towards her and a hundred banners depicting jagged, golden suns; the open maw of Blitz and the coldly determined gaze of Brainy Bright; Agent Striker with his fake smile and Twilight herself wearing that very same smile.
Finally, she saw a familiar pony shining brightly in the distance, freakishly tall and yet impossibly elegant. She was cloaked in sunshine and fire...
None of it really bothered Twilight. She had grown accustomed to action, and in her mind, she breezed through all these obstacles with the cool and logical detachment of an automaton. Saving the world was old hat.
There was Soarin', struck down right in front of her. What had taken an instant in reality now dragged on for an eternity. The moment of his death seemed to pass in slow motion, to better burn into Twilight's memory.
Soarin's expression changed from valorous resolve to fear and regret at the very last second. He didn't want to die. Then, all emotion drained from his face as his heart gave out and his existence was extinguished.
Twilight could smell the horrid mix of ozone and burning flesh as if she was still standing there at the lakeside.
The knot in Twilight's stomach drew tighter. Part of her knew that the worst was yet to come.
A stranger wearing the face of a friend.
She was looking down at the unconscious Striker with an expression of greatest indifference. There was no vengeance in what she was doing, and certainly no justice. All she was doing was snuffing out the life of an enemy – as if it was nothing.
Dash raised her forehooves and smashed them down. This time, Twilight didn't look away. She couldn't.
Striker's head bobbed upwards while a spray of blood burst out of his open mouth. The sound of his last breath escaping his shattered throat was almost as bad as the echoing snap of his neck breaking.
Twilight heard it over and over in her dreams. She couldn't forget.
Twilight woke to the quiet pattering drumbeat of rainfall. The sound was so unexpected to her that she didn't recognize it at first. She listened to it in a confused state of half-sleep, until she felt something wet hit her snout and finally found the strength to wonder. She opened her eyes.
Water was dribbling down the sides of the overhang. Twilight suppressed a yawn and pushed herself up into a sitting position to get a better look. The entire world was gray and misty, and a million drops of rain were hanging in the air. It looked impressive, but was actually just a light shower. Anything much heavier would quickly have swept away the fields of the villagers, and maybe even the hillside houses.
"Bad dreams, Twilight Sparkle?"
Twilight startled and turned around, finding Luna sitting right by her bedside. She was looking down at Twilight very seriously, very stoically, but she was also soaking wet and holding out her wings to air them out, which came across as faintly silly.
"I... I can't remember." Twilight cleared her throat and rose up to her hooves. She found the intensity with which the Princess was staring at her a little disquieting.
Luna might have had many extraordinary powers, but peeking into others' dreams was not one of them. Was it?
Eventually though, Luna broke her gaze and looked out into the empty city streets. "What do you think of my work, Twilight Sparkle?"
"It's good rain as far as I can tell, Princess. I'm impressed by the measured rate of precipitation and how stable you managed to keep most of the water in that cloud. I'd wager that the average weather team could learn a lot from you."
"Your friend Rainbow Dash did assist me with the shakedown."
"I... see. Um, is this all really a good idea though? Won't this spectacle attract a lot of attention?"
"The die is cast, Twilight Sparkle. Daymare Sun's servants will come to Hillside to investigate my intervention here. By then, I'll be gone and the ponies here need only tell the truth: that they have no idea what I am, where I came from or what I wanted. By then the cloud will have spread far and wide, and the investigators will have their hooves full dealing with the fallout from it to concern themselves with this place. The spectacle also sends a bit of a message."
"A declaration of war?" asked Twilight.
"The message is for the villagers," said Luna, "I wanted to give them the joy of rainfall and the protection of the shade, and to demonstrate that there somepony looking out for them. I hoped to give them some hope." She turned back towards Twilight as she said that. "I may or may not have succeeded. It must all be so confusing and frightening for them. They won't have seen rain like this for decades, and their houses will not be waterproofed. I wonder if they're not looking at their leaky roofs right now and cursing my name."
"Water is life here," replied Twilight, her voice shaking a little, "They'll be too grateful to curse you."
"I'm glad you see it that way." Luna's expression was strange and unreadable. Despite her self-doubt, she didn't seem down on herself. "Spike told me you weren't feeling well."
Twilight cast her eyes down and slowly scraped one of her hooves over the ground. "I'm just tired."
"I can understand being tired. But you've had a rest now, and yet you still feel nothing but apathy and anxiety, do you? What you are is lost."
"Yes, well," muttered Twilight, "I know where I am. I just don't know where to go. We can't go on without Fluttershy."
"It's unlike you to give up so easily, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight snorted. "I could probably bully her into joining me if I tried hard enough, but what would that accomplish? What kind of friendship would that be? I can't just charm people like Pinkie Pie, and she's nowhere around! I don't have a single lead to her. For all I know-"
"Don't sit here and complain about things not falling into your lap!" exclaimed Luna with an emphatic stomp of her forehooves. Twilight glanced up at her in surprise. "Taking down Daymare Sun is a momentous undertaking, one which you've barely begun. This is no time to be giving up!"
"I haven't given up! I'm just... disappointed."
"In how things are turning out. Well, maybe Fluttershy too, a little. Is that wrong of me? I know I shouldn't blame her for not putting her entire life on hold to come with us on this quest, but still..."
"You wish she was stronger."
Hearing it said out loud made Twilight feel like... kind of a bad person. Friendship was supposed to be unconditional, not dependent on somepony's willingness to help save the world.
"I am reminded of your struggle with Discord. You also lost faith then, when your friends weren't all they should have been, did you not?"
"But we only overcame all that with the memories of all the good times we'd had together. I don't have anything like that with their counterparts here. I barely know them."
"You know what they can be. You're better qualified than anyone to help them reach their potential, because you've already done it once."
"I don't know what I could do for everypony else. Applejack and Rarity are already heroes. I guess Fluttershy is kind of right. She's a little overshadowed."
"And Rainbow Dash?" asked Luna.
Twilight tensed up involuntarily. All the memories of what Dash had done came flooding back to her. She remembered the crack. "Did Spike...?"
Twilight thought for a moment, of how to best sum up her feelings towards Rainbow Dash. "I can't even stand to look at her," she finally admitted.
"So you disapprove of her actions."
"And your solution is to ignore her and stew in your disapproval until it boils and bubbles over into hatred."
"What? No!" She shook her head, but there was some truth to the accusation. "This isn't about me! Dash killed somepony! That's wrong! She's not the same pony that I know."
"Actually, from what I can tell, she is much the same. Is that what frightens you? That one of your friends might herself be capable of taking a life? Tell me, would you disown her if she did?"
"You're not being fair," said Twilight. She wanted to look away again, but Luna raised her hoof and gently held up Twilight's snout so their eyes were locked.
"I believe you are wrong, Twilight Sparkle. This is about you. Yes, Rainbow Dash killed somepony – what are you going to do about it? In my opinion, you should ask her to explain herself at the very least. You might inspire her to be better, or you might learn something yourself. Things aren't always as simple as they seem. The worst thing you could do is deciding you don't want to know her without giving her a chance."
Luna pulled away, took a few steps off to the side and furled up her wings. While Twilight mused about facing Dash and what to say to her, the rain slowed down to a trickle, and then stopped altogether.
"I won't tell you what to do, Twilight Sparkle," said Luna, "but do something."
Twilight nodded. "I should thank you, Princess. For talking to me about this."
"Think nothing of it," replied Luna, "You would have done the same for me."
Twilight stepped outside and smelled the rain. She splashed into puddles on the cracked pavement, and realized that she had missed this. At the very least, it was nice to take a breath without invisible dust getting clogged in her throat. The deathly quiet of the ruins (accounting for the dripping water) now seemed peaceful rather than ominous. Everything felt new and fresh, and it was impossible not to feel a little brighter.
Twilight wondered what to do. She wasn't exactly sure where Rainbow Dash was, and there were other matters to be settled. For one, she wanted to seek out Applejack and apologize for lying to her – and also perhaps to acknowledge her failings and ask for advice. Twilight didn't have to figure everything out on her own, after all. Applejack was wise and as experienced in matters like these as anypony. All the same though... Twilight hadn't forgotten that, while Rainbow Dash had struck the killing blow, Applejack had been just as willing to finish off Striker.
Finding Applejack was not difficult. Twilight came across her at the command post at the center of the army's encampment. Applejack had turned the place upside-down rummaging through various documents there, or perhaps the place had already been a mess beforehand.
"Found anything interesting?" asked Twilight perhaps a little too brightly.
Applejack looked up at her. "Not exactly. There's some battle plans here for the coming invasion, but nothing of use to the Apple Underground. I understand that Luna distributed most of the supplies to the townspeople, but we'll be able to restock our provisions."
"Ah, good... I'm glad you're keeping busy."A glare by Applejack reminded Twilight just how ineffectual she was being in comparison.
"This isn't keeping busy," said Applejack, "There's a lot of things I'd much rather be doing."
"Yes, um, we seem to be a little stuck. Do you have any ideas? About what to do with Fluttershy, I mean."
"Hmh." She shrugged. "Rainbow Dash went back to talk to her one on one. We'll have to see how she does."
"Even with her though, we're still missing the last member of our crew. We don't have anything to point us towards Pinkie Pie. I really expected us all to know each other..."
"Can't one of your Princesses find her then?" asked Applejack with a roll of her eyes.
"They're- they're not all powerful, you know. There's no need to be passive-aggressive." She drew closer to Applejack, keeping her head humbly low. "Look, I wanted to clear the air with you about that. I'm really sorry about deceiving you about Celestia. I just felt really queasy about introducing you to your sworn enemy and I don't want this to give you the impression that I don't trust you. I should have known better than to keep secrets from you."
If Applejack found her emphasis curious, she made no sign of it. She leaned against a nearby table, which creaked under her weight, and stared intently at the closest wall.
"Eh, trust's really not the issue," she said after a moment, "I know where you're going with this. You want to tell me that your Celestia is all different and that there are special circumstances to consider. Well, don't bother. I can abide working with your Princess and her sister because they're an asset too great to discard – but don't expect me to like it, not ever."
"That's... fair enough, I suppose," murmured Twilight.
"There's something I've been meaning to ask you for a while now," said Applejack, looking her in the eye now, "Suppose we pull through on this thing. Suppose we manage to beat the Queen with those thingamajigs. What then? What's going to happen then? Look, I'll say it plain – who do you think's going to be in charge in this country afterwards?"
"Well. Celestia will be, the real Celestia. Once the Elements of Harmony purify her of the force controlling her, she'll be free to start undoing the damage."
Applejack shook her head. "That's not gonna happen, Twilight."
"Come on!" said Twilight, "You have to realize that she isn't responsible for her actions! You're blaming the greatest victim of them all."
"If you say so. But you know what? It doesn't even matter. Whether she's culpable or not, ponies will never trust or accept her as their ruler anymore. You can't just make them forget all about the last millennium or so. You also can't have a revolution without change, for that matter. Celestia's gotta go. I don't think you realize what a symbol of evil she is..."
"I don't think you realize how vital she is," Twilight shot back. She caught a note of spite in her voice, and tried to go on calmer. "Ignoring the fact that she's the best pony for the job, the day-night cycle requires her to move the sun along its proper path. I'm sure you understand that, despite the detrimental effect constant exposure to it has, the sun is necessary for the life to exist on this planet. Moving the sun is something that used to be done by unicorns, but that knowledge has been lost in my world, and I seriously doubt Daymare Sun would have allowed it to exist here either. Even if she did though, would you really trust unicorns with that power? Those best qualified for it would also be the ones likeliest to want to enforce existing social structures."
Applejack chewed on her lip as she pondered Twilight's words. When she spoke at last, there was a familiar stubbornness to her words. "If I had a choice between changing one thing for the better, ecology or society, I'd pick the latter. Life sure isn't easy with that thing hanging over our heads, but I'd let the Eternal Day continue if that's what it took to make the tyranny end."
"The real Celestia would not be a tyrant."
"If she's going to wield absolute power with no oversight, then she sure would be."
Twilight felt a tinge of pity for Applejack's naivete that she immediately recognized as condescending. Such criticism of Celestia was a bit of a sore spot for her, but in truth, Applejack's views were at least a natural reaction against the world she'd grown up in. It wasn't her fault that she didn't know any better. Forcing an argument on the matter wouldn't be conductive to anything.
"Well, I'm sure there's room for a compromise," said Twilight with a sweep of her forehoof, "but I still feel that you don't truly understand what our Princess is like. Once this is all settled, I'd like you to come back with us – even just for a day – and look at the utopia she's created."
Applejack's expression was a study in ambivalence. Eventually though, she broke into a sad little smile. "I'm not sure I can take you up on that offer. If I ever see your world, I don't think I could ever force myself to come back."
"Applejack, I'm completely certain that this world will one day go back to being just as beautiful as ours, and ponies will have you and your work to thank for it. What we're doing here right now is the path to that. It matters, please believe me on that."
"Heh. Save the sales pitch, you don't have to keep convincing me."
"Well, you did say you wish you were rather elsewhere."
"Ah, well. Even if I was still back in Trottingham, I'd probably still be doing nothing. We're supposed to be laying low right now anyway. I just..."
"You wish you could do something about your brother," finished Twilight.
Applejack nodded. "It's tough, not knowing what's happened to him. At least last time, we knew for certain."
"I can't imagine how you must be feeling," said Twilight.
"How do I feel? Mostly responsible. That's not the same thing as guilty, mind you. He wouldn't even be doing any of this if it wasn't for me. He joined up so he could watch over me. I didn't need him to protect me, but grew used to having him there for me anyway. There was a time, not long ago, when he was talking about getting out of the game and settling down with some mare he knew. I talked him out of it. It seemed like the most obvious thing back then, but now? Now I kind of feel like I pressured him into it."
Yet, wasn't that exactly what they meant to do Fluttershy – pressure her into it? Twilight had been so resolute about not wanting to bully her, but how could she reconcile that with the fact that she had no intention of taking no for an answer? That was hardly respectful of her wishes.
Once Twilight's mind was on the question, it inevitably led her to its logical outgrow: what if Fluttershy agreed to come with them and something happened to her?
Before she stumbled across Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle found Spike again. The little dragon was sitting in a dry spot under the eaves of a broken-down building. Twilight cantered over to him and nuzzled her head against his side.
"Thank you, Spike!"
"Hey!" he exclaimed, wincing under the affection, "I didn't even do anything!"
"You went to Luna and sent her to talk to me, didn't you?"
Spike poked one of his finger-claws into her nose and pushed her away. The scales on his cheeks were a little reddish. "I figured if anypony could get you out of your funk, it would be the Mistress of Brooding."
"Well, you were right! I knew I kept you around for a reason!"
"Yeah, well, maybe you can return the favor now."
"What do you mean?"
"I saw Rarity earlier and thought she looked a little upset, so I followed her here-"
"Mmm. How stalkerish of you."
"I'm being serious here! I really think she could use somepony to talk to. I'd have done it myself, but, well, I figured it should be you." He scrunched up his face unhappily. "She's inside here."
Twilight turned around towards the dark doorway leading into the building. After a nod to Spike, she ventured into the ruins.
At any other time, her scientific curiosity would have been piqued. Ruins was all that was left of the griffon civilization in her world, and archeology was one of her many fields of interest. The building she was in had experienced its share of wear and tear – she couldn't even tell what its function might have been before the city was abandoned – but it would nevertheless have been a golden opportunity for study, had she been so inclined. Alas, there were more important things to deal with.
Twilight found Rarity in a wide-open hall, with only bare hints of muted light shining in from outside. Twilight could barely make out anything of the surroundings, though there were outlines of broken furniture visible on the floor. Rarity was lying on a legless couch with the upholstery ripped away ages ago.
"Is that you, Twilight?" she asked.
Her voice was slurred. Twilight could make out an open canteen on the floor in front of her. As she made her way closer, she picked up on the unspeakable smells wafting out of it.
"Have you been drinking?" asked Twilight.
"Mayhaps," replied Rarity, "I found some sunshine in the campsite. It's absolutely, positively the most despicable-tasting thing I've ever drunk."
"You know. Bootleg. Hooch. Illegally distilled liquor."
"Oh. We call it moonshine. You shouldn't be drinking, Rarity. It's not good for you. It dehydrates you, for one... I don't even understand why these idiots were making moonshine in a desert!"
"Now what business if it of yours whether or what I drink? Considering our current situation, it's not like this is some big hindrance to us."
Twilight rolled her eyes and made a grab for the canteen with her magic. Rarity grabbed hold of it herself, and for an instant, Twilight was afraid they'd get into a telekinetic tug-of-war, but Rarity was quick to relent. She let her head lull.
"You know another word for sunshine?" she mused quietly, "'White lightning.'"
Twilight pursed her lips and went about pouring what was left of the foul-smelling liquid through a gap in the cracked floorboards while desperately trying to think of something to say.
"This isn't very ladylike of you, Rarity."
"How little you know of being a lady! Being able to do whatever you want whenever you want it is a big part of it." She sniffled, which sounded suspiciously like holding back a sob.
Twilight sighed and sat down next to Rarity. "Were you and Soarin' close?" she asked carefully.
"I'm close to all my employees."
"There wasn't... anything else between you two?"
Rarity was addled enough that it took her a moment to catch the implication. "Oh, no. Not at all. I don't do romance anymore. What gave you that idea?"
"I don't know," said Twilight with a small shrug, "You just seemed so comfortable together."
"I want to retrieve his body if at all possible," mused Rarity, "When this is all over and done with, I mean. The Swamp should be safe to return to by then. I hope he'll be undisturbed. I'm not certain where to lay him to rest, or what else needs to be done. He didn't have any close friends beyond our little circle as far as I'm aware. His parents were dead, but he mentioned some cousins... I'll have to contact them and inform them what happened. Goodness, how am I going to tell them that his death was my fault?"
"Oh Rarity, don't say that..."
Rarity snorted. "'Don't say that?' You can't even manage a 'that's not true?'"
"It isn't," said Twilight.
"I was the one who brought him along as our chauffeur, I was the one that refused to let him rest at the chariot and I was the one who froze up at the crucial moment. He laid down his life to protect me. How, pray tell, is it not my fault?"
Twilight was at a loss for things to say. She was used to seeing Rarity's composure cracked by... outbursts of emotion, not this kind of seething bitterness. On the other hand, she'd never seen Rarity in circumstances like these; she'd never seen her truly grieve. In point of fact, Twilight had never had to comfort anypony in serious bereavement. How was she supposed to go about it? Was she overthinking it?
"Striker was the one that did it, not you. He's the only one to blame, and he's... gone now. I don't think the context of it really matters. It was just... bad luck."
Rarity shook her head. There were tears glistening on her cheeks.
"No, no, that came out wrong!" groaned Twilight, "Scratch that. It wasn't really bad luck. It wasn't chance. Soarin' made a decision to defend you. It was meant to happen because he made it happen. The responsibility for Soarin's death was his own." At the throaty sound of disbelief Rarity made, Twilight quickly added: "So I think – I think the best thing you could do is honor his memory by accepting his actions and not blaming yourself."
Rarity considered her words. "This doesn't really do much for me," she said quietly.
"I know," admitted Twilight.
Rarity was breaking up right beside her. Not knowing what else to do, Twilight enveloped her in a hug and held on as Rarity's body was racked by sobs.
Twilight felt guilty about Soarin's death – not because she'd failed to prevent it, but because she was unable to do it justice. She'd never seen a pony die before. It had shocked and horrified her, that was true, but it wasn't enough. In her heart of hearts, she knew that it didn't hit her as hard as what had happened to Striker. Soarin' was outweighed in Twilight's mind by his own murderer. How wrong was that? Her preoccupation with Dash's actions had even caused her to neglect how Rarity was feeling. She'd been so put off by the whole ordeal that she'd neglected the relationships she was meant to be building.
"You don't have to deal with this alone," said Twilight when Rarity had settled down a bit, "You shouldn't be here in the dark."
"You're right," said Rarity, sniffing and running a hoof over her eyes, "You're right."
"You should go find Applejack. She's a resistance leader, I'm sure she's dealt with her share of losses. Perhaps she can give you some advice."
"Yes. And Twilight..." She pulled back a bit and looked Twilight in the eyes. "Thank you."
Here she was now, working on those relationships, and Twilight suddenly realized that she felt disgusted with herself. What she was doing seemed so cynical, so manipulative. It was exactly what Spike had had in mind – letting Twilight comfort Rarity so that they could bond like they needed to. She was building a friendship by mandate. Was such a thing even possible? Was this genuine sentiment or cold calculation? What was familiar and what was strange? Was this friendship "real?"
Should she not have done this? But then what should she have done?
Even in the dark, Rarity could make out some of her internal conflict from her face. Hesitantly, she leaned forward renewed their hug. Twilight felt a little less doubt.
When Twilight found Rainbow Dash at last, it was largely due to luck: she just happened to look up at the right moment. Dash was perched on top of one of the few of the city's old lookout towers that was still standing. Her bright blue coat was the perfect camouflage for a sunny day, but it looked a tad more conspicuous framed by storm-clouds.
Twilight took a deep, halting breath and teleported up to the tower, landing on the roof with a preemptive sense of vertigo. The building's parapets had long since collapsed and fallen away, and the roof seemed slightly slanted. Twilight kept her legs splayed apart to steady herself and tried to avoid looking down.
"Er, ahem, hello," mumbled Twilight, "How did things go with Fluttershy?"
Rainbow Dash stared her down coolly before answering. "Like crap. She wouldn't consider what I had to say, wouldn't even let me inside. She's a lost cause."
"Well, I still hope to give it another shot."
Privately, Twilight wondered whether Rainbow Dash's brusque manner was right for drawing Fluttershy out of her shell and changing her mind, but she wasn't going to say that. This was supposed to be a reconciliation.
"S-so what are you doing up here?" Twilight asked, before the uncomfortable silence had time to settle.
"Small talk, huh? So, what, you feel like talking to me now, Ms. High and Mighty? You want to buddy up all of a sudden?" Dash was grinning humorlessly, her eyes narrowed.
"It's not that I want to buddy up..." Even though that was exactly what she should have wanted. "I just want to get to know you a bit and to understand – and to understand where you stand."
Suddenly, Dash was on her hooves and up in her face, almost close enough that their noses were touching. "I'm standing right here."
Twilight couldn't help but shrink away from her. The motion seemed to gratify Dash, judging by the way her lip curled.
"I can't even tell whether you're afraid of me or whether you just think you're better than me. What is it with that stick up your ass?"
"You-" Twilight cleared her throat. The words were hard to say. "You killed somepony."
"And so what?" Lowering her voice, she added: "Do you think Striker was the first one?"
Twilight had barely even considered that, at least not enough to fully acknowledge the fact that, no, Striker was most likely not the first pony Dash had killed. She realized something else too: Dash was only bringing it up to throw her off her guard.
"That's horrible." It was such a stupidly obvious thing to say, but Twilight wanted Dash to hear it.
Dash snorted. "Um, hello, Ms. Brainiac? He was a bad guy! He was a ruthless, murdering bastard that did his best to kill all you guys! Just look at what he did to your dragon buddy. I don't even want to imagine what he wanted me for."
"But we'd already beaten him! He wasn't a threat to anypony anymore. He was unconscious and completely defenseless!"
"So I'd have been a moron not to make use of that! Do you think he'd have had mercy if the situation was reversed?"
"That doesn't matter!" burst out Twilight, "You're supposed to be better than that!" You're supposed to be better.
"Do you think that other pegasus would have minded? Do you think he would have wanted to go unavenged?"
"Neither of us know what he would have wanted! You don't even know his name, so don't pretend you were particularly concerned about him!"
"You know who I was concerned about? All the ponies Striker had yet to kill. If we'd let him go, he'd have been free to orphan some poor filly or colt, or torture somepony for information, or have his dragon burn down a village for fun! Don't think he wouldn't have! Not to mention he would have blown Rarity's cover and done untold damage to her work in Everfree City! For crud's sake, I can't even list all the ways that it was a good idea to end him!"
"Your pragmatism is not in question here! That doesn't mean it was the right thing to do! There may have been alternative options, if you'd just-"
Dash's nostrils flared. "What gives you the right to judge what's right and wrong? As if somepony from some namby-pamby paradise could ever understand what it's like, living here! We don't have horns or fancy magic to make our problems go away! We don't have a benevolent goddess looking out for us! We have to fight and struggle to make it, and sometimes, that involves being hard and cold! You have it so easy and yet you complain about me not living up to your standards! You can't even comprehend all the horrible things the Secret Police have done, but I do! I've seen it myself! Why don't you try checking your self-righteousness, because you don't know anything!"
She raised her hoof and poked it in Twilight's chest to make a point. Twilight remembered the crack. Startled by the movement, she recoiled and lost her balance. She fell to her knees and swiveled around. Faced with the edge of the tower, she quickly scrambled back upright.
Dash frowned and averted her eyes. "I didn't mean to do that."
Twilight waited for her heartbeat to settle down and tried to think things though. Rainbow Dash was right on both accounts – Twilight was afraid of her and, on some level, she indeed thought herself superior. Both of these were irrational, emotional reactions. She was, however, meant to be intellectual and reasonable. Dash wasn't going to hurt her, and even though every fiber of Twilight's being screamed the opposite, she had to consider the notion that killing Striker may have been the right thing to do. That was Luna's advice – not to close herself off to the possibility.
Twilight would have been lying if she said that Dash's arguments left her untouched. This was a whole new world, and things were so different here. She couldn't take anything for granted, not even morality. It was fundamentally unrealistic to expect somepony from such a hostile environment to grow up with the same value systems as Twilight.
It was true, Dash and others fighting the good fight in this world didn't have the means that Twilight and her friends enjoyed back home. Indeed, they might not have had the luxury of dismissing pragmatism and other extreme methods. It was a complex, maddening dilemma that could ultimately be reduced to a simple question: did she think Rainbow Dash was a bad person at heart? The answer was no. A person that did questionable things, a misguided person, but not an evil one.
Twilight had come to wonder whether there was a reason she'd ended up in this world. Perhaps it wasn't just a matter of defeating Daymare Sun and restoring balance, perhaps she was also meant to show them another way, and that couldn't happen if she rejected Dash out of hand. They were meant to be friends, her conviction in that belief had never wavered. One could be friends with ponies very different from yourself, as long as you were willing to accept those differences. Twilight had proven herself capable of that throughout the childish spats of the mundane, but this was the real test.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I'm sorry for ignoring you and for... this. I didn't mean to come here to accuse you."
Dash's expression didn't soften, but her voice did. "I... wasn't really going to start justifying my actions like that either."
"No, I'm glad you did. I needed to hear all that. Like you said, I don't really know anything. I guess I've had a hard time adjusting."
Twilight could understand Rainbow's actions, and – to an extent – accept them. But she found that she could not forgive. She could not force her heart to cross that threshold. Perhaps that was fine though. Perhaps it wasn't her place to forgive... Twilight resolved to ask Princess Celestia her opinion once they met again.
Dash just stared at her. It fell on Twilight to deal with the awkwardness.
"So, if you don't mind me asking, how many have you... you know?" Perhaps it would have been better to move on from the subject, but Twilight couldn't couldn't suppress her morbid curiosity.
Dash shrugged, but there was palpable weight to the motion. She wasn't being dismissive. "It's not something I keep count of."
Twilight nodded slowly, not really sure where to go from there. It felt inappropriate to segue this conversation into lighter territory at this point. Perhaps it was best to leave things be for the time being instead of forcing anything.
"I think maybe we should take off now," said Twilight, "Let's find the others. Like I said, I haven't given up on Fluttershy yet."
She raised her hoof. After some hesitation, Dash raised hers as well and bumped it together with Twilight's.
Once more unto the breach...
Like last time, Fluttershy was slow to come meet them, though she now met them with irritation rather than anxiety.
"What do you want?" she asked through half-open door.
"I'd just like one final opportunity to talk to you. Please." It must have sounded like Twilight had something big in mind to make a convincing case, but she wasn't too sure about that. She had a new tactic, but suspected it would merely boil down to more pleading in the end.
Fluttershy regarded her with suspicion, but finally decided to squeeze herself through the door and face them again.
"I'd like to you reconsider about joining us, Fluttershy."
"This again? I already gave you my answer."
"Look, you made it abundantly clear earlier that you're unhappy with your life here, and that you have trouble managing. That's understandable. It's a tough going and not suited to just anypony. I don't think that makes you a failure or somehow less than others. But Fluttershy, if you're not happy here then you should leave! Come with us and you'll have a chance to turn a whole new leaf! I know this sounds strange, but if farming isn't working out for you, maybe being a freedom fighter will?"
Arguing with Fluttershy was always a delicate balancing act with her self-worth. Twilight had to push rather hard for her to change without hurting her feelings about who she was. Thankfully, the others were a lot more enthusiastic about stepping in this time.
"No offense, but you are a pegasus," said Applejack, "and a relatively delicate one at that. You're not meant for this line of work."
"You know, quite aside from whether you're joining our little group – and I do hope you will – I could find a place for you in my service. Helping tend to my mansion or some-such should be a little more comfortable."
"You're just undercutting yourself," answered Fluttershy, "If I'm 'delicate,' then all the more reason I wouldn't be able to do anything to help you guys. And no thank you on the generous offer, milady. I came back to Hillside because I wanted to be alone."
"I don't believe you," said Twilight.
In the ensuing silence, they all heard a metallic clunk, loud and clear. All heads turned towards Fluttershy's cabin.
"What was that?" wondered Rarity.
"Sounded like... something," replied Applejack, her eyebrow cocked.
All heads proceeded to turn to Fluttershy herself, who looked like she'd just finished drinking a bottle of vinegar.
"Oh, that was..." Fluttershy's voice faded away. Her eyes flickered from side to side like a cornered animal's. Finally, she sighed. "I have a guest."
"A guest?" repeated Dash, "You?"
"Thank you for that," mumbled Fluttershy, "This is really none of your concern."
"You mean you've had somepony sitting there listening in on us the whole time?" wondered Applejack, with an edge in her voice.
"No, it's not like that..."
"I wouldn't exactly call this being alone," commented Spike.
"It wasn't a – no, don't do that!"
Thanks to a small push from her wings, Dash was already gliding over Fluttershy's head towards the door. "Sorry, but I gotta see this." She pushed open the door.
Twilight wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but it wasn't this. There was a griffon standing in the middle of Fluttershy's hut – a particularly familiar griffon at that. It was, unless Twilight was mistaken, Gilda.
Instead of a rebellious fringe, the feathers on her head were trimmed into a crew cut, and she wasn't wearing make-up. One of her wings and one of her hindpaws were wrapped in bandages. She seemed to have been working at slipping on a light metal armor with spots of brownish dried blood on it, and now stared at the group of ponies with a mixture of bewilderment, embarrassment, uncertainty and probably a host of other emotions.
"Oh no!" muttered Fluttershy and breezed past Dash back inside, "I told you, you're not fit to leave yet!"
"And I told you I was," replied Gilda gruffly, "Now's the best time for me to get away, with no ponies to stop me. Except you, I mean."
Twilight, Applejack, Rarity, Dash and Spike used this opportunity to slip into the cottage after Fluttershy. With all of them inside, the place was rather crowded.
"Um, what?" said Rainbow Dash.
"Well, I'm not confused at all," murmured Spike.
"Uh, hey?" said Gilda, "No offense, but I really don't want to get involved in your crazy shenanigans. Just one of the reasons I'd like to take off now."
"No," said Fluttershy, "You won't make it to that border with that wing of yours, and it would be too risky to walk the whole way."
"Ahem, would you mind explaining what a griffon is doing here?" said Twilight.
Fluttershy snorted and sat down on her bed in the corner of the room. "It's nothing, really. Gilda here is with the Griffon Army. She was injured in a skirmish and came down nearby. I took her in, treated her wounds as best I could and kept her hidden from the soldiers. They... they would have killed her."
Gilda and Dash had started pacing around each other, wings extended.
"A griffon, eh?" said Dash, "What's your title then?"
"Those are for knights, featherbrain. I'm just a regular scout."
"Oh yeah? That must must mean you're pretty fast."
"You still got caught and beat up though."
"Correction: they didn't catch me. I got away. That's why I'm here now."
"Cool your heads, ladies," said Rarity, "Applejack, didn't you say something about finding some pony battle plans earlier?"
Gilda perked up at that. "Hey, could I see those battle plans? I mean, uh, if you feel like selling out your homeland? Wow, kind of an awkward thing to ask. Sooo how about it?"
"I'll show you them later on," said Applejack, "Consider it a gift of goodwill from the pony resistance, eh?"
Twilight joined Fluttershy on her bed.
"You're already standing up to the Queen in your own way, you know," she said, "After all, you took in Gilda here, didn't you? She's an enemy combatant and aiding and abetting her would be considered treason, I'm sure. There's only one punishment for treason. You were brave to help her. You're fully capable of rebelling when you feel it's the right thing to do, and you know what we're doing is the right thing, don't you?"
"Yes. Yes. I hope you succeed. I wish you the best of luck. But I'm not meant to go along with you. I'm nothing. I'm nopony."
"Yeah, well, you're a nothing that probably saved my life," said Gilda, "Good lord, I've seen the way you live. There's absolutely nothing keeping you here. Just do it."
"You're keeping me here, for one! If I leave, you would too, and then what?"
"Well, actually," said Twilight, "we could drop off Gilda safely at the border on our way."
"Fluttershy, please," said Dash, "We wouldn't be hassling you if this wasn't important. I know you don't like responsibility, but this might be the most crucial thing any of us will ever do. So come ooooon!"
"I- I can't. I'd only get in your way."
"Don't shield yourself in self-pity, darling," said Rarity, "It's unbecoming."
"We have a lot of different ponies on our side," explained Applejack, "Not all of them fight. There's a lot of ways to contribute something. I can't pretend to know how these Elements of Harmony work, but if you'd just have a little faith..."
"I can't! Why won't any of you understand?!"
"I don't get it," said Twilight, "Dash said the Secret Police took your parents. We figured you would want to go up against them."
"You know about my parents and you still have to wonder why I don't want to go along with you? They tried standing up to the Queen and look what happened to them. They got killed for their trouble. Do you realize that I'm saying? They left me an orphan because they couldn't leave well enough alone! My parents were fools that shouldn't have been together in the first place!"
"Why would you say something like that?" Twilight remembered what she knew of Fluttershy's parents. "You mean because they weren't of the same breed?"
"Yes. My mother stupidly got together with an earth pony. And I'm just as stupid as she was..."
"What do you mean?"
"Did Dash tell you why I left the Cloud Patrol? No, that was after her time. Well, I'll be honest with you." She let her gaze drop to the floor. "I didn't really leave. Not voluntarily. It was the one thing I was any good at. Most ponies assume I quit my job in protest or something, that I just told my bosses to eff themselves like Rainbow Dash did. As if I'd wanted to be left bitless and come back home to chew on dried roots to survive! As if I was that brave... I didn't leave my job – I was fired. For fraternizing with an earth pony."
Fluttershy blushed under their collective stares. Twilight mouthed something indistinct, her brain momentarily unable to formulate any coherent thoughts. By Rainbow Dash's wide eyes, this was all news to her as well.
"But you want to know the funny part?" continued Fluttershy, "He got roped into rebelling against the Queen as well. The Secret Police killed him too."
"Fluttershy..." Twilight reached out and put her hoof on the pegasus's shoulder. "I'm so, so sorry."
"He was part of some kind of operation. I don't even know what he was meant to be doing, but the city guard at Everfree caught him. It was over a year ago that they took him from me and walked him to their prison complex. Like you said, there's only one punishment for treason." She took a deep breath and released it. "I can't think of anypony that would have deserved his fate less. Even though he had the look of a brute, he was always the sweetest, gentlest soul. He had a mind too. Even though he rarely spoke, his mind was always working. I loved him, and nopony could ever replace him. We never even got much time together, what with my job requiring me to travel and Big Macintosh being a part-time outlaw. I haven't been truly-"
Applejack raised her head. "Beg pardon? Did you say-?"
"Big Macintosh?" repeated Twilight.
Fluttershy eyed them cautiously. "Yes?"
"Big Mac's my brother!" Applejack half-shouted.
It took a moment for the information to take hold in Fluttershy's brain. Ears twitching and mouth slightly agape, she slowly pulled her skeletal form back upright and stared at Applejack.
"The leader of the Apple Underground," she muttered to herself, "Yes, of course. I should have realized..." Abruptly, she raised her voice. "Then you're the bitch that sent him to his death?!"
The outburst shocked everypony else in the room into silence. For an instant, Fluttershy's face was contorted into a vicious snarl. Her anger dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. She herself seemed as disturbed as anypony.
"I'm sorry!" she squeaked, closing her eyes in shame, "That was unkind of me. I didn't mea-" Her mouth snapped shut. Nopony there was under the illusion that she hadn't meant it. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
Applejack's mouth had drawn into a thin, tense line. "You've got something very wrong, missy," she said, "Big Mac didn't die. They took him prisoner, but we got him out before he could be executed. Me and Rarity and the rest of the team."
"Wh-what?" She paused. "That can't be... It's not possible." The desperate smile that flowered on Fluttershy's face was painful to see. "Are you telling me he's all right? That he's been all right all this time?!"
"Oh dear," whispered Rarity.
"He was alright," said Applejack quietly, "Right now... we don't know. He's gone missing in action, just a short while ago. My best guess is that he's been recaptured."
Fluttershy looked as if the smile on her face had been frozen and then shattered. Her entire body seemed to sag, leaving her staring listlessly at the floor.
"How- how did I not know about this?" Her voice was high-pitched and filled with blame. The accusation wasn't directed at any of them, but herself.
"The Secret Police hushed everything up," said Applejack, "They didn't want it known that somepony had managed to stage a prison break right at their headquarters. By the time Big Mac was out and in the condition to go looking for you, you'd left Everfree. It took him a while to get in shape. They- well, they did a number on him."
It took Fluttershy long seconds to raise her head again. Twilight had the oddest mental image – it was as if they were watching a coin spinning in the air, waiting for it to land on its side. Heads, Fluttershy would be so broken by the revelation that she would be neither inclined nor capable of helping anypony. Tails, Fluttershy would be so furious at Applejack and the whole wide world that she'd spit on them and throw them all out.
And the third option...
"Are you telling the truth?" Fluttershy's voice was shaking, but surprisingly calm.
"What kind of question is that?" asked Applejack with a scowl.
"Why wouldn't we be telling the truth?" asked Twilight.
"Because if if what you say is true, I have to come with you. If there's a chance that he could be rescued, then I have to come and try to make it happen."
And that was that.
Fluttershy was on board. The development could not possibly have been less fulfilling for Twilight.
Somehow, it didn't seem right that Fluttershy was the only one among them going along for personal reasons rather than the greater good. She was doing it for a stallion, not for Equestria and not for any one of her companions. It was even a little naïve, since whatever prison Big Macintosh was in was unlikely to be their first destination.
Did that matter? Was this friendship? Was some arbitrary purity of motive necessary to qualify her as one of the Elements of Harmony? Twilight didn't know, and she didn't like not knowing. It was another thing she was going to have to ask Princess Celestia.
Fluttershy wasn't lacking in empathy and social awareness; she was as interested in seeing Daymare Sun's reign end as anypony. Perhaps this personal connection was merely the final push needed to entice her to action? None of them had really been heroes when they'd first braved the Everfree Forest to find a way to defeat Nightmare Moon. As long as Fluttershy had that spark of kindness within her, Twilight hoped, nothing else mattered.
These questions raised, however, were not the biggest problem. There were still only five of them. Even with Fluttershy, they were still at a dead end with no recourse in sight. For now, they had no other option but to head back to Trottingham with Luna and figure out what to do about Pinkie Pie.
- Four months. Four fricking months. It's a terribly long time to leave you hanging. I don't feel very good about it and I apologize. he only thing I can say is that the delay wasn't due to a lack of interest in the story, but an all-consuming apathy that affected all aspects of my life. Seriously, you would be amazed by how little effort I put into my final university exams a few weeks ago. Cooking myself dinner was also too much of a bother more than once. So yes, while I'm sorry... it was probably worse for me than for you.
- This chapter is the longest so far, and an absolute monster to write. You might be wondering why I didn't post it in two parts. The reason for this is that I didn't write it in linear order. (This is why the writing might seem a little disconnected and jumpy at times?) I strongly considered halving it now for ease of reading, but couldn't bring myself to do it. Maybe it would have been better, I don't know.
- If you're thinking that Gilda's appearance seemed pointlessly small, don't worry. She hasn't even begun to play her role yet.
- My original concept for this chapter involved a lot more hanging around the ruins, not knowing what to do and being depressed about it. Things didn't work out that way.
- I made a conscious effort with this chapter to make dialogue a little less expository and a little more about characterization. I also tried to delve a little into complex moral issues. Did it work?
- I'd like to hear your speculation about the situation with Pinkie Pie.
- What do you think of Alternate!Fluttershy?
- Sorry again.
Next chapter: The Die Is Cast.