Evening fell over the Ever-Free Forest—not that anything in its shadowy heart actually noticed.
There was something about the place, a darkness which truly refused to give up its vain fight against the break of day. Even with the sun shining merrily overhead, the forest floor was forever gloomy and subdued, even when there wasn't a cosmic horror or malevolent magical being dwelling in its murky recesses.
There was always a sense of impending here. Not impeding doom, or impending danger, or perhaps some other dreadful thing entirely—nothing that specific. There was only an uneasy sense that something was just about to happen. In the shadow of every tree, a new danger could lurk—or perhaps not; the only way to know was to step forward and find out. There was nothing about the place that engendered comfort or calm even on the most uneventful journey—only a growing sense of unease as a horrible misfortune somehow managed not to find you, over and over again.
Perhaps this was why the place held such dread for the ponyfolk, even those rugged Apples who lived in its shadow every day. They were a folk too used to sunshine—if there were obstacles and hardships in their lives, at least they were plainly visible. They were an open and honest folk, and thus the tenebrous depths of the Ever-Free and the uncertainty that plagued every step in that forsaken place disturbed them in a very fundamental way.
But discomfort was no barrier to a determined heart, and there were some things that even the thickest gloom couldn't keep out...
For one thing, the blistering heat and oppressive humidity of the previous week had taken a while to penetrate the depths of the forest, but now it had suffused the place. Even the mightiest beasts of the wood were laid low by this intangible foe, so the forest was even more quiet and subdued than usual, no longer haunted by distant roars or mysterious shrieks. The only sign that any creature was even tolerating the weather was the raspy hymn of a monstrous legion of cicadas, buzzing a chorus in honor of the evening sun.
That, and the sodden thumps of hooves pounding across turf.
The Ever-Free Forest was never a place to travel idly, but the mare had been here often enough before on one misadventure or another that she felt confident moving with some speed, leaping over the rough paths in something resembling a canter, dodging branches which seemed to reach out at her from the darkness and roots which burst forth to snag, unseen, at her hooves.
Others might have called it incautious, but there was need of haste. No matter her experience and courage, she had no wish to remain here long after dark, especially since the sweltering weather of the past few days was now gathering into a storm the likes of which Equestria hadn't seen in years.
If that storm broke while she was still here, stumbling in the dark, it wouldn't be one of the dreadful residents of this forsaken place that would be her end. Instead, it would be a river that leapt its bed into a horrible, rushing flood, or perhaps a lightning-struck tree falling on her, her doom predicted only by the thunderous crashing and a brief, stinging shower of splinters before the inevitable end.
And just as pressing on her desire for speed were the distant calls of her pursuer, echoing through the gnarled trunks of this wretched place.
“Where are you!?”
Grimacing, the mare pressed on. Whether it was a testament to her fortitude and determination or the spectacular allure of her goal, she wouldn't have been able to say even if she had spared the issue some thought. All that mattered was getting there, snatching her prize, and escaping...and she would, because she'd decided that's how the world was going to be.
Her hooves pounded on the thick, rich soil of the forest, as the mare went deeper and deeper, eagerly swallowed by the thick darkness of that ancient place; and only moments behind came her pursuer, no less determined in their chase through the gloomy depths of the Ever-Free.
The oppressive silence of the forest was interrupted by a distant roll of thunder overhead, so punctually ominous as to be ridiculous. The storm, rolling in from the northwest, was still miles away, and she had time yet. Still, it meant that the going would only be getting harder from here on out; the omnipresent gloom of this dreadful place would fade into darkness, thick and jealous, and try to claim her once and for all.
The thunder faded, and as if on cue, her pursuer called again, the sound clearer and less remote than it had been up 'til now.
The mare paused, for a second, turning back to the sound. She swallowed and panted a moment's anxiety, thinking quickly.
Gritting her teeth, she turned back to her path and pressed on, eyes narrowed fiercely.
Only a little further now...
Flight Lieutenant Rainbow Dash, Canterlot Royal Guard, 1st Aerial Demonstration Squadron (“The Wonderbolts”), blew a strand of her spectacularly-colored hair up out of her face and back under the heavy ornamental helmet.
She idly wondered, not for the first time, if she'd have pursued her lifelong dream so readily if she'd been conscious ahead of time that being a Wonderbolt necessarily meant being a Royal Guardspony, and thus for every second of stunt flying there were ten thousand seconds of standing around glaring at anypony in Canterlot Castle doing...well, anything, really.
Not that she had been called upon to do this in the three hours she'd been standing here before the vacant thrones of Equestria at the far end of an equally empty Great Hall, of course.
Another strand of mane fell in her face, and she blew it back up under the helmet's rim for the hundred thousandth time.
Twilight had tried to explain to her once that the point of having guards around wasn't so much that anypony really thought anything would happen, but more because it gave the palace a sort of finished look—and of course, if something did happen, there'd be somepony on hand to deal with it. Dash hadn't said anything at the time, but she was privately of the opinion that given the Royal Guard's overall effectiveness in crises in the past, the addition of Rainbow Dash to their ranks increased their capabilities more than a little.
Which made her being assigned to an empty room that much more...annoying.
Like, sure, it was a big honor to be the on-duty attendant to the throne—when the princess was there. Today, they hadn't even held court! There was nopony here!
Dash sighed and looked out a crack between boards reinforcing a great panel window at the gathering darkness in the northwest, trying not to think of the planks as prison bars. It was rolling down across the mountains, lit by the sunset into a grim bruise in the sky. Even with that looming in the distance, she had to force her wings to stay at her side, resisting with effort the impulse to leap into the sky just to relieve her boredom.
That would be a quick end to her career in blue, though, so she stayed where she was and tried to satisfy herself with thinking about how as annoying as it was for her, this whole situation was misery incarnate for somepony else.
She hadn't been there herself, but scuttlebutt was that the director of the Equestrian Weather Service had endured both princesses smiling calmly at him as he sheepishly explained to them that the local bureaus had been a bit lax in carrying out their scheduled rainstorms. Dash knew what that was like, and felt sympathy for the pompous old pegasus for the very first time. Back when she was the local director for Ponyville, everypony always complained when it rained, schedules be damned. But she'd never let them backslide, because some ponies complaining was much better than, well...this.
It was going to be a hell of a thing—that much she could tell just by looking at it, rolling over the mountains to the northwest. That much heat, humidity and air pressure building up was a nightmare waiting to happen. The storm was due to roll over the entire country—a hellish night, such that a state of emergency had been declared and the entirety of ponykind had turned their daily effort to boarding windows, shoring levees, and generally making sure that when the morning came, they'd still have something resembling a roof over their collective heads and weren't floating downstream on their mattresses.
Canterlot had not been spared this effort, miracle of architecture and magical construction though it was. In fact, it was almost worse off than the rest of Equestria—too many windows, for one thing. There was a price to pay for style and elegance; all day the staff had been bustling about, making sure the windows were reinforced, the hedges were covered, the statuary in the ornamental gardens were reinforced...there'd been so much to do that even off-duty guards were recruited to help.
But even at a time like this there were some day-to-day details that required attention, or so Dash was told. Thus for the last three hours Rainbow Dash, knight of Equestria, had been standing here next to empty thrones as Celestia attended to the uppermost reaches of Canterlot's many towers, being the only pony who could do so with anything resembling efficiency. Attempts to have unicorns from the Academy riding pegasi had not been particularly successful.
Dash sighed again. The action made a bead of sweat slip down into her eyes, stinging them. She cursed and blinked it away, muttering to herself.
Full armor! Gold was a good look for her and everything, but it had been sweltering for the last three weeks! And the Great Hall was an oven with the windows shut like they had been all day today, and she was wearing full parade plate on top of everything!
“Bored yet, hot shot?”
Dash blinked, and turned away from the storm rolling across the sky, to take in the much more welcome sight of Soarin's lazy grin. “Hey, man,” she said, a grin of her own spreading across her face. “Sneak away, huh?”
Soarin was shorn of his armor or a flight suit, and Dash took a moment to appreciate this fact as he strode up to her, his body moving with perfect athletic control. “Nah, they just had me pulling canvas over the landscaping, you know? I mean, there's a lot of gardens, but it only takes so long to cover them all. The palace grounds are all but done, I guess. How about you?”
“Spitfire has me guarding the princesses.” Dash tossed her head in the direction of the thrones, giving him a weak grin. “As you can see, they're safe and sound.”
“Never looked better, yeah,” Soarin replied. He sauntered up to Dash and made a show of giving her a good twice-over. “Same goes for their security.”
“Oh yeah?” Dash murmured, slinking forward so that she was side-by side with him, their muzzles barely inches apart. “You think so, huh?”
“Mmm. I've always had a thing for mares in uniform...”
Both of them leaned in, grinning madly...
It should have been a happy moment between ponies in love, it really should have. The light of the evening was shining in the windows of the great hall just right to make their eyes gleam fiery amber. In Soarin's eyes Dash saw herself thrown in harsh relief against the coming storm, a bold, bright creature amidst a gathering dark.
They could smell the day's labor on each other. It was intoxicating.
Their eyes closed. The warmth of the other pony's muzzle somehow overwhelmed even the crushing heat here in the Hall...
“I swear upon the crowns of the Sisters, I can't leave you two alone for a second!”
The sound of the voice made Soarin and Dash split apart in a complicated instant, snapping to attention in parade formation, staring blankly ahead. The voice carried harmonics that spoke to something deep down in a military mind and made it obey without question—it was a voice they were used to hearing over the sound of the rushing wind, after all, and disobeying orders at the speed of sound was rarely a good idea.
“Ma'am!” they chorused, hooves clicking on the marble of the great hall.
Commander Spitfire prowled into the Great Hall, her face a portrait of displeasure. As had become her habit since the accident, she wore her dress uniform with almost psychotic precision, her lame left wing bound in a black band and clutched close to her body so that its irregular, uncontrollable twitching wouldn't result in it flapping around pathetically. In a heatbeat the golden pegasus stood before her wayward officers, looking them both up and down irritably.
“What is it with you two? If I have to explain to Commander Shining Armor why I can't keep my pegasi off each other—again—I swear I'll have you cleaning the barracks latrines with your tongues. I don't care if Princess Celestia herself is officiating the ceremony, you're only fiancees when you're off-duty. Until then, you're mine, and I want discipline. Got it?” she barked.
“Actually, Princess Celestia is—” Dash began, but Spitfire's eyes snapped to her with a look that invited Dash to continue her sentence because there were all sorts of inventive disciplinary cruelties she was itching to try on someone. Dash snapped to attention and swallowed.
The commander narrowed her eyes. “Have I made myself clear?”
“Ma'am!” Soarin and Dash replied in concert. Their eyes briefly flickered to one another, managing to convey their mutual nervousness. They both knew that Shining Armor—who ultimately was the one whose opinion mattered— didn't really mind, and was trying to make a joke...but Spitfire minded. A lot.
Spitfire gave each of them a long, irritable glare, watching her hoof-chosen second and third officers sweat under the intense gaze before closing her eyes and huffing. “Good. Anyways, I'm here to relieve you, Lieutenant. Princess Celestia says we're done, and wants everypony home before things get too bad.”
Dash blinked, staring straight ahead. “Aye, ma'am.”
“Straight home, got it?” Spitfire said, staring at Dash's perfectly at-attention features. “No dilly dallying, and no flying in the storm. Not unless you want to join me behind a desk when you report for duty, on time, tomorrow morning...?”
Dash, completely at a loss, was sorely tempted to look to Soarin, if for no other reason than so that she didn't look at the lame wing flopping helplessly at her commanding officer's side. The stallion knew Spitfire much better than she did, and might know what to say—this was the first time Spitfire had referenced the accident that grounded her in Dash's presence.
While the commander was sober, anyways.
Dash grasped for something to say. For all that Spitfire was being stricter than absolutely necessary—
Internally, Dash sighed. No sense being generous; Spitfire was being a total bitch—and more to the point, not even Soarin, who'd been her friend since they were foals, was in any position to tell her so, even on the quiet.
She played it safe. “Aye, ma'am.”
“Same goes for you, Soarin,” Spitfire snapped, turning her dreadful glare on the stallion.
“Gotcha, Spits,” he replied, automatically.
Spitfire cocked her head, not smiling at all.
“Er, aye, ma'am,” Soarin corrected himself, a little awkwardly.
Dash risked a glace to her fiancee, and her heart broke as it had a hundred times before—not because he looked sad, but because he didn't—no, couldn't. And yet she knew he was hurting, badly, as his best friend dressed him down; even this reflexive little gesture of familiarity and warmth had bounced off her, after...
After what had happened.
Dash closed her eyes and tried to suppress a sigh.
“Dismissed, then,” Spitfire said, giving the couple a harsh look as they turned to trot away.
When they'd made it more or less halfway down the Hall, Dash tossed a glance over her shoulder. Her eyebrows rose in shock, and she turned to Soarin, speaking sotto voce. “Is she staying here—”
“Shut up shut up shut up—” Soarin moaned under his breath, but it was too late. With its great windows closed and boarded, and vacant of occupants, the Great Hall was a giant echo chamber.
“I said I was relieving you, Dash,” Spitfire snapped at them. “Some of us are already...already where they need to go for the evening. And the post needs to be filled, even if you're being let go a bit early...”
Dash made to pause and reply, but Soarin clicked his tongue in a nervous sort of way and tapped her with his wing for a moment, so she kept moving. Still, she watched Spitfire over her shoulder for awhile. The golden mare stood at attention at the foot of the dais, looking everywhere but at the departing couple.
“Is she going to stay there all night?” Dash hissed to Soarin, as they closed the doors to the Great Hall behind them and walked out into the courtyard leading to the main gates.
Soarin turned a sorrowful expression on her. “Until one of the princesses comes for her, yeah. She lives in the palace now, you know.”
“Yeah.” Soarin sighed and looked away into the distance, towards this evening's “entertainment”. “Princess Luna offered her one of the staterooms in the Tower of Dusk after the accident.”
Dash put on a half-hearted grin. “I had no idea. That was cool of her, I guess.”
“You think so?”
That stopped Dash in her tracks. There'd been too much accusation in that question—it wasn't a polite inquiry, it was almost an insult. It had sounded like Twilight did when she was annoyed that Dash wasn't getting something and was trying to lead her along to it. Needless to say she wasn't used to hearing it in the perpetually calm, laid-back voice of her husband-to-be.
Soarin was giving her a complicated look, staring at her rather more intensely than she was used to.
“Well...yeah,” Dash said, a little tentatively. “It's not like she could stay in, er, in her old place. Gotta...fly to it...” She trailed off as Soarin sighed and looked away.
“Look, don't worry about it. Just...just do me a favor and don't, you know...talk to her about it, or whatever,” he said, staring out at the storm.
Dash stepped next to him, looking up at his pained expression with a growing sense of unease. In the distance, the sky rumbled over the mountains, like a grumbled threat. “Don't worry about that. The only thing she wants to hear from me these days is 'yes ma'am'...” She pressed her nose against his neck and took a deep breath, kissing his warm coat gently.
Soarin accepted Dash's nuzzle with every sign of gratitude and sighed, closing his eyes. “Just give her time. I feel like...I feel like things are going to get worse before they get better, you know?”
“Are you sure you can't stay? I'm sure Ponyville can spare you for another day—or two, even...”
Side-by-side, the two friends walked through the vaulted corridors of Canterlot. They were in a hurry—well, technically they were in a hurry against the train schedule, but the truth was that they were making no particular haste, staving off their parting.
They did this confident in the knowledge that the train to Ponyville would hardly leave without its most prominent passenger...because the Princess had told it not to. Politely, of course, but Celestia was good at making sure nopony confused her politeness for something that turned a royal command into a suggestion these days. It was a skill.
Twilight's errand in Manehattan had gone rather better than either of them had expected. Celestia had been delighted to awaken one morning to find Luna and Twilight playing a complex board game, three days before her Day Guard assistance, Rainbow Dash and Soarin, were due back. Apparently, the coven of ponies who had robbed the Manehattan Archive of Malevolent and Mischevious Magical Tomes had all but begged Twilight for forgiveness the second they saw it was her on their doorstep—something that the unicorn confessed to have found a little embarrassing and anticlimactic.
Twilight chuckled. “I'd love that, I really would. But Spike...well...” She scrunched up her face, looking pained. “He sent me a message while I was in Manehattan. Things are going missing in Ponyville, and...the Library's been broken into.”
Celestia gasped, her heart swelling with sympathy for her protege. She couldn't imagine the feeling of violation, Canterlot stood now as it always had, inviolable. Everypony needed their sanctuary in the world, she knew that as well as anypony—and the Library was Twilight's fortress. “In that case, why come here at all, Twilight?”
“Ah, well...the Tome of Too Much Information is a pretty dangerous artifact. Not that I don't trust Dash and Soarin, but maybe bringing it here myself was...called for. More professional.” Twilight shrugged, and gave Celestia a grin. “And to be honest, Spike is convinced it's a ghost. So it's probably just the Cake foals...they love messing with him, especially since Pinkie gives them hints. Telekinesis, you know. Still, I'd better put a stop to it before it gets out of hand.” She crinkled her nose irritably. “Again.”
Celestia laughed at the image of two foals who barely reached her knee feeling at liberty to harass a dragon who looked the princesses in the eye when he stood to his full height nowadays.
Twilight paused for a moment before she continued in a small voice. “And...to tell the truth, I'd been thinking...”
Celestia smiled down at Twilight, who was blushing, very slightly. “Yes?”
“It had just been a long time since I'd seen you, I guess.”
The princess paused and gave this some thought. “Three weeks or so, yes? There was that...well, I'm not sure that there's a word for what Pinkie Pie was doing, but I did get the noodles out of the aetheric resonator in the end, you'll be happy to hear. Even if some of them had been turned into snakes at that point...”
Twilight looked up at her, looking wry. “Once upon a time, I used to see you every day. Maybe it was seeing Dash after so long, or I'm just getting old, but—” She paused, frowning, when Celestia burst out in a bright laugh. “What?”
“Of all ponies, you talk to me about getting nostalgic with age...”
“So you should sympathize!”
Celestia snorted amusement. “You're twenty-seven, Twilight. Talk to me after your third century...”
“Don't think I won't,” the unicorn threatened, giving Celestia a knowing grin.
“Oh, well, then. I look forward to it.”
They rounded a corner and stepped out into one of the palace's many open-air pavilions, which eventually lead to the main road down into Canterlot Town and, in a roundabout way, to Twilight's home in Ponyville.
“It'll have to wait, then, I suppose,” Twilight said with an open reluctance that tugged on the princess' heart. “While it's fun to exercise the royal prerogative, there's a point when it starts just being rude, don't you think?”
Celestia affected a pose of haughtiness so absurdly exaggerated that Twilight involuntarily snorted laughter. “I bow to your wisdom. I, of course, feel at liberty to do whatever I see fit at any given time, and am famous for being as capricious and unpredictable as the sun, which never does the same thing twice. As everypony knows,” she said airily.
The two held each other's gaze for a moment, grinning.
“Well, you say that as if the weather's been spectacular lately...I swear that coven handed over the book to me just because they were all too hot to actually want to resist.”
“Mmm, yes. You know, Luna and I have a meeting with the director of the Weather Service today on that very subject. I intend to give him the benefit of my...full attention.”
Twilight grimaced. “Oh, heavens, you two are going to smile at him, aren't you...that poor pegasus...”
She trailed off, suddenly conscious that the two of them were staring into each other's eyes rather fixedly. They both looked away with polite haste, Twilight coughing politely.
“We are prevaricating, I think. Stalling.” Celestia said after a moment.
Twilight looked up to her, an embarrassed little smile on her face. “I...yes.”
“As if this will be your last time here,” the princess continued, in a tone that conveyed how absolutely ridiculous this was—there was even a relieved little chuckle at the end. Why, Twilight could very well show up the next day! In fact—
“'Twilight Sparkle will always be welcome in Canterlot,'” Twilight recited.
Celestia beamed. “And the more often she comes, the more welcome she finds.”
Their eyes met, for but a moment, and then Twilight seemed to be miles away, on her way home...
Celestia blinked and shook her head.
It was no longer three days earlier, under the midmorning sun amongst the first blooms of summer; now she found herself atop her tower, looking out over the palace grounds as a steady stream of Palace staff hurried home before the storm hit.
Occasionally some of them paused and looked up at her, a gleaming bead of white against the black sky beyond. That was...that was why she'd come up—it was good to be seen being present, unhidden before the darkness.
That, and to keep her eye on the storm.
She'd been thinking about how lonely it was up here, sometimes—how distant, in fact, it sometimes felt to be that little beacon upon a tall tower—and her thoughts seemed to have...strayed.
She frowned and rolled her eyes. Honestly, she was acting like she was only three hundred herself...
Luna, Princess of the Moon, was poking her head out through the balcony doors, lately reinforced with thick boards against the oncoming storm. As she spoke, she stepped out onto the balcony herself, managing even in her posture to be unusually small and quiet. “Have I interrupted something?”
“No, nothing,” Celestia murmured, turning to greet Princess Luna with a bright smile. “Just lost in thought.”
“Daydreaming, it seemed to me,” the princess of the moon replied, a gentle smile lit on her face. “Not something you are prone to.”
Celestia chuckled. “Just reminiscin—”
Too late, she caught herself. She tried to bite back the word, but of course she could not.
She looked to her sister, who had stiffened, very slightly. “A happy memory, I trust,” Luna said, taking a deep breath with her eyes closed.
“I was...thinking about Twilight, as it happens,” Celestia said, conscious that the tension in the air was making her frown uncomfortably despite herself.
“Very happy, then.”
Celestia gave her sister as sympathetic a look as she could manage. “Forgive me, Luna. I didn't—”
“I know you didn't. There is nothing to forgive, sister,” Luna replied, shaking her head. She opened her eyes smiled a smile they both knew was forced, and continued. “I am the one at fault. I should not let myself get upset just at the mention of such things...”
“She was very happy to see you, too, you know,” Celestia said, giving Luna a meaningful expression.
To her elder sister's momentary pleasure, Luna grinned very slightly. “Not half so much as you, I think. But still, I was...very happy to spend time with her again.”
Despite this moment of levity stirring the air, tension resettled onto their conversation like silt at the bottom of a shallow pool, disturbed by hoofbeats. An awkward pause filled the space, and both princesses looked away from one another for a moment.
Eventually Celestia sighed, remembering something that had been put into her ear in passing earlier on. There was nothing for it but to address it, so Luna knew she was aware. “I am told...it was a hard night.”
Luna blinked, slowly, the smile wilting just a little. “Yes,” she said, simply.
“May I ask—”
“Just...a hard night,” Luna interrupted, grimacing very slightly. The elder princess smiled sadly and nodded as Luna glanced westwards. “Though not so hard as tonight—the moon will preside over an unquiet sky, I think...”
Celestia frowned. The deliberate change of subject was somewhat obvious, but a little tension had blown away with it. Luna would talk to her about things in her own time, and the storm was a pressing matter.
“So it seems,” Celestia agreed.
She stepped up to the railing and looked out at the stream of palace staff, flowing in twos and threes down the path to Canterlot Town and their homes. She waved, vaguely, as she noticed a couple heads turn in her direction—Rainbow Dash and Soarin, based on how they sped away with prodigious speed into the sky moments later.
Celestia let her gaze move across the grounds, which had become a strange brown sea—all the manicured topiary had been covered in canvas tarpaulins and little makeshift supports had been manufactured for some of the more precarious statuary. Her eyes wandered further, observing how strangely changed the palace seemed with all its windows covered by planks of wood to keep out the powerful wind and biting rains. To her eyes, it almost seemed...abandoned.
Which it more or less was, to be fair—a bare minimum of staff would be in tonight.
“But tomorrow...” she murmured, unthinking.
Luna's brows furrowed curiously. “What? What about tomorrow?”
Celestia turned to her and smiled as a thought occurred to her. “It's about forewarning, Luna.”
“Oh yes,” the Princess of the Sun mused. “Forewarning—having your vision cast forward—is at the heart of peace.”
Luna cast another long look out at the blackening sky, which was even now casting a visible shadow on the plains west of Canterlot. Rain had begun to fall, it seemed, By the time the storm reached Canterlot it would have worked itself up into its full fury. “Peace?” she asked, looking back to Celestia with a somewhat incredulous look, the way she always did when Celestia was two or three mental steps ahead of her.
“Yes, Luna.” Celestia took a deep breath in and gestured expansively with a wing—forcing Luna to lean out of the way a little on the cramped balcony, making them both chuckle. “Only the unwise think peace is an absence of incident. A perfect tranquility of circumstance is impossible and, I think, not what we want from life, really.” She grinned, thinking of how her beloved little ponies seemed to find every possible way to cause as much trouble as possible.
Luna grinned. “It does sound a bit boring,” she agreed.
“The dragons have a curse: may your life be full of interesting times,” Celestia continued. “But I'm not sure I agree that's a curse so much as real life just happening. But peace...peace is...”
She looked out over the grounds again, searching for a suitable metaphor, and found one hiding behind a carefully-protected gazebo on the south lawn.
“It's like a pond,” she said.
“Classically speaking, yes,” Luna, the amateur poet, said. “Tranquility and serenity are such...flowing words. The comparison invites itself.”
“Well, that's an interesting observation, but it's not quite what I mean,” Celestia said, giving Luna a smile. “From a distance, it looks peaceful enough, don't you think? But the truth is that a pond is never really still or unchanging. The wind blows ripples across its surface, or rain falls in it, or a frog leaps into it from the bank and underneath its surface. Little fish and other strange creatures stir miniscule currents into its depths. Its surface is no static thing, for all its appearance of gentle tranquility from afar. Iit flows and moves, and is in its turn moved.”
Luna pursed her lips, nodding thoughtfully. “Rather good, as metaphors go.”
“You're too kind,” Celestia murmured, knowing very well that her sister was prodding her about a tendency towards grandiloquence yet again. “The point, Luna, is that no matter how large the splash which disturbs it, the pond remains. Changed, certainly, in small ways, but more or less the same as it was.” She turned back to the grounds, smiling calmly. “And because we have our eye on the future...so it will be for the palace, and Equestria.”
Celestia nodded. “Absolutely. Tomorrow, everypony will wake up, and put things that have been knocked over by the storm aright, and move on—because we'll have prepared. Because we have the Weather Service more or less keeping their wings on things, as much as they ever do. Because we have so many able-bodied, talented ponies running about, making sure everypony is alerted and ready. Because everypony wants to be ready...tomorrow will be more or less like today. And that's peace, really...” She trailed off, her mind wandering from one end of her life to the other. “It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time...”
“Once upon a time, when darkness came...it didn't just pass,” Luna whispered.
Celestia turned to her sister, heart suddenly frozen, gentle thoughts of peace and reinforcement cast to the back of her mind. Luna was staring out dully into the distance, her features completely blank. “Luna—”
The sightless gaze fell on Celestia, killing the words on her tongue dead. “And it did not roll in and announce its presence over hours. It came as a whisper in the night, a shadow across lightless walls. Against a blow that comes unseen, striking at the heart, there can be no defense—”
“Luna!” Celestia snapped.
The younger princess stiffened for a moment, and then blinked, shaking her head as if to shoo away a wayward insect. “Wha—what? Where—oh,” she murmured, looking up guiltily at Celestia's concerned expression. She was panting, as if she'd been galloping back and forth for hours. “I—Celestia, I...”
Celestia sighed, sparing the storm one last glance to give Luna some privacy as she calmed herself down. “A hard night, tonight.”
But it would pass, and the pond would still be there in the morning. Of that, she had no doubt.
Huge, thick raindrops pounded down on her like hammers, filling the air with a dreadful hiss as they slapped on the leaves of the Ever-Free. Her hooves squelched in the mud, which was as thick and cloying as she had feared.
The forest was, indeed, trying to claim its luckless prize...
"Help! Help, anypony! Please!"
Her voice seemed to die away quickly, smothered by the breaking storm and the oppressive atmosphere. She slowed to a stop and looked around herself desperately for anything to guide herself with through the gloom.
There was only the dreadful, expectant silence of the Ever-Free Forest...
...and the knowledge that she was being hunted.
Octavia caught herself thinking that she ought to be jealous, really.
If the worst storm in a decade was taking place the night of a symphony performance, Octavia would have already gotten the call that it had been cancelled pending re-scheduling, meaning all the little stresses and things Octavia put herself through on the day of a performance would have been for nothing and she'd have to head home to find some way to unwind. Granted, that was easier now than it had been before, but...
She looked around her and grinned.
It had to do with the audience. They didn't care about their new formalwear getting ruined if they were caught in the rain on the way out. The symphony was only half about about music, really; the other half was the nobility having someplace to be snooty at each other in public and drink overpriced wine while doing so.
This...well, Octavia almost envied Vinyl. This was all about the music. These ponies would have come if Discord himself was burning Canterlot to the ground around them, dodging fireballs and chocolate milk and whatever—not to hear anything, but to be a part of it.
Octavia was hanging around the walls of the underground club—by necessity. The floor was packed, absolutely filled with ponies, dancing, cheering, laughing, kissing...but in a way, there were only three creatures in the place. There was Octavia, an interested observer; the barpony, a gruff-looking earth pony mare who could probably buck her way through the wall if she needed to...
And then there was the crowd.
It was a living thing without a body—or more precisely, it had a thousand bodies, all packed together in the cramped confines of what Octavia suspected were the foundations of the building under normal light. Whatever it was by day, now it was the home of this strange creature whose heart pounded a thunderous bass, whose voice was the cheers and wails of delirious ponies, and whose purpose and intent was directed by the brilliant white shape barely visible behind her massive set of turntables, speakers, and amps.
The idea of somepony, much less a whole auditorium full of someponies, being so moved by a symphony performance that they all began moving and existing in time with one another, naturally moving and dancing in time with the music sort of disturbed Octavia. That wasn't the point; symphony music was...yes, like a statement of an emotion, expressed as elegantly as possible. To be appreciated, yes, and meant to move the listener...but this...
It wasn't the opposite. It was something else entirely. It was a pulse, a rhythm, that pulled at your very heart. It wasn't refined, meant to be appreciated by the mind as both pleasant to listen to and technically precise; it was a primal thing that spoke to your blood, telling you that civilization was a cruel joke and that really, deep down in your heart of hearts despite everything you'd been raised to believe, you were an animal, wild and free and in this moment you were part of something big and powerful and true. Just let go, it whispered. Be wild. Be free. Join us.
It was the sort of music that drove ponies to war, in the ancient past, the sort of music that incited wild festivals in dark places in the earth, singing to primordial gods before the grace of Harmony had brought the light of civilization to ponykind. It was the kind of music that asked you if that was really worth it.
But Octavia resisted, because there was a different sort of music in her heart. Still, it was interesting to observe, from the outside. As a fellow musician and, of course, somepony who was eager to support their very special somepony.
Vinyl's sets were always different—well, of course she had routines, and tracks and performances she had ready and set up, but...she changed them. All the time, on the fly, every show. One night she might thin out the bass and let the wub, as she called it, just be the backbeat against which the screech of the music rolled. Sometimes she wanted the whole show to flow from one track into the next; sometimes she intentionally made it as harsh and chaotic and jarring as possible. She read the mood, sensed the emotions running in the room, and then painted them with sound.
When she'd realized the truth first time, Octavia had actually gasped out loud.
Vinyl Scratch didn't play records...she played ponies.
And when she did, she came alive.
Vinyl was always passionate; it was part of who she was. No brakes on her and no middle gears, as the railponies said—and of course, Octavia knew that better than anypony really, for, er, one reason or another. Everything she did was vibrant and energized, even when she was bored—somehow she managed to do that dynamically.
But behind those tables, her eyes blazed. She moved with a carefree grace, every motion seeming loose and unrestrained and yet, it moved in perfect time with the beat. She thrived on being the heart of this strange creature, being at once in control of it and yet subject to its whims...
Nothing, nothing Octavia had done or could ever do, was as intense as Vinyl's performance—no, existence. The cellist felt passion, deep passion, about her music but this...there wasn't words for it.
She grinned, looking up at the gleam of white burning through the hazy gloom of the club. Octavia had a nagging thought that she really ought to be jealous of the whole situation—of Vinyl, of how she was part of something that Octavia just couldn't find it in herself to be, of the popularity, the crowd...everything.
But she couldn't be jealous of something this...pure. To do so would be to suggest that it was something that needed to be competed with, but...it was just a thing that was, and ought to be. As Vinyl herself said: "It's just a thing, you know? It is what it is."
And anyways Vinyl was coming home with her at the end of the night, so that was that.
A crash of thunder managed to penetrate the sound of Vinyl's roaring sound system. For some reason, this elicited a huge laughing cheer from the crowd.
The mood changed—even Octavia could sense it. There had been this underlying sense of danger, a tension in the air—everypony knew they were out in the thick of things even though they oughtn't be—even though the Princess herself had called for everypony to stay inside. Now that threat was naked...and they were laughing in its face, as one creature.
Onstage she saw Vinyl rear up in excitement and really slam on the bass, making her own thunderous roar, changing the music on the fly to match the mood. The crowd went wild, laughing and cheering.
Another roll of thunder, brassy and sharp, managed to cut in. Vinyl responded with another series of beautifully synchronized bass beats, distributed across her sound systems so that it was like being struck or tossed around by a harsh current, keeping the listener on edge.
Octavia chuckled. Vinyl really refused to be outdone, even by the sky itself—
The building shook. The thin windows at the top of the walls rattled in their sills, accompanying a blinding flash that make everypony flinch and whine. The lights died—
And so did Vinyl's music.
Octavia gasped. Lightning must have struck the power lines...!
The room filled with the overwhelming, urgent sounds of ponies in distress, little squeals and whines all building together into a cacaphony of panic. Suddenly they were a huge mass of ponies stuck in a cramped, overwhelmingly hot, pitch-dark room that none of them were terribly familiar with.
Octavia pressed forward, through the anxious crowd, towards the huge mass of shadow at the far end of the room, which had so recently been the loud, colorful stage. The cellist was dimly aware of the panic around her, of voices trying to shout over each other and organize a way to get out in something resembling an orderly fashion. A couple ponies screamed in terror or anger as they were stepped on or bumped into unexpectedly.
Octavia squeezed between a pair of massive pegasi and snuck behind the massive speakers to the steps up to the board, feeling her way through the tangle of equipment mostly by touch—which itself distressed her, because the sound of errant hooves amongst her precious tools ought to have driven Vinyl into a paroxysm of rage by now...
There was a dim light under the tables. Octavia leapt forward—and there she was, huddling under the mix board like a foal.
“Vinyl! Vinyl, it's alright...I'm here...!” the cellist said, endeavoring to speak over the still-panicking crowd without actually shouting.
“Tavi! Tavi...!” Vinyl moaned, as Octavia laid down in front of her and gave her a nuzzle. “It's all gone wrong, something's...”
Octavia frowned. The downside of being passionate and sensitive to the mood presented itself right here. Sudden change in the atmosphere always upset Vinyl, but having her sound stage die under her very hooves at the same time...and she'd been so wrapped up in it...
“Shhh, shhh. It's alright, Vinyl. Just a power outage—”
“No!” Vinyl snapped. Octavia recoiled as the DJ brought her hoof down, hard, on the stage with a dull thud. “You don't—you can't—!”
“Vinyl, what are are you talking about?”
“It's worse than that, Tavi,” Vinyl moaned. “Something's wrong, Tavi, really wrong! Things...they're...I can feel it...”
Octavia reached out and touched Vinyl; she was trembling, and the light from her horn was hazy and indistinct, casting her features in a dreadful, skull-like shadow. “Vinyl, we've been through this before. You're just having a bad reaction to things...stay with me, Vinyl Scratch. I'm here. Take my hoof, Vinyl,” she commanded, as Vinyl tried to squirrel her way deeper into the little hollow under the board.
With truly alarming speed, the unicorn reached out and snatched Octavia's hoof in a deathgrip, tugging at her as if to drag her under the board as well.
“Ow! Vinyl, what—”
“Just come on, Tavi!”
“Vinyl, it's just a storm! Relax!”
The tugging stopped. “A storm...yes...”
Octavia smiled encouragingly. “That's right. Nothing to be afraid of—”
“So long as we keep out of it,” Vinyl whispered. “Trust me, Tavi. Please.”
“I do. You know th—”
Octavia froze, remembering a conversation, years ago now...
Vinyl's muzzle emerged from the darkness, her stark-white coat luminous. “Things are...going to get bad. It's not the first time. So please trust me. We just need to keep our heads down.”
Octavia stared at the ghostly muzzle for a moment, panting, before nodding wordlessly.
Vinyl pulled her muzzle back, but let her horn light again. In the pale ghostlight, her eyes gleamed like rubies above the rims of her ever-present glasses. “Stay with me, down in the dark...and we might be safe.”
It was a dark and stormy night in Canterlot.
Thunder rolled across the sky, great brassy bangs and smashes sounding right over the palace to the coruscating radiance of massive thunderbolts, tearing through the heavens with the wrath of gods and titans. A proud thing, this storm; the sky was black as fresh ink, clouds concealing the stars and moon, determined that the world should be lit only with the unrestrained fury of the heavens as it leapt from one billowing thunderhead to the next.
Rain fell in torrents, like solid sheets pounding down on the world, adding their own unique, dull thud to the furious sound of the storm as they struck the palace roof in a constant, thundering clatter.
Had the very seas dried up and risen into the sky, only to fall here on the heart of Ponydom? Was land-locked Canterlot somehow doomed to the same fate as the lost island of Palatlantis, to sink into an abyssal depth, never to be heard from again?
Ridiculous, of course—but based on how water streamed and flowed over the windows, one might be forgiven for assuming it had already happened and fish would swim by any moment now.
Princess Celestia enjoyed thunderstorms—there was a sense of release in them, an expulsion of energy and tension that she found soothing. The day before the storm was always muggy and oppressive, air pressure building and building before the dramatic, furious release, while the day after always seemed cool and serene, the air thick with the rich smell of fresh rainfall.
And it was nice to have everypony out from under her hooves for an evening at a time once in awhile, too, if she was completely honest. Tomorrow, the normal chaos of everyday life would resume, but for now, she could be tired and lazy and through two thin glasses of sweet white wine without the nagging feeling she was supposed to be doing something else.
Celestia looked up from her novel—The Debutante and the Dragon by none other than Spike of Ponyville, who clearly believed in writing what he knew—and gave her little sister a smile. “How are you, Luna?”
Luna was curled up in front of the fireplace, just as Twilight had once been, although her fare was slightly heavier than Daring Do's latest escapade in inventive archaeologically-motivated theft. It was a book of old sagas that the princess of the moon had herself written, many centuries ago. The younger alicorn looked up and returned the smile, a shade nervously. “Oh...fine, fine.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Enjoying your work?”
“Enjoying your trashy romance?” Luna replied, sticking out her tongue.
Internally, Celestia sighed with relief. Luna was more or less back in good spirits, then.
Outwardly, she said: “Oh, Luna, don't be so judgmental. As if anything Spike wrote would be trashy, he's grown into such a gentledrake...”
Luna made a show of turning back to her sagas. “I'm just saying, it's painfully transparent, knowing him. I wonder what the unicorn in question thinks of it...if she can bring herself to read it.”
“Well, in the book it's a pegasus, as it happens,” Celestia said, grinning at her sister's display of hauteur. “But I see they never told you—the unicorn in question helped him write it, you know.”
“What?” Luna looked up, ears pricking up in irritation. “Are you serious? Even the part with the—”
Celestia grinned widely. “I see you've had some highlights explained to you, at least.”
“Only out of morbid curiousity, I assure you.”
Celestia's bright laughter at this was rather rudely interrupted by a massive peal of thunder, a lingering, rolling series of tremendous bangs and crashes that rattled the windows of the tower distressingly.
“Agh!” the younger alicorn yelped, blushing as Celestia giggled at her. The storm was almost directly overhead, so the lightning and thunder had come all in one great stroke, shaking the windows and filling Celestia's apartments with a momentary flash of blinding white light.
Luna gave Celestia a bashful little grin. “Pray don't laugh. I was just...taken by surprise.”
“That was a good one, wasn't it?”
Luna grinned. “It was. The sky seems eager to impress, tonight—”
She was interrupted by another series of loud bangs, but...
The younger princess frowned. “That wasn't a thunderclap. It sounded almost like—”
The sisters' heads snapped to the far side of the apartment from where they were sitting, to the stairs leading up to Celestia's tower balcony. Another series of bangs echoed down the little passage, their last couple raps lost in another tremendous peal of thunder.
Celestia began to rise, the lethargy she'd begun to feel from the late hour and the wine beginning to burn away, but Luna sprang to her hooves and trotted over to the stairs, peering up into the darkness with the keen eyes of a creature of the nighttime. Even she seemed to be having some trouble, though, judging from her irritated expression.
“Who goes there?” she asked, in a loud voice.
“Luna, just go see who it is, please,” Celestia said, but Luna raised a hoof, ears pricked up.
“It's, uh, it's me! Applejack!” came the reply, muffled by the door and the sound of torrential rain outside.
The sisters looked to each other in shock—how did Applejack get all the way up here?
“Let us in, quick!”
“Hurry, please!” came another voice.
Celestia was floored. “Rarity?”
Luna frowned. “Rarity can't fly, or teleport. Can she?”
“Not that I know of. Certainly not from Ponyville—it's quite a way, even for you and I. Let them in, Luna.”
The younger princess raised an eyebrow. “This all seems very strange, don't you think? Shouldn't we take some precautions—”
“If it's a trap, I'd rather fight it here in the warm than out in that terrible storm, wouldn't you?” Celestia said, with a little chuckle. “And if it is indeed our friends, we're being terribly rude.”
Luna shrugged and trotted halfway up the stairs, her horn lighting as she moved to open the glass panel doors out onto the landing. The muted thud of the heavy rainfall suddenly brightened into a harsh hiss of thick drops splashing, and water immediately began pooling on the floor and seeping down the stairs into puddles on the hardwood floor.
This concerned Celestia less than the sudden look of absolute horror that spread across Luna's dusky features, her eyes going wide and mouth falling open, quivering as if searching for a suitable exclamation and failing to find one extreme enough.
The first hint why came as a sharp, metallic hint amongst the rich smells of the storm. Celestia looked down and, to her growing dread, saw the thick drops of red dissolving into the stormwater pooling across the floor.
“Make way, make way!” Applejack commanded, in the tones of somepony not about to take lip from anypony in the way, no matter how many countries they happened to be the ruler of. Luna quickly backed down the stairs, and the orange earth pony appeared, sopping wet and shorn of her hat, carefully but hastily stepping side-by-side with an equally drenched Rarity, supporting—
“Oh, no,” Celestia moaned, stepping forward urgently, her eyes lit with more anxiety than anypony had seen in them for a very long time. “No, no, no—!”
Twilight Sparkle lay across her friends' shoulders, held in place by some telekinesis from Rarity as they tried to make their way down the staircase, which for all that it was built for the comfortable use of somepony rather larger than average was still a tight fit in the circumstances.
Rarity, her normally spotless coat dripping and bloodstained, was straining to hold her friend as the purple unicorn struggled and whined in pain and distress. Twilight's body was crisscrossed with cuts and wounds, some rather ugly, all bleeding freely onto the ponies carrying her.
Celestia quickly summoned magic to herself and lifted the moaning unicorn from her friends, who sagged with relief. As Luna hastened to shut the balcony doors, Celestia carried Twilight over to the couch near the fireplace where she had so recently been reading, in the princess' memory. The unicorn thrashed limply, moaning and whining even as she was laid on the soft red upholstery, eyes glazed and staring off at nothing in particular.
The princess' expression darkened quickly as she inspected the pathetic form of her beloved student. Twilight had been running through hard underbrush, that much was clear from the little whip-slashes and mud covering the lower parts of her legs, as well as on her back—she'd been flipped over at some point, and the wounds there were filthy.
Whatever she had been fleeing had been a vicious thing indeed; several long, tearing cuts ran along her sides and flanks—ragged wounds which had torn at skin and flesh alike. The most extreme horror, though, were the deep gashes on her shoulders and throat, which Twilight was trying to scratch or touch with her hooves as if trying to put out a burning flame.
It almost looked like a wolf or wild cat attack; something had been nipping at her flanks, tackled her, and tried to get at her throat. Twilight had made a good show of fighting back, though—there were bloodstains on her hooves and—to the princess' momentary disgust—her mouth. Celestia cursed her graphic imagination despite its utter confidence that Twilight had fought like a demon, snapping and kicking ferociously though pain and fear threatened to overcome her.
The princess set her anxiety aside as best she could and tried to focus on what she had to do now. Closing her eyes, she once more summoned magic to herself and turned her attention to one of the long wounds on the unicorn's belly and felt the healing magic move along the cut, beginning to knit the lacer—
Celestia's eyes opened suddenly, and she stared down in alarm. The wound had re-opened as soon as the magic had passed over it, like a broken zipper.
The princess furrowed her brow in anxious irritation. Cursed wounds?
“What happened to you, little one?” Celestia murmured, anxiety naked in her voice as she watched Twilight's dull eyes roll blindly in their sockets.
She was startled by a sound—Applejack had taken station next to Celestia without her noticing, looking down on Twilight with at least as much unease as the princess. “We have no idea, princess. We were walkin' out in the orchards by the Ever-Free Forest, and—”
“She was being chased, by...by something!” Rarity gasped, shaking out her mane. “She was wounded...it was almost on top of her!”
“Ah managed ta hogtie 'im to a tree, but Twi collapsed as we tried to get away. She's barely breathin', princess, but—”
“You didn't take her to a doctor?” Luna exclaimed. “What are you doing here?” How did you—”
Rarity's face grew fretful and a little guilty, addressing Celestia. “We were taking her to the clinic in Ponyville, but...she just...she wanted to see you, princess. We tried to get her to relax, but she just...I mean, all the sudden, we tried to tell her not to!”
“She didn't,” Celestia said, disbelieving, turning back to Twilight with a mixed look of deep admiration and even deeper anxiety painted broadstroke on her face.
She teleported? All the way to Canterlot? All three of them? From outside Ponyville?
Her momentary surge of pride at Twilight's power and skill was drowned by the chill of knowing she had strained herself terribly doing so.
Applejack's face grew frightened. “She did. Just...pop, all the way here, no warnin'. All this just happened, like, five minutes ago...”
Celestia looked to Luna desperately, and the younger princess nodded with a firm expression. “I'll summon Doctor Goldbloom at once,” the princess of the moon said, all but galloping to the door. The sound of her hoof-falls increased pace significantly as they echoed in the corridor beyond.
“Rarity, Applejack, please...dry off by the fire before you catch your death,” Celestia murmured as she raised a hoof to Twilight's forehead.
The unicorn was so...cold, trembling in pain from the many, many wounds marking her, which wept as her weak squirming and shallow breathing re-opened them. Her fine fur was matted with blood on the side which had not been exposed to the rain as her friends carried her. Celestia turned to look at Rarity and again saw the little red blotches on her exquisite white coat where Twilight had bled onto her; likewise, Applejack's three bright-red apples were now joined by some irregular splotches of crimson.
“Mmmbl...” Twilight moaned.
Celestia's head turned back to her student, lying there in agony, and the princess rubbed a hoof across Twilight's cheek gently. “Shh...just rest....”
“She mumblin' again?” Applejack asked, reappearing at Celestia's shoulder. The earth pony's hair was a mess; the loose bow that generally restrained it had fallen out and her long, flowing mane was draped around her head like a sheet. It made her look even more wretched than the naked fear on her face already did.
“Yes. Has she been doing that a lot?”
Rarity spoke from her place before the fire. “Not much, especially since she teleported us here, but...she's been asking for you, and...”
Something in the way she trailed off, and Applejack began shuffling her hooves nervously, made Celestia turn to Rarity. “And what, Rarity?”
“Er,” the unicorn began, looking nervous. Like Applejack, she was much the worse for wear, her usually immaculate coiffure hanging straight and slack against her neck. “She keeps saying—”
“Blood,” Twilight moaned.
Celestia once again whipped her head down to her student, eyes wide in horror. “What?”
Twilight's head lolled, weirdly, and she began to cringe, as if in agony. “Blood,” she whined. “Need it. Lost...too much...can't focus!” Her eyes rolled back in her head she began to thrash, body seizing and hooves flailing. To Celestia’s growing horror, she began screaming, froth forming at the edges of her lips.
“What's—what's happening?!” Rarity squealed.
Despite a horrendous flare of terror, Celestia moved with the speed and surety of a millennium's experience. She quickly began weaving magical constructs to help her restrain the seizing unicorn, first and foremost a bit which she deftly fit in Twilight's mouth before the poor creature bit her tongue. Having managed this with some difficulty, she lifted Twilight in the air and gently held her in a golden aura so that she could move freely, but with enough control to prevent her twisting something out of place as she thrashed and squirmed.
“She's having a seizure,” the princess said, firmly, concentrating on the struggling unicorn. “It's a little...odd.”
“Odd?” Rarity moaned. “What do you mean, odd?”
“Not usual...for somepony who's lost a lot of blood. Seizures take a lot of energy, but then again—”
The princess was interrupted by a loud snap as a crackle of magical energy arced from Twilight's horn and melted a bronze statue of six pegasi flying in formation on the other side of the room into a sad little pile of slag.
Celestia put on a resigned little smile. “My Twilight always has energy to spare.”
Twilight was screaming into the bit, a weird, muffled wail that was somehow more terrible than if she'd been able to voice it fully. Celestia frowned in concentration, desperately trying to maintain her magic as Twilight's natural power surged and struggled to break free of the princess' field of control. Any unicorn was always a problem in this sort of situation, but of course Twilight was far from just any unicorn. Again, Celestia marveled at the raw power her friend had access to as it pressed against her magical control, more fiercely than some forces she'd encountered in life-or-death battle in the past.
Rarity and Applejack backed away, whimpering and huddling together as they stared at the horrifying scene. Frost was beginning to form on the objects around Twilight, and the strain of the converging magical fields filled the room with a high-pitched keening which made their ears and teeth ache. Rarity's nose had begun bleeding, and she gritted her teeth in pain as the magical senses of her horn went haywire, which for a unicorn was much like an electrical short attached directly to her brain.
“What in Equestria is going on!?” Luna shouted, bursting back into the apartment, which was now being cast into a terrible, unnatural darkness; light seemed to be sucked towards the titanic struggle between Twilight's tremendous, raw power and Celestia's immortal strength and skill. The younger princess quickly stepped forward, face set firmly with the intent to help, but Celestia waved a wing to ward her away.
Outside, the storm roared in sympathy with the furious struggle.
Tentatively, the Princess of the Sun stepped closer to the brilliantly lit figure of Twilight, who still writhed and twisted horribly in midair, trying to scream. Blood dripped from her open wounds onto the couch beneath her in huge, heavy drops, becoming a little pool of darker red on the crimson upholstery.
Celestia frowned, focusing hard to exert control and constrict the magical field supporting the unicorn so she could apply direct pressure to Twilight's body. She needed to be extremely precise in striking the right nerve clusters with just the right amount of force, but it was possible to—
Twilight's head jerked to face her, eyes blazing.
Celestia recoiled as she lost control of the magical conflagration in front of her, and it quickly became clear that she had no hope of recovering. A sudden surge of power, wild and irrepressible even by the standards of this desperate struggle, had thrown the carefully-contained energies out of balance completely.
The last time she'd witnessed a display like this, Twilight's parents had been cacti, the Academy evaluation board had been hanging in midair, totally disoriented, and Spike had been fifty feet long; but that had just been Twilight's natural potential going wild in reaction to an external event—Rainbow Dash's Sonic Rainboom, itself an extreme incarnation of the natural magic of the pegasi tribe.
For all its terrific power, it had been nothing compared to this: a nightmarish, throbbing magical meltdown of Twilight and Celestia's magical energy combining and reacting uncontrollably...and right at the center of it was Twilight Sparkle, now free to howl in agony and terror.
It could explode and kill them all—well, hurt Luna and Celestia badly, anyways, but the other three would almost certainly be incinerated on the spot.
If they were lucky, an errant thought added. The princess' serious expression only intensified.
With a last, desperate force of will, Celestia thrust a lance of carefully-designed magic at the throbbing blaze.
It was like poking a balloon with a needle.
There was a sudden, weird moment of non-sound, a rushing silence that swallowed even the fury of the storm outside and seemed to draw the focus of everything inwards upon itself before suddenly reversing with a spectacular whoomph.
This was accompanied by a tremendous flash of harmless, but blinding light as the magical potential was spent outwards. Celestia was dimly aware of hearing Philhelmina scream in distress as her sleep was disturbed by everything in the apartment tumbling outward from the blast.
The next few moments were a confused jumble as she stumbled in the dark, head throbbing—and then there was a terrible, crushing pain at her neck and she howled in agony.
She reared up and lashed out with her powerful forelegs at—something—there was something ice-cold and heavy hanging onto her which caught the blow. The weight, as well as the agonizing pressure on her neck, fell away as the blow connected, and she heard something roll awkwardly across the floor.
In a terrible instant she realized what it must have been.
Waving her head desperately, she restored her sight with a quick burst of healing magic. Behind her, Luna was still staggering, waving her head and blinking as if she were drunk and staring at a strobe light. Applejack was clutching Rarity by the fire, the unicorn taking harsh, ragged breaths between her teeth and whining in pain.
The princess gasped. Twilight was struggling to her hooves in front of Celestia with some difficulty, a low hiss escaping her lips.
Celestia rushed to her. “Twilight...stay down! You're hurt—”
The unicorn rose awkwardly, maintaining an unsteady posture; her head hung low, as if it had grown terribly heavy. The hiss from her mouth came in a strangely regular way, like a steam valve giving off pressure.
“Twilight, please...just relax,” Celestia said in the careful tones of somepony trying to get calming thoughts through to the confused creature before them, but if Twilight heard her, the unicorn gave no acknowledgment except to shudder terribly.
Celestia's heart stopped as Twilight's head rose with a terrible, slow gravity. Her friend's eyes were heavily lidded, looking exhausted and pained, her jaw slack with fatigue—but neither of those things even occurred to the princess.
Time seemed to slow, the universe contracting to imprison Celestia in this moment with...with the unicorn in front of her. Everything seemed dilated and sluggish, in an unreal sort of way, as if everything that was happening was...wrong.
Twilight's muzzle was slick and dark with Celestia's rich blood. It dripped off of her snout and tongue in thick drops, whose heavy, wet spattering on the floor in front of the trembling unicorn overpowered every other sound in Celestia's ears.
The princess' eyes grew wide with horror as she gazed down at the grisly sight of Twilight Sparkle, who for the first time ever seemed terrible and repulsive to her.
Twilight's eyes rose to Celestia's, the calm warmth that generally dwelt there replaced with a desperate, pleading look. Pain burned in those amethyst depths, and unbearable fear...and to the stressed mind of the princess, a dreadfully accusatory gleam.
Why can't you stop this? Please! Don't you love me?
“Twilight...” Celestia murmured, voice trembling.
Then time sped up, the universe returned, and the grotesque creature before her vanished, replaced with the pathetic figure of Twilight Sparkle collapsing to the floor, eyes rolling up in her head, tongue lolling stupidly.
“Twilight!” Luna cried, scrambling forward to catch Twilight's fall with magic, carrying her back to the couch. As Applejack, Rarity and Luna gathered around her, Twilight failed to squirm or mewl further, lying insensate to the anxious noises her friends were making over her limp body.
Celestia just stared at the place where Twilight had been standing, slowly bringing a hoof up to the ragged wound on her neck.
At first all there was to see was dim grey light, but two blinks brought the little medical ward into focus. The sky in the windows across from her was still dark, but dawn loomed about a half hour in the future or so, if Applejack was any judge.
Well past time to wake up, then.
The palace's medical ward was small. Applejack had been surprised, but after everything was explained to her, she felt foolish. Goldbloom, the strange golden-orange earth pony who was the current resident, had happily chattered away on the subject as she gave the younger mare a once-over. If something occurred at the castle that was really serious enough that extensive treatment was called for, the patient was generally transferred to the large hospital in Canterlot Town rather than being kept here.
“And it's not, ah, as if the two permanent residents get sick or, ah, hurt, all that much,” the doctor had added, with a surreptitious look at Celestia's neck. The only sign there had been any wound at all was the dried blood marring her pearlescent alabaster coat.
Indeed, Applejack and Rarity had both been awed, such as they could manage in the circumstances, to see the princess more or less shrug off what would have been a cripplingly painful wound for anypony else. The bite had knitted itself before their very eyes as Celestia and Luna tried to herd them to the infirmary with the comatose Twilight in tow.
The storm had necessitated they stay here for the night, despite Twilight's ever-worsening condition. Applejack and Rarity hadn't been in that great of shape themselves, truth be told; Applejack was a wreck of nerves, and Rarity had suffered from a terrible, nauseating migraine from the magical exposure, which apparently took some training to handle safely. Once Goldbloom had given them a rather hasty but thorough once-over, they'd been given some herbal tea and instructed to sleep.
The real crisis was Twilight Sparkle, whose wounds refused to close despite both princess' desperate efforts to seal them even temporarily. Blood had wept from the terrible cuts in thick, wet splatters all the way from Celestia's apartments to the ward, and the twin unicorn nurses had taken more than a few large piles of sodden bandages away even before Applejack had succumbed to what she now realized had been a rather powerful sedative in the tea.
Applejack had to assume Twilight still lay on the bed to her right in tiny medical ward, staring sightlessly straight upwards. The unicorn's forelegs had quickly become a somewhat gruesome display of the most modern medical devices and practice, the vicious wounds covered in many, many bandages seeped in pungent ointments; certainly there was still the strange, chemical smell lingering in the air even hours afterwards.
The earth pony let her head roll lazily to her left, where she was greeted with the rather amusing sight of Rarity sleeping with her mouth hanging open, tongue lolling, a great puddle of drool collecting on the pillow beneath her. Applejack felt the private, smug little chuckle fade before it reached her lips, though, and she blinked fatigue out of her eyes as she realized she'd begun to doze off again already.
The earth pony sighed heavily and tried to sit up—
The voice had been no greater than a whisper, but it was unmistakably the serene voice of the Princess of the Sun.
Applejack stiffened sharply and rolled her head to her right. The pure white shape of Celestia's back filled her vision, the princess' bright, vibrant mane gently flowing to the whim of intangible winds. The princess' voice had trailed off, as if uncertain of what it was saying, or if it should continue.
“Sometimes,” the princess repeated, quietly, then paused for a moment. Though she could not see it, Applejack sensed that the princess had closed her eyes as if to paint memory on her eyelids. “When I am walking through the library, I sense magic moving around me, and hear a page turn, and I feel...not excited, exactly, but...comforted. And then I feel foolish, because of course, it's not her. I really had gotten used to it over the few years she lived here, doing her advanced studies...”
Applejack said nothing, which was all she could think of, really.
“I think: wouldn't it be nice if I could just wander by and ask her to share tea and a game, or something, like we used to after lessons...” Celestia stirred, her wings fluffing. “I catch myself all the time wishing I'd never sent her away—”
“You didn't send her away—” Applejack murmured, before she could stop herself.
The princess didn't move or say anything for awhile, but when she did, there was an embarrassed little smile in her voice. “You see what I mean? I have to catch myself.”
The young mare flushed. “Ah...maybe.”
“I don't like thinking I'm that selfish. That I'd willingly rob her of so much life, just because I enjoy her company. But now, like this...” Celestia shook her head.
“Ah...” Applejack's stomach felt hollow, and she wished her mind wasn't being so sluggish in spinning up to speed. Darned doctors and their secret teas...! “Ah don't—this wasn't...Ah'm sorry, Ah—”
Celestia turned her head so that she could cast a solemn look over her shoulder. “This is not our fault.”
Not our fault, something in Applejack had the presence of mind to notice. “N-no.”
The princess held the earth pony in a quiet gaze for a moment before turning back to Twilight. “I suppose there is one good thing to come of this; Twilight has shown that she has talent and power she has yet to tap consciously. Maybe she can just drop in once in awhile...in less trying circumstances, hopefully.”
Again, the younger mare let silence reign, at a loss for something productive to add. When it broke, the princess' voice was as calm and clear as Applejack had ever heard it. A little more firm than her usual pacific tone, perhaps, but no longer tainted by a strong note of melancholy as it had been.
“That's in the future, of course. I look forward to it.”
“Right,” Applejack replied, brows knitting in concern. “What's wrong with her, anyhow?”
Celestia sighed. “Her wounds are cursed, Applejack; they won't close. She's bleeding out, despite our efforts.” The princess' head inclined towards a bag of dark fluid suspended above the bed, feeding an IV that was part of the disturbing artificial spiderweb around the stricken unicorn. “She's losing it about as fast as we can replace it. And...as ever...” The princess gave a heavy, weary sigh. “As ever, Twilight is special. One tenth of one percent of ponies share her blood type. We are quickly exhausting the meager supply here, and Luna is already on her way to Canterlot Memorial to get some there, if she can.”
Applejack's stomach flipped. “So...what does that mean?”
The princess turned all the way around, looking grave. “It means we have need of haste.”
“So there's—there is something we can do, then?” Applejack sat up in the bed further, shaking her head and blinking, trying to clear her mind. Her thoughts were sluggish, and she lost track of what she was thinking rather easily; not an entirely unfamiliar situation, given her history, but she hadn't had the satisfaction of the cider to earn it, so it was unwelcome.
“Well, of course,” Celestia said, a tired little smile lighting on her face. “We can break the curse, so she can be healed. And as it happens, fortune has it such that I am speaking to the pony who can help most. Goldbloom managed to knock you unconscious before you could tell me what had done this, but...”
Something in the way the princess said this suggested there had been some...discussion on this point.
“Er...” Applejack rubbed her scalp with a hoof anxiously. “Ah...well...Ah don't really know, princess, Ah'm sorry.”
Celestia's smile froze. “Oh? You said...you said you captured it.”
“Well it was dark, an'...an' the storm was rollin' in. Rarity an' Ah were lookin' fer the girls, you know, uh...our sisters an' Scootaloo. They were out in their tree fort gettin' it ready for the wind, an' we were hustlin' them in. So, uh, we did that...and...and then we heard yellin' in the forest.”
The princess nodded slowly. “Go on, please.”
“Right, right, uh...” Applejack blinked. She was having a hard time remembering the previous night's events clearly, even the order in which things happened; it had all come and gone so quickly, and for some reason, her brain just wouldn't keep things straight. On top of that, for all the nervous energy of the moment, she was still completely worn out. “Well, we...we could tell it was Twilight. She was calling for help, gallopin' like her tail was on fire...an'...well...”
“And what?” Celestia interrupted, leaning forward with a serious look on her face.
Applejack looked up into the princess' eyes. “Ah dunno what was after her. Went about on four legs, not much bigger than Twi, bitin' at her. Ah can tell you that much. Pale, too—it was easy to see, even in the dark. But once I'd gotten it tied up Rarity was screamin' for me, 'cause Twi had gotten to her hooves an' was tryin' to teleport. To, uh, you, Ah think...is everythin' alright?”
“Did...did she say anything?” Celestia asked in a tiny voice. If she could have, she would have blanched. “Anything at all, Applejack, anything you can remember...”
The younger mare looked away, face a misery of frustration and fear. “Ah...” She raised her forehooves to her temples and shook her head irritably. “Ah can't! It's all so messed up in my head...”
The door to the clinic opened, suddenly, and both Celestia and Applejack looked up, startled. Goldbloom entered the room briskly, frowning. “I was, ah, to be told when they'd awoken,” she huffed.
“Ah just got—”
“She's fine, Goldbloom, honestly,” Celestia interrupted, stepping forward between the two earth ponies, face firming up. “You do her a disservice by—”
“By doing my, aha, my job? I think not, with, ah, due respect.” The doctor peered past Celestia and took a cool look at Applejack's frustrated features. “Memory loss?”
Applejack stirred. “Er, y—”
“That she cannot remember a traumatic incident clearly is no surprise, no doubt some of which is due to fatigue,” Celestia said over her, in a somewhat sharp tone of voice. “As she said, she just woke up from...sedation.”
The doctor and the princess held a fierce glare for a moment, the tension mollified somewhat by Goldbloom pressing her thick-rimmed glasses back up her muzzle. “Yes, I'm sure the, ah, the telepresence distortion has nothing to do with that. You, ah, watched me perform the tests, princess, don't try to argue,” she added, when Celestia's expression hardened.
“Hey, Ah feel fine!” Applejack lied. “Just...takin' awhile to get the ol' thinker movin' this mornin' is all.”
“That is because you have the, ah, the magical equivalent of a severe concussion from being yanked across Equestria by a delirious young mage suffering from, ah, extreme physical and mental distress,” Goldbloom snapped. “It's something of, ah, something of a miracle you even remember who you are.”
“What?” Applejack murmured. A sudden stray thought sent a lance of fear through her, and she turned back to the recumbent Rarity, face a portrait of concern. “Is she alright—”
“Rarity is fine,” Celestia said, quickly.
“If by, ah, fine, you mean she's going to get headaches every time she uses magic for the next month or so,” Goldbloom said, cooly. “But as far as telepresence, unicorns are a little more resistant to teleportation mishaps than, ah, the rest of us.”
Applejack blinked. She knew magic could be a little dangerous, especially in the ever-experimental hooves of Twiligth Sparkle, but she had no idea things like this could happen. “So...Ah'll...”
“You'll be alright, if you get some rest,” Goldbloom said, holding Celestia in a sharp gaze. To Applejack's amazement, the princess was looking away from the doctor's glare, seeming uncomfortable. “Princess, I, ah, I appreciate your strength of feeling, but—”
“If one thing is clear to me, it is that you do not,” Celestia said icily. “I am not putting Applejack at risk by asking her questions.”
“If only it were just asking her questions,” Goldbloom replied, impressing Applejack with her complete lack of reaction to Celestia's wrath being displayed as nakedly as the young mare had ever seen it. “Don't think you can, ah, fool me; you still want to make her lead you to the creature that did this. Don't think I won't have your sister back here to support me again like she did earlier.”
Applejack looked up at the princess, who stood firm and proud, face betraying only that she considered the matter somewhat grave. “You seem to comprehend my intentions well, for somepony so...young.”
The middle-aged earth pony grinned at this. “You may be a thousand-year-old princess, but I've been a doctor long enough to see in your eyes how desperate you are to, ah, 'make it all go away', any way you can.”
An eyebrow raised. “Is that so?”
“Oh yes,” Goldbloom said, pressing her glasses up her muzzle again. “I, ah, I actually think you owe me some, ah, thanks, on that account, truth be told. When I was in residency at Mercy in, ah, Las Pegasus, there was more than one parent of a sickly foal who was sure that if they, ah, appealed to you directly, a miracle cure would present itself...”
The princess' expression grew extremely complex for a moment, and the sense of tension in the air was completely disrupted, as it generally is when somepony forces their opponent to concede thanks. “I...yes, well. If you spared me that happening more often than it does in any case, I do owe you some thanks, yes.”
Now it was the doctor's turn to raise an eyebrow. “Of anypony, I didn't expect this from you. Is there, ah, something I should know? Not to, ah, pry, but rumor has it she's your natural daughter...” There was a little hint in this statement suggesting that Goldbloom would be slightly miffed if she had been left out of the loop about her most illustrious patient having had foals.
Celestia spared a moment to give Applejack a pained, apologetic look before responding. “If she is, it would be very alarming news, not least of all to me. You'd think I'd remember something like that.” She closed her eyes and sighed. When she looked up, all the tension and harshness had fallen out of her face, and she just seemed tired and stressed. “Of course you're right, my friend. I'm sorry.”
Goldbloom immediately sagged in utter relief, bringing a hoof to her heart and breathing out. “Oh, thank you. You know how I, ah, hate having to stand up to you like that...”
“But nopony else will, is the trouble...thank you again.” The princess graced the doctor with a gentle smile which, for all the world, looked completely sincere. Still, there was something familiar, and suspicious, about it, to Applejack's mind—it reminded her of something. The sense of familiarity only increased as the princess continued. “Still, I must investigate, if we're going to save my student.”
The doctor gave the princess a sympathetic look, but her tone remained strict. “Not at the risk of another patient—”
“Of course not, of course not. I just have a few questions, then I'll go myself...” Celestia murmured absently, making a show of looking away, expression thoughtful as if contemplating the right questions.
“Nothing too, ah, trying,” Goldbloom cautioned, “and don't get frustrated if she can't remember.”
“Actually, I think...I may have a solution,” Celestia said, in an idle tone of voice. “All I really need to know is where to look. If I touch her mind, briefly, I can—”
The doctor stiffened. “'Touch her mind'? You've never, ah, mentioned you can do anything like that to me before. I'm not, ah, sure that's a good idea given that she's had such trauma...”
Celestia gave her a little smile. “It's very non-invasive, I assure you.” The princess turned to Applejack and, to the earth pony's mixed curiosity and mild distress, gave a little wink. “Don't worry, I won't learn your heart's desire, or anything like that. Just try your best to think of where this all took place, and I'll get enough to teleport, I expect..”
The princess leaned down over her and gently whispered, "Trust me, Applejack. I'd never hurt you."
Internally, Applejack groaned. Well, that just about settled that, didn't it...?
She closed her eyes and thought as hard as she could about—
I can't actually do that, but play along. Please? I need your help—Twilight needs your help.
The little whisper in the back of her mind appeared suddenly, with no forewarning at all. Applejack's eyes opened wide, and beside her, the doctor gave a little grunt of displeasure. Celestia's head hovered over hers, eyes closed—although as the young mare watched, the eye on the far side from Goldbloom opened very slightly and winked again.
Now she remembered where she'd seen that all-too-easy smile—it was plastered across Twilight Sparkle's face any time she had no intention of giving up on something despite the objections of somepony else, and needed to get rid of them politely.
It seemed she learned more than magic from her mentor...
“Focus, my little pony,” Celestia murmured.
“Oh, uh...right.” Applejack closed her eyes and brought her hooves to her temples again in a pantomime of mental effort. “Er...southwest orchards...'bout a mile or so from the path into the woods...”
“Yes, I can see it now...well done.”
Thank you, Applejack.
The young pony opened her eyes in time to see Celestia give Goldbloom a bright smile. “No harm done.”
“Yes, well, I'll, ah...I'll be the judge of that,” the earth pony said, looking a bit off-put. “I'm as worried about, ah, you, as I am about these three, Princess.”
“It was nothing,” Celestia said, rather hastily. Applejack and Goldbloom gave her questioning looks, and the princess cleared her throat, theatrically. “Twilight was just confused. Frightened. I can see how she might have thought I was attacking her.”
Goldbloom blinked. “What?”
An awkward pause filled the ward for a moment.
“The...bite. It has long since healed, of course—”
“That's not, ah, not what I meant at all,” Goldbloom said, with a rather canny look at the princess. “You're not quite your, ah, usual self...”
The princess froze for a moment, looking a little taken aback, before her expression thawed into a wry little smile. “I sincerely hope you don't think fifteen centuries of life have hardened my heart such that when one of the closest friends I have ever had is wounded, I am unaffected?”
Goldbloom's eyes went wide. "I'd never even, ah, think such a thing...!”
Celestia raised a pacifying hoof. “Relax, Goldbloom. I just need...I need to feel like I'm helping her. I'll be on my way shortly, and without a doubt I'll return with an answer for us.” Her smile brightened. “If you'll give me a moment alone with my friend here...?”
“Of course, of course. I'll, ah, I'll be in my office, then. Do stop in before you go, please,” Goldbloom said, pressing her glasses up yet again and turning to leave the cramped little ward. “And you, young mare, do try to get some more rest.”
“Sure thing,” Applejack replied uneasily, beginning to suspect this was not a likely thing at all.
The princess and Applejack watched the doctor leave, the door shutting behind her on its angled hinge.
“Well, shall we, then?” Celestia asked, with every appearance of enthusiasm.
“Shall we...what?” Applejack asked, blinking.
The princess' smile wore a bit, betraying nervous impatience. “Go to the orchard you mentioned. While I cannot read your mind in the way I suggested, if you are with me to guide the spell, I could land us under any tree you wanted to see—”
The young mare's eyebrows rose. Apparently the princess also shared Twilight's tendency to believe that because she'd figured everything out in her head, everypony else had done so as well. And more, that they had agreed enthusiastically.
“Forgive me, but, uh...” Applejack said, looking pained. “What about my, y'know...my head?”
“Oh, well...doctors.” Celestia gave Applejack a very wry look. “Goldbloom is very skilled, but you know they're never satisfied enough to let you out of their care until they've made you immortal. Not even then, it turns out!” The princess gave a little laugh at this, but Applejack noticed that it didn't extend to her eyes; they were tense and wary, studying the younger mare and watching her response.
Applejack frowned. “Ah'm—”
Celestia caught her eye, and the earth pony froze in place. It wasn't a threatening gaze by any stretch of the imagination—indeed, if anything, Celestia seemed weary—but it somehow demanded the entirety of Applejack's attention.
“You'll be fine,” she said, in a calm tone of voice.
“Ah'll be fine,” Applejack murmured, suddenly—and only then did it occur to her to wonder why.
She probably would be—she'd be with the princess, after all. And doctors...well, it was true, they were always fussin'. Why, once she'd cracked a rib and the doctors had kept her off the orchards for a whole month! She could have been out there buckin' sooner than that...
“And I'm sure they just wouldn't hear anything different,” Celestia prompted.
“Of course not! Meddlers and worry-warts, to a pony...” Applejack grumbled.
Anxieties suddenly calmed, she rolled out of the bed, her legs wobbling under her for a moment. Celestia smiled approvingly and spread her wings in a graceful, practiced way as the earth pony took station next to her.
“We'll be back before you know it, Applejack, and then you can rest all you need. I'm so sorry to force this on you, but I have to...for Twilight.”
Applejack smiled. “For Twilight.”
Celestia gave her a broad smile. “Now, just...relax. Focus on where we need to be, and I'll do the rest.”
“Right,” Applejack said, a little unsteadily. “What do...focus? Whattaya mean?”
Celestia blinked, as if surprised out of the momentum of the situation, but a pleasant expression remained on her face as she explained. “Picture it in your mind. Feel the place you were; where the trees stood around you, the sensation of the grass nipping at your legs...everything. Until you feel like you're already there.”
Applejack took in a deep breath and held it as she closed her eyes and tried to focus through the swirling, dreamy haze of her thoughts. Images of the night floated in her vision, like apples in a boiling pot, churning and appearing uncontrollably, such that she was at a loss to pick one from the other.
“Just relax,” Celestia murmured next to her. “You said you remembered which orchard—”
“Princess, they don't call it Sweet Apple Acres for nothin'. Ah...Ah'm just havin' trouble gettin' the exact place in mind, is all,” Applejack mumbled, closing her eyes as tightly as she could and gritting her teeth.
“Twilight is depending on us.”
Applejack hissed frustration and tossed her uncooperative head. Maybe if she went through the evening, step by step, it would help...?
So, first...the barns, and then...across the south fields, to the tree house...
“Quitcher frettin', Ah've almost...got it...”
They'd had to argue, because the girls had wanted to stay out. They'd tied Scootaloo to the railing with one of Applejack's lassos, and were planning to use the high winds to help her practice flying, which since the three of them were almost fully grown now was an even worse idea than it had palpably been at any point in the past.
Which is why she had a lasso.
The lasso she used...where?
What had she fought, anyways? It had hissed and screamed like a wet cat, yanking on Applejack with tremendous strength. Her mouth was still sore from how viciously it had struggled against her, even as she expertly lashed it to the trunk of...a huge, misshapen tree...
Where? Somewhere in the woods, not quite as far south as the Zap Apple fields...it was all a dark blur, everything looking the same to her. She had no sense of where she had been; the storm had broken as they searched for Twilight, turning the already dark and forbidding forest into a gloomy nightmare realm, nothing familiar or pleasant to recall. Add to that the way her mind slipped around like a greased pig at dinnertime and she was totally at a loss.
Distantly, she heard Celestia hum in an anxious sort of way. “The doctor could come back any time, Applejack. Please...”
“Ah think Ah got it, but—”
There was no reply, no request for confirmation; instead, there was merely a sensation of being compressed, then a rush of motion which seemed to drive her forward at tremendous speed without requiring she change position in any way. Applejack barely had time to register this strange phenomenon before it suddenly ceased, with a lurch that was all the more disturbing because while she clearly and unmistakably felt it with her mind, it did not come accompanied by any physical reaction whatsoever.
She opened her eyes suddenly, fighting an intense need to vomit. Around her, the rich green of the grass and trees of the southwestern fields seemed weirdly washed out in the anemic light of a dawn that hadn't quite broken into a sky still strewn with huge, dark clouds, lingering like flotsam after a terrific storm at sea.
To the south and west, the Ever-Free Forest loomed in the distance; the grey, twisted trunks of its perimeter like a shieldwall against the break of day.
“Wh...where...?” Applejack muttered, in between heaves from her churning guts.
A hoof drew Applejack's blurred vision up to meet Celestia's eyes, wide with concern. The princess looked about as stressed as the younger mare had ever seen her, actually biting her lower lip fretfully. “Applejack, just relax. Nausea?”
Applejack nodded, and the princess shut her eyes tight for a moment, grimacing. When she opened them again, her face fell into a calm, but firm expression, her horn lighting with magic. Immediately, the roiling in the earth pony's belly stilled and her throat ceased trying to climb up itself, but the weird sense of distortion and confusion in her mind remained.
“As to your question,” the princess said, her calm expression firming somewhat, “I rather hoped you could tell me. Where are we? Where is the creature who hurt Twilight?” Her eyes flickered to the eastern horizon, such as it could be seen through the thick trunks and vital foliage of Sweet Apple Acres.
“These are...this is the southwest orchard...the girls' tree fort is...” Applejack blinked and turned, pointing vaguely with a hoof. “Over there. Ah think,” she added, blinking.
The princess shut her eyes and took a deep breath before replying. “Good. Good. Now, please...focus, Applejack. Where is the creature? Did it chase you out of the Ever-Free Forest...?”
Applejack held Celestia's suddenly intense gaze for a moment, mouth hanging slack. The memories of the previous night were like snapshots, pictures of an event long ago that she only vaguely recalled now that the evidence of them was sitting in front of her. “Ah...princess, Ah'm sorry, Ah can't remember...”
Celestia took a couple heaving breaths and again looked anxiously at the slowly rising sun. “You must remember something. Anything, please! Just...”
“Ya keep doin' that,” Applejack slurred. “Why?”
Applejack waved a hoof, vaguely. “Lookin' at the sunrise.”
The princess blinked. “I'm just...” Her voice trailed off, and her expression suddenly faded from the moment into a faraway look of internal debate.
“An' yer in such a hurry, the doctor didn' seem this worried...” Applejack continued.
Celestia's eyes snapped to the young mare's with alarming suddenness. She leaned forward, holding the earth pony's uneasy expression in a cool gaze. “Twilight Sparkle is dying.”
Applejack looked away, chastened. “Ah was only—”
“Please, just try to help me, Applejack. There's just something I have to make sure it's not...” Celestia said, the icy tone melting into something like desperation. “Which way? Can you rem—”
Celestia was interrupted by a flash from the horizon as the sun peeked out into the sky in earnest.
Applejack blinked and whinnied, her vision suddenly a mess of blurs and flashes. Despite herself, she reared up on her hindlegs and flailed, stumbling as her head began to swim.
Celestia quickly reached out and steadied the young mare, catching the earth pony's strong forelegs on one of her own. “Applejack, relax! It's just the s—”
In the far distance, something screamed.
Both mares' heads jerked in the direction of the sound—southwest, away from the sunrise.
The Ever-Free Forest.
The howl was hugely loud and keening, unearthly and utterly unnatural, but one thing above all was clear: nothing could make that sound unless it were in unimaginable agony.
“No,” Celestia whispered. “Please, no!”
Applejack looked up at her, vision still bleary and unsure. “What? What's goin' on—”
Before she could get her question all the way out, Celestia had already dropped her to her hooves and begun staggering vaguely in the direction of the sound, quickly speeding to a trot, and then a canter. Applejack desperately willed her legs to obey and follow the princess, who was quickly accelerating and vanishing into the distance, a white blur against the blooming green of the orchard under the rising summer sun.
The howling sound rang out again as Applejack finally managed to get her legs to cooperate. The strain of it made her vision swim and her head ache, but the princess' bright coat stood out against the distant bastion of gnarled trees marking the border of the Ever-Free like a white stone set among black.
“Princess, please, wait!” Applejack managed—but to her distress, if anything the princess accelerated, disappearing into the gloom of of the forbidden wood.
There was no dawn here, no day; the Ever-Free was a jealous place, the canopy of the wizened trees above forming a false sky which blocked the light of the sun, such as it was in this early hour. Gloom surrounded Applejack as she raced after Celestia, obstacles leaping out at her with the thoughtless malice of the inanimate object underhoof in the dark. Usually so sure-footed, she found her hooves snagging on every revealed root and slipping across the smooth, damp surfaces of rocks embedded in the soft, sodden earth.
Every now and again she caught snatches of Celestia, a white shape bounding through the wood with the same speed and ease she would the broad avenues of Canterlot. Eventually Applejack lost sight of her entirely, and was forced to follow the sound of the screaming. It had devolved into a sickly wail, keening and vile; the young mare found her stomach once again flip-flopping in sympathy.
Something that was managing to function in her mind was conscious that they hadn't gone very deep into the forest, instead running along its outmost border. As she ran, forcing herself to follow the piercing shriek, things started lining up in her brain.
This was a familiar path—she'd run it not a few hours ago!
Just as before, she headed south after the sound of screams, although this time Rarity was absent. They'd run as fast as their hooves could carry them, to—
Applejack turned the corner of a tall rock face and saw the clearing where they'd found Twilight Sparkle under attack.
She stepped forward, blinking in the sudden brightness...and remembered.
She'd immediately tossed the lasso around the neck of the creature attacking Twilight, who had been thrown to the ground, lashing desperately with her hooves. While Rarity leapt in to help her up, once again showing the thoughtless courage and generosity of spirit that few suspected to be there, Applejack had engaged in a terrible tug-of-war with the dreadfully strong creature, which had thrashed and screamed beneath the raging sky...
There had been no time to savor her victory. Twilight had been crying out for the Princess...desperate to get to her. Applejack hadn't even thought, she'd just left the thing tied to the great tree in the clearing's center.
Then they'd suddenly found themselves being drenched on the balcony of Celestia's apartment, both Rarity and Applejack vomiting as the world shifted around them without warning and Twilight moaned in terror.
She was so stunned by the sudden rush of memory that she almost trotted straight into Celestia, who was staring in horror at the tree. Applejack followed her gaze, eyes widening in shock as she took in the bizarre scene.
The trunk of the tree, brightly lit in the growing light of day, was black and eaten away at its base as if by an intense, sudden fire—hot enough, the veteran apple farmer in Applejack noted, that it had been able to burn deep into moist greenwood after the most horrendous storm in living memory. Unbelievably, little wisps of flame still licked at the corners of the great black scar.
But it was not this that occupied the princess' attention, nor Applejack's once the younger mare followed her gaze down. At the roots of the tree, surrounded by the remains of one of Applejack's fine, oiled lassos, was a great pile of ashes heaped over what was unmistakably the charred remains of a pony skeleton.
Just as she had when Applejack awoke, Celestia spoke softly and yet utterly consumed the young earth pony's attention. Dread, confusion, and above all endless sorrow were thick in her voice, which was small and weak such that Applejack turned to her, suddenly filled with an aching emptiness in her gut.
“No...it can't be,” the princess murmured. “They're all dead, or driven into Tartarus...but I knew, somehow. I just knew it...and now...oh, Twilight, not you, not you!”
She stepped forward, face miserable, and brushed ashes away from the skull, revealing it completely. Applejack recoiled, suppressing a sudden scream.
Nopony she'd ever known had teeth that sharp...or that long.
“Princess...what is this? What is that?” the younger mare all but shrieked. “What's happened to Twilight?”
Celestia turned her face to Applejack's, and the expression she wore chilled the young pony to the bone. Her eyes, usually so calm and placid, or lit with passionate determination, were dull and empty, and if her features were any measure, she now bore such a crushing weight on her heart that she was like to die of heartbreak right then and there.
“Twilight Sparkle has seen her last sunrise, I fear,” the princess croaked.
Then she closed her eyes, turned away from Applejack, and said nothing more for a long, long while.
Rarity awoke for real, this time.
The doctor—what was her name? Such a strange pony, but genius and madness danced together, they say—had come in with more bandages and bags of blood, and Rarity had managed a grunt of acknowledgment as the doctor fretted about somepony being gone before drifting back to sleep.
Now her mind was working its way into wakefulness for certain, this ti—
Slurch. Slurch. Sluuuurch...
Thick slurping noises filled the ward. The unicorn froze, but her eyes slammed open; the sound was coming from her right, from the far bed against the wall where the stricken Twilight Sparkle lay. It was the sort of wet, organic sound that spoke to instinct, saying: Something is really going wrong here. Run!
Though the curtains had been drawn, Rarity's eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness as she allowed them to roll right, reading the textures in the dark. Twilight was sitting up in her bed, back to Rarity, hunched over something.
Heart pounding, Rarity slowly sat up in the bed, eyes locked on the other unicorn, and forced herself to call some magic light despite a sudden lance of pain running down her horn. Twilight froze, suddenly illuminated, one ear twitching at every sound Rarity made.
“T-Twilight?” Rarity managed, her voice trembling in terror. “Sweetie, are...are you alright?”
For a long, dreadful moment, there was silence and stillness. Rarity felt herself involuntarily start to tense her muscles as the dark, animal part of her mind screamed for her to flee while she still could.
“Twilight, you're scaring me. Where's the doctor? Does she know you're awake?”
Rarity swallowed, trying to to master her fear. This was Twilight! She was hurt, what could possibly—
Then Twilight's head turned, with alarming speed. Rarity started at the dreadful intensity of that gaze, which seemed to pierce her like an arrow.
The first thing that consumed Rarity's attention was the blood which covered her friend's muzzle, her lavender coat appearing almost black with the rich fluid. It dripped in thick, wet splatters onto the bedding in a gruesome display of a complete lack of table manners whatsoever.
Rarity's heart stopped. She'd been drinking it.
Rarity's eyes somehow opened wider in absolute horror.
Then even this desperate thought was driven from her mind as Twilight Sparkle snarled. Her irises gleamed a terrible red in the low light from Rarity's magic, but that was nothing, nothing, compared to the dreadful terror that rose in Rarity as Twilight's lip curled upwards.
The creature before her opened its gore-sodden mouth and gave a terrible, primal hiss like a great predatory cat, its fangs shining bright against the dark, bloodsoaked muzzle around them.
There was a hiss-thwip of displacing air and expended magic, and the mare suddenly appeared in mid-air, tumbling to the ground awkwardly with a grunt of pain.
Altogether not bad, for her first time teleporting.
She got to her hooves, perhaps a little less gracefully than she might have liked. Her coat was matted with grime and little wounds from the night’s adventures. Deep-set, exhausted amethyst eyes slowly cast about, surveying her surroundings. She had arrived on a clear path up a promontory ridge to a small cottage which seemed to be built into a hillock, surrounded by a small fiefdom of animal houses, coops, and feeding troughs.
She’d escaped the treacherous wood, it seemed, though it still loomed behind her on the far side of the clearing.
It had taken her the better part of a day to journey deep into the forest, her speed not helped in the least by pursuit. Her exit had been somewhat more speedy, it seemed, but she had to admit that more than once, in her desperation, she quietly feared she’d never emerge from that dreadful place.
Teleportation had been an untried magic for her, but...
Well, “desperate times called for desperate measures” was a philosophy that had served her well many times in the past.
There was only one way to find out if you could do something: try it and find out!
Having Twilight Sparkle on your tail, promising to take it easy on you, was bad enough; but as things had moved along, the pursuit had gotten deadly quickly, spoiling her success.
Well, probably deadly. She didn’t stick around to find out once things started getting really bad.
“Well, that was—” she began, but a rising gorge in her throat made her whole body shiver and she reflexively closed her mouth and swallowed—a mistake, as it turned out. Her stomach was managing to both roil and churn and tie itself up in knots, and the ache spread outward from there. She wanted to roll onto her side and clutch it, moaning like a foal who'd eaten too much too fast, but that would hardly do.
She began to hack and cough, her whole body shaking as it spasmed. Blood spattered on the ground in front of her, both from the coughing and dripping from her nose; not that she could see this, her eyes clenched shut against a sudden, crushing pain through her whole body.
So she hadn't made it out completely unscathed; but that was fine—the risk of her adventure had been commensurate with the reward.
She was battered, yes, and as she mastered herself slowly despite the gnawing pain, she was all too aware that she was good and bloodied.
Far from the first time, for both.
And yet she stood unbroken, triumphant, her prize claimed despite meddlers and dangers unforeseen.
For now, though, even so victorious a pony as she probably needed some rest.
The mare forced one hoof to rise and fall, the muscles screaming and burning, and then the next. The little cottage was only a few yards away...
One more step. Closer still.
And another, her body screaming. She needed to get inside, out of the sun. Everything seemed so sensitive right now, her coat seeming to suddenly be made of flame dancing across her skin.
She almost made it to the door before collapsing, a hoof-full of steps away.
Her mind screamed at her body, demanding obedience. This was not the worst thing that had ever happened to her and she would not succumb to it! She was strong! She would not be overcome...
And so, where some ponies would have laid still and mewled for help like a foal with a scuffed knee, the mare slammed one hoof in front of herself and dragged herself along the cobbles. It was agony against her hypersensitive skin, but she gritted her teeth and, her mind firmly demanding obedience of her body, pulled herself up against the door.
She gratefully sagged against it, the pain abating somewhat in the shadow of the doorway's small awning. For a short while, she let herself pant and shiver, wiping the blood from her muzzle—but only for a very short while.
She raised a hoof and struck the door firmly.
Clap! Clap! Clap!
A frightened little squeak escaped from a nearby window, followed by a rapid series of hoofbeats. After a moment, a tiny little voice spoke from the other side of the door.
The mare sighed. “Please, let me in! I...” She winced, and clutched her stomach. “I need help...”
“Oh, of course! But, er, who...who is it?”
Some habits just cannot be suppressed, no matter how inappropriate they might be at the time...
“It is I,” the mare said, throwing her head back so that her pale blue-white mane fell dramatically back from her horn. “The Great and Powerful Trixie!”