"C'mon everypony, lets high-tail it outta here!"
Applejack in the lead, the group of friends trampled through the bushes ahead, in full flight of the crimson inferno inching ever so closer behind them.
"The animals! What about the animals?!"
"There's no time Fluttershy! We gotta hurry!"
The canary pegasus felt a powerful tug in her tail as her cyan colored homologue tried to drag her with her teeth.
"Stick together! Keep up with the pace and don't wander off on your own!" Commanded Twilight, turning around to do a quick headcount.
"Where do we go?! Which way is out?!" Called out Rarity in despair, prancing on the spot as her head darted in all directions.
The ivory unicorn's fears were not unfounded. The trees seemed to rise all around them, blocking their path and obstructing their view. Fire spread around the forest, devouring the canopies overhead like a hungry beast, and sending fragments and branches crashing down below. Creatures of all size and manner ran around frantically in confusion, with no set direction, scurrying about in search for shelter. The woods cracked and creaked angrily as the whole forest seemed to give out a loud and prolonged death throe.
Her heart beating with trepidation, Twilight scouted her surroundings looking for a clear path, but the wildfire had already completely encircled them. With a twinge of panic she realized there was no way out.
"Twilight, through here!"
The filly wheeled around to find her young assistant, pointing towards a meadow through the thicket up ahead. With a sudden outburst of relief, the unicorn charged ahead while beckoning the rest to follow her. "This way everypony!"
It was as if the temperature had suddenly dropped fifty degrees. The young scholar felt her muscles seize up, as if she had just been showered with icy water. Goosebumps traveled down her back when she heard the loud "crack", a personal invitation from the grim reaper himself, and turned around to see the trunk of an old tree give way and fall apart. The old gargantuan sycamore, ablaze in flames, precipitated angrily towards her with impeding doom. Twilight stood there, rooted to the spot in horror, unable to move but a single muscle, awaiting the silent call of death. The entire world seemed to come to a stop around her as the trunk came crashing down with full force, bringing every single branch with it in its trajectory towards the filly, and then it happened....
In a blur of pink the plum unicorn was lifted off her hooves and dragged out of the way as the piece of timber hammered the ground with such force that it shook the trees around them.
"Twilight! Pinkie Pie! Are you okay?!"
Applejack felt time compress as seconds seemed to turn into hours while she waited for an answer. After what seemed like the longest minute of her life, her call was greeted by hacking and coughing, followed by a rasp voice from behind the tree.
"We're fine, don't worry!" Said Pinkie Pie.
Twilight seemed fine but was shaken nonetheless: she had just narrowly avoided death. Her body still quivering, she turned toward her friend in disbelief, "Pinkie Pie... that was awfully brave of you. I-I really don't know what to say... thank you," she whispered.
"It's all good Twi! You'd do the same for me, and besides if you wanna thank someone, you better thank my tail: twichy-twitch!" She added, gesturing towards the the cotton candy-like appendage hanging from her haunches, which was indeed shaking with spasms.
"Make way! Imma comin'!" Said a familiar voice behind them.
The fillies turned around just in time to witness Applejack emerge from the flames as she jumped over the fallen tree, sparks flying underneath her, and landed heavily next to them. The cow-filly then threw a lasso at the trunk, where it settled around a sturdy branch protruding out of its burnt body, and called out the others to help her.
"Alright y'all, we gotta get this thing outta the way pronto! Put your back into it!"
With an almighty tug, Applejack, Twilight, Pinkie, and Spike pulled the remains of the old sycamore towards them. Their hooves sunk into the ground while the ancient, gnarled wood protested their every effort, creaking and cracking with every jerk of the rope. Finally, with a resounding crack, the charred remains of the tree broke into halves, allowing the rest of the ponies safe passage.
"Help... can't... breathe," stammered Rarity, covering her snout with her foreleg, trying to shield herself from the black fumes issuing forth from the bushes around them.
Assistance came in the form of Rainbow Dash, who wrapped one of the unicorn's forelegs around her neck for support, and heaved her forward. "You gotta keep your head low! Move as fast as you can, but make sure you don't breathe any of the smoke!" She pointed out wisely.
With Twilight and Applejack leading the front, the group moved with haste, allowing the two fillies to clear a path ahead of them: the latter would lasso burning branches and bring them down, while the former scoured the remains with her magic. Following closely behind, Pinkie Pie and Nemo Ius called out for any potential threats hanging overhead, helped along by Pinkie's sense. Lastly, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Spike brought up the rear, dragging Rarity along as she was still hacking due to the fumes she'd inhaled earlier.
The ponies and the young dragon trudged their way through the woods, flames licking their sides, trusting branches and bushes aside. Sticks, jagged remains of burnt branches protruding all around them, would occasionally dig into their coats scratching them as they pushed through. Thorns, laying on the ground, sliced their legs making their every step a living hell.
"I think I see the exit!" Called Twilight from up ahead.
"Yeah, Ah sees it too!" Confirmed Applejack.
With one last push the group burst through the woods, heaving and panting as they went along, until the last of them was out. Turning around, Twilight surveyed her friends to check their condition. Spike lay sprawled in the ground, tongue hanging out in fatigue; Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy seemed to be assisting Rarity as she retched, trying to evacuate her lungs of the smoke she'd taken in; Applejack and Nemo seemed a bit shaken but in good shape nonetheless; only Pinkie Pie looked completely fine, though obviously a bit exhausted from the ordeal. The whole of them were covered in soot and burns they'd gotten while trying to escape.
Twilight couldn't help but cast a final glance at the forest, and watched as it sunk underneath a sea of flames. A chill traveled down her spine, thinking what would've happened had they been but a minute too late. 'No' she thought to herself, shaking the dreadful images from her head, 'that isn't important now, all that matters is that we're safe now. Or were they?'
There it was again, that knot in her stomach. Somehow she could still feel it in her very bones, there was something very wrong with this picture, and it wasn't the fire either.... 'True, they were in the middle of summer: the heat and the humidity could've contrived to cause this horrendous scenario, and yet... there hadn't been any flammable material laying about in the forest floor, such as hay or others, that could've allowed for spontaneous combustion to develop. The conditions had been wrong as well, there was no feasible way the sun's rays could've penetrated the thick foliage and ignited the grass beneath them. Where was the sun for that matter? It was still daybreak and the celestial body was barely poking its face out of the horizon, there was not enough heat to cause an ignition. Still, if a fire had broken out, however unlikely that event might have been, she could understand if it had started eastward... but westward? How in Equestria could sunlight have managed to circumvent the whole forest and start a fire in the opposite end?'
"Hey everypony, lookit that!"
Twilight was snapped from her musings by Applejack' voice. Slowly, she turned around to take a look at where her hoof was pointing and immediately she felt her stomach fall. A small contingent of about two dozen pegasi had just punched their way through the gushes of smoke issuing forth from the forest, and were now descending upon them.
Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes with pure dislike. "Why those lousy... I'll show'em who's boss!" She said, arching her back and spreading her wings. Before she was able to take off though, she felt a powerful force pinning her to the ground, as if her hooves suddenly weighed several tons each.
"Rainbow you're barely standing up as it is, and there's too many of them for you to fight them on your own," Twilight said with alarm in her voice, her magical aura gently wrapping her friend, "and besides, you're severely injured," she finished, casting a disapproving look at the pegasus who was indeed covered in cuts and burns.
"Twilight's right," added Rarity, who seemed to have finally overcome her coughing fit, "none of us is in a fit state to fight, our only chance is to run!"
"Run and then what?!" Protested Rainbow Dash, still struggling against Twilight's spell.
"Run and then... hide?" Suggested Fluttershy amiably.
The unruly athlete smacked her lips in exasperation, "oh and where do you suppose we hide? Under a rock maybe?" She asked, rolling her eyes.
Fluttershy ignored the sarcasm and merely pointed towards the horizon, where several structures seemed to be rising out from the ground in the distance.
"It's Fillydelphia! C'mon there's no time to waste!" Releasing Rainbow Dash from her spell, Twilight charged ahead, calling for the others to follow her as her trot turned into a full gallop. Her legs and joints ached from exhaustion, but she pushed herself knowing a worse fate awaited them if they were caught. The filly could feel her sides hurting and her head spinning from the lack of oxygen, and concentrated instead on the rush of adrenaline pumping through system. She could see the city, etched against the sky, becoming bigger and clearer with each bound. She put in an extra burst of speed, furiously striking the ground with her hooves, faster and faster, not daring to take a look back in fear that a moment's distraction would cost them their freedom. Alas, if only she had....
Having taken off as fast as their hooves would allow them, the group had not noticed the considerable drop in speed the pegasi chasing them had undergone, nor the way they'd taken their sweet time spreading around to form a concave behind them. It had completely escaped Twilight's logic that the pegasi could've easily overtaken the tired and injured ponies if they so wanted, air travel being faster, yet they were deliberately hanging behind, looming just out of reach. Teasing them. Poking at them. Herding them.
"We're there! We're safe! We did it!" Yelled out Pinkie Pie triumphantly, stepping onto the stone pavement that lead straight to the city's entrance.
Immediately, Twilight scanned the view up ahead in search for potential hiding spots. She'd never been there but the city had the same feel as Manehattan, with businesses taking up most of the space in the streets and huge buildings sprinkled here and there, though much smaller in comparison to the former's skyscrapers. She knew at first glance that the place would be bountiful in dark corners and back alleys to hide and elude their pursuers.
The young mare did some quick mental arithmetic and decided on a plan: "Everypony split up and spread out! We'll meet at the other end of town. Take your time and don't be reckless! Make sure you shake them off!"
There would be no such chance. There weren't even thirty feet away from the city when several forms rose out of the ground in front of them, shaking off grass and leaves off their backs to reveal a Romanesque style of armor, forged in gold. The friends stood there in shock as five dozen soldiers climbed their way out of a trench, which had been cleverly disguised with vegetation, barring their entrance to the city.
"It's a trap! Go back!" Yelled Spike, too little too late, for the pegasi were already descending upon them to block the rear.
Twilight searched frantically for an opening, but it was to no avail. The soldiers in front of her were already closing ranks, surrounding them in a concave, and she could feel the pegasi landing uniformly behind her to complete the circle. They'd been had: this time they were truly trapped and there wouldn't be a way out.
She could feel her erratic heartbeat, working itself up into a frenzy, as she tried to take in the severity of the situation. Her friends' cries and yells seemed suddenly foreign and distant, the whole world around her seemed to be spinning, spiraling out of control. She felt a strange knot in her chest, all the while a growing sense of apprehension seemed to overtake her like an avalanche. She did not notice the pristine golden carriage land behind them, dragged along by a couple of pegasi, nor did she watch as a strapping old unicorn, with a silver coat and a jet black mane, stepped down from it to address them. No, it was his voice, harsh like a whip and cold with menace, that brought her back to reality.
"Give it up Sparkle. There is no escape." This wasn't a threat, nor was it an opinion. It was merely a statement, but one he spoke with such force and confidence that there was little doubt to be had.
The group turned around to face their captor, it was then they realized just how screwed they really were. The stallion's age ranged around mid fifties to early sixties, but he was a testament to all that was tough and disciplined: over five feet tall, his entire body seemed to be covered in muscles. It wasn't the kind of useless bulk some ponies would get in order to be more intimidating either. Upon close inspection one would find that he had honed his body to perfection, developing his vast mass into something that would protect him from most physical attacks, without impeding his movements or limiting his speed. This wasn't someone they could fight head on, or outrun for that matter.
"General Hawk Eye, sir! Permission to give my report sir!" Piped up a palomino pegasus right next to him.
"Permission granted private, speak up," replied the stallion in his low, deep voice.
"The fugitives have been cornered, no contingencies have been reported, operation 'Wildfire' has been successful, I repeat: operation 'Wildfire' has been successful," stated the soldier springing into a salute.
"Good. At ease."
Her fear momentarily forgotten, Twilight felt a pang of anger in her stomach as she rounded on the unicorn in front of her. "Operation 'Wildfire'? You mean to tell us you set the forest on fire?!" She demanded craning her neck to meet the stallion eye to eye.
"That is correct, Sparkle. We started a controlled fire in order to lure you towards the city," explained the general unabashed.
"Nonsense! How could you have possibly known where we were, or where we would go?" Asked Rainbow Dash.
"I'm a military strategist: it is my job to find out where my enemies are, where they would go, and how to catch them. It only takes an incompetent like Storm Chaser to allow a filly to fool the Imperial Guard for two entire weeks," he spat out with pure disdain.
Twilight however, hadn't had her say yet. "You burnt down a whole forest just to capture us?! What about the animals?!" She pressed on.
"Enough!" Shouted the stallion, "you are wanted criminals, you have no vote or say on how I do things. You are to remain silent and do as you're told," he said with a tone of finality.
"But of course!" Said Nemo sardonically, "I imagine you wouldn't want to execute us somewhere where everypony could see you. No, I imagine you're going to take us for a nice little stroll, somewhere secluded where you can be spared of any formalities such as a fair trial, right?" She added with a bitter laugh.
"I will not repeat myself woman," retorted the unicorn waving a threatening hoof, "hold your tongue if you want to keep it. You are to be escorted towards the Imperial Prison, where you will await trial under a military jury and be senten—"
"Oh wow! I must've gotten my constitutional classes mixed up! I didn't know the Imperial Guard could subject civilians to military trials! Thanks for the clarification there sergeant desp—"
Before Nemo Ius could finish her quip she felt something hard collide with the side of her face. The impact traveled throughout her skull and she felt her consciousness slip away as she was flung sideways onto the grass, where skidded to a halt.
"DO NOT TRY MY PATIENCE! THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING!" Thundered the General, his left hoof held aloft.
"Nemo!" Twilight yelled in alarm, throwing herself at her to protect her from further harm.
The attorney wasn't moving. Her eyes were shut and her spectacles, dangling pathetically from one of her ears, had broken with the force of the blow. Some of the shattered glass had scratched her snout, where a couple of scarlet droplets were issuing from a particularly wide cut. Her left cheek, where she'd been struck, was purple and swelling. A single string of blood, mixed in with saliva, was dripping from her open mouth.
Twilight propped her up with one of her forelegs, removing strands of disheveled hair from her face, and gave her a little shake. The filly remained unresponsive to stimulus. Fire consuming her every thought she turned to face the attacker.
"You monster!" She yelled, angry streams pouring down her eyes.
"Say what you will, but move while you say so Sparkle! My patience with you is beginning to thin... now get to it!" He ordered.
A rebellious smile suddenly lit up the unicorn's face. "No, I won't!"
Fuchsia aura emanated from her as her horn was set aglow. The soldiers backed away as a purple light irradiated from her, enveloping her and her friends. The light grew brighter and more intense until the group had completely vanished from view. A small poofing sound was all that the soldiers heard.
"Quick! Let's get away before they— huh?"
Twilight stopped in her tracks looking aghast, surprised to see that she was still surrounded. Somehow the soldiers had managed to teleport alongside her.
"B-but how?" She stuttered, her mind racing through her actions in search of the mistake.
At this the general gave her a devious smile. "You didn't think we would be prepared for such a thing?"
She was panicking now. 'He can teleport right beside me wherever I go! That's not possible! It shouldn't be possible!' She thought to herself in desperation. Twilight turned around to look at her friends and she felt her heart wrench to see that they all had the same fearful look in their eyes ('the same look I had back then...'). Her eyes burning with determination she concentrated all her power once more as she cast the spell one more time.
"A one trick pony aren't you?" Lamented the general as his own horn glowed white.
The magical energy dispersed and Twilight opened her eyes to find that they were still surrounded.
"But that's impossible! How can you teleport alongside us?! There is no spell that would allow for such, even theoretically!" She yelled, terror gripping her.
The stallion smiled mischievously once more. "You're right, there isn't," he agreed.
"There is however a spell that allows one to disrupt another unicorn's magic, causing their spells to go awry. We haven't been teleporting with you: you haven't teleported at all," he explained.
Her mind was abuzz with questions now. She'd never seen or come across such a spell in any of her readings, how was it that this unicorn had when she had poured through each book in the Canterlot library at least seven times.
"Oh, it's not a spell you'll find in any book, it was my own creation," he added after seeing the confused look on her face.
"But that's im—"
"possible?" He finished for her. "You greatly overestimate yourself Sparkle. Just because your talent is magic, does not mean that you have a monopoly on the thing. Sometimes a unicorn will unlock powers others may lack through discipline and practice. History shows us that hard work eventually trumps talent, a lesson you will not soon be forgetting, even if it is your last one...."
Twilight eyes twitched at these words. "I already gather that you're in on the whole coup d'état and that you want to kill us, so why put us through this mock trial? Why not execute us here and now? From what I saw from the previous Commander, formalities aren't something you ponies enjoy following," she said, trying to provoke him. If they were to be executed, then she would at least ensure that evidence of the irregularities remained behind.
Surprisingly the General cast her an annoyed look and grunted uncomfortably, before giving her his back. "I will not discuss my orders with you Sparkle, and I am done talking. Guards!" He bellowed and at once the soldiers surrounded the friends and shackled them.
Twilight, who hadn't taken her eyes off the General, noticed his eyes flickering for the briefest of moments towards Nemo and muttering something that sounded strangely like "situation's changed..."