Gilda stretched her wings. It was a perfect day for flying. The sun was high, the temperature was just right, and there were plenty of clouds to laze about on afterwards.
She plopped back down next to her friend with an angry huff.
“If you want to fly so much, just go,” Dash mumbled.
“What I want is for you to stop moping around.” She poked at Dash’s flank. “You’re gonna get out of shape.”
Dash swatted the talon away. “I just don’t feel like flying today.”
“You’ve been like this for an entire week. I mean, c’mon Dash. Just ‘cause that kid made a mistake doesn’t mean you have to get all down.”
Dash shook her head. “I should have done more for her. If I hadn’t tried to send her back to the orphanage, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. And now with Spike supposedly in on it too, Twilight’s falling apart.”
“Yeah, Twilight’s assistant. I mean, she refuses to believe he had anything to do with it, but he ran away like that. It just doesn’t look good. And every tracking spell Twilight tried failed.” She rolled onto her side. “I don’t know. What if Discord got to him? What if he’s not the only one? I keep thinking who else we know that might have helped.”
“Yeah,” Gilda said, looking toward the edge of the cloud, tail fidgeting irritably. “Well, if you’re just gonna sit here and mope, I’m gonna get some flying in.”
“Alright, see ya,” Dash said, closing her eyes. They opened a moment later. “Gilda?”
“I don’t remember telling you about Scootaloo.”
“I, uh, heard it somewhere else. You know how gossip gets around.” Gilda smiled nervously.
Dash rolled slowly onto her hooves. “But the only ones who know the full story are the six of us, Scootaloo, and the princesses.”
“Are you sure? I’m sure I heard it somewhere.”
“Yeah,” Dash said, eyes narrowing, “I bet you did. Why did you come to Ponyville again?”
They stared at each other, muscles tensed, for a few heavy heartbeats. Suddenly, both launched off the cloud in a blur of movement.
Gilda tucked into a dive, Dash right on her tail.
“Gilda, get back here!”
Without answering, Gilda’s twisted out of the dive, shooting out over the treetops. Dash mimicked the move, keeping within feet of the griffon.
“How did you know about Scootaloo?”
Gilda swerved again, but Dash matched her pace perfectly at every turn.
“Dash, you gotta believe me, I ain’t got anything to do with it!”
“Then why are you running?”
With a frustrated snarl, Gilda flared out her wings, killing her speed. Dash slammed into her from behind. The griffon rolled with the impact, sending Dash tumbling head over tail into a tree. With three powerful strokes of her wings, she took off, leaving Rainbow tangled up in the leaves and branches.
“I’m not doing it,” Spike said, crossing his little arms. He stood in the main hall of the abandoned castle. A single, sickly ray of sunlight filtered in from some long-forgotten hole high above. Discord had come a few hours before, asking Spike to come with him. Before Spike could answer, he’d been swept up in a flash of magic.
“Oh, it’ll only be a little while,” Discord said, bending and putting his arm around Spike’s shoulders in a friendly gesture.
“No way,” Spike shrugged his arm off and jabbed a claw at Discord. “You told Scootaloo you weren’t going to even try to take over Equestria.”
“Circumstances have changed. Scootaloo would have never been able to explain her cutie mark. Even if she could get out of being banished, she’d never be accepted.” Discord straightened. “Spike, my goals have never changed. I want to make a world where we can all fit in. Don’t you still want that? Don’t you want a world where Dragons can live with ponies?”
Spike’s voice was barely a whisper. “Not like this.”
Discord bent down to look him in the eyes. “Would you give up on everything we worked for? Would you give up on Rarity? On staying with Twilight when you get bigger? Everything you want is right there. You just need to stay with us and take it. In a few hours, Equestria will be ours.”
Spike nodded reluctantly as the last traces of color drained from his scales.
Gilda burst through the front doors of the castle a few minutes later. Discord looked up, eyebrow raised at the sudden entrance.
“Shining Armor!’ Princess Luna called, catching up to the unicorn as he made his rounds through the palace gardens shortly after sunset.
“Princess,” he responded, bowing deeply.
Luna nodded and he rose. “Are we right in guessing you’re on your way to maintain the force field?”
“Yes, your highness,” Shining Armor answered.
Princess Luna stared thoughtfully at him. After a few seconds he began to glance around nervously. “Is something wrong, princess?”
“This is one of my favorite times to walk,” Princess Celestia said, strolling through the sculpture garden, a small smile on her face.
“Really?” Scootaloo asked. “I thought you’d prefer daytime, when the sun is up.”
“I always have so much work to do in the daytime,” Celestia answered. “Ponies come from all over with their problems, and all the big decisions have to go by me first. Being a princess is much harder than it looks. But at night I find I have more time to relax.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Scootaloo whispered.
“Now, what is it you needed to show me?”
“Right over here, on Discord’s old pedestal.” Scootaloo said, pointing at the hunk of stone. “If you squint you can almost make out words.” She looked down with an embarrassed smile. “Like I said, it’s probably nothing.”
The princess stepped closer to the stone and bent to examine it, still smiling. Scootaloo had been quiet all week, surely now that she seemed a bit more cheerful, humoring her couldn’t hurt. “You never know what might be useful. Maybe we can find clues to tell us how Discord made his own elements.”
A silent pulse of energy coursed through the night air. A faint buzzing noise followed, growing louder. Celestia’s head whipped up as she searched for the noise. She turned her gaze up and went still.
Shining Armor’s force field was falling once again. This time though, it hadn’t been shattered. The shield was simply dissolving from the center outward. The princess watched in stunned silence as the last remnants of it disappeared below the skyline of canterlot.
“We should get back inside the Castle,” Celestia said, turning back to Scootaloo. She paused again, eyes going to the necklace resting against the young pegasus’s throat. She hadn’t been wearing it a minute ago.
“Oh,” Celestia said simply, a frown settling on her face as reality sank in. Her horn flared with a dangerous golden light.
“I mean, she could have figured it out from somepony else,” Dash said, pacing across the library floor. “Just because we didn’t tell anypony doesn’t mean it’s a huge secret. Trixie knew too, and she’s a loudmouth.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Twilight agreed halfheartedly.
“But then why did she run? Why’d she drop me into a tree if she had nothing to hide?”
“I don’t know.” The unicorn’s voice was hardly more than a forlorn whisper.
Rainbow Dash shook her head. “This is what Discord does. He turns you against your friends. I’m not going to make any assumptions about Gilda until I see it with my own eyes. Spike either, right?”
Twilight nodded with a little more conviction than before.
“Besides, Scootaloo would have told us if Spike had been in on it, right? She gave us descriptions of the other ponies.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Twilight breathed, actual relief making her voice crack. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Rainbow Dash smiled with her, but only for a moment. A new thought turned her face back down into a troubled frown.
“Scootaloo saw Trixie the first time she came to town, right?”
“I think so,” Twilight said uncertainly. “Yeah, I remember seeing the crusaders in the front row. She cheered you on when you did that trick with the clouds.”
“Then, why didn’t she tell us that Trixie had been in with Discord?”
Rainbow Dash had carried her friends before, like when she’d rescued Rarity from falling to her death. But it had always been short distances.
The flight from Ponyville to Canterlot was anything but short. It certainly didn’t help matters that Twilight had nearly choked her in the first few seconds. The unicorn had panicked and squeezed tightly in an attempt to keep from falling.
Still, there wasn’t much of a choice. Spike was still missing and the trains wouldn’t run till morning. So Rainbow Dash pushed herself, wings burning with the added weight of her friend.
“My brother’s force field is down!” Twilight shouted over the roaring wind.
“Yeah, I noticed! I’ll fly us straight to the castle!”
They touched down a few minutes later, more heavily than Dash would have prefered. With the extra weight, they toppled over and rolled in a pile for a few feet before stopping at the foot of a statue.
“Come on,” Twilight said after quickly checking that nothing had broken. “We need to find Scootaloo.”
“Yeah yeah, I kno—” Dash cut off, wings falling limp and a look of horror spreading across her face.
“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked, turning around as her horn flared up to let her see. The light flickered out immediately as she fell to her flat on her rump. The two of them stared in horrified silence at the statue they’d landed next to.