It all began, as so many adventures do, not with a bang, but a whimper.
In her bedroom, one Pinkamena Diane Pie, commonly known to her friends as Pinkie, slept uneasily. She tossed and turned in her bed, as she had for nearly a month now. Images filled her head, dark, insidious ones, writhing and undulating around a group enshrouded in darkness. She couldn’t see who they were, but they were clearly nopony that she was familiar with.
As always, one of them spoke, her tones angry but strangely cultured: “You stole from us what was rightly ours. You and your kind. You usurped us, displaced us, and we would have back what you stole – what was always meant to be ours.”
But I don’t understand, Pinkie responded in the dream, confused. What did I take?
“The very fact that you ask is an insult!” a second voice shouted. “So very comfortable in your larceny that you can’t even imagine it being anything other than yours. You mock us, jibe us with your false innocence and we will have none of that.” A dark foreleg, black as night, reached out and slammed Pinkie across the face, sending the party pony staggering back.
“But we know. We know and we act,” said a third voice that joined the other two. “We act, and when we are done, we will bask in the truth of our own victory. And there won’t be enough left of your bones to dance and trod upon.”
Pinkie began nervously humming her grandmother’s song – “Giggle at the Ghosties” – as a ward to protect herself. But these were no ghosties, nor were they in the mood to be giggled at. From beneath a dark cloak, one of the black ponies produced a dirtied, scarred pointed staff that at closer glance, looked like a broken-off horn of a unicorn.
“Prepare for your end, usurper. You won’t have long.” The pony stabbed forward with the broken horn. And as always, in the end, the dream ended with an explosion of blood, one that Pinkie was sure was hers.
She vaulted up with a scream, shaking and shuddering on the bed, sheets soaking wet from sweat. Again. As usual.
Get a hold of yourself! she told herself. Tomorrow, for sure, you’re going to go see the doctor. Maybe you can get one of your friends to go with you. Besides, no need to be so silly-billy, Doctor Stable isn’t scary or anything, since you just did a catering job for his office two weeks ago. Even then, she’d been to Ponyville Hospital plenty of times, for various reasons.
She thought about rolling back into the bed for sleep, but the soaked sheets made that uncomfortable; furthermore, she knew that if she did, within an hour or two she’d have the dream once more and the result would be a sleepless night in any case. Things had been like that for a couple of weeks now, and even for the usually chipper Pinkie it was starting to wear on her.
A knock on the door immediately caught her attention. Who would be knocking on the door at this hour? It was probably two or three in the morning and nopony – not even her – did anything at this hour. Well…so there were the occasional sleepover parties for all her friends. And DJ P0N-3’s weekend raves. Oh, and Dazzle’s midnight fireworks shows in the park. And…. Okay, so maybe there were a lot of ponies who were up at this hour. With an uneasy yawn, Pinkie decided that sleep was a write-off for the evening and went to go answer the door.
As she descended the stairs from the household towards the front door, she looked at the unlit expanse of Sugarcube Corner. Three years since she bought the place and even still she couldn’t believe her good fortune. The Cakes had moved to San Franciscolt when Cup’s mother had grown ill; they offered the business to Pinkie so it would remain in good hands, and after going into a partnership with Bon-Bon (who needed a bigger kitchen for her own confectionary) and a much-appreciated loan from Pinkie’s sister Blinky – I’m so never gonna get used to calling her “Octavia”, stage name or no – the business was hers...well, hers and Bon-Bon’s. The upstairs residence, however, Pinkie kept as Bon-Bon and her roommate Lyra already had a nice place of their own down on Haymarket Street.
The pounding on the door dispatched her from her thoughts, and the baker called out, “Hold on, hold on, okay?” She repeatedly blinked her eyes and opened and shut her mouth for a second or two more to hope she looked somewhat awake, before opening the door. “Um, we don’t open for several hou – Twilight? What are you doing here?”
Twilight Sparkle, former Ponyville Librarian and current Royal Court Mage, waved weakly to her old friend. “Um…hi. I’m sorry if I woke you, Pinkie.”
Despite her exhaustion, at the sight of her old friend, Pinkie couldn’t help but grin. “Naah, couldn’t sleep anyway. C’mon in and I’ll make some coffee. What are you doing back in Ponyville? You could’ve sent a letter letting me know you were coming, you know.”
In response, Twilight shook her head. “I’m sorry, Pinkie, but I’m not here on a social call.” She gestured behind her, and standing there, three other ponies also looked half-awake, their other friends Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity. Behind them was one of the larger carriages meant for group transport. “We’re needed back in Canterlot. Immediately.”
Pinkie blinked once more, making sure she wasn’t seeing things. “This early in the morning? Must be big.”
“Elements big, dear,” Rarity called from near the carriage. “Now, the sooner we get to Canterlot, the sooner I can get my beauty sleep – don’t want to look such a mess in front of the court, you realize.”
“Sure,” Pinkie responded. “Give me a second to get my things and we’ll go. But I’ve got to let Bon-Bon know I’m leaving. And who’s going to watch over Gummy?” She worried about her pet, as while Gummy had reached the four-foot length of an adult dwarf caiman, he’d curiously never grown the teeth of one.
“Applebloom’s already offered t’ let Bon-Bon know an’ watch over th’ pets, sugarcube,” Applejack said in between a yawn. “She’ll be here first thing in th’ mornin’.”
“Um, I can give you a hand packing,” came the soft tones of Fluttershy’s voice. “That is…if you want.” The pegasus had wrapped her wings around her for warmth, chilled by the early morning air. As the norm, the veterinarian and occasional model looked so young and fragile despite being the oldest of their group.
Pinkie grinned. “Naaah, I got this. Be back in a second.” In less time than it took for the others to blink, she dashed from her position at the front door and back, packs firmly in hoof. “Wow…that took an actual second. I must be really tired.”
“Well, if you’re ready, let’s get back on the carriage. We’ve got an hour’s flight to Canterlot, and you’ll probably want to at least sleep a little while we’re on the way,” Twilight commented as she led her friends back to the carriage. The five clambered aboard, and within minutes, the pegasus-drawn craft bounded into the northeastern sky, straight towards the mountain citadel that was Canterlot.
Minutes later, within the magically pressurized cabin, three ponies gently slept, all cuddled next to one another in the comfort of good friends. Rarity and Applejack sandwiched Fluttershy, the trio covered by a blanket Twilight had thought to bring just in case. On the other side of the cabin, however, both Twilight and Pinkie sat at the table, caught in the spell of their relative businesses.
Twilight looked at her old friend and commented, “You don’t have to stay up for my sake. I’m already used to working odd hours thanks to my duties.”
Pinkie went over some paperwork that she’d brought to do during the trip. “This gives me a chance to catch up on all the odds and ends of my business. I’d ask Bon-Bon to do it, but if she has a weak spot, it’s paperwork. Since somepony has to get it done, it may as well be me.”
Twilight giggled. “Look at you, Ms. Serious Businessmare. Never thought I’d see that.”
“I have my moments now and then. Besides, we all can’t be silly fillies forever. And just because I’m serious about my business does not mean that this Pinkie’s a stick in the mud. Nope, not me.” She went back to her paperwork, but then stopped after a moment when she realized Twilight was staring at her. “Something wrong?”
“Pinkie…are you okay? You don’t look good.”
“You woke me up at two in the morning, Twi. How am I supposed to look?”
“You have bags under your eyes, and you look…harried, and not in the ‘Why am I up this early?’ sense.”
Pinkie turned her head away; as usual, the unicorn was astute. “I…haven’t been sleeping well the last couple of weeks. I was planning to set up an appointment with Dr. Stables today if you hadn’t come by.”
“If you’d like, when we get to the castle I can ask Dr. Candystripe in the Infirmary to look at you. She’s a nice pony, and I’m tutoring her daughter in math, so she owes me a favor.”
“I can wait until I get back home,” Pinkie countered. “I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
“Candystripe won’t mind. Besides, you’re supposed to stay in tip-top shape, Duchess Vanner, Knight Elemental of Equestria.”
“Ugh,” Pinkie moaned. “I appreciate that the princesses did that for me, but I hate using my title. Makes me look like I’m rubbing it in. Besides, only Rarity – excuse me, Duchess Lippizan – uses it regularly and even then only in her business dealings. What made you bring that up anyway, Duchess Shetland?”
“Okay, I deserve that, I was just teasing you. But since you were going to stop by the doctor’s anyway, tomorrow is as good a time as any to go. I can go with you if you’d like, since I’m tutoring Candycane in any case.”
Pinkie nodded absently as she focused back on her work. “Sounds fine by me.”
The remainder of the trip was in silence, accompanied by the music of three mares’ snores and the occasional tapping of calculator buttons.
The moment the carriage alighted at the front of the castle, the five rushed out of the carriage, not waiting for the footponies to open the carriage doors, nor waiting for ceremony. The group moved forward, skipping formalities and pleasantries due to the urgency of the situation, and considering that five of Canterlot’s Knights Elemental were gathered in the same place in this hour, the whispers began in earnest, the rumors only increasing as they moved through the castle, towards their destination.
That destination led them to a brightly hued hallway…or what was left of the hallway, at any rate. Much of it was so much sundered stone and shattered glass, torn carpeting and destroyed facades, exposing the whole structure to the outdoors. To say that an explosion had gone off in the enclosed space was an understatement. But it was the gaping hole at the other end of the ruined passage that caught the five by surprise. The huge metal doors were torn off the hinges as though they were paper, and it looked as if blood was splattered on them. Whatever wisps of sleepiness had remained on the five was now dispatched by the unassailable fact that the Chamber of the Elements of Harmony had been destroyed.
Twilight went to the nearest of the guards – the fact that a platoon of Royal Guards had been stationed here underscored the seriousness of the situation. “Strongback, has anything changed since I left?”
Strongback’s gruff voice held a tone of barely concealed anger. “Four of my best guardsponies were hospitalized and we still don’t have a flying feather about what happened.” He shook his head. “As for anything else, no other incidents were reported to the Night Guard, though we still have to compare notes with the Day Guard captains when the shift change occurs. I presume all of you will be sitting in on that, Twilight?”
“I’m afraid you’ll just have to record notes for them, Captain,” a regal voice said from behind them. None of the mares needed to turn to know who said that. “Ladies, if you’ll follow me, I had an early breakfast prepared. It’s probably been a rough night for you – it sure was for me.” Wordlessly, the five followed in step behind their friend and liege lady, The Princess of the Night, Princess Luna.
As they entered Luna’s personal apartments a few minutes later, the night alicorn sighed. “First off, I’m truly sorry for dragging you all out of bed, but everything happening at such breakneck speed. We’ve been having increasing incidents over the past few days and our intention was to call you all at a more reasonable pace, but the attack on the castle gave us no choice but to send Twilight to gather you all. As it is, Celestia’s still mediating the peace treaty between the zebra kingdom and the gazelle nation, so she’s still stuck in Quaggaton for a few more days.”
“Luna, dear, you’ve nothing to apologize for,” Rarity spoke. “But I would appreciate being brought up to speed on what’s occurred. You mentioned that something’s been awry for the past few days?”
“More like past few weeks,” Twilight admitted. “It started about three weeks ago, with strange sightings around Guard outposts and garrisons. Sightings of black ponies have been seen around all of Equestria. At first, it was merely unusual – these ponies are pitch black—”
“—and they’re none of my Guard,” Luna interjected. “My sister and I mostly use the same troops, and she’s…um, very picky about how they look. As it is, Strongback, Lightwing and Bravesoul are the darkest of the Guard and they’re hardly anywhere near dark colors.”
“—and at first, it was nothing more than sightings of unusual ponies,” Twilight continued without skipping a beat. “But then we got other reports, ones more disconcerting: reports that the black ponies were monitoring troop movements and members of the Mage Guild. We got a report from Moondancer that she was being stalked while she was on business in Manehattan last week, and Starbeam Twinkle was threatened while she was giving magic lessons in Appaloosa. And then….”
“An’ then whut?” Applejack commented first, though the others had the same thought on their minds.
“The garrison in the Everfree Forest, at the site of the old castle, was attacked,” Luna answered, taking over for Twilight. “At first, we sent a platoon of Guards to deal with the issue, but we got an immediate request for additional support – heavy magic support.” Though not mentioned directly, everyone understood what the implication was: the need for warfare-level magic. “By this time, Celestia had already left for the peace summit and there was no one else to remain on site, so both Twilight and I departed immediately for the garrison.”
“But by the time Luna and I arrived, the battle was mostly over, and the black ponies – hundreds of them, apparently – all melted back into the forest. The base had taken heavy magic damage and there were dozens of wounded, so we stayed overnight to make sure the emergency was over.” Twilight bit her lip hesitantly. “Unfortunately…that left just enough time without a heavy magic user on duty here at the castle….”
“We would have back what you stole – what was always meant to be ours.” The words burned in the back of Pinkie’s mind. “So what happened to the Elements?”
“We don’t know,” Luna answered. “Well, the Elements really didn’t go anywhere, not really; they’re inside all of you. But the so-called ‘Elements’ are actually focusing crystals to bring out the power. Twilight really doesn’t need hers and with enough practice, Rarity probably wouldn’t either. But the rest of you….” Luna shrugged her wings, an unspoken gesture that the conversation was entering territory unknown even for the Night Princess. “Even still, you should feel a bit diminished by the disappearance of the crystals.”
“Well, um, now that you mention it,” Fluttershy offered, “I had an, um, brief panic attack last night.” She blushed furiously as she admitted, “It, uh, sort of ruined my date last night.” She gave Rarity a helpless look, one which the unicorn immediately understood and moved to her friend’s aid.
“I have to admit, I felt something last night as well. I was hemming Sweetie Belle’s costume for her school musical, and my hooves and horn went numb. Next thing I know, I hemmed something…well, let’s just say my dear sister may be wearing that on a honeymoon someday, but nothing suitable for everyday use. It wasn’t one of my better moments,” she said with an awkward grimace.
“Well, Ah can’t say Ah felt anythin’ out of th’ ordinary, but Big Mac an’ Ah were tossin’ back a few mugs o’ cider last night, an’ for a sec Ah felt tipsier than usual, kinda hoof on the barrel. Ah didn’t think Ah drank too much, so maybe it was the….” Applejack mentally wrestled on what to call the sensation, but ultimately left it nameless.
“Well, I didn’t feel anything myself, but I’m practiced at protecting myself against potential weaknesses, and I was a bit tied up at the Everfree Garrison. What about you, Pinkie?”
“You usurped us, displaced us, and we would have back what you stole – what was always meant to be ours.” “Um, nothing. You know me, so loopy that I really don’t notice these things,” Pinkie stammered unconvincingly. The group looked at her suspiciously, particularly Twilight. She gave the unicorn a brief pleading look, hoping for a brief moment of respite.
“Well, if you say so, Pinkie,” was all Twilight responded with, letting it drop to the earth pony’s great relief. “I’m wondering how Rainbow Dash felt. I hope she wasn’t airborne at the time.”
“She’ll be alright, sugarcube. Dash always manages t’ land on her hooves with no problem.”
“Funny that you should mention her, milady,” an approaching pegasus from the Day Guard commented. Looking directly at Luna, she said, “Your Highness, a bit of your time, if I may – it requires, ah, some discretion.”
Luna set down her cup of tea. “Captain Windsong, please go ahead. The Knights Elemental are more than willing to keep confidence.”
“Milady, it is somewhat confidential,” Windsong pled.
“Captain, may I also remind you that both as duchesses and knights, these mares well outrank you? You have my word when I tell you that they will keep confidence.” Unspoken was the fact that Luna did not want her friends disturbed after a rough night, nor would she keep secrets from those she felt closest to.
Windsong sighed. “I would rather have done this in private, but as Your Highness wishes.” She began to reach into a pouch at her side. “One of my troops found something in the ruins of the vault. It was easy to see how the Night Guard missed this; and to be honest, had the guardspony not been so new, chances are the Day Guard would have missed this as well.”
“Missed. What.” Luna’s tones slid into a low growl. Over the years since her return, and no small thanks to Fluttershy, Luna learned to consign the Royal Canterlot Voice to the dustbin of history – especially since she found that keeping a low, threatening growl was much more effective.
In any case, for Windsong to suggest that an inexperienced guard found a vital clue said that either the veterans were inept…or that they discounted something potentially problematic. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good; and chances were that it was going to be politically, perhaps even personally, dicey.
“This.” Windsong proffered up a single strand of prismatic-hued hair. “Your Highness, miladies Duchess, there is only one pony in all of Equestria who has a mane such as this.” From the sudden gasps at the table, the captain knew she struck the nerve she wanted to avoid and was now counting the seconds left before she was reassigned to the Equestriani arctic.
“So you’re telling me that the Duchess Jennet is culpable for what occurred?”
“My ladies, I realize that she is personally dear to you all, but there can be no other explanation.” Windsong held the strand for every one of the assembly to see. “Please understand, I feel ashamed to even think it, but all things considered, who else could it be?”
Pinkie immediately spoke out. “But Dashie would never do anything like that! Besides, she’s been on the other side of the country for the past week!”
“I was on the other side of the country, Pinkie,” a voice suddenly gasped. Everyone turned to see Rainbow Dash, looking the worse for wear and wearing the uniform as Commanding Officer of the Starbolts, a group Luna formed for her friend after multiple failed attempts to join the Wonderbolts. “Sorry I couldn’t make it here sooner, Luna, but I didn’t think you’d – gasp – mind if I got here late.”
Her friends looked at her, completely aghast, and it actually fell to Windsong to speak the unspoken question. “Lady Jennet…you were over 4,000 miles away, were you not?”
Rainbow Dash gulped down more air before answering. “Um, yeah – took a whole hour to get here. I know that sounds awesome, but between you and me? I’m exhausted.”
“Do you realize how fast you must have been going to cross the continent in such a short time?”
She shrugged weakly. “Sure, Mach…7, I guess? I stopped counting after Mach 2.”
Windsong did some quick numbers in her head and immediately started getting a headache. “Maybe that arctic outpost wouldn’t be so bad after all,” she mumbled under her breath.
“DASHIE!” Rainbow Dash immediately found herself in Pinkie’s high-speed glomp.
“Uh, Pinkie, please let go – I’d really like to start brea—”
“INCOMING!” a voice suddenly shouted even as Rainbow Dash turned around and muttered, “I told her not to come….” An orange blur rocketed into the room, but didn’t stop in time and punched through the marble wall, pulverizing the impact zone into dust. As everyone present winced, Windsong said to herself, “Wonder how many scarves I’ll need for the North Pole….”
Breaking free from Pinkie’s grasp, Rainbow Dash stomped over to the carbon-scored hole in the wall. “Scoots, I told you to stay with the team!”
The teenaged pony poked her head out of the hole, looking somewhat crisped by the impact energy release, but otherwise none the worse for wear. “Thank Celestia for bowshocks, or else that would have hurt. She suddenly realized who she was with, and added a quick, “Uh, no offense, Princess.”
Luna quickly stifled a giggle. “None taken.”
Rainbow Dash was seriously ticked at her protégé. “For the third time already, kid, I told you to stay with the team! Luna called me, not you.” She began stripping off her uniform; unlike the Wonderbolts, she didn’t feel the need to wear it all the time.
“But…I figured you needed me.” Scootaloo pulled off her own uniform. “Besides, where you go, I go.”
Rainbow just facehooved at that point. “Twi, were you ever this bad with Celestia?”
The unicorn’s face nearly split in half from the grin. “You’ll have to ask my mentor about that. Oh, and make sure you set aside a few hours – she’s probably got plenty of stories to tell.”
“Ahem.” Windsong cleared her throat, hoping to get this over and done with; if she could get it done in the next few minutes, she could just make it for the next train to Whinnypeg. “We still have the matter at hand to discuss.” She held the hair aloft. “Duchess Jennet, may I inquire where you were as of last night?”
Rainbow Dash blushed. “Um…that’s really none of your business, is it?”
“Oh really?” Rarity cooed, seeing her friend’s sudden flush. “So, who was she?”
If Fluttershy’s infamous Stare was genetic to all pegasi, Rainbow Dash would have used it at that point. “Okay, that joke has worn a little thin, Rarity. For the last time, I am not—”
“This isn’t one of hers.” Scootaloo peered intently at the strand of hair Windsong was holding up. “I mean, it looks like it on a casual glance, but the colors are brighter, for one. And it’s a different color pattern.” The younger pegasus went to her mentor, running a forehoof through the latter’s mane to pull a loose strand, then put the two together for comparison. “See? Rainbow’s isn’t as bright.”
Windsong looked at it as well. “And while the Duchess’ hair is truly a rainbow pattern, this one merely has the colors, but not the order, of the spectrum.”
Fluttershy sighed in relief. “So that means that Rainbow Dash is innocent.”
“Well, yeah, I’m just awesome that wa—what do you mean ‘I’m innocent’?”
“Long story,” Applejack drawled.
“Well, since this clears her of any implications, Captain, please have your team begin an investigation immediately. I want to know who exactly did this – and why they went to pains to apparently frame Duchess Jennet.” Luna dismissed the pegasus. “Oh, and before I forget, Windsong: you have my apologies for my earlier outburst.”
“Quite understandable, Your Highnes—”
“And I wouldn’t pack you off to Fresian Garrison. Much too cold and you’re much too valuable of a guardspony. If anything, I’d send you off to command the garrison in San Caballo. I think the weather there would be more to your liking.”
Windsong went wide-eyed, wondering how the princess could have known what she was thinking before realizing exactly what the princess was. Deciding it was probably not in her best interests to be near a divinity for the foreseeable future, the pegasus took off, making a beeline straight for her office.
Fluttershy sighed in mock disgust. “Hundreds of years old and you’re playing pranks with the staff.”
Luna feigned a wounded look. “But…if I don’t do it, Celestia will. Somepony’s got to keep up with her.”
“Could anypony explain what’s going on?” Rainbow Dash inquired. “I hope I didn’t just nearly burn myself out to catch the tail-end of a slumber party.”
“No, it’s more serious than that, Dash. But have a seat and have some breakfast – you too, Scootaloo. This is going to be long and probably painful.”
She raised an eyebrow at that. “How painful?”
“Prepare for your end, usurper. You won’t have long.” “Very painful, Dashie. Very painful.” As Pinkie made her statements she hoped she was wrong. But in the back of her mind, she knew she wasn’t.