“Is there any question of what else could have attacked her?” The doctor asked the Princess, who stood quietly in thought as she examined the charts. The second attack. Twilight had warned her things would come quickly, but she hadn’t expected the attacks to be so vicious. Glancing through the one-way window, she watched the gray Pegasus use her snout to nuzzle her daughter, both forelegs in a cast, one from broken bones, the other still cold and lifeless, yet a recovery was expected as long as a source of Celestia’s power was nearby to heat it. “We have reports of disturbances, of the sounds of ponies screaming coming from the sky, much like how Big Mac’s been describing the beast that attacked him. On top of that, there’s the souvenir she got, as well as the chill Princess Luna felt while investigating with the men.”
“Lunie would know father’s work as well as I do.” Celestia mused, staring at little Dinky as she started drawing all over her mother’s casts with a given marker, filling it with pictures of bunnies and butterflies, the words “I love you” slipping in once, twice, or a couple dozen times. Of course, she had to work around the signatures already there, the Ponyvillers still in Canterlot had come by to visit immediately and had written all over her wing casts, and when they ran out of space on the wings, used her arm casts. “It’s just so hard to believe she ran into something and survived. She even managed to get a tooth out of it…”
“She didn’t have much information on the ponies who helped her, but one of them must have been a unicorn in order to make that flare and leave no traces of residue.” The doctor opened the door, and Celestia froze as the smell hit her. It wasn’t the scent of fresh-baked muffins the little girl always seemed to have about it that got to her, it was the smell of dead flesh. Dinky hadn’t even batted an eye when entering the room, simply too excited to see her mother alive and safe to pay attention to the smell coming from the blackened leg. “Anyways, I need you to come in and set up the sun source to drive away the necrosis.” He explained, allowing Celestia to walk inside.
She took idle steps, hoping she wasn’t interrupting as Dinky ran her hoof all over her mother’s face. “Ahem.” The three ponies in the room turned sharply towards the doctor, who smiled politely and shut the door. Celestia turned back to face the two ponies on the bed, and snorted as she bit her lip. Even as Derpy struggled to rise a bit, to bow, while Celestia gently pushed her down, she couldn’t help but giggle at the pony’s face.
“You have quite the artistic daughter.” Celestia managed between giggles, drawing a smile from the blonde pony as Celestia’s gentle hoof ran alongside one of the marker trails. “Has your mother always looked so handsome with a moustache?” Celestia asked Dinky playfully, who shook her head.
“No! Momma just looks extra pretty today!” The tiny filly said with a matter-of-fact tone that made Celestia beam just a little more. Her horn began to glow as she quietly began to remove the marker trails. “Watcha in here for Princess Celestia?” Dinky asked while watching as Celestia washed her mom’s face off.
“Now Dinky, what did I say about addressing royalty?” Derpy asked, watching her daughter gasp loudly, and suddenly bow low and deep.
“Most revered Princess!” Celestia groaned out loud, rolling her eyes in amusement. “If I might partake about in the happening of the chance to question yourself being in this room that of contains with my mother has!” Celestia stared at the filly for a few moments, then began to giggle again, having to close her eyes this time to not stare at the exaggerated bow anymore.
“Please please! Stop!” Celestia begged, covering her mouth with one hoof as she continued to giggle. Dinky got up, and Derpy nodded to her daughter with a “good job!” wink before turning to face the Princess.
“Why are you here, Princess? Are you gonna ask more questions? Because I already answered the doctor guy as much as I could and I don’t think I have anymore answers in me.” The bed-ridden Pegasus asked, trying to focus her one wonky eye, but relaxing as the Princess stroked her cheek with her hoof again.
“I’m here to help you with your hurt leg…” The Princess answered, her knee gently touching the cast-ridden black leg, making Derpy wince. “Does it still hurt?” Derpy shook her head, then used her eyes to point to Dinky, who was staring at the leg, unaware of what was beneath it. “I see. Dinky Hooves, correct?” The little filly looked up quickly, and bobbed her head enthusiastically. Celestia politely lifted her up with one hoof, and brought her to a chair against the far wall. “Stay here, I want to speak to your mother alone about some unpleasentries. Think you can stay in this chair for a few minutes?” Dinky looked thoughtful for several long moments, pursing her lips, staring at the ceiling, making a long, loud ‘hrmmmmmmmmm’ as she did, and she finally smiled to the Princess and shook her head ‘no’. “… I see. Here.” Princess Celestia summoned up a marker board, making Dinky squeak happily as she took her marker to it.
With that done, Princess Celestia turned around to face Derpy, and join her by the side of her bed. The smell of her leg was lessening in her nose now. Getting used to it she supposed, she just didn’t get how Dinky handled it… “So, how are you going to fix my leg?” Derpy asked, curiously staring down at it with a somewhat dejected expression. Celestia calmly lifted her chin with a touch of her hoof, and Derpy felt her heart flutter. So this was what it was like to be around the Princess. She began to feel envious of Twilight.
“The sun drives away even the most persistent shadows and bathes the land with its life-giving rays. Through my connection to it, I can remove the evils that have befallen your leg.” Her horn began to glow a soft gold color, and she smiled as she began to unwrap the cast around the Pegasuses’ leg. “You’ve been touched by hell…” Celestia whispered, staring at the hairless, solid black, completely limp stump that served as her limb underneath the gauze. Her gut tightened as she scanned it, and sensed the barest hint of activity going on beneath the dark, brittle flesh.
“It happened inside the flying worm thing.” Derpy whispered, her voice low, looking to Dinky as the filly scribbled messily on the board, then wiped it away with her gray-haired leg. “I saw into a big, cold pit, where a lot of coatless ponies began to crawl from. One bit my leg and turned it all black. I can’t really feel with it, only pain, and it always hurts when it starts to move.” Celestia nodded quietly, leaning her head down to gently touch her horn to the limb.
“The damned, pardon my language, are infamously jealous of the living. The only ponies that go to hell are the ponies who have performed the darkest deeds without regret, and went to the grave stained with sin. The damned often never see the hurt they’ve spread as a result of their actions and unfairly use the living as a scapegoat, they use us an excuse for their deed. This is why I have done my very hardest to keep the two worlds separated. Unfortunately, an ancient power has the ability to bring beasts that connect directly to the underworld, and it’s rising again.” Celestia said in a low voice, sweeping her horn slowly over the blackened limb, the healing light and warmth causing the darkness to recede slowly. As she spoke, she could see Derpy’s face fall into passive thought.
“B-but…” Derpy whispered, her leg twitching in a test. She winced and held still. “You can stop it, right? You’re strong, you can do anything.” Derpy glanced to her daughter. It was like Dinky knew her mother was uncomfortable. She was using the marker board to hide her face, but every now and then she would look up to see what was happening.
“It can be stopped, most certainly.” Celestia lifted her horn up, but the glow around Derpy’s leg remained, keeping it bathed in a glowing golden nimbus that gently flowed around her arm like it was giving her a relaxing massage. “But that is not my job. My job right now is to keep Equestria safe now that it’s been invaded. I think you might know the ponies involved in stopping the beasts, Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy-”
“-Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie.” Derpy nodded slowly, eyes glinting in happy recognition. “I’ve delivered loads of things to them! Rainbow Dash even helped me with my flying! Oh, and I also have to deliver a really big box to Twilight as soon as I can. It’s the next shipment of library books.” Derpy hummed to herself, mind always on Dinky and on her job. It was how she grew familiar with ponies.
“That will have to wait. Twilight won’t be available for a while, and your job is going to be put on hold for a while.” Celestia explained, lifting the arm as carefully as she could to not hurt Derpy as she slid it underneath the blanket and tucked her in. “It’s too dangerous to be traveling around Equestria now.”
Derpy nodded slowly, staring down her own body before glancing up sharply to the Princess. “What about all the other ponies not in Canterlot? Won’t they be in trouble too?” Derpy asked, glancing to little Dinky, who had stopped drawing, her ears cocked. Derpy made a sign for Celestia to keep her voice lower.
Princess Celestia moved her face closer to Derpy‘s ear, and began to whisper. “We have plans. We’re doing a mass relocation project right now, but we’re trying to keep it somewhat quiet. We’re going to be moving everypony in Equestria to the slopes going to Canterlot and to the base of the mountain. We can’t have any more incidents like this happening away from home.”
“And you’ll keep us safe?” Derpy whispered, staring at Dinky longingly as the tiny unicorn slowly lowered her drawing board to see what was happening, only to quickly bring it up as she saw her mother watching her.
“Me and Luna both. We won’t be the only ones, we’re going to be raising an army.” Celestia closed her eyes, but she could feel Derpy’s panic. She slowly ran a hoof up to the gray mare’s cheek and smiled sincerely. “But I’m hoping it will be just for show. I intend to encourage as little combat as possible, and allow Twilight and her company to complete their mission so they may return to an undamaged home. I have no doubt they’ll keep us safe, we just have to place our trust in them.”
“So,” Derpy gulped loudly, and thoughtfully stared to her daughter, “the army won’t have to do anything? They’ll just be there? No fighting in Equestria right? No fighting at all?” She asked in a low, shaky whisper. Celestia closed her eyes and let out a weary breath.
“I can only hope.” The Princess whispered, and Derpy realized the Princess was powerful, the Princess was old, and the Princess was just a pony, with all the emotional weight that went with being a pony. All the emotional weight of several thousands of years.
Derpy fidgeted uncomfortably for a moment, letting the healing magics of the hospital soothe the burn in her broken leg as she considered what all this meant. An Equestrian army implied a lot of things. Bad things were happening, it needed protection, even with the Princesses there. That meant the ponies weren’t all that safe. Not safe from things like what had attacked her. The thing that nearly killed her, took her from her baby girl…
“Princess Celestia?” Derpy whispered, making the beautiful white mare look up with a little bat of her eyes. “Can I make a weird request?” The Princess straightened up, and gave Derpy her full attention. “Um, first, a question, will the army be using weapons?” Celestia gave a small, slow nod. Derpy gulped. This was a strange, unusual, and possibly painful thing she was about to ask. “Do I still own that tooth thing?”
“Well,” Celestia rubbed her chin quietly, “If it belongs to anypony it would be you. Why?”
“…” Derpy calmly contemplated the bulge of her back hooves beneath the blanket. “It’s really tough and is what let me kill the big flying snake. I was wondering if I could get it, I dunno, whittled down into a sword or something…?” She asked idly, slowly rolling her hoof in a circle like it was no big deal, but she could instantly feel Celestia’s displeasure.
“Why, Derpy?” Celestia whispered in a low voice. Derpy looked over to her daughter, who slowly lowered her marker board to meet her mother’s eyes. Derpy gulped loudly again as unpleasant thoughts filled her head. She turned back to Celestia slowly, a mother’s determination filling her face.
“Well, we’re gonna have an army to help protect Equestria and its ponies and Dinky, and I won’t have a delivery job, so I wanna enlist.”
“Hey Sugarcube, ya’ll awake?” Twilight opened her eyes slowly, but only saw darkness. She waved a hoof in front of her face, barely able to see it directly in front of her, making her smirk a little. She hadn’t caught a wink of sleep, despite what felt long hours of being alone with her thoughts in absolute silence, with only the sound of the blowing breeze and the shifting sands brushing against the rolling dunes surrounding their campsite.
She turned her head to the side, and winced as she watched a lantern flare up. Applejack, in the bag next to her, turned the knob down slowly, reducing the flame to a flickering wisp, barely sustained by the miniscule flow of oil, and when the glare left her eyes, she turned to meet Applejack’s green eyes. “Guess I am, haven’t been able to sleep all night.”
“Make that all week.” Applejack stood and stretched, giving Twilight a good look at her well-muscled form. Applejack had always been the heavy lifter, the mover, the worker, and the years of it showed. She was a tough mare, and had a noticeable thickness of well-earned muscle about her. “Been what, five days since we left?” Applejack asked as she sat down near Twilight, who sat up to join her.
“It should be morning already, so yeah, I’d say five days.” Twilight shook her mane out of her eyes, and cocked her ear. She could hear Pinkie snoring in the next tent, but other than that, the ponies were still. “What’s been keeping you up?” Twilight asked, shaking the protest in her muscles out.
“Just been thinking’ a lot lately. We’ve had so much time to do that, not a whole lotta action, just flyin’, campin’, trainin’, then flyin’ again.” Applejack was nervous about the whole deal, Twilight could tell. She’d been nervous for the past few two days or so. She was getting restless and irritated. Twilight had volunteered herself to be Applejack’s tent partner last night just because she knew if Applejack spent another night with Rarity’s detail focus, she’s probably chew the poor unicorn’s head off even more than she already had after the tent’s protective cover debacle. “I kinda figured we’d be there already, I never realized the world was so, well…” She spread her legs out in a wide circle, and Twilight nodded rapidly.
“I know,” Twilight whispered in a small sigh, “It didn’t seem this far away when I’d first looked. Every day I keep thinking it’ll be right around the corner, just over the horizon, but it only get a little bigger. I think today might be the day though, I took a good look and did a few equations.”
“Not knockin’ yer fancy mathematics fer nothin’ Twilight, but this ain’t Equestria, this ain’t some classroom or special test or some sorta experiment. Can we positively trust that?” Applejack asked. Twilight sighed a little. The farm pony was right, things were different outside Equestria. Animals were feral, the weather was sporadic, everything felt uncivilized and untouched, yet Twilight knew things weren’t going so well. The leylines were gone this far out. They were there, yes, but there wasn’t a drop of magic to spare.
They’re already passed over what little remained of a forest near the edge of the ocean as they flew over land, and rapidly entered desert. Looking down and all around, all they saw for miles and miles was sand, not a bit of green. Every now and then they saw what they thought was a town, but when they got closer they saw ruins, either just destroyed buildings, abandoned buildings, or simply scorched to the ground. It was becoming disconcerting, all this travel, not a sight or sound of another pony… “I believe I have it right. You can hold me to it though.” She smiled, and Applejack simply shrugged. “… So what have you been thinking about so much?”
“Oh, y’know, home. Big Mac, Granny Smith…” She trailed off, her eyes lowering. “Applebloom more than them. Just keep wonderin’ if she’ll be okay without me.”
Twilight smiled kindly. She was pretty familiar with the little Crusader, having baby-sat her and her friends more than once. Applejack had warned her that Applebloom could become the little sister of anypony caring for her pretty quickly, and she hadn’t lied, she already felt that sort of affection for the lovely little pony. “She’s with Celestia and her friends right now, in the safest place on the planet, there’s no need to worry.” Outside, the wind began to wail softly, like a ghost in the back corner of a dark room, making the girls shiver. “Things are picking up outside…”
“I know she’s safe, and I know she’s a big girl, but I still can’t help but worry and miss ‘em. Also miss work a bunch too, was just so relaxin’ some days. Right about now, I’d do anything for a fresh, juicy apple.” She opened her pack in the corner and pulled out a red, beautiful looking apple. She took a bite, the crunch sounding more dry than it should have, then chewed slowly, and finally swallowed. “These are goin’ stale. Never really liked a stale apple, get broken in enjoyin’ the ripe ones of the crop back home.”
“I think I can relate.” Twilight chuckled a little, taking the apple as Applejack tossed it over. She took a bite, and found that it was going dry. A pity. “I wake up every morning having to remember I’m in a tent, not in a tree. Then I keep wanting to call for Spike to bring my day’s agenda but Spike’s not here.” She sighed heavily, deeply, but she did not regret her decision to keep him with Celestia. She felt a leg around her shoulders, and looked to Applejack’s smile.
“Well, I ain’t the right pony to ask to judge Spike’s character, but I think he’ll be okay. You two separated on happy terms at least, I threatened Applebloom I’d scrub her teeth if I found them rotten when I came back…” She noticed the way Twilight’s ears drooped. “Ya’ll alright, Twilight?”
“…” Twilight sucked in a deep breath, and shuddered as she smiled ever so tenderly. “The last thing Spike called me was ‘mom’ before I left.” She reached up, rubbing her eye to rob it of the moisture building up and threatening to spill out. Applejack could only stare in silent shock. “I never really thought about it until I told him he was my baby, but I guess it’s true. I hatched him and raised him, even if we treat eachother like siblings. Then he went and ruined it by calling me mom…” She sucked in a sharp breath.
“Ruined it how?” Applejack asked carefully, watching Twilight’s smile as she sat and shivered in quiet, happy sadness. An odd mixture for sure.
“Well, you raise the animals on your farm from babies, right?” Twilight asked, and Applejack nodded. “Well what if they started calling you ‘mom’ for it? You raised them, fed them, sheltered them, and for nothing but the profit they happen to turn out at no cost to them.”
“I… I mean I don’t know. It’s an odd situation Twi. How are ya feelin’ about Spike then if everything’s so ruined?” The farm pony asked curiously. She wasn’t very good with the touchy feely relationship stuff, and thinking about the mother-son bonds that could grow between a pony and a dragon made her want to stick her head in a hole and pretend the world wasn’t that strange, but then again, she knew Pinkie Pie…
“Like I want to just scoop him up and keep him safe, I guess. I just have the need to protect him now, and make his life better and happy. Is that weird?” Twilight turned to Applejack, shaking out the rest of her sudden emotional outburst. She really needed some sleep, all this tired, boring monotony was making it difficult to keep ahold of herself.
“It sounds like you’re a mother Twi. I ain’t gonna tell you how ya should feel ‘cause I don’t know, but you and the li’l guy are closer than most ponies, so you just gotta nurture those feelin’s.” There. That sounded wise. She bobbed her head, and watched Twilight smile at that. The two sat in silence, Applejack with her arm around Twilight’s neck. It was awkward now though, and Twilight was stuck in her thoughts. Maybe a nice little change of subject… “So… That really was your first kiss?”
“… Huh?” Twilight glanced up to the smirking mare with a surprised look.
“With Dash that first night. First kiss?” Applejack began to snicker.
“I-it-!” Twilight shook her head hard, pulling herself out of her own thoughts to listen better. “No no no! What is with you ponies!? That wasn’t even a kiss, it had no tongue!” She stuck her tongue out as if to prove her point, and Applejack started to laugh.
“Aww, li’l Twilight and Rainbow Dash always wantin’ ta bunk together, talkin’ about kissin’ and the dangerous things mares can do?” Applejack held her sides as she began to laugh. “Betcha ya’ll get up so late ‘cause ye’re too busy spendin’ the night swappin’ spit!”
“… I’m going to bed.” Twilight’s growled, shoving her head underneath her sleeping bag’s blanket as she wriggled in, only her rump exposed. She could feel Applejack staring at her backside.
“Smoochin’ or playin’ yer flank like a drum. Yowch, that’s a pretty behind.” Applejack dove back, laughing her head off as she avoided the sharp kick where her chin would have been. “Ya’ll two are like two peas in one tight, cuddly li’l pod, ain’tcha? One’s all brains and the other’s all brawn.” She laughed, Twilight poking her head out with a devilish glare.
“Well… Yeah!?” She asked, snorting in bemusement. “What about you and Rarity?” Applejack froze, and Twilight smirked. “Rarity’s always wanting to ride with you, and you think she’s a priss but you keep putting up with her!”
“Hey now, she’s a close friend and she thinks I’m the best pilot-”
“I bet she also thinks you’re the strongest most powerful most rich pilot there is, what with those big muscles and that strong accent!” Twilight grinned almost sadistically, and Applejack grit her teeth angrily.
“Ye’re one to talk li’l miss book smarts! What with all that powerful stuff goin’ on aboutcha, you’re so soft and sweet and cuddly, I bet Dash is just waitin’ for the right moment ta-”
“Don’t you start with that! Dash wouldn’t want anything to do with me. We’re best friends, she wouldn’t be interested in me.” Twilight sat, legs crossed triumphantly, smiling in victory. Then her eyes opened. “No interest at all…”
Applejack noticed, but decided to take her chance, “Oh please, Dash has been a horn-licker since I met her! She’s probably gagging over that monster of a horn! Then there’s you, li’l miss Cloud-Stuffer - and don’t ya aren’t ‘cause I’ve seen how ya look at wings!” Applejack smiled less biting more inwardly when she saw the steel in Twilight’s eyes return, “Bet ya saw the big ol’ strong pair Dash had and just went cross-eyed in want! Heck, maybe even li’l Fluttershy’s wings gotcher-”
“Whoa whoa whoa whoa WHOA. Hold your steer cow-girl, what’s a Cloud-Stuffer?” Twilight asked, the tension of the whole debate deflating like a balloon as she stared at Applejack curiously.
Applejack blushed a little, then gave a tiny, nervous chuckle. “Okay, well, ya’ll know how Pegasi deal with clouds a bunch? Well, among mixed couples involvin’ a Pegasi, a common thing was ta let the Pegasi bring a cloud down ta rest on while ya, y’know…” Applejack grinned nervously, “Copulated.” Twilight blinked her eyes rapidly. “Anyways, non-Pegasi ain’t too good with dealin’ with clouds and get the stuff all over, so sometimes durin’ the motions they could go, y’know, in…”
“…” Twilight’s jaw had dropped, and Applejack idly entertained the idea of her breaking the smart mare. “… Ew.” The unicorn finally said, a look of disbelief on her face. “… Eeeew. Ew! Ew! Really!?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know but Big Mac had said-”
“You think I want to- that sounds so- I mean that can’t be sanitary! No!” Twilight rubbed her face rapidly. “No no no no no! Never on a cloud! That sounds horrible!”
“… Ye’re just worried about the cloud part?” Applejack watched Twilight nod her head rapidly. “But you’re a-okay with foalin’ with Dash?”
Twilight froze up, “I never-! I mean it’s just you kind of caught me off-guard, what I mean to say is…” She swallowed a lump in her throat, and began to laugh loud and nervously, forcing her to cover her own mouth as she glanced around everywhere but at Applejack.
Applejack, for her part, couldn’t keep the massive smile off her face. “Now hold on there Twi, slow yerself down just a moment. I ain’t gonna go implyin’ nothin’, but it sounds like, t’me that is to say, nopony else has to be thinkin’ this, ya’ll got a bit of a thing for our little Rainbow Dash?”
“Slow,” Applejack raised a hoof, and slowly lowered it, “down.”
Twilight’s breathing slowed, and her eyes went back to normal, no longer looking like she’d been caught with her hoof in the cookie jar, and then she took a deep breath, “Okay…” And then her mouth ran off without her, “Ever-since-the-whole-Laputa-thing-we’ve-been-talking-and-learning-about-eachother-and-I-feel-like-I-really-trust-her-and-I-really-want-to-help-her-and-make-her-happy-and-I-don’t-think-that’s-love-but-I-feel-I-can-trust-her-with-anything-no-matter-what-it-is-and-I-don’t-know-sex-has-always-been-weird-and-disgusting-to-me-but-I-feel-I-can-trust-her-you-know?-so-I-guess-I’m-worried-about-the-clouds-because-I-don’t-trust-them-like-I-trust-Dash!” She sucked in a deep breath, several of them actually, while Applejack’s eyes rolled in circles as she tried to keep up with the fast-paced information.
After recovering, Applejack raised a hoof. “Okay now hold up, stop talkin’ so quick and lemme get this figured out. Ya’ll and Rainbow Dash are best buds.” Twilight nodded in confirmation. “To the point ya’ll trust Rainbow Dash more than a simple little sky cloud.” Twilight nodded, and Applejack touched her chin, then shrugged. “Well alright then.” Twilight smiled at that. “Still don’t change the fact you wouldn’t mind foalin’ with ‘er.”
“Gah! What is with you ponies!?” Twilight demanded, quickly slipping back into annoyance. “When did kissing somepony and trusting somepony enough that you wouldn’t mind doing,” she shuddered and shook, grumbling before finishing, “things with them if you so had to or we got curious about it become so important! We’ve never talked about this sort of thing before!”
“Ya set yerself up for it! Ye’re just so naïve ‘bout some things Twi. It’s cute, really, and honestly, any pony ya pick to be yer first is a lucky little thing.” Applejack shrugged at the end of her speech, and looked to Twilight with a smile. The little unicorn suddenly became so shy and blushy that Applejack began to giggle again.
The two mares were interrupted when a roaring noise ripped through the air, and their tent began to shudder violently. Twilight suppressed a scream as the roar grew louder, the tent shaking so hard that it knocked the lamp over, extinguishing it. “Applejack!?” She called out as the farm pony suddenly poked her head outside, tugging it back in quickly.
“The wind’s kicked up somethin’ fierce!” She shouted over the noise, and the two glanced outside as they heard a scream, and a flapping sound that could only be a loose tent. “C’mon!” Applejack ran out, Twilight in hot pursuit. With only the moon and the stars giving them light, the two stepped out into the bowl of sand they had chosen between four massive dunes. All around her, Twilight could only hear the sound of the wind blasting around them, kicking sand around. She had to squint her eyes, and could barely see Fluttershy’s and Rarity’s tent flapping in the wind, held down only by two stakes as Rarity held it telekinetically, fighting the wind for control as the tent whipped around in the air violently.
Twilight could barely see, sand was everywhere, it was dark, but she crawled her way to the noise and her horn started glowing as she helped Rarity. “Hey!” Twilight called, Rarity looking to her panicked. “Good morning!” Twilight strengthened her hold of the tent and lowered it as Fluttershy came back with the sleeping bags, sitting behind the shuddering cloth and clanging rods with her friends.
“Good!? This is what you’d call good!?” Rarity shouted, deeply unamused as she saw Twilight smile. “All I hear is a roaring noise and the next thing I know the tent is ripped out from on top of us and I’m covered in sand! How can you call this good!?”
“I learned something today! That’s good!” Twilight shouted over the wind, using her smile to quell the quaking fear that the wind had brought on, slowly calming herself to handle the situation better.
“I do hope it has to do with controlling the wind!” Rarity shouted, Applejack coming by with three Dashes and a Pinkie Pie. Two of the Dashes and Pinkie Pie used eachother as stepping stools to grab the whipping tethers in the sky and tug them down while the third Dash, the green-haired one, stood by, looking alert, but obviously tired.
“Nope, just learned what a Cloud-Stuffer is! Weird what you learn at this time in the morning!” Rarity sputtered through what may have been a speech while Green Dash’s eyes widened hugely.
“Where did you learn that!?” The Dash shouted as the tethers were brought down. They were forced into the loose sand, and Twilight focused on squeezing the sand around the tethers, compacting it into heavy sandstone to keep it still.
“Applejack told me! I forget how we got around to talking about it!” Rarity continued to sputter, Applejack and Pinkie Pie ignored the conversation as they went and secured the other tents, but both Fluttershy and Dash now looked heavily interested.
It took twenty minutes for the sandstorm to pass. By the time it did, enough sand had been moved that they had to dig the tents out of the sand, but with Twilight’s increased magical power, she had little trouble helping tug them out once somepony found them. With six Dashes working about alongside Applejack and Pinkie Pie, everything was found in no time while Twilight, Fluttershy, and Rarity wrung the sound out of their supplies. “Holding up alright Fluttershy?” Twilight asked idly while carefully placing several jars of preserves in their bag, having carefully checked them for cracks or chips that could let sand in.
Fluttershy looked calmly to Twilight, and smiled pleasantly, using a brush to comb out a wool blanket strung up on a pole taken from the now broken tent laying several yards away. “I’m okay. It’s just been a troubling morning. At least something interesting happened.” She spoke softly. That honestly surprised Twilight, and she did glance back to meet the smiling Pegasuses’ eyes.
“Really now? I didn’t think you’d like having such an exciting morning.” Twilight mused quietly in her head that even Fluttershy, the quietest, softest, non-confrontationlist pony there was in Equestria, perhaps even the world, was actually getting bored of the peace and quiet.
Fluttershy giggled sweetly, remembering what she’d heard this morning. Cloud-Stuffer, huh? She wondered who or what it was directed at. “Well we have it under control now. It’s not so bad knowing your friends are nearby to help.” Twilight nodded in agreement as Rarity approached, looking very unhappy. They could see why immediately. As Fluttershy approached to stand next to Twilight, they could see the massive amounts of sand in Rarity’s mane. Poor Rarity had gotten full blast of the sand, Fluttershy managing to avoid a grand majority of it by having slept behind Rarity when the sandstorm hit.
“Well…” Rarity sniffed, looking around slowly, her head hung low. “The damage has been assessed…” She sniffled again. “One tent is broken but Applejack thinks she can fix it, other than that, damage is min… Damage is minim… Minimal…” She sniffled again, rubbing her sand-filled mane. “But at what cost!?” She finally wailed, making Fluttershy take her gently into a hug. “Don’t hug me Fluttershy! I’ll ruin you! Ruin you!”
Twilight could only smile in apology as Fluttershy stroked her pretty friend’s back, and they both got brushes.
Off in the distance, over a newly-sized sand dune, Applejack stood with the six Dashes and a Pinkie Pie as they stared at the bottom of the dune. “… You don’t suppose they got blown off?” Pinkie Pie asked, glancing to the skies. Applejack felt a small hint of worry, but brushed it aside.
“Three fifteen-foot dragons? I’m gonna go ahead and say ‘no’.” Red Dash began walking down the slope with Applejack right behind her, followed by the five other Dashes and a Pinkie Pie.
“Alright Hayseed, ya’ll can stop playin’ now.” Applejack spoke up, and glanced around slowly. The Dashes began to dig, Pinkie Pie pursing her lips and blowing through them ineffectively. “Hayseed!” Applejack shouted now, running her hoof around as if to feel through the sand. “Rattler! Dick! Where are ya’ll!? Somedragon better answer me!” Applejack turned to face Pinkie Pie as she made another wheezing noise through her mouth. “What’re ya’ll up to?”
“I’m trying to do that neat whistle of yours!” She pursed her lips and blew, then frowned. “It’s harder than it looks.” Applejack gave a quiet sigh.
“Just bite your lower lip, tense ‘em together, and blow through your front teeth sharp-like.” Applejack lifted her snout to the air, and gave out the sharp herding whistle. There was no response. “C’mon Hayseed! Where are ya hon, ya’ll gotta be close…”
Next to her, Pinkie did as Applejack told, getting a sharp tone, but not the whistle. Applejack tried again and so did Pinkie Pie, all while Dash kept digging. Applejack felt a pang of sadness at the lack of response. She was so used to her dragon answering her immediately… Then Pinkie Pie gave a sharp whistle, and she gasped happily. “I did it! Let’s go get those dragons!” Applejack sighed heavily, and together, the two whistled, as one, making a louder, sharper whistle that made Dash freeze, and wince.
“What was that!?” Yellow Dash demanded nearby. Her ears were ringing, and every other Dash was rubbing their ears as well. “Are you two trying to find dragons or blow out my-” she was suddenly up in the air, a mound of sand falling around a draconic figure that raised from the sands. Around it, the other Dashes backed away as two similar sand pillars rose.
“Hayseed?” Applejack gasped happily, running forward to the figure until the last of the sand was swept off by the blowing wind, leaving the figure in perfect view of them. Applejack stopped, stared, and grumbled. “Oh, it’s you.” Dick snorted, and stretched himself out before walking past her, up and over the dune as Hayseed quickly approached, and gently lowered his great head to Applejack’s level. The farm mare smiled and began to rub his snout with both front legs. “There ya are boy! Ya had me worried for a bit there, how ya doin’?” Hayseed closed his eyes and made a few soft, confirming noises as Rattler turned down to greet Pinkie Pie with a gentle stroke of one large hand.
Yellow Dash tugged herself out of the sand and snorted a little, staring around as the dragons shook themselves clean, and with an annoyed huff, she flashed back into one Dash. So far, today had been annoying. Not your typical “miss-breakfast-and-have-to-skip-the-shower” annoying, but “get-buried-in-sand” annoying. On a larger scale.
She returned to camp with a somewhat sour look. She did not like the sand, she did not like the dark, and she did not like missing sleep, and here she was inbetween all three. She walked down the sand dune, watching Dick scratch around in the sand, as if hunting for something, and turned her head to watch as Fluttershy lovingly combed the sand out of a miserable Rarity’s coat. Looking a little longer, she noticed she couldn’t see Twilight…
“Hey.” Dash jumped a little and turned quickly to meet Twilight’s eyes, seeing she looked alright. More awake than she herself felt at least. “You’re jumpy. Everypony else seems okay, and the sand storm’s dying down, so I guess everything will be going according to schedule…”
“Awesome.” Dash didn’t sound too enthused, but Twilight could tell she was just tired. “Probably won’t be getting any sword-training in today…” The rainbow-maned mare murmured, closing her eyes slowly and opening them again. “Too bad, was gonna be working on Fluttershy’s stance today.” She unconsciously leaned against Twilight. Twilight did the same, to keep Dash up.
“You not get any sleep either?” Twilight asked with a slightly embarrassed smile, her ears flattening a little.
“No, here’s the thing, I got great sleep before the sandstorm started!” Dash groaned, rolling her head around slowly as Twilight turned to her with a curious stare. “I was having the weirdest dream though, and you know how those long, weird dreams stress you out when you wake up?” Twilight nodded slowly. “Yeah, I had one of those.”
“Okay, you had a stressful dream and woke up tired…?” Twilight summed up as Dash nodded rapidly.
“And if wasn’t just ‘kinda’ weird, it was ‘totally’ weird. I had a dream I had a horn and was going to some weird magic academy where I was learning to make ice cream cake using lobster and old rusty paint cans.” She missed the face Twilight made that had made Anemone smile so broadly. “Except I was partnered with that unicorn Trixie jerk, but her magic wasn’t working and she had the best magic of us both so she suggested I start licking her horn.”
Applejack strolled up the hill towards the shouting, intending to go take one more look at the equipment now that she knew Hayseed was okay. She walked past Twilight and Dash, “-which started spewing all over my face and she was so excited she started using her tongue-”
“Are ya’ll tellin’ the Sorority watermelon party story again?” Applejack asked curiously, noting the absolutely horrified look on Twilight’s face as Dash turned away from the unicorn. “The one with the mare poppin’ out of the ‘closet’ all over your face?”
Dash narrowed her eyes at Applejack. Applejack began to smirk as she figured out she had just interrupted, and quietly went along, whistling to herself as she heard Twilight speak up. “What about a Sorority watermelon party?” Her voice sounded nervous.
“Oh don’t let Applejack fool you, see, it started when I shoved her face into the watermelon and started licking-” Applejack just beamed to herself proudly as she joined Rarity and Fluttershy, and soon enough Pinkie Pie.
“Everything’s tip-top?” The farmer-pony inquired, glancing around carefully at their collected equipment before turning towards Rarity, who would no doubt have all their inventory in mind.
“No!” The unicorn cried out, stroking her incredibly sandy tail as Fluttershy oh-so delicately ran her brush through it. “Everything is awful and it’s this horrible horrible place’s fault!”
Applejack glanced to Fluttershy, who frowned and lowered her head. “I couldn’t save one of the preserve jars,” she whispered, combing the tail, “I’m sorry but it had splattered all over the sand and the jar was in three pieces…”
“That’s alright, we still got plenty of food left. All we’re missin’ is the Queen and her escort.” Applejack looked up to Dash, who was by now should have been in the juicy part of her story. Knowing Twilight, she would be absolutely sickened… Except she had a look of very serious interest instead. She couldn’t tell from this distance, but the unicorn was blushing beneath her coat. “And they look about ready to wrap things up. In that case, let’s get breakfast going and maybe do a little training. We can even get started early, cover some more ground. Alrighty, Fluttershy, can you-” Applejack paused when she looked back over, saw Fluttershy carefully brushing out the sand from Rarity’s tail, and then looked to Pinkie Pie, “You can get the dragons their breakfast. I’m gonna start on ours.”
The pink party pony saluted, and began to dig through one of their packs and pull out a large amount of apples and fruit that was starting to go a little downhill, and approached the dragons to let them have their fill. The dragons ate the fruit gratefully as Applejack got a campfire going without the panicking Rarity’s help. She glanced up to the top of the dune again, and noticed the two ponies were gone. “Huh.” She rolled her shoulders and turned back to the fire. “Those two better finish up fast if they want some.”
Beyond the four dunes the girls’ had temporarily made their home, where the dragons had spent their night, there was some flat land. No rises or falls. A nice place to have a slow walk. “That’s a, er, nice story Dash…” Twilight smiled softly as they walked across the featureless sand, “You make it sound like you were really wild back then.”
“I kind of was.” Dash admitted, watching the stars for a moment, before they started disappearing as the sun peaked over the horizon. Twilight continued to watch her, so Dash continued, “I was pretty wild about being the greatest there was, and the best way to tell if you’re the best of the best is to make sure you’re better than every pony around. That’s why I challenged and got challenged a lot to flying contests. I won most of ‘em.” Dash grinned.
“I’ll bet. Is that common at a flight academy? ‘Cause I never really thought about it until now but there were a lot of rivalries in Canterlot’s magic school.” Twilight recalled back to the old day, where she just barely picked up on the animosity a girl she got along well with showed when Twilight wore an orange and gray sweater representing the Prestigious Mares of the Dragon Sorority. That took some very uncomfortable explaining to get out of.
“Like you wouldn’t believe. Between Ponies and Griffons, the students of the different flight teachers, the power racers and the artistic fliers, then you got the different houses and guilds and sororities and fraternities and blah so blah so very blah.” Dash smirked a little as she remembered her old times.
“And of course you had your wild little parties?” Twilight smirked a little, then thought about it some as Dash began to nod. “So that was just one party with the watermelon and the excessive kissing, what about the other parties?” She asked, Dash catching on to the hint of worried curiosity in her voice.
“Well, I mean, I guess I shouldn’t lie.” Dash sighed, and the two slowed down to a stop a good distance away from the dune hiding their small camp. “Like I said, I was kinda wild. I dated a lot of ponies, mares and colts, but the most we ever did was hug and kiss. That was all it was, a couple of flings. I’m not, well… I had my limits is all.”
“So it never went further?” A tone of relief in Twilight’s voice.
“Nope.” Dash answered with an honest nod. Twilight smiled softly, and the two continued their walk. Dash watched her, curious as Twilight accepted this so easily, and she caught up to her side. “So what about you? Any wild party stories of your own?”
Twilight slowed a little as she thought about it, and she shook her head. “Honestly, Pinkie Pie’s parties are kind of the only ones I ever went to when it wasn’t a birthday party for me, for family, or for Princess Celestia.”
Dash snorted in amusement, making Twilight blush a little as her guardian gave her an amused look. “Really? Honestly? You’ve never been to a party bigger than six ponies?” Twilight shook her head, blushing and smiling in embarrassment. “I really do have a whole world of things to show you, don’t I?”
“You aren’t about to yell at me again, are you?” Twilight snickered, earning her a small shove from Dash, who just rolled her eyes.
“Ever been on a shopping spree?” Dash asked.
“Ever get a pedicure?”
“No, I just kind of try to not do dirty work…”
“Not the same thing. Ever go frog-catching?”
“Not unless it was for a class.”
“Not the same thing! Rarity’s given you dress-montages, but have you ever gotten the full spa treatment?”
“Well, I’ve been in the spa’s bath before…”
“Not even close to the same thing! Mud-wrestling?”
“That sounds uncomfortable.”
“Ever binge at an arcade?”
“Do we have those in Ponyville?”
“We have like three! Ever fall asleep in another pony’s arms?”
“Family doesn’t count.”
“Hmm… Ever have your opinion expressed in a newspaper?”
“Uh? No, where did that come from?”
“Just trying to remember all the stuff in the Dangerous Guide to Fillies…”
“You mentioned that before.” Twilight pointed out as she turned with Dash, heading back towards camp with a tiny smile.
“It’s only the greatest book ever. It has all sorts of tips and tricks to doing anything from tying knots to washing clothes without a machine, and look stylish while doing it. It’s practically tradition to get that book when you’re five and do at least ten of the things in the suggested activities section a year. Guess you never got one?”
“I…” Twilight paused, and thought back on it. “What did it look like?”
“Bright red cover, green letters, written by Madam Adventure?”
“A: That is the most conceited name I’ve ever heard that isn’t including a title, and B: I think I may have seen it, but I never picked it up at the library… And C: I have a lot to catch up on in that case. That’s… One-hundred and forty things I’d need to do to catch up.”
“One-hundred and forty? There’s only one-hundred-…” Dash trailed off suddenly, narrowing her eyes as she worked it out in her head before turning to face Twilight. “… How old are you?”
“Well, if I should have started around five, and I have one-hundred and forty things to catch up on, then that means I’m fourteen years later than five.” Dash just looked hugely surprised. “Is something wrong? Is… Is nineteen too late?” She asked, looking genuinely worried.
“… No, it’s just that the oldest one of us is Applejack. She’s seventeen. I’m sixteen, so is Fluttershy and Rarity, and Pinkie Pie’s fifteen… You missed an entire childhood!” Dash accused, making Twilight rear back as a hoof stuck out towards her face. “C’mon! I think we have the book in one of the packs. If Applejack didn’t pack it, I’m gonna kill her!”
Twilight glanced to the sword on Dash’s sword as she gave chase to the running Pegasus, and sincerely hoped Applejack packed the book. Over the dune, the four ponies sitting around the campfire turned up as Dash came racing over, followed closely by Twilight, and with a small flash, six Dashes were now going through the bags, Twilight bringing up the rear with a curious, watchful stare. “Huh.” Applejack drained the last of her soup and set her bowl down, “Guess I was wrong.”
“About what?” Rarity asked, delicately sipping from a spoon, feeling, and looking much better now that her tail and hair had been properly combed out. Applejack just gave a shrug and a grin.
“Alright everypony, let’s get morning practice done and be on our way. Dash?” Applejack turned, only to leap back as three swords landed right in front of the mare. Twilight raised an eyebrow, impressed. She had barely looked when she’d tossed the sword and had split it while it was moving. “There’s only three swords here, Dash.” Applejack called, and Dash nodded.
“Yeah, I’m not joining you guys this morning, had cruddy sleep.” Orange Dash answered nearby, moving aside some things in a bag before leaving it alone. “Ah-hah!” She called, Purple Dash approaching proudly with a red book in her mouth.
Applejack stared in confusion as the rest gathered around, Blue Dash bringing by a blanket and laying it careful and flat on the sand. “‘The Dangerous Guide to Fillies’?” Rarity asked curiously as the Dashes flashed into one, holding the book and laying on the blanket. She nodded a little.
“Twilight’s never read it. C’mere.” The other four ponies could only watch as Twilight happily settled in next to Dash, and used her elongated horn to crack open the book. “First couple of pages are chapters and section finding, then you got the opening guide for younger fillies just getting the book, then you get to the first part which is looking good no matter where you go.” Dash explained as Twilight’s eyes shifted back and forth across the pages as she slowly turned them.
Applejack approached, getting their attention as she stared down at them. “Uh, Dash, don’t mean to butt in on your picnic here but I think Twilight can read.” She pointed out, drawing a nervous smile from Rainbow Dash.
“Well, yeah, I mean, of course, but-”
“We want to read it together.” Twilight explained in a distracted tone as she reached the first chapter. “Fillydelphia Stylish, finding the sort of mare you are, want to be, and will be. Beauty and grace in one small chapter.” She read, Dash turning her head back to the book, nodding eagerly.
“This is the chapter I learned to style my hair from. Used to be really frizzy, but it gives tips to Pegasuses-”
“Pegasi.” Twilight corrected without really thinking about it, reading carefully, “in the zone” as it were.
“- whatever, on how to keep your hair flat and straight in the air. Turned out to be real useful. Maybe you’ll find something you like.” Dash offered, and Twilight snickered.
“Right. I like my hair but I doubt I’m going to get into something new. I like it how it is: manageable.” She stated, starting to read again as Dash leaned her head in closer to read with her.
“No way, you could do some cool things with those strips. Like a braid maybe…” Dash hummed, staring at her hair as Twilight rolled her eyes. Applejack stared for a few moments, and shook her head.
Applejack began to smile to herself as she turned and picked up a sword. Twilight was brushing off on Dash. Normally the Pegasi would jump at a chance to not read, no matter what the book was. The alternative was even learning to swing a sword better and she’d prefer to sit with Twilight and read. “You certainly look pleased with yourself.” Rarity mentioned, watching as Applejack pushed the sword through the sand blade-first to give them some room to exercise.
“Just thinkin’ about somethin’ funny is all. Watcha think about the bookworms over there?” Applejack asked, cocking her head in their direction as Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie got their swords, set them in the sand, and began to exercise while watching Twilight and Dash as if they’d both sprouted two heads.
Rarity turned her head to look, observing how close they were next to eachother, how they didn’t mind practically pressing cheeks against the others’ when they needed to get a closer read. “I think Dash has gone mad, Twilight’s the influence on her, and they look adorable. You think they might start rubbing off on eachother?” Rarity asked with a curious little smirk.
“I hope no-time soon, I want to be out of the room when the love starts flyin’.” Applejack snickered, laying down to start doing push-ups as Rarity finally caught up.
Her eyes widened, and she recoiled in disgust. “Oh! Applejack you little- they’re mares!” She groaned, and Applejack began to giggle as Rarity lowered her head. “You should be ashamed! Bringing that sort of low-brow farm-humor around me.”
“We’re friends, ain’t we? I can say what I like ‘round ya.” Applejack pointed out, raising and lowering slowly, Rarity’s eyes bobbing to match her motions.
“I am a mare of poise, grace, and class, I do not appreciate such dirtiness!” Rarity insisted, making Applejack collapse suddenly, laughing as she rolled over. “What is it now you perverted little filly?”
“T’ain’t nothin’!” Applejack squirmed as she laughed, getting back on her hooves to continue her activity. “Just thinkin’ ‘bout that one joke ya told me ‘bout the fashion mistress and her, uh, ‘rear assistant’.” Rarity turned her head away from Applejack, blushing hard as the farmer giggled uncontrollably.
Pinkie sat up, Fluttershy getting up with her when they finished their set of thirty-five, and they both watched as Dash got excited about something in the book, and as Applejack had to slow down just to keep laughing. Pinkie turned to face the shy mare. “Wow, so is this what it feels like to be the normal one?” She asked.
Fluttershy smiled softly to her friend as they waited for Applejack to finish laughing. Finally when the farmer girl had settled down long enough to finish her work-out did she get up and pick up her sword. “Okay everypony, let’s do a little practice.”
Flight started early that morning. The sun was just above the horizon in the distance, rather than slowly making its way to its zenith. The dragons were a little more stiff and slow to get moving, but they were handling themselves just fine. Fluttershy, on the other hand, felt like a cluster of squeezed nerves.
Everything about this morning had felt like things were just going wrong again and again and again. The sandstorm woke them up early, Rarity’s coat was nearly ruined, the jar of preserves broke, the dragons had gone missing for a moment, and then of course she was now wondering where Dash stood with Twilight. Seeing the way they cuddled up and so enthusiastically read together, listening to them laugh and joke as Applejack did what she could to refine her swordplay - which wasn’t bad, it just lacked any sort of aggression whatsoever - she began to suspect, and wonder…
She was now questioning the authenticity and the moral-issue of having these feelings for Twilight now. What had started off as a tiny crush developing from somepony having so much faith in her to rely on her while moving a dragon, what had grown into genuine affection and care for a pony that devoted herself eagerly to her friends to throw herself into danger again and again if it meant protecting the ponies and the dragon that meant so much to her, was now being called into question.
Watching Dash on the other dragon, she couldn’t help but have some mixed feelings regarding her. On one hoof, Dash was one of her oldest friends, they grew up in Cloudsdale together, they went to flight school together, they watched out for eachother, but on the other hoof, she felt the teeniest, tiniest bit of resentment towards the other Pegasus, and it hurt her so badly to feel it. She should be happy for Dash and for Twilight, but she just felt a tightness in her stomach whenever she thought about them being happy together. She felt it was terrible of her to feel so greedy, but was it so wrong to want another pony, even if they were off limits?
She felt unsure, terrible, and wrong… But embracing Twilight from behind, and resting her head gently on her newest friend’s back as the unicorn guided Rattler along the airlines, she felt a sense of peace as well. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she considered her feelings. She didn’t want to think anymore, it just made things worse, but she couldn’t stop…
She tensed as she felt a hoof on her back, and felt it slowly rub her back up and down. She opened her eyes slowly, and shivered as she felt the leg drape around her. “Hey.” She looked up into Twilight’s concerned look. “Are you okay?” The unicorn asked, gently holding the Pegasus closer. “You’re really tense. Are you sick? Should we land?”
Fluttershy gulped dryly, then pressed her head into Twilight’s side again and smiled behind her hair. “I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.” She whispered, and felt the arm gently squeeze.
“Are you sure?” Twilight persisted, smiling while she saw Fluttershy peek up between her bangs. “We can stop at any time, roll you out a tent and a sleeping bag, get you some of those preserves in you… Hey, I could finally make up for you taking care of me after I got my horn.” Twilight chuckled, and Fluttershy felt herself blush so hard. Even if Twilight and Dash had something, she wasn’t entirely escaping Twilight’s notice… “I bet you look adorable when you’re being spoon-fed.”
Fluttershy squeaked in embarrassment and nestled into Twilight’s side harder, making the unicorn giggle. She wished she could do this more, but that meanie-head part of her didn’t want to share it. She glanced to Dash quietly on the other dragon, and tried to figure out what she should do… What could be done? She loved Dash so much, she was one of the greatest ponies she’d ever met but…
“Know what Fluttershy?” Fluttershy looked up sharply, and gasped as she was suddenly tugged from her seat, and pulled over Twilight’s lap, and sat in front of her. Twilight pressed against her back, holding the reins and resting her chin against Fluttershy’s neck. Fluttershy was simply too shocked, and as she felt Twilight’s legs around her, felt very very warm. “You’re starting to scare me, so you’re staying where I can see you.” Twilight smiled as Fluttershy shivered a little in her grip. “Is this okay?”
“…” Fluttershy quivered some more, and blushed enormously, refusing to look back at Twilight as she finally whimpered out an answer. “P-… Perfect…” She smiled to herself as she slipped into happier flights of fancy.
It had been two long, sun-blasted hours. The sun sat high in the sky, the gold sand beneath them turning into a brilliant mirror that stung the eyes. Beneath them, another sandstorm was going on, but they were flying just above it, out of range, out of danger. Still, the noise, the monotony, and the heat was starting to rag on several of the girls.
Pinkie in particular was feeling restless. She clung to Dash closely, feeling tired now. None of them had gotten enough sleep. Twilight and Applejack powered through it because the two had never even dropped off, but they were starting to show signs of fatigue in the bored sky. The problem Pinkie was having though was she couldn’t shake a feeling of foreboding danger.
She couldn’t explain it exactly, it was a feeling in the back of her mind, a small hole in her gut, a small ice cube slipping down her spine or a lump in her throat. She looked behind herself again, and saw nothing in the distance but sand and blue skies. Facing back forward, she hoped she was just being paranoid again…
Then the storm beneath them passed. It was sudden, but one instant there was an enormous cloud of sand, and the next there was empty desert. No, wait, not empty… “Is that…?” Applejack whispered in front of her, shifting in between her forelegs as she tried to get a closer look.
“I think it’s a town!” Pinkie’s eyes widened, leaning in for a closer look, using her excellent eyesight. “And there’s ponies in it!” She called loudly, the other girls turning their heads quickly to watch.
They drew closer, getting a better look of the town. It wasn’t very large, maybe twelve buildings, and the ponies were few, but what drew their attention was the large assortment of green. It was built on top of some muddy, brown land, possibly the only land like it for miles, and there was cactus everywhere, all budding with red spots. “Think we should land?” Applejack called, looking to Twilight and Fluttershy.
Twilight shook her head. “No, we’re getting close to Terraria.” She called back, her eyes glowing again, watching the distance. “Wherever we’re supposed to go to see him, it’s closing in fast.” She called, making Applejack nod.
“Closin’ in.” Applejack mumbled, and it took a few moments for her to realize they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. They were passing over more and more villages now as they flew in closer as Applejack considered what they’d be facing. They were no where close to being any good in a fight. So far Dash was the only pony with any sort of fighting ability on a military level with the sword and her copies, but she had no idea about Twilight. Sure she had the hard-headed stubbornness to turn and charge a foe if it meant buying time, but as far as Applejack was aware she had no real combat-suited spells, unless you counted the time she freaked out with the lightning…
And of course, she herself was only used to kicking, and never to kill, only to incapacitate. Fluttershy was far too soft, and not at all aggressive, and against an opponent that would actually intend to harm her Applejack was frightened she would freeze up and become an easy target. Rarity would give a much better fight if riled up, but she was still soft. And Pinkie Pie… Applejack wasn’t sure about poor Pinkie Pie. Ever since her run in with the clown, Applejack got the feeling Pinkie had a deeper respect for a fight, and wouldn’t treat it like a game. What that meant though was Pinkie Pie could be more easily scared into submission, or she could become deathly serious and perhaps… Dangerous. Applejack found both ideas to be abominable, but a dangerous Pinkie Pie with a sword would at least have a chance of surviving. If Pinkie froze up…
Applejack squirmed uncomfortably, and frowned back at Pinkie Pie as the mare watched another village pass beneath them. She wouldn’t want anything else bad to happen to Pinkie, or to anypony… Heck, these ponies were practically her family away from her family. The thought of Pinkie, or anypony she loved becoming targets terrified her. She hoped this Terraria guy was the pleasant sort…
“THERE!” Applejack hopped up immediately, Pinkie Pie squeezing her tightly in surprise. Fluttershy was just so lucky Twilight’s forelegs were holding her, or the surprise may have dislodged her. Everypony turned to Twilight with wide eyes as she suddenly stood on her rear legs like Pinkie had, her smile wide and her eyes blazing with renewed determination. “He’s so close I can see it! Directly ahead!” She called, point with one hoof. Applejack looked. They all looked.
On the horizon was a dark smudge. It could have been a mountain. It could have been a city. It could have been a giant, lazy Alicorn, but nopony knew and nopony cared. They each let out small sighs of relief, all but Applejack, who was still concerned about the trials to come. At least, she reasoned, they weren’t on a wild goose chase and were actually within sight of their goal.
It took another twenty minutes just for them to see what it was, and it was enormous.
An enormous, circular city, with massive outer walls, and equally massive inner walls forming gigantic rings on the inside of the city, and a brief count revealed seven walls, the middle holding a high, beautiful looking spire just above it. Each outer ring, including the smallest outside the palace, looked like it could hold the whole of Canterlot and then some, and each wall was spaced further out from the last wall. The buildings were placed alongside the walls except in the outer ring, where a few market stalls were placed along the middle. As they got closer and closer, they could see that the closer a ring was to the palace, the more beautiful the buildings were. On the outer ring, they were mostly stone and sun-baked clay, with occasionally wooden stalls, while the innermost ring had buildings made of marble, with sloping shingle roofs and gold trimming. The roads of the outer ring were non-existent, so there was sand and dirt to walk on, but the inner ring had paved stone roads with working lampposts.
They could barely see the far side of it it was so enormous, and down below they could spot hundreds of thousands of ponies milling around inside the rings, possibly reaching the seventh digit since a good number of them were probably inside as well. The three dragons swooped around the city slowly as they took in the sights, staring at thousands of years of work beneath them. “This is where Terraria is?” Fluttershy asked in a hushed voice, with big, wide eyes as she took in the sights.
“Twilight!” Applejack called, drawing the Unicorn’s attention before she could speak. “Don’t tell me this ain’t it, ‘cause this is kinda fit for a king!” The farmer pony shouted. Twilight then put her eyes back on the palace, which was glowing with such powerful ancient energy that she could feel the excitement in her bones. This was it.
“This is it everypony!” Twilight shouted, drawing several excited whoops before Twilight jerked Rattler’s reins to steer her outside the city. “Let’s set down outside!” She called, her body shaking as she was forced to leave the warm, glowing energy in the middle of the massive city. It made her feel energetic, and powerful, and happy. Whatever this energy was, she wanted to curl up in the middle of it and stay there for eternity. Leaving the comfort zone made her shake a little, but she ignored it as they flew over the last wall, and towards a dune outside the enormous gate of the city.
There was a trail of migrating ponies heading towards the gate, baring caravans of goods, but as they passed over, Dash saw them suddenly speed up. She narrowed her eyes, keeping the spotted dragon on course as she saw them rush into the city all of a sudden, like a barrier had been lifted. They landed with hearty thuds on the sand, and they slid off, one by one and stared at the great outer wall of the city. It was a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight it was so big. They must have been half a mile away and they could see the walls must have been one hundred feet high. This was both a city and a fortress.
Twilight stood at the peak of the dune to stare at the city, while Applejack quietly soothed her dragon. “Listen close Hayseed, I’m gonna be gone for a bit. I dunno how long but I’m hopin’ not long. Can ya manage by yourself for a while? Ya’ll and Dick and Rattler?” She asked. The great dragon merely lowered his head and gently nudged her with his snout, his long, pink tongue slipping out in half a moment to give her a lick across the neck before standing, glancing to his draconic companions as they kept their eyes on the ponies. “That’s what I thought.” Applejack smiled, and turned to face the rest of the group.
“So what’s the plan?” Rarity asked as soon as Twilight turned and stepped in to complete the circle. The six ponies glanced around to eachother, then finally to Twilight. “You’re leading this little expedition, any ideas?”
“Well…” Applejack could see Twilight hesitate to continue. Just like herself, the unicorn had little idea of what waited for them, but also like herself, Twilight knew when to improvise a plan. “It’s a city, so it has to have intelligent and sophisticated ponies in it. I’m thinking we try and get an audience here with Terraria… No, wait, he’s supposed to just be a soul, so their Princess. Their Princess would probably know about Terraria and how to get to him. He may even be under her control.” Twilight mused, rubbing her chin with her hoof until Dash wiggled hers in front of her.
“Plan, Twilight, plan!” The rainbow-haired Pegasus reminded her.
“Right right, okay, the plan. We go in and ask their Princess.” She stated with a brief nod, causing her long horn to nearly tap Rarity’s. Pinkie Pie giggled a bit as the rest merely nodded. “With any luck, we might even get this done with today.” She chuckled.
“I hope so.” Applejack agreed, Fluttershy nodding beside her. Dash lifted her head up to bob, but froze. She turned her head quickly around in a circle, something in the back of her mind sending alarm bells throughout her body, making her tense up as adrenaline flooded her limbs. “Ya’ll alright Dash?”
“Dashie must be hyper! She didn’t get any training in whatsoever!” Pinkie Pie pointed out as Dash turned in a quick circle. The giggling stopped when Dash sat up and cocked both ears.
“It’s not that… I don’t know what it is…” She whispered, staring past the dragons, then behind herself. “I just got this weird feeling. I can’t explain it. Like just before a big race but worse.”
“And ya just got it? No reason or nothin’?” Applejack raised a curious eyebrow, joining Dash in scanning. It was then Dick calmly peaked over the sand dune they were sitting on the slope of, towards the city.
“Nothing! It’s like it just-” something slipped under Dash’s feet, and she was flying through the air, Fluttershy screaming in her ear, Twilight and Rarity screaming beneath her, and they hit the sand right as Dick leapt forward, baring down on them with a tense, predatory face, and Dash stared up right as his head came down. She felt the alarm bells raise, and in a moment thought the great lizard was about to eat her, until his wings wrapped around them.
Dick groaned as a series of loud thuds happened around them, and as Dash stared around, helping Pinkie to her hooves as the others slowly got up, they heard the noise. The sound of a stampede. Hooves trampling the sand as Dick used his great wing to throw the ponies again and turn around, wings raised up, joining Rattler and Hayseed as they roared terrifying roars, their stances intimidating. The stampede never stopped.
“What’s goin’ on!?” Applejack shouted, on her hooves the quickest as she stared at the dragons, and had to hide a queasy moan. Dick’s back had several spears lodged into it, drawing a tiny amount of blood.
Rattler gave off a sharp shout, leaping back as several ponies in sand-colored armor covering nearly every part of their bodies but the joints stormed over the dune, spears in their teeth and hooves as they jabbed at the dragons, who tried to knock back the spear-points with their claws but were driven back by sheer numbers. The dragons were quickly being pushed back, and even as they opened their mouths to release a blast of flame, globs of something gray were quickly launched into their open maws, sticking to their teeth and tongues and blocking the flames.
“Hayseed! Dick! Rattler!” Applejack shouted as she rounded the ponies back, sending them scurrying towards the desert, Fluttershy halfway through tears as Dash and Pinkie Pie pushed her along from behind, Rarity behind them, Twilight in the back trying to drag Applejack away. “Lift off! Get outta here! Go!” Applejack jumped forward and grabbed Hayseed’s tail and tugged, “NOW!”
The dragon looked at her sadly for a half second, saw she was serious, and flapped, flying away from the attacking soldiers, Rattler and Dick joining him in the sky after much hesitation. The soldiers charged the ponies unheeded, gaining speed across the shifting sands beneath all their hooves, while the dragons tried to harass from above until nets were shot up high, the weights tugging the ropes around the dragons, bringing them to the ground after several awkward flaps of their wings. Several guards broke away and tugged the dragons to the ground.
Applejack could only watch in despair as she ran, until a hard head butt to her flank made her misstep, and then the soldiers piled onto her, the rest of the stampede going after the other girls.
“Applejack!?” Twilight screamed, losing sight of the orange pony and slowing for just a moment. The soldiers came down on her, and she realized her mistake. With a deep breath, she disappeared, and reappeared next to Rainbow Dash, tearing up. “They got Applejack!” She shouted over the noise, her stomach twisting in terror, her mind clouding as she realized she had no idea what to do… They had Applejack…
They still ran, but it not fast enough. They all stopped as they heard a terrified scream, and looked to see Fluttershy being wrestled to the ground, and in a moment they were set upon. Twilight felt a twist in her gut as the plan, as their mission, as everything just seemed to fall apart…
To Dash, it felt like everything was going in slow motion, from the terror and anger rising from her gut to the way the armored ponies moved. They surrounded the group quickly, hooves reaching out to grab and shove them to the sand, the screaming around her… What was happening? What was going on? Why were they being attacked?
Thousands of questions, and as her snout was pressed to the sand, she had no answer. She squeezed her eyes shut as hooves pressed her to the sand, and she summoned every bit of strength she could to try and become six again, but a sharp kick to her stomach made her lose her concentration. Bleary eyed, she looked up, and saw a forest of legs and a flurry of activity. Rarity was being shackled, Fluttershy clasped in iron as she was held down and weeping, Pinkie Pie dragged away from clutching Twilight neck, shouting and screaming, but worst of all were the tears. Dash tried to fight the pain in her stomach and get up, but as she leaned for her sword it was ripped from her body. She reached for it, but a harsh shove sent her back.
For a brief moment, when she opened her eyes, they met Twilight’s. She grit her teeth, fighting her own emotions as she saw the fear in Twilight’s, and she tried to move, tried to crawl over… “Dash…” The unicorn whispered, before a hoof shoved her snout into the sand. Dash reeled back in shock as Twilight was dragged away from her, and then the manacles came to her…
In her mind, Dash could see the table again, the cold metal around her legs, the bile-taste in her mouth, the smell of a room that was far too clean with too many chemicals, the table, the unicorn laying on it, the ponies surrounding her, forcing her to drink, taking her magic away, kicking Dash in the stomach, holding her down as scissors were brought to her wings…
Stemming from her bruised gut, the feeling of terror was slowly replaced by one of anger. They were going to hurt her again, hurt her and Twilight, they were going to be thrown into a wet cell again, beaten and broken… That first day… All the hatred and anger she’d felt was coming back. Never again. She was not going to that cell. And Twilight, poor Twilight, she would not be woken up screaming again…
Not her, not Fluttershy, not Applejack or Rarity or Pinkie Pie… She wouldn’t see that pain again. She wouldn’t let their reasons for getting up every morning ripped from them like they had to her. She was the Guardian. She had to do something.
The legs holding her down suddenly lifted away as she grit her teeth, every bit of strength in her body igniting at once as the feelings of keeping her friends from such a grim fate overwhelmed her uncertainty, shouts filling the air as soldiers, too stunned to do anything just watched as light filled Dash’s eyes.
All around Twilight, the guards shot back, away from her, manacles half on as a powerful light, and more heat filled the air. Twilight shook her forelegs, gritting her teeth as they slid off and she pushed herself up. Her back legs were still trapped, but she had more to concern herself with. She turned her head quickly, seeing guards scattering away from the light nearby, and she turned to face whatever it was. She had to use her hoof to hide her gasp.
Dash was standing slowly, the sand around her slowly turning to glass as the living flame that now made up her body melted the particles of earth together. It was clearly Dash, with her rainbow hair, her blue body, and she had a pony look, but the way her body flowed she looked like colored flame come to life. Gold light permeated from her very presence, the glare of the sun driving the soldiers back to their abandoned weapons as Dash’s rainbow stripes turned into very light pastel colors, her hair flowing from the heat.
“Twilight!” Twilight just stared as Dash came forward, sword retrieved and in her mouth. The blade was no longer there, in its place a solid stream of bristling, angry flame, twice as long as the original blade. Dash ducked her head under her body quickly and slashed the chain holding the manacles around her back legs together, and lifted up quickly. Dash was hot, but her flames did not burn her. Twilight stared dumb-struck as the Pegasus worriedly looked her over. “C’mon, we need to get the others.” There was presence in her voice. A presence that sounded… Celestial. In Twilight’s ears, it sounded like Celestia herself was whispering sweet nothings, promises of protection and care, and to her very core, despite the situation, she felt the intense power seeping into her, and a sense of courage, bravery, the need to protect and the knowledge she’d be protected calmed her mind.
“You’re right.” She answered, glancing towards where the guards had dragged their friends. They were being pulled back by the crowd, and she sucked in a deep breath, her horn flashed as a wall made of compact sand rose up from the ground, tossing guards everywhere and blocking off the path they were dragging their friends down. “Do you think you can scatter them without hurting the girls?” She asked, her horn flashing once more as several guards bore down on them, and were suddenly thrown back by a wave of force.
“Nothing will hurt my girls.” Twilight turned to stare at Dash, and in her rigid stance, could see the aura of sunlight around her forming an Alicorn she was so familiar with. “Keep an eye out for me,” Dash whispered, her form blurring as the heat grew, steaming the air around her, yet never once harming Twilight with her intense presence, “and I,” she grew brighter, and five more Dashes appeared. The six of them were each a very light color of the rainbow, with solid white hair, “will keep them distracted.” They all spoke as one.
Their blades were drawn, gold-flamed streams crisping the air as Twilight glanced around rapidly at the soldiers. They stood around her dear friends, spears drawn and pointed towards their new foes as a wave of heat passed over them, the warm wind coming from the six Dashes as began to sprint outwards, away from Twilight. The Golden and Azure Dashes charged together towards the soldiers surrounding their friends, causing them to back off, hesitate just for a moment, and then charge.
The two Dashes met the twelve soldiers, and their golden auras turned into blazing gold fire as their swords slipped easily through the shafts of the spears, melting the metal points as together, surrounded by a wave of heat, they began to push the shocked soldiers back, or the soldiers fell and were leapt over. The heat was amazingly intense, and though wracked in pain, the soldiers bore no mark as the flames lashed them, driving them away.
Blades of fire cut apart the manacles binding Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Applejack, and quietly they stood and stared at the two burning Dashes in small awe. “Get to Twilight.” Azure Dash ordered, before sprinting off, Golden Dash leading them back to the unicorn.
Twilight stood in the middle of all this, Emerald Dash keeping a close eye on her as she observed. Several of the soldiers were being intelligent and not getting into scuffles with the blazing Pegasi and were choosing to charge Twilight instead, but found themselves blocked by sudden walls, blown back by harsh, sand-filled winds, and several even getting to meet Emerald Dash face to face. “Are you girls alright?” Twilight asked quickly, breathing deeply as she cast spell after spell at a rapid pace, all while Ruby, Amethyst, Amber, and Azure Dash fended back the hordes.
“We’ll be okay.” Rarity insisted, looking around rapidly as the fighting continued, “Provided we can leave soon. We need to get to the dragons.”
“Agreed.” Applejack answered quickly, her tone low and dark as she glanced around rapidly for Hayseed. She was still plenty bitter, and it showed.
Pinkie Pie stood frozen now that she wasn’t being urged to move, watching the violence happening around them with wide, pained eyes. Next to her, Fluttershy was doing no better. No matter where she turned, there was shouting, screaming, blades and furious movement. All the while, the Dashes grew more and more ferocious, the fire around them get more and more violent as she began to lose herself to the action.
So this is what Celestia had been wanting to protect them from…
The soldiers quickly realized this was a battle they weren’t going to win and began to back off. The Dashes saw this, and slowly backed away themselves, towards the group in the middle, burning blades held firmly in their mouths as they watched all movement. Twilight stood high in the middle of the group, horn raised, glowing, ready to shift the sands, move the wind, raise the walls, anything she had to do…
And all in a moment, it was gone.
The walls around them began to crumble. The wind stopped acting up. All around them, the Dashes’ fire began to burn itself out. The backed-up soldiers stayed away, as from over the dune came ten unicorns, eyes and horns glowing as they stared passively at the surrounded girls. “Wh-what…” Twilight whispered, that confidence swiftly draining as confusion took its place. She couldn’t feel her magic anymore. All of it was just…
“Twilight?” Emerald Dash… No, just Green Dash now, whispered to her, wide-eyed as there was a flash of light, and all the Dashes were now one. The walls down, the fire gone, the Dashes were one, the soldiers stared them down, and took an ominous step forward. The six girls slowly walked back, eyes watching their slowly impending doom, and the soldiers began to charge again, spears raised.
The soldiers froze where they stood, and Twilight turned to stare at the approaching unicorns. At their head was a brilliantly green, elderly unicorn, with royal purple hair in teased curls laying across the red cloak she wore. Her horn was no longer than any other unicorns, but Twilight, Rarity, and Dash could all feel the power coming from her. She radiated magic more powerfully than any other average unicorn. She came to a stop in front of them, the other unicorns’ horns still glowing with power as they suppressed the mares’ magic. She lowered his head, and quietly stared at Twilight’s horn with bright blue eyes.
“Curious. You are a dangerous sort of monster, aren’t you?” She asked, simply musical words rolling off her tongue easily as she spoke, and it made Twilight rear back at the accusation. “Yet without magic you are as impotent as a gelding servant. Has Golding retracted its deal in the treaty? Is that why you bring dragons?” The elderly unicorn sneered right in Twilight’s face, making her quiver.
“Is she speaking in tongues?” Rarity asked, her ears flitting as she stared at the unicorn, doing her absolute best to keep herself from shaking in terror as the soldiers uneasily laid their arms down, but then they began to pull out chains…
The unicorn turned her head to stare at Rarity, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “That is not Golding speech. What is this? Are you allies, mercenaries, or some upstart nation looking for territory?” Twilight just quietly shook her head and took a step back as the unicorn’s narrowed eyes twisted in anger.
Dash began to growl as the unicorn started to walk Twilight back, but the purple unicorn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m not catchin’ a word she’s sayin’. I don’t think that’s Equestrian.” Applejack whispered.
“It’s not.” Twilight answered, glancing back to the glaring unicorn quickly.
“Unless you have a death wish, I suggest that you’d start talking.” The elderly pony whispered in a deathly quiet voice, causing them all to shift nervously.
“Okay…” Twilight answered, drawing shocked stares as the language flowed easily from her mouth. She didn’t know why it came so easily, not right away, but the right words, the right sentence structure, and the right answer came along easily. “We’re, erm, not from Golding, nor are we allied with them. Or hired by them.” She answered nervously.
“Twilight…?” Fluttershy whispered, confused beyond all belief, all the rest sharing matching faces. Twilight’s ears flattened. “How are you speaking like them?”
Twilight turned her head to face her, “I don’t know, I think it might be…” She trailed off, then shook her head, “It has to do with one of Anemone’s gifts. Comprehension…” She whispered to herself, then looked back to the oddly staring unicorn.
“So you’re upstarts then? No doubt riding on some power granted by a heathen beast wanting to sew a little more chaos in the world. What granted you your power, Star Bear? Daemon Wyrm? The Golding witch?” She hissed to Twilight darkly, but the purple unicorn shook her head rapidly.
“No no! None of those things!”
“Then what!? That horn is unnatural, that flame around your Pegasus companion didn’t come from any sort of natural source, what sort of explanation could you possibly have for your power!?” The unicorn was shouting now, making Twilight shake.
“Alicorns!” She answered quickly. The old unicorn stopped, her eyes widening as she took a step back. Her eyes narrowed slowly as the soldiers suddenly halted in their step. “Anemone, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, they granted us power! We have good reason to be here, we didn’t mean to cause trouble, we took the dragons from Golding because they invaded us, Anemone tasked us with keeping them from harming the leylines and we need to speak to Terraria-”
“ENOUGH. Do not speak of Terraria!” The unicorn glanced around quickly, the soldiers standing around in confusion before the unicorn leaned in and whispered, “Not out here. You’ll speak of this to our king.” The unicorn lifted her head, and called to the surrounding soldiers, “Bind them! Comfortably. They’re to be fit and ready to speak to the king personally. Belezians,” she turned suddenly to face the unicorns and began to whisper, “wipe the name Terraria from the soldiers’ minds.”
Twilight stared in confusion, less so than her friends at least, as the unicorns began to walk in slow circles around the perimeter, horns glowing as the Soldiers closed in. Dash turned for her sword, but Twilight held up a hoof. “They’re taking us to their king, they know about Terraria.” She whispered. Dash frozen, and Applejack quietly averted her eyes from Twilight to stare at her hooves as the soldiers came forward with manacles.
“I hope you know what ye’re doin’ sugarcube.” The farm-pony whispered, moving close to bring Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie in front of her as the three softer ponies shook in confusion.
“I don’t,” she admitted, making Fluttershy whimper, Pinkie recoil, and Rarity stared in shock while Applejack and Dash glared, “but right now, this is our better option. We can explain ourselves to the king personally, get our story out, if they understand what we’re doing then we can get some help.”
“Twilight.” The purple unicorn turned to face Dash, who for, perhaps the first time in her life, took a deep breath to calm herself down, and think. She closed her eyes as she felt the iron slip around her legs. “I trust you. Just please be right about this.” Twilight felt her heart drop a little on seeing the worry in Dash’s face. She understood.
She knew this wasn’t a very favorable situation, she knew she was basically walking them straight into a fire pit and asking them to pretend they weren’t getting burned, but she had to do something, anything to get them out of this situation, and anything to speak with their king… ‘I have to be right.’ Twilight thought to herself as she allowed the soldiers to clasp the manacles on, not as tightly as she was used to manacles being, but she wouldn’t be going anywhere fast. ‘I can’t let the girls down.’
The elder unicorn called for a line formation, and soon the soldiers formed a row on each side of them, long, blocking off all escape paths, the girls between them, Twilight in front behind the unicorn, Applejack directly behind her, Fluttershy and Pinkie making up the middle in that order, and Rarity walked in front of Rainbow Dash. “I don’t suppose you could use that fire trick again?” The unicorn asked behind her, a soldier swiftly using his shoulder to keep her turned forward.
“Probably not, those unicorns are still here.” Dash answered, keeping her ears forward as Rarity answered without turning her head.
“You could try. You could burn, split, and probably throw them all off, then we could escape and find a diffe-”
“Not happening.” Dash stopped Rarity’s train of thought as they were lead towards the open gates, a wooden wagon waiting for the girls to haul them off.
Rarity wanted to turn and stare her in the eye, but she could only flicker them around nervously when one of the guards turned to stare at her through his faceless helmet. “Why ever not!? We’re in a bit of a predicament, don’t you think?”
“I don’t like it either, believe me, the last thing I want to do is be in chains and be a prisoner of a bunch of blade-happy foreigners again.” Dash’s tone darkened, and Rarity bit her tongue at her own loose-lips. “But Twilight thinks we should go with them, and I’m gonna go ahead and trust her with this.” She was still conflicted, she didn’t think this was the right way to go about this Alicorn business, but Twilight thought it was a good idea, and Twilight hadn’t failed her yet.
“You’re going to get in and be quiet.” The elder unicorn ordered as they approached the wooden stockade wagon, heavily supported by steel, Twilight translating in kinder words, “They tend to get riled up when invaders appear, and look for executions. Don’t give us a reason to rope your necks.” She ordered, and Twilight gulped heavily. Her friends could tell it was something bad, she refused to translate.
The heavy door to the wagon was opened, and the girls were pushed inside. Inside the dark little wagon, they sat quietly on the hay-lined floor as the door shut, and the wagon began to rumble as it was wheeled along.
Twilight sat closest to the wall, in the corner, observing her friends with a stiff expression. Anypony who paid attention could tell it was a very weak attempt at hiding her emotions, and so far everypony in the wagon knew she was not at one-hundred percent. “Well…” Pinkie Pie spoke up in a small whisper, “It’s not going to plan, but at least we’re going to see the king.”
Rarity spoke up, also whispering, “Do you suppose he’s the wise, kind sort of king, or the,” she peaked out the barred window at one of the guard ponies, and looked back, “erm, other sort of king who’s less than benevolent?”
Twilight opened her mouth to try and quiet them down, but Applejack spoke up first, “Well, story-tellin’ ain’t my strong point but he’s locked up in the middle of a big ol’ fortress city in the middle of a desert and the first thing they do is send soldiers chasin’ our tails just ‘cause we flew over ‘em. I’m thinkin’ he may not be the most friendly of ponies.” Her tone wasn’t very trusting.
“But he did make a prosperous city in the middle of a desert. As large as it is, he might be a very kind king, looking out for his subjects.” Fluttershy whispered, staring down at her hooves shyly. Next to her, Dash ‘pbbt’ed at the notion, but didn’t say anything more.
“I want to believe that but…” Rarity sighed quietly, calmly wondering how her life managed to take her here.
“We just have to look on the bright side guys.” Pinkie Pie insisted, standing up with a small smile. None of them looked particularly ready to do the same, “Things don’t look good right now, but we’ve been in bad places before. We beat Nightmare Moon after all!”
“Nightmare Moon never had us in chains and in a cage.” Applejack pointed out, staring at the wall.
“But she kept trying to hurt us and we never gave up. Not when the cliff gave out, or when we saw the big sea serpent, or during the scary tree illusion, or-”
“We’re not in Equestria anymore.” Rarity pointed out with a soft voice. “Things aren’t so harmless out here. There are ponies with weapons, who haven’t lived so peacefully. Even Nightmare Moon had been raised on peace.”
The cart was silent, and Pinkie slowly lost her smile. Twilight stared, and realized nopony here was happy. They were captives, in the middle of danger, and the chances of escaping, or even knowing what to do… All slim. But she couldn’t let their spirits down. Especially not Pinkie’s. Quietly she stood, and walked over the pink pony. Heads turned to watch her as she sat in front of Pinkie, who glanced up. If all they could have was hope, then in Celestia’s name and under her sun, she would not let that hope go.
Twilight held Pinkie’s head still by the chin and started brushing back her hair with her hoof. “We’re not in Equestria, but we’re still being handled by ponies. Even the Golding ponies could be decent when they chose to.” She spoke, gently smiling as she rubbed Pinkie’s head playfully, like towards a little sister. “We may be in chains, but we are kind of dangerous, and we are being brought to explain ourselves to the king. He may not be a kind pony, but I doubt he’s cruel and bloodthirsty. And since we are trying to reactivate the leylines, who knows? Maybe he’ll help us if it will bring life again. Where we are has lost its fertility, and our job is to return it. There is not a king alive foalish enough to turn that proposition down.”
Pinkie Pie, in her hooves, smiled a tiny, grateful smile and nuzzled Twilight’s neck in thanks, and Dash quietly approached, laying a hoof on the pink pony’s back. “How can you stay so cheery Twilight? What if we end up like we did before?” She asked with a small frown, her gut still wrenching at the thought of being confined again… Twilight smiled a little, but it slowly began to grow as she suppressed a giggle, all the while dragging Pinkie into a tight hug as she started to laugh. “What?” Dash narrowed her eyes a little, the others staring on as Twilight began to shake as she tried to hold back the laughter.
“Same way I got through Laputa’s tests.” Twilight finally answered, rubbing Pinkie’s back with a sad smile. “I just have to ask myself, ‘what would Pinkie do’?” In her forelegs, the party mare froze, and buried her face into Twilight’s neck, pushing and nuzzling until Twilight began to have to take steps back. “I’m not kidding.” She glanced around slowly. Applejack was leaning forward some, eyes off the floor, eyes a little brighter now. Rarity was even smiling a little, and Fluttershy moved in closer to be part of the group. Dash couldn’t keep herself from joining in on the little smiles traveling around. “We just have to believe that these ponies have good hearts too. We have to believe that a little love, a little fun, y’know, a party, might bring out the best in these ponies.” Twilight shrugged.
“Yeah…” Pinkie sighed, finally sitting back on her own, smiling again, despite their troubles. “Everypony has to have some good in them. We just need to show them all we want to help.” She bobbed her head, growing a bit… Fluffier as her enthusiasm returned.
“I guess…” Dash sighed softly, looking out the tiny, inch-high window to see the palace come into view. “Yeah, you’re both right. We just have to show them we’re up to good things.”
Applejack stepped in, Rarity by her side. “I think we can manage that. ‘Course, you’ll be doin’ the talkin’ Twi. Think ya’ll can put in a good word for us?” She asked with a gentle nudge to her side.
“If only we had time to pick out outfits. We might make a better impression with some decent threads. Oh, but would that come off as too self-involved? We want to show we are genuinely trying to look out for their needs.” Rarity mumbled to herself.
Twilight smiled as their spirits began to lift, and felt a gentle brush against her side. She turned, met Fluttershy’s smile with her own, and rested a leg on the Pegasus’ back. “As long as we’re working together.” Fluttershy concluded. The six of them nodded, and then sat in peaceful silence.
Durned sand ponies. Hoarding all that magic. And stealing all our jobs.