The scream was raw, filled with an agony Twilight didn't know she was capable of. She heard the others cry out at the same time, Rarity and Applejack screaming their sisters' names, Rainbow Dash letting loose with a desperate "Scootaloo!", and Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy joining in with a simple "No!"
Twilight felt her resolve drain away. The sight of the four little figures on the ground, sobbing helplessly, was the last straw.
Fancy Pants was woken from an uneasy slumber by screams.
He looked around and saw that all the ponies in the room were screaming, crying or both, as was Spike.
The feeling of uselessness that had threatened to overwhelm the society unicorn at the town square returned with double intensity as nurses and doctors hurried to each bedside, obviously just as helpless in the face of what was happening as Fancy was.
He looked the unconscious figures over and noticed that Twilight, alone of the six adults, still retained a little bit of colour. His little monologue to Spike had had some effect, he was sure of that. Perhaps he could do something again.
Fancy stood up and stepped to Twilight's bed, lowering his head until he could whisper in her ear. "You defeated Nightmare Moon and Discord. You can do something this time as well."
"Did you hear that?" Twilight cocked her head.
"What?" asked Rarity. "No, sorry, dear, I didn't hear anything. What was it?"
Twilight breathed in deeply. "I heard Fancy Pants' voice, telling me I could still do something." The pain and darkness seemed to lift from her mind. "And I believe he is right. Girls, focus on your elements."
"That's no use, Twi. They're useless against Doubt," Applejack said.
"That's not what I plan to use them for." Despite everything, Twilight actually managed a smile.
Spike woke up.
Memories came flooding back, though strangely subdued, as if his mind refused to take it all in. His eyes fell on the quill-shaped gemstone from his necklace, lying in the dust right in front of him. The crusaders were lying on the ground as well, utterly and completely defeated.
His eyes met Apple Bloom's, and she valiantly tried to smile.
A sudden fury gripped the young dragon. This was it? This was how it ended?
His hand grasped the gemstone, and a tiny sparkle of green lit up in the emerald's centre. "No."
Doubt didn't seem to hear him. It was too busy working some kind of ritual over the disc, which seemed to barely hold together now.
Apple Bloom stretched out a hoof and grasped her gem, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle following suit. Slowly, painfully, they scrambled to their feet.
A sudden burst of rainbow-hued light from the disc made him lower his nictitating membranes. A single, powerful note rang out in the gloom, and several of the cracks in the disc mended. Doubt screamed in fury. "You just don't know when to quit, do you, Element of Magic?" it hissed, casting a shroud of shadow over Twilight, breaking the mending magic.
Yet as Spike felt the wave of light wash over him, he suddenly realized that that hadn't been the primary purpose of that spell. The mending effect was just a distraction. Nopony else would have noticed, apart from Princess Celestia, but Spike had grown up with Twilight, and he recognized what she really was trying to accomplish.
He heard her voice in his mind. You have not failed. It's not over yet. If Harmony can't fight Doubt directly, then let it support the other elements in their battle.
Spike felt a surge of energy. He sensed the love the six ponies on the disc held for him and the crusaders, and from the looks on their faces, the crusaders could feel it too. Voices took shape out of the whispers of the magic.
You've cried enough. Time to laugh now.
I'm by your side, squirts. Now and always.
We share your pain. Let the healing begin.
I believe you can do it. Show that thing what it means to attack the Apple family and friends.
Take as much as you need. We can't do anything with it, but you can.
Magic knows many forms, and so does friendship. Let it support you.
The gemstone in his hand grew warm, and six shapes of coloured light danced around it, and around the other three gemstones held by the crusaders. Slowly, new necklaces began to form around the stones, made not of obsidian, copper or silver, but of clear crystal.
The four bearers looked at each other in wonder, and suddenly Spike felt his heart reignite, the flame that Doubt had smothered flaring up again, hotter and more intense than ever before. By the looks of it, the crusaders felt something similar.
Sweetie Belle was the first to find her voice. "I believe in you."
Scootaloo's eyes flashed. "Let's get that thing."
Apple Bloom grinned. "It will turn out alright."
Finally, Spike gritted his teeth. "We will not let it break out. We cannot let it break out."
The gemstones lit up, four different colours - green, orange, purple and white - joining into a nexus above their heads.
Doubt turned around and froze. Its eyes flashed yellow. "What is the meaning of this?"
A weak laugh drifted down from the disc. "You were right, Doubt," Twilight whispered. "Harmony can't fight you. But Harmony isn't everything. The forces of light support each other. That is why you and your kin lost the last time, and it will be your undoing this time."
Spike remembered something. "When Harmony comes to the end of its wisdom, the void must be filled with something else, or darkness will reign." He grinned like a mad dragon. "Do you want to know what that 'something else' is?"
For the first time since it had shown itself, Doubt looked uncertain. "Do tell."
Spike put one hand to his chest, his fingers framing the emerald, and closed his eyes. He knew that he had to get this right the first time - the disc was almost completely gone now. He swallowed, focusing on the power radiating from his fellow element bearers - Sweetie Belle's trust, Scootaloo's courage and Apple Bloom's confidence. They mingled with his own resolve, and he felt the energy inside him.
When he opened his eyes, everything had taken on a greenish tinge. Looking at the crusaders, he saw that their eyes were blazing with light, and he assumed his eyes looked the same. He turned his gaze on the visibly shaken shadowy figure beside the disc and spoke the word, the one word that was the new common ground of the four old elements.
A ray of brilliant white light shot out of the nexus, hitting Doubt in what passed for its face. The ancient evil screamed and stumbled, taking a few inadvertent steps back towards the disc. A second ray, and it was driven against the disc.
Or rather, it would have been, had there been any of the disc left where it stumbled. The lower half of the disc had been all but destroyed by the cracks, and Doubt swayed, teetering on the edge of oblivion, holding on to the remains of the disc with both arms. It cast an imploring gaze at the Elements of Unity. "You wouldn't imprison me in another, even worse place, now would you?" Doubt sounded hopeful, obviously counting on the tendency of good to give evil a chance at redemption.
The elements exchanged glances, and the three fillies grinned. "Cutie Mark Crusader prison wardens, yay!" they shouted gleefully.
Spike had no idea that this catchphrase could be made to sound so menacing. Neither, by the look of him, had Doubt. The dragon stepped forward. "You had five thousand years to think about what you did, and you wasted them. You are a monster, yet every monster deserves a chance." The brief hopeful flare in Doubt's eyes was immediately erased by Spike's next words. "You'll have a lot of time to think about what you did to us." The dragon's mouth twitched. "I truly am sorry, Doubt. But you can never be free again, not unless you change your ways, and you're unable to do that."
Another flash of white light hit Doubt, and the shadowy figure screamed. It lost its grip, and then it fell, lost in the darkness behind the disc, the screams still ringing out for a few seconds before they went quiet.
The disc rumbled and continued to dissipate, and Spike raised his head in surprise. "Why is it still falling apart?"
"You need to repair it!" Twilight's voice rang out. "Quickly!"
The Elements of Unity looked at each other and nodded. They focused the energy nexus on the disc, and silvery light started to slowly fill in the gaps. The disc groaned and shuddered, and Spike started to feel dizzy.
"Spike, I can't keep this up much longer!" he heard Scootaloo's voice.
He thought he saw the last gaps fill up before everything went black.
Spike was floating in a black void, but this time, he didn't feel fear or doubt. This was a good place, a nice place.
He saw the black rock appear out of the darkness. The ocean around it was calm and blue, and the rock itself looked steady and stable. The lantern on top of it blazed with orange light.
He approached the lantern and saw the symbols engraved upon it. The Elements of Harmony, with a special place of honour for the star and the diamonds, and above them the other Elements of Unity, topped by the hammer.
Do I love her? He realized that it didn't matter that much. They had been through hell and back, and nothing could break their bond now, no matter whether it was love or friendship.
Yet at the same time, he was curious. He pondered the question, and finally realized that he wouldn't find the answer while he was asleep or having a vision.
Apple Bloom saw the palatial clubhouse rise out of the darkness. It looked as good as new, even the apple tree was bearing fruit again. Her eyes were drawn to that strange purple apple near the top, and she felt a familiar flutter in her chest.
I love him.
She was aware that she was far too young to say this with the absolute certainty she felt, but she didn't care. They had been through so much together, and every step of the way had stoked the feelings she held. She was an Apple. She couldn't deny what she felt, even when her rational mind was aware that it probably wouldn't last.
I don't mind. It will be what it will be, and it will turn out for the best. But certainly not if I stay here and just dream about it.
Spike slowly drifted back into consciousness.
He was lying in a hospital bed. At least it's not the floor this time, he thought wryly as he tried to take in his surroundings. The crusaders were here, tucked into hospital beds as well.
As he tried to make up his mind whether to wake them, Apple Bloom opened her eyes. Her gaze fell on him, and she smiled. "Hello, Spike."
"Hi." The question from his dream came back to him with full force, and he blushed.
"Anything wrong?" Apple Bloom looked at him with worry in her eyes.
"Um ..." Spike was at a loss for words, still casting around for an answer to the question.
Apple Bloom got out of bed and approached him. "We really did it, didn't we? We defeated Doubt."
"Looks like it, yeah," Spike said.
"So what happens now?" Apple Bloom was avoiding his gaze, Spike noticed.
"I ... I don't know. AB, I know that you have a crush on me..."
"No," she interrupted. "It's more than that, Spike. After what happened..." she hesitated, then seemed to steel herself. "I think I love you."
"AB, look at me." She did, confusion in her eyes. "Think of who we are. I'm a dragon, you're a pony."
"What are you saying?" She seemed unsure whether to laugh or cry.
He swallowed. "Perhaps we should wait until we're ready for this."
She leaned in closer, grinning. "But I want it NOW!"
She pressed her lips to his. He was too surprised to react for a second, then he instinctively returned the kiss. It was messy, inexperienced, and it lasted for all of two seconds.
It was the most wonderful thing ever.
They were rather rudely interrupted. "Oy! Would you keep it down ..." Scootaloo's voice died down as she realized what she was looking at, picking exactly the right two seconds - or the wrong two seconds, from her point of view. "Eww!"
That seemed to have gotten Sweetie Belle's attention. "What's wrong?" She sat up, turning to Spike and Apple Bloom. By then, the kiss was over, but it wasn't difficult to guess what had happened - the dragon and the filly were still only inches apart, and both were blushing furiously. "Aww. This is so cute!"
Spike and Apple Bloom looked at each other, and Apple Bloom smiled bashfully. "So much for waiting, hm?"
"Yeah," Spike said breathlessly. "And so much for keeping it a secret for now, too." Then he decided to take the plunge. "Apple Bloom, I think I love you too."
Of course, fate decreed that this was the perfect moment for the door to open, admitting the Elements of Harmony. One look at Spike and Apple Bloom was enough to trigger several different reactions in the six mares, from joy to puzzlement.
Spike sighed. This was going to be a very, very long day.