Sunrise was late. Luna stood at the tower balcony, basking in the light of her beloved moon. She was tired after the festivities of the royal wedding, but she knew Celestia would likely be even wearier. The nocturnal princess wondered how her older sister had managed these past thousand years all alone. Though her exile had hardly been relaxing, Luna knew it must have been at least as difficult for Celestia. She wouldn’t begrudge her sister an extra hour of rest. Besides, it was a lovely night. There could be no harm in extending it a bit.
The soft sound of hoofsteps drew the princess out of her musings. “Good morning princess.”
“Twilight Sparkle,” Luna greeted the young mare as she emerged onto the balcony. “Thou art very early awake. The revelry could not have ended but four hours ago.”
“Oh, this is pretty normal for me. I usually stay up late studying, and then wake up early to make my checklist for the day.”
Luna smiled at her young friend. “You are truly a driven individual. It is clear that my sister did well by apprenticing you.”
Twilight beamed at the compliment. “But speaking of your sister, isn’t she late raising the sun?”
“I expect she is tired from the wedding festivities as well as her battle with the Changeling Queen—” a wide yawn interrupted Luna’s sentence, “Though perhaps it is time she was roused.”
“I’ll come with you.” Luna nodded and the two ponies descended from the balcony toward the royal bed chambers.
When they arrived, Luna knocked on her sisters elaborately carved door. After waiting a few moments she pressed the latch to let herself in. The door swung wide and the princess halted, momentarily stunned by the sight that greeted her.
Celestia lay in the middle of the room. Next to her unmoving form stood another Twilight Sparkle.
“Princess Luna! I’m so glad you’re here, I came to wake Celestia and found her like—”
“Who’s that?” said the first Twilight, stepping up to peer into the chamber.
Luna leapt back, brandishing her horn, unsure which of the ponies, if either, was her friend. But her caution turned out to be needless as the Twilight in the doorway reacted. Without hesitation, the violet pony sent a spell buzzing angrily at her counterpart. With a flash, the false Twilight was hurled back against the wall and resolved back into its true form. With a cry of dismay, the true Twilight Sparkle dashed to Celestia’s prone form. Luna advanced on the changeling, but it recovered quickly, hopping up and hurtling itself through the chamber’s stained-glass window with a crash.
Luna longed to give chase, but her unconscious sister demanded more immediate attention. As she rushed to Twilight’s side, it was apparent that Celestia was alive, but gravely injured. There were two puncture wounds in her neck, weeping scarlet blood onto the mare’s snow-white coat and her breathing came in stuttering gasps.
The younger princess caught a sudden blur of motion from under the bed and reacted just fast enough to avoid a mortal wound of her own. The second changeling shot toward her, its wings buzzing sinisterly. Luna reared and twisted, trying to get her neck out of the creatures reach. With a sickening, slicing sound, the changeling’s horn ripped a gash in Luna’s shoulder.
A sudden, blinding rage accompanied the white hot pain that surged through her. This creature had harmed her sister and now it attempted to do the same to her. Before her attacker was even a meter away, Luna was already gathering power for a violent spell. The changeling banked tightly, attempting to come around and continue the attack, but Luna’s spell was already prepared. A beam of deep blue light flashed from her horn. Adrenaline and anger sent it flying straight and hard at her foe. The spell connected, flinging the black creature against the wall with such force that a spider web of cracks appeared in the stone. But the creature was not yet dead.
Its crumpled wings fluttered uselessly as it desperately tried to rise and escape. With a ruthlessness she had never experienced, not even during her time as Nightmare Moon, Luna launched herself at the changeling, intent on finishing it permanently. She brought her horn to bear as she charged, skewering the changeling through its tough carapace. Violently, the princess reared, hauling her foe off the ground.
“RAAAGH!” With a primal roar, she smashed the changeling back to the ground. Red tinged the edges of her vision and her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Panting, she looked down at her felled opponent. Green blood was beginning to pool beneath it.
As her breathing steadied, the pain from her wound truly set in. Her left leg buckled as her shoulder gave out. With a gasp, she stepped forward with her hind leg to keep from toppling sideways. After a moment, she turned and limped back to where Twilight still sat with Celestia.
“Hnng. H-How is she?”
Twilight only stared at her for a moment. Luna knew a moment of terror as she recognized the fear in her friend’s expression, but was relieve when the violet pony shook it off after a few seconds.
“The bite isn’t deep, but her heartbeat and breathing are erratic. I think it might be poison. We need to get the doctor.”
Luna couldn’t help but admire the younger pony’s focus in the face of crisis. “Right, stay with her I shall—”
“C-denz. . .” Celestia’s voice was weak and broken.
“My sister?” Luna lowered her head to her sisters, favoring her injured leg.
“ Ca-denz. They’re after. . . Cadence.”
Luna glanced up at Twilight. Her eyes echoed the icy fear that had seized Luna’s heart.
“Stay here,” the princess said as she rose and limped toward the door.
Twilight rose and came after her, “But you’re injured, you can’t go alone!”
“So I won’t,” Luna snapped back, “I shall raise the alarm and ensure that your brother and Princess Cadence are safe. But you must stay and do what you can for my sister until the royal physician arrives.” Luna glanced back at her friend, meeting her gaze squarely. “Please Twilight Sparkle. I cannot lose my sister.”
The young mare blinked back tears of panic and looked away, relenting. “Hurry,” she whispered.
Without a word, Luna trotted gingerly out into the hall. “GUARDS!” she called, putting all of the urgency into the summons as she could. A pair of gold-armored stallions galloped around the corner. Before they could even solute, Luna began barking commands. “Princess Celestia is badly injured and the palace has been breached by intruders. You, fetch the royal physician to my sister’s bed chamber at once. You, find as many guards as you can and have them meet me at Princes Cadenza’s bed chamber. MOVE!”
The stallions were clearly shocked, but they were well disciplined and jumped to obey without hesitation. With all the speed that her injury allowed, Luna rushed through the corridors, collecting any guards she came across. Finally, she stood before the minor princess’s door. She took hold of the door with her magic and slammed it open.
Cadence and Shining Armor stood shoulder to shoulder in the corner of the chamber, fending off no less than seven changelings. The newlyweds seemed to suffer only minor wounds, Luna doubted they could have held out for even a minute more.
The changelings were startled and Luna was able to strike one with a spell before they could react. They rounded on the midnight-blue princess, but once they saw that she was backed by a squad of guards, they opted to flee. Luna downed another as they scrambled out the already shattered window and was able to clip the wings of a third, sending it spiraling down to crash beyond the city’s walls.
Once she was satisfied that the changelings were truly routed, Luna turned her attention to the other nobles. “Art thou injured?”
“Only a few scratches,” Shining Armor replied through pants of exhaustion.
“Thank you, princess,” Cadence added. “I’m not sure we would have made it without you.”
Luna nodded gravely. “My sister was also ambushed by these vermin and she is gravely hurt. I must return to her. Shining Armor, art thou well enough to see to the security of the palace and the city?”
“Of course your highness,” The captain of the guard replied with a solute.
“I know a bit of healing,” Cadence chimed in, “Perhaps I can help the doctor with your sister.”
“Very well,” the older princess assented.
Luna and Cadence left the captain to his task and returned to Celestia’s bed chamber. It was a scene of silent chaos as the royal physician knelt to his task and a couple of nurses bustled in and out with various medical supplies. Cadence joined the fray, and Luna went to stand by Twilight, who was watching the ordeal with a stony expression. Almost immediately, the young mare leaned her head against Luna’s good shoulder. The princess felt a shudder run through her friend and eventually the warm damp of tears. They stood together, silently, helplessly, watching as Celestia slowly stabilized under Cadence and the doctor’s care.
It seemed like an eternity, but Luna supposed it must only have been about half an hour before her sister was placed in bed. The doctor stitched and bandaged Luna’s shoulder before departing, saying there was nothing left to do but wait for Celestia to recuperate. Twilight and Cadence went to help Shining Armor, leaving Luna standing alone at the foot of her sister’s bed.
She looked down at Celestia’s sleeping face, and then at the bandages that covered the bite wound on her neck. A strange sort of panic rose up in her throat, threatening to choke her. She clamped her eyes shut against a flood of tears. She had returned from exile to find her beloved sister as warm and sheltering as she had been during their fillyhood so long ago. But today she had come so close to losing her. The thought of it was unbearable. Desperately, she reached for anything that could ease the sickening fear. She found a spark of the battle rage she had experienced before killing the first changeling. It was easy to fan that spark into a smoldering flame of anger. How dare those creatures threaten her sister and her kingdom.
“Princess Luna?” a guard inquired hesitantly. Luna turned her head slightly in acknowledgment. “Pardon me, but the sun still has not been raised. With Princess Celestia. . . as she is, you will have to do it instead.”
“I shall see to it,” was her only reply. The guard saluted and disappeared quickly. Luna took another moment, reluctant to leave her sister, but finally she left the room and ascended the tower stairs to the balcony. The moon perched on the horizon, anxious to return to its slumber. Luna’s horn glowed midnight blue as she gathered power for her spell. With the bowing of her head she lowered the moon behind the horizon then turned to the east. Again, she gathered power to herself. She could feel the sun, poised to rise and begin the day. Its presence had always been tangible to her, yet she had never reached out to it before. It took her a few tries, but she managed to take hold of the celestial body and nudge it up into position. The light it gave off seemed weak, but it would do.
“Princess Luna!” She turned to find Shining Armor hurrying up the stairs. “Princess Luna!” he repeated through labored breaths.
“Have you something to report Guard Captain?”
“Yes your highness.” At her nod, Shining Armor began, “My scouts tracked the few changelings that were left back to the border of the Everfree forest. They’ve massed there in numbers that haven’t been seen in ages.”
Luna’s heart sank. “The attack on Canterlot was only the beginning,” she murmured, “They’re preparing for war. . . Evacuate all of the smaller settlements nearest the swarm. Alert the governors of the major cities to begin work on fortifications. Then mobilize every unit of guards at your disposal and begin recruiting volunteers. I want an army assembled by week’s end.”
“But your highness, we are not equipped for heavy fighting. Even with an army, we won’t stand a chance.”
“Leave that to me Captain. See to your other tasks. Swiftly.”
Shining Armor frowned but said no more. As he left, Luna gazed at the horizon where the moon had disappeared. Once more she gathered power and in a flash of magic, she disappeared into the dawn.
. . .
She materialized on the steps of a great, black fortress. She looked up at the blue planet spinning lazily above her. How many times had she looked upon her home from this vantage point with nothing but hatred in her heart? Now she did so with conviction, not that she would return to conquer, but rather to defend. She climbed the familiar steps to her old stronghold.
She had built this place, brick by brick, during her exile. The great hall was exactly the same as she’d left it. Bare and lonesome. She strode through the corridors to the tower staircase. She ascended her tower, a near-exact replica of the one at the Canterlot palace. But instead of overlooking a bustling city, her balcony overlooked the vast and baren Lunar fields. Fields that she had spent her years in exile filling with instruments of war. Suits of black armor stood empty and waiting. Wicked blades hung at the ready on countless racks. Various engines and vehicles crouched among piles of Lunar rock that had been fashioned into artillery ammunition. It had been her intention to turn these tools against any resistance her sister might offer. But now it would all be redeemed, just as Luna had.
The Queen of the changelings desired war. So war she would have.
The marketplace was quieter than usual today. There must have been several hundred ponies bustling about the Canterlot town square, but the usual din of heckling and bartering was replaced by the shuffle of hooves on the stone-paved street and murmured exchanges between the shoppers and merchants. Pinkie Pie supposed it was the anniversary that had everyone in such dour moods. Today, the Changeling War entered its second year.
What these ponies need is something to take their minds off things, she thought, A good prank-- No, not after what happened last year. It's too crowded for a proper party, but maybe just-- Yes! Music! A concert would be perfect for cheering everypony up. I'll just need a harmonica, a trombone, an accordion, castanets, a viola-- Pinkie shook her head. Even after a year she still couldn't keep her mind from trying to make everything fun. But that wasn't something she could do anymore. Everything is different now.
Still, the pink mare couldn't keep from humming a little tune she'd just come up with while she nudged her way up to an unfamiliar fruit stall. The selection was already well picked over, but Pinkie managed to nab a good melon and a few bruised apples.
"That's seven bits please," the shopkeeper said. It was a good price. Pinkie couldn't abide by the merchants who took advantage of the refugees' desperation with higher prices. That was like watching somepony fall in a well and stealing their picnic basket before helping them out. She looked up at the shopkeeper, intending to memorize the face of this kind pony. It was an old stallion, his black coat gone dull with age, but whose emerald eyes still sparkled with strength and resilience that were uncommon these days. Pinkie gave him her best smile as she paid and thanked him sincerely.
"Well, aren't you a shiner," the shopkeeper remarked with a warm smile of his own. "It's not many ponies that give so much as a thank you, much less a smile as pretty as yours."
"Everypony enjoys a smile," Pinkie replied, "Making ponies just a little happier is the least I can do to help." The merchant chuckled at the mare's infectious enthusiasm. "So what's your name?" Pinkie continued, "I haven't seen you before, and I like to get to know everypony I meet, especially when they offer such good prices for melons."
The merchant paused. Pinkie knew what he was thinking. Because of the war, merchants often couldn't stay in one city for long before they could no longer acquire new goods to sell. There was a constant cycle of new stalls and faces as one group of merchants would be forced to look for better prospects and another would wash in to take their place. Most didn't bother to make friends in any one place.
But, with a resigned grin, the shopkeeper made his decision. "The name's Soot Streak. Pleased to make your acquaintance, miss?"
"Pinkamena Pie," the jovial mare said, offering her hoof, "But you can call me Pinkie."
"Well, miss Pinkie. Thank you brightening an old pony's day."
"Any time mister Streak." The pink mare turned to go and called back over her shoulder, "And when you leave, just remembers you've got a friend here, Okay?"
Soot Streak nodded and held up a hoof in farewell and Pinkie merged back into the crowd. The streets were packed with ragged ponies. Most were refugees from the camps that squatted in Canterlot's shadow. Princess Luna had decreed that the city could harbor no more refugees, but their numbers continued to swell. Although Luna had taken on much of the duties made necessary by the war, and therefore had every right to manage the movements of refugees, Pinkie was sure that Celestia was not enforcing her sister's decree. It wasn't surprising. Celestia might be too boring to allow chocolate milk rain, but Pinkie knew the strength of her sense of duty to her subjects. Such a ruler would never turn away anypony who came to her seeking shelter.
It was a strain on Canterlot's resources, but so far everypony's basic needs were being met. That would change if the war kept on going as it was though. The changelings were like parasprites: get rid of one and two more will pop up to take its place. They destroyed everything in their path, but for all their brutality, though, few ponies were ever killed in the changeling raids. Instead, they obliterated homes, farms, and shops in the smaller towns and villages. Thus, more and more refugees were constantly streaming into the major cities.
Pinkie sighed as she worked her way through the clogged streets. She'd been in one of the first groups of refugees to arrive in Canterlot. While most of her friends had opted to join the fight, she had stayed, taking advantage of their early arrival to procure an actual apartment to stay in. Any of the refugees currently living in the ramshackle camps would have said she was lucky. Of course, being one of the first refugees to choose living space also meant her home had been one of the first to burn. Pinkie shuddered as the memory resurfaced.
She had still been groggy from the party the night before and a nervous pit had formed in her stomach. Pinkie hated being nervous. She was never nervous, even on dangerous adventures. But something about this was different. Before, she'd gone out to the danger. Now it was coming to her. And it turned out that wasn't nearly as much fun. In fact, it was so scary that her knee was pinchier than ever before. She had already tried to make it go away by laughing, but everypony had said she was being inappropriate. They had all been so scared. They all pretended that they weren't but Pinkie could always tell.
Twilight had said they needed to evacuate Ponyville, that everypony had to leave. The thought of it rattled around in the pink mare's head like an extra-super-bouncy ball inside a parakeet shop. And, for some reason, she couldn't seem to keep every thought from pouring out her mouth.
"When we leave are we gonna be refugees? What do refugees do every day? Do they still get birthday parties? They should still get birthday parties. What are you supposed to pack if you're gonna be a refugee? Do we have to dress a certain way now? And where are we gonna get snacks and where where are we gonna sleep? Do we need money? How can we get money if we're not working cause we're refugees? And what if--"
"Take it easy, sugarcube," Applejack interrupted. The two earth ponies had been together in a flying chariot, rushing home to help with the evacuation of Ponyville. "Ah'm scared too, but everything's gonna be just fine. Ah'm sure Twilight's got one her clever plans to get everypony out safely."
"I don't see why it's such a big deal now," Pinkie said, "We fought off, like, a hundred changelings all on our own yesterday."
"This is a little different," her orange friend replied in a soothing tone, "The varmints were thinkin' they'd already won, so they weren't interested in destroying anythin' else. But now they know they're gonna have to fight if they wan' our land."
Pinkie glanced over at her friend. There was fire behind her green eyes as she stared toward home. "They ain't gonna hold back," Appljack had said with finality, "So neither can we."
Once the chariot landed, the earth ponies leapt out to rush to their respective homes. Everywhere, ponies were running to and fro. A few were hammering boards over their windows, but most simply grabbed whatever belongings they could carry and headed for the train station. The orange glow of the evening sun and the stillness of the air made for an eerie atmosphere as Pinkie hurried to Sugarcube Corner.
"Oh Pinkie Pie, there you are!" Cup Cake called as she entered the shop. "We're almost done packing, but you should go and get anything from your room you want to take with you."
Pinkie stood a moment in the doorway. "We're really leaving, aren't we?" she said.
"It isn't safe here," Carrot Cake said as he set an armload of baby supplies next to the door. Pinkie glanced over to where the twins sat, watching their parents uneasily. They don't even know what's going on. They're probably more scared than a torch bug whose night-light burned out..
Pinkie trotted over to the babies and nuzzled them both in turn. "Don't worry little guys. Auntie Pinkie is here. Lemme see those cutsey-wutsey smiles." The twins giggled at her voice. That should have made her feel better. It always made her feel better to make somepony smile. Especially foals! But making foals smile when they were about to leave home forever just seemed backwards. Smiles were supposed to happen after you're sad, not before. Pinkie Pie left the twins who were now making faces at one another and laughing loudly. She climbed the stairs to her room, feeling like a con mare who'd just tricked somepony into buying useless bobble.
It was odd seeing the familiar surroundings of her room with the knowledge that she might not ever see it again. She smiled sadly at her pet alligator who was napping on the floor. As she came in, Gummy came awake and greeted her with his traditional bites to her face and mane then curled up on her back to continue sleeping. She wandered back and forth, gathering the smaller trinkets that would be all she kept of her old life. In just a few minutes, she had her treasures gathered into her saddlebag. It seemed a pitifully small collection. Just some picture albums, party journals, Gummy's soft alligator food, and a few mini-confetti cannons, just in case.
Then her small room darkened as the remaining sunlight suddenly dwindled. Pinkie frowned. Sunset wasn't supposed to be for another hour at least. Her heart sank as she peered out her window. A massive smudge of black was blotting out the sun as it moved across the sky toward Ponyville. The swarm was coming.
After a moment of paralyzing fear, Pinkie snatched up her saddlebag and launched down the stairs. The Cakes were waiting by the door. Pinkie unloaded Gummy onto the twins' double sling that Carrot Cake was carrying. Pound immediately took the alligator in his tiny, vice-like grip and Pumpkin stuffed the tip of Gummy's tail in her mouth. Cup Cake handed off an extra bag to Pinkie and together they ran toward the train station. Pinkie couldn't help but look back one last time. Sugarcube corner, the building that had been home and livelihood stood, resigned to its fate. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pulled away from that image and the full realization of what had happened struck her. She hadn't just lost her home and her job. She'd lost her purpose. Her passions in life, baking, parties, and friends, were all connected to Ponyville. And now she had to leave it all behind.
The platform at the train station was a scene of chaos. The entire population of Ponyville was gathered on and around the station's platform, slowly packing into the evacuation train. Extra cars had been added to accommodate the number of ponies in the town. As soon as each car was filled, the train would lurch forward, pulling the empty cars up to where the anxious ponies waited.
"Pinkie Pie! Mr. and Mrs. Cake! Over here!"
Pinkie looked around and spotted Spike, jumping and waving at them. There was no sign of any of her other friends. She trotted over to the dragon with a frown. "Spike, where's Twilight?"
"She went to help the guards hold off the swarm," the baby dragon replied, wringing his hands nervously, "I-I was supposed to get some of the books from the library, but when I saw all of those changelings heading this way . . . I guess I panicked. Do you know where anypony else is? I think I saw Rainbow Dash fly over a few minutes ago, but I don't know where Applejack, Fluttershy, or Rarity are."
"Well Ah'm right here," came Applejack's familiar drawl as she and Big Macintosh came cantering up, "Rarity an' her sister are on the train with Granny Smith and Apple Bloom. I haven't seen Fluttershy though. Maybe—"
A sudden flash of scarlet light interrupted the earth pony. To the west, a massive force field had sprung up. It spanned twice the length of the town and must have stood three hundred feet tall.
"Hoo-ee!" Applejack exclaimed, "Att'a girl, Twilight. Come on, y'all. They might need help keeping those varmints back."
"Hold on, Applejack," Cup cake said quickly, "We need Pinkie's help with the babies."
"I'm staying too," Spike chimed in, "I'm no good in a fight."
"Suit yourselves," the farm pony said with a shrug, "Good luck to y'all!" And with a whoop, she and Big Mac took off toward Twilight's barricade. Pinkie watched her friend go. Part of her was glad she was far away from danger, but she also yearned to be with her friends and make sure they were safe.
Waiting to board was agony. The train lurched by, the remaining cars filling steadily, and soon the final cars were pulling up to the platform. But there were still so many ponies who hadn't boarded yet. A steward leaned out of the caboose, ushering in a few more ponies.
"All right, that's it!" she cried, "Another train will be in to pick the rest of you up, please be patient!" Then she slammed the hatch shut before an angry outcry erupted from the crowd of remaining ponies.
Then the train was moving, leaving them all behind.
"What now?" somepony called.
"I hope Twilight's spell holds," Pinkie said, looking toward the scarlet glow of the barrier. The changelings were trying to fly over it, but several squads of pegasi were intercepting them. Pinkie thought she saw the flash of a rainbow trail, but it was hard to tell at that distance. The ponies seemed to be doing well. Every few minutes, a pegasus would drop from the sky, but none of the changelings made it through. It wasn't a pleasant distraction, but there was little else to do and the aerial struggle tugged at everypony's attention with its grim implications. If the ponies were defeated, there wasn't much of a chance that anyone left in town would survive.
A sudden shift in the battle caught Pinkie's notice. The changelings seemed to waver, then they withdrew entirely. The sounds of battle that had been echoing across the town ceased, leaving the crowd of ponies at the train station standing nervously in the silence. Had they won? Was Ponyville spared? Hope began to leak into Pinkie's heart, but was stalled by the fact that none of the pegasi she could see seemed to be letting their guards down. A flash of green light burst against Pinkie's vision, followed by the thud of an explosion. In rapid succession, a series of green fireballs detonated against Twilight's shield.
Pinkie flinched away from the intensity of the light and sound. When she cautiously looked back, the magical barricade was flickering and distorting. It deteriorated rapidly until it finally collapsed.
A murmur ran through the crowd. Nopony was sure what to do until a volley of green fireballs arced out over the town and landed with a WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP. Fire lashed out from the explosions, seeming to stick to any surface it touched. A few buildings toppled from direct hits by the explosive projectiles, while others went up in flames.
Then everypony was running. Most steered to the east, toward Canterlot and away from the incoming swarm. Pinkie was just leaping from the platform behind Spike and the Cakes when the fireball hit the train station. The force of the shockwave sent the earth pony somersaulting forward to land heavily beside her friends. The gout of green flame that followed nearly swallowed them, but the bulk of the liquid fire fell just a few feet short. A few globs fell threateningly close to Pinkie and one hit Carrot Cake's tail. The greedy flame immediately began consuming the stallion's orange hair.
The following seconds would be burned permanently into Pinkie Pie's memory. Carrot Cake let out a yell and began stamping at the eager flames. "The twins!" Cup Cake cried. Pinkie sprang forward as Carrot shrugged out of the foals' carrying sling. In one fluid motion, Pinkie slid under the sling and bounded back away from the fire.
"We have to get them out of here!" Cup Cake screamed, a tinny edge breaking her voice. She bounded over to help her husband and shouted at Pinkie, "Just run! We have to—" A flash of green nearly blinded Pinkie, and another shockwave slammed her into the ground.
Her ears were ringing. Everything was muffled, and there was a terrible pounding in her head. After a few moments of disorientation, the crying of the foals snapped her back to herself. She craned her neck to make sure they were alright. Pound clutched at Gummy with an iron grip and Pumpkin had her hooves to her ears, but neither of them seemed to be hurt. Satisfied, she looked around for her friends. Spike was staggering to his feet no more than a leg's reach away, but the Cakes were nowhere to be found.
Could they have been flung further away? Panicking, the young mare stood and turned a full circle. "CUP CAKE! CARROT CAKE!" She screamed desperately. The inevitable answer was right in front of her. A flaming crater, exactly where the two ponies had been standing. The Cakes were gone.
"Oh no," Spike said, limping over to the lip of the crater.
How could this have happened? How could everything fall apart so quickly. She wanted to give up. She wanted to sink to the ground and just wait for another fire ball. But there were foals on her back. Scared and helpless. They didn't have anypony to watch over them anymore. They would never have anypony to buy them birthday presents or make hot chocolate on Hearth's Warming Eve. Nopony would be there to pick them up after school or cheer them up when they are sad. No, that's not right, Pinkie thought, I'm still here. I can do all of that. I have to now. A steely pit formed in the pink mare's heart. Everything is different now. But it doesn't have to be the end.
"We have to go," she said hoarsely, "We have to get Pound and Pumpkin out of here."
"How?" Spike asked, looking up at her. The truth was plain on his face. They didn't have any transportation. There was no way they would outrun the swarm.
"We have to try," Pinkie said, kneeling in front of the dragon. After only a moment's hesitation, Spike climbed onto the pink mares back. Her legs trembled under the load of two foals, a dragon, and a baby alligator, but she told her rebellious limbs firmly to do as she wanted and she set off to the east at a gallop. It wasn't long before her legs and lungs were burning with the effort she was exerting, but somehow she kept moving. It seemed like she would be running forever, even though her tired mind told her that was impossible. Eventually her body would fail. Pinkie wondered what it would be like to die of exhaustion. It didn't matter. She would keep going, putting as much distance between the foals and Ponyville as possible. Then maybe Spike would have a chance to get them to the safety of Canterlot.
Ten minutes passed, and Pinkie was down to a trotting pace. Not far enough, she thought, Got to get further. The sun had long since set, but the light of a full moon illuminated her path. Suddenly, a shadow flickered over the trail ahead of her as something flew overhead. Pinkie froze. They'd caught up.
With a snarl, the earth pony rounded to see a figure drop to the ground and approach. She was about to tell Spike to take the foals and run, but an instant later the figure resolved into a familiar form.
"Pinkie Pie!" Rainbow Dash shouted, galloping up to embrace her friend. Pinkie leaned against her, unable even to bring her fore legs up to return the hug.
"Are you alright?" the rainbow-maned mare said.
Pinkie wanted to reply, but her mouth was dry. "She ran all the way out here, but we're okay," Spike assisted.
"Holy Hey! We're nine miles away from Ponyville. You must have had a few extra cupcakes to burn huh?"
Pinkie knew her friend was trying to boost her spirits, but everything that had happened suddenly came crashing in on her in a tidal wave of emotion. She sank to the ground, convulsing with dry sobs. . .
Her only other memory of that night was of rushing wind as a flying chariot carried her, Spike, and the twins to Canterlot. Pound and Pumpkin were asleep, exhausted after their ordeal. Pinkie was too, but sleep completely eluded her. She was tormented by the deaths of the cakes and what that meant for the two innocent foals that lay curled up against her side. But, at the same time, a steely resolve was creeping into her bones. She didn't think she was ready to be a mother, but she'd be damned if she would abandon her friends' children to a life as homeless orphans.
That night, Pinkamena Diane Pie had made a silent promise to the stars. Come what may, this war would take nothing more from these foals. Nothing.
Pinkie opened the door to the small apartment that passed for their home now. It may be shabby, but the sight that greeted her every time she came in this door made it that much easier to smile. Spike was sitting at his desk, scribbling yet another letter to Twilight. Pinkie knew he missed her. It made the fact that he chose to stay all the more meaningful. There had been times when she didn't know how she would have gotten through without the young dragon's help.
The twins sat together, babbling to each other over Gummy, who lay on his back between them. Pinkie swore some of the sounds coming from the foals were actual words. She shut the door behind her and placed her groceries on the small kitchen counter.
"Did you miss your Auntie Pinkie Pie?"
"Nah," Spike said in his customary, sarcastic tone, "You're around all the time. It's like you don't trust me with the foals or something."
"Well it's only because you're always showing off with your fire blowing. Everypony knows foals and fire don't mix." In response, the dragon gave a grinning snort and went back to his letter.
Pound and Pumpkin toddled over to bump against Pinkie's knees. She leaned down and took them both into a warm hug. She would never be able to forget the pain that had brought about this situation, but she couldn't let that ruin moments like this. Here, in her arms, was her new purpose in life. These foals deserved a childhood worth remembering. And nothing would keep Pinkie Pie from making that happen.
Applejack rocked back and forth to the gentle swaying of train. Outside her window, the desert landscape rolled by, far too slow for her liking. The barren and static scenery lent itself to a peaceful atmosphere. It made the armored plates welded to the train seem unnecessary. But the orange earth pony knew it was an illusion. If she was heading somewhere, there would be enemies to fight.
That was the root of her restlessness. Her train was bound for Appaloosa, home to a number of Apple family members, including her favorite cousin, Braeburn. Up until now, the remoteness of the small town had protected it from the changelings' attention. As such, the apple orchards there had become a major producer of food for Hoofington, the nearest major city. But the war was spreading and changeling scouts had been spotted near the Appaloosan boarder. To make things worse, disputes were breaking out within the nearby buffalo tribe over whether to aide their pony neighbors or not. There were even rumors that the native tribe might force the ponies to leave in hopes that their land would be spared. All in all, the situation was too unstable to ignore. Celestia had dispatched Princess Cadenza to treat with Chief Thunderhooves. Applejack approved of the decision. If anypony could win over the buffalo, it would be Cadance. Of course, there was always the possibility that negotiations would fail. That's where Applejack and her unit came in. With the changeling swarm moving in, it was impossible to evacuate the town, and if the buffalo became a threat instead of an ally, the Appaloosans wouldn't stand a chance.
Applejack checked her hoof blades and saddle rifle for the third time. With the war well into its second year, the weapons were practically an extension of herself. After the decimation of Ponyville, she and her brother, Big Macintosh, had immediately signed up to serve in Luna's volunteer army. The duo's discipline and resilience had quickly earned the notice of their superiors and they gained several promotions. Applejack would never be able to put her heart into bloodshed, but she had to admit, she was good at it. Even so, every battle threatened to steal her resolve. Every kill put a crack in her steely spirit. But she would never hesitate to do what needed doing. For her family. She would put herself through the hell that was this war to win peace for her family.
So they fought. Early on in the war, Big Mac found a place in a heavy weapons platoon and Applejack swiftly earned her own command as a squad leader in the same unit. The ponies under her command jokingly referring to her as "Buck Sergeant." It was against regulations, but Applejack had never been one for strict formalities. The captain often made it clear that he didn't approve of how close she was with the five ponies in her squad. It was all fine and dandy for him to "lead from the top" as he liked to say, but these were Applejack's troops. After enduring the horrors of war together, they were practically kin, and Applejack wouldn't treat them as inferiors. Each of them had survived countless battles under her leadership, but this one would be different. Once they arrived, they would be cut off and potentially facing hostile buffalo tribes as well as changelings. It nearly made her sick to think about just how bad their prospects were. But Appaloosa was just too vital an asset to give up. Their orders were to secure the town and hold it at any costs.
Applejack cringed at what those costs might be. Nearly five hundred ponies were packed into the armored train with her. While that might seem like more than enough troops to hold a town as small as Appaloosa, the changelings always attacked in huge numbers. Privately, Applejack had been thinking that the swarm must be growing at a terrifying rate in order to sustain the losses the ponies inflicted upon them and still throw thousands of drones into any given offensive. Next time she had leave in Canterlot, she'd ask Twilight how the war was really going. Not that she would let her squad in on it if her grim prediction was correct. Low morale was becoming an increasingly fatal issue. Despair crept through the ranks like a plague. In other units, ponies were losing the will to fight and the changelings were routing them with less and less effort. What they needed was a major victory. Something that let them believe they were winning.
"Can't this thing go any faster?" Applejack glanced over at the speaker. It was Star Gazer, the youngest member of the squad. Only a few years older than Applebloom, she was practically still a filly. Despite her age, she was a valuable member of the team. She had an immaculate attention to detail and could be clever when she put her mind to it. And she cared deeply for her squad mates.The young mare somewhat reminded Applejack of Twilight, minus the magic and hint of instability.
"Calm down, sugar cube," the squad leader said, "We're still a few days ahead of the swarm. We'll get there with plenty of time to get ready."
"But we're sitting ducks until then," came Star Gazer's retort, "What if a scout spots us and decides to go meteorite on our flanks?"
Applejack suppressed a shudder, remembering the first time she'd encountered the changelings' frightening ability. It had been the last time she'd seen her home standing. She'd been holding the line at Ponyville alongside Twilight and a handful of Celestia's guards. The changeling swarm had battered relentlessly at Twilight's barrier, occasionally managing to make a crack and squeeze a few drones through before the unicorn could close up the breach. They were easy enough to deal with, and Applejack had thought they might save the town. That's when the light show started. A dozen changelings broke off from the swarm and streaked toward the barrier, a green cone of fire forming in front of each of them. At first, Applejack had thought she recognized it as the same technique they had used during the invasion of Canterlot, where they had rocketed to the earth in green fireballs, only to rise up unscathed. But as the changelings impacted against the magic shield, they detonated with a force so violent, Applejack had felt the shock wave from where she stood nearly one hundred feet below. Twilight had feinted under the strain and the force field had collapsed. A second barrage had devastated their defensive line. None of the land ponies would have survived if Rainbow Dash hadn't organized the pegasi and picked them up. After that, the changelings simply rained volley after volley of suicide attacks down on Ponyville, leaving it a burning wreck. Afterward, one of the soldiers at the battle had coined the term "meteorite bomb" to describe the new form of attack.
Applejack pulled away from the memory and glanced around at the other squad members. On one side of the compartment were three mares, Autumn Leaf, Glitter, and Star Gazer. Two stallions, Dusty Mane and Lancer sat next to Applejack. Anypony else wouldn't have been able to tell how nervous they were and Star Gazer's outburst wasn't helping. Applejack needed to reassure her.
"The armor welded to this tin can ain't just for show, private," she said, " So your flanks are safe for now. Just try and rest up while you can. There'll be plenty of work to go around once we reach Appaloosa."
Star Gazer didn't seem entirely convinced, but she settled back in her seat with a surly "Yes Sarge." The last few hours of the ride passed in uneasy silence. Finally, the train lumbered up to the tiny, Appaloosan station. Hot wind blew sand against Applejack's hide as she stepped out into the desert. She shifted her saddlebag higher on her shoulder to block some of the sandy spray and led her squad to the staging area. They would camp on the outskirts of the town's massive apple orchard. There, the unicorn squads would set up a defensive network of force fields. It was a good strategy. The orchard was an obvious target for it's value and flammability.
Setting up camp that evening was a particularly wrenching task for Applejack. The trees creaked in the light breeze and the smell of the fruit washed over her. She remembered walking in from her orchards after a day of honest, fulfilling labor and how the sound of wind stirring a thousand leaves would lull her to sleep on a summer's night. Thought's of home came crashing to the front of Applejack's mind: napping alone in the shade, Granny Smith's lemonade on a hot afternoon, the simple pleasure of doing chores with her sister or taking on apple-bucking season with Big Mac. The earth pony wondered if she would ever be free to raise and harvest orchards again.
"You okay Buck Sergeant?" Applejack noticed that she had been staring at a tent stake for over a minute. She kicked herself for letting her reverie get the best of her. She looked up calmly, attempting to recover her air of leadership and reliability.
"Ah'm fine, Dusty," she told the grey stallion. Sympathy glittered in his eyes. Dusty Mane had also been a farmer before the war. Applejack was sure that she hadn't fooled his sharp intuition, but he just gave her a too-understanding smile.
"Of course, Sarge. By the way, word is that somepony by the name of Braeburn wants to talk to you. Last I heard he was at the Salt Block. I think I can finish setting up the tent if you wanna go see him."
It took a moment for her to decide. She hated leaving jobs for her squad mates, and she wasn't all that sure that she wanted to talk to Braeburn under their dark circumstances. It seemed wrong to taint what should be a happy reunion with talk of war. Another puff of wind filled her with the orchard's scent and the hunger for a taste of her old life roared inside her. Suddenly, she couldn't resist the urge to sate that hunger. It may not have been the best reason to base her decision on, but at the moment she couldn't find the will to care. After a nod to Dusty, Applejack trotted off to find her cousin.
Appaloosa was a in a state of turmoil completely at odds with the crushing silence that hung over the town. Everywhere, ponies were skittering to and fro, carrying supplies or fortifying buildings. It was a frantic scene tinged with the sour fear of helplessness. The knowledge of imminent danger was bad enough, but the uncertainty of facing an intelligent foe multiplied the anxiety. You were never sure when or from where the attack would come, and there was always the nagging feeling that you were unprepared. Applejack's heart went out to the town's ponies. As a soldier, she occasionally got to take the initiative in an offensive battle, but when civilians faced the enemy, they always did so as defenders.
In her experience during the war, Applejack noticed that the bars and taverns never seemed to lose any business before a battle. The Salt Block was no exception. The saloon was packed with patrons, but the hush of the town persisted. After a moment, Applejack spotted Braeburn at the bar and went to pull up a stool next to the light-coated stallion.
"Howdy, cousin," she said, conjuring up her best attempt at a smile.
"Hiya Applejack," Braeburn said. Applejack wondered if her smile was as unconvincing as the one he gave her. "It's good to see you."
"What'd you wanna talk about," The orange mare asked.
Braeburn glanced away, shifting his drink nervously. "Well, Apple Fritter and Candy Apple left town a few weeks ago. I haven't heard from them since." The news froze Applejack's heart. The roads weren't safe anymore, when a couple of earth ponies went missing, there was little chance they'd be seen again. She hadn't been exceptionally close with either Fritter or Candy, but they were still part of the family. Applejack always knew the Apple's would probably lose members to the war, but part of her had always believed they could make it through unscathed. A cold terror spread through her chest. Fritter and Candy weren't even soldiers. Nopony was safe. Not her, not Braeburn, not Big Mac or Granny Smith or Applebloom. Applejack could see how the same realization had ravaged her cousin. His spirit, once so vibrant and strong, was now sunken. He was losing hope.
"I was just thinking," he said, "maybe we should take the chance to be together as a family before. . ." he trailed off, his eyes intent on the contents of his mug. The image damn near broke Applejack's heart in two. It reminded her of a day in their foalhood. She and Braeburn had been been playing on the edge of the Everfree Forest in complete defiance of Granny Smith's orders. They had wandered too far in and become lost. It was terrifying. It seemed like every bush hid a bloodthirsty monster and the movement of the branches were the unnatural trees reaching out to snatch her. She had been on the verge of panic, but Braeburn just kept telling her that it would be okay. That they would find a way out. Applejack knew that she might never have gotten home without him holding her together. But now, here was that brave stallion, staring brokenly into a half-empty mug.
A sudden flash of the mare's old spirit surged up in defiance of this turn of events. There may be nothing she could do for the dead, but she would not let this war claim the heart of such a great pony.
Applejack wasn't sure if she believed the words she spoke next, but she knew that Braeburn needed to hear them regardless. "Listen, cuz. I don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow or in the days to come. But I do know one thing. We've been through hard times before. We take care of our own. So, no matter what this war throws at us the Apple family will make it through. We will."
"Eeyup." Applejack hadn't noticed her brother's arrival, but the familiar, quiet strength of his declaration helped fuel her conviction.
It seemed to be enough to pull Braeburn out of his depression and he gave the big, red Stallion a genuine grin. "Well, if ya'll are both so sure, what business do I have not believing. I still wish the circumstances were different, but I can't tell you how good it is that you're both here." Applejack pulled the gold-colored stallion into a tight embrace and Big Mac quickly added his rib-cracking hug. "Now, I still want tonight to be about family. No more talk about the war, deal?"
"Deal," Applejack and Big Mac said in unison.
Braeburn ordered a round of ciders for them, saying, "Now, I hear ya'll almost lost the farm to a pair of swindlers in a cider contest. I always knew Granny Smith's stubborn pride would lead to trouble one day." And just like that, the war was somewhere else, if only for a few hours. It didn't matter that Sweet Apple Acres was nothing more than a pile of rubble and ash. It no longer mattered because it was part of who they were as a family and nothing would ever change that. Some day Apple family members would have another orchard and that one would be just as special. There would be horrors to face before that could happen, but for now, the trio talked and laughed and swapped stories, letting those horrors be a thing of tomorrow.
"Sarge, wake up! We might have trouble."
Applejack started awake at Star Gazer's voice. She was reaching for her gear before she even replied. "What's goin' on?"
"The buffalo herd is headed this way. We're not sure what they want." This was bad. The preparations for the swarm weren't complete yet, and if the buffalo attacked, they wouldn't have enough time to finish the fortifications.
"Round up the rest of the squad and get over to the eastern barricade," Applejack ordered, "I'll be there in a few minutes. I've gotta go talk to a friend." Star Gazer gave a quick solute and went to wake the rest of the squad.
Applejack set off at a gallop. She wasn't sure exactly where she was going, but it wasn't hard to get directions. Small towns tended to keep close tabs on celebrities, especially princesses, whenever they came to visit. The first pony she asked directed her to town hall. It was a small, wooden building, not much different from the rest of Appaloosa. The only real indication of the building's office was the Equestrian flag flying over the entryway. Applejack didn't slow her pace as she entered.
"I need to talk to Princess Cadenza," Applejack declared, startling the receptionist. After a moment of hesitation, Applejack was directed to the mayor's office. A single, golden-armored guard stood by the door. He held out a wing, blocking the orange mare's entrance.
"Who goes there?" he boomed.
"I'm a friend of the Princess's," Applejack replied, "Just tell her I'm here and I need to talk to her."
"Princess Cadenza is not to be disturbed," the guard replied.
Applejack gritted her teeth. She didn't have time for this. With a quick, prancing motion, she shouldered the guard, knocking him off balance. She followed with a solid buck to his flank, sending him sprawling to the floor. With the door now unguarded, she immediately flung them open and stormed into the office.
Cadance stood across a table from Captain Swift. The two appeared to have been at odds before Applejack had burst in. Now they both stared at the intruder, Cadance with recognition and Swift with fury.
"Sergeant! What is the meaning of this?" the officer barked.
"I need to talk to the Princess, sir. The buffalo are coming and--"
"We are well aware of the situation," Swift interrupted, "Now get back to your squad before I have you court martialed!"
Cadance chose that moment to step in. "That will not be necessary, Captain," she said, "Applejack is a good friend of mine, and I would like to hear what she has to say." With Captain Swift momentarily at bay, the princess turned back to Applejack.
Relieved, the earth pony said, "I think we can get the buffalo on our side. If I could just talk to one of them--"
"No!" the captain interrupted again, "There is too much at stake for the risk of failed negotiations. With a preemptive strike of overwhelming force, we could break them before they can even fight back."
Cadance rounded on the officer. "As I've said, that option is out of the question. We will not attack a potential ally while there is still a chance for peace. And, if I'm not mistaken, Applejack and her family have a history with this tribe. She offers the best chance at averting hostilities."
"Your highness, I must strongly object!" said Swift puffing out his chest.
"Your objection is noted, Captain. If you wish, you may lodge a formal complaint with Princess Luna, however, for the time being I have the final say on our course of action." Swift deflated at the princess's words. Applejack tried not to smirk. "Now then," Cadance continued, "Applejack, please accompany me to the eastern barricade. We will offer a truce and hopefully meet with the tribe's representatives there."
With a smile, Applejack followed the princess out of the building and across the town to the barricade. Along with the military unit, most of the town's people had also gathered to see what the commotion was about. A massive cloud of dust that Applejack assumed to be an indication of a great number of buffalo was rising beyond the high, defensive wall.
"Captain, tell your soldiers to lower their weapons immediately," Cadance said calmly, motioning to the top of the wall where several ponies had armed their saddle rifles and had them leveled at the herd below. With a dissatisfied grunt, Captain Swift relayed the princess's order. Cadance watched until every soldier disarmed his or her weapon. "Now please remain here and keep your unit under control while we deal with this situation."
Applejack escorted the princess to the nearest gate. Before the unicorn sentry could raise it, Swift made one last attempt to derail them. "I will not allow a princess to approach a potentially hostile herd without an armed escort."
Cadance halted for a moment and shot an inquiring glance at Applejack. "That'd only make things worse, Princess," she said, "The buffalo are an honorable people. They won't attack anyone who isn't threatening them."
"Very well. We shall go as we are," Cadance stated. She managed to put enough finality into her words that Swift was stalled long enough for them exit through the gate. Applejack remembered being on the business end of a herd of buffalo, but the second time was no less intimidating. She gulped as the gate closed behind them with a clang.
"I am Princess Mi Amore Cadenza," Cadance declared, "I wish to meet with your chieftain to discuss a possible alliance." The buffalo shifted restlessly. For a while, nothing happened. A drop of sweat tickled as it slid down Applejack's ear. She was suddenly acutely aware at just how much time was in a second. Finally, several buffalo shuffled aside, and the massive Chief Thunderhooves emerged.
"Ask him if Little Strongheart will speak with us as well," Applejack murmured to Cadance.
Without missing a beat, the princess raised her voice, "I believe you know my friend here. She asks that one named Little Strongheart also be present for these talks."
The chief took a moment to consider Applejack. Recognition, and perhaps a hint of relief, spread across his face. He turned to the side and nodded. A moment later, a small, female buffalo also emerged from the herd. Together, they approached the ponies.
Thunderhooves spoke first, in a deep, resonating voice. "You say you come to make peace, but you bring a terrible scourge with you. Many of my people believe we would be safe from the changelings' wrath if we only cut ties with your kind."
An inauspicious start.
Applejack's heart hammered in her chest. She glanced at Strongheart, but the young buffalo deflected her gaze. Cadance's voice rang out, rivaling the buffalo chief for volume, if not impressiveness. "And what do you think, Chief?" Applejack had to keep herself from wincing. That was a very aggressive question. It forced Thunderhooves to declare his intentions far earlier than might be reasonable.
The chief was indeed taken aback for a moment. He shared a short glance with Little Strongheart, his expression sad. Then he lowered his head, saying, "I think that war would be bad for my people. And it is the chief's responsibility to do what is right for his people." He did not quite speak loud enough for anyone but the four emissaries to hear.
Cadance stepped forward, also lowering her head so she could look into the buffalo's face. "War is always bad," she said, "But the right path for your people is not always the safest. Stand with us now, and I swear to you, the ponies will be at your side in your time of need. But mark these words." The princess stood up tall and let her voice carry "I do not offer the trade of one favor for another. I ask only that you help your neighbors, because it is right. And I give you my word that we shall do what is right by you. For no other reason than that it is right." Here, Cadance turned her head to look back at the ponies who watched. Applejack was fairly certain her words were meant for a certain Captain.
Thunderhooves let out a heavy sigh. "I know you are right, Princess. But many of my people will still contend that we must look out for our tribe and our land first. I do not believe I can sway them."
"Well you're the chief ain't you?" Applejack said, "You're the one who makes the decision."
Little Stongheart shook her head. "That is not our way. The Chief may have a great deal of influence, but he cannot order the members of our tribe. He simply acts as our voice."
Applejack's ears drooped. "And you're sayin' that your tribe ain't gonna help us."
Thunderhooves closed his eyes, resigned. "I am sorry."
After a moment of tense silence, Cadance relented. "Very well," she said stiffly and turned back to the barricade.
Applejack was numb. She had been sure that they could come to an agreement. It was a stinging blow. She was just turning to follow Cadance when Strongheart called, "Wait!"
Cadance and Applejack paused, looking back. The young buffalo had turned to her chief. "You are the voice of our people, but that does not mean you have to do as they say. And neither do I." Strongheart, true to her name, stood up straight in front of her entire tribe and shouted "I stand with our neighbors!" Then she came to stand next to Applejack. "Because it is right."
For a moment, everything was completely still. Ponies and Buffalo alike held their breath, waiting for the Chief's reaction. Slowly, he raised his head to regard Strongheart. Another drop of sweat tickled the inside of Applejack's ear, but she dared not move to wipe it away. As she watched, Thunderhooves, with a few lumbering steps, reversed and turned his back on Appaloosa.
"He's still not convinced?" Applejack muttered, "Of all the--"
"Shh," Cadance silenced her gently, holding up her wing for emphasis. Applejack focused back on the buffalo chief. He hadn't moved any further away, but was just standing there, facing his tribe.
Then he spoke. "Brothers and Sisters!" he boomed, "Your lives are not mine to risk. Any of you who wish to leave may go in peace. . . But Little Strongheart is correct and I cannot simply leave our Pony neighbors to fend for themselves. So I will stand in defense of Appaloosa. My tribe, I ask you now to lend us your strength. Stand with me! And together we will show the changelings the might of the Buffalo and teach them that our land will not fall to their blight!"
The bovine crowd erupted in a chorus of deep whoops and cheers, accompanied by the thunderous roar of stomping hooves. Their enthusiasm seized Applejack and she leaped, twisting in the air and adding her own voice to the cheers that were now rising from the Pony barricade. She noticed that a significant number of buffalo were breaking off, from the cheering crowd, heading back toward their camp. In the back of her mind, Applejack knew that most of those who stayed had probably already supported the chief and hadn't needed convincing, but it felt like no less of a victory. Furthermore, Chief Thunderhooves's speech and the rallying of the buffalo had raised the ponies' spirits. For now, they were full of hope, and Applejack had seen battles won with less.
The chief turned with a ferocious smile and strode up to a grinning Cadance, saying, "Come, princess. We have a battle to plan."
The next morning found Applejack sitting with the other earth pony sergeants in a large pavilion while Captain Swift gave them their briefing. He paraded back and forth in front of a large map of the surrounding area, occasionally indicating a specific location.
"Our primary objective is to defend the orchards. Most of the unicorns will be occupied with the defense there so you and the pegasi will bear the brunt of the fighting. The town itself is our secondary objective. A few unicorn squads will be positioned there, as will our buffalo allies. In order minimize the pressure on Appaloosa, we will attempt to drive the majority of the swarm into the rock formations to the north. That is where your squads will be posted. The rocks will provide you with cover from metorite attacks, but will also make it easier to be cut off, so don't get caught up in skirmishes. Stay focused on the larger battle. Should retreat be necessary, you will fall back to the orchard and assist in the defense there until you receive new orders." Swift stopped his pacing to stand in front of the map and delivered his final comments. "Scouts report the swarm is seventy leagues away, so we expect the attack before nightfall. Check your individual assignments," he indicated a list tagged up next to the map, "Report to the medical station for tagging and get to your posts. Good luck everypony. Dismissed."
Applejack stood and went to the map with the other officers. It was always easy to find her initials on these alphabetized lists. Her orders were to link up with a heavy weapons squad on the primary firing line. The orange pony gave a dissatisfied grunt. A position on the primary firing line was one of the most dangerous assignments as they were often the first positions targeted. She told herself that it wasn't just Swift being petty over the way she had gone over his head with the princess. It was just a job that needed doing and her squad was more than capable. But after some consideration, Applejack realized she might be able to turn the situation to her advantage. She scanned through the list again to find which squad was attached to Big Mac's, then searched the crowd of sergeants until she found who she was looking for.
"Hey, Qucksilver, don't suppose you'd mind switching assignments with me," she called.
The other officer paused to check what she'd be getting herself into, then shook her head with a smile. "You know that's against regulations," she said.
Applejack just snorted, saying, "Ah know, but don't ya think the pony who saved your flank from a burning airship deserves a little special treatment?"
"Well when you put it that way, I guess I might 'accidentally' set up at the wrong post," Quicksilver said.
Applejack thanked the other sergeant and went off to assemble her squad in as high of spirits as was possible before a fight. It would be good to have Big Mac nearby during the battle. She could count on him to watch her back and she could be sure he was safe.
Her squad was just packing up the last of their gear as she trotted up. Applejack took a moment to look over her squad mates. Their silent efficiency spoke of their nervousness, but they also moved with purpose. Autumn double checked the contents of her medic's bag with a practiced eye. Dusty withdrew a cleaning rod from his rifle's barrel in a quick fluid motion and set the weapon on it's saddle mount. Star Gazer and Glitter were helping each other strap their close-combat blades to their hind hooves. Lancer swung his grenade bandoleer over a shoulder and looked up as Applejack approached.
"What's the word Buck Sergeant?" he asked.
Applejack set to arming herself as she briefed her squad on their assignment. The familiarity of the routine brought forth the familiar, cold and controlled mindset that accompanied battle. It was always slightly unsettling, but long months of war had honed her ability to put all negative emotions aside. As a veteran soldier, she knew how to focus on the job, trust her instincts, and absorb the terrors of combat. It was not good, but it was necessary. The war left no room for worries about her mental and spiritual well being. The soldier's only concern could be getting through the next battle.
Once she was ready, Applejack led her squad to the medical station. A squad of unicorns was busy tagging the pony combatants with a spell that made them pulse with a low, green light. The changelings couldn't reproduce the glow and they seemed to have difficulty in distinguishing green from surrounding colors. So, not only did the tagging perfectly counter their shape changing ability, it also helped to break up the ponies' outlines, acting as a basic camouflage.
The process took a bit longer than Applejack was comfortable with and by the time her squad was tagged, the sun had already crested and was descending toward the western horizon. In the back of her mind, she knew there was probably plenty of time before the swarm arrived. Still, it's difficult not to hurry when you know an army of creatures intent on killing you is approaching. That thought seemed to be on everypony's mind as Applejack led her squad out of the town. There wasn't much more the Appaloosans could do to fortify their town, but the ponies who had elected to stay still seemed to be finding ways to occupy themselves. Stockpiling food and water, transporting weapons, sharpening extra stakes for barricades. It didn't matter if the task was unnecessary so long as it let them believe they were preparing for the assault.
The soldiers left the town behind in short order, heading out into the rocky labyrinth to the north. It took a while for Applejack to reconcile the landmarks with the layout she'd seen on the map, but with some direction from the soldiers who were there she managed to find the heavy weapons squad. They were set up on the top of a tall outcropping. The squad consisted of three, two-pony teams. In each team, one member bore the swarm-buster cannon and the other loaded and fired the gun. Big Mac's strength made him perfect for carrying the massive weapon. He looked rightly intimidating under the huge gun, but, under the circumstances, that just made him an even more welcome sight.
"Howdy, brother," Applejack said. The red stallion turned to smile at her by way of greeting but said nothing. He was even quieter than usual before a battle. Applejack didn't press her sibling. Over the years, she'd learned that his silence was sometimes more valuable. There had been several one-sided conversations that wound up leading her to just the right conclusion. Unfortunately, this time they had no time for their usual discourse. A cry from one of the heavy weapon gunners drew the squads' attention to a black cloud in the distance. It contorted as it moved across the desert like a great, dark amoeba. The swarm was here.
"Alright folks, it's almost party time. Everyone spread out and find some cover," Applejack ordered. Once her squad was settled into position, she found a good spot for herself where the rock formation jutted up, providing some protection. With a twist of her hips, the special mount for her rifle swung the weapon out in a tight arc that ended with the butt of the weapon resting on top of her shoulder. It was an ingenious design, thought up by Princess Luna when she was still in exile as Nightmare Moon. An intricate enchantment allowed the rifle to be aimed and fired as if it were part of it's wielder's body so ponies could move freely and fire at the same time.
Kneeling, she rested the barrel of her rifle on the stone in front of her and waited. All eyes were on the approaching swarm. Sweat beaded on Applejack's forehead. The heat of daytime was just beginning to wane, but the rocks had been baking all day. The warmth they gave off was enough make the ponies uncomfortable, but nopony would break the silence to complain. Hours past. The sun crawled lower and lower until it touched the horizon, casting a red light across the sand.
Something was wrong. Finally, Star Gazer gave voice to question on everypony's mind. "Why are they moving so slow?"
"Could be they're waiting for nightfall," Autumn said.
"Maybe," Applejack replied with a frown. Something about the situation nagged at her. She dug her binoculars out of her saddlebag to take a closer look. The changelings were flying in a tight formation, so close together that they created a solid wall of chitin and fangs. It was a strange tactic. Usually they approached in a loose formation, making the ponies' explosives and bullets less effective. "They're up to somethin'. Stay sharp everypony."
Movement to the south of the swarm caught Applejack's eye. With her binoculars, she could see that the pegasi squadrons were launching. The battle was underway. Machine guns flashed, their chatter muffled by the distance. Applejack watched as black specks tumbled off the swarm. A few groups of changelings broke off to engage their attackers, slinging beams of green energy at the ponies, but the pegasi clearly had the advantage. The bulk of the swarm changed course, moving straight towards the rocks where the earth ponies waited.
"They're almost in range. Get those cannons ready!" Applejack called over her shoulder.
"What are they doing now?" Star Gazer said.
Applejack turned back to see the swarm descending rapidly. About twenty meters from the ground, the swarm split and a gigantic black thing emerged like a maggot hatching from an egg. It resembled a four-legged spider with a long abdomen which it held up, towering over its grotesque, insectoid head. A long, jagged horn protruded above seven multifaceted, green eyes and two sets of gigantic wings churned the air as it descended. It's clawed feet impacted the ground with a dull thud, sending a tremor through the ground.
"What in tarnation is that!?" Dusty shouted.
"That's a big problem," Star Gazer replied weakly.
Another squadron of pegasi swooped down toward the monstrosity, guns blazing. It's thick exoskeleton didn't seem phased by the ponie's bullets, but it's massive head swiveled to track the pegasi. It's horn began to glow green and suddenly, a huge gout of flame spewed out with a roar to engulf the flying ponies.
"Woah!" Lancer shouted with evident shock.
Applejack turned to her brother, "Big Mac, is that thing in range?"
"Okay, ya'll know what to do."
Applejack covered her ears as the heavy weapons squad opened fire. The cannons' bright yellow, glowing projectiles arced toward the changeling beast. Other squads up and down the line must have had the same idea. An impressive volley of cannon rounds erupted from the rock formation. At the apex of their arc, each round split into five smaller ones, filling the sky with brilliant trails of light. Some of the projectiles detonated on the surrounding swarm but most impacted directly on the giant changeling. Applejack had to turn away from the intense, flashing explosions. Their muffled thunder followed after a brief lag. The earth pony looked back, expecting to find a crater where the creature had been. Instead, the changeling stood completely unscathed.
For a minute, Applejack just stared, dumbfounded. That thing had just eaten the most destructive force that the earth ponies could throw and it didn't even look like it had noticed. It's mass made it seem like it moved in slow motion as it lifted one of its legs to take a step toward Appaloosa.
"What should we do sarge?" Star Gazer's question shook Applejack back into her commander's mindset.
"There's nothing we can do to stop that thing. The unicorns might be able to stop it, but we have to keep the rest of that swarm occupied." Her squad mates nodded, but they were shaken by the monstrosity's apparent invulnerability. If they were going to survive, Applejack had to snap them out of it. "Hey! Focus! The pegasi are pushing the changelings this way and we gotta job to do. Dusty and Lancer, aim for groups and hit them before they split up. Glitter and Star, you take any who get in close. Autumn, you watch our back, keep an escape rout open."
The ponies regained a degree of confidence once they had their orders. Satisfied, Applejack settled back against her rock and watched the pegasi drive the changelings toward them. The swarm-busters were firing in earnest now, lobbing round after round into the swarm. Changelings tumbled out of the sky, crippled by shrapnel or shockwave, but there were always more to come. It only took a few minutes before they had pushed far enough that Applejack had to start taking shots at them. She relaxed into the recoil of her weapon, squeezing off three round bursts, each time leading her target with a practiced eye. She didn't keep count of her kills, but it seemed like she was reloading too often.
For the first few minutes of the battle, the changelings were primarily concerned with the pegasi, but they couldn't ignore the volley's of missiles forever. A small group of the creatures broke off from the aerial battle to descend on the earth ponies.
"Lancer!" Applejack called.
"I see em, sarge!"
Gunshots thundered against Applejack's ears as Dusty and Lancer opened fire on the approaching squadron. Two went down in splashes of green gore, but at least ten were still screaming toward the ponies. Applejack took three shots at the leading changeling, missing each time. Why was it always harder to hit an enemy that was flying straight at you? Finally, the earth pony was able to clip her target, sending it tumbling into the desert sands. More gunshots rang out as Glitter and Star Gazer added their bullets to the volley. Five more changelings were felled, but there was no time to finish the few that were still coming. Brilliant green coronas materialized in front of them and for a heart-stopping moment Applejack thought they would detonate, but they must have been planning to land and overwhelm the ponies with numbers. The tactic might have worked if more of them had made it through the ponies' barrage. As it was, only four came crashing down atop the rock formation.
Applejack shrugged against the small hunks of stone that pelted out from the nearest impact. Before the air could clear, the pony sergeant leaped into the nearest changeling's crater. Changelings were always stunned momentarily after a hard insertion like that, providing a small opportunity to attack. The pony sergeant landed, twisted her body in the familiar motion, raised her hind legs and struck the changeling as it was staggering to its feet. There was a click as the mechanism of her hoof knives activated, snapping the blades forward to puncture the creature's chitinous hide. The creature made a sound somewhere between a growl and a gurgle then fell silent as it crumpled to the ground.
The dust to her left swirled in a blur of motion as another changeling rocketed toward her. Applejack wrenched every muscle in her back as she reared up and twisted out of the way, narrowly avoiding the creature's jagged horn. In a moment of poor judgment, the changeling drone skidded to a stop, sending pieces of gravel cascading over the edge of the rock face. It spun quickly, it's green eyes flashing strangely in the red glow of sunset until it's head exploded, sending globs of sticky blood in every direction. Two more gunshots followed the one that had coincided with the changelings death. A quick glance showed the pony sergeant that her squad had dealt with the last two enemies. A similar scene was playing out up and down the front line as the swarm fled from the pegasi squadrons. Green fireballs streaked past, a few of them detonating and blowing chunks of stone off of the labyrinth's walls. The din of battle rose up from below as the other squads sprung the trap.
Applejack wasn't sure which of her squadmates had shouted the warning, but that didn't keep her from throwing herself flat as a meteorite bomb slammed into their outcropping. It wasn't a direct hit, luckily, but the blast was deafening. The ponies covered their heads as rocky shrapnel rained down.
"Everypony okay?!" Applejack shouted over the ringing in her ears. There were a few grunts in the affirmative, and no screams of pain. That would have to be good enough. "The swarm busters aren't gonna do any more good here. Let's get them down where there's some cover. Star, Glitter, you two take point. The rest o' y'all stay close to the heavies. I've got the rear. Ya ready to move Big Mac?" She looked over to where her brother was struggling back to his feet. The big stallion nodded and they moved out.
There was no shortage of enemies down in the labyrinth, but the close quarters restricted their movement, making them relatively easy pickings for the saddle rifles. The battle was well under way now. The ponies waded through the carnage gunning down most of their targets before they had a chance to engage. Occasionally, a meteorite bomb would strike worryingly close, but the rocks prevented them from getting a good angle. The shrapnel from the explosions was still dangerous though, as one of the heavy gunners discovered as he was struck on the shoulder by a good-sized piece. His limping slowed them down slightly, but they eventually made it to an area near the labyrinth's edge where the rock formations were lower. It was the perfect place to set up the swarm busters, but it was already swirling with a knot of struggling ponies and changelings.
The battle was going poorly as most of the pony squads were pikeponies. Their heavy armor and long spears made them perfect for guarding narrow passes and stopping charges, but out in the open like they were, the swift and agile drones had the advantage. They would dart in past the menacing tips of the ponies' pikes to sink their horns or fangs into the armor gaps. The ponies needed help, and fast.
"Pick your targets, but be careful of the friendlies!" Applejack ordered. Her squad opened fire, taking the changelings by surprise. She watched one after another fall before her iron sights, soaking the sand in green blood. A number of them took flight, buzzing in a semicircle to come at the squad from the side. Applejack drew a bead on one that seemed to be gunning for her in particular. She waited until it was only about ten feet away before taking the shot. Just as she urged her rifle to fire, the flying creature gave a quick downward stroke of its wings, propelling it upward in the blink of an eye. Even as Applejack's bullet whizzed harmlessly under it, the changeling drove down at the pony sergeant, hooves first. Applejack winced away from the attack, managing to take it on her shoulder instead of her head. Pain erupted in the joint as the impact smashed her down into the sand. Before she could fight back, her opponent brought one hoof arcing over to strike her across the jaw. The blow might have broken her neck if the ground hadn't been there to stop her head. Any thought of defending herself was consumed by pain and disorientation. She knew she should move her legs but couldn't remember how. She could see the leering face of the changeling standing triumphantly above her. It leaned down, lowering it's razor sharp fangs to her neck. Primal fear rose up in Applejack's chest as she watched death close in.
So this was it. She'd finally run out of luck. She considered closing her eyes, but decided she wanted to use them as long as she could. Then, just as the tip of the pointed teeth touched her skin, a shadow passed over her face as something collided with the changeling. Her would-be killer was flung backwards, propelled by a powerful kick. Then Big Mac lunged over her toward the drone. It tried to scuttle away, but wasn't fast enough as the stallion stalked forward. His face was the image of rage as he reared onto his hind legs. He brought his front hooves down with all his weight, crushing the changeling with a squishy crack.
Then Autumn was standing over her. Applejack was sure the medic was trying to be gentle as she turned her head from side to side, but the movement brought on a wave of excruciating pain.
"No concussion," she said, "But her jaw might be fractured."
"Ah'm fine, ah'm fine," Applejack said, fighting not to slur her words. Despite her bodies protests, she sat up, took a moment for the world to stop spinning, then came to her feet. The rest of the changelings must have fled. One of the pikeponies trotted up to them.
"I thought we were done. We owe you one sergeant," he said, saluting with his spear.
"It's nothin'" Applejack replied, "Ya'll woulda done the same fer me. We'd be much obliged if ya'll could help us defend this heavy squad. We could--" BZZZZZZZZAAAAAHHHHHH
The noise that interrupted her was somewhere between a roar and a buzz and so loud the ponies all dropped, clamping their hooves to their ears. It didn't take long to identify the source of the noise. During the battle, the giant changeling monstrosity had moved up on the labyrinth. There was no sign of the pegasi that had been harassing it. They'd either been recalled or shot down. All at once, the changeling swarm took flight in a flurry of wings and chitin leaving the ponies standing in absolute silence.
"I thought that thing was heading toward Appaloosa," Star Gazer said in a hushed tone.
As her words trailed off, the monster's horn began to glow.
"Get down!" Applejack shrieked as the changeling projected a beam of green fire down onto the battlefield. Rock was blown apart and melted to slag under the intensity of the blast. Screams of fear and pain shattered the stillness. The beam swept across the labyrinth, leaving a rift of destruction in its wake.
"Orders sarge?" came Dusty's voice.
Applejack glanced from the beam, which was plowing toward them at a steady rate, to the open desert between them and Appaloosa. They'd have no cover out there, but it didn't look like that would matter anyway.
"Get back to the town! With any luck the unicorns might have a way to stop that thing!" The other ponies hesitated at the prospect of running across so much open terrain. "It's our only chance! Get a move on!"
Glitter was the first one to start running and the others followed quickly. Big Mac simply hauled the wounded member of his squad onto his back next to his swarm buster cannon and then took off across the desert. Applejack followed behind them. Her injuries made the run a living hell. Every stride sent a lance of pain through her shoulder and her head throbbed in rhythm with her gait. As the sun dwindled behind the horizon, it was easier to make out the gentle, green pulsing of other magically tagged ponies fleeing the terrible power of the giant changeling. There didn't seem to be very many. An explosion of green blossomed to Applejack's left, then another, closer on the other side. The changeling drones were bombing the retreating ponies. Applejack gritted her teeth and tried to put on more speed. She could see the barricade, but it might as well have been a hundred miles away. Another explosion, this one close enough to shower her with stinging sand. Her breath echoed in her ears and everything else seemed to be muted. Lancer swerved to avoid another meteorite bomb. The impact almost threw him off balance, but he managed to recover. They were almost there. Tiny points of light rose up from the town's fortifications as swarm buster missiles streaked toward the circling changelings. Almost there.
A flash of green burst in front of Applejack's eyes and and a shock wave shuddered through her body, rattling every bone on the way through. Then she was weightless. Looking down, she saw the clear, desert sky beyond her hooves. The only sound was the wind rushing past her ears. Her muscles relaxed. It would have been peaceful, but some nagging detail told her that everything was all wrong. Then the ground came out of nowhere, slamming into injured shoulder and everything went black.
The pain was the first thing to return. Then voices, fading and coming back like she was being repeatedly dunked under water.
"--an't just leave her!"
"Autumn, gi-- me somethi--"
"--e's alive but --ot breathing. --arge! Sergeant! APPLEJACK!!"
She gasped, drawing air painfully through her raw throat. Even her lungs were soar. She opened her eyes, but everything was a double image. Slowly, she managed to force her eyes to focus. Autumn's amber eyes were huge, filled with worry. And something else.
"Why are you lookin' at me like that, private?" the pony sergeant asked.
Tears spilled down the other pony's cheeks. "Sarge, your leg."
Applejack leaned her head to the side so she could look down. There was a lot of blood. Was all that hers? It took a moment for her to comprehend what she was looking at but it slowly became clear.
A sort of grim humor washed through her. "What're ya talkin' about? There's no leg there."
From somewhere came a loud sob. Applejack looked around. Her squad was all there, standing over here. Star Gazer was crying.
"Where's Big Mac?"
"Ah'm here," Relief swelled as she heard her brother's deep, comforting voice. As he limped into view, she saw that his swarm buster was mangled but still attached to his back. He was no longer carrying the injured squadmate. Somehow, Applejack knew he was dead.
Applejack cringed and looked back the way they had come. The monster changeling was almost in range, moving with ponderous, inevitable steps. The remainder of the swarm was landing, coalescing around the monster's heels. Steel crept into the earth pony's spine as she realized what she had to do.
"Dusty," she called without taking her gaze off the approaching changeling.
"You're in charge now. Get everypony back to town."
"You're coming too," Dusty said defiantly, "Big Mac can carry you."
"That'll just make the bleeding worse. Ah'm not gonna make it."
"Then we'll take it slow," her squad mate's voice broke as he suppressed a sob.
"Ah'm not arguin' with you!" Applejack shouted. "Look, the swarm's on the ground now. They're gonna march right up to Appaloosa and there's nothing the pegasi can do about it. They'll kill anypony left out here. I've spent this war keepin' ya'll alive, and I will NOT have you die on account o' me. Besides, they're gonna need your help with the defense. Now get a move on! Go!"
Dusty fell silent, and clamped his eyes shut. Still, a few tears managed to leak out over his muzzle. It looked like he might protest again, but he checked himself. Then, slowly, he turned saying "It's been an honor sarge."
Star Gazer looked like she would argue too but Applejack caught her eye and shook her head gently. It was a simple gesture, more of a request than an order. She knew her squad would respect her wishes, no matter how much it hurt.
The younger mare dropped her gaze, tears wetting the sand beneath her face. "G'bye Buck Sergeant."
"Okay ponies," Dusty said, adding the edge of command to his voice, "Let's go."
Then, with a patter of hooves on sand, they were gone, heading for safety. Applejack leaned back, resting her head on the ground and gazing up at the stars. There was a heavy thump as Big Mac plopped down next to her.
"You should go with 'em."
Applejack couldn't help but smile. Her brother, stubborn to the very end. Well, hopefully it wouldn't be his end. If she wasn't gone before the horde of changelings caught up with them, she'd make him leave. He might be stubborn, but he wouldn't throw his life away. He'd have a chance to get back to the town. Maybe even make it through the rest of the war and start a family. Heck, there was no reason he couldn't rebuild Sweet Apple Acres. Applejack wasn't sure what the chances for any of that were, but she was dying. She deserved to indulge in comforting thoughts. Another idea floated to the front of her mind.
"Big Mac," she said.
"Come back for me after the battle. . . And. . . get me back to the farm. Ya know, someday when this war is over. Put me in the Apple Orchard, by Mom and Dad."
The gentle weight of Big Mac's hoof pressed against her own.
"Yup," he said.
With a contentedness she hadn't felt since the war began, Applejack closed her eyes and drifted. For a while, she was back in Sweet Apple Acres amidst the fragrant trees that were her pride and joy. Soft, fertile soil mixed with hard packed dirt under her hooves. Wind sighed through the leaves and sunlight broke through the foliage, dappling the ground in swaying patterns of light and shadow. Everything was familiar and comforting and peaceful. Perfect.
A nudge against her injured shoulder brought her out of her reverie, back to the broken body that was lying in the middle of the desert. Her leg hurt. Confusion racked her mind as she remembered that she didn't have that leg anymore. How could she still feel pain there?
Big Mac nudged her again.
"What're ya doing that fer?" she asked, almost irritably.
In response, her brother pointed back toward Appaloosa. Applejack looked up to see a group of green, pulsing lights headed toward them. More tagged ponies. But why would they be running toward the giant changeling? As they drew nearer, Big Mac waved.
"Cousin!" Braeburn exclaimed. "What're you doing out-- oh no." The Appaloosan skidded to a stop, spraying sand over Applejack. It was irritating, but she was too tired to say anything. "Hey!" Braeburn shouted, "We need help over here! Tell me one of you knows some healing magic." Applejack's thoughts stirred sluggishly, like cold molasses. Magic? That meant unicorns.
Somepony else trotted up.
"Dear Celestia," they said in an unfamiliar voice.
"Can you help her?" Braeburn asked.
"I think so, hold her still."
Applejack closed her eyes against a white glow. A sudden tingling in her leg nearly made her yelp. It was like a thousand ants were crawling over her thigh, and then inside her leg. She let out an involuntary moan as the strange sensation engulfed the limb. Then the tingling evolved into a sharp ache that quickly receded along with the glow. The earth pony looked down. The blood was still there, but the ragged edges of torn muscle and bone had been replaced with a smooth stump. Sudden weariness overwhelmed her and she sank back down, letting her vision blur.
"She's still lost a lot of blood. You should get her back to the medical station," the unfamiliar voice continued.
"Eeyup." Applejack felt her brother's gentle strength as he pulled her onto his back. It was an uncomfortable position. It took more effort than she had expected, but the pony sergeant finally managed to push herself up so that her front legs hung around Big Mac's thick neck. The big stallion started toward the barricade at a steady trot.
"It's a good thing we found you." Braeburn said, matching pace with them. His voice had an edge of excitement to it.
Applejack grunted in agreement with as much enthusiasm as she could manage. "What're ya'll doin' out here anyways?"
Her cousin gave a wolfish grin as they trotted along. "The unicorns think they can combine their spells into something powerful enough to take out that giant changeling. Me and a couple other Appaloosans went along to make sure none of the drones got any ideas." Here, the stallion tilted his head toward the battered-looking saddle rifle he wore. Applejack didn't ask how he'd gotten the weapon. The ponies had brought a few spares, but it was entirely possible Braeburn's had come from a casualty. "Looks like that won't be a problem though, the bugs are sticking to that thing like flies to honey." Applejack twisted her neck, ignoring the accompanying pain, to see that the swarm had indeed gathered completely around their gigantic counterpart. A few drones buzzed around the thing's towering abdomen, but most clustered at it's feet.
"Not sure why they don't just fly over and attack now," Braeburn concluded.
"The drones ain't a match for the pegasi, so they're coming in on the ground," Applejack replied, "But they have to wait until the big one takes down the town's defenses."
"Shoot cuz, you oughta be some kind of strategist or somthing. Anywho, I'm just glad they're not bombing us anymore. Hey, they're startin'!" the Appaloosan halted in his tracks to look back where a brilliant orb of white light was gathering in front of the unicorn squad. As the orb grew, sparks began to arc across its surface. The air hummed with the raw power that the ponies were conjuring. This could work., Applejack thought.
But the display had drawn the changeling's notice as well. It's insectoid head swiveled, pointing its wicked horn directly at the threat. Applejack's heart hammered in her chest as she watched both ponies and changeling gather power. "Come on, come on," she growled.
What happened next took place in the blink of an eye. The beam of flame issued from the changeling's horn, illuminating the night with a green glow. Applejack thought it was over when the beam struck the ground in front of the ponies, but somehow they managed to complete the spell. A pulse of energy sent a shockwave bubbling through the air as the orb of white-hot power shot forth. It seemed to be moving in slow motion as it devoured the space between it and the changeling. Then it erupted in a flash that would put Celestia's midday sun to shame. For an instant everything was silence, then a crack of super-heated air expanding sent Applejack and her family members sprawling. The mare tumbled from her brother's back. She tried to catch herself, but she wasn't used to having only three legs and she crashed face first into the sand.
She didn't pass out again, but it was a close call. With eyes clenched shut against the pain in her head, she rolled to a sitting position. Once she was stable she opened her eyes. Big Mac and Braeburn were in a similar state nearby. There was no sound. She brought one hoof up to rub at her ear, but it came away with a few drops of blood. A ruptured eardrum. Applejack couldn't worry about that now. She looked up, expecting to find the charred remains of a giant changeling. Instead, there was a scene of absolute chaos.
The unicorn's blast hadn't hit directly. One of the monstrosity's legs had been blown off and it currently lay, struggling on its side. The swarm was in disarray, running and flying in every direction. A blackened crater scarred the desert where the unicorns had been. A few tattered bodies were scattered around the crater. Applejack doubted they would rise again.
BZZZZZZZZAAAAAHHHHHH The changeling's roar was more pitiful than intimidating now that it was lying in a rapidly spreading pool of it's own blood.
"Is that it then?" Braeburns voice was faint, but accompanied by various other noises as Applejack's hearing returned. As if to spite the stallion's hopeful question, the changeling dug one of its remaining legs into the sand and dragged its massive body closer to the Apples and Appaloosa.
A sudden wave of hopelessness washed through Applejack, compounding her fatigue. With a groan, she sank down, resting her chin in the grit. "There's just no stopin' it."
"Ah can do it."
Both Applejack and Braeburn turned to Big Mac without comprehension. There had a been a note of finality in the big stallion's words that scared Applejack.
"What do ya mean you can do it?" the orange mare asked with trepidation.
"Ah'll stop it."
"And just how're ya gonna do that?" Applejack said, her fear bringing a angry edge to her voice. There was something in her brother's eyes. Sadness, but determination. She'd never seen him look quite like that and for some reason it was terrifying.
With a toss of his head, Big Mac indicated his mangled swarm buster cannon. "You know that ain't gonna work," Applejack continued, "It's so beat up all the missiles'll are likely to explode--" Her voice trailed off as Big Mac locked his emerald eyes with hers. Horrible understanding dawned as she looked into her brother's face. "No," she said weakly, "No, you can't do that. We'll think of something else."
The only argument Big Mac gave was a slight shake of his head. He was right. The swarm was disrupted for now, but they'd soon return to the giant changeling and it wasn't likely they would allow another strike. If something was to be done, it would have to be now.
"Ya just can't--" her throat constricted on the last words. Suddenly, the big stallion pulled Applejack into a crushing embrace. Her vision swam as tears began flowing uncontrollably down her cheeks. She squeezed him back, desperately, burying her face in his soft, red hide. "This ain't the way it's supposed to be," she said, her whole body convulsing with sobs.
"Nope," Big Mac said quietly. Then he gently extricated himself, saying "Braeburn."
The other stallion sniffed and nodded. "I'll get her back. Don't worry."
With a grunt, Big Mac turned back to his sister one last time. "Love you."
The words broke Applejack's heart. It took all of her will, but she managed to steady her voice long enough to say, "Love you too."
With his signature, peaceful smile he turned toward the lamed changeling and sprinted. Applejack had never seen him run so fast. It must have been nearly two hundred yards to where the monstrosity lay. It didn't seem to be aware of him at all until he was only a few strides from it's face. The thing growled, but it was already too late. Big Mac disappeared under the thing's head lodging the dysfunctional cannon up against it's flexible neck. For a moment, nothing happened. Briefly, Applejack hoped the cannon just hadn't worked and she'd see her brother crawl out and come running back.
But then the orange flash of an explosion shattered her hopes. Green blood splattered up against the changeling's carapace. A second later, the dull thud of detonation reached Applejack and Braeburn, followed by a second thud as the monster's head dropped to the ground. It's whole form went limp and it seemed to sink a bit into the sand.
Big Macintosh was gone, but grief would have to wait as the swarm roared to life and charged straight at Appaloosa in a last ditch effort to overwhelm the city. Most of the drones were on the ground and thundering directly at the two ponies still caught in the no-man's land.
"We gotta move!" Braeburn shouted, yanking Applejack's front leg up over his shoulder. They got maybe ten paces before Applejack tripped, dragging them both down. They both looked over their shoulders, watching as certain death closed in on them. The thundering of hooves grew louder and louder. But Applejack noticed it was coming from the wrong direction. Spinning around, she was just in time to see Little Strongheart and Chief Thunderhooves at the head of a hoard of charging buffalo.
Applejack let out an involuntary cry of surprise. The young, female buffalo noticed and veered toward them. "Stay still!" she commanded as she came skidding to a halt next to the ponies. Then they were surrounded in a mass of brown, woolly fur and hammering hooves. Dust filled Applejack's nose and throat until Braeburn pressed a bandanna to her face. And then everything was quiet. Opening her eyes, Applejack saw that the buffalo tribe was decimating the remaining drones, crushing them beneath their heavy bodies or goring them with their sturdy horns. Above them, a few squadrons of pegasi were mopping up any of the creatures that were foolish enough to take wing. The enemy was routed within minutes and they fled back to the east. The battle was over.
The next morning, Applejack was out by the remains of the giant changeling. The nurses had nearly strapped her to the bed to keep her from moving, but, with some help from her squad, she'd managed to slip away. The temporary prosthetic strapped to her stump was ungainly, but she was getting used to it. The changeling's blood had dried into a crusty, brown-green stain on the sand. Applejack wandered back and forth over the site, vaguely aware of other ponies moving about her, collecting the dead from both sides to be disposed of.
Her task was only slightly different. The heat and force of the explosion hadn't left much behind, only a few pieces of shrapnel from the cannon. But Applejack was driven to find something, anything left of her brother that she could take home. In the end, all she could find was his dog tags. They were warped by the explosion and one half of the metal tag had been ripped off leaving the stallion's name abbreviated 'Big Mac.' Applejack found that that suited her just fine and she laced the tag onto the chain where her own hung.
"He did what he had to to protect the family," Braeburn said as he limped gingerly up to stand beside his cousin.
"Eeyup," Applejack said in her best imitation of her brother's inflection.
"What are ya gonna do now?"
Applejack thought for a minute. The grief hadn't really set in yet and for now she was drifting in numbness. "They're sending two more units to garrison the town. My unit is slated for R and R. I guess I'll go and tell Granny Smith and Applebloom in person." A strange mixture of emotions came in response to that thought. The thought of telling her family that Big Mac was gone was almost too much to bear, but at the same time, it would be good to have others to share her grief.
"That's for the best. This kinda news shouldn't come in a letter," Braeburn said.
Applejack grunted and asked, "What about you?"
Her cousin let out a bitter chuckle, "Your captain offered me a position in the unit, but I turned him down." Applejack was happy to hear that. It didn't seem right having another Apple family member in her unit after this tragedy. Braeburn continued, "They're gonna need me here. But you should stop by and visit some more. It's always nice to see family." A small part of Applejack's heart warmed and she smiled at her cousin.
The rest of the week before they left, Applejack spent in the military medical facility where she underwent the delicate process of attaching a permanent, mechanical prosthetic. She was constantly being measured and prodded and fussed over by doctors and engineers alike. Cadance was a frequent visitor and when the time came to bind the replacement limb, the princess insisted on casting the enchantment herself. The finished product was a marvel. It had all the strength and flexibility of her real leg, but it lacked any sense of touch. It didn't take long before she could move around on her own, but it would be a long time before she was fully used to it. After her leave, she was supposed to undergo more rehabilitation, but she would see if there were any string she could pull to get her back into the war with her squad.
Finally, the time came for them to board another armored train bound for Canterlot. Braeburn gave his farewell at the station in the form of a long hug. Applejack promised to visit when she could and then climbed into the train after her squad. The numbness she'd felt after the battle was fading, and she knew she would have to face the grief soon, but she could put it off for the duration of the trip. As the train pulled away, Applejack waved back at her cousin, watching him disappear into the distance. Then she sat back, swaying with the peaceful motion as the tracks rumbled by beneath her.
"Sarge?" Star Gazer broke the silence hesitantly, "Can I ask you something?"
"O'course private," Applejack said.
After a pause, the younger mare said, "You tried sacrificing yourself to save us and your brother. And then he. . ." She looked up at her commanding officer, suddenly unsure if she should continue. Applejack gave her a small nod and motioned for her to keep talking. "He didn't make it. And still probably wouldn't have even if you'd died. So what's the point to all of this? Why all the sacrifices?"
For a moment, Applejack was dumbstruck. The answer to her was so obvious, it had never occurred to her that anypony could have such a wonder. But it made sense. Star Gazer had always given everything a little too much thought than was good for her.
"Well it's simple, Star," the sergeant said, "Ya'll are my family. Maybe not in blood, but yer family all the same." She looked around at the faces of her squadmates and was surprised at the ferocity of the affection she felt for them. This wasn't just a pep talk, it was the truth. A fiery smile lit Applejacks face in response to the simple honesty of the words. "And no matter what happens, you protect your family."
Another swarm had been spotted moving toward Fillydelphia. The smaller, nearby towns would need to be evacuated. Cloudsdale was repelling yet another attack. The fighting there had been almost non-stop since the war began. Supplies and rations would need to be sent to the pegasus city as soon as possible. A small swarm was reportedly lurking somewhere along the major road between Canterlot and Hoofington. The caravan that had left the capital yesterday would have to be warned and rerouted.
The entire war stretched out before Twilight Sparkle, represented by clay figures atop an immense map. Beneath the seeming chaos, she could see the pattern to the conflict, the actions and reactions as ponies and changelings clashed across Equestria. Most of the fighting was concentrated around the northern part of the country, near the capital, but it was slowly spreading south. The trail of destruction was indicated by a series of small red 'X's that marked the place where a town or city had stood before the changelings had annihilated it. One such marker always loomed at the corner of the unicorn's vision. Ponyville. Her home and the first town to burn. The historians would say that this war had started in Canterlot when the changeling queen, Chrysalis, had infiltrated the royal court, but for Twilight, Ponyville would always mark the beginning.
At the time, it had seemed like just another challenge, like confronting the Ursa Minor or even Discord. Dangerous, but temporary. Twilight never realized the scale of the threat, never even considered that her entire life would change in the blink of an eye. And no matter how many ponies told her otherwise, it still felt like her fault. Even after a year and a half, the guilt still lingered. If only she had been stronger or more prepared, she might have been able to defend the town. But she'd failed, and her friends and loved ones had paid the price. Now, her only purpose was to set things right and do all she could to finish this war.
Mostly, that meant putting her organizational skills to use. Princess Luna decided where the various aspects of Equestrian military moved, but it was Twilight's job to make sure they got there swiftly and always had the resources they needed. Additionally, the unicorn coordinated the refugee camps that now encrusted the major cities. It was a monumental job, but Twilight found it almost satisfying.
With a sigh, the lavender pony finished the list of orders she was working on and set down her quill. She was eager to begin executing the checklist, but it was after midnight and everypony in Canterlot was asleep. Twilight knew she should be in bed as well, but it was difficult to pull herself away from the map. There was always that nagging feeling that she might be missing something. A wide yawn interrupted her attempt to further scrutinize the map. The unicorn rubbed her eyes, suddenly realizing how heavy their lids were.
Well, she’d never found anything in previous double-checks. She viciously silenced the little voice in the back of her mind saying, “There’s a first time for everything,” and hopped down from the raised, circular platform that surrounded the map. The war room always seemed eerie when it wasn’t bustling with activity. During the day, the large, tower-top chamber was filled with generals, admirals, strategists, and usually a noble or two. Twilight stopped, as she always did, to admire the view from the southern window. It was almost a form of self-torture, as the ruins of Ponyville lay, clearly visible as a black scar on the pristine landscape. But, night after night, Twilight stood there, reminding herself of her failure.
“You did everything you could.” The unicorn jumped, barely managing to suppress a surprised squeak as Princess Luna spoke. “I apologize. I did not mean to startle you,” the starry-maned princess said.
“You didn’t,” Twilight said quickly, “I mean, I was just . . . how long were you standing there?”
“Not long. But I have seen you like this on many other occasions,” Luna said, her voice soft with sympathy.
Twilight glanced away, “Like what?” she said. Before the words escaped her mouth, she knew that the Princess would see through her feigned ignorance.
“You know of what I speak,” the princess declared, “You blame yourself for the destruction of your home.”
Unlike her sister, Luna had little skill with tact and her bluntness grated against Twilight’s sleep-deprived nerves.” It wasn’t just my home. Over five hundred ponies lived there. And I let them down,” she said sulkily.
“No single pony can take responsibility for all others. Not even my sister nor I. This lesson you must learn, Twilight Sparkle. Sometimes the world is simply thrown out of balance. When that happens, there are always casualties. Blaming yourself for the works of fate leads only to despair.”
An awkward pause ensued. Luna seemed to be expecting some sort of response. Twilight didn’t feel any better, but the cold, logical part of her brain realized that the older mare had a point. And it was still inappropriate to argue with a Princess.
“Of course, your highness,” Twilight said.
Luna raised an eyebrow and Twilight was certain that she knew she was being placated, but she did not continue her lecture. Instead she grunted lightly and said, “I was hoping to speak with you on another matter.” Twilight perked her ears at Luna’s change in tone. Despite the war, the two of them usually interacted informally as friends. When the Princess came to her on business, it was always serious.
“I have a task for you,” the alicorn continued, “It concerns the changelings’ seemingly unlimited number of drones. My sister and I believe their abundance is unnatural and that it may be possible to put an end to their reinforcements.”
“What do you need me to do?” Twilight asked.
“What you do best,” Luna replied, “The library has several tomes describing the changelings and their powers. Start by checking those for anything that could explain their abnormal rate of reproduction. If that yields no results expand your search. I am afraid we have very few leads at the moment, but I am confident in your abilities. Make this your top priority.”
“Yes your highness,” Twilight said as an odd cocktail of emotions began to swirl in her chest. It would be nice to do some research back in the library, but it would be a difficult assignment and she foresaw many sleepless nights.
“Good,” Luna said. Here, she paused, looking uncertain for a moment. “There is one other matter I wished to discuss.”
“Of course, Princess.”
Luna met Twilight’s gaze squarely. For an instant, sadness danced in the alicorn’s midnight eyes. Then she blinked, and there was nothing but a steely resolve. “I have not seen you on the practice field since your initial combat training.”
The young unicorn was taken aback. The Princess had always been one for encouraging guards and soldiers to hone their warriors’ talents, but Twilight had never even considered the notion that Luna would expect her to be able to fight.
“I . . . haven’t really had the time your highness. With my other duties--”
Luna held up her hoof, cutting off Twilight’s train of excuses before it could build momentum. “I know you have been busy,” she said. In a quieter tone, she added, “I also know of your distaste for battle. But your magical talent is surpassed only by my sister and me. You have the potential to be a great warrior, Twilight Sparkle. And you will be needed in the fight before this war is over.”
A lump formed in Twilight’s throat, preventing the stream of protests that immediately jumped to mind. Part of her was glad she couldn’t find the words. The thought of looking like a coward in front of the Princess was almost worse than the thought of being in a battle. But she had to say something. How is somepony supposed to respond to being told that they would have to risk their life for their country? Should she say she was honored? Or that she would do her best? Was there a way to refuse without sounding like she was abandoning her duty? No, Twilight had vowed to do whatever it took to help in the war. But what if she wasn’t good enough? What if she failed again?
“Twilight Sparkle,” Luna’s voice broke into the unicorn’s thoughts, startling her. The princess was giving her an unnerving look. Was that guilt in the alicorn’s eyes? Maybe, but Twilight had never been good at reading other ponies. “My friend,” the Princess continued, “I wish with all my heart that it were not necessary to ask this of you. But I need every asset I can acquire if I am to protect the realm. As such I shall be overseeing your advanced training personally.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Twilight burst out. Luna raised an eyebrow questioningly. “I mean. . . I’m sure there is something more important you could be doing, other ponies you could be helping.”
Luna gave a small smile as she shook her head. “You think I offer you special treatment. And I suppose I do. But not for the reasons you might think. Our friendship is important to me, but it is also important that you be at your best to serve Equestria. And, as I said, there is nopony save my sister and I who surpass you in raw power. My sister is a great ruler, but she is no warrior. Thus it falls to me to see that you reach your potential.”
Any further objections died on Twilight’s lips and the unicorn bowed her head in a nod, praying that the Princess couldn’t see her trembling. Luna let out a breath and said, “Thank you. I am glad you understand. Please meet me in the courtyard tomorrow after breakfast.” Without another word, the alicorn turned and descended from the tower, leaving Twilight alone in the darkness of night.
Twilight woke the next day as light from the dawning sun cascaded into her small chamber. She longed to bury her face in her pillow and fall back asleep, but the moment her mind was awake, it was already abuzz with thoughts and worries. There were a dozen things she had to do and her training with the Princess left no time to make a checklist. With a groan, the lavender unicorn rolled out of bed and walked over to her mirror to make herself presentable, then teleported to the palace kitchen.
After a small breakfast of oats and apples, Twilight reluctantly left the kitchen heading towards the courtyard. She realized that she was stalling by walking instead of teleporting, but she was nervous enough not to care. By the time she arrived, the sun was already peaking over the castle walls, illuminating the massive courtyard. There were a few other ponies in the practice yards, mostly guards executing repetitive drills. Here and there, a few ponies clad in black armor sparred or exercised. Those would be the Starless Knights, Princess Luna’s personal task force. Twilight had always found them a little intense. Luna was waiting by one of the larger sparring rings. With a gulp, Twilight approached the princess.
“Ah, here you are, and just in time. There is somepony I would like you to meet,” Luna said. At a small motion of her head, a black-clad mare seemed to resolve from the shadow of the Princess’s tail. The newcomer was an earth pony with a deep green coat and brown mane and tail. Her posture as much as her outfit indicated that she was one of the Starless Knights. Her eyes were a rich, golden color and sparkled with a cold intelligence as she looked Twilight up and down.
“Twilight Sparkle, this is Marigold. She will be your training partner for today.”
The lavender unicorn attempted friendly greeting, smiling and saying, “Pleased to meet you.” Marigold seemed unimpressed and returned Twilight’s salutation with naught but a curt nod. Seemingly annoyed by the pleasantries, the earth pony trotted off to the opposite side of the ring without another word. Twilight glanced quizzically at Luna but the alicorn merely waved a hoof at the ring.
With a growing sense of apprehension, Twilight followed her opponent. “Let us start by reviewing the basics,” Luna declared, “Marigold will attack, and Twilight will defend. Begin.”
The earth pony was in motion before the Princess even finished her command. She streaked toward Twilight, covering the distance between them in the blink of an eye. The unicorn barely had time to conjure a half-dome force field to stop the charging pony. She braced for the impact, but instead of hitting the magical barrier with full force, Marigold altered her course at the last second, striking at an angle. As the force field repulsed her she planted her front hooves and allowed her hindquarters to swing around, transferring the momentum from her charge into a skidding attack around the barrier. Twilight let out a yelp as the earth pony kicked her in the ankle, striking her hooves out from under her.
"A valiant attempt," Luna said as Twilight stood up painfully, "But your defense was incomplete, and any competent warrior will attack such an obvious opening. Again please." Marigold trotted back to her starting position on the other side of the ring, waiting for the Princess's command. "Begin."
Again, the earth pony darted forward, but Twilight had already raised her shield, a full sphere this time. Marigold slid to a stop a few inches in front of the glistening, scarlet force field. She paused, looking mildly annoyed. For a moment, Twilight felt satisfaction. She had improved her barrier since her defeat at Ponyville. There was no way Marigold could penetrate the powerful magic.
"There," the unicorn said, trying not to sound smug, "A complete defense. Does that mean I win this one?"
Marigold raised an eyebrow and cantered away, out of the ring. With a sigh, Twilight released her concentration on the defense spell. "You may wish to reconsider," came Luna's voice. Startled, Twilight looked after Marigold and found her at a weapons rack, hefting a rather sizable ax. With a squeak, the lavender unicorn snapped her shield back into being just as her opponent hurled the weapon at her. The heavy blade rebounded off the shield and fell to the ground with a clang.
The Starless Knight sauntered over to the ax. Grasping the handle in her teeth, she tilted it upwards. "What are you-- AH!" Twilight exclaimed as the glare from the ax's blade flared in her eyes. She lost her concentration on the barrier spell and in the next instant, pain erupted from Twilight's horn. The unicorn's knees buckled under the agony and she fell forward, drifting into a fuzzy semi-consciousness.
"I'm not sure it was necessary to kick her horn quite that hard," said Luna, "But it does illustrate another lesson." Twilight felt the subtle, tingling grasp of a telekinesis spell that lifted her to her feet and steadied her has she regained her balance.
"What happened," asked the dazed unicorn.
"Marigold broke your concentration using the glare from the ax blade," Luna said, "Remember, no matter how good the defense, it is never impenetrable given enough time."
"And then she kicked me in the horn?" Twilight fumed, shooting a glare at her opponent. If the earth pony was sorry, she didn't give any indication.
"Indeed. It is essential to take advantage of your foe's weaknesses, and even more important to guard your own." Twilight scowled, rubbing her horn. This was not at all the way in which a good, productive day should start. "The shield spell is useful against brute force, but it is cumbersome in a one-on-one fight," Luna continued, releasing her telekinetic hold on the younger mare. "This time, be more active. Defend yourself without sacrificing mobility."
Twilight thought furiously as she took up her position opposite Marigold, assembling a hasty plan. Once more, Luna gave the command to begin and once more the green earth pony shot forward. Twilight focused on her spell, feeling the familiar power swelling up to coalesce around her horn. Just as the Starless Knight lunged, Twilight released her spell, teleporting to a point just behind the charging pony. She expected to have a few moments to prepare a counterattack, but the warrior pony reversed almost faster than Twilight could react. She barely managed to avoid another kick by dodging sideways. In a spectacular display of athletics, Marigold twisted, channeling her momentum into another charge, this time from only feet away. Twilight teleported again, this time choosing a spot further away from her dangerous opponent.
"Enough," Marigold froze at the Princess's word. "Well done, Twilight Sparkle."
It took some effort for the unicorn to stop her mind from frantically trying to come up with another spell or trick that would keep Marigold from overrunning her. "Why'd we stop?" she asked, slowly releasing the power she'd built for a knock-back spell.
"You have achieved the goal for this exercise."
"But I didn't even attack yet."
"Your task was to defend yourself, but in doing so, you have created an opportunity to attack. That is the first and most vital step in any conflict. When your enemy commits to an attack, they are vulnerable, and that is the moment to strike. That is the lesson for today. You are free to attend to your other duties. Until tomorrow, my friend."
Twilight bowed as Luna departed. "She's right, you do have potential," Marigold said, trotting after her Princess with a half smile. The expression was more amused than friendly, but Twilight rated it as an improvement over the earth pony's previous, icy demeanor. "Tomorrow you get to make the first move. I'm looking forward to see how you do."
Any pride she had felt at achieving the Princess's goal washed away as she wondered just how much she would have to improve before Luna was satisfied. Twilight looked after the departing mare and rubbed her horn. It still twinged. She hoped not every practice session would be this painful. The headache that was already spreading through her skull was going to make it difficult to concentrate on her Changeling studies.
Regardless, the thought of doing research again was almost intoxicating. Twilight decided to give her horn a rest and walk to the library. A wave of nostalgia crashed over the lavender unicorn as she pushed through the large, elaborately carved, wooden doors into the palace library. The smell of old vellum, paper, and ink wafted out to greet her. It suddenly seemed absurd that she had been back in the palace for so long without visiting this room. Then again, it appeared that nopony had been here since the war started. A thin layer of dust coated every surface and the wall fixtures contained gobs of cold wax instead of candles. To anypony else, it would have seemed forlorn and lonely, but Twilight had always preferred a secluded studying environment. She had always loved school holidays, when all of the Canterlot students stayed home and she got the library all to herself.
Years of studying under Princess Celestia had given Twilight a decent knowledge of each section's contents and before long she'd gathered no less than seven books on changelings. After finding a comfortable, well-lit niche, the studious mare attacked her reading material with a passion. Most of the books were bestiaries with entries describing changelings, their powers, and their need to consume the love of others, all of which Twilight already knew. One tome had a detailed description of the changeling feeding process and a few others contained theories on the creatures' origins and homeland. But the book Twilight was most interested in was an account of previous changeling uprisings. Apparently, they almost never became violent. Instead, the changelings would silently infiltrate a single city, kidnapping citizens and taking their place. Those who were taken were placed in cocoons where they would be trapped in stasis. Usually, the host city would never discover the infestation, and eventually their love would be depleted. Without love, the citizens would be overwhelmed by hatred, fear, and sadness and eventually crumble. In a few rare instances, the changelings would attempt to take over a small country or territory by force. These cases were always an attempt by the creatures to procure land in which to settle, usually after their numbers had swelled due to a string of successful feedings.
Twilight was struck by the stark difference between any of the previous changeling attacks and the one Equestria was facing now. While Chrysalis had begun her campaign by attempting to infiltrate Canterlot, she had simply attacked as soon as she had the opportunity. It seemed like subterfuge hadn't been their main goal at all. Furthermore, any time the changelings entered a conflict it was always small scale, conventional warfare. The widespread destruction and suicide attacks were completely uncharacteristic of a changeling invasion. What was even more troubling was the lack of any recorded use of Behemoths, such as the one that was destroyed at Appaloosa. Never before had the changelings employed such a weapon.
A loud growl from Twilight's stomach informed her that a good deal of time had passed since she had begun her research. Looking up, she realized that the light streaming through the library's large window was beginning to fade. She stood and stretched, then regarded the scattered books with a frown. All they had done was confirm the Princess' suspicion that the changelings had somehow garnered a power that was previously unheard of. But where did that power come from and how could it be defeated?
Another growl from her stomach interrupted the unicorn's theorizing. She never could concentrate on an empty stomach. With a sigh, Twilight picked up her books and returned them to their proper shelves. She debated whether or not to find a book to take with her back to her chamber, but decided against it. It would be better to get an early night before her next training session. With that disheartening thought, she trotted off to find some dinner.
The next few days followed the same routine. She would wake with the dawn, endure an hour or two of painful training, and then retire to the library where she would scrounge for any information that might give a clue as to how to defeat the changelings. She read through catalogues of spells, rituals, and ancient magics, but found nothing that could explain how the changelings reproduced so quickly. Surprisingly, Twilight's combat training was going much better than her academic pursuits. Marigold still battered her near senseless every morning, but Luna's lessons were slowly sinking in. Keep moving, watch for an opening, always attack twice. She hated to admit it, but the Princess's knowledge, combined with her sizable repertoire of magic was making Twilight into quite the warrior.
It was extremely disconcerting for the mare who had never once considered the fact that she might have a talent for violence, and therefore be needed on the front lines. Ever since Ponyville, Twilight had convinced herself that the place she could do the most good was in the war room. Safe in the palace. But now, she was beginning to realize that she might have a place out in the field amidst the bloodshed. And didn't that make sense? She'd been in more than her share of dangerous situations before the war even started. True, she hadn't actually used her magic for violence when she'd faced Nightmare Moon or Discord, but it seemed like the real key to winning a fight was simply thinking faster and better than your opponent. And wasn't that Twilight's specialty? Maybe she wasn't meant to be a student after all. Maybe she'd always been a warrior.
Twilight jumped, startled by the guard's deep voice. Glancing down, she realized that she had been staring at the same page of Ley Lines: Uses and Misuses for nearly two hours.
"What is it?" she said, then realizing how irritable she sounded, "I mean, how can I help you?"
If the guard was offended he didn't show it. "You have a visitor. Would you like me to tell her you're busy?"
"No, no. Have her sent to my room and I'll meet her there," Twilight said, grateful for the distraction from her seemingly futile task. It was probably Pinkie Pie again. This would be the fifth visit this month. With Twilight as her only close friend in Canterlot, it was a wonder that the extroverted mare didn't drop by more often. Taking responsibility for Pumpkin and Pound Cake may have slightly subdued Pinkie's hyperactivity, but it was hard to completely crush a spirit like hers. She'd be driving the guards crazy in a matter of minutes. With a smile, Twilight put away the books she'd been reading and hurried back to her chamber.
With a nod, she dismissed the guard that was outside her door before entering. She froze in her tracks when she saw who was waiting for her.
"Howdy Twilight. Long time no see."
"Applejack," The unicorn whispered, barely able to find the breath to speak. Her heart had skipped a beat and was now racing frantically to make up for it. Confusion stole her voice as she realized that she didn't know what to feel at seeing her old friend again. While she'd been close with all of the friends she'd made in Ponyville, she had a soft spot for the strong, hard working mare. It was hard not to with the number of times Applejack had saved her life. When she was clinging to the side of a cliff, dodging boulders in an avalanche, or feinting after the changelings blasted her barrier spell at Ponyville, Applejack had been there. But then she'd gone off to fight and Twilight had stayed behind. The lavender mare couldn't count the times she'd lain awake at night, wondering if her friend was facing a mortal peril without anyone to come save her.
Now that she was here, Twilight could hardly suppress the joy she felt at seeing the blonde mare's freckled face. But so much had happened since they'd last seen each other. A pang of horror struck Twilight as she caught a glimpse of Applejack's mechanical leg. And she had no idea of how to approach the subject of Big Mac. She still felt sadness over the quiet stallion's death, but it couldn't be anything compared to a sister's grief. It was all just too confusing.
"I . . . I heard about Appaloosa," Twilight said and immediately regretted it at seeing the tortured look in Applejack's eyes.
"It was . . . rough," said the earth pony. There was something off with how still she was. It was too different from the way she'd been before the war; brash, animated, and so very alive.
"I'm so sorry," Twilight said hastily, "I shouldn't have--" The rest of her apology was cut off as the soldier pony barreled into her, flinging her forelegs around her in a tight embrace. After a moment of stunned silence, Twilight awkwardly returned her friend's hug.
"It's good to see ya, Twi," Applejack said, burying her face in Twilight's coat. There was a clearly discernible waver in her voice and Twilight felt a few tears drip onto her shoulder.
Reflexively, the unicorn drew her forelegs tighter around her friend, saying "It's good to see you too. I've missed you." Only now did she realize just how true that statement was. She missed all of the friends that had been flung far and wide by the war, but having Applejack again made all the hardships seem less final.
The earth pony was the one to break the embrace. "Ugh, Ah'm sorry," she murmured, wiping at her eyes, "Ah didn't think Ah'd get so choked up."
"It's okay," Twilight responded quietly. "Come sit down. I'll make some tea."
She took her time boiling the water and preparing the tea leaves, hoping it would give Applejack a chance to compose herself. The silence in the room was tense, but Twilight had resolved to wait until her friend was ready to talk. By the time the steaming beverages were finished steeping, Applejack looked almost like her old self.
Twilight set a mug on the ground next to the cushion where Applejack was sitting and pulled another cushion closer for herself. "Thanks, Twi," the soldier pony said, blowing on her tea before taking a sip. She set the mug down with a sigh. "Ah suppose you're wonderin' why Ah'm here."
"To tell the truth, I'm just happy to see you," Twilight said with a smile.
Applejack smiled too, but it didn't quite light up her eyes the way it used to. "Hayseeds," she muttered, looking away, "Ah wish Ah could be better company. But truth is Ah needed ta talk to ya." Twilight's smile faded at her friend's grim tone. "It's really goin' ta Tartarus out there, Twi. We lose good ponies in every battle, but the changelings never let up. Kill a hundred of 'em and there's another thousand ta take their place. It's like they got so many drones they don't care how many die. The soldiers are hangin' in there, but morale's dropping, and fast. Twilight. I need to know what's really goin' on. I need to know if we can win this."
The unicorn hesitated, unsure if she should tell Applejack about her assignment. But what else could she do? And didn't a soldier deserve to know what she was up against? She couldn't look her friend in the face as she said, "I'm not sure if we can win. You're right. The changelings seem to have an unlimited supply of reinforcements. They're probably using some kind of magic that we don't know about, but so far I haven't found anything that would give them this kind of power." Despair suddenly seized her at the crushing realization of what her failure would mean. The lives of every mare, stallion, and foal, every soldier and civilian, every one of her friends, they all hung in the balance.
"Well, if magic's involved, they sure picked the right pony for the job," Applejack said, genuine confidence ringing in her voice.
"But I'm no closer to the answer than when I started. The only thing that has ever been shown to increase their rate of reproduction successful feeding."
"They feed on love, right? Maybe the war is makin' folks remember how much they love their family an' friends."
Twilight shook her head, "The changelings feed by converting the love of another into pure energy. They need to be in close proximity to their victim to do that, so increasing the overall feeling of love in a country wouldn't help. Besides, I'd say they're causing a lot more pain than love."
"Well, can't they just use that? All the fear and strife? Those are emotions too."
"No. It has to do with the fact that changelings can't feel love. In theory, they could use any emotion, but love is so foreign to them that they can sense it on a different level. Their conversion spell wouldn't be able to lock on to any emotion they couldn't detect like that. I suppose they could use other emotions, but the conversion would have to be done by. . . something. . . else--" Twilight jumped to her feet, nearly spilling Applejack's tea.
"Woah nelly!" the startled earth pony shouted.
"I have to go to the library," Twilight declared, already moving towards the door.
"What for?" Applejack asked as she rose to follow.
"Because I know how the changelings are getting the energy they need to make so many drones. And I know how to stop them."
"No. . .No. . .No,"
The pile of books surrounding Twilight was rapidly growing as she randomly pulled books from the shelves. If only Spike were here. He would have been able to find the book in a heartbeat. But, this late at night, he would probably be fast asleep at Pinkie's apartment. Besides, he had made it clear that his place was with Pumpkin and Pound Cake. He wasn't a Librarian's assistant anymore.
"Uh, Twi? Any chance I could lend a hoof?"
Twilight felt a moment of chagrin. She had completely forgotten that Applejack had followed her down to the library. "Oh, of course. I'm looking for a book called Unicorn Culture in the Pre-Classical Era.
"Ain't that a history book?" Applejack asked.
"Why yes, how did you know?"
"Er . . . Spike might have mentioned something about it once."
"Oh yeah. I gave him a copy for his birthday one year. But I thought he'd never read it."
"Well he didn't. Mostly he was just sayin' how history . . . ain't exactly to his likin'. But anywho, how's a history book gonna tell us what kind of magic the changeling's are using?"
"It's a fascinating story, actually," Twilight began, settling into her best lecturing voice, "Before the founding of Equestria, unicorns were separated into several houses of nobles, all vying for control over the others. Eventually, there was a duke who managed to unite the houses and declared himself king. If I remember correctly, he rose to power by creating some sort of artifact that converted his subjects' fear and suffering into raw energy. If the changelings somehow found that artifact, it could explain everything."
"Is this the book you seek?" Twilight jumped as Luna spoke up directly behind her. "My apologies. I appear to have a habit of sneaking up on you."
"It's okay," Twilight said, taking the book from the Princess's telekinetic grasp. "Yes, this is exactly what I was looking for."
After flipping through a few chapters of the sizable tome, the scholarly pony exclaimed, "Aha! 'In the year 176 pre-Discord, the unicorn factions were briefly united by one Duke Ravenmane, patriarch of the Frostmoor clan. Although the Frostmoors lacked bloodlines strong in magic, Ravenmane seemed to develop a talent for enchanting. Several of his enchanted devices were used to achieve renown for the Frostmoors, but the clan could not assume full control. To that end, Ravenmane crafted the Stone of Anguish, a sinister artifact which fed off of pain and despair. The exact function of the Stone remains unknown, but Ravenmane was apparently able to absorb energy directly from it, increasing his magical ability well beyond that of any contemporary unicorns. What followed was an exceptionally brutal reign, during which the depraved monarch used the suffering of his own subjects to increase his power.'" Twilight looked up from the book with a wolfish grin. "This is it. The changelings must have found the Stone of Anguish."
"But how will you find it?" Luna asked.
"Um, it says in the book that Ravenmane was overthrown by Starswirl Featherhat. That's Starswirl the Bearded before . . . well, the beard. It must have been an incredible battle. It says here--" The Princess gave the unicorn an impatient glare, "Well, it says that Ravenmane fled into the Frozen North with the Stone."
"Yes, that makes sense." Luna said with a pensive expression, "Every time a new swarm appears, it is in the northern region of the country. Chrysalis must have a spawning ground near the artifact."
"Um, pardon the interruption, Princess," Applejack chimed in, "But the Frozen North ain't exactly a small area. There's about a million square miles o' nothin' up there, and the Stone could be anywhere."
"A valid point. Twilight Sparkle?" Luna turned her gaze to the unicorn.
Twilight thought for a moment. "Hmm. Well, such a powerful artifact would give off a lot of residual magic. In a place as barren as the Frozen North, it would be a beacon to anyone with magical talent."
"And when you find it, are you confident that it can be destroyed?"
"In theory, any unicorn could disassemble the enchantment given enough time. Or, with powerful enough magic they could just blast the enchantment apart."
"Excellent work Twilight Sparkle. I will make the necessary preparations for your departure."
"My what?" Twilight sputtered.
Luna looked slightly taken aback. "You are the only available unicorn skilled enough for this undertaking. I would like you to see it through."
Twilight fought back a string of excuses and forced herself to say, "Of course."
"Good. The Flagship Sun Fire is in port. I will reassign them to this mission. Be ready to leave by noon tomorrow," Luna concluded, departing without another word.
Applejack looked uncertainly at her friend. "Twi? You alright sugarcube?"
"Yeah. That was just a little . . . sudden."
"This'll be your first mission outside the palace huh?" Twilight nodded, her heart twisting at the pity in her friend's voice. "It won't be so bad once you get started. And there's nopony better for a job like this, ya hear?"
"Thanks. I just . . . I just need some time to get used to it. Can we talk about something else? Let's go back to my room. I could really use some more tea."
"O' course," Applejack said, and together they made their way back to Twilight's room.
The sun had fallen behind the horizon by the time they arrived. Twilight lit a few candles to illuminate the rapidly dimming room. Then she went to heat more water, but Applejack stopped her, saying, "I got something that might work a little better." The blonde mare trotted over to her saddle bag, digging out a small, metal flask. She tossed it to Twilight.
"What is it?" the unicorn asked, raising an eyebrow at her friend.
"Just somethin' I picked up from Granny Smith."
Twilight unscrewed the cap and took a cautious sip. The aroma was reminiscent of apple cider and there was certainly a distinct, apple flavor, but the bite that accompanied it was somewhat shocking. It burned a bit going down, but settled as a pleasant warmth in Twilight's belly.
"I didn't know you made apple brandy," she said, taking another sip before passing the flask back.
Applejack smiled. "Granny's the one who makes it. She keeps most of it for special occasions, but Filthy Rich used to buy a few for his fancy dinner parties sometimes. This is from the only bottle we managed to save."
"Oh, you shouldn't go wasting it on me then," Twilight said.
"Don'chu worry 'bout it. Y'all need it more than I do, 'asides, it's best to enjoy these things with friends when ya get the chance." Applejack took a generous swig of the liqueur and trotted over to her cushion. Twilight pulled her own cushion over so she could sit within reach of the apple brandy.
"Now there's a letter for the princess," she said with a wry grin. "I just wish i'd learned that while everyone was still around."
Applejack grunted in agreement, proffering the flask once more. For a while, the two ponies sat in silence, gradually depleting the alcohol. At length Applejack spoke. "I don't suppose there's been any word on Fluttershy?"
Twilight shook her head. "Nothing. It's possible she's still alive, but it's been so long . . ." She trailed off, not wanting to say the words.
"Her cottage was right on the edge o' town. I always thought she could o' made it into the forest with all her little animal friends."
"Yeah," Twilight smiled and decided not to point out the fact that they should have heard something from their timid friend by now if she had escaped Ponyville.
"Does it ever seem like there are too many ponies just disappearin'?" Applejack continued. There was a discernible slur to her voice now. "Applebloom told me one o' her friends never showed up after Ponyville either. Scootaloo."
"It's bound to happen I guess," Twilight replied flatly, shaking the flask to see how much brandy was left. There was enough to make her think she might regret finishing it, but the apple aroma was too tempting. The fact that her inhibitions were long since deadened by the alcohol may have also been a factor. She took another sip and handed to her friend .
"It just don't seem right, ya know?" The farm pony's slurred southern accent would have been humorous if not for her tone. "Ah mean, how can a pony just disappear like they never existed, an' their family just never know what happened to 'em?" Applejack gestured wildly as she spoke, sloshing some of the sweet liqueur down her neck and chest. "Pony feathers," she muttered, mopping at the stain in her coat. She gave up after managing to spread the spilled liquid over her foreleg as well.
"Here, I've got a spell for that," Twilight said, wobbling a little as she stood up. "Hold still." She closed her eyes, gathering power for the simple cleansing spell. It took only a few seconds to shape the energy and release it, sending it out to vaporize the sticky splotch on Applejack's coat.
Applejack chuckled. “Ah’d forgotten just how slick you are with magic. It’s no wonder the Princess wants ya out in the field.” Despite her best efforts, Twilight’s expression must have shown her anxiety. “Ah’m sorry,” Applejack added hastily, “Ah’ve spent so much time fightin’ that I forget there’re some ponies who ain’t used to it.”
“It’s okay,” Twilight said, unable to meet her friend’s eyes. “I should have been in the fight a long time ago. I owe it to everypony.” Alcohol was apparently a very bad cure for harsh emotions. If anything, it blunted her ability to bury her fear. And, as always, with the fear came guilt.
“Whadda ya mean?” Applejack said, genuinely confused.
“I failed at Ponyville,” Twilight said. Her voice wavered on the words and she suddenly felt the sting of tears in her eyes. The brandy’s effects seemed to be more pronounced than Twilight had anticipated. She found herself putting into words all that she’d felt since the war began. “Everypony lost their homes because I wasn’t strong enough. And what have I done to make up for it? Nothing! I’ve spent the entire war safe in the palace while the ponies I should have protected are dying. I feel like a coward, but I just couldn’t . . . I couldn’t--"
“Twi,” Applejack said, gently placing a hoof on the unicorn’s shoulder, “Now ya know that ain’t true.”
“Yes it is. I wouldn’t even be going to find the Stone of Anguish if anypony else was able to. I should have protected Ponyville but I couldn’t! I should be out stopping the changelings from burning other towns, but I’m not! I should have been there for you, but now--” Twilight glanced at Applejack's prosthetic leg and a choking sob cut off the end of her sentence.
“Woah there, take a breath sugar cube.”
Twilight leaned her head on her friend’s orange coat, clenching her eyes shut against the emotional pain that was threatening to overwhelm her. It took a few minutes, but she finally got her breathing back under control. “I used to think I was a leader. But the truth is I’m just a coward.”
“Listen Twi,” Applejack said, “You ain’t no coward. Ah don’t think anypony was really thinkin’ about what they were gettin’ into when they signed up. Ah know I wasn’t. Hay, if Ah’d stopped to consider it, Ah prob’ly wouldn’t o’ joined up either."
With a sniff, Twilight lifted her head. For some reason she smiled. Applejack's statement was so unbelievably absurd that it was funny. It was completely illogical, but her heart seemed to be determined to ignore any advice her brain had to offer.
"There now, ain't as bad as ya thought, is it?" the orange mare said, apparently thinking she had re-instilled Twilight's self worth. The guilt was still there, but the lavender unicorn had to admit that she was feeling a bit better. Or maybe it was just that she was so tired that she was beginning to ignore the pain. After a few seconds of further consideration, Twilight decided that the only thing she knew for sure was that she was too tired to keep thinking about it. So she rested her head on her forelegs and closed her eyes.
"Thanks," she said quietly, snuggling up next to her friend. Twilight wasn't entirely sure what she was thanking her for, but, again, she was too weary to give it any thought.
The unicorn was asleep before she even heard Applejack say, "Anytime, sugar cube."
Twilight slowly awoke as bright, mid-morning light crept across her face. She opened her eyes to a tangle of flaxen hair. Waking up alone had become the norm for her since moving back to Canterlot, and the presence of her sleeping companion was a pleasant novelty. She rolled over with a yawn, intending to fall back asleep, but a sudden knock at her chamber door startled her back to full consciousness. Beside her, Applejack inhaled a sharp breath as she jolted awake.
"Just the door," Twilight said.
"Right," Applejack exhaled, pushing herself up and shaking out her mechanical leg.
Twilight also rose and hastily levitated the empty brandy flask back into Applejack's saddlebag before answering the door. An impatient Marigold stood outside the chamber. From her teeth hung a sizeable package, which she placed at Twilight’s feet.
“For you. From the Princess.”
“What is it?”
“She also requests that you meet her in the courtyard at your earliest convenience,” the warrior pony said, ignoring Twilight’s question. Then she turned and trotted away without a backward glance. Mildly annoyed, the unicorn looked down at the package. It was a simple, black box tied shut with twine.
“What’s that?” Applejack asked.
In answer, Twilight levitated the box into the room and opened it with a quick severing charm. At first she wasn’t sure what she was looking at, but when she lifted the contents of the package out, they unfolded, revealing a set of jet black plates bound to a black jacket and cape. Left in the box was a black jumpsuit.
“That’s some fancy armor. Ya’ll gonna try it on?”
“Not right now, I think,” Twilight said, folding the plates back into the box. Her friend raised an eyebrow at her blank tone. “I should probably go see what the Princess wants,” she offered by way of excuse. The truth was that she found the gift unsettling. In fact, she was beginning to feel a bit sick. Even up to the last minute, she’d allowed herself to believe she might still escape having to fight during the mission. Luna seemed to think that was unlikely.
“Okay,” the other mare said knowingly, “Ah’ll meet ya at the docks.”
Twilight nodded as her friend hefted her saddlebag and departed. After taking a few minutes to freshen up, Twilight left as well. She took a few, slow steps, but then stopped, feeling a bit disgusted with herself. No point in drawing it out, she thought, gathering power for a teleportation spell. A flash of light, and she was standing at the edge of the practice fields. The silence was a bit shocking. The courtyard, normally filled with training soldiers, was empty save for the midnight-blue alicorn who stood, still as a statue, in the middle of the field.
“Twilight Sparkle. Thank you for coming. I trust Marigold delivered your other gift?”
“Yes Princess,” Twilight said, then, after a pause, “My other gift?”
“Yes. I felt it was more appropriate to deliver this one in person,” the alicorn said, indicating a square, wooden box at her feet. With a wave of her horn, Luna opened the box and out of it she levitated something Twilight had only ever seen as sketches in the oldest of history texts. It was a weapon with four, straight blades radiating out from a circular handle. “Do you recognize this weapon?” Luna asked.
“It’s a star-kinfe,” Twilight breathed.
The Princess nodded. “This weapon was crafted for me by Clover the Clever, nearly two thousand years ago, when I first came to this world with my sister. It served me well in our struggle against Discord and in countless battles thereafter.” The blue glow of the alicorn’s telekinesis intensified as the star-knife began to twirl, dancing around her in a flurry of sparkling metal. “Any unicorn can wield such a weapon, but it is most deadly in the hooves of a pony that is clever and creative.” With a final flourish, Luna brought the blade to a stop, hovering in front of Twilight.
The unicorn’s mind reflexively searched for any way in which she could refuse the offering, but quickly gave it up for a futile effort. So she reached out with her magic to take hold of the star-knife, feeling the princess’s spell recede. For a moment, she stood awkwardly, unsure how to react to the Princess’s expectant stare. This was clearly a type of ceremony to which Luna was accustomed. It made sense, Twilight supposed. The previous millennia were a stark and violent contrast to the current, peaceful era. Formerly peaceful, whispered the unicorn’s ever-observant subconscious. With a small sigh, Twilight hefted the star-knife. It felt strangely comfortable in her telekinetic grasp, as if it were a natural part of her body. The weight and balance of the blades almost spoke to her, revealing the most elegant and efficient ways in which it could fly. The ease with which Twilight could will the weapon to dart about was surprising, and, for a moment, she forgot that this was a tool of bloodshed. Faster and faster it flew, arcing out in a quick strike then flowing into series of spinning cuts as it circled the motionless unicorn. It was not until she brought the star-knife to rest that she noticed the Princess’s fiery expression.
“It likes you,” she said with thrumming enthusiasm.
“It’s enchanted,” Twilight said as she noticed the subtle magic woven through the weapon’s substance.
“Indeed. And it has been known to be rather particular in its selection of wielders. I was a bit concerned at first, but I see now that it will serve you faithfully.” As she spoke, the Princess drew from the box a leather sheath of a shape with the star-knife and proffered it to her student. It took only a second for Twilight to work out how to rotate the weapon into the sheath. Once the blades were safely bound inside the leather, Luna approached and secured the straps around Twilight’s waist and shoulders so that the sheath clung naturally to her side. Then she stepped back to regard the young unicorn with an affectionate smile.
“I know you have had doubts about your place in this war, my friend,” she said, “But know that I would not ask this of you if I did not think you were capable.” Twilight’s mouth was dry, so she simply nodded. Just once, she wished she could take some words of comfort without the nagging skepticism; without thinking that another’s confidence in her was perhaps misplaced.
“Gather what other supplies you might need,” Luna continued, apparently oblivious to Twilight’s bitter reverie. “The airship departs in thirty minutes.”
Twilight stood before her mirror, regarding a reflection that was completely at odds with any image she’d ever had of herself. Before her stood a warrior mare, clad in the black armor of a Starless Knight and girded with an ancient and powerful weapon. She searched her own eyes for any trace of the knowledge-loving bookworm, but found only a broken, defeated pony resigned to an unloved fate. It was not long before even that image was obscured by a film of tears.
A gentle knock at her door forced Twilight out of her pool of self-pity. “Come in,” she said, hastily dabbing at her damp eyes. Her heart nearly froze as Celestia stepped into her chamber. The Princess’s duties often kept her busy, so it was rare for Twilight to see her former mentor, much less speak with her. The alicorn’s sudden appearance was jarring to say the least.
Even more unsettling was the Princess’s physical state. Her mane was dull and its usual, flowing motions was much reduced. Her coat, once a pure, alabaster white, now had a greyish tint. Fatigue showed plainly in her face and she moved with too much care.
“Princess!” Twilight exclaimed, and, before she could stop herself, “Are you alright?”
Celestia smiled at her pupil’s blunt question. “Frankly, no, my most faithful student.” Even her voice lacked strength. “It has been a long time since Equestria was ravaged by such violence, and I am afraid I am more . . . sensitive to it than I have been before.”
“The war is making you sick?” Twilight said, full of concern for her beloved teacher.
“It is more than that, I think,” Celestia said. Her eyes went distant. “Both my sister and I gained a strong connection to this land and its people when we took it as ours to guard and to guide. But during Luna’s exile, my link . . . evolved. I began to resonate with the ponies under my rule and my love for them was reflected in their love for one another. But, in their fear, many ponies are turning to hatred. It is poisoning their spirits, and through them, it is poisoning mine.” The alicorn sucked in a ragged breath, her eyes focusing back onto Twilight. “But I did not come here to burden you with bleak news. I wished to tell you something before you go.”
Twilight’s curiosity tugged at its mental leash, begging for further information about the Princess’s startling revelation. But the unicorn resisted the urge pepper Celestia with questions, instead forcing the quietly interested expression that she used to take before the Princess lectured her on some point of magic, history, or philosophy.
In a few strides, Celestia’s long legs brought her near enough to Twilight that the unicorn could feel the familiar warmth of her aura. Then the Princess kneeled, gingerly lowering herself to the ground so her eyes were on level with Twilight’s.
“I can feel the conflict inside you, Twilight,” She spoke fixing the younger pony with a steady gaze. “I fear that this task my sister has set for you is tearing you apart. This is one of your greatest tests, my faithful student. So I offer you this guidance.” The alicorn leaned forward, her breath tickling Twilight’s ear as she whispered, “Remember who you are.” A strange giddiness washed over the lavender mare as the Princess spoke. When she considered them, the words sounded plain and rather unhelpful, not to mention clichéd. But they echoed in her head, ringing with a significance that Twilight couldn’t pin down.
Celestia stood and took Twilight into a short embrace. “Good luck, child,” she said, then strode from the chamber, leaving the unicorn with a hopeful feeling, as if she’d found a missing piece to an arduous and frustrating puzzle.
The Sun Fire loomed menacingly, casting a shadow over the smaller airships that were moored near the Canterlot cliffs. Luna, Applejack, Marigold, and an unfamiliar mare waited at the end of one of the piers that clung to the city’s main wall. Two pegasi guards harnessed to a chariot also stood nearby.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Luna greeted her as she approached, “This is Captain Lightfeather.”
The grey mare, whom Twilight had taken for an earth pony extended her single wing in a classic, pegasus solute, saying, “A pleasure to meet you Lady Sparkle.”
“Likewise, Captain,” Twilight said.
“I have also decided to send Marigold with you;” Luna said “She will act as your body guard, allowing you to focus on the main objective.” Marigold came around to stand beside the unicorn. “I am needed once again in Cloudsdale, so I will make this brief,” Luna continued, “You all know the importance of this mission. Success could very well mean victory in this war. Know that you go with my blessings and those of all Equestria. Good luck everypony.” And with that, the Princess winked out with a blue flash.
Without a word, Marigold and Lightfeather stepped over to their waiting chariot. “I’ll just be a moment,” Twilight said. She turned to Applejack, searching for some significant way to say farewell. Nothing that came to mind seemed appropriate. After a few seconds of floundering, she finally settled on, “I’ll miss you.”
Applejack leaned forward to nuzzle her friend. “I’ll miss you too, sugarcube . . . Stay safe out there, Twi.”
“You too,” Twilight said, wrapping her foreleg around the other mare’s neck and giving a quick squeeze. Then she let go and boarded the chariot to be ferried out to the waiting airship.
Twilight gazed out over the frozen landscape, shivering, even under her armor’s thick cape. The deck of the Sun Fire had become more and more inhospitable the further into the Frozen North they traveled. Marigold stood beside her, clenching her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering. “You don’t have to wait out here with me,” Twilight said, “There’s no sense in both of us freezing while I do this.”
“We’re in enemy territory,” was the only response given by the Starless Knight.
Twilight shrugged. In the two weeks they had been traveling, she’d learned that it was pointless to try arguing with the steely mare. Instead, she turned her attention to her spell, reaching for her reservoir of magic to draw out a small portion of power. Her horn glowed scarlet as she collected the mystical energy, shaping it and giving it purpose. The spell pressed eagerly against her willpower until she released it, letting it rush out in all directions. The pulse of magic swept over the icy wasteland and Twilight waited, straining to feel the tingling echo of her spell colliding with residual magical energies. She had been out on the deck for nearly an hour today, casting spell after spell. There was the definite shiver of some magical energy snaking through the jagged, snowcapped rocks, but still nothing to indicate that the Stone was nearby.
Her spell slowly diminished as it spread out, losing coherence. But, just before it faded, Twilight’s horn buzzed lightly in response to a significant echo. The unicorn’s heart leapt and she immediately drew more power for another spell, this time tightening its focus to cover a more specific area. The pulse arced out and Twilight waited for a heartbeat. . .two. . .three. Her horn buzzed again, this time with an intensity that was almost uncomfortable.
“That’s it,” she breathed. Marigold’s ears perked and she raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Let’s find the Captain. We have a new heading.”
Together, the two mares descended back into the interior of the airship, making their way to the bridge near the bow.
“Any luck?” called Swiftfeather as they entered the bridge, shaking the cold from their capes.
“Yes,” Twilight said with a smile, “There’s definitely a strong concentration of magic about fourty kilometers to the northeast.” The unicorn trotted over the large map that dominated the center of the bridge. “Here,” she said, tapping the location that she had calculated from the timing and direction of the echo.
“Hmm. The Sun Fire can’t approach without being spotted. We can lower our altitude to get closer, but you’ll have to make the last, I’d say, eight kilometers on hoof.” Twilight resisted the dismay that arose at the thought of walking that far over the treacherous terrain in subzero temperatures. She gave the captain a curt nod. “Ensign, take us down to fifty meters and adjust heading to thirty-six degrees. Lady Sparkle, I suggest you gather any supplies you will need. Meet at the launch bay in thirty minutes.”
“Right,” Twilight said, departing with Marigold. They worked their way through the maze of tight corridors to their shared quarters. Though the room was larger than most of the crew’s, it was no simple task for them to move about without getting in each other’s way. Luckily, there wasn’t much to pack. They were already in their armor and snow gear. They each stuffed a few packs of plain rations into their saddlebags along with some rope, canteens, first aid kits, and a compass. Marigold strapped on her combat saddle and fit it with an impressive collection of throwing knives and a small saddle pistol. The warrior pony also equipped herself with hoof blades on each foot. Twilight buckled Luna’s star-knife to her hip and led the way to the launch bay in the belly of the ship.
While they waited, Twilight fell into her newly-acquired habit of examining the star-knife’s enchantment. Whenever the artifact was nearby, it tugged at the unicorn’s attention like an itch. It called to her like a masterwork concerto calls to a musician, begging to be studied, understood, and implemented. At its core, the enchantment formed a link with the wielder of the star-knife, but Twilight felt there was something more to it. The magical weave incorporated hundreds of threads of simple magic. By now, the unicorn knew each thread by heart, but the interactions between them were so complex that the whole of the enchantment couldn’t be described as merely a sum of its parts. It was almost as if the ancient weapon had a consciousness unto itself.
“Are you ready?”
Twilight’s eyes flew open (she hadn’t even realized she had closed them). Captain Lightfeather stood before her, flanked by two pegasi in combat armor.
“I think so—I mean, yes. We’re ready.” The captain nodded and moved to flip a nearby lever. Freezing wind gusted into the bay as its large shutters lowered. Apparently a small blizzard had developed while they were waiting. The pegasi hefted themselves into the air and hovered over to lift Twilight and Marigold.
“Good luck!” Lightfeather shouted as the pegasi glided out of the launch bay, circling down to deposit the armored mares on an outcropping of snow-covered rocks.
Twilight watched as the winged ponies shot back up into the warmth and safety of the Sun Fire. She pulled her cape a bit closer, and then sent out another pulse of magic to get her bearings. The echo came back strong. They were closer than she had expected. The flying snow must be providing some extra cover.
“This way,” she said and they started off at a brisk trot. The rocks weren’t as slippery as Twilight had feared, but it was still treacherous enough that she needed to walk with care lest she break an ankle. Twilight sent out her homing spell a few more times as they walked, and, after about two hours it became clear that the source of the returning echoes was at the base of a small hill in the distance. As they approached, Twilight saw that what she had taken for a hill was in fact a wrecked airship. It was difficult to tell for sure at a distance, but Twilight thought she could make out the name Ravenmane on the ship's side.
"We're definitely in the right place," she said.
“Wait,” Marigold said softly. Twilight halted. “We don’t know what kind of security they have. Stay here while I check it out.”
Twilight was about to protest, but the Starless Knight didn’t give her the chance. Before now, Twilight would have said that it was impossible for anypony in a full black outfit to blend in with a blizzard, but somehow Marigold found a way, leaving a perplexed and nervous unicorn waiting in the snow.
Several minutes passed. Twilight watched for any sign of movement around the wreck, but the blizzard was brewing up and, before long she could hardly see three feet in front of her. The cold was swiftly leaking through the heavy cape, but even worse was the sour fear growing in the unicorn's belly. She didn't know the first thing about infiltration, but how long could it take to check for sentries? Finally, Twilight resorted to modifying her homing spell, altering it to reflect off of life energy rather than magic. Once she was fairly certain that the spell would work, she gathered power and cast it. To her immense relief, she received a small echo almost immediately. An instant later, nearly all of the spell's energy came crashing back into her in a wave that set her horn vibrating with a painful intensity. She gasped, holding a hoof up to her head. Even after the vibrations subsided, it took a great deal of concentration to remain upright against the ache in her skull.
"It's clear." Twilight had trouble making out Marigold's voice through the wind and the pounding in her ears. "Are you alright?"
"I'm okay," Twilight said, forcing her eyes to focus. She took a few cautious steps as the pain receded. "But I think we have a problem. There's something. . . A lot of somethings alive in that ship."
There was a momentary pause before Marigold said, "Changelings?"
"That would be my guess. Tens of thousands at least."
The warrior mare frowned. "There's a huge hole on the far side and I got close enough for a look inside. It was empty as far as I could tell."
"That doesn't make any sense. According to my spell there should be enough changelings in there to completely fill the ship . . . Come to think of it, I'm not sure that ship could hold as many changelings as I sensed."
"But you're sure this is where the Stone is?"
"Then we don't have any choice," Marigold stated, abruptly turning back in the direction she'd come. Twilight had to canter to avoid losing her in the swirling blizzard as she made her way back to the airship. The massive ship was astonishingly well preserved for having endured a couple millenniums' worth of weather. Under other circumstances, Twilight would have been ecstatic at the opportunity to explore such an ancient structure. The army of hostile, insectoid changelings, of course, diminished the unicorn's archaeological interests.
"There should be a hatch somewhere up top," Marigold said, "It looks like I can scale it. Then I'll lower a rope down for you."
"Oh, that won't be necessary," Twilight said, already focusing her teleportation spell. A quick scarlet flash and the two mares were standing on the edge of the Ravenmane's deck.
"Oof. A little warning next time, Sparky," Marigold said, adjusting her balance to the slight incline of the ship's deck.
"Sorry . . . Sparky?"
The Starless Knight shrugged. "It's what I call you in my head. Thought I might as well say it out loud too. Hope you don't mind." Her tone suggested that she didn't care much whether Twilight minded or not, but it was nice to see some personality from the other mare for once.
"I've had worse nicknames," the unicorn said, "But we should probably keep moving. I think I see a hatch over there."
The ancient trapdoor of the deck hatch was frozen shut, but Twilight made quick work of opening it with a simple heating spell. She also removed the hinges of the door to avoid any squeaking as she lifted it open. The inside of the ship was pitch black.
"I don't suppose you have some sort of night-vision spell?" Marigold asked.
Twilight shook her head. "I suppose I could invent one, but that could take hours."
"Not an option. I don't think we'd survive the walk back after nightfall. Unless you think you could teleport us again."
"I'm afraid not. If my calculations are just a little bit off, we could wind up miles away from the Sun Fire without any landmarks to guide us back."
Marigold looked down into the darkness and armed her saddle pistol. "Guess we'd better hurry then," she said, and in a flurry of brown hair she disappeared through the hatch. Twilight stared after her, a bit stunned by her brashness.
Her voice echoed back up through the opening, "Hey, I know you can make light with that horn of yours. Mind giving me a hoof?"
"Aren't you worried that we'll be detected or something?"
"If the changelings were gonna attack they'd have done it when we opened the hatch. Seriously, come on. I can't see my hoof in front of my face." From the sound of her voice, it wasn't a long drop. With a deep breath, the unicorn hopped down into the darkness.
The howling of the wind abruptly cut out as she passed through the hatch. The fall wasn't as far as she expected and she nearly slammed her face into the floor before she could catch herself. Once she regained her balance, she reached for her magic, illuminating the chilly corridor with a scarlet glow.
"Ahh!" Twilight screamed as she found herself eye to eye with another pony. She must have been about the same age as Twilight and would have been quite pretty if her features hadn't been twisted into a visage of sheer terror. She was encased in a green-tinged transparent cocoon, and completely still except for a slight quivering of her contracted pupils. It was as if she had been frozen in a moment of panic.
"Woah," Marigold breathed.
"I think she's alive," Twilight said, trying to convince her own ragged breathing and hammering heart that she was in no immediate danger.
"How about them?" Twilight tore her gaze from the tortured mare to look down the corridor. More cocoons clung to the walls and ceiling, each containing another pony, suspended in a state of fear. "Could these be the life signs you sensed?"
"I'm sure they're part of it, but they're too spread out," Twilight said. Reluctantly, she finished her thought aloud, "Something else is alive in here."
Marigold adjusted her pistol and loosened a few knives in their sheaths, saying, "Well, I guess we know what that something is now. These are the same cocoons the changelings used at Canterlot. Is there anything we can do for them?"
Twilight thought furiously, examining every scenario she could come up with, but to little avail. "I don't know what kind of magic is keeping them in stasis like this. If we try to break them out, it could cause irreparable harm. We should find the Stone. Maybe Luna can organize a rescue effort after the mission."
"Okay," Marigold said after a short silence. "Guess we should start moving then. Which way is the Stone?"
Twilight closed her eyes to cast the homing spell once more. The echo came back almost immediately. "It's close. Below us."
"I'll go first," the warrior pony declared, stalking down the corridor with her weapon at the ready. "You watch our back."
Twilight followed, resisting the urge to stay right on her companion's tail. Cocoons jutted out from every angle, making it difficult to squeeze down the narrow hallway. The ship was silent but for the faint creaking and groaning as it settled on the ever-changing ice. Twilight's breath sounded too loud and she found herself getting slightly dizzy as she tried to hold it in for as long as possible. Every now and then, they would come to a stairway or trapdoor, allowing them to descend ever deeper into the belly of the skeletal ship. It was hard to judge the passage of time in the darkness, but Twilight was sure they should be getting close to the bottom.
"Do you feel that?" Marigold asked, stopping suddenly.
"There's a breeze."
Twilight moved up beside the green mare and, after a moment, felt the gentle touch of a cold current of air. "You're right," she said, "I think it's coming from the end of the corridor.
A few more steps brought the source of the breeze into the range of Twilight's light. It was a gaping hole in the bulkhead, but it didn't lead to the outside. Instead, it formed the mouth of a cave that bored down into the ground.
"Ten bits says that the changelings you sensed are down there," Marigold said.
"And the Stone," Twilight added.
Marigold aimed her pistol at the opening and slowly crept forward. Just before she stepped onto the rocky floor of the cave, the metal beneath her buckled, sending her crashing down through the deck.
"Are you alright?!" Twilight called.
"Yeah," came the reply, "It wasn't very far. Lemme just-- Woah!" Two gunshots split the silence. Twilight jumped, then rushed to the edge of the breach, gathering power for a spell as she ran.
"It's okay," came Marigolds voice again, "Just got spooked by a shadow." A green hoof emerged from the hole, followed by a mane of brown hair and finally the rest of the Starless Knight. Twilight reached down to help her up. "Thanks, Twilight."
"What happened to Sparky?" the unicorn asked. She hoped Marigold hadn't decided to stop using the nickname in favor of her previous, icy formality.
For a moment, the other mare stared at her. "I don't know," she said, "I thought she was behind you."
"What?" Twilight said, confused by her companion's strange response. Automatically, her mind went over various reasons for the disjointed answer. Did she hit her head? No, she's to lucid. Maybe she didn't hear what I said. But why would she be referring to somepony being behind me? It's almost as if she forgot that we were the only ones down here. Or maybe-- Her eyes widened as she realized what had happened. Her horn flared as she launched a spell at the mare in front of her. As the magic impacted, Marigold gave a high pitched screech and her appearance contorted then resolved into the form of a stunned changeling.
"Take her!" shouted a warbling voice from the hole and another changeling shot out, carrying an unconscious Marigold. The creature zipped down the cave and disappeared in the gloom. Twilight started after it, but two more changelings came buzzing out of the pitfall to intercept her.
The unicorn had to duck as one of them hurtled over her head, snapping at her mane. Then it spun in the air, coming to land behind her. The two others fanned out in front of her. She was surrounded. As they sprang at her, something clicked in Twilight's head and the long hours of training kicked into full gear. In a flash of scarlet, she telelported back down the corridor, avoiding the creatures' attack. They reacted quickly, reeling about to charge, but time was on Twilight's side. She needed to attack.
Something pressed at her consciousness. A sort of mental itch that demanded her attention. Twilight realized it was coming from the star-knife that rested at her hip. She barely had to reach for the weapon before she felt her magic bind with it. Without moving a muscle, the unicorn freed the blade from its sheath and sent it darting forward three times. The changelings stumbled as sprays of green blood erupted from their throats.
For just a moment, she was paralyzed, looking down at the chitinous corpses. But something tugged at her, an eagerness that wasn't her own. The star-knife swayed back and forth before her like an antsy foal. When she realized that it was actually her own telekinesis moving the weapon, it stopped, but still, she could sense a vibrating energy that urged her onward. She suddenly couldn't stop herself from taking off down the cave at a dead sprint. The incline of the ground gave her even more speed as she sped deeper into the chasm. Twilight knew she was running straight into the jaws of a dangerous enemy, but she couldn't abandon Marigold to the same fate as the cocooned ponies. The further she went, the steeper the slope in the floor became, and soon it was all she could do to keep from stumbling as the momentum of her body threatened to outpace her legs.
For the last stretch of the cave, Twilight had to shift all her weight to her hind legs and slide. The ground vanished from beneath her as the cave opened up into a larger chamber. After a few seconds of being airborne, the unicorn crashed into the ground. Her forward momentum and her armor helped absorb some of the shock from the impact, but she still took a few solid knocks as she went sprawling across the stone floor.
Twilight picked herself up and looked around. The chamber she was in appeared to be a dome judging by the curve of the wall behind her. The degree of the curvature also suggested that the chamber was massive. The ceiling and opposite wall were both invisible in the darkness. The only illumination other than her spell came from two large braziers that flanked what looked like a stone throne in the center of the room. A motionless form lay at the foot of the throne. It was difficult to tell in the dim firelight, but Twilight was fairly certain the figure was a still unconscious Marigold. Twilight took a few cautions steps toward the throne. The star-knife hovered at her side, ready to shoot forward at any instant.
"Twilight Sparkle." The lavender mare froze as the silky voice rang out through the chamber. Two pale green eyes appeared, hovering above the throne. All around the chamber blue-green eyes materialized from the darkness. Twilight was surrounded. The first verdant orbs descended until the light from the braziers illuminated their owner. She was taller than Twilight remembered. A mane of blue-green hair framed her grinning face. Her black chitin was shiny in the firelight. "Welcome to my new home," she purred.
"Chrysalis," Twilight whispered.
"It's been far too long," the changeling queen said, "How is dear Shining Armor?"
Anger flared in Twilight. "Don't say his name," she snarled.
An ugly sneer twisted Chrysalis's face. "Not interested in formalities I see. Here on business then?"
"Where's the Stone?" Twilight demanded.
"Ahhhh. So you finally discovered our little secret. I'm rather surprised it took you so long, what with your . . . eye for detail." She sauntered around her throne, trailing a hoof across it's carved surface. "It's really quite ironic how you ponies claim to be devoted to love and harmony, and yet your species is capable of creating such . . . interesting artifacts."
"That was a long time ago. And I'm here to fix that mistake. Now where is it!"
Chrysalis let out a velvet laugh and stepped lithely over to Marigolds prostrate form. "Even with all your cleverness you still can't see what's right in front of you." As she spoke, her horn began to pulse with a green light. At her feet, Marigold began to groan.
"What are you doing to her!" Twilight shouted. She ran forward, brandishing Luna's star-knife, but just as she was about to spring at the changeling, a burst of energy flared out from the throne, buffeting her magical senses. Chrysalis inhaled a hissing breath and lifted into the air with a buzzing of gossamer wings. She wore an expression of pure euphoria. The entire chamber was suddenly alive with sound as the changelings soaked in the energy given off by the throne. Twilight's eyes widened as the realization dawned.
"That's the Stone of Anguish?"
"Yes!" Chrysalis cried, "And with the power it provides, my children shall rise by the millions. We will blot out your precious sun and turn your lands to ash! Your people will provide fuel for countless generations. None will be able to stand against us and soon, Changelings will dominate the world!" Her final declaration was accompanied by a storm of clicks and hisses from the drones.
Twilight didn't even bother with a response. While the changeling had been talking, she had begun drawing energy for a spell that should break the enchantment on the stone. She wasn't sure how strong the enchantment was, so she was diverting nearly her entire reservoir of magic to this one attack, leaving only enough for two, maybe three teleportation spells for use in their escape.
Chrysalis noticed the glowing of Twilight's horn a moment too late. The scarlet beam of energy roared forth like a tidal wave, crashing into the Stone with a clap of thunder. Twilight had to shield her eyes against the flash of the spell. It was over in an instant. Already, the unicorn was formulating the teleportation spell, but as she looked over to where Marigold lay, she saw that the Stone stood untarnished. Even worse, she could sense the subtle currents of the still-intact enchantment that ran through the ancient object.
Twilight's ears drooped and her knees buckled. She'd failed. Again. And this time, she wouldn't get the chance to fix her mistake. It's all over.
Remember who you are.
Celestia's words suddenly rang out within the unicorn's mind, as clear as if the Princess had just spoken them aloud. And with them, came a recollection of every time Twilight had solved a problem posed by her mentor; every time she had risen to a challenge, academic or practical. Twilight realized then that Celestia's words must have carried a subtle memory spell. What she was seeing was from the Princess's point of view. She was seeing who she really was: a pony who finds an answer.
Everything suddenly snapped into a clean focus that had eluded Twilight since the events at Ponyville. Suddenly, the fact that she didn't know what to do wasn't important, because she knew that there would be a way if she but looked. So, while Chrysalis was cackling her triumph, Twilight cut her mind loose.
First she focused on the Stone, running her magical senses over it's enchantment to feel for any weakness. There were none, but she noted it's construction. It was a weave of several, simple enchantments that, through a complex series of interactions, formed an emergent whole. Just like the star-knife. That seed of information rapidly blossomed into an idea. She knew the star-knife's enchantment down to the thread. She could unravel it with but a tug. The resulting chain reaction would release a massive amount of energy and it would also propagate though any nearby enchantments. If placed in the correct spot, that would be enough to dismantle the Stone. The sensation of consent and acceptance washed through her. She looked down at the semi-sentient weapon, attempting to convey her gratitude. She wasn't sure if it could understand, but it was unthinkable not to at least attempt to acknowledge the sacrifice.
Twilight's entire thought process occurred over the space of a few seconds. The instant it was complete, she implemented her plan, interrupting another one of Chrysalis's monologues by sending the star-knife streaking past her face. With a muffled thunk, the weapon embedded itself in the hard stone.
"I'm surprised, Twilight," Chrysalis crooned, "That was a most underhanded assassination attempt."
"I've seen worse." Twilight declared. Then she reached out with her magic to grasp a single thread of the star-knife's enchantment and pulled.
The blue light that flared forth from Luna's weapon was intense enough that Twilight could see thousands of changelings as they cringed away from the brightness. A moment later, an orange light began emanating from the Stone, quickly spreading across its entire surface.
"No!" Chrysalis screamed as the Stone glowed with more and more intensity until it finally detonated, "No! NO! RAAAAAAHHHHHGGGGGHHHH!"
The explosion left Twilight's ears ringing, but she couldn't waste any time. She sprinted forward to where Marigold still lay and with a flash of scarlet, they disappeared from the chamber.
She overestimated the distance to the surface, and the two mares re-materialized nearly ten feet in the air and landed in a heap on the snowy ground. Ignoring the aching that permeated nearly every part of her body, Twilight pushed herself to her hooves and limped over to cast a simple healing spell on her companion. Marigold's eyes flew open and she was on her feet and brandishing her pistol in the blink of an eye.
"Easy!" Twilight said, "We got away."
"And the stone?" The warrior pony's mind was sharp for having just been revived.
"Destroyed. But I don't think we should stay here. Chrysalis is still--" Twilight was cut off by a blood-curdling scream that almost seemed to shake the bulkheads of the wrecked airship.
"Right," Marigold said weakly. "Running then." Twilight couldn't have agreed more and the two mares took off back toward the Sun Fire. Behind them, Chrysalis's voice thundered through the blizzard.
"YOU WILL PAY TWILIGHT SPARKLE! WE ARE STILL MANY AND WE WILL RAZE EQUESTRIA TO THE GROUND FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!"
You can try, Twilight thought as she ran, leaving the hive far behind.
Luna met them as they made port back in Canterlot ten days later. "Twilight Sparkle!" she called in greeting as the unicorn stepped out of the chariot that had ferried her from the ship. "Walk with me a moment. We have an important matter to discuss."
Twilight felt a moment of disappointment. She had been looking forward to having a chance to relax and recuperate. But now that she had resolved her inner turmoil, she was less anxious about the possible tasks Luna would set for her. So she nodded her farewell to Marigold and followed the Princess back up the dock.
"First, I must offer my most sincere thanks and congratulations," Luna began, "This was no small task my friend." Twilight wondered at how Luna could believe she could think destroying a powerful and ancient evil artifact was a small task, but said nothing as the Princess continued. "Not only have you eliminated the changeling's ability to produce unlimited drones, but you have also discovered the location of their hive. We now have the perfect opportunity to strike."
Twilight stopped in her tracks. "Are you sure that's wise, Princess? There were hundreds of thousands of drones at that hive, not to mention the ones that are already in Equestria."
"It will not be easy, but we do have the means to destroy them. However there is a problem that I require your aid in resolving first." The alicorn fixed Twilight with a gaze full of fire, "I believe it is time to use the Elements of Harmony. However, in order for them to work, they require their corresponding wielders: you and your friends."
Twilight looked away. "I'm sorry, Princess. We're . . . short one Element."
"No. We are not." Twilight's ears perked at Luna's words. She turned to face her again. There was a light in Luna's face, an eagerness that reminded Twilight of the star-knife. "Your friend Fluttershy is alive. And I need you to find her."
The wind whispered against Rainbow Dash's ears and caressed the feathers of her wings as she flew. The moonlight played over the clouds, turning them into a pale, rolling sea. She had found a strong updraft and was hanging in the current, barely having to move her wings in order to stay aloft. Everything seemed peaceful. It reminded the pegasus of the days before the war. And she hated it.
"Can we go yet?" She hissed through her headset.
"We're waiting for the signal Sparrow Three. And we're supposed to be doing it quietly," came the crackling reply.
Rainbow growled and went back to watching the clouds. Each of her muscles was tensed, ready for action. But here she was, hovering above the clouds like a snowflake. This was a waste of her time. A waste of her talents. She needed action. She needed a fight. A roll of thunder echoed up from below.
"They're starting. We have to go!" the pegasus snarled.
"Radio silence, Three."
Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth as another roll of muffled thunder stirred the air. This time, a few flashes of light made it through the clouds. Behind her goggles, Rainbow's eyes narrowed. "That's it," she muttered and plunged forward through the clouds.
"Sparrow three, return to your position!"
The diving pegasus switched off her headset and continued her descent. Moisture condensed on her goggles as she plummeted through the grey abyss. The only sound was the rushing wind and her pounding heart. The haze vanished abruptly as she broke through the clouds and she could see. Cloudsdale. Her home, and the site of the bloodiest, ongoing battle of the Changeling War. The pillars and arches of the city were lit by dozens of flames as the ponies and changelings clashed high above Equestria. Thousands of drones swarmed around Coudsdale's perimeter, harrying pegasi defenders. Several of the changeling behemoths were moving in, destroying a few of the outer buildings with their heavy cannons. Rainbow Dash noted that they now bore armor near their wing roots, preventing the pegasi from dropping them with a few well-placed shots. The ponies' airships and war balloons were moving to intercept the threat. Rainbow would leave them to it. There wasn't much she could do to the behemoths with only her two saddle-mounted machine guns. Instead, she veered towards the city, picking out the densest group of changelings.
Once she was oriented on her target, Rainbow pumped her wings hard, gaining speed. Her timing had been a little off last time she'd attempted this maneuver, but she learned from her mistakes. This run would be perfect. There was still plenty of distance between the lone pegasus and the changelings when she pressed the trigger, unleashing a hail of bullets from her guns. She swiveled her head from side to side, and with a whirring of gears, her machine guns mirrored her line of sight, tracking the agile drones as they jinked and zigzagged to avoid the pegasus's fire. But Rainbow Dash was an ace with more than enough combat experience to predict her enemies' movements. She ripped through the changeling formation, downing at least six drones.
A few of the creatures gave chase as she hurtled passed. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed that three drones were on her tail. Green bolts of light shot passed as the drones opened fire. With practiced motions, Rainbow unlocked her guns, allowing them to rotate down so they pointed backwards. Then, with a stoke of her right wing, she flipped over so she was looking down her belly at her pursuers. Her cross hairs jumped from one drone to the next, putting a short burst into them one at a time. Each of the three changelings went down, trailing green blood. With a smile, Rainbow Dash flipped over again and locked her guns into their forward orientation.
She wondered if the rest of her squadron was still up in the could cover. If Colonel Cyclone got his way they wouldn't spring the ambush until after the changelings were past the barricade. Every minute they waited, more ponies would die and that was unacceptable. Any plan that cost pony lives was no less than treason. Besides, it was a waste of her talents to hover around in an updraft when she could be taking the fight to the enemy.
Rainbow had initially been surprised by how well she adapted to warfare, but as the months of fighting passed, the more it made sense. Competition had always been her drive and battle was just a competition with higher stakes. Failure would mean the destruction of the country she loved. It seemed like there weren't any other ponies who understood that fact. They were probably scared. But, for Rainbow, the cost of losing just added to the thrill. Never before had she been able to cut loose, to pour everything she possibly could into a struggle. Every battle pushed her to the very limit of what her body could do and it felt amazing. This is what she was born for.
The pegasus rocketed through the battle, making short work of any changeling unlucky enough to cross her path. The creatures were no match for the agile flyer. Most didn't even see her coming, and each one was a little victory. One less bug.
One less of the Tartarus-spawn to threaten her country.
A flash of green to her left gave her a moment's warning, allowing the pegasus to veer upward before the changeling's fiery projectile streaked through the space she had just occupied. The black, chitinous form of a changeling whizzed by underneath her, arcing to come up behind. A bug with an attitude huh? Rainbow thought, Better teach him a lesson. With a wolfish grin, she pulled up into a barrel role, flaring her wings to bleed even more airspeed. It was a simple maneuver, but the bugs fell for it every time. In the blink of an eye she would be behind her opponent, in the perfect position for a kill. As she went inverted, Rainbow glanced down, expecting to see the changeling shoot out ahead of her, but there was no sign of the creature. Had he broken off? In confusion, the pegasus looked down her belly past her tail and was surprised to see the changeling executing his own barrel roll and hot on her heels. As if this changeling's flying talents weren't disconcerting enough, Rainbow caught a glimpse of the thing's face. Instead of the blue-green of normal changeling eyes, this one glared at her with orbs of a deep red.
The pegasus was expecting the hail of fire as both she and her opponent leveled out. She wasn't expecting how well the creature led her as she peeled to the right. She lost a few feathers as she jinked wildly to avoid the fire. This bug was a cut above the rest. Not that it was any match for her, she would just have to pull out all the stops. The thought of having a challenge for once was actually kind of exciting.
Rainbow decided to start with her usual trick for dealing with an enemy on her tail. Again, she unlocked the mechanism on her guns, allowing them to rotate. Then she rolled over and fired backward at the red-eyed changeling, but it reacted quickly, breaking off and diving below her guns' field of fire. Instead of flipping right side up, Rainbow somersaulted forward, allowing her momentum to bring her guns back into position and resume her straight flight without losing speed. A quick glance behind her showed that she had gained some distance on the changeling, but it was still tracking her every move. It wouldn't be hard to simply outrun the creature, but Rainbow hated the idea of leaving this bug to terrorize the other pegasi. No, this one was her's. But first she needed to get it off her tail.
That was proving to be a difficult task for the rainbow-maned pony. She tried every maneuver she knew to force an overshoot. She even tried coming to a dead stop, but that only gave the changeling an easier target. It was like the creature knew what she was going to do before she did it. Frustration was forming a tight pit in Rainbow's stomach as her every attempt to turn the tides failed. It was easy enough to dodge most of red-eyes' attacks but every once in a while he got pretty close. Sooner or later, he'd probably get lucky.
With a growl, the pegasus forced herself to calm down and think. Creativity had never been her strong suit, but if she didn't come up with something, she would have to disengage. The thought of anypony seeing her running away from a fight was unbearable. Another bolt of green fire shot past. Rainbow feinted to the right then swerved left, buying a few seconds to look around for anything she could use to her advantage. After swiveling her head frantically for a moment, she found herself staring up at the overcast that had been put in place to veil the pegasi ambush and an idea sprouted in her mind. Any of her friends would have called it absolutely crazy, but it was the only thing she could think of.
With a grunt of effort, she pumped her wings, pulling into a steep climb. The sudden maneuver gave Rainbow a few second's respite from the changeling's relentless firing, but another glance over her shoulder confirmed that the bug was still following. Perfect. The relative darkness of night was replaced by utter blackness as she plunged through the chilly, moist cloud layer. The dark was disorienting, but Rainbow knew it wouldn't last long and after only a few seconds she emerged into silver moonlight. The pegasus stilled her wings, letting her inertia carry her a bit higher as she nosed over then dove straight back the way she had come. Rainbow gritted her teeth. This was going to hurt.
The changeling broke through the clouds, giving Rainbow and instant's glimpse of its face as its red eyes widened in shock. Then they collided. Rainbow managed to transfer most of the impact to her forelegs as her hooves smashed into the changeling's carapace and the two flyers plummeted back into the pitch black of the clouds.
The first moments of their struggle weren't much more than a flailing of limbs as each of them tried to gain the upper hand. Mostly they just succeeded in tangling their legs together. By the time they were back through the clouds, they were in a gut-wrenching spin. The changeling hissed, the muscles of its neck bulging as it pulled against strong g-forces to try and bring it's teeth to bear. Rainbow remembered the effects of the changeling venom on Princess Celestia. That was definitely something she wanted to avoid. With a growl, she wrenched one foreleg mostly free and struck at the creature in the jaw. The forces of the spin robbed her strike of most of its power, but she managed to keep her opponent's menacing fangs away from her flesh. Another jerk freed her limb completely and she immediately started scrabbling for the trigger lever on her gun. The barrel of the weapon bounced around between the struggling flyers as Rainbow finally caught hold of the trigger. The changeling struggled desperately, trying to stay out of the gun's line of fire, but the pegasus had the upper hand. With a final twist of her hips, she brought the weapon's tip just shy of the changeling's chin. One more push and she would have it.
A bright flash of green forced Rainbow to look away, but as she turned back, she managed to wedge her gun into place. But the changeling was gone. Where its blood-red eyes had been an instant earlier, now there were glistening, blue eyes staring back at her, full of fear. And around those familiar eyes was a familiar pink face wreathed in a familiar pink mane. In her mind, Rainbow Dash knew that this wasn't really Pinkie Pie. She knew that the changeling was trying one last, desperate trick. But it didn't matter. It was the perfect image of her best friend, and for one crucial second, she her heart and her brain were conflicted. It was all the changeling needed. In the blink of an eye, the false Pinkie lunged forward, its face contorting as fangs sprouted from its mouth. With a yelp, Rainbow Dash kicked out, pushing the changeling away. At the same time, she tapped the trigger and her gun barked out a short, two-round burst. The bullets tore into the changeling's shoulder and foreleg and the creature let out a screech as it reverted back into its grotesque form. It lashed out with one of its perforated hooves and struck Rainbow across the face, knocking her goggles askew. The rush of air from their rapid descent quickly dislodged the pegasus's eye-wear and Rainbow had to squint against the wind.
By now, the two of them had fallen so far that the threat of crashing into the ground forced them both to abandon the grapple. Rainbow wasn't sure she could have held onto her enemy after taking such a blow anyway. And now she really had the advantage. The changeling could still fly, but it's injury would greatly hamper its speed and agility. It would be a piece of cake for Rainbow to finish it off.
As they broke apart, the pegasus slowed her descent, easily maneuvering behind the changeling. She took her time lining up the final shot. So long, bug. Rainbow pressed the trigger, but just before her guns flashed to life, the changeling spun to face her in a perfect imitation of the blue mare's roll-over trick. But, instead of unleashing one of its fiery projectiles, the changeling opened its mouth and spat out a gob of venom which quickly expanded into a green cloud. There was no time for Rainbow to react before she flew straight through the venom cloud. She cried out as the poison filled her eyes. The pain was so intense that she could feel it in her gut.
It was suddenly impossible to keep her wings flapping in sync and in the space of a breath, the pegasus was tumbling wildly through the air. Rainbow wasn't sure how far she was from the ground, but she knew it was close enough that she should be trying to decelerate. It took a few tries, but eventually she managed to turn her spiraling fall into something resembling a controlled descent, and without a moment to spare. Despite her best efforts, the impact was still enough to knock the wind out of her. She ricocheted off the ground, hurtling another several feet before striking the earth again. After the second impact, Rainbow tried to curl her limbs in, bracing for the next time she hit the ground. But the next time she came down, instead of packed dirt, she found herself plunging into ice cold water.
Instinctively, she clamped her eyes shut, but the sudden searing pain prompted her to open them again. The pain eased slightly as the chilly water washed some of the venom out. Frantically, the blue mare forced her eyes wide. At first the coldness was uncomfortable, but that soon gave way to merciful numbness. Rainbow held her head beneath the water until she had to come up for air. The night around her was no more than a dark blur, punctuated by the flash of explosions from the battle above. Her eyes felt tight, as if they were covered in plastic wrap. It was another several minutes before she could see clearly again.
By then, the flashes from Cloudsdale were beginning to fade. Rainbow Dash looked up, squinting against the intermittent flare of gunfire. The changelings were backing off. Their retreat seemed reluctant, but they were definitely giving ground. The battle was over. The ponies had won, yet again. But Rainbow could only feel defeated as she hauled her soaked, aching body out of the lake she'd landed in. That red-eyed changeling had beaten her, and damn near made sure she would never fly again. Fear began to creep up the blue mare's spine, and she shut it down the only way she knew how. With anger. She would find that bug again, and when she did, she would kill it.
"What in Tartarus' name were you thinking!?"
Rainbow dash stood silently in the debriefing room as Colonel Cyclone paraded back and forth, berating her in his usual pompous windbag manner. By now the pegasus was used to it. Her commanding officer might have an impressive set of lungs, but it was just scolding and empty threats. He would never ground his best flyer.
"You jeopardized the entire operation with your glory-seeking stunt," Cyclone blustered, "If you'd been any slower the changelings would have seen where you'd come from and we'd have lost the element of surprise. The entire ambush would have been ruined."
"There was no chance that I would have been too slow, sir," Rainbow said, meeting her commander's eyes.
"No one doubts your abilities, Sparrow Three. But you left your squadron. You put us all at risk. That kind of disloyalty is dangerous."
Rainbow's vision went red with a sudden burst of rage. Disloyalty! He wanted to sit around in updrafts while ponies died and he was lecturing her about disloyalty?!
"What did you just say?" the mare said, her voice quiet and strained as she tried to keep her anger in check.
Cyclone stopped his pacing and squared his shoulders. "Disloyalty, Three. That is what your insubordination has amounted to. You've been disloyal to your squadron, to the pegasus command, and to your country. And I'm afraid--"
"WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT LOYALTY!" Rainbow exploded, "You want to sit around planning ambushes while the ponies on the front lines are getting slaughtered! Every second we aren't fighting costs lives! I'm doing my job!"
"You are hindering our ability to act as a unified force!" Cyclone shouted back, "One renegade soldier can wreck an entire campaign! You have talent, but you damn near threw that away too! If you hadn't landed in that lake, the changeling's poison would have damaged your eyes beyond repair. You are a danger to yourself and every other pegasus in Cloudsdale. Therefore you are being discharged from Sparrow squadron and suspended from duty until further notice."
Rainbow's blazing anger was quenched by an icy numbness at her commander's words. "Y-You can't do that. I'm the best flyer here. You need me!"
"You're a liability, Dash." The Colonel seemed to deflate somewhat. "I've already cleared it with command. Return to your quarters and please, don't make trouble."
Rainbow Dash was still for a moment, absorbing what had just happened. She felt tears threatening to burst forth, so she turned hastily and swept out of the small debriefing room. She walked back to the barracks in a haze. She was lucky enough to have one of the only single-pony bunks in the hastily built cloud-structure. Cyclone's words still rang in her head as she re-sealed the walls of her small quarters.
Glory-seeking. Disloyalty. Did he even know who he was talking to? Rainbow slammed one hoof against the wall. There was a tiny, unsatisfying poof as the surface benignly absorbed her strike. She supposed it was probably good that there wasn't anything in her room that she could break, or anything on which she could break herself. With a snarl, the pegasus threw herself onto her bed. The cheaper cirrus material wasn't as cushy as the nimbus that had made up her bed in Ponyville, but Rainbow had grown accustomed to the harshness of war. Besides, it wouldn't feel right to be comfortable while others were stuck in even worse conditions. The earth ponies on the front lines would be lucky if they got to sleep in a cot.
The pegasus rolled over, hating everything about the situation in which she suddenly found herself. For her entire life she had been a pony of action. Whether she was defending a loved one or serving her own ambition, she could always rely on her wings and her hooves to get the job done. Now she was stuck in a tiny cloud chamber while her country faced annihilation. I could just leave. . . . That was a dangerous thought. Desertion was treason. If she was caught, it would mean jail time. A lot of jail time. How is that any different from where I am now? Everyone would think she was a traitor. They think that already. Cyclone said it himself. She would never join the Wonderbolts. That doesn't matter anymore. The war changed everything. I don't even want to join the Wonderbolts anymore. That realization startled her for a moment, but she tucked it away as she continued to consider her decision.
The one thing that might have stopped her was the idea of what her friends would think. Their's were the only opinions that mattered at all. But she had done some pretty stupid stuff before and their feelings toward her had never once wavered. There were even a few times she knew she was being a blockhead and was pretty sure anypony with a brain would have walked away, but her friends never left. Besides, this decision is really important. I'm sure if I just explain why I had to do it, they will understand. Rainbow closed her eyes as her resolve pushed aside what remained of her anger. She would leave in the morning to fight the war on her own terms. Nopony was going to stop her.
Rainbow had thought she wouldn't be able to sleep, but evidently she had been wrong. She found herself coming awake to the sound of shouts and running hooves. She stumbled out of bed and whisked open the cloud wall that sealed her quarters. She was met by a scene of chaos as pegasi sprinted up and down the narrow hallway outside her room.
"Hey!" she called, stopping a tan stallion, "What the hey is going on?"
"There's a changeling armada heading for Cloudsdale. Bigger than anything we've ever seen! Princess Luna is leading the defense herself."
The stallion pushed past her and dashed off. After a moment, Rainbow's tired brain finally processed what he had said. An armada. Bigger than anything they'd seen. From the beginning of the war, the changelings had kept up a non-stop offensive against the cloud city. Rainbow had personally witnessed fleets with thousands of behemoths and countless drones. Cloudsdale had enough problems dealing with the current level of fighting. If this armada was as big as that stallion made it seem . . . It looked like going AWOL is going to have to wait. The blue mare ducked back into her cabin to grab her sidearm before rushing outside.
Rainbow Dash tried to blend in as she hurried out of the barracks, no easy task for a mare with six colors in her mane. Luckily, it seemed like nopony was terribly interested in keeping an eye out for recently discharged pegasi. The cloud platform outside the barracks was equally chaotic. Pegasi were landing and taking off, usually passing within a hairs breadth of one another. Rainbow watched as a heavily armored royal guard clipped his wing on another pegasi and landed hard in a puff of mist. The armored stallion didn't look as if he'd registered the crash as he sprang up and went running into the barracks.
From the looks of it, most of the ponies already had their orders. Squadrons of pegasi flew in formation overhead, all of them heading to the south. That was weird. Usually the changelings attacked from the north. Something wasn't right. Rainbow frowned, suddenly aware of how much she had relied on the briefings before each mission. She needed information before she decided what to do. After a quick glance around to be sure no one was paying attention, the blue mare kicked a small hole in the clouds below her and dropped down. She gathered some of the soft, wispy material around her as she fell, concentrating as much moisture as she could to make it as opaque as possible. Once she was satisfied with her camouflage, she drifted into a wind current, hoping all the other pegasi were too preoccupied to deal with a stray bit of cloud.
The potent high-altitude breeze soon carried her to the outskirts of the city. Once there, Rainbow let her tiny rain cloud disperse and shot straight up into the pre-dawn sky. She didn't have to climb very high before she saw them. There were so many they looked like a black amoeba moving across the brightening sky. The roiling mass of glistening, black chitin looked as if it could swallow Cloudsdale whole. And that was only the drones. Flanking the massive swarm came the lumbering behemoths. The low, oscillating buzz of their immense wings pressed against Rainbow's ear drums. The pegasus let out a low whistle. "I'd better find the Princess."
Luna wasn't hard to find. She was using a small gunship in the Wonderbolt's old arena as a command post and using her royal canterlot voice to direct the defense. "Ah, Rainbow Dash, there you are," the alicorn called, "I sent a guard for you but you were not in the barracks. Your commanding officer was most displeased."
Rainbow winced. "Ooh, right. About that--,"
Luna held up a hoof to silence her. "Your discharge does not concern me. In fact I had intended to relieve you of duty myself."
"What? Why?" Rainbow asked defensively.
"It may not be obvious now, but I believe the tides of this war are about to change," Luna said, "Even now, Twilight Sparkle is about to strike directly at the source of these creatures' power. You and your Element of Harmony will be needed when we deliver the final blow."
"Aw yeah!" Rainbow exclaimed, "It's about time we took the fight to the bugs!"
"This battle will be the beginning of the end for the changelings," Luna agreed, turning to walk back towards the gunship.
"I wanna be at the front," Rainbow said eagerly, "Just lemme grab my guns and--"
"No," Luna cut her off, "We must withdraw with the rest of our forces."
Rainbow Dash froze in her tracks. "What?" she murmured.
The Princess didn't even look back as she said, "We are leaving the city. Come, I will explain."
"No! We can't abandon Cloudsdale!"
Princess Luna turned at the pegasus' sudden outburst. "I assure you, Raibow Dash, I do not make this sacrifice lightly. But we have a singular opportunity now, to cripple the changelings."
"But we fought so hard!" Rainbow growled, gritting her teeth for fear that her voice would crack, "So many ponies died to keep Cloudsdale safe."
"They died to afford us this chance," Luna's voice was way too calm, "We have expended so many resources to defend this place, the changelings will never suspect that we plan to destroy the city ourselves."
Rainbow Dash couldn't believe her ears. Destroy Cloudsdale? "But what about the weather factory? How are we gonna make rain for the farms?"
"Our farmland already lies in ashes. And any new cultivation is immediately overrun by those vermin. Our only hope is to end this war. Now come, the weather engineers have already set the core of the weather factory to overload. In five minutes, the reactor will detonate and the changelings will be hear well before that. We must leave now."
"You go!" Rainbow spat, "Cloudsdale is still my home, and I'm going to protect it." With that, the pegasus wheeled around, unfurling her wings.
"Rainbow Dash--" The blue mare didn't wait to hear what Luna would say, in the blink of an eye she was streaking toward the rainbow factory. Besides a few straggling pegasi, the entire city was deserted. It was eerie, like Cloudsdale was already dead, just an empty shell, resigned to its fate. To make things worse, the buzz of the swarm had grown to an ululating roar. Rainbow could see the swarm over the building tops now. It spread like a living shadow, moving to engulf the cloud city. No you don't. Once the Princess sees that the factory didn't blow, she'll bring back the fleet. You're not taking Cloudsdale! The pegasus pumped her wings, coaxing as much speed as they could deliver.
She could hear sirens blaring from within the factory as she alighted amidst the ancient columns of the entrance. The only time she had ever seen the reactor was during a field trip back when she was in flight school. It was in a large chamber deep within the heart of the factory. There was only one set of stairs and only one corridor leading to the core chamber. Cloud buildings didn't lend themselves well to elaborate corridors and complex floor plans. It was a good thing too. There were only a few more minutes before the detonation.
Inside, the dark bowels of the factory were illuminated only by red, flashing lights, adding to the surreal quality of the deserted building. The sounds of the alarms grew dimmer and muffled as the blue mare made her way down the sloping hallway. All of the speakers must have been on the main level. Rainbow just hoped that the factory's rainbow core wasn't much different than the one that had powered her home in Ponyville. She was mentally reviewing all of the safety protocols for rainbow reactors as she approached the central chamber.
"Vhat do you tink it meanssss?" came a high pitched, hissing voice from within the room. Rainbow pressed herself flat against the wall, pulling her saddle pistol out of its holster. The weapon wouldn't be as useful without its harness. She would have to use both of her fore-hooves to pull the trigger, but the pegasus could still use her wings to move while she fired. Cautiously, she crept forward to peer around the corner into the room. A royal guard in golden armor lay between two control panels, still grasping his lance. Behind him were two changelings, who were regarding the rainbow core as it pulsed inside the industrial-grade containment unit.
"Can't be ssssure. Vhe had better go tell zhe sssswarm master," one said.
"Yeh," trilled the other one, "Vhe ssssshould go."
Rainbow Dash didn't wait for them to turn around. With a smooth, practiced motion, she leaned around the corner, lined up her first shot, and squeezed the trigger. The bark of the weapon echoed painfully through the enclosed space, drowning out a small cry of alarm from the second changeling as gore erupted from the first one's throat. Rainbow had already taken her second shot as the creature turned to see her. She didn't wait for it's body to hit the ground before surging into the room, clumsily trying to get her pistol back into its holster. First, she knelt to check the guard, holding a hoof to his neck to feel for a pulse. Nothing. Rainbow sighed and stood up, shaking her head, and examined the two control panels. The set up was a bit more complicated than her domestic model had been, but she thought she could figure it out. She rushed over to the closest panel where a screen was flashing WARNING! in bright red letters.
"Woah!" Rainbowdash shouted, leaping up and backwards, fumbling for her pistol.
"Sorry!" came a quivering voice from under the control panel, "I thought you were another changeling." A slender, yellow pegasus peaked out from her hiding spot.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to sneak up on ponies?" Rainbow shouted. Her heart was still hammering as she put away her weapon a second time. The other mare cringed away from her yelling. "Sorry. You just sca-- startled me. What are you doing here anyway?"
"I forgot some important documents here during the evacuation. I came back to get them, but. . ." the yellow pegasus eyed the changeling's bodies with a sick look.
"Good thing I got here when I did then, huh? A few more minutes and you wouldn't have been able to make it out before the core exploded. Say, do you work here? Maybe you can help me shut this thing down."
The other mare paused for a moment. "You want me to stop the core from detonating?"
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I know the Princess wants to let the core overload to destroy the swarm, but Cloudsdale is my home and it's home to a lot of other ponies too. So I don't care if she's Princess or not, she doesn't have any right to blow up this city."
"I suppose you're right. . . But I don't usually work with the core directly. I'm not sure how to shut it down." Across the room, the containment unit began to shake slightly as the core's pulsing grew more intense.
"Well, it's actually pretty simple. You just have to vent the extra power. Check that console. There should be a lever labeled 'emergency vent' or something." As the yellow mare moved to study the other console, Rainbow looked back at her own. There were various knobs and buttons, most of them labelled with numbers. There was probably some pattern to them, but Rainbow had never been any good with this sort of thing. If only Twilight were here.
Without warning, the core stopped shaking. A hissing sound emanated from the pipes that ran along the floor at the edge of the ceiling and the pulsing of the core began to slow.
"Hey, you figured it out! Now let's get out of--," Rainbow Dash turned and found the other mare's face a few inches away from her own. "Uhhh. What are you--,"
The yellow pegasus smiled, revealing two long, twinkling fangs. Before Rainbow could react, the mare grabbed her by the shoulders and lurched forward, sinking her fangs into her shoulder.
"Gaahhh!" Rainbow Dash cried, more in alarm than pain. The changeling tore her fangs free of the pony's flesh and kicked her viciously to the ground beside the dead guard.
"Ssso nice to ssssee you again," the creature said. In a flash of green flame, it reverted back to its original form, replacing its sparkling pony eyes with orbs of deep red. A gnarled scar stood out on the changeling's shoulder.
"You," Rainbow croaked. "How did you . . . I shot you." It was painful to speak. It was painful to breath. But a tingling numbness was slowly spreading up her neck. That can't be good.
"Foolish pony. Vhe have more power zhen you know. Alzhough I mussst sssay, I'm impresssssed. I've killed hundredsss of poniessss, and you're zhe only one to ever vhound me."
"I'll. . . do more than. . . that!" Rainbow gasped. She tried to stand, but her head was beginning to spin.
"Ssso persssistent. It isss cute," Red-eyes let out a soft laugh that was a mix between the purr of a cat and the death squeal of a rabbit. Then it fixed Rainbow with a piercing gaze. "Before you die, I mussst zhank you. Vhizhout you, zhe swarm vhould have been desssstroyed. You have done changelings a great sssservice. Such a shame zhere are not more ponies like you. Vhe could use more traitors."
Everything froze on the changeling's last word. Traitor. Traitor. Traitor. Rainbow's pupils constricted as rage welled up behind her eyes. Her gaze was fixed on the changeling's leering face. She didn't know when she had grabbed the dead guard's lance, but she barely had to realize that she was holding it before she jammed it into the changeling's mouth. The tip of the weapon erupted from the back of the creature's head. The last thing Rainbow saw before her vision blurred was the look of surprise on the changeling's face while she toppled over, letting out tiny, gurgling noises. The light faded from her scarlet eyes and everything went dark.
Rainbow Dash came awake again to the sensation of flying. She opened her eyes and saw Cloudsdale stretched out below her, illuminated by the soft light of dawn. Changelings swarmed around and through the city, which was rapidly growing smaller and the pegasus realized she was gaining altitude. The wind rushed over the feathers of her limp wings. Well this is new, she thought sluggishly, then decided not to think about it too much. She was in the sky. Right where she was supposed to be. The changelings below weren't her problem anymore.
She was about to close her eyes again when it happened. A flash of light, right at the center of Cloudsdale, and then a wave of color swept out in a dome. It was so bright, but Rainbow couldn't look away. After a few second's delay, the sound of the explosion pounded her ears in a long, rumbling roll of thunder. And then it all faded, leaving a smoking scar in the clouds. Cloudsdale was gone. Rainbow Dash's vision blurred once again, this time with tears.
Sunlight fell across her face. It must be almost noon. Twilight would be mad at her for being late clearing the clouds, but she was the only one in Ponyville who ever cared about the schedule. Rainbow rolled over, away from the window. Wait a minute. Isn't my window on the other side? With that realization came the rest of the memories of the past year-and-a-half. She sat bolt upright and every muscle in her back spasmed in an instant cramp.
"Woah there nelly!" An orange hoof came to rest gently on her shoulder. Rainbow looked over to see it belonged to a familiar face.
"Applejack? What're you--"
"Easy partner," the earthpony said, "You've had a rougher time than a slow clown at the rodeo."
Rainbow leaned her face into her hooves. "Where am I?" she muttered.
"Canterlot Hospital. Ya'll have been here fer nearly a week."
"Well, once Luna got the fleet all sorted, she came lookin' fer ya. Then she set that rainbow doohicky up to explode and beelined it out o' there faster than a jackrabbit. Blew a hole right through the ceiling, as ah hear it." Applejack paused to take a deep breath. "Ya'll know Cloudsale is gone?"
"Not your fault." Rainbow's voice was starting to waver. "What are you doing here?" she asked, hoping to keep her friend talking so that she didn't have to.
"Keepin' ya company o' course," Applejack said.
"I mean what are you doing in Canterlot?" Rainbow said, glaring at her friend.
"Luna's orders. She want's ta use the Elements o' Harmony, so we're gatherin' up the whole crew. It'll be a good ol' reunion."
"Right . . . What about Fluttershy?"
The orange mare beamed. "Apparently she's still alive somewhere. Twi is off lookin' for her right now."
Rainbow grunted. She knew that she would should feel happy at that news, but happiness seemed to be a hard thing to feel right now. Another question came to her mind. The only question that had an answer likely to make her feel something other than empty. "When are we going to the changeling nest?"
Applejack's smile faded. "Soon," she said.
"Good." Rainbow Dash replied, "They've taken enough. It's payback time."
There was more blood than usual. Most of the wounded that made it to the field hospital were the ones hit by the changelings fiery, spell-like projectiles, but this poor fellow looked like he'd been mauled. Rarity took in the scene with a cold, calculating eye. There were several bite wounds on the stallion's shoulders and forelegs. The flesh around the punctures looked necrotic. A blood-soaked bandage on his neck presumably covered another wound. His face was scratched and bruised, his eyes swollen shut. One of his hind legs was stuck out at an unnatural angle. Nearly every inch of his grey coat was spattered with blood. When she had first joined the medical corps such a gruesome sight would have made her faint, but the past year and a half had given her plenty of time to practice controlling her reactions.
"Get another hemostat!" Rarity called as a pair of nurses wheeled the injured soldier into the small operating tent.
"Yes doctor," one of the nurses said before scurrying back out of the tent.
"This chap is going to need anti-venom," Rarity said, levitating medical supplies from the various shelves around the room. "A double dose, I think."
"Got it," The remaining nurse said, trotting over to a refrigerated chest.
Rarity was just laying out her tools and bandages when she was interrupted by a commotion outside.
"Let me in!"
"It's probably best if you wait out here."
"But I'm a medic; I can help!"
Rarity threw open the tent flap to see what was going on. Outside, the nurse she'd sent for a hemostat was standing in front of a mare with eyes the color of amber.
"Let her in dear," Rarity said, touching her nurse on the shoulder, "I'm sure she'll make herself useful and this fellow can't wait on us while we argue. Of course I'll need to know your name first, darling."
"It's Autumn. And thanks," the amber-eyed mare said and together they hurried back into the tent where the other nurse was administering the anti-venom. Rarity took the extra hemostat from the nurse and ordered her to prepare some anesthetic. Their patient was currently unconscious, but there was no telling when he would wake up and this was going to be a nasty procedure. With Autumn's help, the white unicorn removed the bandage around the soldier's neck to reveal another bite wound, still welling with blood.
"Suction that, please," Rarity ordered levitating a needle and surgical thread off of her tray. Autumn responded quicker than either of the nurses, rapidly clearing the wound of excess blood. Rarity leaned forward and used her hooves to gently prod the stallion's flesh apart to get a better look at the wound. As she suspected, the soldier's carotid artery had been nicked. It would have to be clamped before she could stitch it shut. She quickly secured both hemostats on the large blood vessel before setting to work with her needle and thread. Repairing a major artery was always a daunting task, but Rarity's work was never less than perfect. Before the war had started, Rarity would never have thought her stitching could get more precise, but when a patient is in danger of bleeding out . . . one finds a way. In a matter of seconds, the puncture in the artery was closed.
With the most critical danger out of the way, Rarity set to work on the rest of the stallion's injuries. Many of the minor cuts needed to be sutured, but the edges were still ragged and festering. The snow-white unicorn handed off her needle and thread to Autumn and took up her razor sharp scalpel and began slicing away the blackened flesh around each wound. Each cut was clean and precise, shaving away the tiniest amount of healthy skin to be sure the gangrene would not spread. Autumn followed, stitching the wounds shut with an expert hoof.
"Those stitches look quite professional, dear. Almost done now," Rarity said as she finished trimming the last wound. "We just have to set this leg to rights and he'll be well on his way to recovery."
"I'll do that if you don't mind ma'am," Autumn said.
"Be my guest dear. I never could tolerate setting bones. Such a dreadful crack." The red-maned mare nodded and took hold of the injured stallion's leg, bracing it between her hooves. Rarity winced at the sound of the fractured bone popping back together. "Now all that's left is the cast. The nurses will see to that."
"Right," Autumn said, "Um. Thanks for letting me help. I couldn't . . . Um. Just, thanks."
Rarity nodded, smiling. "You're familiar with the poor lad, I take it?"
"Dusty," the young mare's voice trembled over the name. "He's in my squad. It . . . It's my fault he's . . . that he almost--" Autumn fell silent, clenching her eyes shut over a welling of tears.
"There there," Rarity said, putting a hoof to her shoulder and gently guiding her out of the tent. "If I had a bit for every time I heard a soldier blame themselves for a friend's injury I'd be living in Canterlot Castle when this is all over."
"Yeah maybe. I just . . . Well, thanks for saving him. He's kind of the only thing holding us all together since we lost our last sergeant."
"Oh dear! I'm so sorry."
"No no, not like that. She was recalled. By the Princess of all ponies. I guess it's not terribly surprising considering her role in the initial invasion of Canterlot, but she never made herself out as anything special."
"Just a moment," Rarity said, perking her ears, "her role in the invasion?"
"Yeah, she's one of Twilight Sparkle's friends. Applejack. I nearly had a heart attack when I hear my sergeant was an Element of Harmony. I mean, she's no Sapphire Shores, but she's still a hero. They all are. I would think they would have a bigger part in the war, ya know?"
Rarity was still reeling a bit at the sudden news of her friend, but even greater was her surprise at being referred to as a hero as if it were common knowledge. How many hours had she spent fantasizing about having her name known far and wide? Surely she couldn't have be earned celebrity without ever realizing it. Or could she?
"Oh I don't know," she said, employing her practiced talent for conversation, "They've always seemed like any other pony to me."
"Are you kidding?" Autumn said incredulously, "I'd like to see just any other pony use some ancient artifacts to beat a near deity. Twice!"
"Well of course, but everyone knows how unpredictable magic can be. Who's to say they were chosen to wield the Elements of Harmony for any specific reason?" Rarity replied, subtly nudging Autumn toward revealing the information she sought.
"You're joking, right? Everypony knows that each of them was chosen because their personality represents one of the Elements. The magic wouldn't work otherwise."
Rarity made a show of placating the younger mare, saying, "I just mean to say they don't seem all that different from the rest of us. Do any of them display a special talent that sets them apart more than any other pony's talent would?"
"You been living under a rock or something? Are you seriously telling me you haven't heard about what these mares can do?" Bingo. Rarity lifted her eyebrows in a polite challenge, knowing just what Autumn would say next. "Well, Twilight Sparkle can sling some serious magic. Some say she's even more powerful than Princess Celestia. And Applejack once harvested nearly three hundred acres of apples by herself! Take it from a pony who's seen her in action. That's no exaggeration. Then there's Rainbow Dash, the only pegasus ever to pull off a sonic rainboom. One of them, Rarity, she's a tailor, er, fashionista. Applejack said the last pony to call her a tailor got his jacket turned into a filly's frock, while he was still wearing it. Anyway, she makes the most beautiful clothing a pony could wear and hearsay is that the only reason she isn't already the toast of the Canterlot snobbery is because she practically gives her work away. And don't get me started on Pinkie Pie--"
Rarity gave her usual, flawless, automatic responses to the rest of Autumn's praising monologue. She really was famous. And not just because she'd saved the world twice. Her work, her life's passion, was the most beautiful clothing a pony could wear. Her foalhood dreams had come true long ago and she'd never known. She wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or ecstatic, so she settled on being simply stunned.
"Still think they're not so different from the rest of us?" Autumn challenged.
"I suppose you do have a point," Rarity said, a sly smile curling her lips as she realized what a delicious opportunity she had been presented. Here this young admirer had been practically worshiping her and her friends, never realizing to whom she was speaking. It was perfect. Revealing herself would be the most excellent drama. She lifted a hoof to her chest with an elegant flourish. "Well my dear, I must say I am so--" very flattered. I had no idea how my friends and I were so adored. The words were poised at her lips, waiting like a prima ballerina just offstage. Autumn would hear them and be confused for a moment. Rarity could picture her expression as the realization slowly dawned. It would be perfect. It would have been perfect. If only she hadn't happened to glance at her hoof and seen the blood that stained her snowy coat there.
Suddenly, the past few minutes seemed like a charade. It had been easy to fall under the spell woven by the foal-like interpretation of her own character. Not least because it had all been true. She had been that generous and talented pony, known for her exquisite skill and unquestionable virtue. And perhaps, some day, she would be again. But today she was just another medic in the midst of the most brutal conflict any living pony could remember. Just a medic with blood on her hooves.
"You alright doc?" Autumn's said, shattering her sudden reverie.
"Yes yes," Rarity replied hastily, "I was just saying that I am so happy to share my days with such great ponies. And I'm sure they're doing all they can to help in the fight."
"Yeah I suppose you're right," Autumn said, obviously accepting Rarity's cover. "But I should get back to my squad. With Dusty out of commission, I'm next in line. Thanks again!"
Rarity waved as the red-maned mare trotted away, toward the camp's main barricade. The white mare was still for a few seconds. She felt an emotional crisis coming on. A real one. The kind she had never been sure how to deal with before the war. Now, though, she knew exactly how to react. She told it to wait, willing it to suspend itself until such a time that she could afford herself the luxury of a proper break down. For now, she had rounds to make, patients on whom to check.
Her routine duties were taking up more of her time each day as wounded ponies from the ongoing battle poured into the camp. It had been nearly three weeks since the bulk of the remaining changeling swarms had been pushed back through Galloping Gorge and pinned between the eastern and western pony armies. The tides had turned rather abruptly after the sacrifice of Cloudsdale. The entirety of the changeling forces had been nearly cut in half and rumors were swirling that they had somehow lost the ability to produce reinforcements. There had been word that a few smaller swarms were still at large in the west, but with the largest swarm trapped in the gorge, it was only a matter of time.
The war was all but over, and everypony knew it. Rarity had thought that, with victory so close, she might see a decrease in the number of casualties, but found that the reality was a bit more complicated. Indeed, fewer pony bodies arrived at the field hospital after being killed in action, but there had been a spike in the number of wounded. It seemed ponies were no longer so willing to take risks or sacrifice themselves for a mission. It was perfectly understandable. Once the end seems inevitable, it becomes easy for a pony to convince herself that her death might not be so necessary. But this also meant that ponies were more likely to hesitate or fail to commit to an action, leading to an imperfect execution of a maneuver. Rarity had heard enough stories of botched missions to know that imperfections in a battle lead to injury.
It was dark by the time Rarity finished her rounds and finally returned to her tent. Most of the possessions she had deemed necessary to bring on campaign had long since been lost or abandoned, leaving the small tent sparse and lonely. One of the only things she had managed to keep was a small mirror. It was tarnished and cracked by the time she returned from her first deployment, but it was still a source of joy for her. At least it had been. Tonight when she looked at her reflection all she could see was a mare with bags under her eyes and her hair tucked up into a slightly disheveled bun. She was the image of practicality. Nothing like the lovely, talented, mysterious mare whose grace and generosity was known throughout her home town.
With a sigh, Rarity placed the mirror face-down on her portable field desk and levitated a quill and paper in front of her. She chewed the end of the quill for a moment, recalling her sister's previous letter. Then she dipped the quill and began to write.
November 27th, C.Y. 1003
My dearest Sweetie Belle,
I'm sorry to have delayed so long in returning your letter. My duties have expanded significantly since Doctor Redheart was-- Rarity halted her quill for a moment. She had always avoided talking about casualties when writing to her sister, especially casualties from Ponyville. But her sister was nearly eleven now. And with the war coming to an end, she would soon discover for herself just how many of the ponies she had known from home were not going to return. With a deep breath, she continued. killed last month. I have since assumed her position as head doctor of the fifth mobile medical corps. It is a difficult job, but very rewarding. Just today I saved a young stallion's life. That alone makes up for all of the hardships I have had to face during this dreadful war.
Even so, I long to return to my previous occupation, and I am happy to report that that may be possible in the near future. No doubt you already know that the changeling army has been cornered in Galloping Gorge. They are still quite resistant, but our supply lines are safe and we have a consistent influx of recruits. The army is in very good condition. Also, it should put your mind at ease to know that I am far from danger for this phase of the campaign. I know you have worried so. But it seems that the worst has passed. Every day we wear away at them and I expect the war to be over within a month.
I simply cannot wait to see you and Mother and Father again. I would love to hear you sing a few of the pieces from your earlier letters. Particularly Victoire de Equestria. The lyrics in that one were divinely poetic.
I was sorry to hear that there still has been no sign of your friend Scootaloo. I know you are worried but you must have faith. War has a way of scattering ponies. Everyone is faced with challenges they have never expected and often some things take priority over reuniting with one's friends. Trust me, dear sister. Soon the war will be over and everypony will find their way back to one another.
Your loving sister,
P.S. You have improved greatly since our first game of chess, but I am afraid you still have much to learn. Bishop to B5. And that's Checkmate. No rematch this time. The next time we play, it will be in person
A tiny, wooden bishop floated across the small chess board on Rarity's desk, pinning the enemy king. Playing chess through letters had been yet another of Sweetie Belle's schemes to earn a cutie mark. While the game was not terribly appealing, Rarity couldn't bring herself to refuse an activity that granted her sister some semblance of normalcy, though she very much doubted that the image of a chess piece would be adorning Sweetie Belle's flank any time soon.
Rarity reached over, intending to knock the king over in symbolic defeat when an explosion rocked the tent, causing all of the chess pieces to fall and role about on the board. Rarity's initial surprise at the sudden noise faded swiftly into a feeling of dread. She went to her tent flap and threw it open, emerging into an eerie scene. The camp was as still and quiet as it was every night. A few ponies were outside, exhibiting the tense indecision of soldiers who knew that a threat was approaching but unsure what it was or from where it would come. A flash of green lit up the night sky to the east for a fraction of a second. A heartbeat later, another explosion rumbled through the camp.
Alarms began to blare. It was a general call to arms. In a matter of seconds, the stillness of night was replaced by chaos as ponies scrambled from their tents. Officially, doctors were not required to take any action for a general alarm, but Rarity could never stand the thought of sitting around in her tent waiting to be summoned for an emergency. So she made her way back to the field hospital. Her nurses were already there. Doctor Readheart had trained them well. Rarity didn't hesitate to put them to work.
"Shimmer-jewel, please check on our supply of bandages. I believe we were running low. Daisy, show Bottlecap and Lucky how to prepare anti-venom. Coldheart, get me a report on what is happening out there."
While the nurses jumped to carry out her requests, Rarity made a quick circuit of her patients. A few of them took a bit of convincing before they consented to remain at the hospital instead of going out to join their comrades. By the time she was finished, Coldheart had returned.
"I couldn't find any officers," the nurse panted, "But from what I can tell, the changelings just launched a huge offensive. I heard something about communication being cut and the front line being in bad shape."
"Thank you dear," Rarity said absently, mulling over the information. There had always been officers in the camp, even during the worst skirmishes. The fact that Coldheart couldn't find any meant that they all must be with their units. At best, that meant that the General needed every unit which wasn't actively fighting on standby. And that meant that affairs had just taken a turn for the worst. If the front line buckled. . .
"Alright," she said, "Get the patients ready to evacuate. I'll find us some transport."
Coldheart stood frozen for a second. "Ma'am?"
"That's an order, nurse," Rarity said. She didn't give her subordinate time to reply as she spun and galloped away.
At the rear of the camp stretched an airfield which was little more than a staging area for zeppelins. It was mostly empty as Rarity approached, but, as luck would have it, four of the dark blue airships were still on the ground preparing to launch.
"Howdy doc!" called one of the pilots, "What brings you here?"
"Sorry to trouble you gents, but I'm in need of a favor," Rarity said, "I need your airships to stand by above the hospital if you please."
The pilot scratched his neck uncomfortably. "Uh, sorry doc, no can do. We have orders to shore up the barricade defenses." Rarity pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, noting with satisfaction just how uncomfortable the young pilot was at the prospect of upsetting her. He averted his gaze. "I, uh. I'm really sorry. Um, we could probably delay take off for a little bit if you wanna take it up with Colonel Brighteyes."
Rarity made a show of looking thoughtful for a moment before saying, "Yes, I think I'll do that. Where can I find the Colonel?"
"She'll be at the control station," the pilot said, pointing to a cluster of tents on the far side of the field. Rarity thanked him before trotting away.
The control station was abuzz with activity. Ponies with clipboards frantically scurried back and forth between a large central tent and a few smaller ones surrounding it. Rarity made her way directly to the main tent. The inside of the tent was dominated by a large, table-top map of Galloping Gorge. A few ponies stood around the map, pushing small figurines across its surface. A grey mare with striking, gold eyes strode slowly around the table. "The defenses in sector twenty-two are crumbling. Have Echo wing plug that hole." One of the subordinate officers hastily scribbled down the order and galloped out of the tent past Rarity. "Why hasn't bravo wing taken off yet?"
"Colonel Brighteyes I presume?" the unicorn asked, entering the tent.
The Colonel's gold eyes flicked up at her for a fraction of a second. "Are you lost doctor?"
"No, as a matter of fact I was looking for you. You see--"
"I'm busy, doctor. Unless this is absolutely urgent I'll have to ask you to leave."
Rarity felt a flash of anger. "I assure you," she responded coldly, "this is quite important. I would not leave my hospital if it were otherwise."
Brighteyes raised an eyebrow. "Be quick," she said.
"I need to borrow some of your gunships."
Brighteyes scowled, "And I suppose that's why a wing of my zeppelins is on the ground on stand-by instead of in the fight. Well I'm sorry doctor. The changelings have just launched an all-out assault and I need every bird we have."
"Four zeppelins are not going to make or break this battle," Rarity countered, "And if things are as bad as I think, then we need to have a plan to get the wounded to safety."
"No offense, doctor, but running a hospital does not even come close to qualifying you to make military judgments. The fact is, four zeppelins could very well be the difference between victory and defeat out there. Your request is denied."
"Surely we can--"
"Denied doctor," Brighteyes said, fixing her with a furious glare, "Please leave this tent immediately or I will have you escorted."
Rarity felt as if she'd been slapped. The colonel, had a point. She had no experience with military tactics to speak of. What right did she have to make demands of a seasoned officer? But, at the same time, she had a responsibility to take care of her patients. And Brighteyes hadn't even given her a chance to make her case. Blood rose to Rarity's cheeks and she wasn't sure whether it was from fury or chagrin. Her warring emotions kept her rooted in place for a few seconds before she finally decided it was safer just to leave with what dignity she could muster.
Her attempt at a dignified departure was interrupted as a junior officer dashed into the tent, nearly bowling her over. "Colonel Brighteyes!" the officer shouted, failing to notice the white unicorn she had all but trampled.
"News from the General?" Brighteyes said, returning her subordinate's hasty salute.
"Yes ma'am. The front lines are buckling. The General is ordering a retreat."
All activity in the tent seemed to freeze as the ponies processed that information. For a few heartbeats, all eyes were fixed on Brighteyes. Rarity held her breath.
The Colonel took a moment to consider. It felt like ages past as the imposing mare ruminated over the battle map. Finally, she looked up to one of the other officers, "Order the gunships to cover the infantry's retreat then proceed to rendezvous point charlie. Recall all of the transports and start the evac procedure." The tent exploded into motion as ponies leaped to their tasks. Rarity felt sick. Brighteyes hadn't even looked at her. She was on her own.
The white unicorn turned to leave in a daze, but stopped when she heard, "Doctor!" She spun around as the Colonel addressed her. "Coordinate with bravo wing to evacuate the hospital. Give them this authorization code." The Colonel finished, handing Rarity a slip of paper. The stunned unicorn tried to thank her, but she had already moved on to handle another situation.
There was no time to correct her etiquette. With the authorization code in hoof, Rarity dashed back out into the moonlight. The zeppelins were already hovering a few feet off the ground, ready for takeoff. Rarity leaped in through the large, rear hatch and handed the slip with the authorization code to the pony on the deck.
A few minutes later, they were airborne. Rarity looked out through the ship's main hatch. Smoke was rising from the east, very close to the main barricade. The camp was now abuzz with activity, ponies rushing to secure weapons, munitions, and other resources before they were overrun. Judging by the sounds of battle coming from the barricade, that wouldn't be long.
The hospital was an exception to the pandemonium of the camp. Rarity couldn't help but feel proud of her nurses. They had already rallied the patients in the most accessible area and organized them into groups based on their mobility. With the patients all out in the open, their numbers seemed exaggerated. Rarity did some quick estimations. It would be a tight fit, but there should be enough room for everypony.
There was only enough room for the zeppelins to approach one at a time and the doctor's was the first to land. She leaped out before it even touched the ground.
"All right fillies and gentlecolts!" Rarity called, "I want everypony who can't move themselves on this first transport. Any patients who can should help the nurses with the more critically wounded. Let's go ponies!"
The evacuation was efficient. Rarity hardly had to direct as the nurses and patients crowded into the gunships. All in all, the entire process probably took fewer than ten minutes, but the ever increasing sounds of screams, gunshot, and explosions made it seem like it took ages. Tension built in Rarity's chest, straining every time a limping pony held up the line of evacuees, every time a few patients had to exit a ship so that a stretcher could be placed, every time a gunship's propellers had to spin up before takeoff.
Finally, it was done. Rarity followed the last of the patents up the final gunship's ramp. The zeppelin's engine roared as the ship began to lift off. Rarity let out a breath as the tension in her chest began to release. They would be okay. The unicorn doctor turned to look through the hatch as they ascended and her heart stopped. The main barricade must have fallen. The soldiers there and on the front lines must have been evacuated by pegasus squadrons or killed outright. The changelings must not have been challenged once they broke through the defenses and must now be running free through the camp. All this, Rarity inferred from the fact that, not ten meters away from the gunship's open hatch, a group of seven or eight of the creatures were preparing to fire on them.
The creatures wouldn't dare follow the ship on the wing. They were too heavily armed. But that wouldn't stop them from taking a shot from the ground. The lack of gunfire meant that the gunners hadn't yet noticed the threat and they probably wouldn't until after the creatures' first volley. And, with the hatch wide open as it was, the first volley would be all it took to kill nearly every pony on the ship's transport deck.
So that was it. Checkmate. There was nothing Rarity could do to keep her patients and herself from being killed. Unless. She didn't dare take the time to consider what she was about to do; the unicorn acted in the instant the thought crossed her mind, vaulting from the ship's deck. It was more difficult to control her fall than she anticipated and she quickly found herself tumbling though the air. In the hopes of saving herself from a broken neck, Rarity employed a trick Twilight had shown her in which she cast a levitation spell on herself. It was intensely difficult to do and not usually very useful since she couldn't move around while under the spell, but it came in handy for this particular situation.
Her tumbling abruptly stopped, causing her stomach to flip in protest. She held the spell for only a fraction of a second, trusting that she had already fallen far enough that the remaining distance would not be enough to cause any serious injury. Luckily, she was correct, though the landing was still jarring. She felt one of her hind hooves twist painfully beneath the leg, but she couldn't stop to worry about that just yet.
It took her just a moment to orient on the changelings who were all staring at her in, what she hoped, was shock. Rarity focused, calling up everything she could remember from the basic defense training she had received nearly a year ago. In a flash of blue magic, she sent one of the creatures flying with a repulsion spell. The changelings reacted slowly, allowing Rarity to get off one more spell, glancing off one of the creatures as it lunged forward and sending it smashing into the dirt. Then the others were on top of her. She fought back feebly, kicking and bucking, but they overwhelmed her with sheer numbers.
As the creatures seized her legs to restrain her, she twisted her neck to see if her sacrifice had been worth it. Her heart soared when she saw that the gunship had turned, taking its open hatch out of the line of fire and bringing its guns to bear. Rarity wondered if they would fire. In that case, she would certainly be killed, but it would be quick, unlike what she would endure at the changeling's hooves.
Her thoughts were interrupted as a changeling yanked on her mane. She screamed in pain and anger as she was pinned to the ground under the weight of her enemies. Then a chitinous hoof smashed into her temple. Her vision swam for a second before darkness closed in and she passed out.
"Too rissssky. We ssshould kill it now."
"Long way to the Frozen North. We will be needing a sssssnack."
The high pitched voices grated against Rarity's senses. After a few groggy moments of wondering where she was, the events of the past few minutes caught up with her. It was strange. She was a prisoner of war. Another casualty, and not even one that was lucky enough to die clean. Occasionally, captured soldiers managed to escape, or were rescued. The stories they brought back with them were always horrific. So now that she was facing the same fate, Rarity supposed she ought to be feeling afraid of what the changelings would do to her. Or sad that she would never again see Sweetie Belle or her friends. Or angry that she had gotten herself into this mess in the first place. But instead, she just felt relieved. Relieved that, for her, this war was finally over.
There was a bit of guilt, a small part of her that believed she was letting down everypony who cared about her, though, mostly, she was guilty because she didn't feel worse. But it wasn't like there was anything she could do about it, so what was the point in feeling anything? Liberated by that thought, Rarity allowed herself to sink back into semi-consciousness. There was no telling what the changelings would do or when, so she might as well take these moments of peace while she could.
She was back in the Carousel Boutique. Everything was brightly lit, her latest creations arrayed on their mannequins. She could hear Sweetie Belle and her friends playing outside. Birds sang. In the back of her mind, Rarity knew it was all a dream and that there was a painful, dreadful reality that could return in the blink of an eye. But, she could forget about all that so long as she just didn't think about it.
Rarity. Her name came to her distorted, like a false memory that you know is wrong but is unshakable nonetheless. Rarity. It came again, stronger this time. It carried something with it. A familiarity. Something that tugged at her thoughts, urging them to turn away from the image of the pleasant day in her boutique. She didn't like it.
Go away, she thought.
Rarity. Where are you?
A wet cave. Cold. No! I'm in my shop. I'm in Ponyville!
You're in shock. You need help
Leave me be! Rarity wailed. I don't want to go back. Leave me be!
We need you, Rarity.
No. I did my job. Blood seeping from a soldier's neck. Necrotic bite wounds. Stitches. So many stitches. What more could you possibly ask?
YOU ARE THE ELEMENT OF GENEROSITY! The thought exploded within her mind, Selfishness does not become you. You are still alive and you have much more to give. WHERE ARE YOU!
Rarity wasn't sure whether whoever had been sending thoughts into her dream had convinced her with their appeal to her giving nature or if her eyes flew open due to the sheer force of the mental onslaught. Either way, in that instant she could see with an unnatural clarity. She was in a cave. A group of changelings were gathered between her and the exit. Beyond the mouth of the cave, Rarity could see the remains of the pony camp, still aflame in the valley below. In the left of her field of vision, a brilliant, full moon was rising. I am coming. The thought fluttered through her mind so quickly that Rarity almost believed she had imagined it.
"Finally awake, eh? Sssssleepy pony," said one of the changelings. Rarity recoiled as the creature approached. "Ssssuch a pretty pony. I'll bet you have many admirersssss. But who issss it that you love mosssst?" Suddenly, Rarity felt as if her head had been seized in a clutching grip. She struggled against the changeling's grasp, but met no resistance. Whatever the creature was doing to her, it wasn't physical. "A ssssister eh? How nice. Sssshe is sssso pretty." There was a flash of green and the clutching sensation vanished.
Disoriented, Rarity opened her eyes in time to see a white and pink blur rushing toward her. "Rarity!" came an unmistakable, squeaky voice as the figure barreled into her chest, wrapping her in a tiny embrace. Shocked, the unicorn looked down into the filly's glittering, green eyes. It looked like Sweetie Belle. Rarity was violently reminded of every moment she had spent with her sister. Every tweak of annoyance, every flash of pride, every heart-melting feeling of adoration. Every aspect of her love for Sweetie Belle was suddenly at the forefront of her mind.
Logically, she knew that this was not her real sister. The changeling was counting on the raw, emotional reaction of seeing the image of Rarity's dearest loved one. But the creature had miscalculated. Rarity did not only love her sister, she knew her. She knew the subtleties of the filly's expressions and the way her mane bounced. She knew the exact pitch at which her voice would crack. She knew her sister so well, that the changeling's imperfect imitation evoked nothing but revulsion.
With a kick, she sent the changeling flying across the cave. In another green flash, it reverted back to its own form and stood, glaring at her.
"Don't you dare try that again," Rarity huffed.
One of the changeling's companions spoke up, "Told you it wassss to risssky! Can't feed on her. Sssshould kill her and be done with it."
Rarity winced at her mistake. Being fed upon by changelings wasn't a pleasant experience, but it would have bought her time for whomever had been speaking in her mind to arrive. She would have to find another way to buy some time.
"Wait," she said, "I would be more valuable alive. I . . . could give you information. I'm sure Chrysalis would want to know the strength of our armies."
The changeling who had assaulted her began to laugh. "Information issss not hard to come by for ssssshape sssshifters, pretty pony. But don't worry, I'll make thissss quick."
The creature took a menacing step forward, brandishing its fangs. Rarity's mind raced. There must be something she could offer. Something about her that would pique their interest. You are the Element of Generosity. Remembering that simple phrase was a moment of inspiration, and Rarity knew exactly what to do.
"Do you even know who I am?" the unicorn declared drawing herself up as straight as she could with her injuries. The changeling looked as if it would deliver a snide denial, but Rarity cut him off. "I was at Canterlot when your Queen first failed to conquer us. I am personal friends with the Prince and Princess who cast you're sorry hides out of our city. I am the bearer of the Element of Generosity and a Lady of Equestria and I will be afforded the courtesy I am due."
The changeling's eyes widened as Rarity spoke. He exchanged a glance with his companions. "The Queen would want her," one of them said. With a growl, the lead changeling looked back at Rarity.
"Fine," he said, "We'll take her. But first I'm going to--"
Rarity would never know what the creature intended to do first, for at that moment, his entire body was vaporized in a flash of violent magic. The other changelings screamed and attempted to flee the cave, but were blocked by an imposing figure. Another spell reduced the remaining creatures to ash. Rarity coughed on the foul smoke that filled the cave in the aftermath of their destruction. A gust of wind cleared the air somewhat and also revealed Rarity's rescuer.
"Are you unhurt?" Luna asked.
"Only minor injuries your highness," Rarity replied, bowing despite her discomfort, "Thank you."
The Princess smiled. "It is my duty to protect the Elements. And any friend of Twilight Sparkle's is a friend of mine. It is fortunate that you dreamed. Otherwise I would not have known of your predicament."
So the Princess of the Night could see into ponies' dreams. Rarity tucked that bit of slightly discomforting information away for later. "Well, I am in your debt, Princess. And, if I could be so bold as to request a lift to the nearest rally point? I should rejoin my nurses."
Luna shook her head. "You are needed for something more important. Come, I will explain once we return to Canterlot. It is time you were reunited with your friends."
Moonlight trickled through a light cloud cover, illuminating the remains of Ponyville. A chilly breeze whispered through the charred skeletons of the once-charming homes and businesses. Bits of jagged timber stuck up from the ground like old bones. Fluttershy shuddered at the knowledge that the ash covered town didn't just resemble a graveyard. After the attack, Ponyville had been utterly abandoned. Nopony had returned to lay the dead to rest, and their remains still lay strewn where they fell.
Fluttershy trembled where she stood just inside the treeline of the Everfree Forest. She clutched her twisted, carved walking stick a bit firmer to still her shaking. Inside her chest, her heart was hammering as if it wanted to escape, and considering what she was planning to do, she couldn't blame it. For a moment she considered turning back. It would be easier. And the late autumn night was cold. She could go home and have a nice cup of tea . . . A buzz emanated from the ornate walking stick. Fluttershy eyed the enchanted object. "I know I know," she muttered. With a final, deep breath, the meek pegasus stepped out from the shadows and descended into the ruins of her former home.
The feeling in the deserted town was beyond eerie as Fluttershy walked. Her staff sounded too loud as it tapped against the cobblestones. She knew every street, every intersection, though they were mostly concealed under the foul-smelling dust. Most of the buildings that were still standing were recognizable, but dilapidated and discolored. Empty doorways gaped, turning every house into a corpse locked in a final, silent scream. The entire north wall of one home had collapsed, revealing a small living room with a large sitting chair near a cold fireplace. Once a place of warmth and comfort, the room looked sunken, sad, and terribly lonesome.
A flicker of movement caught Fluttershy's eye as she stared at the decimated house. A dark form flitted up the stairs and, for a fraction of a second, it seemed to glance back at the pegasus with malice in its gaze. Fluttershy's trembling increased and she cringed away. For a moment she intended to flee back into the cover of the forest, but she refused to budge. It took some time, but eventually she managed to coax her legs into carrying her deeper into the ghost town.
That phantom had been no trick of the light, no figment of her imagination. There are magics that pervade the land that even Twilight hadn't understood. The love, joy, and happiness felt by a community is an energy force in and of itself. And so is fear. They probably didn't know it, but when the changelings had attacked, the fear and panic they brought shattered the magic of the town like a nail driving into glass. Now the razor edges of the broken fragments of magic would snag and abrade any spirit who ventured into their midst. Fluttershy could feel it as she moved toward the town center. The echoes of the sudden violence and terror were still palpable on the air. Now the phantoms from the Ponyville-that-was stalked the broken buildings. They were always at the edge of her vision, disappearing when she looked directly at them. And they whispered. It was a horrible sound, like the rasping of a sick bunny at first, but when Fluttershy listened closely it was more like the panicked chatter of ponies during a crisis, only airy and insubstantial.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but couldn't keep out the sense of the phantoms' presence. And they felt her in return. She was an anomaly in their domain; a spark of life and hope in a realm of decay. As she neared the heart of the town, their aura began to change. They clutched at her like a drowning animal desperate for solid purchase. The trembling pegasus didn't have to open her eyes to know that they were all around her now, pressing in as close as they could. Their pain was stifling and suddenly Fluttershy couldn't breathe. She stumbled, and the tiny sac which was tied around her neck snagged on something, tearing free.
Fluttershy's eyes snapped open. Shadowy figures loomed all around her, towering over her as she lay prostrate at the foot of the bridge to the town square. She was so close. Her sac lay on the ground a few leg-lengths away. She reached for it, but the dark apparitions closed in, blocking her view. The moon light faded as the phantoms enveloped her. Their whispering grew louder and condensed into the chorus that haunted her dreams still. Their voices were the echo of the night Ponyville burned. The fiery memory loomed up from the darkest reaches of Fluttershy's mind, and suddenly she was engulfed in it, carried back to that night by the ghostly voices.
Her cottage was a scene of chaos. Despite her pleas, most of the animals in her care had fled, but several weren't in any state to travel and they were all on the verge of panic. Rushing from one corner of the house to another, she frantically tried to gather her friends out the door to the cart waiting to carry them all to the train station. "We really should be-- Wait, don't go that way-- No no, we don't have enough room to bring-- Yes I know you're scared, but don't you think it would be better if--" Again and again, she tried, but every time she got a handful of critters moving in the right direction, another would try to go back for something.
"Oh, if only Twilight were here," she whimpered. But Twilight was on the other side of town, shielding it from the changeling swarm. The rest of her friends were probably there as well. For the third time, she flew outside to see if anypony was around to help, but the streets were deserted. The crimson light from Twilight's shield mingled with the sunset, casting a blood red werelight over the town. Desperation curled through her chest, making it hard to breath.
Back inside the cottage, Angel was struggling to keep a group of animals together. He paused to shoot a glare in her direction. "I'm sorry Angel bunny, but I really need your help getting everyone--" Fluttershy's apology was cut short by a flash of green light. A dull boom thudded through the cottage a second later. The commotion that had filled the tiny home a moment before suddenly stilled, with every animal looking fearfully at the window. Fluttershy didn't dare move a muscle in the fragile silence. The pegasus's heart was beating so hard and so fast that she would not have noticed the next barrage of explosions if they had not been accompanied by the piercing flashes of green. The yellow mare took a few delicate steps to the window. Her heart nearly stopped as she peeked out. Twilight's spell was gone. There was nothing between Ponyville and the roiling swarm of changelings.
As she watched, streaks of green fire arced out from the swarm. Fluttershy recognized them as the magic of the changeling's dive-bombing attack, the same they had used during the invasion of Canterlot. Except that now, instead of crashing into the ground and springing up to fight, the creatures detonated in a blinding explosion, destroying anything nearby. In a matter of moments, dozens of buildings were ablaze.
Fluttershy stumbled away from the window as another series of shock waves pounded the walls. The animals went into a frenzied panic, all clamoring for the door. In their fear they would blindly rush right out into the deadly barrage.
"Wait!" Fluttershy called. None of them seemed to hear her. In a moment of desperate clarity, the little pegasus gathered her legs beneath her and launched herself into the doorway. She set her hooves and shouted, "STOP!" The critters froze, cowed by her sudden wrath. "I will NOT let any of you go rushing out into a dangerous situation in that state of mind. You could all get hurt, or worse! I know that you're scared but we need to stay calm. Now, we are going to go outside quickly and get everyone into the cart. Then we will ALL get out of here. Am. I. Understood?" The animals each gave a hasty nod. Satisfied, Fluttershy stepped aside from the doorway and said, "Let's go."
The miniature parade of forest animals shuffled past. Fluttershy followed them out. She ducked under the cart's harness, waiting just long enough to be sure the animals were all secure before taking off toward the train station. Running through the town was like a nightmare. The further she went, the thicker the smoke became and more violent the sounds of the bombing. Before long, Fluttershy was constantly swerving to avoid burning chunks of houses and other debris. Adrenaline gave her
the energy to sprint for the first couple minutes, but her legs were quickly losing their strength. Her fatigue was compounded by her efforts to avoid breathing the smokey haze that now engulfed the street. She continued as fast as she could, tears streaming down her soot-covered cheeks.
She heard the crackling hiss of the diving changeling before she saw it. Globs of green flame bled off the charging creature, forming a comet-like tail as it descended. Fluttershy pulled hard on the harness, banking to the side just as the changeling hit. The pegasus's maneuver kept them from being engulfed by the resulting fireball, but the shock wave still sent the cart and pony flying. Fluttershy wrenched her wings, barely managing to get the carts wheels beneath it as it came down. The sideways trajectory of the vehicle caused it to skid across the ground, dragging Fluttershy with it. She tucked her wing in just before slamming into the wall of one of the buildings lining the street. Pain erupted in her wing and shoulder and she let out a thin shriek as her front legs buckled.
She knelt there, panting for a while. Through a considerable effort, she eventually brought her breathing back under control. She gritted her teeth as she pushed herself back up to a standing position to look down the street. The smoke was getting thicker and a few buildings had collapsed across the road. Changeling bombs struck everywhere. If she wen that way, they'd be hit for sure. But what other choice did she have? She clamped her eyes shut against the tears that threatened to burst forth. She was so scared, she didn't know if she could move even if her shoulder wasn't in terrible pain.
A fearful squeak from behind her drew her attention. She looked over her injured shoulder. Angel looked back at her with his big, black eyes. Fluttershy could see that he was just as afraid as she was. She wanted so badly to get him and the rest of her friends to safety, but she couldn't. She had failed them all. Unable to return Angel's gaze any longer, Fluttershy turned away, looking past the cart. The canopy of the Everfree Forest was just visible through the smoke.
Fluttershy's ears perked as the realization hit her. The Everfree Forest was dangerous, dark and filled with all sorts of vicious creatures. And it wasn't on fire. Which meant that it was the safest place within a hundred miles. Ignoring the excruciating protests of her shoulder, the yellow pony whirled around, pulling the cart 180 degrees and hauled it as fast as she could back the way they had come.
The second trip through the town was even worse than the first. The smoke and flames rapidly diminished, but the pain in Fluttershy's shoulder made it nearly impossible to steer the cart. By the time she reached the edge of Ponyville, she was running on three legs, holding the lamed one in close to her chest. It was slow-going, but the sheltering limbs of the Everfree were only meters away.
Her hope surged as she limped across the field bordering the forest. She was about halfway there when the cart erupted in frantic chittering of frightened animals. She glanced behind her to see what was the matter and gasped. Three changelings were approaching on foot. They each wore an expression of sinister glee as they closed in on their prey. Without thinking, Fluttershy shrugged out of the harness and vaulted over the cart. As she landed, she brought her hindquarters up and slammed her hooves into the cart, sending it rolling into the darkness of the forest. The shock of her kick reverberated into her injured shoulder and it gave with a sickening crunch. She toppled forward onto her face.
The changelings' footsteps rustled the grass as they approached. Fluttershy was clutched by a primal fear. She had helped mice that had been attacked by cats and now she knew exactly what they must have felt. A helpless, harmless little being at the mercy of a predator. It wasn't the paralyzing fear she felt when she thought about speaking in public or facing one of the many dangers she and her friends had encountered. It was a fear left over from the ancient ancestors of ponies, for whom every night brought the threat of a hunter's teeth.
She struggled to sit up, but the slightest movement sent a wave of nausea-inducing agony through her body. With a squeak, she flopped onto her side, twisting her neck uncomfortably to get a look at her attackers. But they were nowhere to be found. Instead, Rainbow Dash, Twilight, and Big Macintosh stood before her. They looked concerned as they hurried towards her. Relief flooded the small pegasus.
"Are you alright?" Twilight asked.
"I think so," Fluttershy said in a voice just louder than a whisper. "I-I'm so glad to see you." A torrent of emotion threatened to overwhelm her as her friends leaned over her.
Rainbow smiled down at her. "It'll all be okay now," she said gently, reaching a hoof to stroke her mane.
Fluttershy was taken by weariness and disorientation as the other pegasus's hoof touched her forehead. Her feelings of relief and love suddenly vanished, leaving her head spinning. Above her, the images of her friends swirled and twisted. She thought she saw something strange in their eyes. Some un-equine hunger. The hunger of a predator. Her mind grasped what was happening, but it was already too late. The changelings were feeding on her. Her fear surged again, but even that soon dwindled into nothingness. She didn't feel anything anymore.
"Kwenda mbali viumbe waovu! Unapaswa kuwa hapa!"
Fluttershy thought she recognized this new voice, but she was still to weak to think straight. There were a few surprised hisses from the changeling impostors, followed by a few popping sounds and whatever magic had clouded her mind lifted. It still took most of her focus to keep breathing, but she was cognizant enough now to know that somepony must have intervened in the changeling's feeding.
"Oh, my poor Fluttershy. This woeful sight makes my heart cry."
"Z-Z-Zec-Zecora?" Fluttershy struggled to say the name between panting breaths.
"Aye it is me, but we must go. And I fear your wounds will make you slow."
"C-c-cart. Over . . . th-there." Fluttershy twitched a hoof in the direction of the treeline. She heard Zecora hasten away and return with the creaky, wooden cart. If she hadn't been so tired, Fluttershy would have been impressed by the strength and delicacy which which the Zebra lifted her onto the vehicle. Animals swarmed over her, radiating concern. Their presence was a balm. She could almost feel grateful. There was a small jolt as the cart began moving and a few seconds later, Fluttershy was engulfed in darkness.
Fluttershy drifted in and out of consciousness. Stars peeking through gaps in thick leaves and branches. Short, bristly fur and the smell of earth and spices. Gentle candlelight. Soft warmth. Bed. She was in a bed now, lying on her back. She opened her eyes. It took a moment for them to focus. The blanket over her was coarsely woven but very soft. There was a nagging echo of pain on her left side. She turned her head to find that she was in a small alcove of Zecora's hut. Various bottles and books adorned numerous shelves. Exotic masks surveyed the room from where they hung on the walls. In the middle of the room, Zecora stood with her back to Fluttershy, stirring a large cauldron.
"It is about time you woke, my friend," Zecora said without looking, "I was beginning to think your slumber would never end. Do not move just yet. You were in a bad way when we met. I've given you a potion to dull the pain, but your shoulder still has a very bad sprain." The zebra dipped a bowl into the cauldron, withdrawing some of its steaming contents. She brought it over to where Fluttershy lay, blowing to cool it. "A mix of wrathroot, fret leaf, daisies, and mel. This should chase away the changeling's spell."
With Zecora's help, Fluttershy gulped down the potent concoction. The clear liquid didn't have a taste to it so much as it had a feel. It was akin to electric shock, but in a way that made the pegasus feel giddy and lightheaded. The sensation grew as a warmth in her belly, slowly spreading until every inch of her was tingling. It took a moment for her to realize that what she was feeling was emotion. The changelings had drained her of her love, fear, anger, sadness, leaving her a husk, bereft of everything that gave meaning to her experience. It was a singularly odd experience to have that all come flooding back in the absence of any context.
Her emotions were like a tangled knot of thread. She didn't know where one ended and the next began. With a groan she sank back down onto the bed and closed her eyes. Slowly, she began to sort her emotions out once more while Zecora stood by patiently.
As Fluttershy teased each of her feelings apart, she began to notice that one stuck out above the rest. Anxiety. There was something terribly important that was making her anxious. The pegasus gasped, her eyes flying open. "The animals!"
"Hush now, my Fluttershy," Zecora said, "Your woodland friends are safe nearby."
"I should probably go check on them," said Fluttershy, gingerly slipping out from under the blanket. She winced as she set her left hoof onto the ground. The pain wasn't intense, but she had a feeling she should keep her weight off of it anyway. Zecora held up a hoof and trotted over to a gnarled old walking stick that was propped in a corner.
"An old stick, at first, has little appeal," she said, returning and offering the stick to Fluttershy, "But it may serve you well while your leg heals." The zebra took down a length of rope that she had been using to hang a few of her larger vials and fastened it underneath one of the walking stick's larger knobs. Then she looped beneath Fluttershy's chest and cinched it up so that it bore her weight.
Fluttershy took a few experimental steps with the walking stick. She smiled at Zecora in thanks and the two equines left the small cottage. Outside, the woodland creatures were hard at work, attempting to construct nests and burrows, but they seemed to be having trouble. The sticks and leaves they gathered constantly slipped and fell apart as soon as the squirrels turned their backs. Dirt seemed to loosen of its own accord to fill in any holes, frustrating a family of badgers.
"Oh my," Fluttershy said with a frown.
"Mm. The magic of the Everfree is strong. It will always resist those who, in it's mind, do not belong."
"You mean the forest knows that we're here?" Fluttershy squeaked, looking around sheepishly.
Zecora nodded and made a sweeping gesture, saying, "Ponies learned long ago, of the currents of magic that ebb and flow." As she swept her hoof back and forth, it began to leave a trail of light, shimmering in midair. Like a painter at her canvass, the enchantress used the floating light to illustrate a scene. It was a stylistic landscape depicting every type of environment Fluttershy could think of. And through all of them wound the rivers of magic. "Power that gives the world its form," Zecora continued,"be it ocean, mountain, or desert warm. The ponies learned to dam the streams, divert the flow. To temper the weather and make crops grow." As she spoke, she made slashing motions, placing lines across the rivers, depicting how some of the energy was channeled from one environment to another, thereby endowing it with whatever traits were related to the type of energy in the river. "But the ponies of old who settled here, were careless in their craft, I fear. They tapped too many streams and their greed was such, that they could not help but take too much." With a few more strokes, Zecora's light-drawing now displayed an area where several rivers converged. A spiral of light emanated out from the point where they met. Fluttershy guessed that was to symbolize a pooling of the magic. "They wanted to make a paradise, but they wound up paying a heavy price. Their mix of magic made an obstinate soul, one that refused any attempt at control. Many would try, but none would succeed. Thus this land was named, The Everfree."
"Goodness," said Fluttershy, "I never would have imagined that ponies would have made the Everfree Forest."
"I mean no offense, but I must say, Pony history is in a sorry way. Mistakes are made by every race, but Ponies forget their every disgrace."
Fluttershy was taken aback by the judgmental statement. "Oh, um, I'm sorry," she murmured.
Zecora's demeanor softened. "My apologies my yellow friend, my words were not meant to offend."
"It's okay. You're probably right. Twilight is the only pony I've ever met who was even a little interested in history." The demure pony tried to smile, but found that the thought of her friend only made her more anxious. "I hope she's alright. I hope they're all alright." She felt tears on her eyes.
Zecora placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder and said, "As do I, but do not fear. At least your furry friends are here."
Fluttershy sniffed and wiped her eyes. "You're right," she said, "I should be happy we all made it to safety. Isn't that right, Angel Bunny. . ." The pink-maned pegasus looked around for her pet. "Angel Bunny?" She spun a full circle. The little rabbit was nowhere to be found. "Angel!" Zecora and the other animals looked on with concern as she frantically began running around, peering behind trees and under bushes. "Where are you?! Come out! Oh my goodness oh my goodness no no no. He's not here. He's out there all alone." She started hyperventilating. "I have to find him," she said and dashed into the forest in the direction of Ponyville.
Zecora called something after her, but she didn't stop to listen. Using a combination of feeble wing flaps and her walking stick, she managed to keep most of her weight off her injured leg, but she still felt an unusual popping in her elbow every time she took a step. She didn't care. The only thing on her mind was the thought of Angel lost in the dark forest or surrounded by hungry changelings.
"Angel!" she called between labored breaths. It was nearly pitch black now that she was away from Zecora's torches. But that shouldn't matter. Angel was such a crisp white that he should be even easier to spot in the darkness. He had probably just wandered away and gotten lost. He couldn't be far. Any minute now she would see him hopping along, his fluffy little tail bouncing behind him. Any minute now.
Fluttershy ran until her leg finally gave out completely, collapsing under her weight with a sickening crunch. A squeak of pain escaped the little pony's mouth as she went skidding across the ground. She curled up and let out a choking sob, pressing her good hoof against her face. Her lungs spasmed once they had squeezed all of the air out of her chest and she couldn't breath for a few seconds. Then they released and she took a gasping, ragged breath and let out a moaning wail. Angel was gone. She was supposed to take care of him. She was supposed to look out for him. But she hadn't. She'd failed. And now he was gone. It felt like there was nothing left to do but cry.
"H-hello? Is somepony there?"
Fluttershy gasped and sat bolt upright. Suddenly self aware, she tried to regulate her breathing and hastily wiped at her eyes.
"Fluttershy? Is that you?" came a tiny voice from a nearby hollow log.
"I-- yes. Who is that?" Fluttershy responded, trying to keep her voice from hiccuping. A streak of orange shot out from the log and slammed into her chest, eliciting a flaring pain in her shoulder.
"I'm so glad it's you!" the tiny, purple maned pegasus said, clutching Fluttershy like a vice.
"Scootaloo? What in Equestria are you doing out here all alone?"
The filly took a breath. "I was trying to find Rainbow Dash but I couldn't find her and then they started bombing the town and I couldn't get to the train station and I couldn't find Applebloom or Sweetie Belle and then there were changelings everywhere so I ran into the forest to hide but I got lost and I thought I was gonna die but you came and I'M SO GLAD YOU'RE HERE!"
Fluttershy could practically feel the relief emanating from the young mare as she buried her face in her coat. The filly's touch sent the yellow pegasus's maternal nature into a frenzy. She wrapped both her wings and her good foreleg around Scootaloo and squeezed.
"There there," she said, "Everything is going to be okay. You're safe now."
"I'm afraid that is not so," said Zecora. Both Fluttershy and Scootaloo jumped in surprise. The zebra hadn't made a sound as she approached. "Quickly," she continued, "We must go."
On the way back to Zecora's hut, Fluttershy leaned heavily on the walking stick, barely letting her leg touch the ground. Still, the pain in her body was nothing compared to the pain she felt every time her mind drifted to Angel. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying with all her might not to imagine what could have happened or what could be happening to her pet right now.
A soft weight bumped against her thigh. Looking back, she saw Scootaloo walking with her eyes half shut, her head lolling from side to side. "Sorry," the filly said, shaking her head a bit. The poor thing was probably exhausted. Fear always took its toll. Fluttershy assured her that it was okay, though she doubted Scootaloo was paying much attention. She extended one of her yellow wings over the filly's tiny frame guiding her gently to keep her from wandering off the path.
Once they reached the hut, Fluttershy led Scootaloo over to Zecora's bed and tucked her in. The filly was asleep before Fluttershy could pull the coarse covers over her. For a few minutes, Fluttershy just stood there, watching over Scootaloo's slumber. It was the sort of sleep that came from when the body was completely drained. The sort of sleep that obliterates any care or anxiety. Fluttershy was mildly jealous. Even with all of the torturous trials she had put her own body through, she doubted that she would be able to sleep like that for some time.
"It is such a terrible crime, that innocent fillies should see such times."
"I don't think anypony should have to live through times like this," Fluttershy said quietly.
Zecora sighed, "The best we can do is protect this one. And I'm afraid our work is far from done." The zebra turned and walked over to a bookshelf. Reluctantly, Fluttershy followed.
"The Everfree is hard to subdue, but I fear the changelings will soon take it too."
Fluttershy frowned, "Why would the changeling's want to take over the Everfree Forest?"
"The changelings do not just burn and scour, but always seek new ways to gain power. The Queen will make the forest's power into her own, and never be toppled from her throne," Zecora said, looking through the numerous books on her shelf.
"Oh my. We have to warn Twilight, or Princess Celestia."
Zecora shook her head. "The Princess cannot meddle in this place and Twilight's magic will not work in this case."
"But . . . there must be something we can do."
"We can stop the Queen, but there will be a price. We will both have to make a great sacrifice."
That didn't sound good. Yesterday, Fluttershy would have told the zebra that she wanted nothing to do with whatever she had planned. But a glance at the sleeping Scootaloo was now all it took to convince Fluttershy that she could bear any hardship if it meant keeping the filly safe. "What sort of sacrifice?"
Zecora found the book she was looking for and pulled it out, blew some dust off of its cover, and opened it. "Here," she said, "A ritual of frightening power, for use in only the darkest of hours." She pointed to a page with simple illustrations of what looked like an army of giant cats attacking a zebra village. On the next page, two zebras stood together by a tree. "When all seems lost and your need is great, send one to the heart and change your fate." Zecora turned the page. The next two pages depicted one of the zebras merging with the tree and the other pointing to the attacking cats, on whom all the forces of nature seemed to be descending. Wind buffeted their ranks, tossing them around like dolls. Tendrils of water arced out from a river to snare hapless victims. Roots and sharp rocks jutted out from the ground, impaling paws and underbellies. Fluttershy grew queasy looking at the graphic scene, and was relieved when Zecora swiftly turned the page once more and continued, "The other must stay, lending ears, voice, and sight, or the first will forget, and be lost to the night." The final page of the section showed the remaining zebra kneeling by the tree. Both the sun and the moon were in the sky. Fluttershy took that to symbolize the passing of days.
The pages creaked as Zecora shut the book. Fluttershy was quiet for a while, thinking. "So, you're saying that somepony could do . . . whatever that was, with the Everfree Forest?
"What you have seen is the ritual of the Heart Tree. And no normal pony will do, it must be me."
Fluttershy wasn't surprised, but she was no less dismayed for that. "You want to . . . become the Everfree?"
"I have long known that I would one day cast this spell," Zecora turned away, hesitating. It was rather strange to have her rhyming phrase only half finished. Finally, she turned back to look Fluttershy directly in the eye. "It grieves me to learn that you will bear this fate as well."
Again, Fluttershy couldn't say that she had not seen the obvious implications of the ritual. But a part of her had been holding out hope for a different solution. "I can't," she began, her voice cracking slightly as it diminished to a near inaudible whisper.
"If you knew the stakes, you would concur. The result of apathy simply must not occur."
The zebra was right. Fluttershy knew that. They were the only equines who could stop the changelings from taking control of the Everfree's magic. If they didn't act . . . Scootaloo had already lost her home. There was no telling how much more damage the changelings could do with that power. There would certainly be a lot more fillies and colts in the same situation as the little, orange pegasus.
With a deep breath, the demure pony squared her shoulders. "What should I do?"
There was not much in the way of an elaborate set up for the ritual. Zecora merely explained what Fluttershy would need to do once it was complete. The zebra would merge her physical and spiritual being with the Everfree, sacrificing every aspect of her previous life. As such, it would rapidly become difficult for her to think like a zebra, or any sort of mortal being. Without direction, her spirit would devolve and become just as wild and dangerous as the Everfree was now. So, Fluttershy would act as an anchor. She would need to spend most of her time in the forest after the ritual, reminding Zecora of her purpose and acting as a custodian for the forest. If she ventured outside the forest's boundaries, she would have to take the walking stick, which Zecora had enchanted with carved tribal runes, in order to maintain her connection. She would also be a sort of ambassador, provided ponies ever came back to live in this region, representing the forest's interests and delivering any concerns brought up by ponykind. It was a daunting task, but it was not a huge leap from what Fluttershy had done before. It put her even more at ease to know that, under Zecora's influence, the forest would be far less of a hostile environment. It would even become a home to the peaceful, cute animals that the pegasus loved.
Finally, Zecora brought Fluttershy outside to stand near the twisted roots of the great tree in which the zebra lived. "Perhaps you've guessed, this is the Everfree's heart. It is here that I must play my part. But before I go, one last thing you should know. The joining will take some time to complete. It is vital that my focus is not breached." Fluttershy gave a determined nod in response. Zecora inclined her head, "From now on, we'll be each other's guide. Now I will see you on the other side."
With that, the zebra sat down before the tree, resting her head on its bark. Almost immediately, an aura of green, magical energy began to swirl around her, caressing her mane like a soft breeze. Fluttershy watched in awe. It felt as if she should be performing some sort of ceremony or doing something to help, but Zecora had only told her what she would be doing after the ritual was complete. So the yellow pony sat and watched and, despite her best efforts, thought of Angel. Her fear and sudden grief had rapidly faded into a disorienting numbness. She knew, in a detached sort of way, that she was sad, devastated. But emotionally, it was as if something had been torn out of her. Maybe that was why she had accepted this responsibility. Normally she would never have volunteered for such an imposing task . . . but this had been no ordinary day.
Fluttershy shook her head. She needed to stay alert. Zecora's home was usually secure, but they were still in the Everfree forest. There was no telling what might be lurking around, and Fluttershy didn't want to take any chances that a curious creature would stumble into the clearing and interrupt the ritual. Minutes passed. Then an hour. Two. The energy surrounding Zecora continued to intensify. As deep night faded into early morning, it had become so potent that Fluttershy could literally feel it buzzing against her skin. Surely something would happen soon.
"Over here! The pony magic is sssstrong!"
Fluttershy started at the high pitched voice and her heart began to race. She looked around wildly, the changelings were on her before she even spotted them. She squeaked in terror and then in pain as one of them seized her mane and threw her to the ground.
"Got you!" it sneered, "Hey, it'ssss not a unicorn."
"Use your eyesssss, the magic is coming from that one. Sssssome kind of ritual." The tension on Fluttershy's mane lessened and she twisted her neck in time to see another changeling, clad in chitinous armor approaching Zecora.
"Wait!" she gasped, inviting a violent yank on her hair.
"Keep that one quiet while I deal with thisssss," the lead changeling ordered, not even bothering to turn around. If he had, he might have noticed the streak of orange hurtling toward his legs. With a crack of impact, Scootaloo took the creature's hooves out from under him. A third changeling lunged after the filly, but she had already flitted away into the brush. A few seconds passed and Fluttershy thought that the young pegasus had escaped. The armored changeling growled as he came back to his hooves. Then with a tiny battle cry, Scootaloo came streaking back, aiming her charge at the changeling holding Fluttershy.
With a snarl, the armored changeling bounded forward to intercept her, swatting her to the ground. He motioned for the remaining changeling to hold the filly down. "No more distractions!" he barked, "Keep them still while I-- Where did it go?"
Fluttershy glanced over at the cottage where Zecora had been, but there was no sign of the zebra anywhere. The cloud of energy had also dissipated, but Fluttershy realized that she could still feel the buzzing. Where was it coming from?
"Keep your eyes open!" shouted the changeling commander, "This could be a trap. You, take that-- *hurk*!" the changeling's final order was cut short as a jagged root burst from the ground, impaling him through the throat. The root retracted as swiftly as it had erupted, leaving a stain of dark green ichor on the dirt. Fluttershy watched in horror as the changeling gasped and clicked, clutching at its throat. The creature fell to the ground, twitching a bit before falling still. The other two changelings were quiet, stunned at the sudden turn of events.
The pressure of the changeling's weight abruptly lifted and Fluttershy whirled to look up. Her captor was now swinging above her, held by a vine which had snaked around its neck. The changeling struggled, clawing at the vine which was rapidly tightening. There was a wet crack of breaking chitin, and the changeling went rigid and then slack. The vine released, dropping the insectoid corpse to the ground with a thump.
The remaining changeling opted to retreat, tossing Scootaloo aside and taking to the air on its translucent wings. It disappeared into the canopy and everything was silent. For a moment. Then the branches began to thrash, grinding and crashing together and showering the forest floor with leaves. Fluttershy squeaked as a mangled changeling body tumbled from the trees. Instinctively, the yellow pony looked away and found herself gazing at the young filly next to her. Scootaloo was staring, open mouthed at the corpses.
"Oh my," Fluttershy gasped, throwing an arm over the younger pony and turning her away from the gruesome scene.
"Hey," Scootaloo protested. Her voice was shaking. "I'm not a foal ya know." The orange pegasus pushed away from Fluttershy. There were tears in her eyes. "I can to-totally handle-- *sniff*." Fluttershy pulled the filly back into a hug. She wasn't sure if she was doing for Scootaloo's comfort or her own. Together, the two ponies sat in silent acknowledgement of the pain they shared.
After a minute, Fluttershy asked, "What were you doing out here?"
"That bright light woke me up. I thought it was dawn, but when I got up, I couldn't find you. I looked out the window and saw those creepy changelings and I just-- Woah," Scootaloo murmured, ducking under Fluttershy's forelegs. The changelings' bodies were gone and there were patches of disturbed earth where they had fallen. The soil must have somehow swallowed the bodies. But that wasn't what had drawn the filly's attention. Zecora's walking stick lay a few feet away and it was glowing with the same energy that had surrounded the tree during the ritual.
"Why's it doing that?" Scootaloo asked.
"I'm not sure," Fluttershy replied, trotting over to the object, "Zecora mentioned that it would be my connection to the forest, but I don't know. . ." The yellow pegasus reached out to pick up the stick. The instant her hoof touched the wood a flash of awareness burst in her mind. She suddenly knew every tree, every rock, every animal in the forest as if it were part of her own body. It was overwhelming. Her mind was suddenly trying to account for an awareness that was orders of magnitude greater than her own.
I know you.
What? Who's there? Fluttershy said. Or, at least she thought she said it. She couldn't tell if it was her mouth that was moving or that of the lone Timberwolf prowling on the edges of the forest. Or maybe it was the bunny that had ventured out of its warren to feed.
No, you are here. There was a falling sensation, then Fluttershy found herself back in her own skin. She gasped, when she realized that she hadn't been breathing.
"Fluttershy! Are you okay?" Scootaloo exclaimed, "You fell over when you touched that stick and you started twitching and you said something."
The mare struggled to her feet. "I'm alright," she said, "I. . . I think I was talking to Zecora."
ZECORA, Fluttershy winced at the intensity of the thought. Zecora. . .Yes that was my name, but why do I not feel the same?
"Oh my. . . Um, you don't remember?"
I remember my life before, but now I sense I am something more.
"Well, you, um, merged with the spirit of the Everfree, to stop the changelings from--"
CHANGELINGS! THOSE DARK CREATURES DO NOT BELONG, THEIR PRESENCE HERE IS MORE THAN WRONG! Fluttershy nearly collapsed under the pressure of Zecora's anger. While they remain, I'll not stand by. If they won't leave then THEY WILL DIE!
The ground began to shake, rumbling with the fury of the vengeful spirit. Frightened, Scootaloo edged closer to Fluttershy. "What's happening?" the young pegasus asked. She looked so scared.
Fluttershy scowled. "Stop that right now," she snapped at the spirit, "You're scaring my friend."
The creature ilk spreads without restraint. No, I must remove their taint.
"But you don't have to kill them all! Zecora was always peaceful and kind. She would never do something so horrible."
The rumbling in the earth gradually subsided. What you say . . . it may be true. There may be another thing to do. I'll not let them rest, give them no reprieve. But when they give up. . . I will allow them to leave.
"Thank you. That sounds a bit more like the Zecora I know."
I . . . am pleased, though I don't know why. But I feel I should thank you Fluttershy.
"What just happened?" Scootaloo said.
Fluttershy let out a sigh. "We're safe now. You should be able to get to safety soon."
"What about you?"
"I have to stay. Zecora is part of the Everfree now, and it's my responsibility to watch out for her now."
The filly was quiet for a moment. "Well then I'm staying too," she said at last.
"What?" Fluttershy exclaimed, "But this is no place for a filly."
"You said we were safe. And there's no way I'm letting you stay here all on your own. Besides . . . I don't really have any family."
Fluttershy smiled at the little pegasus's determination. And she had to admit that it would be nice to have company. "All right then," she said. "I suppose we should get some breakfast then." And together the two ponies returned to the small cottage at the Heart of the Everfree Forest.
The memory dissolved and the demure pegasus snapped back to herself. The phantoms were gone. In their place, a lanky, young pegasus stood.
"Are you okay?" Scootaloo asked.
"I think so," Fluttershy responded, pushing herself to her feet with the aid of her walking stick. "I thought I asked you to stay behind."
"Well, I, uh . . . I finished watering the plants and feeding the animals like you asked and, uh, I just wanted to see-- I mean, I wanted to make sure."
Fluttershy held up a hoof. "It's okay," she said with a smile. "It's good that you came along. I was having some trouble with local spirits."
"Right," the younger pony said, "That still kinda creeps me out."
"Don't worry. We're here to lay them to rest. Could you pick up the bag I dropped please?"
Scootaloo trotted over to retrieve the tiny sack and return it to Fluttershy. The yellow pony took the sack and limped over to the remains of Ponyville Town Hall. It had been caught in the fire during the attack on the town and burned almost entirely to the ground. Fluttershy pawed at the ground in the center of the ruins. The soil beneath the ash was fertile. Fluttershy upended the sack over the small divot she'd made. A single seed fell into the hole with a plop and the pegasus covered it gently with earth.
"What now?" Scootaloo asked, trotting over to stand next to Fluttershy.
The older pegasus just smiled and set the base of her walking stick on the ground near the seed. Then she closed her eyes and concentrated. If it's not too much trouble, she thought, could you please make this grow?
Light green energy poured through the staff and diffused into the soil. Fluttershy motioned for Scootaloo to stand back. As she turned to follow, she saw a few shadows lurking at the edges of the town square. They could sense what was about to happen. A small sprout had already poked up through the ash. As the ponies watched, it grew into a small tree.
Come on now. I know you can do more than that. Fluttershy thought. She got the impression that the Everfree Spirit might be trying to take a little more control, but Zecora was persistant. The tree began to pulse with the energy of the forest, sending waves of light through the town. With every pulse, the malevolent haze that gripped the ruined city began to lift. One by one, they phantoms disappeared and when the sun finally rose, it shone down on a purified Ponyville.
Scootaloo took a deep breath. "That's a lot better," she commented, "What now?"
"I guess we just go home. When the war is over, all of the ponies who lived here will have a home again."
"Fluttershy!" The yellow mare jumped at the shout, whirling around to see who was there. She was met by a streak of lavender that nearly bowled her over. "I can't believe I found you! And Scootaloo too! We've all been so worried!"
"T-Twilight?" What are you doing here?"
"I came to find you. We need your help."
"My help? With what?"
"Princess Luna wants to attack the Changeling home base, but she needs the Elements of Harmony."
"But, I can't leave."
"What do you mean?"
"It's a long story, Twilight," Scootaloo chimed in, "But she will be able to go." Both of the older ponies threw questioning looks at the filly. "If you can help end the war, you have to go, Fluttershy. You can stay connected with your staff and I'll look after the cottage while you're gone."
Fluttershy glanced down at the carved walking stick. It pulsed lightly, wordlessly conveying Zecora's encouragement.
"Alright," she said, "I'll come with you."
Twilight and Fluttershy both hugged Scootaloo before departing for the chariot on which the unicorn had arrived. "So, what were you doing there?" Twilight asked.
"Helping Ponyville heal. Getting it ready for our friends and family to return," she replied, "And I guess I was just in time."
Celestia watched the setting sun, feeling it's slow descent and the subtle changing in the energies of the world. There was a slight pressure as well. Luna was nudging at her, eager to raise the moon and bring forth the night. Gently, but firmly, the white alicorn resisted, ensuring that the sun received the exact amount of time it should be allotted on this early spring evening. But it was not just for the sake of observing a more natural day-and-night cycle that Celestia delayed the sunset. She had a good idea why her sister was so avid. The war was heavy in her mind. It made her more hasty, more impatient. Celestia should have addressed her sister about it back when the tides of the war had turned, but it was not yet too late.
Finally, the sun fell completely behind the horizon, leaving but a warm, pink glow in the western sky. The Princess of the Day relaxed, letting her magic dwindle as the world came into her sister's domain. Weariness clung to her like a blanket laden with water, but the physical plight of her body was far less disturbing than the implications that went with them. Equestria was changing. The hearts of her people were dark with the fear and hatred of a relentless enemy. Celestia doubted that Chrysalis knew just how grievous a wound she was inflicting. The invasion of her changelings had come at a delicate point in Equestrian history, interrupting plans that the Pony Princess had spent a millennium developing. Now the fate of Celestia's nation teetered on the brink of a cliff.
With a sigh, the alicorn descended the steps to her throne room. The warm light of her sun was already retreating across the marble floor. She could feel her sister's familiar presence approaching from the west. The Princess of the Night radiated triumph and excitement. So she had recovered the Element of Generosity. It was a mixed relief. Celestia was fond of all of Twilight's friends and was pleased that Rarity was unharmed, but, if she was right about her sister's intentions . . . well, so long as the Elements were safe, there was hope.
Soon the quiet throne room was filled with the gentle moonlight. It reminded Celestia of the nights she had spent here after Luna's banishment. She had often sat in her throne, gazing out the window at her sister's prison, opening herself to the pain of their separation. It was only fair. Luna's banishment had been necessary, but it had not been the younger alicorn's fault. Celestia deserved every ounce of the regret she had felt with every moon rise for a thousand years.
Now she sat, staring out the window as she once had, but instead of pain, she felt fear. Fear for her sister, her pupil and her friends, and fear for all of her realm. For a centuries, she had indulged in complacency. Then Twilight and her friends had defeated Nightmare Moon and purified her sister, just as she had planned. She had allowed herself to believe that everything was under control. With Luna back to normal, they would finally be able to finish what they had started before the turning of the age. Only now did she realize the extent of her delusion. Luna thrived on war. It made a certain sense that her sister would have developed violent tendencies to balance out her own peaceful nature. But it was still problematic.
A churning of magic preceded her sisters sudden appearance in the room, the midnight blue alicorn materializing in the flash of a teleportation spell. Celestia took a deep breath that she hoped her sister would not notice. The time had finally come to face her fear.
"Greetings, Sister," Luna said pleasantly.
"Hello, Luna," Celestia replied, "I trust your mission was a success?"
"You know it was." Luna's chiding was tempered by the fierce exhilaration in her eyes. "Has Twilight returned with the Element of Kindness?"
Celestia inclined her head. "They arrived earlier this evening."
"Excellent. They are all here. It is time we discussed our strategy for the final assault."
The Princess of the Sun took a deep breath. "Yes," she said, "We have much to discuss."
Celestia's stern tone was not lost on her sister. The blue alicorn raised an eyebrow. "What is your concern?" she asked bluntly.
Celestia thought for a moment, considering where to start. "You are . . . very eager for this battle."
"Of course I am. It is time we ended this threat to our realm once and for all."
"The major threat was ended when Twilight destroyed the Stone of Anguish. Without it's power, they are no more dangerous than they were ages ago. If that were not enough, you destroyed the majority of their remaining forces at Cloudsdale. The changelings are finished. Is it wise to risk more of our soldiers' lives trying to finish an enemy who can no longer hurt us?"
Luna's expression darkened. "You believe we should show them mercy? After what they did to Equestria? After what they did to you?" The scars on Celestia's neck twinged at the memory of the assassination attempt that had nearly succeeded. "We cannot simply let them inflict such atrocities without repercussion. We must have justice!"
"Is justice so important that we will sacrifice pony lives to achieve it?" Celestia asked calmly.
It was Luna's turn to take a deep breath. The younger princess took a moment to calm herself. "My sister. I understand your reluctance. But a thousand years of peace has clouded your judgement. You refuse to see the threats that lie outside our borders. Ponies are not alone in this world and the other races are not so comfortable in their positions. The griffons have been watching this conflict very closely, as have the lions of the south and even a few dragon tribes have been testing our defenses. If we appear weak now, then they will fall upon us eagerly."
Celestia flinched. Her sister was right. She had been neglecting to consider foreign affairs for quite some time. But her sister's intimate understanding of the predator nations' spirit was disconcerting. "What do you intend to do then?" she asked.
Luna showed her teeth in a grin that made Celestia want to cringe. "We will use the power of the Elements to crush them once and for all. That will send the message that ponykind is strong and that we will destroy anyone who dares to threaten our homeland."
The Sun Princess was aghast. She had known that Luna planned on using the Elements, but she had always assumed that she would simply perform another banishment. Perhaps she would be more forceful, but she had never considered that her sister could possibly be so deluded. No, Luna had been there when the Element's were forged. What was she thinking?
"You . . . You know what might happen if you use the Elements for pure violence," Celestia said. Luna didn't respond, merely staring at her sister with something utterly terrifying in her gaze. She knew. She knew that using the Elements for destruction, for creating chaos and discord would disrupt their connection to the magic of Harmony and put them into dormancy. Possibly forever. She knew, and she didn't care. Or worse, this was what she intended. "Why?" she whispered.
Luna looked away. "I am sorry. I should have told you sooner."
"After the years of planning. After everything we've been through. You want to give it all up now?"
"A thousand years is a long time to think, sister," Luna said. Celestia winced at the bitterness in her sister's voice. "And I did think. I thought about the dangers of this world. The sorts of things that put me on the moon. Things that could rival even our power. It led me to believe that our plan was misplaced." The Princess of the Moon turned back, meeting Celestia's eyes with an unflinching gaze. "Mortal ponies cannot possibly withstand the darker forces of the world without us. Equestria needs its rulers. We cannot leave."
Celestia gaped at her sister who stared stonily back at her. "You can't possibly believe that," she said desperately, "Not after everything Twilight and her friends have done. Surely you see their potential."
"It is not about potential!" Luna snapped. When she saw how Celestia withdrew from her anger, she visibly took more control over her emotions. "I know you have always wanted to pass on the mantel of power. But look at how much good you have done. Ponies are stronger now than they have ever been because of your guidance. Equestria needs you. I am sorry, my sister, but in time you will realize that I am correct. Please, do not let this matter trouble you. All will be well."
Celestia didn't answer. She couldn't. Her sister delivered her arguments with the passion of one who truly believed in her own words, but the elder Princess saw through all of that to the true reason behind Luna's defiance. After the defeat of Discord, the sister's had agreed that they should rule Equestria temporarily, eventually passing on their position to others. But in the years of her imprisonment, Luna's mind had changed. She wanted to keep her power. No amount of reason would convince her of her folly.
When the Princess of the Sun remained silent, Luna turned away reluctantly. "I must make preparations," she said, "It is for your own good, sister. And the good of all Equestria. But I am truly sorry." And with that, the younger alicorn departed through the large, double doors on the other side of the chamber.
Celestia sat quietly in the darkness. It had been a long time since she had devoted so much focus to a problem. Not since the days after trapping Luna on the moon had she needed to think so hard, but it still came as naturally as it did during their struggles with Discord. Luna likely did not even realize her true reason for turning away from the original plan. Until she did, Celestia would not be able to sway her. One option was to simply allow Luna to carry out her misguided plan and experience the consequences for herself, but the elder Princess could not foresee what exactly those consequences would be. It would also be irresponsible to put the ponies of Equestria at risk in such a way. Celestia would have to interfere with Luna's plan, and quickly.
From what the Sun Princess had gathered, the Equestrian army and navy would be transported in its entirety to the Frozen North where they would engage the remainder of the changeling swarm. That would happen in three days, once the pony forces all returned from the Galloping Gorge. Celestia had three days to interrupt the course of events that her sister wished to put in motion. Three days before it was too late.
No doubt Luna would have found a way to bend the power of the Elements of Harmony to her will. They would not easily allow themselves to be used for destruction. They would also only respond to their corresponding bearers. So. Luna would need to instruct Twilight and her friends in order to achieve that end. That was the first link at which Celestia would strike. The white Princess rose from her throne and ascended the stairs to her tower bed chamber, already deciding on the exact words she would use to convince her pupil not to join the attack on the changeling stronghold.
It was early the next morning when there came a knock at Celestia's chamber door.
"You wanted to see me Princess?" said the Lavender unicorn as she entered.
"Twilight, please come in. Have you eaten yet this morning?" Celestia replied cheerfully, gesturing at a tray of toasted oats and day lilies. Twilight gratefully came to sit opposite the Princess and took a few bites from the tray. "I trust you are enjoying your reunion with your friends?"
The young unicorn paused only briefly, but Celestia had known her long enough to realize what that meant. She had to take a moment to think because she didn't know what to say. "Honestly . . . It's like I don't even know them anymore. So much has happened, and we didn't get to experience it together. It's made them all so different. Me too I guess."
It was worse than Celestia feared. The bond between the six friends was vital to her plan. She could not allow them to fracture. "I know how difficult this must be for you, but you must believe that your friendship can be repaired." Twilight looked dubious, so the Princess added, "Think of it as another learning opportunity."
Twilight's demeanor improved slightly at that and the two ponies ate the rest of their breakfast in silence. It was a decidedly pleasant experience for the Princess. She had not dined with her apprentice in nearly four years and she had forgotten what good company the unicorn was. The lavender pony still had the same aura of curiosity, but her wonder had been blunted. She was also more anxious, though she hid it well. The only thing that was truly missing was the young mare's sense of innocence. The past nineteen months of war had taken their tole on the poor girl. And Celestia was afraid that the coming weeks would be just as difficult, if not more.
At length, the two mares finished their breakfast and Twilight rose to leave. "Just a moment please," Celestia said, "There is something else I need to discuss with you. Something very important."
"What is it?" Twilight asked dutifully.
"My sister has informed you of her plan I presume?"
The unicorn nodded, saying, "She wants to use the Elements of Harmony to defeat the changelings again."
"No," Celestia said gravely, "Luna would use the Elements to destroy the changelings."
"Is that even possible?" Twilight asked. There was an unnerving amount of intrigue in her voice.
"It is. However, my sister has not considered the full extent of the possible consequences. It is not in the Elements's nature to cause destruction. To do so will take great effort on your part. And it may harm the Elements in the process."
"But the changelings would be gone? Forever?"
Celestia was momentarily dumbfounded by her pupil's attitude. She had never before been so numb to the Princess's implications. "Yes, their entire race would be eradicated. It would be a terrible tragedy."
"I'm sorry, Princess, but I have to disagree. The changelings have done so many terrible things. And not just to us. They've been a plague on every race at one time or another. If we have an opportunity to stop them once and for all, we have to take it."
Celestia recovered quickly from the shock of her student's disagreement. She had been sure that Twilight would see the danger in Luna's plan. "What of the Elements of Harmony?" the Princess pressed, "Such a misuse of their power could damage them permanently."
"Even so," Twilight said cautiously, "I've read every book we have on the changelings. I know what sort of horrors they put their host civilization through every time they feed. We can't let that continue, even if we lose the Elements. Besides . . . I'm not so sure we actually need them anymore. It wasn't the Elements that stopped the changelings during the invasion. The power of Cadance and Shining Armor's love did that. And that's not the only source of power we have. The Stone of Anguish wasn't the only artifact in this part of the world. My research even turned up a few that are probably within Equestria's borders. There's a good chance we can find those, so sacrificing the Elements might not be as bad as you think."
Celestia couldn't believe what she was hearing. Independence of thought was an excellent quality, but the young mare had certainly chosen a poor time to learn that particular lesson. Still, the young unicorn had always been unwaveringly loyal. Even now she was not being truly defiant, but rather expressing her point of view, presenting a rational argument. But she would bend to Celestia's will if the Princess commanded her to help in thwarting Luna's plan. That would be the easiest way, the safest way.
No. The consequences of that action were clear. If she force Twilight to obey, if she robbed her of her ability to choose, their relationship would change. They would no longer be teacher and pupil but ruler and subject. Faithful student would become faithful servant. Celestia needed Twilight to be more than that.
The Princess forced herself to look directly into her student's lavender eyes and speak with the utmost conviction. "Very well. I trust your council, Twilight. And I trust your ability to resolve any complications that may arise."
The unicorn looked queasy for a moment, but her apparent anxiety soon faded into a stony, calculating mask. "Thank you, Princess," she said, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have plans with my friends today. Pinkie Pie wants us to all spend time together before the deployment."
Celestia nodded and watched silently as her student exited the chamber. The alicorn's mind immediately set to work sifting through Twilight's words for each point of logic she had presented. Everything she had mentioned was true. The changelings were a pox on the world, bringing nothing but pain wherever they went. Wiping them out would be a boon to all sentient life. And there were artifacts other than the Elements of Harmony, some which were much older and far more powerful, which could be harnessed. Slowly, an alternative to the future Celestia had painstakingly prepared began to take shape. All nations would rest easier with the changelings gone. Ponies would be even stronger than before. Other animals would look up to them. It was a future full of greatness.
But it was the wrong kind of greatness. The spirit of ponykind was already changeing, twisting into something hungry and restless. Celestia could already feel it happening. The hatred they felt for changelings would linger and find new targets. Conflict would arise simply because ponies would not be able to relinquish the power that came through force of arms. There would be no more balance, no more harmony, no more peace. Thousands of years of progress would vanish in the course of a generation.
It was not quite certain. Perhaps Twilight would even succeed in steering them away from the edge. But Celestia had waited so long and sacrificed too much to leave the fate of Equestria in another pony's hooves while there was still something she could do. And there was one last thing she could do.
Celestia shivered as she strode through the crystal caverns, the same caves that Crysalis had used to imprison Twilight and Cadance during her initial attempt at invasion. It was cold and damp, but that could hardly bother the Princess of the Sun. What really gave her goosebumps was the aura of fear and suffering that pervaded the abandoned mine. It had been the site of great cruelty, cruelty inflicted by ponies upon their own kind.
Greedy, powerful unicorns had once owned these caverns but did not have the means to unearth the crystals on their own. So they exploited the poor and desperate, offering wages that would barely sustain their work force. The early years of Equestria's history was filled with similar stories. It still pained Celestia that she had not been there to help those ponies see the error of their ways, but, at the same time, she was glad that she never had to witness that horror. Now it seemed like she might have to face that same evil in the future. But only if she failed in the task that brought her down into these caves.
Finally Celestia found the spot she was looking for. Shattered and melted crystals were strewn everywhere, Twilight's doing. When Crysalis had trapped her down here, she had cast a two-way scrying spell so that she could taunt the young unicorn. It clearly had the desired affect. Twilight must have been very angry to cause so much destruction. The Princess just hoped that her student's outburst hadn't disrupted the subtle, magical signature that Crysalis had left with her spell.
Closing her eyes, Celestia sent a tendril of magic toward the translucent wall of the cavern. She smiled as she sensed the faint remnants of Crysalis's spell. The Princess scanned the tattered weave of energies, rebuilding the pattern in her mind. Then, like an expert seamstress, she stitched the spell back together, reinforcing it with her own magic. Abruptly, the spell snapped back into existence.
The cavern wall suddenly began to glow with a green light. When Celestia looked into the crystal, she could see a large, broken throne flanked by a pair of flickering torches. A surprised snarl emanated from the throne.
"Who dares-- Oh, of course it's you. What's the matter, Celestia? Is your faithful little student such a poor spy that you had to come find me yourself?"
"I am not here to spy on you, Crysalis," Celestia responded coolly.
A pair of pale green eyes appeared between the torches. They stared directly into Celestia's, burning with hate. "Then what do you want?" the changeling Queen demanded.
"I must inform you that you are in great danger. My sister intends to use the Elements of Harmony to destroy you and your people. There is still time for you to escape, but you must act quickly."
With the languid grace of a spider, Crysalis descended from her shattered throne, moving closer to whatever surface through which she was speaking. At this new angle, the light from her torches glinted off her carapace, revealing her expression. Her mouth was set in a horrible rictus that revealed every one of her pointed teeth. Strands of gossamer hair hung over her face and floated wildly about her head.
"Oh dear," the Queen purred. Celestia bristled at her evident sarcasm. "The Elements of Harmony. Such a deadly and terrifying weapon. Hahahaha! Honestly, Celestia. Do you really expect me to fall for such a pitiful ruse?"
"This is no trick!" the alicorn boomed, "I am giving you a chance to save yourself. Please, you must leave before my sister arrives or--"
"Or what?" Crysalis interrupted, "I know what the Elements were designed to do. They can't be used for destruction."
"How did you know that?"
"I know a great deal more than you think. Twilight Sparkle isn't the only one who has a fondness for history. And my library is bigger."
"You're wrong," Celestia said. Crysalis's smile had faded into a rather bored expression, but her eyes still danced with a confidence born of her hatred. "The Elements are more powerful than you can imagine, and my sister knows how to bend them to her will. She will destroy you."
"That's impossible. Using the Elements for destruction would--" Crysalis trailed off. Celestia blanched as she saw the realization dawning on the changeling's face. "Would damage their enchantment. Quite badly. It could even destroy them, couldn't it?" Celestia was silent. "So that's your reason." Chrysalis sneered, "You're afraid that your precious Elements will be destroyed, just like my Stone."
"My fears are irrelevant. If you don't retreat your entire race will be killed. Surely you see that?"
"What I see, dear princess, is an opportunity. One that you have so graciously provided. It would be rude if I didn't make the most of it." Celestia felt a strain on the magics that shaped the scrying spell. The changeling was breaking off her connection.
"Crysalis, wait!" the alicorn shouted
"So sorry. I'd love to chat, but I have preparations to make. Ta ta!"
With that, the fabric of the spell unraveled, leaving Celestia alone in the dark silence of the crystal caverns. The weight of her failure nearly robbed her of breath. Fate seemed to have conspired against her in every way. No one, not even Twilight, would stand with her in her attempt to preserve the harmony and peace that Equestria had enjoyed for thousands of years.
For all of her life, Celestia had felt the gears of time turning, but this was the first time it felt like she was being crushed between their cogs.