The empress looked upon her world and smiled.
It was finally quiet. No sound, no light, nothing at all was left to bother the fair lady.
The empress found herself laughing for the first time in what seemed like centuries. At last she was truly and undeniably alone with nothing but the emptiness. Even her laugh wasn’t what one would really call noise, and who could say one had a body when one could feel nothing.
Truly it was just her thoughts left.
And those would be gone soon as well.
Content, the empress slept.
Twinkleshine was sitting in Sugar Cube Corner when it happened.
The actress was there with the rest of her troupe; celebrating their latest triumph in Ponyville town square. The troupe hadn’t planned the celebration at first, but thanks to the prompting of a pink mare who’d attended the show they were given the place for free. Twinkle hadn’t spoken to the fan herself yet, but the mare was busy collecting autographs, so they would inevitably meet soon enough.
Twinkle would probably be last on the list though, considering where she was seated. The unicorn never really enjoyed the party atmosphere. That is to say, she didn’t participate in it. She did enjoy watching the show however, and her position from the corner window allowed her a view of everything.
The unicorn smiled and sipped her tea as she watched her fellows dancing and singing. She was only broken from her revelry when prodded by a pink hoof from the seat across from her. Prompted by the prod, Twinkle turned to see the fan that had opened the store for them grinning ear to ear.
Twinkle shot her the smile she reserved for her fans; a simple lifting of the lips and a closing of the eyes. The actress liked to refer to it as her sincerest grin. “Hello,” she said, “I take it you’re this Pinkie Pie I’ve heard so much about.”
The joyous mare nodded enthusiastically. “That’s my name don’t wear it out. And you’re the mare who played Summer Night right?” Twinkle nodded. “You did a really great job.”
“Thank you,” Twinkle said with a blush. Something about the way this mare talked made her smile widen a bit. And of course the fact that she was complimenting her certainly helped. “So I take it you’re here for my autograph then?”
Pinkie nodded, and Twinkle was pretty sure she spoke. The mare’s lips moved anyway, but the unicorn didn’t hear anything. She was going to ask the mare to repeat herself, but, after a moment, she didn’t see anything either. Pinkie was gone in the blink of an eye.
Twinkleshine decided she must have nodded off and turned to look for the pink mare amongst the rest of the crowd. Strangely though, the rest of the crowd was gone too. Had she passed out and missed the party? Did that make sense?
In something of a panic now, Twinkle sipped her tea and turned to the window. Just as she expected nopony was out there either. What surprised her was that it wasn’t just the ponies that had disappeared. The landscape in the distance had vanished too.
And more was disappearing by the second.
Some sort of gray cloud was fast approaching the town, and everything from the land to sky seemed to be disappearing into it.
Now in full panic, the unicorn found herself frozen. Not just by the gray cloud approaching from the distance, but also by the black ring speedily overtaking her vision.
The last thing Twinkle saw before everything went dark was teacup shattering on the floor.
Twinkleshine sipped her tea and took another glance out the window. Everything was still gone. Just gray sky and a few plots of land sitting in nothing. The ponies were still gone too. Wherever they had spontaneously vanished to clearly wasn’t giving them back.
The shock that caused Twinkle to spill her drink before had finally worn off. At least, that’s what she told herself as she drank from the shivering cup. To be fair though, magic was like that sometimes. After losing consciousness it was typical that it wouldn’t work as well. Those who called it an old mare’s tale just hadn’t ever fainted before.
Twinkle nodded as if in confirmation of the landscape not being a nightmare, turned back to the table. Specifically she turned back to the compact had been laid out mere moments prior. The mirror presented her with a strangely calm white unicorn with terribly messy pink mane.
Once again, the mare nodded at the problem and pulled a comb out of her bag. She had to look nice for the harbingers of the end after all. It might be insulting if she wasn’t properly made up. As Twinkle combed her mane back into an acceptable curl and bob, she couldn’t help but wonder which harbinger it would be that came to collect her, or if there would be any harbinger at all.
Twinkle dropped her comb, and broke another cup, when the bell over the door rang. She stopped just short of shrieking once she turned to see the intruder. A lithe black pegasus with a long silvery mane was standing in the doorway. “Oh,” she said, sounding both relieved and, oddly, disappointed, “It’s just famine.”
“E-excuse me?” the harbinger asked from the doorway.
“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I was kind of expecting Death or maybe War,” Twinkle said quickly in apology. She resumed combing her hair before speaking again. “Then again I suppose it does make sense considering how I’m in a sweet shop and all,” Twinkle continued, thinking aloud.
The pegasus approached Twinkle cautiously after that. “Y-you think I’m one of the harbingers?” she asked.
“Please don’t mumble ma’am it’s very unbecoming of a god,” Twinkleshine responded. She’d heard the mare of course, but she was never one to listen to mumblers, gods or not. Besides, there were more important things to do at the moment. “I’m very sorry about the mane,” Twinkle said, turning back to her mirror, “I’m afraid the apocalypse took me by surprise.”
“I’m. Not. A. Harbinger.” The pegasus spoke decisively and without mumbling this time, making sure to emphasize each word; yet somehow she did so without sounding rude. It was as if she genuinely believed that the unicorn couldn’t hear her. “My names, Dew Drop,” and then she went right back to the mumble.
“Alright,” Twinkle responded without glancing up from the compact, “In that case could you go get me a fresh tea? I’m afraid I dropped mine. The pot should be right behind the counter” The pegasus glanced to the nearby teapot and nodded. Twinkle was actually surprised by how quickly Dew Drop moved to the task. She had figured it would take more convincing than a simple request.
Once Twinkle was confident her new guest was no longer facing her, she tore her gaze away from the mirror in order get a better look. Dew Drop was lithe but hardly starved, and her cutie mark was a drop of water; hardly befitting the pony of famine. Additionally, upon closer examination, the mare’s coat was more of a dark blue than an actual black. The young mare stopped to grab a pair of white frosted cakes on the way to the tea. That hardly made sense for the embodiment of starvation; particularly if one of the cakes was, as Twinkle suspected, for her.
It didn’t take long for Dew Drop to return to the table with the treats and two cups of tea. The mare’s balance was remarkable considering how she carried the four plates on her wings. “So you think this is the end of the world, Miss?”
“Twinkleshine,” the unicorn introduced herself. Dew Drop had just placed the first pair of plates on the table and was turning in order to serve the next pair. Twinkle however was kind enough to levitate the other pair onto the table herself. Her magic was still a bit shaky, much to her annoyance.
“Are you okay?” Dew asked, evidently catching the shaking of the plates before they hit the table.
Twinkle showed the filly her well-trained smile. “I’m just fine. Thank you.”
Dew nodded, but didn’t return the grin. Instead she turned to look out of the nearby window. “I’m sorry. I just thought that this whole thing might be getting to you. Considering how you thought it was the apocalypse.” She paused for a moment after that. Twinkle would have filled the silence, but her mouth was filled by an obnoxiously dry bite of cake. “It’s not you know,” Dew continued, “The apocalypse doesn’t look like this.”
Twinkle flushed her cake down with a delicate gulp of tea during the pause that followed Dew’s second statement. “I’m afraid I must disagree,” the mare said once she had swallowed, “I mean how could it be anything else? There’s nothing left but a few rocks,” Twinkle said as she pointed a hoof at the window for emphasis.
Dew shook her head. “No there’s more out there than that.” The mare stared down at her cake when she spoke, and gave it a sizable bite once she had finished. Either her cake was much more moist or she simply wasn’t bothered by the dryness, because she was able to swallow it quite quickly and continue, “Plus, you know, the harbinger’s never appeared. That doesn’t seem right.”
“Go back a bit,” Twinkle said, paying no attention to the mumbling, “What do you mean there’s more out there.”
“There was a castle in the distance,” Dew spoke without looking up. Twinkle took a moment to examine why that was, and noticed that the mare appeared to be tearing up. “There were alot of houses left over too.”
“Are you okay dear?”
“You’re the first pony I’ve seen,” Dew Drop continued, seemingly without hearing her. It was then that she stopped talking and broke down into sobbing. Twinkle was admittedly thrown off. Dew Drop had been so composed mere moments ago.
“It’s okay dear,” Twinkle said comfortingly. She offered Dew Drop a hoofkerchief from her bag, and the mare graciously took it. Once her tears had been nicely wiped away, Twinkle raised Dew’s face up in order to show her the well-trained smile she wore once again. This one was from her ‘comforting’ collection. “Don’t worry. Remember their in paradise now right? Only the bad-“
“You’re wrong,” Dew interrupted. The sobbing had stopped now, but the tears were still streaming. “I told you this isn’t right. Wherever they are it’s not paradise. They’re just…gone.” The pegasus turned her face down again and resumed crying. Twinkle made no effort to keep her face up. She simply moved her hoof away once it was made clear that Dew was going to start up again.
Besides, Twinkle genuinely wasn’t sure how to respond. The way that Dew spoke made it seem too true to deny. This “apocalypse” wasn’t right. “So what do propose we do about it?” she snapped at the crying pony, “If this isn’t the end, than we should be able to fix the world right?” Twinkle wasn’t sure why she snapped at the pony in front of her. It seemed like the right thing to do. There was no reason to get all depressed about the apocalypse if you could just accept that it was the end right?
“I-I think we can,” Dew’s sobbing was once again put on hold as she spoke, “I don’t know how, but we can.” The pegasus suddenly stamped a hoof on the table and another teacup crashed on the floor. “If we couldn’t, then we wouldn’t be here!”
Twinkle was actually shaken by the conviction with which Dew Drop spoke. Luckily the pegasus’s head was still turned downward though, so she never managed to see just how shaken Twinkle was. “Alright,” the unicorn said, quickly regaining her composure, “So what is it that you think we can do then?”
Dew Drop responded by shaking her head and standing up. “I don’t know, but we have to do something.” As she spoke, Dew moved toward the door and tossed it open. He voice was once more subdued after her sudden outburst, but the same conviction seemed to have a hold. “I think it has something to do with the castle though. We just need to get there.”
Twinkle moved to join Dew at the door. She did indeed see the castle in the distance. At least she assumed it was a castle, really it was too far away to be sure. As she stared, Dew was already walking out the door onto the little left over land outside. Strangely, Twinkle didn’t even consider stopping her. She just followed along.
Perhaps it was curiosity that spurred her on, or maybe it was hope. However, were you to ask Twinkle, she would have told you it was something more in line with pity. Dew needed her help, and she felt compelled to give it; regardless of whether or not it really made sense.
Twinkle didn’t struggle when Dew grabbed her and lifted her into the air. Once again it wandered through Twinkle’s mind that the pegasus was simply a lying harbinger. Otherwise, why would she feel so compelled to follow her to a place she wasn’t even sure was real.
Her confidence in that thought faded somewhat when Dew dropped her with an audible thud on the very first island they flew over.
“Sorry,” Dew Drop said as she landed daintily beside the once more disheveled unicorn.
Twinkle stood up and smiled. Although this was less her well-trained actress smile, and more of a don’t-scream-at-the-sensitive-mare smile that she had practiced during her time as a bridesmaid. “Next time please warn me, okay?” With that, Twinkle attempted to magic her comb out of her bag, in order to fix her doubtlessly ruined mane, only to realize she had left it back at the sweet shop. “Could you go fetch my bags, dear? I think I left them back at that little store.”
Dew shook her head. “I’m sorry.” That was all she said. Twinkleshine was confused for a moment before the pegasus pointed back toward where they had just been. Once Twinkle followed the hoof, she saw that the island they had just been on had vanished, along with the little shop.
Twinkle’s first inclination was to ask where the building had gone. She stopped herself just short of uttering that, however, after realizing how foolish it sounded. Instead, she chose to say, “Why did it vanish just now?”
“I’m sorry,” Dew mumbled once more, “I think I popped the balloons.” Twinkle’s response to this rather curious statement was nothing more than a confused glance. Dew hastily pointed upward upon spotting the gaze.
Once Twinkle did decide to follow the hoof she found herself looking up on a curious sight. Floating above the island was indeed a trio of colorful balloons; well one blue balloon and two yellow balloons. The unicorn suspected they were connected to the plot of land by strings of some kind, but she couldn’t see any against the gray background.
“Th-they’re really sensitive,” Dew Drop continued, “They can pop just by touching them.” Twinkle immediately heard the barely withheld tears in her voice.
“Well I suppose it doesn’t matter now,” Twinkle sighed, turning back to face Dew with another smile. That was a lie of course and both of them knew it, but it did seem to reassure the young mare somewhat. At least she was holding back the tears a bit more easily.
Dew moved to pick up Twinkle for the next flight a moment later, but Twinkle waved her down before she was able to grab her. Dew hovered for a moment. “I promise I won’t drop you this time,” she said apologetically.
“That’s not the issue here,” Twinkle responded. She continued to wave for Dew Drop to land, but the pegasus continued hovering. “It’s clear that you can’t fly that far, so we need to plan our route. We can’t go back after we leave an island right?”
Dew landed and glanced downward. “I don’t always pop the balloons,” she mumbled. Dew Drop continued talking from there, but Twinkle paid her no more attention. Instead she turned to look into the distance. There were only four plots she could see within trustworthy distance, about ten she could make out altogether.
“Alright I think I have it,” Twinkle said, turning back to smile at the still mumbling pony. “If you can take us to that one over there,” she pointinga hoof at the appropriate landmass, “I think we should be able to get farther.”
Dew paused and turned to look at the island Twinkle mentioned. It was lower than this one, so the jump would be easy to make. However, it seemed the pegasus wasn’t interested. Instead she pointed to another plot; one farther up with a schoolhouse resting on it. “I think we should go there instead.”
Twinkle nodded. “You know dear,” she said as comfortingly as she could, “That seems-“
“There may be survivors,” Dew said, cutting the unicorn off. Once more her voice was filled with conviction. This time it was more quiet, however. The conviction seemed to come more from the look in her eyes; close to tearing up, but with no water actually flowing.
Twinkle was going to argue, but Dew didn’t give her time. The pegasus had already grabbed her and taken off by the time she got out the first word. This time Twinkle did struggle for a moment, but after seeing that there was no longer land beneath them she stopped. Instead she opted for simply complaining. “Could we at least discuss this next time?”
“I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t have led anywhere. It would’ve just been wasting your time if I went alone.”
The pair ascended quickly. Unfortunately as far as Twinkle could tell, it was Dew’s speed that seemed to explain her aim, and distracting her midflight with conversation hadn’t helped. Twinkle didn’t even notice that they hit the balloons at first, as she confused the quiet laughter that emanated from them for a figment of her imagination. It took her a few moments to realize that there was far more empty space below them than made sense.
Twinkle would have reprimanded the mare carrying her for her clumsiness, but she was interrupted by another loud thud after the pair hit the ground. Dew kept her promise and didn’t drop her. However, as compensation the landing was even rougher thanks to the fact that Dew Drop didn’t let go and didn’t slow down. The fact that the pair slammed into a wall was probably all that kept them from rolling off of the edge.
“Next time, just let go.” Twinkle grunted from her position below the window. Dew Drop’s reply was nothing more than a moan from inside of the schoolhouse. It was at that point that she did let go of Twinkle though, and fell the rest of the way through the now broken window.
“How did that even happen?” Twinkle continued angrily while pulling herself to a stand.
“I’m sorry,” Dew mumbled from inside the schoolhouse, “You’re heavier than you look.”
“I fail to see how that has anything to do with slowing down before landing,” Twinkle complained. She did so mostly to herself, luckily avoiding a lecture on inertia from the mare she was complaining to, due to the fact that she was currently circling the schoolhouse in order to open the front door.
What Twinkle saw was precisely what she expected to see when Dew Drop had originally grabbed her. Although, Dew was lying teary-eyed on the ground for an admittedly different reason than Twinkle had predicted before the pair had crashed.
The schoolhouse was totally vacant. Save for the desks and chalkboard the building was completely empty. Were it not for the broken window, a pony could say that this building hadn’t been touched before Twinkleshine had opened the door.
“I knew that this was a waste of time,” Twinkle said with a sigh. Dew nodded in confirmation as the unicorn approached her and helped her up. “Are you okay, dear?”
Dew shook her head, but stood up nonetheless. “It should be getting easier shouldn’t it? The empty buildings?”
Twinkle paused for a moment to stare at the mare. Again she found herself flushed with pity. The anger faded away for the moment, and she put her calming smile back on. “It will dear,” she said with a sigh. While her face was well disguised the exasperation still showed in her voice.
Dew paid no attention to Twinkle and headed out the door, stopping just at the edge of the island. “Where’s the next one?” she asked.
Twinkle joined her and took a look at the nearby plots. None of them had buildings on them, and all of them were lower than this one. There were about five of them in total. “That one,” she said, pointing to the largest section.
The second trip went about as well as the first. In fact one could probably say it went worse thanks to the fact that there were no buildings to stop the pair from rolling off the edge this time. That luckily didn’t even enter the equation however, as the speed with which the pair hit easily kept them from actually rolling.
It took some time for the dust to settle, and during that time quite a few thoughts ran through Twinkle’s now pulsating head. The vast majority of them involved decking the pony that had just nearly killed her. The rest of them consisted of her wondering whether or not she would be able to do so with the aforementioned pony crying and apologizing.
What threw Twinkle somewhat was that she didn’t actually hear such an apology. “Are you okay?” the mare asked while pulling herself to a stand. It took her some time to realize that Dew was no longer holding on to her, but she merely excused that as the pegasus being just as shaken as she was. It wasn’t until the dust cleared that she began to worry.
Twinkle was able to find her companion easily enough once the dust had settled. Dew Drop was standing in the ditch she’d made when they landed. The concerning part was the terrified look on the blue mare’s face. Twinkles first reaction was naturally to try and get a look at what had frightened the mare, but when she did she saw nothing but the same empty space.
“I-I’m sorry,” Dew muttered, prompting Twinkle to face her once more. “I-I thought I saw something just now.”
Twinkle attempted to ask what it was Dew had seen, but was cut off before she could get past the “w” in “what” by the sudden reappearance of the dust cloud and a rather loud “thud” that came with it. This time Twinkle didn’t have to wait for the dust to settle for her concern to mount. The new pony silhouette and the screams of her companion were enough to cause that.
Twinkle simply stood still while the silhouette charged Dew Drop. It was only after Dew’s second scream that it seemed to register that the new pony was attacking. Suddenly pulled back to her senses, Twinkle readied herself to retaliate. It was about once she got into pouncing position that the dust cleared, and she froze in her tracks.
The first thing about the attacker that drew Twinkle’s attention was, unsurprisingly, the knife held in its mouth. That probably would have been enough to stop Twinkle from diving at them, but it was by far the least shocking part of the pony. The thing had no face. In fact, it also lacked both a mane and a tail. The only distinguishing features were its pink color and the dagger set in its mouth, or, more accurately, set in its skull.
Twinkle was left gawking at the strange pony for a good five seconds or so before it turned to face her and she snapped out of her stupor. By then, however, it was too late for her to react when the creature began its charge. It was only the last minute interference of Dew Drop that probably saved the mare’s life.
Twinkle never screamed or struggled as she was lifted. Her body seemed to have gone completely numb. As a matter of fact, the unicorn felt just like she had when the world had started to disappear. Twinkle could even see the darkness closing in on the edges of her vision. Yet somehow, she was still conscious.
For the second time Twinkle heard the laughter from her imagination and the island sank. This time though the mare was given the chance to see it, for lack of a better word, fall. It turned out that when she had described the landmasses as disappearing beforehoof, she had been far more accurate than she’d expected.
The plot did fall for a moment, but not for long. It was almost as if the strange empty grayness actually consumed it. It was like watching a picture fade at super speed. First the edges became clear, than they vanished and the fading proceed further. It took less than a minute for it to totally vanish.
The most frightening part of the strange disappearance however was not that of the island, but of the pony. It happened quickly just like the island’s disappearance, but not quickly enough to prevent Twinkle from seeing it. The pony didn’t just disappear all at once. The emptiness devoured it just like it had the rest of the island, and the unicorn could swear she saw it struggle as it vanished. The darkness edged a little further inward as Twinkle thought about that happening to the ponies of her troupe.
Twinkle was only vaguely aware of the landing, and only because it was just slightly less rough than the previous three. She did however manage to regain control of her limbs shortly afterward. At least, it felt like it was only shortly afterward.
“Are you alright?” Dew Drop asked once Twinkle had righted herself. After glancing to her right the mare noticed that Dew was still holding one of her hooves. Twinkle responded to her savior’s question with a smile and a nod, but no words. Dew stared at her doubtfully, but didn’t argue.
“Are you okay?” Twinkle asked back as she absentmindedly turned to get a better look at their newest landing. It wasn’t quite as empty as the previous one. There was something of a barn sitting on the far edge of the plot. The actress recognized it as the restaurant that she and a few members of her troupe had eaten at before the performance. She was quite thankful for that. Food was a good way to calm the nerves.
“I’m fine I think,” Dew responded, drawing Twinkle’s attention back to her, “I think I could probably use a rest though. The next island’s kind of far up.” The unicorn glanced upward to confirm her companion’s statement. The next island above them was indeed high up, and it appeared to have some sort of building on it. No doubt she’d be unable to convince Dew to move to another island.
Twinkle nodded to the island and moved toward the restaurant. “A break’s a good idea,” the mare said as she tossed open the door. Dew followed right behind her of course. “You take a seat,” she continued with a nod to one of the tables, “I’ll go get us something to eat.” With that, the unicorn turned away and moved to what she assumed was the kitchen, still ardently refusing to glance back to Dew.
Once alone, Twinkle to a moment to pause and breath. The smile left her face for the consideration as her mind wandered back to the struggling mannequin. The mare did her best to push those thoughts away for the moment though. She still had to smile for Dew after all, and she definitely had to make up for her near black-out earlier.
Twinkle found that most of the food still in the building was, thankfully, dry. Although she had never been much of a chef, the actress was able to throw together a couple of lily and lettuce sandwiches from the food in the cupboards. Along with a handful of hay, that made a decent meal. It took her more time than strictly necessary to finish thanks to her periodic munching, and, of course, her still obnoxiously unstable magic didn’t help.
Not trusting her magic, Twinkle balanced the tray of food on her back and headed back to the dining area. The mare made sure to put a smile back on her face as she headed out and called out to her companion. “Soups on,” she said jokingly as she dropped the tray off.
Dew Drop had at some point acquired a cup of coffee while Tinkle had been working. The unicorn would have asked where she’d gotten it, seeing as the only boiler was in the kitchen; however she wasn’t given the chance. “You think there are more of those things out there?” the blue mare asked her mug, instantly diverting the unicorn’s attention away from the subject of coffee.
“We can just run again if they do show up,” Twinkle said with a cheerful nod as she bit into her sandwich. Dew responded with a nod of her own as she took a bite of her hay. “If you feel like it though, I did see some knives in the kitchen. I can’t use them, but you might be able to.”
Dew nodded and took another bite of hay. “Are there any other flowers in there by the way?” she asked with a mumble through her mouthful, “I’m don’t really like lilies.” Twinkle sighed, but nodded. “Thank you.” With that the pegasus stood up and headed to the kitchen herself. The unicorn took note of the fact that Dew Drop appeared to be wearing a new set of azure saddlebags as she walked away.
“Where did you get those?” Twinkle asked.
Dew paused at the kitchen door. “From the pony at the table before us.” The pegasus spoke sadly, but not distinctly more than usual. Perhaps she was finally adjusting to the situation. With that, the blue mare headed into the kitchen without another word.
Twinkle was able to finish her meal alone while she waited for Dew Drop to return. Eventually she even moved on to the other sandwich. There was no reason to let it go to waste after all. There wasn’t any noise from the kitchen, so the mare found no real reason to worry. Still, she had to admit she felt kind of lonely. This was hardly her first time eating alone, but the empty restaurant didn’t do much to provide entertainment.
Twinkle hastily finished the second sandwich and stood up, tray in questionably stable magic field, to head to the kitchen. The pegasus was busy packing when Twinkle entered. The saddlebags were stuffed almost to bursting with the food she’d thrown into them, and one of them was torn open by a knife that had no doubt been tossed into it without a thought.
“Your knife tore open the bag, dear,” Twinkle commented with a smile as she tossed the tray into a nearby sink. Dew jumped a bit after hearing this and jumped into the sack to pull the dagger out, and the moment she removed it dozens of the flowers she had poured into it instantly flowed out of the now open hole.
Dew mumbled something in disappointment, but Twinkle actually couldn’t make it out for once. If she had to guess though it was probably something along the lines of, “I’m sorry.”
Twinkle shook her head. “You wouldn’t have been able to carry it anyway I suppose,” the mare said with another slightly more jovial smile, “After all you haven’t even gotten used to my weight yet. This would probably just throw you off even more.”
“We might need the food though,” Dew mumbled as she wrapped a dishcloth around her knife.
Twinkle nodded and took another look at the saddlebags. They had a set of lilies on the clasp; that was oddly appropriate. “I don’t think we’ll need a whole restaurant though,” the unicorn said with a smile and a nod towards the bag, “Maybe just enough for a couple days. That should be light enough if you don’t pack any oats.”
Dew glanced back at the bags and nodded. The pair spent the next hour, as close as Twinkle could tell, picking and choosing the flowers and other vegetables they would bring with them. The pair eventually sorted on an assortment of lilies, daisies, lettuce, and rose petals for the undamaged bag. The knife would also be placed there now that it was reasonably safely wrapped. The other bag was used to store a pair of bread loaves. Hopefully that wouldn’t be quite enough to widen the rip, but it would help offset the weight of the other bag.
Twinkle made sure to use the underside strap when she attached the bags to Dew Drop. That would keep them safe during the pegasus’s wild flights. That was, as long as the pair didn’t tumble again.
“We should probably get you a weapon too,” Dew commented while Twinkle tightened the strap.
“I wouldn’t trust myself with a knife right now dear,” Twinkle responded. Her magic had become slightly less shaky since her meal, but holding a knife with anything less than totally stable magic was asking for trouble.
“It doesn’t have to be a knife,” Dew said. When Twinkle finally finished binding the pegasus and stood up, she found that Dew already had something in mind. Sitting in the blue mare’s hooves was a rolling pin. “I know it’s not much, but it’s probably better than just using your hooves.”
Twinkle sighed and nodded. “If it makes you feel better I’ll keep it with me,” she said, levitating the kitchen tool from Dew’s hooves and in front of her mouth. “If that’s settled than we should probably get moving again. You ate right?” Dew nodded. “Good.” With that, the unicorn moved the rolling pin into her mouth and headed out.
This time it was almost unsurprising when the pegasus grabbed Twinkle before she was able to even leave the building. What was quite shocking was Dew’s choice of exit. Twinkle only realized they were heading through the window after hearing the noisy crash of breaking glass.
“Sorry,” Dew exclaimed as she righted herself, “I thought the window was open.” Twinkle would have complained that going through the window was completely unnecessary, but doing so would have doubtlessly caused her to lose her weapon. And as the pegasus pulled them closer to their next stop, it became clear that she would most likely be needing it.
The next island was smaller than the previous ones. Altogether it was just large enough to hold the tree that sat on it, along with a pair of the faceless ponies from earlier standing in front of the door. Dew Drop displayed a surprising amount of sense when she veered away from the building just in time for the pair to avoid crashing into the monsters.
However, Dew’s speed once again proved to be a near, if not definitely, fatal problem for Twinkle. When the pegasus made her turn at such a high speed, her grip loosened almost immediately and the white mare was flung high-speed into the tree-house door. The doors flew open as the unfortunate unicorn crashed into them, and she found that she only stopped sliding once she’d hit the far wall.
The rolling pin was lost during the impromptu flight, so the moment after Twinkle could get back on her feet she scrambled to find it. However, she was unable to find it before the faceless pair at the door began their charge.
Instead, Twinkle decided to make use of the only thing she could. Lying around her was a mound of books that had fallen from the back wall she’d smashed into, and, without pausing to think about how ineffective it would likely be, the unicorn began hurling them at her attackers with both her hooves and her magic. The ensuing barrage of books did almost nothing to stop the charging pair. The only thing that even gave them pause was an absurdly large set of books that the ponies actually had to sidestep.
The pair was only stopped at the last second by an unexpected interruption. Of course Twinkle wasn’t shocked to see that Dew had come to save her; the pegasus was likely planning to risk her life for a stranger before she’d even lost the unicorn. What did surprise her was the blue mare’s dramatic and curiously effective entrance.
With an incredible scream Dew Drop burst through the library window at full speed and smashed straight into the side of one of the knife-wielding ponies. The struck pony was instantly flung straight into the side of its fellow and both were sent tumbling into a snack table on the other end of the tree. Dew skidded across the ground toward the pair, but was able to stop herself just short and draw her weapon.
A ring of flowers surrounded Dew Drop as she drew the knife from her bag, leaving Twinkle more than a little confused by the sheer unbelievable showmanship of the mare’s entrance. It was only the rather clumsy movements of the creatures under the table as they attempted to stand that reminded the unicorn that all of this was actually happening.
Feeling that this would no doubt be there best chance to destroy the monsters, Twinkle used her magic to lift the largest book she could find, a humongous black tome simply labeled “Atlas,” and moved toward the still prone creatures. One of them managed to lift themselves just in time for a smack to the lack of face from the mighty atlas to knock them down again. The second pony rose for a similar treatment seconds later but this one was clever enough to avoid the swing and move in for a counterattack.
The creature never got to finish its counter though, as a nearby pegasus forced it against the wall before it could even get into range. Immediately after immobilizing the creature, Dew moved in for the killing blow. The creature didn’t struggle or flail as the dagger was plunged seemingly effortlessly into its head. It simply vanished the second the hilt had reached it. Both Dew Drop and Twinkleshine paused to stare, shocked, at the empty space left by the creature for a moment.
They both probably would have been left pondering it for far longer had the second faceless pony not chosen that particular moment to rise and move in for another attack. Dew was still dumbstruck by the sudden disappearance, so it was left to Twinkle to smack down the creature once more with the atlas. This time the unicorn moved to take out her enemy’s legs first. This monster collapsed instantly after it was struck, and the unicorn raised the tome above her head for a follow up attack.
Twinkle lowered the book with all of the force her magic could muster onto the prone pony’s head, and once again the creature vanished less than a second after the impact hit it. This time the unicorn was left staring at the spot where she had plunged her weapon while Dew stared on in amazement. “It really didn’t take any effort,” Twinkle thought aloud as she stared at the book. It was as if the thing had disappeared before she’d even lowered the atlas.
The pair stayed like that for some time before either of them finally spoke again. It was Dew Drop who eventually broke the silence after glancing away from the empty space and to the upper floor. “I’m going to go look upstairs for somepony,” the blue mare mumbled as she walked away from the scene of the fight. She didn’t make any effort to retrieve the knife from the wall before leaving.
Shaken free from her revelry of the floor by her friend’s words, Twinkle took the opportunity to look around as well. She didn’t make an effort to follow the pegasus upstairs though. Instead the unicorn decided to further examine the scene of the fight, primarily because she was confused by the presence of a snack table in what appeared to be a library. A brief examination was all it took to explain the appearance of something like that. Hung above the room was a banner reading “Welcome to Ponyville” and various balloons and streamers decorated the building. Twinkle was mildly confused by how she had failed to notice these decorations when she’d first entered, but considering the stress she’d been under she wasn’t terribly surprised.
“There’s nopony up here,” Dew yelled from the top floor. Twinkle had never heard a yell sound so much like a sigh before.
The unicorn once more considered berating the pegasus for risking their lives for no reason. However, doing so would be meaningless and take far too much effort for the moment. So instead, she slapped on a new smile and shouted back, “Then we should pick up the food and get going. Was there anything else useful up there?”
Dew shook her head as she floated down from the top floor. “I’m sorry. There was nothing but a bed and a bunch of books.” The pegasus kept her gaze downward as she moved to collect the spilled flowers. Twinkle noticed a few tears fall from her face, but didn’t comment. Apparently the young mare wasn’t getting as used to this as the unicorn might have hoped. Of course, she didn’t try to talk about it, so at least there was some progress.
While the pegasus worked quietly to pick up the plants. Twinkle was busy retrieving the pair’s weapons. The first thing she picked up was the atlas. While the rolling pin was no doubt a loss, the book had already proven to be an effective weapon. Besides, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a map of Equestria handy.
The dishcloth was on the ground along with the flowers, so Twinkle rested the knife on top of the heavy tome and moved back to the pegasus in order to wrap it. The unicorn decided to use her hooves to wrap it. Her magic was beginning to function properly now-perhaps the stress of the battle had been a good way to jumpstart it-but she still didn’t trust herself with a sharp knife just yet.
“We aren’t going to need all of it,” Twinkle reassured the mare who was busily attempting to pick up every petal that had spilled. Dew Drop nodded and raised her head just in time for Twinkle to hand her the knife. Dew accepted the weapon cautiously, not surprising considering what she’d just done with it, and put it back into her bag with the flowers. The pegasus then proceeded to head outside. Twinkle tossed the book onto her back and followed.
In the end, the pair had to go up to the balcony in the back of the library in order to find the next set of islands. The group that they saw consisted of an entire two landmasses: one which was tiny, contained a train, and didn’t appear to be held by any balloons; and one that was large, empty, and surrounded by approximately fifty balloons. Empty that was, apart from roughly a dozen of the monsters from before.
“Do you think the train still runs?” Twinkle stared at the station and asked the pegasus. Dew Drop didn’t respond for a moment, so Twinkle chose to take a glance at her. Sure enough, Dew was staring at the other island. “You know that’s not a good idea.”
“There are at least a dozen survivors down there,” Dew said, the quiet conviction slipping into her voice, “We can’t abandon them.”
Twinkle took another look at the island. Admittedly the mare couldn’t make out more than the vague shapes of the ponies on the plot, but it still worried her. “It’s too risky Dew,” she said, turning back to the pegasus with a calm smile, “We’d be overwhelmed in-” the unicorn stopped after realizing the pegasus was no longer standing beside her. With a sigh, and a surprisingly genuine smile, Twinkle grabbed her atlas and prepared for liftoff.
The pegasus apologized with a strangely sincere, “Sorry,” as she lifted Twinkle and rocketed toward the larger of the two islands. Twinkle kept her eyes closed and wrapped her forelegs around her book as tightly as she could in preparation for the incoming landing. Dew let the unicorn go just before hitting the ground, and the unicorn slammed into it at what could hardly be considered a comfortable speed, as usual.
Twinkle didn’t even pause to think about the pain from the landing however. She was too worried about the fact the Dew Drop had let go, most likely in an attempt to fly away from the island. In haste, she stood up and levitated her atlas above her head while she stared at the group still cloaked by a newly formed cloud of dust.
To her surprise, none of the creatures moved in for the attack. Of course this made sense once the dust cleared, and the beasts were revealed to not only be unarmed but also to have faces. Twinkle found herself staring flabbergasted at the crowd as Dew landed beside her. Not just because of how unlikely it was that the island had actually in fact been full of survivors, but also because of who those survivors were.
“Thank goodness you’re okay Twinkleshine. For a second there, I thought you were the only pony that wouldn’t make it.” That was spoken by a light yellow pony with a short pink mane; none other than Pink Lady, the founder of Twinkleshine’s acting troupe.
“Y-you guys are okay?” Twinkle smiled as she spoke. It was truly genuine too, not a hint of acting in it. The mare had to admit it was kind of strange. She’d never thought she would actually smile when she saw the Pink Tyrant, but seeing so many ponies alive was too much for her. She almost let herself tear up, but stopped herself. As an actress, she could at least control that much. “I can’t believe it.”
“So who’s you’re friend Twink,” somepony in the back shouted. Twinkle couldn’t actually see the pony, but the voice was distinct. Besides, only one pony in the troupe was allowed to call her Twink, Meadow Song. Twinkle actually felt a tear fall upon realizing he was there too.
“I’m Dew Drop,” the pegasus beside her said without the slightest hint of excitement. Instead, the conviction from before still filled her voice. Twinkle turned to look at the mare just to be sure, and found that a smile hadn’t crossed her lips.
“Is something wrong, dear?” the unicorn asked.
Dew Drop turned to face her friend. The look on her face seemed strange. If Twinkle didn’t know better, she’d have said it was pity. “Do you know all of these ponies, Twinkleshine?”
Twinkle turned back to the crowd and nodded. “I think so,” she said. As far as she could see everypony there was from the troupe. “Is anypony here who isn’t from the troupe, Lady?” she asked the yellow pony at the head of the crowd.
“Just one,” Pink Lady responded, “The fan from earlier’s okay too.”
Twinkle nodded and turned back to Dew Drop with a smile on her face. Dew continued gazing pitifully at the pony beside her, but that was only because she couldn’t see through the unicorn’s smile either. Twinkle had seen the fan disappear herself.
“Can I see her,” Twinkle said turning back to the crowd, “I never gave her my autograph before.” This summoned a riotous laugh from the troupe, one that Twinkle took part in despite it being clearly out of character for more than half of the ponies there. Mentally, she smacked herself for being taken in. Pink Lady had never been that nice to her. The tyrant wouldn’t have even greeted Twinkle joyously had she just seen her explode.
Sure enough though, the fan moved to the front of the crowd instantly and skipped her way to the pair. The first thing Twinkle noted as odd was the new necklace the pink mare was wearing. It was truly a lovely piece; a simple gold choker with a single upside-down, tear-drop shaped lapis lazuli embedded in it. She was sure that the mare hadn’t been wearing it before, but that concern was pushed quickly aside in favor of the more concerning second change to the mare. Just like the creatures before, the troupe’s big fan was not wearing a face.
Oddly none of the other illusions seemed to notice the distinct lack of features though. Otherwise they probably would have attacked upon sending their obviously fake doppelganger out. Twinkle turned back to her companion and nodded, though she still wore her smile. This time Dew Drop returned the nod, and quietly reached into her bag.
There were at least three pegasi in the group, so Twinkle was sure they wouldn’t be able to get away. However, if her hunch was right, the faceless pony might have been the only real one there, or maybe just the only one that might actually want them dead. It was the only hope they had anyway.
The pony took another hop closer to them, and Twinkle set up a field around her atlas. One more hop and she would be in range, and the moment she was Twinkle would knock her off the island. That was her plan anyway. As it turned out, that wasn’t Dew Drop’s plan.
At the end of the penultimate bounce, Dew once again drew her dagger-again with the accidental flowery flair-and dove towards the monster. Unfortunately, the monster apparently predicted as much, and managed to halt her forward motion just in time to avoid the dagger slash. The only thing that Dew managed to do was sever the necklace.
Thankfully the illusory ponies behind the mare were not more of the same monsters. Unfortunately, they weren’t purely mirages either. As the group faded, what was left was a collection of limbs that moved to attack both Twinkle and Dew drop the second that the pegasus severed the trinket from their assailant’s neck.
Five of them struck the ground around Twinkleshine, and at least three were only deflected by the quick placement of the mare’s atlas. Thankfully the weapons appeared to be more like stiff poles than actual flexible limbs, because rather than reach around to grab her they floated back up and swung themselves at the unicorn. The mare was able to fend most of them off with her book, but thanks to the pole’s stiff movements, each hit that did land was nothing more than a bruise rather than a debilitating grip.
Dew Drop meanwhile had not trouble avoiding the missiles thanks to her speed. However, that same speed was not aiding her on the offence. The pink pony was able to nimbly avoid every single one of Dew’s charges with seemingly no effort. Each time it was just a near miss, but Twinkle couldn’t help but think that was intentional. In fact, it almost looked like the monster was dancing.
What Twinkle did note as she watched the assault was that the creature seemed unwilling to move away from her pendant. The mare seemed to be alternating between a hop back and a leap forward with every one of Dew’s charges, and it never moved more than a foot away from the thing. Desperately hoping she was on to something, Twinkle dove for the necklace.
What followed was a pain so intense it was practically numbing as the weapons above her dove into Twinkle’s back. Thankfully the atlas absorbed some of the damage, but the pressure still nearly crushed her. All the book did was slightly weaken the intensity of the blows in favor of spreading the pain more efficiently across the mare’s spine.
Still, the unicorn had managed to catch the chain and store it under her just in time. Now she couldn’t let go of it even if she wanted to. Which was good, because after just the first assault she really wanted to. The plan worked well enough though, as it seemed the faceless mare had taken the primary offensive into her own hooves by gleefully joining the missiles in pounding on the tome.
Dew moved speedily as ever, and impaled the monster almost immediately after the third hop. Twinkle couldn’t see this herself of course. Really she couldn’t see much of anything. The darkness had returned in almost full force, just barely keeping her on the edge of consciousness for some reason. She only knew that the mare had been skewered on the third leap because that was when the pressure finally alleviated.
It was some time before Twinkle became wholly aware again, but she did feel herself being carried away from the island, and she kept her grip tightly on the necklace for some reason. It was important to the monster, so it had to be important for the world right? She was also able to see the island sink, though she didn’t hear a laugh this time. The balloons had already popped by the time they’d left she guessed. Dew must’ve hit them on the last fly-by.
When she finally felt the feeling come back, Twinkle was alone with Dew Drop once more; on a bench on the railroad platform. And she could hear a train coming.
Wisp was getting ready for a race that morning. If he was to be believed, this was doubtlessly his year; the year he would take home a blue ribbon from the annual Equestria Rodeo. He had been training nonstop all month for both the hurdle event and the barrel race, and this year he was sure that he would be able to not only beat Applejack, but also every other pony that stood in his way.
Wisp took a deep breath and looked into his mirror. Staring back at him through fiery blue eyes was a pale yellow stallion with a hair of blue fire. “You can do this,” he encouraged the reflection, and the reflection was kind enough to encourage him right back. With that said, Wisp took a step toward the door, then another step, and another, and soon enough he was out in the coliseum.
Everypony was geared up for the next event by the time that Wisp entered. The hurdle jump was next in the schedule, so all of Wisps opponents were lined up at the starting line. Applejack was among them of course. Wisp decided to shoot her an intimidating glare while he got into his proper place, but the mare didn’t even seem to notice him. No matter, she would notice his dust.
“Everypony on your marks.” Wisp took a deep breath and readied himself for the dash. “Get set.” He focused himself. No blinders were necessary for him, he had his own. “Go!” That was it! With the speed of his namesake Will O’ Wisp vanished from the starting line and only reappeared for each jump. Nopony was even close to them. He couldn’t even hear their hoofsteps.
Each hurtle was practically non-existent for Wisp as he leaped over them. He couldn’t help but smile as he saw the finish line inches away. Confident in his victory, Wisp decided to do his signature float toward the end. A quick turn and a hop and, bam, the blue haired stallion was moving on air. It was a shame the officials hadn’t allowed him to bring any of his special flame powder to the event. The crowd would’ve been in for quite a show if they had.
The tape was torn and Wisp had won. Silently, but with a grin that said it all, he let go of his focus and turned to face the cheering crowd.
But there was no cheering crowd.
Confused, Wisp looked all around the stands. Nopony was there, and, come to think of it, nopony had crossed the finish line yet either. Curious, Wisp turned to face the race track. Nopony was there. What did that mean? Had he really won? Was this all just a dream? He was sure he’d woken up this morning. Once again Wisp looked to the stands.
This time he saw something frightening. Not only was the crowd still missing, but the stadium was beginning to disappear. It was as if it was just fading out of existence, and it was fading fast.
Upon seeing that the fade-away was moving towards him, Wisp did the only thing he could think of. He ran. And boy did he run fast. The adrenaline from the race hadn’t worn off just yet, and he was still able to move at top speed once he’d gotten started. The city whizzed straight past him as he ran. Never once did Wisp turn back while he was moving. He didn’t think he’d like what he saw anyway. He already wasn’t enjoying what he saw in front of him.
Whatever it was that was making the town fade away wasn’t just coming from one direction. The gray sky and missing desert in front of Wisp was enough to prove that. Still, there wasn’t much Wisp could do but run and hope to find someplace safe.
Eventually, Wisp’s eyes settled on the train at the end of the town. It wasn’t fading like all of the other buildings appeared to be, and it was a straight shot from where he was. Just a few seconds more and he would be able to jump for it.
“5…4” Wisp counted in his head, “3…2…” almost there, “1!” Wisp leapt with all his might into the open car. He made it of course; it wasn’t as if the train was moving. In fact, after smashing into the back wall and finding himself covered in a large amount of luggage, Wisp realized that a full speed leap was probably ill-advised in addition to unnecessary. That wasn’t a mistake he planned on making again.
Wisp rubbed his head while he unburied himself and looked around. Somehow the stallion had managed to jump into the train’s luggage compartment; the back car. The train didn’t appear to be moving, so he would have to walk all the way to the front. That was annoying at best considering how long this thing probably was.
The good news was that it did appear to be safe though. The fade-away had clearly overtaken it by this point, but the train was still here. Wisp let out a sigh. The trail of destruction must have been just behind him if it had already overtaken the train. If he hadn’t been lucky enough to land in just the right place, he’d have been gone along with everypony else.
Wisp looked away from the open car door once he heard the connecting door slide open. The pony that walked in was a dark brown stallion sporting a blonde handlebar mustache and a black ten-gallon hat. Wisp couldn’t help but think that he looked like a villain from an old western show. “Is somepony there?” the cowpony asked.
“Right over here,” Wisp said with a wave from the pile of suitcases he was now seated on. The pony didn’t approach, but he did return the wave. Seeing that it would be in his duty to move closer, Wisp pulled himself off of the case pile and trotted toward the door. “So is anypony else still here?” he asked the stallion.
“Not as far as I saw,” the stallion responded with a tip of his hat. “Ah’m Aces Low by the way. Who might ah’ ask are you young sir?” He spoke very politely with a deep voice and a thick southern accent. Wisp assumed he must’ve been from around town.
“Will O’ Wisp,” Wisp responded. He extended a hoof for a shake, but by then Aces Low had already turned around and headed back to the next car, though he did motion for the other pony to follow him. Wisp followed and took the opportunity to get a look at his guide’s cutie mark. It was an ace of spades to match his name. He also couldn’t help but notice the very thin mane and tail that the stallion had. The mane was buzz-cut, and the tail was one of the trimmest Wisp had ever seen. That struck him as odd for somepony from a town like this.
“So Mr. Wisp,” Low began as he moved into the next car, “Mind if ah’ ask what you are doing in the luggage compartment of this train?”
Wisp nodded and followed along, speaking as he did, “I was just trying to find someplace safe.” The next car was a bedroom area. No doubt Low had been staying here before the whole disaster started.
“Safe from what exactly?” Low asked while he pried open the next door. This one didn’t simply slide off like the others. For some reason it appeared to be locked.
Wisp was too thrown by Low’s question to notice his struggle though. Just to be safe, he took another look out the window. Everything was still gray, so it wasn’t all just a dream. “I was running from that,” Wisp said pointing outside.
The door finally gave way and Aces Low turned back to Wisp with a grin. “Ah’ guess that makes some sense,” he said noticing what Wisp was pointing to, “Course Ah’ didn’t think that was the kinda thing you could run from. To be frank, ah’m not sure what we’re doing here still.” Low let out a hearty laugh and moved onward to the next door.
Wisp paused before following along this time. Low seemed weirdly cheerful for somepony who’d just seen what he’d seen. Sure some ponies handled grief differently, but this pony was so spry it was actually confusing. “Is that really something to laugh about, Low?” Wisp asked.
Low didn’t turn back, he was too busy trying to get through the second locked door, but he did respond. “Getting upset just slows you down son, and we’ve got a goal we need to reach.” With that, the stallion pulled once more, and the door flew open.
“What do you mean?” Wisp asked as he followed Low into the next car. The next car was filled with a few more assorted beds, one of which Low took a seat on rather than continue. Wisp stopped to stare at his guide for a moment before it became clear that Low was gesturing for him to sit along with him. Wisp did, but on a bed on the opposite side of the car.
Low sighed in disappointment, but started talking nonetheless. “Listen, boy,” he started rather rudely, “If this train’s still here than that means that the tracks are still here right.” Wisp didn’t nod or shake his head in response. To be honest it seemed like a bit of a leap to him. “So if we follow those tracks, it might just take us to the source of this here problem right,” Low continued. It was another leap to be sure.
“How could you possibly know that?” Wisp asked.
Again Low sighed. “Ah’ don’t boy, but do you have a better idea? Ah’ mean it’s not like we’re loaded with options here.”
Wisp continued staring for a moment, but eventually he did nod in response. Low was right, it’s not like they had much else to go on. “So you’re saying we need to start the train right?” Low nodded. This time the smile returned when he did. “Then let’s get going I guess.” Wisp shot the pony across from him a smile of his own and got to his feet.
This time Wisp made the move to open the door, and found that it was, of course, locked. Still if that old guy could handle it, so could he. Wisp wrapped his hooves around the handle as tightly as he could and pulled. The thing didn’t even budge though. Whatever lock was holding it in place was tough. “You should let me handle that, boy,” Low said from his seat on the bed.
Wisp shook his head and continued pulling. “I can’t force you to do everything. Don’t worry I’m an athlete. This should be-” he paused for a grunt and another tug, “Easy!”
Low sighed again from his seat, and wisp noticed a brief flash of white light from the lock. Then suddenly he was thrown onto his back as the door slid effortlessly inward. Wisp recovered quickly and flung himself back to a stand. “What the hay did you do that for? I had it!”
Low stared at Wisp with a look of confusion for a moment before shaking his head and laughing. “Ah’ didn’t do anything boy. You got that door open all by yourself,” he said. With that he climbed back to his feet and proceeded through the now open door. Wisp paused again before following. Something about what Low had just said didn’t strike him as right. It sounded…dishonestly sarcastic…was that even a thing?
“So why didn’t you mention you were a unicorn anyway?” Wisp asked while he craned his head into the doorway. Low was once more tugging on the door. That was weird considering what he’d just done, but Wisp didn’t bother questioning it. He wanted his other question answered first. “I mean, that would’ve been the kind of thing I’d like to know,” he said once Low failed to respond.
Low sighed and threw the door open. “It’s not somethin’ ah’ usually have to say,” the unicorn said with a tip of his hat before moving through the now open doorway. Wisp followed along without hesitation this time. It was just another passenger car.
“So what’s with the pulling then? Couldn’t you just magic the door open?”
Low nodded and moved to the next door. “Sure ah’ could. But that takes more effort. It’s just easier to do it the ol’ fashioned way.” Wisp shrugged. He didn’t know anything about magic, so he didn’t really have a response. He just waited for Low to pull open the door.
Once Low did manage to pry this one open, the pair was surprised to find an apple roll out from the next car. Both of their eyes followed the fruit as it rolled into the center of the cabin. Nopony had been behind the door when they were opening it. Wisp took another look inside. Nopony was there now either, but one of the further doors was open. He must not have noticed that before.
Cautiously the pair ventured forward into the next car. It was just as Wisp placed his first hoof into the cabin that the apple exploded.
Both of the stallions were hurled forward by the force of the explosion. Wisp managed to roll all the way into the opposite wall, but Low managed to catch himself on one of the beds.
“Who the hay loads an apple with a bomb!” Somepony was screaming, but Wisp couldn’t see who it was through the spots in his eyes. It didn’t sound like Low though. The accent was all wrong. It sounded way more northern. “I mean, for cripe’s sake. That thing could’a killed us.”
“Is that you Low?” Wisp rubbed his eyes and took another look around the room. Sure enough, the only ponies in there were him and a very perturbed Aces Low. At least, he assumed it was the same Aces Low as before. During the explosion he had lost his hat and, somehow, his mustache.
“Aw hayseed,” the pony cursed as he lifted himself off of the bed. “Guess the cat’s out of the bag huh?”
Wisp shook his head and got to a stand. “The hay’s up with the accent, Low?!” he asked. Unfortunately he didn’t get his answer just yet. Another apple rolled into the room before Low could respond.
Low glanced briefly toward the apple. “Sorry, but I don’t think we got time for that just now, kid,” the unicorn chuckled, “Next car?” With that Low hopped upward and dashed straight through the closest door. Wisp didn’t hesitate to follow. In fact, he ended up overtaking Low by the time the bomb went off. He probably would have even moved on into the following car had a white light not slammed the next door in his face.
“Oww…” Wisp complained and rubbed his head.
“Quit whinin’.” Low said jokingly, “No way that hurt more than bein’ blown into a wall.”
”Why’d you do that?”
Wisp looked at Low through the corner of his eye. The unicorn’s horn was glowing in an effort to hold the car doors closed. It was clearly working too. The bomb in the last car had to have exploded by now after all. “If you’da kept runnin’ ya’ would just run into more bombs,” Low commented with a cocky grin.
“Not that,” Wisp said as coolly as he could. The door was what he’d been referring to, but he did have something else to discuss with Low. Asking this way made him sound like less of a moron. “Why did you fake the accent? And what was with the mustache.”
Low chuckled. “Hey would you trust this accent? It was best if ya’ thought I was from around here.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Wisp turned to stare Low face to face. “What are you hiding? Do you know what happened here? Or are you some kind of criminal?”
Again Low laughed and shook his head. “Already you’re accusin’ me of crime and bein’ behind the apocalypse, and ya’ say my fear’s unfounded.” Wisp was momentarily stunned by this nonsensical accusation, and tried to stutter out a response. However, before the stallion could get past the first word, Low had started up again. “Anyhow, I already told ya’ that I don’t know what’s goin’ on here. I didn’t lie about that.”
Wisp again attempted to respond, but this time he was cut off by a sudden shaking from the cabin ahead of them. Both ponies turned to look at the door. A cloud of smoke had formed just beyond the glass, but Wisp could still see through it. There were more apples rolling this way, at least three of them.
“I think that’s all the time we have for now, kid.” Low turned and shot Wisp another smirk. “You trust me enough to go along with a plan?”
Wisp shook his head and took another look at low through the corner of his eye. “But I do get the feeling you’re brighter than I am, so I don’t think I’ve got much of a choice.”
Wisp noticed Low’s smirk change slightly. Suddenly it looked like a normal smile. “Alright pal. You said you’re an athlete right?”
The plan that Low came up with was actually really simple. In essence it was just the standard flank the enemy attack plan. What Low had to add was in the details.
With a flash of his horn, Low had summoned a perfect replica of Wisp. Right down to the blue flame cutie mark and the fire in his eyes. It was like looking in a mirror.
“I can keep this guy up for a while, but I’ll still need you to move pretty fast a’right?” Wisp nodded. Moving fast and straight was his specialty. “Good. You’ll need to go all the way from the back to the front, ‘cause those are the only places on this thing that have ladders.”
Wisp nodded again. “Were you planning to rob this thing or something?” he said jokingly. “You sure know a lot about the layout.”
Low chuckled. “That’s just where trains put their ladders, ya’ donkey.” Another explosion shook the car before he’d finished the sentence, but Wisp was still able to catch the end. “I’m gonna move in with the fake after the next one. You should probably get going before then.”
Wisp nodded and trotted to the door to the previous car. Before he left he turned back and gave his reflection a fiery look. “You can do this,” he encouraged himself.
This time the other Wisp didn’t respond with simultaneous encouragement, but Low did. “As long as you can, I can.” For once his voice was completely serious, and, Wisp couldn’t help but notice, devoid of accent. Of course, that could have just been his imagination.
The next explosion shook the car and both of the stallions charged off in opposite directions. Wisp didn’t bother to check if Low made it or not. His tunnel vision was on now. The only things he noticed were the two scorched rooms whizzing by and the closed door at the end of the luggage car flying towards him.
Wisp broke hard just before hitting the wall. This stallion wasn’t going to get buried in luggage again if he could help it. For once he was thankful that he didn’t have his special powder with him. Starting a fire in a wooden car was probably not a good idea. Then again, if he did have the powder with him it would make taking out whoever it was that was bombing them easier. Or at least more fun.
“Now that I think of it,” Wisp paused, thinking aloud, “Didn’t I leave my luggage on the train when I went to the track?”
Wisp looked around, and, sure enough, his case was still there. The crew was supposed to take it to the hotel that the athletes were staying at. “They must have vanished before they could,” Wisp sighed. He kind of felt bad when he thought about it, but at least his case was still here. “In every cloud, a silver lining.”
Everything Wisp needed for an overnight stay was in the case, including his sunglasses and his favorite jacket. He was thankful for that of course. Odds were he’d be on the train for some time. Right now though, only two things in there mattered to him: his leather gloves, and his igniting powder.
Wisp slipped the gloves on effortlessly, and tied the pouch of powder around his waist. Normally he’d just dab some on his gloves before a performance, but in this case it was probably a good idea to wait. Sure he’d be fine if he did the trick on top of a metal train, but that would be a waste of the stuff if nopony was around to watch. He’d have to save it for when he punched out the bomber.
With his supplies gathered, Wisp threw open the back door and climbed the ladder to the top of the train. Stretched out before him was another vaulting test. Just like practice, only with bottomless pits on either side of him. Although, that wouldn’t matter once Wisp got moving. With a deep breath, the stallion put his blinders on and ran.
The run was just like the race. Each jump was equally spaced, so it didn’t take long for Wisp to get into a good rhythm. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, jump.” Wisp counted as he ran. It took about five cars before the engine finally came into view ten cars away. Car ten shook below him and threw off his count a bit, but he was able to keep moving. He stopped galloping on car thirteen, just to be safe, and trotted the rest of the way until he finally made it to the engine.
Wisp caught his breath and climbed down. The engine room was vacant, just like everything else, and filled with coal. There were a few levers and pulleys around too, but the only one Wisp knew how to use was the whistle. It didn’t matter though. Wisp wasn’t here to get the train going. Hopefully Low would know how to do that. Right now the stallion’s goal was simple: charge forward and knock the bomber to ground with a high speed fiery hoof to the face.
Wisp took another few deep breathes as he thoroughly coated the leather with his special powder. This was the first time he’d ever used it to strike somepony, and he had to admit it worried him a touch. Still the awesomeness would be worth it. Besides, the bomber definitely deserved it, and it wouldn’t kill him or anything. It’d just hurt a lot.
“3..2..” Wisp counted aloud and leaned forward. The doors in front of him were all open save one wooden one close to the end. He was sure he could break right through that with a good spinning kick.
“1!” With that, Wisp took off toward the bomber. Again he counted the cars. Car one and two passed with no issue. It was car three that the door came into full view. Now it was time for Wisp’s signature move.
With a careful spin and a nice drag of his hooves, the stallion floated forward. This time sparks flew from his from hooves as he turned, and soon enough the leather was covered in bright blue flames. Meanwhile Wisp kept his eyes on the door, and the moment he floated into range he let a hoof fly. The kick connected, but the result was not even close to what the stallion expected.
Wisp had been prepared for the door he was kicking to simply breakaway and let him through, but what he was kicking wasn’t a door. Instead, his hind leg slid across the trunk of a tree as its bark peeled away, and Wisp found that, while he had slowed, he was still moving forward at an alarming pace; directly toward a window. In desperation Wisp grabbed for the tree, completely forgetting that his hooves were still on fire.
The grab worked to slow him down easily enough, although he still managed to fly into the wall below the window and smash the glass with his skull. That didn’t strike him as important though. The burning tree was the important thing right now. Wisp threw himself into a stand and stomped his hooves, quenching the fire. Then he turned his mind to putting out the tree.
Wisp didn’t hold his thoughts there for long though. He didn’t have to. Soon enough the tree was fully engulfed in orange fire. The fire didn’t spread though. Just the tree burned. In fact, not even the apples the tree bore were scratched.
“What the hay just happened?!” Low yelled accusingly as he moved into the car. Wisp didn’t hear him though; he was too busy trying to think on the strange sight. The fruit in particular confused him, particularly the gleaming orange one in the center. “What in Luna’s name did you do Will?”
Wisp was too taken in by the fire to react. Even Low’s shoves did little to move him. Eventually though, the fire did burn out and Wisp snapped, mostly, back to his senses. The fire stopped surprisingly quickly in fact. Nothing was left of the tree but its ashes and its fruit in less than a minute. Still even with the fire gone Wisp wasn’t quite in his right mind yet. The little gem drew his attention first.
The gem was an orange broach, Wisp found. It looked kind of like an apple, but with a point on it for some reason. Wisp didn’t realize that it was an ace of spades until he was already reaching for it. It wasn’t until he finally got the trinket in his hooves that Wisp could finally hear Low’s yells again.
“What he hay are ya’ lookin’ at that thing for? We gotta run!” Low continued shoving Wisp as he spoke. The shoves still didn’t register though. Wisp almost laughed upon realizing how weak his companion was, and then he realized why Low was pushing him.
“Oh buck,” Wisp cursed as he suddenly realized he was surrounded by apples. His next move was to dash out of the car as quickly as possible. Low followed along after a stumble, but in the end the both managed to get out before the bombs went off. The pair didn’t manage to close the door in time, but thankfully the only thing that resulted from that was a blast of smoke, not shrapnel. Admittedly the smoke was so thick that Wisp ended up breaking a window in an attempt to thin it, but it was a least less lethal than the force.
“The hay were ya’ doin’ back there, kid?” Low complained with a cough once the smoke had finally cleared.
Wisp responded by taking another look at the gem in his hoof. “I dunno,” he said, “I just kind of thought this thing was important?” Wisp smiled and glanced up at Low. “It looks a lot like your cutie mark, Low.”
Low chuckled and shook his head. His chuckling was interrupted by fit of coughing though. “Ahem,” Low used an intentional cough to regain his voice before speaking again. “Whether or not it’s important ya’ shouldn’t have risked your life, kid.” With that, Low shot Wisp another smile and pulled the Trinket out of his hoof. “’Course, if you’re gonna do that anyway, I’d prefer ya’ risk it for me.”
Wisp smiled and made no effort to take the broach back. It probably belonged to Low after all. Briefly Wisp considered whether or not that made sense, but he didn’t dwell on it long. It would look better on Low of nothing else. “So where do we go from here?”
Low looked toward the engine. “I’m guessin’ ya’ didn’t run into anything else on the way here?” Wisp shook his head. “Then we need to get this thing started.” Low chuckled again and started trotting towards the engine. “After that, who knows?”
Wisp followed along right behind his companion. As he trotted behind Low, Wisp noticed something wrong. The stallion was moving kind of slow. Slower than he had before they’d run into the tree anyway. Sure Low was probably just tired, but it didn’t hurt to ask. “You get hit back there? You’re walking kind of funny.”
Low chuckled and shook his head. “You’re movin’ kind of slow too, kid,” he said with a glance to Wisp, “And I know I saw you get out okay. I think we’re both jus’ tired.”
Wisp nodded. He didn’t buy it though. Sure he was tired, but he was only moving this slow to keep pace with Low. Plus, he’d done a whole lot more running than the unicorn. Low was already moving at a slow pace to hide the limp though, so it wasn’t like Wisp could do any more for him.
“So,” Wisp decided to change the subject. At this pace it would take them a couple of minutes to get to the engine, so he might as well make conversation. “What did you do before this whole thing started?”
Low glanced back at Wisp again, apparently surprised by the question. “I was a card player,” he sighed as he turned away from Wisp. “What’d ya’ think this mark meant?”
This time it was Wisps turn to chuckle. “You can’t trust marks. I’m a racer and my marks a fireball.” Low snickered from in front of him. “So if you’re a card player, what were you doing on the train?”
“You athletes ain’t the only ones with tourneys,” Low said, his voice lightened up a touch, “I was headin’ to Dodge City for a big game.”
“I never thought of poker as much of a sport.”
“Then you haven’t seen it really played.” Low laughed again for a moment before letting out a sigh. “Shame too, I thought I had a real chance of winnin’ this year.”
“Hey, at least you might still be able to make it if we sort this out,” Wisp sighed, but smiled, “This crazy nonsense actually interrupted my race.”
“Yeah,” Low chuckled, and stopped in front of the engine door. “So, Will, you really think we can fix this mess?”
Wisp took a look out the window. There was nothing but gray emptiness outside. He paused for a long second to think about his answer. Low had seemed confident before. Had that been a lie too?
“I hope so.” That was Wisp’s answer. It wasn’t much, but it summed up what he thought pretty well. Whether or not they could fix this in any way wasn’t really something he knew, but he didn’t want to think about what would happen if they didn’t.
“Heh,” that was Low’s response. It wasn’t really a laugh or a chuckle. It seemed more honest. “Well I suppose it would sure stink if we couldn’t huh?” Wisp nodded. “Right, then let’s get this engine movin’.” With that, Low moved into the next car.
Thanks to Low’s claims and the fact that the train proved incredibly easy to start, Wisp was completely convinced that the unicorn could run the train the second they’d entered the engine. It wasn’t until they had to stop the thing that Wisp suddenly began to doubt his friend’s expertise.
Wisp and Low had only realized they needed to stop upon seeing a pair of mares being assaulted by some sort of demon nearby. As it turned out though, Low had chosen to figure out how to stop later, and the pair had to scramble to respond to this emergency. Wisp was doing most of the work by trying every lever and pulley in the train-except for the starter of course. Low had already figured that one out-in an attempt to bring it to a halt. Low was busy keeping his eye on the mares.
“Hurry up Wisp, they’re at the station now, and I think one of ‘em’s hurt.” Low shouted from the window. Wisp would have complained, but at the moment his lips were wrapped around a lever. With a powerful tug Wisp pulled the lever down. Judging by the shriek that came from the train, he’d finally found the brake.
The train didn’t come to a stop quickly, but it managed to stop soon enough. Sure only three cars were still in front of the platform, but at least they could theoretically reach the mares. Wisp let go of the break and took a deep breath while silently thanking Celestia for not letting them miss the ponies.
“Nice job, kid,” Low cheerfully smacked Wisps back as he spoke, interrupting the stallion’s deep breath. “C’mon, let’s go see if they’re all right.”
Spectrum had never been a particularly hard worker. That was his excuse for taking a nap when he should have been working anyway. Sure it wasn’t a good excuse, but hey at least he wasn’t lying.
Of course, it wasn’t like Spectrum was just telling everypony he was playing hooky either. That was why he’d chosen to take a nap on top of Smokey Mountain instead of somewhere more sensible like say, his house. Of course, the scenery was nice and relaxing, so that was good. He always had trouble getting to sleep in his bed at night. Most ponies would say that was because of his midday naps, but he was sure it was the scenery.
Up in the mountains on the other hoof everything was so peaceful. Plus, everything in the place, from the birds floating around, to the wind rushing around him, to the pegasus in the distance pulling a cart full of toads, was sure to lead to some wonderful dreams.
“This is the life,” Spectrum sighed as he laid back on a particularly pillow-like rock. He took one last look at the cloud city in the distance and closed his eyes. “Today is going to be a good day,” he thought just before he drifted off into dreamland.
Spectrum slept for far longer than he thought he would. Typically somepony would’ve found him by the second hour. After all a light purple pegasus with a rainbow on his flank wasn’t particularly hard to spot. Usually it was Starsong who caught him. She knew all of his hiding places. Nopony came today though. For once, the stallion woke up naturally; it was weird.
As Spectrum blinked the sleep from his eyes he noticed that the sky had gone gray while he was napping. At first he thought it was a storm, but that didn’t match up. Not only was there nothing scheduled today, but Spectrum knew storm clouds; and this was no storm cloud. Clouds were puffier. This was sort of flat; like normal sky only the wrong color.
Confused, Spectrum rolled to a stand and took a look into the distance. Cloudsdale looked wrong too. The clouds were still there mostly. But all of them were black, and the rainbow falls had disappeared. “Now that’s what storm clouds look like,” Spectrum thought.
Rather than think too long on the strange sky and the new Cloudsdale, Spectrum decided it was probably best to take a look at it for himself. The pegasus took a deep breath and gave his wings a good stretch in preparation. He took off shortly after his stretch, but he was immediately required to divert his course straight back to the ground when he noticed a large red lizard flying towards him.
Spectrum watched in wonder as the creature flew over him. Time seemed to slow down as it did. At least, it slowed long enough for him to identify the lizard. “That is definitely a dragon,” he thought. It was right after that thought that time sped right back up, and Spectrum watched the dragon fly into the side of the mountain. It left behind a nicely dragon shaped hole once it had; one that led straight into more gray sky.
“Next time watch where you’re going!” Spectrum turned to see a pony shouting from in front of him. Time slowed down again as he got a look at her. The mare was absolutely stunning. Her coat was a beautiful ivory complimented by a magnificent auburn mane tied in a bun. Adorned on the mares flank was a quintet of bees. Time sped up again once Spectrum got a look at the mare’s eyes. They were a piercing pinkish color.
With time back to its normal flow the mare was free to speak again. “Hey you,” she said with a devilish grin aimed straight at Spectrum, “Did you see a dragon fly past here?”
Spectrum paused before answering to take a look at the hole behind him. “Did you just throw a dragon through a mountain?” he asked with a turn back to the mare.
The mare paused to take a look at the hole herself. “Well what d’ya know? Looks like I did.” The mare laughed a little after saying that. It was at this point that Spectrum decided he was dreaming.
“Mind if I ask what he did to deserve it?” Spectrum asked nonchalantly. He’d decided long ago that it was more fun to go along with dreams than to try and fight them.
The mare didn’t respond. She was too busy looking at the hole. She even poked at it a couple of times. A bit more of the rock came loose when she prodded it. Spectrum noticed as she prodded the hole that the mare’s hooves were wrapped in cloth. “Ah, horseapples,” she cursed, “I was almost impressed for a minute. It looks like this mountain’s just really thin.”
Spectrum followed the mare to get a better look at the hole. She was right; the rock around the gray sky was as thin as a cracker. He decided to try chipping the rock away himself. It was as brittle as a cracker too. “Huh.” That was all he said. He couldn’t expect anything to make sense in a dream after all. Still it was kind of weird.
Spectrum was quickly snapped out of his stupor by a punch to the face. “Huh? That’s all you have to say?” Spectrum rubbed his cheek turned to see the white mare staring at him. She spoke with anger, but for some reason she was smiling. “You see somepony toss a dragon through a mountain and you’re not even impressed?” Spectrum didn’t respond. He was too busy feeling his cheek. That punch felt too real. “Well?” the mare demanded.
Spectrum shook his head and looked out into the distance. His gaze focused on the distant city of Cloudsdale. If this was real then what happened to it? Spectrum contemplated this for only a few moments before another punch knocked him to the ground. The subsequent fall smashed a couple of rocks, but only because they proved to be just as brittle as the mountainside.
“What was that for,” Spectrum complained half-heartedly as he got back to his feet.
“You weren’t answering me,” the mare said, smiling derisively, “I figured you needed it.”
Spectrum just sighed and shook his head. After a moment he glanced back to Cloudsdale. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Wrestling dragons. What does it look like?” The mare let out another laugh as she trotted up to Spectrum’s side and shot him a smile. “What about you?”
“I was just napping.” Spectrum responded with another sigh.
Again the mare laughed. “Slept right through the end of the world? That’s a story for the ages.” Spectrum turned to her. This time he bore an angry expression. The way she spoke seemed almost happy, and it was definitely mocking. “I’m Bee Bee by the way,” she said, “But you can call me Stinger.” She extended a hoof once she’d finished.
Spectrum turned away from Bee Bee, but extended a hoof anyway. “Spectrum,” he said. Stinger gave his hoof one firm shake and pulled her hoof away. After a moment she followed the pegasus’s gaze to the cloud city.
“That’s your home I take it?” Stinger asked. Spectrum nodded in response. “Is it always that awful?” Spectrum shot her another angry look. “What,” she said grinning at him out of the corner of her eye, “You can’t tell me that looks like a nice place to live”
Spectrum shook his head and took another look. It certainly didn’t look pleasant. “It’s usually much nicer,” he said.
“Well it’s ruined now.” Stinger shrugged and started trotting onward. Spectrum just stared at her as she walked away. It was only a few steps before the mare turned back to him. “Are you just gonna sit there, princess?”
Spectrum shook his head and continued staring. “Where are you going? Everything’s gone.”
Stinger sighed and trotted back to the stallion. Spectrum immediately backed away, expecting another punch. After seeing that he wasn’t going to let her near him, Stinger stopped. “The clouds are still there right. Maybe there’s something over there.”
Spectrum took another look at the clouds in the distance. “And how do you expect us to-” he would’ve finished with the words, “Get there,” but before he could the breath was knocked out of him and he was flung onto his back. The ground instantly gave way below him, and Spectrum found himself staring into the gray abyss hidden inside the mountain. Needless to say, he started screaming.
“Ah good to see you do have emotions,” Stinger chuckled from above the stallion. Right now, she was all that was keeping Spectrum from falling into the abyss.
“The hay are you doing!?” Spectrum screamed.
“Sorry,” Stinger said cheerfully, “I kind of forgot about how brittle this mountain is.” Stinger attempted to pull Spectrum back up, but all she managed to do was snap off some more rock. “Huh.”
“Huh!? That’s all you have to say?!” Spectrum shouted. Stinger continued to drag him backwards. No doubt it was intentional; he couldn’t fly properly as long as she pulled him like this. “Why are you doing this?”
“I can’t exactly walk on clouds. I’m gonna need your help for that, and I didn’t want to waste time convincing you.”
“And what are you planning to do now?!”
Stinger smiled. This time it wasn’t quite what somepony would call devilish. That is, not unless you wanted to insult the devil. “Well I think this is a pretty convincing argument. You agree to help me, and I toss you out of there. You don’t and my grip might just slip.”
“Alright! Alright! I’ll help you.” Spectrum shouted desperately. To his surprise, Stinger didn’t ask him any more questions. She simply tossed him upward just as she said she would. In his surprise it took Spectrum a moment to right himself, but he managed to get himself hovering before he crashed again. Stinger was dusting herself off when he landed. “What is wrong with you?” Spectrum asked accusingly from his place beside the mare.
It was after a hoof struck his face for the third time that day that Spectrum realized landing right next to Stinger wasn’t the best idea. “I just save your life and you insult me,” the mare complained, “Talk about gratitude.” Spectrum rubbed his cheek and stepped aside, deciding he would stay at legs length from now on. Stinger just snickered as the pegasus backed away and started walking up the mountain path once more. “Grab your stuff and meet up with me so we can get going okay?”
“I don’t have any stuff,” Spectrum responded as he joined Stinger in her trot.
“Not even a weapon?” Stinger questioned. “Funny you look a little bit frail for hoof-to-hoof.”
Spectrum sighed. He couldn’t deny that she was right. “Well I didn’t exactly think I’d end up having to fight anypony today.” He then paused for a moment. “Come to think of it, do I have to? Can’t we just fly to Cloudsdale right now?”
Stinger laughed. This time though it wasn’t cruel, at least not intentionally so. It seemed as if she genuinely found what Spectrum had just said hilarious. He actually had to wait for her to calm down before she explained herself. “Oh boy,” Stinger wiped a few tears away as she spoke, “Do you really think you could carry me all the way there, and Discord knows how much further by yourself? Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Wait,” Spectrum interjected, “Didn’t you say you needed me?”
Stinger nodded and got moving again. “You can’t trust hippogryphs. I need an insurance policy. Plus, who knows if I need to go somewhere in that stormy place? I can’t exactly take something that big inside anywhere.”
Spectrum shook his head and followed along. “Why a hippogryph? A pegasus isn’t good enough for you?” He was back to speaking nonchalantly again, but he could still manage a quip.
“Well you aren’t,” Stinger chuckled. Spectrum chose not to even look at her this time. It was best not to give her the satisfaction. “And I’ve tried a dragon already,” she continued, “You saw how well that worked out.”
Spectrum nodded. “And what makes you think a hippogryph will work better?”
“Geez you’re boring,” Stinger said without answering his question. “At least crack a smile when I make a joke. Don’t make me dangle you over a hole in the mountain again.” It was at this point that Spectrum noticed that Stinger had somehow managed to sneak her way beside him.
Spectrum immediately maneuvered himself away from her, only to find that he was then facing a cliff edge. With it being too late to stop her, Stinger threw a leg around his neck. Spectrum actually felt himself sweat as he stared at the emptiness below him. However, the fear only lessened slightly when Stinger pulled him back onto the path.
“Well fear wasn’t quite the emotion I wanted, but I guess it’s something,” Stinger said, her devilish smile widening.
Spectrum didn’t speak again after that. He simply walked along with the mare while she smiled at him. After a minute of this he finally began to relax again. It didn’t seem like Stinger was planning to hurt him again, and she couldn’t hurt him too badly even if she did right? With a deep breath, Spectrum regained his placid expression.
Perhaps it was because of this expression that Stinger chose that exact moment to suddenly tighten her grip and pull Spectrum aside into a nearby cave. Spectrum was sure she only did it to draw his questioning look, but that assumption fell apart when he realized that Stinger was smiling but not even looking at him. “You stay right here,” she said.
After a moment, Spectrum looked to where Stinger was staring. Sitting not far from the cave was a sleeping dragon. It looked identical to the one that Spectrum saw being tossed into the mountain earlier. Stinger began to slowly approach the dragon while Spectrum stared. “What are you doing?” the stallion asked, apparently unaware of the volume of his voice.
The dragon’s eyes instantly shot open, and Stinger turned to glare at Spectrum with what he saw as her first look of genuine anger. Spectrum was only peripherally concerned about the dragon as a result, and even this distinctly minor concern became a non-issue mere moments later.
The dragon rose slowly and Stinger moved quickly. Before the beast could even unfurl its wings the mare had struck it three times in the stomach and caused it to curl over in pain. Stinger instantly followed up the barrage with a powerful upper cut that knocked the dragon into the air. The dragon roared in pain as it flew. Stinger even rubbed her hoof after the dragon was a fair distance away.
The dragon didn’t stay stunned for long however. It wasn’t long before its wings had finished unfurling and it righted itself in the air. Rather than attack immediately, like Spectrum was terrified it would since Stinger was busy rewrapping the cloth around her left hoof, the dragon took its time to hang back and rub its injured snout.
The dragon only became hostile again a few moments later. And that was probably at least partially caused by Stinger continuously shouting, “Bring it,” and, “You gonna just float there,” along with a variety of colorful insults; mostly revolving around the dragon’s filthy scales and questionable parentage. Regardless, once the dragon had finished rubbing its snout, it let out a roar and dove towards Stinger at top speed.
Apparently this was exactly what Stinger had been expecting. With a skillful leap so strong it cracked the mountain, Stinger jumped at the beast and wrapped her legs around its neck. From there the mare used the dragon’s momentum to toss it straight downward and through the brittle rocky floor.
Thankfully time had slowed down again while Spectrum watched the spectacle. Otherwise he might not have registered that Stinger was headed straight for a hole in the ground in time. He barely did as it was. In the end he only barely managed to catch her as she fell through the gap, and even then they sank slightly.
“Was all that really necessary?” Spectrum complained as he strained to lift Stinger out of the hole and rest her on the ground as gently as possible. The mare was surprisingly very heavy, so this took much more effort than Spectrum expected when he caught her.
“Hey he might’ve attacked us.” Stinger spoke cheerfully. It was clear she didn’t believe this herself, and she definitely didn’t expect Spectrum to believe it. “Besides it was fun!”
Spectrum gave her an annoyed look as he set her down, but didn’t say anything. Stinger didn’t even notice while she was dusting herself off though, so he made sure to keep it up until she did. The time he was sure he was out of her reach though. He was in midair. Eventually Stinger did notice the glare though, or perhaps she just finally deigned it worthy of acknowledgment because it wasn’t going away, and sighed. “Look princess,” she said, “If it makes you feel better, think of it as saving a butterfly instead of killing a dragon.”
“What?” Spectrum questioned, and Stinger pointed upwards. The pegasus looked up to see that a pink butterfly was indeed flying by. What this had to do with the dragon he wasn’t sure, so he asked. “Where did that thing come from?”
“Every one of the things I’ve pummeled has had one of those on their backs,” Stinger responded. Spectrum turned to see that she had already started walking uphill again. Spectrum landed beside her and joined along. He kept his eyes on the butterfly the whole time though. It was floating up towards the top of the mountain. Maybe Stinger had freed it.
“Wait,” Spectrum paused for a moment, “How many things have you beaten up today?”
This actually caused Stinger to halt as well. She even rubbed her chin for a moment before turning her head back towards Spectrum. “Just beaten up?” she asked the pegasus.
“Fought in any way,” Spectrum clarified. He’d managed to slip back into his monotone, but the face he wore did denote curiosity; along with a touch of disapproval.
Stinger paused for another second before continuing. “Well let’s see: There’ve been three bears, two dragons, a couple wolves, and a bunny. That’s eight butterflies I think.” Again she paused. “But I think the bunny might have had two,” she mumbled.
“You beat up a bunny?” Spectrum questioned.
Stinger instantly perked up and showed her devilish smile again. “Hey this was no ordinary bunny, Spec.” The mare chuckled before turning away and trotting uphill again. “That little devil tried to kill me before I even punched it.”
“So the only thing that gave you trouble was a bunny?”
“I never said that,” Stinger smirked, “I just said it punched first.”
Spectrum sighed and followed the mare. He didn’t speak again for some time. Luckily, he didn’t need to. Stinger was busy recounting her epic battle with the bunny while they walked, so she was too distracted to either punch him or insult him. Spectrum tuned her out for the most part. He even came close to nodding off a couple of times as they walked. Stinger might have thought he was boring, but boy could that mare ramble.
Spectrum wasn’t sure how long it was until Stinger stopped talking; he was nodding off again when it happened. The only reason he even noticed was because Stinger hit him again. She hit him more lightly than he would have expected though. It was just enough to alert him. At least he thought it was as close as she could get to alerting him without hurting him.
When Spectrum opened his eyes he saw that somehow they had wandered into a meadow. “A meadow in the middle of a mountain…huh…” he thought. After taking a glance around the empty and really quite serene meadow, Spectrum’s eyes wandered to the mare beside him. Something struck him about what he saw. Bee Bee actually looked upset. Not scared exactly, but at least worried. “What’s-”
Before Spectrum could finish the second and most important word of his sentence, he was silenced by Stinger smacking a hoof across his lips. “Shhh,” she hissed. Spectrum nodded to assure Stinger he’d be quiet, and the mare kindly removed her hoof. She gestured upwards with it immediately afterwards. Spectrum followed the hoof without hesitation. If something was scary enough to get this psychopath worried, it was doubtlessly terrifying.
Spectrum was momentarily disappointed when he saw it was nothing but a swarm of birds. The disappointment left quickly though, when the stallion realized that the flock appeared to not only be circling them, but also contain quite an odd variety. Everything from buzzards to hummingbirds to falcons and eagles could be seen in the swarm, and not one of them seemed to be interested in anything but the two ponies beneath them.
“Should we be-” again Spectrum was interrupted just before his most important word. Due to this he made sure to shoot Stinger an annoyed look, but she simply shook her head when he looked in her direction. Next she motioned for the pegasus to glance downward. Spectrum obeyed, albeit this time more reluctantly. This time he was greeted by a much more mundane, and yet somehow just as surprising sight. Stinger was digging into the ground below them. Inside of it was dirt, not sky.
When he looked up again Spectrum saw Stinger nodding. He wasn’t sure what she was nodding about, but the smile was back on her face. He quickly shook his head just to be safe. Once he’d made sure his point had gotten across, thanks to the dour expression that Stinger now wore, Spectrum added a bit of clarity by mouthing, “You can’t just beat them all.”
Stinger nodded and mouthed something back before donning her devilish smile again. Spectrum was pretty sure it was, “I know, you’ll help.” Before the pegasus could argue, Stinger turned her head and gestured to a nearby branch dangling from the rock wall. It was already half broken off. Evidently the mare didn’t have much confidence in him. Otherwise she may have pointed to a sturdier looking branch a touch closer to the pair. Not that Spectrum disagreed with her of course.
Stinger turned back to Spectrum and smiled once more, prompting another shake of the head from the pegasus. Her response was a nod and a quick jerk of the head once more to the branch. After that, she didn’t give the stallion any more time to argue. Stinger jumped straight into the middle of the meadow.
The birds swept down on Stinger instantly, but the mare had clearly been expecting as much. By the time the flock reached her, she had already planted her back hooves firmly in the ground and readied for the counter attack. Spectrum watched in slow motion as Stinger punched a few of the larger birds right out of the sky and through the rock wall on the first pass. He counted three, but it was hard to keep track.
“What the hay are you doing?!” Stinger shouted once the flock had finished its first pass, “Get the branch.”
Spectrum nodded as the world snapped back into full speed. The birds hadn’t moved to attack him, so he had merely sat stunned as he watched them swarm Stinger. Apparently he needed something to snap him back to reality every time something exciting happened.
Spectrum was able to snap the branch away from the wall with ease. The floor of the meadow was solid dirt, but it seemed the rock around them was still incredibly brittle, and it crumbled away the second he gave the branch a single solid pull. By the time he’d armed himself, the birds had returned for their second pass.
Spectrum didn’t aim as he flew into the fray. He just floated forward and swung his stick as hard as he could the moment that he got into range. He managed to knock quite a few hummingbirds and a falcon out of the group with his swing, though they simply tumbled to the ground rather than flying into the cave wall. He noticed an eagle and a buzzard land beside them a couple of moments later.
“Nice swing, princess,” Stinger panted. Spectrum turned back to see that the mare had been hit pretty hard. Her mane had come undone and was hanging in a lengthy mess around her face, her bandages were beginning to come undone, and Spectrum was pretty sure one of her eyes wasn’t opening.
“Are you alright?”
Stinger let out a full blown laugh at the comment. “I feel fantastic,” she shouted. Spectrum wasn’t quite sure if she was being serious or sarcastic. “Never mind that though, next groups coming.” The pair looked up simultaneously at the oncoming flock this time. It had thinned a touch now. It was hard to be sure how many were there, but at least most of the birds of prey had been taken out. No doubt that was primarily Stinger’s doing.
Once again the birds chose to ignore Spectrum completely and head straight for the mare. The pegasus readied his stick for another swing as the swarm approached, and the moment they came into reach he swung once more with all the force he could muster. This time though, the flock broke apart just before he struck, he only managed to take out a single sparrow.
The birds on the other hand were much more successful. While there were only smaller creatures amongst their ranks now, there had to be at least a dozen of them that struck Spectrum at once. The pegasus was thrown to the ground with a thud, but thankfully no breaking ground.
About four more of the small birds hit the ground around Spectrum a moment later. What followed was a loosely wrapped hoof being extended to him. “Get up. They’ll be back soon.” Stinger said cheerfully. Spectrum rolled over rather than grab the hoof once he realized who it belonged to. Sure they were in the middle of combat, but he didn’t trust Stinger to not at least give him a playful slap once he got near her.
Spectrum grabbed the branch again once he got to his feet and immediately looked up. The birds were still retreating upward at the moment, along with a few dozen butterflies. “Do you think they’ll split again?” Spectrum asked as he floated back into a ready stance. Stinger didn’t respond for some time. When the stallion took another look at her, he saw it was because she was busy tightening her hoof wraps.
After spitting the cloth back out Stinger took her own look up at the flock and answered. “Doesn’t matter, either way you need to swing that thing more than once.” She turned back to Spectrum and grinned. “Flail that thing if you have to, but take out more than one bird.” Spectrum shot the mare an annoyed look, but he nodded nonetheless. Whether or not he liked it, she obviously knew more about fighting than he did.
Spectrum took another look up. The birds were moving in again. The flock was much thinner now. They probably only had one more pass in them before they couldn’t really attack anymore. Spectrum figured that if he and Stinger could just take out ten more, the remainder of the flock would be smart enough to retreat.
Again Spectrum waited until the birds were right next to them before he swung the branch. They still headed straight for Stinger initially, this time however they circled around the mare just in time to avoid Spectrum’s branch. When Spectrum attempted to swing at the flock again, he only managed to smack Stinger right in the face. Thankfully though, the flock was just as surprised by this as the mare was, and quite a few birds were smashed aside as she flew backwards.
The birds didn’t back off this time though. Instead they attacked even more fiercely. The dozen or so leftover birds focused solely on pecking Stinger. The mare put up a fight even while prone though. Time slowed down for Spectrum again as he watched Stinger’s precise flailing smashed several of the birds straight into the dirt and send others flying.
This time though, Spectrum didn’t remain still during the slowdown. He charged slowly forward the entire time the birds assaulted Stinger. Spectrum swung his branch once more the second he was within reach. This time he managed to knock about five hummingbirds away in addition to smacking Stinger’s snout though. The mare rolled into a few other birds as well after the smack, though whether this was because of Spectrums swing or in an effort to dodge it was anypony’s guess.
The last of the birds, a particularly enraged looking robin, was taken out by a final swing from Spectrum that sent it flying through the mountainside. The pegasus took a quick look back at Stinger in order to make sure it was finished. There weren’t any more birds attacking the mare, but the look on her face made it clear that the fight wasn’t over just yet.
Spectrum moved to flee, but by the time he had turned it was too late; Stinger had already tackled him and grabbed him by his mane. “One!” the mare shouted as she smashed his face into the ground. The second smash came almost immediately after, and was followed by, “That’s two,” said in a much happier tone. Stinger let go of the pegasus after that. Unfortunately for Spectrum, the third smash came instantly after he raised his head. “And that’s three,” Stinger concluded in a sing-song voice.
“I only hit you twice,” Spectrum said, his voice muffled by the ground.
“Yeah, but I like to stay ahead of the curve.” Stinger laughed. Spectrum got to his feet and shot her a glare. Interestingly, he found he was more annoyed with the mare than angry. Maybe that was because he hadn’t been surprised when she assaulted him.
Stinger actually winked this time when she noticed Spectrum’s glare, but she didn’t respond further. The stallion suspected this was probably because her mouth was busy tearing off a section of her wrap. Spectrum sighed. He had been wondering why she bothered with that cloth. “If you’re going to fight this much you should just cut your mane,” he complained.
Stinger chuckled and spat the torn cloth onto a hoof. “Hey they make for great bandages too. If one of those big birds had scored an actual hit, you’d be thanking me for bringing something to tie back my hair.” With that the mare began wrapping her mane back into its tidy bun.
Spectrum sighed and turned his attention upward. As he suspected, a few more of the butterflies were flying away. “Why do you think they’re going to the peak?” he asked.
Stinger paused in her work and glanced upward. “Oh horseapples,” she cursed, “They are heading to the peak aren’t they?”
“Is that a problem?”
Stinger chuckled and finished tying her mane. “I sure hope not,” she said with a grin. Once she had tied the knot nice and tightly she got walking again. “Who knows, maybe we actually are freeing them.”
“They’re going to kill us aren’t they?” Spectrum sighed as he sidled up beside Stinger.
“You don’t think I can take some butterflies?” Stinger laughed for a minute. “No no, they’re not going to kill us, princess,” she said, catching her breath, “I can’t say they won’t try though.”
“Should I grab the branch?”
“Do you want me to slam your face into the ground again?” Stinger made a point of cracking the ground as they spoke. They were back on the rock. Spectrum shook his head, but didn’t give off any expression. “Right back to being dull huh?” Stinger chuckled. Spectrum smiled and nodded. “In that case,” the mare smirked, “I never finished my story.”
“I have an idea,” Spectrum interrupted nonchalantly, “Why don’t I scout out the peak? I think I can fly up there from here, and that’s where the hippogryphs should be right?”
Stinger nodded. “That’s what the bunny told me.” Spectrum stopped and stared at her for a moment. “What, did you think I just assumed there’d be hippogryphs up there?” The stallion nodded. “Well I guess I showed you then.”
Spectrum shook his head and floated off the ground. “I’m going to check just to be safe,” he said. Before he could fly any further Stinger reached up and wrapped a hoof around his leg.
“There’s no way I’m letting you go up there alone, Spec,” Stinger said while doing her best to pull the stallion down gently. “C’mon, it can’t be more than ten minutes trot from here.”
Spectrum shook his head and started to fly higher, inevitably dragging the heavy mare with him. The last plateau was less than thirty seconds flight away. He figured that he might as well go this way even if he had to drag Stinger along with him. Either way he wouldn’t have to listen to the bunny story again.
Stinger let loose a sigh after realizing she had been pulled well beyond safe landing distance. “Be careful,” she warned on their climb up. Spectrum was a touch surprised by the concern, until he realized that he was putting her in danger as well. Then it suddenly made sense.
The climb was a touch longer than the thirty seconds that Spectrum had predicted. He blamed this on the fact that Stinger weighed as much as a ton of bricks. Stinger on the other hoof was very vocal about it being his fault for not exercising. Spectrum couldn’t argue too much with that, mostly because in the end it would be futile, and luckily he didn’t have to. By the time the mare had started insulting him, the pair had already reached the mountain’s final plateau.
Sitting in the middle of the plateau was a single hippo with four wings surrounded by a rather large swarm of the pink butterflies from before. Upon seeing the insects, Spectrum immediately started searching for a place to hide. He settled on a large rock not far from the cliff’s edge. The beast was, thankfully, sleeping at the moment; as were the butterflies.
“Okay,” Spectrum panted as he set Stinger down behind the rock, “You were right about flying to Cloudsdale. You’re way too heavy for anything less than a dragon to carry.”
“I’d smack you if I didn’t think it would wake that thing up,” Stinger mumbled as she got to her feet.
Spectrum landed beside her and glanced around the rock. “So what was your plan?”
Stinger smiled and moved to a place beside him. She had callously walked right out from behind the rock. “If I can get on its back I don’t think it should be able to get me,” she whispered as she walked steadily closer. She then suddenly stopped. “Hey Spec, you think you could fly me over the butterflies?”
“Not without disturbing them,” Spectrum responded as he inched his own way out from behind the rock. There must’ve been more than forty of the little things surrounding the creature.
Stinger sighed. Spectrum turned to get another look at her and saw that she was smiling again in spite of it. “Well then I guess we’ll just have to disturb them.” The mare chuckled and trotted forward a bit more before lowering her body. It was clear to Spectrum that she was preparing to leap. Rather than argue, the pegasus floated upward in preparation for the oncoming storm.
The storm struck instantly and with full force the second that Stinger landed on the hippogryph’s back. After hearing the ground crack and seeing the beast sink when Stinger landed, Spectrum was unable to see anything but the color pink. The butterflies that swarmed around him didn’t do much to actually hurt him. They just obscured his vision and made flying difficult.
This caused enough problems though when Stinger called for Spectrum’s help. The demand was simple, “Spec, get these things off me, I can’t see what I’m doing,” but since the stallion couldn’t even figure out the mare’s relative location after a few minutes of struggling with the insects, he was unable to help.
“Can’t you handle them yourself,” Spectrum shouted back to the mare as he swatted at the troublesome butterflies. To his surprise the insects moved out of his way with ease after only a few swats. This surprised was muted however when the stallion discovered the reason behind it. That reason was a winged hippo flying straight toward him. Needless to say this was much more surprising.
Spectrum managed to veer out of the hippogryph’s way just in time to avoid its charge. Unfortunately for him, he chose to move upward rather than to the side, and he failed to avoid the grip of the mare riding it.
“Sorry about that,” Stinger shouted. “Halt, Hipster!” Immediately after the mare spoke the hippogryph let out a roar and moved to a stop; allowing Stinger to let go of her companion and motion for him to sit. The butterflies had them surrounded again in moments, but ‘Hipster’ didn’t move past a touch of jerking as he tried to avoid the swarm.
“I never would have guessed you were good with animals,” Spectrum said with actual awe showing both in his voice and on his face.
“I’m not,” Stinger laughed, “Turns out that hippogryphs are just really good at understanding ponies. Plus they’re really responsive to pain.” The mare let go of the beast with her right hoof for a moment and displayed her leg to Spectrum. She was wearing a new bracelet with a pink wasp shaped gemstone adorning it; complete with stinger.
The second after she removed it however, Hipster began to flail, and Spectrum was forced to throw his hooves around Stinger’s waist. It wasn’t until the mare placed her hoof back and the hippogryph roared once more that it stabilized.
“I found this thing on Hipster’s back,” Stinger clarified once the beast was properly righted.
Spectrum was going to ask before if torturing the creature was necessary, but it seemed he already had his answer. Instead he asked, “So what do we do now? We can’t fly straight with these butterflies floating around.”
“Well now that you’re safe I’ve got a plan.” Stinger turned around and shot the Spectrum a particularly devilish smile. “Hipster,” she shouted, “Eat.” Spectrum noticed the mare jerk her hoof before the hippogryph roared again and flied forward. It was clear that Hipster understood the order clearly, because within a second he had chomped down on no less than a dozen butterflies.
The remainder of the swarm put up a valiant effort from there. Most of them were focused on trying to dislodge the ponies from their seating. They were completely unsuccessful though. Every push did nothing to disturb the pair any more than Hipster’s movements as he tried to devour them did. Eventually Stinger even took to using Hipster’s method for dealing with the pests whenever they came close. It wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before they had all been finished. Although, as usual, it took about four minutes for Spectrum.
“Alright Hipster,” Stinger shouted once the last of the swarm was finished, “Steady.” This time Stinger removed the wasp’s stinger as she spoke. The hippogryph complied nonetheless. “Good boy.”
Spectrum snapped back to normal speed and looked around. There were indeed no more of the insects left to pester them. Did that mean they had made it? “So what now?” he asked. Honestly he was more thinking aloud then actually asking. He hadn’t honestly expected to make it this far. He’d figured that, if nothing else stopped them, then the hippogryph wouldn’t have even been there, and they had clearly already passed over that particular speed bump.
“Well I don’t know about you,” Stinger responded with a tired laugh, “But for me the first order of business is getting away from this mountain and those ominous eyes.” Spectrum looked back to the mountain. There were no eyes. The closest thing was a pair of cracked holes on the mountain’s final plateau.
“What are you-” this time Spectrum was cut off right before the most important word by a roar from the hippogryph. He still blamed Stinger for it though as it was clear she was back to prodding the creature.
“Alright Hipster,” she shouted, “To the clouds.”
Airheart skipped merrily through the marketplace in preparation for her big day. Today was her first day in her brand new home, and she was absolutely giddy as a result. To celebrate she had invited all of her close friends over for a barbeque. The pegasus had spent the entire day up to this point just getting ready for it.
In pursuit of her goal, Airheart had already purchased six Portobello mushrooms, two heads of lettuce, an extra-large bag of hay, a dozen apples, and five tins of potato chips; all of which was stuffed into her saddlebags almost to the point of breaking the cloud shaped clasp. This earned the pink mare a few glances from the crowd, but no more than she was used to for wearing her goggles everywhere. She never quite understood why that was. After all, a lot of mares with long manes wore hairbands. This was just a hairband with two functions: tying back messy brown hair and keeping raindrops out of her eyes.
Airheart smiled at the thought as she laughed internally at all of the uptight mares. She didn’t have too much time to dwell on it though. She still had shopping to do. After pushing the thought aside Airheart took another look at her list. All she needed now for the get-together was some buns and some barbecue sauce. The bread stand was somewhere near the middle of the market usually, so the pegasus took off and headed there.
Airheart whistled a favorite tune and waved at the passersby as she flew. She paid no attention to them as they passed though; she was too excited to care about anything but preparing for her barbeque. It registered when they stopped passing her sure, but she didn’t care. In fact she didn’t even care that the market had emptied when she landed. All that meant to her was that the line for bread would be shorter.
The only moment that Airheart actually became concerned was when she discovered the stand itself was vacant as well. “Hello,” she shouted into the tent, “Is anypony there?” Nopony answered. That explained why there were no ponies left in this part of the market. Everything must have closed down.
Airheart sighed and took off again. Her friends would just have to live without buns tonight. Still, if she could help it they wouldn’t have to go without barbeque sauce. Twinkle started whistling once more and flew towards the market edge. Those stands always closed the latest, so she might have a chance of catching it while they were packing up.
Airheart stopped a touch short of her destination in order to avoid a bolt of lightning. “Watch what you’re doing up there,” the mare screamed at the storm cloud above her. “What’s a storm cloud even doing in this part of town to begin with,” she mumbled as she stared up at the dangerous phenomenon. The cloud didn’t even seem to be manned. What was the weather factory even doing letting storm clouds wander around.
Airheart sighed and started flying toward the stand again. She stopped almost immediately, and for a remarkably similar reason. The tame cumulous that had previously housed Cloudsdale market had suddenly been replaced with one of the most vicious looking storm clouds that Airheart had ever seen.
Airheart stopped to stare at the cloud for a few moments before another blast of lightning struck from above her. The pegasus jumped back as the streak flashed in front of her. She, like any pony with half a brain, knew it was best not to get hit by lightning. She also knew that it was a terrible idea to land on a cloud during a thunderstorm, and right now she was smack dab in the center of a city made of clouds.
Airheart did her best to keep breathing steadily as she floated around and searched for a safe place to land, but she wasn’t doing well. This didn’t make sense. Cloudsdale had never been in a storm like this. Plus it set on way too quickly. Clouds weren’t supposed to work like that. The only way she managed to remain functioning was by keeping a clear goal in mind as she flew towards the Cloudiseum.
The Cloudiseum had recently installed a spectator’s stand for unicorns and earth ponies to view its frequent events. Seeing as it was the only thing in Cloudsdale that wasn’t at least partially made of water, it was probably the only safe place to be in a storm like this.
It was only a few minutes before Airheart saw the Cloudiseum stands, but she didn’t see the rest of it. Only the stand itself remained floating in empty space. The pegasus felt her heart skip a beat as she realized what she was looking at. Normally as long as you stayed above the clouds you could still see a sun and blue sky during the day. Upon finally not having her attention focused on the storm Airheart realized she had seen neither since she’d avoided that first lightning strike.
Airheart stopped in midair. “This can’t be happening,” she mumbled as she looked at the empty space around her and, more poignantly, below her. The storm was frightening and completely implausible, but Airheart had at least seen storms before. This was a whole new kind of terrifying. And it only grew worse once she realized that she hadn’t seen any ponies since the lightning strike either.
Airheart actually felt some tears start to fall from her eyes as she thought back to the party she was missing. “I wonder if my house is still there…” she mumbled sadly.
Airheart floated there crying for some time before she became aware of a voice in the distance. It was faint, but she was almost certain that it was more than a figment of her imagination. Suddenly reinvigorated, Airheart glanced fervently around for the voice’s source. She eventually settled back on the stands still floating in the distance. Nopony was visible, but it wasn’t likely they would be anywhere else.
Airheart’s hopes were reaffirmed when she got closer to the stands. She couldn’t quite make out the pony through her blurry vision, but the voice was becoming clearer. It was a really powerful and deep voice consistently yelling, “Get over here!” and, “Get over here you stupid pegasus!” The joy at seeing another pony alive was easily enough to keep Airheart from being bothered by the insult.
Eventually the voice quieted once Airheart got closer. She could make out the pony in the stands now. He was a light gray unicorn stallion with a long light blue mane falling down around his face. Because of the mane Airheart couldn’t make out one of his eyes, but the other one was clear. It was a deep green color.
“Stop right there,” the unicorn shouted once Airheart got close. The pegasus obeyed and drifted to a stop a short distance from the stand. She probably would have had to anyway in order to wipe her eyes, but the fact that she was being ordered to do so did confuse her more than a touch. “Who are you?” the stallion demanded.
“Umm…” Airheart mumbled as she wiped her eyes. “My name’s Airheart. I live in Cloudsdale.” Once the mare finished clearing her eyes she glanced back to the unicorn. “Who are you?”
“Lightning Flash,” the unicorn said matter-of-factly, “Friend or foe?” Airheart couldn’t speak for a moment. She just stared. “Friend or foe?” Lightning Flash demanded again.
“Friend,” Airheart responded hastily. Lightning Flash nodded and gestured for her to come into the stand. Airheart was pleased to be welcomed in, but just to be safe she made sure to enter a touch farther away from the unicorn than she had originally planned. The pegasus had to admit that her expected vision of uniting with a hug might have been a little out hopeful, but this unicorn actually seemed mildly frightening.
And the fear wasn’t lessened once Airheart entered the stand either. Not only was Lightning’s cutie mark, a bolt of lightning striking with a bright flash, a touch intimidating, but the unicorn was armed with a crossbow. Airheart wasn’t even sure where somepony would find a crossbow. “I apologize for the intimidation,” Lightning Flash said as he turned to face the pegasus, “But you can’t be too safe at a time like this.”
Airheart noticed that the crossbow was still loaded and aimed in her direction. “Yes I suppose you can’t,” she mumbled, refusing to take her eyes off the weapon. The pegasus felt another tear trickle down her cheek as she stared at the thing.
Perhaps because he saw the tear, Lightning Flash lowered the crossbow a moment later. “So you’re not one of hers then? My apologies,” the unicorn said with a bow of his head, “I suppose that means I was wrong about the goggles.”
Airheart wiped the tear away. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
Lightning Flash responded by pointing off into the side of the stand with a hoof. Airheart waited until she saw the stallion put his crossbow in a pouch tied around his waist before looking away from him. When she did follow the hoof she found that there was nothing but a pair of goggles where Lightning Flash was pointing.
“Those belonged to a pegasus that attacked me earlier,” Lightning Flash clarified, “He was screaming something about how the queen wanted me gone.”
Airheart trotted slowly forward and picked up the goggles. One of the lenses was completely shattered. “Where is he?” she asked.
“He vanished into thin air right after I broke the goggles.” Airheart nodded and threw the broken pair around her neck. When she turned back to Lightning Flash she saw that he was giving her a disbelieving glare. “What are you doing?”
“I can’t exactly make a grave now can I?” Airheart retorted sadly.
Lightning Flash continued glaring for a moment, but he nodded when Airheart’s own glare made it clear that she had no intention of removing the goggles. “Very well,” he said, his gaze suddenly relaxing, “You don’t appear to be possessed, so there’s no harm done.”
Airheart found a smile slip on to her face. The unicorn had just been concerned for her. She was grateful for that. In hindsight, maybe putting on the goggles hadn’t been the best idea after all. It was a good thing nothing had happened. “Thank you for your concern,” she said with a thankful bow toward the stallion.
Lightning Flash responded with a polite bow of his own. At least Airheart thought it was a bow. It was as close as somepony could get without actually lowering their head. “I am thankful for your understanding,” he said as a calm smile replaced his more stern expression. “Now if you don’t mind, I need your help, Miss Airheart.”
Airheart nodded. “I’ll do what I can, but I’m afraid I can’t do much.” The mare sighed and trotted back to the front of the stands. There was a good view of Cloudsdale from here, but it didn’t make the city look any better. “The city’s pretty wrecked,” she mumbled as she looked around a bit more, “and I can’t see anything else nearby.” The only thing she even could see other than the cloud city was a mountain far in the distance and in a completely different direction. There was no way she could make it there while carrying both Lightning Flash and her food. She probably couldn’t make it there just carrying the stallion alone for that matter.
“Don’t worry, it’s the city that I need to get to,” Lightning Flash spoke confidently as he sidled up beside Airheart, in spite of the fact that the pegasus was now staring at him with complete and total disbelief. “I suspect that the queen that the pegasus was talking about resides there. She will most likely be able to explain what’s going on.”
“Cloudsdale is nothing but storm clouds,” Airheart interjected once she was fairly sure the stallion had finished, “There isn’t a safe place to land.”
Lightning Flash smiled at Airheart. It was an annoying kind of smile. Prideful was the best way to describe it. “Don’t worry, Miss Airheart,” he said, “I can cast a spell to walk on clouds.”
“Oh that’s right you’re a unicorn,” Airheart said, surprised. For some reason she had been thinking of Lightning Flash as a pegasus. He was named like one after all. “That doesn’t solve our problem though,” the mare said turning back to the city. “You see, storm clouds are really dangerous to walk on. One particularly heavy step and you’ll be electrocuted.”
Suddenly Lightning Flash’s expression became a good deal more dour. “I’ve been electrocuted a few times before. It’s not so bad,” he mumbled. After that both he and Airheart were silent for a few moments. Eventually Lightning Flash broke the silence with a sigh. “Whether I like it or not I need to go there,” he said, “I’ll just need to be extra careful.”
“If you really insist on going I could fly you through it,” Airheart commented. “We may have to land every now and then, but I should be able to get you through the city.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I’d prefer to handle this on my own.” Lightning Flash was smiling his prideful smile again when he turned back to Airheart. “All I need you to do is get me onto the clouds. I’m good, but I can’t float myself that far.”
“Well I have no reason not to help you,” Airheart responded, mildly annoyed by the fact that the unicorn would even consider going off alone in this situation. “Plus I’m just as eager to find out what’s going on as you are. I may not have mentioned it but that’s my home over there.” Airheart noticed that her tears were running again as she spoke. Her voice remained steady however, if only barely.
“I can hardly keep you from putting yourself in danger.” Lightning Flash shrugged and put a hoof on Airheart’s shoulder. “All I need is a lift. After that, you can do whatever you want.”
Airheart nodded and floated out of the stands. After taking a deep breath and wiping her face once more, the mare turned around and reached her hooves out to Lightning Flash. “Alright, grab on.” The stallion nodded and wrapped his hooves around Airheart’s. With that, the pair took off.
The flight to what was left of Cloudsdale was short but poignant, at least for Airheart. It all went by in silence as she carried Lightning Flash to the stormy shores of the ruined cloud city, so all she had to do was see just how ruined it had become. Most of the city was missing and what little was left was storm cloud including, as she discovered, Airheart’s brand new home.
Airheart teared up again as she stared at the building. It wasn’t much; just a small little cloud house on the far edge of Cloudsdale. The building had still retained its shape, as far as the pegasus could tell from this distance, but just like everything else it had become black and was violently shaking. The main thing that pushed her over the edge however, was the water she had just realized was beginning to fall from the city. Her home hadn’t just vanished; it was going to vanish slowly.
Airheart was too busy gazing into the distance to realize when she and Lightning Flash had managed to reach the city’s edge. The light prodding from below her was what prompted the pegasus to glance down and see the clouds below her. She didn’t make any effort to land just yet though. She was still nervous about putting Lightning Flash at risk. Airheart craned her neck downward in order to put herself face to face with the unicorn. “Did you cast the spell yet,” she asked.
Lightning Flash nodded. He was wearing the prideful smile again. “Put me down wherever,” he said.
Airheart glanced upward and resumed flying forward. There was a building not far from here. It was sports shop if she remembered correctly. Now that it was blackened, the sign included, it was hard to tell. “I think we should head there first,” she said. She didn’t give a reason, primarily because she didn’t have one. It just made sense to her to check a building.
“That’s fine,” Lightning Flash responded. He sounded somewhat annoyed now. “Drop me off at the front.” Airheart responded with a nod and lowered the unicorn toward the front of the store. Lightning Flash pulled his hooves away from her the moment that he could. As a result the unicorn had far from a pleasant landing.
Although, Airheart did have to admit she found Lightning Flash’s shocked expression and flails somewhat humorous after seeing his prideful smile not long ago. “Are you okay,” she asked once the shock had passed.
“Just fine,” Lightning Flash responded without turning back to the mare. Airheart had to get a look at his face anyway though, so she floated around to his front. What she saw didn’t cheer her up though. In fact despite the fact that the stallions hair was standing on end it wasn’t at all funny.
Most of it had to do with Lightning Flash’s expression. It wasn’t the look of fallen pride that Airheart had expected. It was closer to actual anger, and it seemed mostly to be directed at her. The pegasus actually felt as if his gaze was literally piercing her.
“Did you need something else, or can I get going?” Lightning Flash asked viciously. Airheart couldn’t manage to do anything but shake her head in response. The stallion didn’t speak further once he’d gotten this response. He silently pushed his mane back down and headed into the building.
Airheart remained floating there for some time after that. She’d watched as Lightning Flash had walked into the store, but the glare from before had her feeling like it would be a horrible idea to actually follow him. It wasn’t until the door was slammed behind the stallion that she snapped out of it.
Even then though, she was hesitant to head inside. She wasn’t sure if Lightning Flash would actually be angry enough to attack her, but then again he did threaten her when they first met. On the other hoof, he was the only other pony she had met. She could hardly just let him leave her alone. Airheart took a deep breath, wiped her face once more, and steeled herself to enter the store.
Airheart pushed the door open gently at first. However, as soon as she had cracked open the door the mare heard crashing coming from inside. Suddenly realizing that the only other pony still in Cloudsdale might be in danger, Airheart tossed the door open and flew in. The resulting shock that came from treating a storm cloud door so roughly didn’t stop the pegasus from rocketing forward into the store. It did however keep her from seeing what was going on through the white light blocking her vision.
Thankfully the resulting skid across the store floor apparently wasn’t rough enough result in further shocking. Either that or Airheart just couldn’t feel it as much after the initial strike. It was probably the former however, as the pegasus did feel it when she smacked into the legs of a pony in her path.
“Was that you Lightning Flash?” Airheart asked as she pulled herself to her feet. Her vision was still spotty for a few moments after the shock. She couldn’t even see the pony she’d knocked over.
“I’d thank you if I thought for a second that was intentional.” Airheart’s ears perked up and she turned to see Lightning Flash walking towards her. She still couldn’t see him well, but the coloring and the voice matched up. “Now explain what you’re doing in here.”
Airheart rubbed her eyes and blinked a few times before responding. Once her eyesight was back to normal she could see that Lightning Flash once again had his crossbow drawn and loaded. “I just wanted to make sure you were safe,” she said cautiously once she noticed the weapon.
Lightning Flash smiled cockily and put the crossbow away. “Well I suppose you succeeded,” he said with a gesture to the ground beside the pegasus. Airheart glanced to where he pointed and saw a pair of goggles nestled in the clouds. Without even thinking, she picked them up.
“Who was it?” Airheart asked as she stared at the goggles. It was a nice pair, almost identical to her set. The only noticeable difference was a single star emblazoned on its side. Again without thinking, Airheart tossed the pair over her head and around her neck.
“I don’t know,” Lightning Flash responded with a sigh, “All I can tell you is that she tried to kill me and screamed about the queen. Just like the other one.”
The unicorn sighed again and took a look around the store. Airheart followed his lead. Most of the store was thoroughly trashed, but it seemed to have all of its stock still in place. The only exception was the display that contained the goggles. It was completely empty, and there weren’t any pairs in sight; save for the three that Airheart was wearing of course.
“I have to admit I was hoping I would find ta lead of some sort,” Lightning Flash continued as he trotted toward the store’s front door. After gently pushing it open he turned back to Airheart and showed off his prideful smile again. “Come on Miss Airheart.”
Airheart trotted up beside the stallion cautiously. “You actually want me to come along now?”
Lightning Flash shrugged. “I suspect you will whether I like it or not, so I’d like to keep an eye on you.” The stallion nodded and stepped through the doorway. “I’d prefer you not run into me the next time you charge through a door.”
Airheart accompanied him of course, but she was a touch more hesitant again once she remembered who it was she was following. She stood in the doorway for a moment as she watched Lightning Flash trot into the distance and looked deeper into the city. “You used to live here, correct, Miss Airheart?” he asked without so much as turning his head.
Airheart initially responded with a nod, but after receiving no reaction she remembered that the stallion couldn’t see her. “I do,” she said hastily upon realizing this. “Was there somewhere you needed to get to?”
“Town hall,” Lightning Flash responded matter-of-factly, “Or wherever your highest ruler stays.”
“It’s town hall,” Airheart responded, mildly annoyed once more. She floated up to get a better look at the town. She knew Cloudsdale well enough, after all she lived there. “It’s in the center,” she said while pointing in the appropriate direction.
Lightning Flash nodded, but Airheart noticed he still wasn’t even glancing at her. He started walking again though, and in the appropriate direction. Airheart assumed he simply figured out where the center was based on what was left of the city. Still, she did have to admit that being ignored once again, particularly after being asked for advice directly, was quite annoying.
Still Airheart followed Lightning Flash nonetheless. Once again their journey was silent at first, but this particular journey was going to doubtlessly take longer thanks to the unicorn’s slow and careful pace as he walked on the volatile clouds. Because of this, Airheart found herself tempted to initiate conversation. However the only subject she could think of that might be raised comfortably was a practical offer. “Do you want me to carry you to town hall?” she asked.
Airheart would have continued by explaining why this was a good idea, the obvious increase in speed. However, before she could, Lightning Flash responded with a decisive, “No. I’d prefer not to get shocked again when you drop me.”
Airheart didn’t argue. She knew he was wrong, but, much as it annoyed her, the mare preferred the unicorn’s prideful smile to his hateful glare. Instead she decided to respond a bit more passive-aggressively. “I understand I suppose, but you know it will take longer.”
“I can live with that.” This response was less decisive and slightly more mocking. Airheart didn’t even bother trying to speak again after that. She did momentarily consider abandoning Lightning Flash admittedly, however to leave him alone struck her as foolish. As survivors they needed to stick together. Instead, she simply decided that not talking was the best way to continue.
The pair continued on like this for some time before their routine was broken again. This happened when Airheart noticed the Cloudsdale markets come into view. The pegasus’s first thought was that it was surprisingly time consuming to walk everywhere. The second thought that hit her was the actual memory of what she had been doing when this had all happened.
Airheart paused and glanced at her saddlebags, then to a nearby stand. It was her favorite condiment stand. Curious, the mare trotted toward the booth and peered inside. Nopony was there, but there were still various bottles stacked high in the back. Airheart glanced around, nopony was here but Lightning Flash and her, and Lightning Flash was trotting away at the moment.
Airheart teared up a bit more as she snatched a bottle of barbeque sauce and threw some bits on the counter. Once again she wasn’t sure why she was doing it. Maybe she was just kind of hoping this would go away. She thought of it more like the goggles though. Except this was her memorial to her friends. After all, even if there were more goggled pegasi flying around, what was the chance that all of them would be her friends?
“Airheart is that you?” Both Airheart and Lightning Flash jumped at the sound of the voice that came from a nearby fruit stand. Lightning Flash took the extra precaution of drawing his weapon, Airheart simply floated toward the stand. Seated behind the fruit was a yellow pegasus with a curly red mane. Airheart recognized her as one of the pegasi that had helped with tornado duty last year, but she couldn’t remember her name.
“It’s good to see somepony else is still here” Airheart said thankfully. She almost moved in for an embrace, but before she could she was abruptly reminded of the unicorn she was accompanying.
“Why are you wearing goggles?” Airheart glanced back to see that Lightning Flash was still armed and ready to fire at any moment. When Airheart looked back to the now frightened pegasus in front of her, she noticed that she was indeed wearing a pair of goggles on her forehead.
Despite her apparent fright, the pegasus did answer fairly calmly. “Please don’t shoot. I’m not one of them.”
“I thought you said you were wrong about the goggles,” Airheart interjected after turning her attention back the unicorn.
Lightning Flash sighed and lowered his crossbow. “I’m not sure now. Everypony that’s attacked me has been wearing them.”
The pegasus behind the stand nodded. “I understand. I’ve had to deal with them too.” With that she smiled and extended a hoof for a shake. “I’m Strawberry Sunrise,” she said, “Please call me Strawberry.”
Lightning Flash approached cautiously and gave Strawberry’s hoof a firm shake. “My name is Lightning Flash. Now would you care to answer my question?”
“I’m Airheart by the way,” Airheart chimed in as she extended her own hoof for a shake. The result of her action was a pair of ponies staring at her; one with a charmed smile, and one with an annoyed glare.
“I know that, dear, you’re one of my favorite customers,” Strawberry responded before breaking the hoofshake and turning back to Lightning Flash. “Now to answer your question, sir: I’m wearing these goggles because the pegasi won’t attack me while they’re on.”
“So the goggles are a symbol?” Lightning Flash asked. Although he sounded more like he was talking to himself than either of the other ponies present.
“Yes, but I don’t think they’ll work for you,” Strawberry continued, “I have a feeling they’d find a unicorn suspicious. Luckily, I don’t think you’ll need them though.” Strawberry’s smile widened as she turned her head to the side and looked past Airheart into the distance. “The edge of the city shouldn’t be far from here. Just a little farther and we can escape.”
Airheart passed a nervous glance to Lightning Flash. The stallion didn’t respond though, he had already started walking away. That left it up to Airheart to explain the situation. That was a shame; she had no doubt that Lightning would do a better job of being blunt.
With a sigh, Airheart landed in front of the stand. Strawberry’s smile had departed now. She was clearly concerned. “I have some bad news, Strawberry.” Airheart was already beginning to tear up when she first spoke. The mare dissolved into sobbing before she could fully explain how the outside was empty. However a bit of comforting from Strawberry Sunrise pushed her onward.
“I have to admit I’m not sure what to say about that,” Strawberry said once Airheart had finished. Her voice struck the Airheart as strangely happy. However, she suspected that it was nothing more than a front to keep her from losing herself again. “So what was it that you and Lightning Flash planned to do then?” Strawberry continued.
“We were planning on moving to town hall.” Airheart turned in surprise to see that Lightning Flash was still nearby. He had stopped trotting away after only short time. He was distant, but still close enough to hear.
“You’re still here?” Airheart blurted out. She was genuinely surprised, but she had little doubt that it came out sounding incredibly rude. Lightning Flash’s expression removed what little doubt there was. It wasn’t quite as angry as she’d seen it before, but it was clear that he was insulted.
“I couldn’t leave you alone,” Lightning Flash grunted. His visible eye was primarily locked on Strawberry before he turned around and got back to walking. Airheart took her own look at her fellow pegasus after the unicorn turned his back.
Strawberry smiled and nodded before joining Lightning Flash in his trot. ”I didn’t check there,” she said, “I was too busy trying to get out of here to try.”
Airheart floated up beside the pair a few moments later. Neither of her companions spoke for another minute, so the mare decided it was safe to begin talking again. “So Strawberry,” Airheart said as she floated a touch closer to her fellow pegasus, “How many of those crazy ponies have you fought?”
“I only fought one,” Strawberry responded, her tone still strangely happy, “The other I just ran from.” With a smile the mare turned back to Airheart and pointed at her goggles. “I got these off of him during the brawl. After they fell on my head, suddenly nopony else bothered me.” Strawberry sighed and turned away. “After that though, I just decided it was best to get away. I figured I would be able to contact the princess or something. I guess that’s kind of foolish in hindsight.”
“I’m surprised you’re adjusting so well,” Airheart commented. He gaze was locked firmly on Strawberry Sunrise. She only looked ahead occasionally in order to make sure she didn’t run into anything.
“Well you seem pretty put together yourself,” Strawberry said with another smile at Airheart. “After all, you seem to have taken out no less than three of the things.”
Airheart felt herself tear up again as she thought of her memorial. She hastily turned away from Strawberry and back to Lightning Flash, who was still trotting in front of her. “I’m only still moving because of him,” she said. She made sure toward the unicorn as she spoke.
Strawberry nodded and smiled towards Lightning. “Are you two a couple then?” she asked.
Airheart shook her head; less violently than she would have wanted to though. The idea repulsed her when she thought about Lightning Flash’s glare, and she was sure that it put him off no less. Still she felt if she shook her head too vigorously all it would cause was more tears to fall. “No,” she said, “I just met him a little while ago actually. I’m not sure why I’m following him.”
“Well I suppose we survivors have to stick together.” Strawberry laughed once she’d finished, as if she had just told a humorous joke.
“That’s not funny,” Lightning Flash said suddenly.
“It wasn’t a joke,” Strawberry replied.
Lightning Flash’s response this time was to turn around and pierce Strawberry with a glare that Airheart found all too familiar. Though, interestingly, it was much less frightening when it wasn’t directed at her. She managed to keep floating. Strawberry on the other hoof, froze in place.
“Then don’t laugh at it,” Lightning Flash said sternly. After that he turned around. Airheart was positive he heard him mumble something. “Why would you laugh about brainwashing?” was what the pegasus decided it was. This made her tear up and shoot Strawberry a look of her own; a sad look.
Strawberry’s smile returned in full force however once Lightning Flash had turned away, and it didn’t dim even slightly when she saw Airheart looking at her. “I’m sorry,” she said as she resumed trotting, “I suppose I’m not allowed to mourn the way I like.”
Airheart didn’t have anything to continue the conversation after that. Luckily though, she didn’t have too. Less than a minute after Strawberry’s disturbing joke, the trio was ambushed.
The pegasi came from all directions and all at once. Airheart had no possible reaction save to watch as they exploded out of the nearby clouds, and even then she didn’t do a particularly good job. She counted three, but judging by the colors of the blurs there must have been at least two more. They moved to fast and in too hard-to-follow a motion for Airheart to be sure. She was only able to get a good count once they finally made their attack.
Four ponies in total converged on Lightning Flash simultaneously. The unicorn had already drawn his crossbow, and had even managed to fire a bolt at one of the charging pegasi, but by then it was too late. While the pony that Lightning Flash had fired on was forced to move out of the way, the other three pegasi hit their target head on and effectively crushed him between the combined force of their hooves.
Of course now that the enemies were in clear view, Airheart was free to attack. Additionally, since they had made their intentions abundantly clear, the mare had no qualms about tearing them apart. The first one she tackled evidently hadn’t expected her, because it was foal’s play to tear the goggles off his face. Airheart was forced to pause once she had removed the goggles though. Watching as the pegasus she had just attacked dissolved was too distracting for her to think about anything else for a moment.
Airheart had remembered Lightning Flash’s story about the disappearing pegasus from before. That was why she had gone for the goggles in the first place. However, she had expected it to be more instantaneous, or at least less painful. Airheart was positive she saw the pegasus struggle as he faded away, though he never made another sound.
“Brolly!” one of the other pegasi screamed.
Airheart decided to remember that as she tightened her grip on his goggles. Along with his name, she repeated his features in her mind. “Brolly: white pegasus, blue mane, umbrella cutie mark.”
Unfortunately this unnecessary repetition distracted Airheart from the battle, and now the attacking pegasi were just as hostile towards her as they were towards Lightning Flash. Airheart was brought back to this fight as painfully as possible courtesy of a hoof that struck her right in the face. The pegasus managed to right herself before she crashed into the clouds, primarily because her foe had struck her with an uppercut. After that, she lost hold of the goggles, but returned to her senses.
Immediately after Airheart recovered, she looked straight back toward the battlefield. Only one of the three remaining ponies was charging her. The other two were busy in struggles with Strawberry Sunrise and Lightning Flash. The pegasus stopped just short of her and raised his hooves. This one was a pink pegasus with a dark blue mane. Airheart couldn’t quite make out his eyes through the blurry goggles, but she recognized the raindrop cutie mark on his flank.
“Serenity, that’s your name right?” Airheart asked.
The other pegasus nodded. “And you’re Airheart right? Why are you helping that monster?”
Airheart glanced down toward Lightning Flash. He, along with Strawberry, was busy dodging the blows of one of the remaining pegasi. “What do you mean,” she asked, glancing back at Serenity.
Serenity snickered and shook his head. “You don’t even know him do you? You’re just with him because he’s the only other pony you’ve met.” Airheart shied backwards a tad after this. Serenity was right, but at the same time she still hadn’t seen him do anything wrong. “He’s killed two pegasi, Airheart!”
Airheart shook her head and floated forward. “It was in self-defense,” she shouted back, “Your friends attacked him!”
Serenity balked briefly at this accusation, but only briefly. In a moment he had calmed himself and started talking again. “Are you sure about that? Did you see the fights yourself?” Airheart shied back again and paused. She took another look at the stallion below her. He was fighting viciously. The pegasus glanced back up to see that Serenity had lowered his hooves to his side. Airheart felt the tears begin to well up again.
Then Airheart glanced down again, this time at Strawberry. The yellow pegasus was fighting every bit as viciously as Lightning Flash. In fact, if the smile on her face was any indication, she was actually enjoying it more. Airheart suddenly felt her vigor rekindle, and she turned back to Serenity. “One question,” she stated firmly. Serenity once again balked slightly at her tone. “Who is the queen?”
Immediately after Airheart uttered her final word, the sympathetic look left Serenity’s face and he charged. Airheart was ready for him when he came; she knew his weak-point after all. It was a simple punch with her right hoof that cracked the goggles and caused Serenity to rapidly fade away. The fade away set in quickly enough for the pegasus to simply pass straight through both Airheart and the goggles. She didn’t feel a thing.
Airheart didn’t cry this time as she tossed the new pair of wrecked goggles around her neck. She hadn’t known Serenity well, but she was confident that whatever she had talked to hadn’t been him. She still felt like she had to keep the goggles though. They still served as a good memorial for her, even if it wasn’t quite accurate. “Serenity: pink pegasus, blue mane, three raindrops,” she thought aloud.
“Are you okay Airheart?” Airheart was shaken from her thoughts more gently this time, thanks to Strawberry’s call. After a moment she looked back down to see that both of the other pegasi had been dealt with. They weren’t there anymore in any case.
“I’m okay,” Airheart relayed as she floated down to join her companions. Strawberry appeared to be okay, so her first instinct once she landed was to find Lightning Flash. She did quickly as the unicorn was dusting himself off only a few feet away from where she settled down.
Lightning Flash’s look initially frightened her. His mane was up and his coat was mildly scorched, just like it had been when she had dropped him not more than an hour ago. However, Airheart’s fright waned quickly one she saw his face. He was wearing his prideful smile as he dusted the soot off. This time he actually did look funny, and Airheart found that the image did cheer her up. “Well that was certainly a trial,” the unicorn said as he lowered his mane, his gleam of pride completely undiminished.
Airheart actually had to hold in a chuckle for fear of insulting Lightning Flash after this statement. In the end she had to replace it with a sentence and attempt to pass it off as a stutter. “S-so, is everypony okay then?” she asked.
“I’m just fine over here,” Strawberry chuckled as she threw a hoof around Airheart. “And as you can see, you’re coltfriend over there is fine too.” Airheart blushed and turned away. She hadn’t even realized that the way she had looked at Lightning Flash could be misconstrued as admiration. Once she had cleared her blush and turned back, she saw that the unicorn was now looking at her with his prideful smile.
Rather than express her annoyance at this expression being aimed at her, primarily because doing so would inevitably lead to an argument, Airheart chose to change the subject. “So how far is town hall from here Strawberry?” she asked as she floated up from the cloud.
“Not far,” Strawberry responded as she joined Airheart. The sly smile didn’t leave her face though. She merely pointed it at Lightning Flash rather than her fellow pegasus. The unicorn’s response was to simply shrug and get back to walking.
The three were able to make it to town hall without incident after that. It was less than a minute’s flight from where they had dealt with the four pegasi. Even with Lightning Flash’s ardent refusal to be carried, it only took them about ten minutes to make it there. Of course, the trio was forced to stop before even coming into dashing range of the main door.
“I count two guards,” Lightning Flash said once the trio had ducked behind another building. “So at least that means we’re on the right track.”
“They wouldn’t guard a building if somepony important wasn’t inside right?” Strawberry clarified.
Both Lightning Flash and Airheart shot Strawberry a mildly annoyed look once she’d finished. For Airheart it was because she didn’t feel the need for clarification. However, when Lightning Flash continued speaking, it was clear that he was more annoyed by the interruption than anything else. “That’s right,” he said, “So that means we have to get in there.”
“We should avoid combat until we get inside if possible,” AIrheart interjected. “If we do have to fight, it’s better to get pegasi in enclosed spaces anyway, so if we can’t talk the queen down, we’ll be in a better position.”
Lightning Flash rolled his eyes when Airheart mentioned talking the queen down, but he did nod in the end. “If we can get inside and finish their leader first, then I have a feeling we’ll win.” The unicorn trotted to the edge of their hideout and took another look at the building. “I think we can go in through the window. Airheart, I’ll need you to carry me again.”
Airheart nodded in response before once more remembering that Lightning Flash couldn’t see her at the moment. “I can handle it,” she said.
“I guess I should go in first then,” Strawberry said cheerfully as she floated above the clouds. “I’ll move around to the other side. We can enter at the same time.” With that the pegasus shot Airheart a wink and flew off. Airheart found herself blushing once more.
Lightning Flash held his breath as he watched Strawberry fly off around the building. He only let it out once she was safely out of sight. “Alright Airheart,” he said, “Before we take off I need something from you.” Airheart nodded. “Good. I need you to put my bow in your saddlebag.”
Airheart paused before nodding for this one. “What for?” she asked. She couldn’t understand why Lightning Flash would want to go unarmed.
“Just trust me,” Lightning Flash responded as he trotted toward her. At this, Airheart did nod. She wasn’t sure whether or not he was trustworthy, but all the unicorn was doing was disarming himself after all. Lightning Flash nodded in response and calmly levitated the weapon into Airheart’s right-hoof bag. With that, Lightning turned around and nodded for Airheart to lift him.
The trip was quick. It had to be; otherwise the pair might have been seen. Airheart stopped just short of the building’s right window. The window was shaded though, so she couldn’t make out the pegasus on the other side of the building. “I suppose we’ll just have to enter right away,” Lightning Flash grunted. “Don’t worry, she’ll hear the breaking glass.” Airheart nodded and charged in.
What the pair saw surprised them somewhat. Inside the town hall wasn’t an army of any sort. Only one pegasus stood before them. That pegasus Airheart recognized as none other than Rainbow Dash. She was wearing a pair of goggles, just like everypony else. “Hey you guys finally made it,” the colorful mare said from her perch at the balcony, “It’s about time.”
Airheart stared blankly at Rainbow Dash as she floated down to the town hall floor and set her companion down. She looked like the same Rainbow Dash that Airheart remembered. The only thing new about her was the lightning bolt necklace around her neck. “Rainbow Dash what are you doing here?” Airheart asked. She was mostly thinking out loud, but it was a question that needed asking.
Unfortunately, before she could get her answer Airheart was grabbed from behind, and her mouth was covered by a yellow hoof. She immediately knew who it belonged to, even before her captor spoke. “Sorry dear,” Strawberry chuckled, “It’s not my fault you wouldn’t listen to reason.”
Airheart would have moved to struggle, but before she could even try she heard a loud twang come from her bag. Airheart wasn’t terribly surprised when Strawberry’s hooves began to fade away, but she was disturbed. There was no way that a bolt from her saddlebag could only have severed Strawberry’s goggles.
“Airheart help!” Lightning Flash shouted from across the room. Before Airheart could fall into her newest existential crisis, she turned her attention back to the unicorn. Lightning Flash was locked in a struggle with Rainbow Dash, and he was losing badly. Rainbow Dash had lifted him into the air and was doing her best to throw him into one of the nearby storm clouds. The only thing that was keeping her from picking up speed and breaking the unicorn’s grip was Lightning’s constant barrage of crossbow bolts. Airheart wasn’t sure how many of those he had, but she knew that they probably wouldn’t last him much longer.
Airheart steeled herself again and charged the enemy. Rather than attack Rainbow Dash though, a fight she was fairly certain she’d lose, Airheart aimed straight for Lightning Flash. Catching the unicorn wasn’t difficult; Rainbow Dash wasn’t expecting another pegasus to intervene. However, once Airheart had managed to get a good grip on Lightning Flash, she was completely unsure where to go from there.
Airheart hovered for a moment to look for an exit. Unfortunately for her, and Lightning Flash, a moment’s hesitation was all Rainbow Dash needed to regain her advantage. With a single punch, the colorful pegasus sent Airheart and Lightning Flash crashing through the wall of the building. Somehow Airheart managed to keep her grip on the unicorn the whole time. Perhaps the shock causing her muscles to seize up actually helped.
Airheart managed to recover just in time to avoid striking another storm cloud, but not in time to avoid another strike from Rainbow Dash. This time the pegasus was unable to hold her grip on Lightning Flash, but that was mostly because she didn’t intend to. Rainbow Dash had sent Airheart rocketing into the air with this latest punch, so she was happy that he was now relatively safe on the ground.
Of course, once Airheart managed to recover, she saw that relatively safety was still hardly safe. A good distance below her Lightning Flash was now locked in a battle with two pegasi, and she still had his weapon.
“Stop right there Airheart,” Airheart paused just short of throwing the crossbow to her companion upon hearing Rainbow Dash. When Airheart glanced back upwards she saw that the pegasus was floating in front of her, her hooves raised in a gesture of good will. “We don’t need to hurt eachother,” she said.
Airheart paused and lowered the crossbow. She took another glance downward before answering. “Then why are you and your friends attacking us?” Airheart shot the mare across from her a glare when she’d finished.
“Let me rephrase that,” Rainbow Dash said with a wave of her hoof. “You and I don’t need to hurt eachother. That guy down there; he needs to die.”
Airheart shook her head and glanced down again. This time for another reason though. Just as she’d suspected, Lightning Flash’s crossbow was still loaded. There were two bolts left. She made sure to take a look at the unicorn himself as well of course. He was holding up well.
“Why does he have to die?” Airheart demanded as she watched the fight below her and quietly searched for the crossbow’s trigger.
“I’m not gonna lie, I don’t really know.” Confused, Airheart glanced back at Rainbow Dash. She was shrugging. “All I know for sure is that the princess said that he’s responsible for this whole situation.” Again Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Well him and five other ponies anyway.”
“How is that possible?” Airheart asked. Her grip of the crossbow loosened slightly, and she took another glance at Lightning Flash.
“Don’t ask me. I’m just here to clean up the mess.”
“No,” Airheart interrupted, “How is it possible for the princess to tell you this.” Airheart looked back up at Rainbow Dash. She wasn’t speaking. In fact she seemed confused by the question. Airheart tightened her grip on the bow, and slowly moved it upward. Rainbow Dash was too busy shaking her head to notice.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Rainbow Dash mumbled once she finally calmed down. Her hooves were rubbing her head though. “When did Twilight tell me?” Airheart had a clear shot now, but she hesitated. Rainbow Dash seemed sincerely confused and worried. Maybe she could still be reasoned with.
“Tell them to stop, Rainbow Dash,” Airheart said with a nod downward. Rainbow Dash responded by lowering her arms. At first Airheart assumed she was doing it in capitulation; then she noticed that Rainbow Dash’s goggles had fogged up.
Airheart was confused before the pegasus charged her. Luckily she still had the bow at the ready. It only took one hit to crack the lenses and cause Rainbow Dash to fade away, but Airheart had to fire both bolts in order to score that hit. Once she did though, she was sure it was over. She caught both the necklace and the broken goggles as they continued to fly towards her. Rainbow Dash, or what was left of her anyway, simply passed through.
Airheart began to cry again as she gripped the accessories. “Strawberry Sunrise: yellow pegasus, pink mane, strawberry mark,” she thought aloud. She didn’t get to Rainbow Dash though. Before she could she saw a new threat looming in the distance. It was too far away to make out, but it was clearly very large.
Airheart calmed herself down and flew back to Lightning Flash. The unicorn was a tired mess now, but he was alive. Both of the other pegasi were gone now. Either they’d vanished along with Rainbow Dash, or Lightning Flash had taken them out himself. Airheart honestly wasn’t sure which was more likely but it didn’t matter.
After a moment Lighting Strike turned up to Airheart and raised a hoof. “Not yet Airheart,” he said, “Take off the goggles first.” The expression he wore was not one of pride, but worry. Airheart noticed he had a few crossbow bolts left, and all of them were pointed at her.
Airheart quietly nodded and felt the tears take over again. She had wondered why the crossbow was put in her bag. There was no way that Lightning Flash could have predicted that Strawberry would grab her in just the right way. Silently, Airheart dropped the bow and lifted her goggles off with her now free hoof. Once she had, Lightning Flash sheathed his bolts and his bow with a smile on his face.
“Nice work out there,” Lightning Flash commented. The prideful smile was back. “So did you learn anything when you were up there talking with their leader?”
Airheart shook her head and put her goggles back. “The only thing I learned is that she wasn’t really their leader.” Airheart tearfully glanced to the pendant. Rainbow Dash had been controlled somehow, but not as strongly. She couldn’t help but wonder if this thing had something to do with it.
“Is that thing important?” Lightning Flash asked.
Airheart nodded. “I’m not sure how, but yeah. I think so.”
As soon as Airheart nodded the necklace floated out of her hoof and wrapped itself around Lightning Flash’s neck. “I think I’d better watch this one. I have a feeling you’ve already got your hooves full with the goggles after all.” Airheart stare at him blankly for just a moment. Then she nodded and threw Rainbow Dash’s goggles over her head. She didn’t want to risk upsetting Lightning now that she knew how willing he was to kill her. She did start to cry again though. She had never been a very good actor.
Lightning didn’t notice however. In fact Airheart herself hardly noticed. Both of them were suddenly distracted by a loud bellow the came from above them. When Ariheart looked up, she saw an actual hippogryph flying towards them. She suddenly remembered the shadow from earlier. That it might be something like this had never even crossed her mind. “Wha,” Lightning uttered as the beast approached.
Their confusion only grew once the hippogryph flew closer. This was primarily because the creature didn’t appear to be hostile, then it was because the creature appeared to be coming in for a gentle landing, and finally it reached its peak when Airheart and Lightning spotted the pair of ponies sitting on the beast’s back.
“See lazy, I told you I saw some ponies flying around over here,” one of the ponies said. This one was a mare that Airheart had never seen before; an earth pony with a white coat and a red mane. Somehow this made the fact that she was riding a hippogryph even more confusing.
The lazy she referred to was somepony Airheart did recognize however. His name was Spectrum, he worked at the weather factory, and he seemed strangely nonchalant from his seat on the flying hippo. He did show a reaction once he saw Airheart however. “It’s good to see that somepony else is still alive,” he said. It wasn’t much, but at least it confirmed that he wasn’t sleeping.
“We were just about to head to that castle in the distance before we saw you guys,” the mare spoke up again. “If you and your coltfriend want, I think Hipster’s got a little extra room.” The mare smiled the entire time she spoke. She struck Airheart as strangely happy, considering the situation they were in. As a result the pegasus was hesitant to approach.
Lightning on the other hoof approached gladly and hopped onto the back of the hippogryph instantly. Airheart thought this was a touch strange for him, until she realized where he’d chosen to seat himself. He was about one pony’s length from Spectrum, who sat behind the mare. “Don’t worry, Airheart, they won’t hurt us,” the unicorn said with a prideful smile.
Airheart nodded and floated up to take a seat on the beast, making sure to squeeze herself between Spectrum and this new mare. “Thank you very much,” she said.
“Ah it’s no problem,” the mare responded. Then with another roar the hippogryph took off. “I’m Stinger by the way.” Stinger flourish her right hoof as she spoke, revealing a bracelets that seemed to match her name.
“I’m Airheart,” Airheart responded. “And that guy in the back is Lightning.” Stinger smiled back to Airheart for a moment before turning away. It was the most normal smile she’d seen that whole day. “By the way,” Airheart decided to finish before she started tearing up again, “He’s not my coltfriend."
Twinkleshine bit half-heartedly into her lily sandwich while Wisp told his story. She was feeling better, but she didn’t feel like she could stomach much after her recovery. She actually found it strange that she was feeling so well after what she’d been through. She hadn’t even passed out. She had just sort of recovered.
“And that’s about it,” Wisp said. This was Twinkles cue. She finished her bite and flashed the stallion seated across from her a smile.
“That was a lovely story,” Twinkle said, “It’s good to know that Dew Drop and I aren’t the only ponies who’ve had to deal with a bit of…excitement today.”
Wisp nodded and turned to face the other pony seated in the car. Twinkle followed along. Dew Drop had spent the entirety of Wisp’s story staring at the remains of the necklace that Twinkle had managed to grab, and, if Aces Low was to be believed, she had spent a good portion of Twinkle’s struggle with semi-consciousness dwelling on it as well.
“So what did you think of the story, Miss Drop?” Wisp asked after a moment of silence.
“Oh it was just fine,” Dew Drop responded without ever glancing at the stallion. After another moment of silence she did deign to look up, but to face Twinkleshine rather than Wisp. “Twinkle,” she said, “Are you feeling okay now?”
Twinkle put on her calming smile and nodded. “I’m feeling much better after the sandwich. Thank you for asking, dear.”
Dew Drop shook her head and turned back to the in her hooves. “I was just asking because I needed to talk to you about something.” The pegasus took a deep breath and turned back to Twinkle. “Why did you risk your life for this thing?” she asked.
Twinkle didn’t have an answer. Saying it was a feeling would just make her sound stupid after all. Luckily for her, she wasn’t required to give one. Wisp did that for her. “You had a feeling about a gem too huh?” he said, prompting both of the mares to take a look in his direction. “What,” he asked perplexedly, “I told you two the story right? Did you think I did that for laughs?”
Twinkle smiled cheerfully. She was happy that somepony else had said it, now he was the idiot. Dew Drop meanwhile turned her attention back to the gem. “So you had a feeling about this thing, Twinkle?” she asked.
Twinkle felt her smile falter somewhat, albeit briefly. “Yes, dear, I did,” she responded with a sigh before turning back to Dew and smiling once more. By the time she had turned back to face Dew again, the pegasus had already begun wrapping the gem into her mane.
“Does it look okay,” Dew Drop asked once shed finished. “I saw that Ace was wearing his gem, so I thought maybe I should put this one on.”
“Turn to face me,” Twinkle responded. Dew Drop did so hesitantly, and Twinkle found her smile widen a touch when she realized that the pegasus was blushing. “You look lovely, dear.” Twinkle said after a moment. Rather than smile Dew just turned away.
“I think it looks nice too,” Wisp commented, prompting Dew Drop to turn away from him as well. This left the pegasus with nowhere to look but out the window. Both Wisp and Twinkle shook their heads. Twinkle would have sworn that Dew Drop was actually afraid to smile at them.
Twinkle simply sighed and got back to her sandwich after that. Wisp, however, was not content to let the time slip by in silence. “So,” the stallion said, “What did you do before all this happened,” he asked the unicorn across from him.
Twinkle took her sweet time chewing on her latest bite before answering. “I’m an actress,” she responded, “I was doing a show in Dew Drop’s town before it happened.”
“Did you at get to finish your show?” Wisp asked. Twinkle nodded after taking another bite of her sandwich. “I’m glad to hear it.” Wisp said enthusiastically, “Low and I weren’t as lucky. Both of us managed to miss out on a pretty big shot.”
Twinkle smiled and nodded but didn’t speak further. She still didn’t feel like she was much up for conversation. Wisp’s story had given her time mostly to calm herself down. Now she wanted a little more time to think about the incident that had occurred before she and Dew had arrived on the train. Wisp didn’t notice as long as she nodded along. Right now he was talking about some big race, Twinkle figured that would buy her quite a bit of time.
Sadly she was wrong about that. Before Wisp could even get past what Twinkle liked to call the “And there I was,” portion of his story, the train shook violently and Dew Drop leapt out of her seat. Twinkle and Wisp were more unceremoniously forced out of their seats. When Twinkle managed to pull herself up and pluck the lettuce out of her hair, she found herself looking at a very shocked Dew Drop.
“I think we just hit a hippogryph,” the pegasus mumbled.
“Bucking hay,” Spectrum cursed as he rolled to a stand amongst the scattered planks. “Is everypony okay?” he asked. When the pegasus got no response. He wiped the quasi-sleep from his eyes and took a look around. Bee Bee and Airheart were waving at something in the distance, he assumed it must have been Hipster, but he couldn’t see Lightning anywhere. Eventually though he spotted a hoof sticking out of the planks.
With a sigh Spectrum approached the hoof and jerked it out of the pile. Sure enough, Lightning was attached to it. And he was clearly very annoyed. “Does Stinger listen to anything that other ponies say?” he asked as he climbed out. Spectrum was actually a bit frightened by the glare he was shooting the white mare. Although his fear was quelled somewhat by the knowledge that Stinger did deserve it.
“She listened to Airheart,” Spectrum responded. He turned his own glare to the pair. It was mostly aimed at Stinger, but he had to admit that he didn’t particularly like Airheart at this point either. “I’m surprised. I didn’t think she even cared about Hipster until that pegasus brought it up.”
“Hey what pony wouldn’t prefer a train to a hippogryph,” Stinger responded without looking back. “Hipster was starting to smell pretty awful after all.” The mare laughed and turned back to Spectrum after one last wave. Airheart turned along with her, but she seemed much less cheerful about Stinger’s little joke.
“I’m fine with that,” Lightning responded, his glare still aimed right at Bee Bee, “But can you explain why we had to crash into the train when we have two perfectly good pegasi with us?”
“I’ll have you know that even two perfectly good pegasi can’t always keep up with a train.” Stinger responded. She wasn’t even vaguely fazed by the glare. “Besides, these two pegasi aren’t perfectly good.” She made sure to emphasize her point by gesturing toward Spectrum. She was completely unfazed by his glare as well, so he stopped wasting his energy on it.
“I actually could have caught up with-” Airheart tried to interject, but was interrupted by a hoof to the mouth courtesy of Stinger.
After that, Stinger gave Airheart a playful wink, and said, “Quiet Airheart. Mommy and Daddy are talking.”
After taking another glance at Lightning and seeing that his glare had only gotten more frightening, Spectrum decided to take a step back. He wasn’t sure if the pair would actually break into a fight, but he was sure that it would cause a lot of damage if they did. Spectrum didn’t really know much about how Lightning fought, but he was sure that Stinger couldn’t fight in any other way.
Thankfully the fight never ended up breaking out. It probably came closer than anypony, save maybe Stinger, wanted, but before any blows could be exchanged the group’s attention was distracted by a newcomer from the next car over. He was an off-white sort of earth pony with a spikey blue mane. Spectrum couldn’t help but feel that if a fight did break out this guy would put a stop to it.
“Alright,” the stallion said with a surprising calm, “It’s good to see that it’s just some other ponies here. I was worried that we were being attacked for a second there.” With that the stallion let out an exaggerated sigh and turned back to the car he’d just left. “If you guys just follow me, I’ll get you up to speed, and you can explain what’s going on to the other passengers.”
Spectrum took a look at Airheart and Stinger as the stallion finished and trotted into the next car. Stinger was already moving in without a care in the world. Airheart was hesitant, but after receiving a nod of approval from Spectrum they were both able to head inside. Airheart took the lead again, and Spectrum could hear Lightning trotting from behind him. Now that he was up again it finally struck him how odd this group must look. Silently, he prayed that the other passengers were a bit less atypical.
Caesar took a seat on a bench and looked over the empty city. This was the first time he’d rested since this whole thing had started. He had been walking for hours now, and he was finally tired. With a sigh, Caesar laid down on the bench and stared into the sky. “It’s strangely relaxing,” he mumbled.
The sky was still gray and completely devoid of both life and motion. After the day to day grind and noise that Caesar had to deal with in Manehattan life, he had to admit that the silence was restful. After closing his eyes and finally letting himself relax, Caesar couldn’t help but laugh. “Acceptance” he sighed. He hadn’t expected to make it to this stage. Frankly he’d hoped he wouldn’t get past bartering.
It wasn’t long after Caesar closed his eyes that he realized he wasn’t actually sleepy. With another sigh the stallion’s eyes opened back to the empty sky. “I guess I’m not done yet then,” he said. Caesar took a deep breath and climbed out of the bench. Caesar shook his head, straightened his top-hat and cravat, and placed his monocle back in its proper place in front of his right eye.
With that done Caesar moved on to the next building, a high-rise apartment building just opposite the park. He stopped just short of throwing the door open though. Caesar sighed as he rested his shaky hoof against the door. “And here I thought I had just had an epiphany,” he mumbled as he gently pushed it open.
Caesar shook his head closed his eyes as he entered the building. After trotting a short way in and not hitting anything, he decided to open them again. It was just as the stallion had suspected. Nothing was left in the building. It was just another sickening empty room. The only thing that remained was the floor and four walls. Still, there was some hope left. Calmly, Caesar lifted his head and glanced upwards. Again there was nothing but a ceiling far up and away from him. Not even the separate floors remained in the building.
Caesar sighed and trotted back outside. He couldn’t say he was surprised by the sight, after all he had seen the same thing in at least a dozen other buildings. He was annoyed by the fact that it still bothered him though. In fact Caesar was so annoyed that he felt like giving the door a nice solid kick back into place as he walked out.
“I guess I’m back to anger,” the stallion grunted before moving on.
Caesar didn’t even bother to check the next building he trotted by. At this point, he decided that if anypony was still alive, they would be outside. In the end it was still the survivors he cared about after all. One other living and thinking pony was all he needed to make sure that this wasn’t some sick twisted nightmare.
Caesar paused after a few short minutes of this particularly angry trotting. The situation was getting to him, but that didn’t mean he should lose his cool. Caesar took a few deep breaths and decided to figure out where he was now. Somehow during his little tirade he’d ended managed to make it to Cleveland Street in the shopping district of the city. This was quite a ways from the uptown apartments where he had started, but then again those uptown apartments were quite a ways from the bar downtown where he’d been when the whole city was mysteriously emptied. Caesar noted that he was able to move quite far when he was angry.
Of course, Caesar was still angry, he’d just decided to go about it more calmly at the moment. The stallion steadied his hooves and cleared his throat in preparation for a nice big scream. That was one of the few things about the city being empty, nopony could her you cuss.
Caesar shouted as loudly as he could manage. It was wonderfully cathartic, and strangely more energizing than his short rest on the bench had been. Horse Apples was his favorite curse, and he did so rarely get to use it. “Thank Celestia for small comforts,” he said once he’d finished.
With that finished Caesar was free to compose himself and continue his search for other survivors. This marked the first time he ever felt happy to be looking for something on Cleveland Street. Typically he’d have to meticulously investigate each store in order to find something. That was the only way to shop for jewelry after all.
Today though, for once, it was actually easy to see whether or not there was something of interest in a store. The large windows that these stores used to draw in their customers were serving the direct opposite of their intended purpose today. Caesar couldn’t help but find it somewhat humorous that they were more useful in doing so. It was hardly funny enough to cheer him up, but since he’d already released his anger it was enough for him to crack a smile.
Caesar’s smile didn’t get to last long though. It was replaced by a look of shock not more than two building’s later. In fact, Caesar was so surprised to see another pony actually inside one of the stores that he didn’t stop trotting for a short time. In the end, he actually had to turn back around to make sure what he saw wasn’t just a figment of his imagination. Caesar had already dealt with one of those, and he wasn’t eager to deal with that kind of disappointment again.
Sure enough though, there was indeed a stallion standing in the shop; a pegasus stallion to be precise. More to point, the stallion appeared to be looting the store. Caesar gave his monocle a quick clean in order to make sure he was still seeing clearly. The stallion was still there, standing in the middle of what appeared to be an entire building made of glass.
Caesar calmed himself down again and cleared his head. This was not the time to gawk at what he was seeing. He had to figure out what he was watching quickly, and then he could react in whatever way he felt was appropriate.
Caesar recognized the store. It was a jewelry store known as The Glass House. Supposedly it was excellent, but he himself had never shopped there. The idea of a store made entirely of glass always struck him as just a touch too odd.
Caesar did not recognize the stallion. Though the cutie mark, three shimmering white gems, did strike him as familiar, the stallion’s other features were entirely foreign. Admittedly, Caesar could be forgiven for simply forgetting a pegasus with a golden coat, but he was positive he would have remembered this character’s peculiar mane and tail. Not only was the hair tied into dreadlocks, a style he had never actually seen before in real life, but it was died a mixture of silver, black, copper, and gold. That was far too bizarre a style to forget easily.
So, the situation as Caesar figured it, once he got past the stallion’s absurd mane and the store’s absurd concept, was that a mysterious stallion that he didn’t recognize was robbing a store he’d never been to. Were this any other day, Caesar would have simply walked away from this scene, and perhaps called the police. Unfortunately, today that was not an option.
The bell rang when Caesar entered the door. This of course caused the robber to jump for fear that he had been caught. Of course like any true robber, the stallion wasn’t going to admit his guilt freely. He managed to toss most of his ill-gotten jewelry over the counter as he turned around to face Caesar. He only managed to drop a single item. “Hello sir, how may I help you today,” the stallion said once he’d finished. It wasn’t even a mildly convincing lie, but Caesar had to give the colt credit for trying.
Rather than out him up front, Caesar chose to show his good will with a joke. “You know that would look terrible on you,” he said with a nod toward the spilled items. The young stallion responded by focusing on the fallen tiara; a lovely piece decorated with baby blue sapphires.
“You want it?” he asked, “I’d be willing to let it go for the low low price of your word.” He winked once he’d finished, as if Caesar might have misunderstood him.
“You are aware that we’re the only ponies here aren’t you?” Caesar questioned. His tone hadn’t exactly been cheerful even when he was telling the joke, but now it was most definitely serious.
“It won’t be like that forever,” the stallion responded with another wink while slyly kicking the tiara towards Caesar. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spoil this opportunity for me.”
Caesar nodded, but kicked the tiara back. “That’s very generous of you, but I don’t particularly need a tiara right now.” The stallion glanced from the tiara and back to Caesar with a look of pure confusion. It was as if he actually couldn’t understand what had just happened. “I could use your cooperation though.”
The stallion’s confusion faded somewhat and he nodded. He didn’t speak again until he’d retrieved his sack from behind the counter and tossed it onto his back. After that he began moving towards the door. Caesar moved to block him before he could make it out of course. He had no intention of letting the colt leave without a guarantee. The colt, seeing this, spoke up once more. “Don’t worry sir, I’ll help you out,” he said, “You just need a ride to the castle right?”
Caesar shook his head. “If I’d intended to see the princess by now, I already would have.” The pegasus responded with a nod before trying to push his way out again. Once more Caesar kept the door blocked. “I need you to help me search the city,” he continued, “There may be other survivors still out there.”
This actually made the young stallion pause. For a moment Caesar was convinced that he had finally gotten the colt to listen to him. Then he was struck by the look of pity on the colt’s face. “There’s nopony out there, sir,” he said, his cheerful tone in direct contrast to his expression. ”Loosen up a bit.”
“What are you talking about?”
The pegasus attempted to maneuver around Caesar once more; again with no success. “Well sir,” he continued, “As far as I’ve seen we have the city too ourselves. Why not take advantage?” The stallion smiled. “Break something, rob a store, curse into the sky; now’s the time to do it.”
Caesar was actually thrown for a moment when he stallion finished. This momentary lapse in attention lasted just long enough for the other stallion to edge his way through the door. The bell jolted his attention back just in time to catch the colt before he left. Caesar did so by not so subtly jerking the stallion’s overloaded robber sack to the floor.
In immediate defense of his now spilled jewelry, the pegasus dove for the bag instantly after hearing it hit the ground. Caesar had to admit it felt incredibly satisfying to regain his advantage so easily. Interestingly the young stallion didn’t even seem angry once he had gathered up the gems once more. The expression he wore was one more reminiscent of annoyance than anything else, and when he spoke again he almost sounded respectful. “Alright old man,” ‘almost’ was the key, “What’ll it take for you to leave me be?”
Caesar actually smiled. “Victory,” he thought. “Well to begin,” he began while extending a hoof the still prone pony, “I’d like to know your name.”
The colt didn’t grab the hoof right away. He was busy slinging the sack of goods back onto his back. It was only once he’d finished that he did grab Caesar’s hoof, but only to give it a shake. “I’m Goldstone,” he said, “Does that mean I can go now?” Caesar shook his head. “I figured as much.”
“I suspect that we still have quite a bit of city to cover,” Caesar said as he dragged Goldstone out of the store. The pegasus didn’t exactly struggle, but he was clearly walking more slowly than necessary. Part of this may have been attributable to the heavy bag he was carrying, but Caesar personally figured that he was simply being uncooperative. “About how much have you seen.”
Caesar waited a fair bit longer than should have been necessary for Goldstone to respond. Feeling annoyed by the combination of both this waste of time and the stallion’s slow pace, Caesar elected to give Goldstone one of his less aggressive glares; a simple, ‘I’m in charge here,’ sort of look. When he did so he found that Goldstone appeared to be lost in thought over the golden wreath mark on his flank. “Goldstone,” Caesar said firmly, hoping to draw the pegasus’s attention to his glare rather than his rear.
“Oh, yeah sir?” Goldstone questioned, while he shifted his gaze away from Caesar’s cutie mark. Upon seeing Caesar’s stare he pulled back a bit. Of course, Caesar wasn’t letting go of the colt’s hoof, so the movement was completely ineffective. “Umm…I haven’t checked out much of uptown yet,” he said nervously. “Say you wouldn’t happen to know anything about the mansion district would you?”
Caesar quickly glanced from Goldstone’s face to the stolen jewels he was carrying and shook his head. He had no intention of telling a jewel thief that he owned a home in that particular district. Although he had little doubt that Goldstone already knew. “I haven’t checked there yet,” he said.
“Well I did, but all of the doors were locked,” Goldstone continued, “And you know how those rich folk don’t like to talk to salesponies right?” Caesar sighed and got back to walking. Goldstone was now following enthusiastically. “You know I bet you could probably get them to open their doors.”
Goldstone’s motives were hardly what Caesar could call hidden. However, he did have to admit that the mansion district was a good place to look for survivors. And he did know a few ponies living there that wouldn’t open their doors for anyone of less stature than them. If they hadn’t gone out today, it was entirely possible that they could still be in their homes. “I doubt that they wouldn’t have noticed by now though,” he said, “But I suppose it’s worth a look.”
“Worst case scenario we can stop by your place while we’re there,” Goldstone added cheerfully as he increased his pace. Now Caesar was the one moving slowly.
“You could at least pretend you were looking for survivors,” Caesar grumbled as he picked up his own pace. Then it suddenly struck him. All of the mansions down in Neighverly Hills had very large windows, and all of the ponies he knew that locked themselves in were notorious for watching the neighborhood. “Hold on just a moment,” he said, suddenly jerking to a stop.
Goldstone, clearly not expecting this abrupt halt, ended up tumbling forward quite hilariously. Caesar managed to loosen his grip just in time to avoid going down with him. Caesar actually had to strain to keep the serious expression on his face afterward. He even had to clear his throat before speaking to make sure his question was taken seriously.
“Ahem,” Caesar coughed as he extended his hoof to help the fallen colt up. Goldstone didn’t take it. A few jewels had spilled and he was too busy gathering them to pay much attention. Caesar chose to continue nonetheless. “Did you happen to see anypony in the mansion windows?” he asked accusatorily.
Goldstone chuckled a touch as he picked up the last jewel and tossed it back into his bag. “I can’t say I ever looked, sir,” he said. It was like he wasn’t even trying to lie.
Caesar nodded. “On second thought, the slums are slightly closer to here.” This was an outright lie of course, but the point was made. He still needed to check the slums anyway. A lot of ponies were likely to be there after all. At least if there were any left.
Goldstone pushed himself to a stand and followed along begrudgingly. “Okay,” he mumbled, “But we’re going to hit the mansion district right after right?” Caesar sighed in response, but nodded. He had honestly expected more of an argument, so a bit of begrudging acceptance was actually quite welcome.
In the end though, the pair never made it to the slums. They didn’t even make it to the end of Cleveland Street before something prompted Caesar to abruptly change direction. That something was a loud train whistle.
“Then again,” Caesar said as he quickly turned down a different street, “The train station is even closer.”
Goldstone sighed and followed along. “You’re never going to take me to your house are you?” Caesar didn’t respond, but the smile on his face was, for once, quite telling.
The only thing Caesar found himself thinking about as he trotted toward the station was whether or not he’d work with a train robber.
“So where do you guys think we are?” Wisp asked as he stepped out of the train. It was a truly pathetic attempt to quell the argument ensuing inside of the train, but if nothing else it helped him get away from it. Wisp stared back into the car with a blatantly forced on smile. Nopony was listening to him unfortunately.
Well that wasn’t entirely true. At least Airheart seemed to have gotten the idea. Then again, when she walked out of her own volition without even giving him a look, Wisp couldn’t help but feel they’d merely gotten the same idea at the same time. “I think we’re in Manehattan,” she said loudly and without the slightest hint of subtlety; after which she turned around to get a look at her fellow passengers. Only Stinger seemed to be paying them any attention, and she was too busy joyously watching the argument to do more than wave.
“So what you’re telling me is that you’re just completely incompetent!” That was Lightning Flash doing the shouting, as he had been since the group had accidentally passed Canterlot. Aces Low was sitting quietly against the assault, although it was clear he was close to breaking. Wisp still had trouble reading him, but the grimace on his face could only be worn from somepony who was desperately trying not to punch somepony else.
“He did stop us before we crashed,” Dew Drop interrupted from behind Lightning. For her part, she had been doing her best to try and calm the enraged stallion. Thus far her attempts had failed quite miserably, and it appeared to be getting to her. For his own part, Spectrum was desperately trying to persuade Dew to stop trying before she started crying.
Twinkleshine was the only one who seemed to be completely ignoring the argument altogether. Like Wisp and Airheart before her she had wandered out of the car as soon as the train had stopped, but unlike them she didn’t bother to try and calm the rest of the group through distraction. It was clear that she was too distracted by the city herself to bother trying.
Here was where Wisp and Airheart’s intentions split. The pegasus ended up trotting back into the train in a hopeful attempt to try once more to stop the shouting. Wisp meanwhile chose to turn his attention to Twinkle. She was smiling as usual, but this time it was strange. It wasn’t like any smile Wisp had ever seen. The grin seemed hopeful, but Wisp could swear that he saw tears in the mare’s eyes. Happy tears just didn’t strike him as fitting for her. “There’s so much here,” she mumbled. Wisp guessed that confirmed the hopeful bit.
He started to trot towards Twinkle with the hope of asking what she meant, but before he could he was distracted by a new voice finally throwing itself into the argument. “Did it ever occur to you that I might have inadvertently done something good for us?!” he heard Low shout. Wisp almost instantly forgot Twinkle when he turned his attention back to the fight.
Low was the angriest Wisp had ever seen him. He sounded even angrier then when that tree was trying to blow them both up. Airheart had now actually been forced to step between Low and Lightning in an attempt to keep them apart. Suddenly Wisp felt genuinely worried that a fight might break out, and he wasn’t sure how things would end up if they had to deal with Lightning Flash’s crossbow.
Thankfully it never came to that. Apparently seeing Low break down was finally too much for Dew Drop, and she had to get in her own shout. “Just stop,” the pegasus cried with a shocking amount of authority. Everypony in the group actually paused what they were doing to stare at her with a look that could only be described as awe. The only exceptions were Twinkle, who seemed distinctly unsurprised, and Stinger, who seemed disturbingly happy about the latest bit of drama.
Dew Drop had finally broken down and started crying when she’d yelled. However her voice was clearer than when she had been holding back the tears. “This fighting is pointless,” she said, still speaking with a bizarre level of authority that was somehow not undermined by the tears running down her face, “Blaming Low won’t get us anywhere, Lightning.”
Lightning’s look of shock left almost immediately in favor of a glare. It didn’t last long against Dew Drop’s own tearful stare however, and the unicorn backed down quickly in favor of moving to the engine. “I’ll get this thing moving again,” he complained as he left the car. Low and Stinger watched with smiles on their faces as Lightning trotted off in a huff.
“Now that that’s over,” Dew continued, “Can you please explain what happened Low?” The authority had worn away. Now she just seemed sad.
Feeling that this might be a problem, Wisp stepped in to take over before Low could answer. “Yeah Low,” he said as he trotted back into the car, “Why did you overshoot. We were aiming for the castle. Manehattan’s pretty far from Canterlot.”
“Hey look who finally decided to step in now that Little Miss Teardrop took care of things. He’s really a knight in shining armor isn’t he, Dew?” Wisp didn’t turn to look at the mare that was speaking. He didn’t know much about Stinger, but Spectrum had warned him not to pay her too much attention when she got like this. She just wanted to start another argument.
Rather than pay her any mind, Wisp continued to focus his gaze on Low. He had intended for it to be an unassuming look, but Stinger’s insults did make him grimace a touch. To Low it probably looked like Wisp was angry at him. Thankfully, either Low had figured as much, or he simply didn’t care what Wisp thought of him. For after taking a moment’s pause to wipe the prideful smile from his face, he responded.
“It’s really a simple problem,” Low began, “Ya’ see when we were approachin’ the castle, the brake lever jammed, and in the end I broke it while tryin’ to force it back.” Low presented the group with a large metal rod that he had been keeping behind his back. “I was goin’ to explain as much before that big galoot assaulted me.” Wisp stared at the rod for a moment. He was pretty sure it was the brake handle. “Thanks to that, I was barely able to stop the thing by the time we got here.”
“Okay I guess that makes sense,” Spectrum commented calmly as he trotted in front of Wisp, “But can you explain why you locked us out of the engine?”
Low blushed and scratched his back before speaking up again. “Well ya’ see…I didn’t want anypony to bother me while I was workin’ the engine. It’s complicated work ya’ know.” Most of the group stared in disbelief at the sheer idiocy of that statement.
Spectrum however seemed satisfied. Without another word, he picked up the lever and trotted to the engine. This prompted a few more confused looks from group. It wasn’t the action that was odd; it was the sheer nonchalance with which he did it. “Boring as ever,” Stinger commented from her place to the side.
“Maybe you should go help,” Wisp commented after Spectrum had shut the door behind him. He was referring to Low of course, but his gaze, along with most of the group’s, was focused on the door.
“I doubt that would be a good idea,” Airheart retorted. The train whistle bellowed suddenly after she finished speaking.
Suddenly worried, Wisp dashed for the door. However the moment after he opened it, he saw Spectrum trotting back towards their cabin, dusty but unharmed. “I think he’d prefer to work alone,” the pegasus commented as he trotted straight past Wisp and took a seat once more.
“What are you guy’s doing in here?” Wisp turned away from the nonchalant stallion to see a much more expressive mare standing at the door. “I was almost into the main city when I heard the whistle. Why didn’t anypony come with me?” For once Twinkle wasn’t smiling. She seemed weirdly serious.
“Sorry things were pretty hectic in here,” Stinger responded as she moved to join Twinkle at the door. “You can’t just leave a scene like that alone.” The mare chuckled as she trotted straight past Twinkle and into the city.
Wisp took a glance around the cabin. Things were calm now, so most of the inhabitants were exchanging glances, Twinkle included. Wisp noticed she was smiling again. It was pretty clear she was excited. Most of the other ponies seemed to be sharing nervous glances; Airheart with Spectrum, Dew Drop with Low, and Low with Wisp.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t leave you guys here,” Spectrum said to Airheart. Everypony else of course looked straight back to him, but his eyes didn’t veer from his fellow pegasus. “I promise.”
Wisp turned back to Airheart. She was crying, but with a smile on her face. Wisp was confused again. Why couldn’t any of the mares on the train cry normally? “Thanks,” Airheart responded as she wiped her face and turned to the rest of the group. “We probably should look around,” she said, her eyes resting on Twinkle, “If the whole city’s this intact we might run into some survivors.”
Low chuckled. “I guess my screw up might’ve been good for somepony after all,” he said. With that the stallion trotted out of the car. Twinkle joined him, and soon so did everypony else; save Spectrum of course.
Once they were all out of the train, they saw Stinger not far ahead juggling a few rocks. “Well if everypony’s coming we need to choose teams,” she said with devilish smirk. It was obvious that she had been suspecting this, but Wisp wasn’t entirely sure how the rocks were going to help them decide teams.
“You know we have straw back in the train,” Wisp commented.
“Yeah, but that wouldn’t be as much fun,” Stinger smirked as she tossed one of the pebbles into the air. It was only when Wisp heard another pebble hit the ground at his feet that he realized this was only a distraction, and by then it was too late. It took less than a second for one of the heavier rocks to make contact with his snout. “Alright,” Stinger cheered, “Fire boy’s my partner. Who’s next?”
“So why are we looking for strip malls?” Airheart asked as she trotted to catch up with Aces Low. The system that Stinger had come up with was absurd and admittedly painful for the stallions, but Airheart couldn’t complain too much after being given the opportunity to choose who she worked with. Aces Low may not have been her first choice, but at least he seemed more enthusiastic then either Twinkleshine or Dew Drop.
“I’ve got a good feelin’ that we’ll be able to find somepony there,” Aces Low responded with a charming smile. Airheart liked that smile. Somehow it seemed more honest than Twinkleshine’s, and it wasn’t nearly as disconcerting as Stinger’s. “And hey worst case, we’ve got stores loaded with supplies right?” The stallion finished with a nod in answer to his own question and picked up his pace, forcing Airheart to catch up once more.
By this point the group had all probably wandered a good distance away from the train station. Will O’ Wisp and Twinkleshine had gone off looking for survivors in the northern and southern portions of the city respectively. Airheart and Aces Low had headed straight east after splitting up with the rest of the group.
Airheart personally didn’t know much about Manehattan, but thankfully Aces Low did. He had even come up with a plan on how to proceed through. Airheart wasn’t too surprised. Manehattan struck her as the kind of place for poker players.
The pair walked on in silence for a few moments as Airheart collected her thoughts. Once she’d finished she saw the stallion was smiling patiently as he walked. It took her a moment to realize their pace had slowed. Airheart decided if they were going to move slowly they should at least use the opportunity to talk. “So, Aces Low-“
“Just call me Low, Airheart.”
Airheart nodded. “Right. So Low, how many ponies do you think we’ll find here?” she asked as she turned back to the city. Manehattan was way bigger than Cloudsdale, so it only made sense that there’d be more survivors. Airheart had to admit that the prospect actually frightened her a bit after her last experience. Naturally she was hoping to see more ponies, but that fear was still prominent. As she turned back to face Low, Airheart couldn’t help but wonder if he could tell.
If he did see anything, Low certainly didn’t show it. He simply smiled on ahead as he thought on his number. “I think we’ll see two,” he eventually decided.
“That’s a pretty low number,” Airheart responded. Now her fear showed a touch more clearly, although this was obviously a different fear.
“Don’t ya’ mean, ‘That’s a pretty number, Low.’?” Low responded as he turned to wink back at Airheart. The joke cheered her up enough to smile, but that was all it did. The fear was definitely still there; primarily because they hadn’t seen anypony yet. “It makes sense though doesn’t it?”
Airheart looked back to the road and nodded. “I guess you’re right. Only two have made it from everywhere else after all.”
Low stopped ahead of Airheart. It took her a moment to realize it was because she herself had apparently stopped. Nonetheless Low just looked back at her with that sincere smile of his. “Well look,” he said as he suddenly turned away to look down a nearby street, “I see you found a strip mall. Nice job, Airheart.”
Airheart smiled back as Low trotted down the alleyway, but before she followed she had to wipe a tear away. Suddenly his sincere smile seemed just a touch less sincere, but then again he was using it for good. Airheart only spared something like that a single tear. Anymore might be insulting to the good will behind the lie.
Once she did follow, Airheart saw that she and Low were indeed in front of a strip mall. Airheart counted a total of five stores; a restaurant, a kitchen supply, a jewelry store, and two clothing stores. What struck the mare as odd though was that all of them were empty. Airheart could only tell what they were based on their signs.
“Well I guess that our supply plan’s a bust,” Low joked as he looked through the shops. “Nothin’ left here but a bracelet and some signs.” The stallion sighed as he stopped in front of the jewelry store at the mall’s end.
Airheart took her time as she moved toward the unicorn. She wanted to make sure that what he was saying was true. It was. No window showed anything remaining in the shop from a crumb to a stray thread. When she finally arrived to her place beside Low, she found that the only thing left was single gold chain bracelet with a purple diamond decorating it.
“I wonder why that’s still here,” Low commented as he stared at the gem. After a second he turned to look back at Airheart. “Do you want to grab it, Airheart, or do ya’ want me to get it?”
Airheart didn’t respond as quickly as she might have wanted to. Her thoughts were on the bracelet. It wasn’t identical, but somehow the gem made her think of the necklace from before. The shape and color was different sure, but it still felt just as important, though that may have simply been because it was the only thing still sitting in the store.
Once Airheart’s thoughts were gathered she turned to ask Low if they should grab it. Then she realized that the bracelet didn’t just remind her of Lightning’s necklace. It also reminded her of the broach on Low’s chest, and, now that she thought of it, the bracelet that Stinger had used to torture the hippogryph not very long ago. “Low,” she asked, “Do you think this gem is like the others?”
Low nodded. “I’m sure it is, Airheart.”
“Do you think they’re important?” Low nodded again, but this time he didn’t say anything. He merely opened the door and ushered Airheart in with that smile of his. Aiheart returned the nod and trotted in to grab the bracelet.
“I think ya’ should put it on,” Low commented from his place in the doorway.
Airheart took another look at the bracelet. Unlike what the others were wearing it didn’t exactly match her. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she asked, “What if these things are magical or something?”
Low chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” he said before turning away and trotting back into the street, “Besides we forgot to bring saddlebags, and I can tell ya’ that I’m sure not gonna wear it.”
Airheart chuckled right back at Low while she watched him leave the building. She paused a bit before putting the bracelet, but she eventually did put it on before following the stallion. After nothing happened, she felt confident enough to continue out the door; she also found herself feeling slightly angrier at Lightning, but that was neither here nor there.
Once Airheart did make it out she saw Low seated just in front of the door. Initially she naturally assumed he was waiting for her, but once she got a look at his face this assumption fell apart. Low was gazing distinctly at something in the distance. Upon following his gaze, Airheart saw two ponies approaching them.
“I told ya’ there’d be two,” Low chuckled, before looking back to Airheart. “C’mon Airheart, let’s go and say hello.” With that the stallion trotted toward the pair.
Airheart joined Low instantly, but not without adding a hearty, “Hello,” and a wave as she approached.
The empress was shaking in her sleep. The dreams were still there. Everything else was gone, so that didn’t make any sense. Still they were there.
The dreams were still as vivid as ever too. There was less in them than usual, but they somehow were managing to make even less sense. In her dreams ponies were running around in exploding trains, flying on floating islands, throwing dragons through mountains, and fighting eachother in storms. All of it was just as maddening as it had always been, but just like before she couldn’t manage to wake up.
Things didn’t get much better as the dream progressed either. She had managed to hush away all of the places but the noisy train and the city once her dream characters had left them, but the characters themselves wouldn’t go away.
Things got a little quieter once all of her dream characters got together, but they were still far too loud. Everypony just wouldn’t shut up. Some argued and some talked on peaceful terms, but for the empress it was all still just noise.
Now they were all gathered in the city. It was a quiet city, but one that was still way too bright and annoying. And the characters were still being noisy. However, with all of their noise gathered in one place, the empress became aware of another sound in her dream. It was a loud sound, louder than the characters in fact, but it was hiding below them like the bass in a band.
Suddenly, the empress’s eyes shot open.
As Twinkleshine trotted deeper into the city she found it harder and harder to keep up her enthusiastic smile. They hadn’t seen anypony in the whole city yet. All of the hotels they had checked so far were totally barren. It was as if the city had become nothing but walls. Still she had to keep her grin up, for Dew Drop’s sake.
Dew Drop had managed to break into tears at every building they’d stopped in. Somehow though, their pace hadn’t slowed much since the start. Every time that the pegasus paused to cry all Twinkle had to do was give her a pat on the back and they’d get going again. Dew was moving with that determination of hers constantly now. Perhaps that was because there was always potential to find somepony now.
Dew paused to stop at the next hotel. This one was a nice five-star sort of building. It was a shame that nothing would be left inside of it. “Should we head back after this one?” Twinkle asked the pegasus. This was her third time asking the question. After the first three empty hotels she had already decided this path wasn’t worth pursuing.
Still Dew answered predictably. “No,” she said, simply. Twinkle didn’t have the strength to argue with her. She was sure that Spectrum or Lightning would call them back once the train was ready, so letting Dew keep up a little hope might not hurt after all.
As expected, the hotel was empty when Dew pushed open the door. Twinkle gave her the usual pat on the back and turned to move on to the next building. The building across the street was a dance club of some sort. At least, Twinkle assumed it was judging by the ‘Neon’s Lights’ sign.
Twinkle waited for Dew to walk up beside her before moving any further. Dew’s face was completely soaked at this point. Twinkle couldn’t help but wonder how much more she could take. “Maybe we should go back after this one,” Twinkle said. This time she was a bit more forceful, and she made sure to let Dew see her confident smile.
“No,” Dew responded nonetheless as she trotted on to the club. The determination in her voice still hadn’t drained. Upon pushing the door open the pair once again found nothing. It was just another building completely devoid of life.
“You know we’re not going to find anypony, Dew,” Twinkle commented. She took a seat on the ground as she spoke.
Dew moved onward regardless. “We don’t know that Twinkle,” she said as she moved on to the next building. Once she realized that Twinkle wasn’t following her though, she did pause to look back. “You can go back if you’d like though.”
Twinkle felt a touch more depressed upon hearing Dew say this. She didn’t speak with authority when she asked Twinkle to leave; no doubt because she didn’t want her to. Twinkle sighed and put her gentle smile on. “I won’t leave without you, Dew,” she said, “But I’m sure that Spectrum and Lightning will need us to get back soon. We really should move back before we get too far from the train.”
Dew drop paused for some time. Eventually though she did capitulate. After a nod she quietly said, “Just let me finish this street,” and turned to move on to the next building. Twinkle looked down the street. They still had at least seven more buildings before it split. Still she was happy to make Dew back down, even if it was just a compromise. With a sigh, the unicorn rejoined her companion.
In the end, the pair didn’t manage to finish searching the street before they were forced to turn back. They had only finished looking into two more buildings before Twinkle noticed something odd about the large building where the street split. Namely, she was fairly sure it had been a lot larger the last time she’d looked.
It only took a moment of focus for Twinkle to confirm her suspicions. The building was fading away, just like Ponyville had. Twinkle felt faint again, but only briefly. Before her vision could even darken Dew was already beside her, ready to ask what was wrong.
“I think we should get back to the train, Dew,” Twinkle said before her companion could even speak.
“Why? What’s wrong, Twinkle?” Dew asked, concerned.
Twinkle responded plainly by pointing to the building and saying, “That.” Dew didn’t ask any more questions. The pair paused to stare in silence at the slowly vanishing building for a moment. Twinkle couldn’t manage to make herself move. The darkness was closing in again.
Dew on the other hoof didn’t have this problem. It didn’t take long for Twinkle to feel the familiar speed as her pegasus friend lifted her and charged through the city. Twinkle snapped out of her stupor just in time for Dew to smash into the train car.
Wisp shook his head as he followed Stinger into the building. “You know breaking down the door probably wasn’t necessary,” he complained.
“Hey I told you it was locked, it’s not my fault you don’t listen,” Stinger retorted as she trotted through the building. Wisp took this chance to look at the building himself, although he chose to stay in the doorway rather than wander through it. The building was completely empty apart from the brick wall that surrounded them. Wisp couldn’t help but wonder if they had wandered into an abandoned warehouse somehow.
“Wow how lucky can you get?” Stinger asked cheerfully as she hopped from the far corner of the warehouse back to Wisp. “Here I was figuring we’d have to find a gym or something, and we stumble upon an empty building on our first try.” With that the mare grabbed Wisp by his leg and dragged him further into the building.
“What the hay are you doing Stinger?” Wisp complained aster jerking his leg away from her, “There’s nothing in here. We need to move on.” Stinger smiled back at him and moved a little away while he was talking. It was clear she wasn’t listening, but he wasn’t totally sure why.
“Somepony else can find the two leftovers,” Stinger said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “We have far more important things to do here.” Stinger chuckled and began stretching once she’d finished speaking.
“What do you mean two?” Wisp asked as he backed away. It was clear that Stinger was expecting a fight. This question was his somewhat meager attempt to avoid one. All he got for an answer was an annoyed sigh as Stinger finished a particularly deep stretch. That was a pretty clear answer to his real question though.
“So are you ready to do this, or do you want to rub some of that powder on your gloves first?” Stinger asked. She had assumed a battle stance now. At least Wisp assumed that was what it was. Her hooves were planted firmly apart from her front right, the one armed with the jewel dagger.
“I think it’s best if neither of us gets hurt,” Wisp responded as he stared at the weapon, “I mean if you insist on doing this that is.” It was a really pathetic plea in truth, but Wisp doubted a more heartfelt one would help him.
Apparently it was enough for Stinger though. “Fine,” she said, now clearly annoyed, “I promise I won’t use my right hoof for punching. Now can we just get started already?”
Wisp backed up a touch further. He figured that he probably couldn’t take Stinger in a fair fight; at least if any of her bragging was true. Just to be safe, he wanted to be near an exit. He was confident he could outrun her.
“C’mon, fire boy,” Stinger taunted him. Her devilish smile had come back now, but the annoyance in her voice was still clear. “Teardrop’s not going to come through that door to fight me for you.” Wisp backed up a touch more. Stinger was trying to goad him into attacking first. That was good. It meant he had a bit more time to reason with her.
“Now-” Wisp started in another attempt to reason with Stinger. However by this point Stinger must have been far too bored to listen to him anymore. With a shockingly quick dash the mare managed to get next to Wisp and hit him with a powerful left hook. Wisp tried his best to roll away from the hoof flying at his face, but all he managed to do was roll into the blow.
In the end the force of the hoof combined with his own rolling managed to move Wisp out of the building. He was able to roll back to his feet just in time to dodge the second punch, but only because Stinger had no choice but to come straight through the door for a follow up.
Stinger smiled cruelly as she watched Wisp lay back against the wall. Her second leaping strike had put the mare a fair distance away, but Wisp knew she was close enough to strike still. She was just toying with him. “Are you insane,” Wisp said as he rubbed his cheek. Stingers smile widened a touch and she nodded. For some reason, Wisp felt a smile on his lips too. He couldn’t tell if it was just the nerves or if he actually found her honesty endearing.
Wisp decided it was the nerves when Stinger moved in for her next strike. This time he was prepared for her speed though, and actually did manage to dodge with a well-timed duck and roll. When he got back to his feet this time, Stinger was still holding her hoof against the wall. “That was a nice dodge,” she grunted, sounding actually hurt rather than annoyed.
“Did you get it out of your system?” Wisp asked. Stinger lowered her hoof and smiled. “Evidently not.”
Stinger nodded and moved in for another punch. The time the strike in question was an uppercut, so Wisp’s duck this time proved to be incredibly ineffective. The blow sent him flying a good distance before landing with a painful thud on his back. It hurt less than he would have guessed but there was no denying that it was still impressively painful.
“Please tell me that was it,” Wisp complained while rolling back to a stand once more. Another look at Stinger proved him wrong with a simple shake of her head. Wisp nodded in return. This time he assumed his own fighting stance. It just so happened that this was the same stance he’d usually use for the start of a race.
Stinger smiled and assumed her own battle stance. This was the same one that she’d assumed back at the start of this fight; including the lower pressure on her right hoof. “It’s about time,” she said cheerfully, “Now go ahead and dab a little powder on those gloves of yours. I’m eager to see this signature move of yours.”
Wisp nodded, but he didn’t comply. Instead he began his charge straight away. There was no time to pick up enough speed for his signature move either, so he opted to hit Stinger with a simple right straight the moment she was in range. He was actually a touch surprised when the blow not only hit, but managed to knock the Stinger right onto her back. Wisp managed to get away again before she got back to stand.
“That was a nice punch,” Stinger said while she planted her hooves once more, “You’re pretty fast after all.”
Wisp was thrown slightly by the compliment. “Does that mean you’re finally finished?” he asked. Stinger smiled, but didn’t respond for a moment. She seemed to be thinking upon her answer as she glanced at something behind the stallion. Wisp didn’t risk taking his own look at whatever she was staring at.
It took about fifteen seconds before Stinger looked back to Wisp. “One more go around,” she smirked while moving into a new position, this time with the pressure lowered on her left hoof. “Let’s see if you can hit me again, flame boy.”
Wisp nodded and backed up slowly. This time he was going to try out his signature move. If nothing else, it would give Stinger a satisfying show for the finish. Wisp paused to take a deep breath and began the countdown in his head. Stinger didn’t move forward as he backed up. Evidently she was confident that she had drawn Wisp into the fight. Wisp had to admit annoyance at the fact that she was right.
“3...2…” Wisp counted as he looked for a weak point. The pressure was off her left hoof this time. That meant he needed to aim for her right. “1.” The stallion charged at full speed and prepared for the float and kick. He managed to time it perfectly too. The spin was just right for him to reach Stinger with a fully extended kick, and the mare had made no efforts to move by the time the float started. Wisp assumed she must have underestimated his range.
Sadly for Wisp, this assumption was completely smashed the moment he felt Stinger’s hooves push onto both sides of his outstretched leg. Stinger’s grab led into a spin fueled by Wisp’s own sprint and twirl from moments before, and as a result the throw at the end was much more painful. Wisp wasn’t entirely sure if the cracking sound at the end came from his bones or the brick wall he had just hit. Either way, he certainly didn’t think he could move afterward.
“Oww,” he complained halfheartedly once his breath had returned.
“Didn’t you explode before?” Stinger asked mockingly as she approached the stallion still stuck in the wall, “There’s no way little old me could hurt you as much as that did.”
“Very funny,” Wisp complained, “Now can you get me out of here?” The pain had passed, mostly, by this point, but as it turned out getting himself free of the indent that Stinger had made wasn’t something he couldn’t manage even with fully functioning limbs.
Stinger chuckled and glanced off to the side. “I’m not sure, it might take some time I’m not sure we have.” Now that the fight had finished, Wisp was fairly certain that it was safe to look at whatever she was looking at. What he saw actually frightened him. Now particularly far from where they were just busy fighting, a familiar fade-away was creeping in.
“We need to get back to the train, Stinger.” Wisp said.
“Yeah yeah I know,” Stinger said with another dismissive hoof wave. Despite this apparent lack of caring, the mare did move to help Wisp out of the indent, but as expected she did so as violently as possible. Despite Wisp’s rather vocal complaints, Stinger was able to pull him out quickly. In the end the only thing that really bothered the stallion was that she felt the need to toss him face first into the ground immediately after he’d been freed.
“Why would you do that?” Wisp asked while he pulled himself back up. To his surprise, Stinger actually offered her assistance this time with a gentle nudge to his stomach.
“I don’t think I really need a reason,” the mare commented once Wisp was once again upright. With that she shot him a…curious wink and started trotting back towards the train.
Wisp trotted ahead of Stinger and halted her with a hoof. “I think it’d be better if you climbed onto my back,” he commented, “I can get us there much faster.”
Stinger just stared at him blank-faced for a moment. After that she broke into a raucous laughter. “Nice try, flame boy,” she said, “But I think I can walk on my own. Besides you just got thrown through a wall a minute ago remember? You really think you can carry me?” Stinger laughed again and pushed Wisp’s hoof aside so she could resume trotting.
Wisp cut in front of Stinger this time in order to stop her. “I’m just fine,” he argued. He wasn’t dwelling on the strange fact that he was indeed feeling just fine after being thrown partway through a wall. The important thing here was that he was sure he could carry Stinger to safety.
Once more, Stinger just laughed Wisp off and pushed past him. “Cool your jets. It’s not like we need to rush.” Wisp looked back at the fade-away. It certainly wasn’t moving as quickly as it had before. It was getting closer for sure, but it certainly wasn’t moving quickly. Once Wisp caught up with Stinger again he noticed that she was moving at about the right pace to escape it.
“I guess you’re right,” Wisp said with a nod. He still felt a touch insulted, but at the same time he was happy he wouldn’t have to crash into the wall of the train again.
“Shouldn’t we be moving a touch faster than this?” Caesar asked. The city was rapidly vanishing behind him while he trotted merrily along with a trio of ponies he hadn’t met until this day. In fact, he hadn’t known any of them for more than an hour.
“We’ll be just fine,” one of his two escorts commented from the front of the pack. Aces Low was what he’d introduced himself as. Caesar admittedly had his doubts; he knew a good card player when he saw one. And good card players made good liars. “You can move ahead if ya’ want, but I personally prefer a nice slow pace.”
“I think I’ll stay with the group,” Caesar responded.
“So, Mr. Caesar was it?” Caesar glanced to his right to see the pink pegasus that had met him alongside Aces Low. Her name was Airheart. Caesar nodded in response to her question and waved a hoof for her to continue, prompting a brief blush. She was clearly not a good poker player. “I was just wondering,” the mare said, “What were you and Goldstone doing this whole time? This is a pretty big city.”
“I was looking for survivors,” Caesar responded kindly as he nonchalantly turned away from the mare. He chose instead to focus on the more curious, and suspicious, pegasus in their group. Goldstone was momentarily distracted by Airheart’s bracelet. “I’m not sure what he was doing,” Caesar continued nonchalantly, “I’m afraid I just met him before we met you two.”
“Oh umm…” Goldstone paused as he attempted to pull his gaze away from the gem. He failed, but at least he managed to make it a touch less obvious. “I was looking for survivors too,” Goldstone finished. Caesar chose to look back to Airheart at this point. The smile she shot him made it clear that she wasn’t buying it.
“So, just out of curiosity,” Airheart asked after aiming her smile in Goldstone’s direction, “What’s in that bag of yours? It looks pretty heavy.” Caesar had to admit a touch of respect for the mare for not directly confronting Goldstone. However he wasn’t quite sure whether or not her newest question was an indirect confrontation, or merely an effort to continue the conversation.
Either way Caesar was sure that Airheart was left unsatisfied by Goldstone’s answer of, “It’s nothing.” Thankfully though, if the mare’s intent was merely to start conversation then she wasn’t left disappointed for long. “That’s a lovely bracelet you’re wearing, Miss Airheart,” Goldstone continued. Caesar stumbled back in surprise when the pegasus suddenly dashed between Airheart and him. “I haven’t seen a piece this delightfully unique in some time.”
Airheart merely stared on in confusion as Goldstone stopped moving to grab her hoof. Caesar stopped along with them, but in his case it was to keep an eye on the approaching fade. While keeping pace with the strange wave was no problem, stopped was still stopped, and it was getting closer quickly. Caesar would have raised a concern, but he was beaten to the punch by Aces Low. “Now’s not the time for this you two. Get movin’; we’re almost to the train.”
Despite this warning, Goldstone didn’t move an inch. Something about the gem around Airheart’s leg had him totally entranced. Airheart however did react pretty strongly to this piece of advice. Her first reaction was of course to try and get moving again, but it soon became clear that Goldstone wasn’t allowing as much. “Tell you what, Goldstone,” Airheart said after realizing as much,” You can have it if you like it so much.”
Goldstone wasted no time jerking the chain off of Airheart’s leg and getting back to trotting. He did however offer a, “That’s very kind of you, Miss Airheart,” before walking off and leaving both Caesar and Airheart confused. Caesar for his part was simply wondering whether or not Goldstone had planned this turn of events, or if he had simply been distracted by the gem.
In order to satiate his curiosity, Caesar turned back to face Airheart once they had begun walking again. “Is there something magical about that gem?” he asked the pegasus. Airheart nodded in response, but didn’t speak. The look of confusion was still on her face, and Caesar couldn’t help but notice a single tear run down her cheek. “Poor girl,” he thought before turning back to Goldstone, “But I guess that settles that.”
Goldstone had used the chain to tie his bag of jewelry closed, so it was evident that he wanted to keep it in sight more than his other gems. There was no question that it was valuable. Caesar remembered that Aces Low had been wearing a similar orange gem. That unicorn definitely knew more than he was letting on.
Before Caesar could think further on how to broach the subject to Low, his thinking was interrupted by that very stallion. “Looks like we’re here,” Aces said as he turned back to the group with a well-practiced smile, “C’mon Caesar. It’s time for ya’ to meet those survivors you’ve been looking for.”
Spectrum was busy cooking when the others arrived. Originally he’d planned on napping, but it didn’t take him long to realize that was an impossibility. Originally he’d figured that was just because riding on a moving hippogryph was stressful enough to keep him awake, but as it turned out he couldn’t get to sleep on a still train either. So in the end he decided to try and do something useful.
With the mushrooms that Airheart had with her and the various flowers and breads that Dew Drop had brought, there was enough to make a nice little barbecue. So that’s what Spectrum decided to do. Starting the fire was the only hard part of that, and even that wasn’t particularly difficult in this situation. All that Spectrum had to do was gather a bit of tinder and other supplies from the luggage compartment and goad Lightning into lighting it. After that it was just a matter of charring the mushrooms.
Spectrum worked in tedium for the first five and a half burgers. Sadly, he wasn’t able to finish the sixth. Just as he was about to flip the next mushroom the pegasus was interrupted by a gust of wind blowing his fire out. It also knocked the mushroom out of the pit and flipped over the case he was using to store the finished burgers, but after hearing the crash behind him Spectrum failed to care about cleanup.
Upon looking back into the car, Spectrum saw that the source of the wind was none other than Dew Drop and Twinkle. “Are you two okay,” he asked. The unicorn responded with a nod as she struggled to a stand. Dew Drop responded with a nod of her own, but she made no effort to stand. She seemed content to remain on her back at the moment. “Why did you guys rush in like that?” Spectrum asked, turning back to Twinkleshine.
“We ran into some trouble,” Twinkle said, “Nothing you need to worry about.” She was smiling like usual as she said that. Spectrum couldn’t help but feel it was kind of bizarre to do so after a crash, even if he’d already seen another mare do it earlier today. “So is anypony else here?” Twinkle asked.
Spectrum shook his head and moved back to clean up his burgers. “Just me and Lightning,” he responded, “I was making you guys some burgers for when you got back, he’s just hanging out in the engine room.”
“That was very nice of you, Spectrum,” Dew commented from behind him.
“Yes it was,” Twinkle added as she trotted out of the car to join Spectrum. She sounded less sincere about it though. “And I’m sorry we have to ruin your hard work, but I’m afraid we need to get into the train quickly.”
“And why’s that?” Spectrum asked as he tossed the burgers back into their case. Most of them were still good. Twinkle sighed behind him but he paid no attention. He was pretty sure she was talking too, but he needed to put away his supplies.
“Spectrum, listen to Twinkle.” This time it was Dew Drop speaking. That authority from before had snuck into her voice again. “We’re in danger here. Just look up and you’ll see.”
Spectrum sighed again, but he did look up. Something seemed wrong with the horizon when he did. Somehow it looked like it was getting steadily lower. “What’s happening?” he asked, a touch of worry slipping into his tone.
“The same thing that happened when this all started.” Twinkle trotted in front of Spectrum with a gentle smile on her face. “I’m not sure what it is, but it wiped out most of the world last time it passed by. I think it’s going to try and finish the job here.”
Spectrum nodded. The panic was now showing pretty clearly on his face as he backed away. “So what makes you think the train is safe?” he asked upon bumping into the train and remembering it was there.
Twinkle shook her head and trotted back into the car. Spectrum watched her nervously as the supplies and burger followed her in. She was still smiling. “I don’t know, Spectrum,” the unicorn said flatly while moving the supplies aside, “But Wisp saw it survive last time. It’s our only hope right now.” With that, Twinkle extended a hoof. Spectrum happily reached for it, and climbed into the car.
It took a long time for the others to arrive. At least it felt like centuries. Then again, that might have just been time slowing down on Spectrum again. Nopony talked while they waited. Lightning was still sitting alone in the engine, Dew Drop was just staring sadly into the distance as the horizon drew closer, and Twinkleshine spent her whole time eating two burgers with speed that wouldn’t impress a snail.
Spectrum could swear he actually heard the group collectively resume breathing once he saw the other survivors in the distance. They all arrived at once, “Thank Celestia,” Spectrum thought. That meant no more waiting. In addition to the ponies that Spectrum recognized, two others were following along with Low and Airheart. “Why is it always two,” he thought as he waved for them to get to the train.
One thing he couldn’t understand was why all of them were moving so slowly. At first he assumed it was just the excitement slowing things down again, but then he realized that they didn’t look like they were running. Meanwhile Dew and Twinkle’s waves continued at a reasonable pace as well.
“What are you guys doing?” Twinkle shouted, confirming Spectrums suspicions, “Get in the train.” The ponies complied with her order, but only Wisp and one of the new ponies, a crazy looking golden stallion carrying a huge sack, actually increased their pace in order to do so. All of the other ponies made it on literally moments before the horizon finally reached the train.
Spectrum could actually feel his heart slow once he realized he was still there. Nothing had changed after all. Their goal was even the same as it had been before. Now they’d just gotten two more members. Now that he could breathe again, Spectrum took a seat and closed his eyes.
“Welcome to the gang Caesar and Goldstone,” Low said as he introduced the pair. Spectrum didn’t need to see who Low was gesturing to in order to figure out who was who. “While ya’ do that, I’ve got to get to the engine. Wish me luck, everypony.”
Spectrum waved Low on but didn’t open his eyes. Now was his time to relax. He was sure there’d be another argument soon, but as long as things didn’t get too hectic he could still rest. Once more Spectrum tried his best to fall asleep.
It didn’t work of course, but he was still able to gain a modicum of relaxation as he listened to the conversation around him; even more once he heard the train start roaring along. Still, even with that he couldn’t help but wish he could fall asleep and start dreaming.
The empress sighed in relief as she stared at the garden. The city was gone now, and so was that unbearable base noise. The garden was nice. It certainly wasn’t as quiet as the empress might have liked, but it was far better than the alternative.
“You can’t be noisy now can you?” she mocked the petrified creature in front of her. Discord could do no more now that he was once again stone sitting in moss. Now that she’d taken time to think of it, it made sense that she would be unable to get rid of him like everything else. But she could keep him stoned in the garden just like before.
The empress sighed and floated around her new garden. It was a bit brightly colored, but it was quiet. She would be content to live here if she had to. She was fairly certain she could fall asleep watching this. Unfortunately, Discord wasn’t the only problem she had to deal with.
The other ponies were still here with her. She thought they would have poofed away now that Discord was quiet, but they were still there. She couldn’t even get rid of the noisy piece of machinery they were using to get closer to her.
With a sigh, the empress floated over to the gate of the nearby castle. She couldn’t get rid of this place either for some reason. It wasn’t because of Discord either. This place had its own noise. The empress recognized it as she floated through. I was a very light sound, so she couldn’t hear it very clearly over the other noises in the world, but it was there. It was the same sound every other piece of the world that was leftover had made before she’d gotten rid of them.
Of course, annoying as it was it didn’t even hold a candle to the other noise she was hearing right now. The ponies on the train were arguing again. It was making her angry. “At least they’re close now,” the empress sighed as she floated onward. Their train had stopped, and now they were moving onto the narrow pathway towards the castle.
The empress grew a touch angrier when she heard the ponies start arguing again. Still, she managed to keep herself calm. The characters were yelling over nothing anyway. For the most part they were fighting about how they should approach the castle. Most were arguing for a flanking maneuver, but a few were zealously arguing for a straightforward charge.
Either way the fighting was pointless. Not only was the empress not hostile, she had no intention of being in the throne room that they planned to attack. The noise was quite grating though. So much so in fact that the empress had to pause for a moment to calm herself down while she watched the proceedings.
“I’m telling ya’ that splittin’ up wouldn’t do us any good.” That one was the brown stallion. His name was Aces Low, and he was one of the empress’s ‘siblings,’ as Discord had put it. “Even if it did surprise the enemy half of us would still be stranded on this walkway.”
The next pony to speak was another of the empress’s siblings. This one’s name was Lightning Flash, and he was being particularly loud. “We don’t need everypony to make it out of this,” he shouted, “We just need to win the battle.”
“We don’t even know what’s really going on yet,” another pony said with a raised voice. This one was not one of the empress’s siblings. His name was Caesar. “We don’t even know if we need to start fighting yet. For all we know one of the princesses is still in there.”
The empress took a deep breath and resumed her trot to meet the noisy group. Caesar had silenced that particular argument, but their noise still continued. It was just that now they were arguing about what they would find inside.
While they argued the empress took her chance to quiet things down just a little more. Now that those strange ponies were off of it, it took little more than a thought for her to get rid of the train that they had rode in on.
“It looks like this is the point of no return,” another of the empress’s siblings commented cheerfully. This one’s name was Bee Bee. Her comment brought down a brief but pleasant silence as the gathered ponies stared at the now empty space where their noisy transport had once been.
“I guess so,” a white unicorn responded. The empress remembered her as Twinkleshine.
The empress nodded and pushed her way through the palace’s double doors. Then she waited. She’d originally planned to go meet the troublemakers after leaving the castle, but somehow this seemed more appropriate. A meeting on neutral ground made sense after all.
The empress waited impatiently for the group to reach her. The arguments had stopped now for the most part, but the ponies did not walk along in silence. She wasn’t happy that she had to listen to such inane banter, but it was better than before. Relatively chaotic though it was, it was hardly the chaos she was used to watching.
One of the conversations did catch her curiosity though. Two of the empress’s siblings, Dew Drop and Bee Bee she believed, were busy talking about how they would look when they approached her. This made the empress realize that she could see herself once more along with the rest of the world, and she didn’t particularly like what she saw.
Her bright pink coat and her strange white and purple mane upset her the least. However her peculiar purple eyes and the idiotic screw and baseball mark on her flank came close to enraging her. Both were a painful reminder of her father and the ‘gift’ he’d given her. Then there was the tiara she was sure she hadn’t been wearing when she’d gone to sleep; a polished golden thing with a bright pink gem shaped like a star embedded inside of it.
With a wave of her hoof the empress was able to rid herself of the offending items. The cutie mark vanished outright the eyes dimmed to a far less outrageous gray color. She had intended to poof away the tiara as well, but all she could manage to do was get rid of the gemstone and the gilding; leaving an empty iron crown on her head. Her pink fur and purple mane were left as they were though; primarily because it was difficult for her to concentrate when she was this angry.
The other ponies were being noisy again, and they were doing it right in front of her too. She couldn’t make much of it out since everypony was talking at once. It reminded her of the time before she stopped everypony from talking. Combined with the more painful reminders she had just gotten rid of, the empress couldn’t stop the rage from coming back.
“Shut up!” she screamed at the gathered crowd. Just like before it didn’t work. Sure everypony was quiet for a second, but not much longer.
“I’m sorry,” Dew Drop was the first to speak. At least she tried to speak quietly though. The next pony certainly didn’t.
“What’s your problem?” Bee Bee complained.
At the same time at least three other ponies interrupted her with, “Is something wrong?” The empress wasn’t sure who it was that spoke, and she was too mad to try and figure it out.
“I said shut up!” she screamed again. This time the ponies were silent for a few more seconds. The only exception was Bee Bee. She was making a quiet buzzing noise the whole time. It didn’t get to the empress much though. It wasn’t more annoying than the noise the castle made.
“Thank you,” she continued more calmly then before. The anger was still there, but she was keeping it down. She needed to be diplomatic with these ponies in order to get what she wanted after all. “Now only I can talk. Everypony else stay quiet.”
“And how exactly do you plan to make us?” Lightning Bolt asked angrily. He was cut off, thankfully, by Caesar covering his mouth.
“Don’t be so rude. We don’t know what she’s capable of,” Caesar whispered.
“You be quiet too, Caesar,” the empress demanded. Caesar nodded politely before quieting down again. The empress smiled again and felt a calm come over her. Everything was nice and orderly now. She could tell because when she closed her eyes, all she saw was the castle.
That was until Airheart spoke up. “So do you mind if I ask what you’re doing here miss..?”
“Nopony,” the empress responded venomously. After a deep breath she calmed down again. “I’m nopony,” she said calmly, “And I’m only here because you’re here.”
“Does that mean ya’ can help us?” Aces Low asked.
“Or are you our enemy?” That came courtesy of Lightning Flash, who had already ‘covertly’ drawn his weapon.
The empress sighed and closed her eyes again. They were all there again. She’d lost control completely. “Listen,” she said as calmly as she could manage, “Would all of you just go away? I’m not going to help you.”
“There’s nowhere else for us to go.” Two ponies said that at once, but only Twinkleshine continued, “Since you can’t help us, is there anypony else around?” The rest of the group nodded in agreement and mumbled their confirmation.
The empress shook her head. “Nopony’s here. Now can you please go away?” She was asking as politely as she could. Maybe they just didn’t understand. Well most of them anyway. “Just trot back a little and leave me alone okay? I’m pretty sure that will do it.”
The crowd was upset. The empress could hardly say she was surprised though. “So you are our enemy then?” Lightning shouted as he aimed his crossbow. The empress gritted her teeth and floated back into the castle. She wasn’t sure what it was that made her think they’d listen. She’d just hoped at least her siblings would see it her way.
The empress slammed the doors behind her while she stormed off. Lightning Flash chose to make his shot at that moment. It had no effect. After that the group went into planning. Aces Low took the initiative. Their plan was to flank the throne room now.
The empress was mad again. Not only were they being loud again, but they were going to start attacking now. Abandoning all reason, the empress decided to try wiping the world again. Even if they wouldn’t go peacefully, she could still make them go quietly.
Everything was quiet for a moment, and then suddenly it wasn’t. Spectrum couldn’t help but feel he should be more shocked when the nonsensical creature floated into view and wrapped itself around him and the rest of the group. “The spirit of disharmony,” he mumbled, “I guess I finally got to sleep.”
“What the hay is Discord doing here?!” Lightning screamed from across the dragon.
Spectrum stared in wonder as the creature’s head reared into view in the center of his coiled body. Spectrum did his best not to think too hard about that. “That doesn’t seem like the proper way to thank somepony for saving your life,” the spirit said.
“So does anypony know what’s going on here?” Goldstone asked. He was close enough for Spectrum to see him. He was currently scrounging through his bag for some reason, though to his credit he was looking at Discord. Spectrum couldn’t say that much. “Did we lose?”
“No no,” Discord clarified, “Your older sister just had a little tantrum. Don’t worry things will be back soon.”
“So you’re going to help us then?” Dew Drop said. As usual she sounded more doubtful than excited.
“Not in any meaningful way,” Discord responded cheerfully, “No more than I’ve already helped you in any case.”
“Can you at least explain what’s going on while we’re here?” Caesar spoke with an authority that seemed to override the absurdity of the situation. When Spectrum decided to look at him, he saw that the stallion was actually standing on Discord’s back.
“Yes I think we’d all appreciate that,” Twinkle said in affirmation.
Discord responded with a sigh. He didn’t even bother to look at either of the speakers. It wasn’t until Dew Drop spoke that he actually even showed what might be called interest. “Please Discord.” That was all she said, but she still spoke with the same kind of authority that Spectrum had heard in Caesars voice; albeit a bit shakier. Perhaps that’s why Discord thought she was worth facing and smiling at. “You do know what’s going on here, don’t you?”
“I do but I have to say I hate delivering exposition.” Discord chuckled and moved his head toward Low, “Why don’t you give it a go for me?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Low was smiling and speaking cheerfully and confidently as ever. He wasn’t standing like Caesar and Dew were though.
Discord sighed. “You know it’s not often I have regrets,” he said turning to the side and looking straight at Spectrum for some reason, “Twice in one day must be a record.” A griffin’s talon rose from Discord’s torso as he spoke and reached out to grab Low. At least that’s what it looked like initially. In the end all it did was poke him on the head. “Now go on, Ace.”
Aces Low sat in a daze for a minute before responding. Spectrum was unnerved a touch by the dimming of his color, but the strange monotone he spoke in was far more disconcerting. “Screwball attempted to erase the world in order to remove chaos from it. As a result she inadvertently freed Discord by freeing him from the stone. In order to respond to Screwball’s plan, Discord created five ponies to bear the elements of disharmony and stop her.”
“Wait, who’s Screwball?” Stinger suddenly chimed in. Spectrum hadn’t noticed that she was sitting right next to him. As it turned out, she’d been spending most of her time prodding Discord with her bracelet. He didn’t seem to mind.
“She is the pony we met at the castle,” Low responded, still in that monotone voice.
“And the elements? Could you explain those a bit more?” Stinger punctuated her question with another jab to Discord’s torso.
“They are the gems we are all wearing right now.”
Spectrum swore he heard at least three ponies respond with, “I knew that was important.” One pony actually responded with another question though. It was Stinger again. “So you’re saying we can use these things to take her out then?” she asked, waving the bracelet in front of Discord. The effort was clearly pointless since Discord was looking in a completely different direction, but Stinger got her answer anyway.
“Maybe,” Low said.
“What do you mean maybe?” Lightning Flash shouted suddenly. Low just shrugged in response.
Discord provided a more satisfying answer for this particular question though. “It’s not like I could be bothered to test them.”
“I can’t help but wonder why nopony’s asking about that ‘created’ line,” Twinkle interjected, “Am I the only pony here who’s concerned about that.”
“It’s not important, Twinkle,” Dew Drop said. Spectrum noticed Discord’s smile widen a touch. Dew Drop on the other hoof, was clearly in tears. “What exactly do we have to do to save everypony?” she continued. Again Low just shrugged.
“I just told you I didn’t have time to test them,” Discord said, “It shouldn’t be too hard though. All you need is to gather them all together.”
“Aren’t there supposed to be six?” Everypony nearby, Discord included glanced toward Airheart when she spoke. She shied back a bit when the giant head turned her way, but continued nonetheless. “I mean I’m guessing you’re not one to follow many rules, but there are six elements of harmony.”
Discord actually laughed once Airheart finished. His laughter did stop rather abruptly though. It stopped the second that Low started speaking in fact. “There are six,” the stallion said, prompting another quick turn. Spectrum wasn’t sure how many other ponies saw it, but for him time slowed down again the moment he saw Discord’s talon moving towards Low. Despite his monotone voice, the stallion was clearly smiling.
“I think that’s enough of that,” Discord said while he returned Low to normal, “Besides I need you to be in tip top shape for when Screwball realizes what happened.” Discord smiled again and pulled a lion’s paw with a watch on it from somewhere nopony could quite see. The face clearly bore the labels, “exposition,” “laughter,” and “midnight.” There were no hands though. “It should be any moment now.”
Twinkleshine awoke, along with everypony else, in the gardens behind Canterlot castle. Standing in front of her was a towering statue of the creature he’d just seen in his dream, Discord. “So it was just a dream?” Spectrum mumbled from beside her.
Twinkle stood up and smiled at Spectrum. She had planned to assure him that it wasn’t, but before she could her action was rendered unnecessary. “You stupid noisy meanie!” somepony screamed from above them. It only took a cursory look in order to confirm that it was most definitely Screwball screaming at the statue.
“Hey mule!” Twinkle turned to see that she was not the only pony who’d gotten up just yet. Stinger had risen as well, and it was clear that she was ready for a fight. Before Screwball could even turn the mare had jumped her and landed a solid right hook. Twinkle followed Stinger as the punch landed, but Screwball didn’t react with more than a jerk.
“Just go away!” the floating mare screamed once Stinger had landed. Since Screwball didn’t move when she yelled, Twinkle decided she needed to get a better look at her face. Once she had circled around to see it, she found that Screwball was crying.
“Why didn’t that work?” Stinger complained, “I hit her with the gem.”
“We need to all attack at once,” Low said as he got into a place near Screwball. Twinkle shot him a nervous smile and backed away from the floating pony. She hoped he still knew what he was talking about. From what she understood, Discord had given him the knowledge of the situation.
Twinkle was joined by four other ponies. Only Wisp and Airheart seemed hesitant to back away from the battlefield, but Twinkle was sure they knew that this wasn’t there fight. “I hope they can handle it,” Caesar commented from beside her.
“I’m sure they can,” Twinkle said as she watched the five chosen ponies gather in a circle around Screwball. Stinger and Lightning Flash both were ready to go, and Low was every bit as ready as them by the looks of it. Goldstone didn’t seem particularly hesitant either. His eyes were locked firmly on the tiara sitting on Screwball’s head. Even Dew Drop didn’t hesitate to draw her knife, although, she was crying just as much as the mare in front of her.
“It was what they were born to do,” Airheart commented. Twinkle noted the twinge of sadness in her voice, but chose to ignore it for now. Philosophy would have to wait for once they’d gotten the world back.
The five gathered ponies attacked all at once. It couldn’t have been more than a split second between each strike, but Screwball wasn’t fazed by a single one of them. While it was no surprise that Low’s beam and Goldstone’s uninspired bag swing did nothing, Screwball was left equally unfazed by the crossbow bolt, the trained fist, and the knife that hit her almost immediately after those two particular attacks. The only thing that had changed was that she was now shaking.
Screwball was left shaking there for a minute as the other ponies stared on in awe. Mumbled words were exchanged, primarily about why it wasn’t working, but Twinkle paid them no attention. The darkness was back, and it was closing in faster than ever. “Just. Let. Me. Sleep!” Screwball roared with an intense anger when her sentence reached its end. It was then that the darkness finally finished closing in on Twinkle’s vision.
The empress screamed in pain and anger. This time though, her hatred was focused. She didn’t care about the world anymore. It was colorful sure, but it wasn’t chaotic. That was all because of the ponies. It was always the ponies that were causing trouble in her nightmares, and right now it was the ponies that were refusing to let her sleep.
In fact it had gone beyond that now. Not only would the ponies not let her sleep, but they were also actually trying to hurt her. Normally they just hurt her on accident; at least, that’s what she’d always thought. Now they were doing it on purpose, and it really REALLY hurt!
Her scream didn’t get rid of them all though. It only got rid of about half of them. The rest of them still stood there, and of course it was only the noisiest of the noisiest that were left.
“Ooh you’re going to pay for that one, Nopony!” the white mare shouted.
“Airheart!” the gray stallion yelled at the exact same time.
Both of them moved in for another attack after that. This time it was more vicious though. The empress closed her eyes and covered her ears reflexively when the bolts flew toward her. This did nothing to dull the pain or the noise.
“This isn’t working guys!” the golden stallion shouted in an attempt to calm the angry pair. It didn’t work. The gray stallion was already reloading, and the white mare was still moving in for her own attack. This attack was one the empress did react to. She couldn’t stop herself from flailing when the white mare grabbed her and threw her to the ground. She similarly couldn’t stop herself from leaping up and screaming in anger after she had landed.
This didn’t stop them though. The crying mare was the next to move in for an attack. She had been flying away before, but that was just so she had enough distance to charge. The knife hit the empress at an incredible speed, but she was left unfazed. It hurt a lot, but not enough to kill her. Nothing could do that.
The blue pegasus retreated after the stab didn’t even move the empress. All five of the ponies were concerned now. Even The white mare and the brown stallion had stopped smiling and bore looks of concern.
The empress was unbelievably angry at these ponies now, but she honestly had no idea what she could do about them. They weren’t going away like everypony else did, and she was really trying hard to make them. She couldn’t just get rid of the whole world like last time either. Discord wouldn’t let her.
“I think we need to calm down and think of a plan here everypony,” the golden stallion said. Everypony nearby nodded in agreement, the empress included. That was something the doctor had told her to do a lot.
“Calm down and tell me more,” he’d say. That was the key here. The empress was too angry. She needed to be calm in order to make her dreams quiet down. “You’re in control of your dreams,” that was another thing the doctor had said, “If you just keep calm and remember that, then you can change them however you want.”
The doctor was right too. It had worked last time. At least it had worked mostly, but that was just because the empress had changed them wrong. This time, she wouldn’t free Discord.
The empress took a deep breath, lowered her arms, and did her best to meditate. It was easier now that the ponies weren’t attacking her. They were still making a lot of noise as they planned, cursed, and cried, but it wasn’t as bad as the noise that Screwball had to deal with before. Just as before she was unable to completely shut out the noise quickly, but she was able to calm herself down. It would only take a little more effort to shut out her dreams after that.
The characters around her were thrown a touch by this sudden change in demeanor. Two of them became somehow angrier and two more were left confused. Only the brown stallion acted as if he wasn’t surprised, but the empress had little doubt that he was faking it.
“Now,” the empress said without the slightest hint of emotion; it would be gone soon along with everything else but the garden, so why bother trying to keep it now? “Here’s the part where we all disappear, and I get to sleep.” With that the empress reached out, and removed the ponies from her dream.
It didn’t work.
Instead of vanishing, the ponies were suddenly louder than ever. It was just like a base pumped up to the loudest possible volume and blasted right in the empress’s mind. The pain was almost unbearable, but she found she couldn’t move. All she could do was listen and watch as the five ponies floated up around her; each with a gem that emitted a light that was every bit as annoying as the noise.
“I knew this would work!” the one behind the orange glow shouted.
“Liar,” Screwball thought as loudly as she could at him.
“Just leave this to me!” the one behind the red glow shouted just after. This one was honest, butno less aggravating.
“Braggart,” Screwball futilely tried to shout back.
“I’m so sorry.” This sound came from the blue glow. Screwball didn’t have anything to yell at her. This one didn’t aggravate her as much as the first two had, but she still didn’t like it.
“Would you guys just shut up?!” the pink glow yelled louder than any of the others, “It’s time to take this mule down!” Screwball didn’t have anything to yell back at her either, but not because she didn’t want to.
Screwball only heard one more thing before the light finally faded. “I’ve got dibs on the crown,” by then it was all too bright for her to tell who had said it.
When the light faded the empress saw that little had changed. All she could see was the garden still. The only difference now was that the sky’s color had returned, and the five ponies she had successfully banished were back. There were birds tweeting in the background too.
There was one big change though. The empress couldn’t feel anything anymore. It was as if she wasn’t really there anymore. The only reason she was seeing was because of her special vision in fact. Somehow it seemed as if her wish had backfired somehow; only she herself was no longer there.
All of the ponies that were still there, including the ones that had suddenly returned, were gathered around a statue in the garden’s far corner. The empress was fairly certain it was a statue that hadn’t been there before, but then again it could have just been one she hadn’t brought back with the rest of the garden initially. It was pretty far from where Discord was. That begged the question of why it was here in any case, but strangely the empress found that she didn’t care anymore. She felt strangely at peace.
Then suddenly her peace was gone once more when a group of guards noisily tromped into her garden. At the same time the ponies around the statue were talking again. “So does this mean we won?” Spectrum asked.
Caesar responded with a smile and a nod. “I think it does.”
After that there was a lot of noise from the ponies in front of the statue. They cheered and roared. The empress wanted to send them away again, but she couldn’t find the strength to anymore. Thankfully it didn’t last long though. When the guards came and collected them things got a little quieter. And when the guards took them out of the garden it became almost completely silent.
The empress smiled to herself, and fell into a pleasant, and for the most part dreamless, sleep.
Celestia’s curiosity was admittedly peeked when she saw the group. Such a strange gathering of ponies apparently appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the night was assuredly an interesting sight. She was sure she knew at least a couple of the ponies in the lineup personally. Then there were of course the strange gems that half of them were wearing. Celestia had to admit that she was looking forward to an interesting story.
“Did you see them, sister?” Luna asked, landing next to her. Celestia nodded toward the window. The group had just about passed out of the garden now, but Twinkleshine and an unknown gray unicorn were still in view. “And the statue?” Luna continued.
“Not yet, Luna.” Celestia turned away from the window and trotted to the throne room alongside her sister. “I thought it would be polite to meet this group quickly after you went to the trouble of having the guards retrieve them.” Celestia smiled coyly at Luna. The blue mare was clearly not amused.
“I apologize Celestia,” Luna responded while pushing the door to the throne room door open unapologetically violently, “I thought it would be best to question them as a ruler properly should.”
Celestia chuckled and trotted through the doors. “You know I’m just kidding, Luna,” she said kindly while she took up her position to the right of the throne, “You did the proper thing.” As she watched Luna smile and take up her own position to the left of the throne, Celestia noted that they should really get a second throne for times like this.
“Majesties,” a night guard called to the princesses from the end of the throne room, “We have the intruders ready for you.”
“Thank you, Steel,” Luna responded, now in the infamous Royal Canterlot voice, “Please send them in.” As Steel walked away Celestia made another mental note: memorize the names of the night guardsponies.
Before Steel returned Celestia and Luna both removed their smiles in favor of more serious expressions. The sun princess was sure this was far easier for Luna. She seemed to still think of these ponies as a threat. Judging by the statue that had come along with them, Celestia was fairly positive that they were anything but.
When Steel did return a few moments later, he was accompanied by a company of three other night guards. In the center of them trotted the ten ponies that Luna had seen appear in the garden. “State your names,” Steel ordered once the group came to a stop in front of the throne.
The ponies did so with little protest. Only the gray unicorn in the back, whom Celestia now knew as Lightning Flash, and the white mare, Bee Bee, required prodding before they responded. The princess was pleased to see that both her student Twinkleshine and the noble Caesar were indeed part of the group. That would make things much easier.
“Explain yourselves!” Luna demanded in her best Canterlot Voice.
Celestia had to try surprisingly hard to keep her smile down when she followed her sister with a little clarification. “How did the ten of you enter Canterlot’s Stone Gardens without being seen?” She made sure to look at Caesar when she spoke. Admittedly she was more likely to get something out of Twinkleshine, but she was sure that Caesar would have more to tell.
“It is something of a long story your majesty,” Caesar commented with a smile from his place at the head of the group.
“I think we have time,” Celestia responded. She couldn’t keep her smile from escaping with that line. She had been looking forward to this part after all.
As it turned out, the story wasn’t particularly long; just confusing. The many voices that attempted to add their own piece to the telling certainly didn’t help either. More than one of them even seemed to be outright lying. Luna had to silence the whole group once or twice in an attempt to return the story’s coherence.
Once Caesar had finally finished his telling, Celestia took a moment to piece together the true story. Caesar would likely leave out anything that might cause him, and by extension the group, trouble, and she was sure that this group couldn’t have possibly defeated an entity capable of wiping out existence on their own. Naturally, she concluded that Caesar was hiding somepony who helped them. Either that or he was hiding something about the group themselves.
“What was this entity’s name?” Luna suddenly questioned. Celestia shot her sister a glare disguised as a smile. That wasn’t the approach that she would have taken, even if it was a question that did deserve an answer.
Interestingly it actually did work though. “Her name was Screwball,” Spectrum said quietly from the back of the group. It could only be heard because nopony else had given an answer, and Celestia could see Caesar cringe when Spectrum said it.
Celestia turned to Luna and shared a real smile with her. With a name like Screwball, the villainess’s motives suddenly began to make a touch more sense. Though it did beg the question of why Caesar would hide the true nature of ‘the empress’. Then Celestia got another look at the ornament in Dew Drop’s hair.
“Could the ten of you please relinquish all the jewelry you’re carrying?” Celestia asked after removing the smile from her face. Caesar frowned and nodded, she’d won this round.
Steel’s team was kind enough to collect the jewelry. Everypony was reluctant to give up their particular gem, Goldstone in particular seemed to struggle with the idea, but in the end all of them were turned into the royal sisters. The spell to detect the magic was rudimentary for the princesses, but oddly enough neither princess detected even the smallest hint of a spell on the stones.
Celestia couldn’t help but laugh. It didn’t make any sense, but there was no other explanation. Luna didn’t laugh along, though Celestia had no doubt that she’d come to the same conclusion. “I suppose no more needs to be said then,” Luna said as she turned back to the group, “What should we do, Celestia?”
Celestia caught her breath and smiled down on the ponies. “You’re free to go,” she said while floating the gemstones back to their respective owners, “Just make sure you have permission next time you enter the gardens.” The crowd’s reaction ranged from joyous to shocked and confused. “Please escort them out, Steel.”
The guardsponies all nodded in unison and trotted out with the group. Most of the ponies paused to look back at the princesses, and again their looks varied from thankful, to prideful, to confused. Once the group had left and the doors had shut, Celestia chose to get a look at Luna’s reaction as well, it was a thankful one.
“An empty world,” the moon princess mumbled with a smile on her face, “I suppose he wouldn’t have liked that would he?”
Celestia nodded and trotted back towards the garden. “Come sister, I think we owe somepony a touch of thanks.”
For the most part, life returned to normal for the ponies after that. Their disappearances were all noted, but, thanks to a statement from Celestia, all of them were dismissed as a teleportation spell gone wrong. Though there are still quite a few conspiracy theorists who claim that Discord was somehow involved.
Twinkleshine was able to return to her troupe before they moved on from Ponyville. Dew Drop accompanied her in hopes of joining, but after seeing her rather poor performance on stage Pink Lady rejected the pegasus without a second thought. However, thanks to a little help from a fan of Twinkle’s Dew Drop was able to get a position on the town’s weather patrol. She is currently working as their Morning Dew Distributor, and is down to an average of one crash per month.
Airheart missed her surprise housewarming party by almost a day’s time, and when she did make it the next day her friends were surprised to see her bring a mysterious golden colt along with her. After that life returned to normal for Airheart, though she does still keep three pairs of broken goggles on her mantle. Nopony’s quite sure how Goldstone manages to pay his half of the rent every month, but nopony’s also sure why most off the jewelry around Cloudsdale began vanishing about a year after his initial arrival.
Spectrum was fired from his job at the Weather Factory after having been absent for the third full day in a row. He didn’t seem to mind though, saying that rainbow making had been better as a hobby anyway. Starsong on the other hoof was quite irritated by his firing, and ended up quitting her job at the factory as well in protest. The pair now travels across the globe with the stated goal of spreading color and beauty throughout the world. The fact that they tended to appear in the same place as a certain violent mare for the first year of their journey was, as Spectrum put it, “A convenient coincidence.”
Stinger traveled the world for a year or so purely for the sake of pummeling every creature she could. As an unexpected result, the mare ended up gaining a fairly large number of apprentices following her every move and hanging on her every word. In the end this led Stinger to found a school of martial arts in an abandoned cave on Smokey Mountain. After her first three months of that she realized what a lousy teacher she was and made to disband the school. It was nothing more than a lucky coincidence that Wisp happened to be visiting that day. It only took one threat of violence to get him to help with a class. Wisp and Stinger have run the dojo happily and, for the most part, successfully to this day.
Lightning Flash ended up starting a dojo of his own eventually as well, though not of his own volition. The unicorn went into isolation in the Everfree Forest after the events with Screwball. However, as foals wandered into the forest often, it didn’t take particularly long for legends of mysterious and heroic unicorn living within it to spread. Supposedly he teaches those with potential in the art of archery, and has even taken on a few apprentices. However, nopony has ever actually seen where he lives.
Aces Low managed to write a single bestselling book about a mare who attempted to destroy the world. After that he made the rest of a small fortune in gambling. After that his fortune only grew thanks to the wise investment opportunities suggested to him by none other than Caesar. The two make sure to meet with the princesses once a year after the Grand Galloping Gala. Not a word has ever been spoken between Celestia, Caesar, and Low about the incident.
A pony named Screwball was reported missing from Ponyville Hospital less than a day after the strange group appeared in Canterlot. After a year or so, the news of her ran dry and nopony has seen her since. The statue of ‘The Empress of the Void’ on the other hoof has gained quite a bit of reputation. Primarily this is because of the peculiar group that is known to meet annually for a picnic in front of it. In addition to this curious event though, the empress has gained reputation for starting a legend of some note.
If you can view the statue from far outside of the stone gardens, and as long as nopony is visiting them at the time, you can supposedly see the statue smiling.