Author's note: This is a sequel to my Valdemar crossover story, In the Eye of the Storm, but it contains no canon Valdemaran characters, so I haven't marked it as a crossover. You don't need to have read In the Eye of the Storm to understand everything here, the story should be fairly self-explanatory. And hopefully also enjoyable. (The only relic of the previous story is that Luna has ended up with a close platonic friend, Dale, with whom she shares a special bond. Dale will be tagging along in this story, but has only a minor role to play, it's mostly about Luna and Twilight.)
"'Tis better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness."
"...Make some friends!"
Twilight Sparkle frowned at the scroll. Friends? Celestia was ignoring her well-researched warning and was ordering her to make friends? She shook her head. It was nonsense. She needed to research! She needed to prepare! She had better things to do than make friends. She had better things to do than make sure the Celebration was perfect, for that matter. The Ponyville ponies were no doubt quite competent. They could handle things. She had research to do.
"...The night will last forever!"
When Nightmare Moon had escaped into the unnatural night, Twilight turned and dashed from the room. She knew what to do! She wasn't sure if she would succeed, but her research had paid off, and she knew what she needed, and where to find it. Her eyes were narrowed in determination as she galloped through the dark night towards the Everfree Forest, where the Ancient Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters lay. She would find the Elements of Harmony and use them to defeat Nightmare Moon. She had to!
Twilight Sparkle staggered up to the castle. She was exhausted, bruised from falling off a crumbling cliff and bleeding from where a manticore had clawed her before she could fight her way past it. Twigs were caught in her hair and dozens of scratches criss-crossed her coat from battling living trees that had reached out to stop her. Her mane was drenched, she had nearly drowned trying to ford a raging river. And her magic was already half drained, for she'd had to teleport across a chasm that had once been bridged. The chasm had been wide, and it had taken more out of her than it should have. But she had made it.
"No! No!" Nightmare Moon's voice was full of fear. But the spark faded and nothing else happened.
"But... where's the sixth element?"
Nightmare Moon laughed and crushed the stones before Twilight Sparkle's horrified eyes. "You little foal! Thinking you could defeat me! Now you will never see your princess, or your sun. The night will last forever!" Despair filled Twilight's heart. She had failed.
Twilight Sparkle woke in a panic, panting hard. She was filled with a deep, horrible feeling that everything had gone wrong somehow. The details faded even as she tried to grasp them; she knew that she had been dreaming, a terrible nightmare, but she could remember nothing except a sense of failure. She had failed to do... something, but she couldn't think what, or what else had happened. She shook her head and tried to blink the sleep from her eyes. It was just a dream.
The sun was shining. She had once again stayed up late to look at the stars with Luna, so it was already nearly noon. And if it was nearly noon, the book store would definitely be open! That thought energized her. She yawned and gently prodded Spike awake. "Spike! Spike! Wake up!"
The little dragon snorted and jerked upright. "I'm up! I'm up!"
Twilight Sparkle giggled. "Good! Today's the day my new books should be arriving! I'm so excited!"
Spike yawned widely. "Only you could be so excited about books," he said.
"Four new history books, three books of natural history, and a new spellbook are definitely worth being excited over!" Twilight bounced just a bit. "I especially can't wait to try out the new spells. I've mastered all the out-and-out spells I have in my current books, and I'm not quite good enough yet to be crafting really complicated spells from theory. But the more spells I learn and practice, the better I'll get."
"You sound like Rainbow Dash, wanting to be the best."
Twilight giggled. "Oh Spike! I want to get better at magic, but I don't want to be the best magician in Equestria. That's Princess Celestia, and I could never match her!"
"Come on, let's go!"
Twlight lifted Spike up onto her back with her magic, then cantered down the stairs headlong, making Spike cling desperately to her mane. She flew out the door, closing it behind her with magic without even slowing, and galloped through town towards the book store.
Mr. Quill, the bookseller, had the books waiting at the counter when Twilight galloped in. "Hello there missy! I knew you'd be in today, your books are right here."
"Thank you!" Twilight's horn glowed as she picked up the books and loaded them into her saddlebags. She read off the titles as she floated each book into place. "Supernaturals Volume Two: Even More Super, Beasts of Legend and Lore, The Almanac of Magical Plants, Great Unicorns of History, I can't wait to read them all! Ooo, and On Portals: Spells for Windows and Doors... I wish I'd had that one last month, it would have come in handy."
Once all the books were loaded in, Twilight floated a handful of bits over to Mr. Quill. "Thank you," she said again, and trotted off to the library with Spike still clinging to her back. The only reason she didn't gallop flat out was the weight of the books. She was so excited! Which one to read first?
When he got back she found Luna and Dale were up, making breakfast. "Hello," she said, greeting the princess and her white earth pony companion. Luna visited Twilight often; they both loved stargazing and astronomy, and Luna had bored a polite Celestia to tears with chatter about the stars nearly as often as Twilight had visited the same fate on her friends, before the two had met and discovered somepony they could share their hobby with. And where Luna went, Dale was never far behind. Dale had come from another world with four of his friends. They'd come by accident and had wanted to return home as quickly as possible. Twilight and Luna had both worked to help them get home again, but Luna and Dale had become very close friends, and there was something Twilight still didn't fully understand, some kind of magical bond between them that meant they couldn't be separated for anything. So when Luna had decided that she couldn't go with him to his world, Dale had remained with her. Twilight had asked once if they were in love, but they had both laughed (and had gone on chuckling for quite a while afterwards. Twilight had felt rather put out, it had seemed like a reasonable enough question!) and said that no, this was different.
"It's a lot like love, we care about each other a great deal. But the bond itself is something else entirely," Dale had said. "It's not something you think, or something you feel, it works on a deeper level, the level where you don't think, you just are."
Twilight hadn't completely understood, but she was a bit more cautious about investigating mysterious things after the whole incident with the Pinkie Sense and the hydra. What she did know was that these days wherever you found Luna, you'd find Dale trailing after her like a loyal ghost. With his all-white coloration, pale blue eyes, and lack of cutie mark, "ghost" was a pretty good description of him. You could lose him in a snowbank and never find him again!
"Want a daisy sandwich?" asked Dale. "We picked up some croissants, so they're extra gourmet this morning."
"Sure. Thank you."
"Did you get any gemstones?" asked Spike eagerly.
Luna giggled. "I did. Just some turquoise, but I know you like it."
She floated a few chunks of stone over to Spike, who started stuffing them eagerly into his mouth. "Mmph! Thmphks!"
Twilight dropped her saddlebags on her desk. She wanted to start reading right away, but her rumbling stomach told her she'd better have a croissant first.
"So, you have some new books?" asked Luna as Twilight munched on her sandwich.
"Yes! Have you read any of these yet?" Twilight Sparkle floated the books out onto the table. Luna loved to read, and devoured books rapidly, but of course there were a thousand years' worth of books for her to catch up on, so she hadn't read most of Twilight Sparkle's collection.
"I have read The Complete History of Equestria; it is a bit overwrought, I think. And not very accurate about myself and my sister, I have to say. None of the others look familiar though."
"How about this one?" Twilight lifted the spellbook.
"No. Though I am, of course, very familiar with portal magic. Especially after last month! There is nothing like teaching somebody else to polish up your own skills."
"I can guess what a 'door' is, but what does it mean by 'windows'?"
"A window is another name for a scrying spell. It's when you look elsewhere, rather than traveling elsewhere."
"I see." Twilight took another bite of her sandwich.
"Would you like to try one? We could see if I could look at our friends in Valdemar and see how they are doing."
"I like that idea."
"Why don't you read the book, and I'll clean up here. Once you've read about it, maybe I'll show you how to cast the spell, and you can try it out."
"Sounds good!" Twilight opened the book, holding it up so she wouldn't drop bits of sandwich into it as she ate. It took her a long time to finish the sandwich; she kept forgetting it was there, the spellbook engrossed her so thoroughly.
"Ready for some spellcasting?" Luna trotted back into the kitchen, Dale following behind her as always.
Twilight looked up from the book. "Sure! Should we go into the main room?"
"It's easiest to scry in a bowl of water, so let's stay here." Luna's magic opened a cupboard and floated a large mixing bowl out. She filled it and set it on the floor. They both stood over it. "I'll start with a local scrying spell. We can look in on Spike out in the next room, just to get started."
Twilight nodded, watching intently. She'd just read about how this worked, but seeing it in action would tell her a lot. Luna's horn glowed, and a second, shimmering glow started on the surface of the bowl, then cleared away, and now the bowl was a window, looking down into the next room, where Spike, rather than putting away books as he was supposed to be, was curled up napping.
Luna and Twilight giggled.
"Now why don't you try it? Go for somewhere a little further away."
"How about the throne room in Canterlot?"
"Good idea." Luna smiled. "Remember it's considered very rude to scry on anywhere private, but the throne room is a public place, so it's not a problem."
Twilight nodded. She concentrated, running the spell over in her mind, applying her will to it. She loved doing this; the orderly patterns of spells were so satisfying, and exercising her special talent was wonderful.
Moments later the bowl's surface was showing the throne room. "I did it!" said Twilight happily. She peered at the scene in the bowl. Celestia was sitting on her throne, speaking to a pair of petitioners. Twilight realized that the scene was silent. "Scrying doesn't carry sound?"
"No. Not in and of itself, at least. You can combine it with a distance listening spell, if you like, but you should probably master the scrying spell itself first."
"It seems like I have it down pretty well," said Twilight with a smile.
"Very true," said Luna, and she smiled back. She could see why her sister had chosen Twilight as her special student. "But we wanted to look all the way to Valdemar. Inter-dimensional scrying is a little bit harder. Would you like to start with something nearby?"
"How can another dimension be nearby?"
"Are you familiar with the branching worlds theory?"
"Oh of course!" Twilight face-hoofed. "A dimension that only recently branched off of this one would be 'nearby' in dimensional terms."
"So I'd be looking for a world that's like this one, but not quite the same. Hmm." Twilight pondered. Then she had an idea. The half-remembered dream where she'd done something wrong. What if she tried to see that? She was curious if it would work. And she was also curious about what exactly she'd messed up in the dream. It probably wouldn't work at all, but then again the dimensional possibilities were theoretically endless, and one where the dream was true ought to exist. "Right." Her horn glowed again. This time the glow grew brighter as Twilight cast the spell. It was almost the exact same spell as ordinary scrying, but it was taking a lot more power. She strained, the glow brightening further. Then the water once more shimmered and cleared, and she could see a scene in it.
It was dark, so for a few moments Twilight couldn't quite make out the details. She was definitely looking down at the library tree, but something was wrong. With a gasp she realized that the tree was burned. She could see right through the blackened branches into the scorched remains of the library itself. Books, some still relatively intact, some half-burnt, lay strewn around. Many of them showed the effects of the ruined ceiling, their pages were crumpled and warped with rain.
Luna was gaping at the bowl as well. "What universe did you reach for?" she asked in a stunned voice.
"I... I had a dream last night that I'd done something wrong. I was curious what; I couldn't remember. So I thought the dream must be true somewhere. But I was expecting... I don't know, I was expecting to see myself go out in public with socks on my horn or something like that, the usual sort of 'I did it all wrong' dream. Not this! What in the world could I have done to cause this?!"
"I don't know"
"Maybe I just... tipped over a candle. And... and... no, that makes no sense, why wouldn't some pony have cleaned it up by now? Those books have obviously been lying there a really long time. And where is Spike?"
"You can change the focus of the spell to a broader view fairly easily, just picture it pulling back."
Twilight nodded and zoomed back until she could see most of Ponyville. Her heart sank. The town seemed to be completely deserted. A few buildings were burnt, or fallen down, though most seemed intact, just empty. And the gardens were rotting, as though... She stopped as a horrible thought shot through her. As though the pegasus ponies had scheduled too many cloudy days, as she'd seen happen once. Only this was worse than that. Much, much worse. As though they hadn't seen the sun all year. "I think I know what I might have done," whispered Twilight.
She moved the spell's focus again, zooming over the forest towards Canterlot. Soon she and Luna were both staring at the throne room. It was the same room they'd viewed only minutes before, but now it was not Princess Celestia that sat there. Instead a mare as black as night, with a flowing mane containing the night sky itself, lounged on the throne. Nightmare Moon reigned over Equestria, and beyond the windows was the blackness of a night that never ended.
Someone was watching.
The midnight alicorn sensed it. Of course there were often eyes on her. Her subjects regarded her with fear, and those who ventured into her throne room usually stared at her, if they weren't so cowed that they looked only at the floor at least. This was different, though: these were magical eyes, looking from afar.
A glimmer of dark light issued from her horn as she seized on the trace, but try as she might she could not follow it back to its source.
She cursed, making the guardsponies flanking the door to her throne room jump. For a moment she considered having them punished for moving without being commanded, but her continuing efforts to trace back the spell that still watched her were too distracting. She would have them disciplined later, perhaps.
Her inability to trace back the watcher was... unsettling. She had not felt fear in some time, but a flicker of it went through her now. There were many reasons why she might have failed. They could be watching from very far away, but she could reach as far as the moon, and even to the stars. Something that watched from beyond the stars was nearly unthinkable, and such a being would be an alien and quite likely hostile creature, to dwell in the chaos past the crystal sphere of the sky. That thought was bad enough, but if the being was not far away, if it was nearby... it must be a creature of immense power. Power perhaps even greater than her own, to block her and hide itself.
She did not like that idea at all.
Of course there were other possibilities. A unicorn with a special talent that had to do with concealment might manage to hide, even from her. She knew of none such, but then she might not, for they would of course have been able to hide from her agents as well.
Or the watcher could be watching from another dimension, that also would prevent her tracing the spell back. Given how rarely one dimension affected another, though, that seemed unlikely. Some other being of power from outside Equestria, or even beyond the stars seemed much more likely. She would have to prepare. If some alien or foreign power came to challenge her, it would not find her sleeping!
"Do you hear me, you foal?! Do you know what you meddle with here? I know you are watching! When you come I will be ready!"
One of the guards jumped a second time at the dark mare's sudden shout. Snarling, the alicorn commanded the second guard, "Go have him flogged for moving!"
And then, as suddenly as it had began, the sensation of being watched ended. The eyes had closed, or looked elsewhere.
"I'm not sure we should keep looking," said Twilight, a shudder of fear and uncertainty going through her.
"No. I want to know," said Luna. "I need to know what I did... what I would have done."
"Luna..." Dale came up behind her and peered into the bowl. He saw Nightmare Moon there and sighed. "You're not the same person. You're not Nightmare Moon."
"But I was. It's not like some other entity took me over, I chose to take up that name. I chose to bring the night. I did those things, and I need to know... I've always wondered, and now I can see, what would have happened if Twilight hadn't stopped me. If she and my sister's love hadn't saved me, what would have happened?"
Twilight looked torn. "I want to know too, but I don't think we're going to like what we see. I should just end the spell now, and forget all about this."
"But you won't, will you?" asked Luna quietly.
They exchanged glances, and Twilight nodded. The same horrified curiosity filled her. What would have happened if she'd ignored Celestia's wishes and just studied the way she had wanted to? "No, you're right. Now that I know this world exists... I already know too much to go back. I need to know more."
In the bowl Nightmare Moon's lips moved silently. Luna didn't offer to cast the spell that would add sound. She wanted to know, but she wasn't sure she could bear hearing that voice again. That voice would be too much.
"Can you aim the viewpoint at a pony?" asked Twilight Sparkle.
"Yes. Just will it, and it should happen."
Twilight shook her head. "I tried. Just now, I willed it to show me, but it didn't change."
Luna felt a chill. Knowing what she had once intended towards Twilight Sparkle, she had a horrible suspicion. "Try somepony else."
Twilight picked the first pony who came to mind, her friend Rarity. Immediately the scene changed. It was, if anything, darker than before. The only light was a faint wisp of a glow coming from a white unicorn's horn. For a moment Twilight thought that the spell had gone wrong. The rough-coated, filthy creature with the raggedly cropped mane and tail could not possibly be Rarity, but it was. She wore not a stunning gown but a heavy hauling collar, though she looked thin enough that hauling any load ought to have been utterly beyond her strength. The glow of her horn led her down a dark tunnel, and after a moment she paused and began digging. Her worn and cracked hooves scraped at the rock. Every so often she struck the tunnel wall with her magic, cracking the rock, and then digging the pieces away with her hooves. Soon a sparkle was revealed, a gem. She picked it up in her mouth, and stumbled wearily back the way she'd come, to a cart half-filled with glittering stones. She dropped her find in, then resumed her search.
Twilight felt her heart nearly breaking to see Rarity's plight. She almost ended the spell then and there, but she had to know. The need was beyond reason. This wasn't her world! They weren't her friends! But somehow they were, and somehow it was, and she had to know just how bad it was.
"Pinkie Pie," she whispered, and moved the spell again. Surely Pinkie Pie would still be laughing? The new image was dark as well, even darker than the mine where Rarity had labored. Twilight peered at it for a long time before finally making out a darkened forest, lit only by a crescent moon. The bushes and trees were rotten skeletons. Mushrooms grew plentifully among them, some reaching gigantic proportions. Among the mushrooms, huddled under the caps of the largest, were a handful of ponies. They were sleeping, and the nearest one was Pinkie Pie.
She was not quite as horribly changed as Rarity. She was still the same pink pony, with the same wildly curly mane. But it was held back with a practical headband, and her face, even in sleep, was care-worn and lined. She looked like a mare twice her age, and she slept with a knife next to her hoof. She's not doing that just to be ready to cut the cake at her next party, thought Twilight with a pang.
Quickly she shifted the view again. Applejack this time. The orange cowpony was standing in a stall. A familiar enough sight, except that this Applejack was not mucking out a cow's stall or tending to any other such chore, she was chained there as if she herself were an animal. She wore a bridle, with a bit in it. Twilight had seen pictures of the old slavery devices in books, but never thought to see a real one. And she doesn't have her hat. You know it's bad if Applejack has lost her hat! The thought was almost hysterical. Twilight kept the view there for a moment more, but Applejack just stood, head down. Twilight shuddered and moved the scrying spell once more.
Rainbow Dash. The brash pony seemed the best suited of all of them to dealing with hardship. Would she be well? Would she be smiling? The scene steadied and Twilight's heart fell. Rainbow Dash was walking along a nighttime street in some city. It might have been Manehattan, or possibly downtown Fillydelphia. She was hitched to a fine carriage, but she too was wearing a bit, and she walked with her head down and heavy, plodding steps. The driver was a young unicorn in black livery with a white moon on it, no doubt in some way associated with Nightmare Moon, but that wasn't what drew Twilight's eyes. The harness was obviously meant for an earth pony, it shouldn't have fit Rainbow Dash at all. But it did. Horrifyingly, it did. Oh Celestia no! Twilight almost whimpered out loud. Where Rainbow Dash's wings should have been there were two horrible scars. The scene kept moving as Twilight gaped in shock. The driver yanked on the reins, halting the carriage. Two well-dressed and well-fed fillies stepped out; both had little badges on the shoulders of their gowns, black with the crescent moon mark. Some ponies were apparently thriving under Nightmare Moon's rule. But not my friends. Not poor Rainbow Dash. Twilight felt sick. Luna was crying, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Twilight almost shut the spell down then and there, but there were still two more friends left to see. Twilight bit her lip as she shifted the spell once more to Fluttershy. She didn't know what she would do if that soft, gentle pony had been tortured as well.
Once again it was dark. Of course it's dark, it's been night for a whole year. Everything is dark everywhere. This time there was only the barest sliver of light. Finally Twilight made out a small, yellow form, curled up against a huge, dark one. She puzzled over it for a long time before figuring it out. Fluttershy was sleeping in a cave, curled up with a manticore. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but she looked somewhat ragged. Her hair was in tangled dreadlocks, and she seemed perhaps a bit thin. But as Twilight squinted into the dark she made out more shapes: Fluttershy was surrounded by animals. So whatever else had happened she had kept that much of her freedom, at least.
One more, thought Twilight. She sent the spell seeking Spike. But once again it stayed focused on Fluttershy. She swallowed. "What... what does it mean if the spell can't find the person you're sending it after?"
Luna said softly, her voice thick with tears, "It means that they are surrounded by powerful magics or... that they are dead."
Dale moved to nuzzle Luna, who leaned against his broad side, still crying. "That wasn't you," he said. "You didn't do those things."
"Only because I was stopped! Only because Twilight Sparkle and Celestia rescued me, otherwise I would have. I meant to! I meant to kill her, and in this universe I succeeded."
"It still wasn't you. Luna... we've had this discussion before. Yes intentions matter, but so does what really happened. You meant a certain amount of harm. But I think it was an innocent kind of malice."
Luna blinked at him. "What? How can malice be innocent?"
"Have you ever killed anypony?"
"Then you have no idea what killing actually is. You don't know what it means. What the weight of such a deed is. We all say, in moments of anger or hurt, that we wish somepony or other dead. That's all you did, is wish. You may have acted on the wish, but I still don't think you really meant it."
"But in this other universe... the things done there, the things I'm sure I did, they are not innocent things!"
"That Nightmare Moon has walked much further down the dark path than you did. After you kill once, that innocence is gone. You can choose to regret and change, but you can't choose to undo. And you know how hard it is, to change."
"Yes," said Luna, very softly.
"And think on this too... Twilight?" Dale turned to the unicorn.
"You've told me this story before. Celestia ordered you to oversee the celebration, and that's how you made your friends, and defeated Nightmare Moon. Have you ever directly disobeyed her?"
"Well... no. Not directly."
"Do you think you could? Can you imagine doing so?"
"I... not really. I've thought about it, but when it comes to acting I just can't bring myself to, even when I want to! She's my teacher, and my ruler,” Twilight's nose wrinkled, “And she always turns out to have been right.”
"Exactly. The pony who disobeyed, and made no friends, and lost the battle with Nightmare Moon wasn't you. It was some other pony, no doubt very like you in a great many ways, but in one little way she wasn't you at all. She did something you could never have done. This is a different world. The Nightmare Moon there will be different from our Luna. The other ponies may be different too."
"I still can't help but feel somehow responsible, as though I ought to do something about it."
Twilight shook her head, "I don't know! The thing is that I know with my head that it's not my fault, but my heart... My heart aches for those poor ponies, and it feels like it's my fault. You're right, it wasn't me. But it's so close to being me that it seems like I should do something!"
"I don't think you can though. The Elements of Harmony are destroyed in that world. There's nothing and nobody to make things right."
"There might be," said Luna.
Dale eyed her, "This is not your responsibility. This is not your fault!"
"Equestria wasn't your responsibility either, once, but you chose to stay here anyway."
"That's very different. Listen, Luna... I'm not going to tell you what to do. That's not my role. But I want you to think about what you're doing before you do it. There are infinite worlds. Every possible thing can happen somewhere. Somewhere there's a world where I came through that portal in black power and I killed you, instead of Chose you. Somewhere there's a world where I came through and met a Luna, not even a Nightmare Moon, who killed me anyway. Somewhere there's a place where you and Twilight are allies against a Evil Daymare and her scorching eternal sun. Somewhere there's a place where you and Twilight are bitter enemies, and somewhere there's a world where you are keeping the world in darkness with Twilight reigning at your side! Do you see? Everything happens somewhere. This dark world you see is one of a million different dark worlds. They're all out there, and there's no way you can make any real difference. Even if you made it right somehow in this one place, and I'm not sure you can, there will be infinity more just waiting."
"But we know about this one," said Twilight. "We haven't seen those other worlds. We've seen this one, and the suffering there. And if we can make it better for just one pony there, isn't it worth trying?"
"I will have nightmares about it," said Luna quietly. "I can already tell. I'll have nightmares where I am the one doing those things. Where I am the one who makes my friends have to hide, who enslaves and hurts and mutilates them."
"The nightmares will fade in time."
"Will they? I do not know. I suppose guilt can fade... But guilt fades best when you know you did all you can. I still wonder, sometimes, if I have done all I can to make up for Nightmare Moon; now I'll wonder even more. I tried to bring that horror that we've seen into the world. If I can stop it, is it not up to me to do so?"
"And can you stop it?" asked Dale quietly. "Your power..."
Luna sighed, "I know. I have yet to take up my full power. My sister still raises the moon. She always was wiser than me, if not more powerful." Luna smiled suddenly, a halfhearted thing, but the first smile she'd had since the scrying spell had begun. "And given that wisdom, before we do anything, we should discuss this with her. I shall not run off like the heroine of some ponytale and do something stupid without first asking for advice. She may be able to tip this decision one way or another."
"I agree," said Dale and nuzzled Luna again.
"I'm glad you brought this to me, sister." Celestia's normally serene face was troubled. "This is a difficult issue."
"It is," said Twilight. "We've argued over it several times now, on our way here. Luna and I both feel responsible, but..."
"But you're not actually responsible at all, and you may not be able to change things. This Nightmare Moon is very entrenched in her power, it seems, and the Celestia of that world would have no doubt acted by now if she could. You cannot count on her to save you."
Luna glanced at Twilight. Then she looked at her sister. She felt within her for the bond she had with Dale, a deep foundation she could always lean on. She took a deep breath. "I could fight her. I could at least fight her to a standstill."
"I am ready to take my power again, sister. I have been resisting all this time because I was afraid of being tempted by it. Power made me jealous and bitter once; I was afraid that power could do the same again.” Luna's voice dropped to just above a whisper, “And every time I saw you make another beautiful night, I worried that once I raised the moon again I would be jealous of your nights as well as your days. I was so afraid that ponies would not find my nights as beautiful as yours. But that does not matter now. Do you not see? I know too much! Before today I let jealousy turn to hatred, and hatred turn to action, and the action even led me to try to kill. Because I did not know where it would lead me in the end. All I knew was that I wanted power and praise. I wanted to make everypony love me! And I still wish they did. I still wish it so hard sometimes! But that's not what it's about anymore, because I have seen what I would actually get! The Fluttershy here is my friend. That other Fluttershy hiding in a cave does not love Nightmare Moon! The Rainbow Dash here is my friend too. And that Rainbow Dash..." she swallowed, a lump coming into her throat, "That Rainbow Dash no doubt hates Nightmare Moon with every last bitter fragment of her soul. Before I saw this I could still contemplate taking power and trying one last time to make it work, to make them all love my night. But now... no. I could never do it. And that means I am finally free! I no longer need to fear my own self! I can take my full power, and fight this other me, and even if we both annihilate each other, that world will still be an infinitely better place!"
Celestia's serene mask slipped for a moment, allowing a wince to show at Luna's self-destructive exclamation. She reached out and laid a hoof on her sister's shoulder, "But this world will be a much poorer one. I don't want to see you go off to fight a battle you can't win. You are evenly matched in power, but as a ruling tyrant Nightmare Moon has other resources you can't draw on. You will quite likely lose, and die, and I would miss you. It was hard enough having you gone, sister. Having you dead? I couldn't bear it."
"I can't just sit here, knowing what's happening there, and do nothing. I can't do it!"
"Isn't there some other magic we can bring?" asked Twilight. "Could... could you come with us?"
Celestia sighed. "No. I wish I could! I'm sure that with my sister at my side, we would surely win. However, if we both go, neither the sun nor moon will rise while we're gone. This world here, that we are responsible for, will be trapped in eternal night as well. Or in eternal day, which might be even worse! I can't go. Though..." She stopped and considered thoughtfully for some time. Twilight, Luna, and Dale all watched her with hopeful apprehension. "Twilight? You said that all five of your friends are alive on the other world."
"Then perhaps you might be able to raise the Elements of Harmony there. They by themselves could defeat Nightmare Moon, as you well know. Coupled with Luna's power your victory would be almost certain."
"But in that world Nightmare Moon destroyed them, didn't she?"
Celestia smiled. "No, my student. The stone spheres were never the real Elements, only crude symbols. She destroyed those in this world too, after all. Your friends were the true bearers of the Elements, even before they followed you to the ruins.” Celestia hesitated before continuing, “It is no accident that you all gained your cutie marks in the same moment, you know."
"What?" Twilight looked confused.
"You were always destined to be together... though sometimes destiny needs a little nudge. I worked very carefully to draw the other five into one place. I had hoped to draw them here, to Canterlot, to you, but Applejack in particular was tied too tightly to Ponyville. So in the end I sent you there instead, where I knew that the Elements within you all would bring you together, if only you would let them. And you did. You made friends of your own free will, but it was the Elements that made that choice possible for you at just the right place and time."
"I never knew..."
"You never needed to know. But now you do. Because if you are to defeat this other Nightmare Moon, you will need the Elements once again."
"Does that mean that her friends from here could go, and face Nightmare Moon with us?" asked Luna.
"No!" said Twilight instantly. She shuddered. "I couldn't do that to them! They'd want to know... they'd want to know why, and I'd have to tell them... It's horrible enough that I know what happened to them. I can't possibly put them through that. I'm the one who went and pried into it , and I still kind of hate myself for doing it. They'd hate me for showing them the things I've seen. They'd hate me for just telling them! I couldn't possibly bring them there."
"I understand," said Celestia gently. "Though they might prove stronger than you think. But the five in this other world almost certainly bear their Elements as well. If they are still true to loyalty, laughter, generosity, honesty, and kindness, and if you can gather them together, and feel that spark of friendship and magic once more, the Elements of that world will be restored."
"The first thing I thought when I saw Rarity slaving away like that was that I wanted to rescue her. A plan that involves rescuing them all sounds like a very good plan to me," said Twilight fervently.
"I agree," said Luna.
"Then you're determined to go ahead?" asked Celestia.
Both nodded solemnly.
Celestia bowed her head with a soft sigh, "I am sad and proud at once. You have both grown so much in such a short time. I could wish you would both stay home, and be safe, but then you wouldn't be the brave, strong, caring ponies that you are. So go with my blessing, and with any help I can send you." She paused and then added, "Although please don't go right away. Luna, you have raised your power just once in a thousand and one years. You need to practice, and particularly to practice combat magic. I will be happy to help you, to give you a near-equal power to practice against. And Twilight," Celestia smiled fondly, "I'm sure you'll want to study all sorts of things in preparation. I suggest studying the history of the neighboring kingdoms in particular. Here in Equestria we've never known an absolute tyrant, though a few have accused me of being such. They wouldn't if they knew what tyranny was like. We're spoiled here, a bit, but in other places it has happened. Read about them, about what they do, and how they've been brought down. You can break her power with the Elements, but first you'll have to rescue these other-world versions of your friends. That will take knowledge."
Twilight nodded. "Thank you, Princess."
"Just don't make me regret this. Study hard, go carefully, come back safely."
"And you too sister. Prepare every way you can, and take care. I couldn't bear to lose you so soon after regaining you."
The sky was painted with glorious colors above the lonely hilltop where four ponies stood. Luna hadn't wanted a huge audience for her first moon raising and the traditional spot on top of her palace tower was visible to every pony in Canterlot. So she had come here, where the painted sky contrasted with the darkening land beneath and where there was no one but her chosen friends to see or laugh if it went wrong somehow. She watched as the stunning sunset progressed, feeling that Celestia had put forth an extra effort, just for her. Pale yellow that was almost white at the very horizon faded through orange and red and an incredible twilight purple into pure indigo blue above. A few perfectly positioned clouds caught the last few rays of the sun and shone a gorgeous gold against the darkening sky. The first hints of the stars were already appearing high overhead as the light slowly faded.
It was time to raise the moon.
Luna's heart was racing. It had been so long. She had raised it only once in all this time, and that was as Nighmare Moon. The thought filled her with a wash of terror. Irrationally she imagined that raising the moon would bring the Nightmare back, return her somehow to the self she'd been. Then Dale took a step closer and nuzzled her shoulder, and she relaxed. Nightmare Moon was dead and gone. She was only Luna now. She closed her eyes. She didn't need to look in order to do this work. She could see the moon with senses other than her eyes.
She reached out to it hesitantly, and it was there. Cool and yet warm with power. More subtle than the sun, but hardly any weaker, despite its dimmer light. Joined with her own natural unicorn's magic it was strong indeed, and that strength poured into her, making her mane flow and sparkle with starlight. She spread her wings, and in one glorious leap she was aloft, arrowing straight up into the sky.
And the moon rose, answering her leap, meeting her above the horizon. For an instant that was all eternity she hung there, bathed in power, and then the moment ended and she landed gracefully. Twilight Sparkle stomped her hooves against the ground, applauding Luna. Celestia and Dale joined in, and Celestia cheered. Luna blushed.
"Beautifully done!" cried Celestia.
"Yes, bravo!" said Twilight.
Luna blushed more. "It wasn't anything. I mean you've been raising it for a thousand years, even though moon magic isn't natural for you."
"We are sisters. Our powers are more alike than different. You have affected the sun without too much trouble, after all."
Luna smiled wryly. It used to hurt so much, to think about holding back her sister's sun. But she'd been forgiven. It was in the past. And somehow, talking about it helped. Speaking about it turned it from a secret shame to a simple fact. "It was very easy the second time, certainly. You didn't fight at all."
Celestia chuckled softly. "I had a master plan that worked out much better than fighting you directly, my dear Lulu."
Luna wrinkled her nose at the nickname. "If you call me Lulu, I'm going to start calling you 'Celly' again."
Celestia laughed. "Not that! Anything but that! I am not a celery stick!"
Luna began to break out in giggles. "I don't know... maybe you are delicious and crunchy on the inside. I could find out!"
"Nooooooo!" Celestia was laughing almost too hard to speak. "Elder sisters are not for crunching!"
"How do I know until I try?" Luna advanced on her sister, miming exaggerated chewing motions. "Going to eat a crunchy Celly stick!"
Celestia laughed so hard she fell over, which started Luna laughing as well, and soon both were rolling on the grass, giggling like madponies. Dale and Twilight exchanged amused glances.
"Are you two finished reverting to foalhood?" asked Dale as the laughter started to die down.
"Oh, for the moment, I suppose," said Celestia, looking up at Dale from where she was still sprawled on the ground. She rolled over and got to her feet with a sigh, "Back to the adult world of responsibility." She smiled down at Luna, who was picking herself up out of the grass as well, "And I suppose we should get back to Canterlot, sister mine. Now that you've done it here, raising the moon from your tower shouldn't be hard. But it was nice coming out here away from everypony. And nice to have a laugh, even if we did behave like fillies." Her smile turned wistful, "I should thank you for that, by the way. I didn't have a childhood when I was a filly. Not with how things were back then. But raising you let me experience childhood in a way I never could have otherwise."
Luna looked up at her sister, having to blink away a hint of a tear, "Really?"
"Yes, really. And as much as I might wish we both could have been raised by our parents, in a way I'm very glad that we weren't. Raising you was special. You're special. And I should say so more often. If I had, all those years ago, maybe things would have been different."
"The past is past, as Dale keeps telling me. We can only go on into the future. But I think... I think I'm glad too, that you raised me, that we could be sisters. I do love you, 'Tia."
"I love you too."
"All right sister, hit me."
"You're sure..." Luna was trembling with nervousness as she looked at her sister.
"I'm ready, don't worry!" Celestia's horn glowed with magic, which was forming a shimmering bubble around her. Luna swallowed and fired off an attack spell. It was a narrow dart of magic that shattered in a shower of sparks on Celestia's shield.
"Lulu.. if you fight like that, Nightmare Moon is going to clobber you."
Luna wrinkled her nose, but otherwise let the goading nickname pass. "Sorry."
"Try again. Harder. You may be a little bit stronger, but I'm much more cunning. I promise, you can't hurt me." Celestia smiled, as serenely as always.
"Okay..." Luna concentrating, her horn glowing brightly. This time a massive fireball shot across the barren ground between the sisters and engulfed Celestia's shield. The fire faded away, and Celestia was still standing there. Not even her smile had changed, despite the scorch marks all around her.
"That's much better! That's probably a good level of power to work with today. We can make our way up to stronger things later. Now, why don't you try something a little more subtle than fire?"
Luna took a deep breath. She had never been hugely into combat magics, though she'd used them at need. Her opponents had usually been mortal, though, and easily beaten; now she needed every possible advantage. If she could be confident in the strongest of combat magics she would have an edge over Nightmare Moon, who would have never had such a chance to hone her skill against an equal opponent, so she steeled herself and reached for the moon power once more. This time she filled the air with a swarm of magical needles that rushed at Celestia's shield from every direction at once.
They shredded the shield away, and for a moment Luna's breath caught. She was going to hurt her sister! Then they were stopped by a second shield layered inside the first, and Luna nearly went limp with relief.
"Very nice! Now try something else." Celestia looked as unruffled as if Luna had done nothing. It was aggravating! But Luna took a tight grip on her temper. She knew where unbridled anger led! Instead she focused on crafting her next spell. She didn't want to hurt her sister, but she was going to damn well ruffle her unflappable composure!
By the time Celestia called a halt several hours later she was still smiling serenely. Her hair looked just a little bit wilted, so Luna considered it a victory.
"How did you get so good, Tia?" asked Luna. "Last time we fought I beat you easily! By the end there I was putting nearly my full power into the spells, and you looked like you were hardly trying."
"I have cultivated an unflappable expression." Celestia smiled, though it was a little bit sad. "Also, the first century or so after I banished you, sister, I let a little bit of anger into my heart too. I was determined that when you came back I would be able to beat you. I vented quite a lot of that anger against various hapless practice targets before realizing that not only was I doing harm to innocent mountains and forests, but that beating you wasn't really what I wanted."
Luna felt touched by this glimpse into Celestia's heart. They'd been very close once, but it had been so long since those days... It felt good. "So you probably could have fought me to a standstill at the Celebration last year."
"Yes, but we would have leveled Ponyville. And if I had beaten you, how would you ever forgive me for banishing you? How would Nightmare Moon's anger have been broken to free the Luna I loved? I needed a better way, and eventually I found one. It was hard, letting you banish me, knowing what might happen to you and to our world if Twilight failed."
Luna nodded. "But it worked. Here, at least. Hopefully that other world will have a happy ending as well."
"I hope so too."
Luna shook herself from the reverie. "So, shall we practice again tomorrow?"
"Yes. I want you to get so used to casting attack spells that you don't need to think about them. Then we'll work on defense spells, and then a few proper duels, using both together. You're already doing very well, so I don't think that will take more than a couple of weeks. And then," Celestia sighed softly, "it will be time for you to leave on your quest, dearest sister."
Luna's desk was strewn with papers, books, used quills, and the other detritus of a project left half-finished. She regarded it with a sigh. She had so much to do here! She'd barely begun putting down the ideas sparked by the strange ponies who'd visited here last month, but all that would have to wait. It was hardly urgent, after all. She turned to where her saddlebags lay on the bed. Her horn glowed and they settled into place on her flanks.
A knock on the door revealed her sister Celestia, "Ready to leave, sis?"
Luna surveyed the room one more time, then nodded, "Yes. As ready as I am going to get, anyway."
Celestia suddenly hugged her, "Be careful, Lulu."
"I will, Tia."
"I'll miss you."
"I will miss you too."
Their goodbyes said, Luna trotted down the hall to get Dale. The inscrutable earth pony was waiting for her in his rooms next to hers. His saddle bags were twice the size of hers, and looked stuffed full; he'd obviously come well prepared.
"Looks like you're ready and then some," said Luna.
Dale smiled. "I've packed mostly food. With no sunlight I don't know what everypony there is eating, but we shouldn't have to worry about it for a week or two, at least."
"Good thinking." She glanced out the window, where the sun was just touching the horizon. "I guess I should go raise the moon once more, before Celestia takes it over again."
Luna trotted easily down the road towards Ponyville, Dale following behind her. The moon was just a hoof's-breadth above the horizon in the east, and the last fading purple of sunset still stained the horizon to the west. A soft breeze fluttered through her mane, the night around her still and serene.
Inside, her stomach was tied in knots and her heart felt like it was in her throat. Practicing against her sister had been difficult enough; the idea of actually physically battling Nightmare Moon grew more terrifying the longer she thought about it. On the heels of those horrible images she and Twilight had seen it had been easy to swear they'd make it all right; now that the actual conflict was mere hours away, she felt much less enthused about the idea. But she couldn't possibly back out; the desire to right those wrongs still burned in her. And Dale and Twilight would be with her--her two closest friends. That thought was both strengthening and actually quite alarming; they would be fighting a goddess at the peak of her powers! Luna was a goddess too, but the other two ponies were merely mortal, and the more Luna thought about it, the more they both seemed so very fragile. The combat spells she and Celestia had traded could easily kill a normal pony casually, in passing.
Luna tried not to visibly shudder at the thought. Dale was bonded to her, deeply and intensely. It would be like losing part of herself, to lose him. And Twilight... Luna still wasn't sure what to think about Twilight. A month ago, in the midst of an emergency, they had touched horns. Luna didn't know what it had been like for Twilight, but for her it had been intense. The touch of Twilight's soul against hers had burned itself into her memory. Luna longed to have that kind of intimacy with the purple mare again. But Twilight was her best friend. If she said anything about wanting more and Twilight didn't feel the same way Luna might lose that, and that thought was unbearable. Anyway, Luna wasn't even sure what "the same way" was, because she wasn't sure what she felt. It was all very confusing and complicated. Friendship was still new to her, and drawing the lines between friends and... other relationships was difficult. Luna definitely cared for Twilight, but was that just because Twilight was the closest of her friends? Better to avoid the whole thing entirely, which was exactly what she'd done since then. They still stargazed together frequently, but Luna had kept their discussion on safe, scholarly topics. Which I should be sticking to now, she told herself. Or rather I should be sticking to practical concerns about what we're headed into. I don't need to have my mind wander off on some philosophical and personal meanderings about eros and philia and all that.
"You're troubled," said Dale as they neared Ponyville.
"Of course I am troubled," snapped Luna, embarrassed by the direction of her thoughts. "I am sallying off to face a mad version of myself from another world and dragging my two best friends with me, no doubt to our mutual grisly dooms!"
Dale chuckled, and for a moment Luna wanted to bite him. Or smite him with divine power. Or something. But the imperturbable earth pony projected a mental warmth at her through their bond, and Luna calmed. She could never actually hurt him.
"That's not really what's worrying you, I suspect. Or not the whole story, anyhow."
Luna sighed. "I suppose not, but it is enough to worry about right now. We do not have time to deal with my other issues. This is more important."
"Almost there," said Dale, allowing the subject to drop as they entered the town itself. This early there were still a few ponies about, and the lights were on at the library.
When Luna knocked on the door, Twilight answered it immediately. Inside the clutter of books and papers was even worse than usual. Twilight had obviously been researching very hard.
"Did you find what you needed?" asked Luna.
"I don't know!" said Twilight with a pained expression. "There weren't any books helpfully titled 'How to bring down a tyrant in five easy steps'. I've read as much about historical tyrants as I can, but the history books don't even agree on who is a tyrant and who isn't. Some rulers are called tyrants in one and heroes in another. There are even a number that consider Celestia to be a tyrant!” This obviously outraged Twilight on several levels, and Luna had to school her face carefully to keep from chuckling as the purple mare's tirade continued, “And there aren't really that many books on other nations in the library, it's very Equestria-centric. I even looked through the archives at Canterlot, but I didn't find anything specifically on tyrants and repressive government. To really get into the subject I'd have to travel outside Equestria to get my hooves on a few specific books I've heard of that may or may not actually help, and I don't think we have time for that! I compiled some lists of what information I could find, and I guess it's just going to have to do."
"You have done your best," said Luna.
"I hope so." Luna realized now that Twilight was just as afraid as she was.
"Twilight... we do not have to do this," said Luna. "You do not have to do this."
"Yes I do. We've been over this already. Our knowledge of the conditions there makes us obligated to help if we can, and you need me. Alone, you and Nightmare Moon might be evenly matched, but with me you can use the Elements of Harmony and bring her down. So I do have to do this, Princess." Twilight's face was set in an expression of grim determination. Luna had seen that expression before, when she'd been Nightmare Moon and Twilight had fearlessly charged at her. With even less certainty of victory than they had now, Twilight had been willing to face Nightmare Moon alone. How could Luna be afraid, when a mere mortal unicorn was willing to face down her fear and fight? She sighed.
"You are a remarkable pony, Twilight. All right. Are you tired? Do you wish to sleep first, or shall we go?"
Twilight glanced upstairs, towards her bedroom. Then she looked at the mess around her. Suddenly she yawned. "I guess I should sleep. Owloysius, would you please pack my notes into my saddlebags? Put in that notebook and a spare quill as well." Her avian night assistant hooted in reply, and flew down from his perch to begin gathering the scattered notes. "Thank you," said Twilight. She yawned again. "You two can stay as usual, and we can set out in the morning."
Luna woke with the sunrise. She could sense her sister's power as the sun edged above the horizon. The first warm beams felt like a blessing. For a moment she felt a tear in her eye. If this went badly she might never feel the sun again. Is it any wonder ponies always loved my sister's sun? It is a wonderful thing. I don't think I ever really appreciated it before. I was too busy resenting it.
"Good morning," said Dale quietly from where he had slept standing next to her. No matter how often he explained that he'd grown up without even the thought of sleeping in a bed, and preferred to stand or at most to lie in a pile of bedding, Luna still found it strange. But he had lived a very different life, training and preparing to be the mount and special partner of an alien being on another world, before a cosmic accident had made him Luna's special partner instead. She was very glad of the accident, but still occasionally baffled by the big stallion. He wasn't like anypony else she knew.
"It's a beautiful morning," said Luna. "I will miss the sun while we're gone."
"We all will. But the ponies over there already miss it more than we ever could."
"Yes." She climbed out of the guest bed and walked over to nudge Twilight. "Twilight. Wake up!"
"Mrph?" Twilight opened her eyes just a crack and peered blearily up at Luna.
"It's time to go," said Luna.
"Go?" Twilight blinked at her, slowly coming awake. Then her eyes went wide. "Right! Go! Celestia, what time is it anyway?"
"Just past dawn," a brief smirk touched Luna's lips, "and I am not Celestia."
Twilight stared uncomprehendingly and blearily at Luna for a long moment before comprehension, a blush, and a toothless glare passed across her face one after the other, "Ugh. Give me a minute."
"I will go make some breakfast."
As usual, there wasn't much food in Twilight's kitchen. Luna smiled wryly. She often went out shopping when she stayed over, and frequently cooked for Twilight too. The scholarly mare tended to forgot to eat when she was in the middle of a good book, and she rarely remembered to buy food, or bothered to cook. When Luna wasn't around she tended to just eat out. Now, though, it was just as well. There were enough odds and ends to put together a basic breakfast, and after that they might not be coming back for some time.
It felt so strange, all these little goodbyes. Goodbye to the sun. Goodbye to Twilight's library. Goodbye to flower sandwiches. Without sunlight there would be no flowers, and no grass, nor trees, nor anything but mold and mushrooms. She'd always liked the taste of mushrooms, but she suspected that she'd be very sick of them by the time they were done.
"I've said goodbye to Spike," said Twilight as she walked into the kitchen. "So I guess there's nothing more that needs doing. After we eat, we can leave."
When they'd finished their breakfast there was a long silence. The three ponies sat at the kitchen table and looked at each other, none wanting to be the first to say it. It was Dale who finally did, "It's time to go."
"Yes." Luna looked over at Twilight. "You are the one who has been studying... do you have a plan? I will make the portal, but where do we start?"
"I want to start with Pinkie Pie, I think. In the Everfree forest."
"Easiest then to just make the portal go right here, and walk to the forest."
Twilight nodded. "Yes. Though... Luna? What about time? You said once that causality doesn't propagate across dimensions? I should have thought of this earlier. Why can't we take this portal back to when Nightmare Moon first appeared, and defeat her then, before the things we've seen happened?"
"Well, partly because we have seen them. The things that happened to them are what made us decide to do this. If we go back to before they happen, we have no reason to decide to do this, and then we have a paradox, which is... we do not want a paradox. With their world and ours being so close, time travel is time travel, their past is the past for us as well. I wish we could go back earlier, but it will not work. Building a portal to some other place on their world would be hard enough, but building one to some other time... I haven't the power for that. I have heard odd rumors about time traveling ponies, but that is all they are: rumors. Nopony I know has the power to visit the past."
Twilight sighed. "So much for that bright idea. I guess it couldn't possibly be that easy. All right then. Time to go do this the hard way then."
"I shall use the kitchen door," said Luna. "Is everypony ready?"
Dale and Twilight both just nodded. Luna closed her eyes. This would be a difficult spell. She concentrated, and her horn began to glow, the doorway leading into the library soon joining it. Her horn grew brighter and brighter. Threads of light arced from it to the doorway, which also glowed brighter before being overshadowed by a rainbow shimmer that wavered over the doorway. Suddenly the shimmer cleared and the doorway led not into the sunlit room beyond, but into a blackened wreck, moonlight streaming down into the ruined library.
Dale passed through the portal without incident. Twilight followed, picking her way nervously among the burned and crumbling books on the other side.
And then it was time for Luna to go. She took one last deep breath and stepped over the threshold.
A white alicorn sat upon a throne, and the early morning sunlight streamed into the room. She sensed something ancient and strong stirring, crying out, and she closed her eyes in communion as she spoke the ancient, celestial language within her mind.
"Where is she? The one I gifted with my power so long ago, that I might slumber? Where is the mare to raise the moon? She is gone. Must I wake once more?"
"No, sun's-sister. Sleep on. Sleep on. My moon-gifted sister has but gone on a journey. She shall return. And until she does I shall guide your light through the sky. Sleep on."
"What journey could lead her beyond my reach, sun's-child?"
"A strange one, sun's-sister. A very strange one. But you need not wake. I shall tend your light until my moon-sister returns."
The alicorn smiled and soothed the moon, until once again she slumbered deeply. But her smile was a little sad. She hoped that her promised to the moon was true, that her sister would return soon, safe and well.
"Good luck, little sister," she whispered in the silent celestial language. "Good luck."
It was dark in the throne room.
It was usually dark in the throne room. A beam of moonlight streamed through a single skylight, from the moon which hung directly overhead. It illuminated the throne, but all else was pitch black.
The mare who lounged on that throne did occasionally provide a light for her subjects, but she often preferred to keep them in the dark. Their fumbling was amusing, which was more than she could say for the sight of their faces. They were graceless things, full of tawdry emotions. They showed mostly fear of her punishments and greed for her rewards, and both emotions bored her to tears.
Moonlight shimmered over her jet black coat, and glimmered brightly on her crescent moon cutie mark. It fell into the starry expanse of her mane without a trace, but gleamed softly on her polished ebon horn, and gently caressed the velvet black of her feathered wings.
She never grew bored of the moonlight.
It was cold in the throne room. The ebon mare's breath was as chill as the moon itself, but her guards exhaled plumes of cloud as they stood flanking the door, awaiting her command.
The chill had grown deep enough that a faint tracery of frost was beginning to form on the stones of the palace. The alicorn seated on the throne regarded the frost with something like fascination. The branching, delicate, infinitely varied tracery was beautiful. She sent a spark of magic, cold and pale, threading along the curls and whorls of frost that adorned the floor of the throne room. It was so much cleaner and purer than anything else she knew. Ice was very close to perfection, she decided. Water was purified by freezing, after all. And its crystalline lattice was every bit as convoluted as anything living, but without all the messy complications of life. Ice was simple.
"Your Majesty!" A servant dashed into the throne room, stepping on the tracery of frost that the alicorn had been examining. Her eyes narrowed.
"Guards! This peon interrupts my meditations! Have him killed."
"But... but... your majesty! I have important news!"
"No news is so important that it can't be delivered in an orderly fashion, you pitiful excuse for a lower life-form. Guards?"
"Your Majesty," said the unicorn guards in unison. Their horns glowed, and they dragged the unfortunate servant away.
"This is really creepy," said Twilight.
Luna couldn't help but agree. Ponyville seemed to be utterly deserted. A few of the houses were burnt out shells, but most were simply empty. Moonlight cast strange shadows over the deserted town, and things seemed to move when nopony was looking at them. The air was chill, though it wasn't really the cold breeze that made the trio of ponies shiver. It felt like late autumn, not late summer, and the occasional gusts seemed as though they should have stirred up rustling piles of fallen leaves, but there were no leaves, only rotting, slimy remnants covered in mushrooms that grew on everything with sickly enthusiasm.
"Let us be going," said Luna.
They trotted quickly through the town. When they reached the bridge leading towards Sweet Apple Acres all three of them let out sighs of relief. But though it wasn't quite as spooky as the abandoned husk of Ponyville, the vast expanse of rotting apple trees wasn't exactly cheerful. The barn was still standing, but it was obviously deserted as well. The little group continued past it, and eventually reached the borders of the Everfree Forest.
That was nearly as creepy as the town had been. The rotting trees overhung the path, which was choked with dead branches and molding leaf slime. Mushrooms had been everywhere, but here they were gigantic, some taller even than Luna. A few glowed faintly, sprinkling the ground with patches of unwholesome green light. The trio found themselves walking so close together their flanks brushed. Luna hoped that Twilight couldn't see her blushing.
They had been in the forest less than an hour when from nowhere a voice shouted, "Halt!"
All three of them froze in place. Four ponies stepped out from hiding places on either side of the path. They all were armed, with hoof axes or knives in their teeth. And nearly straight in front of them a fifth emerged, with a knife sheathed on one foreleg. Candy-pink with a magenta mane and tail, all three of them knew her well.
"Pinkie Pie!" exclaimed Twilight.
"Intruders!" said Pinkie Pie. "Why have you come to the Everfree Forest?"
"We came looking for you," said Twilight. "Pinkie-"
"You're minions of Nighmare Moon, seeking to crush the rebellion!"
"What? No! Just the opposite! We're fighting against her!"
One of the flanking ponies, looking fierce, growled, "You've come here with that cutie mark and expect us to think you're not with Nightmare Moon?" He pointed at Luna, whose eyes went wide before quickly darting over to look at Twilight in mute panic. It had never crossed her mind to even consider her cutie mark's similarity to Nightmare Moon's. Twilight, though, simply made an exasperated noise at the accusing pony.
"That's ridiculous! Luna has had her cutie mark much longer than Nightmare Moon has been around! I mean seriously! How many ponies are there who have some kind of lunar cutie mark? My own father has one, and he definitely isn't her servant. Surely you know good ponies who have moons on their flanks?"
The warlike ponies surrounding them exchanged uncertain glances, and Luna continued to stare at Twilight. Clearly she had already thought of this. It was a little embarrassing, but the rigorous research and preparation were two of the things that Luna... really liked about Twilight. She shut down that train of thought and quickly fixed her eyes forward before she could start blushing..
Pinkie Pie cleared her throat. "We will take you to our leader to be judged!"
"Look, Pinkie... we came to talk to you."
"We will take you to our leader," said Pinkie implacably. Luna shivered; Pinkie hadn't smiled even once this entire time. That wasn't the Pinkie that she knew. Maybe this wouldn't work. Maybe... maybe the laughter had gone out of her entirely.
The other ponies fell in around them, and Pinkie led the way deeper into the forest. It wasn't until they reached the gorge, crossed by a decrepit bridge, and Luna saw the crumbling walls beyond, that she realized what their destination was. They were headed for the ruins of the old palace. She was prepared to use her magic to float everypony without wings to safely if the bridge fell, but though it creaked alarmingly beneath her hooves, it held for the whole party to cross.
On the far side Pinkie led the way into the palace itself. They went across the grand entrance chamber, where the Elements of Harmony had once rested, through several hallways, and up a flight of stairs to the old throne room. It looked only slightly changed from when Luna had been there as Nightmare Moon the year before. The difference was that now it showed signs of occupation. A half dozen ponies greeted them as they arrived. Some of them looked vaguely familiar to Luna, ponies she had seen around Ponyville. There was an unmistakable huge red stallion, Applejack's brother Big Macintosh. And the tan mare... wasn't that the mayor of Ponyville? Luna caught a glimpse of a scroll cutie mark as the mare rose. Yes, it was her.
"How was the raid, Pinkie?" asked the mayor. Then she stopped and stared at Luna, Twilight and Dale. "And who are these ponies?"
"Trespassers!" said Pinkie in that same implacable voice.
The mayor sighed. "I see."
"And possible servants of Nightmare Moon. See?" She pointed at Luna's cutie mark. Then she pointed at Dale, who didn't have a cutie mark. Then she pointed at Twilight as well.
"I brought them to see our leader."
"Oh Pinkie." The mayor sighed again.
"You're the leader?" asked Twilight Sparkle.
The mayor smiled, a faint, long-suffering sort of smile. "No," she replied. "Pinkie is."
"Surprise," said Pinkie flatly.
All three of them gaped at Pinkie Pie. "What?" said Twilight, looking completely confused. "No, wait. I shouldn't be surprised. You are definitely still Pinkie Pie." Luna wondered if that was a hopeful sign. Pinkie seemed to still be a little crazy, but her chaotic nature wasn't what they needed, they needed her laughter.
"I certainly couldn't be any other pony," said Pinkie Pie. Her voice was no longer hard and implacable, and she even had a hint of a smile, but it was a grim sort of thing, not the easy smile that Twilight and Luna knew so well. "So. What is your business here?"
"Like I already told you twice, we came looking for you."
"I don't know you. The only ponies who would be looking for me are the minions of Nightmare Moon, who want to kill me."
"We are not servants of Nightmare Moon!" Twilight's voice showed her frustration.
"No wait..." Pinkie peered at Twilight. "I do know you! You're the mare who knew Black Snooty!"
Twilight blinked. Of course. In this world she hadn't become Pinkie Pie's friend, but she had still been there when Nightmare Moon appeared at the Summer Sun Celebration. "Well, I am and I'm not. You see, we come from a different version of this world. I'm not the Twilight Sparkle you saw. I'm pretty sure Nightmare Moon killed her."
Pinkie tilted her head to the side and blinked at her, and Twilight could almost see the wheels spinning in her mind. "A different version," she said softly.
"We've come here to defeat Nightmare Moon, and we have a way to do it. But we need you." Twilight plunged into her explanation. "You see there are six things, called the Elements of Harmony, that can defeat her. And those six elements are embodied in six ponies. I'm one of them, the Element of Magic. And you're one too. You're the Element of Laughter. If we can get the six ponies together and attack Nightmare Moon, she'll be destroyed easily. As long as you can still laugh..."
Pinkie's expression snapped in an instant from thoughtful to enraged. "As long as I can still laugh? Over the last year I've seen my home destroyed, most of my friends killed, and everything I ever loved ruined! You can't even throw a party anymore because there's no food! I haven't had a cupcake since the rebellion in Ponyville! We eat mushrooms until we're ready to turn into mushrooms we're so full of mushrooms and the only time we get any other food is when we steal it from Nightmare Moon's minions, and doing that means you might die just so you can have real food and not even a cupcake! I try my very hardest to keep smiling, Twilight, I do. I know my little ponies need hope and smiles to keep going. But there are limits! Everything is awful and horrible and just keeps getting worse the longer we go on. And I'm supposed to still be laughing!?"
Pinkie stood glaring at Twilight and panting slightly. Twilight flinched back from her gaze. Was their quest going to fail just like that? No more laughter? How could Pinkie Pie possibly stop laughing? She was the one who had taught Twilight how powerful laughter was in even the darkest of circumstances! And then suddenly Twilight knew exactly what to say. "Pinkie... in the other world I come from, you taught me something about laughing. You sang me a song about it. It goes 'When I was a little filly and the sun was going do-own," Twilight hesitated, not quite remembering the next line.
All the anger disappeared suddenly from Pinkie's face, replaced by a faraway look as she picked up the thread where Twilight hesitated, "The darkness and the shadows, they would always make me fro-own." Her voice was no more than a whisper.
"Yes!" said Twilight, and kept singing, Pinkie joining in now.
"I'd hide under my pillow, from what I thought I saw.
"But Granny Pie said that wasn't the way to deal with fears at all.
"She said, Pinkie you gotta stand up tall,
"Learn to face your fears.
"You'll see they can't hurt you,
"Just laugh to make them disappear.
By now both mares were singing in full voice, with every other pony in the room staring at them. Twilight laughed and just kept singing. "So giggle at the ghostly!
"Guffaw at the grossly!
"Crack up at the creepy!
"Whoop it up with the weepy!
"Chortle at the kooky!
"Snortle at the spooky!
"And tell that big dumb scary face to take a hike and leave you alone and if he thinks he can scare you then he's got another think coming and the very idea of such a thing just makes you wanna... Laugh!"
Twilight had to drop out at the end, she could never remember how that last bit went, but Pinkie was still singing strong, and when she finished she broke into delighted peals of laughter.
"Oh Twilight! Now I understand! You really do know another me from another place, don't you? And, and—oh! Everything makes sense now! I always knew that the world was supposed to be full of sunshine and laughter, and cupcakes with frosting on them and streamers and balloons, and that mean old Black Snooty wasn't supposed to be here! This whole world has gone wrong, and I thought that meant that I had gone wrong, because how can I be the only one all full of bubbles and happy and laughter, when the rest of the world isn't? So I stopped laughing because what was the point, if I was wrong and the whole world was supposed to be darkness and mushrooms and ponies getting killed? But it's not that at all! I was right, and everything is meant to be good, only it went bad. In your world you took laughter and magic and everything nice and you beat Nightmare Moon right away, didn't you?"
"Yes," said Twilight, suddenly feeling very confused. But then she was used to feeling confused around Pinkie Pie, so that was actually heartening. This was the friend she knew!
"So I've been living in the world where everybody has goatees all along! I should have known. Or no, wait, not the goatees, otherwise you'd be Black Snooty, or Celestia would be or something. But whatever! Don't you see?! This means that everything I always knew was right really was, and if you're here that means that it's going to be right again! So I'm in! I'm with you! I'll go and laugh right in that mean, mean, meanypants Nightmare Moon's face, even if it gets me splatted across half the palace!" She paused and then said more soberly, "Which I guess it might. You don't change the story from grim-dark to happy-fluffy in just one page. But... that's okay. We have a chance now, so I'm going to take it!"
"Pinkie... I didn't understand half of that. But I'm glad you're with us. Thank you."
"If Pinkie is with you, we're with you too," said the Mayor.
"You are?" asked Twilight, suddenly confused. "But..."
"We've followed her this far, and she's kept us alive and free, when most of our friends are dead or enslaved, or have gone over to Nightmare Moon's side. We'll follow her wherever she goes, even to go laugh in Nightmare Moon's face."
"Aww, thank you Marie. You all don't have to go though. I don't want to drag you into danger for no reason. We don't need an army, do we?"
She looked at Twilight Sparkle, who frowned and looked at Luna.
"We did not plan on having an army," said Luna, "but we might be able to use one. Though I am not sure a dozen ponies counts as an army." She surveyed the room. "Then again, we were planning on going ahead with just eight."
Twilight nodded. "The rest of you might come in handy, but you won't need to go laugh in Nightmare Moon's face, for that we need the other four Elements of Harmony. You might be able to help us find and rescue them though."
"Let's have a council of war then!" said Pinkie Pie. "Marie, get Big Mac and Ditzy Doo. And fetch some mushrooms so everypony can eat. Maybe it's not a proper party, but we have a reason to celebrate now."
"Actually..." that was Dale, breaking in. Luna knew, the moment he spoke, what he was going to say. It might be foolish, but she wasn't going to stop him. "We brought some food. We'd be happy to share. And it's the sort of thing that might be good enough for a proper party, or closer to it than you've had in a while."
Pinkie's whole face lit up. "Really? Really and truly, a party?"
"Really. We don't have any balloons, and we didn't bring any cupcakes, but we have a little fresh fruit, lots of dried fruit, lots of grain, and even some muffins."
"Muffins!" shouted a voice, and a gray pegasus mare shot across the room to land with her nose practically touching Dale's. Her eyes were intently focused on his as she asked, "Muffins?"
Dale smiled. He recognized Ditzy, though he hadn't known the mailmare very well back in Ponyville. But everybody who knew Ditzy knew how she felt about muffins. "Yes, we have muffins. I think enough for a muffin for everypony."
"Muffins!" shouted Ditzy, her eyes wandering off in different directions, but her expression otherwise almost pathetically hopeful.
"I call that a party!" said Pinkie Pie.
"Then let us party," said Luna with a grin. Her horn lit and she started to lift Dale's saddlebags off his back.
"NO MAGIC!" shouted Pinkie Pie, so loud Luna felt her ears ringing. She instantly stopped, dropping the saddlebags back down.
"Sorry," said Luna, looking chagrined. "I should have realized. I can sense magic from a great distance, of course Nightmare Moon can too. And with nopony out here except outlaws, of course she would notice any magic at all."
Pinkie Pie nodded. "Yeah. No magic, unless we're in a city where the authorized unicorns around us can hide us."
"I shall remember that."
Pinkie looked at Luna with a serious intensity that was doubly unsettling coming from the pink party pony. "You're Black Snooty, aren't you," she asked quietly.
"Uhm." Luna tried to formulate a response.
"That's okay, I know you're good. You're the one without a goatee. And I won't tell! I can keep a secret forever. Now, let's get to that party!"
Luna smiled in relief. "Right."
They unpacked the food that Dale had brought, and distributed all the perishables that the trio had meant to eat over the first few days. The dried fruit and grain, meant to last them the next two weeks, would be gone in only a few days, among so many ponies, but none of them objected. Pinkie's rebels had been living on mushrooms for months, the newcomers could certainly survive on the same diet, so keeping the better food for themselves was too selfish to even contemplate.
Soon everypony there was chewing happily. Pinkie produced a few strands of colored paper from somewhere and hung streamers. Then she led the gathered ponies in an enthusiastic sing-along. It was acappella, nopony had saved any instruments, but the ponies seemed cheered by it all the same.
Eventually the party began to wind down. Ponies started seeing out their beds, though "bed" was perhaps too generous a term for the piles of rags and ragged, battered mattresses tucked along the walls of the room. There were more beds than ponies to fill them, a mute testament to past losses. But Twilight and Pinkie Pie were both still awake, sitting together at one edge of the room, and talking quietly.
"Tell me about what happened here. I haven't been able to look into the past, only the present. And I first looked just a couple of weeks ago. I know that the 'me' from this world failed in her quest, and almost certainly was killed. I know that Nightmare Moon rules here. I know the ponies I need to gather together are still alive. But that's about all I know."
"Well, you know about when Black Snooty appeared at the Celebration, then. After that for about a week nothing happened. Then she turned up again, this time with pegasus guards, like Celestia's, with her. She said she was the Queen, and everypony needed to bow to her. Nopony liked that very much, and there was some grumbling and shouting about it, but the guards went out and dragged out all the ponies who complained and killed them. That kind of shut everypony up.
"She basically bullied us all into saying we'd do what she said. That lasted for all of three days, I think, before Rainbow Dash came back from Cloudsdale." Pinkie Pie smiled sadly. "She was there when mean old Black Snooty came here, and got to here by the time Black Snooty reached there, so she didn't see any of those speeches. Good thing, I think, or she'd have been killed right away. I don't know if you know her?"
"I do. In fact she's another one of the elements I'm here to gather."
"Then she isn't dead?"
"No. She's... she's not doing very well, but she's still alive."
"That's really peachy keen! I'm so glad. We never knew what happened to her. She started saying that it was wrong to just let Nightmare Moon rule, that she was evil, that we were Celestia's subjects, and that we should fight. She got pretty much the whole town of Ponyville all worked up. Her and Applejack, they were the ringleaders. I was with them, and the ponies you see here, and a good part of the town. The ones that weren't either ran off and hid, or they ran to Canterlot. Which of course brought Nightmare Moon and her guards right here. She came with pegaus and unicorn ponies, lots of them. There was a huge battle right in town, and for a little bit it looked like we might even win, but then old Black Snooty started throwing around really powerful magic. And that was that. When we knew it was all lost most of us ran for it, but Rainbow Dash and Applejack weren't having any of that. They said they'd hold off the guards as long as they could, so everypony else could make it to the forest and hide. And that was the last time I saw either of them.
"Most of the ponies who made it here to the forest were all full up to here with fighting, so they went off to try and live in other cities and towns, and pretend to be good little ponies for Nightmare Moon. But some stayed. And I thought to myself, 'self, even if we can't have a real rebellion, we can still do something.' So that's what we've been doing. Something, but not much. We steal food, we burn down guard posts, and do whatever other things my little brain can think up to do to cause chaos for Black Snooty and her Snooty guard. But sometimes a pony gets fed up and leaves, and sometimes one gets killed, and so we get smaller and smaller. I didn't know what else to do! I didn't want to join the meanypants brigade, but I didn't want to sit on my tail. I worried myself into a worrywart! And I started getting kind of crazy-sad, but not like I used to. I used to get a little bit crazy-sad, thinking my friends didn't really like me. But... I can't ever think that anymore. The first time you see a friend die for you, you know they're not just pretending to be your friend. But crazy-sad-grim isn't any fun either."
Pinkie had grown progressively quieter and looked progressively more downcast as she spoke, staring at the stones in front of her feet and missing the tears that were welling up in Twilight's eyes. But then all the sorrow evaporated from her face, swept into some secret place deep inside, and she grinned at Twilight. "Just plain crazy is okay! Maybe now I'll try crazy-mad. Because Black Snooty does make me mad! Really mad! So mad I just want to shoot steam out my ears sometimes!"
Twilight surprised herself by choking out a giggle. The image was so silly, even if everything behind it was so serious. "She makes me pretty mad too. But we're going to stop her, no matter what it takes."
Pinkie Pie sat up straight, assuming a slightly exaggerated air of being all business. "So what other ponies do you need? You said six. So there's me, and you, and Dashie, that leaves three."
"Applejack is one."
"Yay, she's alive too!"
"Rarity! She was one of the ones who left to try and live somewhere else. Will she join us?"
"She may have tried, but she failed to be a good enough subject of the Kingdom of Night, because she's working as a slave in a gem mine now."
"That's good. Well. It's not good that she's a slave, but it's good that she's not on Black Snooty's side!"
"Yeah. And the last pony we need is Fluttershy."
Pinkie's ears fell and her eyes went wide as saucers.
The Spark to Light a Candle
"You're really, totally, completely, cray-zee," said Pinkie Pie in an exaggerated whisper.
"I'm not crazy," said Twilight somewhat absently as she peered through the dead branches and down into a small clearing at the base of the hill. In the center of the clearing a yellow pegasus was grazing on mushrooms. She was thinner than the Fluttershy Twilight knew, and the ever-present moonlight clearly showed her matted, dreadlocked mane. Her coat was grungy and grimy, and all in all she looked more like a wild animal than a civilized, intelligent pony. But it was unmistakably Fluttershy. "We need Fluttershy if we're going to defeat Nightmare Moon. I managed to find the right thing to say to you. I think I can find something to say to Fluttershy too."
"I hope so," said Pinkie Pie.
Twilight and Pinkie crept backwards out of the bush to where the others were waiting. All thirteen of Pinkie Pie's rebels, plus Luna and Dale were there.
"All right. Everybody got the plan down?"
"Eyup," said big Mac. "Ya'll are goin' down thar to get that crazy critter-wrangler to join this here rebellion. Yer goin' to go in by yerself first so as not to scare her any. If any critters attack, ya'll want us to deal with 'em, but we ain't supposed to hurt 'em any, an' as usual the unicorns cain't use magic t' do it. I think Pinkie Pie is right, ya'll are plumb crazy. But we're willin' to try it."
"Thank you," said Luna, looking around at the gathered ponies. She hadn't intended to end up part of a larger rebellion, she knew that Twilight had planned for them to just recruit the other Elements of Harmony, but she was already realizing how very helpful these other ponies could prove to be. "Thank you all."
"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't know Fluttershy's creatures won't chase us very far if we run," chimed in ex-mayor Marie Mare. "We've had accidental run-ins with them before."
"Just don't be too quick to retreat if things get tough. I don't want anypony hurt, but we really need Fluttershy," said Twilight.
There were nods of agreement all around. These ponies were the bravest and toughest, the ones who'd survived and stuck with their small rebellion for all this time. Luna couldn't help but smile at them; they'd come through a great deal, and they were still willing to go through even more.
"Let's go!" said Pinkie Pie.
"Quietly, remember," whispered Twilight, with a hint of exasperation. She was already wondering how the pink and energetic mare had managed to run anything that required not being heard or seen for so long and expected that she'd wonder for a long time.
"Right," whispered Pinkie. She started tip-hoofing from tree to tree, and the others followed in her wake.
They managed somehow to read the edge of the clearing without alerting Fluttershy to their presence. Twilight stepped clear of the bushes and cleared her throat.
Fluttershy whirled around to face her, and her eyes went wide with terror.
"It's okay Fluttershy," said Twilight. "I'm a friend."
She didn't get any farther, because Fluttershy instantly spun around and bolted from the clearing. "Horseapples," muttered Twilight, and ran after her. The others broke free from hiding and followed.
"Ouch!" Something small and hard hit Luna on the head. She heard the chattering scolding of a squirrel, and there was a chorus of pained cries all around her as a hail of acorns came from the trees above.
"Run faster!" said Pinkie Pie. They dashed on, and eventually the hail of nuts ceased. Ahead was another clearing, and Luna caught a glimpse of yellow. Fluttershy was there.
"Please listen, Fluttershy!" cried Twilight. "This is important!"
Fluttershy backed away from Twilight several steps, fixing her with a terrified stare as she spoke, barely above a whisper. "Go away! Please!"
Twilight took one step forward, opening her mouth to entreat Fluttershy to listen, but that was apparently one step too far for the yellow pegasus. Fluttershy reared, spun on her hoof, and sprinted off again, dashing among the trees. Twilight muttered another curse and resumed the chase.
Luna took to the air, trying to see where Fluttershy was headed from above. Suddenly a cloud of birds came whirring up from the forest canopy. She found herself being pecked, clawed, and harassed by a dozen, including several large black crows whose powerful beaks could do her real damage. She dodged and wove through the air, but moving away from one attack often just put her in the path of another, and even the largest birds were much more maneuverable than she was. Cries from below indicated that the ground-bound ponies were being attacked as well, but so many birds were swarming in the open air above the forest that Luna was forced to the ground with them. She and the others ran frantically, more concerned with fleeing the attacking avians than with following Fluttershy.
After what seemed like an eternity of chaos, the birds finally slackened their attack, and as the ponies once more broke into a clearing in the forest the birds vanished back among the trees. Everypony was scratched and bleeding, though there seemed to be no serious injuries. Without being asked, Luna once again took to the air, scanning the forest below for a glimpse of yellow and pink. For a stomach-sinking minute she saw nothing at all, then, in the distance, a flash of color. It was just within the forest, near the fringes where Everfree bordered on a swamp.
"That way," she called out, and pointed.
"Let's go!" said Twilight, and the ponies below broke into a run once again.
This time they didn't even catch sight of their quarry before encountering resistance. And it was much more formidable than squirrels or birds. Their only warning was a rustle in the underbrush and a low growl, and suddenly there were wolves and other larger creatures everywhere. A manticore led the charge, its mouth open wide in a deafening roar, fangs dripping.
Twilight faltered, and the running ponies behind her slowed, but then Pinkie Pie shouted "Charge!" and Big Macintosh took the lead. He slammed into the manticore with an audible thud, and to Twilight's shock he bowled the larger creature completely off its feet. It let out a startled yelp.
The ponies formed a wedge by instinct, driving through the gap left by the manticore and pushing the wolves aside as they thundered past. Twilight rammed her shoulder into a wolf nearly as big as she was, not realizing what she was doing until the creature was already stumbling away and falling behind. Terror washed back over her as the analytical part of her mind automatically listed off half a dozen ways that shoulder-checking a wolf could have—should have!—gone horribly, messily wrong, and it sent her heart racing faster than any run ever had, but she wasn't going to stop now.
Behind them the scattered, bruised predators were getting to their feet and re-grouping, but the ponies were running flat out now, and none of their attackers seemed eager to continue the conflict. They were soon left behind.
Luna continued to fly overhead, directing the running ponies towards the occasionally glimpsed flash of yellow. Fluttershy was clear of the forest now, and Luna saw her take wing, then land on a hummock just inside the swamp.
Soon Twilight and the others broke free of the forest. They skidded to a halt at the edge of the swamp. "Fluttershy!" called out Twilight. "Will you please listen to us? We're trying to stop Nightmare Moon, and make this whole world a better place for ponies and for other creatures. But we need your help. Please, Fluttershy..."
Fluttershy glared at Twilight across the stretch of muddy water that lay between them. "Leave me alone!" she said, managing much more volume than she had previously.
"But Fluttershy..." Twilight stopped, and her eyes went wide. Behind Fluttershy a huge triangular head covered in pus-yellow scales had risen from the swamp. "F-Fluttershy! Watch out!" A second head rose next to it, then a third, and a fourth. All the ponies were staring up in horror as the hydra loomed over the tiny yellow pony. It stepped out of the water, its enormous feet landing on either side of the frail pegasus.
"Fluttershy! It's a hydra! Run!"
But Fluttershy simply stood where she was. Her eyes narrowed as she spread her hooves and dug them into the dirt, looking straight at Twilight, who took a half-step back. "Leave me...”
Twilight quailed at the combined power of that gaze and shout, falling back onto her hindquarters. Then the hydra lowered all four heads, hiding her view of the pegasus they had come seeking. Four mouths opened, showing four sets of formidable fangs, and the hydra roared. And then, stepping carefully over Fluttershy, it started forward.
"Run!" yelled Luna, and nobody below needed any further encouragement. Ditzy Doo took to the air beside Luna, while the others galloped back the way they'd come. They darted in between the tree trunks, and Luna hoped that the dense forest would stop the hydra, but it didn't even hesitate, it just plowed into the dead trees with a thunderous crash. Branches splintered, smaller trees toppled, and the hydra didn't even seem to notice any of it.
"Horseapples! Keep running, everypony," she called out. She looked back at the hydra. It wasn't all that fast, but it was going in a straight line, just plowing through everything in its path. The ponies were weaving and dodging among the trees and undergrowth. The hydra was going to catch up. If she could use her magic she could stop it easily, but that would alert Nightmare Moon. What am I going to do? Ditzy bobbed irregularly through the air next to her, and the two other pegasi in the group were airborne now too, but the rest of the ponies were earthbound. How could they escape? She looked around frantically for some idea. They she saw what had once been a huge open meadow a little ways off. Surely without having to dodge and weave through brush and trees the ponies would be able to outdistance their pursuer?
She swooped lower, calling out, "This way!" and led the ponies in the direction of the meadow. They galloped after her, with Twilight Sparkle panting heavily and bringing up the rear. Luna very soon broke out into the meadow with the others just behind her. They raced across the mushroom-laden field where once rich green grass had grown and, moments later, the hydra broke through the last of the trees and joined them. It roared with all four heads and to Luna's dismay it was still gaining on the running ponies.
The hydra lowered one of its heads, curling that neck like a snake to allow it to strike, and that's when Luna saw Twilight. Tiring rapidly, the purple unicorn had lagged far behind the rest of the herd.
"No!" The shout was ragged, hurled automatically out of Luna's mouth; the only thing she could possibly do in time. She was too far away to race a hydra's strike and win! She might as well have been still on the moon for all the help she would be able to give Twilight. There was simply no way! For the third time in her life, Luna knew the despair of complete helplessness; it felt like the bottom had dropped out of her stomach, and like her heart had simultaneously shot up into her throat.
But she tried. She raced toward Twilight on powerful wingbeats, straining every muscle. She cried out Twilight's name at the top of her lungs as the Hydra's head shot forward. Twilight stumbled when she heard it, falling face-first into the ground. The hydra plowed open-mouthed into the dirt scant feet in front of her, and Luna's heart leapt with renewed hope. Sometimes fate smiles on a pony who tries. She gritted her teeth and folded her wings, arrowing down towards the hydra. She zipped brazenly in front of its heads, banking and twisting, weaving back and forth in mid-air to try to confuse and distract it. For a moment it worked; the hydra halted, and two of the heads knocked into each other. As Luna exalted in her moment of triumph, a third shot out and hit her with stunning force. She cried out as she tumbled from the sky. When she lifted her head, she saw the head that had downed her looming over her, mouth gaping, sharp fangs glinting in the moonlight.
Then a pair of powerful hooves lashed out and slammed into the hydra, striking it directly on its nose. It shrieked, and the other three heads shrieked as well. A second head dipped down menacingly, and once again the pony standing over Luna lashed out with strength and speed, bucking the hydra's head so hard this time that there was an audible crunch of breaking bone.
This time it didn't shriek so much as wail, the heads all thrown back to keen at the sky. And then, amazingly, miraculously, it had had enough. It turned and retreated the way it had come. One of the uninjured heads peered back hungrily at them, but apparently it was out-voted by the other heads, for it swiftly vanished behind the trees and soon Luna couldn't even hear its footfalls.
She looked up to find Big Macintosh standing over her, looking down with an expression of concern.
"Are you all right, ma'am?"
Luna got shakily to her feet. She felt like one big bruise, but nothing seemed to be broken. "I think so, yes. Alicorns are tough. Although apparently you are tougher." She smiled at him, and somewhat to her surprise he blushed.
"T'weren't nothin', ma'am," he said, and ducked his head.
"Wow! That was super-scary!" said Pinkie Pie, bouncing over.
"You can say that again," said Twilight. She shuddered.
"Wow! That was super-scary!"
Luna giggled, a little hysterically; she was still feeling the shaky adrenaline aftermath of the fight. "So what now?"
Twilight sighed. "I guess we try to figure out a plan B. Because talking to Fluttershy definitely isn't working."
"Fluttershy takes 'never talk to strangers' to heart," said Pinkie Pie cheerfully.
"That is probably the real problem. Back in my world Fluttershy and I are friends, but when I first met her she wouldn't talk to me there either. It took her seeing Spike..." Twilight trailed off. Spike here was dead. A pang of homesickness went through her. She missed Spike already. She missed the sun. She missed her friends! She shook her head, trying to shake off the sadness. "Well... anyway, this Fluttershy doesn't know me at all. But if we could get somepony that she knows to talk to her--"
"She knows Dashie! You want to rescue her anyway, right?"
"Right! That's right! That's a very good idea. I should have remembered that Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash grew up together. I'm sure Rainbow Dash would be able to talk to her!"
"We should go back to home base," said Pinkie Pie. "It's getting late. We can plot plotting plotty plots to procure penned up ponies tomorrow."
Twilight looked at the moon, still nearly overhead, where it had been all this time. As far as she could tell it was fixed directly over Canterlot. "How can you tell how late it is?"
"By the stars, silly."
Twilight facehoofed. "Right. Of course. I should have realized. I think it's definitely time to rest, I can't think straight."
"We all could use some rest," said Luna.
"Follow the leader!" exclaimed Pinke Pie, and she bounced off into the woods, a trail of defeated but still hopeful ponies walking behind her.
Back at the ruined castle the ponies settled in for the night, though Twilight found herself wondering what you called the sleeping period when it was night all the time. Calling it "night" seemed very imprecise. She curled up under a tattered blanket, shivering just a bit. It was colder than it should be during a summer night. Though now that she thought about it, it was much warmer than it should be after a year with no sunlight to warm the land.
"It's cold," she said to Luna who was trying to get comfortable next to her, "but it's not frozen solid. Without any sunlight, shouldn't it be much colder?"
"Well you know the world is flat, right?"
Dale's head popped up from Luna's other side. "It's flat?! I thought it was a sphere!"
Luna giggled. "If it were a sphere, would not the horizon be curved? And ponies would fall off of it!"
"Actually," said Twilight, looking thoughtful, "if it were a big enough sphere you wouldn't see the curve."
"True. But what of the falling off?"
"Well, obviously gravity would pull towards the center, rather than pulling down. Then you'd stick on even if you were on the bottom. Except really there would be no bottom... That's a fascinating idea, really! I should work out the math..."
"You were explaining about the cold?" said Dale to Luna.
"Oh, right," said Twilight, looking sheepish.
"Well, when the sun is not overhead, 'tis passing underneath. It does still warm the world from below. So it should only be a little bit colder than a normal night. But for summer it does seem rather cool. It feels more like late autumn. We should ask the ponies here what the weather has been like this year. I really do not know what the effects of long-term night would be. I... did not think very much about consequences, back when I was, uh, you know."
Twilight nodded. "Well, you were hurting and just wanted to lash out. I think everypony has done that at some point, and it doesn't usually involve thinking anything through." She yawned. "But for now I think it's time for everypony to sleep."
"So we are headed to Manehattan?" Luna asked.
"Yep!" said Pinkie Pie. "Canterlot is closer, but doing the magic right under Black Snooty's nose is probably a bad idea. So Manehattan is the next place big enough to hide your spell. And who knows, Dashie might be right there!"
"I wish I'd taken the time to locate her before we left," said Twilight. "If she's in some other city this is going to take forever!"
Pinkie, Luna, Twilight and Dale were making their way to the edge of the forest. The others had stayed behind, since they weren't needed for the scrying spell and hopefully wouldn't be needed for Rainbow Dash's rescue either. Pinkie had insisted on coming along, though, and Twilight hadn't been able to say no.
"I had wanted to ask," said Luna as they walked through the woods, "about the temperature. What has the weather been like since Nightmare Moon's return?"
"I'll answer you that if you'll tell me your story." She looked around and in a conspiratorial whisper added, "I know who you are, but how come you haven't got a goatee?"
"What is it with you and goatees?" asked Twilight in exasperation.
"Duh! Everybody knows goatees are eeeeeeeeevil."
Twilight gave Pinkie Pie a flat, skeptical stare. Then she sighed. "Right. Of course. Evil."
"So tell me your story, and I'll tell you the story of how I got my cutie mark!"
Luna chuckled. "I have actually heard that story already, Pinkie. You were going to tell me about the weather, remember?"
"Aw, but that's boooring!"
"It might be important."
"Oh. Okay then! Boring stuff is all right if it's important. Surviving is what matters. And beating Black Snooty. So I'll tell you about the weather. But promise you'll tell me why you're not evil anymore, okay?"
"Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," said Luna, having spent enough time around the Pinkie Pie from her world to know the proper form.
"Okie-dokie!" said Pinkie Pie with a gleeful bounce, as if it were perfectly normal for cross-dimensional immortal princesses to know how to Pinkie-Pie-Swear. Maybe it was. "Weather! Right! Well it was pretty normal last summer. Other than being dark all the time, but you know about that. It was just like you'd expect from summer nights though. Warm, sometimes some rain, one good thunderstorm before the pegasus ponies mostly got jailed or killed in the Ponyville rebellion. Then we started getting wild weather from the forest, but it still wasn't anything too weird. But when the leaves were supposed to turn for fall, they were all dead already, because there wasn't any sun. And it didn't get cold, it stayed pretty much just the same. It got a little bit colder during winter, but there was no snow at all. Which I guess was a good thing since there was nopony around to wrap up winter, so it would have just sat there. When spring came it didn't get any warmer, it stayed just a little bit cold. And when summer came, or should have come I guess, it actually got colder. It's been slowly getting colder all summer long, in fact."
Luna frowned. "That is not good. I can understand the seasons getting disrupted, but it should not be getting colder like that. The sun should still be warming the world from beneath. Without the influence of magic to change the seasons it ought to just stay about the same. It should not get colder."
"What... what do you think could be causing it?" Twilight looked as worried as Luna felt. Luna suspect that as intelligent as Twilight was, she already suspected the likely cause of the increasing chill.
"I can't say for certain, but... the sun might be growing weaker."
"And that means Celestia is growing weaker as well."
"And if it keeps on... then what?"
"Then the world freezes solid. Which I never wanted, but this Nightmare Moon has changed a great deal over the last year. I know a lot about how she thinks, but I do not know everything anymore. She hates Celestia, I know that much, so she may well be the cause of this as well. Or it may be a natural result of Celestia's banishment, I don't know. Living on the moon was lonely, but it did not take much magic to keep me alive. The sun is a lot more hostile to pony life... staying alive may be draining Celestia's magic."
"One more reason to defeat Nightmare Moon and set Celestia free then," chimed in Dale.
"Yessiree!" said Pinkie, her renewed cheer still completely undampened. "But now that we've talked about the weather, tell me your story!"
"Why don't I tell you?" said Dale. "Luna has told it to me many times. She's probably tired of telling it." He smiled at Luna, and she could feel his supportive warmth through their bond. She nearly always cried when talking about the experiences she had gone through. She wasn't ashamed to cry in front of Pinkie Pie, but it was an emotionally draining experience, telling that tale, and she would be just as happy to let Dale tell it for her.
Pinkie Pie was apparently just as happy too, for she nodded with enthusiasm and fell in next to Dale, bouncing by his side as the four ponies proceeded on a path that would lead them eventually to the vast metropolis of Manehattan.
That left Luna and Twilight together almost alone, with Dale and Pinkie Pie thoroughly distracted. Luna glanced over at Twilight, the purple mare looking pensive in the ever-present moonlight. "Bit for your thoughts?"
Twilight shrugged. "Just thinking about everything we've been through. So many adventures in such a short time, my friends and I."
"I wish I could have been there for more of them," said Luna. "But it took me a while to be ready to face other ponies, after being alone so long, and then starting things off by... well, starting things off on the wrong hoof, to say the least."
"It's okay. I've enjoyed the time I've spent with you," said Twilight. "You're a good friend."
"Thank you." A good friend, thought Luna. Something I never really had before. I never let ponies get too close to me. There were so many reasons why books were safer. And there was always Celestia, there when I needed her. Until I wanted something she knew better than to give me, and suddenly I had cut myself off from her, and I was alone. Maybe if I had had just one friend back then things would have been different. But I avoided friends after...
"Bit for your thoughts this time?" asked Twilight. "You look sad."
Luna heaved a heavy sigh. "Yes. I was remembering."
"Remembering Nightmare Moon?"
"No. I was remembering before. One of the things that probably led to Nightmare Moon in the end, though at the time I never would have suspected. All I knew then was how hurt I was, and how alone. If Celestia had not been there for me I might have... I donot know. Gone mad, perhaps, although in a different way than Nightmare Moon's madness."
"I... I'm afraid you've lost me, Luna. You're not talking about the fight you had with Celestia when you first became Nightmare Moon, are you?"
"No. I'm talking about the origin of the royals. Which happened many hundred years before that."
"The origin of the royals?" Twilight looked utterly confused. Luna caught herself thinking that she was cute when she was confused.
"Yes. Have you ever wondered why Prince Blueblood calls himself Celestia's nephew, when she only has one sister and no brothers?"
"I... er... I assumed it was some sort of formality, or an adoption. Do you mean that he... and you... uh..."
Luna smiled. Her memories were sad, but Twilight's reaction was amusingly adorable. "He is my many-times-great-grandson."
"Oh. I see."
"You see some of it, at least. But not all. I was so young then. I had not even taken up my full power. A mere filly of two hundred and fifty years." She chuckled. "Of course that sounds old to most ponies. And if I had had a different upbringing I am certain I would have been mature enough by then, but I was raised by Celestia. She loved me. She loved me very much. And since she would never grow too old to care for me, she saw no reason to hurry me into adulthood and responsibility. She took care of everything for me, saw to my every need, and showered me with love and affection. It was wonderful, to have more than two centuries of being a beloved child, but it also meant that I never had any reason to grow up. So I did not. But of course physically I was a grown mare. And predictably that fact was eventually noticed by a stallion.
"I have always been introverted. Even before ponies discovered books I still spent much of my time studying alone. It is just that in those days I studied the world directly. I flew in search of plants and animals, and watched their life cycles, and learned. I once followed and observed a family of wolves for twelve generations. Wolves have complex lives, and I learned much from them. But one day, as I observed the growth of a young tree and considered what I might learn if I could watch it for its entire lifespan, I encountered a stallion.
"He said he was a scholar of nature too. I knew nothing of lying in those days. Plants and animals do not lie. He said many things, and I still do not know exactly how he knew so much about me. My sister, also more innocent then than she is now, may well have told him, all unsuspecting. But however he knew, he had just the right words to soothe and charm a wild creature such as myself. It was only later that I learned that he cared nothing for me. He wanted the power that would come with being wedded to one of the ruling princesses. That was all I was to him, a way to power. He was the center of his own universe, and there was no room for any other light there, certainly not for such brilliant lights as love or friendship.
"But I did not know that, not then. I loved him. Or I thought I did. I am still not sure. It may have just been infatuation. He was handsome, and witty, and he showered me with attention, praise, and gifts. And, well, eventually things progressed as they are wont to do between stallion and mare, and I found myself pregnant.
"That was when I found out what sort of stallion he really was. He did not want the foal. He wanted marriage, and a throne at my side, but children were of no interest to him. He actually tried to make me... to make me get rid of her." Luna was walking more slowly now, her attention turned inward. "I wanted the foal, and wouldn't even consider any other option. So we fought. We argued and debated and screamed, more viciously than any of my later arguments with Celestia. And finally he lost his temper completely and told me how he really felt about me, how he had only been using me to get power.
"So that was the end of that. Celestia stepped in and made him vanish. I never knew what she did with him; for all I know she turned him into a frog. I certainly never saw him again. In time, I bore a beautiful little filly. She had my eyes.... but she had her father's coat. And every time I looked at her I hated her just a little, for being part of him. I've never been wise, but I was wise enough to know that a filly should not have to grow up with a mother who hates her. Celestia found a couple who could not have foals, who wanted her very much. They raised her. I very seldom saw her at all. I was too hurt. But she grew up, and had children, whose children had children, and Celestia always took special care of them. All the nobles in the kingdom now are descended from that little filly, but the line of Prince Blueblood is direct, oldest child to oldest child." A faint smile flitted across Luna's face. "And I can not stand that smarmy, selfish cad. He takes after his ancestor far too much. Some days I want to turn him into a frog myself! But Celestia puts up with him, and with the others that have been like him. She told me that... during my banishment they were all she had of me, so she cared for that family as if they really were her direct nieces and nephews, and not a hundred times removed."
Luna trailed off, then shook herself before picking the main thread of her tale back up. "But that old hurt is a large part of why I never had any friends. I never let anyone get close to me, after that. Perhaps if I had had a friend I might not have become Nightmare Moon. Celestia was my only confidant, so when I disowned her I was left with nothing but my own anger. A friend might have made all the difference." Luna heaved another deep sigh. "Here Dale was trying to spare me from telling old, sad stories, and I have gone and told one anyway."
"I'm sorry," said Twilight. "I didn't mean to pry into your personal life."
"No, it is all right." Luna smiled at her. "I don't mind telling you about it. You are my best friend. And anyway it is such an old story. That all happened many hundreds of years before my banishment, so I have had time to heal. Nightmare Moon is a bit more of a recent wound... and sometimes the thought of confronting her here terrifies me, if I am being honest. But I have to do it. I-- just have to."
"Well, with any luck at all we'll gather all the Elements before she even knows we're here, and you won't have to do anything but hold her off for a few minutes while we summon their power."
"Yes... I hope so."
"Foals, all of them," muttered the black alicorn. Her guards were once again dragging away a petitioner who had annoyed her. The petitioners, guards, and servants had worn a clear path through the frost that now thickly adorned the throne room. Traceries of white crawled up the walls and a fuzzy blanket of tiny crystals covered the floor. Ice, pure and pristine, the perfect form of order, met her eyes almost everywhere she looked now. Everywhere except that path from the door to her throne. She frowned at the expanse of clear stone. She would rather have the frost. Perhaps she should forbid them to come here and speak to her at all.
But then who would worship and flatter her? Who would bring word of how much her subjects loved her eternal night? What was the point of all she'd done to grasp power if she never saw her subjects? She might as well be back on the moon. No! She'd fought hard to gain this power!
Her mind went back to those early battles. The strange unicorn that had tried to use the Elements of Harmony against her had been the first to oppose her, but there had been others as well. They were all dead now. Dead or enslaved... as all who dared stand against her should be!
For a moment she could taste the magic of that first death spell, and hear the thud of the unicorn mare's body hitting the floor. She had never killed before that moment.
The alicorn pushed the memory aside. The sentimental, childish part of her that had once been named Luna had cringed away from killing, with thoughts about such things as the value of life, wrong, and right, and justice. But Nightmare Moon was above all those. She had long since rid herself of all but the merest wisps of that weak foal Luna. Wrong was whatever displeased her. Right was whatever pleased her the most. The only justice was the justice she dispensed, the justice where those who pleased her were rewarded and those who failed were punished, which was exactly as it should be. And as for those who rebelled against her... death was what such stupid and flawed creatures deserved! But ponies were all stupid, all flawed, and with each passing day she despised them more. Messy, demanding, emotional creatures. Ice was so much better than any living thing. Her magic caressed a tendril of frost, once again tracing its curls and branches.
Perhaps she could make servants of ice.
Yes. Yes! Servants of ice. She was already working to weaken the sun, her sister's sun that she hated so much. And the weaker the sun grew, the stronger the ice would become. Someday perhaps all the flawed, stupid, messy ponies would be dead and frozen, and she would be served by perfect, pristine, elegant creatures of ice. She imagined that world, and she smiled.
Her horn began to glow. "Time to do battle once more, my dear sister. You have held out admirably for such a weakling, but now tormenting and draining you is more than just a hobby. It's my new goal in life."
She threw back her head and laughed.
"Here we are."
They had reached the fringes of Manehattan as the "daytime" stars were sinking and true night was arriving. The city was an unsettling mixture of normal pony life and stark reminders of the harsh reality of Nightmare Moon's rule. They had passed through the suburbs, where some houses glowed with light as ponies prepared for bed, and the occasional happy shout of a child still at play could be heard. But many houses, as many as one in three, were dark and deserted, and none of them had lawns or gardens anymore. Most showed some attempt to clear away the dead plants and put other things, statuary and sand gardens and beds of gravel, in their place. But many of the still occupied homes had the sad, rotten remnants of grass and flowers still moldering in their yards, a testament to crushed spirits who could no longer care enough to try and make their surroundings pleasant.
They had passed swiftly through the residential suburbs and into a commercial area, where Pinkie Pie led them straight to a deserted warehouse.
"The rebel base! Nopony ever comes here anymore, so it's safe. And we're surrounded by enough unicorns that you can do your magic now. Though a big enough spell might still get noticed by sompony."
"Scrying isn't a very powerful spell," said Twilight, looking around the dark room. She lit the tip of her horn, feeling a kind of relief to be able to use ordinary magic again. She hadn't realized how much she depended on it until she'd had to do without. "Now I just need something to scry in. We should have brought a bowl or something."
"How about a bucket?" Pinkie Pie dashed off, and returned bearing a battered tin bucket. The building turned out to still have running water in a grungy little bathroom next to the receiving office, so soon the bucket was filled and the four ponies were gathered around it.
"Should I cast the spell, or do you want to?" asked Twilight, looking at Luna.
"You go ahead. You know Rainbow Dash better than I do."
Twilight nodded. Her horn glowed as she constructed the spell. A moment later the image of a rainbow-haired blue pony had appeared in the bucket. She was standing in a stall, head down, looking listless. Twilight's heart lurched to see her like that. And with the harness off the full extent of her mutilation was clear. Broad scars ran down her sides, and there was no remnant of her wings at all. Her mane and tail were limp, the bright colors seeming to mock the horrors that Rainbow Dash had endured.
"Poor Dashie," said Pinkie, her voice thick with unshed tears. "Poor, poor Dashie."
"At least we can set her free," said Twilight grimly. "Now let's see where she is." The spell zoomed out, their point of view passing through a wall so that they could see the stable where Dash was being held captive. Then it pulled back further, letting them view an urban commercial district. Then further, and they could see towering buildings, and then a slice of ocean. A moment later the Pony of Liberty came into view, brightly lit and glowing against the dark ocean. "She's here then, in Manehattan."
"I am surprised they have not pulled the statue down," said Luna. "She stands for tolerance, love, and liberty. Not really things that this Nightmare Moon seems to value. Although... I suppose she may not know that. I learned it while reading a book on the history of the griffon kingdom. One of their greatest artisans made her as a gift to Equestria, to symbolize the friendship between the two nations. I wonder how much time Nightmare Moon spends with books?"
"I heard that she spends almost all her time just sitting in her throne room, being creepy and brooding. And that half the time if you get in to see her she'll just have you thrown in a dungeon," said Pinkie Pie.
"That sounds about right. Brooding is all I did on the moon. Living with Celestia I quickly got back into the habit of reading and learning, and now I have friends as well, but without anypony to encourage her to change, the old habits from so long on the moon are probably still with her. And she has all her own crimes to brood on now, as well as her hatred for everypony else. She's probably more miserable now than I ever was. And misery breeds more hatred."
Twilight dismissed the spell, leaving the bucket showing nothing but the reflection of the ceiling above. She took her saddlebags from her back and set them on the floor. After a moment of rummaging she came up with a sheaf of papers. Luna was momentarily amused to see that the one on top was a checklist of Elements and ponies. An overly-complete list, since the first entry was "Twilight Sparkle – Magic." Below that "Pinkie Pie – Laughter" was checked off as well. Twilight shuffled that one to the bottom of the pile, revealing a page of closely-written notes. "So now we need to make plans. I've read a lot about tyrants and oppressive government, but Pinkie, you've been living here, you can probably tell me a great deal. The books said," she glanced down at her notes, "that one of the almost universal conditions in a tyranny is that every subject or citizen has to have official paperwork of some kind. It said that sometimes the ruling tyrant will settle for making certain classes of citizens identify themselves, there was a bit about one of the zebra nations and their treatment of specific zebra clans... But anyway, I've seen ponies wearing those moon badges, does every pony have to wear one?"
Pinkie blinked at Twilight. "Badges? Badges?! We don't need no stinking-" she stopped abruptly. "Wait! You're right! Everypony does wear a moon badge. Though they're not all the same."
"Well, we're going to need some badges then, if we're to move around without getting caught. I'd hoped we could just go straight to the rescue, but I don't want to botch this. So we're probably going to have to spend some time in study and research. If there are different kinds of badges they probably mean different things. Ranks, maybe. If we can get our hooves on a high-ranking badge we might be able to walk right in and set Rainbow Dash free."
"Good idea," said Luna. "At least the study and research. I am not sure about ordering Rainbow free. Maybe with a disguise... we do not want to let Nightmare Moon get any hint at all of who we are and what we are up to. She may not know about the Elements of Harmony, but if she notices we are setting her slaves free she may take steps to stop us. And if we confront her before we've gathered all six elements... well, I should be able to fight her to a standstill, I have said that. But a lot of bystanders might get hurt in the process, and a standstill is not what we want, we want a decisive victory." Luna wasn't going to mention her own fears and doubts; she couldn't bear to lay more on Twilight's shoulders.
"Right. The first order of business then is to find out more about the badges. Time for some more scrying, I think."
Dale, Luna, and Pinkie started setting up a sort of indoor camp while Twilight once again cast her scrying spell and started looking for the information they would need.
"How does my illusion look?" Luna looked back at herself. Her wings were invisible, and she was wearing an illusory gown that rippled with rainbow swirls of color, which covered her cutie mark completely.
"You look very elegant," said Twilight. "Good enough to make Rarity jealous." For some reason Twilight Sparkle was blushing, but Luna didn't get the chance to think about exactly why that might be before Pinkie cut in.
"Do me next! Do me! Do me!" said Pinkie Pie, with her usual boundless enthusiasm. Luna smiled and cast a second illusion spell. This one was much simpler, it merely hid Pinkie's cutie mark, replacing it with a cluster of flowers.
Twilight's cutie mark was disguised as well, and Dale had one added to his blank flank. He looked back at the compass rose that Luna had chosen. "Any reason for that particular design?"
"You look like a royal. And Twilight tells me that quite a few of them have... what was the phrase?"
"Sucked up to Nightmare Moon," said Twilight with an expression of disgust. "And fallen over each other to kiss her flank. Though I shouldn't have been surprised, given the only royal I know, Blueblood, is definitely one of those thriving under Nightmare Moon's rule. She seems to encourage some ponies to lord it over other ponies, just so long as everybody bows to her."
Luna sighed. "I suppose I should feel relieved that I can hardly imagine behaving like that. But in any case, the compass rose is so Dale and I will seem like a high class couple, just the sort of pony who would hire a carriage for no particular reason, and I in particular shall play the sort of pony who would be shallow enough to insist that the carriage or the pony pulling it match her outfit." Luna grinned. "We know they do not have a rainbow carriage, so they shall be forced to produce their only rainbow pony. Then we just hijack the carriage and set Rainbow Dash free. Easy as pie!"
"Pie is actually kind of hard," said Pinkie with a frown. "At least if you want the crust to be any good. Though pie filling is really easy!" Her frown changed to a broad grin. "And delicious! I like to just eat it without the rest of the pie sometimes! I really miss pie. When Black Snooty is all gone I am going to make every kind of pie and cake and cupcake there is in celebration, and have the biggest party ever!"
"I am looking forward to it, Pinkie." Luna smiled gently at the pink pony. She was very glad that Pinkie seemed so lightly touched by the hardships she'd endured. Pinkie had begun to lose hope, but having that hope again had been all she had needed to bounce back to nearly her old self. If anything she was stronger for the challenges she'd faced. Luna suspected that Rainbow Dash might have a harder time of it, but there was nothing they could do about that but rescue her as soon as possible.
"Well... let's go," said Twilight, apparently mirroring Luna's train of thought.
They set out through the city streets. The half abandoned commercial district where they began was nearly silent, but as they approached the heart of the city the light and sound grew, until they were surrounded by bustling ponies of every color and description. All of them carried a crescent moon badge of some kind. Most wore simple laminated cards on cords around their necks, but some had jeweled badges, or beautifully embroidered badges sewn to their clothing. Luna's illusions included badges for all four rebels. They would hold up to examination by any but the most skilled of unicorn mages. As this was Manehattan and not Canterlot, Luna wasn't very worried. There were unicorns enough here, but the best had always lived in the royal city of unicorns, where all the best schools of magic and the most prestigious magical societies were.
They reached a street where nearly all the shops were shuttered, closed for lack of business or, more likely, because the proprietors had done something to catch the attention of Nightmare Moon's Night Guard. The quartet had already passed several of the intimidating guardsponies. They were obviously picked from the strongest colts in Equestria, huge draft ponies wearing black enameled armor. Most were earth ponies; Twilight Sparkle's scrying had revealed that Nightmare Moon kept the Black Corps of unicorns and the pegasus Shadowbolts close to her, sending them out in overwhelming numbers to utterly crush any signs of organized resistance they could find. Pinkie's rebels had been raided by them twice, both times cutting their numbers massively. That was how a force that had once been made of much of the population of Ponyville had been reduced to only a dozen ponies.
It had made Luna's heart race, to walk past those armored ponies. Some part of her was certain that they were going to see through her illusions and arrest them all on the spot. Only Dale's silent mental reassurances had kept her expression calm. She had no idea how Pinkie Pie and Twilight were managing.
But now they had reached the first stop. "Here's where we wait," said Twilight. The street was no grungy back alleyway, which the carriage driver would be suspicious about, but it was utterly deserted. The rebel quartet needed there to be no witnesses to what would happen here.
Twilight and Pinkie Pie stopped there, sitting on the curb and chatting, trying to look innocent; just two friends who'd happened to meet and stop to talk. Luna and Dale continued onward and soon reached the stable. Luna had to work hard to keep an expression of disgust off her face as she watched a carriage drive out of the building. A number of nearby kingdoms had gone through unfortunate periods of slavery. Equestria hadn't; Celestia would never have put up with such a thing and her influence was part of the reason that slavery was less of a problem in the modern world. Obviously, though, some ponies were all too eager to rake in the bits wrung involuntarily from the hard use of others.
Still, she wasn't here to abolish slavery. She was here to rescue Rainbow Dash. With Nightmare Moon defeated and Celestia back on her throne, the slavery problem would take care of itself.
Dale held the door for her as she walked inside. The front room was half guardroom and half office. She ignored the two uniformed Night Guard and approached the earth pony who sat at a desk just inside the room. He was dressed in gold-trimmed black as well, but his neatly pressed outfit wasn't so much a uniform as it was the livery of a high class servant. On a bench behind him half a dozen young ponies dressed in plainer versions of the same livery sat and fidgeted in the way of bored young colts everywhere.
"May I help you?"
Luna put her nose up in the air and spoke down to the servant in the haughtiest tone she could manage. "I require a carriage immediately."
"Yes ma'am. It will be twenty bits."
Luna dropped a bag of bits on the desk. They clanked just as they should. It took everything she had not to hold her breath as the clerk took them. If he had a touch-stone to test them for illusion it would not go well. Their scrying hadn't caught him using one, but that didn't mean he might not have one, and if something made him suspicious... but no, he simply dropped the illusory bits into his cash box.
"Thank you. I'll have your coach prepared right away."
"Not just any coach, young stallion," said Luna, her nose still in the air as she tried to do her best impression of the snottiest royal unicorn mare she could remember. "I have particular requirements. I must have a coach and pony as magnificent as my gown. I insist upon transportation that is stylish."
The clerk looked at the rainbow swirled dress. His eyes went just a little bit wild. Luna could almost see him thinking that he didn't know anything about style or how to match a coach or a pony to a gown. And she suspected that the consequences for upsetting a customer, when the customers tended to be favored subjects of Nightmare Moon, might be dire. "Uh..."
"Perhaps you could let us look at the coaches and ponies available?" broke in Dale.
The clerk's expression of relief was almost comical. "Yes, of course, right this way."
The office led into a huge barn of a room, where several black and silver carriages were parked in a line, waiting to go out the huge double door to one side. Beyond them, at the back of the room, were the stalls where the unfortunate pony slaves were penned. They were not prison cells; in fact, they looked to have been adapted directly from cow stalls. The building had no doubt actually been a barn before being converted to its present use. Cities did sometimes have a few quasi-farms near their hearts, sometimes dairy farms providing fresh milk to the residents, or sometimes working donkeys who did much of the hard labor that some ponies found beneath them.
The stalls might as well have been cells, though, for all the chance of escape they afforded. Luna noticed a glow of magic as she walked through the door into the room; a similar glow hung over the large double doors. Even if a pony slipped their bridle and got out of their stall, they wouldn't be leaving: the magic would keep them trapped inside. No doubt harsh punishments awaited those who made such a futile attempt.
She had to work hard to keep sympathy and sorrow from showing on her face. Dale was an immense help, projecting a gentle reminder of what they were here for and how important it was into her mind. That thought was enough to make her expression hard and serious again, which would pass well enough for the necessary hauteur. She swept her gaze across the carriages, and frowned at the clerk. "These will do, I suppose. Black, at least, does not clash. But I really must insist on something a bit more showy. Let me see the ponies."
"Of course ma'am." The clerk led her, with Dale trailing after, past the coaches and to the row of stalls. It was actually a double row of stalls, which a second row back to back with the one facing her. A corridor led around the end of the row to the other side, but she immediately made out the pony she was looking for on this side, several stalls down.
She pointed. "That one. That's the one I want."
"The blue one, ma'am?"
"Yes. With the rainbow mane. It will match my dress beautifully."
Rainbow Dash was standing with her head down and her eyes closed. When the clerk went in and led her out, she followed him with a broken, dazed docility that made Luna want to weep. She had to look away while the clerk harnessed her friend to the carriage. One of the young liveried ponies came out and held the door open for Luna and Dale, who climbed in. It was an immense relief to Luna to not have to look at the scarred, listless form of her friend anymore. If they hadn't been mere minutes away from setting her free,she might have been tempted to abandon the plan, attack the clerk, and let her go right there on the spot. As it was, she had to keep herself occupied with other thoughts. Attack and defense spells filed across her mind's eye in an expanding tree of possible needs and scenarios, as she and Celestia had practiced. A corner of her attention noted the sound of the driver shutting the door and climbing into his seat.
The driver called back, slightly muffled, "Where to?"
Luna gave him the address of a house just on the other side of Twilight's ambush so that his route would be certain to pass by it. He flicked the reins and Dash started forward at a slow, tired amble.
"This one's a little bit slow, ma'am. If you're in a hurry I can make her go faster."
"No need for that, I am in no hurry at all," said Luna, cringing at the idea of the driver whipping Rainbow to greater speed.
"A slow ride is a much more comfortable one," said Dale, loudly enough for the driver to hear. He gave Luna a small, reassuring smile. With the door closed and the driver unable to see, Luna dared to smile back. The coach rattled its way along without any further conversation. That was just as well; the closer they got to the ambush point, the more nervous Luna grew. Twilight had practiced the knockout spell several times on Dale and Pinkie, who'd both volunteered to be guinea pigs. But what if something went wrong with the spell this time? What if a guard came along just then? What if something else went horribly wrong?
Just as she started to work herself up into a panic, Dale silently soothed her once more. He projected reassurance and calm, that sank slowly into her, and gradually her stomach stopped clenching in fear.
:I don't know what I would do without you,: she said to him through their mental link.
:You'd manage,: was his warm response. :You were doing fine when we were chasing Flutterhsy and fighting all those creatures.:
:That is different. Battle is... different. Dealing with ponies, especially in the heart of such a crowd of them, that is harder. Some random pony could walk by at any moment and do anything at all. They are so unpredictable! I am much more used to books, or even battles, than all these ponies.:
:True enough, I suppose. But the odds are on our side, and Twilight has planned this all out rather meticulously. It should go off without a hitch. It'll be going off in just a moment, in fact. Look:
Luna obliged, glancing out through a gap in the curtains. She recognized the corner of the street they'd left Pinkie and Twilight on, and watched the sidewalk pivot slowly as the carriage made the turn. She caught a glimpse of the two mares in ambush, still sitting, apparently ignoring the carriage as it rattled towards them. Twilight was still looking away, even, when her horn started to glow, and Luna spared a fleeting thought to admire the unicorn's finesse. When Twilight finally turned directly to the driver to finish the spell, the colt slumped over instantly, painlessly, and with absolutely no fuss. He would stay out for several hours, or until somepony woke him.
Rainbow apparently didn't even notice. She kept plodding along until Pinkie Pie landed directly in front of her, startling the rainbow-maned pegasus out of her stupor. Immediately, she craned her neck back to look at the driver, which is when she saw Luna and Dale scrambling out of the carriage. Her attention was grabbed next by her harness suddenly beginning to glow; when she looked down, she saw the buckles of her harness unfastening themselves. When she looked back up, she saw Twilight's horn glowing with a matching hue. As all the pieces slotted into place in Rainbow's mind, the alarm in her eyes began to fade.
When the four rescuers gathered in front of Rainbow, she still hadn't moved. Her eyes had faded back to half-lidded hopelessness, and she stared at the other ponies' hooves.
"Let's go, go, go!" said Pinkie.
"You're free now, come on," said Twilight.
"No," said Rainbow Dash flatly. "I'm not going anywhere."
"No. I'm not going anywhere."
The other four ponies gaped at Rainbow Dash.
"What?" said Twilight.
"Are you all deaf? I said I'm not going. Put the harness back on me and I'll walk back to the stable."
"You're crazy!" burst out Pinkie Pie, with her usual tact.
"No, I'm not crazy. So I'm notcoming with you."
"But Rainbow, we need you," said Twilight pleadingly.
"Yeah, right. You don't need a crippled failure. And even if you did, I still wouldn't be joining whatever stupid rebellion you have planned this time."
"We do need you. Without you we haven't got a chance of defeating Nightmare Moon."
"Did you get hit on the head? Are you mistaking me for another pony? Or are you just stupid? You don't need me, and I don't care if you do. Get it through your heads, I'm not coming with you!"
"But Dashie, why?" asked Pinkie Pie.
"Why? Why? You were there when 'why' happened, Pinkie, the first stupid time around!" The anger in Rainbow's voice collapsed into bitterness as she continued. "I've already given more than I had to give. If I go with you and fight again, what'll they take this time? Are they gonna cut off my back legs so I have to drag myself everywhere? Maybe they'll take out my eyes! At least then I wouldn't have to look at the sky anymore!" The renewed anger in Rainbow's voice quickly died back to cold, bitter embers again as she stared at the cobblestones under her hooves. "They'll probably just kill me this time. Which would almost be a relief, but I'm not so tired of living yet that I want to join you and your crazy rebels. You haven't got any chance of accomplishing anything except getting yourselves all maimed and killed. I've been there, done that, and I'm not doing it again! Now put me back in that harness and let me go back to what little life I have left!"
"Oh Dashie... it's not like that this time."
"It's not? Have you got Celestia stashed away somewhere then? Because I don't see any sunlight yet."
"We do not have Celestia," said Luna, breaking in. "But we do have me." She dropped her illusion, revealing her wings, and spread them slightly. "I am an alicorn too. And we have stronger magics even than that. Which is why we need you, Rainbow. There is a way to defeat Nightmare Moon, a way that has worked in the past, on other worlds, but we cannot do it without you."
Rainbow Dash stared at Luna. For a moment a touch of wonder and hope crossed her face, but as Luna finished speaking her eyes narrowed again. "There is no way that some big, awesome magic needs me. My answer is still no! How many times do I have to tell you crazy ponies that? No! I've lost my wings! Fighting Nightmare Moon cost me the sky! I have nothing left to give!"
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence in the wake of Rainbow's tirade. What does a pony say in response to such things? How could they ask somepony who had given so much to give even more? But then Twilight had a scrap of memory float through her head, and with it came a flicker of hope. She took a deep breath and said, "What if you could get your wings back?"
"Don't say that!" Rainbow leapt up to stand nose-to-nose with Twilight; she was practically vibrating with anger. "Don't you dare say that! Nothing can give me my wings back!"
"I wouldn't say it if I didn't have strong evidence it might be true," said Twilight sternly. She leaned back and away from Dash, but held her ground. "The magic that we need you for, the Elements of Harmony, has restored ponies before. We were all bruised and battered, and more than that, one of my friends had lost her tail; but after we used the Elements all our scrapes and scratches were healed, and the tail had been restored as if it had never been lost." Rainbow opened her mouth to speak, but Twilight pushed on. "I won't make you any false promises. A tail isn't the same as a pair of wings. But it's a chance, and a real one. This isn't some kind of story where everything ends happily ever after, but it's also not a hopeless endeavor. Luna is a match for Nightmare Moon all by herself. With you and the other bearers of the Elements of Harmony with us we have a real, solid chance to beat Nightmare Moon permanently and completely. So please reconsider, Rainbow. We're not crazy, we really do need you. Please."
Rainbow stared at Twilight with intense, narrowed eyes for a long time. "If you have something that great, why aren't you saying 'it's sure to work' and 'we can't possibly fail'?"
"Because nothing is sure. Something can always go wrong. But this is something that has worked, and can work. All we need is the right group of ponies, and that group includes you."
"Me. Rainbow Dash. The cripple."
Twilight opened her mouth to insist that Rainbow was not a cripple, but she managed to finish her second thoughts before the words came out of her mouth. Instead, she just nodded and gave a simple "Yes."
"And I'll get my wings back if I join you."
"Okay. I'm in."
Pinkie Pie bounced up and down and cheered. The other ponies exchanged grins. Rainbow Dash, though, held up a hoof. "If."
Pinkie stopped cheering.
"If?" asked Twilight, feeling suddenly unaccountably nervous. She had the horrible feeling that all her plans were about to go right out the window.
"If you rescue the rest of the ponies in the slave stable."
"What? You are crazy!" said Pinkie Pie. "They'll be free once we defeat Nightmare Moon, that is way more important!"
"I'm not leaving without them."
"But..." started Twilight.
"No. That's my condition for joining your dumb rebellion and risking everything. You want me, you free my friends."
My friends. Twilight heard those words, saw the determination on Rainbow's face, and suddenly her heart lifted. Her plans had definitely just gone out the window. Rescuing more than a dozen ponies was going to complicate things immensely, but even so, Twilight felt an enormous weight of worry disappear from the back of her mind as she looked at the pony they had come to rescue. Wings or no wings, the pony that stood before her was still Rainbow Dash; she was still the ponyfication of Loyalty.
She was still the pony who was Twilight's friend.
A broad grin spread across Twilight's face. "We'll do it."
"Twilight..." Luna looked worried. "...is this a good idea?"
Twilight laughed. "Maybe not. But it's worth doing."
"Time to plan." Back at the "rebel base" Twilight floated a pencil over a fresh sheet of paper while Luna, Dale, and Pinkie Pie looked at her expectantly. Rainbow Dash had refused to come with them, even temporarily, without her friends. Luna and Dale had gotten back into the carriage, loudly slamming the door closed just as Twilight released the driver from her sleep spell. He had awoken with a start and immediately glanced around himself fearfully, thoroughly convinced that he had somehow dozed off.
Rainbow had promised that she'd let the other enslaved ponies know that rescue was coming, so they would be ready. Twilight just had to come up with some way to get a dozen ponies out of a guarded stable, without letting Nightmare Moon know who had done it.
"This is not going to be easy," she said. The expectant faces of the other three, all obviously certain she could come up with yet another brilliant plan, made her stomach twist. "I... I really don't know what to do! Even if we somehow lure away the guards, clerk, and drivers, when they come back they'll notice all the ponies are gone, and rescue by rebels is the obvious conclusion!"
Pinkie Pie frowned. Luna's brow furrowed as she thought. "We have to somehow make them think something else has happened to them. Re-direct them in a different direction. What if... hmm... I cannot make an illusion that would last more than a day or two, otherwise I would suggest we put illusory bodies in the stalls, make them think something had killed them all."
Twilight thought about that. "Yes, having Nightmare Moon think they're dead would be great. But if we can't leave bodies behind..." She thought some more. Then her face lit. "Of course! I know exactly what we need to do. We just need to work out the details. Except..." she frowned again. "I know you're good at illusions Luna, but just how good? Can you do sight, scent, sound, and touch at the same time, across a whole building?"
Luna considered. Purely visual illusions were easy. Sounds weren't too hard either. Touch was trickier, doing the illusory coins that could be felt earlier had been the hardest part of their plan, magically speaking. Adding scent, and making it cover an entire building... "I suppose it depends on what the illusion is of. If I have to fill a building with individual ponies that move and talk and can be felt, I could not do it without drawing on the moon's power, which is of course a Bad Idea, but if it were something simpler I might be able to."
"It is fairly simple. I need to light something on fire."
"Ooo, fire!" said Pinkie Pie, with an unexpected glint in her eye and enthusiasm in her voice. "I can set things on fire for you!"
"Uh... thank you Pinkie, but I don't need real fire. Or rather I don't need real fire right away; I suppose you could set a fire for me later on for this plan. But Luna... can you make a fire that's really convincing? It would need to feel hot and smell right."
"Heat is much easier than doing solid tactile illusions. Fire is fairly easy visually and aurally as well. The scent will be the most difficult, but... yes, I think I can do it."
"Good. Here's the plan then."
The other three gathered close as Twilight explained how they were going to rescue Rainbow Dash's friends.
"Ready Luna?" whispered Twilight from where they both crouched in the dingy alley behind the slave stable. It was dark, of course--it was always dark. The eternal night was wearing more and more on Twilight with each passing--well, not with each passing day, but... whatever passed for such here. Her mind knew that dawn wasn't coming, but her body and soul kept hoping for a relief that never appeared. She was heartily sick of night already, and she knew that even Luna felt the same. She couldn't imagine how the ponies that had lived with it for more than a year were coping. But perhaps they weren't, really. The lighted streets of the city were strangely manic, pretending to a never-ending brightness and energy as if it were a Summer Sun's Night that never stopped. It did ebb at times; nopony could party forever, not even Pinkie Pie. Not even a depressed subject of Nightmare Moon pretending desperately that they were happy and all was well.
Now was one of those ebb times. If night and day had had any meaning, it would have been the small hours before the dawn, but of course no dawn was coming. Not yet.
"Ready," replied Luna.
"Ready, but I hope I won't be needed."
"I hope so too." Half to herself Twilight added, "Maybe we are crazy."
"Probably," replied Luna quietly, with the ghost of a smile. "But we are doing this anyway." Her horn began to glow. This would be her show most of all, so she obeyed her own cue to begin. The other ponies' parts would come once her illusion was well underway.
Her fire started small. The first flicker of flame that licked up from a pile of straw sitting against the wall the barn shared with the office was hardly bigger than a candle's flame. It was easier to build a small illusion and then push it outward, and it would look more natural that way. It looked like fire. It sounded like fire, though at first the crackle was small. It smelled like fire. And it radiated heat like fire, though the heat was as unreal as everything else. If it hadn't been, the false fire would soon have started real fires as it grew.
She built it rapidly from there. There could be no chance of an attempt to put it out! It appeared to consume the haystack entirely. It climbed the wall. It crept rapidly across the wooden floor and leapt eagerly onto the carriages.
The enslaved ponies inside saw it and many shifted nervously from hoof to hoof, but they said nothing. Dale had passed a telepathic message to Rainbow Dash, and she had quietly passed it to her neighbors, so they all knew that the fire wasn't real, no matter how it looked. Or sounded. Or smelled.
Eventually the ponies in the office noticed, but only when the fire licked around the door between office and stable proper, and by then it was too late: the interior of the barn was an inferno. Any pony who tried to go in was pushed back by the intense heat.
In the alley Luna's horn was glowing brightly, and her eyes were shut firmly in concentration. Twilight spared a moment's thought to admire Luna's poise; she was all too aware of the ridiculous scrunched-up faces she made when performing serious magic. Her thoughts were interrupted when Luna began adding the screams of tortured ponies to the crackle of the fire—that was Twilight's cue to start in on her own work. Her horn glowed as well, and a spark of intense magic traced an arch in the wall before her. She shoved and the cut out interior of the arch fell inside. Pinkie swept in immediately and began untying ponies with practiced ease. The illusory fire licked over them all, but there was no heat with it here.
Soon a stream of ponies was going out the newly cut door, past Twilight, and down the alley. Pinkie led them, tip-hoofing quietly, while Dale watched down a side alley for any sign that the guardsponies were trying to circle the building. As the strongest of the little group his job would be to fight them off long enough for Twilight or Luna to bring magic to bear, but that would be... less than ideal.
Fortunately, they got just enough luck to keep their plan intact. The guards, clerk, and drivers were rushing around in a disorganized mess. There was plenty of shouting, angry orders and panicked wailing alike, but nopony could make himself understood over the roar of the flames. A pair of guardsponies tried several times to reach the inside of the barn, but the flames were spreading into the office itself and they soon gave up, retreating to the street to watch. One of the guards finally raced off, presumably to summon firefighters. The other, with the clerk and drivers, stood around looking baffled and helpless. A few of the drivers tried to get in through the huge double doors, but Luna's firey illusion engulfed those doors as well. Nopony had any reason to check the back of the building. There were no doors there.
Pony after pony slipped out through the hole cut in the wall and followed Pinkie Pie towards the relative safety of the "rebel base." Twilight counted them: Nine out. Twelve total. Three to go! Almost thereohmy Celestia it's--
It was, and she paused, giving Twilight a quizzical look that she knew so well. "Do ah know you?"
"Yes. Well, no. Wait..." Twilight shook herself. "No time to talk now, follow the others. I'll explain later."
Applejack nodded slowly and moved quietly down the alley after the others, shooting Twilight a sidelong glance as she went. Behind her came a yellow pegasus with a flaming orange mane and tail, and then Rainbow Dash close on her heels. Dale peeled off from his watch to fall in behind the column, to make up the rearguard. He might be needed if they were spotted. They would have to cross several major streets, though most of their route would be by back alleys and deserted ways where shops and houses were all abandoned to decay.
"That's everyone!" whispered Twilight to Luna.
"Right," muttered Luna. Her horn grew brighter still, and Twilight's glowed once more as well. Luna kept up the illusion of spreading flames, but she and Twilight both were now starting real ones. They had decided to pass on Pinkie Pie's offer and use magical fire instead. Magical fire that burned hotter and brighter than anything natural possibly could. The flames spread even faster than the illusion had, and soon the roaring inferno engulfing the building was very real, enough so that the casting pair had to retreat down the alley as the flames reached the back wall of the stable.
The fire would leave a magical residue that any unicorn could read, of course, but in doing so it would mask the residue of Luna's illusions. Nightmare Moon and her guards would know that the stable had been burned down by magic that had reduced everything to a fine, floury ash, and that there were no longer any slaves. They would also 'know' that there was nopony in Equestria save Nightmare Moon herself who was capable of convincingly faking the fire to cover for an escape, so they would be left with only one possible conclusion: it would look like an attack. A clumsy failure of an attack that had missed its real targets, and caught the innocent slave ponies instead. Nightmare Moon was used to Pinkie Pie's raids, she knew there were rebels out there. It would be a simple matter of a moment's egoism for Nightmare Moon to assign the bungled attack to the forces that she already knew and loathed.
"I was very convinced of my superiority to all other ponies when I was Nightmare Moon," Luna had told Twilight. "This Nightmare should be even more so. She will hopefully be eager to see stupidity, rather than cleverness, here. Though I do not know for sure. I had some... paranoid tendencies. She will see a plot against her here no matter what we do. But at least if this works she shall be thinking of the wrong sort of plot, looking in the wrong direction. 'Tis a better plan than anything I can think of, at least."
Now it looked as though they were going to get away with it. The magical fire had taken root over the entire building. Out on the main road the firefighters had arrived, with their pumping truck and hoses, but they were merely spraying down the neighboring buildings to keep the fire from spreading. They were all experienced enough to know that the fire in the stable had passed well beyond their control.
Luna finally let go of the last of her illusion, including the sounds of screaming ponies. Now there was only the crackle and roar of real flames. And with no chance of setting the whole city on fire, there was no reason for her and Twilight to stay and watch their handiwork. They quickly followed in the wake of the others, moving through the darkness, away from the warm, hungry glow that would eat every last scrap of evidence for them.
They walked calmly through the city, resisting the urge to gallop and catch up with the others. Running would only attract unwanted attention. For the first few blocks, at least, all eyes were on the glow and roar of the burning stable. Nopony noticed them trotting casually across a broad thoroughfare, as nopony had noticed the column of rescued ponies following that same path a few minutes before.
A second crossing, further from the fire, was more nerve-wracking, but once again they manged to slip across the major road without drawing any undue attention. At last the pair reached the warehouse, still apparently abandoned from the outside.
Thankfully, inside the warehouse all twelve of the rescued ponies, plus Dale and Pinkie Pie, proved to be safe and sound. They were loosely gathered around a little glow of light, provided by a slate-blue unicorn stallion that Twilight vaguely remembered seeing around Ponyville.
"Twilight! Luna!" Pinkie bounced up to them. "You made it back!"
"You didn't have any trouble leading the others back here?" asked Twilight.
"That's good." Twilight scanned the ponies they'd rescued. Her eyes fell on Rainbow Dash, who was lying down a little ways off. A yellow pegasus that Twilight belatedly recognized as Spitfire was lying next to her, and had pillowed her head on Rainbow's flank. They were talking softly and Twilight hesitated to interrupt them. Something about the way the were looking at each other suggested something private and personal--intimate even. Twilight blushed and, for reasons she couldn't quite articulate, glanced at Luna. Then she saw Applejack, standing next to the unicorn providing the light, and she trotted over to greet her.
"Applejack. Hi there."
"Howdy. Ya'll seem to know me, but I can't say I've ever laid eyes on you."
"Well, no you probably haven't. I'm Twilight Sparkle. And I do know you, sort of, but it's kind of complicated. I need to talk to you about it though, because we need you in order to defeat Nightmare Moon."
Applejack gave Twilight a dubious look. "Me? No offense, but that sounds nuttier than a dead squirrel."
Twilight hesitated a moment at the strange metaphor. Why a dead squirrel and not a live one? She shook off the thought and responded. "I know it does sound a little bit out there, but it's true. You see, there's something called the Elements of Harmony, which have defeated Nightmare Moon in the past. They're actually six ponies, each one holding one element. You have one, Rainbow Dash has one, I have one, and Pinkie Pie has one. So we've already got four out of the six. We'll have the other two soon, and then Nightmare Moon won't stand a chance."
"Ah don't have any Element, sugarcube. Ah lost everything ah ever owned, so if ah ever did have somethin' like that it's long gone."
Twilight shook her head. "It's not an object you own, it's something inside you. You've had it probably since you got your cutie mark. It's not something you could lose." Unless you're no longer honest, thought Twilight to herself, and I don't know of any way to be certain of that. But so far the others have all been true to their elements. Surely Applejack is too.
"Well, ah don't know... Ah don't feel like ah'm anythin' special... Ah'm no better than any other pony."
Twilight shook her head again, trying to explain. "It's not that you're better, it's just... something you have. Honestly I don't completely understand the relationship myself. I never felt any different because I have the Element of Magic. But I do. I've used it before, so I know it's there. And Princess Celestia has told me that you have an Element as well." That was true enough, at least. That was more or less all the detail that the Princess had given Twilight and her friends when she was explaining things to them after... after Luna's rescue from the Nightmare. Twilight didn't quite want to get into the discussion that started with her telling Applejack that she'd seen her use her Element as well. Not right this second, anyway.
"The Princess? Do... do ya'll know what happened to her? Nightmare Moon," to Twilight's surprise Applejack turned her head and spat on the floor after speaking the name, "told everypony that the Princess was gone forever, but ah've heard a passel o' rumors about her. Everythin' from her bein' deader 'n a drowned filly to her havin' run off to some other country 'cause she was afraid o' Nightmare Moon."
Twilight hesitated a moment at this second macabre metaphor, but only a moment before jumping to her mentor's defense. "She'd never do that! She's gone because she's been banished to the sun, the way Nightmare Moon was banished to the moon until she escaped. But if we succeed in defeating Nightmare Moon, then Celestia will return, she certainly isn't gone forever." I hope, added Twilight to herself, thinking of the growing cold, the possibly weakened sun.
"Well! That's mighty good to hear." Applejack smiled.
"So are you willing to join us, and fight Nightmare Moon?"
"Ah reckon so. Ah'm not the kind of pony to sit back when there's buckin' to do. And if anypony needs a good flank-buckin' it's Nightmare Moon."
"Great!" Twilight glanced around, seeing that most of the ponies were settling in to sleep. She noticed her saddlebags set against one wall and the thought of how much planning she needed to do passed through her mind. "Thank you for joining us," she said to Applejack. "I really need to study my notes again now though, so I'll talk to you later."
"Sure thing sugarcube."
Twilight crossed the room, settled next to her bags and pulled out a sheaf of notes. She paged through them, crossing off everything that was no longer relevant, circling things that seemed particularly important, and occasionally jotting down a new note. Some time later she dozed off over her notes, as she had many times in her bookish life.
Luna remained wide awake, thanks to the never-ending night and an alicorn's natural need for less sleep. She gazed across the room full of sleeping ponies towards where Twilight lay. The unicorn looked so sweet lying there, her papers beneath her head, her quill beside her, a faint frown of concentration still creasing her brow. It was like a painting, The Scholar After A Long Day, perhaps.
I used to paint, thought Luna. Maybe I should pick it up again. That could be my first piece. The thought made her smile. She picked her way across the room, circling around sleeping ponies, to reach Twilight's side. She felt a strange urge to lie next to Twilight and cuddle up with her. The thought of such warmth and closeness with the beautiful and intelligent mare was wonderful, but also frightening. And what would Twilight think, if she woke to such intimacy? She would no doubt be uncomfortable, or even upset at Luna for taking such a liberty. It wouldn't be right, said Luna to herself with a touch of regret, for... so many reasons. I suppose I could wake her, tell her how I feel, ask her... Luna snorted mentally, ...panic her, addle her wits in the middle of the most dangerous journey she's ever been on, make her uncomfortable to be around me when we need so desperately to be working together. Luna sighed, and sat down a few feet away. We have more important things to worry about, she told herself. Gathering the Elements of Harmony and defeating Nightmare Moon is what we need to concentrate on now. Relationships can wait.
She knew that was partly an excuse, that her own fear of rejection was much of the reason why she didn't want to say anything about her growing feelings towards Twilight. She had seen many romances over her long life, and even gently shepherded a few special ponies through their own fears of rejection, many, many years ago... but she had avoided such entanglements assiduously. The idea of deliberately entering into a relationship after so long was terrifying, and that fear seemed stronger, strangely, than her worries about Nightmare Moon. Still, it was a good excuse, and she was going to stick to it. So she lay down where she was, and tried to go to sleep. But her thoughts kept returning again and again to the mare that lay nearby, and to the dark mare she had once been, and those two fears chased each other around and around in her head until she heard ponies beginning to stir into wakefulness around her, and she gave up on sleep.
Pinkie Pie was one of the first up, and she set about quietly waking the rest. As they had not expected to be rescuing a dozen ponies, there was not enough food to make a proper meal, but what the rescuers has brought was shared out, a few bites for each.
"There's more when we get to the Everfree," Pinkie told the hungry ponies.
"That's just fine, sugarcube," said Applejack to her. "Those no-good bootlickers only ever gave us mushrooms anyhow, I won't miss 'em!"
"Well, we mostly have mushrooms too," said Pinkie with a sad frown.
"Mushrooms in freedom or mushrooms in slavery, I know which one I'd rather eat," said Spitfire. There was a general murmur of assent from the gathered ponies.
"Come on," said Rainbow Dash. "Let's go. The sooner we go, the sooner we get to food, right?"
"Just a moment." That was Twilight, still blinking sleep out of her eyes. "I have one more thing to do before we leave."
"What is that?" asked Luna.
"I need to scry again. We're eventually going to need to know where Rarity is, and if I don't do it now, we'll have to come back here to do it again. I'm pretty sure the mine isn't underneath Manehattan, so that would be a waste of time."
"I am very glad you're doing the planning, that had not even crossed my mind," said Luna ruefully, once again forced to admire Twilight's intelligence and foresight. Not that it takes much forcing...
"Just let me go get a bucket of water. It will only take a minute, and then we can all go."
"We need to go out a few at a time anyway," said Pinkie Pie. "I'll start sending out ponies while you do your stuff."
Twilight nodded and looked around for the bucket.
"Ah saw it over there," said Applejack. "Lemme go fetch it for ya." She trotted across the room and soon had the bucket they'd used before refilled.
Twilight peered into it, her horn glowing. Luna could just glimpse the pale white unicorn against the darkness of the mine. Then the view moved through the dark, seeking an exit. When it came out into the brighter, moonlit night above it zoomed out, and Luna didn't recognize the tiny images from her angle. Twilight, however, smiled.
"She's in the Diamond Dog tunnels, not half a day's walk from Ponyville. That makes things much simpler. We have to stop in the Everfree to pick up Fluttershy, and we may be able to rescue Rarity the same day!"
"What-all is this?" asked Applejack, peering down at the tiny image, now showing the ruins of Ponyville as seen from above.
"Scrying. It's a way to see things with magic."
"An' you can see anything?"
"Well... within limits. I wouldn't want to look in on Nightmare Moon, for example. Now that we're so close to her she might sense it."
"What about normal ponies? Jus'... ordinary folks."
"Yes, I guess I could look for any ordinary pony," said Twilight slowly, fearing where this was going. "Though they have to be somepony I've seen before."
"An' have you seen my sister Applebloom?"
Twilight hesitated, then nodded.
"Then you gotta' look her up for me, see if she's doin' all right. Pinkie tole me that Big Macintosh is alive an' well, but nopony knows what happened to any o' the young 'uns from Ponyville."
"Applejack... I don't know if that's a good idea. Anything might have happened to her. If what I see is bad..."
"Ah can handle it." said Applejack, her eyes narrowing. "Ah can handle anythin'."
Twilight looked at Applejack. A friend, a stranger. The Element of Honesty. Maybe. So much unknown, but that determined stubbornness was the same. It had led the Applejack Twilight knew dangerously close to lying; self-deception was the easiest sort of lie to tell, and this Applejack might well be deceiving herself now.
"Applejack... be completely honest. Don't lie to me, and don't lie to yourself either. If something bad has happened to your sister, can you handle it? Don't tell me it won't hurt you at all if she's been harmed. We'd both know you were lying."
Applejack frowned, opened her mouth to say something angry, then stopped and frowned again, a more thoughtful frown this time. Then she heaved a sigh. "You're right. An' I'd be more than hurt, I'd come all to pieces faster than a month old corpse that's been bucked good n' hard. It'd probably be the last straw that broke me. But now that I know I can see if she's alive, ah have to know. Ah can't go along not knowing any longer, I'd go plumb crazy anyway, like the ponies they put in solitary. Please; ah have to know."
Something in Twilight's heart jerked at Applejack's pleading. Not just because she'd shown still was still honest, though that was part of it, but the sincere need in her friend's voice touched her deeply, twisted her heart and made it impossible for her to say no. Without a word her horn lit again.
The second or so it took the picture to change was agonizing. Twilight thought she might burst from the tension, not knowing if the spell would find Applebloom at all or if it would be unable to locate her, as it had been unable to locate poor Spike.
But then the view of Ponyville vanished, replaced by a familiar yellow filly.
Twilight nearly fell over with relief. Applebloom was alive! She was in a school room, and as Twilight widened the view another sigh of relief escaped her. The room was full of familiar colts and fillies. Some she didn't know, but she saw Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, Snips, Snails, and even the obnoxious Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara. All the fillies and colts of Ponyville seemed alive and well.
All the young ponies wore moon badges. The unicorn teaching the class, who had one as well, was writing on the board, and Twilight could read it easily enough. "The benefits of the Kingdom of Night," it read, and the teacher was filling in item one of the list below it. The youngsters were apparently being taught some insultingly obvious propaganda, but that was miles better than the horrible torture or slavery that Twilight had been unable to keep from picturing.
"She's all right," breathed Applejack.
"Yes," said Twilight. "Hoofington, it looks like. A long way from anywhere we'll be, and that means it's safe." Twilight smiled slightly. “She'll be waiting for you when we defeat Nightmare Moon; I can't imagine how happy she'll be to see you. But now, it looks like it's our turn to get out of here."
They were the last two ponies in the room; Luna and Pinkie Pie were hovering just outside the door.
"Right. Let's go get ready to buck some Nightmare flank," said Applejack with grim and yet delighted determination. She grinned at Twilight, and Twilight grinned broadly back.
I thought I'd take a moment to say "thank you" to everybody who's made it this far. It's a lot of words, I'm glad you've stuck with me through them all. We're probably still not quite halfway, so there are a lot more words to come. I know how it all ends though, so I promise I'll stick with it if you will. :)
I also want to thank all those who've commented, followed, and rated. Seeing evidence that people are reading and enjoying my work is what makes posting it worthwhile, after all. Otherwise I might as well just keep it to read myself.
But most of all I need to thank my editor, who also happens to be my husband. There's a reason why this story is better than the other ones I've done. I do think I had a better idea this time around, most of the others were just "Ha, that would be fun!" notions, but my writing has been as good as it is largely because of his tireless efforts, especially on this chapter. It was a little rough when I handed it over to him, but he polished it up nicely.
The next chapter probably won't happen right this instant, I have a hectic few weeks ahead of me, but expect more as soon as I can find some time to write, exciting things are happening in the next chapter. :D
The black alicorn sat in front of a block of ice. The previous several blocks had been cloudy with impurities, and there had been a great deal of yelling and dispensing of punishments, but this one was satisfactory. Her work earlier had borne fruit; the room was even colder now than it had been. It was cold enough now for ice and snow outside, here high up on the mountain's flank. Soon it would be freezing in the valleys as well. And then... then it would grow colder and colder until the world was as cold as the silvery moon itself, and nothing lived but Nightmare Moon and her ice servants. They would worship her, for she would be their creator, their goddess. Ponies had such difficulty recognizing her greatness! Her new servants would have no such flaws.
"That is the problem with ponies," she said to herself as she regarded the ice. "They called us princesses and let us rule them, but they didn't call us gods or worship us as they should. And my dear sister," the alicorn sneered, "was content with the generous praise they gave her. Their fawning blinded her to their inadequacies. But I see them clearly. More clearly now than ever! They were dumb, pathetic animals that we raised to intelligence, but their animal nature still shows through. They might as well be cows. Or rabbits. They are not worthy to be my servants. But ice... Ahhhhh ice." Her horn glowed and she caressed the block with a cold tendril of magic. "I will make new life. Perfect life. Pristine and mathematical as the ice crystal it springs from. Their only emotion will be their love for me. They will give me the worship I have always deserved, that even my best servants cannot give me, for I will be their creator, their goddess. My subjects call me their queen because I insist on it. They should call me goddess without having to be told! They are too flawed to see my true power. But you..." She stared at the ice with a gaze that was almost tender, like a mother looking at her newborn foal. "You will be everything I ever wanted."
Her horn glowed faintly, and shavings began to fall away from the block. At first flurries of them flew like snow as the alicorn swiftly roughed out the form, then more slowly as she carefully refined it. Hours passed as she worked. The guards changed, but she paid them even less attention than usual; all her thoughts were on her work, her art-- her masterpiece. When the shape finally pleased her, the alicorn polished it, spending hours more caressing it with her magic until it was perfectly smooth. At last she stood back and looked at her creation. It was an earth pony, perfect in every detail, of clear, flawless, crystalline ice.
"A suitable start," she said to it, "but my work has just begun. For now you must wait, my beautiful creation. Wait while I weave the magic that will awaken you,” her voice descended to a quiet purr, “and show you who your true Goddess is. And then at last I will have no more need for these ponies. Then my kingdom of night will be perfect, as it should be."
Moonlight spilled down along the string of walking ponies. Luna looked up at the moon and sighed. She never would have imagined she'd grow sick of moonlight, but it was proving entirely possible. She longed for sunlight, for blue sky and white clouds, for the colors of sunset and sunrise, for anything other than night following night following night. She was starting to long for warmth as well, for the feel of sunlight on her skin and the warmth of a summer breeze. Even though it was technically summer, and the stars shone in their summer places, the air felt like winter was nearly there; it was almost cold enough for frost. Nopony had much in the way of winter gear, so they were all chilled and miserable, and hungry on top of that. Though there were mushrooms everywhere, they didn't dare stop to forage until they reached the cover of the forest, and that was many hours away.
They had left the city in twos and threes several hours ago, and were now in what had once been rich farmland, though there was nothing green growing there anymore. They had come far enough to no longer have to worry about the Night Guard, but though the Shadowbolts did have occasional patrols out into the countryside, those were rare enough to not be worth worrying about. Nightmare Moon was obviously not feeling very threatened by the tiny handful of remaining rebels. She has no reason to be, thought Luna. If it were not for the Elements of Harmony, which she thinks destroyed, and myself, who she does not know exists, we would be no threat at all.
So it was safe enough for the strung-out line to start bunching up and traveling as a group. Twilight came trotting up beside Luna, and they walked side by side in silence for some time. Ahead of them Spitfire and Rainbow Dash were also waking side by side, talking in low voices. Twilight couldn't hear most of it, but it was sprinkled with giggles, and had the sound of something fairly intimate. She had just managed to stop being nosy and tune the two ponies out when Dash's voice started to rise; whatever the discussion had been, it was obviously turning into an argument.
"Don't pull this crap on me again, Spitfire! We've only just gotten out of that hellhole, it's too soon!"
"But Dash, I was only-"
"Only going too fast. Which is funny because I know you're so slow," hissed Dash through bared and gritted teeth. The words came out razor-sharp, and they seemed to cut Spitfire deeply; Twilight was shocked to see the ex-Wonderbolt instantly wilt, tears gathering in her eyes.
Spitfire looked so hurt that Twilight couldn't help but break in, wide-eyed, "Rainbow Dash--! That was a horrible thing to say to a friend!"
Suddenly both ponies in front of her halted, and Twilight found herself fixed in place by the glares of two sets of eyes: one amber gold, one dark pink, and both slitted in anger. "She can say whatever she wants! I am slow, I know it! It's just the truth! And in any case it's none of your business!" Spitfire's bright, firelike hair actually seemed to flicker and glow like flame as she shouted Twilight down; the tears were still glittering in the corners of her eyes.
"Eep!" Twilight backed up a few steps, apologies falling out of her mouth, "Sorry. Sorry!"
Spitfire glared a moment more, then turned back around. She and Rainbow Dash trotted a bit faster, putting several other ponies between themselves and Twilight before slowing down again. Twilight started walking again, and shook her head in bafflement. "What was that all about?"
Luna chuckled sadly at Twilight's plaintive question, "'Twas a lesson even I managed to learn, eventually. Never jump into a lovers' quarrel unless you wish for both ponies' ire."
"But Dash was hurting her feelings. That's not right!"
Luna shook her head. "I suppose 'tis not. But they will have to sort that out for themselves. You cannot fix other ponies' relationships for them, not like that."
"Shouldn't friends try to help their friends with their problems? Dash is a friend, I just want to help her."
"Friends can help, yes... friends must be ready to help. There is a difference, though, between offering help and telling another pony what to do with her life. Believe me Twilight, I know how frustrating it is to watch friends make foolish decisions. I have seen ponies I cared deeply for do things I knew were mistakes many, many times. It is never easy to watch another pony make a mess of her life, but you cannot make their choices for them. You can only be there when they need you."
Twilight nodded, and walked the rest of the way to the forest in thoughtful silence. She caught herself dictating a letter to Princess Celestia in her head, lining out this little lesson, and her heart ached at her inability to complete the familiar ritual. For a moment, she felt as alone as she had ever felt in her life—the unmeasurable distance between herself and her home and friends, the terrible things she had found waiting for her in this place, and the enormity of the task in front of her all crowded in on her consciousness like low, black clouds. She found herself musing darkly on which Celestia she should send it to in any case--her mentor back home, or the trapped, probably weakened, maybe dead princess of this world?
Her head sunk lower and lower with each passing thought, until the gentle brush of long feathers against her side startled her from her dark introspection. It was Luna, giving her a concerned, tentative smile and folding her wing back against her side. Twilight returned the smile and, to her surprise, it was a genuine optimism buoying her head and heart and spreading to the corners of her mouth. She had her—well, she had Luna with her, however far from home she might be, and she had her friends. With my friends, I can manage anything, and although these ponies are sometimes strange, they are still my friends.
Rainbow Dash paused in front of the cave mouth. A few yards away Luna and Twilight stood close together, wearing identical expressions of hope and worry. Pinkie Pie and Dale had taken the rescued ponies back to the ruined castle, but Luna, Twilight, and Rainbow Dash had split off and gone in search of Fluttershy. Now, hopefully, they had found her. And hopefully, Dash would be able to reach her where Twilight had failed.
"Here goes," muttered Dash, who looked more than a little nervous, though she was trying to hide it. She pranced in place for a moment. "Here goes," she repeated, a little louder, and finally stepped forward from the moonlit night and into the deeper darkness of the cave.
She paused again after a few steps, straining to see in the gloom. She could hear something breathing ahead of her, and it sounded like something large. Probably the manticore Luna and Twilight had told her about. She swallowed, then set her expression in an aggressive frown. No big deal, she wasn't afraid of any manticore! She could take it, she was Rainbow Dash!
As her eyes adjusted, shapes slowly emerged from the darkness. She was in a narrow tunnel, but just ahead the cave opened out, and she could see something bulky partially blocking the entrance to the wider area. She crept slowly closer, trying to step softly. Up close—ooh, yeah. Yep. That was a manticore alright.
Definitely a manticore. It was lying halfway across the entrance, and Dash could just make out Fluttershy, nearly covered in squirrels, rabbits, and other small creatures, sleeping a few yards beyond it. She took another step, then froze as the manticore yawned and shifted. For a long moment Dash held perfectly still, but the manticore's eyes stayed shut. She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and took another step. The manticore's paw was now stretched out across the tunnel; she would have to step over it.
She slowly lifted one hoof over the paw and set it softly on the floor beyond, then another, then the third, and she was clear! She trotted confidently forward, smirking at her own awesomeness, and promptly tripped over something small and fuzzy, landing with a crash in a pile of loose stones.
With a roar the manticore leapt up. Squeaks and squeals sounded as creatures scattered in all directions. Dash yelped and scrambled away from the manticore, but the huge lion-like creature's night vision was far superior to hers, and it easily pounced on her and pinned her to the floor. Panicked animals were still scurrying everywhere around her as she lay on the floor, but her attention was abruptly focused when the looming beast's hot breath washed over her face. Dash squeezed her eyes tightly shut, expecting the next thing she felt to be tearing claws or piercing teeth. Instead, she got something small and not at all sharp thumping repeatedly into her head.
Dash opened her eyes to see a small, pale, furry shape. Angel the bunny was standing over her, kicking her in the forehead.
"Angel?" said Dash, and the bunny paused and looked down at her. Then he kicked her again, for good measure. and scurried off himself. That left Dash alone with the manticore, whose front paws were still pinning her to the floor. Its reeking breath still bathed her face and she wasn't entirely certain why she wasn't dead yet. But since she wasn't, she was hardly going to just lie there. She squirmed, trying to get loose. She got a rear hoof planted on the manticore's side, and it let out a grunt, but then it unsheathed its claws and growled. Dash could suddenly feel each individual razor-sharp point pressing on her skin, and with a little “Eep,” she stopped fighting.
The voice was quiet, almost a whisper, but at its sound the manticore's growling instantly changed, and Rainbow Dash realized that the huge creature was purring. And when she craned her head to look in the direction Angel had fled she saw another pale shape in the darkness.
"It is you! You're alive!" Fluttershy was still nearly whispering, but her trembling, uncertain joy filled the soft words with energy. "I thought that... that... that they had killed you."
She came closer and with nothing more than a gesture directed the manticore to let Rainbow up. Dash righted herself and looked at her friend. Closer, and right side up, she could see that Fluttershy was very different from the mare she remembered. Her coat was rough, coarse and muddy; her cutie mark was almost invisible amid the grime; her mane was a tangled mass of dreadlocks, and she was far too thin; Dash could easily count her ribs.
Fluttershy was regarding Dash as well, and even in the darkness one thing was impossible to miss. "Oh! Your wings! Oh no!" Fluttershy rushed to Dash's side, where she stopped, one hoof outstretched, instinctively drawn to help and yet suddenly aware that no help could possibly be offered.
"Yeah," said Dash, drooping a little at the reminder of all she had lost. "Nightmare Moon had them... well...."
"I'm so sorry!" Suddenly Fluttershy threw her hooves around Dash, hugging her tightly. "I'm so sorry! If I hadn't run away during the battle, If I wasn't such a coward, always afraid of everything--"
"Then they'd just have caught you and cut yours off too," said Dash flatly. "Nobody could have stopped them, we were too badly outnumbered."
"But maybe if--"
Dash cut her off again. "No. You can't blame yourself for what happened to me. It's nobody's fault but Nightmare Moon's, and if I have my way she's going to pay for what she did."
Fluttershy finally stepped back from the hug and looked at Dash's grim expression. Her own eyes narrowed just a bit. "I'm not good at fighting, Dashie, but I'll help you if you want. You're right that she needs to pay. Nopony should hurt others the way she did." Some surprising vehemence had crept into the quiet mare's voice.
"You can help. Maybe. It's probably all just stupid and crazy and we'll all die, but maybe it isn't and we have a chance."
"I... I don't understand."
"I don't think I do either, but there are two ponies you need to talk to. They can explain it better than I can."
"Other... ponies?" Fluttershy looked suddenly terrified. "Strangers?"
Dash looked behind her uncertainly, to where she could see a circle of bright moonlight marking the cave entrance, where Twilight and Luna were waiting. After a moment's pause, she looked back at Fluttershy and shook her head. "No. Not strangers-- friends."
Luna kept catching herself holding her breath as she and Twilight waited for Rainbow Dash to emerge from the cave. When instead they heard a faint clatter and a roar, Luna's heart sank. Something had gone wrong. She took a step forward, and found Twilight moving forward as well, hesitantly. What was happening inside? Should they rush into rescue Dash? What if they only angered and alienated Fluttershy further? Without her their hopes for victory were very slim indeed. They needed her.
The roars ceased and there was a long, tense silence. Luna realized she was holding her breath again, and let it out in a gusty sigh, which made Twilight jump.
"Should we..." began Twilight, then trailed off as something moved at the cave mouth. It was Dash! Or rather, it was Dash's rump. For some reason the blue mare was emerging from the cave rainbow-hued tail first. As she came out, the waiting mares could hear that she was talking steadily, in the low, soothing tones used on a frightened animal.
"They're really nice, you'll see. Come on, they're just outside. It's okay. I'm right here with you."
Behind her, trying to hide her entire body behind her mane, came Fluttershy. Behind Fluttershy, looming protectively over her, came the manticore.
Twilight gulped. Even Luna took a step back. But Dash just kept patiently leading Fluttershy towards them, and despite the massive, lion-like menace Twilight and Luna both managed to hold their ground.
"There," said Dash. "Fluttershy, these are my friends, Twilight and Luna. Let them explain what's going on."
Fluttershy peeked hesitantly around Rainbow Dash. Twilight tried to smile reassuringly at her. As Twilight launched into her explanation of Nightmare Moon, the Elements of Harmony, and how they needed Fluttershy, Luna found herself looking at Dash with something like surprise. Back home she hadn't known Dash very well. They had very little in common and seldom did anything together, unless it was with Twilight and the entire group of Ponyville friends. Luna had seen her being competitive, loud, and egotistic back home. Here, she had seen her burning with hate, driven by anger, and filled with hurt that made her lash out. But now--! Suddenly she was showing another side altogether. A gentler, more considerate side that Luna had never expected. She had wondered what it was that made the loud Rainbow and the painfully shy Fluttershy such friends when they were so different, but perhaps they had something in common after all. Fluttershy's tender heart was open to every creature she came across, while Rainbow Dash obviously reserved her care for only her closest friends, but the gentle sound in Rainbow's voice as she had led Fluttershy from the cave was a sound Luna had heard many times from Fluttershy herself.
But was Fluttershy's kind heart still there in this dark world? Was she still true to her element? She had obviously responded to the injured Dash, but perhaps that was only because of her friendship. She had set a hydra after them, after all. They had pressed her to the limit, obviously, but would the element of kindness have done such a thing? Luna wasn't sure.
Twilight wound up her explanation, paused a moment, then gave Fluttershy her best hopeful smile, "So, will you help us?"
"I... Yes. Yes, I'll help." She was still peeking out from behind her hair, but the answer had come with surprising speed and surety.
Twilight sagged, her hopeful smile turning into a broad grin,"Oh, thank you. Now we just need to rescue Rarity and we'll be ready to bring Nightmare Moon down!"
Fluttershy looked completely dismayed at the idea, but Rainbow Dash nudged her. "You can do it. You can bring your manticore, if you want. He might help us get into the castle at Canterlot."
Twilight smiled. "Yes, or bring your hydra! It could probably knock down the castle walls for us."
"Oh, I couldn't," said Fluttershy, aghast. "What if they got hurt?"
Twilight looked baffled. "But you had the hydra chase us. And it did get hurt, Big Mac kicked it right in the nose.” a beat, "In one of its noses, anyway."
"Yes, and I wish I hadn't. The poor, poor thing. And if they had hurt you ponies that would have been just as bad. I'm so, so sorry, I was just afraid, and my friends wanted to protect me. I shouldn't have let them. They're healing well, but if they had gotten... really hurt, or one of you had, I would have been so sad that I just don't know what I would do."
Luna gave a smile edged in private amusement, "You're a kind pony, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy hid behind her mane again. "Oh, um. Thank you...I just don't like seeing anypony get hurt. Not even Nightmare Moon, except that we have to do something about her, so that all the ponies and creatures can be free and the sun can shine again."
"We're all in it for that exact same reason," said Twilight. It was a declaration, accompanied by a sure and forthright nod.
"Speak for yourself," muttered Rainbow Dash.
Twilight shot her a quelling glance for ruining her moment, but Dash just glared belligerantly in return.
Luna coughed. "We should go meet up with Pinkie and the others and plan Rarity's rescue."
"Yes, we should. Come on everypony. Sunrise could happen tomorrow!" Twilight trotted off perkily. Luna chuckled and followed her, with Dash, Fluttershy, and the still-protective manticore coming along behind.
The trip through the dead forest went swiftly, and soon they had reached the ruined palace. Luna once more held her breath, magic at the ready, as the group crossed the decrepit bridge. It groaned alarmingly under the weight of the manticore, but miraculously remained intact.
Inside, it was almost crowded; there were over two dozen ponies now, resting, eating, and talking together. A ripple of curiosity and alarm ran through them as the manticore followed the mares into the old throne room. Fluttershy, suddenly the focus of all those eyes, squeaked and shuffled quickly backward to interpose the monstrous feline, who started to glare at the assembled ponies. Several of them also squeaked and ducked behind whatever was nearest them.
Twilight sighed, and Luna mentally congratulated her for managing to stop her eyes from rolling. "Everypony, this is Fluttershy. She and the manticore are friends. They're part of the plan to defeat Nightmare Moon."
She got several incredulous glances, and none of the hiding ponies emerged—especially not Fluttershy. The tension continued to grow as ponies and manticore regarded each other. Before Twilight could start haranguing anypony, however, the manticore turned and started broadly grooming Fluttershy's mane with long, ridiculous slurps.
The tension went out of the air like a popped party balloon, and several of the hiding ponies emerged with smiles on their faces. The manticore was purring, and Fluttershy was smiling as well. "Thank goodness," muttered Twilight, which set Luna off to giggling.
"He he he! What are we laughing at?" Pinkie Pie popped up next to Luna as though she had appeared out of the ground.
Luna jumped, but Twilight was more used to Pinkie Pie's antics than the princess. She just turned to Pinkie Pie and smiled. "Pinkie! Get Applejack and Rainbow Dash and anybody else you think we might need. It's time--”Twilight broke into a grin. Even all she had seen in this world couldn't dampen her enthusiasm for this, “--for another planning session!"
"What does tall blue pony want?" The diamond dog's voice was rough, but with a whining tone that set Luna's teeth on edge. Torches bracketed the broad arch that led deeper into the mine, their light flickering off the dog's coarse coat. It stood in the center of the threshold, flanked on either side by massive guard dogs. All three were staring with unfriendly expressions at the lone pony that stood before them.
She planted her hooves firmly and gave the creature a flat, cold look. "I want to free all the ponies here. You're going to let them go, now."
"Pony is joking. Ponies here belong to Pony Queen. Diamond dogs cannot let them go, even if diamond dogs want to! But we do not want to let ponies go, ponies work, ponies get gems for dogs. Ponies stay. You go away."
"I think not." Luna reared up and let out a loud whinny, signaling to the ponies behind her who had thus far stayed out of sight. Suddenly two dozen equines were charging at the entrance to the mines. The two burly guard dogs and their smaller commander immediately retreated, scurrying inside the broad main tunnel, and Luna hurled herself after them with a defiant cry, the other rebels on her heels.
Four shadowy shapes moved in the night. Two of them were ponies, a unicorn and a pegasus, while the other two were smaller, lower to the ground, and much shaggier.
"Okay, we're over the mine now," whispered Twilight.
Fluttershy nodded. "Go dig, little friends," she said to the two badgers that accompanied her. Her whisper was so quiet that Twilight almost couldn't hear it, but the badgers obviously could; they both started tunneling rapidly into the ground.
The ponies waited in the chill darkness while the badgers dug. The little creatures were swift diggers, but they needed to put in a lot of extra work to make a tunnel wide enough for a pony, and it was taking a long time. At last, though, the badgers came back out of the tunnel, and Fluttershy said, "They're through."
"Let's go." Twilight crawled into the tunnel. It wasn't quite high enough for her to walk upright. Fluttershy came behind her, so close Twilight occasionally felt her stepping on her tail. It was pitch dark in the tunnel, and Twilight felt her way forward slowly. Loose dirt and rocks tumbled down on her whenever her horn brushed the low ceiling, and her legs were soon scraped and sore from crawling over the rough tunnel floor. After what seemed like an eternity of groping in the darkness, she emerged into the larger tunnel. Unfortunately, it was still pitch black, and now she couldn't even feel her way along. Cautiously Twilight summoned the smallest possible spark of magic to light the tip of her horn. She'd seen Rarity doing the same while working here, so hopefully the little speck of power would pass unnoticed.
A second spell would also have to pass unnoticed, for in the maze of tunnels that made up the Diamond Dogs' mine there was no way to know where Rarity might be. Twilight had a plan to locate her, though: she had combined the gem-seeking spell that her Rarity had taught her with the scrying spell that had kicked off this whole adventure to make a spell that could lead her to anypony she could scry for. To wit, Rarity. She was proud of the bit of spellcraft, but she was particularly pleased by how satisfyingly fitting it was to find Rarity with her own spell.
As she finished casting the hybrid spell, a sudden tugging on the tip of her horn nearly pulled her off her feet. She grinned; that meant it was working. "Follow me," she whispered to Fluttershy, and trotted off in the direction of the tugging.
Only moments later she nearly walked straight into a wall. She skidded to a stop, her horn still trying to pull her forward through solid rock. "Horseapples." Of course the spell wouldn't show her a path through the tunnels, it was just showing her a direct line to Rarity. Which was better than wandering aimlessly, but not by very much.
"What is it?" Fluttershy's whisper sounded terrified.
"The spell is trying to pull me straight to Rarity through the walls. We'll have to find a way around, I guess."
"It'll work out. It has to. Come on." Leaning against the pull of the spell she set off along the tunnel wall, hoping that she'd be able to find a path through.
"Forward! For Celestia and the Principality!" shouted Luna.
"For Celestia! For Equestria!" yelled Marie Mare who charged forward and head-butted a diamond dog in the chest. The tunnel was a scene of complete chaos. The diamond dogs had retreated just far enough to call reinforcements and set up a defensive line blocking off the tunnel. The ponies had formed a line of their own, and the two forces swayed back and forth, hooves delivering bone-breaking kicks, claws and teeth drawing blood from equine hides, but neither side able to gain any significant ground.
Dale screamed a wordless war cry and charged, Big Macintosh grimly silent at his side. The two huge stallions broke through, tumbling dogs out of the way, but had to halt before they became completely surrounded and cut off, and were soon forced back again.
The ponies had managed to break the line several times but it always reformed, and there were still more diamond dogs running from deeper within the mine all the time. It wouldn't be long before Luna and the rebels were outnumbered. They were already having trouble pushing the diamond dogs back any further, though the tunnel was narrow enough that neither diamond dogs nor ponies could bring their full force to bear at once.
Luna looked up. The ceiling was very high here, perhaps she could shift the odds a bit.
"Pegasi! Take wing!" She suited actions to words and shot into the air. There wasn't as much room as she might have liked, but there was enough to stay above the dogs' heads. One reached a paw up at her and she kicked it viciously. Derpy and two other rebel pegasi whose names Luna hadn't learned took wing beside her, but the five that had come from Manehattan hesitated. Luna saw their eyes going to Rainbow Dash. "Quickly!" she called. "We must press the advantage while we can!"
Four of the five took flight, joining the others in attacking from the air. Spitfire hesitated a moment longer, but Rainbow Dash glared and shouted "Go, you idiot!" at her, and she snapped her wings open and leapt into the air as if stung.
The pegasi swooped down on the dogs, battering at them from above. Some even grabbed rocks from the cavern walls and pelted the enemy with them. The dogs began to fall back and the earth ponies and unicorns cheered and pushed further forward.
Suddenly the lead dog howled, a piercing sound that echoed off the tunnel walls. The battle paused for just a heartbeat as ponies and dogs both jumped at the sound. "Fall back!" called the spindly canine. "Fall back and bring it down!"
The dogs immediately retreated into the cavern, running with greater speed than Luna would have expected from such bulky, awkward-looking creatures. She soared after them, the other pegasi surrounding her. The ground-bound ponies were somewhat slower to follow, but they too chased the retreating dogs.
"Swiftly, go, bring it down!" called the dog again.
"Wait!" Pinkie Pie, who had been in the lead of those running below, skidded to a halt, causing a pile-up of ponies behind her. The gap between them and the dogs opened further, and Luna was about to shout something back about how they should run faster, when Pinkie said, "Twitchy tail! Twitchy tail! He means bring down the tunnel! They're going to collapse it! Run for the entrance!"
Luna back-winged furiously, coming to a halt in mid-air and nearly falling. The other pegasi tried to turn in various ways, but in the confined space of the tunnel none could reverse swiftly. Derpy rebounded off a wall as her attempt to turn around in the tight space failed, and there were several near-collisions between pony and rock or pony and pony before the pegasi got themselves headed back the way they had come.
The earth ponies weren't waiting, and they were wise not to; nopony could save anypony else by waiting if the ceiling above fell on them all.
Even as the ponies ran, and the pegasi raced to catch up with them, a rumbling began, coming from every direction at once and being felt as much as heard. Rocks began to fall; first a few pebbles, but then a deluge that grew ever thicker. It seemed that Pinkie Pie was right, and that the entire length of the tunnel was collapsing around them. The earth ponies and unicorns were nearly to the entrance, but the pegasi had been deeper, and the time needed to turn had slowed them further. As a fist-sized rock bounced painfully off her haunches, Luna realized that they weren't going to make it.
Her horn lit. She hadn't been using magic for fear of attracting Nightmare Moon's notice with even ordinary spells, but she couldn't just let these ponies die. "Pegasi! To me!" Above her she made a huge glowing umbrella of force. The rocks bounced harmlessly off it. Her cry and the sight of such safety drew the others to her, and soon they all hovered as closely as they could. The roar grew louder and the rain was no longer a shower of falling rocks but a solid wall of rubble coming down around them. Luna extended the umbrella into a sphere as the tunnel filled completely with rubble.
Finally the roar ceased, and eight pegasi and one alicorn hovered in a hollow space completely buried in rock and earth.
Luna looked slowly around as the dust settled, absorbing their situation.
Twilight's hooves were starting to ache. It wasn't so much that she had done a lot of walking; though the tunnels seemed endless, they really hadn't gone that far. It was the way she needed to brace herself against the spell's pull on her horn the whole way along. It had required a lot more physical work than she had expected.
They had gone down far too many dead ends, but the diversion at the mine entrance seemed to be working, for though they'd heard some commotion echoing very faintly down the tunnels they had seen no diamond dogs at all. And now ahead was a dim glow, and the sound of hooves on stone. Twilight the Fluttershy peered around a bend and saw two unicorns, one hitched to a massive cart, the other chipping at the wall with a cracked and worn hoof. One Twilight vaguely recognized from seeing her around Ponyville, she was named named something... something-gate? Twilight couldn't quite remember. But she had no trouble remembering the name of the second unicorn.
"Rarity! We found you!"
Rarity's head came up and she stared at the pair with shocked eyes. "Who are you?"
"I'm Twilight, this is Fluttershy."
"Fluttershy, yes... we've met. But never mind that, the important question is what is going on?"
"We're rescuing you. We need you." Twilight hardly paused for breath before continuing. "We have a plan to defeat Nightmare Moon, but it requires your help. Please, come with us! We have a distraction keeping the diamond dogs busy, but it won't last forever and we need to get out of here fast."
As Twilight had thought, Rarity didn't question why she in particular might be needed. She also, as Twilight had hoped, didn't pause to ask for details about the plan. She just nodded. "I am heartily sick of that tyrant and her rule. Let us go." She turned to the other unicorn, and her horn lit as she started to un-hitch her from the car. "I assume Colgate can come too?" Then she paused. "And... there are others here, six more of us. What of them?"
"Don't be silly," said Colgate. "I'll stay, and so will everypony else—it's too risky to try and spring everypony, and you've done enough for us already. If this plan is any good then when Nightmare Moon is defeated we'll all be set free anyway. And if it's not any good then here is no worse than where anypony with you is likely to end up, am I right?" She looked at Twilight, who looked back, a bit surprised at such ruthless pragmatism.
"Well yes... But the plan really is likely to work. It's something that's worked before, you see. Nightmare Moon was defeated once before, she can be defeated again."
"Good,” the blue unicorn flashed a fierce grin,“Then go, Rarity, and we'll see you when you pick us up for the party after.."
Rarity nodded reluctantly, and stepped towards Twilight. Suddenly, the ground trembled underfoot, and they all heard a distant but still shockingly loud roar. The sound seemed to come from every direction as it echoed down the twisted maze of tunnels.
"Horseapples!" said Colgate. "Your diversion was an attack on the entrance, wasn't it?"
"Well that was the sound of your diversion getting buried. Fido had them collapse the tunnel again--he's done it a couple of times before. And now they'll be patrolling outside, trying to round up anypony that escaped the collapse."
Twilight slumped. She didn't want to think about what might have happened to the others. To her friends. To Luna...
All her plans had just gone horribly, horribly wrong.