51w, 3dMSC Bronies
The pathetic ponies marched through the smoldering earth, completely silent. Pinkie was wide-eyed as she tried to make sense of this alien experience, but not even she spoke. Something about the air around them and the realization that an entire city had been silenced instantaneously made the idea of breaking the quiet abominable.
So Twilight was left to her thoughts once more. She had no idea where she was leading her friends. Though her map she had taken had survived the blast, her attack had destroyed any major landmarks. She could only guide them based off of the position of the sun, but that could only give them an estimate. And where to go, regardless? She had no idea where the Metaspectre had taken Luna. She didn't know how any of the cities marked on the map would react to their little troupe marching in. Nor did she want to guess blindly.
Twilight shook her head in anguish. She was unqualified to lead. She had allowed herself to lose control once again. Celestia had been right to reprimand her when she had enchanted Miss Smarty-Pants. But once again, Twilight had forgotten her lesson. There wasn't any other way to look at it. The citizens of Moon Pool were cruel, but they were simply desperate. Their deaths weren't justified. Twilight had allowed herself to fall to their level, acting on instinct rather than logical thought. To say nothing of the Griffon saviors. She had to redeem herself somehow. But what was done was done. The only way forward, she hated to admit, was to carry on.
The group ascended a gentle slope that overlooked the former Moon Pool. The dark lake itself stood untouched, the only hint that civilization might ever have resided in the barren wasteland. The remnant energy from the blast made the air heavy with magic. Twilight felt like she could perform just about any spell she'd ever heard of, but what would be the point? She turned to face the group.
“Well,” she managed to croak out. Her throat was dry and her voice sounded out of out of place and far louder than she had intended. “We have a map, but no leads. We're starving, but we have no food. If the citizens of Moon Pool manage to return from that attack, we'll be hunted more than ever. And I have the feeling that they won't be trying to capture us alive.” Twilight shook her head in frustration. “Well, I managed to get us out of one mess and right into another.”
Then, swallowing her pride, the purple mare continued, turning to the stern griffon. “And Gilda, I apologize for dragging your people into this. And for killing them.”
“We fight to free ourselves, and you guys are the best bet we have for a better life. I don't speak for all the griffons, but it's likely most of them would be willing to die again if it meant giving you a fighting chance. It wasn't your fault.”
“Actually it was.”
Gilda didn't respond.
Twilight returned her attention to the rest of the group, shrugging her shoulders. “Honestly, I have no idea where to go from here. Obviously we still have our main objective of saving Luna. If we give up on that, everything we've done has been both a waste of time and a failure. But we have to be concerned about our immediate survival. If we can't save ourselves, how can we expect to save anypony else?”
“We need to think like The Metaspectre. If we get inside his head, then we'll know where to go.”
“A fair point, Applejack, but its movements seem to be illogical.” Rarity coughed, then continued. “Or at the very least they seem to be the result of a fevered mind. What does it gain from stealing away Luna? It doesn't seem to want to dethrone Celestia, nor enslave Equestria. It has as much power as it could possibly hope for, but it still acts against us.”
“Could it be doing it simply for the heck of it? For fun?”
“I don't know Rainbow, a creature like that doesn't seem to have a sense of fun.” Twilight looked around at her friends. She was just as stumped as they were. “I suppose the only way we could really know its intent would be to ask it.”
Gilda spoke up now, reaching into Twilight's saddlebag for the map. “One thing we can be sure of, at least from what you've told me, is that the Metaspectre likes being dramatic. It won't be in some small settlement or just hiding out in the woods. It either has a lair of sorts or else it's moving around. My guess?” She pointed a claw to a large city pounded into the side of a tall mountain. The city of Windark, obviously Canterlot's reflection.
“Windark was largely destroyed and abandoned about a year and a half ago, in the last conflict between the Offshoot griffons and the Forgotten ponies. After the battle, the griffons found a way into Reality and Moon Pool was unified. This is, of course, around the time that the being in the lake released the four Elder Atrocities, and when Nightmare Moon entered Reality, to be defeated by you six. If there's anywhere the Metaspectre would put on a show, it'd be there. To rise from ashes of Canterlot's reflection is poetically just and his business wouldn't be disturbed there. The trouble, however, what's between here– ” she said, pointing out Moon Pool with a claw. Twilight realized the map was out date, seeing as the town was no longer there. “...And there.”
“That's a lot of walking,” Spike commented, looking it over.
“To say nothing of lack of supplies and the dangers that lie in between.” Gilda stretched her neck. “There are two ways to go about this. You'll either have to avoid civilization or the wildlife. And honestly, you'll have a better chance with the monsters that nature created than the ones that war created. That being said, you guys should probably head out as soon as possible. You only have until midnight before confused and frustrated ponies will try to track you down.”
“'You guys?'” asked Rainbow. “Are you not coming, Gilda?”
The griffon shook her head. “I'm sorry, but it's for the best. I'd just be another mouth to feed. You'll move faster with a smaller group, even if it's only smaller by one. You're only as fast as your slowest party member. Besides, I have to let the griffons know that the mission was successful. We saved you. Now we have to save the rest of the prisoners and retreat. And no offense to Commander Glenn, but I think he needs my help.”
Twilight bit her lip. As much as she wanted a strong fighter in case their travels ever required physical force, Gilda's logic was sound. “Very well, Gilda. I only wish there was more I could do to help you and the rest of the griffons.”
“Help us by winning this war. Go find your princess and set things right.” She saluted the friends. “It was a pleasure working with you. May the Gods smile upon your travels.”
Twilight bowed low to the ground. She had found a true friend in Gilda.
Rainbow ran up and hugged. “I can't believe I have to leave you again after I thought I'd lost you.”
“Don't worry about me. There will be a day when we will fly carefree in Reality, but there is still work to do. I'll be fine.” Gilda look at Rainbow seriously, understanding passing between them. Rainbow stepped back to join the others.
With a quick glance at the clearing sky, Twilight oriented herself to the map, nodded, and set off towards Windark. Gilda watched them disappear into the smog, swallowing in fear. Whether for herself or for them, she couldn't decide. Once they were gone from view, Gilda flopped to the ground, allowing her starvation and wounds to overtake her. She lay there, breathing heavily. It had taken all of her willpower to put on that happy face for her friends. They had been an answer to her prayers. Just when she had given up, they arrived and gave her the one thing she could not give herself. Hope. She gave a pained smile at the thought. Gilda reached her left claw forward, looking it over carefully. She knew what she had to do. Anyone who said they weren't afraid of death was lying, even in this twisted world. But it had to be done. She would be worthless in this state.
Gilda took a deep breath, steeling herself. She frowned in concentration. She lashed at her own throat and she instinctively choked on the already flowing crimson. Her mind flared with panic and pain, but she forced those thoughts into submission. It would all be over soon enough, she told herself, even as her mind was failing her.
Sure enough, it was. Her body stopped moving, the pool of red reflecting her relieved and peaceful face. The wind stopped, and all was quiet over the charred earth.
“...Three, two, one.”
With a flash, a book materialized and fell to the ground, throwing up a small poof of powder snow. Twilight cradled the tome in her magic, placing it into her bag and upon closing it, looked back the way they had come. The lightly falling snow was already filling their tracks, but how long would it keep their pursuers away?
Twilight dropped her head for a moment, then turned back to her friends. They were panting heavily, standing around the small clearing. Twilight had been making them march through the snowy countryside the entire day to give them as much of a head start as possible. Midnight had just passed. That meant, at this moment, the battle would be resuming at the remnants of Moon Pool. The griffons would hold the reflections off just long enough to regroup and retreat. Then in the aftermath, Lustrous Revolt and the others would begin hunting them down. And Twilight had a feeling they wouldn't ask questions this time around.
“Come on girls, we need to keep moving.”
Spike held up a weary hand. “Twilight. We need a rest.”
“We don't have time to rest. Come on, get up!” She stepped over and nudged the little dragon.
Applejack rose to her hooves. “Listen, Twilight. We can't keep moving. Even Ah'm tired. Just look at everypony else.”
Rainbow tried her best to look strong, but though she was built for speed and used to traveling long distances, the now over-powering hunger had sapped her usual perkiness. Fluttershy was silent, holding her aching stomach and shaking softly. Rarity avoided everyone's gaze, a dark aura telling the others it wasn't a good idea to press her.
Pinkie looked at Twilight expectantly, somber and her eyes missing their usual brilliance. She had been mostly quiet throughout the trip, but every time she spoke it was to ask questions that it hurt to answer.
“Twilight? Where are we?”
“Why does the snow feel funny?”
“Why can't I feel my hooves?”
“What happened to that city we were in?”
“Rainbow, why does this scratch feel... so... augh! What is this stuff!? It was coming out of the griffons too!”
After some time, Twilight had lost it, feeling her own confusion and anxiety come to a boil. “I don't have all the answers Pinkie! We were tricked. This world wasn't meant to be experienced. We are literally in Tartarus, and I can't protect all of you. I don't even know if I can protect myself!”
Pinkie hadn't spoken since then. Twilight looked at her group with pity, realizing that she didn't look any better. She sighed. “I don't know what to do anymore. We need to stay ahead of them. But I don't want to kill us doing it.”
Rainbow gave up her façade of bravery and strength and instead flopped to her side. “Twilight, we need food. There's no two ways to look at it. Applejack, didn't you have some in your bags?”
“Had is right. When they took our stuff they kept the food and left everything else.”
Twilight pondered her options. “This forest we're in seems lively enough, but I doubt much of it's edible. And the plants are different enough, I'm not certain I could be sure whether or not they're poisonous. And I doubt that anything edible grows much in the winter. They don't even in Equestria. What I wouldn't give for a field guide.”
Twilight pulled out the dark crystal from the Metaspectre's altar. It still hummed with energy, though not as powerfully or as urgently as before. Even it seemed lethargic in the bitter winter cold.
“I might be able to summon food, but there are several problems with that. I'd either have to teleport it from elsewhere, but I'd need a target and besides, it'd be taking it from somepony else. I could conjure it, but true materialization requires a massive amount of energy.”
“I thought you materialized things all the time? Like that door you slammed on me when I was telling you to not be afraid of sharing your talents? Like you shouldn't be now?”
“No, Spike, that was an illusion. I had been studying tricks the mind can play on itself that day. Your brain interpreted it as real, and the magic did the rest, only opening the door because you believed it could be opened. I could materialize illusion apples, for example, and though we'd be able to taste them, and our bodies would think we're full it'd do nothing to actually help us in the long run. It'd boost our metabolism and then where would we be? Getting hungrier faster.”
“You said there's 'true materialization' though, right?” Fluttershy's eyes were begging for good news.
Sadly, Twilight wasn't certain she could give it. “Yes, but there's a problem with it. Matter is essentially condensed energy. To make a real apple appear, right here and right now, would certainly drain my entire energy pool. I'm not certain just how many this crystal could make, but it wouldn't be enough to satisfy us, that I'm sure of. Maybe before I exploded most of the energy in it, but not now. Magic is more about using what you're given rather than getting what you don't have.”
Rarity jumped to her hooves, stormed over, and ripped Twilight's map out of her bag. With a huff, she looked it over, daggers shooting out of her eyes.
“There. We're going there tomorrow. I don't care what Gilda says, but a beeline to this 'Windark' is going to kill us. We need to get food from somewhere, even if it means we have to hurt a few ponies.”
“No, Twilight. In the land of robbers and thieves, we'll have to be robbers and thieves. It's the only way to survive. This decision has not come easily, but I've had plenty of time to think on it. If we don't take care of ourselves, nopony will.”
Twilight looked at the city Rarity had pointed to. Stonehill. Within a day's walking distance, Twilight had to admit it did look far more tempting than the week or so between Moon Pool and Windark. She frowned at the thought. Back in Reality, it wasn't much more than five hours from Ponyville to Canterlot, but in the Forgotten Realm it seemed that distances were warped and stretched. As far as she could tell, they were still in the reflection of the Everfree forest. After an entire day of travel.
She sighed, rolling up the map. “Alright, I'll consider it. I agree, we can't carry on like this. I'll get a fire started, and we'll sleep here tonight. I'm certain everything will be clearer in the morning.”
Much later into the night, the light of the fire had died down into nothing but ashes, the ponies sleeping fitfully on the grass the fire had helped dry. The crystal in Twilight's bag shuddered as it detected the presence of its master.
The ashes stirred as the dark shadow stepped by, pulling into the smoke-formed body, darkening it further. He came to rest standing over Twilight. My dear girl... Peace calm your troubled mind. This is one night you need not worry.
Thael bent over Twilight's ear, closing his flaming eyes. Twilight stirred underneath him, opening her eyes wearily. “Huh. No stars tonight...” she mumbled. A sense of calm overtook her. She closed her eyes once more, falling into a deep sleep. The ponies around her settled as well.
Yes. That is correct. The psionic whisper was thoughtful. There are no stars tonight.