Darkness slowly fell over the heart of the Everfree Forest, causing the trees to cast long shadows during the twilight hour before the dying light faded from existence. As with every night before it, the setting of the sun caused alarms to go off in the internal clocks of the most dangerous creatures on the face of the earth. To them, the Everfree was a haven away from the over-controlling ponies, even if their biological memory missed the tasty pastel-coloured morsels.
For all of her experience and connection with the local fauna, not even the chief pony resident of the forest would stray too far from her home during the night. She had learned that lesson the hard way: through many close encounters, wounds, and battles she fought just to stay alive in such a hostile place, let alone the battles she fought for her vision of what the world should be, as opposed to the oozing quagmire of sin it had become.
A cool salve covered the base of her forward hooves as she gave one of the large salamanders at her command a quick, relaxing massage to end the day on a high note. Not only did it help them feel better, but it also acted to dull the natural heat of their skin so they would not accidentally set the entire ecosystem ablaze. Although it had to be done weekly, she never considered it a chore since she genuinely liked to help. Yet, for the past week, she could not help but feel withdrawn and ashamed with herself.
How could she have been so cruel to a pony she once held in such high regard? At first, she was furious that she managed to escape, but as time cooled her temper she realized why her captive abandoned her: she feared her. Twilight, of all creatures in the world, of all the friends she ever had, feared her! Rightly so too, since she had told her all of those horrible things: that nopony cared for her and that the girls would not hesitate to sacrifice anything for their cause.
Yes, the idea of her being a golem, an artificial construct of magical design, still grated at her nerves. Yet, she could not help but feel ashamed of hurting her. A fresh tear slipped from her eye as she finished her work and slowly walked back into her house. She did not mean to be so crass and sadistic, but she could not help but slip into that mindset when around another pony these days. It was as if something would possess her and cause her to power through her plans with no regard for anypony else. Was that the reason why Zecora would never leave her side? Was she helping her control it this whole time?
Gently shutting the door behind her, the yellow Pegasus went to work getting her tea started. She could remember how she and Twilight would swap and share their favourite teas whenever she came over for a visit. The more sophisticated flavours from Canterlot never really impressed her, but she feigned it, if only because she liked spending time with the lavender mare. Although it came too late, she had realized over the last decade that she was the glue that once held their friendships together.
She could not mope around though: there was still the plan that she and the deceased zebra put into motion years ago. They would educate the well-read unicorn on their lifestyle and how the natural order would make everything right. Then, they would march on Canterlot with an army of critters and sympathetic ponies alike and kill the queen, thus freeing the world from her tyrannical hold! Any resistance to the natural order would be crushed as well.
"We can't exchange one mismanaged tyranny for another!" shouted the crackled voice of her friend as the memory of the meeting with the Crusaders crested over her mind. "Perhaps she was right," the healer spoke softly to nopony. "Maybe... maybe none of us should kill Queen Eos. What if... what if whoever wins becomes the evil they sought to destroy? Maybe I should just quit while I'm ahead and join up with Twilight?"
NO! A voice in the back of her head shouted suddenly. Do NOT lose your resolve, Fluttershy! It's the only way to survive in this cold, cruel world. If you give up now, you will have betrayed EVERYTHING! Even your own values! You did not leave your friends for nothing! They are sinners for daring to go above the natural order of things. You have fought too hard and sacrificed too much to give up now!
"But...I miss my friends," she spoke to her own thoughts.
Who NEEDS friends anyway? All they would do is slow us down! You're far too soft when you're around those other stupid ponies! Your ideas would just be swept to the side and disregarded with little to no interest, or care for your feelings! Just like before. Real friends would not do that. A true friend would seriously consider what you had to say: not ignore you outright!
"Well... what if I'm wrong? What if... what if my vision for Equestria just doesn't work? I mean, what pony in their right mind would want to go back to being a common item of prey after having cities and families and friends? Wouldn't they miss waking up in the morning knowing they'll live to see the next?"
All a foalish fantasy created by our ancestors to blind us from the truth! The world is cruel and nature can never be held back. Why do you think everything has gone to the Hells with that stupid EOS in charge instead of Celestia? She, at least, knew the inner nature of ponykind and could work with or against it to her own ends.
"I suppose... yes. I HAVE come too far to just give up. I will continue to walk this path," she resolved as she sat down at the table with her steaming tea. In a world where nothing was certain, the only thing a pony could do was to just keep moving forward. Forget about the mistakes of the past and keep their eyes glued on the bright horizon. Night would have to lift some time, and when that morning light finally did shine, it would be all the sweeter.
Perhaps later, she would apologize to Twilight. Not for telling her the truth, but for being unnecessarily cruel to her. The poor thing had to be confused and scared since, like herself, she had been a hermit for the last decade or so. Tomorrow would be a new day: she would worry about it then. After finishing her tea, the yellow Pegasus and her white rabbit friend went into the other room and quickly drifted off to sleep on her bed of hay.
Everything around the orange mare lay in ruins. Applejack would be quick to note that it was a lie of exaggeration, though. At any rate, a lot of property was damaged and a fair number of ponies were now injured or dead in the aftermath of the attack on Appleloosa. Buildings still smoldered as bits of dragon fire lapped at the wooden structures. She had no way of understanding why the combined forces of dragons and griffons attacked her town and her ponies, but at the moment, she did not really care.
Granted, it was quite the feat to forcibly remove three stubborn dragons and about a dozen of those winged jerks, but it did not matter. In the midst of the battle, they had lost something infinitely more valuable than a few good ponies or bits in property damage. Twilight Sparkle had managed to escape in the chaos and confusion surrounding the confrontation. On a deeper level, she felt a sense of awe and pride that the unicorn had managed to pull it off!
She stood in the midst of her former office and surveyed the damage. Chunks of rusty red rock littered the floor with massive cracks in the walls. Ponies gathered as many personal belongings as they could since the structure was compromised by the tunnelling dragon. There was also the fact that the remaining guards and soldiers could converge on them at any moment. The converted mine had been her home for the past three years, and she had to admit that she had become attached to the place. It was just like the day she had to leave Sweet Apple Acres all over again.
Applejack sighed in relief as she overturned her long conference table to find the Communication Orb undamaged. It was a very useful tool, but she doubted Dinky would ever make her a second. She lowered her head in sorrow as tears began to crest her eyelids: reminded of the last time she saw her little sister and how cruel she had been to her. All she wanted to do was stay behind with her friends and she had to bite her head off before fleeing. "Why must Celestia test us like this? Ah know she has a plan, and we're all but pawns in it, but why does it always have to hurt?"
This is Princess Celestia, she reasoned in her mind, she wouldn't do something like this without reason. The pain is just a test and so is havin' to use Twilight. All the ponies who died are the ones who failed her and deserved to do just that! Ah have to keep strong for everypony's sake and keep movin' forward: it's the only thing TO do. Just keep at it, Applejack and everything will sort itself out. Then, she can end this cruel test and fix things in a second!
A resounding series of knocks on the door snapped her mind back to the present moment. At first, she wondered just who in their right mind would want to see her at such a time as she slowly walked to the door. After grabbing the brass handle in her teeth, she pulled, revealing a mustard yellow earth pony stallion with a brown mane and the mark of three horseshoes on his flank. In that instant, she recalled that she had summoned him.
"Oh, Caramel," she greeted. "Come on in! I have a job fer ya." The stallion obeyed his superior and quickly made his way into the remains of her conference room. Applejack always liked him, no matter what other ponies would say about his memory or his quirks. That was why she decided to entrust the task to him, knowing he would either succeed, or die trying!
"What's the job, General?" he asked with a sparkle in his eyes. Obviously the chance to prove his worth was very important to him.
"Ah need you to do somethin' of top priority, Caramel. Don't worry: you won't need to handle any seeds." The two laughed quietly at their private joke. "Ah need you to get Twilight Sparkle an' bring her back here! Yer the only pony resourceful enough to handle that mare without goin' overboard and she's less likely to use a lot of power against ya because yer an earth pony. Not to mention the fact that she wouldn't hurt ah fly if she could help it."
The yellow stallion could not help but drop his jaw at the assignment his commander had given him. Did she really trust him with such a task, or did she know he would fail and just wanted him out of the way? It was a very complicated situation, but if he turned her down, he might seem incompetent and foalish. Caramel knew there were rumors swirling around about him and if capturing Twilight could quell them: well, he had little choice anyway.
"Of course, General! You can count on me!" With a forced grin, the colt saluted before trotting out of the room with nervous energy. Of all the ponies under the farmer's command, the yellow pony was just about the most dependable one she knew. Even if he was not the smartest or most helpful stallion to ever walk across Celestia's green earth most of the time.
"This is just another one of Celestia's tests, Applejack," she told herself once he left the room. "Everythin' about this here mess is just one big test the Princess gave us: to see if we could carry on even without her !" She let another sigh pass her lips as she realized she was alone. "Now yer talkin' to yerself, ya silly pony!" Shaking her head free of the troublesome thoughts, the blonde mare continued to sift through her possessions: they were on a deadline and she was lagging far behind.
Sure enough, just a couple of minutes later, her big brother walked in and started giving her the look. He was a stallion of few words, which somehow made the mares go crazy for him. Granted, he was very fit and she could see that he was a mite handsome. Over time, she became immune to their noises when they would walk through town together: back when they had a town to call home, anyway. "Uh, AJ? We're runnin' behind," he drawled.
"Yeah, yeah, hold yer horses, big brother," she answered. "Ah'm just finishin' up now. I had to assign a pony to track down Twilight fer me while we move base."
"Who?" the draft crimson stallion asked.
"Caramel. Ah know he's a bit of a long shot, but he's the only pony ah know who won't quit, no matter what. I'm sure he'll be fine. He has to succeed." Taking a deep breath, she loaded her saddle bags onto her back, nearly buckling from the weight of all the tools and items she desperately needed to keep her clan going.
Harsh magical lights hummed nosily in the otherwise oppressive silence of the room, casting their glow upon every surface like a choking blanket. If one thing could be said for the room, it was that it was sharply efficient and as blank as a canvas. White walls surrounded a simple desk in a perfect square, placing it and the three chairs that surrounded it in the very centre of the room. Besides those four pieces of furniture and whatever happened to rest upon them, the room was barren and cheerless.
In fact, the only things that offered any colour to the room was a bunch of candy in a glass bowl and a pink pony sitting at her chair on the far side of the desk, facing the door. Her long, pink mane sat flat against her head like a bubblegum shower curtain that obscured most of her face. Her cyan eyes rested on a small dome in the middle of the table, lost in thought over what had transpired over the last week or so.
So what if Twilight had returned to Equestria? All it meant was that there was another pony on an already crowded stage, many of which needed to be removed from the spotlight soon. It was not like a single pony could turn around the situation so effortlessly: the world had already reached the tipping point. It just needed a little push to be sent over the edge and she was just the pony to do exactly that.
Pinkamena Diane Pie smirked as an idea crossed her mind. Imagine all the destruction she could cause, she mused, if I could bring her to my way of thinking. Spike has already betrayed her and she loved him like a brother! She's probably already depressed: I just have to string her along into hopelessness. Then, only then can the Cleansing begin in earnest! The pink pony giggled in perverse delight at the thought, knowing first-hoof that her former friend could decimate an entire town effortlessly.
Yet, a small voice in the back of her mind told her that using her friend like that was not only very mean, but extremely dishonest. With a shake of her head, the pink mare silenced the phantom, prompted by the sound of a knock at her office door. She did not feel like entertaining visitors, but then what kind of a host would she be? "Come on in," she spoke in a cold tone.
It was a light blue unicorn mare with a two-tone mane of blue and white. She timidly entered the pink pony's office and sat opposite of her in front of the desk. "Ms. Pinkamena?" she spoke apprehensively. "The drill for Operation Flood-Manehattan-With-Hot-Lava is almost ready. I mean, since you asked us to keep you posted on its progress."
"Thank you for the update, Colgate," the pink mare replied in as chipper a tone as she could muster. "Come. Follow me." Within less than a second, the two mares stood in unison. The blue unicorn hung back a little since Pinkamena disliked being actually lead anywhere by anypony. Needless to say, no pony dared try to upset her unless they wanted to die a little earlier than the rest of the world.
Although bowing or saluting was not mandatory in the Party Poppers, every stallion and mare that they passed did so out of respect to their leader and to the lieutenant as they trotted down the halls. Contrary to popular belief, their base was very clean and plain in appearance so that they could spend their time and energy concentrating on the task at hoof. Of course, Pinkamena did not really care if they slacked off a little bit and even encouraged a weekly party on Fridays. She had yet to attend a single one since the group formed, however.
Eventually, the pair of ponies came to a set of double doors that lead into a large, cavernous lab. At the centre sat a shiny, silver drill bit in the process of being painted pink. Lying on its side, the device was easily three ponies high and ten long. Under normal circumstances, it might be considered a feat of pony engineering, but considering its purpose, Colgate had her doubts many would celebrate this masterpiece of death and destruction.
"Do you have any idea how we're going to get it to Manehattan under the noses of the Royal Guard, the Crusaders and the Everfree Movement, ma'am?" The blue unicorn asked with some trepidation.
"Not yet, no," the pink pony answered her honestly. "We might be able to drill it there and use that as a sort of test run, but I'm not sure if that would work out real well. I'm sure you will all figure something out though! In the meantime, we can simply bomb some more buildings. What does everypony think of that!?"
A few ponies around them took a pause from their labours and cheered at the idea, since they all liked a good bombing. Even Colgate gave a little cheer at some good, old-fashioned destruction instead of sneaking around and being lied to like she had while she was in the Crusaders. "I think that would be a spectacular way to boost morale, ma'am," she spoke with a smile to the pony beside her.
"Well then, since you've all been working so hard, let me get you all a treat! Wait right there," the pink pony chirped before trotting out of the room. Only where the door shut did all the ponies present look at each other. Pinkie never got excited like that unless something fun, or funny, was about to happen. Considering her definition of those two, it was all too likely that somepony was about to get hurt.
Just a few short minutes after leaving, the leader of their group returned with a bowl of candy clenched in her teeth. A collective sigh of relief quietly filled the room, since she would never do anything to her own candy bowl! "Well, come on!" she spoke impatiently. "Everypony take one. Please!" With a smile, each pony took a candy from Pinkie and popped them into their mouths.
Colgate, meanwhile, turned her candy over in her mouth. It was watermelon, no doubts about it, but it had a strange tang to it that she could not quite place her hoof on. Before she had time to reflect on it, the outer shell melted away, exposing a fluid that suddenly surged down her throat, setting it on fire. Her eyes went wide and she gagged on the sweet, quickly spitting it out onto the floor. Pinkie had a look of disappointment behind the Cheshire grin on her face.
"Aw," she whined. "Colgate got the poisoned candy! I really liked you too." The pink mare dropped her grin and pouted as a look of horror came upon the dying unicorn's face. "Don't worry. It will be over quick! See you on the other side!" White foam began to froth from her mouth as the blue unicorn's eyes rolled up into the back of her head. Everypony watched in abject horror as she slumped to the ground and gurgled sickly before she became silent. Just like that, Colgate was dead.
"That game wasn't nearly as fun as I thought it would be. Can somepony please get her out of here?" Pinkie asked before turning away, leaving her dumbstruck followers behind.
Ever since news arrived that the pony known as Twilight Sparkle had been captured by the dragons, the atmosphere became incredibly tense. Ponies nervously checked behind their backs while they talked, just in case she happened to trot past and hear them. She had always been a little irritable, especially in the morning, but now Queen Eos was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to go off. No pony felt safe anymore, unless they were completely stupid.
Sunlight poured into the throne room that day. In a rare occurrence, the queen decided to extend court beyond the usual lunch period. When asked, all she would say was that it was for a special staff assembly and that attendance was all-inclusive and mandatory. "Very well, I shall look into it," the queen spoke to the final petitioner for the day, "You are dismissed." Without another word, the stallion bowed before the ruler of sun and moon and made a beeline for the door as fast as he dared.
"Captain," she called to a Pegasus guard, "Summon the castle staff for the assembly." The gold-clad white pony nodded his head and went into a back room behind the throne. Eos remained atop the seat of power with her mane billowing in the solar breeze. Her amethyst eyes had become cold and hard permanently where before they still held some softness and warmth. Thankfully, the insufferable voice had decided to clam up for the moment. It was a great comfort to the alicorn to have less meddling in her life.
Slowly, ponies trickled in the massive double doors before her, no doubt curious why she called the entire staff to such a sudden general meeting. Little did any of them know just what was about to happen. Oh yes, this will be an educational experience, the royal mare thought to herself with a smile. The ponies before her stepped to the side and took seats flanking the carpet that bisected the room to create the traditional central aisle directly facing her.
"Attention, all members of staff," spoke the Pegasus over the loudspeakers. "Attention: please make your way to the throne room immediately for a mandatory general meeting. Any ponies that are absent will be punished. That is all."
Eos sat patiently upon the symbol of her power as the ponies started to flood in after the message. Even if she was in no mood to care, she would still allow them a leeway of... perhaps about five minutes? Then, if they were any later than that, and made her delay her announcement... Truth be told, she had not come up with a fitting penalty yet. But what would be the best way to go about it? She could not make it too harsh, or else be feared even more. But if it was too relaxed, then she would get no respect.
"Your highness?" the ever-present mouth of her adviser Stardance spoke. "Everypony is assembled as ordered. Might I ask why you have called this meeting?"
"All in good time, adviser," she replied in a chilled tone. Eos surveyed the crowd, looking for the pony she wanted to single out that afternoon. Sure enough, she sat as close to the front row as she could manage and nearly in the middle of the right-hoofed side. Equestria's liberator grinned widely, causing a few of the ponies in the front rows to shiver in fear.
"Greetings, everypony," the monarch addressed her subjects. "We are gathered today due to forces beyond our control. It is no secret that war changes ponies, yet it is the manner in which they change that we have found disgusting as of late. Sadly, we must announce that there is a certain pony in our midst leaking valuable secrets into the hooves and claws of our enemies. In more simple terms for the less learned of you; a pony in this room is a vile traitor and must be held accountable for their crime!"
A collective gasp filled the room as the sentence echoed off the vaulted hall of the chamber. As she surveyed the room, she could see a couple of ponies shift nervously in their seats: she would deal with THEM later. For now, she wanted to call out the most grievous assault on her hard-earned trust. She would make an example out of them, and hopefully scare those other shuffling ponies back into line.
"The pony in question had the very rare privilege to say that they once held our unconditional and complete confidence and trust. However, we now know such trust was misplaced. She fed national and military information to rebel groups the likes of the Crusaders and occasionally to the allied forces of dragons and griffins. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that we call her to stand before us of her own volition and face the consequences like a mare!"
No pony dared to make a move or a sound once the queen's powerful voice subsided. Eos sighed audibly, hoping she would have some honour about her. "Jade Buckingham, come forth!" she commanded. All heads turned to the green unicorn, who was doing her best to make a stealthy exit at the time. Guards swooped upon her in an instant, receiving a struggle and a string of curses that would make a sailor blush before they dropped her on the elevated throne before the fuming monarch.
"Before we pass sentence, Jade," she asked softly. "We just want to know why you betrayed us."
The unicorn looked upon her with a cold look in her cyan eyes, no longer hiding behind her facade of shallow flattery and comments. "It is hard to betray a pony when you were never on their side, your majesty!" the minty mare spat. "So what if you caught me? I'm happy to die if only you die as a result of my efforts! You can't keep the common pony down for long. Not with our shining beacon lit for all the land to see! Stars save the queen; her end is nigh. The Crusaders forever!"
"SILENCE!" the queen shouted, shaking dust off the top of the rafters which gently floated onto the marble floor below. Not a pony dared to sneeze or cough, especially after such a brazen display of resistance from the former secretary to the War Council. "Jade Buckingham, we hereby sentence you to torture until such time as you reveal the location of every Crusader base: especially their main base, which I know is somewhere in Ponyville. Guards! Take this traitor down to the dungeons and begin immediately!"
A pair of white guards swooped down beside the queen and advanced on the green mare. They roughly clamped shackles to her hooves and slipped a ring of Mythril on her horn to stop the unicorn's magic. Either out of blind heroism, or foolish optimism, she was lead away without argument. Several members of the crowd looked open her in either false distaste or awe as she walked through the doors. It would be the last time she would ever be seen in public: alive, that is.
"You are all dismissed," the queen spoke bluntly before she turned on them and exited through the back door.
Soft music echoed through the room that afternoon, carrying with it a melody of sombre reflection in between raspy, hollow breaths. Soft, red velvet curtains were drawn on the windows into the room, immediately behind a modest desk befitting for the eyes, ears and mouth of the queen in the small town. It was considered a status symbol in Equestria to have a window behind a pony's desk: the bigger the window was, or the more a pony had, the more important they were.
Governor Ironhead of the Township of Ponyville did not really consider himself of any real importance in the grand scheme of things. In fact, he knew comfortably that he was the only governor to have any sense of humility. For instance, Tungsten Tail in Manehattan had an ego as big as the skyscrapers the town boasted. Furthermore, Lead Hoof in Trottingham created a holiday to celebrate his 'glorious visage,' the vain prick.
Ah well, his grievances with his peers were the least of his worries for the moment. The increased presence of the Royal Guard had stalled agricultural production fifteen percent since their arrival, despite the fifty percent gains the local bars and social clubs reported. As well, the local guards and the town police were complaining about being overstepped constantly by the national authorities. It was a logistical nightmare to keep the citizens from rioting for the Sorrel Hells of it.
Yet, he could not let his reputation of level-headed leadership slip over a few mild unforeseen consequences. Even if his letters to the queen, stating that it was highly unlikely (or logical) for fugitive number 10239, aka 'Twilight Sparkle' to remain in the area, went unheeded. Even after news that she had been captured by the allied forces of the griffins and the dragons! In fact, a lot of things seemed to be changing at an alarming rate, and not just in his little corner of the kingdom either.
Reports from his fellow governors told him that the three rebel groups were picking up significantly in activity, most likely in correspondence with their infamous anthem and the return of said criminal. Alas, all of this pondering was beginning to hamper his schedule, and he refused to be tardy for anything. Standing up, the artificial pony laboured for breath as he slowly walked across his office and out the front door.
"I'm going to meet Captain Starbolt," he rasped to his secretary in the foyer. "You may close the office for the day. No new orders for the night guard."
"Of course, sir," the blonde mare at the desk replied, no doubt elated at the extremely rare early leave she had been given. Ironhead had to give her some credit for not revealing just how happy she was to get out of there. Even though he was a golem, he could tell the ponies of Ponyville treated him with hostility, visible or not. This was especially true when he exiled their mayor for being a traitor sympathiser.
Shutting the door behind him with a little more force than intended, he trotted heavily across the cobblestone square, hooves clunking loudly as he went. Naturally, heads turned as he walked, singling the nopony out from the rest of the crowd as they moved out of his way. There was a lot of speculation flying around about him, but truth be told, he was not bothered by their avoidance. He knew he was different from other ponies, but he did not truly care. If he did, that would get in the way of his job.
Of course, he did have some emotions: if only one thing could bring them out, it would have to be dealing with the difficult members of the royal guard. Just because they served the queen directly did not give them the right to be obnoxious. He was even closer to Her Majesty, but he did not flaunt it like they did. Captain Starbolt was especially vexing, since he had an ego to match some of the governors. The former Wonderbolt was the only creature who could make him angry. Still, he scheduled an appointment, so he was forced to see him.
"Yo! Ironhead!" the voice belonging to the obnoxious captain cried. The aging yellow Pegasus with the hazel and blue mane did a quick loop before landing smartly in front of the poker-faced golem, surprisingly spry for a stallion his age. He did everything in his power to try and elicit some visible emotion from the governor, but thankfully had yet to succeed.
"I hope you appreciate that I closed the office early for your little meeting, Starbolt. I sincerely hope that I have not wasted my time."
"Grim and proper as usual," the former acrobat sighed. "Fine, I'll give you the short version, since you're such a stick-in-the-mud. Why are we still keeping an eye on that stupid library if the fugitive is not even in the area? I mean, what are a bunch of stupid books going to do? Grow legs and walk away? It's ridiculous, and I'm sure you know it! I mean, yeah, you have a thick head, but not in that way!"
"Her Majesty has her reasons for keeping an eye on the Books and Branches Library. It is not given to us to ask why, but to enforce her will. You would know this if you are as loyal to her as you claim, Starbolt. Even I do not know her intentions in that regard, but if they were critical to my job, then she would have informed me. For now, the standing order is to keep the library under surveillance. That is all, Captain."
The middle-aged Pegasus looked agitated for a split second before he took flight to rejoin his squad who hung out nearby, just in case things got dicey. In the absence of the queen herself, he was the ranking officer and he was not going to let them forget it ever again. "It is about time I put a leash on those ravenous dogs," the golem spoke aloud. "They are becoming far too difficult to handle."
Taking a deep, ragged breath of a sigh, he loudly trotted down the street and took a left off the main road into town. The mayor's residence did not distinguish itself from the other buildings in town, but it was far roomier on the inside than it appeared. Thankfully, it remained unvandalized that day, where there would usually be an obscene note or gang symbol painted on the door. He would enjoy a hopefully quiet night alone before resting and preparing for another gruelling day at the office. Trying to lead a town that hated him was just about as easy as it sounded.
A dull blue glow coated the world as the light of the moon bathed the desert. The stars above twinkled in a constant yet ever-changing dance that spanned across eons. At least, that is what the mare imagined as she huddled closer to the fire she made. The air was cold, but the hot fire provided a small buffer zone where the temperature was bearable. It was in that narrow circle that Vinyl Scratch sought refuge from the deadly desert night.
It was certainly no small feat that the intrepid bounty hunter had picked up the trail of her prey once more. Although, with the dragons and griffons in a panic, it was merely a job of keeping pace and using her brain a little bit. She had her doubts Twilight would go east to Manehattan since the guard and police there were more than equipped to handle her, and thought it unlikely she would go through the tunnel that her fellow bounty hunters loved to loiter around, so that only left lawless Appleloosa. From there, it was simply a matter of picking up her trail after a few rounds around the town. By her conjecture, she figured she was heading to the Swayback Mountains.
As she planned out her future, her mind began to wander back into the past as the wisps of sleep gently crested over the white mare's tired body. Her eyes gradually became heavier and heavier until she could hold them no longer and passed out. Darkness danced before her as the gentle cracks of the fire turned into white noise, which eventually became a gentle tick. Vinyl moaned and opened her eyes, finding her vision had become sharp once again, able to make out the time on a nearby clock that showed it was ten before twelve in the morning.
Dream logic took over, pushing all questions that she could see out of her mind and she grumbled and rolled out of the blinding light, noticing a half-finished bottle of Vodka on the nightstand. "I'm never drinking again... until Friday," the mare muttered as she pulled herself out of bed. "I hate waking up early." Being the top DJ in the region proved to be a great boon since she was regularly invited to the most exclusive clubs in Equestria to perform. Of course, this also meant she had to assume a nocturnal sleeping pattern.
DJ P0n-3 wandered slowly over to the bathroom for a quick shower. She was the kind of pony who simply could not fall asleep again once she woke up and she refused to really try. Besides, it made it easier to fall asleep the next night if she lacked a little sleep from the night previous. "Morning, Scratch. Up before the crack of noon, hmm?" sounded the voice of her aristocratic roommate and best friend, Octavia. She sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea at her hooves and a newspaper sprawled out before her (the culture section, of course). Normally, that condescending tone of hers would drive the disk jockey up the wall, but at that time in the morning? She was more or less a walking corpse. So she shrugged and struggled to find that magical elixir known as "coffee".
"What is the matter, Vinyl? Has the cat got a hold of your tongue? Or was it simply the decadent quantity of alcohol you consumed last night? I had to pick up at least a dozen bottles just leading to your door! Stars know how many are in that rat's nest you call a room!"
The white unicorn winced visibly in her hung-over state at the loud noises she was making. "Pianissimo, 'Tavia! Pianissimo! If you're gonna play that tune, do it softly, please! It's like you're popping this hardcore techno beat in my head right now and it's not cool, 'kay, filly?" Sitting at the table, the DJ rubbed her blood red, bloodshot eyes before taking a sip of the black liquid in her cup.
"Fine, but it is your turn to get the groceries. I have practice this afternoon, so I cannot go," the earth pony replied in a softer, but still unyielding tone. The white unicorn simply gave a couple quick nods with her head before rubbing her aching temples with her hooves. Anything, even going out to get their groceries while she went to work, was better than sitting there and taking the brunt of her rapier wit while she herself was disarmed.
So, without any protest and a quick brush of her mane, the unicorn decided to get it over and done with so she could grab a quick nap when she got back to their Fillydelphia apartment, since the earth pony would be at her practice by the time she returned. Grabbing her trademarked sunglasses (partially to protect from the glare of the sun on her hung over eyes), the famous DJ ventured out into public where she was accosted by the usual ecstatic fan or two as she shopped: over all a routine experience.
Coming back home, however, was something quite unlike anything she had ever seen before. Dozens of ponies she identified as tenants in her building fled outside, screaming and carrying what possessions they could. "I bet I'll get blamed for this," the white DJ spoke aloud to herself as she approached. It looked like there was smoke coming out from one of the windows. Had she really forgotten to turn off the stove, or coffee pot, or some other device that could cause a fire?
The heavy tint on her sunglasses made it nearly impossible to see as a rogue cloud drifted overhead, casting the area in shadow. She lifted the purple glass from before her eyes, exposing their blood-red tint for the entire world to see. Members of the Town Guard were out in force that day, trying to keep the crowd of ponies behind the yellow tape. "Stay back, miss!" One of them shouted as Vinyl pushed herself to the front of the crowd. Of course, she had no intention of trying to cross. Octavia would have a fit if she got arrested again.
Out of the doorway into the building, a pink mare with a bubblegum mane hopped into the middle of the perimeter. "Hi!" she chirped with a smile, looking at the guards. Each of the law ponies looked to each other with wild incomprehensible looks in their eyes. They quickly snapped back into focus and pounced on the pink mare, creating a massive pile of ponies as they tried to force the one into submission. However, the pink pony squirmed her way out on top of the pile and quickly hopped away.
"Well," the musician spoke over the din of the still raging fight between the town guards, "you don't see that record bein' spun every day." Then with a blinding flash and echoing roar, the world was gone: stolen by the claws of peaceful darkness, only for waves of searing pain to register in her mind moments later. The white mare lay on the ground screaming in pain as she regained consciousness, a warm liquid spilling onto her hooves when she went to cover her aching eyes.
All around her, there were other shouts of surprise and pain in the scary dark world she had been thrust into so suddenly. She could hear the sound of hooves clicking rapidly against the cobblestones until she could swear they were right beside her. "Scratch!?" came the echoing cry of Octavia. "S-somepony! Help! M-my friend! She n-needs help! Now!" Before she passed out, Vinyl could not help but notice she had never heard her friend that worried before.
Next thing she knew, the white unicorn sat in the middle of the doctor's office. The cool wax paper on the table pressed uncomfortably against her flank as she squirmed. She knew her friend was there for her, but all she could see was a brownish blob, having just had her eyes tested after the gauze protecting them was removed. For the past month, she had to experience the world without any sight at all as her eyes healed from the surgery to get all the glass out. Her ears perked up as soon as the sound of a shutting door filled the room.
"I have some good news, and, unfortunately, some bad news, Miss Scratch," the doctor spoke to the blinded mare. "While we were able to save the eyes, despite the injuries, I am afraid you will never have twenty-twenty vision again."
"H-how bad is it going to be, doctor?" Octavia asked with a quaver of fear in her voice.
"Significant, I am afraid. Somewhere around twenty-sixty, but that can be corrected with glasses. However, severe cataracts have developed. This means that everything will be blurry and out of focus. Normally, we would be able to fix this, but with the cost and the war eating up our funds and resources, we cannot remove them. Maybe when the war is over something can be done, but it will still cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand bits per eye for the surgery.
"I can get the money easy, doc," the white mare spoke up. "But, well... will I be able to work? I... kinda need to see playlists and album covers to spin the tunes and pull off rockin' shows. If I can't play those records I... I don't know what I would do!"
"I am sorry, Ms Scratch, but in this state, you will be lucky to be able to read a street sign."
Later that night, the disk jockey would lock herself in the spare room of Octavia's parents house and sob her heart out in between bottles of whiskey she lifted from her father's cabinet. Being a DJ was all she knew, all she wanted to be, and now it was robbed from her by that miserable, evil pink pony! Come Sorrel Hells or high water, one day she would pay her back in kind for all she had done, but until then, she just wanted to wallow in her own self-pity.
Back in the present, the white pony stirred from her slumber, as she always did when she dreamed of that day. "Stupid past," she muttered angrily. The bounty hunter rolled onto her back, casting her damaged eyes skyward, their vivid ruby red tones dulled to an off pink from the cataracts. Still, as bad as it was to have her world blurred by an eternal smudging hoof, it was a far sight better than what could have happened. Scratch shook her head and closed her tired eyes again: tomorrow was a new day, ripe for the picking and she would not be left behind!
Although not considered a part of the Everfree Forest proper, the southern end of the Whitetail wood was not as peaceful as it appeared to be. Tales from the villages in the area spoke of restless spirits and demons that roamed between the trees at night, since time immemorial. Arcane rituals, murders, and other unspeakable acts took place in the haunted wood, or so the rumours claimed. It served as a beacon to the supernatural, drawing in ponies sensitive to the strange reality.
Despite the hard times for the adults, their worries sailed over the innocent heads of their children. So, it was no surprise that two young fillies ran off into the woods in pursuit of adventure. The magenta and lemon coloured foals played a game of tag as the light of the sun shone through the canopy. In the midst of their merriment, the laughing ponies had not noticed they had strayed far beyond their normal playing grounds until they were impossibly lost in the forest.
"Oh great," spoke the older, yellow Earth pony. "Thanks for getting us lost, featherbrain!"
"I did not!" squeaked the young Pegasus, "You're the one who decided to go out further than Fort Rusty. 'Oh, won't it be fun!?' you said!" However, as they argued, they ventured out even further, the sunlight faded as the canopy became thicker, blocking out most of the light. The yellow pony shivered as a blanket of cold suddenly draped over her body. Her eyes darted around in the flash of twilight, noticing the trees became more gnarled and sinister as they went.
"I... I don't like this..." the elder shivered. "I think... we might be in Everfree by now." The younger filly shivered and nervously clung to the flank of the elder. All around them, a haze of darkness developed, the trees beginning to ooze sticky, black, unnatural gunk. It was if the world itself had turned dark when the ground began to succumb as well.
"Children!" cried a young, masculine voice from beside them. An adult earth pony stallion approached the duo of startled fillies, who jumped in fright and backed into a tree, staining their flanks on the muck. He was a pony of normal height, sporting a black coat, mane and vivid emerald green eyes which coldly gleamed with worry at their plight. "What are you doing so deep in the woods unescorted? You are no more than a quarter mile from the Everfree here!"
"We're so sorry!" the two chimed before embracing the stranger. He looked taken aback, but he smiled at them nonetheless, almost like a father.
"Now, now, there is no need to worry," he soothed in his distinct Trottingham accent, "I am sure your parents will be relived just to see your bright, smiling faces once more." He picked his head up and surveyed the dark and dripping surroundings. "Although, I am a little curious about something: have you children seen a pony in here? Well, it is not really a pony, but it looks like one."
They both shook their heads, the adorable confusion in their eyes more than enough to convince the stallion of how innocent they really were. It was almost enough for him to salivate over. "Come along. Let us depart from this evil place." True to his word, the enigmatic grown-up lead the two foals away from the scary black gunk and back towards the light of the setting sun.
Although, no matter how far they trekked away from the sludge, the black pony continued to track it along, long after the two stopped leaving a trace. Somehow, despite leaving the scary place, the cold continued to press against their bodies, the steam of breath escaping their muzzles as they breathed. The young ponies looked to each other before the younger, magenta Pegasus found the courage to speak up. "Mister? Um... thank you for leading us away from the creepy place, but... we can find our way from here. I recognize that tree."
"Good," the stallion replied, sending chills up the two fillies spines. While his voice still had the soothing Trottingham accent, it had become scary: not louder than a whisper in volume but carried more power and authority than even the Princess. The pony turned on them, looking them square in the eyes. Those brilliant emeralds had turned from cold and worried to simply cold in a heartbeat, and even glowed slightly in the shade. Both the young fillies could not help but have visions of horrible things pass before their eyes.
"Tell me, children, do you know the origins of Nightmare Night?" The two ponies predictably nodded their heads, eyes still transfixed on his. "No, you do not!" His voice had suddenly become deeper when he shouted, followed by a small, feral growl that caused the two to shriek and shiver in their hooves. "Nightmare Night is not for Nightmare Moon, as the lore tells. It is for a greater being who made her what she was! Over the years, the tale became perverted as the lie took hold over fact.
"You see, children, long ago there existed a spirit called simply 'Nightmare.' He is the creature that brings out the worst in ponies and thrives on the inner darkness in the heart of ponykind. And he has an appetite for foals, in particular. Nightmare Night used to be the one night of the year he could come to the world of the living and demand the sacrifice of one foal from each village, if they did not supply enough of their own food." His mane and tail stood on-end, eventually becoming naught but black flame given shape, yet the terrified foals stood still: just like always. He smiled, revealing rows upon rows of razor sharp teeth, like those of a shark, that gleamed in the sunlight and into their eyes as his muzzle jutted out to become more canine in shape.
"But, there is one thing I like about your perversion of my holiday. It is a simple rhyme, which I find awfully fitting. 'Nightmare Night, what a fright... give me something sweet TO BITE!'" A deep, ferocious roar came from his mouth as he dove upon the two stunned fillies.
A long way away, at the very edge of the Whitetail wood, a couple of bloodcurdling screams echoed through the nearby village, directing the search party in the direction of the missing foals. "Oh, sweet Celestia! No!" cried one of the parents when they arrived in the clearing. Tears stained the cheeks of everypony around as they found the pair of ravaged bodies, so close to home, yet so far.
Out of the corner of one pony's vision, they noticed a black earth pony stallion with emerald eyes watching from the sidelines. Eventually, the others took notice as well, staring at him with hatred and distrust as he was the sole stranger at the scene of the crime. He smiled at them, grinning with his bloodied teeth. Several of the more brave stallions brandished weapons and charged, only for him to reform in another spot in the clearing from the shadow of a tree.
"Tell the world!" he ordered the crowd. "Tell the world that I, Nightmare, am free once more to come and go as I please! Try to lock up your loved ones if you want. I will find them, eventually. Oh, and thank you all kindly for the delicious snack. I will remember your pitiful village, come next Nightmare Night!" With a cruel laugh, the pony evaporated into black mist, leaving them to grieve over their foals.
It was good to be back.