Sometimes I wonder myself just how long we tramped through that dark and lonely woods Thorne turned the Everfree into, following Ruby’s bright-lit hoofmarks. There was myself, with Twilight and Applejack and all the rest all around me, with their Elements on and shining bright in that gloom like six stars in a sunless sky. I admit to you all, I didn’t relish staying inside of that little box the ladies made of theirselves to ward off the things creeping all about. And riding astride Twilight came little scaly Spike, and Apple Bloom and her friends sticking close by their sisters, all in there with me, and they stayed right quiet. After what happened to them, I doubt airy one could blame them. Now that I think back, it’s best we all stayed right quiet. I learned in the Army that when you’re a-sneaking up on someone who means to make killing trouble for you, the longer you can keep them from guessing whereair you’re at, the better.
After some time went by, and who could tell how long with only that shattered red moon in the sky, the trees and plants began to thin out. I felt right glad of it too. I’ve enjoyed walking in the woods many a time, but that was with natural trees, not whatair Thorne conjured up. We started to come up on the edge of a village. On buildings, anyway, and as we did we all stopped and I reckon stared.
Those buildings looked kindly like the ones I’d seen in Ponyville. Little differences here and there, maybe less of a peak to the roofs and built more like stables back home, long and broad and less of them with more than the one story, but you could see how the same sort of folks that made Ponyville made these. No smell to it like Ponyville, though. This place smelled dry like old mold. Howair, that wasn’t what we all looked at right off.
The place looked ready and set for a party. Banners and streamers hung up here-there, all of them what I reckon you’d call royal purple. On and over them all you could see that red arrows symbol Lyra and the timber wolves bore when we’d seen them. Letters on those banners too, red ones that read big and bold in one place, WELCOME TO SUNNY TOWN. In another, rough pictures of Twilight and her friends and my own face, but done with “X”s for eyes and tongues hanging out like how little boys sometimes do to show someone’s dead.
“So much for us surprising Thorne,” Twilight said, not happy. She looked around on those signs and banners. “He certainly looks confident enough that he’ll win.”
“Pride goes afore a fall, they say,” I answered her. I looked around and saw no sign of those Sunny Town ponies. I saw how the girls looked around too, the older ones wary and Spike and the little fillies right scared. Apple Bloom pressed against Applejack and got a quick hug back from her. I said, “Now, how do you all want to handle this?”
“First things first,” Twilight said. Her horn glowed as she took Spike from her back and set him down. “Spike, you stay here with the girls. Keep an eye on things. If we lose,” I saw her gulp, and I reckon her friends and I all felt a little chill then too. “If we lose,” she repeated, her voice stronger, “Then take the girls and get out of here, back to Ponyville. I don’t want Thorne to get his hooves on you again.”
“No, Twi, I wanna help!” Spike snatched a handful of her mane. The Cutie Mark Crusaders pressed up by their sisters and pleaded with them too, asking to be allowed to go along.
“Spike, no!” Twilight shook her mane free from Spike’s claws. He tried to say more, but she shushed him. “If worst does come to worst, I’ll be happy knowing that you and the girls are far away from here. Please, Spike, do this for me?” Her eyes pleaded at him. Spike looked like he wanted to argue it. Then Rarity stepped up to him.
“Please, Spike,” she said, batting her eyes at him and looking on him the way many a human man likes to be looked at by a pretty woman. Right away he gave her all his attention. She said, “I’m so worried for poor Sweetie Belle and her friends. It would make all this so much easier to do if I knew they had a brave dragon like you protecting them. Please? For me?”
Spike shifted where he stood, looking right uneasy. He looked from her and Twilight to the little fillies and said, “Okay, if you and everypony else here wants me to. I promise I won’t fight Thorne or the Sunny Town ponies.”
“We promise too,” the fillies said after him.
“Thanks Spike,” Twilight told him.
“Oh, thank you, my little hero.” Rarity leaned in and kissed him on one cheek. Most little boys would have been right embarrassed to get kissed by a pretty lady thataways, but Spike looked right proud to have gotten it. He bowed to her formal-like. Both those unicorns smiled on him. Then they turned to me.
“John,” Twilight said, “I’ve been thinking. Remember, Thorne said before that he can’t spy on you or us when we have the Elements. If he sees us all together he may try something, like you warned us about. But if he only sees us, he might not think about you. Maybe you could wait here while we go to him.”
“Hey, Twi, we need his help,” Applejack warned her.
“That you do,” I said to her, “Pardon my a-saying so. I won’t be hiding away while you all are risking your own lives.”
“And I don’t want you to,” Twilight said back to me, shaking her head. “Just wait until we’ve gone a bit and then follow. We’ll confront Thorne. Maybe we can still convince him to give up.” Fluttershy looked hopeful when she said that. I reckon I looked on Twilight more like how Applejack and Rainbow Dash did, not what you’d call a hopeful look. She saw it. “I know. I’m not expecting it either. But we have to try. And if he refuses…”
“More like when, sugarcube,” Applejack said. I saw Rarity nod behind her. Something from the look in both their eyes told me that they purely hoped he did refuse and make it a fight.
“Or when,” Twilight agreed her, “Then John, you do whatever you can to distract him. I won’t say what.” She smiled at me, “You probably have better ideas than I do along those lines. But just keep him busy.”
“An’ then we’re gonna make that jerk taste the rainbow,” Dash said, pumping her hoof in the air. I thought to myself that if we weren’t all careful Thorne might be getting a taste of a rainbow in ways Dash wouldn’t like, but I didn’t say any such a thing. Like as not she knew it as well as I did.
“I’ll wait right here by the girls until you pass just out of sight,” I told Twilight. I patted her on the shoulder. “Better get going then. I’ll be along presently.”
“Okay.” She said as she turned and headed off, her friends with her. She stopped just a second long and said, “John, if I didn’t say this before, I’m glad we met you. And I’m gladder we helped each other.”
“I’m rightly glad too,” I responded her. I watched them all go off down the dark road in that village and under those bragging banners of Thorne’s until they went around the corner of a building and out of sight. Then I turned to Spike and the Cutie Mark Crusaders. They all looked on me with wide eyes, wide and maybe just the least bit scared. I held out Zecora’s staff to him.
“Spike, take this,” I bade him. He shook his head back at me.
“You keep it, you need it more than I do,” he said. He showed me his claws and scratched at a stone nearby in the dirt, one big enough to make a right good-sized headstone. A handful of it came away in his claw. He grinned on me, showing white fangs, before he popped it into his mouth. His jaws crunched together and he spit out a mouthful of gravel. “See?” he said. “You can’t do that.”
“And howair much good did that do you with Thorne and the Sunny Town ponies?” I asked him. He frowned to think of it. I held the staff out again. “This is something they can’t stand against. If you and the girls have to get away, this might could give you the chance.” He didn’t look the least bit happy, but he took it. I turned to go but stopped when Apple Bloom tugged on my pants leg.
“Y’all be careful, John,” she said to me. I looked down and saw her giving me the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. Her two friends gave me looks that worried too. Apple Bloom added, “An’ please look out for ma big sis an’ Miss Twilight an’ all the rest.”
“I’ll do just that thing,” I said. “And just so you know, whatair happens, I’m rightly glad I met you too, Apple Bloom.” And with that I turned and headed off down the way Twilight and her friends had gone. I moved as silent as I could, when a body goes hunting, though right then it’d be more the truth to say I was the one a-being hunted. I slipped past what looked like picnic tables set with food and drinks on them like someone just walked away from a play party. In the dark I think maybe I saw what looked like rows of planting by them, with whatair crops I couldn’t see or guess. I got down to the end of a lane, right by the door of a right big house. I looked back and could just see Spike and the fillies watching me. I waved at them and they waved back. Then I slipped past that house and saw them no more.
I saw buildings scattered all around now, and more of those banners strung up between them along with paper lanterns such as I’ve heard they use in places over the sea. But no normal light to be seen in those lanterns. Only some pale greenish glow to them, kindly like what they call will-o’-the-wisp or corpse candles back home. And no person or pony to be seen in those houses, except maybe a stir at closed drapes here or there. I wondered me what made that stir, wondered more if I’d be happy to know. About then I recognized all I saw. This was that town I’d seen a-holding their party in that dream on my first night here. I prayed to myself that this didn’t all end the way that dream did.
I went on, past more furrowed earth and tables set for a party no one seemed to be at. I think maybe I saw cake or the like on plates there. Once when I slipped close I got a whiff of something worse than a skunk from those tables. I remembered me what Ruby said, how the Sunny Town ponies did this party again and again since forever, hoping they’d make it happen different. I wondered if I went the right way along after the girls. I looked down and saw hoofmarks. Six for them, and one larger set. Not as big as Applejack’s brother might make, but big enough. They’d gone along here, sure enough. So I followed, in and between buildings and around those tables, until I came right up on the edge of the town where it looked to go back into the woods. The hoofmarks went on and I followed them, out along a hard-tramped dirt trail, a-wondering where it would end, and just whose end it would be.
Twilight gave one look back as she and her friends walked into Sunny Town. Spike and the girls were hiding themselves as best they could. John stood by them, and it looked like he spoke to Spike. Whatever else happens, she thought, stay safe, little brother. She led her friends around the corner of the nearest building, only to stop suddenly. Somepony stood there.
“Greetings, young ladies,” he said. In that crimson half-light Twilight saw an earth pony stallion with a gray coat and a heavy build. Not quite so powerful as Big Mac, but close to it. She saw something else as well. He wore a servant’s livery decorated with Thorn’s eight-pointed red arrow symbol. He indicated one of the nearby tables, set for a party, and smiled, or tried to. Maybe he just bared his teeth at them. As he turned to the table the breath hissed between Twilight’s teeth. She heard her friends’ surprise join her own as they saw what she’d seen. The stallion’s flanks were blank. If he saw their hesitation, he ignored it as he said, “I’m Gray Hoof, Master Thorn’s majordomo. He sent me here to bring you to him. Or would you rather eat from our table first?”
“Does everypony know we’re comin’?” Twilight heard Dash grumble as they walked up to the table. It was set with food and drink, cake and punch of some sort. It looked like nearly any party back in Ponyville. Provided you ignored the punch was being served in silver cups, and the food set on golden plates.
That, and if you ignored the faint reek of corruption under the smell of fresh-baked cake. Twilight wondered what she would see if she saw the table’s contents as they really were. The thought made her queasy.
“Thanks,” Twilight said, “but I’m really not very hungry. We’re here to see Thorn.”
“We’re here to kick his flank, she means,” Dash said where she hovered. She flew closer to Gray Hoof and locked her eyes on his. “An’ even if we weren’t, I ain’t gonna eat anything with a guy who killed his daughter because she got her cutie mark.”
“She brought disease into our village,” he hissed back sharply. The look of polite friendliness slithered off his face as he said, “Ruby brought the Cutie Pox here. It was her life or all our lives. It was a tragic and heroic decision I made, and…” Gray Hoof broke off as he suddenly lifted into the air. He opened his muzzle to shriek, but stopped when Twilight brought him over to look directly into his eyes. He thrashed his legs, seeking escape. Her horn glowed just slightly brighter and he held perfectly still.
“I don’t care about your excuses,” she said coldly. She tried to ignore the stink of rot hanging around him and the terror in his eyes as she said, “We are here to see Thorn and to deal with him, and that’s it. Now you take us to him before I decide to remember what you did to Spike and Apple Bloom.” With that she dropped him to the ground. Gray Hoof shot her a glare from where he sprawled at her hooves. She just returned his look, allowing a spark of magic to play along her horn. He cringed back and rose to lead the way through the village.
“Follow me,” he half whimpered, and set off. Twilight followed him, hearing the emptiness all around her and the dry scrape of her hooves against the dirt beneath. She looked back and saw Applejack and Rainbow Dash closest by her. Rarity stood behind them, and all three looked very intent. Fluttershy trotted up close to her.
“Twilight,” Fluttershy said in her usual soft voice, “Did you really need to do that to the Sunny Town ponies? They serve Thorn, but he’s been tricking and lying to them just like everypony else…”
“I think I do,” Twilight said back. “I’m not happy to do it, but what choice have I got right now? This has to be ended as fast as possible. I don’t want Thorn causing any more damage to Equestria or the ponies in it.” Fluttershy said nothing. She just looked away sadly. Twilight shook herself and went on.
Gray Hoof led them past the broken buildings of Sunny Town. They were tumbledown heaps, doors hanging off their hinges and windows broken out. Like open eyes on a dead pony, Twilight thought, and shuddered at the idea. They soon passed through the town and headed down another dirt trail to a clearing with the largest building they’d yet seen in Sunny Town, a mansion vaguely akin to some of the ones back in Ponyville, but older and Twilight thought, trying to look grander in its style.
“Here we are,” Gray Hoof said, having stilled his voice back to its original tone. He indicated the building before them, all of wood painted pitch-black and stone done in crimson. More earth ponies in livery stood outside, including a young and shy-looking stallion and a sad-eyed young mare. “Roneo, Starlet,” Grey Hoof said to them both, his tone chiding, “Don’t just stand there, open the doors.” The two young ponies hurried to obey, taking the bolts with their jaws and drawing them back. Twilight noticed without being very surprised that their flanks were as blank as a foal’s. Applejack started to walk past them. Then she froze and looked into first Roneo and then Starlet’s eyes.
“I know y’all,” she said, and they flinched back. “You were the ones that were hangin’ around my farm t’other night, right?” When they said nothing, she added, “’Course, Ya looked a mite different then.” When they still said nothing, Applejack leaned in closer and said, “Ya don’t gotta do this. Whatever Thorn promised Ya, he won’t deliver.”
“Master Thorn wants to see you,” Roneo said, refusing to look her in the eye, and Starlet echoed him in a musical voice.
“Yes, he wants to see you right now. And after he deals with all of you, he’ll give us what he promised.”
Twilight saw Applejack just give them both a sad look. Then she shook her head and marched in under those doors. Twilight waited until all her friends entered, keeping an eye on Grey Hoof and his fellow ponies. They just looked away, trying to maintain a servant’s indifference. He leered at her.
“Now you’ll get yours, narwhal,” he muttered at her as she passed him and entered the chamber.
“Someone will,” Twilight answered him as she entered.
Darkness hung heavy within. Faint pale greenish lights, like something from a swamp, showed in the corners. Twilight could just barely make out the outlines of her friends as she joined them before what looked like a dais with a throne on it such as Celestia and Luna might use.
“Well, we’re here,” Rarity said, “so where’s Thorn?”
“Did you want to see me?”
The lights in the corners flared up. Twilight turned on the dais and saw what she’d expected to see. From the corners of her eyes she could see her friends stiffen and heard their sudden intakes of breath as they saw the inside of the room.
It resembled what Thorn had done with Ponyville’s town hall – was it only a week ago? Banners, either black or a purple so deep it might as well have been black, hung from ceiling to floor on all the walls. They bore Thorn’s crimson arrows symbol, but with a difference. Now the insignia showed a black disc at the center with the arrows surrounding it. The sun in eclipse, Twilight realized, and then turned her attention to what else she could see.
Against one wall she saw iron bars, and behind them two ponies she recognized. They walked up against the bars, hope mixing with fear in their eyes.
“Twilight? Pinkie Pie?” Bon Bon called out. The cream-coated earth pony threw herself against the bars, sending her pink-striped blue mane spilling. “Please, get out of here! Go get help! That Thorn guy is crazy, and…”
“We are the help, Bon Bon!” Pinkie called back to her with a smile. “So don’t worry, we’re all gonna fix this mess!”
Bon Bon just looked from Pinkie to the rest of them before she set one hoof to her head and sank down with a moan. The zebra beside her stepped up in her place, a look of fear on her face that Twilight never thought she’d see there.
“Twilight Sparkle? Applejack? Beware, for Thorn is filled with evil might,” Zecora called out to them both. “He sought to draw you here, so he can make a final fight –“ A bolt of crimson lightning lashed against the bars. Zecora and Bon Bon jumped back whinnying in fear.
“I hate her rhyming,” a voice said from the throne. “But still, she is the Witch of the Everfree. She might end up being useful to me in some way.” Twilight looked to see a black equine form larger than the Princesses that rumbled laughter. “Though it’s hard to see how any of you creatures can teach me anything as I am now.”
“Hello, Thorn,” Twilight said as.
Thorn grinned down at her. He spread ebon wings out wide to either side, wings of batlike membrane rather than pegasus feathers. His eyes shone like blue jewels and his build made Big Mac look puny. Muscles worked under an ebon coat as he stepped down to the floor. His horn looked oddly twisted, more like a broken ebon fang set in his forehead than a normal unicorn’s horn. The corpse-light from those lamps in the corners picked out the ruby-set iron of his royal barding, shone over the eight-pointed crimson arrow both on his flank and on the book that floated in the air near him.
Twilight saw something else as he spread his wings. Two chains ran back from his barding to a pony on either side of him. On his left stood Lyra. She still wore her own barding, less ornate than Thorn’s but still showing his cutie mark on her breast. Grief and pain filled the look she gave Twilight and the others. On the other side, Ruby stood, her glowing yellow eyes closed as she shivered in fear.
“Hello yourself, Twilight Sparkle,” The great beast addressed her as he settled to the floor. He stepped towards her, the chains falling from his barding to attach to his throne. The purple unicorn saw both Ruby and Lyra tug on them to no avail. If Thorn noticed their attempts, he ignored them to speak to the rest of her friends. “Greetings, Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash. Tell me, how are your little sisters doing?” Twilight glanced sidelong and saw her friends bristle at the words. He must have seen it too, for he smiled again and asked in a voice that dripped false concern, “They seemed so very eager to see you again when I sent them away from here.”
“They are quite fine, now that they’ve gotten away from you,” Rarity said, her voice colder than Twilight could ever remember hearing. She stepped forward, her eyes showing pure ice. “And I think you know why we’re here.”
“That I do,” the Nightstallion said agreeably. “You’re here to try and meddle in my affairs, yet again. What is wrong with you ponies? You could have anything you desire, if only you showed some sense and cooperated with me.”
“Y’all got nothin’ we want,” Applejack said, bracing her hoofs where she stood. When he swung his massive head around to look at her, Twilight saw how she flinched at his gaze, but AJ held her ground. “’Less Ya learned some sense and decided to give up, peaceable like.”
“Why should I surrender to you, abandoned and forlorn as you are?” The great beast laughed back down at her and all of them. His wings flapped, kicking up a wind that sent bits of dirt and dust against their faces. Twilight gagged from the carrion stink of it as he added, “I could destroy you silly little mares with a thought, with less than a thought, as I am now. I’m an alicorn in here. A god! But I can still be generous if you show wisdom and accept my, I won’t say rule, but my guidance in all things.” He paused, and added grandly, “I’ll even allow you to bring your families and friends in here with you after Discord awakes and conquers the other Equestria. I don’t think I need to tell you how little they would enjoy his rule.”
Bring them here to be your worshippers, Twilight thought, but didn’t say it aloud. Instead she stepped out in front of her friends, confronting the bringer of disharmony as she addressed him. He looked at her and smirked. His wings seemed to beat only slowly, but the wind from them rose higher, begin to keen shrilly in her ears.
“We won’t serve you!” Twilight yelled, raising her voice to be heard over the ever-increasing noise of the wind Thorn raised. From the corners of her eyes she saw her friends forcing themselves forward against the wind, bracing their legs to hold fast before it. “Discord doesn’t rule Equestria yet, and neither do you! And we’re going to make sure you never will!”
Thorn snorted and the Sunny Town ponies began crowding up around him. Lyra flinched back from them, her eyes wide with fear, as they set themselves like a wall of ponyflesh between Twilight and her friends and Thorn. She shivered at the looks they gave her. She’d seen anger in pony faces before, even directed at her, but never did she think she’d see looks that promised such a slow and cruel death before on any pony’s face. She’d never wanted to imagine such looks were possible. She gagged as their flesh began melting away, exposing crimson light and black bones.
“Here you stand, abandoned and forlorn,” The great beast jeered at her. “Who is there to aid you against me now?”
Before Twilight could say anything more, she heard a familiar voice speak up. And when it did, the wind from Thorn’s wings stopped.
“Right here there’s such a one,” John said as he stepped out from the shadows by the cage.
I dropped into the shadows along the trail. The trees here looked normal, nothing like the ones in Thorne’s forest. I still made sure to stay along the edge as I moved in closer. As I did I began to hear voices, Twilight’s and one other. That other one sounded like a pony’s voice, but deeper, a-trying to sound majestic but a little too nasty to make it if you know what I mean. I followed them up close to what looked to be the biggest house I’d seen here yet. I saw Twilight and her friends standing and facing something on a throne. All around them I saw ponies in something like saddles or the like done with that red arrow-mark of Thorne’s on them.
And I saw Thorne his own self. A devil-horse, such as you hear in legends about the Wild Hunt that thick men’s blood with cold, with great black bat-wings and bearing an ebon horn on his forehead, sharp as a sword and looking even deadlier. His coat showed darker than the darkness around it, and he stood bigger than all the other ponies I’d seen, a full-sized horse, big as a Clydesdale. On his flank the sole bit of color to him aside from those corpse-lamp eyes, that crimson mark I’d seen on his grimoire of that eight-pointed red arrow, looking like a fresh wound. He looked down on the girls, mocking them. Right by him I saw two ponies I recognized, Lyra and Ruby, both held close by with collars and looking pure-down scared. And floating at his right hand or hoof I guess you’d call it, the Letters of Cold Fire. I set myself down by an old iron cage and made to listen.
“You do not seem to be a friend of Thorne’s, I judge by your face,” a strange voice whispered right by me, and I near jumped. “Why then, strange one, do you come to this dreadful place?”
The voice came from the cage. I looked into it and saw a zebra, such as you’d see in a zoo, looking back at me. She was the size of the other ponies, and wore a stack of gold rings as a necklace, like you see in magazine pictures about Africa. I knew her from what Twilight and the others told to me.
“You’re Zecora, I imagine,” I said to her. Her eyes widened, but she showed no more surprise than that. Behind her I saw another pony, with a pink-striped blue mane and just enough light to show what looked like little candies for a cutie mark on her cream-colored coat. I added, “I’m here to help Twilight and the others when they need me.” Zecora looked like she thought on that, and then nodded.
“Then they may need your aid quite soon, for Thorne seems intent on bringing about their doom!” She pointed her hoof out at the girls. I looked and saw how Thorne descended from his throne to face them. And coming up and out all around him were the serving ponies, but now their flesh a-started to melt away to show the bones and red light of the Sunny Town ponies.
“Here you stand, abandoned and forlorn,” Thorne said to the girls. He stepped closer, his wings unfolding and looking like they swallowed all the light near them. Lyra and Ruby were dragged along with him, and I saw how the Letters of Cold Fire stayed close by, shining with the cold dead pale light of the lanterns in town or of Thorne’s eyes. The girls ignored him as they fell into a sort of formation, with Twilight at the front. The Sunny Town ponies came closer, stretching their necks out like they hungered for what they saw before them. Thorne rumbled at them in a voice like a thunderstorm, “Who is there to aid you against me now?”
“Right here there’s such a one,” I said, and stepped out in front of them all, a-wondering if it’d be the last thing I air did.
Twilight felt more than heard the relieved breath go through her and her friends as John stepped out to help them. The Sunny Town ponies started when he stepped out between them and her, his guitar in his hands.
“Master Thorn, he’s the one who kept chasing us away,” one of them whimpered, a green mare. She showed fleshless below her neck, caught halfway in the transformation from living to undead. The others began whimpering as well, shrinking back from the shine of John’s guitar strings and the soft music that began to rise from them as he ran his fingers along them. Twilight recognized it as one of the songs he’d played for her before, the one that called on alicorns against black magic. So did the Sunny Towners. They fell back, their ears flat and eyes wide as they stared at him.
“Three holy kings, four holy saints,
At Heaven’s high gate that stand,
Speak out and bid all evil wait
And stir no foot or hand…”
“Stop it,” they moaned, their voices hoarse. They began to fall back, opening a path between them and Thorn. “Stop it!” they repeated themselves, “It’s like something’s grinding in our heads. Make him stop!”
“The fire from Heaven will fall at last
On pride and wealth and power…”
“Get ‘em, John!” Twi heard Rainbow Dash yell behind her.
“Be silent, you cowards!” The great beast snarled at the Sunny Towners as he dropped to the floor. They stopped pulling back, but they drew no closer as he stalked forward towards Twilight and John. He spread his wings out wide to either side, shutting out all the light around him save only the pallid glow of his eyes as he said, “This is my place and time, my hour, my place of power. They have nothing that can affect me. There is no Strength here but mine! There is no Will here but mine!”
“Okay, ladies,” Twilight said as she stepped up beside John. She felt her Element begin to activate and its familiar warmth flowing through her. “I think it’s time we showed Thorn the false alicorn just how Equestrian magic deals with Discord’s power!” She felt her friends’ Elements activate as well, felt the connection with them all.
Thorn’s laughter broke out over her as he said, “They are the greatest artifacts in Equestria, my foolish little ponies. But this isn’t Equestria, and no lying ties of friendship exist here!” A terrible and familiar darkness swept out from him over her and John and everything. Thorn’s mocking laughter rolled over her. “In here, everyone is alone in the dark forever!”
She cried out in fear as she felt the dirt drop away beneath her hooves at his mockery. And then nothing but a terribly familiar endless darkness, around and above and below her.
“John!” she cried out. She heard her cry echoing off into the distance. What, was she in a cave? She called, “Applejack! Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie, anypony! Where are you?”
“No need to yell,” a voice hissed back at her, amusement bubbling through it. “I can hear you just fine, Twilight Sparkle.” Her belly began to feel hollow as she recognized it. “Which is rather odd, given that thanks to you and your wretched little herd, I currently have ears of stone.”
“Who else?” A form began to appear before her. Even though the darkness stayed absolute, somehow she could clearly see Discord’s serpentine form, curled up on the air before her. Or on whatever passed for air in this place. He grinned down at her and tapped a watch that suddenly appeared on his wrist, saying, “Thorn has been such a useful servant, in so many ways. It looks like my time here is running out early thanks to him. But don’t worry, my dear,” he dropped down beside her to run one claw along her cheek, “I’ll make sure this place has a replacement for me, somepony to keep an eye on everything and never ever be able to affect it in any way.” His grin turned savage as he grabbed a handful of her mane and twisted her around to face him. “Can you guess who that’ll be?”
“Or she can take my offer, Discord,” Thorn said as he appeared from the emptiness in his dark alicorn form, “Accept my instruction and become my apprentice.” He bent his head down close to her face. Twilight winced. His breath smelled like sulfur mixed with raw meat as he said, “I can teach you things your precious Princess would never dare to. I can make you so powerful, not even Discord can stand against us.”
Stunned, Twilight looked from him to Discord. The draconequus caught her look and chuckled.
“Oh, Twilight, Twilight, you didn’t think we were friends, surely?” Before she could say anything, Thorn spoke, sounding almost as amused as Discord.
“I’m using him the way he’s using me,” he said. Discord nodded cheerily, showing a broad smile. Thorn flapped his wings out in a shrug. “He may have brought me here, but I owe him nothing beyond that. If he meddles with my things in here, I’ll break him.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Thorn,” Discord said drily.
“Where are my friends?” Twilight yelled up at them both, no longer able to contain herself. The dark alicorn and Discord both smiled crookedly down at her, and she couldn’t say which one frightened her more. “Where are they?”
“Elsewhere,” was the answer she got, and she couldn’t tell which of them said it.
“Now where th’ hay...?” Applejack began to say, and then stopped. From the endless darkness all around, something began walking up to her. It sounded vaguely like a pony, one that limped along as though it were old and tired and weary unto death. Applejack said, “Twilight? Rainbow Dash?”
“Naw.” The voice was old and frail, almost a whisper. “It’s just me, big sis.”
AJ’s breath caught in her throat as the form somehow, impossibly, came fully into view. The mane and coat were ‘Bloom’s, but she looked more wrinkled then even Granny Smith. Her mane and tail hung stringy across a scarred neck and flank, the latter showing blank. Bloom lifted up eyes half fogged with cataracts to look at her.
“Applejack?” Her voice sounded strained, filled with a bone-deep pain and exhaustion Applejack remembered hearing from her grandfather before that night of his death. It was the voice of a pony so tired from hurting that life itself had become a curse. “Applejack, why didn’t y’all never come back from Sunny Town? Spike an’ Scootaloo an’ Sweetie Belle an’ me all ran away. We been wandering Thorn’s woods ever since. I cain’t find the way out… Help me, big sis, I hurt so much anymore since the others all died…” She came closer. Applejack felt the chill from her.
“Apple Bloom, if’n that’s you… How’m Ah supposed to help ya?”
“Ya know how,” Apple Bloom said, a hard gleam coming into her eyes. “Like how ya helped granddad. Just pray to Thorn ta make me stop hurtin’, an’ he’ll do it. He’s the ruler o’ what’s left o’ Equestria.” Applejack hesitated. Apple Bloom croaked out,
“Please, big sis! Ya asked the Nightmare to kill granddad for ya, why can’t ya show me as much mercy?”
Applejack looked at her, and then dropped her gaze with a sigh. She didn’t notice the gleam of sudden triumph in Apple Bloom’s eyes as the palomino mare said, “Okay, let’s do this thing then.”
“Girls? Girls, where are you!” Rarity looked around, wondering where everypony was. She checked to make sure of her necklace. Good; the Element still hung around her neck. She called out into the darkness as she turned around, “Where is everypony? Where is – you!”
A unicorn stallion cringed against the ground before her, dressed in the tattered shreds of noble raiment. His matted white coat and tattered blond mane and tail showed scarred and stained. He looked up at her, his eyes rolling wild in near-hysterical fear.
“I know you,” Prince Blueblood said to her, cringing back, “You’re that mare from the, what did we used to call it? The Gala, all those years ago?” He clutched at her with his hooves as she recoiled in shock. “Please, please help me!”
Rarity looked closer at the once-proud unicorn stallion, the Prince of the Platinum Stable who had treated her like common dirt that entire evening. She could see his ribs outlined against his sides. His horn looked to have once been broken off short before regrowing. He twitched and shivered as though ill. Fear filled his eyes as he dropped down on his belly before her with a sudden scream of pain. Rarity gasped as she saw something else behind him.
Sweetie Belle stood there, smiling as she showed off the unicorn poppet-doll with a white coat and a blond mane and tail, held up by her magic. A lit candle floated nearby as well, as did several of Rarity’s best knitting needles. Sweetie laughed her musical laugh as she thrust the needles through the doll and moved it into the flame from the candle. Blueblood screamed in agony.
“Make her stop! Make her stop!”
“Hi, Rarity!” Sweetie said as she trotted closer to her. Rarity saw that she was an adult mare, saw too the nasty gleam in her eyes and the five-pointed star cutie mark on her flank. Two of the points thrust upwards like horns, and was that a goat’s face inscribed? Her little sister said, “I waited out in the woods until you didn’t come back. Then I wandered with Spike and my friends until Thorn took us all in after he destroyed Canterlot and killed the princesses. He taught us all sorts of neat magick, see?” Sweetie’s tongue protruded from one corner of her mouth as, with great care, she thrust one needle right into the doll’s eye. As she did, Blueblood screamed and clapped one hoof over his own eye. Blood trickled from behind it.
The look he gave Rarity begged for mercy. Rarity stepped forward, horrified.
“Sweetie Belle, stop this at once!” She tried to snatch the doll from Sweetie’s grasp, only for it to be jerked back by her sister. “This isn’t you!”
“No, sis, this is you,” Sweetie Belle snapped back at her. “This is what you really want to do to Blueblood and Dee Tee and everyone else who ever hurt you or me, so admit it! Stop being generous to everypony else and start being generous with yourself for once!” The doll drifted over to Rarity, along with one last needle, right over the heart. “Go ahead, do what you know you want to.”
Blueblood, no longer His Mortal Highness Prince Blueblood, 52nd of his line, whimpered bleeding at her feet.
Rarity looked at her sister’s face and shuddered. But she still took the doll and needle with her magic. Sweetie Belle’s eyes lit with victory as she did.
“All right,” Rarity said. “I will.”
“Scoots? Squirt?” Dash blinked as she looked at the figure that’d come out of the darkness that dropped down over her, thick as a thundercloud. “What the hay are you doing in that Shadowbolts costume? And when did you get big?”
“Hey, Dash!” Scootaloo strutted up to her, a lovely and confident young mare. The Shadowbolt suit fit her like a black-and-purple second skin. She batted her eyes and stretched her wings out as her voice preened, “There’s no Wonderbolts anymore, only the Shadowbolts. I suggested it to Thorn after he got rid of the princesses, and he thought it was a great idea…”
“Thorn got rid of the princesses? What the hay?” Dash flew up in Scootaloo’s face and yelled, “We were just fighting him! And how could you be loyal to him if he killed the princesses?”
“It’s better inside the Svartaskoli than out in Discord’s Equestria,” the orange Pegasus snapped back. “We have to survive! We learned to be pragmatic and realistic! And you weren’t ‘just fighting him’, that was years ago. He beat you all. Right before Discord broke loose and this became all that was left of Equestria.”
“What? No!” Dash dropped back, feeling stunned. “This doesn’t make any sense. And, Discord rules Equestria?”
“Only until now,” Scootaloo said with a cruel grin that Dash never thought she’d see on the little filly’s face. “Thorn decided it’s the right time to beat him, but the Shadowbolts need a new leader for that.” She reached into a saddlebag and drew out another Shadowbolt suit, one that looked to be of an even finer make and cloth then her own. She offered it, saying, “That’s going to be you, Dash. We want you with us. We want to give you everything your loyalty deserves, Commander Dash. Now, what do you think of that?”
“What do I think?” Dash said as she reached out and took the suit in her hooves. She didn’t see the wicked grin going over Scootaloo’s face as she said, “What do I think? Here, let me show ya what I think of what’s gotta be the dumbest lie I ever heard!”
Dash flung it into her face. The other Pegasus yelled, a yell that became a screech as Dash rose up and gave her three quick hooves to the face. The blue-coated mare cried out then herself, feeling a softly yielding rottenness under her hooves and a fetid odor rise about her. Scootaloo fell back, changing in appearance, her coat going filthy and mangy. Her wings shriveled away as Dash charged after her, raining hoofblows down on the transformed Sunny Town pony.
“Ya think I’m that dumb? Ya think I never read even one fairy tale when I was a foal? Ya think Nightmare Moon didn’t try the same trick on me?” Scootaloo, or the undead pony masquerading as her, leaped up and ran away with whinnies of panic from the furious Rainbow Dash. “Why’d you even try something this lame?”
Then she looked and saw why they’d tried this. Thorn, still in alicorn form, watched the undead ponies of Sunny Town closing in all around her friends. Twilight, Jackie, even John, they all stood as though entranced, not even seeing what was happening around them. In another moment the Sunny Town ponies would have them in their hooves, and they’d all die.
Dash could think of only one thing to do, and she did it. She flew at the great beast, pivoted in mid-air, and kicked both hind-hooves into his face like Applejack bucking an apple tree. She cried out at the pain as bandages stretched and tore over her burn. Thorn bellowed as he stumbled, caught off guard. Dash shot down to Twilight and John and slapped them both, hard.
“Girls, John, WAKE UP!”
Right as soon as I heard Dash’s voice, I woke up from what had seemed like a nightmare and worse of me a-going home to find Discord doing to Earth what he’d done to Equestria. Evadare’d been a gray-haired and crazy old woman, and all I loved and cared for were gone down to dust. Then something hard and solid smacked me right in the face. I’ve been hit harder once-twice in my life, but never quite like that. I blinked and the darkness all about me was gone. Dash hovered in front of me, glaring.
“Yeesh, are you awake or not?” I brought my guitar around, and she nodded and said, “You do your thing, and we’re gonna do ours!”
Twilight looked up at me, stunned. Past her, I saw Applejack rear up and put her hooves into the face of another of the Sunny Town ponies. It shrieked and ran from her. One that stood near Rarity went flying through the air together with a little pony doll, giving a yell as it did. Her horn glowed brighter than I’d air seen yet.
“An illusion,” Twilight breathed beside me, “Not a very good one, but enough to make us hesitate – AHH!”
One of the Sunny Town ponies, a right big one with a gray coat, shoved his head out on his long neck to touch her. It hissed and twitched, from the nearness of her Element I reckon, but it still went for her. Twilight jerked back and before I could even think I thrust my guitar with its silver strings at its face. They brushed against it. He screamed like I’d set a branding iron to his hide. The look he had of a living thing ran like some nasty painting as he jerked away from me, showing bare bones and empty crimson eye sockets. I saw dark lines that smoked across the rotted flesh of his face where my strings touched it.
“Master Thorn, they’re awake!” he croaked out. “And his guitar hurts to touch! Help us! Help!”
“It’s the silver, you fools!” He roared down on them all. They flinched back. His horn glowed, that same pale greenish light of the lanterns. And so did the Letters of Cold Fire, blazing up like a bonfire. He shot a killing mad look at Twilight. He surged at her on his hooves and roared, “I have the power of Discord himself, combined with my own! You can’t fight me!”
“That’s right, Thorne,” Twilight answered him. She and her friends all looked like they feared naught in this world right then. “So we’re not going to fight you.” She looked from him to the Letters of Cold Fire where they floated at the end of the chain tethering them to him.
Thorne looked confused and then I saw his eyes go wide as he figured out what she meant. He pulled his spellbook in close and wrapped his wings around it, yelling at the Sunny Town ponies as he did, “Kill them all! I give you the power to do that!”
The trick or illusion of being alive faded from the Sunny Town ponies, leaving nothing behind but scorched flesh and white bones. They surged forward as I saw Twilight and her friends getting together, their necklaces and her crown glowing like stars in that darkness.
I set myself between the Sunny Towners and Twilight and the others, put my fingers to my old guitar, and started to play the first thing that came to mind. I can’t rightly think of where it came from, but I knew the tune but not the words I used as it came from me or maybe just through me:
“Ruby, pretty Ruby,
Won’t you please help me,
Ruby, pretty Ruby,
Won’t you please help me,
To find Starlight’s present,
A treasure from me…”
I knew the tune, it was from an old and scary mountain song called Pretty Polly, but the words I sang to it I nair heard in the mountains afore. They weren’t my best ever, but I’d kindly like to see air soul do better right then and there. But those Sunny Town ponies knew them and what they meant, and they stopped and stared frozen on me to hear them.
“…They dragged her to the fire pit
And burned her alive.
No pony would speak of her
Or their part in her doom,
No pony would speak of her
Or their part in her doom,
But all would be known
To the Mare in the Moon…”
Twilight saw the Sunny Town ponies hesitate at John’s music. The tune sounded strange to her, but if it stopped them from and Thorn from attacking her and her friends while they did this, she didn’t care if he played a love song.
“Okay, ladies, if everypony’s ready,” she said as she felt the power of her Element filling her, flooding through her body, filled with joy at being used and wrath over Thorn’s desecration of Equestria, “Let’s show Thorn just how we handle tyrants and bullies like him!”
She floated up into the air, lost completely in the summoning, and felt the power building ever more in her, joining to her friends and what their own Elements saw in Thorn: Honesty’s loathing of his self-serving lies to ponies living and undead, Generosity recoiling from his endless greed, Laughter’s joy mocking his arrogance and conceit, Kindness’s dismay over his murderous cruelty, Loyalty’s fury over his abuse of Lyra’s freely-given service and Ponyville’s freely-given hospitality, and Magic’s revulsion at the utter corruption of his “Magick”.
Twilight felt the Elements looking on and into Thorn, seeing all that he was and would do to Equestria if he was allowed to go on as he’d done.
And then they decided.
And lashed out with all their power.
“A debt to the Nightmare
Sunny Town must pay,
A debt to the Nightmare
Sunny Town must pay,
For killing pretty Ruby
And hiding her away,
Ruby, pretty Ruby, yonder she stands…”
It was magic in those words and along my strings. The Sunny Town ponies moaned sad-like and fell back, and they looked paler than ever, somehow. Like shadows or like they were getting less real by the moment. Thorne whinnied like a big and angry old horse.
“You miserable hillbilly! Do you think I’ll let you stop me now?”
The next thing I knew he reared up over me and brought his hooves down. I did all I could think of and held my guitar up between us. He bellowed when his hooves came down, and I reckon I gave a cry too, for under them my old guitar shattered into a hundred pieces. All that remained was the neck with the silver strings hanging from it. He tried to rear and drop down on me again, but behind I saw Lyra stick out her neck to grab his tail with her teeth. She gave a yank that pulled him off balance. He stumbled and lashed out behind with a kick that caught her in the side. She gave a scream and hung down at the end of that chain she bore fixed to his throne, whimpering.
The Sunny Town ponies saw it all where they cringed back. They gave neighs of fury and charged in on us all. A light seemed to be growing brighter and warmer behind me, like memories of summer days as a boy. I knew someways or other I had to keep them off from whatair made that light. I stepped up and flailed with the neck of my old guitar like I was a-threshing wheat. The strings whipped against their eyes and muzzles and forelegs and they dropped back shrieking. The silver burned them, they hated it, feared it, they couldn’t stand before it. Thorne saw it and cursed. He charged at me again.
“If I have to kill you with my bare hooves, so be it!” He flinched back when I whipped the strings at his eyes.
“That will take better than you can air do,” I told him as I whipped the strings up so they wrapped around his neck. The alicorn Thorne hissed at the pain, but he jerked his head back sudden and sharp. The guitar neck flew from my hands and the strings went off and away from us both. His shoulder rammed into me with his weight behind it. The next I knew, I lay on the ground and looked up to see his hooves a-coming down, ready to trample me to death. He laughed.
The Letters of Cold Fire burned like a Hand of Glory where it hung beside him.
Then the air itself glowed around me, all the colors of the rainbow. I saw it come arcing up and around from behind me to come washing down over Thorne and the Letters of Cold Fire and Lyra and me like the almightiest big flood you ever saw. I couldn’t see anything for the light but I could hear things. Like Lyra sobbing in pain and something hissing like hot iron flung into cold water. Thorne a-giving a roar and sounding more like a human man than a horse. And my own self, for whatair reason I remembered all the good I’d seen, here in Equestria and back on Earth with my friends and my own sweet Evadare.
And then I knew no more.
Twilight strained to see into the heart of the rainbow whirlwind. She gasped, heard her friends gasp, as she felt the Elements drawing on her and exhausting her. To her horror she saw John and Lyra both in there with Thorn and the Letters of Cold Fire. She almost cried out, we have to save them!
And then she saw it, the Letters of Cold Fire, the gift from a monster that had started all of this. They glowed like an old horseshoe flung into a forge to be melted down and reshaped. She heard a voice, like Discord’s, like Thorn’s, in her mind, pleading for sanctuary as it offered her anything she could ever desire.
“This is what I desire,” she spoke her thought aloud.
She could swear she heard one last thin wail of despair as the Letters of Cold Fire collapsed into a smoldering pile of ashes that blew away in the whirlwind.
It’s done, she thought as the rainbow faded. She collapsed to her knees, feeling her senses swim as exhaustion took her.
We’re finally safe.
She heard an angry snort. Twilight looked around to see the Sunny Town ponies closing in, fury and the promise of worse than death blazing in their empty eyes.
Then again, maybe not.
Rainbows flashed on Canterlot’s horizon, from the depths of the Everfree. A soundless scream echoed through the palace garden. The constant cracks veining the statue between the two alicorns reversed, sealing themselves until the patchwork serpent-dragon was once more solid stone, its face frozen in open-mouthed shock. The alicorns – one white with a shining sun on her flank, and the other midnight blue with a crescent moon on her flanks and a star-sprinkled mane – let the gold and silver glows fade from their horns and embraced horse-style, craning their necks around each other’s. The dozen unicorn master magi around them dropped the wards they’d been casting for days and cheered. All but the one in Spellguard barding, who collapsed into a heap. Two others swayed on their feet, on the very edge of collapse themselves from exhaustion and overstrain migraines.
“Somepony see to Captain Shining Armor,” Celestia commented as she stepped back before suddenly jerking her head up. She turned and gazed out over Equestria, towards Ponyville and the Everfree. The black cloud over the forest was dissipating like it had never existed, save in one spot. There it hung thick and dense, fighting the light of her sun as it hid whatever lay there from view.
“Sister,” Luna said beside her, “Why does it remain so, above the old cursed village?”
“Luna, stay here,” Celestia told her. “Twilight is in danger, and so are her friends. I have to go to them now!” And with those words she spread her wings and flew, rising up against the sun, until with a flash like the dawn’s first light she vanished from sight.