She'd done her best, but it was over. Within the space of a few hours, Twilight had sent her consciousness back in time, had teleported herself and an alicorn ten miles, had summoned a watermelon flood of epic proportions. She had endured burns, bruises, and temporal bends. The well was finally dry.
"You've got to get out of here," she said to Cinnamon Oatmeal over the sound of the energy beams. Her force-field was growing thin.
"Both of us..." he said. "I can... carry you..."
"Stop it! This is the only way! Get to Purple Heart and get healed. They need you in there."
Cinnamon looked up, his face flaking away, skin riven from forehead to chest. "Try not... to die, would you?" he rasped. "...looks... bad on our evaluation..."
"On three, okay?"
One, two, three, she counted, then released the spell, allowing her force bubble to implode. At that moment, Cinnamon discorporealized into a cloud of smoke and swirled down a storm-drain.
"Don't let him get away!" shouted one of the dusky unicorns. Other nearby war-mages blasted the ground with multicolored lightning, but the smoke was gone within seconds. A gout of burnt-earth rained down over them, splattering the ponies with mud.
One burly sergeant marched up to Twilight and slugged the exhausted mare across the face, knocking her flat.
"No!" said the dusky unicorn, her green telekinesis grabbing the sergeant's hoof. "Do not strike her! She is the Royal Apprentice!"
The sergeant looked up, rain-soaked cigar clenched in his teeth. "Not anymore, she ain't."
They were right on her tail. Applejack put her head down and ran as hard as she could.
She thundered past a T-intersection, where another squad of soldiers picked up the chase. The cowpony had almost thirty soldiers pursuing her now. Just a little further and she'd have them standing right on the "X."
A unicorn's fireball whistled past her ear, blasting a trash can into the air. Applejack slid under the flying obstacle and scrambled back to her hooves, turning on the speed as the ponies behind her tripped and fell. She pounded around a corner, holding tight to the inside of the curve, then leaped down a flight of twenty stairs. Got to love being an earth pony! she thought to herself, tugging on her hat as she accelerated again. She could smell the fountain now, feel its cool breeze. She was almost there. Heck, I could keep this pace up all day.
And then she was sweeping through the archway into the north wing. The sign read: "Medical Sciences."
This area had its own entrance hall of sorts-- a lush, green atrium, dappled with trees and vines, skylights looking out on the predawn sky. In the center of the plaza was a fountain, where water poured down the sides of a modern-art sculpture.
Now look at this, thought Applejack as she ran past. This is just what I'm talking about. What the hay is that sculpture supposed to be? Two pyramids and a ball? More city nonsense! Give me art that actually looks like something, for Pete's sake!
She ran partway up the side of a tree, then took a massive leap, scrambling up onto a balcony. Well, I hope y'all are ready, Spike, cause here goes! Applejack raised a rear hoof and pounded on a vertical pipe running through the floor. Clang! Clang! Clang!
Down below, the soldiers charged into the atrium. They looked around for the noise, but the echoes made the direction indistinct. They didn't spot her right away.
"Spread out and search," said the leader, a red pegasus mare.
More and more soldiers arrived. Twilight was right, thought Applejack. Close off the right hallways and stairwells, get all the soldiers in one room together. Then spring the trap. Of course, if for some reason the trap didn't spring, then the atrium would be a dead-end for Applejack in any number of ways.
A minute crept by. What's taking so long, Spike? she thought, wiping her brow. What in the hay is that dragon waiting for?? I hope nothing happened to him.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers spotted her. "On the landing, up there!"
The armored ponies started swarming across the hall, their hooves an echoing cacophony on the marble and glass. The first soldier charged up the stairs with a snort of fury. Something had gone terribly wrong.
Spike! Where are you??
"Spike!" shouted Chyornyj Slon, peering down the dark hallway. "Of course. Of course this happens now. Spike!!"
"He's not coming back," said the agent. "I told that dragon not to go off by himself. No doubt he stumbled headfirst into one of Shield Banner's pitfalls."
"Spike is clever dragon," said Slon. "He would not be caught."
"Everypony has their weak point," said the agent.
Clang! Clang! Clang! It was coming from a vertical pipe that ran down through the maintenance hub.
"Chyort voz'mi!" swore Slon.
"Spike can take care of himself for now, comrade," said the agent. "We've got to set this bomb off and get the Nightmare out of here."
Slon glared at him. "We??" The giant, undead pegasus rose to his hooves, gold eyes feral, deadly. He grabbed the agent like the pony weighed nothing, held him up. Slon's breath was so cold that it caused ice to form on the rims of the agent's glasses.
"I don't suppose begging for my life would help?" said the agent. "I'm actually quite good at it."
"Stand up straight!" said Slon. The agent complied. Slon produced a midnight-black key and unlocked the agent's shackles, tossing them into his saddlebag. He released his captive.
The agent rubbed his fore-ankles painfully. He pulled out a crushed pack of cigarettes and knocked one into his mouth. "Thanks, mate. Got a light?"
Slon looked at him, bemused, then lit a match. Once the agent was taken care of, Slon used the fire to ignite a fuse leading down into the floor drain. The sizzling flame burned and flared, racing down and out of sight, to some place deep underground.
Slon picked up one end of the alicorn's stretcher, motioning for the agent to get the other side. "I am watching you very close, tovarisch. If you betray us..."
"I won't," said the agent. "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye."
"Or worse," said Slon. "That is promise."
"We can discuss the exact terms later. Now let's get out of here before this hallway turns into riverfront property."
Applejack slugged one pony across the nose and bucked the next down the stairs, but they just kept on coming. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the red pegasus from before looking for an opening to dive-bomb her.
This could be trouble, thought Applejack. Got to make sure I give that pegasus my undivided attention.
"Hyah!" she yelled, turning and delivering a stunning double-kick to the foremost earth pony, sending him crashing back with his fellows all the way to the ground floor. A second later, the red pegasus dove towards Applejack, head lowered, forelegs curled, teeth bared. Applejack ducked just in time. The pegasus pulled up, hugging the wall. She hadn't gotten more than twenty feet away when a tan lasso looped around her hind leg and yanked taut, sending the pegasus into a wide arc at a breakneck speed.
Applejack set her hooves against the floor, hauling on the rope with all of her might. She let out a groan of exertion, every muscle in her body flexing beneath her orange coat as she held the line in her teeth. The red pegasus careened into her fellow soldiers like a runaway train. Armored ponies went flying in every direction.
Applejack spit out the rope and tipped her hat. Pretty small-caliber compared to my usual competition, she thought with satisfaction. RD woulda' never fallen for that.
Then they felt it. An explosion, different from all the rest. Instead of a concussive bang elsewhere in the building, this was an ominous seismic rumble from deep underground. It shook the atrium and the water in the fountain sloshed out over the side. Then a new rumble. This one was like the rush of a waterfall, and it grew louder and louder.
"Well, I oughta' say it's about time!" said Applejack, and she threw herself to the floor.
A jet of water shot out of the top of the sculpture, arcing all the way to the ceiling and drumming on the glass. Then the sound of metal tearing, rivets popping, and fans of water sprayed out from the sides of the structure.
"Fall back!" shouted somepony. The soldiers scrambled to get up, to retreat, but it was too late. At that moment, the major flow of the Ponyville Subterranean Aquifer-- dammed by a precise cave-in downstream-- came rushing straight up through the University water main.
The sculpture exploded from the ground like a rocket, dragging its concrete moorings with it, flying all the way up through the glass skylight with a terrific crash. All the lanterns went out as the rain swept in, and an ocean of water roared up through the floor, instantly flooding the room to shoulder-level. The torrent swirled like a reverse-whirlpool, and the soldiers crashed into each other, lost their weapons, cursed and shouted in the drenched darkness.
"Fluttershy!! Purple Heart!!" boomed Applejack. "That's your cue, y'all!!"
Down below, Fluttershy nodded to the Night Guard medic. Purple Heart closed his eyes and sat back on his haunches, placing his forehooves together. Waves of energy pulsed from his entire body-- dark magic, with a strange dissonant tone to it. A layer of mist appeared over the churning whitewater. At first, it was just in pockets, but soon, the whole atrium was blanketed in fog.
"Your unicorn friend was right on the money," said Purple Heart, black waves of magic shuddering from his skin. "And these poor bastards have no idea what they're in for."
"Start with the jellyfish," said Fluttershy.
Purple Heart nodded. He began the transport.
A soldier somewhere in the dark cried out in pain. Then another, and another, until a wave of screams swept through the entire crowd, echoing off the glass and marble walls, heightening the contagious fear. They trampled over each other to escape the horrible, agonizing stings. There was no escape. They were submerged to their necks, and the current insured that every one of them was immediately covered with the sticky creatures.
"Bring in the scorpidae, now," said Fluttershy. "For variety." The hum of dark magic increased as Purple Heart transported in a whole rainbow of poisonous tropical fish.
Fluttershy was furious with herself. To use these animals like this... to sacrifice their lives... dear Celestia, it's unbearable. I should be ashamed-- I AM ashamed! But... but I have no choice... This is the best we could come up with, and we can't let the Nightmare win. I have to protect my friends, however I can...
"Fluttershy!" Purple Heart was shouting. "Is it time or not??"
"Sorry, sorry," said Fluttershy. She looked around at the screaming stew of soldiers. "Yes, there should be enough blood in the water to start the second wave."
"Roger that!" said Purple Heart. "Soup's on, everypony!"
The mist grew even thicker, and the water filled with piranha, rays, electric eels. The screams began anew.
Fluttershy listened to the soldiers thrash around in the stinging, shocking, biting darkness. Poor little sea creatures, she thought with a tear in her eye. Poor sharks, poor lampreys. Poor Candiru. You're the real victims here. You're the real victims.
Shield Banner watched from the front of the building as his squads retreated. The soldiers were all covered in a vast panoply of tiny, terrible wounds. The water here was already ankle-deep.
"Watch out for jellyfish, sir," said one of the soldiers as he passed by. A half-hour ago it would have been the stupidest warning in the world.
Celestia cautioned me about this, Shield Banner seethed. She told me what would happen if I hesitated to kill the traitors; if I showed mercy or restraint! She told me not to let my feelings cloud my duty. Now, Spitfire could die and it would be my fault for not killing Rainbow Dash when I had the chance. My stallions are being eaten alive in there, because I didn't do something about the Night Guard before tonight. How many more of my ponies must pay the price for my being 'too gentle?'
Yet still, the thought nagged at him. What if I'm wrong? What if I'm wrong? What if...
Such second-guessing was a dangerous pitfall for a military leader, and Shield Banner clamped a lid on it. Perhaps he was wrong. But he had made his call, and now he had to live by it. Hesitation would only endanger his ponies' lives at this point. I won't fail you again, Celestia.
"Sir?" It came from behind him. "You wanted the prisoner delivered to you?"
Shield Banner turned to look over his shoulder. His clerk stood with a bound, chained, and blindfolded Twilight Sparkle.
"Yes," said the Captain. "And the other matter?"
"We just got word," said the clerk. "Spitfire's going to live."
Shield Banner nodded and exhaled. "Thank goodness. Let me know the moment she is out of surgery."
"Yes, sir," said the clerk. "So, uh, do you still want to...?" He motioned at Twilight.
"Unfortunately, yes," said Shield Banner. "It's the only way forward at this point."
Applejack saw a blast of green magic fire from the far side of the atrium. A searing bolt shot past her, and for a second, she felt a smug rush of elation. But then the green light ricocheted off two walls and a tree-trunk and blasted her right in the chest. Twenty-thousand volts wracked through her body, a cry of pain silenced as her vocal chords seized up. She crashed to the ground, smoke rising from her coat. "Nice... cough cough... nice shot, ya blasted varmint..."
Unicorn sharpshooter. Just her luck.
Two white pegasi slammed down right in front of her, one rearing up to bring his iron-shod hooves down on her face. They weren't going to give her a chance to recover.
But at that moment, a Night Guard suddenly melted out of the shadows directly behind her. He seemed to warp forward, jumping whole gaps of space, until he stood directly before the first white pegasus.
"Go to sleep," said the Night Guard, golden eyes flashing.
The white pegasus collapsed.
The other Royal Guard had a bayonet mounted to his helmet, like a bladed facsimile of a unicorn's horn. He charged forward and stabbed the Night Guard through the chest. But the dark pony merely exploded into mist, then reformed behind his attacker, delivering a crushing buck to the white's pegasus's legs. The Royal Guard toppled into the churning waters below.
The Night Guard savior stumbled as well, crumpling to the floor.
Applejack ran over. It was Cinnamon Oatmeal, or what was left of him.
"They captured..." he said, "Twilight..."
"Don't talk, partner," she said. "We're gonna' get you some help." Applejack scooped the fallen leader onto her back and leaped down from the balcony to the white marble below.
Another bolt of magic bounced off two walls and a planter and cut a burnt-divot in Applejack's hat. Close one! she thought, leaping forward just in time to avoid a third green bolt, chipping off the marble floor. A fourth bolt skidded over the water, looped around inside a trash barrel, and flashed through Applejack's mane as she ran.
They retreated to the second-floor waiting room. Applejack laid Cinnamon down on the ground, and Purple Heart began to administer a series of antidotes. They could hear Chyornyj Slon cleaning up the rest of the tattered opposition in the atrium.
"Royals will probably attack from the other side of the building, now," said Purple Heart as he worked. "We have to get ready for their next move." He wrapped a bandage around Cinnamon's head and injected a final dose into his foreleg. "You alright, now, Commander?"
"Better," said Cinnamon. He sat up slowly, body language returning to normal, although his wounds looked far from healed.
A ceiling vent was suddenly kicked open by a cyan hoof and two ponies came tumbling out onto the floor. Rainbow Dash looked pretty beat-up, but she was still snorting steam. Pinkie didn't have a scratch on her, although her hair looked like a powder puff from all the dust and cobwebs.
"Air vents," said Dash. "Huh. I can't believe that worked."
"Told yoooooooou!" said Pinkie.
"Do these two always have to bust in comedically?" asked Purple Heart.
"Um," said Fluttershy, "actually, yes. Particularly when they're together."
"Where have you ponies been?" Applejack said.
"Oh nowhere," replied Dash. "Just kicking the tar out of the Wonderbolts!!"
"She was awesome!" said Pinkie Pie leaping into the air. "And I saved her life, too."
"Uh, yeah," said Dash. "I ended up needing a little help with Spitfire."
"Lovers' quarrel?" asked Applejack innocently.
"Excuse me??" said Dash.
They were interrupted by Chyornyj Slon, ducking in through the doorway. "Spike is missing," he said.
This was met by silence from the room.
"How?" asked Cinnamon.
"Spike said he must check on something," said Slon. "He wandered off into maintenance tunnel and disappeared."
"Why would Spikey just walk off?" said Pinkie Pie. "He's nothing if not loyal! That's why he's the new Rainbow Dash!"
"The new what?" asked Dash.
Pinkie stared at her. "You mean nopony has told you about that in seven years??"
"You're wrong if you think Spike just wandered off," said another voice. "He was tricked." They all turned to look. The bespectacled agent walked into the room behind Slon.
"I released the prisoner for time being," explained Slon. "If that is okay with you, Commander."
"Hmmm," said Cinnamon. He peered into the agent's eyes.
"Good heavens, mate, what happened to you?" said the agent, examining the Night Guard leader's wounds. "Garlic extract? Silver nitrate?"
"Healing potion, actually," Cinnamon said. "I guess we owe you thanks for the warning about the Wonderbolts incursion. We managed to get the Nightmare away just in time."
"I knew that would be his plan," said the agent. "In all the years I've known him, Shield Banner never could put the stick down. He means well; I've seen him perform many heroic deeds myself. But his lawful side has a way of getting the best of him."
"You don't say," said Dash, holding an ice-pack to her eye.
"Well, the truth is, he's well off the deep end by now," said the agent. "His world view would be in conflict if he backed down, since he's already broken his own rules a number of times tonight in belief that you are villains. He can't stop. He's just going to press harder."
"Well, the guy's already trying to kill us, so what the hay else could he do?" asked Dash.
Just then, a voice boomed from outside of the lobby, down in the flooded atrium. "Elements of Harmony, and Night Guard traitors." After that, silence.
They all looked around at each other.
"I reckon we'd better find out what he wants," said Applejack.