"I'm sorry ta' say, sugarcube," said Applejack through gritted teeth. "But I can't right let you do that."
"It's not about what you'll 'let' me do, AJ," scoffed Rainbow Dash. "It's about what I'm 'going' to do, and what you're 'going' to do about it, which is nothing."
"Alright then," said Applejack, "if that's how it is, then you want to make it one-hundred bits?"
Dash's eyebrow twitched.
"Oho, not so sure now, are we?" said Applejack. "Stop chomping around the bit and pony up already!"
Dash set her jaw. "Fine, one-hundred. I hope you can afford to lose that much."
"You worry about yourself. Ready?"
Dash nodded. "One, two, three, go!"
Both mares punched holes in the bottoms of their beer cans and shotgunned the alcohol down the hatch. They slammed the empty cans on the ground and grabbed more from the huge pile in front of them. It was Friday, both of them had gotten stuck working late and missed the fun in Fillydelphia. But that was okay, they had each other's company, and all this Hayffeweizen. Now it was a race to the finish and neither pony was ready to give any quarter.
They each shotgunned their third beer. Dash's eyes looked a little unfocused as she came up for air.
"Smashed already?" taunted Applejack.
"Gimme a break," said Dash. "Just warn me if you're gonna toss your cookies, so I can practice my rainbow-dodge!"
"Aw, this is nothin' compared to what me and Big Mac used to put away."
"So shut up and drink!"
A fourth hay beer.
A fifth, never taking their eyes off each other.
They could barely stand by the time the last beer hit their stomachs.
"Okaaay," slurred Dash. "Go!"
Applejack and Rainbow Dash tore off across the fallow field towards the obstacle-course, still set up from the latest Sisterhooves Social. Apple bins and wooden planking made a treacherous road to run in the dark, especially when the two ponies were having enough trouble just walking in a straight line. It was reckless and stupid and perfect entertainment.
"No wings," Applejack reminded Dash as they galloped up to the first set of obstacles.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
"I'm serious, sugar. You spread them pinion feathers and I'll pluck 'em right out!"
"I heard you the first time!"
They struggled over planks and under bars, through rings and hoops. Applejack swore as she barked her shins on a beam. Rainbow Dash stumbled and knocked her head so hard she saw stars. The two rivals pushed and shouldered past each other, neither one able to gain a clear advantage.
They reached the mud pit. Bad enough to fall in during the day, but at two in the morning, the mud would be freezing.
Applejack let out a grunt of exertion as she leaped out over the muck, almost clearing the entire distance. At the end, she grabbed a hanging rope in her teeth and swung onto the opposite platform. Maybe us earth ponies can't fly, she thought, but by golly, we sure can jump! Even Pinkie Pie could leap massive distances compared to the unicorns.
Dash hopped up onto a line that ran between platforms and galloped along the thick metal wire like a tightrope walker. "You're not losing me that easy!" she yelled.
Suddenly, an object like an airborne freight train tore the sky in half over their heads. Applejack fell and rolled across the ground and Dash toppled off the wire, landing right in the freezing mud with a splat.
The object flew across the river and crashed with a resounding impact in the gorge a half-mile away.
They could hear Winona barking back at the farmhouse. “What in tarnation was that?!!” said Applejack over the ringing in her ears. Her mane stood on end from the static electricity in the air.
"Yuck, look at this!" said Dash, trying to shake the mud off and scrape it out of her hair. "Whatever it was, I'm going to go kick it in the face for that!" She made to take off into the air, but Applejack grabbed her by the rainbow tail.
"Hold your horses, girl!" Applejack growled. "The authorities need ta' be warned first. It could be anything out there. It could be dangerous!"
"Psh, danger's my middle name! But if you're still a scaredypony, we can both check it out," said Dash. "And then go 'warn the authorities' or whatever."
Applejack arched an eyebrow. "I reckon you'd have to be dumber'n a sack a' hammers to go charging into something like this. But alright. We'll take one look." And she slapped her cowpony hat back on.
"Over there!" shouted Applejack as she galloped at full speed through the brush. She and Dash barreled from the treeline out into the moonlight, trailing leaves and branches behind them. Across the meadow lay the rocky expanse of the gem fields.
Applejack looked at the mountainside far above where Canterlot Castle perched, silhouetted by the moon. "Whatever came out of the sky most likely started up there," she said.
"You're a little sloshed to be doing 'fancy mathematics,'" Dash pointed out.
"Getting hit by a sonic boom tends to sober a pony up pretty fast."
Dash snorted. "You should try it with a cold mud bath."
They reached the edge of a lopsided crater. Whatever had fallen from Canterlot Mountain had apparently struck down here, then bounced several times across the waste and landed in a thatch of tough desert grass fifty paces away.
"Stay behind me," said Applejack. Dash groaned but complied.
Cautiously, they approached the object, which was still smoldering and threatening to set the grass alight. Applejack grabbed her hat in her mouth and beat out the nascent flames before they could turn into a real fire.
Rainbow Dash slowly circled the object. "It's a pony," she said.
No need to ask if it's still alive, thought Applejack grimly. Had to be some kind of accident, or a magic experiment gone wrong. This made her think of Twilight, whose own experiments were notoriously unpredictable. "Uh...any idea who it is?" Applejack asked, trying to keep a hollow note out of her voice.
"AJ, you're not going to believe this," said Dash as she prodded the body with a hoof, "but check it out. I think this is Princess Luna!"
"Princess Luna!" gasped Applejack. To her shame, she felt a moment's relief that it hadn't been Twilight after all, but Applejack shook it off as she realized the deeper meaning of this. Somewhere out there was a new villain, or an old one returned, capable of kicking the crud out of an alicorn. She double checked, but it was Luna alright—the crescent-moon cutie mark was still mostly visible. Right now, the Princess looked more like a burned pile of hair and bones.
“She's still breathing!” said Dash, kneeling down next to the night-sky alicorn's face. “Just barely. But yeah, she's alive.”
I thought the Princesses couldn't get hurt, thought Applejack, dread creeping up her spine. Both Applejack and Dash had seen worse, more grisly sights before. Injured ponies, dead ponies. It came with being on the Ponyville Volunteer Fire Brigade for so many years. But it was never easy, and the ramifications of this particular situation were ominous, terrifying.
"What happened to her horn?!" said Dash. "Look, it's just gone.”
"Dash," said Applejack, in a daze.
“...maybe it got blasted off in the crash... And her wings...they're just crushed to pulp...look at this..." Her voice was shaking.
Applejack cleared her throat. "Rainbow Dash!"
The pegasus tore her eyes away and looked at Applejack.
"I'll stay here with the Princess. You go get Fluttershy. Tell her to come out here right away and bring her medkit. Then wake up Twilight—"
Rustling movements in the dark caused both ponies' ears to perk up.
"Horseapples," Applejack muttered under her breath. Then she shouted, "Who's there?"
Out of the shadows slinked half a dozen diamond dogs.
"Yummy pony come onto our land?" said one of them. "Break the truce, eh? Good, good, we hungry tonight."
"We ain't fixin for trouble," said Applejack. "One of our kind had a bad accident and crashed here. We're just gonna take her and go."
"Do we likes this plan?" asked the diamond dog. The rest chortled and giggled wickedly. "No, I don't think we likes this plan, pony, I think we rather be having a tasty treat, and maybe some other fun with two pretty mares—"
That was as far as he got before Rainbow Dash shot forward—so fast that she might as well have teleported—and drove her fore-hoof deep into the center of the diamond dog's gut. The dog went flying backwards and crashed into two of his fellows, gasping for air, his ugly eyes bugging out.
Another diamond dog exploded from the ground behind Applejack, running face-first into a trademark apple-buck that could have knocked out three mouthfuls of teeth. He emitted a sad whimper and collapsed.
Applejack was a little slow from all the beer, though and she didn't even see the next assailant until he leaped onto her back and sank his teeth into the hard-pack muscle of her neck. She let out a holler, rearing and bucking until he lost his grip and bounced up into the air. At that point, she delivered a double-kick that blasted the dog straight through the side of a giant cactus. He rolled out on the other side, looking like a pincushion.
Every second we waste with these varmints is another second off Princess Luna's life! she thought with frustration. Now where did RD get off to?
The cyan pegasus was dancing with a dog wielding a two-handed club. The dog charged, chopping and slashing. Dash dodged left and right, a multicolor blur, until the dog overreached on his final swing. A blur in the corner of the dog's eye became a cyan hoof smashing into his jaw, so hard it almost knocked him right out. He stumbled back and spit out a tooth.
"Shoo, doggy," said Dash.
Again, he attacked with a snarl, but he wasn't even half her speed. Dash dodged into the air, flipping upside-down as the diagonal swing missed by an inch below her. She made eye contact with the surprised dog, and winked. A heartbeat later, Dash's double-hooved death-from-above came around and smashed his head into the ground.
"I've hit turbulence tougher than these guys," laughed Dash. Then she stumbled to her knees and drunkenly emptied her stomach onto the ground. A diamond dog closed in behind her, looking to take advantage, but Applejack came charging out of nowhere and kicked the dog so hard that it nearly split him in half.
The rest of the pack was suddenly in a race to get away. They stumbled over each other to burrow into the rocky soil, sprint off into the darkness, anything to avoid being the next to have his face beat in by two of the toughest mares in Equestria.
"Aww!" lamented Rainbow Dash, wiping her mouth off with the back of her hoof. "Is that all you've got? You know for dogs, you guys sure do act like a bunch of puss—"
"Hey!" said Applejack, straightening her hat, "we don't have time to fool around! Help me get Luna outta here before they come back with reinforcements."
"Okay, hold on..." said Dash. She stumbled over behind a cactus and retched again. "Uuughhh," she said.
"You fight pretty well for being totally drunk," remarked Applejack.
"It's how I learned."
"Ha! Me too!"
Dash helped Applejack throw the fallen alicorn's front leg over the cowpony's shoulder, then ducked under the other leg. "This Princess...weighs a ton," she groaned.
"Lift!" commanded Applejack, and the two lifted. Applejack knew that jostling the Princess like this could injure her even further, but if they left her here, she was dead anyway. The two started the long trek back to town.
Fluttershy had no idea what she was doing. Ordinarily, she would never have agreed to go out on a date with a stallion she barely knew, never have asked him to walk her home afterwards, and certainly never have spontaneously started kissing him on her front porch. She spent so much time these days taking care of everypony else, it had been so long since she'd done anything for herself. And when it rains, it pours, she thought as they made out.
She had to admit, at least, she could have chosen a worse stallion. Shield Banner was very nice, and he had a good job-- some high-level thing up in Canterlot. He was ruggedly handsome with his unshorn fetlocks and dark brown coat, and he was a unicorn, which was interesting. She'd never had a unicorn before. Fluttershy knew a workaholic when she saw one, but that didn't bother her much. After all, Macintosh had been a workaholic...
Shield Banner. That's who she was with tonight. She wasn't going to sabotage it by dwelling on the past.
Somewhere, a little voice was telling her that she was sabotaging it by coming on too strong. She didn't want to spook a perfectly nice stallion. But Shield Banner had lavished her with attention tonight, been a perfect gentlecolt. She hadn't felt like this in a long time, and it was making her reckless. So she kissed him, and kissed him again, growing more and more passionate, until she had him backed up against the side of her cottage.
This isn't you, she said to herself. You're making a mistake. But she couldn't stop. Everything in her romantic life had been so disappointing for so long-- she just needed to forget.
They both gasped for air. “You should come in,” she breathed. "Um, I mean, if that's okay."
“Oh, Fluttershy,” said Shield Banner panting and grinning. “Why? Why do you have to do this to me? You know I've got early muster in two hours. I'm going to be in a heap of trouble if my troops aren't parade-ready by then."
"Your troops look parade-ready to me," said Fluttershy, and teased his mouth with hers until he fell back into their kiss.
Shield Banner leaned against her, pulling her to his chest with a foreleg, breaking off at last with only the deepest reluctance. "Fluttershy, if you keep this up, I will not be able to say no to you. And I have to go to work. I have to. Duty calls, and duty can be a harsher mistress than, well, than anypony I know.”
She gave him a playful nip on the side of his chocolate-brown muzzle. “I just thought it would be funny to make you walk all the way back to the castle at 'full-attention.'"
"Thanks a lot for that," he said, arching an eyebrow. "Good thing it's a cold night."
"It's not cold in my cottage," said Fluttershy in a tiny voice. "If I lit a fire it might even get a little too hot--"
"Stop. It," he said with a grin. He nipped her back. “I wish I could indulge us both, but if I was willing to skip out on my job, I wouldn't be your kind of guy anyway."
She had to give him that one.
"Look," he said. "I have next Wednesday off. I would love to take you to this great jazz club in Canterlot. My friend's trio performs there on weeknights and they are just fantastic. What do you say?"
"That sounds wonderful."
Fluttershy watched him trot off down the road. Something about his step made her think of Macintosh again.
She was suddenly overcome by a flood of relief that Shield Banner had turned her down. What the hay are you thinking, inviting him in on the first date!? Real classy, Fluttershy! He must think you're some kind of... of... wanton hussy! Are you really so lonely that you're willing to put on the saddle for the first stallion to buy you dinner?
That wasn't fair; Shield Banner was a catch. But he wasn't Big Macintosh, and that's who she was still pining for right now, despite her every effort.
Fluttershy let herself into her cottage and went straight to the icebox, feeling hot tears spring up in her eyes. It had been three months since she and Big Mac had separated. Now her farmpony husband was living in an apartment on the other side of town, and here she was acting like a stupid filly in heat because she couldn't move on.
It was a mocha almond fudge kind of night for sure.
She had barely brought the first bite to her mouth, however, when somepony knocked on the front door.
Shield Banner coming back? Fluttershy didn't know whether to be happy or sad about it. Alright, she thought, I'll just tell him...what? That I changed my mind? That I don't feel well all of a sudden? He was not going to like that, but what choice did she have?
The hoof pounded on the door again, hammering insistently this time.
I must have made a better impression than I thought!
She glided back to the entryway and peeked through the curtain. It was Applejack and Rainbow Dash carrying something. What in the world are they doing this late at night? She unbolted the door and pulled it open.
“Girls, why—?” she started, but they pushed past her and dragged whatever they were carrying into her living room. The first thing she smelled was hay beer. Then she gasped as that odor was completely overpowered by burnt hair and flesh.
A real emergency. Fluttershy's first instincts were to cower, to leave it up to everypony else, the way she used to all the time. But then her medical training kicked in and she was too busy to be scared. She hastily cleared off a space on the couch. “Do you know who it is?”
Rainbow Dash looked utterly exhausted. “Luna.”
“Yeah,” said Applejack, gulping air. The cowpony's endurance was legendary in Ponyville, but even she was on her last wind.
“Set her down over here,” said Fluttershy, and the two mares lay Luna down as gently as possible. Fluttershy went to her doctor's coat hanging on the wall and retrieved her stethoscope, then took the medkit off the top shelf next to the door. She ran an IV and began a cursory investigation of the patient.
“We found her like this,” gasped Applejack. “She fell from Canterlot, we think... Landed in the gem fields... I think she was already unconscious when she hit.”
"Okay, let me see here." Looks like the burning is superficial, thought Fluttershy. Barely coat-deep. So many other wounds, though... and that's just what I can see on the surface. The wings are the worst—crushing injuries from the dorsal humerus, all the way to the metacarpals pegasi. This is going to require surgery.
“Her horn,” said Fluttershy, bringing the lantern up to inspect the ruined socket on Luna's forehead. “Do you have it?”
“We didn't have time to look,” said Rainbow Dash. “We got attacked by a pack of diamond dogs. Good thing yours truly has been working the speed bag on weekends. I made mincemeat out of them, you shoulda' seen it.”
“I may have helped a little,” said Applejack dryly.
“Yeah, AJ was there, too.”
"Applejack," said Fluttershy suddenly. "You're bleeding!"
"Oh, this?" said Applejack, trying to get a look at her own neck.
"Here," said Fluttershy, handing Applejack a towel. "Please, try to be more aware of your own injuries. I can't take care of all of you at once."
"Thanks, I guess I just forgot I was hurt. RD? Did the dogs get you at all?"
"Nope," said Dash. "But I think I might have to throw up again."
Fluttershy's attention moved back to Luna. She made a short diagnostic list in her head. Edema, bleeding, hematoma, fracture, burns... The Princess was a mess. How could this have happened to an alicorn?
Fluttershy made sure intravenous fluids were flowing to the worst injuries, and she injected Luna with an osmotic diuretic to keep the internal bleeding from causing shock. The next step would be to correct Luna's pH balance and get some electrolytes flowing into her. It was all just a stopgap though.
"We need to get the Princess to a hospital."
“That's exactly where she'll be in the most danger,” interrupted a voice from the doorway. The ponies all turned to see Twilight Sparkle striding in. Behind her came Rarity and Pinkie Pie. All three were resplendent in evening wear.
“Twilight!” exclaimed Fluttershy, “Why are you dressed like that?" She sniffed the air. "Have you... have you been drinking??”
Pinkie belched loudly.
“You guys are all drunk??” asked Rainbow Dash.
“Until a few minutes ago, so were we,” pointed out Applejack, going to the kitchen to put on some coffee.
“We didn't exactly expect this to happen,” groused Rarity.
“How did you even know to find us?” said Dash.
Rarity shot over a look of profound incredulity. “Pinkie Sense, if you can believe it.”
“Pinkie Sense...” said Applejack. Then, “No kidding...”
They all turned and looked at the bright pink pony.
“What? Three tail twitches, rapid eye blinking, double ear flicking, and an itchy back. It can mean only one thing—”
Fleas, thought Fluttershy.
“—a serious doozy!” said Pinkie Pie. “And I would definitely call this a serious doozy.”
“Will all you ponies please be quiet???” demanded Twilight. Her horn glowed deep purple as she probed the fallen alicorn's body. "Oh Princess... how did this happen to you...?" Then the magic intensified and Twilight said, “Stand back, I'm casting a spell.”
“Wait, wait!” said Fluttershy. “We don't know what will happen if you try to use non-alicorn magic to heal her.”
“This isn't a healing spell,” said the purple unicorn, “In fact, this will probably make her condition worse. But it has to be done.”
Before Fluttershy could utter another protest, there was a concussive pop of air and time froze as the world shattered into a million silvery shards.
Twilight couldn't remember who she was.
For a long time, she floated between places and ponies, events passing before her eyes. A crowning ceremony, two alicorns side by side, a childhood in the Canterlot gardens, tutors, mentors, etiquette, posture, diplomacy. Afternoons with her sister, laughing and getting into trouble. Ponies whispering about how the two daughters were destined for great things. Maybe greater than any two ponies ever born.
Then came adolescence, a time of brooding and disappointment. She was the lesser of the two sisters, and she always would be. It was simply a trick of fate. No matter how she tried, she always be second best. Forever, for eternity.
Jealousy. It burned for years. A hundred years, five hundred. I shoulder half the responsibility, thought Twilight. It's not fair that she would be revered and I would be ignored.
"The sunlight always wins out over the night, when the two compete." This was a different voice. Hardly over a whisper of the wind. It flowed through Twilight's mane like cool breath. "They will never see you while they are still blinded by her."
The cities grew up around her. Fillydelphia was a tiny circle of hovels, a logging camp, a general store. Manehattan was a single street with a flour mill and waterwheel, a tavern, a one-room sheriff's office. Twilight watched ponies scurry about like ants, placing wood and stone, days and nights and weeks and months and years racing by as buildings spread like moss. Life was different when there was a time limit, when it mattered if a pony rushed or relaxed. For mortals, life was a ticking clock, always. It inspired them to greatness. And they inspired her. She wanted more.
"I can make you free of her," said the voice. "You deserve to be recognized. Even now your sister secretly laughs at you, degrading your contributions to the cycle."
My beautiful starry sky goes unappreciated, seethed Twilight. My moon casts its light over a fearful population. They hide in their homes at night because the day is brilliant and warm. How could she hope to compete? She had been given a lackey's job. At one time, she had been destined for greatness. It wasn't fair.
"It should be your day," said the voice.
It will be. And she let the Nightmare in.
It was dark for a long time.
But the darkness ended. The Nightmare was stripped away by the blinding light-- not sunlight, this was a different sort. It warmed a pony to the soul, and her soul was washed clean.
Twilight was ready to live again. She was ready to try again. She appreciated what she had, and what she had was forever.
"Celestia," she said, turning to her sister. "I was wrong to envy you. It was not your choice to be the most powerful. You have done nothing to spite me. You have always wished the best for me."
"I have," said Celestia. "And yes, my sister. I will always be more powerful than you. But power is only one ingredient of destiny, Luna. The other is will. And in that regard, my sister, I have never met a greater pony than you. Your determination is the kind that can change worlds forever. More than magic ever can. More than I can. This is why I need you by my side."
"Thank you," said Twilight, her eyes filling with tears. "I missed you so much."
"And I missed you," said Celestia, and she started to laugh.
She laughed harder and harder, and Twilight tried to pull away from her grasp, but she wrapped her forelegs around Twilight's neck and hung on, howling with crazed laughter in her face. Twilight tried to fight back, but she couldn't remember how--couldn't even really remember who she was. She started to choke as Celestia dessicated before her eyes, skin and muscle shriveling up, peeling, cracking. Her eyes boiled and melted, leaving two flame-filled holes like blast furnace vents.
"I missed you, Twilight Sparkle," said the thing that was not Celestia. "Oh yes, I know who you are. I had a taste of your magic when you and your friends hit me with the Elements of Harmony way back when. Do you remember that? Mortals can have such short memories. It hurt, Twilight Sparkle. A lot. I have to commend you really, that was some excellent spellcasting on your part. It was like being scoured alive, but it didn't kill me. And do you know what that makes you? Very. Unlucky."
Twilight Sparkle screamed as the grip tightened and tightened and she felt her bones buckling, ready to snap horribly with the slightest more pressure. And then the pressure tightened again. "It's not real, it's not real it's not real, it's not real, it's not real! It's not real! It's not real! Auuhhh--"
"Hey! I know you!" said an unmistakable voice. "You're Black Snooty!"
The constriction paused. Twilight teetered on the edge of madness.
"Or was that Queen Meany? You know, I can never keep you bad guys straight. Hey, what's this do?"
Pinkie Pie popped the Nightmare's ear off.
"What the--" said the Nightmare.
"Mmm, juicy!" said Pinkie Pie, eating the ear. "You taste like grape soda, Black Snooty. That is a very good choice. I would have guessed licorice since you're so evil and all, but grape soda... maybe you're not so bad!"
The Nightmare cast Twilight aside as it turned to lash out at Pinkie. But Pinkie wasn't there anymore and it clawed at empty space.
"So this is like, a dream world, right?" said Pinkie, leaning over the Nightmare's shoulder. "Alright, how about a pair of tanned cabana colts and a jacuzzi filled with champagne? Or is it not that kind of dream?"
"Grahhhh!!!" screamed the Nightmare swinging to grab her again, but only managing to sock itself in what passed for its face.
Pinkie lounged in a deck chair some ways off, sipping out of a coconut shell with a swizzle straw. A single brilliant beam of sunlight cast down from above, glinting off her heart-shaped sunglasses. "You know, I could get used to this," she said. "Nightmare baby, I think you've got yourself a new roomie!"
The Nightmare took two steps in her direction and put its weight down right on a suspiciously placed throw rug. Naturally, the rug concealed a circular hole, through which the Nightmare fell like a sack of potatoes. Its angry scream echoed down into the darkness until finally petering out.
Pinkie Pie jumped up from the deck chair, pulled a wood-saw from behind her back and threw it down the hole. She made sure to finish the last of her drink, then ran over to Twilight.
"Get up, silly," said Pinkie Pie. "You're not really hurt."
And Twilight wasn't. She was still shaky, but otherwise okay. "How... how are you doing this?"
"Oh, you know, I have many strange and mysterious powers." Pinkie beamed cheerfully with her moon eyes.
"There you are!" said a voice from a short distance away, and Rarity stepped into the light. She was clad in translucent, golden armor, her hair flowing like a purple cloud of stars. "When you didn't come back right away, we began to worry that you'd gotten lost in here. I volunteered to look for you, and Pinkie sort of hung on for the ride."
"Pretty!" said Pinkie, admiring Rarity's new look. "What am I doing in my boring old skin? Let's see if I change shape too." She bit her lip in concentration.
"Oh, goodness," said Rarity, rolling her eyes. "I suppose you'll want to turn into a giant cake or something."
"What's the point?" said Pinkie sadly. "One can not be a cake and eat it too."
"Thank you! You saved my life!" said Twilight, giving them each virtual hugs. "And Rarity, I didn't think you knew how to astral project!"
"Sweetie Belle has been learning the basics at school recently, and she's needed me to tutor her."
"You did really well. But come on, let's get out of here. I've got what I came in here for, and I'm definitely ready to be back in the real world."
"It never fails," said Pinkie. "Every time I'm about to start eating we have to rush off somewhere." She looked longingly at the bowl of dream custard she had been devouring, then shrugged and threw the entire thing down her gullet, bowl and all.
"The Nightmare?" said Rainbow Dash. "But didn't we kill the Nightmare with the Elements of Harmony?"
"Or changed its alignment to good, that's what I had thought, too," said Twilight as Applejack handed her a glass of water. "But it turns out the Nightmare survived somehow, and with all of its malevolence intact. And now it's come back."
Dash stared at Luna's head. "In there?"
"No," said Twilight. "What I met in there was just a fragment. The real Nightmare is in Princess Celestia."
"Come now, Twilight," said Rarity. "We both know that's impossible. The Nightmare would need permission from Celestia herself!"
“I know what I saw,” said Twilight. “And I believe it. Especially under the circumstances, I mean look at her!" She motioned to Luna. "However it did it, the Nightmare was able to overpower Celestia and... take control of her. It's the only explanation."
They were all quiet for a few moments. Then Rainbow Dash snorted and stomped a hoof. "So what are we gonna do about it?" she said.
"First things first," responded Twilight. "We have to figure out some way to move Luna to a secret location where Fluttershy can get her stabilized. And we need to find her horn, so that we can... try to reattach it I guess. We certainly can't let the diamond dogs have it or we'll be in all kinds of trouble!”
The other ponies nodded in agreement, save one.
“You can't do this kind of surgery in someone's basement,” insisted Fluttershy. “It's extremely delicate work, dangerous even under the best circumstances. And besides, I'm not a surgeon, I'm just a physician assistant.”
“You've assisted on plenty of surgeries,” said Twilight.
“Assisted! Because I'm an assistant! But there was always a supervising surgeon and and it was always in a tightly controlled environment, not these...these...”
“Battlefield conditions?” said Spike, stooping in the doorway. "Because that's what it's looking like to me. War.” The heat from his scales curled the edges of the wallpaper. The ponies had to step back as he approached Luna and placed a claw gently on her cheek. "I'm here, Luna," he said. "And I will get whoever did this to you. I swear it."
"How does it look out there?" asked Twilight.
"Clear," said Spike. "But we shouldn't waste any time."
“The longer Princess Luna stays here,” said Twilight to the group, “the more likely it is that we'll all be captured. If the Nightmare has control of the Royal Guard, then they're probably out looking for Luna's body right now. Or maybe even us. We have to move this whole show somewhere else. I'm sorry, Fluttershy, that's how it's got to be.”
“Look,” said Rainbow Dash. “If we can find the horn and put it back on, she can heal herself, right?”
Twilight and Spike exchanged a look. “Theoretically.”
“Well, I can dash out there and find it right now!”
“And how do you reckon' you'll see it in the dark, in a field full-a giant crystals?" said Applejack. "It'll be like looking for a needle in a stack-a needles!”
“That's easy. Rarity can come with me!”
Rarity's mouth fell open and she looked over at Twilight.
“Well,” said Twilight with a hesitant shrug, “I could show you the spell to find the horn. It's not really hard..."
“Luna's mind is one thing," said Rarity, "but gallivanting around the gem fields in the middle of the night? Perhaps I should season myself with a bit of Hollandaise first. A sprig of parsley in my hair?”
“You'll be safe,” said Spike, “I'll go too. And I'm kind of in the mood to run into diamond dogs tonight.” He snorted a jet of smoke from each nostril.
“And me!” shouted Pinkie Pie, jumping up and down.
Rarity looked, chagrined, at Luna's broken form. “I don't know what came over me. Of course I will go. For the Princess, I will face any danger!”
“Then it's settled,” said Twilight Sparkle. She turned to Applejack. “AJ, you and Fluttershy will move Luna. I'm sorry to ask you to carry the Princess again, but at least we can use a wagon this time...”
“Think nothin' of it, Twilight!” said Applejack with determination. “Whatever I can do to help.”
“Um,” said Fluttershy and everyone turned to look at her. “I, maybe, know a place where we can hide her and do the operation.”
“Fluttershy, you're a genius!” said Twilight, catching on immediately.
“I musta missed something,” said Applejack. “Where to now?”
Twilight and Fluttershy spoke together: “The Ponyville University!”
"The medical wing is mostly complete," said Fluttershy.
"And interference from the artifacts department will scramble any magical attempts to search for her," added Twilight.
“Sounds good," agreed Spike. "But that still leaves you out. What's your plan?"
“Right. First, I'm heading to the library to secure the Elements of Harmony. If the Nightmare has control of Celestia, then it will know what she knows. I have to hide the Elements where even the Princess couldn't find them. Then I'm going to Canterlot Castle.” Twilight set her jaw. “To be with my beloved teacher and ruler. In her time of crisis, 'Celestia' will need her trusted apprentice at her side more than ever.”
The rest looked at her, stunned. Spike said: “Are you sure that's a good idea?”
“I have to see the impostor for myself. I need to know if Celestia is still alive or not, whoever is in control of her body. Plus, if I have a chance to inspect the scene of the crime, maybe I can figure out how this happened.”
“But the Nightmare... what if she knows that you know?” asked Pinkie Pie. “Omigosh, what if she knows that you know that she knows that you know?”
“I'll take precautions,” said Twilight. “And if it comes down to it... well, I'm no pushover myself.”
The rest of the ponies looked unconvinced, but Spike nodded. He was sold.
“We've faced things like this in the past,” said Twilight, looking at each of them, “and more often than we've wanted. Nightmare Moon, Discord, Tirek, Lord Smooze, and just about every color of dragon imaginable. But each time, I have been lucky enough to have you six to depend on. There isn't a single pony in Equestria that I would want on my side tonight more than any of you. Keep each other safe out there. Get your jobs done. And good luck.”
“Please, Doctor Stables,” said Nightmare Sun, pulling the name from Celestia's memories, “do try to make this quick.” Her violet eyes beamed with warmth and kindness as she looked down at this pathetic little creature. “As you may understand, I have many matters to deal with in the wake of this attempted coup, and my health is hardly in question—“
“Hold still, Princess,” growled the doctor. “I know full well how hardy you alicorns are, but the guards told me there was a hypersonic explosion in the room right before they found you unconscious. Proximity to that sort of thing can scramble your nervous system, cause cardiac arrhythmia, and even worse things. I gotta make sure you're okay after that, or I wouldn't be doin' my job. Follow the light with your eyes, please.”
Nightmare Sun did as he asked. She amused herself in the meanwhile with fantasies of snapping his bossy little neck. Just pretend for now. There will be plenty of time for that kind of fun after they capture the dragon and the apprentice. Once those two have been dealt with, there won't be a creature in Equestria powerful enough to oppose you. And then you can feed to your heart's content...
She turned at the sound of boots echoing on marble floors from the east hallway. A heavily armored pony with a dark-brown coat marched in, flanked by a clerk and a gaggle of advisers.
“Princess,” said the pony. “Thank goodness you're okay! I was on my way back to the castle when I received word of the tragedy. I have dispatched the entire guard to find the traitor Spike.”
“Thank you, Captain—“ Nightmare Sun accessed Celestia's memories again. “—Shield Banner. Excellent work.”
He removed his helm respectfully with orange unicorn magic. “I take full responsibility for what happened to Luna. I should have seen this coming...should have had something in place to prevent it—“
“You can not blame yourself for this, Captain. Nopony could have foreseen a betrayal so vile. Spike surprised me at my most vulnerable, while I was asleep in my chambers. He told me he would kill me if I moved, and held me hostage until Luna came. Then...” She choked back a tear. “...he killed her. He murdered Luna with that green hellfire of his, and then the guards as well. If I hadn't thrown him from the castle at that point, he would no doubt have incinerated me too.”
“We will capture him soon, Celestia, I give you my word. I will go myself and bring the dragon back in chains.”
“No,” said Nightmare Sun. “I want him dead.”
“Your Highness...,” said Shield Banner uncomfortably, “Procedure dictates that he be brought in for interrogation and indicted for treason...”
“He killed my sister, Captain. I watched him do it. There is no doubt that he is guilty, and I sentence the traitor to death.”
“Yes, your Highness.”
“When it's done, bring his body to me. I don't want any of your ponies hurt because they tried to be gentle with him, do you understand?” She jerked her head at the doctor. “You. You're done now.”
The doctor looked at her carefully, then bowed graciously and left.
Nightmare Sun turned back to Shield Banner. “What about Twilight Sparkle?”
“We've got agents going door-to-door in Ponyville right now, looking for her. She was last seen leaving Fillydelphia two hours ago. Don't worry, Princess, we'll track her down.”
“Take the greatest care with her,” said Nightmare Sun. “Twilight Sparkle may be in league with the traitor Spike. It may be necessary to terminate her as well.”
“Your Highness! Twilight Sparkle has saved this kingdom from destruction several times! She is one of our most trusted operatives! Are you sure about this?”
“No, I am not sure. But Spike and my apprentice are very close—they grew up together after all. It is not impossible that he may have convinced her to help him. It would explain how Spike was able to overpower me. How he was able to kill Luna. There is no other way, in fact. It had to be some sort of enhancement spell, or an artifact. It would explain everything.”
“I suppose it would...” said Shield Banner. “But I urge you to let me interrogate her before we do anything...irreversible.”
“Of course,” said Nightmare Sun. “Of course.”
“Thank you, your Majesty. I will dispatch ponies to villages along the route to Fillydelphia as well as—“
“That won't be necessary,” said a voice. Both Nightmare Sun and Shield Banner looked up to see a certain purple unicorn trot into the room, tailed by a pair of guards who didn't seem to know what to do.
“Princess...!” said Shield Banner.
“It's okay,” said Nightmare Sun. “It's alright now, Captain. You and your stallions can go.”
Shield Banner considered her for a long moment. “Very well, Princess. I will see personally to the other matter. As for you, Twilight Sparkle,” he said, turning to the purple unicorn, “upon dismissal, please proceed directly to the guard house for debriefing. I will have an agent waiting for you.” He bowed, placed his helm back on, and led his entourage out.
“Oh, Princess,” said Twilight, once they were alone. Her eyes filled with tears and she embraced Nightmare Sun. “I'm so, so sorry about Luna. Was it Spike? Was it really him?”
“It breaks my heart to say so, my faithful student,” said Nightmare Sun. “But yes, it was Spike. I saw him kill Luna with my own eyes.”
Twilight stammered for what felt like forever. “Why?? Why would he do something like this?”
“Instinct,” said Nightmare Sun. “He had been growing more and more distant from all of us recently, even from Luna and myself. Spending nights alone on the rooftop, drifting away from pony society. I think his dragon instinct became too loud to ignore anymore, that he tried to eliminate us and seize the crown for himself. The royal coffers would have made quite a dragon hoard for one as young as Spike.”
“But...I've known Spike for decades! My whole life! I tried so hard to teach him right from wrong. He must have been forced to do this! Maybe somepony else was blackmailing him, or using magic on him. I just don't know how I can accept this."
"Twilight, you do not understand dragons as I do. I have been dealing with them for over a thousand years, and let me assure you that Spike is...was unique in his generosity and gentleness. Dragons are evil, selfish creatures, without exception. In hindsight, it is not surprising that he did this. It is only surprising that he did not do this sooner."
"Oh, Celestia. If he could attack you...if he could kill Luna...then I have truly failed.”
“It is my fault,” said Nightmare Sun. “I decided to take a dragon into our care long before you were born. In the end, I did this. I believed we could tame the beast. But some beasts can never be tamed, Twilight Sparkle. Some need to be put down.”
Twilight stared into Nightmare Sun's eyes, her jaw set with a steely determination. “I will do whatever is necessary, my Princess. Of that I give you my word.”
“I know you will, my faithful student,” said Nightmare Sun. “I know you will.”