Twilight Sparkle sat alone on the very edge of the Everfree Forest, feeling a deep despair the likes of which she never thought she’d experience again.
She rifled through her memory banks and decided that of all the worst things that could have happened, this was ultimately The. Worst. Possible. Thing. Rarity’s loss of her prized purple ribbon all those years ago faded into insignificance before the current situation.
She didn’t look around when she felt a pair of warm, gentle hooves wrap around her shoulders, carrying something thick and soft with them.
“Thought you might be cold,” said Hex quietly, “and that’s the last thing I want, so I brought you a blanket. One of the last available actually; we should have got somepony to pick up more on their way out.”
Twilight remained silent, staring blankly out at what mere hours before had been a town bustling with life and activity, and now lay silent and slightly smouldering in the light of the crescent moon and the stars, which seemed all the more cold tonight.
“Listen,” said Hex. “There isn’t anything you could do. If it’s anypony’s fault, it’s mine – I should have paid more attention.”
“No,” said Twilight solemnly, “it’s my fault. All of it, all of... this. If I hadn’t been so forceful, so narrow minded, none of this would have happened. I learned over two decades ago that you shouldn’t make a decision until you have all the facts, I-I’ve let everypony down...” She trailed off, trying to swallow the lump in her throat.
“You haven’t let anypony down, Twi,” Hex said in what was apparently supposed to be a reassuring voice. “You’re the most wonderful mare I’ve ever met. There was nothing anypony could have done. Celestia herself couldn’t have seen this coming. Smeg, not even Dawn saw it coming.”
“And she’s still in there,” Twilight pointed out. “She’s still in there with that-that thing on the rampage-”
“She’s not a foal anymore,” said Hex. “She’s more than capable of taking care of herself.” He held his wife close and looked out at Ponyville, searching in vain for any sign of life.
“I just hope she can handle what Dusk has become.”
And at the mention of that particular name, Twilight’s already fragile emotional state could take no more. It cracked and split like a ruptured dam, and she found herself breaking down into tears in the comforting hooves of the stallion she loved.
Not too far away, another couple had concerns of their own.
“They’ve been gone way too long!” Rainbow Dash declared. “I’m going to look for them!”
The only thing keeping her from zooming away into the chilly night sky was the powerful pair of jaws which clamped down on the end of her tail and anchored her no more than a few feet off the ground, and she gave up after several seconds of struggling.
“What are you, crazy?” asked Soarin’. “You’ll be killed!”
“Well, I can’t just sit idly by and do nothing!” Dash exclaimed. “What if nopony finds them, Soarin’? What would we do then? Or worse...” Her voice cracked as she uttered the next few words.
“What if-What if Dusk finds them?”
“I’d be an idiot if I didn’t say I was as scared as you are,” Soarin’ said evenly, “but I’m sure that Dawn will come up with something. She’s the expert on these things, right?”
“I know that,” said Dash. “It’s just that... Soarin’, what if he’s dead? You saw what that thing did, everypony saw what it did, and, well...”
“What if Blitz is-?”
Soarin’ couldn’t take much more of this. He had never seen Rainbow Dash so upset before, and it broke his heart to see her in such a state. He pulled her into an embrace which she was more than glad to accept.
“He’s still alive,” he said. “I feel it in my gut.”
“You can actually feel things under all those layers of pie?” Even in the darkest of times, Dash’s humour still shone through, and the two pegasi found that they were almost laughing despite themselves.
“Rainbow Dash! Soarin’!”
The cry came before the pony. Pinkie’s mane and tail had completely deflated, and now fell flat against her face, her normal bright colour and bubbly demeanour dulled by despair and fear.
“Rainbow!” she cried desperately. “Soarin’! I gotta know: have either of you seen Berry anywhere?”
The implications of the question struck home immediately.
“You don’t think he might still be in Ponyville, do you?” asked Soarin’ nervously.
“I don’t know!” said Pinkie. “I’ve looked all around for him and I can’t find him anywhere, I think he might still be in Sugarcube Corner! And I want to go and check, but I’m scared of what I might find and...” She trailed off, for once unable to find the right words.
“Berry’s a smart kid,” said Dash. “He knows to stay inside. I’m sure he’ll be fine, Pinkie.”
“Are you sure you looked everywhere?” Soarin’ asked.
“I dunno,” said Pinkie, “I think I might ask Rarity if she’s seen him anywhere.”
“It’s...” Rarity said quietly. “It’s gone. The Boutique... everything... gone.”
“We c’n easily rebuild,” Braeburn pointed out. “We done it before, and Ah helped put up Appleloosa in less ‘n a year, remember?”
“I know,” said Rarity, “it’s just that- Topaz.” Her gaze wandered in the direction of Ponyville, or at least, what was left of Ponyville. Celestia knows what that creature had done to the place.
It was a series of images that would be branded into the minds of both the apple farmer and the fashionista for the rest of eternity. Rushes of blinding white light, like purified, concentrated sunlight... the Carousel Boutique a mass of ravenous, roaring flames... and worst of all, the sight of blood dripping to the ground from...
Braeburn looked up and saw the same situation everywhere he turned. Husbands comforting wives, parents trying to reassure their children, and the most heartbreaking sights were those of the families that had members missing, and were crying out for sons, daughters, sisters and brothers lost in the panicked rush to the sanctuary of the forest.
A voice distinctly lacking in chirpiness made the unicorn and Earth pony look around at the normally hyperactive baker who stood before them, dulled by sadness and deflated by the needles of unhappiness which had pierced the hearts of just about every resident of the small town.
“I...” Pinkie’s voice was broken with despair, “I-I can’t find Berry anywhere. I don’t suppose either of you two have...”
Braeburn closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Ah’m sorry, Pinkie,” he said, “but Ah would definitely remember if Ah’d seen Berry around.”
At that, the pink mare was pushed well and truly beyond breaking point, and she broke down into a drenching fountain of tears. It was all Rarity could do to wrap her hooves around her friend, and reassure her, with certainty which was clearly flawed around the edges, that everything was going to be okay.
“Ugh, this is taking forever!”
The young Earth pony mare in the oversized vest threw a book over her head and with a well aimed buck, a buck only an Apple pony could accomplish, slammed it into a wall, where it fell into the rapidly growing pile of books already checked.
“Will you please at least try to be careful?” asked a previously reading unicorn. “You know that Mom would throw a fit if she saw you treating books that way!”
“I know, Dawn,” said the purple maned apple-bucker, “and I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m so – grrrr – frustrated! I feel like Mom does when she runs out of diamonds! I never knew searching for information could take so damn long!”
“I’m sorry, Topaz,” said Dawn Shimmer, “Look, I completely understand your frustration, and I know that it’s perfectly justified, but we’re gonna check this whole entire library and stay up all night if we have to. Like it or not, we have to save Dusk!” She punctuated her last sentence with a stomp of the hoof.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” said Topaz, “I want to save Dusk just as much as you do. It would mean a lot to me to get him back.”
“Oh yeah?” asked the golden unicorn, a smile playing across her muzzle.
Topaz stared at the mare for a moment before comprehension crossed her features.
“What? No!” she almost shouted. “No, I-I didn’t mean that way, I mean- who doesn’t want to see him safe, right? Right?”
“Me, naturally,” said Dawn, “but I’m starting to think that you had some rather, shall we say, ulterior motives for helping me find some useful info. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the crush you’ve had on my kid brother for the past two years, would it?”
“That’s not true!” Topaz cried.
“Oh, come on!” said Dawn, stepping away from the book she was reading and turning to face her white coated companion. “Part of my job – the job I’ve been studying for all my life – is assessing behaviour. And you act like a nervous school filly when you’re around Dusk!”
Topaz bowed her head in shame, pulling her scruffy mane down and over her eyes, and Dawn sighed.
“Would it help if I told you what he’s told me?” she asked.
“Come on, li’l bro,” whispered Lightning Strike, “wake up. I know you can do it, it’s easy. Just-just wake up.”
There was no response from the colt that lay in his hooves. The young stallion felt yet more hot tears rolling down his cheeks, and they dripped onto the face of his younger brother, trickling past his closed eyes and soaking into his spiky technicolour mane.
“Hex was right,” said Lightning, in the hopes that the motionless colt would hear him and respond. “He was right, I-I should never have treated you how I did. It was unfair of me. You’re my brother and I am so, so sorry.”
He hugged the sky blue colt closer to his chest, and felt something wet on one of his hooves. He examined it and found that his foreleg had stains of deep red on the pale azure of his coat, and saw that blood had started to seep out from the already soaked bandages around his sibling’s torso. He might as well have wrapped the colt in tissue paper.
“Come on, Blitz,” said Lightning, voice beginning to crack. “I already said sorry like, a million times. What more do you want from me? Just-just please.”
His fruitless pleas fell uselessly into the freezing night air, and Lightning Strike felt the monster of guilt growing ever more powerful as he wept once more for his wounded brother.
Nopony out the front. That was good, right?
Still not exactly trustworthy though. Who knows where that thing could be hiding.
Out the back. Yeah, right now heading out the back door sounded almost as good as hot sauce cupcakes. Or maybe even sarsaparilla! Oh man, his mouth was watering just thinking of it. When this was over, he was going to drink so much sarsaparilla he’d have fountains of the stuff pouring out of his ears.
He pulled the back door open just a smidge and looked outside.
Nopony there. Good.
He yanked the door wide open and zoomed at near-supersonic speeds through the streets of Ponyville, galloping as he had never galloped before.
Eventually, he found a sheltered alleyway, and stopped there to rest and catch his breath when-
He instantly shoved bubblegum pink hoof into his mouth. Had somepony heard that? Nah, they would have noticed by now.
It was just that at that moment, his knee had felt particularly pinchy...
“Wait a minute,” he said, thinking out loud, “pinchy knee is one of the twitches! Something’s about to happen! What was it Mom said? Pinchy knee is something... happy? Huh, can’t imagine anything happy happening on a night like this. Hey, happy, happening, those two sound the same! Okay, getting a bit sidetracked. Pinchy knee is something... timey-wimey? Something pretty? Nah, that doesn’t make any sense. Was it something-”
“Hey there, Bubble Berry.”
He was here. It was here. Whatever it was, it was right here, in this alleyway!
He looked up at the glowing form which slowly unfolded not two feet above his head.
“No,” he said, memory flooding his mind like a tsunami. “It was something...”
He couldn’t help but stare in horror as the razor sharp teeth of the being formerly known as Dusk Shine split into a terrifying smile.