Chapter 1 - The Last Night of Winter
How long has it been? How long have I been locked away? When the Sun and Moon and traitorous knights imprisoned me, my Palace of Ice was at the apex of its beauty. Now, I walk through crumbling halls.
Patches of ice crunch and crack beneath my talons, weakened by unknown eons of warming and re-freezing. Icicles hang from the ceiling of my once grand audience chamber, grown so fat from generations of neglect that they reach the floor like ugly, misshapen columns.
Fury seizes my heart as I look upon the destruction. However long ago it was, the memories of betrayal are perfectly preserved in my mind's eye. Celestia... Luna... I see them as if they are standing before me even now, their forms twisted and mutated to match their greed and lust for power. It was not enough for them to govern the passage of day and night, they had to rob me of my throne as well!
A shriek of rage erupts from my throat, making the palace tremble as my talons rip through one of those columns. A pillar of ice thicker than my body is sliced to pieces which slide apart and tumble to the floor.
In this way, though the walls of the palace have since melted into warped sheets of ice, I am able to carve my way out. A blast of crisp Winter air blows over my face once I create a pathway to the open air. Above, a blanket of thick clouds act as a shield between me and the hateful moon.
All around, blankets of snow cover the land, but already I can feel the first stirrings of Spring. This will not do. I will not have what is mine stolen away again so soon after my return. But first, I must disarm those who would imprison me again.
I take wing and soar through the air on the Winter wind, which guides me south. South, where I feel the thrum of the Elements of Harmony.
And if I cannot have them, then I will destroy those who bear them.
It was shortly before dawn as Rarity looked out her window, a mug of hot chocolate steaming on the windowsill beside her. Her horn glowed faintly as she used her magic to tie her long purple hair into a braided ponytail, just as she had every morning for years, to the point that she no longer had to think consciously about it much. This practiced routine allowed her to focus more on what was really important. Outside, snow still covered the land for one last day before the ponies of Ponyville would clear it away to start spring. In theory, at least, considering the town's track record for the past ten years, but this was still her last chance to see such a pristine and unsullied view of a snow-covered Ponyville until the next winter.
It was a thing of purity and beauty. The street lamps illuminated the whole town, reflecting off of the blanket of snow covering everything. This made it all look like the town was painstakingly crafted from spun glass by a master artisan. Even the Everfree Forest off in the distance had the appearance of an arrangement of delicate crystals rather than the wild and anarchic expanse that it actually was.
It's views like this that make it all worth it, she thought to herself, levitating the mug of cocoa up to her lips. From my own land, in a house that I can be proud to share with my little sister when our parents are away. How did I ever get so lucky? Said land was a few acres in the rocky hills just a mile out from Ponyville. Underneath the layers of snow that blanketed the fields, the rocks she had gathered the previous autumn were sleeping in a carefully arranged pattern that would help the inherent magic flowing through the earth to grow the gems and minerals within once Spring kicked off.
While she savored the view and her drink, the farmer heard one of the upstairs doors quietly creak open as light, sleepy little hoofsteps made their way downstairs. Hoofsteps that were followed by the bipedal gait of the third occupant of the house.
Rarity looked over her shoulder as the two shambled down to the bottom of the stairs. "Good morning, Sweetie Belle. Good morning, Spike. What got you two out of bed so early?"
"Smelled choc'lit..." the baby dragon replied with a yawn. Rarity couldn't help but smile with pride and astonishment at how quickly the little guy was maturing. Only a few months old, and already he had the vocabulary of a young foal. Fortunately for the two of them, the farmer had made enough to share, as evidenced by mugs that were being kept warm on top of the fireplace. Reaching out with her magic, she levitated the cocoa over to the little ones.
"Thanks, sis," Sweetie Belle said as the mug was placed on the floor in front of her. She blew on it a few times to cool it before carefully picking the mug up with her hooves so she could take a few delicate sips.
Spike, on the other hoof, simply picked the hot mug up with his claws and started slurping it down. Kickstarted by the warmth in his belly and the sugar starting to reach his system, as well as sporting a rather impressive chocolate mustache, Spike let out a happy sigh that turned into a burp halfway.
The unicorn sisters giggled a little as Spike licked the cocoa off of his upper lip. "So, today's the big day," Rarity said, turning from the window to face them. "The mayor's put me in charge of making nests for the southern birds this Winter Wrap-Up, so can I count on you to help?"
Sweetie Belle and Spike both shouted, "Yay!" Then Spike asked, "What's Win'er Wrap-Up?"
Applejack took care as she stepped off the train. The steps and platform were swept clear of snow and ice, but she reminded herself that one couldn't be too careful. After all, Spring hadn't begun yet. That was a big part of her reason for coming back to Ponyville. Once all four hooves were on the platform, the orange earth pony looked around. Her sharp green eyes drank in the sight of the town as it was just before dawn. A version of her former home that she had seen so rarely after her foalhood excursion to Manehattan had shown the young mare her true potential and purpose in life.
By no means did that mean she could no longer appreciate the sights around her, though. This view that most of Ponyville was still sleeping through, so nostalgic to her foalhood, was less like something left behind, and more like a secret whispered between old friends. It didn't matter that she had left a young apple farmer and returned wearing a luxurious winter coat styled so that as practical as it was, it actually wouldn't look out of place in an executive board room. Nor did the worth of the emerald earrings sparkling in the firefly light of the lamps illuminating the station. She had determined months ago that while Manehattan was her home, she would never, ever again ignore the place that Ponyville had in her heart.
While she gazed out across the slumbering town, the silence was interrupted by a soft pattering of hooves against the taut skin of a drum. The businessmare was startled for a moment, but then smiled widely as she turned to face the drummer.
"Home again, home again
No one's dancing a jig
There may seem no way out
From the holes that we dig
The wind lashes and bites
And the snow piles up
You don't know whether it or your heart
Will be first to stop
But fear not the winter
And its cold frosty sting
It's in friendship and laughter
You find the first seeds of Spring.
Wearing her trademark black turtleneck and beret that clashed hard with her pink coat and mane, the earth pony drummer stared straight ahead with a blank, melancholy expression. Long pink bangs hung flatly down one side of her face, but she tapped out a rhythm on her bongo drum that the businessmare eventually recognized as a Hearth's Warming Eve carol. And she might not have been smiling, but Applejack could swear that the pink in her coat and mane looked more vibrant than she remembered.
"Pinkamena! Oh, it's so good to see you, darling," Applejack said, walking over to give her friend a hug. One that was returned by the typically mopey mare. She then held Pinkamena at foreleg length and asked, "But what in Equestria are you doing out here? Aren't you freezing?"
"Nah, I'm good," the pink poet pony replied, tugging a little on her sweater. "Good thick turtleneck. Besides, it used to get a lot colder back on the rock farm. Plus, I figured somepony should be around to greet you."
Applejack cocked her head at that. "Greet me? But I never sent word that I was arriving. I wanted it to be a surprise, so even my family didn't know." When the poet simply gave her an enigmatic look and shrugged, Applejack narrowed her eyes. "Pinkamenaaaaa..."
Before she could reproach Pinkamena or demand a more concrete answer, though, the poet reached under her beret and pulled out a flask. She then popped it open and stuck it under Applejack's nose, hitting her nostrils with a scent that stunned her so hard that she immediately plopped down onto her flanks and stared at it as if it were a sapphire statue autographed by Daring Do herself. "Is... is that...?"
"Apple cider," Pinkamena replied. "I figured even though they don't know you're here, you should get to celebrate your arrival with a little Apple family hospitality."
Applejack gingerly took the flask into her own hooves. It certainly wasn't ladylike, or befitting a mare of her wealth and social standing, but her mouth was hanging open. She had been to wine-tasting parties featuring priceless vintages that were centuries old. She had even joined the Royal Sisters themselves in celebrating the return of Princess Luna with a bottle that had been painstakingly preserved through generation after generation since the year she was cast into her thousand-year slumber. That bottle had been the absolute last of its kind, never to be savored again by the tongue of any pony but those who had been in that room, and of those ponies only two had been alive long enough to identify the long-vanished vineyard from which it came.
Toward that bottle of wine, Applejack had only been able to muster up a fraction of the reverence she felt for the flask of cider in her hooves. She lifted it up to her lips and took a long pull of the sweet nectar. It was like drinking liquid sunshine with a hint of cinnamon, driving away the winter cold as she rolled it around in her mouth. Eventually, she swallowed and let out a soft, drawn out sigh of bliss.
"Pinkamena... you beautiful, brilliant mare... you are the very best friend I could ever ask for."
"I know," the poet replied, slinging her bongo across her back. "Isn't it sad?"
By way of response, Applejack offered the flask back to Pinkamena. "Only if you don't have a drink with me. And you simply must tell me what's been happening around town since I was here last!"
A third voice said, "Awww, that's sweet." This voice belonged to the porter she had hired back in Manehattan to carry her luggage for her. A smallish, gangly unicorn trembling from both the cold and the weight of the many bags and suitcases that were piled onto his back. Despite the strain, though, he said, "Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt, Ms. Applejack."
The businessmare gave him a stern look, but just for a moment before offering him the flask. "Well, why don't you have a sip yourself, and then we can get those bags to the hotel?"
The smile of gratitude and relief on the unicorn's face was exceeded only by the way his eyes lit up when he got his first taste of Sweet Apple Acres cider.
Even though the sky was still completely shrouded by thick clouds, Twilight knew that Celestia was raising the sun right at that moment. Most ponies let the movement of the celestial bodies define their schedules, but for one who's family was as close to the Princess as her's was, she had internalized the idea that it was the other way around. She walked down the street in a warm coat and scarf, carefully counting the doors while a checklist floated in the air beside her with a quill pen poised over the first box. This list was only one of several scrolls in her possession, the rest sticking out of her saddlebags.
"Priority 1: Wake Fluttershy," she read aloud, even though she had been the one to write it in the first place. She then stopped in front of the small two-story house that she was looking for and approached the door. Lifting up a hoof she carefully and deliberately knocked on it with what she hoped was the proper amount of force. Just loud enough to be heard by the occupants, but not so much as to wake their neighbors.
Assuming, of course, that they weren't such heavy sleepers that 'loud enough to wake them up' crossed over into the 'wake the neighbors' threshold. What would she do then? She was determined not to cause a disturbance, but what if there was no other option? She hadn't worked out a contingency plan! That was such a rookie mistake, so why hadn't she thought about it? Some 'strategist' she was, if she couldn't even plan for something as simple as knocking on a door--
--Which opened up while she was just entering the 'muttering to herself' phase of self-recrimination. On the other side, a hulking, bipedal bovine with a ring through his nose loomed over her from the shadows inside the house.
He then opened the door wider, smiling down at the unicorn. "Good morning, Lieutenant Sparkle! Come on in. What can Iron Will do for you?" He hobbled out of her way on one leg and a crutch, the other leg wrapped up in a cast, and closed the door behind her once she was inside.
"I'm off-duty right now, Will. You can just call me Twilight," she replied, grateful to find that the minotaur already had a fire going to warm the house up. She pulled her coat off and set it on a nearby hook. "Is Fluttershy up? I needed to talk to her about something of the utmost importance."
"Utmost importance?" Fluttershy's soft, sweet voice drifted down to them as the pink-haired pegasus made her way down the stairs. Fluttering over toward them, she gave her husband a morning kiss on the cheek that somehow still had the power to make the boisterous minotaur blush like a teenager on his first date. She then landed in front of Twilight and asked, "How bad is it?"
"It's horrible," Twilight replied earnestly. "I found out that Ponyville has a dark secret. Something horrible is going to happen today unless you and I are able to stop it."
"Oh my," the pegasus replied, putting a hoof up to her mouth in concern. "Is Eclipse going to come back somehow?!"
Twilight's eyes widened, and she shuddered at the thought. "Sun and moon, NO!"
Iron Will asked, "The schoolteacher is a vampire?"
Before Twilight could reply, Fluttershy interjected, "The spa is the conversion center for a doomsday cult?"
"The stallion who runs the apple farm is a part-time bounty hunter?"
"Ooh, you found out about Pinkamena's torture dungeon, didn't you?"
Twilight shook her head furiously and snapped, "No, no, no... What?! No! I just found out last night that for the last ten years, Ponyville's Winter Wrap-Up has been... tardy!" There was a moment following this declaration in which Twilight looked back and forth between Fluttershy and her husband, and the unicorn felt her cheeks heat up with mild embarassment. "And... you two already knew, and you're just messing with me right now, aren't you?"
Fluttershy giggled softly and put a foreleg across her friend's back. "Just a little. Rarity told us about a week or so ago, and we got the feeling you would get wound up about it."
Twilight let out a sigh, feeling a little mortified over how big a deal she had been about to make over the town's tardiness. Hanging her head low, she put a hoof over her face and groaned. "Yeah. Right. Sorry, guys, I should've realized how stupid that was, so I'll just go and--"
Twilight was nearly bowled back by Iron Will's sudden outburst, and probably would have been if not for the pegasus being right there beside her. The minotaur thumped his crutch against the floor and stuck his chest out as he proclaimed, "Iron Will and Fluttershy are more than happy to assist you in whatever you need to make Winter Wrap-up a success!"
"That's right," Fluttershy added, giving the unicorn a friendly nuzzle. "We know how important it is to you to do your best at whatever you do. And it's good to want to excel! Not to mention what it would do for the spirits of everypony in town to start Spring on time. Just remember to keep a little perspective. After all, we've already been through situations where the fate of the world actually did hang in the balance, and we got through it just fine!"
Twilight smiled gratefully. As usual, Fluttershy seemed to know just what to say to head off one of her entirely-too-frequent panic attacks. It was a little ironic that in the absence of the discipline and structure she had been immersed in for nearly half her life, it was a pegasus that kept her grounded, but considering the Element that she represented...
"YES!" This time, both ponies actually were knocked backward by the force of Iron Will's exuberance as he hobbled over to the next room over where the couple had a writing desk. After putting a pair of tiny reading glasses on, the minotaur cracked his knuckles and picked up a quill pen so he could start furiously scribbling down some notes. "That's gotta go in the book! Hmm... 'If you've already proven you're tough, you don't have to sweat the small stuff!' Yeah, that's a good start."
Getting themselves back up on their hooves, the ponies looked on as Iron Will wrote. Then they looked at each other and broke out in a shared quiet giggle.
"So you and Will are going to be ready to help out when things get started? I already spent the morning working up a plan for how to organize the teams for maximum efficiency, so with you two providing moral support and filling in some of the gaps..."
"Of course," Fluttershy replied, clearing some space on the living room's coffee table so that Twilight could unfurl some of the scrolls she brought. Sketched out maps of the town, along with diagrams and schedules for each of the tasks that would need to be accomplished in order to officially kick off Spring. Looking over the detailed plans, Fluttershy's eyes skimmed over them. "Wow, you did all this just this morning? You've got objectives lined up for everypony in Ponyville. Even..."
"Rainbow Dash! It's time to wake! Get out of bed, for goodness sake!"
There was another round of banging on the door of the cottage Rainbow Dash called home. The cyan pegasus groaned and tried to drown it out by burying her head under her pillow. "Errrgh... leave me alone! It's still Winter for one more day. And considering it's Ponyville, probably more."
In response to that, a cloud of glowing green powder drifted into the cottage through a small gap under the door. It drifted toward the bed and took the shape of Zecora, the zebra standing outside the door. With her voice, the simulacra boomed, "Ponies do not hibernate! Just how much longer should I wait? I would not be out here making such a ruckus if I was not freezing off my tuchus."
Rainbow Dash groaned again, but this time in defeat as she rolled out of bed and kept the blessedly warm blankets wrapped around her body as she walked through the illusion of her mentor and made her way to the door. After opening it up to let Zecora inside, the pegasus glanced at the sky and asked, "Sorry, Teach, but why are you even hanging around? Don't you know the sun's still down?"
Zecora stepped inside, her stern tone melting along with the dusting of snow that had covered her traveling cloak. She pulled her hood back, her stiff mohawk of a mane springing back into place as she leaned in to give Rainbow Dash a friendly nuzzle. "I need an excuse to see my pupil? We haven't spoken much since you moved to Ponyville."
Dash sighed a little, but it didn't take much to get her to return the gesture of affection to her mentor. "I know, I just got caught up with settling in after Waking Night and the whole Eclipse thing, and then by the time I was done it was the middle of Winter, and once Spring kicks off and the animals wake up..." She saw the look in Zecora's eyes and quickly realized she wasn't going to get away with making excuses. Her head dipped down and she said, "Sorry, I'll make time."
Dash then glanced back up, noticing the bags under the zebra's eyes. "Say, Teach, are you feeling okay?"
Zecora gave the pegasus a thin smile as she took a seat on the floor. "I have been finding it difficult to sleep."
"You ever try counting sheep?"
This earned Dash a weary laugh from the zebra. "Indeed I have, even though you jest. But it has done little to end my unrest." Seating herself in a posture of meditation that made even the limber pegasus's joints ache in sympathy, Zecora took a few deep breaths and cast her gaze off somewhere distant, as if seeing something miles away through the walls of her cottage. "I have the same dream every night. Of Equestria lost in endless white. All the land trapped beneath the snow, and from above I hear the cries of the Windigoes."
Dash shivered slightly under her blanket. Every schoolfilly knew about the Windigoes from Hearth's Warming Eve stories and tales of Equestria's founding, but unlike most schoolfillies, she had good cause to suspect that they were more than just tall tales. Not to mention enough experience with spiritual monstrosities to vastly prefer facing things that would go down if you just bucked them in the face hard enough. "But that's just a bad dream, right Teacher? Ever since we stopped Eclipse, there hasn't been enough strife and conflict to feed those creatures."
Zecora smiled again as she meditated. "That is indeed how it seems. And I hope they are nothing but bad dreams. Nevertheless, it would ease my mind if you would allow me to join you today. Would you be so kind?"
Dash blinked in surprise. It wasn't like her mentor to ask such a thing. It almost felt like a foal asking her parents to sleep with them after having a bad nightmare. No, actually, it was more like the other way around. That was even more worrying than the description of the dream itself. Nevertheless, Dash laughed it off and gave Zecora a playful punch on the shoulder. "Hey, of course. I guess that's sort of in my job description now, anyway, so stick around as long as you need to." Besides, even if Ponyville kept up its streak of being sloppy with Winter Wrap-Up, they'd still get it taken care of in a couple of days and then there'd be no threat of eternal winter or anything of the sort.
Still, Dash was starting to think that it wouldn't hurt if she volunteered to pitch in this year. A show of solidarity with her new community.
They are gathering now. I can see the glow of their bodies through the clouds. Feel the warmth of their hearts burning against my skin even now. And the six-who-are-one burn the most painfully. The Elements of Harmony no longer belong to the Sun and Moon, but to these little ponies congregating in the center of town to bring back the Spring.
They must be stopped.
I will freeze them. Mind, body and soul. I will snuff out the flames of their hearts, seize the Elements, and take back the throne of Winter before they can awaken Spring.
They will never take it from me again. I will see this world encased in ice before they do.