The group of four approached the throne room.
“So, that was all just an illusion? You know, the sewers?” Dash asked. “It looked and felt so real.”
Rarity was downcast, but she tried to raise the group’s spirits. “We should hurry and find Applejack. I’m certain she’s alright; after all, who knows if this place is anything like the real Equestria?”
Fluttershy was shaken at the loss of Applejack. She bit back sadness and tried to swallow her fear going forward. We know we can fail now, she thought. We had better be more careful as we move on.
The eerie path floating in empty space slowly broke away as the quartet cantered down the amber path. Well... guess we’re not going back there, Pinkie thought, solemnly glancing back at Applejack’s illusion.
They made their way back to the palace to see another verse written on the floor.
Never give in to your Arrogance
While trying to solve and pass your test.
All those who fall to her whims and desires
Regret the day they said they’re the best.
Dash resisted the urge to spit on the carpet. Applejack isn’t like that at all. I blame Verba’s magic for making her take the jump. Dash ushered the group forward.
There wasn’t much speech as the group made their way across the empty island that surrounded them.
I feel really weird all of a sudden, Dash thought as she absently chose the bright crimson path, which was the closest. There’s a tightness in my chest, but I don’t know why.
Dash was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice her surroundings slowly changing. The black abyss that once forbade her now welcomed her with a soft blue color. The gravelly, rock-hard ground transformed into grass, and the blue sky was swept over with a carpet of stars, all glittering daintily. It was a wide-open plain with calm skies and dotted clouds.
“You’re here.” A voice next to Dash observed.
“Huh?” Dash responded, turning around. She saw a shadowy pony, similar to the one that Applejack had encountered, except that this one’s face was completely barred from view by a black fog that swirled around its head. It had an ominous and uneasy air about it.
“Now, you must decide,” the figure stated.
“Wait, who are you, again?” Dash asked.
“I am the sum of your doubts and fears. I am what you assume to be true, and what you disregard as obviously false,” the pony said. A shimmering white gate opened behind it, and a young filly galloped out. She was a bright orange pegasus with a spiky purple mane, similar to how Dash’s hairstyle. Her eyes lit up when she saw Dash.
“Scootaloo?” Dash asked in shock.
“Dash!” Scootaloo exclaimed, bounding up to her idol. “Where have you been? It’s been, like, two forevers!”
“But I was only gone a couple hours... wasn’t I?” Dash asked.
Scootaloo shook her head. “No, more like a few days. But it’s okay, because I found you, and you can go home now!”
Dash looked at the shadowy visage that stood stalwartly by its gate. “Wait, I can actually leave now? For real?”
The pony stared at her, wisps of smoke travelling from its forehead. “Leave through the gate, and you will find yourself back where you belong. Where that truly is, I cannot say, for I do not know.”
“That’s easy; I belong right back in Ponyville! ...Maybe with a Wonderbolt uniform, but I kind of want to earn it, so you can save that until later,” Dash said, turning around. “Let me just go get my friends and tell them the news. I’ll be back here in ten seconds, tops.”
“What about Applejack, and Twilight?” the figure asked. Its expression was invisible, but Dash thought there was a smug edge to its tone. “Leave now, and they will be trapped forever in the Void.”
Dash stomped her hoof. “Fine, I’ll go save them, then I’ll come back.”
“There is no guarantee that she’ll be saved,” the pony warned. “Why not save what friends you have left when you have the chance?”
“Because I don’t leave anypony behind!” Dash retorted. She glanced at Scootaloo. “You’d better get back home until I finish up here.”
“But I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Scootaloo protested. “What’ll I tell the others? They’ll never believe me if I told them you were staying; some of ‘em already think that you’ve abandoned them, but I’d never give up on finding you!”
Dash gave Scootlaoo a noogie. “You never would. Trust me, Scoot; it won’t take too long to get in and out of here.”
“But if you stay, you could... you could...” Scootaloo wiped her eyes. “I-If you don’t come back, then I’ll go with you!”
Dash looked in her eyes, smiling slightly. “Scootaloo, you need to stay safe with your friends, and I need to protect mine. I’m not going to abandon you or anypony else in Ponyville, but... I can’t abandon Twilight or Applejack, either. I’ll be back before you know it, okay? Trust me.”
Scootaloo nodded shakily. Looking back once more, she stepped through the shimmering white doorway.
“Is this your final decision?” the mysterious gatekeeper asked.
“Yeah, it is. Now where are my friends?” Dash asked.
She felt a sharp pain in her forehead as her mind readjusted to her surroundings. Ow! Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow! She stumbled backward, but was greeted by her friends.
“Bra-vo, Dashie,” Verba said as he slowly pieced himself together nearby. “That test isn’t too easy nowadays. Maybe you have a chance after all.”
“Glad you think so,” Dash grumbled, rubbing her forehead.
Verba glanced around. “Guess there’s nothing left for me here. Enjoy your tests.”
He turned to leave, but Dash said, “Wait, I want some answers first.”
Verba didn’t bother to face her. “Look, unless you beat me at Friday night’s blackjack, I don’t owe you anything.”
“I’m navigating your Void, I’m beating your tests, and I’m playing your game,” Dash argued. “Just give me a few answers in return! ..Please,” she added. “I need to know.”
“...Hmph,” Verba said, finally turning to face the group. “So you do know your manners. Honestly, it wouldn’t have surprised me if you were raised by Diamond Dogs. Fine, then. One question and one question only.”
Dash bristled at Verba’s remark, but managed to keep her tongue in check. “Where’s Applejack?”
“Um, duh?” Verba scratched his head. “Didn’t I already tell you? She’s being kept at the Submaster’s.”
“Where’s that?” Dash asked.
Verba snorted. “Wait, you actually want to go out there? Your wings would fall off before you even got out of the Void, and the Submaster isn’t even in the regular Equestria.”
“Just tell me!” Dash exclaimed, exasperated.
“It won’t matter too much in the end,” Verba shrugged. “And jeez, Dash, she’s only in temporary custody. Hear that? Temporary. If Fluttershy and Rarity both pass their tests, sure, you’ll have a few red Xs on your report card, but Applejack’ll be delivered to your hooves safe and sound.”
“We have to keep moving forward, Dash!” Pinkie urged, tugging on Dash’s shoulder. “The sooner we teach these big meanies who’s boss, the sooner we can have Applejack and Twilight back!”
“See?” Verba asked. “All’s well that ends well. And, uh, good luck, ‘cause you’ll need it,” he added before breaking down and floating up into the sky.
Dash waited for a few moments before saying, “I guess that’s that.” She sighed, flexing her wings. “You’re right, Pinkie. Applejack really is only a few short tests away.”
“I... I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough, Dash,” Fluttershy mumbled.
Dash looked back at Fluttershy, not hearing her statement. “What, Fluttershy? I didn’t hear you.”
“How are we supposed to make it out of here? M-My test could be next, and... and I think I might let you down,” she continued, biting her lip.
“Fluttershy, there’s no way you can let us down now!” Dash exclaimed. “Look, just don’t worry about it. Don’t let Verba get to you.”
“Dash is right; don’t overthink this,” Rarity cautioned.
“B-...But how am I supposed t-to pass?” Fluttershy asked, trembling. “How am I going to convince Verba that I’m worthy?”
“Well, if it’s a test of worthiness, you have nothing in all of Equestria to worry about, Fluttershy!” Pinkie encouraged. “All you have to do is be you, and Verba’ll see that you’re the best pony he ever met!”
“...But what if I don’t?” Fluttershy finally asked.
Dash put a hoof on her shoulder. “You will. Trust me. I know a winner when I see one.”
They sat for a moment, trying to collect themselves.
“What now?” Rarity asked. “Are we actually going to play into this lunatic’s hooves?”
“No choice,” Dash sighed. “It’s not like we have any real power in this whole thing.”
“I miss home,” Fluttershy sniffed. “I-It’s been too long.”
“I know,” Dash admitted. “But we don’t have any choice but to keep going.”
Fluttershy was unhappy. She halfheartedly wove her way back along the empty, crumbling crimson path. Her hooves dragged behind her as if she were trapped in a thick bog of guilt and hidden frustration.
I don’t blame her, Rarity thought. Her outburst earlier must be eating away at her. Not to mention that she may be tested next. I may be tested next as well, for that matter.
I can’t even seem to cheer her up; she’s just not paying attention, Pinkie thought, a tad miffed after Fluttershy shrugged off a hug. She’s been awful cranky lately, too. I wonder if that’s because of Verba.
There was a new verse on the floor.
You’ve finished the trial of Deception;
A harder test does not exist.
Remember the lesson taught to you:
Every doubt, you must resist.
They paused, thinking over their situation and preparing themselves for the next test.
“Girls?” Fluttershy finally asked, staring at the mysterious poem. “What if I’m tested, and I fail? What will happen to me?”
“You’ll do great, Fluttershy,” Dash reassured her. “I’m sure you’ll be in and out in five minutes, tops.”
“There isn’t a single drop of malice in your heart, darling,” Rarity added. “Just relax and prepare yourself. There’s still a chance I’ll be tested first, anyway.”
“You’ll do super, Fluttershy! I’ll bet my tail on it!” Pinkie exclaimed. “When you’re tested, make sure you show that mean ol’ Verba how it’s done!”
I wish I felt better, Fluttershy sighed to herself, but I can’t really help but feel like I just can’t win. But I want some answers, too, so I’ll ace this test! ...At least, well, I’ll try...
The shadowy aura that surrounded the group started to fluctuate suddenly as a harsh tune flowed through the air. Tremors rippled through the ground as cracks appeared in the pathway. Black vapor flowed upward from the cracks and started to form translucent shapes resembling legs and manes.
What...? Dash thought, poking some of the translucent white sludge. It was deathly cold, so cold that Dash’s hoof burned from frostbite. Youch!
The quake increased as the shadowy forms started to take shape. Pinkie stumbled a bit, trying to gain her balance as more and more black vapor started to seep out of the earth.
“Wh-What’s going on now?!” Rarity yelped as pieces of the island started to break away.
Fluttershy reeled back in fright. Shadowy apparitions of ponies had started to form and attack the group, their blank and lifeless eyes full of deathly pain as they slogged along. Pale-skinned and dripping with luminous fluid, they stumbled toward the group.
“Run!” Dash yelled, racing around the ghostly figures to the pink path. Rarity followed, and Pinkie was about to before she saw Fluttershy paralyzed with fright.
Pinkie ran up to Fluttershy and nipped the yellow pegasus sharply on the ear. “C’mon!”
Fluttershy snapped out of her fear and almost tripped before taking off for her life. The zombies were amassing in strength and number as black knights began to take shape from the vapor. The ghostly ponies seemed to be just as fast, if not faster, than the Elements as they quickly made up lost ground. Their bloodshot eyes and starving bodies pounded after the group.
“Of all the things!” Rarity complained as she narrowly dodged a zombie biting at her leg. To buy the white unicorn time, Dash leapt up, did a backflip, and slammed on the aggressor's chest. It dissolved into a pile of white goo. It was so cold, however, that Dash’s limbs stopped functioning for a moment. The blue pegasus stumbled before falling down. “Get out of here!” she screamed.
“No!” Pinkie yelled, slinging the disabled pegasus onto her back before taking off at her fastest possible gallop. They were heading fast down the light pink path that was starting to break away.
The extra weight on Pinkie’s back weighed her down, however, so she quickly fell behind and was absorbed by the approaching mob. Had she had any breath to spare, Rarity would have cried out, NO! Instead, she panted frantically as she tried to escape the mob.
Fluttershy had become airborne and was desperately trying to dodge the dark pegasus knights that were assaulting her. The yellow pegasus looked down for a moment to see Rarity starting to fail, her tireless adversaries gaining quickly.
“Rarity!” Fluttershy called, diving down and swooping upward with the white unicorn. Fluttershy wasn’t strong enough, however, and soon she had to land on the desert at the end of the pink path.
Fluttershy took off running, but Rarity was too worn out. The white unicorn finally met her doom at the hooves of the undead equines.
Suddenly, dark fire swept all of the ghostly apparitions aside. Fluttershy turned around to see a scrawny green unicorn stallion.
The new pony snickered at Fluttershy. Rain started to cascade over a dirty desert road, which was located square in the middle of nowhere. Long-dead cacti withered by the side of the road, and the scorched earth steamed when the rain contacted it.
“You are, by far, the most useless pegasus I’ve ever seen,” the stallion chuckled as thunder boomed in the distance. He shifted some of his shaggy blond mane back behind his ear. “I mean, you completely abandoned your friends right there. It takes some guts to pull a stunt like that.”
“Wh-Who are you?” Fluttershy asked, shrinking away from the pony as lightning flashed in the distance.
“Well, Imma put it straight, Flutters,” the colt laughed. “I’m your only friend.”
“What do you mean?” Fluttershy asked hesitantly, her mane beginning to become soaked by the icy rain.
“I mean, s’not like any of your friends over there are gonna like you too much after what you just did,” he smirked. “I know I wouldn’t. I’d want you gone.”
“No, my friends aren’t like that,” Fluttershy whimpered.
“Well, weak and powerless as you are, I guess they’d be pretty understanding,” the stallion shrugged. “But whatevs. You’re pretty much dead to them now. Makes me wonder what I’d do if I put myself in that bad a situation.”
Fluttershy shivered from the cold of the rain. Strands of her pink mane started to fall over her face and stick to her snout as warm tears rolled down her face.
“I mean, look at you. Here you are, in the freezing rain, not even making an effort to go and find them. Pretty pathetic if you ask me,” he continued, walking over to Fluttershy. “‘Course, your friends weren’t too useful, either.”
Fluttershy looked away. “Say whatever you want. I don’t care about myself anymore.”
“Huh,” he observed. “Takes nerve to say something like that. I should know; I don’t care ‘bout anypony. Anyways, speaking of guts, I got some right here.”
The colt stomped his hoof on the ground twice. An awful ripping sound was heard as space above the road tore in two and flapped about in the wind. A dirty and injured blue pegasus fell out of the resulting gap, too weak to move.
“D-Dash?” Fluttershy asked, racing over to the limp pegasus. The colt swatted Fluttershy aside, and she went rolling across the muddy desert floor.
“Fl-Fluttershy...” Dash breathed, stretching out a hoof to the sopping yellow pegasus, too weak to move. She could barely open her eyes. “Help me...!”
“Let’s see how long you play the pacifist after I snap this little twig here,” the colt grinned, stepping on Dash’s leg. She screamed in pain.
“Don’t hurt her!” Fluttershy cried. “Please, I’ll do anything!”
“Too little, too late, Flutters,” he smirked, stepping on Dash again and earning another scream. “You coulda saved her, y’know. Little Dashie right here’s probably wishing you were a little tougher.”
Dash’s life was vanishing right before Fluttershy’s eyes. Reddish-brown rainwater drizzled down into cracks in the desert dirt. “Fluttershy...” Dash murmured before losing consciousness.
“Please...” Fluttershy sobbed.
“Pathetic,” the stallion growled. “Where’s your fire? Your determination? It’s not even there! Not that your friends are any better. I’d almost say they were even more worthless than you are. But that’s impossible, ‘cause they’re dead.”
Thunder boomed. Flutteshy slowly stood up, her will solidifying. “You had better watch what you say about my friends, mister!”
The colt scoffed. “Oh, so the big, bad Fluttershy is gonna huff and puff my house down? Give me a break! I’ve dealt with jokes like you before; usually, they run home crying to momma. That is, if they even have one by the time I’m done with ‘em.”
“Stop it!” Fluttershy said defensively. I’ve had enough of this! “I j-just... I just wa-want to find my way home!”
“Wait, you have a home?” he asked. “How do you even pay for it? You look pretty un-hireable.”
“Sh-Shut up!” Fluttershy shivered, intensely frustrated with the stallion. The coldness of her frigid bones was matched by the heat of her increasing fury.
Lightning struck just behind the colt, and he yelled as the ground opened up beneath him. He grasped the first hoofhold he saw and desperately tried to save himself from the bottomless pit, clawing his way upward as rain fell down his face.
Fluttershy hurriedly trotted over, seeing that the colt was struggling to pull himself out. “Help,” he begged. “I-I don’t want to die like this!” She was about to help him, but she paused.
If I help him... If I help him, he’ll keep on hurting Dash! He’ll keep on hurting me! She peered over the edge of the gap and stared into the colt’s frightened eyes, wondering what to do. Finally, she slowly turned and walked away. I... I can't help him... I just can't. I can’t risk my friend’s life for somepony else.
The colt screamed as he lost his grip and fell into the infinite abyss.
The ground started to crack and splinter. Fluttershy looked up to see the stars getting bigger. No... they’re not getting bigger; they’re getting closer! She gasped and looked around. Dash was gone, and the pit was widening. She tried to take to the air, but the pounding rain disoriented her and she was forced back onto the ground.
Darkness overtook her.
Verba shook his head. The illusion vanished, and Fluttershy’s remaining friends were released from behind an invisible wall. They had not been restrained; they had full mobility except for the barrier that had separated them from Fluttershy.
Dash had bruises all over her legs from attempting to break through, and one of her wings was bent at an odd angle. She hung her head in unfathomable sorrow and loss.
Rarity was crying; she could not bear to think that another of her friends was gone. There were so few of us already…
Pinkie Pie’s hair had straightened out, instead of being its usually bouncy and bubbly nature. It only did so when she was incredibly sad, and in this case, even more so, for it was a paler pink than usual. All of the happiness had been drained out of her life in an instant.
Verba rolled his eyes. “Jeez Louise, are you mares soft. Kinda sickening, really. How’re you supposed to save millions of lives if you can’t even save your own? If you can’t just have mercy and save one?”
“Sickening?” Dash asked, tears streaking her face. “You know what’s really sickening? The fact that you just killed our best friend!” she yelled.
“Um, reality check,” Verba said. “Temporary confinement. Got it memorized? She’s not dead.”
“Not yet!” Dash yelled. “You’re not going to stop until she is! Until we all are!”
“You fillies are a dime a dozen,” Verba scoffed. “Cut the drama and face facts. You’ve still got a chance with your little fashionista over there. Stop whining and get on with it, will you?”
“You’re a liar!” Dash screamed. Her fury was akin to Fluttershy’s in its magnitude and force.
Verba burst out laughing, and loose runes scattered over the dirt. “Look at you! You’re falling to the exact same fault that your friend just did! C’mon, Dashie, haven’t you learned a thing?”
Pinkie sat down in defeat. “Why, though? Why are you putting us through this?”
“Not my decision. I just carry out the Submaster’s orders. But, y’know, his orders are kinda vague when you get right down to it,” Verba explained, scratching the back of his neck. “He wants to prepare you. There’s a lot more use and abuse waiting for you out in the real Equestria. But if you can’t survive this, then you’re not worth keeping around, get it?”
“You wanna know what I think?” Dash asked, her fury starting to condense and harden. “I think that this is all one big sham to torture us! What did you expect Fluttershy to do, let him go?! She reacted just like anypony else would!”
Verba raised an eyebrow. “Wait, you expect the Element of Kindness to be ‘just like everypony else?’ Get real. She’s above and beyond the scope of an ordinary pony. I mean, if she’s going to survive the dangers out there in the real world, she kind of, um, has to be.”
“Says who?!” Dash screamed. “She watched me die! Kindness or not, she should have torn that pony limb from limb!”
“It’s kind of subjective, yknow?” Verba asked, looking away. “Look, I can’t say I know too much about the Elements of Harmony, but I do know that if the Submaster tells me to test Kindness that way, then I’m going to test her that way. Don’t freak out about it, okay?”
“...Dash?” Pinkie asked feebly. “Don’t do this.”
“And you wanna know what else?!” Dash asked, ignoring Pinkie. Her lower lip trembled with sorrow and rage. “You’re nothing but a murderer and a coward who enjoys killing innocent ponies for kicks!”
Verba looked up sharply. “Okay, that is where I draw the line! You wanna see what I do to ponies for kicks? Well here you-”
Verba swore, stomping his forehooves on the ground in frustration. “Ugh, not now!” He glared at Dash for a moment, then turned to Rarity. “Better thank your friend over there, ‘cause I’m going to make your test as hard as I possibly can!”
He broke down into fragments of glass, which shattered further into a pile of sand that blew away on the wind.
“You shouldn’t overstep your bounds,” the shadowy pony warned, stepping into view.
“You’re no better than Verba!” Dash seethed. “Get out of my sight, be-because you’re just a messed up lunatic that kills innocent ponies!” She collapsed into sobs, her anger spent.
He looked upon Dash indifferently. “I’ve saved Equestria several times over, whether you believe me or not. My purpose is to separate you from your leaders and make you independent. I will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. I’m not going to keep you on a leash, Rainbow Dash; I need to make sure you can survive without one. There are far greater foes out there than I.”
“Then tell us!” Rarity insisted. “What are we up against? What do we need to know? Celestia’s sake, why are we even here? Why are we going through this?”
“I feel that I must restate the fact that your tests are not complete yet,” the visage said sternly. “The reason your friend failed her test was because she succumbed to her anger and resentment. Pulling a stunt like that in battle is unacceptable and, more often than not, gets an innocent pony killed. My job is to make sure you learn these things now.”
Dash glared at the foggy vision. “What’s your job, really? What do you... you and Verba actually have to do to ponies like us?”
He looked away.
“Answer me!” Dash persisted. “Tell me!”
The figure turned around, his white eyes penetrating through the entire group, which had been whittled down to three. “We have to kill innocent ponies in order to save millions of others.”
“Ha! So I was right!” Dash said.
The illusion seemed to be vibrating with anger, but he somehow managed to keep himself under control. “The lives I sacrifice I do so for the greater good. Understand that. You will have to do it as well before your lives are over, mark my words.”
Dash glared at him. “So what now?”
“Do whatever you wish. There is only one of you left that needs to be tested,” he said, glancing at Rarity. “If she passes, you will all survive. If she fails, you will be forced to rely on my judgment alone. Keep in mind, though—I have control over how hard your tests are.”
“Get out of my sight,” Dash growled.
The figure looked at her scornfully. “I don’t take orders from you. Be aware that these may be the last couple hours of your natural lives. I wouldn’t waste them.” And with that, he vanished.
[Note]: I do not own anything in this story that already belongs to someone else.
This entire storyline takes place BEFORE season two, but AFTER season one.