An instant of darkness, a universe of pressure, cold and unremitting against her coat. Immobilized in a drop of cosmic amber. Then the infinite dark pulled back like the snatching of a stage curtain, Fluttershy registered the supple give of a cloud beneath her hooves—and then the eastern breeze swirled across her face.
The breeze was hot like the blast of an opened oven: dry, and impatient.
“Ugh. Twilight?” Rainbow Dash was rubbing her mane back in place some ways off. “I wish you’d told us to expect that before you popped us up here.”
Applejack’s eyes had yet to stop rolling in opposite directions, but they were getting there. ““I’m with Rainbow on this one, sugarcube. A warnin’ would’ve been appreciated.”
“Pffft. Beginners,” Pinkie Pie sang to herself as she cartwheeled around, looking for all the world as if she had not suffered anything worse than a trip to the park.
Twilight, reaching behind her head with a hesitant laugh. “Sorry about that. I guess I’ve done this before, so I didn’t think I’d needed to say anything. But look! We’re here, everypony.” The unicorn extended a hoof behind the other ponies. “Look up there.”
She was gesturing to the Lighthouse, the immense, white tower that dominated the silhouette of Flamewithers from afar. A pair of square flags, one emblazoned with the golden sun on an orange field, and the other bearing a crescent moon on royal purple, flapped like the wings of great birds from their spires at the tower’s apex. Below the flags, a great glass globe pulsed with the light cast forth from the tower’s main lantern.
Twilight's brows went flat enough to support a drink. "You'd think Princess Luna would have saved us the climb," she deadpanned. "C’mon, girls. Let’s not keep them waiting.”
Fluttershy followed her friends toward the tower with a growing lump in her throat. For having lived in Flamewithers all of her life, she had never been this close to the Lighthouse before, much less inside of it. That privilege was reserved for members of the fire patrols only.
The rest of the tower was as featureless as it was smooth down to its base, where a pair of pegasi stood watch on either side of a modest double door. The one on the left wore the golden armor typical of a Royal Guardspony over a white coat. The other one...
Thank goodness Twilight had the sense to approach the first guard. Putting on her best smile, she presented her letter for him to read. “The Princesses sent for us.”
Fluttershy dove for cover as the other guard strolled over to read the letter as well. Her other friends did not react as dramatically to his presence, but even Applejack had taken a step back—and the farmpony was among the bravest ponies the pegasus knew.
The other guard, put simply, was a monster.
He was a pegasus as well, somehow—he had a shadowy gray coat accented by a set of lavender and purple armor. But his wings were those of a bat’s, and his golden eyes reminded Fluttershy more of a dragon than a pony. The same kind of eye, except light blue, anchored the midpoint of his chestpiece just above his sternum.
Those shoes, too—they were lavender versions of the kind normal guards wore. Fluttershy was almost certain they would have revealed claws instead of hooves if they were removed.
After exchanging a few whispered words, the guards nodded to each other and separated. It was the monstrous one, however, who addressed them. “That is indeed the Princess’s writing.”
Before Fluttershy (or the rest of her friends) recovered from the unexpected quality of the guard’s voice—cold, but softly spoken and smooth and not at all like the guttering she had anticipated—both of the stallions stamped a hoof into the cloud as one, creating a booming sound like staves hammered on a hardwood floor.
The doors they guarded opened behind them—except that they were not the same doors Fluttershy had expected would open. They were merely decorations on a much larger set of doors: paired, ivory monoliths as tall as Ponyville’s town hall, indistinguishable from the rest of the tower’s external surface, and the cloud trembled as they traced their long, lethargic arcs inward.
The echoes reverberated through the tower’s interior long after the doors came to rest. It was around that time when Fluttershy realized her organs had not decomposed, but were still whole and functioning. She gasped for the breath she had forgotten to take.
“New visitors,” quipped the grey-coated guard. “Always the same.” He bared double rows of pointed teeth at Fluttershy and her friends. Only for a moment, however—his demeanor dropped swiftly back into stern authority. “The Princesses will see you now. Do not keep them waiting.”
“Thank you, uh, sirs,” stammered Twilight, gesturing everypony inside. Her swizzled brows all but asked whether it was more apropos to be fascinated by the shadowy guardspony she had just met, or revolted by him. In the end, she posed no questions to the stallion and entered the Lighthouse last.
The interior occupied about the same amount of space as Ponyville’s main square, yet the sound of every hooffall bounced several times between opposite walls before dissipating into the air. A central staircase turned in smooth coils up the middle of the tower, sending out spokes to the many walkways ringing the inner walls at intervals. More flags bearing suns and moons in alternation hung on the walls beneath great arcs of swooping fabric, all of it illuminated by the lamps posted along the terrace rails.
But the most prominent feature within the Lighthouse was the pegasus statue rising in the middle of the staircase’s turns. Rearing on one hind leg, the mare immortalized on her elevated pedestal looked ready to leap into the very cosmos itself. On her head rested a helmet styled after a dragon’s head, all aggressive spines and barbs, and her chestpiece and shoes adopted those draconic motifs as well. Her mane appeared frozen in an unending gale, and her wings flared out wide from her sides, her pinions spread like honed blades.
The plaque on the statue’s base told Rarity who she stood before. "'The Grand Marshal'.” She gazed upward, her eyes narrowed in inspection. "I must say, she looks to be quite the impressive pony."
Rainbow Dash chose to examine the statue from the many angles the air provided her. “Look at this armor. I wouldn’t care what the pay was if my job let me wear something as awesome as this. And, I’d get to call myself ‘Grand Marshal Rainbow Dash.’ Oh boy, that’s tough. That sounds just as good as ‘Wonderbolt Captain Rainbow Dash.’” The pegasus brought a hoof to her mouth and pursed her lips in thought.
“I think grand marshals would outrank captains,” Twilight quipped, leading the way up the staircase. “But I think you’d better figure out what their responsibilities are before you ask for the job.” The unicorn turned to Fluttershy. “You said you used to live here. I’m sure you’ve met the Grand Marshal before. What does she do?”
Fluttershy beat her wings once. How was she going to explain this? “Well... it’s a difficult job,” she began. “It keeps you away from your family a lot. But you have to live with that. Flamewithers is but one of several outposts protecting the Everfree Forest from dragon-made fires, and it’s the Grand Marshal’s job to organize all of the fire patrols so that the forest remains safe.” The pegasus paused. Yes, that was a good start. “She’s also responsible for writing to Canterlot every week to report on the conditions out here.”
“You mean there’s paperwork involved?” Twilight shot a smug grin at the other pegasus, who had been listening to the conversation with one hoof braced behind her ear. “Rainbow Dash, you barely complete your monthly weather records for the Mayor on time. I dunno if you’re cut out for weekly reports.”
“Who said I couldn’t have assistants? Leave me to do all the firefighting while you take care of all the updates to the Princess.” Rainbow fired off a pair of quick jabs into the air in front of her. “Everypony wins.”
Even Fluttershy joined in on the subsequent chuckling. As long as her friends walked by her side, bantering and playing off of each other, she could pretend that they had only left Ponyville for some overdue leisure time. It had not been long ago that she had visited Cloudsdale to cheer Rainbow in her competition, where she witnessed a friend fall almost to her death. Or when that buffalo-pony skirmish broke out in Appleloosa. Or when she had frightened all of the poor animals at the Grand Galloping Gala in Canterlot...
Beads of sweat emerged on the pegasus’ brow. Surely she had gone somewhere with her friends where everything had not gone to hay in a hurricane?
Lost in thought, she tripped on a step and fell flat on her face.
“Cider apples! You okay, hon?” asked Applejack, helping Fluttershy to her hooves again.
“W-why, of course,” the pegasus mumbled. “I’m just... thinking.”
Twilight nodded from the head of the group. “Thinking’s good. Oh, excellent, we’re at the top. Pardon me, sirs?”
The unicorn fetched Princess Luna’s letter from her saddlebags and floated it over to a similar pair of guards to those stationed at the Lighthouse’s base. These guards stood before a thick glass double door that looked as if it had been installed recently: the motif frosted onto its surface described the sun and moon from the flags outside super-imposed upon each other. Beyond these doors, a final staircase turned a quarter circle up to a raised platform.
This meeting proceeded quicker than the first, owing to the guards’ silence as they verified the letter’s contents and sender. Instead of stomping their hooves when they finished, the both of them simply pushed the doors inward and pointed their wings through the threshold.
Fluttershy moved with the others to catch up with Twilight. However, nopony seemed to notice the unicorn remained where she stood until Pinkie Pie crashed into her rump. Unable to avert their own tragedies, the other four collided with the first two soon afterward. A cymbal escaped Pinkie’s saddlebag and clattered across the floor.
“Hey, Twilight, what gives?” Rainbow craned her neck around the pony pile. “We’re tryin’ to move here!”
“Huh?” Being the only pony among her friends to remain on her hooves, Twilight spun around. “Oh, sorry. Here, let me help you girls up.”
Fluttershy squeaked as a magenta aura tingled across her coat. Quick as blinking, she was untangled from the other ponies, set on her hooves—and dusted off, too? The aura dissipated before she could be sure. However, she did catch Twilight stealing another look at Princess Luna’s letter while her other friends reacquainted themselves with their senses of balance.
“Twilight?” Rarity sounded like she had noticed the letter as well. “Is something wrong?”
“Wha? Oh, uh. It’s nothing.” Twilight rolled up the letter and stuffed it back into her saddlebag with a little more force than was necessary—at least to Fluttershy. The pegasus had no trouble spotting the tight, horizontal line the unicorn’s mouth had become.
“We’d best not waste any more time, then.” Applejack reminded everypony. “Y’all remember who’s waiting for us up there, right?”
With the farmpony taking the initiative to climb the stairs, Fluttershy followed after her. The pegasus passed Twilight, who still stood in the threshold, her eyes now locked on a spot on the ceiling.
No, not on the ceiling. Behind it. Above the floor on its other side. Up there, the Princesses awaited their arrival. Princess Celestia would receive them in her usual warm manner, and—
Princess Celestia. The words of the letter returned to Fluttershy’s mind. She is indisposed, but otherwise alive. However, we are not certain for how long her condition will remain stable.
Oh, dear. “You’re worried about the Princess, aren’t you?” she asked.
Because the others had gone up ahead, they had avoided having to look at Twilight’s face at that moment. Fluttershy had put that look on herself enough to recognize where it came from—the thin mouth, the huge, unblinking eyes, the folded-back ears—all the result of anticipating the worst of a new situation. Snatches of her brief stint as a fashion model, of Photo Finish forcing her upon crowds of unfamiliar ponies and their flashing cameras, crossed her mind.
“She... She’s going to want to see you, you know,” said Fluttershy, her sympathy bolstering her words with an assurance she had no right to possess. She put her hoof over Twilight’s shoulder. “Let’s head up.”
The unicorn said nothing, but the small smile dawning on her face conveyed her gratitude for her friend’s kindness well enough. Together, they climbed the stairs and joined their friends at the top, just along the western edge of the Lighthouse’s upper sanctum.
A huge brass lantern as large as a house occupied the center of the room, swathed in a swirling array of floating lenses and mirrors all at least the size of a pony, if not more, while formations of smaller lanterns circulated along the curve of the glass globe containing the room. Every pulse of the central lantern released a hum that settled against Fluttershy’s keel from the inside. An orange glow vaulted into the eastern night sky behind the lantern, but morning was still hours off yet.
“Somepony’s over there,” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, levelling a hoof toward a pacing silhouette against the orange glow. She shot off toward the pony before anypony could stop her. “Hello, somepony! My name is Pinkie Pie and I am super excited to meet you here because I always love meeting new friends—” and on she babbled as she galloped, her words per yard figure almost dense enough to condense her rambling into a literal contrail in her wake.
“—and I’m glad I brought all of these instruments with me because I totally came up with a song for you just no—” Her hooves suddenly squealed across the floor like the brakes of a racecar. “—wwwowit’snightmaremoon.”
The lantern pulsed once more, throwing the other pony’s features into sharp relief long enough for Fluttershy to recognize the essentials: the tall, elegant frame, the midnight-blue coat, the swirling mane of space and stars. Her horn tapered to a lengthy point, and her unfurled wings spread from her flanks like the terrible arc of the sky. Obsidian accents crowned her head, shoed her hooves, and encircled her collar, but it was her eyes that unsettled Fluttershy most—huge, teal-colored rounds able to track her and her other five friends all at once.
“I knew it!” cried Rainbow Dash. “You hurt the Princess, you monster!”
A thin lasso, quick and precise as a striking snake as it cinched around Rainbow’s mid-section, was the only thing that prevented the pegasus from charging the dark pony alone—though Applejack’s contracted pupils betrayed her desire to release her friend from her ropework. Somehow, some way, Nightmare Moon had risen from her defeat, had regained her powers, and was without a doubt looking for revenge.
Fluttershy fled screaming.
She had barely reached the bottom of the stairs when she jerked to a stop—only long enough to recognize the tingling on her coat—before the steps slipped out from under her as she was pulled back to the lantern room.
“Fluttershy!” Twilight’s face materialized before the pegasus’ muzzle, frowning in the magenta glow of her horn. “Girls! Hold your horses. You were all there at the old castle last year. Nightmare Moon is gone. That’s Princess Luna.”
“Miss Sparkle speaks the truth. The monster you speak of is no more. ‘Tis I, and I alone, addressing you today.”
Twilight’s head turned to the voice, apparently forgetting about the pony she was holding captive before her. The aura ceased, and Fluttershy dropped to the floor in a pile of limbs and swirling eyes.
“You’re Princess Luna?” Rainbow Dash slipped out of Applejack’s lasso with a challenging snarl.
The reclaimed royal had marched over from the other side of the room, a bouncing Pinkie Pie in tow. Every contour of her body towered over everypony with aggressive precision. “Verily, Miss Dash.” Princess Luna stopped, frowning. The gaze she swept over them was as chilly as a downdraft descending from a snowy mountain peak. “Have you all no manners? Why do you not bow before a Princess?”
Fluttershy had never gotten to her hooves so quickly, and the bow that followed came naturally—the position was not that different from cowering, really. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied the rest of her friends with their chins to the floor, though Rainbow Dash and Applejack were snorting a little louder than they needed to. A slight nod from the royal, and they were all standing again.
“Where’s my teach—” Twilight checked herself in time, biting her lip. “I mean, where is the Princess?”
Princess Luna frowned. “Here one stands.” The tone of her voice said the rest: Is my title forgotten so easily?
Twilight’s mouth contracted to the size of a sesame seed.
The younger Princess surveyed the ponies before her again, her expression like forged steel freshly quenched and hardened. Suddenly, something shifted within her posture: nothing so dramatic as a bended leg or a lowered head—not even a flick of the ear. But something shifted nonetheless, something like a castle settling too heavily on its foundation. Princess Luna sighed.
“So little has changed in the past thousand years,” she muttered. She turned to walk away, her precision replaced with a resignation so fluid that it took everypony a moment to realize they needed to follow after her.
Rainbow Dash touched down next to Twilight as they walked, cocking one of her brows and poking a hoof at the Princess as if to ask, Is that pony all right in the head? The unicorn’s ears peaked in response, and the glare she threw back got the prismatic pegasus to drop the issue like a glob of lava.
Princess Luna disappeared behind the curve of the main lantern, only to reappear as the group caught up with her. She knelt at the side of a tasseled cushion the size of three fully-grown buffalo against the lantern’s base. “Tia,” she whispered. “Tia. The Bearers have arrived.”
Perhaps the evolution of Princess Luna’s mane from its delicate newborn blue to its current shimmering state had proceeded exactly for this moment, when she could step aside with her mane trailing behind her like a theater curtain. But nopony’s thoughts sprang to plays or musicals when all was revealed. As for Fluttershy...
She remembered it had been a late summer’s day, the year before she was allowed to go to flight camp in Cloudsdale. She remembered the hem of her father’s white coat brushing her wing as they walked through the halls of Flamewithers’ hospital in the early morning hours, the warmth of his body against the sterile air and the tiny clip-clop of her gait echoing his, when the rescue team crashed into the emergency room with the patient. She remembered she had not reacted at first, not knowing what was happening. She did not remember much of what happened in those next few minutes other than her father shouting orders and nurses running back and forth with linens and ointments. It was only the day after, after her mother returned from the funeral, did she learn the stallion’s coat had been a golden hue, not mottled over with black and crimson.
Princess Celestia’s magic made her a stronger pony than Golden Gale, certainly—but Fluttershy could not recall a time when the prognosis of a dragonfire burn had ever worked in the patient’s favor. Whoever had bandaged the Princess commanded the pegasus’ respect as a fellow adherent of medicine, but the wrappings over the solar royal’s flanks, limbs, and neck betrayed the extent of the wounds their white yards concealed. Strange black shards circled around her body, while her mane and tail, once resplendent with the airy spectrum of a spring morning, now lay pink and sodden over her velvet bed.
A whisper had never been so devastating. Applejack pressed her hat to her chest, Fluttershy lowered her head. She felt a wing drape across her back—there was Rainbow Dash, standing by her side with smoldering eyes.
It was Twilight who had whispered, and it was Twilight who broke away from them, all but tripping over herself in her haste to be at Princess Celestia’s side. For the moment, her eyes were dry, her voice quiet—just as Fluttershy had been while her father worked to save Golden Gale. The memory of that long-gone stallion coupled with the smallness of Twilight’s curling body against the Princess’ cushion, and though age hardly ever came up in conversation between everypony, it was hard not to dwell on the fact that the unicorn before them carried the fewest summers of them all upon her withers.
Nopony made the mistake of saying the Princess would be all right.
Nopony had anticipated the sound of shifting bandages, either—but then the Princess stirred, as if merely waking from a very deep slumber. Her front hooves tucked themselves beneath her barrel, and she propped herself up by degrees. A pulse of light from the lantern revealed the thick dressing laid over both of her eyes. Nevertheless, her head turned to face everypony—and, beyond expectation, she spoke.
“I hope you’ll all find it in your hearts to forgive the folly of an old mare. I haven’t had a day off in eons.” The line of her mouth turned upward at the corners in a small smile.
She might as well have raised the sun after a terrible nighttime blizzard—going on Princess Celestia’s voice alone, Fluttershy could not even tell the alicorn had suffered anything worse than a moment’s brush with a hot stove.
“Twilight Sparkle.” The Princess turned to gaze at her protégée despite her blindness. “I could not be happier to hear your voice again. And to the rest of your friends,” raising her head, “I am grateful to have you all here today.”
While the momentum of her awakening persisted, Princess Celestia launched into an array of pleasantries for each pony, asking after their daily lives, exchanging tidbits and tidings as the proper times arose. Yes, bearing the Elements of Harmony probably raised Fluttershy and her friends a little more in the Princess’s awareness over other ponies, but the intimacy of that awareness always took her by surprise. Even if she defied all prior experience, Princess Celestia’s words were quickly altering her own prognosis toward the positive in the space of a few minutes’ chat.
“Fluttershy? Are you there, my child? You’ve been very quiet tonight.”
The pegasus started, having let her mind wander away. The Princess was looking right at her. “I— I’m sorry, your Highness.”
“There’s no need to worry,” said Princess Celestia. “I’ve just been waiting for the right time to ask you this. Did Philomena find you all right?”
Fluttershy gulped as if she had just swallowed a very sharp icicle. She suddenly realized where this would lead. “Oh my goodness. I should never have come out here at all,” she fretted, pacing back and forth. “Yes, Your Majesty—I found her flying outside the library, and I took her to my cottage and put her to bed and did my best to make her healthy again, but then I left. Spike and Angel are dear friends, but I shouldn’t have troubled them with taking care of Philomena because it was my responsibility in the first place—why else would she have come to me if you hadn’t told her to? Ah, and she even had dragonfire burns from the fight. She could be getting worse, and it’d be all because of me. Oh, I really did it this time!”
Fluttershy spied Princess Luna standing off to the side with a puzzled look on her face. The idea struck instantly. “Your Highness!” she cried, dashing over to the younger Princess. “You’ve got to send me back to Ponyville to make sure Philomena’s okay.”
Princess Luna’s brow arched so high that it practically flew. She turned to her sister for counsel.
“Come now, my little pony,” said Princess Celestia, chuckling. “If Philomena were truly in trouble, I’d think Spike would send me a letter right away, wouldn’t he?”
“Oh, I don’t really keep parchment in the cottage...”
“This is my assistant you’re talking about.” Twilight smiled. “He always takes parchment and quills with him wherever he goes.”
A thunderclap boomed throughout the sanctum as the main lantern sputtered, only to recover and resume its pulsing a few moments later. Fluttershy’s gaze flew around the room, but the source of the interruption was not hard to spot. Princess Luna had driven her hoof into the floor so hard that cracks shot out from under it.
“Sister! Shall we cease these diversions and turn to the matters that weigh upon us all?” she demanded.
Fluttershy turned back to Princess Celestia, receiving a small nod from the elder alicorn. She and Twilight were right. Aside from herself, Fluttershy could not think of any other ponies (or dragons or bunnies, for that matter) she would rather have taking care of Philomena.
“You mentioned a fight earlier,” said the elder Princess. She paused to draw a slow breath through her nostrils. “You’re absolutely right about that.”
Everypony gathered around her cushion and lowered themselves onto their haunches.
“I first received word from the Grand Marshal one week ago,” the Princess continued. “Now, there’s always some kind of fire coming over from Drakvarna, but it grows stronger and harder to control as we approach the Summer Sun Celebration.”
Twilight smacked her hoof on the floor. “But the fires this year are especially bad, aren’t they?”
The Princess nodded. “Exactly. I promised the Grand Marshal I would speak with my old friend Raznavog to see what he could do to help.”
“What a weird name.” Rainbow Dash scratched her head. When her friends turned on her with scandalized looks branded on their faces, she scrambled to save her own. “I-I-I mean-n-n—oh, my,” she said airily. “That’s really cool of you to do.”
A cold shiver rushed over Fluttershy’s coat. She recognized that name. “Y-you know the king of the dragons, Your Majesty?”
Bad as the wide-eyed shock her friends shot in her direction was, the realization that she had cut Princess Celestia off skewered her so hard that she doubled over. She had done it, now! Banishment and imprisonment would be too good for her! The Princess would probably go and—
“Ah ha ha ha! Very good, Fluttershy.”
“You are absolutely correct,” the Princess continued. “We grew up together, actually: him, Luna, and me. How I still remember the nights we spent camping in the forest, telling stories and roasting marshmallows...” And, just as the light of fond recollection had brightened Princess Celestia’s features, a solemn resignation now fell over them like a veil. “He’s changed. I once knew him as a focused and understanding creature, but his demeanor the day we met was confused, and accusatory. When I asked him for help, he refused me.”
“That brute!” Rarity exclaimed. “How could he say no to you?”
“He told me the fires in his lands were beyond his control—and that we were responsible for them.”
Applejack stomped on the floor. “What? How in tarnation does he get to figurin’ like that?”
“If only I knew,” said the Princess, shaking her head. “What he said next, however, troubles me the most.” She sucked in a breath that refused to come voluntarily. “He was glad to see Equestria on the brink of burning.”
Silence settled over the room like snow on a house without a roof. The lantern continued to pulse with light, almost in time with everypony’s breathing—or, perhaps it was the other way around. A muted rumble sounded somewhere outside the glass.
“That was when I pressed him for answers,” said Princess Celestia. Her voice had dropped to a softness matched only by a mother’s love. “And that—that was when he attacked.”
It came to Fluttershy as if she had seen it with her own eyes: confined beneath the soaring dome of a massive throne room, the dragon unleashed blast after blast of fire at the alicorn pleading for reason as she flitted back and forth in the air. No nooks, no shelter—only cruelly smooth stone pockmarked by burns the size of trees. A swirling lance of flame caromed off a shield barely summoned in time, the second lance shattered it, and down the Princess fell...
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” asked Twilight, turning to Princess Luna. “Your Highness, you called us the Elements of Harmony in your letter.” The unicorn rubbed her hoof on the floor as if she could not believe what she was about to say next. “Am I correct in understanding... that you want us to go to the dragon king, and sort this all out?”
The Princess of the Night nodded solemnly. “It seems my sister does not exaggerate the measure of your brain, Twilight Sparkle. We have the Elements of Harmony here with us so that you may repossess them, and discharge your duty to Equestria directly.” She sighed. “Ah, that the fate of our country—nay, the very world—lies in such young hooves...”
“Now hold on, there! Don’t you go cardin’ your cotton before you’re sure there ain’t ants in it,” said Applejack, snorting. “My friends and I may be young, and we may not be the most civilized of ponies—”
“Begging your pardon?”
“Shoosh, Rarity. As I was about ta say, there ain’t none among us who’s a shiver-liver scaredy-pony.”
Fluttershy wanted nothing more at that moment than to clamp her hooves over Applejack’s muzzle—but that would have been extremely rude of her to do.
“That’s right!” Rainbow Dash chimed in, flapping into the air so she hovered above the Princess. “We’ve saved each other and the world a couple of times already. I even bucked a dragon in the face once—and I’m still here, right? We’ll figure it out!”
“And I think I can speak for everypony else when I say we’re ready to do whatever it takes out there, for Equestria!”
Fluttershy’s lips had somehow welded themselves shut. She was with the rest of her friends in spirit as they repeated Twilight’s shout, and there were animals in the Everfree Forest who were on the verge of losing everything— but to confront the king of the dragons himself? Did nopony else have any idea of what they were getting themselves into?
“‘Tis well that your ardor evinces itself so,” said Princess Luna—but instead of smiling, her mouth only hardened along with her eyes. “But the task before you is not one you can attack on the wings of bravado alone. Let us observe the path ahead. Come!”
The alicorn’s mane rippled like the breath of the void as she made toward the eastern limit of the room. On the other side of the glass, the orange glow from earlier clawed higher into the sky.
Indeed, nopony knew what they were getting into. Even Fluttershy had to admit what she saw next exceeded the limit of her fears.
Below her hooves, the three tiers of Flamewithers curved around each other like the rows of an amphitheater. The stage, however, lay miles below the town in severe want of repair: its blasted and barren surface erupted in abrupt plateaus and crevasses.
Anchored on the horizon at both ends, a wall of roaring fire advanced westward over the jagged waste. The colors dancing within its edges were just as colorful as Rainbow Dash in places, maintaining their hue even as they linked together and flew apart. It was almost like looking into a dream—a terrible, terrifying dream, at that. Embers had already taken to the air in parabolic arcs, devouring circles of Everfree foliage wherever they crashed down.
“On the morn,” Princess Luna continued, never taking her eyes off the fires below, “I will send you beyond the reach of those fey illuminations to our embassy for counsel—I do not expect Raznavog to stand down peacefully in his own court. If some small comfort is to be gleaned from the journey ahead, it is that little remains behind the firewall to form a blaze. The worst of it whirls in Drakvarna’s western miles.”
“I... I see. We... we certainly have a lot to think about tonight. Thank you, Your Highness.” Having stood at Fluttershy’s side while Princess Luna spoke, Twilight gave the flames a final glance before turning back toward her mentor.
“Those flames are quite large,” Fluttershy overheard Rarity saying.
“Do you think I could bake cupcakes with ‘em?” Pinkie Pie had a hoof to her mouth in deep contemplation. “I’ve never baked with rainbow-colored fire before.”
“Twilight.” Princess Celestia’s voice beckoned the unicorn back over by the lantern. “There’s something else I need to let you know before you go out there.”
The alicorn tilted her head up at the shards orbiting around her. “Do you recognize what those are?”
“Aren’t they...?” Twilight shut her eyes for a moment, tensing her body. She opened them a few moments later. “I couldn’t bring one closer for a look,” she explained, “but that meant that magic doesn’t work in their immediate vicinity...” Her ears peaked on the height of an epiphany. “Nullstones...”
The Princess nodded. “The very same material that keeps Everfree feral, no matter how we try to affect it. And—” She intercepted one of the stones with the tip of her horn, and it fell onto the cushion just before her. “The only reason why I am still here with you today. I haven’t figured out what else Razzie struck me with, but until Luna thought to bring me these stones, the pain I’ve felt in my dreams ever since has come close to overwhelming me. If something similar should happen to you or your friends when you meet him—” offering the stone, “you’ll have this.”
Twilight took it in her teeth and stashed it in her bag. “I’ve always wanted to play around with one of those,” she confessed with a sheepish smile. “But—did I just hear you call him ‘Razzie’?”
“You heard correctly, my faithful student,” said the Princess, “because I still believe King Raznavog is still my friend. I am merely sad for him,” pausing as her head drooped by a degree, “because I also believe he has lost his way. Redeem him, my little ponies. Prove to the world that the kind and intelligent dragon I grew to love as my own brother is not the monster I met out there, before it’s too late.”