• Published 13th Jan 2015
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Black Feather - Recon777


A young mare must discover the secret of her own nature in order to stop the destruction of ponykind while an ancient adversary with a vendetta intends to reclaim his former glory.

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01 - Of Friends and Nightmares.

Escape. Flee. Run!

It was the singular purpose of her life at that very moment. Behind her, the sounds of snapping twigs and splintering wood reminded her that she really shouldn’t look back. Just a glance. She flicked her head back over her shoulder—

The shadow was right behind her! Ears swiveling about, the dark equine tried to gauge her surroundings, searching for clues while her eyes fixed on the winding path ahead through the dense night-time forest.

The damp, thick air coursed through her nostrils as her desperate, thundering hoofbeats echoed through the endless trees which seemed to offer no path of escape. She leapt over fallen logs and dodged sharp, bare branches that threatened to scratch and whip at her.

Again, she attempted to take flight, wincing as pain shot through her broken wing.

“Ahhh!” She nearly stumbled. That wasn’t going to work.

Nyx had no choice but to keep running, but it was taking its toll. Each step demanded she stop and rest.

She tried to remember how she got here, or even how long she had been running. She knew something wasn’t right—

Branch!

Left again!

The constant dodging left her with no time to think. She pushed her body to the limit, looking for a clear, open space to break away from her pursuer. How long would it be before exhaustion overtook her?

She changed course several times in an effort to shake the beast, only to once again feel its hot breath on her flanks. How was this possible? Her muscles burned as if they were on fire. Exhausted and out of options, it looked like all hope was lost.

Then, a clearing appeared up ahead, leading out of the thorns and branches into a dark, swirling fog which seemed to call out to her. The air felt colder, and time slowed. For a moment, she thought she saw a dimly glowing pair of eyes flash from within the mist. The hair along her spine stood on end as she heard the faint sound of a laugh echoing in the distance.

Within the mist, the form of a tall stone castle appeared, its gates open before her.

No.

It called out to her mind, promising sanctuary. Rest.

I can’t.

You must, the castle replied in her mind.

There was no choice; It was this or die. Gathering her resolve, she closed her eyes and leapt through the gates into Nightmare Moon’s domain.


Nyx startled awake, drenched in sweat and panting heavily. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She glanced around quickly, her body charged with adrenaline. Her horn sparked with magical fire, ready to strike at the unseen enemy.

The mist. The trees. Where are they? Where is the…

She struggled to stand and paused, distracted as her hooves sank into the plush comfort of a bed.

But something was chasing her.

Wasn’t it?

Squinting, she began to recognize the room she was in. It was a windowless room with steel grey walls, a large bed, a vanity, and two nightstands. She could barely make out the pleasant decorations in the dim, ambient light given off by crystals embedded in the walls.

Shelving along the walls displayed various familiar items. Her things. His things. Framed photos, books, and treasures collected over the years. She understood now—she was home.

It was just a dream, she thought to herself.

Damn those things. She figured the former princess of nightmares shouldn’t have so much trouble with them. Perhaps this was payback? Some sort of cosmic joke? She was well aware of the innumerable nightmares she had given fillies and colts all across Equestria. And now, her own nightmares were coming much more frequently. But why?

She sighed and let her head fall back to the pillow, looking to her left at the sleeping light-grey pegasus snoozing all cozy beside her, oblivious to her torment. She envied him, but she loved him too dearly to be mad at him for it.

He was all the proof she needed that the dreams did not matter. They were a temporary terror. What was real was right here at her side: her husband, lover, and refuge. Nyx gently traced the line of his shoulder with her hoof, following along his toned muscles, down his foreleg, which was tucked in as he slept. She leaned forward, letting her lips play across Rumble’s neck and along his charcoal-colored mane, planting little kisses as she went.

Their adventures together went all the way back to childhood, long before this terrible war, when life was filled with love, happiness, and hope for the future.

No, the nightmares could not take him away. That much was certain. She put a foreleg over his ribs and under his wing, cuddling close and savoring the soft warmth of his body.

She would tell Rumble about this in the morning. He was a pretty smart pony; perhaps he would know what to make of her dreams. For now, she needed to try and get some rest.

Sigh.

The wound on her neck still hurt. As cozy as it was cuddling with her sleeping lover, she couldn’t fall asleep. She carefully released Rumble from the embrace and rolled onto her back again, thinking about the previous day. The unexpected failure of the new threat detection spell had led to an encounter with an entire platoon of zebra soldiers. That battle had left Rumble a little grumpy about his current grenade count and a lot grumpier about what had happened to his wife.

Out of curiosity, she accessed her magical reserves with a thought. A subtle glow emanated from the stylish horn ring which rested at the base of her forehead. A translucent bluish-green numerical value hovered in the dark, a few hooflengths above her face, prompting a groan to work its way from her throat. It was her mother’s groan, which had often accompanied her frustration.

Only twenty percent??!

Nyx banged her head against the soft pillow repeatedly, causing Rumble to smack his lips and mumble something incoherent about food. She rolled her eyes and stared at the number. Perhaps it was inaccurate. That happened once in a while. These things were experimental after all, weren’t they? Starlight had insisted they were accurate, but how could she be sure?

She couldn’t risk another burnout. The one time she had ever depleted her energy reserves had been a complete disaster. No, it was time to rest, and that was that. She’d probably be up to thirty-five percent by morning. As long as they didn’t have another “busy” day, she’d be halfway charged by late afternoon.

Nyx stared at the ceiling. Her mind wouldn’t shut off. Oh, how she hated the insomnia that followed a nightmare. It wasn’t fair! She pouted silently. Here she was, probably strong enough to be the alpha predator of the Equestrian battlefield if she was allowed to be. Why should something as ridiculous as a bad dream get the best of her?

And the dream itself was ridiculous. She tried to remember the details as they rapidly faded into her subconscious. She was more mad at herself than the dream. How could she have just gone along with it like that? Nightmare Moon?! No. Not again. Not after fifteen years. That legacy was long behind her.

“Fuck!” she said, a little too loud.

A sudden buzzing similar to a large winged insect sounded from across the room and then stopped. Nyx put a hoof over her mouth as she heard the shifting of blankets and a light snoring. She glanced over at the sleeping form of her former foalsitter and childhood friend, mentally chiding herself for nearly waking her.

It had been three years, and she still wasn’t quite used to the creepy form Flitter reverted to in her sleep. The stringy, teal mane and crooked horn. The dense mesh of tiny dark-grey chitin plates making up her skin. The fangs, which were twice as long as Nyx’s. The holes in her legs and wings! At least Nyx couldn’t fault the slitted eyes, which were much like her own, apart from being green.

There were so many types of deadly monsters which looked less disturbing, yet her changeling friend had proven to be one of her closest and most devoted companions—one whom Nyx was genuinely thankful for.

One more night and Flitter could have her own bedroom back. Nyx had forgotten she was even there, but she knew what the changeling would have said just then about her choice of expletives if she were awake: ‘You kiss your mother with that mouth?’ Of course, Nyx’s reply would have been: ‘Yes, actually. What of it?’

She sighed. She needed to work on that temper. Nyx always was a little snarky after a nightmare, but that didn’t excuse it. She might have the body and intellect of a twenty-five year old alicorn, but somehow, she still occasionally exhibited an attitude more expected of one who had only been sucking down oxygen for the fifteen years it had been since her mother had found her in that awful thorn bush.

Nyx sat up in bed, looking around the room. She touched her lamp, and a soft glow fell upon her nightstand where a framed photo rested. It was of her and Twilight Sparkle, her adoptive mother. Nyx was just a child. They were eating ice cream together at the park. Such happy times. She remembered what Equestria was like all those years ago, filled with joyful ponies without a care in the world. She wished she could bring the world back to when the greatest worry a filly had would be wondering what cutie mark she might get.

After some time clearing her mind, Nyx flipped over toward her studly pegasus and held him close beneath the warm blankets. She contented herself, listening to the sweet sound of his breathing as her conscious thoughts began to give way to peaceful sleep. Silently, the magical energy meter, hovering in the air above her, incremented a percentage point before fading away into the dark.


Eggs? Nyx took in the scent through her nostrils, her eyes still shut. It was fried eggs, she was sure of it.

The abstract dreamscape faded, consciousness once again claiming possession of her mind. Ears flicking about, she listened as the faint echoes of her friends talking and dishes clattering drifted in from down the hall.

Cracking her eyes open just a bit, she tried to focus on her surroundings. The crystals were glowing brighter now—bright enough to remind her not to fall back asleep. They were a poor substitute for the morning sun, but a substitute nonetheless.

“Mmmmm,” Nyx groaned and closed her eyes anyway in protest of the morning’s arrival. But it was no use pretending. The smells and sounds from the kitchen compelled her to peel her body off the bed and get up. Still feeling half asleep, she stretched her muscles, spread her wings, and gave them a thorough flap.

Nyx yawned and rubbed her eyes. She began walking toward the vanity to make herself presentable when Rumble poked his head through the bedroom doorway. He intercepted her, planting a kiss on her lips.

“Breakfast’s ready, hon. Hope you’re hungry.”

She nuzzled his cheek for a long moment, letting out a contented sigh.

Rumble turned to go. Looking back at her from the doorway, his eyes held contact with hers. “You’re beautiful, you know,” he said, before returning to the kitchen. Nyx’s heart skipped a beat, and she felt a warm tingling in her belly. Walking idly over to the vanity, she stared for a long moment at her reflection.

Incredulity. Was something wrong with Rumble’s vision?

She rubbed her face and thought idly about which was more frightening: traditional Nightmare Moon or Nightmare Moon with bleary eyes, an old blood-soaked bandage on her neck, and a massive case of bedmane. Had she not been close to Rumble since they were children, she might have assumed his standards really were that low, but she knew he was merely being kind.

“You didn’t tell me I looked like crap,” Nyx called out as she worked a levitated brush through her thick violet mane.

“I prefer not to risk my life until we’re outside,” came the sarcastic reply from the kitchen. Yes, ‘kind’ and also a smartass.

Outside. Right. Nyx much preferred to be outside than here at home. It wouldn’t be so bad if ‘home’ were a normal… house. A mare deserved a nice house, didn’t she? Someplace she could lean out the upper balcony window and wave to her friends as they passed by on the street. Someplace where there were friends. Or streets. Hell, someplace above ground would be nice. It just didn’t feel like home living like this. She sighed. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts. She finished brushing out her mane and rinsed her face off in the sink before plodding wearily to the kitchen.

“Hey, Nyxie,” she was happily greeted by a familiar looking mint-green unicorn sitting at the table.

“Hey, Flitter. So who are we today?” Nyx studied the changeling for a moment. “Oh wow, I haven’t talked with Lyra Heartstrings in… what are you doing?”

Flitter was staring at her hoof intensely, as if trying to will it to do something.

Nyx snorted with laughter. “Okay, well done. You got her down cold.”

Rumble glanced over his shoulder at Nyx and Flitter while preparing breakfast. He shook his head, smiling at their antics.

Flitter grinned with pride. “Thanks, Nyx. How you feeling today?”

“Stiff, sore, and I slept like crap. But not too bad otherwise.” A pair of digits appeared near the kitchen table at her mental command, prompting a squee. “Ooh, thirty-seven percent!”

Flitter was sucking on a nectar stick, staring at her with a flat expression. “You got pretty banged up yesterday. Let me take a look at that gash.”

Nyx rolled her eyes. She never did like this kind of attention, even when she was a child.

“Sit.”

Nyx sat.

Flitter grabbed a medicine cloth while taking note of her expression. “Relax, this isn’t a scalpel.” She carefully removed the old bandage, examining the wound.

Nyx still flinched when Flitter dabbed the medicine cloth on the cut along her neck where the zebra’s blade hadn’t quite missed yesterday. She thought about how that went, trying to take her mind off Flitter’s ministrations. As distractions go, it wasn’t helping; the few times she had fought with zebras had always caused her terribly conflicted feelings. They were sapient equines after all. This wasn’t like fighting Everfree monsters. She remembered their faces. Terrified—not of her, but of what they thought she was. And would it have helped if they knew that she wasn’t the demon they believed her to be, if she ended up having to kill them anyway?

“So… you got up a bit late today,” Flitter remarked as she finished bandaging the wound.

“Yeah—ow!” Nyx winced again. “I wasn’t sleeping well last night.” She groaned as she stretched her neck back and forth, getting used to the new bandage.

“We figured. Rumble decided to make your favorite!”

Rumble turned toward Nyx and presented a plate of yummies. Fried eggs and a bowl of oats with sliced apples, a glass of orange juice, and one of Pinkie Pie’s famous cupcakes.

Nyx’s eyes drank in the scene. She looked up at Rumble with gratitude. “You didn’t have to… Thank you. You’re the best.” Despite her words, Nyx’s expression betrayed her troubled thoughts.

“Rough night, huh?”

Of course he could tell. She really didn’t want to talk about it. She trusted Rumble and Flitter, but these nightmares were… well, they each struck at the core of who she was. And in every one of them, she had failed in some way.

“I’ll tell you later.” Nyx dived into her food, stuffing a slice of apple in her mouth. “But yeah, not one of my favorites.”

Rumble waited a moment for her to elaborate. He scratched behind his ear and raised his eyebrow at her. “Because of the battle yesterday?”

Nyx glanced toward him from her plate, uncertain she was ready to go there. “No… It was another nightmare,” she said with resignation, staring at the table as she ate.

Rumble regarded her. He seemed like he was about to say something, then thought better of it as he sat down at the table with his own breakfast and started to eat. After a while, he spoke up. “Thunderlane tells me he’s available for some more war games this week if we want to do some training. I was thinking today we could do a scouting run—maybe work out the bugs in the T.E.I. detection spell. Then maybe head back to that camp we cleared out by Appleloosa and scavenge for supplies.”

“Mhmm.” Nyx didn’t look up.

Rumble studied her for a bit longer. “Or… we could take the day off and have a picnic.”

Nyx stopped eating and paused a moment before looking up at him with a smile. “I love you so much.” He really was trying to be sensitive to her struggle. Why was it so hard for her to talk about this?

“It’s okay. I just… need to work out my feelings about some things. I need a few minutes to gather my thoughts.”

“Alright, hon. Whenever you’re ready.”

Nyx stood and regarded her friends. They were too good for her, she knew. She gave Rumble a kiss on the cheek. “Listen, I need a shower. I’ll be back in a bit.”

After turning to leave toward the shower, she grinned mischievously as she felt her stallion’s eyes following her jet-black rump. She swished her tail at him and heard a whistle, then looked over her shoulder to meet his gaze.

Rumble sighed happily. “You know I’ll never get over that sight.”

Flitter was sitting next to him wearing a contented smile with her eyes closed. “Yeah, loverboy, you keep that up right there. I’ll just be sitting here filling my belly with all dat luvvy wuvvy goodness.”

Rumble raised an eyebrow. “Someday you’re going to tell me how that works exactly.”

“Sure, right after you explain how you work with clouds as if they were solid objects.” Flitter shot him a wink.

“Fair enough.”

Nyx rounded the corner toward the shower, shaking her head with a smile. Her family was awesome.


Flitter and Rumble were finishing up dishes when Nyx approached the kitchen feeling refreshed. She watched them from behind for a moment as they talked, debating with herself about whether or not this was the right time to discuss her nightmares. Would they understand? How should she bring it up? Maybe she was making too big a deal of it and should just forget about it. No, she decided, Rumble would want her to share.

“Okay, I’m ready to talk.”

She sat down on the living room couch, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly while staring at her hooves and trying to ignore her stomach tying itself in knots.

Flitter took the plush chair across from her while Rumble sat beside Nyx.

“Nights have been... rough lately. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing myself while I sleep.” She paused, unsure how to say it—unsure if she should say it.

Rumble placed his hoof over hers. “Go on,” he encouraged.

“Well, sometimes it’s like there’s this… thing trying to get me.” Nyx tried to find the right words to put to the memories. “It’s like… like I’m being chased into a trap. But when I’m running, all I know is that I must get away or I’ll probably be killed. Then something changes. An escape. But I have to abandon myself in order to take it.”

As she told of her dreams, Nyx felt an overwhelming sense of dread. It was as if something was lurking in the shadows of her consciousness, just out of sight. She studied her friends’ faces for a moment, unsure if she was making any sense to them. “In the dream, it feels like I’m choosing to lose my identity. Like I’m meant to become something terrible.”

Rumble and Flitter wore matching looks of concern. He put his hoof over Nyx’s shoulder and pulled her close, looking into her eyes. “We’re always going to be here for you, Nyx. You can count on that. You won’t lose your identity no matter how bad things get.”

Nyx looked back at him with tears in her eyes. She paused a moment, gathering her thoughts before continuing, “I think it’s the identity part that bothers me the most. The dreams… by the time I take that path, it’s too late! Once I make my choice and realize how horrible a mistake it was, I wake up all panicked.” She looked at her friends, searching for signs that they understood. Finally, she looked down toward the floor, feeling awkward. “Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe I’m trying to rationalize something that just isn’t going to make sense.”

Rumble brought her chin up to look back into her eyes. “It’s okay. Dreams are like that a lot of times. One time I dreamed I was running down a hill from a giant donut. I didn’t realize at the time how absurd it was not to use my wings. Dreams make much more sense when you’re in them. But if you’re struggling with identity, that’s why your mom taught us how to visit your old memories, right? Maybe we need to spend some more time in that pretty head of yours.” He kissed her forehead.

Nyx blushed. He was sweet. And funny. But she was sure this was more than just stress. “Thank you. I hope you’re right. There’s just something about these nightmares which isn’t normal.”

“You’ve been through a lot, Nyx,” Flitter said. “Nopony would blame you for taking some time off.”

Nyx leaned up against Rumble and closed her eyes. Maybe Flitter was right. Maybe she had been pushing herself too hard.

The pair cuddled on the couch for a few minutes. She rested on her back with her eyes closed, her head in Rumble’s lap, comforting herself with his presence while he stroked his hoof through her mane.

“You know, if you keep having these dreams, maybe you should talk to Luna about them. I bet she could help.”

“That’s actually not a bad idea,” Nyx said, smiling as she reached up to run a hoof along his jawline with a small giggle.

Nyx felt like getting a change of scenery. “So… you wanna go flying? Probably a good idea to get on with the day.”

“Yep, we can do that,” Rumble said. “I gotta do a systems check first, then we can go.” He got up off the couch, placing a pillow under Nyx’s head. He kissed her on the cheek then trotted off to the control room. Nyx watched him go, ears twitching and eyes half-lidded.

Flitter watched Nyx watching him go. “Between you and your hubby, I never have to worry about going hungry,” she said with a grin. She sat down with Nyx on the couch. “I’m here if you need to talk.”

“I know… thank you.” She sat up and gave Flitter a hug with a smile. A smile which slowly faded. “There is something.” She sat in silence for a long moment, glancing around uncomfortably then looking down. “I hate this place,” she admitted.

“I just… I hate being cooped up in this hole in the ground for years. I honestly don’t know how long they expect us to live like this. And then, Apple Bloom’s always talking about how cool it is. That’s just insane.” She swished her tail in annoyance, her brow furrowing.

“She’s a Crusader at heart,” Flitter pointed out with a smile. “What kid wouldn’t trade any Hearth’s Warming present for her very own Underground Hideout?”

Nyx raised an eyebrow, not buying it one bit. “Not me. I just… really don’t like cramped, closed-in spaces. I think I’m gonna go topside and take a walk. Tell Rumble I’ll be back in time to go flying.” Nyx trotted out to the elevator room.


Nyx walked out the door of the small structure which was the surface level of the Underground Hideout. She looked around at the surrounding landscape of rolling hills, trees, and farmland, tilting her head back and letting the sun fall on her face. She sighed, smiling, then spun about in a circle with her wings outstretched. She drank in the open feeling of her surroundings, allowing her tension to fade.

She picked a direction and began walking. The grass was lush beneath her hooves. This was fertile land, carefully tended to by generations of very dedicated ponies. Nyx looked back over her shoulder at the small structure she left a moment ago.

It was an inconspicuous child’s clubhouse, which stood at the edge of an inconspicuous apple orchard, located at an inconspicuous rustic farm. So many wonderful memories in this place. It was perfect, really. The Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse had sat unused for a while once everypony grew up and started getting busy with other things.

Nyx decided to canter a lap around the orchard to get her blood pumping. She began at a shallow rise which led up to a peak, overlooking the entire property, and thought about how this place had come to be her home.

Strangely, it was Princess Celestia who insisted that Nyx and Rumble make their home someplace hidden. Apparently, the zebras had some kind of extreme superstition about Nightmare Moon and weren’t shy about their intentions that she be killed. Nyx might have been much stronger than most ponies, but even alicorns needed to rest and have a safe place to call home.

She continued her run, circling around the vampire fruit bat sanctuary, idly remembering the stories about Fluttershy’s “transformation” and how much she and the other Crusaders wished they could have seen that.

It had been Apple Bloom’s idea to use the old clubhouse and build a high tech base directly beneath it. She had proposed the idea to Princess Luna a while back, explaining the cost-to-benefit ratio of using a small team of highly qualified ponies to test some of the latest technology of the war, all the while keeping Nyx safe. Apple Bloom’s ambitious architecture and engineering projects always amazed Nyx. She had turned out to be one of the most valuable young minds of the war.

Nyx recalled their childhood together as she summited another hill. She saw the main barn from over the treetops on the opposite side of the orchard, then began her return run.

If Nyx had two bits for every time Apple Bloom insisted on getting her cutie mark “Right Nahww!” she’d have been able to fund the construction of the Underground Hideout herself. How fitting that it ended up appearing on her flank as two silver gears meshed together. The first in the Apple family to not have an apple themed cutie mark. Granny Smith was none too happy.

Winded, Nyx slowed for the final paces before returning to the old clubhouse. “Times change, don’t they, my good friend?” Nyx panted as she walked among the apple trees, letting the nostalgia sweep over her and imagining her friend by her side.


Rumble examined the gauge on the water supply tank. Check. Systems checks were something he found rather boring, despite his affinity toward technical systems. It wasn’t inventing. It wasn’t modifying. Hell, it wasn’t even operating, really. It was dull and lifeless, and yet GlimmerTrix Industries needed it done.

Air Processing, check. He sometimes wondered if Apple Bloom had gone a bit overboard with this whole encapsulated living thing. It was such an unnatural way for ponies to live, but Princess Luna had felt it would be quite useful for projects ranging from hidden forward bunkers in enemy territory to advanced sailing ships on the open seas.

Waste Recycling, check. Rumble was thankful that much of the equipment to sustain life in what was essentially a high-tech box had gotten past the experimental stage and no longer needed a constant hoof on the controls. In theory, the soldiers making use of these things might only have limited skills and no support from the outside for perhaps months.

He walked to the back of the control room where the power talisman thrummed ominously within its shielded metal casing, giving off an amber glow. It was enough to power all of Ponyville with energy to spare. Rumble checked the talisman’s temperature and output. All looked well, though he had to admit they weren’t exactly pushing it to its limits. It was the first prototype of only four so far created, and it was ridiculously expensive. Rumble stared at the powerful device for a long moment, mesmerized by it. Power Generator, check.

Rumble considered all this technology as he went over the systems. He knew Nyx wanted to be more involved in directly defending Equestria from the zebra threat. Sometimes, he wondered if Luna’s decision to bar her from fighting in organized campaigns was really necessary. Nyx hadn’t done anything ‘weird’ that could endanger a military team in over three years. And sure, they were valuable as equipment testers; somepony had to do it. Their war games taught them a lot about combat, and their work with GTI had helped work out the bugs in important equipment before it was deployed to the field. Still, with all their involvement in the peripherals, it was difficult to tell if they were making a difference in the war itself.

Content with things, Rumble walked back up to the living quarters on the main level. He found Flitter there, lying on the couch with her eyes closed, listening to the radio.

“Hey. Where’s Nyx?”

“She’s taking a walk. Says she’ll be back in time to go flying.”

“Vinyl got anything good to say today?”

“She announced that her cousin had a foal yesterday. Unicorn filly. She’s all excited.”

Flitter opened her eyes and looked upside-down at Rumble. She pointed at him with a hoof, then at the large beanbag chair in the living room. “Kick back and enjoy some tunes with me.”

Rumble grabbed a grenade from his tinker table and plopped down on the beanbag chair. He twirled the explosive device between his hooves idly while listening to Vinyl Scratch’s radio broadcast. It was good to see former Ponyville residents having a big impact on greater Equestria.

Flitter looked at him sideways. “You do realize you make other ponies nervous when you do that, right?”

“Hm? Oh, this?” He tossed the grenade to Flitter. “That’s part of the fun.”

Flitter caught the weapon, shook her head with a smile, then tossed it back. “Not everypony knows you like we do, you featherbrain.”

Rumble feigned offence and preened a flight feather between his teeth. “I’ll have you know my feathers are firmly attached to my wings. And my safety latches are firmly attached to my grenades.” He clipped the weapon to his barding with a grin.

Flitter laughed. “Same colt I watched all those years ago, clearly.”

After a few minutes, the entry elevator hummed, and Nyx walked into the room looking like she was feeling much better. “Oh, I so needed that. It’s a beautiful day. Let’s go flying!”


Nyx felt the cool air rushing over her body, whipping her mane and tail. The feeling of the wind on her feathers sent tingles through her spine. She let out a squee and a laugh, reveling in the pure joy of free flight.

Rumble flew directly over Nyx and tapped her shoulder with his forehoof. He ducked to the side as she turned her head to look at him, seeing nothing. Her ears twitched as he tapped her other shoulder.

“Stop it,” she said coyly.

Rumble grinned as she tackled him in midair on his third attempt, causing them both to lose altitude fast. He laughed. “Such a serious pony.”

“And you’re such a goofball,” she giggled as they flapped hard to recover their height together. The pair soared through the clear blue sky, side by side. Rumble flew along her right wing looking back at her with a mixture of love and excitement, his charcoal mane whipping back and forth in the wind as they glided along.

He tried tapping her shoulder once more, but Nyx laughed and curved into a barrel roll as she luxuriated in the warm sunshine and wide open spaces around her.

Looking up, she noticed Flitter gliding along far above where she and Rumble were playing. She was soaring like an eagle, barely moving in serene, meditative flight. Nyx flapped hard to gain the altitude necessary to join her.

As she approached, she saw Flitter flying with her eyes closed. She had taken on her default pegasus form, with a greyish-lilac coat and mint-green mane. Three white dragonflies adorned her flank. Nyx pulled up alongside her.

“It’s nice up here,” Nyx said. “Peaceful.”

Flitter took a deep breath. “It’s a good way to make my troubles seem small. From up here, everything below, at least for a moment, feels less urgent. It’s as if for a moment, I have no worries.”

Nyx looked out to the southern horizon, knowing that somewhere, far beyond the haze, the war painted a very different landscape than what she could see here. “Yeah. I can understand that. But it’s not as much fun.”

Flitter opened her eyes to look at her. “It’s not all about fun, Nyx. It’s how I handle stress. You and Rumble have your rather… effective stress-relieving bedroom activity. I have nopony else, remember?”

Nyx blushed. She had a point. “Sorry, Flitter, I didn’t mean it was wrong or anything. I just wanted you to join us for a bit of play.” She noticed Flitter had closed her eyes again, soaring along with only the breeze as her companion. “Well, okay, I’m gonna go play with Rumble.” Nyx descended toward where her pegasus mate was doing loops.

Nyx caught up with Rumble and was laughing and looping around with him in the sky. Suddenly, a familiar laugh came from her left, and she spun to see a rainbow maned pegasus shooting past her, grinning from ear to ear.

Nyx did a double-take and laughed. “Glad you decided to join us!”

“I’m only thirty-one years old, Nyx. I’m not some elderly pony incapable of having fun, you know.”

“Yeah, well you better not let Rainbow Dash catch you like that, Flitter. You know how she is about her… ‘uniqueness’,” Nyx called over her shoulder with a smirk.

“Yeah, yeah. A mare can pretend, can’t she? Between me and Scoots, we could form our own Dashie fan club.”

“Well then, let’s see if you can match her speed! I’ll race you both to Ponyville. How about it? Friendship Castle is the finish line.” She looked at both her friends in turn.

Rumble rolled his eyes and stifled a laugh. He saw what Nyx just did.

Flitter’s physical form was betrayed by her uncertain expression. She knew Nyx was faster, but Rainbow Dash would not have passed on such a challenge. Nyx knew that in order for Flitter to remain in-character, she had to brashly accept and talk as if she couldn’t lose.

“Oh yeah? You sure you don’t need me to give you a head start?” Flitter matched Rainbow's vocal inflections perfectly.

Nyx wore a satisfied, sly grin. “Readysetgo!” She took off for the horizon toward Ponyville.

Halfway there, Rumble was right beside Nyx, pushing himself as hard as he could. Despite a decent start, Flitter had fallen far behind. She turned around and let Flitter catch up. “Hey, you okay?”

Flitter had changed back to her default pegasus form. She looked upset but said nothing.

“What’s wrong?”

Flitter glared at Nyx and proceeded toward Ponyville at a more modest pace.

Nyx raised her eyebrow as she watched her friend fly off alone for a moment. She caught up with Flitter easily and poked her shoulder. “Come on, I was just—”

Flitter stopped and hovered, scowling. She looked at Nyx, then Rumble. Why was she so upset?

“Something’s wrong,” she said, finally.

Rumble and Nyx both wore confused looks. “What do you mean?” Nyx asked.

Flitter resumed flying forward, ignoring her. This was really weird; she never acted like this without a good reason. She looked confused, like something was niggling at her emotions.

Nyx caught up again. “Hey. What’s going on? This isn’t like you.”

Flitter stopped again, hovering. “I feel cold. Like I just flew through an emotional void. It tastes like… like malice. I don’t think it’s anything you did.”

Nyx began to get very worried. She knew where Flitter was going with this.

They both knew.

“It feels almost like…”

“Zebras!” they both said in unison.

Nyx’s mind instantly focused on the spell matrix resting at the base of her horn. The magical ring held several spells, one of which was the Terminal Empathic Indicator. Despite its failure yesterday, Nyx knew it still worked most of the time. She engaged the spell, activating T.E.I. Glancing around for targets, a tiny red glowing smudge appeared far below in the distance.

“Oh horseapples, there’s something just up ahead, somewhere around that treeline!”

The trio wasted no time, changing course toward where Nyx was pointing.

Rumble saw the problem first. “Nyx, we’re really close to Ponyville Elementary! It’s only about three hundred canters from the treeline.”

A surge of adrenaline shot through Nyx’s body as she dived down for a closer look. What she saw confirmed Rumble’s fear.

There he was. Far below, a zebra was hiding behind cover, lying prone and motionless, facing the school. He was looking down the scope of a sniper rifle.

“Oh, no...”

Nyx’s heart raced. What was this? What was a zebra doing targeting the school—her school?

Looking back up, sure enough, there were children at play. Her ears flattened against her head as anger surged through her body. She glanced back and saw Rumble and Flitter already dropping down toward the zebra. They would handle him. She had to protect the children.

Racing toward the school, Nyx scanned the positions of the various playing children.

“Aha!” That has to be the target.

Mentally drawing line-of-sight from the zebra’s position, she could see that there was only one easy shot from this angle. It was a beige earth pony colt, sitting by himself and playing with some action figures.

No… no, no, no, there isn’t time!

She felt a sickening, empty feeling of helplessness deep in her gut as she pushed her flight muscles to their limit.

It’s not enough. He’s going to die!

Nyx concentrated, her horn glowing deep indigo and purple while her spell matrix vibrated on her horn, warning of a high magic drain.

She’d never projected a shield bubble this far before. Her horn fizzed and popped with failure.

It’s no use—he’s too far away!

She dived toward the colt like a streak of black lightning, hoping and praying that she would get within range in time.

~…~

Rumble shot a glance toward the school. Nyx was tearing across the sky like a bullet. She must have spotted the sniper’s target. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the area below. The zebra was right there in the open!

Sloppy, he thought. He didn’t think to check the air.

He wished he had brought his scattergun, but it wasn’t like they had come expecting trouble over Ponyville of all places. He unclipped the fragmentation grenade which was still attached to his barding.

~…~

Flitter searched the trees for more zebras. She knew they rarely acted alone, so taking this one out without neutralizing the others could result in a bloodbath. She saw Rumble signalling his intention. This again. It was an effective tactic, but it made her nervous. She broke formation toward the trees below.

~…~

Rumble’s heart was thundering in his chest as he tried to position himself perfectly. Satisfied, and with no time to spare, he pulled the pin.

~…~

Flitter touched down among the trees a fair distance behind where the zebra was lying prone. There was a unique risk that came with her role in this type of operation. She looked around quickly, calming herself enough to briefly scan the emotional landscape. Something was there—she could almost smell it.

I can feel you, you bastard. Where are you hiding? She swallowed and made her way deeper into the trees, toward the source of the emotional chill in the air.

~…~

Rumble hovered directly over the zebra sniper and dropped the grenade. He could still feel his heart beating in his chest as he watched it fall. It wouldn’t be but five more seconds, but it felt like thirty.

~…~

Flitter spotted the other two zebras and their camouflage net. Her breath caught as she noticed them looking in her direction. Ohshit, ohshit. She crouched down out of sight, listening for the signal.

~…~

Rumble saw the grenade hit the ground next to the sniper zebra, still lying prone with his eye firmly attached to the scope. Startled, the zebra fired his weapon.

Rumble’s heart sank. “No…”

~…~

Flitter heard the shot go off. She tensed up, eyes wide. That wasn’t the signal!

~…~

Nyx squeezed her eyes shut, projecting as hard as she could. Suddenly, she felt the shield snap into existence in her mind.

Yes!

A heartbeat later, she heard the shot. Her eyes popped open at the feeling of an impact smashing right through the shield.

No!

Her terrified eyes sought the colt, horrified at the thought that she had been too late.

Clear green eyes looked back at her, wide and startled as she slammed into the ground inches away.

The colt was okay! The bullet had grazed his ear, deflected by passing through the shield.

~…~

Rumble watched from a safe height as the zebra sniper glanced to his side, noticing the grenade land within hoof’s reach of his body. Suddenly, flesh separated from bone and was smeared across the grass in a crimson paste as the shrapnel and pressure wave from the grenade tore his body to ribbons.

~…~

There’s the signal. Flitter transformed and started running toward the hidden zebras.

The two zebras startled as they heard the explosion. They stood up from beneath their netting and saw their sniper squadmate running toward them in a panic.

“We have to go. Now! They’re using explosives. Follow me!” he yelled.

The three of them ran for new cover, being led by Flitter, disguised as their fallen comrade.

~…~

Nyx and the colt stared at one another for a moment until the sound of an explosion snapped their attention away. She was thrilled that he was alive, but she knew her job wasn’t finished.

She dropped her shield, releasing the colt.

“Run!”

He scampered to safety, watching as Nyx tore off in the direction of the explosion. Hot tears streaked her face as she flew. Her thoughts raced, and anger burned within her as she considered what had just happened. Children. These monsters! How can anyone target innocent children? Was Brumby Ridge not enough blood for them?

She caught up with Rumble, and the two dived down to where they knew Flitter would lead the rest of the zebra squad. It didn’t take long to find them. Flitter had already given them the slip to scout for further threats.

Rumble and Nyx set down together and approached the zebras, who were visibly shaken.

Nyx felt an anger welling up within her that she had not experienced in years. As she slowly stalked toward the terrified enemy, her entire body began to give off magical energy, creating odd visual effects which darted across her black coat. Nyx felt a strange sensation in her horn, unlike anything she had felt in her life. It was as if a floodgate had opened up, and the vast, untamed power of the universe yielded itself to her command.

The zebras took up a defensive posture, each producing a staff that had glowing blades mounted on both ends.

Nyx didn’t even slow down. Her body shimmered, and her mane and tail moved about like fire. The laws of physics couldn’t decide what to do. Pebbles and stones near her hooves lifted off the ground, and the tall grass around her parted to make room as she walked by. Her hoofprints in the soil became like glass. Blazing, white eyes stared down the zebras, who were utterly panicked at the sight of what they could only imagine was some form of demon.

“WHY!” Her voice thundered. It was like a force of nature.

The zebras held their weapons forward, shaking. They glanced at each other, hesitating a moment, then began to charge. They managed only three steps before they were lifted off the ground. They began to scream, then burst into violent flames.

After a long moment, they fell to the ground and writhed around for over half a minute before lying still, continuing to burn. Nyx watched the scene unfold before her as the rage within her finally began to subside. The unfathomable power, which flowed effortlessly through her horn for but a moment, was now nowhere to be found.

Her heart ached, and the emotional tide swept away any form of self-control. Tears streamed from her eyes as she stood over the burning bodies. What had she done? What had just happened to her horn? What were zebras doing in Ponyville, and why were they trying to kill children? It was all too much. She collapsed to the ground and wept.