Adagio could only stare at the gangly form of Master Tirek. Silence had gripped the the basement of the centaur’s devastated home at the implications of another mad alicorn being freed to join Chroma in her rampage.
“How do you know there’s another alicorn there?” Suri asked. “Who even are you?”
“I am Master Tirek. Wanderer and scholar from the far east,” he answered with a short bow. “Master Tirek helped seal the alicorns away,” Tirek answered. “I was there for each of the battles and fought against each of them!”
“Stars above!” Starlight gasped. “I knew it! It’s Bitterroot! The forest moves as she dreams!”
“You are not wrong...but Bitterroot isn’t trapped there.”
Starlight blinked, her brow furrowing. “Then who-”
“It doesn’t matter which one! We need to figure out a way to stop her before we have two alicorns to deal with!” Adagio interrupted.
“Chroma’s had a whole day’s head start on us though!” Aria exclaimed. “We’ll never be able to catch up with her on hoof and only two of us can fly!”
“Ah! If flight is what you need, then Master Tirek has the key!”
The centaur gave a sharp whistle, the note seeming to hang in the air for a moment with nothing to show for it.
“So...is the key invisible?” Aria asked.
Tirek rolled his eyes. “Any second now!”
Another second passed, before Lightning Dust pointed at something on the horizon. “Is that a cloud?”
Sure enough, it was a cloud. A golden tuft of a cloud came arcing over the the trees, leaving a glittering trail behind it as it shot towards them. Dropping into the basement, it aligned itself in the middle of the group. Everyone took a few steps back as it did, for the cloud was large enough that Tirek and a fair amount of supplies could fit on its surface. Or Tirek and six ponies for that matter.
Adagio walked forward and prodded its side, her hoof finding resistance like she was a pegasus. Starlight joined her, humming to herself as she examined it. “Hmmm. Like a cloud walking charm but on the cloud itself.”
“Cirrus is no mere enchantment! I won this magic item from the Monkey King of the Whitecap Peaks in a game of pai gow!” Tirek scoffed.
“....I have so many questions,” Starlight frowned.
“Ask them later!” Aria shouted, jumping onto the surface of Cirrus. “We have an alicorn to catch!”
Adagio and the rest of her friends scrambled to join Aria on the magic cloud, only to have to adjust their positioning again when Tirek clambered his way on, taking a seat in the middle of the fluffy surface.
“So...how do you make this thing goooooooo-” Adagio began, only to break into a shriek as Nimbus shot into the air at a speed far beyond that of a normal pegasus.
“Oh yes! Hang on tight! Cirrus has a bit of a kick to it!”
- - - -
Chroma dove towards the largest peak of the Dragon Rib Mountains. They were slate grey daggers jutting out of the carpet of green that was the Everfree Forest, the edges of the peaks, gullies and cracks as sharp as the edge of any gladius. Back in the days of Equestria, these mountains were the home of thieves, robbers, the occasional caprataur tribe bold enough to try and thrive within the nation’s border and- occasionally- dragons.
Angling her wings into a dive, Chroma dropped closer towards the slopes. It had taken her far too long to work out where at least one of her friends was hidden. In retrospect, Applejack being sealed away under the very forest she had helped summon was obvious. And while she couldn’t have done anything about it at the time, now she finally had the means to free her friends. A hoof strayed to the purple bag beating away in time with her own heart. The Rainbow of Darkness would help her carve through the rock and any enchantments the Elements of Harmony had put in place.
Dipping even lower, now she could see a patchwork maze of cobbled together wooden structures, tottering towers, battered totems and other crudely patched together bits of construction. The ramshackle easily covered half the mountain and Caprataurs swarmed over the whole wicked lot. Without the strong hoof of Equestria to keep the area clear, it had become a true capital of the caprataur presence in the Everfree.
Chroma’s rage began to bubble up from the depths of her stomach. All the battles she had been involved in against this rabble, all the sacrifices that she and Equestria’s legions had made and now it was for nothing! The caprataurs were all the stronger.
Worse, they were standing between her and one of her friends! Growling, she began to channel her reserves of magic, reaching out to all of her storm clouds scattered across The Heartlands. She could feel them, but in her split state she didn’t have the power to call them all to her current location. Thankfully, there were other means at her disposal. A casual flick of her magic opened the bag hanging around her neck and the magic within hungrily spilled forth. A miasmic black cloud began to swirl around her body as the Rainbow of Darkness added its considerable power to Chroma’s reserves.
Now, with a sharp mental tug, Chroma drew the storms directly to her. The sky above the Dragon Rib Mountains turned nearly pitch black as the clouds swirled and danced above her head. Thunder rumbled and lightning danced along the undersides of the clouds as the power continued to build.
The caprataurs began to react now, scrambling like an overturned anthill towards crude ballistae and catapults. But even as the boulders and missiles streaked into the air, Chroma paid them no mind. Continuing to channel,. Black and grey tendrils of magic rose into her massive thunderhead, bringing the churning lightning and crashes of thunder to a new height of fury and intensity. Hurricane strength winds began to rake across the caprataur settlement, picking up crates, boxes, ammo bundles and anything else not secured. As those caprataurs not blown away scrambled for cover, Chroma raised a hoof and then let it fall in a final declaration of intent. And upon her silent command, the over swollen clouds vomited forth lightning.
Bolt, after bolt, after bolt- most of them wide as a house- tore through the caprataur’s settlement. Wood was shattered to splinters and caprataurs were struck down en masse, much to Chroma’s glee. The rain of bolts continued to lash out indiscriminately, tearing through the crude city like it was so much paper. Soon enough, the bolts were joined by her legions of stormcrows. They chased down fleeing caprataurs adding to the general chaos, even as the sparks from her lightning strikes began to set what hadn’t already been destroyed on fire. As the crackling flames raced across the remains of the settlement, Chroma cackled with glee.
“Yes! Run! Run you filthy mongrels! Equestria strikes at you once more!”
She broke into a fresh round of laughter, doubling over as the flames swept ever onward through the caprataur city. Or she did, until three shimmering spheres of light crashed into her from behind. Chroma froze in shock as the disparate bits of her power merged back with her, bringing with them a cascade of conflicting voices and feelings. All at once, she found herself very acutely aware of the horror playing out blow her hooves. The uncontrollable snap and crackle of wood being devoured by the fire, mixing with the furious but yet still panicked cries of the caprataurs and the cheerful caws of her crows, to form a monstrous cacophony. It made her stomach churn with shame and revulsion. Instinctively, she dove towards the shattered remains of the once thriving city.
“No, no, no! What have I done? I…,” she muttered to herself. “I...I know they were caprataurs, but I never went this far before!”
But a counter argument was already snaking its way through her mind. That refusal to act was why Equestria suffered before Scorpan and Twilight showed me the truth. It was a necessary bit of cruelty for a greater kindness towards my own kind. Why feel sorry for the beasts of the Everfree?
“I fought with honor damn it! Where’s the honor in mass frying a bunch of civilians? Even if they are caprataurs!”
The venom like words returned though, twisting and coiling around her mind in time with the tendrils of the Rainbow of Darkness. They stand between you and your friend. They fight, pillage, and kill without remorse! Destroy them, crack open the damn mountain and free your friend!
Despite the conflict churning away in her heart, the thought of her trapped companion dragged Chroma forward. Landing hard on a (relatively) clear section of the slope, she shaped all the magic supplied by the Rainbow of Darkness into an arcane spear and thrust it into the side of the mountain. Rock and dirt squealed in protest as the dark magic obliterated it. Slowly and steadily, Chroma began to push her way into the depths of the mountain.
- - - -
“Hey! The rain’s stopped!”
Raindrops opened one eye, before twisting to glare at Apple Bloom. “What do you mean the rain stopped?”
“It just stopped! All the clouds are gone too!”
Blinking, Raindrops hopped over to the window and pressed her muzzle to the bars. The sun was indeed bright and shining, like the downpour that had threatened to wash the town away hadn’t even happened.
“I don’t think I see any of those stupid birds of Chroma’s either.”
Apple Bloom blinked. “Huh...wonder how long it’ll take before ponies start to realize that and do something about it?”
The answer to that question came quickly. A chorus of voices, sharp and shouting, began to rise at the far end of the street. In the next moment a horde of Ponyville’s citizens came storming around the bend, more than a few carrying torches now that there was no storm to snuff out the flames. And at the head of the angry mob was a familiar looking pair, Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet, the latter of which had a pitchfork clenched angrily between her teeth.
“...I’m beginning to wonder about those two.” Raindrops muttered to herself.
A few of the Everfree Rangers defending the prison dropped into view, their weapons raised and aimed at the mob coming their way.
“Disperse at once! Return to your homes!”
Despite the force in their voices, such a retreat didn’t manifest. Instead the mob of Ponyvillian’s roared in fury and surged forward in a wave. Now the Rangers fell backwards, their crossbows twanging as a pair of bolts was sent sailing into the crowd. Raindrops winced, as one of the ponies behind Sugarcoat fell, fuming at her own helplessness. At least until she noticed something flowing along the ground, in between the hooves of the charging ponies, sliding its way out from between the nearby buildings.
The shadows coiled around the bodies of the Rangers, before snapping solid, leaving them locked in black crystal.
“Oh my…,” Apple Bloom gasped.
The charging crowd came to a sliding stop, more than a few ponies managing to stumble and trip in the process. All eyes were on the pool of shadow that spread out around the trapped rangers and the dozen figures that rose from the depths. King Sombra stepped from the darkness with a flick of his billowing cloak. Eleven members of the Royal Guard followed behind him, their sturdy iron armor and brutal iron war shoes glinting in the sunlight.
“Would anypony mind telling me,” he asked after a few more minutes of very awkward stares from his subjects, “where Baroness Dazzle is?”
- - - -
The Everfree Forest whipped past so quickly beneath Tirek’s magic cloud that it was little more than a fluffy green carpet from Adagio’s point of view. Vaguely, the thought of asking Starlight what was powering this thing flitted through her mind. But no, that would have to come later. The threat of Chroma’s friends was the immediate concern. It had to be. The Heartlands was barely surviving one, let alone six! All else was secondary to stopping that nightmare event. And yet...and yet...
Those visions remained seared into her mind. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to look at Queen Chrysalis the same way again. Just what were changelings? How did one of their queens become the ruler of an Equestrian successor kingdom? Did she have a role in the collapse of Equestria? What did King Sombra know about all of this? So many questions. So many things she didn’t know. So many things she needed to find out! Despite the seriousness of their current goals, Adagio let her eyes drift closed and let her mind wander towards plans for eventually dealing with those other questions. At least, she did until she smelled the smoke.
“Stars above…,” Suri gasped.
“Woah…,” Aria muttered.
“That’s just not right,” Starlight said.
“This is bad,” Lightning grimly declared.
Sonata just whimpered.
Adagio opened her eyes. “...Stars above.”
They were approaching their destination, a towering set of mountain peaks rising out of the Everfree. But much to Adagio’s surprise, they were also approaching an ashen wasteland on the side of the largest peak. The amount of charred timber and the desert dune sized piles of ash pointed to there once being some manner of city having been built there. But now there was nothing...nor could she see anything moving amongst what was left besides the crackling dots that were Chroma’s stormcrows. Her angry stormclouds hung overhead, they and the rising smoke casting the mountain in such a gloom as to make the whole scene seem like a hunk of Tartarus ripped from the depths and deposited into the waking world.
“Just how many of those crows does she have?” Suri asked. “You know they’re going to swarm us as soon as we get close! And all they have to do is slow us down long enough…”
“Master Tirek will get their attention,” Tirek declared. “Just be ready to move.”
He stood up, bracing all four legs against the puffy cloud surface as he unslung the oversized bow from his back. Nimbus began to move even faster, the ruined settlement growing larger and larger with each passing moment. Adagio gulped, tightening her grip a few notches more as the collective dots that were the stormcrows rose into the air as one.
“Everypony gather close!” Starlight said. “I’m going to get us to the ground while Tirek deals with the crows.”
Part of Adagio wanted to object...but Starlight was her friend. “Okay Starlight. I trust you.”
It was difficult to move while the cloud was in the middle of its headlong dive but everypony, save Tirek, managed to crawl to Starlight’s side. Onward Cirrus dove, while the stormcrows wheeled and flocked towards them in one massive cloud. Starlight began to channel, the gem that was her Element glowing in tune with her horn. The familiar tingle of magic built up around Adagio, growing more and more intense, the closer they got to the onrushing flock. It was only at the last moment, just before Nimbus and crows were about to collide, that Starlight let her spell fly. There was a sensation of twisting, almost falling for a moment and then Adagio registered solid ground under her hooves again.
They were amidst the devastation the ash up to their fetlocks. Starlight had managed to land them near a jagged looking cave, running into the depths of the mountain. A relatively flat patch of mountain ground surrounded it, maybe large enough for a house or two to stand side by side upon. A few charred posts behind them pointed to a bridge having been there at one point, while a half collapsed pile of cinders and ash beneath a charred outline to their right pointed to what may have been a set of stairs before the conflagration. Perhaps more worrying and unmistakable though were the smoky tendrils of blackness that still clung to the cave edge.
“...That was made with magic,” Starlight glowered.
“And probably leads straight towards whichever stupid alicorn is down there,” Aria grumbled. “Should we go in after them?”
“Not on your life! In tight quarters like that tunnel, we’d have no room to move if we ran into them coming back the other way.” Lightning Dust argued. She pointed to one of the smouldering piles of wreckage. “It’d be better to hide out here and give them the full rainbow when they come out!”
Suri frowned. “Please tell me we’re not calling it that!”
“What’s wrong with full rainbow? It says what it is!”
“Focus girls!” Adagio said, interrupting the argument before it could get started. “Everyone take cover and get ready!”
They scrambled behind one of the collapsed piles, pressing their bodies low to the ground. At first, the only thing they could hear were the distant, angry caws from the aerial battle taking place high above their heads. But eventually, they could hear an echoing conversation coming back up the tunnel.
“Applejack and I were together for a while. After Rarity was captured we both headed far to the west before we got ambushed again.”
That voice was gentle sounding. So gentle sounding Adagio had a hard time picturing its owner as one of the legendary six alicorns that destroyed Equestria.
“That’s Luna’s territory these days. We’ll have to move fast. Sombra’s aware of my presence now and The Elements of Harmony have a new bunch of masters.”
Adagio closed her eyes, concentrating on the feelings she had when she first realized that the ponies at her side were her friends. A warm tingle flooded through her body and almost immediately she could feel her hooves beginning to lift off the ground.
Then she heard the growl.
Opening her eyes Adagio was surprised to find herself looking at a bunny. The white coated rabbit was perched atop one of the smouldering logs of the pile, peering at Adagio with its head cocked slightly in a curious, near questioning gesture. Deathclaw perked up from his perch on Aria and flared his wings.
Adagio frowned. “Shoo!” she hissed, waving a hoof at it. “Go away!”
The bunny blinked.
“Shoo!” Adagio hissed again. “Why won’t you go away?”
The bunny smiled with a vicious glee, its buck-teeth extending into true fangs, while claws popped out of the ends of its paws. It then launched itself off the log, shooting straight for Adagio with a blood curdling shriek!
“ASCRAIDS!” Adagio yelped. Instinctively, she went for her rapier, thrusting it at the fuzzy little death ball. To her horror, it pulled off an impressive mid air twist of its body, allowing the point to pass harmlessly by. In the next moment, it slammed into Adagio’s chest, knocking the breath from her body and the remains of her concentration from her head. She and her friends dropped back to the ground in a jumble, almost falling on top of each other in the process. The rabbit vaulted off of Adagio’s chest, doing a mid air spin before delivering a heavy kick to the side of Starlight’s head as she prepared a spell.
Starlight toppled backwards, landing hard on Suri, her magic missiles shooting high into the air. The accursed rabbit looked ready to pounce again, when Deathclaw came barreling down on him. Deathclaw’s talons managed to close around the rabbit’s neck scruff and he began to lift the little white monster from the ground. But, quick as a viper, he twisted in Deathclaw’s grip and sunk his fangs into one of the hawk’s legs. Deathclaw screeched back but released his grip all the same.
“Hey! Leave him alone!” Aria shouted, rushing the rabbit.
The rabbit let go of Deathclaw’s leg dropping back to the ground just in time to scamper aside from a heavy, gauntleted stomp from Aria. Quick as a flash, it then slipped between her legs and sprang up to kick Aria in the underside of her barrel. Aria grunted and rolled backwards, the rabbit circling around for another strike when the first voice they heard from the cave called out.
“That’s enough Angel Bunny.”
As quickly as they had appeared, the monstrous parts of Angel’s appearance vanished. The bunny turned, blatantly shook its stupid fuzzy rump at them, and hopped over to a tall, butter yellow coated alicorn.
Despite herself, Adagio’s breath caught in her throat for a moment as she laid eyes upon the newly freed alicorn...beautiful.
Long legged, with a coat that seemed to glow despite the gloom. A light pink mane hung in long curtains with tips coming up in gentle little curls. Even her cutie-mark was cute, being a trio of pink butterflies. Like Chroma, she still wore the accoutrements of old Equestria, but unlike Chroma it was less military focused. A clean white toga was wrapped around her body, while a victory laurel was perched between her ears. Despite her peaceful and beautiful appearance, Adagio knew better than to let her guard down. For Chroma had been joined by Echidna, Mother of Monsters.
Angel Bunny- surely the most inappropriately named rabbit in history- hopped onto its master’s back, still snickering at the earlier fumbling attempts made to stop it. Echidna rolled her eyes. “Angel, be nice. Rainbow told me all about them. It’s not these little ponies fault that they’re so easily confused.”
Chroma’s eyes narrowed. “They aren’t confused Fluttershy! They’re menaces!”
“Now, now. I’m not going to write off our perspective subjects without at least having a conversation with them first.”
She began to step towards them, pausing only when Adagio snarled at her, rapier raised. “Stay right there! The only talking I’m interested in doing, involves both of you surrendering.”
Echidna frowned. “Oh dear.” She glanced over at Chroma, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “Now I see what you mean.”
“We do have the Elements of Harmony now!” Starlight exclaimed. “I wouldn’t be so dismissive if you know what’s good for you!”
“The Elements of Harmony are impressive, it’s true.” Echidna smiled softly. “But they do suffer from one tiny little issue.”
Before Adagio or any of them could react, Echidna tapped out a loose pattern on the stone. The ground immediately began to rumble, the once sturdy stone and dirt shattering under their hooves. Adagio found herself hanging onto one of the larger chunks for dear life as the whole side of the mountain gave way. Down and down they went, swept along by the flood of scree and loose stone. The following few minutes were among the most terrifying of Adagio’s life as she struggled to stay upright and not be bucked off into the grinding flow of rock. She was vaguely aware of her friends shouting and screaming around her, but it was all she could do to hang onto her shard of rock.
“Hang on Adagio!”
Aria’s sturdy hooves wrapped around Adagio’s barrel and she was hauled skywards. Not a moment too soon. For a purple, serpentine shape poked through the flow of stone for the briefest of moments, before submerging again. Aria wheeled about carrying Adagio over to a more sturdy outcropping of stone, where the others were already gathered. A quick assessment of their surroundings revealed that they were a few hundred feet away from where they started and even deeper into the ruins of the caprataur city. The charred remains of another bridge stood just a little ways from where they were standing. At one point it must have spanned the narrow gap between their little rock and the sturdy looking great hall across the way.
“That ambush could have gone better,” Suri muttered.
“Gone better?” Aria exclaimed. “We got out flanks handed to us by a rabbit!”
“Yeah, well, it was Echidna’s rabbit! That has to count for something.”
Sonata shivered. “I’m more worried about that snake thingie. That thing made my coat crawl.”
“Probably a tatzelwurm. Mountains this wild and remote are lousy with them,” Lightning Dust commented, keeping her crossbow trained on the ground. “They burrow through rock, generally cause problems...and sometimes eat ponies.”
Starlight took a moment to glare at her. “...Thank you Lightning. I wasn’t worried enough about things trying to kill me today.”
“Better to know. Now you’ll know to shoot it when it shows it’s snout.”
Adagio was about to ask if anypony had managed to keep track of the alicorns during their fall, when Echidna’s voice called out from directly overhead.
“Aww. Poor little ponies afraid of my cute little tatzelwurm?” she chided. Far from the soft and kind tone she had been using when she first left the cave, now there was a snapping, mocking, cruel quality to her. Perhaps the previous kindness was a lie, or a remnant of the personality she had before Scorpan corrupted her.
Turning her gaze skyward, Adagio glared at Echidna and Chroma. One alicorn was bad enough! How were they supposed to deal with two?
“Jeese Fluttershy, a tatzelwurm? Don’t those things take years to digest their prey?”
“They do,” she shrugged. “So?”
“So? You turned that on living ponies! I mean, yeah, we gotta stop them. But that’s sheer torture you were about to do!”
Echidna sneered back at her. “Oh boo hoo! I was locked away for three hundred years thanks to those Elements! I’ll feed them to whatever I want!”
Chroma fluttered back from her friend, a pained wince clear on her features. The alicorn’s sudden hesitation seemed strange. Why after days and days of unending rain, the attempts to kill them, the mass slaughter of caprataurs would she be showing hesitation now? Adagio wracked her mind for an answer. Anything, even something small just might give them the edge they needed to survive!
Think Adagio, think! What’s happened to Chroma recently? She split herself, then we fought...in Tirek’s basement...
There it was. Chroma- or a part of her at least- had been exposed to the Elements of Harmony! She was at least partially free of the madness that clung to her. Enough to have doubts about her friend’s behavior. There was the opportunity. It wasn’t much, but it was an angle of attack Adagio could use.
“So, this is what the honor of Equestria is reduced to?” she called out. “Torture? Feeding your foes to monsters? I thought this was supposed to be a ‘glorious reclamation’!”
Echidna’s head whipped about to glare down at Adagio. “Quiet. The adults are talking.”
“Or what? You’ll sick more monsters on me? You’re already threatened the worst fate upon me and my friends!” Adagio then shifted her attention back to Chroma. “Is this the Equestria you imagined bringing back? One where where ponies would be thrown to monsters? You were even going to put me on trial for my ‘crimes’!”
“Don’t listen to her rambling!” Echidna snapped. She shot towards Chroma with a flap of her wings, almost pressing her muzzle into her friend’s face. “They’re enemies of Equestria! They’re your enemies! Show some of that backbone I know you have and help me strike them down!”
Chroma fluttered backwards some more, her pupils pinpricks as she stared at Echidna. “Fluttershy? ...You...you’re scaring me…”
“Scaring you? SCARING YOU?” Echidna roared. “You did everything you did to free me and now you’re scared?”
“Chroma…,” Adagio called. The alicorn managed to wrench her eyes away from her friend to look down at Adagio. Adagio stared right back at her. “Look me in the eyes, and tell me that’s the friend you remember and that you worked so hard to free.”
Chroma’s eyes flicked back and forth between Adagio and Echidna. “I...I need time to think,” she muttered, eventually.
Before Echidna could do anything to stop her, Chroma took off, soaring high into the air. It wasn’t long before her form vanished into the depths of the stormclouds overhead. Adagio allowed herself a victorious smile, polishing a hoof on the hem of her dress. One alicorn down, one to go.
Echidna hissed through clenched teeth, but then took a deep breath. “Well, aren’t you a clever little pony?”
Spreading her forelegs wide, Echidna began to sing, a teal magic aura playing around her horn. It was a light and airy tune, probably something that once helped carry young ponies off to sleep. But now the ground began to rumble and an intense buzzing sound filled the air. Rock and dirt were sent exploding skywards as a trio of tatzelwurms tore from the ground, their purple, serpentinite bodies swaying in time to Echidna’s tune. They surrounded the outcropping in a loose triangle formation, making sure that nopony could easily escape. But they weren’t the only kind of creature that answered her call. A multicolored swarm of fuzzy spheres, born aloft by translucent wings, buzzed and swarmed around Echidna.
“Parasprites?” Lightning Dust blinked.
Echidna’s song hit a high note and the monsters surged forward.
- - - -
“You there. You’re one of Baroness Dazzle’s guards, yes?”
It was still amazing to Raindrops how fast the remaining Everfree Rangers had been subdued. With them locked away, Sombra disappeared from view as he walked towards the prison’s entrance. The angry mob had watched the battle in a stunned silence and had fallen into a general milling about while their king investigated the building they had been so close to tearing apart. Though the presence of the Royal Guard certainly helped keep them and their emotions restrained.
King Sombra’s voice at the bars to her cell had almost made Raindrops jump right out of her coat. But now she turned to face the king’s question. “I am m’lord,” she answered, dropping into a deep bow. Apple Bloom watched the two of them, eyes wide and jaw hanging open.
“Where is she? What happened to Queen Chrysalis? Does Mayor Glimmer still live?”
“I don’t know exactly what happened to your wife m’lord. I saw Chroma banish her. Mayor Glimmer and Baroness Dazzle both still live...to my knowledge at least. They went to seek the Elements of Harmony.”
“...Come again?” Sombra asked.
“They seek the Elements of Harmony.”
Sombra’s brow furrowed as he mouthed the sentence to himself. After a few rounds of silent muttering, he fixed Raindrops with his intense stare again. “We are talking about the same pony here? Baroness Dazzle?”
“...And she marched into the Everfree forest instead of selling out The Heartlands for a better deal?”
King Sombra shook his head slightly but reached out with his magic. It took him a few moments, but he popped the lock and swung the cell door open. “What is your name?”
“Raindrops. Work with the guards I brought to keep order until I return.”
“Of course m’lord.”
Sombra gave a curt nod, sinking into a similar pool of shadow to the one he had emerged from originally. Raindrops watched it flow out of the jail fast as a rushing river.
“...How come you get ta be in charge?” Apple Bloom asked after a moment.
“...Let’s just find the keys and get everypony else out.”
- - - -
“Suri! Right side!” Lightning Dust shouted.
Suri threw herself to the ground just in time. The thick whip like tentacles of a tatzelwurm cracked through the air where she had just been standing. Suri grit her teeth, scrambling away from the hulking creature, even as she sent her enchanted needle shooting back at it.
Across the way, Adagio grit her teeth as the cloud of parasprites came around for another run on her. The little fuzzballs weren’t nearly as vicious as the tatzelwurms, but it was hard to concentrate on the chaos unfolding all around when they rammed into her en masse. There was no time to direct Starlight to unleash her fire upon them. She was struggling with one of the other tatzelwurms, galloping in a windy pattern to throw off their aim. Dipping into her magic, Adagio focused and sang a single note, one of the strongest she could muster.
A wave of magic and sound burst out from her mouth, slamming into the horde of parasprites. The insects went flying every which way, squeaking adorably as the magic scattered them like grain before a windstorm. Not that said scattering would last long. Not with Echidna’s singing constantly urging these creatures onwards.
“Adagio! Left!” Aria shouted.
The tentacles of the third tatzelwurm wrapped around Adagio, the creature immediately dragging her towards its gaping maw. She countered by swinging her rapier around, aiming for one of the wurms beady little eyes. Thrashed and yanked about however, the tip of Adagio’s blade dug into its rubbery purple flesh, just above the eye. The tatzelwurm bellowed in pain, whipping its body back and forth in an attempt to dislodge the source of that agony. But it continued to drag Adagio towards its gullet. At least until Aria dropped from the sky, landing on the tatzelwurm’s head with all four hooves. The beast roared again, releasing Adagio and rearing back, before vanishing back beneath the ground in a flurry of soil and gravel.
“Thank you Aria,” Adagio nodded.
“I couldn’t let you get eaten. That wouldn’t look good for me.”
“Wouldn’t look good for me either.”
An explosion echoed from behind them, as Starlight unleashed one of her fireballs on the tatzelwurm that had been chasing her. Right behind that spell, she wove another, summoning shards of ice and plunging them into the beasts side. Aria grimaced, sparing a glance skyward as Lightning Dust vanished under the mob of parasprites.
“...We’re up a creek here Adagio. When I was flying around up there, I saw a parade of monsters working their way up the mountain side. Drakes, manticores, basilisks...I even saw some one eyed beasts that look like a caprataur’s big cousin. If she keeps this up she might even wake up a star creature or two. We need to stop her control!”
Adagio nervously licked her lips. There was one possibility to undermine Echidna’s spell. Assuming her observations and guess work so far were correct. ...Still, options were few at the moment.
“I need you to sing.”
“...What?” Aria blinked.
“Just tell the others! After I channel, sing! Every time Echidna opens her mouth! Anything to disrupt her tune!”
Aria’s expression was doubtful, but she nodded and took wing again. With her friend spreading the word, Adagio set her hooves firmly against the ground and braced her legs. Drawing upon her magic, she quickly wove the enchantment. She didn’t want to alert Echidna to what she was planning, so she kept her verbal component as soft as she could get away with. Humming her way through the musical scales, low to high, would have to do. It was the concept of intensity and pitch that was important. The enchantment settled over her and her friends, almost wrapping itself around their throats. As it finished settling into place Adagio looked up at Echidna. Her yellow form stood out against the black clouds of Chroma’s storm. For a moment she was silent, perhaps gathering her breath for another round of song. Then…. A note, clear as crystal, rang out over the battlefield. The remaining tatzelwurms roared almost as if they were cheering on their master’s song. But then another song rose to meet it.
Alas my love you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously
For I have loved you so long
Delighting in your company
Greencoat was all my joy
Greencoat was my delight
Greencoat was my heart of gold
And who but my mare greencoat?
Adagio blinked, for that sappy love ballad flowed from Aria Blaze’s mouth. It was unmistakably her to, for Adagio’s own enchantment made it so her voice carried like they were in a small room rather than an expansive battlefield. Adagio twisted about to observe the tatzelwurms. They had paused in their pursuit of Starlight and Suri, their mighty heads slowly tracking back and forth as the tunes competed for space in their minds. Even the parasprites had given up their attacks, instead flitting about in time to Aria’s tune.
Echidna’s voice then began to rise over Aria’s, her tune becoming more forceful and quicker paced. The tatzelwurms began to shake the confusion from their heads, but now Starlight launched into a song.
There were three ravens sat on a tree,
Downe a downe, hay downe, a downe,
They were as black as they might be.
With a downe, downe, downe.
Then one of them said to his mate
“Where shall we now our breakfast take?”
With a downe, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
And then Suri.
I should leave a happy life, sweet creature
If only you truly realized
That you were the cause of all my concern
Mare of cheerful bearing,
Pleasing , bright and pure
Often the woe I suffer
To serve you loyally.
Echidna had stopped singing now and was glaring down at them with an expression that almost radiated fury. And then Lightning Dust decided to join in.
Every mare loves a bar and beer with foam so thick!
You know what else a mare loves?
A stallion’s big, sturdy, d-
Lightning’s bawdy tavern song (because where else would she have heard it) was a step too far for Echidna. A mighty scream of frustration escaped the alicorns lips as she dove towards the group, hooves outstretched. As she came in low, her horn began to glow as she summoned up a spell.
“Adagio! Move!” Starlight shouted.
Adagio threw herself to the side, looking up just in time to see the tatzelwurms go barreling past where she had been a moment before. Starlight, Suri and Sonata chased after. Starlight’s staff crackled with lightning. A near constant stream flowed from the staff tip, herding the tatzelwurms along as they tried to escape the source of their pain. Suri helped, jabbing with the tip with her needle. While Sonata...banged a hoof against her frying pan.
Echidna flared her wings, pulling out of her charge. But the tatzelwurms surged forward slamming their bulk into the alicorn. She toppled backwards, while the tatzelwurms- unbalanced by being near the edge of the outcropping- tumbled forward. Alicorn and monsters fell into the ravine below, a mighty crash echoing off the stony walls. Adagio ran to the edge of the ravine, peering down to see Echidna grappling with the very creatures she had summoned.
“Quick! While she’s distracted!” Adagio called.
Her friends ran to her side and she could immediately feel the magic beginning to swell within them. Once again they began to rise into the air, the rainbow motes of magic flitting between them as the power built. Echidna managed to throw the tatzelwurms aside, their bulk crashing against the mountain just as the Element’s power reached its climax. She scrambled backwards, eyes wide and panicked.
“R-Rainbow!” she shouted, turning and soaring into the air as the flowing rainbow of Elemental magic burst from Adagio and her friends. “HELP!”
A great boom echoed from the stormclouds overhead. Right on its hooves came an arcing rainbow that shot towards Echidna. The yellow alicorn was knocked aside, Chroma throwing herself in the path of the Element’s rainbow. It hit her in the next moment, the beam of magic carried onwards, sweeping Chroma away as it vanished over the horizon. With the magic unleashed, Adagio and her friends sank back to the ground, leaving the battlefield momentarily quiet.
Adagio almost collapsed as her hooves touched the ground. A sensation of exhaustion had settled over her, strong enough that it took every bit of effort she had to not pass out right then and there. Perhaps using the Elements twice in a day wasn’t the best idea. Still, she pushed through the staggering exhaustion. There was still another corrupted alicorn here.
“Again!” she shouted.
“Adagio...she’s gone,” Starlight answered.
Adagio blinked and actually examined her surroundings more properly this time. Indeed, Echidna was nowhere to be seen. Nor were her beasts.
“She must have fled when Chroma took the hit,” Aria frowned. “That’s just great. What are we supposed to do now?”
“Hey! Look!” Lightning said, pointing towards the clouds.
Chroma’s supernatural storm was breaking apart. The dark stormclouds fell apart, collapsing back into the water from which they were made. They were joined by showers of sparks as the stormcrows disintegrated. Without their master around to give them life, they too were crumbling back into their base materials. Warm shafts of noonday sunlight lanced through the increasingly tattered remains of the thunderhead, Adagio and her friends watching in silence.
“So...does this mean we won?” Suri asked as Chroma’s castle was exposed and began to list to the side as it crumbled.
“I...suppose,” Adagio frowned. She looked around at the ash stained landscape that surrounded them. Despite the bright and sunny they found themselves in, they were still sitting amidst devastation. Great furrows were still torn through the ground where the tatzelwurms had attacked them and she was sure that some of the lumps under the crushed and burnt buildings were caprataurs that had failed to escape the destruction of their home.
Chroma’s castle plummeted towards the ground, great chunks ripping away as it went. Like a wounded animal it twisted and thrashed as it fell, finally bursting apart into cloud vapor as it crashed into the Everfree.
“It doesn’t feel like we won,” Suri sighed.
Adagio was about to agree with her, when she noticed the white winged butterfly she had seen before flutter into view. It did a slow circle around the group before landing in front of them. As it touched down though, the little insect was engulfed in a brilliant white glow. Adagio shielded her eyes, only daring to peek past her hoof once the blinding light had faded. Queen Chrysalis ruffled her wings, bowing her head.
“In my experience, victory does have that tendency to leave an ashen taste in your mouth,” she said, sorrow clear in her voice.
Force of habit and tradition pulled Adagio into an immediate bow, a gesture followed by her friends.
“Rise, please,” Chrysalis said. “You six have risked and suffered enough on this journey.”
Adagio and her friends rose, though none of them jumped to talk ahead of their queen. Chrysalis stared down at them, nervously ruffling her wings.
“The Elements of Harmony,” she eventually settled on. “I have to admit...even when I urged Adagio to begin this journey, I wasn’t sure if you would be successful. But you have all greatly impressed me with your tenacity and the bonds you have forged with each other. You have managed to reawaken power that has slept for almost three hundred years.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Adagio said, dipping her head into another quick bow.
“Wait…,” Aria frowned. “Your majesty...you were the butterfly Adagio kept seeing in the forest?”
Chrysalis nodded. “Indeed I was. When Chroma attacked me in Ponyville, I was close enough to Adagio at the time to impart the barest spark of my power to her. Enough to provide...an anchor of sorts to the waking world, even when banished. I gave Adagio what hints I could. When I was lucid enough to do so.”
She paused for a moment, tilting her head slightly. “It was...difficult to make out entirely what was happening at times. When you touched the Element of Magic, for instance.”
She knows, Adagio thought. Her face remained a mask, but inside her heart was racing. She knows the Element of Magic talked to me, even if she doesn’t know the content. Fishing for answers, maybe?
“Adagio...you didn’t happen to see anything while in contact with the Element of Magic?” Chrysalis asked.
She was definitely fishing. Considering that nature of the visions she had seen when under, Adagio was willing to bet her whole fortune that Chrysalis was trying to work out if she had seen those images of her insectile past. And until she knew the truth of those visions there was truly only one option at Adagio’s hooves.
“Just…nightmares of what would befall The Heartlands if we failed. They were...vivid enough that I was convinced I had failed at first.”
Not a complete lie. Even if she had actually had that nightmare when unconscious in Ponyville’s healing house.
“Mmm...a grim fate, I’m sure.” Chrysalis looked up at the bright sunny sky and then back at the ruins of the caprataur capital. “It would be wise to return to Ponyville. Though I should let my husband know that I’m okay.”
A quick channel from her horn sent off a green tongue of flame that shot into the air and quickly out of sight.
“What about Chroma?” Starlight asked. “And Echidna?” She scanned the sky for a moment, frowning deeply when she didn’t spy what she was looking for. “And did anypony see where Master Tirek got to?”
“Master Tirek is, and always has been, a wanderer at heart.” Chrysalis smiled. It was light and genuine. “Now that he is no longer honor bound to guard the Elements of Harmony, I imagine he’ll be wandering off to go on another adventure.”
The smile was quickly replaced with a deep frown, however. “I shall search for Chroma. The Rainbow of Darkness is not something that should remain roaming free. ...Echidna will have to be prepared for and dealt with in time, I’m afraid.”
She took to the air with a flap of her wings. “Stay here. Sombra should be along quickly once my message reaches him.”
With that, she turned and took off like a shot, quickly vanishing from sight. Adagio frowned as she left, a single question burning through her mind.
What are you hiding?
- - - -
A fresh round of sobs shook Rainbow Dash’s body. The alicorn...ex-alicorn now, curled herself into an even tighter ball as another wave of misery crashed upon her. For the first time in centuries, Equestria’s martial Lady of Loyalty could see things clearly and face the truth of her actions.
Oh, how the magic of the Elements of Harmony had hurt. It had washed over and snaked through her body, burning away every last bit of Scorpan’s corrupted magic. Stripping away her unearned alicornhood in a matter of moments and leaving her just a pegasus again. Not that Rainbow Dash cared about that. Not now.
It was the faces of everypony she had ever hurt that was currently seared into her mind. Every incident of madness induced pain she had inflicted upon the world she had once cared so much for played out in her mind over and over again. Thousands of lives cut short. Even more ruined. Many had everything they had ever owned or built swept away in her storms. Others had suffered mental anguish at her hooves. All of it was wrong...but she had thought it right at the time. All because of Scorpan, his hunt for power and the Rainbow of Dark-
Rainbow Dash’s eyes snapped open, her hooves flying to her neck. No thick twisted cord. No bag that beat in time to her own heart. Panic gripped her mind, pushing the misery over her monstrous actions aside for the moment. Scrambling to her hooves, she frantically searched the forest clearing she had landed in with red, puffy eyes. She just knew it had to be around here somewhere. Unless the Elements of Harmony had managed to burn it away to nothing? Somehow, she doubted that. She wasn’t a lucky enough pony for that to be the case.
There! The bag was resting just behind a large rock. She flitted over to it, her hooves closing around the heavy, jagged stone. The Rainbow of Darkness pulsed away no worse off than it had been while tied around her neck. Rainbow Dash shuddered. Even without touching it, she still felt oily and dirty. The Rainbow of Darkness was perhaps the darkest of dark magic and she had been wearing it like jewelry!
There was only one thing to do. Take it back to Chrysalis and Sombra so they could safely lock it away. Maybe beg for mercy while she was at it. Shuddering, she leaned down to pick it up as carefully as she could. But before she could, a white blur cut across her field of view, taking the Rainbow of Darkness with it.
“Hey!” Rainbow exclaimed.
It didn’t take long for her find the blur. The snow white figure of Angel Bunny was perched on a nearby fallen tree branch. The rabbit idly passed the the Rainbow of Darkness from paw to paw, a mocking smirk on her his muzzle.
“Oh no you don’t!” Rainbow shouted, charging after him.
Angel Bunny snickered and dove into the underbrush. Rainbow Dash stayed right on his tail, weaving her way through the trees. At least, she did until a sky blue magic aura grabbed her and slammed her against one of said trees. She could only struggle helplessly as Fluttershy stepped into view. Angel Bunny hopped neatly onto her back, tying the Rainbow of Darkness into place around her neck.
“Fluttershy! Put that thing down! It’s dangerous!”
Fluttershy stroked it gently for a moment. “No more than any of us. And I need it to free the rest of our friends.”
“That thing is wrong!” Rainbow shouted, twisting helplessly in her friend’s grip. “Scorpan lied to us!”
Fluttershy sighed. “Oh dear...I was going to ask you to join me. But it’s clear that you’ve become tainted by the Elements of Harmony.”
A burst of magic slammed into her stomach, knocking the words and air out of her. Another trio of bursts impacted into her head, knocking Rainbow around like a rag doll. Blackness began to overtake her senses, her friend’s assault wounding her just as emotionally. Before sinking into complete unconsciousness Fluttershy hissed some final words into her ear.
“You always were the weakest of us.”
- - - -
“So, Adagio, why did you lie to the queen?”
Adagio blinked at Aria’s question, before pushing the surprise from her mind. Aria was Honesty after all. Sparing a quick glance at their surroundings to make sure that neither Sombra nor Chrysalis were eavesdropping, she explained as quickly as possible.
“I’ll tell you when we get back to my manor. The Element of Magic showed me something about her. Before Chroma and her friends were corrupted.”
“Are you saying she’s involved?” Starlight asked.
“Maybe...I just don’t know right now.”
Starlight was about to ask another question, but Adagio held up a hoof. “Later.”
Starlight pouted, but kept her question to herself. The rest of her friends also seemed concerned, but likewise held back any questions they had about Chrysalis. It was a good thing that they did too, for not long after King Sombra arrived. He came flowing in as a cloud of shadow condensing back into his alicorn form directly before them. Adagio dropped into a bow, her friends following suit. She could almost feel Sombra’s eyes on her as he carefully looked them over, his expression neutral. Then he sighed.
“My wife is never going to let me hear the end of this.”
“Only because I told you to not underestimate Adagio, honey.”
Chrysalis dropped from the sky, next to Sombra. They shared an affectionate nuzzle, the presence of their subjects forgotten as they met again.
“I was worried,” Sombra sighed after the moment of tenderness passed.
“I know,” Chrysalis answered. “But I truly had no idea Chroma would be paying us a visit.”
“Chroma...did you find her?” Adagio asked, rising out of her bow.
“I did not,” Chrysalis sighed. She stared past Adagio, peering at a point in the now clear blue sky. “Chroma always was fast. If she doesn’t want to be found, she’ll easily be able to escape. I am more concerned with Echidna. We will have to inform Equestria’s other successor states. She won’t hesitate to move against them.”
“Then let us return to Ponyville,” Sombra declared. “Once Baroness Dazzle is back in control of her barony, we can see to other plans.”
“Ugh. Not looking forward to trudging all the way back through the Everfree,” Aria grumbled. “It took us at least a day to reach Roam, never mind wherever we are now.”
King Sombra chuckled. “Worry not. There’s always….my way.”
Aria raised an eyebrow.
- - - -
The journey back to Ponyville was conducted via King Sombra’s shadow magic. It was fast, zipping from shadow to shadow, wrapped in a larger mass of the stuff. A journey that would normally take days was cut down to hours. It was also incredibly unpleasant, feeling not unlike being partially smothered by dozens upon dozens of pillows at the same time.
To Adagio’s great relief, Ponyville had not been washed away while she was gone. There was damage, yes. Some of the fields would need to be replanted and she could already tell that she’d be making an official request for relief from the crown before the day was done. But it was here and mostly intact. There would be time to rebuild and recover.
As they trudged through one of the open gates, she was so focused on the what that would all entail that the growing crowd watching their little procession escaped her notice at first. At least until a raucous cheer tore through them, followed quickly by the babble of the rumor mill.
“The queen returns!”
“With the baroness!”
“Look at their outfits! Oooo! So shiny!”
“And that jewerly!”
Normally, Adagio would have reveled at such attention. But for now, all she wanted to do was get home. So she smiled and waved as they marched all the way across town to her manor. On the way, she spotted her guards lingering in the crowd, uncertainty hanging about them like stormclouds. There would need to be a conversation and possibly an apology there. The journey only stopped once they were back at the manor and Adagio slammed the door closed behind Sombra and Chrysalis. Slumping slightly, she stumbled into her sitting room and threw herself onto one of the couches. Yet, just as she lay down, Queen Chrysalis coughed.
“Baroness Dazzle, while you and your friends have certainly deserve a rest, there is some business we have to discuss first.”
Adagio mentally sighed, but stood. Queen Chrysalis looked her and her friends over before speaking. “Kneel, please.”
Adagio knelt, as did her friends. Though they wore their confusion on their faces...save for Starlight. She was keeping her emotions under control.
Chrysalis looked them over again, before shaking her head slightly. “Normally, I’d wish to make more of a ceremony out of this...but that will have to come later. I wish to make this offical now.” A small flare of magic jumped from her horn, forming into an ethereal sword. “In the name of The Heartlands,” she began, tapping each of them on their withers in turn, “By the will of Harmony, I declare you their protectors and name you Knights of Harmony.
Sonata, Suri and Aria gasped. Lightning simply murmured out a simple “Thank you.”. Starlight bowed even deeper. Adagio bowed deeper as well, though the vice like sensation had returned to her heart. Knights had their own obligations of service to the crown, especially when it came to the protection of The Heartlands. Of course, being the bearers of The Elements, getting called upon to fight Echidna and the rest of her lot was probably inevitable. But now there were social chains connecting them to the Queen. And if she really was still the monster she had seen in the past….
She snapped back to the immediate reality of the room. “My apologies your highness. My mind was wandering.”
“I was simply saying that this will mean that Suri is released from her contract. She can not be owned by you and be a knight at the same time.”
“Of course your majesty. In fact,” she smiled over at one of her oldest friends and confidants. “I had already been planning to release her.”
“I am most happy to hear that,” Chrysalis smiled serenely.
“And you, Lightning Dust,” Sombra said, fixing the pegasus with an imperious gaze. “As one of the few Everfree Rangers that remained loyal to the crown, you will be instrumental in helping rebuild the order. As such the Ponyville chapter and its lodge are yours to restore as you see fit.”
Adagio mentally winced. Another reward, but another chain at the same time. Lightning Dust stammered for a moment then nodded numbly.
“We’ll be in touch Baroness Dazzle,” Queen Chrysalis nodded. “I leave your barony in your...quite capable hooves.”
With that the rulers of The Heartlands teleported away, leaving Adagio feeling very uncertain about the future.
“So...Adagio, what do we do now?” Starlight asked.
Adagio considered the question, but before she could answer it her ears flicked towards the sound of a door opening. Turning, she rushed towards the foyer. There at the top of the stairs stood a heavily bandaged Iron Will.
He blinked a few times, still looking a little worse for wear. “Adagio? Where did you get that outfit? Where’s that angry alicorn? ...What in Tartarus did I miss?”
A few tears of happiness leaking from her eyes, Adagio took the stairs two at a time. She embraced her faithful bodyguard, hugging him as tight as she could, just in case he’d somehow vanish.
“Okay...can somepony tell me what I’ve missed?”
Adagio allowed herself a small smile. She had the feeling that, somehow, everything would be alright. After all. She had her friends.