Elements of Harmony

by Starscribe

Chapter 12: Dragon

Twilight’s whole body was rigid with fear. Her horn glowed, and a dozen spells passed through her mind. Force dissipators, shields—but she settled on a teleport. King Sombra was entirely unmoved by her presence, not even startled. It had taken the Crystal Heart and all the Empire working together to beat him last time. She couldn’t do it alone.

Her horn flashed, and the world blurred… then her and Rainbow Dash smacked against the crystal wall, so hard that she went sprawling. Rainbow moaned, rolling over and staying still.

But Twilight was stronger than that—she caught herself on her hooves, landing and glaring up at King Sombra. “You put a dimensional interdiction on your tower?” She hadn’t felt him cast a spell, which meant it was in the building. Where did you get the power for that?

Sombra shut the book he had open, settling the quill back in its reservoir. He took a few steps closer to her, emerging in the full light of the crystal lamp overhead.

He was taller than she was, as bulky as the largest and most intimidating stallions she knew. His horn was unnatural and wickedly curved. Worse by far were the active spells she felt on him. Spikes of dark crystal sunk through his shoulders, his chest, down his spine, in ways that should’ve killed him.

Necromancy. That explained how the disembodied force she had fought with her friends last time had somehow acquired a body. He’d reanimated it. Not clumsily, like the hobbyists the Solar Guard sometimes caught in her own Equestria. This was no half-rotten zombie. If anything, he seemed stronger than an ordinary pony, more muscular and confident.

A king to rule an empire.

“Obviously,” he said, smilingly ruefully. She had never heard him speak before—and he was surprisingly charming. Friendly even. “When Equestria is your enemy, only the fool ignores what a skilled unicorn can do. Terribly expensive magic, perhaps, but it pays for itself whenever an assassin comes calling.”

He stopped, ten paces or so away. Twilight braced herself again, though her strength was already weakened from her escape. There had been no natural magic in the Crystalarium, so no ability to recoup her strength. In the presence of such darkness, she could barely reach her power.

“I’m not here to assassinate you,” she said. “I just want to leave. Go back to your book, and I’ll take my friend, and you won’t see us again. I promise.”

For a second, Twilight almost imagined he would do it. His expression turned, becoming contemplative. Then he sighed. “Every time I encounter a pony like you, I’m astounded at your naivete. Your civilization has become so soft in the centuries of my slumber. You imagine that every conflict can be solved with words.”

“Why not?” She took another step back, putting herself between Sombra and Rainbow. The pegasus was struggling to her hooves, but the impact had shaken her more than Twilight. She didn’t have earth pony strength to help resist injuries like that. “I don’t want to hurt you, you don’t have to hurt me. It’s like it never happened.”

Sombra sighed again, a little deeper. “And yet you moved my wife to betray me. As though she could escape the consequences of her actions. Oh yes, I’m fully aware of everything that has taken place. Equestrian spies smuggled from the border. I don’t know where you crossed, though I will find out. You’ll have to forgive her… Cadance gets like this sometimes. She’s an Alicorn, and so she insists on her independence…”

He shook his head. “So, she brought you here, asked too many questions about the Crystalarium, and tried to help you obtain one of my captives. I don’t know why this pony would’ve mattered to her so much… but that’s not important. My wife must learn that my will is absolute, just like the Empire has. You all must die—for her to see. It’s the only way.”

Sombra’s horn glowed dark green, and Twilight could feel the terrible energy behind it. She straightened, gritting her teeth. She hadn’t intended to fight here—she hadn’t planned on even meeting this pony. But she didn’t have a choice.

Sombra released his spell—a familiar stunning charm, one often used by medical ponies for basic surgery—but a thousand times more potent. Twilight moved to the side, pointed her horn. There was a flash of magic in the air between them, as purple met green. Sombra’s spell unraveled, its energy converted into flames right where Sombra was standing. Books caught fire, a few nearby shelves toppled, glass instruments shattered.

Twilight paced to the side, away from where Rainbow was still on the ground, unmoving. The pegasus was unprepared to help in this fight—her only chance now was for Twilight to keep Sombra’s focus as far away from her as possible.

Twilight was already preparing her next spell. A second later, the smoke cleared in a flash, leaving behind a unicorn in the center. Sombra no longer looked jovial and friendly—his coat had been charred away in places, and on one shoulder his crystal jutted straight from the bone. As she watched, the skin knit back together, covered the injury. His eyes repaired, and he focused on her.

“I was going to be merciful,” he said. “You had done no crimes of yourselves. Only Cadance needed to be punished. Not anymore. I’ll make it hurt.

While he was bragging, Twilight had finished her spell. A nearby bookshelf ripped up from the wall, zooming towards him with the force of a runaway train. It passed through where he was standing, smashing into the crystal wall hard enough that cracks spread from the place of impact. Books went everywhere, wood splintered and rained shards down all around her.

A faint smoke hovered in the air, where Sombra had been standing. His horn returned first, solidifying. Then the rest of him returned, more quickly than he’d healed last time.

Now he smiled, though there was nothing even remotely friendly about the expression. It was a leer. “You’re a bigger fool than she is,” Sombra said, his laugh shaking the library. “You don’t think Cadance hasn’t tried all this? You don’t think Nightmare Moon didn’t meet me in terrible combat the instant I revolted against her? I fought Alicorns and won! What do you think this is, an academy dueling class? You’re only still standing because she needs to watch you die.”

Sombra’s horn glowed, and this time the entire room seemed to darken. His eyes became red pits seeping dark smoke, which filled the air around him as a fog, hiding his movements.

Twilight tried to feel whatever spell was forming in there, biting her lip in concentration. She had about half a second before it emerged, blasting towards her so fast that she could do nothing more than one of Shining’s shields.

Her eyes widened with horror as the magic reached her, a swirling maelstrom of black and green energy, striking up against her shield and devouring it. She knew instantly why she hadn’t been able to feel what she was looking at—this was an anti-magic field, the most powerful version of it she’d ever seen. More necromancy, she realized.

She gritted her teeth, pouring more energy into the counterspell and backing away. But the magic seemed to be drawn to her, following her across the workshop.

“You are unprepared for this conflict, spy. You were wise to try and flee. Unfortunately for you, that isn’t possible.”

Cracks spread along the shield, and whole chunks of purple energy tumbled away. The storm lifted them up, like a tornado that devoured all magical energy. Past the borders of that spell, Twilight could feel nothing at all, her unicorn senses completely dulled.

“Equestria was a different place then. We were not so welcome in this world—the other creatures wanted to destroy us. Many of them tried. Those who survived grew strong. I was the greatest of all, so powerful that even Celestia could not permanently defeat me.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, and her horn flashed with a few more desperate counterspells. There had to be magic in that storm, some weakness she could exploit. There was certainly magic there, but none of it made any sense to her examination. Dark magic was so poorly understood in modern Equestria that she didn’t even know how to fight it.

Her shield faltered, and only a thin web of protection remained around her, closing in tighter and tighter. Beyond it, there was only oblivion. I’m an Alicorn! I can’t lose to him! Equestria is depending on me!

“The old blood is mighty, spy. It will rule the universe, in time. The changelings cannot feed on us. Once all ponies are like us, they will starve. We’ll bring back the sun, if we want to. We’ll eliminate all creatures who do not serve our purpose. Starting with you.”

Her shield shattered, and the storm consumed her.

Twilight woke some time later, her head pounding. Far worse than that, her magic was drained. Her limbs were heavy, and tight chains were around her back, holding her wings in place.

My wings? Sweet Celestia, the illusion spell! She sat up, though she lacked the energy to do anything quickly. As she rose, her head pounded again, threatening to knock her over with pain a second time. But she didn’t fall, and she could get a good look at her back. Her wings were there alright, wrapped tightly with a thin metal chain. From the look of it, the chain had been forged closed. It was loose enough that she could still breathe—barely. But any attempt to open her wings would be impossible.

She might be able to melt the chain off, except that her magic was still… gone. She could sense nothing—not the life of creatures around her, not the gentle reverberation in the thaumic field that penetrated all living things.

It’s like the Crystalarium. There’s no natural magic down here. He wouldn’t want unicorns using it to escape. Or apparently, Alicorns.

Her eyes still worked—she hadn’t been tortured while she was unconscious. The world around her resolved, and she was laying in the mud, with bits of jagged rock sticking up at irregular intervals. A massive stone door rose to one side, and a set of seats was almost directly in front of her. They were tall, like the performing stadiums used by the Wonderbolts. Totally empty, except for the royal box.

She couldn’t see the sky either, though in this sunless version of Equestria she wouldn’t have expected much. There was stone overhead, though what it was or how thick, she couldn’t have guessed. She hadn’t known of any structures so large in her own version of the Crystal Empire.

Far above, Twilight could just make out two figures in the gloom, one dark and one pink. The pink one was visibly shaking in her seat, occasionally turning to say something Twilight couldn’t hear. But whatever she was trying to beg, she was met with only stony silence.

At least Twilight wasn’t alone in the pit. There were four other figures down here, each one as bruised and dirty as herself. Rainbow Dash had metal chains around her wings just like Twilight did, though she looked even less likely to use them.

Rarity and Applejack had been given even less attention. Rarity had been tossed into the mud exactly as she had last seen her, gemstone encrusted dress and all. Applejack still wore the house-servant outfit of Princess Cadance. Poor Pinkie’s uniform had been ripped to shreds, and mud was smeared all over her legs.

“You’re awake,” said a voice from far above, magically amplified. “Excellent. We’ve been waiting long enough. Your companions have been anxious to die.”

Twilight could faintly make out Cadance’s voice up there now, however far away. “You don’t have to do this, Sombra. Put them in the Crystalarium. Wouldn’t it be better if you took Equestria’s tools for yourself?”

“You have taken that option from me, my dear,” he responded, back to the false-friendliness Twilight had first seen from him. “I would have. Reaching us here was obviously difficult. Whatever they did to corrupt you must be interesting. And the Alicorn… a terrible waste. But you must learn. If you ever do this again… you will watch them die too. Your allegiance is to me, and no others.”

“Even the alicorn?” Cadance said, desperate. “Please… she’s too useful. I’ll do anything. Don’t hurt her.”

“And that is why I must,” Sombra said. Then he leaned down, glowering at them all. “If I were you, I wouldn’t run. At least then your death would be quick.”

The doors on the far side—so large that together Ponyville City Hall could’ve passed through them—rumbled open. Twilight could see nothing on the other side, just black stone. Except… no, there was something out there. Faint flickers of green shone in the gloom, and a shape moved in the distance. A shape so large that the ground beneath her shook with every step.

“I have to say…” Rarity muttered, standing up straight and shaking the mud from the hem of her dress. “This really wasn’t the way I imagined a mission with an Alicorn going. Our secret plans overheard, even our leader overpowered by the enemy. I expected… more.”

“We’re not done yet,” Applejack said, glaring through the open doorway. “I’m sure Twilight had good reason for ending up here. Maybe this was part of the escape plan the whole time.” She lowered her voice. “I felt the sun on my face, Rarity. That wasn’t a lie.”

Maybe not, but just now their words cut deeper than any of Sombra’s insults. Cut deeper even than being so easily defeated. She’d known that he was a powerful dark wizard, but… this was worse.

“I don’t know you girls,” Rainbow Dash said. “But I think we’re lucky to die standing on our hooves. The other place is… worse. At least here we have some dignity. I just wish I had a sword in my hooves.”

“How barbaric,” Rarity muttered. “The warrior’s honor is well and good for stories, but not useful for the ones we leave behind.” She shook herself out, and her horn sparked faintly, casting nothing. Evidently, she was as drained as Twilight in that regard.

No magic, no way out… Celestia, what do we do? But her mentor was out of reach, trapped on the sun, and depending on her to get them out of this.

I lost to Sombra. I’m about to get my friends killed. If I die here, everything awful in this world will stay. Starlight Glimmer wins.

The distant shape began to resolve in the open doorway, as it got closer to the arena’s gem-lights. Even at a distance it was obviously reptilian in nature, with huge wings and spikes running down its back. It moved on four legs, but even still it towered over all of them. The huge doors overhead were barely large enough to let it inside.

The massive dragon stepped into the arena, and Twilight realized instantly why it had seemed so familiar to her. The purple scales, those spines… she’d seen this dragon once before. Once, when Spike had been entirely overcome with greed, he’d grown to this size and very nearly destroyed Ponyville.

“Spike?” Twilight whispered, looking up towards those huge eyes in desperation. Of all creatures, Spike had to remember her, right? She’d raised him—they had been together their whole lives. There wasn’t a creature in the entire world who was closer to her. “Spike, can you hear me?”

She stood up a little straighter, waving one hoof in his direction. “You remember me, don’t you?”

Somewhere far above, Sombra’s laugh filled the arena. Twilight barely heard his taunts, but still she heard him. She couldn’t get his anger from her mind. “You’ve lost your mind, Alicorn. Ferrum the dragon is a fearsome beast, one with a troubled history. But he escaped Equestrian captivity a few years ago, searching for a purpose. He didn’t know his own kind, didn’t know what he was meant to do in life. I gave it to him.”

The dragon seemed to recognize his voice, because Spike looked up towards where Sombra sat. Not friendly exactly, but not hungry the way he looked down at them. “Now, Ferrum. I have brought you an offering. Delicious ponies, fresh from Equestria. They’re all yours.”

Spike the dragon towered over them. As he approached, Rarity and Rainbow Dash had to scatter out of the way. Now she knew where all these jagged, broken rocks had come from. Spike’s steps shattered the stone floor wherever he went.

Then he roared, and Twilight very nearly went deaf right there. Her ears pressed flat, and she cowered low to the stone floor. This can’t be how it ends. I’m not going to get eaten by my own assistant. This can’t happen, it can’t…

But why couldn’t it? She’d failed to fight Sombra. She’d failed even to sneak out of his prisons. Why did she think she could fight the world and win?

Spike stomped over her, apparently distracted by one of the others. There was probably justice there too—Twilight wouldn’t have the mercy of dying first. She would have to watch the others go. And as soon as the first of her friends was gone, any chance of reversing Equestria’s destruction would be gone with them.

Spike’s attention focused on Rarity. She squealed, backing closer and closer to the edge of the arena, before tripping awkwardly on her dress. It tore on the ground, splitting right up the hem as she went down with a faint squeak. There was no way she’d be getting away now.

Twilight hid in Spike’s shadow, unable to look away as the nightmare took place before her eyes. She could give Rarity the respect of watching it, even if she could do nothing to stop him.

Rarity straightened, lifting one of her hooves. “Excuse me, Mr. Dragon. I’ve, uh… I’ve got a gift for you.”

To her astonishment, Spike froze, his jaws a head above Rarity. They didn’t close, though. Both eyes focused directly down on her, watching intently.

Rarity tore carefully at her dress, removing the largest gemstones near the breast. She held them all up in one hoof full, the gigantic amethysts largest of all. Spike’s favorites. In the case of her Spike, because they reminded him of Rarity.

The dragon leaned down, and a huge tongue emerged from between his jaws. He licked, and the gems vanished into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, then burped a few tongues of green flame out into the room.

“Yes, well. I thought you would enjoy them. I’ve heard around the castle that dragons are lithovores more than carnivores. Strange you wouldn’t be able to find something more to your tastes in this kingdom of rock-ponies.”

“Enough appetizers,” Sombra commanded from high above. “I brought you more ponies to devour. So, devour.”

Rainbow settled down beside Rarity. Applejack followed Twilight to join her, right in front of the dragon. If they were going to get eaten, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult for the dragon to hunt them down.

Even if there was no familiarity in those eyes, even if Spike barely seemed to see Twilight, it didn’t seem like he was very hungry anymore. At least, not for them.

“It seems rather inconsiderate to keep you down here, if you ask me,” Rarity went on, removing the other stones from her dress and offering those too. The fabric tore away from her back, finally giving up what little strength was holding it together. “But I’m quite good at hunting them down. Perhaps I could find you something more to your tastes? I have a spell I never perfected… but I bet if we could get out of here, I could figure it out. For… hunting the best gemstones.” She looked around, then seemed to notice something overhead.

Twilight followed her glance and realized what she was looking at. A skylight, a little bigger than a pony, covered with iron bars. That ceiling can’t be that thick. Twilight might’ve been able to break through it herself, if only she had her magic.

“I’m your master, creature of fire and flames! I gave you the hoard you guard. I gave you this lair, I fill your bowl with ponies when you hunger! It’s me you will obey! I command you to tear them apart!”

Instead of that, Spike lowered his huge head to the ground beside them, spreading his wings.

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble…” Rarity went on. “I would try to make it worth your while, Mr. Dragon.”

Spike grunted—that was enough.

“Guards!” Sombra shouted, his voice suddenly small and far away. “Guards, bring the siege weapons! The dragon needs to be reminded of his place!”

There was one advantage to Spike’s incredible size—he could easily carry five ponies, with plenty of room to spare. No sooner were they all on his back then he straightened, bracing massive legs against the ground far below.

Then he took off, and the whole cavern shook. There wasn’t very much room to fly, and the ceiling got closer and closer. If we get crushed up there, this won’t be much better than—

They didn’t get crushed. Spike seemed to realize the danger they were in, because he caught the ceiling with his claws, tearing the stone supports apart in a single stroke and catapulting up into the air. Ash billowed around them like snow as they shot up beside the city, its crystal spires quickly fading below. Arctic air billowed all around them, and little flashes of spells followed them up into the darkness.

But it didn’t matter—the city was far below, well out of reach.

“That way, if you wouldn’t mind,” Rarity called, pointing back towards Equestria with a hoof. “I know just the place we can find some wonderful gemstones. By the time we arrive, I should have time to recover my strength. And perhaps the duchess will assist me.”

“Well buck me with a rusty horseshoe,” Rainbow said, over the rushing wind around them. “You tamed a dragon. You don’t see that every day.”

“Tamed,” Rarity repeated, voice indignant. “I just showed the fellow a little generosity. Now all of us will have to make a point of informing him of our gratitude once we land.”

“Won’t be a problem with that,” Applejack said, awed. “I’m starting to see why we might’ve been friends in that other world.”

“Huh?” Rainbow asked.

Twilight was the last to climb off. She couldn’t say exactly how late it was, or how long they’d been on his back. Without the sun to help her relate the passage of time and after who knew how long unconscious, there was no way to know if it was night or Eventide.

In some ways it didn’t matter—it was the same chill wind, the same distant dusting of snow covering the world. The same frost collecting on her mane.

At least her magic started returning to her after a few hours. Once she had the strength, she cut away the chains binding her and Rainbow Dash. They didn’t fly on their own—the trip was too long, and the two of them were far too worn from the events in the Crystal Empire.

I hope that he doesn’t hurt you too bad, Cadance, Twilight thought, as her hooves finally settled on the snowy ground. She had seen this place before, though it had been years. This massive field of burrows and mines had once belonged to the diamond dogs. It appeared their time here was gone, at least judging by the pale bones she could see emerging from the snow in places.

“I think I know the spell you have in mind,” Twilight said. “You were better at tracking down gemstones than anypony I ever met.”

Better might be a tad generous for me,Rarity admitted. “But it was a subject of interest of mine, many years ago. Perhaps you could be of assistance to me.” She looked up, forcing a smile. “The duchess and I are going to bring you a reward for helping us!” she called. “Please, don’t eat any of our friends while we’re gone. We’ll be very grateful.”

The massive dragon must’ve been visible flying in, even from as far away as the Castle of the Two Sisters. But so far, Twilight had seen no sign of “friendly” guards scouting their way. She could only hope that Rainbow and Applejack would be able to handle any that appeared.

Twilight followed her friend down into the gloom. “That was… some quick thinking,” she said. The exhaustion threatened to crush her every moment, but she knew she had to keep walking. This dragon wasn’t just some brute she had to pay off. Some part of him was still her assistant, deep down. I’m going to fix the world for you too, Spike. Don’t you worry. This gift was something she could do for him. Possibly the only thing.

“Hey!” Rainbow appeared in the tunnel behind them, skidding to a halt with her wing. The old diamond dog caverns were plenty big for a pony, even if they’d obviously fallen into disuse. The tracks that had once been used for gemstone carts had gone rusted, and there were bits of broken mining tools everywhere. A few more bones, rock melted by magic.

“Hey, so I’ve had enough of dragons for a while. Applejack and Pinkie are gonna keep him company. It’s high time you all tell me what the hay is going on.”

“You mean rescuing you wasn’t enough?” Rarity asked, one eyebrow raised. “That ought to communicate whose side we’re on.”

“Obviously!” Rainbow tensed, flaring her wings. Twilight couldn’t help but grin—as beaten and bruised as this pony had been in the Crystalarium, it seemed freedom was rapidly transforming her back into the one she knew. “Also, I’m starving. Probably literally? I dunno. But it sucks and I hate it.”

“I can explain,” Twilight said, sticking out her wing to stop Rarity. “And… we’ll be able to get supplies soon, don’t worry about that. Once we settle things with Spike up there.”

“I’m not sure why you insist on calling him that.” Rarity’s horn swiveled slightly, pointing at a patch of blank wall.

“Because we used to be… close. I hatched that dragon, in my Equestria. He’s smaller than a pony there. Small, and kind, and helpful. I don’t know what Sombra’s magic has done to him.”

Rarity muttered something under her breath, and the rock shattered. A shower of gemstones rained out from inside. Rarity beamed, practically bouncing with excitement. “It does work! I knew I almost had it!” Then she straightened, clearing her throat. “I, uh… I’m going to find a container for these.” She wandered off.

Your Equestria?” Rainbow asked. “What does that mean?”

Twilight told her. She didn’t have the energy to go into the same detail she had with Rarity, and Rainbow wasn’t as instantly accepting as Pinkie. But she explained everything she could.

“And that’s why I need you five specifically, she finished. “All we need to do is find another pegasus named Fluttershy, and we’ll be able to put everything right. No more eternal night, no more Sombra, no more Chrysalis. Unfortunately, she’s… been the hardest to find so far. Nopony has heard of her.”

“Fluttershy.” Rainbow had lowered her voice to a whisper. She was suddenly right beside her, meeting her eyes. “Promise not to tell this to anypony else? Especially the unicorn. I’ve seen her in the castle before, she talks to the princess. If Nightmare Moon ever heard about this…”

“I promise,” Twilight said, glancing down the cavern where Rarity had gone. She heard something rumbling down the tracks, but it was still a ways off. From the sound of it, Rarity had gone to use her gem finding spell elsewhere, not just on this specific patch. “Go on, before she gets back.”

“I know Fluttershy,” she whispered. “I haven’t seen her for a long time, but… we went to flight school together, way way back before Equestria got all… ruined.” She glanced up again, and made sure Rarity wasn’t close enough to overhear before going on. “When I joined up with the Nightmare Battalion, she… she said she was joining something else. She wanted me to come out with her to the… the resistance.”

Twilight’s eyebrows went up. But before she could say anything, she felt a hoof settle into her mouth, silencing her.

“Don’t even say it, I’ve heard everything you’re thinking. How she’s a traitor to the cause, how could she even dream about fighting Nightmare Moon when she’s the only creature in the world who cares about ponies? How could she be so stupid, so cowardly. I don’t let ponies talk about my friends that way, and I don’t snitch on them.”

Twilight finally got her hoof out of her mouth. “Rainbow, I’m not going to snitch on her. I know you… you don’t remember, but she was my friend too. I’m sure she’s been doing great work out there. Do you… know how to find these ponies?” Ponies that I probably should’ve looked for the instant I got here, instead of working for an evil queen. Fluttershy was braver than me all along.

“I, uh… I might,” Rainbow admitted. “I might know where to find them. But if we go, I want your word that we won’t tell the unicorn the truth about it. Not until we’re already there. If she hears even a hint that we’re going to see the resistance… she’d skin us alive. I don’t know how much she believes your story, but… but it isn’t that much. I know her type.”

“I promise,” Twilight said. It won’t matter what any of you think, once we get Fluttershy back. So long as you can work together enough to use the Elements of Harmony… Then she’d be back through the map, and everything would be perfect. Everything she’d seen could go back to being a distant nightmare.

It was enough to go on. We’re going to put this right, somehow. Harmony is on our side. Starlight Glimmer has no right to do this to the world.

They returned to the surface with a rusty wagon overflowing with gemstones. Rarity seemed physically pained as she offered them to the gigantic Spike, who relished them far more than he would’ve any meat.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to you now…” Twilight muttered, once he’d finished. “I wish I knew what spell Sombra had used on you. I might be able to turn you back to normal.”

Now at least the dragon seemed to be able to hear her. He lifted his massive head, one eye focusing on her. In this world Twilight had failed her entrance exam, she’d never woken this dragon. But maybe that didn’t matter—maybe now that he wasn’t driven mad from eating the wrong food for months or years, maybe now he could think straight.

“The Dragonlands are that way, Spike,” Twilight called, pointing with one wing. “They’d be happy to have a dragon as brave as you. Go to them. Don’t go back to Sombra.”

Spike turned his attention on Rarity, where she worked beside the tiny fire they’d made from dry wood. They were boiling water to drink, using what scraps they could put together to make tea. It smelled watery and weak, but what choice did they have? They’d been out for so long…

“I’m afraid she’s right,” Rarity said. “I know you probably want to stay, but you can’t. If you remain here much longer, you’ll attract Nightmare Moon’s attention. My princess… always wants what’s best for Equestria. That would mean using you just like Sombra did. No. As much as that would help the war effort, that wouldn’t help you.” She pointed, imitating Twilight. “Duchess Twilight knows… something. You should listen to her. Go.”

Spike made another sad rumble, shaking them through the ground. But he seemed to understand—some of it, anyway. He took off, scattering snow and dirt, vanishing into the perpetual night.

Rarity watched him go, sighing slightly as he vanished into the darkness. A few moments later, Applejack lifted their makeshift mugs—stolen from the former diamond dog holes—full of tea. Twilight took hers in her magic, sipping. Pine needles, mostly. Old. But she drank it anyway, her stomach groaning in protest.

“Now, we’ve almost finished this… mad crusade,” Rarity said, once Spike was gone into the night. “How far away is our next destination?”

“Not very,” Rainbow answered, her eyes on Twilight. The message was clear: back me up if you have to. And she would. “We’ll need supplies to make it, but it’s only two days hike. And no, I can’t carry anypony. I can barely fly myself right now.”

“My factory isn’t that far,” Applejack said, settling her empty cup on the ground in front of her. “If we don’t want direct involvement from the crown… for entirely non-treasonous reasons, of course—we could skip the return trip to the castle and go straight there.”

Rarity’s eyebrows went up. “You know saying something that questions your loyalty and then adding that your loyalty is unquestioned doesn’t actually make your statements any better?”

Applejack grunted in response. “Come on then. It’s less than an hour’s trot from here. I’ll show you what Ponyville hospitality was like.”