There was something surreal about returning to Ponyville’s corpse. It wasn’t that the village had changed much since their last visit—there wasn’t any new decay, none of the structures had fallen down, and the liberal layers of ice on various surfaces were still as thick as ever.
But now Twilight knew better. What she had taken for isolated destruction was in-fact a blight on the entire planet. The suffering these ponies had felt was only the beginning. But we’re close to ending it. Remember that, Twilight.
She could only imagine what Applejack must’ve felt returning here, to a town she would’ve watched fall apart.
But as much as a Twilight in better condition might’ve let thoughts like that weigh her down, this Twilight was far too exhausted and hungry to let it disturb her too badly.
They arrived at the factory, having to help a beleaguered Rainbow Dash to make the final climb. The farmhouse had changed little, despite the industrialization to everything else. Applejack removed some apple-leftovers from the fridge, and while they ate she worked on the floor above.
“We keep cots and bedding for seasonal workers whenever they get assigned. Never know when the crown is going to want us to make the harvest, for whatever’s left of the seasons. We can head off to rescue our last pony after a good rest.”
Many of the ponies left right away, Rainbow first among them. Twilight didn’t blame her—the poor mare had been through the worst, and also knew them the least. A rescue had earned her loyalty, but could they keep it?
As the ponies ate their fill and wandered upstairs, Twilight found she was the last to linger, about when Apple Bloom emerged from the kitchen door. She wore a hairnet over her mane, and sanitary wraps on her hooves, evidently heading in straight from the factory floor.
She froze in the doorway, dropping into a bow the instant her eyes caught sight of Twilight. “Forgive me!” she said, her head on the old wood. “I ain’t got no idea we had such fancy—”
Applejack jostled her sister in the shoulder. “Relax, Apple Bloom. She isn’t what you think. An Alicorn, but… not sent to punish or judge us. She’s the reason I’ve been gone the last few weeks.”
Apple Bloom rose, her eyes still narrowed. “If ya say so, big sis. I ain’t so sure about…” She was trying to whisper, but seemed no better about knowing the volume of her voice than Twilight’s experience with her. Like Sweetie Belle, she could make out no sign of a cutie mark. She was otherwise the same age as the Apple Bloom she knew, though her mane wasn’t as soft with shampoo, and she was already showing the lean muscles of hard work. Equestria didn’t have the resources to indulge in proper childhoods anymore. “Did ya really have to bring her here? You know how they are. Can’t resist stickin’ their nose in everything.”
She sounds more like Applejack than Applejack. Twilight almost burst out laughing, but she swallowed another bite of apple pudding, forcing it down. It made sense, based on what Twilight knew of Applejack’s cutie mark story. Didn’t make it feel any less strange.
“We won’t be here long,” Applejack said, embracing her sister. “Unfortunately. But if you’re a little more patient, I promise it will be worth it. Our mission is… important like you wouldn’t believe. I know you barely remember… but this pony is going to put Equestria right again. You’ll see.”
“I trust you,” Apple Bloom whispered. “Just be careful, sis. You can’t forget what they’re like.”
Twilight encountered no further issues with the earth filly, even if she did avoid her in the farmhouse and seemed absolutely terrified whenever she caught her alone. But Twilight wasn’t here to win her over—just to get a good night’s rest.
When night—or Eventide, she still didn’t know—came again, Twilight rose with the others. She got cleaned up, then ate another hot meal of apple-flavored oatmeal. It was a small thing, but enough to make the terrors ahead of them seem a little less frightening.
Applejack packed cans of Apple Farm food for the trip, loading up saddlebags for each of them. They wouldn’t be traveling with the finest military tents and sleeping rolls this time, just whatever they could find around the house. But the fewer questions we have to ask Nightmare Moon, the better.
They would still have to return to the castle when this was all over, to get the Elements of Harmony from storage. After that—well, she could figure out how to cast the spell without attracting Nightmare Moon’s attention a little later. Maybe they could somehow manipulate her into thinking they weren’t ready, then let Twilight slip away.
It was a plan to make another day. For all she knew, Fluttershy had already been eaten by a dragon.
“I’m sure she’s somewhere out here,” Rainbow said, gesturing off the edge of Applejack’s old Ponyville map. It was towards the Everfree, much further south than the Obsidian Fortress and its occupants. No telling whether that would be quite far enough to avoid its patrols. “That’s where she always said she was going.”
“That’s… very harsh country,” Rarity said. “The Everfree Forest still grows that way. I don’t know how—nopony knows how the trees survive without growth crystals or management from earth ponies. But they do, and some of the old predators probably made it there too. Are you sure this is… wise?”
“We made it back from the Crystal Empire,” Applejack answered. “Even when it looked like we were doomed. We got captured twice, and rode a dragon. I’m pretty sure we can survive a few Timberwolves.”
Rarity turned up her nose, but didn’t argue the point.
“It’s quite far,” Rainbow went on, once it was clear she wouldn’t get interrupted again. “Had to be further than the patrols go out, obviously. And finding somewhere safe in there isn’t easy. Trees are too thick to scout from the sky. There are lots of dangerous plants in the canopy, which means you basically can’t fly in and out whenever you want.”
Unless you can teleport past it, Twilight thought. But she would keep that potential to herself.
“I’ve packed four days,” Applejack said. “Two in, two out. Assuming this pegasus is in there—and I think after all we’ve done so far, our odds are pretty good—that should be enough to find her, then get back.”
“Then we save Equestria, right?” Pinkie asked, beaming. “I’ve been thinking about some ways we could celebrate. Do you want to hear the song I’ve been working on? It’s about the sun—”
“No!” Rarity exclaimed, stomping one hoof on the table. She cleared her throat, sitting up primly. “I mean, no. That wouldn’t be wise, Sargent Pie. Why don’t we just… focus on retrieving the pegasus. We’ve already accomplished some amazing things. Hopefully not so much that Sombra retaliates.” She looked sidelong at Twilight, wincing. “We’ve been, uh… fairly close to a negotiated cease-fire. But that stunt may’ve bloodied his nose sufficiently that he no longer wants to indulge us.”
But there was nothing they could do about it now. Besides—the act that they were actually working for Nightmare Moon was bound to break down. It only had to last long enough to send Twilight back in time.
The Everfree Forest began as she’d seen it before—with burned stumps, felled trees, and death. As they traveled further, Twilight caught her first glimpse of something growing—not green, as she was used to, but faint purple. Leaves spread out to cover the ground, with no trees at all yet.
It can’t be living on moonlight, can it? There’s so little energy in that, thousands of times less than sunlight. Maybe it was some other magic—but regardless, it was the first hint she’d seen so far of the natural world enduring what Nightmare Moon had done to it. Even with no particular love of a forest that had trapped and threatened her on more than one occasion, it was still heartening.
They saw a few signs of guards passing high overhead, flights of bats surveying the ground from above. They either didn’t see them traveling through the Everfree, or didn’t care. But Twilight realized there was something that did bother her.
“Rainbow, you’re… I know you don’t remember me that well, but I have to ask. You’re a bat now.”
“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow. “Obviously. Better night vision, more adaptable diet, better fighter. It’s the sacrifice many of us made for Equestria.”
“Spoken like a patriot,” Rarity said. “We’ve all sacrificed something to survive this war. But together, we’re winning it. Nothing matters more.”
“Well…” Rainbow rolled her eyes. “You’re right that we’ve got to win. Our choices are going into slavery in a crystal mine, or get slowly eaten by changelings that feed on all your emotions until you’re a withered husk. So yeah, we’ve got to win. Doesn’t mean I like it.”
Her wings shifted uneasily—the one prosthetic with its cloth instead of skin, then the other that looked like so many others. “Did it… hurt?”
Rainbow looked away, all the answer she needed. “Less than the Crystalarium.”
But what’s bothering her so much?
Twilight struggled to find a way to ask, but it seemed she wouldn’t need to. Rainbow went on.
“I spent my whole childhood with two dreams—the one I knew I could have, and the one that I probably couldn’t. Turns out the impossible dream was almost within reach, but the simple one got taken away. Worst… worst thing about being a thestral is we just don’t have the same control over weather that pegasus ponies do. Breaking clouds is… harder. Getting together a storm is almost impossible. That’s why Nightmare Moon hasn’t changed the whole country. We need both. I took it for granted that I would work in weather, and… now I never will.”
“But you were going on secret missions!” Pinkie said, helpfully. “Adventures behind the lines, saving the world… isn’t that fun?”
Rainbow still wasn’t meeting their eyes. “Maybe one day I’ll make Shadowbolts. Guess that depends on how we do with this mission. Saving… everyone? Guess they won’t need the Shadowbolts once we win both of the wars.”
“Have both day and night again,” Applejack added, her voice a whisper. “Can’t wait for that part. I think everypony will be happier once we’re finished.” And so they walked.
The strange purple underbrush was broken up ahead with the stalks of trees. Or… maybe “tree” wasn’t quite the right word. They were built around trees, twisting and curling around dead wood with their soft lavender flesh. Leaves of blue emerged from dead branches, soaking up the—moonlight? Faint blue lines traced the flow down their leaves, making the whole forest up ahead glow almost as brightly as the moon.
“I’ve heard about this,” Rarity said, seizing on something that wasn’t princess-related. “An… adaptation. Harvesting magic during Eventide, and somehow growing during night. That’s the real reason why this forest was allowed to survive. The princess is hoping we’ll be able to transplant it. Revitalize the uninhabited parts of Equestria, and lower our dependence on growth crystals.”
That won’t save us, Twilight thought. This world is still doomed. How long until all the air runs out, without the ocean to renew it? There were biologists in her Equestria who could’ve answered those questions. She guessed they would all be fighting Sombra now, out on the front line somewhere. Or maybe they’d been eaten by changelings.
“Is it… safe?” Applejack asked. “Even before all this, my family warned me about the Everfree. Seems like Equestria going to war against it wouldn’t be making it like us anymore. We aren’t going to be… attacked, are we?”
Rainbow shrugged. “Fluttershy wouldn’t have. She’s got a way with animals you wouldn’t believe. Like… her own kind of magic. Without her, this won’t be easy. Nothing that should give us too much trouble, after fighting off a dragon on our own.”
“Not quite fighting, but…” Rarity nodded reluctantly. “I see your point. We’ll certainly have a better chance at this than we did when this adventure first began. Might as well put all our talents to good use.”
The strange trees didn’t leap out at them as they pressed deeper into the gloom, though once under the canopy they did obscure the stars, replacing them with another light. It might’ve given them trouble navigating, if Applejack didn’t have a compass they could use for reckoning. Rainbow knew how to navigate, and she had some idea of where they went. “I always planned on visiting, if I got off. Maybe… after getting some leave for a mission well done. Or… surviving a few months as a prisoner of war.”
There were more than just trees and bushes that had adapted to the new environment. The air was soon heavy with moisture, and bird calls too. Heat radiated up from the ground, in clouds of steam that seemed regularly timed. The forest had adapted, much better than the parts of Equestria that ponies actually managed.
They weren’t attacked, at least not during the first full “day” of travel. Occasionally Twilight caught sight of some huge-eyed lemur perching on a leaf, its eyes glowing and its coat purple to match the forest it lived in.
They traveled all through the night, until the moon turned over again. Even that was hard to see through the thick curtain of purple leaves. They didn’t have much to make camp, and it seemed a bad idea to burn any of the weird plants. At least they were able to find a slab of broken rock poking above the bushes.
Twilight cast a protective charm over the place, isolating it with a shield similar to the ones her brother might’ve cast. She could rest without fear of being eaten in her sleep, or unexpectedly turned to stone. But that didn’t mean she slept peacefully.
Their day of travel had perpetuated an illusion of a forest that had gone from violent to peaceful—that illusion disintegrated as soon as they stopped moving and listening. Twilight saw massive creatures in the darkness, stalking through the corpses of the old forest. Far away, animal battles for survival played out, with howls of pain and roars of victory.
Closer at hoof, Rarity huddled on her cot—they didn’t even have the protection of a tent, just the sleeping bags and the shield spell. “We’re safe in here. We have an alicorn. It’s okay…” she whispered to herself, over and over. “It’s for Sweetie Belle.”
As always, waking brought no fresh light of dawn to fill Twilight with energy. There was biology to that too, though she was more conscious of her desire for a steaming cup of coffee. She’d seen almost none of it in Nightmare Moon’s new world.
“Well that was fun,” Pinkie said, sipping at their tea. Real, apple tea this time, instead of the dead pine needles they’d drank last time. Twilight still would’ve preferred chamomile and ginger. “I think I heard a roc out there last night. Did you see the shadow?”
“I saw it,” Rarity said, sounding like she hadn’t slept much. “And plenty of other things. But the magic held, Twilight. Our duchess comes through for us again.”
“We’ve all come through during this trip,” Twilight said, waving a wing dismissively. “Getting here was a group effort. It’s… the most familiar thing about living here. Once we get Fluttershy back, you’ll see. The Elements of Harmony all united together. It’s the way we’re meant to be.”
“I dunno if you’re right about any of that ‘fate’ and ‘harmony’ stuff,” Rainbow said, settling her makeshift spear on her shoulder. It was just a stick she’d found during their hike, and sharpened to an impressive point. But it was sturdy enough that it would probably be able to kill all kinds of dangerous creatures. From the way she swung it, she clearly knew how to use it, balancing the pressure from her shoulder and her wing to keep it in place even without any other harness. “But I want the war to end. I don’t want to see my friends die anymore. That’s worth fighting for.”
Twilight lowered the shield, and they returned to the jungle.
This time, their approach was made with more resistance. They encountered massive flowers that stunk of rot, guarded by small armies of biting parasprites. There were massive spines on some plants, which still showed some green on their outlines. Survivors from the old world, maybe.
There were animals too. Once Twilight had to blast at a wildcat that tried to leap at them, with six limbs and little blue flowers down its back. A solid bolt of energy to the face convinced it to hunt something easier.
There were Timberwolves too, just as Applejack had feared. None could get quite close enough to do serious damage, not with two unicorns and a trained pegasus soldier to fight them back. They shoved a few down a crevasse, while the rest retreated into the trees.
The one thing they couldn’t fight was the lack of a map. Twilight was wondering if they would ever find a sign of the “resistance” when her nose finally detected something, mingling with the otherworldly cool scents of the Everfree Forest.
Roasting nuts and fruit. Not just the smell of flames, but fire put to use. She swerved immediately, and wasn’t the only one. Rainbow grinned from ear to ear, pointing. “And you doubted me. Now you’re about to see just how lucky you were to have a guide like me.”
“Lucky,” Applejack said, brushing bits of broken wood out of her mane. “We’ll see about that. Brag when we find her, skypony.”
They didn’t have long to wait.
Down in a deep valley Twilight had never seen before, were the canopies of massive trees, each one as wide across as a small house. They were dead like all the other traditional plants—but they’d been more thoroughly colonized by blue and purple plants than anything else she’d seen. What she’d taken initially for upper branch parasites were actually suspension bridges, connecting the largest trees. And glowing out from inside, orange firelight.
“Here it is,” Rainbow said, stopping at the edge of the cliff. “Oh, we might have to talk our way out when it’s over. Pretty sure nopony ever leaves, since they might share the secret of its location and threaten the whole community… but I’m sure they’ll make an exception for a mission to save all Equestria.”
A massive spear struck the ground in front of them, its stone tip feathered with yellow. They were so quiet that Twilight could barely hear, the faint sound of ponies dropping onto the ground around them. In less than ten seconds, they were completely surrounded.
At a glance, it was difficult to tell they were even ponies. They wore nothing for clothing but stripes of mud running down their bodies, in the same blue shade as many of the plants. Many of the patterns were more intricate, drawing out complex swirls and hearts and other things.
But while they didn’t wear much, they did carry weapons. Spears, like the one that had been thrown. A few homemade bows levitated by unicorns. They represented every tribe, though Twilight couldn’t make out a single set of bat wings.
“Ponies from outside, you have no need to fear. If you’re not changelings, you’re welcome here.” Twilight’s eyes widened, and she found herself smiling as a figure emerged from the crowd of soldiers. A zebra, carrying a wrapped bundle of leaves filled with mud.
“Zecora!” She waved one wing enthusiastically, but she didn’t get the chance to hurry over—the instant she stood up, spears jerked in her direction, with the ponies on her either side glaring harshly at her.
“This one knows me, what a surprise. I wonder, is that fear in your eyes?”
She stopped in front of Twilight first, settling the leaves on the ground and gathering a large hoof-full of mud. “Or does she think we’d be fooled? Alicorn disguises like hers are not common things. We know how many ponies have both horn and wings.”
Twilight recognized the muddy smell before it was close enough to see—this was the same stuff the bats had used during her first day in Equestria. She mentioned changelings, that must be what she’s searching for.
Twilight held still. “I’m real, Zecora. I’ve come from… well, you probably won’t believe me right now. Just use your poultice, then you’ll see. We can talk after that.”
The zebra did, wiping it down both sides of her face similar to several of the ponies behind her. Twilight felt nothing but a slight tingle as it passed over her skin. There were no changeling secrets to reveal. Zecora didn’t mistrust her magic the way the guards did, and she didn’t get violent. But there was still shock on her face.
“A bigger surprise is when you don’t lie. The story you share must be… worth hearing for the tribe.”
“Yes,” Twilight said. “But I’ll wait, you can test the others too. I recruited all of them myself, I know they’re really my friends.”
Rarity winced at the smell. “That’s, uh… mud,” she said. “Don’t you have access to the unicorn version of… no, of course you don’t. This is a… tribe in the woods.” She held still, whimpering as another pony rubbed mud on her face. Each of the others took their turn. They remained themselves.
“Fluttershy!” Rainbow called, her voice rising above the murmurs from the surprised guards. “You’re just going to hide in back? Not even a hello?” She spread her wings wide. “I know I didn’t get to see you as soon as I hoped, but… I couldn’t risk not being able to leave again.”
Twilight watched as the light yellow pegasus stepped forward. She had dried blue mud swirling all over her body just like the others. From the wet glisten to some of it, it seemed that Zecora tested her own tribe as well. That would be annoying. Were changeling attacks really common enough that they had to test that often?
“Good to see you,” Fluttershy said, voice feeble. “And, um… I don’t think I know your friends. Did I forget them?”
Yes, Twilight thought. But I’ll remind you.
“No.” Rainbow embraced her in a tight hug, so firm that she squeaked and squirmed in protest. But in vain. “You’ll meet them soon enough. I’m just glad you’re okay!”
“This reunion makes me smile,” Zecora said. “Come, let the tribe care for you a while. Stories of old friends are much better told beside a fire.”
“And a washbasin, I hope,” Rarity muttered, scraping weakly at her muddy face.
Together, they vanished into the valley.
Twilight was more impressed with Zecora’s secret tribe the more she saw of their way of life. There wasn’t a single growth crystal here, or any of the purple lights that lit pony buildings. Instead, they’d cultivated a rich farm of the alien plants, with sloped terraces filled with water and strange rice, along with trestles of glowing grapes. No, not grapes. Those are crystal berries.
Nothing here seemed completely new, but much of it seemed harvested from somewhere new. Enough to create a sustaining ecosystem in the valley, around which all the revitalized Everfree Forest was only an outgrowth. Some plants glowed so brightly that she almost didn’t miss the sun.
What she’d expected from the troops emerging from the trees and the spears in their hooves was a group of soldiers, preparing to declare their independence from Nightmare Moon and fight off her army when it arrived. But she could see very few soldiers—just the rotating guards. For every one pony wearing spears, there were five tending to the plants, or replacing a section of rotten bridge, or digging new irrigation for the terraces.
“You built all this in the forest, without any help from the rest of Equestria.” Twilight stood outside the tallest tree, which was clearly their capital from the constant flow of ponies in and out. “That’s… almost too incredible to believe.”
Zecora shrugged. “We have not been helped by Equestria in years. Whenever we see them, they only spread fears. The ponies of New Dawn come here for safety in their life. To make a home without war or strife. This goal is never easy, but we try every day. And why are you here, Alicorn from far away?”
Fluttershy had joined them, along with a few of the other border guards. This pegasus had changed more than any of her other friends—she might’ve come to New Dawn to flee from war, but she’d become a bit of a soldier here anyway. She was lean like Rainbow Dash, but without the bat wings or prosthetic.
There were still some seeds of the pony Twilight remembered. She had been too shy to ask about their mission all the way up, even when they singled her out specifically.
“We need her,” Twilight said. “But… I like the idea of explaining over food. Maybe we can do that?”
A grin was Zecora’s only response. An hour or so later, they were all gathered around a fire in the hearth of the tree. Despite how incredible it looked from the outside, the space was even smaller than her library. Platforms had been built across the hollow interior, connected by stairs near one wall.
The stew tasted like Zecora’s cooking, and it brought a warm glow to Twilight’s chest. Even the Zebra had changed in this place, but she had endured. Even Fluttershy had, though she lacked any of her animal friends, or the softness that Twilight remembered of her.
“So that’s the only thing left for us to do,” Rarity declared. They had all helped tell the story, though Rainbow Dash had the least to add. She seemed to trust Twilight at least, probably because she had been the one to save her. The others, not so much. “Nightmare Moon will return the Elements of Harmony, then we can cast her spell.”
“And they’re defeated, just like that. All Equestria will smile and clap.” Zecora hadn’t objected to the story, as so many others had. But despite being a Zebra, Twilight had long since been humbled about her magical understanding. She had been wise and confident enough to be her source of strength when Trixie attacked Ponyville.
“Princess Nightmare herself,” Fluttershy muttered. Food and fire had helped her open up—at least she was squeaking feebly and looking away whenever anypony asked her a question. “You’re going to meet her?”
“Meet her?” Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Yes, dear. She guards every object of military significance zealously. The Elements are too dangerous to leave to those she doesn’t trust.”
“That sounds…” Fluttershy turned her attention on Zecora. “Do you plan on letting them leave?”
Zecora nodded. “Be clever and wise, young Fluttershy. Alicorns are too powerful to slow. We can only hope her friends are moved by what we had to show. New Dawn must be left alone. Perhaps with your company, you can demonstrate how your kindness has grown.”
This was the moment where everything could come crashing down. Twilight tensed in her seat, shivering. Fluttershy had less reason to come with them than anypony so far. She might not be training to invade Equestria, but she was protecting a secret haven, and they would be walking directly into the hooves of her enemies.
Twilight shouldn’t have worried. “I’ll go,” she declared, pushing back from her spot. “Tornado Bolt is almost ready to take my place on the wall. She’ll make a good replacement while I’m gone. And while I’m out there, I can… see if Nightmare Moon even remembers we’re here. I won’t remind her. I’ll look and act just like them, you’ll see. I won’t let New Dawn down!”
“I know you won’t, Fluttershy dear. The ponies of New Dawn have nothing to fear.” Zecora sighed, then rose from her place. “No meal would be complete without dessert. If you’ll all wait here—”
She didn’t get to finish her rhyme. Somewhere far away, the rumble of a horn shook the valley, three quick blasts. Every guard in the room, as well as Zecora and Fluttershy, jerked alert.
“We’re under attack,” Fluttershy said. “The changelings found us again.”