One of these Days

by Wrabbit

Chapter 6: Run Like Hell


Chapter 5: Run Like Hell

~19 Aevum Illuminationis~

Walking amongst the smoking ruins, Twilight picked through them carefully, searching for any signs of life. Scattered everywhere were the littered remains of slain ponies and the remnants of their implements of war. The fort itself had once been a marvel of construction, made from huge slabs of rock, some of which weighed over a hundred tons, but now portions of the walls were all that remained, reaching towards the sky like the skeletal remains of a great beast long since slain. For a structure of its type, it had been completed in record time, only taking eighteen months from the clearing of the land to the final placement of the last stone. It had been filled with an entire brigade, a third of all Equestria's official armed forces. Almost five thousand ponies lived, worked, trained, and protected Equestria from here, and only four ponies survived to tell the tale of the fall of Fort Ironspear.

Four ponies. Only one was expected to live through the night.

With a snort of disgust, Twilight continued her inspection. Many of these ponies here she herself had helped to train. Unicorns whom she had personally taught their spells, pegasi whom had learn a trick or two from their Princess of Magic, earth ponies whom had learned the finer points of dueling alongside the Twilight Alicorn. Of course, Celestia had also trained the troops when she could, but she had elected to take on the chimera's share of the duties of ruling in order to free Twilight for her magical research, and see to the defense of Equestria. While they agreed that Celestia was the strongest of the three sisters, she was also the best suited in terms of temperament when it came to dealing with the aristocracy and politicians.

Luna was still far too young to be embroiled in all this war nonsense, and so she had remained on the sidelines, watching with worry every time one of her elder sisters received a piece of bad news. She fretted with every chewed lip, every hissing intake of breath, every worried glance towards the small alicorn, who was still too young to have come fully into her celestial power, and the billowing mane and tail that denoted her blossoming into full apotheosis.

Twilight shook her head, trying to banish the track to which her train of thought continuously returned. Luna was one thing both Celestia and Luna agreed upon, and that was that she must be protected, even at the cost of their own lives. Luna, the final legacy of their parents, whom had been entrusted to them. A casual leap and flap of her wings saw Twilight up the the tallest point of the ruins, a wall ten hooves thick which was once the outer wall of the fort, and protected the second floor, which would house most of the barracks of the ponies who lived here. Surveying from her perch, she could see the devastation visited upon the land clearly. She could see the vast fields of grasslands first burned by dragonfire, then the ashes pounded into the dirt by marching soldiers.

My poor, poor ponies. Thou deserv'd better than this. A tear welled up and ran a trail down her cheek, creating a clean path of fur, washing away the ashes that stained her coat. She heard the flapping of feathered wings, but didn't bother to turn to face the pony she knew she would find there.

“Zounds. The reports didst not properly convey the calamity that befell here,” Celestia said quietly.

“What excuse didst the nobles give this time?” Twilight asked quietly.

Celestia pawed at the edge of the wall on which she stood, watching the stone crumble to ash beneath her hooves. “They allocated a purse for the formation of a new company of scouts that they might venture into Draconia and see what they may.”

Twilight cackled, her laughter sounding a bit too unhinged for Celestia's liking. She stomped onto the peak of the wall, breaking off a huge chunk, sending it crashing to the ground. “Scouts?” she shouted out shrilly, “We hath just lost a third of our organized forces, and they deign to allow us to form a company of scouts? Sooth, the generosity of the foals ne'er ceases to amaze me!” She whirled around, allowing Celestia to see the grief and anger in the younger sister's eyes, both tinged with fear; not for herself, but for the innocent ponies they had taken upon themselves to protect. A macabre rictus grin of near madness formed and sent a chill of fear into the Dawnbringer's heart. “Tell me true; what must we do to earn their trust? We hath done everything but submit our bodies to them to be used as chattel, yet they persist in this irrational anxiety that we will seize control over their fortunes as Discord of past. What sea of troubles against which must we take arms in order to secure their faith?” she shouted, a dribble of foamy saliva dripping from the corner of her mouth.

Celestia stepped forward, resting her head over Twilight's shoulder, enveloping her younger sister in the comforting embrace of her wings. Warmth spread throughout the alicorn's body, returning her to her senses. The dam she had built to hold back the grief she had been feeling since the first report of ponies going missing a decade ago finally broke, allowing her to cry fully for the first time in years. An image of every pony to have died due to this cold war flashed through her mind, many of which she knew personally. Her wail became an incoherent scream of sorrow deeper than anything she had felt before. As the sun set, and the first few stars were due to come out, but remained unforthcoming.

Looking to the sky nervously, Celestia bit her lower lip. Twilight sniffled and pulled away, more self-controlled than just a moment before. “Worry not, Dear Sister. The stars hath felt mine sorrow and mourn with me. They shalt return on the morrow.”

Celestia was halted from replying by the sudden appearance of a unicorn guard teleporting into the area. “Your Highnesses,” he said with a low bow. “I fear I am the bearer of more bad news. Private Rosewood hast shuffled off her mortal coil.”

“Hast Lady Nyx any fortune in contacting Salanshandaraen?” Twilight asked, her face a careful, but fragile mask.

“Nay, Your Highness. She hath not yet awaken'd from her trance.”

Twilight looked away to hide her emotions from the guard, who had yet to rise from his bow anyway. “I see. Thank you, and return to your duties, Lieutenant.”

Without rising, the guard teleported away in a flash of light. Celestia put a wing back over her little sister, and smiled a little when it wasn't shrugged away. Twilight looked over to her, her mask still in place, but it seemed that some of the cracks had been filled in. “Come, Sister. It is far past time we made these nobles realize that we art not their enemy, nor art we Discord.” The both of the disappeared in a bright flash of light, leaving the burned-out husk of a fortress to the curious whims of the local flora and fauna.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Trotting down the hallway, her armor-clad hooves clopping loudly on the flagstones, a sandy brown unicorn made her way to her duty station. She turned a corner, entering another hallway with a long row of tall windows open, admitting the predawn breeze, which ruffled her shock of white mane. She eyed the windows as one might a dangerous foe that just did something unexpected.

Two aganippe, resplendent in their Royal Night Guard armor, marched into the hallway from another branch, and the unicorn waved them over. “Good morning, Lieutenant Paladin. Is there something we can help you with, this morning?” the elder pony asked.

Paladin nodded and gestured towards the open windows. “Can you tell me why these windows are unsecured, Sergeant Sounder? We lock them for a reason.”

Sounder nodded and gave a weak smile. “Princess Luna requested they be opened to allow in the breeze. She said the palace was too stifling.”

“Then why was no guard posted here while they were open, per procedure? She asked.

“Because she ordered all windows on this level to be opened, and we don't have horsepower to post two guards in every hallway,” the sergeant answered, his voice full of sympathy for his superior.

Paladin sighed and shook her head. “Very well. Close up these windows, and pass the word to do the same for all other windows. I'll take responsibility if she asks. I'll have to have a talk with Princess Celestia. Maybe she can convince her that security protocols are for everypony's benefit, and not to make her life uncomfortable.”

The two aganippe saluted, and Paladin was on her way again, this time at a slightly faster clip to make up for lost time. She came to the large, bronze-covered double doors, flanked by a pair of unicorns. She returned their salutes and knocked on the door before letting herself in. “Princess Celestia? Are you up yet?”

The sound of movement near the bed drew her attention there, and she saw a familiar (and most welcome) pony standing next to it, fresh sheets still in hoof. “Oh! Good morning, Lieutenant,” a slender, silver-coated unicorn mare with a mane and tail the color of bronze said demurely.

“Well, it's certainly a good morning now, Miss Silver Bell,” Paladin replied, causing the older chambermaid to blush prettily. She approached the mare close enough for her to lay a hoof on top of hers and gently grasp it in her gauntleted hoof. “I take it the Princess is already up?”

“Up and bathed, Lieutenant,” Celestia said, walking from the bathroom, a relatively small pegasus hovering around her head, trying to brush her rainbow mane, but having little luck with the moving mare. “Art thou not full of pep and vinegar this morn. May I inquire as to the cause of such gaiety?” she asked with a smirk.

Paladin quickly dropped the hoof, blushing and stammering a moment. “Come, come, Lieutenant,” Celestia said as she walked towards the door. “We hath an infinite number of duties set out for us, and only a finite amount of time set aside for us. Let us not dally.”

As Paladin turned to follow, Silver Bell whispered into her ear, “Serves you right for fraternizing with the help.” She winked one red eye at her, then gently pushed her towards the door.

Falling into step slightly behind her Diarch, Paladin began going over her schedule for the day. “After raising the sun and breakfast with Princess Luna, the first supplicant for Dawn Court is the Duchess of Spellgrade. Apparently, she wants to renegotiate the contract for the Royal Guard's magical armor. She said something about-”

“Thou shouldst talk to her,” Celestia said, throwing Paladin completely off track.

“Pardon, Your Highness?” Paladin asked. “It's not really my place to negotiate with the Duchess about-”

“Nay, not her. Silver Bell. She is quite enamored with thee,” Celestia corrected. She looked down and noted the unicorn's blush, and smiled to herself.

“I- I- I-” she stammered.

Celestia halted and turned to face the smaller pony. “Mark my words well, young one. T'is better to get on with it soonest, else thou shalt regret all the time lost better spent with the pony thou adore most.”

Paladin looked to the floor, unable to meet her Diarch's gaze when such a serious mood was upon her. It didn't happen often that she saw, but that look seemed to be directed towards her more than most. It was almost as if she were mourning and searching for something precious she had lost. “I- I'll try, Your Highness.”

The Solar Diarch looked unconvinced, but resumed their trek. “Art thou prepared for the coming trial today? I shalt not make a mockery of thy capability by being lenient.”

“I believe so, Princess,” Paladin replied nervously. “I've studied the texts you assigned to me, but some of those concepts are extremely difficult. I mean, while necromancy is rather repulsive, I at least have a firm grasp on the concepts, but some of them like nucleomancy is just too much to wrap my head around. I don't mind telling you that just thinking about it give me a headache.”

Celestia bestowed upon her bodyguard an understanding smile. “Fear not, My Little Pony. Mine own reaction was much the same when my sister first...” The alicorn's words drifted off as she became lost in thought, that same searching look coming over her.

“Princess Luna discovered nucleomancy, Princess? No offense to her capabilities, but one would think that you being the Princess of the Sun, you would be the progenitor of that particular school of magic,” Paladin said, pulling the alicorn back to the present.

“Oh, it was not...” Celestia shook her head as if to clear it of errant thoughts. “Pay no mind to this old mare, my good Lieutenant. I say a great many things that often make little sense. I believe I shall make the test about certain special artifacts instead; especially pony-made artifacts. Pray, tell me whom is on the agenda after the good Duchess of Spellgrade?”

Paladin smiled, suddenly reminded of another bit of business that needed to be taken care of first. “Actually, Your Highness, I was wondering if you'd talk to Princess Luna about the security procedures...”

(\ /)
( . .)

Paladin watched the supplicant before the throne carefully, never letting her eagle-eyed gaze waver from the unicorn stallion standing before the raised dais. Noble he may have been, but it was her duty and privilege to guard the royal personage seated upon the throne, and she took the job with all due seriousness. She had never had to use the deadlier skills she had acquired in the manner for which they had been intended, and she intended to make sure that it remained that way. Oh sure, she had to bend a few legs the wrong way, or throw a pony to the hard flagstone floor, but lethal force had never become necessary.

While she had never had cause to use those deadly skills, she was always tempted by certain ponies to do so anyway, if only so that Equestria would not have to be made to suffer their presence any longer. Case in point: the lord before her now. “Your Highness, I must protest this gross miscarriage of justice! Those funds were allocated for the betterment of the region of Mastedonia. Your appropriation of those monies will mean the delay of a new aqueduct-”

“Baron Elder Scroll, those funds wert merely gathering dust in thy treasury,” Celestia interrupted. Though her facial expression never changed from bored interest, Paladin could hear the glee in her voice and had to hold back a smile of her own. “We art sure thou hast heard the news of the most recent attack on Equestria. The frontier town of Trace razed, burnt to the ground leaving naught but ashes, and the ponies gone with no trace.”

Elder Scroll shook his head in disgust. “As distressing as that news is, Your Highness, The fact remains that my city is in desperate need of that aqueduct, and the ponies that lived in Trace were all just ear-”

A loud, attention-getting cough from the baron's nervous guard halted all conversation in the room. The baron looked over to him as if he had suggested something terribly rude about his parentage, but the guard just pointedly looked over to Paladin, whom had raised a hoof in preparation of releasing one of her wands, and was glaring at the baron with murder in her eyes. The baron took one look at her, then up at Celestia, who glared down at him with one eyebrow arched, and blanched.

“You were saying, Baron?” Celestia asked icily.

Elder Scroll used hid magic to pull a white lace hoofkerchief from his sleeve, and tamped at the beads of sweat that had appeared there. His eyes returned to Paladin's hoof, which had yet to return to it's neutral position, and was twitching, obviously itching to send the specially crafted wand out into her hoof. Without removing his eyes from that hoof, he stammered, “I- I seem to have lost my train of thought, Your Highness. Perhaps I might be allowed to arrange for another day in court?”

“Mayhap it is best, Baron. Thy pallor seemeth to be a distressing hue,” Celestia agreed.

With a bow, the Baron turned and left, letting Paladin slowly drop her hoof to the ground once more. Her eyes followed them out, and she caught sight of Silver Bell, who happened to be leaving with the princess' tea service. The elder mare smiled at her, and Paladin threw her a wink, barely discernible under the heavy, crested helm she wore.

The final supplicant of the day was announced, and Paladin was all business once more. The final pony was a spry, young pegasus mare, dressed only in her light blue coat, and a pink kerchief tied around her neck. Right away, Paladin's senses were piqued by this mare. It was nothing on which she could place a hoof, but something seemed... off about her. The way she moved reminded her of something else, and the expression on her face bespoke of supreme confidence.

The mare came before the throne and bowed, not quite low enough for a commoner, but not enough to draw attention to the act. “Good morn, O, Princess of the Sun,” the mare said, rising from her bow a little too fast to be respectful.

Celestia too, seemed put off by something about this mare, enough so that the throne room guards came to attention a little more than they were just a moment ago. “Good morn, My Little Pony. How might Equestria serve thee today?”

The mare grinned, and Paladin had to restrain herself from drawing her weapons right then. “I require but one thing from you, Your Highness; and that is your death!” The light blue pegasus leapt at the alicorn, her mouth gaping open unnaturally wide, displaying multiple rows of fangs.

Paladin teleported into her path and knocked the mare away with a flying kick that sent the smaller pony sprawling. It was an action that she should not have even felt, but her rear leg was numb, and she winced a little at the landing. Light, that hurt! It was like kicking a stone wall! Her wands were instantly in her hooves and pointed at the mare heaped on the floor. “Seize her!”

Rising slowly from the flagstones, the mare grinned and spit out a dislodged tooth in a bloody gobbet of spit. She cackled and just as the guards reached her, she kicked out with both rear legs, sending them flying into the wall twenty hooves away, cracking the thick granite. Paladin fired her wands, the bolts unerringly finding their target. The magic bolts sent the small pony flying backwards several hooves, but the mare's laughter never stopped.

“It appears I owe Talon a diamond. I honestly did not expect to need to assume my true form to face down the Sun Tyrant's minions.” The mare began to grow, light gray scales flecked with black replacing the light blue coat, her tail growing in length, likewise losing its hair in favor of more scales. The feathers receded into her wings, which grew large and leathery. The not-mare rose to her feet, stretching out to her full size, some twenty hooves long. The dragon looked down at the small unicorn, puffed up her chest and opened her mouth to release a gout of supernaturally hot flame.

Paladin leaped backwards to land in front of Celestia and erected a bubble of force around themselves, still upright, and her forehooves thrown forward. The dragonfire parted around them, not touching them directly, but still heating up the air inside the bubble to uncomfortable levels. The fire seemed to last forever, and put a considerable strain on Paladin, who could feel the fire threatening to crumble her field.

Suddenly, the fire was gone, but they were unable to see out due to a layer of char that had accumulated on the shield. Dropping the bubble, they saw the devastation wrought by the flames. Several fires had sprouted up and were burning merrily, and the floor around them that hadn't been protected by Paladin's shield was melted into slag that still glowed cherry-red in places. The dragon herself had a spear lodged under her scales harmlessly and was holding one feebly struggling guard in a paw by the throat. Tossing the pony away like a broken toy, she turned to face the alicorn/unicorn duo. “Finally come out of hiding, have we? Well, let's get on with it. I do have better things to do today than to end your miserable, worthless lives.”

Celestia stepped forward to be joined by Paladin, who slowly started prowling to the right in order to flank their opponent. The dragoness hissed in amusement. “Do you honestly think you can take me in this form? Mere ponies?”

Electing to answer with action instead of words, Paladin charged forward, her wands popping out of their holster in her gauntlets as she leapt into the air with a telekinetic boost that sent her flying over the surprised dragon's back. She unleashed a barrage of magic bolts, most of which pierced the sensitive membrane of her wings, tearing large, gaping holes through them. Some of the bolts struck the dragoness' back however, causing her to howl out in pain.

Paladin's trajectory took her to a column, where she pushed off again just as a serpentine tail smashed into the rock off of which she had just touched. Still she fired her wands at the intruder, never quite making it through the tough, iron-colored scales, but causing enough pain to keep the wyrm's attention on her. Bouncing off a wall a split second before a lamed wing slapped into it, leaving cracks, she was about to land on another column, but the dragoness by this time had caught on to the game, and smashed it before she could lay a hoof on it.

Suddenly denied her landing pad, Paladin kept flying past the broken support, but managed to gain purchase on it with her telekinesis, allowing her to swing around, and use her momentum to literally throw herself at the dragon, armored hooves first. The unicorn's aim proved true, and her hooves connected quite solidly with a scaly snout, sending the dragoness reeling back, shrieking in pain. Paladin kicked off the wounded serpent's face to land nearby on the rubble-strewn floor.

“You will pay for that, meat! I'll eat your still-beating heart!” the dragoness screeched. “You think you accomplished something? You did nothing but earn my wrath!”

Paladin smiled at her. “I did do one other thing. I distracted you long enough for her to get ready, wyrm.”

With a nod, the unicorn directed the dragons' attention towards Celestia, who had spent the time gathering her energies. An aura of golden light surrounded her, and when she opened her eyes, it was like opening the stoking doors to a furnace of the gods. Paladin erected another bubble around herself, pulling up flagstones to reinforce it on the outside, but the dragoness just laughed. “Fools! I am immune to your puny flames! My breath can make hardened steel run like water!”

Celestia took one step forward. When she spoke, it was like the sound of a thousand roaring blast furnaces. “HOW QUAINT. MINE OWN FLAMES SUBLIMATE STEEL IN AN INSTANT.”

The dragoness raised an eyebrow at the diarch, then glanced back at the unicorn whom had completely covered her force bubble with stone, and felt a chill of doubt creep past her wall of confidence.

Twin beams of blindingly white hot energy were loosed from her eyes, both of which struck the serpent low in the chest and exited from her hips behind her. The room became unbearably hot, shattering the glass windows, and fusing all the stone in the room into one solid piece. Every bit of organic material save the dragon and Celestia burst into flames and were consumed in seconds until every last molecule of oxygen was consumed. The bronze doors were welded shut, and the shiny exterior bounced the beams up and out through the walls to the outside until they were cut off from the source. The dragoness looked down at the two neat holes, prodding them with a claw, before falling over dead.

Celestia's eyes returned to their normal rose hue as she walked over to the bump in the floor and pawed at it with a hoof, knocking free some of the now crumbly rock. A window appeared, and she tried to speak, but found that all the air in the room had been burned up, and it would take a bit of time for the pressure to equalize once more. A simple spell on her part helped speed matters along, and she gestured for the unicorn to come out.

Paladin let her bubble of force down and was immediately struck by the incredible heat within the glowing room. “Let's get you to the war room, Your Highness. An attack like this will be just a precursor to a much larger-”

Celestia held up a hoof, silencing the bodyguard, allowing them to hear the sounds of massed combat coming through the shattered remains of the windows. “That attack has already begun Lieutenant. I-” She stopped mid-sentence as if noticing something for the first time. Her eyes went wide as saucers and her face took on a decidedly sick pallor. “Nay... NAY! Not her! T'is impossible!”

An outer wall of the throne room suddenly exploded, sending deadly shrapnel flying into the room. Paladin jumped in front of Celestia and erected another wall of force shielding them both. A choking cloud of dust swirled into the room, obscuring their vision, so it was with great surprise that a massive, black tree swung out of the cloud, shatter the wall as if it were made of glass, sweeping both ponies across the length of the fifty hoof wide room, to slam into the wall, leaving massive cracks in the granite. Celestia was able to cushion the impact for Paladin, but she knew that the both of them would have at least cracked ribs from the mighty blow.

As they slid to the floor, thunderous footsteps echoed throughout the room. With a great WHOOSH of rushing wind, the dust cleared, allowing them to finally see their attacker. A dragon so massive, only half of her could fit into the room, and even that was done uncomfortably. Her midnight blue scales sparkled with sliver flecks, making her appear as if a dragon-shaped hole was cut into the fabric of reality, allowing the night sky to peek through. The only thing that made her appear alive were her cerulean eyes which glowed malevolently. Her mouth spread into a grin, exposing rows of razor-sharp teeth, which did nothing to ease any fears. “My dear, dear Celestia. How pleasant to eat you again.”

Celestia glared at her as she rose to her hooves, careful to not jostle Paladin too much. “Nightmare,” she answered, her voice dripping with venom. “How didst thou survive? I saw with mine own eyes my sister didst render thee unto thy final judgment.”

Nightmare's grin doubled. “It seems that rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated. What a shame; thy sister's sacrifice wert all for naught.”

“Thou shall pay for that, blackguard,” Celestia said. Stepping over Paladin, she bent down to whisper in her ear, “Make haste. I needst thee to seek out the Elements of Harmony; powerful artifacts to be sure. Bring them together with the bearers to lay low this cur.”

Paladin looked up at the alicorn, her duty to follow orders clearly clashing with her duty to protect Celestia. “Your Highness, I can't leave you, not when you need me the most.”

“I shall brook no argument from you Lieutenant,” Celestia hissed. “These artifacts may very well turn the tide of this war. Thou shalt need to travel far and wide, for they art scattered for their protection; but find them thou must.”

“But what about you, Your Highness? What will you do?” Paladin asked.

Celestia graced her with a strained smile. “I shall persevere, My Little Pony, until thy return.”

“Thou shalt not do it alone, Sister!” All three looked up to see Luna fly in through a window to land next to the ponies. “I shalt be by thy side!” she proudly proclaimed.

Nightmare chuckle filled the room, loud and low enough to be felt. “Thou shouldst take their advice little one. When I beat these two, I shall be feeling the pull of gluttony, and will be looking for something to fill that ache in my belly.”

Paladin leaped at the dragon, but a blue aura surrounded her, and flung her through the shattered opening of a window to land in a prickly rose bush. The unicorn jumped free of the bush, leaving long, bloody gashes in her sandy coat with the intent of rushing back into the throne room, but was tackled from the side by a pony. Looking down, she gasped in surprise. “Silver Bell! What are you doing out here?”

Looking around, she saw that she had ended up in the courtyard with several other ponies, most either servants or wounded guards. All around them, the capital city of Equus was under attack. Minotaurs and diamond dogs prowled the streets fighting with earth ponies and unicorns, while griffons and dragons fought pegasi and aganippe for dominance of the sky overhead. It was clear that the pony defenders were outmatched, both in terms of numbers of warriors, and in quality. While they had come a long way since the Dragon War, they were still far from the fiercest fighters around. It was clear that the city was being overrun, and the ponies were not going to win this day.

Paladin's gaze returned to the dozen or so ponies looking to her for help, and she made the mistake of looking directly at Silver Bell, hope alive in her eyes, but worried that she would abandon them to their likely ugly fates. The unicorn looked once more to the throne room, which was being rocked by the titanic clash no doubt occurring within. Already, she could tell that the palace would not survive for much longer, and if that was the case, it did not say much for the rest of Equus.

Fighting back the feeling of tearing her heart in two, she turned away from the palace and said, “Follow me. The Princess gave me orders, but I'd be remiss if I didn't help needy ponies along the way. Now stay close, and stay low. If trouble pops up, let us guards handle it.” She pointed towards the stallion being held up by another uninjured guard and said, “Pass him off to one of the healthy ponies here. I need you to bring up the rear and watch for surprises from that direction. Can you manage that private?”

After carefully draping the injured pony over the strong back of the Royal Chef, he saluted and went to the back of the group, picking up a dropped spear and shield as he did. Paladin nodded and gestured for the ponies to duck down, and they quietly left the remains of the courtyard amidst the fury of the battle surrounding them. They stuck to alleyways, crossing main thoroughfares only when absolutely necessary, picking up ponies both healthy and wounded along the way, swelling their numbers to over thirty.

Peeking out of an alleyway, Paladin breathed a sigh of relief, spotting the cover of the nearby forest. Thank Celestia, there's the preserve. She turned back and whispered, “Okay, everypony; we're almost out of here. It's just a quick dash to the cover of the forest about forty hooves away. When I give you the signal, I want you to use up all the energy I've had you saving. From there, we'll head to one of the smaller towns that hopefully has been spared the carnage so far; probably Foalton. I know some good ponies there. If it's still standing, that's where we'll get help for you all. Now, you ready?” Nods came down the line and she looked once more out in the street to make sure it was clear. Seeing nothing, she hissed, “Let's go! Move!”

Paladin was first out of the alley, and so was first to see the dark purple dragon easily fifteen hooves long not including tail descend from the sky, opening its mouth to breath on them as it passed. Thinking quickly, she erected a long wall of force over the ponies, effectively creating a covered walkway from the alley to the forest. “Come on! Move , move, move! Don't wait up for me!” she shouted at them. Instead of the expected flames, a chill breeze preceded a wave of cold that covered everything it touched with a rime of frost. Plants died, and ponies moved a little more stiffly, but with the roof to soak up the majority of the breath weapon, they did not break stride. By the time the last straggler made it to the forest, the dragon had finished wheeling around, and landed, blocking Paladin's avenue of retreat. She dropped the wall in favor of a much stronger bubble around her and stood to release her wands from storage and into her forehooves.

“Well, well, well. What have we here? A hero; yesss...” The dragon's sinuous tongue poked out from between her lips at her sibilant hiss. “Think you can hurt me with thossse puny sssticksss, hero? Ssshall we danccce?”

Paladin glared at her, and slowly started walking sideways, trying to get around her, but the dragon kept pace, cutting her off from the rest. “I'm not really in the mood for games today, wyrm. So if you'd kindly step aside, I won't have to hurt you.”

The dragon hissed a sibilant laugh. “You? Hurt the great Brimfrossst? I think not, little sssnack; yesss...”

“I'm not eaten yet, Brimmy,” Paladin retorted with a smile. Letting her wands return to their holsters, the unicorn whirled around, using her telekinesis to whip up an impromptu sandstorm that quickly grew in size, engulfing both pony and dragon. The dragon cried out as dirt and shards of ice flew into her dinner plate-sized eyes, blinding her.

“Augh! You nasssty little pony! I'll swallow you in one bite!”

“Not today, you won't!” Paladin replied before teleporting away towards the forest, almost falling on top of Silver Bell, who was hiding behind a bush, watching from afar. They ran further into the forest, rejoining the column of refugees. “I thought I told you not to wait?”

Silver Bell nuzzled the unicorn, causing her to blush. “Oh, no you don't. I'm not letting you out of my sight again.”

As the sun set on the most interesting day of her life, Paladin tried to think of a way to get her to stay behind while she completed Celestia's final order to her.