I sat at the top of a lone hill. Below me, all of the cities, towns, nations, empires, everything that embodies Equus itself was visible in a thick fog of black smoke.
And everything was burning.
Familiar landscapes awash with tongues of red and orange that turned everything they touched into ashen black. Hideous monsters stalked the streets, killing anyone and anything that wasn’t prone and unliving beneath them.
The heavens burned, blackened from the soot produced from the infernos below. What may have once been loving and nurturing homes were now hollow and empty, their walls painted red with the blood of whoever its former denizens were.
And I was watching it all happen.
I pulled my legs against my chest. In all honesty, I was amazed that I still remembered what my human self looked like. Every last detail from my auburn hair to my black shoes was captured perfectly, and I could even see out of both eyes again. Even the ability to be able to say more than one word was a luxury I hadn’t had in a long time. I knew it couldn’t actually happen though. And when it did, that usually meant that I was dreaming.
I never really remembered my dreams before I came here. Hell, I didn’t even think my body needed sleep. I went for a full week without a wink of rest, and only when Discord asked how I was able to keep going did it occur to me how tired I was.
And when I did sleep that first time, I dreamed. I don’t know why this particular dream kept returning to me, it was a typical nightmare, witnessing the possible consequences of something that you’ve done. I don’t even know why it bothered me that bad. It was the same thing every time.
Still though, it brought some rather unpleasant memories, and I was content to simply ride it out until it was over.
I felt, more than saw the ripple across my field of vision in the dreamscape. It passed in front of me like the ripples in a lake after a stone’s been thrown in. I sighed as I heard the sounds of steady hoofsteps in the soft grass on my little hill. I was really not in the mood for this.
“So this is the disturbance that I felt…” I could see her out of the corner of my eye, her long starry mane billowing in some sort of unseen arcane wind as the flames of destruction raged around her.
“Hello Luna. You here to put me into a coma or something?”
She frowned deeply, a look of confusion crossing her face. “Nay strange one, it is our duty at night to patrol the dreamscape and help ponies confront the nightmares that haunt their minds.” She turned fully towards me now, lowering her head to my seated form so she could look me in the eye. “But we can plainly see that thou art not a pony...in fact, we can only guess as to what you are mister…?”
I put on a fake hurt expression, holding a hand to my chest. “Luna, I’m truly hurt. Do you honestly mean to say that you have no idea who I am?” Slowly, Luna shook her head. She almost looked cute when she was really, really confused. Almost. I chuckled. “Well, I suppose it will come to you in time. For the moment, you can call me Nicholas Fringe, or Nick for short.”
“Very well, ‘Nick’.” she got the pronunciation wrong, making it sound more like ‘neek’. I almost started laughing. “Tell us, why does this nightmare trouble you so?”
I turned my gaze back to the inferno, stealing a glance over at the Princess to watch her face as she cringed at the mayhem taking place below. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly.
“...First, Princess, let me ask you a question. Have you ever been afraid of failure?”
She looked me over again before responding. “Fear of failure is a constant companion when you are a princess of Equestria. If you make even the slightest wrong call, order the wrong thing to be done...it could end in disaster.” She sighed. “I have felt the sting of failure in the past. Failure to see the truth. Failure to believe in my sister…”
“But those were fixed, correct?”
She nodded again. “Not without a great deal of effort but...yes, all of my wrongs were righted, eventually. Why do you ask?”
I glanced back at her. “Well, let’s just say that my failure...well…” My gaze drifted back to the inferno below, my body tightening up. “...It may not be fixable.”
I felt a wing drape over my back, soft feathers tickling my skin. “This is what troubles you? Fear of failure?”
I nodded. “It depends, not only on me being able to fix things, but getting help from pe— ponies who...well, aren’t exactly willing.” I looked up at her again.
Luna smiled at me, lowering herself to lay down next to me. “Know this Nick, the path to do the righteous thing is not always easy, and is paved with challenges, but in the end, those with the perseverance to overcome the impossible are met with greater rewards at journey’s end.”
I groaned. “You make it sound so easy! These ponies I have to convince, they’re pretty damn hard headed!”
Luna laughed a bit, retracting her wing as she stood up. “Well...perhaps you need to show these ponies that your call for help is genuine and sincere. Though, to be honest Nick, it would be much easier to help you if we knew the context of this coversation.”
At that hidden question, I grinned and stood as well. “Luna, I’d tell you but—” Slowly, I felt the dream dispersing as my dream self re-took the mutated form of the monster I was so familiar with being. That would be cheating.
Her eyes widened as she saw me for who she knew me as. “You…!”
Then all I knew was darkness.
I awoke to the sound of chirping birds. I sat up quickly, the chirping ending abruptly as the birds scattered from the trees around me. I blinked my eye, looking around the area. No ponies, no hungry predators, for once things were actually going my way.
I made a point to cover up any evidence of anyone living where I had built my small campfire before continuing into the Everfree again.
Thinking past the veil of sleep and last night’s dream and intrusion from Princess Luna, I was able to recall the details that Twilight had given me. Manehattan was my next stop. The problem was that my memory map of Equestria was over one thousand years old, so first thing was first: I needed directions. Obviously going into town to look for a map was out of the question, they were probably looking for me after the stunt I had pulled last night, and I knew of only one person who would talk to me.
The Zebra mare was trotting towards her hut, two hefty looking saddlebags on either side of her.
“Ah, well if it isn’t Nemesis my friend! Please do come in, I have some fresh herbs I need to blend.”
I nodded, leaning over so that I could fit myself into her hut. Thankfully the ceiling was high enough that I didn’t need to bend over quite so badly, but it still felt uncomfortable.
I’d never taken the time to actually look around Zecora’s hut the last time that I was here, but now that I’d gotten the chance to look around I noticed that a lot of her stuff looked like it might belong to a witch doctor or something back home.
“Hm?” She was preparing some sort of cauldron over a small fireplace in the next room.
What exactly is it that you do out here?
“Ahh, you see I concoct a number of unique potions, from the most bitter of liquid to the gentlest of lotions. Many ponies consider living in the Everfree a taboo, but I think it’s rather enlightening, don’t you?”
I chuckled a bit. It’s a nice place to get away from the ponies, if anything else. I actually had something I wanted to ask you though, if you’re not busy?
“Of course of course, let me first stir up some Zebrafican red tea, I do hope you have the time to enjoy it with me?”
I nodded, and she vanished around the corner, leaving me to my thoughts. I wonder how many other horse pun names they can come up with here. I mean, Zebafrica? Manehattan? What’s next, trottingha—
“Unstoppable pursuer, implacable hunter, hear me! I, The Mighty Gilgamesh, ronin of the multiverse, call upon thy ferocity and strength for aid! Answer my call and come to me, NEMESIS!”
Well shit, that was quick. I thought as a swirling vortex formed behind me. Zecora, hold that thought, and that tea! I only had time to register her surprised face peeking from around the corner as I jumped into the portal with an accompanying "STAAAARS!"
Twilight stepped off of the train which had just made its last stop in Canterlot. She hadn’t told her friends that she was coming here, and a letter didn’t feel right for this situation. Twilight wanted to ask Princess Celestia personally about what was going on with Nemesis. When he had broken into her house last night, yet left without doing any bit of harm whatsoever, it gave Twilight a moment to think things over. He hadn’t tried to hurt her, and he wasn’t hostile about anything, what sort of threat exactly did he pose?
Such questions continued to plague Twilight’s mind even as she made her way up the staircase in front of the castle, the guards moving to allow her access. It wasn’t a long way from the front door to the throne room, as she knew the castle like the back of her hoof.
As she emerged into the massive room, she spied Princess Celestia sitting on her throne, a large number of papers floating in her magical grip as she signed them off one by one, then dispelled them with a flash of golden magic. Twilight noticed that the Princess didn’t even look up as she entered, so she figured that she would have to make herself known. She carefully approached the throne, and warily side “P-princess Celestia?”
Princess Celestia glanced out from behind her papers, a surprised look on her face. “Twilight?” She asked, the papers coming together and neatly arranging themselves before being set down gently next to the throne. Twilight noticed, that even though only a day had passed, the Princess looked as if she had never even been sick. “I wasn’t expecting you... Usually you send a letter before your arrival, but you are always welcome here.” She smiled warmly at her student before frowning, noticing the expression on Twilight’s face. “Is something troubling you, my student?”
Twilight gave a sheepish smile. “Not really...well...maybe just a little bit, yes.” She frowned, shuffling her hooves a bit nervously. “I was just wondering...what exactly is the threat that Nemesis poses?” Celestia blinked, clearly not understanding the question. “Well, you see...hm…” Twilight hesitated, wondering how she was going to word what she was about to say. “I...saw Nemesis last night.”
Immediately, Celestia’s expression changed to a frown. “Twilight, I need you to be very clear, and tell me where exactly you saw him. Did he hurt you?”
“No, Princess, that’s exactly it. He could have hurt me, but he didn’t. In fact, he seemed like he genuinely didn’t mean any harm. All he wanted to know was one of the locations of Ellura’s base of operations.”
Celestia’s face grew stern. “Did you tell him?”
Twilight’s ears went flat, and she became unable to look the princess in the eye. “I...I let slip that one of their main buildings are in Manehattan...but that’s not—”
Another letter appeared in front of Celestia and she began scribbling on it immediately, as if completely forgetting that Twilight where there. After that was done, she called over one of the guards who were standing at either side of her throne. “I want a troop of guards dispatched to Ellura’s center of operations in Manehattan. Warn them of what’s to come and keep a sharp eye out.” The guard nodded and rushed out the door. Celestia got up and began trotting towards the door as well, likely to make more preparations.
“Princess, wait!” Twilight called, running after her teacher. Celestia paused to look at Twilight. “Maybe this is worth looking into? If he really wanted to do ponies harm, don’t you think he’d be going around hurting us directly, instead of trying to strike down Ellura? What if there’s some other meaning hidden behind his actions?”
Celestia turned to face her student, spreading her wings wide as she spoke. “Listen carefully, Twilight Sparkle. You have not known Nemesis for as long as I have, therefore it is understandable that you would be ignorant of his ways. I have seen what it is that he does, if hurting innocent ponies is not enough, he seeks to destroy the only means we have of defending ourselves. Ellura has been one of the primary providers of many different types of medicine, several of which have cured many previously thought incurable diseases. What he will not gain through brute force, he seeks to gain through manipulation. I would sooner believe that his seemingly docile behaviour is another ruse, than dare to think the ponies I have known for over a millennia would seek to stab me in the back. Do you understand?”
Twilight felt low. She felt stupid, ignorant of her Teacher’s feelings or wishes, and very guilty for thinking bad about such good ponies. She lowered her head in shame. “Yes, Princess.” She felt something feathery under her chin, and it lifted her face up.
“Do not feel ashamed, Twilight. Many have fallen for his trickery in the past. Please, return to Ponyville and try to put that encounter out of your mind, Equestria needs you ready if Nemesis shows his face again.”
Twilight, still unsure, nodded her head.
Celestia smiled at her. “Please, continue to send me your friendship reports, they are a wonderful thing to read. Until next time, Twilight.” And with that, the princess left, leaving Twilight in the throne room alone. She breathed a heavy sigh, turning to leave herself before finding her path blocked by a tall, blue alicorn.
“P-princess Luna!” Twilight bowed.
“There is no need for formality right now Twilight Sparkle, we’ve come to speak to you about something urgent.”
Twilight’s ear twitched and she rose. “I-is it about Nemesis?”
“Partly.” Luna glanced around the room to ensure they were alone before speaking again. “We overheard your conversation with my sister. Do you truly believe that Ellura is worth looking into?”
Twilight’s eyes widened. “B-but, Princess Celestia said—”
“Our sister’s mind is clouded by her personal vendetta against our age old enemy.” Luna said, her face hard. “We have known our sister to be blind to things, but never have we seen her so enamoured with the task of apprehending an enemy that she would turn a blind eye to the suffering.”
Twilight blinked. “What do you mean?”
“We are the Princess of the Night, Twilight Sparkle. It is our solemn vow to keep a watchful eye on things that, how you say, ‘go bump in the night.’ That includes both the physical world, and the mental.”
Twilight cocked her head to the side. “I don't understand…”
“Dreams, Twilight Sparkle. And over the course of the last week, we have indeed seen some dreams that...cause us to worry. More so even recently, if the dreamer is any indication.”
“Who were the dreamers?” Twilight leaned forward a bit. Luna looked saddened.
“The Cutie Mark Crusaders, along with who we believe is your assistant, Spike.”
Twilight blanched. “What?! He’s been having nightmares? Why didn’t he tell me?!” She began to make her way to the door. “Oooh, when I get my hooves on that dragon for keeping such a secret from me—”
“We fear he did not get the chance, as these dreams were not over the course of the recent week, but rather all in one night. Last night, to be specific.”
Twilight stopped, turning around the look at Luna. “But that’s when he went to Rarity’s.”
“We fear you have been mislead. If his dreams are any indication, we believe that he, along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders have been...abducted.”
Twilight felt her heart rate sky rocket almost immediately. “What? I need to get back then, we need to figure out who’s responsible for this!”
Luna extended a hoof, as if to stop her. “Please Twilight, wait. We understand your concern for their safety, we are equally as worried. However, rushing into this without thinking things through first will cause more harm than good.”
Twilight looked about to say something, but she took a deep breath, and calmed herself down. “W-what do you suggest?”
Luna lowered her hoof, her face growing stern. “The context of the dreams I have seen is...worrisome. Though not entirely crystal clear, we believe that Ellura may have something to do with their abduction.”
Twilight’s jaw hit the floor. “What?! What would they want three fillies and a baby dragon for?”
“That is what worries us.” Princess Luna said, stepping towards Twilight as she spoke. “Our sister has asked you to refrain from your investigation, but we implore you Twilight Sparkle, to ignore one’s gut feeling is to welcome yourself into death’s embrace. We ask that you return to Ponyville, but do not linger. Gather what is necessary and head for Manehattan.”
“But what about Spike?” Twilight paced, beginning to panic. “What about the Cutie Mark Crusaders? We can’t just forget about them!”
“Nor shall we.” Luna said, smiling warmly. “I will go to Ponyville once nightfall comes, and I myself will assist in the search for the three young fillies and the baby dragon.”
Twilight looked taken back, staring at Princess Luna with a newfound respect. “You’d...you’d do that for us?”
“The mere fact that such a heinous act occurred under the cover of our night is one of the greatest insults that we can think of.” Luna frowned deeply. “We would be more than happy to help right the wrongs that occurred under our watch.”
“Princess Luna...I...I…” Twilight rushed forward suddenly, embracing Luna in as big a hug as she could muster. “Thank you…”
Luna looked taken by surprise but smiled and hugged Twilight back. When they released, Luna’s face was hard. “Go. There isn’t anymore time to waste.”
With a look of determination, Twilight rushed out of the hall, galloping towards the train station. Luna watched her, releasing a heavy sigh as she went. “Makers be with you, Twilight Sparkle…”
“Ya’ll think they really coulda gone this far in?” Applejack glanced around at the trees. Though there weren’t faces on them anymore, they still cast ominous shadows on the ground around them as they trotted, that combined with the glimpses she occasionally caught of eyes staring at them from the shadows made her feel very unsettled.
“Oooo, with how Sweetie Belle and her friends act when they’re together I bet they went much farther than this!” Rarity spoke, her horn lighting up and repelling the dark pathway in front of them.
“She’s right,” Rainbow Dash spoke, diving down from the tree tops above them as she fluttered lazily in the air above her two friends. “If it hadn’t been for other ponies saying that they’d seen them go in here, I’d probably be looking up in Cloudsdale or something. You never know where those three will end up.”
“I just wish Spike would have exercised some control over them. I really don’t want them coming out into the forest, especially so late at night.”
The three ponies eventually came to a small clearing, the flickering in Rarity’s horn growing more frequent as they neared a bush.
“Okay you three, game’s over!” Rainbow Dash rushed at the bush, crashing into it and coming clean out the other side. Rather than three fillies though, she held something else in her hooves.
“Those are the capes that Sweetie Belle made for them!” Rarity looked like she was beginning to panic. “But...why would they abandon them in the middle of the forest like this…?”
“That’s not all.” Applejack spoke, her hoof gliding over the ground and some of the surrounding trees. “It looks like there’s been a struggle here…”
Rarity shook her head like mad. “No no no! You aren’t suggesting…!”
“There ain’t a trace of blood, Rarity.” Applejack spoke, growing from the frightened, cautious mare she was a second ago into a more stern, commanding presence. “But something definitely has happened to ‘em. Rarity, I don’t suppose you have another spell that will help us track ‘em down?”
Rarity shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes. “I was tracking them down using the capes they were wearing...but now I…” she began to sob. “Sweetie Belle…”
Rainbow Dash landed next to her. “Well, sitting here and bawling like a filly isn’t going to solve anything! Let’s get other ponies to help! The more of us there are, the easier it will be to find them!”
The three nodded and started to trot back towards town, but the sound of a growl stopped them.
A Timberwolf crept out of the shadows of the trees, its mouth drooling blood. Its eyes and torso shone with a red light very unlike the other Timberwolves that the three had encountered before, and it looked very, very hungry. With a growl, it leapt straight for the most vulnerable of them it could see. Rarity.
“Look out!” Rainbow Dash rushed into her, knocking them both out of the way. The Timberwolf wasn’t deterred, it landed, then turned and made to jump for them again. Rainbow Dash only had time to cringe and brace herself.
Then Applejack was there, her hind hooves raised as she smashed them into the incoming Timberwolf as hard as she could, sending it into a nearby tree where it shattered from the impact. The three breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“Okay, what the hay was that?!” Rainbow Dash spoke, shooting into the air. “I’ve never seen one glowing red before!”
“Ah don’t know Sugarcube,” Applejack said, beginning to back away as the twigs and branches from the Timberwolf’s shattered body began to rebuild itself. “But somethin’ tells me this ain’t over jus’ yet.”
As if on cue, the Timberwolf sprang back to life, making a leap for the apple mare. It was intercepted in mid air by Rainbow Dash, who smashed it into the ground, causing it to break apart again.
“And stay down!” Rainbow Dash shouted, her breathing heavy.
Heedless of her words, the Timberwolf rebuilt itself yet again, twice as fast as before. The glow in its eyes and torso were brighter, and it only offered a prolonged snarl of rage before throwing itself at the prismatic mare, who took to the air to dodge the attack. The Timberwolf made a jump to grab her tail with its mouth, but she pulled it up and out of harm’s way.
The Timberwolf began circling below, oblivious to the orange mare rushing up to it. At the last second, the Timberwolf turned and saw the incoming threat. Instead of rushing to meet the mare though, it dodged, jumping out of the way.
This took Applejack by surprise, and she stumbled. Timberwolves had never shown intelligence like that before.
Seeing his opportunity, the Timberwolf licked its chops and jumped. Rainbow Dash shot towards it, but she could tell from the distance, there’s no way she’d make it in time…
A blue flash lit up the area, and the Timberwolf was thrown high into the air. He briefly gained airtime before beginning to fall, straight onto the sharp extended branch of a nearby tree.
There was a gruesome sound, one that should not come from something made of wood, as the Timberwolf’s chest was impaled on the tree. It let out a howl of agony, struggling briefly as blood leaked from the wound. Slowly, the struggles became less and less, and then the red light in its eyes and chest began to go dim. it could only offer a choked and painful sounding snarl at the mares before it went dark, going limp on the branch.
Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked at Rarity, whose horn was still aglow with magic. She didn’t practice offensive spells very often, but she learned some from Twilight in case she ever needed to defend herself or her friends. She never thought that she’d have to use it, and she definitely did not believe it would do what it just did.
“O-oh my Celestia…” she put a hoof to her mouth, her eyes unmoving from the body she’d just impaled on the tree. “What have I done…”
Rainbow Dash and Applejack shared a glance before trotting over to Rarity. “You saved me, Sugarcube.”
“Yeah Rarity, it had to be done.”
Rarity didn’t seem to hear them, her gaze was still stuck on the thing she’d just killed.
“Sugarcube, we need to go. The other ponies need to know about this, and we need to find Sweetie Belle and the others.”
Her sister’s name snapped her out of her daze, and Rarity stood shakily to her hooves. “You’re right… let’s go.”
The three mares ran from the forest, leaving the freshly dead body of the mysterious Timberwolf behind.
Color blended into solidity as I touched down on the floor to Zecora’s hut again. She uttered a cry at my sudden appearance, blinking a few times.
I glanced down, seeing that my feet had smashed right through her floor and into the ground below her house.
She only gave me an annoyed look, before smiling again.
“Do not worry about it my friend. That will be rather easy to mend. I would rather hear about where you went, benign, I hope, was your intent?”
I nodded. I just went to help someone out, and I made a new friend in the process. Unconsciously, I glanced down to the gloves that Gilgamesh had given me, before reaching over and scratching Zecora behind the ear. Her ears went flat against her head and a happy look came over her face. God, you have no idea how much I’ve been wanting to do that.
“The time for trial has passed, though I hope that lovely gesture will not be the last.”
She set down a cup of tea in front of me, which I accepted gratefully. I drank it the only way I could, pouring it all into my mouth in one go. If she was appalled by my table manners, she didn’t say anything as she took a sip from her own cup.
Now let me get something straight, inhabiting the body of what’s basically a zombie isn’t easy. You have to learn to go without a few things.Taste buds, for one, was one thing I’d fully accepted not having again. And while I’d eaten prepared meals in the past, albeit messily, there was always that craving I’d had for raw flesh. It sounds disgusting, I know, but it’s hard to resist the instincts of something you didn’t belong in in the first place.
But this? This tea, that I held in my hand? I don’t know if she’d enchanted it or something but I could taste it. If I had the ability to cry, I’d be crying right now. This was the most god damned delicious thing I’d had in a long long time. I quickly poured myself another cup and downed that one too. Zecora chuckled.
“I see the allure of tea is not so easily resisted, even by one whose physique is so twisted.”
I only grunted in response, and then only after had I downed about four cups of the tea, did I speak. That...was...incredible! I took a moment to compose myself, my tone growing serious. But look, I came to tell you, I’m leaving the forest. Going to Manehattan.
At her questioning look I sighed. It’s actually probably safer if you didn’t know, but I just wanted to tell you to be careful. I’ve got a feeling there’s more than just your typical Everfree creatures roaming around lately. I was also hoping, maybe if you have any kind of map that could help me get to where I’m going…?
Wordlessly, the zebra stood up from the table and walked off, returning with a rolled up map. she spoke as she hoofed it to me. “I will keep an eye on things, but I also ask you to be cautious of what the future brings.” I nodded, taking the map as I ruffled her mane again. God, I still couldn’t get over being able to do that without risk of infecting someone. Thanks Gilgy!
I will return Zecora, keep safe, and try to get out of your hut more. Spending this much time in a room full of what’s basically drugs can’t be good for anyone. She frowned at me again, but I had already stepped out of her hut and into the Everfree. My happy mood forgotten for the moment, I quickly leapt high into the air to begin my trip to Manehattan. Zecora was right, I didn’t know what the future held, but if things went my way, there was going to be hell to pay…
...Damnit, I was spending way too much damn time around that Zebra.