The facsimile Sun of Twilight’s heliogenesis spell peeked over the horizon − or, more precisely, just past the rocky fields to Ponyville’s east, grazing just over Rainbow Dash’s home of clouds. The sunrise, normally tinted with oranges and magentas, was colored in deep grays and blues and purples. The light was sterile, but it was warm, and it would suffice for now.
The six mares and their dragon cub companion stood at the northernmost edge of Ponyville, just past the Hay And Clover restaurant. A small herd had gathered to see them off; not everypony in Ponyville, for fear that this gathering would attract NightMare Moon’s eye. The party the previous night had been a bit too bold of a gathering under the watch of the night, so caution was being taken this morning.
“What do you suppose NightMare Moon would call a morning?” Pinkie spontaneously asked, the saddle-bags she wore rattling with the sounds of the Element shards inside.
Twilight shook her head slowly. “If NightMare Moon had her way, I don’t know if the word morning would even be permitted. Mourning, perhaps, but morning is a part of the day.”
“Oooh!” Pinkie replied. “So I could say Good mourning to somepony if I wanted to super-dooper-sneaky about wanting the day back? But wait. Why would you want somepony to be good at mourning? Could you imagine somepony whose special talent is mourning? That would be so sad. Good thing my special talent is making ponies laugh!”
Ignoring Pinkie as she continued to ramble on about mourning and morning, Twilight turned to Applejack giving her farewells to her family.
“Be sure to write to us!” Apple Bloom said eagerly.
Applejack waved a hoof in a slightly evasive manner. “Well, that might be a tad hard, given that we’re headed fer the heart a Canterlot, but Ah’ll try.”
Granny Smith hugged Applejack tightly.
“Stay safe, mah little appleseed.”
“Ah’m not s’little no more, Granny,” Applejack said proudly. “But Ah’ll try to keep mah nose clean.”
Applejack turned to face her big brother.
“Big Mac, keep mah family safe. Alright?”
Winona, sitting on her haunches, simply looked up at Applejack with plaintive eyes. Applejack gave her dog a pitying look.
“Sorry, girl, but Ah can’ risk takin’ ya. Ah don’ wantcha gettin’ hurt by pony-knows-what out there. Can Ah count on ya t’ keep things safe here ‘round Ponyville?”
Winona leapt to her feet, barking brightly, panting.
Applejack smiled. “Ah knew Ah could count on ya.”
Rarity was holding a cat-carrier in her dwimmer shimmer, levitating it towards her parents and sister. Twilight noticed that Hondo Flanks was currently wearing a straw hat with a wide rim, covering up much of his forelock. Was Rarity trying to hide the fact that her father was not a Unicorn…?
“Please take good care of Opal,” she said tenderly. “Remember, it's liver in the morning, heart for the evening. Except for Fridays, when it's steak in the morning, and cooked liver at night. Anyway, warm it up in a frying pan for a bit before you feed it to her; she dares not to touch cool meat.”
“Cats eat meat?” Sweetie Belle gaped, sticking out her tongue.
“I understand your trepidation, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said. “Nopony eats meat, after all.”
“We’ll be sure t’ keep to that, Rarity,” Pearl said.
“We just have ta stock th’ ice-box, is all,” Hondo added, throwing out his chest.
Rarity smiled as her mother took the cat-carrier in her dwimmer shimmer, Sweetie bouncing up and down to get a good look at the cat in the carrier.
“Ooh! Ooh! Hey there, Opal!”
The cat-carrier rattled violently, the sounds of hissing and spitting joining the clatter of the carrier’s door. Her ears flicking irritatedly at the din, Twilight realized that Pinkie Pie had stopped chattering about the significance of the letter u, and was now talking to Mr. and Mrs. Cake. She also realized, upon looking over at the rosy-pink Earth Pony mare, saw that there was a…
“PINKIE!” she shrieked.
“What is it, Twilight?” Pinkie said brightly, turning towards the lavender Unicorn.
“There’s a crocodile biting your tail!” Twilight shouted.
Pinkie turned around to look at her tail… but she didn’t turn her tail with her, so all she did was spin in place. As Twilight’s hoof met her face, Pinkie twitched her tail around and turned her head, so that she could look at her tail. She smiled widely.
“Twilight, you silly filly! That’s not a crocodile. That’s my pet baby alligator, Gummy!”
Even though it’s unmistakably a crocodile… Twilight thought, looking at Gummy’s pointed snout. Shaking her head, she shouted at Pinkie, “But isn’t it really dangerous? He’s biting your tail!”
“Oh, don’t worry, Twilight! He doesn’t have any teeth yet. See?” she said, just as Gummy opened his jaws, freeing himself from Pinkie’s tail. True enough, as Twilight glanced at his gaping mouth, he only had gums. His teeth had not grown in yet.
Then Gummy started to gum at Pinkie’s leg, causing her to giggle.
“So, you can look after Gummy for me while I’m gone?” she asked Mr. and Mrs. Cake.
“You can count on us, Pinkie!” said Carrot Cake brightly.
“Just be careful out there, dear,” said Cup Cake.
Pinkie picked up Gummy in her forehooves, looking deep into his bright purple eyes sadly.
“Mommy’s gonna miss you. Be good, okay, Gummy?”
Gummy blinked, one eye first, then the other. Pinkie sniffled, tears running down her muzzle. She smiled sadly.
“Aww, don’t look so sad, Gummy,” she said, and Twilight blinked in confusion. Gummy’s expression had not changed at all. “It’s not like I’m gonna be gone forever. Just until I help Twilight here beat back that mean old Hokey Smokes!”
Gummy blinked at Pinkie once more, very slowly. Pinkie squeed in joy, her bright teeth showing.
“That’s the spirit, Gummy!”
She planted a big, wet kiss on Gummy’s snout, before setting the sedate alligator (crocodile?) down before Mr. and Mrs. Cake.
“Oh dear… Oh my…” Fluttershy was hemming and hawing back and forth beside Twilight. Angel Bunny was standing at her hooves, thumping a foot impatiently.
“What’s wrong, Fluttershy?”
“I really overlooked something,” she said tensely. “Oh dear… Please don’t be mad, Angel Bunny… I… I really don’t know anypony in Ponyville, so I…”
“Wait. But you live here!” Twilight snapped. “How could you live somewhere and not know the ponies there?”
“I know, right?” Pinkie interjected.
“Well… It’s just that… other ponies scare me… I really only come out here to Ponyville when me or my animal friends need food…”
Twilight groaned in frustration, before turning to the crowd.
“Is there anypony here,” she asked in a raised voice, “who would take care of Fluttershy’s pet bunny rabbit?”
The small herd of Ponyvillagers looked back and forth tentatively at each other. Clearly, though Fluttershy did not know very many ponies in Ponyville, almost all of them knew of Angel Bunny and his temperament. Many of the ponies in question were actually arguing with their significant others, trying to not be the pair who were saddled with the impish little bunny.
“I’ll do it.”
It was a Pegasus stallion with a coat the color of milk chocolate, and a mane of black and purple. His hind legs were hitched into a steel wheelchair, but his purple eyes still sparkled with optimism. He trotted forward, his wheelchair squeaking slightly as he did so, stopping just in front of Fluttershy.
“Umm, thank you, Mister…” Fluttershy began.
“Stellar Eclipse,” he said in his boyish voice. Angel Bunny looked up at him warily, his arms folded across his chest. “I’m not the best with animals, but… I’m okay with chickens and… bunny rabbits are pretty much chickens without feathers, right?” he offered as an unconvincing finish. Angel Bunny smacked his forehead.
Fluttershy looked back and forth between Angel and Stellar Eclipse uncertainly, clearly having second thoughts. Twilight decided this was a good moment to step in.
“Maybe I should grab a rabbit care book from the library for you before we leave,” she said.
“That might be a bit necessary,” said Stellar Eclipse, who did not notice Fluttershy nodding eagerly behind him.
In a flash, Twilight had winked straight into the main room of the Golden Oak Library, and looking through the directory led her to Sweet Little Cute Bunny: How to Care for Your Pet Rabbit. Smiling, she made a note of its check-out date in the back of the book, before winking back to the northern edge of Ponyville, passing the book to Stellar Eclipse, who was already having to contend with Angel giving him the stink-eye.
“Oh, don’t be so upset, Angel Bunny,” Fluttershy said tenderly, lowering herself to Angel’s level. “I’m sure now that he’ll do a fine job. After all, you’re just a little bunny, and you need constant watching after to make sure that you don’t choke on a carrot.”
Fluttershy did not seem to notice Angel rolling his eyes.
“Well,” Rainbow Dash said sharply, “Looks like everypony’s got their pets taken care of. Everypony got everything they need in their saddle-bags?” Five of the group, minus Twilight, carried fragments of the Elements in their saddle-bags. Rainbow Dash’s own contained small clumps of raincloud, in case she got thirsty.
“Sure do!” replied Applejack. Her saddle-bags carried some apple-based rations, a canteen of water, and a lasso.
“Of course,” assented Rarity, whose saddle-bags contained a razor and several beautification products besides.
“Ooh, ooh! I do! I do!” squealed Pinkie Pie, whose saddle-bags contained confetti, streamers, party poppers, party hats, noise-makers, candy bars, and a bottle of sugar water.
“I’m pretty sure I do,” breathed Fluttershy, whose saddle-bags contained bundles of hay and oats.
“I’ve triple-checked my checklist on what I need, and I’m ready,” Twilight said. Her saddle-bags contained the letters from Queen Celestia (noted numerically in the order she’d received them), some five-gross bits of assorted change, and some spare ink, quills, and parchment.
“Seemed more like a quadruple-check,” Spike mumbled, his forelegs crossed.
“Hush, Spike,” Twilight hissed, before turning to face the crowding herd. “Well, everypony, wish us the best of luck. With good luck, we should return with the rise of the Sun, and the defeat of NightMare Moon.”
The herd cheered. Twilight lit up her alicorn and flashed her dwimmer shimmer brightly to get their attention once more.
“In the meantime,” Twilight continued, “try not to attract too much ire of NightMare Moon. Be good little night-lovers. Don’t give her more reason than we already have to target you.” Twilight gulped. “Please be safe.”
And with that, Twilight Sparkle, her dragon cub assistant Spike, the farmer mare Applejack, the fashion mare Rarity, the action mare Rainbow Dash, the party mare Pinkie Pie, and the animal-whisperer mare Fluttershy trotted outside the sphere of safety of Ponyville, and into the great night.
It was mere moments after they’d left the boundaries of Ponyville when a filly on a scooter scooted up, glancing about eagerly.
“Rainbow Dash! Sorry I slept in, but I’m here! Rainbow Dash… I’m here… Rainbow Dash?”
Outside of Ponyville, the landscape underwent a remarkably radical shift once they left the paths that ponies usual traveled. Gone were the usually worn pathways of Ponyville, replaced with the ragged edges of paths taken by herds of varying size. The further that the small herd traveled from the parabola of the arc of Twilight Sparkle’s heliogenesis-generated Sun, the lower the temperature sank. Already they could see their own breath misting in front of their muzzles, and the intermittent frosted-over puddle of mud.
“It just ain’t right, none a’ this,” Applejack muttered.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Twilight concurred. “This is in direct defiance of the Nychthemeron!”
“The what-now?” Rainbow Dash said. “The Nick-they-moron?”
“The Nychthemeron,” Twilight explained slowly, “is the quantum thaumaturgical principle that insists that the Sun and Moon remain in perpetual, perfect synchronicity.”
“In Equus, please,” Rainbow Dash snarked.
Twilight narrowed her eyes at the cyan Pegasus, before saying, slowly, “The Nychthemeron is a really hifalutin law of the universe, which states that the Sun and Moon must always follow the exact same path at exactly the same pace. If not…”
“If not…?” Fluttershy echoed nervously.
Twilight cleared her throat.
“Even the most expert thaumaturgists have no real idea what could happen. But Queen Celestia once told me if the Sun and Moon were to fall out of sync, then, quote-unquote, ‘chaos would fall over Harmonia, and discord would reign’.”
A shudder swept through the group that had no connection whatsoever to the chill of prolonged nighttime. The word discord had always been somewhat taboo in Equestrian society, as though it were associated with some great horror in its collective past. None of them had any idea why the word was such a powerful instigator of fear, and that made the word even more terrible to the average Equestrian.
“Well,” Rarity said, regaining her composure, “we don’t want that to happen, now, do we?”
“Nopey-dopey-lopey!” said Pinkie Pie in as angry a tone as she could muster, which did not do much to make her not sound happy. “I mean, an everlasting night would let you throw the world’s longest slumber party, but a slumber party that doesn’t end isn’t a slumber party anymore. It’s just a… slum! …ber!”
Twilight nodded hesitantly.
“…Yeah,” she added after a moment. “And that’s why we have to end this everlasting night as fast as possible. We’ve already lost enough time to NightMare Moon. We have to find out what the Queen wants us to find in that book!”
And her trot quickly became a canter, the other ponies following suit behind her.
I only hope that any slumber party with these ponies doesn’t end with the building it’s inside being demolished, Twilight thought. Then she shook her head violently. Wait, what am I thinking? These ponies don’t mean that to me! They’re just travel companions, nothing more! As soon as this business is done, I can go on pretending I’ve never met them!
The ache in Twilight’s heart at that last thought told her otherwise. She glanced back at the five ponies she saw behind Spike perched on her back.
Maybe I’m starting to see some good in spending time with them…
Travel to Canterlot by hoof from Ponyville was ordinarily less than a day’s journey, if one knew the right paths to take. Twilight had been flown down to the hamlet from Canterlot in less than an hour, but the trek she would take on her return journey was hardly straight. The path wound along the countryside, cutting as level a path as it could across the valley floor. Then, once one reached the base of the North Equinus Mountains, then it was a matter of traversing the winding cliff-faces leading up to the cobbled path leading to Canterlot’s main gate. In addition, the startling cold of a land of eternal night had a way of sapping the energy of any traveler, even in an Earth Pony as hardy as Applejack.
But the hard road to travel ahead could have potentially been beset by other dangers that Twilight had taken to describing to her company.
“M-merewolves…?” Spike had stuttered in fear.
“Vampires… ?” Fluttershy had gasped.
Twilight nodded darkly. “Yes. Unfortunately, the new moon is in a week, so we should have a one-day breather from merewolves if it takes us more than seven days to get to Canterlot.”
“Wait, wait wait wait wait!” Rainbow had interrupted, waving her forehooves quickly. “I think I… heard… somewhere that merewolves only transform under the full moon.”
Twilight had narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash, a smug grin on her face. “Daring Do fanzine?”
The change was instantaneous; Rainbow’s pupils had shrunk to pinpricks, her muzzle scrunching up as her eyes darted back and forth nervously. “Wh-what gave you that idea?”
A rush of satisfaction had filled Twilight; despite being brought up not to get other ponies’ goats like that, it was still nice to get back at Rainbow, even if in a minute way, for her rough introduction. “Well, I’m sorry to say, Prism Blaze, but that’s one merewolf myth I’m gonna have to bust. Merewolves actually transform under any moonlight at all.”
Applejack had shuddered, “So… yer sayin’…?”
“Yes. Merewolves will be violently active for days on end until the new moon. And I just hope that we don’t run into any hemolupes.”
“Hee-muh-whatnows?” Pinkie Pie had asked, looking remarkably concerned.
“When a vampire bites somepony, it injects a toxin that slowly turns the target into a vampire themselves… if they live. But when a merewolf is the victim, a hemolupe is born.”
“What is a hemolupe?” asked a shaking Rarity.
“A hemolupe, called the murciélobo in Manada, or ein Vampirwolf in my father’s native Germaney, has the combined powers of a vampire and a merewolf. It feeds on pony flesh, blood and bone. In addition to transforming into a large bat, or a cloud of fog or mist, it can transform into its wolf form, regardless of time of day or the face of the Moon. And it’s completely feral.”
“You mean… We can’t talk to it?” Fluttershy had asked with limp ears, sitting on her haunches and rubbing her forehooves together. “We can’t appeal to its better instincts?”
“The only instinct of a hemolupe is to feed. There is no appealing to it.”
“Oh,” Fluttershy sighed, her ears drooping completely.
Proceeding along afterwards had proved to be surprisingly taxing, even with the nebulous threat of blood-suckers and flesh-eaters hanging over their heads. The Moon hung idly in the middle of the sky overhead, all of Equestria falling deeper into colder as it lingered in perpetual midnight. Even Pinkie Pie and Applejack, the hardiest of the party as Earth Ponies, felt fatigue settling into them.
“What’s say we take five fer now an’ warm ourselves up by a fire?” Applejack said after what seemed like days of trotting.
Twilight looked ahead along the rugged path. They were still a ways off from the Alicorn’s Peak and Canterlot, but close enough to see that the city had undergone some radical changes since Twilight had last seen it. What had once been a pristine, white metropolis perched on the mountainside, was now dark and foreboding, with silvery battlements all along the towers. Tapestries the size of entire city blocks hung down from the lowermost levels of the city. It had been almost completely transformed into a monument to NightMare Moon’s conquest.
“We might as well,” she said. Even in spite of the bubbling fury she felt at NightMare Moon’s audacity, Twilight still knew it would be foalish to press herself ever onwards beyond the point of exhaustion. She did not want to reach the gates of Canterlot with no energy to spare. Who knew how many members of the Royal Guard had been coerced into her service…?
“Alright, everypony, take a load off,” Twilight said, and with that, Rainbow Dash none-too-gently dropped her saddle-bags to the ground. Twilight gave her a sharp glare, and Rainbow whistled innocently, looking up to the sky.
“I assume that most of you thought to pack very little food, or at least food that keeps for a long time?” Twilight asked.
“Food?” Rarity gasped. “Oh my stars! In all my worry of facial hair and split ends, I forgot to bring food!”
“You were more worried about appearances than eatin’?” Applejack asked.
“Talk about your screwed-up priorities,” Rainbow Dash mock-whispered to Applejack, who snickered and hushed her Pegasus companion.
“You don’t have to worry, Rarity,” Twilight said. “We can just eat the grass if we have to.”
“Grass?” Rarity repeated. “Did you say grass?”
“Do you need a hearing aid or something?” Rainbow Dash said. “Of course she said ‘grass’.”
“But… must we eat something so… unsavory?” said Rarity. “I mean, grass is just… just…”
“It’s what our ancestors have been eating for meggrossia, Rarity,” Twilight snapped.
“Yes, but… that was then. Must we return to their ways?”
“Yes. We must. If our other food sources become scarce, we’ll have to eat at the grass. In fact,” she said with a raised voice, to get Pinkie Pie’s attention, because the pink Earth Pony seemed too preoccupied with seeing how high she could float in midair and for how long, “I’d recommend that we only use the food we brought along as a supplement, to make it last longer.”
Rarity stammered dramatically for several more moments, pulling surprisingly animated faces for such a cultured Unicorn, but finally heaved a heavy sigh.
“If it must be a means to the end of everlasting night, then I will bear this burden.”
The seven of them settled in a circle of soft bare earth, under the canopy of a cluster of trees. After collecting a small bundle of dry twigs and placing them in the center of their circle, they watched as Twilight summoned a bright-pink spark from the tip of her alicorn, setting the bonfire ablaze. It felt like they had all taken a deep dip into a warm spa.
“Now, why wasn’t it that easy to spark the Elements back to power?” Twilight muttered.
“Ah still don’ think Ah rightly understand what happened back in th’ Everfree, sugarcube,” Applejack queried. “What exactly happened?”
“Queen Celestia’s secret message indicated,” explained Twilight, “that a spark would ignite the five Elements that we had and cause the sixth to appear. I tried to ignite them. I tried so hard, but… Pferdeäpfel!” Twilight swore in Germane. Her ears drooped. “Maybe I’m just not powerful enough to repower the Elements…”
“I think you probably got it backwards, Twi,” Rainbow Dash interjected.
Twilight gave Rainbow an exasperated look. “What? I’m Queen Celestia’s own personal protégée. I know exactly what was going through the Queen’s mind when she write this!” She produced the Sixth Element spark parchment, waving it in Rainbow’s face with her dwimmer shimmer.
Rainbow took it in her teeth, her eyes almost crossing as she tried to read it herself. After only a moment, she just spat it back out, Twilight catching it with her magic before it could hit the dirt, or the bonfire.
“And you call yourself an egghead, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash chuckled.
Twilight sputtered in barely constrained indignity. “Wh-what? I’ve read more books in a day that you have in your entire life! How could you possibly understand this letter better than me?”
Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs over her barrel… then she scrunched up her muzzle, her pupils shrinking to pinpoints, darting back and forth. After a moment, she returned to her previous casual confidence, her elongated fangs glinting in the fire’s light.
“Do tell me that you’ve read Daring Do and the Razor of Dreams?”
“Read it? I own every book in the series!”
“Then you should know how the Artifacts of Exodus were powered.”
Twilight snorted in derision. “That’s easy. They were activated by the dark energy brought forth by Ahuizotl and his followers, allowing them to summon forth the Exodus Golem, also known the Razer of Dreams.”
Twilight paused. “What.”
Rainbow Dash grinned. “You got it all backwards, Twilight. The Artifacts of Exodus weren’t activated by the fanaticism of Ahuizotl, bringing forth the Exodus Golem; they were already active. It was the fanaticism of Ahuizotl and his followers that allowed the Artifacts of Exodus to awaken the Exodus Golem. It’s like… like a lightning storm! The cloud is like the Artifacts of Exodus, the lightning bolt is like their fanaticism turned into that flashy beam of light, and a tree that catches fire is like the awakening of the Razer of Dreams.”
Twilight opened her mouth to contest Rainbow’s point, then blinked, and gulped. The Razor of Dreams did always seem to be the weakest of the Daring Do series to Twilight. But now, when she recollected the contents of the book through the lens of Rainbow Dash’s perspective…
“It makes so much sense now!” Twilight said brightly.
“I know, right?” Rainbow’s fangs glinted. “A.K. Yearling’s a genius, isn’t she?”
“Well, she is, but… Rainbow Dash… You’re… Du bist ein Genie!”
“Hey!” Rainbow replied angrily. “What’re you insulting me for?”
Twilight blinked, then smacked her forehead with a cloven hoof. “Twilight, you dolt. She doesn’t know Germane.” She addressed Rainbow directly, “I was calling you a genius, Rainbow.”
“Oh…” Rainbow rubbed a forehoof against her chest smugly. “Well, I always knew I was a genius, but…” She blinked. “I just assumed that since you were talking in Germane that you were insulting me.” She blinked again. “…Wait. How, exactly, am I a genius?”
“Ah think we’re all curious as t’ how ya reached that conclusion, Twilight,” Applejack agreed.
Twilight was prancing about the bonfire now.
“How could I not have seen it? It all makes so much sense now! I was reading the Queen’s message wrong!” Suddenly, Twilight’s energy vanished, her ears drooping. “I read the Queen’s message wrong…”
“What, pray tell, did you read incorrectly about the message, darling?” Rarity asked. “Sixth Element spark seems an awfully vague message, but… what ambiguity is clear to you now?”
Twilight perked up a little.
“Well, it looks like I had it all backwards,” she explained. “If I had to make a hypothesis right now, the reason that the Elements of Harmony didn’t activate at my usage of a spark spell, is because the five Elements that we have are not, in fact, activated by a spark. Rather, the Elements themselves generate the spark that creates the sixth Element.”
“Well, that sounds genius and all, Twilight,” Applejack said, smiling a little. “Just one little query, though: how do ya activate the Elements ta generate th’ spark ta begin with?”
“I… I don’t know.” She planted her hooves in the dirt. “But that’s why we need that book! The Queen has surely left some answers for us in it!”
“And we’re gonna need some shuteye ‘fore we get t’ Canterlot, so… Ah’m takin’ the first watch.” And with that, Applejack stood up from her spot by the fire and strode to the edge of the fire’s circle. “Ah won’t let anypony or anything into this circle!”
Rather quickly, everypony settled down onto their bellies to go to sleep. Spike curled up as closely as he dared to Rarity. Before Twilight could close her eyes, though, she felt the nudge of a hoof at her alicorn. Looking up, she saw Rainbow Dash, looking a little anxious.
“Uhh… You won’t tell anypony back in Ponyville that I read Daring Do, right? I got a reputation for being awesome, you know.”
“If you let everypony know, you’ll have a reputation for being honest about yourself. Wouldn’t that be awesome in its own right?”
Before Rainbow Dash could come up with a retort to this, Twilight settled her head down and closed her eyes.
The five of them came to at roughly the same time. Exactly what time it was was lost on them; they were too far out from Ponyville now to make out whether the facsimile Sun was out or not. The implications of nighttime eternal were reinforced even further upon them.
Applejack was wavering on her legs, her eyes struggling to stay open.
Twilight gaped at the palomino Earth Pony. “Did you stay up all night?”
Applejack blinked around, blubbering in a half-awake stupor. Settling her eyes on Twilight, she gave a tired smile that only accentuated the bags under her eyes, and said, “Oh, sugarcube. ‘Course Ah wasn’t up all night. It’s a night that never ends, isn’t it?”
Twilight sighed heavily. “Applejack, when you said first watch, I assumed that you meant that you would wake one of us up to take over when you got tired.”
“Ah wasn’ gonna leave mah post just ‘cause Ah got a little bit hazy in the eyes.”
“So you are tired!”
“No Ah’m not!” Applejack yawned loudly and obviously. “Ah ain’t never been more…” Applejack’s head pitched forward, and she fell asleep where she stood.
Twilight groaned in frustration. This mare is as stubborn as a mule! …Meaning no offense to mules, of course, but… Der Macher im Elysium! She needs to know that she isn’t alone in trying to save the world!
Twilight paused, ruminating on the paradox of her trying to persuade somepony else to share the burden of saving Harmonia, before she reared up, clapping her forehooves together with a loud CLACK.
Applejack snapped awake, her eyes darting about in alarm.
“Applejack,” Twilight said sharply, “you don’t have to do this alone. You can depend on other ponies to help you do this.”
The farmer mare reached blearily up and attempted to adjust her Stetson… but in her present state, all that she succeeded in doing was brushing her hat off of her head. Before it had even hit the ground, Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer lit up around it, suspending it in midair. Applejack’s emerald eyes followed it stupidly, before Twilight set it back onto Applejack’s head, adjusting it so that her ears were not flattened by it.
“Ah appreciate yer concern, Twilight,” Applejack slurred, “but Ah’m made outta tough stuff. Ah can stand ta lose a few winks.”
“Everypony has their limits, Applejack,” Twilight persisted. “Nopony here wants to see you hurt yourself, least of all me.”
And before Twilight knew it, it was out of her mouth.
“You’re my friend, Applejack. As difficult as things got since I first showed up here in Ponyville, you’re the one pony who I’ve really come to like. Granted, meeting all of your family in one day was a little overwhelming, and your cousin Sour Apple’s tarts were… bracing… but I really don’t want to see you like this.”
Applejack stared at Twilight blankly… or was it shock? Behind her, Twilight heard the sound of somepony’s hooves clapping. Turning, she saw Rainbow Dash hovering several paces away, bringing her front hooves together slowly. Around her were the other three, and all four of them were giving Twilight smiles of approval.
“Congratulations, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said with a grating smirk. “You’ve just made your very first friend!”
“Hey!” Spike said indignantly. “What about me?”
“Oh.” Rainbow Dash scratched the back of her head nervously. “Right, well… Make that very second friend.”
“Second friend party!” Pinkie squealed to high heaven.
“I don’t think now’s a good time for a party,” Twilight said curtly. “Now that we’re all awake, I say we move on.” She paused, facing Applejack. “That is, assuming you feel up to it on next to no sleep.”
Applejack smiled at Twilight, and this time the bags under her eyes seemed to disappear. “Y’know what, sugarcube? Knowin’ that Ah’m yer friend, Ah think Ah could make it a little while longer. S’long as yer there ta support me if Ah start t’ teeter.”
“I’ll be there,” Twilight said with a smile.
As it turned out, Applejack made it almost four hours before she started to falter. Despite her earlier promise that she would be there to hold Applejack up if she started to tire, Twilight was only a Unicorn, and Applejack was an Earth Pony. Even though Twilight was the second tallest of the six mares present, Applejack’s denser muscles as an Earth Pony meant that Twilight had a surprisingly heavy load to prop up.
Applejack yawned, and the weight against Twilight’s side only grew stronger.
“Ah’m awful sorry, sugarcube, but mah dogs’re barkin’,” she drawled. “Ah gotta lie down somewhere…”
The tired palomino set her eyes on a ring of rough, bare earth, surrounded by six white-petaled flowers. She smiled.
“Well, Ah do declare,” Applejack said with a serenity that unnerved Twilight. “That looks like a mighty comfy circle a’ earth. Ah think Ah’ll take a rest right there.”
Twilight blinked in disbelief at Applejack, as did her five other companions, as she made her way towards the circle of flowers. Twilight was befuddled; how could these flowers possibly look this vibrant in the eternal night? She knew that there were plenty of flowers that bloomed under moonlight or starlight, but none that looked like these. Now, as she watched the flowers turn their heads towards Applejack hungrily, she knew that these were no flowers…
“Get back, Applejack!” she cried, grabbing the Earth Pony in her dwimmer shimmer and yanking her away from the flowers. It was good timing, because the “flowers” had begun to lunge at Applejack, their “petals” now revealed to be teeth, snapping at the drowsy Earth Pony now just beyond their reach.
“Oh my goodness!” Fluttershy gasped.
“Twilight, do you know what those flowers are?” breathed Rarity.
“Those are no flowers,” Twilight growled. “That’s an udoroot!”
“A what?” Spike, Pinkie, Rainbow, and Rarity asked, but Fluttershy seemed to know what she was talking about. Applejack, who had stopped trying to walk in midair at this point, apparently came to her senses and caught wind of what Twilight had just said.
“An udoroot!” Twilight repeated. “It’s a camouflage predator that pretends it’s a bunch of flowers, then uses its psychic powers to lure tired travelers to their doom!”
Six gasps met Twilight’s statement.
“Pinkie!” Twilight said. “You’re the only Earth Pony we have who’s not half-asleep. You gotta dig it out! Its six feelers are its only line of defense against alert ponies!”
“Wilco walnut, Twilight!” said Pinkie, who then yanked on her own tail, her forelock twisting up into a drill shape and spinning wildly in response. Before Twilight could even string two thoughts together as to how this was possible, the pink Earth Pony had thrust her auger of a forelock into the earth at her hooves, digging out a perfectly Pinkie-shaped tunnel behind her.
“You know what?” Twilight said flatly. “I’m not even going to question it.”
After a few moments, the udoroot’s flower-feelers started to flail in violent protest, snapping at the ponies and drake who stood just out of its reach (Rarity shrieked in fear and hid behind Rainbow Dash). The earth began to shake and crack around the patch where the udoroot had planted itself, and moments later, the large root structure of the udoroot blasting upwards, a pink Earth Pony with a drilling forelock hoisting it upwards with both forehooves.
“One udoroot platter, made to order!” Pinkie squealed with all the lightness of presenting a birthday cake as she spun forward, hurling the udoroot upside-down into the hole she’d created pushing it out. Its roots settled in defeat, earth crumbling onto the grass at its edges.
Twilight then waved her hoof back at Spike and her five mare companions.
“Stand back, everypony.”
Her alicorn lit up with her pink dwimmer shimmer, and some pink lightning began to spark across its length. Then, in a flash that made all six behind her gasp, pink-purple fire erupted from the udoroot. Its roots quickly ignited, the sounds of its flower-feelers beating against its earthy tomb in its death throes sounding like the drums of war which had not beat in Equestria for over three-dozen-gross years. What sounded like a shriek rose up for a moment, and fell silent.
The udoroot was blackened and shriveled, pieces of its roots falling to the ground and crumbling to ash. A small funnel of grass behind the udoroot was singed as well from the force of Twilight’s dwimmer-fire. A terrible stench filled the air, not entirely like how a plant smelled when burnt.
Twilight turned back to her companions, who looked mildly alarmed at the action their lavender friend had taken. She hung her head mildly, her ears drooping.
“I’ll understand,” Twilight said heavily, “if you guys don’t want to call me your friend anymore.”
“Are you kidding me?” Rainbow Dash said indignantly. “That was awesome!”
“While I do think that it was a bit… excessive, it was quite the fancy bit of showmareship, if I do say so myself,” Rarity said with a mildly forced smile.
“I know!” Pinkie Pie said with a pronk. “And plus, that mean old meanie-pie plant lookalike whatchamacallit tried to gobble up Applejack like she was a cupcake!”
“I know! That thing was going to chomp her down, but then Pinkie flipped it up, and then you barbecued that thing!” Spike cheered merrily. “Now I know that I’m not the only one of us who can char broil hayburgers!”
Fluttershy’s ears drooped, her eyes flickering between Twilight and the burnt udoroot remains. “I… I think that plant could have been punished a little more kindly, but… if burning it was okay with you… I’ll be okay with it.”
Applejack had been silent, and had a hoof on her Stetson. After a moment, she peered out from under the rim of her hat, and smiled warmly at Twilight.
“Thank you. Fer savin’ mah life. An’ ya wouldn’ta had to if Ah’d not been so plumb stubborn.”
“From now on, Twilight,” Applejack said, trotting up to Twilight and resting a hoof on the Unicorn’s withers, “Ah’m countin’ on you t’ keep me from gettin’ too far ahead a’ mahself.”
Twilight raised a hoof up to Applejack’s, meeting her eyes. “That’s what friends are for, right? Being there for each other.”
The palomino Earth Pony and lavender Unicorn shared a gaze for several moments.
“Alright, lovebirds,” came a grating Pegasus’s voice, rousing the pair. “I know you two were having a moment, but can we please have it away from this smoking udoroot corpse?”
The pair blushing, Twilight cleared her throat and gestured for Spike to hop onto her back.
“Well, what are we waiting for, the Sun to rise? Let’s go, girls!”
The adrenaline rush of the udoroot incident had kept Applejack on her hooves for another few hours, to the point that it was now almost an entire day since they had first taken a rest. They now stood at the sheer southern face of the North Equinus Mountains, with a series of low cliffs serving as their secret path, gradually leading up to the main road to Canterlot, looming almost directly overhead.
Applejack was practically dead on her hooves, and it was to her great relief that Twilight decided to take the first watch.
“In exactly four hours, I will wake somepony else up to take the second watch,” Twilight explained. She turned her head to the mulberry drake on her back. “Spike?”
Spike jumped down from Twilight’s back and gave a little salute. “Yes?”
“I’m leaving you in Applejack’s care while I take the first watch.”
Applejack smiled up at Twilight. “Ya can count on me, sugarcube.”
Up in the air, Rainbow Dash had produced a minute cloud from a saddle-bag, squeezing out a small trickle of water into her mouth.
“You sure you can handle it, Applesack?” she drawled towards the orange Earth Pony. “I could swear you spent half of the past trek sleeptrotting.”
Green eyes narrowed at Rainbow Dash.
“Ah had t’ raise mah little sister on mah own half the time. With Granny Smith gettin’ on in years, Big Mac ‘n’ Ah had ta take it in turns t’ bring Apple Bloom up. Ah think Ah can handle one baby dragon.”
Fluttershy had already settled down onto her barrel, breathing slowly as she settled down for a sleep. Pinkie was rolling about on the grass, humming to herself. Rarity was turning about in place, teasing out the blades of grass at her hooves.
“Rarity, if you don’t mind me asking,” Twilight asked, “and don’t take this the wrong way: Do you ever intend to set yourself down?”
Rarity cocked an amethyst eyebrow at the lavender Unicorn.
“If it’s all the same to you, Twilight, I would really prefer to not dirty myself up prior to our approach to Canterlot. I do so hate getting grass stains on my cannon and barrel.”
“We’re not going to the Grand Galloping Gala, Rarity. We don’t have to look our best.” Twilight indicated her own growing stubble. “And besides, I doubt that NightMare Moon would let us just canter on in. No doubt she’s forced the Royal Guard to obey, under pain of death.”
“Then, pray tell, how are we going to get in?”
Twilight paused. How would they get in…?
“Maybe,” she postulated, “just maybe, there are Royal Guards who’d only pretend to serve NightMare Moon. They’d let us in and pretend otherwise. We can only hope that there’s one at the front gates.”
“We can only hope,” Rarity said, finally certain that she would not get her coat stained on the grass, and settling down softly, closing her eyes. “Rest well, Twilight.”
They had made it a habit of not saying good night since this journey had begun. That would be seen as an acknowledgment that this nighttime eternal was a boon to Equestria, and not a curse. It was what they would say to one another until either they tore down NightMare Moon’s regime, or were themselves defeated.
Preferably the former.
As her partners drifted off to sleep one by one, Twilight kept a solid watch out for anything that could be on the prowl. This cold eternal night would be a huge benefaction to nocturnal predators, which would make it that much more perilous to travel Equestria under the Mare in the Moon.
Twilight looked up to the Moon itself. It had settled out of its full moon phase of the day of the Summer Sun Celebration, and was now a waning gibbous. Seeing it without the Alicorn-shaped profile was alien, as though a foreign celestial body had substituted itself for their Moon.
A bolt of cold white lightning shot past the Moon.
Twilight narrowed her eyes. There were no clouds in the sky this night.
Two more bolts shot past after the first.
Twilight turned to Rainbow Dash, the only travel companion of hers who was still awake.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
“You mean the Shadowbolts? Yeah.”
Twilight snapped her head back into the sky. The bolts had disappeared.
“The Shadowbolts? But…”
Twilight looked back to the cyan Pegasus.
“But what happened to the Wonderbolts?”
Rainbow shrugged. “After we escaped the Everfree with you, we saw the two Bolt groups scatter. Guess they were evenly matched.” She curled a forehoof in anger. “Copycats showing up the Wonderbolts like that―”
“But where’d they go?”
Rainbow’s cerise eyes met Twilight’s purple eyes.
“No idea. I wish I knew. ‘Cause they need all the help they can get.” Rainbow Dash’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll show ‘em. I’ll show ‘em that I’m no bronco. I can fight and fly as well as any Wonderbolt, whether or not I know their history!”
And with that, Rainbow Dash alighted on the ground by Fluttershy, resting her head on Fluttershy’s barrel and intertwining their primaries together. She was out like a light in moments.
Twilight ended up waking up Rainbow Dash to be the second watch; the Pegasus was jumpy enough as it was that she would not be likely to miss anything that moved. Also, as Twilight had noted, as long as Rainbow Dash was in the air, she had a sixth sense of sorts for where anything was at any given time.
When Twilight came to after her rest, it was to Applejack’s face.
“Have a good rest, friend?” she asked with an offered hoof.
“I have, actually,” Twilight said smiling, accepting the hoof to get onto all fours. “How was yours?”
“Ah slept like Winona after a day a roundin’ up herds a sheep an’ cattle,” the Earth Pony said with relish. “Ah don’ think Ah’d slept so good in ages.”
Twilight nodded. “And how was Spike?”
Applejack shook her head ruefully, turning to show the mulberry drake asleep on her back. “Yer little son here’s a reg’lar smoker. He kept on puffin’ clouds a black stuff in mah face till Ah just put him on mah back.”
Twilight laughed lightly, and making Twilight laugh put a little laugh at Applejack’s lips as well.
“Well, Spike’s not really my son, but… I’ll see what I can do about his smoking habits.”
Applejack snickered slightly at that pun, and Twilight joined in.
“So, how exactly is Spike not yer son?”
The suddenness of Applejack’s query caught Twilight flat-hoofed. The palomino was still smiling at Twilight, but her eyes were slightly narrowed, giving her a slightly devious look. Twilight bit her lip. This was the first and only friend she’d made apart from Spike. How could she handle this tactfully?
“Well… see, Spike isn’t my son in any biological sense. All that I really did was hatch his egg with my magic when I was a filly.”
“So basically, ya inseminated th’ egg, didn’tcha?”
Twilight blushed furiously. “Well, if you put it like that, he should be calling me Dad!”
Applejack snorted, covering her muzzle with a hoof. “Ah didn’ think of it like that, sugarcube!”
Twilight chuckled a little herself. “Yeah. Thinking of it like that is actually kinda funny.”
After a moment of further chuckling, Applejack continued.
“But in all seriousness, ya did do more than just hatch his egg. Don’t his color look mighty like yours?”
Twilight looked at Spike’s scale color. True enough, mulberry was pretty close to her lavender coat, but…
“There are plenty of dragons with mulberry scales out there, Applejack,” she said lightly. “It’s probably a coincidence.”
“But even if there ain’t that kinda connection, ya did take him in, didn’tcha?”
“Well… yes. With the Queen’s help at first, though; I was just ten.”
“Ten? That’s mighty young t’ be adoptin’, sugarcube.”
“It was a test: hatch the egg of a dragon, and you get accepted into Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. I hatched his egg, and I took him in. Simple as that. Does that have to mean I’m his mother?”
“It don’ have ta,” Applejack said shortly, crossing her forelegs, “but it don’t figger that you can’ treat him like he’s the bes’ thing that ever happened t’ ya. Ah helped care fer Apple Bloom after Ma left us fer th’ Elysian Fields… Don’t make me her mother, but Ah had t’ fill the role fer her.”
At this point, Spike stirred from Applejack’s back, his forelimbs stretching in the air. He looked around blearily.
“Rise ‘n’ shine, heavy smoker,” Applejack drawled.
“I-I don’t smoke!” he gasped. “Don’t listen to her, Mom! …err, Twilight!”
At that moment, Spike let out a wide-mouthed yawn, which triggered the release of a surprisingly large billowing cloud of black smoke.
Twilight snickered, her hoof at her muzzle. “I think you might want to get that checked out, Spike.”
Spike blushed embarrassedly, hopping off of Applejack’s back, turning to face Rarity, who was approaching with the other three members of the troupe.
“And how did you sleep, Rarity?” Spike asked with a flourish.
“As well as can be,” she said with an elusive air. Twilight suspected that it was due to sleeping in the fields.
“You look beautiful as ever,” the mulberry drake said in an endearing tone.
“Oh, Spike, you are too kind,” Rarity chuckled with a wave of a hoof.
Twilight picked up Spike in her dwimmer shimmer, placing him upon her back. He pouted at her, but she smiled nervously at him and addressed the five mares.
“So, did everypony rest well?”
Rarity nodded slowly, Applejack gave a short but sharp nod with a smile, Pinkie pronked into the air gleefully, Fluttershy’s mane fluttered a little, and Rainbow Dash gave a short, surly tilt of the head. (“I was up the past four hours, by the way,” she grumbled.)
“Well, I hope everypony’s got a lot of energy to spare, because we’ll need it,” Twilight said darkly, pointing her alicorn up at the cliffs running up megagrosses of hooves to Canterlot.
These cliff-faces were not the work of any pony, but were formed from the natural wind currents that had swept down the Saddle Valley before the South Equinus Mountains closed off the stable wind passages. For they did not delve into the side of Alicorn’s Peak, but instead wove back and forth up the face of the mountain. It would be a simple matter of flying and occasional resting for the two Pegasi of the group, but for the four non-winged ponies of the group…
“We have to climb that?” ask Rarity, aghast and awed by the scale of the climb.
“It’s… so… high…” Fluttershy gasped.
“Well, it is a mountain,” Rainbow Dash said flatly.
“I could probably float some of you up there with my magic,” Twilight offered, her horn glimmering with a pink light as she said it.
“No can do, sugarcube,” said Applejack, drawing her lasso from out of a saddle-bag. “If Canterlot’s anythin’ like you say it is, then yer gonna need all the strength you can git.”
And with that she threw the length of rope up to one of the cliff faces over their heads, the rope looping around a hook-shaped prominence and lowering down. A fine green glow not unlike Applejack’s eye color emanated from the rope and the rock it had looped around.
“Ge’ hold a’ deh wope,” Applejack muttered through the rope in her mouth. “Agh logg agh I’be god deh wope id by bouth, deh wock’ll howed youw weight.”
“She said, ‘Get hold of the rope’,” Pinkie Pie translated, pronking about her group of fellow ponies. “And then she said that ‘As long as she’s got the rope in her mouth, the rock’ll hold your weight’.” At which point Pinkie stopped to scratch her chin. “Or maybe she said to ‘Get hold of some soap’ and then something about logs and woping your id by a bouth…”
“Thank you, Pinkie Pie, but we quite get it,” said Rarity curtly, trotting up to the rope, looking at it curiously. She raised up a hoof and tapped it. A glint of green slid up her leg, and she found that it was stuck to the rope like it was nailed to her horseshoe.
“Umm, Applejack… Is this normal?”
“Ish Uurf Phody bagic,” Applejack explained. (“It’s Earth Pony magic,” Pinkie translated.) “Fold tie.”
And before she knew it, Rarity found herself flying into the air as Applejack galloped as quickly as she could away from the cliff-face, the rope pulling Rarity sharply upwards but not snapping the rock it wrapped around. The instant before the screaming Unicorn would strike the rock, the rope slackened, and she flew at just such an angle that she came to a stop just over the cliff itself, her madly clamboring hooves finding purchase and pulling her up. Rarity sat their hyperventilating for several moments, her life flashing before her eyes.
“SHE SAID ‘HOLD TIGHT’!” Pinkie Pie yelled gleefully up to Rarity.
“Ya okay up there, Rares?” Applejack called up, having spit out the end of the rope.
Rarity’s wits returned to her, and she glowered furiously over the edge of the cliff.
“Of all the… Applejack, you… you… you silly pony!”
“Hey, gotcha up there, didn’ it?” Applejack said with a crossed foreleg.
Rarity grit her teeth and did not deign to reply.
Rainbow Dash was the next up, darting up in a heartbeat and alighting beside the alabaster Unicorn. Fluttershy was slower, but settled daintily beside her fellow Pegasus some moments later.
“Now,” Applejack addressed Twilight, “all that’s left are you, Twi, and Pinkie Pi―”
But when the Unicorn and Earth Pony looked for said pink party pony, she was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d she go?” Spike asked.
“Up here~” trilled a high voice from the ledge above, and Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy turned in shock to see Pinkie standing right behind them, beaming brightly. Twilight, Spike and Applejack gaped first up at Pinkie, then down at the rope.
Twilight sighed in frustration.
“I’ll never understand Pinkie magic.”
“Ah’d advise agains’ tryin’, sugarcube,” Applejack said lowly, picking up her rope again.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Applejack,” Twilight said with a wave of her hoof. “Spike, hold on to me, tightly.”
“Sure thing… Mom,” Spike said, the last word emerging tentatively. Twilight felt another shoot of that warmth in her heart, and she smiled as he clutched her left foreleg. Her alicorn lit up, and she and Spike were shooting through that infinitely small point together, emerging in a flash of pink light on the cliff besides the four other mares.
Twilight looked down to Applejack. “Do you want me to hold onto that rope for you, Applejack?”
Applejack tilted her Stetson forward, a lopsided grin appearing on her muzzle.
“Ah don’ think that’ll be necessary, sugarcube,” she echoed, her hooves glowing as she slowly trotted towards the cliff-face. Memories of tumbling down a cliff re-entered Twilight’s mind as Applejack reached the mountainside and began to trot straight up the vertical face of stone. Twilight and Rarity found themselves gaping at this display of magic, while Pinkie bounced and wooted behind them.
In mere moments, faster than anypony would have thought, Applejack was on the cliff-face besides them. The green glow in her hooves faded, and she fell to her barrel, sweat beading on her forehead.
“Never tried standin’ firm while trottin’ fer so long b’fore,” she panted.
“‘Standing firm’?” Twilight asked.
“It’s a type of Earth Pony magic, though Ah don’t imagine ya hear of it too much in Canterlot,” replied Applejack, getting shakily back to her hooves. “Think of it this way, sugarcube: if yer Unicorn magic’s all about changin’ things, makin’ it so that things that aren’t so become so, then Earth Pony magic’s ‘bout keepin’ things rigid-like.”
Rainbow Dash snickered. “Rigid,” she whispered.
Applejack narrowed her eyes at Rainbow.
“That was amazing, Applejack!” Spike said. “You’re really strong and dependable!”
Applejack tilted her head away from Spike, her ears flattening.
“Aww, shucks, little fella,” she said humbly. “Ah just do what Ah can t’ help out the ponies who matter t’ me.”
“Why, Applejack,” Rarity cut in, “I had no idea you cared.”
Applejack replied, in an exaggeratedly civil tone, “Ah’m not th’ sorta pony who’d leave others behind t’ rot. Ah never leave anypony hangin’.”
Twilight cleared her throat, Spike climbing onto her back.
“Okay, everypony,” she said shortly. “One cliff down…”
As she looked up, though, and she took in the sheer scale of this undertaking, realizing that they had many megagross more hooves of vertical travel to cover, she gulped.
“…ten-gigagross to go.”
As it turned out, there were not ten-gigagross-and-one cliff-faces to traverse up the face of Alicorn’s Peak. Twilight kept count, and in actual fact, there were precisely four-megagross-one-gross-four-dozen-and-four cliff-faces up the side of Alicorn’s Peak between its lowest point and the main gates into Canterlot.
And not all of the cliff-faces were of uniform length, either. Some of them were barely a hoof’s width out from the mountainside, and many were clearly too treacherous for anypony, even the gangly Fluttershy, to dare place any weight upon them. More than once did Twilight have to resort to levitating the others one at a time to the nearest ledge that any of them felt were safe to tread upon. At one point, a ledge gave out from underneath Twilight herself, but she caught herself in her own dwimmer shimmer, winking safely back to the side of her companions.
It was bitter work, it lasted quite possibly a day and a half, and they had scrapes and bruises they would remember, but the long climb paid off at the sight of the Diurnann, the gates of Canterlot.
If the distant sight of Canterlot under NightMare Moon was sobering, seeing the changes to the Diurnann itself was downright heart-wrenching. Once a pair of great gates, one white and emblazoned with a yellow Sun, the other black emblazoned with a blue Moon, they were now a single wrought-iron gate, emblazoned with a single crescent Moon. The pearlescent parapets around the Diurnann were now highly fortified with black steel sharpened to deadly edges. Patrolling the perimeter were the silhouettes of several equine figures, the Unicorns among them shining beams of light from their alicorns, keeping watch for any intruders.
“So some ponies did turn traitor on us!” Rainbow Dash hissed.
“Things aren’t as they appear, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight whispered cautiously. “NightMare Moon has strange magic, and she probably swayed them with more than just words.”
She indicated a cluster of bushes off to the right of the road to the Diurnann, less than five-dozen paces from the gate.
“Follow me closely, on my signal,” Twilight breathed.
As soon as that one Guard turns around, Twilight thought tensely, watching a Unicorn passing his beam across the road towards the Diurnann. It would be close, only about two-point-seven seconds before another beam of light passed, but with any luck, all seven would make it.
One more moment…
“Now!” she hissed sharply, and the six of them − Spike riding on Twilight’s back, watching Rarity − galloped with all speed through the dark space and across the road, ducking behind the shrubbery, just as the second beam of light slid across the path.
Twilight sighed in relief. That was entirely too close, but now they were past the main watchponies. Peering over the bush cautiously, Twilight caught a glimpse of the two ponies standing to either side of the Diurnann itself.
One was an Earth Pony stallion, with a dark-gray coat, deep-blue tail, blue irises, and… a faint blue glow in the whites of his eyes. His face was blank, expressionless. Now that Twilight recalled, she did see a faint bluish light in the eyes of the guardsponies as she looked out towards the Diurnann the first time. The other watchpony, nearer to their hiding spot, was a Bat Pony mare, with a pale-pink (almost white) coat, black tail-skirt that transitioned to dark-red at the tip, and yellow slitted eyes. Her tufted batlike ears were flat against her head, and she was glancing warily back and forth.
Most notably, though, the Royal Guard had had their armor changed when NightMare Moon took over. The armor was now a pitch-black, with jags like secateurs along the edges; you could shear your hooves off against it. A gleaming white crescent emblazoned each armored flank, and the helmets worn by the new Nightmare Guard were almost skull-like in their design. Their former armaments, spears, were replaced with lethal-looking polearms that looked like a cross between a halberd and a sickle.
Twilight ducked back down, cupping her muzzle in her hooves.
“NightMare Moon’s cast a hypnosis spell on several members of the Royal Guard,” she explained in a breathy whisper.
“She has? I was not aware such spellwork existed,” Rarity replied softly.
“Neither was I, and I’ve read more spellbooks than I’m sure anypony else here has read books.”
“I like whispering, too~” Pinkie cut in, grinning at the odd looks she received.
Twilight peered back out at the nearest guardspony. The wall beside her was decorated with a dark emblem of an Alicorn with bat wings spread wide, staring in profile off to the left of the viewer, her hooves alighting upon a wreath around a crescent moon. Engraved beneath were the ominous words Una Luna, Una Nocte, Una Regina.
“It looks like the Night Guard isn’t necessarily siding with NightMare Moon.”
“And why should they?” Rainbow Dash hissed.
“Because the Bat Ponies were created by the Queen of the Night.”
This was met with a succession of gasps and confused Huh?s. Twilight felt another explanation coming on.
“Over a dozen-and-three-gross years ago,” she began softly, “the Queen of the Night sought to create a race of ponies who would be awake to serve as her personal guard during the night. I’m still not entirely sure what she did, but the Bat Ponies…” Twilight nudged her alicorn in the direction of the shifty-eyed guard, “were the result of this yearning.”
“We Bat Ponies also can hear everything,” said a soft, musical-sounding voice.
Seven hearts leapt into seven throats. Looking nervously up, Twilight caught sight of the selfsame Bat Pony, staring down at them with an unreadable expression.
Then the Bat Pony smiled at them. Warmly.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound the alarm. You’re Twilight Sparkle, aren’t you? Queen Celestia’s star pupil?”
Twilight hesitated, but only for a moment. “Y-yes…?”
The Bat Pony guard heaved a deep sigh of relief. “Oh thank you Celestia. The night will finally end, and I can have some daylight to sleep!”
She removed her helmet, revealing a messy black mane that also transitioned to dark-red towards the tips.
“My name is Crescent Rose,” said the Bat Pony mare, “and I’ll help sneak you into Canterlot.”