“Around and around and around they go,” Trixie called, “and where they stop, nopony knows!”
Reiziger stood on the stage next to her. His antlers shone crimson, and all manner of things were circling in the air above his head: chairs, plates, chandeliers, even members of the audience. Then his eyes flickered, and what flew above him swirled apart. The audience members settled back down in their seats, while the inanimate objects drifted out into the ceiling of the tent.
“Now burn them!” Trixie shouted. “Burn them all in divine fire!”
Reiziger's eyes shimmered. Magical red flames burned on his antlers, and such flames came also to the objects floating overhead. Like crimson lanterns the objects lit the tent as they burned, melting and oozing into puddles of metal. These molten pools began to swirl and twist throughout the tent, lines of white-hot flashing dangerously close to the spectators. They at last coalesced on the stage, where they came together in a molten lump that shifted and bulged. Abruptly, as if sculpted by invisible hands, the lump began to stretch and climb, defining itself into a shape of exquisite beauty. At last it was complete, and with a flicker of cold air, it cooled into iron. It was a pony, hunched over with its tail to the audience. It seemed to be kneeling. The crowd burst into clopping and cheering. Nopony noticed that the statue had been forged at just such an angle that it seemed to be bowing to Reiziger.
“Thank you, thank you!” Trixie cried, bouncing happily in place. “Remember, folks, show your appreciation by showering us with funds!”
Ponies quickly dumped their bits into the collection bags that were passed around.
“Goodnight, folks!” Trixie cried. She gave a final bow, then she and Reiziger disappeared behind the curtain.
“Another outstanding act!” Ring Master said, trotting up to them.
“Indeed,” Trixie said haughtily. “No thanks to you, I might add.”
“Now hold on,” said Ring Master, “don't forget who gives you room and board.”
“Myself?” Trixie said with a grin. “And I give it to you, of course. I'm the only act worth seeing at this dump.”
“Now hold-” Ring Master raised his voice.
“Pardon, please,” said Reiziger, “Mister Ring Master, sir, do forgive Trixie's impertinence. She's had a long day, and I am certain she's tired.”
“That's no... no...” Ring Master's eyes drifted in and out of focus, “yes, I'm sure you're right. I'll leave you two alone.” Seemingly strangely dazed, he trotted away.
“Worthless sack of flesh,” growled Trixie. “I am so glad you opened my eyes to what a rat he really is.”
“I was happy to do it,” Reiziger said. “But Trixie, do not forget your manners. Even when you are condescending someone, be sure to do it in a way that stresses politeness. That makes your superiority all the better; you can defeat them in every possible way, even in propriety.”
“I... suppose so,” Trixie said. Her head throbbed a little. It had been throbbing every so often for the past month, but she scarcely paid attention. “I tell you, though, there are days I just want to stomp his head flat.”
“That day is coming sooner than you think,” said Reiziger.
“What?” Trixie said. “It is?”
“Oh, yes,” said Reiziger. “Not yet, though. Remember, Trixie, that you promised me your loyalty. You have thus far been a great servant, and I can assure you, your sevice will be rewarded. However, you must follow me absolutely, and believe me when I tell you that things will change soon- just not quite yet.”
“After all the success you've brought me, how can I not follow you?” Trixie said. She bowed low. “I'm at your service, good sir.”
“Hmm?” Trixie looked up.
“If you wish to give me a title, address me as 'my lord,'” Reiziger said. “It was my status of old.”
Trixie nodded. “All right, my lord. Thanks for such a great show tonight.”
“Thank you for your continued service, Trixie,” Reiziger said. “And for your own contributions. After all, it was your idea to form the metal into a statue.”
“It sure was,” Trixie said. She held her nose into the air. “Just more proof of how far above these ponies I am. Well, good night!” She trotted off, humming to herself- but stopped. “Say,” she said, glancing over her shoulder, “what were you lord of, exactly?”
“I shall tell you some other time,” Reiziger said. Now go to sleep.
The deer of the Shimmerwood had been given tents to stay in on the edge of the Everfree Forest. These were not dank, dingy tents, but bright, airy ones, made of linen striped white and yellow. They had been arranged around a central fire pit dug by the earth ponies, and now, five weeks into their stay in Ponyville, the six Bearers of the Elements of Harmony sat with the white-tails and Spike around a crackling blaze. “Tell us another, dear Magus!” said a gold-eyed white-tail.
“Oh, I couldn't,” said Magus Javier, who was sitting with about a dozen of his mule deer on the other side of the fire. “If you keep urging me to tell wilderness stories, we shall be here all night.”
“Well if we're not gonna tell stories any more,” said Rainbow Dash, “how about some singing?”
“Oh, how delightful!” Rarity said. “Fluttershy and I are in a singing group, Master Javier, did you know that?”
“I didn't,” said Javier, and the mule deer stared with rapt attention at Fluttershy. “But I am not surprised. She has always had a beautiful voice.”
“I... I'm still learning to be brave about it,” Fluttershy said softly. “I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of ponies who sing better than I do.”
“Don't be modest, Fluttershy,” Applejack said. “Y'all're rightly one o' the best singers I've ever heard.”
“Sing something!” Spike said.
“Perhaps something in Laewtil, since you know it so well,” said Rarity. “And it's such a beautiful language.”
“There is a song Quildemal knows quite well,” said one of the mule deer, “one she has always sung most wondrously.”
“Ooo! Ooo!” Pinkie Pie cheered. “Is it in Law... Lew... deertongue?”
“It is in Equestrian, actually,” said Javier. “Princess Luna wrote it long ago, when she was still a student among the Elders.”
“That song?” Fluttershy said. “But it's so sad.”
“But so beautiful,” said one of the white-tails. “Yes, please, Fluttershy. Sing the Lament For Gil-Galad. I should love to hear it.”
“As would I,” said another white-tail.
“I've heard it before,” said Rarity, “but I would adore hearing it again.”
“I...” Fluttershy did not meet the eyes of the assembled deer and ponies.
“Come on, Fluttershy,” said Twilight Sparkle. “I'm sure it will be great.”
“Well, okay,” said Fluttershy. She stood, and because she was quite near the fire, everypony and everydeer could see her. She gave a few moments to warming up, singing sweet and gentle la la las. Then she closed her eyes softly, and from her throat came dulcet tones.
Gil-Galad was an elken king,
Of him the harpers sadly sing.
The last whose realm was fair and free
Between the mountains and the sea.
His hooves were sharp, his antlers keen.
His shining helm afar was seen.
The countless stars of Heaven's field
Were mirrored in his silver shield.
But long ago he rode away,
And where he dwelleth none can say.
Into darkness fell his star,
In Annudûr where shadows are.
“Beautiful,” Spike whispered.
“Thank you,” said Fluttershy, settling back down.
“Wonderfully done, Quildemal,” said Javier, “as always.” He sighed.
“Why are you...” Dash glanced around at all the deer, and noted that they, like Javier, were overcome with distress. “Is it really that sad?”
“It is for us,” said one of the white-tails. “Gil-Galad was the best of us, but in the end he was not enough.”
“Who was Gil-Galad?” Twilight Sparkle asked. “I've seen his name come up a few times in A History of the Laewtil Speaking Peoples, but I haven't gotten to the part that deals with him fully.”
“He was a king of the elk, just as the song says,” Javier replied. “He was fierce, bold, incredibly powerful, deathly cunning. But outside of battle, he was gentle, kind, and courteous. He ruled... well, he ruled these lands.”
“Equestria?” Pinkie asked.
“What is now Equestria, yes,” said one of the white-tails. “Though of course it was not so in ancient days. Gil-Galad came to the throne of the last surviving Elken Kingdom during the waning years of the Great War.”
“He seemed to be a throwback from the earliest days of the conflict,” a voice carried over all of them. They turned. Falalauria strode out of her great tent, starscape eyes agleam. “He still carried in him the courage and optimism of the deer from the beginning, who thought the war could be won swiftly and without too much destruction. It was a rare attitude in that hour, when things seemed at their darkest.” Her white-tails made a space for her near the fire, and she by slow measures settled in their midst. “What was more, his optimism seemed more than foolishness. He was, as Fabia said, incredibly powerful- all elk are enormously powerful in magic, but Gil-Galad was especially strong. Moreover, he was a skilled leader in matters both political and military. He was able to convince the Red Deer Republics to break their allegiance with the Enemy, and so nearly all the high deer became committed to stopping the darkness, along with all the common deer. There was hope, for the first time in a hundred years, that the war might come to an end.”
The deer all around the six pony friends seemed especially miserable now. “I suppose it didn't happen that way,” said Twilight.
“No,” said Falalauria. “The Lord of All The Herds, dark lord, fiend, archmaster of the shadows, responded to Gil-Galad's brilliance with more night than ever. He and his black deer, and all the monsters they had made, scorched the earth in their campaigns. They met any sign of weakness with unspeakable cruelty, and forged themselves into a mailed hoof that stomped the life and light out of everything in their path.” Falalauria herself was distraught, and Rarity quietly realized that she must have Seen all of this as clear as if she had witnessed it firsthoof. “At last, the forces of light and darkness met in battle.”
“And?” Applejack said.
“It was ruin for the light,” said Falalauria. “The Herd Lord himself took to the battlefield, and his power was horrible to behold. When he met Gil-Galad, they fought, using magics so intense that part of the field sank into the sea. But at last, the Herd Lord beat Gil-Galad, and broke him... and killed him.”
“And that was the last gasp of brightness in the world,” said Javier. “In the aftermath of the Battle of Lost Hope, the deerfolk knew the Lord of All the Herds had to be stopped, no matter what. So they bent their full destructive power on him every time they encountered him. In the end, they beat him, but the cost was terrible beyond measure.”
“There has been a lot of mention of the Deer War in my books,” said Twilight. “But it all seems so... far-fetched. I mean, the texts talk about the seas boiling, the mountains crumbling, and even the sun and the moon going out.”
“Oh, certainly not,” said one of the white-tails. “The high deer of old were extremely powerful. They could even rival Princesses Celestia and Luna at the apex of their might. Have you ever seen either of your princesses unleash their wrath?”
The six ponies and Spike thought of the battle they had distantly beheld. “Just hints of it,” Fluttershy said.
“But I totally understand where you're coming from,” said Dash. “And if they needed all this power to beat this Herd Lord guy, he must have been pretty bad.”
“He is the most terrible thing ever to walk the earth,” said Falalauria. She stood. “If you ever had to face him, I would hope for you to have power of your own- and for you to be brave.” She turned and stepped gingerly out from amidst her white-tails. “I must go now. I've business with my Sight.” No one questioned her as she moved back to her tent.
“One more question, if I may,” Rarity said when she'd gone. “You called this dreadful fellow 'The Lord of All the Herds.' Was he your king?”
“Not the king of the white-tails or the mule deer,” said Javier.
“He was crown prince of the caribou until he ascended to the throne,” said one of the white-tails. “Unlike the other five species, the caribou maintained their ancient nomadic culture, even as they grew more sophisticated. They were organized into herds, and each herd was a mobile city or state. They lived in grand, elaborate tent cities that they carried on their backs or with their magic. In the spring and summer, they moved, and in the fall and winter, they settled down. So their king was called the Lord of All the Herds.” The deer's silver eyes narrowed. “The Enemy was the last caribou to hold the title.”
“So he ruined it for everypony, huh?” Dash said.
“You called him 'black,' right?” Spike said. He glanced knowingly at Twilight. “Is that what color he was?”
“Yes,” said one of the white-tails. “Black, with burning red eyes.”
The six ponies and Spike stiffened. Pinkie gasped. “Twilight and Spike-” Rarity and Applejack immediately stuffed their hooves in her mouth.
“Yes?” said Javier.
“Um, nothing, nothing!” Twilight said. “She was about to say how Spike and I read a story about the Lord of All the Herds once. We didn't know that's who the story was talking about, though; it just mentioned a black deer with red eyes.” She next dared to say, “It mentioned unusual antlers, too.”
“Oh, yes,” said one of the white-tails. “You have never seen a live caribou, of course; they are all extinct. But their antlers grew tines like branches of thorns, and those of the royal family were shaped peculiarly over the head, so that they resembled crowns.”
“Well, I think it's time we got goin',” Applejack said, rising to her hooves. “I got a long day tomorrow.”
“It's been a wonderful night,” said Rarity. “Thank you so much.”
“That pasta you guys make is delicious!” Pinkie cheered. “So super minty and fresh!”
“Thank you again for coming, Javier,” said Fluttershy.
“We've had a marvelous time,” said one of the mule deer beside Javier. “However the circumstances, it has been good to meet our brethren.”
“You have made us feel not so lonely here, woodfolk,” said one of the white-tails.
“Great!” Dash said, flying into the air. “Welp, see ya tomorrow!”
“Good night, all of you,” said Twilight Sparkle. “Remember, if you need anything at all, don't hesitate to come to me about it. I've taken your welfare into my hooves, and so whatever you need, I'll try to provide.”
“We much appreciate it, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” said one of the white-tails.
“Come on, Spike,” said Twilight, levitating the baby dragon onto her back. “It's past your bedtime.”
“Good night!” Spike waved over his shoulder as the six ponies walked- and flew- away. He kept waving until they had left the camp behind, until they were in the soft night of the land between the edge of the Everfree and Ponyville proper. Then he dragged his claws down his face. “I can't believe the deer we saw was the most evil deer ever to live!”
“He sounds horrific!” Rarity said.
“It's okay, though,” said Twilight. “He's gone now.”
In her tent, Falalauria laid on her cushioned dais. Her eyes were wide, and the starscape in them drifted, as though the universe were passing through her head. “Where are you?” she whispered. “I've let you roam long enough.”
Her Sight swept over Equestria, peering deep as well as broad, looking into every city and town and tranquil hamlet. Ponies slowly settled down for the night. Lamps were extinguished, doors were locked, bedclothes were pulled over sleeping bodies.
She shifted her gaze to the west, where the cities grew farther apart and the landscape more open. Vast, shallow fields spread seeming forever, dotted here and there by hills and even a few steep mountain ranges. Her Sight flew over one of these ranges, and there it stopped. There was a town in the shadow of the mountains with unusual brightness for such a late hour. She looked closer. On the edges of the town huge tents were set up, four in total, within which burned orange firelight banishing the darkness. She looked through each of these tents. One was for large animals in their pens. Another was filled with carnival games which ponies of all ages took part in. A third held rides and other more visceral attractions. The fourth was filled with chairs, and against one wall of the tent a stage with curtains had been set up. She peered behind the curtains-
“There you are.”
“Oh wow oh wow oh wow!” Ring Master stomped in place as he peered through a sliver of the curtain. “Half the city must be sitting out there!” He did not exaggerate. The tent was absolutely packed, every seat occupied, the aisles filled with standing ponies, and even the floor between seats was taken up in many places. The tent was jam-packed with earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasuses of all colors and ages, all of them staring with rapt attention upon the drawn drapes that hid the stage.
“Well of course they are!” Trixie said. “No thanks to you. They're here to see me, me and my lord.”
“Your what?” Ring Master said. “Trixie, your partner-”
“He's so much more than just a partner, O Ring Master,” said Trixie. Her eyes went wide. “You have no idea how soothing a presence he is. I feel like I can always talk to him about anything, and he's always told the truth whenever I've been around!” Her eyes nearly popped from her head, and were dilated.
“Um, okay,” Ring Master said, arching an eyebrow. “Well, your lord had better be ready to put on a heck of a show, because if we pull in as much as I think we can, we might be able to end our tour three weeks early!”
“Oh, he's always ready,” Trixie said dreamily. “He's beyond compare.” She turned toward the back of the tent. “My lord! It's time!”
No response. Ring Master trotted toward the back of the tent. “Hey! Reiziger! You go on in two minutes! Where are... you?”
Reiziger was standing still at the back of the tent. His crimson eyes were half-lidded. They pulsed with light.
“My lord?” Trixie said.
Falalauria cocked her head to the side. Why was he just standing-
I feel your Eyes upon me, half-breed.
Falalauria rocked sideways as she felt like she had been struck. She tried to pull her Sight away, but for some reason it was stuck. No, not some reason. She knew why she was trapped.
Go on. Tell your pony princess friends I have returned. It's time they knew. My power is such that I no longer need to hide. And after tonight, I shall not. For now, though, I'd rather not have you in the audience. BEGONE.
Falalauria was hurled forward, off her dais onto the wooden floor of the tent. She hastily scrambled to her hooves, shaking her head. She tried to move her Sight back upon Reiziger, but there was a blackness where he had been. There was blackness over all the town he was in.
“Has he regained that much strength? So quickly?” Her eyes shifted. Her brows furrowed. “Oh, of course,” she said softly. “Oh, I should have known.” Those eyes full of stars pulled tightly shut; they succeeded, mostly, in fighting her tears, but one wet line trailed down her face just so. “Those poor ponies.” And the poor ones tonight, bunched in that humid tent! But it was too late, and she knew it. Too late to save them, “But still time to save the rest.” She levitated pen and paper, beginning rapidly to write.
“I am ready to perform,” Reiziger said.
“Thank goodness!” said Ring Master. “You remember the song, right?”
“I know it by heart, good Ring Master,” said Reiziger.
“What was that?” Trixie asked as they trotted toward the stage.
“Just tending to business,” Reiziger said. “Do not question me, Trixie.”
“As you wish, my lord,” said Trixie. She dashed through the curtains out onto the stage. “Oh, ponies of Calicofornia, you have arrived just in time to bear witness to the greatest of spectacles!” She reared back and threw her front legs wide. “I, Trixie, grand disciple of my lord, bring you the finest specimen of life ever to walk the earth! I bring you Reiziger!”
With a flicker of black Reiziger stood beside her on the stage. The ponies gasped and clopped as they beheld the towering deer. He grinned, showing them all his sharp white teeth. “So,” he said, “you ponies have come to see a show? I shall not disappoint. Are you ready, Trixie?”
“Ready, my lord!”
“Then let us begin.” Bursts of red sparkles went off all along the edges of the tent. The ponies gasped and whooped in joy.
“Ooooohhhh....” Trixie broke into song:
A Sight's a Sight for Sore Eyes
Whether Bright or Light or Dark
If Spectacle is What You Want
Then Turn This Way and Hark!
We've Feats Weird and Astounding,
With Fantasy Galore!
We Promise Only Wondrous Times,
And Guarantee No Snores!
As Trixie sang, she multiplied. First there were two of her, then four, then eight, then sixteen, and the Trixies linked front legs and kicked in a chorus line.
Reiziger, meanwhile, was teleporting around the tent, appearing next to seats and amidst crowds. The ponies squealed with delight and terror to see him, though his presence made their heads throb.
Ring Master charged onto the stage, accompanied by flipping acrobats, dancing jugglers, and clowns on tall stilts. He broke into song next, adding his tenor to the multitude of singing Trixies.
So Welcome Young and Old Alike
To Our Fantastic Show!
They Say That All the World's a Stage,
So Here's Our Act, You Know!
The jugglers formed a furious circle around Ring Master, flinging bowling pins and even hoof-swords into the air as they danced around him. Meanwhile, the clowns tramped by behind and in front of him. Reiziger's antlers flashed, and bolts of red lightning sizzled through the tent.
We've Dazzled and Amazed You
With Our Displays of Flash!
But Don't Go Leaving Yet Now,
'Cause We've Saved the Best for Last!
The jugglers suddenly turned to face the audience, while the acrobats formed a passage through which Reiziger trotted. He grinned out at the assembled ponies, showing all his teeth. There were gasps and shrieks through the audience, but also the stomping of hooves. Reiziger opened his mouth and a mighty baritone rang forth.
You Ponies Are a Curious Sort
You Love What Makes You Squirm.
I See the Terror in Your Eyes
Yet Toward Me You Still Turn.
I Think I Understand It Now,
You Like the Guise of Fear
While Really You are Safe and Sound
There's No True Danger Near.
I Recall Days In Ancient Times
When Ponies Roamed and Ranged.
Even When You Were Animals,
You Still Did Love the Strange.
Ponies in the audience turned toward each other in awe and terror as Reiziger's voice rang through their minds. He barked a laugh.
So If it's Danger That You Want
You've Found Your Rightful Lord.
Your Very Lives Might Be Forfeit
He finished by singing the final verse:
So Bow Down and Adore!
Sparkles and swirling stars whirled in the air above the tent. Everypony on stage struck a pose, and together, they all held a final, billowing note that rose and rose until it crashed against the tent, the sound haunting and beautiful.
When the singing finally, abruptly halted, the ponies in the audience cheered. They flung money by the mouthfuls onto the stage. Pegasuses flew forward to heap gold bits into the bags set up for collection.
“We did it!” Ring Master cried, still posed with the rest of them. “This is amazing! I can't believe it!”
“I knew we could do it!” one of the dancers said.
“Oh, my girls will be so happy!” said one of the jugglers.
“We really brought down the house!” one of the clowns said atop her stilts.
“What did I tell you?” Trixie said. “Never doubt my lord.”
“I'm speechless!” said Ring Master. “This is... it's just wonderful!”
“Isn't it?” Reiziger said with a wild grin. “But I know what would make it even better!”
“What?” Ring Master asked.
Reiziger grinned even broader. Then he moved. Stepping deftly to the side, he opened his mouth, razor sharp teeth flashing. Nopony was able to react before Reiziger lowered his head and bit deeply into Ring Master's shoulder.
“AAGGGH!” Ring Master cried, howling in pain. The cheering and clopping stopped at once. Everypony looked with growing horror as Reiziger continued to sink his teeth into the brown earth pony.
Finally, Reiziger flung his head around. Ring Master was hurled through the air, crashing to the right side of the stage. Blood was seeping from the bite in his shoulder. Nopony spoke. Reiziger glanced at the audience and grinned. “So you wanted a show? Behold the last you'll ever see!”
Reiziger's antlers flashed red. A wall of black spread out from him, passing over the audience and out beyond the tent. Ponies dashed to the flaps of the tent and looked out. A black dome had settled over the entire circus, blocking any view of the world beyond. “We can't get out!” somepony cried. “We can't- ack!” He tipped over, because his legs were suddenly bound in chains of shadow. So were every other pony's, shackling them where they sat and stood.
“I'm stuck!” said one of the juggling ponies, for those on the stage were also ensnared.
“Of course you are,” said Reiziger, his voice carrying through the tent. He trotted proudly across the stage. “Why would I let you escape? You paid such money to be here.” His red eyes burned as he smiled. “You horrible fools! Did you not feel the creeping terror in your hearts as I revealed my glory? Was my presence not awful to endure? And you, Ring Master, are worst of all. You couldn't look me in the eyes without your heart skipping. Yet you took me in! You gave me shelter and a chance to replenish my strength! And now you are surprised? You should have trusted your heart. As the balrog said to the moose who had nursed him back to health, right before he burned her alive, 'You knew what I was when you found me'!” He grinned, flashing those terrible teeth. “Or certainly you guessed.”
Trixie glanced toward Ring Master. He was wobbling, barely sitting up, the blood loss clearly taking its toll. “My lord?” she said, turning back to Reiziger.
“Still, I must really thank you all,” said Reiziger, continuing to strut around the stage. “Without you foolish ponies, I would never have grown as strong as I have so quickly. Oh, I would still have regained my power- don't doubt that- but it would have taken time. Mountains and rivers and trees are so much less... nutritious than thinking creatures. They contain such dispersed vitality.”
“Don't hurt us!” somepony in the audience cried.
“Oh, my little ponies, I'm going to do so much worse than hurt you,” Reiziger said. “But first!” He turned toward the right side of the stage. “It is time for my servant to prove her faithfulness. Trixie!”
“Yes, my lord?” Trixie said.
“Ring Master,” Reiziger said, nodding toward the bleeding pony. “Kill him.”
Trixie's heart hammered. “Kill... kill him, my lord?”
“Yes,” said Reiziger. “Kill him now. You may choose the method.”
“Don't you hate him, Trixie? Has he done anything but hold you back? He is part of the old order, Trixie, the order you no longer have use for. We are building a new reality, starting right now. He is to be a blood sacrifice. Kill him.”
Trixie glanced toward Ring Master. Part of her did hate him. Part of her wanted nothing more than to see him dead. But she couldn't help but remember him taking her in, remember him giving her advice, remember him supplying her with food and a bed in her time of need. “I...”
Reiziger sighed. “Still timid, I see.” I shall have to put you in the right frame of MIND.
Trixie's head throbbed. Her thoughts seemed to slide down a dark, slick hole, lined with blades that sliced at her uncertainty. Her feelings abruptly, violently changed. Away went the fear. Away went the doubt. Away went the sympathy. Instead, she felt only dark joy. Her pupils dilated, and she grinned madly over her shoulder. “Of course, my lord. As you wish!”
Reiziger smiled. Trixie smiled even wider, advancing slowly on Ring Master. He tried to back away, but his shoulder hurt so much it was hard to move. “N-now Trixie...” he stammered.
“Oh, fear not, Ring Master!” Trixie said, her voice hazy and horrible. Her smile grew ever wider. “You should be honored! You are the first sacrifice upon the altar of my lord!”
“Trixie, this isn't you! Please!” He tried to run, but with a spasm of pain in his shoulder he toppled over, then Trixie was upon him.
“Shh,” Trixie whispered, pressing his body against hers. “Don't be scared. Be brave, and know glory!”
Her horn glowed. Ring Master found himself unable to move, so he could only flail limply as Trixie pressed her back legs around his hips. She raised her front legs and wrapped them around his head. “Please...” Ring Master whispered, “please...”
“Be brave, O Ring Master,” Trixie said dreamily. “The blackness claims you first.”
Trixie's horn flashed, and in the same instant she jerked Ring Master's head to the side with all the strength in her legs. Her magic and her muscle power worked together. Ring Master's head whipped to the side with a crack!
The body toppled to the ground. Trixie glanced madly at Reiziger. “Did I do well, my lord?”
“You did marvelously,” said Reiziger. He turned back toward the audience. “Now I must feed. As for the rest of you!” He stepped to the front of the stage. His eyes shone, and crimson fire burned upon his antlers. Objects from the stage began to float around him in the air. “When the Pale Deer of Death stands before you, tell him that his greatest champion has returned! I am Reiziger, Lord of All the Herds! The Scourge of the Red Deer! The Butcher of the Elk! I have come back from my millennia of imprisonment, and my goal is the same as before! I shall not stop until all the world lies beneath my hoof!”
Trixie sat on the stage by Ring Master's corpse and chuckled quietly to herself. She watched with mad eyes as Reiziger's shadows swelled, as he became something not a deer, became something not a mammal, became something not even a creature. He became something Not, and darkness was with him.
“Zzzz... zzzzz... hun- urp!” Spike sat up as he belched. It was precisely the sort of belch that he'd learned to let wake him up, for it was not a food-related burp. No, this came with a burst of green fire, and on instinct, he stretched out his hands in front of him. The letter bearing the royal seal dropped into his claws. “Twilight!” he cried, turning toward the larger bed beside his.
“Hm?” Twilight Sparkle murmured, shifting in her sleep. “Hmm? Wha?”
“Twilight, wake up! We got a letter from the princess!”
Twilight yawned. “Oh, Spike, do you have any idea what time it is?” The night outside was filled with stars.
“I dunno, but look!” Spike thrust the letter at her.
Twilight rubbed her eyes. Sure enough, the letter had the sun-and-moon device of Equestria. “What could Princess Celestia possibly have to tell me at this hour?” She levitated the letter with her magic, breaking the seal and unrolling it. She began to read. Her violet eyes grew wider with each new line, until- “Spike! We have to get the others! Now!”