The midnight express thundered down the tracks. As its name suggested, it powered forward through the wee small hours of the morning. Its cars were filled with ponies making the long journey across Equestria, whether for business, pleasure, or something else. A few of them had most recently been deeply inconvenienced. They had been forced to move from their car to make way for seven new passengers in Ponyville. Seven was an easy number for the train to accommodate, but the ponies had made a fuss by insisting they all stay in the same cabin. And the conductor had complied! There were whispers the seven had flashed the royal seal to get their way. Curious, to say the least.
“I love trains,” Pinkie Pie said, staring out the window as the countryside flashed by. “They've got such a nice rumble. Rrrrrrummmmbbbllleeeeee...” Pinkie trembled herself in a way that drove her sideways in her seat, where she bumped up against Rainbow Dash. “Don't you think so, Dashie?”
“Uh,” Dash winced, “I think I prefer flying.” She yawned, then slumped back against the cushions. “I prefer sleeping, too.”
“Rainbow!” Applejack said firmly. “This is important business! Y'all got no grounds to be complainin'!”
“Um, Twilight, could you read the letter again?” Fluttershy asked.
“Yes, I'm afraid I wasn't fully awake when I first heard it,” Rarity said.
Twilight Sparkle used her magic to reach into her saddlebags. The left one contained the letter; she pulled it out, unfolded it, and cleared her throat.
Dear Twilight Sparkle,
I apologize profusely for the lateness of the hour, but this is a matter of grave importance. There has been an incident in Western Equestria, covering a swath of land between Trottingham and the borders of Calicofornia. What precisely has happened, we cannot yet discern. Suffice to say we have lost all communication with that part of the country, and what rumors have reached us are deeply troubling. Luna, in particular, believes something foul is afoot, for the dreams in that region have grown unsettling- or worse, have stopped altogether. This is a matter best addressed by the Elements of Harmony.
Twilight Sparkle, I cannot stress enough the caution with which you must proceed. I shall give you no illusions: I fear I am sending you and your friends into grave danger, where the possibility of disaster is high. However, I have faith in the six of you, and faith that your efforts will not be in vain. Moreover, I have faith in the Elements of Harmony. Lady Falalauria tells me she has informed all of you about the Gifts of the Elements of Harmony. Thus you know that, even though the Elements themselves have been returned to the Tree of Harmony, they are still with you, and their power resides in your hearts. Together you are the light that can pierce any shadow, and if you lean upon each other, you cannot help but prevail.
Please take the next available train into Western Equestria. I believe the midnight express arrives within three hours. You might consider packing some supplies, for I cannot say how long this affair will last. I have affixed my seal to the bottom of this letter; show it to the conductor of the train or anypony else who gives you trouble.
Good luck, my faithful student. Go with grace.
“Not much to go on,” Applejack said. “I don't rightly have any idea what it could be.”
“The bit about Princess Luna and dreams seems rather ominous,” Rarity said.
“You wanna write to the princess for more detail, Twilight?” Spike asked.
“I don't think she could provide it even if she wanted to,” Twilight said. “It looks like this is something we're going to have to find out about on our own.” She yawned. “It will probably take us all night just to get close to our destination. You girls should probably get some sleep.”
“Don't have to tell me twice,” said Dash, flying up to the lamp by the door. With a twist of her hooves she turned it down almost to nothing, plunging the cabin into darkness.
Twilight levitated six blankets out of her saddlebags, sending them fluttering down onto her friends. Spike curled up next to her, and she wrapped her wing around him. She was just about to close her eyes when she noticed Rarity sitting upright. “Rarity?” she whispered. “Aren't you going to go to sleep?”
“Maybe in a while, darling,” said Rarity. “I wanted to work on my Long Sight some more. It's what I often do late at night when I'm awake.”
“Oh,” said Twilight. “You're really serious about making it better, aren't you?”
“Very much so,” Rarity said. “But don't stay up on my account. Sweet dreams; I'll be joining you soon enough.”
“Good luck, Rarity,” Spike whispered, snuggling closer to Twilight.
“Thank you, Spikey dear,” said Rarity. At last, both Twilight and Spike had closed their eyes, leaving only Rarity up and awake. She widened her eyes, and they filled with stars. Equestria unfolded like a map before her, sweeping plains, deep forests, towering mountain ranges all laid out in her mind. She swept her Sight westward, seeing ahead of where the train was- far ahead, until she was just upon the borders of Calicofornia.
Her eyebrow rose. There was a deep curtain of fog spreading hundreds of miles over the flat terrain. She narrowed her starry gaze and tried to will her way through it, but the morass proved impenetrable. Rarity breathed quietly in the darkened cabin.
That seems to be where we're headed, she thought. Is whatever lies there powerful enough to block my Sight? Granted, mine isn't nearly as strong as Lady Falalauria's. Still, this is abnormal. I'm worried. Yet what could she do? She amplified her Sight but the fog would not yield. All she could do was see it with her own two eyes. What next? I could try the future again, but I'm so tired of seeing possibilities without certainty. I can't- She sat up straight. But it's been some time since I looked into the past.
Unlike her future sight, Rarity's past sight was rather well developed. She had often peered into the history of Ponyville, from its earliest days up to a few years before she had arrived there from Hoofington. It had been particularly interesting watching the history of the Apple Family, seeing all of Applejack's ancestors slowly build Sweet Apple Acres from an empty patch of land into the thriving apple farm it was today. The sensation of looking into the past was a bit like how you felt when you were climbing down a ladder. It was a descent that altered your brain, made you feel like you were moving back and down, back and down.
Rarity then tried to really test herself. She tried to use her past sight and her distance sight together, sweeping her gaze over the world, across the ocean to the distant savannahs of a land far away. She had spent more than a little time in the past few months peering into the affairs of the antelope species that roamed the endless grasslands, learning so much about the various tribes and confederacies and the politics that knitted them all together. It made her want to write a book on the subject; doubtless she could speak with more authority than anypony before her. But now, when she settled on the endless straw-shaded plains, she worked the part of her Sight that concerned the past. It felt like two gears were whirring against each other, like a clock's components moving in harmony. The sun moved west to east across the sky, slow at first then faster, faster, the days wended back with a blur-
A clay temple was surrounded by the huts of a village. Gazelles wandered through the dirt streets, many with crimson sashes draped around their bodies. Several walked up the steps of the temple, where an older gazelle sat beneath a large statue of an elephant god. He was talking with an antelope fawn, speaking gently into his ear.
But there was then a commotion in the village below, and the old gazelle swiveled his head on his long neck. Through the village came three-
“Deer?” Rarity whispered, arching an eyebrow.
Indeed, three deer were trotting through the streets. There was a red deer and two elk. The elk wore silver battle armor laced with crystal, much like a set of armor Rarity herself had received years ago. The red deer was covered in letters from a language she couldn't read, painted onto his coat like tattoos.
The old gazelle came creakily down the steps. “Ah, what great honor can we do for the deerfolk this day?”
“Shaman,” the red deer said, “I have Seen that your village has been fertile this year. Yams, rice, barley- all in abundant supply.”
“Ah, well, the Wills have blessed us,” said the shaman. He was shaking subtly.
“As you may know, our army is encamped nearby,” said the red deer, “and we are in need of provisions. I wonder if you might grant us a share of your crop?”
“Now, good sir red deer,” said the shaman, “my village has been fertile, yes, but only on a small scale. You talk of feeding thousands; I do not believe we have quite that much to spare. Surely you can-”
The red deer surged forward. One front leg swept low and knocked the shaman off his hooves. As he fell to the dirt the red deer loomed over him, pressing one hoof against his neck while his antlers shimmered with magic. “You will let us have some of your harvest, shaman, or we shall take all of it. Be grateful we give you a choice.”
“O-oh, forgive me, please forgive me oh great deer!” the shaman wailed. “I did not mean to offend your magnificence! The harvest is yours!”
“Very good,” the red deer said, pulling away from the shaman in the dirt. “The storehouses are on the western edge of the village,” he said, glancing back at the elk with him. “Go in, survey, and remove what we need.” The elk nodded and trotted off. “Remember, oh shaman,” the red deer continued, “we are your betters. And this war, after all, benefits you also. In the future, do not talk back to us. Simply nod and agree.”
“O-of course, of course,” the shaman said, kneeling down before the red deer. “Let me do you homage, please, oh mighty and powerful red deer. Thank you for protecting us from the black deer!”
“Indeed,” said the red deer. “To that end, we shall be pressing a few of you into service as scouts. You do want to serve your betters, after all.”
The vision abruptly ended, snapping Rarity back into the darkness of the cabin. “What?” she cried, shaking her head as hard as possible. “How... how could such a thing be true? No, that must have been a mistake.” Mustn't it? She must have had her Sight malfunction- though it had always been true before- or she must have accidentally looked into some alternate future. That could not be how the past went. It could not, absolutely could not. The deer were beautiful, elegant, wise, graceful. To see them behave like that- “It can't be so!” said Rarity firmly. She yawned. “Perhaps my Sight isn't working properly because I'm tired.” Yes, that was surely the case. She was tired. She needed to sleep. Thus, she pulled her blanket over her body, and closed her sapphire eyes.
The next morning, the train continued down the track. “I still love trains,” Pinkie said brightly. She leaned toward the other side of the cabin. “And I know you love them too, Twilight. I can read your mind, remember?”
“Oh, right,” Twilight said. “Hey, Pinkie, if you've always been able to use telepathy, why haven't we noticed it before now?”
“Mostly I've just used it for little things,” Pinkie said. “Like trying to find out how everypony is feeling in a big way- not specific ways.” And when I project my... voice... into... Pinkie's head was visibly bulging with veins. “Whew! It's hard to make my voice go into ponies' heads.”
“You need to practice with your Element to make it stronger,” Dash said. “When I was just starting out, I was lucky if I could get even one full-grown pony to do what I want. Now I'm able to do it to lots of ponies.”
“And my Long Sight was very weak at first,” Rarity said. “Now it's much more powerful.”
“I wonder why I haven't noticed my Element before,” Twilight said. “I mean, I do a lot of magic.”
“Maybe it's happened, but you just haven't noticed it,” Fluttershy said. “Aren't there any times you can think of where you suddenly had a huge boost in magic power?”
“Well... now that you mention it...” Twilight thought back over her history. There were, in fact, moments where she seemed to have inexplicably become far more powerful than she had any right to be. Even back to the day she was accepted into Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns- the day she earned her cutie mark- there had been times where her power had seemed... “Divine,” Twilight whispered.
“Nothing.” Twilight's mind was alive. She glanced over her shoulder, down at her wings. Being an alicorn princess was the height of power to a pony. Twilight had been coronated so she could 'fulfill her destiny,' but what if it wasn't hers alone? She swept her violet eyes over Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash. Was Applejack a little taller than she used to be? Was Rarity just a little more elegant? Were Dash's wings just a little bit bigger? There was something different about all three of them, something that had crept up slowly and even now was intensely subtle. Twilight wondered if she weren't just imagining things. But...
With a screech the ponies and Spike were hurled off their seats. The whole train shook with retrograde motion, then was sharply, abruptly still. “What the hay was that?” Applejack said.
“Come on!” Spike said, throwing the door open and hurrying up the car. The six friends followed him swiftly.
In little time they came upon a large crush of ponies at the front of the car, harrying one of the train masters to distressing effect. “Now please,” he said, “if you'll all j-just calm down...”
“Um, excuse me?” Twilight said, jumping up to get his attention. “Pardon me, sir, I'm Princess Twilight Sparkle.”
“Oh! Princess!” the train master cried, and the sea of ponies parted around the seven of them. “Yes, it's a great honor to see you, your highness! I'm Night Shift.”
“Good sir Night Shift,” Twilight said, “what's the problem? Why has the train stopped?”
“Well, your highness... it's probably better if I show you.” He walked to the very front of the cabin and turned the doorknob. “If you'll come with me.”
Twilight glanced back at her friends. They had various looks of puzzlement upon their faces, but Dash trotted forward, then Applejack, and this was enough for Twilight to move forward herself, followed by the rest of them. And when they had gone through the door, when they were standing in the cool air of the late spring morning, when they had stepped down from the train onto the grassy plains, they saw the reason for the abrupt halt.
A wall of dense, gray fog was blanketing all the lands in front of them, extending on either side of the tracks for untold miles. It was not the blackish-gray of thunderclouds, but it was nevertheless impenetrable to the eye, little more than a few feet into the fog being visible from the outside. “Oh,” Twilight said. “I see.”
“There's no way we're moving forward!” a voice barked their way. They turned to see the conductor trotting toward them, his pocket watch floating beside him by magic. “This fog is too dense for any train to safely operate in! And coupled with the lack of communication through this area, it's simply too dangerous for us to proceed.”
“So what will you do?” Rarity asked.
“We'll put the train in reverse until we get back to the junction at Saddle Ridge,” said the conductor. “Then we'll have to switch onto a new track and try to find a way around the fog, though,” he glanced at the gray mass, “that seems like an impossibility.”
“But we have to move forward!” Twilight said. “Our destination is specifically through that fog.”
“Well, your highness, much as I'd love to serve the crown,” Night Shift said, “safety comes first. I'm sorry.”
“Now what?” Dash said.
“We gotta hoof it, that's what!” Applejack said. “If the mess Princess Celestia wants us to see is through that fog, then by golly, we gotta go through, even if it means usin' leg power.”
“Are you sure?” Fluttershy said. “It seems like an awfully long way.”
“T'ain't that far, I reckon,” Applejack said. She gave them a wink. “And this here's the first rule o' adventuring: sometimes you gotta cross the miles yourself.”
“Ah, memories,” Rarity said, fighting a cringe.
“Well, if we're going to go on hoof, we need to go get our saddlebags,” Twilight said, turning back toward the train. “I'll tell Night Shift to wait a little bit while we disembark.”
Thus they spent about twenty minutes repacking and checking their saddlebags, then strapping them to their flanks. Twilight spent some additional time reassuring the ponies in their car that all was well, that there was nothing to worry about, that Celestia and Luna had the situation well in hand; she hated to lie to them, but it had to be done. Finally, the six ponies and Spike disembarked, and the train gave a rumble. Smoke belched from the engine at the front, and the train began to grind backwards, slowly at first, then picking up speed until it was shooting in a measured by steady reverse, away and away, out of sight.
“Oh boy!” Pinkie said, bouncing up and down. “Now we all get to go on an adventure!”
“Pinkie, we've been adventuring before, you remember that, right?” Dash said.
“Yeah, but usually it's just chunks of us!” Pinkie said with a smile. “It's you and AJ and Rarity all going off to save Twilight, or you and Twilight and Rarity going after Spike and the dragons. We haven't all been on an adventure together, all seven of us, since the Crystal Empire!”
“Speakin' of seven,” Applejack said, “I reckon it's better if Spike rides with me, Twilight. No offense, but y'all aren't as strong as I am, and he'll slow you down a lot more than he will me.”
“Sure thing!” Spike said, hopping up onto Applejack's back. “Let's get going.”
“All right, everypony ready?” Dash said. She had trotted to the front, and when she got affirming looks from all her friends, she reared back and loosed a powerful whinny. “Let's go!” She started forward. Rarity and Twilight were next, followed by Applejack and Pinkie, with Fluttershy in the rear. The six of them charged forward, breathing hard, hooves pounding the grass. In a few eyeblinks they were upon the fog, then they were in it, the gray swallowing them up.
Within an hour, Twilight was happy for the weight she'd lost since coming to Ponyville. Dash and Applejack set a strident pace, and Rarity matched it, to Twilight's surprise until she remembered the other unicorn's prior experiences. But Twilight, given her enhanced physical fitness, managed to keep up fairly well, and Pinkie's energy reserves seemed limitless. Only Fluttershy was definitely bothered by the running, panting harder the further they went into the fog.
“Can... can we... stop a little?” Fluttershy said some untold hours later.
“I call halt!” Pinkie said, stopping on a dime and bouncing up and down. The other ponies skidded to a stop around and in front of her.
Spike slid off Applejack's back. “Aww, I was having fun,” he said.
“It's just as well that we stopped,” said Twilight, her heart hammering in her chest. “We need to get our bearings. Where are we even going?”
“Uh...” Dash's eyes drifted out of focus.
Rarity put a hoof to her face. “I assumed one of you had some approximation of where the nearest town lay,” she said.
“My plan was to follow the railroad tracks,” said Applejack, nodding to the ghost of the rail line to their distant left. “I reckon sooner or later that'll get us to a town.”
“It seems like a good enough plan,” said Twilight. “And a town is really the best place to start looking for things. Hey, Rarity, can you see through this fog with your clairvoyance?”
“I tried last night, and wasn't able to,” Rarity said. Her cutie mark glinted, her eyes grew wide with drifting fields of stars. She was still for about a minute. Then her gaze returned sharply to normal, and she shook her head. “Nothing, I'm afraid.”
“Well that's not good,” Dash said.
“I... I guess I'm... ready to keep going...” Fluttershy said, taking a gulp of water from the canteen Applejack had offered.
“Then let's get going, girls!” Twilight cried. “The next town can't be too far away!”
They galloped off, and Twilight's encouraging comments proved prescient. Little more than half an hour had passed before the fog was broken sharply by a sign. Coming closer revealed it to be brown, made of wood, and read, Welcome To Trottingham! Home of the Amethyst Fountains!
“Oh, my,” said Rarity, skidding to a stop. “I do remember reading about those fountains- so beautiful! I've always wanted to see them. Not under these circumstances, of course.”
“There's nopony here,” Pinkie said.
“Course there ain't,” Applejack said. “We're still on the outskirts, and anypony would stay indoors with this mist.”
“No,” Pinkie said, her voice lacking its normal enthusiasm. “I mean there's nopony in the entire town. I can't...” her ears drooped, “I can't feel them thinking.”
“What?” Dash said.
“Normally when I'm around a whole bunch of super fun awesome ponies, I can always feel their thoughts pressing up against me, like we're all on some crowded carriage, all squished together tight like a big hug!” Pinkie said. “But now... I...” she swallowed, “there's no thoughts in the town.”
Fluttershy began to tremble. “Um... m-maybe I should... maybe we should keep going...”
“No,” said Twilight firmly. “There's clearly something wrong here, and the whole reason we came this far was to find out what.” She fluttered her wings and struck a pose. “Come on, girls. For the good of Equestria, we have to explore.”
“Don't worry, Fluttershy dear,” said Rarity, trotting beside her and leaning into her. “We shall all look out for each other.”
Fluttershy remained sitting in place, body quivering. It was only when the other five ponies and Spike began to move past the sign that she followed, her terror of loneliness overriding her fear of the unknown. Thus the seven of them made their way down a shallow hill to the rail depot, where train cars and engines slumbered, beasts of quiet iron.
“The town's this way, I think,” said Twilight.
“Why are you whispering?” Dash asked.
“Sorry,” Twilight said, raising her voice. “Just... instinct.” A chill ran down her spine.
“I know what you're talkin' about,” Applejack said. “This place feels funny. Like the fog's lookin' at us.”
“Eep!” Fluttershy cowered on the ground, front legs covering her head, wings covering her eyes.
“Be brave, Fluttershy,” said Rarity. “We must carry on.”
“Don't worry, Fluttershy,” Spike said. “Anything tries to get us, I'll barbecue 'em!” He belched a torrent of shimmering green fire to underscore his words.
“W-well, I g-g-guess...” Fluttershy stammered, forcing herself to stand, willing her legs to move in the face of her own paralyzing terror.
Down a road they traveled, past some rolling farmland, until they reached Trottingham proper. The fountains mentioned in the sign sprawled in a vast stone courtyard, carved from magnificent purple gemstone that even in the dim gray light sparkled like stars. “Wow,” Spike said as the seven of them descended the granite steps.
“Pinkie, are you sure you can't feel anypony's thoughts?” Twilight asked. “Anything at all?”
Pinkie furrowed her brow. “I'm... I'm trying...” her cutie mark sparkled a little. “Wait, maybe... no... wait...” she stuck her tongue out in frustration.
Her friends focused intently on the pink earth pony. They didn't think to look anywhere else, certainly not at the roofs above their heads, so they missed black legs stepping briefly through the gray vapors before retreating.
“I thought I felt something just now,” said Pinkie at last, “but nope!”
“Well, we can't find anything out just by standing around!” said Dash. “I say we split up!”
“Eep!” Fluttershy yelped, trembling once more.
“Splitting up seems like a bad idea,” said Twilight.
“Come on,” said Dash. “There's nothing to be afraid of! Pinkie says she can't feel anypony's thoughts, right? That means this town is abandoned. There's nopony else here besides us! It's perfectly safe.”
Applejack arched an eyebrow. “Y'know, you got a point, Rainbow,” she said. “If'n there's no danger, it would make some sense for us to split up. We'd cover more ground, see more stuff.”
“I really, really, really don't want to split up,” Fluttershy said, forging a false smile.
“Fluttershy, listen to me,” said Dash, walking slowly up to her. “I believe in you. Everypony here knows that you're so much braver than you think you are- you've shown it time and time again.” Her cutie mark pulsed. “You can do it, Fluttershy. AJ's right, we can cover more ground if we split up. Have faith in yourself, because we all have faith in you too!”
“Yeah!” said Pinkie. “You'll be great, Fluttershy!”
“You can do it!” Spike cried.
“Well... okay,” Fluttershy said, standing straighter. “I'll go this way, then.” Her wings beat, she flew slowly down one empty, misty street.
“All right,” said Twilight, ruffling her own wings. “I'll go up the main street. Spike, come with me.”
“Got it!” Spike said, hopping onto her back.
“I shall take this left thoroughfare,” said Rarity.
“I'm goin' this way!” said Applejack, heading right.
“Ooo! I'll go this way!” Pinkie cried, and began to bounce down one street.
“Heh,” Dash smiled. “Works like a charm.” She was all alone now, the fountain's gentle burbling the only noise in the foggy court. She cringed a little as she looked up and saw only pressing gray. No time to be afraid, she thought. “Too bad I can't use my Gift of Loyalty on myself,” she said.
So perhaps you are not as powerful as you think?
“Whoa!” Dash jumped into the air, wings flapping wildly as she spun in all directions. She landed, arched her back, and sent sizzling lines of lightning snarling through her wings. “Who said that? Who's there?” She didn't notice the faint tickle through her mind, like gentle fingers were pressing into her brain.
Oh, just an onlooker. Nothing the Great and Powerful Rainbow Dash need concern herself with.
“You... I bet you're the one who did this, aren't you?” Dash shouted. “Whoever you are, we'll stop you!”
We? Why not just you? After all, aren't you the strongest?
“Strongest?” Dash repeated. “I... I don't know...”
Come now, the voice crawled through her mind. The Wielder of Lightning, the Bearer of Loyalty, the Mistress of the Dreaming? Surely you're not afraid of some voice in the fog?
“H-How do you know all these things?” Dash asked, forcing the tremors out of her voice.
I have my ways.
“If you're so great, come out and show yourself!” Dash cried. She stomped her hoof and sparks flew up. “I'll show you just how great I am!”
Not yet. My webs are only just now being woven.
“Webs? Woven? Hey, where are you?” Dash shouted. There was no answer. “Come back!” She cried, flying up into the foggy sky. She quickly flew back down again; the fog rose high, obscuring the air for hundreds of feet. It unsettled her, and with trembling legs she landed again. “What was that?”
Rarity poked her head through a cracked-open door. “Hello? Yoohoo! Pardon me, I hope I'm not intruding.” She raised her dainty white nose, but then it wrinkled. “Oh my, what's- ugh!- what's that smell?” She trotted slowly through the shop, toward the counter. The noxious aroma was wafting up from behind the darling brass bits register. “Pardon me?” Rarity called again. “Is somepony there? I was hoping- ack!” She pulled back immediately from her peek over the counter. What she'd seen- “That can't be real, can it?” She flinched, she cringed, she backed up a little, but then her courage surged and she dashed around the edge.
Sure enough, there was a dead unicorn slumped on the floor, its neck bent unnaturally, its tongue lolled out. It was fleshy and bloated as things became when rotting, its eyes already decayed out of their sockets.
“Oh, no!” Rarity cried. Her stomach rolled with nausea, and Rarity could not resist the roiling of her guts. She stepped crosswise, one foot over the other, to an empty space upon the floor, whence she vomited, sending up her early breakfast of biscuits and croissants. “Ick,” she hissed, using her magic- certainly not her hoof- to wipe off her mouth. “Disgusting! What could have caused this?”
Why don't you find out?
“What?” Rarity whirled around, horn shimmering blue with magic. “Who said that? Who's there?”
Just an observer. And aren't you the ultimate observer, Bearer of Generosity?
“How... what? My goodness, who are you and how do you-” she caught herself. “I mean, what do you mean by Bearer?”
Nothing you know is hidden from me, Rarity. But this scene is hidden from you, isn't it? Or it is with your own eyes.
Rarity grit her teeth, her hooves digging into the wooden boards of the floor as her heart beat fast. She needed strength from somewhere, but it seemed none could be found. The light through the windows was weak and gray, casting shadows like night through the shop.
Go on. Use your sight beyond sight, little clairvoyant.
Rarity was not typically in the business of obeying disembodied voices. However, she could find no way out of this predicament without turning to her Long Sight, stunted though it had been of late. Her eyes widened, stars filled them, and-
“No!” Rarity jerked forward. She had seen it all in a flash. “No! Oh, no!”
“Where are you?” Rarity snarled, horn alight once more. “Come out and be bold, you great monster!”
I'll see you when I'm ready to see you. I have such plans for you, Farseer.
“What? What? Come back!” Rarity shouted in the stifling, still air, but no pulse through her mind answered. “Oh, this is horrific!” she shouted, hurrying to the front door. “I have to warn the others!”
Applejack was cringing at the sight before her. Ponies, or what was left of ponies, were sprawled all throughout the single bedroom of the small house. Indeed, the house was small, and shabbily furnished, indicating a certain level of poverty. But it had been kept very clean, for the only sign of decay was the thin layer of dust that must have settled just in last week. From the foals' drawings taped to the walls to the college diploma proudly framed above the bed, it was clear this had been a poor family, but a good one.
Now they were all dead, their bodies gray and drained so that they resembled gaunt puppets, their legs seeming unnaturally thin and gangled with the total lack of supporting flesh. Applejack turned once more to what she had first seen: the crib in the corner where the baby of the two pegasuses had been sleeping. It too was dead, its little body already beginning to rot. The smell was noxious, but Applejack barely cared. She smelled worse quite often on the farm. Nothing so horrific, however, was ever part of her daily life. She swept her hat off her head. “Oh, Luna,” she whispered, “be kind n' gentle, let these folks be happy in the Summer Lands.”
I'm sure they are. They have lots of company.
“Who said that?” snarled Applejack, spinning round and round. “Show yerself!”
You can find out who I am, I bet, Bearer of Honesty.
Applejack's cutie mark flickered. Her green eyes bulged. “You... you did this, didn't you?”
Very good! You see much that is hidden. A pity you're the only one left alive.
The three apples on her flanks sparkled. “Nope!” said Applejack. “That's a lie, I know it. You haven't killed anypony yet, least not since we got here. And you won't! We'll put a stop to you!”
Oh you will? How are you going to do it? Stand firm against me as you did against the Titan?
“What?” Applejack fell to the ground and put her front hooves to her head. “What... how... how are y'all doin' that?”
Think, you foolish pack animal. What does it remind you of?
She grit her teeth as her mind churned. Whatever this voice was, it was in her head... like Pinkie! Who bore the Element of Laughter, which she shared with... Her heart skipped a beat. “Oh no.”
“No!” Applejack cried, bursting out of the room. “Gotta find the others!”
Twilight crept slowly up the steps of the house, her horn pulsing purple as she swept her magical senses through the space. As Pinkie had intimated, there seemed to be no signs of life here, or anywhere else in the city save for her friends.
“What's that smell?” Spike asked.
“What smell? I don't- ugh,” Twilight's nose scrunched as a wave of noxious scent hit her nostrils. Her hoof came up and pressed against her nose. “What is that smell? It's awful!”
“That's what I said!” Spike responded, holding his nose. “It smells like spoiled fruit.”
“Shh,” Twilight whispered. “We're close.” They had reached the door at the top of the stairs, which was mostly closed but faintly revealed a sliver of pale light. Twilight gently tapped her horn against the door, where it flickered purple. “Nothing,” she whispered. “Come on.” She opened the door wide, striding boldly into the room. “I wonder what- oh no!”
The two earth ponies in the bed were dead, of course, and their gaunt, gray bodies were quietly rotting. “What?” Spike asked. He flinched. “Ugh, it's worse than ever! Where is that smell coming from?”
“N-Nothing!” Twilight cried. Her wing stretched down to block Spike's view of the bed. “Oh, Celestia, don't look, Spike!”
“Don't look at what?” Spike asked. He tried to see around Twilight's wing, but she kept stepping sideways to block his path. “What is it, Twilight, let me see!”
It's death, little dragon.
“Huh?” Spike whipped his head around. “Who said that?”
“Said what?” Twilight asked.
The ponies in the bed are rotten meat now. They are the smell.
“D-Dead?” Spike's stomach dropped. “They're dead?”
“Spike? How did you-?” Twilight glanced from him to the dead ponies in the bed. “How did you... where did... hey!” Twilight's horn suddenly shone brilliant white, and a flash of white light blazed around her head. “All right, come out! I know the feeling of somepony reading my mind!”
The room lost all light. It was as if a swath of the night had fallen on the tiny space, casting everything in blackness thick as pitch. Twilight lit her horn, but its purple glow didn't come close to piercing the gloom. Indeed, its small and lonely brightness only made the shadows thicker. Twilight's heart rate subtly intensified. Spike gripped her leg. “What is it?” Spike whispered. “Twilight?”
“I...” Twilight's horn began to crackle with magical lightning, conjured as much on instinct as through planning. She took several deep breaths. “I don't know...”
Twilight whirled around, knocking Spike off his feet. “Who's there?” Twilight said.
It came from behind her. Twilight's horn flashed and a blast of lightning lanced off it, snarling into the shadows. But the darkness swallowed the lightning, leaving nothing behind.
“Hello, Twilight Sparkle. We meet again.”
Twilight's skin crawled. The voice was soft and deep and seemed just behind her head. “Don't turn around, Spike,” she whispered.
“You know me, yes? I think you recall my voice.” The lilt of amusement came into the dark. “Though I spoke in foreign tongues the last we met.”
“Spike, hold on tight,” Twilight said. “Grab as hard as you can.”
“Ah, you're going to teleport. Just as well.” The voice became a rasping whisper. “It would be a shame to kill you here in the dark, when I can do it in sight of your beloved friends.”
Twilight's fear was like nothing she had felt before. Not in all her years had she come into the presence of such terror. But she had felt some measure of fear many times, and she was able to master it just enough to think on the soft grass below her feet, the gray sky above, the cool breeze. She took a step-
So she and Spike were standing in the park they had passed on their way to the house. She collapsed to the ground, shaking. “What was that?” Spike asked. “Was it...”
“I... I don't know, Spike,” Twilight said.
“Hello?” Pinkie shouted into the gloom, bouncing and hopping and skipping down the street. She smiled and hummed a jaunty tune to herself, her cheery mood seeming undimmed by the shadow and unease that filled the space about her. “Hellllooooooo? Anypony around?” She stopped for a moment, though still she bounced in place. At last, however, she was totally still. She took several deep breaths. Then she thought. Hello? Is there anypony here?
Nothing. Her thoughts swelled through cracks and alleys but found no response. She bounced in place again. “I guess there really is nopony here.”
No pony, that's for certain.
Oh!, thought Pinkie. So somepony is here? And somepony who has my Gift!
My Gift, you mean. I was curious to see which of you ponies had the Gift of Laughter. How odd that it should be one so... bizarre.
“Hey!” Pinkie shouted into the gray sky. “I'm not bizarre! I just do my little bit each day to make the universe a happier place.”
Well then, perhaps you'll indulge me by playing a game.
“Ooo! I love games!” Pinkie shouted, bouncing in place. “What kind of game is it?”
A telepath's game... a caribou game. I believe in your language it would be called 'Mind Push.'
“Sounds fun!” Pinkie said. “How do you play it?”
Well, given that we are both telepaths, we must take turns projecting our thoughts into the others' minds. We must force ourselves upon those playing, and if we are strong enough, the sheer magnitude of our mental presence causes them to fall over. That is how you win.
“Okay!” Pinkie said. “You first!”
If you insist.
At that moment Pinkie was swallowed in darkness. Black, oozing claws seemed to reach through her brain and rend it, staining it with ichor so foul her very soul was tainted. She felt the pain of everyone she loved dying, she felt the hate of all the terrible thoughts that had ever bounced through her head. Her world was barren, vicious, foul and everything in it made her hate herself. Her skull throbbed. Her knees buckled. She actually gagged as a nausea rose through her guts.
“H-H-Hey, now,” Pinkie said, blinking as tears streamed down her face. “That was a p-pretty good shot.”
Oh, that was nothing. I can do so much worse. But it's your turn now.
Okay!, thought Pinkie, and then she thought. At first her head throbbed and her heart skipped a beat, and she worried above all that she wouldn't be able to find her mysterious opponent. Her mind swept across the town, poking and prodding through tiny places, and- there! There he was! But was she strong enough? I know I am, thought Pinkie. Come on, Pinkie, have faith, have faith!
When she found him- she knew it was a him- she blasted him with the very core of herself. She could feel what he was feeling: his mind, so deep and dark, seemed to flood all of a sudden with sunshine. There were happy ponies smiling and laughing and dancing all about him, and balloons, so many balloons! They rose and swelled, a balloon for each wonderful thing in the world. All of existence was caught up in balloons and sunshine and laughter. Pinkie laughed herself, and pressed harder, willing her love to consume every dark corner-
Pinkie smiled. Did I do okay?
Interesting.... the thoughts swirled through her. They seemed weaker than before. But I can't stay obsessed with your frivolity. I have the yellow one to visit.
“Fluttershy?” Pinkie cried. “Fluttershy! Oh, no!”
She turned to see Twilight Sparkle, Spike, Applejack and Rarity running towards her. “Y' all right, girl?” Applejack said.
“I just had the craziest mind game with something!” Pinkie cried.
“He came into my mind also!” Rarity said. “He showed me...” she shuddered. “Ugh! Such horrible things.”
“Mine too!” Applejack shouted.
“I was able to shut him out of my mind, but then he came to me,” said Twilight. “Girls, I... I think he's...”
“Hey!” they looked up to see Rainbow Dash zoom down from just above their heads. “There you girls are! I've been looking all over! Something was in my head!”
“We know!” said Twilight.
“He was in all our heads!” said Spike.
Suddenly a scream pierced the gray gloom. “Fluttershy!” they all shouted at once.
Fluttershy was cowering in the fog, tears leaking down her face. In her mind were horrors beyond mention, shadows of pain, phantoms of her deepest nightmares. “Please,” she whispered quietly, “please, please, please...”
So pathetic. All the Healers are. The moose were just like you, or many of them were- and they were so amusing to break.
“N-No!” Fluttershy said, a burst of courage suddenly filling her. “I... I won't be beaten!” She forced herself to her feet. “You're gonna have to do better than that.”
Oh, of course I shall, the voice said. This is only the beginning. And do you know what? You will not feel the worst of it, not for a while. I believe I shall save you for towards the end, after you have had a chance to see the suffering of your fellows. That is what hurts you the most, isn't it Fluttershy?
“I...” Fluttershy's eyes leaked tears. “I...”
And what's this?
Memories of her song before the fire, with her friends and the deer around her, floated unbidden through her mind.
Ha! Such a song. Sing it for me.
“Gil-Galad... was...” Crushing, overwhelming despair ran through her. She felt as though the world was ending. “Gil-Galad was... an... an elken king...”
“Fluttershy!” Twilight cried as the five ponies and Spike came running toward her. “Fluttershy, are you all right?”
“Gil-Galad was... Gil-Galad was...”
“Fluttershy, there's no time to be singing some dumb song!” Dash cried.
“Gil-Galad was... an elken... king,” Fluttershy's beautiful voice was consumed by trembling, “of... of him the harpers... sadly sing...”
“Fluttershy!” Applejack said. “Snap out of it!”
Then through the fog there issued a mighty baritone, singing to make the whole of the air ring.
Gil-Galad was a worthless fool!
I broke his throne!
I took his rule!
I tore the antlers from his head!
I laid him low!
I made him dead!
He thought he could oppose my might!
But he was wrong
And I was right!
He learned a lesson meant for all!
To stand against me
Is to fall!
At the final word the fog parted. A black deer with red eyes stood on an outcropping of rock, his powerful antlers burning with crimson fire. He grinned, showing a mouth of white teeth razor sharp. “Hello, my little ponies. It's so good to meet you face to face.”
“You!” Spike shouted.
“Yes, Spike the dragon, how good to see both you and Twilight Sparkle once again,” said the black deer, jumping down from the rock and walking toward them. “When we last met, I had no name at all, but now I've taken a new one. You may call me Reiziger.”
“The princesses will stop you!” Twilight cried.
“Stop me?” Reiziger chuckled. “I've brought, what, a tenth of their land under my control already? And they've done nothing, because they can't. Your princesses are weak.”
“You have no idea what Princess Celestia and Princess Luna can do!” Dash cried. “And if we have to, we'll help stop you ourselves!”
“With what? Inadequate magic? Parochial apple-bucking? Second-rate weather control? Ha!” He began to walk slowly around them; Twilight tracked him with her eyes, horn aglow. “You ponies are fit for nothing more than submission. The only tools you might have used against me are the Elements of Harmony, but you gave them up, didn't you? So foolish.”
“We care more about the well-being of others, and the state of the whole world, than our own power,” said Rarity, striding forward with her own horn shining. “Unlike you, you dreadful beast. You showed me what you were capable of, and I know you for nothing more than a monster!”
“A monster? Yes,” said Reiziger, “but a clever one. A confident one also. You should thank me. It's my conviction I can beat you at any time that explains your still being alive.”
“Oh yeah?” Pinkie cried. “Well we don't want your dumb mercy! Go on! If you're so big and tough, why don't you just blast us right now?”
“Hmm,” Reiziger tilted his head to the side. “You raise a good point.”
“Uh,” Pinkie said.
“Pinkie!” Dash cried.
Reiziger's antlers swirled with glimmering red power.
“Run!” Dash cried. She flung a lightning bolt at Reiziger, which he effortlessly absorbed; it did fluster him, however, and it bought the six just enough time to break off in a gallop. Twilight used her magic to toss Spike onto her back, where he held on for dear life.
They were perhaps fifty feet away when the first blast of magic came. It rattled the bones in their muscles, and all six of them seemed instinctively to curl away from it. The burst of power turned a vast chunk of the open field into a crater licked by red fire.
“Ha ha ha! Yes, run!”
Another blast of battle magic soared right over Twilight's head; she and the others skidded to a halt as it crashed with a thunderous sound in front of them. The third blast came soon after, and it hit the ground behind them, nearly encircling them with smoke and fire.
“We've gotta get out of here!” Dash cried.
“Twilight, teleport us!” Fluttershy said.
“But... I've never teleported so many ponies so far!” Twilight said.
“Yes you have!” Rarity cried. “You teleported Applejack, Dash and I back from the World Snake!”
“But... I don't have a beneviolet to eat! My magic won't be strong enough!”
“You gotta try, girl!” Applejack said. The red flames around them began to rise. “I don't think that fella's playin' around any more.”
Oh, I'm playing around even now. It's just I may still kill you anyway. Indeed, I think I shall!
“Twilight!” Pinkie cried.
“Okay!” Twilight said. “Everypony come close!” They huddled around her, and Twilight concentrated. She tried to think of a safe place, a faraway place, as far as she could get and still feel secure. The teleportation energies sparkled around her; she was using her old unicorn method, briefly forgetting the deer style in her panic. Her horn shimmered, glowed, shone-
I think I shall eat you all alive.
Twilight grit her teeth. “Oh.. no...”
Her cutie mark suddenly shone.
There was a huge burst of purple power just as Reiziger walked through the fire. The seven of them vanished on the spot, leaving only a black scorch mark on the gray grass. Reiziger tilted his head to the side. “Huh,” he said. “Ah well.”
“My lord?” a voice came over his shoulder. His eyes gleamed, the red fire vanished, and Trixie could step harmlessly over the burned and shattered ground. “My lord! Did you deal with them?”
“Not today, Trixie,” said Reiziger. “And likely not for a while yet. But that is not important.”
“Okay,” Trixie said, nodding. Her eyes were still wide and held the gleam of madness. “So what is our next course of action, O my lord?”
“The princesses will soon know I have declared myself, if they don't already,” said Reiziger. “Unfortunately, I may not yet be ready to fight them openly.”
“But my lord,” Trixie said, “your power-”
“Is not what it could be,” Reiziger said. “I confess I am only now at half-strength; good enough for anything short of a god, but to deal with Sun and Moon I shall need to regain more of my old might. In the meantime, I shall need allies.”
“Allies, my lord?” Trixie said.
“Oh, yes,” said Reiziger. “Of old, my fellow black deer and I had numerous servants and creatures at our disposal: wights, wraiths, trolls, fell beasts, wyverns and more. I made them from the raw material of the creatures I consumed- ruined, terrible forms of life. Perhaps there are some still in existence?” Reiziger closed his eyes. His antlers pulsed with red power, the aura about them shrinking and growing in time with his breaths. Trixie watched him expectantly, and she felt delight when his eyes came open. “Hmm,” he said, “them?”
“Who, my lord?” Trixie asked.
“The most fragile of all my servants, in a way,” said Reiziger. He began to trot to the west, Trixie in his wake. “And yet, perhaps also the most useful, particularly for my present circumstances. Yes, this will be perfect. Come, Trixie!” His eyes blazed. “We are going bug hunting.”
With a blast of purple power, the six ponies and Spike appeared in the middle of Ponyville's town square. The blaze of sunlight high above briefly wrecked their vision, and they looked wildly around with burnt-out eyes. “We... what?” Twilight stammered.
“We're back in Ponyville!” Spike shouted.
“Twilight, dear, however did you do that?” Rarity asked. “I knew you were capable of teleporting us all, but I didn't expect you to get us clear across the country in an instant.”
“I don't know!” Twilight said. “I just felt something... like a well of clear water...” her violet eyes widened. “My Element of Magic!”
“That must have been it,” Fluttershy said. “We're so lucky!”
“But there's no time to waste about that!” Twilight said. She levitated a pen, ink bottle, and piece of parchment from her saddlebags. “Spike! Take a letter, now!”
“And so our scouts haven't been able to pierce the fog, I'm afraid,” said Dreamside, golden armor shiny in the light that streamed through the balcony.
“Hmm,” Celestia murmured. “We don't want to risk anypony's life, but we must find out what has happened to the ponies in that fog. Is there anything more you can do, commander?”
“Well,” said Dreamside, “I know the Lady Falalauria is nearby. Perhaps she-”
“We have already confided in Lady Falalauria,” said Luna, standing serenely at her sister's side. “She has been unfortunately unhelpful.”
“All right then, your highnesses,” said Dreamside. “I'm just not sure-”
A wisp of sparkling lavender streamed through the massive balcony doors. It swirled through the air over the heads of Celestia's officers, taking one lap through the open space, and then settled in front of Celestia, where it coalesced and formed into a scroll. Celestia took it in her magic, the scroll glowing golden as she unwrapped it. Her eyes swiftly scanned the page, with each new line of written ink expanding wide and wider. “Commander Dreamside,” said Celestia, “I believe you should leave us now. Indeed,” she glanced down at the officers, “Luna and I should like to be alone.”
The commanders exchanged glances. “As you wish, your highnesses,” said one unicorn in silver armor, and the seven of them trotted to the doors out of the throne room, leaving none but the door guards present with the rulers.
Luna by now was reading alongside Celestia. She had always been a swifter reader than her sister, so though they had not started together, that was how they finished. “Reiziger...” Celestia whispered.
“Means 'traveler' if I recall my Old Carib rightly,” said Luna. “So he survived.”
“Lala was right,” said Celestia. “Oh, dear oh dear.”
“My princess!” a shout rang through the doors and an earth pony barreled through them. “My princess- oh, my princesses! Forgive me!” He bowed low.
“Stay yourself, Winderton,” said Celestia. “What is it?”
“Well, my princesses, there are... well, there are deer at the gates.”
“Is that so unusual?” Luna said. “We do have many deer in our borders now.”
“Well, my princesses, these are big deer. Bigger than I've ever seen.”
Celestia and Luna sighed together. “Show them in, good sir Winderton,” said Luna.
“Treat them with the greatest courtesy, and help them find the throne room,” said Celestia. “Also, send word that all further court business is canceled for the day.”
“At once, my princesses!” said Winderton, galloping back out the doors.
“I suppose I should have known they would show up,” said Celestia. “It's not like we could have kept things secret from them.”
“I do not relish explaining ourselves to them,” Luna said, a growl in her voice. “They treat thee and I like children.”
“Because, to a certain degree, we are,” said Celestia, “at least in their eyes. We must be strong, Luna. There are many long nights ahead.”