“I must say, this has been quite the eventful return to Ponyville,” Rarity sighed.
“I must agree,” the Mayor said, looking up to the sky. “Is it still nighttime? Is the Sun due to rise in a few hours?”
Twilight and her companions each rubbed a foreleg nervously − even Spike.
“Err, well… about that…” Twilight began.
“We need to find a book!” Pinkie Pie piped up. “And that book is gonna have some kinda secret code inside of it that’s going to help us fix the Elements of Harmony so that we can save the day!” She finished this with a cheeky grin at the Ponyvillagers, the bulk of whom only chuckled lightly at her statement.
“Yeah, and it’s a real page-turner,” Rainbow Dash added sarcastically.
“Are you kidding?” Twilight said fiercely. “Studies on Pundamilia Culture is notorious in the literature community for the horrendous back-order time due to its being published by the Masquerade Foundation independently! Anypony would be lucky to get their hooves on an unabridged copy of it!”
“Twilight,” interjected Applejack. “If this book is so dang important, why didn’t Celestia have the unabridged copy with that there code ya found?”
Twilight scratched her chin, putting on her metaphorical thinking bridle.
“Maybe Queen Celestia didn’t want the book and the code to be too close together, in case they got compromised…”
“That does make sense,” nodded Rarity.
“But we don’t have time to wait for a back-order,” Twilight said in a determined voice. “We have to go to the Crystal Mountains posthaste, and find that book, decipher the code, and…”
The path towards the downfall of NightMare Moon stretched out in front of Twilight. It was very long, and getting longer with every step she took. Her forelegs gave out from under her, hooves atop her head.
“O Queen Celestia… When is this going to end? Once I get to the Crystal Mountains, the cipher will just lead to another clue, and that will lead to another clue, and another and another and another and―…”
“Twilight!” Applejack said sharply, causing Twilight to look up. Applejack’s freckled muzzle creased in a smile. “We all know that it’s gonna be a long road till we bring back th’ Sun, but that don’t mean we gotta stop an’ gawk at how long th’ road is ahead of us. Queen Celestia’s dependin’ on us t’ put an end t’ this eternal night, and if Ah didn’t help ya see this through t’ the end, Ah’d never fergive mahself!”
“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash put in. “It might take a while, but I didn’t become an awesome flyer overnight, and I don’t pretend that I did!”
“I don’t want to get in your way,” said Fluttershy quietly, “but I’d just feel awful if I couldn’t help you out if I can.”
“It would be remiss of me to leave your party now,” Rarity said simply.
“And speaking of parties,” Pinkie squeaked as she bounced around the group, “You’re gonna need some laughs to keep your chin up!” She produced a party favor from out of nowhere and blew it in Twilight’s face. The party favor tickled Twilight’s nose, forcing a small giggle out of her.
“And I’m always here for you, too, Twilight,” Spike added finally, pointing a claw at his chest importantly. Smiling down at her ward, Twilight pulled him in with a hoof and nuzzled him.
“See what Ah mean, Twilight?” Applejack said brightly, one foreleg crossed in front of the other. “We’re with ya, through thick or thin.”
Twilight looked up from Spike, her hoof still resting around his shoulders.
“Thank you, girls,” she said, and she meant it. Even if these girls could be utterly infuriating at times, they still went with her into the very heart of Canterlot − or Endymion now, rather − and still wished to travel with her to the end. It meant more to Twilight that she would otherwise let on.
“Well,” Rainbow Dash said abruptly, clopping her forehooves together, “now that we’re back in Ponyville, I think I’m gonna pull up a nice bit of cumulus and catch some Z’s.” And with that she bolted up into the sky, coming down moments later with a small cloud, which she wasted no time in alighting upon.
“While I ordinarily would be loath to be on the same side of Rainbow Dash in the trading of words, I have to agree with her,” said Rarity. “After all that befell us up at Canterlot, I’d say we deserve a small bit of rest.”
Canterlot… Crescent Rose…
A rock fell into Twilight’s chest; she had nearly forgotten the friend she had made up at Canterlot less than an hour before. Crescent Rose had given everything to make sure that they got out of Canterlot alive, and now…
Twilight brushed away a tear.
“Crescent Rose did a great service to Equestria, but we can’t let her sacrifice be in vain. We have to make absolutely certain that we’re prepared for the long haul. It pains me to say this, but we can’t be saddled with grief at her loss. We’ll have to press on.”
“Crescent Rose?” the Mayor asked. “Who is that?”
With the help of Spike and her five mare companions, Twilight gave a brief summary of what unfolded from the moment they left Ponyville to the moment that they winked out back to its boundaries.
The Mayor scratched her chin thoughtfully for a moment, before bowing her head, “My deep condolences to Crescent Rose’s family, wherever they may be. You have raised a fine daughter, who fought for what she felt was right, at great personal cost. May your memory be honored long after by those who you saved.”
Even though it was a token political eulogy, Twilight still bowed her head, as did everypony in Town Square. She felt her grief for Crescent Rose ebbing away into heightened resolve. Even though many lives were threatened just by the Sun never rising, the fact that NightMare Moon had outright ended a life directly felt that much stronger to Twilight.
This NightMare would need to be put down, the Miasma dispelled, and the Queen of the Night brought to her senses.
“How long do you intend to remain in Ponyville before departing again?” the Mayor asked.
“No more than two days,” Twilight replied.
“What? Two days?” Rainbow Dash sat bolt upright on her cloud. “That’s only, like, four-dozen hours!”
“Yes, and we’ll need to prepare as much as we can. I’ll need to chart the easiest and yet most discreet route to the Crystal Mountains as I can, and the rest of you… does anypony have a radio?”
“A radio?” Applejack echoed. “Mah family has one, but Ah reckon they’ll need it t’ hear ‘bout the goin’s-on ‘round Equestria. ‘Sides, those things’re th’ size a three bread loafs stacked atop one another. Ah don’ think we’d be able t’ fit one in a saddle-bag.”
“Ooh! Ooh, ooh!” Pinkie started to jump into the air frenetically, waving a hoof back and forth. “Me, me, me, me, me! I have a radio I could bring!”
Two days passed in a blur, with the party of seven resting intermittently, trying to maintain their diurnal schedule as well as they could. (Twilight’s heliogenesis sun could only output so much light, and sunrise was barely brighter than high noon.) Twilight had little time to acquaint herself with many more ponies in Ponyville as she used the Library’s maps of Equestria to determine a path to the Crystal Mountains that followed little-used roads. She had conceded to some interaction, though, at the requests of Applejack and Rarity.
A major distraction, though, almost prevented Twilight from inspecting the maps of Equestria. Pinkie Pie had presented her radio.
“This is… a radio?” Twilight poked at the small… thing sitting on Golden Oak Library’s table, barely as large as a horse-shoe.
“Don’t look like no radio Ah’ve ever seen,” Applejack muttered.
Indeed. The radio was made out of various candy materials. The radio’s casing was made from a jawbreaker, gumdrops substituted dials, a candy cane took the place of antennae, and criss-crossed bits of licorice formed the speaker.
“And it’s got cotton candy wiring on the inside as well~” Pinkie added.
“Looks tasty…” mused Spike, licking his chops.
A pink hoof came between Spike and the candy radio. “You might not wanna do that. Just the faintest little lick, and the whole thing will go KABLOOEY!” Firework sparkles seemed to emanate from Pinkie Pie as she reared up at the shout. Then she beamed widely, “So don’t actually do it. I had to go through five candy-radios before I figured it out.”
Twilight screwed up her face in thought, perplexed as to how something like this would function. “But… how does it work? I mean, I doubt that cotton candy is very thaumaturgically conductive…”
“It would be nice to listen to some music right about now…” Rarity mused.
“Okie-dokie-lokie!” Pinkie said brightly, taking one of the gummies in her teeth and twisting it around. A high warbling buzz filled the air. Five pairs of ears flattened against five skulls, and Spike clamped his claws over the sides of his head.
*…husband-and-wife law firm, Cease & Desist, have pushed to file suit against NightMare Moon for damages resulting from her everlasting night…*
*…noted entertainment entrepreneur, Reedy Creek, has insisted that nighttime eternal has not interrupted the timetable for his plans to open an amusement resort in…*
*…strange lightning bolts that radiate the light and heat of the Sun all across the country…*
After several interspersed stories from numerous radio stations broadcast from all around Equestria, bridged by high squealing static, Pinkie settled on a slow and soothing cello piece.
At once, the tension dissipated as the music settled in through their ears and calmed their minds. It brought to mind sunny fields and warm days. Even Rainbow Dash, who ordinarily would not be caught dead listening to classical music of any sort, felt as if somepony had somehow transformed honey into sound.
As the cello performance concluded, a boisterous voice belted out from the radio, “And that was An Ode to the Summer Breeze, a composition by my very special somepony, Octavia Melody!”
‘Vın̈yl!’ shouted a Shirish mare’s voice. Pinkie gasped.
“Is that my cousin Tavi?” she squeaked.
“What? I’m just tellin’ it like it is, Octy,” replied the pony named Vın̈yl on the radio.
“It is Tavi!” Pinkie squealed, bouncing about the library in mirth. “My famous cello-playing cousin is on the radio! And I tuned into her!”
“Wait. You’re cousins with Octavia Melody?” Twilight asked.
“I must say, the family resemblance is rather lacking,” Rarity added. Twilight nodded in agreement.
Rainbow Dash shushed them loudly; Vın̈yl and Octavia were wrapping up their on-air bickering and returning to their script.
‘We’re sorry to say this, but our safehouse has become compromised due to circumstances outside of our control. As such, the next broadcast of Daydreams with a DJ will be indefinitely postponed.’
“Until next time, keep those dials spinnin’, and those smiles shinin’!”
The sound of records scratching segued into empty static.
“A resistance radio show…” Twilight breathed.
“That takes a big heap a courage t’ do what they’re doin’,” Applejack commented.
“And my cousin Tavi is doin’ it, too!” said Pinkie giddily as she bounced into the air, floating a little with each hop.
“How can you be related to Octavia Melody?” Twilight asked in a flabbergasted tone.
Pinkie stopped in mid-air, slowly hovering down. “Well, my mom and her mom are sisters, but…”
“That’s not what I meant,” Twilight hissed. “How can you, somepony who couldn’t take anything seriously if her life depended on it, possibly be related to Octavia Melody, one of the most steadfast and proper ponies this side of San Palomino?”
Pinkie just shrugged. “I don’t know. We just are. But seriously, Twilight, you gotta stop being so serious all the time. You gotta laugh and giggle and smile, smile, smile, or your shoulders’ll be all stiff and grumpy all the time and you’re gonna be a grumpy-wumpy-saddykins ‘cause of that, and you’re gonna be all sad and grumpy even when your shoulders aren’t all achy and everypony around you is gonna be sad because you’re grumpy, and everypony they know is just gonna be so sad because of that and―…”
“Okay, I get it!” Twilight barked, her ears going flat. “You don’t want people to be sad because you’re a clown! I get it!”
Pinkie blinked at Twilight in confusion. Rainbow Dash folded her forelegs in disapproval.
“Twilight, she’s not a clown; she’s a party planner,” the Pegasus said sharply. “For such a smart pony, you’re sure stupid.”
“I just love to see ponies being happy, Twilight!” Pinkie said, holding her forelegs wide as she stood up on her hind legs with a broad smile. “I make parties and stuff to make other ponies super-happy all the time!”
“Besides, clowns are creepy,” Rainbow Dash added. “Pinkie Pie is just… weird.”
At Rarity’s insistence, Twilight joined her and Fluttershy for a visit to the Ponyville Spa, run by a pair of twins, Aloe and Lotus Blossom. Though the building looked too small to contain any kind of facilities for rest and relaxation, a staircase down to an expanded subterranean level revealed a much larger facility than Twilight could have guessed. After a treatment package that Rarity had put on her own tab (insistingly), Twilight felt completely rejuvenated, as though she could take on a dozen NightMare Moons on her own.
The time came to leave, though, and the journey would not be easy.
“We will have to loop around the North Equinus Mountains, so that we can travel as close to straight north as we can,” Twilight explained, her mane tied back into a queue; this served the dual purpose of keeping her mane from dripping sweat onto maps that she’d pore over, and preparing for the long journey ahead. “The path I’ve marked out keeps alongside the road, but it will involve traveling wide around any towns that we cross. We can’t chance the notion that NightMare Moon hasn’t deployed her Nightmare Guard to each and every settlement in Equestria. It should take us a few weeks of steady pace to reach the Crystal Mountains.”
“A few weeks?” Rainbow Dash interjected.
“The North Equinus Mountain range is two-dozen-gross miles south of the Crystal Mountains. If we maintain a steady travel time of about a gross of miles a day, it should take us about two-dozen days to reach the Crystal Mountains.”
“A gross a’ miles?” echoed Applejack. “That don’ sound like it’s a big thing.”
“Not a big thing?” Rarity said in astonishment. “But… one gross of miles in one day! That’s… it’s like…!”
“A day is two-dozen hours long, and ponies usually sleep six hours, right?” Twilight explained. “If we maintain a good cantering speed of about ten miles per hour, we should cover about that distance in a dozen-two-and-a-half hours, taking a breather for the remainder of the day.”
“But… what about eating?” Fluttershy asked.
“We’ll just help ourselves to the grass on the ground on this trek.”
“Grass?” Rarity gasped. “But grass is just so… so…” She sighed, taking several deep breaths. “Do forgive me, Twilight. I still plan on accompanying you, but… I cannot lightly set aside my refined lifestyle.”
“Grass isn’t exactly my favorite either, Rarity, but we just have to make do,” Twilight said shortly.
“There might even be some dandelions out there! They’re always so tickly when I eat them~” Pinkie said gleefully, balancing on her forehooves and hoisting her hind legs into the air.
“Or maybe some pansies!” Rainbow Dash said eagerly.
“Or daisies,” Fluttershy added.
The conversation continued in this vein for at least a minute before Twilight called their attention back to the task at hoof.
“We’re not going out there to look for our favorite flowers. We’re heading off to the Crystal Mountains to find Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”
“And who says we can’t have a bit of fun on the way?” Rainbow Dash smirked.
“This isn’t about having fun!”
The six others around the library table froze up, each giving Twilight an odd look. Her ears involuntarily drooped; she felt the tension mounting in the air.
“Twilight, darling,” Rarity began slowly, “we are all of us very aware of the high stakes of this endeavor. But I would dearly hope that this is not a humorless venture.”
“Yeah!” Spike said with balled-up claws. “What Rarity said!”
Twilight suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at Spike’s attempts at endearing himself to Rarity, and addressed her fellow Unicorn directly.
“But NightMare Moon… we can’t pretend that this isn’t a big deal!”
“None a’ us are sayin’ it ain’t,” Applejack said, slightly cross. “But anypony’s gotta laugh at some point, or she’s just gonna be up a creek without a paddle.”
“Tell me about it,” Rainbow Dash said while she made a circle or two around the table. “I know that joinin’ the Wonderbolts ain’t gonna happen in a day, but I’ve learned to joke about it with myself.”
Twilight arched an eyebrow at the cyan Pegasus. “But I thought that getting into the Wonderbolts was, like, serious business for you. Why would you joke about it?”
“Because it makes getting things done seem more fun!” Pinkie said from her hoofstand on Twilight’s back. Twilight did not find herself buckling under the pink Earth Pony’s weight, which perplexed her. How Pinkie had gotten there without Twilight noticing until she’d spoken was also a mystery. Twilight instinctively bucked her hindquarters into the air, and Pinkie did a high twirling somersault from her momentum, landing on her forehooves, smiling upside-down at her band.
Immediately the four other mares started to clop their hooves against the polished wooden floor, whooping and cheering. Spike clapped his claws along with them. All five wore broad happy smiles on their faces.
“Whoo-hoo! Nice sailin’ there, Pink!” Applejack called.
“Yea-heah! Sweet moves there!” cheered Rainbow Dash.
“Wow. That was… amazing,” said Fluttershy.
“Very dazzling spectacle, Pinkie Pie,” praised Rarity.
“That was amazing, Pinkie!” Spike shouted gleefully.
Pinkie started to laugh with joy at the praise that her friends showered her for her launched move, rolling up into a ball on the floor. The laughter spread to Spike, Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. Twilight watched the six others laughing with an odd creeping feeling in her chest. She wanted to join in, but she did not want to lose herself in the herd…
But she started to laugh anyway. It started out small and low, but quickly rose and became a high bell-like sound that rang out alongside the six other laughs in the library. It fit right in; if anything, it made the rest of their laughter sound much more melodious, bringing them all together.
The laughter also did something that Twilight could not have anticipated. The fear and burden of taking down NightMare Moon was already beginning to overwhelm her, to make her curl up in a neurotic little ball and ruminate on all of the worst-case scenarios. Now, Twilight felt all those worries and fears evaporate away, leaving only the goal ahead, as clear as the sunrise. She’d feared that she would let the goal itself pass out of her mind in a lackadaisical apathy brought on by the spell of laughter, but that was not the case at all.
Picking herself off of the ground − had she laughed so hard she’d fallen to her barrel? − Twilight looked around and saw the six others similarly pulling themselves to their hooves (or claws, in Spike’s case).
“And let’s share a little round of applause for Twilight here!” Pinkie called out. “Because I wouldn’t have been able to do that double-dangle-half-twist-hold-the-onions-change-for-a-bit somersault without her!”
Before Twilight could dissuade them, the others had already started to stomp their hooves (or clap their claws, in Spike’s case) and whoop and cheer for Twilight herself. In that moment, Pinkie Pie smiled brightly at the lavender Unicorn, and their eyes met. Twilight saw in those swirly irises and bright pupils a pure unbridled joy at being around to brighten up everypony’s lives, and she realized…
“I’m sorry, Pinkie,” Twilight said, slowly but cheerily. “I didn’t know that you were just so…”
“So what, Twilight?” Pinkie asked with a tilted head and a wide smile.
“Crazy?” Rainbow Dash suggested.
“Unrestrained?” Rarity added.
“Outspoken?” Applejack queried.
“Forward?” Fluttershy wondered.
“Fun?” Spike asked.
“So… happy.” Twilight nervously ran a cloven hoof along the other foreleg, one of her ears drooping slightly. “You just love seeing everypony smile, and you try to share that happiness with everypony around you. You… you put so much time into planning parties just to see them smile. You don’t even ask for any money payment, do you?”
“What? No!” Pinkie actually looked affronted. “I don’t take their money! That would make them sad!”
“My point exactly,” Twilight indicated brightly. “Bringing happiness and joy to ponies isn’t a means to an end for you at all. Their happiness is an end in and of itself. You help ponies to laugh and smile, and that’s…” Twilight couldn’t help it; she wiped away a tear. “That’s just so beautiful. I… I’d love to call you my friend.”
Pinkie beamed brightly, her mane and tail frizzing about all on their own. She seemed to be vibrating very quickly as her grin widened more and more. Twilight took a step back from Pinkie. The pink Earth Pony had shown herself capable of a good number of inequine feats; who knew what would happen now that she was so…?
Twilight’s field of vision became filled with infinite frizzy pinkness, and her barrel became enwrapped by at least a dozen fuzzy rubbery limbs. Breathing was difficult; at least two of her ribs had to have cracked.
“Oh, Twilight, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!” Pinkie squealed, pulling back so that she could meet Twilight eye-to-eye. Even though Twilight could see Pinkie’s forelegs free from the hug, it still felt like at least ten forelegs were wrapped around her. “I always love it when ponies want to be my friends!”
Twilight chuckled nervously. “Yeah, that’s… great, Pinkie Pie. But… think you could let me go now?”
Pinkie became confused. “Wait. But… didn’t I already let you go?”
Blinking, Twilight realized that she no longer felt those other limbs wrapping themselves around her. Looking at Spike and the other four mares, she only received shrugs as answers to this little episode.
“Pinkie…” Twilight began. “Do you think you could explain why it felt like I was being hugged by six ponies at once just now?”
Pinkie began to giggle, a hoof to her mouth. “I could.”
Gritting her teeth in frustration at Pinkie’s light evasiveness, Twilight took a deep breath and prepared to shout…
“Twilight!” Applejack shouted.
Twilight rounded on the Earth Pony, snapping, “What is it, Applejack?”
Applejack pointed to the saddle-bags, piled in the corner, “Ah see some blue lights over ‘mong the saddle-bags!”
All thought of Pinkie’s odd hugs aside, Twilight, Spike and the five mares bolted to the piles of saddle-bags, looking for the source of the lights Applejack had seen.
“Here!” Twilight said as her dwimmer shimmer held aloft a bright-pink set of saddle-bags decorated with yellow and blue balloons. Blue light was coming from under the loose flaps on top.
Breath caught in seven chests.
“Another Element’s been activated?” Spike gasped.
“But… how?” asked Twilight, opening up the saddle-bag flaps and looking down at the glowing-blue shards of stone.
Pinkie Pie started to bounce gaily around Twilight, her eyes closed in mirth. “I bet it’s ‘cause you learned a lesson in friendship not being about being super-serious-business all the time and realized that you need to have a little laughter every lap around the racetrack so that you don’t lose your marbles because of being super-serious-business all the time!”
Twilight palmed her face in a hoof at the smile that Pinkie offered her.
“Pinkie… this isn’t some silly little fantasy novel. You’ve got to get your head into the real world.”
“‘Reel World’? But I don’t feel like going to the movies today, Twilight. I don’t even think the newsreels’ve been updated for the whole ‘nighttime eternal’ dealio by Hokey Smokes up there!”
Twilight stammered a few times, trying to wrap her mind around what Pinkie Pie was telling her, trying to construct some sort of retort to what the insane Earth Pony was telling her…
“Twilight…” grumbled Applejack out of gritted teeth, sidling up to the lavender Unicorn. “Remember that there lesson in friendship…?”
Twilight cocked her eyes at the palomino Earth Pony, before glancing back at Pinkie, who was smiling innocently and widely at Twilight. The juxtaposition of Pinkie’s mix-up of real and reel suddenly hit Twilight like a runaway conestoga, and she let out a loud snort that would have gotten several Canterlot elites turning up their noses at her.
The snort became a laugh, and soon Pinkie was laughing, and Spike, and the others. For the second time in so many minutes, the Golden Oak Library, which was supposed to be quiet, was privy to the laughter of six mares and one drake.
Twilight wiped away a tear of joy, “Well, that’s one more Element down. Hopefully, Queen Celestia’s hidden message in Studies on Pundamilia Culture will elucidate their activation process for us.”
The farewell to Ponyville was very akin to the last time they’d left, only with more ponies present. Virtually everypony in Ponyville was seeing them off this time around, and Scootaloo had not been asleep to see Rainbow Dash off.
“Keep practicin’ those sweet moves, kiddo, and be safe as long as I’m away!” Rainbow Dash said, holding Scootaloo tight to her chest with one foreleg and giving her a noogie with the other.
The little orange Pegasus filly flailed little hooves around, trying to reach Rainbow Dash’s noogie-applying hoof. “I will if ya lemme go, Dash!”
Pinkie Pie was giving Mrs. and Mr. Cake big hugs and giving little cootchie-coos to Mrs. Cake’s pronounced belly, bidding farewell to her “other little siblings”.
Fluttershy was (reluctantly) leaving Angel Bunny in the hooves of Stellar Eclipse once more. The wheelchair-bound stallion was more confident in his stride this time around, but was still sharing a wary gaze with the recalcitrant little bunny rabbit.
Applejack was trading heartfelt “see ya later”s with her folks from Sweet Apple Acres, placing her Stetson over Apple Bloom’s head, the wide brim falling over her little sister’s eyes. Rarity’s farewells to her family were rather more subdued for her part, but her family’s exuberance more than made up for her reticence.
A very familiar agave and cactus had been brought forward from the Gazebo, placed before Twilight and Spike. A teary smile crossed Twilight’s muzzle, Spike mirroring her expression.
“Well… Mom, Vati… your little girl is out finding friends,” she said with a cracking voice. “Applejack is wonderful, always at my side. Rarity is one of the most generous ponies I could ever hope to meet, and Pinkie Pie… well… Pinkie makes me laugh.” She knelt down and hugged the base of each plant’s pot. “I love you two. I wish I could do more, but… it’s all I can do to water you two and hope that the Sun comes back again.”
Taking a watering can that had been presented from Town Hall as well, Twilight gave each of her parents a small dosage of water before passing the watering can to Spike. Spike looked up at Twilight with wide eyes, and Twilight smiled down at her ward.
“You can water them too, Spike,” she said softly. “You never knew them, but I know they mean a lot to you.”
Spike’s eyes quivered, and he gave a wavering smile and nod as tears flowed with renewed fervor down his cheeks. With shaky claws, he tipped the watering can over the plants that he saw as his grandparents. As she watched Spike watering her parents, there was just something wholesome and right about Spike calling them family, and by extension her.
But, Twilight thought, calling him son seemed to be a step too far. Sure, she seemed cold and closed-minded looking back, and Spike was very dear to her, but…
As Twilight turned and addressed the ponies of Ponyville, shallow farewells mixed amid genuine biddings of good fortune, she wondered about what would lie ahead for her friends and companions in this journey to the northernmost edge of Equestria. There would be trouble, to be sure. There would be encounters with the Shadowbolts, doubtless, and creatures emboldened by about a week’s nighttime. Chimericals would be more active in their search for pony prey, as would merewolves and vampires. Equestria would be a much more dangerous place, particularly in the frontiers that were yet underexplored and unsettled.
But she had friends to back her up. And she was sure that she would help to keep Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy safe as well. Fluttershy was almost friend material, but seemed exceptionally timid and soft-spoken. Rainbow Dash was about the exact opposite; outspoken, brash and blunt. One was exceedingly introverted, and the other immensely extroverted.
At least she could trust Rainbow Dash to speak her mind.
“…and when we return, we will have all six Elements of Harmony, ready to take down NightMare Moon once and for all!” Twilight finished.
The reactions of the Ponyvillagers was a rather rousing but also somewhat subdued chorus of cheers. Perhaps they’d been jaded to Twilight’s declaration only a few days prior? Or maybe they were becoming used to her ability to save lives after that ursa major incident?
Twilight shook her head mentally. Of course it wasn’t either of those. The extended nighttime was wearing down on their spirits in spite of Twilight’s heliogenesis sun and the Wonderbolts’ sun-bolts. Twilight could feel it herself; a pervasive weariness from a lack of the vitality that natural sunlight gave to everypony.
“When we’ve cracked the code that Queen Celestia has left us,” Twilight continued, raising her voice to reacquire any flagging attention, “I’ll raise the Sun for a few moments, just as a signal to you, and to NightMare Moon, that we won’t go quietly.”
Hasty, anticipatory murmurs broke out in the herd of Ponyvillagers.
“Yo, Twilight,” hissed Rainbow Dash. “You really got chutzpah if yer gonna do that, but… you think ya got the power to back it up?”
“I don’t know,” replied Twilight, “but I’ve seen the Queen do it so many times in our early-morning study sessions. I should be able to get a grip on the Sun for a few moments.”
“You can do that?” asked Applejack.
“I can imitate any Unicorn magic after seeing it just once,” Twilight explained.
Numerous ears perked up which had caught wind of Twilight’s statement, and every pony within earshot of Twilight’s statement goggled their eyes at her. It honestly made Twilight feel very uncomfortable.
“So, you could imitate my magic for finding gemstones?” Rarity asked.
“Well, I suppose…”
“Or, perhaps, more to the point, Trixie’s illusion magic?”
Twilight froze. She had not thought of that. Though she did see the ursa major produced by Trixie’s illusory spellwork, she did not reckon it for thaumaturgical smoke-and-mirrors until afterwards. Maybe, just maybe, knowing the basic theory of how Trixie had done it…
“I might be able to,” Twilight admitted. “And you know what?”
“What?” asked six voices.
Twilight grinned. “I think it might have figured out how we’re gonna get into the Crystal Mountains if the Nightmare Guard has secured it.”
With some quick final farewells and mutual well-wishes, the band of seven departed from Ponyville.
The first day was full of energy and vigor as the band made their journey westward. A canter of ten miles per hour, or a mile every six minutes, was a reasonable speed for any pony to canter at if she or he wanted to get somewhere briskly. The destination, however, was nowhere near their departure point. The Crystal Mountains laid nearly two-dozen-gross miles northwards from Canterlot, a distant journey even for seasoned travelers.
Various means of travel allow for Equestrians and foreigners to reach the various corners of the queendom with ease, but not necessarily with speed. Caravans hauled by Earth Ponies can hold a family of up to six ponies and travel five-gross miles in a single day, provided that relay stations switch out for a second band of ponies to pull the carriage. Pegasus caravans, partly constructed of clouds and cavorite to lighten its load, provide an aerial view of Equestria as they are drawn by Pegasi across the country at an average of two-gross miles a day (providing for relay stations). Unicorns have devised the Narbaculus System: a series of quantum thaumaturgic tunnels − portals, in laypony’s terms − based off of the feeding patterns of the narbaculus beast, which created similar portals to fling prey into its gaping maw.
None of these means of travel would be advisable to reach the Crystal Mountains. The relay stations into and out of the Saddle Valley were likely out of service as the mares and stallions who ordinarily serviced said stations returned to their hometowns to care for their families, or maintain other more traveled relay stations.
“I don’t know the narbacular tunnel spell,” Twilight had lamented, “and I don’t know if I’d have the authorization to open a narbacular tunnel even if I did.”
“Authorization?” Rarity had asked as Spike made goo-goo eyes at her.
“The thaumaturgists in charge of the Narbaculus System keep a tight watch on the network of narbacular tunnels around Equestria, to ensure that ponies do not abuse them for illegal purposes. What we’re doing − breaking into and out of the Crystal Mountains − is technically illegal.”
“But we’re doing it under the authority of Celestia!” complained Rainbow Dash. “Isn’t that good enough?”
“Not under NightMare Moon,” Twilight had answered ominously. “I’m honestly surprised that we made it out of Canterlot alive for all the hate she must feel for the Queen.”
At that moment Rainbow Dash had sulked to the ground, resting on her rump as she folded her forelegs. Then she beamed.
“We could hitch a ride on Pegasus caravans from Cloudsdale!”
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Rainbow Dash,” Applejack had cut in, “but i’n’t Cloudsdale, well, in the sky?”
Rainbow replied with a slight smirk, “Not quite, Applesnack. Y’see, not every pony in Cloudsdale is a Pegasus, so there’s land-based cottages and stuff on the ground under the cloud city. Fluttershy here grew up in one of them and everything!”
Fluttershy nodded slightly, mildly flushed at having attention brought to her so suddenly, “My mother Posey was an Earth Pony.”
“I don’t think that will work, either,” Twilight shook her head.
“What? But Twilight…!” Rarity began.
“Think about it, Rarity. NightMare Moon has almost half of the Royal Guard under her mind control. And I don’t think she’ll stop at that; she’ll try to cow the police forces of so many cities, towns and villages into her control, hypnosis or not. She’ll be keeping an eye on everypony everywhere. If we’re flying in a carriage across the sky pulled by Pegasi, how do we know that hypnotized Pegasi or Bat Ponies won’t bring us down?”
“Or perhaps some a’ the Pegasi pullin’ ‘em might be mind-controlled,” Applejack added.
Twilight nodded at the palomino Earth Pony with a faint smile, “Maybe.”
Rarity looked mournfully at her hooves and horseshoes, already starting to lose some of the manicure and luster that she’d prided them so much on. She took in a deep breath, her eyes clenched shut.
“I will accept this burden, Twilight. I will shoulder every crack in my hooves, in the hopes that it will all be worth it when the Sun shines upon Equestria once more.”
Spike almost swooned. “She’s just so… perfect…!”
Twilight rolled her eyes at Spike’s infatuation.
The rim of the Everfree Forest shrunk to the horizon as the western edge of the North Equinus Mountains came into view at the end of the second day. The path they’d followed was rugged, as they traveled alongside the road rather than directly on it. As Twilight explained, to varying degrees of acceptance, following the road as opposed to cantering down it put them in a safer position, as NightMare Moon’s agents would look for them directly along the road.
“If we stay off of the beaten path, they shouldn’t take notice of us,” Twilight had explained. “But we should still keep out of sight from the road, and be wary of anypony we see walking down the road. If we let anypony see us, then NightMare Moon could wheedle that information out of her or him under threat of death. If we’re careful, all we’ll have to worry about are the odd wild animal, along with merewolves, vampires, or even the odd hemolupe. Hopefully, we won't meet such misfortune.”
Their journey to the edge of the Saddle Valley, where the North Equinus Mountains shrunk to easily-scalable hills, was relatively lacking in danger. There had been some treacherous moments when they passed a little too close to a cockatrice nest and had to run away with their eyes slammed shut to avoid being petrified. Thankfully, Applejack had a profound sixth sense for the earth beneath them, and was able to tell everypony exactly where to run so that they would encounter the least resistance from the ground. To her credit, everypony followed her lead without question or hesitance; her prowess as an Earth Pony gave her a lot of clout with her fellow Ponyvillagers, and Twilight had come to trust Applejack’s input on any given situation, however harrowing.
A cave of urstrice had also been happened upon, but thankfully the investigation inhabiting that particular cave had all been asleep.
“Urstrice sleeping at night is very unusual,” Fluttershy commented. “Their sleep cycle must be off, the poor babies…”
“I know,” Twilight murmured in agreement.
“‘Poor babies’? Good riddance, I say!” Rainbow Dash blurted out. “I’m just glad they’re not awake to eat us!”
Twilight hastily shushed Rainbow, clamping a hoof over the brash Pegasus’s muzzle. A sleepy hoot rumbled from within the cave, and each one of the seven went stock-still. Any moment, an urstrix, an owl-bear, would lumber out of the cave, spot the band of ponies which had disturbed its rest, and lay them out for its hatchling cubs’ dinner…
But the growling gave way to hooting snores, and the mares and drake relaxed.
Twilight engulfed Rainbow in her dwimmer shimmer, shaking the Pegasus slightly.
“You birdbrain!” Twilight swore. “What if that urstrix woke up? What would you have done? Fly away and abandon your friends? We should be thankful for small miracles like an investigation of urstrice being asleep at night. Besides, you can’t carry all six Elements of Harmony on your own!”
“I’m sorry, alright?” Rainbow Dash said blearily, her eyes spinning slightly because of the shaking. “I just blurt things out sometimes.”
“Well, you’re gonna have to get that under control, before it gets somepony killed.”
Her dwimmer shimmer faded abruptly, and Rainbow Dash, still woozy from being shook around for shouting, weaved into the ground muzzlefirst. Pinkie Pie let out a whinnying giggle at Rainbow’s rump sticking straight in the air.
“Full moon, Dashie~” she trilled. Rainbow Dash gave her a miserably sour look.
The urstrix in that cave may not have attacked them, giving Pinkie cause to spread laughter of relief at their escape. However, she found the going a little more tense with her fellow Ponyville prankster giving her the stink-eye for at least a day after that crack.
By the time they’d reached the edge of the North Equinus Mountains on the 21st of Solis, though, Rainbow Dash had begun beaming as though the Sun were shining from her own face. Looking out beyond the low hills at the lowest point of the North Equinus Mountains, she saw the wide expanse of plains stretching for miles beyond. The distant cloud construct of Cloudsdale glimmered under the Moon.
“The Wide Plains of Earth…” Twilight gasped in awe. “Where the Earth Ponies first discovered Equestria…”
Two-dozen-gross miles north to south, and over three-dozen-gross miles east to west, the largest single expanse of plains on all of Harmonia laid out before them. As far as they could see, the land was almost perfectly flat under the starlit sky. The road beside them stretched out into the Wide Plains like an arrow, pointing the way towards the nearest settlement to the north.
“It’s been a dog’s age since Ah’ve seen it…”
“It’s so… big,” Fluttershy breathed, shivering.
“Well, what’s everypony waiting for? Let’s go!” Pinkie squealed, beginning to dart forward.
“Yeah!” cried out Rainbow Dash, who actually did bolt into the blue.
“You get back here, Rainbow!” shouted Applejack.
“No, let her go,” Twilight said sharply. “She’ll tire herself out, and she’ll realize that we need to stick together then. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but a necessary one.”
As the cyan Pegasus receded to a rainbow speck on the horizon, Twilight took in the night air. There were almost no sun-bolts overhead in this region; the fact that there were a few, however, indicated to Twilight that the Wonderbolts perhaps did anticipate that the band would travel this way. Were they privy to Queen Celestia’s plans as well…?
Shaking her head lightly, Twilight dismissed such thoughts. That was strict paranoia. The Wonderbolts were just an ace team of flyers with a strong military history. That didn’t mean that they necessarily had a close allegiance to the Queen herself… right?
“Well, what’re we waiting for?” Pinkie said, bouncing back and forth impatiently from one hoof to another. “Let’s go!”
“For once, I agree with Pinkie,” Rarity said with a tip of a hoof. “But… perhaps we could proceed at a more leisurely pace than she?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes. We’ll catch up with her, but we’ll pace ourselves. Ten miles per hour it is.”
Rarity’s eyes widened and her teeth clenched, but Twilight received nods of acceptance from the other three − Applejack’s head-bobbing was slow and paced, Pinkie’s was so fast that she almost looked to have eight eyes, while Fluttershy’s was more like hanging her head in shame.
Twilight smirked, spell matrices lining up in her mind for a simple light spell. A ball of pink light appeared on the tip of her alicorn.
“Alright then, girls. Let’s go!”
The long canter to catch up to Rainbow Dash was longer than any of them would care to admit, at least five hours. Five hours of unbroken, uninterrupted cantering at a near-constant ten miles per hour. Covering a mile in six minutes was not terribly difficult for any pony worth her salt, but covering four-dozen-and-two miles in a five-hour stretch without rest was a feat of endurance that most would balk at.
It helped that none of the band were travelling alone. Though ponies had long since evolved to the level where they could be solitary if they so chose, they still flourished most in a band or herd of fellow equines. Pinkie Pie’s boundless energy and jokey behavior, while ordinarily rather obnoxious and in-your-face, acted as a sort of one-pony cheering squad for the party.
“C’mon, everypony! I know we can do it! And I don’t even need my Pinkie Sense to tell me that; I just know we’re gonna make it to Dashie! Put some hussle into those haunches, Rarity! Just look at Jackie over there! She’s just plodding along. She’s not letting anything get to her! She’s like a mountain! But let’s not make her into a molehill, ‘cause she doesn’t have moles. She has freckles!”
Twilight had to admit to herself: Pinkie’s continual stream-of-consciousness dialogue was probably what kept her going in this long canter. The pink Earth Pony’s flighty darting about amongst the other members of the band − including Spike, who had decided to follow on all fours in the space between Twilight and Rarity − had kept everypony’s spirits up as they marched forth into the chilly Wide Plains.
They knew that it could not be this cold at this time of year. The month of Solis was nearly concluded, and Aster began on Sunday. The Summer Sun Celebration − and the return of NightMare Moon − was little over a week ago. The lack of proper sunshine (excepting the sun-bolts) meant that the temperature throughout Equestria would plummet. Twilight could only hope that other ponies were knowledgeable of the heliogenesis spell, or some other form of thaumaturgy capable of warming body and soul.
It turned out that Rainbow Dash had only made it about four-dozen-and-two miles on her initial spurt before collapsing in apparent exhaustion. They found her curled up in a patch of dewy grass, snoring with grunting neighs. Her ears were flat against her head, and her expression was surly as she curled up nearly a gross of hooves’ distance from the road.
Twilight, who was closest to the tuckered Pegasus, flicked her head lightly, her queued mane bouncing against the back of her neck. At the flick, the orb of light separated from her horn, dimming slightly as it hovered directly overhead. She turned to face Spike and the other four mares.
“Alright. Take five, everypony… Spike,” she added with a soft smile at her ward. Almost immediately, Rarity practically collapsed onto her barrel, looking at her forehooves in misery.
“My poor hoovsies…!” she said in a high rueful tone. “They’re in such wretched condition after just four-dozen miles…!”
“Get used to a bit a rough ‘n’ tumble, Rare,” Applejack said lowly. “Th’ wilderness is real… wild.”
“I never would have guessed,” Rarity replied acidly.
Twilight arched an eyebrow at Fluttershy, who was poking her muzzle around the underside of one of her wings.
“Aren’t you tired, Fluttershy?” she asked the yellow Pegasus. “Why don’t you take a rest?”
Upon hearing Twilight address her, Fluttershy looked up sharply and frightfully at her addresser.
“Oh… no. Should I be?”
“Oh no! It’s just… you’ve been walking for quite a while…”
“Oh… Well, this is not that bad. I mean, I spend a lot of time every day taking care of all the animals all around Ponyville. I help keep the tunnels of rabbit and jackalope warrens from intersecting; I make sure every little birdie around town has enough seeds to feed their little birdie babies; I help Harry The Bear out in collecting Everbee honey for Ponyville; I keep weekly tabs on new animals that move in from outside of Ponyville; I…”
Fluttershy trailed off; she saw that Twilight’s eyes were glazing over at this.
“Oh… I’m sorry, Twilight,” Fluttershy said softly. “I forgot that you aren’t interested in animals.”
“No no no, Fluttershy! I don’t want you to think that at all! I mean, I’m no zoologist, but you just seem to speak with animals at a whole other level from most other ponies.”
At once, a thought occurred to Twilight, and she gasped sharply. Immediately, everypony − and Spike, who was trying to console Rarity over her hooves − turned to face Twilight in alarm. Even Rainbow Dash had woken up, rubbing her eyes.
“Where’s the fire, Twilight?” Applejack asked.
“Fire? There’s a fire?” Pinkie started to shout in a panic. “There’s a fire! Everypony for themselves!”
“It was a figger a’ speech, Pinks,” Applejack drawled.
Twilight beamed at the band, “Guys, I just realized something: Fluttershy’s a Whisperer!”
“Whoop-dee-freakin’-doo. Harmonia-shattering revelation there, egghead,” Rainbow Dash snarked. “I’d have been able to tell you that she whispers at all times of the day.”
Twilight’s eyebrows lowered at the cyan Pegasus’s dry remark, while Fluttershy covered her flushed face with her wings.
“What I mean is, is that Fluttershy is capable of understanding animals at a deeper level than any normal pony. Only one is born every three or so generations; they’re really rare. I’d have thought I’d meet one in Canterlot somewhere, and now… well, I meet one in Ponyville!”
“You find all sorts down in Ponyville,” grumbled Rainbow Dash, clearly apathetic to Twilight’s explanation.
Applejack replied by bucking a cloud of dirt into the drowsy Pegasus’s face.
Rainbow Dash coughed, “What the hay was that for, AJ?”
“That’s whatcha git fer chargin’ off an’ leavin’ yer pardners in the dust,” Applejack murmured.
Rainbow Dash’s ears drooped again, rubbing her forehooves together. “Yeah, sorry ‘bout that. I just saw all that open space (I mean, Ponyville’s got plenty of open space around it, but that’s nothing to this), and I just… took off. It was real rotten of me, and I’m sorry.”
Applejack gave the Pegasus a hesitant look, as had Twilight; Rainbow Dash did not exactly have a steady track record for sensitivity. But… being upfront was one thing they knew her for, and Applejack smiled down at her. “Well, don’ be makin’ a habit outta this. Ah reckon we all oughta stick t’gether.”
Rainbow Dash chuckled shortly. “Yeah. I’ll try to slow down for you guys. Even if it’s just for Flutters.”
Pinkie let out a tremendous laugh. “Dashie going slow? That’s like if I stopped laughing, or Twilight burning books!”
Twilight scowled at the possibility, then the absurdity of hating a book so much that she’d burn it on sight made her laugh. It was not a big laugh, even she had to admit, but it definitely caught attention because it was Twilight Sparkle laughing.
“See? Even Twilight thinks that’s funny!” Pinkie Pie giggled.
Rarity put a hoof to her mouth and stifled a giggle herself. “I must admit, the idea is patently ridiculous. It’s like… Fluttershy screaming at the top of her lungs.”
“Oh my…” Fluttershy shuddered at the very thought. “Why would I do something so… frightful?”
“Or like you skippin’ a shower t’ rough ‘n’ tumble it outside?” Applejack queried towards the alabaster Unicorn.
“Or like you even taking a shower at all?” Rarity countered.
“Or like you not puttin’ a ton a sequins on a dress jus’ ‘cause ya can?”
“Girls… I thought we’d dealt with this…” Twilight grumbled.
“Or like you switching to pears?”
Applejack opened her mouth to retort, but her fierce expression shattered as her muzzle scrunched up in amusement. After a few moments, the dam broke as Applejack guffawed loudly, banging a hoof on the ground.
“Wow, Rares. Ah never took ya fer a mare a’ humor, but that was a real rib-tickler,” Applejack commented with a slight wheeze.
Rarity looked up at nothing as she thought back on what she’d said, before a rather unRarity-like whinnying laugh bubbled up from out her muzzle. For a moment, Twilight could definitely hear that she was her parents’ filly. The moment passed, though, and Rarity’s laugh became refined faster than one could say wink out.
“Now that I think back on it,” Rarity choked out between giggles, “that is quite the amusing image.”
“See what I mean?” Pinkie leapt in between Applejack and Rarity, her forehooves looping around their necks and bringing them in closer so that the three of them were practically muzzle-to-muzzle. “Call me Dr. Pie ‘cause laughter is the best medicine!”
“Sure thing, Dr. Pie,” Applejack mumbled; her muzzle was entirely too close to Rarity’s and Pinkie’s, close enough to kiss. “Now could ya kindly let us go?”
Pinkie giggled, “Your breath tickles my nose!” before collapsing into a giggling fit on the grassy ground.
Spike looked up at Twilight, “She’s insane.”
“I know,” Twilight said shortly, “but she means well. And Queen Celestia knows we’re gonna need some laughs on the way…”
“Tell me about it, Twilight,” Rarity began. “I dare say that I shall likely lag behind the rest of you…”
Despite Rarity’s fears to the contrary, she did not fall behind. Indeed, she proved to be at a caliber of willpower surpassed only by Applejack and Twilight Sparkle. The notion of more days passing by wherein the condition and quality of her hooves, mane and tail would only deteriorate seemed to have lit a fire in her. For the first two days of northward marching, Rarity could be heard to press the band onward in the swatches of time when Pinkie Pie had silenced herself to actually concentrate on making some forward progress herself. Truly, long canters could bring out the worst in some ponies.
“Press onward, if you please, girls! My coiffed mane will not remain coiffed forever! The less time that it remains uncoiffed, the better!”
“My horseshoes are getting worn down more and more by the day! We must not flag in our forward momentum, or I could be spending more time unshod!”
“Don’t you dare tell me not to shave while cantering, Twilight! I am a fashionista; multitasking is second nature to me!”
Eventually, Twilight had to intervene, telling her in so many words that she was being overbearing and letting the stress of the situation get to her, telling her that she needed to loosen up.
Rarity cocked an eyebrow at her fellow Unicorn.
“Surely you of all ponies understands the necessity of bringing this everlasting night to an end? To bring back your mentor, and the Sun?”
“Yes, I want it all back. I want it back worse than you can even imagine. The Queen was like a mother to me when I didn’t…” Twilight took a deep breath, ignoring the burning around her eyes. “But this isn’t just about you, Rarity. I thought you realized that. This isn’t just some camping trip; this is saving Equestria. And we can’t save it if we’re letting ourselves get worked up over little things.”
“This isn’t easy for any of us. Don’t you think I’d rather be at home reading books? Or that Applejack would rather be bucking apple trees? Or Fluttershy taking care of animals? Or Rainbow Dash doing… whatever it is that Rainbow Dash does? My point is: we all have to sacrifice something to change the world.”
Twilight looked deep into Rarity’s eyes, their alicorns almost touching. Rarity’s face became pensive and slightly somber.
“Forgive me, Twilight. I let myself become overwhelmed by the pressure of not looking fabulous. I mean, as long as nopony here breathes a word of it to anypony else…”
“My lips are sealed,” Twilight smiled.
Rarity sighed deeply, “Thank you, Twilight. I shan’t pressure myself unduly about keeping up appearances.” She gritted her teeth. “But I must still shave!”
Six days and six-gross miles after the group crested the edge of the North Equinus Mountains, the third day of Aster came to pass. There had been surprisingly little to be concerned over, though the band had occasionally run astray of the odd rustle of some underbrush as some small creature like a hare or a mole scurried from one hole to another. The odd howl could be heard at times, chilling the band to the marrow. It was always far off, though how far off was difficult to gauge with so little around for sound to echo off of. In the instances after the band heard the howls, they sped up their speed as one without any need for verbal communication. Though Twilight was only vaguely aware of it, they were falling back upon the ancestral herding instinct, each one of them subconsciously sublimating their individuality in order to ensure that most of them survived. Once they were certain that the howls were far behind, however, they would return to their prior cantering speed, and their individual senses.
With the North Equinus Mountains now more than six-gross miles behind them, and the most recent settlement some five-gross miles behind, the band was completely surrounded on all sides by the Wide Plains as far as they could see. Stars twinkled over their heads, unencumbered by the nighttime lights of Ponyville and Canterlot. The Moon had vanished completely from the sky above, and Twilight breathed a mild sigh of relief.
“The new moon…” she said lightly.
The lack of a glowing moon meant that any merewolves that may or may not be out in the Wide Plains would be in their normal pony form, and thus unlikely to attack. They were not quite in the clear, but Twilight felt that it was somewhat safe to set down a light orb at grass-level as a mock-fire. With only starlight, it would be quite dim, and they would need some light to see by.
“Okay, everypony. We’ve made some excellent progress today. We’ll rest here for tonight.”
Twilight set her saddle-bags upon the stretch of bare ground with her dwimmer shimmer.
“Spike, would you be so kind as to collect everypony’s saddle-bags?”
“Of course, Twilight!” Spike said with a smiling salute, before trotting off to collect Rarity’s saddle-bag (even though she was furthest from him and Twilight).
Applejack arched a pale eyebrow at Twilight. “Yer little guy’s got it bad fer Rarity, don’t he?”
“Looks like it,” Twilight replied as Spike placed Rarity’s saddle-bag delicately inside a ring of particularly tall grass. He then took it in turns collecting everypony else’s saddle-bags, though not with the same eagerness as before.
“Hey, Spike,” Rainbow Dash asked slyly as the drake took her saddle-bag into his arms, “any particular reason you went and grabbed Rarity’s bag first?”
“Rainbow Dash,” Rarity began testily, “I do believe that Spike’s business is his own.”
“Yeah!” Spike agreed. “My business is my own!”
Feeling the situation turning against her, Rainbow Dash saved face by simply scoffing. “Sure, okay. It’s cool. Your secrets are yours to give or keep. I mean, it’s not like I was prying or anything…” Twilight narrowed her eyes at Rainbow’s, which darted about nervously at that last.
Seemingly satisfied with this response, Spike set about setting the last of the saddle-bags on the ground by Rarity’s…
When a high, piercing shriek cut through the cold night air.
Each of the seven rooted themselves to the spot on instinct, eyes darting about in every direction, searching for the source of the howl. Slowly, the six mares withdrew into a circle, keeping Spike inside the ring of their tails, standing watch for any sign of movement or rustle of grass.
“That didn’t sound good…” Twilight hissed.
“What was that?” Spike asked nervously.
“I have an idea, and once again, I hope I’m wrong.”
Ears pivoting about at the sounds of tearing grass, the band of mares turned as one towards the west, where a patch of tall grass was rustling increasingly violently.
A large dark shape with gleaming red eyes leapt out at them, and the group scattered, Spike leaping onto Twilight’s back. Each of the six galloped or flew in a different direction, instinct overriding higher levels of thought.
Turning around swiftly, Twilight lit up her alicorn with a rosy light, to get a better look at their attacker.
It looked like a pony… a pony that was at least twice as large as Applejack, the largest of the six mares in their band. It was even more scarred as well, with a large chunk missing out of its right ear. Its muzzle was not equine in shape, but rather more canine, mouth bared to reveal razor teeth and fangs. Its forelegs did not end in hooves, but in lupine paws ending in sharp silvery claws; its hind hooves were cloven. Its mane was wilder and shaggier than any mane that anypony had ever seen, as was its bottlebrush tail, and feathered bat wings spread from its back.
The beast’s wide red eyes darted about madly at each of the six ponies, saliva dripping out of its mouth and leaving burn marks upon the barren earth. A low growl like the prisoners of Tartarus rumbled in its chest.
“A merewolf…?” Spike shuddered.
“But… it’s a new moon…” Rainbow Dash noted fearfully.
“That’s not a merewolf,” Twilight gulped. “That’s…”
The beast howled to the sky with the shriek of Death, and fog rose up as if from out of the earth itself.
“A hemolupe…” shivered Fluttershy.
“Stay close, everypony!” called out Twilight, increasing the light of her dwimmer shimmer, hoping to pierce the fug that obscured her vision. A black panic gripped her heart as she took a step forward, then another. This was her first encounter with a wild hemolupe; some had been brought in, sedated, for the study of thaumaturgists in Canterlot, and Twilight Sparkle had been privy to some at her own insistence to the Queen. Despite being a merewolf that had been exposed to vampiric toxins, it carried none of the sapience of the pony race anymore. At least with a vampire, one could bargain one’s safety if one offered some other source of blood forward (like a blood bank).
Anypony who became a hemolupe was a beast, incapable of reasoning or negotiating with.
All it wanted was blood.
A large shape appeared ahead of Twilight, and she involuntarily powered up a dwimmer-beam.
“Twilight, simmer down!” Applejack strode forward, looking immensely fearful. “It’s only me!”
Sweet relief flooded into Twilight’s chest, releasing her heart from that panic-stricken grip.
“Thank the Maker, Applejack. You nearly scared the cutie mark off of me! Where are the others?”
“Up here!” Rainbow Dash waved from above the pair of ponies.
“I’m here too,” Fluttershy whimpered, appearing at Applejack’s right.
“As am I,” Rarity trotted up and appeared at Applejack’s left.
“Where’d the hemo-loopy go?” Pinkie asked as she popped up in the middle of the band.
“I’ve read about these creatures and their habits,” Twilight said ominously and quickly. “A hemolupe’s got the same weather powers as a vampire, since the first vampire Shish Kebab was a Pegasus cursed by NightMare Moon. It’s trying to intimidate us…” Twilight’s pupils shrunk and her heart stopped. “Lure us all… together and…”
A piercing screech split the fog, and a bat almost as large as Applejack swooped in from behind Twilight. In an instant, the palomino Earth Pony leapt up and tackled the transformed hemolupe to the ground, bucking in the sides as it landed.
Bucking it was a bad idea. Individually, a vampire and a merewolf have enhanced resilience to bodily damage. This resilience was only bolstered by the combination of vampire and merewolf in a hemolupe, and the end result was Applejack clutching her hind leg between her forehooves and cursing in pain. Behind her, the bat-shaped hemolupe opened its jaws impossibly wide, yellow fangs glinting in the starlight…
“LEAVE HER ALONE!” bellowed Rainbow Dash, bolting up to it and delivering a double-buck to its head. Striking its head instead of its torso proved more decisive, as the hemolupe withdrew, nursing its jaw awkwardly with one of its wings. Rainbow Dash growled triumphantly at it, baring her own atavistic fangs as she flapped her wings defiantly at it.
The hemolupe’s eyes narrowed hatefully at the cyan Pegasus, a pale wavering light like the Moon’s shimmering across its body, and soon the hemolupe’s lupine form hulked over them, roaring with such force that a twister blew the six mares and one drake backwards, blasting the fog away.
Fluttershy got wearily to her hooves, her legs shaking underneath her after having cantered a gross of miles (admittedly, flying some of the way as well when her legs got tired). Behind her, her friends were groaning in weariness and pain.
She looked back, and was stricken by how prone they were. Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie, Applejack, Twilight and Spike were all lying broken and hurt and maybe even dying because of…
Something in Fluttershy snapped.
She faced the advancing hemolupe, furious.
“How dare you…” she said lowly.
The hemolupe did not falter.
“How dare you!” Fluttershy snarled, her friends behind her gaping in disbelief at the sight. What was especially astonishing was the fact that the hemolupe seemed to have halted its advance, its eyes widening at Fluttershy as she advanced towards it.
“Just who do you think you are?” Fluttershy snapped at the hemolupe, which actually withdrew as if struck even though it could have easily broken Fluttershy in two. It let out a low growl and started turning its head up towards the ponies behind her…
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Fluttershy yelled, flapping her wings to raise herself to its eye level. The hemolupe immediately complied, its teeth bared in… fear? Twilight could almost swear that she saw a queer cyan light dancing in Fluttershy’s eyes as she continued her tirade,
“Now, listen here! Just because you’re so big doesn’t mean you can hurt or kill ponies that are smaller than you! Like me! I’m terrified of vampires, and merewolves, and hemolupes, and sometimes even my own shadow! But just because you have sharp claws and bloodsucking fangs and turn into a big bat and roar fog… Don’t think that you can ever get away with hurting my friends, or my Dashie!”
Twilight gaped at what she was seeing; this was literally unimaginable half a month ago. Before she’d come to Ponyville, Twilight would have never thought that anypony could tame a hemolupe. Now, here she was, in the dead middle of nowhere, at the mercy of a bloodthirsty hemolupe, which was being cowed by the most timid pony she had ever met!
“Now, you leave my friends and my Dashie alone, and never let me catch you trying to eat anypony ever again! You got that?”
As Fluttershy stared the hemolupe down, Twilight witnessed a wavering shimmer passing across the paralyzed beast. In a moment, a regular-sized Pegasus mare was huddled in front of them, her mane, tail and coat so mottled, dirty and crossed with scars that it was impossible to guess what color she was or even what her cutie mark was. Her ragged ears were flat, her lips quivering around her mouth of fangs as tears spilled down her face.
“So… rry…” she croaked, and Twilight gasped; a hemolupe was supposed to be incapable of speech!
Fluttershy had fluttered to the ground, her stare still penetrating the hemolupe’s maroon eyes. “Now, go!” she barked, pointing off to the south. The hemolupe wasted no time before she loped off in the exact direction Fluttershy had pointed as quickly as possible, disappearing into the brush.
“Fluttershy, that was amazing!” Twilight bolted up to her hooves, almost ready to embrace the yellow Pegasus. When Fluttershy withdrew fearfully, though, Twilight refrained. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“That stare!” Rainbow Dash cut in. “I’ve known you since forever and you’ve never done that around me!”
“I…” Fluttershy rubbed a foreleg nervously. “I don’t like to talk about it…”
“It did save our collective hides, darling,” Rarity added. “I would be remiss to withhold information on my gem-finding spell if it saved somepony’s life…”
“Well… I guess… it’s something that I’ve had ever since I was a filly. I just… I don’t really have control over it, but when I get angry at animals that won’t listen to me… I just end up Staring them down. I call it my Stare.”
“Well, however it works, it saved all of our lives back there,” Twilight smiled at Fluttershy. “I’ve really underestimated you, Fluttershy.”
“I didn’t!” cut in Spike, who was swinging his arms around, claws curled up into fists. “That hemowolf thing was just swooping and swinging around, and then you just went all…” He bugged his eyes out with help from his claws holding his eyelids open. “And then it turned back into a pony and ran off… That was awesome!”
“I’ll say!” Pinkie leapt in, almost muzzle-to-muzzle with the yellow Pegasus. “That’s pretty much worthy of a party!”
“But we don’t have the party materials here…” Twilight muttered.
“Doesn’t matter! Let’s party anyway!”
“Get in the icebox an’ chill down, Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said coolly. “What Ah’d like t’ know is how exactly this ‘Stare’ thing works.”
“You and me both, Applejack,” Twilight replied, “but I think I have a hypothesis.”
“None of us are sick, though, TS,” Rainbow Dash said confusedly.
“I said hypothesis, not hypodermic.”
“None of us are cold, either, Twilight.”
“Not hypothermia either, Pinkie!”
“Girls, please!” Rarity cut in. “I do believe we should let Twilight speak; she is the most well-read of our band.”
“Thank you, Rarity,” Twilight smiled. “Anyway, as I was saying, my theory as to what the Stare is is this: Fluttershy, you said that your mother was an Earth Pony, right?”
“I did, yes.”
“Applejack, correct me if I’m wrong, but is one form of Earth Pony known as standing firm?”
“Ah cin back ya up on that spell, sugarcube. ‘t’s when an Earth Pony needs to stand her ground, let her foe know that she ain’t gonna budge an inch from where she stands.”
“And now, my theory: perhaps Fluttershy’s Stare is a magic spell cast through her eyes, channeling the Earth Pony standing-firm magic in her blood.”
Many hooves scratched chins at this suggestion. Some looked like they understood Twilight’s suggestion better than others; Rainbow Dash seemed particularly lost.
“It’s… I cannot quite wrap my head around it, but makes as much sense as anything,” Rarity said slowly.
“I… suppose it makes sense,” Fluttershy added.
“‘Course it does!” Applejack beamed at Twilight. “Ah mean, look at Pinkie Pie. She’s an Earth Pony who can float ‘n’ fly as well as any Pegasus!” Sure enough, as they looked over, Pinkie was prancing gaily about, intermittently taking a big leap and galloping in midair to somehow stay in the air longer, giggling and whee!ing all the while.
Rainbow Dash snickered a little as she rested a wing over Fluttershy's shoulder, “Looks like somepony up there’s got a bit of Pegasus in their Pinkie Pie and a bit of Earth Pony in their Fluttershy!”
“I’m just glad that everypony’s okay,” Fluttershy said with a delicate smile and a faint blush. “You are all okay, right?”
“Fit as a fiddle, sugarcube,” Applejack replied.
“I feel like a megagross bits!” added Rainbow Dash, stretching her forelegs in the air. “Tired as all get-out, though…”
“Well, it’s a good thing that we were gonna rest here,” Twilight said. “I don’t think anything’s gonna bother us here for now, since we apparently scared off a hemolupe!” She gasped. “The saddle-bags! The Elements!”
Miraculously, the saddle-bags had been completely undisturbed by the hemolupe attack. Twilight sighed heavily as she sank down to her barrel in relief. Slowly, the mares around her followed suit, Spike settling to a spot between Twilight and Rarity.
Ein Vampirwolf, Vati…! Twilight thought to herself. Wer hätte gedacht, dass ein Pony einen Vampirwolf zähmen könnte…?
Pinkie’s giggling roused her from her thoughts. Twilight looked over at the Earth Pony, who was lying on her back and looking at the sky.
“What’s so funny, Pinkie?”
Pinkie looked over at Twilight with a wide smile. “Oh, I don’t just laugh at things that are funny, Twilight. I laugh when I’m happy, too. You want to know why I’m happy?”
“Humor us,” Rainbow Dash cut in.
“As a party pony, that’s my job~” Pinkie giggled. “I’m happy because that mean old hemo-loopy is gone and we’re all a-okay! You gotta laugh when you’re happy about something, and when you’re sad, you gotta laugh to get the sadness out. You gotta laugh at the troubles of the world to make them smaller. Laugh at Tartarus; that’s what Granny Pie taught me!”
“Ya already told us this, Pinks,” Applejack drawled, “But no reason why we don’ need a reminder after that scare.”
Pinkie giggled in response, and pretty soon Rainbow Dash started to chuckle, and Applejack joined in, and pretty soon all seven of them were laughing at the closing darkness, relieved that everything had turned out alright.
After a minute of laughter, the band sighed, laid back, and looked up at the twinkling star-filled sky.
“The night is rather beautiful,” Rarity breathed. “I don’t think I have ever appreciated it quite so much before…”
“Get used to the sight, Rarity,” Twilight said darkly, “because we’re gonna be seeing this all day, every day, until we’ve defeated NightMare Moon…”
“Ah’ll take th’ first watch t’night, sugarcube,” said Applejack, rising to her hooves and beginning to patrol the perimeter.
The next “morning” they had awoken to Rarity’s screams of terror, the alabaster Unicorn flailing her forelegs in the air in a panic as she scrambled to her hooves. Applejack gave a start; they must not have slept for very long if she was still on first watch.
“Rarity!” Twilight bolted from her sleeping spot to Rarity’s side, attempting to put a foreleg around the alabaster Unicorn to calm her down.
“Twilight, where is Opal?” Rarity asked raggedly, her mascara running.
Twilight gave Rarity a confused but sympathetic look. “She’s back home in Ponyville, being cared for by your family.”
Rarity gave Twilight a shuddering look, before letting out a shaky sigh.
“Thank Celestia it was just a dream,” she said with a relieved smile, wiping away her tears and running makeup.
“What in tarnation was that all about?” Applejack queried now that Rarity seemed to have calmed down.
Rarity shuddered again, her eyes widening slightly, “It was a nightmare… but worse, more real than any I’ve ever had. I dreamt… that my cat Opal Essence… had run out into the streets… and a wagon… it just happened so quickly…” Tears flowed down her muzzle once more as her face fell into her forehooves. “My little kitty-cat was cut down right in front of me…!”
Every one of the six around Rarity gave her a sympathetic look, particularly Applejack.
“That’s… terrible,” Applejack began. “Ah couldn’ imagine somethin’ like that happ’nin’ t’ Winona.”
“Or Angel Bunny.”
The words were out of Twilight’s mouth before she could stop herself. Spike looked up at her with a mildly hurt look.
“M… Twilight, am I… just a pet to you?” he asked, his eyes shimmering as his lip quivered.
“What? No, Spike! I didn’t mean it like that at all!”
“Then… how did you mean it?”
Twilight wrapped a foreleg around Spike, and his arms wrapped around her chest and barrel. Tears slipped down her muzzle as she realized just how much she had taken Spike for granted, how much she had accepted it that he would clean up after all of her messes, how much Spike really meant to her.
“Spike… you’re more than just my Number One Assistant. You’re family to me. You’ve been there for me when nopony else was, and I’ve never been there for you when you really needed me. I promise you, that I’ll change that now.” She smiled down at her little drake ward. “I won’t say that I’ll be your mom, but I won’t stop you from calling me that anymore. I promise that I’ll look out for you better. I don’t want you to ever feel like a tool ever again.”
Spike’s claws clenched into fists, his mouth hanging open as tears slid down his scaly face.
He jumped up and threw his arms around her neck.
“Mommy! You really do care!”
Twilight nuzzled him.
“I never stopped caring, Spike. It just took me this to realize how much I did.”
Applejack rubbed the top of her head subconsciously, her eyes misting up. Rarity smiled at the scene, rubbing away a tear from one eye with one cloven toe. Fluttershy’s eyes shimmered as she too smiled at Twilight and Spike’s bonding. Pinkie, for her part, was sobbing incoherently, veritable fountains of tears forming a puddle at her hooves. Rainbow Dash looked away from the scene, trying to maintain a cool smirk and hide whatever tears she may have been showing.
“I really do love you, Spike,” Twilight muttered into one of his ear-spines. “You’ve been so close to me all this time, and I never realized how close I was.”
“Mom…” Spike croaked with a deep smile.
“This is really touching and all that,” Rainbow Dash cut in, “but what the hay was that nightmare all about? I barely got any sleep!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight scolded. “Think of Rarity’s feelings! Do you really think she wants to think about this nightmare more?”
“No, Twilight, it’s alright,” Rarity interjected. “Rainbow Dash has a point. I’ve never had a nightmare like that before. So real… so dreadful… You don’t think it was planted by NightMare Moon as a deterrent to our party?”
Twilight’s heart turned to ice.
“Now that you mention it… that could be within NightMare Moon’s power. Maybe she’s plotting to plant nightmares in our heads so that we can’t get any sleep, so that she’ll be able to take us down in a sleep-deprived state. It wouldn’t surprise me, at any rate.”
“Plus, her name is NightMare Moon!” Pinkie added.
“Umm,” Fluttershy cut in, “wouldn’t that mean that NightMare Moon knows where we are?”
Twilight’s heart jumped into her throat.
“That’s right. No magic spell can be cast on somepony unless you know where they are. We’ve been too careless, setting up light spells every time we stop and go. I’m sorry to say this, everypony, but we’re going to need to stick close together, because I’m dousing the light until we reach the Crystal Mountains.”
Any protestations held by the group were assuaged when they realized that NightMare Moon would be less capable of tracking them without the light. It was agreed that NightMare Moon could reasonably guess where they were heading towards, so the band decided to pick up the pace and attempt to outpace the new government at “Endymion” from sending word to the Crystal Mountains.
To be fair, their journey was not precisely north, but slightly to the northeast as well. Twilight knew that the entrance to the Crystal Mountains was not directly in a direct northward line from the western edge of the North Equinus Mountains, nor was it directly north from Canterlot. It was actually within that one-gross-nine-dozen-and-nine-mile stretch between the two, and Twilight knew exactly where along that stretch it was. Queen Celestia had been privy to her about it, keeping it a closely guarded secret that only the most high-up members of the Royal Guard were privy to. With any luck, they were not under her mind control, meaning that they would not easily crack.
It was now the dozenfifth day of Aster, one month to the day since the Summer Sun Celebration. Two weeks had passed since the encounter with the hemolupe, and almost a dozen-gross of miles were behind the band from that spot. Their horseshoes had long since been worn out and discarded off of the road, leaving just their bare hooves against the earth and grass. Pinkie Pie kept a high spirit about this, stating that it was “like in the good old days” before ponies had invented hoofwear. Despite the loss of their shoes, they dared not stop in a town to resupply, for fear that word would spread as to where Endymion’s Most Wanted were located… and where they were headed.
To Twilight’s immense surprise (and slight disconcertion), they encountered little resistance from many other threats after the hemolupe. There had been an altercation just four days later when they found what seemed to be a tree out in the middle of nowhere. When Fluttershy started to sing to it in hopes of some birds flying down to retrieve some berries for them, it turned out to be a treant which rounded on them and started to attack. A swift buck from Applejack and a good minute of galloping put the treant behind them. Other threats that they managed to avoid included the odd udoroot attempting to lure away tired ponies, a flight of stirge and a migrating flock of basilisks; a good leap was needed out of each of the band to clear the eastward path of toxins that the basilisks had left in their wake.
Through it all, Pinkie Pie’s spirits never flagged, and she always had a joke to lighten any moment of terror or tension. Twilight had to admit, she never would have made it alone. Even if Pinkie did not take this endeavor entirely seriously, her levity was invaluable to this venture. It was as the old saying went: A little nonsense here and there is relished by the wisest mare.
Twilight slowed her canter to a trot, and Applejack behind her followed suit, as had Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie beside her, Rarity and Rainbow Dash.
Spike jumped down from Twilight’s back. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
“Spike, collect everypony’s saddle-bags. We’re resting here for a while.”
“But it’s not even been six hours a’ marchin’, Twilight,” Applejack pondered aloud as Spike strode past her to collect Rarity’s saddle-bag.
“That’s because I have a strong feeling that those sparkling lights ahead of us aren’t stars anymore,” Twilight said as she lit up her alicorn, creating an orb of pink light on the tip.
They were trotting upon a dirt road, which took a moment to be registered by the band’s six mares. They were walking on a road. Which meant that they were near to some sort of settlement. The band had passed a good number of towns, hamlets and farms as they made their two-dozen-gross-mile trek across the Wide Plains towards the Crystal Mountains, always taking care to extend a nightly journey or cut it short if it meant passing within eyeshot or earshot of anypony outside of their band. The fact that they’d been careless enough to cross onto the road meant…
“We’re gettin’ mighty careless t’ take the road, Twilight!” Applejack said warily as Spike took her saddle-bag and set it beside Twilight’s and Rarity’s.
“Actually, that’s not what I’m talking about,” replied Twilight. “We’ll need our rest here, now, because… look.”
Risking a little more light, Twilight’s horn began to shine like a beacon as she set a determined look ahead of her. Applejack narrowed her eyebrows slightly against the light as she looked at the sparkling expanse directly to their north. Fluttershy’s eyes passed it over in awe, her slack jaw closing itself on its own. Pinkie’s eyes almost popped out of her head at the sight ahead. Rarity involuntarily smiled at the glimmering sparkles, and Rainbow Dash, smirking at Spike who was making a funny gaping face to their north, found herself being smacked by Rarity’s leonine tail.
“What?” she snapped.
“Look,” Rarity said giddily, almost dancing on her hooves.
Rainbow Dash looked forward surlily, before her own jaw dropped and her eyes expanded to the size of dinner-plates.
They weren’t looking at stars.
They were looking at an expansive rocky ridge that was verily studded all over its façade with star-bright gemstones of every color and shape. It loomed over them, seeming all the more massive after all of the flat plains that they had been accustomed to for the past three weeks, even though it could not have been higher than the North Equinus Mountains at all.
They had done it.
They had reached the Crystal Mountains.