Pinkie Pie grit her teeth tightly, pulled apart her lips so to reveal her snarl of concentration. Her light pink brow was knitted with her effort, while her hot pink mane was quivering just faintly in the summer breeze. In and out she breathed, in and out. Her lovely blue eyes pulsed with effort. Her forehead gave a throbbing, pulsing testament unto the workings of her churning mind. She thought- she thought-
Okay, everypony! This is Pinkie Pie! How are you fillies and gentlecolts doing?
Then half of Ponyville looked up. Had they heard something? It sounded, very faintly, as though somepony had spoken in their ear. They lifted up their heads and swiveled round their ears to catch some further sound, but nothing issued. They shrugged, and went about their business once again.
“Ack!” Pinkie said, slumping forward. “Training is super hard!”
“Keep at it, Pinkie!” said the white-tail deer beside her. “You're doing beautifully! It's already much stronger than it was two days ago.”
“Yeah, Pinkie!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “You'll get it. I know you will.”
“I know, believe me do,” said Pinkie. “But it's just... whew... it's hard work! My head's all hot and steaming!” Cartoonish lines of vapor seemed to waft out from her ears for emphasis.
“Then it sounds like y'all could use some apple cider,” said Applejack, who appeared as if by magic, wielding one great wooden cart festooned with mugs. The chilly, foamy beverage sloshing in them smelled of sweetest apples, and was tangy tasty to the tongue. “Drink up, gals!”
“Awesome!” said Twilight Sparkle, fluttering forward. She hopped with a burst of her wings, landing by the cart and humming merrily to herself as she picked up the mug. “I need- wait, why are you all staring?”
“You flew, Twilight!” said Dash. “Atta girl! I knew you could do it!”
“I... I wasn't even thinking about it,” Twilight said.
“Maybe that's the key,” said Fluttershy. “I always seem to get told not to think too hard about pegasus things, and it always seems to work.”
“I should agree,” said Falalauria. “I have noticed that pegasi tend to fly as a matter of instinct, much like birds and griffins. While I believe in applying careful thought to one's circumstances, perhaps, in this instance, feeling, not thinking, is the best course of action.”
“I... suppose that makes sense,” said Twilight, fidgeting where she sat, the mug of cider suddenly too cold against her hoof. Twilight loved to think through things, and in fact for her there was no greater joy than to think to the point of overthinking. She loved to intricately plot and plan her every move, laying out reams of schedules and lists down unto the smallest detail. To throw that all away- to abandon forethought and to act on instinct- was a prospect perfectly calculated to terrify her. “But first, let's let me practice my Element of Magic some more.”
“You've progressed with great rapidity,” Falalauria said with gentle tones. “Really, Twilight, your Element has been the easiest of all to train, as I have long suspected. Every spell you cast, every enchantment you conjure, every charm and curse that fires from your horn has trained your power. You will note that you have already ascended, to some degree.”
“Ascended?” Twilight repeated. “How have I- wait, you mean becoming a princess?”
“Quite so,” said Falalauria. “Your Element of Magic has gained such strength that it has allowed you to raise yourself up to the level of an alicorn.”
“But... but Princess Celestia did that,” said Twilight.
“Tia only brought out what was already present,” said Falalauria, “and engineered things so your wings came in all at once, instead of slowly, as would otherwise have happened. But there has always been an alicorn inside you, Twilight Sparkle. Indeed,” she glanced around, “there is an alicorn within all six of you, and each of you shall draw closer to your inner deity the further you advance in connection with your Element of Harmony.”
“Me? Me, an alicorn princess?” Rarity said, her eyes twinkling. “Oh, how magnificent! How utterly remarkable! I shall have to start thinking now of how best to accessorize my new wings!”
“I don't rightly believe it,” said Applejack. “Ain't nothin' godly about me. I'm just a simple earth pony.”
“Oh, Applejack,” said Falalauria, “you are the closest of them all, after Twilight. Or haven't you noticed-” she took five long steps and was upon her, “this?” Her dainty mouth reached out and gripped Applejack's sandy blond mane at its bangs. She pulled upward, revealing one swath of the orange forehead that none of her friends could ever recall seeing. And there-
“Is that-” Twilight dashed forward.
Dash streaked in. “No way!”
“Oh, dearest, congratulations!” Rarity cried.
“What? What is it?” Applejack said.
“Oh, come on, AJ,” said Pinkie. “Can't you guess by now? Here!” Pinkie pulled a mirror of considerable size seemingly from nowhere, and she held it up to show to Applejack her own head, with Falalauria's mouth revealing a bare forehead where there was-
“A nub!” Fluttershy said.
“A horn!” said Twilight. “Wow, Applejack, you really are connected with your Element!”
“Wha? No, no that can't be right!” Applejack said. “I ain't no unicorn!”
“You will be,” said Falalauria, opening her mouth to let Applejack's hair flutter down. “You and Pinkie Pie will get your markers of power in different orders. You, Pinkie, will get your wings first.”
“I'm gonna be a pegasus pony?” Pinkie cried. “Woohoo!”
“No!” Applejack said. Her eyes began to fill with tears. “No, this can't be right!” Now there's no way we can be together! “I don't want it!” she cried, rearing back, wheeling apart from her friends and the gathered deer. “I never wanted any o' this!” With sparkling tears erupting from her spring green eyes, Applejack went galloping away, off in some direction whose course even she could not have known.
“AJ!” Dash cried. “AJ, come back!” She fluttered straight into the air. “I'll go after her!”
“No, dear,” said Rarity, the last few stars clearing from her eyes. “No, I believe she needs to be alone, at least for a little while.”
“Rarity is right,” said Falalauria. “Give Applejack an hour, at least. Then, Twilight, you should go talk to her. Your experience should prove invaluable to her.”
“I'll go too!” said Pinkie, bouncing eagerly in place.
Thus an hour passed, with Pinkie working harder, all the harder on her Element of Laughter. Twilight likewise practiced with her Element of Magic. All five of them, in fact, strained with their Elements: Rarity kept trying to peer correctly deep into the future, Rainbow Dash made several stray dogs march with her around the square, Fluttershy, the weakest of them all, tried patching up skinned knees of little fillies out for walks.
But the time came round at last, so Twilight and Pinkie started trotting through the center of the town, their eyes alert for any sign of Applejack. “She won't be here!” said Pinkie with some ill-placed cheerfulness. “She's probably gone back to Sweet Apple Acres.”
“She knows we'll think that, though,” said Twilight. “If Applejack really wants to be alone, she's probably abandoned her farm, too.” Twilight stopped abruptly as a flash of brilliance flared across her mind. “Pinkie,” said she, “do you think you could detect Applejack's thoughts?”
“Detect?” Pinkie repeated.
“Yes,” said Twilight. “Can you pick out her thoughts among all the other ponies thinking in Ponyville?”
“Hmm... I can try!” said Pinkie brightly. She stuck her tongue out as she knitted up her forehead, pink fur throbbing with the focus she soon brought to bear. Twilight watched her closely, feeling the vague tickle at the back of her mind that always meant some telepath was hard at work. Pinkie kept on thinking, kept on thinking... “Whoa!” she cried, bounding forward up onto her twin front legs. “I just read the weirdest thoughts ever! They were so big- and, and so huge- and they were always spiraling and full of so many colors, even colors I didn't know the name for! And- and-” Her eyes were bulging in and out, her speech dissolved into mere wild mumbling.
“Ah, sorry about that,” came the voice above their heads. With a narrowing of eyes Twilight looked up to see Discord hovering just over them, grinning gently downward. “Don't worry, Pinkie Pie, I'll fix you right up!” He slithered down to her level and tapped her head with the longest of his claws. Pinkie's whole head chimed like some great bell, and with a shake of it she seemed her normal self again.
“Whew! Thanks, Discord!” she said.
“Don't mention it,” said Discord. “In the future, you'll have to be careful whose thoughts you read. Don't want to bite off more than you can chew, after all.”
“Shucks, if I can handle your thoughts, and mean ol' Reiziger's, I think I'm in pretty great shape!” Pinkie exclaimed.
“Ah, yes, how did your encounter with that dear old deer go?” Discord asked. “Is he still as cranky as ever?”
“Wait, how do you know what Reiziger was like?” Twilight asked. “Weren't you still in stone during his entire war?”
“Oh, yes, but you'd be surprised what you can see and hear, behind stone eyes and with stone ears,” said Discord in a sing-song voice. “Plus, when the Wills That Draw The World did everypony the great courtesy of remaking the Sun and the Moon, I managed to crack out of my stone prison in the midst of the reshaping. I wandered around for a little while, absorbing shattered dreams and poisoned hopes. I learned a great deal about grouchy old Annatar of Annudûr.” Somewhere deep within the walls of blackened chitin, a shadowed eyebrow rose.
“Who's-” Twilight's vocal chords grew thick, she nearly choked on the constriction of her neck. “Why can't I say-” she tried again and found the same result awaited. “Oh!” she cried. “That's one of his names that was stripped from the world! How can you say it?”
“It was stripped from all of time and space, yes,” said Discord, “but when has a little detail like that ever stopped me before?”
“Hey, Discord!” said Pinkie. He turned her way. “I know you love to be all super tricksy and all-powerful and junk, but we're trying to find Applejack! Do you know where she is?”
“Oh, AJ?” said Discord. His thumb stuck out and pointed back beyond his shoulder. “She's behind the schoolhouse.” His eyes briefly filled with stars. “Poor girl, she's been crying all this time.”
“Oh, no!” said Pinkie. “We have to go cheer her up! Sugarcube Corner's on the way to the school, so I'll go get some noisemakers and streamers! Meet you there, Twilight!” Pinkie bounced merrily away, humming a jaunty tune to herself.
“Pinkie! I- we- wait-” Twilight's violet eyes snapped back and forth from Discord's floating shape to Pinkie's swift-retreating form. Finally she stopped, then nodded, as much as to herself as anypony else. “Right, I'll go to Applejack,” she said. She swiveled next to glare up right at Discord. “We're not finished with this conversation.”
“Oh, Twilight, of course we're not,” said Discord with a grin. “Nothing is ever finished between you and I, or you and any of your little pony friends. Especially since you're all now destined to be immortal. Nope, we'll be at this for a long time hence.”
“Great,” grumbled Twilight, galloping away with all her haste. “Fantastic.”
Hot tears kept spilling strongly out of Applejack's green eyes, and her orange furred cheeks bore marks and trails of constant watery passage. She sniffled in the silence of the playground bare of fillies, emptied as it was by school's long summer break. Her old brown hat, the hat her father once had worn so proud and sternly strong, was crumpled up inside her lap, her hooves clutched hard against it as though it were a blanket that would bring security. She was in a lull now, stuck within the valley of her long and tear-soaked journey. Soon enough she'd crest the hill and sobbing would erupt once more. Even now her shoulders wracked, and sure indeed a bawl erupted from her mouth, a long and horrible wail that would have chilled the bones of everypony round to hear it.
“Applejack?” Called Twilight, and indeed her heart was sick with horror at the sound of her friend's sadness. “Applejack, are you here?”
“Go away!” howled Applejack. Her sobbing, now resuming, was impossible to stop, such that all her tries at speech were garbled by the bawls. “I... I don't want nopony round! Y'all hear that? Nopony!”
“Applejack,” cooed Twilight, trotting very gently around the corner of the schoolhouse. Her friend was in a truly wretched state. “Here,” she said softly, magicking a box of tissues out of thin air with her flashing horn.
“Please, Twi,” bawled Applejack, “please, just leave me alone.”
“But then you'll be sad,” said Twilight, softly sitting down beside Applejack. “Well, sadder. Please, tell me what's wrong.”
“I... I can't say,” murmured Applejack, sniffling strongly to hold back the flow of tears. “You... you'll think I'm so selfish.”
“Applejack, I could never think that!” Twilight said. “You're one of the most selfless and enduring ponies I've ever met. You're always thinking of others before yourself. You can't be selfish- and even if you could, you've earned it just a little.” Twilight leaned most gently up against her crying friend. “Now please, tell me what's wrong. I promise I won't judge you.”
Applejack's cutie mark sparkled. “That's a lie,” she sniffled. “All ponies judge when they're hearin' secrets. You won't be no different.”
“Well, then do you believe me when I say I'll keep an open mind?” Twilight responded. “Please, Applejack, I'll be gentle. I'll let you say your piece. Please.”
Applejack's swollen eyes turned left until they met Twilight's own gaze. Her friend was glancing gently at her, radiating love in every flinch and twitch upon her face. Though Applejack pulsed out her sense of honesty she felt no lie in Twilight- and no malice. She drew a deepened breath to still her crying, swept her hoof across her watery eyes, and sighed. “I'm in love, Twi.”
“Oh, but I know that!” Twilight said. “I mean, we all do. It's been so obvious. You care about Ashtail a lot.”
“No, I mean I'm really in love, Twi,” said Applejack, her gaze drifting across the fields beyond the schoolyard's bounds. “The last time I was in Gildedale, Ashtail and I... we talked about gettin' married.”
Twilight tried her very best to veil her shock. “M... married?” she said the word again.
“Yep,” said Applejack, talking now more strongly as she left her tears behind. “We wondered if we could pull it off. He's a Prince o' Gildedale- I mentioned that, I know, and it means he's gonna be king one day. But in Gildedale they let anypony marry whoever they like, even if they're royalty. So that wasn't gonna be a problem. Naw, the problem was on my end. I got my... my duty, Twilight. I got my duty to Sweet Apple Acres and to all my family. I could never leave the Apple Family high 'n dry! I love 'em too much! And I... I had my duty to y'all, too. I'm the Element o' Honesty, and I know you girls couldn't get much done without me- and don't you object, Twilight, because I'm bein' honest.”
“You are,” said Twilight softly. “You always keep us focused when the world is crashing down around us. I don't know what we'd do without you, Applejack.”
“I know!” Applejack said, tears springing new and fresh out of her eyes. “And yet, in spite o' all that, I thought... I hoped... we could make it work. Maybe he and I'd split time between Equestria and Gildedale. Maybe while Lord Hammer Hoof was still alive he'd even take a little time and spend it here. I thought that woulda been nice. But now- but now!” Applejack began to weep anew, lowering her head as sobs consumed her.
“Applejack, what's so bad?” said Twilight. “You should be happy that you'll become an alicorn! You'll be able to visit Gildedale much easier with wings! And Ashtail-”
“Is gonna die, Twilight,” said Applejack, her voice a deadened mumble.
“He's sick?” Twilight said.
“Nope,” said Applejack, “he's the picture o' health. He'll live a long time now, decades n' decades. Maybe even hit a hundred; I don't know if Daleponies live longer than us Equestrian folks. But no matter how long he lives, sooner or later he's gonna die.”
“I...” Twilight's brow went lower. “I... I don't understand...”
“He's gonna die and I'm not!” Applejack erupted. “Alicorn ponies, gods n' such, they live forever! Don't they? Don't Princess Celestia and Princess Luna live forever? And there ain't no reason we won't be the same!” Applejack sniffled. “I... I'm gonna have to watch him die... and he's gonna leave me forever. And not just him! All the whole Apple Family that I know an' love is gonna die too! Big Macintosh, Braeburn, Apple Crisp- I'm even gonna outlive Apple Bloom!” She howled in agony.
Twilight felt at last that she was understanding. “But... when ponies die, if they've been good, they go-”
“To the Summer Lands,” said Applejack. Her watery green eyes gazed up into the endless sky. “But they're gonna go, and I'm not. I'm gonna stay behind, for centuries 'n centuries to come. I'll never see 'em again after they're gone, because they're gonna go on, to a better place, and I won't.” She wept again, but it was a silent crying, tears rolling without sound along her orange cheeks.
Twilight sighed, her chest a horrible and empty cavern. She barely knew what she could say. Her brilliant mind went twisting and conniving into arguments and sentiments, trying with all her cleverness to find a way in which she might console her friend. Nothing resulted, however, not the least because Applejack had voiced the fears she had herself long struggled to ignore. At last, there was a single course of action that she felt, that she knew, was her best hope. “You know what the truth is?” Twilight slowly said.
“That I'm wrong?” Applejack answered, a note of desperate hope inside her voice.
“No, that you're right,” said Twilight, a heavy feeling growing in her heart. “This is something I've thought about too.” She turned to Applejack, her smile soft and sad. “You know I worry about Spike? He's a dragon, so I'll have him for a long time. Dragons live about a thousand years on average. There was a time when I was worried about him because I thought he would outlive me. Now the opposite has happened, and I've realized that I'm going to outlive him. I'm... I'm scared, Applejack. Spike has been my... my family, ever since he hatched. I knew I was definitely going to outlive my parents, and probably my brother, but I thought I'd have him all my life. Now I know I won't.”
“How do you deal with it?” Applejack said.
“You just... do,” said Twilight softly. “You cherish every single day with all the ponies you love. Cadence has talked to me about this, and I know she's sad, deep down, that she'll outlive Shining Armor. But she told me that... that you let the limited time you have make every day, and every hour, and every minute more special.”
“I... I suppose you're right,” said Applejack. “It don't make me any more happy, though.”
“I know,” said Twilight. She wrapped a hoof around Applejack and leaned against her. Applejack returned the gesture, wrapping one front leg around Twilight and pulling her close. “But look at it this way. If you're going to be immortal because of your Element of Harmony, then so will Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie, and all the others! We won't be alone, we'll have each other! We really will be friends forever.”
“Forever?” said Applejack.
“Or at least as long as alicorns live,” said Twilight, “and there doesn't seem to be any limit to that.”
“Huh,” murmured Applejack. “Well, I guess that means I gotta put up with Rarity for all o' time.”
Twilight laughed. “And I'll have to put up with Pinkie Pie. But I think we'll manage.” She put a hoof beneath Applejack's chin, and raised it up. “Oh, and hey- as soon as your horn comes in enough that you're able to cast actual spells, let me know. I'll teach you magic personally.”
“Really?” Applejack said.
“Really,” Twilight said. “How could I not give one of my best friends private lessons? It'll be fun.”
Applejack savored their closeness a moment longer and then pulled apart, blinking softly as her tears were dried away. “Huh,” she muttered, “never even thought about that. I'm gonna do magic.” Her eyes went wide. “Never in my wildest dreams...”
“Here I am!” Pinkie Pie's voice burst through the quiet of the space. Within an eyeblink she appeared, her trusty party cannon wheeled beside her, balloons tied to one back hoof, a cake cradled in her front right leg. “I'm so super sorry I wasn't here sooner, Applejack, but I couldn't decide if you'd want white frosting or yellow frosting or pink frosting, and so I just decided to make a cake with all three, but then I had to spend all that time coming up with a way to coordinate the colors, and then I had to choose how to match the balloons-”
“It's okay, Pinkie,” said Applejack, a warm and lovely smile breaking out across her face. “I think it's all just dandy!”
“So you're feeling better?” Pinkie asked.
“Yep,” said Applejack. She wrapped a leg around Pinkie. “And I mighty appreciate you wantin' to cheer me up.”
“Aww, come on now,” said Pinkie, “I'd do it for anypony.”
“But you didn't do it for anypony- you did it for me,” said Applejack, her smile now as radiant as sunshine. “Say, what kind o' cake is that?”
“Butterscotch buttercream butter!” said Pinkie brightly. “The apples on top are spun sugar!”
“That sounds delicious,” said Applejack, “and I reckon I'd like a piece or two. How 'bout it, Twi? Wanna join us?”
“Well, I really should stick to my diet...” Twilight muttered. She saw then the beaming faces of her friends, and her heart softened. “Oh, fine, we'll do it.”
“Hooray!” said Pinkie, slapping hard her hoof against the belly of her party cannon. It fired with a thunderous boom, sending up a cloud of streamers into the wide sky. Applejack and Twilight laughed, each of them most grateful to take up the plates of cake that Pinkie passed them.
“Awww,” cooed Fluttershy, watching from the distance of some several hundred meters. “I think she's feeling better.”
“That's great!” said Rainbow Dash, stealing the binoculars with one deft motion. “I knew Pinkie'd be able to cheer her up!”
“It seems like Twilight did most of the cheering, actually,” said Fluttershy.
“She is a wise pony, isn't she?” said the white-tail deer beside them, watching all the scene with a lens conjured up by magic. “A little fidgety, for sure, but learned far beyond her years.”
“Twilight's great!” said Dash. “She's super smart and she always helps us out of any jam! We're lucky to have her around.”
“Indeed,” said the white-tail. “Of course, it's always trouble to rely too much on any one creature.”
“I don't think that's fair,” said Fluttershy. “Don't you all rely on Lady Falalauria?”
“Our Lady is our protectress and our queen,” said the white-tail, “in the same manner that Celestia and Luna stand above all your ponies. But we do not ask her to do everything.”
“And we don't with Twilight!” said Dash. “Why I- I mean, why we can all do amazing things! Fluttershy's great with animals, Rarity is amazing at girly junk, Applejack's a great farmer, Pinkie Pie is the best at parties, and I... I'm just awesome, I guess.” Fluttershy's eyebrow rose at this, but in her meekness she said nothing.
“I suppose you are correct,” said the white-tail. “However, keep in mind a lesson from a deer who still drills as a soldier: you must sometimes be prepared for a battlefield promotion.”
“B-B-Battlefield?” whimpered Fluttershy, her body shaking.
“Yes,” said the white-tail. “The one you always trust to lead you may not be around some day. So each of you, among your group of friends, must be prepared to take command when all the others falter. Each of you must have the strength to lead- because the day may come sooner than you think.”
“I'm definitely ready!” said Dash. “If something ever happened to Twilight, I'd help the others forward, no problem!”
“I... I can't even imagine it,” said Fluttershy. “I've never lead anypony before. I never want to, either.” She seemed to shrink between them. “I could never do it.”
“Of course you could,” said the white-tail. “You merely do not want to. But there is a leader inside every creature, however deeply buried.” His turquoise eyes bored deeply into Fluttershy's of nearly the same shade. “And Our Lady says there are dark times ahead. Perhaps the leader in you should start coming out more often.”
“Eep!” said Fluttershy, dropping to her belly and then cowering in the grass.
Dash sighed. “Try not to scare her like that,” she said gently to the deer. “She's really frightened of a lot of things.”
“I'm sorry,” said the white-tail. “I merely told her what I believed she needed to hear.”
“I d-don't want to hear it!” whimpered Fluttershy, flapping hard her wings and flying off into the sky. “I-I'll never be a leader!”
Dash watched her go for some long minutes. Then she wheeled upon the deer. “See? You scared her!”
“Again, I apologize,” said the white-tail. He turned and started off toward Ponyville's center. “But it does not make what I said any less correct. Think on that- her, and you as well.”
Dash blew out her cheeks as she was once again alone. “Think on that. Ha! I already know what it takes to be a leader. I have the Element of Loyalty!” She could command entire armies if she had to. And perhaps she would have to indeed, if the state of Equestria grew any more dire. This gave Dash pause. Fëanor had said that Reiziger waged war, and that was really different than any villain she had faced before. War meant armies. War meant swords and axes. War meant death. She swallowed hard. Am I ready for that? “Of course I'm ready!”
“Ready for what?”
“Ack!” cried Dash and vaulted to the air. Her wings fluttering maze, she wheeled in all directions until her eyes at last came on the source of her alarm- and then she gasped. “Clive!”
“Yes, yes, I am here,” said Clive Croeuxus, sitting right beside her spot upon his narrow haunches. The elder pronghorn still bore signs of all the damage he had suffered- he wore a bandage round his head, and there were waves upon his fur that seemed like deep scorch marks.
“Oh my gosh, how are you?” said Dash, fluttering back down to sit beside him. “I've been worried about you all this time!”
“I am feeling substantially better, thank you muchly,” answered Clive. “Still quite sore and stiff, but Celestia's healing magic has done wonders. Niles and Audrey have been to visit me, along with a few other pronghorns.”
“But I haven't,” said Dash, her ears now drooping. “I'm sorry I forgot.”
“It's quite all right, dear Rainbow Dash,” said Clive. “From what I hear you've been quite busy. And I've also heard some other troubling rumors. Something about a dark lord?”
“Yeah,” said Dash. “The guy you fought-”
“Endured,” said Clive, his dark eyes growing narrow. “Not surprising, I suppose. It did seem odd, amid all of the chaos, that such a thing as he could be so completely beaten. Evil such as that frequently finds a way to slither out of annihilation.”
“So you got hurt for nothing, then,” said Dash sadly.
“On the contrary,” said Clive. “Celestia tells me that we have weakened him considerably, that he was left far below full strength and has not yet regained that height. If that is true, then our sortie against him was a success, because if we did not destroy him, we at least bought ourselves some time to prepare for that destruction. A destruction, I am further told, that will fall upon you and your five friends.”
“Oh! Yeah,” said Dash. “Princess Celestia says that the Elements of Harmony are gonna defeat Reiziger, and, well, that's us.”
“Indeed,” said Clive, “so I hope you'll remember that.”
Clive leveled one deep black eye at Rainbow Dash, and as he did she thought she could see storms within its depths. The fur upon her body seemed to stand, as though a current rich with lightning had been running through it. “Remember, Rainbow Dash, that however strong you may be yourself, it is nothing compared to the strength you wield with all your friends together. Do not be tempted by the siren song of lonely warriors. History has shown that solitary creatures often meet with solitary ends.”
Dash's mouth hung open. “How did you-”
“I have been speaking with Lady Falalauria,” said Clive. “She is worried about you, Rainbow Dash. I am as well.” He put his hoof against hers on the ground. “You are so strong and wise and good, a beacon of achievement in this world beneath the sun. Do not be spoiled by evil thoughts.”
“I-I won't!” said Dash, puffing out her chest. “I swear I won't!”
“Good!” said Clive. He glanced about and out, upon the tranquil buildings of the town. “You know, this is the first time I have ever been to Ponyville.”
“Really?” Dash exclaimed.
“Really,” echoed Clive. “I always told myself that I would visit, in the times I've stood upon the balconies of Canterlot and looked out. But this is my first trip.”
“Well in that case,” said Dash, smiling smugly and then flying gently up, “howsabout you let this Ponyville native show you around? It's a really cool place!”
Clive stood up. “I should be delighted.” Rainbow Dash then flew back towards Ponyville, and Clive came cantering fast in her wake.
“I should hope that does the trick,” said Falalauria, standing at the edge of Ponyville and gazing upon pegasus and pronghorn as they left. “I fear it may not, however.”
“Does the trick?” said Rarity, standing in her shadow. “The trick for what, my lady?”
“Darkness,” said Falalauria. “A sickness that has festered in the center of the Elements. A crack in your bonds of friendship that threatens to derail Tia's plan.”
“Oh, no!” said Rarity. “Is there something I can do to help?”
“Not at the moment,” said Falalauria. “When there is, I shall let you know- though of course, you may See something on your own that you can do, in which case I shall not begrudge your actions, however little sense they may make.”
“Little sense?” repeated Rarity. “Shouldn't any actions you take to help something make sense?”
“Under normal circumstances, yes,” said Falalauria. “However, Farseeing is not normal circumstances. You know this, Rarity. We have spoken of this before.”
“Yes, yes, I do know, my lady,” said Rarity. “But it's so hard to understand, still. I've done it on instinct before-”
“But now you must move beyond instinct,” Falalauria said. “Now you must be deliberate in your actions, Rarity, particularly those that might seem baffling at first glance. And you must be brave.”
“Brave? Baffling?” came Rarity's soft echo. “You speak as if I should behave nonsensically, my lady.”
“From the perspective of all others, sometimes you must,” said Falalauria. She turned her starscape eyes hard upon Rarity, fixing the white unicorn with a stare that might have revealed all the cosmos. “Rarity, you have the gift of Long Sight. You can see the future; you know how things will be before they are. Thus, you must sometimes be prepared to act in ways that nopony else will understand. You must be willing to make choices and decisions that shock, confuse, or even anger those you know and trust. And if you are confident that your choices are correct, you must carry them out with no hesitation, over and against the objections of your friends. Remember, you can See what they cannot.”
Rarity was brought to blinking by this statement, opening and closing her blue eyes in swift succession. “My lady?” she at last remarked, turning slowly upward to the great deer. “Is there... something I should know?”
“Not yet,” said Falalauria. The two were silent then.
“I don't like it,” muttered one red earth pony from Ponyville's outskirts. He and nearly half a dozen others were assembled by a fence to gaze out at the towering Falalauria.
“It is a little weird,” said Bon Bon, glancing to the side at the red stallion. “But I guess they're all the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. They have good reason to be hanging out with deer.”
“But for so long?” the red earth pony said. “Ever since the deer came to Ponyville, they've been spending more and more time with Princess Twilight Sparkle and her friends.”
“Well, that's true,” said a yellow unicorn mare, “but like Bon Bon said, they're the owners of the Elements of Harmony. They're special servants of the princesses. They've got a right to be spending time with deer.”
“I agree with this guy, though” said Flutter. “They've been hanging around those deer way too much. And what about the times they're all together? What if...” she quickly stopped her speech.
“No,” said the red earth pony seriously, “go on.”
“Well it's... it's crazy...”
“I mean... you don't think they're... planning something, do you?”
“Absurd!” said one white earth pony. “And even if they are, they've saved Equestria so many times. Why do we have to worry about what they're planning?”
“Because what if all those times were just steps?” said the red earth pony. “What if they were just to get us in their good graces?”
“You mean like the Element Bearers suckering us in?” Flutter said. “The princesses would never allow that.”
“Who's to say the princesses aren't in on it, too?”
Bon Bon gasped. “You're crazy!”
“Maybe,” said the red earth pony. “All I know is that all of a sudden these deer show up, and suddenly the Elements and the princesses are spending way too much time talking with them.”
“We...” the white earth pony began. His speech then tapered softly off, his face alive with shifting as unpleasant thoughts were wormed into his mind. “I... I can't believe the princesses and the Elements would plot against anypony.”
“Even though they do keep secrets,” said the yellow unicorn. The others glared at her. “What? They do. Everypony knows it. Doesn't mean it's bad.”
“But... but what if it's bad this time?” said Flutter, eyes shifting uneasily from left to right.
“This is crazy,” Bon Bon muttered.
“I know, I know,” said the white earth pony. “The princesses would never do anything bad to us.” He swallowed. “So why...”
“Why does it feel weird to watch Miss Rarity talk with that big deer?” Flutter whispered.
The ponies were discussing tensely now, nervous speech alight upon the sunny noontide air. The red earth pony had slipped quietly from out their midst, and now was headed off into the shadowed boughs of the Everfree Forest. He spared a glance over his shoulder, taking one more moment to behold his handiwork. He grinned, and his mouth bore fangs- and his eyes became an empty, buglike blue.