Spike cried out in terror, his claws clutching tightly around Twilight’s neck. She could feel his heart beating against the back of her head, while her own heart pounded away somewhere inside of her throat. The Headless Horse raised one of her cloven hooves slowly, so similar to her coat in color and texture that the end of her coat and the beginning of her hoof was indistinguishable. She prepared to paw at the ground as the dark-black smoke coming from her neck continued to writhe and twist.
Twilight was marginally more aware of it than her five pony friends, but they were all so terrified by the appearance of the Headless Horse that they were bordering on physical and mental paralysis. The arrival of NightMare Moon had instilled similar feelings, but she was at the very least equine enough to have a face and a voice. The Headless Horse lived up to her name in the lack of a face for them to make a connection with, of a voice to learn to fear. She was a great terror in the shadows of Equestrian society, where the first dozen foal victims of NightMare Moon’s hunger haunted the undersides of the beds of many fillies and colts, where the nameless prisoners of Tartarus saw freedom, where any eldritch beast imaginable could take root in a pony’s mind and gnaw away at their sanity.
But now that it was known that she, the Headless Horse, was a beast which truly existed in their real world, it called into question just what undiscovered beasts or horrific cryptids dismissed as fantasy truly did lurk behind one when one turned around at the sound of hoofsteps or a shuddering breath while alone…
“Girls…?” Twilight quivered, hoping against hope that the Headless Horse could not hear her, but not daring to take the chance. “When I give the signal…”
“What’s the signal?” quavered Fluttershy.
The Headless Horse silently reared up, her forehooves kicking as though to cave in the lavender Unicorn’s skull, and Twilight took action. Her horn flashed pink, and the Headless Horse soared into the air and levitated in a pink dwimmer shimmer some four-dozen hooves off of the plateau, its hooves and tail flailing about in a frenzy as it reached blindly for something solid to set hoof upon.
“RUN!” shrieked Twilight, Spike’s claws clinging still tighter as she galloped at full speed under the hovering Headless Horse, her five friends in close pursuit of Twilight, the whole band beelining down the sloping plateau, away from Labyrinth.
“I won’t be able to keep the Headless Horse up in the air for very long!” she called back over the sound of her hooves crunching through the snow. “She’ll be after us in less than a minute, I know it!”
The five offered shouts or exclamations of acknowledgement, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy flying through the air while the remaining three galloped with all their strength.
Ahead of the band, the sloping plateau proved to be greatly treacherous. Though the snow had seen little melting due to the constantly plummeting temperatures of a continent trapped in eternal night, it was still water at its core. So, traction proved to be a challenge to a band of four galloping mares attempting to make their way down the plateau as quickly, and safely, as possible. Twilight almost considered melting the snow with a heat spell, but quickly decided against it.
With the temperatures as they are, she thought with a sudden shiver, the melted snow would just refreeze as ice, and that would just make all of our lives that much harder.
Pinkie Pie darted ahead of her, suddenly galloping backwards. She looked very worrisome.
“Umm, Twilight? Have you been running backwards lately?”
If Pinkie Pie had asked Twilight this question in the first fortnight that they had known each other, Twilight would have called the pink Earth Pony insane as quickly as reading a book. If she had seen Pinkie Pie so flagrantly ignoring logical action by running backwards at that time, it was all too likely that she would have winked out back to Canterlot and turned herself into an asylum on the spot. But now, knowing Pinkamena Diane Pie, Twilight reined in any feelings of disbelief at a pony galloping backwards and replied calmly,
“No, I haven’t. Why?”
Pinkie pointed a hoof back − forward to herself − and shouted in alarm, “Because that thing hasn’t!”
Glancing behind herself, Twilight’s heart lurched.
The Headless Horse was hot on their tails, almost literally. It had broken free of Twilight’s magical hold already, and clearly had no intent of dealing with them mercifully. The black smoke emerging from her neck’s stump billowed behind her, but not enough to expose her severed spinal cord or trachea.
“Twilight, Khartoum here is gaining on us!” Rainbow Dash called up to Twilight, her cerise eyes creased in worry.
“Don’t you worry, Dashie! I’m on it~!” replied Pinkie Pie, reaching into her own mane with both forehooves as she continued to run backwards on her hind legs, drawing out a flashlight that was clearly too large to contain in her impossibly frizzy mane and pointing said flashlight at the Headless Horse, repeatedly switching it on and off and saying “Pew-pew-pew-pew-pew-pew!” as she did it.
It had absolutely no effect so far as Twilight could tell, having turned her head back to watch where she was galloping; she could still make out the Headless Horse’s soft hooffalls upon the snow behind them.
Pinkie discarded her flashlight off the edge of the plateau to her left, “I don’t get it. Why didn’t it work?”
Pinkie produced from her mane a bubble-blowing wand that was easily as long as her torso, swinging it back and forth frenetically. Bubbles as big as her head flew out from the end of the wand and floated past the rapidly galloping mares and into the Headless Horse’s approaching form.
Still no effect.
“What’s going on?” Pinkie gasped. “None of my party tricks are working!”
“That’s ‘cause Ol’ Brainless here don’ have no eyes, Pinkie!” Applejack snapped. “Ya gotta use sumthin’ that don’ involve her eyes!”
Pinkie’s eyes widened in realization, “Ohhhh~! Okay!” before she began to rustle about in her mane.
“Not her nose, neither!” intercepted Applejack.
Discarding a canister of laughing gas which bounced off the edge of the plateau, Pinkie smiled brightly as she said “Aha~!” and produced from within her voluminous mane a comically oversized bright-red boxing horseshoe on the end of a pair of extension scissors. She took each end of the extension scissors in a forehoof and brought them together, causing the boxing glove to extend toward their pursuer at a surprisingly dramatic speed.
It clobbered the Headless Horse straight in the middle of her neck, the specter tumbling neck over hooves and, because Pinkie was slightly to the left of the Headless Horse’s forward momentum, plummeting over the edge of the plateau.
Pinkie let out a cheer and returned to her quadrupedal gallop, albeit still galloping backwards. The remainder of the party slowed down as well, taking in deep breaths as they began to recollect their thoughts.
“That was… that was definitely a thing, Pinkie Pie,” Twilight said heavily, but with a smile on her face nonetheless.
Pinkie giggled, “Aww, don’t mention it, Twilight. I just don’t want my friends being sad because a ghostie is chasing them~!”
Rainbow Dash did a double loop-de-loop with a broad smile on her muzzle.
“That was pretty sweet, Pinkie Pie! I mean, you almost hit me and Fluttershy with those bubbles of yours, but that extendo-horseshoe…!” The cerulean Pegasus began to choke on her laughter. “That was just priceless!”
Spike chuckled heartily from Twilight’s back, “Yeah, that whole thing was amazing! How do you keep so much stuff in your mane?”
Pinkie shook her head with a sad smile, “No can do, Spikey. If I told you the secret, it wouldn’t be funny anymore~” She looked to Rainbow Dash with a fond look. “But it makes me smile knowing that I made you smile, Dashie. I just love seeing my friends smile! Of course, I love to make anypony smile~!”
Rarity’s eyes shone, “You really do have a heart of gold, Pinkie Pie. I just couldn’t see it before because of your… raucousness.” She smiled. “I know! I shall make you a dress, free of charge, upon our defeat of NightMare Moon!”
Pinkie’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates.
“Really? Do you think that it would look good with lollipops on it?”
Rarity hesitated, “Well… I…”
“Or balloons? Or candy? Or streamers?”
“Streamers? On a dress?”
Before Pinkie could elaborate any further, a shuffling of snow at the edge of the plateau brought any conversational thoughts to a dead halt. Seven pairs of eyes swiveled slowly towards the cliff, where a single black cloven hoof dug itself into the snow and earth. It was soon joined by another cloven hoof, and together they pulled up the shadowy form of the Headless Horse, its long tail swishing furiously and the dark-black smoke of its neck swirling murderously.
They did not even take a glance at one another. In the span of a single heartbeat, Twilight and her band began to gallop down the plateau in earnest, with their headless adversary once more in hot pursuit.
“She fell of a freakin’ cliff!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “What’s it gonna take to kill her?”
“She’s already lost her head,” Applejack replied breathlessly. “Ah don’ reckon killin’ her’s gonna be so easy.”
“Oh yeah?” was all the rainbow-maned Pegasus mare said before she spun around in mid-air so that she faced the Headless Horse, took a big flap of her wings and produced a miniature twister that cycled madly towards the Headless Horse.
“Try and dodge that, brainless!” she boasted.
The Headless Horse then demonstrated, to the dismay of them all, that she was nothing if not crafty. She took a leap into the air, not to clear the twister, but to travel through its center. The instant that she left the ground, she began to spin wholly in the opposite direction of the rotation of Rainbow Dash’s twister. An empty and fell light began to shine from the scars on the Headless Horse’s flanks, and the twister dispelled itself, the Headless Horse landing no worse for wear and continuing to gallop unimpeded.
“…Okay, that was actually pretty cool,” Rainbow Dash muttered, before facing forwards once more.
Applejack sighed roughly.
“So Ah gotta handle this mahself, don’ Ah?” she grumbled, nosing her saddle-shell open and producing her trusty lasso. Finally gettin’ ta make use a’ this varmint, she thought to herself, slinging the looped end of the lasso towards one of the Headless Horse’s forehooves as she prepared to place it on the ground mid-gallop. The instant that her cloven hoof touched the snow, Applejack snapped her head in the other direction, tightening the lasso around the Headless Horse’s forearm just above the knee. Before even a dozenth of a second had passed and before the Headless Horse could even appropriately respond to what had happened, Applejack catapulted herself to the side as her lassoed foe continued to move forward. Using her prior momentum to her advantage, Applejack managed a complete circle around the Headless Horse as she began to try prying the rope off of her leg.
Applejack’s eyes flashed green, and the Headless Horse found her hooves suddenly adhering to the snowy earth as though entangled with roots. A twitch of Applejack’s head, and the Headless Horse began to spin around, the rope winding itself tightly around the Headless Horse’s legs as the decapitated mare struggled fruitlessly to free herself. Some deft ropework later, and Applejack crossed her left foreleg in front of her right over the Headless Horse.
“Trussed up like a turkey,” she said smugly as her lassoed enemy flailed about on the ground. “Now we jus’ gotta wait till she’s too tired ta hunt us down.”
“Nice work, Applejack!” smiled Twilight.
“But… why would you truss up a turkey?” Fluttershy asked frightfully, her cyan eyes wide with horror. “They’re really such nice birds.”
“Ah weren’ talkin’ ‘bout th’ turkey bird,” Applejack replied. “It’s some kinda monkey-turtle kinda animal, like a monkey with a sorta turtle shell. They cin crush a pony’s skull if they fall outta a tree, an’ they love climbin’ trees, so… ya gotta truss ‘em up.”
Twilight arched her head to the side, “Some ponies have insisted that it should be called the montle instead, but for some reason it just doesn’t stick. It doesn’t make sense…”
“What th’ drakonakis was goin’ through the minds a’ those science-ponies?” Applejack murmured. “It just muddies things up when ponies try ta talk ‘bout turkey-birds and turtle-monkey creatures.”
The sound of something tearing came to their ears. It seemed to be coming from the Headless Horse. Fearing the worst, they looked towards her.
The dark-black smoke from her throat had coalesced and solidified into an ebony sickle shaped exactly like a crescent moon, and had sliced through Applejack’s lasso as though it were made of wet tissue. The Headless Horse effortlessly shook off the shredded bits of rope, standing back to her full height and leveling her jet-black sickle over her back, the blade glimmering in the starlight.
Twilight screamed in frustration, her mane and tail bursting spontaneously into flames, her coat burning a pale-yellow and her eyes shining a bright red as she bellowed in Germane, “DU PFERDEÄPFEL FÜR GEHIRN HABENDES KOPFLOSES PFERD!”
Her alicorn lit up a bright pink as she gritted her teeth together. Before the Headless Horse could so much as take a step in their direction, it was engulfed in a flash of pink light, disappearing with the light.
Twilight heaved a deep sigh of relief, her mane and tail returning to their normal non-plasmic state, her eyes changing back to purple and her coat reverting to lavender. Her friends, who had taken several steps back from her in her incensed state, began to take tentative hoofsteps back towards her.
“Twilight…?” Fluttershy asked timidly. “Are you… alright?”
Taking a deep breath, Twilight gave Fluttershy a somber look.
“Sorry you had to see that. I’m very magically powerful, and when I get really mad or frustrated… well, you see what happened,” Twilight explained, slipping slightly on the puddle of melted snow water at her hooves. “I’ve taken to fire-proofing almost all of my possessions… though it doesn’t work on biological lifeforms,” she finished with flat ears.
“But as a Dragon, I have naturally fireproof magic all about me!” Spike added proudly.
Applejack looked only mildly more assured.
“Well, that’s swell an’ all, sugarcube, but where didja send that nasty headless ol’ snake?”
Twilight looked down from the plateau to some point beyond the swamps that were now so much closer to them.
“I winked the Headless Horse down to the bottom of the Horseshoe Bay. Even if she doesn’t have a head, she still has to breathe. Logically speaking, she’ll drown down there, and we’ll have one less pursuer.”
Twilight felt as though somepony was giving her a cross look. Glancing around, she spotted Pinkie Pie, whose blue eyes were currently narrowed at the lavender Unicorn.
“What?” Twilight asked.
“Your coat was changing color,” grumbled the pink party pony. “Why did you get on my case for my coat changing color?”
Twilight’s eyes widened in realization, before she fell back into her standard ‘explain something’ mode.
“There’s a difference to be made between our situations, Pinkie. See, my coat didn’t actually change color; it’s more like every bit of fur or hair on my body instantly assumed an ionized or plasmic state because of my high Thaumaturgical Quotient mixed with my very heated reaction. Basically, it’s like all of my fur and hair turned into fire.”
Pinkie’s eyes remained narrowed.
“What?” Twilight continued worriedly. “It’s not like I’m the first pony who’s done it. I mean, Queen Celestia has done it; it’s been documented. She lit up with sun-fire when―”
“Oh, you don’t need to keep flapping your gums, Twilight~” Pinkie beamed suddenly. “I was just wondering if you could do that when we get around to cooking s’mores~!”
Twilight’s jaw opened and closed involuntarily several times as she processed what had just happened. Finally, she made a small chuckling scoff and said, “Sure. We’ll see.”
“Umm, I’m glad that you’re feeling better now, Twilight,” Fluttershy said softly.
“So am I,” Spike said with his arms around Twilight’s neck. “And you got that nasty Headless Horse off our tails. That was awesome!”
Twilight smiled, “Thanks, Spike.”
Rarity looked out at the Horseshoe Bay pensively.
“Somethin’ on yer mind, Rare?” Applejack asked.
“Well…” Rarity replied. “I was just wondering: How did such a devastatingly frightening mare lose her head, anyway?”
“Well, it was on a dark and stormy night…” began Rainbow Dash, waving her forelegs ominously with a devilish smirk on her face.
Twilight’s eyes narrowed, “Not every scary story begins on a dark and stormy night, Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow Dash cast an irreverent glance at the lavender Unicorn, “Well, they should, ‘cause that’s awesome.”
“I’ll explain what I’m sure is the most widely known tale of the Headless Horse the rest of the way down the plateau.”
“…And then her entire family was never heard from again,” Twilight finished. “And that’s the tale of the Headless Horse. At least, that’s how Mom and Vati told it.”
Just about everypony whom Twilight had been speaking to looked very white at the conclusion of Twilight’s grisly tale. Even Pinkie looked ill at ease, her mane and tail actually uncurling very slightly.
“I didn’t like that version of the story,” she said in a shockingly timid voice. “I preferred the one my Mom and Dad told me.”
Spike, who had taken to the ground to try consoling Rarity, looked at Pinkie Pie in unease. “H-how did that version’s Headless Horse lose her head?”
Pinkie’s face showed a small smile.
“A great big rock fell on her head.”
Fluttershy squeaked in horror.
“That’s even worse!”
Pinkie gave Fluttershy a sympathetic look.
“It’s what the Pie family’s been telling their foals for farther back than I can remember. So it’s the one that I like.”
Fluttershy ran a hoof through her mane, “My mommy always told me that the Headless Horse never had a head. I feel bad for her.”
“Beg pardon, Fluttershy,” Applejack interjected, before briefly turning to Rainbow Dash, “an’ yours too, Rainbow. But that big ol’ snake-in-the-grass was tryin’ ta do us in. How cin ya be feelin’ bad fer her?”
Rainbow Dash looked off to some point past Applejack and Fluttershy, trying not to make eye contact with either pony.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t get it either, but I’m not gonna argue. Celestia knows I’ve been getting too short with Flutters this whole journey.”
“I don’t think anypony here wants to argue, darling,” Rarity added. “Still, it is a curious notion, Fluttershy.”
The butter-yellow Pegasus sank down to the ground, rubbing her hooves together ruefully.
“I don’t know why. I just… don’t think anypony should have no head. And I feel bad for her even though she tried to take us away because… I don’t know why. I really don’t. I just feel bad that this is all she knows: chasing, hunting…” Fluttershy gulped fearfully. “Trying to find a head that fits.”
Rainbow Dash put a foreleg around Fluttershy’s shoulder, and the pair smiled warmly at one another.
“Well, I think we can all relax now,” Twilight said with an attempt at a smile, “because we’ve made it down the plateau!”
Sure enough, they had left Labyrinth and the cliff overlooking the Hayseed Swamps, Horseshoe Bay and Baltimare long behind. Less than two-dozen paces ahead, the plateau’s edge came level with the edge of the Hayseed Swamps themselves. The snow was deeper here, but powdery, and the flurries had stopped about halfway through Twilight’s tale of the Headless Horse. Flowers feebly poked their heads out from under the snow, their pedals drooping miserably and their leaves shriveled. Some distance not too far away brought on the appearance of a modest forest topped with snow as if it were a pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar.
“Wh-where’s the road?” asked Fluttershy.
Applejack brought a foreleg above her eyes.
“Ah don’ see any signs. Not one in either direction. Looks like we’re way off th’ beaten path.”
“Dang it,” swore Rainbow Dash.
“Perhaps we can take shelter in that forest?” Rarity queried.
“In… that forest?” Fluttershy replied with surprising eagerness. “Maybe there are friendly animals in there! Like bunnies, and jackalopes, and hummingbirds that really hum, and buzzards that really buzz, and… oh, I can barely contain myself!”
“I don’t know…” Twilight pondered aloud. “If we go in there, we lose all light from the stars and Moon, so it’s bound to be exceptionally cold in there, even for these standards. On the other hoof―”
Rainbow Dash shoved a hoof over Twilight’s mouth, loudly shushing her. The cerulean Pegasus’s ears were swiveling in one particular direction, towards the north.
Towards Horseshoe Bay.
“Guys, I think we have company,” Rainbow Dash intoned grimly, removing her hoof from Twilight’s mouth.
Twilight did not even need to think twice about what this “company” could possibly be. Just how tenacious was the Headless Horse, and what would it take to get it to stop chasing them? Was there nothing they could do to lose it or deter it?
Twilight contented herself with hastily finishing her prior train of thought.
“On the other hoof, going in there means that it will be harder for any of NightMare Moon’s agents − or anypony else, for that matter − to find us. Everypony INTO THE FOREST!”
The band of seven galloped towards the largest gap in the trees with all the speed they could muster. The last one to cross the threshold was Rarity, who cast one last terrified glance over her shoulder as she entered the pitch-black forest.
An equine figure, tall, slender and headless, came to a stop on its southwards journey just at the lowest edge of the plateau. That infernal lavender Unicorn had succumbed to her rage and banished her − Her! − to the bottom of a freezing body of water. All the water’s weight and chill upon her body meant nothing in the face of such humiliation.
She would have Twilight Sparkle’s blood!
Twilight came to a stop, panting. All of this galloping constantly to evade the Headless Horse was beginning to wear away at her. While Twilight Sparkle never fancied herself a particularly athletic mare, she did like to think that she was fairly capable of a decent gallop every now and again. But these unrelenting encounters with the Headless Horse were not just wearing away at her mind, but her body as well. She almost felt her legs preparing to give out beneath her.
She would not be winning any fights if it came down to such.
“Is everypony here?” she asked tentatively. The forest seemed to have an uncanny closeness to it, as though all sounds died a hoof’s length away from her ears.
A claw grabbed her leg, and she startled in alarm.
“Mom, it’s me!” Spike cried out.
Blinking, Twilight could just make out the shape of her drake ward. She lit up her alicorn, and the trees around her and her son and their friends were illuminated in a pink aura.
All seven were here.
But this forest was as bad as Twilight had feared. Apart from the glow of her horn, it would have been impossible to see anything in this darkness. There was a cold, earthy smell about the place, and the air was very close. Thankfully, the soil was rather dry compared to the outside, fallen leaves crunching at her hooves.
Thank the Maker for small blessings, Twilight thought dryly.
“So, we should be safe-ish in here, right?” Rainbow Dash half-stated, half-asked.
“Potentially,” Twilight replied, “but we can’t bank on the Headless Horse leaving us be even if we’re in a forest. If anything, she’s at an advantage over us, because she doesn’t need light to track us down. That’s no reason to stay in the dark, though; I don’t think I can maintain this light continually if it comes to another confrontation, which it doubtlessly will.”
“So let’s see you make another sun~!” Pinkie said brightly.
Applejack brightened up noticeably. “Yeah, Ah think Pinkie’s got a swell idea there! We git light, an’ ya git ta take yer mind offa makin’ light!”
“Hey, yeah!” Rainbow Dash added. “You really should do that, Twi!”
“Girls, please settle down,” Rarity cut in. “You must understand that a Unicorn’s magic has its limits. We don’t want to be taxing Twilight so much while she’s under such stress and strain.”
Twilight gave Rarity a soft and sad smile.
“Thank you for thinking of me, Rarity, but I have another reason to think twice about heliogenesis.”
“What’s the damage?” asked Rainbow Dash.
“Well…” Twilight began. “I’m not sure if generating another heliogenesic sun will cause the one over Ponyville to dissipate. I don’t want them to freeze…” Her ears went limp, and her eyes shone with wavering sadness. “…Especially since my parents are there.”
Her five pony friends looked back and forth at each other uneasily. After several moments, each faced Twilight in turn.
Applejack spoke first, “Well, sugar, Ah fer one reckon thatcha better play it safe. Ah understand thatcher folks are important to ya.”
“I for one would be remiss to imagine my dear little Sweetie Belle to be subject to the brunt of the coldness of this dreadful night.”
“I… well, if it’s okay with you, I wouldn’t want Angel Bunny or any of my animal friends to get cold… I mean, only if it’s okay with you.”
“Let’s face it, it really wouldn’t be awesome to let Ponyville freeze.”
“Ponies need hot-from-the-oven pastries to keep happy, and it won’t be easy to make them if everypony else buys coal that Mr. and Mrs. Cake need to keep their ovens warm, and plants around Ponyville won’t grow if your sun disappears, and ponies will fight each other over the veggies and pastries that are left~”
Twilight cast a sharp eye at Pinkie for her reasoning which at first seemed rather innocuous and flaky but ended in a surprisingly logical anecdote for Pinkie Pie.
Spike cleared his throat, “You don’t think that Rarity could use her magic light to keep you from doing yours all the time, Mom?”
Twilight looked down at Spike with a faint imitation of a smile.
“That sounds like it would be a good idea, Spike, but we really should ask Rarity first.”
The sound of crunching leaves.
Twilight’s ears perked up. From the pink light it did not appear that anypony had moved their hooves into any patches of dead leaves.
That could only mean one thing.
“In a circle, girls!” she hissed.
In an instant each of the six mares formed a circle around Spike, each facing outwards, with Twilight and Rarity at diametric opposites from one another with their alicorns aglow. Pink and periwinkle lights played across each of the passing trees, narrow and broad, and would easily betray any approaching figures. But thus far it did not appear that anything had encroached upon their location. Indeed, the surrounding forest seemed to be entirely devoid of life; even insects seemed to have vanished, leaving the surroundings deafeningly silent. Hearts pounding, their eyes strained for the faintest movement between the trees, their ears perked for the quietest sound. Twilight did a slight double-take with a skip of her heart at the sight of movement, but sighed in relief as she realized that it was just a tree swaying in the breeze.
Then her heart stopped.
She could hear no wind.
“GIRLS, BEHIND ME!” she screamed, her alicorn so brightly alit that it almost glowed white. Her friends complied immediately, the Headless Horse charging at full speed.
In a panic, Twilight clenched shut her eyes and cast the first spell that came to her mind.
The Headless Horse feared nothing. There was nothing above or below Harmonia that could give her pause. There was nothing that could deter her from her cause.
Nothing but this!
A searing orb of uncommonly bright light floated right at the tip of Twilight Sparkle’s alicorn.
The act of heliogenesis did what nothing else could do. Not flashlights, bubbles, extendo-horseshoes, winking out into the ocean could have possibly evoked fear in the Headless Horse.
Opening her eyes, Twilight found herself agape in astonishment at the recoiling headless abomination. The heliogenesic sun hovered like a shield in between her, her companions and the Headless Horse. It was as if the light of day was something that it was completely unaccustomed to deal with…
And it clicked.
Twilight smirked at the Headless Horse, “Skulking around in the dark too long, were you? Well, I’ll let you know that Queen Celestia’s Sun burns in all of our hearts, and you can never extinguish it! You can tell that to your ‘Queen’ up at Canterlot, let them know that we’re here, and that the Sun is not so easily snuffed out, as long as there are those who want to look towards the dawn!”
The quavering Headless Horse took some steps back, the dark-black smoke of its neck twisting about in agony as it attempted to shrink away from the pseudo-daylight.
Filled with vindication, Twilight magically nudged the heliogenesic sun closer to the Headless Horse, which reared up in terror at the Sun and galloped off into the shadows between the trees back to the east.
There were sighs of relief and cheers of joy behind Twilight, and she felt Spike’s arms thrown around one of her hind legs. The Headless Horse was gone! Not vanquished, but as long as she remembered that Twilight Sparkle held the power to generate imitation Suns, the Headless Horse would not be returning to deal with them again anytime soon.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” cheered Rainbow Dash.
“That’ll learn that Headless Horse!” Applejack concurred.
Twilight scratched the ground nervously with a cloven hoof.
“Well, I am glad that we’ve shaken her off, but… I’m thinking about Ponyville right now. I’m worried that this new sun here…” She looked to the orb of bright light and heat floating at her head’s height in the small clearing, “has replaced the heliogenesic sun over Ponyville.”
Pinkie Pie popped from out of a tree’s knothole next to Twilight, “If you’re worried, can’t you just wink out back to Ponyville really quickly and then wink on back right here to let us know if the sun is still there and that you had to magically replace it again if it wasn’t there even though we would probably know that it was gone just from the sun going out here because the sun was brought back there by your magic and―”
“Pinkie,” Twilight said lightly but patiently, placing a sapphire hoof over Pinkie’s muzzle, “I got what you were saying four-dozen-and-ten words ago, and I will get right on it. Queen Celestia devised this spell to work with an ancillary spell that exposes the points at which the supplementary sun rises and sets… if a supplementary sun is in place.”
She faced her palomino Earth Pony friend and mulberry drake son.
“Applejack, Spike, you two will keep everypony safe.”
Applejack smirked, “Ya cin count on us, Twilight.”
Spike pointed a claw at Twilight sharply, “I won’t let you down!”
Twilight gave Spike one last little squeezing hug before her alicorn lit and she plunged into the singularity of a wink-out.
“You! Declare yourselves!”
Five mares and a drake turned in shock at the unfamiliar male voice. Just at the edge of the circle of the heliogenesic sun’s light were a pair of cloven hooves attached to a brown body with tall curled antlers.
Twilight emerged into the Saddle Valley, less than a gross paces out of Ponyville if her calculations were correct. She should have been very close to the sunsetting end of the parabolic arc of her heliogenesic sun, where it would have been easy to tell if the sun sat below the horizon. The air was cold and her hooves were almost up to the elbow in a patch of snow, but the intricacies of the heliogenesis spell would allow her to tell where it rose and where it set. The mark was, once the ancillary spell was cast, a golden circle with Queen Celestia’s cutie mark floating above it.
Gritting her teeth, Twilight aligned the correct spell matrices in her alicorn, bringing forth the ancillary heliogenesis spell.
Almost immediately, a patch of exposed grass and earth fewer than a dozen paces ahead and to her right began to flash a bright gold, a shimmering yellow circle with shining orange radiants emerging around it: Queen Celestia’s cutie mark, a stylized image of the Sun which she moved through the Cosmic Aether.
Twilight smiled. This was good news indeed. Now it was time to −
“THERE SHE IS!”
Twilight bolted on instinct, glancing up at the skies over Ponyville.
Figures in jet-black armor accented with silvery-sharp secateurs were flying at here with all speed, some with feathery wings, some with leathery wings. Pale-blue eyes glowed with a deathly glow.
No doubt these were the Nightmare Guard.
Gathering her thoughts, Twilight fell into the infinitely dense realm between winking out and winking in, emerging back into the heliogenesic-sun-lit forest where her friends had been…
And startled at the sound of a tree branch falling, a bone snapping and a howl of pain. It was not of a voice she had heard before.
“Holy Tartarus!” cried Applejack, rearing back from the source of the noise, which Twilight eyed with mild fear and pity.
It was a Deer stag, taller by half than any of them; even Applejack would have only just reached his underbelly. His antlers were tall and curved, but his brown speckled fur was matted as if by lack of care. He had a thick growth of dark-brown fur between his antlers. He was presently felled by a large tree branch, one of his hind legs bent at an odd angle, and his amber eyes were narrowed at the band of ponies around him with sharp suspicion.
“What are you doing in this forest, ponies?” he asked in a surprisingly steady voice, attempting to pull his leg out from under the branch.
“Please, don’t move your leg too much!” Fluttershy said with fervor. “Twilight, Rarity, please use your magic to pull it off!”
“Why should they?” Rainbow Dash groused. “He charged us and tried to take us out. He deserved this.”
Fluttershy gave her special somepony a stern gaze.
“He might have or he might not have, but he still deserves help.”
She looked back to her two Unicorn friends with a plea in her eyes.
Sharing a glance between themselves, Twilight and Rarity set about readying the most basic Unicorn spell: levitation. The tree branch glowed pink and periwinkle, floating up and off of the stag and depositing itself out of the circle of trees and false sunlight.
The stag glanced back and forth between Rarity and Twilight, before speaking slowly, “One of you was not here before. How did you arrive so quickly? Was it Pony magic?”
Twilight nodded, “I winked in.”
The stag scowled, “I did not need your help, you know. I am a deer. I could have thrown that branch off easily.”
Once more the stag attempted to draw himself up to his hooves, but Fluttershy actually flew up to him and placed forehooves firmly on his barrel.
“Please, you must rest yourself and let us tend to you!”
“Why? You Ponies intrude in our forest, and I by my honor as a stag should see you driven out. How do I know that you are not all beholden to the Dark Mare?”
Rainbow Dash cocked a rainbow eyebrow, “Really? You find us all standing around this thing,” she pointed at the heliogenesic sun, “and you think that we’re working for NightMare Moon?”
The stag glowered, “How do I know that that is not the real Sun, torn down from the heavens by the Dark Mare herself? How do I know that you were not all set to the task of guarding it from us light-lovers?”
“Because,” Twilight explained, “the Sun is not that small. The Sun is roughly a gigagross miles across, and is approximately a gross-of-gigagross miles away from our planet.”
“Besides,” interjected Pinkie Pie, “we saw the Sun when we were all in Pundamilia just over a week ago, and it’s stuck floating over the Griffons and the Qílín and all the other peoples living over in Aspicia~!”
“Well, not all of them, really,” continued Twilight. “Neighpon and the Hippogriff Archipelago sit just at the edge of nighttime, and Prance, Germaney and the Shire are stuck in pre-morning dusk.”
Just about everyone − pony, drake and stag all − boggled at Twilight for her statement.
“Seriously, how did you figure all that out?” gasped Rainbow Dash.
Twilight placed a hoof on her chest in pride, “Judging by the position of the Sun in the sky of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, coupled with my diegetic memory of a globe of our planet, I was able to figure out exactly where the divisions of day and night currently fall on Harmonia!”
Rainbow Dash made a cough that sounded suspiciously like, “Egghead!” Twilight decided to ignore it.
The stag looked at Twilight with slightly less furrowed eyebrows.
“You speak with intelligence, and you do not hesitate. You are not committing falsehood. What is your name?”
The stag bowed his head lowly.
“I bear the honorable name of Fuzzhead.”
Applejack and Rainbow Dash started to snicker, attempting to smother it with loud coughing fits and their own hooves. Fuzzhead gave the pair of them withering looks.
“Laugh if you must, but mine is a name of prestige dating back to the Age of Discord.”
Rainbow Dash nodded, “Yeah, yeah, sorry pal,” with a grin too wide to be considered apologetic.
“Please, Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy said stiffly. “Leave Mister Fuzzhead be. He really needs to be tended to.”
“I thought I said that I did not need your help!” snapped Fuzzhead.
“But why not?” Rarity replied with an edge to her voice. “I thought that it has been made abundantly clear that this sun is not the Sun, and that we as a group do not mean ill for you or anyone!”
“It was the will of the world that I should be so felled here,” Fuzzhead said with bowed head. “I would rather rot here knowing that I could have injured innocents.”
“Rainbow Dash, go find the straightest branches that you can find and bring them here,” said Fluttershy. There was something in her eyes that was almost akin to the Stare that she had administered to the Wide Plains Hemolupe, some force or strength of will that glimmered around the edges of her irises which somehow inspired obeisance despite the cerulean Pegasus’s objections.
“Sure thing, Flutters,” she said before darting off into the trees outside of the circle.
Fluttershy turned to Pinkie Pie.
“Pinkie, go find some sort of vines; we’ll need bindings if this splint is going to work out.”
“Will these streamers do the trick~?” Pinkie replied, producing a bundle of multicolored streamers from out of seeming nowhere.
To Fluttershy’s credit, she only blinked and replied with a faint smile, “That… will do nicely, actually! If we just stretch them out and cut them at just the right place…”
“You seem to belabor under the notion that I will let you help me recover,” grumbled Fuzzhead.
“If I might ask, sir,” Twilight cut in, “why don’t you want anyone to help you with that leg?”
Fuzzhead averted his eyes.
“Nodeer will miss me. I am alone in my herd. So I have taken to being scout for us.”
“‘Us’? You mean that you’re not from Cervin?”
Fuzzhead met Twilight’s eyes.
“Our ancestors left Cervin ages ago, taking up this forest as our home. And despite my honorable name, I have long been set aside by my fellow deer. In order to be perceived as more useful to my own people, I took to patrolling our borders for any oddities or intruders. In all this time, I have not caused harm to any travelers I had good cause to believe were kind at heart. But it did nothing to assuage my treatment by the herd.”
Fuzzhead’s eyes swam with emotion.
“Please, leave me here to my fate.”
“What a load of horse-manure!” piped in Rainbow Dash, who deposited a small bundle of long straight sticks at Fluttershy and Fuzzhead’s hooves.
Fluttershy smiled at Rainbow Dash, “Thank you, Dashie,” before kissing her fiancée on the cheek. Rainbow Dash’s cheeks flushed pink before she perched up on a low-hanging branch.
“‘Horse-manure’, you say?” growled Fuzzhead. “Are you insulting me and my honor?”
Rainbow Dash glowered.
“No, I’m saying that maybe the reason your herd doesn’t like you is that maybe you weren’t giving ‘em reason to. Haven’t you ever thought that maybe your holier-than-thou attitude might get some Deers a little testy, Fuzzy?”
Fuzzhead’s eyes flashed, “Did you just call me―?”
“Please, stop moving!” Fluttershy said firmly, pushing the stag back down onto his side. She had been busy setting the sticks out, determining which ones were best for the brace. Finally, she set her hooves to Fuzzhead’s broken leg.
“Now, please don’t be mad at me,” she said softly. “It’s lucky that this was just a dislocated joint, or you’d be a lot less lucky a Deer. This will still hurt a bit, though.”
Twilight knew what Fluttershy was about to do, closing her eyes tightly just as Fluttershy began to twist her forelegs around Fuzzhead’s hind leg. A loud SNAP filled the air, and Fuzzhead let out a louder scream than when the branch had knocked him down, prompting everypony to flatten their ears in alarm and Spike to clamp his claws over his fins.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mister Fuzzhead,” pleaded Fluttershy, “but I have to do this to help your recovery.”
“Why…?” gasped Fuzzhead, blinking back tears of pain. “I tried to charge you. Do I not deserve your resentment? Why help somedeer who tried to hurt you?”
“Because you didn’t know any better,” replied Fluttershy with a kind and loving smile. “Just like everyone who ever tried to hurt anyone else ever. Some ponies would hurt others because they don’t see any other way of dealing with them. But there is never a reason not to be kind. And if we don’t show kindness even to those who would hurt us, then we’re really no better, are we? It’s only through kindness that we can change a bad pony’s heart and make them see what it’s like to be nice.”
Twilight looked at Fluttershy in wonder. She knew that Fluttershy had a very gentle heart, but had previously assumed the sheer depth of her goodness to be simple naïveté. But knowing now that Fluttershy had faced bullying in the past and remained relatively stable − if somewhat withdrawn − Twilight realized just how deeply Fluttershy’s loving nature ran. The butter-colored mare was so utterly optimistic in her fellow Harmonians that it was infectious. Just listening to Fluttershy’s words made Twilight think that perhaps all of the problems she’d ever had with anypony in Canterlot could be solved with simple kindness. Maybe even…
Twilight was brought back out of her reverie by Fluttershy placing her saddle-shell on the ground next to Fuzzhead.
“Now, Mister Fuzzhead, I’m going to need you to lift your bad leg up for a moment, while I place my saddle-shell down under your hoof. I’m going to need some room to apply the bindings for this splint.”
Looking at Fuzzhead, Twilight was pleasantly surprised to see that she was not the only one affected by Fluttershy’s small monologue. The stag was giving her a look of sparkly-eyed awe, lifting his bad leg with gritted teeth as Fluttershy nosed her saddle-shell under Fuzzhead’s raised hoof, making certain that it was steady before nodding at the stag to rest his hoof.
“Now, Rarity, I’m going to need you to help me with the bindings, while I place the sticks in… in place.”
“Anything for you, darling,” smiled Rarity, taking Pinkie’s streamers in her dwimmer shimmer and stretching them out taut, comparing lengths and wordlessly deciding which one would be most suited for the task.
“Well,” the alabaster Unicorn broke her silence, “I don’t think that green is very suitable against the brown of your coat, Mister Fuzzhead. Red is perhaps rather… inappropriate in lieu of the injury you’ve sustained. Yellow is not a pleasant mix with brown in the slightest, believe me. Pink, perhaps? Or blue?” Rarity levitated the two remaining streamers hesitatingly in front of her face, an amethyst eyebrow quirked upwards in pensivity.
“Fer pony’s sake, Rarity, it don’ matter what th’ color is, so long as it holds!” Applejack interjected irritatedly.
Rarity recoiled at Applejack’s raised voice, but chuckled sheepishly as she set the pink streamer aside. Fluttershy had been setting the sticks parallel to Fuzzhead’s dislocated leg, before turning to face Twilight.
“Twilight, do you think that you could levitate the sticks in place for Rarity and her bindings?”
“Of course, Fluttershy,” Twilight replied smilingly, the sticks raising up in a bright pink glow, hovering in place alongside Fuzzhead’s leg. Twilight took care to see that the longer stick with a fork at the end was the one set on the inside of the dislocated leg, to act as a brace to distribute the weight away from Fuzzhead’s bad limb. A smaller, shorter stick hovered in place just under the stag’s hoof.
At a nod from Twilight, Rarity began to wind the blue streamers taut around the branches on either side of Fuzzhead’s leg, making certain to bind the three branches to each other and to the stag’s leg with the streamers, the two long branches acting as a brace while the twig at the bottom served as a support to prevent unnecessary weight upon Fuzzhead’s leg.
Fluttershy took a step back from her handiwork, offering Fuzzhead a small smile, which he faintly returned.
“It looks really good, Fluttershy,” commented Twilight sincerely. “Just… give me a moment.”
The entire splint which Fluttershy had fashioned began to sparkle with what looked like bright pink stars, branches and streamers. When the twinkles cleared away, it became clear that the branches now held a cobalt sheen to them. Rarity’s eyes, smudged with runny makeup, widened in wonder at the magic that had been worked along with the eyes of Applejack and Spike.
“I thaumaturgically bonded the streamers and the branches together, so that the splint will hold much better,” explained Twilight.
“Really?” replied Fluttershy with mild astonishment. “Thank you, Twilight.”
She turned to face Fuzzhead again.
“Now, Mister Fuzzhead, if it’s okay with you, do you think you could test your weight on the splint? Carefully now.”
Looking tentatively at the splint that the ponies around him had forged for him, Fuzzhead hesitantly lifted himself onto his three good legs while keeping as much weight off of his splinted leg as he could. Slowly, he lifted it off of Fluttershy’s saddle-shell and gingerly let it settle onto the forest floor. After a few moments of testing how much weight he felt comfortable putting on the splint, he gave each mare in turn a small smile.
“I shall be able to walk again with this, although I will not be charging anyone down with speed until I have recovered fully,” said Fuzzhead. “I thank each and every one of you.”
“But be sure to keep your full weight off of that until you feel comfortable on it,” Fluttershy insisted. “Even when the splint comes off you should still be gentle on that leg and wait until your muscles have fully recuperated.”
“I will bear that in mind,” Fuzzhead replied. “Your kindness truly knows no bounds…”
“Fluttershy,” the butter-colored Pegasus replied. “My name is Fluttershy.”
Twilight smiled at the ordinarily timid mare, and for the first time since the hemolupe saw the strength of Fluttershy’s heart. There had been many times in this trek across the stagnating planet when Twilight almost regretted roping Fluttershy into this horrible business. The Whisperer had proven to be timid and all too ready to flee from danger (or the perception of such), such that there were times that she seemed to be more of a load on the party than an aid. In the start, Twilight perhaps thought that bringing along Fluttershy helped to fill out the roster of six ponies, as Twilight recalled Queen Celestia’s words in one of their private lessons:
“There was a time, my dearest Twilight, when Harmony was thought to be lost from our world. The very heavens above shone with the destruction of scores of worlds colliding with one another and with the stars in the Firmament itself. And on Harmonia itself, order and peace were almost forgotten for an unmeasured many years. Elysium would have been a mercy. But six stood against discord, equipped with Harmony’s implements, eager to see the dawn of a new era of peace and love. I always hope that there will be six Pony hearts so eager when the Elements of Harmony are needed once more…”
Now that she thought back to that day, Twilight Sparkle realized that the Queen of the Nychthemeron would have been aware of the return of NightMare Moon for grossenturies, if not from the moment that Forget-Me-Not made her prophecy the year after the Night Queen’s banishment. If the Queens were truly involved in the creation of the Elements of Harmony, then surely they would be most knowledgeable of the methods of activating them.
The six Elements of Harmony.
Each of these six mares had to represent each of them.
It was going to involve their friendships synchronized between each other all at once to overthrow the Miasma’s hold on the Night Queen’s mind once and for all, annihilating NightMare Moon for all time.
Returning to the outside world, Twilight focused on Fluttershy as she closely inspected Fuzzhead’s splint.
The yellow mare looked at Twilight.
“You really are the kindest mare I’ve ever met. I’m honored to call you my friend.”
Fluttershy smiled back.
“Thank you, Twilight. That was very sweet of you.”
She leaned down to pick up her saddle-shell by the buckle…
Withdrawing in alarm as it lit up in a pink dwimmer shimmer…
Twilight wincing at Fluttershy’s alarm, the pink light around the saddle-shell dissipating in an instant…
The saddle-shell snapping open the instant that it hit the ground, the shards of Fluttershy’s Element of Harmony spilling out along with the other contents of her saddle-shell.
Twilight barely had time to sheepishly smile at Fluttershy before a bright green glow began to emit from the shards of rock on the frosty leafy ground.
A fourth Element was activated!