“The others are waiting inside.”
“Thank you, darling. You’ve been absolutely lovely.”
As their guardsman escort stammered his blushing farewells, the jetlagged Rarity and Applejack entered the palace parlor for some much needed rest. That rest, however, would have to wait as the instant the door opened, the pair were summarily assaulted by a large, pink cannonball.
“Omigosh, you’re finally here!” Pinkie Pie squealed as she latched onto her friends with the tenacity of a barnacle. “I missed you guys sooooooo much!”
“Oof! Er… Pinkie?” Applejack winced as her internal organs rearranged themselves within the over exuberant embrace. “You realize it’s only been like, a week since we left, right?”
“Trueeeee…” the pink one intoned. “But I was getting so worried because we were all back and you weren’t and I was starting to wonder whether the dragons had gobbled you up or something, but it’s okay now because you’re here and definitely not gobbled! Yippee!”
“She does kinda have a point,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “When you send a marshmallow and an apple fritter to a bunch of dragons, you sort of expect a little nibbling at least.”
“Well, this marshmallow for one has returned in a decidedly un-nibbled state,” Rarity huff, just slightly miffed at being compared to a fluffy confectionary; just because she was so delightfully sweet and looked good in white did not make her a marshmallow. However, this sentiment quickly gave way to a tired sigh as she continued.
“Unfortunately, we also return with not much in the way of success either.”
“The Enclave isn’t going to come?” Twilight asked in alarm.
“Ain’t lookin’ good,” Applejack shrugged. “Seems like there was a lot more bad blood between us than we thought. Said they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, so it’s not a total loss, but, well… I’d bet bits to boll weevils we won’t be seein’ scale nor claw any time soon.”
The news, which had gone to Celestia and Luna not ten minutes before, got the same reaction from their friends as the princesses. In terms of raw power, the dragons were a more formidable force than even Equestria’s armies. Their might would not be easily replaced, and it was such thoughts that led to somber moods all around.
For a moment.
“Well, if they’re going to be meanies about it like that, then… then poo to them,” Fluttershy huffed like an angry little bunny. “Our friends, the Griffons, have already started coming in, so it’s not like we’re going to be alone in all this.”
“True dat,” Rainbow Dash laughed. “Seems like Fluttershy’s fan club got the ball rolling on that one.”
“Fan club?” Rarity asked with eyebrow arched in great interest. Before the blushing girl was forced to respond, Pinkie – as always – interrupted at a most opportune time.
“Ooh! Ooh! Me too! So it looks like all of Twilight’s egghead buddies are coming in as well and they’ll be helping out with everything too! Isn’t that great?”
“For the last time, Pinkie,” Twilight cried with exasperation, “they’re not my “egghead buddies.” They’re the Tower mages and they’re going to double, if not triple our magical arsenal. The least you could do is be nice.”
“But I am being nice,” Pinkie Pie replied with a frown of confusion. “Why would I be anything but nice to your amazing egghead buddies?”
Twilight just threw her hands in the air as if she really no longer cared.
“So it look like y’all met with a heap more good luck than we did,” Applejack smiled as the welcomed news did a great deal to boost her morale. “That’s good. Can you imagine what it’d be like tryin’ tah do this all on our own?”
“For you guys, it’s probably gonna be a whole lot more than imagination.”
Turning around, the six girls smiled as Shining Armor came strolling with his usual confident grin. Well, almost.
“Geez, brother,” Twilight called with a mix of standard sisterly badgering and more genuine concern. “It doesn’t look like you’ve slept at all since I left.” This was, as far as Twilight was concerned, a fairly accurate statement. Though he smiled, the guard captain’s pallor was not exactly the rosy shade of health and the dark circles under his eyes were deep enough to serve as wells. Nevertheless, his cheer never wavered as he took up his little sister in a hair tousling hug.
“Ah, just a little worn out. It’s like cramming for finals all over again,” he laughed.
“If you’d just followed the study schedule like I’d planned, then you wouldn’t have had to cram in the first place,” Twilight huffed as she pinched her brother in reply.
“Twiley, nobody could follow your schedules,” Shining Armor wryly answered. “You can’t just schedules the call of nature every forty-seven minutes. Life doesn’t work like that.”
“No way. She scheduled your potty breaks?” Rainbow Dash sniggered. “Egghead extraordinaire right here.”
“I was only eight, okay?” Twilight huffed as not just a little color came to her cheeks. But, deciding that avoidance would probably be easier than explaining, she turned back to her brother in order to turn the conversation. “So, what brings you here? Can’t imagine the high command is giving you much free time to run around these days.”
“Official business, actually,” Shining Armor replied as his expression grew intent. “Now that you’re all back, Celestia needs you to head up for a final briefing. We’ve figured out how we’re sending you in.”
And just like that, smiles faded and gave way to varying shades of resolute determination. Everybody was busy getting ready to do their part in the upcoming war, so it was high time they did the same.
Following Shining Armor’s lead, the Ponyville girls headed through the palace’s still bustling halls towards Celestia’s personal audience chamber, a location usually staffed by eight honor guards but now stood reduced to two. There was simply too much going on for any able bodies to go to waste.
Nodding in recognition, the skeleton crew pulled open the ornately carved doors and ushered the group in. There, amidst a sea of papers, maps and reports and all manners of official documents cluttering the room in haphazard piles, stood the three leaders of the emergency state. The princess sisters, usually so poised and regal, were a shade less so with their aurora hair in disarray (how one can even dishevel an aurora defies comprehension, but nevertheless, it was so) and looking like they could have used a fresh pot of coffee three pots ago. General Ironside, with a grim set to his already hard face, looked as if he’d spent the last week headbutting his way through brick walls and was steeling himself for another round.
One look at the arriving girls though, and all that weariness faded beneath broad smiles of delight.
“A fine day to you, ladies,” Ironside boomed with hearty laugh that had lost none of its impact, even during the trying times. “How’d you like your little vacations across the bright blue yonder?”
“Oh, it was very lovely, thank you,” Fluttershy squeaked with a hasty curtsy. “The Griffons were just wonderful.”
“You did good work out there,” the general nodded with words of sincerest praise. “Having the Imperium standing with us alongside the Tower will actually give us a fighting chance. Shame about the Enclave though.”
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Applejack grimaced as she reached for her Stetson. “We tri–”
A calloused hand rose up to cut off her words.
“No need for apologies,” Ironside rumbled. “Even if you do everything you can and more, some things are just out of our control. That’s life.”
Though he spoke these as words of consolation to Applejack, his glance was towards Rarity, perhaps the only one who truly understood the meaning behind his words. The loss they suffered now was for a world they’d once saved. Hard choices and hard prices, but ones that had to be made. Understanding, the young beauty gave a slight nod in reply.
“So Princess Celestia, Princess Luna… is everything alright?” Twilight asked.
“As well as can be expected, with Armageddon looming overhead,” Luna replied with a wry smile before catching herself. “Pardon me. These last few days have been tiring and my sense of humor is a little off kilter.”
“A sentiment I’m sure we can all understand,” Celestia chuckled. “But we can worry about that later. Right now, the time is meant for you.” With a wave of her ivory wand, Celestia summoned up a hologram of the world, an irregular sphere of monochrome green that showed the planet in remarkable detail. Another flick sent the sphere rotating around till the girls were looking upon the continent upon which Equestria sat. The glowing point marking their location in Canterlot spurred a straight shot toward the western sides of the Snowspire Mountains, after which there was… nothing. Just a large expanse of empty space with a final, glowing point somewhere in the middle.
“Our plan relies on you, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony,” the solar sovereign explained. “On the day of the spring equinox, my sister and I will open the Gate of Tartarus to give you access to Nul’s prison. Using the power of the elements, you will seal the breach in his cage and prevent any more of his corruption from entering the world.”
“Um, Princess Celestia,” Twilight called out nervously. “Isn’t the spring equinox three weeks away from now? Does it have to be that quickly?”
“I’m afraid it does,” Celestia nodded sadly. “It is one of two days when the night and day are truly equal and thus the powers of my sister and I are in greatest harmony. Apart from these days, we would not have enough control to select which gates to open, and waiting till the fall may very well be too late.”
Twilight fell silent. She wanted to argue, find some flaw in Celestia’s explanation, but it was as sound as a peer-reviewed thesis.
“Your journey will be a difficult one,” Luna grimaced. “In truth, the Savage Lands have changed much since we were last strong enough to gaze upon it, and we have very little information on the terrain where Tartarus lies. That we may not offer you greater aid in this regard is to our great shame.”
“Princess, please!” Rarity called out, alarmed and quite thoroughly scandalized to find that the princess was actually inclining her head to them. “There’s no need to apologize for what you just couldn’t do.”
“She’s right,” Fluttershy chimed in with softer, but equal intent. “Nobody’s blaming you for anything, so we should just think of the ways to make this all go well, right?”
“You are wise beyond your years,” Luna smiled gratefully. “In any case, your plan is as simple as always. In one week’s time, when preparations are completed, we will send you past the mountains and onto the edge of the Savage Lands. We would fly you further, but the magical energies in the air and other beasts would make it a foolhardy move.”
“Then it’s just a good old fashioned ground and pound,” Ironside barked with laughter as he joined in as well. “You lot will be hoofing it through the bush till you get to the gate. Once you’re in place, you just use this.” From the inside of his coat, the general pulled forth a small glass vial containing a flicker of emerald flames.
“Ooh, is that a stasis field?” Twilight cooed as she looked on with an insightful interest that none of her friends quite shared.
“Even through the magical interference, dragon fire is strong enough to overcome it, meaning Spike’s breath will allow you us to exchange simple messages,” Shining Armor grinned. “Once that happens, we’ll pop our gate, then pop yours, and down you go.”
“Down?” Applejack blinked. “Is that another one of yer fancy military lingoes?”
“If only it were so,” Celestia replied. “Though we imprisoned Nul in another dimension, we still sealed that space at the center of the earth. In order to repair that seal, you’re going to have to go to where the source of the problem is.”
“Okay,” Pinkie Pie chimed in, “so I’m as big a fan of spelunking as the next girl – unless that next girl is my sister Maude because let me tell you, ain’t nobody as big a fan of spelunking as her – but I’m still concerned about one teensy little problem. How in the name of cherry sasparilla are we supposed to get back out after that?!”
“I believe I might have a solution!”
With a grand swing open of the doors to the interior room, a tall, thin man with fabulous hair and a fine blue suit leaped in with a cross-eyed girl hot on his heels.
“Hello there! Jolly good to meet all of you, don’t you know? Oh, would you look at that, I’ve got chills!” the man grinned as he made his rapid way about shaking the hands of all the Ponyville girls.
“Um… Princess?” Applejack asked as she warily eyed the overly exuberant man. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, me?” the thin man smiled. “I’m The Doctor.”
“Doctor who?” Fluttershy inquired.
“Just The Doctor.”
“Of?” Pinkie blinked.”
“Everything really,” the doctor grinned. “Oh, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with my companion here.”
“Hello!” Derpy called with a cheery wave.
“Okay…” Rainbow nodded with the same confidence she had in one of Pinkie’s experimental cupcakes. “Why do we need a doctor, anyway? What’s he doing here?”
“It’s quite strange, really,” Luna replied with pursed lips. “We were in the middle of a conference on exactly how to get you safely out after you finished sealing Nul, when this most peculiar grinding sound came from the hall. The next thing you know, these two appear and offered a most ingenious solution.”
“Oh, it was nothing, really,” The Doctor giggled with an airy wave. “All I did was suggest that we apply the ideas behind your message in a jar to a phase-shifting temporal distortion within a dimensional boundary line and attach the whole lot to a fixed time point for easy transference. Simple stuff, really.”
They all blinked, but Applejack spoke.
“Um… what now?”
With a grand flourish, The Doctor reached into his coat and pulled out a crystal tube the length of his palm, one which contained what seemed to be a swirling vortex of fiery lights contained in a globe of pristine gold.
“I call it an Instant Transferal Device,” he grinned before just as suddenly frowning. “No, wait, that’s a terrible name. Utter rubbish really. Derpy, what would you call it?”
“Well, it’s in a tube, and it makes a big kaboom when you break it,“ the straw-haired girl mused. “How about a boom tube?”
“I love it!” The Doctor gushed. “Boom tubes! We could make these and sell them out of a little shop! I do love a little shop! But anyway, more on that later. As my dear Derpy says, this is a boom tube. When the containment is breached, it’ll release a big old bubble that’ll gobble you up and spit you out right back in this very room. You can be anywhere in the world and all it’ll take is a little toss and you’re right back where you started.”
“Hold on a second,” Twilight frowned as her brain processed the explanation. “Are you saying that… you actually… you actually figured out long distance teleportation?!”
“Oh no, that was all Derpy,” The Doctor grinned as he pulled the cross-eyed girl in for a fierce, one-armed hug. “The distortions around those Savage Lands were making life a terrible pain, but Derpy here had the brilliant notion of using not one, but two equal yet opposing reference points at the same time. It’s like looking in two directions at once so no matter which way you go, you’re always right. Absolutely brilliant!”
Derpy just beamed like puppy in a room full of tennis balls.
“But… but even so…” the young scholar gaped. “The sheer amount of energy it would take to do that should defy any kind of conventional containment field!”
“Aw, where’s the fun in conventional?” The Doctor smiled. “Funny thing about time and space is that it can get all… wibbly-wobbly. I fanagled it so that the tubes are actually a lot bigger on the inside. Still the dickens to get the stuff packed in even so, like teaching a horse to dance. Not pleasant for me or the horse but the important thing is that the dress is on and everyone’s happy.”
“All this to say,” Celestia interjected as she saw a very familiar look of predatory intent appear in her pupil’s eyes, “is that The Doctor and Derpy created the lifelines we needed to bring you back home. Once you finish sealing Nul, all you need to do is shatter these tubes and you’ll be instantly brought back to Canterlot, safe and sound.”
“Now that’s what I call fancy!” Pinkie Pie grinned. “How many of these you got?”
“Just the seven you’ll be carrying,” Celestia answered. “These, er… boom tubes are incredibly difficult to make, and it will be several more days before we even have enough for each of you. This is why we will Inscribe them onto you to ensure they remain with you: they are simply too valuable to lose.”
“As long as we choose the color,” Rarity shrugged with gracious aplomb.
“Remember, you must be there by the spring equinox,” Luna continued as she raised her ebony wand, “for your sake as well as ours.” A quick flick spun the globe again and magnified it three fold to bring focus upon a glowing point far in the north. With the intricate detail of the image, the girls could even make out where frozen, windswept wastes hid behind a wall of jagged mountains.
“Before we open Tartarus, we will first open Hel and allow Nul’s darkness into the world,” the lunar princess explained. “This darkness will funnel through the Jotun Pass–”
“And that’s where we come in” Shining Armor chuckled as he pointed towards the glowing line. “While you’ve been out and about, we’ve been getting ready here. The entire pass has been fortified and we’ve got our engineers making sure that we’ve got every barrier and ward in place and locked down tighter than mom’s cookie jar. Even Nul’s gonna have a tough time cracking this nut.”
“That’s what we’re hoping at least,” Ironside growled as a low fire began to burn behind ice-blue eyes. “We’ll hold out as long as it takes, but if you could be in place to pop the seal on Tartarus right after ours, you can bet we’d be mighty appreciative.”
“Get in, lock the sucker up, and make a quick getaway,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, I think we can handle that.”
“I know you will,” Celestia replied with a warm smile. “But for now, you need to rest. In one week’s time, you will be setting out for some of the most dangerous lands this world has to offer. I suggest you spend it at home with your family and loved ones. You’ll need their strength if you want to carry the day through.”
“Shoot, yer right!” Applejack called. “I still need to teach Apple Bloom how to handle some of my chores while I’m gone.”
“And I need to set up Tank’s training schedule for the race against Berry Punch’s rabbit!” Rainbow Dash cried.
“Oh my goodness, Angel!” Fluttershy gasped. “He’ll be so lonely without me! Again!”
“Enjoy the week, girls,” Luna laughed, perhaps for the first real time since the news had spread. “And may the fates be kind to you until we meet again.”
With a last series of hugs all around and some lingering goodbyes, the girls left the audience chamber and headed for the courtyard where an airship was fueled and waiting. Out in the hall though, they were caught by the return of an unexpected guest.
“Hold yer horses a sec,” Ironside barked out as his massive strides quickly caught him up despite the large stack of documents cradled under one burly arm. “Before you leave, there’s one last thing I needed to tell you, something I didn’t want the princesses to have to worry about.”
“I love surprises!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “So what is it? New song and dance routine? Planning to move to Las Pegasus? Ooh! Ooh! You’re getting married aren’t you?!”
“Er… no,” the general blinked from behind his slate-hued beard. “Anyways, remember how we said that we’re sending Graves to keep an eye on you, right?”
“Indeed,” Rarity nodded as for the first time, she looked about. “Speaking of, where is he? Shouldn’t he have been here for this meeting here?”
“He’s in the middle of training,” the general sighed, sounding like a glacier grating down the side of a cliff. “Told him he should be here for it, but he insisted on using every minute of it to practice.”
“How very like him,” Rarity sighed as well, only hers sounded a good deal fonder than the soldier’s. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to brief him on the details later.”
“Yeah, about that,” Ironside growled. “I’ll send him notice beforehand, but you’ll need to make sure he knows that he’s not the one in charge. Twilight is.”
“You heard me, book worm,” the general replied with a booming laugh. “You’re taking point on this one. Graves might be there and it’ll be a blasted good idea to listen to every word he breathes, but you call the shots and make him jump if you say toad, got it?”
“But… why?” the purple-haired scholar gaped in the exact same way her friends did. “Why wouldn’t it make sense for you to put the marshal in charge? I mean, he does do it for a living after all.”
“Indeed he does,” Ironside nodded, “but as a solo flying soldier, not the head of a team that needs to survive. I don’t know why, but something in my gut says that the boy’s got other things to worry about instead of managing the squad. That means since Twilight here’s the leader of you lot and one who knows how you girls work best, she’s the one most suited for the task. Got it?”
“Yes sir!” the girls started as they fought down impulses to salute. Ironside nodded.
“Good. Now, one last thing. Graves might not be here, and he might not be calling the shots, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking long and hard about the lot of you.”
Reaching behind him, General Ironside lifted a thick stack of thick folders, each one neatly printed with the name of one of the Ponyville girls upon it, and began handing them out to their prospective targets.
“Before he went and disappeared into the mountains, he spent the better part of two days putting these together for you.”
“What are they?” Fluttershy blinked as she opened hers and found a vast collection of diagrams and descriptions on various flora and fauna of increasingly strange natures.
“Assignments. Seems like that boy got it into his head that what he needed wasn’t a collection of flat-footed civvies. That’s why he went and worked up plans on how each of you can help make this mission a success.”
“Wait, you mean he’s actually counting on us to do stuff?” Rainbow Dash asked with the utmost of incredulity.
“Far as I can tell, yeah,” Ironside shrugged. “He may be the only marshal, but it looks like he’s expecting you all to carry your own weight.”
The six girls shared surprised glances as each flipped through their own folder. Really, Graves had taken time out of personal practice to come up with these? Ways for them to fight alongside him?
“I know Celestia gave you all the week off,” the general grumbled, sounding like a bear with a sore tooth at having to impose, “and you know I’m not one to go against the princesses, so I won’t. If you’d rather spend the time with your families, I get that, so–”
“Well ah’ course we’re gonna do that,” Applejack grinned as she snapped her folder shut. “But that don’t mean we can’t do it while bonin’ up on our homework, do it?”
“Hey, if Big G needs our help, he’s gonna get it,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “I’m just surprised he didn’t ask sooner. I mean, I’m awesome and he knows it.”
“What Rainbow Dash is trying to say,” Twilight continued with a fond roll of the eyes, “is that we’ll be glad to help Graves out in any way we can. After all, we’re a team.”
Bright blue eyes lit up as the general’s stony face cracked into a broad smile.
“Now that’s what I like to hear.”