Because of Pinkie Pie’s sudden (and inexplicably inexhaustible) windfall of pastries, the standard of quality of the food in Harthind saw a sharp spike upwards over next two days. It was more likely than not that stags, does and fawns could be seen toting a sweet treat of some sort in the village square. The atmosphere of Harthind had seen a change as well; in contrast to the ennui bordering on malaise prior to their arrival, there was a joviality in the air at every turn. One could expect a Deer to crack a joke as quick as a gallop, something which Cobnut admitted had been a rarity even before the Sun failed to come up almost two months prior.
Perhaps the most notable change to Harthind natives, though, was that in Fuzzhead’s demeanor. Formerly a loner and dismissive of others, he seemed to have undergone a severe shift since he received his splint. Now he could be found with at least three or four other Deer, talking with them about the arrival of the ponies and the hoped-for return of daylight, enjoying snacks and laughing at jokes.
Once they’d had their fit shares of rest, Twilight Sparkle and each of her band found the Deer and their village very refreshing to the body and to the spirit. It really allowed for the band to settle down and relax without the constant march and push forwards to meet with someone or to retrieve an exceptionally rare book.
“Feels like Ah’m back home in Ponyville!” mused Applejack as a herd of fawns crowded around her. “Mah little cousin’d like it someplace like this.”
Twilight gave an amused laugh, “Which cousin? I seem to remember meeting a good six-dozen-and-four cousins of yours before the Summer Sun Celebration.”
Applejack set down on her haunches, looking up into the stars through the tree branches.
“Remember a filly with a short li’l tail, bit burlier than most her age, kept blowin’ her mane outta her eye?”
Twilight recalled a round, shy and freckled face immediately.
Applejack smiled at Twilight, “She prefers Babs Seed or jus’ Babs. Ya really do got a painter’s memory.”
To Twilight’s mild dismay, Applejack’s face sank into empathic sadness.
“She’s not a country-born filly; Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange brought her an’ her big sis Sunflower up in the big city a’ Manehattan. An’ fillies ‘n’ colts there… they ain’t so kind as most country foals. See, she ain’ got a cutie mark yet, an’ she’s been gettin’ an awful amount a’ grief over it fer bein’ a so-called blank flank. She’s tried ta cover up with her tail, but…” Her eyes narrowed in disgust. “Some’ve had th’ guts ta pull at ‘er tail, so it’s had ta be cut short.”
“That’s awful. Why haven’t her parents done something about it?”
Applejack’s teeth bared.
“Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange are bigtime social climbers. Aunt Valencia’s plumb forgot most ev’rything ‘bout her country roots; takes a right bit a’ tail-twistin’ ta git her ta come out fer Reunions, but she always comes. In th’ end, she always comes. Wish Ah could say th’ same fer Sour Apple, but… Anyway, she’s jus’ so wrapped up in rubbin’ elbows with all sorta Manehattan elites that her daughters’re kinda left in th’ cold. Sunflower don’ care, though, she’s tough stuff; Ah think Ah heard her talkin’ ‘bout tryin’ ta join the Wonderbolts within th’ year.”
“Sunflower… the Pegasus Apple, right?”
“Sure as shootin’, sugar. Yeah, Sunflower’s harder’n her name’d let on, but… Babs is a shy little thing. She wouldn’ hurt a fly. An’… her Earth Pony magic’s kinda queer. It ain’ like ordinary Earth Pony magic. Probably skipped a few generations or sumthin’.”
“How is it not ordinary? Is she like Pinkie Pie?”
Applejack shook her head.
“Ah don’ think so. Ah’d say yes, if’n Ah ever caught wind a’ Pinkie Pie growin’ ta five times ‘er normal size.”
“Babs Seed is a Burgeoning Earth Pony?”
“Izzat what they’re called? Well, all Ah heard was bullies callin’ her a ‘Girth Pony’ ‘cause a’ her… shifts.”
Twilight swallowed bile. The fawns, realizing that this was not a story that they liked, had already begun to disperse.
“How… how could fillies and colts be so cruel?”
“Ah don’ know. But see, Babs sometimes can’ control her shiftin’, ‘specially when bullies are on her tail. So, when she can’ take it no more, she’ll grow till her head hits th’ ceilin’, an’ since her weight goes up with it… she kinda… finds herself sittin’ on a pile a’ splinters afore long, an’ her parents git sent th’ bill.”
“But surely your aunt and uncle must see how hard this is on her?”
“No can do, Twi. See, Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange’re all about climbin’ social ladders; they’d get on great with Moondancer, let me tell ya. Th’only thoughts they spare fer Babs amount ta scoldin’ her fer dippin’ inta their funds fer social gatherin’s. Tha’s why she’s been lookin’ forward ta this Reunion; it’d give her th’ chance ta really git away from th’ troubles a’ city life, ta connect with her sister an’ her cousins an’ ta forgit about her troubles fer a couple days.
“Now, they don’ neglect ‘er or nuthin’ like that, s’ don’ git all twisted up, Twi. Ah know that Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange love Babs… in their own way. Ah mean, Ah know they loved me, when Ah ran away ta live with ‘em.”
Twilight started, giving Applejack an astonished look.
“You ran away?”
“It was a couple years before Apple Bloom was born, an’ Ah was jus’ about ten. See, Ah’d gotten mah share a’ postcards from Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange, tryin’ ta coax Granny Smith inta retirin’ ta th’ Big Orange. See, Uncle Orange is th’ great-gran’-nephew a’ th’ founder a’ Manehattan, an’ he’s gotta lotta connections ta all sortsa bigwigs out there who could give Granny a right comfortin’ place ta call her final restin’ place.
“But Granny didn’ take. She didn’ feel right leavin’ behind th’ farm that she helped ta build when her Pa set up Ponyville. But me… Ah was jus’ an impressionable little filly back then. Ah saw the postcards of all th’ sights a’ th’ city: the Equine State Buildin’, the lights a’ Bridleway, the Broncolyn Bridge, the Statue a’ Harmony… So Ah packed up a bindle an’ went out ta th’ big city.
“Now, Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange were kind enough ta accept me, s’long as Ah wasn’… me. Ah couldn’ eat like how Ah normally eat; Ah couldn’ trot like how Ah normally trot; and… good heavens, dearie, I could not even speak the way that I usually speak.” At that last, Applejack’s country drawl vanished entirely, replaced with an exaggerated culturedness that sounded uncannily like Rarity. This was accompanied by Applejack assuming a far more stately posture than Twilight had ever seen on the farmer mare. It made Twilight feel sick and uneasy hearing that voice coming out of Applejack’s mouth, seeing such aloofness in her demeanor. Applejack must have caught a shade of disquiet on Twilight’s face, because she resumed her former casual body language very quickly.
“It weren’t as fun as Ah’d imagined it’d be, not bah a long shot. Even Sunflower weren’ let outta this − Babs is ‘bout a year older than Apple Bloom, an’ Ah think Aunt Orange had just gotten heavy with her ‘round the time that Ah left. It just weren’ right. Ah couldn’ wake up proper in the mornin’s, ‘cause there weren’t no roosters crowin’ in th’ big city. There wasn’ the same type a’ air in the streets a’ Manehattan as in th’ country. An’… Ah jus’ missed Ma ‘n’ Pa an’ Granny Smith an’ Big Mac.
“Then one mornin’, Ah saw a rainbow off in th’ west. It was a sign, Ah’m sure of it, that mah place was in th’ country, at Sweet Apple Acres, buckin’ apples. Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange didn’ take too kindly to it, but they didn’t fight it. It was mah decision, an’ they saw that Ah got back ta Ma ‘n’ Pa safely. Would ya believe that Ah got mah cutie mark not too long after Ah got back?”
Twilight beamed. “After an experience like that, it’s not too surprising that you’d have realized what really was special to you. Acuomercologists say… No, it just makes sense for you to have rejected that life. The city life just doesn’t suit you. It’s…” Twilight absentmindedly traced a cloven hoof in the earth. “Big cities like Canterlot are filled with ponies who fake kindness and friendship just to get ahead of the herd. And some of those ponies wear those masks for so long, that they forget who and what they were before.”
“An’ that’s why Ah think that Babs’d like it out here. There ain’t no big city burstin’ at th’ seams with ponies all tryin’ ta reach fer th’ top, so their kids ain’ got angry issues that they gotta let out one way ‘r the other. It’s nice an’ quiet out here in the country, jus’ like Sweet Apple Acres. A’ course, ya always do get yer bad apples here an’ there, but ya can’ let ‘em spoil the bunch. Ah mean, look at Mr. Rich’s little girl; country gal, butcha’d never be able ta tell from how she acts.”
Twilight sat down beside Applejack, smiling.
“This really is a nice village.”
“Eeyup,” Applejack replied.
Though there was a grand sense about Harthind of buoyant optimism, Pinkie Pie’s gumball-radio did bring forth some foreboding. Food rations were growing scarcer across Equestria and abroad; some ponies had even attempted to murder some fellow pony who had a scrap or morsel of food. Most distressing however, were the reports of ponies who had died because of overwhelming cold or a sudden snowfront in their area. These reports were bracketed with bleak advisements for families to leave deceased loved ones out in the cold where their bodies would remain preserved by the chill, rather than risk holding a funeral and freezing to death themselves.
I hope that this is not the will of the true Queen of the Night, Twilight thought solemnly, her thoughts going out to the bereaved families and to the enslaved Alicorn. Though I can’t imagine very many ponies are going to be too forgiving of her if we free her − when we free her − from the Miasma!
Daydreams with a DJ remained a regular feature of the radio waves, attempting to brighten up the lives of anypony who would listen. The serenity of Octavia’s skill on the cello playing many of the old classics was interspersed with warnings of which was the latest city, town, village or hamlet to be subject to martial law, of the quickest and most efficient way to start a bonfire, with occasional guests who took care to remain anonymous. Twilight recognized one voice, though, in the former of one Walkie-Talkie: Kibitz, the now-exiled Chief Steward of Canterlot.
“Remember,” Kibitz cautioned, “as heartrending as it may be, feeding your pets must be your last priority. Unless your pet is a necessity for keeping your home afloat, you may have to… see it off to its final rest. As far as food rations go, foals take highest priority, youngest first and foremost; then mares, and then stallions. And we strongly advise you: only eat so much as will get you by. We will do our best to survive as long as we can… for Queen Celestia.”
‘Thank you, Walkie-Talkie, for joining us today’ replied a somber Octavia.
“Anytime, my dear.”
“I’d met Steward Kibitz before,” Twilight mused aloud as the program gave way to a jazzy record being scratched away by Vın̈yl “DJ Pon-3” Scratch. “He was always keeping Queen Celestia updated on her schedule, making sure to remind her of things that needed to be done. But she always remembered. She has a better memory than me, and I remember everything. I remember he was so fussy about every little thing, trying to find something that he could remember of the Queen’s schedule that she couldn’t. But he never could,” she chuckled. “I remember Queen Celestia trying to get me to call him Uncle Kibitz, but… he’s the Steward of Canterlot. He’s not my uncle. That just… didn’t make sense.”
But nevertheless, Twilight’s expression grew ponderous and mildly distressed, and she said no more as DJ Pon-3 continued to scratch at the jazz.
Going by the word of the Harthind natives, just about the only aspect of Harthind that had not seen a change over the course of the arrival of the ponies and their drake companion was the village elders. The five of them had long been wary of admitting outsiders into Harthind, though Madam Oleander had always been closer to the voice of the village than the other four. Even these Deer were aware of the myth of NightMare Moon, the one they called the Dark Mare or the Harsh Mistress of the Moon, and the implications of her return to the world of the living boded ill in everydeer’s heart. As such, it was accepted that Oleander was perfectly rational to let the band of outsiders in out of necessity of the Dark Mare threat.
Despite her own hesitance to welcome Twilight Sparkle and her band into the village, Madam Rosemary proved to be quite the courteous host. She was quick to supply the Cobnut-Strawberry household more luxurious mats than were present previously in it − “After all,” she had explained, “we may very well be playing host to the saviors of the world.” − as well as a greater supply of ice for their ice-box. Maybe it was just the added sugar in her system talking, or maybe it was Pinkie Pie’s infectious joy, but the previously unsympathetic elder had grown rather kinder as the days progressed. Not wholly kind, though; she did still make the occasional remark regarding the length of their stay.
“So, where shall you all proceed after you’ve left?” she’d asked. “Have you given that thought?”
Twilight had hesitated slightly; she had contemplated the destination that her band would make for after they had cleared out of Harthind, but no ready location came to mind. With so many places around Equestria now under the iron hoof of the Nightmare Guard, and the Shadowbolts more fervent than ever in attempting to track them down, the options were few.
But to assuage the elder doe, Twilight put on a fake smile and replied, “W-we just need to get a few last things together and… we’ll be on our way and out of your hair! For real! …Seriously.”
Rosemary cocked an eyebrow at Twilight suspiciously, clearly uncertain as to whether to take Twilight at her word. After several tense moments, she evidently decided to give Twilight the benefit of the doubt and trotted away.
“A time and a place for the truth, TS?” mused a scratchy voice from overhead. Looking up brought into view a pair of cerise eyes.
“Hello, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said coolly.
“Hey yourself,” replied the cerulean Pegasus as she flapped down to Twilight’s eye level.
“Gonna chew me out for not being honest, Miss Brutal Honesty?” Twilight replied sharply.
“Whoa, cool down there, Purple Smart, I think that almost got me in the knee,” Rainbow Dash said hastily. “But seriously, where are we gonna go after this place?”
Twilight cast a glance over her shoulder to see whether any of the village elders were near. She could only see Oleander, who was presently engaged in a conversation with Applejack and paying no mind to anything else. Twilight leaned in close to Rainbow Dash, who cocked her ears.
“To be honest, I really don’t know,” Twilight whispered. “Our hooves really are tied here. We can’t go to Ponyville for obvious reasons, or any of the other places we’ve been to since we left. We can’t go near Canterlot until we have all six Elements in hoof, and more and more cities are playing host to more and more garrisons of the Nightmare Guard every passing day! And I don’t even know how long we can stay here; if the Shadowbolts are in collusion with the Headless Horse, then we might only have a matter of days or hours before the Nightmare Guard shows up here!”
“Calm yourself, private,” Rainbow Dash said sharply, in imitation of a drill sergeant. “Your contrail is showing.”
Twilight paused, wondering how Rainbow Dash could take this revelation so calmly. Deciding for the moment to hear the cerulean Pegasus out, Twilight took a deep breath and sat herself down.
“That’s more like it,” continued Rainbow Dash with a bold smirk. “You’re saying that we don’t have very many places to go? Well, what about Cloudsdale?” She cocked her head hopefully. “It’s where me and Fluttershy grew up. You did say something about some sorta cloud-walking spell way back when, didn’t you?”
“I’m impressed you remember that,” Twilight answered truthfully; she’d not received any prior indication that Rainbow Dash had given much more thought to the idea of the cumulatory spell than to make a snide comment on Twilight’s well-readness.
“Ha ha, very funny, TS,” Rainbow gave Twilight a slightly sour expression. “But seriously, what about Cloudsdale? Don’t you think that that place would be a cool place to stop by after we leave here?”
If Twilight Sparkle had to admit to herself, Cloudsdale did seem rather promising. It was a place where very few non-Pegasi made venture to, as the entire city was constructed out of clouds, which only Pegasi and Bat Ponies could walk upon. The cumulatory spell, written by the renowned Pegasus spellsmare Cloud Walker, allowed for non-Pegasi to become temporarily able to walk on clouds as Pegasi did. And the main city was not yet quartered with the Nightmare Guard − only the land-based settlements below had yet seen such martial law. It seemed perfect!
Or too good to be true.
“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” Twilight thought aloud.
“What? Why not? Flutters and I grew up there. You could crash at my parents’ place; I’m sure they’ll let me in too if they see Fluttershy’s with us!”
“That’s the thing, Rainbow Dash: your family is there. Even if there isn’t a big Nightmare Guard garrison at Cloudsdale now, as soon as word gets out that we’re there, they’ll be all over us like Breezies on pollen! And don’t think that word won’t get out; word got out from Ponyville that we were at the Crystal Mountains.” Her ears flopped down lightly. “And I thought that I could trust them…”
“It was probably one of those white-collar brats that’s been giving Scootaloo trouble,” Rainbow Dash growled, pounding one hoof into the other. “I’ll teach them to mess with my little buddy!”
“We’re losing focus, Rainbow Dash. I was saying that the chances of Cloudsdale facing a Nightmare Force invasion go up significantly if we set hoof on or near the city. Maybe the reason the city’s so lightly defended is because they expect us to go there.”
Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened in realization.
“Ohh… So, yeah, I got it. Cloudsdale equals no-flying zone. It would be nice to see Mom and Dad again, let them know that I’m doing fine, making ends meet, working bill to bill… without them there…”
The cerulean Pegasus looked pained suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked.
“Nothing,” replied Rainbow Dash. Too quickly to be honest.
“Come on, Rainbow Dash. Be honest.”
Rainbow Dash’s cerise eyes met Twilight’s purple, and she gulped.
“Mom and Dad kicked me out.”
“‘Cause I quit flying school. Dad wasn’t too happy about it; he practically grew up there, see. But I idolized a bigtime Wonderbolt back then. His name was Golden Eagle, and… man, was he a show-stopper! I mean, did you see his Firefly Flash? I swear, seeing the stadium lighting up with fire and lightning…”
She cleared her throat.
“Anyway, one day, I just had to get his autograph after a show.”
“Is this going somewhere, Rainbow Dash?” asked Twilight. This sounded more like the sort of fangirlish anecdote that she’d rather avoid if she could.
“I’m getting to it, don’t worry. So anyway, I hold out a poster of the Wonderbolts with him in the front − he was the team captain before Spitfire, you know? − and I asked him to make it out to his biggest flying school fan. Then he looks at me, and he winks and says, ‘Between you and me, kid, I dumped flying school when I was half your age’.”
“Let me guess. You quit the next day.”
“Bullseye. So yeah. Dad didn’t take it too well. Said I was throwing my life away on a fancy and stuff like that. ‘Horse-apples!’ I told him, and he hit me for that. Yeah, I cursed at my dad. But hey, I was a passionate filly. Still pretty passionate nowadays, actually.
“But anyway, things went south with Dad from there. I trained myself a lot after that − usually low to the ground. Y’know, the whole ‘live-high, train-low’ sorta thing? Anyway, I was doing pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. But the day I turned dozen-and-three, the day I became a mare… was the day Dad changed the locks.”
“Hey, you wanted honesty, you’re getting it. But anyway, that was the day that I said to Fluttershy, ‘Hey, Flutters, this place blows haystacks. Let’s find someplace else to call our own.’ And she tells me she’s been eying a place called Ponyville. Way out of the way, small place, but with a killer view of Canterlot! So I figured, why the hay not? I mean, it’s not like I had any better place to be, right?” She finished with a bitter smile and drooping ears.
Twilight could not take her eyes off of Rainbow Dash. All this time she had been giving the cerulean mare a short measure, assuming that what she saw was what she got. But really, there was a good bit more roiling away behind those cerise eyes than she’d previously believed. There was no chance that this was a hoax or a play on Twilight’s feelings; she knew Rainbow Dash long enough now to know that even a white lie was obvious from the Pegasus with the prismatic mane.
She owed just as much honesty back in return.
“I have a bit of family history to tell you as well, Rainbow Dash.”
“Dear Applejack,” spoke Madam Oleander, “there is a matter regarding your party that… troubles me.”
Applejack gave the elder doe a quizzical look.
“Well, Ah can’ rightly think of any matters ‘bout our band that’s so troublin’, but if it’ll settle yer mind, Ah’m all ears.”
“It’s a matter regarding your Unicorn friend, Twilight Sparkle.”
“What’s th’ situation, Ma’am?”
“Well…” Oleander seemed to hesitate, as though she were loath to delve into this particular topic. “It seems as though she… has particular dominance in this party of yours.”
“Sure as sugar, Ma’am,” Applejack replied brightly. “This was her duty an’ task set to ‘er by Queen Celestia herself. An’ being a smart little student, Twilight ain’ th’ sort ta turn down her teacher.”
“Even if it was her duty and task to make friends?” pressed Oleander with a suddenly acid tone. “How can you be so certain that she is truly your friend if, as has been made clear to us the past few days, she only traveled to your village of Ponies at the insistence of the Queen herself?”
Applejack did not pause or even hesitate.
“Because she’s stuck by us fer all this time. At any point when we were in th’ Everfree Forest, Canterlot, th’ Wide Plains, th’ Crystal Mountains, Aquastria, Pundamilia, she coulda dumped us. But she didn’! Now, it may notta been her firs’ choice ta come ta Ponyville, but Ah don’ think she regrets it one bit. She mighta bin kinda short with us all th’ first few days, but ain’t all friends a mite bit edgy with each other at first? An’ sometimes it lasts a lifetime; Ah’ve known Rarity an’ her family as long as anypony, an’ Ah can’ name a single other pony Ah’ve butted heads with more.”
“But how can it be called friendship,” insisted Oleander, “if you argue and quabble? Would friends not be always gladdened by each other’s presence and not raise a fuss over something that another has said or done?”
Applejack shook her head sadly.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Ma’am, but ya jus’ don’ git it. Bein’ friends ain’ about jus’ smilin’ an’ noddin’ along with anything that somepony else says ‘r does. Do friends fuss ‘n’ fret a bit too much? Prob’bly. But after the arguin’s done, th’ friends cin turn th’ conversation right ‘round to rightin’ things an’ makin’ sure these arguments don’ happen again. Ah mean, look at Rainbow Dash ‘n’ Fluttershy. Them two’s as close as cin be − set ta be married, even! − an’ even their feathers git rustled ev’ry now an’ then.”
“Even so, if Twilight Sparkle is really your friend, why is so much of this endeavor of yours geared towards her own ends? I always thought that friends were on an equal level with one another.”
Applejack furrowed her brows impatiently.
“Now, Ah don’ know if ya got yer facts lined up proper, Miss Oleander. S’far as Ah know, savin’ th’ world sounds jus’ about right fer a student a’ Queen Celestia. An’ it’s not like Twi’s jus’ draggin’ us aroun’ ta Maker-knows-where without puttin’ it to us first. She always makes sure that we’re all keen on where we’re goin’ before we go. And,” Applejack raised her voice, noticing Oleander starting to open her mouth in protest, “even if Ah didn’ rightly agree with where we were goin’, Ah wouldn’t’ve abandoned Twilight. Ah’m an Apple, an’ if there’s one thing we pride ourselves on, it’s that we never abandon a pony in need. Ah’ve never backed down from helpin’ somepony out, an’ Ah got th’ scars ta prove it.” Applejack shifted slightly to the side, showing the deep bite scars in her back to the doe, the scars across the bridge of her muzzle darkening as she tilted her head to the side.
Oleander gazed down upon Applejack with a neutral expression. The palomino Earth Pony merely scowled back.
“Very well,” the elder replied lowly. “You are a stubborn one. I see why the merehyenas had such trouble with you.”
“Darn tootin’!” Applejack boasted, before flicking her tail and trotting off.
Rainbow Dash’s eyes spun.
“Whoa… so all this time we’ve known you, and you didn’t tell us about this?”
“Yeah,” Twilight answered. “I didn’t think you girls really wanted to hear me gripe and moan about my own life problems. It’s bad enough that I dragged you all along on this big mission from the Queen.”
“Ahh, it’s no big deal,” Rainbow Dash smiled with a flippant wave of a hoof. “At least this will get me on the Wonderbolts’ radar for sure!” She paused, before offering a nervous grin. “Well, that and I get to help out my best Unicorn friend ever!”
“I’m sure of it.”
“No, seriously, I mean it. You cannot imagine what it’s like for me to hang out with Rarity. It’s always like ‘Dress this’ and ‘darling that’, and that stuff’s not really my thing. She’s even had me work as her model for when her little sister got the mannequins in her boutique slathered with tomato sauce.” She paused at the awkward look on Twilight’s face. “Don’t ask. But anyway, I just can’t be a model for somepony who needs me to stand still. I mean, do you even know me? A moment sitting still is a moment wasted! I need to dash, and sitting still is just so… so…”
“So un-Rainbow?” Twilight suggested.
“Yeah, exactly! That’s so not me to sit still! Well, except for Fluttershy, but she’s special to me.”
Rainbow Dash’s face flushed pink, and a softer smile than Twilight had ever seen on the cerulean mare crossed her muzzle.
“Umm, if you don’t mind me asking, Rainbow,” Twilight ventured, “why Fluttershy? She’s so… not you.”
Rainbow’s eyes sparkled.
“Because she’s not me. What, do you think that I think everypony who’s not me isn’t awesome? Don’t answer that question. But anyway, I guess… it’s because Fluttershy was always there for me. Sure, she spent more of that time in the bleachers than at my side flying through cloud-rings, but I’ve always known that she’s had limits.
“Mom and Dad always loved having her over; it was like they had another kid. And I thought it was like having a sister… for a while. I mean, it did frustrate me when she would get seriously spooked by my pranks, but I did kinda learn to back off a little. After I swore to her that I would never throw a prank her way again… You should have seen the look on her face. You’d think I’d proposed to her then!”
Twilight’s heart rushed with a new fondness for Rainbow Dash. Despite having been in the same band for almost two months now, there had never been a moment when they had had a talk like this. They were always too distracted with their mission, too absorbed in their surroundings, or too tired from a long day’s canter or an enemy’s pursuit. Despite the Pegasus’s brash and arrogant attitude, scratchy voice, and halitosis, Twilight felt that she could count Rainbow Dash as a truly good friend.
“So, how did she take it when you popped the question?”
“Oh, I wasn’t the one who proposed. She did.”
Twilight blinked in astonishment, wondering if Rainbow was pulling her tail. But the mirth in Rainbow’s eyes did not look like the sort from pulling a gag on somepony.
Rainbow Dash nodded, her canine teeth glinting in her grin.
Rainbow nodded again.
“Fluttershy proposed to you.”
“Hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, obviously I’m so blunt and straightforward that I had to be the one to propose first.”
“I’m… sorry I assumed that of you.”
“Aww, don’t be such a wuss about it. I wouldn’t hold it against you. Besides, we were all in pieces like you wouldn’t believe after we got you out of the Everfree. That place…” She shivered. “I’m gonna have nightmares about it for years, I swear! But Fluttershy… oh, you should have seen the way she showed that receptionist the old what-for! I swear that she must have used the Stare on her or something, to get you to a good hospital bed as fast as possible! But after it was over, she just… fell onto me, and the question came out. Of course, I’m awesome, so I said yes.”
“You sure seem to ascribe a lot of awesomeness to yourself,” Twilight noted flatly.
“Well, when one of your role models is General Firefly, you do tend to see the awesome side of things.”
“Maybe, but I think a distinction has to be made between awesomeness and bigheadedness. I’m sure the Wonderbolts will see your aspirations towards the former as a pretty bad case of the latter.”
Rainbow Dash’s expression soured somewhat, her ears flattening as she cast a bitter look at the lavender Unicorn.
“You wanted honesty, so I gave it to you.”
In a flash, Rainbow’s withering look snapped straight back to joy, and her eyes widened brightly at Twilight.
“Hey, Twilight! We both realized how honest I am!”
Twilight beamed back.
“The Element of Honesty!”
Twilight galloped from the corner of the village square almost as quickly as Rainbow Dash could fly, which was saying something for the Unicorn. The pair beelined straight for the Cobnut-Strawberry home, gathering odd looks from passing stags, does and fawns. Bursting through the door, they spun about to face Rainbow Dash’s saddle-shell.
“Twi? Rainbow? What in tarnation…?” gaped Applejack, who was sitting with her hooves folded crossly on her luxury-mat.
Twilight’s alicorn glowed pink, the latch on Rainbow Dash’s saddle-shell flicking open and the mouths of the shell spreading wide…
To show the dull-gray shards of Rainbow Dash’s Element of Honesty.
“Ooh, those are some good-quality rocks~!” Pinkie offered from over Twilight and Rainbow Dash’s shoulders.
Putting Pinkie Pie’s comment aside, Twilight leaned down towards the shards of the Element of Honesty, eyes narrowed at the seemingly reluctant stones. She knew that logically she would notice a glimmer of light from the rocks, but some small part of her still hoped.
“What in th’ hay’s goin’ on, Twilight?” asked Applejack, rising to her hooves.
“Rainbow Dash was honest, Applejack,” Twilight said shortly, “but her Element won’t activate.”
“Are you sure, though?” Rainbow asked. “Are you sure that I’m not the Element of Loyalty and that AJ’s the Element of Honesty?”
“I don’t think so,” Twilight mused aloud as she ran a hoof along her stubbly chin. “In all the time that I’ve known you girls, you’ve never been dishonest or disloyal, even for a moment. But Rainbow Dash, you’re the one who has always spoken her mind, no matter what or when, even if it made me angry. So I really have no doubt that you bear the Element of Honesty. I’ll be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered if you’re even capable of lying about anything but reading Daring Do.”
Rainbow Dash scoffed.
“Oh please. I just tell it like it is.”
Applejack’s eyes narrowed slightly at the contents of Rainbow Dash’s saddle-shell.
“Jus’ what kinda honesty were we talkin’ ‘bout here, Twilight?”
Twilight and Rainbow Dash exchanged looks. Rainbow Dash gave a small shrug, which Twilight took as a sign of permission. Still, she did not think that complete details were entirely necessary.
“It was about… Rainbow’s slightly turbulent family history.”
Applejack turned her gaze first upon the Element of Honesty, then upon Rainbow Dash, then Twilight.
“Well, I ain’ no expert on no Elementology or nuthin’, but Ah reckon that that sorta honesty’s just a bit too… easy.”
“‘Easy’?” echoed Rainbow. “Could you be any more vague than that?”
Applejack glowered at the cerulean Pegasus.
“Ah don’ appreciate the sarcasm, Rainbow. But what Ah’m gittin’ at is that it kinda took bigger things than just us ta light up th’ other four Elements b’fore this one. Ah mean, Rarity, she sacrificed a shavin’ razor fer Equestria, didn’ she? An’ Pinkie showed ya that bein’ happy don’ have ta go hoof-in-hoof with not takin’ things serious-like. Ah… well, Ah was… jus’ doin’ what was right instead a’ what was easy. An’ Fluttershy, she went on about how ya gotta be nice ta ponies who’re cross with ya.”
“So… What’re you getting at?” Rainbow Dash queried.
Applejack groaned, but Twilight stepped between the other two mares.
“I think what Applejack is getting at is that it takes a more than just a literal demonstration of the Element you bear in order for it to manifest itself. I mean, it’s not like the Element of Generosity would have activated if Rarity just threw her razor into somepony else’s luggage, right?”
Rainbow Dash still looked rather perplexed.
“I… I guess.”
“So ya see, Rainbow, it takes more than jus’ tellin’ th’ truth ta be honest.”
“Wow, AJ. You sure that you’re really not the Element of Honesty?”
“Well, there’s more ta bein’ honest, Ah think, than shootin’ off yer mouth as soon as figgerin’ somethin’ out.”
Cerise eyes creased in irritation.
“What are you getting at, Apple-snack?”
“Ah’m gittin’ at the bone yer lookin’ ta pick with our hosts.”
In the span of less than a second, Rainbow Dash’s face became wide-eyed and rapturous with revelation, then she gave a very knowing smirk.
Twilight did not like that smirk.
“No! No! A dozen-dozen times no! There is no way that you’re telling Butter-And-Eggs what he really is!”
“And why not?”
“Because it will crush him and everything that he knows! He’ll know that his parents have been lying to him as long as he’s known them!”
“But he deserves to know the truth! Everyone deserves to know the truth, even if it hurts them, because the truth is way cooler than lying, because it’s for real!”
Twilight sighed in frustration, “Stop being so idealistic, Rainbow Dash! The world isn’t such a nice place that the truth will always be triumphant over lies. I’ve seen enough bigwigs back in Canterlot who would say one thing and mean another to know that the ponies in this world who really matter don’t really care as long as they get more than what they see as their fair share. The truth doesn’t matter to them; they’ll literally say anything if it means getting more bits that they don’t need.”
Rainbow Dash groaned.
“I didn’t come here to hear a lecture on economics, Twilight. I came here to find out if my Element was lighting it up, and I found out that it’s not! Just what sorta honesty truthiness does this stupid Element want to hear out of me?”
With a shout of frustration, she slammed her forehooves against the door…
And was answered by another slam against the door from outside.
“Who’s there~?” Pinkie Pie trilled.
Cautiously, Twilight alit her alicorn. The door latch glowed pink as the door swung inward… which turned out to be for the best, as a bald eagle was currently attacking a tawny owl that lay hooting feebly on the figurative doormat.
A fire lit in Twilight’s heart at the sight, and her horn flashed dangerously at the eagle. It stopped its attack at once, turning an unblinking golden eye on Twilight.
“You leave this poor thing alone!” Twilight snapped at the eagle.
It seemed thoroughly uninterested in what Twilight was saying, as it flicked its claws and made to descend on the poor owl again…
“Get away from that poor defenseless owl!”
The eagle spun about in midair to meet Fluttershy eye-to-eye, and the gleam in its gaze seemed to change slightly at the contact made between them.
“You should know better than to attack an owl the way that you are. I don’t know why you are, but frankly I don’t care. You’re upsetting my good friend Twilight, and I just won’t allow it! You leave this owl alone, and don’t let me ever see you come near him ever again!”
The eagle’s wing-flaps, which had been slowing under the force of Fluttershy’s Stare, suddenly began to pick up as the bird of prey took flight up into treetops and out of sight.
Twilight smiled at Fluttershy, “Thank you, Fluttershy. I don’t know if I would have been able to scare that eagle off without magic. But how did you show up so quickly?”
“We heard some sort of disturbance, like a bunch of birds fighting,” Fluttershy explained. “I think this poor thing accidentally flew too close to an eagle’s nest.”
Looking closer at the tawny, Twilight saw that many of its feathers were ruffled badly, and its right wing was bent at a bad angle. This owl would not be flying anytime soon.
“We need to fix this poor guy up,” Twilight said sadly, and Fluttershy nodded.
Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer gleamed around the owl, which twisted its head in curiosity as it hooted inquisitively. Looking into its black eyes, Twilight could see a keen interest in its surroundings, taking in the new environment as the lavender Unicorn levitated him in. Fascinated by the owl’s disposition now that the eagle was gone, Twilight was careful as she placed him on the table. Thankfully, no blood had been spilt.
“Uhh, Twilight,” cut in Applejack, “Ah don’ know if Cobnut an’ Strawberry will take lightly t’ some forest animal callin’ their house a home.”
“Applejack,” replied Twilight, and the palomino was astonished at the fervent fortitude in Twilight’s eyes as she stood over the owl, “this owl is badly hurt, and he needs medical attention immediately. I’m sure that Cobnut and Strawberry will understand.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Rainbow murmured to Applejack.
“I’ll pretend that I didn’t hear that,” snapped Twilight, facing Fluttershy calmly. “Well, Fluttershy, shall we begin?”
The check-up on the owl proceeded rather quickly. Twilight’s radiograph spell made it clear that there were, thankfully, no broken bones in his injured leg or wing, only a sprain and a dislocation respectively. He was a very patient patient, as it transpired; he watched the Unicorn and Pegasus tending to him with a fascinated gleam in his eye, barely making any noises as Fluttershy gingerly slipped his wing-joint back into its proper position. After the application of a small sling for his wing and some makeshift gauze for his leg, Fluttershy pronounced him to be in fit condition and very likely to make a full recovery.
“Although you really should keep an eye out for eagles’ nests; they can be very dangerous to unsuspecting intruders,” Fluttershy added to the owl as he inspected the sling his right wing was kept in. Fluttershy then began to hoot the message in the owl’s tongue, when the owl suddenly hooted over her.
“Oh. Okay. So, you understand what I’m saying right now?” asked Fluttershy.
“Uhh, her, genius?” cut in Rainbow Dash.
“Rainbow Dash, he’s not asking a question, he’s hooting!” Twilight snapped.
Rainbow Dash gave a nervous grin, “No need to get fussy, Twilight, I was just messin’ around!”
“I was, you stupid little―!”
“Rainbow Dash, you are on very thin ice right now!” Twilight shouted. “I know that we had a good talk just a few minutes ago, but that’s no reason for you to speak out of turn.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What did I say?” Rainbow Dash asked defensively.
“You said that this owl here is stupid,” Twilight looked down at the owl on the table with a feeling in her heart bordering on adoration. “He’s not stupid. Owls are among the smartest non-sapient avians on the face of the planet! They make excellent mail-carriers, they can see perfectly in the dark, and…” She giggled as the owl began to spin his head around and around. “And they can spin their heads all the way around, to see wherever they want! I’ve always admired owls so much!”
“Who?” he hooted.
Fluttershy faced Twilight, “He wants to know what our names are.”
“Sorry, Fluttershy, but he said who; it was pretty obvious,” Rainbow Dash interjected.
Twilight glared at the cerulean Pegasus, who shrugged.
“Just trying to be honest here,” she defended weakly.
“Well, if you don’t mind my honesty, your opinion was not needed,” Twilight growled, before returning to the owl with a more sedate expression.
“My name is Twilight Sparkle,” she said gently, “and this Pegasus is my friend, Fluttershy. We’re very glad to have met you.”
“Who?” replied the owl.
“Ah don’ reckon he heard ya, Twilight,” Applejack noted.
“Oh no, he heard us just fine,” said Fluttershy. “He was just telling us that it was nice to meet us all. Now, can you tell us your name, little guy?”
Fluttershy’s pink eyebrows fell in sadness, “Oh no.”
“What’s wrong, Fluttershy?” asked Twilight.
“He doesn’t have a name.”
“He doesn’t?” Twilight was shocked. “Then what did his parents call him?”
“He says… that he didn’t have any parents. He just hatched… all alone in this forest.” Fluttershy was almost driven to tears by this tale.
“He said all that in one li’l hoot?” asked Applejack.
“Well, that was a real hoot!” added Pinkie Pie, wearing a broad smile and making an exaggeratedly comical pose: stretching out her forelegs as though shrugging while standing almost in an oviposition.
Most everypony snorted a little at the terrible pun.
“Pinkie, that was awful by your standards,” Rainbow Dash said with a wry shake of the head, “but thanks anyway.”
“Yeah, things were gettin’ a mite bit heated there.”
“Aww, don’t mention it, you guys~!”
“I’m going to keep him.”
“Keep who?” asked Spike, who walked in through the open door with Rarity at his tail.
Twilight’s words almost didn’t register with the other four mares in the room with her, and the newcomers were particularly perplexed by the statement. Once Spike’s eyes settled on the owl perched on the table, his curious expression sobered startlingly, almost becoming melancholy.
“Twilight, are you keeping an owl to… to replace me?”
Twilight crossed the room in an instant, scooping Spike up in her foreleg and nuzzling him.
“Oh no, of course not, Spike. Nothing could ever replace you. But I am going to keep this owl, as a pet. He seems especially smart, and will do a fine job, I’m sure, in taking up your old responsibilities as my former assistant.”
Spike’s expression softened, though by no means was his fear fully assuaged.
“So… I won’t be handling your books anymore…?”
“For the time being, I think so,” she replied, before assuming a more sharp tone. “But I expect you to brush your teeth for exactly three minutes after every meal; you never know what germs or microbes could be calling your mouth home after lunch! And make sure to wash your own dishes after meals are finished! And make sure to water your grandparents and… what’s so funny?”
“You’re becoming such a mommy, Twilight~!” squealed Pinkie Pie, a hoof over her mouth. “It really suits you!”
Twilight blushed lightly, a faint smile crossing her muzzle, “Really? Do you think so? So, I know that it’s not the same at all, but do you think that I would be a good caretaker for a pet?”
“Are ya kiddin’ me?” offered Applejack, a casual smile and tilt to her head. “After seein’ yer first reaction ta that owl gettin’ ponyhandled by that eagle varmint, Ah don’ doubt ya’ll be a fine pet-owner.”
“And I can help, too!” Spike piped in, raising a claw eagerly.
Twilight smiled graciously at Spike.
“Thanks, Spike. But don’t forget that that involves cleaning up after his messes, too.”
“He says that he only goes in the woods, Twilight,” interjected Fluttershy.
“Well, that solves that problem, doesn’t it?” Spike smiled hopefully.
“Maybe, but there’s still one big problem: What should I name him…?” Twilight ran a cloven hoof across her stubble in deep pensivity. A series of pet names from a pet book she’d read as a filly ran through her mind, but none of them seemed to fit the bird poised patiently in front of her. Finally, a click, and Twilight beamed. “Ohh, I know! I’ll name you Owlowiscious!”
“Who-who!” the owl flapped his good wing energetically.
“He says that he likes it!” Fluttershy smiled.
Twilight stretched out her foreleg, and the owl now known as Owlowiscious alighted upon it. “Alright. Owlowiscious it is, then.”
“Owloysius?” echoed Applejack.
“Owlicious?” asked Spike.
“Owlolololcious?” Pinkie Pie put in.
Twilight gave the trio slight glares.
“Owl-ah-wih-shiss,” she repeated slowly. “It’s not that hard to pronounce Owlowiscious, really.”
“Well, I for one think it is a lovely name,” offered Rarity. “Most befitting of such a fine specimen of a bird.”
“Who-whoo,” hooted Owlowiscious, attempting to hide his face under his good wing.
Fluttershy chuckled slightly, “He says that you’ll give him a big ego if you keep saying things like that, Rarity.”
“Oh!” Twilight gasped. “I still need to introduce you to everypony else, Owlowiscious. This is Rarity, that’s Pinkie Pie, this is my surrogate son Spike, and…”
Twilight trailed off.
“Wait, where’s Rainbow Dash?”
The cerulean Pegasus was nowhere to be seen in the home.
“Where’d she go?” asked Applejack.
“Oh dear…” whimpered Fluttershy.
“‘Oh Deer’ is right~!” Pinkie squealed. “We’re in an entire village full of Deer, except for one little pony who thinks that he’s a Deer and he looks so cute with those branches tied to the top of his head…!”
Rainbow’s words from their first night in Harthind echoed in Twilight’s mind.
“You really think lying to him is the answer?”
Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat.
“She’s going to tell Butter-And-Eggs about what he really is!” she shouted in alarm, Owlowiscious hopping to the table in shock.
“She’s what?” growled Applejack. “That filly should jus’ leave him well enough alone!”
“But… is that really so bad?” asked Fluttershy hesitantly.
“I don’t know,” Twilight replied, “but it’s not really any of our business to let him know. It should be up to his Deer parents to tell him.”
Twilight’s eyes furrowed.
“We have to stop her!”
She led the band in a gallop straight out of the door into the village square, Fluttershy trailing behind uncertainly.
Spike stood awkwardly beside the table with Owlowiscious, claws outstretched awkwardly towards the rapidly disappearing mares. After several moments, he crossed his arms.
“Well, I’ll just stay here and look after the owl,” he grumbled.
“You, of course. You’re the owl, Owlowiscious.”
“…That really is all you can say, isn’t it?”
Harthind was not a very large village by any stretch; you could easily trot from one edge of the village to the other in two minutes, even with the haphazard arrangement of the houses and huts to match the placements of the trees of the surrounding forest. However, to Twilight Sparkle and her band, the search for their errant Pegasus seemed to take an eternity.
How could I have been so stupid? Twilight thought, frustrated. I knew that she was really bothered by that little white lie. So why didn’t I keep an eye on her when she was clearly bothered about her Element not activating? Oh Rainbow Dash, du Dummkopf! You better not ruin our stay in this village like this!
“There she is!” cried out Pinkie Pie, pointing towards a small herd of Deer near the edge of Harthind. A cerulean Pegasus was hovering over it, speaking vehemently to the crowd. Yellow hooves could be seen through the thicket of Deer legs.
Twilight darted forward.
“Rainbow Dash, don’t!” she barked at the Pegasus.
Rainbow seemed to come to her senses at the sound of Twilight’s voice, shaking her head vigorously and facing the lavender Unicorn sheepishly.
“Uh… hey, Twilight. Nice day, isn’t it?”
“I know what you’re up to, Rainbow Dash, and I don’t want you to breathe a word to Butter-And-Eggs!”
As Twilight spoke, the herd of Deer spread apart slowly, exposing Cobnut, Strawberry and Butter-And-Eggs. The little colt believing himself to be a fawn looked up to Twilight with wide blue eyes.
“What’s wrong, Miss Twilight? Is this something to do with Rainbow Dash telling me I’m really a Pony?”
Twilight glared at Rainbow.
“Actually,” Rainbow chuckled nervously, “I’m pretty sure I did tell him. My bad.”
“Is it true, Mom and Dad?” Butter-And-Eggs asked his parents plaintively.
Cobnut and Strawberry locked eyes with one another for several moments; Twilight could hear her own heart pounding in her ears. Strawberry knelt down to Butter-And-Eggs, seemingly kissing him on the crown of his head, but Twilight could see the glint of her teeth as she gnawed away at the ropes tying the branches to his head. Butter-And-Eggs’s mouth fell open as he felt the ropes slide off the side of his head and the branches tumble to the ground around him.
“Mom…? Dad…?” he whimpered.
Cobnut and Strawberry rested their heads against one another’s.
“We found you at the edge of the forest, son,” Strawberry explained. “Some roving wolves had attacked a caravan of ponies. Cobnut drove them off, but… none of the ponies had survived but you.”
“We took you in so that we could make sure that you survived,” Cobnut took over. “You were barely a month old, it seemed; you could barely trot to save your own life, so how could you have lasted?”
“But why trick me into thinking that I was a deer?” asked Butter-And-Eggs.
“It wasn’t a trick,” replied Strawberry. “You wanted to play-act as a deer when you were just old enough to speak, so we tied a pair of branches to your head. We didn’t expect you to carry on at it for a week straight, so we didn’t have the heart to tell you to stop. After a couple of months, it seemed like you’d forgotten that the branches weren’t real antlers.”
Butter-And-Eggs put a hoof to his mouth in thought.
“Hmm… I don’t really remember any of that…”
“You were two months old back then, so that’s to be expected,” Cobnut said. “We really did hope to let you know one day, and we knew it had to be soon when you got your cutie mark.”
“Cutie mark?” the colt echoed in confusion, before looking at the sunny-side-up-egg mark on his flank. “Wait, is that what this is called? What is a cutie mark?”
“It’s the mark of a pony’s special talent, what they find really makes them special in their own eyes,” Twilight interjected.
“Our little boy is exceptional at cooking any sort of egg-based meal,” Strawberry smiled.
“He only just got it last week,” Cobnut added.
“I had no idea what this was,” Butter-And-Eggs said as he smiled at his cutie mark. “I mean, there was this big flash of light, and bang! This thing just appeared. I thought I had some sort of problem with my fur, but now…”
“So now what?” Twilight ventured.
Butter-And-Eggs looked up at the lavender Unicorn confusedly.
“Now what what?”
“Well…” Twilight hesitated. “Now you know the truth. What are you going to do now?”
“What do you mean?” the colt tilted his head in befuddlement. “I’m not gonna do anything. These are my mom and dad; they raised me, so I’m not leaving them.”
“Really?” she replied, slightly taken aback. “Knowing you’re a pony hasn’t changed that?”
Butter-And-Eggs shook his head with a bright smile.
“I love Mom and Dad, and I love cooking eggs for them for breakfast,” he said. “Maybe when I’m old enough, I’ll head out into the world and show the world the things I can make with eggs. But until then…” He pranced up to his parents and began to nuzzle against his mother’s leg. “I’m gonna stay right here.”
Strawberry’s eyes swam with tears.
“My little boy…”
Rainbow Dash smiled with rare tenderness at the happy little family. Her eyes felt warm…
Twilight had approached behind Rainbow, who hastily wiped at her eyes and gave nervous look at the lavender Unicorn.
“Rainbow Dash, I take back everything I said about what you should have done here,” she said, rubbing a foreleg ruefully. “You had a greater understanding of honesty than anyone else did. You really do deserve to bear the Element of Honesty.”
The cerulean Pegasus’s expression relaxed into a slightly cocky grin.
“Yeah, I guess I have a knack for speaking my mind.”
“It’s not just that, though. You intuited that the situation would resolve itself more readily than I did, and I’ve read so many books on pony psychology that your head would spin at just the foreword of one! If only there were more ponies in the world who were as honest and forthcoming as you.”
“Nah, there’d probably be a lot more fighting.”
“That’s probably true.”
Twilight and her band turned startled back in the direction they came, to see a fast-approaching swarm of golden-yellow lights being pursued by Spike. The small mulberry drake’s call had also drawn the attention of the Deer in the crowd, including the village elders, but none could breathe a word as the golden-yellow lights resolved themselves into the glowing shards of Rainbow Dash’s Element of Honesty, hovering around Rainbow Dash’s head like a crown.
Rainbow Dash gave a short but boisterous laugh.
“Aww yeah! We’re five for five, girls! I guess the truth comes in all colors!”
The Elements flashed a brighter shade of yellow, reflecting in the center of Rainbow Dash’s eyes.
“Well done, Bearers of the Elements! Well done!” interjected Madam Oleander, suddenly speaking in a surprisingly caustic tone as she wore a venomous smile. “You have unlocked quart-and-one of the quart-and-two Elements of Harmony! But, what of the final Element? What about the Element of Magic?”
Twilight froze. Yes, what about the sixth Element? They had activated each of the five material Elements; the immaterial Element of Magic should have presented itself! Had they gone about activating the Elements of Harmony incorrectly? Where had they taken a misstep? Was Queen Malkia’s information incomplete? Had the Elements decayed over the course of their meggrossium of disuse, leaving them weaponless against the Queen of Eternal Night…?
“Hold up jus’ a second there, Ma’am,” Applejack cut in with a shockingly hostile tone towards Oleander. “We ain’ never told you or yer Deer kin the names of any a’ th’ Elements! How would you know what Elements any of us got?”
Oleander’s expression of supreme smugness evaporated away, her eyes darting nervously about at her fellow cervines, who were giving her suspicious looks.
“Well… you see…”
Applejack glowered at the elderly doe, “An’ now that Ah think back on it, ya mentioned merehyenas ta me earlier today. Ah don’ remember any time when we told ya what sorta creatures we met when we were gallopin’ all about the world.”
“I… I…” Oleander stammered.
“C’mon, Ollie, spill,” snapped Rainbow Dash, flapping up to the doe’s face, her Element’s golden lights flickering across both of their faces.
Oleander grimaced at Rainbow Dash, before taking in a deep breath and giving the band of ponies a look of resolve as cold as steel.
“The Moon shall taste your blood.”
Twilight had almost no time to react before a miasmic mist billowed out from the surrounding trees, coalescing in front of Madam Oleander, driving back the alarmed herd of Deer. Butter-And-Eggs scampered between his parents’ legs as they fled to safety, the other four village elders rearing back in fright.
The mist took shape and substance, solidifying into eleven shapes:
NightMare Moon and the Shadowbolts!
Twilight felt a fell chill that had nothing to do with the night beyond the forest. Madam Oleander was in league with the Monarchy of the Moon! How could they not have foreseen that?
With only five of the six Elements, there was nothing for it.
“RUN!” Twilight screamed, but the instant she spoke seven of the Shadowbolts broke off from their group and restrained her, her fellow ponies and Spike. The Bat Pony which held Twilight had an ironclad grip upon her midsection, and try as she might she could not break his hold.
NightMare Moon’s snakelike tail swished slowly through the grass.
“After my darling little dullahan failed to entrap you lot, I nearly began to despair of ever finding you. But thankfully, she gave you chase straight into the realm of a vassal of mine!”
“NightMare Moon…” cut in Oleander, boldly taking a step towards the dark Alicorn. “I have upheld my end of the bargain. Now, you shall uphold yours.”
“Your end of the bargain…?” NightMare Moon hissed with narrow eyes.
“Yes, your end, or have you forgotten!” demanded the elderly doe. “I have given you the wretched fools you desired; now, you shall give me back my youth!”
“Oleander, you villain!” cried Madam Rosemary. “You sold us out − your fellow deer, our Pony allies − for your youth?”
“Yes, I have!” replied the furious Oleander. “I was a beautiful doe once, the prize of Harthind. I wooed many hearts in my time, and courted many of the greatest bucks to ever grace deerkind. Including your own grandfather, Fuzzhead,” she turned a baleful eye upon the selfsame buck, who pawed the ground slowly, leveling a look of deep hatred at her. “But my youth − and my beauty − faded before I was ready to lose it. Soon no buck would look me in the eye, and I was relegated to the role of village elder. It was dreadful! You cannot fathom my grief at losing the loveliness that was me!”
“I can,” strained Rarity from her spot in the grip of Wind Shear, who only constricted more tightly. Rarity, however, with her scraggly amethyst stubble, her messy mane and tail and her matted coat, persisted, “And you are a despicable being. Youth is to be cherished while one has it, and when one loses it it expect to be looked back upon fondly, not clung to like a jealous schoolfilly!”
“What do you know of the beauty that I was? Nothing!” snarled Oleander, before facing NightMare Moon with determination. “You will return to me my youth, now! I will not be denied when it is so close I can feel it!”
The armored Alicorn flicked a snake’s tongue out from between her vampire’s fangs. A faint lupine growl passed through her lips − Fluttershy quivered in terror at the sound − before batlike wings unfurled, and a pitch-black alicorn glowed.
A bright-blue dwimmer-shimmer, sparkling with white points, descended upon Oleander, who looked over her decrepit form in wonder and intrigue. Then she began to rise into the air…
And higher still. Very soon she was level with the highest branches of the trees overhead.
“Wh… What are you doing, NightMare Moon?”
A terrifying grin split the face of the miasmic Queen of the Night as Oleander continued to rise up and above the forest. Twilight felt a grim horror building inside her as NightMare Moon’s intent became apparent.
“I am simply upholding my end of the bargain, as you so wished, young doe,” the maleficent mare sneered. “You want your youth back, by any means necessary, even betraying your own kind. You have proven yourself willing to throw away your life in doing so. Rejoice, my little Deer, for Queen NightMare Moon shall reunite you with your vitality. Yes… Your youth awaits you, Oleander… in Elysium!”
NightMare Moon’s horn stopped glowing, and as Oleander’s scream reached Twilight’s ears she heard Fuzzhead give a war cry and saw him charge at NightMare Moon. Nightingale intercepted the buck and drew back a hoof in preparation for a punch. Feeling the Bat Pony Shadowbolt’s grip slackening slightly, Twilight slammed her head backwards into his muzzle, barely acknowledging the pain in the back of her skull before pushing his legs off and firing blasts of energy at the faces of each Shadowbolt holding one of her friends, taking each of them in her dwimmer shimmer and drawing them in towards herself and − “STOP HER!” shrieked NightMare Moon − pulling them all into the infinite singularity of winking out, reappearing in the Cobnut-Strawberry home. Owlowiscious hooted in relief at the sight of his new owner.
Butter-And-Eggs and his parents barely had time to register the sudden appearance of quart-and-two Ponies and a drake in their home before a sickening crunching noise sounded from outside. Twilight had altogether too good an idea what that sound was, and though she felt fury at the elderly doe’s betrayal, this was smothered by a pity for she who had merely wanted to feel young and free once more.
“What was that?” Butter-And-Eggs whimpered.
“That was Elder Oleander earning her due for her treachery,” spat Rarity.
“‘Treachery’?” asked Strawberry.
“She tried to sell us out to NightMare Moon,” Twilight explained, “and that sound just now… was NightMare Moon rewarding her as a traiter deserves.”
“So she’s… gone?” breathed Cobnut. “And NightMare Moon is here…?”
Twilight only nodded to both questions, and NightMare Moon’s bellow of rage rattled the home. Butter-And-Eggs clutched his mother’s leg.
“So now where do we go?” asked Rainbow Dash.
Twilight furrowed her eyebrows.
“We go back to Ponyville,” she said with determination. “NightMare Moon and the Shadowbolts will follow us wherever we go now, so we go to Ponyville, we oust the Nightmare Guard, and we unlock the Element of Magic.” A single-minded will entered Twilight’s mind, a drive to reach this one goal, to free the good ponies of Ponyville and make the hamlet a bastion of rebellion against NightMare Moon, and she found herself standing taller than she had in months. “Are you girls with me?”
Her friends around her stood higher themselves, their eyes shining with the same willpower as her own.
“Ponyville’s our home, Twi; we’re with ya to th’ bitter end.”
“We’re gonna ride those nags out of town on a rail!”
“The Nightmare Guard will learn a lesson in how generosity need not be kind!”
“Those great big… meanies!”
“We’ll show them who’s gonna laugh last~!”
Spike placed a gentle claw on Twilight’s chest, smiling adoringly up at her.
“We’ll save Grandmom and Grandpa, Mom. I know it.”
Twilight smiled back down at the mulberry drake, drawing him into a warm embrace.
“I know we will.”
A fierce look crossed Twilight’s face.
“But we don’t have much time!”
In a flash of pink, the discarded saddle-shells and cloaks returned to their respective owners, Spike clambering onto Twilight's back where he was shortly joined by Owlowiscious, and they winked out once more, this time with a definitive destination in mind.
The time to run was over.
It was time to fight back!