Pinkie Pie stood upon the ornate rooftop of the townhouse, nearly doing pushups as she pumped her torso up and down. “Okay,” she said. “Okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yokaoy kaoy kaoy-”
She whirled about as Twilight Sparkle fluttered down, wings now folded at her sides. “Heya, Twilight!”
“Hey Pinkie,” Twilight said. “Any evil thoughts yet?”
“Nope! But I'll be sure to let you know as soon as something dark and spooky pops into my head!”
“Good,” said Twilight. “I wish we could rely on Rarity's Long Sight to tell when the attack comes, but she's still having trouble seeing the future. In the meantime, we're going to need your telepathy to detect Reiziger and the changelings the moment they arrive.”
Oh, I know, thought Pinkie. “And don't worry, I'm not afraid.”
“I didn't ask if you- oh, I guess I was thinking it though,” said Twilight with a shrug. She recalled something Rainbow Dash had told her. “Pinkie, everypony feels fear. There's no shame in admitting it. Heck, I'm scared right now, and I've been in one battle already!”
“Well yeah,” said Pinkie, “but I'm really not afraid. I mean, the worst that'll happen to me is I die, right?”
Twilight recoiled. “W-Well, yes, I guess- but you won't die!”
“But even if I did, I'd be okay. I've been a good pony! And all good ponies go to the Summer Lands when they die, where every day is pretty and all the older ponies you knew are waiting for you! So either I'm alive, and I have so many friends, or I'm not, and I still have so many friends!”
“I... I guess...” whispered Twilight. She did not wish to tell Pinkie that she had sometimes doubted the existence of the Summer Lands.
“You don't have to guess, take my word for it,” said Pinkie with a grin. “I've seen them!”
“You've seen the Summer Lands?”
“Uh huh! It happened once when I was little, not long after I got my cutie mark. One day I was out on the rock farm trying to chip some shards off a huge granite boulder! The trouble is it was a really stubborn boulder, so the harder I chipped, the less it seemed to do. Finally, I reared back-” Pinkie made a motion meant to emphasize the force she used- “and cracked at it with all I had! But I slipped and hit my head, then fell off the top of the boulder and hit my head again!”
“Yeah but it was totally great! Because when I got conked on the noggin, I had the most amazing vision! I went to the Summer Lands! My Granny Pie was there, and my Nana Pinkie, and my Uncle Stone, and all the relatives I'd had when I was really little! They told me that someday I'd come back and spend some time with them, though they said I'd never live there for good.” Those eyes of deep cerulean abruptly bulged. “Oh! That makes sense now, since I'm gonna be a super amazing immortal alicorn princess of Laughter! I bet you can go to the Summer Lands whenever you want, huh Twilight?”
Twilight shifted backward. “I... I don't know. I've never tried to go.”
“You should! Think of all the great old ponies that must be there! I bet Starswirl the Bearded is there too! You could hang out with him and everything.”
“That's true...” She filed away a mental note to ask Princess Celestia about such things. “I'll definitely try to go, Pinkie, and if I can, I'll take you with me.”
“Yee!” she squeaked, bouncing up to Twilight for a hug.
Twilight smiled as she wrapped a hoof around her friend. “Now keep that telepathy sharp, okay?”
You got it!
Twilight, with a final nod, flapped her wings and fluttered over rooftops. She soon touched down upon a barricade, where Applejack stood poised with soldier unicorns that did not share her strength. They seemed to quiver as they paced all back and forth, as though a touch would crumble them to dust. Not Applejack, however- she stood sure and sturdy, swathed up in the ruddy leather armor she'd received from Gildedale those years ago. “Howdy, Twi,” she said upon her friend's arrival.
“Hey there AJ,” she replied. “How's everypony doing?”
Applejack leaned close. “Not the best, t' be honest,” she said under her breath. “These boys are shakin' like leaves. Don't suppose you know any sort o' spell to lift their spirits?”
“That's more Dash's specialty. But maybe...” She jumped down to the cobbled street and trotted to a group of soldiers. “Hello there,” she said to one.
“Oh! Princess Twilight Sparkle, ma'am!” He snapped off a salute. “Orders, ma'am?”
“At ease. I just wanted to gauge your mood. How are you?”
“I'm... I'm trying to be brave, ma'am,” the soldier said. “But...” He turned away.
“It's... it's hard, your highness,” he admitted. “I'm from Trottingham-”
“Oh, no,” cooed Twilight softly. “I'm so sorry.”
“I... I was stationed in Canterlot on a rotation when I heard the news.”
“Did you have a family?”
“No, but my... my parents were there, and my sister had a husband.” He seemed to wilt before her. “I can't believe it, still. It's hard for me to realize they're gone. Also, one of my friends, a pegasus named Glint, went down in Cloudsdale.” His golden eyes were twinkling with woe. “I'm tired of losing ponies I care about to this war, your highness.”
“Th-Then... then stand strong!” said Twilight with no small amount of drama. “Be sturdy and help us defeat Reiziger.”
“But that's just it,” another unicorn responded. “Can we defeat him? He seems to win all the time!”
“Even when he loses, like in Cloudsdale, he gets what he wants!” said a third.
“I... I...” Twilight withdrew a little.
“Shape up, y'all!” cried Applejack above the growing din. She jumped down from the barricade and paced among the soldiers' ranks. “I know you're scared. Y'all've lost family and friends to this here dark lord- I get that, I do. But don't you wanna stop it from happenin' again? Or happenin' to any other pony?”
“I... I guess...”
“I do! So does Princess Twilight!”
“That's right!” Twilight exclaimed. “If you feel sad, you know how all the ponies of Equestria will feel if you fail!”
“It's the pony thing to feel how others feel,” continued Applejack. “Y'all are frightened, so your friends feel frightened too. But now try feelin' how sad everypony will be if y'all can't hold the line here. And when you're done with that, feel how strong y'all have to be to not let that happen!”
Whispers of determination filtered through the soldiers. One by one they gave new looks of strength unto each other, and to their superiors. “We won't let you down, Commander Applejack,” said the first pony that spoke.
“Don't expect anythin' different,” said Applejack. She tipped her hat. “Now stand firm, y'all, and have faith. Gotta be ready when he shows up.”
In another segment of city, buildings towered tall over the heads of nearby guards. Secure behind her barricade, Rarity cried, “Pull!”
Rainbow Dash, on cue, kicked her back legs and bucked a cobblestone into the air. Rarity's horn blazed blue, and from it came a burst of battle magic. The stone erupted into smoking shards.
Another stone went up, and this one too was blasted into bits.
The third stone met the same end as its fellows. Dash glanced back at Rarity. “Nice aim, Rares.” The nearby soldiers stomped their hooves in similar approval.
“Thank you, Dash,” said Rarity. She drooped in place. “Though honestly, getting compliments on my capacity for destruction was never high on my list of priorities.”
“Uh... I guess?”
Rarity sat down upon the street. She wore the silver battle armor of the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood, a gift of Falalauria herself. It had been made to fit a pony's shape, peytral, croupiere, flanchard formed of gleaming metal, inlaid all throughout with veins of crystal. The champron was adorned with double crystal crests. These gleamed as Rarity employed her magic, boosting its effectiveness. She thought on this and sighed. “Do you remember on our journey through Gildedale, the night before we encountered the komagas?”
“The first day we met Ashtail and Shield Maiden? Yeah, I remember.”
“Doubtless you also remember my... my tantrum, when I realized I might have to use lethal force on them.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dash winced. “Shield Maiden had to calm you down.”
“For which I am still grateful to her,” Rarity said. “But the sentiments I expressed then haven't changed.” Her deep blue eyes were soft with sorrow. “I don't like hurting things, Dash. I don't even like to kill bugs, for Celestia's sake. You've taken much better to this soldiering than I have.”
“It's sort of a pegasus thing- but that doesn't mean I like killing things either. I just do what I have to do.”
“And I shall do the same. It doesn't mean I have to like it, though.”
Dash sat down beside her. “How about something else you remember? Do you remember when we talked to Shield Maiden that one time before AJ herded the komagas?”
Rarity tilted her head. “Vaguely.”
“I asked Shield Maiden how she would feel if the daleponies didn't have to fight any more. They seemed so proud of their warrior culture, I was worried they'd be disappointed if it went away. But Shield Maiden told us that all real warriors dream of the day they don't have to fight any more. It's what separates warriors from killers.”
“You know, I do remember that conversation, now that you mention it.” A smile crept across her face. “I suppose if so fierce and brave a pony as Shield Maiden can feel the same way I feel, I shouldn't be too ashamed of it.”
“Exactly!” Dash threw a foreleg round Rarity's withers. “Nopony likes to fight- or, nopony normal does. But we've gotta do what we've gotta do.”
“Indeed,” said Rarity. She rose boldly to her hooves. “And I shall do what I must do. Thank you, Dash. You're such a good friend.”
“Don't mention it.” Dash grinned. “Now, I've been helping you with target practice. Wanna return the favor?” Lightning crackled up her legs.
Rarity smiled roguishly. Her horn lit up, and from the nearby pile of cobblestones four of them rose into the air. “With pleasure, darling.”
Across the city, in another barricade, Fluttershy was standing in her armor. All of them were wearing it, of course, though they had differing appointments. Rarity and Applejack had the armor they had gathered on their mighty journey. Twilight had a set of royal armor now; it was a blend of deer and pony work, coming from the forges barely one full week ago. That left Dash and her and Pinkie, all of whom wore standard royal guard armor, albeit in a smaller size than what the larger stallions had. Fluttershy's own body, long and thin, was gracefully accented by the barding.
She herself felt no such grace, however. It was all she could do to keep from shaking, terrified by thoughts of war and death. She did not shake, however. She glanced upon the unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies that stole glances at her, mares and stallions looking to her for their guidance and their comfort. She was an Element of Harmony, a friend of Princess Twilight Sparkle, a savior of Equestria so many times. Thus they looked to her for strength. She did not possess it, but she could pretend. Fluttershy hated lying, but she'd lie now, because they needed her. So she focused all her will to stop her shivers. Maybe this is part of what being brave is, she thought. Maybe you just have to lie to yourself about being brave until you are.
“Oh,” she turned about, “hey, Pinkie.”
I know you're scared, came Pinkie's voice inside her head. But you're also super brave for standing strong! You're doing the right thing.
“I... I hope so,” whispered Fluttershy. Pinkie's Gift of Laughter put in mind her own amazing power. Fluttershy now focused on the ponies clustered round her. Her cutie mark began to twinkle, and suddenly the ponies' hurts and cares and fears came swelling through her heart. She could feel their struggles, the torment of their souls. She could even feel physical maladies: one had an old ankle sprain that still was nagging her, another had lost two teeth in a farming accident. Now her skin and fur were itching. Could she heal them? Did she have that strength yet?
Fluttershy breathed in and out, each inhale bigger and deeper than the one before it. She trotted to the nearby purple mare, her orange mane and tail poking free out of her armor. “S-Soldier?”
“Oh! Commander Fluttershy!” A crisp salute.
“I... I wondered how your ankle was doing.”
“How did you-” the pony shook her head. “Oh, it's fine, ma'am. Just an old sports injury. It bugs me some on rainy days, but it'll hold up in a fight.”
“I, uh... I was wondering if I could have a look at it, actually.”
The mare now eyed her carefully. “If I may ask, commander, what for?”
Fluttershy exhaled. Their gifts weren't really a secret... “Because being an Element of Harmony grants me special powers. My power is the power to heal, and I'm trying all the time now to make it stronger. I was wondering if you'd be willing to let me try fixing your ankle.”
“Oh!” the mare's face brightened. “Well, sure. Give it a try.” She stretched her left front leg out.
Fluttershy sat down and cupped her front hooves round the leg. She focused on the slippery strength of spirit that was so elusive in her frightened heart. She dwelt on times when she felt happy and secure: her Father's Days with Javier, her spa visits with Rarity, the gaming nights in Twilight's library. Slowly, skinny lines of pinkish light began to swirl about the mare's front leg. Heartened by these signs of progress, Fluttershy advanced her thoughts, pouring all her care and tenderness into the years old hurt she felt. Slowly, the wrongness in the soldier's ankle started to undo itself. The roughness of the joint was smoothed, the bones were better set, and newness, freshness filtered into her anatomy. All the while Pinkie watched the mare's face. She bore a look of great contentment, as if she were being massaged.
Finally Fluttershy loosed her grip. “T-Try it now.”
The mare gave her front hoof a flex. “It... it feels great. It feels great! Thank you, ma'am!”
“Don't mention it,” said Fluttershy. “I just wanted you to feel better.”
“I... I...” the mare suddenly advanced and wrapped her in a hug. “Thank you!”
Fluttershy was quaking from the strange contact. She felt happy, however, through her fear. “Just... don't share it around. I-I don't want to be mobbed.”
“No problem,” said the mare. She pulled away. “Thank you again!” Thus she trotted back toward the others.
“Yay!” cheered Pinkie, bouncing up and down. “You did it, Fluttershy! You're a healer!”
“I... I guess I am,” said Fluttershy. She smiled. “Maybe I can do it, after all.” She glanced back at her cutie mark; the triple butterflies were shining faintly.
“Oop!” Pinkie's head cocked to the side. “Twilight's sending me a thought message! She's really gotten used to this. She wants us all to meet-” spinning like a weather vane she turned and pointed- “that way!”
Fluttershy and Pinkie trotted off, heading through the streets all barricaded, all the doors and windows barred and boarded up. Much of Manehattan's population had retreated to the northern boroughs, leaving all the city empty save for soldiers. Glancing up, Fluttershy saw pegasi making their regular patrols, while unicorns were mounted on the tops of skyscrapers. A line of earth ponies went down the street across from theirs. And yet the numbers weren't impressive; in her two days inside the city, Fluttershy had seen perhaps five hundred distinct guards. She knew little of war and armies, but she'd thought there'd be more ponies in a proper battle.
Fluttershy looked up to see a burst of dust. A lightning bolt was just then shooting through it, and following that down she saw Dash pumping legs in jubilation. Rarity was standing underneath her, shaking her head with amusement. Pinkie bounced forward. “What's up, girls?”
“Just a little target practice,” Dash said, blowing smoke from off her hoof.
“There you are!” came Twilight's voice. She flew down from above; just then Applejack came running up. “Okay, everypony's here?”
“What's this about, Twi?” Applejack said.
“Just getting a sense of where the defenses are,” said Twilight. “You girls see anything unusual?”
“Nope!” said Dash.
“Everything seems fine by my accounting,” added Rarity.
“I reckon things are all right,” Applejack said next.
“Everything's hunky dory!” Pinkie said. She put her hoof then to her chin. “Well, except for the fact that we're about to fight a battle, I guess.”
Five pairs of eyes turned onto Fluttershy. She winced from the attention. “What's wrong, Fluttershy?” asked Twilight.
“Well, it's just... shouldn't there be more ponies?”
“I...” Twilight slumped. “I wish there were. That's been my biggest fear.”
“To be frank, dearest, I have noticed our defenses seem to be... undermanned,” Rarity said.
“The royal guard's just not big enough,” Twilight sadly said. “Princess Celestia told me that there haven't been more than five thousand active guardsponies in over a century, and there just isn't time yet to train more.”
“And more than half of them are pegasi,” said Dash, “who we lost a bunch of in Cloudsdale.”
“T'ain't many, that's for sure,” said Applejack. “But they got stout hearts, every one of 'em.”
“All the courage in the world can't overcome numbers, Applejack,” said Rarity.
“Especially because who knows what kind of monsters Reiziger's going to throw at us,” said Twilight. “And that's not even counting Reiziger himself! I don't know why Princess Celestia or Princess Luna aren't here!” A shadow suddenly appeared behind her. “Without one of them to counteract Reiziger, this could be a massacre!”
“Tia and Lulu aren't here because I told them I would be.”
The six friends spun around. “M'lady!” Applejack exclaimed.
Indeed, there stood Falalauria, decked out for battle in resplendent silver armor. She smiled down at them. “Hello, my friends.”
“Lady Lala!” Pinkie cheered. “Are you gonna take it to that big meanie?”
“If he shows his face, I shall oppose him,” said Falalauria. “As to your being low on numbers, I have a solution to that as well.”
The tap of dainty hooves on cobblestone then reached their ears. The soldiers trotting by and flying overhead came to a halt, their eyes grown wide. “Look!” one shouted, and his shock was well displayed. Down the street toward the Elements of Harmony came hundreds of deer. They were decked out for battle in crystal and silver armor much like Rarity's. A handful of them did not wear it, instead opting for swirling green sigils painted all over their body- Ether Barding, Twilight realized with a gasp. In perfect lines they came up behind Falalauria, and there they stood, at full attention.
“Until we find a new forest in which to dwell, Equestria is our home,” said Falalauria, “and we shall defend it with all our strength.” She fell onto one knee; in perfect harmony her white-tails did as well. “We, the Deer of the Shimmerwood, are at your service, Elements of Harmony.”
The six stood there with open mouths. Finally a throat was cleared behind them. Twilight turned to see Steelshoe, one of the royal guard's captains, just behind her. “Orders, princess?”
“My orders...” Twilight breathed. She glanced upon the deer once more, still on their knees. She looked behind her, where the guardsponies were gathered, staring open-eyed and open-mouthed. Twilight steeled herself. She struck a pose. “My orders are that the deer be integrated into the defenses of the city. Hoofsoldiers line up together, captains and lieutenants coordinate. Today, pony and deer fight side-by-side!”
In half an hour all were settled in. Fluttershy and Dash flew overhead, each content to see the deer mingled with ponies on the roofs and behind barricades. Below them, Stirrup fidgeted in place. The earth pony tugged upon the chinstrap of his helmet. “Any minute now, I guess.”
A unicorn named Primrose glanced toward him. “Do you reckon we'll die?”
“I'm expecting it,” said Kindling, another earth pony, with gloomy tone. “I've had bad luck my whole life. I might as well have bad luck when my life's on the line, too.”
“But Princess Twilight and the Elements of Harmony are here!” said Stirrup. “They helped resist the dark lord at Cloudsdale.”
“Yeah,” said Primrose, stomping her left hoof, “but in the end the rainbows turned black, didn't they? So did the Elements really stop him?”
“I just want to say that I've really enjoyed your company,” Kindling said, “all of you. I hope you'll light some candles for me when I'm gone.”
“Hey now, cut that out!” said Primrose. “We'll make it to the end of this, I promise.”
“That's an awfully big thing to promise,” Stirrup said. “Especially for just a pony.”
“Have courage, mitra roccae,” said a white-tail deer behind them. “The Wills have not abandoned you in your hour of need.”
“Uh... thanks, I guess,” said Stirrup, eying the intruder warily. “Hey, what's your name?”
“I am called Plínio,” said the deer. “I have heard your names already.”
“How do you feel about fighting one of your fellow deer?” Primrose asked next.
A shadow crossed Plínio's face. “The Herd Lord is not a deer any more. He turned away from our folk long ago. He is a monster, and he must be slain.”
“Oh, well, that's good to hear I guess,” Kindling replied.
“So let's see,” Stirrup said. “There's about a thousand of us Royal Guards here. How many did your Lady bring with her?”
“We number some five hundred, by her count.”
“Oh, well, fifteen hundred deer and ponies, then.” He grimaced. “Not a lot.”
“Better than nothing,” Primrose said.
Better than nothing? Perhaps, but only barely.
The guards all flinched and cried aloud. Kindling started praying to Celestia. Plínio and his fellow deer grew firm with muscles tensed.
Knock knock, little ponies. Can I come in?