The heliogenesic sun cast by Twilight Sparkle nearly two months prior set upon Ponyville, and the Nightmare Guard’s already formidable vigilance was bolstered to near-unbearable levels. While the day-shift was harsh and did not allow the villagers to look up to the sky under penalty of imprisonment and withholding of food and drink, the setting of Twilight’s sun brought on a whole new level of oppression. For weeks since the quartering of the Nightmare Guard in Ponyville, the locals had been forcefully coaxed into prolonging their sojourns out of doors to admire the light of the Moon and stars and feel the chill of the night. Despite the fact that very little snow had descended upon the small hamlet, the cold descended upon Ponyville, and even the heliogenesic sun which brought light struggled to supply warmth.
Big McIntosh sighed; the wares of Sweet Apple Acres had taken a terrible hit from the frost of NightMare Moon’s eternal night. He feared that, even if NightMare Moon would fall tomorrow, the crop yield of the Apples would be severely compromised. Though the trees the Apple family used were more resilient towards winter conditions than any other apple trees in Equestria, it could possibly be months before yields returned to pre-NightMare Moon quantity and quality.
For the time being, though, he refused to accept any payment from anypony who came asking for apple products, and he supplied as ripe and red an apple as he could find a supplement to whatever order was placed. It was not as if there was any need for money presently, when most cities, towns and villages kept to their own knitting in this time of crisis.
Shivering against the cold of Town Square, Big Mac passed a bag containing a freshly-baked apple crumb pie to the pale-beige Earth Pony mare before him. Bon Bon smiled weakly under a bouncy cobalt-and-fuchsia mane.
“Bless you, Big McIntosh,” she sighed. “Bless you and all the Apples. Lyra really loves your family’s wares, and ever since she caught her death of cold…”
She averted her eyes sadly to the hard earth, and Big Mac blinked slowly. He knew that the co-owners of the BonBonnière sweet shop were extremely fond of one another, and he learned very quickly of the mint-green Unicorn’s fall into illness the week prior. Despite the Nightmare Guard’s insistence that Mrs. Lyra Heartstrings be transported to the Ponyville Hospital after heliogenesic sundown, Mrs. Bon Bon and her many identical cousins took to making house-calls to Doctor Stable and his nurses. With the physician’s under-the-counter medications and the steady supply of food from Bon Bon’s cousin Sweetie Drops’s cousin Big McIntosh, Lyra seemed quite on the way to recovery.
Bon Bon returned her gaze to Big Mac and she attempted a smile.
“Thank you so very much, Big McIntosh, for everything. I don’t know how we can ever repay you and the Apples. Now, I hope you don’t mind, but I simply must get back to my sweetheart with her pie.”
“Eeyup,” Big Mac replied. “Have a nice day.”
Bon Bon had barely made it two steps before a pair of ponies in black armor descended in front of her, a Pegasus and a Bat Pony. Their eyes gleamed with blue mind-control, and they closed in on Bon Bon and Big McIntosh.
“Stay where you are, diurnal,” droned the Bat Pony mare, her wings spread menacingly. “You have not passed the allotted amount of time for admiring our Queen’s beautiful night before finishing your errand. Look up to the sky and admire the constellations that Queen NightMare Moon had set in the Firmament during the Age of Discord. Contemplate the empty glow of the lifeless Moon, and the meaninglessness of your life without its gleam.”
Bon Bon withdrew fearfully from the advancing Nightmare guards, her ears flattening against her head. The paper bag with the pie was clenched in her teeth, and the Pegasus stallion eyed it.
“Although… we may perhaps allow you to return now if you allow us to handle your wares for you,” he intoned.
Bon Bon glowered, a fire lit in her eyes.
“You can take it from me and my Lyra when Tartarus burns over!”
Big Mac stood beside the candy mare in solidarity as the Nightmare guards narrowed their eyes slightly in disapproval.
“Then so be it,” hissed the Bat Pony.
The Pegasus and Bat Pony reared up, the blue glow in their eyes growing as they bared their teeth, a miasmic magical shimmer appearing along the rims of their wings…
A pink flash of light by the Gazebo.
The Nightmare guards looked to one another momentarily, the Bat Pony keeping her eyes trained upon the recalcitrant Earth Ponies while the Pegasus turned his head to investigate the flash of light.
Twilight Sparkle and her band of five ponies and one drake stood there, each wearing a dark cloak and the mares each bearing a saddle-shell, from Aquastria no doubt.
The Pegasus guard’s wings flared, “It’s the Most Wanted!”
The Bat Pony whirled about face in a blur, the Earth Ponies behind her giving looks of surprised hope to the new arrivals.
“It’s Applejack and the others!” Bon Bon gave a cry of joy, the paper bag slipping to the ground as she spoke. Big Mac smiled proudly at his younger sister.
“What’s the plan?” Applejack hissed to Twilight in fear.
Twilight looked to the pair of Nightmare guards who had spread their wings and taken to the air, giving her and her friends severe and dark looks. The bookish Unicorn filtered a gigagross and one different plans of action through her mind as to how they could handle this situation calmly and tactfully.
Each and every one of them was rejected.
She glowered back at the guards.
“Take them down!” she snarled.
Rainbow Dash gave a slightly feral grin to Twilight, “Now that’s a plan I can get behind!”
As quick as lightning, Rainbow Dash bolted towards the Nightmare guards whose hypnotized loyalty was not quick enough to react meaningfully. Very shortly they found themselves being wrapped up in a twister of Rainbow’s making − maybe it’s the Rainblow Dry, Twilight thought − and after several moments of hurricane-level winds buffeting them about, the pair of Nightmare guards were flung high into the air. The guards recovered midfling, hovering at least a gross hooves over Town Square. They gave one last look of fury to the Most Wanted down below before they began to fly away in a dazed zig-zag off over the rooftops.
Rainbow Dash let out a loud whoop of joy.
“That felt really good!”
Twilight beamed, “I’m glad it did, because we’re here to send the Nightmare Guard packing.”
The beige Earth Pony with Big McIntosh approached with a definite air of relieved calmness. She had a paper bag clutched in her mouth, but she placed it down on the ground and smiled at Twilight.
“Thank you so much, Twilight Sparkle,” she said. “I heard some Nightmare guards talking a few days ago about having spotted you, so I thought that you’d be back soon to set us free. I told my sweetheart Lyra all about it, and… I swear that she’s been getting better ever since she heard that. Now, I’m sorry, but I really must get this pie back to her.”
She bowed her head lightly, picking up the paper back in her mouth before galloping off and out of Town Square.
“Ya came back,” said Big Mac, who approached the band of mares himself. “Ah guess NightMare Moon’s come down, or’s gonna come down soon?”
“Oh, she’s going down, alright,” Rarity snarled. “This entire adventure has been murderous on my prideful appearance, and I cannot possibly be the only one so wronged by that despicable despot!”
Big Mac blinked. He almost did not recognize the alabaster Unicorn as the proprietor of Carousel Couture. Her coat was matted and blotched with dirt and dust, her mane and tail were both frazzled and unkempt, and her Unicorn facial hair was very apparent. The other mares around her were not much better off, save perhaps Applejack; Big Mac’s eldest younger sister looked no worse than she did at the end of a typical season of applebucking.
“So, y’all came ta give these Nightmare folks th’ boot?”
Applejack pawed at the ground in barely restrained wrath.
“Ah’ll give ‘em th’ boot, alright. Ah’m headin’ straight fer Sweet Apple Acres an’ showin’ ‘em what-fer!”
Big Mac gave a curt nod.
“An’ Ah’m goin’ with ya. We Apples gotta stick t’gether.”
Applejack returned his nod.
“I’ll pick up my whole party arsenal from behind Sugarcube Corner,” Pinkie Pie smirked. “Those Nightmare guard ponies will feel bad for being so serious business all the time!”
“I shall ensure that my family, my cat and my boutique are all safe and sound,” Rarity said with dark conviction. “My darling little Opal Essence has been deprived of her mommy for too long. And… I do hope that Sweetie Belle has persisted finely in these past weeks…”
Fluttershy took to the air with Rainbow, a look of fierce determination on her face.
“Rainbow and I will cover you all from the air. You can count on us.”
Rainbow Dash gave her fiancée a mildly impressed look, before giving a nod of her own with a grin showing her canine teeth.
Before anypony could make a further move, a high scream like a beast out of Tartarus reached their ears from the east. As their eyes turned to view the source, they saw from beyond the Everfree a cyclonic miasma tearing across the sky at blinding speeds, shrieking through the cold air in a beeline for the transformed Canterlot.
“NightMare Moon…” Twilight breathed.
“We’ve gotta move, now!” Rainbow Dash shouted.
Twilight nodded at the cerulean Pegasus.
“Exactly, Rainbow Dash, now. Everypony, go do what you need to do to disrupt the Nightmare Guard. Drive them out of Ponyville. Let NightMare Moon know that we ‘diurnals’ won’t go so softly into the night!”
Five mares nodded at Twilight, before galloping or flying off in their own respective directions. As Big Mac and Applejack tore off for Sweet Apple Acres, Owlowiscious hooted from Twilight’s back.
“What is it, Owlowiscious?” Twilight asked.
The tawny owl’s head was turned towards the Gazebo, towards a cactus and an agave sitting idly at the edge of the railing, a watering can between them…
Twilight galloped up in teary joy. “Mom! Vati!
The agave and cactus were in better shape than any plants that Twilight had seen since Aquastria. The plants of Pundamilia were overly dry from the drought that the continent of Aspicia was suffering under eternal day, while Equestria’s plantlife were dying of frostbite. Twilight’s plant-transformed parents, though, looked almost exactly the same as they had the day before the Summer Sun Celebration. There was perhaps a slight listing to the agave’s leaves, though…
Twilight felt a sob escape her throat, the plants and the watering can lighting up in her dwimmer shimmer.
“Mom… Vati… I’m sorry, but please wait a little longer. It will all be over soon. I just have one more thing to do before this is finished.”
Spike asked her, “Where are we going, Mom?”
“Where else, Spike?” she replied. “We’re going to secure the library!”
Apple Bloom and her fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders sat in the living room with Granny Smith, listening to the accordion-jazz fusions of the Cheese Sandwich Band on the family radio. Ever since the Nightmare Guard had quartered themselves in Ponyville, crusading for cutie marks had become entirely more tedious for all of the obnoxious observances of the Nightmare Guard. It was very difficult to concentrate on discussing how to get a cutie mark with big scary adults in black armor accented by silver shears monitoring your every move and listening in to your every word. And whenever the trio of fillies tried to engage in the rough-and-tumble activities that they were so certain would net them their cutie marks, they would be unduly interrupted by a random Nightmare guard so as to absorb the beauty of the night sky. And this was not even considering the fact that at least one of NightMare Moon’s guardsponies would be quartered in one of their bedrooms any given night (or day, if it was a Bat Pony).
“Ah really thought we’d have our cutie marks bah now…” Apple Bloom murmured.
“I know,” said Sweetie Belle sadly. “We’ve been trying so hard.”
“It’s ‘cause of those lame-o Nightmare guards!” Scootaloo growled. “We’d have got our marks by now if it wasn’t for―”
Granny Smith shushed the gamboge Pegasus filly.
“Hush yerself, Scootaloo. Ya never know when some guard’s gonna be listenin’ in. Ya gotta be careful what you say these days.” The elderly mare bowed her head. “Never thought a day like this would come.”
Apple Bloom looked down at her forehooves, “Ah don’ think any of us thought it would. But Twilight did, didn’ she? An’ now she an’ Applejack an’ a buncha other ponies are out there fightin’ ta put an end ta this real long night. But… Ah jus’ wish Ah could do sumthin’.”
The sound of a clearing throat reached Apple Bloom’s ears, and she looked up to her grandmother seated at her rocking chair.
“C’mere, li’l apple-seed,” said Granny Smith, beckoning towards her granddaughter. Apple Bloom tentatively trotted up to the elderly mare, resting between Granny Smith’s forelegs and looking up into those peach-colored eyes identical to her own.
“Ah know thatcha wanna help yer big sis out. Ya wouldn’ be yer pa’s little gal if ya didn’. But ya gotta pick yer fights, know when not ta git involved.”
“But Ah really wanna help, an’ I really want mah cutie mark, ‘cause Ah’m sure it’ll help Applejack out fer sure!”
“Apple Bloom, yer cutie mark’s just sumthin’ that y’all will need ta take yer time with. If ya try rushin’ yerself an’ findin’ yer special talent in sumthin’ thatcha don’ have th’ right passion fer, yer true special talent will pass ya by ‘cause yer gonna be jaded ‘bout all th’ dissatisfaction ya’ve been feelin’ up ta then.”
“But… Ah wanna help at sumthin’!” Apple Bloom persisted, her peach-colored eyes shining forlornly.
Granny Smith sighed.
“Dearie, couldja look at yer sugar-foot?”
Apple Bloom looked down at her left hind leg, the only one of her legs to end in white long-haired fetlocks; her three other legs were the same short-haired pale-yellow as the rest of her coat. It was something that her family had endearingly called her “sugar-foot”, as it looked like she had dipped her left hind leg in a tub of sugar.
“Ah’m lookin’ at it,” Apple Bloom said flatly. “But what’s it all about?”
“Yer pa had th’ same sorta fetlocks, on all four a’ his legs. Ya look mighty like yer ma, but ya gotcher pa’s coat an’ a mix a’ his an’ yer ma’s mane an’ tail.”
Apple Bloom’s eyes widened in wonder.
“Ah didn’ know all that. All the pictures we got a’ Ma ‘n’ Pa are in black-’n’-white. But… wha’s this gotta do with…?”
Granny Smith rested a slender foreleg over her granddaughter’s back, drawing the pale-yellow filly in close.
“Yer pa was always a strong colt, even b’fore he got his cutie mark. He weren’t always th’ sorta pony who’d stand ‘bout as tall as Queen Celestia herself, an’ he couldn’ always buck half th’ orchards’ trees in th’ span of one week. But after we lost yer grampa…” For one brief instant, Granny Smith’s peach eyes shimmered with unshed tears, but the grief was gone in a blink. “Bright McIntosh, yer pa, needed ta take up th’ slack fer all his little brothers ‘n’ sisters. An’ Ah gotta say, Ah cin definitely see why ponies started callin’ him ‘Chief’. All sorta folks ‘round Ponyville wanted him ta run fer Mayor, but he always turned it down.”
“Why’d he turn it down, Granny Smith?” asked Apple Bloom. “Pa sounded like a right powerful pony.”
“Yer pa had a heart as strong as a horse’s,” Granny Smith replied, “an’ he was smart enough ta know that though he had lotsa friends ‘round town, he still had lotsa enemies, too. His bes’ friend, Filthy Rich’s father Audacious-Lee Rich, despised th’ Apple fam’ly, an’ he had th’ money ta buy th’ votes ta git him outta th’ race. So yer pa kept his nose clean, kept it to th’ grindstone, an’ helped maintain Ponyville from th’ sidelines.
“What Ah’m tryin’ ta tell ya, Sugar-foot, is that yer doin’ ev’rythin’ ya can fer Applejack right here in Ponyville. Ye’ve bin helpin’ yer big brother with th’ apple harvests, haven’tcha?”
Apple Bloom nodded truthfully, “Yes, Ah have, Granny. Ah help ta set up th’ baskets so Big Mac cin buck down th’ apples.”
Granny Smith offered a slightly tired smile.
“Then yer helpin’ out with sumthin’. Ya don’ have ta carry th’ weight a’ th’ world on yer shoulders ta make a diff’rence. Foal steps, sweetie. Foal steps.”
“An’ then one day Ah’ll be buckin’ apples th’ same as Big Mac ‘n’ AJ?”
Apple Bloom tried to smile, but she suddenly found herself tearing up even as she struggled to maintain a cheery look. After sniffling for several seconds, she relented and let herself cry.
“Ah miss Applejack, Granny…”
Granny Smith nuzzled her granddaughter somberly, and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo slowly trotted up to their Earth Pony friend and each reached a foreleg across her back.
“Ah miss her too, darlin’,” the elder Earth Pony whispered. “Ah wish Ah could tell what was happenin’ with mah little Blenheim, but they jus’ don’ say anythin’ ‘bout her on th’ radio.”
“But,” Sweetie Belle interjected, “if they’re not saying anything, doesn’t that mean that NightMare Moon hasn’t found them yet?”
Granny Smith’s face loosened slightly, some small wrinkles slackening as she contemplated Sweetie Belle’s query.
“Ya know, young’un? Ah think yer right.”
“Darn tootin’ she is, Granny.”
The elderly lime-green mare startled at the sound of the very familiar voice. Blinking up at the archway leading to the foyer, she saw a very familiar orange Earth Pony mare.
Apple Bloom sprung to her hooves joyously.
She galloped towards her big sister as quickly as her little legs could carry her, wrapping both of her forelegs around one of Applejack’s. The palomino Earth Pony placed her other foreleg around her little sister.
“Ah’m back, little sis,” Applejack said.
“Ah missed ya, Applejack!” cried Apple Bloom.
Tears ran down Applejack’s muzzle. “Ah missed you, too.”
Granny Smith stood slowly from her rocking chair, trotting slowly towards her Bright McIntosh’s secondborn.
“Good ta see ya back, Applejack. Is Big McIntosh with you?”
“Eeyup,” came a voice from behind Applejack. Just inside the foyer stood the burly red stallion who was Bright McIntosh’s firstborn. “An’ Applejack’s friends are here in Ponyville, too. We’re gonna take the village back.”
“We are?” Scootaloo shouted excitedly, grinning broadly.
“So Rarity’s back in town?” Sweetie Belle asked with wide eyes.
“And Rainbow Dash?” piped in Scootaloo with mirth.
“Yes ta both a’ those,” replied Applejack, shuffling off a saddle-bag that looked almost exactly like a giant clamshell. Kicking it open, a small cadre of apple-red shards of stone floated out from within and levitated around the crown of Applejack’s head.
“What are those, Applejack?” Apple Bloom asked.
“These,” she replied, “are the Element a’ Loyalty. Th’ Element a’ Harmony that Ah bear.”
Granny Smith smiled proudly.
“That surely fits ya, mah sweet. Ah always knew ya were a true Apple, always lookin’ out fer th’ ones ya love.”
Applejack blushed red, running a hoof through her ragged mane.
“Ya look like ya’ve been through Tartarus itself, AJ,” noted Granny Smith. “At least git sum hairbands on that mane an’ tail a’ yers.”
“An’ Ah’ll git one a’ yer hats!” squeaked Apple Bloom, darting up the stairs.
“Aww, Granny Smith, ya really don’ need to,” Applejack replied sheepishly. “‘Sides, we really should be drivin’ them Nightmares outta here. ‘S’not like they’re welcome here in Ponyville, an’ if they’ve laid one hoof on Apple Bloom…”
“They didn’t! Really!” Sweetie Belle cut in over Applejack’s rising tone of anger. “I mean, we’ve been having lots of trouble trying to get our cutie marks lately, but…” The little white Unicorn smiled wryly. “It’s not like we’ve got to be in bed before dark, right?”
“And besides,” Scootaloo smirked, “if they tried to do anything to Apple Bloom or Sweetie Belle, they’d be seeing my hoofprint in their eyes for a week!”
“Ah… don’ think y’all should be gettin’ involved in this mess,” muttered Applejack as Apple Bloom scampered down the steps, a fresh Stetson clutched in her teeth. She caught the tail-end of her big sister’s statement, and looked mildly affronted as she passed the hat to Applejack.
“What? But why? Ah’m not a baby, Applejack!”
Applejack placed the Stetson upon her head, smiling briefly to celebrate the return of that feeling of headwear, before giving Apple Bloom a slightly stern look.
“Maybe not, Apple Bloom, butcha ain’t a mare yet. Big Mac ‘n’ Ah will go ‘bout th’ farm an’ clear out any a’ those ne’er-do-well Nightmare guards, an’ you an’ yer friends should stay here an’ make sure that Granny Smith keeps safe.”
“What?” snapped the elder mare. “Ah ain’ no invalid, Applejack! Ah cin take care a’ mahself!”
“What Ah meant,” Applejack hissed to Granny Smith, so that the Cutie Mark Crusaders could not hear her, “is that some ponies need a watchful eye on ‘em, so’s that they don’ go wanderin’ inta trouble.”
Granny Smith’s face lightened in understanding, before giving a sly wink to Applejack. Applejack gave a smirk to her grandmother, gave one last little hug and kiss to her little sister and strode out the front door onto the farmlands with her big brother.
“So Big Mac, what sortsa trouble cin we be expectin’ hearabouts?” she asked.
Big Mac dug in his forehooves, a sap-green light dancing down his legs as he closed his eyes. Taking after her brother, Applejack, shifted her hooves slightly, reaching down through the earth with her mind, stretching out her awareness to every corner of every field in all of Sweet Apple Acres.
It seemed that there were at least two-dozen Nightmare guards scattered about the orchards. They seemed to be patrolling the outer edges of the farmland, as if anticipating that Applejack would have snuck in some way other than the main gate.
Applejack’s eyelids clenched.
“Ya sense that, Big Mac?” she asked softly.
There was movement off in the northeast of a great number of… somethings. It almost felt like the staccato movements of timberwolves, but it certainly did not feel like something of that size. It felt more like… ponies. But ponies with an uncanny shuffle to their movement, all moving towards the farmhouse.
A grim thought entered Applejack’s mind, but she had to confirm it with Big Mac, who spent more time in town than she did ordinarily.
“Big Mac… what’s off to th’ northeast of Sweet Apple Acres?”
She could not keep the twinge of fear out of her voice, and her brother’s answer of three words only served to send a wave of terror through every bone in her body. The implications were chilling, and it brought a deep and irrational shiver into the ordinarily implacable mare’s legs. Those three words that Big McIntosh said to her were:
“The Ponyville Cemetery.”
The Golden Oak Library was surrounded by at least a dozen Nightmare guardsponies; three of each pony race, six on the ground and the winged Pegasi and Bat Ponies in the air. The glow of their hypnotized eyes shifted back and forth almost mechanically, apparently keeping an eye out for anypony who strayed too close to the library.
Twilight did not care if they saw her.
It wasn’t right.
This repository of knowledge, under lockdown.
Those poor books, not allowed to be read!
It was unforgivable!
They may have been hypnotized, but it was still unforgivable!
The guards around the Golden Oak Library immediately spun about to face her, crying out orders to one another and bolting towards her, no doubt to place her under arrest.
“Mom…?” Spike whimpered in fear.
But Spike need not have feared. Twilight’s rage at the wrongful withholding of books and knowledge kindled an inner focus in the lavender Unicorn, giving her a heightened sense of where each of the guards was going to be up to two seconds later, allowing her the clarity to set up each spell to disable or incapacitate each of the dozen that were descending upon her. And she reckoned that it would be a simple task; in her prior observations of the other Nightmare guards, though they were bound to the will of NightMare Moon, they were incapable of acting out any form of magic that was not their own.
Her parents and the watering can settling on the earth, Twilight lit up her alicorn in fury.
Two seconds later, each guard was either bound in magically conjured rope or placed in a magically induced unconscious state. As livid as she was about the library lockdown, Twilight Sparkle had the presence of mind enough to know that these dozen mares and stallions were not doing this willingly. It was because of NightMare Moon’s eldritch magic that subverted their volition.
Spike blinked in astonishment. He had never seen Twilight casting magic so deftly, or so effectively. Was it her willpower or her rage that gave her such quick spellwork…?
“Hoo-hoo!” hooted Owlowiscious in wonder at the pink-glowing ropes around the nearest Pegasus guards, who struggled against his bonds.
“How dare you keep these books forbidden from the good ponies of Ponyville!” Twilight snarled at the fallen guards. “Knowledge is the greatest gift that the Maker gave us, the desire to grow smarter and wiser, the urge to ask Why?, the need to answer that question… who does NightMare Moon think she is to give you such atrocious orders?”
“Right, because eternal night that could freeze everyone to death isn’t bad enough,” Spike grumbled as he slipped down off of Twilight’s back. As soon as he finished, though, he felt himself withdrawing in fear of Twilight’s lashing tongue…
“You have a point, Spike,” she said softly, with an understanding look on her face as she raised a foreleg sheepishly. “I mean, it’s terrible that she should do this, but…” She nodded wordlessly, her horn glowing once more and her pink dwimmer shimmer lighting up around the agave, cactus and watering can. “Now, let’s head on in.”
The Golden Oak Library interior proved to be little different than when Twilight had left it after the Ursa Major incident so many weeks ago, albeit with a much more haphazard set-up to the books. It may have been simply that some Nightmare guards had taken to a bit of light reading during their occupation of Ponyville, but the idea that NightMare Moon would allow her mind-slaves such a leisure was almost laughable. It was also possible that the disarray was on the orders of NightMare Moon directly, that the Nightmare Guard had been instructed to throw books around pell-mell because it was just wrong and those books on that shelf were completely thrown out of alphabetical order and the Dewy Decimal System was being completely ignored judging by the way that the books were arranged at a glance and the
“Mom? Are you alright?”
Twilight blinked. She had been lost in a nightmare world where books were not arranged in their proper order in a library. She looked down at Spike bewilderingly.
“Sorry, Spike. What just happened?”
“You just… zoned out when you saw the way that these books looked,” he explained, gesturing out at the library room. “I mean, I’m not OCD like you and even I think this is messy.”
Twilight glanced over at the books strewn randomly about the library, fighting the voice screeching at the back of her mind that this was all wrong and needed to be corrected. There needed to be some focus on the real issue at hoof:
This mess of books!
Setting her parents down by an open window and giving them a generous watering, Twilight set her eyes upon Spike.
“Now Spike, I really want you and Owlowiscious to stay here in the library while I do what needs to be done,” she said with conviction.
Spike’s eyes widened in shock, Owlowiscious settling on the edge of the table in the middle of the room and poking his beak into his wing.
“But Mom… I was with you all this way, helping you guys out, and you’re going to leave me here at the end?”
It hurt Twilight more than she had reckoned to say this to Spike. She knew that he was still very sensitive about how she felt about him, so she drew him in for a hug, and he hugged her other leg tight.
“It’s nothing to do with anything you’ve done. You’ve done wonderfully on this journey. But I just want to know that you’re safe, Spike. I’ll cast a shield spell around the library, so that you know that you’re safe here… and I know that you’re safe.”
“Hoo,” said Owlowiscious.
Twilight held Spike tight and glanced momentarily at her pet owl.
“Keep each other safe here until I’ve come back. And… please take care of your grandparents.”
With a heavy heart, Twilight placed a kiss on Spike’s forehead and stepped out the door. The mulberry drake reached plaintively out towards the closed door, but Twilight only looked sorrowfully back at him before offering a forlorn smile. Spike gave her an imitation of a smile in return as the door closed.
Spike turned to Owlowiscious, his arms folded.
“I really should go with her.”
“Me. …Err, well, you know what I mean. I just want to help out. I don’t want to just be left behind all the time. I’ll never be able to impress Rarity like this!”
“She’s only the most beautiful mare in all of Equestria… no, in the entire world! She’s just so… kind and generous! And she’s so beautiful, even with her stubble!”
“Aww, come on. Don’t be such a sourpuss. Rarity might not like her facial hair, but it looks… nice on her, I guess. I’m honestly not much for facial hair on Unicorns, but if Rarity liked it, I suppose it wouldn’t be bad.”
“But… I suppose there’s always after NightMare Moon.”
Spike trudged over to the agave and cactus under the window, settling down at the chill wind that gusted in.
Outside of the library, Twilight looked over her shoulder at the tree in bereavement.
Please stay safe, Spike, Owlowiscious, she thought. Spike… Mom… Vati… Owlowiscious… I hope I’ll be able to see you all safe and sound again, in a world where the world is not divided between freezing and burning.
Her horn glowing pink, she lined up the spell matrices in her mind to generate a dome-shaped shield over the hollow tree of the Golden Oak Library. A glimmering pink semi-sphere settled into existence over the hollowed-out oak, minute incandescent sparkles dancing along its surface as the magic that manifested it settled. With one last heartfelt look into the window at the slitted green eyes staring glumly out at her, she steeled herself and turned…
Straight into the face of Pinkie Pie. She had ditched her cloak and saddle-shell, and the blue-glowing shards of the Element of Laughter circled the top of her head. She seemed to be wearing some sort of contraption that was made out of ten instruments at once. A harmonica, a tuba, an accordion, a banjo, a drum… it just didn’t look like it should have been allowed anywhere, never mind the fact that nopony should have been able to play it, no matter how one multitasked with one’s magic. Leave it to Pinkie Pie to specialize in an impossible instrument.
“Hey there, Twilight!” the pink Earth Pony squealed joyously. “Doncha know that looking sad all the time gets you premature wrinkles? My Nana Pinkie was wrinkled like she spent her whole life takin’ a bath, but my Granny Surprise Pie always looked so young until the day that she flew into the side of a mountain~! You wanna know what her secret was?”
Twilight blinked in astonishment, not at Pinkie’s uncanny ability to appear practically muzzle-to-muzzle with somepony just because they were turned away from her, but at the casual nature of which she described the apparently bloody demise of her grandmother.
“Umm… What was your grandmother’s secret, Pinkie?”
“Laughter!” Pinkie Pie shouted gleefully. “She always let all of the problems of life slide off of her no problems! She never got worked up about anything, so it never had to show on her face, and she always told everypony that a laugh a day would keep the Pony Reaper away! And it really looked like that, ‘cause she was just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the first time she visited me on the rock farm as she was the day that she hit that rocky wall~!”
“Pinkie Pie, she was probably just a young grandmother. There are some ponies who have their kids at an early age. How old was your Granny Surprise when she died?”
Pinkie tilted her head in mild confusion.
“She was seven-dozen-and-three.”
Twilight withdrew in alarm. If Pinkie could be taken at her word, then her grandmother had been exceptionally well-preserved, even unchanged, for decades. And she put it down to laughter?
But… maybe it was just that Pinkie was trying to tell her not to stress out too much?
Sighing, Twilight decided not to ask or comment. After all, Pinkie Pie had to come from a very bizarre line of ponies.
“Well, Pinkie, I’m sorry for your loss,” she began levelly. “And… how can you speak so casually about how you lost your grandmother?”
Pinkie’s bright smile softened sadly.
“Because my Granny always told me and my sisters not to let bad things keep us down. She said that Laughter is a gift of the Maker’s that you can find in anything. And you know who she insisted that we bring to speak at her funeral?”
“Ponyacci. The greatest clown that Equestria has ever seen! Turns out that he was friends with her when they were foals, and she wanted him to talk about the same sort of jokey stuff there as when he was doing his clowny stuff around Equestria. She wanted him to roast her on her way to the Elysian Fields, which sounds really bad, because I don’t think that she’d like things super-toasty up grazing on that ambrosian grass, but then it turned out that he was telling all sorts of super-funny jokes about Granny Pie! That was the best funeral ever! I hope Granny’s having a great time in Elysium~!”
Twilight grimaced slightly at the idea of a funeral that was so strangely buoyant, but wrote it off as par for the course for Pinkie Pie and stammered, “Well, that’s − that’s great and all, Pinkie, but are you ready to help me retake Ponyville?”
The pink mare replied with a surprisingly dark scowl, flipping her mane and producing a key with a tiny cupcake-shaped keychain which she caught in the corner of her mouth. She stomped a hoof on the ground. A large square of grassy earth peeled back, revealing a shaft of candy-colored metal as a whirligig that looked to be made out of candy-canes and tetracycle parts flew out, carrying a veritable armory of copies of Pinkie’s party cannons. The whirligig settled its payload beside Pinkie Pie as Twilight’s jaw went agape.
“Ready? I wasn’t born ready,” Pinkie snarled while strumming her banjo ominously. “I was ready before I was born!”
She finished with a menacing toot on her harmonica.
Slipping into that familiar cul-de-sac near Sugarcube Corner proved to be… rather difficult, but slightly less so than it could have been. If her coat had been its usual pristine self, Rarity would have found herself attracting far more attention in the scarce light of nighttime Ponyville. For the first time in her life, she was glad to be so woebegone. None of the guardsponies set up to patrol this area seemed to be Bat Ponies, whose vision was known to be far keener in the dark than the light.
Rarity possessed the keen eye of a tailor, which gave her a fine eye for patterns and small details others often missed. Though there were no Bat Ponies acting as watchponies in this area, the pattern of the patrol still allowed for very little time to reach the end of the cul-de-sac, where her family called home.
Why all this secrecy, though, Rarity Belle? she thought to herself. These ruffians have stolen away your hometown! Show them what befalls those who cross a lady!
…No, said a calmer voice in the back of her head. You aren’t versed in that sort of spellwork, Rarity. You would sooner be dragged before the Great Devil Lord of Tartarus before you made it past the Nightmare Guard by force. Craftiness and elegance will draw you past.
Clutching the dark cloak close to her body, Rarity sunk low to the earth as she prepared to make a move…
Darting as softly as a dove across the rough earth, Rarity slipped through the blind spots of the patrolling guards and rapidly passed the houses between her and her home. The cloak served the dual purpose of shielding her from the penetrating cold of the eternal night and blending into the darkness of the streets around her. The torches and lanterns filled with fireflies that were ordinarily present had since been removed by the occupying forces, effectively rendering the cul-de-sac a veritable blind-spot for all of Ponyville.
One-dozen-and-three years of calling this cul-de-sac home allowed Rarity to easily discern which of the houses was her own home, and she peered up into the broad living-room window. Her parents sat together, heads leaning together, a candle’s light flickering on the table in front of them. The soft whisper of sweet nothings shared between them made Rarity’s heart ache for a stallion, but that was an issue for a kinder time in Equestria. She slowly raised a hoof and lightly rapped on the window.
Hondo Flanks and Pearl Bubbles startled slightly, glancing back at the window. Rarity offered a slightly nervous smile; the blind spot around this particular house was soon to end, and she would like to get indoors as quickly as possible.
Her parents’ faces lit up at the sight of their elder daughter, and Hondo leapt up and vanished from sight. The door clicked slowly and quietly, the burly Earth Pony stallion pulling the door open.
“Holy moley, Rare!” exclaimed Hondo at the sight of his daughter. “Ya didn’ look so bad frum inside. When’s the last time ya had a shave?”
Rarity gave a small shudder. “Please don’t remind me, Father. May I please come in?”
Quickly withdrawing, Hondo left room for Rarity to enter her foalhood home. The living-room, as it transpired, was only lit by the single candle, its dim flicker hiding the tackiness of the blend of carpet and wallpaper from Rarity’s vision.
Almost immediately after the door closed itself behind her, Rarity found herself being embraced tightly from both sides by her parents.
“Mother… Father…” Rarity rasped. “You’re… crushing me…”
The sound of curious mewling reached Rarity’s ears; Opal waddled down from the upper floor, bleary eyes locking onto Rarity.
“We haven’ had th’ chance in ages, sweetie,” sobbed Pearl into her firstborn daughter’s shoulder.
“We’re makin’ up fer lost time,” Hondo murmured into his daughter’s mane.
“I understand that,” Rarity replied, “and though I appreciate it…”
“Oh!” Pearl withdrew quickly, the plump pink Unicorn smiling slightly sheepishly. “Terribly sorry, dearie. We’ve jus’ missed you so badly.”
Hondo unlocked his burly forelegs from around Rarity, “We’re really glad ta see you again, Rare.”
Rarity returned a very warm smile.
“I myself am very glad to see you two again as well. But… where’s Sweetie Belle?” The fact that her little sister had not been there to squeeze her until half of her ribs were cracked was slightly troubling. Her heart leapt into her throat; had something happened to her…?
“Oh, she’s at th’ safest place in all a’ Ponyville: Sweet Apple Acres,” replied Hondo. “You oughta believe that that Big McIntosh fella’s a really swell stallion. Y’know, he knows his way around th’ stable.”
“And Sweetie Belle’s friends with his little sister t’ boot!” Pearl squealed. “They’re such adorable little friends t’gether!”
The fact that Sweetie Belle was together with friends in Sweet Apple Acres, rather far removed from major thoroughfares of Ponyville, gave a substantial feeling of security to Rarity Belle. The sweet little filly was surrounded by very familiar ponies, any one of whom would do all that they could to ensure her safety.
Rarity watched her father’s chest swell with pride as he no doubt contemplated the prospects of Rarity asking for Big McIntosh’s hoof in marriage, and it came to her just how much muscle Hondo still had.
“Father,” Rarity began, Opal purring and nuzzling against each of her legs in turn, “I have a small favor to ask of you.”
“Feel free to spill it, Rare,” he replied.
Slipping off her saddle-shell, Rarity drew out the shards of the Element of Generosity, its amethyst glow adding a resplendent aura to the room that masked the mismatched decor. Her parents’ eyes shone with awe at the sight of the stone shards orbiting their daughter’s head.
“Well… I have activated my particular Element of Harmony − Generosity − as have four of my friends. But we presently are looking to free Ponyville from NightMare Moon’s tyranny before taking the fight to that reprehensible beast. Would you be willing to lend me your strength in taking down these guards?”
Hondo and Pearl looked to each other fondly, Pearl giving a sweet nod before Hondo curled up a foreleg as if preparing an uppercut, the buff stallion giving a slight smirk under his bushy mustache.
“Ya can count on me, Rare. Dey don’ call me ‘Hightailin’ Hondo’ fer nuttin’!”
Moments later, Rarity followed behind her father as the former hoofball player charged at the nearest guard and gave him a great bum-rush. Once the guard was dazed, Rarity produced some ribbons from within her parents’ home and tied them firmly about the downed guardspony. She smiled proudly in spite of herself…
But barely a moment later the Earth Pony guardsmare tore her restraints apart and prepared to dive on the alabaster Unicorn. Rarity covered her face with a cry of fright, but when a blow did not come as she heard her father continuing to knock heads further down the cul-de-sac, she looked up at her former assailant.
The guard was rubbing the side of her head bemusedly as she gazed at the Element of Generosity floating around Rarity’s head. Her brown eyes were as clear as a cloudless day.
Rarity had an epiphany.
The sounds of party poppers drew the attention of virtually every member of the Nightmare Guard stationed in Ponyville (though it did not carry so far as Sweet Apple Acres). What especially gave them reason to inspect the source, though, was the fact that each party popper sounded more like a cannon blast, which was so unlike any party popper that any guardspony had heard. There had been reports from Endymion of a great cannon blast before the Moongate when the Most Wanted had assaulted the Royal Endymion Index and stolen a book on Pundamilian culture, though, and thoughts of this put the Nightmare Guard on its guard as they approached the origin of the blast. There, they found two of the Most Wanted: Twilight Sparkle, wearing a black cloak and riding some sort of whirligig made of candy cane, cannons and tetracycle parts; and Pinkamena Diane Pie, with some sort of… contraption of instruments strewn around her barrel, and glowing blue shards around her… head…
The Elements of Harmony!
“Get those shards!” shouted a Unicorn mare in monotone, the bulk of the guards charging the pink Earth Pony.
“I don’t think so!” Twilight replied in kind, her dwimmer shimmer pulling the fuses of three of the party cannons strapped to the whirligig. With a high rubbery squeak the cannons fired off tightly bound bundles of helium balloons with the force of meteor projectiles down at the hypnotized guardsponies, each cluster of balloons bursting on contact with the ground and inundating them with helium gas. The guardsponies coughed as the helium swirled around them, Pinkie’s ten-instrument contraption letting loose a din of musical chaos.
“It’s just helium, don’t falter!” choked out the Unicorn guardsmare, stammering as she realized how high her voice now was. Despite their hypnotized states, the guards around her started to laugh and thus attempt to restrain themselves from laughing.
From her youth, Twilight always found helium fascinating in the way it made one’s voice sound so funny. Her father Nachtlicht had always taken to inhaling a small bit of helium during birthday parties to entertain the party subjects, whether it be Twilight herself or her mother Twilight Velvet or…
“Now, isn’t Laughter just such a wonderful thing?” Pinkie Pie shouted by way of a battle cry as she leapt at the guards, Element of Laughter blazing blue. As she drew near to the Nightmare Guard, though, something remarkable happened. Their eyes widened in wonder at the sight of the shining blue stone shards mere inches from their faces, blinking away the blue light… And then they each lost their lockstep cohesion and looked about in individual confusion.
Their eyes no longer held that hypnotized sheen.
“Dear Celestia… where… am I?” murmured the Unicorn guardsmare, a hoof on her temples.
Twilight gasped in wonder.
“The Elements of Harmony break NightMare Moon’s mind control…!”
“Whoa, for real?”
Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had flown up at either of Twilight’s sides, looking down at the scene below with mild wonder. Their saddle-shells had been disposed of, and gold- and green-glowing stones danced around the Pegasi’s heads.
“I was thinking of spooking them with lightning storms, but you know what?” Rainbow Dash smirked. “The Element of Honesty could use a little workout.”
“These poor ponies… not knowing what they’re really doing…” sighed Fluttershy, a compassionate light in her eyes. “My Element of Kindness should set them free.”
Darting down to join Pinkie, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy helped her in exposing the controlled guards to each of their three Elements. This was eased by the fact that the guardsponies were still paralyzed by choking back laughter at their helium-induced high voices, helpless as the Elements of Laughter, Kindness and Honesty being brought as close as Pinkie, Rainbow and Fluttershy could to each guard in turn. As each mare drew away, each guard shook her or his head in confusion, though some were quicker than others to realize their plights and offer profound gratitude.
In less than a minute, almost all of the Nightmare Guard which had confronted the pair were freed from NightMare Moon’s tyranny over their minds.
Twilight peddled the whirligig down to ground level, hopping off to stand beside Pinkie, Rainbow and Fluttershy as she looked over the liberated Royal Guards, who were casting off their Nightmare Guard armor and looking down upon it in dismay.
“Twilight Sparkle…” gasped a Pegasus stallion, spotting the lavender Unicorn out of the corner of his eye. “What in the world happened? I just remember NightMare Moon… She came into Canterlot, and she…” He clenched his teeth and narrowed his eyes at his hooves. “I… I can’t remember…”
“NightMare Moon used some bizarre disharmonious magic to hypnotize all of you to enforce her will where she could not always be,” Twilight explained. “But I was tasked by Queen Celestia with making friends so that we could defeat NightMare Moon with the Elements of Harmony. It makes sense, then, that the Elements would neutralize her hypnosis.”
“The Elements of Harmony?” breathed the Unicorn guardsmare from before. “I thought that they were gone from this world. If they do still exist, then maybe we have a chance!”
“Royal Guards, you have all sworn an oath to protect Queen Celestia and the land of Equestria from all who would do harm. Now, let us all work together in throwing down NightMare Moon, starting here in Ponyville!”
The Royal Guards gave a great cheer.
In spite of the prospect of facing the arisen corpses of Ponyville Cemetery, Applejack found it surprisingly simple and quick to subdue the guards who had occupied Sweet Apple Acres. She put it down to the lack of resistance (only due to an act of self-preservation rather than cowardice) that the Nightmare Guard had faced previously in the vicinity of the Apple family farm. Though they were all formerly highly trained members of the Royal Guard, the mind-control placed upon them by NightMare Moon had evidently sapped them of a great deal of their quicker instincts, allowing Applejack and Big Mac to incapacitate them with startling ease.
A Unicorn mare guard struggled against the earthen binds that had formed about her hind legs and midsection, binding her forelegs. Her turquoise eyes flashed miasma-blue at the Apple siblings, but her ability to retaliate was doubtlessly inhibited.
“Now…” Applejack said with only the faintest hint of a shudder, adjusting her Stetson, “now we gotta deal with these folks a’ th’ undead up in th’ northeast. Ya ready, Big Mac?”
The large red stallion shrugged, “Dunno.”
Applejack blinked slowly. “Same here.”
The pair slowly turned up towards the northeast, taking tentative steps towards the darker lands where so many went to their final resting place. Admittedly, the light of the Element of Loyalty as its fragments orbited her head rather put Applejack out of her right frame of mind; she was not used to bright lights swirling around her head. What she would not give for a jouster’s blinkers at the moment.
But at the same time, the Element of Loyalty lent a wholesome air to the vicinity. Wherever Applejack walked, it seemed to be a place of serenity where nothing ill would befall her. Even so, she could not help but to dread the encounter she would have to the northeast. What exactly she dreaded, she could not fathom.
But Applejack was an Apple, and she would sooner throw herself from Canterlot’s highest tower to the depths of the Saddle Canyon below before she would back down from a challenge.
A bright-pink flash of light filled Applejack’s vision, momentarily shining brighter than the Element of Loyalty, and Twilight Sparkle winked in less than two-dozen hooves away alongside Rarity and Pinkie Pie, the latter of whom was sitting astride her flying candy-cane-tetracycle whirligig. A sonic boom sounded from Ponyville, and Rainbow Dash rapidly approached before coming to a halt just above their group. Her forelegs were wrapped around Fluttershy’s barrel, and the yellow Pegasus was curled up as tightly as she could… in fear, maybe? Haloes of glowing stones encircled their heads, adding in glows of gold, green, blue and purple to the surroundings. It looked verily like a Hearth’s Warming Eve celebration.
“Ev’rypony!” cried out Applejack in joy. “Did y’all finish up down in Ponyville already?”
“To my joyful surprise,” replied Rarity with a nod. “I knew that I had not the force to take on the Nightmare Guard, so I asked for some assistance from my father. He was a linebacker before he met my mother, you see. But as it transpired… well, perhaps Twilight can take over from here.”
“Really?” Twilight asked with a slightly astonished laugh. “Rarity, my talent is magic, not exposition. But I suppose I could explain it. You see, Applejack―…”
“Our Elements undo NightMare Moon’s magic!” cut in Rainbow Dash excitedly, startling Fluttershy and making her jump and cover her ears.
Twilight narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash scathingly.
“Really?” Applejack mused, looking up at the shards of the Element of Loyalty glowing apple-red in a makeshift halo. “Well, Ah guess that makes some sense. Ah mean, th’ Elements did banish NightMare Moon to th’ Moon, didn’ they? But…”
The palomino turned her head nervously towards the northeast once more.
“Y’all don’ think that th’ Elements’ll be able ta… deal with some a’ NightMare Moon’s undead folk, do ya?”
“Undead?” Twilight gasped, looking in the same direction as Applejack. “You mean… The Cemetery’s been…?”
Applejack nodded slightly.
“Celestia knows what sorta state that those undead folk’re in after diggin’ themselves out. An’… Ah don’ know, but Ah feel some creepin’ feelin’ in mah belly at th’ thought a’ dealin’ with ‘em.”
“Creepy? Like little creeper-crawlers?” Pinkie asked.
“Not quite like that, Pinkie. Ah’m jus’…Ah really don’ want ta know what devilry that NightMare Moon’s worked on ‘em. Ah mean, not all ponies died from old age, right? Some died ‘cause a’ monsters a’ th’ Everfree, or ‘cause a’ other… complications…”
“Applejack,” Twilight said sympathetically, realizing what Applejack was talking about, “I think you do know why you don’t want to face NightMare Moon’s undead hordes. You know, but you don’t want to face it. You’re scared that you’ll see your parents out there, aren’t you?”
Applejack stared back at Twilight with eyes wide with fear bordering on hysteria. Twilight gently reached a hoof out to Applejack, but the palomino did not seem to notice. When Twilight’s hoof touched her shoulder, though, Applejack’s eyes softened as they looked down at Twilight’s outstretched foreleg.
“Ah’m such a big baby, scared a’ seein’ mah parents’ dead bodies movin’ about like some sorta puppets,” she murmured darkly. “NightMare Moon’s a downright snake-in-th’-grass, usin’ ponies’ bodies as some sorta cannon fodder ta throw at us, but… they ain’ regular cannon fodder. They’re our parents, gran’parents an’ all other sortsa ponies who passed outta our lives.
“But… what if NightMare Moon ain’ jus’ using their bodies as puppets ta do her sick will? What if she dragged mah Ma ‘n’ Pa down from th’ Elysian Fields an’ is forcin’ them ta work their ol’ bodies in all sortsa pain an’ agony? Ah couldn’ take it, seein’ them in those eyes, Ah really couldn’. An’ if these Elements a’ Harmony’ll jus’ end up puttin’ ‘em down… Ah don’ know if Ah could take it… losing Ma ‘n’ Pa agin…”
Tears streamed freely down Applejack’s freckled face, her jaw quivering violently and rendering her almost unintelligible. Big Mac looked down at his sister sadly, attempting to sniff back his own tears. Her grief and terror were plain to see, her whimpering wails surely carrying back to the farmhouse. Even Pinkie Pie could not find words to diffuse the misery in the air, her coat and mane starting to fade to a dull-blue and the latter going flat and lank.
Twilight Sparkle, for her part, brought an amethyst hoof up to Applejack’s cheek and wiped away a streak of tears with her fetlock. Green eyes met purple eyes, and in that purple she saw unfathomable love.
“Applejack… I know all too well what it’s like to lose parents. Mine may not be dead, but… I have no way of bringing them back to their pony forms. They might as well be dead, but… I’ve never given up in keeping them alive as long as I can, in case I find something that can restore them.
“But… I had a nightmare some weeks ago, that NightMare Moon planted in my head. My parents were back to normal… mostly. They were still part-plant, and… they didn’t last long.” She did not fight the tears of her own, letting the pain flow. “I was terrified by what I saw, but if I can figure out the exact spell matrices that triggered in me when I cast that spell on them, I won’t hesitate. It was only my own fear and imagination that I saw there, honed by NightMare Moon into a dreadful sword. I won’t let my fears be the master of me, but… if you don’t think you can face them, then I’ll be strong for you, Applejack. I’ll be by your side the whole way.”
Applejack’s sobs had subsided, though the flow of her tears had not been stemmed despite the friendly hoof on her cheek. An open-mouthed smile crossed her muzzle, the lines in her face softening as she raised a scarred foreleg to hold Twilight’s cloven hoof.
“You’ll do that fer me, Twilight? Even though Ah’m just a sorry sobbin’ little foal…?”
Twilight gave the farmer mare the warmest smile she had ever worn her whole life.
“You’ve supported me and stood by me for so long, AJ. I would be remiss to not return the favor.”
And she kissed Applejack on the cheek.
Flushing, the farmer mare goggled at Twilight. The lavender Unicorn had not removed her hoof from Applejack’s cheek, and there was a faint tinge of pink in her cheeks as well. She felt her heart pounding in her ribcage, a warmth like fresh cider flowing through her being.
“If we all stand together with our friends, our loved ones,” Twilight said softly, looking around at steadfast Applejack, selfless Rarity, cheerful Pinkie Pie (who was regaining her color), gentle Fluttershy and forthright Rainbow Dash, each returning a nod and smile as they locked eyes with her, “I’m positive that we can do anything! Because… our friendship is magic!”
The words had come out without Twilight fully registering them, and before she knew it, there was a brilliant hotness growing in her heart that was both intimately familiar and unmistakably alien. A bright orb of light emerged from her chest, and despite its brightness there was no pain in locking her eyes with it. If anything, it drew her eyes to it, and it filled her spirit with a calm she did not know possible to be felt. All about her, the Elements encircling her dear friends’ heads began to glow more brightly, coalescing into five singular spheres over each of their hearts. Eyes widened in wonder as the lights molded around their necks gently, locking at the back with a soft clink.
But the orb floating in front of Twilight did not encircle her neck, rather it settled upon Twilight’s head snugly behind her horn and between her ears. As she felt it materialize upon her poll, she did not feel any weight, as though it were a part of her that had returned to her anew.
The six glowing sources of light faded, and each of the six mares gazed at each other in wonder.
“Oh my stars, darling!” Rarity cried out brightly to Fluttershy. “You look as though you are fresh from an appointment at Aloe and Lotus’s spa! And I must say, I myself feel absolutely refreshed!”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s just me, Rarity,” replied Fluttershy. “You look more beautiful than I’ve ever seen you before. And that necklace of yours, it suits you so well!”
“Necklace?” Rarity echoed, looking down at her neck. Where the light of the Element of Generosity had settled was now an intricately carved golden necklace of indeterminable age, set in the middle with the most beautiful amethyst she had ever seen, carved into the shape of…
“My cutie mark!” Rarity squealed with joy, eyes darting from the lozenge-cut gemstone to the three lozenge-cut diamond shapes on her flank. “It looks just like my cutie mark!”
“So does yours, Fluttershy!” smiled Rainbow Dash, pointing at the peridot butterfly set into Fluttershy’s necklace.
“Yours too, Dashie~!” squealed Pinkie Pie, her hoof practically touching the citrine lightning-bolt on the necklace round Rainbow Dash’s neck.
“An’ yours, Pinkie Pie!” beamed Applejack, indicating the turquoise balloon on Pinkie’s necklace.
“Yours as well, Applejack!” Rarity cut in, nodding in approval at the ruby apple set in Applejack’s necklace.
“And… so’s mine,” Twilight gasped, looking up as best she could at the golden tiara that now sat atop her head. A pinkamena six-pointed star topped the piece, shining as if with its own inner light. Twilight had a very good idea as to what it was:
“The Element of Magic!” she cried in elation.
“Alright!” Rainbow Dash shouted in mirth, doing a double loop-de-loop. “Now we got all six! And we can take down NightMare Moon!”
“Not just yet, Rainbow Dash,” interjected Fluttershy. “We have to deal with those puppet-dead at the edge of Sweet Apple Acres.”
“We really don’ have ta,” Applejack cut in. “We really should be gettin’ ta Canterlot an’ takin’ down that no-good NightMare!”
Twilight froze; she really wanted to do good by Applejack and dispose of the puppet-dead off to the northeast of Sweet Apple Acres. However, she understood that for every additional moment that NightMare Moon remained in power, there was one more moment of everlasting night that would cause so much more suffering for far more than just the Apple family.
Two months ago, I would have gladly thrown the Apple family aside to save all of Equestria, she thought. But now, I can’t bring myself to leave her family behind in the dust. In the time it will take us to get to Canterlot with the anti-winking wards still up, the puppet-dead could overrun Sweet Apple Acres, put an end to Granny Smith and Apple Bloom and the others…
Twilight’s thoughts were interrupted by a report like thunder in the sky, and a miasma descended upon them. As the six mares instinctively swung about into a circle, their backs to each other, the unconscious guards on the ground stirred, the hypnotic blue light gone from their eyes, to be quickly replaced by the sheen of panic as the miasma solidified into ten Pegasi and Bat Ponies in deep-purple flight-suits: the Shadowbolts!
Nightingale’s teeth bared furiously.
“You cursèd day-lovers… Don’t think that victory shall be in your hooves just because you’ve acquired some shiny accessories!” she snarled. “You’ll never reach Queen NightMare Moon, or even leave this Ponyville!”
“Shut your trap, traitor!” Rainbow Dash snapped in reply. “Who are you to stop us?”
Nightingale flapped her wings menacingly, “I am Captain of the Shadowbolts, the most elite flying team in all of Equestria, in all the world! And I have never betrayed any ideals in all my life; I have only ever served the Queen of Everlasting Night! You think you know loyalty, Apple? You would not lay your life down for your cause!”
“Quit yer yammerin’!” Applejack growled, stomping a hoof which flashed green and sent a pillar of earth straight at Nightingale. The Captain of Shadows flipped into the air and hovered above the seven ponies, her muzzle contorted in hate.
Then another pillar rose up behind her and smashed her into the earth.
“Eenope,” spat Big McIntosh, a dull-green glow leaving his hind hoof.
Nightingale glared up at the band of day-loving ponies, her flight-goggles once more shattered. Discarding them, she stood back up, pawing at the ground and giving a murderous look.
“I will make you pay dearly for this,” she hissed.
“You and whose army, ruffian?” challenged Rarity.
The pale Pegasus gave a feral grin.
Swirling dark clouds appeared behind the Shadowbolts, barely concealing shambling forms of scores of vague pony shapes. A faint chorus of the rattling breath of death filled the silent air. Downwind from the oncoming force, Twilight Sparkle and her band wrinkled their noses at the affronting odor. Though the shadowy fog prevented a clear look at the oncoming shapes, terrorful hints of what they truly were could be made out as they shuffled closer. Lipless mouths, jaws hanging limply open… Legs that were far too thin to be on any living pony… Knobby joints of knees and ankles… Exposed spinal columns… Shredded ears and loose-hanging shapeless things from their abdomens… Empty ribcages…
There were Earth Ponies amongst them, and Pegasi with wings hanging lifelessly at their sides, or Unicorns whose alicorns were chipped or even snapped off. But all had a hellish red light from deep in their lifeless pupils (or in the optic canal in the case of void sockets).
The puppet-dead had arrived.
Applejack’s eyes widened in disbelief at the approaching creatures. These were things that could not be alive, that could not be moving, but they were! Olden campfire stories about the dead arising from their graves could not have prepared her for this! Their staccato inequine movements… The dead looks in their eyes… The unsettling way in which they held their limbs…
Her heart stopped. A towering Earth Pony, his tongue hanging limply from his jawless skull lacking a left eye… Beside him, a petite and skeletally slender Earth Pony mare, her mane and tail thin almost to the point of bareness…
“Ma… Pa…” she breathed.
A crack like thunder.
The Shadowbolts took to the air immediately, but were shortly thereafter tackled by what appeared to be beams of sunlight. The puppet-dead stopped in their tracks, shuddering violently at the brightness of the contrails that remained in the air.
Instinctively, Twilight fired off a dwimmer-beam from her alicorn at the puppet-dead, and to her astonishment it was accompanied and amplified by a bright pink ray of light from the star of the Element of Magic. The resurrected bodies let loose dreadful rattling screams before they collapsed to the earth, crumbling to ash.
“Get out of here, you lot! Get to the capital!” bellowed a familiar voice from the Pegasus who had tackled Nightingale. It was Captain Spitfire, and never before had her wreath of magical sun-fire been such a welcome sight. Above the orchards of Sweet Apple Acres, contrails of daylight and darkness clashed.
The Wonderbolts had come at last!
“What in the world…?” shouted a Unicorn mare guard as she struggled to her hooves.
“Come with me! While those devil-flyers’re distracted!” shouted Big McIntosh, nodding his head back to the farmhouse in the distance. “Help me get all yer guards t’gether, so we cin keep Ponyville safe from trouble!”
The freed guard did not need to be told twice. She quickly roused her fellow Royal Guards from the ground and led them in a herd away from the clashing Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts and towards the farmhouse.
“Good luck, Big Mac!” Applejack called after her retreating brother.
With the Shadowbolts now preoccupied, Twilight knew that she and her band had an opening to take advantage of. It might have been short, so they would have to make the most of it. They could not break the anti-winking wards with the Elements of Harmony, those wards not being a part of NightMare Moon’s magic, but there was one way back to Canterlot that was very quick.
It was the same way that Twilight had arrived in Ponyville from Canterlot to begin with.
“Let’s do it, girls!” Twilight shouted. “We’re going to Canterlot!”
Before her friends could ask how this would transpire, Twilight channeled her magic through her alicorn and into the Element of Magic that sat on her head. The Crown of Magic glowed like a pink sun, a beam of light lancing out and connecting to each of the five other Elements. A bubble of pink light surrounded the lot of them, and very shortly each and every one of them lifted off of the ground, the force of gravity no longer affecting them. Pinkie flicked her legs about gleefully as they crested even the highest rooftops in the hamlet of Ponyville. Twilight turned her gaze upon the dark bastion of battlements upon Alicorn’s Peak, and she set her will upon reaching it as quickly as they could.
The orb of protective light shot forward towards Endymion, the former Canterlot, like a cannonball, leaving behind it a trail of bright rainbow colors: red, golden yellow, green, blue, purple and pink.
Above, Nightingale fought off Spitfire with a twister that sent the Wonderbolt Captain reeling, noticing the retreating form of the orb of harmonious light, shooting in an arc straight towards Endymion, crossing the great many miles of distance in the span of only a few blinks.
Cursing under her breath, she sent her mind out and broadcast a psychic report to the one who would tell the Queen, finishing just as Spitfire collided with her once more.
She who sat on the throne needed to prepare for the inevitable showdown.
The Queen of Everlasting Night sat upon her black throne, eyes closed in deep thought. That infernal Twilight Sparkle and her band had continually evaded her for far too long. Though her plans had allowed for many contingencies, every detail covered and labored over for many long grossenturies, those mewling little foals were proving to be far more detestable than even she had reckoned. Though the thought gladdened her that the foals knew not what terror awaited them in the future, that they should come so close to unseating her proved to be excessively irksome.
A flash of cold blue flame, and an equine skull lacking a lower jaw appeared in the air before her. Though her eyes remained closed, her ears flicked, indicating that she gave her full attention to the new arrival.
Your Majesty, the skull hissed, Captain Nightingale reports that Twilight Sparkle and her sun-loving troupe have activated all six Elements of Harmony. They converge on Endymion. Your plan of action, my Queen of Air and Darkness?
The Queen’s eyes opened slowly, slitted pupils dilating in the dim light. She looked deep into the skull’s dark and empty orbits, thoughts mulling about dully in her mind…
Before a ravenous grin split her muzzle in twain, fangs dripping with saliva and her eyes flashing crimson.
“Let them come.”