Pinkie Pie slowly returned to consciousness. She was no longer on the concrete; she was now swaddled in a warm and fluffy bed. Her back was very sore, and there was also some uncalculated hurt that lingered in the inners of her bones. But she was, all told, feeling much better. She sat up and yawned. “Morning, everypony!”
“She's awake!” cried Rainbow Dash. Instantly the bed was crowded with all five of Pinkie's friends, along with a few other ponies.
“How are you feeling, Miss Pie?” asked a dark green unicorn with snow-white mane and tail.
Pinkie shook her head from side to side. She smacked her lips. She rubbed her hooves together. “Preeeeetttttyyyyy good, I guess,” she said. Her back itched, and she reached back to- “Oh!” She glanced over her shoulder. Her sides and back were wrapped in thick white bandages, which even now were vaguely stained with black.
“We stitched your bite marks closed,” said Twilight Sparkle, “but for some reason, they keep leaking this... stuff.”
Pinkie's mouth came open. “I'm bleeding?”
“It's not blood,” said a white-tail deer beside her bed. “Neither the unicorns here at the palace nor our own sorcerers can decide precisely what it is, though we are still running tests. It's hard to say just what sort of foul substance could have come out of the Herd Lord. He himself is made of awful stuff.”
A knocking came upon the door. When the green unicorn moved swift to open it, Celestia and Luna and Falalauria all stepped into the room. “How are you, Pinkie Pie?” Celestia then asked.
“I'm feeling super better, Princess Celestia!”
“I'm glad to hear it,” she responded. She turned toward the dark green unicorn. “Wizenbach, I should like to keep Pinkie Pie here overnight, just for the sake of more observation.”
“It will be done, my princess,” Wizenbach replied.
“Aww, am I gonna be stuck in this bed?”
“Now I didn't say that,” Celestia replied. She grinned. “Indeed, being cooped up in this bed is the last thing you need. Come, I have lunch prepared.”
“And then we must have a council,” said Luna. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, thy brother is here, and will be joining us.”
“Great!” said Twilight. “I'm looking forward to seeing Spike again, too.” She followed both princesses from the room, along with all her friends.
Or, most of them. Fluttershy stopped at the door, and when Pinkie brought up the rear of the procession, she stepped out and barred her way. “Pinkie,” she said, “I'd like to try and heal your bites.”
“But they're better, Fluttershy!”
“No,” she said, “not as long as they're leaking. Let me see if I can stop whatever's in them.”
“Okie-dokie!” Pinkie said, and swiveled round. She showed her bandaged back to Fluttershy, the blackness seeping once again into the gauze.
Fluttershy took deep breaths in and out. She focused on her Gift, upon her Element. Soft and gentle pinkish light began to wrap around her hooves. She pressed these glowing hooves into the bandages, willing peace and joy and comfort to flow out of her. She felt the wounds within her mind and pressed on them yet harder, working-
“Ow!” cried Pinkie.
The power swirling round her hooves turned black and ugly. It began to crawl upon her, creeping up her butter yellow fur like juice within a straw. “Eep!” she squeaked, and pulled away. The blackness was annihilated by the pinkish power of herself, but Pinkie's wounds remained. Indeed, the fluid stains upon the bandages had grown.
“Did it work?”
“N-No,” said Fluttershy, her ears flattening out. “I guess I'm not strong enough.” She eyed the black-soaked gauze with dread. “Come on, let me change your bandages, then we can catch up with the others.”
Lunch passed by in quiet, but not without tension. Everypony seemed to dwell beneath a cloud of great distress. Even Pinkie, though as bouncy and as boisterous as ever, was really quite reserved, at least for her. Celestia and Falalauria sat near each other, and throughout the meal would whisper to each other in Laewtil.
When all eating was done the six friends- and Spike, who had been staying at the palace for the battle in Manehattan- along with many of the learned unicorns and deer, all came into a large round room with a low, round, wooden table. Shining Armor stood before the fire, glancing into it.
“Heya, bro!” cried Spike, racing to him and enveloping him in a hug.
He smiled. “What's up, Spikester?”
“I missed the battle, is what's up,” he said. He turned back to Twilight. “I know you said it wasn't going to be safe, but there has to have been a way I could've helped, right? I was stuck here in Canterlot when I could have been useful!”
“Maybe you could have been,” Twilight said, “but all the same, I'm glad you weren't there.” She went and took a seat, one of many cushions spread around the table. Spike sat next to her; she drew him close, as much for her own comfort as for his.
When all were seated, Celestia said, “So... where do we stand?”
“Manehattan is lost,” said Shining Armor. “The city might as well be sunk. It's going to take years and years to rebuild everything Reiziger destroyed, even with magic.”
“But at least he lost much as well, didn't he?” Rarity asked. “I mean, all those changelings, all those monsters- all of them dead. He can't keep wasting forces like that, can he?”
“Very astute,” said Luna. “No, it follows logic that Reiziger cannot afford to waste his forces in too many more sacrificial battles.”
“And yet he has gained more than he has lost each time, in terms of how great a threat he poses,” said Falalauria. “With every source of magic drained, he has grown more powerful. Once he reaches a certain point of strength- a point which he may already have reached- he can simply conjure new soldiers from the ether.”
“Or just destroy everything personally,” Twilight added.
“And yet, based on reports, there were some successes, at least in terms of encouraging signs,” said Wizenbach. “Princess Twilight, you and your friends were able to barely summon the Rainbow of Light, I'm told?”
“Oh, yes!” said Fluttershy. “Twilight says she used some spells to make it seem more there than it was, but it was there, though maybe only a little.”
“So then Reiziger is not the only one who grows more powerful,” a slate blue unicorn observed. “All you six, the Bearers of the Elements, have grown in strength as well.”
“Which is of course borne out by various things that happened during the battle,” said Falalauria. “Fluttershy, your Gift of Kindness was able to heal several ponies completely, according to your own account.”
“That's right,” she answered.
“And you, Pinkie Pie, have grown so strong in the Gift of Laughter that you were even able to break through Reiziger's mental shields, though it came at a great cost.”
“What was that like, anyway?” asked Dash. “I bet his mind is the grossest, nastiest place in the world.”
“It was pretty weird,” she admitted, “but I've seen weirder, honestly.”
“It would seem, then, that thy faith is being rewarded, Tia,” said Luna.
“Indeed,” said Celestia. “And I think the best course of action, therefore, is for you six to redouble your efforts to strengthen your Elements of Harmony. You are almost there. The Rainbow of Light can defeat Reiziger- he knows it, and it frightens him.”
“We won't let ya down, your highness!” Applejack said.
“We shall do our level best,” said Rarity.
“In the meantime we...” Celestia sighed, “we must hold the line somehow, though Equestria has suffered so much already. Prince Shining Armor- or rather, General Shining Armor, I would like you to remain in Canterlot and help coordinate the broad defense.”
“Happy to be useful, your highness,” said Shining Armor, snapping a salute. He turned to Falalauria. “My lady, by the way, I really have to commend your white-tails. They fought with valor, and they integrated very well into the overall structure of the battle.”
“I shall pass that along, Shining Armor,” she answered. “Perhaps my guardsdeer can assist you in some of your planning.” Celestia raised an eyebrow at that, and rubbed her chin. Only Twilight saw it, though.
“That would be great,” said Shining Armor. “I'll need all the help I can get.”
“Meanwhile, I think the Bearers of the Elements should return to Ponyville,” Celestia said. “You all have done such good work there, I should hate to change anything.”
“We'll keep getting better, Princess Celestia!” cried Dash.
“We're gonna get so strong we'll whip that big meanie like he's meringue!” Pinkie shouted.
“And Spike,” Celestia said, causing him to sit up straight. “I shall have some important correspondence coming your way in the next few days. I'll need you to be on alert to both send and receive messages.”
Spike saluted, just as Shining Armor had before. “I promise I won't fail you, your highness!”
“With that,” Celestia said, “I believe we have set our course of action for the next phase, though there are some things I am working on which may augment it. For the seven of you, there is a train to Ponyville leaving in about two hours.”
“Woo! Home sweet home!” cried Pinkie as all creatures round the table stood.
“Hold on,” said Wizenbach, “you're staying the night, remember?”
“Aww,” cooed Pinkie.
“I shall personally teleport thee back to Ponyville at moonset, Pinkie Pie,” said Luna.
“Woo! Home sweet home, in the morning!” She bounced around the table once, then bounced out through the creaking open doors and down the hall. Unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies and deer came streaming out into the sunny, stained-glass-covered corridor.
“Ah, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” said Celestia, for Twilight was nearly the last to leave, “could I have a word in private?”
“Of course,” she said. “Go on, Spike, I'll catch up with you in the courtyard.”
“This won't take long, Spike,” said Celestia. Spike nodded and smiled, then ran off. At last the alicorns were all alone; Celestia's horn shimmered bright gold, and the doors to the conference room swung shut. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said softly.
“Yes?” Twilight noted the expression on her mentor's face. “W-What's wrong?”
Celestia sighed. “Lady Falalauria tells me that you have been studying with Lord Fëanor.”
“Oh! Yes, yes I have. I suppose I should have told you.” She smiled. “He's been helping me get so much better with the Element of Magic, so much stronger!”
“I don't doubt it,” Celestia said. “And you put it on display yesterday- Lala tells me you used magic on the level of a high deer. You used so much power that you were even able to affect Reiziger.” She sighed again. “To a certain degree, this is really a wonderful occurrence. No creature alive knows more about the Element of Magic than Fëanor. If he is truly training you, you are receiving the best education in your Element that you could possibly get.”
“I am! It's wonderful, princess!”
“I just wonder what he's telling you apart from knowledge of the Element of Magic.”
“Fëanor is... stubborn. Hard-headed. I'm sure you've noticed that. He is very wise, and very powerful, and on a certain level even very open to learning. But when he believes he is correct about something, he will stick with that conviction to the bitter end.”
“But he hasn't done that,” Twilight said. “He's completely agreed with you about using the Elements to stop Reiziger. That's why he's training me! He's admitted his original plan was bad, and that yours is right.”
“That's what he says, I'm sure.”
Twilight's mouth hung open. “You think he's lying? But... but he's your old teacher! You owe everything to him! How can you not trust him?”
Celestia shook her head. “Twilight Sparkle, part of growing up is realizing that a pony- or a deer- can be beneficial to our growth, can be a hugely important part of our lives, and not be perfect. Like me, for example.”
“Even now, even when you yourself are an alicorn princess, you still put me on a pedestal. You revere me even more than those who pray in the temples do, Twilight, because you see me as the one thing even higher than a goddess- a parent. But parents aren't perfect, Twilight Sparkle. Your own mother and father aren't, and I am not, either.”
“But I know that!”
“Do you really?”
“I am not perfect, Twilight Sparkle. I have made mistakes, and I have flaws. Fëanor is the same.” She sighed. “The thing I ask you to do is be careful. Again, it's wonderful- ideal, even- that he's training you to use your Gift of Magic. You should accept that training, because it will help us stop Reiziger. Just give considered thought, and critical analysis, to everything he tells you. You have grown into a fine young mare, and you have been well educated in many different ways. You are capable of deciding things for yourself. Be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers.”
“I...” she bowed. “I will, Princess Celestia. Maybe I have been a little too trusting of Lord Fëanor.”
“I didn't say that,” Celestia said. “Maybe you've been trusting just enough- I do not know. I just want you, again, to be careful.”
“I will. I will!”
Celestia came up to Twilight and drew her into a hug. “That's all I ask, and I know you will make me proud.” Her horn glowed and the doors swung open. “Now, come along, we have to get you to the train station.”
Twilight was all smiles as they walked into the sunlight. When she was outside of the palace, though, her brow furrowed. Her expression kept on darkening as she and all her friends sat waiting for the train, and once it had arrived, and was huffing and puffing on the route to Ponyville, Twilight sat against the window, glancing out upon the rushing landscape, her face pensive and grim.