Hold Your Color
Of all the old pony tales that Dash was aware of, the current state of the Badlands was a mystery to even the kookiest of old story teller. Rumors ranged from the endless wasteland of rock and sand being the home of the changeling hive, to a secret monastery of gryphon monks, to a local spawning ground for dragons and other large reptiles alike. It was unmapped, untamed, unknown. Even the princesses either didn’t know what was out there, or didn’t want anypony else to know and kept it under close guard.
All Dash knew is that her only hope at finding Twilight and Ditzy pulled her ever southward. For days she, her father and her aunt pushed through the scorching mesas and razor sharp rocks that were one of many telltale markers of the southern end of the Equestrian continent. The days were long, the nights short, the weather extreme and unforgiving.
They pushed on taking little time for rest. Into the day and even further into the night they just kept going. Dash was a pony possessed. Her dad was a strong and sturdy pony, and Aurora must have had years of physical training to qualify for the Prizraks, and yet it was they who needed time for breathers more often than Dash. Either she wasn’t tired, as was the only truth she would believe, or she was on the verge of a complete physical collapse and she simply ignored it.
The breaks agitated Dash further the more they took. Her desperation tugged at her chest the longer it took for them to travel. Her mind was starting to unravel with thoughts of Twilight, gone forever; Dash, unable to save her.
Her mane was nearly gone. The last traces of purple had faded hours ago, and only left her with blue. Her time was almost up, and the journey into the Badlands seemed as endless as the legends of the discarded plot of land.
A point finally came, when the three pegasi stopped for another break atop a spindled rock. A great ocean of water, or a glacier of ice must have once existed here, and eroded the stone into a needle sticking out of the earth. It was like a garden of rocky spikes, spanning in all directions.
In the center of the needled rock, was a great, lonely mountain. There was an ominous gloom that oozed into the air around it. The blazing sun seemed to wither and die in the presence of it, and the wind that fled carried a cold, chilling presence with it.
Dash stood on the rocky edge, holding her necklace aloft. She pointed it at the mountain, and the necklace glowed the brightest it had in days.
“This is it,” she said. “Twilight’s in there.”
“Then the Prism will be as well,” Khroma said. “Nopony would think to come all this way to look for it.”
“The Nightmare will be here as well,” Aurora said. “If she has made this her home, we cannot venture foolishly. She will be ready for us.”
“I’m not afraid of her,” Dash snapped. “If she’s hurt Twilight at all, it’s her that’s gonna be afraid of me!”
Khroma placed a hoof on Dash’s shoulder. “Calm yourself, dear. You are weary from travel. We will take only a moment to rest and plan. We will strike soon. This I promise.”
Dash turned away, grumbling in compliance. She sat on the rock and stared at the mountain. Khroma settled down next to Aurora and discussed his plan, but it wasn’t long before Dash’s mind drifted elsewhere. Try as she might, she couldn’t focus on anything but the mountain, and what was inside.
Twilight was so close. She could feel it, regardless of the necklace around her neck. Only a few kilometers away, just out of reach, held by a strengthening enemy. The last of her colors were draining fast. There was maybe a day at the most, and then Nocturne could do whatever she wanted with the Prism’s power. In less than a day, the world could be facing the revival of one of its darkest evils. A future Dash’s wasn’t about to let happen.
But as she stared at the mountain and the dark clouds that circled it from above, she found herself brooding. Luna’s ultimatum was a troubling presence in her mind. Twilight was so sure they could help Trixie break free of the Nightmare’s grasp. But what if she was wrong? What if Trixie really was too far gone? What if despite all her efforts, Dash would have to take the life of another pony?
Dash shook her head. No! I won’t let it go that far. Twilight’s right, Trixie is stronger than that. She’ll make it. She has to.
Her necklace began to flicker. She lifted it again and stared at it, as the light from within was threatening to fade. Alarm crept into her mind. The amulet had many functions, as Twilight had specified when she created the original. It was a minor creation at best, meant to keep them together, even when they were apart. One led to the other at all times. When Twilight had broken hers in a panic the previous year in Stalliongrad, it took a desperate Rainboom from Dash to reignite the connection, giving her a permanent fixture to locate Twilight whenever she wanted to.
When it flickered, it was meant to signal that the opposite wearer was calling for the other, and the intensity dictated the desire. Dash had never seen the light react in such a way. She glanced at the mountain and could almost see the faint trace of Twilight’s presence drifting from the earth up to the cliffside. When the blinking light suddenly stopped, so nearly did Dash’s heart.
She slid from the edge of the rock into a freefall, eyes trained on the mountain ahead. Her father shouted after her as she hear rock and dirt crunch from above. She snapped her wings open and soared towards the mountain, fresh tears forming on her eyes. She refused to think the worst had happened. She would get there in time. She would break the Nightmare into pieces if anything happened to Twilight.
The shadows around the mountain grew with proximity. It was as if the atmosphere burned and turned to ash near this place, cutting out the light as if were itself a cancer to be purged. The air was cold even in the midst of the desert sun. The days of sweat on her coat beaded and threatened to coat Dash in ice, but the rage that burned her her chest was enough to combat the chill, at least for now.
As Dash approached the mountain, she felt a faint pull from the wind. The rocky cliff was coarse and threatening with huge blades of stone protruding from every corner. A small, darkened fissure looked to be the only flattened area capable of of providing a safe landing, or entry. It was here that the wind held sway and she felt no other compulsion to ignore it.
Her hooves touched solidly on the outcropping for only a moment when she felt a jerking pull on her legs.
“Have you completely lost your mind?” Khroma hissed in a low, strained voice. “We are on the edge of our enemy’s fortress and you rush headlong without a plan. I raised you better than that.”
“Twi needs me, dad. I’m not just gonna sit around when the Nightmare is doing Celestia knows what to her. If they knew were were coming, they would have done something already. They’ve been on our tail from the start, one step ahead every time. Do you see any rampaging shadow monsters trying to stop us?”
“That is hardly the point. I could believe that the Nightmare, while powerful, is not omniscient, but a blunder is still a blunder. It would not take much to end us if we do not take this seriously. You are no good to Twilight dead.”
Dash’s mind wracked with further worry at her father’s choice of words. She looked in toward the mountain. The fissure ran far deeper than was apparent from the air. The sunlight, while dim, traced an opening between the rock large enough for ponies to pass through.
An otherworldly cold drifted from the inside of the mountain, bristling Dash’s fur. It felt a like a living breath of the earth, calling out and inviting them into the dark recesses of the world.
A second song played on the wind, one that forced Dash’s body to tense. Her ears barely managed to catch the errant sound, veiled in the gasping rock. It was a faltering wail that beat against the rocks. The darkness carried it from the depths to the surface, bringing all its pain and agony. Dash’s mind picked up where it left off from her father’s intervention as she moved towards the crevice.
“Prizma!” Aurora said.
Dash was already pushing ahead into the mountain. Even as the pair of hoofsteps followed in behind her, she did not slow for them. Whatever the Nightmare had planned for them, she would face it. It would not stop her. Not with Twilight on the line.
Inside the depths of the mountain, the corridors of rock were not as dark as Dash expected. Faint, glimmering pillars of crystal etched out of the walls, much like the ancient caves beneath Canterlot. They cast out a faint, alien glow, that seemed not from sunlight or moonlight. It was a low, earthly incandescence, a light without light born in darkness.
These crystals emitted a calming presence on the cold air that passed by, even to Dash’s rampant mind. The wind from within continued its painful song that grated in her ears. Like an axe chipping away rock or ice, the chilling wail dug at her mind and flesh the deeper in she traveled.
Khroma and Aurora were silent. Their eyes danced in the twilight darkness, observing every crevice and earthly noise with immediate scrutiny. The crunch of rock and dirt under their hooves were the only conversation, their breaths their only signs of life.
The distant wailing of the twisting wind grew to a rising crescendo, ringing from the very crystals their lit their way. It was as if an orchestra of dark, brooding emotions were tightened to a string and played for their own amusment in the darkness. As their journey continued, just as quickly as it breathed into life, the earth’s song dwindled into open spaces.
The narrow rock parted ways, opening into a large domed chamber deep within the mountain. The crystals grew to titanic size within this room, easily dwarfing a large building. Their glow intensified, but instead of the cutting back the shadows, they lived as one, coalescing together in the absence of the sun.
From where they now stood, the path slipped down a steep cliff. Something glinted in the distance, far below at the bottom of the dome. Dash turned to the others, nodding while she extended her wings. They entered a quiet dive towards the bottom, sweeping over the still, crystalline figures that stuck out like blades of grass.
Large, pillared gemstones encircled a small void of rock at the bottom. The ebbing of water against a sandy beach rasped in the midst of the crystal garden. A small lake, with a plot of earth covered in large, towering crystals lay at the bottom of the chamber. Dash landed on the island, her eyes searching.
She felt a weak presence nearby, calling faintly to her mind. She glanced down at her necklace. It’s light was dim. She blinked when as she stared at the amulet she wore, she realized the tug at her mind was not from it, but something else, something much closer.
“Rainbow Dash…” Khroma whispered. “Do you—”
Dash cut her father off with a terse nod. She shrugged her head towards the middle of the island and they quietly moved inward. The crystals around them weaved and lay haphazardly, creating a winding path to the islands center.
The presence pulling at her grew stronger, but it was still as if a whisper in a crowd. It was the tiniest voice, like that of a frightened child, begging, pleading for her to find her. She rounded a corner and froze in her place.
Back in the hidden chamber that Celestia had brought them to, the strange indentations on the floor had given Dash an approximate size of what the Prizm would look like. Even further, the strange dreams she had had when afflicted by the Nightmare’s influence showed her a great stone pillar, cut smooth into a perfect triangular shape.
But to see the Celestial Prism now up close was not something she was prepared for. It was a massive, perfectly cut crystal that loomed before Dash, Khroma and Aurora in the island’s center. The colors of a million different lights danced within its confines as Dash stared deeply into its faceted sides. It cast a glow much different from its partners in the faint lit chamber, one that was slowly dying. A small, trickling stream of pure rainbows flowed from its base, only to be absorbed by the dark sand they stood on.
“By my ancestors,” Khroma breathed in Trotsky. He rushed forward and touched his hoof to the Prism. “It is nearly gone… “ He turned back, his face set in alarm. “We must get this into the sunlight! Even a few moments would stave off hours of thirst until we could secure it.”
“But how?” Dash said. “This thing is huge! There’s no way we’d get it out the way we came in, let alone lift it.”
Khroma shrugged. “Lifting it is no matter, not for you. The host may carry it like a unicorn would carry a stone, you need only focus your mind. We can find another way out. That breeze must be coming from somewhere.”
Dash stepped up to the Prism. The small, lingering presence in her mind grew louder, almost distinct in the echoes that shrouded it. Placing a hoof on it, she felt a tingle of magic pass through to her. The chill in her fur dissipated for only a moment, as Dash’s awareness soared. For the briefest second, she felt as if she and the Prism were one. Small, fragmented details of her surroundings became as clear as crystal. The babbling of the water, the humm of the glimmering lights, the breaths of her and her companions.
The small, fading voice that flew in her mind became instantly clear, as if its owner were only inches from her. It was a young, worried presence that screamed a single, dreadful warning. “Run!”
Dash ripped her hoof away from the Prism and spun around. Khroma and Aurora immediately raised their guard and quickly flanked Dash on both sides.
A new presence, cold and malicious drifted in from the darkness. Under the light from the crystals, a pair of starry eyes emerged from the darkness, slowly approaching. A set of glowing, pearlescent teeth were curled into an evil grin as its host became clearer in the light.
The dark, ebony form of the Nightmare, her host’s body awashed in shadows and darkness. Without the cloak over her, nor the deep shadows of the Prism’s chamber, Dash could clearly see the visage of Trixie behind the Nightmare’s corruption, smiling gleefully down at her. Sombra’s horn swung loosely from her neck, shimmering in its hellish glow.
“I was wondering when you would show up,” the Nightmare said. Her voice and Trixie’s overlapped in a haunting echo.
“Trixie!” Dash said. “You don’t have to do this! I know you’re stronger than this witch! Fight back!”
The Nightmare blinked and laughed. “Oh? The entertainer? Is that who you speak to? I never bothered to remember her name. All I cared for was her power, and there was plenty of it.”
“Get out of her head, Nocturne, before I rip you out.”
“Oh ho! Such defiance. Clearly you misunderstand the gravity of your situation.” Nocturne glanced at Dash’s mane, then to the Prism. “There are only moments left until the Prism’s power is gone. And then… the true nightmare of the world will begin.”
“Not gonna happen, Nocturne,” Dash said, lowering herself defensively. Not as long as I’m still breathing.”
“Well, that is to be hoped for, little one. But if you are so inclined to fight back, I would be happy to oblige.”
Without warning, a spike of shadowy energy ripped from the Nightmare's body and lunged towards Dash. She stumbled for only a moment, unprepared, as the spike raced towards her.
Aurora made the first move, stepping in front of Dash and swinging her wing, cleaving the spike from its base. It evaporated in a burst of dark mist, leaving the Nightmare stunned.
The Nightmare blinked at Aurora. “When does the magic of a lowly pegasus stand against the might of a queen in her domain?”
“When the sun guides my strikes, you сука!” Aurora spat.
The Nightmare’s eyes narrowed as she stared at the golden helmet on Aurora’s head and the sabatons on her legs. “So… even when lost in the realm of nightmares, Celestia’s infernal sun dares impune upon my majesty?” She shook her head. “Ridding the world of those princesses will be difficult indeed.”
Her eyes glanced to Khroma and then to Dash, regarding their armor. “Truly frustrating indeed. They must always make things difficult.” She lifted her head, displaying a haughty, regal composure. “If you wish a fair encounter, then it is only fair that I grant it.”
Dash glared. “Yeah, right. You’d sooner stab us in the back than fight fair.”
The Nightmare grinned. “Of course, which is why you will not fight me. I see no need to dirty my hooves on the requests of the peasants.”
A pair of hissing, shambling forms emerged from the dark corners of the island. Dash turned to the closest presence, directly to her right. It walked in, hunched low, snarling and drooling with a pair of spiked wings jutting out from its sides. Razor sharp teeth housed a lashing tongue as it slowly approached to the Nightmare’s side. It stared directly at Dash, its eyes glowing a faint gold against the inky black of its body. At least, it tried to stare, but one of its eyes skewed slightly awry, staring off into the distance.
Dash felt her chest tighten as her heart plummeted into a freefall. Aurora hissed a painful gasp under her breath, while Khroma remained silent. His eyes were trained on the second presence approaching towards them.
The second apparition strode in from the left to the Nightmare’s side. It was far taller than the second, with both a pair of wings, large and flowing, and a single curved horn upon its head. It’s eyes were large, glowing a deep violet.
Dash’s body felt like ice as she stared into the shadow monster’s eyes. Eyes that she knew, eyes that she remembered, eyes that she loved. The necklace around her neck struggled to glow as a single tear fell from Dash’s eyes. “Goddess no…” she said, trembling. “Twilight…”