A flash, a flicker, and then Rarity awoke. Sitting up in bed she shook herself to clear the webs of sleep. “Oh my... what a terrible dream I was having,” she muttered. Pulling off her sleeping mask from where it perched atop her alabaster head, she rubbed her lovely sapphire-like eyes and shook her violet mane in its great ringlet.
She laid back upon her pillow, but removing her mask signified what she now knew deep down: she would not be returning to her sleep this night. Something in her mind and heart had waked her thoroughly.
“Oh, what now?” she muttered. Sitting up and crawling from beneath her well-tucked covers, Rarity formed a cocoon of comforter about herself as she sat up atop the bedclothes. She sniffed a breath, as dainty and as ladylike as she could manage as she wracked her brain for greater understanding. “I suppose I could read, or- oh, yes!” Now was perfect. She settled deeper into all the covers on her bed, opened wide her eyes, and Looked.
Stars began to flicker in and out of shape within her deep black pupils. First she gazed once more into the past. She looked upon the history of Old Equestria, upon the strange and feudal landscapes that had once been populated by those ancient lords and ladies of the realm. The shadows of deep forests, the glimmer of bright steel, the menace of the highways and the deep roads passed before her infinite consideration. Rarity next turned her gaze to her own time. She Looked upon the vast stretch of Equestria, saw the lights of Las Pegasus, saw with sadness all the wrath and devastation in Manehattan, saw the blackened rainbows billowing from Cloudsdale. Canterlot, at least, was still intact. Its white towers and gold-and-purple spires brought a sense of comfort to her.
Rarity, her normal eyes returning, breathed in deep. “Well,” she told herself, “here goes.” Stars appeared once more within her eyes, and then she turned her Sight into the future. All at once she was hit by a haze, a shadow crossing over all she Saw as though she had entered a dense fog cloud. She scrunched her nose, she blinked her eyes, she wished that she could-
And then she could. Her eyes grew open huge, and now they were completely black and filled with stars. Her eyes looked every bit like those of Falalauria. Rarity remained upon her bed, sitting quietly, as starscapes passed between and out her eyes. Minutes passed, first in bunches, then in dozens. All the quiet of the Carousel Boutique at night remained unbroken as its owner sat in silence, taking in the vision that had gripped her.
At last, with a shaking, Rarity returned to normal. She blinked hard. “Oh my,” she muttered. “Oh my... could that have been... was that real?” And yet she knew it was, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Oh dear,” she whispered. She crawled out of her bed. Trotting to the door, she went into the hall and down it, gently opening another door into another room. This was decorated in a style much like hers, but not so bright, not so overwhelming. It was more subdued, including the sleigh bed within the corner, where Sweetie Belle currently slept. Rarity came to her sister, and then nudged her gently. “Sweetie Belle?” She nudged again. “Sweetie Belle, do wake up.”
“Hmm? Mrgh...” with a yawn the little unicorn's eyes flitted open. “Rarity?” Her sister's face made her sit up. “Rarity, is everything okay?”
“It... I suppose so,” said Rarity. She smiled gently at her. “Sweetie Belle, you know that if you were in trouble, I would help you, yes?”
“And you know that if others are in trouble, I would help them?”
“You...” Rarity sighed. “You know that, if it were possible for me to help everypony in Equestria, I would help them, yes?”
“Uh, duh,” said Sweetie Belle. “You're the Element of Generosity! It would be weird if you didn't want to help everypony you could.”
Rarity turned away. “Yes... yes it would.”
Sweetie Belle craned out her head. “Rarity, are you sure you're okay?”
“I am now.” She kissed her on the forehead. “Go back to sleep, Sweetie Belle.”
“Okay,” she said, and nestled back into her covers.
Rarity went back to the doorway, but stopped within it. “I love you, Sweetie Belle.”
“Love you too.” The little pony soon was fast asleep again.
It was a gentle, quiet sound. However, Applejack was used to gentle, quiet sounds: the mewing of a kitten, the rustle of the leaves, the creaking of the wood that made the barn. To be a farmer was to specialize in gentle things, for such things often made the largest difference.
So when the gentle tapping came again, it was enough to wake her from her sleep. “Wha?” she said, yawning as she sat up in her bed.
“Applejack?” The voice was muffled, but still clear.
“What in tarnation?” Applejack popped out of bed and turned toward her windows. Her eyes went wide: Rarity was standing on the roof outside. “Rarity, what in the wide wide world of Equestria are you doin' out there?” she asked as she went to the window, opening it up.
“Hoping to get your attention,” said Rarity. “May I come in?”
“Well sure,” she said, standing aside. When Rarity had entered, Applejack said, “I know Twilight wanted us all to meet here in the mornin', but I don't think she meant this early.”
“Oh, I know,” said Rarity. “But I needed to see you- just you. Our paths are about to diverge.”
Rarity took a deep breath. “Do you know how I have had trouble with my Long Sight? My Gift of Generosity? Particularly, I could never See into the future.”
“I recall that.”
Another breath. “Well... not any more. I've had a vision, Applejack, a vision of the future. I know how everything is going to end. I know how Reiziger's war plays out all the way to its conclusion.”
Applejack's eyes nearly popped out of her head. “No way!”
Rarity told her. The whole explanation took nearly as long as the original vision, dozens of minutes passing as Rarity related what she'd Seen in overwhelming detail. Applejack's eyes kept on getting wider, her jaw kept opening still more until she thought that it would hit the ground.
Finally, at long last, Rarity was done. Applejack sat down hard on the ground. “Lordy.”
“Well I'm glad it turns out well in the end. But gettin' there...”
“I... I know.”
Applejack abruptly stood and went to Rarity and wrapped her in a hug. “Are you sure there's no other way?”
“I am as certain of this as I've ever been of anything. This is the future, Applejack, the True Future. Lady Falalauria told me, that first night we met her in the Shimmerwood, that I might be able to someday See it even better than she. Well, I have- here it is.”
“We gonna tell the others?”
“No. It seems to hinge on them acting without awareness of it. Oh, I know it's hard... now I know how Falalauria must feel all the time. I told you because if I didn't, you wouldn't do what you must do.”
“And what...” Applejack swallowed, “what you've gotta do.”
“I'm not looking forward to it.” Those beautiful blue eyes grew firm. “But it must be done.”
“Guess you better get a move on, then.”
“I suppose I should.” She moved away, but stopped. She looked back at Applejack. Tears were in her eyes. “By sunset tonight, all of Equestria will hate me. You... you won't, will you?”
With a gentle smile Applejack moved up to Rarity and nuzzled her. “Nope. Can't never hate ya, Rarity. Willikers, if I could I woulda started ages ago. And if this here's the real, genuine future... then you gotta do what you gotta do. Can't hate a mare for doin' her duty.”
Rarity smiled broadly. “Thank you, Applejack. Go back to sleep- if you can, I mean.”
“Eh, I'm scared awake now. Might as well start packin'.”
With a nod, Rarity pulled up the window. Climbing out into the cool, clear night, she took a step and vanished off the roof. Applejack watched her reappear on the grass below, then take a moment to find her direction. Finally, with one last look at the old farmhouse, Rarity began to gallop, hurrying off toward main gate of the farm. Applejack tracked her until the darkness swallowed her. Then, closing up the window, she went to her closet and got down her saddlebags.
“It's gonna be great to see how these new training methods you want to test out work, Twilight!” Spike exclaimed, riding on her back as sunrise gleamed o'er the horizon. The sun was bloody red, casting orange and crimson light upon the apple trees and fertile fields. Sweet Apple Acres was a marvelous place early in the morning, when all the farm began to hum with life.
“I just hope they start working better,” said Fluttershy. “It feels like all of our training is starting to drag on without making any headway.”
“Well I'm excited!” said Pinkie Pie, trotting merrily behind them. She tried one of her usual bounces, but immediately winced, the bandages around her torso grew that much more stained with black. She paused to cough.
“You've had that cough for days now, Pinkie,” said Twilight Sparkle. “Do you want me to take a look at your throat?”
“No, no, I'm fine!” she brightly said.
“I still think you should be resting,” said Fluttershy.
“But I've been resting and I haven't got any better. So maybe by not resting I will get better!”
“That... doesn't make any sense...” said Fluttershy.
“Trust me, girls,” said Pinkie with a gleaming smile, “I'm super-peachy-keen.” She stopped and coughed with violence. Looking at her hoof, she winced to see black goo on it. She quickly wiped it off onto the ground.
“Well, I'm just excited to start giving these new methods a try,” said Twilight. “I pulled them from an old manual on magical conditioning. They should- Applejack?”
Twilight stopped abruptly, the others with her. Applejack was on the lawn before her house, going through her open saddlebags. Even as the four of them observed, she finished, and she nodded. Then she turned and picked up something with a glimmering green spot upon it- a champron! Then they noticed she was covered up in armor, reddish leather armor stitched with golden thread. A crest of three branches of grass was sewn into the crupper on her flanks.
“Oh!” she cried, turning to them just as she completed buckling on the champron. The emerald in the middle glinted in the reddish light of dawn. “Howdy, y'all.”
“Applejack, what are you doing?” Twilight said. “Why are you... why do you have your old Gildedale armor on?”
“Gonna need it,” Applejack said. “Gotta get goin'.”
“What?” cried Fluttershy.
“Holy moly, why?” asked Pinkie.
“Things are about to get bad.”
“Um, I think things are pretty bad already, actually,” said Fluttershy.
Applejack looked at them all. She was deadly serious. “Not as bad as things are gonna get. Equestria's about to get hit by an even bigger whammy o' Reiziger than it has so far.”
“So you're leaving?”
“To get help!” said Applejack. “We been fightin' this war on our own too long. It's time we got some allies, so I'm off to go find some.”
“But... who? Where?”
“Goin' to Gildedale, for starters. Figure the Daleponies are gonna be happy to help. Then gonna talk to the pronghorns, then prob'ly the griffins-”
“Applejack, the griffins are not going to help us,” said Twilight.
“It's worth a try! We need all the allies we can muster.”
“But... hold on, if things are going to get so bad, we should stick together!”
Applejack sighed. “That's the thing, Twi. We can't.”
“What do you mean?”
“And hey, where's Dashie and Rarity?” said Pinkie, head perked up.
Applejack winced hard. “They're... they're gone. Not for good, but for a while.”
Fluttershy crept backward, mounting horror on her face. “Applejack... what's happened?”
“Somethin' bad,” said Applejack. She flipped her hat onto her head. “Somethin' that means it's time for me to get out and get us all the help we can find.”
“I... I... but our training... the Elements...”
“In case y'all ain't noticed, my Element o' Honesty is in good shape. Likewise for Rainbow and Rarity's Elements.” Applejack smiled gently. “Us three... we got our training already. We had our journey. It's time for you three to have one too, even if it's gonna be different than the one we had.”
Those three- Magic, Kindness, Laughter- turned gentle glances on each other. It only now occurred to them that that adventure, that grand journey taken by Honesty, Generosity, and Loyalty, had bound them as much as it had bound the others. Not as closely- indeed, not nearly as closely- but it had set them on another course, and now it had united them again.
Applejack drew in and wrapped Twilight and Fluttershy and Pinkie one-by-one in hugs. Then she slid her saddlebags onto her flanks. “Gotta get goin' now,” she said. “I'll see y'all 'fore the end o' the world, I hope.” She reared back-
Applejack glanced back at Twilight, who was breathing heavily. “If... if you really are going to leave... if things are really about to get even worse... take Spike with you.”
“What?” Spike shouted.
“I don't want him to be put in any more danger. It... I don't know how you know, Applejack, but I know that you do know the truth about things getting worse. I trust you. You wouldn't lie. And in that case, I want Spike to be protected. He'll be safer outside of Equestria than inside it.”
“No!” cried Spike. He jumped from Twilight and he stood before her, small fists clenched. “I'm not leaving you!”
“You have to!” Twilight said. “I... I should have sent you away at the start of things, it's not safe, it was never safe-”
“But if it's not safe for me, what about you?” Tears were budding in his eyes. “You... you can't! I won't let you!”
“Spike, please,” said Twilight, tears in her eyes too. “I... I can't bear the thought of something happening to you. Go where I know you'll be safer.”
“I won't leave you!”
“You have to!”
“Spike, please!” Twilight pulled him close, wild desperation in her tear-soaked gaze. “Please, Spike, please, I'm begging you. You mean more to me than anypony in the world. It...” She cupped his face in her hooves and made him look up at her. “If... if something happened to you... if you d... if you di... if you d.... if something happened to you it wouldn't be worth it for me to live any more!” The others' eyes went wide. Twilight hugged Spike tightly to her chest. “I'm begging you, Spike. I'm pleading with you.” She was sobbing. “Go with Applejack.”
“O... Okay,” he softly said. She let him go. He backed away, eyes not leaving hers. “Promise me I'll see you again.”
“I promise. I swear.”
Sniffling, Spike turned to Applejack. “Well... okay.”
Smiling gently, Applejack lowered herself. “I'll be mighty glad for the company, Spike.” With halting moves, Spike climbed onto her back. “I'll take care of him, Twilight,” she said, standing up.
“I know. I trust you, Applejack.”
“You don't mind a little cold, do ya, Spike? We're goin' up into the mountains first.”
“I'm fine,” he said, not taking eyes off Twilight.
“Well... I'll see y'all later. And it won't be just me and Spike when I come back.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Hold on tight, Spike.” When she felt his claws gripping her fur, she reared back and released a mighty whinny. “Yee-haw! Giddy up!” She broke into a gallop, heading from the lawn onto the road.
Twilight, Fluttershy, and Pinkie sat in silence for a moment. “Well,” said Fluttershy at last, “that was certainly-”
“Spike!” cried Twilight. She flapped her wings and burst into the air. “Spike, I love you!”
“I love you, Twilight!” Spike shouted.
“I love you, and I'll see you again! If I have to go all the way to Tartarus to find you, I'll see you again!”
“I love you!”
“I love you!” Twilight called a final time. She watched them go, first down the road leading from the farm, then onto the main road, then onto the rolling hills beyond. She watched them go until the landscape hid them from her sight. Then she fluttered to the ground, and there she cried.
The sun maintained its reddish color for some time beyond the sunrise, glowering a rusty hue as it huddled in the distant eastern mountains. Rarity had run all night, crossing fields and vales and valleys with a speed that had left even her surprised. She supposed those three years of conditioning were still within her, making her more fit for longer journeys.
Now, at last, she'd reached her destination. The changeling hive loomed up within the valley, black and chitinous and ugly. Seeing it filled her with dread, but she had come too far to turn back now. She rounded a bend, descended a short slope, and then was in the vasty space before it. “Yoo hoo!” she cried out. “Hello-ho!”
With buzzing bursts of sound five changelings swarmed out of the hive, flying swift to Rarity. Though she was afraid she did not light her horn with magic. She knew they would not harm her. She knew everything.
“I say,” she said as they drew close, “is your master anywhere abouts? I was so hoping to speak to him, and it is rather rude to keep a lady waiting.”
Ah, yes, we must always maintain our manners, musn't we? In a flicker he was there, black and cruel and terrible. Eyes ablaze, his white teeth glinted as he smiled. “Hello, Rarity.”
“Hello, good master Reiziger,” she said.
Leave us, he thought, and the changelings buzzed away. “Now why would the Element of Generosity wander into my clutches like this? Not that I am not fond of the company.”
“Well, I suppose I am here with an offering, your grace. An offering I believe you'll find it very hard to turn down.”
“Is that so?”
“Read my mind, if you will. You'll learn everything you need to know.”
Reiziger's eyes glinted, and a vaguely pinkish aura wrapped his antlers. Rarity only now realized that when he used his Gift of Laughter he had often had a pinkish flicker round him, and come to think of it, when the white-tails used their Gift of Honesty there was a burst of orange power. Did the Elements all have auras that matched their Bearers' coat colors? That would be something. It made Rarity wonder if she and her friends were the colors of the Elements, or the Elements were the colors of she and her friends. Which had come first in the plans of the Wills?
“Interesting,” said Reiziger, the glow diminishing. “I believe you are wrong, of course.”
“About what is going to happen- about the vision you've had. I do not see myself losing in the end.” He smiled. “Indeed, I don't believe a thing of your so-called 'vision.' I believe you made the whole thing up, or merely dreamed it.”
“Oh, well, you're welcome to believe what you wish,” said Rarity. “Though I do wonder why you would deny someone trying to show you the whole outcome of your war.”
“Because I have heard it before!” he crowed, stalking round her. “Countless red deer have foretold my demise, some in great detail, and they have all been wrong. What makes you think a mere pony could be more accurate?”
“Oh, nothing I can quite explain,” said Rarity, her voice still light. “Just a sense I have. Call it faith, if you will.”
“Faith is for fools.”
“I suppose I am a fool, then.”
“Well that is plain.” He chuckled. “You know, if I am right and you are wrong, Rarity, future generations will curse your name forever.”
“If you are right and I am wrong, your grace, I don't really think there will be many future generations. I know your ambitions.”
“True enough!” He laughed. “Go on, then, Rarity. Do what you have come to do.”
Rarity bowed low. “I pledge myself to your service, Lord Reiziger.”