“Just have to focus,” Fluttershy said softly to herself. She sat upon her haunches, settled underneath the shelter of the hill. She breathed out, and she breathed in, and she focused on what was within herself. She breathed out yet again, and this time, pinkish power swelled out of her hooves. It rippled on the grass, over all the flowers, and where it billowed outward, flowers and green growth were spread. She kept delving deep inside, pushing further in, but- “Oh!” she cried, and the pink emanations vanished. The grass grew dull and dead again, the flowers wilted and then died. She blinked back tears. “I... I have to keep trying,” she said.
“No-” Pinkie Pie jolted forward, coughing up a flood of blackened goo, “No... no hope.”
“Yes, yes Pinkie, there's hope, there has to be hope,” said Fluttershy.
Pinkie looked out past Fluttershy's place beneath the gray and cracked hill. The land was dark and dead. The hill above them was so scraped and barren that it seemed a razor from the earth. The grass was dead, the trees were wrecked and ruined blackened boughs. Above them in the sky the darkened shadow billowed, covering up nearly all the sunlight. “No hope,” she repeated, then vomited up shadow.
“Pinkie, hold on,” said Fluttershy, tears springing to her eyes, “I'll... I'll help, somehow, I will! I can't give up, I won't give up!”
Her head sunk down onto the dirt. “Dead,” she muttered, “dead like the desert.”
Fluttershy pulled back from Pinkie. She sighed softly, settling beside her, sitting back beneath the hill. Silence reigned a while. Finally, she broke the quiet. “I think... it's beautiful.”
Pinkie raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“This,” she swept her hoof out, seemed to draw in all the gray and cracked terrain. “This barrenness... this emptiness... I love it, actually.”
“What? But... but you love-” she coughed- “you love animals, and nature.”
“This is nature. It's part of nature. The deserts are nature as much as the forests. Javier... the mule deer... they helped me realize that, and over time I've just recognized it more and more. I mean,” she glanced aside, “when I was younger, sure, I thought that only things that grew, things that were cute and gentle and bright- I thought they were the only things to nature. But that's not all nature- that's not all the wild.”
“But it's so... empty.”
“The world needs empty places too, Pinkie. There has to be balance. There are wastelands and farmlands, deserts and jungles, fire lands and lands of ice. There's even light and shadow.” She put a hoof to her chin. “I wonder if Reiziger's even sort of natural. I mean, Discord did say that the Wills allowed him to exist. Maybe he was always meant to destroy.”
“But why? Why would they allow him to make so many things die?”
“Death is part of nature too, Pinkie. Most things die in time. Even the high deer don't live forever.” A little smile curled her lips. “Death is beautiful, too.”
“So you want it to... stay this way?”
“No, no!” said Fluttershy quickly. “It's just... I guess...” she blushed. “It's hard to explain. I don't like death. Death is nasty and mean. But it's natural. It has to happen. All things go on their way. The life after this one calls everything to it. Ponies go on to the Summer Lands, animals and other creatures go where they're meant to go.”
Pinkie slumped onto the ground. She rolled onto her side, black fluids seeping out into the dust. “I don't want to die,” she said with grating voice. “I'm going to die, everything's going to die... but I don't want to.”
“And I don't want you to die, either. You're not ready to die yet, I think.” A faint, yet steady fierceness rose within her heart. “And that's why Reiziger's so terrible. Wastelands are good, but he creates them where there should be fertile fields. Deserts are good, but he makes them where there should be forests. Death is good, but he brings it when there's still supposed to be life. He's out of order. He's against how things should be.”
“So he's not natural?”
Fluttershy laid down beside her. “I guess he isn't. Or maybe... part of him is or part of him isn't. I don't know.” She sighed. “These things... they're all too much for me. All this stuff about the Elements of Harmony, about Hunger, about Death, about goddesses and the Wills and ancient magic. I guess I never wanted any of it.”
“I thought-” Pinkie coughed violently, whole body wracked with spasms, hacking up blackness and also leaking it from her back. “I thought...” her voice seemed weaker, “I thought it was... fun. At least at first.”
Fluttershy smiled gently. “I guess we have different definitions of fun. Fun, for me, is being peaceful and happy with my animal friends. Fun for me is sunning with Angel bunny, or sleeping with my bear and weasel friends, or flying low and slow with my bird friends. Fun for me isn't exciting. Fun for me is... slow.”
“So I guess you must hate just about everything that's happened.”
“A lot of it... yes, I do.”
“All of it?”
Her expression changed. “Not all of it. Some of it's been amazing. Being around all the deer, all the high deer, has been wonderful. And seeing all the magic- even the destructive spells, they're beautiful and lovely. I can't do magic, but I've always loved to watch it. Even Reiziger's magic is... sort of beautiful, to me.” Her ears drooped. “But I guess I really wish that none of this had ever happened.”
Quiet again. The wind billowed over the barren lands. Fluttershy shivered, and curled up.
“Do you wish... you hadn't done it, right at the start?”
“Huh?” asked Fluttershy.
“The... the Elements of Harmony,” said Pinkie. Black tears were gently leaking from her eyes. “Do you wish you hadn't gone with Twilight that one day, to stop Nightmare Moon?” She edged a little closer to Fluttershy. “Do you wish you'd never gotten the Element of Kindness?”
Fluttershy drew back. “That's...”
“Do you wish we weren't your friends?” More coughing.
She didn't answer right away. She looked out on the endless gray expanse. It made her feel so small.
“I've thought about it.”
Fluttershy swallowed hard. “And there are some moments where...” she turned aside. “I mean... you five are the greatest friends I've ever had, ever. I wouldn't trade our friendships for anything, even with everything that's happened.”
“But... I do sometimes wish I could have stayed friends with you all without going to stop Nightmare Moon. I wish maybe we could have been seven friends instead of six, and then that seventh pony could have gone and gotten the Element of Kindness. Then we could be friends, still... without me being caught up in all this.” Fluttershy laid her head down in the dirt. “There are days I dream of what would have happened. I would have just kept tending to my animals, being your friends, living in Ponyville. I would have gotten old. I might have married, though I really don't think I could have. And some day I would have died, and the mule deer would have buried me quietly at the edge of the Everfree Forest, which is what I always wanted. It wouldn't have been an exciting life, but I think it would have been... nice.”
“I guess compared to everything else-” Pinkie vomited blackness- “compared to the darkness everywhere, that would have been a nice thing to happen.”
“Yes...” Fluttershy sat up. “But it's not what happened... is it?”
She looked into the sky. “It could have happened... but it didn't. Instead, I went with you all that night, and everything changed. There was no seventh pony,” her gentle eyes grew gently harder, “and that was meant to be. We, we six, weren't all just the first random ponies to stumble on the Elements of Harmony. We five weren't just the first five ponies Twilight happened to meet in Ponyville. There was something else going on... something we didn't understand when it was happening.”
“So... this was all supposed to happen?”
“Maybe sort of. I'm not Rarity- I don't have the gift to see the future. But I know that we... that I received one of the Elements of Harmony, and it was meant for me, and nopony else. And then no matter what I wanted... I was special. I had a job to do.” She smiled. “And it doesn't make me happy in the same way that living and dying quietly would have made me happy, but it does make me happy. It's a taller... higher kind of happiness.”
Black tears again ran out of Pinkie's eyes. “How can you be so strong?”
“Because I know we have a job we're meant to do... and I know that it won't fail. I believe in that.” She stretched a butter-yellow leg down. “Come on, Pinkie. We're the Elements of Harmony, and the world is counting on us. We won't fail- so let's not fail.”
Pinkie felt, just a little, that the black rot in her body got a little gentler. “I don't... believe there's any good left,” she hacked and coughed, “but... I'll go with you.” She stretched her muted hoof out, and allowed Fluttershy to pull her up. They trotted out from underneath the hill. “So where to?”
“I... I'm not sure,” said Fluttershy. “Let me think for a moment...”
Then both of them felt the pricking that came only with strong magic. Not being unicorns, they had no horns to sense it, but both felt it in the way of each one's kind: Pinkie's hooves itched, and Fluttershy's wings tingled to the edges of her feathers. They saw no one in front of them, but then they turned toward the east-
“Mae govannen, dear pony friends. Well met.”
There he loomed, huge and brown and gentle, blue eyes glinting up against the darkened sky. Fluttershy smiled, if only for the company. “Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo, O master moose.” She cocked her head to the side. “Your name is... Nordeshang, isn't it?”
“Yes,” said Nordeshang. “And you are Fluttershy, and you are Pinkie Pie.”
“Plea-” Pinkie hacked up blackness- “Pleased to m-meet you.”
Nordeshang sighed deeply. “You are very sick, Lady Pinkie Pie.”
“L-Lady?” Pinkie actually chuckled a bit. “I'm not a lady, Mister Nordeshang.”
“Well, if I am called a lord and am really just a fleabitten old moose, then surely one of the very Bearers of the Elements of Harmony deserves the title of 'lady.'”
“Aww, you don't have to do all that, Lord Nordeshang,” said Fluttershy. “You can just call us F-Fluttershy... and Pinkie Pie.”
“If you will only call me 'Nordeshang,' I shall agree.”
“What are you doing all the way out here, Nordeshang?” asked Fluttershy. “Shouldn't you be with the other Deer Elders?”
“I have... fallen out with them,” he said. “I have broken with them over my unwillingness to slaughter. Lord Fëanor will soon put his plans for attack against the Herd Lord into motion. I did not want any part of it.”
“W-Why?” asked Pinkie, then coughed for near the thousandth time.
Nordeshang sighed. “The Herd Lord will not be stopped through violence. I have seen that. So has Fëanor, though he tries to ignore he ever saw it.”
“What did you see?” asked Fluttershy.
“We fought him, Fëanor and I. We fought the Herd Lord, along with twenty-eight of our fellow high deer. We fought him all across the world, and we fought him in the darkness, for he had already killed the Sun and the Moon. We brought all the power we could muster to bear upon him. We used spells, we invented new spells on the spot, we wielded such magics that the world has never seen and will not see again... but it was not enough. Each time we thought we had beaten him to death, he rose up stronger and blacker than ever. Eventually we were able to corner him in a mountain range and seal him in the most powerful binding spells we had. But kill him? Defeat him? There is no way, not with the magics we in this world possess.”
“But... then how will he be stopped?”
“With the Elements of Harmony, of course- they are what all tyrants and dark lords fear.”
Fluttershy nodded. “I think that too. But I'm... I'm trying to make my Element work, and it's not... it's not strong enough,” she turned away.
A soft but heavy hoof fell on her shoulder. “I know how difficult it can be to wield the Element of Kindness. I know the challenges... I too have the burden of being a Healer.”
“How do you do it?” Turquoise eyes swung up to him. “How are you able to heal the impossible hurts?” Her eyes flickered to Pinkie Pie, who was listing dangerously, black bile running down her back.
Nordeshang's antlers shimmered blue. Pinkie and Fluttershy were lifted off the ground and slowly settled on his massive back. “Come with me,” he said, and took a step- and vanished.
They reappeared in a much darker, deeper, blacker portion of what once had been Equestria. The hills had not just been stripped bare, but scraped, as though some monstrous thing had sharpened up its claws upon the earth. There was a buzzing- as they all watched, changelings flitted through the air and skittered on the ground. They scraped across the barren earth, searching for some sign of life that they could drain the love from.
“Ugh,” said Fluttershy, wincing. “Changelings...”
“They are only doing what they can to survive,” said Nordeshang.
“But... but they help Reiziger. They're his servants.”
“Even so, they wish to live. That's not so different from you ponies, is it?”
Fluttershy frowned. “I guess not.”
As they watched, one changeling scraped open enough dirt to expose some root. He started flickering as he searched it for love, but no sooner had he found it than he was attacked by all his fellows. They writhed and rolled, they bit and scratched. The root was soon forgotten as they fought each other in their hate. Nordeshang sighed. “Poor creatures. They do not deserve to suffer for their master's actions.”
“But... but doesn't he control them?”
“Yes- and more than that, he created them, though he could not spin them from nothing as the Wills do. All of the Herd Lord's creations, all his creatures and species, lack something. The changelings lack love. The wyverns lack inner self. The fell beasts lack tenderness. The ungoliants lack satisfaction. This is because their master, too, is lacking. He lacks everything they individually lack as species. From depravity comes only depravity.”
The changelings were now draining what little love they themselves possessed, stealing from each other in their hate.
“But... that does not make them evil. Or, it does make them evil... but not totally so.” He stepped forward. His antlers shimmered soft yellow, and pink waves started emanating from them, rippling in silence through the blackened air. The changelings stopped their fighting. They looked about, they skittered and they tripped over each other, but they did not more attack. Slowly, their faint quivering, their trembling from so long without love, stopped. They buzzed their wings and rose into the sky, flying far away.
Fluttereshy's eyes were enormous. “I didn't know the Gift of Kindness could... could make love.”
“The Gift of Kindness can do many things. Did Falalauria not tell you that it could heal all hurts? It can, and to do this it is tremendously powerful. It is perhaps the most powerful of all the Gifts, save that of Magic in the hooves of an elk.”
“But I...” she hung her head, “I can't do any of that. I mean, I can heal some things, and some ponies, but for some reason my Gift won't...” she glanced at Pinkie, who was now coughing gently, “it won't work on the things I really need to heal.”
“That is because you do not love them.”
“But I... I don't hate them! I try not to hate anypony!”
“And that is good! But not hating is not the same as loving. To love something, you must see in it something worth loving.”
Fluttershy flapped her wings and fluttered off his back. She looked around, at the darkened sky and blackened earth. “What's worth loving in all this?”
“That it exists at all.”
Pinkie slumped backwards. She nearly fell off Nordeshang, but he caught her with his magic and set her gently down. She was coughing softly but constantly, hacking up blackness, while her back spewed more dark fluid than ever.
A screech suddenly hit Fluttershy right within her heart. She squealed and jumped into the air. She was about to fly away when Nordeshang raised up a hoof. “Come.” He lifted Pinkie with his magic, and with her beside him he went up a hill. Fluttershy cantered after him, and when she crested the hill her eyes went wide. A fell beast was sprawled out in the dead grass, long neck and snakelike head swaying gently to and fro. She saw the reason it was stuck almost immediately: its right wing was in shreds, torn up and destroyed by Celestia knew what. It gave another fear-inducing shriek, its pain and sadness only magnifying how much terror that possessed.
“I mentioned,” said Nordeshang, “that the Herd Lord cannot create from nothing. He can only create from what is already existent- he needs love, life force, raw materials, something with which to base his nightmares on. Only the Wills That Draw the World can spin life from pure nothingness. And that life they spin, even when twisted and perverted by the Herd Lord... that is good.”
“Just because it's there?”
Pinkie vomited up black fluid. She wasn't moving near as much as she had been a while ago.
“Yes- simply because it is there. Everything that is, insofar that it is, is good.” He trotted gently to the fell beast. “This creature... it is lacking. It is in pain. It perhaps wishes it had never been born.” His antlers shimmered pink. The fell beasts stopped its shrieking. Its head swung toward the massive moose, but it did not move to attack. “But it exists, and that existence, that being, is a gift from the Wills. It is the first good, and the last good, and the highest good of all. To be is a very great thing- the greatest thing, even amid all the miracles and mysteries of magic.” Nordeshang's front right hoof glowed bright pink. He pressed it up against the fell beast's side, and waves of pink light started blossoming across the creature. Fluttershy's eyes went wide. The beast's wing healed and regrew, new bone and muscle and leathery skin swelling out over the injured portions. In a few minutes, it was completely better, and the fell beast hefted itself to a standing pose.
Fluttershy partly wanted to take off and flee, but her courage- and her fascination- kept her there. “So, even though it's... it was created by evil... and wants to hurt us... it's worth helping, just because it exists?”
“Yes,” said Nordeshang. He smiled. “But who says it wants to hurt us?” He reached a hoof up and rubbed the massive creature's head. To Fluttershy's amazement, the fell beast leaned into the contact. Its thin tongue came out and licked Nordeshang's hoof. “And that is the marvelous thing about valuing the mere existence of something. Such value is not forgotten. Such love is not ignored. You will often find that merely by caring that something- or someone- is there, you will cause change that you could never have anticipated.” The fell beast pulled away at last, flapped its massive wings, and flew away.
“But Reiziger...” the idea slowly blossomed in her mind, “Reiziger wants there to be nothing.”
“Very good,” said Nordeshang. “Yes, the Herd Lord's true darkness is that, in his hunger, he wishes for nonbeing. He desires death, and not even the death that brings new life in the next world- he desires ultimate nonexistence, which is the only true, real evil. He only values things insofar as he can wipe them out.” He chuckled. “And yet, if he wiped out everything else in the universe, he would still exist, so there would still be some being, and so there would still be good. So even the Herd Lord, for all his power, could never wipe away life and goodness.”
“I... I think I understand,” said Fluttershy. Nordeshang turned to her. His sapphire blue eyes glittered in the twilight. “It's not enough to... to care about somepony in spite of the things you don't like about them- or, to only care about the parts of them that you like. You have to care about them- you have to l-love them even with the parts you don't like, the parts that are bad, the parts that... scare you.” Her cutie marks began to twinkle.
“Yes,” said Nordeshang. He moved his massive body. Pinkie, who could now be seen, was breathing raggedly, black goo billowing out of her open mouth.
“I...” Fluttershy's ears drooped, “I haven't been able to heal Pinkie because I haven't liked her with her sickness. I didn't hate her... and I didn't stop being her f-friend... but I wanted to only keep the parts of her that weren't sick. I was s-scared that if I got to close to her, close enough to care, I'd get sick, too. I didn't want myself to get hurt, so I didn't want to give myself to helping her.”
Fluttershy's cutie marks were flickering, pulsing like twinkling stars. She stood up. “But a real healer gives everything. A real healer realizes that until the world's hurts are healed, they're sick even when they seem fine. A real healer knows that things that are dark... and scary... can't be stopped by being scared, and can't be stopped by being dark. They can only be stopped with light... and love.”
Her eyes went wide. “I was right... before. I was right that I had a duty to do what had to be done. But now I know what has to be done. The Element of Kindness... it's about being kind when everyone and everything else is cruel. It's about being kind when everything inside you tells you to run away, or to hate. It's about being kind when it doesn't make sense to be kind... because it does make sense. Being kind always makes sense, and you can't be afraid to be kind, no matter what.”
Nordeshang smiled. “Very good, Fluttershy.”
Light was rising around her. “Oh my!” she said. Her cutie marks were gleaming, blazing in the darkened air. She looked down. Her hooves were flashing, pulsing, swelling with pink light. She stared down hard at them. Then she looked at Pinkie, who was no longer moving. She looked upon her hooves again. Then she looked at Pinkie yet again.
“Go on,” said Nordeshang. “You can do it!”
Fluttershy trotted to Pinkie. Where she walked, the grass turned green again. Looming up above the pink earth pony, Fluttershy took a deep breath. Her body was coated in black goo now. Her mane and tail were limp and scraggly. Her eyes were blank and open, bloodshot. She looked deathly ill, and it was clear that touching her was dangerous. Fluttershy almost stepped back- but then she held. It is dangerous. I am scared. But that doesn't matter. She raised her glowing hooves. I'd rather get hurt so she can be healed. She reared her hooves back. I'd give up my own life for her life back! She shoved her hooves against Pinkie Pie's blackened back. Pink light swelled and blossomed outward. The blackness swelled up Fluttershy's front legs, coating her like ink. She did not stop, however. The blackness came into her mouth, but she did not pull off. It stretched over her cutie mark, she'd been wrong, she wasn't strong enough, she was going to be rotted away but she did not care because she loved her friend enough to give up everything- there was a rainbow-
Twilight whirled about, fluttering her wings to hover. “I felt it again!” she cried.
“No time!” said Fëanor. “Come!”
Applejack spun round inside the airship. “Y'all feel that?”
The thestral and the mythicorn reared back and whinnied.
White light, like sunshine, blazed across the darkened earth. Nordeshang sniffed; there was the smell of clean water. He breathed in gently, and his old and tired heart felt suddenly young and new. His sapphire eyes sparkled. “Fluttershy?”
The golden light pulled in. All the space around them had been healed: the grass was green, flowers bloomed, even the sky seemed a little bluer in all the blackness. With gentle steps, Fluttershy turned round. Nordeshang smiled. She had changed and grown. Her legs were longer. Her torso was both larger and more lovely, her neck was longer, her head had gotten larger. Her pink mane and tail were longer and more wispy, more ethereal. Somehow there was a flower tucked behind her ear. “Oh my,” said Fluttershy, looking down upon herself. She spread her wings. These had gotten larger, and more beautiful. They were so big now that when she folded them again they stretched up and behind her at an angle, like those of an arctic tern.
“You did it!” exclaimed Nordeshang. “I am so proud of you.”
Fluttershy's eyes widened. “But what about...” she turned around. There was still some golden light behind her. It finally cleared-
A pink blur shot into the air. Fluttershy watched it rise, then stop, then fall, and when it fell it bounced high up again, not quite as far, and fell, then bounced, and fell, then bounced, then fell, then bounced until at last it gave a springy hop and stopped completely.
“I'm back!” said Pinkie Pie. “I'm back, I'm me, I'm totally normal!” And she was! There was no speck of blackness on her. Her body was soft pink, her mane and tail magenta fluffs like bursts of cotton candy, her eyes were lovely bouncing baby blue, and when she smiled all the darkness and blackness around them seemed to vanish. “I'm back!”
“Pinkie!” cried Fluttershy.
“Oh, thank you Fluttershy!” cried Pinkie, zooming up to her and wrapping her in an enormous hug. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!”
“You're so welcome, Pinkie,” tears welled in her eyes. “I'm just so happy you're okay!”
“Me too, sister, you have no idea!” said Pinkie. She smiled even wider. “And look, you've totally gotten Cadence-sized like Twilight! Your Element must be super powerful now!”
“Yes, I should imagine it is,” said Nordeshang. “Welcome back to health, Pinkie Pie. I am glad to see you.”
“And thank you, Mister Nordeshang! I wouldn't be good ol' Pinkie Pie again without you!”
“I helped, perhaps,” he glanced aside, “but it was not I who healed you. Indeed, I wonder if I would have been able to do it.”
“That's because Fluttershy is the best, kindest, greatest, most awesome healer in all the lands of Equestria and beyond! She's super-spectacular, ultra-colossal, hyper-con-”
A great rumble shook the earth. Far off in the south, a blast of golden light erupted so brightly and enormously it bathed the heavens everywhere. This was followed by yet more eruptions of great power, making the ground thunder once again.
“Wuh-oh,” said Pinkie. “What's that?”
Nordeshang sighed deeply, hanging his great head. “The start of Fëanor's foolishness.”