Shining Armor stood upon the palace's great balcony. His horn glowed purple, and when he spoke his voice carried through all the Crystal Empire: “Attention, all Equestrian ponies, crystal ponies, and others! The Dark Lord Reiziger is coming to the Crystal Empire with a massive army!” An enormous shout rose up across the city. In its wake, like aftershocks, there came great cries and wailings. Shining Armor's eyes grew narrow. “He's probably coming here to wipe us out. He wants to put an end to Equestria, once and for all! But we won't let him!” He paused, and took a deep breath, then released it with an awful sigh. “This is as desperate a battle as we're ever going to see! It's probably the most important battle in the entirety of Equestrian history! And we need everypony- everypony- to do what they can! So everypony who can fight, will fight! Old age, young age, and disability are the only exceptions! All the rest, report to the nearest garrison for armor and drilling! Because-!” He paused. The city was weeping, wailing, howling in grief and shock and pain. He sighed. “... Because we don't have a choice.”
Hours later, all across the Empire, ponies lined up at the waystations garrisoned by the Royal Guard. There were lines that stretched for blocks and blocks as earth ponies and unicorns and pegasi awaited armor and assignments.
Most of those who'd lived in Ponyville had wound up in a single tenement, and thus were in a single line. “So,” said Pokey grimly. “It's come to this.”
“I've been through worse,” the Doctor said.
“I highly doubt that.”
“Oh, no, you shouldn't! Granted, I haven't been through much worse- as predicaments go, an all-powerful dark deer whose soul has been scooped out, and who wants take over the universe and eat it, does rate rather highly on my list- but I have had a few scrapes that were definitely more perilous! Why, this one time my companion and-”
“Now is not the time for your stupid fake stories!” snapped Flitter.
“Don't be mean,” said Cloudchaser.
“Mean? Mean? You know what's mean? Forcing a bunch of civilian ponies to fight for their lives!”
“You heard Prince Shining Armor!” said one of the crystal ponies nearby. “We have no choice. The dark lord is coming to wipe us out! This a matter of survival.”
“What good are we supposed to do, though?” asked Davenport. “I mean, I sell quills-”
“And sofas,” said every single pony in the line before he could do it.
“Well, yes! I'm not a soldier. I don't know how to fight.”
“And I'm just a jam maker!” Peachy Sweet said, beginning to tremble. “I... I don't know how to fight... I don't know how and I don't want to!”
“It's better than just cowering in fear,” said Amethyst Star. “I mean, hay, if this is going to be a battle for survival, I don't want to just wait it out in the catacombs.”
“But again, what can we do?” asked Thunderlane.
“Shame on you,” said Helia. “A pegasus not knowing what to do in a fight?”
“I didn't grow up in Cloudsdale, okay? I never went to Summer Drilling.”
“Okay, fine, so at least the Cloudsdale and Whitherwind ponies will know what to do when changelings and monsters start flying,” said Blossomforth.
“It's awful!” said Daisy
“Just awful!” said Roseluck.
“What are we gonna do?” cried Lily Valley.
“W-Well,” stammered Mr. Cake, “I...” the eyes of everypony turned to him. He stumbled backward. “I... I'm not really a fighter. But for my family, I'll do it.”
Glances passed between the ponies. A certain firmness came over their eyes. “Yeah, I guess,” said Berry Punch.
“I mean, heck, I know lots of parents with kids,” said Twilight Sky. “I mean... we can't let them down, can we?”
Pokey, as the pony before him peeled away, sighed. “No, I guess we-”
The line of Ponyville ponies was jolted by the cry. They all looked up. Pokey was now first in line, and Royal Guard ponies were staring urgently at him.
“Next?” asked the one at the desk.
Taking a deep breath, Pokey trotted forward. “Guess that's me,” he said. “I think I'll be a Large, if you still have that size.”
The line progressed, the time went by. Finally, a pony stepped up- but the window banged shut. “All out!” one of the guards cried.
“All out? All out?” cried Minuette. “I... I didn't get any armor!”
“Neither did I!” cried Cloud Kicker.
“Sorry, ladies,” said one of the guards. “We're out.”
“You can't be out!” cried Compass Star. “We need protection, for Celestia's sake!”
“I'm sorry!” snapped the guard. The line drew back. The guard winced, and sighed. “Look, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, really I am, but... we're out. There's no more.” He turned aside and trotted off. “Sorry,” he said again, more quietly over his shoulder.
Minuette whirled on the others. “What are we going to do?”
“We're going to die, I guess,” said Golden Harvest.
“Um, no,” said Minuette. She grabbed a passing guard. “Pardon me, sir, but we didn't get any armor. What should we do?”
The guard glanced up and down at her. “You should report to the Geode Fields for drilling, is what you should do.” He shrugged her off, and trotted on his way.
“Wait!” cried Minuette. She whirled on Golden Harvest. “Carrot Top, what should we do?”
“Don't call me that, Colgate,” said Golden Harvest.
“Don't call me that!”
“Well, here we go,” said Golden Harvest. “We don't have armor. We're not the only ones in the city to not have armor, but here we are.” She nodded. “Let's go drill.” She trotted off.
Minuette tapped her hooves upon the paved streets. She fidgeted, she writhed and wristed back and forth. “What am I gonna do?” she asked to no one; indeed, several of the crystal ponies glanced with baleful faces at her. She swirled in circles. “What am I gonna do?” None responded to her, so she stopped her moves at last. She sighed, and sank upon her hooves. “What am I gonna do?” None answered. “I guess I'm going to go drill.” With a final breath, she trotted off.
The Geode Fields were filled with ponies of all types. Unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies were deeply caught in training exercises. The earth ponies thrust with spears and bucked with sturdy back legs. The pegasi, flying in formations, slashed with swords. The unicorns hit flying targets with their battle magic.
“Just gotta-” Bon Bon tried to twist the spear between her front left hoof and right back hoof, as the guards were demonstrating. She thrust, she drove- but the great shaft acted like a sweeping boom, knocking her legs from under her, making her crash to the ground. “Ugh!” she shouted. The rest of the drilling earth ponies kept moving, leaving her in their considerable dust. “How does the Royal Guard do this? How does anypony do this? We have hooves, not hands!”
“Not going well?” Lyra asked, trotting up.
“Not really,” Bon Bon answered. Lyra's magic helped her up. “How about you?”
“Well, I'm a little too pudgy for front line work,” Lyra poked her belly in the sides, “but I can sling battle magic as well as any unicorn, so I'll be up on the castle's ramparts.”
“Say, where are you going to be?”
Bon Bon bit her lip. Her green eyes wavered. “They've got me down in the city.”
“No!” cried Lyra.
“I tried to talk to somepony about it, but-”
“I-I-I'll talk to somepony too. I'll find...” she swung around, “what about Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy? They're our friends and neighbors, and now they're big shot important ponies! They've gotta help us.”
“I've already tried to see General Shining Armor. He's just too busy.”
“We... we have to... we...”
“I don't know,” said Bon Bon. “I'm not sure there's anything I can do.”
“You should take courage.”
They turned. One of the white-tail deer was standing near them, clad in greenish armor. Some of the others of her kind were nearby, and across the great field, dozens, hundreds more deer were drilling. Lyra, in fact, recognized the doe that had spoken- it was Isabella, the deer from their lunch table all those weeks ago.
“Have faith, ponyfolk. We shall-”
“Shut up,” snarled Bon Bon. “I have had just about enough of you, all of you!”
“Bon Bon,” muttered Lyra.
“No! No, not this time! I need to get this out!” shouted Bon Bon. The other ponies stopped and turned toward her. “You... you!” She leveled a hoof at Isabella. “You... all of you! All you deer! All of this is your fault!”
“Stop this!” cried one of the guards. He moved- but Thunderlane came in front of him.
“No, let her talk. She speaks for me.”
“And me,” said Cherry Berry.
“You and your stupid dark lord! You and your stupid war, that you couldn't end thousands of years ago! Now it's back and it's destroyed our homes! You...” tears ran down her cheeks, “you've ruined Equestria forever! It's gray and dead now!”
“We were born after the Herd Lord's defeat,” said one of the nearby white-tails. “You cannot blame his resurgence on us.”
“Yes, I can! Why not? You heard what he said, that day in Canterlot! You deer think you're better than ponies, that you're above ponies! Well, then I say you take your lumps when that turns out to be a lie!” Her eyes grew narrow, her face ugly. “If there were a way to give you all to him, and make him leave us alone, I'd do it!”
“Bon Bon!” snapped Lyra. “That's mean!”
“I don't care! I...” she sat down. Tears ran from her eyes. “I had such a nice house! I and Lyra had such a nice house, it had two stories, it had three bedrooms, but we used one as a sunroom. We... we put a skylight in! We would...” she started sobbing, “we would go up there in the summer and tan without having to worry about bugs! And... and Cloud Kicker would come over, and we'd bake brownies! And we'd go to Sugar Cube Corner and see Pinkie Pie, and she'd always bake a cake for our dating anniversaries!” Her face twisted again in wrath. “But it's all gone! Ponyville, the town I lived in since I was a baby, is gone! All swept away in darkness and fire! And it is your fault, no matter how much you want to deny it!” She could speak no more, for now she wept.
“I...” said Isabella, eyes wet and wavering, “I...”
“She is right.”
They turned. There stood Magus Javier. His mule deer, unlike the white-tails of the Shimmerwood, did not have armor. They were painted in the bluish swirls of ether barding, looping lines that wove about their flanks and down their legs and up their large, long ears. One white-tail buck turned upon the slightly larger, gently mighty deer. “Ye sin quentië?”
“Because it is true,” said Javier. “The Herd Lord is not your fault, individually. He is not my fault. He is not even Lord Fëanor's fault, insofar as Lord Fëanor had no direct role in his rise to power. But the creation... and the incubation... of the Herd Lord was our fault, and remains our fault. He was birthed in our civilization, and his rise to power could only have happened in a folk such as ours. And how little have we changed? We still exalt ourselves. We still maintain a feeling of superiority, even as we hide in our forests, withering away to nothing.”
“We don't-” Isabella started.
“Don't you? Don't I? We were so wise, so grand, so powerful... we thought we knew better. And we still do... don't we? Your haughtiness with this poor pony here... aren't you assuming she's wrong because you are absolutely convinced you know better than her?”
“But,” said Isabella, “I... I have more education than her. I know the circumstances better than her. She is uninformed.”
“And that makes you better than her, doesn't it?”
“I...” Isabella turned aside, “I would not say that...”
Javier shook his head. “Even now, even after all this time, after all that we have been ruined and brought low... we refuse to learn. A new Herd Lord could arise even in our diminished midst. The Chaos Lord is right. The Herd Lord is our curse. He is our sin.” Javier came to Bon Bon, who had now stopped weeping, though her eyes were still damp. He smiled gently down at her. “I am sorry, my dear. I am so, so sorry you have lost your home and your country.”
“Th-Thank you,” murmured Bon Bon. “I... I'm sorry for yelling.”
“I hope you will not begrudge our help, despite all the damage we have done. I hope you will let us start to make amends, and keep making amends all the days of our lives.”
“But what can be done?” asked Lyra. “The dark lord is coming here with a huge army, and we're just a bunch of normal ponies. How can we stop him?”
“Yeah?” asked Flitter. “He's so huge and powerful. We're... we're nothing.”
“No, you are not,” said Javier. His antlers started glowing light blue. Noticing this, the mule deer round him lit their antlers blue as well. “Listen to me- listen to me, all of you!” His voice suddenly filled the great and rolling fields. Ponies everywhere stopped their activities and turned toward him, ran to him, hurried close to hear him speak. “Listen to me carefully, ponies. I shall not tell you not to fear. That is unavoidable. For the Herd Lord is great, and he is powerful, and he is so, so cruel. I know you must feel small before him.” Javier smiled. “But he does not know your strength. I know the Herd Lord's history. He would drain unicorns dry for their magic. He would chain pegasi and whip them to manipulate the weather. He would have earth ponies carry his litter and throne. He sees you as things, as mere animals. He does not understand ponies, he has never understood ponies. He has never watched two ponies tenderly behave when they are in love. He has never seen pegasi, unicorns, and earth ponies work together to change the seasons. He has never seen you build your towers, pave your roads, weave your cities out of stone and wood and cloud. He does not see how grand and great you are- not as I have.” The ponies were transfixed, and listening to him made them begin to smile. “The Herd Lord sees in power and strength and dominance. He does not see the small beginnings of all great things. He does not understand that a great heart can lurk in an unassuming creature.”
“Hold up a minute,” said the Doctor. “What's this I'm feeling?” He patted all over himself with his front hooves. “I'm feeling... enthusiastic? What is this?” Ponies turned to him.
“I am lending you my courage, O Ponies of Equestria,” said Javier, whose antlers were now shining, whose eyes were now aglint. “This is the power of the Gift of Loyalty, the Gift of the Captain- it is the power to inspire and to encourage. But I shall tell you a great secret about this Gift: it is useless without truth. The Gift of Loyalty cannot inspire false hope. It grants strength only where there is strength to be drawn from- strength of heart, strength of nerve, strength of spirit! I can draw nothing from you that you do not already possess!”
“So we've got courage!” a unicorn shouted.
“Yes, yes! This is all inside you already! You know, in your hearts, that you can defeat the Herd Lord, in all his nightmares, in all his darkness and wickedness! You know that however long the night, the day will come, and the sun will shine, bright and beautiful! You know that in the true account of things, evil never truly has the final say!”
“No, it doesn't!” cried a pegasus.
“I believe we can do this!” an earth pony exclaimed.
“Put most simply, my dear ponies, you have faith, and you know that faith will be rewarded, even if the wait is long. You have faith and it makes you strong- it makes you invincible, in your hearts and in your spirits! So, you ponies, you will survive!”
“You will endure!”
“You will triumph!”
“YEAH!!” the roar came up from ponies by the tens of thousands, who began to cheer and whoop and stomp their hooves upon the earth. Javier smiled like a proud father.
Far off in the distance, resting in the shadows of the crystal palace, a group of soldiers watched the scene. “Looks like that mule deer chief has got them all worked up,” said Primrose.
“Well, bully for the mule deer,” said Stirrup.
“We'll need that level of morale if we're going to defend this city,” said Spearmint. “I'm glad he's worked a bit of magic.”
“I suppose they should be enthusiastic,” said Kindling. “I mean, it helps us out.”
“I suppose,” said Stirrup. He glanced toward the light green pegasus. “Captain Spearmint?”
“Aye, Captain Stirrup?”
“How many are we? The Royal Guard, I mean?”
“These days?” Spearmint rubbed his chin. “I'd say about ten thousand, give or take a few hundred. Though we do have the white-tail warriors from the Shimmerwood, and the few mule deer warriors. I'd say that brings the total trained fighting force up to about twenty thousand, maybe twenty-five.”
“And how many battle-ready ponies are part of that group out there? Are in the whole city, even?”
Spearmint bit his lip. “I... I couldn't really say.” He shook his head. “Just a guess, maybe a hundred thousand? Maybe a hundred and fifty? I'm talking purely about the ponies that have decent enough magic or physical abilities, are in good enough shape, aren't too old or too young, aren't disabled- basically, everypony who's fit to actually make a difference in a fight.”
“So that's a hundred and twenty, maybe a hundred and seventy thousand,” said Stirrup. “And how big are the estimates on the dark lord's army?”
Spearmint visibly winced. “Hundreds of thousands. Maybe a million.”
“That's what I remembered,” said Stirrup. He put on an enormous, and completely fake, smile. “Well, that's good to know. Who wants some cider? I'd sure love some cider. Preferably as hard as possible.”
“... and it seems as though the ponies are drilling well, within their limited ability, of course. There's no telling how much of a difference it's all going to make in the end, but it will do some good, at least.”
“That is good to hear,” said Falalauria. “Thank you, Miss Turnabout.”
Turnabout, a light red earth pony, nodded. “You're welcome, my lady.”
She turned and left. Falalauria listened to her leave, then sighed and began to head out of the throne room. She had to hug the walls, and tap her antlers up against them to make sure she headed for the door. Her sightless eyes, black and dead, were half-lidded. She'd grown a little used to not seeing, but it was still so hard. Her magic gave her a general sense of space, but it could not replace her sight. She relied on the attendance of her white-tails. It made her recall the time she'd nearly lost her mind trying to See all time and space at once. She had relied upon her white-tails then, as well, but at least she had not lost a physical ability. Now she lacked two senses, and though the loss of her Long Sight was painful, it was nothing next to losing the mundane use of her eyes. She felt so useless. The world was dark, pure dark, and she could not behold a thing.
“Mae govannen, Quimellë Falalauria.”
Falalauria turned, trying as best she could to find the spot the voice had come from. At least she recognized it by its sound. “Alima endäre ana tye, Fluttershy.”
<How are you feeling?> asked Fluttershy, continuing to speak in Laewtil.
<As well as can be expected,> answered Falalauria. <The times are grim.>
<Oh, I don't know about that. I think things are looking up.>
<Do you?> Falalauria sighed bitterly. <I wouldn't know. I cannot do much looking these days.>
Falalauria, unseeing, cocked her head. <There is something different about you, Fluttershy. I can feel it. I can smell it.>
<Yes, there is. My lady... do you trust me?>
A smile curled the great deer's lips. <Fluttershy, I trust you and your friends implicitly.>
<Then please, hold still a moment.> A sound and pressure, and it seemed that Fluttershy was right before her. <Open your eyes. I promise I won't hurt you.> The blackened eyes came open. Falalauria gasped quietly as Fluttershy's hooves softly pressed against them- and then power like she'd never felt before came coursing through her. It was a rising brightness, a brilliance, a lightness and a joy. It filled her with a wonder and a grandeur to experience it, and she gasped as it came through and went in her and beyond her and about her. There was a final rush of power- and in it, Falalauria could feel the gentle touch of something vaster, something greater than she'd ever known before.
Fluttershy's hooves pulled away. Falalauria's eyes closed on instinct, and remained closed for a few more moments. Then they opened- and all of reality came on. Fluttershy's face looked up at her, and in a Glance she Saw her gentle past and wondrous future. “I...” Falalauria conjured a mirror, “I can see! I can see! And my Long Sight has returned, too!”
“I did it!” cheered Fluttershy.
“Oh, thank you, Fluttershy, thank you so much, you-” Falalauria's eyes, now once more filled up with gleaming stars, went wide as she beheld the taller, far more graceful pegasus. “You have grown.”
“Yes! My Element of Harmony has grown... and I have, too.”
Using her Sight to behold all she had missed, Falalauria nodded. “And Pinkie has as well, then? My word. I must say... while I foresaw this course of action somewhat, I missed this. I missed what you- what all of you- would become.” She chuckled. “The Herd Lord is right! I did not See it because I did not Look for it.”
“I just hope we can survive. I hope the Crystal Empire can survive the terrible things Reiziger wants to do to it.”
Falalauria bent down. She licked Fluttershy on one cheek, then on the other. “We shall survive, Fluttershy. I See that now, and you have given me my hope back. The night is almost over, Fluttershy. The dawn is coming soon.”