Their ride, the last ride, took them swiftly from the frozen north. The earth ponies and unicorns and deer rode hard; the pegasi and griffins flew with speed; the pronghorns ran on lines of lightning at the edges, and the dragons flew fast overhead. In no time they had left the frigid wastes, and passed beneath the shadow that had fallen, like a curtain, on the southern lands. When they came upon it, they were briefly frightened, and they slowed a bit. However, Pinkie Pie had simply flapped her wings and flown right through the blackened veil; she had given them the courage to keep going, so they'd stuck their chins out and continued through the shadow.
What they found beyond was nightmarish. The land was gray and dead. All the grass had died and withered, all the trees were bare. What creatures still lived in these lands were gaunt and thin; they fled in panic from the Free Folk, or were just too sick to care. Applejack was horrified. “I... I can't believe it,” she said, when all the army camped out for the night. They were settled in the center, round a private fire. “Can't believe Equestria is... this.”
“It's horrible,” said Fluttershy. “It hasn't gotten any better since I was last here.”
“I always wanted to see Equestria,” said Ashtail, “but not like this.”
“I can see my hoofwork,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Those craters,” she pointed, “they used to be hills. Those valleys weren't so big. I... I and the Elders... we destroyed so much!” Tears came to her eyes.
“I am even more guilty,” said Rarity. “This deadness and grayness... it is all my fault.”
“Cheer up, girls!” cried Pinkie, floating overhead on wings aflutter. “Everything's gonna work out just fine! You'll see!” She landed with a bounce and folded up her cheerful wings.
“I wish I had your optimism, Pinkie Pie,” Ashtail said.
Twilight shook her head. “Pinkie, how is it that you're doing such a good job flying when you've only had your wings a few days? It took me months to learn to fly, and I needed Da-” her breath caught in her throat. “I... needed help to do it!”
Pinkie shrugged and bounced her head. “I dunno! I guess maybe deep down I've always been a flier! I try not to let anything or anypony get me down- I always try to stay as high and happy as I possibly can!”
The gathered ponies exchanged glances. “Eh,” said Applejack, “I guess I can buy that.”
“It makes about as much sense as anything else that's happened this terrible, beautiful summer,” said Rarity.
“I'm not sure I'd say that,” said Fluttershy. “I think everything has made sense, or at least a kind of sense. It's a sense you can... feel, really, more than think.”
Nopony said another word. They trotted to their beds, and settled down to sleep the night out. The mighty folk- Celestia and Luna, Falalauria, the Deer Elders- combined to conjure up a shield to keep the dark creatures at bay.
The second day they rode as hard, or harder. Now they started seeing more the aftermath of Fëanor's attack on Reiziger. Mountain ranges had been blown apart. Riverbeds were cracked and shattered. Massive chasms had been opened in the earth; even now, one could look down into them and see molten rock glowing a hot, infernal red. Javier glanced down in one such gaping maw. “By the Wills,” he muttered.
“This is our hoofwork,” said Decima.
“This is the product of our folly,” Morta said.
“You did not know better,” said Luna. “You thought you were doing what was right. This cannot fall upon your heads.”
“We were blinded by Fëanor,” said Glorfindel. “We were caught up in his hate, and now...” he grimaced, “now Equestria is ruined. Even if we triumph, ponyfolk will have to find another land in which to live.”
“Perhaps,” said Falalauria.
“What have you seen, my lady?” asked Nordeshang.
She smiled secretively at him. “Something good. Have faith, old father.”
“I have had faith,” said Nordeshang “It has been rewarded. I have hope that it will be rewarded further.”
Out into the further dark they rode. What struck the Army of the Free Folk, to a creature, was the barrenness of all the land. Bad enough that the entire landscape had been ravaged of its greenery. Nothing lived amid the gray and dead, and they had not even traces of the changelings and the other monsters Reiziger commanded.
This did not escape most ponies' notice. “Where is everything?” asked Stirrup, guiding a battalion near the front.
“It really does seem empty,” said one of the Daleponies.
“The Herd Lord likely has drawn back his forces,” said a mule deer. “We killed a huge number of his armies at the Crystal Empire. What he has left will likely be around his castle.”
Pokey grimaced. “So he knows we're coming.”
“We have the princesses, the big deer, and the Elements of Harmony!” the Doctor said with cheerfulness. “Surely that will be enough.”
“I hope so,” muttered Kindling.
They settled for the night in a few hours. Once more the shield of power was drawn up over the army. Twilight cast a spell that caused a fire; Pinkie toasted marshmallows around it, while Fluttershy was frightened by the ghost stories that Spike told. Rarity stood up after one tale and said, “I think I shall go get a drink of water. Be right back!” Humming quietly, she trotted through the gathered creatures in the army. Towards the far left flank she moved. Around a bend she found the water barrel, where she-
“Hey there, sweetie.”
“Oh!” cried Rarity, swirling round. “Oh, father!”
A powerfully built unicorn with a beige coat stood placidly across the water barrel. His mane and tail were brown, and a bushy brown mustache was bristling on his top lip. He smiled gently at her. “How ya doin', honey?”
“I... I am doing all right, father,” said Rarity, coming up to him and nuzzling him close. “I didn't know you were going to be riding with the army! Aren't you too old?”
“Old? Heck, your old man's still tough enough to beat some bullies up!” he said, swinging out two punches with his hooves. “Besides, it's better for me to go than some old, sick pony be forced into it.” He laid a hoof upon her shoulder. “Enough about me, though. What about you, honey?”
“I... I just told you, I am doing well.”
“Ya sure?” her father asked. “Cause everytime your name comes up now, ponies get real sour in the face.”
Rarity breathed strongly, in and out. She glanced onto the ground. “I cannot blame them. I have done terrible things.”
“I know. I heard.” His daughter's head whipped up. “Princess Celestia- praise be to her- told me everything that happened.” He pulled her close against him. “So, Rares, are ya okay? Really?”
Rarity began to speak... but then did not. She sighed deeply. She sagged against her father's mighty form. She was a little taller than him now, but she could still lean up against him. “I think I shall be, father. It's... a bit exhausting, really, being hated by nearly everypony I meet. I am handling it, though.”
“You know not everypony hates ya, Rares.”
“I know, I know... but I can feel the angry stares. I can hear the hateful mutterings. It's a lot to take.”
Her father hugged her tightly up against him. “I love ya, Rarity. Your mom loves ya too, and be sure that Sweetie loves ya. We'll never stop loving ya.” He craned her head around to look at him. “Heh, your eyes are all starry now.”
Rarity smiled daintily. “I can See the future now, father. I can See everywhere, and every time. It's beautiful.”
“My big important daughter,” he said. “I'm so proud of ya, Rarity.”
“I'm grateful for that,” said Rarity. “Can I stay with you tonight?”
“Sure, kiddo. I'm making nachos for my new army buddies. You can join in!”
“I would like that very much.”
The next morning they rode, and now the blackness had grown even darker and more awful. A shadowy miasma seemed to linger in the air. The darkness was a thing to touch and smell. And taste- Rarity smacked lips and grimaced. “Can you all taste that?”
Fluttershy stuck out her tongue. “It tastes like a corpse.”
“How in the wide wide world of Equestria do you know what a corpse tastes like?” asked Applejack.
“I do deal with bodies from time to time,” Fluttershy responded. “It's an unfortunate occupational hazard.”
“But taste?” asked Twilight.
Fluttershy grimaced. “I once fell mouth-first into a dead bear. I had to wash my mouth ten times after that.” Her ears drooped. “I don't like to think about it.”
“Look!” somepony cried. The five ponies and Spike glanced up. The blackened mountain peaks that jutted out before them were familiar. They recognized the rounded, yet also jagged summits of the Eyre Mountains. Twilight well remembered how she'd seen Canterlot resplendent on the mountainside. Now, though-
“There!” she shouted. Black and wicked, like a jagged scar, Reiziger's enormous castle billowed out of the dark rock. “Now where-”
The Shadow rose. It seemed their very darkened silhouettes were terrible. Despair and outrage filled the wicked crannies out of time and space.
You DARE to come into my fastness? You wretched, rotten subsapient things! I look upon you all and see disease! I see fungus and insects! I see a thing that-
All of sudden it seemed that the Sun had come down from the sky. Golden blazing radiance erupted on the mountainside and swallowed up the castle made of blackness. It was for a moment silhouetted in the terrible swift fury of the light. Then it was engulfed, and broke apart, burning up and sizzling away until at last the golden light withdrew and left a burning hunk of molten black upon the mountain rock.
“Jumping the gun a bit, my princess,” said Morta to Celestia.
Celestia's lip curled. “He tore down my castle. Turnabout is fair play.”
You are here, aren't you? All of you. Look at you, the grand great army of the lesser beings. And here are all the remaining Deer Elders, and all the princesses, and all the Bearers of the Elements, right here in my reach! Well, if you have conveniently walked onto my doorstep, I suppose I shall take this opportunity to finish you at last.
In a flash of crimson darkened monsters flooded on the dead gray plains. There were the changelings and the kobolds and the goblins, ungoliants and wyverns and fell beasts. Balrogs belched their fire. Gothmog stood upon their summit, a crown of burning flames upon his head. For a moment, though, this did not matter, for the Shadow came upon them with such wrath it bent and nearly cracked reality. Blackness, hate, and fury gobbled up the sky and space. Everything was out of joint, everything was wrong, and seemed to bend all time and space in odd directions, as though the order of the universe had been uprooted. This wrongness came upon the army, swelling and devouring their light and all their love-
“No!” cried Celestia. She and Luna strode into the dark, gold and silver, Sun and Moon aglow. Falalauria joined in with brilliant white. Nordeshang swung round his head and lit his antlers beautiful soft blue, then was joined by Morta and by Decima, with blue and green respectively. Glorfindel, his magic hot and turquoise, joined in also, as did even Javier with blazing yellow might. For a moment, the shadow even swallowed up this brilliance. However, all the mighty folk aligned around Celestia, and channeled magic in her guidance. She knew how to attack the blackness and despair, because she had herself nearly succumbed to it. But when the urge to give up had been strongest, she had against all odds kept faith, and now she had the strength that lurks within the heart of one whose faith has been rewarded. So she saw the wretched chaos of the Shadow, and she saw its unseen seams, and she with all the power of her fellows gave a blaze of Light.
The Shadow was drawn back, pushed as though by surging tidal waves. Soft light swelled out, and Reiziger drew back, but merely glowered, gathering his Shadow and his Fire for another push.
“Princess Celestia!” cried Twilight, pumping wings and flying up-
“No, Twilight!” said Celestia as all her fellow mighty folk went bounding at the Shadow. “No, we'll hold him off! The five of you have to find Rainbow Dash! Unite the Elements!” Then she wheeled about and flew into the endless black.
“You heard the princess!” said Applejack. “We gotta find Rainbow.” All around them deer and griffins, ponies and pronghorns were charging into battle.
“But where?” asked Spike. “Where can we- whoa!” a throwing axe came flying at him, nearly taking off his head.
“Spike!” cried Twilight, gathering him close. “Oh, maybe it wasn't a good idea to bring you...”
“I shall look after him, Miss Twilight!” said Shield Maiden, striding up beside her.
Twilight looked in fear at Spike, and then in fear at Shield Maiden. She swallowed hard. “All right,” she said at last. “Keep him safe!”
“I shall. Come, Spike! Let us do our good work in this hour of need!”
Spike nodded and ran to Shield Maiden. He climbed upon her back; she reared back with a whinny and went galloping away. Twilight watched her go.
“Okie dokie!” said Pinkie brightly. “Now let's go find Dashie!”
“Pinkie, your Gift of Laughter!” Fluttershy said. “Use it to find Rainbow Dash's thoughts!”
Good idea! Pinkie's cutie marks went flickering as she considered all she knew. Suddenly she pointed to the right and off. That way!
“Come on, girls!” cried Twilight, leading them in that direction.
Shield Maiden went weaving round a blast of fire from a balrog. An ungoliant came lunging a her. “Hold on, Spike!” she bellowed, swinging up her axe. It sliced the mandibles off the ungoliant, which howled in pain. Shield maiden swung round her shield- the same type of shield as on her cutie mark- and battered up the harden surface into the great spider. She kicked a leg out hard and broke the spider's two left frontal legs. Chittering, it toppled to the ground, Shield Maiden just getting out from under it in time. She swung her axe into its head and killed it on the spot.
Spike gaped. “Wow!”
“Oh, it's nothing.”
“I wish I could help,” he said, slumping down.
“Well, what of your fire? Can't you breathe more than the magic stuff?”
“I guess?” Spike shrugged. A roar rattled his chest. He looked up as a dragon swung huge overhead. It belched its fire, scorching a whole acre of the enemy. It whipped its wings around and blew a dozen wyverns from the air, then swung its tail and swept a hundred changelings from the sky. Spike sighed more deeply. “I'm never gonna be like that.”
“You will, Spike! I believe in you! You must just-”
A black blur hurtled at her. Spike was knocked off Shield Maiden as she was flung into a ditch. A goblin loomed above her. She had dropped her axe, and now she kicked her hooves out at the ugly, gangly beast. Those hooves could shatter rock but now the goblin's thinness and dexterity allowed it to avoid her blows. It grinned down as it dodged, then lashed its massive hands out and curled its awful fingers round her throat. She gagged and gasped, kicking growing feeble as her vision started swimming...
The goblin howled in pain as bright green fire hit it from behind. It jerked away, screaming, gibbering as it turned round. Spike belched out another blast of fire, engulfing the dark creature in more terrible swift fire. It staggered back, it tripped, it fell.
“Don't hurt my friend!” he screamed. He took a massive breath, entire body puffing up. Then he breathed. A brilliant green inferno billowed from his mouth, catching up the goblin and igniting it completely. It gave a horrible loud scream as fire ate it inside-out; then it crumbled, collapsing in a heap that shrunk and withered as it burned. Spike was breathing hard, panting, gasping to draw breath. He looked upon the burning lump. He shuddered-
A hoof touched him. He whirled about, terrified. Immediately he relaxed, for Shield Maiden was gazing down upon him. She smiled. “Well done, Spike Goblinsbane,” she said. She showed her flank to him. “Now, come! We must do yet more work to save our friends!” Spike nodded. He climbed onto her back, and they together galloped off into the greater fray.
Amid that chaos, Shining Armor glistened like a star. No one could approach him he was so alive with magic and with death. His horn boomed as he fired terrifying spells that wiped out dozens in their path. A wyvern swooped at him. He wheeled to dodge its flames, then spun to take a changeling's head off with his back leg. He picked a fallen axe up and he flung it at a kobold, burying the bit deep in its skull. He spun and kicked and punched and chopped and thrust and gored and cast his blazing spells, a battalion whole unto himself.
At last, the space around him cleared completely. He breathed out, taking precious moments to recuperate. “Whew,” he mutttered.
“Equestrian pony!” He swung around. That great red Dalepony was coming to him, blood upon his axe and spear. “Equestrian pony!” he said again.
“My name is Shining Armor, okay Dalepony?”
“And my name is Ashtail.”
“Hold on, I think I've heard of you. You're Applejack's...”
“I am Applejack's boyfriend, yes.”
“Oh! Good to meet you.” Shining Armor stretched a hoof out. “I'm Twilight Sparkle's brother.”
“Good to meet you,” said Ashtail. He stretched his own hoof out. The two bumped together.
“So what do you want, Ashtail?”
Ashtail pointed off into the midst of battle. “That balrog with the fiery crown seems to be coordinating the attacks,” he said.
Shining Armor glanced where he had pointed. Sure enough, the balrog with the fire diadem was causing great destruction on its own, but also gestured and went shouting to the darkened throngs. At the swinging of his claws the wyverns and fell beasts withdrew from battle with the mule deer and descended on the Daleponies; with the bellow of his voice the kobolds feinted, and drew back. He sang as he commanded, that awful song that balrogs sing. Shining Armor grimaced. “You're right,” he said. “He's definitely the commander here.” He arched a brow at Ashtail. “Wanna take him out?”
“Thought you'd never ask,” said Ashtail. “But he's awfully powerful.” Even as they spoke, a burly mule deer blew through half a dozen kobolds and approached the balrog. Gothmog laughed, so dark and low that it made their chests rumble, then he stretched an arm out and the great deer was incinerated. “Do you have a plan?”
“An inkling,” Shining Armor said. “Let's go!” The mighty ponies nodded, and turned as one to face the monster made of Black and Flame. As they watched, another host of white-tails came upon him, firing spells. Gothmog merely laughed and belched his fire at them, burning him alive. Desperate, confused, the deer went speeding round him, firing their battle magic strongly as they could. He shrugged off their attacks and swung his flail around, burning up the air and vaporizing all the deer around.
By this time, though, the two ponies had managed to fight their way into his midst. Shining Armor blasted out a purple spell that shook the air and earth. It smashed on Gothmog- and of course it did him little harm, resistant against magic as he was. However, he turned round then, and saw the ponies right around him. Swerving from the burning bodies of the white-tails, he faced them flames ablaze. His fiery whip was in his hand; he cracked it, opening the earth. He lashed it out-
Ashtail and Shining Armor swerved aside. Shining Armor raised a shield to block the flaming flails. Ashtail was more nimble. He dodged about, pivoting upon one front hoof til he swung beside the monster. Spear in hand he thrust hard up at Gothmog's chest, piercing his burning and blackened skin. The monster howled in pain. However, this success was short-lived, for the speartip melted in the blazing heat of Gothmog's inner fire. Gothmog loomed on Ashtail, swung his whip down, Ashtail planted all four hooves into the earth and stood firm- and Gothmog's whip bounced off him harmlessly. Angrily Gothmog descended on Ashtail in fire and wrath.
He cracked his flail into the Dale Prince, but Ashtail stood firm, as he had been taught, as all the Daleponies were taught. The great whip cracked and shattered on his hardened back. Roaring, Gothmog belched out fire from his mouth. It washed all over Ashtail, but he was not harmed. He took a moment, in the lull of flame, to glance over his shoulder. “That the best you've got?”
“Thou art too smug, pony prince. I am thy death!”
“We'll see. I don't think you can do it.”
Gothmog howled in rage and smashed his char-black fists down on the stood-firm earth pony. They bounced off of the surface, and Gothmog erupted in a blaze of rage. His flames changed color, going from bright red to a light, lovely orange. The fire washed yet more across Ashtail, but still he did not yield or break.
“Is that the best you've got? Come now, I've been hotter after a hard day of komaga hunting!”
“I shalt melt thy bones, arrogant worm!” And Gothmog turned, not merely yellow now, but white, blazing, overwhelming. His fire was a white tide as it washed all over Ashtail. It started turning all the rock around them all to lava, and this made Ashtail nervous, because without a firm earth underneath his hooves he was not sure his standing firm would hold. Still, he dove into his love again. He thought about his sister, his mother, his father. He thought on Shield Maiden and Birdspeak and Sharp Sound. He thought on all the company he led, the Dale Guard of the Eastern Quarter, his friends, his brothers, his sisters, his comrades. He thought on them, his eyes turned gray, and he stood firm against the everlasting fire. Gothmog bore down on him, white hot fire flashing from his body and his eyes-
Gothmog, blazing white and burning black, swung round.
“Freeze!” And Shining Armor flung a spell of ice and snow at him. Gothmog too late realized his error. He tried to cool himself, tried to go back to his normal temperature but the ice and snow were on him far too quickly. Some of it evaporated all at once, but it kept coming, kept on driving out of Shining Armor's horn, and Gothmog gave an awful howl. There was a rush of steam, a sound of faint implosion, and a final blast of light. Then all was still.
Ashtail turned to look. The ground around him was awash in snow. There, in the center, was a blackened, crumpled lump. Ashtail trotted to it. He could make out some curled-up wings and faintly curving horns. With a snarl, he pivoted and bucked out with his back legs. His rear hooves hit the lump- and made it shatter into shards of brittle broken blackened slag. “Nicely done,” he said to Shining Armor as he trotted up.
“You had the hard job. I wasn't sure you'd be able to withstand him long enough to get him to the right temperature.”
“Still, the plan was yours.” He smiled. “We make a good team.”
“I think so.” There was a flash of fire, and they turned. Another balrog fell upon a host of deer and griffins. Shining Armor arched an eyebrow. “Back to work?”
“No rest for the wicked. Hyah!” And with that both of them went galloping away.
The Eyre Mountains shook and swayed from all the power being vented. Celestia spun and flung sunlight at Reiziger who merely laughed and ate it. Decima and Morta swelled with strength and hurled upon him all their might, yet still Reiziger lost their magic in his shadowed folds. Reiziger pulled mountain peaks out of the ground and juggled them and flung them at Glofindel and Luna who moved to vaporize them. Nordeshang raised up a shield to block the awful power, then fell back.
Is that YOU, Schwarzkreig? You old butcher! Finally, a worthy foe.
“I shall not raise a hoof against you, Herd Lord,” rumbled Nordeshang, dancing on the mountain peaks. “However, I shall see to it you never harm another soul.” He twisted, teleported, raised his healing touch.
Reiziger lashed out and caught him, enfolding him in blackness. If you will not fight, you DIE! Glorfindel cried out and charged but Reiziger ensnared him too. His shadows and his shifting fluid space caught up Falalauria and Javier. Decima and Morta were ensnared by all his mouths and teeth.
Celestia flew round and fired blazing power at him but he merely swallowed it. Instead a thousand million crimson eyes went glaring at her and she felt a terror in her heart. She faltered-
Reiziger reached up and snared her. She fell into a black eternity where up was down and left was right, where love was hate and all was nothing.
Do you see? His voice went blazing through their minds. Do you UNDERSTAND? Reality trembled. Do you COMPREHEND? The air became like knives and all the folk ensnared grew terrified. Outside Clive was blasting lightning at the folds and angles out of space, but he was handily ignored. I have toyed and bandied about with you all. I have been too easy on the lot of you! You must be made aware that when I bend my will upon you there is NOTHING you can do. Shadow and Power fell upon them then. They howled in pain. Everywhere was black except where horrible red eyes were staring, scraping deep into their souls. Awful laughter rose. Only now, at the end, when you thought to have your victory, do you understand how futile your resistance was. Only now do you realize that there is no defeating me- there is no defeating Death! Only now- There was a white flash, and all those trapped within the infinite abyss were vanished far away. WHAT? Reiziger reformed into his caribou shape and he whirled about.
He swung. He gaped. Celestia and Luna, Falalauria and Javier and Decima and Nordeshang and Morta and Glorfindel and Clive were settled on the mountain peaks. Sitting on a chair above them, grinning merrily, was- “Chaos Lord!”
“Hello!” said Discord brightly.
“You... you said...”
“I lied! Isn't that hilarious?”
RAAGH! Reiziger went dashing off into the mountains.
Discord turned and smiled at Celestia. “I'll keep him busy a bit. You all ought to get back to that battle.”
“A fine idea,” said Javier.
“The balrogs are still burning all they find,” said Falalauria, eyes filled with stars. “Perhaps it is time they faced us.” In a flicker, they all teleported down onto the battlefield, where all the balrogs raged and burned. There were dozens, and all by themselves they'd started driving back the Army of the Free Folk.
“Careful now,” said Glorfindel. “Remember they are strongly resistant to magic.”
“Oh, I am well aware,” said Luna. “Dost thou not think I know all that concerns creatures of shadow? But they are vulnerable to the physical!” In a flash of moonlight a devilish curved sword was attached to Luna's hoof. She gave a terrifying yell and flew upon the nearest balrog. She thrust her sword straight through its heart and killed it in a single blow. She leapt onto the next one and began to saw its head off of its neck.
“Huh,” said Javier.
“She hasn't changed a bit,” said Decima, she and Morta hurrying to join Luna in battle.
“Hold on!” cried Bon Bon, leaping up to grab Primrose as she went flying. Another tornado came howling down out of the sky. The black abyss of night was full of awful life as twister joined on twister in its spinning of the wind. The deer had conjured up many a shield to block the blustering but still the winds went howling on, unceasing, neverending. “I've... I've got you!” Bon Bon pulled Primose down underneath the barrier, out of the maelstrom.
“We have to take that thing down!” cried Stirrup, gesturing into the air. Silhouetted high against the sky the thestral fluttered, rainbow mane and tail whipping unceasing in the breeze.
“Fire, lads and gents!” cried Niles Nigellus, and the air became alive with lightning. The sky blazed white, the air became a sizzle.
The thestral blasted through the blaze, though all the lightning forced it to the ground. It whipped its wings and summoned up a storm, a hurricane, rain and wind and terror flowing through the air. “Where are the princesses? Where are the Elders?” cried Philip.
“They're not here! We shall have to hold!” cried Inez, then shouted in Laewtil to her fellow deer. They fired off a burst of battle magic, but the thestral whipped the winds about it as a shield, scattering the spells. It started to advance on them, bringing all the storm with it. Winds and rain were hammering upon the magical protections. They started cracking. “Hold!” cried Inez.
“I'm trying!” said Plinio, staggering from strain. The barriers were flickering and fading. The thestral, sensing weakness, pounced. Lightning flashed and lit it in a terrifying outline as it hurtled through the air.
Twin spells- one blue, one purple- crackled through the air. They struck the thestral in its chest and sent it reeling back. The deer and ponies, griffins and pronghorns turned round. Twilight, Pinkie, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rarity came streaking out of nowhere. Their cutie marks were glittering, white stars in the darkened air. “Manners, Dash,” said Rarity. The thestral snarled and blasted out a thunderbolt; Rarity raised up a shielding spell.
Pinkie flew up and around the thestral. “Come on, Dashie!” she said. “You don't wanna be a meanie,” do you? Her thought went echoing through every creature's mind. The thestral got the most of it and dropped back down as it was trying to take flight; it writhed upon the ground, knocking hooves upon its head.
Applejack had somehow found a lasso. She twirled it overhead and launched it with a might head-thrust, sturdy rope erupting and then cinching round the thestral's legs. The thestral writhed and snorted, but Applejack stood firm, and so could not be moved.
“Fall back!” cried Twilight to the army. “Fall back! We can handle this!” The creatures needed no more prompting, choosing to withdraw as fast as they could manage. With a writhing and a crash the thestral broke out of its bindings. It flapped into the air, rearing back, wings whipping the winds to maelstrom strength again. Twilight winced a bit, and whispered, “Sorry, Dash.” Then she drew upon the Gift of Magic, cutie marks ablaze, and cast a spell.
It traveled like a wave of purple crystal through the air. The thestral saw it, and began to fly away. However, as it turned the spell went following, and then the spell came too fast for the thestral to avoid. It smashed into the thestral, where it quickly covered it in glinting purple crystal. Frozen in the air, the thestral fell. It hit the dead gray earth with a great crash, but in its crystal prison it seemed not to have been harmed. It writhed as best it could; it seemed to be in pain.
“W-What is that?” asked Fluttershy.
“It's... it's a torture spell,” said Twilight. They gasped. “It's the only thing I thought was strong enough to hold her!”
Even as she spoke there was a mighty crack. “It ain't gonna hold her for long!” cried Applejack.
“Girls, get ready!” cried Twilight. The five ponies spaced themselves out evenly around the thestral. Its crystal prison cracked some more. “All right, that looks good. Now: focus!”
Their eyes slid closed. Twilight Sparkle gave herself to Magic. Rarity went plunging into Generosity. Applejack immersed herself in Honesty. Fluttershy became suffused with Kindness. Pinkie Pie, a massive smile on her face, lost herself in Laughter, giggling as she did. Deeper, further, higher, grander they kept going, ever upward. It seemed as though, just when each of them thought they'd come as close to their full Element as they could manage, another layer came forth to reveal itself. It was like they were inside a city, divided up in rings with walls. They would leave one ring, go through one door in one wall, only to meet with another. Rings within rings and walls within walls, a city without ceasing- such were the Elements of Harmony. However much they dove into their Elements of Harmony, there was still more to go, still more to do.
A rainbow shimmered overhead. Their cutie marks were gleaming white like suns. The thestral now had broken chunks out of its prison. As its wings at last came free great channels of light erupted from the cutie marks of the five ponies that connected them and formed a brilliant pentagon. A burst of wind came roaring through that shattered what remained of Twilight's spell. The thestral reared back and it whinnied in a primal hate and terror- just as gleaming rainbow burst from all five ponies' chests. Their cutie marks appeared above their heads. The thestral crumpled to the ground. White light rose within it, and upon it. It struggled for a moment, but gradually grew still. The light grew brighter, the sun grew stronger, there was a mighty shudder of the cosmos and at last came an eruption of rainbow brilliance.
The light lingered around them for a moment. Opening their eyes, the five ponies glanced eagerly into the middle of the space. Fluttershy, gasping, noticed that the grass had grown back underneath their hooves. Only for a moment, though. Then she turned her full attention back into the glowing center. It gleamed with soft white light, and smelled of clean, fresh water. The light stayed for a few soft, aching moments. Then it started dying down, and all the ponies held their breath-
Upon a bed of grass she lay: a sky blue pegasus, her mane and tail striped with the colors of the rainbow. She fidgeted. She flexed her wings. She raised her head and opened up her rose-hued eyes. “Hmm... wah?”
“Dashie!” cried Pinkie, hurtling into the still-bright space.
“Pinkie!” cried Rainbow Dash, rising up in time to meet her and immerse her in a hug. “Pinkie! Guys! Girls! It's you, it's you!” Tears ran from her eyes. “It's you, it's you, it's you!”
“Dash!” cried Rarity.
“Oh, hooray!” cried Fluttershy.
“Dash!” cried Twilight, joining all the others in the massive hug. “Dash, are you all right? How do you feel?”
“I feel great!” said Dash. A horrible expression flashed across her face, and suddenly she burst out crying. “I couldn't stop! I couldn't! I... I knew what I was doing all the time! I was awake...” she sobbed, “he wanted me to see! He wanted me to know what I was doing! I knew what I was doing but I couldn't stop it! I'm so sorry! I'm so, so sorry! I'm so sorry!” She leaned into Fluttershy and wept.
“We don't blame you, Dash,” she said, patting her upon her back.
“You did it all against your will,” said Rarity. “There is no shame in that.”
“I... I destroyed so much... and I killed! I killed so many! And I saw it all!” She bawled yet harder, body wracked with sobs.
Rarity stepped forward. She patted gently on her back. “Dash, I know what you feel. I really truly do know what you feel. I too was his servant, remember? At least you had no control of things. None of this was your fault, Dash. You are not to blame.”
“But I still... it was my hooves. It was the wind from my wings, the lightning from my heart!”
Applejack and Twilight shared a glance. “Look, Rainbow,” said Applejack, coming close, “look, I feel so bad for what happened. I feel awful. But-” she glanced again at Twilight- “but we need you. We need you to help us! We gotta stop Reiziger, once and for all!”
“I...” Dash sniffed, “I don't know that I can. I'm not sure I can do anything again!”
“I... I'm so sorry,” whispered Fluttershy, cradling her, pulsing healing waves into her spirit.
“Dash, look, I know how you feel. Or... okay, I don't, but I'm sorry! I feel so bad for you, I do,” said Twilight. “But we need you. We need you, Dash! Please, we need you!”
“I... I can't. I don't think I have any heart... for anything!”
“Just use your Gift!” The other five turned round to Pinkie. She smiled. “Just use your Gift of Loyalty! It inspires courage, right?”
“So use it on you, Dash!”
Dash sniffled, but stopped her crying. She looked around at her five friends. They smiled at her, trying hard to be as understanding as they could. She looked last of all on Pinkie, who grinned enormously and nodded. “O... Okay. I'll try.” She rose on shaking limbs. “I... I need to help. I-I'm the B-Bearer of Loyalty. My friends need me.” Her cutie marks began to twinkle gently. “Equestria needs me, and the world needs me. The whole universe needs me! I can't give up now.” She stood a little taller. Her eyes stopped leaking tears. “Reiziger... he took everything from me. He took my friends, he took my home, he took my country, he even took my body and my mind. I had nothing. I was just a g-ghost!” She breathed hard. She fluffed her wings. Her cutie marks were glinting brighter. “But I never gave up hope. I believed, somehow, deep down in my prison, that I could escape. He didn't take hope from me.” Her eyes grew hard. “He didn't take hope!” They welled again with tears as both her rainbow-lightning cutie marks began to shine like stars. “And that's what Loyalty really is, when you get down to it. Why is anypony loyal to anything, or anyone? It's because they're worth being loyal to, and the thing that makes them worth it is the hope they give!” She was breathing hard. She was panting. “We're loyal to a pony because they give us hope, just by existing! We're loyal to a cause because it gives us hope for a better future! We're loyal to a country because we have hope in what it stands for! We hope for better, and because we hope we're willing to stand by something or somepony, even to the end!” Her cutie marks were glowing, blazing, gleaming, brilliant as the sun- “And in the end, what Loyalty is, what it really is, and what I am, what I have to be, is hope in thought and act!” A rainbow blasted out from her, the brilliance of it scattering the five ponies around her.
“Did she?” asked Fluttershy, standing up.
“I don't know...” said Rarity.
Twilight said, “Well it sure felt like-”
“Of course I did!” the cry arose. The confidence was every bit as sweet to hear as the soft white light was to see, as the scent of clean water was to smell. “Was there any doubt? I'm too awesome to fail!” A blue blur shot out of the light and trailed that same light it its wake as it flew up into the air. It flipped around and dove, then bent and circled once, twice, three fast times around the others. It tucked its wings and dropped, landing with a gallop that came back upon the others.
It was Rainbow Dash- and, of course, she had changed. She had grown taller, longer, far more beautiful and graceful in her body and her head. Her mane and tail, though still a little short, were now longer, and upon them was the flash of sunlight and the sizzle of the thunderstorm. Her wings had grown much larger, and had changed their shape: they were now sharp and pointed, like a falcon's wings. “Woohoo!” cheered Pinkie, jumping high with help from her own wings. “Bigger wings for everypony!”
“When did you get wings, Pinkie?” asked Dash.
“At the Siege of the Crystal Empire. Long story,” then she rubbed her chin, “or, not really so long, just a little hard to explain.”
“Heh, look at you,” said Dash, shaking her head.
“Look at us!” cried Fluttershy. “Look at all of us!”
They paused, and looked. Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Twilight Sparkle gazed upon each other. They saw much that was different from the last time all of them had been together. Much had changed. Some of this was visible and some of this was not. However, with a joy that went beyond words they could see that so much hadn't changed. The same sparkles of happiness and wonder still appeared in all their eyes. The same subtle gestures that they and they alone could spot still happened as they watched. The same swelling sense of oneness, of belonging, still arose within their midst. They were still friends.
With a shout of total joy the six of them rushed to each other and took part in a group hug. They nuzzled and they rubbed and they caressed each other, glorying to touch and feel their friends again. They came so close together that it was a bit uncomfortable, but they dared not break the contact, not just yet. Then, as one, they began to sing.
Reiziger tried to win,
He gave his all, he did the best he can!
In the end, friendship and love
Are just things that he'll never understand!
A true, true friend helps a friend in need!
A friend will be there to help them see!
A true true friend helps a friend in need
To see the light that shines from a true, true friend!
“I love y'all,” said Applejack.
“I love you too,” said Twilight.
“I love you all so dearly,” said Rarity.
“You girls are the best! I love you!” cried Pinkie.
“I love you all so much!” cried Dash.
“I love you, I love every one of you,” said Fluttershy.
They snuggled close again- but then all air and space went rocking. They broke their hug at last and turned as one to face the Eyre Mountains. Blackened grasps of shadow swirled into the air. Flickers of antlers and horns and eyes and teeth went flailing up into the sky. They could just make out a small and snakey figure flying out of sight into the clouds.
GET BACK HERE, YOU WORTHLESS DRACONEQUUS! GET BACK HERE SO I CAN FINALLY EAT YOU UNTIL THERE IS NOTHING LEFT!
The six ponies- the six friends- shared a glance. Their eyes grew hard. “Come on, girls!” said Twilight. “We've got a dark lord to beat.”