The town was in flames. Gouts of fire poured out from windows and doors in several houses, several others being entirely encased in incandescent inferno. Tia saw shadows silhouetted against the flames, flashing into illumination as they ran back and forth trying to organize some kind of bucket brigade to control the out of control conflagration.
Another flash of light -- bright enough that it made spots appear before her eyes -- caught the filly's attention and her eyes drifted up to the sky. There, they widened as she took in the sight before her.
There was a massive cloud of... something... hanging over the town, like a storm cloud but seeming to exude hostility and destruction. It was dark against the night sky, but Tia could still tell that it was a dark green in color, the roiling, boiling interior occasionally lit up by one of the flashes of light which would then discharge as a sickly green lightening bolt to the ground, occasionally starting a fire where it hit. Tia watched, mouth agape, as several dozen of the adult alicorns fought with the amorphous mass, blasting it with bolts of pure magic from their horns, sweeping down and slicing through it with their wings, and in some cases just batting it with their hooves. Sickly green tendrils oozed from the cloud and slashed at the alicorns fighting it, occasionally managing to hit one and sending the poor soul spiraling to the ground.
Most stood up after a few moments, shook themselves off, then returned skyward to again engage the cloud. A few did not.
"What is it, Tia?" she heard Luna ask behind her, trepidation in her voice, "What do you see?"
"There's a... a battle of some kind," Tia replied, "Everyone is fighting a cloud or something."
"A cloud?" Luna asked, confusion in her voice, "Why would--"
Her voice was cut off by the sudden bang of the door to their room as it burst open. Their mother was there, frazzled mane, with a few bruises and scratches on her body and coat peppered with soot. Her breath heaved as she gasped for breath, the worry in her features settling somewhat as she spied her children.
"Oh, thank the Maker," she murmured to herself before addressing the pair, her voice tight yet projecting a serious calm as she gathered them to her, "Luna, Tia. We-- I-- need you two to do something. It's very important and big responsibility. Do you think you can handle it?"
The two sisters looked askance at each other then turned to their mother and nodded resolutely.
"Good, good," their mother's voice was harried as her eyes flickered to the still-open window, "Candlelight is gathering all the fillies and foals in town downstairs. We need you two to take them out of town. Go to the clearing on the edge by the forest. You both know the place?" Both fillies nodded. "Good. Take everyone there and wait for us."
Luna's brow furrowed, "B-but... why can't you--?"
"We need all of the adults to help the town," their mother interrupted with a shake of her head, "Please, Luna, no more questions. Just do this, okay? It's really important. I need you both to be brave and strong."
Luna frowned faintly but nodded. Tia shifted her weight on her hooves, but otherwise remained quiet.
Their mother smiled a tired but proud smile, gathering both sisters up into her hooves for a tight hug. "No matter what happens, I want you both to know... I'm very, very proud of you. If you believe nothing else, please believe that."
Tia and Luna exchanged worried glances, but returned the fierce hug. It lasted a few moments more before their mother released them. "Okay, let's go." Then she turned and led the way out of the door.
A babble of subdued, fearful voices greeted the twins as they headed downstairs into the main room of their house. As their mother had said, every filly and foal had been gathered here, some already looking quite traumatized, others openly crying. Candlelight flitted between the gaggle of young equines doing her best to calm and reassure them. The golden maned alicorn looked up as the trio stepped into the room proper, letting out a thankful sigh and smiling at them.
"Okay, everyone," Candlelight said, tapping her hooves together to collect the attention of the scared fillies and foals, "You're going on a short little trip. Luna and Tia are in charge."
"A trip? Where?" asked one young filly, frowning suspiciously.
"Just outside town," Candlelight tried to put a little jauntiness in her voice, "Just until the adults can deal with things. It won't take long" Several of the older fillies exchanged worried looks, but luckily no one spoke up. Candlelight clapped her hooves again, "Okay! Everyone get into a line, just like in school. Scarlet Dart, Periwinkle! Carry those foals that are too small. C'mon, c'mon, you all know how to do this." Gradually, the myriad of youthful ponies began to form into a messy line, Tia and Luna stepping into the vanguard.
Luna puffed herself up, standing as tall as she could to present a facade of confidence that she didn't feel. "Okay, everyone," she said to the group, "Let's go. It's not too far. Don't let anyone fall behind. C'mon, one two, one two..." Setting the rhythm of the march, Luna began leading the scraggly line of youthful ponies out the back door, towards the edge of the trees that could be seen in the distance.
Candlelight watched them go then turned to the other alicorn in the room, her face setting hard. "They'll be all right," she said, brushing a comforting wing over the other mare, "We need to get back to the fight. Every single hoof is needed." She turned and moved out the front door, back into the battle. After a few moments more of watching the line of fillies head off towards the wood, Tia and Luna's mother did the same.
The glow from the burning town kept a bizarrely cheerful orange cascading over the area, even as far away from the carnage as the clearing. It had been a bit of a walk, Luna and Tia having to keep the messy line of scared and flighty young equines together through the trek. But they had done it, and once at the clearing at the edge of the woods, Luna let out a weary sigh, "Okay, everypony. We're here."
"Now what?" It was Silverhoof, a light grey colt with an electric blue mane, nervously looking around before turning his attention back to the battle in progress over the town. Although the individuals were indistinct, the beams of magic coming from them and the baleful presence of the dark cloud -- still occasionally flashing with inner light -- could still be easily seen.
"We wait," Tia stated flatly, plunking her flank down on the forest detritus as she peered up at the same point, "Until everypony's parents come and get us."
The young equine crowd exchanged uneasy expressions before, one by one, they all sat down on the ground as well and stared up at the battle in silence. The silence stretched on for several minutes before Luna spoke quietly to her sister, "Kinda beautiful, isn't it?"
Tia threw an incredulous look to Luna in response.
"N-not that I like it!" Luna quickly clarified, holding up her hooves in a gesture of capitulation, "I mean... I m-mean the lights. They're... beautiful. From here it doesn't look like... like..." Luna's voice faded off and tears began to shimmer in her eyes, dancing in the light from the burning town. Tia cast a comforting wing over her sister -- Luna had kept it together during the march over to the clearing, but now that the initial goal had been completed, it was obvious her mind began to take in the full implications of what was happening.
Several more minutes passed as the group continued to watch the battle progress. As the seconds ticked on, the streaks of magic across the sky grew fewer and less intense, while the flashes in the cloud itself began to increase. While no one spoke, everypony knew what it meant: the adults were slowly but surely losing the battle.
Suddenly, Silverhoof stood up, anguish and panic on his features as he turned to the group. "We have to do something!" He cried, pointing to the cloud, "If we don't, our parents will... will..." An uneasy silence again passed over the group.
"What can we possibly do?" Tia spoke first, standing up and moving over to Silverhoof, "If fully grown adults are having trouble, what can a bunch of fillies and colts do? We'd only get in the way. No, we were told to stay here and we'll stay here."
Silverhoof glared at Tia. "We have to do something," he declared resolutely, "I'm not g-going to stand here and let some stupid cloud..." His voice broke for a moment before he collected himself again, "I'm going to help them! Stay here if you want, but I'm going! Who's with me?" He looked over at the collection of young equines. A few shuffled in place and looked away. After a long pause, Violet Star -- appropriately named for her purple coat and black mane -- stood up and stood beside Silverhoof. Soon after, a few of the other ponies did the same. Tia could see from the look on their faces that a few more would join. This was bad. In desperation, Tia looked over to Luna and noted with a twinge of quiet horror that her sister was definitely in the camp considering of joining.
"T... this is a foal's errand!" Tia said to the crowd, trying to regain control, "Luna and I were put in charge. And I say we stay here."
"And what if they don't come back?!" Silverhoof spat with surprising venom, "What if our folks are all hurt? Or... or... k... killed?" The colt seemed surprised that he himself admitted to the fear that nearly all the others had as well; he continued with renewed confidence, "I'd rather go and help and maybe not make a difference than just stand here while my folks fight that thing!" Tia winced as she heard a murmur of agreement from the other ponies. She was in danger of completely losing control.
"And if we go there and we just get in the way?" she countered, "Now our parents have to both fight that thing and worry about us! Why do you think they sent us out here in the first place? So they could deal with the cloud thing without having to protect us as well. We. Can't. Go!" Tia looked around at the crowd and was secretly relieved that her logic seemed to be getting to some of the others... but not everypony.
"I'm still going," Silverhoof stated flatly, "And to Tartarus with anypony who tries to stop me! Anypony else can come along if you want, but don't try to stop me, Tia."
Tia mentally calculated if she could take Silverhoof in a fight. She was reasonably certain she could. With luck, that might get the others to back down. If she lost, however... it would mean whatever amount of her authority remained would be gone and no amount of logic would be enough to keep the whole group from marching back. Tia bent down on her front hooves, ready to fight.
"W-wait!" a voice cried in the back, "I... I think there may be an alternative to going there." All the young equines turned their attention to the speaker. Stardancer. The filly looked somewhat uncomfortable with the attention and swayed in place for a moment, clearing her throat before she spoke up again. "I... I think I can cast a spell that would allow us all to put our magic together for one, big blast. We can move a bit closer, fire it off, then come back here to wait." The filly hesitated, gnawing on her lip for a moment before speaking again, "It's... a complicated spell. I found it in a old book. I've never cast it before and for all I know it won't work or if it does work, it won't make any difference. But if we can cast it, that would mean we can help out our parents and still, technically, be out of harm's way." Stardancer looked expectantly at Tia, "But you're the leader. The choice is yours."
Tia frowned in thought. She could still try to fight Silverhoof, but there was a risk of failure there. This new plan might fail, but if it did it would probably be easier to convince everypony -- even Silverhoof -- that interfering in the fight would create more problems than solve. On the other hoof, if it worked... Tia spared a glance behind her at the still ongoing battle. The magic blasts were much fewer now; in a few more minutes there might not be any point in trying either way. Tia looked over to Luna for guidance; her sister looked unsure for a moment then nodded, her face hardening with determination. Tia sighed and bowed her head. "All right, Stardancer. We'll do things your way."
Stardancer gave a crash-course in the spell on the walk back to the half-way mark between the burning town and the clearing. Technically, only one pony was needed to cast the spell; if it was successful, it would link with the magic of every pony nearby, regardless as to their contribution to the actual spell-casting. But the spell was complex, so having others help shoulder the burden would dramatically increase the chance of success. Unfortunately, the only other ponies who had the understanding and skill to help cast the spell were Tia and Luna.
"Are you certain we need everypony for this?" Tia asked, casting a worried look towards some of the foals being carried, "It's really complicated, Stardancer, and I wouldn't want something to go wrong and hurt one of the foals."
"We need every pony we can get," Stardancer stated with a nod, "The spell remains as complex with one pony as with two dozen, so we're not getting a break on the complexity by having less ponies. The power of the spell, however, is directly proportional to the amount of pony magic used. We only get one shot -- after use, none of us will have the magic reserves to try again for at least a day -- so we need everyone." She hesitated then lowered her voice so only Tia and Luna could hear, "And besides which, if things do go catastrophically wrong... well, it would be better if the foals were involved rather than slowly starving to death with no one to take care of them." Tia grimaced at the grim but logical conclusion and once again had second thoughts. Stardancer seemed to read her mind and offered up a cheery smile, "But don't worry! Even in the worst case, the only thing that's likely to happen is a spell fizzle."
The group of fillies and colts soon reached the mid point between the town and the clearing and Stardancer busied herself gathering all the ponies into a circle around a central point. Stardancer, Tia, and Luna stepped into the center.
"Okay, everyone," Stardancer stated to the assembled ponies, "We're going to start now. Now, the spell will automagically link up with everypony's magic, but it would still be helpful if those of you who have some control over your magic can cast something to prime the pump as it were. It doesn't matter what it is, but something simpler would be better. Just standard telekineses would be fine." She took a deep breath and glanced between Luna and Tia. "Ready?" Both sisters nodded. "Okay, here we go."
The triad of ponies in the middle closed their eyes and began to channel the arcane energies to their horns, which glowed with power. The three points of light at the points of their horns began to grow and throb, streaks of otherworldly lightening cascading across them. Soon, all three merged into a single, startling point of light, a myriad of colors swirling around inside like a rainbow. All three alicorn fillies opened their eyes, now glowing a bright white as chains of energy shot out and linked with the horns of all the other young equines in the circle like a wagon wheel. The energy seemed to have a life of its own, thrashing and squirming as if trying desperately to be freed even as the singular rainbow light-point above them grew in brightness and size. A low hum started, becoming louder and louder until it was a complete cacophony that shook the ground around them and jostled the leaf litter.
With a sudden, piercing shriek, the point of rainbow light burst outward, streaking towards the ominous cloud and leaving behind a wake of sparkling colors. The beam connected with the cloud and a high-pitched scream could be heard as the cloud seemed to solidify before bright cracks appeared over its surface, like mud drying in the sun. The sky exploded with color as the fissures of light in the strangely solid cloud ruptured, sending cascades of rainbow beams pouring out from them. The flashes within the cloud fired angrily and repeatedly as more and more of it was torn asunder, until only a small core remained. With one last high pitched scream composed of rage and pain, the cloud let out another flash -- and a green lightening bolt suddenly arced its way across the beam. It spread fast across the rainbow wake before smacking into the three fillies at the center. Tia, Luna, and Stardancer all screamed in pain, as more of the green lightening spread along the links of light connecting all the other ponies.
And then it was suddenly over.
The silence was deafening.
Tia slowly opened her eyes and discovered she was on the ground, several meters away from what had been the center of the circle. Through her blurry vision, she could see the shapes of other ponies slowly shaking themselves awake, all strewn across the field. She groaned and shakily got to her hooves, shaking her head to clear the ringing in it.
"What happened to my horn?!"
"What happened to my wings?!"
"What happened to my horn and my wings?!"
A babble of confused, shocked, and scared voices greeted Tia and she frowned as her vision became more distinct. Tia gasped, eyes widening in shock as she saw that the other ponies littered around her were missing various parts of their anatomy; some only had wings, some only had horns. Some had neither. With a sick pit in her stomach, Tia quickly felt a hoof up to her forehead and turned her head to look at her sides before letting out a sigh of relief: both horn and wings were still there. It was then that she noted her mane... no longer was it a bright pink. Instead, it had somehow been infused with a rainbow of color that seemed to morph and flow like a river. Tia stared at it in shock in the low light still coming from the burning town before suddenly snapping out of her reverie and looking around in mild panic at the other ponies.
"Luna? Luna, where are you?"
Tia found her sister sitting up and shaking her head to cast the cobwebs in it away. Tia was relieved to see that she, too, had kept all her parts. She, too, had a mane change; instead of the inky black, it was now a dark bluish, almost black, but with points of light speckled across it. Like her own mane, Luna's seemed to flow and shimmer of its own accord. "Did it work?"
"I... I think so," Tia said, looking around some more, "Where's Stardancer?"
A shriek of despair answered that question. Tia trotted over in the direction of the shriek and gasped, prancing backwards in horror and landing unceremoniously on her rump as she stared at her friend.
She had lost both her wings and horn.
Stardancer looked up from where she was discovering her condition, to peer with watering eyes at Tia, mute horror etched on her features. Tia heard Luna gasp beside her. It was then that Tia noticed that the whole world seemed darker somehow.
It took a bit of an effort, but Tia managed to tear her eyes away from the mutilated alicorn before her and to the sky. The battle was clearly over; no cloud and no streaks of magic. But there was something else as well and Tia found the pit of horror in her stomach coming again.
"Luna... where are the moon and stars?"