It was the same dream that had haunted her every single night. Very occasionally it was Tank. Sometimes it was Twilight. But it was almost always him.
She found herself back where the naked trees slumbered and autumn and life went to rest, at the burrow at the end of the sky. It was another chilly starless night, it always was. She moved almost by rote, digging her forehooves into the wall of ice protecting the little burrow. She would dig and dig and dig into the bitterly cold earth until her hoofsies were numb and sore, until her eyes stung with frozen tears, until her very chest hurt with every frosty breath. Legs trembling, heart heavy, body and soul worn out, she finally threw herself at the last of the snow. The ice wall crumbled and gave away under her weary frame. She grunted softly as she slowly looked up into the long hollow darkness beyond. As always, it stretched away into an eternity beyond her reach, sapping what little strength she had left.
She knew he was waiting for her somewhere in that pitch black murkiness. All she had to do was find him, call out to him, tell him how she felt, convince him to stay with her.
But what if he doesn't stay with her?
The question, the dread, the tears would always freeze her hooves to that spot. Her numb hooves would never take that first step. She would never find the voice she had lost somewhere in her chilly heart. She would never find him. He would remain lost to her forever.
Rainbow whimpered, willing herself to curl up into a tight little ball, to shut out the heartless burrow, the cruel darkness, the merciless march of time, everything.
That was when she felt it – a strange, silken warmth around her otherwise numb and freezing forehoof. It was a red ribbon, lovingly tied into a cheerful bow. She looked down at the alien object with a frown. Where had it come from? This had never been part of the dream. This was new. This was different.
The end of the ribbon curled across the snow before trailing off into the darkness of the burrow. She could sense something at the other end, something familiar, something warm and inviting, something she must get to no matter what.
She grit her teeth, throwing one trembling forehoof forwards to drag herself painfully across the stinging frost. One slow crawl, two, three. She painstakingly pulled herself into the darkness, drawn onwards by the faint strength within the bright little ribbon. The burrow’s murkiness weighed heavily on her for her trespass. The darkness threatened to smother her for her insolence. ‘This is a place for the resting!’ The endless abyss growled like the echo of tombstones.
“Give him back.” Rainbow growled back.
‘The living are unwelcome here!’ The darkness barked with a force that almost blew the poor little pony back across the frost.
“I’m not leaving him behind!” Rainbow shot back, tightening her grip on the ribbon and digging herself into the bitter earth. “I’m bringing him back!”
‘Why? Sooner or later, all things come to rest here! Your tortoise, everypony you love, everything! That is the way of things!’ The burrow roared, ‘Why bother?!’
“No…” Rainbow felt her tears well up once more. She felt her grasp on the ribbon weaken.
‘Futile. Your laughter, your fun, your pop rock shakes and breakfast muffins, all is futile before us,’ the grave said, coldly, ‘We are the one and only certainty. Realize this. Spare yourself unnecessary pain.’
“No…” The conviction in her words waned, sapped by the relentless darkness. She felt her strength leave her. Her face fell, defeated. “Please...somepony...help me,” She pleaded, putting all her strength into holding onto the ribbon, “I don’t want to lose him. Please….please….please…”
She felt something soft brush against her forehoof, tightening her grip on the ribbon. She gave a soft gasp as the warmth in the touch gave her life once more. She looked up in surprise.
“Hi, Rainbow.” A gentle smile greeted her, the last smile she had expected to see there. Forehooves decked with golden horseshoes, mane adorned with her royal tiara, wings flared defiantly against the abyss, her familiar face glowed radiant amidst the darkness.
“T-Twilight?!” Rainbow gasped. “H-how’d you get here?!”
“Luna.” Twilight explained, briskly, scowling at the burrow’s depths. “She told us you’re in trouble. Cadence and I have been working on a solution. We’ve been waiting for days for you to go to sleep properly.” She suddenly dug her forehooves into the dirt as she draped her wing over Rainbow protectively. “Hold on! It knows I’m here! Whatever you do, don’t let go of that ribbon!”
A low wail slowly built up into a high-pitched scream. The ear-splitting screech howled through the burrow like a whirlwind, flattening them into the ground. Inches, hooves, they slowly lost ground as the unearthly howl roared with all its might to push them out of the land of the unliving.
“No!” Twilight cried as a stream of purple flash cards blew away from her in the cruel wind. “T-that was all the plans I prepared with Cadence and Luna!”
“Seriously, Egghead?!” Rainbow cried incredulously as she hung on for dear life.
“Rainbow!” Twilight shouted over the howling darkness, “This is all in your head! This is your own fear trying to push us back!”
“F-fear?! I-I’m not afraid o-of anything! Ever!” Rainbow shouted back, defiantly. The screams only grew in force, blowing them both back. They clung onto the ribbon, but only barely, like a kite flapping about at the end of a strained tether.
“Rainbow, I….” Twilight gulped, closing her eyes tight. “I….I understand what you’re going through! I-I’m an alicorn now! I-I’m immortal! Everypony I know will leave me one day, even the ones I love! Trust me, I wrote four papers and a review on this! I know the feeling inside-out!” She opened her eyes, her irises burning with defiant determination, “But I’m not letting you make the same mistake!”
“I…” Rainbow whimpered, “I don’t want to lose him!”
“And you won’t!” Twilight shouted to make herself heard over the deafening roar, “You’re the Element of Loyalty! Your love will be strong, stronger than even Cadence’s! And Cadence said so, so it’s got to be true! It’ll be strong enough to conquer anything, even time, even the end!” Twilight put both forehooves around Rainbow’s, tightening Rainbow’s hold on the ribbon, “As long as you hold onto it and never let go.” She gave Rainbow a determined nod, “Now, come on! Let’s find my Marshal!”
Rainbow gulped, nodding uncertainly. As one the two pulled themselves up the ribbon, fighting tooth and hoof against the furious storm. One pull, two, three. The ribbon led them onwards, deeper into the dark.
Finally, at the centre of the storm, where the darkness was thickest and the howling loudest, they found it - the end of the ribbon. It was anchored to a crystal coffin floating in endless darkness, the very same that awaited Daring Do at the end of her story.
‘You will regret this!’ The screams wailed angrily. ‘When he’s gone you will live the rest of your days alone!’ The winds rose to a fevered pitch, turning into a galeforce hurricane. ‘This is all that awaits the living!’
“Don’t be scared, Rainbow!” Twilight cried over the storm. “No matter what, you will always be the one to wake him up! Because this is the only place he’ll ever come to rest!” Twilight traced the ribbon to Rainbow’s forehoof, down her withers to her chest. “Here, right here, forever!” Twilight placed her forehoof over Rainbow’s heart.
Rainbow bit her lip as she peered up at the Crystal Coffin. Doubts and fear clamoured to avert her gaze. But the ribbon had yet to let her go. If anything, the frail little thing held strong, even as the hurricane roared around it. He hadn’t given up on her.
And she’s totally not losing, not to him!
“Don’t leave the sleeping prince hangin’, huh?” Rainbow chuckled, wetly. She blinked the tears out of her eyes before giving Twilight a determined gaze. “Thanks, Twi. Thanks for screwing my head on straight.”
“No problem, Rainbow.” Twilight smiled her usual sweet smile. But the touch of sadness in her eyes did not go unnoticed by Rainbow.
“Twilight…” The storm around them seemed to fade away into the background as Rainbow’s eyes widened in realization. “The ones you said you love….” She gasped.
“Time’s running out, Rainbow!” Twilight cried, the storm’s howl returning to drown out their voices. “We’re doing this Crystal Empire style. I’m throwing you there!”
“But...what about you?!” Rainbow protested.
“I’m trusting you with my Marshal, Rainbow!” Twilight didn’t stop to answer, instead releasing her hold on Rainbow. With an almighty alicorn buck she kicked out, thrusting Rainbow straight for the Crystal Coffin. “Now GOOOOO!”
Rainbow sailed through the darkness, straight into the eye of the storm. “Twiliiiiiiiiiight!” She cried, watching her friend fall back into the endless darkness.
“You got this, Rainbow!” Twilight called back as she disappeared into the depths of the burrow, “I know it!”
“Grrh!” Rainbow growled, turning her eyes back towards the coffin. She threw her forehooves back. “So you want a kiss, huh, big guy?!” She suddenly broke into a mad if tearful grin, “Well, kiss this!” She reared back as she flew straight into the coffin, ribbon-bound forehoof sailing through the air.
The rocket boop that followed shattered the coffin, blasting the burrow down to its howling core. A rainbow halo erupted forth with an explosive boom, ripping apart the dead earth, engulfing the naked trees and purging the starless sky above it. The rainbow rose higher and higher, breaking free from the ends of the sky, flying on forever and ever to eternity.