Rarity stood at the edge of a precipice deep within the Everfree Forest. A ravine lay before her, and beyond it rose the decrepit remains of the Castle of the Two Sisters. The ruins appeared empty and unimposing, the lifeless remnants of a once glorious age. Each crumbling tower spoke tales of decay and loss; each empty window echoed the tragedy of battles long past. The morbid grandeur of the site was not lost on Rarity.
Neither was the magical dome that surrounded the castle with an impenetrable barrier.
To Rarity’s right, Princess Celestia spared a fraction of her power to maintain the shield while also directing commands to her royal guards. Troops fanned out behind her, making preparations for their imminent assault on the besieged ruins. High above, Princess Luna kept a keen eye on the proceedings and conducted surveillance of the castle.
“Excuse me, Princess.” Rarity spoke deferentially, but with a hint of worry in her voice. “I do not wish to impose, but I cannot help but wonder: are all of these elaborate efforts strictly necessary? Would it not be simpler for my friends and I to slip in quietly and find Princess Twilight?”
Celestia turned her hard gaze toward Rarity. Wrath and doubt warred behind her eyes as she answered, “Discord reported he could not locate Twilight. If she is being held here, it is by a power that is too great for him to handle. I will not risk you and your friends against such a foe when only half the Elements are present.”
Without another word, Celestia spread her wings and took flight, soaring upward to confer with her sister. Rarity was left alone, no longer able to voice her suspicion that their dangerous enemy consisted of a weather pony and a baker.
Applejack trotted up beside her. “Any luck convincin’ the Princess that this here is overkill?” She waved a hoof at the assembled troops, who were currently in the process of assembling catapults and battering rams. Pinkie Pie was helpfully showing a pair of guards how to fire her party cannon.
“No, she seems a bit too preoccupied to listen to me,” replied Rarity, “and is convinced that Twilight’s kidnapping is the work of a powerful magical foe.”
“Guess it’s up to us, then.” Applejack sighed. “We best get movin’.”
“Uh, Pinkie, where’d you go?” Rainbow Dash asked nervously.
“Here I am!” The previously unseen pink pony popped up behind the perplexed Rainbow Dash. “Sorry, there was an artillery emergency I needed to take care of.” Pinkie Pie grinned.
Ignoring Pinkie’s typical nonsense, Dash peered out one of the castle's windows, assessing possible escape routes. She doubted even she could outmaneuver two alicorns, and that was assuming her sonic rainboom could break through the magical barrier around the castle. Dash did not particularly want to find out whether or not it could.
“So, what do we do now?” she asked. “They’re going to storm the castle in a few minutes, and then they’ll find out we’re the ones who kidnapped Twilight!”
“Easy!” Pinkie cheerfully replied. “We hold them off. You need to lead the guards on a wild goose chase through the castle to keep them from finding Twilight. Though why they would be more interested in chasing undomesticated waterfowl than rescuing a princess is beyond me.”
“That’s your plan?” Dash was incredulous. “How does that help?”
“It’s simple, Dashie,” said Pinkie. “All we need to do is get the guards lost in the castle long enough for us to slip outside, hide in the ravine until Celestia removes the shield, sneak through the Everfree Forest to Ponyville, stop by Sugarcube Corner for some baking supplies, take a train northward, and escape to the Crystal Empire where we can live the rest of our lives as fugitives. I hear their beaches are lovely this time of year.”
“I…guess that might work,” Dash admitted. “But will you be doing while I’m out there confounding the guards with my awesome speed and agility?”
“Me?” Pinkie tilted her head, and her smile grew even broader. “I’m going to be honing my musical skills.”
“Alright, everypony, get ready.” Applejack crouched low to the ground, ready to gallop at a moment’s notice. Less than a hoof length in front of her shimmered the magical energy of Celestia’s shield. After a quick glance to check that her friends were still behind her, Applejack went back to intently staring at the unwavering barrier.
“Get ready for what?” Fluttershy piped up.
“For Celestia to drop her shield,” Applejack said. “She’ll need to lower it for a few seconds for the guards to get in and—“
In an instant, the curtain of magical power disappeared.
Applejack raced forward. She ran toward a narrow bridge that led to one of the castle’s side entrances. Above her, Applejack saw pegasi troops swoop in, and from behind the catapults unleashed a volley of boulders. Ruins collapsed as stones came crashing down, and devastating beams of alicorn magic vaporized one of the towers.
Leaping over a pile of rubble, Applejack sprinted into the castle. Her pace slowed as the chaos outside gave way to the isolating darkness of passage before her. Through the gloom, she could barely make out a suit of armor standing proud against a wall.
Applejack turned to address her friends. “We’ll need to be quick if we want to find Rainbow and Pinkie before the guards do. Spread out and start searchin’.”
Fluttershy immediately clamped a wing around the thing closest to her. In this case, she happened to smother the unfortunate Spike with a cover of trembling feathers. “I vote we go in pairs,” she squeaked.
Spike ducked down and extracted himself from Fluttershy's grip. “What about Twilight?” he asked.
“The guards’ll find her,” Applejack replied. “We need to get the two troublemakers out of here before the princesses arrest them.”
“Yes, so we must hurry,” Rarity added. “Who knows where they might be hiding in this dreadful castle.” As she finished speaking, a low tone reverberated through the walls.
“What was that?” Fluttershy asked. Spike once again found himself crushed in the embrace of a terrified pegasus.
“I’m sure it’s nothin’,” Applejack reassured her. She took a step forward.
A trapdoor opened up beneath her, and the four friends tumbled downward into the darkness.
Rainbow Dash swooped around a corner. She halted for a moment to listen for the sound of guards pursuing her. They were approaching quickly down the hallway, drawn by the noise Dash was making. With a swift kick, Dash sent a candelabra clanging to the ground. Then she sped forward again.
An ominous organ note caught Dash’s attention. To her right, a hidden sliding wall sprang open. Rainbow Dash quickly veered to the right and slipped through the doorway. A moment later, another tone from Pinkie Pie’s strange melody caused the wall to slide back into place.
Dash heard the royal guards rush past in the adjacent hall, oblivious to the fact that their quarry had just slipped away. They continued their chase deeper into the labyrinth of castle’s passageways, where all they would find was more opportunities to lose their way. Soon, enough guards would be hopelessly disoriented by the castle’s bizarre layout—unable to locate either Twilight or her captors—and then Dash and Pinkie could make their escape.
Rainbow Dash pondered this as she searched for another group of guards to befuddle. Maybe she and Pinkie Pie would survive the ordeal after all. But just to be safe, Dash decided to find her way back toward the room they had locked Twilight in. She had to make sure none of the guards got close to actually finding the princess. That would ruin all the fun.
A few moments later, Rainbow Dash landed in front of the door to Twilight’s cell. As quietly as she could, Dash cracked the door open and peered into the room. Yes, there was Twilight, curled up on a pillow and engrossed in her book. With a satisfied nod, Dash closed the door and backed away.
And immediately fell to the ground as a rope tangled her legs.
Dash looked up to see a triumphant Applejack standing over her, lasso clamped tightly in her mouth. The pegasus tried to rise, but quickly found herself pinned to the ground by the hooves of the very agitated farmer.
“I’m only gonna ask this once.” Applejack’s eyes narrowed. “Did you kidnap Twilight?”
“It was Pinkie’s idea!” Dash protested, struggling to escape.
“And where is Twilight now?” Applejack demanded.
One look at Applejack’s livid face was all it took to convince Dash to answer honestly. “She’s in the room right over there.” Dash tried to wave a hoof in the general direction of Twilight's cell and quickly found that Applejack’s lasso severely restricted her range of motion.
Rarity walked up to Applejack’s side. She peered down at the helpless Rainbow Dash. “Really, darling? You expect us to believe that you are holding one of the most powerful beings in Equestria captive in a room that is not even locked?”
Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah! Seriously, we gave her so much poison joke she won’t be using her magic for days, and it seems she’d rather just sit and read than try and escape.”
“Well, then, I suppose we should go convince her to leave with us, before Celestia and Luna destroy the entire castle,” Rarity said.
Spike needed no further prompting. With a cry of, “Twilight!” he ran to the door and pushed it open. But instead of rushing into the room and giving Twilight an enormous hug, he stood frozen at the entrance.
“Uh, girls?” Spike said hesitantly. “You might want to see this.”
Rainbow Dash craned her neck to peer into the cell. A pile of pillows occupied the center of the room, as she had seen a minute before. Various half-read books lay scattered about the room. But there was one rather notable change. Dash gaped as her brain registered the glaring absence.
The room was unoccupied.
Twilight Sparkle had vanished.