• Published 24th Sep 2011
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The First Light of Dawn - Cold in Gardez



A terrible accident threatens to unmake the world as we know it.

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The Roof of the World

Once, when Twilight Sparkle was a young filly, she very nearly fell into a firepit.

Like most foals she went through an adventurous phase, during which she was convinced of her own invulnerability. She jumped off roofs trying to fly like a pegasus. She attempted dangerous spells that would give expert magicians pause, despite barely having any magic in her horn. She explored the streets of Canterlot at night, not comprehending that even in the Celestial City some areas simply weren’t safe.

It was a trying time for her parents, to say the least. Their daughter, normally so quiet and reserved, seemed determined to either make them die of worry or get killed herself.

Her final filly adventure, so to speak, occurred just a few days before the end of summer, a time when families gathered for reunions and feasts. Even unicorn ponies, not normally given to such plebeian activities as ‘cook-outs,’ would gather for outdoor vegetable roasts beneath the fading evening skies to celebrate the approach of autumn. Pumpkins, squash, zucchinis, corn, carrots and apples – so many apples – all would be tossed onto grills and roasted, filling the air with an indescribable mixture of scents. The very act of breathing became a feast for the senses.

On that night her father plucked an apple from the grill with his magic and floated it over to her waiting hooves. Its skin, still a bright golden yellow, had blackened and split from the heat, and from the steaming flesh of the fruit rose a savory caramel scent that begged – no, demanded – to be devoured. And devour it she did.

Because it was a summer feast and because she was a foal, no one scolded her for licking the still-warm apple juices from her hooves. Her father just laughed and promised to get her another apple, once they were done roasting.

That seemed like a long time to wait for such a delicious treat. Too long, in fact. And so the young Twilight Sparkle took it upon herself to fetch another apple.

The grill was a long metal rack suspended over a large pit dug in the sandy earth of the park. The pit was packed with charcoal and embers nearly to the level of the ground, and filled the air above with sparks and low flames. Juices from the fruits and vegetables suspended above would drip down into the pit, instantly vaporizing with a loud hiss that added to the background noise of the party.

Try as she might, Twilight couldn’t quite lift anything from the grill with her magic – she simply wasn’t strong enough yet. Instead she leaned over the edge of the pit and stretched a hoof up to the grill, reaching for a simmering red delicious just out of reach.

An adult, a tan earth pony tending the grill, noticed her efforts. He was about to help by grabbing the apple when the sand beneath her shifted suddenly, dumping her onto her belly with her forelegs and hooves crashing into the embers. Instead of the apple the earth pony grabbed her mane in his teeth and pulled her away from the pit, just as the first wails escaped her lips.

The damage could have been far worse. As it was the hair on her fetlocks was entirely burnt away, and the skin beneath badly blistered. Her soles were tender for weeks, and her parents spent months lathering a special cream on her hooves to keep them from drying out and cracking.

Bed-ridden for more than a week, she turned to books for solace. It was the beginning of a life-long obsession with the written word, and in time she would come to be thankful for the accident and the book-filled days that followed.

***

When Twilight Sparkle opened her eyes, she was no longer in Canterlot.

The last thing she remembered was covering her face with her forelegs. Even through clenched eyelids she could see the shape of her hooves, and as the terrible bright light reached a peak she thought she could see the outlines of bones and blood vessels within them. Then there was a final flash that stole all of her vision, and suddenly the heat was gone.

All around her was darkness, like someone had painted the world with pitch. Slowly she became aware of a tiny point of light just above the horizon; as her eyes adjusted she realized it was the sun.

Around her came the sounds of other ponies in similar distress. Lots of ponies, in fact – her nose picked up the scents of hundreds of terrified mares and stallions, all starting to recover their voices and call out to each other.

The light slowly returned to her eyes, fading splotches of afterimages swirling and shifting and eventually giving way to the sight of mass confusion. A sharp, sickening scent of burnt hair filled her nostrils, and when the world finally came into focus she saw that the tips of her coat had singed into brown curls.

She tried to speak, and found that her mouth was completely dry. All she could manage was an incoherent mumble as her tongue stuck to teeth and lips. She paused for a moment to work up some saliva, and tried again.

“Is… is everyone alright?” she asked, and turned to the nearest pony.

It was Luna, who was still staring into the space where her sister had just been. None of her fur was burned, Twilight noted with some annoyance.

“Twi! What the HAY just happened?” Applejack’s voice came from behind. She turned to her friend, prompting the orange pony to recoil in shock.

“Stars, Twilight! Are you alright?” Applejack asked, her eyes wide as she stared at the unicorn’s blackened coat. Rainbow Dash stumbled to her side, mouth agape as she took in Twilight’s condition.

“I’m fine, Applejack,” she said, managing to keep all but the fainted quaver from her voice. “Trust me, I’ve been burned worse before.” She rubbed her coat with a hoof, knocking off the burnt tips of the hairs and revealing the healthy lavender fur beneath.

“T-tia?” They heard Luna say. The alicorn looked around, stunned, eventually settling on the girls. All around them hundreds of ponies were going through identical stages of shock. The air was filled with confused cries, shouts and sob. A great number apparently thought they were dead and that this was the afterlife.

Applejack recovered first. She stomped over to Luna, dragging Twilight with her by the mane. Rainbow Dash followed the pair, her ears pressed flat against her skull and her wings held tight against her body.

“Luna?” Applejack poked the princess’s shoulder with a hoof. “Luna! C’mon girl, we need you.”

The alicorn stared at the offending hoof, then up at its owner. A sharp focus returned to her eyes, and the stunned filly was gone, replaced by the goddess of the moon.

“She teleported us,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it, but somehow she teleported us… here? Where are we?”

The four looked around, taking in the crowds of ponies around them. They seemed to be in the middle of a large meadow bordered by a mix of tall trees. A well-worn trail beneath their feet, crowded with ponies, cut through the tall grass and led into the forest.

Despite the thousands of ponies crowding the landscape as far as she could see, Twilight instantly recognized the spot. She and Applejack had walked on that very road less than a day earlier.

“This… this is the Whitetail Woods,” she finally said, looking around in confusion. “I think we’re just a few miles from Ponyville, actually.” To the south she could just barely make out the perpetual clouds that covered the Everfree Forest like a shroud. Much further away to the north rose the heights of the Sidesaddle Mountains. The vague shape of Canterlot Keep was visible even at this distance, perched on the side of the nearest peak.

“Why would she do that?” Luna said, following Twilight’s gaze to the north. “Why send us all here?” The towers of Canterlot began to shine as the first light of dawn struck them, filling the air with the dazzling radiance Twilight had always associated with the city.

“Who cares?!” Applejack interjected, stomping her foot. “She almost cooked us back there! Why the hay did she do that?”

“I don’t think she could help it, Applejack,” Twilight said. She took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to remain calm. “She seemed confused and… hurt.” Luna shot her a pained look.

The alicorn opened her mouth to say something when suddenly she froze, her eyes widening in alarm. Twilight stared at her for a moment, and then turned to see what was so important it could silence a royal princess.

High above and far away, Canterlot began to burn.

***

It started with a thin trickle of smoke rising from the side of the mountain. Within moments the smoke expanded, smothering the peak and rising high into the air. Tiny sparks flashed in the windows of the castle, lighting the mountainside and city below like flashbulbs. Despite the distance the flashes left pinpoint afterimages in the eyes of the watching ponies.

The tiny sparks turned into a brilliant flare that drowned out the sun. The keep vanished from view, replaced by a burning ember that filled the sky above with a towering cloud of smoke that soared thousands of feet into the air, dwarfing the mountain range below.

The faint form of the keep was still visible through the aura of flames that consumed the mountainside. As they watched pieces of the structure cracked and fell away, tumbling down the mountain in a shower of wreckage and molten rock.

There was a final flash, blinding even from dozens of miles away. When the sky faded and vision returned, the keep was no more. In its place was a slowly expanding ring of debris lifting into the sky; thousands of red-hot stones, some the size of buildings, traced arrow-straight lines of smoke in the air as they flew away from the shining star perched on the burning mountain.

The star, too brilliant to gaze at for more than a moment, seemed to hover in mid-air just above the cliff. After a moment it began to rise, violently dispersing the column of smoke that rose from the ruined mountain. Higher and higher it flew, shining like a second sun.

Eventually it came to a stop, and started drifting to the west, away from the rising sun.

***

Twilight watched in horror as her home, her entire life, vanished in flames.

The city she was born in lay hidden beneath a pall of smoke. Shortly after the keep exploded a river of lava had poured down the mountainside, crashing through the stone buildings below like they were nothing more than sand. Within moments half the city was in flames.

The Keep itself, where she had spent years with her mentor learning the ways of magic, was simply gone. The gardens, the towers, beautiful libraries, Celestia’s halls and throne room – all destroyed in the blink of an eye. Aside from the debris still soaring through the air, nothing remained of the greatest work of art ever created.

Even the shape of the mountain had changed. Still glowing, still burning, it looked like some errant god had taken a dollop from its side with a giant ice cream scoop. At the back of her mind the academic in her calmly noted that geographic maps of the mountain range would need to be redrawn. Then she remembered that the maps were all stored in the Canterlot library anyway.

The ponies watched in silence as the world they had known came to an end.

After a while – Twilight couldn’t have said how long – they became aware of a quiet keening sound. Luna was doubled over, her horn scraping the ground as she sobbed. Around them dozens of other ponies were going through the same stage of grief as they realized their homes were gone – buried or reduced to ash on the wind. Twilight felt a pang of guilt for her own feelings of loss: at least she still had Ponyville and her friends. Many others had lost everything.

“What… what was that thing?” Rainbow Dash finally asked. The shining star that had risen from the ruins passed behind another mountain range and was gone, leaving only the glow from the fires of Canterlot behind.

“It was her,” Luna said. Her voice nearly broke on the final word. “It was Celestia. I don’t know what she’s doing or what happened, but that was her.”

“But no pony could survive that,” Twilight said, staring up at the still-rising tower of smoke that now blotted out nearly a quarter of the sky. “I know she’s powerful, but—"

“She’s the sun goddess, Twilight,” Luna interrupted, her voice thick with emotion. “Emphasis on the word sun. She could do this.” The princess shivered slightly as the light of morning finally found them in the forest, and she seemed to slump. “Sister…” Twilight heard her whisper.

They were silent for a while longer. Finally Luna forced herself to her feet, and walked unsteadily to the three friends.

“Listen,” she said, slurring the word slightly. “I can’t stay awake during the day without her. You need to follow her for me, until night returns and I can find her.”

“How the hay are we s’posed ta follow that?” Applejack asked. “And what are we s’posed ta do when we catch up ta her?”

Luna’s head started to sink, then jerked back up as she caught herself. “I... I don’t know, Applejack,” she said. “She’s not moving very fast. Stars, commandeer one of the western rail lines. Tell them I said you could take it.”

“I could catch her!” Rainbow Dash shouted. She was already halfway off the ground when Applejack yanked her back to earth, her teeth firmly clenched around the cyan mare’s rainbow tail. Dash gave her a hurt look.

“Tha’s prolly not a good idea, Dash,” she said after spitting out the tail. Twilight was inclined to agree.

So was Luna, apparently. She rested a hoof on the pegasus pony’s shoulder, drawing her closer. “No, Rainbow Dash, I have a special task for you…”

***

Less than ten minutes later Rainbow Dash was in the air, streaking away from Ponyville and her friends. Far to the west the sky still glowed with the light of the departing sun goddess, who was slowly making her way to points unknown.

She wanted to be with her friends. They were running toward the danger while she was running away, which seemed like a terrible thing to do, especially for the Element of Loyalty.

At Luna’s request she was flying at full speed, high above the earth. The thinner air at high altitudes meant less wind resistance, and therefore higher speeds, but also required more energy and endurance from the pegasus to stay aloft.

She flew north, following Luna’s instructions. The Saddleback Mountains grew beneath her from low ridges that surrounded Canterlot into grim, rocky peaks that reached nearly as high as she was. The trees below changed as she flew, from the thick oak and beech forests of Ponyville to stands of identical aspen. Their leaves, dark on top and light on the bottom, seemed to turn the mountainsides into shimmering green blankets as they shook in the wind.

By noon she was further from home than she had ever flown before. The landscape below was alien – a tangle of valleys and ridges and peaks that looked almost like the veins in a leaf. The trees had changed again, into small, stunted pines that clung to the crevasse, their roots digging into the solid rock in search of a desperate solid purchase. Centuries of wind had contorted them into twisted shapes, more horizontal than vertical.

Luna, nearly incoherent with fatigue, hadn’t given her much to go by. Fly north, she had said, until you find the tallest mountain in Equestria – the Roof of the World.

“How will I know which one’s the tallest?” she had asked. For all she knew there would be another, higher mountain just over the horizon. She could spend days inspecting mountains, trying to figure out which one was the tallest.

You’ll know, had been the answer.

Her last words, before collapsing into an unbreakable slumber, hadn’t made any sense at the time. Even Twilight could only guess what she had meant by begging the stars for aid.

Ahead of her, perhaps an hour’s distance, the clouds grew thicker and higher, warning of possible storms. One cloud bank in particular rose high above the mountains, reaching up to the edge of the stratosphere.

As she flew the clouds thinned and dispersed with the advent of evening. All but the tall bank of clouds, which had only grown larger in her eyes.

It was not, she eventually realized, a cloud. It was a mountain unlike any in the world, impossibly high. It made the other mountains around it look like foothills – from a distance the entire mountain range seemed like flat earth, compared to this monster.

She headed for the summit.

***

The roof of the world was far too high to reach on wings. The barren, rocky peak of the tallest mountain on Equestria stretched far above the clouds. It reached so high that even snow was a memory; the few wind-blown flakes that managed to find their way to the summit rapidly sublimated into the dry, thin air.

Rainbow Dash gave up flying more than a thousand feet below the peak, landing instead on a relatively flat outcropping of rock cleaving to the sheer mountainside. Her wings burned from flapping almost as fast as a hummingbird’s in a futile attempt to produce enough lift to keep her up. The rest of the way to the top would have to be on hoof.

Whoever created the roof of the world at least made some allowances for pedestrians – a narrow path had been hewn from the cliff, tracing upward in a broken, irregular slash that seemed wrap all the way around the mountain. The part she could see was wide enough for two ponies to walk side-by-side, if they didn’t mind being friendly with each other. Some kind soul had even left sconces along the edge of the path, though any torches they might have once held had long since burned or rotted away.

Off to the west the disc of the sun was nearly touching the mountains as it set. There was probably less than an hour of light before the stars would start emerging, she figured, and she had to be on top by then.

Piece of cake, she thought, and started cantering up the path at a brisk pace that would have done Applejack proud. Be up there in no time.

Five minutes later that assessment was looking a bit optimistic. She was less than a quarter of the way up and her legs could barely support her weight. The path in front of her swam in and out of focus and the light from the sun seemed to tremor in time with her pulse. A crushing headache was introducing itself to her brain as she tried to decide between throwing up or passing out.

Okay, she thought. Air’s a little thinner than I expected. Deep breaths, Dash, just like at flight school. Young pegasuses were all taught to recognize oxygen deprivation, in case they ended up flying too high before their lungs developed enough to power their wings at altitude. More than one young pegasus had tried flying to the moon their first time in the air, usually with bad results.

The deep breaths worked. She waited another minute just to be sure she wasn’t going to faint, then started back up the path, this time at a much more sedate pace Twilight Sparkle would have appreciated. From time to time a gust of wind forced her to stop and huddle against the rock wall, until she realized the stone was leeching heat from her body faster than the wind could ever hope to. After that she simply rested on her knees and mantled her wings when the wind grew too strong.

By the time she neared the top the winds were blowing constantly and her hooves were numb. Only by staring at the path in front of her could she make sure each leg was planted before lifting the next.

Cold, as far as Rainbow Dash knew, had never directly killed a pegasus – nature had adapted them to the frigid air high above the ground. Ice had claimed more than one pegasus’ life, but only because they had flown from a drenching rain straight into a blizzard without noticing the ice building up on their wings until it was too late.

Still, there was a first time for everything, and it was starting to look to Rainbow Dash like she might be the first pegasus to actually freeze to death. Another record for the blue mare, though not one she was excited to claim.

Instead she climbed. Even as her mane grew stiff with frost, and her wings drooped numbly to drag on the path beside her, she never considered turning around. The thought, quite honestly, never occurred to her.

So it was for the best when, as the last of the sun’s evening rays vanished into twilight, with her last ounce of strength and last breath of air, she crested the last step and reached the highest point in Equestria – the roof of the world.

And promptly collapsed.

* * *

Her first thought upon waking up was that she must have gone to the wrong mountain after all. In fact, she didn’t even seem to be on a mountain of any sort. The rock her face rested on was flat and polished to a mirror-like shine so perfect she could make out the reflections of the stars above.

Stars, she thought, her mind still fuzzy with cold. So pretty. Rarity would love you. I should take some of you back with me…

Her second thought was that it was much too warm to be on top of a mountain. Feeling had returned to her hooves and her left wing, though she seemed to have come to a rest on top of her right wing somehow. Rolling slightly to free it, she got her first look at the sky.

On a normal night ponies could see a few thousand stars from the ground. A pegasus pony, far overhead with dark-adapted eyes, might see ten times that number, and make out the stain of the Milky Way on moonless nights. Only with a telescope like the one in Twilight’s library could a pony hope to see more.

From the roof of the world, Rainbow Dash saw more. Stars like gemstones blazed in the sky, filling the darkness with every color of light. Vast, glowing nebulae banished any hint of the night, and the Milky Way sparkled like a sunlit river overhead.

“The roof of the world is a stepping stone,” Luna had said. “It is the threshold between Equestria and the void. Do not forget you are closer to them when you are there, and further from us.”

Tearing her eyes from the sky she saw that she was still on the mountain. Rather than coming to a normal peak, someone had sheared the mountaintop clean off, leaving a flat, polished plateau perhaps 30 yards wide. At the center of the plateau rested a boulder about the size of a pony. Nothing else interrupted the featureless expanse of the roof.

She trotted closer to the boulder for a better look. It had seen better days; unlike the polished perfection of the plateau it was clearly unworked. Pitted and seared, it looked like a metal ingot fallen from a giant’s forge. Blisters and flakes of rust discolored every inch of its surface, and she thought she could taste the tang of iron on the air around it.

It was also old. Even without touching the boulder she could feel in her bones that it was far more ancient than the forests or the oceans or the mountain it rested upon. It was probably older than the world itself. Maybe as old as the stars, she thought, absently.

“Older than us, even,” a voice sounded from above. The words were tremulous, reedy, as though coming from a great distance. Looking up, Dash saw that one of the stars, Polaris, was shining far brighter than it had just minutes ago.

“Are you a star, then?” she shouted up at the sky. It was a silly question in retrospect, but shouting made her feel confident and she wasn’t known for thinking before opening her mouth.

“Yes, but you knew that. You came looking for us,” the voice drifted back from the heavens. “What do you want, little mortal?” At the word ‘mortal’ the entire sky spun overhead for an instant; only the North Star, still blazing, remained constant.

She gulped. Luna hadn’t given her much to go by, except to ask for help. She decided to be direct.

“I am Rainbow Dash, the fastest pony in all of Equestria!” she shouted. Even when petitioning the stars she couldn’t help but brag. “Princess Luna sent me, to—"

“Luna, you say?” the star cut her off before she could finish. “Sent you to repay her debt, perhaps? So glad she remembered us. Though you don’t look like you’re in a condition to pay anything.”

Another star, a dark incarnadine ruby hanging just above the horizon, flashed with a brief light. Nothing at all, something whispered in Dash’s head, followed by a humorless laugh.

Luna hadn’t mentioned anything about debts. Or payments. Especially payments, come to think of it. Coming here was starting to seem like a bad idea. And was the North Star starting to glow a bit brighter?

She decided to start over. “No, she sent me to ask a favor! We—"

The sky exploded as every star suddenly blazed like a tiny sun. A horrendous cacophony flooded the pony’s mind as thousands of voices shouted for supremacy, blending together in an incomprehensible babble that drove her to her knees with her hooves uselessly pressed over her ears.

“SILENCE!” the North Star screamed into chaos. “ONLY I SPEAK HERE.” The other voices slowly faded away, though overhead the stars still glimmered. With its dominance reestablished the star turned its attention back to the trembling pony.

“No, little mortal,” the star spoke with its distance voice. “We have given enough aid to your princess. Tell Luna to wait another thousand years if she wants our help again.” Overhead the stars began to dim, as though receding from view. The air grew chill and thin again.

“Wait!” she yelled. “You have to help us!” Nothing; the sky continued to dim. Even the North Star was fading back to its normal light.

Think, Dash! They won’t do it for you, and they won’t do it for Luna, who will they do it for? The answer was so obvious it took her a moment to put the words together.

“Celestia!” she screamed at the fading stars. “It’s for Celestia!”

The heavens froze. The North Star, almost gone, began to twinkle and then shine with a tentative light.

“Celestia, you say?” the star replied, its voice still faint. “That is a name we have not heard in many years.”

Ages, one of the other stars whispered in her head. She briefly wondered how long that was for a star.

“What does the fair sun goddess need from us?” Polaris asked, now shining as bright as it had before. “Why does she not come here herself?”

Pride, a high-pitched voice sounded in her mind, almost like the tinkling of a bell. She was always so prideful. Overhead a tiny yellow star sparkled in time with the words.

“No! Celestia is kind and generous and loving!” she shouted up at the sky. “She didn’t come because something happened. There was… there was an accident,” her voice nearly broke on the last word. She sat on her haunches and described everything that had happened at Canterlot, from the Solstice Ceremony to Luna’s parting instruction. By the time she finished her wings were wrapped protectively around her body, and it was all she could do not to cry.

The stars twinkled overhead, apparently discussing the matter amongst themselves. Occasionally words or bits of sentences would press against Rainbow Dash’s mind, but they were as tenuous as the wind and instantly forgotten. Finally the North Star turned its light back to the huddled pony.

“So, Celestia,” it said. “The god who wanted to live as a mortal… impossible, of course. But we gave her the next best thing.”

Better, even, another star intruded in her thoughts. Still a god.

“Yes, quite. You can’t unmake a god, little mortal, but you can take them down a peg, if you have the right tools. You could even make one look like a pony, if you wanted.”

Despite her emotional exhaustion, that sounded a bit too much like an insult for Dash. “What are you talking about? She is a pony. I’ve seen her, I’ve even touched her! And what’s wrong with being a pony?!”

The stars above glimmered as laughter filled her mind.

“We mean no offense, little mortal,” the North Star finally responded, “but she is no more a pony than I am. The Celestia you know is a shell that is starting to crack and fall away.”

Pity, a brown, lightless star whispered, she seemed so happy.

“Soon only the radiance of a god will be left,” the star continued. “I’m not sure what that will result in. Nothing good, probably. Stars shouldn’t fly so close to planets.”

Dangerous, an emerald star whispered, followed by murmurs of assent from the others.

‘Nothing good’ actually seemed like a dramatic understatement, if what she had seen at Canterlot was any indication. “So will you help us or not?” she demanded, her brash attitude starting to resurface.

“You? No, and why should we?” the star replied. “The affairs of mortals mean nothing to us. Celestia, on the other hand… Celestia has done much for us in the past.” The star paused, and conferred again with its company, illuminating the sky with flashes of color.

“We may be able to help Celestia,” it finally said. “Tell me, have you ever seen this?” As the star spoke an image floated into view over the iron boulder at the center of the plateau. A golden necklace, like the Element of Harmony she earned fighting Nightmare Moon, but much larger and heavier.

“Yeah, it’s Celestia’s necklace,” the pony said. “She always wears it.”

“Well, she isn’t now,” the star replied. “If she were this wouldn’t be happening. In fact, let’s see if we can’t…” the other stars flashed again, slowly fading one-by-one until only a single yellow zircon remained lit. “Aha, there it is.”

“What… why does that thing matter?” the pony asked, confused. “If she’s really a god why does she need a piece of jewelry?”

“It’s not jewelry, it’s an energy sink,” the star responded with a distracted voice, as though it was busy with something else. “You must understand, mortal, Celestia was a terribly lonely god. When she found your world and the young races just born upon it, she thought she had found a home.

“But despite the love she felt for your world she could not draw near it, not without causing terrible damage,” the star continued in its absent voice. “She begged us to find a way to live amongst you. The torc you see there was our solution. It dampens her brilliance and allows her to masquerade as a mortal. Indeed, I think she may have forgotten her true nature as time passed.”

Forgotten us, a tiny red star lamented.

“She seems to have mislaid the torc somehow,” the star concluded. “Return it to her and she’ll be restored to her, alas, nearly mortal state.”

Mortal, several of the stars whispered, all with mockery in their voices.

“Awesome!” This was the first good news Rainbow Dash had heard yet. “So, where is it?”

There was no response. The stars glimmered overhead, some brightening, some dimming.

“Hey! I said, where is it?” Patience was not her strong point.

Still no response. The stars continued to confer with each other for what felt like hours while the pony shouted every threat and imprecation she could think of. Finally, the North Star spoke again, its brilliance shining down on her like a spotlight.

“You are a very brash and demanding mortal,” it said. “You come here on Luna’s behalf yet offer no payment for her outstanding debt, and have the audacity to demand another favor?”

Tiny as an insect, a black, hollow star whispered. The others seemed to shy away from its cold words.

“Um, well, that is, I was going to—”

“Be quiet,” the star reprimanded her. “We know what you were going to offer: nothing.”

The pony cringed, trying to find some way out of this mess. She wished for a moment Twilight could have been with her – the lavender unicorn was so much better in these situations.

“But,” the star continued, “we can be generous. We will tell you where Celestia’s torc is, in exchange for one small request.”

That is a lie, a bright sapphire star warned. There is nothing small about his price.

“Uh, well, I was kind of thinking I could go and get the tor… uh, necklace real fast, because I’m the fastest pony in Equestria, then I would come back and pay you,” she said.

“Indeed, just like Luna did.”

Rainbow Dash cringed again. She wondered if anypony had ever actually paid the stars back for their favors.

“No, I don’t think that will work for us,” the star said. “We’ll be needing this payment up front.”

She tried a different tack. “But you are stars! What do I have that you need?!”

“Nothing, I assure you. But that’s not the point. What matters is how much it is worth to you, little mortal. I wonder, what do you value most of all?”

The pony stepped back, suddenly frightened. Unbidden, her wings folded tightly against her back, as though trying to hide.

The North Star pulsed with laughter. “Yes, you see now,” it said, and a pair of invisible hands gripped her wings and pulled them open, stretching them painfully wide and lifting her onto her back legs. A panicky fear began to build in her brain, pushing out everything but the image of her wings being ripped off by a careless god.

“These will do. Give us your wings, little mortal, and we will tell you where the torc may be found.”

She tried to twist free, but whatever held her was stronger than iron. She lashed out with her hooves at the empty air. A gnawing dread clamped around her heart as she struggled. Someone was sobbing, she thought, and only after running out of breath did she realize it was her.

I can’t do this, she thought. I’ll go back and tell the others the stars wouldn’t listen. I’ll blame Luna – tell them the stars demanded she pay back her debt first. It’s true! They won’t blame me, they’ll blame her, no one will blame me, they’ll blame her, they’ll blame her – the words stuck on repeat in her mind. She could already see her friends casting Luna out, blaming her, and thanking Rainbow Dash for trying. Her friends…

Her friends, chasing down an out-of-control god, depending on her.

Her friends, risking their lives, trusting her.

The epiphany was so abrupt she would have collapsed, if her wings weren’t still being held. After a few shaking breaths she jerked her head back up to the sky and the waiting stars.

“You’re wrong!” she shouted. “Take my wings for all I care! I’ll still be the fastest pony in all of Equestria!” The stars overhead froze in place for the first time since her arrival.

“If you think these wings are all I care about, you know nothing!” she screamed. “Nothing, you hear me?! You may be ancient, and powerful, and cruel, but you know NOTHING!

“These wings aren’t the most important thing to me! MY FRIENDS ARE!”

One by one the stars dimmed and went out. The bright nebulae and galaxies faded away, until only four points of light remained: the North Star and three other gems hanging alone in the sky.

The dark ruby to the west sparkled briefly. You see, it whispered, she is loyal after all, and then faded away.

Is that proof enough? the sapphire overhead asked, and then it too vanished.

I am convinced, Polaris, the yellow zircon said as it went out.

Only the pony, the North Star, and the iron boulder remained. The sky, the plateau, and the world around them were empty and black.

The invisible hands holding Dash up suddenly vanished. A reflexive flap of her wings kept her from landing badly, though she still ached from being held for so long.

“Well, it seems you really are the Element of Loyalty,” the diamond star finally said. “Your willingness to sacrifice yourself for your friends proves that.

“The torc is in the possession of a pony who calls herself ‘The Great and Powerful’ Trixie,” the star continued, saying the magician’s name with a bit of hesitation, as if not quite sure how seriously to take it. Despite her shock at the revelation, Dash could sympathize. “She is west of Canterlot, near the town you call Appleloosa.”

Overhead the stars were slowly reemerging, but as she normally saw them from the ground. A cold wind blew across the plateau as the magic of the roof faded away with the approach of morning. The North Star was barely brighter than normal when it spoke again.

The sun will rise soon, it whispered, get the torc to Celestia before then, or hide during the daylight. You may be brave and loyal, but she will burn you to a cinder after the dawn.

Dash didn’t need to be told twice. With a running leap she flung herself off the precipice, gaining speed as she fell to the warmer, thicker air below. With a loud crack her wings snapped open to catch the air, and she sped west like a shooting star.

Oh, and one more thing, a faint voice whispered in the back of her mind. Tell Luna to visit sometime, we have so much to talk about.

Much indeed. Dash looked forward to her own chat with the princess.

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