• 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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Incipient

The First Light of Dawn
Chapter 9: Incipient

Twilight Sparkle was reasonably sure her day could not get any worse.

The blast of air from Luna's abrupt departure knocked her clean off her hooves and sent her skidding across the rough earth for nearly a dozen feet. A cloud of dust exploded from the site of the princess' violent leap into the sky, temporarily blinding ponies and adding to the eruption of chaos. Twilight groaned quietly and tried to stand as the world spun around her. A panicked babble filled the air as the crowd stumbled away from the choking dust. Foals cried for their parents. Stallions and mares called out for their families. Above it all, Twilight could make out a single, familiar voice shouting her name.

“Twilight!” Applejack's ghostly form, almost lost in the dust and the evening darkness, broke through the gloom. Her battered Stetson hat somehow remained in place atop her head. After a moment's search, she noticed Twilight and dashed to her side.

“Land's sake, girl, are you alright?” She bent down to give Twilight a shoulder to lean on. Despite standing nearly as close to Luna as Twilight had, she didn't appear shaken or unsettled. The only concern in her eyes was for Twilight.

“I'm fine, AJ.” It was a white lie. Her side ached from the tumble, and she gratefully accepted Applejack's shoulder as she rose to her hooves. The ground rose and fell beneath her for another moment, like waves beneath a ship, before settling as her senses finally cleared. She took a deep breath, ignored the twinge of pain in her ribs, and turned to face the crowd. A small knot of ponies had formed around the mayor, who was shouting to be heard above the chaos.

“Was anyone hurt?” she asked. Another worry occurred to her. “Are you okay?”

“I'm fine. Takes more than a bit of wind to hurt an Apple.” Applejack made a show of brushing the dust from her chest with a hoof. “The others just got knocked down. You were the only one standing right next to her.”

Right, her. Twilight took a few shaking steps back to where Luna had been standing. “Why would Luna do that? She read that scroll, then just... left? Took off? I didn't even see what happened to her.”

“She went that way.” Applejack pointed a hoof east, toward the rising moon. “Was in a hurry, too. Looked like a shooting star... Twilight, what are you doing?”

Twilight was several steps away by the time of Applejack's question. She stopped long enough to call over her shoulder. “Going after her, of course. Come on.”

Applejack caught up easily. She gave Twilight a sidelong glance as they trotted down the road, doing their best to step around groups of ponies crowding the street. “And how are we supposed to do that? We can't fly, and we don't even know where she went.”

Twilight came to an awkward stop in the middle of the street. The burn on her hoof still ached terribly, a low throbbing pain that swelled in time with her heartbeat. She held it gingerly off the ground as she considered Applejack's point.

“I guess we keep walking until we find something,” she finally said.

“Alright,” Applejack said. Her voice was a slow, easy drawl, as always. “Then what?”

Twilight frowned. She'd hoped Applejack wouldn't force the point, but she really had no idea what to do after finding the princess. They didn't even know why she had fled in such a rage. The realization brought her up short.

“The letter.” She spun to face Applejack, bouncing slightly as she favored her injured hoof. “What happened to it?”

Applejack's eyes widened. “Gosh Twilight, it could've gone anywhere. Heck, Luna blew you over when she left. That little scrap of paper didn't stand a chance.”

Of course it hadn't. Twilight ground her teeth silently, trying not to let her frustration show on her face. Every second that passed, Luna drew further away, and with her any hope of solving this mystery and helping Celestia.

Maybe we don't need to find it. The thought teased her. Maybe her magic could do something useful for once. She closed her eyes and attempted to visualize the scroll, just as it had been before she'd given it to Luna. Simple parchment, like Spike always used, cut neatly along its edges but ragged at the top and bottom, where he would have torn it free from the roll. And he had done something unusual – addressed it.

“Do you remember what Spike wrote on the outside of the scroll?” she asked. Her eyes were still closed, visualizing everything but that final piece.

“That was Spike's writing?” A pause as Applejack thought. “It just said, 'For Luna,' I think.”

Of course. She chastised herself for forgetting so easily. The past few days truly had taken their toll on her, physically and mentally. She rotated the scroll in her mind and imagined Spike's neat, cursive writing. For Luna. Very concise of him.

The image felt stable. She set her wounded hoof back on the ground, ignoring the twinge of pain it sent up her leg. A spell like this required four points of grounding to have any chance of working. When she felt balanced, centered and stable, she let her mind open to the flows of magic weaving their way through the world. Her horn caught the flows like a wire drawing current, and the familiar, blissful warmth of a successful spell filled her body. There was a flash, visible even behind her closed eyes, and she heard something soft fall to the road between them.

She smiled even before her eyes popped open. The scroll – battered, torn and wet – sat on the cobblestones. She lifted it into the air with a thought and carefully unrolled it. Her horn provided more than enough light to read by.

***

Trixie managed to land on a relatively soft piece of burning wreckage.

Under most circumstances, she would have tried to avoid jumping onto a heap of smoking timbers bristling with jagged stumps and splinters of wood as long as her leg. There were very few things that could motivate her to leap from a second-story hotel room. Burning to death in a second-story hotel room, however, was one of those things.

The fall was mercifully short. The blasted remains of the outer wall rushed up to meet her like a joyous foal running to embrace its mother. She didn't even lose consciousness after slamming into the ground.

She staggered out of the pile of debris in a daze. Streaks of blood marred her sky blue pelt, their red trails barely visible beneath the dark soot stains that covered her from head to hoof. Something was wrong with her right foreleg – it buckled when she tried putting weight on it, sending her stumbling to the ground again. The sickening stench of burnt hair followed her away from the fires.

Another part of the building collapsed behind her. She turned to see flames licking at the roof, slowly spreading from the room she had just abandoned. Faint cries of alarm sounded from within, and ponies began to appear on the street, calling for help. So far, none had noticed her.

That suited her just fine. After a brief search she found Luna's unmoving body resting in an indecorous pose against the wall. Her coat was nearly black with ash, and her mane tasted bitter in Trixie's mouth as she grabbed Luna and dragged her away from the fires. Every step was agony, and she nearly passed out after carelessly planting her wounded leg on the ground. Nevertheless, she didn't stop until they were far enough away that the heat of the fires was merely like standing next to an oven, rather than baking inside one.

She spat out Luna's mane and raised her head, then spent the next few moments debating the merits of passing out. Her vision vanished in a gray haze, and a faint, unpleasant buzzing noise filled her ears. The stinging cuts in her pelt and the ache in her leg receded, drifting away like smoke. She teetered, tripped, and fell to the ground beside her friend.

Friend. The word slid through her mind, taking its time passing from one side of her addled brain to the other. More thoughts followed: memories of their time in Canterlot, evenings in the gardens, long discussions about the past and future. They teased her. All gone. She sobbed once, and would have cried, had not the burning air already stolen her tears.

A shout from down the street roused her. Any moment now more ponies would arrive, and they would not let her escape. She choked back another sob and pushed herself onto her hooves.

Beside her, Luna still hadn't moved. She seemed smaller than before, barely larger than any other pony off the street. Her mane and tail hung limp, spread across the dirt. Merely hair. Nothing magical.

Trixie pressed her snout against Luna's side. She felt the beat of Luna's heart: slow, steady and powerful. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed. One of the many heavy weights on Trixie's heart lifted away.

More shouting down the street. Voices calling for help. Trixie stepped around the fires and ran into the darkness.

***

Trixie finally stopped several blocks away, in an alley between two rows of flats, silent and dark with slumber. Bins filled with rubbish, neatly sorted by type and size, lined the clean walls. She snorted loudly at the sight – only earth ponies would bother organizing trash.

Whatever their other merits, the dumpsters gave her a convenient place to hide. She crouched behind the largest one, a huge rectangular bin nearly overflowing with refuse. Leftover vegetables and table scraps, to judge by the smell. She ignored the stench and focused on her breathing, willing herself to calm. In and out. Slow heartbeat. Just like preparing to go on stage to amaze a skeptical crowd.

She strained her ears in the silence. Far away, shouting ponies called for help and directed the fire brigade toward the burning hotel. She imagined them finding Luna. In her mind, they loaded the princess onto a stretcher, and whisked her away to the finest hospital in the city. The best doctors attended to her, and when she woke she was good as new. The insanity of the hotel would be forgotten, and she would forgive Trixie's mistake. They would go back to Canterlot, and everything would be like it was before. She would return to the bustling, sweltering, miserable kitchens and be happy again.

Trixie found she was crying. She wrinkled her snout in disdain, an old familiar sneer settling on her face like a well-worn cloak. Tears were for weak ponies, ponies who were neither great nor powerful. Ponies who did not command the forces of the arcane. Ponies who were not her.

She tugged at the torc with her good hoof. The cursed artifact was as stubborn as always. It pulled her skin with it, and a line of pain shot through her chest straight to her heart. The ugly amethyst set in its center glimmered in the dark alleyway. She could have sworn it was laughing at her.

So, still no magic. She stomped her hoof back to the slick stones, sending a sharp report echoing through the dim alleyway. Some unseen animal scampered away from the sound, filling the darkness with the scratching of claws on rock and the rustle of trash being brushed aside. A moment later, it was gone, and silence returned.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. She curled into a ball, hugging her wounded leg to her chest. Oh Celestia, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken it. The drip-drop of water trickling down gutters answered her.

Out of habit, she tested her magic again. For perhaps the thousandth time in two days she tried levitating a small object: a tiny stone this time, lying half-lit in the shadows before her. She reached out with her thoughts and gave it a shove.

It moved.

It did’nt move much, to be certain. It barely trembled. Had it been something lighter, like a feather or a piece of paper, she might have assumed it was the wind. But there was no wind in the alleyway, and besides, pebbles didn’t usually flutter in the breeze. She stared at it, her mouth hanging open. When she recovered her wits a moment later, she tried again, reaching out an invisible hoof to cradle the stone and lift it into the air.

It rose. Shakily, slowly, stubbornly, it rose. She stared at it, wide-eyed in wonder. The faint glow of her horn filled the alleyway with a gentle silver light, so fleeting and weak she would have missed it anywhere else. The tiny pebble, dirty and unremarkable except for it tremulous hovering, was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The tears she had forced back earlier now flowed freely down her cheeks.

A giddy thrill began building in her chest. She smiled, then beamed at the pebble, her face and eyes alive with delight. Her aches and pains were forgotten in an instant as she began to giggle, followed quickly by wild, relieved laughter. She laughed until her breath failed and she slumped back to the alleyway floor, her chest shaking as she gasped. For the first time in days she knew an emotion other than despair or hopelessness.

The pebble clattered to the ground with a quiet clicking noise. She barely heard it above her heaving sobs, but it grabbed her attention nevertheless. She rolled onto her hooves and pushed herself up with a grunt, ignoring the twinge of pain in her leg. Her head was clearer. The fog of fear and confusion no longer shrouded her thoughts. The old Trixie – cunning and ruthless and wonderful – returned to the fore.

Her magic wasn't back at full strength, she judged. Even as a filly, she'd been stronger. All her strength had barely been enough to lift that tiny pebble. But that wasn't important – like a blind pony suddenly seeing the faintest glimmer of light, the pebble's value was not in what it provided her, but what it represented.

Hope. It fluttered in her chest, like a tiny bird struggling to take flight. All it needed was a chance.

She closed her eyes, letting her mind slowly empty of worries and concerns. Her senses opened to the flow of magic around her, and when she opened her eyes again the shimmering silver world of Sirensight greeted her.

The alleyway was a dark void. An absence, a space between the homes on either side and the kinetic power of the road. Alleys were, by definition, gaps between points of meaning. In Sirensight the alleyway was magnified, a looming chasm that spread around her, seemingly for miles in every direction. Empty, except for her.

Her, and the low stone well that followed the torc. It sat in empty space a dozen yards away. She knew better than to walk toward it – the alleyway's walls were much closer than the well, and she would run into them long before reaching it. Instead she focused her attention, imagining the well drawing closer. As the well was a purely imaginary construct, it obliged.

She took a careful step toward the well, now that it was close enough to touch. As before, a faint silver thread extended from her heart, waving through the air like a line of spidersilk in the breeze. The cord danced before her and descended into the depths of the well. She leaned forward and peered in.

The well was nearly full. Less than a yard beneath the stone rim sat a pool of silver water, placid and unmoving. The silver cord vanished into its depths like a fisherman's line. She blinked in shock, and the well vanished, replaced by the harsh reality of the dark alleyway.

The torc was not bottomless; its capacity to absorb magic was not limitless. She gave it a nervous tap with her hoof. A quiet ring filled the alleyway.

Trixie stood there for a while, lost in thought. Overhead, the silent moon drifted across the stars, keeping steady pace with the melancholy night.

***

The building housing the hotel was fully aflame when Twilight Sparkle and Applejack finally arrived.

They had no way of knowing it was a hotel, by that point. Hundreds of ponies crowded the streets outside, watching the three-story building slowly collapse. A billowing, roiling column of smoke rose from the fire, lit an ugly orange from below by the flames. Showers of sparks danced in the air over their heads, putting the stars to shame with their brilliance.

Most of the crowd's attention was on the fire. The night was filled with a barrage of shouting ponies, calling questions or orders to each other over the roar. Three fire engines had already arrived and were spraying water on the flames, and Twilight could hear the ringing bells of several more on their way.

Off to the side, away from the main crowd, a smaller group of ponies huddled in a circle around a wagon. Some instinct drew Twilight to them, with Applejack in tow. In the light of the fires, the earth pony's orange coat appeared white again, just like back at the digsite, Twilight noticed. Ahead, Twilight could see ponies crowded around a still form lying on the ground. A winged pony, with a flowing blue mane and a coat as dark as night.

“Luna!” Twilight pushed her way between a pair of stallions, ignoring their grunts and dark looks. The sight of the fallen princess stopped her cold.

Luna was a shadow of her former self. Barely larger than Twilight, with a mane and tail composed of normal hair. She looked just as she had when the Elements of Harmony had freed her from Nightmare Moon's influence. Her coat was streaked with soot, though Twilight couldn't see any actual burns. After the way Luna had walked through molten rock at Celestia's first crash site, Twilight wasn't even sure the princess could be burned.

She could be injured, that much was clear. Her eyes were closed and her limbs tangled beneath her body. She didn't respond as a tan earth pony mare with a bandage cutie mark tended to her.

The nurse – at least, Twilight assumed she was a nurse – looked up as Twilight broke through the circle. Her eyes widened as she took in Twilight's battered condition.

“You, unicorn. Were you with her when this happened?” the nurse asked. She stood and walked around Luna, her eyes darting up and down Twilight's body quickly. “Have you been treated yet?”

“Er, no and yes, in that order,” Twilight said. She turned to the burning hotel for a moment, then back to the princess. “What happened? She was with us not too long ago near the train station, then she took off. Is she alright?” She pressed forward. “Is she hurt?”

The nurse gave Twilight a concerned look, her eyes lingering again on the many scrapes and scuffs the unicorn had acquired over the past few days. Whatever she intended to say, however, was lost as Luna stirred.

The princess moaned quietly, and her wings fluttered against her side. Before Twilight could do so much as take a step forward, Luna's eyes shot open. They were filled with a baleful energy, an intense stare darker and deeper by far than the night overhead. The circle of ponies stumbled back; even Twilight could not help but cringe at the sight.

“Where is she?!” Luna screamed. Her voice, mellifluous and feminine and terrible, nearly deafened them. “Where did she go? Where did she go?!” She tried to stand, stumbled, and slowly pushed herself upright. A chilling cold emanated from her in waves, setting Twilight's hair on end. Beneath her, a rime of frost began to grow on the ground.

“L-Luna...” Twilight stammered. Everything else was forgotten as she stared at the princess. Her teeth began to chatter.

“Tell me!” Luna stood, and any illusions Twilight had about her size were dispelled. The alicorn seemed to grow before them, her wings spread wide, as though embracing the very night. Her light blue mane darkened and began to sparkle again. It shimmered, then flowed in an invisible breeze. Even her horn seemed to grow, becoming a spiraling needle jutting from her head like a spear. She snarled at their silence, and then stepped toward Twilight.

She never finished the step. As soon as her hoof left the ground she shrieked in pain and fell back onto her haunches. The imperious, commanding look fled her face, replaced by shock. She cradled her foreleg against her chest, and slowly looked down at the source of her pain.

Her hoof was simply gone. The leg ended in a twisted, seared pulp that oozed dark red blood onto her coat. Her mouth fell open, and she began to tremble. The wicked light vanished from her eyes, replaced by a look Twilight knew all too well – fear and hurt.

“Oh Celestia...” Twilight whispered. Despite all she had suffered, Luna's injury was far worse than anything she had ever seen. “Don't move. We'll help you. We'll, uh...” Twilight trailed of and glanced around at the crowd, completely at a loss.

The nurse, fortunately, was not. She pushed Twilight aside and stepped up to Luna without hesitation, already reaching back to open a canvas satchel draped across her back. She carefully pried Luna's leg away from her chest, making quiet shushing noises, and wrapped a large gauze pad around the stump. The white cotton immediately reddened in spots. The nurse frowned at the wound, then pulled out a rolled bandage and began tightly binding the wound.

Luna stared at her mangled hoof as the nurse worked. Her lips and nose turned a sickly, ashen blue, and for a moment she swayed on her remaining legs. She would have fallen, if Applejack and another earth pony hadn't bustled in and pressed against her side.

“Lower your head,” the nurse said. “Better yet, lie down. You're going to pass out.”

“No,” Luna mumbled. Her face glistened with sweat, and she gulped in air like she had just finished running a marathon. “No, I don't have time for this...” Despite the conviction in her words, her head sank, and a thin strand of drool dripped to the ground. Her ears hung limp against her head, like flags on a windless day.

The nurse sighed. “Have it your way. Try to let her down slowly, would you?” She said the last to Applejack.

Twilight found herself edging closer. She stared at Luna's leg as the nurse worked. The bandage was at neat and precise as one of Rarity's dresses – the nurse spun and wrapped the cloth with her hooves and mouth better than Twilight could have dreamed of doing with her magic. Eventually, the limb was entirely swaddled in cotton from her ankle down. Not even the tiniest drops of blood were able to leak through.

“Will... will she be okay?” Twilight said. She tried to pitch her voice down, so only the nurse would hear.

Luna had better hearing than she realized. Her ears flicked as Twilight spoke, and she managed to raise her head.

A flicker of annoyance passed across the nurse's face. She gave the bandage another once-over, then began running her hooves over the rest of Luna's body, pausing occasionally to check her soles. Looking for more blood, Twilight realized.

“She'll be fine,” the nurse said, louder than she needed.

“But her hoof--”

“She'll be fine.” The nurse shot Twilight an angry stare. “And if you don't mind, you aren't helping.”

Twilight shrunk, stung. The weight of the past two days, of watching, helpless and useless as event spun out of control, rushed back in an instant. Her throat tightened, and hot, stinging tears crowded out her vision.

No. Stop it. Luna needs us right now. Stop being a baby and help her. She sniffed, blinked hard, and raised her head again.

“I'm sorry.” Her voice barely trembled. “What should we do?”

The nurse gave her another, softer glance. “You know her? You're her friend?” When Twilight nodded, she continued. “Then talk to her.”

Right, talk. Twilight was good at talking. She took a deep breath and leaned down, putting her face next to Luna's.

“Luna,” she whispered. “It's me, Twilight. We're going to help you.”

The alicorn drew another shuddering breath. “Trixie.” She stumbled on the word. It was more of a hiss than true speech.

“We know. We read the scroll.” Twilight motioned with her hoof for Applejack to lean closer. “What should we do?”

“Find her.” Luna shook her head slowly, as though trying to clear it. “Find her.”

Right. They knew Trixie better than anyone else in the city. With her magic and Applejack's common sense, they could find her in a heartbeat. A feeling of hopeful confidence crept back into Twilight's chest. “We can do that. Then what?”

“Kill her.”

The warm, hopeful feeling evaporated like a snowflake in a bonfire. She stumbled back, staring at Luna with undisguised shock. Applejack jerked in surprise, nearly falling as her hoof caught on Luna's wing. Even the nurse looked up from her work.

For a brief moment, Twilight hoped she might have simply misheard Luna. The alternative was too horrible to consider. The silence stretched out as she struggled for a response.

“But...” It was the only word that occurred to her. She glanced at Applejack, then back to Luna. She's hurt. She's not thinking straight. It was the only possibility.

“You have to.” Luna pushed herself fully upright, her wings fluttering as she settled them back around her body. The dazed, wounded alicorn closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the princess was back, as cold and imperious as the moon. She stared at Twilight; she stared through Twilight.

“But--” Twilight tried again.

“She is responsible for all of this pain and destruction, Twilight.” Luna rode over her without a hint of hesitation. “I tried to take the torc from her peacefully, and this is what happened.” She lifted her hoof. If the wound still pained her, there was no sign of it on her face.

“But--”

“Stop saying that!” Luna roared. The circle of ponies widened as they retreated, and Twilight found herself standing suddenly alone. “Do you think it pleases us to do this? To kill one of our own subjects? If there were any other way, Twilight, we would take it, but there is not. If you wish to save this city from the same fate as Canterlot, you will help us.”

Twilight sat, dumbfounded. The silence as Luna finished was profound. Distantly, she heard the battle against the burning hotel rate – ponies shouting, bells ringing, fires roaring. It might as well have been a thousand miles away.

Luna stared at her another moment, then nodded. “Good. we know it's unpleasant and feels wrong, Twilight, but sometimes we must do hard things to save the ones we love.” A pained look flashed across her face as she said the last word, but it was gone in an instant. A ghost of an emotion. “Now, she can't have made it very far on hoof--”

“No.”

Luna stopped. The expressionless mask reappeared on her face. “What did you say?”

Twilight stood. “I said no. We're not going to help you kill anypony. We've come this far – there must be some other way to--”

“There is no other way!” Luna hobbled toward Twilight on three legs. Any comic effect from her gait was lost as she loomed over Twilight's tiny form. “Every pony in this town will die if we do not get that torc! You will help us!”

Twilight gulped. Her leg lifted, and she began to take a step back. It took all her will to force it down again and stand her ground. “I said no, Luna. I won't.”

The night itself seemed to darken around them. The light of the fires faded away, sinking into the shadows like water into sand. Luna somehow grew, her mane flowing like a cloud that blotted out everything but the moon and stars overhead. The terrible, killing cold was back. Twilight's breath puffed in front of her, before even that pitiful scrap of light vanished as well. Nothing remained but Luna.

She stared at Twilight. There was nothing warm, or caring, or even mortal in her gaze. Only a judging god, viewing an unworthy subject.

“Very well.” Her voice was ice. Colder than ice – as cold as the lightless reaches beyond the moon and between the stars. Merely hearing her words drew the warmth from Twilight's body, leaving her shivering in the desert night. “I pray you will live to understand the enormity of your error.”

With that, the princess of the night stretched her wings to their fullest extent and lifted into the air. A shadow fell over the assembled crowd, somehow casting the night into further darkness. Within a moment it passed, and then Luna was gone. Overhead, a black shape flitted across the stars, spiraling ever outward from the roiling smoke.

Twilight realized she was shivering. Applejack, the nurse, and all the other ponies were staring at her in disbelief. She swallowed and tried to speak.

“I c-couldn't do it.” She looked around for support. “I would have done anything else. How... how could she ask--”

“Shh, it's alright, sugar.” Applejack stepped up beside her. “You did the right thing. She'll understand, when she calms down.”

“You think she'll...”

“I know she will,” Applejack said. “She's just in a rough spot. Like some other ponies I could mention.”

Very subtle. Twilight frowned and shook her head. “Well, we can't afford to wait for that. We need to find Trixie before she does.”

“Have any ideas?”

Twilight sat in thought for a minute. The circle of ponies slowly broke apart, their attention drawn to the blazing fire behind them. Only the nurse remained, giving Twilight another once-over. She changed the bandage on Twilight's hoof, tsk-ing at the wound, and made Applejack promise to keep it clean. That would have annoyed her, had Twilight been paying any attention.

Finally, she looked up. “Yes. Yes I do.”

***

The night welcomed Luna back into its fold. The chill desert air embraced her, held her aloft effortlessly. Las Pegasus shrank beneath her to a mosaic of lights, a grid of stars that eerily matched her own artistry above. Directly below her, the fire she started in the hotel was lost in the greater blaze of the city, vanished except for a faint smudge where the smoke blotted out the ground.

She noticed none of this. Twilight's rejection – no, her betrayal – oozed through her like the bitterest poison. Twice in this night a pony she trusted had turn against her, though to be fair Trixie's betrayal was days old. Still, both wounds were fresh, and ached far worse than the dull throb in her hoof.

She gave her wounded leg a quick glance. Images flashed before her: Trixie lying on the hotel floor, weeping. The torc, glittering in the darkness. Her hoof, shod in meteoric silver, descending to crush the traitorous unicorn. She closed her eyes and listened to the wind whistle around her.

Trixie was somewhere below. Las Pegasus was large, but not so large that she could hide forever. She was frightened and on the run, and frightened ponies made mistakes.

Luna tilted her wingtips, banking into a widening circle around the burning hotel. She would find Trixie, and this time there would be no underestimating her. No hesitation. No mercy for an imagined friend.

She thought back to the topiary gardens outside the castle. How far away it all seemed now. Just two days ago. A lifetime ago.

If you can't remove the torc from the pony, remove the pony from the torc. If all else failed, she could simply toss Trixie at Celestia's hooves. Nothing would remain but the torc. And memories.

Celestia could have the former. Luna would keep the latter.

***

Less than an hour later, Trixie found herself just blocks away from where she had entered the city – the Las Pegasus freight shipping yard.

Dozens of railways converged on this one point, covering a vast stretch of open land larger than the entire town of Appleloosa. Lines of boxcars sat, unused, in the crisp night air, waiting for the return of the day and the ponies who would drive them out into the world. Some were destined for mining and industrial sites out in the mountains. Others were simple passenger liners, soon to carry ponies to towns across Equestria. A select number would never leave the city at all – they existed only to ferry cargo from inbound trains to smaller stations throughout the city. Together, the network they formed was a marvel of earth pony engineering, more elaborate and sophisticated than any other transportation system in the world.

Trixie just needed to borrow one, small piece of it.

She had not the slightest idea how trains worked. Some, she knew, powered themselves, with steam boilers that might as well have been magic to her mind. More primitive ones were pulled by teams of conductor ponies. She trusted that type more.

Under the circumstances, she wasn't likely to get either version working, particularly without being noticed. For all that the trainyard was unguarded at night (after all, who would think to steal a train?), there were limits to what she could pull off. That was fine, though. She just needed a single car.

The central station was nearly as large as Canterlot keep. It was a simple design, as though someone had taken a barnyard and built it a hundred times too large, with metal girders and glass panes instead of wood beams painted red. A pair of massive doors, one on each end of the structure, led to its cavernous interior. Thousands of ponies could have crowded inside, with room for a hundred pegusi in the air above them.

Trixie paused at the entrance. The far end of the station was hundreds of yards away, across from platforms and kiosks and elevated walkways and signs, dozens of signs, all exclaiming which line led to which train to which destination. To her left and right a dozen rails shot clean through the station. Even for a pony used to incredible things, it was an overwhelming sight.

Far beyond, in the yard outside the station, she spotted her target. A single, lonely, unused passenger car, sitting on the line leading south. She sucked in her breath and trotted into the station.

She was only a few yards in when she stumbled to a halt. Up ahead, she heard noises. Hooves on concrete. Voices. She ducked into the shadows beside a hulking steam engine and waited, her ears straining forward to hear.

“...bigger than I thought it would be.” The voice was feminine, but somehow still rough around the edges, with a slight drawl that reminded Trixie of the farming villages she used to frequent.

The voices drifted away for a moment, lost in the cavernous void. The tick and tock of an enormous clock, located on the central platform, filled the darkness with a mechanical heartbeat. Echoes of the clicking gears bounced back from the distant walls and ceiling, producing a lingering rattle that counted away the spaces between the seconds. She strained to hear the intruders over the sound of the passing time.

Eventually, the voices returned. A new pony spoke, more quietly and refined than the first. “...be here. Do you think we're too late?”

Trixie recognized the voice instantly. How could she not, when those same soft tones had haunted her dreams, all those months on the road? Her mind supplied an image of the pony: a mare, short for her age, with dark purple and pink hair cut straight as a ruler across her forehead. A lavender coat, and a starburst mark on her flank. The picture was as clear and sharp as if she were back in Ponyville, nearly a year before.

Twilight Sparkle. The damn unicorn had followed her from Canterlot. Trixie realized she was grinding her teeth, and forced herself to relax. Getting angry wouldn't solve anything.

They didn't know she was here, though they were obviously hunting for her. She could hide until they moved on, or try to sneak past them. Neither option was palatable – the sun was only a few hours away, and then everything would be too late.

The voices were drawing closer. She took a careless step back, and nearly shrieked when her flank bumped into the wood partition holding up a newspaper kiosk. An instant later, a hundred magazines, newspapers, coffee mugs, booklets, pens, maps and assorted other touristy knick-knacks clattered to the floor in a cheap, tacky avalanche that sent loose papers spilling across the platform.

Trixie stared at the mess in horror. Before she could even think of moving, a bright purple flare burst in the air above her, filling the station with light.

***

Twilight Sparkle was starting to feel desperate.

The train station had seemed like the obvious place to search. Even Applejack had agreed! There was simply no other expeditious way for a unicorn to escape the city before the sun rose and Celestia came looking for the torc.

“It's bigger than I thought it would be,” Applejack said. “These western ponies know how to build a train station, that's for sure.”

Twilight mumbled something non-committal, her mind on other things. She tried to imagine other possible hiding places or escape routes for a desperate unicorn. Did Las Pegasus have hot air balloons? A sewer system?

Finally, she gave voice to her fears. “I was sure she would be here. Do you think we're too late?”

Now that they were here, searching the massive emptiness of the freight station at night, her brilliant insight was looking a lot less brilliant. Aside from their simply being late, it was always possible Trixie had decided to escape on foot. A million possible reasons she was wrong tormented her mind. She was about to confess her desperation to Applejack when a sudden, tremendous clatter broke the silence.

Twilight turned without thinking, her horn flaring as she cast the first spell that came to mind. A bright purple spark leapt from its tip, shot through the darkness like an arrow, and exploded in a brilliant purple firework that lit the cavern like day.

Trixie reeled in the sudden brilliance, a hoof held over her eyes to block out the flare. Her powder blue coat appeared a dark grey in the purple light. She looked, Twilight thought, rather worse for wear. Scraped, bruised, bedraggled, with a mane that looked like it hadn't seen a comb in days. Her eyes, even in the shadow of her hoof, were haunted, weighed down with whatever terrors she had carried with her from Canterlot. She looked terrible.

She looks like me. The thought jolted her. Twilight glanced down at her own scuffed, dirty coat. Her mane felt like a bird's nest glued to her head. The fresh white bandage around her hoof was already beginning to curl around the edges.

“You.”

The sudden voice jerked Twilight out of her introspection. Across the platform, Trixie started as well. They both turned to Applejack.

“You,” the earth pony said again. She practically growled the word. Never had Twilight seen her friend so angry.

Applejack took a step forward. The crack of her hoof against the stone floor echoed through the station like thunder. She lowered her head, as though about to charge, and snarled at Trixie.

“I knew you were up to no good!” she shouted. “I shoulda known this was all your fault!”

Trixie cringed. She glanced around, as though looking for an escape route, then turned back to them. The look on her face was wild. Desperate.

“Stay back!” she yelled at them. “You can't stop me!”

Twilight took a step forward. She put a hoof on Applejack's shoulder before the earth pony could do anything rash. “I don't care about you, Trixie. We just want the torc.” She could see it clutched around Trixie's neck. It was exactly the same as it had appeared on Celestia, but somehow smaller, as though Trixie had found a jeweler and gotten it resized. She frowned and filed that mystery away for later.

Trixie's face twisted in a mix of emotions, so tangled Twilight couldn't begin to unscramble them. Rage, desperation, something like hate. Her eyes were wild as she shouted back.

“Don't you think I want to get rid of it?” She pried the tip of her hoof beneath the metal rim and strained, stopping a moment later as a raw shriek burst from her throat. Her head dangled, and a trickle of blood ran down her coat and pattered onto the cement floor. She caught her breath and looked up again, her face wracked with pain. “I can't. Nothing will get it off!”

Twilight gawked, taken aback by the ferocity in her voice and the sudden, shocking appearance of blood. Even Applejack seemed to have forgotten her anger.

“Oh, Celestia,” Twilight mumbled. Louder: “Maybe Luna can--”

It was the wrong thing to suggest. Even as she spoke Luna's name, Twilight realized her mistake. Luna's command, somehow forgotten in the shock of finally discovering Trixie, came floating back. Find her. Kill her.

Trixie must have realized what Luna had in mind. She took a step back and nearly tripped over the spilled newspapers. She recovered her footing, and shot them both a glare.

“No,” she said, still backing away. “No, Twilight Sparkle. You are not going to stop me. Luna is not going to stop me. No one will stop Trixie!”

There's no time for this. Twilight reached out with her magic, extending a magical grip toward Trixie to lift her into the air, just like she had with the Ursa Minor, so many months ago.

At least, that was the intent. As soon as the faint purple glow of her magic reached Trixie, it exploded in a shower of sparks. A sudden backlash jolted her horn, leaving her briefly dazed. It was like someone had set off a firecracker in her brain. The sparks faded away almost instantly, but the amethyst in Trixie's torc seemed to glimmer, as though it had someone stolen their light.

“Twilight!” Applejack looked back and forth between the two unicorns. “What the hay?!”

Twilight reached a shaking hoof up to her horn. Visions of Luna's foot, blasted away and seared almost to the bone, flashed before her eyes. She nearly passed out from relief when her hoof found it safe and whole.

“I'm fine,” she said. Her voice trembled, but grew stronger as she spoke. “I can't touch her, though. You'll have to.”

“Can do.” She turned to Trixie, who was staring at them with another odd expression. Anguish, mixed with her typical haughtiness.

“If you think a dirt pony is going to stop Trixie, you are sadly mistaken,” she said. Her horn flared with a weak silver glow, and the shadows around her seemed to expand. The darkness rose up over her like a shroud, cloaking her with its essence. The silver light faded and vanished in the pitch black space before them.

“Dirt pony!?” Applejack drew herself up and glared at the empty space where Trixie had stood. “You take that back!” She galloped toward the ebbing shadows and jumped onto the spot Trixie had been standing.

Trixie had, of course, moved by that point. Whatever else she was – braggart, coward, or fool – she wasn't enough of an idiot to try and stand down an enraged earth pony. Applejack landed harmlessly, tackling only air, and skidded across the smooth concrete into the pile of newspapers Trixie had knocked over. She was back on her feet in an instant, spinning around to search for any sign of her foe.

Off to the side, near another engine, Twilight saw one of the shadows drift across the moonlit platform. Without thinking, she fired another flare toward it. A brilliant purple firework exploded among the shadows, lighting them like day and exposing Trixie's crouching form.

“Applejack, there!” Her outburst was unnecessary. Applejack was already halfway toward Trixie by the time Twilight spoke. The showmare looked around in a panic, then abruptly vanished in a flash.

Almost instantly, there was an identical flash behind Twilight. She spun around to see Trixie no more than a foot away, so close she could make out each individual cut and scrape marring the blue unicorn's pelt. A large patch of her mane was missing – only a blackened scorch remained along her scalp where flowing, beautiful silver hair had once curled. Twilight opened her mouth to speak, when Trixie did something so intimate, so personal, Twilight was shocked into silence.

The showmare leaned forward and lightly touched her horn to Twilight's own. There was a tiny spark of magic, as of two dissimilar fields equalizing, then Trixie turned and pelted away. Twilight was too shocked to even consider following.

She touched my horn... She touched my horn! Only her parents had ever offered her such a familiar expression of love. She resisted the urge to reach up and try and wipe it clean.

“Gotcha!” Applejack's shout came from almost directly behind her. She turned just in time to absorb the earth pony's full weight as it crashed into her, slamming her to the ground in a bone-crushing tackle. Her breath exploded from her lungs. Stars danced around her head, the brightest points in the dark station. She felt herself lifted up, then dropped back onto the concrete.

“You liar!” Somepony shouted. It sounded like it was coming from a great distance, or as if somepony had stuffed her ears with cotton. She tried to stand in a daze, and felt a tremendous blow to her ribs. She toppled back down and stayed there.

Legs wrapped around her neck and wrenched her head back. She battered at them with her hooves, but they were like steel bars. Her vision, only so recently returned, began to go gray again.

“Applejack,” she tried to wheeze. Barely a gurgle emerged.

“Shut up!” Applejack's voice shouted in her ear. The anger in it was unbearable to hear. “I should give you to Luna! After everything you've done, it's the least you deserve!”

A calm, rational part of Twilight's mind wondered what had gotten into her friend. The greater portion of her mind was filled with gibbering panic as her air supply was slowly choked off. She beat weakly at Applejack's legs, with no effect. She tried some magic – any magic – but her thoughts were too disordered by the pain and shock of the attack. Eventually, it was all she could do to hook her wounded hoof around Applejack's, and try to pry it away. No dice.

“I've got her, Twilight!” Applejack shouted. The weight above Twilight shifted as Applejack peered around. “Twilight! Where'd you go, girl?”

Twilight twitched.

“Stop that,” Applejack snarled. She seemed about to say something else when suddenly she faltered. One of the unforgiving legs unclamped itself from Twilight's neck, and gently touched the fresh bandage around her wounded hoof. “What the hay...”

Twilight tried to speak again. A faint rasp was all that emerged. “Applejack...”

There was a loud gasp, and the other leg around Twilight's neck jerked away. Her head fell back to the concrete floor, bounced, then stayed still. The stars were back, she idly noted. Everything else seemed far away and not so important.

Numb. That was the word she was looking for. Everything was numb. Even her aches and pains were gone. Vanished. Distant relatives who no longer wrote.

“Twilight? Twilight!” Applejack sounded panicked, distraught. Very unlike her. Something must have gotten her upset.

Twilight wondered what could have happened. Faintly she was also aware of a ringing ache in her head, and her throat felt like somepony had shoved a log down it. Again, all very far away.

A pair of hooves cradled her head, lifting it away from the floor. Even that slight motion was too much for her to bear. The station spun around, and an acidic tang filled her mouth. The last thing she remembered was a burning pain in her throat, very real and not at all numb, as she vomited her most recent meal onto the concrete.

Then, mercifully, everything went dark.