• Published 13th Feb 2012
  • 2,662 Views, 83 Comments

Escape from Castle Midnight - Gojira007

Twilight and her friends must embark on a dangerous quest to a dark new world to save Equestria.

  • ...

Chapter 4: To The Rescue

Escape from Castle Midnight

Nestled within the heart of the City of Unicorns, there stood a single tower as tall as the clouds. It was as dignified and imposing a structure as could ever be found in all the land, its stone walls covered in generations of vines and ivy with a roof of crimson that stood sharp as a horn at its very top. The arched windows all glowed with the soft light of candles within, its lone entrance an iron gate within a golden frame. Upon its doors was a distinctive etching of a single unicorn horn at its bottom, from which sprang a magnificent spiral.

Hidden behind a hooded cloak of leathery grey-brown, Princess Luna approached the tower with caution. It was not her first visit, but no matter how often she came there the alicorn filly was always awed by the sheer power the place exuded. Moreover, she had to be careful around the local unicorns; even a single feather from the wings she kept carefully concealed beneath her cloak could arouse their anger. Taking a calming breath, the young Moon Princess gave the gate a solid couple of knocks. “Yes, yes, just a moment,” a gruff voice came from within.

Luna took a step back as the gate was surrounded by a rustic golden glow, its doors swinging open to reveal an elderly light-brown unicorn garbed in a dark-blue cloak and matching wide-rimmed hat. His grim expression stood in contrast to the fanciful golden bells that hung from the rims of his clothing, but it fit perfectly with the ragged, silvery beard that ran from the bottom of his chin to the tips of his front hooves. Despite those grave eyes bearing down on her, Luna kept her calm, removing her hood and bowing humbly before the unicorn. “Hail, o noble Star Swirl the Bearded,” she said, “Thine student hath returned that we might again be instilled with thy great wisdom.”

Immediately, all trace of solemnity vanished from the unicorn. “By the Great Horn of Haggoth!” he laughed, his entire face lighting up with gleeful excitement, “Luna! Forgive these old eyes for failing to recognize thee sooner. ‘Tis my honor to have thee return; please, come in, my student.”

Luna nodded with a gracious smile of her own, stepping in to the master Wizard’s domain. “As I recall,” Star Swirl said as he used the magic of his horn to close the door behind her, “we last left off with higher-end shape-shifting spells, yes?”

It took the princess a moment to answer; as impressive as Star Swirl’s sanctuary was from the outside, it paled in comparison to the sheer beauty that rested on the inside, and no matter how many times Luna entered, that first moment of soaking in the many incredible sights and sounds that spiraled up every level of the tower was always a breath-taking one. “Correct,” she finally replied.

Comfortably nestling herself onto a large ornate couch near the very center of the room, her horn briefly glimmered with the mental command to disband the many bats who, weaved together, made up her cloak. Star Swirl watched with an admiring smile as each one flew off and away out the nearest window. “I see thou hast mastered both animal telepathy and empathetic unification,” he said. “As I recall, thou wert still struggling with those during our last lesson.”

“Mother helped us practice,” Luna replied, her smile fading somewhat.

The bearded unicorn now knelt at Luna’s side. “How doth Eternia fare these days?” he asked with gentle sypmathy.

“Well enough,” Luna answered, looking upward to the window her bats had flown through. “But the ever-growing hostility of the three Tribes saddens her deeply, and we fear it exacerbates her illness all the worse.”

Star Swirl nodded sagely. “The hate of the Tribes saddens us all, my dear,” he said, “and indeed, I fear it may one day soon call a great calamity upon the land. Yet hope ever lives, as long as there are still those of us who remember the days of Eternia, when the Tribes lived as one and Friendship was the common bond between them.”

Luna looked up at Star Swirl with greater enthusiasm than he had ever seen in her before, meeting his playfully reassuring wink with an eagerly renewed smile. “Thou…thou wert alive in the days when my Mother still walked among the Tribes?”

The old unicorn nodded. “Wouldst…wouldst thou tell us about it? What it was like?” Luna asked, her voice an awestruck whisper; she and her sister had never met a mortal Pony who had lived in those bygone days before either one had been born.

“I am afraid I was only a colt at the time, born during the final days of Eternia’s rule,” Star Swirl replied, levitating a dusty old book (“Advanced Shape-Shifting”) from a nearby shelf over to Luna, “There is little I could tell you, other than that in those days, with Eternia to guide them, all Ponies-Earth Ponies, Unicorns, and Pegasi-lived as one. And so I continue to believe that one day they shall re-learn the lessons of Harmony and Friendship, even without your Mother to guide them.”

Luna frowned in disappointment, opening her book lazily. Yet as she mulled over what Star Swirl had told her, a new question formed in her mind. “Perhaps thou cannot tell us much,” she said, careful not to sound demanding or improper; a Princess though she was, Star Swirl was still her teacher and a good Pony who had done much to help her learn the ways of Magic her ailing Mother was too weak to teach. He deserved her respect. “But thou might still tell us this: how did our Mother’s time as Queen end?”

Dead silence and an aching stare were Star Swirl’s only answer. Luna quickly bowed her head apologetically. “Forgive us, o most honored teacher,” she pleaded, “We hath offended thee without meaning to. We beg thy forgiveness!”

Star Swirl gave a withered sigh, shaking his head. “The fault is mine, Luna,” he said softly, “I was so happy to remember when the Tribes lived together, I allowed myself to forget the terrible shadow that came to hang over that era.”

He could still see an overpowering curiosity swirling in Luna’s eyes. “Let us only say that in those times, there were forces beyond Day and Night to reckon with,” he said grimly. “But such matters need not concern thee. Let us resume thine studies and speak no more of it.”

Though her mind buzzed with more questions, Luna knew better than to pry with the bearded unicorn. “Yes, o wise Star Swirl,” she answered graciously…

...and closed the “Obscure Unicorn History” text-book she had found. Once she had told the Captain of the Guards about Celestia’s order to assemble his troops at the Castle Gates, the dark-blue alicorn had headed straight to the Royal Library, anxious to see if something in its annals of knowledge might help her understand…the black clouds over Ponyville, the voice she had heard all those years ago, the dream that had been filled with that same voice.

Her search up until then had been unsuccessful, but seeing a picture of her old teacher had reminded her of that day, back when she was still training to be the Moon’s caretaker. It reminded her of the questions she had let slip away into the back of her mind, never to be asked again after that. And it made her wonder.

Still, if the library could give her no answers, Luna knew what she had to do. She had to go to the source.

She had to go to Ponyville.

Chapter 4: To The Rescue


Rainbow’s jaw had practically fallen off her face it was open so wide. She had always hoped her foalhood friend would come back to Ponyville one day, even after how sourly things had ended last time, but after so long with no word from the griffon, she had almost given up. Yet now, here she stood, right in front of her. “I don’t…you weren’t…how did…?” the pegasus sputtered.

Gilda could only snort in amusement, shaking her head condescendingly. “Eloquent as always, eh, Dash?” she chuckled coolly, “I can see why Pip-Scoot looks up to you.”

“Aww knock it off, Ms. Gilda!” the orange filly said defiantly, though even as her wings buzzed with annoyance, she leaned over to Sweetie Belle and whispered, “But seriously, she’s super awesome."

While Rainbow continued to struggle to find the words she was looking for, Pinkie Pie decided to fill the gap. Bouncing toward Gilda with one hoof outstretched, she grinned giddily as she giggled, “I think what Rainbow’s trying to say is, howdy-wowdy Gilda-pouty!”

Immediately, a tension fell over the air. Gilda’s eyes narrowed, her claws gripping down on the ground. “Listen, Cotton Candy,” she growled coldly, glaring daggers at the bubbly Earth Pony, “I may have saved your little friend, but don’t think that means I forgot how things went down last time!”

“That’s Cotton PIE to you!” Pinkie retorted angrily, only to immediately revert to a cheerier disposition. “…no. Wait. It’s Pinkie Pie. Nee-e-ver mind.”

Her well-meaning smile did little to deflate the air of hostility quietly bubbling beneath Gilda’s eyes. Eager to cut that aggression off at the pass, Twilight Sparkle and Rarity shared a glance between them before both stepping forward between Gilda and Pinkie. “Pardon me, Ms….Gilda, was it?” Rarity offered graciously, “I haven’t had the pleasure of properly making your acquaintance, but I simply wanted to express my gratitude to you for saving Scootaloo. She is a dear friend of my little sister, and we are both extremely thankful to see her safe.”

“We all are,” Twilight affirmed diplomatically. “And we’re happy to welcome you back to Ponyville, too. Right, Pinkie?”

Pinkie nodded enthusiastically.

“Right, Rainbow?” Twilight asked.

As all eyes turned to her, the pegasus finally stopped her stammering, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. It took her a moment, but eventually her eyes opened, their warm gaze fixed squarely on Gilda. Rainbow approached her old friend with slow steps, wings slowly unfolding as she approached. “Gilda…” she said softly.

She then smacked the griffon square across the top of her head. “Don’t leave so long next time!” she shouted crossly, just before wrapping her hooves and wings around Gilda in a sincere hug, her voice cracking just a little as she finished, “I really missed you.”

Even as she pushed the pegasus away with one talon, the griffon could not help but give a rough grin. “Yeah yeah, I missed you too, Dash, no need to get so mushy about it,” she said.

Despite the black clouds above making it tricky, Twilight could still sense it was getting late. “We should get going to the shelter now,” she said, “Princess Celestia doesn’t want anypony staying out after dark.”

The alicorn then looked at Gilda with a polite smile. “You’re welcome to come with us, Ms. Griffon,” she said, “if you’d like to.”

“I’d like to a lot more if ya didn’t ever call me ‘Ms. Griffon’ ever again,” Gilda grumbled under her breath.

She suddenly found herself flanked by a pair of peppy Pegasi, however. On the ground, Scootaloo buzzed giddily around her legs. “It was sooooooooo super-cool the way you sent those ugly dragon-things packing,” she giggled eagerly, “You gotta come with us so we can show everypony else how awesome you are!”

“Of course she’s gonna come with us, squirt!” Rainbow Dash said, gliding in excited circles above. “After all, she ‘n’ I have a lot of catching up to do now that she’s finally come back to Ponyville! Right, Gilda?”

The griffon looked her friend in the eye and gave a weak smile. “Yeah,” she said half-heartedly, “Right.”

Neither Rainbow nor Twilight missed the clear discomfort there. While the pegasus floated down to her friend’s side with a sympathetic look, however, Twilight found herself confronted with a question. “Ms. Gr-uh, I mean, Gilda,” she said, “what does bring you back to Ponyville?”

Brows knitted tightly, eyes closed with an aggrieved expression, the griffon gave a short but heavy sigh. “I came to help,” she said curtly, eyes still shut.

“But…Gilda…,” Rainbow said hesitantly, “how’d you know we’d need help…?”

Gilda’s eyes snapped open, a determined fire in them now. “Your Princess is waiting at the Shelter, right?” she asked, looking directly at Twilight.

The alicorn nodded silently. “Good,” the griffon snorted, snapping the ground with her tail, “I’ll explain everything when we get there, then. ‘Cuz I’m thinking she’ll wanna hear what I have to say too, and I hate repeating myself.”

The warm, soothing rays of the sun above her, the barrier of black clouds below her, Princess Celestia hovered in the heart of the skies over Ponyville in introspective silence. She was still waiting to hear back from Philomena, but the reports from her guards on the ground below had been troubling indeed. Dozens of townsponies missing, many times more injured…fear and insecurity hung heavily on everypony’s minds, and though she kept her vigil diligently, the Sun Princess knew she could only do so much to mitigate that; with so much about what had happened-and, just as importantly, what was going to happen next-still steeped in questions, the underlying fear would remain.

It was enough to give even Celestia pause. For the first time in over a thousand years, she found herself hesitant to end the Day and bring the Night. Even filtered through the darkness of the clouds, the Sun provided some much-needed comfort for the Ponies below. “And,” Celestia admitted to herself, “to me as well.”

Despite all that, however, the balance of Day and Night was too important to ignore. Swooping around, taking one last bath of daylight, she spread her wings as wide as they would go and shut her eyes. Her focus soon crystallized into a translucent glow that surrounded her horn as she raised her head upwards. “There you are, my old friend,” she thought as she felt her spell wrap around the Sun. “Sleep well.”

And with that, she dived toward the clouds, legs pulling in and head sharply nodding downward. Her glowing horn lit up all the brighter in that moment. As Celestia did, so too did the Sun take its last descent down, down, down beneath the line of the horizon. The sky’s crisp orange was replaced with pitch-dark blue as Celestia stopped herself just shy of passing back through the clouds. Still riding the same wave of momentum, she turned around and began to rise back up, opening her eyes for only a moment. “Good evening, Mother,” she whispered, as she always did, gazing warmly at the many glimmering stars.

Then she closed her eyes again, the pulsing glow around her horn ebbing briefly before flowing out. Normally, this would be where Luna took over, but....

"Best to keep her as far away from all this as possible," Celestia thought, as she felt this spell too successfully connect to its target. Stretching her forelegs out, she began to ascend higher and higher. With each wing-beat she took upwards, the darkness of the night sky was lessened just a bit more as the shimmering silver Moon rose in unison with Celestia. Soon, they both reached their peak, and the white alicorn at last stopped her rise, opening her eyes and letting the enchanted glow of her horn fade away. The Princess wanted to return to the surface, but she found herself needing a moment to catch her breath; the transition had proven more draining than it had used to be. Nothing overwhelming but, the memory of black streaks along her horn still fresh, it served as a stark reminder of the great unknowns lurking in those ominous clouds. “All the more reason to make sure everpony down in Ponyville is doing alright,” Celestia reminded herself.

As she prepared to do just that, however, she spotted a shadowed figure flying toward her in the distance. At first, the Princess thought it was Philomena, returning with her report, but in the still quiet of the Night, she quickly realized who it really was. Celestia would recognize those ethereally soft wing-beats anywhere. “Hail, dear sister,” Luna greeted courteously as she approached, bowing her head humbly.

“Hail, Luna,” Celestia replied, nuzzling the younger alicorn’s neck softly.

As the two broke their embrace, Luna's attention slowly turned to the white orb that now hung in the sky. "You...raised the Moon...?" she asked.

"My apologies, sister," Celestia sighed, "but under the circumstances I thought it was best. There is still much about this situation I do not understand, and I had hoped to let you remain in the safety of the Palace rather than leave it to do the job yourself."

A wry little grin came to her face then as she raised her brow. “Speaking of which, I believe I left you with orders to remain at the palace in Canterlot, didn’t I?”

There was a moment when the two sisters simply held gazes, Luna's ears gently twitching as her lips shifted from side to side. Eventually, however, she too could not help but give a weak little smile of her own. "That's true," she said, and her expression returned to its former seriousness,“but…I needed to come here, Celestia. I just…I needed to come here. There’s something familiar about all this, something that reminds me of…”

The Moon Princess stopped suddenly, her whole body going tense. Celestia was quick to respond, gently guiding her sister down to a patch of normal clouds floating nearby. “I’m sorry for disobeying you, sis,” Luna said.

A single white wing wrapped itself around her, pulling her into a gentle embrace with Celestia. “Apology accepted,” the Sun Princess replied kindly, though a certain worry was still in her voice. "I hope you can do the same for mine?"

Luna's smile returned, and she nodded.

The two let that comfort stand still for a moment. Eventually, however, Celestia stepped back, motioning for Luna to follow her to the cloud’s edge. “Since you’re here anyway,” she said, “perhaps you can help me.”

Luna’s ears perked slightly. “How so…?” she asked, following behind quickly.

Celestia pointed downward with one of her wings. “There was an attack on Ponyville,” she explained solemnly, “Creatures from inside the black clouds came down and kidnapped many townsponies, doing great harm along the way.”

“How awful…,” Luna whispered, the ominous words of her dream tingling at the back of her thoughts: “You know your mission, my servants. Bring back as many as you can…and at last I may be free…."

Her sister nodded. “Indeed,” she said, “It has left the remaining citizens stricken with fear.”

And then that light, sage smile returned to Celestia’s face. “So I believe it would do them good to see both their Princesses coming to their aid,” she said, voice lightening again. “Especially now, the Mistress of Night would be a great comfort, don’t you agree?”

“O-oh, yes! Very much so!” she replied eagerly, stopping herself quickly to straighten her posture and clear her throat. “Um, I mean…Verrily! After all, ‘tis our duty as Princesses to provide comfort and support for our aggrieved subjects!”

“My thoughts exactly,” Celestia chuckled softly.
Already there was excitement brimming in the Moon Princess’ eyes, her ears and wings spread wide and ready. Luna had longed for another chance to visit Ponyville ever since her wonderful time there on Nightmare Night, and even as she wished it were under better circumstances, there was comfort in knowing it would give her subjects hope. “Come, dearest Celestia,” she said, swelling with regal pride, “let us descend, that we may light the flames of the villagers’ hearts!”

As soon as Celestia gave a nod of approval, Luna was off, opening her wings and diving off the cloud’s edge. The older Princess stayed back for a moment, however, watching her sister with protective eyes. She still wished Luna had stayed back at the Palace; the danger of the black clouds was still very real. “But how could I deny a Princess her chance to protect her kingdom?” she thought hopefully, before joining Luna in her journey below.

Spike had rather hoped that, once it had gone from being a far-off, ominously vague object to a close-up, fully visible place, the air of intractable menace that hung over the jagged stone palace-“Castle Midnight”, his captor had called it-would lessen. Instead, it had only gotten worse, the murky glow of light coming from inside the castle making the many windows seem like glaring eyes. As he and Scorpan landed in front of the gate, its pointed bars clenched into the ground like fangs, the young dragon could only shudder at the thought of just what kind of creature would find this place a suitable home. “You do not have anything to fear,” Scorpan said calmly, finally letting Spike out of his grip and placing him on the ground. “This place is a haven for our kind.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that,” Spike said with trembling defiance, “’Our kind’. But I’m a Dragon. And you’re a…you’re a…”
“Scorpan is Scorpan,” the ape-beast growled, though his tone remained oddly gentle.
“My point,” Spike said, annoyed at that vague answer, “is that we’re not the same ‘kind’, so stop saying we are!”

Scorpan chuckled grimly, patting Spike on his head again. “I see,” he said, “You are uncomfortable around me, but you see nothing strange in living with Ponies all your life?”

That answer struck Spike, much to his own surprise, but before he had a chance to respond himself, Scorpan took his hand, quickly leading him out of the way of the incoming Stratadon Horde as it caught up to them. Still holding their prisoners tight within their claws, they touched down with tight control, assembling themselves into rows in front of the gate. Most of the Ponies they carried remained unconscious, but those who were not had grown increasingly distressed. “Please, let me go!” one of them, a thick-chinned male pegasus whose eyes were covered by rough brown bangs, sobbed, “I ain’t done nothin’ to ya! I don’t wanna be eaten, please!”

The other waking Ponies also began to plead and cry, struggling fruitlessly to escape the iron grip of the Stratadons. Spike readied himself to charge the beasts, even knowing he would never be able to successfully fight them all. “Even one of ‘em would be enough!” he thought desperately. “Better that than nothing!”

Yet as he took his first few steps, he found himself stopped cold by an iron grip around his tail. Looking back, he saw it was Scorpan, lip curled back in frustration. With a simple tug, he pulled Spike back toward him, stepping over to the Stratadons himself. “SILENCE!!!” the ape-beast roared, his words echoing out across the vast ocean over which the Castle stood. “CEASE YOUR USELESS WHINING!!!”

The sheer volume of his voice shocked the Ponies-and Spike-into stunned quiet. “If you do not resist, none of you will be harmed,” Scorpan spoke, commandingly but calmly.

He fixed the Ponies with a stone-cold glare, and sure enough they all went still. Nodding in satisfaction, the ape-beast released Spike’s tail, moving toward the gate. Spike, for his part, could only watch the ape-beast with a mixture of confusion, caution, and just a bit of intrigue. “Who is this guy?” he wondered.

Taking a deep breath, Scorpan placed his hand on the gate, then exhaled in a deep, throaty snarl as his grip clenched. Surges of dark energy began to emanate from his hand, crackling along each of the gate’s bars in every direction. As the crackles faded, there came an ear-piercing screech and a low but affecting rumble. The gate slowly but surely retracted out of the ground, slinking away into the rim of the gateway that held it. Scorpan then looked to Spike, offering his hand. “Come with me,” he said simply.

The young dragon eyed him warily. “Do I have a choice?” he asked, voice small but still trying to keep strong.

“You could jump into the ocean,” Scorpan replied flatly, “though I doubt you would survive the fall.”

Spike quirked his brow, but remained hesitant. “I promised you answers before,” Scorpan said, looking at the young dragon with surprising softness. “But I must perform my duty first. Once I have, however, I will explain everything to you. Including why you belong here.”

Again, he offered his hand. Ears folded down with nervousness, Spike remained reticent, but as hard as he tried to, he could not think of what else to do. “OK,” he said, grudgingly placing his hand in Scorpan’s. “For now.”

“Once you understand the truth,” Scorpan said, leading Spike to the open gateway and motioning for the Stratadons to follow, “you will think differently.”

Castle Midnight quickly proved itself to be as foreboding a place on the inside as it was on the outside. The hallway into which the herd and its prisoners entered dwarfed the towering Stratadons, lit only by sparingly-placed torches which burned with the same sickly glow that had been emanating from the windows. It twisted and turned in sharp, cutting corners, and the air hung still and cold. Spike kept close to Scorpan, wincing as he heard the whimpers of fear from some of the younger Ponies; part of him still wanted to pick a fight, but under the circumstances, it seemed like an increasingly fruitless idea. “Twilight, I really wish you were here; you’d know what to do,” he thought glumly, ears slouching downward as he realized, “Then again, if you were here…well, you’d be here.”

The minutes it took to trudge down the hall seemed to stretch on forever, but eventually the end came into sight as the hallway opened up into a taller, wider, but no less intimidating circular chamber. There were a number of ovular doorways carved into its jagged rock wall, leading off into even more hallways, with a towering bronze gate in its center. “What’re those?” Spike asked Scorpan in an anxious whisper, pointing to the strange, bipedal beasts that stood guard in front of each door.
Smaller than the Stratadons but taller than Scorpan, muscular in build but with a hunched-over posture, their bodies were covered in dark-green, armor-like scales, with only their tusk-fanged, pig-nosed faces unprotected. Each one held a sharpened, bone-like spear in its sharp-clawed, long-fingered hands, short tails pointing straight out behind them. “Guardgoyles,” Scorpan answered Spike, “They are the Castle’s safe-keepers, sharp on instinct but soft on intellect.”
The ape-beast soon led Spike and the Stratadons to one of the smaller doorways toward the right of the chamber. The Guardgoyle standing watch clenched its spear as they drew close, snarling protectively. “Stand down,” Scorpan growled strongly, his wings spreading out to their full, intimidating length. “I have brought prisoners in the name of Master Tirek.”
For a moment, the reptilian soldier remained on edge, but ultimately it stepped aside. With a triumphant grunt, Scorpan walked through the now-open doorway, Spike and the Stratadons following close behind. “This guy really knows how to give orders,” the young dragon thought, tucking himself that much closer to the ape-beast as the Guardgoyle fixed him with a menacing glare while he passed.
He quickly stepped back away, however, when he saw that the room they had entered was divided in half by a wall of jagged, razor-edged bars which pulsed with the same dark energy that had emanated from Scorpan’s hand earlier. “This is a…” he started fearfully.

“A Dungeon,” Scorpan finished for him, “Yes.”

With a wave of his hands, the bars dissipated like mist. The ape-beast then motioned for the Stratadons to move through, which they did obediently, releasing their prisoners onto the ground once they had. The Ponies who were awake trembled with fear, the urge to run plain in their eyes but the wall of dragon-monsters in front of them too intimidating to try and escape, while those who had been unconscious finally began to awaken. As the Stratadons backed away, Scorpan again waved his hand, and the bars reappeared. “H-how long’re you going to keep us in here…?” one of the Ponies asked anxiously; it was the brown-haired pegasus from before.

The ape-beast looked him over with cold, calculating eyes, and Spike felt his scales chill; he could see intent in that gaze, though he could not yet tell what kind. And then, with lightning speed, Scorpan reached through the bars, which turned to mist around his arm, and grabbed the Pegasus by the scruff of his neck, pulling him out just as quickly. “HEY!” both Spike and the Pegasus yelped.

Spike rounded on Scorpan immediately. “You promised!” he said, “You promised if the Ponies didn’t fight back you wouldn’t hurt them!”

To his surprise, Scorpan did not answer, instead looking at him with an inscrutable but unmistakably pained expression. He then turned away, trudging back toward the main chamber and motioning for Spike to follow, while the Pegasus continued to thrash about uselessly in his hand. Spike, however, stamped his foot on the ground, folding his arms in front of his chest; his knees were trembling, and no matter how hard he tried to keep a strong glare going, it refused to wholly stick, but the dragon stood his ground all the same. Standing in the doorway, Scorpan stopped, wings sagging. “Please,” he said lowly. “This is something you need to see. Something you need to understand.”

With the Stratadons glowering down at him, Spike gulped, looking back to the Ponies shivering behind the dungeon bars. Part of him refused to leave them, wanted to keep an eye on them. “But maybe the best way to protect them now is to find out more about this place,” another part of him, which sounded suspiciously like Twilight to his mind’s ear, said.

Reluctantly, he joined Scorpan at the doorway. The ape-beast nodded with a low snort as he saw the dragon at his side again, the Pegasus he held still trembling but no longer struggling. Together, they excited into the Main Chamber, most of the Stratadons following them out while a handful remained behind, lying down on the ground and guardedly watching the imprisoned Ponies. “Hang tight, everypony,” Spike thought with one last glance back. “I’ll figure a way out of this. Somehow.”

And so he and Scorpan left the Dungeon….

…but as they stepped away, the Ponies behind the bars found themselves pushed aside as a particularly agitated blue unicorn made her way to the front. “W-where do you think you’re going?” she asked, hoarse but striving for bluster, “The Great and Powerful Trixie…d-demands you give her a proper explanation for this...this atrocious affront!”

The remaining Stratadons looked at each other with annoyance, then laid their heads down, closed their eyes, and began to rest. “W-why you miserable vermin!” Trixie shouted indignantly, voice growing stronger and stronger. “Do you have any idea who you so flagrantly ignore? I am not just any miserable run-of-the-mill Pony, I am the one and only, the irreplaceable, the inimitable, the Great and Powerful Trixie!”

“I heard ya the first time,” a gentle voice groaned from nearby. “Now would ya mind turnin’ it down? I’ve got a real nasty head-ache right now….”

Trixie turned quickly to see who was impertinent enough to dare give her orders, only to see the source was a familiar soft-yellow filly, her bright red bow crumpled up along her face. “Of course,” she sneered, “It’s you, the country bumpkin who stole my firecracker. What was it? Apple Bleach?”

The filly blinked her eyes a few times, ears flickering with annoyance as she tried to simultaneously adjust to the dim lighting of her new surroundings, calm her throbbing headache, and not lose her temper at the obnoxious showpony screeching in her ear. “It’s Apple Bloom,” she said tersely, “’n’ I didn’t ‘steal’ nothin’, you just misplaced it. In the middle ‘o’ my family’s apple cart.”

“Hmph! The Great and Powerful Trixie cannot help it if you peon Ponies happen to put your ghastly carts in the way of her magnificent pyrotechnics,” the unicorn replied, turning her snout up to Apple Bloom with a flourish of her cape.

“Whatever you say, lady,” Apple Bloom groaned with annoyance, trotting away on unsteady hooves and taking a good look around; without the overbearing showpony to distract her, she was starting to better grasp just what was going on.

She shivered at the cold, and at the unfamiliar setting. The initial excitement of Trixie’s defiance had died down, and so the rest of the Ponies had begun to drift around the cell, small groups forming and a low hum of general, albeit nervous, talk floating around. Apple Bloom searched around for any familiar faces, and though she was thankful that none of her friends or family seemed to be here with her, the sense of loneliness that revelation brought with it only reinforced the grip of fear wrapping all over her. “Be brave,” she told herself, “Be brave like Granny Smith ‘n’ Applejack ‘n’ Big Macintosh….”

Simply telling herself that was not terribly effective at actually making it so, however. She gave the dungeon another look over, flinching as she spotted the napping Stratadons on the other side of the bars. Still she saw nopony with whom she was terribly familiar, and the fear in her heart threatened to burst into all-out panic. All those frightening questions-where am I? What is this place? What do these monsters want with me? Where’s my family? Are they OK? Will I be OK?-began nipping at her mind with greater and greater urgency.

Trixie, meanwhile, had moved over to the bars, examining the ominous glow around them with intrigue and impatience. “No mere bars can keep the Great and Powerful Trixie prisoner,” she murmured under her breath, furrowing her brow as she prepared to unleash a mighty spell. “But then…I wonder how ‘mere’ these bars really are….”

To her frustration, if not entirely her surprise, her spell’s fruition proved less than successful, amounting only to a swift, stinging pain and a few dismal sparks popping out of her horn. Hissing from the sensation, she stepped back, glaring through one eye while the other winced shut. Taking a look around, Trixie saw she was not the only one who was encountering this problem: toward the back, she spotted a white unicorn with a distinctive, spiky blue mane and red-tinted sunglasses whose horn was backfiring just as hers had. The same thing was happening to another unicorn on the other side of the dungeon and in the middle of the room, this one white with a distinctive purple-pink curl to her mane. “So distance isn’t a factor,” Trixie mused aloud, rubbing her chin thoughtfully with her hoof.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a light brushing against her hind legs. Turning around, Trixie saw a familiar bow-wearing filly, looking shame-facedly at the ground and holding close to her. “Ugh, you again?” the unicorn asked with a sneer, “Unless you’ve come to give me my firecracker back…!”

“I’m scared,” Apple Bloom said bluntly, “Really, really scared, ‘n’ you’re the only pony here I know at all. So please…just…stay close t’me, OK?”

Trixie chortled bitterly. “You expect the Great and Powerful Trixie to play Foalsitter to a meager hayseed like you?”

Apple Bloom looked close to tears, eyes closing tightly. “Believe me,” she said, “I wish it was sompony else; anypony else. I even wish it were that grumpy Mr. Hooves. But it ain’t.” She looked up at Trixie, expression somewhere between fury and terror, eyes wide and wet. “It’s just you. So please, just let me stay close t’you. I won’t talk or bother you, I promise, just please let me stay close.”

The caped unicorn arched her brow, scrutinizing Apple Bloom for a minute; her eyes were shut tight again, as if she were bracing herself to be boxed in the snout. “Fine,” she finally groaned reluctantly, rolling her eyes, “you may bask in the comforting presence of the Great and Powerful Trixie.”

Immediately, Apple Bloom lit up, eyes opening and looking up at Trixie graciously. “Thank you,” she said, voice cracking a little, “Thank you so much, I-“

“Ah ah ah,” Trxie said pointedly, poking Apple Bloom in the snout with her front hoof, “remember your promise! No talking, no bothering.”

Ears flattening against her head, Apple Bloom’s gratitude curdled quickly as she was reminded how much she disliked the unicorn. “Is that understood?” Trixie asked, glaring down at her.

“Yes,” Apple Bloom sighed; it was far from ideal, she knew, but then, nothing about this situation was ideal, and better Trixie than no pony at all….

“Is that understood?” Trixie repeated even sharper than before.

Realizing her mistake, Apple Bloom simply nodded this time. “Good,” Trixie said haughtily, “Let us hope you can keep to that, then.”

With another overdramatic twirl of her cape, the unicorn began walking toward the back of the dungeon, eyes set with determination. “The Great and Powerful Trixie will not simply sit idly by and let these beasts keep her prisoner, after all,” she said, more to herself than Apple Bloom, “and she will not abide any distractions.”

Apple Bloom followed close behind with an anxious pace, making sure not to make too much noise or bump into the unicorn at all. There were no windows in the dungeon, but she found her eyes drifting upward even so, wishing there were. If she could see the sky, she could at least remember that there was in fact a whole world out there beyond these dank walls and glowering monsters, and that somewhere out there in that world, her big brother and sister were both planning to rescue her….

“Is your pillow fluffed enough?”

“Ee-yup, Ms. Fluttershy.”

“Do you need another glass of water?”

“Nope, Ms. Fluttershy.”

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

“Nope, Ms. Fluttershy.”

Applejack watched Fluttershy hovering around Big Macintosh’s sickbed with a bemused grin; even with the other Nurses around to help, her pegasus friend had insisted she be the one to oversee Big Macintosh’s care. “So many other Ponies need your attention right now,” she had explained to them, “and the Apples are dear friends of mine. This way, Big Macintosh will get the care he needs and there’ll still be all you Nurses available to care for everypony else.”

Given just how many injured Ponies there were to attend to, it was hard to argue with her logic, and so the three of them had wound up tucked away together in a small little room in the town shelter, with Big Macintosh laid up in bed, Fluttershy doting on him, and Applejack alternating between amusing herself by watching the two of them and gazing out the room’s lone window to keep track of what was going on with the rest of the town. “’Bout time I catch up on that, as a matter of fact,” she thought to herself, turning away from Fluttershy and her “patient” even as the pegasus insisted on scratching that itchy spot on his snout for him.

Looking outside, she watched the intersecting lines of activity moving through town. There were the Unicorn Guards, of course, their horns alight as they studied and tested the black clouds, but they had not made any progress since Applejack had first looked out at them. Each probing pulse of magic crackled along and fizzled out against the domineering clouds, and the Earth Pony found she could not keep her attention on them without dwelling on thoughts of what lay on the other side of that veil of darkness....

Instead, she let her focus move to the intersecting activities of the citizens of Ponyville . Some of them were working alongside the Pegasus Guards to clean up the debris strewn throughout the streets and hang up small lanterns on the remaining rooftops and window sills. Others were keeping close to the shelter, to their friends and loved ones. Applejack smiled as she watched a pair of Earth Pony parents comforting their foal. “We took a lickin’,” she thought, “but we’ll keep on tickin’. That’s the ol’ Ponyville Spirit, just like….”

“Um, Applejack?” Fluttershy’s timid voice returned her to the room.

“What’s up, sugar-cube?” the cowpony asked, keeping her eyes on the outside but sidling over a bit to let her pegasus friend share the sill with her.

Fluttershy cuddled up gently next to her with a bashful squeak and a humble smile. She made sure not to look outside, however; there was nothing out there she felt up to seeing at the moment. “Um, I was just wondering,” she said, “since Big Macintosh seems to be doing alright…,” and she suddenly whipped her head around, looking wide-eyed at the bed-ridden Clydesdale, “You are doing alright, right?” she asked nervously, just to be sure.

He nodded with an earnest grin.

Turning back to Applejack, the pegasus continued, “Well, that being the case, um…could I maybe go check on Angel and my other small animal friends? I know they promised to be on their best behavior, but they’re not used to staying in a place like this shelter, with so many other Ponies around, and I just want to be sure they’re doing OK.”

“Of course ya can, Fluttershy,” Applejack said, giving her friend a gentle pat on the back, “Tell ‘em ‘hello’ for me while you’re at it.”

Beaming happily, Fluttershy opened her wings and hovered toward the doorway. “Thank you, Applejack,” she said brightly, “I promise, I’ll be back soon.”

She then gave Big Macintosh one last look over. “You take care of yourself while I’m gone, mister,” she said with a mother’s sternness.

With that, she hovered out of the room and off toward the Main Hall of the shelter, both Apple siblings watching her leave with affectionate grins. “Aint’ she somethin’?” Big Macintosh chuckled, snuggling up against his pillows. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a comfier bed thanks t’her.”

“That’s Fluttershy for ya,” Applejack said warmly with a nod, “She’s got a heart as big as all Equestria.”

They shared a fond little laugh at that, but after a few moments it died down. “You sure you’re doin’ alright, Big Mac?” Applejack asked gently, trotting over to the side of the bed.

“Ee-yup,” the Clydesdale answered simply.

Applejack bit her lip; both had dodged the topic since they had gotten to the shelter, but neither had forgotten about it, and now that they were alone, it was all the more on their minds. “Then…you gotta tell me,” she said, “what happened to Apple Bloom?”
Her brother’s ears folded down as his face softly saddened. No answer, however. Applejack turned away sharply, stomping one hoof down in frustration. “Yeah,” she said mournfully, eyes clenching shut, “that’s what I was afraid of.”

Taken. Just like all the others. Even after Rainbow had told her how she’d lost track of Apple Bloom during the attack, the cowpony had thought…hoped…that she had gotten away safely. Somehow. Now, though, she knew. Those monsters had her little sister. “Applejack….” Big Macintosh whispered sympathetically.

“I shoulda been there…!” Applejack said furiously, “I shoulda protected her! I promised her…I promised them…!”

“Applejack,” Big Macintosh said again, far firmer this time.

Her eyes opened as she held her breath; it wasn’t often her brother spoke like that (or indeed much at all), but when he did, it was a good idea to listen. “I was there. I couldn’t protect her. How do you think I feel?” he asked, and even though she was looking away from him Applejack could feel her brother’s eyes boring into the back of her head, “But it don’t do me, or you, or Apple Bloom any good t’beat ourselves up over something we can’t change.”

It was Big Macintosh’s turn to sigh then, leaning back into his pillow. “Please,” he said, voice returning to its gentler tone and softening even further, “Don’t put that on yourself. Not when you put so much on yourself already.”

Applejack gently slid her hat over her hoof, pulling it off her head and looking at it to remember. To remind herself. She stood in silence for a minute before finally speaking, with a rare but real vulnerability, “I swore to myself…to Ma ‘n’ Pa…that I would never let our family down again.”

She pressed the hat to her chest, eyes drifting back to the window. “The ol’ Ponyville Spirit. Just like you taught me,” she thought to herself, her worry hardening back into frustrated determination. Eyes clenched shut, she placed the hat back on the head with a fierce whinny and a slap of the tail to the ground. “And I won’t. Not this time,” she said.

It was Big Macintosh’s turn to sigh now; he knew that tone of voice all too well. That was his sister’s “I can Apple Buck all these trees by myself” voice. “Now hold yer horses, sis,” he told her, “don’t you go runnin’ off half-cocked on some crazy rescue mission, that’s just as bad!”

Applejack began to say something in response but, to her surprise, Big Macintosh cut her off. “I already lost one sister,” he told her bluntly, “I don’t want it t’be two!”

He watched the orange cowpony’s head sink, her shoulders tense. “It’s something I’ve gotta do,” she said lowly.

“No it ain’t,” Big Macintosh replied, sternness tempered with concern, “That ain’t what Ma ‘n’ Pa wanted for you, to live like you’ll always have somethin’ to prove. Applejack…please….”

The sternness broke down a little more with each word, the worry he had secretly nursed for some time now overtaking it. Slowly, Applejack’s head rose up, turning toward her brother. Big Macintosh felt his heart sink as he realized he was too late. The pained little smile on her face said it all; her mind was made up, and there would be no changing it.

Just then, the door creaked open, and both siblings composed themselves, expecting Fluttershy. They were, instead, greeted by a rather different face, though still a familiar one. “I hope I do not interrupt. Was my entrance too abrupt?”

Garbed in her familiar tan-brown robe, satchels of herbs and medicinal potions hanging from her sides, Zecora the Zebra stood patiently in the doorway, courteously looking in at the two siblings. “Not at all, Zecora, please come in,” Applejack said curtly, clearing her throat before locking eyes with Big Macintosh. “I think we said everything that needs sayin’ in here.”

The Clydesdale briefly considered responding, but he could see the truth of those words in his sister’s intense eyes. With a disappointed grumble, he nodded reluctantly. “What brings ya ‘round here?” Applejack asked Zecora as she joined the Earth Ponies by the bed. “Was the Everfree Forest attacked by those monsters too?”

“Not at all, thankfully,” the zebra answered, “Those beasts were content to leave that place be. No, I am here by Royal Request, to provide the service that I do best.”

She loosely slipped one of her satchels onto the ground. “To aid Ponyville’s citizens,” she continued, “with my special medicines.”

Carefully, delicately, the zebra reached into the downed satchel, pulling out a small, corked vial of thick green liquid. Big Macintosh visibly blanched at the sight of it, and despite everything else, Applejack couldn’t help but chortle just a bit; he always did hate having to take his medicine. “I shall take care of your brother,” Zecora said, looking to Applejack with a friendly smile, “but you must take care of another.”

“’Another’…?” Applejacked asked.

“Twilight Sparkle and your friends have an urgent matter with which to attend,” Zecora explained, pulling the cork off the vial, “I met them as I was coming here, and to fetch you I did volunteer.”

The orange Earth Pony’s ears stood on end; an urgent matter? Maybe they were planning some kind of rescue mission too…! “Thank you kindly for the favor, Zecora,” she said, already moving to leave, “and for takin’ care of Big Macintosh. Did the girls say where they were goin’?”

“To the Shelter’s Royal Hall to speak with Celestia and explain it all,” Zecora replied.

She then lifted the blanket off Big Macintosh, slowly spreading the green liquid across his chest; the Clydesdale sighed with relief, both at the soothing feel of the potion and the fact that he did not have to drink it. Seeing all was well, Applejack began to bolt outside, but just as she stepped through the doorway, she heard her brother’s sigh turn into a stern call. “Applejack.”

She turned around and looked at her brother, and again their eyes locked. “…be safe,” he told her.

The Earth Pony gave a strong nod, and with that she galloped off toward the Royal Hall. Careful not to bump into anypony, she soon saw Fluttershy gliding along in the same direction. “Fluttershy!” she called out to the pegasus, who gave a gentle gasp at hearing her voice.

Before long, the two were side by side, making their way quickly to the center of the Shelter where their destination awaited. “Zecora explained everything,” Fluttershy said, “although I do hope she does alright with Big Macintosh; I know how particular he is about medicine….”

“Don’t you worry none about my brother, he’s gonna be just fine,” Applejack said, again chortling just a little, “Let’s you ‘n’ me just focus on getting’ to the Royal Hall, alright?”

Fluttershy nodded, and the pair continued their brisk trip.

Having left Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle in the shelter’s playpen for other young fillies and colts (watched over by a dutifully vigilant Cheerilee), Twilight led her little group toward the Royal Hall. Up until then, of course, the hustle and bustle of the other Ponies in and around the shelter had distracted them all from the awkward silence that hung over a visibly agitated Gilda, but as they drew closer to the Princess’ chamber and those crowds thinned out more and more until they were the only ones around, it became harder to ignore; even Pinkie found she could not think of anything sufficiently happy to say to resolve the tension. Rainbow Dash in particular bristled with worried impatience; every so often, she would float closer to her old friend as if to say something, but at the last second she would pull back and remain silent. Twilight was thus all too happy to inform them, “We’re here,” as the two stalwart guards standing watch over the Hall’s entrance came into view, “I just hope Zecora got our message to Applejack and Fluttershy….”

As if on cue, the Earth Pony and the pegasus rounded the corner behind the group, quickly catching up. “Ah lovely, you’re both right on time!” Rarity greeted cheerfully, “It just wouldn’t feel proper to see the Princess without you two.”

“Hope we didn’t keep y’all waitin’ too long,” Applejack replied. “Mind fillin’ us in on what all this fuss is about?”

Twilight caught them up on the situation as quickly as she could (despite the occasional interjection from an all-too-happy-to-talk-again Pinkie Pie), though not without noticing Fluttershy’s discomfort with Gilda or the chord the griffon’s potential information seemed to strike with Applejack. “With any luck,” the purple alicorn finished explaining, “whatever it is Gilda has to say might help Princess Celestia and I hatch a plan to rescue all the victims captured during the attack.”

“Like poor Spikey-wikey….” Rarity sighed.

Gilda scoffed. “Let’s just get this over with already, huh?” she asked lowly.

She suddenly found herself side by side with a landing Rainbow Dash. “I’ll time ya,” she said simply, a confident grin masking her worry.

The griffon gave a respectful little grunt as Twilight moved to the head of the group, looking to the Guards in front of the gate. “My name is Twilight Sparkle,” she said sternly, “My friends and I wish to speak with Princess Celestia on matters of urgent importance.”

Recognizing their leader’s prize pupil when they saw her, the two armored Pegasi nodded, opening the gates and stepping aside to let the group enter. From its lush red carpet to its dignified pillars, the Royal Hall was almost an exact replica of Celestia’s throne-room from the palace of Canterlot; even the stained-glass windows depicting important moments of Equestrian history were the same. As they entered, the girls saw the Sun Princess herself sitting patiently in a tall, regal throne, but to their surprise she was not alone; Luna was right next to her on a throne of her own, and the two sisters seemed in the midst of a gentle conversation. “Hello, Princess Celestia,” Twilight greeted warmly, “and Princess Luna as well; it’s a pleasant surprise to see you here.”

“The feeling is returned in full, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said with a sincere smile.

“I am glad to see you and your friends have returned to the shelter safely,” Celestia said, rising from her throne and stepping toward her fellow Princess with a smile of her own. “Was your search through town successful?”

Pinkie Pie eagerly bounced between Twilight and Celestia, nodding eagerly. “It sure was!” she said energetically, “We found out the Cakes were safe and we found Sweetie Belle and Opalescence and-“

A tug of her tail from Twilight was enough to make the bubbly Earth Pony back down with a sheepish giggle. “We did manage to accomplish what we set out to do,” Twilight explained, “but along the way…well….”

She looked back to the others, motioning for Gilda to step forward. The griffon’s claws clenched anxiously, tail sharply sweeping against the floor. “Go on, Gilda,” Rainbow encouraged, gently elbowing her old friend in the side, “You’re not scared of any silly ol’ Pony, are ya?”

“Depends,” Gilda scoffed, flashing a sharp little look at Fluttershy. “Are there any Ponies afraid of me?”

Rainbow’s wings shot out protectively in front of her cringing fellow Pegasus, but the griffon had already begun walking away before she could say anything. “Almost forgot why things went so bad last time….” she thought glumly.

Twilight too was less than enthused with Gilda’s behavior, but knew that the lecture would have to wait, at least for now. “Princess,” she said, doing her best to keep her tone civil, “may I introduce….”

Even as Gilda glared with annoyance at Twilight's formal introduction, she found herself in Celestia’s shadow. “Gilda Griffon, yes?” the white alicorn asked, looking her over carefully. “Twilight spoke of you in her letters.”

Feathers visibly ruffled by the Princess’ calm control, Gilda nonetheless nodded. She was about to fire off a retort (though in truth she did not really know what she would say), but Twilight was quick to interject. “She helped protect a good friend of ours, Scootaloo, during the attack,” the purple alicorn explained, “and says there is something very important she wants to tell you.”

All eyes and ears soon turned to Gilda; even Luna was leaning forward in her throne, listening intently. The griffon looked to the still-calm Celestia in front of her, then to the sternly-gazing Twilight next to her, and finally to the wide-eyed and worried Rainbow behind her. She let out a ragged breath before turning to face Celestia again, eyes locking with her intently. “Look,” she began, and Rainbow could not help but notice the uncertainty hidden beneath the gruffness, “what I gotta say…it ain’t exactly pleasant.”

She watched Celestia cautiously for any sign of a shift in expression; none came, much to her annoyance. Still, she continued, “Those monsters that attacked…they’re taking all the Ponies they snatched to a place called Castle Midnight, and….”

“Where is it?” Applejack interrupted sharply. “Where is this ‘Castle Midnight’?”

“Nowhere you can follow,” Gilda snapped with equal sharpness, though her eyes remained fixed on Celestia. “I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s like they’re from some…other universe or something, ‘n’ those Black Clouds are their way in ‘n’ out of it.”

That answer did not seem to satisfy Applejack, but just as she was rearing to speak up again, she found herself tapped on the shoulder. Looking to her side, she saw Rarity, shaking her head. “Best to let her finish first,” she said sympathetically.

Though she grunted with disappointment, the Earth Pony ultimately nodded, taking a breath and going quiet. “Please,” Twilight told Gilda firmly, “continue.”

“The Castle’s ruled by some creep who calls himself Tirek,” the griffon continued, and again Rainbow could hear the bitter uncertainty in her words, “He’s the one who had those monsters attack this town in the first place. I dunno what he wants with all those Ponies he snatched, but I do know he wants ‘em alive.”

There was a moment of silence, Gilda eyeing everypony around her guardedly. “That’s all I know,” she said curtly, talons clicking impatiently against the floor.

It was silent for a minute after that, each pony absorbing the information in her own way. It was Twilight, however, who finally asked the question on all their minds. “How do you know all this?” she said, blunt but trying to remain somewhat courteous.

“Because….” Gilda started to answer, the hesitance that had been hiding in her tone earlier now far more apparent.

She cut herself off, grunting with discomfort as her talons picked up their pace in needling the floor. Rainbow and Twilight each took small steps toward her, but her tail whipped down sharply to stop them. “Because he told me,” she finally managed to say, “Ths…’Tirek’ guy told me.”

While most of the others exchanged looks of uncertainty and confusion, Luna gasped with shocked understanding. “It was like his voice was…in my head,” Gilda continued, a discomforted little twitch in her wings, “He wanted my help ….”

“…and…?” Rainbow asked softly, stepping next to her old friend.

Gilda looked the pegasus square in the eye. She growled with frustration as she replied, “I said ‘yes’.”

“G-Gilda…!” Rainbow gasped, recoiling in surprise. “How…? Why…?”

“Look, I was just so…mad!” Gilda said, slapping at the ground with her tail. “You’d turned on me, Dash! Everypony in this stupid town turned on me! I wanted to get some pay-back!”

“So you were gonna destroy the whole town, just because you got the butt-end of some pranks?” Rainbow retorted heatedly.

The two were all but literally butting heads now. “Or maybe because my so-called ‘best friend’ didn’t stand up for me when I needed her!” Gilda snapped right back at the pegasus.

Both were beginning to beat the air angrily with their wings before Twilight pushed them apart with a quick burst of magic. “Both of you, please!” she urged, “I know how difficult this is for you, but that isn’t the point right now!”

The two of them were still staring down with each other, each one wearing their own mix of anger and hurt on their faces. Ultimately, however, both looked away with a disappointed sigh. “Look…Dash…,” Gilda finally grumbled, “If it means anything…I couldn’t go through with it. When push came to shove….”

She huffed again, cutting herself short and returning her eyes to Celestia. “I’m done. That’s all I’ve gotta say,” Gilda told the Sun Princess.

Celestia nodded sagely, returning to her throne with calm steps. Taking her seat, the white alicorn closed her eyes in thought. Luna too was in a state of deep contemplation, but far more anxious than her sister; over a thousand years later, and she finally knew the name of the beast who had spoken to her…who had turned her against her own family. “So…now what?” Rainbow Dash asked, addressing the question to all but looking square at Gilda.

“Clearly, this information gives us much to think about,” Celestia replied, “I would ask, Ms. Griffon, that you stay here in Ponyville until further notice,” She continued to speak even as the griffon visibly winced, “as I may need to speak with you further about what you have told us. For now, however, feel free to explore the town to your heart’s content, and help yourself to our food and resources.”

The griffon gave a discomforted little squawk at that. “Dunno if that’s such a good idea….”

She found herself gently patted on the wing, however, shooting an annoyed little glare at the pony responsible; to her surprise, however, it was Rainbow Dash, wearing a guardedly hopeful smile. “I dunno,” the swift-winged pegasus told her, “Maybe…maybe hangin’ around for a bit’ll…I dunno…make up for lost time?”

“You…you’d still want that…?” Gilda asked, looking at her old friend with disbelief.

“Always,” Rainbow answered, simply but sincerely. Hearing Fluttershy’s familiar whimper, however, she made sure to add, “Just…maybe dial it down a bit?”

The griffon scowled a bit, but ultimately nodded. As Rainbow looked back to her, Fluttershy managed to step tentatively forward, nodding as well. “T-thank you….” She said softly.

“HOORAY!” Pinkie Pie shouted out, shattering the solemn air immediately as she bounced over the three of them, tossing streamers and confetti along the way (“Where was she hiding those…?” a baffled Rarity asked), “Big Time Friendship happening over here!”

Gilda rolled her eyes, but managed to smile a little bit even so. “Well, now that that’s settled,” Twilight piped up politely, “I think we should let Princess Celestia have some alone-time to think things over.”

The girls nodded in agreement, each one turning to leave the Royal Hall. Just as they were about to open the door, however, Celestia stopped them. “Actually,” she said calmly but firmly, “I wish to speak with you myself, my fellow Princess. The rest of you should help acquaint Ms. Griffon with the shelter, but I must talk with Twilight Sparkle alone.”

Twilight shared a concerned little glance with her friends, but ultimately smiled. “It’s fine, girls, I’ll catch up with you soon enough,” she told them reassuringly.

“Don’t hesitate to let us know if you need anything, darling, we’ll be waiting for you,” Rarity said, and soon she and the others were on their way out.

Looking up at her older sister, Luna whispered, “May I stay and listen, ‘Tia?”

Celestia nodded, even as Twilight watched the gates close with a warm smile, the purple alicorn soon turned to her teacher with a more serious, sober expression. “I’m sorry that was so…tense…” she said, “but it couldn’t be helped. Gilda’s a little intimidating, but it’s a good thing she told us what she did. Now we can start planning our next move a bit better informed.”

Celestia frowned somewhat at that statement. “That is what I wished to speak with you about….” She began.

“Good, because I have a lot to talk about,” Twilight, taking that as her cue, replied eagerly, “especially now that we know what Gilda’s told us. If the black clouds really do act as some sort of Gateway to another dimension, we can use that information to start calibrating our Unicorn Team’s Magic accordingly, and hopefully trigger the Gates again from this side of the portal-“

Ears flattening glumly, Celestia tried to stop the rambling alicorn. “Twilight….”

Apparently not having heard her, the youngst Princess simply continued, “-which should allow us to enter the other dimension and pursue those monsters with an army as big as we can fit, although admittedly it sounds like whoever this ‘Tirek’ creature is might be even more powerful than that Scorpan character, and he was able to temporarily block your magic, so we have to take that into consideration too-“

“Twilight,” Celestia tried again, still in vain.

“-not to mention Tirek seems to have some kind of telepathic ability, suggesting he may have other even deadlier kinds of mental Magic we don’t know about yet, a variable that could prove tricky to calculate but only if we go in unprepared, which thankfully we won’t be because we can figure out some way for you to harness the power of the Elements of Harmony instead of me trying to awaken it by myself and-“

Twilight stopped dead in her tracks at that, realizing what she had accidentally let slip. Clamping her hooves over her mouth, eyes widening with fear and guilt, she stumbled back a bit as she tried to find some way to squirm free of her mistake. “Um, that is to say…I mean, uh….” She squeaked helplessly.

Celestia continued to simply look at her with saddened eyes. “…Princess, p-please…forgive me….” Twilight finally whispered forlornly, sinking to her knees. “I…I meant to tell you before, but I just felt…I was scared you would….”

Still no words from the white alicorn. Twilight bowed her head to the ground, closing her eyes to try and hide the tears that were starting to form. “I’m so sorry!” she cried, “I know it was dangerous of me to try and summon the power of the Elements by myself, but it was the only thing I could think to do! I should’ve told you as soon as you arrived, but I thought you would be disappointed in me, and I just…I just…”

Biting her lip, her tears slowly found their way down her cheeks. “So weak…so stupid…!” her mind shrieked angrily at her.

“Twilight,” Celestia said one last time, gently resting her horn upon the young Princess's shoulder.

Looking up at her teacher with a tremble, Twilight struggled to regain her composure. “It is alright,” Celestia told her gently, “I already knew.”

“You…already…?” Twilight sniffled with confusion.

“I could sense it all over you when I arrived,” Celestia said, “Magical backlash of that nature is hard to miss. It’s why I wanted to talk to you, in fact.”

Cheeks going flush with a mix of shame and embarrassment, Twilight whimpered softly as she looked away from her mentor. Celestia, however, leaned toward her with another gentle tap of the horn. Luna, watching the scene unfold in patient silence, could not help but smile; she had always admired how nurturing her sister was to those who needed it. “You must think of this as a learning experience, my dear Twilight,” the Sun Princess told Twilight, “Not something to hide from.”

Twilight nodded slightly, though her frustrated feelings were still plain on her face. “Tell me, Twilight,” Celestia said, “The Spell you tried to use to re-awaken the Elements' power…how did it work?”

For obvious reasons, the purple alicorn was reluctant to answer. Yet looking at Celestia’s face, the warm eyes and the welcoming smile, helped to eventually ease a reply out of her. “W-well,” she said, doing her best to sound authoritative, “I…I attempted to have my friends focus on the emotions that connected each of them to their Element, and in turn harness those emotions through my Magic.” As much to assure herself as to explain, she added, “It’s really just a slightly-modified version of the way we used to activate the Elements in the past.”

“And yet you were unable to complete the spell,” Celestia said with a carefully-balanced tone, “Why do you suppose that is?”

Twilight’s ears folded and her head sank. “Because of me,” she said, her earlier stab at confidence seeping out of her, “Because my Magic was too weak.”

Celestia shook her head with a slight little smile. “It is not about weakness, Twilight Sparkle,” she said knowingly, “but understanding just what it is that truly gives the Elements of Harmony their power.”

The prospect of getting to learn something so important seemed to brighten the Twilight's spirit somewhat, and Luna too looked at her sister with interest as she said, “By taking the entire task upon yourself, by asking your friends to focus only on a single emotion, you miss the greater truth the Elements represent. For remember, Harmony does not come from any one Element, but instead the balance of all Elements together. No single emotion can truly achieve that, nor can any single Pony.”

“I…I think I understand….” Twilight said, and indeed she could feel the words resonate with her as she played them back in her mind. “And I’ll be sure to use that knowledge to help when you lead your Rescue Mission through the Black Clouds!”

While Luna gently clopped her hooves on the ground in applause, however, Celestia’s demeanor saddened again. “Your vigor is inspiring, Twilight,” she said, worrying Twilight with the clear tone of regret in her voice. “But I fear it is more difficult than you realize.”

Twilight’s ears quirked in curiosity. “How so?” she asked.

Just then, a majestic cry rang through the throne room. As if the sun were rising just outside, rays of light began to shimmer through the windows, covering the entire Hall in a rainbow of vibrant color. With a sudden flash, Philomena the Phoenix appeared, hovering in the air for a moment before flapping over to the Sun Princess’ waiting hoof and perching upon it. “Welcome back, Philomena,” Celestia said, giving her pet an affectionate little nuzzle even though her mood remained visibly morose.

The firebird returned the gesture, a weary little smile spread along its beak. Her face soon turned serious, however, as she whispered into Celestia’s ear. Protege and Sister both strained to listen to what the Sun Princess was being told, but neither one could make out any words they recognized. Eventually, Phiolmena stopped whispering. “I see,” Celestia said gravely, “It is even worse than I feared.”

“What is it, Princess?” Twilight asked, “What’s wrong?”

Celestia did not answer at first, instead whispering something to Philomena. The firebird nodded, and quickly flew out of the Hall. The Sun Princess then took a seat on her throne, eyes closed and lips pursed. “Sister…?” Luna whispered.

“Ponyville was not the only location attacked,” Celestia replied, opening her eyes and locking them on Twilight. “Fillydelphia, Manehattan, Cloudsdale, Baltimare, Appleloosa, Las Pegasus…even the Crystal Empire. All covered in black clouds, all attacked by these same monsters, with countless numbers of Ponies abducted from each one. I have asked Philomena to instruct our forces to send soldiers out to guard each area, lest our enemy attacks again.”

“’T’would seem this…Tirek…is most powerful indeed….” Luna whispered, shuddering a little at that name.

Twilight gulped, realizing her hooves had begun to tremble slightly. Shaking her head, however, she forced them to be still. “Fine,” she said with renewed boldness, “we're in a tough spot. We don't even have the Elements of Harmony. But we still have you, Princess! You’ll…!”

“No, I won’t,” Celestia said, and Luna could hear the heartbreak even as the Sun Princess tried to hide it.

It took a moment for those words to sink in for Twilight, and another for her to make sure she had understood them correctly. “W-what do you mean…?” she asked softly, still not entirely able to believe her ears.

The white alicorn’s gaze drifted to one of the stain-glass windows, an image of the sun shining over a field full of Ponies playing across its panes. “With these clouds hovering over Equestria, our land is adrift, surrounded on all sides by a gate we cannot open, but which our enemies can attack from and then retreat back into at will,” she said, a strain to her voice Twilight had never heard before, “My troops will be spread out dangerously thin in order to provide some protection to those places that have already been attacked, and who knows where else might be the next target?”

She paused, still looking at the window as she tried to collect herself. Twilight and Luna could both see the conflicted emotions playing out across her face. “Worse, Philomena warns me there are signs that these clouds have caught the attention of other foes. Dragons, Diamond Dogs, Changelings…all of them waiting for a chance to take advantage of this precarious situation.” Firming herself, the Sun Princess continued, “Equestria is worryingly vulnerable as things stand now; assuming we could find some way to follow after our enemy at all, if I were to leave…even for the sake of a Rescue Mission...that vulnerability would only grow, and place even more lives in danger.”

Twilight gave an agitated scuff at the rug; no Elements, no Princess…no hope? No…there had to be something, anything, she could think of. Her signs of distress became increasingly obvious as the youngest Princess racked her brain for an answer, an encroaching sense of despair picking at her heart. And then, in a flash, it came to her. “I understand why you must stay, Princess,” she said, her entire demeanor calming down as she bowed down on her front knees. “Therefore, I humbly request you allow me to go instead.”

“Only you…?” Luna asked, gaping at her in surprise.

Twilight nodded determinedly. “Like I said, I’m confident I can find a way to use these Clouds the same way the Stratadons did, to follow them back to wherever they’ve taken their prisoners,” she explained boldly, “And one lone Pony is unlikely to attract much attention. My magical aptitude makes me ideally suited for the task; I can use my spells to track down the captured victims, and to protect myself from any threats I encounter along the way.”
She looked hopefully to Celestia for an answer, but received only a solemn stare in return. When another moment passed with no reply, she continued, tamer than before, “I realize it isn’t ideal, but it seems to be our best option under the circumstances.”

“No,” Celestia finally answered with cold, cutting finality.

Twilight sighed with exasperation. “Princess, please…!” she began to plead.

To her shock, however, Celestia’s wings suddenly spread fully, her voice booming with authority as she said, “Twilight Sparkle, I forbid you to venture through those clouds on your own!”

For a moment, Twilight simply stood there, staring at her teacher in stunned silence. She shook her head gently, tears again beginning to well in her eyes without her even realizing it. “If I don’t go…and you won’t….” she said, voice cracking despite her best efforts, “All those Ponies…Ms. Mare, Derpy, Apple Bloom…Spike….”

Struggling to understand Celestia’s decision, she began to cry gently, trembling again with sheer emotion. “…we’ll be abandoning them.”

Though her wings folded back to her sides, Celestia’s expression remained pointed, her eyes tightly closed, and she was only silent.

That proved to be the last straw for Twilight. “I…I see…” she whispered shakily. “Very well then….”

And without another word, she turned and left, tail sagging and head hung.

The echo of the gates closing behind her hung coldly in the air. Eventually, Luna glided off her throne, readying to follow the departing Princess, but stopped as she heard her sister’s voice, all trace of strength gone from it. “Let her go.”

The blue alicorn turned back with confusion, which soon turned to surprise as she saw how deflated…how defeated…Celestia looked. “She must make her own choice now….” The Sun Princess whispered mournfully.

Twilight wandered through the halls of the Shelter in a daze. She could see the Ponies around her, hear the bustling conversations they were having, but where just a few hours ago that had lifted her spirits, now they only passed through her like so much empty wind. All she could really see, all she could really hear, was Celestia’s angered glare, her ruthless words of warning.

“Twilight Sparkle, I forbid you to go through those clouds on your own!”

The alicorn barely even realized she was leading herself into an empty bed-room as she attempted to chew those words over in her mind, trying to make them make sense. Trying to find some way to conclude that Celestia-her teacher, her mentor, her friend-was not simply allowing all those innocents taken by the Stratadons to rot in whatever prison they had been taken to.

Yet no matter how she came at it, it all added up to the same thing. No Elements. No Princess. No hope.

A cool breeze from the bed-room’s open window sent a shiver down Twilight’s body, at last giving her some distraction from such thoughts, though only a minor one. As she moved to close the window, however, she saw a familiar little figure perched on its sill: a dignified Owl with eyes that still seemed friendly despite their blank blackness. “Owlowicious…?” Twilight whispered in surprise.

“Hoo,” Owlowicious answered curtly; Peewee too gave a happy little chirp.
Despite herself, Twilight smiled; she had hoped the two of them had been safe despite the attack on the Library, and knowing that they were helped bring a little bit of happiness back into her spirit. “It’s good to see you,” she told him, stroking the owl's head delicately. “I just wish….”

Looking at her night-time helper reminded Twilight of the one who was always there to help her during the day. Now, for the first time since she was a foal, she faced the possibility of never seeing Spike...her companion, her brother...again. “I just wish our whole family was here,” she told Owlowoicious gently.

Again, the two birds cooed comfortingly.

The alicorn sighed, wiping the fresh tears from her eyes before they could fall. “I just don’t understand,” she told the bird glumly, “I know it’ll be dangerous to go into those clouds; I know I may not even be able to figure out how! But Celestia’s always trusted me in the past when Equestria was threatened. Why would she…?”


Surprised at the new voice, Twilight gave a light squeak as she turned around. “Whoa there, sugar-cube, didn’t mean to startle ya,” Applejack greeted as she entered the room, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and even Gilda following her in.

“We saw you walking through the main room, looking just so terribly sad….” Fluttershy began sympathetically.

Pinkie Pie immediately popped up behind Twilight (how, she could only guess) and continued with gusto, “…so we figured we’d find out what had you so frown-frown-frowny and turn that frown upside down-down-downy!”

Before she could reply, or even think of anything to say, Twilight found herself wrapped in a warm blanket hovered atop her shoulders by a gentle touch of magic. “Indeed,” Rarity said, sidling up next to Twilight comfortingly, “Whatever did the Princess tell you to leave you in such an awful state, darling?”

“Yeah!” Rainbow said fiercely, “’Cuz nopony, not even the Princess, gets away with makin’ a friend of mine cry! Right, Gilda?”

The griffon’s cocked brow reminded Rainbow not to get carried away, but she at least managed to grumble a dry, “Better this than havin’ to…ugh…’socialize’….”

Even Owlowicious gave an approving hoot.

Looking from face to face, seeing the concern, the affection, clear as a star in each of her friends’ eyes, Twilight felt her spirits lifting. Even after the danger they had faced from her back-fired spell…after having their homes ruined, their families threatened…the moment her friends had seen her distress, they had come to help. It was a bond of the strongest trust, the truest friendship, and she could not have been more thankful for it.

“Twilight Sparkle, I forbid you to go through those clouds on your own!”

And it was then that she realized Celestia had chosen her words very carefully.

“Thank you,” Twilight said warmly, looking to each of her friends in turn, even at Gilda, with a newfound strength, “all of you. I appreciate your feelings, and I’m grateful for your support.”

She hesitated for a moment; to ask so much of them again, after what had happened before…and yet, this could be their chance. Their only chance. “But there’s something I need to tell you all.”

It felt as if Scorpan had been leading Spike down the same towering hallway for ages. Along the way, he had glimpsed more dungeons, seen more Stratadons carrying even more Ponies, and the sinking sensation that escape from this Castle might well be even more difficult than he had initially imagined began to settle in his stomach worse and worse with each one. The Pegasus Pony Scorpan was carrying had long since ceased struggling, though occasionally he was heard to whimper with fear or discomfort. “OK, I don’t know where you’re taking me now,” Spike finally snapped, his inner tension bubbling over, “but it had better…!”

His protest quickly ceased, however, as the echo of a distinct sound caught his ear, filling the once-silent hallway more and more with each step he and Scorpan took. The young dragon almost thought it sounded like a drum at first, a deep, pounding noise beating every few seconds. Boom…boom…boom. Yet as the imposing iron gate at the hall’s end came into view and the sound became clearer, Spike realized it was not a drum beat, but rather…a heart beat? “I so don’t want to find out how that makes sense,” he thought, “even though I’m pretty sure I’m about to anyway.”

The four Guardgoyles standing in front of the gate parted ways as Scorpan approached, but the ape-beast stopped just short of the actual gate. “Stay right next to me,” he said lowly, and Spike could tell he was talking to him even without being looked at, “Do not speak. Do not move. Do not call attention to yourself in any way. If I give you an instruction, follow it exactly, without hesitation. Do you understand?”

Spike nodded.

“Good,” Scorpan grunted, tightening his grip on the scruff of the Pegasus Pony’s neck as his frightened whimpers became louder and more frequent; the poor thing was twitching with each thudding beat that echoed out from behind the gates. Boom…boom…boom. “Master Tirek!” Scorpan shouted, “I have returned!”

With a grinding screech that sounded like the dying cry of some other-worldly animal, the gate slowly opened, revealing a darkened chamber of cold blue stone on the other side. Clean-cut pillars, carved of that same stone, jutted out of the ground and into the ceiling, leading down into the chamber’s shadowy depths. “Enter, my servant….” a voice, deep and loud as thunder, spoke from within.

“Remember my instructions,” Scorpan hissed to Spike as he led him inside, following the pillars to a throne that stood as tall as the chamber itself, its frame a knotted mass of bone-like bars and gnarled bronze which slinked together like a spider’s legs to create its seat.

Though Spike could not see the being which sat in that throne, its form hidden in the shadow of a withered gray tarp which hung out over the throne like a shroud, he trembled as his eyes finally found the source of that awful heart-beat: a leathery pouch, held atop a flat-topped pedestal that seemed almost to grow out of the bricks of the floor to stand half as tall as the throne it was next to. “Holy guacamole,” he thought, “is…is that bag…moving…?”

With each pulsing beat, the pouch did indeed seem to tremble ever so slightly. Gulping, Spike stepped even closer to Scorpan, hiding behind the ape-beast’s leg just so he didn’t have to look at that awful…whatever-it-was anymore. “My troops and I have succeeded in our raid, Master Tirek,” Scorpan said, holding out the petrified Pegasus Pony as if he were a trophy. “We have scoured all of Equestria, and returned with prisoners, as you commanded.”

There came a low, guttural growl as two glowing beads of red appeared within the throne’s dark center. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Scorpan?”

The ape-beast’s eyes widened, and he immediately sank down to one knee-thus depriving Spike of his earlier hiding spot. “Of course, my Master, please forgive my impertinence,” Scorpan said pleadingly.

“He’s...he’s as scared as I am….” Spike realized with no small amount of shock, almost unable to believe the submissive creature next to him was the same commanding beast he had seen in Ponyville and outside the Castle.

A hand, red like those glowing eyes and large enough to scoop Spike and Scorpan both up and crush them into powder, reached out from behind the throne’s veil, stroking the pulsing pouch as if it were a loyal pet. “How many?” the voice, which Spike gathered belonged to this ‘Tirek’ Scorpan spoke of, asked dryly, “You say you were successful in taking prisoners. How many are there?”

“From Ponyville alone there are at least twenty-five,” Scorpan replied, “and the other-“

“Twenty-five?” the unseen Master scoffed contemptuously, “I give you an open gate-way to their little town, give you a full troop of my finest Stratadons, and the best you can manage is twenty-five?”

Scorpan hung his head, pulling the Pegasus Pony back toward him. “Forgive my weakness, Master Tirek,” he said, “We encountered…unexpected resistance. Celestia and her soldiers intervened.”

The red hand ceased its petting. “Celestia?!?” Tirek growled angrily, and the entire chamber seemed to shake from it. “That foal? I ordered you and the Stratdaons not to attack Canterlot to avoid her detection!”

“We did as you commanded, my Master,” Scorpan said.

“Then how did Celestia learn of our attack so quickly?” the unseen creature roared, and despite Scorpan’s warnings, Spike could not hold back his fear any longer knowing the answer to that question, as the room shook again from the voice’s sheer rage.

Wailing out in fright, he tucked his head beneath his hands, closing his eyes and wishing as hard as he could that he was not there anymore. Back in Ponyville, lost in the Everfree Forest, wandering in some empty desert…anywhere would have been better at that moment. The rumbling stopped, however, and even as his eyes remained closed and his desperate wishing remained strong, the dragon could feel Tirek’s intensifying gaze fixating on him. “I see you have brought a…guest, Scorpan….” He spoke, calmer now but no less chilling to listen to.

Still trembling, Spike nonetheless managed to well up enough courage to open his eyes; sure enough, he found himself being looked down upon by those fiery red lights. “Forgive him, Master,” Scorpan replied, holding out the Pegasus Pony again as he rose back up to his feet. “He is a lost Dragon child who I found being held prisoner by these Ponies. I chose to rescue him so that he might come to understand his true nature and his place with us.”

Something in the ape-beast’s voice managed to catch Spike’s attention, even as he remained so scared he could barely stand, but the dragon could not place his claw on what. “Bow,” Scorpan hissed sharply under his breath.

Despite himself, Spike did so, kneeling on the ground as Scorpan had. Tirek hummed lowly in thought, his hand again petting the beating satchel. Eventually, however, a gleam entered those glowing crimson eyes. “Very well,” he growled. “He may stay under your care. Let us hope he grows into a powerful member of my Army. For your sake, as much as for his.”

Nodding dutifully, the ape-beast finally placed the Pegasus on the ground. Though he fluttered his wings a bit, the brown pony could tell running away was hardly an option, looking nervously from the shadowed throne to Scorpan and back again. “W-what…what do you want from me…?” he finally managed to croak out.

The beating noise of the pouch began to grow louder…faster. Boom…boom…boom. “Mmm…yes, a fine choice,” Tirek said, “A weak spirit, and strong body; the perfect combination. He shall be the first.”

“The first…?!?” the pegasus gulped audibly, wings buzzing even as he remained stock-still otherwise. “What do you mean?”

“This is a moment to be proud of,” Scorpan said urgently, and Spike could tell it was addressed to him as much as to the Pegasus. “Do not fear it. Embrace it.”

Spike could only guess what was being discussed, but the knot he had felt earlier in his stomach was tightening all the harder the more he heard of it.

The ape-beast looked down at the pegasus. “Do you have any last words?” he asked him, “Before the change?”

Lip trembling, ears flattening, the pegasus simply murmured, “I want to go home….”

And then Tirek’s hand lifted, above the pouch, claws pointing down at it. His voice, growing louder with each word, began to speak. “Heart of Darkness, thy Master calls….”

The pouch trembled, and its pounding again grew faster and louder. Boom…boom…boom. “Bring this creature into my thrall.”

Scorpan immediately stepped back from the Pegasus, pulling Spike into his arms and holding him tight. There was no time for the dragon to wonder why as the pouch’s beating suddenly gave way to a howling, gnashing roar. Like Windigos, its opening let loose a storm of pitch-black streaks, serpent-like things that throbbed and writhed, pulsing like dust in the wind. Crimson energy crackled all around them as they dove downward, circling around the shrieking pegasus and forming a cyclone of shadows that trapped him inside.

As quickly as they had appeared, the tendrils then vanished, retracting back into the pouch. And where once had stood a Pegasus Pony, there now stood something else. Something monstrous. “Welcome, my pet,” Tirek said with grim delight, “Welcome home.”

To Be Continued….

Author's Note:

NOTE: This chapter has been edited to match the show's current canon. You can read the original, unedited version here: sta.sh/01ntp4k6scr6

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!