• Published 12th Mar 2014
  • 345 Views, 28 Comments

The Tainted Renaissance - Red B



For centuries Equestria has existed as a beacon of order and harmony. However, not all things are meant to last. A storm of change is rising on the horizon. One that will shake the very foundations of Equestria.

  • ...
7
 28
 345

Nightmare in Ponyville. Part I

Twilight stirred slightly when she felt the dawning sun caress her face, its light slowly banishing the pleasant blanket of sleep. She smiled and let out a silent groan of contentment when she moved her face away from the light and felt one of the best scents in the world – parchment. She nuzzled the material, taking a deep breath in order to savor the moment. As she did so, Twilight noticed another, equally amazing scent, ink. Ahh, parchment and ink … two of the most beautiful scents in the world … no perfume even comes close. Twilight let out a short chuckle as she felt herself slowly drifting towards sleep again. Yeeeeessss … this is paradise. A wonderful aroma and no sun to pester me while I sleep … wait! Why is there parchment and ink in my bed? … I never take ink to my bed. I leave it on the desk near the … wait … The gears in Twilight's mind started turning, grinding away all the promises of a continued sleep. Wait! Sun! Princess Celestia! Princess Luna! The letter to Princess Luna! Her response! That last thought caused Twilight's eyes to fly open as she jerked up from where she had been sleeping on her desk, with a thick book, covered with small traces of drool, serving as an improvised pillow.


She looked around and realized that her suspicions were true, it was indeed early morning. She had fallen asleep during her evening research. Probably because of the exhaustion from all those exercises yesterday. She checked the clock and frowned. According to her most recent memory, more than five hours had passes since the last time she checked the clock. Probably less, since she had continued her work after that before drifting off to sleep. Either way, five hours was a long time. She had to find Spike and ask him whether or not Luna had sent a reply.


A quick spell took care of the drool puddle on the book, something that was a more common occurrence than she wanted. After that, Twilight put the books away, shaking her head slightly when she saw the blank notes, indicating a lack of any results. Once that was taken care of Twilight headed off to the bathroom so she could take care of her morning needs.


Several minutes later Twilight was trotting towards the staircase that lead to the first floor of the library. As she approached it, Twilight heard sounds coming from below. Flicking her ears forward revealed that there was a conversation going on. She instantly recognized one voice, it belonged to Spike, whereas the other voice, which belonged to a stallion, was a complete mystery. At least he sounded friendly, Twilight noted when she heard the stallion laugh at what was probably Spike's joke.


Twilight started walking down the stairs, her eyes and ears focused on what little of the first floor she could see. The amount increased drastically when she reached the small turn of the staircase and was granted full view of the first floor. As a result, she instantly spotted the visitor. Storm Chaser! What is he doing here! A thought flashed through her mind when she first saw the pegasus pony sitting next to the small table in the middle of the main room. A moment later all thoughts left her mind when her hoof slipped and she half-fell, half-staggered down several steps before catching herself before it became a full fall.


Obviously, her grand entrance meant that all attention in the room was focused on her. “Whoa! Princess Twilight, careful!” The pegasus shot up to his hooves and took a few steps towards her. “Are you okay?”


“Y-yeah. I'm fine, I’m fine. I just tripped a little.” Twilight replied as she steadied herself and turned her attention towards the stallion. Almost immediately Twilight realized why she had thought of Storm Chaser when first seeing the pony in front of her. The color of the coat was rather similar at first glance. Light orange versus Storm Chaser's beige. In addition, there was also the fact that not much of the coat was visible under the suit of armor the pegasus was wearing. A suit of light chain mail armor formed the base of the armor and covered most of the body with the exception of wings and legs. The armor also had a hood, with which to cover the head and neck, however, the pegasus had elected to leave the hood lowered, exposing the short two-shaded sapphire blue mane. In addition of the chain mail, there were also plates of armor that covered his chest and front legs.


“Ah, that's good to hear.” Seeing that Twilight was fine, the stallion took her confused look as a sign to introduce himself. “In that case allow me to introduce myself, Princess. I am Lieutenant Flash Sentry of the Royal Guard. I was sent here, along with my squad, to investigate the matter of those strange ponies, you mentioned.”


“Huh?” Twilight blinked in confusion.


Spike caught her attention by waving a letter he held in his claws. “You sent a letter to Princess Luna, remember? You asked for help in order to deal with those ponies and that serial killer in the woods.”


“Yes, but I didn't ask her to send soldiers.” Twilight finally recovered. “I mean I asked her to clarify a few things, but that's about it. All I needed was some information.”


Flash Sentry cleared his throat. “Well, yes, that would be correct, Princess. You see, Princess Luna was greatly disturbed by your letter. As you mentioned, there is indeed no such thing as Section 9. There never has been. Princess Luna even went so far as to check the Royal Archives. Those ponies were lying. As for that pony they are looking for, there is no information on him as well, but if even a fraction of his supposed crimes were true...”


“Then Princess Luna would have heard something about him already and there would be a lot more ponies than a bunch of detectives chasing after him.” Twilight picked up the trail of thought and sat down, her eyes staring into distance as she contemplated the theory. “What this means is that we have a group of ponies, pretending to be detectives, looking for another pony. A pony they really want to get their hooves on, judging from the sound of things. What is strange, however, that this pony they're after, this Stardust, is not seeking help from the authorities. He prefers to stay away from others and keeps wondering around … very interesting.” She used her magic to snatch the letter from Spike's grip and move it towards her. As expected, the letter was a response from Luna. It was very short and basically repeated what Flash Sentry had just told her.


“Oooohh, I know that tone. And I know that look.” Spike saw the expression on Twilight's face and felt a rush of excitement bubble up inside him. “Get ready.” He winked at Flash Sentry.


“That means we have to find Stardust. We find him and, chances are, we will also find those detectives. Or whatever they really are. And once we find him, we can get to the bottom of this. Stardust knows something. Or has done something. That's probably the reason why they are after him.” Twilight carried on, her enthusiasm growing as she reached the conclusion of her thoughts. “That's it! We have to find Stardust!”


A short chuckle, accompanied by the sound of metal rings brushing against each other, brought her back to the present. Flash Sentry was walking towards the table where he sat down next to his helmet. “I knew you would say something like that, Princess. Now, usually I would ask that civilians stay out of this, however, judging from your file as well as those of your friends, you are far from an ordinary civilian. In fact, you probably have more experience with these sorts of things than I do. If things take a turn for the worse, I would be happy to have a magician of your caliber on my side.”


“Wait, I have a file?” Twilight asked while the compliment made her blush a little.


“Umm, yes.” Flash replied as if stating the most obvious thing in the world. “Considering your achievements as well as your status as Element Bearers and other things, the Royal Guard decided that everypony within our ranks should be aware of the ponies who are out to steal our jobs.”


“No! We... wait … that's a joke, right?” Twilight's concerned voice turned into a short laugh which sounded embarrassingly lame to her ears. She stopped laughing and joined Flash and Spike at the table. “Anyway, why are you here? I mean here at this library?”


“I seek information. About those ponies pretending to be detectives as well as Stardust. Appearance, places where we could find them, anything that could help the investigation. I'm afraid we don't know much, apart from the overall situation, so I would like to gather some info before I send my ponies into the forest.” Flash replied in a business like voice.


Twilight tapped her nose with her hoof as she considered her answer. “Sorry, but I won't be of much help. I only met them once, for a brief moment. You should ask Rainbow Dash or some other ponies about those detectives. As for Stardust, ask Rarity, we strongly suspect that she spent the night at Stardust's house so she knows how he looks and where we can find them.”


“I see. Rest assured, I already sent a few of my ponies over to Rarity's workshop for the same reason. Why don't you tell me about that meeting? Even if you don't know much about them, every little bit can help since every pony tends to notice different things.” Flash urged Twilight to continue.


Twilight shrugged and quickly told him of the last evening's events. She told him everything she could remember, starting from the moment they saw the injured mare up to the moment when the detectives had disappeared into the forest. She made sure to mention the strange interaction between Storm Chaser and the pony who was supposed to be his superior. Twilight also mentioned the unusually powerful magic the unicorn had been using, although she could see that Flash didn't quite understand the significance of the matter. As for the rest of her story, the pegasus remained quiet, listening attentively. Once she was finished, Flash took a moment to consider what he had just heard.


Spike, who was also following the conversation, shook his head in amazement. “Wow, and these guys want others to believe a word they say? I mean if you're going to pretend you're a detective, at least act like one.”


“Yes, that does seem a bit strange. Tell me, Princess, why didn't you ask them to provide some sort of identification? A badge, for example?”


“My thoughts were focused on that injured mare at that time. It didn't occur to me that I should be checking others for identification. Besides, it's not like we usually have ponies walking around and pretending to be government officials.” Twilight replied somewhat defensively.


“Good point. Though I have to admire their courage to attempt something like that so close to Canterlot, where their claims could be checked so easily. All it takes is one suspicious pony and their cover is blown. Then again, perhaps it is because of how insane the idea is, that they managed to pull it off. It's like hiding in plain sight.” Flash shook his head, impressed by the audacity of the false detectives.


Twilight studied him curiously, this was the first time she had a genuine conversation with a member of the Royal Guard. Having grown up in the castle, Twilight was so used to them, she rarely noticed their presence. Until today, most of her conversations with the Guards were limited to questions regarding directions and even then, it didn't last long as Twilight soon learned the layout of the castle and was able to find her own way around. There was also the fact that Flash was treating as an equal, instead of placing her on an unreachable pedestal far above him and awaiting her guidance and approval, like other members of the Royal Guard. Sure, she could feel the respect he had for her, but it was more because of her as a pony than her status as a Princess or Celestia's personal student, something she found rather enjoyable. Flash was an interesting pony. “So, what do we do now?”


“Now that I have some information, I think it's time to act on it. I'll go and see my squad at the Town Hall, they should have unpacked our things by now, and prepare to search the forest. Hopefully, the group I sent to Carousel Boutique will be back with directions. Once the scouts are back, we'll be moving into the forest to find some answers.” Flash replied and grabbed his helmet. He hooked it to a small nub on the side of his armor. “I should probably send somepony to check the clinic. If that mare you found is still there, this investigation would move along a lot faster.


“Town Hall? I think Mayor Mare won't be happy about that.”


“She wasn't. But after we explained that the Town Hall is the only building in Ponyville with enough space to suit our needs, she was willing to cooperate. Especially when she realized that a squad of Royal Guard in the middle of Ponyville could give ponies some reassurance that something is being done about the supposed criminal.” He stood up to leave. “Now, if you are serious about helping us, please come find me at the Town Hall in half an hour. Please, keep in mind that we won't be able to wait for you if you're late, Princess … If you have no other questions I will take my leave. It was a pleasure and an honor to meet you Princess Twilight.” Flash said with a slight bow, causing Twilight to shift uncomfortably. She still wasn't fully used to ponies bowing before her.


She replied with an awkward smile as she watched him leave. “Okay … Sure, I will be there. Don't worry about that.”


“Nice guy. Different from all those ponies back at the castle.” Twilight heard Spike comment once Flash was gone. She couldn't help but nod in agreement. “Had a nice chat with him while we waited for you to get up.”


“Wait a minute.” Something clicked in Twilight's head and she looked at Spike. “Why are you awake? It's early in the morning. You never get up this early. Did you... did you stay awake all night, Spike?”


Spike gave her a level look and shook his head as if Twilight was having trouble understanding a very obvious thing. “Uhh, the letter? You know, the reply from Princess Luna.” He pointed at the parchment on the table. “Kind of hard to sleep when a letter comes through. Woke me up an hour ago and, once I read it, I decided to stay up, since I knew that one of those Royal Guards would come here the moment they arrived.” He said and started walking towards the kitchen. Twilight followed him close by.


She glanced back at the letter. “Yeah, but why didn't you wake me?”


“I wanted to, but you looked so silly sleeping face down on that book, I just couldn't do that. Besides, considering that you passed out, I figured it was best to let you sleep a bit longer.” He paused and gave Twilight an amused look. “Is the book going to be alright? You were drooling a lot.”


“The book is fine.” Twilight replied in a peevish tone as she brushed past him. “Now let me have some breakfast.”


xxxxx


Some twenty minutes later, Twilight emerged from the library and made her way towards the Town Hall. On her way there, Twilight saw the familiar sight of Ponyville waking up to a new day. Some ponies looked like they had been up for quite some time, while others were barely able to stay awake as they went through their preparations. However, regardless of their state of awareness, all the ponies Twilight saw seemed to be sharing two thoughts. One was the concern about the rumors regarding the supposed criminal in the woods, while the second one was much more pleasant and revolved around taking care of the last preparations for the Nightmare Night. Fortunately, it looked like the concern was slowly giving ground to excitement. Nightmare Night was such a popular celebration that even rumors about a psychotic killer could not dampen the spirit. In fact, Twilight even overheard a few ponies debating whether or not the entire deal was some sort of a prank that would play a major part in the celebration later that evening.


For a moment Twilight considered pointing out that few ponies would come up with such a disturbing prank, but she decided to remain silent in order to prevent panic, which could lead to somepony doing something regrettable. She ignored the arguing ponies and carried on in a quick trot. Better to get to the Town Hall so she and Flash could get this thing taken care of and make sure it remained just a rumor to the rest of Ponyville.


“Hey, Twilight! What are you doing up so early in the morning? Where are you going?” Twilight looked up and saw Rainbow Dash dive from the clouds towards her.


Twilight waited for the pegasus to make an elegant landing right next to her. “Morning, Rainbow. I'm heading to the Town Hall. A group of Royal Guards arrived. They will be going after that pony in the forest and I offered to help them out.” She said and resumed walking towards the center of the town with Rainbow accompanying her.


“Oh? You mean you already got a response to that letter you said you were going to send?” Twilight nodded in agreement. “Wow, that's great. By the way, what did you learn about those detectives? What did the Princess say?”


“About what you might expect. They were lying.” Twilight replied and told Rainbow about the conversation she had with Flash.


Rainbow reacted precisely as Twilight had expected. She muttered something under her breath and then let out a sigh while shaking her head. “Why am I not surprised... I can't believe I considered them detectives for even a moment. Especially that Storm Chaser asshole. Wait until we find him. I've got score to settle.”


“Rainbow, you can't possibly be thinking of... wait, you're coming along?”


“Yep. Can't let you wonder through that forest alone. No offense, but the Royal Guards don't have the most successful track record.” Rainbow mercilessly pointed out just as they reached the Town Hall. The moment they cast their eyes on the square in front of the building, both mares gasped in surprise.


They were greeted by the sight of approximately ten ponies moving supplies from one of the wagons to the Town Hall. They moved quickly and efficiently, eager to get the supplies inside as quickly as they could. Earth ponies, pegasi, and, all clad in simple, yet practical steel armor, were the complete opposite of the golden armor wearing soldiers Twilight and Rainbow had half expected to see.


After a moment of observation, Twilight was relieved to spot Flash emerging from the Town Hall, followed closely by an earth pony mare, sporting a bright orange coat, with whom he was having a conversation. Fortunately, it didn't last long. Twilight saw him shake his head in denial, which caused the mare to shrug and walk away towards the nearly empty wagon. Flash followed her with his eyes before he spotted Twilight and Rainbow. “Ah, you're here, Princess. Excellent. And I see you've brought Miss Rainbow Dash with you.” He trotted over to them and gave Rainbow a short nod.


“Yes, I...”


“Dude, just Rainbow is fine. No need for titles. They sound weird.” Rainbow said before Twilight could finish her sentence. She ignored the glare Twilight shot her for cutting in and continued. “Anyway, Twilight told me about the chat you two had and I've decided to go with you.”


“Are you sure? Things could get rather messy. We don't know whether or not the ponies we are trying to find, will feel cooperative towards us. It could lead to a confrontation.”


This time it was Twilight who spoke up before Rainbow could provide a reply. “You don't have to worry about us. We can take care of ourselves.” Just like Rainbow had done it to her, Twilight ignored the annoyed look her friend gave her.


Flash saw nothing of the silent exchange. “Ahh, excellent. Now, if you could wait a few minutes, we will be departing in...”

“Sir! Sir! There is a problem.” A mare's voice caused all of them to look up, where they spotted a dark green pegasus come in for a landing. She landed next to them, folded her wings, and, after giving Twilight and Rainbow a small nod, she turned towards Flash. “It's about Sergeant Blitzkrieg.”


Flash let out a groan when he heard the name. He rubbed his forehead with his hoof. “I hate it when you put the words “problem” and “Blitzkrieg” so close. Is it about the task I gave him?” There was a nod in response. “Wonderful. I asked him to do such a simple thing, go to Carousel Boutique, ask Miss Rarity about the suspect and report back. Yet....”


“Whoa, whoa... wait a minute. You sent a pony to Rarity's house? At this hour?” Rainbow asked incredulously.


“Umm... yes?” Flash frowned in confusion, his gaze moving from Rainbow to Twilight.


Twilight was confused as well, at least until realization dawned. “Oh no … This is not good. I think we should go and get your Sergeant. He might be in trouble.”


“Twilight's right. You do not, I repeat you DO NOT interrupt Rarity's beauty sleep.”


xxxxx


A few minutes later, four ponies were approaching Carousel Boutique. From afar, it didn't look the least bit threatening, but Twilight and Rainbow weren't fooled. The lavishly decorated building was merely a facade to the dangers that lurked within. They both had firsthoof experience on the matter and it was something neither one of them wanted to live through again. One time was enough. In fact it was more than enough.


Unmindful to the unpleasant thoughts coursing through Twilight's and Rainbow's mind, Flash lead the small group towards the entrance. He raised his hoof and knocked on the door, before slowly pushing them open. There was no response. Before he pushed the doors further, he glanced back at the pegasus mare standing nearby. “Corporal, go back to the Town Hall and have the rest of Sergeant's squad assemble here. Full equipment. We'll be leaving as soon as I clear this mess.” The mare nodded in reply and took off, leaving them alone. With Twilight and Rainbow following him, Flash pushed the doors completely open and all three of them went inside.


“Rarity? Sorry to bother you so early, but...” Twilight spoke up, but the moment her eyes took in the full sight of the main room, her voice trailed off. At the same time Rainbow broke out in barely suppressed laughter while Flash just stared, dumbfounded, at the sight before them.


Surrounded by mirrors on three sides, a tall bluish-gray pegasus stallion was standing completely motionless. With his wings flared out and one arm raised, he had assumed, or, most likely, been told to assume a pose that would, to many, seem majestic. His steel gray eyes shifted slightly when he noticed them, but they quickly snapped back to staring at a point in front of him, when he saw just who exactly the three ponies were. The only movement, aside from the eyes, he made, was a nervous twitch of his tail, which, just like his disheveled mane, sported black, brown and red streaks. However, what made an uncomfortable silence spread throughout the room were the clothes he was wearing. From the looks of it, the entire set looked like some sort of armor. A surreal, twisted and completely bizarre set of armor.


“Umm, are those … streamers around his ears?” Twilight began, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.


“Yep, though those are nothing compared to the chain skirts he's wearing.” Rainbow chortled, staring at the colorful chains that nearly covered the stallion's Cutie Mark, three yellow arrow-shaped lightning bolts. “And don't get me started on the … I don't even know what's that on his head.”


“Looks like a flower pot.”


Their guesses were interrupted by Rarity who trotted down the stairs with a reel of tartan fabric floating next to her. “Found it! Sorry for making you wait. It took me absolute ages to find the thing.” Rarity said in a cheerful voice. “Just hold still for a while longer. This won't take long.” It was then when she spotted the three ponies standing near the doors. She put away the reel on a nearby table and gave them an apologetic smile. “Oh my. Rainbow, Twilight. I am so sorry, I was so busy, I didn't hear you enter and … ah, I see you brought a friend with you.”


“It's alright Rarity. Sorry to bother you this early.” Twilight replied. “This is Flash Sentry, he came to Ponyville in order to deal with those strange ponies that were walking around yesterday.”


“Uhh, pardon me, but … what's going on?” Flash was still transfixed by the sight of the pegasus across the room.


Rarity traced his gaze and her smile grew a bit wider. “Nothing much. Sergeant Blitzkrieg was very kind to offer assistance. He agreed to model for me.”


“How did...”


“I don't want to talk about it.” The pegasus model replied in a small voice. “Ever.”


Flash shook his head and sighed. He then turned his attention towards Rarity. “I apologize for bothering you this early, Miss Rarity, but I am afraid I didn't have a choice. As Princess Twilight said, we were sent here to investigate the matter on those false detectives, as well as find the pony they are trying to capture. Something is going on here and we have to find out. In order to do that, we need your help, since you are the only one who knows where we can find him.”


“You mean Lumberjack? Yes there were ponies looking for him, rather uncouth fellows if you ask me. One of them in particular insulted me to a great degree when I doubted their motives. I have met Lumberjack and while he admitted to having a secret or two, he didn't strike me as a criminal.” Rarity tapped her hoof against her lower lip thoughtfully. She then cast a suspicious glance at Flash. “Assuming you find them, what are you going to do with him? Understand that he helped me a great deal, so I am a bit reluctant to assist in his capture.”


“I merely want to capture him so that we can learn why he is being chased by those ponies. Not every day you encounter ponies who claim to be chasing after an insane serial killer, so this case does raise a few red flags. Either way, if it turns out that he has no trouble with the law, he will be released immediately. Or, should he choose to, remain in protective custody while we deal with his pursuers.”


Rarity considered his answer. One on hoof, she was a bit hesitant to help him capture Lumberjack. As far as she could tell, Lumberjack was simply trying to deal with a personal problem, while staying away from others. Granted, he must have done something if there were ponies looking for him. Yet that was none of her business. On the other hoof, the fact that he seemed to be on the run from others, bothered her. Ponies with clear conscience did not do that. The law abiding part of her urged Rarity to do something about it. She could not merely signore the matter as there was always the small chance that Lumberjack had broken the law. And if Lumberjack truly was a criminal of some sort, then refusing to do anything about it meant that, in a way, she was condoning his actions. Besides, Flash's main goal was to find out what exactly was going on, not hunt down Lumberjack, therefore helping Flash didn't mean that Lumberjack would be instantly thrown in the dungeon. Furthermore, Twilight wasn't having any objections with his plan, so it meant that it couldn't hurt to trust him. “I see. Well, if that is what you have in mind, I guess I should lend a hoof … Very well, if Twilight says you're here to help, then I will help you. Just give me a minute to get ready.” Rarity said and started walking towards the staircase.


“Does that mean you're coming with us?” Rainbow tore her gaze away from the unfortunate pegasus, a deep frown on her face.


“But of course, darling. I have a personal interest in the matter and I would like to see Lumberjack again. Furthermore, since I know him better than anypony in this room, I could talk to him and make the whole capture thing easier for all of us.”


“Good. By the way, could I have my Sergeant back?” Flash said, not bothering to object to Rarity's decision, just one look at the white mare told him that it would be pointless to argue.


All four ponies turned their attention towards Blitzkrieg, who was still maintaining his pose and could have been mistaken for a statue of not for the occasional blink or the flaring of his nostrils. Rarity regarded him with a sweet smile and chuckled. “Well, since we are about to leave, I guess there is no point in keeping him here.” She walked over to the pegasus and adjusted one of the streamers. “I am grateful for your assistance, Sergeant Blitzkrieg. You may go now. And should you ever decide to model for me again, please let me know. I have plenty of ideas I would love to try out.” She flashed another smile and trotted towards the staircase to the second floor.


“Yes, I will.” Blitzkrieg replied and started to carefully remove Rarity's version of stylish armor. Although his tone didn't betray his thoughts, everypony knew that there was no way Blitzkrieg will be going anywhere near Carousel Boutique. Once all the items had been removed, he quickly put on his own armor, and left the building without saying another word.


Meanwhile Flash, Twilight and Rainbow decided to wait fro Rarity to get ready. Surprisingly, it didn't take long. They had to wait only a few minutes before they saw Rarity come down the stairs. She was wearing a light yellow sun scarf around her neck with a matching sun hat. A perfect outfit for the sunny day that was ahead of them. The only problem was that, from the look of things, they will be spending most of their time in the forest, then again, nopony felt like pointing it out to Rarity. They were eager to take care of the whole thing and be done with it.


The moment they stepped outside, the four ponies came face to face with a whole group of ponies. A total of thirteen ponies, all clad in armor and wielding weapons, ranging from clawed hoof boots to crossbows and even a couple of muskets. And while the group seemed to be in a relaxed mood, it was obvious that their attention was focused on the four ponies leaving Carousel Boutique.


Flash surveyed the group and, with a short nod, gestured one of the ponies, a young, light green unicorn stallion to bring forward a map of the area. “Before we move out, Miss Rarity would you show me on the map where we can find Stardust, I mean Lumberjack, or whatever his real name is? This way it will be easier to coordinate our actions.”


“Of course. No problem.” Rarity studied the map and, with a little help from Twilight and Flash, pointed out he rough area where, if she recalled correctly, Lumberjack's cottage was located, assuming he hadn't left already. “I think I should point out that Lumberjack's house is not a permanent building. He can move it around quite easily, so there is a chance that we won't find anything there. Especially with those brutes combing the forest.”


“An approximate lead is still better than nothing, Miss. Since we have a starting point, we can coordinate our search accordingly and hopefully make some progress instead of blindly running around.” Flash replied and passed the map back to the unicorn, who then proceeded to show the map to the rest of the group. Meanwhile Flash cast a thoughtful gaze at the three mares. “Just one last thing. Please do not take this as an insult to your abilities or experience, but I will have to ask you to follow a single rule once we're in the forest. Once we move out, I am in charge. If I ask you to hide, you hide, if I ask you to run, you run. No questions and no arguing. The safety of you three is the highest priority. Is that fine?”


“Of course, darling. I will trust you and your brave soldiers to keep us out of danger.” Rarity replied and gave all the nearby ponies a cheerful smile, causing several stallions, and a few mares, to perk up.


Twilight considered the request and saw no problems with agreeing. Sure, she could defend herself and probably all the nearby ponies as well, but that did not mean she was against somepony else take the lead. Flash looked like a reasonable pony. “Sure, no problem. Sounds good to me.”


“Yeah, fine, whatever.” Rainbow replied with a casual wave of her hoof. “What?” She said when she noticed the level stares she was receiving from all the nearby ponies. “Okay, fine.” Rainbow rolled her eyes and looked at Flash. “I'll follow your lead.” This time she actually put a little bit of emotion into her words, so that she sounded like she actually meant it.


The answer seemed to satisfy Flash. The pegasus nodded and turned to address the guardsponies. “Okay, time to do what we came here to do. Our task is to locate and capture a pony known as Stardust, as well as the ponies who are going after him. We will head to the location where Stardust's house is supposed to be. Once we're there, we'll spread out and search the nearby area for any clues, which could help use n the investigation. Keep in mind that the main task is to capture the target, that means no shooting unless it is absolutely necessary and even then, try to avoid vital areas.” He looked at each of the guardspony and was satisfied to see that he was understood.


When Flash spoke again, he was talking in a less formal tone, which made him sound a lot more sincere. “One last thing, as you all know, this is our first real deployment ever since that disaster at the wedding. Remember what happened that day. This is our chance to turn things around, to turn a new page. Remember what the Captain said. Never again.” He paused for a moment and then nodded at Blitzkrieg. “Sergeant.”


The pegasus turned his attention towards the remaining ponies. “You heard the Lieutenant. We're moving out. Mint Lily and Sledgehammer, you two will be on point. Scout ahead and make sure there are no surprises waiting for us.” He gestured at two earth ponies, who were sporting camouflage pattern cloaks over their armor. “Glint, Monsoon. You two will scout from above. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Make sure you stay in contact with the rest of us.” A pair of pegasi gave their nods. “Private Gatekeeper, you'll be on wagon duty.” An earth pony stallion nodded in acknowledgment. “Everypony else, you'll establish a mobile perimeter around the wagon. Spread out enough to notice unpleasant surprises that slip past the scouts, but stay close enough for easy contact.” Even though he was giving orders, Twilight, Rarity and Rainbow could easily hear a fair amount of lightheartedness in Blitzkrieg's voice. The pony was clearly enjoying himself, the cocky grin on his face further cemented that belief.


“Strange.” Rarity commented as she watched the group burst into action while Flash walked over to the wagon and retrieved a crossbow. “He was much less chatty and a lot more quiet when he was inside my workshop.” She said just loud enough for Twilight and Rainbow to hear. Both mares shared a quiet laugh. However, judging from the nervous twitch of Blitzkrieg's tail, he had heard her as well, something which made Rarity chuckle as well.


Xxxxx


“Soo. About that wedding disaster you mentioned earlier. Were you talking about my brother's wedding?” Twilight asked when the silence had grown almost unbearable. They had been walking for a while now, slowly making their way through the forest. The initial excitement had died down since they left Ponyville, giving way to boredom. She had tried to strike up a small conversation with either Rarity or Rainbow, but with all their thoughts focused on the matter at hoof, they hadn't been able to exchange more than a few sentences before the conversation just petered off.


Flash slowed down a bit, so that we was walking alongside her, before replying with a heavy weight in his voice. “Yes, that is correct, Princess. The Changeling invasion during the wedding was a bad day for the Royal Guards. I doubt you failed to notice the … limited resistance the Changelings encountered.”


“I'll say. You guys got taken out so easily it was as if you weren't even there.” Rainbow commented in her usually brash tone from where she was flying just above the ground, next to Rarity.


Rarity gave the cyan pegasus an accosting glare. “Rainbow! How could you say such a thing! I am sure the Royal Guards gave did their best to protect us.”


“I appreciate the kind gesture, Miss Rarity, but I am afraid that Rainbow is correct and no amount of sugarcoating will hide it.” Flash nodded in appreciation. “The bare truth is, we failed. We had all the advantages, position, familiar territory, a warning even, yet our defense was a spectacular failure. Almost everypony was captured or disabled in a few, short minutes. The most elite unit in Equestria was unable to do even a fracture of what you managed to do.”


“Yeah, we sure kicked their flanks alright, we're awesome, it's what we do. Too bad there was too much of them.” Rainbow said with a cocky grin and made a quick loop above the formation.


“Either way, you still did more than the entirety of the Royal Guard.” Blitzkrieg, who was walking ahead of them, interjected.


Flash nodded in agreement. “Precisely. That day showed everypony what the Royal Guard were capable of and a lot of ponies did not like what they saw. If not for Captain's... I mean Prince Shining Armor's spell, things would have been ugly.” He took a deep breath and sighed heavily. “Anyway, that was the last straw. As it soon turned out, he had already set things in motion. You see, whenever the Captain of the Royal Guard resigns, for whatever reason, he or she must select a successor. While many expected him to select one of the nobles of Canterlot, Prince Shining Armor surprised everypony by ignoring all the offered candidates and selecting somepony who wasn’t a noblepony. Not only that, but he pushed his decision through before any of the Canterlot nobles could protest. Not to mention that Princess Cadance and Princess Luna were on his side. He worked so fast it took only three days after the wedding for us to get a new Captain.”


“Captain Frost Wyrm. I heard that Shiny and he go a way back.” Blitzkrieg once again provided his commentary, earning a few frowns from some of the nearby ponies, who were not amused by the way he referred to the Prince.


“Yes, they do know each other. Either way, with Captain Frost in charge, the last year has been … rough, for the lack of a better year. Harsh training, high standards and so on. Being a Royal Guard means you no longer get a chance to goof off or take things easy.” Flash explained. “And, as I said before, this is the first time my unit is sent on an actual mission, so expectations are high. Screwing up after all that work would be … unfortunate.”


“Well, in that case, I wish you luck. I know how it feels to have your superior expect great things from you. My advice, don't think about it too much and just do the best you can.” Twilight said in a cheerful voice in an attempt to lighten his mood.


“You can also try drinking, I hear it…” Blitzkrieg started to say before trailing off, his gaze turning slightly distant and a hoof coming up to touch the side of his helmet. Almost immediately, all the attention was focused on him. “Understood. We'll be there soon. Check the nearby area and report in if you find anything else.” He lowered his hoof and quickly trotted over next to Flash. “Just got a report from the scouts on the Voice Caster.” He tapped the side of his helmet, where the small earpiece was clipped to his ear. The item, enchanted by magic, allowed two ponies to talk to each other over great distances. All it took was for one pony to think of the recipient's name and, if they were in range, the pony on the other side would be able to answer. “They have reached the glade. Problem is, the house is little more than a pile of rubble. No signs of anypony.”


Flash thought for a second and nodded. “Order everypony to assemble in the glade as quickly as possible. We will search the area for anything of importance and then work outwards.” Blitzkrieg passed on his orders and the entire group broke out into a quick gallop towards the destination. “Rainbow, don't. Stay with the group!” Flash spoke up when he saw her stretch her wings in what he immediately recognized as a pegasus preparing to take dart forward at full speed. “There is no telling what awaits in front of us. Can't risk an ambush or something equally unpleasant.”


Rainbow glared at him, but obeyed his orders. She switched from flying to running, so that she could remain alongside her friends more easily without the urge to use her wings and reach the distance in a flash. Next to her, she could hear Rarity voice a silent complaint, something about the possibility of breaking a sweat and ruining her scarf. Typical Rarity. Rainbow thought and sighed. Not being allowed to go at full speed was annoying. At least the boredom was gone. It now held the promise of developing into something interesting.


xxxxx


Rarity gasped when she saw the pile of rubble in the middle of the glade. Hers was probably the strongest reaction of the group. Then again, considering that she was the only one who had been there before and her mind still held the memory of the house when it was intact, her reaction was well founded. “Oh no, this cannot be. I can't believe it.”


The earlier description was very accurate. The house was little more than a pile of rubble. If anypony had been inside when it had collapsed then there was no way for them to be alive. The level of destruction was just that high. It looked like the front wall of the house had been the first to go. It had collapsed inwards, as if bucked, pulling down the rest of the building. One of the corners looked like it was still standing, but a closer inspection revealed that it was barely holding together, it was only a matter of time until it too collapsed. Curiously, nothing much was left of the thatched roof, most of it had been probably consumed by flames if the faint smoke, rising up from the gaps between the rubble as well as the scorch marks were of any indication.


Rarity silently moved forward in order to take a closer look. She heard Flash giving orders to the guardsponies to spread out and search the glade and the nearby forest for any clues. Behind her, Twilight and Rainbow decided to take a closer look at the rubble as well, she heard them follow her. Rarity approached the pile where she recalled the door had once been located and, true enough, she saw several wooden splinters scattered across the ground. Rarity stopped and shook her head. “I sincerely hope that he managed to get out before it collapsed. It would be most unpleasant otherwise.”


“Hey … what's that? Lying there on the ground?” Rainbow saw light reflecting off something metallic that was lyign in the grass nearby. She flew over to the spot, landed and picked up a badly damaged crossbow. “Whoa. Looks like somepony was in a bad mood.” She weighed the weapon in her hooves and looked it over. “Well, whoever was using it, won't be using this thing again. It has been set on fire. The string is gone and there's cracks all over it.”


Flash, who was standing nearby, while Blitzkrieg was organizing a search, looked at the crossbow and then glanced around the glade. “The user also seems to be a bad shot, that is if we assume it was used against a pony. There are no bodies in the area. Clearly the shot didn't land.”


Rainbow turned the crossbow over a few times before tossing it aside. “So, now what? There's nopony here and we don't have a clue where to continue the search.”


“We'll work from here with what we have. I already have ponies searching the forest. If all goes well, we'll find some sort of a clue soon enough. In the meanwhile...”


“In the meanwhile, I think we should take a closer look at the house. It might be a little more than a pile of rubble, but, chances are, there's something buried underneath. Rariy said that Lumberjack... Stardust, whatever, was obsessed with history. Perhaps if we search the remains, we'll find something that might shed some light on why is he being pursued.” Twilight interrupted Flash as she stared at the rubble, her mind considering the possibilities.


Rainbow looked at the pile and frowned, the idea of rummaging though all that junk held little appeal. “Wait, you want to dig through that? Do you have any idea how long it will take? Not to mention how heavy some of those pieces of rubble are?”


Twilight gave her a knowing smirk and flicked her eyes upwards, towards her horn. “No worries, Rainbow. I can deal with it, no problem. It shouldn't take long.” She lit her horn and lifted several pieces of rubble that were closest to her. Twilight slowly moved them away from the destroyed house and placed them on the ground. More pieces rose into the air as Rarity decided to help out as well.


This left Rainbow without anything to do. Technically, she could have lifted a few of the pieces herself, but there was no need for that. Twilight and Rarity could take care of it without any problems. A quick glance around revealed that the guardsponies were moving into the forest, spreading out to search a larger area, at the same time, Flash, Blitzkrieg and the earth pony stallion, Gatekeeper, removed a small crate from the wagon and used it as an improvised table for the map, so that they could better track the search.


With no way to contribute, to Twilight's and Rarity's excavation or Flash's search, Rainbow shrugged and flew over to a large, flat stone, lying near the edge of the glade. She landed on top of it and, after discovering that the stone was pleasantly warm from the morning sun, laid down in order to rest a little. Very soon, she found herself drifting into a sleep-like state, where she was more or less awake, but her thoughts were scattered all over the place, making her think about dozens of things at the same time. Occasionally, she would become more awake as a particular thought anchored itself in her mind for a while, before drifting off again.


She didn't know for how long she had been in that state until a particular half-thought, half-dream surfaced in her mind. Soarin. One of the senior members of the Wonderbolts as well as her special somepony. The thought made her smile, though Rainbow wasn't sure if she was actually smiling or just imagining it. Soarin was supposed to arrive later that day in the afternoon and Rainbow was really looking forward to it, since they didn't get many chances to see each other that often. With him often traveling across Equestria and her working as the leader of Ponyville's weather team, they had to make most out of every little chance they got. Spending the Nightmare Night together was one such opportunity. She had planned out the whole thing. From costumes and treats, to which events to participate in, right down to retiring to her house where, if all went well, they could end the celebration in a more intimate setting.


The last bit definitely made her smile. Even though she usually denied it, Rainbow wasn't immune to romantic things. She liked them as much as any other pony, she just wasn't fond of expressing them in public. A gentle nuzzle of a friendly hug was all she was comfortable revealing about her softer side. After all, she did have a reputation to maintain. The same reputation was the reason she and Soarin had started dating. They've known each other for a long time, but it wasn't until the royal wedding at Canterlot that their relationship had taken a romantic turn.


It had started simply at first. Cracking jokes and throwing friendly insults at each other whenever they met or competing against each other in a race. Eventually, it was their shared love for flying that brought them closer, sparking a different sort of attraction. One that led to dates, sharing of dreams and hopes and, unsurprisingly, to an occasional night when they shared more than just that. Her tiny smile grew into a dreamy one when Rainbow recalled just how wonderful those nights felt and she couldn't wait to add one more night to the list. She couldn't help it. Given how rarely they saw each other, it was not surprising that their relationships got rather intense from time to time. No sense in taking things slowly when it was hard to say when would they meet again.


Rainbow stirred in her daydreaming and found herself blinking her eyes, becoming more aware of her surroundings with every blink as she woke up. She yawned, blinked her eyes one more time and turned to see how far Twilight and Rarity had gotten. When she saw the destroyed house, Rainbow realized that she must have been doing off for a while. The rubble had been separated into several piles, revealing the scorched remains of the interior. A quick glance at the sun confirmed her suspicions. It was around midday. The realization sent a troubled shiver down her spine. Soarin will arrive soon! We have to hurry up!

Determined to move things along, Rainbow rose up from her stone and flew over to where Twilight was examining what was left of several books and scrolls, while Rarity was resting further away, closer to the edge of the glade, where a nice shade kept her out of the sun. Rainbow ignored the white unicorn and flopped down next to Twilight. “So, what's going on? Found anything?”


“Huh? … Oh … Yes, I mean, no. I did find these bits and pieces, but most of them are nearly destroyed. It looks like the house was set on fire before it was collapsed. There's not much I was able to find.” Twilight poked the pieces of paper while nodding at the house. “Anyway, what little I have been able to find are pieces of various books and personal notes. Like Rarity said, it looks like our strange pony is obsessed with history. Ancient history to be precise...”


“Yeah, yeah, ancient history, old ponies, words nopony cares about and all that jazz. None of it matters. What I want to know is, did you find anything that would help us find the guy?” Rainbow waved her hoof impatiently, stopping Twilight before she could get carried away.


Twilight gave her a dark look and followed up with a shake of her head. “No, Rainbow, I did not find anything like that. As I said before, I was looking for a reason why those ponies are chasing him and so far I haven't been able to find any clues. It might be because of his research or something completely different. Look like we'll just have to ask Stardust once we find him.”


“Ugh, wonderful... So we just have to sit here and wait until he shows up?”


“Pretty much, Rainbow.” Twilight replied. “Though, if you want to, you can always head back to Ponyville. I'm sure we'll manage without you.”


Rainbow glared at her, but didn't say anything. The pegasus glanced at the pieces of paper on the ground, then at the destroyed house and finally in the direction of Ponyville. Twilight saw Rainbow flick her tail nervously and was about to say it that it was okay to leave, before Rainbow made up her mind. “I'll ask Flash. Maybe he'll know something.” She said to nopony in particular and took off towards where Flash and Blitzkrieg were busy examining a map.


Flash looked up from the map and saw Rainbow approaching them. He instantly realized the unspoken question and voiced his reply before Rainbow opened her mouth. “Unfortunately, we haven't located him yet.” His words were slightly unclear as he spoke around the pencil in his mouth. “Though we have found plenty of signs, indicating a lot of recent activity.”


Rainbow landed next to the improvised table and glanced at the map. It was practically covered with dozens of small notes, making it difficult to see the actual layout of the terrain. “What kind of activity?”


“The violent kind. Whatever happened here, it clearly involved a lot more than angry words and threatening glares. Some of the trees as well as the ground have been scorched by what's obviously unicorn magic. We also found a few crossbow bolts, stuck in the trees and plenty of tracks.” Blitzkrieg spoke up, replying in Flash's place. He pointed at one spot on the map. “From the looks of it, once the house was brought down, our friend, Stardust, tried to run away and hide from the attackers. Unfortunately, the pursuers followed him into the forest. However, at some point they split up, probably lost his tracks in the darkness. What seems to have followed next was Stardust being chased back and forth throughout the forest with one of his pursuers picking up his tracks and then loosing him after a while.” He kept tracing the chase on the map, his hooves moving further away from the glade as he spoke. “Fun night.”


Rainbow's incredulous gaze moved from the map to the bluish-gray pegasus and back. “That's it? All this time and there's nothing else?” As soon as the words had left her mouth, a gunshot went off in the distance, causing everypony to look in its direction.


“Well, according to a recent update, it seems that somepony is armed.” Blitzkrieg muttered and looked at Flash. “That wasn't one of ours.”


“Find out what's going on!”


Blitzkrieg nodded and raised his hoof to his ear, but before he could request an update from his scouts, a tiny voice in his Voice Caster provided the answer he needed. “Sergeant Blitzkrieg, this is Mint Lily. I've spotted movement. Hold one second, while I get a closer look.” Blitzkrieg used the pause to repeat the mare's words to Flash, Rainbow and Twilight, who had approached the small group. As soon as he had done that, the scout spoke again. “Okay, now I can see … It's him! I've spotted the target! He seems to be chasing after somepony. An earth pony … They are moving in your direction, pretty fast I should add … The target is armed with a musket and looks like he's out for blood … They're both in a rough shape, bru... shit!” The voice was cut off when another gunshot rang out, this one audible to everypony. “Yeah, definitely wants to kill him … As I said, they're both in a rough shape, bruises and everything.”


As soon as Blitzkrieg was done relaying the scout's words, Flash made a decision. “Tell her to follow them, do not lose sight of those ponies. Order everypony else to move in to intercept them. If they're heading towards us, we'll be able to trap them easily. Just make sure to try and capture him alive, we need... RAINBOW! DON'T!” He yelled, but it was too late. Frustrated by the lack of action as well as eager to get things done, Rainbow had taken off the moment she had figured out a rough estimate on Stardust's position. She took off so quickly and suddenly that even Twilight was unable to use her magic to stop the cyan pegasus.


With a single beat of her wings, Rainbow was already above the trees. She heard somepony call her name from somewhere below, but she chose to ignore it. They probably wanted her to turn back and take things slowly, carefully, inefficiently. That was not her way, that was not how Rainbow Dash solved problems. Problems were solved by moving in on the source and dealing with it the moment an opportunity presented itself. It was as simple as that.


Once she was airborne, Rainbow moved her ears back and forth, scanning the scene in front of her, searching for any sounds she could use for guidance. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see several pegasi converging on a spot somewhere in front of her. A few moments later, Rainbow picked up a commotion, coming from somewhere below were the sounds of curses, hoofsteps and breaking branches. After pinpointing the location, a small, nearby clearing, Rainbow darted towards the destination. With her speed, she was easily able to reach it before anypony else. After pulling off an impressive looking loop, Rainbow dived towards the ground, where she could already spot a pair of ponies.


As she came in for a landing, Rainbow quickly recognized Stardust, thanks to Rarity's description. The gray unicorn, sporting several bruises and cuts was busy chasing down an earth pony stallion who was trying to do his best to stay away, but was having mixed results because of what looked like a gunshot wound in his left shoulder. The bleeding wound, while not exactly lethal was doing a good job at preventing the stallion from moving too quickly, thus letting Stardust catch up to him. Rainbow reached the ground at the same moment, Stardust caught up with the earth pony and slammed into his side, bringing the wounded pony to the ground. Stardust then spat out the musket he had been holding in his mouth, grabbed it with his arms and, to Rainbow's horror, started hitting the downed pony in blind fury.


“I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you! All of you!” Stardust yelled, a bestial snarl on his face. Pained cries filled the clearing as the earth pony tried to cover his head and crawl to safety at the same time. Every time the musket came down, a new bruise appeared on his body. Occasionally there would be blood spurting in the air or the sound of a bone breaking when the strike landed on a particularly vulnerable spot. The earth pony tried to say something, but only incoherent screams came from his mouth.


“HEY! STOP! I SAID STOP!” Rainbow tried to intervene, but to no avail, her words passed Stardust's ears without being noticed. The enraged unicorn was consumed by anger, able to focus only on the enemy in front of him.


One, hard blow caused the earth pony to scream in pure agony as the musket had come down on the gunshot wound, the force of the blow driving pieces of shattered bone deeper into the body. “You like it? Huh? You fucking like it?” Stardust raised the musket in what Rainbow immediately realized as an intended killing blow. “Where's your magic now?”


Before a coherent thought could form in her mind, Rainbow found herself shooting through the air, towards the gray unicorn. She crossed the distance between them in an eye-blink and, just as Stardust was starting to bring down his weapon, Rainbow slammed into his side, sending both of them to the ground in a painful heap. Unfortunately, her plan resulted in Rainbow drawing Stardust's full attention. Though she knew her way around a fight, Rainbow's martial skills were of little use when she found herself on the ground, on her back and pinned underneath a psychotic opponent. Whether it was because of immense amounts of misfortune on her part, or great skill on Stardust's part, it was impossible to tell and it didn't really matter.


A pair of hooves came down on her throat, cutting off her air flow as Stardust sought to crush her windpipe. Rainbow squirmed underneath him, searching for an opening, a chance she could use to get him off of her, but there was none. She didn't have the leverage. Rainbow also lacked the brute strength to break free, Stardust was bigger and heavier than her. With a shallow wheeze escaping her throat, Rainbow struck her opponent with her hooves, but in his current state, Stardust was able to whether her blows with no reaction. If anything, he actually increased the pressure by putting more of his weight on her. Rainbow felt her vision slowly blacking out as the lack of air started to affect her, she lashed out with her hooves one more time, a last attempt to break free. She did a good job at bloodying Stardust's muzzle, but it was not enough for the enraged unicorn to lose his grip.


Suddenly, a purple aura surrounded Stardust and lifted him in the air, causing the stallion to gasp in surprise. A moment later, he found himself being flung through the air like a rag doll. He hit the ground none too lightly, feeling the impact echo throughout his body and rattle his bones as he half-skidded, half-tumbled to a stop. He felt himself drawing short breaths in a desperate attempt to fill his lungs with air, which had been knocked out from the impact. Other than that, he couldn't do anything else, his mind trying to put things in order so that he could form a coherent thought. For all intents and purposes, the throw, coupled with his other injuries, had rendered him unable to protect himself from whoever had intervened in his attempt to fight fight off the attacker.


“Princess Twilight, please stop. We need him alive.” Flash said in a concerned voice as he came in for a landing, accompanied by a very angry Twilight and all the pegasi he had brought with him.


Twilight didn't reply, she merely let out a shallow snort as she continued to glare at the gray unicorn, lying on the ground. The sight of him trying to strangle Rainbow Dash had caused a sudden surge of anger to well up inside her and turn thoughts into action. Twilight then hurried over to Rainbow, who was slowly climbing back up on her hooves, coughing and retching the entire time. “Rainbow! Rainbow, are you okay? Can you stand?'


“Yeah... yeah, I'm fine … I'm fine … No problem, just a little...” Rainbow replied between short breaths and series of coughs, one hoof rubbing the spot where Stardust's hooves had been firmly planted on. She glared at the unicorn with a look that spoke of wounded pride, not just anger. A mere fluke had been enough to put her, a trained combatant, at the mercy of an unhinged, injured pony.


“Are you sure? He did...”


“Hey! I said I'm fine, okay?” Rainbow snapped at Twilight and brushed off her hoof when Twilight tired to examine her neck. Twilight scowled, but said nothing. She knew a pony, trying to put up a brave face when she saw one. And if Rainbow felt good enough to do that, then she assumed there was no need to worry about her.


“Is everything okay? Are you hurt?” Flash trotted over to the two mares, while keeping an eye on both ponies on the ground. Their objective, Stardust was trying to regain his senses, while the earth pony stallion was slowly raising up on his hooves with delicate slowness.


Rainbow gritted her teeth and glared at the guardspony. Will everypony be asking me that question? Can't you see I'm fine? I'm standing ain't I? So stop worrying, I'm not made of glass! She ignored his questions and focused on the two stallions in front of her, indicating that the conversation about her injuries was over and that they should focus on the task at hoof. As a result, she failed to notice the dark look Flash gave her, before turning his attention to the two ponies himself.


Despite sporting several cuts and bruises, a gunshot wound and most likely a severe concussion, the earth pony managed to stand up on all four hooves, though it was clear to see that he was trying not to put too much pressure on the wounded limb. He looked around, taking note of all the guardsponies, until his slightly unfocused eyes fell on Twilight, Rainbow and Flash who were studying him with mixed concern and curiosity. Realizing that they were the ones in charge, the stallion took a few shaky steps towards them and forced a smile on his face. “Th-thanks … I … thanks for helping me. I … I though … he attacked … he attacked me when I was traveling … through the forest … Jumped me without a warning … I thought I was going to die.”


“Traveling through the forest? Aren't you one of the detectives, sent to capture him?” Twilight arched her eyebrow and nodded towards Stardust, who was still lying, somewhat suspiciously still, on the ground. She heard Rainbow open her mouth to say something, but gestured for her to remain silent.


The earth pony blinked twice, his gaze becoming more focused, while his smile narrowed a bit. “Yeah, um... I was... traveling through the forest to... capture him … part of a secret mission … yeah … can't really speak about that … sorry. Section … Nine business.”


“Section Nine? You mean a unit that does not and never has existed? A completely made up unit? That one?” Twilight smiled when she saw the earth pony go pale and take a single step backwards. A short chuckle from nearby told her that Rainbow was finding the situation highly amusing. “Or did you mean a different unit?”


“Yeah, we will have to ask you a few questions about that. It's not everyday a pony makes such a claim. Especially so near to Canterlot, where things can be verified rather quickly.” Flash stood next to Twilight, quick gesture with his wings ensured that his soldiers were keeping an eye, and a few weapons, at the earth pony as well.


The stallion glanced around, his stature growing increasingly nervous. It was clear to see that he was doing a good job at fighting off the effects of his injuries, however, as he did so, he also seemed to be realizing that Stardust wasn't the only one in trouble. “Umm … listen, there surely must be a … misunderstanding.” His voice trailed off when he could not come up with any more things to say. “You can't arrest me.”


“Princess Twilight, since my squad's unicorn hasn't arrived yet, may I ask you to prepare a spell with which to stun this guy? There is a chance things might get hectic. Even though he is wounded, there is no telling what he could do.” Flash muttered just loud enough for Twilight to hear. Almost immediately, he saw Twilight tense up a bit as she gave a barely perceptible nod. Good, the princess was on the same page as he was. He turned his attention back to the earth pony and took a step closer. “We aren't talking about an arrest, sir. We just want to take you in for a questioning in order to clear up a few … misunderstandings. Though, I have to say that an arrest seems to be a likely outcome for you. Impersonating a government official is a serious crime after all. Please, come with me, sir.”


By now, all traces of a concussion were gone and the stallion looked genuinely concerned, the expression on his face spoke about increasing desperation and even panic. He kept glancing around, searching for a way out, but he couldn't find anything. “You can't arrest me. It's wrong … very wrong … You have to … It was not supposed to happen … not supposed to happen.” He muttered to himself. “No, no, no.”


“Calm down. Do not make this any more problematic than it is.” Flash said in a steady voice, while putting away his crossbow. Better not to put pressure on the guy. “Let's take it... DON'T!” He was cut off when the stallion suddenly tried to make a run for it. Blind panic made him completely oblivious to the fact that he was surrounded and that his injuries wouldn't let him run very fast or far. Fortunately, all his worries were gone a moment later when Twilight struck him with a well aimed spell, knocking the pony unconscious and on the ground.


“Idiot.” Rainbow commented the escape attempt with a shake of her head. “Did he really think he could escape? Must have received one too many blows to the head.”


Twilight studied the unconscious pony and sighed. “He was cornered, wounded, unable to think clearly and we just shot down his attempts to escape trouble. No wonder he panicked.” She took note of the gunshot wound. “I just hope he's okay. That wound looks nasty.”


“Excellent shot, Princess Twilight, thank you.” Flash ordered a few pegasi to move in and secure the earth pony while also administering some first aid. “Don't worry about him, though. He is an earth pony, he is tough. Those injuries won't keep him down for long.” He said and glanced at Stardust. “Anyway, one down, one more to go. Hopefully, he will be more cooperative.”


“I sure hope so, there's lots of things I want to ask him.” Twilight said and started trotting towards the still motionless unicorn. “Though he has been suspiciously quiet. Stardust. I know you're awake and fully aware of what's going on. Why don't you stand up?”


Realizing that his meager attempts to go unnoticed were ruined, the gray stallion slowly rose up. He sat on his haunches and observed everypony with an expressionless look on his face. He saw the unconscious earth pony, surrounded by three pegasi, who were busy treating his wounds. He saw the remaining pegasi, who were keeping their eyes on him, making sure he didn't try anything stupid. And he also saw the three ponies trotting towards him, with a lavender alicorn leading the way. He locked his eyes with her. “What?” He said in a flat voice, which, to Rainbow's ears, sounded completely surreal when compared to the mad cries before. “What do you want?”


“Well, first of all. My name is Twilight Sparkle. This is my friend Rainbow Dash and Lieutenant Flash Sentry.” Twilight decided to start with the introduction. It seemed like the right thing to do. “Your name is Stardust, correct?” There was no answer. “Okay … umm, we came here to find out what is going on. A group of ponies, pretending to be detectives, claimed that you're a serial killer and were determined to catch you.”


“And you decided to come all the way out here to confirm whether or not they are telling the truth? That's a lot of concern for some random pony you've never met. Does neither one of you have anything else to do?” Stardust tilted his head.


“You helped my friend, Rarity a few days ago. She told me about you and how nice you were to her. So when I heard some ponies telling that you are a psychotic killer, I was confused.”


“Maybe I was just pretending to be nice around Rarity.“


“No.” Twilight shook her head in denial. “Rarity said that you're a decent pony, not a killer. She has an eye for such things and I trust her.”


The expression on Stardust's face softened a bit when he heard Rarity's name, but when he spoke, his voice still possessed the same coldness. “Well, there you have it, then. Rarity is right, those assholes are wrong. I am a wonderful pony and they are lying. Case closed, dismissed, done. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go.” He stood up to leave, but found himself facing Flash.


“I am afraid it's not that simple. There is a reason why those ponies are after you and I want to find out. You'll have to come with us, so I can ask you a couple of questions and get to the bottom of this.”


“That would be unwise, Lieutenant. I have no intention of answering your questions, it is a rather personal thing. One which I would prefer to keep to myself. Furthermore, the longer I stay in one place, the greater the chance that unpleasant things will happen. Considering that those bastards already tried to capture me, I'd say it's time for me to leave.”


“What things? What are you talking about?” Rainbow was the first one who managed to voice the question on everypony's minds.


“I don't know. All I know is that I can't stay in one place for too long.” He looked at Twilight with what felt like a pleading look in his eyes. “For your own sake, you have to let me go.”


“What's coming? What have you done?” Twilight repeated Rainbow's question. “Does it have something to do with your horn?”


The expression on Stardust's face changed immediately when Twilight mentioned his horn. The expressionless look was replaced by more than a hint of anger. “That does not concern you! It is none of your business! Let me go! NOW!”


“No. There is something going on here and we will find out the truth. I have every right to detain you while I investigate this matter. One way or another, Stardust, you are coming with us.” Flash replied with a hint of frustration on his part. He was slowly losing patience from the lack of cooperation.


“Please, we just want to help you. There is no need for things to go this way. We can all work together and figure things out. Trust me, we are here to help you.” Twilight tried to reason, but her words fell on deaf ears.


Stardust shook his head vehemently. “No, no, no! No! You do not understand! This is none of your business! This does not concern you! Just … Just. Let. Me. Go.”


“Then explain it! Because the way I see it, an innocent pony is being pursued by ponies who are willing to take great risks in order to capture him. I'd say it does concern us.” Twilight's voice became more forceful as she too was losing patience. Why did some ponies had to be so damned stubborn? Was it really so hard to explain things in a rational manner? Was it really that difficult? “Why are they after you?”


“LEAVE ME ALONE!” Stardust roared, his voice gaining that unhinged tone Rainbow had heard earlier. A moment later, he made a run for it. He charged towards the nearest opening between the pegasi, guarding the perimeter. He made excellent progress. Stardust managed to take precisely three steps before Twilight blasted him with a spell. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.


Flash watched the unicorn dig a short trench in the ground as he came to a halt and heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, this went swimmingly. It is so nice to work with such wonderful and reasonable ponies.” He rubbed the side of his head in frustration.


“Yes, that could have gone a lot better. I can't believe how stubborn he is. Reminds me a bit of Applejack.” Twilight raised her horn and observed the results. Part of her was not satisfied with the outcome. She had expected to be able to solve the problem rationally, with words. Unfortunately, neither one of the two ponies had been willing to follow her preferences. Hopefully, they would calm down and eventually she would be able to have a more civilized conversation.


“Applejack indeed.” Rainbow shook her head. “Keeps talking about approaching danger, yet refuses to say anything about it. Either tell us everything so that we know what's going on or stay quiet. Don't go teasing others like this. Some ponies. What now?”


“Now? Now we get these two in the wagon and head back to Ponyville. That guy...” Flash gestured at the earth pony. “... will be sent to the clinic in order to take care of that wound. I'll post a few guards to make sure he doesn't try to slip away. As for Stardust, once his injuries are checked, I'll have a unicorn fix one of the rooms in the Town Hall into an improvised cell, where we can hold him.”


Twilight took a sharp breath when she heard Flash's plans. She understood his reasons very well and saw no reason to argue with him, however, Twilight just couldn't let such an opportunity go. No scrap of knowledge, no matter how insignificant would get past her. “Excuse me, but what about me? I mean, there are some things I want to ask Stardust. Things regarding his horn. This is the first time I've seen a case of Mana Burn with my own eyes and I would appreciate if you let me examine it closer. Furthermore, if I were to talk to him again, in a stress free environment, perhaps Stardust will be more cooperative and be willing to work with us.”


“You have no reason to be concerned, Princess Twilight. You are free to visit him as much as you need. I am sure you will be able to uncover something. You seem to have a talent for solving difficult problems, therefore your assistance will be appreciated.” Flash reassured her with a warm smile. Twilight sighed in relief. She felt like a huge boulder had just been lifted off of her back. “Wonderful. I'll start working the moment we get back. Oh, I can't wait to begin.”


At that moment, the rustle of leaves and several voices drew everypony's attention towards the side of the clearing. A group of ponies was moving through the forest towards them. Initial concerns of more, potentially unhinged ponies, were laid to rest when they saw that the arrivals were a trio of earth ponies and a Royal Guard unicorn escorting Rarity. The white unicorn entered the clearing and, with a practiced toss of her mane got rid of the single leaf that had somehow managed to get caught in her hair. “Ah, finally we have arrived. I can't believe it took us so long. It is as if...” She trailed off and noticed the sight before her. Rarity blinked in surprise when she saw the unconscious form of Stardust. “Oh my... Did … did I miss anything?”


xxxxx


With a silent groan, Stardust slowly came to his senses. He slowly opened his eyes, blinking several times as he fought the desire to keep them closed and go back to sleep. The thought was particularly tempting when he felt the soreness that was slowly waking up all over his body. Those cuts and bruises were still there, covering numerous spots on his body. As he mentally examined himself, Stardust noticed that the pain, while there, wasn't as strong as before. In addition, he felt a sensation of pressure on the same parts of his body where the bruises were. Lastly, judging from the softness underneath him, he was lying in a bed. It didn't take long for him to put two and two together and realize that he had been knocked unconscious and captured.


With his vision more or less clear, Stardust looked around and noted that, yes, he had been captured. He was inside a small room. One that seemed to have served a different purpose some time ago, if the filing cabinets, arrayed along one wall were of any indication. The wooden floor and paneling on the walls was another sign. However, just because the room wasn't originally designed as a cell, did not mean it couldn't double as one. Thick iron bars, stretching from floor to ceiling, cut the room in half, with him on one side and the exit to the other one. Stardust made a quick glance at the bars and shook his head. His captors were a careful bunch. The bars had been fused with the floor and ceiling, making it impossible to somehow dislodge them.


Pushing thoughts of escape to the back of his mind, Stardust glanced down and inspected himself. As he had thought, there were several bandages covering his body, ensuring that this injuries would heal faster. At least his captors were interested in his well-being. For now. How long would that last, he had no idea.


Carefully, he got out of the bed and walked over to the bars in order to take a closer look. As expected, somepony had done an excellent job. The fusion was flawless, he could barely see the transition line and it was the same for every single bar. He was not getting out without outside help. That was a fact. Unfortunately, there was another fact that concerned him greatly. He had been found. His location was known, which meant that trouble was most likely already on the way here. The longer he stayed here, the bigger the chance he would be caught by those he sought to avoid. Unfortunately, it didn't look like he had a choice. All he could do was to sit down and wait for the situation to develop. Perhaps he would get his chance to escape.


When he was done considering his situation, Stardust made a low growl of frustration and sat down on his haunches. He focused his gaze on the doors and stared at them intently as if expecting them to open at any given moment. As it turned out, he didn't have to wait for long. The sound of hoofsteps came from somewhere on the other side of the door. They grew louder with every moment, which meant that somepony was walking closer. Soon enough, the hoofsteps stopped right in front of the door. He heard a few words being exchanged, apparently there was a guard stationed on the other side, before the doors slowly opened, revealing a lavender alicorn.


Twilight immediately caught sight of Stardust when she entered the room. It was hard not to, considering he was the only pony in the room and was sitting in plain view, staring at her. Though Stardust was trying to give her an expressionless look, she also picked up a fair amount of agitation. Hopefully he is in a talkative mood. Twilight made a silent prayer as she closed the doors behind her. She walked over to Stardust until she was standing a meter away from the bars, meeting his eyes with her own. Okay, it looks like he might still be upset about that spell. Once the mental note was filed away, Twilight forced an apologetic smile on her face.


“I am glad to see that you're awake. I was worried that my spell had done more damage than I thought.” She began. “For which I am terribly sorry. I didn't want to blast you, but you didn't leave me any choice when you decided to run.” Twilight paused politely in order to give Stardust a chance to respond as well as in order to gauge his mood. More frustration, great. “You were out for almost two hours. Apparently, the exhaustion increased the effectiveness of the spell. Once again, I am sorry for that. I should have taken that into consideration when I cast the spell.” Another pause and once again, no answer. “Yeah, so we brought you here to Ponyville, where it's safe. We also took care of your injuries, so it won't take long for you to recover.” Still no answer. Twilight suppressed an eye twitch. It wasn't like she expected Stardust to sing praises for what hey had done, but she had been expecting some sort of answer. At least a single word after all that effort of loading him into the wagon and bringing him, as well as the earth pony back to the town. Instead, the unicorn was content with sitting in the improvised prison cell and quietly stare at her.


Twilight stared at Stardust, her mood gradually worsening when the gray stallion didn't say anything. With a sigh she carried on. “I understand that you're not in the mood to talk about what happened today, and that's okay. I came here for a different reason. I wanted to talk about your horn. I've been doing some research on it and I believe that's Mana Burn, right?”


“Yes.” Stardust replied after a long pause, causing Twilight to almost squeal in joy when she finally got an answer. “You are correct.”


“Good. I mean, it's good to know that my theory was right, not that it's good that you have it. I believe it's never a good thing to have something like that.” Twilight realized she was babbling. With a cough, she focused her mind on the main task. She sat down in order to focus. “Now, during my research I learned that Mana Burn can be...”


“Can be caused by a wrongly cast spell or otherwise improperly used magic, known as Magic Rebound, the results of which can vary, depending on multitude of factors, ranging from the type of magic used, down to unicorn's magic affinity. Yes, I know what it is, for obvious reasons I have studied this problem rather extensively.” Stardust took over and finished the sentence, practically quoting Twilight for word intended word. He even managed a smug grin for a few seconds while Twilight considered what he had just said. It wasn't everyday a pony interrupted her in order to finish a scientific explanation she'd been planning to give. Usually she was the one who did that. Being on the other side was both exciting and annoying.


“Ah, so you know what it is. Good. What I wanted to ask is, how did it happen? What kind of spell did you try to cast? How did it fell? Did it hurt?”


“No.”


“It didn't? Strange. Considering that unicorn horns become very sensitive when using magic, I figured...”


“No.” Stardust said again. “I will not tell you. This matter does not concern you, so stay out of it. Do not stick your muzzle where it doesn't belong.”


Another brick wall. Wonderful. I was hoping that he would be willing to speak about his horn. At least I managed to confirm my theory. That is indeed Mana Burn. Twilight thought and decided to change topics slightly. “I understand, you do not want to talk about why you lost your horn. Have you thought about doing something about your horn? Like going to a doctor, for example. A powerful healing spell should be be able to fix your problem.”


Stardust gave a short, sad chuckle. Twilight instantly realized that she had probably asked a painfully obvious question. Stardust shook his head and gave a heavy sigh. “And what do you think, Princess Twilight Sparkle? Would a pony, who is skilled enough in magic to get a Mana Burn like this, would try to get this fixed? … To answer your question, yes, I have tried fixing it. Unfortunately, the Mana Burn is too severe for magic to fix it.”


“What about removing your horn?” Twilight recalled some ancient medical techniques she had read about. Although Stardust wasn't a pony you wanted to stay around for long, her heart went out for him. She couldn't imagine how it would feel to lose her ability to use magic. “If the affected part of the horn was removed, then there is a chance your horn would grow back.”


Stardust was shaking his head before Twilight was done speaking. “Too burns go too deep for something like that. The nerves have been burnt all the way down to the base of the horn. This would require my entire horn to be removed, considering how close it is to my brain, there is a high risk of brain damage. There isn't a doctor alive who can perform an operation like this. And quite frankly, I would appreciate if you stopped pestering me with your stupid questions. It is getting rather annoying.”


“And I would appreciate if you stopped acting like this. You are rude.”Twilight shot back, her nostrils flaring as she fought down a surge of dislike for Stardust. Was common politeness too much to ask? Stardust was doing an excellent job of annoying everypony. All she wanted was to learn more about his condition and maybe even help find a way to treat it. Yes, it was a personal thing for Stardust, but Twilight was being polite about it, perfectly willing to obey gentle unwillingness on Stardust's part, like an adult. Unfortunately, Stardust preferred to brood and brush others off.


The gray stallion glared at her and snorted. “Oh, really? I was attacked by several ponies, who destroyed my house, along with all my work, I spent more than two years on, they chased me throughout the forest for the entire night, resulting in me getting more than a couple of bruises and when I finally manage to corner at least one of those bastards, I get jumped by your friend, thrown through the air, knocked unconscious, taken captive and then having you ask me all these stupid questions, so I apologize if I'm not feeling excited about having a conversation, or seeing another pony, for that matter.” He vented part of his frustration in a voice that almost bordered on yelling. He took a few breaths before continuing. “If you really want to have a chat, then tell me when I'm getting out of here.”


“Not for a while, Stardust.” Twilight replied evenly, not raising to Stardust's tone. At least one pony in the room had to be the levelheaded one. “You do realize that you attacked and nearly killed two ponies?”


“They started it.”


“Regardless, there is a point where self-defense becomes an assault. Because of you, two ponies have suffered severe injuries, which could have been fatal if not for a great deal of luck. And while you can claim self-defense, there is a good chance you crossed the line in the eyes of the law. You will have to stay here while we investigate this matter as well as why were those ponies after you.”


Stardust didn't say anything for a long time. However, Twilight could easily see anger boiling just underneath the surface. He was not taking the news well. Eventually, he seemed to come to a realization. “I see.” He said in a calm voice. Twilight felt a flicker of hope inside her, perhaps now that he had calmed down, he would be more willing to cooperate? “I see. In that case I believe there is nothing left for us to talk about.” He rose to his hooves and jumped up on the small cot. “This conversation is over. Especially since I do not have a lawyer nearby.” He curled up with his back towards Twilight and yawned. “Now, begone. Go enjoy your festival.” He said and closed his eyes, leaving a very angry Twilight glaring at his back.


xxxxx


“Ugh, I can't believe a grown pony acts like that. For a moment I seriously wanted to give him a piece of my mind. How does he expect anything to be solved and I do mean anything if he keeps acting like that? I understand that he is in a bad mood, but c'mon, realize who is your enemy and who isn't! I was trying to help him. We all are, but that grouch seems to have an allergy to normal, social interaction.” Twilight rambled while she made the finishing touches to her costume. “I mean, even the most socially inept pony should understand that antagonizing everypony is not how things work. Yes, I understand, there are ponies one does not like, but you can't have dislike for everypony. It's illogical. You need balance between ponies you lie and ponies you don't, even if that does sound wrong. But no, he has to be a total grouch to everypony and acts like we should all be apologizing for bothering him, even though he hurt two ponies. I mean, the nerve of that guy! Not only that, but he even went and lectured me, after he interrupted me, of course. I can't believe how annoying that was. Spike, do you have any idea how it feels to have somepony lecture you?”


On the other side of the lobby, Spike lowered his comic and gave Twilight's back a level look. “No, Twilight, I have no idea how it feels.” He rolled his eyes, sarcasm dripping from his voice.


“Well, let me tell you, it's annoying.” Twilight replied, still absorbed in her thoughts and the examination of her costume.


Seeing his message go unnoticed, Spike sighed and tossed the comic aside. He stood up from the cushion he'd been using and patted down his own costume in order to make sure there were no wrinkles. This year, his costume was less scary than usual. This year he was dressed as a prince. He wore a light blue jacket with white collar and cuffs, as well as golden buttons and epaulettes. A small, plastic sword hung from his left side, while a large, golden crown, with false gems was carefully placed on his head. Once he was done with inspection, he looked at Twilight. “Twilight, I understand that you're upset, but you can't keep thinking about it all the time. You'll never enjoy Nightmare Night if you keep thinking about that guy.”


Twilight glared at his reflection in the mirror in front of her.“I am not … Yes, Spike, you're right. I can't spend the entire night thinking about him. It's just that the situation frustrates me so much. We could have probable solved the entire mystery if he was more forthcoming. Just a little cooperation is all I ask.” She took a few deep breaths and forced the issue out of her head. She would deal with it later. Twilight gave herself one last look in the mirror and, satisfied with her costume, turned around, presenting it to Spike. “Well? What do you think?” Much to her frustration, Spike could not recognize her costume, despite how familiar he should have been with it.


“Nice costume, Twilight … you're a … Looks familiar … I know I've seen it before … You're a … wait. I got it! You're that unicorn assistant from that play … Clopper the Cleaver.”


“Clover the Clever.”


“Oh, right. Yes … what did I say?”


“You said... never mind.” Twilight said and adjusted the simple robe she was wearing. It was slightly itchy, especially around her wings, the rough fabric wasn't that comfortable. It was, however, completely historically accurate and that was the most important thing. If she had to put up with some discomfort, so be it. “Anyway, now that I'm done, I guess we are ready to go.”


“Good idea, we're almost out of candy anyway, so it's best we leave before more kids arrive. It would be a shame to let them go without any candy.” Spike pointed at the nearly empty bowls next to the entrance.


Twilight shook her head and opened the door. “Yes, and I wonder why we're running low.” Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw Spike snatch the very last cookie and swallow it whole as they left the library.


“Yeah, it's a mystery. A Nightmare Night myst... Ouch.” Spike's chuckle was cut short when he bumped into Twilight who was standing in front of him and staring in the skies, completely unaware of her surroundings. “Twilight, what gives, I... whoa.” His complaint died down when he looked up and noticed the sight that had captivated Twilight.


Usually, the skies would be full of stars, arranged in various constellations, while a bright moon bathed everything in its cold, yet gentle light. Tonight everything was different. While the moon was still in the skies, it had a new appearance. The soft cream white color had shifted to a blood red, giving everything a faintly noticeable, red tone. Not only that, but the moon also sported the profile of Nightmare Moon. The pitch black silhouette was clearly visible for anypony who looked up. In addition, the stars had been moved from their usual spots and arranged into bats, spiders and whatever creepy creature a pony might expect to symbolize Nightmare Night.


Twilight was almost speechless. She couldn’t tear away her gaze. “So this is Luna’s surprise. It is amazing! I had no idea she was planning something like this.” She managed in a barely audible voice as the magnitude of Luna’s work sank in. A small part of her let out a short laugh when she thought about all the astronomers Luna was sure to annoy. A lot of ponies had come to expect to see the stars always remain in their places. She stared at the skies, taking in every single detail, making sure, she remembered it for a long time. A slight frown settled on her forehead, when she spotted a tiny, blue light moving way up in the skies above Ponyville. However, she soon dismissed it as unimportant and went back to enjoying the view.


Either way, it was clear that Luna was with them, if not in body then certainly in spirit. Her present to those who celebrated her favorite night was both amazing as well as eerie. It certainly increased the atmosphere of the festival. “Let’s go, Spike. I want to hear what others will have to say about this. No doubt they will be impressed. Princess Luna has truly made this night special, I can’t wait to see what else is there.” She looked down at Spike and urged him along as they both headed towards the main square, where their friends were sure to enjoy this night.


xxxxx


“Stupid, height. Stupid fucking height. Couldn’t they arrange the meeting at a more reasonable altitude? First I have to listen to that asshole’s preaching, then we spend the entire night chasing that bastard until we lose them and now I have to fly all the way up here, just because those fucks want to.” Storm Chaser fumed as he forced his wings to carry him higher and higher. He had been flying for quite a while now. He was so high that Ponytown or whatever that backwater place was called was barely more than a tiny speck of lights underneath him.


With a deep breath, he consulted his surroundings and realized he was high enough, now he just had to find them. That problem was solved quickly. He needed barely a fraction of a second to spot a massive, dark shape making its way through the skies. He also saw bright blue light shining through what looked like numerous cracks in the flying object. Lastly, and most importantly, Storm Chaser spotted a pair of figures, sitting on top of the shape as it was flying towards him. The Pegasus strained his wings once again and moved to converge with his target. It was a tricky thing, since it was moving very fast and he had to not only match his speed, but also fight the displaced air around it. Eventually, with a low grunt, he surged forward and landed heavily onto his target, sliding slightly as his hooves struck the solid surface.


“I should tell you to get off, but I doubt you have the brain capacity to consider such a complicated thought.” A low growl came from nearby. “Since you obviously cannot follow such simple orders and wait for us to solve the problem.”


“Fuck off.” Storm Chaser replied and turned to face the other two ponies in front of him. As he did so, he had to fight a small shiver that ran down his spine. The two unicorns in front of him were far from normal. One of them sported a crimson coat, though it was barely visible underneath the massive leather cloak he was wearing. His head and face were also obscured from view, by a massive dragon’s skull, shaped with magic to form a helmet; the stallion’s amber yellow eyes were barely visible through the skull’s empty eye sockets. The other pony wasn’t wearing anything, though that did not make her any less intimidating. In fact, when compared to the skull freak, the mare was much more scarier. Her coat was black, not just black, but black black. So dark, that even the night skies looked white in comparison. She was like a pony-shaped hole, torn in the fabric of reality. The only parts of her that weren’t black were her pink mane and the pink slit pupils of her eyes.


Storm Chaser looked past the black mare, focusing on the stallion further away. “Fuck off, considering how slow you two usually are, there was a good chance that bastard might have slipped away. I don’t want to start tracking him from scratch all over again.”


“So you figured that acting like a bunch of retards and pissing off the entire settlement in your pathetic attempt to capture him is better?”


“Siķļum.” The black mare chuckled. Storm Chaser had no idea what she had said, but he doubted it was a compliment.


Before he could come up with a reply, the unicorn continued. “Then again, you did manage to ensure that he stays here long enough. So I guess your approach did yield some results.”


“Sat aniamen utkaf, ak šņiv ajēpsen tīdlipzi umuvedzu.” A hiss from the second unicorn cut in, forcing the two stallions to stare at her in confusion before shrugging off the accusation. Neither one of them had any idea what she was talking about; then again, her purpose was not to talk. She was here for a different reason.


“Yeah, anyway, I guess it’s time to get to work. Now, Storm Chaser, since you’re here, you will get to participate. Though you managed to lose him, Persistent Tracker remained near the settlement and succeeded in obtaining some useful information. According to him, our long lost friend is being kept at the Town Hall. However, don’t concern yourself about that. Stardust is her problem.” He nodded at the mare. “You, however, will get to play a more noble part. Swamp Boulder, one of the earth ponies you were teamed up with, has been placed in the clinic; apparently, Stardust worked him over pretty good. We cannot leave him there. So, you will have to go down and rescue him during the confusion. Do you understand? Fail to do so, and I’ll see what I can do to make sure, you’re handed over to her.” He once again nodded at the mare, who was staring at Storm Chaser with a disturbingly focused gaze. Seeing no alternative, Storm Chaser merely nodded in agreement.


“Good, prepare to move out.” The stallion said and then turned his full attention to his companion. “Black Lotus, you’re up. Give those ponies something nice to play with.”


The mare didn’t reply. Neither one of them would have understood her anyway. Instead she closed her eyes and started muttering something nopony could hear. At the same time, she reached up and touched her hoof to the tip of her horn. When she pulled it away a moment later, a black trail of dust followed it. Tiny tendrils of pitch black dark snaked from the trail of dust and a distant screaming filled the eyes of both stallions, causing them to shudder. The screams, sounding like hundreds of ponies being burned alive, became louder the longer the tendrils became. Eventually, as they snaked away from the trio and down towards Ponyville, the screams grew more silent. A few minutes late, on the ground far below, several bright flashes came into existence for a brief moment. Though neither one of the three ponies could see it, they knew what was going on. Down below, spawned by the brief flashes, a group of dark shapes were sprinting towards Ponyville, filling the air with their tortured screams. The Nightmare of Nightmare Night was about to begin…