• Published 16th Apr 2014
  • 7,155 Views, 1,812 Comments

Besides the Will of Evil - Jetfire2012

A shadow from the deep past returns to threaten Equestria, along with all the world. Can Twilight Sparkle and her friends be a light in the dark?

  • ...

Chapter 46

The pegasi and pronghorns worked together to transform the sunny sky to rainclouds, whipping up a thunderstorm that put out all the fires raging here and there. The lands around the Crystal Empire were quickly afterward transformed into a massive camp, morning reinforcements being given tents and cots and being also given free reign of the Empire itself. The day passed in rest and contentment, but with a nervous energy pervading everywhere. Everypony- and deer, and griffin, and pronghorn- knew that this was just a temporary rest, that there was one more fight to win, one final battle to emerge triumphant from.


“Shield Maiden, dear!” The two met with surprise- the former saw the latter walking through the courtyards round the castle, and had eagerly come to meet her. At the cry, many ponies round her- mostly all Equestrian- looked up. They saw Rarity then, and their expressions rapidly grew fierce.

The ponies joined together and wrapped themselves in an embrace. Shield Maiden pulled back. “They say you have done terrible things-”

“I have,” said Rarity, lowering her gaze. “I was a servant of the enemy for a while. But I assure you, I did it for a good reason.”

“That's no excuse for your crimes!” said an Equestrian pegasus, striding forward. Looking round, Rarity and Shield Maiden both saw that they were suddenly surrounded.

“I do apologize, good sir-”

“Apologies won't bring back Fillydelphia!” cried a unicorn.

“Actually, Fillydelphia will be-”

“No more excuses!” cried an earth pony. “The princesses may have forgiven you, but I haven't! I...” tears ran down the mare's face, “I had a shop! It was beautiful and lovely! You burned it down! You burned the whole city down, and you killed so many ponies in it!”

“I will have you know I never killed a soul,” said Rarity.

“Impossible,” one of the Equestrians now surrounding her muttered.

“It's true! Because I surrendered willingly, I retained some measure of control. As long as I obeyed Reiziger's commands, I could move with some freedom, and I always used it to avoid killing ponies. I teleported them out of the way. I couldn't prevent the destruction of property, but no lives were lost by me.”

“That's highly unlikely,” growled a pegasus. “You're just lying to us to make yourself look better!”

“I am not,” growled Rarity, for the first time seeming angry. “Do you want to know what would have happened if I hadn't surrendered? Equestria would have fallen far more swiftly, and with far more violence! The assault on Fillydelphia would have been led only by the thestral, and the surrounding fields would have been drenched in blood! Instead of me, you would have had Gothmog leading the attack on Canterlot, and he would have burned alive all ponies in his path! It was I who gave you all time to evacuate, and it was I...” she glanced aside. “If I had not acted, my friends might not have grown in strength and power in time to save ponydom this morning. Equestria might have fallen long before Applejack's forces arrived.”

“I don't believe you! I can't!” cried the pegasus.

“We should get justice right here!” A unicorn's horn glowed bright with magic. Several others did around him.

Rarity, starry blue eyes flashing, struck a pose. Her own horn lit up brilliant soft bright blue. “I shall continue to avoid killing anypony. However, I shall defend myself, and I'm not sure you wish to see what nonviolent means I can bring to bear!”

Those around her noticed, for the first time, how tall she was, how much power radiated off of her. Grumbling, the mob broke up, chunks of it trailing away until, at last, Rarity and Shield Maiden were left alone amid the crystal courtyard. Shield Maiden turned back to Rarity. “So it is true.”

“It is,” said Rarity, sighing as her horn winked out. “You, of course, are free to hate me too.”

Shield Maiden rubbed against her. “I could never hate you, Rarity. You are my friend. You are one of my very best friends, however little time we have spent together. I believe you would never hurt the world- not, at least, without good reason.”

Rarity nudged up against her. “That's very reassuring. I can only hope, in time, to convince others of the-”

“Rarity!” cried Pinkie Pie. “She's down here, girls!” With swirling wind and swooping shadows, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle fluttered to the ground.

“So now Applejack and I are the only ones that can't fly,” said Rarity. “That's going to become inconvenient.”

“Ooo! Ooo! Who's this?”

“This is Shield Maiden, one of my friends from Gildedale,” said Rarity.

“Oh! You are the other friends of whom Applejack spoke!” Shield Maiden bowed her head. “I am so delighted to meet friends of Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash.”

“It's wonderful to meet you. I'm Fluttershy.”

“I'm Pinkie Pie!”

“I'm Twilight Sparkle. Welcome, welcome to Equestria.” Twilight made a face. “Or what's left of it, any way.”

“This is marvelous enough,” said Shield Maiden. She glanced about at the tall crystal buildings. “I cannot fathom... this city is so huge! Though I have seen bigger in area on my journey, the heights of the towers are wondrous. How is it all made of crystal?”

“Ancient pony and deer techniques,” came a voice beyond them. They looked round to see Applejack come close to them, Ashtail on her heels. “The castle was here from the start, and they built the city round it.”

“How did you know that?” asked Twilight.

“I read a book,” Applejack smiled brightly. “Y'all ain't the only one who can crack a book every now and then, Twilight.”

“Ashtail, darling!” Rarity exclaimed.

“Hello, Rarity,” he said. He looked around at the three ponies that he did not know. “Oh, um... hello.”

Applejack smiled brightly. “Y'all, this is Ashtail. He's my-”

“Boyfriend!” Pinkie cheered, bouncing to him with a flutter of her wings. “It's so nice to meet you! Applejack's told us all about you and she's said so many good things that I really have always wanted to meet you and now you're here and you were so brave during the battle-” she took a deep breath- “that I want to say thank you and it's nice to meet you!”

Ashtail had backed up several paces during Pinkie's breathless speech. “That's... that's nice,” he said.

“Don't worry, darlin',” said Applejack, “Pinkie's always like that.”

“It's so nice to meet you. I'm Fluttershy. Any friend of Applejack's is a friend of ours.”

“I'm Twilight Sparkle,” Twilight said.

“Ah, so you are the one who drove Applejack, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash across Gildedale, all those years ago.”

“I am!”

“They didn't mention you were an alicorn. Nor that you were so powerful.”

“That's a more recent development. And to be honest, we've all gotten more powerful in the past few months.”

“Hold on a minute,” said Fluttershy. “How long have we been at this? How long have we been fighting Reiziger?”

“Well... hmm,” hummed Twilight. “It was really close to summer when this all started...”

“We had the Summer Sun Celebration a week after the first terrible business in the Archbacks!” Rarity said.

“And it's been months,” said Fluttershy.

“I've kinda lost track o' time, to be honest,” muttered Applejack. “It's all just been so... confusin'.”

“I have not,” said Ashtail. “We are, in fact, nearly to the end of summer. We're a week from the start of Autumn. The Fall Equinox is a great festival in Gildedale,” he made a face, “I hope we shall live to see it.”

“Oof,” said Pinkie. “We had to waste our awesome, fun, super-cool summer fighting that big meanie!”

“It's almost over, though,” said Twilight. “One way or another, everything comes to a head in a few days.”

The Crystal Empire, before Equestria had fallen into shadow, had boasted some of Equestria's finest restaurants. Some of this had come about prior to the Empire's disappearance one thousand years ago: it had been known for its excellent cooks, a product of thin supply lines to the frigid north forcing them to learn how to make meager meals taste good. These days, in Equestria's modernity, it had, though only back a while, become a foodie's destination. Its long history of cooking had resulted in a huge plethora of wondrous eateries. Now, in the aftermath of battle, those restaurants had reopened, and were in celebration serving free food all day long.

Most ponies, deer, griffins, and pronghorns sat out together, eating at vast tables or upon the lawns of parks. However, when your son was the Prince of the Crystal Empire, and your daughter was the Bearer of the Element of Magic, you tended to get special treatment. “Pass the naan, please!” said Twilight Velvet. They were sitting in a private room behind the restaurant's main dining area.

“Here!” said Spike, handing her the basket.

“I have to say, Shining,” said Night Light, “you were right about this Hennican food. It's delicious!”

“Glad you like it, dad,” said Shining Armor. He made a face. “Man, we had a heck of a time actually getting the recipes, though. The nagas thought we were joking when we made cookbooks part of the treaty negotiations.”

“I'm surprised there are so many vegetarian options,” said Twilight, levitating up a bite of mushroom curry. “Aren't the nagas all meat eaters?”

“They're basically giant cobra gods. I guess when you're immortal and all-powerful, you get bored of eating meat every now and then.”

“Well I think it's delightful,” said Velvet. She nuzzled Night Light, and she smiled. “It's so wonderful having all my children back... safe and sound.”

“Aww, mom,” said Twilight, blushing.

“I'm so proud of you, all of you. We wouldn't be alive if you three hadn't all done everything you've done.”

Twilight's head drooped. “I still feel a little guilty. I was so wrong, about everything!”

“Twily, honey, stop it,” said Night Light. “It's like Shining said. You were only doing what you thought was right.”

“Yeah!” said Spike. “I gotta admit, from everything you told me, it does sound like things looked pretty hopeless for a while.”

“That's what I thought,” Twilight said. “I thought there was no hope left.” Her ears fell. “I suppose, deep down, I realized that what Fëanor and the other Elders were going to do would destroy Equestria. I just didn't care. I hated Reiziger so much I wanted to annihilate him, no matter what.” Her family looked intently at her. “In the end, though, hatred only destroyed the Deer Elders, just like it destroyed the whole deerfolk civilization. It's not going to be what beats Reiziger.”

“That's what the Elements of Harmony are for!” cheered Spike.

“Man, Spikester,” said Shining Armor, “it hits me all of a sudden that you've got us all beat in travel miles now!”

“The land of the griffins, I can't believe it,” said Night Light.

“And the land of the dragons!” cried Velvet. “I'm so glad you didn't tell me where you were going. If I had known you were going to be snout-to-snout with some huge... fire-breathing... monster...”

“But he was such a big help!” said Twilight. “Applejack told me that his words really seemed to make a difference with Ancalagon.”

“They must have,” said Shining Armor. “I can't tell you how many mock war plans we drew up at Starpoint Academy for an invasion by Ancalagon the Black. The idea of him helping Equestria is crazy.”

“Aww,” said Spike, blushing. “I don't think I did that much...”

“You did,” said Twilight. “I'm so, so proud of you, Spike.”

“I just wish you all didn't have to go out and fight again,” said Velvet, frowning. “I wish everything could be over.”

“It will be soon,” said Spike.

“Yes,” said Twilight, nodding firmly, “it will be.”

“C'mon, this way,” said Applejack, trotting through the fields in the late afternoon.

“All right,” said Ashtail, close behind. “But where are you leading us?”

“You'll see.”

“Ooo! Are we going to meet more of your friends?” asked Shield Maiden.

“Somethin' like that,” said Applejack. “Now I told 'em all to be here... there!”

Applejack excitedly broke out into a gallop. Ashtail and Shield Maiden held back, for a moment, and then their eyes went wide. Applejack advanced upon a massive group of earth ponies. Most of them were tan, or orange, or green, though here and there were blues and reds and pinks. Many of them were well-built, reminding Ashtail of his own folk. Many of them, also, wore scarves, and many more wore hats just like- his eyes went wide. “Oh,” he said.

“Howdy, y'all!”

“Applejack!” cried Apple Bloom, bounding from the group. Big Macintosh and Granny Smith likewise came surging forth. They tackled her and wrapped her in the tightest hugs they could. “Oh, Applejack, I'm so glad you're safe!”

“Welcome back, dearie,” said Granny Smith, nuzzling her close.

“You sure got big,” said Big Macintosh; Applejack was now as tall as he.

“Golly!” cried Apple Bloom. “You're tall and fancy now!”

“Heh, guess I am,” said Applejack. She nuzzled up against them yet again. “So glad to be back. So glad to see y'all again! I'm so happy. I got a million stories to tell y'all.” She pulled away. “But first-” She stood aside, and raised her voice: “Apple Family! Apple Fritter, Apple Bumpkin, Red Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Caramel Apple, Apple Strudel, Apple Tart, Baked Apples, Apple Brioche, Apple Cinnamon Crisp, Apple Cider, Apple Cobbler, Apple Honey, Apple Munchies, Apple Pie, Gala Appleby, Jonagold, Lavender Fritter, Peachy Sweet, Apple Brown Betty, Braeburn, Mosley Orange, Babs Seed, Honeycrisp, Goldie Delicious, Pine Apple, Apple Bottom, Apple Bread, Apple Slice, Brown Sugar, Dosie Dough, and Gingerbread, listen up!”

The massive group of ponies swiveled round.

“This here's Ashtail,” she gestured back at him. “He's my boyfriend!”

All turned their eyes past Applejack. Struck at once by all the stares, Ashtail stuttered backward. He almost turned-

Shield Maiden pushed up against his rump with her head. “Go on,” she said.

Glancing back at her, Ashtail steeled his nerves and trotted forward. Big Macintosh came forth as well. They met close to the middle. They were nearly the same size, and both were red, though Ashtail's coat was darker. Mac was bigger, just a bit, but Ashtail's muscles stood out more. “Eeeyyup,” said Mac.

“Um... mm-hmm?” said Ashtail.









Mac turned round. “He's okay!”

A great shout rose as the entire Apple Family started forward. With a joyous noise they fell on Ashtail, taking him up, raising him off of the ground, passing him around to hug and snuggle up and feel against him. “Ahh,” Ashtail stammered, “Ahh, oh, um, thank you, I suppose...”

“Are you gonna marry my sister?” asked Apple Bloom.

“W-Well, we haven't quite talked-”

“I reckon he should!” cried Braeburn. “He's as fine a stallion as there ever was! Cousin Applejack'd be proud to have 'im!”

“You got real big muscles, mister!” said Babs.

“You're such a dreamboat!” Apple Fritter cried. “I wanna eat you up!”

Ashtail turned about amid the sea of hooves. “Ah, Lieutenant, Lieutenant, help! Golden darling, if you'd help me!”

“Hold up, y'all!” cried Applejack.

“Yes!” cried Shield Maiden. “Yes, please put the Captain down!”

The Apple Family calmed somewhat, like a sea after a storm. They settled Ashtail back onto the ground. “Now who's this?” asked Granny Smith.

“This here's Shield Maiden. She's one o' my good friends from Gildedale.”

“Is everypony in Gildedale an earth pony?” asked Baked Apples.

“We are indeed!” said Shield Maiden, proudly puffing out her chest. “Gildedale was founded by earth ponies, for earth ponies!”

A gasp went up from the assembled Apples. “We gotta go sometime!” cried Apple Cider.

“I reckon we found us a spot for the next big get together,” said Granny Smith.

“I should be happy to introduce you all to my countryfolk,” said Ashtail. “I think they will very much love your presence.”

“Come on, Apple Family!” cried Applejack. “I got a whole country o' ponies for y'all to meet!” Laughing, chuckling, surging, and cheering, the Apple Family followed Applejack- who was, by now, their most illustrious member.

Evening settled slowly o'er the Crystal Empire. The euphoria of battle won had largely given way to nervous pondering of what the day after would bring. Celestia had sent the news out: only those who had sufficient battle experience would ride back into Equestria. Older ponies, less equipped ponies, all breathed sighs of relief. Meanwhile, the younger ponies steeled themselves for what they knew would be the true and final moment of the conflict.

Rarity came trotting from the golden light inside the crystal castle, out into the growing dusk. She was upon a balcony, where she saw-

“Hello, Rarity,” said Falalauria, not turning her head.

“Ah! Hello, my lady,” Rarity said. “Oh, and hello to you, My Lord Hammer Hoof.” Like Falalauria, Rarity did not turn round her head.

“How did you-” Hammer Hoof started, but he chuckled heavily as he walked out onto the balcony. “Ah! Seers. I shall never get used to your kind.”

“I hope you can love us, all the same,” said Falalauria. Smiling warmly, she turned round at last, and trotted up to meet the mighty earth pony. “Hello, Hammer Hoof. How are you?”

“I am well, Falalauria,” said Hammer Hoof. He looked her over. “How are you? How are your white-tails? Last we saw you, you were making emergency lodgings on our western border.”

“We have been better, of course,” said Falalauria. “However, for the most part, we are safe. Thank you for sheltering us when you did, old friend.”

“Indeed,” said Hammer Hoof. He passed by Falalauria, went to the great balcony and looked upon the setting sun. “'Old friend.' Ha! You were my father's old friend too, and his father's old friend. How long you have lived!”

“Too long, I sometimes think,” said Falalauria.

“Anypony in Gildedale- in Equestria too, I'd think- would give nearly anything to have your lifespan, my lady.”

“They do not know the gift of a swifter death. If all creatures knew the paradise that awaited them in the life beyond this one, they would lament that they did not live even shorter lives.”

Hammer Hoof arched an eyebrow. “So why do we live in this life, then, if I can play the philosopher a moment? If the afterlife is so great and beautiful, why should the Wills force us to live this first life, with all its toil and pain?”

“That I cannot say,” said Falalauria. “Even I am not that wise.” She turned. “What do you think, Rarity?”

“Oh! I... I...” Rarity shrunk back. “I am not sure I'm the one to ask, my lady.”

“Why not? You are now wise and powerful. Your status has changed. You sit at table with goddesses and kings and mighty beings, and they regard you as their equal. You wield a power beyond measure. Why should you not have an opinion? You most of all, who can see the future as it will unfold exactly?”

Rarity blinked her starry eyes. Her Sight came bubbling up then- she Looked on Hammer Hoof and saw his past, in all its greatness and its smallness, and she Looked on Falalauria and saw her future, in all its glory and its final tragedy. She turned about and Saw the crystal castle, saw the moose that had constructed it, saw the changing of the world that would someday leave it behind. She looked up at the stars coming out one by one and saw how each was born and how each one would die. It did not overwhelm her. It filtered, slowly, deep into her memory, which had seemed to become unceasing.

“It would be unwise of me to speculate,” said Rarity.

“How so?” asked Hammer Hoof. “You can see the future.”

“But that's just it. I can see the future. I have seen the future, and I have Seen how utterly fragile it was. I can also Look backwards in time, to see what might have been. There are futures that might have turned out better than this present we're in, but I did not See them when I had the chance to make them happen. And look-” her horn shone blue, a blast of battle magic flashed out and created a great scar within the crystal balcony. “There! I have just caused a pony to be born. Her father will trip over the cut in the crystal I've made, and fall face-first into her mother. That will be the beginning of their relationship, and eventually they'll marry.” Hammer Hoof was staring wide-eyed at her. “And yet, was that truly me at work? What gave me the impulse to set these events in motion? Was it not something beyond me?”

“An excellent question,” said Falalauria.

Rarity came trotting up to them. She watched the sun finally set. “The future seems so solid- yet, at the same time, so fragile. I can see how it all will play out, and yet I know- I can feel- that the slightest touch of a hoof the wrong way will send it in another direction. Or will it? Perhaps that gentle hoof-touch is simply incapable of being made, however much I feel I have the power to make it. Who controls the course of the future? Have we any choice in the matter? It all feels so fragile- and yet so solid!”

“I... think I understand,” Hammer Hoof said slowly.

“So, my lord, I am not sure I'm the best to ask about how necessary this life is. I am not sure I'm the best to ask about most things. It seems that the more I learn, the less I know.” She turned from them, and trotted back towards the candle-lighted hall. She stopped, and faced them one more time. “So then, I think my best course of action may be to mostly stay silent. I shall not speak of things, save when I know them for certain. I may act, instead of speak, but even that comes with peril.” She bowed low. “Good night, my lord and my lady. I shall see you tomorrow, when we ride to finish this great comedy.” She turned then, and went back into the castle.

“What a wise pony,” said Hammer Hoof.

“So wise,” said Falalauria. “Wiser than I.”

“It seems the six Bearers of the Elements are rising powerfully in the world. What is to become of us old wielders of strength?”

“Nothing but what has always happened. We shall ride the world's currents as they wash over us. We shall hold to what we know is true, to things that do not change. We shall remain firm in our old truths, but we shall learn to use those old truths in new ways.”

“Hmph,” said Hammer Hoof. “You may not be as wise as Rarity, but you are wise enough for me, old friend.”

Falalauria leaned up against him. They watched the stars come out.

Spike yawned. “I am exhausted.”

“Me too,” said Twilight. “And we ride early tomorrow. Let's get some sleep at last.” She pulled the covers back on her large bed. Spike hopped up into it. She crawled onto the sheets beside him. With a sigh, she pulled the covers back over herself. She snuggled up with Spike; he snuggled up with her. Their breathing started synchronizing-

Knock knock! There came upon the door. Spike and Twilight sat up. “Who is it?” asked Twilight.

“Oh! It's Fluttershy.”

“Come on in!” She opened up the door with magic, allowing Fluttershy inside. She was wearing silk pajamas, which were a bit small on her tall and graceful body. “What is it, Fluttershy?”

“Well, it's just that I haven't spent a lot of time with you in so long... you only returned right before the battle... and I haven't seen Spike in even longer... and...” she fidgeted. “And...”

“Come on, Fluttershy, what is it?”

“Could... could I sleep with you all tonight?”

“Oh!” Twilight said. “Well, sure. This is a pretty big bed, I'm sure it-”

“Twilight!” with a pink blur, Pinkie shot into the room. “I wanted to- oh, hey Fluttershy! So you wanna sleep with Twilight too, huh?”

“Well, I- oh, Pinkie, you want to sleep with Twilight too?”

“Well, yeah! Of course! I haven't seen her in so long. I haven't been near her in so long, and so I just wanna spend some peaceful time resting with her, because that's totally a friends thing to do!”

Twilight chuckled. “Come on, you two, hop into-”

A knock upon the doorframe. “Yoo hoo! Hello.”

“Rarity?” asked Fluttershy.

“Ah, hello there!” said Rarity, trotting into the room. She wore her old sleeping mask upon her head. “My goodness, this room is simply delightful! Such marvelous décor! Princess Cadence really does have an eye for pleasing design.”

“Rarity, what do you want?” asked Twilight.

“Oh!” Rarity blushed. “Well, I was hoping-”

“Do you wanna sleep with Twilight too?” asked Pinkie.

“Well... well, I wasn't sure about sleeping. I just wanted to see her again before tomorrow.” She glanced upon the other three. “Are you all going to sleep in that bed together?”

“Yep!” said Spike. “Come on, Rarity! There's more than enough room in this big bed for you, too!”

“Oh, well... I...” Rarity briefly backed away. Then, however, she smiled, and she trotted full into the room. “Well, if you're offering...”

“I am,” said Twilight. “Everypony climb in!” With good mood all around, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Rarity climbed up in bed. Twilight sighed. “If only Applejack were-”

“Speak o' the black deer.” They all broke out in smiles as Applejack came trotting in. “Huh, didn't expect to see all y'all here. Are y'all all sleepin' together?” They nodded. She smiled. “Well, don't suppose you could take one more, could you?”

“Don't you want to sleep with your family tonight, Applejack?” asked Twilight.

“I spent all day with my family-and with Ashtail, too.” She sighed contentedly. “Now I wanna rest beside my friends.”

Pinkie scooted over, allowing enough room for Applejack to climb in bed beside her. The five ponies and one dragon made themselves comfortable- fortunately, it was a very, very big bed, so there was enough room for everypony to have space. Twilight pulled the covers over all of them, and turned the light out. “Good night, girls,” she said.

“Good night, dears.”

“Night, y'all.”

“Good night!”

“Good night, girls!” said Spike.

“Good night,” said Fluttershy softly. Silence reigned a bit. “I love you girls.”

“I love you too, Fluttershy.”

“Love y'all.”

“I love you girls so much!”

“Yes, I love you all.”

“Love you all. Good night!”

The sun rose bright and beautiful that morning. The Crystal Empire buzzed and hummed as it served breakfast to uncounted millions. Armor was then buckled on. Ether barding was then painted on. Goodbyes were then said. Promises to come back were then made. Pledges to return triumphant rang through all the air.

A few hours later, on the plains where newly-fallen snow had covered all the remnants of the battle in a gentle white, the forces for the last ride were assembled. There were the Equestrian Royal Guard, and with them were all ponies who had proven especially capable during the Siege of the Crystal Empire- there they were, steady and unyielding. There were the Dale Guard, stout and strong, led by Hammer Hoof and Ashtail. There were the griffins, proud and fierce, led by Philip. There were the white-tails of the Shimmerwood, Falalauria at their head, graceful and serene. There were the mule deer of the Everfree Forest, Javier before them, mystic and ethereal. There were the pronghorns, few in number, great in power, led by Clive Croixeus. Poised upon the edges were the four dragons, massive wings spread out to cause great shadows in the growing dawn.

At the front were Luna and Celestia, donning their great silver and gold armor. At the front, too, were Glorfindel and Nordeshang, Decima and Morta. Also at the front were Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Twilight Sparkle, and- “Spike?” asked Applejack.

“Are you certain it's a good idea to bring Spike, Twilight?” Rarity said. “Surely it would be safer for him here in the Empire.”

“If we fail this time, there won't be any safe place on Earth,” said Twilight, wincing a bit as Spike got a comfortable seat upon her back. “Besides, I had to say goodbye to Spike once before. I won't do it again.”

“Fine by me!” said Shining Armor, near the front. “Now let's go.” He looked towards the front. So did all the Bearers of the Elements. So did all folk.

Celestia and Luna exchanged glances. “Shall I give the speech, or dost thou want it?” asked Luna.

“We could flip for it,” said Celestia, horn glinting as a coin appeared.

“Tis a fair idea.”

“I'm heads.”

“Thou art always heads.”

“Do you have any objections?”

“Nay. Flip!”

Celestia settled the coin upon her hoof, then flicked it skyward. The coin went sailing up and up, glinting in the orange light of dawn. Then it fell- “Heads!” Celestia exclaimed.

Luna nodded. “Very well then, Tia. The floor is thine.”

Taking a deep breath, Celestia turned round to face all those assembled. “Ponies,” she began, “Equestrian ponies, Daleponies, white-tail deer, mule deer, elk, red deer, moose, griffins, pronghorns, dragons- listen to that! Listen to that list! Look about you!” She pumped her wings and rose into the air. “Look about you! Look at all the races, all the folk here assembled! There has not been a gathering such as this since the days of old, when the world was young! How fitting, then, that we go to face an enemy from those early days, an enemy that once destroyed a mighty civilization!”

“No mercy!” shouted a deer.

“Yet the enemy we face wants more than the destruction of Equestria, or even of the whole world. This enemy wants nothing less than the annihilation of all life! All life on this world, and all life on all worlds! Consider that. It is not merely for ourselves that we now go to fight. We fight for all the universe, all the cosmos! If we fail on this last ride, it will not merely be all we love that falls to darkness, but all that is! Everything conceivable will be lost to shadow if we fail.”

“Never!” cried a pony.

“We shall not fail. How can we fail? We have the blessings of the Wills That Draw The World. We have the great conviction that light will always banish darkness, that life will always triumph over death!” She glanced down at the five ponies and one dragon right at the front. “And we have harmony. We have friendship, and love with us! Those things have never lost before, and they will not lose in this hour when we need them most!” She flew in mighty arcs around the massive army. “Ride now! Ride now! Ride, you many races- ride, you Free Folk! Ride for day and night! Ride for hoof and claw! Ride now, and ride forever more!” She lit her horn. The sunlight turned a blazing, scarlet red. “Ride forth, in the red dawn!”

The whole assembly gave a massive shout. The dragons pumped their wings with mighty beats and surged into the air. The griffins and the pegasi likewise went airborne. All the rest- all those landbound- started forward in a mighty gallop. The earth went thundering about them, the dust went trailing in their wake. Thus rode the Army of the Free Folk down into Equestria, to meet their final fate.

Author's Note:

The final act begins. Raise the curtain, strike up the orchestra.

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