• Published 12th May 2014
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The Elements of Friendship, Book I: Harmony - Amras Felagund


Twilight fails to defeat NightMare Moon, and the world is plunged into eternal night. Twilight must travel the world with her friends to unlock the secrets of the Elements of Harmony.

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CHAPTER xiv: The Fabled Sonic Rainboom

Twilight took in a deep breath through her nostrils. The air of Labyrinth was heavy with the scent of Minotaurs as the prior city-states had been, but there was a very familiar tint to the air here that told her, yes, there were ponies living not too far.

Yes.

They were most certainly almost home.

Inkunzi the Minotaur drew himself up from his knuckles briefly, closing his eyes briefly as his own nostrils flared.

“It is a long time since I visit Labyrinth,” he said lowly. “The Equestrian air is nice. It is cooler than is usual right now. Much cooler. It is the Ephialtes Selini’s doing, is it not?”

“I’m afraid so, sir, and we need to use our Elements of Harmony to depose her as quickly as possible,” Twilight replied darkly.

“‘Eff-ee-ka-whatsit’?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“It’s what Minotaurs call NightMare Moon, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied shortly. “Not every culture refers to the same pony by the same name.”

“But a NightMare Moon by any other name would smell as rotten,” Rarity waxed poetic.

Moondancer offered Rarity a dark look. “Well said, Rarity Belle.”

Inkunzi led the band of eight further down a particular winding pathway of Labyrinth with its walls of giant hedges and bushes, passing by still more Minotaurs of many professions and ways of life. These Minotaurs of Equestria had brighter and more colorful coats than the Minotaurs who hailed from the edge of Pundamilia, though the bulls were still unmistakably burly, the cows lean and muscled and the calves soft and adorable. Torches were alit to allow for the city-state to continue to function, and the clothes producers passed out cloaks free of charge to Inkunzi and the eight passing by with him. They were woolen and dyed in dark colors, for unseen travels on the eternally nighttime roads of Equestria under NightMare Moon. Twilight and Rarity drew their own cloaks tight around each other, Twilight using her magic to help Spike get his on. Applejack and Pinkie simply threw their respective cloaks onto their own backs, their saddle-shells leaving odd bumps on their sides. Rainbow Dash struggled to fit her wings through special slits in the sides of her cloak, with Fluttershy helping out her ruffled girlfriend.

Moondancer fastened her cloak over her chest, the hem of the cloak resting around the ankles of her hind legs.

“Are we soon to reach the gates of Labyrinth, Inkunzi?” Moondancer asked.

The large, dark Minotaur looked down at the pink-maned Unicorn.

“Are you and your party not certain that you would like to rest and keep warm before you depart into your home-kingdom?”

“‘Fraid not, Mister,” Applejack said politely, “‘cause Ah think we all reckon that this whole ‘everlastin’ night’ thing a NightMare Moon’s has gone on jus’ about long enough.”

“But we will take our time to visit your lovely city-states in the future,” Rarity said smilingly.

Inkunzi smiled as they rounded a corner, coming to a long path down the hall of hedges leading to a small patch of trees completely blocking the end of the path.

“I am thinking that you would like city-state called Narcissa. It is city-state made entirely out of mirrors, so that one sees oneself in every direction.”

“Oh, Rarity would like that, alright,” Rainbow Dash snarked with a cocky grin. Rarity lowered her eyebrows at her.

Twilight chuckled loudly and nervously, attempting to alleviate the flaring tension.

“Well then… how about we say Thank you, Mr. Inkunzi and then walk off hoof-to-hoof with smiles on all our muzzles?”

“Whoo-hoo~!” Pinkie cheered, almost bouncing over one of the walls of Labyrinth. “That’s the spirit, Twilight!”

“Do not be jumping too high,” Inkunzi said sharply. “Minotaur magic lets things leave, but coming back in will be… unpleasant.”

“Don’ worry about it none,” Applejack cut in. “Apparently, Pinkie here cin fly.”

Inkunzi raised a black eyebrow at the pink Earth Pony. “But… she is not having wings…”

“Trust me. She can fly,” Applejack pressed, and Inkunzi decided not to press the issue any further.

The barrier of trees drew ever closer.

“So I was thinking,” Rainbow Dash interjected. “How’re we gonna let everypony in Equestria know that we know how to get the Elements working? Shouldn’t we send out some sorta… signal or something?”

“If we send out a signal,” Twilight replied, “we really should wait until we have all six Elements ready. Too soon, and we might end up getting swarmed before we have a ready counter to NightMare Moon.”

“Maybe. But I still think that we should come up with something before then.”

“Got any ideas then, Rainbow?” Applejack asked.

“Oh, I got an idea alright,” Rainbow Dash smirked, showing fangs. “The Sonic Rainboom.”

Even Inkunzi stopped to gape at Rainbow Dash, eight pairs of eyes wide in incredulity at the rainbow-maned Pegasus.

“What?”

“Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said with a shadow of pity, “the first and last pony to produce a Sonic Rainboom was General Firefly, and she died over eleven-gross years ago. Nopony has been able to break the Firefly Barrier since, not even when accelerating with gravity.”

“Well, records were made to be broken, right?” replied Rainbow Dash while stretching her forelegs back and forth.

“Rainbow Dash,” Moondancer cut in, “you don’t realize that many, many ponies have been hurt or even killed trying to fly fast enough. Do you realize what will happen when you fly that fast?”

“Of course I know!” Rainbow Dash snapped. “What, you think I’m just some dumb jock? When I fly really fast, I leave all the color in the world behind. All I see is everything gray in front of me, and black everywhere else.”

She looked down at Fluttershy, her expression softening.

“It’s ‘cause I’m zoning out, all my blood rushing back to my back legs. And if I don’t breathe right, or if I make a bad flap…”

Rainbow Dash shuddered.

“I’ve never passed out in flight before, but… I know all the stories. All the Pegasi and even some Griffons out there who tried, passed out mid-flight and ended up breaking every bone in their body and surviving if they were lucky. You think I didn’t try to wrap my head around everything there is to know about the Sonic Rainboom? Do you guys realize how many books that I had to read to find out about it?”

“I think I can imagine,” replied Twilight. “It’s a well-studied phenomenon amongst thaumaturgists all over the world, Rainbow Dash. There have been many claims over the centuries by ponies who claim to have done it, but their claims could never be proven.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve done it once,” Rainbow Dash said pompously, thumping a hoof on her chest.

Her boast did not receive the response that she expected. Most everypony around her shook her head or scoffed, Inkunzi choosing to look further ahead to the tree-barrier.

“Rainbow Dash, nopony’s done a Sonic Rainboom in almost a megagross years,” Twilight pressed sternly.

“But I did! I swear!” Rainbow Dash actually sounded anxious now, almost panicky. “I was a little filly, about ten, and I was in a race and I really needed to get flying fast, and then… BAM! It happened!”

“Where did this happen, exactly?”

“Cloudsdale. Where Flutters and me grew up.”

“I think I read a thesis on that once, actually. It happened the day that I became Queen Celestia’s pupil. Professor Inkwell was quite thorough in her analysis of the incident.”

“And? What did the thesis say?” Rainbow Dash sounded hopeful.

“Inconclusive. The incident had no reliable witnesses, and most ponies just say that it could just as well have been a stray crack of thunder.”

“What?” Rainbow Dash looked crestfallen. “‘Inconclusive’? But I did it! I really did do it!”

Twilight approached the sullen Pegasus slowly, a sad but firm expression on her face, “Rainbow Dash, you aren’t a little filly anymore. You can’t let your imagination run away with you. You have to grow up.”

“But she did do it.”

All eyes turned to face Fluttershy, who had an uncommonly steady demeanor about her.

“Rainbow Dash did it for me. She was racing some bullies to convince them to leave me alone for being a wimpy, worthless, gangly little…”

“Fluttershy,” Twilight said sadly, “I know that you love Rainbow Dash, but you’re letting your adoration of her cloud your memories. Rainbow Dash can’t have produced a Sonic Rainboom. Scientists just don’t see the Cloudsdale Bang that way.”

“But really Twilight―”

“Fluttershy, please…” Twilight felt her voice cracking in pain. “Just move on from the past. It’s better that way.”

The two Pegasi huddled together, their ears laying flat against their heads as they nuzzled each other morosely. It broke Twilight’s heart to pull down Rainbow’s pedestal in Fluttershy’s and Rainbow’s own mind, but it would be better for them in the end to not chase rainbows.

Inkunzi awkwardly cleared his throat.

“Perhaps we are continuing to exit?” he asked with a thumb pointed over his shoulder at the barrier of trees.

“Yeah. Sure,” replied Rainbow Dash in monotone, her eyes heavy-lidded and her wingtips limp against the ground.

Inkunzi nodded hesitantly, “Alright. We go.”

The remainder of the journey to the exit of Labyrinth proceeded quietly and somberly. What was supposed to be a triumphant return now felt rather more like a private funeral. Twilight felt something horrible writhing in her heart when she saw how crushed Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were. Twilight knew all too well what it was like to view one’s childhood with rose-tinted glasses.

She turned to Applejack.

“AJ, you don’t think I went too far, do you?”

Applejack looked ambivalent.

“Ah don’ rightly know, sugar. Ah ain’ never bin one ta see Rainbow Dash lyin’. She’s more th’ sort ta tell ya th’ problem straight, even if yer the one tha’s th’ problem. An’, she might be a boaster and a bragger, but she puts her bits where her mouth is. When she boasts an’ brags, she means it. But… Ah find a Sonic Rainboom a bit hard ta swallow, even from Rainbow Dash.”

“Thank you, AJ,” Twilight said with a faint smile which quickly dissipated as soon as she returned her gaze to Rainbow Dash’s back. “I still feel completely rotten, though.”

“Ya had ta grow up fast withoutcher folks, Twi. Ah know how that feels. It kinda takes the color outta th’ world. Butcha gotta show th’ world that you cin take it, chew it up an’ spit it back. Jus’ give ‘em a bit a’ time. They got each other ta prop themselves up.”

Twilight nodded slowly, “I hope you’re right.”

Twilight Sparkle was somewhat relieved when their band reached the barrier of trees at the end of the hallways of hedges. Inkunzi turned to face the seven mares and the drake, resting his right hand against the nearest tree.

“This is the way from Minotaurs’ city-states back into Equestria,” he said slowly. “I will now speak special Minotaur words to these trees, allowing you to pass.”

Cupping his left hand around his muzzle, Inkunzi murmured something to the trees which Twilight and her band could not make out, some magic dancing around Inkunzi’s right fingertips the color of which they could not give a name to. Twilight’s eyes dazzled as she saw the trees at the edges drawing their branches upwards and pulling their roots inwards, while the trees in the middle bent creaking backwards out of Labyrinth, all trees leaving a clear path out of the Minotaur city-state.

Minotaur magic… Twilight thought in awe.

“Are the… trees alright?” Applejack asked nervously.

“There is no pain for the trees,” explained Inkunzi. “These trees have grown at Labyrinth for so long that Minotaurs can speak to them, and trees can understand the words of Minotaurs. Now the trees will allow you all to pass. You are welcome anywhere a Minotaur calls home. Farewell, and best of luck.”

With similar valedictions from Twilight and her party, they passed over the arched tree trunks, past the bushels of the trees’ leafy branches and into the chilled night air of Equestria.

There was something frosty around their hooves.

Twilight looked down, and blinked.

Snow.

“Hoo-golly, is it cold!” Applejack shivered slightly.

“Boy, you said it!” Pinkie piped in, hopping up into the air and flailing her legs about in midair, maintaining airtime for a few seconds before touching down once more and immediately leaping back up again.

“This just simply won’t do!” Rarity cried, dancing from hoof to hoof in alarm. “Why in Equestria is there snow in Equestria? It can’t be Snowfall yet!”

“It’s because of the nighttime eternal,” Moondancer replied, her tail swishing snow away behind her. “The growing cold has led to frozen precipitation. No downpour of rain happens anymore; there is only snow and hail anymore in Equestria.”

Twilight almost felt the tip of her tail starting to frost over in the snow at her hooves. She flicked it quickly back and forth, knocking some snow away.

“So, any idea where we are, Twilight?” Applejack asked.

“Well, I know that Labyrinth is on a plateau above the Hayseed Swamps south of Horseshoe Bay, across from Baltimare. So it stands to reason that that’s where we are.”

“If you don’t mind, I could have told them just as easily, having come this way myself,” said Moondancer shortly.

“Oh,” Twilight chuckled nervously. “Right. I’m sorry.”

“So… now what do we do?” asked Rainbow Dash. She did not look terribly sullen anymore; only rather sour. Fluttershy at her side did not seem particularly downbeat either, though she was perhaps more reticent than usual.

Twilight replied, “We stay out of sight from major cities; NightMare Moon has to have locked them down while we were away. Just because the radio didn’t say it doesn’t mean we have an excuse to get lazy. In the meantime, we figure out what will activate our last two Elements, figure out who holds which of the Elements, and then work out what brings out the Element of Magic.”

“Are you sure that that’s wise, Twilight Sparkle?” Moondancer asked with a raised hoof. “The ponies of Equestria need to know that somepony’s got their back. They need to know that their hero has returned!”

“I’m no hero,” Twilight returned darkly. “I just happened to know about NightMare Moon’s return a few hours in advance and had a good idea what magical artifacts could defeat her and where to find them. If I was a hero…” Twilight looked down at her hooves. “If I was a hero…”

She shook her head vigorously, before facing Moondancer with resolve.

“We can’t make a move too hastily, Moondancer. We’ve just gotten lucky to get out of every scrape that we’ve been a part of. With the bultungin in Pundamilia, with the hemolupe in the Wide Plains, with all the creatures of Everfree, and in Canterlot with Crescent Rose―”

“Wait,” Moondancer started, her eyes widening slightly. “You knew Crescent? You met her?”

“This was weeks ago, Moondancer. She helped us sneak into Canterlot, and…”

Moondancer’s brows knitted in worry. “What happened to her?”

Twilight couldn’t meet Moondancer’s eyes.

“NightMare Moon… unmade her.”

Moondancer’s pupils shrank, her jaw falling open.

“Crescy… She’s gone?”

Twilight nodded darkly.

“We didn’t know her long, but she tried to fight off NightMare Moon for us, when she could have escaped with us.”

“She always did try to bite off more than she could chew,” Moondancer said with a sad, rueful tone. “I first met Crescy at one of Mother’s social parties. Her and my big sister were already close friends, especially on the subject of cookies. And when Crescy proved to be as able a cookie-maker as my big sister… well, she just had to be a part of my parties.” Moondancer’s eyes seemed to quiver as tears built up and refused to fall. “Now… now I’ll never talk to her again, never see her again, never eat another plate of her chocolate-chip cookies again…”

Twilight wrapped an arm around Moondancer’s shoulders. Two months ago, she would have scoffed at the idea of consoling a known social climber, but now, her heart was larger and warmer than it had been in years, and it ached to see somepony so hurt.

“I’m sorry, Moondancer. We wish we could have done something to save her.”

“No. Thank you for telling me. I didn’t know. I didn’t know…”

Twilight and Moondancer shared sad smiles, tears on the latter’s face.

“Well,” Pinkie Pie piped in, popping up in between Twilight and Moondancer, “if you’re ever in need of a chipper chuckwagon chock full of chocolate-chip cookies, just put in an order with Sugarcube Corner, and Pinkamena Diane Pie will be on the case!”

Moondancer offered a short sad chuckle, “I’ll think about it.”

Rainbow Dash interjected, “So are we gonna find someplace warm to stay for… well, for the night? I mean, we did kinda pass up warm shelter back there,” she pointed back towards Labyrinth, not even ten paces away still, where the trees had long since brought themselves back to their erect state, blocking off the path into the Minotaur city-state once more.

“Good point, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied. “We can’t sleep on their doorstep, either; what if someone else wants to go to or from Labyrinth? No, we need to make our way along this plateau a fair bit, find some outcropping of some sort to camp under.”

“Or…” Moondancer’s horn danced with her dwimmer shimmer’s light, a knowing smirk on her face.

Twilight gave an unsteady chuckle once more, “Or we could create a field of springtime warmth around us, that could work, too… though we might want to wait a little before we do so; a trail of melted snow might be a bit of a giveaway for any Shadowbolts playing recon.”

It was bitter work, trudging through the snow in what had to be the beginning of Platinum, the ninth month of the year. It was ordinarily not even autumn yet, and the seasons had always been exceedingly constant with ponies maintaining the weather and climate themselves.

“Y’know,” Applejack mused aloud, “if Ah got th’ days right, Ah reckon that today’s the day a’ the Runnin’ a’ th’ Leaves.”

“The ‘Running of the Leaves’?” Moondancer asked quizzically.

“It’s th’ fourth day a’ th’ month a’ Platinum. Th’ day before autumn, when Earth Ponies all over Equestria charge off in great big races all ‘round th’ queendom, usin’ their Earth Pony magic t’ knock loose all th’ leaves on all th’ trees ev’rywhere.”

Moondancer arched a pink eyebrow, “It sounds dreadfully complicated. Back in Canterlot, we Unicorns just use magic to prune the trees.”

“I don’t know, their method sounds very fascinating to me,” Twilight responded kindly. “I think I’d like to try it out.”

“Aww, thanks, Twilight, but Ah don’ know if a Unicorn’d be able to do very much in the Runnin’ a’ th’ Leaves.”

“Just because I can’t do much doesn’t mean that I can’t participate if I don’t want to,” Twilight replied with a challenging smirk. “It doesn’t matter what I can do, just that I tried.”

“That’s the spirit~!” Pinkie squealed. “Hey, after everypony’s all rested up and stuffsies, why don’t we all have our own little Running of the Leaves?”

“But… the leaves aren’t actually the ones running,” Spike commented.

“Then let’s call it a Running of the Snow~!”

“But the snow won’t be running, either…!”

Twilight smiled at the drake on her back.

“Don’t worry, Spike. It’s just Pinkie being Pinkie.”

Reaching a spot a good three-gross paces down the plateau from the hedge-maze that was Labyrinth, Moondancer erected her shield spell as Twilight set up a simple springtime area spell that fit neatly within Moondancer’s shield. The snow quickly melted away, revealing patches of shriveled, dead grass spread across dark soil. The band pawed tentatively at the ground, attempting to feel out if it would be worth it to lay down on the ground. As a group, they decided to sleep standing up, as the soil was hard and unkind. Setting down their saddle-shells and removing their cloaks in the warmth of the shield, each mare locked her knees in preparation for sleep.

“I never did quite understand where this came from,” Moondancer commented, indicating the stiffness of her legs.

“I quite agree, Moondancer,” Rarity added. “It’s really rather unladylike.”

“Well, it’s an evolutionary holdover from when ponies were more nomadic than they are today,” Twilight Sparkle explained. “A long time ago, when a pony had no place to call home, she would be doomed if she was found by a carnivore after falling asleep in the wilderness. So, ponies evolved so that they simply rotate their patellas in order to remain upright and erect with little energy expenditure, allowing for a pony to fall asleep standing up.”

“And what evolutionary purpose could that possibly serve?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Twilight thought for a moment to formulate a proper response, and so used an analogy she had learned when she was still a greenhorn at the subject: “If two ponies were found by a carnivore while asleep, which do you think would survive: the one who’s standing up, or the one who’s still lying down?”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to continue the discussion, before shrugging as best as she could with locked knees, “Touché.”

The cerulean Pegasus then leaned her head against Fluttershy’s, their eyes drifting shut. Twilight felt her eyelids growing heavy, and bowed her head as she drifted off into sleep.


Twilight’s sleep was unsettled by disturbing visions of her parents as half-vegetable creatures, of nightmarish Giraffes who turned Zebras inside-out and wore them as cloaks, of the Kraken rising up from the Pasturic Ocean and crushing the coastal cities under its weight, of nameless things crawling out from Tartarus and swarming out over Equestria under the mad rule of NightMare Moon…

So it was with great relief that Twilight’s eyes blinked open to find herself back on the plateau near Labyrinth. She rotated a patella back into place to rub the sleepiness out of her eyes and to shield her eyes from the Sun’s rays.

Wait.

Twilight blinked.

The Sun?

But… that couldn’t be right.

The Sun was supposed to be…

As if in answer to Twilight’s uneasiness, the Sun began to fall out of the sky, the blue day sky shifting from blue to red as the celestial body fell upon the land of Equestria, and all that Twilight could see was the color of blood. The Sun’s nuclear flames spread as quickly as thought to every last corner of the queendom, and the screams of gigagrosses of ponies and donkeys and mules and such all reached Twilight’s ears at once.

Twilight’s heart filled with a black panic, and she looked about for her friends, for Moondancer, for Spike, but she was alone on the plateau.

Alone with the inferno.

Her heart racing, Twilight tried to swivel her remaining three patellas back into position so that she could bolt, but it was as if her legs had turned to steel.

“Is it not terrible, my little pony…?”

Twilight felt something in her throat as she turned to face her addresser.

It was NightMare Moon, as she had appeared at the very beginning of the endless night. But by the light of the fallen Sun, she appeared to be completely crimson, her miasmic mane seeming to flow with the glow of dying red giants. Blood-red eyes shone with malice as the dreaded Alicorn lowered her head to Twilight’s level, razor teeth bared in a monstrous grin.

“Is this not dreadful, Twilight Sparkle? A world completely consumed in sunlight? If your wretched Celestia had her way, we would all drown in daylight. She only continued to move my Moon through the aether out of mockery of me, to show that my night is as paltry as her day. But I am your liberator from the light. So cease your struggle. Just lay back, and let the darkness embrace you. The Moon wears many faces, but she has long since discarded the face of mercy.”

Twilight tried to reply, but her throat was paralyzed either by fear or by some magic of the NightMare. Overhead, the Moon shone red, looming far closer than it ever had before as it pivoted from its light face to its dark face. The emptiness behind the Moon shimmered with terrible lights the likes of which Twilight could not imagine, as though some horrific chaotic battle between forces she could not comprehend was unfolding. And still the Moon was growing closer, burning as though it were itself on fire…

“I know where you are.”


Twilight instinctively bucked upon awakening, her patellas painfully switching back to their natural positions so that she fell onto her belly as her front legs gave out on her. Twilight heard a small voice crying out beneath her, and she realized that she was lying on something tiny, hard and scaly.

She had fallen down on top of Spike, who had evidently curled up underneath her when he’d gone to sleep.

“Are you alright, Spike?” Twilight asked blearily, staggering to her hooves.

Spike grumpily rubbed his eyes, “There’s gotta be an easier way to wake me up, Mom. I was having a great ice-cream dream…”

“Well, at least one of us had a good dream,” interjected Rainbow Dash, who looked rather indignant. “And could you watch where you’re buckin’, Twilight? You almost slugged me.”

“Sorry,” Twilight said breathlessly. “Bad dream.”

“Yer not th’ only one,” said Applejack with a solemn expression. “Ah reckon that NightMare Moon don’ take too kindly t’ all of us jus’ suddenly poppin’ back inta Equestria. Jus’ look at the state that we’re all in now.”

Twilight and Spike followed Applejack’s hoof to look at the rest of their troupe. Rarity was shakily stroking her own mane, her mouth taut and quavering and her ears flat. Fluttershy was bawling inconsolably, with Rainbow Dash attempting to comfort her. Moondancer was just lying on the ground, shivering and almost comatose. Of all of them, Pinkie seemed to be completely unaffected, pronking around from pony to pony and attempting to cheer them up.

“Aww, c’mon Rarity! Remember the joke about the garnet and the azure? It’s a real eye-turner~! And Fluttershy, you have to remember the joke about the badger and the river! The bit with the dog just kills me! Rainbow Dash, I know you’re trying to be tough, but smile and laugh! I got a joke about a raincloud and a stick of dynamite~! …No? Okay. Applejack, wait till you hear my joke about the really hungry caterpillar! You can really sink your teeth into it!”

“Not now, Pinkie,” Applejack said patiently. “We gotta see about sortin’ out Moondancer first an’ foremost. She looks ta be th’ most unsettled outta all a’ us.”

While Spike scampered off to attempt consoling Rarity, Twilight knelt down next to Moondancer, who was on her side, shivering as though she had just come out of an ice-box. Her pupils were constricted, and she did not seem to notice Twilight sitting right in front of her. What nightmare could have possibly rattled Moondancer so badly…?

“Moondancer…? It’s me, Twilight Sparkle. I don’t know if you can hear me talking to you right now, but… you can’t let NightMare Moon beat you. She doesn’t want us to beat her. That’s what these nightmares are all about; she wants to tire us out by being afraid to sleep and we’ll be easier to catch. What you dreamt about might have been scary, but the real nightmare is letting her win. Because if NightMare Moon wins − if the Miasma wins − then we all die.

“If nothing else, you have all of us here with you, Moondancer. We don’t want to see you so sad and spooked like this. What happened to the Moondancer who wouldn’t rest until she got my half-baked promise to show up at her next party? The Moondancer who tried sending me a teddy bear in the hopes of roping me into her Summer Sun Celebration party? The Moondancer who showed up out of the blue at Pundamilia to show me the way back to Equestria?”

Moondancer’s shivering slowly ceased, her pupils dilated, and she focused up at Twilight. She smiled faintly.

“Twilight…?”

Twilight smiled back.

“Feel like talking about it?”

Sitting up, Moondancer’s ears fell back, and she avoided Twilight’s gaze.

“I’d rather not.”

“Whatever makes you comfortable right now is important, Moondancer. We’ve all been through the ringer because of NightMare Moon, but you seem to have been more affected. If there’s anything I can get you…”

“No, no thank you, Twilight Sparkle,” replied Moondancer with a slightly shaky hoof. “I’m just glad that you snapped me out of that. I almost thought I was overcome with the vapors.” She finished her last sentence with an exaggerated old-world accent, eliciting a laugh between the two Canterlot Unicorns.

Twilight looked around with a hopeful smile on her face. Fluttershy was wiping one of her eyes clear of tears with feathery fetlocks, and a faintly smiling Rainbow Dash had a wing around her shoulder. Pinkie was leaping about through the air, somehow spontaneously generating confetti as she did so. Applejack whipped her ponytailed mane back and forth lightly, her green eyes shining at Rarity who was attempting to curl her mane back into shape, Spike holding out a gentle claw and wearing a gentle smile.

A thought occurred to Twilight.

“Wait a minute. Why was Spike the only one who wasn’t given a nightmare by NightMare Moon?”

Seven pairs of eyes locked upon the mulberry drake, who looked about uncertainly at each of the mares staring at him.

“Uhh, isn’t he a Dragon?” Rainbow Dash asked bluntly.

Twilight prepared to open her mouth to chastise the cerulean Pegasus for giving her lip, but then she hesitated, giving thought to Rainbow Dash’s observation. It was true that Dragons were exceptionally resistant to magic. And even though NightMare Moon was at a level of thaumaturgical power only matched by Queen Celestia herself, it was entirely likely that Spike’s inherent magical immunity as a Dragon meant that he was more or less immune to NightMare Moon’s capabilities as a dream-weaver.

“You know what? I think you might be onto something there, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said with a slight smirk. “Dragons are all descended from Tiamat, the Dragon Queen, and she is herself extremely resistant to magical attack. And since Spike is a Dragon, blood to Tiamat…”

“He’s not affected by NightMare Moon’s nightmare magic!” Rainbow Dash piped in gladly. “I always knew that Dragons were awesome! I mean, not as awesome as me, but come on! Dragons breathe fire! How is that not awesome?”

“Dragons don’ jus’ breathe fire, ya know, Rainbow,” Applejack interjected. “Ah heard tell from mah Pa way back when of a Dragon shootin’ lightnin’ outta his mouth.”

“That’s right,” Twilight smiled. “Dragons who breathe fire are simply the most common. Not only are there Dragons who breathe lightning, but there are also those who breathe ice, acid, and poison gas.”

“And… which type does Spike breathe, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked.

Twilight blinked, looking down at Spike, who looked back at her. He coughed slightly into a claw, small flares of green fire flaring out across his palm.

“It… looks like fire,” Twilight said. “But I’ve been on the brunt of some of Spike’s sneezes when he got dragon flu, and it’s not hot at all, so… I don’t really know. Plus, Spike’s breath can teleport my messages to Queen Celestia; I think that Celestia keeps a source of Spike’s fire in her study so that she can receive my messages and give me messages through Spike.”

“So, Spike’s magic is an aberration amongst Dragons?” Moondancer queried.

“It’s not an aberration,” Twilight snapped. “It just means that he’s special.”

“And speaking of special,” cut in Rainbow Dash with a sly grin, “how’s about that Minotaur guy talking to those trees? That’s some pretty kooky stuff, the sorta thing I’d expect out of AJ here!”

“Hey!” snarled Applejack. “That was jus’ the one time! An’ Bloomberg had powdery mildew! He needed the encouragement ta git better!”

Rainbow Dash started to snicker, “Wait a sec. Bloomberg? You named a tree after your little sister? I knew that you were all about your little sister, but I didn’t think you were that bad for her!”

“If you don’t mind,” Rarity interjected, stomping a hoof irately, “it is not untoward for an elder sibling to pay homage to her younger kin. I have appended my own name of Rarity with my sister’s name of Belle after earning my cutie mark!”

Rainbow Dash scoffed, “That’s cute of you two. But I’m really too awesome to be slowed down by some bratty little kid.”

“You foul hypocrite!” shouted Rarity. “What about that raggedy little scamp with the scooter who shadows you day and night?”

“Oh, you mean Scootaloo? That little squirt’s awesome! You haven’t seen the moves she pulls on that little wheelie of hers! She’s been tearing up Ponyville’s streets for as long as I’ve known her!”

“Then you should understand how idolization is not a one-way street between siblings! Even if it’s not blood, you should wish to do as good for her as she has done for you!”

“I would, but Scoots has been holding out on me with her flying moves. She’s got some sick flying moves, I can tell just by looking at her!”

“For Celestia’s sake, is that all there is to you, Rainbow Dash? Flying?”

“Umm, in case you haven’t noticed, me and Fluttershy have been engaged since just after our little trip into the Everfree. Flying isn’t all that there is to Rainbow Dash.”

“Maybe not, but it is still four parts out of five. Hay, even your desire to break the Firefly Barrier and produce a Sonic Rainboom is rooted in your obsession with your inborn ability to fly!”

“Oh now you’re the one ragging on me about the Rainboom! I don’t care what you have to say, or what anypony has to say! I did it, and I know it! You can’t prove that I didn’t, Twilight!”

Twilight startled at being addressed so abruptly, but with a whip of her tail she furrowed her eyebrows at Rainbow Dash and shouted back,

“Fine! If you want to believe it, believe it! But don’t expect me to back you up on it, even if you are my friend!”

Something very wet and very cold suddenly struck Twilight on the side of the head. Rainbow Dash and Applejack started to snicker at Twilight, and Spike, Fluttershy, Moondancer and Rarity attempted to withhold similar laughs. The cold, wet spot didn’t hurt, but Twilight reached up and touched it regardless. She looked at her hoof.

Snow.

Turning in the direction that the snow came from, Twilight saw Pinkie Pie outside the warm barrier, sitting next to a pile of snowballs and grinning broadly.

“C’mon, everypony! …and Spike! Let’s not get all hot and bothered right now! We’ve got winter all around us and we haven’t even had a Summer Wrap-Up! Let’s have a snowball fight and a Running of the Snow and have a good old time~!”

The six other mares in the group, along with Spike, looked back and forth at each other awkwardly. The tension had been flaring terribly until Pinkie Pie’s abrupt snowball snipe at Twilight, and now the general mood seemed to be lighter and more geared towards the sort of joyous activity that Pinkie Pie had in mind.

The first to return fire against Pinkie Pie was Rainbow Dash, who balanced a half-dozen other snowballs on each wing. Then a snowball from Applejack struck Rainbow Dash, and Spike hit the palomino Earth Pony with a snowball of his own making, and very soon most everypony had already begun to either roll out snowballs of their own or throw it in their own special ways.

“I’m… not going to join in,” said Moondancer aloofly, digging a hoof at the ground slowly. She was the only one still under the dome of warmth. “It’s not proper, and Mother never raised my sisters, brothers and I to engage in this activity.”

A snowball struck her in the snout, and Rarity levitated a number of snowballs in front of her.

“Oh, it’s just water, and we’re already run ragged enough!” Rarity grinned with a rather unRarity-like grin.

Moondancer blinked, then smirked as she used her dwimmer shimmer to draw snowballs up from the snow around Rarity, who blinked in astonishment.

“The tides shall turn, my dear Rarity,” hissed Moondancer.

Very soon, the eight of them were wholly embroiled in a snowball fight, complete with trenches supplied by Applejack’s apt usage of Earth Pony magic. The snowball fight quickly shifted in sides, with some ponies like Pinkie Pie swapping “allegiances” almost as frequently as taking a breath. The air was filled with grunts of effort as ponies hurled snowballs through the air, and shouts of laughter and cries of surprise as targets were struck. With each snowball that hit its mark, a small bit of the tension started to ebb away, replaced with a heady feeling of release.

A slight flurry led to a demilitarization on all sides, smiles upturned towards the snowflakes falling down towards their bright faces. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy floated up into the air, spiraling around each other as the snow settled into their respective manes. They smiled deeply into each other’s eyes.

“This snowfall in Platinum,” Moondancer said softly, “would not have been possible without NightMare Moon. She may be terrible, but this snow is for us, and it’s beautiful.”

Twilight could not help but finding herself in agreement with Moondancer. This snowfall could not help that it was begun by a monstrous miasmic abomination perverting the night-based special talent of the Alicorn Queen of the Night. It was not something to be resented and rejected, but to be enjoyed while it could be. Looking out from Labyrinth, Twilight appreciated the sheer height of the plateau for the first time. They had to be at least as high as Cloudsdale from the Hayseed Swamps, so they would need to take care not to take a false step or trot too close to the edge, in case a sheet of ice under the snow caught somepony off guard. Beyond the Hayseed Swamps, Twilight could make out the glimmer of Horseshoe Bay, and the glistening lights of Baltimare beyond that.

“Girls,” Twilight began, “let’s take five under the shield for a little while. The snow will keep us out of visibility for a while, and we won’t be able to progress as it is until it’s lifted.”

“Why don’t we just wink out somewhere else already?” Rainbow Dash asked with a degree of impatience.

“NightMare Moon’s already placed anti-winking wards over Equestria, remember?” Twilight explained. “We can’t bank on her having only placed macro-wards over Equestria to prevent anypony from winking in or out of the country. We have to assume that any act of winking in or out will either trigger some sort of alarm in Endymion, or be blocked entirely and trigger an alarm.”

“Ahh, you’re just being paranoid, TS,” replied Rainbow Dash with a lackadaisical flip of a hoof.

“Maybe, but sometimes it’s best ta be expectin’ anything,” Applejack cut in. “Ah don’ rightly know much ‘bout this whole winkin’ business, but Ah trust Twilight ta know what’s ta be done and what not ta be.”

“I very much concur with Applejack,” added Rarity. “Though I am not so magically powerful that I can wrap my mind around the idea of winking out myself, I am glad to be friends with somepony who is so much more savvy about such circumstances than I could ever be.”

“I… I think that you have a good idea what NightMare Moon is planning, Twilight,” Fluttershy breathed. “You’ve… you’ve done really good at leading us this far.”

Rainbow Dash nodded, “You’ve been… pretty cool.”

Twilight smiled, “Thank you, Rainbow Dash.”

The cerulean Pegasus scratched the back of her neck.

“I… I still think I’m right, though. I know that I pulled off the Sonic Rainboom that day.”

Twilight gave a slow nod, “Okay. Let’s just agree to disagree on the matter, then. No bad blood between friends, alright?”

Rainbow Dash beamed, “Gotcha!”

Then promptly frowned.

“But it still beats me why I can’t get going so fast anymore! I mean, I was practicing all day the day before the Summer Sun Celebration to see if I could pull one off with the sunrise, but I couldn’t do it!” She gave a frustrated growl.

Fluttershy wormed her hoof around Rainbow’s, smiling as she said, “I believe in you, Dashie. I know you can do it one day.”

Rainbow Dash smiled at her significant other.

“And at least I had you to help me cool down. I guess everypony, even including me, needs a little bit of stress relief. I tell you, this adventure’s been way too hardcore so far.”

“Yupper-deeny, it sure was~!” Pinkie squealed, pouncing off of Moondancer’s head. “I mean, traveling with you Twilight probably wasn’t as fun as it could have been, but we’ve been to all sorts of places all over the world that haven’t seen hide or hair of Pinkie Pie and her own special brand of laughter and joy! I just wish we could have stayed longer, so that we could’ve gotten those Zebras and Giraffes laughing with each other…!”

“We had no other recourse, Pie,” grumbled Moondancer, rubbing the poll of her head. “If you really want to defeat NightMare Moon, you’re going to have to pick up the pace. We’re not even in the home stretch, I’ll have you know!”

“Oh yeah?” Spike replied with a balled-up claw. “Well, NightMare Moon’s got another thing coming if she thinks that my Mom can’t take her down!”

Twilight chuckled with a hoof over her muzzle. While she doubted that Spike’s avouchment would hold much sway against the Miasmic Queen of Night, it filled her with a courage that she associated with hard cider.

“And that’s ‘cause no one and nopony messes with your Mom!” she said as she drew Spike in with one foreleg and began to vigorously work the other forehoof against the crown of his head. Spike flailed his little arms in feeble protest, trying to fight off the noogie.

“Aww, no fair, Mom! I can’t reach!”

Laughter spread around the circle of mares in the warm dome.

“Well, it appears that my little Spikey-poo has met his match,” Rarity cooed.

Slowly, her facial features shifted from a foal-like joy to a sober somberness.

“Though I do somewhat agree with Moondancer. This eternal night is just absolute murder on one’s complexion, and we may need to finish this with all the speed of a Sonic Rainboom.”

The words were out of Rarity’s mouth before she could stop herself, and though she covered her muzzle with her forehooves, the damage had already been done. Rainbow Dash’s ears twitched madly, and she snorted irritably at Rarity.

“Oh, so we’re back at this again, aren’t we?” Rainbow’s wings flared. “Just when things are getting good again, you have to make a dig!”

“But… Rainbow Dash, I didn’t mean…” Rarity stammered. “It just slipped out…”

“Yeah, but you were thinking it, weren’t you? Leave it to the drama queen to dig up old problems!”

I beg your pardon? I happen to only raise issues that I believe to be relevant to present circumstances!”

“Oh really?”

Rainbow Dash flipped her mane in a manner uncannily like Rarity’s, and began to effect an exaggeratedly effeminate accent that only vaguely called to mind the alabaster Unicorn of their band.

“Oh look at me, everypony! I am Rarity, the most melodramatic mare in all of Equestria who always dresses in style! I am absolutely terrified of anypony seeing my bed-mane! I simply must manicure my hooves every dozen minutes! I shave every two hours so that nopony knows that I grow facial hair! I have a fainting couch!”

Rarity’s eyes narrowed in rage, her lips scrunching up…

Then she swiftly shifted to her hind legs, practically pirouetting out of the shield of warmth into the flurrying snow with a distinctly more Rainbow Dash-like expression on her face. She made many dramatic flourishing movements as she called out in an uncanny impression of the cerulean Pegasus’s scratchy brash tones.

“Look at me, everypony! I am Rainbow Dash, who’s totally obsessed with flying even though that’s what every Pegasus can do! But in spite of this, I am totally awesome, which is a word that only means anything to me! I am engaged to be married, but my fiancée comes second to my flying! I barely acknowledge a little filly with no family to call her own as my own sister, because I only want to mooch some sweet flying moves off of―!”

And then Rarity disappeared, her Rainbow Dash impression trailing off into a scream of shock.

In the eternal instant after the alabaster Unicorn fell out of sight, Twilight realized with horror that Rarity had been spinning and darting closer and closer towards the edge of the plateau as she became more energetic in her imitation of Rainbow Dash.

“RARITY!” everypony cried, dashing towards the edge of the plateau and peering over. Already Rarity was so far down, lucky to not dash her body against the rocks jutting out on the way down to the marshy swamps…

“RARITY, NO!” sobbed Spike, reaching a claw down imploringly.

A rainbow flash of light darted past him, turning down at a hairpin and beelining straight for the plummeting Rarity, the crack of a sonic boom reporting up to them from the trail of rainbow light.

Time slowed down, but Twilight’s eyes still struggled to remain trained on the downwardly accelerating Rainbow Dash. Calculations ran through Twilight’s mind faster than light, and she quivered at the realization:

Rainbow Dash was not going to make it.

Even factoring gravity as an accelerant, she would not be fast enough to catch Rarity before she hit the swamps.

Down below, Rainbow Dash’s mind was clearer than it had been in ages. After realizing how dear Fluttershy was to her after the near-misses they had been subject to in the Everfree Forest, she let the yellow Pegasus know and subsequently found herself being proposed to by the timid mare. As irritating as her reticence could be, Rainbow would not trade her for the world.

And now, because of her own inflexibility, a friend of hers was falling to her death.

There was only one thing for it:

Saving her.

Physics and gravity and all those other hifalutin concepts which Rainbow Dash only learned of in school and barely retained in all of those books she’d read on fast flyers meant nothing to the cerulean Pegasus now. Limits and laws and can’t-do-thats did not even register in her mind. The world turned to black around her, but it did not matter.

All that mattered was saving Rarity.

That insufferable alabaster Unicorn may not have seen eye-to-eye with Rainbow Dash on the best of days, but Rainbow would save Rarity’s life any day.

As she would with any friend.

Twilight’s eyes widened. A cone of wind was growing narrower and narrower in front of Rainbow Dash. She was rapidly approaching the threshold, and then she would lose control and crash, and Twilight would lose two friends in one day. She wanted to look away, but her eyes remained glued on the descending Pegasus.

And then…

There was a crack like thunder and a flash of bright white light that splintered into every color that there was: Every color that was given a name and even every color which remained nameless. The wave of colors radiated out and splashed against jagged boulders shaken loose by the boom, momentarily disrupting the spectrum of visible colors, the green swamps below shifting to yellow and blue, to orange and indigo, and to red and purple.

And then it was over.

Twilight’s brain had gone blank. This was so far beyond anything she had hoped or even expected to see in her life. She had no way to articulate her shock and awe at what her friend Rainbow Dash had just performed. The others seated around her were similarly shellshocked, staring agape down as the rainbow streak of magical light made contact with the falling alabaster dot, curved up and back towards them.

All of them were stunned into silence.

All except Fluttershy.

“YES! YOU DID IT, DASHIE! YOU DID IT! I KNEW YOU COULD DO IT! I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT!”

It was scary how much she sounded like Pinkie Pie when speaking above a loud whisper.

The streak of rainbow light coalesced into Rainbow Dash carrying Rarity, both of them looking incredibly windswept. Rainbow Dash was actually breathing heavily; Twilight remembered how clearing the Ponyville skies on the day they’d met had not even left the cerulean Pegasus winded. Rarity’s mane and tail-skirt stuck out almost completely straight, and she was shaking worse than Moondancer was after her nightmare. But she was alive, and so was Rainbow Dash as she set the Unicorn down beside the warm shield.

“You okay, Rares?” Rainbow asked.

Rarity took several quick deep breaths, before replying in a hoarse voice that did not bother to carry a Pasturic accent, “Yes. Yes, I am alright. Thanks to you, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyebrows furrowed in concern, “I’m sorry I made you lose your head like that. I really got over my head about the whole Sonic Rainboom thing.”

“No, Rainbow Dash, I’m the one who should be apologizing. I said the wrong thing when you were clearly still on edge about the subject. So… I’m sorry.”

Rainbow Dash smirked, “Now, I might not be awesome enough to pull off a Sonic Rainboom, but I’m not so uncool as to hold a grudge. So, apology accepted, Rarity!”

“But you did do a Sonic Rainboom, Dashie.”

Fluttershy fluttered over to Rainbow Dash with a soft smile on her face. Rainbow Dash shook her head with a sad smile at her fiancée, “Come on, Fluttershy. You know that that’s just a load of horse-apples. I couldn’t pull off a Sonic Rainboom if I―”

“But you did, Rainbow Dash!” Twilight interjected, torn between disbelief and euphoria. “You surpassed the Firefly Barrier for exactly zero-point-two-eleven seconds! I don’t believe it, Rainbow Dash, but you made a Sonic Rainboom!”

Rainbow Dash looked at her formerly most fervent disbeliever in astonishment, her cerise eyes sparkling with disbelief. She tried to see if there was any sentiment of trickery in Twilight’s eyes, as though she feared the lavender Unicorn rearing up and cheering “Pansy Foal~!”. But she saw none of this in Twilight’s eyes, only a joyous relief at having been wrong. The cerulean Pegasus then shifted her eyes back to Fluttershy, who smiled and nodded slowly.

“I… did a Sonic Rainboom?” Rainbow Dash said hesitantly.

Fluttershy nodded again, smiling more broadly.

“You did a Sonic Rainboom.”

Rainbow Dash’s expression melted into one of sheer ecstasy, her smile stretching so wide that her head very nearly split in half… and probably would have if she was Pinkie Pie.

“I… did a Sonic Rainboom!”

Fluttershy took Rainbow’s hooves in her own.

“You did a Sonic Rainboom!”

They took to the air, spiralling gaily around each other.

“I DID A SONIC RAINBOOM!”

“YOU DID A SONIC RAINBOOM!”

And they continued in this vein for over a minute, each so wrapped up in each other’s joy that they very nearly forgot the mission they’d been partaking in for almost two months. At long last, Rainbow Dash had been able to repeat the stunt that had been the cause of no shortage of schoolyard bullies claiming that Rainbow Dash had in fact crashed that day, causing her eventual dropping out from flight school and moving to Ponyville where Fluttershy had already set up her own home away from the judgmental eyes of Cloudsdale. Now that Rainbow Dash had been able to repeat her breaking of the Firefly Barrier, and with a scientifically minded pony present, she could let it be known that she had not been lying back in Cloudsdale!

“Think y’all could turn it down just a bit, ya two?” Applejack quipped. “Ah think somepony might notta heard y’all down in Baltimare!”

Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy startled, blushed sheepishly and descended to a landing amidst their friends.

“Well,” Moondancer said breathily, “I must say, I never thought I would see something like that in all of my years.”

“You make it sound like you are an old gray mare,” Rarity responded, “which I can readily assure you that you are not.”

“It’s… just a turn of phrase we use in my family a lot.”

“I see.”

“Rainbow Dash…” Twilight approached slowly. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you about the Sonic Rainboom. You really can do it.”

Rainbow Dash smirked hesitantly, before placing a hoof over her chest, “Hey, didn’t I say it before when we met? I don’t tell anypony something that just ain’t so. I’m awesome like that.”

“I suppose,” Twilight replied. “But knowing that you’ve broken the Firefly Barrier and produced a Sonic Rainboom, it stands to reason that you’ve done it before. I’ll have to get in touch with Professor Inkwell and let her know of this development as soon as possible! The Cloudsdale Bang must see a reopening in its investigation!”

“But I don’t get it,” Rainbow Dash mused with knitted eyebrows. “I’ve been trying for so many years to do the Rainboom again, and I couldn’t do it, and now suddenly I can do it again? What’s up with that? What gets the Rainboom juices going?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight quirked a single amethyst eyebrow, “but I have a theory. I believe − and this is all conjecture, mind you − that the reason you couldn’t produce a Sonic Rainboom before was because you were only doing it for yourself. You said that you made your first Rainboom because of Fluttershy?”

Rainbow Dash nodded, “Some bullies wouldn’t leave her alone, so I challenged them to a race to defend her honor. If I won, they’d leave her alone. And… well, because of the Rainboom, I won, and got my cutie mark to boot!” Rainbow looked proudly at the tricolored lightning bolt on her flank.

Twilight beamed, “And that supports my hypothesis. I postulate that the Sonic Rainboom can only be performed for somepony else’s sake, not for one’s own. You could do it for Fluttershy, and you could do it for Rarity, but, if I’m correct, you never could do it under any other circumstances because there wasn’t a connection to another pony.” Twilight’s eyes widened. “Wow… Maybe Queen Celestia’s right. Maybe the magic of friendship really is the greatest magic in the universe.”

“Guys!” Pinkie suddenly cried out. Her tail seemed to be quivering madly, and her face was stricken with alarm. “My tail is twitching! My tail is twitching!”

“So?” asked Moondancer.

“‘So’?” Applejack responded. “Tha’s her Pinkie Sense! Twitchy tail means sumthin’s gonna fall!”

And with that Applejack and her fellow Ponyvillagers huddled down onto their bellies, forelegs clamped over their heads, Pinkie having produced a rainbow umbrella-hat from out of nowhere and placed it on her head. Twilight cupped Spike’s under her forehooves, eyes turned towards the sky in fear.

A single purple blur descended from the sky, landing roughly in the center of their circle, kicking up dirt and grass that obscured it momentarily. When it cleared, there stood a Pegasus in a dark-deep purple flightsuit accented with dark-gray around the hood and legs, a winged pony skull mark on the flightsuit’s flanks. Her rich blue mane was swept back as if by a cyclone, and her pale bluish-gray muzzle was parted in a savage grin revealing a vampire’s fangs and a beast’s razor-sharp teeth.

Nightingale, Captain of the Shadowbolts.

Despite the shield of warmth around the group of eight, they felt as though they had fallen into a pool inside a very large ice-box.

“Well, well, well…” hissed Nightingale. “I was wondering about those Baltimare reports of a burst of rainbow light over the swamps. Looks like this is my lucky night! Each and every one of Endymion’s Most Wanted, all in one spot…!”

Twilight’s heart stopped in her chest for a brief moment. In all of the excitement of Rainbow Dash’s having performed a Sonic Rainboom and saved Rarity’s life, they had not realized just how much of a spectacle they had been making.

Nightingale pushed her goggles up over her eyes. They were golden, slit-pupiled like a Bat Pony’s, and narrowed at Moondancer in suspicion. “But you are not on the Most Wanted list. You’re… nothing. A shadow in the night.”

Moondancer glowered at Nightingale.

“But, it would seem that this is your lucky night as well, the whole bunch of you! …except for the shadow,” she added to Moondancer. “Queen NightMare Moon has decided upon a punishment suitable for your high treason!”

“An’ what would that be?” Applejack asked defiantly.

Nightingale’s grin full of malice broadened even further.

“Public execution, by guillotine! That way, everypony can see what happens to somepony who stands up to NightMare Moon!”

“That sounds… pretty plain for NightMare Moon,” remarked Rainbow Dash.

Nightingale swept up to Rainbow Dash in a flash, trailing a miasmic mist as she did so. “You didn’t let me finish,” she snarled. “The beautiful part is that NightMare Moon will enchant each of you so that even when your heads have separated from your bodies, your heads will never die! You will have to live with the pain of having no body for all of eternity; no wings to fly, no hooves to buck with, no tail to swat away flies with, no cutie mark to mark your special talent in life! Your manes will be burnt away and your horns sawed off, so that you will be eternally shamed and humiliated for your gall! And to top it off, your tongues will be cut out and your lips sewn shut as well, so that you will not be able to speak your anarchic poison to anypony who gazes upon you!”

The idea of such a grisly and torturous end, so gleefully detailed to them by a psychotic Pegasus, almost drove the band of ponies to bolting to try getting away from Nightingale.

“Where’s the rest of your Wonderbolt knock-offs, huh?” Rainbow Dash interjected angrily. “They too chicken to deal with us?”

Nightingale’s eyes flashed yellow, “They’re spread thin, counteracting those broken-down Wonderbolts and their wretched sun-bolt magic. But one Shadowbolt is worth ten Wonderbolts, so they will triumph over your banner-bearers of the day!”

“So how do you plan on takin’ us in, huh?” Applejack growled, scratching a hoof against the dry earth.

“Yeah, seven mares and a Dragon against one psycho, we’ve got no chance,” snarled Rainbow Dash.

Nightingale flapped into the air, her forelegs rearing up as she bared her teeth once more.

“There’s the rub, insurgents. I’m not the one who’s going to be rounding you up. Instead, you will see how this eternal night of the Queen of Air and Darkness has emboldened the creatures of darkness of your magical land of Equestria. You may have been lucky enough to evade a hemolupe, but more of its own kind alongside vampires and merewolves prowl the queendom freely, making sport of the lives of ponies! Spirits arise from the battlefields of old to terrorize the living! Cemeteries have unearthed themselves as Queen NightMare Moon’s eldritch magic brings corpses under her thrall as her puppet-dead hordes!

“But you need not worry about them right now. The one who will bring you into Queen NightMare Moon approaches, and she is a most apropos captor considering the fate that awaits you! She has been the terror of forests across Equestria for grossenturies, galloping faster than any pony who has ever lived! She is as silent as the breath of the dead, and she knows neither day nor night! She has always been the greatest soldier of the night − apart from me, of course − and she is―!”

“Dontcha ever shut up!” Applejack bellowed in interruption, spinning and thrusting both hind legs at Nightingale, who dissipated into a miasmic mist the instant Applejack’s hooves made contact, the sparkling cloud rising into the air and darting away into the darkness.

“What did she mean by that…?” quivered Fluttershy, her cyan eyes darting this way and that.

“She meant that she was picking a fight with the wrong mares!” Rainbow Dash growled in reply, shifting her weight into her own hind legs to prepare for a buck to end all bucks.

“Wait!” Moondancer cut in, her left ear twitching intermittently. “Do you hear that?”

Twilight swiveled her ears around, trying to pick up on whatever it was that had caught Moondancer’s attention. Under the sound of Pinkie wincing and grabbing at one of her knees which seemed to have gone stiff, Twilight heard what sounded like the soft pitter-patter of a foal’s hooves, but even quieter, as though the foal were charging across a field of pillows and feathers. In the faint light of the Moon and stars, Twilight caught the sight of some dark shape galloping towards them. It had to be what was making the galloping noises, but it seemed altogether too quiet for the size of the figure.

Moondancer startled badly at the sight of the incoming figure. “It can’t be…!”

Twilight faced her fellow Canterlotian in alarm.

“Wait, what can’t it be, Moondancer?”

But Moondancer lit up her alicorn in a pale-blue dwimmer shimmer and vanished in a brilliant flash of pale-blue light.

She’d winked out to Celestia-knew-where.

Twilight barely had time to register Moondancer’s cowardice and abandonment of them before her friends started to shriek in terror at the approach of their attacker. Pulling Spike onto her back with her dwimmer shimmer, Twilight turned to face the opponent in defiance…

And her jaw went agape.

It was rearing up and kicking in a display of aggression, but even without that it would have been taller and more slender than NightMare Moon or even Queen Celestia. Its long leonine tail swished slowly and ominously, the long skirt at the end gleaming a royal purple and seeming to wave in a wind that did not exist. Its bluish-black coat was uncannily smooth, its cutie mark was obscured on both of its flanks by clusters of criss-crossing scars which produced smoke that glowed a bright pale-blue…

And it had no head. A dark-black smoke emitted from its spine and trachea and took shapeless forms of malice. Its neck turned down towards Twilight and Spike, and though it had no eyes, it was clear that it was absorbing their terror at the realization that this specter of legend actually existed, that every fearful report of encounters with her lost at night in a foggy forest was not just the result of panic and misinterpretation of other beings.

She was real!

The Headless Horse!

Author's Note:

Yeah, the ending of last chapter was a little rushed by dint of my then-impending vacation, so I had to work a bit harder to rectify that in the current chapter. I don’t know if you can tell, but I had a blast writing this chapter! I have a bit of a soft spot for the Sonic Rainboom episode, though I still take issue with Rarity’s characterisation in the story arc. But you’re not here to listen to me nitpick.
Aaaand Moondancer leaves the party. I’m sure the whole lot of you have conflicting opinions about her. She really is a special piece of work, so don’t worry. She’ll be coming back later.
And how about that Headless Horse? I really would like to get a plushie of her so that I can hug her and squeeze her and call her Sleepy Hollow~!
Also, the black smoke coming out of her neck is a reference to the anime/novel series Durarara!!.