• Published 3rd May 2012
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The Powers of Harmony - CyborgSamurai



The Mane Six develop the powers of the Elements of Harmony and must use them to stop a new villain.

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Chapter 23: To the Winds

Chapter 23:

To the Winds

The Millennial Archives were housed in a naturally formed cavern within Canterlot Mountain, and were home to some of the most ancient texts and artifacts in Equestrian history. It was separated into three massive floors, with ornate stone bridges further dividing the areas into sections. Hundreds of burgeoning shelves stretched up to the ceiling, where enchanted stalactites chased away the darkness with a soft, azure light. The floors were covered with violet rugs, and long, spindly ladders provided for ease of access. An aura of stillness pervaded the library, giving it a hallowed feel that left many first-time visitors standing in awe.

Luna had made great use of the Archives in the last three months. She could do little in terms of physical or magical exertion, but the former Bearer of Magic had little trouble applying her mind to such a monumental wealth of knowledge. She'd spent days zealously pouring through book after book to catch up on lost time, stopping only to address biological functions and tend to the moon. Her studies had largely centered around what she'd need to know to return to the throne: laws, treaties, taxes, trade routes, immigration policies, all of it extremely dry material that nopony in their right minds would ever want to go through, but Luna wasn't about to let some corrupt lawyer or greedy noble squirm through a loophole. Her studies had paid off in the end, though not in the way she'd expected, for in going through such ancient, boring texts, she'd made a discovery of a different sort... one that could be opened from both sides.

There was a small click as a bookshelf on the third floor slid back into the wall. Concealed by a Greater Invisibility spell, Luna walked out of the hidden passage and stepped into the Archives. She looked around to see if her entry had been noticed, and found she was in luck—the cavern was deserted, much as it'd been for the entirety of her studies.

Luna's reviewed the situation as she checked on Shining, who was still unconscious in the pocket dimension she'd stored him in. Cetus would be concentrating on hunting down the Zodiac Knights to free her army from Tartarus, and would be keeping up a facade until she'd gathered the Bearers to ensure their capture. That she was going to Ponyville wasn't surprising, as it'd be easier to commit any foul deeds without worrying about being seen by anypony in the capital. Cetus probably assumed Luna couldn't do anything to stop her now that she had Celestia's body, and even if Luna found a way back into the castle, there wasn't anything she could do.

Luna smiled. She loved being underestimated.

The shelf slid back into place behind Luna as she focused her mind. She hadn't been able to teleport into the castle because of the external wards that blanketed the place, and bypassing them would've alerted the guards to her presence. Now that she was in, though, she could go wherever she pleased.

Luna pulled up an image, and her vision turned teal as she vanished from the Millennial Archives with a pop.

The 'Closed' sign of Carousel Boutique swayed in a southern wind as a starry mist slithered out from the parlor door and into the lengthening shadows of Ponyville. Cetus had teleported Eclipse directly to Rarity's bedroom, and it hadn't taken her long to absorb the knowledge she needed. While most of it had been useless things about fashion and beauty, there was a good deal of useful information, as well—familiarity with the layout of the town and surrounding area, knowledge of current events and mannerisms, and most importantly of all, extensive details about the Bearers of Laughter and Honesty.

Pinkie would still be in the Everfree training at Zecora's hut. The best time for an ambush would be on her way back to town, but she didn't normally come back until sundown, and it was still mid-day. The Luck power would work against her the moment she was seen as a threat, and while that was inevitable, the longer she could avoid it's effects, the better. Applejack would be out in the fields for Applebucking Season, and was a much easier target.

Eclipse flitted between alleyways, taking care to go unnoticed by any passersby as she made her way to the city limits. A large crowd of ponies blocked her path as she approached the edge of town, murmuring amongst themselves as they pointed in the direction of Canterlot Castle. A gust of wind picked up, and she caught snippets of their conversation.

“...heard word yet?”

“...some kind of explosion...”

“...tallest tower, not sure what's in that one...”

“...sure we'll get news soon...”

“...whatever it is, Princess Celestia will take care of it...”

Eclipse suppressed a brutal flash of rage. Of course the foals would look to Celestia to save them. She was their perfect goddess, the one everypony loved and looked to for guidance, completely forgetting the darkness that embraced and protected them in their most vulnerable moments! They'd never love or accept Eclipse because they wanted her to be a target for their baseless fears and frustrations! The Chaos magic had made her see the unfairness of it all, and even worse, that Celestia was encouraging the mortals’ actions because it raised her vaunted pedestal even higher!

Eclipse floated away from the crowd, lost in her bitter thoughts. She passed by Ponyville Elementary School, and heard the voice of a familiar mare as she came near the schoolhouse window. She caught a chunk of a lecture as she passed by.

“...Earth Pony magic, better known as Geomancy, has it's own unique set of rules and abilities separate from Arcana and Tempulari. It provides an innate connection to the land that allows an Earth Pony to determine the health of any and all types of flora, as well as the location of the nearest water source. Like most other types of magic, the connection grows in strength, range, and sensitivity the more it's utilized, and it's for this reason many Earth Ponies enjoy successful careers in farming and horticulture.

“In rare cases, the connection is even sensitive enough to determine the health of rocks, which can be used in the cultivation of certain metals, ores, and gemstones. This uncommon practice is called petriculture, and the connection necessary to perform the art tends to be passed down in specific family lines. Another notable fact is that Earth Ponies tend to be slightly larger, hardier, and longer lived than the other races, though it's unknown if this is due to Geomancy, or a gradual acclimation from generations of hard labor. Studies have shown...”

The cobblestone path continued on as Eclipse reached the fencing that marked Sweet Apple Acres. The trees were laden with dozens of ripe specimens, and she crossed into the fields, hearing the telltale thunk of hooves striking bark from some distance away. She followed the noise, and stopped as she came upon Applejack and Strauss hitched up to carts and bucking the apple trees.

Him!

Eclipse barely managed to stifle a hiss upon seeing the Zodiac Knight. Here was one of the two that'd snuck into her fortress in the Hollow Shades and stolen the Elements of Harmony. Here was the one who'd snuck behind her lines time and time again, disabling her siege weapons, rubbing out the wards of her arrays, smashing her weapons, snapping her bowstrings, even poisoning her food for good measure. He was unassuming, easily forgettable, freakishly strong, and worst of all, knew how to use all his qualities to their fullest extent. He was a devil in disguise, and his name was one she knew well, for she'd planned to have it engraved on a plaque beneath his head.

Taurus the Saboteur.

Strauss sneezed. Applejack looked over at him, her half-filled eyes the same color as the leaves.

“Holdin' up alright?”

“Yeah.” Strauss rubbed his nose. “Sorry about earlier.”

Applejack tapped her tree, and a hail of apples fell tumbling to her cart. “Don’t have nothin’ to be sorry about. You sure you don’t wanna head up to Canterlot to see what's goin' on?”

Strauss shook his head. “Could be walking into a trap. It’s best to stay put for now until we get further orders. Besides, we're to stick with you.”

Applejack brought her cart over to the others and unhitched herself. “There any chance Grovi’s still, y’know… around?”

Strauss sighed. “He wouldn’t leave Horizon of his own accord, and he’d need another host to survive. If he hasn’t been destroyed, then he’s being held prisoner somewhere, and that’s not much better.”

Eclipse was focused completely on Strauss. He'd foiled her plans so many times, had taken so much from her. The corners of her vision dimmed, and a black, roiling mass formed where her stomach was. She circled around, closing in on the Zodiac Knight.

Applejack exhaled out her nose, looking at the trees around them. “I don’t like not knowin’ what’s going on. The girls are supposed to be up the castle, and they mighta had somethin’ to do with that explosion.”

Strauss lowered his eyes. “It’s possible.”

“That settles it then,” Applejack said. “Let’s bring this last load in for Granny to count, grab Norric from the north field, get Pinkie from Zecora’s, and catch the three ‘o clock train to Canterlot.”

Strauss nodded. “If that’s what you want.”

Eclipse crept up behind Strauss, the edges of the Nightmist spell glinting with a cruel light. She wanted to do it slowly, to make him suffer for all he'd done. Applejack would notice though, and capturing her was going to be difficult enough without hurting her. No, quick and efficient was best, and then she could take care of Applejack without worry.

Strauss raised his backhooves to give his tree one last strike. Eclipse loomed over him, aiming the razor's edge of her mist at his neck. She felt a heady rush as she braced herself for her first kill in over a millennium.

It was then she remembered how Taurus had managed to escape her wrath so many times. She'd sent countless assassins after him, but he'd eluded them every time. She'd tried booby trapping her own weaponry in the hopes of catching him, but not even that had worked. It baffled her how an earth pony could be capable of such stealth, and it was only in the last battle did she break into his mind and discover his secret. He'd hid his disorder well, the only sign being his limited range of emotions and limited social skills, but beneath that stoic exterior lurked the mind of a very disturbed individual.

One that suffered from chronic paranoia.

Strauss felt a prickling in his neck, and ducked as Eclipse swiped at him. He tore himself free of his cart with a snap as he whirled to face his attacker, his eyes widening only for an instant before hardening into his usual impassive mask. It'd been less than a second, but Eclipse caught a glimpse of the terror he kept locked away. It was like giving an addict the barest taste of a drug, and it almost drove her into a frenzy.

Eclipse tried to surround Strauss, but he rolled out of the way, kicking over the wooden cart he'd been using. There was a heavy thud as four silver horseshoes fell out from underneath, and he leaped atop them with a grunt. Eclipse sneered as she sensed the magic radiating from the weapons, drawing back as she formulated a new plan of attack.

“What the—“

Applajack turned at the noise, and her jaw dropped as she saw Strauss facing down a thick, shadowy mist. She squinted, and her Truthsense power revealed the silhouette of a mare within... one that she'd known her entire life.

Rarity?!

Eclipse hesitated. The mist coalesced as the upper half of her body took shape. She looked at Applejack with a bored look on her face.

“Be a dear and stay over there, hmm? I've a score to settle with this little snake.”

Strauss pawed the ground with the hoof. “Run, Applejack. Tell Norric to get help.”

“Even better,” Eclipse said, her voice lilting as she hovered among the trees. “Go and get the bumbling grenadier. It'll save me the trouble of hunting him down.”

Applejack's mind was spinning. Rarity looked and sounded like she'd gone... evil? There was no way that could be right!

“What are you?!” Applejack demanded. “What've ya done with Rarity?!”

“Is your Truthsense power having an off-day? Take a good look!” Eclipse cackled as she raised her forehooves and eyes to the sky. “Rarity is here, right before your very eyes! I've been reborn into her body, and now with the Elements disabled and Celestia gone, nothing can stop me from exacting vengeance upon this unsuspecting age! I am Eclipse, and soon all of Equestria shall know both my beauty and my wrath!”

Applejack felt like she'd been slapped. There hadn't been a single echo in Eclipse's words.

Elements... disabled?

Celestia... gone?

“Applejack,” Strauss said in a calm voice. “Do you remember what you told us about the crazy ninja ponies?”

“Yeah...”

“This applies.” Strauss lowered his stance. “Now go!”

Cursing at her promise, Applejack turned and galloped away, her hoofsteps fading away as she weaved between the trees.

Strauss steadied his breathing as he stared at Eclipse with an impassive gaze. “We meet again, Nightmare Moon.”

“So you know.” Eclipse squinted at Strauss. “How'd you figure it out?”

“I didn't.” Strauss smirked. “You just told me.”

Eclipse's vision narrowed even further. “I was going to kill you quickly, but now that we've some time, I'm going to make you pay for all the setbacks you've caused me.”

“You can't kill what isn't alive.” Strauss laughed, a grim, resigned note that only comes from those who've long wished for death. “And no torture compares to the crippling fear I've endured every second of every day.”

“Perhaps...” Eclipse's voice rose into a manic scream. “BUT I CAN STILL TRY!”

Eclipse dissolved again, and the mist formed into half a dozen long, thin lances that sped towards Strauss. Three of them went wide, and he deflected the fourth with his shod hoof. He ducked under the fifth, but the last one grazed his side, drawing blood from a shallow cut. He took off like a bullet, sprinting full speed towards the farmhouse. Eclipse yelled and gave chase, continuing her assault from above.

The trees exploded all around Strauss as he ran. Eclipse was paying little heed to where she was aiming, and the air was soon filled with the sounds of splintering bark. Strauss felt his hackles rise again, and made a hairpin turn to the right as a lance impaled itself in the dirt where he'd just been. He noted a burning sensation from his wound, but figured it was from moving so suddenly. Another lance embedded itself in the ground just before him, and he charged it and struck it with a forehoof. There was a screech of pain as the lance recoiled away.

“Accursed Enchanter!” Eclipse spat. “I'll rip him to shreds if Cetus hasn't already!”

Strauss could see the farmhouse now. He increased his pace, focusing his attention on the rickety old shed. Eclipse's aim was improving, and another tree trunk exploded in front of him. There was an ominous creaking as several hundred pounds of wood fell towards him. Strauss veered, dodging the trunk and bracing himself as the canopy landed on him. Dozens of branches whipped his body as the tree landed with a ground-shaking crash, covering him in minor cuts and scrapes. His lance wound felt like it was on fire, but Strauss was riding too high on adrenaline to notice. He burst out of the canopy, clearing the orchard with Eclipse still in tow.

Strauss made a beeline for the fence, specifically the farmpost that'd been damaged in the Rust Beetle attack. One wouldn't notice the wick that'd been carefully painted and tucked in to match the wood, let alone the small bomb that'd been hidden inside. Strauss jumped as he passed by the fencepost, slammed his enchanted horsehoes together, and the wick caught flame. He angled just so, and sure enough, Eclipse passed over the fencepost, the bomb exploding beneath her with a bang. She let out an enraged yell as her Nightmist spell wavered, but continued after Strauss with greater fervor.

Granny Smith and Applebloom came running out of the barn at the noise. Applebloom jumped from a clatter beside her as Granny dropped the clipboard she was holding. She looked up, and saw that her grandmother's skin was stretched taut in a grimace, and her teeth were bared. Applebloom followed her gaze, and the color drained from her face as she saw Strauss fleeing from the dark mist.

Applebloom quailed. “Granny?”

Granny tensed as she remembered she wasn't alone. She placed a hoof on her granddaughter’s shoulder, speaking in an urgent voice.

“Hide in the cellar until one of us comes to get ya.”

Applebloom would’ve normally put up a protest, but she knew enough that now wasn't the time to argue. She nuzzled Granny's hoof, then disappeared behind the back of the barn.

Granny turned and raced into the farmhouse and up the stairs to her room. She opened her top dresser drawer, searching for a few seconds before pulling out a bronze key in the shape of a lightning bolt. She then went to the back of her closet, tossing aside several boxes until she revealed an oddly-colored floorboard. Coughing from the dust, she lifted it up to reveal a hidden compartment. Within was a metal box with an ornate lock shaped like a wolf's head.

Granny pursed her lips as she gave the box a look of utmost loathing. Her voice was a whisper, but it was filled with venom.

“I never wanted to see ya again. You symbolize everythin’ I’ve lost, and everythin’ I’ve tried to leave behind. I understand now what Neightzsche meant about that whole abyss thing, and the only reason I haven't destroyed ya is 'cause I feared somethin’ like this might happen. You're nothin' more than a butcher’s tool, but maybe now I can use ya for what you were originally intended—to protect this family.”

Granny used the key on the lock and opened the box, revealing a blood-red hoofaxe with a long, curved handle. The blade looked like a bisected apple with a crescent moon on one side, and three shallow blood grooves shaped like seeds were set in the center. The ‘stem’ was a long curved spike jutting out the top, and the weapon gave off a faint green glow as it sensed the presence of its owner.

Granny Smith took up the weapon and hung it at her side, ignoring the waves of nostalgia that resulted from the familiar weight. She released the simple braid she always wore, letting her mane fall behind her shoulders as she headed out the door.

“Let's go... Aconitum.

“Norric!”

Norric stopped hitching Mac up to a train of apple carts as Applejack came running up to them from the west field.

“What’s wrong?” Norric asked. “Where’s Strauss?’

“Somethin’s happened to Rarity,” Applejack breathed. “She looks like Nightmare Moon and was callin’ herself Eclipse or somethin’! Strauss told me to—“

An explosion from the direction of the farmhouse cut her off. The three of them watched in horror as a plume of smoke rose above the trees.

Norric paled. “Strauss, you’re not… you wouldn’t really…”

“Granny and Applebloom are in the barn!” Mac said, freeing himself from the carts.

“Wait!” Norric said. “You could be walking into a—“

Mac and Applejack didn't listen. They dashed off together towards the farmhouse.

“—trap.” Norric finished. He facehooved and ran after them. “Damn it, Strauss, why'd I let you talk me into giving you those bombs!”

Strauss dashed inside the wooden shed, kicking the door shut behind him. His sides were heaving, and his wounds were making him feel lightheaded, but he couldn’t afford to slow down. Dozens of farm implements hung from the ceiling and walls, ranging from hoes and watering cans to harrows and stone pickers. Eclipse’s lances pierced the thick wood of the shed, causing the structure to wobble dangerously as narrow shafts of light spilled in.

“You really think you can hide in there?!” Eclipse circled the shed like a vulture. “You're not even making this a challenge!”

Strauss ran to a coiled length of rope on the wall, creating a spark with his hooves again and setting the whole rope ablaze. There was a horrid crunching from above, and Strauss looked up to see Eclipse begin to rip off the roof of the shed with her magic. He ran to a wagon in the far corner, tossing it aside to reveal a hole he’d made in the dirt floor several weeks prior. He wiggled through it and out of the shed, escaping just as Eclipse finishing tearing off the roof. She’d been readying a spell, and was so caught up in the hunt that she didn’t notice Strauss was gone. She cast the spell into the shed, and the air inside became violently agitated before bursting outward in a wave of unnatural destruction. The spell struck the square block of putty Strauss was trying to ignite as well, and with an ear-splitting crack, the entire shed went up in a massive, fiery pillar.

Strauss wasn’t able to fully clear the explosion in time. He felt a tremendous force strike him from behind, followed by a terrible scorching pain as he was sent sailing head over hooves into the farmyard. He landed on his side, skidding several yards before coming to a stop. His ears were ringing, his body felt like burning lead, and all he could do was shut his eyes as he looked back at all the things that’d gone wrong in the past few weeks. The constant screw-ups by Norric, Granny finding out about Applejack’s powers through Pinkie, having to fix all the farm equipment he’d sabotaged for a plan to make Applejack do Applebucking Season alone, and now this. It’d just been one screw-up after another, and it’d only been by a miracle that he’d somehow gotten through despite it all.

Eclipse had been dispersed into a glittering haze from the blast. She slowly reformed herself and looked around for Strauss, finding him lying in the middle of the farmyard. His back legs were broken, patches of his coat were burned away, and the dirt around him was stained red. She readied her lances again, but seemed to think better of it. She swooped down to land beside him, re-materializing her body and looking down at him with a victorious grin.

“Looks like your machinations worked against you at last,” Eclipse jeered. “What would you have done if Granny or Mac had stumbled upon those little surprises of yours, hmm? Makes me wonder what other parts of the farm you’ve sabotaged. Knowing you, this place could be a literal minefield.”

Strauss tried to rise, but was stopped by a vicious kick to his ribs. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out.

“Finish… it…”

“I already have,” Eclipse said matter-of-factly. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the fire in your body by now. I’d say you have a minute or so before the poison claims you.”

Strauss looked up at her with one eye. He tried his best not to let his terror show, but his mental shield was cracking. His mouth twitched as his limbs went numb.

“You deserve so much more than this.” Eclipse watched as shudders began to wrack Strauss’ body. “I forgot how fragile mortality is, and you’re only getting off easy just because I’ve been out of practice for so long. I suppose I can let you go, but before I do—“

Eclipse raised a hoof, aiming for the lance wound on his exposed side.

“I want to hear you scream.”

A whirling axe buzzed through the air, slicing through Eclipse’s hoof like warm butter. She shrieked and clutched her ruined limb, looking around for her attacker. She tried to regenerate, but her magic was sluggish to respond. There was a flicker of movement at the farmhouse, and she saw Granny at door, her mane let down and hoof outstretched as her face contorted with grim concentration.

Eclipse’s eyes widened. “You…”

Granny swiped her hoof to the left. Eclipse didn’t get time to say more as Aconitum sped in from the side, slicing off both her backhooves as it returned back to Granny. Eclipse screeched as she started to fall, but dissolved back into mist and sped towards her assailant.

Granny brought Aconitum back to her, orbiting it around her before slingshotting it back at her foe. Eclipse ignored the axe, thinking it wouldn’t do any damage to her in her mist form.

She was mistaken. A white hot pain blazed through her as the axe made contact, hacking and slicing away at her incorporeal body as if it were still flesh and bone. Eclipse changed course and fled from the enchanted axe, shooting a green ray at Granny as she did.

Granny jumped to the side, and the ray struck the porch, disintegrating the newly repaired boards Applejack had broken. Eclipse took advantage of the distraction and retreated above the house while Granny called back Aconitum and ran out to Strauss.

Strauss was now convulsing violently in a seizure. Granny took one look at him, and knew he was beyond help. He gritted his teeth as she approached, recognizing the flat, haunted look in her eyes. He glanced down at Aconitum, managing to gurgle out a single word.

“Please…"

With a smooth motion, Granny raised Aconitum and brought it down in a quick, clean strike. Strauss' body glowed from within as Celestia’s magic lost cohesion, and then dispersed as he dissolved into dust. His silver horsehoes clanked to the ground, and the golden sphere in his chest fell with a thud, a faint ringing sound the only testament to his passing.

Norric cried out in pain for the second time that day as a searing pain lanced through his head, followed by an emptiness and a sudden increase in pressure.

“Dammit! Strauss!”

Norric tried to increase his pace, but as he did, a second, fragmented presence invaded his mind. His eyes flashed with a prismatic light, and he lost control of one of his legs. He tripped, slammed headfirst into an apple tree, and his outline flickered as his vision turned brown, then faded to black.

“Horizon?” Norric felt the presence fade along with his consciousness. “Why...”

Applejack and Mac didn't hear or see what happened to Norric. They kept running on, a dark pool of dread building in both their chests. Applejack's eyes were pulsing, the Element of Honesty hardening and strengthening her body as her trepidation grew. Her hooves sank deeper into the ground with every step as she continued on along with her brother.

“NO!”

Tastar, Esra, Megnii and Spesci all staggered as one, almost falling out of their respective chariots as they flew over the Equius Valley. Their outlines flickered again, and Rainbow felt a chill up her spine.

“Did somepony just—”

“Your Majesty!” Esra called out to Cetus, who was riding in her own chariot beside them. “We just lost Strauss! We need to get to Sweet Apple Acres!”

Cetus narrowed her eyes. She'd told Eclipse not to kill the Echoes unless she had to. There'd better be a good excuse for this, or somepony was going to wind up as a guinea pig for new experimental methods of torture.

Cetus turned to the pegasi pulling her chariot. “Adjust our course to the apple orchard on the western outskirts of Ponyville.”

The pegasi obeyed, and the three chariots swerved to head in the new direction.

“I hope Applejack’s all right,” Fluttershy said.

“I'll meet you guys there!” Rainbow hopped out of her chariot and took wing. She was about to outstrip them before she was encased in a golden aura and gently placed back where she was.

“I'd prefer if you were close to me,” Cetus said simply. “I can't guarantee your safety otherwise.”

Rainbow ground her teeth. “Applejack might be in danger! I can get there in less than a minute!”

“Perhaps I didn't make myself clear.” Cetus' horn glowed, and Rainbow's hooves became stuck to the chariot floor. “You're staying with me.”

“But!”

“Do you want me to glue your mouth shut, too?”

Rainbow recoiled. She'd never heard Princess Celestia threaten anypony before. She'd always seemed so gentle and motherly, approachable to the point that you forgot about the power that she wielded. To hear her make that kind of threat was about as great a shock as one could receive, and it made Rainbow realize that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Rainbow lowered her chin, and shot Cetus a look of utmost rebellion. Her eyes became half-filled with blazing fire, and Esra and Tastar flinched as they felt the waves of heat emanating from her. Cetus felt it as well, also noting that the magic wasn't affecting her anymore, but paid it little heed. She turned her gaze forward, focusing on the destination before them.

“How the blazes does a pony like you have a weapon like that?!”

Eclipse was standing on the roof of the farmhouse. Her body was slowly gaining cohesion as her body regenerated, meeting Granny's eyes as the two stood at an impasse.

Granny gave Aconitum a perfunctory glance, mentally listing off the enchantments she'd placed on it. “Honey, you've no idea what kinda pony I am, or the kinda things I've done.”

Eclipse stared at Granny as if she were meeting her for the first time. “You've the eyes of a killer... was the founding of Ponyville not as peaceful as you've led Rarity's generation to believe?”

“I mighta made a PG version,” Granny admitted. “Drivin' an entire species to the brink of extinction ain't exactly a tale for foals.”

Despite herself, Eclipse burst out laughing. “And here everypony thinks you're nothing but a crotchety old mare! Did it have something to do with Zapapple Jam?”

“The Everfree was once filled with Timber Wolves,” Granny said quietly. “Vile, depraved monsters, created when the blood of a murdered pony soaks into a tree over fifty years old on a full moon. The War of the Sun and Moon gave rise to hundreds of them, and while Zapapples are extremely poisonous in their natural state, Timber Wolf 'sap' not only makes the fruit edible, but downright tasty. Genocide ensued, and while it mighta been coined by some as righteous, it wound up costin' me everything in the end.”

“Such a tragic tale!” Eclipse's backlegs were almost fully regenerated. She doubted ray spells would work, as Aconitum most likely had deflection wards placed on it. “Though I'm glad to hear that the aftereffects of my carnage went on to cause such pain and suffering.”

Your carnage? What—” Granny clicked her teeth. She'd thought something about Eclipse looked familiar, but couldn't place it until now. “I knew somethin' was wrong with Rarity, but I didn't think it was anythin' like this. Did ya kill her?”

“Hardly,” Eclipse sniffed. “I'm just using her body while she takes an extended rest. The poor thing was all tuckered out from playing the unwitting host for my Echo the last few months, after all.”

Granny hadn't forgotten about the rules of fighting she'd given Applejack, but she hadn't wanted to kill Rarity, which was why she'd gone for a debilitating strike at first. She realized now it wouldn't have mattered either way, and while Granny was confident she could hold her own for a little while, she wasn't as young as she once was, and with Eclipse's regenerative powers, there was no way she could win.

The ground shook as two sets of heavy hoofbeats approached. Granny and Eclipse looked, and there was a flash of red and orange as Mac and Applejack galloped towards them from the orchards. Applejack was in front, her eyes shining bright even in the noonday sun. Granny closed her eyes, and a recent memory flashed in her mind.

Rejection of Fate?”

Granny stood behind the rainbow-colored haybale at her birthday party with Pinkie, who'd just told her the specifics of the powers of the Element of Honesty.

That's what Rassy called it,” Pinkie said. “He was pretty leery about telling me about it, but I got him to spill the beans.”

What's it do?”

Pinkie leaned on the haybale. “It's like this. If Applejack doesn't think something has happened the way it's supposed to, she can 'reject' it, and then redefine it as she sees fit! She literally has so much control over the 'truth' that the timestream itself is forced to obey to her interpretation!”

Granny's back legs gave out as she fell on her haunches. “She can control... time?”

More like she can veto it,” Pinkie corrected, “and only to a very, very small extent. Rassy said she creates a temporal field where she makes the changes, which results in a 'timesnap,' and all the frozen time moves super-duper fast to catch up. Then, the changes she makes 'ripple' outward to effect all the rest of existence! Isn't that cool?!”

Granny was almost at a loss for words. “Mina, that's the power of a God...”

Nah, that's the power of Applejack!” Pinkie laughed. “Like I said, it's really, really limited, and it takes a lot of out her to do it. Rassy said she'll only be able to handle ten second increments at first, and only in her immediate surroundings. She'll be able to do more if she has her necklace, but it'll never be a very big area, and never longer than a minute.”

That's still one heck of an ability.” Granny whistled. “Can't tell ya how many times in my life i'da liked a reset button like that.”

Pinkie suddenly became deadly serious. “Be careful how you tell her. If she tries to reverse too much time without knowing about her limitations...”

Granny's eyes dimmed as she caught the multiple insinuations. “Don't worry. I'll make sure to let her know the right way. Is there anythin' else I should know?”

Pinkie put a hoof to her chin. “Our powers are normally fueled by specific emotions, but if we get really, really upset, our Element will respond and give us full access to our powers. It's not a big deal if we're fully recovered or really close to it, but if we're not, it can really hurt us.”

How far along is Jackie?”

Dunno!” Pinkie said. “I'm sure she's in Stage Two at least. She'll recover faster if you get her to use her powers, though.”

I might just do that,” Granny mused. “Her Strength power'll be a lifesaver for Applebuckin' Season.”

Granny Pie always said you were an opportunist.” Pinkie giggled. “Oh, one more thing. Rassy said something happens when we fully recover our powers—something special.”

Granny raised an eyebrow. “Did he tell ya what it was?”

Pinkie shook her head. “He just asked me if I was afraid of heights.”

Granny thought for a moment before shrugging. “I got nothin.'”

Weird, huh?” Pinkie motioned to head back to the party.

Granny followed after her. “I've heard weirder.”

Applejack and Mac cleared the orchard. They both skidded to a halt as they saw the ruined fence, the smoking wreckage of the shed, and Granny standing in the farmyard beside a set of silver horseshoes.

Applejack stiffened. “Where's Strauss?!”

Eclipse finished regenerating, and dissolved into mist. She charged Granny, wrapping around her neck and lifting her up into the air.

“GRANNY!” Mac and Applejack ran forward.

A shadowy lance struck the ground right in front of them.

“Take another step, and I'll snap her neck like a twig,” Eclipse said.

The two siblings obeyed, but their faces contorted in tight grimaces as the feelings of betrayal, horror, and rage battled within them.

“Let her go, Rarity!” Applejack said.

“Didn't you hear me earlier?!” Eclipse gestured to her reptilian eyes and wicked fangs. “Rarity's nothing more than a vegetable right now! Her body is mine, and there's nothing you or anypony else can do about it!”

Applejack caught the lie in Eclipse's last words. She dug her hooves into the ground as her muscles ripped beneath her coat. “So help me Rarity, or whatever ya are, put my grandmother down right now, or I can't be responsible for what I'm gonna do to ya.”

“Do to me?!” Eclipse burst out laughing. “What a joke! Do you have any idea how many ponies I've killed, or the power I wield? I'm immortal, fool, steward of the very moon itself! Not even Celestia could figure out a way to kill me, and you trying to threaten me is about as laughable as an Elafont being afraid of a mouse.”

Granny's face was turning blue. The Element of Honesty was flickering within Applejack's core, responding to her emotions and flooding her body with more and more power. The light in her eyes was pulsing, trying to expand outward, but it wasn't enough. The ground below her was trembling, and Mac slowly edged away from Applejack as her voice gained a deeper echo.

“Let. Her. Go.”

“I love ponies like you.” Eclipse stared at Applejack with a gleam of wickedness in her eye. “You know pain. You know loss. It hit you early, cut you deep, and left you a fragile, emotional wreck. You hid your anguish from the world instead of dealing with it, causing it to fester into something delicious. It's hard to tear down such thick mental walls, but that's what makes the reward all the sweeter, because when they finally come down—”

Eclipse twisted, and there was a sickening crunch.

“You break.”

Applejack's entire world stopped. A knife pierced her soul as she watched Granny's body go limp, then fall to the ground. Her grandmother, strongest mare she knew, guardian and nurturer to her and her siblings for all their lives, loved one, head of their clan and mentor to hundreds, had just been murdered in front of her.

Dead.

Applejack twitched as the Element of Honesty shrunk down to a pinprick, then exploded outward, fully awakening and bathing Applejack in a blinding pillar of emerald light. She screamed, throwing back her head as she released a wail of equal parts rage and grief. Chunks of the ground around her were blasted away by the force, and a spiderweb of cracks formed where she stood.

Gone.

Applejack's emotional state prevented her from noticing the sudden itching on her back, the odd feeling of lightness in her bones and hooves, and the strange mental functions that surged forth in her mind. All that mattered was that she'd never hear her grandmother's voice again, taste her cooking, or hear the creaking of her rocking chair as she drifted off to sleep at night.

Stolen.

It wasn't fair. She'd already lost so much, and now this wolf in sheep's clothing was going to take the only parental figure she had left?! Not a chance in Tartarus. She could see the truth, hear the truth... so why couldn't she speak it, as well? Wasn't she the end-all authority of what was real and was fake? If she didn't accept the truth, then as the Bearer of Honesty, she should be able to make her own!

Applejack lowered her head, her eyes completely filled with shining light. She focused, and an opaque, swirling dome formed around the four of them. There was a clicking sound, and time itself came to a screeching halt. An eerie silence pervaded the dome, followed by an even eerier sound as everything in the dome moved in reverse, save for Applejack. Granny's neck fixed itself, Eclipse resumed her normal stance, and her words went back into her mouth. Applejack moved forward, and the air itself rippled around her as left behind a faint afterimage. She freed Granny from Eclipse's grip, carried her over to Mac, and placed her gently on her brother's back. She then turned back to Eclipse, and as she did, noticed the newfound weight on her shoulders and sides. She looked, and let out a small gasp.

Wings. Long and slender, they'd sprouted out from her shoulders, coming to rest comfortably at her sides like any other pegasus. The feathers were mostly round, with the ones at the end ending in fine, slotted tips. She rolled her shoulders, and shivered as she felt the new nerves and sensations register in her mind. The urge to experiment with them was strong, but somepony had just tried to kill a member of her family, and there was only one response to such an action.

Applejack didn't know or care that the horsehoes belonged to Strauss, or that they'd been enchanted to strike incorporeal creatures. She also didn't know or care if the thing standing in front of her was Rarity or not. She slipped on the horseshoes as the dome stretched and strained around her, then turned her back to Eclipse. She gauged her aim as the Element of Honesty shone brightly within her, and released the dome, murmuring a piece of the only fighting advice she'd ever received.

“Make the first strike the last...”

“—anguish from the... huh?”

Eclipse blinked. Granny was gone from her grip. In her place was Applejack, wings flared and backhooves raised as Strauss' horseshoes glowed ominously.

“Uh-oh.”

Applejack bucked with a sound like thunder, causing a shockwave that shattered the windows of the farmhouse, traveled out into the orchards to make thousands of apples fall from the trees, then went into the Everfree, causing the trees to shake from the wave of force. Applejack didn't see what she did, and hadn't felt any resistance from her strike, but she felt something warm spray across her back. She assumed she'd missed at first, but then heard the sound of something heavy hitting the ground.

“Mother of Celestia...”

Applejack looked up at Mac. His face was as green as Granny, and his cheeks puffed out as he vomited to the side. Granny coughed as she regained her wind, slipping off Mac's back and rushing over to Applejack.

“Granny, are you okay?!” Applejack's voice was like the rumbling of the earth.

“Don't look.”

The wind shifted, and Applejack caught the rancid smell of gore. She tried to turn, but Granny put a hoof on her shoulder, sending a slight jolt down her left wing.

“I mean it,” Granny said sternly. “Besides, I'm sure Celestia tried that plenty of times. I bet it's gonna take her a while to come back though, so we need to—”

Applejack looked up. Her vision seemed sharper and clearer, and with it she could she a trio of flying chariots rapidly approaching them from Canterlot. One of the chariots held a single pony, much larger than all the rest.

“Princess... Celestia?”

“For the last time, everything's fine!” Ras hissed.

Ras and Vigil were staring each other down as they stood guard at their usual posts outside Zecora's hut. The dull murmuring of Pinkie and Zecora's voices floated out from the window, along with the earthy smell of freshly picked moss.

Vigil narrowed his eyes, but kept his voice down to prevent the two mares from hearing. “Don't play dumb! You're going to tell me that... flickering is normal?!”

“Happens all the time,” Ras said through clenched teeth. He couldn't tell Vigil what'd really happened. There was a chance he'd tell Pinkie, and she'd be off to Canterlot faster than he could say 'setup' if she found out. The safest place to be right now was where they were, and the longer they could stay out here, the better.

“Horseapples!” Vigil stamped a hoof. “I know your kind, thief! Keeping secrets is as natural to you as slicing a coinpurse!”

Ras flattened his ears as he spoke in a cold voice. “Got any siblings, Lieutenant?”

Vigil cocked his head. “What's it to you?”

“Show a little respect for your elders, colt.” Ras straightened, his longer legs allowing him to look down on Vigil with ease. “I only asked if you have any brothers or sisters.”

Vigil was silent as he mulled over the question, taking a steady breath through his nose.

“I have a brother.”

Ras nodded. “Tell me, what would you do if he was starving? Would you rock him back to sleep in the middle of the night as he moaned from the hunger pangs? How would you feel if he asked you why it hurt so much? If you saw he was suffering, literally wasting away before your very eyes, and he asked if there was anything you could do to make it better, would what you do?”

Vigil met Ras' eyes with a hawk-like glare, staring directly into his pupils as if he expected to find something there.

“If my brother were suffering, I'd do whatever I could to save him. Even if the situation was so dire that there was next to nothing I could do, it wouldn't stop me from trying. Would I watch over him while he slept? Yes. How would I feel if he asked me why he was in pain? Like a helpless foal, but I'd stay strong for his sake. And lastly, what would I do if he asked me to help him?”

Vigil's eyes flashed. “Cleanse all of Tartarus itself.”

“In other words, you'd do what any good sibling would do.” Ras' voice softened. “What makes you think I'm any different?”

Vigil sighed. “I apologize for my harsh words, but I know you're hiding something from me. You've flickered twice now, and you've been wincing and acting on edge ever since. Is something wrong with your host?”

“Horizon's fine,” Ras said. That wasn't technically a lie, as the ten of them could still maintain the stability of the barrier. It felt like his head weighed ten extra pounds, but it was still manageable.

“Well then, what—”

A shockwave came ripping through the forest, pushing Ras and Vigil back a step and continuing further on into the forest. The voices in the hut stopped, and Zecora and Pinkie came outside.

“Whooooa!” Pinkie ​ looked all around. “What was that?!”

Zecora sniffed the air. “Power like that have I felt once before, when you and your friends saved the Princess of yore.”

“What?!” Pinkie turned to her. “That was an Element? Do you know which one it was?”

Ras cringed as Vigil gave him a pointed look.

“There's no mistake which one it could be.” Zecora looked to the west.”T'was the Element of Honesty.”

Pinkie squeed. “That's so great! Viggy! Rassy! Let's go to Sweet Apple Acres and—”

“NO!”

All of them jumped. They turned to Ras, who lowered his head as he stammered out an apology. “U-Um, I mean, no. We shouldn't go there right now.”

Pinkie raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Yes, Rohopacha.” Zecora spoke with a roll of her tongue. “Why such refusal? Should not this news be met with approval?'

Vigil said nothing, but his lips were turned upwards as he folded his hooves.

Ras resisted the urge to throttle him and looked away. “I... can't tell you why.”

Pinkie rounded on him. “You Pinkie Promised that you'd tell me everything that was going on.”

“This is different!”

“Are you going back on your Pinkie Promise?”

“No! Yes!” Ras facehooved. “Argh! You have to understand! This is for your own good!”

“I've a right to know what's going on, Rassy.” Pinkie put a hoof on his shoulder. “Especially if it concerns my friends.”

Pinkie's gentleness only strengthened Ras' resolve. “I'm not going to let you get hurt! We're safer here in the Everfree where nopony knows where we are!”

“Safer from what?” Vigil asked.

“I don't know!” Ras' headache was wearing on him. “It''s hard to think right now with this increased pressure, and I'm going to have to get used—“

“Pressure?” A light appeared in Pinkie's eyes, and she looked him up and down. “What pressure? You look fine to me.”

Pinkie had recently discovered she could use her Healing power to sense injuries as well as alleviate them. She wasn't great at it yet, but Zecora had some knowledge of anatomy, and was helping her learn.

“His affliction is not physical?” Zecora addressed her student. “That means it must be mystical. Two Rohopachas were you each assigned?”

Pinkie nodded.

“Perhaps Honesty's are in a bind.” Zecora adjusted her spiked mane as she turned back to Ras. “T'is noble you don't wish us harm, but if something's happened at the farm, then that is cause for alarm. Please tell us all that you know.”

“And if I don't?”

Zecora's eyes darkened. “Then I will use Hakuongo.”

Ras felt his stomach drop out. Every thief from Dromardia to Antelese had heard tales of the dreaded truth serum. Zhevari Shamans were respected all around the world for their status as scholars, herbalists and healers, but they were also used in their homeland as interrogators for law enforcement. Zecora was no different, and while the two of them had gotten along fine the past few weeks, he didn't doubt she'd use it if she had to.

“T-There's no need for t-that,” Ras said with a gulp. “I'll t-tell you what's g-going on.”

A hint of a smile played at Zecora's lips, and Pinkie started walking forward.

“You can tell us on the way. If there's something wrong, I wanna get there now!”

She trotted forward at a brisk pace, and he quickly followed so he wouldn't lose her. He looked down at his right forehoof, which felt heavier than the other.

“Looks like I might need you, after all,” he muttered.

Canterlot Tower was one of the most beautiful places in the entire castle. The scent of wildflowers was in the air, and the sun shone in through multifaceted stained glass windows, depicting images of ancient battles throughout the ages. Proud banners and rich tapestries hung from the walls, and a ruby-red carpet lined a long hallway leading to the Chamber of the Elements.

Luna wasn't surprised to find that the tower was under heavy guard. The level of magic in the air was obscene, and patrols of all three races policed the ground and air. Cetus may not have thought Luna was a threat, but that didn't mean she was about to get complacent. No doubt the guards had been told to 'secure' Princess Luna in the event she was found, as well as to be on the lookout for intruders.

Still invisible, Luna perched on a windowsill, idly tapping a hoof as she thought out the best way to proceed. The guards themselves were easy enough to deal with, the issue was the wards that'd been placed about the tower and Chamber. Just trying to detect what they were had been a risk, and while she could pick them apart one by one, it'd take a while, and time was a finite resource at the moment. She'd come up with an idea, a daring, fabulous idea, but it was something she hadn't done in a while, and she'd need to extend the range out to cover the entire tower. It wouldn't tax her as much as the alternatives though, and most of all, it'd be quick.

Luna got to her hooves and searched her memory, recalling the specifics of a certain incantation. Illusion spells focused on manipulating one or more of the five senses, and they'd always been Luna's forte. Even in her weakened state, she could produce flawless duplicates of anything up to the size of a house, imitate the sound of any animal or voice she'd heard, and reproduce anything she'd ever smelled, tasted, or touched. It was a simple matter of lightly altering the mind's interpretation of what was real and what wasn't, and following this logic, it wasn't much harder to take it a little... further.

A pang of loneliness gripped Luna's heart as she began the spell. She stretched her consciousness out, touching all the minds of the ponies in the tower and pulling them into her thrall. She knew they had wards placed upon them, but they wouldn't have anything to prepare against a spell she'd invented over fifteen hundred years ago. A yellow mist spread out from Luna's body, wafting out and surrounding each of the ponies in the corridor, then stretching down to affect everypony in the tower. The soldiers stopped upon contact with the mist, looking about with expressions of bemusement.

Luna smirked as she felt the spell take hold. She released her Invisibility spell, and jumped off the windowsill to land cat-like on the floor. She walked up to one of the unicorn guards, waving a hoof in front of his face and poking him once in the shoulder. The guard turned to her, but his look of bewilderment remained. He could see Luna, and certainly had felt her touch, but he didn't think she was real. He didn't think anything was real, in fact. Her spell had fooled him into thinking he was the only true creature in all of existence, and everything around him was an illusion. He wouldn't react to anything she, or anypony else did, whether somepony walked right past him, set off a ward he'd made, or even swung a sword at his head. Luna had no intention of harming any of the guards, of course, but everypony in the tower was currently under her control, and for the duration of the spell, she was responsible for their safety.

Luna passed all the dazed guards and approached the Chamber of the Elements. The door was lined with gold, and was divided into six triangular halves that were held together by a lock in the shape of the sun. A keyhole was set in the middle, which Celestia had insisted only she be able to open until Nightmare Moon was destroyed. Luna had humored her, as few things could stop Nightmare Moon aside from the Elements themselves. Luna was much the same, though her methods were decidedly less destructive than her counterpart's.

The lock was guarded with a very simple, yet exceedingly powerful spell—to only be opened by Celestia's magical signature, which was sensed when she inserted her horn into the keyhole. Most ponies would be deterred by such a measure, as mimicking a pony's magical signature was only a thing that could be done by certain magical creatures, or, alternatively, ponies who'd been alive for thousands of years.

Luna took a step back from the door, focusing on an image of Celestia, replicating her down to even the smallest details. Posture, mannerisms, facial expressions, the arch of her back, the shape of her nose, the number of feathers on her wings, personality, likes, dislikes, favorite foods, fighting style, strengths, weaknesses, musical preference, and of course, magical signature. Luna knew Celestia to a level nopony else in the world could ever hope to compare, and when she opened her eyes, the thing standing before her was so similar to the real thing that even she herself would've been fooled.

The illusion smiled warmly at Luna, then turned to address the door. It lowered its head, inserted it's horn into the keyhole, and released a flash of blue magic. The sun lock lit up, and there was a whirring from a system of hidden gears. The six halves of the door hummed, and then split apart to reveal the Chamber within. Inside on a pedestal was an ornate jewelry box, wherein rested the Necklaces of the Elements.

Luna took the chest in her magic, opening it once to confirm it's contents before stowing it away in her pocket dimension along with Shining. She looked over at the illusion, and her throat became strangely tight.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Celestia leaned down and kissed Luna's brow.

“Good luck.” The illusion faded away.

Luna glanced back at the soldiers, setting her Solipsism spell to release when she closed the Chamber door. It was clear only the Bearers could confront Cetus. Anypony else would be captured, killed, or more likely, sent hurtling out into space. Her Echo wouldn't dare release the army of Tartarus if she didn't have the six in her custody, and she couldn't bring about Eternal Night without them, either. The Bearers would grow in strength as time went on, and if they all managed fully recover and regain their necklaces, they might stand a chance. It was just a matter of giving them said time, and to that end, Luna could provide some assistance.

The Chamber door closed as Luna vanished again with a pop. She wasn't sure if the next part of her plan was going to be easier or harder, but one thing was for certain—it was going to be gratifying.

Applejack stood with Granny by the chicken coop as the three flying chariots came in for a landing. Princess Celestia was in one, and Rainbow, Fluttershy, and Spike were in the other two along with their guards. Elo was with them as well, who'd regained consciousness on the ride over. They landed in the center of the farmyard, going around a blue tarp that'd been laid down in the center. The tarp was covering something lumpy, but it was hard to tell what it exactly was.

Rainbow was squirming in her chariot as it came to a stop. She suddenly broke free with a surprised yelp, and after giving Cetus a dirty look, zoomed over to Applejack. Fluttershy and the guards came over, as well.

“You alright?!” Rainbow said hurriedly. “Tastar said—”

All of them stopped dead as they noticed Applejack's wings and fully glowing eyes. Their mouths fell open, staying that way for several seconds before Granny cleared her throat.

“Didn' your parents teach ya it's impolite to stare?”

“Are those...” Rainbow trailed off.

“Real?” Applejack extended one of her new limbs and gave it an experimental flap. “Yeah, I reckon so.”

“What happened?” Fluttershy whispered.

“Lotta things.” Applejack watched as Cetus said a few words to the chariot pegasi, and they flew off back towards Canterlot. “Not rightly sure about a few of 'em, but the most important one is that somethin's really, really wrong with Rarity.”

“Lady Rarity's here?” Elo had approached them as well. “Where is she?”

Applejack didn't reply. Her gaze was still on Cetus, who had gone over to inspect the tarp. Her head disappeared as she peeked under, staring at what lay underneath. She straightened and looked over at the crowd of ponies, doing a double take as she saw Applejack.

“Oho!” Cetus came over, inspecting her from nose to tail. “Recovered already, I see! How do you feel?”

“Um...” Applejack's voice was still like an avalanche. “A little rattled, but okay otherwise.”

“Excellent.” Cetus jerking her head over at the sheet. “I take it that was your doing?”

Applejack winced. “She almost—well actually, she did kill Granny, but then I kinda... undid it somehow? I'm not fully sure what happened.”

“Wait, what?!” Rainbow looked back and forth between Applejack and Granny.

“It's alright,” Cetus said with a fake smile. “You did the right thing in stopping her.”

“Did she, though?” Granny asked.

Cetus turned to her. “What?”

“Stop her, I mean.” Granny lowered her head in a respectful bow. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I can't help but think that if it were this easy to take her out, you'da done it long ago.”

“Allow me to amend my statement,” Cetus said. “You did the right thing in disabling her. You're quite right that far more drastic measures have been attempted.”

“What's wrong with Rarity?” Fluttershy asked.

“I'll explain that in due time,” Cetus said, “but first, we need—”

“Applejack!”

All them looked to see Pinkie running towards them from the direction of the Everfree Forest. Ras, Vigil, and Zecora followed close behind.

“Rassy said something happened to St—”

A deafening, ominous bell sounded off in Pinkie's head as she got close to the farmyard. She skidded to a halt, causing the others to crash into her.

“Ow!' Vigil rubbed his muzzle. “Pinkie, why—”

“Bad....” Pinkie whimpered. She struggled to get up and away. “Something really bad happened here, and something even worse is about to happen!”

“Pinkie, what the hay are you doing?!” Rainbow went out to her.

A thought suddenly came to Applejack, one that made her muscles tense. She slowly turned to Cetus, who was watching Rainbow fly away.

“Princess, Eclipse said somethin' about you being... gone. What'd she mean by that?”

Cetus' didn't have a reason to pretend anymore. The five Bearers were gathered, and if she didn't strike now, she'd lose her advantage.

“NOW!”

Several things happened at once. Eclipse sprang out from under the tarp, whole and unharmed. She shot a black ray at Applejack's eyes, striking her dead on and knocking her out. Granny reached out to catch her, but she was denied as the ground turned to mud. Everypony else yelled in surprise, but didn't have time to do more as Cetus encased them in green glowing nets of force and dragged them to the ground. Rainbow avoided her net, but Eclipse spoke a single, powerful word that caused all her body to seize up. She fell to the ground, landing on her back with all her limbs splayed out.

Cetus whirled on Eclipse. “Do you see how easy that was?!”

Eclipse scoffed. She kicked away at the tarp and gave Applejack's limp form a murderous glare.

“Damn it!” Granny tried to pull herself out of the mud, but only succeeded in sinking down further. “Not you, too!”

Cetus ignored her and continued ranting at Eclipse. “Seriously, all I asked you to do was subdue them, and you somehow manage to get your head blown to bits?! Is there anything you can't screw up?!”

“SILENCE!” Eclipse bellowed with unnatural force. “I've not battled insanity incarnate and the Sun Goddess herself to be belittled by a worthless piece of magical trash!”

Cetus muttered a string of complex syllables. A tiny black sphere of nothingness appeared before her, which she shot directly into Eclipse's chest. She screamed, clawing at her chest and writhing in agony. She turned to mist, but the ball stayed with her. She teleported away, but she couldn't escape Cetus' wrath. Eclipse screamed and screamed, and finally, Cetus removed the ball, leaving behind a tiny hole as if someone had simply scooped out a piece of her.

“If you ever call me that again,” Cetus said. “I'll make two of these, and bind them to your eye sockets.

Eclipse said nothing. She merely twitched on the ground as her body slowly regenerated. Fluttershy was staring on in horror as silent tears streamed from her eyes.

“I knew it!” Rainbow tried to free herself, but the stunning spell was too strong. She couldn't even move her neck to look and see what was going on. “I knew there was something wrong with you!”

“And once again,” Cetus said dryly. “The astute intellect of Rainbow Dash shines forth.”

“Hey!”

“What have you done to Lady Rarity?!” Elo gasped.

“Nothing she won't recover from,” Cetus said in a mild tone. “Though I can't say the same for what I'm going to do to you.”

Elo blanched. “Your... Majesty?

“That ain't Celestia!” Granny shouted. “I dunno what it is, but it sure as hay ain't her!”

“Would you like to know who I am?” Cetus snickered. “I'm Cetus, Usurper of the Sun, Echo of Nightmare Moon, Corrupter of Zemblani and Harbinger of Eternal Night. I'm the one who defeated both Celestia and Luna, absorbed Grovi, and once I've secured Twilight Sparkle, I'll absorb all of you, and free my Army of Darkness to wreak havoc upon this pathetic world.”

Elo's voice rose. “You're the one... who killed Grovi?”

“Technically, he's still here.” Cetus' eyes flashed silver as she momentarily adopted a Manehatten accent. “But for da sake of clarificatin', yea, I'm da one who ended his existence. Gotta problem wit' dat?”

The shameless, mocking admittance caught Elo off-guard. He spluttered for a few seconds before his rage burst forth like a volcano.

“You bitch!” He pushed against his net with all his might, trying every spell he could think of. “I'll slice you to pieces until you're no longer able to rise!”

“That'd take a while,” Cetus observed with a note of amusement. “You seriously think you can succeed where your immortal rulers have failed?”

“Duel me, wretch!” Elo spat. “Free me from this net, and I'll show you what I think I can do!”

“Interesting.” Cetus spoke a guttural word, and Nova appeared in a rush of air. Black flames erupted from the hilt to wrap around the blade that crackled and hissed, emanating the smell of hot metal and sulfur. “I accept your challenge, Elo, Echo of Leo. Draw your ancient blade, and learn how powerless you truly are!”

Elo was freed from his net. He rose, drew his rapier, and ran at Cetus with a furious yell. All the guards were shouting at him to stop, but Elo was beyond rational thought. His best friend was gone, the monster responsible was before him, and the only thing he cared about was revenge. Leo had been a legendary duelist, trained by the masters of two noble houses and refined in the crucible of war. His skills were second to none, and the only ones who could ever stand up to him in a one-on-one fight were his sparring partners.

One of which, unfortunately, was Virgo.

Elo came in low for a feint. Cetus pretended to fall for it, but stepped to the side when he turned it into a jab at her chest. She brought Nova down on him with bone-breaking force, and Elo just managed to jump out of the way, stumbling slightly from the impact.

“We gotta help him!” Rainbow couldn't see what going on, but could hear the sounds of steel on steel. She closed her eyes and tried to will her Element into fully activating. “Gah! Come on, Element! Wake up already!”

“Save your energy.”

Eclipse appeared in Rainbow's vision, who looked down at her with a neutral expression. “A fledgling like you has no chance of breaking such advanced magic.”

Rainbow ceased her struggling as she took in the changes to her friend's body. “What are you, and what did you do to Rarity?”

“Be careful, child, in what you commune!” Zecora had a wild look in her eyes. “The one before you is Nightmare Moon!”

Rainbow's pulse rose. “Nightmare... Moon?”

Eclipse looked over at Zecora. “I suppose a zebra would be able to tell. Your race's pesky ability to sense malevolence always was a bothersome trait.”

“Let Rarity go!” Pinkie shouted.

Eclipse snorted. “Well, since you asked nicely, sure! I'll just pop right out of her body and go back to the moon for another thousand years!”

Pinkie blinked. “Really?”

“No.”

The duel continued. Elo swiped at Cetus' eyes, but she wrenched Nova out of the ground and knocked his blade away. It vibrated fiercely from the impact, but he held on regardless. Cetus went on the offense, raining down a series of relentless blows, the flames of her sword trying to lick Elo's coat. He dodged once, twice, parried a third, and then tried to riposte.

Cetus didn't dodge. She stepped into Elo's blade, letting it pierce deep her chest and strike her heart. However, while his blade was occupied, she brought Nova down on his shoulder, mortally wounding him and causing the vile flames to spread onto his body.

Elo gagged as a numbness spread out from his shoulder. He looked dimly at Nova, then up at Cetus as a dizziness overtook him.

“How?” Elo choked. “Blackfire... shouldn't work... on us...”

Cetus spat out a globule of blood as she pulled Elo's blade out her chest. “You still have a portion of your host's lifeforce inside you. Just because it isn't yours doesn't mean it's not vulnerable to spells.”

Elo's eyes rolled up into the back of his head, and he fell to his knees as the fire continued to consume him. The guards were yelling his name, but their voices seemed to be coming from farther and farther away.

“Don't worry,” Cetus said. “Your knowledge and skills will be put to good use, and with your help, I'll be one step closer to ruling this world. You'll be reunited with Grovi soon, and together, you'll both live forever as a part of me.”

Cetus knelt down to be face to face with Elo, wrapping her wings around him in an embrace. She hungrily met his lips, tasting the blood in his mouth and completely overpowering his will. She touched a hoof to his chest, and there was a ripping sound as she pulled him out of Horizon. An orange outline separated from Elo to merge with Cetus, and his body shuddered as he dissolved to dust.

The remaining guards screamed in unison. The pressure in their heads increased, and their outlines flickered again. Cetus licked her lips as their personalities merged, feeling his skills and knowledge join with her own. Her eyes flashed orange, and she twirled Nova with a flourish as she got to her hooves.

“Now then, to business.” Cetus took up the remaining five Zodiac Knights and placed them by the barn. “I can't have the barrier collapsing until I collect Twilight Sparkle, so I'll hang on to the four of you until then.”

Esra coughed. “You won't get past Blair.”

“What can the Lifestealer do when I don't have any lifeforce to steal?” Cetus laughed. “The only one of you who even remotely resembles a threat is Tendoncutter, but his hilarious 'no killing' doctrine makes him as intimidating as a declawed kitten. How's it feel to be useless, Esra? To know that you trained your mind and body your entire life, and then realize how amazingly futile the entire gesture was?”

Esra clenched his jaw. “Damn you...”

“I seem to be getting that response a lot.” Cetus picked up the four Bearers up in her aura and brought them beside the homestead. “As for you lot, you're returning with me to the castle.”

“No way!” Rainbow snapped. “The only thing I'm going to do with you is stick my hoof up your—”

“You seem to think you have a choice in the matter.” Cetus lifted Rainbow up to meet her eyes. “I assure you that you don't.”

Rainbow's eyes looked like they were on fire. The air around her was sweltering as her Element pulsed within her.

Cetus came closer to Rainbow to whisper in her ear. “You want to know what's funny? If you'd managed to recover in time, you could've stopped me from absorbing him. You've failed to protect your friends, you've failed to protect your Princess, and now, you're going to fail to protect your entire world. Some Element of Loyalty you've turned out to be.”

“Shows what you know,” Rainbow replied as her eyes flared. “You only fail if you give up.”

Cetus chuckled. “We'll see.”

Eclipse suddenly felt an itching in her horn. She looked up into the sky in surprise, but didn't see anything. Shrugging, she turned her attention back to Cetus and the others.

As she looked back down, a pair of twinkling dots appeared in the sky.

The top of Canterlot Mountain was a round, desolate plateau fifty feet wide. Snowdrifts with odd grooves dotted the otherwise featureless expanse, created from sudden wind and temperature changes. The rock was exposed in certain areas, one of these being the very center, where Luna stood alone with a look of deep concentration on her face. Her horn had been glowing for several minutes now, but no other evidence of magic had occurred. Her mouth twisted as she wrestled with some unseen force, and after a time, she opened her eyes, looking out into the Equius Valley beyond. The other ancient mountains encircled the vale, filling the horizon and concealing the world beyond.

“What is free will?” Luna's voice carried on the eastern wind. “It's such a simple question, and yet, so difficult to answer. I've always defined it as one's ability to recognize and make choices free from constraint, but what exactly are those constraints? Are they physical, such as that of chains or a prison? Mental, in the case of disorders or predispositions? Social, like censure or oppression, or temporal, where the sum of events in the past dictates what we do in the present?”

Luna waited for a minute, but the wind didn't reply. She continued anyway.

“The principal of free will is something that has vexed the minds of scholars from countless fields. For scientists, it suggests ways of predicting the behavior of the sentient races. For upholders of the law, it determines whether an individual can be held accountable for their actions. For theologists, it calls into question whether our choices are truly our own, for if there really was some kind of God watching over us, how would our free will coincide with its wishes, or work into its grand designs?”

More silence. Luna adjusted her mane and wet her lips.

“The final argument brings up disturbing implications. A true God would have complete and total knowledge over everything that has, is, and will be. They'd have the power to create and destroy existence itself. They'd have endless compassion and love for their creations, and would never risk harm unto them. However, as a consequence of this, neither would they allow any semblance of free will, for the moment their creations started thinking for themselves, the God wouldn't be able to fully predict and control their actions.”

The wind picked up, and Luna slowly turned her gaze downward to address the ground.

“I've no idea what you are, Harmony, but you're certainly not a God... not in the literal sense, anyway. Our bodies are fragile, vulnerable to deformity and disease. The cycle of nature revolves around pain, death, and suffering. Our minds are terribly inefficient at learning and retaining information, and that I'm able to challenge you is proof alone that you don't have total control. You may have created us, but all that means is like every other parent, you're responsible for everything that has, is, and will happen to us.”

Luna took a deep breath, half expecting some kind of response, but none came, save for that the wind grew stronger still.

“I'm sorry I exposed myself to the Chaos magic. I didn't mean to do it, but it never would've happened if you'd stopped Discord from linking Tia and I to the Sun and Moon in the first place! Why didn't you stop him?! You know your creations aren't capable of handling such power, let alone immortality! I don't buy for one second that you, the very being who created the Elements, is too weak to get a simple message out, which means you've let all of this happen on purpose! You used us then, are still using us now, and to top it all off, I think I even know why!”

Luna's expression suddenly changed, going from a teeth-bared snarl into a sad, embarrassed smile.

“And... I understand.”

The wind went unnaturally still. Luna had been shouting to make herself heard, but now all was as silent as when she'd been back in the Millennial Archives.

“I didn't know.” Luna pawed the ground. “Tia probably still doesn't know. We'd thought we'd used the Elements to their full power against him, and that him turning to stone was supposed to happen. I'm guessing you were trying to purify him? Perhaps purge the madness that'd consumed him? I realize now we weren't even close to bringing out the full potential of the Elements, not after seeing and experiencing what these new Bearers, these... paragons, can do. I suppose I should be grateful we were able to do anything at all to Discord, but still... I wished you'd told us what you were intending. Did you think we wouldn't help you? That we'd accuse you of tossing us to the side after being stuck with a such a monumental responsibility? Perhaps you felt obligated to help us in some way?”

There'd been no indication Harmony had heard anything, but Luna knew she had her creator's attention.

“Or maybe you were looking down on us,” she said quietly. “You didn't think we were capable of selfless deeds or other higher thought functions yet. It's obvious you gave us free will in the hopes that we'd be able to one day, but you didn't think we'd evolve as quickly as we have. They say hubris is a trait born of the Gods, but I never thought the meaning would be literal.”

Luna went silent for a moment before turning her gaze up to the sky.

“I know what you want. I know what you're trying to do, and I've decided that I'm going to help you. However, I want you to know I'm not doing it because I don't think I have a choice. I'm not doing it because it's what you've set me up to do, and I'm certainly not doing it because I 'fear your wrath,' or some nonsense. I'm doing it for one reason, and one reason alone.”

Luna raised her chin and set her jaw, standing tall and proud on the mountaintop.

“Because it's right.

The wind shifted, now coming in from the west. Eddies of snow twisted and danced around Luna as she closed her eyes and resumed her spell. The moon was currently on the other side of the planet, which made drawing on it's power more difficult, but it also would give her an element of surprise.

“Forgive me if this 'backscratch' lacks my sister's finesse,” Luna remarked. “Tia always says I make my points with a sledgehammer, but I suppose a precision orbital strike works, too."

There was a time when Luna could command hundreds of moonlances at once, each one of them holding enough destructive power to level a city block. No longer was that the case, but she was still the Mistress of the Moon, and as such, could still bring forth a small semblance of its power. Fortunately, she didn't need hundreds of moonlances to do what she intended.

She only needed two.

Luna smiled as she felt the moon finally heed her call, sending forth two twinkling lights to jet through space like a duo of shooting stars. They approached the planet, circling high above and out of sight as Luna used the moon, her own perspective, and the lances themselves to triangulate her aim. She then locked onto her targets, and released the heavenly missiles with a flare of her horn.

"Vengeance comes from on high, indeed."

“As for the rest of you...” Cetus turned to Granny, Vigil, and Zecora. “Your presence is no longer required, so I think I'll kill you now before you stir up any more trouble.”

Eclipse felt another itch in the back of her mind. It was faint, but the magic was all too familiar. She looked up again, and squinted as she saw the two twinkling lights high above.

“What are—”

Eclipse's attention was distracted again by yelling. The Bearers were pleading with Cetus to spare the three loose ends. It was pathetic, yet oh-so delightfully amusing at the same time. Maybe she should could talk Cetus into letting her finish off Granny, she still owed her from that encounter with the enchanted axe.

The magic in the air increased, but Cetus was too focused on deciding which one of the three to kill first. There was an ominous roaring from above as Luna's eloquent rebuttal shot down through the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound.

The roaring finally caught the attention of Cetus. She looked up, and gasped as she saw the two moonlances streaking down towards her and Eclipse.

“Impossible...”

Cetus and Eclipse couldn't even cry out as they were both consumed in pillars of starlight born of the power of the moon itself. There was a sound like the crunch of twisting metal, combined with the hiss of a titanic snake as the blasts struck with pinpoint accuracy, striking only Cetus and Eclipse and leaving everypony else unharmed. The lances continued to rain down for several seconds before their power was expended, and when the dust cleared, everypony stared in open-mouthed awe at the blackened forms of their foes, silent and unmoving.

Luna grinned smugly as she felt her attack hit home. It had drained her, but she was sure she had enough left to call upon the moon for one final task. She called out to her old friend once more, this time drawing upon a different kind of magic.

“I've no idea where to send them,” Luna admitted. “I don't even know who to pair with who. I'm just going to pick 'randomly,' and hope everything goes well. Of course, we both know it's not going to be random at all, but for the sake of appearances, we'll just say I knew what I was doing all along, and nopony will be the wiser.”

The moon responded to Luna's call, providing her the magic she requested through their link. She picked out her targets—the Bearers, a few civilians, the extra guard, the Zodiac Knights, including the one that was out in a field for some reason, and Twilight Sparkle's familiar. She reached into her pocket dimension and pulled out Shining, as well as the chest containing the Necklaces of the Elements. She took out the Crown of Magic, placed it on Shining's head, then removed the other five Necklaces and hovered them before her. Luna's eyes glowed with lunar magic, and she placed a message inside each one to convey to their recipient. After which, she finished the spell, and watched as the Necklaces winked away. She looked down at Shining, brushing his hair out of his eyes as his body began to glow.

“Give your sister my greetings.”

“What... just... happened?”

Rainbow and everypony else were gawking at the charred husks of Cetus and Eclipse laying in their respective craters.

“Are you asking a specific pony, or are you just thinking out loud?” Tastar asked.

“Yes!” Rainbow snapped. She felt Cetus' stunning spell wear off, and she got to her hooves. “Now's not the time for questions, though! We need to--”

The five Necklaces of the Elements popped into existence in the center of the farmyard. They went sailing through the air, four of them landing on the Bearers, and one of them on Spike. As the Necklaces made contact, a voice echoed through their respective minds.

“A time will come where you will face these two and free your friend, but it's not now. You must learn. You must grow. You must awaken, and then you must ascend. When you're ready, seek out Atuin at Lake Occul, and have him bring you to the Caverns of Harmony. I will meet you there, and together we'll take back our country, and save our world from destruction.”

The Bearers looked around the source of the voice, but there was nopony in sight.

“Is that Princess Lun—aaaah?!” Rainbow looked down at her hoof, and saw that was glowing. She looked around, and saw that everypony else was, too.

“What's going on?!”

“I look forward to meeting you all again,” Luna's voice said. “But until that time...”

Everypony's world faded to white as they turned into silhouettes of pure starlight.

Scatter.

The farmyard exploded as multiple sets of shooting stars soared high into the sky, rising into the stratosphere before separating in all directions. They blasted out and away into the horizon, twinkling once before fading into the wild blue yonder.

It was several minutes later before Cetus and Eclipse regained consciousness. They came to within a few seconds of each other, looking once at each other before realizing they were alone.

“Um...” Eclipse began.

Whatever she was going to say next was drowned out by Cetus' shriek of rage. Her horn burst in flame, and she blasted the homestead, consuming it in a fiery torrent of flame. She then turned her wrath on the barn, causing a fissure open beneath it. The foundations and supports caved in on themselves, and the entire structure collapsed in a cloud of dust. Cetus fired blast after blast into the air, and it was about that time Eclipse decided there were much better places to be at the moment. She dissolved into mist and slunk away, hoping that Cetus’ temper tantrum would die down soon.

Secretly though, Eclipse silently exulted, for while her plans were foiled as well, she now had time to plan. It was pleasing to see Cetus suffer so, and now she'd see how well her Echo adapted to situations when everything went as planned.

Eclipse felt a stirring from within her mind. She started, but relaxed as she discovered the cause.

“Almost had enough beauty sleep, I see,” Eclipse said. “I'm sure you'll be as excited at our arrangement as I, but I'm sure we can get along. They say two heads are better than one, and I'll need another pony to help me brainstorm.”

Eclipse cackled as she floated down towards Ponyville.

“And if that doesn't work, I'm sure a little blackmail will change your mind.”

Braeburn yawned as he made his way out of the saloon and back to the sheriff's office. The last few days had been taxing, and the next few weren't promising to be any easier, what with hiring security for the big shipment of apples next week and the negotiations with the buffalo herd the day after that. Sometimes he wished he hadn't moved out to Appleoosa, but that wish was squashed every time he saw the sunrise over the dusty plateaus. Something about the badlands was just beautiful to him, but when he was asked to describe it, he'd never been able to find the words. That wasn't such a bad thing though, as he wasn't the one in charge of tourism.

Braeburn was about to make his way inside his office when a glittering caught his eye from the west. He turned, and watched as a pair of white lights streaked in, coming in for a landing in the center of town. There was a flash, followed by a wave of powerful magic that made his hair stand on end. He was about to call for help, but the lights faded, forming into the shapes of two ponies.

Two very familiar ponies.

Braeburn gasped. He ran out to them, calling out their names as soon as he was in earshot.

“Cousin Mac! Cousin Applebloom!” Braeburn lightly shook the two of them. “What in tarnation was that?! How'd ya get here?”

Applebloom moaned and passed out. Mac managed to stay awake just long enough to recognize their addressee.

“Cousin... Braeburn?”

A crowd was starting to gather. Braeburn yelled out for somepony to get the doctor, and Mac's eyes fluttered as darkness retook him.

“Applejack... Granny...”

Applejack awoke to the sound of waves crashing against a shore. She took a deep breath, and sneezed as a good portion of sand became lodged in her nose. She jolted upright, and saw she was lying on a narrow peninsula that stretched far out into a bay. The sun was setting, the moon and stars had yet to come out, and the salty air was warm and humid.

“You can sleep a bit longer if ya like.”

Applejack became aware of a warm presence by her side. Granny was lying next to her, brushing her mane just like she did when she was a filly.

“I'd do your wings too, but I'd prolly wind up pulling your feathers out. We'll need to find a pegasus somewhere to teach ya how to do it right.”

Applejack's eyes began to water. “You... you're alright...”

“Course I am.” Granny said calmly. “I told ya years ago I wasn't goin' anywhere. You thought that was an idle promise?”

It was too much. The walls came down, and Applejack burst into tears as she hugged her grandmother.

“You died,” she sobbed. “I saw... she... I... you...”

“Shh.” Granny returned the embrace as she rocked Applejack back and forth. “It's okay. It didn't happen. You stopped it, I'm fine, and we're all still alive.”

“Too close...” Applejack buried her face in Granny's mane. “And then Cetus... too close...”

Granny held her tighter, and the sound of the waves filled the silence. Norric watched them from a small ways away, not wanting to interrupt the moment. He turned his gaze towards a hill to the east.

Applejack regained herself a few minutes later. She put a wing around Granny as she took a better look at their surroundings.

“Do you know where we are?”

“Nope,” Granny said. “Never been this far south. I think Norric knows, though.”

Applejack blushed. She hadn't realized they weren't alone. She reluctantly followed her grandmother's gaze to see the guard staring off into the distance with a far-off look.

Norric sighed. “This is Gildesdale, the country just east of Equestria. We're in the Tempest Bay, which opens up into a natural channel called Eternity's Crossing. The body of water in front of us is the Marelantic Ocean, though if you go a bit further west it turns into the Great Western Ocean. On the other side of the channel is the Changeling Wastes, just behind us is the Great Southern Rainforest, and if we go a few miles west, there's a fishing town called Gallopfrey we can gather supplies in.”

Applejack wrinkled her brow. Her speech was slow as everything he said sank in. “How... in the hay... do you know all that?!”

“Because I grew up here.” In his mind's eye, Norric could still see a small wooden shack on the top of the hill. The sour smell of fish still plagued his nostrils, and the fading screams of Seeker as he was dragged out to sea haunted his ears. “Or at least, Capricorn did.”

Fluttershy awoke to the sound of teeth chattering, and it took her a moment to realize it was her. She opened her eyes, and was greeted with nothing but more darkness. She had no idea where she was, but she could feel a cold wetness on her face, which told her it was snowing. A different kind of darkness crept into her as the fear began to take hold. She was alone in a strange place, the last thing she remembered was seeing the awful, horrible things that happened back at Sweet Apple Acres, and all she wanted to do now was curl up in her bed with Angel and a nice cup of cocoa. Unfortunately, neither Angel nor her cottage were anywhere to be had, so Fluttershy tried to get a better grasp on her surroundings instead.

She didn't get much. It was too dark to see, and the only thing she could tell was that she was standing on some kind of narrow path leading uphill to the north. The snow wasn't heavy, and Fluttershy knew she could spend the night outside if she had to, but the prospect wasn't appealing. She wanted to find somepony, anypony she knew, and maybe then they could figure out something together.

“M-Megnii?” Fluttershy called out. “S-Spesci?”

There was no response, though Fluttershy's voice had barely risen above a whisper. She thought for a moment, and then she remembered she had another method of communication.. She called upon the Element of Kindness, stretching out her consciousness to search for her guards.

She found them. Megnii and Spesci were together, along with... Spike? He must've got transported along with them. They were with a duo of unfamiliar minds that felt gruff to the touch. Fluttershy recoiled upon brushing against the unfamiliar psyches, but managed to pick her way around them as she focused on establishing contact.

Spesci?

Flutter— Spesci's thoughts went into rapid-fire. Fluttershy! Hey, I found her! She's talking to me with her Telepathy! Fluttershy, where are you?! Are you hurt?!

Fluttershy was taken aback by the rush of thoughts Um, I'm fine but... I'm not really sure where I am. It's so dark I can't see anything, and all I know is I'm on some kind of path. Oh, and it's snowing.

Can you tell where you are in relation to where we are now?

Oh! Fluttershy perked up. Yes, I can! I'm north of you by about a mile or so, but it looks like you're a lot... lower?

Spesi swore violently. Okay, I'm coming up to get you, but I need you to promise you're going to stay put, and most all, don't panic.

Fluttershy meeped. I can promise the first one. Where am I?

You're in a mountain pass, Spesci said. These are the Yakkhari Mountains, the range that separates Equestria from Tarandus. Megnii, Spike and I woke up a few hours ago in a valley at the entrance to the pass, and we met up with a caravan that was planning on making the trek tomorrow. A blizzard is coming in, though, so they have to wait until it passes.

That doesn't seem very nice, Fluttershy remarked. Why would the pegasi schedule a blizzard when a caravan has to go through?

The weather of the Yakkhari Mountains is too temperamental to be controlled, Spesci explained. Scientists have tried for over a millennium to understand the weather that comes down from the peaks, but none of them have made any ground. Storms that bury entire towns can form in minutes, and the surrounding valleys are uninhabitable because of it.

How do you know that?

I, uh... Spesci gulped. Remember when I said my father was a scientist and my mother was a ranger?

Yes, Fluttershy said, but you said that they were from Las Pegasus along with Pisces and Gemini.

I miiiiiiight've switched a few facts around, Spesci admitted. Pisces was actually from a town called White Wing that wasn't too far from here. His father was one of the scientists trying to see if the weather from the Yakkhari Mountains could be controlled, or at the very least, predicted to give the surrounding towns some warning. His mother was a ranger that saved the idiot caravans that went ahead despite the danger and got caught in the passes.

Fluttershy blinked. You... lied to me?

I'm sorry! Spesci burst out. I told you the valleys were declared uninhabitable, didn't I? White Wing is the reason why! It got buried in a freak blizzard a month after the end of the War of the Sun and Moon! I went back a few years ago to see if there's even any ruins left, and I didn't find so much as a brick! And as for Gemini, he was from Cloudsdale, which is where you grew up! How could Megnii have told you about his past when you look like you're the same age, but he has gaping holes in his knowledge base?

Fluttershy was quiet. She understood... to a point. She even knew she'd forgive him for it eventually, but right now, when she was trapped, cold, and alone in pure darkness? She couldn't help but be a little bitter.

Look, Spesci said. I promise you can give me the silent treatment, scold me, or whatever you want when you're not in danger of being buried in six feet of snow. I need you to keep talking to me right now so I can get you out of there. Can you bear with me until then?

Fluttershy rested her head on the snow-covered path. I'm not about to hold a grudge against you for something like that. I'm not even really mad. I'm just... disappointed.

The groan Spesci gave was so hammy that Fluttershy couldn't help but giggle.

Let's talk about something else.

Sure. Oh! Like I said, Spike's here with us, too.

Fluttershy nodded. I felt him along with the others at the caravan.

Spesci paused for a moment. When we all woke up, we noticed there was something around his neck. We took a closer look at it, and... it's one of the Necklaces of Harmony.

What?! Fluttershy stood up. Which one?!

Um, that's the thing. Spesci's voice wavered. We think Princess Luna might've... screwed up.

Fluttershy bit her lip. How so?

We think she meant to give him the Necklace of Generosity, Spesci said. When in actuality, she gave him the Necklace of Loyalty.

Fluttershy gasped. Oh... oh dear.

So on that note, Spesci deadpanned. I know it's dark, but can you like... feel your neck and see if you've got a Necklace, too?

Fluttershy reached up and touched her throat. Sure enough, she felt something hard pressed against her skin. She traced the jewel a few times, making absolutely sure of what it was before letting out an exasperated moan.

"It's the Necklace of Honesty. Princess Luna gave us all the wrong Necklaces!"

The first thing Pinkie noticed was the wind. It blew around her with a strange intensity, throwing her mane and tail every which way as if it were it's own personal plaything. The next thing she noticed were the strange shadows that flitted around and about her. Her back felt warm, and she realized she was laying with her back to a campfire. It was night, and there was a soft murmuring as the shadows spoke to each other in a language she didn't understand.

I still say we leave them. This whole business reeks of bad luck.”

They have a Holy One with them. You honestly think they bring ill-will?”

Who's to say what they bring?! They fell from the sky like meteorites!”

You're sure the blue one is a Spirit Twin?”

Without any doubt. There's something strange about the pink one, too.”

Strange-good, or strange-bad?”

Strange... powerful.”

That doesn't bode well...”

Quit using your eyes and look with your Heart, Shuru. Can't you see her soul is pure?”

Pure as the snow of Mount Mbinguni, but that's not the point. Even a soul like hers can fall prey to corruption. Have you forgotten the tale of the Princess of Dreams?”

Of course not. Though I did hear she was healed, and recently returned.”

Those rumors have been flying around for weeks. I wait to pass judgment until Ambassador Loxo returns with word from Equestria.”

The word of an Elafont carries little sway in my eyes.”

Watch your mouth, Punda.”

Sorry.”

So, what should we do? Shall we bring it to a vote?”

I say we help them.”

I say we leave them.”

...should've seen that coming. Sorry Punda, but I'm going to have to side with Maji on this one. The Spirit Council would tan our hides if they knew we left a Holy One out in the middle of the wilderness.”

This isn't fair. You always side with her.”

Maybe you shouldn't always pick the losing side.”

Hmph. Fine, we'll take them with us, but only until we get to Rohomji, and I swear to the ancestors, if we get cursed for this, I'm going to haunt both of you.”

Hah! You'd never make it past my jujus.”

Oh yeah?! I'll have you know I'd make a mean spirit!”

You couldn't scare a yearling.”

Could too!”

Could not!”

Could too!

The shadows continued to talk in their rhythmic, alien tongue, the sound lulling Pinkie back to sleep. The language sounded familiar somehow, but she couldn't place it right now... oh well, she was sure it wasn't important. She could figure it out when she woke up.

“Mmh.”

Rainbow awoke in the mouth of cave. Her head was spinning, and her mouth felt dry. She pounded the ground with a hoof.

“Dammit! I've had it up to here with these magical hangovers!”

Rainbow examined her surroundings. The cave was shallow, and made of dull gray stone. The air was cold and thin, and reminded her of her days in Cloudsdale. She unsteadily got to her hooves, and as she did, the clopping of hooves sounded from around a bend.

“Good, you're awake.”

Esra appeared around the bend of the cave. He looked apprehensive, but otherwise unharmed.

“What happened?” Rainbow asked.

“Luna.” Esra stretched his wings. “Not sure what or how, but I'm damn grateful for it. “

Rainbow yawned. “How long have I been out?”

“You slept through the night.” Esra rubbed his eyes. “Which is more than Tastar and I can manage at the moment with these blasted headaches.”

Rainbow moaned into a facehoof as all the memories came crashing back.

“There'll be time for self-pity later,” Esra said. “Right now, there's something you need to see.”

Rainbow looked up. “What is it?”

Esra motioned with a hoof. “Come on. Tastar's waiting.”

Curious, Rainbow followed him around the bend. She walked though a narrow tunnel before being blinded by a sudden burst of light. Esra guided her forward, and a blast of fresh, cold air pierced her lungs. A northern wind tickled her feathers, and she stepped outside.

“Good morning.”

Rainbow opened her eyes at Tastar's voice, and immediately fell on her haunches. Their cave was on the side of a cliff, and before them was a massive mountain range. The ground below was concealed by cloud cover, and the sky above was the deepest blue Rainbow had ever seen. The sun was astonishingly bright, and the mountains around them stretched high into the heavens. Rainbow squinted, and she could make out that the peaks were jagged and serrated... like dragon's teeth.

“Where are we?” Rainbow breathed.

Tastar met her eyes. “Welcome to Drakkenridge.”

Shining awoke to discover he was cold, wet, sore, and his mouth was full of mud. Not a great way to start a day, but finding yourself inside the cavern of a hungry yeti stuck in a stalactite of ice alters your opinion of what a terrible morning is like. The last thing he remembered was teleporting himself and Luna to the wreckage of her tower in the Equius Valley. He'd told her about Cetus and Eclipse, she'd said something about his sister, and then he'd blacked out. He could tell he'd slept through the last twenty-four hours at least, but he'd absolutely no idea where he was. All he knew was that it was raining, he was in a sparsely wooded area, and... there was a crown on his head.

Shining took off the crown and probed it with his magic, and as he did, Luna's hidden message was activated. He mulled over the cryptic words for a time, but he'd never heard of any place called Lake Occul. He'd a feeling the message was meant for Twily, so maybe she would know? But who knows where she was in correlation to his current location. He decided the first thing for him to do was find out where he was, then he could figure out where Twily was.

Shining realized the woods he was in were actually pine barrens. That made walking easy at least, as the trees made the soil so acidic it killed off any underbrush. He headed north for several minutes, making good time before seeing that the trees ended a short ways before him. He slowed his pace, and cautiously made his way to the top to see what lay beyond.

Shining emerged to behold a very peculiar sight. A medium-sized village lay nestled in a valley, completely encased in a dull red forcefield with a trench dug around it. Several haggard ponies were looking out from within the forcefield, but that wasn't what drew Shining's attention. Two ponies, one of which was Twily, were staring each other down on opposite sides of a grassy plain.

Twily's mane and coat were matted, her eyes were downcast, and she was taking her breath in gasps. Behind her were Ace, Piro, and Blair, looking on apprehensively. Twily's opponent was powder-blue unicorn. She was wearing the brimmed-pointed hat of an Arch-Magus, a violet cape covered in stars clasped together by a black and red amulet, and her face was twisted into a haughty scowl as she glared daggers at Twily from across the field.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie isn't in the habit of dueling against opponents that can barely stand, but since your malady is self-imposed, she's willing to make an exception!"

"For the last time, I'm not bulimic!" Twilight looked up at Trixie, and her eyes unfocused. She raised a hoof to take a step forward, but she quickly looked away with a shudder. “I'm just, hrk... not feeling well!"

"Enough lies!" Trixie swept back her cape with a dramatic motion. “You've been nothing but insulting to Trixie since you and your entourage came to the Hollow Shades! To think that the protegee of Princess Celestia is so worried over her weight that she has to resort to such disgusting measures!"

“Twilight, stop this!” Blair hissed. “You're in no shape to—”

“This isn't going to get any better!” Twilight whispered back. “Besides, it's too late to back out now! If you had a problem with this, you should've said something when Piro and I were making plans!”

“I didn't think you were going to directly challenge her!” Blair protested. “If I'd known—”

“Enough fraternizing!” Trixie's eyes flashed with a cruel, red light. "The rules were no outside assistance of any kind!”

Twilight staggered forward. “Remember our agreement! If I win, you take us to the fortress! And if you win..."

Trixie flashed a wicked grin. "If Trixie wins, Twilight Sparkle has to serve as Trixie's assistant... FOREVER!"

Trixie let loose a maniacal laugh, and a random flash of lightning went off in the distance.

Twilight lowered her horn. "First one to incapacitate the other wins. Let's go."

Shining facehooved as he watched the two mares begin their duel. He could already tell this was going to be a long day.