• Published 26th Mar 2015
  • 19,981 Views, 1,190 Comments

The Road Home - Pen Stroke


Discord tosses Twilight and her family into an unexpected adventure while the rest of Twilight's friend get to work on the new crystal palace. All together, they'll do everything to ensure that Twilight and her family have a place to call home.

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Belly of the Beast

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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Chapter 13

Belly of the Beast

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The sun was red from the smoke of a thousand fires. The ravenous flames speckled the horizon, consuming forests, meadows, villages, and cities alike. They swept and roared, ever moving across the landscape, fueled by the driving wind. There was no relief from the heat. There were no pegasi in the sky to bring rain to deter the fire’s advance. There were no unicorns with spells to smother the blaze. There were no earth ponies with their mighty strength to dig fire trenches. For even on a day when all of Equestria was burning, the ponies could not stop to save their homes and businesses.

Not when their lives and freedom were in such greater danger.

The diamond dogs had risen up under the leadership of their new lord and master. With the magic of the kingdom sucked away, the ponies could not stand against the dogs. The dogs pillaged and ransacked, an unforgiving tide that was washing across the landscape and leaving nothing but the fires in their wake. Ponies who surrendered were brought to heel, shackled and marched to labor camps where they would attempt to sate dogs’ bottomless greed for gemstones. Ponies who resisted were killed where they stood, left beaten, bloodied, and unburied where they fell. Those who hid were spared the dogs' wrath, but were often sealed into their homes to face the inescapable fires. It was a tragedy, a genocide of ponykind being played out with cruel efficiency. Lives, millennia of culture and traditions, and vast stores of wisdom were all being wiped away, to become nothing more than a footnote in the history books of the conquerors.

It was all happening before Twilight's eyes, and it was all her fault.

The sharp cry of another young life being snuffed made her strain against her confinement. To the top of a tower of Night Stone Castle, she had been chained. A shackle wore away at the fur in her neck and ankles. Her wings were gone, plucked from her back like petals from a flower before the stumps were cauterized by fire. Her horn was dust on the wind, smashed by the swift strike of a dog's hammer, leaving only a splintered base behind. She was bloodied. She was beaten, but unlike others, she was not allowed to die nor was she enslaved. Her torment was to watch, to remain nothing but an observer of all the disaster wrought because of her failure. Her friends, the other princesses, Discord, and even her family had either been slain or chained, and it was all her fault.

"That one sounded particularly gruesome, don't you think Princess? I wonder if it was another little pegasi getting his wings plucked. The diamond dogs do seem to have taken a liking to making themselves necklaces and headdresses from the spoils of war."

Tirek chuckled to himself as he sat on his throne. After absorbing all the magic of the nation once more, the centaur had regained his gigantic stature. The ruins of Night Stone Castle were now his seat, the rubble of bricks and beams plenty comfortable for his near impervious hide. The only part of the castle that remained undamaged was the tower where Twilight was chained, a tower that raised her up to Tirek's eye level like a bird in a cage. He surveyed the destruction of the nation like an artist admiring his masterpiece. He had returned with fury, and this time there were no Elements, no box, and no tree to help save the day. Only Twilight and her friends had stood against Tirek, and they had fallen. They had failed, and now all of Equestria was suffering for it.

The unforgiving wind brought a rise of smells to Twilight's nose. She would have cried, but dehydration had set in. Her lips were split. Her tongue was dry, swollen, and heavy in her mouth. She might have passed out if not for Tirek's magic. It alone kept her on the brink of survival. Too weak to fight, too strong to die, and unable to do anything but bear witness to the results of her failure. Another sharp cry in the distance, from the smoldering remains of Ponyville, reached Twilight's ears. It was a foal, a newborn, who was now in a very cruel world without its parents. Tirek too heard the noise, and he drew up a hand in the direction of the town.

"I think I hear an after-dinner mint," Tirek said as his magic located the foal. The tiny pony was drawn from the wreckage of Ponyville, carried by a levitation spell until it was floating before Twilight and Tirek. It was a filly Twilight didn't recognize. The only babies she really knew well were Pumpkin and Pound Cake. Yet, she tugged at her shackles with renewed vigor, trying to reach the filly as she continued to wail in the grip of Tirek's magic.

With but a gentle inhale, the spark of magic left the filly and was drawn into Tirek's mouth. He smacked his lips at what was possibly the last taste of Equestrian magic in the world. He then turned and looked at Twilight, a sneer forming on his lips as his levitation spell carried the child within Twilight's reach. She looked on in disbelief, but didn't hesitate a moment. She scooped the filly away from Tirek's magic, and tried to calm the filly with sweet whispers and gentle rocking.

"Oh, isn't that sweet. Your sense of motherhood is strong even now." Tirek chuckled as he rested his chin on one of his palms. "It's a shame you weren't able to offer such condolences to your own daughter as her life drained from her body."

"It will be alright." Twilight payed no attention to Tirek, devoting all she could offer to the filly. A sweet little thing, with a long curly mane, cream colored coat, and blue eyes that matched her hair. "I won't let him hurt you."

"You won't let me," Tirek said, his smile growing like he was tasting a delectable treat. "I'm tempted to let you keep that little promise you just made, you just have to do one little thing."

Twilight looked in Tirek's direction. "Anything."

"Drop her."

Twilight's blood froze as Tirek's words echoed into the very depths of her soul. She looked at the filly, now just starting to calm down. She had just been scared, but the presence of a caring adult was quieting her cries. Twilight felt Tirek's shadow loom behind her, his hot breath washing over her body with every syllable. "I will enslave that filly in the worst diamond mine. As soon as she can walk, she'll work. She will never know anything but my iron fisted rule, and I will personally ensure her suffering will be of legendary quality. But if you drop her right now, let her fall from the top of your tower, then she'll be spared. Kill the filly, Twilight, and you can save her from a fate far worse than death."

"No... No I won’t." Twilight clutched the foal tighter, even as she felt Tirek's magic trying to pull her away. "No, no, no, no."

"You can't stop me, Twilight. There's no hope for you or this nation. But maybe you can save this little one. Stain your hooves with her blood, and she'll never know how horribly you failed your family, your friends, and your kingdom." Tirek cast a little magic out, and the filly giggled. A tickle, a tease, and the filly was smiling in Twilight's embrace. "You can make her last moments happy. All you have to do is drop her."

A few tears managed to squeeze out of Twilight's eyes. She kept shaking her head, trying to defy Tirek and his sick game. But then she felt the filly being pulled away, and she snapped. She held her even tighter, and shouted to the sky. "I'll do it."

Tirek sat back in his ruined castle of a throne, and made a small, urging gesture with his hand. Twilight glared him down for a few seconds, but then looked back down at the foal. The foal with a cream colored coat and purple mane, a mane so much like Nyx's. A tremor filled her heart, and her breathing became short. Yet, Twilight inched herself to the edge of the tower. Far below, all that awaited the foal was a pile of shattered stone and splintered timbers. It was certain death, but still the filly giggled. Such a lovely voice, like a glass harp. Twilight's lip trembled as she began to hold the filly at leg's length.

It was such a beautiful filly, with her black coat and purple mane. She was so much like Nyx. Twilight wouldn't deny, she had wondered at times what Nyx would have been like as a younger foal. As a mother, she had been spared the dirty diapers but did not get to see a first wobbly step or to hear Nyx babble incoherently as foals tend to do. Now she had to deny this filly a chance of growing up, to spare her the horrors she'd experience in Tirek's world. She wanted to believe there was hope, that Tirek could be felled. Yet, there was no one left to fight. There was no more magic to fight with.

Everyone she loved and cared for was dead or enslaved. The least she could do was save this one filly.

"I'm sorry. It will be okay," she said, trying to force a smile as her whole body trembled. She tried to let go, but she couldn't. She could not make herself do it. She tried to bring the filly back to her chest, but then there was a nudge from Tirek's magic. The filly slipped, tumbling free of Twilight's grip. She gasped and reached, but the chains on her shackles snapped taut, holding her back.

"Failed again, Princess Twilight Sparkle," Tirek said, watching the whole scene play out like it was an amusing little puppet show. The filly dropped, her giggles turning to screams as fear once more filled her tiny body to capacity. Twilight looked down from the edge of the tower, the stubs of her wings trying to grant her flight as her horn sputtered with broken magic. She reached with her forehoof, pleading that something would give. She prayed that the shackles or her own joints would break apart and let her fall, so she could save the filly or join in the release of death.

But no such mercy occurred. The filly fell and fell and fell until she was but a breath away from the stones. Twilight wanted to close her eyes. She wanted to cover her ears and deaden all her senses, but she could not look away. She could only strain against her shackles one final time, reaching for the filly as a few dry rasps of words escaped her lips. "I'm sorry."

The filly hit the stones.

She bounced back into the air.

Both Tirek and Twilight gawked in disbelief as the filly bounced like a ball back up to the top of the tower, returning to Twilight's waiting forelegs. She couldn't believe it. She even wondered if her mind had snapped and this was just a hallucination. But she didn't care. Twilight lavished the filly with hugs and kisses, fresh and bountiful tears flowing from her eyes. Tears of joy flowed freely where tears of sorrow had gone dry. Tirek bore a deep scowl as he rose from his throne and looked down at the rubble that should have been the foal's death. "What magic is this?"

"Why, it's our latest and greatest invention: Super Baby Proofing Spray.”

“Never fear with your dear baby. One quick spray takes all the danger away."

Twilight looked in the direction of the voices, seeing two ponies standing on Tirek's back. The Flim Flam Brothers gave a happy wave to her as they stood, wearing their famed show pony smiles. "We hope that in the future, Princess, we can count on you for a glowing recommendation for all our products."

"I don't know how you two eluded me, but now your magic is mine." Tirek opened his mouth, unhinging it as far as he could before beginning to draw on the brothers' magic. Yet, with a sharp crack, a punch connected with his chin. His jaw snapped shut, and the gigantic centaur was sent tumbling back into Twilight's lone tower. The stone battlement managed to remain standing against the blow, but Twilight had to hug the filly tight to her chest to be sure she wouldn't lose her grip a second time.

"Hope you didn't fill up on all that magic, Tirek, because the all-you-can-eat buffet of butt kicking just opened."

Twilight knew that voice. Her dry lips cracked into a smile, and she strained at her shackles. He was standing on top of a pile of rubble, red cape flapping in a wind and his claws formed tightly into fists. Even through the smoke and the haze, she knew those scales and she knew those spines. She couldn't believe it. It had to be a hallucination. Her sanity had to have fled her mind upon seeing the filly die. Yet, she smiled all the same, cheering his name to the sky.

"Spike!"

"The dragon? It's not possible," Tirek said as he climbed back to his hooves. "I slew you myself. I used you and the alicorn filly to break Twilight's mind. You can't be alive!"

"Well, let's check. Heart beating. Lungs breathing. Fists punching. I think that qualifies me as alive and kicking. And speaking of kicking." Spike knelt down, then leapt forward with astounding force. He flew through the air like he had been hurled by a catapult. Tirek tried to raise his hands to swat Spike away, but the centaur reacted too slowly. Spike got in close and delivered a roundhouse kick directly to Tirek's jaw. Like the punch before it, the force of the blow made Tirek stumble. He fell into the tower that Twilight stood upon, and this time the stones could not withstand the impact. The tower began to crumble, leaving Twilight to scream. She clutched the filly to her chest and closed her eyes as they plummeted to the ground below.

"I got ya!"

Twilight felt the embrace of magic envelope her, warm and familiar. She opened her eyes and looked up, and once more her heart soared with a fountain of joy. It was Cadance. She was supposed to be dead. Her, Shining, and their unborn foal were supposed to have been crushed beneath the Crystal Palace when Tirek destroyed it. Yet her coat was pristine, and she looked like she had never been pregnant. "You're alive!" Twilight shouted above the sound of the wind as Cadance flew towards a nearby hilltop.

"I was never dead," Cadance said as the pair landed, joining two other figures on the top of the hill. One was Biscuit, though Twilight hardly recognized him. He was in a dapper little suit with diamonds for buttons and cufflinks. He stood with a diamond topped cane, and even one of his teeth had been replaced with a diamond. The other was a changeling, S43, though she now wore a pair of reading glasses and a pair of saddlebags laden with books.

"Good catch!" Biscuit cheered. "Biscuit thought you wouldn't catch her." There was a gentle tap on his shoulder from S43, and he sighed and tossed a few dreamed up diamonds from his pocket into her waiting hoof.

“Thank you,” S43 said, putting the diamonds in with her books before approaching Twilight, her magic reaching for the shackles. “Let me try and get those things off.”

"But this isn't possible." Twilight tried to shy away from S43, but the changeling didn't allow it. "You two helped Tirek take over. Biscuit, you were with Duke when he took the Crystal Empire. I watched it through Tirek's vision spell. S43, you and the changelings infiltrated and brought down the barrier around Canterlot. Cadance, I watched you die. I watched you get crushed with Shining."

"Biscuit no longer works for Duke. Biscuit help ponies! Biscuit love ponies! Ponies going to give Biscuit two suitcases of gemstone for helping!" The small diamond dog clutched his diamond-topped cane to his chest. "So many gems."

"But I saw--"

"Twilight, listen to me." Cadance put her hooves on her sister-in-law's shoulders, forcing Twilight to look her straight in the eye. "No one’s dead. None of this is real. This is just a--"

"What are you talking about? Look around you." Twilight pulled herself away from Cadance, still clutching the filly to her chest. Her wing stubs fidgeted, as if she was trying to point with the feathers that weren't there anymore. "It's a miracle you're all alive. You have to run, before Tirek kills you. Just take Spike and get out of Equestria. There is no stopping Tirek now."

"You have to calm down and listen, Twilight. Remember the trick I taught you." Cadance brought a hoof to her chest, drawing in a breath as she did. She then extended her hoof out while exhaling.

"You think that's going to help? Equestria is dead, and I killed it. I failed to stop Tirek! I failed my friends when it mattered most, and now everyone but you and Spike are dead! Breathing isn't going to bring anyone back. Breathing isn't going to do anything!" Twilight was screaming, unleashing all her pent up rage on Cadance. "I failed, we failed, and you're telling me to breathe!? You should be worrying about yourself, about your child!"

Cadance winced, and a resounding boom filled the air. All eyes turned to look at Tirek, who had unleashed a powerful blast of magical energy. The Flim Flam Brothers were flying some sort of contraption of metal and wood, launching beams of magic at Tirek while Spike picked himself up off the ground. He wiped away some blood from his nose, then leapt back into the fray.

"How?"

Cadance's pained word made Twilight look back, seeing her step-sister sinking to the ground as she placed a hoof on her gravid belly. "See, you have to think about your foal's life, Cadance. Just run away!"

S43 moved up beside Cadance, her words hushed as she offered a hoof to help. "I thought--"

"She's one of the most brilliant unicorns in Equestria." Cadance hauled herself back up to her hooves, wobbling a little as she tried to get her balance. "She's also one of the most imaginative when it comes to bad situations. I guess we should have known this wasn't going to be easy. Also, for the record Twilight, I am not this big."

"Of course you are. You're pregnant!" Twilight shouted, stepping back from the trio. "Biscuit, S, just take Cadance and leave. I'll run the other way. Maybe I can get away with this little one. Maybe we can escape. Escape is the only option. We can't beat Tirek. It's impossible. Spike, Flim, and Flam should just run.”

A sharp slap cut the air, making Cadance and Biscuit wince. S43 had finished with the shackles, but was now glaring down the princess. “You are are too hysterical, Princess Sparkle. You must listen and—”

Twilight slapped S43 back, interrupting the changeling just as rudely. “No, you aren’t hysterical enough! Tirek has all the magic in Equestria. He’s too powerful. Tirek is going to blow everyone away."

Another earth-shaking boom erupted from the fight. A huge cloud of smoke enveloped the area where Tirek had been, and three figures were sent flying through air, leaving behind black trails of smoke. Cadance extended her magic, reaching out to catch the Flim Flam Brothers. Spike was not as fortunate, the muscular dragon crashed to the ground at Twilight's hooves, leaving a deep crater in the ground. He was singed and scrapped, but even through his injuries, he struggled to pull himself up. "I don't get it. Why is this happening?"

"Because you can't beat Tirek," Twilight said as she stood on the edge of the crater. "You shouldn't have come back for me. You should have just saved yourself, Spike. If you had done that, you would have had a chance to save Equestria. You could have done what I failed to do."

"Twilight, you haven't failed. This is just a--"

"Yes I did. Tirek won. That means I lost. I lost everything. I lost my friends. I lost my home. I lost my family. The fact any of you are alive is either a miracle or a delusion. Now run! Run before it's too late!"

"It is already too late." Tirek stepped out of the wall of smoke caused by his attack, towering over Twilight and the others like an angry deity. The orb of magic between his horns glowed a murderous red, and his eyes were focused on the ponies below like they were insects to be squashed. "This rebellion ends now."

Biscuit hid behind Cadance's tail, and pointed at Tirek with his cane. "Is that bad? That looks bad! Biscuit thinks that is bad!"

"Where did that attack come from? We were winning," Flam said, his mustache and eyebrows singed.

"It's Twilight. She's so sure we can't win, that she's making us lose," S43 said.

"What about Nyx?" Cadance asked. "Where is she? She was supposed to follow us in. Maybe she can talk some sense into her."

"Nyx is dead." Twilight clutched the filly to her chest tightly, embracing her as Tirek prepared to unleash his attack. "And soon, we're all going to be dead too. All because of me." She looked up at Tirek's orb of magic, the world growing silent around her as the inevitable end raced towards them. She was sorry. She wished she could go back and change it. She wished she could go back and make it all better. At the very least, she wished she could go back for just a moment, to see everyone’s smiling faces again. She could picture them now. Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Celestia, Luna, Shining, Cadance, Spike, and Nyx. She would give anything to see them all again, alive and happy.

Perhaps, even in the last moments, she could imagine it was true. That they were all alive, and that she was hugging Nyx and Spike to her chest.

That they were a happy family again.

Tirek's spell was unleashed. It enveloped them within moments. It was hot, and the light was so bright it threatened to sear Twilight's eyes. Yet, the only pain she felt was the same aches she had been enduring on top of the tower. Was this death? To be cursed to live your last moment for an eternity? Maybe that was a fitting punishment. She'd never be able to forget just how royally she had screwed up the world.

Yet, eternity did not last. The blinding light began to fade, to be replaced with a subtle glow of dark purple. Twilight's vision began to clear, and her ears rang from the aftershock of the blast. She began to feel again. She felt the dirt beneath her hooves, but something was missing. The filly was gone. Twilight grasped at her chest and looked to the ground. She could not find the filly. Where had the filly gone? Perhaps more important, how did they survive?

She looked towards Tirek, and saw a figure standing between them and the mountainous villain. It was a mare with a tall, royal stature. She wore battle armor, and was a mare most would call Nightmare Moon. Yet, the distinctive blue shield on her flank made the air catch in Twilight's lungs. It couldn't be? Yet, if Spike had survived, maybe it was true. Could she dare to let herself believe that her family had survived?

"Spike, are you okay?"

"Little scuffed, that's all. Where were you?" Spike stood up and walked up beside the armored alicorn as her barrier spell faded.

"Twilight's dream wouldn't let me in when she began wanting everyone to run away. Her imagination was being stubborn."

"That sure sounds like our Twilight," Spike chuckled as he popped his knuckles. "Now, how do we want to do this?"

"You attack, I defend," the armored alicorn said as she spread her wings. "And we show this bad dream we're not scared of it."

"Dream?" Twilight muttered, her mind trying to grasp what was being said. She reached out for the pair, but they leapt into battle with Tirek. The giant centaur bellowed in fury, but the two fought undaunted. Spike landed blows, causing Tirek to stagger. The centaur cast out his magic in devastating beams of red magic, but they crashed against the alicorn’s shield spells like water against a rocky shore. Together, the two were not only holding their ground, but they were beating Tirek back.

Yet, to Twilight, the true miracle of the moment was in one simple fact. "They're alive. Nyx and Spike are both alive."

"Yes," Cadance said as she moved up beside Twilight. "No one is dead. None of this happened. This is just a dream. Remember the Ouroboros. Remember the mountains."

Twilight stared at Cadance a moment, as if the words had been spoken in a foreign language. Then the realization hit, and the memories hidden behind the dreams veil broke free. The snapping of the Ouroboros' jaws, the fall into darkness. A shiver crept up Twilight's spine. Her breathing became shallow, and she looked to the sky like it might constrict around them. “We're in the belly of a giant snake!"

"The snake part isn't really what's important," Cadance said with a sharp snap to her words. "Spike said you'd know how to get us out."

"Right right, the Ouroboros dream-eating part is what's important.” Twilight closed her eyes, shook her head, and was trying to control her breathing. Twilight then tapped her hoof against her forehead, trying to make certain knowledge bubble to the surface.

"Okay, there's never been one this big in recorded history. I had heard some theories that the Rainbow Range's uniquely burning trees were possibly caused by a high Ouroboros population. This was even a prime hunting ground in the early years of the kingdom when they were used as a cure for bad dreams. It was right after Princess Luna's coup, when Equestria was having to deal with its worst nightmares for the first time."

A beam of Tirek's magic went wide from the fight, cutting a trench through the ground near Twilight, Cadance, Biscuit, Flim, Flam, and S43, nearly blowing the six off balance. Biscuit leapt onto S43's back, and the changeling glared at the nearby princesses as she shouted above the sounds of combat. "Do you think you could remember something useful?"

"I'm trying!" Twilight snapped back before she stomped her hoof and smiled. "Wait, that's it. We have to find the snake. To manipulate the dreamer, the Ouroboros has to anchor itself inside the dream of the creature it's feeding on. If we find it, we can make it release us or make it leave the dream. If it does the former, we escape. If it does the latter, then we'll wake up and still be able to escape." Twilight's nose scrunched, and her brow furrowed as something wasn't adding up in her head. "But, how did all of you get here without knowing that?"

"It was Nyx and Spike," Cadance said, looking up to the pair as they were continuing to battle Tirek. "Nyx was able to get out of her dream, and Spike figured out what this was and what they needed to do to save everyone. If it weren't for them, we'd probably have been trapped in here until Luna or Celestia came looking for us."

Twilight turned slowly, looking up at the battle of titans happening before her. Nyx and Spike weren't just safe, they were saving everyone else. They were young. The attempts at inserting witty, super hero banter into their fight made it clear to Twilight that the more mature bodies only masked the dragon and filly she cared for. But at the same time, they were perhaps more capable than she had given them credit. They escaped the diamond dogs and found the Flim Flam Brothers. They had gotten out of their dreams and we're now trying to rescue her. They were stronger than she gave them credit, and why wouldn't they be? They had both faced their own obstacles in life and overcome them.

They were doing what she would have failed to do on her own. Equestria needed her, but if she failed, it wouldn't spell certain doom. There were a lot of good ponies in Equestria. A lot of good ponies who would take up the fight if she and her friends failed. Even robbed of their magic, Equestria would find a way to fight back. And if it couldn't be done alone, then they would reach out for their friends. The griffins, the zebra, the yaks, and all the other species of the world.

Equestria had friends, and when it came down to the wire, they could count on those friends to help.

That was what was wonderful about friendship. Your friends help you, and if that's not enough, your friends will call in their friends. It was an ever extending web that encompassed the whole world, and when every single hoof, claw, wing, and horn helped, then there was nothing they couldn't overcome.

Twilight smiled as she fidgeted her wing stubs, an aura of her magic starting to encircle her form. She had responsibilities. If Equestria needed her, then she'd stand up to do all she could. She and her friends would use the powers given to them by the Tree of Harmony, but if that wasn't enough, then they'd reach out their hooves. They'd ask the princesses for help. They'd ask Discord for help. They'd ask Zecora for help. They'd ask the ponies of Ponyville for help. They'd ask the world for help. She'd ask Spike and Nyx for help, and eventually, they would be able to defeat any evil that tried to plague their lives.

Because that was the magic of friendship.

Cadance and the others had to shield their eyes as a bright pillar of magic enveloped Twilight. It was warm and bright, like a beacon to an entire nation. The sky darkened, clouds blotting out the red sun before a rejuvenating rain poured over the land. The fires of war extinguished, and in the distance, the shouts of battle cries began to fill the airs. From the cloud cover, griffins descended in force , assaulting the diamond dog hordes. At the same time, an army of zebra galloped from the forests to flank the enemy. In a single stroke, Tirek's war was being swung in the other direction.

The pillar of magic that enveloped Twilight collapsed, revealing a much more regal looking mare. Her mane was long and flowing, like a star field of tiny lights marked only by the natural bands of color. She was clad in armor reminiscent of the Crystal Empire's jousting armor, full body plate mail with a helmet that funneled her mane into a regal mohawk. For a moment Twilight stood there, then she brought a single hoof to her chest. She took in a deep breath, then exhaled as she extended her hoof outward. She performed the single gesture to calm her nerves and center her mind, and then Twilight took off like a firework.

Nyx had up her shield spell, trying to keep herself and Spike from being crushed in Tirek's hands. His grip tightened, but the barrier refused to budge as Nyx stood steadfast. That was when Twilight flew in. She unleashed a narrow beam of magic, shooting it between Tirek's horns before turning her head sharply to the left. The beam followed, cutting through Tirek's horn like a hot knife through butter. She lopped off the horn with that single spell, forcing Tirek to shout in pain. He brought up his right hand to grasp his new stump, and fell to one knee as the sudden, sharp pain overwhelmed him.

Nyx and Spike took the opportunity to escape Tirek's grasp. Nyx flew up to where Twilight was with Spike on her back, the both of them smiling at her. "Way to go, Twilight!" Spike shouted as he pumped his fist in the air.

"Thanks, but I think it's high time we all got out of dreamland. So, want to help me finish him off?"

"You can't finish me off. You'll never finish me off," Tirek said, glaring down the two mares and dragon. "I’ll wait, and sooner or later, you'll fail, Twilight Sparkle. Sooner or later, you won't be around to save Equestria, and then every drop of pony magic will be mine."

"No, it won't." Twilight's horn began to glow as she and Nyx began to fly towards Tirek while Spike leapt off to land on the ground below. "Because even if I fail, someone will always stop you. I trust my friends. I trust my family, and I trust the nation of Equestria."

Nyx rushed ahead of Twilight, soaring behind Tirek before forming her barrier spell. She slammed herself into his back, tackling him with all her might. Tirek shouted as he lost his balance and toppled forward, though even above his shout, Nyx’s words range out into the sky. "Because Equestria is the kingdom of friends."

Spike positioned himself directly where Tirek was going to fall. He spun his fist around, then swung it through a sharp, theatrical uppercut. His fist connected with Tirek's jaw, and the force of the blow sent the centaur soaring upward. "And you're all alone with your anger," Spike said as he shook out his fist.

Tirek tumbled through the air, soaring higher and higher. Twilight was waiting at what would be the pinnacle of his flight, a massive blast of energy prepared in her horn as she glared down the face that had tormented her through so many nightmares. "And friendship will always beat hatred. Now get out of my dreams!"

With a turn of her head, Twilight pointed her horn downward and into Tirek's face. Her spell unleashed, a beam of magic large enough it enveloped Tirek's entire, gigantic body. He screamed and yelled, flailed and fought, but his form was shrinking as the stolen magic was being freed from his body. Soon, he was but a shriveled old centaur once more. He fell from the sky, and beneath him a gateway to Tartarus opened, greedily awaiting his return. He disappeared into the portal, with not a word or shout of revenge, and with a snap, the gates of Tartarus closed shut once more.

Tirek was gone from the world, gone from Twilight's dreams, and she couldn't help but smile as blue skies returned to Equestria. Everyone was rushing towards her as she descended back to the ground below. It may have been just a dream, but Spike was bursting with excitement over how they had so spectacularly beat Tirek. Nyx was all smiles as she circled Twilight, cheering and throwing her hooves skyward.

"Okay, okay everyone, I know you're all happy, but we're not done yet," Twilight said as she landed gingerly. "We have to find the Ouroboros, and if it's not in my dream, we have to check the others. We aren't out of the," she paused a moment to shiver, "the snake's belly yet."

~~~

Within moments, Cadance was drenched by the unforgiving rain. The water came down like it was spouting from a shower head while thick, heavy clouds obscured every inch of the sky beyond. She felt soft grass beneath her hooves, and could hear nothing but the cacophony of the rain hitting the ground. It was a far different nightmare than the one of fire and destruction Twilight had faced, but it was feeling like a nightmare all the same. While the others worked to find the Ouroboros in the good dreams of the guards, Cadance had volunteered to search in her husband's dream for both him and the snake.

Casting a barrier above her, Cadance shielded herself from the rain, preventing her from getting further soaked. She then began to walk, climbing up the soft grassed hill in front of her. That seemed to be all there was to the dream. The storm above and rolling hills of grass below. Cadance could not see Shining anywhere, and was beginning to fear what she would find. She didn't think he was scared of rainstorms, and she knew he wasn't scared of grass, so then what could his nightmare be?

Cadance got her answer when she reached the crest of the hill.

On a neighboring hill stood a solitary tree, and beneath the solitary tree Cadance saw two things. The first was Shining. He was seated in the grass with his head hanging down. He was doing nothing to protect himself from the rain. He and his military uniform were soaked to the bone. The second was a stone statue, one depicting an alicorn mare curled and sleeping peacefully. Cadance couldn't see any further details through the rain, but her heart sank in her chest none the less. She lingered where she stood a few moments longer, then walked toward the neighboring hill.

Each step closer revealed more details of the statue. Cadance saw her cutie mark on the flank of the stone alicorn. She saw, resting with the stone rendition of herself, a tiny little foal. It was hard to tell if it was a filly or a colt, but the meaning of the stone carving was becoming all too clear. She stopped when she was almost directly behind Shining. There, she could see the words carved into the stone, the letters etching themselves onto her heart as she read them.

"Here lies Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and her unborn child. One lost to us trying to bring life into this world. The other lost before a life could begin."

Cadance brought a hoof to her chest, struggling to breathe as the muscles in her chest and neck grew tight. A tear escaped her eye and trickled down her cheek, eventually finding the crease formed by her lips, the crease of a smile. Her lips were trembling, but the smile on her face was undeniable. She could not take her eyes off Shining, nor could she bring herself to dry her eyes. Such happy tears deserved to flow like a river, for Shining’s greatest nightmare showed the strength of his love.

With the rain hiding her tears, but not her smile, Cadance took one final step and extended her wing. Her feathers stopped the rain falling on Shining, and he turned to look at who had interrupted his mourning. He stared at her in disbelief, but as he rose from his hooves, the rain lightened. As a smile formed on his face, the clouds broke apart to reveal the most pristine blue sky Cadance could ever witness. A sky being entirely ignored as she and her dear husband embraced. Shining wailed and cried into her shoulder, and Cadance held him tight and nuzzled into his mane. Her tombstone crumbled away, and the grass grew to fill in the square of dirt left behind. The hill was pristine once more, as if it had never been marked by headstone.

And on the grass, its hiding place removed and existence exposed, was a two-headed snake with rainbow scales.

~~~

"Are you sure this is the right place, Grandpa?"

"Ah, it is no doubt, map points here."

"The local rocks show signs of being disturbed. It was a snake. It is larger than a train."

"You vere right about the boulders up stream and rapids, but there is no vay there giant snake up here."

At that moment, the island at the center of the lake burst asunder for a second time. The giant Ouroboros roared, extending half of its massive length above the ground. It tossed and it flailed, then spewed mucus skyward like it was a great geyser. The first spew sent four figures sailing towards the distant trees on the opposite shore. Then the creature roared a second time before pointing its mouth downward and vomiting straight into the lake. Its foamy spittle floated on the surface, but as the Ouroboros retracted into its hole, several heads began to pop out of the water.

"Vell, if it isn't favorite customers!" Lumber Jack shouted. He gave a wave of his hoof before he took a grip of the boat’s oars and began to paddle closer. Along with him in the boat was a young filly and Maud, who was reaching out her hoof to the nearest pony.

"What are you doing here?" Twilight asked as she began to paddle towards the boat. Shining was using his magic to levitate Cadance into the boat. Biscuit was being pulled in by Maud while S43 waited for the same aid. Nyx and Spike were paddling right next to Twilight, splashing around a little in the water to try and wash off the Ouroboros' spit.

"I came looking for you. He had a map," Maud finished pulling Biscuit in before motioning to Lumber Jack.

"A true vood stallion always has map of mountains," Lumber Jack said with a big booming voice. "And good thing too. Maud tells me you’ve been through quite the adventure."

"It's been rough," Twilight admitted as she levitated Spike and Nyx out of the water and into the boat. "But hopefully it's over now."

"Ah, vith Lumber Jack around, you have nothing to vorry. Now, come and hurry into boat. You all need big dinner and varm beds. And both of those things can be found in Lumberton!"

Author's Note:

Things are beginning to wrap up, but we still have a few chapters to go. As usual, I hope you enjoyed this chapter and please PM any typos you might spot.