• Published 23rd Aug 2015
  • 11,282 Views, 1,125 Comments

Fellowship is Magic - Mr-War

Something strange is happening in Twilight's palace. The magic mirror has started acting strangely during a period of intense solar flares, leaving her worried about what complications might occur. The next thing she knows, through a sequence of even

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Fangorn Forest

Fangorn Forest

Catching up to Rainbow Dash had been no small feat of accomplishment for Twilight, even with the aid of her magic. If she'd been flying normally, she wouldn't have been able to do it until her friend finally stopped. But with levitation it'd been slightly easier to pull off, even though it was still a constant effort to keep up with her.

"Rainbow Dash-"

"I don't wanna hear it!" Rainbow Dash yelled back, not even bothering to look behind her. "Fluttershy is alive until we find her charred bones. If you're gonna say otherwise, then just go away and leave me alone!"

Twilight flinched at Rainbow Dash's words, and the tone in which they were delivered. She hadn't even intended to talk about such facts, she'd merely wanted to tell her friend to slow down so the others could actually catch up to them.

"We've been friends since we were young, Twi'," Rainbow Dash continued, her tone of address less harsh than it had been just a few second ago. "We grew up together. Her parents and my parents were neighbors for years. We used to have play dates together. We used to spend the night at each other's house. I protected her from bullies back in Cloudsdale. She... she can't be dead, not like this," she insisted.

Twilight had nothing to say in response; certainly nothing that could be useful in this situation. What could she possibly say, that the disturbed pegasus hadn't already thought on her own?

Perhaps it was best to simply not think too hard on the matter right now. Nothing was going to change whatever had happened, so there really wasn't any point in thinking about it until it was necessary.

"She's not dead, they're not dead, until we actually find their bones. Got it?" Rainbow Dash asked.

Twilight nodded, even though Rainbow Dash wouldn't be able to see it. "Right. You're... you're right. Without an actual body, or some trace thereof, you can't prove death," she agreed.

The nostril-burning scent in the air wound up smacking them in the face long before they actually saw the source of the foul odor.

Well, perhaps that was not strictly true; they had been able to see a huge plume of dark smoke in the distance for about an hour now, but the stench it carried reached the seven hunters before they could see the pile of carcasses it originated from. At last, as they wearily cantered over the last ridge, their eyes fell on a mount of dark, charred uruk corpses, still smoking and stinking to high heaven. The next thing to be noticed was their friends, and their efforts at actually sorting through the remains, as well as desecrating a few of them in the process.

Rarity wrinkled her nose, thinking she quite possibly had never smelled anything so awful; it was even worse than the streets of Bree, disgusting as those had been. This was the burning, noxious stench of charred flesh so rotten already, it was a wonder the uruks had ever been alive at all. Once the smell reached her nostrils, it refused to go away, and she couldn't even get used to it, for every breath of wind brought a new wave of smoky air laden with choking particles of burned orc. She gagged and firmly planted her forehead on Applejack's back, preferring even the smell of old, damp-with-sweat fur to scorched orcs.

They cautiously joined Twilight and Rainbow Dash near the stinking pile of corpses, wary of wicked blades that littered the ground. Aragorn was the first to dismount his horse, but it was clear from his walk that he didn't expect to find anything other than sorrow. Applejack, Pinkie, and Rarity stayed back a couple seconds longer, taking in the horrific sight and thinking the Rohirrim had not been exaggerating; they had slaughtered what must've been the entire horde.

Rarity's heart sank a little as she realized the truer significance of that act; the Rohirrim were clearly fearsome warriors, and the confusion in the attack would have made it a dozen times more dangerous as the horse-lords would not know to spare the three captives. There was very little chance their friends would have escaped, especially if they had been bound and weakened, as Rarity suspected they were.

Applejack's even grimmer expression told Rarity she was probably thinking along the same lines. And the sound of a balloon being deflated as Pinkie's mane went limp, simply reinforced it further.

Applejack and Rarity each placed a forehoof around Pinkies' withers, and together they joined Twilight and Rainbow Dash near the pile, their eyes scanning the darkened remains of the orcs, eager for a familiar face or weapon, yet dreading that potential sight more than anything else. Despite the brilliant sunshine, which had appeared half-an-hour after Eomer had left them, the strong, cold wind reminded them all it was the middle of winter, and Pinkie's shiver was in part due to it. She huddled slightly closer to Applejack and Rarity, who squeezed her a little tighter, and they carried on a bit, scrutinizing the pile of corpses, wishing for a miracle and that against all odds their friends were not somewhere in it.

Behind them, Gimli was kicking around various pieces of broken armor that laid about, discarding some more forcefully with the butt of his axe. All the while doing his best to avoid walking over the charred corpses that'd been shown the way off the pile.

Legolas was staring at the smoking pile, immobile, and his eyes held a vague kind of sadness in them. He knew that they were likely to find only pain and grief here. He had privately been against coming here in the first place, knowing that facing reality would cripple their companions with grief, but recognizing that it was a necessity, as much for his friends as it was out of respect for their missing companions.

The elf glanced at Aragorn, who was scanning the area around the pile with his keen ranger's gaze, looking for something, anything, that could indicate the whereabouts of their friends. The Ponies had nearly completed their circle around the pile of uruks, and their stony expressions told him they had not seen any sign of their loved ones' deaths, but no sign of their survival either. Boromir was still on his horse, the guilt clear in his eyes, but also there was doubt. Doubt that all of them were feeling, but that some refused to show. Boromir urged Brindel forward to help look for any sign of their companions at all, but it was clear in the horse's slow and half-hearted gait that neither horse nor master expected to find anything of value to them.

There was a hoarse cry, and everyone turned to see Gimli straightening with something in his hand. He held it up, and even those most far away could see what it was, and their hearts sank.

"It's one of their wee belts." His voice, hushed with grief, cracked slightly, and he bowed his head.

Twilight was unable to move. Was this shock. when you couldn't speak, think, or move? Her mind was having difficulty processing what she was seeing. The belt... It had been given to one of the hobbits by Lady Galadriel, and neither had parted with their Noldorin blades since. And the pendant now dangling from Applejack's hoof as she picked it up... Fluttershy was definitely not known to leave behind a gift that she cherished. Which meant...

She fell to her knees, suddenly unable to stand anymore. After everything, all of the exhaustion and worry, all of the desperate digging through burnt remains, she simply didn't have any strength left any longer, mental or physical. She didn't care that there were sharp blades everywhere around her, or that they could be potentially poisoned, or that she would be in trouble if she cut herself on them. She only knew that she had sworn to protect Frodo, and she had let him walk with only Sam and Spike into Mordor while they pursued the others.

The pendant being present didn't mean Fluttershy had been wearing it at the time; it could've just as easily been ripped from her neck by some greedy orc who met their end during the chaos. She knew that was the truth. But she also knew that Fluttershy, who had done so much for the group, could just as easily be dead, and had never gotten the chance to show her friends the extent of her love for them. The same was equally true for Merry and Pippin, who had knowingly put themselves in harms way by distracting the uruk-hai with rocks to prevent their companions from getting killed, rather than hiding away and being safe.

Hope still remained, but hope hurt so very much right now.

Aragorn uttered a hoarse, wordless yell and fell to his knees, shaking his fists at the sky as he let out the grief. His whole body wracked with anger, shock and utter helplessness, and the ranger put his face in a hand still bearing traces of blood from their battle at the Anduin two days earlier. Boromir, Applejack and the others weren't faring any better.

Rainbow Dash was still rooted on the spot next to Twilight, and hadn't moved since Gimli and Applejack had shown them the hateful evidence that suggested their friends' deaths. Twilight blinked away her blurry vision - she had not even noticed the tears gathering - and saw Legolas, his eyes closed and his lips moving almost silently. He seemed to be in prayer.

Rainbow Dash saw him, too. She moved suddenly as she made a beeline for where the elf currently stood. Her face was dark, and her gaze ready to optically kill anyone who happened to cross her.

"What was that?" the Pegasus demanded to know, coming to a halt just in front of a taken-aback Legolas.

"Rainbow, I-"

"What was it?" she asked again, harsher this time. "A prayer? A blessing? A request to your Valar to watch over Fluttershy and the Hobbits?"

Twilight somehow got to her hooves, in spite of her exhaustion, and tried to soothe her hot-headed friend.

"Rainbow, please, calm down. He didn't mean anything by it-"

The Pegasus took a step closer to Legolas, looking as angry as Twilight had ever seen her.

"Oh yes, he did." she bit back. "He mumbled something in elvish because he thinks Fluttershy and the others are dead. He thinks there's no hope left for any of them."

Legolas remained calm, and Rainbow Dash's eyes throwing daggers at him did not stop him from giving the grief-stricken Pegasus a pitying look.

"Rainbow Dash, we all saw what was left of the ones who bore the belt and pendant." the elf said softly. "We can no longer hope for their survival. If Fluttershy was as loyal as you say-"

"She is!" Rainbow Dash growled out, refusing to speak of her best friend in the past tense. The elf nodded sadly in acknowledgement.

"Then we must assume that she stayed with Merry and Pippin, and defended them to the last. She died an honourable death."

The elf's wise old eyes scanned Rainbow Dash's features, and hated himself for so blatantly saying that Fluttershy was no more, but the Pegasus needed to face reality, and the sooner the better. He'd heard whispered conversations between them, and the little he had understood left the suspicious impression on him that these ponies actually believed they were legends, and tried to live their lives as though they were. The elf was not one to dismiss myths, for the whole of Middle-Earth knew of things that no doubt sounded impossible at first - like Valinor, and immortal elves who could do magic - but there was a limit, and that included claims of ponies who are 'living legends'.

"They're not dead until we find their bodies," Rainbow Dash stated in a low, aggressive tone, repeating the mantra of narrative they'd had since the beginning of their excavation efforts. "If you've got time and energy to be mourning them, Pointy, then you've got time and energy to actually be checking! Now help us dig to the bottom of this pile!"

She had far more to say than just that, but by that time Twilight had wearily made her way over to her, and placed a hoof on her back.

"Come on," Twilight said as she did her best to sooth her friend. "He's only being respectful, Rainbow. You can't expect everyone to have the same level of optimism that you do."

The Pegasus turned to look at her, and Twilight felt a stab of pain as she locked gazes with her. Her eyes had that raw look to them again, and she had slept so little in the past three nights that the purple shadows under and around them looked more like bruises. But what struck her worst was the loss in them; they were empty and basically soulless, so wracked with pain that Rainbow Dash looked slightly insane, and she knew that she would only ever look whole again if she were to see Fluttershy once more. That looked highly unlikely at the moment, and she could think of nothing else to say.

"They slaughtered them," Rainbow Dash stated matter of factly. "We saw it for ourselves, Twilight. Twenty or thirty orcs dead. Their skulls were crushed, they were impaled on their own swords. Fluttershy and the others fought hard. They can't be dead, it's just not possible," she continued. "Please? You don't think they're dead? Do you?" Rainbow Dash whispered hoarsely.

Twilight hesitated. She'd never had that kind of connection with anyone, not even Princess Celestia, so she couldn't answer with absolute certainty. Her reaction to Eomer's news earlier had solely been due to her magic and well-oiled logical reflexes. She had thought it was unlikely they were dead, considering the lack of reports of Hobbit and Pegasus corpses, But right now, when she was surrounded by nothing but death, she didn't know what to think. The evidence to support the conclusion that they were dead was circumstantial at best, but it was still evidence regardless.

"I think that Legolas is right in that Fluttershy would've done everything in her power to keep Merry and Pippin safe," she answered at last. "We'll keep digging through the pile until we hit bottom, but, it's possible that the pain you're feeling now is maybe a sign that..." she couldn't bear to finish the sentence. She knew that if she was to actually say the words "Fluttershy is dead" and acknowledge such, she was going to lose what little composure she had left, and let go all the pieces.

Looking back up at Rainbow Dash, she didn't need Galadriel's ability to read minds to know what kind of turmoil her friend was currently experiencing. She knew that her words were going to cause more pain than not, but she also knew that they had to be said regardless.

"I'm sorry," was all she could say as she pulled Rainbow Dash into a hug, desperately trying to keep herself together for not only her sake, but also for the sake of the others.

"... I'm the only one here that still thinks Fluttershy might be alive, aren't I?" Rainbow Dash asked in a low tone as she looked past Twilight's withers at the others.

There were a few sad, solemn nods from them, while others could only look down and not actually make eye contact with her. But it was enough to convey the fact that she was the only holdout present.

"That's what I thought," Rainbow Dash mumbled as she untangled herself from Twilight's hug. "Alright. Let's say you're all right, and I'm wrong about this. Let's say that Fluttershy, Merry, and Pippin really are dead, just for the sake of discussion," she continued, trying to keep the hitch out of her voice as she even dignified the notion by speaking it aloud. "Those three were our friends in all this, right? Doesn't that warrant them at least getting a proper burial? O-or are you all alright with just leaving them laying in that pile of orcs like they're garbage fit to be thrown away and forgotten about?" she asked.

That had gotten a rise out of them. Middle Earth or Equestria, the idea seemed to strike a sour chord with the whole lot of them, some utterly repulsed by the very notion.

"No. No that simply wouldn't do at all," Rarity replied as she shook her head. "We failed to rescue them. The very least we can do is lay them to rest in a dignified manner."

Twilight could do little more than nod in agreement. If Fluttershy, Merry, and Pippin were all dead, then they deserved more than to be forgotten about in such a crass manner. Rarity was right, it was the very least that they could do for them after everything that had happened. They owed it to them to find their remains, so that they didn't have to spend eternity with the orcs.

"Back to it then," she said as she prepared to go back to digging through the remains.

"I'll just... start digging some holes," Pinkie replied softly and sniffed. "They'll be the... the nicest holes I ever dug for anyone..."

"Ah'll help ya, sugarcube," Applejack said as she rested a hoof on Pinkie's back, not wanting to let her friend be left all alone with such a morbid duty.

"I'll help in the search," Rarity quietly mumbled and stepped closer to the pile, bracing herself for the noxious odor she'd have to endure.

"Right," Rainbow Dash replied with a nod. "We don't stop until we find them."

"Then you may be at it for quite a while, lass!" Gimli called from where he currently stood, drawing their attention to him. "I admit, I know not of how things are done back in Equestria. But here in Middle Earth, the dead are not usually in the habit of making tracks after they have been killed!"

The others looked at one another in confusion, before looking back at where Gimli stood as he looked at the ground intently, each of them wondering just what he was talking about. Was it possible that...

Aragorn was the first to cross the distance between them, the others following suit, as curiosity overwhelmed them.

The entire area had been trampled by man, horse, and orc, countless tracks littering everywhere that one may look. And yet even with all of that to deal with, they had still failed at obliterating every trace of what was being searched for, as Aragorn looked at tracks far too small to belong to any equine other than Fluttershy herself. And next to them were still more tracks that all but certainly belonged to two Hobbits.

"The three of them stood here at one point," he spoke up after a long moment of looking down. "But... there is something that is not right about this. We must spread out and look for more tracks," he stated as he stood back up again.

"Actually, I may have an idea," Twilight spoke up as her horn began to glow. As as it began to glow, two beams came into existence, each of them equally spaced away from the other. They were incredibly thin, like a sheet of parchment, but looking at them from the front and back they covered an incredibly wide area, easily touching the ground and crawling over the entire surface as they slowly rotated.

"I didn't think of it before, because there simply wasn't any need to before now; not when they'd been taken hostage by the Uruk-Hai, and certainly not when there was the possibility of them being dead. But now that we've found this, which suggests that isn't the case..." she trailed off, not feeling the need to spell out the reasoning behind the timing of events. Instead she decided to utilize the time to explain what she was doing. "Fluttershy's body holds Equestrian magic, just like all of ours. There would be minute, barely perceptible traces left behind wherever she walked; traces that would be present for days before naturally decaying and breaking down. It's just a matter of detecting those traces, highlighting them with the right frequency, and... voila!"

As the two wide beams cut out, the others looked around them, and discovered what Twilight had been doing. Whatever the process was, had left numerous tracks on the ground giving off a faint, lavender glow that made them stick out against the duller tones of the ground.

What hadn't been expected was just how many tracks there were all over the area!

"Goodness," Rarity practically gasped as she looked around.

Aragorn was again silent as he carefully studied the now-visible tracks. Many had been trampled over by numerous participants, and it was doubtful he would've found half of them on his own, if not for Twilight's magical abilities assisting him. And now that he was seeing them for himself, that sense of something not feeling right was just growing more and more with each moment that passed. These were not the tracks made by one who was a prisoner, but rather one who was allowed a full range of movement and travel.

"Somepony help me out here. Am Ah seein' things, or does it look like Fluttershy was up and walkin' all over the camp as she pleased?" Applejack asked.

"It does look that way," Legolas noted. And as he spoke, his sharp hawk eyes were picking up on certain other matters. Fluttershy hadn't been the only one up and roaming about, as he was seeing Hobbit footprints as well. "As were Merry and Pippin. It is as if they were given free run of the encampment. Something is not adding up here."

"It certainly doesn't," Twilight stated, her mind frantically trying to make sense of the whole situation. "The Uruk-Hai really don't strike me as the type to just allow prisoners to walk about freely. And yet..." she trailed off as she looked back at the tracks again, as well as what looked like cut pieces of rope.

"Well... Fluttershy is quite clever. She managed to bring Discord under control when the rest of us couldn't do anything. Perhaps she managed to do the same with them?" Rarity asked.

"Ah don' rightly know. Fluttershy can bring jus' about any manner o' beast under her control, but Ah've never seen it on such a large scale before. It's always been single cases, never entire groups all at once," Applejack stated. "But at the same time, Ah don' know what else would explain this."

"We can ask when we find them! There's more tracks leading off in this direction!" Pinkie called from where she stood, bringing their attention to her, her mane and tail considerably poofier than when they'd first arrived on the gruesome scene.

Applejack looked at Aragorn, who looked back at her. Without so much as a single word exchanged between them, they knew that they were of similar thought on the matter.

Aragorn was first to rush to Pinkie's location, while Applejack trailed behind, her leg groaning in protest at the sudden movement, yet she urged herself on anyway, as they moved to inspect what Pinkie had found.

Less than a minute into their efforts, both Aragorn and Applejack had stopped, and were now facing the huge forest that bordered what had once been the uruk-hai's camp. Twilight noticed it ages ago that morning, when they had yet to meet the Rohirrim, but no-one had mentioned it, and indeed when Eomer gestured towards it to indicate the general direction of the burned carcasses, she thought Aragorn's face somehow became even more sombre. His was the demeanor of one who knew something, but didn't wish to address it; she'd seen it before with Gandalf at the prospect of entering Moria.

Now, as the rest of them rejoined their companions at their becoming stock still, she was seeing it once again.

"They're in Fangorn," Aragorn told them. Twilight glanced at him, and just as she'd thought, his face darkened at the name.

She herself felt uneasy as she stared at the grey bark of the trees, the thick tangle of roots and branches that made it look impossible to enter. She couldn't help but remark on the unfortunate name it had been given.

"Is it me or does 'Fangorn' sound a lot like the Everfree Forest back home?" she muttered.

No-one save Pinkie, Rarity and Applejack answered, but seconds later Rainbow Dash took two steps forward, for all intents and purposes looking like she was about to fly right into the forest. At a glance from Aragorn, Pinkie darted forward and quickly latched onto her friend. Rainbow Dash, surprised by the sudden move, let out a squawk not unlike a bird as she began thrashing about, doing her best to fight her way free of the hold Pinkie had on her, that at the moment quite literally had her hooves lifted right off the ground.

"Woah, woah, woah! Easy there, Dashie!" Pinkie insisted as she tried to hold onto her squirming friend without hurting her.

Rainbow Dash snarled, and Twilight immediately had a flashback of the manticore they'd faced together on their first adventure in the Everfree Forest.

"Let me go, Pinkie," Rainbow Dash growled, struggling to break free from the party pony's vice-like grip. "They're in there! You know it and I know it! Let me go!" she shrieked.

"If I do that you'll just go charging in there without the rest of us," Pinkie insisted.

"Then you'd better keep up with me!" Rainbow Dash yelled, trying to gain some leverage that would break Pinkie's hold on her. If she could even get her wings free, she could easily work with that.

"Rainbow Dash, we cannot go in there!"

It was a statement made by Aragorn that temporarily distracted Rabinow Dash from her efforts at breaking free, as she turned her head to look at the man in disbelief.

"Well maybe you can't, but I sure can," she shot back, "just as soon as I get loose!"

The ranger sighed and held up his hands in a gesture of peace, knowing that he was going to have to work harder at calming their companion down.

Before he could, however, Rarity had taken the initiative of speaking up.

"I believe what Aragorn is trying to say, is that now simply isn't the appropriate time to set off into the forest," she stated. "Darling, I know you want to find Fluttershy, but at least think about it first. We've been on the dead run for three days and nights straight. We're all exhausted. You, myself, Twilight... We need time to rest properly before we can be of any use. What could we possibly hope to do in our current condition?"

"We can find them," Rainbow Dash shot back.

"And then what? What would we do after that?" Rarity asked.

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to respond, only to find that she had nothing to actually say. What were they going to do once they found Fluttershy and the others alive? Were they going to set course for Mordor right there and then? She significantly doubted that they really would. They'd probably rest along the way, and recuperate their strength or something.

"Then we'd at least all be together again," she finally replied, no longer struggling to get loose from Pinkie's hold on her.

"And we will be, my friend. But we must rest first. The lot of us can barely stand, and such is not the sort of condition one should be in when entering the Fangorn forest," Boromir spoke up as he moved to better face her. "We can at least take comfort in the fact that the riders of Rohan did nothing to harm them," he pointed out.

Applejack nodded in agreement. "There ain't any tracks leadin' into the forest besides the ones made by Fluttershy, Merry, and Pippin. That means they at least got away before things went bad."

Despite the well meaning intentions of their words, they weren't having the desired results on Rainbow Dash. After three days and nights of desperate pursuit, little rest, constant worry, and all of the stress she'd been forced to deal with on her own, she was emotionally torn up inside. She was dealing with a myriad of conflicting feelings right now, and all of them wanted to be released.

She wanted to yell and scream as loud as she could. She wanted to go off on Aragorn for apparently abandoning his kingly duties to Gondor in order to apparently play ranger. She wanted to let Boromir have it, and tell him that she should've just let him be killed by that ugly orc. She wanted to rip into Twilight for giving up on Fluttershy so easily just because the others had. She wanted to chew herself out for how she'd been treating her own friends the past few days. But more than that, more than any of that, she just wanted to let go and cry right now, because she was too frustrated to think straight anymore. So much had happened in such a short amount of time, that she honestly didn't know how to deal with it anymore. She'd been struggling to remain strong for so long, she just didn't have any strength left to her anymore. She was an empty, exhausted shell of her former self, and she didn't know how much more she could take before she completely lost it. All she really knew was that, sooner or later, it was coming and there was nothing she could do to stop it from happening. It was only a matter of time before she collapsed on the ground, and started bawling her eyes out in primal frustration over not being able to express how she was feeling in any other way.

At sensing her friend was no longer likely to take off without them, Pinkie lowered Rainbow Dash back onto the ground and let go of her, watching as she slumped onto all four hooves and more or less just slouched in place. It was... a little bit frightening at how easily the fight had gone right out of her. It was almost like watching a balloon deflate.

At seeing Rainbow Dash slump, Twilight released a breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding the whole time.

Ever since Rainbow Dash had returned the ring to Frodo -entirely voluntarily on her part no less- she'd been hoping that this matter was firmly behind them. But the last three days had given her reason to doubt that actually being a possibility. At first she'd simply written it off as being stress from their current predicament, but now she was suspecting something far worse might be going on with her friend right now. Rainbow Dash had slowly been growing more snappy and irritable ever since they'd split up to pursue separate goals. She didn't know if it was her worry over Fluttershy's safety, or maybe guilty, or if she was going through some sort of dark magic withdrawal from the ring being absent, or if it was another matter entirely. But whatever it was, it had her seriously worried. This situation was going to need to be observed much closer than she'd originally assumed.

"Can we make camp here?" she asked Aragorn, her voice barely above a whisper.

Aragorn simply nodded in response, his expression unreadable as he observed Rainbow Dash's current position and composure. More than likely, he shared her own concerns on the subject.

"Right then," Twilight muttered, observing as the others were already going about readying the area for its intended purpose. Boromir and Applejack were going about clearing the ground of anything that might serve as a hazard or a point of injury, while the rest went about their own matters.

While they went about their own tasks, her mind was elsewhere. When they'd set out to save their friends, a significant percentage of their supplies had been left behind so as to not slow them down; supplies they could've used over the past three days in their journey. Supplies that could benefit them right now, such as food stuffs that weren't exclusively elven bread.

She had possessed the foresight to place a beacon spell upon the pile of goods abandoned in favor of speed, in case they couldn't return to reclaim them for whatever reason. The possibility of actually doing such was looking decidedly less so with every new development they encountered. The thought of just losing everything like that didn't sit right with her one bit, so she reached out with her magic through processes that only true magic users would understand, and called forth on what was gone.

In a flash their pile of discarded supplies appeared before them, bringing much excitement in the process, and bringing others close to reclaim what they had relinquished ownership of.

Legolas felt a tap at his shoulder, distracting him momentarily from joining the others in doing such.

"How did the dwarf notice the tracks before any of us?" Boromir asked in a hushed tone that wouldn't easily be heard by the others.

At this, Legolas could only offer a simple shrug in response. "He is closer to the ground."

For the group that was unofficially designated Fellowship Team Bravo, their situation wasn't much better than that of their comrades who were currently many miles away.

Gollum had been captured and brought under control through their combined efforts, and his overall demeanor did a lot to suggest that he'd taken Spike's words and warnings to heart, as he was doing his best to avoid upseting their group too much. But despite that fact, the general consensus was still that the abomination couldn't be trusted as far as they could throw him. At the same time, however, they knew they had very little choice but to actually trust him as they followed along to what was promised as the way into Mordor. Gollum was the only one of them who would actually have reason to know which way to actually go, thus serving to make the sinewy little bastard invaluable to them.

Invaluable, but still not trustworthy. He was going on ahead of them way too often, in a manner that just reeked of being suspicious. It was enough to make Sam wonder if he'd prepared this path ahead of time, and was looking for something that could be used against them; concerns that were certainly shared by Spike, but couldn't actually be substantiated by evidence.

"Hey! Be where I can see you!" Spike called out. Not for the first time today since starting this journey as a quartet, and more than likely not for the last time either. For whatever reason, Gollum was -to put it mildly- not very good at either remembering or following orders.

"I'm liking this arrangement less and less," Sam commented as they traveled along.

"You are not alone there, Sam," Frodo replied as he trudged along with his friends on their journey. "But what choice do we have in the matter?"

"Ditch Stinky, do something to bring Sauron's attention to us so we'll get brought to Mordor, and try to fight our way through all his forces as we make our way to the top of Mount Doom. All without getting killed or losing the ring in the process," Spike stated matter of factly. "In short, not much choice at all. We're stuck with him on this journey."

Frodo was about to reply, pointing out that Gollum had promised them that he'd show them the way to Mordor. But he chose to refrain from such discussion as Gollum quickly came back to their current position, his demeanor not unlike that of a dog eager to show its master something, as he gestured frantically.

"See, see, we have led you out!" Gollum said proudly, perching on a rock, just above the travelers and gestured with his arm, "hurry master dragon, hurry hobbitses, hurry!"

The travelers climbed up the rock, following their guide. Gollum then jumped onto a rock at the edge of the maze of rock and cliff and looked back as the others slowly caught up with him. The travelers had finally reached the end of Emyn Muil as they looked on ahead... and saw that Mordor was now closer.

"Very lucky we find you," Gollum added.

Frodo walked past Gollum and continued down the slope, while Sam and Spike walked up to Gollum and glared at him as he shrunk a little, away from them.

Frodo might've felt pity for Gollum, as he was the only other one who had any idea of what it was like to bear the burden of the ring. But Sam and Spike shared no such feelings for him.

Gollum quickly leapt after Frodo, putting a wide distance between him, Sam and Spike.

As the travelers finally came out of the slopes of Emyn Muil, Sam's foot suddenly slipped into a patch of muck.

"Whoa!" Sam exclaimed, disgusted. The Hobbit then looked around... to see a swamp before them...

"...It's a bog!" Sam recoiled, "he's led us into a swamp!"

"I guess we finally found what was stinking so bad," Spike muttered as he looked around.

There was mist everywhere. Frodo and Spike looked around with frightening awe. To say that it looked vast would be a drastic understatement.

"A swamp, yes, yes... come, we will take you on safe paths through the mist." He then looks back and gestures the travelers to follow, "...come, master dragon, come hobbites, come. We go quickly..."

Twilight jerked awake with a start, mentally fumbling for a light spell to cast. It was dark, cold, and everyone around her seemed to be moving and talking at once. She staggered to her hooves, blinking the sleep out of her eyes and tried to understand what was going on. The embers of a campfire provided a little light to see by, and she saw Rarity talking quickly and quietly to Aragorn, the alarm on her face clear even in the dim amber light.

Turning off her horn, and the purple light with it, Twilight sleepily went over to them.

"What happened?" she asked, trying to suppress a yawn that wanted out. "Geez, how long did I sleep? I don't even remember closing my eyes. You should have woken me up, I could've helped make camp or something," she argued halfheartedly. Although in truth she was a little glad that hadn't happened, as she apparently needed the rest if she didn't even remember laying down. Although now her neck really ached.

Note to self: never sleep on someone's shoulder for more than a few minutes ever again.

Aragorn looked grim. There were lines of strain on his face, and Twilight had a feeling he hadn't had much rest, if any.

"Lady Rarity says she saw an old man a few feet away from the fire during her watch. When she raised the alarm to wake us, the old man had already gone. Vanished in the blink of an eye."

Twilight's mind raced, and she remembered something Eomer had said.

He walks here and there, they say, hooded and cloaked like an old man...

"Saruman?" she asked in a whisper.

The ranger nodded. "Perhaps. We cannot be sure of course, but how many old men wander around the wilderness of Rohan at night? And I am willing to bet that however many those are, none would flee at the sight of our camp, or the warmth of our fire."

There was a cry of anger from Boromir a few feet away.

"The horses are gone! That traitorous wretch made them run away!"

Twilight spun around and had a look for herself. Her heart sank. It was true. Aragorn had mentioned how Rohirric horses were different from their kind; they were more intelligent, more bound to their riders. There was no risk of them running off at night. There was now no doubt that either someone or something had been here, and that it hadn't been a mere hallucination from Rarity lacking sleep. A simple hallucination like that wouldn't be enough to scare away the horses.

Far away, to the west, the faint cries of several whinnies finally reached them. Boromir swore, and Aragorn sighed. He ran a hand over his tired face.

"We have but one option. With no horses, we cannot leave and find a safer spot further along the forest. Besides, I do not think any place around Fangorn is safe from Saruman. We cannot enter the forest at night, that would be suicide. We must remain here until morning, then enter Fangorn and continue the search for our companions."

Twilight squirmed a bit. She hated the idea of staying here, sleeping if she ever managed to, while a cruel, immensely powerful wizard who also happened to be an ally of the Dark Lord stalked them. Glancing around her, she saw that her companions looked similarly unhappy about this new development. Particularly Rainbow Dash.

Aragorn also noticed such facts.

"I do not think he will hurt us," he assured them. "Rarity says he was simply standing there when she saw him, and he made no move to attack, taking his flight as soon as she alerted us. If Saruman wanted to harm or kill us, he would have succeeded, even with one of us on watch. It seems he was merely curious about our fellowship, no doubt wondering who dared to stay so close to Fangorn."

"Oh just great," Rainbow Dash groaned. "Not only is Saruman trying to kill us, he's also trolling us."

She didn't like the idea of the old wizard demonstrating his own sick, twisted sense of humor against them. She'd rather face a stand up fight against ten thousand angry orcs, than try and deal with that.

"That's not funny," Pinkie commented, "that's not funny at all."

Twilight wasn't reassured by Aragorn's evaluation of the matter. He hadn't seen the things she'd seen, he didn't know the things she knew. Saruman couldn't be trusted to play by the rules, or to simply be observing them with no interest in destroying them. None of this was making sense. But without more information to go on, there wasn't much that could be done by them other than settling back down.

She took up a spot next to where Rainbow Dash currently sat. For the first time since she'd woken up, she took a good look at her friend. The sleep had evidently done her some good, but the lost, raw look in her eyes was still there. Her breakdown hours ago had been spectacularly uncomfortable to observe, as well as to listen to, but as best she could tell had left no traces but a slight sag in her withers, as though all the fight had been beaten out of her.

Twilight, however, knew better than that. She laid down on the soft, grassy ground beside her, and nudged Rainbow Dash lightly, before motioning her to do the same.

"You need more sleep." she told her simply.

Rainbow Dash shook her head, staring into the darkness. When she spoke, her voice was flat.

"I've already had too much. I'm taking the next watch." she announced more loudly, unfurling her wings in readiness and easing them across her sides to give them a good stretch.

Twilight wanted to protest that she needed more rest, but stopped herself, and glanced at Aragorn. As co-leader, he technically had the right to order Rainbow Dash to stand down, but the ranger seemed to hesitate. After more or less crying herself to sleep, Rainbow Dash had gotten more rest than the others since this afternoon, and Aragorn himself hadn't slept much at all. The others were in great need of it, too.

On the other hoof, Rainbow Dash had been the one in most need of rest - that much had been clear during her nervous breakdown earlier. Compassion demanded one path of action, logic another.

The ranger simply nodded in response.

"So be it. But if you feel the slightest need for more rest, Rainbow, wake someone to take your place."

"Wake me." Twilight offered. "It's only fair. I've probably had far too much sleep as well. Might as well make myself useful."

That having been decided, the others settled down once more in the dying glow of the fire. Curiously, it seemed to generate as much warmth as a full-on fire, and Twilight found herself grateful for its heat, shivering slightly as a cold wind blew around the plains. Looking above, she noticed something strange; the branches of the trees behind them were waving around slightly, even though the wind had died down. One tree in particular seemed to be...stretching its branches?

She nudged Rainbow Dash, before gesturing upward.

"Look," she whispered. "The trees are behaving oddly. It's almost as if they're enjoying the fire as well."

It certainly seemed to be the case; the wind was gone for now, yet the branches and leaves gently moved as though a breeze was riffling through them, and all of them in the direction of their small fire. Twilight absently wondered at the marvel of thinking trees. All in all, she thought, her life was pretty interesting, even though it had its downsides, like a few near death experiences in some of their more dangerous adventures. But at least it was exciting. She thought of all the ponies in her world who had no idea that all of this, different worlds, new intelligent life, thinking trees, even existed. Reflecting on that, and realizing that she and her friends were actually probably the only ones to know about the wonder of Middle-Earth, she suddenly felt very special, and incredibly lucky.

"Do you ever wonder about how we're going to go home?" she asked Rainbow Dash after a few minutes. The others were mostly asleep by then, there was no arguing with exhaustion, and her question hadn't been loud enough to wake anyone.

Her friend didn't answer for a few moments.


Twilight looked at her, surprised. "What? Why not?"

Rainbow Dash shrugged slightly.

"Right now, nothing to me seems more important than finding Flutters and getting her back safely. And before that, it was all about helping Frodo, not what happened afterwards. And before that it was all about finding a place to stay, not figuring out a way of getting back. I know it's unfair, I know it's incredibly selfish, but that's how it was, and currently is."

That was the most Twilight had heard her friend say in days, and her words hit her like cold sponges. She wasn't hurt, not exactly. She just... didn't understand.

And then as she mulled over the words, a realization hit her.

"Rainbow, you... You don't think you'll die here, do you?"

Her silence was answer enough. Twilight scoffed as quietly as she could.

"But that... that's..."

"Entirely possible? Likely? What happens in a war? Yes."

"I was going to say, 'so unlike you'. And Fluttershy too, come to that."

"She knows I feel like that. She does as well."

If Twilight had been drinking something, she would've given a marvelous demonstration of a fountain producing a fine mist.

"What? Hang on, this is the same Fluttershy we're talking about, right?"

Rainbow Dash sighed, and for the first time she turned her head to look at her. Her expression was softer than anything she'd seen on her these days.

"Twi', you have to realize we've done this before." she said gently. "Saving a kingdom - or retaking it, whatever; in our case it was both - was what we did throughout our adventures. It marked us for life. And we didn't come entirely clean of it, either. We all nearly lost our lives several times, and that was in the Everfree Forest. I thought I'd seen the worst of what dark creatures could throw at us, but I was entirely, dangerously wrong. Since we arrived here we've seen Nazgul, orcs, uruk-hai, cave trolls; we even seen a Balrog, which I gather isn't common occurrence even in this world, and it killed Gandalf. This world, this whole world is like... Like a much, much darker version of the Everfree Forest."

She sighed again and looked up at the stars. Twilight listened in silence.

"The point is, neither you nor us expect to survive this war. We have experience with conflicts, sure, but nothing on a scale like this! It's almost a world-wide war, and all we dealt with in our adventures were small-scale conflicts. We had honorable Royal Guard knights, powerful artifacts, the best rulers, and the love and support of the ponies we swore to protect. It was nothing like this. Sombra and Tirek, the two worst of the worst that Equestria had to offer, they don't hold a candle to what Sauron's throwing at us."

She fell silent. Twilight felt like several windows in her friend's personality had just opened, allowing her to see and understand far more than she usually did.

"These people," Rainbow Dash continued, gesturing at their sleeping non-Equestrian companions, "are the best the kingdoms could gather to save the world, and from what I've seen, I agree with the choice completely. I think it was the right thing to swear to protect Frodo, to help him destroy the Ring. But I also think we seriously misjudged the whole situation, Twilight. It wasn't just a matter of feeling brave or in need of an adventure - or even in need of a tour around the country to find a way home," she said with a small, knowing smile directed at her. "For our new friends it was a decision that shaped their lives, their fate, their world. For us, it was a matter of finding a way home, and helping a friend almost entirely because the two things happened to run parallel to one another."

Twilight absorbed all this in continued silence, and found that in spite of the self-righteous whispers in her mind that they were doing the noble, honorable thing, she couldn't help but agree. Every single of one Rainbow Dash's words was true, and for once she allowed herself to see that. Still, she felt obliged to argue, and there was one thing Rainbow Dash had said she just couldn't agree with in the slightest.

"But if you girls think you won't make it, then what do you think it'll be like for me?"

She knew she probably sounded selfish, but it was the only thing she could think of.

"Or Spike, for that matter? We have no experience at fighting wars whatsoever, and I've made some pretty serious mistakes since we became friends; like the time I wound up brainwashing Ponyville over a homework assignment. Rainbow, all of us are fighters in our own right, pressed into service by circumstance beyond our control, and you've dealt with pretty complicated pride issues during our adventures."

Rainbow Dash cracked a smile at that, but still shook her head.

"Pride," she scoffed slightly, "what good is pride when you're fighting orcs and evil wizards that eclipse everything you've seen before?"

Twilight sat up, scowling, as crossed her front hooves.

"Probably," she muttered. "I might've been able to reject the ring, but I've still got traces of that wicked influence echoing around in my head like a lingering bad odor. Whenever I drop my guard I can practically feel it mocking me for not being able to help Fluttershy and the others. The amount of sense it's making is really uncomfortable at times."

Twilight rolled her eyes. She took Rainbow Dash's hoof firmly and wiggled around so that she sat directly opposite her.

"I want you to promise me something. I want you to ignore the ring, and just stay yourself. It doesn't matter how many friends you may feel the urge to save, or the amount of orcs you feel the absolute need to pulverize, I want you to keep thinking like yourself. I want my friend to stay the way I know she is, and not let a few shrieking black ghosts mollify her opinion of herself or her friends. Can you do that for me?"

Rainbow Dash's eyes were boring into hers, as though they were assessing just how much she meant her words.

"I never would have spoken to Aragorn like that," she said at last.

Twilight resisted the urge to roll her eyes again.

"Well, then, in the morning, go up to him and go like, you know, how you normally do,Hey, man, I'm really sorry about yesterday. I was way beyond my physical capabilities and literally did not mean anything I said. You're a great leader, and everyone here loves you."

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow, and Twilight giggled.

"Okay, maybe not that last bit, 'cause there's always a chance he'll take it the wrong way. But do the other stuff, Rainbow. I know you can, and what's more, you know it too."

Rainbow Dash shook her head, but it was a gesture of amused helplessness. She sighed and rubbed her eyes with the heel of her free hoof. With the other one, she squeezed Twilight's.

"Okay. I promise I won't have any more morbid thoughts about our friends and I, and I promise to tell the ring to shove its stupid whispering where the light doesn't shine."

Twilight grinned, and clapped her wither.

"That's my girl! Egh, no. That sounded wrong. Um... I mean, yeah, great! Good on you!"

Rainbow Dash chuckled slightly, and Twilight joined in. It was colder now, the fire having almost completely died down. Rainbow Dash drew her close with her wing, and they leaned against a few of the packs, looking at the stars.

"I think about her all the time, you know," Rainbow Dash told her after a while.

"I know," Twilight answered softly. "You're each other's best friend. It's normal."

Rainbow Dash chortled.

"Well 'Normal' really isn't the word I'd use to describe our friendship. But, yeah. I suppose it is to be expected. It's just..." she shivered a bit. "I can't bear thinking about what she must have endured with those uruks. They were the most disgusting, brutal creatures I'd ever seen - and I've fought changelings. Earlier today... The things that I did say, the things that I wanted to say..." she shuddered "- I know I don't really have an excuse, but it was such torture to think of her, soiled, broken, dead even. I couldn't face it. And I lost it."

Twilight felt Rainbow Dash's chest heave as she took a deep breath, and she did her best not to notice the tell-tale signs that she was crying again. She could only offer warmth, presence, and what little comfort she could give from the first two.

The things that Rainbow Dash had managed to get out during her breakdown, intermingled as she bawled in exhaustion, had certainly been some heinous things under the wrong context; things she never would've expected to come pouring out of her friend. But after what they'd experienced the past three days, it was understandable, and forgivable.

"I know. We all know. You pushed yourself harder than anyone in the past three days. Even Aragorn doesn't hold what you said against you. I have a feeling he knows what grief and worry can be like."

Rainbow Dash considered this for a moment and nodded.

"I imagine he and Arwen must feel like that every time they separate. I heard Elrond say once that he would only give his daughter in marriage to him if he became King of Gondor and Arnor."

Twilight winced. "That's a bit harsh," she mumbled. "I never thought of Elrond as the materialist type."

"I think it has more to do with him wanting only the best for his daughter," Rainbow Dash said wisely. "If Aragorn does become King - scratch that, when he becomes King - and Arwen chooses to marry him, then it means she'll have to give up her immortality. Elrond is scared of losing her, so he wants to make sure he does everything he can for her while he can."

Twilight was stunned. How on Equestria did Rainbow Dash know all this? Her friend grinned, sensing her bemusement.

"We stayed in Rivendell for nearly a month while waiting for Frodo and Fluttershy to recover. Rarity made plenty of friends with the maids, and I may have learned a few things during their gossip sessions."

Twilight snorted. She knew Rarity to be a gossip at heart, however much she denied it. "Figures."

"Alright. That's enough talking for now. I need to get back to keeping watch, and you need to get some more rest," Rainbow Dash stated.

Twilight shook her head in response. "With Saruman possible trolling us, I'm not about to leave you all alone in the dark. I'll stay up and help you keep watch, and I even know a few monitoring spells that'll help with that. With them we'll have an advanced notice if anything in our camp area is out of the ordinary. We'll be able to know if an ant so much as farts."

For the first time in nearly a week, Rainbow Dash gave an honest to goodness laugh in response.

"That's probably way more information than we need, Twi'," she managed to reply as she settled down once again. "But other than that, yeah, that's a good idea. That way Saruman can't sneak in when I'm blinking."

Twilight nodded in agreement, already working on figuring out not only what spells to put in place, but also how to calibrate them for best results. Being able to know what was a mile away from them would certainly give them an early warning, but if it detected the leaves rustling and warned them of that, they'd quickly grow tired of such, and potentially dismiss a vital warning.

Once all that was done, however, she had other plans in mind; plans in the event they had to confront Saruman out here. Based on what she knew, it wasn't going to be easy for any of them; but out of all of them, mostly for Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Unlike the rest of them, they had no weapons to fight with other than their own physical prowess and skill. Against orcs and such that might be sufficient, but against the likes of the white wizard? She shook her head, knowing that it would never be enough. So she was going to do something about that right now.

And seeing as she'd been involved in the creation of these mithril horseshoes since the very beginning, she had a particular idea in mind of just what to do...

The next morning -which actually was only about five hours later- the Fellowship rose and prepared to finally enter Fangorn in search of their companions. Before they left, Rainbow Dash braced herself and formally apologized to Aragorn, and then to Legolas, for everything she had said and done the day before. Man and Elf both graciously accepted her apologies, and assured her they had indeed not held her words against her, knowing that only frustration and grief had spoken.

After a quick breakfast of lembas, dried fruit and water that was for once cold after the chilly night, they set off amongst the twisted and gnarled trees of the forest.

The agreed course of action was to follow the tracks of their companions for as long as possible, at which point they would essentially "make it up as they went along" as Twilight had so eloquently put it.

So they entered the forest of Fangorn, picking their way across gnarled roots, brambles, inconveniently-leveled branches, various snarled twigs, and numerous other hazards in their way. Aragorn and Applejack went first so they could spot any tracks or signs of digression before anyone accidentally stepped on them, closely followed by Legolas.

The air under the trees was so close and still, Twilight honestly felt afraid to breathe, lest she should disturb it. When she inhaled, the air was warm and dry, slightly tainted by the smell of dust and forest ground. Very earthy, but not particularly pleasant for actually breathing.

The further they ventured into Fangorn, the more sporadic became the tracks of their three friends. The lack of penetrating sunlight only added to the forest's already dark and foreboding interior. As the nine entered a moderate sized clearing, Aragorn suggested they spread out to investigate it further. Applejack soon halted when she noticed two large and unusual tracks on the ground. Tracks that reminded her of starfish... but she knew starfish didn't tend to have seven appendages.

"Are these troll tracks, Aragorn?" Applejack asked.

Aragorn walked over and crouched down alongside Applejack. Aragorn's eyes widened at the apple farmer's find.

"These are strange tracks," Aragorn observed to Applejack and himself. "Though I can assure you, Applejack, they weren't made by any troll. Although I have no idea what did make them."

The other members of the Fellowship stood a few paces away.

"I wouldn't have thought Fangorn to be this humid," Boromir commented to them.

"The air is so close in here," Gimli concurred.

"I don't know what that means, but I'll agree with it," Rainbow Dash replied.

"This forest is old, very old," Legolas observed. The Elf seemed to slip into a similar monologue as he did in Lothlorien when describing the surrounding environment. "Full of memory... and anger..."

Legolas had no sooner said these words than a large wooden groan reverberated around the surrounding trees. Gimli, Boromir and Rainbow Dash instinctively taking a defensive position at the threatening sound.

"The trees are speaking to each other!" Legolas exclaimed before noticing the trio's reaction.

Fangorn's response to its latest intruders had also drawn the attention of the Fellowship's Co-Leaders. Like with the Rohirrim, Aragorn felt discretion was the better part of valour. He immediately addressed those of the Fellowship in fighting stance.

"Ladies and Gentlemen!" Aragorn swiftly grabbed their attention before moving his arm in a downward direction. "Lower your weapons."

As they obeyed Aragorn's command, Legolas further enlightened his companions about the forest around them.

"They have feelings my friends," he referred to the surrounds. "The Elves began it; waking up the trees, teaching them to speak."

"I'm sorry, Legolas," a confused Rarity interrupted. "How could trees even understand what your people said to them, let alone learn how to talk?"

Twilight, was far less unsettled about Fangorn being sentient, as she was too busy being amazed by the idea.

"You shouldn't think all trees to be like Equestria's, Rarity," she spoke up. "Let's not forget about the Tree of Harmony, from which we got the Elements of Harmony. There was a theory that the Tree of Harmony is sentient enough to possibly communicate with speech. And to the best of my knowledge, that theory has yet to be proven as false. Granted it hasn't been proven as anything just yet, but still."

Boromir picked up on the theme by gesturing to the symbol embossed on one of the pair of leather vambraces he wore. "In Gondor, we're proud that our national emblem is the White Tree of Numenor - just like the six pointed star appears to be for Equestria."

"I guess I can see your point," Rarity conceded after absorbing this.

"I myself cannot," Gimli stubbornly insisted. "What do trees have to talk about? Except for the frequency of the rainfall, and perhaps the consistency of squirrel droppings?"

The Fellowship exchanged a short chuckle at Gimli's remark, before Twilight continued discussing national symbols.

"Equestria has stars on its flag," she began correcting Boromir's assumption. "But a star isn't our national emblem."

"What is it then?" a curious Boromir asked.

Before Twilight could answer, Legolas hurriedly spoke in Sindarin to Aragorn with a worried tone in his voice. Aragorn whispered in Sindarin in response. And the response chilled Twilight to her bones.

"What do the pair of you speak of?" Rarity asked, both confused and concerned.

"It's Saruman, he's here!" Twilight stated as she verged on panic.

"Saruman!" Boromir exclaimed in quiet alarm.

"Don't let him know we've seen him," Twilight told the Fellowship. "Where is he, Legolas?"

"Behind that large boulder just to our right," the Elf replied.

This was a very, very bad turn of events, Twilight noted to herself. She hadn't had time to elaborate on what her initial plans had been to the others, so there was no way of giving them a proper briefing. This was going to require what was ultimately Plan B, which she hadn't yet formulated! She was going to need to think quick on this one.

The Fellowship began to surreptitiously draw their weapons in response.

"Do not let him speak," Aragorn warned the group. "Or he will put a spell on us."

"He can try," Rainbow Dash claimed in proud defiance. "I'll have his jaw broken and dislocated before he even gets the first syllable pronounced. That's no way he can keep up with my speed!"

"The rest of us don't have that luxury, Rainbow," Boromir edgily pointed out.

"We must be quick," Aragorn insisted.

"Nono, everyone behind me! Hurry!" Twilight stated anxiously. "Without Gandalf, I'm the only one here that actually has a chance of stopping Saruman. The opening salvo has to be mine," she stated as her wings twitched, her mind racing far faster than a mile a minute as a proverbial hornet's nest buzzed in her head. Various ideas were being formulated, pieced together in chains, only to be discarded as new approaches were organized. "Behind me, hurry! I don't want anyone in the way when this goes off!"

The others looked at once another in uncertainly at Twilight's words, but a silent nod from Applejack indicated that she believed it to be the right course of action. Without word they fell behind Twilight, waiting to see what course of action she had in mind for dealing with their foe.

Twilight, meanwhile, was just about hyperventilating with worry. What she had in mind currently, she hadn't been able to test out before, leaving a large margin of error to be risked. It was entirely based on something she remembered Princess Luna telling her about quite some time ago, but right now she simply couldn't think of anything else. Swallowing anxiously, and trying not to scream in blind panic, she flared her wings, holding the parallel with the ground, before angling them forward at just past a ninety degree angle, as a glow began to emanate from not only her horn, but also all of the tips of her primary feathers; what she had of them anyway.

She could do this, she told herself as she tried to stabilize not only her breathing, but also her aim. She could do this. She could do this. She could do this...

Without warning Saruman had appeared, charging into the clearing, and surrounded by a blinding white glow that completely obscured him from view, while simultaneously blinding the lot of them.

"Saruman!" Twilight bellowed in the Sindarin language. "Eat this!"

All at once the glow erupted into dozens -no, hundreds!- of magical bolts discharging in a rapidly repeating pattern, slamming into Saruman's position, and everything around him! The others had no idea just how strong the blasts really were, but they must've been packing quite the punch. The numerous bolts that weren't making contact with his body, were instead making contact with the trees, rocks, and even ground beyond and around him, knocking the bark right off the trunks as they struck close to the edge, while making holes in the trunks of trees if they struck directly.

None of the Fellowship had any idea what such a technique was called, but it was absolutely awesome to witness!

"Yeah! Give it to him, Twi', show 'im who's boss!" Applejack shouted in excitement.

The demonstration of unrestrained Alicorn power was magnificent to those that were present to witness it. But even with all of its magnificence, it soon became apparent that it was having no effect on Saruman. Though his advance was halted by the barrage, he had summoned a shimmering barrier to protect him against the numerous projectiles, which merely bounced off of its surface as easily as a pebble would against a mountain.

The fact that she'd been so easily no sold just like that, was enough to cause Twilight's attack to stop as her jaw dropped in disbelief. Had she been able to find her voice, she would be cursing in multiple languages right now. But she couldn't get out more than an unintelligible squeak at the moment.

"Screw it, we're on our own," Rainbow Dash commented, realizing that if Twilight couldn't do anything against Saruman, they were on their own. "Break!"

She flew forward fast. As fast as she possibly could. She crossed the distance between them in the span it would take others to process what was going on, and she swung her right hind leg forward with all of her might, intent on making good on her promise of stopping the white wizard from being able to speak even a single word of whatever magic he'd be weaving against them.

But it simply wasn't meant to be. She met no shimmering barricade like last time, but rather was parried by Saruman's staff, and swept aside as easily as trash, being flung into a tree in the process as if it was nothing at all.

Undeterred, Rarity and Legolas were quick to unleash a barrage of arrows, joined by Gimli throwing an axe, and Pinkie hurling the largest rock she could get her hooves on.

But it was all for naught. What didn't burst into flames and turn into ash, simply broke apart before it ever got close to touching Saruman. Even Boromir and Aragorn could do nothing, as they found the hilts of the swords burning like fire in their hands, and were forced to drop them.

"You are tracking the footsteps of a Pegasus, and two young hobbits," the White Wizard said matter-of-fact in a deep baritone voice.

All in the Fellowship were unnerved that their friends were now in Saruman's keeping. Particularly given his likely interest in Fluttershy, and what he would undoubtedly do to her in Isengard.

"Where are they?" Aragorn desperately wanted to know.

"They passed this way recently," the wizard replied.

Maybe she was mishearing things, but Twilight was sure the sound of the wizard's voice was actually changing.

'Saruman' seemed to have an almost cheerful demeanour as he spoke further. "They met someone they did not expect. Does that comfort you?"

Twilight's eyes widened when she realized why the voice seemed so familiar. But it was an impossibility, it had to be! Saruman was supposed to be a master of trickery, that had to be the reason why!

"If you want to comfort us, Saruman, then speak where our friends are, so that we might reunite with them!" Boromir firmly demanded.

Through the blinding white light, the wizard seemed to give a knowing smile in response to Boromir.

"Who are you?" Aragorn asked.

Still smarting at how she'd been bested a few moments ago, Rainbow Dash was, understandable, not in the mood for any games right now. "Show your ugly face, Saruman! Tell us what we wanna know, or so help me, by Celestia's mane, name, and everything in between we'll make you talk!" she practically shrieked.

The wizard passed his staff from his left to right hand, an action that dispelled the light surrounding him. The Fellowship finally beheld the White Wizard's face and appearance, and they were shocked by what they saw.

Aragorn spoke for the whole group gasping. "It cannot be!"

"Oh, come on!"

Twilight marched up in the front of the group, eyes narrowing at the wizard.

"You've got some nerve, mocking us with that disguise!" she shouted angrily.

To simply be having fun at their expense, and letting them know he could reach them at his leisure was bad enough. But to do it while actually wearing the visage of Gandalf just added insult to injury. He had gone one step beyond the necessary evil of being a villain, and into the realm of needlessly cruel. She was going to have none of that. As she stormed forward, her sword erupted to life, the entire surface shimmering as it matched her mood.

"Skulking about in a hat and cloak like that, that was just uncalled for! Take off that disguise, or so help me I'll rend it from your flesh!" she warned and raised her sword, venom lacking her words as she readied herself to unleash total fury upon him.

The figure stepped forward a little, and the white light dimmed completely. He really did look like Gandalf. Staring at his face made Twilight's heart wrench like a sponge being squeezed of any excess water, but she just scowled and glared at the wizard all the harder.

"You have not changed, Princess Twilight." he said, sounding amused.

By Celestia's sun, he even sounded like Gandalf!

"Thanks," Twilight answered automatically as if she was addressing an old friend. "Wait - what? Hey!..."

"But your friend is partly right," the doppelganger continued, looking at each of her companions in turn. "I am Saruman."

"Ha! See? I told y-"

"Or rather, Saruman as he should be."

Twilight faltered. There was something in the old man's eyes, his voice... A sliver of doubt started to make itself known, causing her resolve to falter.

"Hang on... what?"

The man-who-looked-like-Gandalf smiled at her. Legolas knelt, followed by Aragorn, Boromir and Gimli. The others stayed standing and just looked on confused.

"Forgive me," the elf implored. "I mistook you for Saruman."

Twilight was stumped. "But he just said he was..." She stopped, aware she was dangerously close to making a fool of herself. She settled for a safe question.

"Who are you?"

The man smiled again.

"I am the White Wizard, now. Saruman used to be me, but he has failed his duty and embraced the darkness. I have taken his place."

Ah. So not a safe question, as it happened. Twilight stared blankly at the wizard for a second, then realized her truth spell wasn't ringing. She let out an entirely loud gasp and clapped a hoof over her mouth, unable to believe the truth, impossible as it seemed, appeared clear as day.

"Gandalf..." she breathed.

The wizard looked a little taken aback, then thoughtful.

"Gandalf? Yes... that was what you used to call me." His eyes twinkled. "That was my name."

"Gandalf!" Gimli repeated for the sake of it, tears of joy gathering in his small eyes.

"Mithrandir," Legolas murmured, as though to himself.

"My word," Rarity replied breathlessly.

"But... but how!?" Pinkie asked, to which Applejack could only nod.

"We thought you were slain during your fight with the Balrog," stated Boromir who, until now, thought that Fluttershys' killing of the troll was the most astonishing thing he had ever seen one do.

"But... b-but you fell! I couldn't get to you in time!" Rainbow Dash protested. "How're you still alive?"

Gandalf's eyes focused on the darkness of Fangorn behind the Fellowship as he recounted to them what happened when he fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dum.

"I did fall. Through fire and water. We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair. From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.

"Darkness took me. And I strayed out of thought and time. Stars wheeled overhead and everyday was as long as a life-age of the earth. But it was not the end. I felt life in me again."

As if to demonstrate, Gandalf hopped down from the boulder and nimbly landed a few feet in front of the Fellowship. Gimli, Legolas, Boromir and Aragorn rose to their feet and joined the others in walking right up to Gandalf with barely restrained joy. Gandalf seemed unaware of all this as he gazed at the ground.

"I've been sent back, until my task is done," he told the Fellowship why he again stood among them. "And I come back to you now at the turn of the tide."

"Turn of the tide' my hoof," Applejack scoffed in good humour. "More like a tidal wave!"

Gandalf and the other Fellowship members had a good laugh at Applejack's observation.

"However you want to call my return, Miss Applejack, we must now leave this place," Gandalf said with a smile.

He turned to get a grey cloak that he had hidden behind the boulder. As Gandalf put it over his white robes, the Fellowship saw it was identical to the one that the Galadhrim had given them before they had left Lothlorien. They concluded the Fellowship weren't the first people that Gandalf had been in contact with since his return as the White Wizard.

"What do you mean, Gandalf?" queried Gimli about his suggestion.

"It means, Master Dwarf," Gandalf explained, "that one stage of your journey is over, another begins. We must ride to Edoras with all speed."

"Edoras?" Gimli repeated in surprise. "That is no short distance!"

"We hear of trouble in Rohan," Aragorn told Gandalf. "It goes ill with the king."

Gandalf grimly agreed. "Yes, and it will not be easily cured."

A perplexed Twilight saw that Gandalf, Aragorn and Legolas were beginning to walk southwards out of Fangorn.

"Whoa, wait a minute!" she sharply told them.

Seeing the trio had stopped and was now giving her their attention, Twilight sought to focus their attention on what she considered should be the Fellowship's priority.

"Words can't describe how happy I am you're back, Gandalf. And believe me, as soon as we have a quiet moment, you're going to be subject to a deluge of questions about your return," Twilight prefaced. "But we originally entered Fangorn to find Merry, Pippin and Fluttershy."

"We still don't know their whereabouts or their welfare," Rarity added.

Gandalf gave a soft smile before reassuring the five Equestrians; "The three of them are quite safe. I left them in the care of an old friend of mine who lives in Fangorn."

"You actually have a friend who lives out here in this mess?" Rainbow Dash asked, confused by the idea.

"I am a wizard, Rainbow Dash, I have many friends all over Middle-Earth," Gandalf replied.

Boromir did not doubt this, but still had a nagging doubt that needed resolving. "When I last saw Fluttershy, she'd been badly hurt. How is - "

"Fluttershy is recovering well, Boromir," Gandalf soothed the Gondorian's conscience. The White Wizard then gave Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash a strange look before continuing his statement. "In fact, I think Miss Fluttershy shall soon have a role to play in our journey in more ways than one."

Aragorn leaned towards Gandalf and observed to him. "In one thing you have not changed, dear friend."


"You still speak in riddles!"

After the pair shared a quiet but knowing laugh, Gandalf addressed the whole group. "It was more than mere chance that brought Merry, Pippin and Fluttershy to Fangorn. A great power had been sleeping here for many long years. Our friends' coming will be like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountain."

"An' we all know how that turned out," Applejack muttered, remembering the struggles on the mountain and Saruman forced them underground into the mines of Moria.

"Something is going to happen that has not happened since the Elder days as well as never before in Arda's history," Gandalf continued with an ineffable air around his words. "The Ents are going to fully waken... and find they are strong."

"What's an Ent?" Rarity asked.

"According to the book I got from Lady Galadriel, an Ent is to trees, what a shepherd is to sheep. Supposedly they keep the forests safe, as well as in check," Twilight explained. Although for it to be a proper explanation, she'd have to consult the tome again, as the passage had only been read in passing.

"They are that, and so much more," Gandalf stated. But now wasn't the time to engage in such a matter, as there were other tasks that laid ahead of them. And now that he thought about it, he couldn't help but imagine what Twilight and her friends would think when they were introduced to Shadowfax.

"Hey, Gandalf, hold up a minute, I need to ask something," Rainbow Dash called as she flew ahead of the wizard and intercepted his path. "The nameless things you were talking about earlier. I know you said you wouldn't talk about them, but... was Yba'sokug there?"

"Do you really think that to be the case?"

By now it was evident that the amount of trust Frodo was willing to invest in Gollum was... concerning. More willing to walk ahead and keep pace with the sinewy thing leading them through the swamp, through the supposed safe route to Mordor.

Sam and Spike, however, didn't. Despite knowing that they needed a guide, neither one of them was willing to just blindly follow Gollum on simple faith alone. They were suspicious of him, his motives, and everything else, and they were willing to stay that way too.

As present they were hanging back a fair distance that allowed them to talk in hushed whispers without alerting their companions, while also allowing them to actually keep an eye on them.

"I'm not gonna discount it as being a possibility," Spike replied as he trudged along. "Tell me it doesn't sound like it makes sense, with how much of himself Sauron put into the creation of the ring."

"I'll admit, it's certainly an interesting, albeit terrifying, theory to consider," Sam admitted, doing his best to stay on what served as dry ground. "I tell you, Spike, there are times I'm scared by how your mind works."

Spike wasn't sure if he should grin or not at that little comment.

"So you really think that smelly little bugger is a... what'd you call it?" Sam asked.

"A horcrux. Soul container, whatever you wanna call it. It's from some fantasy series Twilight discovered in another parallel world, but it's probably a real concept in some world where magic exists," Spike explained as he climbed atop a fallen log. "Gollum had the ring for, what, five hundred years? Who knows what could've happened in that time. Some of Sauron's soul could've bled off into him for all we know."

"... It certainly might explain a few things about him," Sam replied and smirked, uncertain of what else to do in light of such a terrifying theory. If it was indeed possible that Gollum carried a piece of Sauron's essence within him, then what would that mean for Frodo as he carried the ring along himself?

Spike was about to reply, but found himself interrupted by a strong gurgling in his gut, and a rising sensation up his throat. He turned away from Sam just in time to belch up a mess of green flames, and what they'd been bringing with them.

Paper. A whole stack of paper actually. And several feathers that could've only come from Twilight and Rainbow Dash. And a glass vile filled with a black substance that looked suspiciously like ink.

"What just happened?" Sam asked, still surprised by the jet of flames he'd just witnessed.

"Stationary," Spike explained as Frodo and Gollum were making their way back. "It looks like Twilight found a way to get in touch with us. Maybe it's an update on the others."

"Well that'd certainly been good. I was beginning to get worried." Sam stated.

Spike picked up the bundle of paper to thumb through it, looking for a letter from Twilight, but ultimately found nothing. It was just a stack of about a hundred sheets of blank paper, with nothing written anywhere. He was about to ask out loud what the deal was, but refrained when the stack started glowing.

All at once the pages flew from his claws, swept up in some undetected wind, all whirling about overhead in a veritable maelstrom of chaos, inner and outer layers moving in every which direction high above, and swooping down below as they fell into a disorganized clump.

No... no it wasn't a clump, there was a structure and order to them. As Spike and the others alternated between watching and hiding, they began to realize that a form was, well, forming in front of them, as the sheets twisted and folded by some unknown plans that were wholly alien in nature.

Just as soon as it had begun, the process had come to an end, leaving behind what looked like a horse-shaped statue. But upon closer inspection Spike realized that it wasn't horse-shaped, but rather Twilight-shaped, looking like a life sized, 3D polygon mesh rendering of her.

"What was that all about?" Frodo finally asked, unsure of whether to approach, or stay far away from what he was witnessing.

As the paper pony appeared to move under its own apparent power, he decided to stay back, Gollum right behind him.

"Twilight?" Spike finally asked, not sure of what else to do.

The paper pony turned its head in Spike's direction, and he could see outlines of what he could only assume were its eyes, as well as its mouth. And the mouth was currently smiling!

"Spike! Oh it's so good to see you, I've been so worried!" it spoke, perfectly conveying Twilight's voice in the process.

"Same," Spike replied, before deciding to get to the heart of the manner. "What's all this about?"

"Oh, right! There's big news on our end, Spike, and I just had to relay it back to you and the others," Twilight explained quickly. "First and foremost, Fluttershy and the others are safe. Gandalf reports that they're with friends of his."

"Gandalf!?" Spike, Sam and Frodo asked in almost perfect unison.

Twilight nodded enthusiastically. "I don't understand how it happened, but he survived the fall back in Moria. Not only that, but he's been promoted to being the new white wizard."

Frodo was overjoyed by this sudden news. Immediately one could tell his spirits lifted and his mood brightened, his burden of the ring temporarily forgotten about. He was so overjoyed he found it necessary to make it known, as he made his way over to where Sam stood, the two locking hands and jumping about in what could only be described as a dance.

Spike just shook his head and smiled, before turning back to face Twilight's paper form. "So does that mean you and the others are on your way to Mordor? Are we gonna meet up soon?" he asked.

"Um... not yet. Sorry. Gandalf says we need to head to the kingdom of Rohan to clear up a small issue there. But we should be able to meet up with you soon after that. I'd say no more than three or four days at the most, depending on how smoothly long-range group teleportation goes," Twilight explained. "We should even be able to procure some fresh supplies for the journey. Meat, fruit, vegetables, maybe even some quartz if they have any."

Spike was licking his lips at hearing this bit of good news. "That's great to hear."

"I'll say it is, I was getting tired of nothing but straight lembas bread!" Sam stated, practically laughing as the prospect of fresh food again.

"So why the paper pony approach?" Spike asked. The good news was exciting to receive and all, but once the excitement had started to wane, his mind immediately started going over various things that simply didn't make sense. "I mean, this could've just been covered in a letter, right? And for that matter, where'd you get all the paper anyway?"

"Well I had to make the paper myself from a downed tree, which really isn't as easy as it sounds. The ink was another matter, and the less said on that the better," Twilight explained, a frown crossing her paper features. "As to why this as opposed to a latter? Because I wanted to make sure you were all alright, and a letter can only do so much. So I decided to use one of Haycarte's more advanced spells and... well you get the idea. But now that I know you're alright, we can establish back and forth communication until we meet up again."

Before more could be said on the issue, the left foreleg of Twilight's paper form disintegrated into ash right where it stood. Even Twilight herself noticed this development and scowled as she looked down.

"Oh dear. I was afraid of that. I don't think the quality of paper can withstand the amount of magic needed to hold this form for very long. I'm unfortunately going to have to cut this meeting short."

Much as Spike didn't want to, he understood that he'd have to stop talking with Twilight. If the magic being used to keep the communication open was destroying the paper, he'd have no way of writing Twilight back.

"Alright then. I guess we'll see you when we see you," he replied and waved goodbye, thankful they'd been able to talk once again.

Twilight would've waved as well, but quickly realized that having only one leg to stand on made that difficult.

"Oh! Spike, before I forget, could I trouble you to send a few of your scales back to us?" she asked.

"My... scales?" Spike asked, confused.

Twilight nodded quickly. "Just in case. Sauron and Saruman have forces all over Middle-Earth, and if we wind up running into anymore of them along the way, having the polymorph spell and the ability to turn us all into dragons could be very beneficial," she explained.

Now it was Spike's turn to nod as he understood what Twilight was talking about. Considering he could take an arrow to the skull and just have it bounce off, they'd probably be better off if they could slip into similar physical characteristics if needed.

"Yeah, yeah I can do that. I'll send them right out," he replied.

Twilight smiled at this, just before her form came apart, sheets of paper fluttering to the ground, with some remaining intact while others crumbled to ash upon contact. It was disheartening for Spike to watch Twilight just disappear in such a manner, but her understood that she had little choice in the matter. He just... wished she could've stayed for a little longer. It'd been so long since he'd last heard her voice.

All throughout the display of magic that wasn't understood, Gollum observed from where he currently hid. All the while not liking it one bit. More would be coming in a matter of days. The Precious would have to be retrieved in short order by then, otherwise... the less thought on that, the better. It would simply be necessary to step up the plan somewhat, if the desired results were to be had.

The hobbits, they would be easy enough to deal with, there was certainly to that. But as for Spike... Master Dragon presented his own challenges that wouldn't be so easily overcome. That was going to require an entirely different approach. There would be much risk to be had in attempting such. But to have the Precious once again.

Yes. It could be done. Yes. It would be done...

Author's Note:

Sorry for the long wait... This chapter turned out to be longer than I thought. :twilightsheepish:

Now we are moving on to Rohan, finally. :twilightsmile: