• Published 31st Aug 2019
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Magic of the Heart - Pegasus Rescue Brigade

In the final installment of the "Shipping and Handling" trilogy, Ditzy and Dinky once again wind up in the center of one of the greatest trials Equestria has ever faced.

  • ...

Chapter 18

It was almost dawn. Clarity didn't like that.

Normally, it was Honeydew who was up at this hour, but Clarity knew her friend had spent most of the night awake with worry. Now that the pink filly had finally fallen into fitful slumber, she had no plans to wake her. If the colts were awake, they remained in their cabins, perhaps trying to convince themselves that everything was going to be okay.

Admittedly, Clarity was trying to convince herself of the same.

But the sun would be peeking over the horizon any minute, and yet the feral monstrosity that was all that remained of Dinky continued to thrash against its enchanted bonds. There was now less than an hour remaining; if Dinky didn't return to her vacated body soon, Scorpio's Apex would be too far gone, and the walls between realms once again would be impassible.

"Dinky, please," Clarity whispered, wiping a tear trailing down her cheek as she watched the faint, glimmering orange of the approaching sun reflect off the sea. "I don't know how any of us will go on if you don't come back. So please... please hurry..."

"Hello? Anypony?"

Nopony replied. Dinky wandered slowly through the Realm of Stars, calling out in hopes of encountering one of the other members of the Zodiac. But everything looked the same; stars and galaxies drifted lazily by, but no other features of the landscape changed, no matter how far she traveled. She didn't have any idea how to even begin to track down anypony who could help, and she knew the window of time she had to return home had nearly expired.

After their duel, Scorpio had fled in a flash of magic, determined not to give Dinky any opportunity to procure a precious piece of her tail. Naturally, she was around here somewhere as well, but Dinky knew the dark mage wouldn't allow herself to be found, at least until after it was too late to use the teleport anchor.

A sympathetic whimper caught her attention. She glanced down at Trouble, who padded along softly beside her. She'd nearly forgotten he was there; the fox had skulked along in her wake ever since Scorpio had abandoned them in the villa a few hours earlier.

"It's no use, Trouble," she said finally, sinking to her haunches and slowly stroking his head. "I guess you'll be happy at least; you and I are gonna be together forever now. Once Scorpio's Apex ends, it'll sever the ties between my body and mind, and I'll be stuck here for good.

Trouble stared up at her uncomprehendingly. He licked his chops once, then walked in a little circle and laid down beside her. Dinky continued to pet him; focusing on that was all she could do to hold back the despair that was creeping in.

"I just hope my friends can forgive me," she said hoarsely. "They were counting on me, and trusted me when I decided to go through with this plan... and I blew it. Clarity's going to be so mad at herself when she realizes it, but it's not her fault..."

Trouble made a low sound in his throat in response.

"And Pip," she continued. "Pip's been so patient with me. It's not every day a stallion's fillyfriend becomes a dark magical monster and somehow he doesn't break up with her. I wish I could tell him I'm sorry."

Trouble stood, but Dinky, lost in her reverie, didn't notice.

"Oh Celestia, and mom," she whispered. "She's gonna be crushed. She agreed to let us split up, and I promised her I'd be safe, but I've let her down too, and now I... um, Trouble?"

Trouble's body tensed. He stiffly took a step, stretched his neck out, gagged once or twice, and unceremoniously hacked up a slimy hairball at Dinky's hooves.

Dinky groaned. "Ew, Trouble, did you really have to—"

She stopped in the middle of her sentence as she got a better look at the glob deposited in front of her. The had a few stray orange fox hairs in it, sure, but it was mostly composed of longer strands of rich purple fur.

Dinky hardly dared to believe what she was seeing, but it made sense when she thought about it. She'd seen it herself; the mischievous fox was always chasing Scorpio's tail, constantly annoying her whenever he bit down on the end of it that dangled in the air.

"Trouble, is this part of Scorpio's tail!?"

Trouble yipped excitedly.

There was no time to lose. Drawing lines with the easily-molded starlight, Dinky drew the necessary runes and ritual circles, placing the still-soggy hairball at the center of the one where the portal was meant to form. The moment her creation was complete, she flooded it with dark magic, and the hairball reacted immediately, glowing as a hazy, veiled portal appeared in space above it. It was impossible to clearly see what was on the other side of the rift, but Dinky could make out what was presumably pale blue sky up above, and a solid brown surface below.

"The deck of the ship!" she cheered, causing Trouble to yip once again and jump up, sharing in her excitement. "How hold on, let's just angle it a little lower..."

The view moved slightly, and a large black-and-purple mass came into view. Despite the lack of detail, Dinky knew what it was instantly.

"My body!" she gasped. "Trouble, you saved me again! I wish I could bring you back with me, but... well, I'm afraid there's no body for you to go back to."

Trouble wagged his tail and looked at Dinky expectantly. Smiling, she patted him on the head.

"I probably won't see you again, old friend," she confessed, her tone bittersweet. "At least this time I got to thank you for what you did and say a proper goodbye. You're a hero, whether you know it or not, for helping to seal Scorpio in here. I'll never forget you, and I know my friends won't, either."

Trouble sniffed at Dinky's foreleg and gave it a single affectionate lick. Then he glanced at the portal and back to her, wagging his tail.

Dinky smiled and patted the loyal fox a final time. "So long, Trouble," she said softly as she took a step forward.

"Yip! Yip!" Trouble replied. It didn't sound like the fox's usual playful bark, which struck Dinky as a bit odd.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough of a warning.

Dinky lifted a leg to step through the gateway, but found it held back. Surprised, she glanced down to find her foreleg snared by a black thread, shockingly strong for how thin it was. Before she could react, more and more threads suddenly lashed out from the abyss around her, catching around her legs, her body, her neck, even her horn. She cried out and struggled against them, but after a moment or two, all of them suddenly pulled taut, immobilizing Dinky completely.

"W-what... is this..." she grunted, struggling to even open her jaw wide enough to speak.

There was movement to Dinky's left. She glanced over— her eyes were the only part of her body that could still move freely— and discovered Scorpio standing beside her. The mare gazed at the blurry rift with curiosity.

"Now I see what you've done, little wraith," she chuckled, swaying her tail a bit so Dinky could clearly see that the other end of all the binding threads were attached to its tip. "You disconnected your consciousness from your body before using your teleport anchor, so you could dodge this realm's tendency to destroy any physical matter. That's actually quite smart. I commend you."

Dinky couldn't even attempt to lash out. The power the threads had over her was absolute; she was like a marionette, powerless to move unless Scorpio allowed it. Even her magic was sealed, try though she might to bring a spell into her horn. Trouble gnawed angrily at the threads, but his efforts made no difference.

"In spite of my compliments, I can't help but notice one small problem with your plan to return home," Scorpio continued, almost casually. "What you've done here is open a portal to Equestria, and leave a perfectly acceptable wraith body on the other side. I seem to recall that exact same situation a few years back, on the night of my resurrection; a portal for me to exit, and Antares' body for me to break down so I could rebuild my own. The only difference, my dear, is this time, the wraith body I'll be consuming to rebuild my own... is yours."

"N-no!" Dinky choked out, trying to create even the tiniest bit of movement in her limbs. Yet she remained motionless, her gaze locked on the portal just a pony length away from her.

Scorpio's tail lit up, and the threads began to pulse with energy. Dinky immediately began to feel weak and dizzy, and realized in horror that Scorpio was draining her energy away.

"Wh-what are you doing?" she slurred.

"It's not quite so easy for me to steal your body, since you're still technically tethered to it," Scorpio explained. "If I drain away all your magic, though, the link will become weak enough for me to break apart, and then your vacated wraith form will be mine for the taking."

Scorpio surrounded herself with the strange cloak of darkness she'd used at the end of the duel, and once again, the ethereal covering seemed to move with its owner, obeying her will instead of just trailing off into the air. The mare jabbed a foreleg toward the portal, and the darkness surrounding her extended out from her hoof, a smoky grey tendril that was able to pass through the portal and reach toward the imprisoned wraith sealed by Dinky's enchantments.

"I have to thank you, Dinky," she crooned, as the tendril began to wrap around the feral creature beyond the rift. "I was quite sure my last chance for resurrection had passed, but you've gone and created an opportunity I could never have dreamed of! Won't your so-called friends be surprised when the portal meant to return their companion to them instead releases the master of darkness!"

The tendril secured Dinky's body, and began to lift it into the air. It snarled and flailed about, but was unable to escape. Dinky watched helplessly as it was drawn toward the portal. She tried to focus, but it was a struggle to remain lucid when all her power was being sapped by Scorpio's threads.

"In a few moments, you'll be too weak to remain attached to your body," Scorpio said coldly. "It seems this is where we part ways, Dinky Doo. And this time, insolent child, we will not meet again."

Far in the distance, there was a glimmer of light. A golden arrow pierced through the starry expanse at lightning speed and struck Scorpio in the back. The instant it made contact, a great glowing chain materialized along its flight path, linking Scorpio back to the arrow's origin. Before Scorpio could move, the chain was pulled tight, yanking the dark mage away from the portal. Dinky's body, freed of the tendril of smoke, fell back to the sealing circle on the ship's deck.

Scorpio wheeled around furiously. Dinky, still immobilized, was unable to do the same, but she had a pretty good idea where the arrow had come from.

"Sagittarius! Must you meddle in everything I do?" Scorpio barked.

"Release the young one," Sagittarius commanded. "You won't get free of this place again. Not after all we've sacrificed to keep you here."

"Hah!" Scorpio cackled. "Your puny enchantments can't hold me back alone. My power far exceeds yours!"

"That's true," Sagittarius replied. "Fortunately, that arrow contained much more than one enchantment."

Scorpio cried out as no less than ten more chains, each with a different aura color, materialized around her, each one extending out into the darkness at a different angle. Dinky felt the dark threads binding her weaken enough that she was able to turn her head.

One by one, more ponies appeared in the endless expanse. They came in various sizes in colors, and some sported curious animal features; ram's horns, a lion's mane, crab claws, and more. Sagittarius became one eleven ponies, each holding Scorpio back with a shimmering chain.

"The Zodiac!" Dinky gasped, staring at them all in wonder.

"Young Dinky, listen to us!" Aquarius cried. "We've secured Scorpio and restricted her powers, but the corrupting nature of her magic will soon weaken the chains. You must act fast!"

"Free yourself now, while you have a chance, and return to your realm as fast as you can!" Pisces added.

"I can't!" Dinky called weakly. "I'm trapped by her spell, and she's weakened me so much I can hardly move..."

"Your form may be bound, but as long as we hold Scorpio's spells in check, your magic is not!" the Gemini twins declared in unison. "You must find the strength to free yourself!"

Scorpio cried out in fury. Her bindings prevented her magic from reaching the tip of her tail, but it was already beginning to spread along the chains, causing an effect that looked a lot like rust.

Dinky managed to light her horn, though its glow was feeble. I can hardly even summon my magic... she thought desperately. What spell could free me from Scorpio's grasp?

Trouble yipped angrily, jumping up and trying to bite at the threads attached to her horn. Dinky watched for a moment as a realization began to dawn on her.

Wait. These threads... they're just like the thread that connected my horn to Scorpio's tail, that she used to flood my pony body with darkness and turn me into a wraith in the first place. If magic can flow through them either way, maybe all I need to do is take my power back!

With great effort, Dinky managed to bring a bit of dark magic into her horn. Scorpio thrashed furiously against the chains as the weakened wraith began to siphon power through them.

"No!" the villain screamed. "I will not let you turn this around! Not when you've practically handed me a ticket to freedom!"

Dinky heard a crack. One of the links in Capricorn's chain was beginning to break, and several others were rusting at an alarming rate.

"We can't hold her back much longer!" Leo roared. "Use your power to break the threads and flee, young one!"

"I'm trying!" Dinky replied, as the last of her energy was returned to her. She could move again, but the threads refused to snap. She flailed back and forth, but only became more entangled. "I can't break them; even at my full strength, my power is nothing compared to hers!"

There was a loud, metallic clang; the damaged link of Capricorn's chain snapped, causing the rest of the chain to fade back into stardust. Several other chains began to creak and grind under the increased strain.

"Keep trying!" Sagittarius urged. "Don't give up, Dinky! You must escape before she does!"

Dinky thought quickly. Her strength wasn't enough to escape on her own, and through Trouble was still trying to aid her, his effect on her situation was virtually nil.

Then, one last desperate idea occurred to her.

The threads have linked my magic with Scorpio's. If the Zodiac's bindings stopped her spellcasting so completely that I was able to take my power back... maybe I can steal some of hers too!

Dinky let her siphoning spell probe deeper into the connection between them, extending past the energy in Scorpio's tail and into the core of the mare's being. She quickly sensed an unfathomably vast store of dark magic; one that made her own seem pitifully small. It would've taken hours to absorb all of it, and she wasn't even certain she'd physically be able to handle wielding that much magic, but nevertheless, she began funneling it into her horn as quickly as she could.

Judging by the look of absolute outrage on Scorpio's face, she'd felt what was happening immediately. "Thieving vermin!" she shrieked, the power of her voice sending vibrations along all the remaining chains. "How dare you! I created you, and you have the gall to pilfer more of the perfect darkness that you emerged from!? I will erase you from this and every plane when I get free, you little monstrosity!"

Dinky didn't even need to try to block out Scorpio's words; the sensation that was overcoming her commanded much more of her attention then the yelling of her adversary anyway. Darkness, deeper and purer and more deadly than any she'd ever produced cascaded through her horn and into her body, filling her with strength and energy like she'd never felt before.

Several more metallic clangs, and the startled cries of several members of the Zodiac, indicated to Dinky that several more chains had broken. Scorpio regained some basic movement, and slowly took a halting step forward, dragging her fellow Zodiac along behind her.

"Dinky, you have only moments!" Virgo wailed, as her chain was sheared apart as well.

Dinky had only stolen a few percent of Scorpio's full power, but it made all the difference. With a forceful lurch, she managed to stagger forward, snapping most of the threads binding her to her opponent. The portal was only a step or two away.

"You're not getting away!" Scorpio bellowed, summoning all her strength and taking a few more slow steps.

Free of most of her bindings, and brimming with stolen energy, Dinky felt a surge of hope and confidence. "That's what you think!" she shot back, jerking her limbs and snapping more of the threads. "Enjoy eternity, Scorpio! I'm outta here."

Scorpio roared and threw herself forward, destroying all but one of the glowing chains. Though she still couldn't move forward freely, she regained control of her magic, and a loud crackling signaled to Dinky that a powerful spell was about to be aimed at her.

"De-materializing you for a few moments is all it will take to pass through the portal before you," she said haughtily. "You nearly succeeded, you pathetic worm, but nopony can escape me forever!"

With just two or three threads holding her back, and her nose inches from the portal, Dinky strained to move forward, but she knew she wouldn't be fast enough. In less than a second, an attack would rip through her and give Scorpio the opening she needed.

"Yip Yip!"

Trouble leapt up and bit down on Scorpio's tail weighing it down just enough that the spell's angle was changed by a few degrees. The bolt of darkness sailed barely over Dinky's head, disrupting a bit of her starry mane.

"Oh you little—" Scorpio began as Dinky broke free of the last few threads.

"Go!" Sagittarius cried, as the final chain began to crumble. "Go now!"

Dinky cast the briefest of grateful glances back, locking eyes with the fox still hanging by his teeth from Scorpio's tail. With a smirk she turned to go.

"That's twice you've saved my life now, Trouble!" she called as she leapt into the rift. "Thanks again old friend!"

With one last furious cry from Scorpio echoing behind her, Dinky tumbled through the portal, and across dimensions, back to the world she knew.

Dinky had expected to wake up slowly, as she had in the Realm of Stars. She figured it would take some time for her mind to adjust to once again jumping between realities.

Instead, she was forcefully jerked back into consciousness, as she was waylaid with all the feelings of a living body returning to her at once. Hunger, fatigue, soreness, and a long list of other sensations gripped her, sensations she hadn't even realized were gone until they returned all at once. She took a gasping breath, realizing it was the first breath she'd taken in the last day, and opened her eyes.

Her second experience was much less familiar. As she began to become accustomed to once again having physical senses, a new feeling she hadn't also began to become apparent, one that was less routine than hunger or tiredness. She'd become very used to the feeling of dark magic swirling inside her over the past few years, but suddenly, it felt quite different than before. She was reminded of the surge of energy that had forced her into her wraith form when she'd touched the bit of Scorpio's tail at the Academy, only this time it wasn't threatening to burst free on it's own. Her eyes widened as she realized that dark magic, stronger than she'd ever dared to wield, was coursing through her veins, and yet somehow completely under her control.

"Something happened!" she heard Pipsqueak declare. "I don't know what exactly, but the portal thing opened, so I sure hope Dinky came back, cause her time's run out otherwise."

"She's moving..." Honeydew pointed out in her halting voice. "Is it Dinky, or just that mindless monster?"

Doing her best to ignore the sudden return of all sensation, Dinky got her bearings and realized she was lying on the damp wood of the ship's deck, though it was almost hard to tell for how much smoke was pouring off of her form and creeping along the boards. She coughed twice and turned her head. Though her vision was a bit bleary, her four friends were still unmistakable, standing just beyond the edge of the sealing circle.

"Oh hey," she managed, with a lopsided, fanged grin. "Hi guys. It's me. I'm back."

"Oh thank goodness," Clarity sighed, letting out a breath that Dinky was positive her friend been holding since the portal opened. "We weren't sure if you were gonna make it back in time."

"Yeah, every time you get in these life or death situations, you have this bad habit of cutting them really damn close," Scuffle grumbled.

Dinky chuckled. She attempted to sit up, but paused for a moment as the tingle of strong magic ran down her legs when she moved them. She felt a little bit like she'd had one too many chocolate shakes at Sugarcube Corner: restless and positively bursting with energy.

"Dinky? You alright, love?" Pip asked. "You still look a bit... off. You didn't leave some part of you behind in the Realm of Stars somehow, I hope?"

"No, nothing like that," Dinky replied as she finally stood up. "Actually, it's kinda the opposite; I think... I think I came back with a little more than I had when I left."

"Wasn't that the plan?" Honeydew asked. "You went to learn more about dark magic from Scorpio. Did you succeed?"

"Actually, yeah," Dinky chuckled, swishing her smoky tail in satisfaction. "But that's not what I'm talking about. In those last moments, I might've kinda... stole a bunch of Scorpio's power."

"You what?" Clarity gasped. "Like, against her will? You marched up to the creator of dark magic and stole power from her?"

Scuffle burst out laughing. "Man, every time I think you can't get any more nuts, Dinks, you pull something like this," he snickered. "I'm guessing that's why you're gushing out more smoke than a Fillydelphia factory."

Dinky glanced at the deck around her hooves. The thin wisps of smoke that usually trailed off her body were definitely thicker and darker than normal, billowing off her body in waves. "I guess so," she admitted. "Well, let me just—"

She was interrupted as she tried to take a step forward, and the restricting enchantments quickly bound her with dark chains. "Oh, right," she mumbled sheepishly. "Uh, you guys mind dismantling the sealing circle?"

"It's safe, right?" Honeydew asked meekly. "All that magic... you've got it under control?"

"It seems like it," Dinky confirmed. "I feel really... well, amped up, but I've dealt with dark magic trying to break loose before, and this isn't that sort of feeling. I didn't just take a bunch of dark magic; I think I took some of Scorpio's capacity to wield it. Some of her actual magical strength."

Clarity and Pip quickly removed the enchanted gems from the edges of the sealing circle. Honeydew stayed several paces away, and very close to Scuffle, just in case, and Dinky didn't blame her. She sighed in relief as the magical chains crumbled away and disappeared. With the usual simple spell, she melted away into a gaseous state, and reformed as her unicorn self. The moment her familiar appearance returned, Clarity leapt forward and threw her forelegs around her.

"Dinky, that whole plan was stupid and insane needlessly risky and—"

As Clarity broke the hug, Dinky realized she was smiling broadly. "—And we're just really glad you're back," she finished breathlessly. "I wish I could say the worst is over, but now we apparently have to save Equestria, so I hope you got what you needed in there."

Dinky grinned and beckoned for her friends to follow as she made her way to the ship's interior. "I learned a lot," she assured them. "Follow me, and I'll tell you all about it."

Dinky recounted her whole adventure: meeting Sagittarius, finding Scorpio and Trouble, the dark magic lessons, the duel, and her dramatic escape. She received a few horrified looks during the last bit.

"I think I'm glad we didn't know a minute ago just how close we were to facing down a resurrected Scorpio," Honeydew admitted weakly.

"Yeah, imagine if she got free," Scuffle added. "Equestria woulda been double doomed, instead of the regular doomed it is right now."

"We can't dwell on what almost happened," Pipsqueak insisted. "The point is, Scorpio remains in the Realm of Stars, Dinky made it back safely, and she brought new power and spells back with her. The plan worked; now we need to figure out what to do next."

"Cloudcover brought us here to focus on honing Dinky's powers as much as possible," Clarity reminded the group. "The first thing we need to do is find out exactly how powerful she is now that she's got a bit of Scorpio's strength in her. C'mon, let's go up on deck and do some practice, just like we were a few days ago."

"Wait!" Dinky urged as the others began to stand up. "There's one last thing: a kind of... last ditch emergency backup plan, in case this all still isn't enough to save Equestria."

"Is it less dangerous than the last desperate plan?" Honeydew asked dolefully.

"Actually, yeah," Dinky chuckled. "While I was in the Realm of Stars, Sagittarius told me that we could unlock the true potential of all magic in Equestria if we could somehow find the modern reincarnation of the thirteenth member of the Zodiac, Ophiuchus. Apparently, he's the one who changed the flow of magic thousands of years ago so that no one pony could wield every kind of magic at once."

"Wait, so like... Pip could cast magic like a unicorn?" Clarity asked, resulting in a shocked glance from Pipsqueak.

"Or Dewey could connect with the earth without her spells, the way earth ponies do?" Scuffle added, earning an equally stunned look from his fillyfriend.

"As far as I can tell, Ophiuchus has the power to make that happen," Dinky confirmed. "But I'm calling it a backup plan because Ophiuchus's reincarnation could be anypony. Sagittarius said the pony in question probably won't even be aware of it. In order to unlock his powers, his modern heir needs to speak the phrase 'Ophiuchus, hear my plea. Manifest yourself through me.' That should reawaken his spirit inside them."

"Well, we better give it a try, on the incredibly slim chance it's one of us," Scuffle announced. "Err... what happens if it is one of us?"

"I... don't know," Dinky admitted sheepishly. "Sagittarius didn't say what will become of that pony if Ophiuchus reawakens. I can't guarantee they'd ever be quite the same if some ancient mage is suddenly sharing their body or something."

"I think we'd best risk it anyway," Pip chimed in resolutely. "If it's really up to us to save Equestria, we're gonna need to use every avenue available to us. I'll go first."

Before Dinky could object, the earth colt repeated the phrase Dinky had taught him, and unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle followed in turn, but there was a total lack of any effect.

"Right, I figured as much," Dinky said as the last of her friends finished the phrase. "Let's shelve that idea unless we run out of more realistic options."

"This time, I agree," Clarity said, nodding. "Ok, so you learned how to easily try new dark spells, you boosted your power by stealing some of Scorpio's, and you learned about this Ophiuchus thing that we can use as a desperation option. Anything else happen in there?"


Dinky paused as a few of Scorpio's words that she'd forced to the back of her mind made their way to the forefront again.

Only the purest, deepest magic, that defines everything a pony is in life, moves on to the afterlife. Or, to use the colloquialism, their heart. And you, Dinky Doo, no longer have one.

"N-no, nothing else important," she said finally, quickly rising to her hooves and heading for the door before her friends could press her. "For now, let's go test out my magic and find out if my little visit to the Realm of Stars was worth it."

The towering spire of rock had to be at least the height of twenty ponies lines up end to end. It jutted from the treacherous seas surrounding the wreck, impervious to the waves battering its sides.

Dinky stood with her forelegs on the ship's railing, staring at it skeptically as she slowly assumed her wraith form again. Her friends stood at the other deck, giving her plenty of space.

"Alright, Dinks!" Scuffle shouted. "Before, I know you woulda' been able to blow a sizeable chunk out of that rock, so hit it with all you've got and see if your new power can blow a hole right through it!"

A familiar anticipation began to build up in Dinky as she allowed darkness to focus in her curved horn. Soon, it began to crackle and spark, only this time it didn't stop there. New reserves of dark energy she'd never had before poured their contents into her horn, causing it to buzz like a high-voltage wire and distort the air around it.

She paused. As usual, her wraith instinct for wanton destruction battled with her unicorn logic and concerns. She glanced at her friends out of the corner of her eye.

"Are you guys sure you're safe back there? This is probably gonna be a pretty big blast."

Scuffle responded by shielding himself and the rest of the group in a dome of magic that, while it couldn't possibly stand up to a direct dark attack, was clearly more than enough to block any debris from the explosion. "We're good!" he called, as Honeydew wedged herself between him and Clarity for extra security. "Fire at will!"

Dinky lowered her head, prepared to release a burst of magic like none she'd ever produced at the imposing spire.

Here goes nothing...

Dinky stopped holding the vast amount of energy back, and let it fly.

The dark sphere that erupted from her horn was so tremendous, and cut through the air so quickly, that it produced a small sonic boom that instantly left her ears ringing. The attack reached its target in less than a second.

Only, it didn't punch a hole right through the spire. On contact, it detonated like a ton of TNT, absolutely eradicating the majority of the enormous stone and sending cloud of pebbles, ash, and superheated rock a hundred pony-lengths in the air. It was as if a small volcano had erupted.

This result wasn't the main focus of the ponies aboard the shipwreck, however. She sheer force of the recoil from the spell jolted the entire wreck off its moorings. Dinky struggled to keep her footing, and heard several shocked cries and screams from behind her as the deck pitched sideways and caused her friends to fall in a heap on the boards. The ship leaned at a bit of a sharper angle as it slid down the rocks that supported it, before finally coming to rest in a new position, fortunately only slightly more submerged than it had been before.

Dinky blinked uncomprehendingly at the smoldering bump that had been a spire of rock seconds earlier. She angry crackling in her horn died down and finally fell silent. She slowly turned to face her friends, restoring her pony appearance as she did so.

"Um, so... yeah, I'd say my magic's a little stronger now."

"Y-yeah," Pipsqueak stammered, finding his voice. "I can see why it took the whole rest of the Zodiac to subdue Scorpio if you can do that with just a fraction of her power."

"But this is good, right?" Scuffle asked, glancing between the other ponies in search of approval. "I mean, the pony who took over Canterlot isn't gonna be able to defend herself if Dinky comes at her with that much power, right?"

"Scuffle, that unicorn has been holding a whole city up in the sky with her magic for more than a week now," Clarity reminded him. "I don't know what kind of power he or she has access to, but even this much power probably won't be enough if we rely on brute force alone. So yes, it's a good thing that Dinky's much stronger now, but what we really need to do is help her use what she learned from Scorpio to test out dark magic versions of unicorn spells. I have a feeling just blasting stuff isn't gonna be enough."

"Right, then it's back to business as usual," Pip announced. "Let's resume helping Dinky practice. The more spells she can master before Mrs. Doo and the rest of her team contact us, the better."

"But first, breakfast!" Scuffle cut in as he led the way below deck. "I hope the wreck shifting like that didn't put half the galley underwater or something."

He disappeared inside, with the others following behind. Dinky and Honeydew brought up the rear of the group.

"Sorry, Honeydew," Dinky quietly apologized, realizing her timid friend hadn't spoken since the blast. "That little magic test went a bit further than it was supposed to. Did I scare you?"

Surprisingly, Honeydew smiled and hugged her gently. "I mean, yes, but it's okay," she responded. "You're doing your best to find a way to save Equestria like the princess asked. I guess I'm getting used to the fact that being friends with you all means I have to expect the unexpected, and I'd much rather deal with that than have to be alone, away from my friends."

"I'm glad we mean that much to you," Dinky said, touched. "And don't worry; even if the rest of us weren't here, Scuffle alone will make sure you get through this without a scratch on you, you'll see."

Honeydew's cheeks reddened slightly, but she looked quite pleased. Smiling, and happy to have something to take her mind off the eventual fate that Scorpio had warned her of, Dinky walked with her friend into the depths of the ship.

A city floating in the night sky was an imposing thing. At least when one was standing almost directly below it, as Ditzy was. The pegasus found herself glancing up regularly, as if fearing the great pinkish bubble would suddenly pop, dropping the capital on top of her.

Sparkler, as usual, remained stone-faced and moved forward with a real sense of purpose, ignoring the worried whispers being exchanged between Presto, Lucid, and the twins.

The group's train travel had ended at Ponyville, and honestly, Ditzy was surprised they got that far. As the nation slipped deeper and deeper into despair without any end to the siege in sight, even essential services were beginning to shut down. It had taken an additional two days to walk all the way to the base of the mountain and then up to the city. Or where the city should've been, at least.

"Yo, Sparkler, where is this place exactly?" Frosty asked finally. "We're halfway up the mountain. There's not really much up here besides... y'know, Canterlot."

"This is where Mrs. Doo's friend Cloudcover told us to meet," Sparkler replied, waving away the colt's concern. "Our allies are keeping an eye out for our arrival, so I'm sure we'll run into them any minute."

Lucid peered nervously off the edge of the path, shaking her head slowly as she sized up the enormous crater where the city had one sat. "Ridiculous..." she mumbled under her breath. "I've run the numbers a hundred times. No single unicorn could cast a spell with that much power. It's not a matter of skill; pony physiology doesn't allow for it. There must be multiple ponies involved, or some kind of extremely strong magical artifact..."

Ditzy was the first to admit she didn't know a ton about the workings of magic, but the fact that the five skilled unicorns she was traveling with all seemed equally shocked about what happened here certainly wasn't making her feel any better about the situation.

What did make her feel better was the sound of a voice she knew like the back of her hoof, calling to her from above.

"Hey! Ditzy!"

Ditzy's attention immediately turned skyward, a beaming smile crossing her face as she spotted a red pegasus streaking toward her. She leapt into the air to meet him halfway.


The two pegasi met in midair, and Ditzy found herself in her fiance's embrace for the first time in quite a while.

"You're here!" Breeze cheered. "Cloudcover and Watt and I have been patrolling the area on shifts for the last few days in hopes of spotting you. I'm so glad you're safe."

"Safe and successful," Ditzy said proudly. "We brought some allies. Not as many as we were hoping, but definitely better than nothing."

The pair of ponies returned to the ground. "Thank you, all of you, for agreeing to this," he said earnestly. "I know this seems insane, but we won't stand a chance without all your help."

"Don't sweat it, old man," Scorch replied, grinning as his brother snickered beside him. "So like, where's the rest of your crew?"

Breeze jabbed a hoof toward the end of the path, just a few hundred pony-lengths from the edge of the crater. "There."

Ditzy squinted at what he was indicating. It was a tiny wooden building nestled between some large boulders at the side of the path, that barely looked big enough to house three ponies, let alone their whole assembled team.

"Isn't... isn't that a tool shed for Canterlot groundskeepers to use?" she asked hesitantly.

"That's what I said when we arrived here a while back," Breeze replied with a wink. "But... well, you'll see."

The group of ponies approached the shed with varying degrees of skepticism. Breeze pulled open the door, revealing an empty room with a staircase leading down into the earth. Before anypony could ask questions, he led the way down the steps. Ditzy reached the bottom next, and stopped so abruptly that Sparkler bumped into her. Though considering what was around her, she hardly noticed.

Hidden beneath the unassuming shed was a large circular chamber, built of the same white stone as most of Canterlot and decorated with banners bearing stylized images of Celestia and Luna. One or two ponies hurried into or out of halls extending out from the central chamber. Based on the number of exits, Ditzy assumed this must've been an extensive compound.

"What... are we looking at exactly?" Presto asked, wonderment in his voice.

"An excellent question, my boy."

The familiar voice, accented with a Trottingham tang, caught Ditzy's attention immediately. Cloudcover emerged from one of the halls and hurried over to the group. "Ditzy, how wonderful to see you safe," he said, with obvious relief in his tone. "And Presto, to answer your question, you're the first civilians in quite some time to set foot in the headquarters of the Canterlot Royal Secret Service."

"Secret service?" Frosty interjected, his eyebrows raised. "So like, this is some big-time spy movie stuff? Man Scorch, can you imagine if we let Scuff do this without us? He woulda' bragged about it for years!"

"Yes, for security reasons, Celestia saw fit to situate the headquarters outside the Canterlot city limits," Cloudcover explained. "Definitely a wise move, given the situation. Many members that were on royal business are currently trapped inside the city, but we still have a few critical ponies here helping us prepare the operation."

"And you've known about this place all this time?" Ditzy asked. "You've met these ponies and know all the national secrets and yet you've been working as a matchmaker in Ponyville for years?"

"I told you, I retired," Cloudcover chuckled. "But I suppose one never really retires from something like this, do they? This is just the first time the nation is in enough peril that I've had to return to my old post. Now please, we should really get started now that you've all arrived. Watt and a few other ponies critical to our efforts are waiting in the war room; let's go and introduce you all, shall we?"

Not entertaining any further questions, the stallion turned and trotted swiftly down one of the corridors. Breeze glanced at Ditzy and the others and leaned his head in the direction of the hall as if to say 'well, come on', before leading the rest of the group.

Ditzy peeked curiously into the aforementioned war room. The wide area was mostly bare, save for a large central table displaying a map of Equestria. Ditzy only got a glance at it before she was tackled by a blur of yellow fur.

"Ditzy! You're here!"

Ditzy focused her vision, staring up into the eyes of the earth pony that had effectively pinned her to the floor. "Y-yes, hi Watt," she said weakly. "I'm safe and sound. Sparkler and Presto, too. Can you get off of me please?"

Watt seemed to notice his error and hastily backed off. Cloudcover cleared his throat, addressing the gathered group of unicorns.

"To those who don't already know him, this is our friend and ally, Kilowatt Hour," he said, giving the jittery stallion a friendly pat on the back. "But as you can see, he's not the only associate of ours that's been waiting here for your arrival."

For the first time, Ditzy had a chance to look at the other pony seated by the large map. The middle-aged blue-grey mare, wearing a cloak of Canterlot colors, was impossible to mistake, though it was Sparkler who spoke her name first.

"Dean Script! You're here too?"

Spiral Script's expression brightened at the sight of several of her former students. "Hello, Sparkler. I heard you were coming," she greeted. "And I see you brought a few friends!"

"Hi Professor Script!" Lucid chirped, beaming. "I should've guessed that if Canterlot was in danger, you'd be one of the first to lend a hoof."

"You know me too well," Dean Script replied with a bit of a smirk, as she greeted each of the other academy alumni with a nod. "I'd love to catch up with all of you, but unfortunately, this isn't the time or place. Canterlot... no, Equestria is in tremendous peril, and our little team, plus the few ponies in Celestia's secret service, are the only hope left. Take a seat, we'll catch you up on recent events."

Ditzy moved quietly to one of the seats, and the other ponies followed suit. Even Scorch and Frosty seemed to be on their best behavior for once. Cloudcover, who along with the dean seemed to be the most likely to have answers, sat next to her at the head of the table.

"So what exactly is happening?" Presto asked. "All the rumors say Canterlot's been pulled into the sky by the work of a single unicorn, but that can't be possible, can it?"

"Not without some kind of foreign increase in power," Spiral Script confirmed. "We haven't yet pinned down the mechanism, but we do know the pony responsible. And she's another reason I felt I needed to personally get involved in stopping her."

"Ditzy, we've been tricked and manipulated far more gravely than we originally thought," Cloudcover declared. "The unicorn who captured Canterlot and kidnapped the princesses is the same unicorn who we now know was responsible for exposing the dark truth about Dinky, and before that, for undermining Equestria Speedy Shipping Services. All the terrible things that have happened in the last year... they're all the work of Wishing Star."

"Wha... what?" Ditzy babbled, her wings drooping slightly. "I... so... wait, were we working with some kind of supervillain for half a year!?"

"If I can interject," Sparkler cut in, "how do we know the pony responsible if she's inside the city and nopony's been able to get in or out?"

"Because I saw it myself," came a new voice.

Everypony turned to the doorway, where a blue colt that looked to be about Dinky's age was standing. "Sorry I'm late, Dean Script," the newcomer said politely. "I see I missed the arrival of our guests."

"No matter, I knew you'd be back from that latest scouting mission soon," the dean replied, before turning to the ponies seated at the table. "Everypony, this is Tango Trot, one of this year's Student Overseers at Celestia's Academy. He came to me not long before Cloudcover contacted me, and has been a valuable asset these past few weeks, since he knows more about the current events in Canterlot than any of us."

"Pleased to meet you all," Tango Trot greeted, flashing a charming, pearly smile as he moved to an empty seat. "You see, I'm a Canterlot resident, and I was already convinced that something was amiss; I'm clairvoyant, you see, and the premonition I received a day or two ahead of the disaster, 'the fall of Canterlot is inevitable' had me a bit on edge. I was in the crowd that was present to witness our betrayer, Wishing Star, overpower Princess Twilight. Fortunately, I went to seek help as soon as I realized what was happening, and so I was a bit ahead of the panicked crowd that tried to flee the city when Wishing Star began to rip it from the earth. I count myself quite lucky; I was one of the very few ponies to make it out before that barrier went up, and only by a matter of seconds."

His expression grew more serious. "But I know for a fact that a number of Academy students that were making their way home are trapped in that city," he continued, "and as long as I'm still Student Overseer, I won't abandon my duty to them."

"You're very dedicated," Sparkler said with an approving nod. "I think Presto and I would've done the same, had this happened while we were Overseers."

"I mean, we're here aren't we?" Presto asked with a bit of a chuckle. "We may not be part of the Academy anymore, yet here we are."

"And we truly appreciate it," Cloudcover affirmed, briefly saluting with a wing. "Our resources are stretched quite thin right now. I'm sure you've noticed this... effect the incident is having. There's some sort of foul magic at work, messing with ponies' emotions. Trust and goodwill are quickly deteriorating, even among ponies that know each other quite well. Some of the ponies less dedicated to the cause have already given up, and fled to hide in the safety of their homes. We have just the precious few of us in this room, and two or three other members of the secret service that remain. Those who haven't succumbed to the influence of the magic, like the other five Elements of Harmony, have set out across Equestria to try to remind ponies of the power of cooperation, trust, and friendship, in hopes of slowing the effect. But I fear their efforts will be in vain if Canterlot isn't liberated from its siege, and the princesses rescued, very soon."

"Just point us in the direction of the butt we have to kick, and we'll get right to it," Scorch said confidently, hoof-bumping his snickering brother.

"It's not that simple, boys," Spiral Script said, shaking her head. "The first thing we have to do is find out more about this barrier spell that has sealed off Canterlot, and how we can get around it. Tango Trot's been working on it, but if you five former students could join him, I'm sure you could make progress a lot faster. Lucid certainly has the knowledge for reverse-engineering spells, Scorch and Frosty have enough power to try ample experiments, and Sparkler and Presto are born leaders and creative thinkers; together, I know we can solve this."

"Understood," Sparkler said, rising to her hooves and beckoning to all her companions. "Tango, let's all get together and discuss what you've figured out so far."

The six unicorns filed from the room, leaving just the dean and the four members of Equestria Speedy Shipping Services.

"So... what do we do?" Ditzy asked hesitantly. "We don't really have the knowledge to help them with the barrier."

"The dean and I still have a lot of work to do parsing the intel arriving from our agents in the field," Cloudcover explained. "As for you, Ditzy, I need you to do two things. First, write a letter to Dinky. She and her friends have been working on her dark magic in a safe place since this all started, but we're preparing for the final assault, so I need you to summon them here. There are dragon mail services available not far away."

Ditzy nodded. "And the second thing?"

"Even if we get into Canterlot, we don't know how many allies Wishing Star has, or how dangerous she's going to be," Watt chimed in, bolting to the doorway excitedly. "But we're gonna be ready! Turns out this place has its own battle instructor, who trained me and Breeze while you were out with Sparkler and the others."

"Training?" Ditzy asked, cocking her head. "What training?"

"Defending yourself, and fending off other ponies if need be," said Cloudcover matter-of-factly. "Ditzy... you're going to need to practice hoof-to-hoof combat."

"And... time!"

Ditzy felt a forehoof connect with one of the wooden targets... barely. She dropped to the floor and looked helplessly at the earth pony that had been watching her progress as she'd flown around the moving obstacle course, swinging at mechanically-controlled targets that almost always seemed out of her reach.

"I didn't do so well, did I?" she asked meekly.

Defensive Formation, a big brown stallion who embodied the expected qualities of a military officer if Ditzy had ever seen one, nodded. "Well, yes, but that was merely a baseline," he answered, tallying up her score on a clipboard. "Your strength is actually quite impressive, but your aerial movement is below average and your accuracy when it comes to throwing a kick... needs work, especially with moving targets."

Ditzy folded her wings. "With all due respect sir, I doubt those qualities are going to improve much..." she admitted. "My eye condition is pretty severe. I run into things and misjudge distances a lot, especially if I'm trying to move quickly, which would be... all the time if I'm fighting somepony.

"Yes, I suspect you're right," the stallion replied, though with surprisingly little concern in his voice. "Now that we've got the baseline, let's try it again without the handicap and see how much improvement comes just from that."

Ditzy stared uncomprehendingly at the instructor. "Um... how?"

"Cloudcover notified the team of your medical condition as soon as he arrived, days ago," Formation explained, flipping open a box sitting among his equipment. "One of our technicians set to work making sure that wouldn't be a problem."

From the box, the stallion withdrew a helmet meant for a cadet. Affixed to the front was a bulky apparatus that appeared to be built around some sort of heavy-duty goggles. Before Ditzy could ask, the instructor placed the contraption on her head and fastened the strap under her chin with one swift motion.

Other than the fact that she was now staring through two thick glass lenses, Ditzy didn't notice anything different. Her vision was just as doubled as always. "How is this meant to help, exactly?" she asked.

"Well, you're not actually looking straight through those goggles," Formation explained. "The view you're seeing is equivalent to the one you'd see if just looking straight through a lens, but that image is actually being delivered to your eyes by a series of tiny mirrors. There are knobs on each side of the goggles that adjust the angle of the mirrors, so if we just crank the one side downward to compensate for your bad eye's upward drift..."

The stallion gave the little knob a few careful turns. Ditzy watched, speechless, as the two images of the world that she was so used to seeing drifted closer and closer, until finally, they overlapped, forming a single, clear visual view of her surroundings.

Ditzy yanked the helmet off and her double vision returned immediately. She plopped it back on her head again, and once again could see with perfect clarity. She turned to her instructor, unable to articulate what she was feeling.

"I take it we found the right setting," Formation chuckled. "No time to focus on that, though. Now that you can see, I need you to run the target course again."

Ditzy had trained herself to bring her eyes together for a few seconds at a time if need be, but it had been nearly twenty years since the last time she'd been able to see so clearly for more than a moment. She struggled to find the words to thank the stallion for the shocking gift.

"I... this is..."

"Ditzy," the instructor said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "I understand you've had this condition for a long time. This is probably a shock. But there are ponies in danger, and there's no time to lose focus now. So as hard as it is, I need you to move past the surprise and show me your skills on the target course, okay?"

Ditzy took a deep breath, and tried to push the overwhelming change to the back of her mind. She turned to the practice course, where the moving targets suddenly seemed much more within reach.

"And... go!"

Ditzy jetted into the air. The goal was simple; hit the targets with any of her hooves. She knew her aerial agility was lackluster, and her actual technique was probably atrocious, but at least this time, she was able to predict the positions of moving targets relative to her own movement. In a matter of seconds, she reached out and bashed the first target with a forehoof, spinning in midair as she did so to lash out with a hind leg and strike the second on its way by. Another one popped out of a slot in the wall, and with her corrected vision, she knew exactly how many flaps she needed to take before she'd be able to reach out and strike it.

I haven't felt this in-control anywhere besides the open sky in years!

A minute or two later, when Defensive Formation called time, Ditzy had managed to lay at least some kind of hit on nearly every target. The earth pony smiled as she landed in front of him.

"Now that is a good starting point for training," he affirmed, and Ditzy couldn't help but beam at him. "Now, pay attention please. Here's some tricks you can use to refine those moves..."

"Alright, Dinky, try it again," Pip encouraged.

Dinky covered herself in a cloak of darkness, just as she'd seen Scorpio do. As expected, the inky smoke no longer flowed freely off her body, but instead surrounded her, swirling around her legs and encircling her torso. It almost had a bit of weight to it, she noticed, like she was wearing darkness as a garment.

Honeydew carefully took a step closer, examining the magic surrounding her friend. "Well, that's a little less scary than most of your powers, at least," she admitted. "So you can use it to manipulate your surroundings, like Scorpio did?"

"I can," Dinky replied, letting the darkness extend beyond her outstretched forehoof and lifting one of her saddlebags off the deck with it, "but I'm not sure how that helps us. We can already do the same thing with levitation magic. I'm sure it's much more useful for a non-unicorn like Scorpio."

"You said Scorpio also used it to absorb attacks," Clarity pointed out. "That sounds more useful for our purposes. Can it absorb any kind of magical attack?"

"Only one way to find out," Dinky announced, turning her glowing eyes to the brown colt standing nearby. "Scuffle, toss a spell at me. It doesn't have to be a strong one."

"You got it, Dinks," Scuffle said as magic sprung up around his horn. "An elemental attack, or just magical energy?"

"One of each," Dinky answered. "We've got to be thorough."

Scuffle took careful aim, making sure everypony other than Dinky was out of the range of his spell. A bright blue laser burst from his horn, and she winced as it bore down on her, bracing for the stinging pain.

None came. The spell was swallowed up by the darkness. Dinky didn't feel a thing, and she knew Scuffle could tell, judging by his expression.

"Defensive dark magic, huh?" he asked. "That would be really cool if casting dark magic didn't feel so... vile. I'll stick to my shields and stuff."

"Smart move," Dinky laughed. "Now try a fireball."

Scuffle did as he was told, and this time the result wasn't quite as clean. Dinky's cloak still absorbed the impact of the spell, but definitely felt the strong heat for a few moments before the attack could be fully absorbed into it. "It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing," she said finally. "I don't know if it'll be enough to protect me from the pony controlling Canterlot, but if it ends up being the dividing line between injury and death, I'll take it."

A flash of green fire appeared right in front of the young wraith's face. Reflexively, she snatched the resulting dragon-mail scroll out of the air on it's way down.

"Oh, finally, an update!" Clarity gasped. "Who's it from, Dinky? And what's it say?"

Dinky opened the letter, her wraith voice characteristically raspy as she read aloud.

Dear Dinky,

I hope you and your friends are okay. Cloudcover assures me you're safe, but you know me. I worry anyway.

Sparkler, Presto, and I have gathered up a few ponies you might know. We're now at the Canterlot Secret Service's HQ just below the city. Cloudcover says it's almost time to make our move, so please use the hot air balloon to make your way here. One of us will be on lookout to make sure you don't miss us.

Oh, and try to make the journey in one flight if you can. Don't stop in any towns. The ponies of Equestria aren't as friendly right now as you're used to.

Safe travels, honey.

"We have to go all the way to Canterlot in the balloon?" Scuffle griped. "We're on the edge of the continent, and balloons aren't exactly the fastest means of travel. It's gonna take days!"

"Do we have enough supplies left to make the journey without restocking somewhere?" Honeydew asked.

"I think so, but we'll have to work in shifts," Clarity instructed. "If we want to keep moving in the right direction, one of us will need to maintain a wind spell at all times. We'll switch off every few hours so nopony gets too exhausted."

"Too bad we don't have a pegasus to pull us along like we did on the way here," Dinky said, jokingly manipulating the layer of darkness surrounding her body to form a pair of ethereal black wings. "It would certainly speed things up, but dark magic or not, we're still as grounded as a—"

Dinky didn't get to finish her sentence. Mainly because she'd sent a pulse of magic from her horn to make the fabricated wings flap, and was stunned into immediate silence as her forehooves lifted momentarily off the ground.

"You... you all saw that, right?" Pipsqueak asked finally, turning to the other ponies to make sure.

"W-wait, this doesn't make sense," Dinky stuttered, glancing over her shoulder as the fake wings waited motionless for her magic to move them again. "I was just making a joke. I mean, there's no bone, no muscle. Even if I can move them with magic, why can they lift me?"

"We've... seen you use extensions of that layer of darkness to pick up objects," Clarity said slowly. "If it's able to manipulate those... I guess it makes sense that it can also move you?"

"They're not attached to my body," Dinky argued, swinging a hoof right through one of the smoky wings and watching it disrupt before forming back into shape. "This spell just surrounds me in a layer of darkness. I can pass right through it if I want to."

"It can also block projectiles and spells when you want it to," Scuffle pointed out. "I'm far from an expert, but it seems like your magic determines what can and can't get through it. So could it be that the magic itself is able to push against the air, while your body just dangles inside it? Y'know, like you're the potatoes in a magic flying sack."

In different circumstances, Dinky might've commented on the unusual metaphor, but what Scuffle was saying made sense. "Unicorns can't fly with levitation, but... I guess if I can create something that can generate lift the same way a pegasus does... maybe I can?"

"I'm going to ask you now to be careful, please," Honeydew added dryly. "I know trying to talk you out of attempting it will be a waste of time, so I'm just skipping to the next step."

Dinky snickered. "Don't worry. I'll start small. I just need to check if this really works."

As she'd said, there were no muscles to move, so Dinky spread the black wings entirely with her will and her magic. She gave them an experimental flap, feeling the wood beneath her hooves fall away for just a fraction of a second. Focusing on channeling her dark magic along her body and into the cloak around her, she closed her eyes and sent energy down her back in rhythmic pulses.

Flap. Flap. Flap.

When the wraith dared to open her eyes again, she was hovering a pony-length or so off the deck, bobbing in the air with each slow beat of the false wings. Her four companions simply stared at her, mouths agape, as if witnessing a miracle.

Scuffle had been right; Dinky realized. She felt like she was being supported by a net; no physical input was keeping her aloft, only magical. Just by willing it, the covering of darkness was able to cradle her form as it lifted her into the air.

"So," Scuffle said loudly, breaking the long silence. "Guess Dinks is an alicorn now. Wraithicorn? Ali...wraith? Nono, I got it. Wralicorn!"

Clarity rolled her eyes. "They're just magic, Scuffle. I don't think that changes her status as a species."

"Can we stop arguing semantics and get back to the part where Dinky can fly?" Pip blurted. "I mean, this is a big deal, right?"

"That depends on how much I can do with them!" Dinky announced, unable to hold back a grin as the reality of her situation started to sink in. "Be right back; I'm gonna take this spell for a little test run!"

Dinky increased her magical output, and the wingbeats quickly grew faster and stronger, lifting her up and away from the deck. The last thing she heard before she was out of earshot was Honeydew's defeated sigh.

"Yep, and this is the part where she stops being careful..."

It really didn't take much energy at all to make the wings flap, and with all of Scorpio's stolen power flowing through her, flying was almost effortless. Dinky shot upward, gazing at the sea and the coastline in wonder as she quickly gained a bird's eye view like none she had experienced before.

After a moment, she slowed her ascent, hovering in the air. Below her, the shipwreck looked like no more than a toy, and her friends a small collection of colored specks against the wood. A bit of vertigo struck, turning her stomach a bit.

Okay, maybe that was a bit much to start, she thought as she closed her eyes and waited for the sensation to pass. I'm not a pegasus. Unicorns definitely aren't built for this.

Cautiously, Dinky opened one eye again and took in her surroundings. Thin, wispy clouds floated silently by, and the distant parts of Equestria caught the light of the sun. She stayed relatively still, bobbing in midair with each beat of her wings, as she adjusted to the motion and altitude.

I may not be built for it... but I think I could get used to this.

More slowly this time, Dinky climbed higher into the clouds. The cool November air combined with the altitude made the environment grow frigid; ice crystals started to form on her deep violet coat, and each breath left her as a puff of steam. For a while, she glided along above the clouds, breathing hard in the lower oxygen that accompanied elevation.

"This... this is actually real, isn't it?" she mumbled aloud, her voice the only sound in the silent sky. "There was so much more to dark magic than I ever realized. I can't just attack and defend... I can enchant and create illusions and interact with the world in ways even unicorn magic can't, and now... now I can fly."

The atmosphere did not respond. The silence allowed a less-elated thought to creep into her mind and slip past her lips.

"And despite everything the darkness has given me... it's also taken something away," she whispered. "All these powers are great now, but to receive them at the expense of my heart... someday, when they finally fade away, I'll fade with them..."

The wraith shivered, and not just because of the cold. After a moment, she shook her head.

There will be time to address that later, Dinky! she internally scolded. Heart or not, your friends and family, and all of Equestria, need you. Even if you can't save yourself, you can still save them!

Dinky tucked her wings and dove through the clouds. Her eyes watered as air screamed past her, and the deck of the ship grew larger and larger in her vision. A hundred pony-lengths or so before she reached the ground, she began flapping hard, slowing her descent until her smoke-enrobed hooves touched lightly down on the deck.

"To answer your question, Pip," she said, shaking ice off her coat and letting the magic wings dissipate into formless smoke, "Yeah, I'd say this is a big deal."

"This is great! Dinky pulling the balloon along will save us so much time!" Clarity exclaimed. "Turn on the balloon's burner. We could reach Canterlot by sunset if we get started now!"

"So this is really it?" Honeydew squeaked, fidgeting uncomfortably as she and Scuffle started to set up the balloon. "We're going to go try to save Equestria again?"

"Maybe it'll be less dangerous than when we saved it from Scorpio," Scuffle said encouragingly. "We have a lot more ponies on our side this time. Experienced spies. Talented mages. Freakin' Dinky, who's like... a force of nature at this point. We got this."

Dinky nodded as she trotted to the balloon basket. "Well, we better get started."

"Actually..." Pipsqueak interjected, stepping in front of her, "there's one last thing to discuss. I'm afraid that, erm... while I'm a strong, fit pony, I'm probably not currently as useful when it comes to saving the world as the spies and mages Scuffle mentioned."

"Aw Pip, don't say that," Dinky pleaded, hoping her empathy projected well despite still being in intimidating wraith form. "You're a trained naval cadet. You're definitely useful, even for something like this."

Pip smirked. "Ah, but let me finish, love," he chided. "I didn't say I'm not going to help. I said I currently can't offer much help. I think I know a way to improve our chances a bit more, to put my talents and training to good use... but I'm going to have to make a detour before I head to Canterlot. I need you to drop me off on the coastline and go on without me; I'll catch up."

"Catch up?" Dinky asked, glancing at the tiny pink bubble on the horizon that she knew was Canterlot. "Pip, we're not going just up the road. Whatever is going to happen would be over long before you made it there on foot, and I'm not sure the trains are still running."

"I know, Dinky, but—"

"Plus, you heard what was in mom's letter!" Dinky continued, the smoke around her swirling as she grew more heated. "The whole nation is dangerous right now. Ponies everywhere are acting nasty and paranoid. You could wind up in huge trouble if you go it alone."

"Yes, but I—"

"And I know you're avoiding telling me what you're up to because you're going to do something risky and—"

Pip lightly pressed a forehoof against Dinky's snout, preventing her from speaking. "Dinky, I love you, but I need you to put a sock in it for a moment and let me speak."

Dinky's volatile temper flared, and for a moment she considered sinking her fangs into the hoof in front of her. A quick look into Pip's pleading brown eyes quickly let her overcome the wraith instinct, though.

"First of all, you're right," Pip admitted, slowly lowering his hoof. "Splitting up is dangerous, especially under the circumstances. But I have a plan that can get us some... resources. I know it will help our cause if I can pull it off. It involves some measure of stealth since it's... not entirely legal... so the more of us there are, the less likely it will work. So... I'm going to need you to trust me on this."

Dinky deflated. "Stealth? What if you get caught? Or hurt?"

"Those are possibilities," Pip said, nodding. "But if you recall, Dinky, your plan to increase your dark magic skills involved putting yourself in a situation vastly more dangerous than the one I'm about to put myself in, and I still trusted your judgement. Now I'm asking you to do the same."

Clarity stepped up beside Dinky and nodded. "He has a point," she said softly. "Your plan was crazy, but it worked out and made you a lot more powerful. I think we should give him the same benefit of the doubt."

Dinky looked back and forth between her Pip and Clarity. Slowly, she melted away and reformed as her pony self, before stepping forward and throwing her forelegs around her coltfriend and resting her head against his chest.

"Do what you have to do, but be careful," she muttered. "I expect to see you safe and sound at Canterlot once you've taken care of... whatever it is you're up to."

She felt Pip's snout nuzzle her mane, shockingly gentle for how big and strong he was. "I'll catch up in no time," he whispered back. "And remember... we won't really be apart, right?"

He clutched the diamond pendant around his neck with a hoof, and Dinky felt the warmth of her matching one radiating against her chest. She couldn't help but smile.

"Make sure you don't get yourself killed before I get there, either," Pip added.

Dinky's smile morphed into a snarky grin. "I'll do my best."

"Balloon's ready!" Scuffle called. "Dinks, quit snuggling and break out those wings of yours. We gotta go!"

Dinky stepped away from Pip and let the darkness burst forth from her again, restoring her wraith form along with its new faux-wings. "Guess there's no putting it off," she admitted as she donned the pegasus harness. "Climb in and hold on tight, everypony; we're dropping off Pip, and then... we've got a one-way ticket to Canterlot."

"7:24 PM. No sign of 'em."

"Thanks Watt," said Ditzy dully.

Watt trotted to and fro, equipped with a large pair of binoculars that he kept fixed on the eastern sky. Which was more or less pointless, for now; even if they'd left right away, Dinky and her friends wouldn't be arriving for a day or two. This fact had not curbed Watt's enthusiasm for sentry duty.

"7:25 PM. No sign of 'em."

Ditzy opted not to answer Watt this time as she and Breeze stood at the edge of the cliff, looking at the floating city. "So, sounds like Sparkler's team of unicorns is making progress, huh?" she asked.

"They've definitely identified the nature of the spell," Breeze said with a nod. "I won't pretend to understand all their jargon, but I think they know what they need to do to disrupt it now. It's going to be a coordinated effort, though. It will take at least five or six of them to cast the complex spell they need to pull off."

Ditzy nodded slowly. "They've got it," she said confidently. "I'm more worried about what happens when we get past the barrier."

"7:26 PM. No sign of 'em."

"I hear your combat training is going well," Breeze continued, ignoring Watt's update. "Not that I expected anything less. You're tough as nails; you'd never have made it through everything you've been through over the years if you weren't."

Ditzy shrugged. "I mean, hitting a target is one thing, but all those kicks and jabs and defensive moves he showed me? I don't know if I'd be able to pull them off in real time against an opponent."

She felt Breeze drape a wing over her back. "Nonsense. I've seen what you can do when the ponies you love are in danger. With that helmet correcting your vision, you're a force to be reckoned with."

Ditzy blushed slightly at the praise. That was a good argument, she supposed.

"7:27 PM. No sign of— wait. Wait! Balloon! Balloon! I'll go round up everypony!"

Watt hurled the binoculars into the air and bolted into the secret base. Ditzy leapt forward, propelling herself with her wings, and managed to catch them before they hit the rocky ground. "What's he talking about?" she asked. "Dinky can't possibly be here already..."

Breeze squinted at the sky. "Well, there's something up there, but it's too far out to be sure with the naked eye."

Ditzy slid her new helmet off and held the binoculars up to her eyes. In the east, there was in fact a balloon, and it appeared it was being pulled along by something.

"Dinky didn't have any other pegasi with her, so if that's their balloon... who's pulling it?"

The incoming craft changed course suddenly, angling toward Ditzy's location. As it did, she caught a glimpse of a thin trail of smoke behind it.

"Smoke?" Breeze asked. "Do they have... some kind of engine? Is that how they got here so quickly?"

Whatever dark object was guiding the balloon suddenly dipped dramatically downward, pulling it along at significant speed. Ditzy could see the smoke clearly now, billowing off the means of locomotion in black clouds.

"Is it... supposed to be doing that?"

"No normal engine would be smoking that much," Breeze admitted. "I think they might be crash landing! Get clear!"


"They'll bail out by teleport if they need to," Breeze reminded her, cutting her argument off. "Take cover, now!"

The two pegasi dove behind a wide outcropping of rock, and Ditzy cringed as she waited for the sound of the engine crashing down on the rock, and hopefully, the familiar pop of a few teleportation spells.

Instead, she heard a voice. Intimidating and raspy, but very familiar.

"Mom, relax. It's just us."

Ditzy blinked and scrambled out from behind the outcrop, just as the balloon basket touched down safely on the ground. Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle stepped out, unharmed, but Ditzy hardly noticed their presence at first.

The object that had been guiding the balloon, and producing so much smoke, was not an engine at all, but a very familiar wraith with a very unfamiliar pair of big black wings, the tips of each feather dissolving into the air as wisps of dark vapor.

"Heya, mom!" Dinky called, producing a playful fanged grin at her mother's speechlessness. "Everything worked out pretty good while we were hiding out. I learned a lot of new tricks that can probably help us."

Ditzy still failed to respond, but Dinky picked up on the focus of her attention pretty quickly. "Oh, and I can fly now," she added casually.

"...I can see that," Ditzy finally managed, bewildered.

Dinky threw off the harness and returned to her pony appearance, causing the wings to vanish along with the rest of her monstrous features. "So where's everypony else?" she asked.

"We heard you found a few allies we already know," Clarity added. "Did you get somepony from school?"

Before Ditzy and Breeze could explain, a commotion, punctuated by Watt's chattering voice, came from the stairwell leading into the base. "Well, we'll let you see for yourselves," she said.

One by one, ponies stepped out of the tunnel and onto the clifftop. At the front were Watt, Cloudcover, and Dean Script, the last of which brightened when she saw the four new arrivals.

"Ah, so you are here! That was fast," the dean commented.

"Dean Script!" Dinky gasped. "I... first of all, I'm so sorry about what happened at school, I heard about the chaos and—"

"That wasn't your fault and this isn't the time to worry about it anyway," the dean replied, matter-of-factly. "Counselor Wishing Star is the one to blame, both for what happened to you at the Academy, and for what's currently happening to Canterlot."

"Whoa, what?" Scuffle laughed, looking equal parts amused and skeptical. "We worked out that she had something to do with Dinky's forced transformation on our own, but ol' Wishing Star never seemed like supervillain material."

"I can assure you, Scuffle, it's quite true," Tango chimed in as he emerged from the base.

"Tango Trot!"

Honeydew was never one for frivolous, short-distance teleportation, but the moment the blue colt appeared, she vanished from the balloon basket in a flash of green and reappeared in front of him an instant later, throwing her forelegs around him and squeezing tightly as if to confirm he was really there.

"Honeydew, my friend, whatever is the matter?" Tango asked, patting her on the back uncertainly. "You seem to be unharmed..."

"I was terrified for you!" Honeydew squeaked, clinging to the young stallion for a few moments more. "I thought you'd be trapped up there in Canterlot, in terrible danger or worse, and I thought your last memory of me might be resent because of what happened the last time we saw each other but you're still my friend and it kept me up at night wondering if I'd hurt your feelings when I—"

"Hush now," Tango said soothingly. "I'm perfectly fine, and I couldn't possibly resent you. I meant what I said when we spoke in front of the castle; you're a cherished friend and valued research partner, even if we're not quite right for each other beyond that."

Honeydew sighed with relief and backed off a few paces. "Thanks," she mumbled, smiling shyly. "I really needed to hear that."

"Tango," Dean Script interjected. "Not to interrupt, but where is the rest of the team?"

"Sparkler was going over some final instructions with them," Tango replied. "They should be here any moment."

"And speaking of missing members..." Cloudcover added. "Dinky, where's that nephew of mine? Isn't he with you?"

"Pip had some sort of plan to gain access to something that might help us out," Dinky explained. "There was no time to discuss details, but he promised he'd be here as soon as he can."

"Speaking of backup, how many more ponies are on our side for this?" Clarity asked.

"Including Sparkler and Presto, we've got five more," the dean answered. "For the four of you, they should be quite familiar."

"Oi, quit shovin'!" came a voice from the stairs.

"Then get your fat backside outta the way!" another voice replied. "I'm gonna be the one to make the dramatic entrance!"

"Like heck you are!" the first voice replied.

Scuffle's ears stood on end. "Those voices..." he whispered, turning to Ditzy with a look of pure betrayal. "You didn't. You didn't!"

Scorch and Frosty burst out of the doorway nearly simultaneously, practically tripping over one another in the process. "Don't worry, kids, the big boys are here to save the day!" Frosty announced.

Scuffle rolled his eyes. "Sure you are. I feel so much safer," he grumbled.

Frosty scowled. "Can it, Scuff!"

"Yeah, you're lucky we could take time out of our busy schedules to come save your sorry ass," Scorch added.

Scuffle looked at Ditzy helplessly. "Really, Mrs. Doo? The best help you and Sparkler could drum up was Scorch and Frosty?"

Ditzy offered an apologetic smile. "Well, no, we have somepony else too. Sparkler wanted to balance power with finesse, and our other ally specializes in the second."

Lucid poked her head up from the hidden stairwell. "You flatter me, Mrs. Doo," she commented as she stepped out, with several notepads and clipboards suspended in her aura.

It was Clarity's turn to look dumbstruck. "Lucid!" she cried, eagerly trotting over to greet her sister.

"Thank Celestia, you're safe just like Mrs. Doo said," Lucid replied, sliding her glasses out of the way and nuzzling her little sister for a moment. "Mom and dad and I were really scared when we heard you'd disappeared with Dinky, but I can't really say I was surprised; you're just about the last pony that would ever abandon a friend."

Walking side by side, Sparkler and Presto finally emerged from the base. "So, is this everypony?" Presto asked, while Sparkler took in the crowd with her usual stoic expression.

"For the moment, yes," Dean Script replied. "We were expecting one more, but Cloudcover's nephew will not be arriving for a while."

"What's everypony's status?" Sparkler asked. "Is everypony fit and alert and ready to make this happen? Honeydew in particular was under the influence of a nymph last time I saw her..."

"I'm fine now, thanks to Scuffle!" Honeydew chirped, beaming in her coltfriend's direction. "Right now the nymph's contained in a jar in my bag; she'll be fine there until things go back to normal."

If we're all ready, then let's all go inside," Cloudcover instructed. "We can take a few moments to catch up with our loved ones and take care of any final, unfinished business. And then... it's time to discuss everypony's role in the final assault."

Ditzy stood in the corner of the war room, leaning against the wall and slowly working her wings to make sure she was ready to fly. She definitely didn't consider herself one of the leaders, or even critical members, of this operation, and planned to simply await instruction. For now, she was content to watch the ponies around her.

Cloudcover, her old friend, always so mellow, now stood reviewing charts and drawing up strategic diagrams for the other secret service ponies with the confidence of an old pro. Everypony had their secrets, she supposed; her own daughter was as good an indication as any that sometimes even ponies with big secrets had to carry on with normal lives.

Not far away was Watt, as energetic and enthusiastic as ever. To the untrained eye, Ditzy supposed, it might seem like the earth pony wasn't taking things seriously, but she knew that was a lie. Just because the situation was grave didn't mean it couldn't be tackled with the same vigor that more positive happenings would receive. Watt was simply putting his energy to good use.

Sparkler stood with Presto, Lucid, Scorch, and Frosty once again. There was no doubt in Ditzy's mind anymore that the stern young mare had taken up the role of leader of her former classmates. Presto and Lucid seemed to defer to her for instructions, and even Scorch and Frosty tended to do as they were told, though they made sure to loudly rationalize their actions so ponies around them were clear that they definitely weren't just following Sparkler's orders.

Ditzy couldn't help but smile as she watched the purplish mare work. She still sported a steely, no-nonsense personality, but she had drive and determination that wasn't there a few months earlier. The dour, hopeless Sparkler was long gone. A new Sparkler, serious and fierce but with obvious care and concern for her allies, had emerged after being buried for so long. And as long as Presto remained by her side, it seemed she'd only continue to improve.

Next, Ditzy turned her attention to Spiral Script. The mare was poring over a map of Canterlot, marking dozens of locations with a quill. Though they hardly knew each other, Ditzy felt a lot of respect for the accomplished unicorn; after all, four of Dinky's five years at the Academy were under her care. More and more, she admired the dean's dedication to her students, and to Equestria.

Dinky, Clarity, Honeydew, Scuffle, and Tango Trot stood huddled together, which came as no surprise to Ditzy at all. She'd only caught snippets of their conversation, but it sounded like Tango was being filled in on all the details of Dinky's life as a wraith. Fortunately, the Overseer seemed quick to accept what they said, but that wasn't surprising either; he'd been working with Clarity all year, and appeared to be quite close with Honeydew, too.

And finally, there was Breeze, standing by Ditzy's side and taking in the scene just like she was. Attentive, dependable, and ready to help in any way he could.

If we make it out of this, it's high time I marry that stallion for real.

As Ditzy stood with her fiance', she couldn't help but marvel at the energy of the room. Ponies of all three races, and across a range of ages from the students just over eighteen to the aging Cloudcover or Dean Script, were gathered here with a single purpose. And while the weight of the task ahead hung heavily on all of them, there was still an unshakable companionship that bound them all together. Old friends talked and even laughed together, despite the grim state of the world around them, and everypony seemed determined to help and support one another to achieve their overall goal.

Love, friendship, and all the other Magic of the Heart may be fading from Equestria... Ditzy thought, but Wishing Star hasn't snuffed it out entirely just yet. So many citizens have given up hope, but among these ponies, it's still alive and well.
Dr. Candyfloss would be proud if he were here to see this.

Cloudcover flapped his wings, lifting himself into the air above the other ponies. "Your attention please, everypony," he called. "Please listen closely to Dean Script and myself. It's time to go over the plan."

Dean Script lit her horn and projected a diagram of Canterlot and its surrounding barrier into a blank wall. "For this effort to be successful, we will unfortunately need to split into two parties," Cloudcover continued. "The reason for this comes down to the nature of the barrier surrounding Canterlot. Lucid, I believe you can explain it best."

Lucid nodded vaguely as she continued to watch the reading on one of her instruments. "I've finished my comprehensive study of the spell, and it's just about as complex as I feared," she admitted, sliding her glasses up the bridge of her nose each time it gave a nervous twitch. "I still don't know how one unicorn could possibly be maintaining it from within, but I think I do know how to penetrate it from outside. The barrier has resisted all attempts to teleport past it or blow it open so far because it's actually constantly changing; the type of magical energy that would be necessary to bust a hole in it is different from moment to moment, making it hard to focus one part of it with the correct energy long enough to break through."

"How can we counteract that?" Clarity asked. "Do the changes follow a pattern?"

"They don't," Lucid sighed. "I've got another solution, but it's a lot more complicated. We might be able to refocus magic thrown at the shield in real time to make sure the right sort of energy is always in use, but it's going to require constant attention and a coordinated effort by several unicorns. To make matters worse, the disruptive effects of the barrier on magic might cause any of us who do make it inside to have spells fail or misfire, unless somepony is out here consistently cancelling the disruption with... well, another disruption."

"For those of you who aren't especially versed in magic, this means we need a minimum of five unicorns besides myself to stay outside Canterlot, in order to give the rest of us a chance of getting in and succeeding while inside," Dean Script explained. "I absolutely need Scorch, Frosty, and Lucid to stay out here; the twins are the only two who can maintain a strong attack spell for an especially extended period of time, and Lucid's instruments are the only thing that will allow us to keep up with the changes in the barrier's weakness. I will also be staying outside; I have a spell that may be able to weaken Wishing Star's hold on Canterlot, but it will require one of the ponies on the inside to carve specific runes around the city. The earth ponies and pegasi, as well as Dinky, our secret weapon, must go inside the city once the way has been cleared. Does this make sense so far?"

Most of the assembled ponies nodded.

"The only ponies that are still unassigned to one team or the other are Clarity, Honeydew, Scuffle, Tango Trot, Sparkler, and Presto. I need two volunteers from among you six to help us with the barrier, while the rest join the team entering Canterlot."

"If Dinky's going to face Wishing Star, I'm going too," Clarity declared, rushing to Dinky's side.

"Same," Scuffle declared. "I'd probably rather be in there with some psycho unicorn than out here with Scorch and Frosty, anyway."

The twins snarled, but their intimidation went unacknowledged.

"Um... me too," Honeydew admitted. "If there's one thing I've learned these last few years, it's that I'd rather be in peril right beside my friends than hiding and worrying myself to death."

"That makes this easy," Tango Trot chuckled. "Sparkler and Presto work well together anyway, so they can remain out here while I—"

"Err, hang on," Ditzy interrupted. "Can I make a suggestion?"

All eyes turned to the grey pegasus. "Of course, Ditzy," Cloudcover invited. "Do you have a different idea?"

"I know this isn't what you guys were planning..." Ditzy continued, speaking directly to all the gathered students, "but I think... maybe Sparkler should come to Canterlot with us. While you're all powerful and talented, we need a pony in there to coordinate the magic side of things like Dean Script is doing out here. And it's become clear to me that Sparkler is the pony who is best at that."

Sparkler looked shocked. "...That's flattering, Mrs. Doo," she finally managed, looking slightly away. "But... then... Presto will stay outside, while I go on ahead?"

Presto placed a hoof gently on Sparkler's shoulder. "Mrs. Doo has a point, you know," he admitted, though he looked less than happy about it. "You are a natural leader. You might be just what they need to turn the tide. Just be careful in there."

Sparkler's legendary composure faltered for a moment, and she turned to her friend with an uncertain look. "...I'll go with them, if you think it's the right move," she said finally. "And let's both be careful. Who knows what lies ahead."

"So Sparkler is going and Tango is staying with us?" Dean Script asked. "We don't have enough for barrier duty if they both go. Unless you want to rearrange further?"

Tango and Honeydew exchanged a glance. "Unless Presto accompanies Sparkler into Canterlot and Honeydew and I become your two volunteers instead?" he ventured.

Honeydew frowned. After a moment, she shook her head, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "Tango, I'm sorry but... I need to stay with Scuffle and Dinky and Clarity," she said, her voice surprisingly decisive. "I hate that I have to choose, but..."

She trailed off, but fortunately, Tango offered her an understanding smile. "You know what's best for you, my dear friend," he conceded, patting her comfortingly. "In that case, Presto and I are your two volunteers, Dean Script."

"Then I believe it's time," the dean replied solemnly. "We've received word from the remaining Elements of Harmony that even their efforts haven't stopped the slow disintegration of friendship and trust in Equestria. If we fail now... there may be nopony left to succeed."

Ditzy stood at the edge of the cliff, her wings spread wide as she prepared to fly. Right beside her was Dinky, now in her wraith form, doing the same action, but with wings of smoke and blackness instead of feather, flesh, and bone.

That was going to take some getting used to.

The rest of the team stood at the ready to fly or teleport. Or in Watt's case, to be carried through the air by Breeze and Cloudcover. There was nothing to do now but wait for the dean's team of unicorns to make their move.

"Clarity!" Dean Script called. "If things turn violent, and I'm afraid that's quite likely, I want you to handle carving those runes I mentioned. Keep hidden, and place as many as you can around the perimeter. Understand?"

Clarity glanced at the notepaper of runes the dean had given her and nodded. "She hasn't really explained what the runes will do, though" she said, quietly enough that only the few ponies standing near her could hear. "That seems odd, considering how much detail she and Lucid went into about the other spells."

"Maybe she figures we already have enough to remember?" Dinky offered.

"No time to dwell on it," Scuffle pointed out. "Looks like they're starting!"

"Scorch, Frosty, I hope you two are as strong as you say you are," Dean Script called as she indicated a spot on the surface of the barrier. "Focus your spells right there, and don't let up until I say so."

Scorch and Frosty reared up in unison, whooping and bellowing nonsensical war cries. Twin beams of energy burst from their horns, converging in midair and striking the barrier with such force that Ditzy felt the impact in her chest from hundreds of pony-lengths away.

"Ok, I've got a read on the initial reaction of the barrier," Lucid announced, quickly adjusting several knobs on the small metal console she was carrying in her aura. "The attack was effective for... jeez, barely five seconds. This is gonna be tricky."

"Presto!" Dean Script barked, undeterred by the news. "Time for the focusing spell. Adjust the twins' energy each time Lucid instructs you to... which apparently will be every five seconds."

The black and white stallion galloped over to Lucid, magic already springing up around his horn. A large, glimmering lens appeared halfway between the twins and the barrier itself, adjusting the speed and width of their lasers as they passed through it.

"Okay, focus it to 84% and narrow the point of impact," Lucid instructed. "Oh, and now it's changing again. Increase power to 93% and widen it a pony-length or so."

For several minutes, the cycle continued, Lucid frantically translating the readings into commands and Presto making them happen. Just as Ditzy was beginning to think it was fruitless, a loud, glass-like cracking sound rung through the air, as damage began to spread outward across the pink barrier from the point of impact. Another minute or so later, a whole section of it shattered apart, leaving an opening several pony-lengths wide."

"Do not stop the assault!" Dean Script ordered. "Maintain that opening! Tango Trot, begin anti-magic-disruption measures."

Tango's icy blue aura flared brightly, casting shadows across the rocks where the other ponies were standing. "I think I've got it!" he announced. "Wishing Star's magic jamming should be neutralized, for now. It's now safe to teleport through the opening without worrying about the spell fizzling out mid-travel."

"That's our cue!" Cloudcover cried. "Infiltration team, go! Into Canterlot, as fast as you can!"

Sparkler was gone immediately, swept up in her teleportation spell. "See you soon, sis!" Clarity called, before disappearing in a flash of red. Scuffle and Honeydew exchanged a silent, urgent glance, and then both teleported as well. Squinting, Ditzy could just make out the flicker of their magic as the four of them appeared inside the opening in the shield around Canterlot.

"Let's go, let's go!" Cloudcover urged, as he and Breeze lifted Watt into the air, and the hoofful of other pegasi from Celestia's secret service carried their earth pony brethren into the sky as well. Ditzy quickly strapped her vision correcting helmet onto her head, bringing Canterlot into sharp focus, and took to the air. And for the first time, her daughter sailed along beside her.

"Uh, mom? Why are you staring at me?"

Ditzy's thoughts snapped back to reality and she shook her head. "Sorry," she chuckled weakly. "I'm just not used to seeing you in the air. I've barely gotten used to seeing you in your wraith form."

Dinky flashed a fanged grin. "I wish I could say looks alone would be enough to scare Wishing Star off, but I don't think it's gonna be that easy," she replied.

The two ponies flew faster as the edge of Canterlot began to draw near. It was Dinky who spoke next, but this time her tone was entirely different.

"Mom... you know, there's a good chance some of us aren't gonna make it out of this," she mumbled. "And everypony's counting on my magic to skew things in our favor. And I know how much you hate it when I'm in danger..."

Ditzy nodded. "Well, yes hon, I'm terrified," she admitted. "I'm sure you're even more terrified, considering the burden Princess Celestia has put on you. But Cloudcover and Dean Script are right. It's taken me days to come to terms with it, but... we might actually be Equestria's last hope. Just... be safe, and do what you have to do."

To Ditzy's surprise, Dinky smiled. She turned to face Canterlot again, and after a moment, responded with just a few words.

"Thanks for trusting me."

Most of the members of the secret service took off into the city, apparently to take up positions around the perimeter of the castle to provide support. Ditzy and Dinky were two of the last ponies to touch down on the cobble streets of Canterlot. Just in time, it seemed, as no more than twenty seconds later, the opening in the magical wall began to close and Scorch and Frosty's energy finally started to peter out. Soon, the shimmering pink barrier was whole again, sealing the team of nine ponies off from the rest of the world.

"No turning back now, huh?" Watt asked, rearing up and placing his forehooves against the solid magic as he peered down at the landscape far below.

"Afraid not, old chap," Cloudcover confirmed, turning instead toward the center of the capital. "Be on guard, everypony. We're making our way to the castle."

Ditzy folded her wings against her sides. Huddled together with Breeze and Dinky, she followed Cloudcover's lead toward whatever fate awaited her.

"Where is everypony?" Honeydew asked finally, breaking the tense silence.

"Hiding, I guess," Scuffle replied. "I'd hide too if a psycho mare kidnapped my whole city and there was nothing I could do about it."

"And if Lucid's right about the fading magic in Equestria, I'm sure the distrust and paranoia that ponies are experiencing sure isn't helping," Clarity added.

Dinky didn't comment, but she was silently grateful that all the residents of Canterlot were keeping out of sight. The thought of what was to come weighed heavily on her mind.

After I nearly killed Sparkler a few years ago, I swore I'd never turn my dark magic directly on another pony again, she recalled. But if a single pony really has kidnapped all the princesses and is threatening all of Equestria, it may be time to break that promise.

She knew that all the ponies around her, and even the princesses themselves, were counting on her to do just that, but it didn't make the prospect of it any more appealing.

The gate of the castle loomed at the end of the cobbled street in front of them, as silent and foreboding as the rest of the city. Watt darted ahead of the group and gave it a yank, but though it rattled slightly, it didn't budge an inch.

"It ain't opening, guys."

"Locked. I'm not surprised," Cloudcover said gruffly. "Most of us can just fly over or teleport through, though."

Sparkler moved cautiously forward, shining her purple aura on the unmoving gate. "Unfortunately, it looks like there's an enchantment in place that's preventing that," she observed. "I'm no slouch when it comes to unraveling enchantments, so if you give me a few minutes I can probably undo it."

"Or," said Dinky loudly, smirking at Sparkler a bit and letting darkness spring up around her horn, "you could step aside for a second and I'll open it."

Even staunch Sparkler quickly backed down when faced with dark magic. Dinky leaned forward and touched her curved horn against the gate, and in a matter of seconds, the majority of the ornate gold had melted into glowing slag.

"...That works too," Sparkler admitted, staring at the cooling puddle of molten metal. "Keep that magic at the ready, Dinky. You might need it in a minute."

Dinky nodded, remaining on guard keeping close to her friends as the team of ponies strode across the courtyard.

"The castle itself is likely locked as well," Cloudcover guessed. "No matter, we'll blow those doors open to if that's what it—"

With a resounding bang, the front door was thrown wide, and to everypony's surprise, Wishing Star herself strode out, her head held high and a complacent sneer on her face.

Horns lit and wings spread as the team of ponies readied themselves for anything. But Wishing Star simply trotted forward, undeterred, stopping just a short distance in front of them.

"Now this is unexpectedly bold!" she giggled, smoothing her blue and yellow mane as if she needed to make herself presentable. "Nine little ponies have dropped by to say hello! Four of my cherished companions from Equestria Speedy Shipping Services, four of my dearest students from the Academy, and—"

She paused, staring at Sparkler for a few moments. "—And one of the leftover pieces from this little game of chess I've been playing all year," she snickered. "To what do I owe this visit?"

Just the sight of the traitorous unicorn made Dinky's blood boil, but it was her mother that lashed out first. "What do you think?" the pegasus snapped. "You tricked and sabotaged every one of us, for Celestia knows what reason, and you think we're gonna take it lying down when you try to take over the whole nation?"

Wishing Star rolled her bright pink eyes. "Everypony keeps jumping to that conclusion..." she grumbled. "Princess Twilight was babbling about something similar in the moments before I imprisoned her. The notion that I want to be queen of this pathetic realm is insulting."

"You kidnapped the princesses," Breeze said angrily. "You're holding a whole city captive. You're doing... something to the flow of latent magic in Equestria. And you're standing here trying to tell us this isn't a hostile takeover?"

"Do you really care about defining it?" Wishing Star asked, the boredom apparent in her voice. "You're going to be dead in a moment anyway, just like that idealistic old windbag you used to work for. Though I suppose since you made such an effort to get here, the least I can do is explain my brilliant plan before this all ends."

Dinky felt a gentle tug on her tail. Turning around, she spied Sparkler gesturing to her. As discreetly as she could, she backed up, putting the rest of the ponies between herself and Wishing Star.

"Quickly, while she's busy monologuing," Sparkler whispered. "We've established that no normal unicorn should be able to maintain the spell that has its grip on Canterlot, so I've been looking for any outside source of magic. Please tell me you see what I'm seeing."

Dinky glanced between her friends at Wishing Star and slowly shook her head. "...No?"

Sparkler snorted. "And here I thought enchantments were your specialty," she hissed. "It's staring us right in the face."

Dinky looked again, scrutinizing Wishing Star's orange coat, her bright mane, the white star on her flank...

...her bejeweled headband...

A particular lesson from enchantments class came rushing back to her.

"The headband!" she gasped. "She's been wearing that all year. There's gotta be over fifty small stones on there. Are you all this time it was an incredibly complex enchantment array?"

"Gotta be," Sparkler confirmed. "If every single one of those jewels is enchanted, and all the spells are working in tandem with one another, that thing could be an incredibly powerful magical artifact. It might even be what she used to overpower the princesses. If that's the case, all we have to do is destroy the headband, and the nine of us will be more than a match for her."

"How do we get it from her?" Dinky asked in a hushed voice. "A surprise attack seems like a bad idea. She wouldn't be reckless enough to walk right up to us if she wasn't shielded or protected in some way."

"Just let things play out, for now," Sparkler recommended. "Wait for an opening. All we have to do is get it off her for one moment, and then you hit it with dark magic and bam. It's over."

Dinky nodded and slowly returned to her position in the group, while Wishing Star continued to talk. Dinky realized she hadn't missed much; the haughty mare had been explaining how she'd gotten away with undermining the shipping company, and outing Dinky as a wraith to the public.

"Hold it, we already know all this!" Watt snapped. "We know what you did, but we don't know why! And how does messing with Ditzy and Dinky's lives play into your plan to capture the princesses?"

Wishing Star grinned devilishly. "It all has to do with the source of my power," she said proudly. "When you met me, I was weak. Perhaps even weaker than the average unicorn. But my magic draws strength from the hatred in the hearts of ponies, and I found two particular ponies whose hatred of Ditzy and Dinky in particular overshadowed all others.

She lit her horn, and with two identical pink flashes, two ponies were summoned to either side of her. Two ponies that were immediately recognizable to everypony in the party.

"Bright Spark!" Dinky gasped.

"Cosmic Glow!" Ditzy cried.

"M-mom!?" Sparkler stammered.

"These two are the real reason Equestria is in such a state!" Wishing Star laughed. "By helping them get their revenge on Ditzy and Dinky, I cultivated their hatred and fed off it, growing stronger, until I was able to capture the princesses. Now these two are my helpless pawns, consumed by their own hatred run wild, and the princesses are sealed in prisons that block their magic. It's because of their absence that love, friendship, and harmony in Equestria are crumbling. And as they do, fear, distrust, and hatred take their place! Once I captured Canterlot, all I had to do was wait; with each passing minute, the bonds between the hearts of Equestrians erode further, and I grow stronger and stronger!"

"Unicorn magic doesn't draw power from others like that," Sparkler whispered to Dinky once again. "What she's saying may be true, but the headband has to be allowing her to tap into that power. And now that my mom and Bright Spark are here, I think I might have a plan. Just stay still, and be ready to destroy that headband the moment it's off her head."

Dinky nodded discreetly, and kept her focus on the glittering accessory in her enemy's mane.

"What good is all that power if this is what becomes of Equestria?" Honeydew asked, pleading for the villain to see reason. "A world of constant war and fear and destruction? You'd just be a ruler of a fallen kingdom!"

Wishing Star stamped a hoof so hard the stones beneath it cracked. "For the last time, you idiots, I'm not trying to rule Equestria!"

The vibration from Wishing Star's enhanced strength made her two companions stumble. Sparkler evidently saw her chance, rushing forward and hurling a spell not at Wishing Star, but at Cosmic Glow instead, who was too off-balance to defend. Dinky recognized it as a fairly harmless stunning spell, but it was enough to send the mare sprawling when it struck. Instantly enraged, Bright Spark pushed past Wishing Star to try to retaliate.

"You two! Stand down!" Wishing Star commanded. "I will destroy them when I'm good and ready!"

Bright Spark flung a much more dangerous-looking spell in Sparkler's direction, but she teleported out of it's range, reappearing in a position that put Wishing Star directly between her and Cosmic Glow instead. Glow, also overcome by blind hatred, didn't even think twice about trying to attack, causing her spell to hit Wishing Star instead of its intended target.

Glow's magic packed no notable punch, but it staggered Wishing Star for just a moment. Sparkler leapt forward while the ringleader was vulnerable, yanked the headband from her head, and hurled it into the air.

"Dinky! Now!"

Dinky released a cannonball-sized sphere of darkness that hurtled through the air like a black comet. The golden headband exploded in midair, its many gemstones shattering into a thousand twinkling shards.

She wasn't sure what to expect next. Maybe Wishing Star would be furious. Maybe she'd fall to the ground and beg for mercy. Maybe the two mares under her spell of hatred would suddenly awaken, or the princesses themselves would be freed and rush to the party's aid.

What she didn't expect was for the whole world around them to change in an instant.

In a matter of seconds, the night sky was blotted out by thick, churning red clouds. Somehow, they seemed to ignore the barrier entirely as they spread far beyond Canterlot, blanketing the whole land in just moments. Unnatural pink lightning began to flash in the growing storm, and an overwhelming, pulsing magical energy hung like a choking haze in the air. The oppressive energy made her spine tingle and her fur stand on end.

Wishing Star seemed to ignore the dramatic shift in the surroundings entirely. She stared, wide-eyed, at the faintly glittering shards of her headband. A manic, disbelieving grin began to creep across her face.

"W-what is that?" Clarity gasped. "That power! I can feel it radiating from... everywhere!"

"I don't understand!" Sparkler croaked. "I thought... wasn't the enchantment array the source of the spell? The source of all her power?"

Wishing Star burst out laughing. "Oh, Sparkler, you silly thing!" she crooned, as the rumbling and crackling of the lightning far above them grew louder. "You're half right. My headband was, indeed, an enchantment array. But it wasn't the source of my power; it's what I was using to mask it!"

A bolt of lightning ripped through the air, striking the ground just in front of Sparkler and forcing her to scamper back and rejoin the group of allies. Even Glow and Bright Spark ran for cover, but Wishing Star didn't even flinch.

"So, you want to know what my motivation is, do you?" she shouted over the noise of the supernatural storm. "Let me spell it out for you. I don't want to dominate Equestria at all; I want to tear it apart! Pony against pony, race against race... soon every denizen of Equestria will know only fear and hatred! The so-called magic in the hearts of all ponies is constantly heralded as the unifying force that makes this land a utopia. Let's see what remains of that precious utopia when I've stamped it out entirely. Let's see what's left when each and every pony's heart is empty and dark!"

"Why would a pony want to destroy everything?" Ditzy cried. "Maybe some wicked beast of Tartarus would have that goal, but Equestria allows most ponies to live wonderful, fulfilling lives!"

Wishing Star began to rise slowly into the air, and the angry red clouds began to swirl around her, quickly concealing her from view. Her voice rang out from within the stormy sphere, loud and clear.

"A pony! What a riot!" she called mockingly. "The powerful web of enchantments that Sparkler just destroyed was the only thing making it so I could possibly blend in among ponies."

Cloudcover motioned with a wing, indicating that the group should back off. The nine ponies slowly backpedaled at the rising sphere of blood-red stormclouds began to course with pink lightning.

"Do you know the price of maintaining a world as 'perfect' as Equestria?" Wishing Star's voice continued. "As much as ponies want to deny it as they go about their happy little lives in their quaint little towns, things like violence and hardship and pain do exist. In abundance, actually! Some beings from beyond this realm are disgusted by Equestria's state of being, and will only be satisfied by corrupting and poisoning it with the negativity it lacks. Discord, for example, is the spirit of chaos, something Equestria is sorely lacking. Though that old windbag is harmless now that he's found chaos can still exist without making ponies miserable. You'll notice he hasn't made any attempt to save Equestria from its current predicament though; he knows full well that time and space itself may be destroyed if he were to butt heads with another being like himself!"

"A-another being?" Dinky realized, glancing among her allies in shock. "But that means..."

Lightning blasted out of the sphere that had swallowed up Wishing Star, striking the cobbled courtyard and nearby buildings, splintering stone apart wherever it touched. With a tremendous surge of magic, it blew itself apart, the wisps of red cloud disappearing into the air. But the creature in the center was not Wishing Star. Not as anypony knew her, anyway.

The being hovering in the air in front of them still had the body of an equine, though the proportions had changed entirely; she now was built more like Princess Celestia than the cute unicorn she'd been moments before. Her fur was the same bright pink as the lightning still striking around the city, and glowed eerily with an otherworldly bioluminescence. Her mane and tail, darker pink than her fur, and sparkled in the dim light with thousands of tiny pink crystal shards inextricably intermingled with the hair. Her horn was no longer the typical spiral, bony protrusion that unicorns sported; instead, it was a long, twisted, razor sharp spire, made of the same pink crystal as the prisons holding the princesses. A pair of grand wings, made entirely of an impossibly ornate pink crystal lattice gave off a chorus of hollow clinking sounds as she stretched them. Only her eyes remained as they had been before; bright and pink and full of malevolence.

In a way, she seemed almost beautiful, but something was... off. The shape of her body was too severe, too harsh and angular. Though she had the features of some sort of crystal-studded alicorn, there was somehow an unexplainable, inherent wrongness to her form that made Dinky's stomach turn.

"What... what is that thing!?" Ditzy stammered.

"I was stripped of my power for millennia, but now that the land is rife with hatred and fear, I've become an unstoppable force," the new creature declared, grinning devilishly at the shocked cluster of ponies in front of her. "I will allow Equestria to be consumed by hatred simply because I am that hatred. I'm no simple pony, and I never was; I'm division and enmity incarnate! I am the spirit of resentment and malice! I... am... Animosity!"

Several more tremendous bolts of lightning crashed down, forcing the ponies out of the courtyard to take cover in the shadow of a nearby building.

"Ah, but you all..." Animosity continued, speaking more gently now, "you haven't given in yet. The magic that connects your hearts hasn't fizzled and died, so you still stand against me. Pity. I could destroy you myself, but I want you to understand the fruitlessness of your fight. So I'll let your fellow ponies do it instead!"

The strange being floated higher into the air, spreading her forelegs wide as waves of energy radiated from her. Dinky braced herself for an attack, watching her companions do the same, but none came.

"What... what did she just do?" Scuffle asked.

Breeze turned around and gasped, pointing frantically down the street behind them. "See for yourself!" he said, his voice shaking.

Ponies, dozens of them, emerged from buildings and alleyways all around the city. Young and old, big and small, male and female, they all had something in common: their eyes burned with pink energy, and their loathing gazes were fixed on the small group of allies.

"These are the ponies who have lost hope, abandoned trust, and felt friendship die," Animosity proclaimed. "Left with nothing to bolster them, the hate has consumed them. Fight back if you like, but I know you won't end the lives of innocent ponies to save yourselves, hate-ridden as they may be. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch the rest of Equestria fall."

A symphony of hauntingly melodious sounds filled the air as Animosity flapped her crystalline wings, ascending into the air and quickly disappearing into the seething red clouds.

And then, the army of hate-filled ponies began to advance.

The few additional members of the secret service leapt into action, leaping from their hiding places or gliding from the tops of buildings and positioning themselves between the heroes and the approaching mob. Cloudcover turned to the rest of the group urgently.

"We'll hold them off," he declared. "Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle, you must do as the dean said. Keep to the shadows and begin placing those runes anywhere you can. You're all very powerful; if more of these hateful ponies should appear, fight back if you must. Dinky, go with your friends to keep them safe, and if you encounter Animosity again... I hate to say it, but her power is undeniable. You're the only one among us who has even a chance of fighting off a creature like that. Hold nothing back."


"No time!" Cloudcover barked as the pack of snarling ponies drew closer. "Go! Now!"

Clarity nodded and took off down a narrow street still clear of Canterlot residents. Whimpering, Honeydew bolted after her, with Scuffle galloping beside her, matching her pace.

Dinky cast a final look at her mother. Ditzy had tears in her eyes, but she pulled her vision helmet down, concealing them, and gave a resolute nod. Knowing she had to protect her friends, the wraith turned and sprinted down the alley, wisps of jet black smoke trailing behind her.

"We're dead. We are so dead. For real this time."

"Try to stay calm, Honeydew," Clarity soothed, although her voice was quite shaky as well. "We don't know for sure how strong Animosity really is. Maybe we'll be able to hold her off if we work together."

Dinky watched in silence as another narrow laser fired from the tip of Clarity's horn, burning a rune into the side of a brick building. Chaotic sounds echoed all around the four of them, and she found herself feeling grateful for the constant rumble of magical thunder overhead; it somewhat deadened the cries of rage and terror rising from the city all around them.

"Yeah, we've got Dinks on our side," Scuffle added, taking one of Honeydew's forehooves in his own for a moment and giving it a quick squeeze. "She can blow up boulders the size of buildings!"

"And our opponent can tear an entire city out of the ground..." Honeydew mumbled.

Dinky had a sneaking suspicion that Honeydew was right, but she knew saying it aloud would only leave her friends more distressed.

"Focus, you two," Clarity said quietly. "Stay on the lookout. We've already had to knock out three of the hate-addled citizens of Canterlot. I'm sure there are more on the way, so let's finish these runes before—"

"Help! Anypony!" called a distant voice.

Clarity ceased her spell immediately and stood bolt upright, her ears raised. "That voice..." she whispered.

"Is anypony out there? Please!"

"Stay on guard and follow me," Clarity commanded, leading the way toward the distressed wailing. Dinky kept her horn lit as she followed her friends around a corner and down a narrow stairwell that ended in a small courtyard in which a building had partially collapsed. Judging by the dust in the air, it had just happened, probably due to one of the lightning strikes.

Clarity surrounded a huge slab of stone with her aura and hauled it out of the way, revealing a small, closed-off crawlspace in which a pinto filly with a ruddy red-brown mane was cowering.

"Inkwell!?" Clarity asked, flabbergasted.

Inkwell's eyes, which Dinky quickly noticed were still their usual yellow-orange rather than glowing pink, flew open.

"Overseer Clarity!" she shrieked, hurling herself into Clarity's chest and bursting into tears. "I-I-I c-can't believe it! Are... are you h-here to save everypony?"

"We're trying, Inkwell," Clarity promised, hugging the filly tightly. "But how can you be here? Were you trapped in Canterlot all this time?"

Inkwell sniffled and nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of a hoof. "Bella, Top, and I were here when Wishing Star captured Princess Twilight," she mewled. "We tried to get away, but then the... the whole city... and we found a place to hide and gathered some food, and we were all upset and scared.. but then Bella and Top started taking it out on each other! And then this crazy storm started and both of them started to get violent, and I didn't want to leave them, but I had to! I was worried they were going to hurt each other, so I went to look for help, but then l-lightning hit the building and everything f-fell and I was trapped and I thought I was n-never going to—"

Inkwell's voice cracked and she dissolved into helpless sobbing, once again burying her face in the fur on Clarity's chest. The Overseer held her tightly and gently stroked her back.

"Inkwell, we're here with some other ponies and we're trying our best to save Canterlot," she murmured. "Come with us. We'll find someplace safe for you to hide while we—"

There was a tremendous flash of lightning and an earsplitting roar of thunder. Dinky was momentarily blinded by the glare, but as her vision returned a second later, she realized in horror that Animosity herself was floating a few pony lengths above, reclining with her forehooves behind her head as if lying on an invisible lounge chair.

"There you are," the crystalline monstrosity chuckled. "I've been looking for you, Dinky. After all, you're the only one of that pitiful little rescue party who wields any real power. I don't even need to lift a hoof to deal with the rest."

Dinky glanced at Clarity for just a moment. "Take Inkwell somewhere safe," she instructed.

Clarity didn't need to be told twice. She hoisted the surprised filly with a brief flicker of magic and deposited her on her back, and then teleported away, along with her passenger. Animosity didn't offer them so much as a glance, keeping her gaze focused on Dinky.

"It's really a pity I have to destroy something like you," Animosity continued, her lattice wings making a chorus of faint chimes with each slow flap. "You wraiths thrive on negative emotions. I'd have much preferred to let you run wild, spreading unchecked destruction and bringing even more fear and anger to the minds of Equestrians. You'd get to have all sorts of fun razing cities, and I'd get to feast on all that terror and fury."

"You want me to cause some destruction?" Dinky asked, curling her lips up to bare her fangs and watching out of the corner of her eye as Scuffle and Honeydew slowly backed off toward the far end of the courtyard. "Sure thing. How about I start with you?"

Animosity cackled. "Have you forgotten?" she jeered. "I sat in on all your dark magic sessions while posing as your counselor. I know all your tricks."

Dinky mustered all her energy— including the vast stores of it she'd stolen from Scorpio— into her horn. I've only got one shot before she realizes how much stronger I've become, she realized. I better make it count!

Unlike Animosity, her friends at the other end of the courtyard knew what was coming. An instant before she loosed her spell, she saw them brace themselves for the force of it.

It was only when the ball of energy had already left her horn, and the resulting shockwave had blown the windows out of the surrounding buildings, that Animosity seemed to realize she'd miscalculated. She managed to make a shield materialize, made of the same stuff as Canterlot's barrier, preventing her from being affected by the deadly effects of the magic. The full force of it still hammered against her shield though, hurling her into the sky with a scream of outrage.

"Somepony has more strength than I remember!" she snarled as she floated back down to the courtyard. "Fine then. That will make this more interesting!"

Dinky expected Animosity to cast a spell from her horn. Instead, the powerful being gave a casual wave of her hoof, and the ground began to rumble. One of the cobbles beneath where Dinky was standing split apart, and she leapt out of the way an instant before a long, sharp spike of pink crystal burst from the ground, jutting through the space she'd been standing an instant before. She barely had time to process the fate she'd just avoided before more cobbles began to buckle. Summoning her wings into existence, she took to the air before the crystalline spines could impale her.

"You fly now, too!" Animosity laughed. "You've been a busy little bee since I last saw you! But even your new strength is no match for mine."

The long pink crystal spikes continued to appear, bursting from the sides of buildings once Dinky got far enough to be out of reach of the ones on the ground. She weaved around them in midair, knowing a single mistake would likely leave her gravely wounded.

In seconds, the outer surface of several buildings surrounding the courtyard had become a veritable pincushion of needlelike crystals. Dinky's magic pulsed, flapping her wings and carrying her out of their reach and into the open air. She charged her horn again, while Animosity grinned playfully at her.

"Gullible, aren't you?" the hate spirit asked. "Of course you were going to escape. And now that you're up here, safely out of range, let's take care of one of your little friends, shall we?"

Dinky blinked, and desperately looked down at the courtyard. Even from this distance, she was able to see a cobblestone split apart directly beneath Honeydew. The filly was staring up at the two airborne combatants, unaware of the danger. She tried to rush back to the ground but there wasn't enough time to fly there, or even cast a spell; the crystal spike would emerge in less than a second.

Honeydew may not have realized the danger, but somepony else sure did.


Scuffle threw his full body weight at the filly beside him, ramming her with his shoulder and sending her careening head-over-hooves and landing in a heap. Dinky's hooves slammed down on the stone a moment later, and she raced over. Fortunately, while dazed, there was no sign of a wound on Honeydew's body; it seemed she'd been spared Animosity's attack.

"Are you okay?" she asked, helping the filly up.

Honeydew seemed to have had the wind knocked out of her, but she nodded. "Y-yeah," she panted. "Are you okay, Scuffle?"

"Yeah, I—"

Scuffle stopped mid-sentence, and a strange look crept over his face. Slowly, he slid one of his forelegs aside, and Dinky's eyes widened as she saw the crystal spire, driven into Scuffle's flesh just below his ribs. Judging by the width at the point of entry, she knew the tip of it was buried more than deep enough to have pierced through several organs, meaning it was almost certainly beyond medical or magical repair. The positioning was unquestionably fatal; the first trickle of crimson was already starting to drip down the side of the spike.

Honeydew froze, still as a statue. Scuffle locked eyes with her, and a hint of a sad smile played across his muzzle.

"Uh... actually, n-no, Dewey. No I'm not."

Overhead, Animosity snickered. "Not the one I was aiming for, but that works," she said casually.

She gave another wave of her hoof, and all the crystals, including the one embedded in Scuffle, instantly receded into the ground. Scuffle's legs immediately buckled, and he yelped like an injured puppy as he hit the ground.

"Scuffle!" Honeydew screamed, shaken from her stupor as she rushed to his side.

"You know, this gives me a great idea," Animosity realized. "Maybe I don't even have to destroy you, Dinky. If I can get rid of your loved ones, you'll have nothing to fight for. At that point, you might as well indulge in your instinct for destruction, right? I'll get you behaving like a typical wraith one way or another. Let's see if I can find that cross-eyed mother of yours next."

She turned away and shot into the sky. Dinky moved to follow, but paused, glancing back at the fallen colt and the filly beside him.

"Don't just stand there!" Scuffle croaked. "There's more ponies in danger! Get up there and kick her ass before she hurts anypony else."

Dinky flinched. "But—"

"But nothin'!" Scuffle snapped, as Honeydew frantically tried to flip Scuffle on his side to examine the wound. "There's nothing for you to do here, and you know it! They're all dead if you stay, so go, Dinks!"

The reality of what was happening finally hit Dinky. She realized Scuffle was right, but if she knew if she left now, the two of them would not speak again.


Dinky turned and rocketed into the air as fast as her wings would carry her. Black-stained tears streamed along her cheeks, and she tried to block out Honeydew's panicked wails as she hurtled after Animosity.

I won't let her inflict a single scratch on anypony else! she mentally vowed, as a darkness-fueled rage like nothing she'd ever felt quickly overshadowed the sorrow over her dying friend. If I'm gonna stop her, then maybe it actually is time to start behaving like a real wraith for once! If Animosity wants to see true destruction... then Celestia damn it, she's gonna get it!