• Published 27th Aug 2012
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Live by the Creed - FoughtDragon01



Rainbow Dash discovers a dark secret in her family's past that could change her life forever.

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21: Moths to the Flame

Despite what her subjects liked to believe, Celestia was not perfect, not by any means. They all saw her as a paragon of composure, and perhaps due to her own ego, Celestia grew to believe that herself. For far too long, she had forgotten that her composure was not unshakeable, nor was it immune to time’s slow, but present erosion. She fooled herself into believing that her emotions would forever remain in check, that nothing would ever make them spiral out of control. She learned the hard way that even after so many centuries, she was still just as much of a danger to herself as she was to the ponies around her, friend and foe alike.

The princess released a small sigh. The anger that flared uncontrollably inside of her, the destruction that she heartlessly caused, and the danger that she foolishly placed Twilight and the others in, it all went back to the Pieces. Though Celestia kept them hidden away, though they never ceased to haunt her, she made the mistake of letting her paranoia get the best of her. Upon discovering that the Staff was stolen, her ensuing panic grew to be her greatest downfall. It caused her to act without thinking, and that was ignoring her acts of cruelty.

She essentially abused Rainbow Dash, putting her mental integrity in jeopardy. The Celestial Museum, a piece of architecture constructed in her honor, lay in shambles because of her. Countless civilians, innocent lives that she was sworn to protect, lay bloodied and beaten, fallen by her hoof. Then there was her largest concern. She still needed to explain all of this to Twilight.

Celestia shook those thoughts from her mind. As important as they were, she would have to dwell on them at another time. She couldn’t make plans for the future while the present still needed her attention. Though it would no doubt be a long one, the road to recovery would begin once Celestia regained the Staff from the Eclipse.

The princess stood before a pair of large, stone doors, no doubt leading into a chamber of some kind. Her horn practically ached from the magic that she was sensing on the other side. There wasn’t a single doubt in her mind; the item that she had been searching for was behind that door.

With a single blast of magic, Celestia pushed the doors open. As she suspected, it led into a large, circular chamber. Numerous torches lined the vast chamber’s walls, lighting the place with an ominous orange glow. The ceiling was high, high above her, obscured by the pitch darkness. It seemed more like staring into a pitch-black abyss than anything else. What purpose such a chamber served, Celestia didn’t know, nor did she care. Her attention was drawn towards the center of the room.

Her breath hitched in her throat as her gaze focused on the object lying in the middle of the room, resting in the center of a large, radiant sun carved into the stone. She could hardly believe the sight before her as her legs, of their own volition, carried her towards the object that she’d been searching for. The Staff was only mere steps away, finally within her reach. She could finally put her worries, her fears, to bed. Yet, she still didn’t feel at ease.

Through the initial elation, something still didn’t feel right. For a single, fleeting moment, Celestia honestly believed that it would be as simple as retrieving it, finding the others, and getting out of that awful, awful place. Her sensible side, however, knew that things appeared far, far too easy.

Celestia slowed to a stop, straining her ears for the slightest hint of noise. It must’ve been some type of trap. It had to be. Yet she heard nothing. Not the slightest peep. She couldn’t even sense another pony’s presence in that chamber. So, she wasn’t being paranoid; the Staff was, quite literally, left wide out in the open, completely unguarded.

But Celestia was no fool. She knew that the Solar Eclipse were far too smart to make such a blundering error. There had to be more to it, but even if there was, Celestia simply couldn’t leave such a powerful object in their possession. Even if it meant playing right into their hooves, she needed to take it. She had to, and they knew it. They used Celestia’s obsession to their advantage. Whatever plan they had in store, she played into it perfectly, but that ended then and there.

Celestia was torn from her thoughts by the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Not the slow, cautious steps of a mere fledgling, but the confident, unflinching steps of somepony different. They were closing in at a steady pace, as though it was another part of their plan. Celestia would not be made a fool of, not again.

“That’s far enough,” she ordered. There was virtually no delay between her command and the pony complying, immediately coming to a stop. So this one was different from the rest; somepony more compliant, unlike the more bull-headed adversaries she’d encountered. However, she wasn’t ready to lower her guard quite yet. Far from it.

Slowly, Celestia turned towards this new visitor to find a blue stallion standing before her. Much like the others, his body was draped in black robes, but that was where the similarities ended. Unlike the others, he carried himself with a sense of confidence and authority that she hadn’t seen in other ponies before. His azure eyes stared back at the princess with an unwavering sense of calm. His lips even curled up into a slight smile. There was little doubt in Celestia’s mind; this was their leader.

“Who are you?” Celestia demanded.

A quiet chuckle left the stallion’s throat. “Straight to business as always.”

Celestia was uncertain of his intentions, but she certainly knew that she was not in the mood for any more games. “You and your followers have caused myself and others a severe amount of trouble. For your sake, I advise taking this a bit more seriously.”

Celestia didn’t get a chuckle this time, but that stallion’s smile still didn’t go away. “As you wish.”

“Then I’ll ask again. Who are you?”

After a few seconds’ silence, the stallion dipped his head in a quick bow. Celestia wasn’t certain if it was some sign of respect or a sign of mockery after all that he and his ilk had done. Regardless, it was a gesture that Celestia didn’t return. The anger behind her gaze was restrained, yet still noticeable as she looked over his every feature, eyes on the lookout for the slightest hint of movement that could serve as a signal of some kind. Surely, he wouldn’t come confront her on his own. Unless there was more that Celestia wasn’t seeing.

“I am Solare. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.”

----

“Pinkie, are you sure we’re goin’ the right way?” Applejack asked. Looking back, neither she nor the others knew what exactly possessed them to trust Pinkie of all ponies to lead them away from danger, especially in such a dire situation. It was a decision that they grew to regret as the bubbly mare ignored Applejack’s question, continuing to bounce down the dim, dank, torch-lit halls.

It was odd. They were passing by sign after sign, every single one pointing them towards the exit out of that terrible place. They had to have been going in the right direction, it was clear that they were, but something still felt off. The area that they were trapped in, while by no means pristine, was in far better condition than what they were travelling through now.

The walls from before were merely damp with moisture, but now the four mares could hear slight trickles of water running through cracks in the wall. The stone was no longer even remotely smooth, but jagged and rough, years of erosion leaving its very clear mark. It felt more like they were traveling through a cave than anything else. Yet they kept going, kept walking, kept pushing forward. They had to have been going the right way.

All the while, Pinkie led her friends further down that cave-like hall, excitedly muttering to herself. “I’m gonna have to throw, like, a bajillion parties after this!” she mumbled. “An Escaped-a-Dungeon party, a We-Helped-Celestia party, a Party-For-Partying party…”

As she rambled on, something bothersome crept its way into Applejack’s heart. She glanced back at Rarity and Fluttershy. Though none of them uttered a single word, they could tell, just by looking into each other’s worried eyes, that they all felt the same unease. There was something about Pinkie, about her voice, that simply didn’t sit right with them. “Er, Pinkie?” Applejack called.

Her words fell upon deaf ears as Pinkie didn’t slow for an instant, the stream of words leaving her lips never ceasing. “Oh! And a party for my five bestest friends in the world! No, it has to be bigger than a party! A double party! A party inside another party, like, in the middle of the first party, we all shout ‘Surprise!’ again and—”

“Pinkie!” Applejack shouted, her voice echoing in the hall.

Unfortunately, that didn’t have the intended effect. Instead of bringing Pinkie’s verbal onslaught to an end, it merely made her turn it towards the farm pony. “What do you think, Applejack? What’ll your party be like? Can we hold it at the farm? Oh! Oh! I got it! We can have it inside of a giant apple! It’s genius! I could even—”

“Pinkie!” the farm mare hissed. “Keep your voice down before you attract more of ‘em.”

The pink pony whipped around, coming to a complete halt, the others following suit. It was hardly intentional, more instinctive than anything else, but a sharp gasp passed through Applejack’s lips as she laid wide, shocked eyes on Pinkie Pie. She heard similar reactions from the two mares behind her as they stared at the same thing. They knew that something was off, and now they knew exactly what it was.

Pinkie, despite her beaming smile, was on the verge of breaking down in a sobbing wreck. Her eyes, glistening with tears, betrayed the happy expression that she wore. She wanted to remain jovial, to remain optimistic, to remain as the one source of happiness for her friends in this dark time. However, as Pinkie stared back at her friends, pained smile and tear-stained cheeks clear as day, it was obvious that this was all affecting her just as badly as the others, if not worse. Still, she just kept smiling.

“Doesn’t that sound fun?” she choked out.

It was too much for her three friends to bear. Silently, they embraced the pink mare, taking her into a tight, warm hug. The effects were immediate. Feeling her friends’ soft fur against hers, feeling the warmth and safety that the hug offered, it was calming. Tears of joy rather than sorrow trailed down her face as she sunk even deeper into the hug.

As Applejack stood there, her friends doing what they did best, she came to the shocking—and rather sad—realization that they hadn’t shared a comforting hug ever since they found themselves in this mess. Not even a hug, they hadn’t really even reassured each other very often. Now that she thought about it, Applejack and Rarity spent more time at each other’s throat than they did calming each other.

It may not have seemed as big of a deal as she thought it was, but it still bothered her. Things were still bad, things were still stressful. They couldn’t afford to cause more tension amongst themselves. They couldn’t afford to crack, not now. They needed to stick together, and that hug, that long, warm, comforting hug, was exactly what they needed to ensure that that happened. It served to remind them that no matter how dark things became, as long as they had each other, nothing would stop them.

Though it was nowhere near long enough, the four mares broke away from their hug, some of them wiping the resulting tears from their eyes.

“That… that sounds lovely, Pinkie,” Rarity said through the sobs.

Applejack nodded. “Yeah. An’ it’ll be the first thing we do when we get outta here.”

They all wanted that moment, that one single moment, to last for far longer than it did. Unfortunately, it was cut far too short when they heard a familiar chuckling that sent chills up their spines.

“Well, isn’t this just a heartwarming display?”

The four mares whipped around, their fears confirmed when they found a small group of those hooded goons coming their way, all of them led by that blue stallion from before. Solare, he said his name was.

Taking charge once again, Applejack barged forward, the others lingering behind. Words could not properly describe the utter rage burning in her eyes. “You again?” she spat.

“Me again,” Solare smugly replied.

“Why can’t you just buzz off an’ let us go home already?”

“Well, I’d love to have had this all resolved ages ago, but I suppose we all can’t get what we want now, can we?” A tired sigh passed through Solare’s muzzle. “I tried to be reasonable and fair—”

“You locked us in a dungeon cell!” Rarity snapped.

“—but it seems now we’ll have to go about things the hard way.”

Solare and his forces closed in, step by step, threatening to pounce at any moment’s notice. All the while, the four mares, even Applejack, backed away. They couldn’t let this happen. They were far too close to let themselves be captured again.

“Girls, come on,” Applejack said. “We’re almost outta here. Move!” She didn’t need to tell them twice.

In near absolute sync, they all turned tail and darted down the hall, following the signs to freedom.

“I would advise against that!” Solare called after, not that it made them slow for a second.

Over their own frantic hoofbeats, they couldn’t tell if those goons gave chase, and none of them wanted to risk checking. They just had to keep running, and run they did. Even as their legs burned and their lungs caught fire, they couldn’t afford to stop not even for a single instant.

“I… I think I see a door ahead!” Rarity shouted between breaths.

She was right. Not far ahead of them was what appeared to be a large doorway. This had to be it. Wherever that place led, it had to have been the way out, or their best way out at the very least. After all this time, they’d finally be free.

The four all tore across the threshold and burst into the room on the other side. Immediately, they could tell that they were in some kind of chamber. A large, round one, though it was hard to see anything more than that. The entire room was dimly lit by a few torches lining the walls. The most detail that they could make out was the large moon carved into the center of the room. They had next to no idea where exactly they were, but they didn’t care. So long as it led out of the dungeon, that was enough for them.

Unfortunately, they didn’t get much further than the middle of the chamber before they slowed to a stop. “Um… girls?” Applejack called, eyes wide with disbelief.

Rarity’s expression did well to match her friend’s as she looked around the unfamiliar room. “Yes, dear?”

“You see a way outta here, right?”

“I… can’t say that I do.”

That fleeting sense of hope was quickly beginning to dwindle yet again as the four mares peered into the darkness, straining their eyes as they tried to make out anything that even remotely resembled another doorway. Yet they found nothing. It was a dead-end. The only other way out was through the way they came in, where those other ponies were. They had walked right into a trap.

For the briefest of moments, they actually thought that they had time to turn around and find another way around before they caught up. After all, they had been running pretty fast; they might’ve lost them on their way here. Of course, that was mere wishful thinking on their part. That hopeless optimism vanished without a trace when they turned back towards the entrance to find that same group standing in their way, blocking their only way out.

Solare, yet again, took lead, breaking away from the group as he stepped forward, chuckling all the while. “Well, I warned you. Now, here we are.”

None of them, not even Applejack, said anything else as they all closed in. Again, grabbing ideas out of the air, Applejack considered trying to think of a way to get past them. They were in a fairly large room. If they used the space to their advantage, they might be able to slip past them and run right out of the door.

Unfortunately, she didn’t even get a chance to voice her plan before several of the hooded ponies, with an unreal sense of speed, broke away from the group and boxed the mares in. It nearly made their heads spin. There was no way that any pony could move that quickly. Regardless of what they’d like to believe, that little maneuver did two things: it surrounded them, making any attempts at retreat all the more difficult, and because of their speed, it just lowered their chances of running from slim to nil.

And just to ensure that none of them were going anywhere, the doorway’s large, stone doors, as though of their own accord, slowly slid shut. The grating sound of stone sliding against stone did nothing but fill their hearts with dread as the reality finally made itself painfully clear. They were trapped, and there was no way that they were getting out.

As the mares fearfully huddled together, Solare merely sat down in front of them. “Now, if there will be no more interruptions, perhaps now you’d like to talk.”

----

Whatever elation Twilight initially felt was beginning to dwindle with each passing second as she followed Rainbow towards her friends. Yes, she was happy to finally see a friendly face, but she couldn’t ignore the fact that there were four other faces she had yet to see again. Until she finally saw them with her own eyes, worry would linger in her mind. Only when she dismissed those worries would that particular weight finally stop bearing down on her.

Of course, there was also the issue of Rainbow Dash herself. It had only been a few days since her accidental exposure to those odd candles, and the effects were already clear as day. Even ignoring the headaches and hallucinations, something about her was different. Scarily so. Though she had always known that Rainbow was rather hot-headed, to put it lightly, she couldn’t deny that there was something off about her.

During her battle with that hooded mare, Twilight knew for a fact that she saw Rainbow smiling. Not just one of confidence, but one of pleasure as well, as though she was enjoying the battle, savoring it. Twilight had no intentions of mentioning that back then, and didn't have intentions to do so any time soon, but it was just another worrying thought itching at the back of her mind.

It was odd. It’d be easy to assume that Twilight would feel safer knowing that Rainbow was being so protective and assertive. Even Twilight couldn’t deny that she should’ve felt at least a little bit calmer. But she didn’t, and Rainbow was the reason for that.

At first, she simply thought that Rainbow was caught up in the heat of the moment, that she was desperate to ensure a friend’s safety. Looking at her now, though, there was no denying it. Rainbow changed, and Twilight had trouble convincing herself that it wasn’t for the worst.

It was her eyes, her excited smirk at the promise of battle. Twilight didn’t know what happened to her, but Rainbow grew more violent. She wasn’t fighting just because she had to, but because she wanted to. Really wanted to. It was almost disturbing. She seemed to revel in the heat of battle. She seemed to love the fight, the thrill it brought, and the sense of victory she felt over her fallen opponent.

In fact, looking more closely, Rainbow’s appearance seemed to have changed in subtle, yet large ways, and that was ignoring her strange excitement. Her fur was ruffled, certain areas red with bruises. Her mane, instead of the controlled mess it usually was, was more unkempt than usual. Numerous errant locks dangled over her still smiling face, some matted to her forehead with sweat.

It would’ve been easy to brush all of that off as the consequences of running around a hot dungeon for Celestia-knows-how-long, battling hostile enemies, no less. After all, Twilight certainly knew that she wasn’t looking her absolute best either. It would’ve been easy to brush it all off, but it all just made Rainbow look so feral. So… dangerous.

Then there was that harness that she happened to ‘find’. The leather straps wrapping around her body fit her well. Almost too well. Like she was meant to wear it. And of course, Twilight couldn’t keep her eyes from drifting down to that black, leather sheath, not while she knew what it contained. Try as she might, she couldn’t convince herself that Rainbow wouldn’t use it. Though she knew that Rainbow posed no threat towards her, she couldn’t help but feel scared. Not of what Rainbow would do to her, but of what she’d do to others.

And then there was Celestia. The last thing that Twilight remembered about her were those chillingly cold eyes before she...

She harmed so many innocents, and those eyes didn’t show a single hint of care or emotion. If she was capable of doing such a thing without an ounce of remorse, then Twilight didn’t want to think of what else she could do. It wasn’t the same Celestia that she grew to know. It felt like all of the ones that she held dearest to her heart were changing in terrifying ways. Even herself.

Twilight couldn’t deny that she allowed dark thoughts of vengeance to make themselves clear in her mind. She couldn’t deny that she, at one point, wanted to act upon those thoughts. She couldn’t deny that she made at least one of those thoughts a reality. The anger, the sheer primal rage that she felt towards these ponies nearly overrode her sense of compassion. It made her do things that she never thought that she was capable of. It was what made her torture that stallion. It was what made her try to kill that hooded mare. She couldn’t deny it. Whatever was happening to Rainbow, whatever was happening to Celestia, it was happening to her as well, and she didn't know if there was anything that she could do to stop it.

“Hey, Twi!” Rainbow called, snapping the unicorn out of her thoughts. “You blacking out on me back there?”

Twilight quickly shook her head, focusing back on the present. “No. I-I’m fine,” she stammered out.

“Then you mind answering my question?”

All of zero seconds ticked by before Twilight’s eyes shot wide open in surprise. “Er, I… I, uh… Yes?” She desperately needed to choose better times to think to herself.

The unicorn’s hesitant answer earned her little more than a flat stare from Rainbow. “You didn’t hear me, did you?”

“Not a word.” She elicited a heavy, annoyed sigh from Rainbow, much to Twilight’s own annoyance. “Well, what was it?”

“How’d you even find this place? I mean, there’s, like, a million other places you could’ve looked. How’d you know this was it?”

“Oh, I… I, um…” Twilight had to admit, considering the circumstances, she wasn’t expecting such a question, especially from one of her friends. She thought back to Star Light. Twilight still didn’t know why she put so much trust into that pink unicorn—desperation, maybe—but she couldn’t deny the fact that she wouldn’t have found this dungeon without her. Still, that didn’t change the fact that their ‘relationship’ was hardly anything concrete. Star Light still had a lot of things to explain before Twilight could even entertain the thought of trusting her after today, and that was ignoring the fact that she broke into Rainbow’s home.

“Uh, Equestria to Twi,” Rainbow called again. “Don’t tell me I’m losing you again.”

Twilight’s attention snapped back to Rainbow, eyes still wide. “Oh, I-I had help,” she quickly answered.

Rainbow raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Help? From who? Celestia?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, it was somepony else. I don’t think you know her, though.”

Rainbow’s eyebrow had yet to lower. In fact, her suspicions only grew. “Try me,” she said.

A soft sigh left Twilight’s mouth. She figured she wouldn’t be able to dance around the question for long anyway. Best to answer and get it over with. “Star Light. Her name was Star Light.”

Rainbow’s mouth curled into a focused frown as she stared off into space, tapping a hoof to her chin as she threw the name about in her mind. “Star Light, huh? That’s weird.”

It was Twilight’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Weird? How?”

“That name. It actually sounds kinda—” Rainbow’s face contorted in pain as a quick, sharp ache shot through her skull. She stumbled to a stop, gritting her teeth in an effort to hold in her pained cries. It wasn’t the worst one that she had felt, but that didn’t keep her purple friend from rushing up to her side nonetheless.

“Rainbow, are you okay?” Twilight quickly asked, keeping a hoof on Rainbow’s side as support.

Thankfully, she was quick to recover, shaking the pain out of her head. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. It’s nothing. Okay, so this Star Light helped you find the place.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.”

Rainbow rubbed her chin, still pondering on something that still seemed to bother her. “So… how did she know where to look?

Twilight felt the muscles in her body tense right up, her breath getting caught in her throat. “Um… beg your pardon?”

Rainbow looked dead into Twilight’s startled eyes as the pieces came together in her head. “It just seems weird, is all. This Star Light chick shouldn’t have had any more of a clue than you did about where this place was, not unless she was wrapped up in this somehow. So which is she? Is she involved in this or not?”

Twilight couldn’t believe it, but she was actually sweating, her heart pounding against her chest. She didn’t like thinking about any of her friends in a negative light, but she honestly didn’t expect such questions from Rainbow. If anything, she thought that she’d be lost in the moment, eager to save her friends. Twilight certainly was; she nearly forgot about Star Light herself.

In all honesty, though, it wasn’t so much that Twilight didn’t expect Rainbow to ask such questions, but rather she didn’t want her to ask such questions. With everything that had already transpired, with everything that Rainbow already had to deal with, Twilight didn’t want to add on to that pile. Knowing who Star Light was, knowing what she was a part of, Twilight knew that telling Rainbow wouldn’t have done any good.

Unfortunately, she underestimated just how observant Rainbow became, something that only became more apparent when the pegasus shot a glare towards Twilight, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly, scrutinizing her.

“Twilight, you’re not hiding something from me, are you?” Rainbow asked, her gaze never letting up.

Twilight felt herself shrink under the pegasus’ gaze. She never thought that Rainbow was capable of such an intimidating glare. “Rainbow, I... I didn’t… Sh-she’s not…” What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t just lie and hope that things would resolve themselves. For one, the idea of lying in such a situation didn’t seem like the best of idea. Second, if Rainbow was able to catch on to Twilight’s hesitation just by looking at her face, then she’d no doubt be able to see through her lies as well.

Unfortunately, Rainbow’s patience didn’t seem to get any better. She merely shook her head as Twilight tried to stammer out some kind of answer. “Ugh, forget it. We don’t have time for this. Let’s just get outta here first.” She must’ve felt the immense relief oozing from Twilight’s very being because the second that the unicorn was about to release a sigh, Rainbow froze her in place with another intense glare. “But you are gonna answer me later, right?”

Twilight merely had trouble speaking before, but with Rainbow glaring at her like that, it nearly made it impossible for her to form a coherent thought. “Um, r-right,” she finally answered. She didn’t know why, but for the briefest of moments, it felt as though that was more of a threat than a request. She was quick to push that feeling to the back of her mind as the two continued down the corridor, but it was still there, scratching away.

The pair finally reached the cell that once contained their friends. Thankfully, it didn’t seem like much changed during their absence. The cell door was still wide open, that one guard was still enjoying his impromptu nap, and, of course, the distinct scent of perfume still lingered in the air. Their trail hadn’t gone cold just yet; hopefully, that wouldn’t change any time soon.

Their journey, however, came to a small halt when Twilight stopped to observe the scene. Though she gave a quick passing glance towards the cell door, her eyes quickly became fixed on the sleeping stallion at her hooves. She didn’t need to say a thing; the worry in her eyes as she stared down at the still pony was more than enough.

“Hey, Twi.” Twilight snapped back to reality, looking up at Rainbow. The pegasus wore a worried frown of her own as she looked at her friend. “You alright?” Rainbow’s eyes drifted down to the unconscious stallion. A small sheepish grin crept onto her face when she got an idea about what made Twilight so worried. “Oh, er, he was like that when I got here.”

Twilight hardly seemed to hear the excuse. She just sighed, slowly shaking her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s just… How did we end up here? How did this happen to us?”

Rainbow couldn’t deny that she wasn’t expecting such a question. She also couldn’t deny that it was a question that she didn’t have an answer to. All she could do was scratch her head as she tried to think of an answer that never came. “I… I’ve really got no idea,” she admitted. “These guys just came outta nowhere.”

“But why?” Twilight persisted. “Why us? Why now? These ponies, the Solar Eclipse, what are they trying to achieve here?”

Rainbow’s face only scrunched further in confusion. She had to admit, it wasn’t a question that she thought much of. She was more concerned with getting out of that place in one piece. However, that didn’t mean all was lost on her.

What’s their reason? she thought. It wasn’t long before something stood out to her. The words of that one stallion.

The only way to ensure that destruction doesn’t befall Equestria is to obtain the Apple ourselves.

Finally, the realization slammed into her. “They want the Apple,” she muttered.

Twilight just caught the end of that, perking right up at Celestia’s name. “What? But how would they—?”

“Look, I don’t know. We can worry about that after we find the others.”

Rainbow was right. As confused as she was, whatever questions they had could be answered once they were out of that death trap. The safety of her library or Celestia’s personal quarters would undoubtedly be a nice change of locale from the dungeon’s oppressive atmosphere. Wordlessly, Twilight nodded, agreeing with her friend.

“Doesn’t look like we’ll have to look too far either,” Rainbow added. “Check it out.” She pointed Twilight towards something on the wall.

Looking up at it, Twilight felt her heart both flutter and skip a beat. No, she didn’t care if that was technically impossible, her heart still did it. She couldn’t even try to tear her eyes away from the sight before her, it was that amazing. And the best part? It was such a simple thing.

A small, wooden exit sign.

It was placed directly in front of her friends’ cell. Even from inside of their cell, they still could’ve seen it through the small window. There was no way that they could’ve missed it. If they did manage to break out by themselves, then they undoubtedly followed the sign. They were headed towards the way out. They’d finally reach safety.

The relief that Twilight felt, unfortunately, was counteracted by an equal sense of dread. As long as they were down there, they were at risk of running into more of the Eclipse. Even if they managed to make it out of the dungeon, Hoofington had to be crawling with more of them. Considering what just one was able to do Twilight… She needed to find them quickly.

“Okay, Rainbow. Let’s go!” Twilight didn’t even bother waiting for an answer before she started down the dungeon corridor again. However, she quickly stopped when didn’t hear Rainbow’s hoofbeats behind her. Turning back around, she saw that Rainbow hadn’t budged an inch. Instead, she was still staring at that exit sign, her eyes analyzing it with a scrutinizing gaze. Needless to say, her sudden interest in a block of wood left Twilight reasonably confused. “Um, Rainbow? What’s wrong?”

Her words didn’t even seem to register to the pegasus. Rainbow still stood there, staring up at that sign. “That’s kinda… weird,” she muttered. Finally, she looked back down at Twilight. “Hey, come check this out.”

Despite her confusion, Twilight still listened and walked up to her friend. She looked back up at the sign as well. Aside from a few chips here and there, not much looked odd about it. It was just a well-polished sign, hardly anything strange about that. “What’s so weird about this?”

“You don’t see it?” Rainbow asked, not taking her eyes off of it. “I mean, just look at it!”

Twilight could only roll her eyes as she tried observing the sign more closely. “Yeah, it’s still a sign,” she said, hoping a bit of light-hearted banter would help lighten the mood.

Unfortunately, that only seemed to annoy the pegasus, if the hoof running down her face was any indicator. “Okay. Yes, it’s just a sign, but it’s not just a sign. It looks too new.”

Twilight still couldn’t see what Rainbow was getting at. “Too new? What do you mean by that?”

Rainbow motioned towards the rest of the dungeon, towards the musty, damp stone and the rough, uneven walls. “Just look at this place,” she said. “It doesn’t look like ponies have been here in, like, years! This part of the dungeon isn’t all spruced up like the ones from before. So, why does this sign look fresh outta the store?”

The slightest hints of worry crept onto Twilight’s face as she tried to understand what Rainbow was getting at. “What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is that this sign was just put up. Looking so new down in a place like this, it can’t be more than a few days old. A week at tops.” Rainbow paused for a moment, tapping a hoof to her chin a she glared at the sign for a while longer. “Besides, it’s not even pointing in the right direction. I didn’t lose my bearings just yet. The way out is the other way. They’re not headed towards the exit. They’re going… somewhere else.”

Those niggling worries in Twilight’s mind only grew more and more apparent as she grew to understand exactly what Rainbow was saying. She didn’t want to believe it. She thought that Rainbow was just pulling her leg, but she knew, just from looking at her face, that she was dead serious. “So… so you’re saying that the others are—”

“Headed straight into a trap.”

Both Twilight and Rainbow whipped around, staring back down the corridor. Rainbow immediately took on a more combative while Twilight, meanwhile, merely shot up in surprise. Her ears twitched as they picked up a voice that she didn’t expect to hear so soon. Sure enough, the tell-tale sound of hoofbeats grew louder and closer until another robed figure appeared from the darkness.

Rainbow didn’t even entertain the idea of dropping her guard as she laid eyes on the newcomer. It was another mare, a pink unicorn with an off-white mane. There were a few key things that immediately jumped out at Rainbow, however.

Unlike the others, she didn’t conceal her face underneath her robes’ hood, instead allowing it to rest across her shoulders. Her eyes, her deep blue eyes, planted themselves firmly on the two, but they were different as well. They weren’t cold or emotionless, nor did they display the slightest hint of condescending smugness like that annoying, chatty stallion. There was even something of a smile on her face, not an annoying smirk, but one of relief, if Rainbow could convince herself to believe it.

However, what stood out to Rainbow the most was the unicorn’s garb. Just like the Eclipse members she ran into, the mare was clad in robes, but the similarities ended there. Unlike the dark, intimidating colors of the eclipse, the mare’s robes were white. Yes, there was a splotch of dirt here and there, but that didn’t change the fact that it was a stark contrast to what Rainbow had been seeing before.

“Those robes,” Rainbow muttered, the smallest hint of shock finding its way into her voice. She was by no means ready to welcome the mare with open hooves just yet. In fact, she didn’t let down her guard at all. Her eyes, burning with animosity, threatened to bore a hole into the unicorn as she walked towards them.

The instant that she noticed Rainbow’s standoffish behavior, the pink mare slowed to a stop. Even with the distance between the them, the tension lingering in the air was almost palpable.

“Who the hay are you?” Rainbow demanded.

Twilight took a tentative step towards the pink mare. “Star Light? What are you doing here? I-I thought you were—”

Rainbow’s ears immediately twitched at the name. “Wait,” she cut in. “Star Light? You’re the one who helped Twilight?”

“Yes, that’s right.” The pink unicorn made a quick bow of her head. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Rainbow.” Rainbow didn’t know if it was simply a polite gesture or if it was just to annoy her some more. Somehow, she wouldn’t have been surprised if it was both.

However, something that Star Light said caught Rainbow’s attention. “Hang on. You know my name?”

A short laugh left Star’s muzzle. “Of course. Twilight wouldn’t stop going on about having to find you. Besides, once you have the name ‘Rainbow Dash’ stuck in your mind, it isn’t exactly difficult to connect it to the right face. No offence, of course.”

Her attempts at light-hearted banter did little to calm Rainbow’s nerves. Her being offended was the least of all their problems. “Listen, pal. How about you cut to the chase and tell me who the hay you are.”

“I can tell you what I’m not, and that is the enemy,” Star Light said. Her eyes slowly drifted over towards Twilight. “I believe Twilight can attest to that.”

Star’s words only seemed to throw more and more fuel onto the flame that was Rainbow’s anger. She took a single step towards the pink unicorn, threatening to attack at any moment’s notice. Her eyes glanced back towards Twilight. “Is that true?” she asked.

Thrown back into the spotlight, Twilight simply nodded. “Yes. A member of the Eclipse captured me. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be standing here right now.” Twilight looked over at the pink unicorn. That smirk of hers disappeared, replaced with a flat, stoic gaze. It seemed that even that erratic mare knew when things became serious. “Granted, she is a bit… questionable—” The smallest of grins cracked onto Star’s face. “—but she hasn’t shown any hostility towards me. In fact, she seems to be just as eager to save you as I am.”

“Me?” Rainbow’s glare shot back towards Star Light. “And why’s that?” she demanded.

“I am certain that you both have an entire checklist of questions that you want to ask,” she began, “but with time being a commodity we ran out of long ago, I ask that you save them for later.” She started towards the two mares, but as soon as she took that first step, Rainbow readied to pounce. Before she could, though, she felt a hoof on her shoulder. Looking back, she saw Twilight staring back at her, slowly shaking her head.

“Do you have any idea what she is?” Rainbow hissed. “She’s an—”

“An Assassin. Yes, I know.”

“And you’re just gonna let her help us? Just like that?”

“It’s okay, Rainbow. As long as we keep a close eye on her, we should be fine.”

Rainbow wasn’t ready to buy it just yet. Still, as the pink unicorn passed them by, she couldn’t help but loosen up. “Fine. But the second she does something funny, I’m taking her out.” She could clearly see the discomfort on Twilight’s face as she said that, but the unicorn nodded nonetheless.

“Let’s get a move on. You two can plan my untimely demise later,” Star said. “The Solar Eclipse can be a nasty bunch and I doubt that your friends want to find that out the hard way.”

Twilight’s head snapped up as she looked back at Star. “Wait, you’re helping us find our friends, too?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Princess’ orders.”

Twilight’s head threatened to pop right off of her shoulders as it shot up again. She had nearly forgotten what Star Light set out to do before they split up. “C-Celestia? Wait, h-how is she?”

“Questions will have to wait,” Star answered.

“But can you at least—?”

“Questions will have to wait.”

Suffice to say, Twilight was not in the mood for pointless back-and-forth “Just tell me!”

“Questions will have to—” Star stopped in her tracks as she brought a contemplative hoof up to her chin. “Hmm. Actually, that last one wasn’t a question. Very well.” Star took in a deep, long breath. “She’s fine,” she quickly said.

Twilight’s eyes went wide with surprise. She might’ve believed what she had just heard if it didn’t go by so quickly. “What? R-Really?”

“That’s right. So, if this place does come crashing down around us, we’ll know that it wasn’t Celestia’s fault,” Star said. “I must admit, the entire ordeal went far more smoothly than I expected.”

“How badly did you expect things to go?” Twilight asked.

Star opened her mouth to answer, but the words caught in her throat as she felt phantom pains from her ‘talk’ with Celestia rear their ugly heads. “Well… I’m not dead,” Star finally said. “I suppose there's that.”

Twilight felt her own breath hitch in her throat. “Oh. I… see.”

“Hey!” Rainbow called, recapturing the two mares’ attention. She still wore an annoyed scowl as she looked back at them, one that only grew in intensity as she laid eyes on Star Light. “How about we save the chit-chat for when we get outta here, huh? In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve still gotta find the others.”

Twilight nearly didn’t notice the annoyed frown that cracked onto her face. It was like Rainbow was accusing her of not caring about the rest of her friends. “I haven’t forgotten, Rainbow, but we still have to be careful. We don’t know how many more of the Eclipse are still down here.”

Star Light nodded in agreement. “She’s right. We can’t afford to let down our guard. Now that you’re all wandering freely, they’ll no doubt do all they can to recapture you.”

While Rainbow merely huffed before looking back ahead, Twilight still had a few questions. “Do you know what we can expect?” she asked.

“Fairly standard affairs,” Star said. “Larger numbers, higher ranking enemies…”

“What about enchantments?” Twilight cut in. “Rainbow and I just finished fighting an Eclipse member that was fast. Really fast. I know she had some kind of magical enchantment.”

“And you’d be correct. Yes, there will be a few members toting magical gems that grant them special abilities. Those will likely be the most troublesome.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide with interest. “Oh, so it was an enchanted gem? Then one of us should go and get the one that she had so we can—”

Star cut Twilight off with a quick wave of her hoof. “Don’t bother. It’d be a waste of time.”

“What? Why’s that?”

“I smashed it.”

Within the span of a few seconds, Twilight’s face went through a multitude of shocked, confused, and angry expressions as she registered the absurdity that she just heard. “Y-you what?! Why would you do that?”

Star merely chuckled at her companion’s irritation. “Oh, don’t be like that. This is for the best. Perhaps you didn’t notice as you were too busy not dying, but those gems give off a gross amount of energy. During combat, yes, they’re useful, but outside of it, they'll turn us into walking beacons. The Eclipse are comprised of mostly unicorns; they’d sense us coming from a mile away. Not favorable if you want to remain undetected.”

There was still a very clear sense of annoyance in Twilight’s eyes, but she supposed Star did have enough of a point. It wouldn’t do them much good if they gave their position away to the enemy so quickly, especially while they were dealing with what was essentially a hostage situation. A shame. She really wanted to get her hooves on one of those, if only so that she could get an edge in combat that both Star and Rainbow apparently had. Maybe if she plucked one up during another fight...

Rainbow, meanwhile, listening to Star Light talk, only snorted. “You sure know a lot about how these guys work, huh?”

Star held in an amused chuckle. She noticed that accusing tone behind Rainbow’s voice, and from her worried frown, Twilight did as well. “I do actually,” she said. “With as long as the Assassins and Solar Eclipse have been going at it, we’ve had ample time to study the enemy.”

“Then you know why they’re doing this?” Twilight asked. “They must want something other than to provoke Celestia. It’s too… elaborate for something so simple.”

“And you’d be right to suspect so. I didn’t elaborate on this before, but the Eclipse’s plan is twofold. They don’t simply wish to get under her skin. They want her to snap in a way that makes her do something that will completely destabilize her otherwise benign rule over Equestria. But that’s only half of it. When she does finally snap, they want to have the means to overpower her.”

“The Apple?” Twilight guessed.

Surprisingly, Star Light shook her head. “No. Something stronger. The Elements of Harmony.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide with shock. Even Rainbow Dash, despite her efforts to ignore Star’s ramblings, perked her ears at the remark.

When neither spoke, Star Light continued. “That’s why they have such an invested interest in you and your friends. If they can gain your cooperation, then they’ll be one step closer to their final goal.”

“B-but the Elements of Harmony wouldn’t work on Celestia,” Twilight pointed out. “They only affect things that are… disharmonious, the exact opposite of Celestia!”

Unfortunately, that argument didn’t seem to change Star’s somber disposition. “Change enough of it, and even the most harmonious of melodies can devolve into a cacophony of disharmony. This is their plan, and as you both saw, it’s beginning to have its effect.”

A heavy pause weighed down on the three mares as they continued down the corridor, their hoofbeats the only thing keeping it from falling into total silence.

Again, when neither Twilight nor Rainbow made an effort to speak, Star Light continued, this time with something of a smile on her face. “But on the bright side, this means that your friends are in no danger of dying, so we have that much.”

“Yeah, break out the confetti,” Rainbow muttered. In all honesty, she was hoping that the mention of that particular item would make Pinkie burst out of the walls or whatever it was Pinkie did when she came out of nowhere. Unfortunately, that was mere wishful thinking. “Even if they aren’t gonna die, if we don’t find them soon, how long’s it gonna be before see them again?”

“Rainbow, we are going to find them,” Twilight said reassuringly. “Don’t worry.”

It didn’t take long before the three mares finally reached a pair of large, stone doors. Rarity’s perfume led them straight to it, and by this point, it was so potent that they could practically taste it. There was no mistaking it; their friends were right behind that door. They had to be.

Rainbow wasted no time before rushing up to the stone barricades, pushing against them with all of her might. “Come on… you stupid… door!” she strained through clenched teeth. Yet no matter how hard she tried, the doors refused to budge a single inch.

Twilight, on the other end, skidded to a halt, staring up at the unmoving doors with wonder plain in her eyes. “What’s through here?” she asked, looking back at Star Light.

The pink unicorn slowed to a stop behind Twilight, looking up at the doors with her own scrutinizing gaze. A hoof rubbed against her chin as she bounced the question around in her mind. “Hmm… Ritual chamber,” she finally said.

Her answer went by so quickly that Twilight nearly missed it. Somehow, she suspected that that was going to be a persistent, annoying problem. “Huh? Wait, what? Ritual chamber? For what?”

Star Light tapped a contemplative hoof to her forehead. “Well… for rituals, one would imagine. As for what kinds? Well, little details like that didn’t really make it into the history books. It could’ve been used for sacrificial rituals, spiritual rituals, rites of passage, coming of age ceremonies, birthday parties, the list goes on and on. But that’s not important. What is important is the door itself.”

Twilight could only raise an interested eyebrow at the statement. “The door itself?” she repeated, looking back up at the object in question. Yes, its size was certainly impressive, but there was little more to it than that. She could make out some decorations etched into the stone, eroded away throughout the centuries, but even then, they were just purely aesthetic. Obviously, something must’ve been staring her right in the face, but she just couldn’t see what that something was.

“Doors this large can’t simply be pushed open, as Rainbow has been so kind to demonstrate,” Star said, motioning towards the pegasus as she continued with her failing efforts to crack open the door.

“Shut… up.”

Looking back at the doors, Twilight could see Star's point. Doors of that size had to weigh well over a ton. In fact, they served as rather excellent defensive barricades when magical barriers weren’t available. “What are you trying to say?” she asked.

“Doors of this size were normally opened with the use of some type of mechanism. Now, if your friends did come down this way, that really only leaves us with one scenario. Whether the door was open or not when they found it doesn’t matter. What matters is that somepony closed the door behind them when they did step inside.”

“Then we need to hurry,” Twilight quickly said. “Where’s the mechanism?”

“Well… inside the chamber.”

“Okay.” It took her a few seconds, but Twilight finally managed to properly register what she just heard, as well as the awkward position it placed them in. “Wait, you mean it’s in there? As in, behind this door?”

“Yes.”

“The same door that can’t be opened without the mechanism?”

“To keep out uninvited guests.”

“Like us.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, what do we do then? We can’t just wait for it to open for us.”

“And we won’t. This isn’t necessarily an impenetrable fortress that we’ve encountered. There must be some other way inside. Give me a moment.”

As Star Light proceeded to scan the surrounding area for anything that might help them, Twilight switched her attention towards Rainbow Dash. She had already ceased her attempts to open the door herself, though she left her hooves planted on the unmoving concrete.

As Twilight approached her, she could tell that something was different about her. Rainbow was panting, her breaths long and shaky as she hung her head low in what was undeniably defeat. It seemed as though the gravity of the situation finally managed to crack Rainbow’s thick shell of bravado.

Reaching her, Twilight placed a hoof on Rainbow’s shoulders. She didn’t visibly react to the gesture, but Twilight did notice that her breathing had calmed down. “Rainbow, it’s going to be okay,” she said. She didn’t want to think on it too much, but she found herself believing those words less and less as time went on. Even if they did make it out of there, it was only a matter of time before something similar happened again. It was clear that the Eclipse had interest in them; simply escaping today didn’t mean that they’d escape for good.

Even then, this was all undoubtedly going to affect all of them in major ways. Twilight herself felt the mental scars forming in her mind during the time she spent down there; Rainbow was already fighting a mental battle before all of this, so this must’ve only made things worse. And that was to say nothing of her friends. In fact, the only pony who didn’t seem at all bothered by any of this was the pink mare behind her, and that could only demonstrate what kind of things she was already used to.

“I’m sorry…”

Twilight’s ears perked at the utterance. She looked back down at Rainbow, her eyes widening as she saw tears trailing down the pegasus’ cheeks. “Rainbow, don't worry. It's going to be—”

“This is my fault. All my fault.”

Twilight grabbed Rainbow by the shoulders, forcing her eyes to meet her own. They were too close to lose hope now, no matter how bleak things may have seemed. As Twilight stared into Rainbow’s eyes, however, she felt that lingering sense of dread build back up in her gut. Rainbow’s eyes weren’t… right. They were lifeless, dull, devoid of light. There was none of that fire that she had literally moments before. She wasn’t even looking directly at Twilight; her eyes, half-lidded, stared off into some endless void of space.

This wasn’t good, far from it, and Twilight had never seen it happen before. She hadn’t the slightest clue what to do to fix it, even if there was a way to fix it. “Rainbow,” she called. “R-Rainbow, look at me! None of this is your fault, do you hear me? Don’t talk like that.”

Her words didn’t seem to even register. That dead look in Rainbow’s eyes didn’t change in the slightest. “I… I was supposed to protect them.”

Twilight felt her own eyes begin to water up as she made another attempt at bringing Rainbow back to reality, hoping that her own passion would somehow rub off onto Rainbow. “You will protect them. We both will! You’re doing it right now, just… just don’t give up! Please!”

Twilight’s attempts at calming Rainbow may not have reached the pegasus’ ears, but they certainly reached Star Light’s. She broke away from her search and brought her gaze down to the two mares. A pang of panic shot through her heart as soon as she laid eyes on Rainbow’s dead eyes. “No, no, no. Not now.”

Twilight, eyes wide with hopeless confusion, looked up at Star Light. “What’s happening to her?”

Star abandoned her search and rushed up to Rainbow’s side, her eyes just as panicked as Twilight’s. “She’s relapsing. She’s losing control of herself.”

Twilight felt the breath completely leave her as though the words punched her square in the chest. “What? No, no, no! Rainbow, you’re fine! Everything’s fine!”

Again, Twilight’s words seemed to have no effect. “They’re gone… because of me.”

“N-no! They’re fine!” Twilight, having long since grown desperate, looked up at Star Light. “Please, help me. What do I do? What am I supposed to do?”

In the midst of the panic, Star’s mind nearly went blank itself. “Um, er, R-Rainbow’s memories are… they’re being overpowered by Shadow Streak’s. You need… you need to help Rainbow fight back by invoking her own memories. Preferably pleasant ones.”

Though the panic was still clear in her eyes, Twilight tried to remain calm in the face of this new plan. “Okay. I can… I can do that.”

Turning back towards Rainbow, she searched her mind for any of the countless good times that she and Rainbow shared together. Unfortunately, at the worst possible time, her mind drew only blanks. There were just so many things for her to choose from, and combined with the panic racing through her mind, it made her mentally freeze up. She just didn’t know where to start. So, she decided to start at the beginning.

“Um, h-hey, Rainbow. I hope you can hear me. I’d hate for you to miss out on all the crazy stories I have to share.” Twilight tried to put on a convincing smile, but being faced with Rainbow’s own lifeless expression made that far harder than she imagined. Still, she needed to push on. “You remember when we first met, right? How you got me covered in mud after one of your crashes? I guess things began as they meant to go on, huh? O-or the night at the Gala? That was definitely something for the history books, wasn’t it?”

As Twilight rattled off any stories that she could think of, Rainbow’s face remained completely unmoved. The further Twilight went on, the more shaky her voice became. Tears started down her face as she recounted the numerous adventures that she and Rainbow went on with the others, all of the fun times they had together. Even the moments that Twilight found annoying at the time, if only because Rainbow found them absolutely hilarious. They were all moments that only served to strengthen their friendship. Moments that they were going to relive. This was not going to break them. Twilight wouldn’t allow it. She couldn’t let Rainbow down like that.

“Rainbow, please wake up!”

----

Where the hay am I?

Rainbow wasn’t sure how long she’d been out—it could’ve been a couple of minutes or a couple of hours for all she knew—but when she finally came to, she hadn’t the slightest idea where she was. If she had to guess, she'd say that was out for a few hours at the very least because when she finally did wake up, she knew right away that she wasn’t in the dungeon anymore.

A bedroom. She was in somepony’s bedroom. It definitely wasn’t hers, being on the ground, but from the layout, it wasn’t any bedroom that she’s ever seen before. Rainbow sat up, stretching out the kinks in her back as she gave the room a quick look over.

There honestly wasn’t much going on for it. A few bookshelves lined the walls off to her right, though they paled terribly in comparison to Twilight’s personal collection. The polished hardwood floor glistened in the sunlight shining through the window. There were a few dressers, no doubt filled with clothes of varying kinds, and right next to Rainbow’s bed was a nightstand topped with an unlit candelabra. Whoever lived here obviously didn’t use it terribly much. Even Rainbow’s room had more personality, and she rarely ever spent time in there, even for sleep. Still, it was a definite improvement over the dungeon.

Not even a split-second passed before panic struck Rainbow’s heart.

The others. She still needed to find the others! Not just that, but she lost Twilight again. But how was she supposed to find them now? She had no idea how she even ended up in that bedroom, let alone where her friends were supposed to be. She must’ve been unconscious for hours. Anything could’ve happened during that time. Anything. Even…

No! No, they’re… they’re fine, Rainbow told herself. It wasn’t a completely hopeless belief. If somepony dragged her out of that dungeon, then surely the same could’ve been said for her friends. After all, they were practically right next to each other. There was only a door separating them. A large, impenetrable, unmoving—

They’re fine!

Rainbow shook her head, getting her mind back under control. She couldn’t stay there. She didn’t care how out of it she was, she wasn’t going to rest until she knew that her friends were okay. She needed to find whoever lived in this house. If they brought her here, then they must’ve known where the others were. She’d worry about why they saved her later.

Rainbow tossed the covers off of her and hopped out of the bed. The floorboards creaked under her weight as she landed with a loud clop. If anypony was nearby, they’d undoubtedly have heard that. Rainbow didn’t care. She wanted to find them.

As she neared the door, however, her ears picked up movement coming from beneath her. It sounded like somepony was moving around the floor directly below her. She could even make out the clanking of pots and pans.

“Shadow, my darling, supper is almost ready!” a mare called.

The sentence nearly made it past Rainbow unnoticed, but ‘nearly’ wasn’t enough. Her entire body locked up, her face frozen in shock and disbelief as that name rang in her mind, refusing to go away. She didn’t care how crazy she was, that just wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. No, she was just jumping to conclusions, that was all. It was a common enough name even in modern times. There must’ve been other ponies in the house besides her, that was all. Rainbow couldn’t let some ghost from the distant past spook her now; she needed to talk to that mare.

Slowly, Rainbow pushed the door open. It swung open with an unnerving creak as it let out into a hallway. A narrow strip of carpeting traced down that hall from end to end, giving the hardwood a bit of color. The material itself felt soft under Rainbow’s hooves as it dulled her hoofbeats, almost reminiscent of a cloud. It was almost calming. Almost.

It didn’t take long before she found the stairs leading to the ground floor, though she had to pass by quite a few interesting decorations before she reached them. Rainbow honestly didn’t want to be nosy, but her curiosity got the better of her as she made her way down the hall. Small desks topped with various knick-knacks lined the walls, but that wasn’t what caught Rainbow’s attention. Her eyes were drawn to the walls themselves, or rather, what was on the walls.

Framed paintings of various ponies decorated the otherwise barren, white wall. Some were of a proud navy blue stallion with an accompanying black mane. Others were of a modest white, brown-maned mare. They were normal enough, Rainbow supposed. She knew plenty of ponies who got paintings done of themselves, so it was nothing unusual. Despite that, there was one painting that made Rainbow stop dead in her tracks, that same sense of shock striking back twofold.

After the painting of the stallion, after the painting of the mare, there was a third, larger one that showed the pair standing in a lush garden. Clearly a couple. Likely married, even. However, there was a third pony with them. A young, bubbly filly right in between the two. Charcoal grey, with a black mane donning a single white streak right down the middle.

Rainbow was floored. Her hind legs, suddenly shaking, buckled under her weight, sending her down on her haunches. This didn’t make any sense. This couldn’t possibly be happening. How could it? She was still Rainbow Dash. She wasn’t anywhere near a candlestick. There should’ve been no way for her to end up… there!

“Shadow, honey, are you coming? Your food will get cold.”

Rainbow eyes snapped back onto the stairs leading to the first floor. She didn’t know who that was, and she didn’t care. Part of her—most of her, rather—wanted to shout down the stairs that she was nowhere close to being that infernal mare, but somehow, she felt that that wouldn’t have done anything. This wasn’t a prank, not some sick joke. It was too real. But it couldn’t have been real. It just wasn’t possible. Was it?

Almost of their own accord, Rainbow’s legs, step by step, took her down the stairs. She was too shocked, too dumbfounded, to form words. She just needed to see this for herself.

The stairs led down into what she could’ve only assumed was the living room. Plush, leather furniture rested cozily in front of an unlit fireplace. A rather expensive-looking chandelier hung overhead, its light aiding the evening sun in filling the place with a warm light. Whoever these ponies were, they were certainly well off, that much was clear. There was a pleasant scent in the air as well. One of a well-cooked meal. Steamed veggies from the smell of it.

The smell only grew more potent as Rainbow ventured further into the living room, but she didn’t show much in the way of reaction. Not even the smallest of grins at the prospect of food after spending hours in that blasted dungeon. Her legs just continued carrying her through the living room until she passed through another doorway leading into the dining room.

There, she saw them.

A white mare, the same one from the painting, hummed a happy tune to herself as she finished pouring vegetable soup into the third of a trio of bowls. Already sat at the table was that same blue stallion as well. As soon as Rainbow entered the room, both of them looked right up at her, beaming all the while.

“Ah, back from the dead are we?” the stallion teasingly asked. “Spend more time in that bed of yours and you're certain to meld into it.”

His teasing earned him a light prod from the mare. “Oh, leave the poor girl alone. She’s had a very busy day, unlike some of us.” As the stallion rolled his eyes, she turned her attention towards Rainbow. “The Rake family sends their regards, Shadow. ‘Not a faster courier this side of Hoofington,’ they said. Honestly, I don’t know how you do it, either. The streets are usually crowded at that time of day.”

“Now who said that you need to use the streets?” the stallion murmured, chuckling. “‘Like father, like daughter,’ they always say.”

Nonsense. All of their words were just nonsense to Rainbow. If this was some elaborate prank, then congratulations to them, but they were still wasting her time. She wanted to interrogate them right then and there, but the words refused to come. It was as though her very mind was fighting against her, refusing to let her take control. Only through immense amounts of willpower did she even muster up enough strength to open her mouth.

The words came out slowly, forcibly, and quietly. “Wh-who… Who are—?”

She couldn’t even get the first of her questions out before another searing pain shot through her skull. A pained shout escaped Rainbow’s muzzle as she keeled over, clutching at her head in a vain attempt to quell the immense ache. She clutched her eyes shut, tears streaking down her cheeks as though they were being choked right out of her head. Out of all of them, it was by far the worse. Its intensity never waned, the ringing in her ears never ceased. It felt like her head was placed in a vise and ready to explode at any second. Strange imagery flashed behind her closed eyelids, places and ponies that she shouldn’t have recognized, but for some sick reason, did.

All the while, the two ponies never so much as batted an eyelash at the display before them.

The pain, ringing, and images had to have persisted for well over a minute, far longer than any of her previous episodes. Even after it finally went away, Rainbow felt drained, unable to even find the strength to get back up. Again, it was her own body that took the initiative, and forced itself up seemingly of its own accord.

Rainbow was only vaguely aware of her actions. She couldn’t even muster up the energy to be shocked or confused anymore. Her eyes, dull and lifeless, looked back up into the cheery faces of the ponies before her. Slowly, her mouth twisted up into what could’ve loosely been called a smile as she took a whiff of the aroma lingering in the air.

“Dinner smells delicious,” she said. “Just give me a moment to wash up.”

The mare nodded. “Of course, dear. We’ll wait for you.”

“Don’t keep too long, though, or I may eat your food for you,” the stallion chuckled, earning another swift punch from his partner.

Slowly, groggily, Rainbow turned and walked back out of the dining room. She wasn’t even paying attention to where she walked; all she knew was that she soon ended up in the washroom.

After kicking the door shut, she turned on the faucet in the nearby bathtub, filling a small wooden bucket with water. It was all mechanical, all done of her body’s own accord. Rainbow was hardly even there anymore, as though she were just a spectator along for the ride.

Rainbow, please wake up!

Rainbow’s eyes widened ever so slightly as the voice pierced her mind. It stung, but not enough to put her in any serious pain. In fact, it was just enough to wake her from her trance. It was a voice that she recognized. One that she knew. One that she welcomed and loved.

I-it’s me! Twilight! You know, Captain Egghead? Queen of the Books? The Walking Encyclopedia? You gave me these nicknames, remember?

“Twi… light? T-Twilight?”

For a single, fleeting moment, Rainbow came back to her senses, and came back with a bang. It was as though she was tossed back into her physical being, the breath getting knocked right out of her chest. She darted her eyes back and forth, trying to regain her bearings as she caught her breath. She had no idea if she was sweating, but it definitely felt like it.

“Twilight!” she called. “Where are you? I-I’m here, just talk to me!” But the voice didn’t come back.

It was getting hot. Really hot. She didn’t know if it was a panic attack or something else, but she was having trouble breathing. She didn’t where she was. She didn’t know where her friends were. She didn’t know who those ponies were. She just… didn’t know.

“Water,” she muttered. “I-I need water. I need to calm down.”

Rainbow’s eyes fixed themselves on the nearby bucket of water. Without wasting any time, she darted over to it and splashed splash after splash onto her face. The effect was immediate and pleasant. She felt her body immediately cool as the cold water hit her face. Her breathing almost got under control of its own will, not that she was complaining about that. That was all she needed. She just needed to get a grip. She just had to keep that in mind. No matter how bad things looks, panicking wasn’t going to get her anywhere.

As she finally settled back down, she looked into the bucket, down at her own reflection. She had no hope of containing her panicked screams.

Rainbow staggered away from the bucket, knocking it over in the process. She fell onto her haunches before crawling away until her back squished up against the far corner of the bathroom. She wasn’t going crazy, but she knew what she saw. When she looked into that bucket, she didn’t see her reflection. No, instead she saw a pair of green eyes staring out from the black face of a mare that she’d grown to despise.

Calm. She needed to stay calm. It was just those candles playing tricks on her, that was all. It didn’t matter what happened, she was still Rainbow Dash, that awesome pegasus that everypony had grown to either love or envy. As though looking for confirmation, she looked down at her hooves, down at those cyan hooves that she’d long since grown to recognize.

She didn’t find that confirmation.

Rainbow didn’t even have the breath the scream. All that came out were stunned croaks as she stared down at the grey hooves before her.

“What’s happening to me?” she muttered. She quickly shook her head, finding that last burst of strength that she needed to get through this. “No! I’m still Rainbow Dash! I… I don’t care what I look like, I know who I am!”

Rainbow clamped her eyes shut as she rubbed her temples, another headache threatening to attack her. It didn’t matter what happened, she knew who she was. No matter what happened, she’d still be Rainbow Dash. Nothing would change that.

“I’m Rainbow Dash. I’m Rainbow Dash. I’m Rainbow Dash.” She kept repeating that to herself. She kept holding on. But even though she didn’t want to admit it, let alone accept it, something was happening. Something was happening to her thoughts. Her memories. Something… bad.

“My name is Rainbow Dash,” she said. “I… I live in Ponyville. My friends are Twilight, Applejack, Reso—R-Rarity, Pinkie, a-and Butter—Fluttershy!”

Her memories, the things that she truly held dear, the things that molded her into who she was, were beginning to wane. Being replaced.

“My… my name is Rainbow… Rainbow Dash. I live in Hoofi—P-Ponyville! My friends… my friends are… R-Resona and… Butter… fly, and…”

Try as she might, she was losing her grip. Slowly, things became impossibly difficult to remember, her greatest accomplishments fading into the darkest recesses of her mind. She was losing herself.

“I… I live in… Hoofington. My name… m-my name is… Sha… Sh-Shad—”

Rainbow Dash!

Author's Note:

To all of the people that I've kept waiting: I'M SORRY! I'm so, so sorry!

I don't know what the hell happened. I just hit a massive case of writer's block that stayed with me since f:yay:cking November. Then, a couple of days ago, it just went away. Just like that. I just woke up and cranked out over 10,000 words within a few goddamn hours after going six months without being able to write a single thing, 'cause that makes sense. Seriously, f:yay:ck writer's block. I swear, I'm never gonna have a full-proof way of making sure that this nonsense doesn't keep happening.

Anyway! Expect the clusterf:yay:ck in Hoofington to come to its thrilling conclusion in the next chapter. Hopefully it won't take another half a year to get it out. Fingers crossed!

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