• Published 4th Jan 2012
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The Flight of the Alicorn - Ponydora Prancypants



Rarity finds herself forced into an unlikely alliance when her airship crashes far from home.

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XXV. Alicorns

XXV. Alicorns

Rarity took a few tentative steps forward, testing the soft surface of the plaza surrounding the towering Rainbow Palace. Visually, the plaza appeared to be constructed from a single perfect block of blue-white stone, unmarred by cracks or discoloration, and decorated with chiseled sweeping curlicues of a shade just slightly darker than the surface itself. In reality, the plaza, the tower at its center, and every other structure in Stratusburg were all made of clouds, gathered and shaped into useful forms by pegasi cloudmasons.

She attempted to relegate to the back of her mind the knowledge that clouds, in whatever form, were still clouds, and under normal circumstances a unicorn such as herself would plummet straight through them. Instead, Rarity reminded herself of the promise that the city’s clouds had been enchanted for non-flying visitors.

Of course, the signs had also promised there would be guards on duty, and those had been nowhere to be seen. She frowned, and continued to test the cloud pavement before committing to each step.

“You know, I didn’t much care for standin’ on this stuff the last go ‘round,” Applejack muttered, echoing Rarity’s unvoiced concerns. “And that was with Twilight’s magic preventin’ us from fallin’. I sure as hay ain’t feelin’ comfortable now that I don’t even know what’s keepin’ the ground solid beneath my hooves.”

“There’s no need to worry,” Twilight Sparkle replied confidently. “I can only think of one pony capable of enchanting an entire cloud city like this, and that’s Princess Celestia. The Princess isn’t going to let anypony fall.”

“Iffin y’all say so,” Applejack grumbled, stepping forward gingerly, and conspicuously following in Rarity’s already-proven hoofsteps.

Like Applejack, Rarity too could not help but think back to their first foray into the clouds a year ago, when they had gone to cheer on Rainbow Dash at the flying competition in Clousdale. Here, just as in the other pegasus city, the pavement was solid enough to tread comfortably, though it yielded to her hooves almost imperceptibly with each step. The sensation was akin to walking on an exceedingly firm mattress with worn-out springs. She hoped that would be the only similarity to the earlier trip - the Cloudsdale excursion had not proven one of her finer moments, to put it mildly.

A dark shadow suddenly passed overhead, and Rarity looked up to see the Refresh climbing into the blue sky. The plan was for Elbow Grease to circle the Rainbow Palace, and if the worst occurred, make for Canterlot. At the very least he would be able to present Princess Luna with a record of what occurred here, and perhaps she could form her own, less foolhardy plan for stopping the conspirators. The airship began a slow turn, keeping a safe distance from the tower.

Looking ahead, Rarity noted that the tall structure was only a few dozen lengths away now. It erupted from the plaza, its pure white exterior shimmering in the sunlight, while its rainbow waterfalls provided striking contrast to the atmospheric blues, whites, and grays that predominated in the city. In the plaza, dozens of ponies of all colors and types, as well as a few representatives of other species, walked, trotted, or flew about, some gawking at the cascading rainbow flowing over the sides of the tower and into decorative pools surrounding it, others merely passing through as they journeyed from one part of Stratusburg to another. A quartet of armored pegasi, Royal Guards in full dress regalia, calmly stood at attention before a pair of tall silvery doors that formed the main entrance to the tower.

Despite the beauty and outward peacefulness of the scene before her, to Rarity it all seemed ominous and foreboding. The Heavenstone was inside, her horn told her that much, and at this distance its pull was so painfully strong that it was all she could do to resist the urge to simply rush forward and begin pounding on the tower doors. She could practically hear a voice, whispering and beckoning her closer, begging her to take the Heavenstone. Suddenly, she realized that there was a voice speaking inside her head.

“Hello,” it said.

Rarity instantly recognized the voice, and frantically looked around for its source. Windlass, however, was nowhere to be seen. She felt a wave of magical energy wash over her, and staggered back a half step.

“I sensed you the second you arrived. Wonderful timing by the way; you made it just in time for the big moment.”

“Are you alright?” Twilight asked, rushing to Rarity’s side.

“I …” Rarity struggled to form words, and her eyes snapped open wide as she reared back in fright. “She knows, Twilight! Windlass is speaking to me through the Heavenstone. My connection to it has betrayed us!”

“Hmph. If the jig is up then we’d best get a move on,” Buckaroo spoke up.

Rarity stood with her four legs planted, not budging, though she continued to glance nervously in every direction. She had to be prepared for an attack from anywhere, at any moment. What could she even hope to do, against a pony who could get inside her head so easily? She was defenseless!

Moreover, they had lost surprise, their only advantage. The simple truth was that Rarity had no plan for actually taking the stone from Windlass. In fact, she had nothing more than the vague, almost laughably outlandish idea that the Heavenstone wanted her to do it, and would provide her with a way. The more she considered the situation, the more obvious it became that her effort was doomed, nothing more than a foal’s errand, destined for failure. She was walking into a deathtrap, and worse, she was bringing all her friends with her.

Inside the Rainbow Palace, the sound of trumpets rang out again, and Rarity shuddered with fear.

“You’re going to miss it if you don’t hurry. Come, see what I've got in store for you.”

“I can’t go in there,” Rarity finally managed to say. “We have nothing - no hope, and I am frightened out of my wits!”

“Course y’are,” Applejack said at once. “Anypony would be. That’s why you got us with you.”

“And remember, we have friends inside,” Twilight Sparkle added. “Princess Celestia, Rainbow, Pinkie, and Fluttershy.”

Yes, friends inside. Fancypants would be there as well, and perhaps other friends not yet considered. But that only meant that more ponies she cared about would be in danger. She could not save them. Nopony could.

“But she knows everything!” Rarity protested. “She must have anticipated every contingency, and we do not even know the limits of her powers.” She paused, and raised a forehoof to massage her temple, just below her aching horn. “I am scared and tired, Twilight - so tired. I am simply not cut out for this.”

“Rarity, just try to think clearly,” Twilight said softly. “Windlass is trying to use your connection to the Heavenstone against you, to fill your mind with doubt and fear. In reality she is the one generating those emotions. She is the one who should be afraid, not you.”

“She lies,” Windlass' voice hissed.

Rarity tried to comprehend Twilight's words, but she felt weighed down, her senses dulled. Windlass was already defeating her, before she had even set eyes on the other mare. How could she hold out any hope? She sank to her haunches, plopping down onto the cloud surface, and buried her face in her forelegs.

“She will destroy us all, Twilight! She is going to destroy everything!”

“Finally, you see the inevitable truth.”

“Leave me alone!” Rarity cried out, shaking a forehoof at her unseen antagonist. She turned to Twilight, and then swept her gaze across the others' faces. “I cannot face her! I am too weak! It is too great a risk!”

Rarity's companions quickly formed a protective circle around her, warding off curious bystanders who must have been attracted by the apparently raving mare in the middle of the plaza, and they stood around her in concerned silence.

"I am pathetic!" Rarity wailed.

Zips finally spoke up. “Whatever,” he said dismissively.

Rarity fell silent. “What … ever?” she softly repeated, and looked up in confusion at the young stallion. What did that mean? Her head was swimming with conflicting thoughts and emotions, her mind drowning in a torrent of dark magic that nopony else could feel or understand.

“He means that your dramatic pronouncements of doom are belied by the reality of the impossible odds we have already overcome,” Blueblood said evenly. He lowered his head to look directly into Rarity’s eyes. “The odds that you have already overcome. He also means that you are far stronger than the coward who is whispering lies in your mind, and we all know it. He knows, as I do, as we all do, that you are more than strong enough to fight her off right now if you so choose.”

“Yeah,” Zips said. “That. You should do that.”

Rarity blinked, and tried to concentrate on what was being said, pushing back against the crushing tide of negativity that pressed down on her.

“You are too weak.”

Yes, she was. Wasn't she?

Blueblood continued, speaking softly but clearly. “I know that our relationship has deteriorated to its natural state of equilibrium, that being a volatile mixture of aggravation and ongoing disappointment in varying measures, but please listen to me as a friend this one last time. You will find a way to stop that mare; I promise it. We all have seen what you can do when you set a task before yourself, and I am certain, if you will only look within, you will find confidence enough there.” He gazed directly into Rarity’s eyes, a steely glint shining in his own blue ones. “One does not always have the luxury of knowing exactly what lies ahead, but I have already seen you take great risks, even putting your own life at stake, because you decided that the risk was worth taking. Some risks are.”

Rarity stared back, struck by the sincere confidence projected in Blueblood’s words, and also by the obvious fact that he was not speaking merely about the present risk of facing Windlass, but about the other, more personal risk he had begged her to take.

It was true; some risks simply were worth taking. She had judged it worthwhile to trek through the jungle in search of the flower that could save his life, and had chosen to infiltrate Karroc’s base in search of the Heavenstone, when it would have been safer to try to flee back to the Alicorn.

“He is nothing. You despise him. His words mean nothing.”

In the past, she had risked her career and her entire future as a fashion designer for the sake of her friends, because nothing was more important to her than their friendship. Facing Windlass, for the sake of Equestria and every other free nation, was a risk that had to be taken, whether any of them were prepared for it or not. Suddenly, the waves of magic were breaking before they reached her, and the pain diminished. Rarity shook her head to clear it.

“The Duke speaks well, and truly,” Zinzi pronounced. “Do not give credence to fear unduly.”

“Shoot, I mean, how can we lose?” Buckaroo asked with a smile. “We got the pluckiest durn unicorn I ever met, and her friends to boot. Plus you got Zinzi, Zips, and it turns out even a dandy like Blueblood here can pull his weight in a scrap. Maybe I only got three good legs at this particular juncture, but I ain’t worried.”

“We’re all in this together, and together we can overcome anything,” Twilight Sparkle concluded, as Applejack contributed her own monosyllabic affirmation and a reassuring smile.

Rarity looked at each of them in turn, and saw the clarity of their convictions in their eyes. They truly believed in her. They were her friends, all of them, and soon she would be with Rainbow Dash, and dear Fluttershy, and Pinkie too! She pulled herself off the cloud surface and stood, her head completely clear, save for the dim echo of an indignant cry. In that instant, she knew that Windlass' pathway into her mind was severed forever.

“Thank you,” Rarity said with a determined smile. “All of you. I feel much better now. It seems I simply needed to clear my mind, and thanks to you I have done so.”

‘Yay! I knew you could do it!” Twilight Sparkle reared back and clapped her forehooves together.

“You are right. I - we - can do this.” Rarity paused. “Though I might remind Mister Buckaroo that I am a lady, and not a ‘durn unicorn.’” She turned toward Blueblood. “And you - allow me to suggest that there will be time enough to aggravate and disappoint each other later. Perhaps, for now, we can continue to speak in a friendly manner for just a bit longer. You do it rather eloquently, and besides, this hornache has dulled my capacity for caustic wit - temporarily, I assure you.”

“I suppose a bit more friendliness is not too great a risk,” Blueblood said, clearly suppressing a smile.

“Indeed,” Rarity replied, and continued. “Now that the jig is up, as you say, we must hurry. Buckaroo, Zips, though we part ways, I am certain that we shall be reunited soon. Good luck.”

“They won’t get anything past us,” Zips declared. Buckaroo nodded and spared a long look and a wink, which Rarity could not help but notice was directed at Applejack. The big earth pony stallion then limped away alongside the young half-zebra, both headed for the far side of the Rainbow Palace and whatever awaited them.

Rarity began walking toward the silvery doors that formed the front entrance of the towering structure, keeping her gait slow and measured, wearing her best innocent smile, and trying to seem nonchalant. Sweet-talking the guards into opening the doors was sure to be more effective and less alarming than attempting to force their way inside. Without slowing, she walked straight up to the sealed entrance, and raised a hoof as if to knock.

“Halt!” shouted a snow-white pegasus guard. “The summit is for dignitaries only, not tourists.”

“Oh my, I didn’t realize,” Rarity began, covering her mouth with a forehoof in feigned surprise. “But surely a handsome fellow like yourself …”

“Hold on, Rarity,” a voice interrupted, and Twilight stepped forward. “I’ve got this.”

"You do?" Rarity asked dubiously.

"I do." Seemingly out of the blue, the lavender unicorn produced a square of cardstock decorated with gold foil accents and adorned with the seal of the Royal Sisters, and levitated it to be inspected by the Royal Guard. “Twilight Sparkle, and guests! Princess Celestia personally invited me and all of my friends to the summit, you see, and these four ponies are my friends.”

“Um, isn’t she a zebra?” the guard asked, glancing up from the invitation.

“Equines. These four equines are my friends,” Twilight corrected herself, and plastered a wide and somewhat unsettling smile on her face.

The guard’s gaze shifted as he scanned each member of the group in turn, lingering an uncomfortably long time on Blueblood, and then on Rarity herself. “Wait, aren’t you …”

“Look, sir, I’m in kind of a huge rush,” Twilight interjected. “Would you please just let us in? I’ve flown a long way, I have a personal invitation from the Princess, and from the sound of things, the summit is starting!” Rarity could have sworn that a fiery white-hot glow briefly flared into existence behind her friend’s violet eyes as she spoke. “So hurry the hoof up!” Twilight finished.

The armored pegasus gulped audibly. “Ahem, right. Yes of course. Everything appears to be in order here. You may pass, Miss Sparkle.” He launched into the air with a kick from his hind legs and a flap of his feathered white wings. The guard then proceeded to press a forehoof against a colorful carved rainbow set into the tower wall above the door. It looked to Rarity as if the guard was touching the rainbow’s bands of color in a particular order, and after a moment the great doors began to swing open.

“Please proceed directly to the Great Hall,” the guard said. “It’s straight ahead. You can't miss it.”

Rarity did not waste a moment before trotting through the doors and into a spacious atrium. It was immediately apparent that the building was designed for pegasi, as the atrium was only modestly sized at the ground level, but it reached up a hundred lengths or more inside the building, with openings at each level allowing access for ponies who could fly. Furthermore, it was also clear from the empty vertical space, devoid of beams and support pillars, that pegasus architecture was not bound by the same structural considerations that limited ponies who built with wood and stone.

There was no way to get to the higher levels without being able to fly, but fortunately, they did not need to. A large open doorway directly opposite the entrance was clearly marked as leading to the Great Hall, and Rarity made straight for it. She had moved forward only a few steps, however, before she felt a hoof on her shoulder and Zinzi stopped her.

“Is that not your Princess I hear?” the zebra asked. “Let us stop for a moment and use our ears.”

Rarity pricked up her ears, and immediately realized that Zinzi was correct.

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight whispered excitedly, practically vibrating with excitement.

“Shh!” Rarity shushed her friend.

“Fillies and gentlecolts,” the Princess began, her voice muffled but clearly audible, “griffons and griffonesses, gentlefolk of all nations and tribes, it is my great honor and pleasure to welcome you to this gathering, the First International Summit for Harmony.”

“The FISH!” a high-pitched voice piped up enthusiastically. “‘Cos griffons love fish!”

“That’s Pinkie!” Twilight whispered, only to be shushed by all four of her companions.

“Indeed,” Princess Celestia acknowledged over the chuckling of her audience. “It is good to remember to seek out moments of levity in these solemn times. You all know why we are here. I am sure you have heard in your cities and towns the same things that I have: voices raised in anger, blame assigned without cause, and misguided calls for reprisals.

“I am a Princess of Equestria, and as such I lead my little ponies. Yet I do not impose laws of my own design, nor mete out punishments to suit my whims. I merely give my counsel, tempered by age and experience, just as I can only counsel you proud griffons, and our guests from other lands. I can only plead for calm and reason, and ask you all to think of your families, and the future you want to give them. I submit that if conflict is your choice, then there will be no future at all.”

Rarity raised a foreleg and motioned toward the entrance to the hall. “She may be speaking for some time. We should go inside while everypony’s attention is on the Princess. If we have a decent vantage point we should be able to spot Windlass and Lord Procyon, and perhaps guess at what she is planning.” The others nodded in acknowledgement, and followed as she led the way.

“I have seen where the path of conflict leads,” Princess Celestia continued. “You all know the stories from a thousand years ago, and from the age of chaos before that. I could spend the rest of the summit regaling you with tales from a past that you are fortunate to not share with me, but I believe that is not the best use of our time. Thankfully, there are those among you who can plead the cause of peace in more eloquent and contemporaneous terms than I.”

A hundred lengths away from the Princess, Rarity found herself standing on a wide platform overlooking a vast chamber filled with ponies, griffons, and other guests. The Great Hall of the Rainbow Palace was semicircular and obviously occupied most of the tower’s hoofprint, rising fifty lengths or more to a vast domed ceiling painted with scenes of pegasi taming storm clouds and cavorting around rainbows.

Near the top of the chamber, large openings on three sides allowed sunlight to flood in, and led out to an outdoor terrace. Rarity could see a trio of dusky unicorns in Royal Guard armor stationed high above on the terrace level, standing behind large telescopes that pointed out at the sky. No doubt they were watching for threats from without, unaware that the true threat was already here within the chamber.

Princess Celestia was of course unmistakable. Standing twice as tall and several times larger than the average pony, she was clearly visible on a raised stage at the far end of the hall, positioned before dozens of curved rows of seats that radiated outward and filled the space. The imposing alicorn princess was flanked by several pegasus guards, but nopony else shared the stage with her. Rarity could not pick out her friends in the crowd, nor could she spot Windlass. She needed to find a closer location with a better view.

The platform on which Rarity presently stood was positioned several lengths higher than the chamber floor, but it lacked any apparent means of descending. Of course, pegasi had no need for stairs or walkways; the platform was a launching pad, designed so that large numbers of winged ponies could take off and land simultaneously. On the other hoof, all of the earth ponies, unicorns, and other non-fliers in attendance must have gotten down to the main floor somehow.

Finally, Rarity spotted a narrow ramp to her left. The structure did not match the surrounding architecture, and obviously had been installed as a temporary consideration for flightless guests. She hastened to it, trusting the others to follow, and soon found herself in a narrow corridor encircling the perimeter of the chamber.

“It is a privilege," Princess Celestia continued, drawing any attention that might otherwise have been directed at the five equines skirting around the edge of the chamber, "and it gives me great joy to introduce our most honored guests, the special ambassadors selected to represent our shared hope for continued peace between Equestria and the griffon eyries. First, please join me in welcoming the griffon ambassador. Representing her nearby home of Whiteknife Eyrie, she is a respected flight trainer who received top marks at the best flight academies in the Eyries and in Equestria. She is also the niece of the venerable Elector Korb Graywings, presumed lost during the tragic events of the recent Alicorn’s Cup regatta. She stands for peace in honor of her uncle and the others lost that day. Please welcome Provisional Elector Girigilida Goldenwings!”

“Sup?” a husky female voice called out, the lone syllable echoing throughout the chamber. A smattering of applause, and a few roars of approval from the griffon contingent followed.

“Hey, ain’t that Rainbow's sourpuss friend Gilda?” Applejack began in a hushed voice.

“Yeah," Twilight Sparkle confirmed. "Eesh. If she’s the peace ambassador, I hate to imagine how griffons who really don’t like ponies feel.”

Indeed, Rarity reflected, Gilda had acted like an utter ruffian when she had visited Ponyville. Still, she and Rainbow Dash had been close childhood friends, and Gilda had lived among ponies for a time. It made sense that she and Rainbow Dash should serve as ambassadors together, as a symbol of friendship and cooperation between Equestria and the griffon eyries.

“And now,” Princess Celestia went on, “allow me to introduce the ambassador from Equestria. She spent her earliest years learning to fly in these very mountains, and called many griffons friends. She is cousin to this town’s Mayor Aurora Glow and to the Lady Chroma Prism of Cloudsdale. She is the reigning winner of the Best Young Flier Award, Chief of Weather for the municipality of Ponyville, and Bearer of the Element of Loyalty. Sadly, like Ms. Goldenwings, she also suffered the loss of a friend during the Alicorn’s Cup tragedy. Instead of placing blame for her loss, however, she comes before you to speak in favor of peace and harmony. I give you Miss Rainbow Dash!”

A healthy cheer and the stomping of hooves filled the arena, softened considerably by the fact that the ponies were stomping on solidified clouds. Rarity silently cheered her friend as well. A large opening in the access corridor allowed a relatively unobstructed view of the proceedings, and she paused to watch Rainbow Dash trot up onto the stage. The pegasus was wearing an elegantly simple cream-colored robe with gold trim, and a golden clasp at her throat in the shape of a feather. Rainbow Dash moved to stand next to Gilda, who wore a simple tunic of decorative silver mail.

The hall itself seated many hundreds of delegates and functionaries, with ponies largely occupying one hemisphere and griffons the other. Scattered buffalo, donkeys, and others occupied remaining seats; there was even a pair of camels seated together near the back. Many of the individuals in attendance were ornately garbed, with griffons wearing elaborate armor and plumed helmets, and ponies resplendent in the finest, most current fashions from Canterlot and Manehattan. Rarity fought the urge to search the crowd for examples of her own work, and focused instead on searching for Windlass, Procyon, and anything suspicious.

On the pony side, she noticed that a large contingent of pegasi were wearing the simple tunics and stolae that constituted their ancient hereditary attire, and an entire row of griffons were completely shrouded in thick brown cloaks that covered them from beak to tail, perhaps identifying them as members of some particular sect or monastic order, though that was pure conjecture. Rarity did not yet see Windlass, but she was heartened when she finally picked out Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy seated in the first row, closest to the raised stage.

“There is Fancypants!” Blueblood whispered. “In the second row on the pony side. A mare is seated beside him, wearing a formal gown.” His voice suddenly became a low hiss. “And my brother is with them, wearing a purple robe - the official robe of the ducal office. He has already claimed my titles."

Rarity’s gaze quickly traveled to the spot Blueblood indicated, and fixated on the ponies there. Fancypants was easy enough to identify, sitting erect and wearing a dark, perfectly tailored waistcoat. The thin stallion near him had to be Procyon. Finally, she focused on the pink unicorn mare seated between the two stallions, wearing a voluminous periwinkle gown that matched her elegantly coiffed mane.

Rarity felt the familiar pain surge through her horn, and watched as suddenly, slowly, Windlass turned in her seat. Her heart caught and nearly stopped as other mare stared directly at her from across the Great Hall, smiled wickedly, and winked.

Rarity calmed herself, and refused to be intimidated. She had already proven that she could shut Windlass out of her mind, and she would in moments expose her treachery to all the world. “I am not afraid of you,” she voiced in her mind, and glared at the other mare. Windlass seemed to startle, and then quickly turned away.

“She sees us!” Twilight exclaimed.

“And she’s right behind Pinkie and Fluttershy!” Applejack added. “That can’t be good.”

“No,” Rarity replied steadily. “No, it must certainly cannot. If Windlass has a plan, the time for her to set it in motion is now, before we can reveal her as a traitor. Since we lack surprise, and I do not see anything that might reveal her designs, I believe it is time for us to act as well.”

“You merely need to lead the way. We will follow you, come what may,” Zinzi declared resolutely.

“Then follow me now,” Rarity said. The opening in the outer passageway led directly to a wide aisle, which bisected the hall into hemispheres respectively populated by ponies and griffons, and which led directly to the stage at the vast chamber’s far end. Wasting no more time, Rarity marched forward, directly into the aisle.

At the same time, Princess Celestia was wrapping up her speech. “Now you have heard enough from me. You will next hear from those who can speak from experience about the possibilities and benefits of a close relationship between our two great societies, and who, despite their youth, have the wisdom to refuse to let fear and anger rule their hearts and minds. I humbly cede the stage to …”

“Rarity?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed as she took to the air in a flurry of wings, letting her robe fall to the stage behind her. “It can’t be. Is that really you?”

As one, every face in the chamber turned to look at the five equines trotting toward the stage, and suddenly the entire hall was alive with gasps, murmuring, whispers, and a few incredulous exclamations.

“It most certainly is,” Rarity replied as she continued forward down the aisle, in a voice she hoped was loud enough for all to hear. “I dare say that it has been a rather difficult week, and I am ashamed to present myself in such a tragically unglamorous state, but nevertheless, here I am, alive and - well, alive at least.”

At that moment, the hall and the entirety of those assembled within it descended into chaos. Every pony and griffon stood as one and began shouting, demanding explanations, shouting epithets, and making wild accusations. Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, flashed across the hall and was on Rarity in an instant, tackling her to the ground. It required the concerted telekinetic effort of Blueblood and Twilight to pry the pegasus off long enough for Applejack and Zinzi to help Rarity to her hooves.

“You were dead!” Rainbow Dash shouted accusingly, loud enough to be heard over the raucous din.

“Technically speaking, I was not,” Rarity replied. “Though not for lack of effort on the part of a few.”

“Excuse me! Coming through! Ponies on a mission!” Pinkie Pie bounded over, and occasionally on, the heads of clamoring attendees as she made her way across the rows toward Rarity’s group, dragging a frantically apologizing Fluttershy behind her. “Rarity!” the pink earth pony exclaimed. “Wow, Twilight said she and Applejack were going to bring you back and it looks like she did, and you look great! I mean, maybe not as great as you usually look but not bad. I’d say only slightly below average. Are those piranhasprite bite marks? Anyway, everypony was so sad because Princess Celestia said you fell off an airship, except for me. I knew you were okay all along, of course, so I just played along because I didn’t want anypony thinking I was some kind of a clairvoyant weirdo, because honestly, who wants to live with that hanging over them? Anyway, yay! You’re back!”

“Oh Rarity,” Fluttershy managed, her soft voice barely audible, “I wished so hard to see you again. I couldn’t stop thinking about you, and now I …” The yellow pegasus abruptly launched herself forward and threw both forelegs around Rarity’s neck as she cried fat wet tears.

Somewhere amidst the hugging and the noise, Rarity thought she could hear Princess Celestia calling for order, and she realized that the situation in the Great Hall was getting out of control. Windlass had the Heavenstone, and with all this commotion the guards present would have their hooves full simply dealing with the crowd. This was the perfect moment for the pink unicorn to strike. A terrible thought occurred to Rarity, namely, that Windlass might have anticipated this very moment, and timed her plan for the chaos that Rarity’s arrival would surely cause.

Rarity had to get to the stage, now. Extricating herself from Fluttershy’s forelegs, she saw that the aisle had filled with ponies and griffons who had spilled out of their orderly rows. There was no clear way forward, and no way around, unless … “Rainbow Dash, be a dear and carry me up to the stage, won’t you?”

“Um, yeah! No problem!” the colorful pegasus replied. “I’ll have you there in a dash!”

“And Twilight,” Rarity continued. “Please follow along with the others as soon as you can find a break in the crowd.” When the lavender unicorn nodded in response, Rarity turned her attention back to Rainbow Dash. “Shall we?”

Rainbow Dash beat her wings and rose into the air, before swinging around behind Rarity and descending on top of her in what was truly a most unseemly fashion, then wrapping her forelegs under Rarity’s own.

“Yeah, this is more than a little bit awkward,” the pegasus mused, before hoisting Rarity skyward with a grunt.

Many in the chamber turned to look as the two ponies rose out of the crowd and slowly flew toward the raised stage at the center of the hall. There, Princess Celestia stood commanding what few guards she had present in an attempt to restore order and calm, and the royal alicorn did not even notice when Rarity was set down beside her.

“How can you be unable to contact Commander Plume?” Princess Celestia asked a cringing pegasus guard. “Find him, wherever he may be, and inform him that he must send an additional security team to the summit immediately! Hurry!”

As the guardspony bowed and hastily flew away, Princess Celestia whirled around toward Rarity. “And you,” the frazzled alicorn began, before blinking and shaking her head incredulously as it became clear she was not speaking to another of her Royal Guards. “You …Rarity ... you’re not supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be ...”

“I have come a very long way to tell my story, Your Highness,” Rarity said, bowing respectfully. “To you, and to everyone, if you will permit me.”

“I …” Princess Celestia paused, and composed herself into her normal regal bearing. “What you will say, tell me, will it be harmful to the cause of peace?” She asked the question in a solemn voice, craning her long neck down so as to look Rarity in the eye. “Tell me truly.”

“On the contrary, Your Highness, it may be the only chance for it.”

“Then you shall speak at once,” Princess Celestia declared, drawing herself upright, her golden regalia gleaming and her long white horn spearing the air as she turned to face the crowd. “I did not want to do this for fear of alarming the attendees, but now is the time it seems. Lay back your ears, Rarity.”

Rarity stepped backwards and obediently flattened her ears to the side of the head just as Princess Celestia opened her mouth to speak.

“BE STILL!” The Princess’ booming voice rattled around the Great Hall like a thunderclap, shaking those present down to their bones. Instantly, the chamber fell silent, save for the muffled clip-clop of hooves on polished cloud as Twilight Sparkle and the others marched purposefully through the stupefied crowd and up onto the stage, where they took up positions behind Rarity.

“THIS PONY WILL SPEAK,” Princess Celestia declared, before stepping backward and granting Rarity the floor.

All five of Rarity’s friends from Ponyville were arrayed behind her along with Blueblood, Zinzi, and even Gilda, who stood next to Rainbow Dash with an expression somewhere between confusion and resoluteness.

Rarity scanned her expectant audience. Fancypants stood in front of his seat, looking delighted and shocked at the same time. To Rarity’s surprise, Windlass was still directly beside him, having made no move to flee. Instead, she merely stared back, her expression inscrutable. The pink mare was still very dangerous, perhaps now more so than ever; Rarity’s horn informed her that the Heavenstone was present, probably concealed beneath the folds of Windlass’ gown. She would have to make her point quickly, even though there was so much to explain.

“Hello,” Rarity began, but her voice died in the immense space of the vast chamber. She turned to her right. “Twilight dear, I do not suppose you have a voice amplification spell for me, by any chance?”

“Spell number twenty-two, no problem,” the other unicorn mare replied, and a glowing magenta aura surrounded her horn.

“Thank you,” Rarity said, and this time her voice filled the hall. A low rumble had begun to emanate from the audience; no doubt, many wondered how she would account for her unexpected survival and sudden appearance at the summit. She took a moment to look around before speaking further.

Some in the crowd were still taking their seats, having vacated them during the previous confusion. Most were staring up at her. Oddly, one large griffon among the monk-like berobed contingent was actually making his way out of his row and back up a side aisle, apparently uninterested in what she had to say.

She was also struck by the fact that the three unicorn Royal Guards on the terrace level high above had turned their telescopes around to face the stage. Surely, she understood why they were interested in seeing and hearing what she had to say, but they were abandoning their watch duty by failing to search the sky outside. It seemed there were many problems with the Guard these days, not merely with regard to loyalty.

Most unnerving of all was the fact the Windlass still had not budged, and the pink mare betrayed no sign of emotion - no trace of guilt or anxiety. How could she possibly be so sanguine, just as Rarity was about to reveal her villainy? Procyon’s face, in contrast, was a mess of sweat and fear, as one would have expected. That only reinforced the certainty that Windlass was planning something - but what?

“Ah, hello,” Rarity began again. ”My name is Rarity, and by the sound of things most of you know that I am not supposed to be standing before you. The newspapers, I am told, informed you that I fell from an airship during a sudden storm that overtook the Alicorn’s Cup airship race. The truth is, I … really, now? What is it?”

Rarity snapped at Blueblood, who had touched her left shoulder with a forehoof, and was leaning close to whisper in her ear.

“Those guards,” Blueblood whispered.

“Yes, I see them. I am certain they will all receive a demerit for failing to perform their duty. What does it matter?”

“Not that, the telescopes - there is something strange about them. As an airship pilot I am quite familiar with all manner of scopes, but these are strange to me. It is almost as if there is something familiar about them, but I cannot place my hoof on it.”

“Telescopes? At a time like this, who cares about telescopes?” Rarity whispered back in exasperation.

“He’s right,” Twilight Sparkle added in a low voice, huddling together with Rarity and Blueblood. “I’m familiar with every make and model of pony telescope, and those definitely aren’t Equestrian-made. Royal Guards shouldn’t be equipped with anything like that.”

Rarity looked upward, and scrutinized the unicorn guards again. The three stallions were adjusting the optics on the instruments, and looking through them periodically, perhaps attempting to get a better view. Strangely, they seemed to be looking not at Rarity, but at the griffon section, specifically at the ornately armored dignitaries in the first row. One of the unicorns, she noted, was using his hooves and teeth to adjust the controls, rather than magic, which was also indisputably odd. On a sudden impulse, Rarity glanced down to look at Windlass, and saw that the other mare was also looking up at the guards. Windlass immediately lowered her gaze as soon as she realized Rarity had spotted her, and in that moment Rarity saw the briefest sign of uncertainty flash over the pink unicorn’s face. It was enough to give her away.

In that single moment, Rarity comprehended everything.

A spark had ignited in her mind; insights erupted like fireworks as connections were made, and faded memories became as clear as day as they shot to the forefront of her brain. She knew why the Royal Guard had not been patrolling around the city, why the robed griffon had left his seat, and why these unicorns were pointing their telescopes at the crowd. She understood that all of these things were connected, and that Windlass was behind all of them.

Rarity gasped involuntarily, and Windlass, seeing her reaction, immediately raised her left hoof in the air. It was a signal, and in an instant, it was as though the Gates of Tartarus had been opened.

“Rarity, I remember! Those aren’t …” Blueblood shouted, before she cut him off.

“Yes I know!” Rarity shouted. “Twilight, cast your shield!” As she spoke, Rarity put all of her strength and ability behind her telekinesis, and as her magic enveloped a very surprised Twilight Sparkle, she pushed, and her friend hurtled off the stage and through the air.

At that same time, a piercing shout filled the Great Hall. “For Equestria!” one of the unicorn guards shouted from his high perch. “Equestria!” all three chorused. “Death to all griffons!”

As one, the guards pulled long handles free from hidden recesses, and began feverishly cranking them. The glass lenses of the false telescopes shattered with a thundering blast and the air filled with smoke and a fusillade of whizzing bullets.

Screams of terror erupted from the crowd, and Rarity could only hope that comprehension had dawned on her swiftly enough. They were not telescopes at all, of course, which should have been obvious given that they were nearly the exact shape and proportions of the prototype cannon Buckaroo and Blueblood had mounted to the deck of the Alicorn, with only a few cosmetic details added to complete the disguise.

Thankfully, she saw that a bright magenta sphere had shimmered into existence above the griffon delegation, emanating from the unicorn mare who was now awkwardly seated in the lap of a fat griffon chieftain. The forcefield appeared to be doing its job, Rarity noted, absorbing the hundreds of bullets slamming into it.

“It’s too much!” Twilight cried out, obliterating Rarity's temporary feeling of victory. She could hear the strain in her friend's voice as she fought to maintain her spell against the relentless impacts. “I can’t hold it much longer!”

She likely would not need to, Rarity realized grimly. The frustrated unicorns had halted their attack and were swiveling their cannons, up and toward the stage.

Rarity turned to Princess Celestia, who was still standing behind her at the far end of the stage with a pair of her white-coated pegasus guards. “Your Highness, can you project a forcefield around the stage?”

Princess Celestia shook her head, and when she spoke, it was in an uncharacteristically harried and exasperated tone. “I have only just re-energized the solidification enchantment I placed on the city’s clouds, and my power is drained. I have no magic to spare, no idea why these guards are attacking, and I cannot even find my Commander!”

Rarity glanced behind her and upwards to see the unicorns preparing to fire again. "Then may I suggest we all run!” She joined the Princess and the other ponies on the stage in fleeing as the staccato sound of cannon fire reverberated throughout the chamber again. Suddenly, Princess Celestia stopped and turned back.

“No, I will not stand for this,” the alicorn stated firmly.

“Princess!” Rarity shouted, sliding to a stop and turning back. “You have to get out of the way!”

“If this is what a lasting peace requires, then so be it. This is a gesture the griffons will understand. The cloud enchantment will last until non-fliers can be evacuated. No innocent lives will be lost.”

The impacting bullets sent up sprays of water vapor from the cloud surface of the stage, tracing a line toward Princess Celestia, as Rarity lowered her shoulder and slammed into the alicorn’s left upper hind leg. Unfortunately, the Princess was far larger and taller than any mere unicorn mare, and outweighed Rarity by an order of magnitude. Princess Celestia barely budged, and the only result was that Rarity rebounded and fell down directly beside her.

She braced herself for the terrible, if brief, pain that she was about to endure, but the cannons unexpectedly fell silent before any bullets found her. In the ensuing quiet, she heard a loud scream, then a dull thud, and she quickly turned around to look.

Up on the terrace, Buckaroo stood alone behind one of the telescope cannons, having apparently shoved its former operator off the edge and down into the crowd below. A second unicorn lay crumpled where Zips had knocked him out with a buck to the helmet. The third cannoneer had apparently just gotten over the surprise of having his comrades attacked, because he was now maneuvering his weapon to point at the interlopers on the terrace. That mistake left him unable to see Rainbow Dash and Gilda leap into the air behind Rarity and streak across the chamber as twin blurs. The treacherous stallion never saw what hit him before he too dropped to the ground unconscious.

Rarity stood and hurried back to the center of the stage, beckoning Twilight to clamber out of the crowd and cast her amplification spell again. She needed to speak quickly, to make sure everyone understood what was happening, and who the culprits truly were.

One of the most elegant-looking griffons, a younger male with golden fur and stark white plumage, wearing a coat of mail painted crimson and and a shining steel helm, leaped out of his seat and into the air. Hovering, he pointed an accusatory talon at Rarity.

“What is this madness? How dare you ponies lure us here under the auspices of peace, only to try to have us all murdered? This is an act of war, one which I promise we will meet in kind!”

Princess Celestia, recovered from the shock of nearly being shot, stepped forward to stand next to Rarity. “Please, Elector Kestrik, I assure you that …”

“No more pony lies!” another griffon shouted.

“You encroach on our lands, and now this outrage!” a third yelled. “There must be war!”

“War!” several more griffons took up the cry, and Rarity was dismayed to see a group of ponies, the pegasi who had come wearing the traditional attire of their martial age, take to the air hurling invective of their own.

“Stop it!” Rarity shouted. “Just stop! Stop it right now, all of you, and listen to me! You are all acting like children.” She looked out at the crowd and waited until quiet reigned again. The elegant griffon, however, spoke before she could continue.

“Then tell us, pony who has mysteriously returned from the grave, what is the meaning of all this? Why have your own Royal Guards attempted to assassinate our leaders?”

Rarity looked at Windlass, who was numbly standing in place, refusing to meet her gaze, and then back at the griffon. “Perhaps it is better if I show you,” she said, and stepped down into the aisle.

With every eye following her, Rarity trotted over to a crowd of bystanders that had gathered around the unicorn Buckaroo had knocked from the terrace. Pushing through the crowd, she saw that he was unconscious but breathing, having after all fallen onto a floor made of clouds.

“Excellent timing, Mister Buckaroo,” Rarity called out to the stallion standing high above her. “How did you get up there, anyway, if I might inquire?”

“Stairs,” Buckaroo replied. “In the back, for pegasi who ain’t fit to fly. By the way, you know who that is, don’t you?”

“Indeed I do,” Rarity replied. She promptly walked forward and, without hesitating, smashed a forehoof down on the fallen unicorn’s horn, crushing it and snapping it free of his head. The crowd gasped, first in revulsion at her act, and then in shock at the shivers of painted balsa wood beneath Rarity’s hoof, and the exposed striped coat where the horn had been.

“It requires more than a false horn and a third-rate dye job to deceive somepony as practiced in the art of cosmetics as I am,” Rarity said, not mentioning that she had noticed the phony unicorn manipulating the cannon with his teeth, rather than magic.

She turned to address the audience again, her voice amplified courtesy of Twilight’s spell. “You asked about the meaning of these events. Now you see; there are deceivers hiding among us, conspiring to turn ponies and griffons against one another. This is no Royal Guard. For that matter, this stallion is not even a pony. He is a zebra named Zolo, hired to create these weapons and help spark a war.

“You are wondering, I do not doubt, how I know this, and from whence I came to be here after falling from an airship halfway across the world. Again, I’ve found that ‘show, rather than tell,’ it is a useful maxim.” Rarity walked back up the aisle, to the fourth row, occupied by the robed and hooded griffons she had noticed before. She had kept an eye on the large griffon who had stood and attempted to walk away before Zolo’s attack, and tracked him as he surreptitiously attempted to return to his seat after the attempted massacre was thwarted. Now she maneuvered down the row to stand before him, and watched as he attempted to pull his hood more tightly around his beaked face.

“I am afraid I am not familiar with your order, sir,” Rarity began, “but I do believe we two have met before, when you wore different attire.”

“Um, the weather clerics don’t talk,” Gilda shouted, still standing on the terrace alongside Rainbow Dash. “Not even to each other. Vow of silence.”

“This one will,” Rarity responded. “You see, Blueblood, er, Duke Polaris and I are the not the only ones to return from the dead today.” She telekinetically threw back the griffon’s hood and tore free a thick scarf covering his beak. “Is that not so, Chancellor?”

As one, the griffon contingent began to squawk and shriek in surprise as Rarity revealed Chancellor Ninetalons’ twisted beak and grizzled feathers. Ninetalons began to move, but quickly thought better of it as a trio of armored griffons surrounded Rarity and stared him down.

“Everything each of you has heard, every perceived betrayal and backstab that has been used to justify a war between ponies and griffons - they are all lies,” Rarity loudly declared. “But this chicanery ends here and now. I have come all the way from the city of Gallopoli, where a faction of griffons led by your General Karroc attacked the city, attempting to raze it to the ground. Do not bothering denying it, Chancellor, as there are thousands of witnesses. I suspect messenger ponies have already reached Canterlot with the news.

“Karroc hoped to devastate Gallopoli, and then raid the undefended southern reaches of Equestria, forcing our nations into war. But the attack failed,” Rarity stated flatly. “Karroc is dead, his forces are routed, and the survivors are safely in the custody of Captain Spitfire of our Wonderbolts.”

“Aw yeah!” interjected Rainbow Dash, pumping a foreleg in the air.

“Still, I wondered how Karroc would be able to politically position the griffon eyries for the ensuing conflict from a base thousands of leagues away. He needed resources at home, powerful allies who could work behind the scenes, and who had an established base of power.”

“How did you know?” Ninetalons croaked.

"I knew Karroc had to have help, but I did not put everything together and realize it was you until now, when I saw you try to flee before the attack," Rarity said. "Even so, you were not as subtle as you thought, Chancellor. I remember clearly the words you spoke to my dear friend Fancypants when I first encountered you. You said that you looked forward to your imminent victory over the ponies, and at the time it seemed you were speaking of the Alicorn’s Cup. But you were not, were you?

"Even then, I would never have suspected you if not for something I encountered in the Impenetrable Lands, while trying desperately to get home even as your general hunted me like prey. After Blueblood and I escaped Karroc's first attack, we encountered more of his soldiers in the jungle, who used a potion called catta tonic to surprise us. The griffons had discovered a substance that perfectly mimicked death, though the end result was not nearly so permanent.

"Back in Canterlot, when you appeared to be dead, you were really under the effects of this potion. That is why General Karroc spirited you away before any of our Equestrian medical examiners could see you. It was the perfect opening salvo in your scheme to foment distrust and hatred between ponies and griffons, and it allowed you to disappear and continue your scheming outside the public eye. No doubt you planned to eventually install Karroc as leader while secretly retaining the true ruling authority, as the Electors had begun to view you as too old to continue in your position."

“This - this is insane!” Elector Kestrik cried out.

"The insane thing is that the Chancellor risked exposure by attending the summit," Rarity said. "I suspect that he had received word that the attack on Gallopoli failed, and wanted to be here to ensure that this final attempt to spark a war did not."

“Do not listen to this upstart foal!” Ninetalons bellowed, finally standing. “Yes, I live, and while I do I am still your Chancellor. Griffons, seize her!”

“Seize yourself, traitor!” Kestrik spat, flying over and landing next to Rarity. “You shame your family, your eyrie, and all griffons. Your time in office shall forever be a black mark on our history.”

“You griffons do not bear the shame alone, Elector,” Rarity said. “Ninetalons, at least, wanted to bring glory to your eyries and secure your borders - not evil ends if the chosen means are not considered. Some ponies have done far worse in the name of driving a wedge between our nations. Your Chancellor had allies in Equestria, allies who would gladly have seen untold numbers of ponies and griffons die in order to achieve their mad, shortsighted aims. Chancellor Ninetalons was a longtime acquaintance of my dear friend Fancypants, you see, and through him, he met a new business partner; none other than Lord Procyon of Canterlot.”

“My name is Prince Blueblood! The title passed to me when my brother was presumed lost! It can never be taken away! I am a prince now, and the Duke of Canterlot besides!”

Rarity turned to see that Procyon had stood, his gaunt face sweaty and sallow as he screamed at nopony in particular, and the ponies around him were staring at him in disgust and horror.

“I am hardly lost, you blathering numbskull,” Blueblood said angrily. “To think I defended you when Rarity first named you as a traitor.”

“Fancypants, who I must admit has chosen some very questionable individuals in which to place his trust lately, was conducting business with both Procyon and Ninetalons,” Rarity continued, “and he unwittingly introduced them to each other. Together, the new allies hatched a plan most insidious. Procyon raided the finances of his brother’s airship company to make it appear insolvent, thus positioning it for a buyout. He then extracted a tidy fortune from Fancypants in return for selling the company. Procyon funneled that money into building a secret base in the southern jungles, and an armada for General Karroc.

"What happened during the Alicorn's Cup was a preliminary strike, the initial phase of a conspiracy to create a war out of whole cloth - to craft a completely manufactured conflict. The griffons would get a pretext for securing their borders and expelling the ponies from these mountains, and Procyon would get his brother out of the way, as well as an excuse to seize the throne in Equestria, since he knew that the Princesses would refuse to get involved in a military conflict."

Rarity paused. "Of course, to do that he would need help from within the Royal Guard.” She then turned to Princess Celestia. “Your Highness, have you located your missing Commander?”

“No,” Celestia replied, shaking her head. “Commander Peacock Plume and his regiment have completely disappeared.”

“Unfortunately, I fear you may need to find a new Commander,” Rarity replied. “As this one is in league with the conspirators. When we arrived in Stratusburg, none of the guards who should have been stationed to protect the summit were present. I suspect Commander Plume has ordered all of his guards to muster somewhere nearby, just as I suspect Chancellor Ninetalons has stationed a force of griffons in the mountains. The rank and file soldiers surely do not know what is happening, but their leaders are no doubt waiting for a signal that the summit has been attacked, after which they would send their soldiers into retributive battle over the city, thus beginning a terribly costly war. With the attack thwarted, no signal is forthcoming."

Rarity looked at Procyon. "Did I get that right?" The stallion gave no reply. “Right. Unfortunately, there are other supposedly loyal friends who have betrayed our trust. You see, I did not fall out of an airship during the race. I was thrown out.”

At that, another gasp erupted from the crowd, and Rarity, watching out of the corner of her eye, saw Fancypants jump out of his seat and abruptly move away from Windlass.

“What - what are you saying?” he demanded, moving into the aisle.

“Colonel Tempest was working for the conspirators,” Rarity replied. “His hatred for griffons was so powerful that he longed for war to justify killing them. The colonel, however, perished at Gallopoli.”

“Then it is all over,” Princess Celestia said, relief in her voice. “The threat is ended.”

“It cannot be,” Fancypants said slowly, continuing to move away from his seat and looking to Rarity. “Because Tempest was not alone with you when you went overboard, was he?”

“No,” Rarity said. “The conspiracy is not ended, nor is the threat we face. I have not yet named the pony who truly masterminded every twist and turn of this foul plot.”

Fancypants turned back to look at Windlass, who gazed back at him searchingly, looking pathetically beautiful in her voluminous blue gown. “You?” Fancypants asked, his voice cracking.

“Her,” Rarity said firmly.

“Guards, arrest that mare!” Princess Celestia shouted.

“No, I don’t think so,” Windlass stated deliberately, speaking aloud for the first time. She telekinetically unfasted the clasps at the front of her gown to reveal a brass breastplate with a large white gem shining in its center. There was a brilliant burst of light and a rush of magic as everypony near Windlass was sent flying, only to crash painfully to the ground or into other attendees several pony lengths away. “All of you, stay away from me if you value your lives!”

“Right, well, I suppose this was inevitable,” Rarity said. "I recommend everypony leave at once. This mare possesses the Heavenstone."

Another gasp of alarm was heard from the pony side of the Great Hall, and this time Princess Celestia joined in. “No!” the alicorn exclaimed. “It was lost forever!”

“No, it was hidden from you, so that you could not steal the last shred of my family’s dignity and history!” Procyon cried, hauling himself to a standing position where he had been thrown by Windlass' magical blast.

“Windlass my dear,” Fancypants began, cautiously advancing toward the pink unicorn mare. “Whatever is going on here, you must not hurt anypony else. Please go with the Princess’ guards, and we’ll get this all sorted out back in Canterlot. Everything will be fine.”

“Yes, everything will be sorted out in Canterlot,” Windlass hissed. “When I rule with you at my side, and bring your vision of a new Equestria to fruition. No more Princesses, no more predestined misery for ponies who cannot match their talent to their desires, no more foolish shunning of the technology that will allow ponykind to truly enter the modern age. I will make the world you envisioned real, because I have the will to do it! That is what the Heavenstone is, my darling Fancypants, the embodiment of will, of dreams. With it, I can move the stars, I can reshape the world!”

“You have me mistaken," Fancypants replied, with sadness in his eyes and weighing down his words. "My dream is for an Equestria where all ponies have a say in the government, and in their own individual futures, not where their destinies are dictated by one mare who thinks she knows best."

“You will see that I do know best, and that I understand you better than anypony,” Windlass replied. “You will be king, and I will be queen. Queen of everything!”

“What are you talking about?” Procyon piped up. “I am to be king!”

“Back cur! You are nothing!” Windlass shouted, and zapped a bolt of magic from her horn that forced Procyon to jump out of the way, whimpering.

Princess Celestia had taken to the air, and now she alighted in front of Windlass. “Surrender now, and turn over that gem,” the alicorn demanded sternly. “There is no escape from this place.”

“No!” Windlass shouted. “I know what you are, spirit!. Mirage! Ghost of a dream that has persisted in this world far too long! Neither you nor the thing you call a sister have any power over the Heavenstone, for it is greater than you! Come closer, and I will send you back to the void you hail from!”

Rarity watched Princess Celestia stop and approach no closer to Windlass, though she fixed the mare with a baleful gaze.

“This has gone on long enough, Windlass," Rarity said. "You have lost. You and I both know that the Heavenstone does not consider you its real master."

“Wrong! This is the Heavenstone, the Stone of Will, and I have the strongest will!” Windlass shouted. “It … is … mine!” The pink unicorn's horn glowed with a burning white light, and the air crackled with electricity as she fired a bolt of lightning. The spell, however, dissipated on contact with the force field Twilight Sparkle had just cast around Rarity.

“Insect!” Windlass bellowed, and loosed a second bolt. This time, the impact against the forcefield sent sparks flying, and the magenta shield glowed brightly before shattering into a million crystalline shards that dissolved in the air.

Rarity watched, horrified, as Twilight was seized by Windlass’ telekinesis and hurled thirty lengths through the air across the chamber. Gilda and Rainbow Dash simultaneously dove from their positions on the terrace, and the griffon caught Twilight in her talons while the pegasus sped directly at Windlass.

“My will is stronger,” Windlass shouted, and Rainbow Dash was slammed to the ground, where she skidded awkwardly to a stop in the center aisle. “My power is greater.” She tossed aside Applejack and Pinkie Pie, who had been charging her from behind. Rarity felt her hair stand on end as a great arc of electricity formed above the tip of Windlass’ horn, and the pink mare lowered her head toward Rarity. "Only I have the vision to lead the world forward, and eliminate that which would hold it back!"

Rarity had no idea what to do, and nowhere to run.

“But you do not have the right!” Blueblood shouted, popping up from the row of seats he had used to skulk close to Windlass. He reared back and came down on the mare’s flank with both forelegs, sending her sprawling. The blast that had been meant for Rarity discharged into the air around Windlass, and Rarity looked on in horror as Blueblood staggered away, his face and body badly singed. He appeared to be in shock from the pain of his injuries, and after a few steps, he collapsed to the cloud floor.

Rarity rushed over to kneel beside him, and was relieved to find the stallion breathing and conscious.

“That … was not much fun,” Blueblood said, moving his mouth into what Rarity guessed was supposed to be a smile, but which appeared more like a pained grimace.

“Not by the looks of things,” she replied softly.

“You can stop her.”

“But how?”

“Believe,” Blueblood replied. “Like I do. The Heavenstone will not obey the will of a madmare. It is yours. It has always been yours.”

Blueblood closed his eyes, though his breathing remained rhythmic and steady. Rarity gently brushed a lock of golden hair, its ends badly burned, out of the stallion’s eyes. Her heart beat with righteous fury as she stood on all four legs.

“Are you finished?” Windlass asked impatiently. “You know, I’ve had more than enough of you. There’s nopony who can save you.”

Rarity stood, and walked purposefully toward the other mare. “You are the one who is finished.”

“Wrong! I am just getting started!” Windlass replied. The pink unicorn’s eyes flashed white, and Rarity gasped as a bolt of lightning from above struck the cloud floor in front of her. She looked up, and saw that the ceiling was roiling and churning, the painted scenes of weather having been made real. Another bolt of lightning discharged from a dark storm cloud, and Rarity yelped as she felt the heat of its passage. By now, hundreds of attendees were streaming for the exits, giving the conflict a wide berth.

“It’s only a matter of time before I don’t miss,” Windlass noted.

“Then I will simply have to come to you, and take the Heavenstone myself,” Rarity said, gritting her teeth. She accelerated toward the other mare even as she saw Windlass readying another lightning bolt. Rarity just had to be faster.

She wasn’t. The blast connected squarely with her chest, and Rarity could feel the power of Windlass’ lightning burn through her, the energy filling her body with heat. For an instant, her body was completely saturated with magic, and she felt its power course through her veins. She wondered if this was merely a temporary euphoria as her body was immolated, but a second passed, and then another, and she finally realized that she was unharmed. Better still, she felt like every imaginable spell, every desire she had ever had, was suddenly at her hooves. It was amazing.

She closed her eyes to concentrate on the feeling, and when she opened them, Rarity saw that she was alone with Windlass, surrounded by empty whiteness. She was again inside the magical nexus of the Heavenstone. This time, however, she felt confident that she was not powerless here. In fact, she was at home and at peace in this place.

"What?" Windlass demanded. "What happened?"

"By striking me with the Heavenstone's stored magic, you brought me here and finally completed its connection to me," Rarity replied. "Your spells cannot harm me, for the magic you wield is not yours to use."

"We shall see!" Windlass replied, and again directed a magical blast of electricity. The spell hit home, then fizzled out against Rarity's coat.

“The Heavenstone rejects you, Windlass,” she continued. “It could never accept as its master one who aims to impose her will on others, for it represents the collective spirit of all ponies, and all our hopes and dreams. That is how the old unicorns moved the sun and moon, not through the hubris of one self-righteous king or queen. Possession of the Heavenstone is a burden, because you are beholden to the will of all ponykind, and you must subordinate your own desires. It represents humbleness and generosity, not individual desire. I understand that, Windlass. That is why the Heavenstone has chosen me, and why you cannot harm me.”

“Impossible!” Windlass spat. “The prophecy cannot be real! I refuse to believe it.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about, but I must have that diamond,” Rarity replied, and took a step toward Windlass.

“If it is true, if she was right, then you must be destroyed!” Windlass continued, then laughed maniacally. “You would restore the three and bring about the end of the world! That old witch - somehow she knew!”

“Give me the Heavenstone,” Rarity coolly demanded, ignoring Windlass’ nonsensical ranting.

“If I cannot destroy you directly, then I will have to find another way!” Windlass shouted. With a loud pop, she disappeared from before Rarity's eyes, gone from the nexus. Rarity would not be left behind there a second time. She concentrated, blinked, and found herself back in the Great Hall in Stratusburg.

"Back so soon?" Windlass asked, as Rarity focused her gaze on the pink mare. "If my spells cannot harm you directly, then I will simply destroy you a different way. Behold." Windlass' horn glowed briefly, and her elegant gown was torn off completely and flung aside. Rarity gaped at what was revealed.

Brass rods, gears, and metal plates covered Windlass’ sides and back. Her forelegs were surrounded by an armature of canvas straps and connecting rods, and the whole ensemble was tied into the breastplate she wore, in which the Heavenstone was embedded.

“Tacky,” Rarity declared. “Bizarre clockwork armor is most definitely not in this season.”

“Oh, just wait until you see the pièce de résistance!” Windlass retorted. She stomped a forehoof, and the gears and rods surrounding her began to move. She briefly raised each foreleg in turn, pulling on the connecting rods. Dozens of thin brass plates at Windlass’ sides fanned out above her, then unfolded once and then again, forming a pair of broad, shining, metal-feathered wings, the leading edges of which appeared razor sharp. A pair of cylindrical canisters that had been concealed beneath an oversized bustle rose from the mare’s back and then sprang out to either side of her body.

“What is that supposed to be?” Rarity asked.

“You poor pathetic ignorant seamstress,” Windlass said, shaking her head. “Whatever power you think you have is nothing compared to me. Look on me, Rarity, and see true majesty, for I am greater than your phantom Princesses, greater than all the kings and mages of the old kingdom, for I will reshape the world. I am your queen! I am an alicorn! I am invincible! Look upon me, and despair!”

Windlass reared back on her hind legs and her great brass wings unfurled to their full span with a metallic twang. The unicorn’s horn began to glow again, and Rarity felt the air in the Great Hall begin to swirl around her, faster and faster, as a windstorm rapidly developed. The wind whipped her mane and tail, but Rarity’s hooves were rooted to the cloud beneath them, and she did not budge. She watched in horrified awe as Windlass slowly rose into the air, the magical wind giving lift to the bladelike feathers of her metal wings.

“Behold your undoing!” Windlass bellowed. “My power is not as limited as you thought, for you failed to comprehend the true power of the Heavenstone! It can do so much more than absorb and store magic freely given, it can also take!”

Rarity could do nothing but watch as the Heavenstone, bulging from Windlass’ breastplate, glowed as brightly as the afternoon sun. The white-hot color began to shift, however, first appearing orange, then rose, then finally blood red. Windlass’ eyes glowed intensely crimson as well, and even the color of her magic aura shifted.

At that moment, Rarity realized that all of the ponies and griffons left in the Great Hall had dropped to the floor and were writhing in agony, all except for her. Looking back at Windlass, she could see tendrils of energy extending from each prone figure, curling and wending through the air and terminating at the Heavenstone - Windlass was siphoning the very magical essence of everyone present.

Once again, however, Windlass’ Heavenstone-fueled magic had proven to have no effect on Rarity, yet that did not mean she was safe from harm. She quickly ducked as a steel helmet flew past her head, likely dropped by some griffon in her haste to flee and picked up by the cyclonic vortex inside the Great Hall. She could not simply stand around and wait to be pummeled by debris. She needed to find some way to strike back at Windlass, though that seemed impossible given that the other mare was floating a half dozen lengths above the chamber floor. Suddenly struck by inspiration, she turned and raced to Twilight Sparkle, who lay moaning in pain in the center aisle.

“Yes, flee! Flee before me!” Windlass called after her, her furious voice carrying through the conjured gale.

“Please, you don’t know what you are doing!” Princess Celestia cried out, struggling to move toward Windlass, clearly in a great deal of agony herself. “You cannot use the stone to steal magic! You will destroy the city, and every being here! The clouds will lose their coherence, and then we will all fall. Even the pegasi and griffons will not be able to fly without their magic!”

“And you will be destroyed as well,” Windlass spat. “And I shall rule.”

“You will destroy yourself, and perhaps even the Heavenstone with you! You are defiling it with this evil act! Do you even truly know what it is you hold?”

“Silence! I know more than you can imagine!” Windlass fired a bolt from her horn, and the weakened alicorn was thrown to the ground in an ungainly sprawl.

“Windlass, stop this madness!” Fancypants shouted through gritted teeth, kneeling on the ground. “You will kill me too! You do not want that, surely!”

“I’ll save you! I can save Equestria!” Windlass exclaimed, then let out a bloodcurdling scream. Rarity looked back in horror as a spiderweb of cracks appeared on the pink unicorn’s horn, through which the blood red light poured. “I - I never imagined so much power! I must have more of it! So much more!"

Rarity had reached Twilight, and roughly shook the lavender unicorn by the shoulders to get her attention.

“Twilight, dear, I know you are in pain, but I need you now,” Rarity said. "Please."

“Wha-? Rarity?” Twilight managed, her body twitching as wisps of magic floated away from her, drawn in by the Heavenstone. “Aagh!”

“I can stop her, Twilight, but I need you to give me wings,” Rarity said. "I need to be able to fly up to her, and take the Heavenstone from her while she is reveling in her new powers."

“What?”

“The spell you used on me when we traveled to Cloudsdale. Cast it now, before she has absorbed too much of your magic.”

“But - aagh! - those wings were made of gossamer and morning dew! They won’t be any good in this wind,” Twilight paused, her body wracked with spasms, before continuing, “and definitely not against that!” With difficulty, the lavender unicorn raised a hoof and pointed it at the mechanized flying unicorn in the center of the hall.


“Darling, for the love of Equestria, just do it!” Rarity pleaded, pulling Twilight tightly to her chest. “Believe in me.”

Tears were welling in Twilight Sparkle’s eyes from the pain she was enduring, but she managed to look up at Rarity and form two words. “I believe.”

She pushed Rarity back, and with her face contorted in an expression of sheer torture, her horn glowed brightly, then brighter still, until Rarity felt herself begin floating upwards off of the cloud floor. Sheets of magic were billowing away from Twilight Sparkle now, even as a crawling sensation ran down Rarity’s back. Her body was changing, and finally there was a pop and a bright flash of light. When she could see clearly again, Rarity found herself bobbing up and down in the air with each gentle flap of the iridescent, translucent wings on her back. Twilight was unconscious.

Windlass wasted no time in turning her attention to the hovering unicorn. “Is this some kind of pathetic joke? Are you going to flutter me to death?” she demanded. “I’ll swat you out of the sky, bug!” Windlass manipulated the howling winds and flew higher in the massive chamber. She then performed a graceful loop, her metal wings glinting in the sunlight streaming through the terrace openings, before folding her wings tightly to her sides and streaking down toward Rarity, who barely dodged out of her way.

“I assure you this is not a joke,” Rarity shouted over the wind. “You have time and again completely misapprehended the nature and purpose of the artifact you claim to wield, and that is your undoing. The Heavenstone is the embodiment of will, but not your will, the will and spirit of all ponykind, and dare I say, all free creatures imbued with the magic that permeates our world. The Heavenstone requires its master to be a servant, to give in to the desires of others for the good of all - that is how its true power can be unlocked, not through the dominion of one mare.”

“More lies! Now die!" Windlass’ entire body seemed to glow with crimson light, and lightning bolts fired from above at the same time as the pink unicorn shot a blast at Rarity from her horn. The bolts connected, and Rarity felt herself covered in a feeling of warmth, like curling up in a thick blanket by the fireplace. “You should be ash! What is this?” Windlass demanded, still firing magic at Rarity.

“You have made yet another terrible mistake, trying to absorb the magic of these ponies and griffons,” Rarity replied, as waves of magic created a coruscating shine around her body. "You see, my friends and my Princess are among them, and you cannot hurt me with their magic, you cannot even claim to control it, for the magic of friendship is beyond even the Heavenstone.”

Rarity turned to look down on the dozens of ponies and griffons who had chosen to stay, or who had not managed to escape before Windlass began siphoning magic. They were all obviously in pain, and some, like Twilight, had already fallen unconscious. Others, however, looked up at her, and she felt their hope empowering her. “All of you, with what strength you have, resist, and desire her defeat. If you wish it, then so it shall be. That is how the Heavenstone works.”

“Enough!” Windlass continued to increase the intensity of her attack, until it seemed that seams were opening in her very skin, through which the fiendish red light poured. Rarity hungrily drank in the power she was unintentionally being given, as Windlass still failed to comprehend that she was fully connected to the Heavenstone's magic.

“Indeed, I do believe that is enough,” Rarity replied. So much magic filled her, from the tip of her tail to the tips of her ears, from her hooves to her snout, and in every hair on her body. She was a glowing, living receptacle of magic, and if she desired it, she felt as though she could turn day to night. Surely she could defeat Windlass.

The metal-covered mare ceased her attack and hovered, panting, her face twisted in rage and her eyes glowing red with fury and madness. “Even if I cannot destroy you, I can destroy this city and everypony you care about! Then I will burn your worthless peasant town!”

By now, loud groaning and creaking sounds could be heard emanating from the very structure of the building and the city itself. Windlass was drawing magic even from the clouds. Soon, they would become insubstantial, Stratusburg would dissolve and collapse, and every pony and griffon still alive would fall to their doom.

“You will not,” Rarity replied, “because I will stop you."

"Stop me? Even if you have the power, you cannot even hope to catch me with those flimsy wings." Windlass increased the intensity of her storm, and flew higher into the chamber.

"Not with these wings, perhaps," Rarity conceded. "But all I needed was for Twilight to lay the groundwork for what I plan to be a truly bold fashion statement. You see, I do not know the spell to create wings, but with the magic you poured into me through the Heavenstone, I can certainly make them better.”

Rarity closed her eyes to concentrate, and quickly gathered the massive amount of magic inside her. She then focused on the gossamer wings keeping her aloft, and channeled a spell into them. It was really a simple spell - modification and beautification - no different from turning a bolt of fabric into a shawl, or unruly shrubbery into lovely topiary. The only difference was that this time, she was modifying a pony, specifically, herself. As such, it required a great deal more magic than she could normally muster, but magic was now something she had in wonderful excess. She experienced her body once again changing, though this time the sensation was even more pronounced than when Twilight had created the wings in the first place. She felt sinew and tendons sprouting, muscles and bones growing, and finally, feathers erupting and growing from her skin.

With a final blinding flash and a loud bang, the spell was complete. Floating in the center of the hall there now hovered a unicorn mare with piercing blue eyes, mane and tail of rich purple, and broad, sweeping, pearlescent feathered wings beating the air. The air around her horn horn crackled with electric blue sparks.

“Oh my,” Rarity exclaimed, turning back to admire her work. “My wings are so pretty.” She turned to look directly at Windlass. “Do you not agree?”

“Wha - what are you?” Windlass asked, her mouth open in shock.

Rarity narrowed her gaze. “I am Rarity, as I have always been, but now I am also the pony who is about to put an end to this nightmare once and for all.” She flapped her powerful wings experimentally, ignoring the magical windstorm whipping around her as though it was a benign zephyr, and flew upward toward the brass-winged mare. Rarity gathered her magic, preparing to wrest the Heavenstone free of the armored breastplate in which it rested, but Windlass fled before she could get close.

Rarity watched, frustrated, as Windlass used her telekinesis to take hold of the pair of steel canisters protruding from her metal armature, and rotated them until they were perpendicular to the floor. With a roar, the canisters shot forth jets of flame, and Windlass blasted upward like a holiday skyrocket. Almost before Rarity could react, she had disappeared through the terrace level opening and out into the world beyond.

On the one hoof, this was a good thing, since Windlass would not be able to continue siphoning magic directly from her friends and from the city superstructure. On a second hoof, she could not afford to let Windlass escape, having apparently lost her mind, and her body seemingly being torn apart from the inside by her evil misuse of the Heavenstone. Moreover, capturing her and the Heavenstone was perhaps her only hope of restoring the magic that had been stolen, and healing her friends and all the other ponies and griffons Windlass had hurt. Without hesitating further, Rarity flapped her wings and flew after the rocket-propelled unicorn.

It was not difficult to follow the puffy contrail Windlass was leaving in her wake; Rarity saw at once that she was heading for the vast cloud mine adjacent to Stratusburg. She glided after the other mare, soaring through the sky faster than any airship. Amazingly, flying seemed to her as easy and natural as threading a needle, or hemming a skirt, though her only previous experience was with the fragile butterfly wings Twilight had created.

The experience was exactly as it had been in the strange dreams Rarity had experienced under the influence of the Heavenstone. She had been an alicorn there, twirling and looping effortlessly through the sky, adjusting her feathered wings to turn and roll and pitch up and down. Now, it was all real, her wings made flesh. A moment ago, she had thought herself inspired in turning raw magic into powerful wings, but now she could not help but wonder if she was not merely playing a part that had been written for her, and already revealed in her dreams. Had they also revealed her fate? In the first dream Rarity had experienced attending her own funeral. Was that the destiny that awaited her now?

No, surely not - the Heavenstone had protected her so far; if it had granted her the impetus and power to become the winged creature she was, then it had meant for her to succeed. At least, that is what she told herself. She flew on.

Even though Windlass was knifing through the air on bladelike wings, propelled by magic and fiery exhaust, Rarity was gaining. She was less than a hundred lengths behind when Windlass entered the vast latticelike structure of clouds, steel, and heavy mining equipment that formed the cloud mine, hanging in the cold air just off the slope of the nearby mountain range. Unfortunately, by the time Rarity followed her in, the other mare was gone, lost amidst the seemingly infinite platforms and connecting beams. The mine was larger than the entire city of Stratusburg itself, and Windlass could likely hide here indefinitely, if that was her aim.

The massive girder falling from above her, however, told Rarity quite plainly that hiding was not Windlass’ only goal. She lowered her right wing and banked out of the path of the onrushing girder, then resumed searching for the other pony. She shook her head as she remembered that she did not need to use her eyes and ears; as long as Windlass had the Heavenstone, she could not hide from Rarity’s horn.

“I know I can’t escape you,” Windlass’ voice called out, though Rarity could not see her. “The Heavenstone has chosen you as its true master, and it is calling to you. I accept that.”

“Then give it to me,” Rarity shouted, glancing all around as she searched for her quarry. “There is still time so save those you hurt, and perhaps heal whatever damage has been done to you.”

“You have it all wrong,” Windlass called out from somewhere nearby. “You may be the stone’s master now, but you can’t be connected to the Heavenstone if you’re dead!”

Rarity caught the barest glint of sunlight reflecting on brass out of the corner of her eye, and quickly flapped her wings, gaining altitude just as a pair of sharp brass wings sliced past her. She felt a stinging pain in her right thigh, and saw a thin scarlet line traced just below her cutie mark that quickly dyed the surrounding hair red. Fortunately, the wound was shallow.

“Even in this form you still bleed, I see,” Windlass called out. “Good to know.”

Indeed, even if Windlass could not turn her amplified magic against Rarity, she was clearly just as vulnerable as any other pony to physical harm. She needed to rely on her own magic, and keep the other mare and her metal wings a safe distance away.

Rarity let her horn guide her, even as she banked and swerved through the steel and cloud lattice the comprised the mine. Left, then right, then left again; Windlass was close, and getting closer. Rarity burst out of a cluster of cloud platforms and into open space above the enormous bank of stratus clouds that was the object of the mining operations. The cloud bank itself was festooned with enormous cranes and cutting machines designed to extract blocks of structural-grade clouds. On a hunch, Rarity turned left just in time to see Windlass speeding toward her, brass wings folded in tight. She closed her eyes and reached out with her telekinesis, using all the magic with which she had been imbued to stop the other mare.

When Rarity opened her eyes, Windlass hovered, suspended, only a dozen lengths away. Shining blue coils of magic encircled and bound her, and the pink unicorn screamed with frustration and rage.

“There,” Rarity declared. “Now, if you do not mind, I will be appropriating that gem.”

“You … will … NOT!” Windlass gave a defiant cry, and her entire body began to glow and crackle with crimson light, as she fought to take whatever additional power she could from the Heavenstone and from the world around her. The gem was resisting, Rarity knew, but Windlass was clearly willing to completely sacrifice herself and her body in order to destroy her. With a crack that sounded as if the sky had shattered, Rarity was thrown backwards and her spell lost cohesion. When she looked back at her foe, it appeared that what was left of Windlass’ horn had been blown away entirely, leaving only a fiery red torch of dark energy burning atop her forehead. The other unicorn lowered her head and a magical beam lanced forth, severing the boom of an enormous crane and sending it toppling as Rarity barrel-rolled out of the way.

Unsure of what to do and unwilling to be crushed by falling equipment, Rarity flew back into the mazelike mine superstructure. She needed time to gather herself. Her opponent was hardly even a pony at this point, but rather a living, burning embodiment of hatred and megalomania. Even with all the power now at her disposal, what was Rarity to do against such a being? An ominous rumbling filled the air, and Rarity could feel her entire body vibrating.

“What now?” she wondered aloud.

She caught movement in her peripheral vision, and saw one of the innumerable cloud platforms began to move, as if pulled by an unseen tether. Seconds later, another platform was moving, and in an instant the platforms, steel girders, and mining equipment were in motion all around her, as if the entire mine had come alive. With her last, desperate ploy, Windlass had tapped into sufficient power to move an entire city-sized mine.

Rarity dodged a huge pallet of bundled cloud blocks, unsure what an impact with masses of structural clouds would do to her, and she flew away from the prevailing motion of the clouds and equipment hurtling through the air around her. Soon, she was clear, and as she gained distance, it became apparent that the entire mine was collapsing inward; girders, beams, clouds, and mining equipment all coming together in a jumbled mass above the cloud mine. The screeching and groaning of twisting metal filled the air, punctuated by booming cracks as equipment and thick beams were snapped.

In under a minute, the vast cloud mine was no more, replaced by an enormous misshapen sphere of mangled metal hovering above the stratus cloud bank, studded with broken and jagged bits of metal, and steaming from the evaporation of hundreds of cloud platforms. An ominous red light glowed from within the sphere, pulsating rhythmically like an incandescent heart. Whatever this was, Rarity decided that it was most assuredly not a good thing. After all, Windlass, still drawing in magic through her corruption of the Heavenstone, was at its center.

The uneven surface of the spheroid began to shift and bulge, forming protuberances that became amorphous appendages of metal that expanded outward in a half dozen directions. Rarity watched, transfixed and horrified, as the broken metal began to glow red-hot, melting and changing shape as giant crane booms flattened and were soldered together, and enormous storage containers melted and became incomprehensibly big cogs and gears. A vast figure was starting to take shape, as great metal wings extended, and the oddly-shaped extensions became recognizable legs. Red light flooded out of seams in the thing’s surface, and from twin portholes on an armored head.

Rarity knew what it was now, and she finally understood the full measure of how the Heavenstone had been guiding her toward and preparing her for this moment. The steel beast looming before her was the nightmarish titan she had confronted as an alicorn in her dream, the one Windlass had invaded when she peered into Rarity’s mind back in the jungle. They had both seen this moment before, and now had realized it together. Perhaps the dream had been a self-fulling prophecy, or perhaps it had been merely a glimpse into an immutable future. In any case, Rarity knew what she had to do.

An unfathomably huge metal limb swung through the air, and Rarity was barely able to avoid it. Even the movement of air from its passage, however, was enough to send her spiraling away. She quickly righted herself, beat her wings and flew upward, soaking in the warm sun as she ascended into the heavens, flying faster and higher than the titan could follow.

The air was thick and wet with water vapor, as Windlass’ creation seemed to be boiling vast quantities of clouds to fuel its flailing rage, and jets of steam shot high into the air. As she flew higher, Rarity could feel frigid ice crystals forming on the edges of her wings, and it was beginning to be difficult to keep ascending. She finally decided she had reached the zenith of her trajectory, and pitched up, around, and then back down on the opposite side, before folding her wings tightly to her sides. Then she dove.

The dream had not told Rarity what would happen next - perhaps that much of the future had not been written yet. It did not matter. All that did was giving everything she had to stop Windlass, at any cost. She magically gathered as much water vapor as possible as she descended, and tested the limits of her newly acquired power. A cone of visible moisture formed in front of her, then solidified, a spear of ice growing thicker and sharper even as she descended through the atmosphere toward her target. She compressed the ice, molecule by molecule, until it was as hard and dense as she could make it.

The steel titan, ten thousand times larger than the winged unicorn brashly diving toward it, extended its forelegs and stared up at Rarity with glowing red eyes, eagerly offering itself up in challenge to the gnatlike threat she presented. Her ice lance before her, Rarity closed her eyes, and accelerated into the heart of the monster.

She felt the steel buckle and shatter before her as the monstrosity, forged and bound together by the magic of the Heavenstone, yielded to her as though it was made of paper. Welds failed, connections decoupled, and every part of the thing split apart and fell, where it crashed harmlessly against the mountainside below. A great shockwave radiated outward from the point of impact, vaporizing a large portion of the nearby clouds and forming a rainbow bright and broad enough to be seen for half a hundred leagues or more.

In the middle of it all, Rarity held out her forelegs and caught the unconscious body of a hornless pink unicorn, free of her metal encumbrances save for the breastplate containing the Heavenstone, and bleeding sickly crimson light from a thousand cuts and perforations all over body. Somberly, Rarity ferried her cargo back toward Stratusburg and the Rainbow Palace.

At this point, the entire city was listing to one side, and wisps of cloud were floating away and dissolving all along its edges. Rarity swiftly glided through a terrace opening and into the Great Hall, where her friends and Princess Celestia lay among dozens of ponies and griffons, all of them motionless, barely breathing, and half-sunk into the cloud floor. She set Windlass down in the center of the stage, well aware that she would have to act quickly to save her friends. She prepared to extract the Heavenstone from Windlass' breastplate, then paused as a thought occurred to her.

The Heavenstone was hers now - hers to take and use as she saw fit. Instead of using it for selfish aims, as Windlass had planned, she could use it to generously give of herself, to teach other ponies the proper way to live their lives, and make Equestria a truly beautiful and harmonious place for everypony. She had power now; she even had wings!

What a wise and elegant Princess she would be! It had all been given to her on a silver platter - Celestia was incapacitated, and the meddlesome Twilight Sparkle and her friends were in no position to stop her. Oh, what a gloriously sophisticated future awaited her!

Rarity gasped, suddenly appreciating the twisted turn her thoughts had taken. Without hesitating, she telekinetically wrested the Heavenstone free of Windlass’ breastplate. The once perfect white gem now bore a hairline crack, and the light source inside it had taken on a slightly reddish cast. As Princess Celestia had warned, Windlass truly had damaged both herself and defiled the Heavenstone by her actions, and now the magic of the stone itself was selfish and malicious.

In this state, she had to be careful lest it corrupt her too, and it certainly could not restore her friends. They would end up as Discord had warped them, or worse.

"You ..."

Rarity jumped at the ghastly, hissing voice coming from Windlass. The other mare did not move, or generally make any sign that she was conscious, but she had definitely spoken.

"Need to go," Windlass spoke, and her eyes fluttered open, now reduced to dully glowing pupil-less red lamps. "Canterlot. You ... learn ..."

"Learn what?" Rarity asked.

"Prophecy," Windlass replied. "Real ... you ... should know. World ... destroy ... return ..."

"Who in Canterlot knows about this prophecy?"

"Prin ... cess."

"Princess Celestia? Princess Luna?" Rarity demanded.

"Pal ... la ... di ... um ..." Windlass croaked. Her eyes closed and she was silent again.

Blueblood's boorish mother? Finally, what Windlass had been trying to communicate dawned on Rarity. Palladium was the "witch" Windlass had spoken of, who had introduced her to whatever prophecy possibly pertained to Rarity. Perhaps that explained why Blueblood's mother had reacted so strangely and negatively to her when they had first met, and undoubtedly it meant that the old mare knew quite a lot more about the Heavenstone than she had any right to, given that it had supposedly been buried and lost to history until quite recently. She would need to speak to Princess Palladium.

At the moment, however, she needed to find a way to restore the damaged Heavenstone and save her friends, and the city of Stratusburg. A repair spell might do the trick, she decided. It worked on torn clothing and broken porcelain, so why not an ancient, mystical diamond? Rarity leaned forward, touched her horn to the Heavenstone, and cast the spell.

It did not have the intended effect. Instead, no sooner had Rarity attempted to cast the repair spell than she had been transported to a sensationless, indescribable place, devoid of dimension and utterly disorientating, yet at the same time very clearly non-threatening. This was not the Heavenstone's nexus, she was certain, but someplace stranger and even further removed from her own reality. She had the distinct impression that the space was not empty, but that whoever or whatever was present was utterly beyond her ability to perceive.

She was right. A voice spoke from nowhere, and from everywhere at once. It was genderless, accentless, perhaps even language-less, yet it comforted Rarity and set her at ease.

"Across time and space I hear your call, my child, one of the chosen few,"” the voice said. “You seek to restore one of my gifts."

"Ah, well, perhaps," Rarity replied uncertainly. "I seek to restore the Heavenstone, to save my friends and others who have been hurt by somepony who misused it."

"Answer me then, would you give it all back freely? All the power you could want, and more? All that you desire and dream? Would you sacrifice eternity for the sake of this world and its beings?

In that instant out of time, and that strange place outside of space, Rarity did not think of gems or palaces or princes, or of glamour or popularity. Her response flowed easily and without resistance. “Yes.”

"It is done, child."

"Who are you?" Rarity asked, or perhaps merely thought.

"As it was, as it will be, we meet only at the end," the voice replied enigmatically.

"The end of what?" Rarity asked.

"Everything."

As that last word echoed in her mind, Rarity was back in the Great Hall in Stratusburg. Her first thought was that it seemed she really did need to get to Canterlot and ask about that prophecy. Her next thought was rather less able to be plainly articulated. Involuntarily, she let out a surprised yelp as an overwhelming sensation flooded her body, like she was standing under a waterfall, as vast amounts of magic flowed over, around, through, and eventually out of her and into the Heavenstone.

The stone itself glowed brilliantly white, and visible pulses of bright white energy radiated from it, washing over Rarity and the chamber, out into the city, and beyond. The tiny fissure was gone, the Heavenstone restored, and all around her ponies and griffons were quickly regaining consciousness. She could even feel the floor beneath her hooves solidifying, and the city ponderously righting itself. She noted ruefully that her majestic, beautiful wings were gone without a trace, and she was again, as she had always been meant to be, simply Rarity. On the bright side, her coat was pristine and gleaming, and her mane and tail had even had their bouncy curls back and in excellent condition. Fabulous.

Windlass, however, remained in the same motionless, pitiable shape. Her body was broken and coming apart, and red light shone through the tears in her coat, from her empty eyes and open mouth, and through the horrible opening where her horn had been. Rarity was not certain whether she was alive or dead, or even whether there could be a distinction at this point.

She stood in place for several minutes, watching as ponies and griffons awoke and took stock of their situation. Every one of them had been rendered unconscious by Windlass' attack, and accordingly none of them had witnessed what came next. Rarity wondered if she would ever be able to relate the tale in its entirety.

She watched as the griffons quickly bound their former Chancellor, and Princess Celestia's loyal guards secured Zolo and his accomplices. Another trio of pegasus guards flew through the terrace opening and into the chamber, carrying a fourth pegasus in a net hanging below them. That had to be the traitorous Commander Plume.

Princess Celestia stood, and immediately looked around the room until her gaze met Rartiy's. She then noticed the Heavenstone lying on the floor beside her, and Windlass' crumpled body next to it.

"You can take this thing and lock it in the deepest vault in Canterlot," Rarity said. "Your Highness." She remembered to bow.

"It will be done," Princess Celestia replied, and then looked at Rarity with a knowing expression. "I look forward to receiving a very interesting letter from you, Rarity. In due time, of course."

"In due time," Rarity repeated, exhaling loudly. "Yes."

The alicorn turned away, and Rarity watched with satisfaction as Princess Celestia moved to stand in the wide center aisle, where the griffon Elector Kestrik and a shaken but uninjured Fancypants had already come together to engage in apparently civil discourse.

Her friends had come around by now too, even Twilight Sparkle, and they gathered together around her. Only Blueblood was too injured to stand, and even he was well enough to wave a hoof at her and smile from his prone position. Physicians from the city had entered the chamber and were already tending to him. Rarity listened to the praise her friends were showering on her, and returned their embraces, but she could not help but feel detached and unsettled.

Too late, she recognized what was bothering her, as she realized she had forgotten to account for one remaining conspirator. Procyon had hidden himself after he came to, and now he dashed into the aisle while magically drawing forth a gilded pistol from behind his shoulderblades, where his purple robe had concealed it. In a flash the weapon was raised and aimed directly at Fancypants’ forehead. It hung in midair there, waiting for Procyon to telekinetically depress its trigger, and Fancypants stared down its barrel in shock.

“You - you did this to her!" Procyon screamed. "You made her like that!" He nodded toward Windlass' ruined body. "I gave her everything, and in the end all she cared about was your worthless grand vision, and look at her now. Look!" Procyon shuddered, and drew in a deep breath. "If I can’t have her, then you won't have anything!”

"Fancypants did nothing," Rarity called out. "I am the one who left Windlass in that condition."

Procyon's ears twitched, but he did not turn to look at her, and he kept the pistol steady.

"It was actually entirely her own fault," Twilight Sparkle pointed out, apparently unable to stop herself.

Rarity's right front hoof connected with her forehead in disbelief at her friend's ill-timed words.

"Liar!" Procyon shouted, and turned to look at Twilight.

"And you gave her the Heavenstone," Twilight added. "You should have known that it couldn't be used like that."

"Enough!" Before anypony could speak further, Procyon fired.

As the pistol discharged, Rarity looked on in abject horror alongside everyone else in the chamber. What she witnessed, however, was not at all what she had expected. While she and Twilight had been speaking, she had not noticed the tattered, dimly glowing creature that had been Windlass rise from the floor. Now, in one lurching motion, the broken pony lunged forward, directly in front of Fancypants and into the path of the shot. The bullet impacted, and a blinding red light filled the hall, along with a loud pop. When Rarity's vision cleared enough for her to see again, Windlass was gone, and thousands of shimmering crimson sparkles filled the air, slowly dissipating one by one as they floated to the ground.

Procyon’s four legs buckled and he silently sank to the floor, even as Princess Celestia ordered her guards to take him into custody.

Nopony else spoke for a long moment, as they silently watched the cloud of red sparkles quietly popping and fizzling in the air. Rarity, for one, felt that there was not anything particularly meaningful to say.

Finally, Rainbow Dash spoke up. “Huh. Well, you don't see something like that every day, do you?”

“Nope,” Buckaroo and Applejack pronounced simultaneously.

“Ooh, pretty sparklies!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. She bounded forward and began clapping her forehooves together, attempting to catch one of the last flickering light motes before it disappeared.

“When we get back to Ponyville, I’m going to spend a quiet week at my cottage with my animals,” Fluttershy huffed. “They don’t steal magical gems, or try to take over Equestria, or suck all the magic out of the world, or explode.” She paused. “Oh, I mean, it would be nice if you all could come visit. If you want to, that is.”

“Maybe I will,” Zinzi said. “I could use a vacation.”

Rarity nodded, then quickly turned to stare at the zebra mare.

“What?” Zinzi asked innocently. “I told you I would stop when I was not stressed out any longer.” Rarity continued to gawk, and Zinzi and Zips both visibly suppressed a laugh at her expense.

"Hm, y'know, I reckon I could go in for some downtime," Buckaroo said, looking down at Applejack, who Rarity noticed beamed moonily back up at him. Finally, she thought with satisfaction, she would have something juicy with which to tease her farmer friend.

"Gilda here's comin' back with me," Rainbow Dash declared, pulling her griffon friend in tight with a foreleg.

"Yippee! We can all have a party!" Pinkie Pie exclaimed, and threw herself around Gilda's feathered neck.

Gilda opened her beak as if to protest, but then simply rolled her eyes. "Alright, alright. Second try's the charm, eh Dash?"

“So what now?” Twilight Sparkle asked, moving to stand next to Rarity. “There are going to be a lot of questions about all of this in Canterlot. In fact, I have a lot of questions. And of course you’ll want to get back home to see your family and let them know you’re okay. So where are you going to go first?”

"Mm?" Rarity asked, not quite focused on the other mare's words.

"Where do you want to go now?" Twilight repeated. "Ponyville? Canterlot?"

“The spa, of course,” Rarity replied without thinking, then caught herself, and offered a chagrined smile. “Although, perhaps I could squeeze in a few minutes with Sweetie Belle and my parents first. And that reminds me, Fluttershy dear, if you are here with all of us, who is taking care of my sweet Opalescence?”

“That’d be Spike,” Twilight replied.

“Oh that poor dear,” Rarity said, shaking her head.

“Spike or Opal?”

“Which do you think?”

“Um,” Fluttershy piped up, “sorry? He said he had thick scales,” She shrugged helplessly and offered a guilty smile.

“Ya know, folks, I think that’s enough gabbin’.” Applejack declared, then yawned. “I'm not entirely sure what just happened, but I do know that I’m plum tuckered, and ready for a nap, and a nice, uneventful flight back home.”

“Hear hear,” Rarity replied. “I believe our ride is still circling the tower.”

“Alright!” Rainbow Dash said. “I’ve had enough of politics for a lifetime.”

As her friends started down the aisle toward the exit, Rarity stopped. “You ponies go ahead. I shall be along presently.”

“Okie dokie!” Pinkie Pie replied, and bounced away, the others following behind her.

Blueblood was still being tended to by a team of pegasi physicians, and she walked over to the cloud stretcher on which he lay. After exchanging a few words with the doctors, she leaned over his stretcher.

“Hello,” Rarity said, looking down at the singed stallion. Even though the tips of his blonde mane were blackened and burned, and patches of his coat had been burned away, his blue eyes were still crystal clear as he looked up at her.

Somehow, this did not seem like the best time to tell him that she needed to speak to his truly awful mother about a prophecy that might or might not involve her, the Heavenstone, a mysterious entity, and the end of the world. She had something more important to say.

“Hello to you,” Blueblood replied.

“Before I go, I wanted to tell you that you do not need to go to such extreme lengths to impress me. Near-fatal injuries seem to be becoming the norm with you, and I’d rather you shied away from those.”

“Then you were impressed.”

“Of course. What you did was very brave. And foolhardy.”

“Well, I expect we’ll be leading very separate lives again, so you shan’t have to worry about me risking grievous bodily harm on your account again any time soon.”

“Oh yes, on that point. I understand you are being taken to Canterlot to meet with the Princesses’ best physicians. I am returning to Ponyville with my friends.”

“Then this is goodbye.”

“In the most technical sense, yes, I am going to have to bid you farewell in a moment. But not in the permanent sense. You see, I have business to attend to in Canterlot soon. I would like to see you then.”

“See me?” Blueblood repeated. “I presume you mean that only in the most technical sense.”

“That is how the encounter will begin, as one does have eyes. I, however, do not so constrain my vocabulary as to limit my words to their plainest meaning.” Rarity smiled. “Which is to say that lately it has seemed prudent to expect the unexpected.”

“Then I shall be prudent and expect to see you,” Blueblood replied.

“Until then,” Rarity said. “Oh, and I expect you to be up on all fours when I arrive. I may decide I feel like taking risks, and it is simply no good to engage in risky ventures with a hobbling invalid.”

“Really?" Blueblood asked, eyes widening. Then he grinned. "Well, I don’t know. The magazines and dailies will be calling, and I’m rather looking forward to cutting a tragic figure. The bandages and wheelchair will only add to … it was a joke! Rarity?”

“See you soon,” she called back, knowing that she was leaving Blueblood to wonder about the meaning of her words, and not knowing the answer herself.

Whatever happened, she would no doubt learn many things in Canterlot. Right now, though, it was finally time to go home.