Besides the Will of Evil

by Jetfire2012

First published

A shadow from the deep past returns to threaten Equestria, along with all the world. Can Twilight Sparkle and her friends be a light in the dark?

EDIT: 6,000 unique views! Thank you so much to everyone who has read and enjoyed this story.

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An ancient evil has awakened. No, really, it has. From the depths of time, a black, noxious threat has risen up after millennia of imprisonment. It washes like oil over Equestria, swallowing up towns and uncovering terrible secrets long buried. Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rarity are prepared to combat this great darkness. However, to do so, they must uncover the truths about the Elements of Harmony, and the truths about the ancient forerunners of Equestrian culture. What they find will challenge their conceptions of their own places in history and ponydom's place in the world. The six Bearers of the Elements must draw upon their friendship and the strength of their hearts to stand firm against the darkness. If they fail, it will mean the end of everything.

Chapter 1

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Canterlot always sparkled in the summer. The city's white towers and golden domes were brilliant all year long, but in summer they took on an especial radiance. It may have been because summer was Celestia's season, the season of the highest sunshine, the season of the Summer Sun Festival. She herself would admit that as the solstice grew closer she felt her sense of self rise higher. And Canterlot, however many princesses it housed these days, was her city. As Celestia went, so went Canterlot, and in summer, both gleamed.

Or this was at least Twilight Sparkle's estimation, peering down from the throne room of the Palace of the Sun. She sighed with nostalgia; while Ponyville was her home, she loved to pay the occasional visit to Canterlot, if only for the memories of her childhood. If she squinted, she could perhaps see the curve of the palace gardens where she would sometimes ambush Shining Armor. And there was the spot where she would teach Spike to read! And there-

“Twilight Sparkle, if you would?”

“Oh, sorry Princess,” Twilight said, turning back toward the throne room. Princess Celestia stood on the long red carpet, her aurora mane and tail fluttering in divine wind. “So you were saying?”

“I was saying that flight is a matter of confidence,” Celestia replied. She spread her wide white wings and gave a flap, bounding with her legs into the air. Another flap of her wings sent her soaring up toward the ceiling, long legs tucked under her lean torso. She curved around the throne room twice, then came around to Twilight and slowed to a hover, her mighty wings beating fast to keep her in place. “You've had your wings since you ascended to the level of princess. Thus, you possess the capacity for flight. All that's needed is for you to believe you can do it.”

“But I... I can do it, Princess,” Twilight said. “You know I can. I've even done it a few times.”

“Then what stops you, Twilight Sparkle?” Celestia said, bending her graceful neck and twisting her head to the side.

“I just...” Twilight kicked the marble floor with her hoof. “I didn't grow up with wings the way you did. This is all so strange to me. It doesn't feel... right.”

Sighing, Celestia landed gently. She trotted over to Twilight and draped a wing over her side. “Twilight Sparkle, I may have been created with wings, but that doesn't mean I was comfortable with them from the start.” She flashed a smile. “In fact, Luna learned to fly before I did.”

“Really?” Twilight gasped. “But Princess, you're so much older than her!”

“Not too much older,” said Celestia, “and for whatever reason, she took to the sky with greater ease than I. When we both lived in the Enclave, all those years ago, there was even some murmur that I would not be able to fly.” She smiled again. “Sound familiar?”

“I...” Twilight said. “I can't...”

“Can't what, Twilight Sparkle?”

“I can't...”

“Lunch time!” Spike shouted, bursting the door to the throne room open. The little purple dragon bounded toward the two alicorns, and several ponies bearing trays of food followed in his wake. “I had the cooks whip up some summer salad for you two! And there are also BLTs- beet, lettuce and tomato sandwiches!”

“How considerate of you, Spike!” Celestia said brightly. “I confess, I wouldn't mind a bite to eat. First, though...” she glanced down at Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle, can you at least give me a hover?”

Twilight sucked in a breath. She was abruptly terrified; her hooves dug into the marble floor. Princess Celestia stared gently at her, while Spike was bouncing on his heels eagerly, grinning her way. He gave her a thumbs up. Twilight gave him a gentle smile and resisted the urge to curl into a ball. Just a hover, she told herself. She stretched out her wings. Just a hover. She beat them slowly, creakily, like it was the strangest thing in the world. She beat them again, and again, and again. Faster and faster, her wings began to blur. I can do this, Twilight said. It's not that hard. She was suddenly overwhelmed with a flurry of all the knowledge she'd gleaned about flying in the past year or so. Wind patterns and angles of attack and vectors of elevation flitted through her mind. She panicked- she flapped- she jumped-

Thud!

Twilight landed sprawled on the floor. The serving ponies stifled chuckles. Celestia sighed. “We'll try again after lunch,” she said. Her eyes glinted as she saw the serving ponies, who quickly ceased their guffaws. They set the trays of food on a side buffet at a far end of the throne room, then trotted out.

Twilight sighed. Her coat was a lavender color, and since her 'magical cure' had seemed exceptionally shiny in the sunlight. Her mane and tail were both deep purple, with a streak of hot pink running through each. Her eyes were violet, and they could not hide the sadness she felt at her failure. “Let's eat,” she said glumly, cantering toward the food.

“You'll get it, I know you will!” Spike said brightly when they were beside each other.

Twilight pulled him into a brief hug. “Thanks for your confidence, Spike,” she said. “I'm not sure it's warranted, though. I wish I didn't even have to learn to fly.”

“But you've done it before!” Spike said. “You did it at the Summer Sun Celebration last year! You were great!”

“Umm... yes, yes I did...” Twilight said with a too-wide smile. “Of course I did, that's right. I just... I need more confidence! The Princess is right, this will come to me.”

“You got it!” Spike said. “And hey, look at it this way: we're indoors right now. You're probably nervous from being in such a confined space. When we get back to Ponyville, you'll have the wide open skies to practice in!”

“I suppose...” Twilight said with a sigh. She picked up a sandwich and began to chew. “Ish jusht, Ish dosht-”

“Don't chew with your mouth open, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said, coming up beside her.

Twilight swallowed her bite and sighed. “Thank you for taking all this time to help me learn to fly, Princess,” she said. “I just wish I could reward your patience with some results.”

“It will come to you, Twilight Sparkle,” said Celestia. “Perhaps we'll even take a break beyond lunch. There are some new spells I've been meaning to show you.”

“What?!” Twilight's eyes nearly popped out of her head. “New... new spells? New magic? From you?”

“Not quite new,” said Celestia. “I've been pouring through some of the oldest books in the Royal Archives, and Luna's been helping me. We seem to have uncovered a volume of old deer magic that neither of us had paid much attention to before.”

Twilight nearly started flying then and there. Old deer magic! It was probably written in Laewtil and everything! She could put her skills as both a sorceress and a translator to work, a thought that made her giddy. “Princess, could I see it?” she asked.

“I intended you to see it,” said Celestia. “What I particularly want you to see are some of the spells concerning emotion, which-”

Ding!

The clear ring of crystal shimmered through the air. Celestia broke her conversation at once, her ears swiveling to catch the sound. One ring meant a normal pony messenger. Would there be-

Ding!

“Captain!” she called to one of the guard ponies at the door. “Captain, have all doors leading to the throne room opened!”

“It has already been done, my princess,” said the guard. The throne room doors were parting even as he spoke.

“The double chimes still mean what they used to mean, right?” Twilight asked.

“Indeed,” said Celestia. “They only ring twice when there's a-”

“Messenger from the Pronghorn Network!” said Spike. “I wonder what it is?”

“I wonder who it is,” said Celestia. “Audrey was the last of them to stop by here, about six months ago. Perhaps the Waystation in Gildedale has gotten a new-”

BOOM

Suddenly the throne room shook. Not just the throne room- Twilight could tell that all the castle, even all of Canterlot had suddenly rocked in place. Her hooves slid in different directions from the force of the tremor. “What was that?” she cried.

Celestia tilted her head to the side. “I feel... something...”

BOOM

The throne room rocked again, this time enough to send Spike sprawling. At the very same instant, a flash of lightning appeared through the great doors of the throne room. For an instant, Twilight seemed to stare into the sun- then with a burst of brilliance, the light faded. In its place, dashing toward them, was a long-legged creature with light brown and white fur. It vaguely resembled an antelope, but it was somewhat stockier, as well as being smaller. Two black horns rose off its head, and these branched apart at their ends into forked tines. Its eyes were dark. There was also something slightly threadbare about it, a clear mark of advanced age.

Celestia's face came alight. “Clive!” she cried, cantering to meet the pronghorn messenger. “Oh, it's good to see you again. You've been away too long!”

Clive Croeuxus, Jovus of the Pronghorns, bowed low on his long legs. “Hello, Celestia,” he said. “It's quite good to see you as well. I wish it were under less urgent circumstances.”

Celestia took a moment to nuzzle him in the side of the neck, eliciting looks of surprise from both Spike and Twilight. “Whatever do you mean?”

BOOM- the throne room shook once more. Actually, as Twilight focused on the vibrations, she could tell that the entire Drackenridge Mountain Range was shaking with each loud and heavy burst.

“I bring a message from Lady Falalauria of the Shimmerwood,” said Clive. “It's a magical one, and I think you'll want to see it right now.” Without another word, his horns shimmered. The space between them started to fizz and crackle, filling up with gray static.

Twilight and Spike exchanged a glance. They knew about Falalauria, of course- learning about her had been part of a very strange and wondrous chapter in both of their lives- but they had never seen her before. Celestia was transfixed on the message appearing between Clive's horns, so she scarcely noticed as Spike and Twilight crept near for a better look. By the time they were close, the static had given way to an image of a deep wood, and a dais of carefully assembled logs. Two trees- one gold, one silver- were planted on either side of a great crush of pansies, and in this stood a large, graceful deer. She looked almost as big as Princess Celestia, and her coat was nearly golden save for the white of her belly. Her large, white antlers branched away on either side of her head, and white silk was woven between their tines. What struck them most about the great deer was her eyes: they seemed black, but there was something odd about them, something the smallness of the image did not permit them to determine.

"Hello, Tia!” the deer in the image said. There was a boom and the image shook. “I know this comes at the last minute, but I've already Seen ahead to when you receive this message, and I know you won't be busy. I need you, Tia. I need you to come to the Archback Mountains, to the great vale between the southern and northern ranges where the leyline is nearly exposed. Please bring Luna also. In fact-” the image shook once more with a boom-

BOOM

The quaking of the castle and the city and the mountains threw all of them off, but Clive held his concentration, and as the shaking subsided both outside and inside the image, Falalauria continued.

“In fact, please bring as many powerful magic wielders as you can find on short notice. This is serious. Oh, and Tia?” The image shook again with another boom. “Hurry.”

The image winked out with a flicker of magic. Celestia's pink eyes were wide. “Well, that means what I'm feeling isn't normal,” she said.

“You feel it too?” Clive asked. “It's like... something's tumbling down, like a rockslide or an avalanche or-”

“Or the collapse of the firmament,” Celestia said. Her face grew sad. “Clive, dearest, I know you're not under any obligation to follow my wishes. So when I ask you now, I-”

“Save your pleading, Princess,” said Clive. “You want me to come with you, right?”

“Lala never rushes things,” said Celestia. “With her Long Sight, she's very patient by nature. For her to ask me to hurry-”

BOOM

“Something is terribly wrong. We have to leave at once.”

“Understood,” said Clive. “You seem to know the place she's talking about, so I'll follow you.”

“Let me come!” Twilight cried.

“No, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said. “Princess though you are, I suspect this issue is beyond your current strengths.”

“But Lady Falalauria said she needed you to bring all the magic users you knew!” said Twilight. “That includes me, even if I'm not as powerful as you and Sir Clive!”

“You're simply not powerful enough yet, Twilight,” said Celestia. “Stay here and wait for my return.” Her horn shimmered golden, and she touched it to one of Clive's horns. “I've sent the message to Luna's dreams; she should wake at once. She'll need to batten down the castle a little, but she'll be fast behind us all the same. Come on, Clive!”

Her wings beat heavily, sending Celestia airborne. She flapped out of the throne room, Clive hurrying after her with all his tremendous leg speed. Twilight followed them, but she couldn't keep up. She was far behind them when they emerged out onto the great balcony. Celestia flew over the side, and Clive jumped off the edge. As he fell, a bolt of lightning burst between his legs, and he was suddenly a speck on the streak of power, the power that shot down to the plains far below and curved to follow Celestia as she wheeled over Canterlot, her mighty wings flapping. The princess and the pronghorn headed into the Drackenridge Mountains, passing through and over them in a moment and vanishing from sight.

A Note on Antlers

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Long, long ago in the world of My Little Pony, the deer first mastered magic. It was a momentous occasion, a true milestone in the world, for it was the very first time any species had learned to harness the supernatural forces that infused the air around them.

There was just one problem: half of all deer couldn't use magic at all. The deer learned to wield magic by channeling etheric energy through the tines of their antlers, but female deer did not grow antlers, so they were not able to use magic.

This greatly upset the female deer, and they pleaded with The Wills That Draw The World, the supreme, ultimate creators of all existence. The Wills were silent, because as numerous as the does and cows were, their voices were not as loud as their male counterparts. So the female deer devised a new plan: they ceased mating and lovemaking with the male deer until they too could wield magic.

Now the bucks and bulls joined their female counterparts in pleading with the Wills, sending up prayers, hosting ceremonies, and simply complaining towards the sky. At last, the Wills responded. Like ink being drawn across a page, antlers sprouted from all the heads of the female deer. Even infant does and bucks grew tiny nubs. And when that generation of females had their first fawns, they too grew antlers, regardless of gender.

So it is that, in modern times, all deer, male and female, grow antlers. Therefore, all deer, male and female, can use magic- and indeed, some of the greatest magicians in the history of the deerfolk have been female.

Chapter 2

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Twilight paced back and forth across the carpet of the throne room. “I need to go after them,” she said.

“But you heard what the princess said!” Spike said. “It's too dangerous!”

“Yes, I know what she said, Spike, it's just-” Twilight stomped her hooves in place. “I'm a princess now too! Isn't this my responsibility? And you saw Lady Falalauria's message. She seemed desperate! There's got to be some way I can help.”

“I don't know,” said Spike. “If Princess Celestia thought you could have helped, I'm sure she would have let you come.”

“Maybe she just didn't want me to slow her down,” Twilight said. “If-”

BOOM

“If this is so urgent, she needs to be there quickly, and I can't fly, so she thinks I wouldn't have been able to come with her in time.”

“Well... yeah,” said Spike, “she's right.”

Twilight Sparkle grinned triumphantly. “But Princess Celestia doesn't know how much better at teleporting I've gotten. I kept meaning to show her, but she's always put it off. Learning that deer method from Rarity has really improved my distance and efficiency! And now-” she stomped her hoof. “Now I know I can make it to the Archback Mountains! And I will! Come on, Spike, hop aboard. We're going after the princess.”

“Uh... but...”

“Spike,” Twilight said sternly, “Princess Celestia may need our help. I'm going to go help her however I can. You can come or not. What do you say?”

Spike fidgeted in panic. Would he really disobey a direct order from the Princess? He... he... he sighed. “I won't let you go off by yourself,” he said. “If something happened to you while I wasn't there I'd never forgive myself.” He dashed to Twilight's side and hopped onto her back. “But are you sure your teleportation can make the distance?”

“Not all in one go,” said Twilight. “Three or four jumps ought to do it.”

“But that'll drain your magic circuit!” Spike said. “You won't have enough strength to help with whatever the problem is when you get there!”

“Leave that to me, Spike,” said Twilight. “Just hold on tight.” Spike clenched his claws around Twilight's back, so she took a few deep breaths. She did as Rarity had instructed her those few years ago: she tried to put into her mind, not the sight of her location, but the touch of it. She imagined rock beneath her hooves, cold mountain air on her wings, snow falling gently on her flanks. Then she took a step- and vanished.

She reappeared an instant later high in the Drackenridge Mountains. At the very summit of the cold peak, near the roof of the world, she could just peer out beyond the mountain range to an endless-seeming field of golden grass. She concentrated on that now. She imagined the feel of grass beneath her feet- but it was old grass, long ago harvested and bereft of its freshness. She imagined the sensation of deep structure beneath that grass, and she imagined height once more, though not nearly so high as she was right now. And she imagined the sensation of endless space around her. She took a step-

And appeared atop the golden roof of Thatchholm, ancient dwelling of the Lords of Gildedale. She was roughly in the middle of the great country, with fields stretching every direction around her. Twilight was breathing hard, her small chest heaving in and out. But she took a deep gulp of air and steeled her resolve. She imagined herself next standing amid branches and leaves. She could feel the uneven splay of treetops around her hooves, noted how she would be at an odd angle no matter how she came out. She could even feel the sunlight colored green from leaf shadows. She took a step-

Now Twilight was standing amidst the upper canopy of the trees of the Shimmerwood. Her horn began to itch terribly from all the magic in the air, her insides drinking deep from the well of power the deerfolk had dug. It steadied her stomach a little, though she was still woozy and close to vomiting. Her coat was slick with sweat.

“Twilight?” Spike asked, feeling her sway where she stood. “Are you okay?”

Twilight shook her head. “I'm fine, Spike,” she said. “Just one more...” She swallowed her bile and focused. She imagined rock beneath her hooves again, but this was different rock, harder, sharper rock. And she imagined feeling the magic of the Archbacks' leyline rising up into her body. Crisp, cold air blew around her in her mind. She took one final step-

At long last, Twilight popped into existence amidst the peaks and vales of the Archback Mountains. She immediately collapsed to the ground, sending Spike tumbling down with her. She was breathing hard, and even harder she was trying not to be sick. She forced herself back to her wobbly hooves, tottering forward, nearly falling with every step.

“Twilight!” Spike cried. “Are you okay?”

“N-no...” Twilight mumbled. Her violet eyes flitted over the landscape. They lit up. “But I will be...” and she hurried toward a great bunch of greenery nearby. Coming closer, the growing things revealed themselves to be flowers. Specifically, they were deep purple flowers, and their petals formed a star shape. Twilight bent low and snare one with her teeth, chewing and swallowing as best she could.

Instantly she felt a little better, the emptiness in her spirit becoming noticeably less. She ate another flower, and her weakness cleared away, leaving only normal vitality. When she ate a third of the flowers, incredible, billowing strength flooded her body, to the point where she thought she could have fought King Sombra single-hoofed. She used this new magical vigor to pulse a wave of healing spells through her body, clearing up any lingering trouble from her teleportation.

“Beneviolets!” Spike cried, coming close.

“Yep!” Twilight Sparkle said. “I knew they'd be nearby, and I knew eating a few would have me feeling all better. Now come on, let's go find the princess.”

Twilight swept her head from side to side as they hurried through the mountains, her horn pulsing with seeking magic. She had been so close to Princess Celestia for so long that her magical signature was very familiar- and she was so powerful that to any basic scanning spell she stuck out like a sore horn. Sure enough, Twilight soon picked up on the massive spike in magical power, her horn drawing her through a tall passage between two soaring cliffs. She then turned right and headed up a steep switchback path, Spike holding onto her tail to steady himself and keep from falling off. As they drew nearer to the source of the magic, Twilight's horn began to throb from the sheer amount of power she was feeling. She had assumed that, given the combined presence of the Princess, Lady Falalauria, and Sir Clive, the magic she felt would be considerable. But not like this. It actually hurt her brain to take it all in.

BOOM

Twilight nearly fell off the side of the slope. Subconsciously her wings began to flap, steadying her and allowing her to get her footing again. She looked up, and she could actually see the air shake.

BOOM BOOM BOOM

The very sky was quaking from the pounding. She could see it shimmer, get lighter and whiter, as if something heretofore invisible were being revealed. “We have to hurry, Spike!”

BOOM

“Y-you d-don't have to t-tell m-me that!” Spike said, his voice shaking as the mountains rocked back and forth. “Just 'port us up there!”

“You're right,” Twilight said. “They're at the top of this path somewhere. Hop on!” Spike did so, and Twilight focused one more time. She focused on the feeling of the ledge above, of the dirt beneath her hooves, of the crisp air, and she took a step.

She reappeared on a large, broad, flat landscape, stretching for miles in either direction. It was a gap between the peaks in front of her and the peaks behind her, a valley, but a raised one. And in the distance she could see three figures standing and watching as-

BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM

-as the world shook and the sky shimmered. Twilight took advantage of the chaos to gallop closer, still trying to be as quiet as she could. At last she reached a large boulder just about a dozen feet behind the three. Celestia and Clive were there, as well as- Falalauria! She was even bigger than she had looked in the message, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the princess. They were speaking loudly, to better be heard over the pounding on the world, so when all was still, Twilight could hear them plainly.

Judging by Celestia's shallow breathing, she must have just arrived. Falalauria turned to her and said, “Hantale lyen tulië.

Mane ne raicë?” Celestia responded, and after that there was a long stream of words that flowed and swirled like clear water.

“They're speaking Laewtil- old deerish!” Twilight whispered.

“Can you understand them?” Spike asked.

“Maybe,” Twilight said. “I'm good at Laewtil, I swear, but they're talking so fast!”

“Just cast a translator spell!” Spike hissed. “We don't want to miss too much.”

“But I know I can-”

“Twilight!”

“Oh, fine,” Twilight sighed. She thought up the spell in her mind, and her horn glowed. Pink bubbles like blown bubblegum began to sprout in their ears, blowing bigger and bigger, until they finally popped.

“- and so I ordered my deer to evacuate,” Falalauria said, her voice clear and lovely even translated. She raised her head slightly, her dark eyes widening. “The Shimmerwood is nearly empty now, thank the Wills.” Twilight and Spike leaned closer to get a better glimpse of everyone. When Twilight got a good look at Falalauria's eyes, she gasped. They weren't just dark, they were black as an abyss, and in them, dozens of tiny pinpricks shone, so that her eyes seemed to be windows to a perpetual night sky.

“Quite a precaution,” Clive said. “Are you sure it's warranted?”

BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM

The whole Archback Mountain range quaked, knocking Twilight off her hooves and Spike off his feet. The three great beings beyond the boulder kept their footing, but only barely.

“You feel it, don't you?” Falalauria said. “Such power.”

“I do,” said Celestia. “What is it?”

Falalauria sighed. “Nearly the end of everything.”

BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM

“Lala...” Celestia said gently, her voice dropping so that Twilight had to strain to hear. “What's wrong? I need to know exactly what we're dealing with here.”

“Do you recall the magical barrier over the Archback Mountains?” Falalauria said. “You can see it now, since it's being so heavily pressured.”

Twilight looked up into the sky. Sure enough, a sheen of brilliant white seemed to shine in the sky, stretching from the mountains high up into the air. As she watched-

BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM

As she watched, it flickered and pulsed from stress. Twilight bounced her own magical senses off it, and she could tell it was buckling under strain.

“Of course, I've always known about it,” said Celestia. “It wraps around the whole of the Broken Lands.”

“Do you know why it was erected? Why the Deer Elders put it up, all those millennia ago?”

BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM

Twilight stifled a gasp as she saw the flickering white surface begin to crack. The mountains were rocking like a ship at sea.

“I always assumed it was to keep trespassers out of the Broken Lands,” Celestia said.

“Yes,” said Clive, “to keep the curious and the mischievous from harming themselves on the dark power still lingering.”

A long, sharp crack ran down the middle of the sky.

Falalauria sighed. “No, Tia. The barrier wasn't to keep creatures out. It was to keep something in.”

BOOM-

With a final, terrible quake, the shimmering barrier shattered. Enormous chunks of what looked like glass could briefly be seen tumbling to earth, but before they reached the ground they vanished. Past the space where the barrier had been, Twilight saw a field of gray smoke, wispy, cloudy, ephemeral. It leaked across the open space, swallowing up the peaks behind it, oozing over the rocky ground.

“Have courage,” said Falalauria, as magic began to swirl around her antlers. “The fight ends well for us- this time.”

“Fight?” Celestia gasped, and magic also started to swirl around her horn. Clive's horns likewise came alive with magic, and Twilight got yet another shock. The magic that they used was swirling, golden, glinting, almost slushy. It was like whitewater rapids set ablaze.

Battle magic!, Twilight thought, with awe and horror. It was magic engineered only for destruction, bursts of power that in the right hooves could level cities. It was illegal in Equestria- but of course the princess would know it, wouldn't she? And- but then her thoughts screeched to a halt. She could hear hooffalls. Very slowly, very gently, the sudden quiet of the mountain range was broken by the clop-clop-clop of hooves upon the stone. Twilight and Spike held their breaths. From the gray fog there came a shadow, one that clarified itself as it emerged from the murk of the clouds.

It was a deer. A big deer- as big as Falalauria, at least. Its body was lean and rickety, thinned with the passage years and the torment of a hard life. It was black, as black as pitch. Its antlers were not like Falalauria's with their proud and sturdy tines. Instead, its antlers seemed to be nests of thorns on thick branches, springing out at odd angles to end in bunches of small points. One set of points rose off each antler just above its head, in a way that reminded Twilight vaguely of a crown.

Its eyes, however, were not black. They were red, deep, infinite red, with no pupils or irises she could see, and they shone across the gap between it and her. They reminded her of something she had dreamed long ago, something from the depths of her fevered nightmares. She chanced a lean further outward- she pulled back abruptly, breathing hard. “What?” Spike whispered. “What is it?”

“I...” Twilight said softly, more frightened than she had ever been before. She swore the eyes had looked at her for a moment.

“That's enough, dark one,” said Falalauria, her voice ringing clear across the empty plains. “This far and no further. Turn back while you can.”

Twilight and Spike dared to peek out again. She saw the black deer work its mouth awkwardly, and it might have been her imagination but she swore she saw dust billowing from between its jaws. There was another part of it that was not black: its teeth, which were a dull gray-white and vaguely pointed.

The black deer coughed. It coughed again. It coughed a third time. Then it spoke. “Why, look who it is,” it said. “The half-breed.” Its voice was low and thick, like a viper's hiss.

“I said turn back!” Falalauria cried, and Twilight thought she heard her voice shake. “Turn back or be vaporized!”

“No,” said the black deer, its voice growing stronger with each word, “no, I don't think I shall. I've spent all these years banging at the doors, first of my enclosure, then of the barrier erected around my old kingdom. Now the walls have all come down. I am free, half-breed, and I'll not go back in my cage so easily.”

“It is not a request,” said Falalauria. “Do as I say or-”

“Or what?” the black deer sneered. “You'll kill me? You don't have the power. You did not have the power a thousand years ago, and this time, Giovanni and Glorfindel are not here for you to hide behind.”

“I am not without allies, as you can see,” said Falalauria.

“Ah yes, these,” said the black deer, nodding its head from side to side. “A pronghorn of inferior breeding, and...” it took a step forward, red eyes fixed on Celestia. “Why, what is this? Surely not a horse. The hindquarters are all wrong. Not-” A rumble rippled through the air. The black deer was laughing. “Not a pony, is it? It is! A pony, grown so tall and strong? Who could imagine such a thing. A unicorn and a pegasus in one, also? And do I smell-” a sniff rose on the air- “divinity? There are god-ponies now? By the Wills, how long have I been imprisoned?”

“Not long enough!” Falalauria cried. “I don't know how the bindings the Elders put on you were broken, but your freedom ends here! Begone!”

“Leave at once,” Celestia said.

“Do you even know my name, god-pony?”

“No,” said Celestia, “nor do I care. I think I know what you are, and that is enough for me. Know my name, though: I am Celestia, begot when the world was reborn, Regent of the Sun, Princess of Equestria! I carry the Light Eternal in my heart, and your darkness has no place in this reality!”

“Celestia? A lovely name,” said the black deer. “Now for mine: I am-” he started to speak, but his voice became mangled, words unable to emerge from the jumble of sounds.

“Ha!” Falalauria cried. “That is one bit of old magic that has held. The Elders stripped your name from the world they first time they imprisoned you. You can never again use it to rally dark forces.”

“A pity,” said the black deer. “Well then I shall once more be called-” again his words did not come.

“They stripped both your names.”

The black deer's eyes narrowed. “And what of it? What's in a name? If my old ones are denied me, I shall simply choose a new one, one that all the world can bow to.”

“This is all a bluff, of course,” said Clive, speaking for the first time. “Do you think we can't see your condition? Ragged and ruined, your long slumber has taken its toll on you. You're in no shape to fight. Surrender for your own survival.”

“Indeed,” said Falalauria. “You're not capable of fighting even me- never mind my allies.” She narrowed her starscape eyes. “What say you, then? Will you turn back?”

The black deer was silent for a moment. Its head bobbed from side to side, red eyes burning. “No,” he said. “No, I shall not. What I shall do is, I shall kill you, half-breed. Then I shall kill the pony-god and the pronghorn with you. Then I shall make my way down to that forest below the mountains, and I shall kill everything I encounter. Next I shall make my way across those golden plains in the distance, killing everything in my path. And on, and on, and on I shall go, until the whole of the world either bends or bows or breaks.” He smiled. “First things first, though.”

Twilight Sparkle's horn pulsed with feedback as the black deer began to gleam. Red power swirled around its antlers, and the ground shook. Twilight's stomach dropped as she felt unholy strength mustering not a hundred feet from her. The ground quaked from the gathering power.

Then it began to shake even harder, and Twilight knew it wasn't the black deer's doing. Indeed, he stopped his swirling power and turned along with Celestia, Clive and Falalauria to glance far to the right. Spike and Twilight followed, and Twilight's eyes bulged. The ground was coming apart about a mile away. The rock broke and shattered, revealing jet black skin made of scales the size of Ponyville. “Oh, not again...” Twilight sighed.

The world snake hurtled skyward, coming to a stop miles above their heads. Its huge snout whipped back and forth at unsettling speed, four green eyes gleaming as it sought what had disturbed it. It gave a chest-rattling sniff, flicked out its mile-long tongue, and seemed to focus right where all the creatures were gathered. It reared back, and before any of them could move, it struck, hurtling downward like the biggest and fastest of trains-

But its charge was halted. It screeched to a stop a few hundred feet above them, huge head shadowing the vicinity. That head was suddenly wrapped in rings of red light, and when Twilight glanced across the rocky plain she could see the black deer's antlers billowing with magical red flames. Falalauria, Celestia, and Clive were shocked into silence.

“That is enough of that, I think,” said the black deer. It tilted its head to the side as it peered up at the world snake. “I know you...” its red eyes narrowed. “Titan. Primordial. Balance-Weight of the World. And... liberator! Yes, it was your thrashing about several years ago that first cracked my prison. I have you to thank for my present freedom- well, you and whatever it was that upset you.”

Twilight and Spike shared a glance of horror. They were both thinking the same thing.

“And you can be one thing more for me now: lunch.” With that, the black deer's eyes pulsed, and it began to... expand. Twilight couldn't see clearly from the distance, but it seemed to grow and change and swell. It became something not a deer, something Else, something Other. The shadows grew around it. Infernal whispers lifted on the wind.

“Now!” Falalauria cried. “Now, while he feeds! Before he can drink too deeply!” Her antlers flashed and a blaze of light erupted in space. Celestia's horn pulsed golden and the earth shook from the power she unleashed. Clive's horns sizzled with lightning; from the heavens bolts snaked down, merging with the two expulsions of magic and setting them both ablaze with crackling light.

When the brilliance cleared, however, it had all been for naught. A dome of shadow swathed the black deer, and though it fizzled away almost as soon as Twilight saw it, it had done its job. The world snake, when Twilight glanced back up at it, looked... old. Its black scales had faded to deep gray, and when it opened its mouth (to whimper, in a noise that shook the peaks) its fangs seemed blunter.

“Done!” cried the black deer, in a voice much stronger than it had used previously. The rings of red light vanished from around the world snake's head, and it began to drift backwards, still whimpering. It reared back with much less vigor than it had the first time. “That's all I need from you, mindless thing. Begone!”

A blast of red light filled all of space around Twilight. She could hardly see anything; everything was enveloped in crimson radiance. It would have been beautiful if it had not been horrifying. The world snake's body was barely visible as a black shadow being hurled back. The light at last dissipated to reveal the world snake's body- and only its body. Twilight was sick with horror. The world snake's head was gone. Not burned, not blasted- gone. Black smoke billowed from its empty neck as its body plunged backwards, back and down, down and down, until it crashed across the miles of peaks with an earth-breaking BOOM.

Twilight and Spike shared another terrified glance. They looked back around their boulder, and Celestia, Falalauria, and Clive looked likewise. The black deer was no longer ragged and gaunt. He- for it was clearly a he now- had a thick neck, sturdy limbs, a stout torso, and mighty antlers. He looked healthy and vibrant, like a bull in the prime of a rut. When he smiled, his teeth were stark white... and razor sharp. “Now,” he said, “where was I?”

Crimson fire blazed upon his antlers. The mountains shook. Small rocks and dust began to rise off the ground. The three magical allies opposite him readied themselves.

Twilight and Spike shared a final glance. They nodded to each other. Twilight's horn came alight with power, while Spike spat a tongue of green fire. What could they do? They had no idea. But they had to do something. They had to-

“Twilight Sparkle. Spike the dragon.”

They whirled. “Princess Luna!” Twilight exclaimed, for there was Celestia's sister, coat deep blue, mane and tail a billowing azure nebula.

“You have seen enough, methinks,” said Luna. “I shalt remove you to safety.”

“No!” Spike cried.

“We want to-”

But those were their last words. Luna's horn shimmered blue, and with that, both Spike and Twilight Sparkle vanished on the spot.

Chapter 3

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Twilight and Spike reappeared in the throne room in Canterlot. “What was-” Spike began.

The world began to tremble. Not the thunderous booms of before, but a steady quaking, vibrating almost like a masseuse's hooves. Twilight glanced out toward the window- “Look!” she cried. She dashed to the window and used her magic to push it open.

The sun and the moon were both hanging in the sky together. The sun was brighter than on even the hottest summer days, and the moon was full, shining brilliant silver. But even the combined radiance of the two heavenly bodies could not block out the light that flashed and flickered across the sky.

“Hop on, Spike!” Twilight said. “I'll teleport us to the tallest tower!”

“No, not that one, the observatory!” Spike said. “There's a gap in the mountains we can look through!”

“Oh, duh!” Twilight thumped her head with her hoof. “Why didn't I think of that?” Spike jumped up onto her back. “Hold on!” She imagined the cool marble floor of the observatory, the hollow space around the big telescope brushing her skin, and stepped.

She appeared in the observatory and immediately ran to the outside balcony. Spike jumped down, and the two of them looked between a gap in the peaks of the Drackenridge range, gazing out across Gildedale to the distant ridges of the Archbacks.

The sky was pulsing and throbbing. Bursts of every color light blazed in half-instants on the horizon, like fireworks but a hundred times more intense. The shaking of the ground- of the whole world- continued unabated. Around her, pegasuses were hovering up as high as they could to glimpse the remarkable sight.

“I'm scared,” Spike said.

“Me too,” Twilight said gently. She drew him close to her. Without meaning to, one of her wings came out and draped over his shoulders.

Not a word passed between them as they watched the flashing lights on the horizon. They got used to the quaking of the planet after about ten minutes, so they almost calmly watched the battle from a distance. Yet their ease masked an infinity of dread. Suppose the princesses, Falalauria, and Clive could not prevail? All of Equestria- and beyond- would be vulnerable to that black deer with his terrifying red magic. What was he? Where had he come from? Twilight shuddered, remembering his threats to kill all he came across.

For nearly an hour, the battle raged. To the flashing on the horizon was added a distant rising line of black smoke. Something was burning. Twilight supposed, as a princess, she should have called one of the royal scryers to give her a deeper view of what was taking place. But she knew if she got a closer look- if she could see what Princess Celestia and the rest were up to- it would ruin her forever. Merely imagining what they were going through was horrific enough.

Finally, there was a huge blaze of brilliant white light. The sun and the moon pulsed with added brightness, and it almost seemed like waves of strength rippled out from both of them, as though the sky were a great lake. Then all was still. The smoke of whatever was burning hung as a haze in the sky. “I think we should go back down to the throne room,” Twilight said. “That's probably where the princesses will return to.”

Spike wordlessly climbed onto Twilight's back, and with a step she was back in the throne room, its high ceiling decorated with swirling golden stars. She was not the only one present: various ministers and mages were milling about uneasily, talking amongst themselves in ways clearly meant to stave off nerves.

“Princess Twilight!” a voice called over her shoulder.

Twilight turned and smiled. “Professor Wizenbach!” she exclaimed. It was an older unicorn, lines around her eyes. Her coat was dark green and her mane was white. She had been one of Twilight's instructors at Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, and Twilight had fond memories of her conjuring classes.

“Please, princess, I'm not your teacher any more,” Wizenbach said. “No need to call me 'professor.'”

“And there's no need to call me 'princess,'” Twilight said. “I'll always just be Twilight Sparkle to you.”

“Do you know what's transpired?” Wizenbach asked. “All we heard was that the princesses had been summoned to address some grave issue, and now-” she rubbed her horn, “now my magic circuit is alive with interference. Great power has been exercised.”

“I was up at the observatory,” Twilight said. “I saw something taking place out past the Archback Mountains. I... I have no idea what,” her face twitched a little with the lie.

Wizenbach missed her student's tell, however. “Princess Luna was later to leave that Princess Celestia. She instructed us to gather all the strong mages in the castle and wait for them here. I do hope everything is all right. I have a bad feeling about-”

Suddenly, with bursts of light and flickers of space, the creatures in question appeared just below the royal thrones. Celestia was first. Steam was rising off her body, with a particularly thick trail coming off her horn. But she ignored everyone as she galloped toward the middle of the throne room. “Healers!” she cried. “I need healers at once!”

Twilight soon saw why. Something black was splayed across her back, charred nearly to a crisp. Her heart skipped a beat as she could just make out two pronged horns sticking up from what might have been a head.

“Healers, please!” Celestia pleaded, all air of command gone from her voice.

“We have him, my princess!” said two of the unicorns, their horns shining. Clive- or what was left of him- was lifted off Celestia's back and onto a stretcher that teleported into place.

“I've been keeping him stable!” Celestia said. “I know he can still be saved! I know-” her eyes began to waver, “I know...”

“You did a fine job, Your Highness,” said one of the healers. “He's probably going to make it. We'll take it from here.” With that, the two of them teleported away, taking the stretcher with them.

Celestia sighed, a display of emotion very uncharacteristic for her. Then she did something even more abnormal: she laid down in the middle of the floor. The ponies she had summoned immediately rushed to her, and her great body was soon surrounded by insistent advisers and helpers.

“I have to tend to the princess,” said Wizenbach. “You may wish to stand aside a bit, Twilight.” Twilight's eyes stung with hurt, and Wizenbach smiled gently. “I know you want to see her, but I think she needs some space, which is why I'm off to shoo everypony back.”

“I...” Twilight swallowed her fear. “I understand, Wizenbach. Please try to give her some peace.”

With a nod, Wizenbach trotted toward Celestia. Twilight looked upon Celestia, her eyes still small and anxious, and felt worried again. She had almost never seen the princess in such a state. She looked like a spooked animal, her ears twitching in every direction.

“Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight and Spike nearly jumped out of their skins. They whirled around. “Princess Luna!”

For the second time today, Luna had come up behind them, and now she glanced coolly over them. Like Celestia, her body was steaming. “I do not believe my sister noticed thy snooping, back on the mountains,” she said. “And after some reflection, I have decided not to reveal it to her. She needs no further stress, which the knowledge of thee disobeying her would certainly provide.”

“Oh, thank you, princess!” Twilight said. She glanced again toward Celestia. “Is Princess Celestia going to be okay? What's wrong with her?”

“Physically, nothing,” said Luna, “as nothing is physically wrong with me. We are hardier than we look, Twilight Sparkle. But what is inside cannot be so easily protected.” Luna sighed. “The pronghorn Clive is... dear to her. He suffered greatly during the clash.”

“Oh,” Twilight said, her mind trying to wrap around the odd idea. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

“But as the healers intimated, we believe he will make a full recovery,” Luna said. “I wish I could say the same for the lands we annihilated.”

“Annihilated?” Twilight repeated. “I saw something burning...”

“The Shimmerwood,” said Luna, making Twilight gasp. “It is damaged, perhaps beyond repair.”

“Definitely beyond repair,” said a voice over Luna's shoulder. Twilight and Spike looked up to see Falalauria moving toward them. The silk streamers in her antlers had been reduced to rags, and the ends were burnt off. But like Luna, she seemed no worse for wear otherwise. “I can See it now. The Shimmerwood is lost.”

“My heart breaks for thee, Lala,” said Luna. “Thy deer are welcome in Equestria until they can find a more permanent home.”

“That should bring them some comfort,” said Falalauria.

“And on that note, I must begin to prepare for their arrival,” said Luna. “How many wouldst thee say, Lala?”

“Oh, some thousands,” said Falalauria. “More than you could house in Canterlot's spare places.”

“Then I-”

“Ponyville!” Twilight cried. “Lady Falalauria, Ponyville has plenty of space for your deer to stay in. We're also right next door to the Everfree Forest, which has lots of ambient magic. It might be just what they need!”

“Art thou volunteering Ponyville, Princess Twilight Sparkle?” Luna asked, her deep blue eyes leveling on Twilight. “Is that a royal proclamation?”

Twilight swallowed, suddenly feeling the weight of her office. But she straightened her back and steeled her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “It is a proclamation. I, Princess Twilight Sparkle, officially decree that the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood are welcome in Ponyville as they adjust to life without their home.”

“Then it is done,” said Luna. “Ponyville is also near White Tail Wood, another forest that should prove hospitable to the deerfolk. I shall begin to make preparations at once, starting with a letter to Ponyville's Mayor Mare. On that note, might I borrow thy dragon, Twilight Sparkle?”

“You bet!” Spike said. “I'm at your service, princess.”

“Then come, young Spike,” said Luna. “We have a great many letters to deploy.”

They began to head out of the throne room- “Wait!” Luna stopped and turned around. Twilight Sparkle was holding up a hoof. “Princess...”

“Yes?”

“Well... that thing,” Twilight said. “That black deer. What was it?”

Luna was silent for a few moments. She stole a glance at Falalauria. “A ghost, Twilight Sparkle,” she finally said. “A shadow of the deep past. Be thankful it is gone.” With that, she moved to a canter, Spike beside her, and left for the throne room's great doors.

When they were gone, Falalauria said, “I might not have called him a ghost. Ghosts are ultimately harmless, after all.”

“Oh!” Twilight said, jumping a little. She had briefly forgotten the great deer was in her midst.

Falalauria looked down at her, her starscape eyes unsettling at such close distance. But her smile was warm. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said. “I believe this is the first time we have officially met.”

“I suppose it is,” Twilight said. “It's wonderful to make your acquaintance, Lady Falalauria.”

“Likewise,” she said. “Congratulations, by the way, on your new castle.”

“What?” Twilight asked. “My Lady, I don't have a castle.”

“Oh?” Falalauria said. Her eyes seemed to shift. “Ah, my mistake, I was Seeing a bit too far ahead. Still, you will love it when you get it.”

“Some of my friends have met you before,” Twilight said.

“Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Rarity, yes,” said Falalauria. “They are doing well, I think. Applejack is currently abroad.”

“She is!” said Twilight. “She's been in Gildedale the past two weeks, visiting a stallion she knows there.” Twilight suddenly gasped. “Oh no! I hope she's all right!”

“She is fine,” said Falalauria, her eyes shifting again. “She was on her way back through the Drackenridge Mountains when the battle took place, and at any rate, the damage did not extend past the Shimmerwood. Gildedale is safe.”

“I'm so sorry about your home, My Lady,” Twilight said.

“I knew its days were numbered,” said Falalauria. “The world is beginning to change. Or, rather, the world is always changing, but its shifting was beginning to work against us. Fortunately, my deer should be able to adapt. The question is, will the difficult days ahead tax them too far? I do not think so, but I confess, it is not a matter I have bent my Sight upon too much.”

Twilight battled with her own skepticism as Falalauria spoke. Her three friends had, of course, told her much about the Lady of the Shimmerwood, including the most amazing thing about her: her ability to see the future. Twilight had strong opinions about prophecies, mostly on the negative side of them. She tended to view fortune telling and farseeing as hoaxes, barring a few instances she had found and could not explain. Yet here was a creature who claimed she could read time like a book. Would Twilight dare voice her opinions aloud?

“You know, Twilight Sparkle, I can see across Space as well as Time,” said Falalauria. “So I knew you were there also.”

“Oh!” Twilight said. “Do you... do you think Princess Celestia knows?”

“Judging by her actions over the next few days, I do not believe so,” said Falalauria. “However, I can never quite be sure with Tia. She has some Long Sight too, and her motives are always her own.”

“Do you think I should tell her I was there?” Twilight asked.

“Not unless you feel guilty about it,” said Falalauria. “For the moment, keep it to yourself. And for my part, I am glad you and Spike were there. You needed to see what transpired.”

“I'm glad you approve, at least,” said Twilight.

“Things have happened as they were meant to happen,” said Falalauria. “For that, I am grateful.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Tia!"

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight cried with glee, for she was moving toward them, her eyes their normal, gentle selves again. Twilight ran to her, and Celestia gathered her up in a nuzzle.

“I'm all right, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said gently. “I'm sorry for having frightened you.”

“I... er...” Twilight suddenly felt ashamed of having disobeyed Celestia's order.

“I was just telling Twilight Sparkle about everything that transpired in the Archbacks,” Falalauria said. “I was even showing her some of my memories with a magic link. I hope that's all right, Celestia.”

“It's perfectly fine, Falalauria,” said Celestia. “She deserves to know. I would hold off showing her the battle itself, though- I don't think her mind is ready for that yet.”

“Indeed,” said Falalauria. “The experience was nearly enough to drive me mad, despite all my eons of magical power.”

“Thankfully, the darkness has been averted,” said Celestia. “Lala, I wish you'd taken a moment to tell me just what, or rather, just who we were dealing with in your message. If I'd known the magnitude of the danger, I would have tried to assemble additional allies.”

“Who could have come in time?” Falalauria asked. “Princess Cadence in the Crystal Empire was too far away, and none of the deerfolk in the Everfree Forest had anything like the power that was needed.”

“I could swear one or two of the Elders have passed through Equestria lately,” said Celestia. “At the very least, I could have broadcast a call for help on all planes of magic.”

“The Elders cannot be found if they do not wish to be found, Tia,” said Falalauria. “You know that. And they frequently do not wish to be found. You did the best you could. And it was enough.”

Celestia arched an eyebrow. “Is that a note of hesitance?”

“Is it?” Twilight asked.

“Perhaps,” said Falalauria.

Celestia's eyes shifted at this, and they locked into Falalauria's gaze. The two of them peered into each others' eyes, piercing rose pink meeting infinite starry night. They stood looking in silence- but not simply looking. If Twilight tweaked her magic a little, she thought she could sense meaning in the air. It seemed as though a whole conversation were going on between the eyes of the Regent of the Sun and the Lady of the Shimmerwood.

Finally, Celestia blinked, and nodded. “I see,” she said. “I must prepare.”

“As must I,” said Falalauria.

“Together, then,” said Celestia with a smile.

“Always,” said Falalauria, her own lips spreading with happiness.

“You know, Lala, no matter the circumstances, I'm always happy to see you,” Celestia said.

“And I you,” said Falalauria. The two of them nuzzled. “My old friend, what would I do without you?”

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked. “Prepare for what?”

“Future things,” Celestia said. “Things as yet unguessed.” She glanced down and caught Twilight's eye. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said, “I believe it's time for you to return to Ponyville. Things will be too busy in the next few weeks for us to focus on our flying lessons.”

“Princess Twilight has graciously decreed that my deerfolk are welcome in Ponyville while they sort out their new lives,” Falalauria said.

“Wonderful!” Celestia said. “Ponyville and its surrounding country are the perfect places for deer. But in that case, Twilight, you had really better be going. You have some explaining to do back home.”

“I know,” said Twilight, suddenly uneasy about how her order would be received by Ponyville's inhabitants. “Princess Luna is using Spike to send letters right now. Once he's done, we'll leave.”

Chapter 4

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The chariot pulled by pegasuses touched down on the outskirts of the quaint little city, its multicolored roofs and wide dirt paths stretching out before Twilight Sparkle's vision. “Thank you, sirs,” Twilight said, exiting the chariot with Spike at her side.

“No trouble, princess,” said one of the charioteers, and with powerful flaps of their wings, they were airborne, wheeling away back toward Canterlot.

“I wonder how everypony here reacted to the battle?” Spike asked as they made their way into town.

“Who knows?” Twilight responded. “You already sent that letter from Princess Luna to the mayor; hopefully it explains enough that ponies don't-”

“There she is!”

The ground rumbled, and Twilight looked out with widening eyes. A huge rush of ponies was hurtling toward her, unicorns and pegasuses and earth ponies of every color and size. Twilight reared back in fright, Spike diving behind her. Before she could move the herd was overwhelming her, crushing her from every side and filling the air with speech.

“Princess Twilight, what happened?”

“What was that shaking? What were those lights?”

“What did you find out in Canterlot?”

“Err...” Twilight said, dancing from side to side. “If you'll all just settle down...”

“It felt like the world was ending!” Lyra said.

“I hovered up and saw it! It was terrible!” Cloudkicker cried.

“Oh, dearie, please tell us something!” Mrs. Cake said.

“I...” Twilight stammered, her stomach fluttering at the crush of ponies. “I...”

There was a pop of air and suddenly Twilight was shoved hard to the side. She was about to snap at whoever had pushed her, but her anger died in her throat. A white unicorn with a mane and tail of violet ringlets was standing beside her, her beautiful blue eyes sparkling. “Twilight, grab my tail! Spike, hop on!”

Twilight chomped her mouth around the white unicorn's tail, and Spike jumped onto her back. The white unicorn took a step, and all three of them vanished.

They reappeared on the outskirts of Ponyville, the dark mass of the Everfree Forest looming in the near distance. They were in the yard of a ramshackle cottage on a small hilltop, surrounded by a thin moat. All manner of fish, turtles, and waterbirds swam in the water; meanwhile, the yard had high grass and was filled with small woodland creatures, rabbits, ferrets, mice and more.

“Hooray!” a voice shouted out. With a blur, a light pink pony with a deep pink, curly mane and tail bounced in front of Twilight, where she began to hop in place. “It's so good to see you again, Twilight! Sometimes I worry that when you go away I won't see you again, but of course I won't see you while you're a way, but I mean I really worry that I won't see you ever, which is silly because you always come back again!” She stopped bouncing and wrapped her forelegs around Twilight in an embrace.

“I'm fine, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “Really, I'm okay!”

“You can forgive us for being worried, darling,” the white unicorn said.

“Yeah!” said a sky blue pegasus with a rainbow-striped mane and tail. “Did you see what just happened like an hour ago?”

“It was horrible!” said another pegasus, this one butter yellow with a long, wavy pink mane and tail. “All the animals were hiding in their dens and burrows. I think they were more afraid than me... if that's even possible, I mean.”

“Girls, girls, I'm fine!” Twilight said. “Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, everything's all right... well, mostly.”

“Mostly?” Fluttershy said.

“Something's... happened,” said Twilight.

“Oh boy oh boy oh boy, is it somepony's birthday?” Pinkie Pie cheered.

“No, Pinkie,” Twilight said, “it's not nearly as happy as a birthday.”

“Please, Twilight, tell us what's going on,” Rarity said.

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash cried. “We wanna know.”

“I guess I could...” Twilight said. She hesitated. “I hate to do it before Applejack comes back, though. You all need to hear this.”

“Hmmm...” Rarity said. She turned her head away from the others. Her eyes grew extra wide, and her cutie mark- three diamonds in a triangle pattern- glinted. “Ah!” she said triumphantly. “We're in luck!” she turned back to her friends. “Applejack should be here within the hour!”

“Great!” Dash cried.

“How do you know for certain, Rarity?” Twilight asked.

“Er...” Rarity stammered. She and Dash exchanged a glance. “I've... I've been keeping track of her progress based on her average rate of travel, dear,” said Rarity, her face betraying her unease. “I know how long she's been gone... and, er... I know her hoof speed! Yes, yes, it's all just math when you get down to it.”

“I had no idea you were so good at time-distance equations, Rarity,” said Twilight. “Ooo, do you want to talk math sometime? I haven't had a good calculus discussion in ages.”

“Maybe at... some point, Twilight,” Rarity said with an unconvincing grin.

“So what's with waiting? Let's all go wait for Applejack! Tally hoooooooo!” Pinkie cried, bouncing off down the road.

"Wait for me!" Fluttershy cried, hurrying after her.

“I suppose I ought to go tell Mayor Mare I'm here,” Twilight said. “There are some issues she and I need to discuss.”

“What if we met on the road just outside of town?” Rarity asked. “Go and tend to your business, then we'll see you there.”

“Right,” Twilight said.

“Can I go with the others, Twilight?” Spike asked.

“Sure, Spike,” said Twilight. “I have a feeling I won't be long.”

“Hmm.”

Twilight sat on the plush office chair in the largest office of Ponyville's town hall. An old, light-brown pony was sitting at the desk across from her, her mane and tail a wavy gray. Pince-nez spectacles adorned her face, and a separate collar and necktie hung from her throat. She was staring at Twilight with a decidedly uncomfortable grimace. Twilight cleared her throat. “Mayor Mare... thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice.”

“You are royalty, Princess Twilight,” said Mare, shuffling some papers on her desk. “Technically, you can barge in to see me whenever you wish.”

There was one piece of paper she had left where it was: an unfurled scroll, upon which Twilight clearly saw the royal device of Equestria. “I take it you got Princess Luna's letter, then?”

“I did,” said Mare. “Quite a surprise to see it on my desk when I got back from lunch.”

“Mayor...”

“As I said, princess, you are royalty. I'm merely an elected official. Your authority supersedes mine. If you want to do something like open our town up to strangers, well, that's your business. I can't do anything.”

“Mayor Mare, please,” Twilight Sparkle pleaded. “These deer... their home has just been destroyed! They had to evacuate with only what they could carry on their backs! They're refugees. They need a place to stay while their ruler finds more permanent accommodations. I promise it's only temporary. I swear.”

“I understand all that, princess,” said Mare. “Princess Luna explained it all in her letter.” Her blue eyes lost some of their harshness. “Princess, don't think me cruel. I can't imagine what it must be like to have everything you've ever known ripped away from you. I sympathize with these deer, I do. But...” She sighed. “This isn't just a refugee camp, Princess Twilight. This is our home. Ponies here have their own way of doing things, are comfortable with things as they are. Throwing a whole other species into our daily life is going to be... difficult.”

“I understand, mayor,” Twilight said. “I'll take full responsibility for them and anything that happens as a result of their being here. If you'd like, I can try to have the Royal Treasury compensate Ponyville for agreeing to house these deerfolk.”

“That's all right, princess,” said Mare. “I know you're only trying to do the right thing. I just... I wish you had told me ahead of time. This is very short notice.”

“I only found out all these deer would be homeless a few hours ago,” Twilight said. “I'm sorry. I should have thought more about how the ponies of Ponyville would react.”

“Well, if they're your responsibility, you can be the one to tell our citizens about them,” said Mare. “When do you expect them to be here?”

“I would say within about three days,” said Twilight.

“So we have at least a little time,” said Mare. “I can start to clear out the fields just outside of town.”

“I actually think the lands closer to the Everfree Forest would be better,” said Twilight. “It's dangerous to us, but these deer are used to wild magic. They'd probably welcome it.”

“Aren't there deer in the Everfree?” Mayor Mare said. “Somepony keeps sending back the census forms we drop in there every year, at least.”

“I think so,” said Twilight. “I'll try to go in and find them when I have time. Maybe they can help these new deer adapt to life in Equestria.” She stood from her chair. “Now, mayor, if you don't mind, I have to get going. My friend is due back from her trip any minute now.”

“Of course, Princess Twilight,” said Mare. “Thank you for paying me the courtesy of a visit.”

“There you are!” Rainbow Dash cried as Twilight Sparkle galloped down the road toward her friends. They were bunched in the middle of the wide path, along with a rickety old green pony, a huge red pony, and a little yellow pony with a bow in her strawberry mane.

“Sorry about that, everypony,” Twilight said. “I had to go see the mayor about something.”

“The mayor?” Fluttershy repeated. “Whatever for?”

“I'll tell you as soon as Applejack gets here,” Twilight said. “It has to do with what happened to Spike and I when we were in Canterlot. I hope-”

“Shh!” Pinkie Pie said. “Listen!”

All the ponies were quiet. The wind blew through the trees, the fence posts along the roadside creaked. And then, in the stillness, they heard something. It was somepony singing.

Shady grove, my little love,

Shady grove I know,

Shady grove, my little love,

I'm bound for the shady grove.

I wish I had a piece of thread,

As fine as I could sew.

I'd sew my true love to my side

And down the road I'd go.

As the singing grew louder, their spirits lifted higher. At last, over the edge of the road, there appeared a figure cantering down it. The closer it got, the sharper its image grew. It was an earth pony, sturdy and thick, colored light orange. Her mane and tail were blond, both of them tied up in red twine at the ends of their lengths. A brown cowpony's hat was perched upon her head. She kept singing.

Cheeks as red as bloomin' rose,

Eyes of the deepest blue.

You are the great love of my life,

Strong and ever true.

I wish I had a banjo string,

Made of golden twine.

Every tune that I would play,

I'd wish that boy was mine.

Shady grove, my little love,

Shady grove, I say.

Ooh shady grove, my little love,

Don't wait for the judgment day.

“APPLEJACK!” Rainbow Dash cried, flying forward in a streak of rainbow stripes. The other ponies galloped after her, and before the orange pony's green eyes had widened to their fullest extent she was barreled over by her friends.

“Howdy, y'all!” Applejack chuckled as the ponies scooped her up in embrace after embrace. “How y'all been?”

“It's so super good to see you again!” Pinkie shouted.

“How was Gildedale, dearest?” Rarity asked.

“Oh, it was great!” Applejack said.

“What about Ashtail?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Yes, and dear Shield Maiden?” Rarity said.

“All fine, all fine,” Applejack said.

“Well they ain't starvin' ye out there,” said the rickety green pony.

“Granny Smith, y'all know I always have a good time with the Daleponies,” said Applejack. She glanced at the big red pony and the little yellow pony. “Big Macintosh, Apple Bloom, I brought y'all some presents.”

“Hooray!” Apple Bloom cheered.

“Yep,” Big Macintosh rumbled.

“But- oh! But first!” Applejack pushed away from them all, and her face lost all its merriment. “Did y'all see that light show a few hours ago? And the shakin'? I thought the Aponyclypse was happenin'!”

“Oh, definitely!” Dash cried. “Were you high enough up in the mountains to see it clearly? It was going on behind the Archbacks! It was huge and bright!”

“Twilight claims to know all about it,” Rarity said.

Applejack turned her eyes on Twilight Sparkle. “How about it, Twi?”

“Ah...” Twilight and Spike exchanged glances. Then she turned to the other members of the Apple Family. “I know Applejack just got back, but could I borrow her for a while?”

“Sure thing,” said Big Macintosh. “I reckon y'all've got important business to attend to.”

“We do, thank you,” said Twilight. “Come on, girls. Let's go to the library. I've got a lot to tell you.”

Chapter 5

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“... and then Princess Luna appeared, and she teleported Spike and I back to the throne room in Canterlot.” Twilight gave a final sweep of her hooves for emphasis. “After that... well, you all saw what happened after that as well as I did.”

Twilight's five friends were sitting on pillows around her, on the floor of Ponyville's great library. It was built into an old oak tree, and its walls were of the very wood that composed the tree, as was its floor. But for now, all five ponies couldn't have cared less about their surroundings. They were staring at their friend, looks of shock on their faces.

“Boy howdy!” Applejack cried, finally breaking the silence. “A deer? A black deer?”

“It doesn't make any sense,” Fluttershy said. “There are some strains of white tail deer that have a black coat variant, but there's no way a deer as big as you're describing could turn black through natural processes.”

“I reckon this deer ain't born o' natural processes, Fluttershy,” said Applejack.

“Yeah, I bet it's magic! Bad, ugly magic,” Pinkie Pie said.

“It certainly seemed that way,” said Twilight.

“And the world snake- killed? Gone in a single shot?” Rarity said. “What kind of creature could possibly have the power to do such a thing?”

“Uh, the creature Twilight was just talking about, duh,” said Rainbow Dash. “However impossible it sounds, it happened.”

“Princess Luna called it a ghost, something from the past,” said Twilight. “I really don't know what she means by that, though. I confess I don't know a lot about deer history.”

“It might be time to bone up, Twi,” Applejack said.

“So what was the burning thing I saw?” Dash said. “I flew up, and I saw the fight, but I also saw smoke.”

“Oh!” Twilight said. “That was...” she sighed. “That was the Shimmerwood.”

Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity gasped. “No!” Dash said.

“No! Not the Shimmerwood!” Rarity cried. “It was so beautiful!”

“Forget about the wood for a minute!” Applejack said. “What about all the deerfolk inside?”

“Lady Falalauria had them evacuate ahead of time,” said Twilight. “I think they all managed to get out. But she said that the wood itself is damaged beyond repair.”

“How awful!” Rarity cried. “Oh, those poor deer. To lose such a wonderful home- tragic!”

“It is horrible,” Fluttershy said. “So where are they going to stay now?”

“Actually...” Twilight cleared her throat. “I sort of volunteered to house some of them in Ponyville.”

She had wondered how her friends would take the news. To her pleasant surprise, they all had looks of happiness on their faces.

“That's a great idea!” Pinkie Pie cried. “It'll be just like a huge big slumber party!”

“How wonderfully generous of you, Twilight!” Rarity said. “We'll make them feel right at home.”

“This is a good spot for deer, actually,” said Fluttershy. “Between the Everfree Forest and White Tail Wood, they're in close proximity to two ideal habitats.”

“And there's plenty o' food stored up from this year's harvests, if they need a break from grass,” said Applejack. “Hmm, I recall Falalauria sayin' that her deer loved pansies, and we do got plenty o' those.”

“Ooo, that gives me an idea!” Pinkie exclaimed.

“Princess Luna said they'd be here in about three days' time,” said Twilight. “I'm going to need you girls' help to keep things smooth. I know the deerfolk are nice and kind, but they're still different than what most ponies are used to. I'm worried there are going to be tensions.”

“You can count on us, sugarcube,” Applejack said.

“I need to go find Magus Javier and his mule deer in the Everfree Forest,” Fluttershy said. “They'll certainly want to know that some other deer are going to be nearby. Speaking of,” she turned to Rarity, “what sort of deer did you all say lived in the Shimerwood, again?”

“Almost all white tail,” said Rarity. “Lady Falalauria herself is of mixed stock; one of her parents was a white tail deer, the other was a red deer.”

“Hmm, but they do all speak Laewtil, though the dialects used by the Everfree deer may be different,” Fluttershy said. “Still, they should be able to understand each other.”

“Thank you all so much for understanding,” Twilight said. “I'm so nervous. This the first time I've really staked my authority as a princess on something. I don't want to fail.”

“You won't fail as long as you've got us, Twilight!” Dash cried.

“Yes, dear, we're here for you no matter what,” Rarity said.

“Thank you so much,” Twilight said again. She looked out the window; the deep orange of evening sunlight splashed across the sky. “It's getting late. I know you'll want to see your family, Applejack, and I think I've kept you all long enough.”

“Y'all should come by the farm tomorrow,” said Applejack as she rose to her hooves. “We're havin' a big lunch, and the more folk who come to eat it, the better.”

“We can talk more then about everything,” Fluttershy said.

“That's a great idea!” Twilight said. “I'll see you all tomorrow!”

Night rolled over the orchards and fields of Sweet Apple Acres, the Apple Family's ancestral farm. Up in her bedroom in the farm house, Applejack laid on her bed. She was clutching something in her hooves: a shiny, glinting onyx stone, smoothed almost to a sphere by the long polishing of many hooves.

“Take this back with you,” Ashtail said.

“Aww, darlin', y'all don't need to give me presents every time I leave,” Applejack said.

“Perhaps not,” Ashtail replied. “But I want to.”

Applejack sighed. Every time she saw Ashtail, it got a little harder to leave him when her visit was up. When the battle had rocked across the skies beyond the Archbacks, she was ashamed to admit that her first thoughts had been of whether he was safe.

You know what this feelin' is, ol' girl, she thought to herself. There came a scratching at her door. Hopping out of bed, she pulled the door open. “Howdy there, Winona!” she said brightly, opening the door enough to let her dog into the room. Winona hopped onto the bed and sat down, tongue lolled out. Applejack sat down the bed and ran her hooves around Winona's ears. “Winona, I thought all my life I'd wind up managin' the farm and settlin' down with some stallion here in Ponyville,” she said. “I thought my... my destiny was farmin' apples and raisin' foals.”

Winona tilted her head.

“And I guess that got chucked out the window when I got the Element of Honesty,” said Applejack. “Y'know, girl, I can feel it. I can feel it workin' in my heart. It stings me when anypony tells a lie now. And I've... I've used it, girl. I use it now every time I bump into the Flim-Flam Brothers, and all other manner of shady folk. Guess I'm determined to use it always. But I still thought I might settle down to farmin' as best I could, maybe doin' adventurin' on the side.” She glanced down at the floor. “Now, though...”

Winona said nothing, of course. But she crept across the bed to Applejack's side, and Applejack leaned against her.

“Sometimes I wish you could talk, girl. Then again, y'all might not be such a good listener if you could.”

Within the rococo walls of the Carousel Boutique, Rarity's horn shimmered. The candles in their sconces dimmed on command, casting the main room into dim light. Rarity lay on fluffy pillows in the middle, a cleanly-scented candle in a sconce right beside her. It was time for her second exercises of the day. Once in the morning, once at night, she worked- not with her body, but with the piece of her soul she had uncovered a few years ago.

Rarity's cutie mark gleamed, and her eyes grew wide. Her mind expanded beyond the walls of her boutique, sweeping across Ponyville. She Saw Derpy Hooves and her daughter reading together in their bed. She Saw Torch Song humming along to her record player in her living room. She Saw Scootaloo sleeping in her bed in the shelter. Twist was reading in bed, Ace was doing pushups in his rec room, Baritone was snoring loudly. Rarity stretched her Sight, her eyes opening wider and filling with glinting stars. Princess Cadence and Shining Armor were lying awake in their bed. Braeburn was dancing around the bisons' ceremonial fire. Niles Nigellus was comforting Audrey Alleinus and another, far younger pronghorn. Princess Celestia was curled up in a bower beside a bed in the palace infirmary. The sun rose, the moon waxed, the stars wheeled-

“Rarity?”

“Ah!” Rarity yelped. Her Long Sight broken, the stars in her eyes were replaced by her usual blue pupils. “Oh, hello there, Sweetie Belle. How are you?”

“Up to get a glass of water,” her sister said, the little white unicorn with the lavender and pink mane hopping down the stairs. “Are you ever going to tell me what exactly you do down her at night?”

“Some day, dear,” Rarity said. “But not yet.” She got up. “I'll get you your water, come with me.”

In the back kitchen of Sugar Cube Corner, Pinkie Pie was tearing through cookbook after cookbook, her eyes swimming rapidly over the pages. She kept looking- kept looking-

She turned around. “Hey there, Mr. Cake!”

“Oh, Pinkie!” Mr. Cake cried, his long yellow legs crossing over themselves as he jumped back. “How did you know I was there?”

“I heard you talking to yourself,” Pinkie said.

“But I wasn't- never mind,” said Mr. Cake. “What exactly are you looking for?”

“A recipe for Pansy Cupcakes!” Pinkie exclaimed. “I know I saw it one of these cookbooks here, but I can't remember which one.”

“Oh, I think I know what you're talking about,” Mr. Cake said. “It should be this one,” and he plucked a lavender cookbook from the stacks. Flour With Flowers was its title.

“Hmm,” Pinkie said, flipping through the pages. “Aha! There it is!” She gave Mr. Cake a tight hug. “Thank you so so so much, Mr. Cake!”

“You're welcome, dear,” Mr. Cake said. “Just be sure to put all these other ones back.” He turned to go.

“Wait!” Pinkie said. “Mr. Cake... how do you feel about deer?”

“Deer?” Mr. Cake said. He turned slowly around. “I guess I don't have much to say about them. I've never met one.” I hear they're weird though, he thought.

Pinkie Pie's expression changed subtly, though Mr. Cake did not pick up on it. “Well, what if they were nice, kind deer?” she asked.

“I guess if they were nice, I'd love to meet one some time,” said Mr. Cake. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, you'll find out,” Pinkie Pie said, looking down to study the recipe.

“All right,” said Mr. Cake, feeling suddenly uneasy. “Good night, Pinkie.”

“Night night!”

Fluttershy sat beside her fire, watching gently as Angel, her rabbit, chewed on a carrot. She reflected on the paper in front of her, the pen clamped tightly in her jaws. She had scribbled Mae Govannen, Javier at the top, but save that, the page was blank.

“Oh, Angel,” Fluttershy said, “how do I write something like this? Ai, Magus Javier, more of the erias are arriving shortly. Please be prepared for company. Is that all I need to say? Surely I should explain what's happening in more detail.”

Angel crossed his arms at her, then made a motion with his paws to urge her onward.

“It's just...” she lowered her chin to the floor. “They trust me so much. I don't want to abuse it. And I owe them so much myself- I owe them everything. I can't just intrude on their peace.”

Angel smacked his palm into his head.

“Yes, Angel, you're right. They're going to find out one way or another.” Fluttershy sighed again. “I can at least be polite about it.” She bent her head, put pen to paper, and began to write.

In her cloud mansion in the skies above Ponyville, Rainbow Dash snored.

In the darkened library, Twilight Sparkle sat at her desk, a single candle illuminating the wood surface. She was bent over a massive green book, one of four volumes of the same size and color; the other three were stacked to her right. Occasionally she would pause in her reading to scribble something down in a journal. Twilight's notes were beauties, magnificent works of organized thought. They were at once both a linear progression and a visual map, so that reading her notes would give a pony nearly as clear a conception of an idea as if they had read the original source material. Unbeknownst to her, some of her old teachers in Canterlot kept pages of her notes framed in their classrooms as inspiration to their students.

Her concentration was broken, however, when she felt the whisk of wind across her neck. “What?” Twilight said, swiveling around her chair. The darkened library was empty. With a shrug, Twilight returned to reading. She had gotten through one more paragraph before she distinctly felt the brush of moving air along her spine. “Who's there?” she asked, horn glowing purple. The pages of her book rustled from movement, and as she looked up she saw a distinct shadow glide overhead. “Show yourself!” she cried. Her horn pulsed with magic, and at that instant all the candles in the library blazed to life.

Bonjour, mon petit poney!

Twilight sighed- actually, it was more like a grunt. She lowered her brow in frustration. “I should have known.”

Floating in the middle of the library was the oddest creature it was possible to imagine. It had a long, sinuous body, but that seemed the only uniform thing about it. It was a chimera; no, chimeras could only dream of having so many disparate elements. The head of a horse, the antler of a deer, the horn of a goat, the fang of a snake, the paw of a lion, the claw of an eagle, the wing of a bat, the tail of a dragon- on and on and on the clash of parts continued. The air rippled around him, as though his mere presence distorted it. Which of course it did.

Twilight sighed again. “Discord, now isn't a good time.”

“Of course not, dear Twilight!” said Discord, sliding through the air toward her. “That's why I came. What kind of Supreme Agent of Chaos would I be if I just showed up when it was convenient?”

Twilight turned back to her book, trying to ignore the way her thoughts were drifting. It was very difficult to focus in Discord's presence. He was deeply, unfathomably powerful- stronger even than Princess Celestia. But he was as fluid as quicksilver, and Twilight knew that she was in danger of being whisked away on some ridiculous escapade. In her experience, however, being firm with him usually got him to leave. Just like that, though, the book she was reading vanished in a flash of white light. “Hey!” she whirled around.

In another pulse of light the book appeared in Discord's paw, and he promptly began to turn it round and round. “What's this?”

“You'll lose my place!” Twilight cried, vaulting from her chair. “Give it back!”

Discord floated out of range of her hooves. He finally stopped when he was looking at the book's spine, and read. “Sir Stout Speaker's A History of the Laewtil-Speaking Peoples, Volume I. Why on earth would you bother with such dry, boring dreck? Isn't there a new Daring Do book out you could be enjoying yourself with? What's even the point of reading this unless-” His misshaped eyes went wide. “Oh, Twilight Sparkle, don't tell me you've gotten yourself mixed up in deer business?”

Twilight's horn shone, and she pulled the book from Discord with her telekinesis. “So what if I have?”

Discord tsk-tsked and shook his head. “Oh, Twilight, poor, overeager Twilight, you have no idea the nest of thorns you've plunged into.”

“I need to read as much about the deerfolk's culture and history as I can,” she said, levitating the book back to her desk. “A huge number of them are coming to stay with us. And they're not native Equestrian deer, either; they're deer from the Shimmerwood, so they still preserve their old culture.”

“From the Shimmerwood?” Discord repeated. “Why would- oh my, that's what was burning today, wasn't it?” He chuckled. “Oh well, all that dry tinder was due to catch flame.”

“How can you say that?” Twilight snarled. “All those deer have lost their homes!”

“There are a number of folk throughout history who would respond to that by saying, 'what goes around comes around.'”

Twilight's next verbal assault died in her throat. Her eyes widened. “You... you know about the deerfolk?”

“Of course I do!” Discord said. “I've been around since the dawn of creation. I don't have much love for them, either,” his voice dropped an octave. “Being trapped in stone will do that to you.”

“Huh?” Twilight said. “But... it was Princess Celestia and Princess Luna who trapped you in stone. I saw it, remember?”

“Oh, Twilight,” Discord chuckled, “Twilight, Twilight, Twilight. Brilliant though you are, you suffer from the same parochialism that afflicts others of your species. Not that that's bad! You ponies' stubborn self-focus is one of your more endearing features. And it's been good to you as a whole. But it does impede your view of things.”

“Okay, since I actually know what 'parochialism' means, why don't you explain to me why I have it,” Twilight said.

“Because you assumed that when I talked about turning to stone, I was referring only to the incident with Celestia and Luna,” said Discord. “Didn't I just say I've been around since the dawn of time? Wouldn't it stand to reason there's more to my existence than the part that involves you ponies?”

Twilight's eyes bulged. “You... the deerfolk turned you to stone? But the only things that can do that are-”

“The Elements of Harmony? Well, yes,” Discord chuckled. “Oh, Twilight, there's so much you don't know about the history of your world.”

“Tell me,” Twilight said.

“Not tonight,” Discord replied. “However, since we're best buddies now, and since I've been reformed, I'll be nice enough to give you a warning.” He swam through the air and curled around Twilight, to the point that he was leaning right next to her ears. “Be wary of dealings with deer, Twilight Sparkle. They are not as nice as you think.”

“But...” Twilight's heart was pounding, “Lady Falalauria...”

“Oh, the Farseer? The Half-Breed? Be careful even of her,” said Discord. “Twilight, what exactly do you know about the deerfolk?”

“Well,” Twilight began, “they're... the forerunners. They're the grandfather culture of practically every intelligent species.”

“And have you ever wondered why that is?” Discord said. “Have you ever thought to ask just why deer culture forms the bedrock of so many races?”

“Uh... no, no I haven't,” Twilight asked.

“Because it's an uncomfortable question,” Discord said. “And most ponies don't like uncomfortable questions. But if you're going to deal with deer, Twilight Sparkle, you need to get used to asking uncomfortable questions. Otherwise, before you know it-” he snapped his fingers, a chessboard appeared in midair- “you're just a pawn to them.”

“I don't believe Lady Falalauria would do that,” said Twilight. “She's kind and gentle.”

“And yet she unleashed terrible power today, didn't she?” Discord said.

“You saw that too?” Twilight asked.

“Very, very interesting,” said Discord. “I think I'll be sticking around Ponyville the next couple of days. I'm intrigued to see how this all plays out. For now, though- adieu!” And with a burst of light, he vanished.

Twilight waited a few minutes, making sure Discord wasn't going to pop back in to have the absolute last word. When he didn't, she sighed. Her horn flickered, and the candles in the library went out, plunging it once more into darkness. She returned to her desk, and tried to resume her reading. But her mind kept wandering. She glanced at her notebook. There was a blank space there, and with her pen she took a moment to write UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS in all capitals. Then she turned back to the book.

Chapter 6

View Online

“Okay, Trixie, you're up!”

“Silence!” the light blue unicorn cried, her star-covered cape billowing around her as she reared back. “The Great and Powerful Trixie will go on when she feels like going on!”

“Trixie...”

“And that is right now,” Trixie said hastily. She shifted to a gallop and burst through the curtain onto the stage. Her soaring spirits fell somewhat. The seats in the great tent were barely half-filled, and many of the inhabitants were not the best sort, scraggly old ponies who had drunk too much cider at the bars on the edge of town. “Hear ye, hear ye!” she cried nonetheless, summoning all her years of showmanship. “Bask in my glory, you eager eyes! Tremble at my might, you lowly seekers! You are about to be dazzled by the prestidigitation of the one, the only, the Great and Powerful Trixie!”

Somepony coughed. Other than that, silence.

“Anyway,” Trixie said, “for my first trick, I shall make a rabbit appear from my hat!” Her horn shimmered blue and her wizard's cap levitated off her head. “Behold!” The rim of the hat flickered, and from it burst an adorable bunny rabbit, nose twitching as it hopped across the stage. “Bask in me! Bask!”

The sound of somepony snoring could faintly be heard at the back of the tent.

“Next, I shall make this sword-” she levitated a head-sword into the air- “disappear down my throat. Behold!” She opened her mouth wide, and the sword slid down her throat. With a sparkle around her lips, it vanished. “Ha ha! Brilliant, no?”

“I think I'm gonna hurl, man,” somepony said quietly.

“Just hold it in you loopy fool,” somepony else whispered.

“Ahem!” Trixie cried. “Now, for the grand finale! I'm going to eat this banana!” A banana appeared, and Trixie quickly gobbed it down, deep-throating it with a vigor that made some of the stallions in the audience sit up. “Done! Now I'm going to use this peel,” she tossed it over her shoulder onto the stage, “to grow a whole new banana tree, right here!” She stood back on her hind legs and spread her front legs wide. “How about that!”

The sound of vomiting suddenly arose amidst the seats. One of the ponies who'd had a bit too much cider was currently losing it all over the seat in front of him, causing the few ponies near him to scatter in disgust.

“Oh, for Celestia's sake!” Trixie cried. “Can't any of you ponies appreciate the marvels you're witnessing?”

“You suck!” somepony called.

“What?” Trixie cried, her voice ratcheting up in pitch. “Who said that?! Who are you?”

“Boo! Get off the stage!”

“How dare you!” Trixie was screeching now, her cloak billowing as her horn blazed with fury. “I am the Great and Powerful Trixie!” She was walking slowly backwards, her step becoming more animated the more incensed she grew. “I am on a whole other plane of existence compared to you plebian fools! I am as unto a goddess in your sight! I am- whoop!” Trixie had set her back hoof on the banana peel, and it slid on the stage, flipping her all the way over and sending her crashing to a heap. The ponies in the audience howled with laughter, save the one who was vomiting, of course. “You-” Trixie's neck was bulging with veins, “You-!”

“Hey there, folks!” said a beige, broad-chested pony who burst through the curtain. He had a circus tent for a cutie mark, and wore a top hat on his head. “Hope you've been enjoying the show so far! And now for something I know you'll like: those sensational starlets of the big top, the Dynettes!” Five tall, beautiful unicorn mares trotted out onto the stage and broke immediately into a dance routine. The audience erupted in cheers. “Come on,” the beige pony said, trotting to Trixie and helping her up, “let's get out of here.” They slunk back behind the curtain; no one in the audience noticed or cared.

“How dare they!” Trixie growled, breath huffing out of her nostrils. “How dare they laugh at me!”

“Trixie...” the beige pony said. “You can't lose your temper when the act goes bad. You know that. First rule of show business, the show-”

“Must go on,” Trixie said. She rolled her eyes. “Ring Master, sir, you can't expect me to just ignore it when I'm made fun of. I am the Great and Powerful-”

“Great and Powerful Trixie, yes,” Ring Master said. “Only when you throw a tantrum you don't seem so great or powerful, do you?”

Trixie scrunched up her face in indignation, but had the sense to hold her tongue.

Ring Master sighed. “Trixie, when I took you on last month, you promised me magic shows that would wow the masses. You said we'd be rolling in bits after the first week. But so far you're costing me more than you bring in.”

“I've been learning a whole boatload of new tricks, though!” Trixie said. “Just yesterday I learned to breath both fire and ice!” Her horn shimmered, and she loosed a torrent of flames from her mouth. “I'm going to knock them dead next time, I'm sure of it!”

“It's not what you can do, Trixie, it really, truly isn't,” said Ring Master. “You're a supremely talented sorceress. But nopony sees it because you're so full of yourself. Your own attitude undermines your performances. If the slightest challenge to your act arises, you totally lose it.”

“I am not-” Trixie stopped in mid-sentence as she thought. Even in the security of her own mind, she had to admit there were times when she got a teensy bit self-important. She sighed, her ears drooping. “Ring Master, maybe you're right. But I am trying, I swear I am.”

“I'm sure you are,” Ring Master said, “but while you try, you're losing me money. Your time on the stage is taking away from paying acts.”

Trixie's lavender eyes wavered. “Please, Mr. Ring Master, sir, you've got to give me another chance! This has been the only stable job I've had in months!”

“I want to give you all the chances in the world, Trixie,” Ring Master said. He patted her shoulder. “Your pride notwithstanding, you seem like a good mare. You've got definite potential. But like I said, you're costing me money, and this circus operates on pretty tight margins as it stands.”

“I promise I can succeed! Give me one more chance and I'll come up with an act that will bring down the house!”

“Okay, Trixie,” said Ring Master. “One more chance. For now, you can be useful and help Bicep Curl give the elephants a bath.”

Somewhere in the forest, a shadow slithered through the dark. It didn't drift or glide as one might expect a shadow to do. Rather, it crawled, scraping along the dirt floor of the woods as though each motion was an effort. Finally, it stopped, settling as a pool of darkness in a clearing.

Then it began to expand. It spread out in tendrils, like the tentacles of some dark octopus. Those tendrils wrapped around the trunks of the nearby trees, and one by one the trees began to die. Their trunks grew cracked and gray, their leaves turned brown and fell off the branches. And in the middle of the clearing, at the center of the shadow, something white began to grow- bone white, for it was bone. Vertebrae, femurs, tibiae, ribs, a whole skeleton sprouted from the center of the black.

More trees died. The small pond just beyond the clearing bubbled, and one by one dead fish rose to the surface. Birds dropped dead out of the air. And everything that was dead did not merely die- it withered, its body growing gray and losing moisture.

Layers of black wrapped around the skeleton. A thick, powerful form took shape: a deer's form, tall and strong. Its antlers were like stalks upon which nests of thorns were bunched, with two nests protruding toward the center of its head in roughly the shape of a crown. More and more trees died, more and more animals withered. At last, the tendrils of shadow withdrew to the clearing, where they were sucked into the body of the black deer. Crimson eyes creaked open. Crimson fire flashed between antler tines.

But the black deer nearly toppled to the ground. Weak. He was so weak. Preserving his essence against annihilation had drained nearly all his strength. And he would hardly be so lucky as to find another Titan to feed on. He had managed to keep his youthful form, but the strength that mattered was almost wholly gone. So he curled up in the middle of the clearing, head resting against his side. Sleep. How many millennia had passed without slumber? Even in his hateful prison, he had remained awake. He would sleep now, though.

Trixie huffed as she left the confines of the circus. It was situated in the wide fields on the edge of Hoofington, bordering the forest that rose into the hills beyond. A bucket was held aloft by her telekinesis, and she glowered at it as she walked.

“'Trixie, get some water to help wash the train engine,' I can't believe I've been reduced to this!” she snarled. “The Great and Powerful Trixie, some scullery maid! I ought to... ought to...” She stopped. She sighed, standing just at the edge of the woods. “I do sort of deserve this,” she sadly admitted. If she had put on a truly great show, Ring Master would likely have given her the night off.

With another sigh, she plunged into the forest, heart rapidly filling with shame. Ring Master was absolutely right. She had lost her cool tonight, and it wasn't the first time. If she'd been smart, she would have played her accidental pratfall for laughs, and that probably would have truly won the audience over. Now it was just one more notch in her bedpost of failures.

Ever since losing the Alicorn Amulet to Twilight Sparkle, Trixie had drifted from town to town. She had thought her newfound attitude- contrite, even a little humble- would translate to success, but she found that making amends with Twilight had not improved her fortunes. She had worked various odd jobs, trying to save enough money to restart her traveling magic show, but had always found bad luck that forced her out before she could gain any kind of financial base.

Then had come Ring Master and his circus, which she'd encountered when they'd passed through Fillydelphia one weekend. Her heart had soared at their presence. A circus was the perfect opportunity to restart her magic career! She had dazzled Ring Master with a few tricks and he'd agreed to take her on. He'd even let her be the opening act in the circus' slate of nightly shows. But a month had passed and most of her performances had been much like tonight's. They would start well enough, but there would be some slip-up or some missed detail, Trixie would get high and mighty, and Ring Master would have to rescue her by shoving on some other act to calm the audience.

Now he was threatening to drop her altogether. What was worse, if he fired her now she'd be totally lost. The circus had left the familiar confines of Eastern Equestria behind weeks ago, and was now pushing deep along the rail lines into Western Equestria, into towns and cities that Trixie wasn't familiar with. If she were cut off now, she'd have no money to catch a train back to her old stomping grounds, and she knew absolutely nopony out here.

If only I still had the Alicorn Amulet, I'd- no! Trixie cut her thoughts off.

No amount of power was worth the terrible spell the Amulet had cast upon her mind. It had fed upon her worst tendencies, warping her into a mustache-twirling villain that she had never before come close to, even in all her brattiness. She should consider herself lucky that Twilight Sparkle had taken the Amulet from her.

Twilight Sparkle... Trixie pondered the lavender unicorn. They had parted on surprisingly friendly terms this second time; Twilight had even told Trixie that she forgave her. What if she wrote to Twilight and told her of her plight? Maybe Twilight could help her, she was one of Princess Celestia's prized students. She was even supposedly an alicorn princess now! If royalty couldn't help her, what could? No, she thought suddenly. I'm not asking for help. Not yet, anyway. She was determined to try to make it on her own. She was going to stand proud, like her mother had taught her to.

Trixie was walking deeper into the forest. She was certain one of the other circus ponies had mentioned a pond or a small stream in here. She happened to glance upward-

“Why are the trees bare? It's almost summer,” she said. But she barely dwelt on it. She had to come up with a new act! Something that would leave ponies cheering and clopping and throwing their bits on the stage! Something nopony could find anywhere else but with her! What, though? What could she offer that was unique in all Equestria?

Trixie came to a clearing. Her magic circuit suddenly flared to life.

“What is it?” she swept her horn around, pulsing the area with seeking spells. She scarcely noticed the dead grass beneath her feet. “What is-”

Her eyes bulged. The pail clattered to the ground beside her.

“Come on, come on, come on!” Trixie cried, her horn shimmering as her magic pushed Ring Master's bottom forward.

“Trixie, can't this wait til morning?” Ring Master asked, stifling a yawn. He was wearing a nightcap and carried a candle on his back.

“I'm sorry, Mr. Ring Master, but no it can't,” Trixie said giddily. She was pushing him toward the animals tent. “It's too important!”

Ring Master didn't bother hiding his yawn this time. But he picked up the pace, and followed Trixie inside the tent. The elephants and the giraffes were either reading or sleeping in their stalls, while the okapi were playing poker by the light of a few candles. Trixie led him past all of them, toward the far corner of the tent. “Can you at least tell me what it is we're here to see?” he asked.

“The salvation of my act!” Trixie said. “You wanted me to revise it, and I have! You won't believe what I've found for the main attraction!”

Glancing up, Ring Master's eyebrows rose. There was a large, iron cage in the tent's corner, and if he squinted he could make out something inside, something far bigger than a pony. “What is it?”

“I found him sleeping in the forest when I went to go get water,” Trixie said. “Ponies will come from miles around to see him! Behold!” Her horn shimmered blue, and a gentle light shone into the cage.

Ring Master's eyes bulged. “A deer?” he asked.

“Exactly!” Trixie crowed. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has done it again!”

“I... well, I wasn't expecting this,” Ring Master said. “I've never seen a deer this big before.”

“Neither have I,” Trixie said, “but I know about them. I know what he is. Don't you see? He's a high deer! One of the four larger, rarer species of the deer! I bet there are only a handful of ponies alive who have ever seen one! If I feature him in my act I'll be the talk of Equestria!”

A shifting in the cage caused both ponies to whirl around. The deer, which had been curled up, now raised its head, its mighty antlers stretching wide. Its eyes opened, revealing infinite pools of crimson light. “Wat is dit voor dwaasheid?” it said, its voice low and thick.

“He can talk!” Trixie cheered, clopping her hooves together. “Even better!”

“I don't know, Trixie,” Ring Master said. “He's not just some animal. He's a thinking, speaking creature. Is this right?”

“Oh, we can treat him well,” Trixie said. “I'll personally ensure that he's well cared for. The okapi can talk, but we still feature them in the main act!”

“I... I suppose,” Ring Master said. He tried to look into the deer's red eyes, but found he couldn't bear it.

“Trust me, Mr. Ring Master,” Trixie said, “ponies are going to be dying to see this.”

Chapter 7

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A long day passed in which Twilight Sparkle drafted speech after speech, only to crumple them up and throw them away at various stages of completion. Now, it was night time, and her candles burned low. “My dearest ponies...” she said aloud, her quill flowing over the parchment. “I, your princess, come before you to- no!” she growled. The speech was crumpled and tossed into the overflowing waste bin.

“Who?” an owl hooted from his perch near her desk.

“Who's the question, isn't it, Owlyscious?” Twilight asked. “This thing I'm asking of the ponies of Ponyville is strange, inconvenient, and could even be dangerous. Who am I to ask it of them? Who am I asking this of the ponies of Ponyville? Am I asking this as a friend? A normal citizen? The town librarian? Or a princess of Equestria? I don't want to just order them around... but it's essentially what I'm doing. How do I be gentle with them?”

Owlyscious did not answer, content to preen his feathers.

“Got you more parchment, Twilight!” Spike said, coming down the stairs. As he set the thick paper down at her desk, he yawned. “I'm about ready to hit the sack. You need anything else?”

“Not unless you've got some good speech ideas,” Twilight said, putting her head on her hooves.

“Just tell everypony the truth!” Spike said. “The Shimmerwood deer need a place to stay, so we're volunteering. They won't be here long. That's-” he yawned- “That's all there is to it!”

“No, Spike, it isn't,” Twilight said. “Mayor Mare is right. This is going to be a big disruption in everypony's life, whether I want to admit it or not. I need to handle the subject delicately.” Her ears drooped- indeed, her whole body drooped. “I don't think I know how, though.”

Spike came up to Twilight and wrapped his arms around her. “Of course you do. You've done so many amazing things, this speech is a piece of cake. Ponyville loves you and respects you. Just tell them to have faith in you, and that you'll do everything in your power to make things right.”

“But-”

“No buts!” Spike said firmly. “Twilight, I know you can do it. So if you can't believe in yourself, I'll believe in you for you, and you can believe in me!” He pumped his arm into the air. “Together we can't fail!”

“Aww, Spike!” Twilight said, wrapping him in a hug. “What would I do without you?”

“I dunno,” Spike said. “Probably panic. We're pretty much family.”

“I should think so,” Twilight said. “And as your surrogate big sister, I say it's time for you to go to bed.”

“O-” Spike yawned, “Okay.” He toddled toward the stairs. “And as your surrogate little brother, I say you-” he yawned again, “need to stop worrying about the speech and just write it.”

“You're right, of course,” Twilight said. “Good night, Spike.”

“Night,” Spike said, walking up the stairs.

Twilight watched him go with a serene smile. He really was like her- Her eyes went wide. “Brother...” she whispered. “Brothers and sisters... that's it!” She turned back to her desk, her quill suddenly flying across the page.

The next morning, the ponies of Ponyville trotted towards the great stage in front of town hall. Mayor Mare was standing behind the podium, and behind her, Twilight, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Applejack all stood. The six friends exchanged glances, most of them looking Twilight's way with eager anticipation. “Welcome, fillies and gentle-colts!” Mayor Mare said when there seemed to be no more ponies approaching. “Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to be part of this town meeting. It concerns a matter of grave importance that will soon be affecting all of our lives.” A ripple of speech ran through the crowd at this. Ponies turned to each other and whispered intensely. “If you would,” Mayor Mare said firmly. When they had quieted down again, she said, “Now I shall turn the podium over to Princess Twilight Sparkle, who will explain the circumstances in greater detail.”

Her five friends gave her looks of great confidence. Twilight swallowed hard. Her horn shimmered, and her speech fluttered around her, the pages organizing themselves by the numbering she'd given them. She trotted past the retreating Mayor Mare to the podium, and her speech settled down in front of her. Finally, her horn gave one last purple flicker, and her mouth shimmered with the spell. “Can everypony hear me?” she asked. Her voice was magically amplified, and most of the ponies either nodded, said 'yes,' or gave her a hoof's up. “Thank you. My dear friends and fellow citizens, you have been called here today because I have something I wish to ask of you.” Murmurs rose again; Twilight waited until they settled down. “I assume you all have not forgotten the great explosion of lights in the skies above the Drackenridge Mountains a few days ago.”

There were murmurs of confirmation.

“The details of what transpired beyond our borders are too dense and esoteric-” Applejack cringed at the large word- “to go into here, but it is enough to say that a great battle took place, one that involved Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.” Loud murmuring rose up; ponies turned to each other and chattered excitedly. “Please, settle down,” Twilight said. When it was again quiet, she continued. “The battle was, thankfully, without casualties. It was not, however, without loss. Far beyond Ponyville, and beyond Equestria, there has long been a great forest called the Shimmerwood. It has been a magical, beautiful place, and it has been home to a large population of deer.” No murmurs this time, but ponies all throughout the crowd looked at each other with wide eyes. “Unfortunately, during the battle, the Shimmerwood was damaged beyond repair. All the deer inside were able to evacuate, but most carried nothing more than some bare supplies on their backs, and now, all of them are homeless.”

“How awful!” somepony said.

“Yes, it is awful,” said Twilight, her tense body relaxing some at the cry of sympathy. “The deer's leader, Lady Falalauria, is currently trying to find them a new homeland, but it will take some time, and meanwhile, Princess Celestia has offered to open Equestria's borders to receive the deer refugees.” Twilight swallowed hard once more. She stomped her back hoof to firm her spirit. “And in my desire to be magnanimous, I have made an offer as well. I have volunteered Ponyville and its surrounding lands as a temporary refuge for as many of the deer as wish to stay.”

Now there was a burst of loud chatter, ponies talking excitedly, anxiously, nervously to one another. “Where will they stay?” somepony shouted.

“We currently plan to house them just outside the Everfree Forest,” Twilight said. “The fields to the south of the city will also be opened.” Twilight cleared her throat loudly, silencing the chatter. “I realize that this is a lot to ask of some of you. You are used to your daily routines, your normal friendships, and your own way of doing things. But I ask you, please, find it in your hearts to welcome these deer into our town. They are not so unlike us as you might think. In fact, we owe them all a debt of gratitude.” Twilight smiled. “As some of you may recall from your history lessons, long, long ago the deer were the first intelligent peoples to develop civilization. They were reading, writing and speaking before ponies had even learned to make fire. Because of this, all ponydom owes them a debt of gratitude. They developed the forms and systems of government that we still use today. Their invention of parchment and ink allows us to communicate over long distances. Even our Equestrian language is based on one of the old deer languages. In a sense, the deer are our older brothers and sisters, the ones who helped us learn and grow. Now they have fallen on hard times, so I hope that, in the spirit of family, we might be good younger siblings, and find it in our hearts to be kind, welcoming, and generous. Thank you.”

Everypony was silent for a few moments. Twilight tensed. Then, clopping started. It came from her left- she looked over and Applejack was stomping her hooves on the stage. Pinkie Pie was next, then Rainbow Dash and Rarity, and finally Fluttershy. Then somepony out in the crowd started to clop, then another, and in a rush the whole crowd erupted in clopping, so that the stomp of hooves filled the air.

“Thank you!” Twilight cried. “Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart!” The crowd noise died down, so she took a moment to add information. “The deer will be here tomorrow morning. I look forward to seeing the welcome you'll show them. That's all- you are dismissed.”

The crowd began to talk excitedly to each other. When Twilight turned around, her friends were all around her.

“That was a super great amazing speech, Twilight!” Pinkie Pie cried. “It makes me want to bake a whole bunch of cakes just for every single deer!”

“Ya knocked 'em dead, sugarcube,” Applejack said.

“Thanks so much, girls,” Twilight said. “I couldn't have done it without you!”

“We are pretty great,” Rainbow Dash said. Rarity elbowed her in the side.

That afternoon, Applejack trotted into Ponyville, her saddlebags full of fresh apples. All around her, ponies shopped, ponies ate, ponies relaxed, but above all else, ponies talked. Moreover, they all talked about the same subject. Applejack stopped beside a cafe to listen.

“So I wanted to write my cousin,” a green earth pony said, “she says she's met some deer before. But there isn't time.”

“I think it'll be all right,” said a blue pegasus. “I mean, they're basically guests of the crown, right? So they'll have to be on good behavior or Celestia will ship them off.”

“I'm nervous,” a yellow earth pony said. “What if they're smelly?”

“They're supposed to be ancient and powerful,” the blue pegasus said. “Why would they be smelly?”

“Dragons are ancient and powerful too, but they definitely smell,” the yellow earth pony said.

“Well, I trust Princess Twilight,” said the green earth pony. “She's saved Ponyville and Equestria so many times, she's earned the right for us to take her word. And all her friends support her, too! If the Elements of Harmony are on our side, I'm sure it will work out.”

“I hope you're right,” the yellow earth pony said.

Applejack broke away, mostly satisfied. All the ponies she'd listened to raised good points, points she might have raised herself if she knew nothing of the deerfolk. This made their vote of trust in Twilight and the others very reassuring. I just hope we can reward it, she thought.

Finally, she made it through the busy streets to the decorated light blue walls of the Carousel Boutique. Applejack took a moment to look at the building and raise her eyebrow. She had never liked it. It was too decorative, too cute, too... frou-frou. She had never told Rarity, because most of the times she'd passed it over the years she hadn't known Rarity at all, and nowadays they were good friends, so Applejack hated to hurt her feelings. It wasn't a lie if you said nothing at all, right?

Her heart stung from inside at the thought. Yeah, yeah, I guess it is a lie, she told herself. I oughta be honest with her. But not yet. She pushed the door open.

“You're late!” Rainbow Dash cried, pounding her hoof on the delicate table in Rarity's kitchen at the back of the boutique.

“Sorry 'bout that,” Applejack said. “Had to handle a produce swap with Golden Harvest. She grew some mighty fine carrots this season.” She took a moment to hang her hat on a wall peg.

“Ooo, how delightful!” Rarity cooed, her horn shimmering blue as she levitated a tray onto the table. It had a tea kettle, three sturdy cups, and some cream and sugar. “I always manage to forget, Applejack, do you take honey in your tea?”

“Sugar's just fine, thank you kindly,” Applejack said. With a grunt of satisfaction, she settled down in the seat next to Dash.

“Get your sugar now, girls, cause this pony's gonna pour it on!” Dash said.

“Please, Dash, I've tried to tell you how all that sugar is bad for your blood pressure,” Rarity said. “It can lead to overly visible veins which will simply ruin your complexion.”

“Complexion? Um, hello, I'm blue,” Dash said.

“I reckon Rarity's got a point even outside o' beauty tips,” Applejack said. “Too much sugar's always risky.”

“Yeah yeah,” Dash said, watching eagerly as Rarity finished putting sugar in her tea and passed it to Applejack. Applejack gripped the spoon between her hooves and carefully ladled a few rounds of sugar into her steaming light brown tea. “You done yet?”

“Have at it, Rainbow,” Applejack said, nudging the sugar bowl toward Dash with her nose.

“Oh boy oh boy,” Dash murmured, greedily grabbing the bowl and dumping a torrent of sugar into her tea. Rarity and Applejack both put several gulps of cream into their cups, but Dash waved her hoof at the pitcher. “None for me, as usual.”

“I just don't get it,” Applejack said. “All that sugar, and no cream?”

“Since when did you become a tea expert?” Dash asked. “You only started drinking it the same time I did.”

“I been readin' up a little,” Applejack said. “Cream an' sugar balance each other out, y'know? Don't do to have one without the other.”

“Pfft, whatever,” Dash said. She took her cup in both hooves and raised it. “Let's do the toast.”

“Sure,” said Applejack, raising her own cup.

Rarity levitated her cup, and the three porcelain cups clinked together. “To the adventurers,” she said. “Here's to making it through another week.”

They spent several minutes blowing silently on their hot tea. Ever since the three of them had come back from their incredible journey to save Twilight Sparkle, they had been meeting once a week for tea. At first it had been very informal, and very raw- they had all needed time and space away from everypony else, time for them to speak only to each other about what they had been through together. Nowadays, it was officially held each Thursday, and they did it to talk about their various struggles throughout the week. The three of them, so different from each other in their own way, seemed to know each other now better than any other ponies.

Each of them occasionally felt guilty about meeting separately from their other three friends, because it was perpetuating a slight but noticeable distance that had developed between each half of the six ponies. Yet what could Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash do? They had struggled and journeyed and sacrificed together. They had been bound by ties no other ponies could understand.

“I am looking forward to seeing Lady Falalauria again,” Rarity said, “though I wish it were under much better circumstances.”

“I just hope we can make all her deerfolk feel at home,” Applejack said. “Ponyville sure as shootin' ain't the Shimmerwood.”

“We just have to be open and kind and nice,” said Dash. “And if anypony tries to make trouble, we've gotta try our hardest to keep the peace.” Dash sipped her tea and sighed. “Let me tell you, after dealing with the foals in the Junior Adventuring Group, handling adult ponies will be a snap.”

“Yes, how is that going, Dash?” Rarity asked. “You mentioned it had recently become easier for you to keep the children obedient.”

“Well, er,” Dash's ears lowered. “It's become easier because I've been sort of... compelling them.”

“Compelling?” Rarity repeated. “How are you-?” Rarity's eyebrows rose. Then they lowered as her eyes narrowed. “Rainbow Dash, have you been using your Gift of Loyalty to keep the foals in line?”

“I can't help it!” Dash moaned. “They're so difficult otherwise, and it's just so easy! All I have to do is flip on the ol' cutie mark-” she raised her flanks up to eye level, and her rainbow-colored lightning bolt cutie mark began to shine- “and it's 'Yes Miss Rainbow Dash,' 'Of course Miss Rainbow Dash,' 'That's a great idea, Miss Rainbow Dash'!”

“Rainbow!” Applejack cried. “Lady Falalauria would call that an abuse o' your gift!”

“Would she?” Dash said. “I'm not making them do anything harmful. Heck, all the crafts and lessons in the Group are for their own good! Besides, it's been such good practice for using my gift, and Falalauria did say that we needed to learn how to use them.”

“Hmm,” Applejack rubbed her chin, “I still don't know if I like it.”

“I'm still uneasy also,” Rarity said. “I'll grant you that it's a good thing for you to learn to use your gift. But I'm not sure you should be using it to force obedience in unsuspecting foals.”

“That's part of why I have been using it,” said Dash. “I know that when I look at all these kids, I'd never want anything bad to happen to them, so I'm always extra careful in what I tell them to do. It's helped me build a fine control.” She turned to Applejack. “How about you, AJ? Still using your Gift of Honesty a lot?”

“Darn tootin',” Applejack said. “I can barely turn it off! Heck, nowadays I can't just tell when somepony's lyin', I can actually force the truth out of 'em.”

“Awesome!” Dash cried.

“Oh, and uh, don't tell Twilight this, but I can tell she sometimes uses magic to look better than she ought after she pulls an all nighter,” Applejack said. “It's gotta be some sort o' illusion spell, but I see right through it.” Applejack turned to Rarity. “How about you, Rarity?”

“Still training my Gift of Generosity every morning and evening,” Rarity said. “I've actually gotten quite good at seeing across great distances. Even as we speak,” her eyes grew wide and filled with stars, “I can see the pegasuses working in the rainbow factory in Cloudsdale. Ooo, they're pulling a double shift!”

“How about looking through time?” Dash asked.

Rarity sighed, her eyes returning to normal. “That has proven... more difficult,” she admitted. “Every time I look into the future I'm presented with a range of possibilities. I still haven't learned how to tell the most likely future from all the ones I see. Oh, now I understand how valuable Falalauria's Truth Sense is. I wish I had something similar.”

“There's gotta be a way y'all can start learnin' how to pick out the best future,” Applejack said. “Lady Falalauria said you were destined to be greater than her, after all.”

“She didn't quite say that,” said Rarity. “She said I could be greater than her. It's no guarantee.”

“I reckon you will be,” said Applejack.

“There is something odd that's been happening lately,” Rarity said, causing Applejack and Dash to sit up. “For some reason, when I look into the future these days I see less choices than I used to. It's like I keep bumping into walls, walls of darkness. As though the future's being hidden.”

“That can't be good,” Dash said.

“We'll have to ask Lady Falalauria about that when she shows up,” Applejack said.

“Whatever it is, we can handle it,” said Dash. “We've been through worse.”

“I don't know about worse,” Rarity said. “We had a somewhat easy time of it on our travels, always finding friends and making allies. But you're right in a broader sense. If we struggled and endured once, we can do so again.” She sipped her tea gently. “I know I'm capable of anything with you girls beside me.”

“I feel the same way, sugarcube,” Applejack said.

“Together forever!” cried Rainbow Dash. She raised her teacup again, and with smiles all around the three friends shared a second, more boisterous toast.

Chapter 8

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The next day dawned gleaming orange and gold. In Canterlot, Celestia stood upon the great balcony just outside the throne room. Her horn shone blazing, molten gold, and the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon. She flapped into the air on her powerful wings, rising higher and higher into the crisp, cool sky of the high altitude. Up and up the sun rose, a billowing, blazing ball of fire. In that instant, when she and the sun moved in unison, Celestia felt at one with the cosmos. All of time and space, all of existence- even into the Dreaming- swelled and pulsed through her. She knew then that if she wanted something to Be, it would be so. She could have made anything come to pass in that instant, when her divinity was at its apex.

Yet the moment vanished, and the sun was up, slowly beginning its course across the skies of Equestria. Celestia flapped back down to the balcony, settling onto her gold-filigreed hooves. She breathed in the morning air. She breathed it in, cool and crisp and clean, and was at peace.

“Such a beautiful display,” a voice came over her shoulder. “I sometimes forget that even thy most routine of jobs is spectacular.”

Smiling, Celestia turned around to see Luna trotting toward her across the balcony. Luna had of course been up all night, tending to the workings of Equestria in the moonlit hours. Despite her long time awake she was not the least bit tired. Neither Luna nor Celestia actually felt the need for sleep; it was more of a luxury for them, a thing they liked but could do without. “Anything interesting happen while I was dreaming?” Celestia asked, coming close to touch her sister's horn with her own.

“Oh, all manner of sordid things,” Luna said, “but I shall not bore thee with the details. Nothing untoward, I can assure thee.” Luna glanced out over the balcony, at all of Equestria spread out before her. “Today is the day, is it not?”

“Yes,” said Celestia. “Falalauria and her white-tails should be arriving in Ponyville late this morning.” Her pink eyes narrowed. “Do you think I'm right to let Twilight do this?”

“Thou art asking me?” Luna said. “It is usually thee who has to reassure my conscience.”

“I shall be honest,” Celestia said. “I hate how it has come about, but I have long hoped that what is about to take place would happen in some form. I have long craved a genuine encounter between ponydom and the deerfolk.” She sighed. “I hope Ponyville's ponies have welcoming hearts.”

“They do,” said Luna. “We both know that firsthand. What is more, it is high time Twilight Sparkle began to exercise her authority as an alicorn princess. She picked an excellent first move to stake her royal status on.”

“Luna,” said Celestia, sitting down on the cool marble, “I also wonder if this might be a step toward letting ponies know the full truth about the deerfolk.”

That may not be wise,” said Luna. “How could anypony who hears such a tale ever welcome them?”

“Because they have changed,” said Celestia. “They have been humbled, and they have learned to love. I just... I hate to keep lying to our ponies, Lulu. It's not right.”

Luna leaned against her sister. “Tia, sometimes we must do things we do not like. Didst thou not once tell me that? And mayhap someday ponies can know the truth. Not yet, though. Likely not for a long while.”

“I suppose you're right,” Celestia said. She closed her eyes, drinking in the morning. How many hundreds of thousands of mornings had she experienced? Yet each one filled her with joy. And with Luna beside her, after a thousand years of absence, this one was no less wondrous. “Luna, will you sit with me a while? The Solar Court doesn't open for another half-hour.”

Luna smiled gently. “I should be delighted to.”

“WoooOOOOOOooooo, cupcakes are donesies!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, bouncing in place. This had the effect of shaking off the flour she had coated herself in. “I'm so excited! This is gonna be the best recipe for the best welcoming party ever!”

“They look delicious, Pinkie,” Rarity said.

“I'll say,” said Twilight Sparkle. “Okay, Rarity, you get that half, I'll get this half.”

With a nod from Rarity, the two of them lit their horns with magic. The cupcake trays shimmered as they lifted off the counter tops of Sugar Cube Corner's kitchen, floating out the back door into the warm late spring air. If they had had eyes, the could have looked down to see Ponyville decking itself in finery. Bows were being hung from the lampposts. Weather ponies were clearing clouds from the sky. In the middle of the main street, a banner had been hung that read WELCOME SHIMMERWOOD DEER?

Twilight saw this last part as she was setting her cupcake trays into Mr. Cake's cart. Her eyes bulged and she jumped five feet into the air. “A question mark? A question mark?! Who put a question mark on the banner? Why didn't somepony notice that when it was being made?”

“Calm down, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said, fluttering to the ground. “We'll just tear it off and refasten the banner. No biggie.”

“Yes, biggie!” Twilight said, stomping her hooves in place over and over. “The banner's symmetry is going to be thrown off by getting rid of the question mark! It's going to look awful now. We're going to need to make a whole new banner!”

“I agree with Twilight,” Rarity said. “It is simply uncouth to have such a dreadful lack of symmetry in a banner meant to be seen by strange eyes.”

“Oh, come on,” Dash said. “It's not that big a deal. Besides, can't you just magic away the question mark if you're so worried?”

“Uh,” Twilight said.

“Yeah!” Pinkie bounced down the steps. “Use your super amazing princess magic to blast it away, Twilight.”

“I guess I could try an erasing spell,” Twilight said. “Come on, let's get closer.”

The four friends trotted closer to the banner. “Oh, hello everypony,” Fluttershy said, coming from a cross street. “Where are we going?”

“We're going to fix that banner,” Twilight said. “Say, Fluttershy, how is your bird choir coming?”

“Oh, they've been doing a marvelous job of learning the new song,” said Fluttershy. “I just know the deerfolk will love them.”

By now they were standing right below the banner. Twilight's tongue stuck out as she surveyed it. “I think I can get the question mark off,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Everypony stand back. I'll need to concentrate.” The four others obliged by giving her some space, and Twilight concentrated, her horn beginning to shimmer. She focused harder and harder, amplifying her magic all the more. The side of the banner with the question mark began to glow purple. She breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, and on the next breath out she gave the banner a surge of power. It flashed purple... and the question mark disappeared.

“Woohoo!” Pinkie cried.

“Well done, dear,” said Rarity.

The banner suddenly burst into flames.

“AAH!” Twilight cried, her wings flapping and sending her sailing backwards. “It's on fire it's on fire it's on fire IT'S ON FIRE!”

“I'm on it!” cried Dash, bursting into the sky with a rainbow streak. She quickly grabbed a cloud and dragged it downward, setting it above the burning banner and giving it several hard shakes. Torrents of water fell down from the cloud, quickly dousing the flames. The damage, however, was done. The banner's entire right side was burned black, and with a snap of twine it fell off the post it was tied to, landing in a heap on the ground.

Twilight put her head in her hoof. “This isn't a good omen.”

“Oh, trust me, darling,” said Rarity, “I'm sure everything will go swimmingly.”

About two hours later, the ponies of Ponyville were gathered in the center of the town. The words WELCOME SHIMMERWOOD DEER were floating magically in the air, Twilight's solution to the ruined banner. The six ponies and Spike were standing on a platform in the middle of the crowd. What was more, all of them were adorned in curious jewelry. Rarity, Applejack, Dash, Pinkie and Fluttershy wore necklaces of a strange style, at once antique and modern, with odd swirling designs carved into the pure, priceless gold. At the front of each necklace was a gem, a crystal. Each pony's gem was in the shape of her cutie mark, and roughly in the color. The gems caught the sunlight and sparkled like stars.

Twilight, meanwhile, wore a crown, whose design, like the necklaces, could not be placed in the history of jewelry. Sticking up from the center was a gem just like those on her friends' necklaces, and as with their gems, the gem on the crown was in the shape of Twilight's starburst cutie mark.

And yet, they were all forgeries. The most skilled smiths and jewelers in Canterlot had crafted them in the shape of the originals, which were wrought of metals no pony's hooves or magic could have shaped. They were tools of ceremony, lacking all the power of the originals, which presently were beyond any pony's reach.

This would have been a moment to be serene, calm, gentle. Unfortunately, Twilight was anything but. She sucked deep breaths in through her mouth, letting them out in nervous wheezes. “It's no big deal,” she whispered to herself. “Everything's going to be fine. Fine, fine, fine...”

“Buck up, Twi,” Applejack whispered, leaning closer to her. “Ya'll're absolutely right. It's gonna be just fine.”

The clock on top of city hall began to sound the hour: eleven o'clock. The hour mentioned in Luna's letter.

“Oh boy! They're coming!” Pinkie cried. She was fidgeting in place; it took all her self-control to stop from bouncing around like a ball. She was drinking in the energy of the crowd, feeding off their expectant, hesitant thoughts. It made her feel like dancing, like singing, like running from one end of the town to the other.

However, her energy dimmed somewhat as the clock stopped chiming. When the last bell rang, the main street leading into Ponyville was still empty. Ponies began to murmur to each other, stallions and mares turning to each other with curious eyes.

“W-where are they?” Twilight said, nearly shaking. “I thought they'd be-”

With a flicker, they were there. In the barest of whispers, thousands of white-tail deer stood all up and down main street, their many-colored eyes moving everywhere to take in their new surroundings. Most of them were bare-furred. A few hundred wore silver armor, artfully crafted, that was laced with lines of crystal and topped at the helms with crystal crests which slotted delicately between their antlers. Indeed, delicate was perhaps the best word to describe the whole number of the white-tails. Their movements were gentle, the swivels of their ears graceful. As they milled about up and down the road, they did not collide with each other or move roughly against each others' flanks. There was a patience and a caution to their motions, but there was never hesitation. They seemed to know that each step would land surely, that each turn and twist would keep them ever on their hooves.

The ponies along the road and in the town center were stunned into silence. However, within seconds, a great gasp went up, for Falalauria herself appeared in front of the platform, a ribbon of white silk running through her antlers. She towered over the ponies and her own white-tails, her golden coat gleaming in the morning sun. She took a few steps forward until she was nearly on top of the six ponies gathered, then she bowed her head. “Mae Govannen, young Bearers of the Elements.”

“Oh my gosh you're so pretty!” Pinkie cried.

“Thank you, Pinkie Pie,” said Falalauria. “You are lovely as well.” Her starry eyes moved to the right, where Applejack stood next to Twilight, Dash next to Applejack, and Rarity next to Dash. She smiled warmly. “Hello again, Rarity, Applejack and Rainbow Dash.”

“My Lady,” said Rarity with a bow of her head.

“Circumstances aside, it's good to see ya again, m'lady,” said Applejack, sweeping her hat off her head.

“Welcome to Ponyville!” Dash said brightly.

“Thank you,” said Falalauria. She turned next to Fluttershy. Her eyes grew briefly wide and brilliant, then returned to normal. “Mae Govannen, cinta malina rocco. Yetae bain nalyë.

Fluttershy bowed her head. “Elen siluva lumenn' omentielvo. Tér nalyë.

The five ponies looked in awe at Fluttershy as the ancient language came effortlessly off her tongue. Her accent was not quite the same as Falalauria's, but she spoke with the ease of a native. Twilight resisted the urge to remark on it, which was handy, because next Falalauria turned to her. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving my deer a home in this difficult time.”

“Oh, you're welcome, My Lady,” said Twilight. “It was our honor.” She glanced over her shoulder. “This is Mayor Mare, the elected leader of Ponyville. She deserves your praise as well; it was her consent that allowed me to offer your deer a place.”

Mayor Mare, who had been standing behind the podium, shrunk back as Falalauria's starscape eyes swiveled to her. “Please, don't be frightened, Mayor Mare,” said Falalauria. “Thank you, thank you so much. We owe you inestimable gratitude.”

“Well...” Mayor Mare said slowly, “I can't say I was the most eager accomplice to Princess Twilight, but now that you're here, it is my sworn duty to ensure that you are welcome.” She nodded, seemingly to herself. “Yes. You are citizens of Ponyville now, and so your care is my responsibility. Please, if any of your deer need anything at all, don't hesitate to come to me.”

“Thank you,” said Falalauria. “I foresee that I shall be able to return your generosity, sooner than you might think. In the meantime,” she glanced all around her, noticing the decorations and the stalls full of food, “I believe a celebration has been planned?”

Yes!” Pinkie Pie cried, finally unable to hold back. She bounced high into the air, spreading her legs as she reached the floating words of welcome. “It's time to have a party!

The deer of the Shimmerwood and the ponies of Ponyville kept their distance at first. The deer broke up into bands of about a dozen, quietly visiting the open stalls and asking for food in accented Equestrian. The ponies, meanwhile, kept to themselves, shooting uncertain glances at the newcomers.

This was more than Pinkie could take. So when the first batch of deer got to her stall, she immediately bounded over the front and hopped into their midst. “Hiya!” she said. “What are your names?”

“Oh, um, my name is Anselmo,” said one of the white-tails. “This is Debora, Cruz, Iria, Abilio-”

“Great!” Pinkie said. “Have I got some treats for you! These are pansy cupcakes!”

“D-did you say pansies?” Iria said, her seafoam eyes glinting as she stepped closer to the stall.

“I sure did!” said Pinkie. She slipped her hoof beneath a cupcake and crammed it into her mouth. “Ish shuper gud! Try ish!”

Iria's antlers flickered, and one of the cupcakes levitated toward her. She extended her long, graceful snout into the baked confection, opening her mouth just so. Slowly, gently, she nibbled off a bite. Chewing and swallowing, her head bounced from side to side as she considered the taste. But her eyes bulged suddenly, and she swallowed. “Delicious!”

“Hooray!” Pinkie said. “I knew you'd like it, because Applejack and Rarity told me you liked pansies, and I thought to myself, well, if they like pansies, I bet they'd like pansy cupcakes, because positively everypony loves cupcakes, and if everypony loves them I bet deer love them too, and so if deer love pansies and cupcakes both, then pansy cupcakes are totally the best thing!” Pinkie glanced one stall over. “Hey! You guys should meet some of my friends from Ponyville!”

“What?” said one of the white-tails.

“Lyra! Pokey!” Pinkie exclaimed, bouncing over to them. “Come over here!”

“Uh,” Lyra said, looking up from her smoothie. “I don't want to interrupt you guys.”

“You're not interrupting anything, now get over here.” Pinkie said the last part with the tiniest hint of ferocity. In an astounding feat of elasticity, Pinkie stretched her body out until her lower half was right beside the deer. She wrapped a front leg around both Lyra and Pokey and snapped her front half backward, dragging the two of them into the midst of the deer. “Tada! Now you're friends!”

“Oh, uh,” Pokey glanced nervously from side to side at the jeweled eyes of the white-tails. “So... what do you deer do for fun?”

“We like to sing some,” said Anselmo.

“I like to sew,” said Iria.

“Ooo, I like to knit!” said Lyra.

“Do you do it with needles?” said Iria.

“Yeah!” said Lyra. “It's a little tricky to balance them on your hooves, but you get used to it. Sometimes I wish I had hands, though.”

“I mostly weave with magic,” said Iria. “It takes a lot of concentration, and very fine control.”

“I like to cook,” said Pokey.

“I like to eat!” said Debora.

Their conversation grew more and more intimate. Standing at the edge of the group, Pinkie Pie smiled. And her actions seemed to have broken a spell. Ponies began to cautiously approach the groups of deer, and a few rogue deer began to come close to the groups of ponies. Slowly, the two species mingled.

“They're getting along!” Spike exclaimed from his perch on Twilight's back.

“I know!” she said excitedly. “It's wonderful.”

“Everypony seems to be havin' a good time,” Applejack said, trotting up with Rainbow Dash at her side.

“No problems for me to report,” said Rarity.

“Me neither,” said Fluttershy. “There seem to be good feelings all around.”

“Woo! Woo! Woo!” Pinkie Pie cried. A bunch of deer were busy flying her through the air with their magic. “Okay, guys, put me down over there!” They complied and set her slowly on her hooves in front of Twilight. She bounced excitedly in place. “Oh my gosh these deer are the best, most wonderful things ever! I'm gonna have so much fun with them around!”

“Thank you for your help, Pinkie Pie,” said Falalauria. “Indeed, thank you all so much for all your help. Without you, we might all be cramped in Canterlot, or worse, strewn across the plains of Gildedale- no offense, Applejack.”

“None taken, m'lady,” said Applejack. “Even the Daleponies don't rightly like to sleep in the middle o' the fields.”

“Oh, what a happy, joyous occasion!” The eight of them glanced up to see a long, sinuous body slide through the air just over their heads. “Why, I haven't seen this many ponies and deer together in nearly four thousand years!”

“Heya, Discord!” Pinkie Pie said cheerily.

“Hello, Pinkie Pie!” Discord said, slipping down to her eye level. “Great cupcakes, by the way.” He popped one whole into his mouth. “The pansies are a nice touch.”

“The secret is love,” said Pinkie with pride. “And sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. And love!”

“Marvelous,” Discord said. His yellow eyes flitted across the six ponies, then Spike, and at last they settled on Falalauria. A smile split his mouth, and he slid through the air until he was right in front of her. “Farseer,” he said.

“Chaos Lord,” said Falalauria.

“Tell me, Farseer, what does the end of the universe look like?”

Falalauria's eyes went wide for a moment. “Black and white and every other color,” she said.

“And the beginning?”

“The same.”

“So would you say time is cyclical?” Discord asked.

“Perhaps not cyclical,” said Falalauria. “I think, rather, that it moves in patterns. Just as a road becomes grooved from the passage of many wagons, so time is worn by the travel of so many creatures along the same tracks.”

“Interesting,” said Discord. He turned to Rarity. He grinned. “How about it, Rarity? Is she right?”

“Ah,” Rarity flinched. “I don't...”

“Rarity?” Twilight said. “Why is he asking you?”

“Oh, he's just making fun, you know,” said Rarity. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Come on, now, Rarity,” Discord slid between her and Twilight, “don't lie. You know it bothers Applejack so much, what with her Gift and all.”

“Hey!” Applejack said.

“Chaos Lord, if you would,” said Falalauria.

“Oh, please, Farseer, you had to have known I would do this,” said Discord with a snaggle-toothed grin. “You know everything, after all.”

“Cut it out!” Rainbow Dash said, stepping forward; lightning cracked on her wingtips.

“Or what?” Discord said. “Will you make me stop, Dashie? You have the power to do it, after all. I wonder if it would work on me, though?”

“If what would work on you?” Fluttershy said. “Dash, what does he mean?”

“Oh, uh,” Dash glanced up at Falalauria.

“Ooo, ooo, do you know, Miss Lady Falalauria?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“I do,” said Falalauria. “However, it is not something I can reveal at this time. You must trust me that...” she paused, “that...” she glanced down at the six ponies clustered around her. She turned away and began to pace. “Shall I do it now?”

“Why not?” Discord asked.

“My Sight has urged me otherwise,” said Falalauria quietly. “There is much that hinges on... it...” she glanced back at the six ponies. “I...” They stared up at her with eager eyes, anxious eyes. “I...” Pinkie Pie put on an adorable face. Falalauria's starscape eyes narrowed. “No,” she finally said. “No, I shall tell you now.”

“Tell us what?” Twilight asked.

“But My Lady!” Rarity exclaimed. “If now is not the right time-”

“I say it is the right time,” said Falalauria. “Twilight Sparkle, there is knowledge that has been kept from you, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie concerning the Elements of Harmony. Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack know some of it, but even they are not completely informed. I have been holding it back because of the future I have Seen with my Foresight. In that future, which I have been carefully tending, I did not share this information with you until much later, after you had already passed through great hardship. But the six of you have been more generous than I could ever have expected. So I shall have faith in the lot of you, and I shall tell you what you need to know. The future can change as it likes. Twilight, is your library free today?”

“Oh, yes!” Twilight said. “I didn't have anything planned there.”

“Then I should like the six of you to meet me there in one hour,” said Falalauria. “It is time you knew everything.”

“Oh, goodie!” Discord cried, popcorn appearing in his paw. “I love a good lore dump.”

The six of them spent the next hour getting the party well in hand. Pinkie's icebreaker continued to have a ripple effect throughout the gathering, so that ponies and deer were now mingling without reservation. In a few instances, ponies were even showing the deer some of their favorite games. Food and drink flowed freely. Twilight, in addition, ensured that Mayor Mare, her assistants, and the Cakes had a firm grasp of the gathering, punctuating this with a plea to come and get her at the library if anything untoward should occur. Finally, after almost exactly an hour had passed, the six ponies and Spike retreated to the library, Pinkie merrily bringing up the rear with her hopping. “Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!” she cried with each bounce. Finally when they stopped at the library door, she said, “Oh boy! We're gonna hear a story!”

“I am fascinated to learn what Lady Falalauria has to say about the Elements of Harmony,” said Twilight. “And you three said she told you some of it already?”

“When we first met her, yes,” said Rarity. “I'll let her go into more detail, though.”

“And she did say she was gonna tell us stuff that even we three didn't know,” said Rainbow Dash.

Rather propitiously, a knock came on the library door just then. “I got it!” Spike said, hurrying to the door and opening it. “Hello there, My Lady.”

“Thank you, Spike,” Falalauria said.

Twilight winced as she saw Falalauria through the door. Her antlers were far too wide to fit through. “My Lady, I'm sorry about the door,” she said.

“No trouble,” said Falalauria. She took a step, vanished, and reappeared inside the library. Cushions had been laid out quite precisely by Twilight, seven of them surrounding a large, downy comforter. Falalauria took the hint and settled down upon this. “If you would take your seats.”

“Lady Falalauria, I'm very curious to hear what you want to tell us,” said Fluttershy. “You said it was something about the Elements of Harmony?”

“Yes, Fluttershy,” said Falalauria.

“Uh, by the way,” said Dash, a wince on her face, “I think you ought to know that we-”

“Gave the Elements up?” said Falalauria. “Yes, I know.”

“But how- oh, that's right, fortune telling!” Pinkie said.

“More or less,” said Falalauria. “However, the Elements of Harmony are not as far away as you might think. There is more to them than simply gems in necklaces and crowns. Long ago-”

“Oh, goodie!” With a burst of white light, Discord appeared over their heads. “Oh, thank heavens, I haven't missed the story.” He snapped his fingers and an ornate purple cushion appeared behind the ponies and Spike's pillows. Discord lowered himself down onto this; another white burst made a tub of popcorn appear in his paws. “Well, go on, Farseer.”

The ponies looked awkwardly back at him. “Um, Discord,” Fluttershy said, “I'm not sure this is the best time for you to be here.”

“No, he can stay,” said Falalauria. “It's only fitting. This story, in part, concerns him.”

“It does?” Twilight said.

“Indeed,” said Falalauria. “It concerns a time thousands of years ago, thousands upon thousands of years ago.” Her eyes grew wide. The stars in them swelled, until Falalauria's eyes shone white. Then Spike and the ponies felt themselves tip forward, almost, and fall into those vast white eyes, all their vision taken up by a swirl of color and sound.

“Goodie! A movie!” Discord cried.

“Long ago,” Falalauria said, “long, long, long ago, all the world's intelligent creatures were not so. They were little more than dumb animals. However, bit by bit, they gained measures of sentience. The first to take the final step- the first to speak in organized language- were the deer. To be specific, the very first species to have a full language were the elk.” A flicker flashed of elk around a primordial fire, gesturing as they told stories. “Other deer species followed. They knew of each other, but they did not interact, preferring to keep to their own kind. In time, written language followed the spoken tongue, and six species of deer grew from mere foragers to stable civilizations, species with their own culture, hierarchy, and way of life. They were the elk, the red deer, the mule deer, the moose, the white-tail deer, and the caribou.” Cities of stone and wood flashed before them, small houses, great villas, tall temples, deep cisterns.

“The deer species, being the first speakers, were also the first scholars, and the first scientists. Natural philosophy flowed from discussion between thinkers. An attempt to understand the world, to systematize it coherently, arose. Deer attempted to use reason alone to grasp the highest concepts of the universe. But an interesting thing happened when the oldest, wisest thinkers and priests began to consider the mysteries of creation. The more they thought, the more they seemed to feel at one with the cosmos.” A deer in a toga was debating other deer, and sparks began to gather about his antlers. “Until one day, a deer considered the world in just such a way-” shimmering light flashed around the toga deer's antlers- “and magic was born.”

Twilight gasped with delight.

“The deer quickly began to study this phenomenon; all six species delved into this strange new reality. Spells were invented. Enchantments were devised. First, only males could do it; after some divine intervention, females could as well. Fueled by their magic, the deer civilizations grew stronger, grander, and more complex.” New cities emerged, cities of marble and onyx and glass. Then the sky above turned pink. “Yet this progress did not continue unabated.”

A swirling long shape spiraled down from the sky. Manic laughter filled the air.

“Oh, this is my favorite part!” Discord cried.

“The deer did not know where he came from, and in all our years of study since, we have never been able to find out his true origins.” In a shimmer, they were all back in the library, and Falalauria arched an eyebrow. “Feel free to chime in, Chaos Lord.”

“No, no,” said Discord, “don't stop the story on my account.”

Falalauria sighed, but her eyes glowed again. A long, sinewy body swam through the air, turning the sky into a checkerboard of black and pink. Towers turned upside-down. Deer writhed on the ground with spiraled eyes. In a flash, deer from all six species were sprawled in ruin around a throne; Discord sat on this, sipping from a goblet. “The Chaos Lord turned the deer civilizations into raw, unbridled anarchy. He seemed to have been drawn to them by their use of magic, but the deer could not repel him with the same. Back in those days, we deer were still very new as magic users. We had not yet developed our most powerful spells, and magic use had not become a strong enough part of our bloodlines that new generations could grow more powerful than the old ones. That would come later. For now, the deer species were utterly helpless against the Chaos Lord. He bent them to his wild will and made them frothing, twisted, worse than dead. In desperation, the shamans and priests sent up offerings to the Wills That Draw The World.”

“The creators of all Equestria!” Rarity cried.

“Of all existence,” said Falalauria. “And it seemed the Wills were not unmoved by the pleas. Across the wide world, on one night, a member of each of the six deer species had a dream. It told them to find the others having the dream, to band together, and to seek out a land far to the west. It took weeks of searching, but at last, they found each other: one caribou, one red deer, one mule deer, one moose, one elk, and one white-tail deer. Today, the deerfolk do not remember their individual names. They are only known as The Comrades.”

Silhouettes of one of each of the six species flashed across everypony's vision. There were images of them crossing rivers, battling monsters, climbing mountains, standing against armies.

“The Comrades journeyed west, following the visions that came to them in their dreams. They faced uncounted hardships together. They starved and struggled and nearly died numerous times. However, they kept going, and in the process forged bonds of friendship stronger than any the world had seen before. Each of The Comrades would have died for any of the others. They loved each other every bit as much as they loved themselves- perhaps even moreso.”

Lines of light stretched from one silhouette to the next, binding all six deer together.

“At last, near the edge of the western world, The Comrades found a deep, dark forest, wild and overgrown. They journeyed within, overcoming six final obstacles designed to test their friendship. Each time they were challenged, they rose above the strife, and they did so together. At last, The Comrades emerged into a special place, a deep cave. There, they beheld a magnificent crystal tree.”

The ponies gasped.

“Yes, you know it; of course you do. Upon that tree hung six gems, glinting in ways no earthly stones ever could.” A flicker appeared of the six deer silhouettes before the gleaming silver of the Tree of Harmony. “The Comrades shared a glance of understanding. Then, each of them chose a gem. They all picked simultaneously, and by the will of destiny, each of them chose a different gem, so that each one got his or her first choice.”

In flashes and flickers, the six deer silhouettes ran across deserts, over mountains, through forests.

“The Comrades hurried back to the lands of the deer species, still under the thrall of the Chaos Lord. He was so secure in his power he barely even acknowledged The Comrades as they strode forward, the gems tied around their necks.” The deer silhouettes approached the throne where Discord sat. “The Chaos Lord, indeed, was intensely amused. He offered them one free shot.”

“Bad idea, in hindsight,” muttered Discord.

“The Comrades opened their hearts to each other. They reflected on all that they had done together, all that they had experienced. They released all the greatness and goodness and tear-soaked joy that they had forged in their long journeys. The gems glinted, they gleamed, and from them sprouted a burst of unfathomable power: a rainbow of pure light, bright as the dawn.” A burst of rainbow power shot from the gems around the deer silhouettes' necks. The rainbow swirled and twisted and bent until it slammed into Discord. “The gems were the very essences of friendship, the foundations of love- the Elements of Harmony! And against their power, the power at the root of creation, even the Chaos Lord's magic could not stand.” The rainbow washed over Discord's silhouette. It writhed and twisted, until it abruptly went still. Then the rainbow vanished, revealing Discord cast in stone.

There was a final flash of white light, and then the six ponies and Spike were back on their cushions in the library. They glanced around at each other, overwhelmed by what they had experienced.

“The Chaos Lord, Discord, was defeated by the power of the Elements of Harmony. But that was not the extent of their work. They had showed all the deer that they were stronger together than they could ever be apart. Under the guidance of The Comrades, the six deer species decided to band together, uniting themselves into a single civilization: the deerfolk. They would speak a common language, write in a common script, and follow common laws through all their lands. And in each species' territory, there existed a temple, where each species tended to the Element of Harmony that their member of The Comrades had chosen.”

The six ponies sat in silence for a few moments. Then Pinkie Pie bounced into the air. “Oh... my... gosh! I can't believe the deer had the Elements first!”

“I never would have imagined such a thing!” Twilight said. “My old history books never mentioned anything about the deerfolk and the Elements!”

“Is that so surprising, dear Twilight?” Discord said.

“But what about the gifts, Lady Falalauria?” Rainbow Dash said.

“Ah, yes,” said Falalauria. The six ponies focused on her again. “The Elements of Harmony belonged to the deerfolk after The Comrades used them to defeat Discord. This was true in an immediate sense, as the deerfolk owned the magical gems. However, over the course of the months after Discord's defeat, the six species found that the Elements belonged to them in a different, and far more powerful sense. When each of The Comrades had chosen one of the Elements, he and she had received a blessing from that Element- a gift of power that no deer had ever before possessed. What was more, after Discord's defeat, all members of the deerfolk discovered that they were similarly gifted, and in the years that followed, their fauns and calves were gifted in the same way. Each of the six species, as a whole, had received a Gift from the Element of Harmony that their member of The Comrades had chosen. This was a gift that every member of that species possessed, and would possess in all the years to come.”

“So what were they?” Fluttershy asked.

“They were based, in some way, on the Element that bestowed them, and so when each species chose an Element of Harmony, they each got a different Gift.” Falalauria turned to Applejack. “The white-tail deer chose the Element of Honesty, and so gained the ability to discern truth from falsehood, as well as see through any illusion.” She turned to Fluttershy. “The moose chose the Element of Kindness, and so gained the ability to heal any wound, whether physical, mental or spiritual, no matter how serious it might be.” She turned to Pinkie Pie. “The caribou chose the Element of Laughter, and so gained the ability to peer into the minds of others, as well as project their own thoughts and feelings in turn.” She turned to Rarity. “The red deer chose the Element of Generosity, and so gained the ability to see with their mind's eye across great distances, and into the past, and into the future.” She turned to Rainbow Dash. “The mule deer chose the Element of Loyalty, and so gained the ability to inspire and compel their comrades to action, making others flock to their guidance.” At last, she turned to Twilight Sparkle. “The elk chose the Element of Magic, and so gained innate aptitude in all magical matters, as well as an enhanced strength in powers of the spirit.”

“Hey, wait a minute!” Dash said. “My Gift of Loyalty is the same as the mule deer's?”

“Oh, that would explain some things I've never understood,” said Fluttershy.

“I don't believe it!” Twilight exclaimed. “You...” she turned to Applejack, “you...” she glanced at Rarity, then Rainbow Dash, “you three knew about this?”

“We knew about our Gifts, darling,” said Rarity. “Lady Falalauria wouldn't tell us yours. And we certainly didn't know they were related to the deerfolk as they are.”

“Related, and yet not related,” said Falalauria. “Even in the long history of the Elements of Harmony, a history I have studied extensively, the six of you are unique. The first time the Elements were wielded against Discord, they bestowed their Gifts on whole species. The second time it happened, Celestia and Luna used the Elements merely as tools, and so did not receive any Gifts from them. But you... you six... you are the Bearers of the Elements. The Elements have come to you, but only to you, not to all of ponydom. So you, and you alone, shall possess their Gifts.” Falalauria's starscape eyes twinkled. “I have glimpsed into your futures. They are surprisingly difficult to read, particularly for me. But I think in time you will possess the Elements of Harmony to a greater degree than any creatures that have come before you. And so you will have their Gifts to a larger extent than any creature before you has had them.”

“It just doesn't make sense,” said Fluttershy softly. “I'm not some magical healer.”

“Are you not?” said Falalauria. “How often has a creature very sick or very wounded been brought to you, only for it to recover under your care? How often have creatures and monsters and even ponies been at death's door, only for you to pull them back?”

“Well... it has happened before,” said Fluttershy, thinking back on all her more gruesome turns as a healer. There was the wyvern with the shredded wing... the yak with the rotten tooth... the mule deer, Alejo, who had been mauled by the chimera. Slowly but surely, all of them had recovered under her ministry. “But I never thought it was magic,” she said. “It's just my skill and knowledge, and my ability to tell just when somepony is hurting.”

“That and something more,” said Falalauria. “Empathy is an additional aspect of your gift, the ability to discern hurts even when they are not readily visible.”

“So you...” Twilight turned to Rarity, “you have foresight? Just like Falalauria?”

“Not just like,” said Rarity. “I lack her Truth Sense-”

“Which she got from the white-tail deer, on account o' bein' half white-tail!” Applejack smacked her hoof against her head. “Why didn't I see it before? Y'all even mentioned that the white-tails had that power, m'lady, but I was too dumb to connect it to my Element!”

“So you three knew?” Twilight said. “You knew and you didn't tell us? Tell me?”

“Lady Falalauria wanted us to keep it a secret,” said Dash. “She wanted to tell each of you girls in pony, the way she did to us.” Dash smiled broadly. “And now she has, so there's no need to keep a secret any more!”

“So you... Dash, you have the power to make ponies do what you want?” Twilight said. A thought struck her; her eyes bulged and she swiveled to Pinkie, who sat with a small smile on her face. “And Pinkie, you have...”

“Pinkie's Gift is the one I'm not so sure about,” said Dash. “I mean, I've never seen any trace of her being a... a... Twilight, what's the name of a pony that can read other ponies' minds again?”

“A telepath,” said Twilight. “And you're right. Pinkie, you can't read ponies' minds, can you?”

Of course I can, silly!

The other five ponies and Spike flinched backwards. Pinkie's mouth hadn't opened, but they had all heard her voice in their heads. “Pinkie, dear!” Rarity cried. “You're a telepath?”

“Well, duh!” Pinkie said. “Come on, guys, doesn't it make sense? Haven't you ever noticed how I always seem to know just when each of you are in a bad mood, so I can cheer you up? Haven't you ever noticed that I always tend to throw parties right when everypony in town is feeling their worst?”

“Uh, I guess,” said Applejack. “I thought that was all on account o' your Pinkie Sense or somethin'.”

It is my Pinkie Sense. This is my Pinkie Sense!, and Pinkie giggled, though a bead of sweat ran down her face. “I never knew it was related to my Element of Harmony, though.”

“Pinkie, why didn't you ever tell us?” Twilight asked.

“Well...” Pinkie's smile cracked a little.

“Because she was afraid,” said Falalauria. “It is so easy to be the pony no one understands, isn't it Pinkie Pie? To be the 'odd' one, the 'weird' one, the 'goofy' one. Those are all broad, vague terms, and they can be hid behind. But if you were to tell someone precisely what you could do... why, then they'd know what was wrong with you, wouldn't they?”

Pinkie's blue eyes began to waver. She blinked hard a few times. “Maybe a little bit,” she said softly.

“But Pinkie, we would never have judged you!” Twilight said. “And look, now we're all weird together! Even I'm weird! Well, weirder.”

“Hey, what about Twilight?” Dash said. “No offense, but her Gift is kinda... lame. I mean, all she gets is more of what she already does.”

“Lame?” Discord repeated. He shared a glance with Falalauria. “Lame? To be the Wielder of Magic Itself- lame?”

“Twilight Sparkle is the Bearer of the Element of Magic,” said Falalauria. “She is the wielder of the Gift of Magic- one of the only wielders of it alive today. And because it is exclusively yours, Twilight, you will reap its bounty to an unprecedented degree. If you choose to embody your Element, you will have more raw magical power than anything in creation. More than me. More than Celestia. Even more than Discord.”

“I- I- I-” Twilight stammered. “I was only just now getting used to being a princess. Now you expect me to be a- a god? How can I be trusted with that much power?”

“By leaning on your friends,” said Falalauria. “Listen to me: these Gifts are powerful in themselves, but they are strongest when used together. The Elements of Harmony are not meant to exist alone. Just as the gems, together, make the divine rainbow, so when you use your Gifts together, you can accomplish anything.” She chuckled delicately. “I mean that quite literally, you know. Overwhelming magical power, long sight, absolute truth sense, telepathy, strong healing, compelling obedience- that's a mighty set of skills, there. All together, the six of you could be nearly omnipotent.”

“Omnipotent?” Twilight repeated, eyes bulging.

“What's that word mean?” Dash asked.

“It means 'all powerful,'” said Discord, “and you're not there yet.”

“No,” said Falalauria, “you are not. Right now your Elements and their Gifts are still weak. Giving the jewels back to the Tree of Harmony, though necessary, has hindered their development. But if you consciously exercise these Gifts, if you work to make them greater, they will grow stronger, and you with them.” Her eyes bulged, stars twinkling. “Indeed, I think I see a future in which the six of you all wield incalculable power. A new age of the world shall begin upon your ascension.” She blinked, her eyes dimming. “But that is a long ways off. For now, I have said all that can be said.”

Silence spread through the library. None of the six friends spoke to each other for a moment, and it was left to Spike to break the quiet. “So now what?” he asked.

“Now I, for one, am going to go outside,” said Falalauria, rising to her hooves. “I have not yet had one of Pinkie Pie's pansy cupcakes, and they looked delicious.”

“Trust me, they are!” Discord said brightly.

“So you tell us we're all gonna be gods or somesuch,” Applejack said, “and now you're off to get cupcakes.”

“Of course,” said Falalauria. “Chaos Lord, would you like to come with me?”

Discord gave the six ponies a glance, then grinned with his snaggle teeth. “It would be my pleasure, Farseer.” He vanished in a burst of white light.

Falalauria, meanwhile, took a step backwards and disappeared. Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle all kept glancing around at each other. What could they say? What could they do? They seemed to see each other with new eyes. Each of them possessed power that they could scarcely have dreamed of. And yet... the more they looked, the more they focused, and the more they saw what they had always seen. They saw bright eyes, glinting coats, full manes, and an air of nothing less than support and love for each other. Was this what The Comrades had felt when they had finally reached Discord with the Elements of Harmony around their necks?

“You know,” Twilight said, standing up, “a cupcake sounds good right now.”

“I reckon you're right, Twi,” said Applejack.

“I hope there are enough left,” said Fluttershy.

“Don't worry! I made plenty!” Pinkie said.

“I suppose I can break off my diet for a single day,” said Rarity.

“Let's get going, then!” said Dash.

The six of them broke out in laughter. Dash shoved the door open with her hoof, leading the way out into the warm spring evening. “Wait for me!” Spike said, toddling after them. Twilight smiled and stopped, letting him hop onto her back, before accelerating her pace to get back with the others.

“I think they took that well,” said Discord, peering out from around the corner of the library.

“As I knew they would,” said Falalauria beside him. “Their friendship is too strong to be broken by any revelation, however enormous. It was much the same with The Comrades, as you no doubt recall.”

“I do,” said Discord. “By the way, how does the future look now?”

The stars wheeled in Falalauria's eyes. “Better, actually,” said she. “Even better than it was before. My gamble has paid off.”

“Well, I suppose that's good news,” Discord said. “But you know, you lied to them.”

“Did I?”

“You said you'd tell them everything, but you didn't,” said Discord. “You told them the deer's beginnings with the Elements of Harmony, you told them the deer's Gifts from the Elements of Harmony... but you didn't tell them how the deer lost the Elements of Harmony.”

Falalauria's brow furrowed. “Some other time.”

A Note on Languages

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A Note on Languages

The English we hear in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is not, of course, really English. The look of the ponies' alphabet bears this out. It is Equestrian, and it is only translated to English so that we may be able to understand what is said by Twilight Sparkle, her friends, and the other beings she encounters. The translation is complete and absolute, but it is a translation nonetheless.

J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work has greatly inspired my own, adopts a similar conceit in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The English in those books is not English, either; it is Westron, also called the Common Tongue. It is rendered into English to ease our understanding of the story, and the rendering is so complete that even names are 'translated' from Westron into English, to a degree that some Westron names sound quite different than their English counterparts. For example, Meriadoc Brandybuck's 'real' name is Kalimac Brandagamba; Merry's name is changed in the text of The Lord of the Rings to better preserve the 'sense' of what his name would mean to speakers of Westron. I presume that Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and all the rest have names that similarly sound nothing like how we hear them, but what we do hear has been translated to preserve the same sense they have in the original Equestrian.

Perhaps even less noted in Tolkien's work was what I like to call 'relational translation.' That is, Westron was translated into English, and other languages were translated into other historical languages based on their relationship to Westron. The native language of the Rohirrim from The Lord of the Rings, for example, was translated into Anglo-Saxon, because the Rohirrim's language has the same relationship to Westron that Anglo-Saxon does to English. In the same way, the language of the Men of Dale from The Hobbit was translated into Old Norse, because it is related, and not related, to Westron in the same way that Old Norse is related, and not related, to English.

I do not have Tolkien's gift for languages; indeed, I have always been rather wretched at languages which are not my native one. Nevertheless, I have attempted to undertake a similar 'translation project' in both It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door and Besides the Will of Evil. The Equestrian that the ponies speak has been 'translated' into English. Meanwhile, the other languages in the story have been similarly 'translated' based on their relationship to Equestrian.

In the case of the deerfolk, it is important to remember, as Chapter 8 mentioned, that the six deer species were at one point distinct civilizations with their own languages. Based on each of those languages' eventual relations to Equestrian, I have 'translated' each species' language as follows:

Elk: French
Red Deer: Italian
Mule Deer: Spanish (particularly Castilian Spanish)
Moose: German
White-Tail Deer: Portuguese
Caribou: Dutch

As you can see, some of the translated languages are related to each other in the same way that some of the human languages are related to each other. I suspect that, at some point in the extremely distant past- perhaps tens or even dozens of thousands of years ago- the elk, red deer, mule deer, and white-tail deer all had a kind of common proto-civilization whose common language had the same relationship to their later languages that Latin does to the Romance Languages. Similarly, I suspect that the caribou and the moose, both species from the cold northern reaches, at some point mingled to an extent that they shared a common language that had the same function as the language which gave rise to the Germanic Languages. Regardless of primordial association, however, by the time of The Comrades the six species were distinct, with their own distinct languages- until the Elements of Harmony brought them together.

When the six species decided to unite and form the deerfolk, it was determined that they should have a new language that bound them all together, something wholly distinct from anything any of them were speaking at the time. It fell to the elk, always the greatest writers and poets among the deer species, to invent this language, which they did. This is what I have chosen to call Laewtil, which, if I remember my work from Dangerous Business properly, translates as 'antler tongue.' Laewtil too is translated, but because it is an invented language with vague similarity to the Romance Languages, I have chosen to translate it as another invented language with vague similarity to the Romance Languages: the Elvish that Tolkien himself dreamed up. Particularly, I have chosen to work mostly with Quenya, as that has the most complete grammar and vocabulary; however, where I have been unable to find suitable Quenya words to complete a sentence, I have reluctantly used Sindarin words.

I admit that this project has been only haltingly achieved; as I previously mentioned, I am not good with languages. Any help I might receive in the future on proper use of languages which are not English would be immensely appreciated.

One final note: you have noticed that the various deer species have different-sounding names. Though all the deer species adopted Laewtil, most of them chose to continue naming their children in their original languages, as a way of holding on to their history. Only the elk, the inventors of Laewtil, took it on completely- they fully displaced their old elkish language with Laewtil, even going so far as to name their children with names derived from Laewtil. That is why, while moose have German names, white-tails have Portuguese names, and so on, the elk have Quenya/Sindarin names.

Chapter 9

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A banana tree grew tall above the wood of the stage. Its broad leaves sprouted flowers that soon gave way to the curved green fruit, which in turn ripened to yellow on the vine. “Voila!” Trixie cried, stomping her hooves. “Behold my power! How was that?”

There was some scattered clopping in the audience, but no substantial noise.

“Hmmm, tough crowd,” Trixie said dramatically. “Fortunately, I've saved the best for last. I bring you, not a trick, not a spell, but a sight- a sight you have never seen before, and are unlikely ever to see again!”

The audience seemed to perk up at this. Ponies whispered to each other, nudging their comrades in the sides. Trixie's horn shimmered blue.

“I give you a relic of the ancient past, of those wild, forgotten days when ponydom still chomped raw grass and huddled in caves!”

With a squeaking of wheels, a great cube was rolled out from behind the curtain. The audience was now sitting up, their attention rapt. The cube was covered in a sheet of effervescent blue.

“In those primeval days, the world was ruled by a race so great and so wise, they were like unto gods! They lived in cities of crystal, practiced strange magics, and wielded incalculable power! Now I give you the last of their number left alive, the last of the mighty, ancient folk that dominated all the world! Behold!” Her horn flashed, and the sheet disappeared in a puff of smoke.

The audience gasped. The black deer was sitting on the floor of the cage, dark as pitch save for his crimson eyes. Ponies murmured excitedly, pushing each other aside to get a better view.

“Yes!” said Trixie. “Behold, one of the high deer, the ancient and unfathomably powerful creatures whose civilization was the envy of the world! He probably has more magic in his hoof than all the unicorns in the audience put together! But he is here for us, for you!”

The audience began to talk loudly. Suddenly a squeal broke out. The black deer, as if on cue, had stood, rising on his powerful legs. His thorn-tined antlers scraped against the bars of the cage with a ringing sound. Then, with everypony's eyes on him, he yawned, and so displayed his rows of gleaming white, razor sharp teeth. The ponies in the audience shrieked and gasped in terrified delight.

“Yes!” Trixie said, nimbly taking advantage of her subject's behavior. “A real terror, isn't he? But don't worry, I've got him under control.” She turned to the cage. “You mighty brute, do you think you can match the Great and Powerful Trixie? We'll soon put an end to that. Begone!” Her horn flashed. In a burst of blue light, the black deer and his cage vanished. Trixie held her head high, her cape billowing behind her. “Not bad, eh?”

Cheers rose from the ponies in the audience. Golden bits were thrown onto the stage; many more were stuffed into the bags the circus ponies passed between the aisles.

“Thank you, thank you!” Trixie cried. She stood on her back legs and bowed. “You're too kind! Remember where you saw this amazing sight: at Ring Master's Famous Three Ring Circus! Tell your friends! Tell your coworkers! We'll be here two more days!”

The cheering grew louder, accompanied by ponies stomping their hooves on the ground. Trixie drank in their esteem like a thirsty farmer.

“Trixie, that was brilliant!” Ring Master said upon seeing her enter the animal tent. “I've never gotten so many bits from one act before.”

“What can I say?” Trixie responded. “The Great and Powerful Trixie never lies about spectacle.”

“Do you really think we can keep it going?” Ring Master asked. “I mean, it was amazing enough for these ponies to see the deer, but if they come back tomorrow night they're going to want a little more of a show, I think.”

“Really?” Trixie asked.

“One of the rules of the circus,” said Ring Master, “is to start low and end high. You showed them a glimpse of something incredible tonight. What are you going to do for an encore?”

Trixie glanced over at the cage where the black deer was sitting. “I...” her mind raced, “I guess I could try to enhance the act a little.”

“Thatta girl,” said Ring Master, clapping her on the withers. “I don't expect anything spectacular, not with you just starting out. But maybe you could get him to do some tricks? Walk around a little bit, show off his antlers. That sort of thing.”

“I'll do my best, Mister Ring Master!” Trixie said, snapping off a crisp salute.

“I know you will,” said Ring Master. “Now I've got to go count all that money.” He rubbed his front hooves together in delight. “This is just what we needed. Good night, Trixie!”

“Good night!” she called, watching him walk away. When he had left the tent, Trixie sighed. She trotted over to the cage of the black deer and glanced through the bars. The deer was awake, and he turned toward her as she approached. “I need to spice up the act,” she told herself. She stared into the deer's crimson eyes. Maybe she could work the eyes into it? She herself had a hard time meeting the black deer's eyes for long periods. Something about it deeply unsettled her. Ring Master seemed to feel similarly. If it was universal, she could play up the thriller and terror aspects of the show. Ponies already seemed uneasy around the deer, albeit in a delighted way. She glanced away, staring at the ground as she thought. “Spice up the act, spice up the act,” she repeated. “Spice up the act. But how?”

“Perhaps I can make some suggestions.”

“Well maybe you- eek!” Trixie vaulted back. She stared at the cage with wide eyes. “Did you just.... did you...”

“Speak?” said the black deer. “Of course I did. You surely heard me talk the first night you brought me here.”

“Well, yes,” said Trixie. “But you haven't said anything else all week! And now, I can understand you! How did you learn Equestrian?”

“Oh, I have my ways,” said the black deer.

“Come on, I'm a professional magician,” said Trixie. “Explain the trick.”

“No trick,” said the black deer. Magic. Of a sort you're perhaps not used to.

“Ack!” Trixie jumped at the words in her head. “How did you do that?”

“It is the special talent of my species to peer into the minds of others, and to project my thoughts upon them,” the black deer said. “That is how I learned Equestrian, and how I familiarized myself with the history of this land, Equestria. I pulled it from the minds of the ponies at this circus.”

“Wow!” Trixie said. “I've never heard of a telepathic deer before.”

“There is much your kind does not know about mine, it seems,” the black deer said. “And the same is true in my case; there is still much I do not understand about you... civilized ponies.”

“Is it so odd that we're civilized?” Trixie asked.

“Yes,” said the black deer. “You must realize that the last time I was out and about in the world, ponies could neither speak nor write. You had barely discovered fire. You were a late-blossoming species, especially in contrast with the deerfolk, who had been a sentient people for thousands of years.”

“Amazing,” Trixie said. “So you've been gone all this time?”

“I have been... away, yes,” said the black deer. “I have been in distant lands. Not of my own volition, either. But now, here I am, and I have begun to learn. In particular, I have learned a great deal about you, Trixie.”

“You have?” Trixie said. She squirmed in place. “Have you been reading my mind?”

“Yes,” said the black deer. “But there is much I have also learned simply from your interactions with others. You are very proud, for example.”

“Oh, yes,” said Trixie. “Sorry.”

“Don't apologize,” said the black deer. “If you are superior, never apologize to the inferior. And you are superior, Trixie. These ponies cannot appreciate it, but I can.”

“Hmm, well,” Trixie smiled smugly, “I am the Great and Powerful Trixie, after all.”

“That you are,” said the black deer. “You have ambition, moreover, and this is something I understand very well. You chafe in these pedestrian surroundings. You wish to be something marvelous, something overweening.”

“I do!” Trixie said, stomping her hoof and striking a pose. “I want to be the greatest magic user in all of Equestria. I want to be so great that even the princesses look up to me.”

“Why stop in Equestria?” the black deer said. “Why not be the greatest in the world?”

“Oh,” Trixie said, “I guess I wasn't thinking that far. I'm not sure I'm capable of that, either.”

“You are,” said the black deer. “And you especially are if you allow me to help you.”

“Help?” Trixie repeated. Her jaw dropped. “You want to help me?”

“I want to make you truly great and truly powerful, Trixie,” said the black deer. “And I can do it. Have no doubt of my abilities. But in return, I shall need something from you.”

“Anything!” Trixie said, her throat going dry.

“Of old, my... followers provided me with much help, and I helped them in return,” said the black deer. “There was only one thing I ever asked of them. I wanted their loyalty- their total, unwavering loyalty.” His crimson eyes suddenly shone. “Can you give me that, O Great and Powerful Trixie?”

“Yes!” Trixie cried, pumping her hoof in the air. “I'll stick by you, no matter what!”

“Then we have a deal,” said the black deer. “And to begin, I shall help you enhance our next act together. I believe we-”

“Hold on,” Trixie said. “If we're going to work together like this, I really want to know your name.”

“Name?” the black deer said.

“I mean, you know mine, and I'd hate to just call you 'Mister Deer' all the time.”

“Hmm,” the black deer glanced downward. “I had a name, once. Then I took on a second name. In the end, both were stolen from me, so now I have none. I suppose I shall need a new one, though.” He scratched his chin with his hoof. Then his eyes bulged. “Ah, there we go.” He turned back to Trixie. “You may call me... Reiziger.”

“Okay!” Trixie said. “Sure thing, Mister Reiziger. So what did you have in mind for the act?”

The next evening, ponies by the hundreds streamed into the tent. They bore saddlebags filled with golden bits, and as they took their seats they glanced eagerly at the stage. Everypony had heard the rumors by now of what the circus had to show. Everypony who was new wanted a glimpse, and everypony who wasn't wanted to see the phenomenon again. In no time, the wooden seats were packed, and ponies stood in the aisles and along the tent's edges. The air quickly grew stuffy.

“Good evening, fillies and gentlecolts!” Trixie cried as she burst from behind the stage's curtain. “Tonight I have a magnificent show for you! A glimpse of wonder and delight, a true treat for the eyes and ears!”

“Show us the deer!” somepony cried.

“In due time, friends, in due time,” said Trixie with a smile. “First, I bring you a feat from olden days. Behold! Fire breath!” She took a deep breath and belched a torrent of flames.

“The deer!” the voice rose up again.

“Oh, be patient,” Trixie said. “Have you ever seen a pony copy herself? Observe!” Trixie's horn shimmered blue. Instantly, like an accordion unfolding, copies of her sprang from either side of her, three to a side. “Well?” all the Trixies said at once.

“Bring the deer out!”

“Fine, fine,” Trixie said, the copies vanishing with puffs of smoke. “I suppose it's time for the main event.” The lights in the tent grew lower, until much of the stage was cloaked in shadow. “Do you know what things were like in the olden days, the far ancient times before ponies could speak or write?” An eerie red light appeared under Trixie, casting her in unsettling shades of that color. “An ancient, powerful race walked the earth, constructing impossible cities and mastering magics modern ponydom can only dream of. A race of gods and kings, secret beyond measure, powerful beyond approach! Well, wonder no longer, for there is a member here in our midst! I bring you the greatest of all the ancient deer! The inscrutable, the mystical, the incomparable- Reiziger!”

With a flicker, Reiziger appeared on stage, to the gasps of the audience. The ponies who had come the previous night were even more shocked than the new visitors, for the black deer was no longer inside his cage. Instead he stood tall in the open air, antlers pointed and menacing, eyes glowing empty red. He did not speak, but his eyes shimmered, and red fire burned upon his antlers. With yells of terror, all the ponies in the audience were lifted out of their seats into the air, their bodies shimmering with the red glow of Reiziger's magic. They were flown around the tent, looping and spiraling in ways that made some of them ill.

“All right, that's enough!” Trixie said. The fire on Reiziger's antlers billowed, and the ponies were set back in their seats. “Disappear!” Reiziger vanished. The ponies looked everywhere- “He's right there!” Trixie exclaimed, and Reiziger was standing in the aisle, sending ponies both recoiling back in fear and leaning forward in rapturous delight. “Begone!” Trixie said; Reiziger vanished again.

“Look!” somepony exclaimed, pointing upward. Reiziger was walking on the ceiling of the tent, clinging to it as though it were solid ground. Amid their howls of delight, he vanished, then reappeared onstage next to Trixie.

“Now for a glimpse of his true power!” Trixie said. A few iron discs were sitting next to her on the stage. She levitated one into the air with her magic. “Pull!” she cried, flinging it out with her telekinesis.

Reiziger's antlers burned with crimson fire again. A blast of red magic flickered from the tines, and the disc blew apart into smoldering particles of metal.

“Pull!” Trixie exclaimed, sending another disc shooting out; Reiziger blasted this one apart also. “Pull!” she said, and another disc shot out only to be destroyed. “Pull!” she said, the fourth and final disc firing outward.

Reiziger did not destroy this one. He caught it in a glow of red magic, making it come to a stop. He floated it in front of the stage where it was visible to all. Then his eyes gleamed. The disc began to heat up, first dark red, then light red, then orange, then yellow, then it was blinding white hot. Reiziger floated it out into the audience, then up to the very summit of the tent. He made it expand, wider and wider, until-

Boom! The disc exploded in a shower of white hot sparks that fell like stardust down onto the ponies in the audience. They cheered and whooped, stomping the ground with their hooves in a show of wild appreciation. Bits flew onto the stage, and more went into the bags passed around by the showponies. Ponies dropped their whole week's wages into the collection bags.

“Thank you!” Trixie exclaimed. “Thank you!” She bowed and bowed and bowed again. Reiziger stood beside her, solid and unmoving. “You should bow,” she whispered.

“I bow to nothing,” Reiziger whispered back.

“Suit yourself,” said Trixie.

“That was stupendous!” Ring Master cried later that night in the animal tent. “It went better than I could have hoped! We made more tonight than we've made in the last three cities put together!”

“Am I not perfect?” Trixie said, her nose in the air. “Am I not the apex of showponyship? Of course it went well!”

“All credit in the world, Trixie,” Ring Master said. “And to you as well, Mister... what did you say your name was, again?”

“Reiziger,” he said, sitting down inside his cage.

“Well, it was marvelous!” said Ring Master. “I can't wait to see what Peltington thinks of your act. Mayhap even I can get in on the show.”

“What?” Trixie asked, an edge in her voice.

“Just a thought,” said Ring Master. “It's been ages since I've been on stage, and I'd love to be a part of something this wonderful. Anyway, Trixie, remember, I'll need your help first thing in the morning taking down the tents and guiding the elephants onto the train. Be sure to get to sleep very soon.”

“You got it, Mister Ring Master!” Trixie said.

“In that case... good night!” Ring Master said, trotting off. “You two sleep well.”

When he was gone, Trixie repeated, “Get in on the show?”

“He wishes to usurp you,” Reiziger said. “Isn't that obvious? You have power and fame now, and his control over you is weakened. This makes him fearful, insecure. He wishes to compromise the strength you have gained; he wants to retain the place of primacy in your mutual association.” Reiziger's eyes flashed. “You cannot let him, Trixie. When you have gained power, you can never give it up, for any reason, and all those who strive to part you from it must be undone.”

“You're right,” Trixie said, narrowing her eyes. “He's clearly jealous of my newfound fame and glory. If he tries to muscle in on my act, I'll-” she stopped abruptly. Her eyes went wide as she realized just what words she'd been prepared to finish that sentence with.

Reiziger smiled. “Go on, finish your thought. You'll what?”

“I'll... I'll... I'll deal with him,” Trixie said.

“That wasn't what you were originally going to say,” said Reiziger.

“I got a little carried away, is all,” said Trixie.

“For all the right reasons, I assure you,” Reiziger said. “Now, I'm told we leave tomorrow morning?”

“First thing,” Trixie said. “Would you be willing to help with the packing?”

“Of course,” said Reiziger. “And on that note, you should get to sleep. You must be tired.”

“I suppose I am,” said Trixie, stifling a yawn. “Good night, Mister Reiziger. See you in the morning.” Allowing herself to yawn the second time she was tempted, she trotted away towards the exit of the tent.

Reiziger did not answer her. He merely sat and waited. He waited until the last round of caretaker ponies had passed through the tent to give the animals food and water for the night. He waited until the okapi had finished their game of gin rummy. He waited until the old bull elephant finished the final chapter of the book he was reading. He waited until the giraffes had said their good nights to each other. He waited, and he waited, until at last, both the animal tent and the whole of the circus were slumbering, quiet and still.

Then he stood up. His eyes shimmered, and he walked forward. He passed right through the bars of his cage as though he were a ghost. Walking to the edge of the tent, his body collapsed into a pool of blackness, which slid beneath the flaps of the tent and out into the night.

And throughout the town, the shadows swelled.

“All ready to go, Mister Ring Master!” Trixie said thirteen hours later, standing outside the closing door of the car at the back of the train.

“Thanks, Trixie!” said Ring Master. He turned to Reiziger. “You'd better get in your cage too, Mister Reiziger. We've got to get going.”

“I understand,” Reiziger said. “But will you be able to leave in this heavy fog?”

Ring Master glanced around at the deep gray clouds that covered the landscape all around them. “I think so, as long as we go slow at first. I'll say, though, I can't begin to imagine where this stuff came from. The skies were clear last night.”

“As long as we can move with safety,” Reiziger said. “The health and well-being of this circus is my highest priority.”

“You're very kind,” said Ring Master. “Trixie, if you would get him in his cage.”

“Yes, sir,” Trixie said. “Come on.” The two of them trotted toward the front of the train.

A sky blue unicorn with a purple mane and tail trotted up. “Ring Master, sir, I still can't find the station master.”

“Really, Sparker?” Ring Master said.

Sparker shook her head. “I can't find anypony at the station. The whole station's abandoned! We're not up that early, are we?”

“Of course not,” said Ring Master. “Everypony who works at the station ought to be there by now.” He glanced at the ground, brow lowered in thought. At last he raised his head. “Well, we can't wait around too much longer. We've got to be in Trottingham by the end of the day. We have clearance to leave, right?”

“Last I checked,” said Sparker.

“Then we'll just have to get going!” Ring Master said. “If the station master has a problem, he can send a letter to Trottingham about it.” He galloped toward the front of the train. “All ponies, aboard! We're leaving! All aboard!” Within ten minutes, all the ponies and animals, Trixie and Reiziger among them, were securely aboard the train. The whistle blew, the engine rumbled, and the train pulled out of the station, heading down the track in the distant direction of Trottingham.

The fog covered the whole town. It was also covered in silence, for the streets were empty, the storefronts bare. The town seemed to still be asleep, for even the lamps were still lit, though a few had gone out from lack of oil. Hours and hours passed with nopony moving in the streets.

At last, an orange pegasus with a blue mane and tail fluttered down out of the sky. “Mail!” he shouted, bursting through the door of the town's post office. Nopony greeted him. Nopony was there. “Hello?” he called out. No answer. “Hello?”

After thoroughly searching the post office and finding nopony, the mail pony trotted out into the foggy streets. It was softly, deathly quiet.

“Hello?” he cried into the fog. “Hello? Is anypony there?” His voice was swallowed by the fog, not even echoing. He walked up to a house on a side street, pushed at a door, and found it unlocked. “Hello?” The house was deep and dark. The hairs on his tail rose up as he walked further inside. “Hello?” Finally, he reached the bedroom door and pushed it aside. He jumped back in fright. The bed was occupied by two ponies, but they were decidedly not normal. He rushed to the side of the stallion, putting his hoof on his neck. Both ponies were utterly ruined. They were thin and dry, as though all moisture had been sucked from them. They were gray, as gray as the fog outside. And they were- “Dead!”

The mail pony galloped out of the house. He pumped his wings and flew to another house further down the street. He kicked the door down and found a pony sprawled across a sofa.

“Dead!” he cried, for this one was the same as the ones in the bed. He burst through the glass window and flew to another house, hurtling through an upper window. It was a bedroom, and the young filly inside was, “Dead!” House after house. “Dead!” Street after street. “Dead!”

All dead.

Chapter 10

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A deer with cyan-colored eyes stood in front of the fruit stand in Equestria's market. He was staring intently at the raspberries in the stalls behind him, and when a brown pegasus with a five o' clock shadow noticed him, the deer cleared his throat. “I'd like two bundles of raspberries, please,” said the deer.

The unshaven pony grinned. “That'll be thirty bits.”

“Thirty? Oh my,” said the deer. His antlers shimmered, and the bag of coins he had received from the Royal Treasury floated in front of him. “I believe that's all I have.”

“Well, good!” said the unshaven pony. “Then you've got just enough.”

The deer was about to pour the money on the counter when he noticed the glint in the unshaven pony's eye. The deer's own eyes narrowed. His antlers shimmered, not white, but orange, and a flicker passed over his face. “You are lying to me,” said the deer.

“What?” the unshaven pony said, suddenly appearing nervous. “Am not!”

“These raspberry bunches do not cost fifteen bits each,” said the deer. “You are lying to me and attempting to cheat me.”

“Are you callin' me a cheat, you freak?” the pony growled.

“Did you just call him a freak?” one of the nearby deer said, and she with two other deer quickly trotted over to the fruit stall.

“Uh, uh,” the unshaven pony began to back away as the deer glared at him.

“Hey, what's going on over here?” a silver pegasus said, fluttering over to the commotion. “What are you all trying to do to Crafty Crate?”

“He is trying to cheat me,” said the original deer, antlers shimmering.

“Or maybe he's just trying to make a living,” said the silver pegasus. “You know, Crafty Crate is a perfectly respectable businesspony who works two jobs to support his family.”

“What has that to do with a fair price for the raspberries?” said one of the deer.

“I'm saying my buddy Crafty Crate is a hard-working guy who would never stoop to cheating,” said the silver pegasus.

“Are you accusing us of lying?” one of the other deer, with green eyes, growled.

“Maybe,” said Crafty Crate.

“I say that you are the liar, and I demand you give my friend Armon a better price for those raspberries,” said the green-eyed deer.

“The price is fine!”

“It is not.”

The silver pegasus began to beat his wings, causing the air to swirl. The deer's antlers shimmered with magic. Heads across the marketplace turned toward the spectacle.

“Whoa now, folks!” Applejack said, rapidly dashing between the two groups. “Ain't no reason to get upset here. What seems to be the trouble?”

“These pegasuses are trying to cheat us,” said one of the white-tails.

“Are not!” Crafty Crate said.

“Now Crafty,” said Applejack with a glare, “y'all know you don't have the best reputation here.”

“I swear I'm not cheating them,” Crafty Crate said.

Applejack's cutie mark flickered. The ponies did not notice it, but the deer did. Her green eyese narrowed. “You sure as shootin' are,” she said. “And it stops right now. How much those raspberries cost, really?”

“I...” Crafty Crate lost his bravado. Applejack's glare intensified, and a slight pulse of light emanated from her cutie mark. Crafty Crate crumpled. “Two bits each.”

“Much better,” Armon said, using his magic to lay four bits on the counter. He then levitated the raspberry bunches into his saddlebag. He narrowed his eyes at Crafty Crate; his antlers glinted. “Do not attempt to deceive us again,” he said.

“Now hold up there, mister,” said Applejack, stepping between the counter of the stall and the white-tails. “Y'all ain't got no business threatenin' anypony. If y'all ever have any sort o' problem again, come to me or one o' the other Bearers of the Elements. No need to cause any trouble.” Her voice was gentle, yet at its base it was hard.

Armon glanced to the side. “Very well, Bearer of Honesty. We shall put our faith in you six. Thank you again.” Thus he turned and trotted away, his kin succeeding him.

Applejack sighed. The movement in the stall behind her tripped her focus, and she turned to Crafty Crate glaring. “What in tarnation was that, Crafty? Y'all should have known better than to try cheatin' them.”

“I just thought...” Crafty Crate would not look her in the eye. “I thought I'd have a chance to make more money. They don't know how we do things here, and they've got all that money from the princesses.”

“Crafty, you know if word got out that the deer were bein' cheated, Ponyville'd be in a whole heap o' trouble,” Applejack said. “And if you really need more money, there's always work for you at the farm- provided you don't mind some honest sweat,” Applejack responded.

“Yeah, yeah,” Crafty Crate said. “Thanks for the offer, AJ, like always.”

“It's always there, Crafty,” Applejack said brightly. “You just gotta be willin' to take it.” She turned and left at that, and only when she was some distance off did she loose a relieved sigh. “Whew. Don't know if I can take many more o' those.”

Sweet Apple Acres stretched untold miles in all directions, and nearly every green hill was taken up by apple trees in full flower. The sweet scent of the blossoms drifted lazily in the summer air, drawing insect and pony alike into its dreamlike hold. Big Macintosh even paused at his plow to take a sniff, his long, steady face drawing into a smile at the rush of delight he felt.

“Howdy, sis,” he said as Applejack trotted down the path. “Where y'all goin'?”

“Just to the barn,” said Applejack. “Gotta check on somethin'.”

“You been doin' a lot o' checkin' the past few weeks,” said Big Mac. “What you got goin' that's so interesting?”

“Private stuff,” Applejack said, a wince barely hidden on her features. “I hope you can... understand, Mac.”

Big Macintosh was slow by nature. This did not mean he was ignorant, nor did it mean he was dim. He was, above all things, patient, prone to allowing his thoughts to grow in their own time. He had been turning over his sister's behavior in the last half-month for some time now, and he thought he had settled on the nature of her solitude. So he nodded. “All right.”

“Yep,” Applejack said with a slightly unsettled smile. She backed away from the fence, and with a final glance over her shoulder continued down toward the barn.

Once there, she bounced up the ladder to the loft where the hay sat in huge, musky bales. She breathed in the smell, one of honest labor and purifying toil. She had loved it since she was a girl, and now it had the added benefit of hiding her store of treasures. She pushed one bale aside to reveal her collection. There was a gilt hoof-axe, its bit shining even in the dull light. A clay bowl sat beside it, solid, sturdy; she'd been told to use it for cooking but she never had. There was a charcoal drawing of Applejack herself in profile, strikingly done to accentuate her best features. A lasso braided from the finest flax sat coiled near the back. And behind it all was one of Rarity's ponyquins, generously lent from the Carousel Boutique. Upon this replica pony, meant to hold the latest fashions, was placed a full set of leather battle armor. It was deep red in color, knitted with golden thread, and on the champron a gleaming emerald was set.

Applejack reached beneath her hat and took out the polished onyx stone, which she set in the midst of her other gifts. She laid down beside them, basking in their presence, and in the hints of presence from the pony who had given them all to her. “Ashtail...” she whispered. The barn was silent and still. The mingled smells of farm life were a comfort to her, because they were all she had known as a foal. They were part of her, built into her bone and blood. Looking at these gifts now, though, Applejack's hairs stood up. She imagined other sensations: the wind blowing across the endless golden fields, the heat of the sun blazing down like the glare of the creator, running free and wild as far as her legs could take her, in the company of stout ponies who did not tire or waste. “What am I gonna do?” she said.

“Sis?”

“Eep!” Applejack jumped. Upon settling her nerves, she trotted to the edge of the loft and glanced down. “What's up, Mac?”

“Fluttershy's at the house, waitin' for you,” said Big Mac. “Should I tell her to come back?”

“No, no that's fine,” Applejack said. “I'd be happy to talk with her.” Anything to take my mind off this.

So she followed Big Macintosh to the old farmhouse, and found Fluttershy being entertained by Apple Bloom on the front porch. Though perhaps 'entertained' was the wrong word. Apple Bloom was showing off the miniature fireworks she had made at Twilight's library as part of 'Twilight Time,' while Fluttershy winced and grimaced at every bang, trying her very hardest not to flee the premises. She looked up at the sound of hoofbeats, and was visibly relieved when Applejack and her brother came into view. “Oh, Applejack, there you are,” she said. She looked uneasy. “Um... I can come back later...”

“Nah,” said Applejack happily. “I'm glad to see you, Fluttershy. What's on your mind?”

“Well,” Fluttershy said gently, “I was going to go on an errand today, something related to the Shimmerwood deer. Since you know them better than I do, I was hoping you might be able to come along and help. Unless of course you don't want to, and that would be okay too.”

“I'd be happy to come,” said Applejack. “Only, Rarity knows the Shimmerwood deer a lot better than even me. Maybe you should ask her?”

“Oh,” said Fluttershy, her face falling. “Yes, I guess she does; I didn't think of that. Um... if you don't want to go...”

“No, no, I do!” said Applejack. “Just wondered if you'd be really happy with me instead o' Rarity.”

“I would, yes,” said Fluttershy.

“Then let's get goin',” said Applejack. “I got all my chores done for the day. Lead on.”

Applejack rather enjoyed traveling with Fluttershy, all things considered. Despite being a pegasus, she was loathe to fly anywhere, preferring the ground, so it was easy to keep up with her, quite different from Rainbow Dash. Indeed, Fluttershy's pace could be described as leisurely, so Applejack had time to think as she trotted, and she could not stop her mind from sweeping across golden grass.

“Um... Applejack?”

“Huh?” Applejack shook herself. “What? What's up?”

“Oh! Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you,” Fluttershy said softly.

“Nah, you... y'all were all right, Fluttershy,” Applejack said. “What's up?”

“Uh... well, if you don't want to talk or anything, that's perfectly fine. I mean, I don't want to disturb you, you seem okay mostly...”

“Mostly? Seem? What are you talkin' about, Fluttershy?” Applejack said, stopping in the middle of the road.

“It's just...” Fluttershy took a deep breath and stood straight. “Are you all right?”

Applejack's heart fluttered. “Uh... yeah, course I am. Why do you ask?”

Fluttershy's cyan eyes blinked, and in that moment they sharpened. “I think you're not.”

“Nah!” Applejack said, her green eyes drifting sidelong. “Nah, course I am.”

“It's just...” Fluttershy willed herself to keep looking right at Applejack, “Lady Falalauria said that part of my gift, the Gift of Kindness, was being able to tell when somepony was in pain. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. I can tell when somepony, or some other creature, is hurting. I've always been able to tell. And now... I think I can tell you're hurting.” Fluttershy smiled gently. “Come on, Applejack. If something's wrong, please tell me.”

“I...” Applejack swallowed hard. “I...” She sat down in the road. “So y'all could tell, huh?”

“What is it?” Fluttershy asked.

“It's... it's Gildedale,” said Applejack.

“You spent the past two weeks there,” Fluttershy said.

“I know,” said Applejack, her throat constricting. “And I... I loved it, Fluttershy.”

“Was it just it you loved?” Fluttershy asked quietly, shaking a little but still keeping her eyes on Applejack.

“I... I...” Applejack laid down. All her bravado had fled her. “I do love Ashtail. I do! He's a big part o' why I love Gildedale so much. But he's not the only reason! I got so many friends there, and it's such a great sort of place for earth ponies, and...” she sighed. “And I do love him. A lot.”

“But that's wonderful!” Fluttershy said.

“No, it ain't!” Applejack cried. “I got my... my duty! I got my promises to the Apple Family and Ponyville and Equestria, and all five of y'all, too! I can't go runnin' off and stayin' in Gildedale all my li- for months and months.” Applejack, so often stoic, blinked her eyes hard. “Only I want to. Oh, Celestia, how I want to.”

Fluttershy sighed quietly. “Applejack, I'm glad you told me. I understand.”

“You... you do?”

“Well, sort of,” Fluttershy said. “I know what it's like to be caught between two worlds.”

“You... you do?”

Fluttershy nodded. “Come with me. My errand is related to exactly what I'm talking about.”

The two of them made their way out of Ponyville and toward the Everfree Forest. Applejack, even in her distress, was able to note the unusual calm in Fluttershy's demeanor. Typically she loathed going anywhere near the Everfree, den as it was of horrible creatures and monstrous things. But now she trotted toward the dark and shaded depths, unafraid. What was more, when she reached the fringes of the forest, she raised her head and sang, strong and lovely: “Hos mí taurë, ava tula!

For a little while, there was silence, and Applejack had cause to wonder at her friend's behavior. From the depths of the trees, however, came the clear rising of voices. They sang long, high notes, not so much words as sounds, sounds of comfort, sounds of joy. Then one by one came forth deer. They were the same size as the deer of the Shimmerwood, but they were also distinct, for their tails were dark on the bottom. Their ears, moreover, were enormous; in some of the younger bucks and does, the ears were nearly the same size as their nascent antlers. Green paint adorned their bodies, not slathered on tribally but applied in elegant patterns of characters, letters in a language Applejack could not read.

One of the biggest of the large-eared deer stepped to the fore. Fluttershy, as happy as Applejack had ever seen her, trotted to meet him. “Mae Govannen, Javier!” And she nuzzled the side of his neck.

Mae Govannen, Quildemal.” He saw Applejack next, and spoke in accented Equestrian. “And who is your friend here?”

“This is Applejack,” said Fluttershy. “She's one of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, just like me. Applejack, this is Javier, Magus of the mule deer of the Everfree Forest.”

Applejack swept her hat off her head. “Howdy, sir.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Javier said. “Any friend of Fluttershy's is a friend of mine.”

“Do y'all mind my askin' a question, sir?”

“Of course not,” said Javier.

“I just... how do y'all know Fluttershy? And for that matter, how come Fluttershy can speak deer tongue? Did y'all teach her?”

Javier and Fluttershy exchanged glances. “Perhaps you should tell her, Quildemal,” said Javier.

Fluttershy nodded; Applejack noted how happy she seemed. “Do you remember the story of how I got my cutie mark?”

“Yeah, course I do,” said Applejack. “You fell offa Cloudsdale and were rescued by a bunch o' critters, and you discovered your special talent was helpin' 'em.”

“Well, I don't think I've ever told you what happened after I got it,” said Fluttershy. “I was happy, yes, because I'd discovered what I was meant to do in life. But... I still couldn't fly. And Cloudsdale had already drifted far away.” Her ears drooped. “My new animal friends comforted me, but I was still so far away from any other pony. And what was worse, there was a rainstorm scheduled for that night.”

“Aww, no,” Applejack whispered.

Fluttershy nodded. “I curled up under a tree with as many animal friends as I could, but the rains were so strong they even got between the branches. And eventually...” Fluttershy winced. Javier leaned his head closer to her. “Eventually the river nearby overflowed its banks. It caught me up and washed me into the current. I was so scared! More scared than I've ever been of anything in my life. I nearly drowned so many times. Finally, I washed up on a bank somewhere in the forest, and I blacked out.” She sighed, but suddenly it was a happy sigh. “Then the next thing I knew, the sun was shining, and I heard singing. Such beautiful singing. It's still the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. And when I looked up, there were kind faces all around me.”

“She was quite wet and miserable, at least on the outside,” said Javier.

“Wait, y'all found Fluttershy?” Applejack said.

Fluttershy nodded. “Mm-hmm. They kept trying to ask me about where I'd come from, but I didn't understand them, so they got one of the does who knew a little Equestrian, and they taught me their language. But even when I could speak Laewtil, I had no idea where I was, or how to get back to pony civilization. So the mule deer took me in.”

“She couldn't seem to tell us where she had come from,” said Javier. “She was lost and alone. We did what we felt was right.”

“I stayed with them a long while,” said Fluttershy. “I'm still not sure exactly how much time passed in the Everfree Forest, but it was longer than a year. The mule deer made me one of their tribe. They taught me everything they knew about handling creatures and nature. They taught me how to be polite and kind and courteous. I owe so much to them.”

“It was far longer than a single year, Quildemal,” said Javier. He turned to Applejack. “My tribe... we've kept to ourselves for many centuries. A pony in our midst was very strange. But we made do. I think she turned out all right.” Fluttershy smiled and leaned against him. “But she oversells what she learned from us. It was only basic aspects of wilderness survival and animal management that we imparted to her. She has become a far greater friend to wild things than any of us are, and she has learned far more on her own than we ever taught her.”

“But I wouldn't have come as far as I have if you all hadn't started me on the path,” said Fluttershy.

“So how did you get back to ponykind?” Applejack asked.

“One day we were on the edge of the forest, and some ponies- from Ponyville- saw me,” said Fluttershy. “The mule deer scattered, and so did I, but I couldn't resist hanging back to look at them. They called after me. I didn't come to them... but I looked.”

“And that is when we knew,” said Javier. “I realized then that Quildemal could live no longer as a deer. I saw the gentle yearning in her eyes; she wanted to be back with her own kind, to a greater degree than even she herself knew.”

“I didn't want to leave at first,” said Fluttershy. “I was so scared of other ponies, and I loved the mule deer so much. But they insisted. Javier insisted. He told me to walk into Ponyville and ask for help. So, even though I was scared, I did.” She sighed gently. “I probably would have run back into the forest if the mule deer hadn't all been standing on the outskirts.”

“We urged her on,” said Javier.

“Wasn't it hard for y'all to give her up?” Applejack asked.

“Very,” said Javier. “She was like one of our own fawns. But she needed to be with other ponies. How could we love her and not do what was best for her?”

“And it hasn't been so bad,” said Fluttershy. “I've been able to visit very often, since I live on the outskirts of town. I go to see my deer family at least every Mother's Day and Father's Day.”

Applejack looked at Fluttershy, standing in the midst of the mule deer. One of them said something to her in Laewtil; she laughed and began conversing. It was a level of comfort Applejack did not always see from her, certainly something very rare outside of Fluttershy's time with her friends. But in the end, she had to choose, Applejack thought. Now I gotta choose, too. But did she choose? Did she really? Here Fluttershy was with her deer family, yet she still interacted with ponydom. Maybe there was a way to have both things she wanted? No, she thought firmly. I can't keep goin' over the mountains every couple o' months. It took too long, took her too far away from her duties, and would never be permanent. She was going to have to settle on one side of the Drackenridge Mountains or the other. But which one?

“Oh, Javier,” said Fluttershy. “Did you get my letter?”

“I did,” said Javier. “Quite interesting- my heart goes out to our white-tail brethren. I should indeed like to meet them soon.”

“We can definitely set something up,” said Fluttershy. “Right, Applejack?” No response. Fluttershy turned to see her friend deep in thought. “Applejack?”

“Huh? Oh, right,” said Applejack. She looked at Fluttershy again. She seemed so happy, yet this was unlike anything most ponies experienced. And if she can be happy so far from what she grew up in, why can't I?

Chapter 11

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“Around and around and around they go,” Trixie called, “and where they stop, nopony knows!”

Reiziger stood on the stage next to her. His antlers shone crimson, and all manner of things were circling in the air above his head: chairs, plates, chandeliers, even members of the audience. Then his eyes flickered, and what flew above him swirled apart. The audience members settled back down in their seats, while the inanimate objects drifted out into the ceiling of the tent.

“Now burn them!” Trixie shouted. “Burn them all in divine fire!”

Reiziger's eyes shimmered. Magical red flames burned on his antlers, and such flames came also to the objects floating overhead. Like crimson lanterns the objects lit the tent as they burned, melting and oozing into puddles of metal. These molten pools began to swirl and twist throughout the tent, lines of white-hot flashing dangerously close to the spectators. They at last coalesced on the stage, where they came together in a molten lump that shifted and bulged. Abruptly, as if sculpted by invisible hands, the lump began to stretch and climb, defining itself into a shape of exquisite beauty. At last it was complete, and with a flicker of cold air, it cooled into iron. It was a pony, hunched over with its tail to the audience. It seemed to be kneeling. The crowd burst into clopping and cheering. Nopony noticed that the statue had been forged at just such an angle that it seemed to be bowing to Reiziger.

“Thank you, thank you!” Trixie cried, bouncing happily in place. “Remember, folks, show your appreciation by showering us with funds!”

Ponies quickly dumped their bits into the collection bags that were passed around.

“Goodnight, folks!” Trixie cried. She gave a final bow, then she and Reiziger disappeared behind the curtain.

“Another outstanding act!” Ring Master said, trotting up to them.

“Indeed,” Trixie said haughtily. “No thanks to you, I might add.”

“Now hold on,” said Ring Master, “don't forget who gives you room and board.”

“Myself?” Trixie said with a grin. “And I give it to you, of course. I'm the only act worth seeing at this dump.”

“Now hold-” Ring Master raised his voice.

“Pardon, please,” said Reiziger, “Mister Ring Master, sir, do forgive Trixie's impertinence. She's had a long day, and I am certain she's tired.”

“That's no... no...” Ring Master's eyes drifted in and out of focus, “yes, I'm sure you're right. I'll leave you two alone.” Seemingly strangely dazed, he trotted away.

“Worthless sack of flesh,” growled Trixie. “I am so glad you opened my eyes to what a rat he really is.”

“I was happy to do it,” Reiziger said. “But Trixie, do not forget your manners. Even when you are condescending someone, be sure to do it in a way that stresses politeness. That makes your superiority all the better; you can defeat them in every possible way, even in propriety.”

“I... suppose so,” Trixie said. Her head throbbed a little. It had been throbbing every so often for the past month, but she scarcely paid attention. “I tell you, though, there are days I just want to stomp his head flat.”

“That day is coming sooner than you think,” said Reiziger.

“What?” Trixie said. “It is?”

“Oh, yes,” said Reiziger. “Not yet, though. Remember, Trixie, that you promised me your loyalty. You have thus far been a great servant, and I can assure you, your sevice will be rewarded. However, you must follow me absolutely, and believe me when I tell you that things will change soon- just not quite yet.”

“After all the success you've brought me, how can I not follow you?” Trixie said. She bowed low. “I'm at your service, good sir.”

“My lord.”

“Hmm?” Trixie looked up.

“If you wish to give me a title, address me as 'my lord,'” Reiziger said. “It was my status of old.”

Trixie nodded. “All right, my lord. Thanks for such a great show tonight.”

“Thank you for your continued service, Trixie,” Reiziger said. “And for your own contributions. After all, it was your idea to form the metal into a statue.”

“It sure was,” Trixie said. She held her nose into the air. “Just more proof of how far above these ponies I am. Well, good night!” She trotted off, humming to herself- but stopped. “Say,” she said, glancing over her shoulder, “what were you lord of, exactly?”

“I shall tell you some other time,” Reiziger said. Now go to sleep.

The deer of the Shimmerwood had been given tents to stay in on the edge of the Everfree Forest. These were not dank, dingy tents, but bright, airy ones, made of linen striped white and yellow. They had been arranged around a central fire pit dug by the earth ponies, and now, five weeks into their stay in Ponyville, the six Bearers of the Elements of Harmony sat with the white-tails and Spike around a crackling blaze. “Tell us another, dear Magus!” said a gold-eyed white-tail.

“Oh, I couldn't,” said Magus Javier, who was sitting with about a dozen of his mule deer on the other side of the fire. “If you keep urging me to tell wilderness stories, we shall be here all night.”

“Well if we're not gonna tell stories any more,” said Rainbow Dash, “how about some singing?”

“Oh, how delightful!” Rarity said. “Fluttershy and I are in a singing group, Master Javier, did you know that?”

“I didn't,” said Javier, and the mule deer stared with rapt attention at Fluttershy. “But I am not surprised. She has always had a beautiful voice.”

“I... I'm still learning to be brave about it,” Fluttershy said softly. “I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of ponies who sing better than I do.”

“Don't be modest, Fluttershy,” Applejack said. “Y'all're rightly one o' the best singers I've ever heard.”

“Sing something!” Spike said.

“Perhaps something in Laewtil, since you know it so well,” said Rarity. “And it's such a beautiful language.”

“There is a song Quildemal knows quite well,” said one of the mule deer, “one she has always sung most wondrously.”

“Ooo! Ooo!” Pinkie Pie cheered. “Is it in Law... Lew... deertongue?”

“It is in Equestrian, actually,” said Javier. “Princess Luna wrote it long ago, when she was still a student among the Elders.”

“That song?” Fluttershy said. “But it's so sad.”

“But so beautiful,” said one of the white-tails. “Yes, please, Fluttershy. Sing the Lament For Gil-Galad. I should love to hear it.”

“As would I,” said another white-tail.

“I've heard it before,” said Rarity, “but I would adore hearing it again.”

“I...” Fluttershy did not meet the eyes of the assembled deer and ponies.

“Come on, Fluttershy,” said Twilight Sparkle. “I'm sure it will be great.”

“Well, okay,” said Fluttershy. She stood, and because she was quite near the fire, everypony and everydeer could see her. She gave a few moments to warming up, singing sweet and gentle la la las. Then she closed her eyes softly, and from her throat came dulcet tones.

Gil-Galad was an elken king,
Of him the harpers sadly sing.
The last whose realm was fair and free
Between the mountains and the sea.

His hooves were sharp, his antlers keen.
His shining helm afar was seen.
The countless stars of Heaven's field
Were mirrored in his silver shield.

But long ago he rode away,
And where he dwelleth none can say.
Into darkness fell his star,
In Annudûr where shadows are.

“Beautiful,” Spike whispered.

“Thank you,” said Fluttershy, settling back down.

“Wonderfully done, Quildemal,” said Javier, “as always.” He sighed.

“Why are you...” Dash glanced around at all the deer, and noted that they, like Javier, were overcome with distress. “Is it really that sad?”

“It is for us,” said one of the white-tails. “Gil-Galad was the best of us, but in the end he was not enough.”

“Who was Gil-Galad?” Twilight Sparkle asked. “I've seen his name come up a few times in A History of the Laewtil Speaking Peoples, but I haven't gotten to the part that deals with him fully.”

“He was a king of the elk, just as the song says,” Javier replied. “He was fierce, bold, incredibly powerful, deathly cunning. But outside of battle, he was gentle, kind, and courteous. He ruled... well, he ruled these lands.”

“Equestria?” Pinkie asked.

“What is now Equestria, yes,” said one of the white-tails. “Though of course it was not so in ancient days. Gil-Galad came to the throne of the last surviving Elken Kingdom during the waning years of the Great War.”

“He seemed to be a throwback from the earliest days of the conflict,” a voice carried over all of them. They turned. Falalauria strode out of her great tent, starscape eyes agleam. “He still carried in him the courage and optimism of the deer from the beginning, who thought the war could be won swiftly and without too much destruction. It was a rare attitude in that hour, when things seemed at their darkest.” Her white-tails made a space for her near the fire, and she by slow measures settled in their midst. “What was more, his optimism seemed more than foolishness. He was, as Fabia said, incredibly powerful- all elk are enormously powerful in magic, but Gil-Galad was especially strong. Moreover, he was a skilled leader in matters both political and military. He was able to convince the Red Deer Republics to break their allegiance with the Enemy, and so nearly all the high deer became committed to stopping the darkness, along with all the common deer. There was hope, for the first time in a hundred years, that the war might come to an end.”

The deer all around the six pony friends seemed especially miserable now. “I suppose it didn't happen that way,” said Twilight.

“No,” said Falalauria. “The Lord of All The Herds, dark lord, fiend, archmaster of the shadows, responded to Gil-Galad's brilliance with more night than ever. He and his black deer, and all the monsters they had made, scorched the earth in their campaigns. They met any sign of weakness with unspeakable cruelty, and forged themselves into a mailed hoof that stomped the life and light out of everything in their path.” Falalauria herself was distraught, and Rarity quietly realized that she must have Seen all of this as clear as if she had witnessed it firsthoof. “At last, the forces of light and darkness met in battle.”

“And?” Applejack said.

“It was ruin for the light,” said Falalauria. “The Herd Lord himself took to the battlefield, and his power was horrible to behold. When he met Gil-Galad, they fought, using magics so intense that part of the field sank into the sea. But at last, the Herd Lord beat Gil-Galad, and broke him... and killed him.”

“And that was the last gasp of brightness in the world,” said Javier. “In the aftermath of the Battle of Lost Hope, the deerfolk knew the Lord of All the Herds had to be stopped, no matter what. So they bent their full destructive power on him every time they encountered him. In the end, they beat him, but the cost was terrible beyond measure.”

“There has been a lot of mention of the Deer War in my books,” said Twilight. “But it all seems so... far-fetched. I mean, the texts talk about the seas boiling, the mountains crumbling, and even the sun and the moon going out.”

“Oh, certainly not,” said one of the white-tails. “The high deer of old were extremely powerful. They could even rival Princesses Celestia and Luna at the apex of their might. Have you ever seen either of your princesses unleash their wrath?”

The six ponies and Spike thought of the battle they had distantly beheld. “Just hints of it,” Fluttershy said.

“But I totally understand where you're coming from,” said Dash. “And if they needed all this power to beat this Herd Lord guy, he must have been pretty bad.”

“He is the most terrible thing ever to walk the earth,” said Falalauria. She stood. “If you ever had to face him, I would hope for you to have power of your own- and for you to be brave.” She turned and stepped gingerly out from amidst her white-tails. “I must go now. I've business with my Sight.” No one questioned her as she moved back to her tent.

“One more question, if I may,” Rarity said when she'd gone. “You called this dreadful fellow 'The Lord of All the Herds.' Was he your king?”

“Not the king of the white-tails or the mule deer,” said Javier.

“He was crown prince of the caribou until he ascended to the throne,” said one of the white-tails. “Unlike the other five species, the caribou maintained their ancient nomadic culture, even as they grew more sophisticated. They were organized into herds, and each herd was a mobile city or state. They lived in grand, elaborate tent cities that they carried on their backs or with their magic. In the spring and summer, they moved, and in the fall and winter, they settled down. So their king was called the Lord of All the Herds.” The deer's silver eyes narrowed. “The Enemy was the last caribou to hold the title.”

“So he ruined it for everypony, huh?” Dash said.

“You called him 'black,' right?” Spike said. He glanced knowingly at Twilight. “Is that what color he was?”

“Yes,” said one of the white-tails. “Black, with burning red eyes.”

The six ponies and Spike stiffened. Pinkie gasped. “Twilight and Spike-” Rarity and Applejack immediately stuffed their hooves in her mouth.

“Yes?” said Javier.

“Um, nothing, nothing!” Twilight said. “She was about to say how Spike and I read a story about the Lord of All the Herds once. We didn't know that's who the story was talking about, though; it just mentioned a black deer with red eyes.” She next dared to say, “It mentioned unusual antlers, too.”

“Oh, yes,” said one of the white-tails. “You have never seen a live caribou, of course; they are all extinct. But their antlers grew tines like branches of thorns, and those of the royal family were shaped peculiarly over the head, so that they resembled crowns.”

“Well, I think it's time we got goin',” Applejack said, rising to her hooves. “I got a long day tomorrow.”

“It's been a wonderful night,” said Rarity. “Thank you so much.”

“That pasta you guys make is delicious!” Pinkie cheered. “So super minty and fresh!”

“Thank you again for coming, Javier,” said Fluttershy.

“We've had a marvelous time,” said one of the mule deer beside Javier. “However the circumstances, it has been good to meet our brethren.”

“You have made us feel not so lonely here, woodfolk,” said one of the white-tails.

“Great!” Dash said, flying into the air. “Welp, see ya tomorrow!”

“Good night, all of you,” said Twilight Sparkle. “Remember, if you need anything at all, don't hesitate to come to me about it. I've taken your welfare into my hooves, and so whatever you need, I'll try to provide.”

“We much appreciate it, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” said one of the white-tails.

“Come on, Spike,” said Twilight, levitating the baby dragon onto her back. “It's past your bedtime.”

“Good night!” Spike waved over his shoulder as the six ponies walked- and flew- away. He kept waving until they had left the camp behind, until they were in the soft night of the land between the edge of the Everfree and Ponyville proper. Then he dragged his claws down his face. “I can't believe the deer we saw was the most evil deer ever to live!”

“He sounds horrific!” Rarity said.

“It's okay, though,” said Twilight. “He's gone now.”

In her tent, Falalauria laid on her cushioned dais. Her eyes were wide, and the starscape in them drifted, as though the universe were passing through her head. “Where are you?” she whispered. “I've let you roam long enough.”

Her Sight swept over Equestria, peering deep as well as broad, looking into every city and town and tranquil hamlet. Ponies slowly settled down for the night. Lamps were extinguished, doors were locked, bedclothes were pulled over sleeping bodies.

She shifted her gaze to the west, where the cities grew farther apart and the landscape more open. Vast, shallow fields spread seeming forever, dotted here and there by hills and even a few steep mountain ranges. Her Sight flew over one of these ranges, and there it stopped. There was a town in the shadow of the mountains with unusual brightness for such a late hour. She looked closer. On the edges of the town huge tents were set up, four in total, within which burned orange firelight banishing the darkness. She looked through each of these tents. One was for large animals in their pens. Another was filled with carnival games which ponies of all ages took part in. A third held rides and other more visceral attractions. The fourth was filled with chairs, and against one wall of the tent a stage with curtains had been set up. She peered behind the curtains-

“There you are.”

“Oh wow oh wow oh wow!” Ring Master stomped in place as he peered through a sliver of the curtain. “Half the city must be sitting out there!” He did not exaggerate. The tent was absolutely packed, every seat occupied, the aisles filled with standing ponies, and even the floor between seats was taken up in many places. The tent was jam-packed with earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasuses of all colors and ages, all of them staring with rapt attention upon the drawn drapes that hid the stage.

“Well of course they are!” Trixie said. “No thanks to you. They're here to see me, me and my lord.”

“Your what?” Ring Master said. “Trixie, your partner-”

“He's so much more than just a partner, O Ring Master,” said Trixie. Her eyes went wide. “You have no idea how soothing a presence he is. I feel like I can always talk to him about anything, and he's always told the truth whenever I've been around!” Her eyes nearly popped from her head, and were dilated.

“Um, okay,” Ring Master said, arching an eyebrow. “Well, your lord had better be ready to put on a heck of a show, because if we pull in as much as I think we can, we might be able to end our tour three weeks early!”

“Oh, he's always ready,” Trixie said dreamily. “He's beyond compare.” She turned toward the back of the tent. “My lord! It's time!”

No response. Ring Master trotted toward the back of the tent. “Hey! Reiziger! You go on in two minutes! Where are... you?”

Reiziger was standing still at the back of the tent. His crimson eyes were half-lidded. They pulsed with light.

“My lord?” Trixie said.

Falalauria cocked her head to the side. Why was he just standing-

I feel your Eyes upon me, half-breed.

Falalauria rocked sideways as she felt like she had been struck. She tried to pull her Sight away, but for some reason it was stuck. No, not some reason. She knew why she was trapped.

Go on. Tell your pony princess friends I have returned. It's time they knew. My power is such that I no longer need to hide. And after tonight, I shall not. For now, though, I'd rather not have you in the audience. BEGONE.

Falalauria was hurled forward, off her dais onto the wooden floor of the tent. She hastily scrambled to her hooves, shaking her head. She tried to move her Sight back upon Reiziger, but there was a blackness where he had been. There was blackness over all the town he was in.

“Has he regained that much strength? So quickly?” Her eyes shifted. Her brows furrowed. “Oh, of course,” she said softly. “Oh, I should have known.” Those eyes full of stars pulled tightly shut; they succeeded, mostly, in fighting her tears, but one wet line trailed down her face just so. “Those poor ponies.” And the poor ones tonight, bunched in that humid tent! But it was too late, and she knew it. Too late to save them, “But still time to save the rest.” She levitated pen and paper, beginning rapidly to write.

“I am ready to perform,” Reiziger said.

“Thank goodness!” said Ring Master. “You remember the song, right?”

“I know it by heart, good Ring Master,” said Reiziger.

“What was that?” Trixie asked as they trotted toward the stage.

“Just tending to business,” Reiziger said. “Do not question me, Trixie.”

“As you wish, my lord,” said Trixie. She dashed through the curtains out onto the stage. “Oh, ponies of Calicofornia, you have arrived just in time to bear witness to the greatest of spectacles!” She reared back and threw her front legs wide. “I, Trixie, grand disciple of my lord, bring you the finest specimen of life ever to walk the earth! I bring you Reiziger!”

With a flicker of black Reiziger stood beside her on the stage. The ponies gasped and clopped as they beheld the towering deer. He grinned, showing them all his sharp white teeth. “So,” he said, “you ponies have come to see a show? I shall not disappoint. Are you ready, Trixie?”

“Ready, my lord!”

“Then let us begin.” Bursts of red sparkles went off all along the edges of the tent. The ponies gasped and whooped in joy.

“Ooooohhhh....” Trixie broke into song:

A Sight's a Sight for Sore Eyes
Whether Bright or Light or Dark
If Spectacle is What You Want
Then Turn This Way and Hark!

We've Feats Weird and Astounding,
With Fantasy Galore!
We Promise Only Wondrous Times,
And Guarantee No Snores!

As Trixie sang, she multiplied. First there were two of her, then four, then eight, then sixteen, and the Trixies linked front legs and kicked in a chorus line.

Reiziger, meanwhile, was teleporting around the tent, appearing next to seats and amidst crowds. The ponies squealed with delight and terror to see him, though his presence made their heads throb.

Ring Master charged onto the stage, accompanied by flipping acrobats, dancing jugglers, and clowns on tall stilts. He broke into song next, adding his tenor to the multitude of singing Trixies.

So Welcome Young and Old Alike
To Our Fantastic Show!
They Say That All the World's a Stage,
So Here's Our Act, You Know!

The jugglers formed a furious circle around Ring Master, flinging bowling pins and even hoof-swords into the air as they danced around him. Meanwhile, the clowns tramped by behind and in front of him. Reiziger's antlers flashed, and bolts of red lightning sizzled through the tent.

We've Dazzled and Amazed You
With Our Displays of Flash!
But Don't Go Leaving Yet Now,
'Cause We've Saved the Best for Last!

The jugglers suddenly turned to face the audience, while the acrobats formed a passage through which Reiziger trotted. He grinned out at the assembled ponies, showing all his teeth. There were gasps and shrieks through the audience, but also the stomping of hooves. Reiziger opened his mouth and a mighty baritone rang forth.

You Ponies Are a Curious Sort
You Love What Makes You Squirm.
I See the Terror in Your Eyes
Yet Toward Me You Still Turn.

I Think I Understand It Now,
You Like the Guise of Fear
While Really You are Safe and Sound
There's No True Danger Near.

I Recall Days In Ancient Times
When Ponies Roamed and Ranged.
Even When You Were Animals,
You Still Did Love the Strange.

Ponies in the audience turned toward each other in awe and terror as Reiziger's voice rang through their minds. He barked a laugh.

So If it's Danger That You Want
You've Found Your Rightful Lord.
Your Very Lives Might Be Forfeit

He finished by singing the final verse:

So Bow Down and Adore!

Sparkles and swirling stars whirled in the air above the tent. Everypony on stage struck a pose, and together, they all held a final, billowing note that rose and rose until it crashed against the tent, the sound haunting and beautiful.

When the singing finally, abruptly halted, the ponies in the audience cheered. They flung money by the mouthfuls onto the stage. Pegasuses flew forward to heap gold bits into the bags set up for collection.

“We did it!” Ring Master cried, still posed with the rest of them. “This is amazing! I can't believe it!”

“I knew we could do it!” one of the dancers said.

“Oh, my girls will be so happy!” said one of the jugglers.

“We really brought down the house!” one of the clowns said atop her stilts.

“What did I tell you?” Trixie said. “Never doubt my lord.”

“I'm speechless!” said Ring Master. “This is... it's just wonderful!”

“Isn't it?” Reiziger said with a wild grin. “But I know what would make it even better!”

“What?” Ring Master asked.

Reiziger grinned even broader. Then he moved. Stepping deftly to the side, he opened his mouth, razor sharp teeth flashing. Nopony was able to react before Reiziger lowered his head and bit deeply into Ring Master's shoulder.

“AAGGGH!” Ring Master cried, howling in pain. The cheering and clopping stopped at once. Everypony looked with growing horror as Reiziger continued to sink his teeth into the brown earth pony.

Finally, Reiziger flung his head around. Ring Master was hurled through the air, crashing to the right side of the stage. Blood was seeping from the bite in his shoulder. Nopony spoke. Reiziger glanced at the audience and grinned. “So you wanted a show? Behold the last you'll ever see!”

Reiziger's antlers flashed red. A wall of black spread out from him, passing over the audience and out beyond the tent. Ponies dashed to the flaps of the tent and looked out. A black dome had settled over the entire circus, blocking any view of the world beyond. “We can't get out!” somepony cried. “We can't- ack!” He tipped over, because his legs were suddenly bound in chains of shadow. So were every other pony's, shackling them where they sat and stood.

“I'm stuck!” said one of the juggling ponies, for those on the stage were also ensnared.

“Of course you are,” said Reiziger, his voice carrying through the tent. He trotted proudly across the stage. “Why would I let you escape? You paid such money to be here.” His red eyes burned as he smiled. “You horrible fools! Did you not feel the creeping terror in your hearts as I revealed my glory? Was my presence not awful to endure? And you, Ring Master, are worst of all. You couldn't look me in the eyes without your heart skipping. Yet you took me in! You gave me shelter and a chance to replenish my strength! And now you are surprised? You should have trusted your heart. As the balrog said to the moose who had nursed him back to health, right before he burned her alive, 'You knew what I was when you found me'!” He grinned, flashing those terrible teeth. “Or certainly you guessed.”

Trixie glanced toward Ring Master. He was wobbling, barely sitting up, the blood loss clearly taking its toll. “My lord?” she said, turning back to Reiziger.

“Still, I must really thank you all,” said Reiziger, continuing to strut around the stage. “Without you foolish ponies, I would never have grown as strong as I have so quickly. Oh, I would still have regained my power- don't doubt that- but it would have taken time. Mountains and rivers and trees are so much less... nutritious than thinking creatures. They contain such dispersed vitality.”

“Don't hurt us!” somepony in the audience cried.

“Oh, my little ponies, I'm going to do so much worse than hurt you,” Reiziger said. “But first!” He turned toward the right side of the stage. “It is time for my servant to prove her faithfulness. Trixie!”

“Yes, my lord?” Trixie said.

“Ring Master,” Reiziger said, nodding toward the bleeding pony. “Kill him.”

Trixie's heart hammered. “Kill... kill him, my lord?”

“Yes,” said Reiziger. “Kill him now. You may choose the method.”

“Well... I...”

“Don't you hate him, Trixie? Has he done anything but hold you back? He is part of the old order, Trixie, the order you no longer have use for. We are building a new reality, starting right now. He is to be a blood sacrifice. Kill him.”

Trixie glanced toward Ring Master. Part of her did hate him. Part of her wanted nothing more than to see him dead. But she couldn't help but remember him taking her in, remember him giving her advice, remember him supplying her with food and a bed in her time of need. “I...”

Reiziger sighed. “Still timid, I see.” I shall have to put you in the right frame of MIND.

Trixie's head throbbed. Her thoughts seemed to slide down a dark, slick hole, lined with blades that sliced at her uncertainty. Her feelings abruptly, violently changed. Away went the fear. Away went the doubt. Away went the sympathy. Instead, she felt only dark joy. Her pupils dilated, and she grinned madly over her shoulder. “Of course, my lord. As you wish!”

Reiziger smiled. Trixie smiled even wider, advancing slowly on Ring Master. He tried to back away, but his shoulder hurt so much it was hard to move. “N-now Trixie...” he stammered.

“Oh, fear not, Ring Master!” Trixie said, her voice hazy and horrible. Her smile grew ever wider. “You should be honored! You are the first sacrifice upon the altar of my lord!”

“Trixie, this isn't you! Please!” He tried to run, but with a spasm of pain in his shoulder he toppled over, then Trixie was upon him.

“Shh,” Trixie whispered, pressing his body against hers. “Don't be scared. Be brave, and know glory!”

Her horn glowed. Ring Master found himself unable to move, so he could only flail limply as Trixie pressed her back legs around his hips. She raised her front legs and wrapped them around his head. “Please...” Ring Master whispered, “please...”

“Be brave, O Ring Master,” Trixie said dreamily. “The blackness claims you first.”

“No-!”

Trixie's horn flashed, and in the same instant she jerked Ring Master's head to the side with all the strength in her legs. Her magic and her muscle power worked together. Ring Master's head whipped to the side with a crack!

The body toppled to the ground. Trixie glanced madly at Reiziger. “Did I do well, my lord?”

“You did marvelously,” said Reiziger. He turned back toward the audience. “Now I must feed. As for the rest of you!” He stepped to the front of the stage. His eyes shone, and crimson fire burned upon his antlers. Objects from the stage began to float around him in the air. “When the Pale Deer of Death stands before you, tell him that his greatest champion has returned! I am Reiziger, Lord of All the Herds! The Scourge of the Red Deer! The Butcher of the Elk! I have come back from my millennia of imprisonment, and my goal is the same as before! I shall not stop until all the world lies beneath my hoof!”

Trixie sat on the stage by Ring Master's corpse and chuckled quietly to herself. She watched with mad eyes as Reiziger's shadows swelled, as he became something not a deer, became something not a mammal, became something not even a creature. He became something Not, and darkness was with him.

“Zzzz... zzzzz... hun- urp!” Spike sat up as he belched. It was precisely the sort of belch that he'd learned to let wake him up, for it was not a food-related burp. No, this came with a burst of green fire, and on instinct, he stretched out his hands in front of him. The letter bearing the royal seal dropped into his claws. “Twilight!” he cried, turning toward the larger bed beside his.

“Hm?” Twilight Sparkle murmured, shifting in her sleep. “Hmm? Wha?”

“Twilight, wake up! We got a letter from the princess!”

Twilight yawned. “Oh, Spike, do you have any idea what time it is?” The night outside was filled with stars.

“I dunno, but look!” Spike thrust the letter at her.

Twilight rubbed her eyes. Sure enough, the letter had the sun-and-moon device of Equestria. “What could Princess Celestia possibly have to tell me at this hour?” She levitated the letter with her magic, breaking the seal and unrolling it. She began to read. Her violet eyes grew wider with each new line, until- “Spike! We have to get the others! Now!”

Chapter 12

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The midnight express thundered down the tracks. As its name suggested, it powered forward through the wee small hours of the morning. Its cars were filled with ponies making the long journey across Equestria, whether for business, pleasure, or something else. A few of them had most recently been deeply inconvenienced. They had been forced to move from their car to make way for seven new passengers in Ponyville. Seven was an easy number for the train to accommodate, but the ponies had made a fuss by insisting they all stay in the same cabin. And the conductor had complied! There were whispers the seven had flashed the royal seal to get their way. Curious, to say the least.

“I love trains,” Pinkie Pie said, staring out the window as the countryside flashed by. “They've got such a nice rumble. Rrrrrrummmmbbbllleeeeee...” Pinkie trembled herself in a way that drove her sideways in her seat, where she bumped up against Rainbow Dash. “Don't you think so, Dashie?”

“Uh,” Dash winced, “I think I prefer flying.” She yawned, then slumped back against the cushions. “I prefer sleeping, too.”

“Rainbow!” Applejack said firmly. “This is important business! Y'all got no grounds to be complainin'!”

“Um, Twilight, could you read the letter again?” Fluttershy asked.

“Yes, I'm afraid I wasn't fully awake when I first heard it,” Rarity said.

Twilight Sparkle used her magic to reach into her saddlebags. The left one contained the letter; she pulled it out, unfolded it, and cleared her throat.

Dear Twilight Sparkle,

I apologize profusely for the lateness of the hour, but this is a matter of grave importance. There has been an incident in Western Equestria, covering a swath of land between Trottingham and the borders of Calicofornia. What precisely has happened, we cannot yet discern. Suffice to say we have lost all communication with that part of the country, and what rumors have reached us are deeply troubling. Luna, in particular, believes something foul is afoot, for the dreams in that region have grown unsettling- or worse, have stopped altogether. This is a matter best addressed by the Elements of Harmony.

Twilight Sparkle, I cannot stress enough the caution with which you must proceed. I shall give you no illusions: I fear I am sending you and your friends into grave danger, where the possibility of disaster is high. However, I have faith in the six of you, and faith that your efforts will not be in vain. Moreover, I have faith in the Elements of Harmony. Lady Falalauria tells me she has informed all of you about the Gifts of the Elements of Harmony. Thus you know that, even though the Elements themselves have been returned to the Tree of Harmony, they are still with you, and their power resides in your hearts. Together you are the light that can pierce any shadow, and if you lean upon each other, you cannot help but prevail.

Please take the next available train into Western Equestria. I believe the midnight express arrives within three hours. You might consider packing some supplies, for I cannot say how long this affair will last. I have affixed my seal to the bottom of this letter; show it to the conductor of the train or anypony else who gives you trouble.

Good luck, my faithful student. Go with grace.

Your Teacher,

Princess Celestia

“Not much to go on,” Applejack said. “I don't rightly have any idea what it could be.”

“The bit about Princess Luna and dreams seems rather ominous,” Rarity said.

“You wanna write to the princess for more detail, Twilight?” Spike asked.

“I don't think she could provide it even if she wanted to,” Twilight said. “It looks like this is something we're going to have to find out about on our own.” She yawned. “It will probably take us all night just to get close to our destination. You girls should probably get some sleep.”

“Don't have to tell me twice,” said Dash, flying up to the lamp by the door. With a twist of her hooves she turned it down almost to nothing, plunging the cabin into darkness.

Twilight levitated six blankets out of her saddlebags, sending them fluttering down onto her friends. Spike curled up next to her, and she wrapped her wing around him. She was just about to close her eyes when she noticed Rarity sitting upright. “Rarity?” she whispered. “Aren't you going to go to sleep?”

“Maybe in a while, darling,” said Rarity. “I wanted to work on my Long Sight some more. It's what I often do late at night when I'm awake.”

“Oh,” said Twilight. “You're really serious about making it better, aren't you?”

“Very much so,” Rarity said. “But don't stay up on my account. Sweet dreams; I'll be joining you soon enough.”

“Good luck, Rarity,” Spike whispered, snuggling closer to Twilight.

“Thank you, Spikey dear,” said Rarity. At last, both Twilight and Spike had closed their eyes, leaving only Rarity up and awake. She widened her eyes, and they filled with stars. Equestria unfolded like a map before her, sweeping plains, deep forests, towering mountain ranges all laid out in her mind. She swept her Sight westward, seeing ahead of where the train was- far ahead, until she was just upon the borders of Calicofornia.

Her eyebrow rose. There was a deep curtain of fog spreading hundreds of miles over the flat terrain. She narrowed her starry gaze and tried to will her way through it, but the morass proved impenetrable. Rarity breathed quietly in the darkened cabin.

That seems to be where we're headed, she thought. Is whatever lies there powerful enough to block my Sight? Granted, mine isn't nearly as strong as Lady Falalauria's. Still, this is abnormal. I'm worried. Yet what could she do? She amplified her Sight but the fog would not yield. All she could do was see it with her own two eyes. What next? I could try the future again, but I'm so tired of seeing possibilities without certainty. I can't- She sat up straight. But it's been some time since I looked into the past.

Unlike her future sight, Rarity's past sight was rather well developed. She had often peered into the history of Ponyville, from its earliest days up to a few years before she had arrived there from Hoofington. It had been particularly interesting watching the history of the Apple Family, seeing all of Applejack's ancestors slowly build Sweet Apple Acres from an empty patch of land into the thriving apple farm it was today. The sensation of looking into the past was a bit like how you felt when you were climbing down a ladder. It was a descent that altered your brain, made you feel like you were moving back and down, back and down.

Rarity then tried to really test herself. She tried to use her past sight and her distance sight together, sweeping her gaze over the world, across the ocean to the distant savannahs of a land far away. She had spent more than a little time in the past few months peering into the affairs of the antelope species that roamed the endless grasslands, learning so much about the various tribes and confederacies and the politics that knitted them all together. It made her want to write a book on the subject; doubtless she could speak with more authority than anypony before her. But now, when she settled on the endless straw-shaded plains, she worked the part of her Sight that concerned the past. It felt like two gears were whirring against each other, like a clock's components moving in harmony. The sun moved west to east across the sky, slow at first then faster, faster, the days wended back with a blur-

A clay temple was surrounded by the huts of a village. Gazelles wandered through the dirt streets, many with crimson sashes draped around their bodies. Several walked up the steps of the temple, where an older gazelle sat beneath a large statue of an elephant god. He was talking with an antelope fawn, speaking gently into his ear.

But there was then a commotion in the village below, and the old gazelle swiveled his head on his long neck. Through the village came three-

“Deer?” Rarity whispered, arching an eyebrow.

Indeed, three deer were trotting through the streets. There was a red deer and two elk. The elk wore silver battle armor laced with crystal, much like a set of armor Rarity herself had received years ago. The red deer was covered in letters from a language she couldn't read, painted onto his coat like tattoos.

The old gazelle came creakily down the steps. “Ah, what great honor can we do for the deerfolk this day?”

“Shaman,” the red deer said, “I have Seen that your village has been fertile this year. Yams, rice, barley- all in abundant supply.”

“Ah, well, the Wills have blessed us,” said the shaman. He was shaking subtly.

“As you may know, our army is encamped nearby,” said the red deer, “and we are in need of provisions. I wonder if you might grant us a share of your crop?”

“Now, good sir red deer,” said the shaman, “my village has been fertile, yes, but only on a small scale. You talk of feeding thousands; I do not believe we have quite that much to spare. Surely you can-”

The red deer surged forward. One front leg swept low and knocked the shaman off his hooves. As he fell to the dirt the red deer loomed over him, pressing one hoof against his neck while his antlers shimmered with magic. “You will let us have some of your harvest, shaman, or we shall take all of it. Be grateful we give you a choice.”

“O-oh, forgive me, please forgive me oh great deer!” the shaman wailed. “I did not mean to offend your magnificence! The harvest is yours!”

“Very good,” the red deer said, pulling away from the shaman in the dirt. “The storehouses are on the western edge of the village,” he said, glancing back at the elk with him. “Go in, survey, and remove what we need.” The elk nodded and trotted off. “Remember, oh shaman,” the red deer continued, “we are your betters. And this war, after all, benefits you also. In the future, do not talk back to us. Simply nod and agree.”

“O-of course, of course,” the shaman said, kneeling down before the red deer. “Let me do you homage, please, oh mighty and powerful red deer. Thank you for protecting us from the black deer!”

“Indeed,” said the red deer. “To that end, we shall be pressing a few of you into service as scouts. You do want to serve your betters, after all.”

The vision abruptly ended, snapping Rarity back into the darkness of the cabin. “What?” she cried, shaking her head as hard as possible. “How... how could such a thing be true? No, that must have been a mistake.” Mustn't it? She must have had her Sight malfunction- though it had always been true before- or she must have accidentally looked into some alternate future. That could not be how the past went. It could not, absolutely could not. The deer were beautiful, elegant, wise, graceful. To see them behave like that- “It can't be so!” said Rarity firmly. She yawned. “Perhaps my Sight isn't working properly because I'm tired.” Yes, that was surely the case. She was tired. She needed to sleep. Thus, she pulled her blanket over her body, and closed her sapphire eyes.

The next morning, the train continued down the track. “I still love trains,” Pinkie said brightly. She leaned toward the other side of the cabin. “And I know you love them too, Twilight. I can read your mind, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Twilight said. “Hey, Pinkie, if you've always been able to use telepathy, why haven't we noticed it before now?”

“Mostly I've just used it for little things,” Pinkie said. “Like trying to find out how everypony is feeling in a big way- not specific ways.” And when I project my... voice... into... Pinkie's head was visibly bulging with veins. “Whew! It's hard to make my voice go into ponies' heads.”

“You need to practice with your Element to make it stronger,” Dash said. “When I was just starting out, I was lucky if I could get even one full-grown pony to do what I want. Now I'm able to do it to lots of ponies.”

“And my Long Sight was very weak at first,” Rarity said. “Now it's much more powerful.”

“I wonder why I haven't noticed my Element before,” Twilight said. “I mean, I do a lot of magic.”

“Maybe it's happened, but you just haven't noticed it,” Fluttershy said. “Aren't there any times you can think of where you suddenly had a huge boost in magic power?”

“Well... now that you mention it...” Twilight thought back over her history. There were, in fact, moments where she seemed to have inexplicably become far more powerful than she had any right to be. Even back to the day she was accepted into Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns- the day she earned her cutie mark- there had been times where her power had seemed... “Divine,” Twilight whispered.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Twilight's mind was alive. She glanced over her shoulder, down at her wings. Being an alicorn princess was the height of power to a pony. Twilight had been coronated so she could 'fulfill her destiny,' but what if it wasn't hers alone? She swept her violet eyes over Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash. Was Applejack a little taller than she used to be? Was Rarity just a little more elegant? Were Dash's wings just a little bit bigger? There was something different about all three of them, something that had crept up slowly and even now was intensely subtle. Twilight wondered if she weren't just imagining things. But...

With a screech the ponies and Spike were hurled off their seats. The whole train shook with retrograde motion, then was sharply, abruptly still. “What the hay was that?” Applejack said.

“Come on!” Spike said, throwing the door open and hurrying up the car. The six friends followed him swiftly.

In little time they came upon a large crush of ponies at the front of the car, harrying one of the train masters to distressing effect. “Now please,” he said, “if you'll all j-just calm down...”

“Um, excuse me?” Twilight said, jumping up to get his attention. “Pardon me, sir, I'm Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“Oh! Princess!” the train master cried, and the sea of ponies parted around the seven of them. “Yes, it's a great honor to see you, your highness! I'm Night Shift.”

“Good sir Night Shift,” Twilight said, “what's the problem? Why has the train stopped?”

“Well, your highness... it's probably better if I show you.” He walked to the very front of the cabin and turned the doorknob. “If you'll come with me.”

Twilight glanced back at her friends. They had various looks of puzzlement upon their faces, but Dash trotted forward, then Applejack, and this was enough for Twilight to move forward herself, followed by the rest of them. And when they had gone through the door, when they were standing in the cool air of the late spring morning, when they had stepped down from the train onto the grassy plains, they saw the reason for the abrupt halt.

A wall of dense, gray fog was blanketing all the lands in front of them, extending on either side of the tracks for untold miles. It was not the blackish-gray of thunderclouds, but it was nevertheless impenetrable to the eye, little more than a few feet into the fog being visible from the outside. “Oh,” Twilight said. “I see.”

“There's no way we're moving forward!” a voice barked their way. They turned to see the conductor trotting toward them, his pocket watch floating beside him by magic. “This fog is too dense for any train to safely operate in! And coupled with the lack of communication through this area, it's simply too dangerous for us to proceed.”

“So what will you do?” Rarity asked.

“We'll put the train in reverse until we get back to the junction at Saddle Ridge,” said the conductor. “Then we'll have to switch onto a new track and try to find a way around the fog, though,” he glanced at the gray mass, “that seems like an impossibility.”

“But we have to move forward!” Twilight said. “Our destination is specifically through that fog.”

“Well, your highness, much as I'd love to serve the crown,” Night Shift said, “safety comes first. I'm sorry.”

“Now what?” Dash said.

“We gotta hoof it, that's what!” Applejack said. “If the mess Princess Celestia wants us to see is through that fog, then by golly, we gotta go through, even if it means usin' leg power.”

“Are you sure?” Fluttershy said. “It seems like an awfully long way.”

“T'ain't that far, I reckon,” Applejack said. She gave them a wink. “And this here's the first rule o' adventuring: sometimes you gotta cross the miles yourself.”

“Ah, memories,” Rarity said, fighting a cringe.

“Well, if we're going to go on hoof, we need to go get our saddlebags,” Twilight said, turning back toward the train. “I'll tell Night Shift to wait a little bit while we disembark.”

Thus they spent about twenty minutes repacking and checking their saddlebags, then strapping them to their flanks. Twilight spent some additional time reassuring the ponies in their car that all was well, that there was nothing to worry about, that Celestia and Luna had the situation well in hand; she hated to lie to them, but it had to be done. Finally, the six ponies and Spike disembarked, and the train gave a rumble. Smoke belched from the engine at the front, and the train began to grind backwards, slowly at first, then picking up speed until it was shooting in a measured by steady reverse, away and away, out of sight.

“Oh boy!” Pinkie said, bouncing up and down. “Now we all get to go on an adventure!”

“Pinkie, we've been adventuring before, you remember that, right?” Dash said.

“Yeah, but usually it's just chunks of us!” Pinkie said with a smile. “It's you and AJ and Rarity all going off to save Twilight, or you and Twilight and Rarity going after Spike and the dragons. We haven't all been on an adventure together, all seven of us, since the Crystal Empire!”

“Speakin' of seven,” Applejack said, “I reckon it's better if Spike rides with me, Twilight. No offense, but y'all aren't as strong as I am, and he'll slow you down a lot more than he will me.”

“Sure thing!” Spike said, hopping up onto Applejack's back. “Let's get going.”

“All right, everypony ready?” Dash said. She had trotted to the front, and when she got affirming looks from all her friends, she reared back and loosed a powerful whinny. “Let's go!” She started forward. Rarity and Twilight were next, followed by Applejack and Pinkie, with Fluttershy in the rear. The six of them charged forward, breathing hard, hooves pounding the grass. In a few eyeblinks they were upon the fog, then they were in it, the gray swallowing them up.

Within an hour, Twilight was happy for the weight she'd lost since coming to Ponyville. Dash and Applejack set a strident pace, and Rarity matched it, to Twilight's surprise until she remembered the other unicorn's prior experiences. But Twilight, given her enhanced physical fitness, managed to keep up fairly well, and Pinkie's energy reserves seemed limitless. Only Fluttershy was definitely bothered by the running, panting harder the further they went into the fog.

“Can... can we... stop a little?” Fluttershy said some untold hours later.

“I call halt!” Pinkie said, stopping on a dime and bouncing up and down. The other ponies skidded to a stop around and in front of her.

Spike slid off Applejack's back. “Aww, I was having fun,” he said.

“It's just as well that we stopped,” said Twilight, her heart hammering in her chest. “We need to get our bearings. Where are we even going?”

“Uh...” Dash's eyes drifted out of focus.

Rarity put a hoof to her face. “I assumed one of you had some approximation of where the nearest town lay,” she said.

“My plan was to follow the railroad tracks,” said Applejack, nodding to the ghost of the rail line to their distant left. “I reckon sooner or later that'll get us to a town.”

“It seems like a good enough plan,” said Twilight. “And a town is really the best place to start looking for things. Hey, Rarity, can you see through this fog with your clairvoyance?”

“I tried last night, and wasn't able to,” Rarity said. Her cutie mark glinted, her eyes grew wide with drifting fields of stars. She was still for about a minute. Then her gaze returned sharply to normal, and she shook her head. “Nothing, I'm afraid.”

“Well that's not good,” Dash said.

“I... I guess I'm... ready to keep going...” Fluttershy said, taking a gulp of water from the canteen Applejack had offered.

“Then let's get going, girls!” Twilight cried. “The next town can't be too far away!”

They galloped off, and Twilight's encouraging comments proved prescient. Little more than half an hour had passed before the fog was broken sharply by a sign. Coming closer revealed it to be brown, made of wood, and read, Welcome To Trottingham! Home of the Amethyst Fountains!

“Oh, my,” said Rarity, skidding to a stop. “I do remember reading about those fountains- so beautiful! I've always wanted to see them. Not under these circumstances, of course.”

“There's nopony here,” Pinkie said.

“Course there ain't,” Applejack said. “We're still on the outskirts, and anypony would stay indoors with this mist.”

“No,” Pinkie said, her voice lacking its normal enthusiasm. “I mean there's nopony in the entire town. I can't...” her ears drooped, “I can't feel them thinking.”

“What?” Dash said.

“Normally when I'm around a whole bunch of super fun awesome ponies, I can always feel their thoughts pressing up against me, like we're all on some crowded carriage, all squished together tight like a big hug!” Pinkie said. “But now... I...” she swallowed, “there's no thoughts in the town.”

Fluttershy began to tremble. “Um... m-maybe I should... maybe we should keep going...”

“No,” said Twilight firmly. “There's clearly something wrong here, and the whole reason we came this far was to find out what.” She fluttered her wings and struck a pose. “Come on, girls. For the good of Equestria, we have to explore.”

“Don't worry, Fluttershy dear,” said Rarity, trotting beside her and leaning into her. “We shall all look out for each other.”

Fluttershy remained sitting in place, body quivering. It was only when the other five ponies and Spike began to move past the sign that she followed, her terror of loneliness overriding her fear of the unknown. Thus the seven of them made their way down a shallow hill to the rail depot, where train cars and engines slumbered, beasts of quiet iron.

“The town's this way, I think,” said Twilight.

“Why are you whispering?” Dash asked.

“Sorry,” Twilight said, raising her voice. “Just... instinct.” A chill ran down her spine.

“I know what you're talkin' about,” Applejack said. “This place feels funny. Like the fog's lookin' at us.”

“Eep!” Fluttershy cowered on the ground, front legs covering her head, wings covering her eyes.

“Be brave, Fluttershy,” said Rarity. “We must carry on.”

“Don't worry, Fluttershy,” Spike said. “Anything tries to get us, I'll barbecue 'em!” He belched a torrent of shimmering green fire to underscore his words.

“W-well, I g-g-guess...” Fluttershy stammered, forcing herself to stand, willing her legs to move in the face of her own paralyzing terror.

Down a road they traveled, past some rolling farmland, until they reached Trottingham proper. The fountains mentioned in the sign sprawled in a vast stone courtyard, carved from magnificent purple gemstone that even in the dim gray light sparkled like stars. “Wow,” Spike said as the seven of them descended the granite steps.

“Pinkie, are you sure you can't feel anypony's thoughts?” Twilight asked. “Anything at all?”

Pinkie furrowed her brow. “I'm... I'm trying...” her cutie mark sparkled a little. “Wait, maybe... no... wait...” she stuck her tongue out in frustration.

Her friends focused intently on the pink earth pony. They didn't think to look anywhere else, certainly not at the roofs above their heads, so they missed black legs stepping briefly through the gray vapors before retreating.

“I thought I felt something just now,” said Pinkie at last, “but nope!”

“Well, we can't find anything out just by standing around!” said Dash. “I say we split up!”

“Eep!” Fluttershy yelped, trembling once more.

“Splitting up seems like a bad idea,” said Twilight.

“Come on,” said Dash. “There's nothing to be afraid of! Pinkie says she can't feel anypony's thoughts, right? That means this town is abandoned. There's nopony else here besides us! It's perfectly safe.”

Applejack arched an eyebrow. “Y'know, you got a point, Rainbow,” she said. “If'n there's no danger, it would make some sense for us to split up. We'd cover more ground, see more stuff.”

“I really, really, really don't want to split up,” Fluttershy said, forging a false smile.

“Fluttershy, listen to me,” said Dash, walking slowly up to her. “I believe in you. Everypony here knows that you're so much braver than you think you are- you've shown it time and time again.” Her cutie mark pulsed. “You can do it, Fluttershy. AJ's right, we can cover more ground if we split up. Have faith in yourself, because we all have faith in you too!”

“Yeah!” said Pinkie. “You'll be great, Fluttershy!”

“You can do it!” Spike cried.

“Well... okay,” Fluttershy said, standing straighter. “I'll go this way, then.” Her wings beat, she flew slowly down one empty, misty street.

“All right,” said Twilight, ruffling her own wings. “I'll go up the main street. Spike, come with me.”

“Got it!” Spike said, hopping onto her back.

“I shall take this left thoroughfare,” said Rarity.

“I'm goin' this way!” said Applejack, heading right.

“Ooo! I'll go this way!” Pinkie cried, and began to bounce down one street.

“Heh,” Dash smiled. “Works like a charm.” She was all alone now, the fountain's gentle burbling the only noise in the foggy court. She cringed a little as she looked up and saw only pressing gray. No time to be afraid, she thought. “Too bad I can't use my Gift of Loyalty on myself,” she said.

So perhaps you are not as powerful as you think?

“Whoa!” Dash jumped into the air, wings flapping wildly as she spun in all directions. She landed, arched her back, and sent sizzling lines of lightning snarling through her wings. “Who said that? Who's there?” She didn't notice the faint tickle through her mind, like gentle fingers were pressing into her brain.

Oh, just an onlooker. Nothing the Great and Powerful Rainbow Dash need concern herself with.

“You... I bet you're the one who did this, aren't you?” Dash shouted. “Whoever you are, we'll stop you!”

We? Why not just you? After all, aren't you the strongest?

“Strongest?” Dash repeated. “I... I don't know...”

Come now, the voice crawled through her mind. The Wielder of Lightning, the Bearer of Loyalty, the Mistress of the Dreaming? Surely you're not afraid of some voice in the fog?

“H-How do you know all these things?” Dash asked, forcing the tremors out of her voice.

I have my ways.

“If you're so great, come out and show yourself!” Dash cried. She stomped her hoof and sparks flew up. “I'll show you just how great I am!”

Not yet. My webs are only just now being woven.

“Webs? Woven? Hey, where are you?” Dash shouted. There was no answer. “Come back!” She cried, flying up into the foggy sky. She quickly flew back down again; the fog rose high, obscuring the air for hundreds of feet. It unsettled her, and with trembling legs she landed again. “What was that?”

Rarity poked her head through a cracked-open door. “Hello? Yoohoo! Pardon me, I hope I'm not intruding.” She raised her dainty white nose, but then it wrinkled. “Oh my, what's- ugh!- what's that smell?” She trotted slowly through the shop, toward the counter. The noxious aroma was wafting up from behind the darling brass bits register. “Pardon me?” Rarity called again. “Is somepony there? I was hoping- ack!” She pulled back immediately from her peek over the counter. What she'd seen- “That can't be real, can it?” She flinched, she cringed, she backed up a little, but then her courage surged and she dashed around the edge.

Sure enough, there was a dead unicorn slumped on the floor, its neck bent unnaturally, its tongue lolled out. It was fleshy and bloated as things became when rotting, its eyes already decayed out of their sockets.

“Oh, no!” Rarity cried. Her stomach rolled with nausea, and Rarity could not resist the roiling of her guts. She stepped crosswise, one foot over the other, to an empty space upon the floor, whence she vomited, sending up her early breakfast of biscuits and croissants. “Ick,” she hissed, using her magic- certainly not her hoof- to wipe off her mouth. “Disgusting! What could have caused this?”

Why don't you find out?

“What?” Rarity whirled around, horn shimmering blue with magic. “Who said that? Who's there?”

Just an observer. And aren't you the ultimate observer, Bearer of Generosity?

“How... what? My goodness, who are you and how do you-” she caught herself. “I mean, what do you mean by Bearer?”

Nothing you know is hidden from me, Rarity. But this scene is hidden from you, isn't it? Or it is with your own eyes.

Rarity grit her teeth, her hooves digging into the wooden boards of the floor as her heart beat fast. She needed strength from somewhere, but it seemed none could be found. The light through the windows was weak and gray, casting shadows like night through the shop.

Go on. Use your sight beyond sight, little clairvoyant.

Rarity was not typically in the business of obeying disembodied voices. However, she could find no way out of this predicament without turning to her Long Sight, stunted though it had been of late. Her eyes widened, stars filled them, and-

“No!” Rarity jerked forward. She had seen it all in a flash. “No! Oh, no!”

Oh, yes.

“Where are you?” Rarity snarled, horn alight once more. “Come out and be bold, you great monster!”

I'll see you when I'm ready to see you. I have such plans for you, Farseer.

“What? What? Come back!” Rarity shouted in the stifling, still air, but no pulse through her mind answered. “Oh, this is horrific!” she shouted, hurrying to the front door. “I have to warn the others!”

Applejack was cringing at the sight before her. Ponies, or what was left of ponies, were sprawled all throughout the single bedroom of the small house. Indeed, the house was small, and shabbily furnished, indicating a certain level of poverty. But it had been kept very clean, for the only sign of decay was the thin layer of dust that must have settled just in last week. From the foals' drawings taped to the walls to the college diploma proudly framed above the bed, it was clear this had been a poor family, but a good one.

Now they were all dead, their bodies gray and drained so that they resembled gaunt puppets, their legs seeming unnaturally thin and gangled with the total lack of supporting flesh. Applejack turned once more to what she had first seen: the crib in the corner where the baby of the two pegasuses had been sleeping. It too was dead, its little body already beginning to rot. The smell was noxious, but Applejack barely cared. She smelled worse quite often on the farm. Nothing so horrific, however, was ever part of her daily life. She swept her hat off her head. “Oh, Luna,” she whispered, “be kind n' gentle, let these folks be happy in the Summer Lands.”

I'm sure they are. They have lots of company.

“Who said that?” snarled Applejack, spinning round and round. “Show yerself!”

You can find out who I am, I bet, Bearer of Honesty.

Applejack's cutie mark flickered. Her green eyes bulged. “You... you did this, didn't you?”

Very good! You see much that is hidden. A pity you're the only one left alive.

The three apples on her flanks sparkled. “Nope!” said Applejack. “That's a lie, I know it. You haven't killed anypony yet, least not since we got here. And you won't! We'll put a stop to you!”

Oh you will? How are you going to do it? Stand firm against me as you did against the Titan?

“What?” Applejack fell to the ground and put her front hooves to her head. “What... how... how are y'all doin' that?”

Think, you foolish pack animal. What does it remind you of?

She grit her teeth as her mind churned. Whatever this voice was, it was in her head... like Pinkie! Who bore the Element of Laughter, which she shared with... Her heart skipped a beat. “Oh no.”

That's right.

“No!” Applejack cried, bursting out of the room. “Gotta find the others!”

Twilight crept slowly up the steps of the house, her horn pulsing purple as she swept her magical senses through the space. As Pinkie had intimated, there seemed to be no signs of life here, or anywhere else in the city save for her friends.

“What's that smell?” Spike asked.

“What smell? I don't- ugh,” Twilight's nose scrunched as a wave of noxious scent hit her nostrils. Her hoof came up and pressed against her nose. “What is that smell? It's awful!”

“That's what I said!” Spike responded, holding his nose. “It smells like spoiled fruit.”

“Shh,” Twilight whispered. “We're close.” They had reached the door at the top of the stairs, which was mostly closed but faintly revealed a sliver of pale light. Twilight gently tapped her horn against the door, where it flickered purple. “Nothing,” she whispered. “Come on.” She opened the door wide, striding boldly into the room. “I wonder what- oh no!”

The two earth ponies in the bed were dead, of course, and their gaunt, gray bodies were quietly rotting. “What?” Spike asked. He flinched. “Ugh, it's worse than ever! Where is that smell coming from?”

“N-Nothing!” Twilight cried. Her wing stretched down to block Spike's view of the bed. “Oh, Celestia, don't look, Spike!”

“Don't look at what?” Spike asked. He tried to see around Twilight's wing, but she kept stepping sideways to block his path. “What is it, Twilight, let me see!”

It's death, little dragon.

“Huh?” Spike whipped his head around. “Who said that?”

“Said what?” Twilight asked.

The ponies in the bed are rotten meat now. They are the smell.

“D-Dead?” Spike's stomach dropped. “They're dead?”

“Spike? How did you-?” Twilight glanced from him to the dead ponies in the bed. “How did you... where did... hey!” Twilight's horn suddenly shone brilliant white, and a flash of white light blazed around her head. “All right, come out! I know the feeling of somepony reading my mind!”

The room lost all light. It was as if a swath of the night had fallen on the tiny space, casting everything in blackness thick as pitch. Twilight lit her horn, but its purple glow didn't come close to piercing the gloom. Indeed, its small and lonely brightness only made the shadows thicker. Twilight's heart rate subtly intensified. Spike gripped her leg. “What is it?” Spike whispered. “Twilight?”

“I...” Twilight's horn began to crackle with magical lightning, conjured as much on instinct as through planning. She took several deep breaths. “I don't know...”

Creak.

Twilight whirled around, knocking Spike off his feet. “Who's there?” Twilight said.

Creak.

It came from behind her. Twilight's horn flashed and a blast of lightning lanced off it, snarling into the shadows. But the darkness swallowed the lightning, leaving nothing behind.

“Hello, Twilight Sparkle. We meet again.”

Twilight's skin crawled. The voice was soft and deep and seemed just behind her head. “Don't turn around, Spike,” she whispered.

“You know me, yes? I think you recall my voice.” The lilt of amusement came into the dark. “Though I spoke in foreign tongues the last we met.”

“Spike, hold on tight,” Twilight said. “Grab as hard as you can.”

“Ah, you're going to teleport. Just as well.” The voice became a rasping whisper. “It would be a shame to kill you here in the dark, when I can do it in sight of your beloved friends.”

Twilight's fear was like nothing she had felt before. Not in all her years had she come into the presence of such terror. But she had felt some measure of fear many times, and she was able to master it just enough to think on the soft grass below her feet, the gray sky above, the cool breeze. She took a step-

So she and Spike were standing in the park they had passed on their way to the house. She collapsed to the ground, shaking. “What was that?” Spike asked. “Was it...”

“I... I don't know, Spike,” Twilight said.

“Hello?” Pinkie shouted into the gloom, bouncing and hopping and skipping down the street. She smiled and hummed a jaunty tune to herself, her cheery mood seeming undimmed by the shadow and unease that filled the space about her. “Hellllooooooo? Anypony around?” She stopped for a moment, though still she bounced in place. At last, however, she was totally still. She took several deep breaths. Then she thought. Hello? Is there anypony here?

Nothing. Her thoughts swelled through cracks and alleys but found no response. She bounced in place again. “I guess there really is nopony here.”

No pony, that's for certain.

Oh!, thought Pinkie. So somepony is here? And somepony who has my Gift!

My Gift, you mean. I was curious to see which of you ponies had the Gift of Laughter. How odd that it should be one so... bizarre.

“Hey!” Pinkie shouted into the gray sky. “I'm not bizarre! I just do my little bit each day to make the universe a happier place.”

Well then, perhaps you'll indulge me by playing a game.

“Ooo! I love games!” Pinkie shouted, bouncing in place. “What kind of game is it?”

A telepath's game... a caribou game. I believe in your language it would be called 'Mind Push.'

“Sounds fun!” Pinkie said. “How do you play it?”

Well, given that we are both telepaths, we must take turns projecting our thoughts into the others' minds. We must force ourselves upon those playing, and if we are strong enough, the sheer magnitude of our mental presence causes them to fall over. That is how you win.

“Okay!” Pinkie said. “You first!”

If you insist.

At that moment Pinkie was swallowed in darkness. Black, oozing claws seemed to reach through her brain and rend it, staining it with ichor so foul her very soul was tainted. She felt the pain of everyone she loved dying, she felt the hate of all the terrible thoughts that had ever bounced through her head. Her world was barren, vicious, foul and everything in it made her hate herself. Her skull throbbed. Her knees buckled. She actually gagged as a nausea rose through her guts.

“H-H-Hey, now,” Pinkie said, blinking as tears streamed down her face. “That was a p-pretty good shot.”

Oh, that was nothing. I can do so much worse. But it's your turn now.

Okay!, thought Pinkie, and then she thought. At first her head throbbed and her heart skipped a beat, and she worried above all that she wouldn't be able to find her mysterious opponent. Her mind swept across the town, poking and prodding through tiny places, and- there! There he was! But was she strong enough? I know I am, thought Pinkie. Come on, Pinkie, have faith, have faith!

When she found him- she knew it was a him- she blasted him with the very core of herself. She could feel what he was feeling: his mind, so deep and dark, seemed to flood all of a sudden with sunshine. There were happy ponies smiling and laughing and dancing all about him, and balloons, so many balloons! They rose and swelled, a balloon for each wonderful thing in the world. All of existence was caught up in balloons and sunshine and laughter. Pinkie laughed herself, and pressed harder, willing her love to consume every dark corner-

Ack!

Pinkie smiled. Did I do okay?

Interesting.... the thoughts swirled through her. They seemed weaker than before. But I can't stay obsessed with your frivolity. I have the yellow one to visit.

“Fluttershy?” Pinkie cried. “Fluttershy! Oh, no!”

“Pinkie!”

She turned to see Twilight Sparkle, Spike, Applejack and Rarity running towards her. “Y' all right, girl?” Applejack said.

“I just had the craziest mind game with something!” Pinkie cried.

“He came into my mind also!” Rarity said. “He showed me...” she shuddered. “Ugh! Such horrible things.”

“Mine too!” Applejack shouted.

“I was able to shut him out of my mind, but then he came to me,” said Twilight. “Girls, I... I think he's...”

“Hey!” they looked up to see Rainbow Dash zoom down from just above their heads. “There you girls are! I've been looking all over! Something was in my head!”

“We know!” said Twilight.

“He was in all our heads!” said Spike.

Suddenly a scream pierced the gray gloom. “Fluttershy!” they all shouted at once.

Fluttershy was cowering in the fog, tears leaking down her face. In her mind were horrors beyond mention, shadows of pain, phantoms of her deepest nightmares. “Please,” she whispered quietly, “please, please, please...”

So pathetic. All the Healers are. The moose were just like you, or many of them were- and they were so amusing to break.

“N-No!” Fluttershy said, a burst of courage suddenly filling her. “I... I won't be beaten!” She forced herself to her feet. “You're gonna have to do better than that.”

Oh, of course I shall, the voice said. This is only the beginning. And do you know what? You will not feel the worst of it, not for a while. I believe I shall save you for towards the end, after you have had a chance to see the suffering of your fellows. That is what hurts you the most, isn't it Fluttershy?

“I...” Fluttershy's eyes leaked tears. “I...”

And what's this?

Memories of her song before the fire, with her friends and the deer around her, floated unbidden through her mind.

Ha! Such a song. Sing it for me.

“I...”

Do it.

“Gil-Galad... was...” Crushing, overwhelming despair ran through her. She felt as though the world was ending. “Gil-Galad was... an... an elken king...”

“Fluttershy!” Twilight cried as the five ponies and Spike came running toward her. “Fluttershy, are you all right?”

“Gil-Galad was... Gil-Galad was...”

“Fluttershy, there's no time to be singing some dumb song!” Dash cried.

“Gil-Galad was... an elken... king,” Fluttershy's beautiful voice was consumed by trembling, “of... of him the harpers... sadly sing...”

“Fluttershy!” Applejack said. “Snap out of it!”

Then through the fog there issued a mighty baritone, singing to make the whole of the air ring.

Gil-Galad was a worthless fool!
I broke his throne!
I took his rule!

I tore the antlers from his head!
I laid him low!
I made him dead!

He thought he could oppose my might!
But he was wrong
And I was right!

He learned a lesson meant for all!
To stand against me
Is to fall!

At the final word the fog parted. A black deer with red eyes stood on an outcropping of rock, his powerful antlers burning with crimson fire. He grinned, showing a mouth of white teeth razor sharp. “Hello, my little ponies. It's so good to meet you face to face.”

“You!” Spike shouted.

“Yes, Spike the dragon, how good to see both you and Twilight Sparkle once again,” said the black deer, jumping down from the rock and walking toward them. “When we last met, I had no name at all, but now I've taken a new one. You may call me Reiziger.”

“The princesses will stop you!” Twilight cried.

“Stop me?” Reiziger chuckled. “I've brought, what, a tenth of their land under my control already? And they've done nothing, because they can't. Your princesses are weak.”

“You have no idea what Princess Celestia and Princess Luna can do!” Dash cried. “And if we have to, we'll help stop you ourselves!”

“With what? Inadequate magic? Parochial apple-bucking? Second-rate weather control? Ha!” He began to walk slowly around them; Twilight tracked him with her eyes, horn aglow. “You ponies are fit for nothing more than submission. The only tools you might have used against me are the Elements of Harmony, but you gave them up, didn't you? So foolish.”

“We care more about the well-being of others, and the state of the whole world, than our own power,” said Rarity, striding forward with her own horn shining. “Unlike you, you dreadful beast. You showed me what you were capable of, and I know you for nothing more than a monster!”

“A monster? Yes,” said Reiziger, “but a clever one. A confident one also. You should thank me. It's my conviction I can beat you at any time that explains your still being alive.”

“Oh yeah?” Pinkie cried. “Well we don't want your dumb mercy! Go on! If you're so big and tough, why don't you just blast us right now?”

“Hmm,” Reiziger tilted his head to the side. “You raise a good point.”

“Uh,” Pinkie said.

“Pinkie!” Dash cried.

Reiziger's antlers swirled with glimmering red power.

“Run!” Dash cried. She flung a lightning bolt at Reiziger, which he effortlessly absorbed; it did fluster him, however, and it bought the six just enough time to break off in a gallop. Twilight used her magic to toss Spike onto her back, where he held on for dear life.

They were perhaps fifty feet away when the first blast of magic came. It rattled the bones in their muscles, and all six of them seemed instinctively to curl away from it. The burst of power turned a vast chunk of the open field into a crater licked by red fire.

“Ha ha ha! Yes, run!”

Another blast of battle magic soared right over Twilight's head; she and the others skidded to a halt as it crashed with a thunderous sound in front of them. The third blast came soon after, and it hit the ground behind them, nearly encircling them with smoke and fire.

“We've gotta get out of here!” Dash cried.

“Twilight, teleport us!” Fluttershy said.

“But... I've never teleported so many ponies so far!” Twilight said.

“Yes you have!” Rarity cried. “You teleported Applejack, Dash and I back from the World Snake!”

“But... I don't have a beneviolet to eat! My magic won't be strong enough!”

“You gotta try, girl!” Applejack said. The red flames around them began to rise. “I don't think that fella's playin' around any more.”

Oh, I'm playing around even now. It's just I may still kill you anyway. Indeed, I think I shall!

“Twilight!” Pinkie cried.

“Okay!” Twilight said. “Everypony come close!” They huddled around her, and Twilight concentrated. She tried to think of a safe place, a faraway place, as far as she could get and still feel secure. The teleportation energies sparkled around her; she was using her old unicorn method, briefly forgetting the deer style in her panic. Her horn shimmered, glowed, shone-

I think I shall eat you all alive.

Twilight grit her teeth. “Oh.. no...”

Her cutie mark suddenly shone.

“You... won't!”

There was a huge burst of purple power just as Reiziger walked through the fire. The seven of them vanished on the spot, leaving only a black scorch mark on the gray grass. Reiziger tilted his head to the side. “Huh,” he said. “Ah well.”

“My lord?” a voice came over his shoulder. His eyes gleamed, the red fire vanished, and Trixie could step harmlessly over the burned and shattered ground. “My lord! Did you deal with them?”

“Not today, Trixie,” said Reiziger. “And likely not for a while yet. But that is not important.”

“Okay,” Trixie said, nodding. Her eyes were still wide and held the gleam of madness. “So what is our next course of action, O my lord?”

“The princesses will soon know I have declared myself, if they don't already,” said Reiziger. “Unfortunately, I may not yet be ready to fight them openly.”

“But my lord,” Trixie said, “your power-”

“Is not what it could be,” Reiziger said. “I confess I am only now at half-strength; good enough for anything short of a god, but to deal with Sun and Moon I shall need to regain more of my old might. In the meantime, I shall need allies.”

“Allies, my lord?” Trixie said.

“Oh, yes,” said Reiziger. “Of old, my fellow black deer and I had numerous servants and creatures at our disposal: wights, wraiths, trolls, fell beasts, wyverns and more. I made them from the raw material of the creatures I consumed- ruined, terrible forms of life. Perhaps there are some still in existence?” Reiziger closed his eyes. His antlers pulsed with red power, the aura about them shrinking and growing in time with his breaths. Trixie watched him expectantly, and she felt delight when his eyes came open. “Hmm,” he said, “them?”

“Who, my lord?” Trixie asked.

“The most fragile of all my servants, in a way,” said Reiziger. He began to trot to the west, Trixie in his wake. “And yet, perhaps also the most useful, particularly for my present circumstances. Yes, this will be perfect. Come, Trixie!” His eyes blazed. “We are going bug hunting.”

With a blast of purple power, the six ponies and Spike appeared in the middle of Ponyville's town square. The blaze of sunlight high above briefly wrecked their vision, and they looked wildly around with burnt-out eyes. “We... what?” Twilight stammered.

“We're back in Ponyville!” Spike shouted.

“Twilight, dear, however did you do that?” Rarity asked. “I knew you were capable of teleporting us all, but I didn't expect you to get us clear across the country in an instant.”

“I don't know!” Twilight said. “I just felt something... like a well of clear water...” her violet eyes widened. “My Element of Magic!”

“That must have been it,” Fluttershy said. “We're so lucky!”

“But there's no time to waste about that!” Twilight said. She levitated a pen, ink bottle, and piece of parchment from her saddlebags. “Spike! Take a letter, now!”

“And so our scouts haven't been able to pierce the fog, I'm afraid,” said Dreamside, golden armor shiny in the light that streamed through the balcony.

“Hmm,” Celestia murmured. “We don't want to risk anypony's life, but we must find out what has happened to the ponies in that fog. Is there anything more you can do, commander?”

“Well,” said Dreamside, “I know the Lady Falalauria is nearby. Perhaps she-”

“We have already confided in Lady Falalauria,” said Luna, standing serenely at her sister's side. “She has been unfortunately unhelpful.”

“All right then, your highnesses,” said Dreamside. “I'm just not sure-”

A wisp of sparkling lavender streamed through the massive balcony doors. It swirled through the air over the heads of Celestia's officers, taking one lap through the open space, and then settled in front of Celestia, where it coalesced and formed into a scroll. Celestia took it in her magic, the scroll glowing golden as she unwrapped it. Her eyes swiftly scanned the page, with each new line of written ink expanding wide and wider. “Commander Dreamside,” said Celestia, “I believe you should leave us now. Indeed,” she glanced down at the officers, “Luna and I should like to be alone.”

The commanders exchanged glances. “As you wish, your highnesses,” said one unicorn in silver armor, and the seven of them trotted to the doors out of the throne room, leaving none but the door guards present with the rulers.

Luna by now was reading alongside Celestia. She had always been a swifter reader than her sister, so though they had not started together, that was how they finished. “Reiziger...” Celestia whispered.

“Means 'traveler' if I recall my Old Carib rightly,” said Luna. “So he survived.”

“Lala was right,” said Celestia. “Oh, dear oh dear.”

“My princess!” a shout rang through the doors and an earth pony barreled through them. “My princess- oh, my princesses! Forgive me!” He bowed low.

“Stay yourself, Winderton,” said Celestia. “What is it?”

“Well, my princesses, there are... well, there are deer at the gates.”

“Is that so unusual?” Luna said. “We do have many deer in our borders now.”

“Well, my princesses, these are big deer. Bigger than I've ever seen.”

Celestia and Luna sighed together. “Show them in, good sir Winderton,” said Luna.

“Treat them with the greatest courtesy, and help them find the throne room,” said Celestia. “Also, send word that all further court business is canceled for the day.”

“At once, my princesses!” said Winderton, galloping back out the doors.

“I suppose I should have known they would show up,” said Celestia. “It's not like we could have kept things secret from them.”

“I do not relish explaining ourselves to them,” Luna said, a growl in her voice. “They treat thee and I like children.”

“Because, to a certain degree, we are,” said Celestia, “at least in their eyes. We must be strong, Luna. There are many long nights ahead.”

Chapter 13

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With a blare of its horn and a hiss of steam the train pulled into Grand Canterlot Central. Misty gave a contented sigh and trotted down the halls, her saddlebags full of the lovely produce she'd picked up that very morning at Ponyville's farmer's market. The quaint earth pony town, within a few hours' train ride of the city, grew some of the finest fruits and vegetables in all of Equestria, so Misty had made certain to avail herself of spring-fresh carrots, mouthwatering beets, and above all, succulent apples from the nationally famous farm Sweet Apple Acres.

Still, Ponyville, for all its charms, was not Canterlot. As she stepped onto the white stone platform, Misty's ears filled with the gentle din of the great metropolis, and they popped very faintly as she yawned her way to comfort in the high altitude. She actually found the hustle and bustle fairly relaxing, like the breaking of waves upon the seashore, so she smiled serenely at the crowd dispersing from the-

“Make way!”

Misty was shoved to the side as an orange earth pony in a cowcolt's hat barreled past her, followed by a white unicorn, a blue pegasus with a rainbow- a rainbow mane? Misty immediately jumped away, as did everypony who looked up enough to see the six ponies and one dragon. Everypony knew them. And if they were in a hurry, it had to be for a good reason.

With Spike on her back, Twilight and her five friends galloped out of the station, barreling down the steps lined with towering statues. “Make way!” Twilight cried, causing pony after pony to vault from their path. “Make way! We're going to the castle! Make way!”

They turned right at the bottom of the steps, following the way Twilight knew by heart. Canterlot had many narrow streets and cobbled alleys, but its rising layers were dominated by a long, winding road, paved in slate, that rose higher and higher as it curved clockwise through the city. One could tell it apart from the other roads by the banners that fluttered on posts at either side, fixed with the sun-and-moon device. It was also almost always the widest of roads one could encounter, such that all roads led to it, like streams feeding a great river.

Roundabout and upward more the six and Spike traversed, galloping ever faster. “Make way!” Twilight cried. Her horn flashed with magic, strobing through the ether to warn other unicorns that they should stay well clear. The air grew thin as they ascended. Above the common neighborhoods, through the many shopping districts and artisans' boutiques, through the tall and narrow homes of the most hallowed elite, still they rose. The white and lavender stone was thick about them, tall towers topped with golden splendor flashing in the late spring sun. Gardens now wound about their path, blooming, overrun with verdancy, spewing legions of sweet smells that lingered on their nostrils even as they passed into a final broad ascent of white stone steps. These were lined with the Royal Guard, their gilt armor polished to the finest gleam.

Up the final step- and here! They stood upon the heights of Canterlot, where the white stone and golden domes of the Palace of the Sun lay before them. All the plains of East Equestria were spread two thousand feet below, banners billowed in the cold crisp air of the heights; to their right the peaks of the Eyrie Mountains rose, blue-stoned, white-capped.

“Whew!” Twilight said, fluttering her wings subconsciously as she regained her breath. “Come on, girls!” She galloped the remainder of the way, to a pair of massive golden gates rimmed by ponies wielding spears. “Guards!” she cried. “Open the gates!”

“No can do, Princess Twilight Sparkle, ma'am,” said the lead guard, a brown unicorn in armor.

“What?” Rainbow Dash cried. “What gives?”

“Sir guard, please, this is urgent,” Twilight said. “We've sent a serious letter to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna! They're almost certainly expecting us!”

“Yes, my good fellow,” Rarity said, “please, this is quite important.”

“The princesses are conducting private business right now,” said the chief guard. “No admittance.”

“But you just gotta let us in!” Pinkie Pie cried. “It's super important!”

“Rules are rules, Miss Pie,” said the guard.

“Oh really?” Twilight said. “Well, if rules are rules, you have no choice but to let me in.”

“Uh... what?” the chief guard said, his tufted eyebrow rising.

“I am Princess Twilight Sparkle, as you said,” Twilight began. “And that makes me a princess as recognized by the Equestrian State. This, in turn, makes me a princess as recognized by the Ancient Code of Canterlot. And according to the Ancient Code of Canterlot, a princess will always be recognized as Mistress of Gates. And a Mistress of Gates can decree any gate open or shut that she desires, even if it has been shut by the decree of other princesses.”

“Wait, really?” said the chief guard.

Twilight stepped right up to him, thought of Fluttershy's stare, and gave him what she hoped was a look to peel paint. “Master guard, you know all about me, I'm sure. Are you really going to question me on a matter of something I've read?”

“Oh! N-No, your highness!” the chief guard staggered back, stumbling with both hooves and tongue. “Of course not! I'll open the gate right away!”

“Thank you very much,” Twilight said, as his horn and those of the other unicorns came alight with magic. The gates shimmered in a patchwork of radiant auras, and with mighty groans of metal they creaked open. “Come on, girls! Let's hurry!”

The six ponies and Spike dashed inside, Spike sliding off Twilight's back once they were within the bounds of the castle. As the gates crashed shut behind them, Applejack said, “Golly, Twilight, I never even heard o' that Mistress o' the Gates stuff!”

“Me neither,” Fluttershy said. “Lucky that it exists, right?”

“Uh,” Twilight's purple eyes shifted to the side. “Um, actually, I totally made that up.”

“What?” Dash said.

“So that's what was givin' me a funny feelin' just now!” Applejack said.

“Ooo, Twilight's getting tricksy!” Pinkie said, coming close and nudging her in the side. “Way to fib your way to the greater good, girl!”

“Let's hope it was for good reason!” Spike said. “Come on, girls!” He toddled up the near, shallow steps, hurrying as fast as his stubby legs might carry him.

“Right! Come on!” Pinkie Pie echoed. She bounced up the steps with more spring than usual, covering long measures with each bound.

“Okay!” said Twilight, cantering at accelerated speed. The four other ponies came in her wake, so that they were all moving through long corridors festooned with powerful artwork, polished steel plate, and glimmering stained glass. “Come on!” Twilight said, speeding to a trot. She passed Spike, then used her magic to return him to her back. The others eagerly followed. There was nothing of plod in their pace, no dragged hoof, no sign that they might be fatigued from chase or fear of death. Fear indeed was what drove them on.

At last they galloped down a tremendous hallway, colored windows of stained glass spangling the deep scarlet carpet with bright light in all the rainbow. Two sturdy pegasi were planted like great statues at the closed doors, but Twilight's approach weakened their steadfastness. “Princess!” one of them exclaimed.

“Let us in!” Twilight shouted as the seven drew yet closer.

“We can't!” the second cried.

“Do it now!” Twilight yelled again, her horn growing brilliant bright and sparkling with fury.

The guards were well familiar with the wrath of a princess. It was such a thing as they had felt before, and they had no desire to provoke it yet again. Thus they pulled back, and the great doors with their unfathomably sturdy wood stood free and ready. Twilight's horn grew bright, the mighty oak shuddered, and by gentle measures came the doors to open, leaking snatches of emphatic speech.

“- should have told us, of course. How could you not find us at once?”

“- not our intention to hide things from you-”

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight cried, bursting through the gapped gates into the brilliant chambers. “Princess Celestia, we-” Yet Twilight's great intensity went cold on her lips. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna stood, the former sparkling, the latter glinting, at the base of their shared throne. All around them, turning keen and terrible eyes to face the six and Spike, were deer.

What deer! No white-tails or mule deer among them, nothing of the folk that stood near same-shouldered with ponies. These were massive, mighty deer, all at or past Celestia in size. Six they numbered, some alike, some different. A trio stood together. They were all of powerful build, even though the shaping of their eyes marked each as female, and their antlers swelled like branches of the greatest elms. Their coats were light in weight but not in color: they were ruddy, a rich, resplendent red, which made the bony white of their antlers still more striking. They looked a bit like Falalauria, but though she matched their height her frame was far more graceful.

Rainbow Dash gazed past them, and a gasp slipped from her lips. Beyond them was a deer of even greater size, a monster, mighty, overwhelming. His coat was darkest brown, his eyes deep pools of unrelenting blue. His snout was rounded, and long, and drooped, while his antlers seemed like Spike's palms turned over and swollen. He alone smiled at them; the rest were stern.

At last were two great deer with coats of earthen brown on bottom, snowy silver at the atop. Their antlers were the biggest of them all, huge and sturdy as the limbs of oaks, with tines each the length of Twilight Sparkle's horn. They were the smallest, though they still met Celestia at her shoulder, and the air seemed faintly bent around them, warped as when seen through a strong lens. It was a subtle effect, but it weighed on the mind. One of them looked measured upon Twilight and her friends, but the other, the taller, the stronger swiveled golden eyes their way and made them jump. His stare could have scraped bark from off a birch.

“Ah, Twilight Sparkle,” said Celestia, drawing their eyes her way. “I'm glad you and your friends are here. Your report will be invaluable.”

“This?” said the gold-eyed deer. “This is Twilight Sparkle?” His molten gaze pinned them. “These are the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony?”

“They are,” said Luna. “If you all might introduce yourselves...”

“Oh! Sorry!” Twilight bowed low. “I am Princess Twilight Sparkle. This is my friend Spike.”

“Please to meet you,” Spike said.

“I'm Applejack, m'lords,” her hat swept off her head.

“I am Rarity, your excellencies.”

“I'm Rainbow Dash!”

“Um... um... I'm... I'mfluttershy...”

“I'm Pinkie Pie! It's super cool to meet you! I think I know what you all are, too!” Pinkie pointed at the three ruddy deer, “You're red deer! And you're,” toward the brown titan, “a moose! And you two,” at the silver-coats, “you're elk!”

“You are correct,” said one of the red deer, smiling, seeming not quite so unnerving. “I am Nona.”

“I am Decima,” said another red deer.

“And I am Morta,” said the third. “We are all sisters, as you may have guessed.”

The moose lowered his tremendous head. “I am Nordeshang,” he rumbled, deep as a cistern. “It is a pleasure to meet the ones whose names have spread so far.”

“Indeed,” said the smaller, softer elk. “I am Glorfindel. And this...” he turned to his fellow.

The larger, stronger, fiercer elk did not respond. His golden gaze was smoldering upon the six ponies. Twilight felt the whisper and the tickle of his magic, knew its probing touch that would have shook the mountains were it ever full unleashed. It sped her heart, it raced her spine, to see with her own eyes someone so mighty.

“And this is Fëanor,” said Celestia, “leader of the Deer Elders. All of these distinguished deer were my and Luna's teachers when we first came into the world. Feanor, in particular, taught me magic.”

“Magic, and other things,” said Fëanor, his voice tinged with the special accent of high culture. That melted gold went narrow. “You, Twilight Sparkle, are the Bearer of Magic, are you not?”

“Oh, yes!” Twilight said. “That means I have your Gift, my lord.”

“Bear it well,” said Fëanor. He swiveled back Celestia's way. “Now, Celestia, as we were saying, why did you not inform us of the Herd Lord's release?”

“Well, Fëanor,” said Celestia, her speech carrying the subtle tight intensity that Twilight knew meant she was frustrated, “you certainly know that you all aren't the easiest creatures to get a hold of. Falalauria sent out a magical report, as I recall; it's not her fault, or ours, that you failed to receive it.”

“We received it,” said Morta, “but only hours after the conflict was done. And the report itself contained no details, only mention of a dire threat.”

“Which emphasizes my aggravation,” said Fëanor with flashing gaze. “Details, Celestia! If not at the time, then at least after it was done. Regardless of the Herd Lord's defeat, you should have sought us out and let us know that he had even gotten loose. It matters not that you beat him. What matters is that he escaped in the first place.”

“An occurrence whose blame, however unintended, falls those most recently present,” said Decima, one dark eye moving to sweep over the six ponies.

“Hold on!” Dash cried. “You can't blame us for him getting out!”

“Oh no?” said Glorfindel. “The sisters have Seen into the past. The Herd Lord's prison, which held for millennia, was cracked by the angry movements of the world snake in the Archback Mountains, a world snake that had slumbered, likewise, for millennia. The only reason he woke was because some of you six, particularly you three, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity-”

“And particularly you above all, Rainbow Dash,” Nona said.

“The only reason he woke was because you disturbed him.”

“Twilight was gonna die!” Applejack firmly cried, stepping forward with incensed vigor. In nearly the same motion Rainbow Dash shrunk back, her legs bending gently to a cower in reflection of her shame. “What did y'all expect us to do, just let her go? And how could we have known it would go bad?”

“Er, we did know,” Rarity said softly. The whole of the throne room twitched its gaze upon her. She recoiled from the scrutiny. “That is, Lady Falalauria told me that our going up to the Archbacks would set something in motion that would bring horrible consequences. She particularly mentioned that it would destroy the Shimmerwood.”

“Which it did!” Fëanor snapped. “You cannot fathom what the loss of the Shimmerwood means to the deerfolk. It was a fastness for our kind, a repository of wisdom and craft. For it to burn...” he loosed a thundering sigh.

“Lady Falalauria also threatened to exterminate the three of them,” said Decima.

“I am glad she did not,” Nordeshang rumbled. “Ending an innocent life, even in the preservation of other innocent lives, is not a choice our kind should make.”

“Of... of course not,” growled Fëanor. “No, I am glad she did not kill the three of you. You are Bearers of the Elements, after all. But she could have warned you further. You could have been more careful.”

“But she did not, and they were not,” said Nordeshang. “Let us not dwell overmuch on what is past. It matters now that the Herd Lord has been beaten.”

“Has he?” Fëanor said. “I do not believe it.”

“Uh, actually-” Spike said before he could control his mouth. His scaly palms slapped hard against his lips as those shut tightly, his eyes bulging.

“What?” Fëanor said sharply. “What did you say?”

“Uh, nothing,” said Fluttershy. “Oh, you don't need to... to worry about-”

“The Herd Lord is not dead,” said Luna.

“Oh my gosh!” Pinkie Pie cried.

“What?” Glorfindel roared.

“Apparently we did not finish the job,” said Luna. Her voice held a clinician's levelness. “The Herd Lord endured, however weakly, and slithered into Equestria. He has been building his strength by feeding in his old way.”

“Luna,” Celestia cooed.

“They would have found out sooner or later, sister,” said Luna. “No sense lying to them.”

“Indeed,” said Fëanor. “Thank you, Luna, for your usual forthrightness. As for you,” the golden eyes erupted as they fell upon Celestia, “how could you even think to keep this from us? The Herd Lord? Alive? Alive and strong? Equestria and all the world are in immense danger!”

“I just learned it today, Lord Fëanor,” Celestia said, snipping out her words as though she were nipping leaves. “Perhaps if you would show some uncustomary patience-”

“If I had been patient with you, you would never have learned anything,” growled Fëanor. “Has he taken on a new name?”

“He calls himself Reiziger now,” Twilight dared to speak, and shuddered when the great deer turned her way. “He's... well, he's already taken over a couple of towns and cities-”

“He is taking territory?” Nona exclaimed. “He is already that powerful?”

“Everything in the towns was super gray and misty!” Pinkie said. “And all the dead ponies were gray, too!”

“So he has been feeding,” Nordeshang said.

“Morta!” Fëanor said. “Look upon Equestria. What parts of it are hidden from you?”

Morta's eyes engorged. Dark as pitch they turned, and stars came out to dot them. Her sisters looked upon her gently, all the rest were eager, and they waited, waited, the throne room soft and sunny. Rarity reflected that it truly was serene, a picture so lovely it might have been enshrined in some great baron's gallery. Such a stark contrast from the darkness that had lain upon the misty towns, and the darkness, the doom, the threat that hung now above them all, suspended like a sword of sharpest edge.

“There is a swath some few hundreds of miles in the west of Equestria,” said Morta at last, her eyes returning to their normal dark. “It is misted over, and my Sight cannot penetrate it.”

“So that is where he lies,” said Fëanor. “How could you let things grow so dire, Celestia?”

“They are not as grim as you make them out to be, Lord Feanor,” sad Celestia. “I have the situation well in hoof.”

“Well in hoof?” Fëanor repeated, nearly barking out the final word. “Celestia, the Herd Lord is taking your country from you! Leagues already have fallen into shadow. You cannot afford to dither. This situation must be dealt with at once.” He stood. The light seemed to twist a hint more deeply around him. “And we shall be the ones to deal with it.”

“I won't permit it,” said Celestia. “I know how you will deal with this, Feanor. Your methods are not gentle, nor are their consequences acceptable.”

“Gentleness has no place in this matter,” Fëanor said. “You do not treat a cancer with ointment. You cut it out.”

“I will not permit you to use your battle magic in Equestria,” Celestia snarled. “The devastation it would cause rivals any damage Reiziger himself might do.”

“If you had paid attention in your history classes, you would know how foolish that statement is,” said Fëanor. “Nothing we could do to stop the Herd Lord comes anywhere close to his evil.”

“You and Luna used battle magic against him the first time you fought, if you'll recall,” said Decima.

“We did,” said Celestia, “but that was because we fought in the Broken Lands. They were abandoned and ruined, so we were free to cut loose. Even so, the Shimmerwood burned. Why would you visit such horror upon my land?”

Fëanor breathed deeply, in and out. His golden eyes, for just a moment, lost their fire. “Oh, Celestia,” he huffed, “I do not relish any destruction, except perhaps the Herd Lord's. But you must understand. The Herd Lord is like no enemy you have faced. He does not kidnap princesses, he does not steal gems or harvest love. He wages war. Can you withstand him?”

“I believe we can,” said Celestia.

“What is your plan?” said Nordeshang.

“If you all will put your faith in me,” said Celestia, “I shall put my faith in the Elements of Harmony.” She gazed serenely upon Twilight and the others. The Elders turned their terrible eyes likewise upon them, raising each pony's hackles.

But Pinkie bounced forward. “You can count on us, Princess Celestia!” she cried, standing on her back legs to toss out a salute.

“Bah,” growled Fëanor, “the Elements are not strong enough to beat the Herd Lord.”

“How would we know?” Nordeshang asked. “Recall that we did not possess the Elements at the time the War began.”

“The Elements have beaten stronger foes than Reiziger,” Luna said. “They were enough to defeat Discord, and convince him to embrace friendship. They also purged the Nightmare from me, and when I had it I was close in power to Reiziger at his mightiest.”

“But Princess-” Twilight began, but Celestia gently shook her head, thus Twilight kept silent.

“It would be a great boon to defeat the Herd Lord without causing too much destruction,” Glorfindel admitted.

Fëanor bared his teeth for a moment, mouth grit tight with consternation. He swiveled at length toward the sisters. “Can it be done?”

“The future is uncertain,” said Nona.

Morta continued, “It always is where the Herd Lord is concerned.”

“But there seems to be a chance,” Decima finished.

A deep breath drew through Fëanor's snout. He held it, mighty chest swollen, while his head came down with terrible, pensive consideration. Glorfindel was about to speak when Fëanor at last said, “Fine. We shall give you a chance, Celestia. However, we shall be watching closely- very closely. If we think, if we even suspect, that this matter has grown beyond your capabilities, we shall step in, and we shall manage the Herd Lord once and for all- no matter what stands in our way.”

“Thank you, Lord Fëanor,” Celestia said, and Twilight saw the faint hints of relief flood through her form.

“Don't thank us yet,” growled Fëanor. “I still have my misgivings. But for now, I shall trust you.” He swiveled his great head to face the others. “We retreat to our present fastness. But, again, we shall be watching. Farewell, Celestia. Luna.” He turned to the six ponies and Spike. “Elements.” Then he took one dainty step backwards, and vanished.

Nona, Decima, and Morta likewise flickered out of presence with some small motion of their hooves. Next came Glorfindel, winking away as though he were some ancient phantom. Finally came Nordeshang, but he did not choose to at once make himself scarce. His lengthy, sturdy legs brought him around to face the throne, and there he lowered his immense head, blue eyes bright. “As always, Celestia, Luna, it is a pleasure to see you. And, as always, I apologize for Lord Fëanor's brusqueness. You know he means well.”

“We do,” said Celestia. “And as always, Nordeshang, your courtesy and kindness are greatly appreciated.”

“I do hope you are right, you know,” Nordeshang said deeply. “I should like the Elements of Harmony to prevail.” He swiveled around to face the six ponies and Spike. “Know that at least one of us has hope, O Bearers.” His gaze swung slowly over them. It lingered for a special, extra moment upon Fluttershy. Their eyes met; she was briefly frightened, but then calmed and soothed. She nodded. So did Nordeshang. “Farewell.” He stepped backward, thus was gone.

“Unnggh,” groaned Celestia, slumping back in her throne. “Every meeting with them feels like I'm taking one of my old exams.”

“Thou passed with flying colors, by my estimation,” Luna said. She turned to the ponies. “Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Applejack,” she glanced downward, “and dear Spike, we do apologize for making you endure such terrible old folk. But perhaps it was good for you to meet them now. As you may guess, they shall not be strangers henceforth.”

“That Fëanor guy is a jerk!” said Dash. “How could you two let him boss you around like that?”

“Because Lord Fëanor is powerful and wise,” said Celestia. “And he's not wrong about the risks Reiziger poses. His fear is well-founded. He and the other Elders were part of the group of high deer who finally defeated Reiziger the first time, at the end of the Deer War. They were the ones who beat him and sealed him away. He knows what Reiziger is capable of.”

“Which is why we must be careful,” said Luna. “We cannot allow Equestria to suffer too much harm. It may even better to temporarily ceded portions of the country to him, rather than wreck it by deploying powerful magics.”

“But, Princesses,” Twilight said, wings ruffling, “you mentioned the Elements of Harmony. We don't have them any more!”

“Yeah! They're on the Tree o' Harmony!” Applejack said.

“Ah, but recall what Lady Falalauria said,” Celestia responded. “The Elements are more than just the gems you once possessed. They are in your spirits. Their power is your power. That is why, henceforth, each of you six must begin to seriously strengthen your ties to your Element of Harmony. You must exercise your Gifts as much as you can, to build them up and thus increase the power of the Element within you. Only then will you be able to summon the Rainbow of Light, and you will be able to do it even without the gems. Then Reiziger will be defeated. I'm certain.”

“So that is thy plan, then, Tia?” said Luna.

“Indeed it is, Lulu,” said Celestia. “Luna and I shall help you as much as you can. So will Falalauria. In fact, I insist that all six of you consult her to help strengthen your Elements. Remember that she can peer across all of space and time with near-perfect accuracy. She has access to thousands of years of wisdom concerning the Elements of Harmony, their Gifts, and the techniques to make them mighty.” Celestia nodded, and Twilight saw the marks of newfound vigor steal into her bright magenta gaze. “In the meantime, we must prepare for Reiziger's offensive. Doubtless it is coming, and we have no clue yet what form it might take. All our energy must be focused.”

“We must begin by evacuating western Equestria,” said Luna. “However, we should do it subtly, so as not to alarm the general populace.”

“I don't think there's any way that won't alarm them, Luna,” said Celestia. “In fact, it might be good if they were alarmed. Dark times are upon us, and everypony must exercise no small degree of caution.”

“Princesses,” Twilight said with quiet fervor, “if you need room to house ponies from the west, Ponyville-”

“No need, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna. “Thou has been generous enough finding homes for all the deerfolk. We shall find other towns and cities in which to resettle the ponies of the west.” She swiveled her effervescent turquoise eye back up unto her sister's gaze. “What of the south? Is Appleoosa safe?”

“Likely, for the moment,” said Celestia. “Let us not disturb any more than we must. For now, let us hope that the powers of the Elements of Harmony can prevail in swift order.”

“We won't let you down, princesses!” Rarity said, her hoof stamping hard upon the scarlet rug.

“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie said. “We'll make our Gifts so super strong that dumb ol' Reiziger won't know what hit him!”

“I... I'm not sure we can do it,” Fluttershy said, “or, I'm not sure I can do it.” She drew in one deep breath. “But I'll try.”

“Y'all can count on us! We'll be true and sturdy!” Applejack said.

“Yeah, we'll do it,” said Rainbow Dash, lacking some of her typical spirit. She could not help but dwell upon Reiziger's words, his taunts to her that she alone should be enough to vanquish him.

“You girls can count on me, too!” Spike said. “Any single thing any of you need to make this happen, I'll help however I can!”

Twilight gently nuzzled him, her heart aglow. “I'm sure we'll need your help, Spike,” she said. “In fact, I'm sure we'll need the help of everypony we can find.”

“First, though,” said Celestia, “you all have come so far and been through so much danger. Might I offer you some lunch?”

“I'm starving!” Pinkie Pie cried.

“Then come,” said Celestia, fluttering her great white wings and coming down so gently from the throne. “I guarantee the kitchens have something cooked up.”

They started out, Celestia and Luna side-by-side, the six ponies together, standing strong, unbroken, unrelenting, un- “Hey, Rainbow!” called out Applejack. “Y'all comin'?”

"Oh, yeah!” said Dash. Why not you? After all, aren't you the strongest? “Yeah, I'm coming.” And she made great haste to join the parting crowd.

A Note on Power Levels

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Magic filters slowly through the bloodlines of a species. When the deer began at first to harness the arcane energies that filled the space about them, the resulting spells and forces were extremely weak. A deer, even one so mighty as a strongly-antlered elk, would have to strain merely to move one rock from one pile to the next. But magic, at least the magic of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, works rather like a muscle. The more you practice it, the stronger it becomes.

However, it is more precise to state that the magic of the ponyverse acts like a muscle if its gains of strength switched off from being temporal to being most genetic. When a pony- or a deer, or an antelope, or any such creature- has been working with their magic for some time, that magic is much amplified inside them. And then that amplification is impressed upon the very blood and marrow of the creature casting spells. This means that nearly every gain in magic power born from careful effort becomes permanent- and even more than that, becomes inheritable. The very first elk, red deer, mule deer and more who used magic built upon their pitiful abilities through careful effort- and the strength they gained they passed along to all deer that came after.

Now? The deerfolk, and the Elders that are their most mighty remnant, represent the apex of the deer's long bond with magic. Fëanor and all his fellow high deer Elders have within their veins the magic of millennia of effort. This has made them mighty far beyond compare, with spells of such a scale that they might shatter mountain ranges and set all the seas to boil. The common deer- the mule deer and the white-tails- are not as strong, but they too on average have far, far more magic than a pony unicorn.

And magic is the strength of life within the ponyverse, which means that once a creature passes one specific level in their arcane strength they turn effectively immortal. Morta, Decima, Nona and the other elders have persisted young and strong for ages- the youngest of them, Glorfindel, is twenty-five hundred years old and still counting. Mule deer and white-tail deer live centuries.

Far beyond what any pony might achieve? Not quite. The ponies are a very young race, their bond with magic less than two thousand years in age. They have, in contrast to the deerfolk, only just begun to tap their magical potential, and the gains of all their elders have already been imprinted on the newest generations. Twilight Sparkle is of special note. Even as a 'normal' unicorn she wielded power stronger than a common deer, and her possession of the Element of Magic cannot be the only explanation. I suspect she comes from some old line of sorcerers, perhaps from deep within Equestria's more primeval past, and the strides they made in magic were transmitted through the years to her. Were Twilight to birth foals, and those foals in the future to have children, eventually a line would rise of unicorns as powerful as high deer. Twilight in her strength is a firm glimpse into the future of the ponyfolk's arcane potential.

Additionally, ponies have one more trick up their sleeve. The high deer are immensely powerful, comparable to gods. But they are not gods- yet Celestia and Luna are. The coming of the Sisters changed the nature of the pony species, giving them, in essence, a long line of golden thread that stretches up to heaven. Sun and Moon have ties to the infinity of all the cosmos, and through them, other ponies have the chance, however rare, to reach godhood themselves. Princess Cadence is the first of this example, and Twilight herself is now the second. Might other ponies, somewhere further down the line, achieve divinity? Time alone will tell.

Chapter 14

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The hive was black and twisted, squirming through the cracks in the ancient, grayish canyon. Its nighted chitin was as thick as dragonhide, and what holes were present in its ancient surface had been plastered firmly over with transparent material in a pattern like a honeycomb, blue and shimmering. There was a note, indeed, of bees and wasps to the whole area of the hive- and it was in fact a hive. But its aspect was inescapably sinister, and as Trixie glanced upon it, all the way unto its highest spires, she felt transcendent dread.

Although of course, the being standing firm beside her was a mighty source of dread in his own right. “Hmmm,” cooed Reiziger, tilting his great antlered head. “It is bigger than I expected.”

“Is that bad, my lord?” Trixie asked.

“On the contrary,” said Reiziger. “Bigger means more inhabitants. Bigger means larger folk. Bigger is better. Come.” And he in a trot set off, his long black legs carrying him forth with palpable swagger. Reiziger, to use a common phrase, walked toward the hive like he owned it. Which, in some sense, he did.

They met the first resistance when they were perhaps a dozen feet away. The entrance to the hive was filmed over with translucent bluish slime, at once both hard and plastic. As they approached it seemed almost to melt, oozing backwards into the black edges of the massive open space. A loud and most infernal buzzing issued forth from deep within the hive. They did not have to wait much longer for the source of this terrible noise to assert itself, for from the depths of the dark space there came things that at first glance seemed like ponies. Their basic body shape was faintly similar, as fate would have it.

No ponies, however, were so black and slick as these, their bodies carrying the faint, weak glint of buglike plating. Nor, in fact, were ponies so sickeningly, upsettingly pockmarked. The creatures' stubby legs and stout torsos were peppered with holes, totally unfilled openings that let the other side of space see through them. Tattered sky blue wings swung back and forth faster than sight, slowing to a stronger, deeper thrum as the creatures hovered down to touch the earth. Their mouths were full of whitened fangs, their eyes were cruel cyan and had no pupils.

“Halt!” one of them cried, voice faintly reverberated. “Who disturbs the Hive of Queen Chrysalis?”

“Queen?” Reiziger said, arching an eyebrow above one wicked crimson eye. “Since when was Chrysalis the queen of anything?”

“She is our lady and our mistress!” cried another of the things. “She is Absolute Ruler of the Changelings! This is her domain, and you are trespassing. Now give us a good reason not to drain you dry!”

“Drain?” Trixie said.

“Yes, little pony, drain,” buzzed the third of the changelings, ever so slightly taller than his fellows. “We-”

“They feed upon emotion,” said Reiziger. “They take the powers of the spirit and use it to fuel the magic that keeps them moving. Their favorite food is love, but when pressed they can consume other emotions also.”

“So you have studied our kind,” said the third changeling.

“I know you better than you know yourselves, little changelings,” said Reiziger. “I am quite familiar with your methods. The way you eat from the souls of creatures is a dim reflection of my own feeding.”

“Your own?” said the first changeling. He gave a buzzing snarl and bared his fangs. “Enough of this! You-”

“Wait!” the third changeling stepped forward. Reiziger tilted his head ever so gently toward the left. The third changeling took one more step forward, then another, then yet one more. Reiziger was still and quiet. The changeling's empty blue eyes met the Herd Lord's empty red. “No...” he breathed. “No, you cannot be... can you?”

Reiziger smiled with all his terrible sharp teeth. “Can I not?”

The third changeling gasped. He stepped quite sharply backward, but not too far- just far enough that he had ample room to fall upon his knees. “M-Master! My Lord!”

“What?” said the second changeling. “What is this? What madness has come over you?”

“If you knew in whose presence we stood, you would be on your knees too!” said the third changeling. Firmly he pressed his forehead to the dirt. “Forgive them, my lord! They are young!”

“And you are not?” Reiziger asked. “Are there any of the original stock left?”

“I am older than they, my lord, though I was still born after the Second Sun's rising,” said the third changeling. “But my breed... my comb... we are the archivists of the changelings, my lord. I know the history. I know the truth.”

“Good,” said Reiziger. “It is always gratifying to be remembered. Now, where is Queen Chrysalis?”

Queen Chrysalis' great cerulean wings fluttered sharply as she flew down from the sky. It seemed each beat would cause the air to shudder, and her passage through the clouds left faintest ripples in her wake. Chrysalis, like her subjects, fed upon emotions that were stored within the hearts of other beings. Chrysalis, however, had been elevated far above a normal changeling's bounds. She was capable of consuming greater concentrations of love, of hate, of fear than all the rest, and thus as a result she could ascend far higher with her magical constitution. This time was one such occasion. Chrysalis, roaming far into the coves along the shores of deep eastern Equestria, had found a mother dragon nursing nearly adolescent hatchlings. She had guzzled up the love that passed between parent and child, leaving her surpassing powerful. Of course, with no love to arouse comforting treatment, the mother dragon had turned upon her spawn, consuming them with the same zeal she might have used to feed upon a bison. Such bursts of awful cruelty were common side effects of changeling feeding, but Chrysalis made no apologies. A lady had to eat, after all.

She landed with a burst of dirt around her charcoal feet. Her long and oily mane wound seaweed blue about her neck and back and shoulders, drooping down along one side of her extended throat. Her horn, jagged with chunks taken out of it, glinted slimy green, pulsing with the power that her subjects recognized. Chrysalis stood smugly before the oozing bluish gate. She couldn't wait to receive the adulation of her subjects when they felt the immense store of love she had harvested. Of course she'd keep the bulk for her own strength, but there was so much power in her now she'd spare some yet for all inside the hive. She would-

She would do all this when she was through the gate, but there seemed to be some delay to her ingress. The blue ooze had not budged, though Chrysalis had sent her signal inside several minutes ago. “Oy!” came her cry, voice echoing back upon itself within her throat. “It is I, your queen! Let me in!”

Still there was no answer. Chrysalis stood still a little while more, irritation at her subpar treatment growing ever stronger all the while. At last her patience ended. She pulsed green power all throughout her horn, and the blue ooze split apart, flowing back into the confines of the black chitinous walls.

“I am going to punish someone thoroughly for this,” rumbled Chrysalis as she trotted into the darkened depths of the hive. Her anger only strengthened as she moved yet further in. Where there should have been strong drones awaiting her, to hail her and to do her proper homage, instead she found mere emptiness, the surging antechamber stretching barren far before her and far high above her head. “Attention!” Chrysalis cried, voice swallowed by the thickened, moistened air. “It is I, Queen Chrysalis! I demand my subjects come at once!”

Again there came no answer. In the stifling quiet, however, Chrysalis could faintly hear the pulse of untold voices. She would know their location if her eyes had been put out: it came from the throne room. She broke into a gallop, hurrying down slime-paneled halls and across chasms bottomed with black combs. At last she wheeled round one impressive corner, stopping at the crude, enormous entrance to the place her throne was set. The space was filled with changelings. There must have been some fifth of all the hive within the chamber, crammed in every spot upon the floor and buzzing with their wings above her head. When they saw her, their expressions were of whole, complete surprise.

“What is this?” Chrysalis cried, shoving her way through the shellshocked throng. “What is the purpose of you gathering here? Why was I, your queen, not feted at the gate! There will be serious-”

“Calm yourself, lieutenant,” came a voice from back and up. “Such an agitated temperament does not befit royalty.”

Chrysalis felt shudders up her spine. She hadn't heard that voice in more than three thousand years, yet she would know it if ten millennia had passed. Fear and loathing gripped her as she turned herself around. Upon the throne, upon her throne, there sat a pitch black deer. His red eyes were like lanterns in the heavy shadow. When their eyes had come to meet, he smiled, showing all his glinting teeth, so white and sharp. A small pony with a bluish coat stood just beside the throne, gazing down upon them with great bafflement inside her purple eyes.

“M-Master!” Chrysalis cried, shouldering aside the changelings round her so as better to fall down upon her knees. “My Lord! I never dreamed to see you again!”

“Then perhaps you should have slept more soundly at night,” said the black deer. “You must have known it was impossible to kill me.”

“Well, I... I didn't know anything back then, my lord,” said Chrysalis. “I was merely a second-in-command. I thought that when you were beaten, you were beaten. I could never have imagined you might return.”

“Well, here I am,” said the black deer.

“Yes!” Chrysalis said, forcing notes of joy into her speech. “Yes, how wondrous to see you again, O My Lord-” the next word made her throat constrict, her talking stopping sharply.

“Unfortunately, my old name can no longer be used,” said the black deer. “Pity. I rather liked it. Ah, well. I am called Reiziger now.”

“Reiziger! A fine, fine name, my lord!” said Chrysalis, again sounding more happy than she felt. “So what... what brings you to my humble hive?”

“Well, Queen Chrysalis,” said Reiziger, “perhaps we could discuss that in private?”

“Oh, of course!” Chrysalis swiftly beat her wings and rose full up into the air. “There's an excruciation chamber just to the right of the throne room here,” her horn flashed green and one wall pulled away, “where we can speak.”

“Excellent,” said Reiziger. “Wait here, Trixie,” he said to the pony. He took a step down off the throne and promptly vanished. Chrysalis noticed him appear inside the newly unveiled chamber, and so she flew to meet him, buzzing low just feet above the heads of her dear subjects. Her subjects- yet they had stood in rapt attention in Reiziger's presence.

She touched down inside the chamber. It was filled with racks and hooks and chains of every size and sort, so shaped to hold all manner of poor creatures as she tortured them with glee. Now it was she whose torture was exquisite, her blackened heart awrack with doubt and illness to behold her master yet again. “Ah, so, my lord,” said Chrysalis, flashing horn inciting the chamber door to seal itself, “what business have you with me, your humble servant?”

“Firstly,” said Reiziger, “what is this business of you being a queen? I gave you no such rank.”

“Y-You must understand, my lord,” she said with fervor, “these changelings, the common ones, they recognize royalty! You conditioned them to follow kings and lords! It's a holdover from the days when you and the other black deer were in command. I had to give them greater reason to follow me when you were gone.”

“But queen?” said Reiziger. “'Lady' I could understand. But queen implies coronation, Lieutenant Chrysalis. It implies final authority.” Crimson fire flashed upon the black tines of his antlers. “Even in death and absence, Chrysalis, there is only one creature at the top of all things: me.”

“Of course, my lord,” growled Chrysalis, striving with all might to keep her irritation down. “Forgive any untoward behavior on my part.”

“It is forgiven, provided you assume your former place,” said Reiziger.

“So you need me as your second again?” Chrysalis asked. “Whatever for?”

“For war, Lieutenant Chrysalis,” said Reiziger. “What do you think my intentions are? I am at a little more than half strength now, but I shall wait no longer to begin my campaign against Celestia and Luna. The foundations of their demise must be laid, and I shall count on the changelings to do my bidding.” He trotted across the chamber, glancing back over his shoulder. “Naturally, you will be commander of all our moves on the battlefield. I well recall your strength as a tactician.”

Indeed, Chrysalis had been a great military mind in her day, engineering victories with most cunning use of force and strong design. Her mind was built to gain the edge, and now she worked it feverishly to weigh her options. Reiziger, her would-be lord, was back. He expected her to take orders again. But I don't want to! Chrysalis had grown content with being supreme ruler. She would not so readily return to working in the service of another. Yet what to do? What was her plan? Great Reiziger could not be challenged lightly. He was- at half strength. Chrysalis recalled the words that were only just spoken. She remembered her lord in his illustrious heyday, wielding magics that could level mountain ranges. Yet he was at one half of his old power, and she... she felt the power roiling in her form. The love she had consumed had granted her magic most tremendous. She felt she might herself reduce the tall Archbacks to rubble. Perhaps...

“Lieutenant?” said Reiziger. She glanced up at him, meeting with the luminescent crimson of his eyes. “Shall we introduce ourselves anew to the hive?”

No! There was no overcoming him. Reiziger's amazing strength would vanquish her at even half its level. She would have to bend the knee. But she hated it. She couldn't! She wouldn't! But she had to! “I...” she breathed, “I...”

“Come come, lieutenant, there's no need to tarry.”

Chrysalis surveyed her stratagems. She could feign loyalty until such time as Reiziger was vulnerable. She could inspire a riot in the changelings and then slip a knife between his ribs while he was much distracted. She could- none of it would have success! She'd fail at every turn! Reiziger was glancing at her. As her eyes fell on him yet again he gapped his lips and smiled wide with all those horrid teeth. That grin, which once she had most gladly served, now turned her stomach. How could she serve him, after all her years of comfortable reign? How could she? What could she do? What? What?

“I... I...” Chrysalis was scrambling in her thoughts, “I... m-my lord, before we go, do have a look over here.” She cursed herself for this stupidity. What was she thinking?

“Oh yes?” said Reiziger, stalking past her toward the wall that she had indicated. Once his back was to her Chrysalis' mighty logic failed her totally. Her horn lit up with putrid green emission, and with her heart and mind gone wild in panic, she fired a gout of battle magic straight at her would-be lord.

Reiziger did not turn in time to shield himself. The blast erupted at his flanks, sending him far back to crash against one chitin wall. With bestial fury Chrysalis fired again, then yet again, over and over in a furious succession. The hive began to quake and rock from all the power being summoned, earth shaking, stalactites of sticky substance cracking off and shattering on the floor. Reiziger was smashed deep up against the wall, pounded like a nail into the blackened surface by the furious assault of his lieutenant. The top half of the wall, in fact, gave way, crumbling in massive chunks to crash down upon Reiziger and all the space around him.

Chrysalis very nearly blasted straight through to the outside. As it was, when her great magic finally ceased she found she'd bored a chasm in the hive, a crude grotto whose sides still glowed from all the power they had witnessed. She skittered backward, breaths now coming hard. The great mountain of rubble in which Reiziger was buried did not stir. She waited with her nerves afire. Nothing.

“I... I did it?” Chrysalis stammered. Her toothy mouth broke out into a wild grin. “I did it! I-I don't believe it! Ha! Ha ha ha!” Her bursts of laughter broke down into chuckling, giddy glee consuming all her heart. “I actually did it!” She turned back toward the entrance of the chamber with a flick of her webbed tail. “Sorry, my lord, but I've grown fond of being in charge. And if you couldn't even withstand that, then what good would all your plans have done you?” She trotted briskly toward the exit, preparing with her magic to pull back the door and be amongst her subjects- they were her subjects, indeed. She would have to deal with the pony, perhaps torture her a bit-

That was foolish, lieutenant.

Chrysalis whirled immediately around, her deep jade green eyes abulge with absolute despair. Her body was enveloped in an aura of infernal crimson, holding her most firm in place as Reiziger stepped from the rubble, his own eyes blazing red. Red fire raged in torrents on his antlers, filling all the chamber with the deeply scarlet blaze. Chrysalis gazed upon him and knew his majesty, yet also knew eternal terror. She was lifted into the air then smashed against the door of the chamber.

“Did you think you could beat me, you ungrateful cretin?” Reiziger snarled. “Did you think, even with all that love to fuel you, that you would have enough strength to bring me down? Did you think you would ever be anything but a second?”

Reiziger's battle magic flashed in a gout of crimson. Chrysalis was blasted back through the chamber seal, hurtling with billowing black rubble out into the midst of all the changelings. They scattered to the best of their abilities within the packed expanse. Chrysalis tried to force herself to stand. Reiziger stepped out of the ruined chamber door, the shadows swelling dark and fell about him.

“The stupidity! The audacity of you, to think you could usurp me!” Reiziger bellowed, conveying clear to all the changelings in the space the crime for which their mistress had been struck. “I knitted you together from nothing at all and this is the thanks I get?”

“M-Master, forgive me!” Chrysalis with all her effort hauled herself to standing. “You must know that I-”

“I know you are a traitor,” Reiziger said. He took one graceful step and swiftly vanished, then reappeared just right in front of her. His razor teeth flashed out and sank with fervor deep into her neck, tearing strongly at the flexing outer skin. Chrysalis screamed as a huge and oozing chunk was bitten from the right side of her throat. She staggered backward, shocked and numbed, and thus did Reiziger make his penultimate move. He drove forward, dove forward, and caught Chrysalis' lean and limber torso within the thorny tines of his black antlers. She rolled onto her back amidst the tines, and Reiziger pulsed magic through them. They grew and swelled, becoming spikes that trapped her firm in place atop his head. She writhed where she was pinned, long legs flailing in the shadowed air.

“My Lord! Please!” Chrysalis exclaimed. “Please, please forgive me!”

“Do you think me stupid?” Reiziger cried. “No, not now, not ever.” The shadows round him swelled to depths unfathomable, and for long moments he seemed fuzzy, out of focus, some thing with far too many antlers, eyes, and teeth. “First, I shall take all the love you have harvested for myself.” Chrysalis grew noticeably feebler, her flailing losing energy as Reiziger drained all the love she'd stolen. He, meanwhile, stood that much taller, that much straighter, shadows swirling with might and strength unspeakable.

Trixie, from her perch next to the throne, gazed in wonder at her lord. She was of course immensely pleased to see he had survived the strike that had been meant to kill him. Of course, there was also fear- it was impossible not to fear Reiziger, so horrifying was it to be anywhere within his nearby presence. However, it was a horror she had learned to tolerate, fighting back revulsion as she told herself it was all to her benefit. At length, Chrysalis seemed old and worn, while Reiziger seemed younger and far stronger now than ever, looking all the more like some proud deer in the midst of a great rut.

“Now that that is done, it is time,” Reiziger growled.

“My Lord!” Chrysalis screamed. “My Lord, mercy! I'll take the lowest place! I'll wash your antlers, I'll kiss your hooves clean of dirt each day! Please, my lord! Please!”

“You know the law, Queen Chrysalis!” he cried. “The old law of my forces, the law above all others! There is only one crime: disloyalty!”

“Please, My Lord!”

“And there is only one punishment!”

“No!”

“Death!” The air began to shake from all the power being summoned. Trixie prepared herself to witness Chrysalis' being blown apart. If only that had been the route Reiziger chose. Instead, Reiziger suddenly ceased his buildup. Chrysalis was allowed one final second to believe she might be spared. Then Reiziger smiled with all his awful teeth, and with the silent shuffle of a spark on tinder, crimson fire came alight upon his antlers.

Chrysalis screamed and writhed as she was burned alive. The changelings watched, held fast by their deep horror, none lifting so much as a hoof to help their would-be queen. Trixie, from her spot, watched just as long as she could manage, beholding the way Chrysalis' eyes were burning thickly, the way her mane caught special, brightened fire, the way her wings erupted in quiet explosions at her sides. But the more Chyrsalis burned, the sicker Trixie became, and so at last there came a point at which she had to close her eyes, for good measure falling to her belly and covering up her eyelids with her hooves. This, however, left her ears still open, so she kept on hearing Chryaslis' terrible screams, which grew higher and higher in their pitch until at last there was one final, horrible wail, a keening screech that rose into the highest reaches of the ceiling of the hive. Then all was still. Only the rustling of the crimson flames filled up the space with noise.

Trixie opened her eyes. Where once there had been Chrysalis within Reiziger's antlers there was now a curled up husk, blackened so completely that it was indeed no longer black, but rather the dull gray that things become when they have had their carbon burnt. Reiziger's flames grew lower, then diminished. He shook his head sharp to the side-

The husk that had been Chrysalis collapsed into a bursting cloud of ash, streams of soot that pooled down from his antlers to fall dusty at his hooves. Reiziger stepped hard upon the cremated remains of his old second-in-command, back into the mass of all the changelings. They parted around him, fearful of his touch. In this way they made a path that led him to the throne, which he silently mounted step by step until he reached the chitin seat. There he settled back upon his haunches, gazed upon the massed changelings with a most eerie serenity, and whispered, “Bow.”

He may as well have shouted. The changelings' swift response was stark and sharp: every drone within the throne room got as low as he or she could manage, falling to their knees as best they could when they were so crowded round by all their fellows. Trixie, for good measure, bowed as well. Thus they remained for several agonizing minutes, so intensely frightened that they could not have stood up if all the hive had been collapsing round their ears.

“Rise,” Reiziger said at length, so the horde came to their hooves. “You there,” he said, glancing down toward the frontmost of the mass. His antlers shimmered red, and a red outline came up around one changeling, slightly taller than the rest. “You- you were the first to hail me at the gate. Step forward.” The changeling did so, each step ashake with trembles. “What is your name?”

“W-Well, I... I don't have a name, my lord.”

“Do you not?”

“No,” said the changeling. “We of the drones do not have names. We know each other by our scents.”

“Ah, yes, that's right,” said Reiziger. “But if you were to choose a name, what might it be?”

“Well, my lord, I've always been partial to the word 'metamorph.' I think it would suit me.”

“Then stand tall, Lieutenant Metamorph,” said Reiziger, his antlers covered up with crimson flames. A ring of reddish power came all over and upon the lonely changeling, so that it quite suffused him. Thus did he begin to change: his legs stretched out, his torso grew all lengthened and then leaned, a horn sprouted tall up from his forehead. His wings grew long and deadly like a wasp's. When he was finished, he bore nearly the same body structure as the executed Chrysalis, though slightly thicker, just a hint more masculine. Attention to all changelings in the hive! Reiziger pressed out his thoughts into the many corridors and chambers, along with images of everything that had transpired between himself and Chrysalis. I, Reiziger, Lord of all the Herds, am once more your master and your god! However, I shall delegate some measure of authority to my lieutenant, Metamorph, as well as to my high priestess, Trixie! Obey them as you would me, and prepare for great things in the days to come!

“High priestess?” Trixie asked, turning his way.

“Well of course,” said Reiziger. “Did you think I wouldn't give you a title? I reward loyalty, Trixie, just as I punish disloyalty.” He swept his crimson gaze upon the gathered changelings far below the throne. “Lieutenant Metamorph, I would have you join me at my side. The rest of you are dismissed!”

Metamorph took several moments to adjust the buzz of his much longer, newer wings. At length he seemed to grow more used to them, for he flew up to Reiziger in swift succession, touching down at last upon the left side of the throne. Trixie already stood at Reiziger's right side, and it struck her then that this was fitting. Here she was, a handmaid to a lord with a new army, after spending so much time down on her luck. There were still soft misgivings in her mind at how far down she had gone from her earned morality, but what of it? Was there not a price to pay for some good luck? Now she was high priestess to an awesome god. How greatly had her fortunes changed! And all it took was stabbing Equestria in the back, a tiny voice spoke up inside her mind. She squelched it, but could not ignore it fully.

“Lieutenant Metamorph,” said Reiziger, “how many changelings are in this hive, and are there more hives?”

“This is the only hive that we know of, my lord,” said Metamorph. “However, we are not small in the least. We number some thirty thousand full grown changelings, not counting pupae and eggs.”

“Excellent,” said Reiziger, “a perfect number for my designs. Give the hive three hours or so to come to terms with their new circumstances. Then, you must inform them that they are to be split up into three groups, of ten thousand each.”

“What shall those groups be used for, O my lord?” asked Metamorph.

“The first group shall be instructed in the ways of battle and of slaughter,” said Reiziger. “I have felt inside the minds of all these changelings; they know how to fight, but they do not know how to kill. I shall make them warriors again, as they were of old.”

“And the second group, my lord?”

“The second shall continue with dear Chrysalis' old command,” said Reiziger. “They shall go out and harvest love, hate, fear, and other strong emotions. But instead of consuming them, they are to bring them here to me. I shall use all that spiritual power as the raw material with which to forge new creatures, new and terrible servants for my mission of conquest.”

“And the third?”

“The third group's job shall be: spread discord!” Reiziger smiled, flashing his terrible teeth. “I should like them to use their shapeshifting abilities to go out among the towns and cities of Equestria. There, they are to wreak chaos upon the present order. They are to spread confusion and fear, to sow mistrust, to weaken ponies' faith in the princesses and the Elements of Harmony! An Equestria divided against itself is primed to fail. That will be their mission.”

“It will be done, my lord,” said Metamorph. “What shall we do in the meantime?”

“In the meantime, O Lieutenant, and High Priestess,” said Reiziger, glancing Trixie's way, “we must begin to plot how best to topple Equestria, where and when to strike.” He chuckled. “I have a perfect first target in mind.”

Chapter 15

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Pinkie Pie grit her teeth tightly, pulled apart her lips so to reveal her snarl of concentration. Her light pink brow was knitted with her effort, while her hot pink mane was quivering just faintly in the summer breeze. In and out she breathed, in and out. Her lovely blue eyes pulsed with effort. Her forehead gave a throbbing, pulsing testament unto the workings of her churning mind. She thought- she thought-

Okay, everypony! This is Pinkie Pie! How are you fillies and gentlecolts doing?

Then half of Ponyville looked up. Had they heard something? It sounded, very faintly, as though somepony had spoken in their ear. They lifted up their heads and swiveled round their ears to catch some further sound, but nothing issued. They shrugged, and went about their business once again.

“Ack!” Pinkie said, slumping forward. “Training is super hard!”

“Keep at it, Pinkie!” said the white-tail deer beside her. “You're doing beautifully! It's already much stronger than it was two days ago.”

“Yeah, Pinkie!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “You'll get it. I know you will.”

“I know, believe me do,” said Pinkie. “But it's just... whew... it's hard work! My head's all hot and steaming!” Cartoonish lines of vapor seemed to waft out from her ears for emphasis.

“Then it sounds like y'all could use some apple cider,” said Applejack, who appeared as if by magic, wielding one great wooden cart festooned with mugs. The chilly, foamy beverage sloshing in them smelled of sweetest apples, and was tangy tasty to the tongue. “Drink up, gals!”

“Awesome!” said Twilight Sparkle, fluttering forward. She hopped with a burst of her wings, landing by the cart and humming merrily to herself as she picked up the mug. “I need- wait, why are you all staring?”

“You flew, Twilight!” said Dash. “Atta girl! I knew you could do it!”

“I... I wasn't even thinking about it,” Twilight said.

“Maybe that's the key,” said Fluttershy. “I always seem to get told not to think too hard about pegasus things, and it always seems to work.”

“I should agree,” said Falalauria. “I have noticed that pegasi tend to fly as a matter of instinct, much like birds and griffins. While I believe in applying careful thought to one's circumstances, perhaps, in this instance, feeling, not thinking, is the best course of action.”

“I... suppose that makes sense,” said Twilight, fidgeting where she sat, the mug of cider suddenly too cold against her hoof. Twilight loved to think through things, and in fact for her there was no greater joy than to think to the point of overthinking. She loved to intricately plot and plan her every move, laying out reams of schedules and lists down unto the smallest detail. To throw that all away- to abandon forethought and to act on instinct- was a prospect perfectly calculated to terrify her. “But first, let's let me practice my Element of Magic some more.”

“You've progressed with great rapidity,” Falalauria said with gentle tones. “Really, Twilight, your Element has been the easiest of all to train, as I have long suspected. Every spell you cast, every enchantment you conjure, every charm and curse that fires from your horn has trained your power. You will note that you have already ascended, to some degree.”

“Ascended?” Twilight repeated. “How have I- wait, you mean becoming a princess?”

“Quite so,” said Falalauria. “Your Element of Magic has gained such strength that it has allowed you to raise yourself up to the level of an alicorn.”

“But... but Princess Celestia did that,” said Twilight.

“Tia only brought out what was already present,” said Falalauria, “and engineered things so your wings came in all at once, instead of slowly, as would otherwise have happened. But there has always been an alicorn inside you, Twilight Sparkle. Indeed,” she glanced around, “there is an alicorn within all six of you, and each of you shall draw closer to your inner deity the further you advance in connection with your Element of Harmony.”

“Me? Me, an alicorn princess?” Rarity said, her eyes twinkling. “Oh, how magnificent! How utterly remarkable! I shall have to start thinking now of how best to accessorize my new wings!”

“I don't rightly believe it,” said Applejack. “Ain't nothin' godly about me. I'm just a simple earth pony.”

“Oh, Applejack,” said Falalauria, “you are the closest of them all, after Twilight. Or haven't you noticed-” she took five long steps and was upon her, “this?” Her dainty mouth reached out and gripped Applejack's sandy blond mane at its bangs. She pulled upward, revealing one swath of the orange forehead that none of her friends could ever recall seeing. And there-

“Is that-” Twilight dashed forward.

Dash streaked in. “No way!”

“Oh, dearest, congratulations!” Rarity cried.

“What? What is it?” Applejack said.

“Oh, come on, AJ,” said Pinkie. “Can't you guess by now? Here!” Pinkie pulled a mirror of considerable size seemingly from nowhere, and she held it up to show to Applejack her own head, with Falalauria's mouth revealing a bare forehead where there was-

“A nub!” Fluttershy said.

“A horn!” said Twilight. “Wow, Applejack, you really are connected with your Element!”

“Wha? No, no that can't be right!” Applejack said. “I ain't no unicorn!”

“You will be,” said Falalauria, opening her mouth to let Applejack's hair flutter down. “You and Pinkie Pie will get your markers of power in different orders. You, Pinkie, will get your wings first.”

“I'm gonna be a pegasus pony?” Pinkie cried. “Woohoo!”

“No!” Applejack said. Her eyes began to fill with tears. “No, this can't be right!” Now there's no way we can be together! “I don't want it!” she cried, rearing back, wheeling apart from her friends and the gathered deer. “I never wanted any o' this!” With sparkling tears erupting from her spring green eyes, Applejack went galloping away, off in some direction whose course even she could not have known.

“AJ!” Dash cried. “AJ, come back!” She fluttered straight into the air. “I'll go after her!”

“No, dear,” said Rarity, the last few stars clearing from her eyes. “No, I believe she needs to be alone, at least for a little while.”

“Rarity is right,” said Falalauria. “Give Applejack an hour, at least. Then, Twilight, you should go talk to her. Your experience should prove invaluable to her.”

“I'll go too!” said Pinkie, bouncing eagerly in place.

Thus an hour passed, with Pinkie working harder, all the harder on her Element of Laughter. Twilight likewise practiced with her Element of Magic. All five of them, in fact, strained with their Elements: Rarity kept trying to peer correctly deep into the future, Rainbow Dash made several stray dogs march with her around the square, Fluttershy, the weakest of them all, tried patching up skinned knees of little fillies out for walks.

But the time came round at last, so Twilight and Pinkie started trotting through the center of the town, their eyes alert for any sign of Applejack. “She won't be here!” said Pinkie with some ill-placed cheerfulness. “She's probably gone back to Sweet Apple Acres.”

“She knows we'll think that, though,” said Twilight. “If Applejack really wants to be alone, she's probably abandoned her farm, too.” Twilight stopped abruptly as a flash of brilliance flared across her mind. “Pinkie,” said she, “do you think you could detect Applejack's thoughts?”

“Detect?” Pinkie repeated.

“Yes,” said Twilight. “Can you pick out her thoughts among all the other ponies thinking in Ponyville?”

“Hmm... I can try!” said Pinkie brightly. She stuck her tongue out as she knitted up her forehead, pink fur throbbing with the focus she soon brought to bear. Twilight watched her closely, feeling the vague tickle at the back of her mind that always meant some telepath was hard at work. Pinkie kept on thinking, kept on thinking... “Whoa!” she cried, bounding forward up onto her twin front legs. “I just read the weirdest thoughts ever! They were so big- and, and so huge- and they were always spiraling and full of so many colors, even colors I didn't know the name for! And- and-” Her eyes were bulging in and out, her speech dissolved into mere wild mumbling.

“Ah, sorry about that,” came the voice above their heads. With a narrowing of eyes Twilight looked up to see Discord hovering just over them, grinning gently downward. “Don't worry, Pinkie Pie, I'll fix you right up!” He slithered down to her level and tapped her head with the longest of his claws. Pinkie's whole head chimed like some great bell, and with a shake of it she seemed her normal self again.

“Whew! Thanks, Discord!” she said.

“Don't mention it,” said Discord. “In the future, you'll have to be careful whose thoughts you read. Don't want to bite off more than you can chew, after all.”

“Shucks, if I can handle your thoughts, and mean ol' Reiziger's, I think I'm in pretty great shape!” Pinkie exclaimed.

“Ah, yes, how did your encounter with that dear old deer go?” Discord asked. “Is he still as cranky as ever?”

“Wait, how do you know what Reiziger was like?” Twilight asked. “Weren't you still in stone during his entire war?”

“Oh, yes, but you'd be surprised what you can see and hear, behind stone eyes and with stone ears,” said Discord in a sing-song voice. “Plus, when the Wills That Draw The World did everypony the great courtesy of remaking the Sun and the Moon, I managed to crack out of my stone prison in the midst of the reshaping. I wandered around for a little while, absorbing shattered dreams and poisoned hopes. I learned a great deal about grouchy old Annatar of Annudûr.” Somewhere deep within the walls of blackened chitin, a shadowed eyebrow rose.

“Who's-” Twilight's vocal chords grew thick, she nearly choked on the constriction of her neck. “Why can't I say-” she tried again and found the same result awaited. “Oh!” she cried. “That's one of his names that was stripped from the world! How can you say it?”

“It was stripped from all of time and space, yes,” said Discord, “but when has a little detail like that ever stopped me before?”

“Hey, Discord!” said Pinkie. He turned her way. “I know you love to be all super tricksy and all-powerful and junk, but we're trying to find Applejack! Do you know where she is?”

“Oh, AJ?” said Discord. His thumb stuck out and pointed back beyond his shoulder. “She's behind the schoolhouse.” His eyes briefly filled with stars. “Poor girl, she's been crying all this time.”

“Oh, no!” said Pinkie. “We have to go cheer her up! Sugarcube Corner's on the way to the school, so I'll go get some noisemakers and streamers! Meet you there, Twilight!” Pinkie bounced merrily away, humming a jaunty tune to herself.

“Pinkie! I- we- wait-” Twilight's violet eyes snapped back and forth from Discord's floating shape to Pinkie's swift-retreating form. Finally she stopped, then nodded, as much as to herself as anypony else. “Right, I'll go to Applejack,” she said. She swiveled next to glare up right at Discord. “We're not finished with this conversation.”

“Oh, Twilight, of course we're not,” said Discord with a grin. “Nothing is ever finished between you and I, or you and any of your little pony friends. Especially since you're all now destined to be immortal. Nope, we'll be at this for a long time hence.”

“Great,” grumbled Twilight, galloping away with all her haste. “Fantastic.”

Hot tears kept spilling strongly out of Applejack's green eyes, and her orange furred cheeks bore marks and trails of constant watery passage. She sniffled in the silence of the playground bare of fillies, emptied as it was by school's long summer break. Her old brown hat, the hat her father once had worn so proud and sternly strong, was crumpled up inside her lap, her hooves clutched hard against it as though it were a blanket that would bring security. She was in a lull now, stuck within the valley of her long and tear-soaked journey. Soon enough she'd crest the hill and sobbing would erupt once more. Even now her shoulders wracked, and sure indeed a bawl erupted from her mouth, a long and horrible wail that would have chilled the bones of everypony round to hear it.

“Applejack?” Called Twilight, and indeed her heart was sick with horror at the sound of her friend's sadness. “Applejack, are you here?”

“Go away!” howled Applejack. Her sobbing, now resuming, was impossible to stop, such that all her tries at speech were garbled by the bawls. “I... I don't want nopony round! Y'all hear that? Nopony!”

“Applejack,” cooed Twilight, trotting very gently around the corner of the schoolhouse. Her friend was in a truly wretched state. “Here,” she said softly, magicking a box of tissues out of thin air with her flashing horn.

“Please, Twi,” bawled Applejack, “please, just leave me alone.”

“But then you'll be sad,” said Twilight, softly sitting down beside Applejack. “Well, sadder. Please, tell me what's wrong.”

“I... I can't say,” murmured Applejack, sniffling strongly to hold back the flow of tears. “You... you'll think I'm so selfish.”

“Applejack, I could never think that!” Twilight said. “You're one of the most selfless and enduring ponies I've ever met. You're always thinking of others before yourself. You can't be selfish- and even if you could, you've earned it just a little.” Twilight leaned most gently up against her crying friend. “Now please, tell me what's wrong. I promise I won't judge you.”

Applejack's cutie mark sparkled. “That's a lie,” she sniffled. “All ponies judge when they're hearin' secrets. You won't be no different.”

“Well, then do you believe me when I say I'll keep an open mind?” Twilight responded. “Please, Applejack, I'll be gentle. I'll let you say your piece. Please.”

Applejack's swollen eyes turned left until they met Twilight's own gaze. Her friend was glancing gently at her, radiating love in every flinch and twitch upon her face. Though Applejack pulsed out her sense of honesty she felt no lie in Twilight- and no malice. She drew a deepened breath to still her crying, swept her hoof across her watery eyes, and sighed. “I'm in love, Twi.”

“Oh, but I know that!” Twilight said. “I mean, we all do. It's been so obvious. You care about Ashtail a lot.”

“No, I mean I'm really in love, Twi,” said Applejack, her gaze drifting across the fields beyond the schoolyard's bounds. “The last time I was in Gildedale, Ashtail and I... we talked about gettin' married.”

Twilight tried her very best to veil her shock. “M... married?” she said the word again.

“Yep,” said Applejack, talking now more strongly as she left her tears behind. “We wondered if we could pull it off. He's a Prince o' Gildedale- I mentioned that, I know, and it means he's gonna be king one day. But in Gildedale they let anypony marry whoever they like, even if they're royalty. So that wasn't gonna be a problem. Naw, the problem was on my end. I got my... my duty, Twilight. I got my duty to Sweet Apple Acres and to all my family. I could never leave the Apple Family high 'n dry! I love 'em too much! And I... I had my duty to y'all, too. I'm the Element o' Honesty, and I know you girls couldn't get much done without me- and don't you object, Twilight, because I'm bein' honest.”

“You are,” said Twilight softly. “You always keep us focused when the world is crashing down around us. I don't know what we'd do without you, Applejack.”

“I know!” Applejack said, tears springing new and fresh out of her eyes. “And yet, in spite o' all that, I thought... I hoped... we could make it work. Maybe he and I'd split time between Equestria and Gildedale. Maybe while Lord Hammer Hoof was still alive he'd even take a little time and spend it here. I thought that woulda been nice. But now- but now!” Applejack began to weep anew, lowering her head as sobs consumed her.

“Applejack, what's so bad?” said Twilight. “You should be happy that you'll become an alicorn! You'll be able to visit Gildedale much easier with wings! And Ashtail-”

“Is gonna die, Twilight,” said Applejack, her voice a deadened mumble.

“He's sick?” Twilight said.

“Nope,” said Applejack, “he's the picture o' health. He'll live a long time now, decades n' decades. Maybe even hit a hundred; I don't know if Daleponies live longer than us Equestrian folks. But no matter how long he lives, sooner or later he's gonna die.”

“I...” Twilight's brow went lower. “I... I don't understand...”

“He's gonna die and I'm not!” Applejack erupted. “Alicorn ponies, gods n' such, they live forever! Don't they? Don't Princess Celestia and Princess Luna live forever? And there ain't no reason we won't be the same!” Applejack sniffled. “I... I'm gonna have to watch him die... and he's gonna leave me forever. And not just him! All the whole Apple Family that I know an' love is gonna die too! Big Macintosh, Braeburn, Apple Crisp- I'm even gonna outlive Apple Bloom!” She howled in agony.

Twilight felt at last that she was understanding. “But... when ponies die, if they've been good, they go-”

“To the Summer Lands,” said Applejack. Her watery green eyes gazed up into the endless sky. “But they're gonna go, and I'm not. I'm gonna stay behind, for centuries 'n centuries to come. I'll never see 'em again after they're gone, because they're gonna go on, to a better place, and I won't.” She wept again, but it was a silent crying, tears rolling without sound along her orange cheeks.

Twilight sighed, her chest a horrible and empty cavern. She barely knew what she could say. Her brilliant mind went twisting and conniving into arguments and sentiments, trying with all her cleverness to find a way in which she might console her friend. Nothing resulted, however, not the least because Applejack had voiced the fears she had herself long struggled to ignore. At last, there was a single course of action that she felt, that she knew, was her best hope. “You know what the truth is?” Twilight slowly said.

“That I'm wrong?” Applejack answered, a note of desperate hope inside her voice.

“No, that you're right,” said Twilight, a heavy feeling growing in her heart. “This is something I've thought about too.” She turned to Applejack, her smile soft and sad. “You know I worry about Spike? He's a dragon, so I'll have him for a long time. Dragons live about a thousand years on average. There was a time when I was worried about him because I thought he would outlive me. Now the opposite has happened, and I've realized that I'm going to outlive him. I'm... I'm scared, Applejack. Spike has been my... my family, ever since he hatched. I knew I was definitely going to outlive my parents, and probably my brother, but I thought I'd have him all my life. Now I know I won't.”

“How do you deal with it?” Applejack said.

“You just... do,” said Twilight softly. “You cherish every single day with all the ponies you love. Cadence has talked to me about this, and I know she's sad, deep down, that she'll outlive Shining Armor. But she told me that... that you let the limited time you have make every day, and every hour, and every minute more special.”

“I... I suppose you're right,” said Applejack. “It don't make me any more happy, though.”

“I know,” said Twilight. She wrapped a hoof around Applejack and leaned against her. Applejack returned the gesture, wrapping one front leg around Twilight and pulling her close. “But look at it this way. If you're going to be immortal because of your Element of Harmony, then so will Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie, and all the others! We won't be alone, we'll have each other! We really will be friends forever.”

“Forever?” said Applejack.

“Or at least as long as alicorns live,” said Twilight, “and there doesn't seem to be any limit to that.”

“Huh,” murmured Applejack. “Well, I guess that means I gotta put up with Rarity for all o' time.”

Twilight laughed. “And I'll have to put up with Pinkie Pie. But I think we'll manage.” She put a hoof beneath Applejack's chin, and raised it up. “Oh, and hey- as soon as your horn comes in enough that you're able to cast actual spells, let me know. I'll teach you magic personally.”

“Really?” Applejack said.

“Really,” Twilight said. “How could I not give one of my best friends private lessons? It'll be fun.”

Applejack savored their closeness a moment longer and then pulled apart, blinking softly as her tears were dried away. “Huh,” she muttered, “never even thought about that. I'm gonna do magic.” Her eyes went wide. “Never in my wildest dreams...”

“Here I am!” Pinkie Pie's voice burst through the quiet of the space. Within an eyeblink she appeared, her trusty party cannon wheeled beside her, balloons tied to one back hoof, a cake cradled in her front right leg. “I'm so super sorry I wasn't here sooner, Applejack, but I couldn't decide if you'd want white frosting or yellow frosting or pink frosting, and so I just decided to make a cake with all three, but then I had to spend all that time coming up with a way to coordinate the colors, and then I had to choose how to match the balloons-”

“It's okay, Pinkie,” said Applejack, a warm and lovely smile breaking out across her face. “I think it's all just dandy!”

“So you're feeling better?” Pinkie asked.

“Yep,” said Applejack. She wrapped a leg around Pinkie. “And I mighty appreciate you wantin' to cheer me up.”

“Aww, come on now,” said Pinkie, “I'd do it for anypony.”

“But you didn't do it for anypony- you did it for me,” said Applejack, her smile now as radiant as sunshine. “Say, what kind o' cake is that?”

“Butterscotch buttercream butter!” said Pinkie brightly. “The apples on top are spun sugar!”

“That sounds delicious,” said Applejack, “and I reckon I'd like a piece or two. How 'bout it, Twi? Wanna join us?”

“Well, I really should stick to my diet...” Twilight muttered. She saw then the beaming faces of her friends, and her heart softened. “Oh, fine, we'll do it.”

“Hooray!” said Pinkie, slapping hard her hoof against the belly of her party cannon. It fired with a thunderous boom, sending up a cloud of streamers into the wide sky. Applejack and Twilight laughed, each of them most grateful to take up the plates of cake that Pinkie passed them.

“Awww,” cooed Fluttershy, watching from the distance of some several hundred meters. “I think she's feeling better.”

“That's great!” said Rainbow Dash, stealing the binoculars with one deft motion. “I knew Pinkie'd be able to cheer her up!”

“It seems like Twilight did most of the cheering, actually,” said Fluttershy.

“She is a wise pony, isn't she?” said the white-tail deer beside them, watching all the scene with a lens conjured up by magic. “A little fidgety, for sure, but learned far beyond her years.”

“Twilight's great!” said Dash. “She's super smart and she always helps us out of any jam! We're lucky to have her around.”

“Indeed,” said the white-tail. “Of course, it's always trouble to rely too much on any one creature.”

“I don't think that's fair,” said Fluttershy. “Don't you all rely on Lady Falalauria?”

“Our Lady is our protectress and our queen,” said the white-tail, “in the same manner that Celestia and Luna stand above all your ponies. But we do not ask her to do everything.”

“And we don't with Twilight!” said Dash. “Why I- I mean, why we can all do amazing things! Fluttershy's great with animals, Rarity is amazing at girly junk, Applejack's a great farmer, Pinkie Pie is the best at parties, and I... I'm just awesome, I guess.” Fluttershy's eyebrow rose at this, but in her meekness she said nothing.

“I suppose you are correct,” said the white-tail. “However, keep in mind a lesson from a deer who still drills as a soldier: you must sometimes be prepared for a battlefield promotion.”

“B-B-Battlefield?” whimpered Fluttershy, her body shaking.

“Yes,” said the white-tail. “The one you always trust to lead you may not be around some day. So each of you, among your group of friends, must be prepared to take command when all the others falter. Each of you must have the strength to lead- because the day may come sooner than you think.”

“I'm definitely ready!” said Dash. “If something ever happened to Twilight, I'd help the others forward, no problem!”

“I... I can't even imagine it,” said Fluttershy. “I've never lead anypony before. I never want to, either.” She seemed to shrink between them. “I could never do it.”

“Of course you could,” said the white-tail. “You merely do not want to. But there is a leader inside every creature, however deeply buried.” His turquoise eyes bored deeply into Fluttershy's of nearly the same shade. “And Our Lady says there are dark times ahead. Perhaps the leader in you should start coming out more often.”

“Eep!” said Fluttershy, dropping to her belly and then cowering in the grass.

Dash sighed. “Try not to scare her like that,” she said gently to the deer. “She's really frightened of a lot of things.”

“I'm sorry,” said the white-tail. “I merely told her what I believed she needed to hear.”

“I d-don't want to hear it!” whimpered Fluttershy, flapping hard her wings and flying off into the sky. “I-I'll never be a leader!”

Dash watched her go for some long minutes. Then she wheeled upon the deer. “See? You scared her!”

“Again, I apologize,” said the white-tail. He turned and started off toward Ponyville's center. “But it does not make what I said any less correct. Think on that- her, and you as well.”

Dash blew out her cheeks as she was once again alone. “Think on that. Ha! I already know what it takes to be a leader. I have the Element of Loyalty!” She could command entire armies if she had to. And perhaps she would have to indeed, if the state of Equestria grew any more dire. This gave Dash pause. Fëanor had said that Reiziger waged war, and that was really different than any villain she had faced before. War meant armies. War meant swords and axes. War meant death. She swallowed hard. Am I ready for that? “Of course I'm ready!”

“Ready for what?”

“Ack!” cried Dash and vaulted to the air. Her wings fluttering maze, she wheeled in all directions until her eyes at last came on the source of her alarm- and then she gasped. “Clive!”

“Yes, yes, I am here,” said Clive Croeuxus, sitting right beside her spot upon his narrow haunches. The elder pronghorn still bore signs of all the damage he had suffered- he wore a bandage round his head, and there were waves upon his fur that seemed like deep scorch marks.

“Oh my gosh, how are you?” said Dash, fluttering back down to sit beside him. “I've been worried about you all this time!”

“I am feeling substantially better, thank you muchly,” answered Clive. “Still quite sore and stiff, but Celestia's healing magic has done wonders. Niles and Audrey have been to visit me, along with a few other pronghorns.”

“But I haven't,” said Dash, her ears now drooping. “I'm sorry I forgot.”

“It's quite all right, dear Rainbow Dash,” said Clive. “From what I hear you've been quite busy. And I've also heard some other troubling rumors. Something about a dark lord?”

“Yeah,” said Dash. “The guy you fought-”

“Endured,” said Clive, his dark eyes growing narrow. “Not surprising, I suppose. It did seem odd, amid all of the chaos, that such a thing as he could be so completely beaten. Evil such as that frequently finds a way to slither out of annihilation.”

“So you got hurt for nothing, then,” said Dash sadly.

“On the contrary,” said Clive. “Celestia tells me that we have weakened him considerably, that he was left far below full strength and has not yet regained that height. If that is true, then our sortie against him was a success, because if we did not destroy him, we at least bought ourselves some time to prepare for that destruction. A destruction, I am further told, that will fall upon you and your five friends.”

“Oh! Yeah,” said Dash. “Princess Celestia says that the Elements of Harmony are gonna defeat Reiziger, and, well, that's us.”

“Indeed,” said Clive, “so I hope you'll remember that.”

“Remember what?”

Clive leveled one deep black eye at Rainbow Dash, and as he did she thought she could see storms within its depths. The fur upon her body seemed to stand, as though a current rich with lightning had been running through it. “Remember, Rainbow Dash, that however strong you may be yourself, it is nothing compared to the strength you wield with all your friends together. Do not be tempted by the siren song of lonely warriors. History has shown that solitary creatures often meet with solitary ends.”

Dash's mouth hung open. “How did you-”

“I have been speaking with Lady Falalauria,” said Clive. “She is worried about you, Rainbow Dash. I am as well.” He put his hoof against hers on the ground. “You are so strong and wise and good, a beacon of achievement in this world beneath the sun. Do not be spoiled by evil thoughts.”

“I-I won't!” said Dash, puffing out her chest. “I swear I won't!”

“Good!” said Clive. He glanced about and out, upon the tranquil buildings of the town. “You know, this is the first time I have ever been to Ponyville.”

“Really?” Dash exclaimed.

“Really,” echoed Clive. “I always told myself that I would visit, in the times I've stood upon the balconies of Canterlot and looked out. But this is my first trip.”

“Well in that case,” said Dash, smiling smugly and then flying gently up, “howsabout you let this Ponyville native show you around? It's a really cool place!”

Clive stood up. “I should be delighted.” Rainbow Dash then flew back towards Ponyville, and Clive came cantering fast in her wake.

“I should hope that does the trick,” said Falalauria, standing at the edge of Ponyville and gazing upon pegasus and pronghorn as they left. “I fear it may not, however.”

“Does the trick?” said Rarity, standing in her shadow. “The trick for what, my lady?”

“Darkness,” said Falalauria. “A sickness that has festered in the center of the Elements. A crack in your bonds of friendship that threatens to derail Tia's plan.”

“Oh, no!” said Rarity. “Is there something I can do to help?”

“Not at the moment,” said Falalauria. “When there is, I shall let you know- though of course, you may See something on your own that you can do, in which case I shall not begrudge your actions, however little sense they may make.”

“Little sense?” repeated Rarity. “Shouldn't any actions you take to help something make sense?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” said Falalauria. “However, Farseeing is not normal circumstances. You know this, Rarity. We have spoken of this before.”

“Yes, yes, I do know, my lady,” said Rarity. “But it's so hard to understand, still. I've done it on instinct before-”

“But now you must move beyond instinct,” Falalauria said. “Now you must be deliberate in your actions, Rarity, particularly those that might seem baffling at first glance. And you must be brave.”

“Brave? Baffling?” came Rarity's soft echo. “You speak as if I should behave nonsensically, my lady.”

“From the perspective of all others, sometimes you must,” said Falalauria. She turned her starscape eyes hard upon Rarity, fixing the white unicorn with a stare that might have revealed all the cosmos. “Rarity, you have the gift of Long Sight. You can see the future; you know how things will be before they are. Thus, you must sometimes be prepared to act in ways that nopony else will understand. You must be willing to make choices and decisions that shock, confuse, or even anger those you know and trust. And if you are confident that your choices are correct, you must carry them out with no hesitation, over and against the objections of your friends. Remember, you can See what they cannot.”

Rarity was brought to blinking by this statement, opening and closing her blue eyes in swift succession. “My lady?” she at last remarked, turning slowly upward to the great deer. “Is there... something I should know?”

“Not yet,” said Falalauria. The two were silent then.

“I don't like it,” muttered one red earth pony from Ponyville's outskirts. He and nearly half a dozen others were assembled by a fence to gaze out at the towering Falalauria.

“It is a little weird,” said Bon Bon, glancing to the side at the red stallion. “But I guess they're all the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. They have good reason to be hanging out with deer.”

“But for so long?” the red earth pony said. “Ever since the deer came to Ponyville, they've been spending more and more time with Princess Twilight Sparkle and her friends.”

“Well, that's true,” said a yellow unicorn mare, “but like Bon Bon said, they're the owners of the Elements of Harmony. They're special servants of the princesses. They've got a right to be spending time with deer.”

“I agree with this guy, though” said Flutter. “They've been hanging around those deer way too much. And what about the times they're all together? What if...” she quickly stopped her speech.

“No,” said the red earth pony seriously, “go on.”

“Well it's... it's crazy...”

“Say it.”

“I mean... you don't think they're... planning something, do you?”

“Absurd!” said one white earth pony. “And even if they are, they've saved Equestria so many times. Why do we have to worry about what they're planning?”

“Because what if all those times were just steps?” said the red earth pony. “What if they were just to get us in their good graces?”

“You mean like the Element Bearers suckering us in?” Flutter said. “The princesses would never allow that.”

“Who's to say the princesses aren't in on it, too?”

Bon Bon gasped. “You're crazy!”

“Maybe,” said the red earth pony. “All I know is that all of a sudden these deer show up, and suddenly the Elements and the princesses are spending way too much time talking with them.”

“We...” the white earth pony began. His speech then tapered softly off, his face alive with shifting as unpleasant thoughts were wormed into his mind. “I... I can't believe the princesses and the Elements would plot against anypony.”

“Even though they do keep secrets,” said the yellow unicorn. The others glared at her. “What? They do. Everypony knows it. Doesn't mean it's bad.”

“But... but what if it's bad this time?” said Flutter, eyes shifting uneasily from left to right.

“This is crazy,” Bon Bon muttered.

“I know, I know,” said the white earth pony. “The princesses would never do anything bad to us.” He swallowed. “So why...”

“Why does it feel weird to watch Miss Rarity talk with that big deer?” Flutter whispered.

The ponies were discussing tensely now, nervous speech alight upon the sunny noontide air. The red earth pony had slipped quietly from out their midst, and now was headed off into the shadowed boughs of the Everfree Forest. He spared a glance over his shoulder, taking one more moment to behold his handiwork. He grinned, and his mouth bore fangs- and his eyes became an empty, buglike blue.

Chapter 16

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Cheerilee came trotting into the classroom, her maroon coat slightly shiny in the morning sunlight. Cheerilee took a certain degree of pride in her appearance; especially at her age, one might find too many mares had utterly and totally abandoned any care for their good looks. But looking good was a part of feeling good, which in turn formed no small part of being good.

Then again, Cheerilee knew that there was no substitute for love and kindness, which she happily poured out upon her students. So now when they all looked up from their desks at her, their eyes alight, their smiles eager, she beamed back at them with truest tenderness. “Okay, class,” she said, “I have a very special surprise for you all today.”

“Ooo! Ooo!” Scootaloo waved up her hoof. “Are we gonna go on a field trip?”

“Not quite,” said Cheerilee with knowing smile. “I thought I'd bring a bit of a field trip to you. Now, we've been studying geography and world cultures recently, right?”

The class made sounds of agreement, accompanied by general nods of heads.

“Well, I thought I would take advantage of Ponyville's new circumstances to introduce you all to members of another culture firsthoof!”

Murmuring rose up amid the students. A handful of them were clever enough to guess their teacher's meaning- including little Apple Bloom, who sat up straight and gasped.

Cheerliee turned toward the door. “Inês, Filipe, you can come in now!”

Now a chorus of gasps filled the air, for two white-tail deer came walking gracefully into the classroom, their eyes glimmering like jewels in the sunlight. The doe of the pair had eyes of light sea green, and her buck companion bore irises of amethyst.

Mae govannen, little ponies,” said Inês, a kind smile on her face.

“It is a pleasure to see you,” said Filipe, his accent subtle and unceasingly delightful.

“As you know,” Cheerilee began, “many white-tail deer have been staying on the outskirts of Ponyville; they're going to be there until Princess Celestia and Princess Luna find more permanent homes for them all. I thought it would be wonderful for you foals to meet a few of them in pony. Please, feel free to ask them questions!”

“I got one!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, raising high her yellow leg. “Is it true y'all lived in big ol' forest once?”

“We did,” said Felipe. “A large and beautiful forest called the Shimmerwood. Sadly, it burned down.” A ripple of sadness fanned out across the small young ponies. “But I am confident that your princesses, whom we love very much, will find us a new home.”

“Ith it true that you don't get cutie marks?” Twist asked next.

“We do not,” said Inês. “That does not mean we don't have special talents, however. Each buck and doe among us is quite good at one specific task, though of course they've learned many others.”

“Oh! Like making armor!” cried Sweetie Belle, thinking of the captivating silver battle armor she had seen stored deep away in Rarity's dim attic.

“Yes,” said Inês. “We have great smiths among us still, though in olden times their numbers were much larger.”

“Is it true that you do magic with your antlers?” Silver Spoon asked next.

“Yes,” said Felipe. His antlers shimmered, and the papers sitting upon Cheerilee's desk went fluttering skyward, then moving to circle round the room. The students gasped and gaped at the amazing sight.

“I never knew anything besides a unicorn could do magic,” said Snips.

“Unfortunately, because our magic is channeled through our antlers, we do not always have it,” said Inês. “As you may know, antlers fall off in the winter. We then regrow them in the spring.”

“So what do y'all do when you don't have antlers?” Apple Bloom asked.

“We rely upon the magic we have stored away,” said Inês.

“Yes,” said Felipe. “The deerfolk long ago perfected the ability to store magical energy in crystals. When winter comes we use our mastery of crystals to make up for our lack of antlers. We channel all the power we have stored in them.”

“Wait a minute,” Scootaloo said, “you use crystals? Like the Crystal Empire?”

“That's right,” said Inês. “In fact, the Crystal Empire's use of crystals comes from long ago influence by the deer.”

The class gaped and exclaimed at this. Another question next was asked, followed by another, and so the hour crawled by. Inês and Felipe were not bothered by the queries, not even the simple ones about their favorite foods or favorite colors. Cheerilee stood to the side, smiling gratefully at the proceedings. She remained silent til the hour was up, and then she stepped in front of both deer and proclaimed, “Okay, class, I'm afraid that's all the time Inês and Felipe have. Say your goodbyes!”

“Goodbye!” all of the foals exclaimed at once.

Savo 'lass a lailath, little ponies,” said Inês.

“Take care, young ones,” said Felipe. They started to depart, but Felipe stopped abruptly and glanced back over his shoulder. “Know, little ponies, that we are grateful to you, you and your parents and your siblings, for sheltering us in our time of need. In return, we shall protect you ere the shadows grow long.”

This set the class into a fit of murmurs, including whispers aimed at Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, who tried hard not to think about the escapade their sisters had recently taken part in. It made for a concerned face on Cheerilee when she had closed the door. “I do wish you hadn't added that last part. I don't really want them thinking about the rumors that have been going around.”

“I apologize,” said Felipe, “but I meant it. They surely know that dark things are afoot; children are perceptive in that way. I wished to put them at ease.”

“Though you may have done the opposite,” said Inês with a raised eyebrow. “All told, however, I believe that went quite well.”

“Yes! Thank you both so very much!” cried Cheerilee. “I know the children had a wonderful time.”

“Think nothing of it, Madam Cheerilee,” said Inês. “We are happy to do what we can to make ponies not so afraid of us.”

“Well, I think my students won't be afraid of you ever again,” said Cheerilee. “If you're ever in need of anything, please let me know, and I'll see what I can do.”

“Indeed,” said Felipe. “The same courtesy is extended. Please inform us, or Our Lady, if you are ever in distress, and we shall do our best to help.”

With that, the two deer turned away from Cheerilee and walked with graceful motions down the hall. Cheerilee observed their exit, thinking to herself that even in their normal business, they were supremely elegant. Too bad that's not something they can teach, she thought, considering her many times of clumsiness. Then she loosed a sigh, and turned back toward the door into her classroom.


“You can do it, Fluttershy!” Twilight Sparkle exclaimed.

“Yeah!” cried Pinkie Pie. “You fix that flower! You fix it good!”

“I...” breathed Fluttershy, sitting in the shade just on the outskirts of the forest. A wilted wildflower drooped into the grass in front of her, and Fluttershy had gently gripped it between each front hoof. She was gulping and releasing air in fits, trying hard not to lose her composure.

“I have full faith in you, Quildemal,” said Javier, sitting just left of Twilight and Pinkie. “This is easily within your capabilities. Go on.”

“O-Okay,” Fluttershy stammered, clenching tight the flower in her hooves. She thought upon the wilted plant, trying to imagine it in its full lovely glory. Her hooves were shaking; she labored to steady them. Finally a sort of curious tingle came into the edges of her hooves. She began, almost wholly on instinct, to drag those hooves straight up the flower's stem.

As she did, the flower changed. Its dull, dead green turned bright and vibrant, its wilted stalk grew straight and stiff. The leaves her hooves moved past perked up, turning lovely green and filling up with chlorophyllic veins. At last she reached the flower. Her she paused, cradling the ruined petals in her hooves with all the tenderness of a young mother. She breathed upon the apex of the plant, and that breath was cool and gentle. Her hooves at last went over all the petals- and they revived, turning brilliant yellow and exploding outward. Fluttershy's hooves finally pulled back, leaving what seemed a perfect, brand new flower in their wake, a flower that might have been blooming in the warm fullness of Spring.

“You did it!” Pinkie cried. “And look! Your cutie mark's all shiny!”

“It is?” said Fluttershy, glancing back along her flanks. Indeed, the three pink butterflies that made her cutie mark were gleaming, casting gentle light upon the grass. She gasped. “I did do it.”

“You see?” said Javier. “The strength was always inside you.”

“If you just keep working, I know your Element will get stronger,” Twilight said. She then abruptly sighed. “If only mine would.”

“What are you talking about, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked. “You're so strong in magic already.”

“And Lady Falalauria said you had already gotten strong thanks to becoming a princess!” said Pinkie.

Twilight rose from her seat nestled in the grass and started pacing round the clearing. “I know, I know,” she muttered, “but for some reason I... I can just feel that I'm not using my Element of Magic! Not really. And it's kind of freaking me out, because I've been practicing all the magic I know!”

“You will achieve your goals with further effort, Princess Twilight,” said Javier, “of this I'm certain. You're too skilled to fail. For what it's worth, I or any of my mule deer would be happy to help you train in magic.”

“You would?” Twilight said.

“Of course!” said Javier. “Anything for one of Fluttershy's dear friends. And for the sake of all the world, we should happily lend a hoof.”

Twilight sighed. “I may take you up on that offer.”

“We are quite good at magic, we mule deer,” said Javier. “Of old many sorcerers and mages came from our numbers. This made the Herd Lord's moves against us all the more unbearable.”

“Moves against you?” Fluttershy repeated. “Javier, what did Reiziger do to the mule deer?”

Javier sighed. “I suppose I should not have mentioned anything...” the three ponies looked expectantly upon him. “But now that I've said it, there is no avoiding it. Quildemal, do you recall the rhyme we once taught you? The one on being common?”

“Oh, of course!” said Fluttershy delightedly. “I still say it to myself sometimes. It's a good reminder for my self-esteem.”

“Rhyme?” Pinkie said. “Ooh, I love rhymes! What is it? I wanna hear it!”

Fluttershy nodded. “It goes: It's not a bad thing to be common; no, common's a good thing to be. Though I may not be strongest or fastest or smartest, I'm still very happy I'm me.

“Oh, that?” Twilight said. “I've heard you saying it under your breath before, usually when we're about to do something frightening. I didn't know the mule deer taught it to you.”

“They taught me to say it when I was feeling sad,” said Fluttershy. “I didn't know it had some special meaning, though. It really cheers me up.”

“Its origins are not so cheery,” said Javier. “It was created by the mule deer and the white-tail deer long ago, when the Herd Lord first began to rise in power.”

“What does it have to do with Reiziger?” Twilight asked.

Javier did not immediately answer. He glanced off deep into the forest, quietly observing as the trees swayed in the wind. “Well... when the Herd Lord first assumed the caribou throne, and began to strive for power over all the deer, he put forward the... idea... that the high deer deserved more privileges and rights among the deerfolk than the common deer did.”

“Bu- huh- wha?” Pinkie's eyes grew huge.

“The Herd Lord argued that because the high deer were more powerfully magical, and also longer lived, they deserved more resources, more wealth, and more authority among the deerfolk. He thought the common deer should surrender their seats on the joint councils of the six species, or at least have them reduced. And he thought there should be a quota system in place concerning how many common deer could attend academies and schools of magic.”

“But that's terrible!” said Twilight. “That would be like- like unicorns and pegasi deciding that earth ponies didn't deserve the same privileges they have, just because they can't do magic or fly!”

“Which is crazy,” said Fluttershy. “Earth ponies are every bit as special and important as pegasi and unicorns.”

“Darn right we are!” said Pinkie cheerfully. “And I bet the common deer thought they were just as important as the high deer, too!”

“They did,” said Javier. “The common deer argued, quite convincingly, that the six species were always meant to be equal. Was there not a mule deer and a white-tail deer among the Comrades? Did their two species not inherit two of the Elements of Harmony, and the Gifts that came with them?”

“Exactly!” Twilight said. “Your civilization's founding history proves that all the six species were meant to be equal! I don't understand how Reiziger could have made arguments against that.”

“Well he did,” said Javier. “The common deer of course opposed him. Many of the high deer did as well. But...” he sighed. “But many other high deer agreed with him. They became his first disciples, and when the Herd Lord's ambitions gave way to war, they joined him in blackness and hunger.”

“So not only did mean ol' Reiziger argue that the common deer shouldn't be equal, some of the high deer believed him?” Pinkie cried, her face contorted in a painful, sad expression. “That's... that's... I don't believe it! I can't believe it! How could a bunch of creatures who had been best friends for so long, who'd lived in love and peace and harmony and happy sunshine times- how could they think that?”

“The deerfolk, by that point, were almost five thousand years old as a civilization,” said Javier. “I suppose after all that time, some of our harmony- our love- had grown frail and brittle. Old things tend to weaken, with time. And thinking on it... there were other signs that we were not as harmonious as we once had been. Losing the Elements was the first sign, though we did not understand that at the time.”

“You lost the Elements of Harmony?” Twilight said. “What happened to them?”

“Lady Falalauria told you about the temples built among each species, yes? The ones to hold their special element, to care for it and display it for veneration?” The three ponies nodded. “Well, one day the gems simply vanished. We at first thought they had been misplaced, but after checking the temples thoroughly, found that they had disappeared into thin air.”

“Didn't you check the Tree of Harmony again?” Fluttershy asked.

“Yes- and that is where they were,” said Javier. “But when the deerfolk attempted to remove the Elements once again, the Tree... repelled us.”

“Sounds like you were unworthy,” said Pinkie.

“That is the truth- we know that now,” said Javier. “At the time, however, we did not. Most of the sorcerers and philosophers believed the Elements had simply run out of energy, that they had returned to the Tree for a sort of recharge. Our civilization still endured, and our fauns and calves were still born with the Gifts of the Elements. So, again, we thought nothing of it. The temples were closed, with the intention of reopening them once the Elements could be restored.”

“But that never happened, did it?” Twilight asked.

“No,” said Javier, “or at least, not in the historical records I have read. All of this was thousands of years before my birth, you must realize. But I know well the history of the deerfolk. Looking back, I can understand the Elements forsaking us. We had developed some... troubling behaviors.”

“Like what?” Fluttershy asked.

“I...” and now there came a twinge of genuine concern in Javier's deep eyes. “There is too much detail to go into now. Let us simply say that, over time, we ceased to be the good neighbors to our fellow creatures that we had been at the beginning.”

Twilight could not guess the meaning behind the mule deer magus' strange words. She knew there was meaning, however, so she glared purposefully at him, violet eyes intense with questions yearning to be asked. Yet Javier's face grew stern and resolute, enough to let the ponies know no answers would be coming. Twilight sighed. “I'm still in shock that any of the high deer bought into ideas of... of... racial supremacy. It's so... so...”

“Ugly,” Fluttershy said quietly.

“Hideous,” said Javier, “and shameful. Particularly because the Herd Lord did not create such feelings- he merely sensed what was already there and exploited it. We were not perfect, my dear ponies. Indeed, I think your kind, so far, are better than us.”

“Ponies? Better than deer?” Twilight said. “But the deerfolk were so wise and graceful and elegant! Your magics were so amazing! Your art was all so beautiful! You were the greatest civilization in the history of the world!”

“But ponies are kind, and loving, and brave, and steadfast,” said Javier. “I think those virtues are more important than ours.” He stood from where he sat. “Now, if you'll pardon an old buck his habits, I am going to go take a nap. I'm sorry to have filled your minds with dark thoughts.”

“Darkness is kinda unavoidable these days, what with a crazy evil black deer running around,” Pinkie said.

“True,” said Javier, “but we should cherish light where we still find it. Farewell for now, young ponies. Keep practicing, Quildemal! You will be a magnificent healer in no time.” His hooves sprung through the tall green grass as he moved further off.

Twilight watched him leave, mindful of the many things he'd told her. And Discord's words from all those weeks ago were ringing in her head. Be wary of dealings with deer, Twilight Sparkle. They are not as nice as you think.


“No, no, no, no!” Twilight bellowed, horn ablaze with violet power that sent all her stacks of books flying apart. The sun had set some hours ago, the sky outside was dark and full of stars.

“Come on, Twilight, you're doing great!” said Spike. “I don't know what you're worried about. Your magic's so strong already.”

“Exactly! My magic, the magic inherent in my spirit!” Twilight growled. “But that's not the Gift of Magic. It's not the power of the Element of Magic!”

“How do you know?”

“I just do!” Twilight said. She paced to and fro across the library's gnarled floor. “It doesn't feel right, Spike. I know I don't trust feelings- I know feelings are silly and aren't real evidence- but I feel that all my efforts aren't working.” Her wings fluttered from nerves. “I need a new method of exercise.”

“Like what?” Spike asked.

“Hay if I know,” Twilight cried, exasperated. She was pacing very swiftly now, nearly making laps around the library. When she realized what she was doing she abruptly halted, but her front right hoof kept moving, digging over and over into the wood. “But I think I need some physical exercise first. This place is too small.” She glanced up at the wooden ceilings.

“It's not that late,” said Spike. “You go take a walk or something, I'll clean up here.”

“Spike, I couldn't ask you to-”

“I insist,” said Spike, moving already to pick up fallen books. “This is really bugging you, isn't it?”

Twilight nodded.

“Then clear your head. Cool your jets. Do whatever you have to! I'll be fine. I've got the owl with me, right?”

“Who?” hooted Owlysious.

“Me,” said Spike. “I've got you.”

“Who?”

“Me!”

Twilight chuckled as the owl and the dragon began their usual conversation. “All right, you two, you win.” She was already at the door. “I won't be gone long, I promise,” she said, pulling free the latch and stepping out into the dark of night.

Ponyville, like many smaller towns, retired early, even on these warmer nights of early summer. There were the ponies of the night watch already patrolling all the streets; they bowed to her as she walked by, a thing Twilight was still adjusting to. She trotted down Mare's Way, made a right onto Mane Street, broke into a canter as she turned towards Apple Junction. All the while she was vexed by her dilemma. She could feel it, for Celestia's sake. She could feel the Element of Magic somewhere in her, and she likewise could feel that it was not being worked as she had hoped. Evidently there was some distinction between the magic she'd been born with and the magic of her Gift. How might she reach it?

Magus Javier!, she suddenly thought. He had offered to instruct her in the ways of deerish magic, and the deer were closer to the nature of the Gifts than ponies had yet gotten. She would go to him tomorrow and ask him to teach her magic, magic as the deerfolk had performed it all those thousands of years ago. It was a good plan- “Huh?”

Twilight stopped her canter. She stood now on the far outskirts of Ponyville, glancing out across the field of grass that served as buffer between her town's edges and the shadows of the Everfree Forest.

I guess I walked faster than I thought, she told herself. Ponyville was also, again, a small town. There was still some expectation in her that a walk should take a while, leftover sensations from her childhood in Canterlot, where she had spent untold hours wandering the streets of the enormous city. But she had reached the end of this one road, and likewise an end to her uncertainty. She'd contact Javier tomorrow. Now she could-

Somewhere in the forest came a flicker out of space. It caused Twilight's horn to twitch, to tingle with the tremor of some magic newly spent. It was not the normal, wild ambiance of Everfree's strange magic. This had been a spell, however small and faint.

It's probably nothing, she told herself. Just one of the mule deer conjuring, or some magical creature expelling its power. Suppose it wasn't nothing, though? What if it was some foul servant of Reiziger's, teleporting in to do them harm? What if it had been some other terrible thing, reaching out its magic to prepare for its attack? The magic she had sensed had not been typical. As a princess of Equestria, the safety of its citizens was her priority. “I'll just take a look,” she said, trotting out into the field.

She crossed the grass in no time and was right before the forest. Stepping slowly underneath the trees, Twilight pulsed her horn in blips of purple, sweeping the surrounding space for signs of magic use. Deeper still she moved into the forest, feeling that the source she had detected was just barely out of reach. She knew it was here- there! She turned sharp on her heels and cantered through a grove of trees. There was a mass of strength just past the oaks she saw. She galloped now, moving faster til she burst out of the trees into a tranquil clearing.

“Huh?” she said. The space was empty. “But I thought... I swore I felt something!”

“You did.”

“Eep!” she jolted backwards, falling on her rump amid the grass. She turned toward the voice that just had spoken, and she gasped. “L-Lord Fëanor!”

It was indeed the mighty elk, stepping from the shadow of a birch. His golden eyes were gleaming in the darkness, while what starlight shone down lit up the silver top of his fur coat. His antlers flickered golden, and the clearing filled with light, showing each to the other with clear vision. “Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo,” he said. “A star shines at the hour of our meeting, Princess Twilight Sparkle. Somewhat literally, as things stand,” he glanced up at the night sky.

“What are you doing here, my lord?” Twilight asked, standing up again, then bowing low.

“I have been teleporting in and out of the area the past few days,” said Fëanor. “My concern is you and your five friends.”

“You're worried about us?”

“How can I not be?” Fëanor said. “You carry the fate of Equestria, perhaps of all the world, upon your backs. Celestia has entrusted you six with the vanquishing of the Herd Lord. The least I can do is make sure good progress has resulted towards that end.”

“Progress... you mean our training, then,” said Twilight.

“Yes,” said Fëanor. “It seems to be going well, from my own observations.”

“It is,” said Twilight, shame creeping intensely through her heart. “Everypony seems to be learning how to use their Element. Some of them are doing amazingly, like Rainbow Dash and Applejack. Others are coming along more slowly, like Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy, but they're getting there. Rarity... I'm having a hard time measuring Rarity's progress. But as a whole, everypony seems to be making great strides. We're... we...”

Fëanor looked down at her, his golden eyes intense and difficult to long endure.

“We... oh, I can't lie,” Twilight's ears drooped in her despair. “Everypony is making progress- everypony except me.”

“You are having difficulty with the Element of Magic?” Fëanor inquired. “I was led to believe you were already an accomplished sorceress.”

“I am, and that's the thing!” said Twilight. “I can feel the Gift of Magic in me- in my spirit! And I can tell it's just not working, not even when I do my magic. It's like.... it's like there's this whole other part of me that I've never used before, or I've only used on accident, and I don't know how to start using it! Like I have this whole other system of magic in my heart that I can't command!”

Fëanor nodded. “That is a complaint I've heard before,” he said, “quite common among the elk calves of my heyday. The Gift of Magic imparts tremendous power, but it lies along a... different track, I suppose, than standard deerish magic. It is like having a whole other bloodstream in your body, a whole other heart, whole different veins and arteries. You must work hard to integrate it into the rest of your self.”

“I was going to ask one of the deer I know... for...” her eyes enlarged, “for... help...”

“Princess?” Fëanor looked down at her, for she now looked at him with eyes the size of dinner plates.

“You!” Twilight said. “I was going to ask one of the mule deer I know, but you can teach me how to use the Gift of Magic! You're an elk! You have tons of experience with the Element of Magic! You'd be the perfect teacher!”

Fëanor turned away. “I am not in the business of taking on students,” he grumbled.

“Please!” Twilight pleaded. “You want us to succeed, so help us! Help me! You taught Princess Celestia- can't you do the same for me, when I need this help so much?” She bowed low. “I have faith that you can do this, Lord Fëanor, and that it will be helpful. Have faith in me, and what I can do! If you help me, I'm sure I can help you!”

Unseen by Twilight, Fëanor's eyebrows rose. A glint came swiftly into his gold eyes, though it just as quickly left. “Hmm...” he rumbled.

“Please,” said Twilight softly. Her eyes were large and eager.

Fëanor turned back to face her, standing tall and proud above her head. Then again he turned away, but this time he glanced upward to the sky. “You want to learn magic?” he cried. “Follow me!”

Twilight did not take his meaning until he put a hoof into the air. Her jaw dropped hard as Fëanor stepped up into the sky, seeming to dissolve into the starry night above. She jumped back as he vanished, wings ruffling as she looked everywhere for him. She wondered-

“Come!” the voice rang out, filling all the air. She glanced up and she gaped again. Fëanor was in the stars, quite literally in the stars. The stars above had rearranged themselves, changing alignment until they formed Fëanor's portrait, which even now shifted and moved to look down at her. Twilight could scarcely believe what she was seeing. The spellwork- the mental skill- impossible! It was impossible!

“I can't!” she cried up at the star-made Fëanor.

“Yes you can!” boomed Fëanor, his shouting causing all the ground to shake. “That is your first lesson in magic: anything is possible. All it requires is will. You can follow me if you will it, Twilight Sparkle!”

“But-”

“Do it now!” he cried.

Twilight took a deep and shuddering breath. Will, she told herself. Will it. She wished with all her heart to follow Fëanor. She lifted up one hoof above her head, then slowly set it down. She willed with all her might-

And her hoof settled onto empty air. She gasped, and then her hoof fell back to the ground.

“Hurry!”

“Will,” she whispered. She willed again and stepped up, then kept willing, pulling all her body off the ground. Each step brought her that much higher off the ground, until she took one step- and all the stars became white streaks. Twilight felt herself move forward faster than she ever had conceived, until all of the Everfree, all of Equestria, and all of all the world was far behind.

When at last she stopped, she gasped. She hung amid a symphony of space. Stars were blazing every single spot she looked. Galaxies and nebulae were spinning, swirling, spiraling about her in the darkness, glinting in a rainbow of so many different hues. She spun in all directions, every single spot she looked a source of utter wonder.

“Twilight Sparkle,” came the voice below her. Looking down, she saw Fëanor floating underneath; he was enormous, easily a dragon's size. “What is magic?”

She stared into the giant Fëanor's eyes, thinking back to what she'd learned in school. “Magic is the presence of an energy field of indeterminate size and strength that interlaces with-”

“No!” Fëanor barked, and all the universe was shaking. “I do not care for technical definitions. They are useless. What is magic, Twilight Sparkle? What is it, at its most basic level?”

“I... I...” she stammered, struggling for something strong to say. “Will?”

“Good!” boomed Fëanor. “That is your second lesson. Magic is will made act. And all things use it!”

They suddenly were zooming through the cosmos, whole swaths of space passing by with a flicker. They stopped amid an example of one of Twilight's favorite astronomical phenomena: a binary star system. Planets orbited around the twin stars silently, a belt of asteroids and debris floated also there. One star was huge and cooled down red, the other was much smaller and burned fiercely, brightly blue. As Twilight hovered nearby, the giant Fëanor rose up beneath the stars and caught them in the long tines of his antlers. He moved his head from side to side, rolling blue and red star back and forth like they were rubber balls.

“Magic is in every nook and cranny of creation. It is in every single thing that has and is and will be done. Even when it is not dramatic, it exists! When one of your earth pony friends spends all day building a house, that is magic! When a dragon belches streams of fire, that is magic! When the Herd Lord drains a creature dry, even that, as vile as it is, is magic! Magic need not require spells or flashing lights or brilliant colors! All that matters is that something wills a thing to be, then makes it so! That is magic! It is everywhere, does everything! It makes the tides go in and out! It causes plants to make sugar from sunlight! It keeps the stars hanging in the sky!”

“Um, actually, that's grav-”

“What is gravity but a force? What is a force but the magic of the universe itself?” cried Fëanor, and then they moved again, zooming at such speeds that all the space about them turned a blinding white.

When the light subsided, Twilight whirled around. They were no longer deep in space, indeed, they now were back on Earth, though it was not the Earth she knew. Strange plants sprung up in weird and alien forests. Unfamiliar sounds blared through the sky. A rumbling roar erupted past her shoulder, so she turned- her eyes went wide. An enormous lizard was advancing on them, towering above them, walking on two huge and powerful legs. Its long tail whipped behind it, its small but mighty arms were tucked into its chest. Its head was vast, its snout elongated, and when its mighty mouth was opened Twilight panicked to see rows and rows of massive, sharp white teeth.

“Magic has existed since the dawning of the universe,” said Fëanor, oblivious, it seemed, to danger. “And living things have used it since they first were sketched together by the Wills That Draw The World. It is in everything, and everywhere has felt its touch.”

Another roar came blaring from Twilight's right side. She turned and saw another massive lizard, this one on four legs with a stature and a bearing like an elephant. Its own long tail whipped out behind it, and its head, nearly as big as its torso, was adorned with one great crest to guard the neck, and three horns: one above each eye, and one upon its nose, above its beaklike snout. The two-legged lizard, clearly a meat-eater, roared and then advanced upon the three-horned lizard. But the three-horn stepped forward boldly and- and its two large horns shimmered.

A fallen tree from at the forest's edge was bathed in light, and it was levitated off the ground. The three-horn swung its head in guidance, and the tree came hurtling at the meat-eater, blasting its side, knocking it nearly off its feet. The meat-eater was not so defenseless against this magic, however. Its eyes twinkled, its teeth began to shimmer. Twilight realized just how huge those teeth must be, each one probably twice the length of her own horn, easily large enough and long enough to conduct magic. A spark flashed in the meat-eater's mouth, and suddenly its teeth were burning, its whole mouth immersed in bright orange flames. It exhaled and a wave of fire blasted forth, striking the three-horn and scorching its leathery skin. It staggered backward, but its horns shimmered again, and the earth shook so much that now the meat-eater was knocked off of its feet, toppling to the ground with one huge thud.

“Magic is will made act,” Fëanor repeated, turning now away from the battle of titans. “And if one merely wills it, one can effect great and terrible things.” The world rushed by again, all of space growing dark around Twilight. “However, one can also effect small things... and beautiful ones.”

Now they were in a dark space, though not pitch black. There was a note of faintly smoky gray to their surroundings, as though the world outside were white and that color was filtered dimly through the darkness. They were small, or the thing that now floated beside them was quite large. Twilight found she could move if she kicked her hooves, so she struggled upwards, forwards, closer to the thing that now seemed to have softness and the contours of a creature. There was a large thing with closed tissue- eyes!, she realized. And that massive rounded thing, it was a head. She saw four very stubby legs ending in hooves, but they were softened hooves, hardly sturdy enough to handle rough terrain. The only ponies that had hooves as soft and smooth as those she saw, now far below her, were-

“Newborns,” she whispered, and at last she understood. But the foal that floated here within this womb seemed still and quiet, nothing like the boisterous kicking that so often was the gripe of pregnant mothers. It seemed, indeed, quite dead.

“A mother's love is powerful magic,” said Fëanor as he appeared beside her. “Indeed, love is some of the strongest magic ever, because love keeps on willing after all rational sense has suggested retreat or capitulation. Love endures. Love never fails. And so powerful is love's magic that it can even create... life.”

A shimmer of white light began to travel through the shadowed womb, from somewhere close but also far. It snaked forwards in a single burst, and Twilight realized at length that it was traveling along a line of tissue, like a tube. The light at last reached the unborn pony, where it spread and covered its entire body. Twilight felt a pang of joy within her heart, and realized she was watching something deeply private. She also felt great shame, but not enough to turn away.

The pony stirred. Where once it had seemed lifeless, now it had the sense of something that existed, and sure enough, it started to shift and kick, rolling to and fro within the amniotic fluid. It even opened up its mouth, though of course inside the liquid of the womb there was no sound. Twilight kicked her legs to drive her closer. She had to be close, she was overwhelmed with joy to see the life come into the foal. This is what magic could do? This was what magic did? “I... I don't believe it...” she whispered.

“Yes you do, if you are honest with yourself,” said Fëanor. “All creatures know, within their hearts, that wondrous things do happen. The mind says otherwise, but the heart cannot be fooled. Now come!”

Twilight lingered just before the massive unborn foal. Its eyes slowly came open. She reared away in shock. They were violet, deep, rich purple. Then Twilight cast a glance over the foal's compacted body and saw signs of lavender fur, and the mane and tail were dark. “This... this is....”

“Come!” Fëanor cried, and Twilight was pulled back from the fetus, shooting away into a line of stars. At length, they reappeared amid the swirling, spinning galaxies, where they floated. Twilight sniffled, fighting back the tears that wished to leak out of her eyes.

“I... it's amazing,” she said softly. “I've never... I've never felt magic like this.”

“But you have now,” said Fëanor. “So, as your teacher, I have instructions for you, Twilight Sparkle.”

She looked expectantly at him.

“I command you: will!”

Twilight nodded. She planted hooves upon the black and empty space, as firmly as if she had been on solid ground. She remembered the power of the stars, the fury of the lizards, the tenderness of the unborn foal. She used her mind to note what had connected all of them, and Fëanor was right: it was will. Someone or something had wished a thing to be so, and it was. That was the key of magic. Even earth ponies, who did everything through toil and struggle, wielded magic, for they enacted that which they had willed. So Twilight stood more firm than ever. Her wings extended, wide and sturdy all around her. She raised her head up high. Her horn shimmered. And she willed.

The galaxies went swirling. They rotated in loops and columns all around her, and they did so because she willed them to do it. She felt the hum and pulse of all the universe, and she could move it, pluck it like the strings of some great harp. She rose off of the 'ground,' floating in the abyss with all creation vibrating at her command. Color began to enter the black space, a red that stood for fury, green for growing life, the yellow of the warmest sun, a blue like cool deep water, orange like flames that blazed within her heart, violet like the vastest evening sky- the violet of her eyes. The rainbow of all shades became a vortex, spinning deep and tall beyond infinity, and Twilight made it so. The whole universe was at her beck and call! Her eyes shone white, she raised a hoof and it burned with white flames. There were no spells. There were no tricks. There was no conjuring. There was only will- and it was enough.

“Very good, Twilight Sparkle.”

She felt the ground beneath her once again. Twilight blinked her eyes, and she was standing in the clearing of the forest, just where she had left it. How much time had passed? The moon had moved, but not by much. She glanced up at Fëanor, who stood once more beside her. “That was...” she breathed in and out. “That was amazing, Lord Fëanor.”

“Just 'Fëanor' will do,” he said. “Congratulations, Twilight Sparkle. You have learned your first lesson well.”

“I have?”

He nodded his head off into some distance. “Turn your head and see for yourself.”

Twilight glanced back over her shoulders. Her eyes went wide. Her cutie marks were shining, gleaming like the starbursts that they imitated. They were so bright their brilliance lit the grass around her, as if she had twin lanterns on her flanks. And when Twilight relaxed, she could feel it, she could feel the Element of Magic in her veins, racing through them with a clear, clean power that set her nerves afire. She could taste the magic, smell it on her person. She called it now, and willed-

A flower sprouted up in front of her, rising high then blossoming into a bloom that glowed a blinding white. She sniffed it and it was the most entrancing smell she'd ever known. She cantered all around the forest clearing, bright white flowers sprouting up around her as she moved. The fabric of the universe was itching round her fur. She knew she could but pluck it and nothing would be the same.

“Very good indeed,” said Fëanor.

“Thank you, Fëanor, thank you!” Twilight exclaimed. “I realize I'm probably not as good a student as Princess Celestia-”

“Not as good? Ha!” barked Fëanor. “You're better. Celestia was a terrible student.”

“Really?” Twilight said. “So she wasn't good at magic?”

“No, she was brilliant at it,” said Fëanor, “but everything came so easily to her. So she neglected her hard work, and did not strive, did not struggle to master the nuances of magic. Not as you have, even here in your first lesson. You have a work ethic that she lacked.”

“Th-Thank you, my l- Fëanor! Thank you so much!” Twilight bowed low. Her cutie marks were dimming now, though still there was some shine to them.

“In fact,” said Fëanor, “since you have taken so well to my teaching, perhaps we could continue it?”

Twilight's eyes nearly popped from her head. “Really? You want me to be your student?”

“Nothing so formal,” said Fëanor, “but every few nights, if possible, perhaps we could meet here? I have much more I can teach you, and I can greatly enhance your Gift of Magic.”

“Yes!” Twilight exclaimed. “Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes-” she was hopping gleefully around a circle- “yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!” Her heart was racing with delight.

“Very well,” said Fëanor. “I am not certain when you'll be free, but when you are, come here. I shall be watching.”

“Oh, thank you, Fëanor! Thank you so much!”

“Now, perhaps you need to get back to Ponyville,” he said.

“Oh, yes, of course!” Twilight cried out. “I don't want Spike and Owlysious to get worried. So I'll see you soon?”

“Absolutely,” Fëanor said.

“All right!” Twilight cried. She turned and galloped back towards the trees. “Thank you again!” she shouted one more time, and then she dove into the forest and was gone.

“Hmm,” murmured Fëanor. “A good start.”

Chuckles suddenly came drifting from the shadows. Fëanor at first was tense, but then relaxed. He knew that laughter. And sure enough came Nona, Decima, and Morta, gliding out from underneath the trees and moving towards him. Their eyes were glowing in the darkness, an eerie sight, though Fëanor was not intimidated. The three red deer began to circle him, around and round and round, and still they chuckled.

“What's so funny?” he asked.

“You, of course,” said Nona.

“After all this time,” said Decima.

“After all your ferocity in battle,” said Morta.

“After all your cunning and fearlessness,” said Nona.

“After all your skill and grace as a leader of deer,” said Decima.

“You are still, at heart, a teacher,” said Morta.

Now it was Fëanor who chuckled. “You see much that is hidden, even in my own heart.”

“It is our business to See.”

“Even so, as pleasant as I found the opportunity, I did not instruct Princess Twilight Sparkle merely from the goodness of my heart.”

“You have a plan?” asked Nona.

“There is a scheme?” asked Decima.

“You have a plot?” asked Morta.

“A contingency,” said Fëanor, “one I am all but certain we shall have to use.”

“You speak of the Herd Lord,” Decima said.

“You do not trust Celestia?” asked Nona.

“I think she is naive,” said Fëanor. “The Elements of Harmony may be strong enough to beat the Herd Lord, but only when they are themselves of sufficient strength within their Bearers. I know this, and in her heart I think Celestia does too.”

“And so does the Herd Lord,” said Nona.

“Of course!” barked Fëanor. “He surely will take steps to counteract the growing strength of the Elements, and he is a better strategist than Celestia. Luna will doubtless be some help, but neither of them has faced a threat like this. It will not surprise me to see the Princesses and all six Bearers outmaneuvered.”

“Our Sight has Seen as such,” said Nona.

“There is a sickness growing in the Elements,” said Decima.

“At least one seems poised to fall into shadow,” said Morta.

“And without all six Bearers, there can be no Divine Rainbow,” said Fëanor. “I am almost certain that the Elements will fail, not because they lack the power, but because I feel they will not get the opportunity to exercise it. And when that happens, we must be prepared to do what must be done.”

“So then what was tonight about?”

Fëanor's lip curled up. “You know that Nordeshang refuses to fight.”

“He has said as much,” said Morta.

“His pacifism is quite strong,” said Decima.

“He feels he's spilled enough blood in his lifetime,” said Nona. “He is tired of it, and he swears to kill no more.”

“Not even the Herd Lord,” said Fëanor, “despite all my efforts to cajole him. So I confess I worried that, for all our power, we would not be sufficient. Now, though, I see a way to bolster our ranks, to make up for the loss of Nordeshang.”

The three red deer glanced at each other, eyebrows raised.

“You speak of the young princess,” said Nona.

“The Bearer of Magic,” said Morta.

“The baby goddess,” said Decima.

“She is young, yes, and new to all her power,” said Fëanor, “but tonight I saw the capacity for her to grow into something immensely strong- and to grow into it quickly. With my further guidance, it will not be long before Twilight Sparkle approaches a high deer's strength.”

“And you think she will consent to fight with us?” asked Decima.

“She will not easily forsake her friends,” said Nona.

“Nor will she readily disobey her beloved princess,” said Morta.

“The imminent failure of Celestia's plan should do much of the convincing,” said Fëanor. His golden eyes were smoldering. “Meanwhile, do not discount my powers of persuasion, dear sisters. I have only just begun to work my will on Twilight Sparkle.”

Chapter 17

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The stars were whirling around Twilight Sparkle, first in a broad sky, but then they moved in closer, and spun faster. Closer and faster they kept on advancing, until they were a tornado of stars that spun around her, trapping her in place.

“Twilight Sparkle! Give me your hoof!” cried out Princess Celestia. Twilight started reaching for her mentor.

“Take my hoof, Twilight Sparkle!” called out Fëanor, and suddenly she wrapped her foreleg around his.

High deer and pony princess tugged at the small alicorn; Twilight found herself caught fast. Each great being tried to bring her in, only for the other to respond. They pulled her tighter, tighter, tighter still, they were nearly tearing her in two-

“Twilight!”

“Huh?” Twilight murmured, blinking as she woke. The sun was streaming brightly through the gaps around her shades. She sat up and she yawned. “What... what is it, Spike?”

“Twilight! Come quick!” he said, bursting through her door. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are waiting outside!”

Twilight yawned. “Very funny, Spike. Now really, what's the big-”

“Twilight Sparkle!”

“Eep!” she cried, for that had been Celestia's voice, and in fact it came from down below and out of doors. Bolting from her bed, Twilight used a quick spell to arrange her mane and tail, even pulsing energy throughout her coat to clean herself completely. She glanced into the mirror. It was nothing like what time and care could do for somepony's appearance, but it would have to serve. She hurried down the hall then down the stairs, bounding cross the library and throwing open her front door. “Princess Celestia! Princess Luna!”

“Princess Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna with a nod.

“It's so wonderful to see you, princesses!” Twilight exclaimed. She spared another glance at Luna. “All respect, Princess Luna, but shouldn't you be asleep?”

“Alicorns, thou wilt find, do not need sleep, not as mortal creatures do,” said Luna. “It is a luxury for our kind, one we can if necessary do without.”

“That's good to hear, I guess,” said Twilight. She hastily stepped sideways. “Please, come in, come in!”

“We've already sent word to the other Element Bearers,” said Celestia once she was indoors, “and to Lady Falalauria as well. They should be-”

“Here,” said Falalauria as she appeared out of thin air. “I knew that you would come, Tia.”

“You also must know what I'm here to ask,” said Celestia.

“I do,” said Falalauria. “What remains uncertain, however, is whether I can dissuade you from compelling me to help.”

“Help? Compelling?” Twilight asked. “What's all this about, princesses?”

“Let us wait until thy friends arrive,” said Luna.

Fortuitously there then came a knock upon the door. Spike threw it open. “Hey there, girls!”

“Hello there, Spikey-wikey,” cooed Rarity, reaching down to stroke his chin. Bubbling hearts came swimming through his eyes, though Rarity pretended not to notice.

“What's all this, then?” Applejack asked as she, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash all came into the library. Her eyes went wide. “M'lady! Your highnesses!” Her hat was swept from off her head, and she bowed low. The others followed suit.

“Dear Spike,” said Falalauria, “if you would close the door.” And when he'd done as she had asked, she turned toward Celestia. “Tia, I cannot.”

“Lala, please,” said Celestia.

“Can't what?” asked Dash. “What's all this about?”

“Canst thou not feel it, Rainbow Dash?” asked Luna. “The change upon the air, the sourness of the wind, the lengthening of all the shadows. Canst thou not feel the rising tide of nightmares?”

“Uh... no?” Dash answered with a shrug.

“Luna believes Reiziger is getting ready to attack,” said Celestia, “and I agree. He's been dormant too long.”

“Where? When?” Fluttershy asked.

“We do not know,” said Luna. “Which is why...” her turquoise eyes moved back to Falalauria, who shrank away.

“I cannot, Lulu,” she said.

“Lala, I need this,” said Celestia, a note of pleading in her voice.

“The future is too fragile,” said Falalauria, though her galactic eyes were wavering. “Right now this war ends well for us, though not without much hardship. However, I have never before Seen a future as subject to change as this one is. The slightest move and word makes differences in it. That is why I cannot tell you what Reiziger's plans are. One wrong action, one lever of fate pulled too soon, and everything could be ruined.”

“Lala, please,” Celestia was begging now. “Help me protect my ponies- my country. I don't want anypony to die, and so many have died already!”

“You did tell the six of us about the Elements of Harmony ahead of schedule,” said Twilight.

“That was a gamble,” Falalauria replied. “It turned out for the best, but I cannot guarantee that other actions will do likewise.”

“But ya made the gamble anyway, m'lady,” said Applejack, “and it did turn out well. T'ain't gonna win this war by playin' it safe, not with a fella like Reiziger on the other side.”

“Applejack is correct,” said Luna. “I have been reading the forbidden volumes in the archives concerning Reiziger. By the end of the Deer War he was a cunning strategist, and though he was cruel, he led with skill and confidence. We must fight to win, not merely to not lose. That requires risk- calculated risk, but risk regardless.”

“I...” Falalauria's amazing eyes were wide now, and though they held no pupils one could tell that she was glancing back and forth between the princesses and the six ponies.

“Come on, my lady!” said Spike. “Have some faith in us!”

“Yes, my lady,” said Rarity, a note of knowing in her voice, “faith- remember?”

Falalauria fixed Rarity with one long, careful stare. She did not flinch to be the subject of that starry gaze, instead staring intently back at her as memories of one deep night filled both their heads. Falalauria took a deep breath. Celestia prepared to flinch. At last a sigh sprung loose from mouth and nostrils. “Faith, eh?” she said. She smiled subtly. “Very well.”

“Woohoo!” Pinkie cheered.

“Your instincts are correct, Luna,” said Falalauria, a nebula now floating in her eyes. “Reiziger is indeed preparing to attack. His target is Cloudsdale.”

“No!” Dash cried.

“How much time do we have?” Celestia asked.

“Less than forty-eight hours,” said Falalauria.

“So almost nothing,” said Luna, beginning to pace back and forth across the library. “Cloudsdale is, of course, impossible to attack from the land- that is its best defense.”

“He has winged beasts under his control now,” said Falalauria. “He also has taken command of the changelings, whom I know can fly.”

“He has changelings?” Twilight said. She swallowed. “So that means he could have servants-”

“Anywhere,” said Applejack. “And they could look like anypony!”

“We shall have to scan the mind of every member of the royal guard,” Celestia said.

“If Reiziger's forces can fly, then things are very difficult,” said Luna. “Cloudsdale's greatest strength is also a weakness: floating in the air as it does, it can be attacked from every direction, and so it is impossible to totally defend.”

“But it's sturdy!” Dash cried. “Cloudsdale weathers storms and hurricanes all the time!”

“Sturdy for pegasi,” said Luna. “It is made of clouds, Rainbow Dash. Most creatures barrel through its stout walls as though they are dew.” Her eyebrows rose. “However, the magic by which the city is shaped could certainly be modified.”

“Yes!” Twilight said. “The cloud-shaping spell could be tweaked! You could increase the density until the clouds still float, but they're solid as stone!”

“Canst thou make the modifications, Princess Twilight Sparkle?”

Her violet eyes grew wide. “Me, princess? B-But what about you?”

“Thou art a clever sorceress, skilled in both theory and practice of magic,” Luna answered. “If anypony can make successful changes to such old and mighty spellwork, it is thee.”

“Well... I... I'll need to do a little studying...”

“You can do it, darling!” Rarity cried.

“Yeah!” Dash said.

“I'll try,” said Twilight finally.

“Then thou wilt be going to Cloudsdale,” said Luna. “Rainbow Dash, thou wilt go as well. Thy speed and skill at weather will be most vital in the defense, particularly thy command of lightning.”

Dash stood up on her back hooves and snapped off a salute. “You can count on me, Princess Luna!”

“Two days is not enough time to muster the full complement of the guard,” Luna continued, “stationed as they are across Equestria. Fortunately, pegasi are mostly what we need, and they can travel swiftly. Even so, I fear we shall be undermanned. Tia, what of that troupe of acrobats I always see at festivals? The fliers, the bolters, something?”

“The Wonderbolts?” Celestia asked.

“Yeah! They're the best fliers in Equestria!” Dash said.

“They are stationed in Canterlot, and if they are as skilled as their reputation suggests, they could be useful in airborne warfare. Can they fight?”

Celestia winced. “They... they have basic combat training, but-”

Can they fight?”

“Well enough,” Celestia at last admitted.

“Then they will go as well,” said Luna.

“And me also,” said Celestia. “If Reiziger himself is going to be there, somepony has to be present with the strength to hold him off, or at least distract and neutralize him.”

“No, Tia,” said Luna. “Thou must stay in Canterlot. This strike may be a feint, or some component of a larger assault. Thou must be on hoof to respond to any attack in some other location.”

“I agree,” said Falalauria. “You must stay in Canterlot, Celestia. I See that if you leave, Reiziger definitely takes advantage of it.”

“But... if he's going to be there...”

“If he is there, then he will deal with me,” said Luna, “for I shall go to Cloudsdale in thy stead. Under my command, Cloudsdale will not fall.”

Celestia chuckled. “You always were the better commander between us.”

“As I am well aware,” said Luna with a knowing smile. She turned toward the six. “Rainbow Dash, Princess Twilight Sparkle, gather provisions for a stay of some few nights, then meet me in the center of the town. We shall leave this very afternoon.”

“Yes ma'am!” Dash said with a second crisp salute.

“Of course, princess!” Twilight cried.

“In the meantime,” said Celestia, “Spike, take a letter.”

Spike was quite prepared for this command, having received it very frequently from Twilight. He even kept a quill and inkwell handy in the library, along with rolls of parchment suitable for letters. Retrieving these, he said, “Who's it to, princess?”

“To the Royal Council, for distribution throughout all of Equestria,” said Celestia. “Orders from Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. Equestria is under attack by a dark lord of incredible power, who commands servants terrible and foul. The ponies of Equestria need to be able to defend themselves from his designs. Therefore, I am lifting the ban on battle magic-”

“Princess!” Twilight cried.

“-immediately and indefinitely. I am also lifting the ban on unplanned extreme weather events. The sun has set, and the night is dark.” She nodded. “Send it.”

Spike rolled up the letter, thought upon its destination, and blew a stream of glittering green fire. The letter was dissolved into a haze of sparkling purple that went soaring out an open window in the summit of the library.

“But Princess Celestia, battle magic is dangerous!” Twilight said.

“It is also prone to abuse, isn't it?” Rarity asked. “That's at least what my tutor always told me.”

“Both things you say are true,” said Celestia. “However, I cannot allow Equestria's ponies to go without protection.”

Luna nodded. “Thou art correct, of course,” she said. “So let what consequences may come, come. Now then, pack! I should prefer not to dawdle.”

So in the course of a few hours Dash and Twilight filled their saddlebags with what they deemed essential. Finally stood five of them before the center of the town, where Luna's chariot, black-enameled and pulled by her bat-winged Night Guard, stood ready to depart. Dash fidgeted before it. “Where's Twilight?”

“It is not like her to be late, I think,” said Luna, standing in the cabin of the chariot.

“I'll go look back at the library,” said Spike, who went off like a shot. Soon he was at Ponyville's great library, enmeshed as it was inside the trunk of an old oak. “Twilight?” he called. “Twilight, Luna's ready to go! Where are you?”

“... only be gone a few days.”

“I hope the battle goes well for you, Twilight.”

“It should,” came Twilight's voice through the warm air. “We'll have Princess Luna and her Night Guard with us. The Wonderbolts will be there as well.”

“More than that, they will have you with them,” rose up another voice, this one with a cultured accent. “Think of this as a training exercise, Twilight. Use what I have taught you. Remember: will.”

“Of course,” said Twilight. “Well, you'd better get going.”

“Indeed. Farewell.” The voice vanished just as Spike went round the corner, to the bend in the tree's trunk where a small picnic table was set out.

“Twilight!” he cried, for there she was, saddlebags strapped to her flanks.

“Oh!' she cried, rearing back in shock. “Oh, h-hi Spike.” She quickly recomposed herself.

He raised an eyebrow. “Who were you talking to just now?”

“Oh, nopony,” said Twilight. “I was just... talking to myself.” She bobbed her head from side to side. “You know me, Spike, I'm pretty crazy sometimes.”

“Uh... I guess...” he arched an eyebrow. “But anyway, Luna's ready to go!”

“I know,” said Twilight. She broke into a gallop, hurrying so fast she left Spike in her wake.

By the time Spike caught up with her the six friends were all gathered in the town center. Many deer and ponies gathered around Luna's chariot; foals and older children gazed in wonder at the princesses. “It is time,” said Luna. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, thou wilt ride with me. It should be quicker. Rainbow Dash, thou wilt fly by thine own power.”

“Fine by me!” said Dash, flapping up into the air. “Bye, everypony!”

“Good luck to both of you!” cried Rarity.

“Give 'em a slice o' Tartarus!” shouted Applejack, swinging her left hoof.

“Ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh, be brave, guys! Be super awesome and amazing and fierce and wonderful!” Pinkie bounced so high she nearly reached the height of Dash's hover.

“Please be safe!” said Fluttershy.

“Yeah, Twilight,” said Spike, coming up behind her. “Be safe.” His green eyes wavered. “Please?”

Smiling softly, Twilight drew him into a tight hug. “I'll be safe, Spike. I'll come back to you. I promise.”

“If thou wilt, Princess Twilight Sparkle?”

With a final squeeze of Spike, and a final nod to all her friends, Twilight leapt up into Luna's chariot. The batlike ponies flapped their leather wings. The chariot shimmered with magic, and it rose off of the ground, climbing swiftly high into the sky. The Night Guard hovered up above the town, and as their mistress rose to meet them they assumed a tight formation. Dash fell in beside them, and the flying ponies soon set off into the sky.


Commander Gawing paced upon the cloud-made outer wall of Cloudsdale as it rose some miles over far below Equestria. The Equestrian Guard that stood about him was near perfectly still, only a blink of eye, a breath of air occasionally, betraying them as living things. Gawing could not bring himself to their level of stoicism. Princess Luna herself would be arriving shortly, bearing portents he already knew were sinister. Gawing had never met the younger of the sisters, and had heard some very stomach-clenching stories from his fellows in the officer's corps. She was said to be intensely formal, a vicious stickler for propriety, as severe as Celestia was gentle. He still remembered his military school manners well enough, but everypony tended to relax a bit in Cloudsdale; a city full of ponies who could fly away at will did not have the highest tolerance for jerks.

He glanced out once again across the cloudy, endless sky. His eyebrows rose. A dark shape was approaching, and around there was seen a shifting mass of living matter. In no time he could tell its true nature, for pegasi have sharper eyes than unicorns or earth ponies. “The princess is approaching!” he called out to the guard. “Escort formation, you lot! Go down, form ranks! Stand at attention, on the double!”

With flurryings of feathers the guard flew down to the great landing of Cloudsdale. Rainbows from the foundries thundered into space on either side of the immense front porch, while towers shaped of clouds rose up in all directions, from which the wealthy pegasi looked down at this new spectacle. The Night Guard, some hundred strong, flew like a swath of shadow through the sunny day. In their midst was the chariot, and even from here Princess Luna could be seen, her galactic mane and tail wavering in unseen lunar wind. The guard lined up in ranks on either side of the long entrance, with Gawing standing at the head, ready to receive his sovereign.

The Night Guard landed with a mighty whisper of their leather wings. The chariot soared over them, touching down at last amid the normal guard and rolling to a stop just before Gawing. Gracefully stepped Luna from the cabin, mane and tail alight with night's soft glow, coat of midnight blue somehow steeped in shadow even in this daytime. Gawing's red fur stood up at her approach. He could feel the magic radiating off her, could almost see the way her massive power disturbed time and space. It was very much like being in Celestia's presence, though also different in its way. He bowed low as she came close. “My Princess Luna, welcome to Cloudsdale.”

“Commander Gawing, I presume?”

“Yes, your highness,” said Gawing.

“Rise,” she said. “I have much to speak with thee about.” She glanced over her shoulder at the guard standing so still. “These are thy assembled guardsponies, then?”

“Yes, o princess,” said Gawing. “More will be here tonight, and even more tomorrow. You said forty-eight hours, so we won't have time to muster every pegasus in the Royal Guard, but we'll have a great number as things stand.”

“Fort-two hours, now,” said Luna, “which is not much time to make things ready.”

“I-If I may ask, princess,” said Gawing, “ready for what? Your letter didn't go into much detail.”

Luna fixed him with a piercing gaze. “For war, Commander Gawing. Surely thou hast heard the rumors?”

“I, I know there was some talk of a dark creature-”

“A dark lord,” said Luna, “a resurrected enemy from ancient times. He wishes nothing less than the annihilation of our state. Cloudsdale is his first great target. He means to wreck the city.” A daring smile flashed out from her mouth. “I mean to prevent him.”

Gawing's mouth hung open. “A... a dark lord? I didn't think there were any of those left in the world.”

“There are now,” said Luna. She glanced over her shoulder. “If you would step forward?”

Luna moved aside, revealing two winged ponies just behind her. One was lavender, and bore a unicorn's horn to go along with pegasus' wings. The other was- “Dash?” said Gawing.

“Gawing?” said Dash, breaking into smile. “Dude, it's been ages!”

“You know each other?” Luna said.

“Just a bit, your highness,” said Gawing. “Rainbow Dash and I attended kindergarten together. I haven't seen her since- though everypony's heard of her. And you as well, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” he inclined his head.

“I can't believe boring little Wingy wound up Commander of Cloudsdale's Garrison!” Dash cried.

“Well, I'm not half as famous as you,” said Gawing. “I haven't been on all of those adventures. I haven't saved Equestria so many times.”

“So there is already a rapport,” said Luna. “That is beneficial. Rainbow Dash and Princess Twilight Sparkle will take part in the battle. Princess Twilight Sparkle, of course, has her royal status. As for Rainbow Dash, from now until the battle is up I grant her the rank of Commander. She is thy equal, Sir Gawing. Work together.”

“Of course, my princess!” said Gawing. “I assume your position will be highest of all?”

“I shall take the general's seat, if thou dost not object,” said Luna.

“Of course not,” said Gawing. “I'm perfectly happy to help out, though, if you need it. I realize you must have vast stores of information on warfare, but I have been in strategy classes more recently. Things have changed in the last thousand years.”

Luna arched one graceful brow. “I doubt they have changed quite so much as thou might imagine, Commander Gawing. Courage has not changed. Carnage has not changed. And besides,” said Luna, “I have seen battle. Hast thou?”

“W-Well, no,” admitted Gawing. “I'm afraid I wasn't even at the Changeling assault on Canterlot. This will be my first combat.” He glanced sheepishly to one side.

“I, meanwhile, have stood upon the hills above the Crystal Empire as Sombra's armies marched in dreadful pace,” said Luna. “I have clashed horn-on-horn with narwhals. I have led marches, rallied charges, feigned retreats.” Her eyes obtained a glint of silver. “So then, Commander Gawing, what say you?”

Gawing bowed low. “I am at your full command, your highness.”

“Very good,” said Luna. She started walking toward the front gates of the city. Gawing fell into step beside her, Dash and Twilight bringing up the rear. “This is not a battle on a neutral field, however. We shall be under siege. That presents us with some advantages, but it also puts us out of sorts in some respects.”

They walked below the cloudy arch and surveyed all the city, laid out in the pegasi's ancestral style. There in the distance was the acropolis, where most trade was transacted. Broad avenues were lined with cloudy towers, while open fields of cloud showed public spaces filled with ponies. Rainbows arched in bands of color high above their heads, while further still above the sun beamed down upon the city, showering the clouds with light that made their fluffy surfaces seem ever more entrancing.

Luna sighed. “Such a lovely place. Pity it must see violence.”

A slight hitch in the breath of one guardspony caught her ear. She turned and saw the green pegasus who'd huffed. He strove to keep from shaking as she drew in front of him.

“Hast thou an opinion, master pegasus?”

“Permission to speak freely, your highness?”

Luna nodded. “Granted.”

“We won't let Cloudsdale down,” the guard said firmly. His eyes wavered. “Every pegasus from every part of Equestria thinks of Cloudsdale as a second home. We'll all die before we let it fall.”

Luna smiled. “I like thy spirit,” she said. “What is thy name?”

“Spearmint, your highness.”

“Where didst thou graduate in thy class at Starpoint, Sir Spearmint?”

“Near the top, your highness,” Spearmint said, standing all the straighter.

“He just joined the guard last week, your highness,” said Gawing. “He's very young, still.”

“Youth is needed when activity is required,” said Luna. “Too many old hooves breed too many old ways. I expect to see thee acquit thyself well in battle, Captain Spearmint, and to lead the ponies under thee with skill and courage.” She flapped her wings and rose just off the clouds. “And all you mares and stallions! Do you agree with your new captain?”

“YES, MA'AM!”

“Will you strive to protect this city that you love, even to your dying breath?”

“YES, MA'AM!”

Now Luna grinned. “Let nopony say there is no stiffness in the necks of Equestrian folk. You are dismissed! Report to the Cumulus Fields at daybreak tomorrow for drilling!”

The pegasi broke apart, flying off in clumps or by themselves. Fluttering back to the cloudy ground, Luna turned to Gawing. “Come fly with me, Commander Gawing. You as well, Rainbow Dash and Princess Twilight Sparkle. We must survey the city so as to better plot out its defense.”

Twilight flinched away. “I... I can't really fly very well, princess.”

“We must correct that before long,” said Luna, horn aglow with silver light. Twilight lifted off the ground. “For now, though, thou wilt be in my care.” She fluttered off the clouds, Twilight close beside her, while Dash and Gawing followed in her stead.


The moon was quite enormous at this height, Twilight reflected. Staring at it from the window of the tower where her room was situated, she reflected that this was of course quite true- the higher up she was, the closer she became to the moon as it rotated round the Earth. It would seem larger at this height, wouldn't it? That however was a question for some other time. She shrugged, and went back to her books.

“Hoo!” cried Dash, bursting through the door. “I'd forgotten how much fun it was to party with other pegasi! No offense, Twi, but nobody lives it up like us.” She chuckled. “Heh, though I guess you're a pegasus now, sort of. So you're welcome to join in.”

“Thanks for the offer,” said Twilight, glancing over her shoulder. “You know, it's funny. I've been to Cloudsdale once before, but it's more... comfortable now, for some reason.”

“It's because of the cold, duh!” said Dash. “When you got your wings you picked up a pegasus pony's protection from cold.”

Twilight's eyebrows rose. “Oh my gosh, you're right! That's what's different! It's like...” her eyebrows lowered, “like I can tell it is cold, but it doesn't bother me. It's so strange!”

“Just how pegasi are,” said Dash. “It makes lying in clouds super comfy, if you ask me.”

“I wish I could do that,” said Twilight.

“What are you talking about?” Dash asked. “Come on, we'll go now! We can just fly-”

“But I can't fly, Dash!” said Twilight. “I can barely hover!”

“Oh,” said Dash. “Hmm,” said Dash. A smile suddenly broke out on her face. “Okay. We're gonna have to fix that right now.”

“What?” said Twilight, scooting up against the cloudy wall of the tower. “What do you mean, fix it right now?”

“I mean it's time you learned to fly,” said Dash. “And who better to teach you than the greatest flier in all of Equestria?”

“Oh, Dash, thanks for the offer, but I really-”

“Don't have time? That's what you always say. That's what you've said every single time I've offered to teach you.” Dash advanced on her, rose-hued eyes lit up. “But now we're less than two days away from a battle, a battle where you'll need to fly if you wanna survive! It's now or never, Twilight. Pony up!”

“But... but I need to keep working on the density modifications!” Twilight stammered. “The clouds need to-”

“Twilight, you're the smartest, most amazing magician I've ever known,” said Dash. “I completely believe that you can make those modifications in no time. I've got some faith in you. Now have some faith in me.”

Twilight stared deeply into her friend's eyes. Dash looked back firmness, but support as well. Twilight took a fateful breath. “Okay,” she said. “Let's go.”

Dash was kind enough to carry Twilight nearly all the way unto their destination. It wasn't far from Cloudsdale- a bank of clouds that drifted gently in the silver shimmer of the moonlight. Settling Twilight on her hooves, Dash touched down right next to her, beginning next to canter back and forth. “Okay, newbie! Wings are- hey, when did you get taller?”

“What?”

“Never mind. Anyway, wings are like legs!”

“Uh, actually, they're not,” said Twilight. She raised a hoof. “In fact, wings are so totally unlike legs that most paleontologists believe that pegasus evolution is the most radical example of natural selection in the world. It must have been an amazing mutation, a freakish one! A pony born with an extra set of oddly jointed legs upon its back, of all-”

“That's not what I meant!” Dash stomped her hoof. “What I'm trying to say is that wings are like legs because they're natural. A pegasus- or an alicorn in your case- has wings, like, wired into their system! Just like most ponies have legs as a natural part of them. Which means that, deep down, you already know how to use them.”

“I do?”

“Yep!” said Dash. “So the first step is to get those wing instincts to kick in.”

“I... suppose that makes sense,” said Twilight. “How do we do that, though?”

A wicked grin now parted Dash's lips. “Remember the story I told you girls about me and Firefly?”

“How could I forget?” Twilight said. “It was such a beautiful story. But I don't see what it-” her eyes bulged- “no, Dash, WAIT-”

Dash swiveled around. Her back legs cocked like flintlocks, and before Twilight could move another muscle she had bucked with all her might. Twilight was kicked hard in her right side, sending her careening off the cloud into the open sky. She hung there for a minute- and then fell.

“AAAAAAAAA!!!” Twilight screamed, the night air rushing cold and vicious all about her. The darkened countryside below was coming at her, its increasing closeness melding with the coolness of the atmosphere to send watery tears out of her eyes.

“You can do it, Twi!” said Dash, diving fast beside her with a rainbow streak, wings pulsing at blinding speeds to outrun gravity. “You've got it in you! Fly!”

“I c-can't!” yelled Twilight. The ground was now visibly closer.

“Yes you can!” said Dash. “Just reach deep inside you and find those instincts!”

Twilight fought against her blinding panic. She tried to banish all her thoughts, purifying her mind's function until all that remained were basic instincts. But she couldn't! She wouldn't! She would fail and fall and die and it would be for nothing! All because she lacked-

Will, there came inside her head Fëanor's voice.

Will, she thought, now with her own mental speech. Fëanor had taught her just the other day the power of will. Will alone made magic work, and she, as wielder of the Gift of Magic, possessed will unlike most creatures. Anything was possible for her, Fëanor had said so! She dug into her heart and found the same unceasing will that had possessed her on the night before. Twilight dug into her soul, willing her deep thoughts to float into the moonlight, forcing the most primal urges of her mind to come out. She was falling! She needed to survive! She would fly! She would! She willed it, she was forcing all her strength-

As if a wall had manifested just in front of her, her falling ceased. Indeed, she pulled back upward in the air, rearing back first swiftly, then more slowly, inching up until she finally halted. She looked around. She hung above the ground that lay yet still so far beneath her. The air was blowing gently on her face. She looked back over her shoulder. Her wings were beating, swinging in great circles to hold her in place.

“Atta girl,” said Dash, coming up beside her. “Knew you had it in you.”

“I... I did it,” Twilight said. The most enormous smile spread across her face. “I did it!” Her wings beat hard and sent her soaring, commanded by a part of her she hadn't even known existed, but, as Dash had said, was definitely there. “Woohoo!” She flew harder, faster, streaking ever upward, bursting through the clouds and she was hanging, feeling gravity pull down on her but she defied it. It was the most breathtaking thing she'd ever known, so much unlike her magic levitating, because now she did it with the muscles and the blood of her own body. “Ha ha ha!” She looped and spiraled, ever rising, ever climbing, soaring high into the starry, silver night.

“Wooooo!” roared Dash, climbing up beside her, flying now at her right side.

Twilight's heart was racing, her spirit soaring higher even than her body on her newly useful wings. She kept on climbing, kept advancing in her altitude, piercing cloud and moonlight as she moved closer toward space. When the air became too hard to breathe, when all the stars seemed bright like diamonds amid the blackened curtain of infinity, she tucked her wings and fell, diving in a streak of lavender and dusky purple, arcing back towards Cloudsdale with Dash hot on her hooves.

The moon saw all of this, and from her royal chambers, enmeshed amid the maps and charts that laid out avenues of danger, Princess Luna took a moment to lift up her head, and smile.

Chapter 18

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Dawn was shocking red, that day after the next. The sun rose hot and ruddy like some fresh wound of the skin, staining all the clouds a pinkish hue. Luna glanced from out her window at the sunrise. “Heh,” she said. “Is this thine own decision, Tia? Or hast thy sunshine always been red when battle looms? It has been so long, I do not recall. Art thy mane and tail red now, I wonder?” She glanced upon the silver champron at her desk, emblazoned with an ebon crescent moon. “And is thy armor still in good condition? I believe mine still fits-” she slid it on her head with magic, using further sorcery to tighten it against her fur.

Spearmint was already armored, and came from his barracks with the ponies he had been assigned in tow. He took a deep breath in, then out. “Double file,” he said over his shoulder, and his pegasi broke out into two columns. “March!” he said, leading all his mares and stallions down the cloudy avenues.

“Lining up?” came the voice above his head. He glanced above him to see-

“Commander Rainbow Dash!”

“Yep,” she said, landing down beside him. “So where you headed?”

“We're set to populate the southern tower,” said Spearmint, snapping a salute.

“Carry on, then,” said Dash.

“If I may ask, ma'am, where will you and Princess Twilight Sparkle be stationed?”

“We won't have a station, soldier,” said Dash. “Princess Luna's ordered us to go where the fighting takes us.” A little thrill went up her spine at that.

“Ah,” said Spearmint. Again he saluted. “Well, good luck, ma'am. And you'd best get some armor.”

“You too,” said Dash. She watched them go, so regular and sturdy. But she caught a tremble in the legs of the last pegasus. She took another glance along the columns. They were all about to fall apart from shaking. “Hey!” she cried, and all the soldiers stopped. “Stay alive! Try to stay safe!”

“We will!” cried Spearmint. “Ten hut! Canter!” They rose into a swifter pace and soon had gone away.

Dash looked down at her bare blue legs. “Armor,” she said. “Right.”

It was in the armory, with high cloud walls and long cloud rows of barding, that she found Twilight Sparkle. The purple alicorn was standing quietly before one row of champrons, sitting down. She gave no visible response to Dash's entry.

“Twi?” Dash asked.

“You know, the craftsmanship on this armor is exquisite,” Twilight said, and she did not turn around. “It's been so beautifully heat-treated. The steel is strong, but light, too. And the metal joints on the lames here have the perfect amount of flexibility.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Dash. “It's good stuff.”

“That's not surprising, really. I know the pre-Equestrian history of pegasi. Your kind lived in cloud city-states in the skies that bordered Issedonia, the griffin kingdom. They were constantly raiding you- and you raided them right back with your weather abilities. Pegasi were a warrior culture. That's why so many pegasi still join the Royal Guard.”

“Yep,” said Dash and puffed her chest. “We're fighters at heart!”

“But I'm not, Dash,” said Twilight. Now she turned her head, and those big violet eyes were wet with tears. “I'm so scared.”

“I... I'm scared too, Twi-”

“No! Not really! I can see it!” The tears ran steadily down Twilight's cheeks. “I can see the courage in your eyes, Dash! But I'm not brave! I'm not a warrior, or a soldier, or a hero! I'm just...” she shuffled her hoof, “I'm just Twilight Sparkle, the egghead. I can't lead stallions in battle.”

Dash stood dumbly for a while. Twilight looked to her for guidance, for assurance, as the tears went streaking down her face. Dash's skin was squirming from discomfort. “I...” what in the wide wide world of Equestria could she possibly say? “I...” she took a deep breath, “Twilight, you're wrong.”

“But I'm not a-”

“Soldier? No, I know that,” said Dash. Her cutie marks began to sparkle. Deep inside her heart Twilight felt sudden strength. “But you're definitely a hero. How can you say you're not? You've saved Equestria so many times! You've been our leader, our guide, our helper when things got rough!”

“B-But you're my friends,” said Twilight. “That's so different than being in battle.”

“Not really,” said Dash. “Twilight, we've always turned to you when things were rough. You've gotten us out of more jams than anypony! We would be nothing without you.” Her cutie marks were shimmering. “If you can fix our cutie marks after a botched spell, if you can handle being a princess, if you can summon the Elements of Harmony and help defeat Nightmare Moon and Discord and King Sombra, you've got what it takes to stand tall when the swords and spears are flying!”

“It's just so... so different,” said Twilight.

“Not as different as you think,” said Dash. “Listen, you said I wasn't scared, but I am. I'm frightened I'm going to die. I'm frightened I'm gonna have to watch you die, or Gawing, or anypony else I care about. Being brave isn't about not having fears. It's about being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” Her cutie marks gleamed. “Now, Twilight, are you afraid?”

“Yes,” said Twilight.

“Do you know what you have to do?”

“Y-Yes,” said Twilight.

“Are you gonna do what you have to do, even though you're afraid?”

Twilight heavily breathed in and out. She stared in Dash's rosy eyes. She sniffled. “Yes.”

Dash smiled. “Then you're brave. That's all there is to it.”

Twilight loosed a potent sigh. Rising to her hooves, she wrapped Dash in a hug. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Don't mention it,” said Dash. “Now how's about we get armored up and go out there? Those soldiers need their commander- and their princess.”

Grinning, Twilight snapped off a salute. “Yes, ma'am. I think the sizes we need are over here...”


It had been morning now for several hours. Cloudsdale's outer reaches had received extensive rearranging in anticipation of the battle. Looping walls of clouds had been erected all about the floating city, with towers rising at each point and angle. The walltops were arrayed with pegasi, the youngest and the freshest of recruits, armor glinting in the sunshine, swords in scabbards at their flanks. Twilight had found a basic set of barding; it was hot, and somewhat heavy. She squirmed. “Princess,” she turned to Luna, “maybe I should go oversee the civilians-”

“They have already been moved to the acropolis, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said. “All is at the ready, as it has been now for hours.”

“I just wish they would arrive,” said Gawing, armor flashing. “We've been up here so long already.”

“Patience, young commander,” said Luna. “I once had to wait a week to be besieged by dragon lords.”

“Whoa, dragons?” Dash said.

“Ah, indeed,” said Luna. “This was during the wild early days of Equestria. The land was mostly feudal; Tia and I had little real power as rulers, though of course we wielded considerable influence due to our strong magics. As thou hast learned, Commander Rainbow Dash, the lands where Equestria now lies were once an elk kingdom. In the time after the fall of the deerfolk, ponies had taken over the land- thus the plot of the play on Hearth's Warming Eve. But even in unity they had not fully become one nation, and in their disparate condition, dragons from Carcosa made their home in the country by the hundreds, nesting atop mountains, razing castles to the ground, devouring whole villages of ponies. Celestia contrived a plan to sortie against them, as a way of both making Equestria safer and rallying the noble families under our authority. It was not wholly successful, but we ultimately brokered a ceasefire between Carcosa and Equestria. This would eventually be broken, but it kept a sort of peace for six hundred years.”

“What about the siege, your highness?” Gawing asked.

“Oh, right,” said Luna. “I and an army of mixed pony types some thousands strong had been harassing draconic positions all around the Lucid Mountains in the north, near the Crystal Empire. They sent a dozen mighty drakes to stamp us out. We holed up in an old moose fortress made of sapphire, set against a narrow canyon. The dragons threw themselves at us with fire and wrath.”

“And you won?” said Dash excitedly.

“After a fashion,” said Luna. “The fortress was completely destroyed, smashed to crystal splinters by the dragons' wrath. However, the cost of its destruction was incredible for them. Of the twelve that flew against us, only one escaped- and even he did not, in truth, for he was so wounded that I chased him down and struck his head off in the air.” She grinned ferociously. “Twas a good day.”

“I hope we can be that successful,” Twilight said.

“We face a foe more powerful than even the mightiest dragon,” said Luna, “and more cunning.”

“Well he'll never be able to prove that if he doesn't show up,” said Gawing. “Maybe Lady Falalauria was wrong.”

“Lala is never wrong,” Luna responded.

“At least we'll see him coming!” said Dash.

Luna chuckled mirthlessly. “No, Commander Rainbow Dash- thou wilt not.” The Wills That Draw The World must have had a blackish sense of humor. No sooner had those words come from her lips than all of Cloudsdale was surrounded.

In flashes of red the sky was filled with buzzing black. Changelings by the thousands hovered in the air. They seemed to speak with quiet buzzings, for there were no shouted orders. Yet they advanced upon the city in directed formations.

“Release cloud mines!” Luna cried, her voice enchanted to reach every ear. “Ready tornadoes! Swordsponies and pikestallions face front!”

The pegasi upon some of the towers began bucking smallish clouds into the sky. They were so dark a gray as to be nearly black, and currents of electricity sizzled over their billowing surfaces. One of them collided with a charging mass of changelings, whence it erupted. A blast of lightning billowed outward, violently shocking every changeling in the formation and sending them falling into the sky. Other cloud mines floated up from Cloudsdale's underbelly, colliding with formations in their middle and disrupting their assault.

Meanwhile, on great open spaces of the walls pegasi were spinning in fast circles. Their weather magic caused the air to swirl fast in their tread, summoning cyclones that swiftly towered up above the standing ponies. Luna fluttered off the wall to see their progress, and when they'd reached a certain height and breadth she shouted “Fire!” The pegasi angled their spin and sent the cyclones blasting out at angles, aiming for the charging changeling throngs. The howling winds erupted through their blackened chitin ranks, scattering them like so much dark ash.

The cloud mines now were littering the skies around Cloudsdale. The tornadoes were smashing through the changeling ranks, and indeed they worked in tandem with the mines, hurling changelings into them where they were shocked and sizzled. Hundreds were tossed away and electrocuted. The skies steadily emptied of their number.

“We're doing it!” Gawing exclaimed.

“This'll be better than I hoped for!” cried Dash. “Ha, and dumb ol' Reiziger is nowhere in sight! But I guess that's not surprising! I mean, it's not like he can-”

Fly?

The word rippled like poison through the mind of everypony. They as one craned their eyes into the heavens. There he hung in empty air, antlers flickering with crimson flames, black shape like a wound torn in the sky. The sharp eyes of the pegasi could see him as he smiled, showing off that mouth of hideous teeth.

What's the matter, Rainbow Dash?, he thought into their minds. Haven't you ever heard of a flying reindeer?

“You!” Dash cried, rising off the cloud wall.

Yes, of course it's me. You didn't think I'd miss out on this assault, did you? And surely you didn't think I'd throw my whole force at you before I'd gauged your defenses? Now that that's done- His antlers flashed deep scarlet.

With bursts of red the sky was filled with changelings... changelings... changelings. Tens of thousands of them hovered in the air, nearly choking off sight of the clouds. Nor were they the only creatures that appeared. Great flying beasts, cobras with dragon wings, began to swoop and roar throughout the sky. A pale blue fire burned inside their mouths, and in their eyes. It shot up through the gap that ran along their backs, so that they seemed less living things than husks, vessels for infernal flames. “Wyverns!” Twilight cried.

Very astute, thought Reiziger at her. I presume you've never seen them? You'll have your fill today, I can-

The sky erupted. All that could be seen was suddenly engulfed in silver light. It blinded every pegasi, it recoiled every changeling and wyvern. Dash could feel her body flatten from the power of the blast, could feel her very soul be shaken, scorched by so much terrible strength she couldn't have imagined it if she had tried. The air was ripping, tearing, letting vacuum into time and space so that it was hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to do anything but be amazed and awed at such raw might.

At last the radiance diminished. The sky above Cloudsdale's tall towers had been totally cleared. All clouds and wisps were blasted away, all breeze had died. The smell of ozone dominated. Luna's horn was smoking. She blew upward onto it. “Shut up,” she snarled.

A black smear came streaking from the highest heights. Not nearly enough!, boomed Reiziger. His antlers flashed, and as brightly, vastly silver as the sky had just become, it now was every bit as crimson. Twilight felt herself coming apart, felt her horn stinging from the malice in the magic.

Silver flashed around the city, and the powerful red burst parted like breaking waves upon a silver bubble that enveloped all of Cloudsdale. The city was safe. Unfortunately, so were its attackers. “Hold the city!” shouted Luna as she flapped into the air. “Commander Gawing, Commander Rainbow Dash, Princess Twilight Sparkle, I leave the defense to you! Hold the city!” Her wings became a blur and sent her rocketing into the sky, where Reiziger was waiting. The two collided in a blast of red and silver that shook bones in everypony's chest. The silver streak prevailed and sent both mighty beings shooting further up and out of sight.

“You heard the princess!” cried Gawing as the changeling multitude surged forward. “We hold the city! Release mines! Cyclonists arm tornadoes again!”

“Permission to sortie, commander!” Dash shouted.

“Denied!” snapped Gawing. “We need to use our weather while it's still an option! Wait until they're on the wall!”

Dash's lip curled in a snarl. “Fine,” she said, “I'll just attack from here!” She started breathing slowly in and out. Her eyelids drifted closed. Being is the Dreaming, she told herself. Lightning is the Dreaming is Being. All things are lightning.

Twilight's eyebrows rose as sparks began to snarl round Dash's body. She'd seen it before, of course, but every time was thrilling, even with the terror of the battle now upon her. When Dash's eyes came open, they were for an instant filled with infinite shifting colors. When they were rose again she said, “Twilight, get your battle magic ready!”

“Oh! Right!” cried Twilight. Purple swirling light began to wash like whitewater upon her horn. “On three!”

“One!” Dash shouted.

“Two!” Twilight cried, her horn blazing.

“THREE!” Twilight loosed a blast of battle magic bright as dawn. Simultaneously Dash drew all the sparks upon her body to her chest, reared back, and a massive lightning bolt erupted from just above her heart. Magic and lightning together tore through the thronging changelings as they advanced, wiping out whole swaths of them.

In that instant, far down the wall, screams erupted. Twilight turned just in time to see a blue fireball smash into the wall, bathing soldiers in its flames and breaking up the uniformity of the defense. She winced when she realized it had been a team of cyclonists, so now there was one less tornado howling forth to meet the enemy.

“Okay!” said Gawing. “I won't let you leave the wall, but range up and down it! Both of you! Lightning and magic! Take out those wyverns especially before they wipe out our long range attacks! Go!”

Dash and Twilight shared a glance. “Stay safe!” said Dash, wings pumping.

“You too!” cried Twilight, flying up as well.

“Don't die!” Dash shot off in a rainbow streak.

Twilight began flying in the opposite direction, horn ablaze. She saw a wyvern swooping in an arc along the wall. A jet of blue fire streamed from its jaws, forcing pegasi to scatter or dive underneath the battlements. The changelings were nearly upon the wall. Twilight armed another battle magic blast, horn making a rippling, whining sound. When it was charged, she fired, aiming the spell at the wyvern just as its mouth opened to release more fire. The burst of flames billowed through its mouth, exploding out the open ridge along its back. Trailing smoke from all along its back, it ceased to flap its wings and fell.

“Good shot, your highness!” came a voice.

Twilight landed, then turned to see who'd spoken. It was the green pegasus from two days ago. “Spearmint!” she said. “Are you all right?”

“I'm fine,” said Spearmint. He glanced around. “But we have so many burned here!” The smell of charred fur filled the air. “Do you know healing magic?”

“J-Just a little,” said Twilight. “It's not the magic I'm best at.”

“Anything will do!” said Spearmint. “Get to work- please, your highness!”

“Tornadoes!” came the shout from further down the wall.

“You heard the cry, you lazy winglings!” shouted Spearmint. “On your hooves and to your wings! Tornado, on the double! Families are counting on us!”

As burned and battered pegasi began to spin about, Twilight glanced at the mess she'd taken charge of. Some pegasi were scorched quite badly, charred down to their skin. Some had seriously lost wing feathers. A few had stripped their armor to avoid it melting to their fur. She hissed a breath. She really, really wasn't good at healing magic. It was one of the few types of magic she was bad at, actually. “Families,” she whispered. Her eyes grew hard. “Okay, line up! I'll heal you one after the other!”

Rainbow Dash was spinning, flipping, twisting like a discus down the cloudy walls. She kicked and punched with all four hooves, and from each motion came a blast of lightning. These rapid bursts of electricity kept taking her into the Dreaming and then out, so that she had one hoof within eternity and one in the present. A lesser mind might have been shattered from the strain. Dash, however, was resilient. Her blazing bolts sent wyverns falling down and changelings sizzling away.

Eventually, though, even Dash had to come upright and reorient herself. She was far down the wall, close to one of the towers where the cloud mines still were puffing into open air. She shot up to it. “Hey!” she cried. “Let me give you guys a charge!”

“We'd appreciate that, commander!” said a pegasus. “The energy in the mines is starting to wane. We're pumping them out too quickly to really build up electricity!”

“I'll fix that,” said Dash. “Move!” They scattered as she flew into their midst. The great mass of clouds inside the tower just below her whispered with faint thunders. Dash dipped once again into the Dreaming, seeing all the swirling colors that lay behind breath and hope and life. Lightning crackled through the feathers of her wing. It snaked up all four legs. Even her eyes were sparking, lashes snarling with new energy. She jumped and crashed her hooves together, directing all the power downward. One massive lightning bolt went shooting from the four joined limbs. It suffused all the cloudy mass, darkening it near to black. Now lightning sizzled up its volume.

“Great!” said a pink pegasus. “Much obliged, ma'am!”

“Don't mention it!” said Dash. She swept her gaze upon the crowded skies. “Aim the mines downward! Some of the changelings are headed for the bottom of Cloudsdale!”

“Will do!” a gray pegasus said.

“I'll buck them if I can!” said Dash.

“Wait, ma'am! Commander Gawing told you to stay on the walls!”

“I'm a commander too!” cried Dash. “I need to get out there!” With no further word she shot off in a rainbow streak. The changelings swarmed her like a mass of hornets, but a field of lightning shot from every limb, zapping them to husks at each sharp turn.

All the while battle raged, the sky was filled with bursts of red and silver. At the edge of space Reiziger and Luna clashed, loosing blasts of battle magic powerful enough to crack the continents. So mighty was the fight that no changeling dared to approach Cloudsdale from above, lest they be caught within a blast and ripped apart. Luna spared a glance far below. “Thy forces seem to be at standstill!”

“Only for the moment,” snarled Reiziger. “And when I am finished with you, I shall go myself and overwhelm the ponyfolk's pathetic defense.”

“Thou wilt find that most difficult,” said Luna, “as thou hast found it yet.” She fired battle magic, shaking time and space.

Reiziger repelled the power, hurtled toward her eyes ablaze. “Do you think you can stop me?” He fired, the sky quaked. “You and your sister and the half-breed combined did not have the power to annihilate me, and you think to do the deed yourself? You are no challenge.”

“Thou claimest,” Luna said, “yet thou hast not yet bested me. Perhaps thy power is not as great as thy assumptions?”

“Not yet,” said Reiziger. “Soon, however, I shall surpass every limit. Soon I shall be greater than all ponies, and all deer, and all other things that are!” You know all about supreme power, don't you, Luna? The voice echoed through her mind. You know well the strength of following the dark path. Do you ever miss it?

Luna chuckled, and Reiziger's own mind shuddered. Thou dares to enter my mind? A goddess' thoughts are not read lightly. She caught Reiziger in a well of light and sound so deep he lost his footing. So far beyond a mortal am I. Beyond even the thoughts of the high deer. Now, BEGONE.

There was a thunder all through the infinite darkness of Reiziger's mind. He recoiled, falling out of sight. Luna watched him descend, and smiled. “So weak?”

“Not so much.” The voice came past her shoulder. Luna barely had time to crane her head backward, for Reiziger was there, teeth flashing. Luna howled in agony as Reiziger bit deep into her shoulder. She tore herself, away, a chunk of fur and skin and muscle staying held in his great mouth. Luna winced at all the pain she felt. Reiziger chewed his bite, and swallowed. “So long since I've tasted godflesh.”

“It is the last morsel I shall grant you,” snarled Luna, healing herself with a ripple through her form.

“Nay, I'll pick your bones clean when you're dead!” Reiziger cried, and charged. His antlers flashed.

Three towers, with their mines, had been destroyed, along with several tornado stations. A few hundred changelings had reached the cloudy walls, but the multitude of soldiers had made short work of them, swords flashing out to cut them down. All told, things were proceeding well. Twilight Sparkle glanced upon the walls from her high hover, a smile on her face. They might survive this yet, provided Luna dealt with Reiziger.

The sky flashed red at that point. Twilight glanced about and gaped. Thousands more changelings had appeared around the city, but they were hardly the most shocking new arrivals. Huge flying creatures, close in size to smaller dragons, now flapped their mighty leather wings. Their bodies were storm gray in color. Their necks were very long, with rounded heads and wide, tooth-laden mouths. Their taloned feet were large enough to snatch a pony each, and their tails slipped long and sinuous behind them. They looked like worms with wings, almost, or eels. What's more, they perfectly reflected illustrations Twilight had once seen in an ancient bestiary.

She turned and flew back towards the command spot. Gawing had just stomped a changeling's head in with his hooves, wings fluttering; he turned as Twilight landed. “This isn't a good time, princess!”

“Look!” Twilight said, pointing with her hoof. “Those things out there!”

Gawing glanced up. His orange eyes went wide. “What are they?”

“Fell beasts!” Twilight cried. “I... I thought they were just a myth, but somehow Reiziger's made them!”

“We'll deal with them!” said Gawing. “What can they do? Do they breathe fire?”

“No,” said Twilight. She turned briefly to blast some battle magic at the changelings. “But their screeches cause terror! Plug everypony's ears-”

The fell beasts started swooping low over the walls. As one their mouths came open, and the sound that issued forth was chilling to the bones. A high pitched shriek, a scream like something suffering now rippled through the air. It was so high and loud it rose above the battle's din.

Twilight heard it and was terrified. Her heart dropped to her stomach, and she skittered backward, scared like some young foal first learning to walk. The only reason she stopped backing up was bumping against the back rim of the wall. The fell beasts shrieked again, and she reared back and whinnied, wild in her fear. Only her immense mental composure stopped her from flying away on the spot.

The Royal Guard around her were not so controlled. They shrieked in horror and deserted, flying off their posts, throwing down their swords and spears. They bolted for the city, tearing off as if the demons of Tartarus were upon them.

“N-No!” cried Gawing, teeth chattering. “S-Stay! Keep to your posts! H-Have courage!”

The fell beasts swooped upon the tornado dispensers. Their massive talons lashed out to destroy the platforms, clouds puffing away from impact. What pegasi had stood to fight were slashed apart by the attacks. The fell beasts numbered just a dozen, but they tore apart the stations, rending them away with talon grasps and snaps of their thick jaws. The last tornado spinning through the sky broke up. With no further cyclones to block their passage, all the changelings charged.

They were upon the wall like swarming ants. Their bodies could shapeshift, of course, so they formed weapons as they landed, ends of legs becoming axe bits and sword blades. Pegasi were cut down as they cowered, drained of all their love as they were killed. The fell beasts swooped like huge vultures, clawing at the soldiers, even thrashing changelings in their fight.

High above, Luna deflected Reiziger's blast and looked below. Her eyes went wide as changelings swarmed over the walls of Cloudsdale, flying past them into the city itself. Pegasi were in total retreat. “No!”

“Ah ah ah!” said Reiziger, flying swift to cut off her departure. “We're not done yet!”

“Enough of this!” cried Luna. Her eyes glowed white. Her form became more stretched and elegant, with longer legs and finer, simpler snout. She turned translucent, ghostly white, as wings and horn vanished. She even lost her back legs, possessing just a spectral tail. The temperature of all the air was lessened. Gray and frosty clouds now gathered. “Let us see how well thou fights while frozen!”

The windigo she had become now blasted icy weather at Reiziger. Frost and icicles were covering his antlers shortly, huge cold winds shoved him back and forth through all the air. He fogged a breath, but then he smiled. “Is shapeshifting your last, best trick? I'll do one better.” Now it was he who changed. His body stretched and broadened, growing massive, while the coarse coal-shaded fur was turned to hardened scales. His stubby tail grew long and whipping. Huge leathery wings sprouted from his back, while his neck lengthened and his head became a massive reptile's snout. Soon where once had floated a black caribou there was a shadowy dragon, massive red antlers upon its head. The cold seemed not to bother it. Its chest heaved as it inhaled, then it blew.

The fire came out in gigantic waves, blazes of scarlet flames too huge to contemplate. They burned away the ice and cold, melting all the clouds that Luna gathered. Her own windigo form was rendered unstable by the heat, forcing her to turn back to an alicorn. The fire even licked at her divinity, burning up her ageless strength, making her shield herself or else be immolated. Reiziger's huge wings were flapping, kicking up a molten breeze, fanning flames into a firestorm that caught Luna in its hot dry winds. She was whipped and burned, tossed every direction.

At last she went flying; then Reiziger struck. He blasted her with his red battle magic. Caught off guard, she was sent hurtling downward. Reiziger fired again, increasing her descent. She fell faster, harder, more intensely, a silver streak behind her toward the open grass below. She crashed with a tremendous sound, burying herself amid a crater. The earth was shattered by the force; trees were bent back.

Luna grunted as she peeled herself out of the crater. Shadow suddenly blackened the space above her head. She glanced up- “Ah, n-” A mountain crashed upon her, its thunder echoing for miles as a crater like a giant's step was blasted into the dirt.

The changelings poured upon Cloudsdale. They swarmed into its towers, they buzzed along its streets. More of the Royal Guard came out to meet them, but these were the older, more experienced fighters, the ones who had been held in reserve for just such an invasion. The changelings at first were cut down, but they continued coming, unceasing, unrelenting. The wyverns swooped over the city, belching flames that blew apart the cloudy spires. Worst of all, the fell beasts kept their dreadful screeching up, planting seeds of terror in the hearts of everypony, however courageous. The pegasi fought half-hearted, their blades and tips haltingly swung. In time, the changelings overcame them, swarming deep into the city.

“They're inside!” cried Gawing, whipping a spear around to impale a changeling.

“I know!” cried Twilight. She had kept her wits about her, and had also cast a local muffling spell to blunt the fell beasts' cries. A blast of battle magic rippled down the wall and disintegrated changelings in its path.

“You have to get to the acropolis!” said Gawing, slicing off one changeling's head. “Get to-” he bucked one changeling off the wall- “get to the acropolis and protect the civilians!”

“What about you?”

“I'll be fine!” cried Gawing. A changeling's chitin blade slashed his cheek, but he pulled it down and stomped its skull. “Go!”

Twilight glanced about her. This area of wall was holding well, but largely due to her. If she left...

“Go!”

“Okay!” cried Twilight, shooting off with dusky-colored streaks.

Another changeling charged at Gawing. He drove a spear into its face. A changeling leapt upon his back; he sent it flying with a buck. More changelings swarmed him as they took note of his skill. He punched, he kicked, he even bit their blackened exoskeletons as though he were a feral horse. They fell in dozens round him, but he could not staunch their tide. Nor could he stop the bleeding he was doing from the many wounds he had received. His sight grew cloudy. He saw his mother, felt her pat him on the head, tell him to be a good boy at kindergarten. He saw a runty little pegasus, sky blue with rainbow mane and tail, sitting near the back. I should talk to her, he told himself. What's your name?

I'm... I'm Dash.

Cool! I'm Wingy!

It's... it's my first time here.

It's okay, he said. I'll be your friend. “I'll be your friend.”

A changeling blade came in, and that was that.

One of the fell beasts flew higher than the rest. It swung around the city in a massive circle and it loosed its terrible shrieks, a piercing cry almost like a wail. None of the pegasi dared come to it; its shriek filled them with fear, and it was massive, mighty talons stained already. It prepared to turn about-

Lightning enveloped it. It writhed and buckled in the air as lines of blinding white coursed over and through its leathery form. It started falling, but the lightning still kept coming, bolt on bolt was fired until all of it was shimmering, until its eyes and tongue were smoking, until it crashed into a massive section of the wall, crushing changelings underneath its charred remains.

“Take that!” snapped Dash, her body laced with thunderbolts. She grinned. Two down, ten to go. The beasts' shrieks did not affect her. She'd turned her own Gift of Loyalty upon herself, filling her own heart with courage to continue. “Heh, not too bad at all.”

A shriek suddenly issued. A shadow passed above. She turned and gasped- another fell beast was upon her, diving straight down, no time to-

A green streak passed before her. Black blood came pouring from the fell beast's neck. It staggered in the air, and then the streak crashed into that same neck to make the bleeding worse. “Hit it!” a voice cried.

Dash needed no more prompting. She flung a bolt at the wound. The power of the lightning blew the fell beast's head clean off; it fell away. She turned and saw Spearmint hovering nearby, the blade strapped to his leg stained black. “Nice!” she cried.

“Thanks,” said Spearmint. He glanced downward and his blue eyes widened. “They're in the city!”

“No!” Dash cried. A look below confirmed her fears.

“Orders, ma'am?” said Spearmint.

“We need to... we need to...” her mind was racing. She glanced down. Cloudsdale was passing by a mountain range. “I know!”

Around the acropolis stood strong and sturdy pegasi. The fell beasts' shrieks had not affected them, at least, not as strongly as it had the other ponies. They were well used to battling fear. For every guardspony upon the wall who had asked, 'Where are the Wonderbolts?,' here they were, the last line of defense between the hordes of Reiziger and those civilians clustered in the acropolis. Now the changelings came upon them. “Ah, ponyfeathers,” deadpanned Fleetfoot. “I was almost done counting to a thousand.”

“Kinda wish we had our flight suits,” said Soarin. He fidgeted, the armor rattling upon his body.

“Nylon won't do much against blades, man,” said Rapidfire.

“Maybe I just wish I was wearing mine because I'd rather be somewhere else,” Soarin responded.

“Come on, Soarin,” said Spitfire, “weren't you always saying how you wanted to see some action? Real action? Welp!”

“Yeah, well, I'm an idiot,” said Soarin. “We've established this, right?”

“Permission to note that Soarin is an idiot, ma'am?” said Misty Fly.

“Permission granted,” said Spitfire. She grinned with fearsome bleakness. “Okay, Wonderbolts, time for a last stand! Formations for-”

The blazing white of lightning rained upon the acropolis. Or, more precisely, around the acropolis, forming a ring of bolts that stopped the changelings in their tracks. “Spitfire!” The voice called from above.

“Rainbow Dash!” cried Spitfire as the named pegasi descended. “That was great! Can you keep it up?”

“Fraid not,” said Dash. “But I've got a plan! I think we can clear the city, and the walls!”

“A twister?” guessed Soarin.

“Yep!”

“But for the right size we'd need-”

“That's right!” said Dash. “Come with me!”

“Rainbow Dash, I don't think-”

“Listen!” snapped Dash. “Until this battle's over, I'm Commander Rainbow Dash! And I say come with me! That's an order!”

“Yes ma'am!” said Spitfire with a salute. “You heard the lady, Wonderbolts! Up!” Streaking trails behind them, all of the troupe of stuntponies ascended. Dash went with them, but only to a point. She stopped above the acropolis, looking down. Old mares and stallions cowered there. Mothers with their foals were huddled. The injured and the untrained lay there. Overall, many thousands.

Dash focused on her Gift. Her cutie marks began to glow. “Listen!” she shouted down. “All pegasi of Cloudsdale, listen up!”

Ears were raised.

“You're about to be overrun by changelings, wyverns, and fell beasts! But it doesn't have to be that way! You may not be soldiers, but you are pegasus ponies! All of you can fly- and all of you can make weather! It's in your blood!”

Heads looked up.

“Every pegasus who's ever been to grade school knows how to make a tornado! You used to make them on the playgrounds for fun! After school, you'd compete with your buddies to see who could kick up the biggest dust devil! You used tornadoes to impress your husbands and wives!” Dash's cutie marks were glimmering. “Now you need to put those skills to use, and save your city!”

Eyes went wide.

“Everypony who can fly, get up here! No matter how young, how old, how sick, how weak, how frightened!” The fell beasts shrieked nearby, striking terror in everypony. Dash poured willpower into her mind. Her cutie marks were blazing white, like lightning bolts. “Get up here, and we're gonna make the biggest tornado any of you have ever seen! Are you with me?”

“Y-Yeah!” somepony shouted.

“Are you with me?”

“Yeah!” more pegasi shouted.

“Are you with me?”

“YEAH!” a huge portion of the gathered ponies cried.

Are you with me?!

YEAH!!!” came the deafening roar of every single pegasus.

“Then let's go!”

In a rainbow wave of bodies all the pegasi flew up. Even those who could not fly were carried by the ones that could. The changelings reached the acropolis just as the final pegasus departed, and they hovered in the air.

“Now spin!” cried Dash, and started with herself. A rainbow circle soon appeared, and other pegasi took part in it, one by one or dozens at a time. The Wonderbolts were at the top to stabilize and shape the growing twister. It quickly swelled to massive size.

Twilight blasted magic at another wyvern, even as she dodged yet one more's flames. She hadn't actually made it to the acropolis; she had barely gotten far from the wall before all the wyverns had ambushed her. A streak of burnt black fur was on her flank, but mostly she was still unscathed, and she'd been blasting down the beasts as they'd approached. Even so, she was nearly out of time, she knew. The changelings surely must have been at the acropolis by now. She looked back toward the walls. The fight was getting desperate. So many Royal Guardsponies had fallen. Now-

“All Royal Guard, join the tornado!”

Twilight ducked a blast of azure fire and followed the voice. Spearmint was flying past the wall, streaking along all its length, and shouting.

“Every guardspony, join the tornado! That's an order from Commander Rainbow Dash! Every guardspony, join the tornado immediately!”

“Tornado?” repeated Twilight. She spun around. Her eyes bulged. A massive twister had sprouted above the acropolis, already half a mile in diameter. Lightning licked its darkened walls, the clouds were huge and black above it. Even as she watched some changelings were sucked into it. Even a fell beast, approaching, shrieking was pulled up into the cyclone.

“You too, your highness!” cried Spearmint as he flew up.

“But I-” Twilight blasted clear of the wyverns- “I'm not a pegasus pony! I don't know how to fly as part of a tornado formation! I mean, I've read about it-”

“You have wings, your highness!” said Spearmint. “Knowing how to fly in a twister is instinct to a pegasus pony, and you are one, whether you know it or not!”

Twilight looked at the twister. It was swelling further as the Royal Guard took part. “Okay!” she cried. She turned back towards the wyverns. Her horn erupted with a flash of blinding light. Blinding indeed- it dazzled all the creatures, confusing them and letting her escape. She streaked over the city, past the towers, over columns, above forums and roads. At last she reached the cyclone. Her stomach lurched: it was a wall of swirling clouds, so daunting she could scarcely comprehend it. How could she possibly take part?

“We're the last two, your highness!” cried Spearmint, coming up behind her. He had to scream above the howling of the wind. “Get in there- ma'am!”

Twilight swallowed hard. Summoning her courage, she pumped her wings and plunged into the morass. At first she tumbled, bouncing like a pinball over pegasi and writhing changelings. Spearmint, however, had been correct. Instincts previously unguessed came to life inside her mind. She righted herself, flapped her wings, and fell in beside a pink pegasus and a lavender one, the former carrying her foals upon her back. She flew faster.

Okay!” shouted Dash's voice. “Now move!

The pegasi reacted in concert. They swerved one direction. The tornado, with every pegasus inside it, was a monster, a terrifying freak of nature, tens of miles tall and a mile wide at least. With its motion it wreaked havoc on all creatures in its path. Changelings were sucked up by the thousands. Wyverns were pulled into its winds. The fell beasts that still flew collapsed into the vortex. All along the city swept the juggernaut, acting like a vacuum to suck up the enemy. The Wonderbolts and Rainbow Dash, flying at the top, steered the twister truly, passing it across the city thoroughly, ensuring it did not miss any space. Next the cyclone went over the walls. Through it all, Cloudsdale itself remained intact. After all, Twilight had modified the clouds' density; they were solid as a rock even in the fiercest winds. The tornado even circled the entire city, sucking up all the changelings that hovered to prevent escape. They themselves tried to escape, but it was useless.

That's all of them!” cried Dash. “Now, down!

The tornado descended, howling as it fell. The Wonderbolts and Dash angled the winds just right so that the hordes of Reiziger, all his terrible beasts, were dropping to the bottom of the twister. They kept on going down, moving through the air until they were above the mountain range. The tornado dropped against a wall of snowy peaks.

Now, smash 'em!

The cyclone jerked its bottom so abruptly it was like the cracking of a whip. The lower third was smashed against the mountains, annihilating every changeling, wyvern, and fell beast collected there. It struck the mountain yet again, then a third time, next a fourth. Six times in total did the twister strike the mountain, emptying it of the terrible creatures who had dared to threaten every pegasus' ancestral home.

Up!

The cyclone rose and curved, arcing back towards Cloudsdale in a nearly graceful bow of wind. In little time it reached the city.

Break up! Slowly! Give everypony a chance to get out!

Gently did the twister come apart. The old and feeble got out first, dropping from the bottom onto Cloudsdale's white cloud streets. Next came the mothers, fathers with their foals, landing gently in the open spaces. Then bit by bit the able-bodied ponies came away. The twister kept on shrinking, growing thinner, until it was just fighting folk. With a final blast of wind the guardsponies and warriors dispersed, the twister disappearing into nothing.

“We did it!” shouted a mother pegasus, grasping her babies close.

“I... I can't believe it,” said a guard.

“Hip hip, hooray!”

“Hip hip, HOORAY!”

“HIP HIP, HOORAY!”

“Awesome!” cried Dash, fluttering down. She was instantly mobbed.

“You're amazing, Miss Rainbow Dash!”

“The pride of Cloudsdale!”

“Always were among the best of us!”

“A hero! A genuine hero!”

The Wonderbolts were gathered at a distance, along with Twilight Sparkle and Spearmint. Spitfire chuckled. “We should induct her right now, you know.”

“Have the Wonderbolts ever had a battlefield induction?” asked Fleetfoot.

“As a matter of fact, they have,” said Twilight, raising a hoof. “You see, back during the Great Dragon War-”

“Reiziger!”

The pegasi of Cloudsdale gasped as Luna fluttered down into their midst. She looked immaculate, as good as new- save for the fear that flickered in her eyes.

“Princess Luna!” cried Twilight as she came close. “I'm so glad you're okay! We did it! We saved the city! And it's all thanks to Dash!”

“Wondrous,” said Luna, her voice betraying her distraction. “Have any of you seen Reiziger?”

“No, your highness,” said Spearmint. “We thought you were fighting him.”

“I was,” said Luna, “but he battered me and struck me down. I have lost track of him!”

Fear now rippled through the crowd.


The rainbow foundries were deep inside of Cloudsdale. Among the most fortified portions of the city, they had largely been ignored during the siege. The vast and silent pools of shifting colors were unmoved by all the chaos. The two dozen guards that watched them fidgeted. “Shouldn't we go outside and see how things are faring?” one asked.

“You heard Princess Luna's orders,” said another. “We protect the foundries at all costs.”

“Things seem to have quieted down out there,” said one of the technicians in his white coat. “It couldn't hurt to take a peek and see how things are going.”

It will hurt you far more to be in here.

Red haze enveloped every guard and worker. They floated in the air, frozen in place.

Alas, too late to leave. The foundry gates came open; in strode Reiziger, his antlers burning. “Ah,” he breathed, “rainbows.”

The guards and technicians began to float around him, orbiting him as if he were some pitch black star.

“Do you know there is a ghastly urban legend surrounding rainbows?” he asked. Of course his prisoners could not respond. “It is whispered by little colts and fillies at their slumber parties that rainbows are made from the blood of pegasi. A garish, gruesome story, to be sure. Exactly the sort of thing that excitable youths would spread. Of course it is not true.” He floated one technician right in front of him. He grinned, with all those razor teeth. “But like many legends, it has its roots in fact. Rainbows are not made from pegasus blood, no. But in order to truly make a rainbow- in order for it to sparkle, to shine, to have the power to vanquish evil that rainbows in this remade world seem to possess- it must contain a certain degree of strength. That is why you technicians,” he glanced at the white-coated pegasi, “must be the most sturdy and able-bodied folk in Cloudsdale. You impart some of your own, invisible power of living into the brewing of your rainbows. Rainbows are not made of blood. But rainbows are made of... life.”

The floating pegasi writhed as they were drained of strength. The shadows pulsed around Reiziger. In a few minutes, all of them died, and their bodies became gray and wasted husks. His power dissipated. The corpses toppled to the cloudy ground. Reiziger strode up to the edge of one of the rainbow pools.

“And that means these lakes, these vats of rainbows, are full to brimming with life force. Which makes them... delicious.”

He stuck a hoof into the pool. Black ripples spread out from his touch.


“I don't see him anywhere in the surrounding clouds!” cried Spearmint, touching down.

“He's not hiding below the city!” said Soarin, galloping up.

“Keep searching!” cried Luna. “We must find him. He would not have abandoned this place, not when he could move about unnoticed in the chaos of the battle.”

“Look!” shouted Dash, pointing up and to the left.

The rainbow waterfalls that thundered from the pinnacles of Cloudsdale were changing. Even as everypony watched, the multitude of shifting colors turned to midnight black. Eyes swept over all the rainbows. One by one, they darkened. In only a few minutes all the rainbows around Cloudsdale had turned black.

Much better.

Everypony looked up. Reiziger appeared above the city, hovering serenely. Twilight pinged him with her horn and staggered at the feedback she received. The power radiating off him, the power she could feel, was terrifying. “How... how did...”

“The rainbows,” Luna said.

Of course that was my objective from the start, he thought at them. Now, much as I would like to stay and wipe your city off the sky, I must be going. I'm a busy dark lord, after all.

“Coward!” yelled Dash. “Come down here and face us! We're not afraid of you!”

Reiziger arched a coal black eyebrow. Oh no? You should be.

For an instant, just the blinking of an eye, Reiziger changed. He no longer was a caribou. Instead he was... infinite. A blackened, writhing mass the size of Cloudsdale, maybe greater. A shapeless, grasping thing, with too many antlers, too many eyes, and far, far too many teeth. Glancing at him, Twilight felt her sanity begin to crack. There were angles to his shape that did not fit her knowledge of geometry, folds of shadow, turns of darkness that awakened ghosts of madness in her head. She saw in him an End of things. She saw in him that which was Not.

It lasted just a gasp. Reiziger then was deer once more. That's enough for now, I think. Farewell. He vanished in a flicker.

“Ungh,” grunted Twilight, rubbing her eyes. The sight of him could not be banished from her head.

“We... we won,” said Dash. “Cloudsdale's safe. We won.”

“Then why doesn't it feel like it?” asked Twilight. She glanced upon the blackened rainbow falls.

Chapter 19

View Online

Deep within the northern reaches of Equestria there lay a wondrous place. Snow and ice, so thick and cold that trains had not pierced the wastes until the last century, gave way to rolling fields of green, a lovely shining sun, the gentle whisper of the wind through quiet leaves. The entrance to this vast expanse of temperate land was marked by glinting protrusions of crystal, and these two pillars were only the beginning. A city made of crystal, filled with pointed towers and resplendent walls that glimmered, stretched out for miles across open land. There were amazing crystal mansions, stunning crystal atriums, green gardens kept in crystal hothouses. At the center of this city was a castle made of crystal, one that towered high over the plain, above which the flag of Equestria flew, and below it, a flag with a device of crystal in a star-shape pattern.

This was the Crystal Empire, lately vanished for a thousand years, before that a rogue state ruled by the wicked King Sombra. Celestia and Luna had dealt harshly with him, but in his defeat he had cursed his stolen land to pass out of the world of sight and sound. A millennium went by, and then the empire returned, briefly bringing Sombra with it. He had been defeated, however, by Twilight Sparkle and her six friends- along with the two ponies who sat presently upon the Empire's double thrones.

Shining Armor stood at the window of the throne room, glancing out over the city. He had been there only a few seconds, and in a few seconds more he left his vantage point, returning yet again to pacing through the space. He pawed the crystal floor with one front hoof, snorting from his nostrils. A powerfully built unicorn, his white coat gleamed and his blue mane and tail swished feverishly, betraying his unease. Flickers of the shield spell that he knew so well appeared around him as he moved, effluences of magic brought on by his great distress.

The throne room's secret door came open, and an alicorn with pink coat and a glossy, striped mane stepped in. “Shiny?”

“Oh, hey Candy,” said Shining Armor.

Princess Cadence winced. Her radiant divinity was specialized in reading thoughts and feelings, so her husband's unease was like a rough tide washing at her hooves. “I've gotten the reports from the engineers today,” she said. “They're almost finished with the northern tower. The whole wall will be up in another two weeks.”

“Great,” growled Shining Armor. He paced back to the window. Looking down, he saw the newest crystal structure in the Empire: a wall that ran around the city, half-completed, very tall and very thick. Its crystal was the smoky black of onyx, and seemed to glimmer as though it were wet.

“When it's done, we can enchant it together,” Cadence said. “Between your shield spell and my emotional defense, it should be able to withstand anything anypony can throw at it.”

“Wonderful.”

Cadence huffed. “Shiny, what's wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“You know you can't lie about your emotions to me.”

Shining Armor loosed a breath. “I shouldn't be here.”

“Shiny...”

“I should be down south!” snapped Shining Armor. “I should be helping with the fighting!”

“They've been doing well,” said Cadence. “You read Celestia's letter. They were able to repel the invasion of Cloudsdale. And you couldn't have helped with that, since you can't fly.”

“But the rainbow foundries were damaged,” said Shining Armor. “It's going to take heavy duty magic to even start repairing what Reiziger did. And rainbows are a key-”

“A key layer of magical protection around Equestria, yes, I know,” said Cadence. “I do keep up with these things- I am a princess, after all.”

“Then you know how serious this is!” Shining Armor stamped his hoof. “Candy, we're at war- at war, Candy! Equestria hasn't been at war since Sombra took this place over, but now we're in the thick of one! And Reiziger's more dangerous than Sombra, maybe more dangerous than anything that's ever attacked Equestria before!” He shook his head. “And here I am, on the sidelines.”

“These are not the sidelines,” said Cadence. “Celestia and Luna ordered us to fortify the Crystal Empire. Lady Falalauria told them the war is going to come here sooner or later, and we need to be ready to withstand it. This is important, Shiny.”

“I know,” said Shining Armor, “I know, I know, but while the walls and towers are going up I could be in the south! I could be drawing up defenses and analyzing enemy attack patterns- you know, the things I'm actually trained in? The things I went to Starpoint Academy for? The things I got my cutie mark in?” He sat down with a thump upon the crystal floor.

Cadence trotted to him, resting on her heels beside him, leaning her soft snout against his cheek. “Is that what this is about? You wanting to be useful?”

“Yes-”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

Cadence's horn flickered with a pinkish hue. “It is there, yes, but you're... worried? Afraid?” She swiveled her lavender eyes at him. “Shiny?”

Shining Armor sighed and sagged, leaning up against his wife. “I am worried. I'm worried about Twily. I'm worried about her and Spike. They've been coming snout-to-snout with a dark lord, and I haven't been there to protect them!”

“Twilight can handle herself,” said Cadence. “She is an alicorn princess, after all. And even Spike is brave. Plus they have all their friends together. You read that letter from Celestia- they've been awakening the Gifts of the Elements of Harmony. Together, they can't fail.”

“I know, I know,” said Shining Armor. “They're our best hope to actually stop all this. But until they're ready, they're vulnerable. I should be down there to protect them.”

“I know,” said Cadence. “I can feel how scared you are, and it's okay. You have every right to be. She's your sister, and Spike is basically your brother. If you weren't worried about them, then I'd be concerned.”

Shining Armor sighed another time. “Guess I deserve to feel bad, for doubting them.”

“That's not true,” said Cadence. “You can be worried about them and still have faith in them. It's how you show your love.”

Shining Armor stood. Cadence stood as well, but it was she who moved at first. She trotted through the great doors of the throne room that led out onto the massive crystal balcony. The city spread below them, crystal walls and roofs catching the sun and sparkling with a wondrous radiance. Cadence held her hoof up, angling it just so, and it caught the light reflected in the crystal, so that the pink hard surface seemed to glow. Shining Armor came to stand beside her, and together they were standing there for several silent minutes.

“Hmm,” said Cadence finally, “crystal.”

“What?”

“Just thinking about how Equestria's fallen into an old deer conflict, and how it relates to the Empire. Celestia told me that it was the deerfolk who first figured out how to work and shape crystal.”

“Really?”

Cadence nodded. “The deer weren't really very innovative- not like ponies. Their magic was so powerful they didn't have to invent and create all the devices we ponies have. However, they were excellent at the shaping and engineering of crystal. They also learned how to unlock its magical potential.”

“Potential,” repeated Shining Armor. “I do remember something about that. Crystal enhances magic, right?”

“Crystal is a magical amplifier,” Cadence told him. “It takes ordinary spells and increases their power. It's why the Crystal Heart is able to repel any enemy- it takes the magical will of all the crystal ponies and powers it up a thousandfold. The deerfolk were the first to discover its potential.”

“Whoa, really? Where did you learn that?”

“The deep volumes in the Royal Archives in Canterlot,” said Cadence. “You wouldn't believe how much reading Celestia made me do when I ascended. Anyway, the deer built cities of crystal and gemstone to increase the power of their spells, and over time, the crystal even increased their own internal magic, helping them to become as strong as they were at the end. Everything we know about the shaping of crystal comes from the deer, and we're still not as good at it as they were.” She turned and looked up at the mighty crystal towers. “I think this palace is probably an old deer outpost.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You live here,” said Cadence. “You have to have noticed how amazing the craftsmanship of the palace is. And it's so different from the other buildings in the Empire. Different shape, different quality- it's like the work of a master sculptor compared to the efforts of her students.”

“It is pretty impressive,” admitted Shining Armor. “And I guess I know the deerfolk lived around here. This is the edge of... moose territory, right?”

Cadence nodded. “I think this place was one of their guard towers, or magical outposts, or something like that, and after the deerfolk were wiped out, ponies found it and built the city around it.”

“Well, let's hope it stands as strong against Reiziger this time as it did the first time,” said Shining Armor. “And I want to-”

“Ah, pardon?”

The two rulers of the Empire turned round to see a crystal pony in a smart butler's ensemble. “Beg pardon, your highnesses, but a letter has just arrived for Prince Shining Armor.”

“A letter?” Cadence asked. “Couldn't this have waited until regular audiences?”

“If it had arrived by normal post, perhaps,” said the butler. “But this one arrived by magic.”

Shining Armor's horn lit up with whitish tint. The letter floated off the tray the butler carried, coming just before his snout, where he used further magic to rip open the envelope. His blue eyes swiftly traveled back and forth. As he started reading, his mouth was set in a firm line. The more he read, however, the more a smile slowly broke across his face. By the time he reached the flowing postscript, he was grinning.

Chapter 20

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Lyra leaned back in her chair at the cafe. “Now that was some good blueberry pie,” she said with lazy relaxation. She hiccuped, and a hoof went to her mouth to stifle belching.

“It sure looked like you enjoyed it,” Bon-Bon said. “Now, there's one more piece. Don't want it to go to waste, huh?” She pushed the nearly empty tin toward her girlfriend.

Lyra eyed the piece with hesitation. “I don't know, Bonnie, I'm- hic- kinda full.”

“Come on, Lyra,” said Bon-Bon, grinning. “You know you want it.”

Lyra licked her lips. “Oh, fine.” She quickly guzzled down the final piece. For a pony, Lyra was quite plump, though not as fat as, say, Red Ribbon or Double Stuff. Bon-Bon preferred her on the large side, and Lyra did not mind some extra weight.

Bon-Bon called for the check, and they were about to leave when- “Pardon, are you leaving?”

“We are,” said Lyra, but when she turned to face the speaker her eyes widened. It was a deer, her eyes gleaming like rubies, her large ears swelling out from her gracefully sculpted head. “You... you can have this table, we're just paying.”

“Thank you greatly.”

Lyra and Bon-Bon exchanged a look. Bon-Bon barely hid her perturbation. Lyra put a kinder face on, but her unease, the dread which lingered in her all the time these days, at last overcame her propriety. “Hey, what's your name?”

“I am Isabella,” said the deer.

Lyra looked her over. She was a different brown than most deer that she'd seen, and something else was off about her. “You're not one of the Shimmerwood deer, are you?”

“No,” said Isabella. “I am a mule deer, and I live in the Everfree forest. Our lord has permitted us to come into Ponyville to make our white-tail cousins more comfortable.”

“Great,” hissed Bon-Bon.

Lyra shot her a look, but her own tongue then betrayed her. “Do you know the one who's been attacking Equestria?”

“What?”

Lyra came off her chair and stood. “The evil one, the dark lord. He's a deer, isn't he?”

“He is, but he is not-”

“So you do know him,” Bon-Bon said, her voice dropping an octave.

“The Herd Lord is not of our ranks,” said Isabella. “He turned against the deerfolk long ago- that is what the War was for. He is not even a common deer, he is high.”

“Really?” Lyra asked. “What's the difference?”

“Six species make up the deerfolk,” said Isabella. “The common deer are the two smaller species, the mule deer and the white-tail deer. The high deer are the four larger species, the moose, the elk, the red deer, and the caribou. The Herd Lord is a caribou.” Her eyes flashed wrathfully. “And do not say we are in league with him. The Herd Lord was always the enemy of the common deer! He saw us as lesser beings! Inferior! He was a racist and a tyrant!”

“Okay, okay, sorry,” said Lyra.

“I'm... it's all right,” Isabella said. “You are not the first pony to have asked me this question. I am getting tired of answering it, however.”

“Look, I really am sorry, and so is Bon-Bon,” said Lyra, glancing back at her, “right?”

“Oh, oh yes,” said Bon-Bon, putting on a smile.

“It's just... I'm scared,” Lyra said. “We're all scared.”

“I can imagine,” said Isabella. She sighed, and looked then very old. “Have courage, little pony. We are in night now, but the day will come. It must.”

“I think we need to be going now,” said Bon-Bon, leaving her chair. The waiter had just set their bill down, and Bon-Bon had put out the necessary bits.

“Right,” said Lyra. “Well, it was good talking to you. Sorry for making you upset.”

“I understand,” said Isabella. “I know what it means to fear.”

“Oh, here,” said Lyra, pulling out her chair. “We said you could have the table, so here.”

“Thank you,” Isabella said, settling her thin flanks on the seat.

Bon-Bon jerked her head, so she and Lyra trotted out the exit. “Ugh,” said Bon-Bon, “I really can't wait for them to leave. What's taking the princesses so long to find them a new place?”

“Probably this war,” said Lyra. Her orange eyes wavered. “You know my brother, the one who lives in Manehattan?”

“The flute player? Oh, what was his name?”

“Lute.” Lyra sighed. “He's thinking of joining the army.”

Bon-Bon's mouth dropped. “But... but only the Royal Guard is in the army. You have to have gone to the military academy to be in.”

“For now,” Lyra said. “But he says he's heard a rumor that they'll be opening up enlistment soon. If they do, he says he may be the first in line.” She stopped in the street, sitting back on her haunches. “I'm really, really scared.”

“Lyra,” sighed Bon-Bon, sitting down beside her. “I... I don't know what to say.”

“Don't say anything,” said Lyra, leaning into her. “Just... be with me, okay?”

Bon-Bon obeyed her girlfriend's wish. Her mouth did not open; instead, she wrapped a leg around Lyra's shoulders, settling against her softened body.


“The future is a river.”

Rarity's eyes grew wider, and the stars in them were twinkling.

“It flows from a single course, which is the past. The past has already happened, and cannot be changed.”

Rarity tried hard to make her breathing even.

“However, as the river flows, it branches off in tributaries, forks, and gullies. In this same way, as time advances, the certainty of the past breaks off in infinite directions, as the choices creatures make alter the future. One choice leads to one future, another to another, and on without ending.”

Rarity sunk deeper in her pillow.

“So, in a sense, to ask 'what is the future' is an impossible question. There is no one future. There are other futures in other ways, other aspects of existence.”

“W-What?” Rarity said, breaking the spell. Her eyes lost their starriness and blinked with great rapidity. “My lady, are you saying there are other... other times?”

Falalauria nodded. “Each choice exists. The future of one choice proceeds; however, the other choice has its own future, and as one who can see ahead in time, both futures can be looked on in your Sight.”

They were sitting in the middle of the Carousel Boutique. Rarity had pulled a resting pillow out for herself, while Falalauria lay on a mattress Rarity happened to have in spare. The lights were low; candles burned around them. Incense wafted sweetly through the air.

“So then there was...” Rarity wracked her mind, “there was a future where I got a different cutie mark?”

“Is a future,” Falalauria corrected. “As we speak, there is a you in another future- another reality- that proceeded from your different cutie mark. And think of all the cutie marks you could have gotten. All those marks would lead to different futures, different outcomes, different universes. And that is only a single thing that would have changed. There are an infinity of futures.”

Rarity's mouth dropped open. “Then how on Earth am I to know what the right one is?”

“Sense,” said Falalauria. “Consider ripples in a pond. When first created, those closest to the point of impact are the biggest, and the strongest, while those that move further away are smaller and weaker. There is the True Future, the way things will be in the long line of time the Wills direct. Then there are the branched futures, those paths of deviation. The closer a future you See is to the True Future, the... stronger, sharper, it will seem. The further away, the fainter and weaker. Like the ripples in the pond.”

“I have noticed that some of the futures I See feel... further away, I suppose? I find that, even when I look at them carefully, they have the sense of coming from a great distance.”

“You are beginning to understand,” said Falalauria. “Your Sight has grown much stronger even in the past few weeks. Soon you will begin to see futures definitively. Not the whole future, not yet- but the futures of items, landscapes, and ponies.” She glanced evenly at Rarity. “But of course, once you can see the future, you must decide how to act. That is the truly difficult part.”

Rarity sighed and nestled deeper in her pillow. “It is something that has impressed itself upon me, I must admit.”

Just then the front door opened, bathing the dim space in noontide's light. “Are you sure Rarity said we could work with her, Sweetie Belle?” came Scootaloo's voice.

“Yup!” said Sweetie Belle. She and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo came trotting eagerly into the shop. “She said we could practice designing a dress and everything! She'd even help us make it! We'll get our cutie marks in designing... for... sure...” Her glee died in her throat. The Cutie Mark Crusaders stopped dead in their tracks upon seeing Falalauria.

She smiled at them. “Mae govannen, little Crusaders.”

“M'lady!” said Apple Bloom, bowing low as Applejack had taught her. “We didn't know you were gonna be here!”

“Totally, my lady!” said Scootaloo, tiny wings aflutter as she bowed. “I hope we're not interrupting anything.”

“Oh, of course not,” said Rarity. “Lady Falalauria and I were just practicing... magic, yes, magic.”

“Really?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“Of course, of course,” said Rarity. “You know we need to have our skills sharp with a dark lord on the loose.”

“Oh,” said Sweetie Belle, looking swiftly grim. “Yeah. Right.”

“We wish to keep you safe, little ponies,” said Falalauria. “That is why we train. That is why Rarity is exercising with her special Gift.”

“Gift?” said Sweetie Belle.

“As a Bearer of an Element of Harmony, your sister possesses a talent no other pony wields,” said Falalauria. “I shall tell you more about it some other time. I am helping her to make it stronger.”

“I wasn't certain if it was all right to let them know,” said Rarity.

“They can know,” said Falalauria. “I See no harm in it- and I See everything.”

“Oh! Oh!” Scootaloo cried. “I remember the story about you that Rarity and Applejack and Rainbow Dash told! The one where they had to go on that adventure to save Twilight Sparkle! You can see the future, can't you?”

“The future, and the past,” said Falalauria, “and all the wide expanses of the world. Nothing is hidden from me.”

“So you know what our cutie marks will be... right?” Scootaloo's smile stretched.

The stars wheeled across Falalauria's deep eyes. “Yes.”

“Really?” squealed Sweetie Belle.

“What are they?” Apple Bloom asked, barely containing her delight.

“I shall not say,” said Falalauria.

The Crusaders groaned. “But why not?” Sweetie Belle asked. “If it's really the future-”

“Because the future can change,” said Falalauria. “It is constructed by the choices you and every other creature makes. If I tell you what your cutie marks will be, you may seek after them in ways that alter your destinies. This may lead you to different cutie marks, and different special skills. As of this moment, your cutie marks are good ones, and I hate to disrupt your acquiring them.”

“I... guess that makes sense,” said Sweetie Belle.

“But we do get 'em, right?” said Apple Bloom.

“You do,” said Falalauria. “You will not be bare-flanked all your lives. You will find your talents, and your destinies. They are all quite wonderful.”

“Awesome!” said Scootaloo. “So we should keep on going!”

“We should keep on moving!” said Apple Bloom.

“We shouldn't get sad!” said Sweetie Belle.

“CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS, NEVER GIVE UP!” the three of them exclaimed, knocking hooves together.

“Wonderful,” said Rarity. She stood. “Now, I think we could all use some lemonade. Do you girls want it? And some cookies?”

“Yay!” cried Sweetie Belle.

“Yes, ma'am!” said Apple Bloom.

“Definitely!” Scootaloo shouted.

“May I tempt you, my lady?”

“I should be delighted,” said Falalauria. She stood to her full height, moaning a little at the stretching of her limbs. “It is time we took a break, at any rate.”

“Splendid,” said Rarity. “I shall be right back! Don't be dour!” With a spring in her step Rarity trotted from the room, heading for the kitchen.

“I think it's super cool that you're helping Rainbow Dash out!” said Scootaloo to Falalauria.

“She is very strong, and very brave. I have tried to help her as best I can. I hope it will be enough.”

“I gotta admit,” said Apple Bloom, “I'm scared. Everything I'm hearin' about this black deer fella makes him sound real awful!”

“He is terrible,” said Falalauria, “but have no fear. He will be beaten.” She tilted next her head to her left side. “Sweetie Belle.”

“Yes?”

“You love your sister, do you not?”

“Oh, yeah! I love Rarity a bunch!”

“Would you love her if she did something horrible?”

Sweetie Belle fidgeted. “Well... I don't know...”

“Why would Rarity do somethin' horrible?” Apple Bloom asked.

“Because it might lead to something better later,” Falalauria said. “What if it were something bad, but with aims of doing something good?”

“If I knew she was doing something good, I guess I'd still love her,” said Sweetie Belle. “Or... no, I'd try to love her no matter what she did.”

Falalauria smiled. “You are a good pony, Sweetie Belle. Remember that- and remember your pledge.”

“Um... okay...”

“Tra la la, who wants cookies!” Rarity's voice sparkled through the air and broke the dour silence. The Cutie Mark Crusaders hurried to the older pony, leaving behind Falalauria and all her cryptic warnings. She stood back, watching them with her unbroken stare.


White radiance enveloped Twilight Sparkle. The trees of Everfree were bathed in light, swelling in and out much like the pumping of the blood. Her eyes were gleaming, and her cutie marks were shining like the midday sun. She could feel the universe flow in and out.

“Now, will,” said Fëanor.

Twilight willed. The trees around her changed: their leaves grew orange and red and yellow, all the striking hues of autumn. Swiftly they turned brown, whence they all fell from the branches in a shower of dull progress. The bare limbs shifted in a sudden, northern wind. But in no time their gnarled lengths strengthened with new life. Small leaf buds blossomed on the branches. They sprouted into verdant fullness, so at last the deep green leaves of summer once more shaded the forest.

“Well done, Twilight,” said Fenaor as the light dimmed.

“That was amazing!” Twilight cried. Her cutie marks still shone. “I feel... I could feel the seasons! Could feel them moving all around me, and in me! It usually takes all of Ponyville or Canterlot or some other city to change the seasons, but I did it!”

“You are growing quite powerful indeed, Twilight,” Fëanor said. His golden eyes were glinting. “Soon your Element of Magic will be strong enough that you will rival me in might.”

“Oh, you can't mean that,” said Twilight. “You're so wise and powerful. It would take years for me to reach your level.”

“You undersell your own abilities,” Fëanor said. “Moreover, do not count out the effects of my tutelage. I have been precisely calibrating your exercises to ensure the maximum effect on your Gift of Magic. Meanwhile, your own efforts are extraordinary. You have progressed so far, so fast because you have wished it.”

“Because I've willed it!”

“Exactly. Now, I believe you have earned a break.”

Twilight took another glance around the grotto where they'd trained. The wild trees grew tall above her head. A large boulder, topped with moss, stood far off to their right. Her eyes went wide. She'd seen that boulder before. It was on the way from the northwest to- “Oh!” she said. “You know what we should do, before we start again?”

“Ah, no,” said Fëanor.

“I should take you to meet my friend Zecora! She's an amazing student, and teacher, of magic. I'm sure she'd love to get to know you.”

“Zecora?” he repeated. “That sounds like a zebra name.”

“She is a zebra!” Twilight said brightly. “She's helped my friends and I so often in our adventures. She's really wise and kind.”

Fëanor arched an eyebrow. “Zebra magic is... odd. They seem to channel it through their bones in the manner of earth ponies, but it manifests much more powerfully, and much more strangely, than anything earth ponies can do. Though the deerfolk studied zebras extensively, we were never able to determine the true source of their abilities.”

“Well, you can just ask her!” Twilight said. “Come on!”

Wings fluttering to send her off, she hurried through the forest. Fëanor came after her, though somewhat hesitantly. Deep they went into the gloom, mist now hanging off the ground around their legs. Vines festooned with thorns crawled onto their path, forcing them both to step carefully. The growling of some distant creature echoed through the murky air, but it did not seem to pose a threat.

At last they reached the clearing where the hollow tree stretched up its winding limbs. Ancient masks of distant shape were placed around the tree, while through its door, and from its windows, warm red firelight came forth. “I'll go in first, and talk to her,” said Twilight. While Fëanor stood still she trotted to the door and rapped her hoof upon it.

The door creaked open, and a zebra roughly pony height stuck out her head. Her mane was cut into a high mohawk, while round her neck were golden rings, and from her ears hung golden hoops. Her blue eyes gleamed like sapphires in the dim light. She smiled, though, on seeing who had knocked. “Dear Twilight Sparkle, such a caller! Say now, have you gotten taller?”

“Hmm?” Twilight glanced down at herself. “I... don't know.”

“Tis no matter, come inside! For you my door is open wide.”

“Thanks, Zecora.” She trotted through the door, into the hut quite cozily appointed. More masks hung on the walls. Potions and powders were stacked upon shelves and tables. At the center bubbled some sweet-smelling stew in a black cauldron. “What's on the fire?”

“Just some lunch, if that's your hunch.” Zecora allowed Twilight to walk near her, then stretched out her neck and took a sniff. “Your magic is quite strong today. More than prior, dare I say.”

“Oh, yes,” said Twilight, “I've been training it. And it's not just my normal unicorn magic, either! It's the Gift of Magic, that I got from the Element of Magic!”

“You speak of Gifts of Harmony, of Elements from off the Tree.”

“Yes!” said Twilight with excitement. “My friends and I have learned that, by being Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, we've all been granted special gifts. My Gift is greatly enhanced magical ability. More than that, if I make my Gift strong enough, I'll be able to channel the power of the Element of Magic without needing my crown, and my friends will be able to do it without using their necklaces! Then we'll be able to summon the Rainbow of Light, and defeat the dark lord who's been threatening Equestria!”

“I've heard the rumors of that fiend,” said Zecora with a scowl. “A frightful foe, from what I've gleaned. What truly makes me shiver, now, is rumors of his antlered brow.”

“Well, yes, he's a deer,” said Twilight. “Or...” she thought of the amorphous nightmare she had seen at Cloudsdale, and she shuddered. “Or, he was a deer at one point. But he went to war against the other deer, and caused the War that destroyed them.”

“All this I know, I tell you sure. Zebra history is pure. We were the first of horselike kind to learn to write down all we'd find. We would compile all we could; no others' records were so good.”

“Amazing!” said Twilight. “If you have a copy of your people's history, I'd love to see it some time. But- oh! The reason I came here.”

“Yes yes?”

“There's somepony- or, someone I want you to meet. He's been the one training me to use my Gift of Magic. I think you and he are really going to get along well.” Twilight headed for the door, opening it to walk out before the hut. “Come on, Fëanor!”

The mighty elk stepped forward just as Zecora exited her home. “I do not see- ACK!” she gagged as she beheld him. “Twilight Sparkle, bring him here? To my home you bring a deer?” Her voice changed sharply; she sounded more upset that Twilight had ever heard.

“Well, yes, he's been-”

“Do you accept his poisoned word? Has he forced you to join his herd?” She began angrily speaking in her native tongue.

“Why don't you use words we can all understand, zebra?” Fëanor snarled. “Bad enough I have to listen to your inane rhyming.”

“There is no power to your word! The deer are gone, for good I'm sure! The old world's gone, the chains are snapped! I'm glad there is no going back!”

“Z-Zecora, what are you talking about?” Twilight asked.

“She is speaking of some misconceptions in her people's history,” said Fëanor. “They like to pretend the deerfolk offended them far in the past.”

“It is no lie! The truth I tell! We'll not again be in your spell! Zvaha and zebrakind are free, and you've no power over me!” She glanced at Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle, leave him be! He'll grind you underhoof, you'll see.”

“Zecora, Fëanor has been training me!”

“Training? More like reining in, thus his plans always begin! Do not let deerfolk reel you in!”

“Zecora, what's wrong? You act like he's horrible, but you've never even met him.”

“All deer are much the same, you see. They seem so pretty, and so free. But all their grace hides vicious claws, and whole species caught in their jaws! I know their history quite true! The deer are tyrants! Slavers, too!” She turned abruptly on her heels and trotted for her hut.

“Wait!” Twilight glanced back at Fëanor. “Hold on.” She ran to meet Zecora ere she walked inside her home. “Zecora, please. I know you... you must have some sort of prejudice against the deerfolk, but trust me! Everything Fëanor is doing, he's doing for good reasons.”

Zecora looked intensely into Twilight's eyes, then sighed. “Twilight Sparkle, you I trust. I know that you are fair and just. But you be wary, this I say, or this deer will sweep you away. Keep your awe of him in check, else you'll find chains around your neck.” She unexpectedly nuzzled Twilight then. “Farewell.” With that, she shuffled through her door and slammed it shut.

“I am sorry that didn't go as you'd planned,” said Fëanor, walking up behind her.

“I just don't understand,” said Twilight. “I thought she'd be happy to meet a fellow magic user.”

“The zebras as a race are full of eccentrics. You cannot always trust their prejudices.”

Twilight turned around to look at Fëanor. Her violet eyes stared deeply at him, glancing up and down over his mighty form.

“Yes?”

She tilted her head to the side. “You said she was mistaken... that her species was pretending. So those... those things she accused you of, accused the deerfolk of, they're not true?”

“Of course not,” said Fëanor. His golden eyes went narrow. “Now, you must remember, Twilight, that the six species of the deerfolk were the first civilized races in all the world. We spread out across all the continents, advancing culture and society wherever we went. Of course to some of the primitive species we encountered, our natural superiority would seem oppressive. But we never did anything with malice, that I can assure you.”

Twilight kept on staring at him. She wanted to object. Something in her heart made her believe Zecora, even with her deep faith in Lord Fëanor. But his explanation seemed correct. She sighed. “All right. I trust you.”

“Excellent,” said Fëanor, sidling up next to her. “Now, come, let's go back through the woods and you can flex your magic some more. You must get so much stronger...”

Chapter 21

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Trixie wandered, steps unsteady, deep into a corner of the changeling hive. She had to get away, if only for a moment. She had to find some time and space where her thoughts were exclusively her own.

She'd traded in her starry hat and cape for a black cloak with a hood, clasped about her neck with rubies colored much like blood. Her eyes had likewise taken on a reddish hue, as once they'd done when the Alicorn Amulet had been her own. That power- if only she had known! It was a fraction of the strength she felt this day. Cracking lines of black ran up her hooves and legs, her horn had lengthened and grown pointed. When she ran her tongue over her teeth, she even thought she felt a hint of sharpness. She'd noted the changes, and they did not surprise her in those moments when her thoughts were clear. Gods, after all, preferred their servants made in their own image.

And with their own compulsions, she ventured to think. She waited, entire body tense. No pressure came into her mind, no sharp spike of intention or impulse. She was, indeed, safe here, at least briefly. Her lord was not actively checking all her thoughts. He did this often, and constantly when she was in his presence. It had gotten to the point where she was used to him inside her head, like the black night sky oppressing her in starless misery.

It was an ambivalent thing. Part of Trixie quailed and blanched amid Reiziger's thoughts, drowning in his darkness. She sensed that she, herself, was washing away, being slowly battered down by the relentless pounding of his mental waves upon her shore. Already there were aspects of herself that she'd forgotten: she couldn't remember the sound of her mother's voice any more, and she could recall her favorite song only with great effort. What replaced them all was compulsion, need. Oh, how Reiziger wanted and needed. His greed seemed limitless, and if he did not still retain a kingly bearing, Trixie assumed his company would be intolerable. She sometimes basked in his unstoppable desire, and it was terrifying. She felt hopeless, and utterly alone.

Yet... she did bask, didn't she? There were moments when she relished feeding off his power. So what if he was unrelenting? Why shouldn't he be? He was the most powerful of creatures ever born. Even the princesses could not compare to Reiziger, not now that he had regained so much strength. It buoyed her, it fed her dark impulses, and she had wild runs of thought when all she wanted was to see Equestria burn. She giggled at the thought of all that wrath. Such glorious destruction. Death and devastation- yes, she wanted it, she had to have it, had to trample fellow ponies underhoof. Would he save any of it for her? Surely he'd let her take part. Perhaps he'd even let her kill Twilight Sparkle-

“Wait, no,” Trixie stammered. She snapped her head to the side. Shut up! You're useless! She flinched backward from the sharp voice in her head. “Am not!” Yes you are, you're only getting in the way of the master. You're the thing I haven't killed yet. “But I don't want to be killed, and you don't want to kill me.” Yes I do!

“High priestess?”

“Ack!” Trixie whirled, her cloak whipping about her. “Oh, good sir changeling, it's nice to see you.”

“I do not mean to interrupt,” the changeling said, empty eyes twinkling as they lit upon the pony. When he'd been around the corner, he had sworn he'd heard two creatures talking, but the priestess was alone.

“Oh, no, there was no interruption, master changeling,” Trixie said. She grinned. “No, no, I was just... working something out. Yes, I'm perfectly fine.” Her face twitched violently. “I'm such a disappointment- perfectly fine!”

“Are you... sure?”

“Yes!” She flinched away. “Oh, of course I'm fine, I'm perfectly fine, I'm certainly not hurt, I'm not, I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not...”

The changeling sighed. “Are you here to get away too?”

“I'm not- get away?”

The changeling flinched. He looked over his shoulder, carefully from side to side. “From the master.”

Trixie's eyes went wide. “But... you love him.”

“Yes, yes, of course we do,” said the changeling, sounding haggard. “But... he is everywhere, it seems. Always in my mind, always thinking thoughts for me. Even here, even outside his range, his impression lingers in my head. Don't you feel it, high priestess?” He tumbled to the ground, ragged hooves came up to clutch his head. “I just wish to be alone inside my mind. I just wish to be free, only a little bit.”

“I...” Trixie trembled. “I understand. It's hard, isn't it?”

“We all feel it,” said the changeling. “Some of my brothers and sisters have complained as well, though always when we feel we are out of our lord's thought radius. And there are the... the new ones.”

“The newer changelings? There are a lot of them.”

“They are not the same,” said the changeling, eyes gone wide. “They smell wrong. They do not speak. I... I am afraid, high priestess. I know that it is treason to be afraid, but I am.”

She watched him cower, scared to death. It suddenly occurred to Trixie that she might hurt him as he shivered. Reiziger had given her license over all the changelings, and an urge rose up in her to make this one suffer. She had learned so many vicious spells under her lord's tutelage. She grit her filed teeth. How much pain could he suffer? How much agony could he endure? She'd test him-

“Ugh!” Trixie snapped her head, horrified by her most recent thoughts. “Stop it,” she whispered.

“High priestess?”

“Ah... I...” she breathed out, then in deeply. “You should keep faith in our lord, good sir changeling,” she said firmly. “He has made your kind great again.”

“I know,” said the changeling, “but to what end? I... I know it is not my place to worry, but I do.” He paced hard back and forth. “I worry that we are being undone as a species. That we are ceasing to be creatures. We are becoming tools.”

A tickle rose in Trixie's mind, but she ignored it. “You should be happy you're even that!” She hated every word she spoke but did not stop her speaking. “Think how low you were when he arrived. You were cowering in this dirty hive, ruled over by your stupid queen. Now all Equestria fears you!”

“I know, but I... I...”

Thank you, Trixie, for your constant loyalty.

Trixie and the changeling whirled around. Red light overwhelmed them, and both floated through the air. From the shadows Reiziger emerged, huge and awful.

“So glad I can count on your support even when I am not around,” he said. A burning eye fell upon the changeling. “As for you-”

Lines of blazing crimson ran over the changeling's body. He screamed, howling desperately as pain like he had never felt erupted through his veins. “Please!” he wailed. “Please, my master, spare me! I was only speaking lies!”

“Well you're lying” NOW, boomed Reiziger's mind. Trixie recoiled at the power of the thought, which expanded like a firestorm, crushing all her hopes and fears. She fell once more into the adoration of her master's might, a wild glee appearing on her face. How she hated this feeling. How she loved it!

He dropped the changeling from its levitation, where it kept writhing, stirring up the blackened dust. The ugly part of Trixie cheered to see him hurt, wanting to enjoy his pain. And yet her own behavior shocked her. Such a twisting in her mind- she felt nearly torn part from contradiction. She tottered backward, forehead throbbing. At last the torture stopped.

“Your folk should be lucky I didn't simply destroy the hive and make new servants,” growled Reiziger. The shadows swelled about him, and the changeling started withering. “I keep you about because I am a sentimental fool. But you will be useful to me, each of you, one way or another. If not as servants, then, at least, as food.”

The changeling grayed and stopped his writhing. His body became wholly dry, cracks emerging in the hardened skin. The eyes grew dry and empty. At last Reiziger's shadows pulled away. The changeling's husk still sat where it had stopped. Reiziger inhaled sharply, then he blew- and the changeling puffed apart, bursting into flakes like so many fallen leaves. Trixie watched the folds of him descend about her. She could not stop her shudder.

“Again, Trixie, I must thank you for your loyalty. You have seen now what will happen should it ever falter.”

“I... I understand, my lord.”

Excellent, his mind pressed hard against hers. Come, let us see how the ungoliants are growing.

His mighty walk began, long strides forcing Trixie to a canter to keep pace. They passed beneath the combs that lined the arches of the vaulted ceiling, filled with growing changelings flashing green into the darkness. So many more were full than when they'd first arrived. Trixie had done her part in raising most, using all her magic skill to bring them totally under the sway of Reiziger. She really was his priestess now; her sermons rang through all the hive, making changelings march in eager step.

At last they reached the foundries. The pits had previously been a sacred space for changelings, the quiet gloom where dead had been buried. Reiziger had dug them deeper, sinking them far below the ground, and in them he birthed horrors. Even as Trixie watched, a fell beast was guided from the muck by half a dozen changelings; its mouth opened to loose a scream that made her quake in fear.

“My lord!” cried one of the changelings, and they bowed.

“How goes it?”

As if in answer shrieking rose out of the pit. Reiziger peered into the gloom, eyes seeing beyond the range of mortal gaze.

He grinned with all his teeth. “They are nearly ready.”

“Of course, my lord,” said the lead changeling. “We have been feeding them the love we've harvested. They've taken well to it; they are very greedy.”

“So like their master,” cooed Reiziger, sounding nearly fatherlike. “Carry on. When they are done, fit them for war.”

“Yes my lord!” All of the changelings bowed.

Reiziger trotted through the foundry, stopping here and there to peer into a pit where monsters grew. Trixie followed close behind, wincing at each roar and growl and screech. These beasts were meant to hurt her fellow ponies. Part of her felt repulsed. But yet again another part was anxious for destruction to begin. At last they reached the throne room. Reiziger stopped to smile at the changelings bowed around the nearby altar. They had brought a squirming baby hydra, its three heads wrapping round each other like three mating snakes. It hissed and snarled within its binds. Reiziger loomed above it, shadows swelled, and all the hydra's life was drained away.

I wonder how he got like that, Trixie suddenly thought.

Are you curious, then?

“Eek!” she staggered back. “Forgive me, my lord, I didn't mean to interrupt.”

“No interruption,” answered Reiziger. The hydra now was dead and withered. Crimson fire lashed out from his antlers and the corpse erupted into flames. He turned back from the holocaust. “It is natural for you to be curious about my origins. Shall I show you whence I came?”

“Well I... I admit, my lord, I've wondered this before,” Trixie said. “I just wasn't sure you'd answer if I asked.”

“I have no shame,” said Reiziger, “nor shall I flinch from telling truth. Come!”

He cantered toward his throne. Trixie had to gallop now to match him, but at length they reached the steps, Reiziger floating to the summit where he settled on the chitin seat.

“You at least recall me saying I was crown prince of the caribou, yes?”

“Oh, of course! And you succeeded your father as Lord of All the Herds. From there, you began your glorious conquests of the deer lands, winning allies among the high deer who agreed with your ideas about superiority.”

“But we must go back further,” he replied. Trixie felt her brain throb from his presence. Her knees buckled; it was so trying to have him inside her head. She felt like parts of her were scraped away from Reiziger washing against her mind. “We must go back to the beginning of my awesome power- the start of my divinity! When I was still crown prince, I led a hunting expedition...”

His eyes grew bright. Trixie felt herself tip forward, until she nearly fell into those crimson pools- no, she was falling truly, crashing through infinities of red. At last a whiteness flashed before her, and she saw...

Six caribou were picking over barren ground. The winter snow was thick upon the hills. Only the fir trees still retained their volume. The leader of them all was finely shaped, a true prince of the deer. His eyes were red- but only in the irises. He struck a pose atop a hill. “I feel the thoughts of grouse nearby. Spells at ready!”

We caribou hunted for sport, you see. It was a mark of masculinity. That day I had decided to teleport deep into the northern mountains, where there was rumored to be good game. We were walking around mountains that, of old, had held crystal mines of the moose.

The prince turned swiftly round. “Stand back, I say! I'm in charge here. You only move when I say so.” He crouched low, and the five deer round him followed suit. “Ready...” All six tensed. “Ready... now!” The prince charged, and the five friends followed. They burst onto a hilltop where the grouse were scattering. Spells sang in the air, and birds in threes and fours were brought down. As they fired, however, they did not notice the ground begin to crack.

Imagine our surprise to learn that we were directly above one of the old mine shafts. And we only learned it when our spells caused its wooden cover to give way.

The ground beneath them shattered. The six deer fell with fading screams into the endless dark. They tried to use their magic to levitate and stop their falls, but for some reason nothing occurred. At last they crashed into a heap. Two of them were dead, necks broken by the fall. The prince and three companions, shaken but alive, glanced round.

We were so confused- why had our magic not activated as we fell? Why had we not been able to float or teleport? But when we glanced about us, we knew why.

The cavern about them was very tall and somewhat narrow. Moss, lichen and mushrooms covered the walls, but they did not obscure the crystals poking out at odd angles. Odd, but recognizable.

The excavations of the moose had created an unwitting, but fiendish trap. The crystals that remained in the cave were angled to create a natural Ether Cage- a crystal configuration that bounces and deflects ambient magic so extensively that it is nearly useless. The cage began just above our heads, and ended only a few feet below the opening we'd fallen from. In that space, spells simply would not work. That meant no levitation- and no teleporting. We'd ranged so far afield that it might be weeks before anyone found us. Indeed, as time passed, it was clear no one knew where we had gone.

The prince was seen nibbling on lichen, then on mushrooms. The other three could only eat once he had had his fill.

Naturally, my own survival was prioritized. I was given first pick of the food available. As that dwindled, I simply ordered my fellows to stop eating.

“You ordered them to starve?”

Of course! I was the crown prince, after all. My life was more important than theirs.

One by one the other three grew thin, then skeletal. One of them desperately climbed the wall to reach a mushroom, but the prince pulled him back down. The prince stomped sharply on his head, cracking it with a horrific snap.

Granted, I did have to enforce my orders a few times.

One by one the three deer died, and more time passed. By now all the reachable food in the cavern was gone. The prince grew so desperate for sustenance that he was driven to cannibalism, eating the corpses of his former friends.

Eventually, however, nothing was left for me to eat. I hungered, oh, how I hungered.

The prince was gaunt and thin. At last his antlers started flaring, scarlet magic spilling from the tines.

Then I tried to do something very desperate, and perhaps very foolish. I tried to eat my magic.

The prince conjured a burst of power and swallowed it just as it appeared. The light pulsed through him.

And that is when it happened. That is when I changed.

The light settled round his middle, but it ceased soon to be light. Instead a shadow pulsed out from the stomach of the prince, growing blacker, growing thicker. The prince writhed in pain, collapsing to the ground. He seemed to crush into a point of shadow, rolling in a blackness so intense no sight could penetrate it. For a moment he was just a blackened speck. Then that speck expanded, swelling, growing out into a deerlike shape. Legs and tail and antlers soon appeared. The body was pitch black. Eyes emerged, empty, angry red.

And I still felt hunger... but not for food.

The blackened deer glanced up toward the crystals. The shadows round him swelled. The crystals became gray and cracked, the mushrooms growing on the upper reaches withered. At last the crystals shattered, spewing sparkling specks down on the pitch black deer. He glanced up at the opening, took a step- and vanished. He reappeared outside the hole, amid the snowy hills.

Trixie toppled backward. She gazed up at the throne where Reiziger sat stoic. As she focused, though, she saw him pulsing gently, as if his solid form was hard to keep.

“To this day the hunger has stayed with me,” he began. “It always beckons, always lingers, wearing on me like the urge to cough. Nor have I denied it- nor shall I deny it. Power, hunger- I am the god of both. More than worship, more than offerings, more than conquest, what I desire is life, life to feed on. The more I feed, the more my power grows. The more my power grows, the more I hunger. So I shall not stop, shall not relent. Do you know what I am going to do once I have conquered Equestria, Trixie?” He grinned with razor teeth. “I'm going to consume it.”

“You mean... eat it?”

“Oh yes, in the same way I've eaten other things, as you have seen. Then I shall conquer all the other lands, all the other continents on this world, and I shall eat them as well. I shall consume everything, until the world is an empty husk. And then... did you know that other worlds spin around this sun? Some of them even have life. Even those which are empty, though, contain strength, contain spirit in their mountains, canyons, mighty skies. I shall go to them one by one, and I shall eat them, too.”

“W-What then?”

“Next comes the sun itself- such power, such life. It will be delicious. And from there, I shall move on to other suns across the gulf of space.” He took a step and vanished, reappearing next to Trixie. She recoiled, despite herself. “But that is all far in the future, and until then you must serve me dutifully. I believe you have another sermon to deliver?”

“Oh, y-yes!”

“Then go to it. I must see to the training of the changelings. Manehattan is squarely in my sights. We attack in three days time! Farewell.” He took another step, and thus was gone.

Trixie sat where she had fallen. “He's... he's going to end everything. I have to stop serving him.” “No! Everything deserves to die,” she snapped, head whipping around. It turned around again. “No, it doesn't, stop it.” “You stop it! I'm tired of you holding us back! We must serve the master!” “We're not we, just... just me!” She toppled to the ground, clutching her head within her hooves. “Stop it,” she whispered. “Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking...”

Chapter 22

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Pinkie Pie stood upon the ornate rooftop of the townhouse, nearly doing pushups as she pumped her torso up and down. “Okay,” she said. “Okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okay okayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayo kayoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yoka yokaoy kaoy kaoy-”

“Pinkie!”

She whirled about as Twilight Sparkle fluttered down, wings now folded at her sides. “Heya, Twilight!”

“Hey Pinkie,” Twilight said. “Any evil thoughts yet?”

“Nope! But I'll be sure to let you know as soon as something dark and spooky pops into my head!”

“Good,” said Twilight. “I wish we could rely on Rarity's Long Sight to tell when the attack comes, but she's still having trouble seeing the future. In the meantime, we're going to need your telepathy to detect Reiziger and the changelings the moment they arrive.”

Oh, I know, thought Pinkie. “And don't worry, I'm not afraid.”

“I didn't ask if you- oh, I guess I was thinking it though,” said Twilight with a shrug. She recalled something Rainbow Dash had told her. “Pinkie, everypony feels fear. There's no shame in admitting it. Heck, I'm scared right now, and I've been in one battle already!”

“Well yeah,” said Pinkie, “but I'm really not afraid. I mean, the worst that'll happen to me is I die, right?”

Twilight recoiled. “W-Well, yes, I guess- but you won't die!”

“But even if I did, I'd be okay. I've been a good pony! And all good ponies go to the Summer Lands when they die, where every day is pretty and all the older ponies you knew are waiting for you! So either I'm alive, and I have so many friends, or I'm not, and I still have so many friends!”

“I... I guess...” whispered Twilight. She did not wish to tell Pinkie that she had sometimes doubted the existence of the Summer Lands.

“You don't have to guess, take my word for it,” said Pinkie with a grin. “I've seen them!”

“You've seen the Summer Lands?”

“Uh huh! It happened once when I was little, not long after I got my cutie mark. One day I was out on the rock farm trying to chip some shards off a huge granite boulder! The trouble is it was a really stubborn boulder, so the harder I chipped, the less it seemed to do. Finally, I reared back-” Pinkie made a motion meant to emphasize the force she used- “and cracked at it with all I had! But I slipped and hit my head, then fell off the top of the boulder and hit my head again!”

“Oh, dear!”

“Yeah but it was totally great! Because when I got conked on the noggin, I had the most amazing vision! I went to the Summer Lands! My Granny Pie was there, and my Nana Pinkie, and my Uncle Stone, and all the relatives I'd had when I was really little! They told me that someday I'd come back and spend some time with them, though they said I'd never live there for good.” Those eyes of deep cerulean abruptly bulged. “Oh! That makes sense now, since I'm gonna be a super amazing immortal alicorn princess of Laughter! I bet you can go to the Summer Lands whenever you want, huh Twilight?”

Twilight shifted backward. “I... I don't know. I've never tried to go.”

“You should! Think of all the great old ponies that must be there! I bet Starswirl the Bearded is there too! You could hang out with him and everything.”

“That's true...” She filed away a mental note to ask Princess Celestia about such things. “I'll definitely try to go, Pinkie, and if I can, I'll take you with me.”

“Yee!” she squeaked, bouncing up to Twilight for a hug.

Twilight smiled as she wrapped a hoof around her friend. “Now keep that telepathy sharp, okay?”

You got it!

Twilight, with a final nod, flapped her wings and fluttered over rooftops. She soon touched down upon a barricade, where Applejack stood poised with soldier unicorns that did not share her strength. They seemed to quiver as they paced all back and forth, as though a touch would crumble them to dust. Not Applejack, however- she stood sure and sturdy, swathed up in the ruddy leather armor she'd received from Gildedale those years ago. “Howdy, Twi,” she said upon her friend's arrival.

“Hey there AJ,” she replied. “How's everypony doing?”

Applejack leaned close. “Not the best, t' be honest,” she said under her breath. “These boys are shakin' like leaves. Don't suppose you know any sort o' spell to lift their spirits?”

“That's more Dash's specialty. But maybe...” She jumped down to the cobbled street and trotted to a group of soldiers. “Hello there,” she said to one.

“Oh! Princess Twilight Sparkle, ma'am!” He snapped off a salute. “Orders, ma'am?”

“At ease. I just wanted to gauge your mood. How are you?”

“I'm... I'm trying to be brave, ma'am,” the soldier said. “But...” He turned away.

“Yes?”

“It's... it's hard, your highness,” he admitted. “I'm from Trottingham-”

“Oh, no,” cooed Twilight softly. “I'm so sorry.”

“I... I was stationed in Canterlot on a rotation when I heard the news.”

“Did you have a family?”

“No, but my... my parents were there, and my sister had a husband.” He seemed to wilt before her. “I can't believe it, still. It's hard for me to realize they're gone. Also, one of my friends, a pegasus named Glint, went down in Cloudsdale.” His golden eyes were twinkling with woe. “I'm tired of losing ponies I care about to this war, your highness.”

“Th-Then... then stand strong!” said Twilight with no small amount of drama. “Be sturdy and help us defeat Reiziger.”

“But that's just it,” another unicorn responded. “Can we defeat him? He seems to win all the time!”

“Even when he loses, like in Cloudsdale, he gets what he wants!” said a third.

“I... I...” Twilight withdrew a little.

“Shape up, y'all!” cried Applejack above the growing din. She jumped down from the barricade and paced among the soldiers' ranks. “I know you're scared. Y'all've lost family and friends to this here dark lord- I get that, I do. But don't you wanna stop it from happenin' again? Or happenin' to any other pony?”

“I... I guess...”

“I do! So does Princess Twilight!”

“That's right!” Twilight exclaimed. “If you feel sad, you know how all the ponies of Equestria will feel if you fail!”

“It's the pony thing to feel how others feel,” continued Applejack. “Y'all are frightened, so your friends feel frightened too. But now try feelin' how sad everypony will be if y'all can't hold the line here. And when you're done with that, feel how strong y'all have to be to not let that happen!”

Whispers of determination filtered through the soldiers. One by one they gave new looks of strength unto each other, and to their superiors. “We won't let you down, Commander Applejack,” said the first pony that spoke.

“Don't expect anythin' different,” said Applejack. She tipped her hat. “Now stand firm, y'all, and have faith. Gotta be ready when he shows up.”

In another segment of city, buildings towered tall over the heads of nearby guards. Secure behind her barricade, Rarity cried, “Pull!”

Rainbow Dash, on cue, kicked her back legs and bucked a cobblestone into the air. Rarity's horn blazed blue, and from it came a burst of battle magic. The stone erupted into smoking shards.

“Pull!”

Another stone went up, and this one too was blasted into bits.

“Pull!”

The third stone met the same end as its fellows. Dash glanced back at Rarity. “Nice aim, Rares.” The nearby soldiers stomped their hooves in similar approval.

“Thank you, Dash,” said Rarity. She drooped in place. “Though honestly, getting compliments on my capacity for destruction was never high on my list of priorities.”

“Uh... I guess?”

Rarity sat down upon the street. She wore the silver battle armor of the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood, a gift of Falalauria herself. It had been made to fit a pony's shape, peytral, croupiere, flanchard formed of gleaming metal, inlaid all throughout with veins of crystal. The champron was adorned with double crystal crests. These gleamed as Rarity employed her magic, boosting its effectiveness. She thought on this and sighed. “Do you remember on our journey through Gildedale, the night before we encountered the komagas?”

“The first day we met Ashtail and Shield Maiden? Yeah, I remember.”

“Doubtless you also remember my... my tantrum, when I realized I might have to use lethal force on them.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dash winced. “Shield Maiden had to calm you down.”

“For which I am still grateful to her,” Rarity said. “But the sentiments I expressed then haven't changed.” Her deep blue eyes were soft with sorrow. “I don't like hurting things, Dash. I don't even like to kill bugs, for Celestia's sake. You've taken much better to this soldiering than I have.”

“It's sort of a pegasus thing- but that doesn't mean I like killing things either. I just do what I have to do.”

“And I shall do the same. It doesn't mean I have to like it, though.”

Dash sat down beside her. “How about something else you remember? Do you remember when we talked to Shield Maiden that one time before AJ herded the komagas?”

Rarity tilted her head. “Vaguely.”

“I asked Shield Maiden how she would feel if the daleponies didn't have to fight any more. They seemed so proud of their warrior culture, I was worried they'd be disappointed if it went away. But Shield Maiden told us that all real warriors dream of the day they don't have to fight any more. It's what separates warriors from killers.”

“You know, I do remember that conversation, now that you mention it.” A smile crept across her face. “I suppose if so fierce and brave a pony as Shield Maiden can feel the same way I feel, I shouldn't be too ashamed of it.”

“Exactly!” Dash threw a foreleg round Rarity's withers. “Nopony likes to fight- or, nopony normal does. But we've gotta do what we've gotta do.”

“Indeed,” said Rarity. She rose boldly to her hooves. “And I shall do what I must do. Thank you, Dash. You're such a good friend.”

“Don't mention it.” Dash grinned. “Now, I've been helping you with target practice. Wanna return the favor?” Lightning crackled up her legs.

Rarity smiled roguishly. Her horn lit up, and from the nearby pile of cobblestones four of them rose into the air. “With pleasure, darling.”

Across the city, in another barricade, Fluttershy was standing in her armor. All of them were wearing it, of course, though they had differing appointments. Rarity and Applejack had the armor they had gathered on their mighty journey. Twilight had a set of royal armor now; it was a blend of deer and pony work, coming from the forges barely one full week ago. That left Dash and her and Pinkie, all of whom wore standard royal guard armor, albeit in a smaller size than what the larger stallions had. Fluttershy's own body, long and thin, was gracefully accented by the barding.

She herself felt no such grace, however. It was all she could do to keep from shaking, terrified by thoughts of war and death. She did not shake, however. She glanced upon the unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies that stole glances at her, mares and stallions looking to her for their guidance and their comfort. She was an Element of Harmony, a friend of Princess Twilight Sparkle, a savior of Equestria so many times. Thus they looked to her for strength. She did not possess it, but she could pretend. Fluttershy hated lying, but she'd lie now, because they needed her. So she focused all her will to stop her shivers. Maybe this is part of what being brave is, she thought. Maybe you just have to lie to yourself about being brave until you are.

“Heya, Fluttershy!”

“Oh,” she turned about, “hey, Pinkie.”

I know you're scared, came Pinkie's voice inside her head. But you're also super brave for standing strong! You're doing the right thing.

“I... I hope so,” whispered Fluttershy. Pinkie's Gift of Laughter put in mind her own amazing power. Fluttershy now focused on the ponies clustered round her. Her cutie mark began to twinkle, and suddenly the ponies' hurts and cares and fears came swelling through her heart. She could feel their struggles, the torment of their souls. She could even feel physical maladies: one had an old ankle sprain that still was nagging her, another had lost two teeth in a farming accident. Now her skin and fur were itching. Could she heal them? Did she have that strength yet?

Do it!

Fluttershy breathed in and out, each inhale bigger and deeper than the one before it. She trotted to the nearby purple mare, her orange mane and tail poking free out of her armor. “S-Soldier?”

“Oh! Commander Fluttershy!” A crisp salute.

“I... I wondered how your ankle was doing.”

“How did you-” the pony shook her head. “Oh, it's fine, ma'am. Just an old sports injury. It bugs me some on rainy days, but it'll hold up in a fight.”

“I, uh... I was wondering if I could have a look at it, actually.”

The mare now eyed her carefully. “If I may ask, commander, what for?”

Fluttershy exhaled. Their gifts weren't really a secret... “Because being an Element of Harmony grants me special powers. My power is the power to heal, and I'm trying all the time now to make it stronger. I was wondering if you'd be willing to let me try fixing your ankle.”

“Oh!” the mare's face brightened. “Well, sure. Give it a try.” She stretched her left front leg out.

Fluttershy sat down and cupped her front hooves round the leg. She focused on the slippery strength of spirit that was so elusive in her frightened heart. She dwelt on times when she felt happy and secure: her Father's Days with Javier, her spa visits with Rarity, the gaming nights in Twilight's library. Slowly, skinny lines of pinkish light began to swirl about the mare's front leg. Heartened by these signs of progress, Fluttershy advanced her thoughts, pouring all her care and tenderness into the years old hurt she felt. Slowly, the wrongness in the soldier's ankle started to undo itself. The roughness of the joint was smoothed, the bones were better set, and newness, freshness filtered into her anatomy. All the while Pinkie watched the mare's face. She bore a look of great contentment, as if she were being massaged.

Finally Fluttershy loosed her grip. “T-Try it now.”

The mare gave her front hoof a flex. “It... it feels great. It feels great! Thank you, ma'am!”

“Don't mention it,” said Fluttershy. “I just wanted you to feel better.”

“I... I...” the mare suddenly advanced and wrapped her in a hug. “Thank you!”

Fluttershy was quaking from the strange contact. She felt happy, however, through her fear. “Just... don't share it around. I-I don't want to be mobbed.”

“No problem,” said the mare. She pulled away. “Thank you again!” Thus she trotted back toward the others.

“Yay!” cheered Pinkie, bouncing up and down. “You did it, Fluttershy! You're a healer!”

“I... I guess I am,” said Fluttershy. She smiled. “Maybe I can do it, after all.” She glanced back at her cutie mark; the triple butterflies were shining faintly.

“Oop!” Pinkie's head cocked to the side. “Twilight's sending me a thought message! She's really gotten used to this. She wants us all to meet-” spinning like a weather vane she turned and pointed- “that way!”

Fluttershy and Pinkie trotted off, heading through the streets all barricaded, all the doors and windows barred and boarded up. Much of Manehattan's population had retreated to the northern boroughs, leaving all the city empty save for soldiers. Glancing up, Fluttershy saw pegasi making their regular patrols, while unicorns were mounted on the tops of skyscrapers. A line of earth ponies went down the street across from theirs. And yet the numbers weren't impressive; in her two days inside the city, Fluttershy had seen perhaps five hundred distinct guards. She knew little of war and armies, but she'd thought there'd be more ponies in a proper battle.

“Yes!”

Fluttershy looked up to see a burst of dust. A lightning bolt was just then shooting through it, and following that down she saw Dash pumping legs in jubilation. Rarity was standing underneath her, shaking her head with amusement. Pinkie bounced forward. “What's up, girls?”

“Just a little target practice,” Dash said, blowing smoke from off her hoof.

“There you are!” came Twilight's voice. She flew down from above; just then Applejack came running up. “Okay, everypony's here?”

“What's this about, Twi?” Applejack said.

“Just getting a sense of where the defenses are,” said Twilight. “You girls see anything unusual?”

“Nope!” said Dash.

“Everything seems fine by my accounting,” added Rarity.

“I reckon things are all right,” Applejack said next.

“Everything's hunky dory!” Pinkie said. She put her hoof then to her chin. “Well, except for the fact that we're about to fight a battle, I guess.”

“I...”

Five pairs of eyes turned onto Fluttershy. She winced from the attention. “What's wrong, Fluttershy?” asked Twilight.

“Well, it's just... shouldn't there be more ponies?”

“I...” Twilight slumped. “I wish there were. That's been my biggest fear.”

“To be frank, dearest, I have noticed our defenses seem to be... undermanned,” Rarity said.

“The royal guard's just not big enough,” Twilight sadly said. “Princess Celestia told me that there haven't been more than five thousand active guardsponies in over a century, and there just isn't time yet to train more.”

“And more than half of them are pegasi,” said Dash, “who we lost a bunch of in Cloudsdale.”

“T'ain't many, that's for sure,” said Applejack. “But they got stout hearts, every one of 'em.”

“All the courage in the world can't overcome numbers, Applejack,” said Rarity.

“Especially because who knows what kind of monsters Reiziger's going to throw at us,” said Twilight. “And that's not even counting Reiziger himself! I don't know why Princess Celestia or Princess Luna aren't here!” A shadow suddenly appeared behind her. “Without one of them to counteract Reiziger, this could be a massacre!”

“Tia and Lulu aren't here because I told them I would be.”

The six friends spun around. “M'lady!” Applejack exclaimed.

Indeed, there stood Falalauria, decked out for battle in resplendent silver armor. She smiled down at them. “Hello, my friends.”

“Lady Lala!” Pinkie cheered. “Are you gonna take it to that big meanie?”

“If he shows his face, I shall oppose him,” said Falalauria. “As to your being low on numbers, I have a solution to that as well.”

The tap of dainty hooves on cobblestone then reached their ears. The soldiers trotting by and flying overhead came to a halt, their eyes grown wide. “Look!” one shouted, and his shock was well displayed. Down the street toward the Elements of Harmony came hundreds of deer. They were decked out for battle in crystal and silver armor much like Rarity's. A handful of them did not wear it, instead opting for swirling green sigils painted all over their body- Ether Barding, Twilight realized with a gasp. In perfect lines they came up behind Falalauria, and there they stood, at full attention.

“Until we find a new forest in which to dwell, Equestria is our home,” said Falalauria, “and we shall defend it with all our strength.” She fell onto one knee; in perfect harmony her white-tails did as well. “We, the Deer of the Shimmerwood, are at your service, Elements of Harmony.”

The six stood there with open mouths. Finally a throat was cleared behind them. Twilight turned to see Steelshoe, one of the royal guard's captains, just behind her. “Orders, princess?”

“My orders...” Twilight breathed. She glanced upon the deer once more, still on their knees. She looked behind her, where the guardsponies were gathered, staring open-eyed and open-mouthed. Twilight steeled herself. She struck a pose. “My orders are that the deer be integrated into the defenses of the city. Hoofsoldiers line up together, captains and lieutenants coordinate. Today, pony and deer fight side-by-side!”

In half an hour all were settled in. Fluttershy and Dash flew overhead, each content to see the deer mingled with ponies on the roofs and behind barricades. Below them, Stirrup fidgeted in place. The earth pony tugged upon the chinstrap of his helmet. “Any minute now, I guess.”

A unicorn named Primrose glanced toward him. “Do you reckon we'll die?”

“I'm expecting it,” said Kindling, another earth pony, with gloomy tone. “I've had bad luck my whole life. I might as well have bad luck when my life's on the line, too.”

“But Princess Twilight and the Elements of Harmony are here!” said Stirrup. “They helped resist the dark lord at Cloudsdale.”

“Yeah,” said Primrose, stomping her left hoof, “but in the end the rainbows turned black, didn't they? So did the Elements really stop him?”

“I just want to say that I've really enjoyed your company,” Kindling said, “all of you. I hope you'll light some candles for me when I'm gone.”

“Hey now, cut that out!” said Primrose. “We'll make it to the end of this, I promise.”

“That's an awfully big thing to promise,” Stirrup said. “Especially for just a pony.”

“Have courage, mitra roccae,” said a white-tail deer behind them. “The Wills have not abandoned you in your hour of need.”

“Uh... thanks, I guess,” said Stirrup, eying the intruder warily. “Hey, what's your name?”

“I am called Plínio,” said the deer. “I have heard your names already.”

“How do you feel about fighting one of your fellow deer?” Primrose asked next.

A shadow crossed Plínio's face. “The Herd Lord is not a deer any more. He turned away from our folk long ago. He is a monster, and he must be slain.”

“Oh, well, that's good to hear I guess,” Kindling replied.

“So let's see,” Stirrup said. “There's about a thousand of us Royal Guards here. How many did your Lady bring with her?”

“We number some five hundred, by her count.”

“Oh, well, fifteen hundred deer and ponies, then.” He grimaced. “Not a lot.”

“Better than nothing,” Primrose said.

Better than nothing? Perhaps, but only barely.

The guards all flinched and cried aloud. Kindling started praying to Celestia. Plínio and his fellow deer grew firm with muscles tensed.

Knock knock, little ponies. Can I come in?

Chapter 23

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With flashing red the sky was filled with changelings. They fell in waves of chitin shadow, terrible and swift.

“Fire!” cried out Twilight Sparkle, flying to the rooftops' height.

“You heard the princess, fillies and gentlecolts,” cried Steelshoe. “Light them up!”

A bringal!” shouted one white-tail with gold trim on her armor.

The unicorns and deer loosed battle magic all together. The average white-tail's blast was more impressive than the average unicorn's, but the total burst of power from the lot was quite enough to fill the air with light and pure destruction. Changelings were immediately vaporized, showering the armored folk below with wisps of ash. Yet more came after, and they came at speed. With buzzing din the changelings fell upon the rooftops. The Royal Guard brandished their spears and swords; the deerfolk wielded curved blades sharpened to a scalpel's fineness. Deer and pony were both out of sorts at first, not sure how to mark each other, but the natural rhythm of the battle came in due course, and soon both races were noting how to use each other.

I have prepared a host of nightmares for you!, bellowed Reiziger inside their heads. In a flash of red he stood upon the Equine State Building, whispers of deep shadow wafting from his blackened form.

“Dark lord,” stated Falalauria, so softly- yet she could be heard by all. In a graceful jump she was upon the rooftops, battle armor flashing in the pallid light. “You know I have foreseen your defeat, yes? You shall live on in song and story, but only as a bogeyman that these brave deer and ponies defeated.”

I know you think you know the future, half-breed, issued Reiziger. But I see inside your mind, so easily read. I see how my very existence makes the future bend and buckle. Your self-assurance is a lie, meant to comfort these quailing mortals.

“Perhaps,” said Falalauria, her antlers shimmering with strength. “But this day, this city will not fall. Not while I draw breath.”

A black streak vaulted from the highest heights. “We'll see how long that lasts!”

“Twilight!” Falalauria cried out. “Twilight, I think I know his plan! Do not let the enemy reach the southern portions of the city! I'll hold him as best I can!” She jumped and was a golden blur, until she reached the streaking black and then there was a blast of light. Two blurs went crashing off into the western city, tumbling the buildings there with rising clouds of dust.

Red flashed out everywhere, and Rainbow Dash, who had been making thunderclouds, jumped back with awe. Huge spiders began floating from the sky, descending on vast parachutes of billowed silken strands. “Oh, horseapples,” grumbled Dash. She glanced sidelong. “Fluttershy, time for some weather. Let's see how many we can hit before they touch down.”

“Eeeee,” shrieked Fluttershy.

“No time for that!” cried Dash. “Need to pony up! Pegasi!” she shouted to the flying members of the Royal Guard. “Let's get some twisters going! Hit those spiders hard!” Her Gift of Loyalty was working on them, willing them to follow her, and so they started spinning, whipping up a host of twister that Dash redirected toward the falling giant bugs.

Many of the spiders were caught up in the tornadoes, battered by the winds and smashed with bursts of goo against the building sides. Many more, however, found the streets, where they went scuttling after deer and ponies. A certain shifting shadow wrapped about them, darkness not unlike that of their master. Their fangs were solid, though, as was the stinger lurking at the nadir of their massive, baglike bellies. One purple stallion galloped fast as he could manage, but a creature leapt from roof to roof pursuing him. It shot a stream of web to trip him up, then tugged him up. He screamed aloud as he went rushing to the fangs, which quickly ended him.

In addition to these beasts- ungoliants, their names were- Reiziger had brought his wyverns and his fell beasts, both of which went swooping through the air in mighty numbers. One wyvern came along the rooftops belching bluish fire, sending deer and ponies cowering for cover. It inhaled to prepare another burst-

It blasted from the sky in purple fury. Twilight swooped around and filled the air with magic, horn ablaze and wings pumping to turn her all directions. She glanced down at a street where deer and ponies fought off changelings, and she saw a flash of silver. “Rarity!” she shouted down. “Incoming!” She flipped over and fired down a blast of battle magic.

Rarity glanced up as the purple power shimmered down. “I've got it!” she cried. She opened up her magic circuit, willing her own horn to take on power. Twilight's magic hit her on the head but did not hurt her. Rather, she was able to absorb and reconfigure Twilight's spell. The crystal in her armor shone bright blue with all the magic it had gathered, which helped her withstand it. Even so, Rarity's skin rapidly grew hot, her heart was hammering, she knew she had to vent the power soon or else she'd burst apart. Fortunately she observed the changelings override a barrier and mass around it. She reared back and gave a most uncouth and unladylike whinny. Then she fired out all of the magic she'd absorbed. It traveled in a rolling wave of blue and white that rippled and annihilated every changeling and fell beast that swooped down in its way.

“Wahaha!” she shouted. “I- eek!” she dove down as a changeling buzzed over her head. She fired off a round of battle magic that clipped off its wing, then when it charged her she spun round and bucked it with her legs. A pegasus came swooping in to slice its head off next, ending her danger for the moment. “Oh, er, splendid work!” she cried.

“Yes, commander,” said the pegasus, who was bright blue with silver mane and tail. “Ma'am, they're pushing into the Times Square! What are your orders?”

“Well, I... er...” Rarity floundered, trying to recall what little basic tactics Twilight had imparted on them from her quick crash course in military studies.

“Get the pegasi positioned on the skyline to keep the changelings from crashing down!” cried Dash as she came zooming up. “Earth ponies use pikes and hoof-axes to cut that webbing from those big spiders! Keep pressing, keep fighting! Don't let them gain ground!” Dash stomped her hoof. “Challenge everything!”

“Yes, Commander Rainbow Dash!” the pegasus snapped a salute and flew away.

Rarity sighed. “Thanks for the assist.”

“No problem, Rares,” said Dash, “now let's keep going! Ha!” She shot into the sky, Rarity galloping in her general direction. But Dash was faster, spinning, shifting, firing her lighting and commanding all the winds to do her will. A wyvern swooped around her and belched flame upon her path, but Dash in all her speed and grace went arcing from the fire's path. She bent about and fired lightning at the creature, hitting it square in the head and sending it collapsing to the streets below.

Changelings swarmed around her then, and many of them grabbed at her and dragged her down. She lit her body up with lightning, blasting off a chunk of them, but more kept coming, growing, flowing without ceasing onto her until she fell onto the cobblestones. A changeling stretched its hoof out in a blade and buzzed toward her-

“Yeehaw!” shouted Applejack and barreled through the buzzing creatures, freeing Rainbow Dash who spiraled to the sky. She bucked and kicked and stabbed out with the spear she had acquired, stabbing every changeling she could reach. Dash whipped up strong winds that billowed changelings every way, sending them colliding into skyscrapers with awful crunching sounds.

“Nice save, AJ!”

“Don't thank me yet!” cried Applejack. “There's one o' those big spiders in Soho, and it's tearin' up the defenses there! I came because I need a pegasus!”

“You've got one! Let's go!”

They galloped through a mess of combat, in which deer and ponies fought and struggled. Each of them was worth perhaps ten changelings, and as a whole they managed very well against them. But the black chitinous creatures were a flood- they kept on coming, unrelenting, without ceasing. Applejack winced as she heard a stallion scream its final whinny. No time to be caught up in the individuals. She had to keep pushing. And even as she kept on moving she saw unicorns and white-tails move back into ranks and fire all their battle magic, clearing out the space, at least for now.

But of course the changelings were mere hoofsoldiers. She and Dash came round a corner onto Broadway and beheld one of Reiziger's heavy weapons. The blackened shadow spider was strung between all the buildings on a web of steel-like strength, and used its lines to swing down with its massive curving stinger bared to strike. Its dusky nature seemed to hide it from the soldiers down below, so that they could not see it coming until it was far too late. Before any earth pony or unicorn could hit it it would withdraw back onto the rooftops, where it would bounce and scuttle between buildings clear of magic shots. “No pegasi?” Dash asked.

“They're all in Midtown and the Upper East Side!” Applejack said. “I need y'all to blow that sucker off, and then get rid o' those webs!”

With a sharp salute Dash rocketed away, immediately whipping up strong winds to slice the first webline she saw. On the ground, the spider dropped again, but this time all the ponies were prepared for it, and scattered just as it touched down. It scuttled, fangs dripping with venom, Applejack picked up a spear between her teeth and hurled it at the creature's head. It grazed the spider, but that was enough to bruise and blacken several of its eyes. It shrieked and withdrew.

Long minutes passed, far longer than the ponies were accustomed to. “What's it waiting for?” a red earth pony asked.

“We made it mad!” a dark gray unicorn exclaimed.

“Heh, prob'ly,” muttered Applejack. “More like I made it mad. Speakin' of, would y'all mind backin' away a bit from here?”

The ponies did as they were told; there were no changelings in this area, so they pulled out with safety. That left Applejack here in the middle of the crossing of two streets, the shops and restaurants around her boarded up or smashed apart. She pricked her ears, allowing all the sounds distant and close to filter through them. She had quite good hearing, all the Apple Family did- indeed, Granny Smith could hear as good as anypony despite her old age. So she did not think she was mistaken when she heard the patter on the rooftop to her upper left. Yet she did not move. She dug her hooves into the road, and thought upon the family and friends she had. She thought about her parents, Apple Bloom, Big Macintosh, Granny Smith. She thought of her five friends, she thought of all her friends in Gildedale, and with some heat upon her cheeks she thought of Ashtail. She found the core of love and warmth that lay firm in her heart.

A skitter, and the massive spider swung down from the roof, great black stinger glistening with glowing greenish venom. Applejack's eyes opened up to see it- but instead of being green, they were stone gray. The spider struck-

And screamed as its stinger was shattered upon Applejack's firm body. Indeed, as Applejack stood firm the spider's lower nub was totally ripped off, causing it to collapse to the road, venting greenish goo and screeching out in pain. Ending her firm stance Applejack ran to the great spider and bucked it with all of her might. She broke its mandibles and put out several eyes. “Get it!” she shouted. The ponies saw the monster's weakness and they charged with yells of fury. Spear and axe were buried in the beast, hewing off its legs, bursting its great belly, its writhing knocked some of them back but they got up and charged again, until at last the spider gave a scream and shuddered to the concrete, wholly dead, the shadows wafting off of it like fog from off a lake.

“Woo!” shouted an earth pony.

“There's more where that came from, though!” a unicorn said worriedly.

“'Course there are,” said Applejack, “but they ain't invincible, are they?”

“Webs are gone!” cried Dash as she came swooping in. “Now let's get that... oh.” She saw the spider's corpse and fluttered down with sour face. “You should have waited for me.”

“You shoulda been quicker, Rainbow.”

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Dash. “Hey, when I was in the air I saw a whole bunch of spiders crawling all over Lower Manehattan! There's more than than anywhere else!”

“Um, yes, I've noticed that too,” said Fluttershy as she came flying in. “We're really getting pushed back from downtown. I wonder-”

The shrieks of fell beasts filled the air and everypony cowered from their fear. All except for Dash, who flung a bolt of lightning at the one straight overhead. “I'll deal with these flying worms!”

“Take care!” said Applejack as Dash went flying off. “Okay, Fluttershy, we gotta get to Lower Manehattan. Come on!” She called over her shoulder. “You too!” The ponies cried aloud and galloped with them.

“Oh,” said Fluttershy as one earth pony pulled beside her, “you're bleeding!”

“I'm all right, commander,” said the soldier, wincing through the gash above his eye.

“I'll get it, I will, don't worry,” and she stretched her left wing out to touch his brow. Once more she focused on her Gift of Kindness, and once more the soothing, tingling feeling flowed between her feathers and his fur. The cut closed up, not even a scar remaining. “There, better?”

“Thank you, ma'am!”

Fluttershy beamed. “Oh, you're very welcome. I hope-”

“Wyverns!”

She barely glanced up before blue fire came spewing down. On instinct her wings pumped and she flew upward, but a glance back showed that her new friend was not so fortunate. Fluttershy hovered dumbly, this horrific shock the capstone on a day of carnage she had never dreamed to see.

“Fluttershy!” Applejack called, weaving between jets of flame. “Fluttershy, get up there and whip some wind up!” Fluttershy kept hovering. “Fluttershy!”

“Oh!” She blinked at last. “Eek!” A wyvern swooped and nearly ate her; she dodged just in time. It wove about and would have bit her clean in two if not for blasts of battle magic from below.

Luitae!” came the shout as fifty deer emerged into the throng. They were followed swiftly by the changelings that pursued them, but Applejack cried

“Get 'em!”

And the earth ponies and unicorns passed by the white-tails as both groups switched enemies. Unicorns shot out spells made of air and fire, earth ponies swung spears and hoof-axes, and Applejack became a swirling storm of action, bucking, kicking, punching, biting any changeling in her path. The deer, meanwhile, grouped in a formation and began to fire battle magic full in sync, taking turns to recharge one row as the next one blasted upward. Fluttershy, now dangerously in the crossfire, went flying fast away.

“Fluttershy!” Applejack called as she departed. “Get to the downtown! Get to-” a changeling gashed her cheek, she pulled it down and stomped its head- “get to downtown and figure what those spiders are doin'!”

Fluttershy nodded and flew as fast as she could manage, though this was still, for all her training and her exercise, nowhere near Dash's top speed. She quickly received motivation, though: a fell beast swooped down for her, and with a shriek she suddenly was flying twice as fast. Even so that proved barely enough, for though she got closer to the downtown with its tall financial and trade towers, the fell beast kept upon her, and kept screaming in its magic way that made her nearly wet herself from fear. There was a brief, horrible moment when she was so frightened she could not remember how to fly; she sputtered and she fell. She kept on flapping, kept on fluttering but terror clouded even her most fundamental instincts. She was going to die-

“Gotcha!” shouted one green blur as it came flying in. Fluttershy was snatched out of the air, and with some looping and some twirling was set down upon the nearby roof. The blur paused just enough for her to see it was a pegasus, then he was gone again, zooming up into the sky with silver flashes trailing from his forelegs. It wove around the fell beast and gave one great slash to it, spilling its black blood throughout the roofs. Another slash and its head was long gone; the fell beast toppled fluttering into a building which collapsed under its weight.

“Th-Thank you!” shouted Fluttershy as the pony came flying down. It was a pegasus, a stallion strongly built, with slate gray mane and tail and light blue eyes.

He nodded at her. “Had to save you, commander.” He bowed. “Lieutenant Spearmint, at your service!”

“Spearmint! Oh, Dash told me about you.” Her face was twisted in confusion. “But... I didn't see you in the lineup of the commanders.”

“Just arrived, ma'am, on higher orders!”

“Higher?”

Spearmint smiled. “The cavalry is here, commander.”

Down below a dwindling host of deer and ponies backed their way beneath the shadow of the Equestrian Trade Center. The gap between those two great towers had already been filled up with webbing; the ungoliants were rapidly finishing closing off the whole of lower Manehattan, and nopony had pierced the wall of webbing in some hours. Beyond, the sounds of clashing energy filled up the air, and all the unicorns and deer could feel great magic being concentrated in that space.

For the moment, they were focused on their own survival. Even as Primrose shot a bolt of lightning at a changeling, wyvern's fire burned the ground beside her, singing her and immolating her three fellow soldiers to the left. She rolled away and bumped up against Stirrup. “Holding up okay?” she asked.

“Well enough!” he grunted as he hurled a spear into a wyvern's head. Immediately two more flew to take its place. Stirrup growled and started backing up. “Fall back!” he shouted.

“Why are you giving orders? Where's Lieutenant Dreamsides?”

“She was to your left.”

Primrose swallowed. She breathed hard in and out and conjured up a pink rose made of light. It was one of her special spells; it dropped into her mouth, she wound her body back, and then she flung it up into the falling changeling throngs. It burst into a cloud of gleaming petals that went slicing through the chitin creatures, then exploding into fireworks of pinkish light. All told it took out two dozen, and their charred chunks went flying through other changelings.

“Wow!” cried Stirrup. “Got any more?”

“Sorry,” she said glumly, “it's a one-a-day thing.”

“I hate magic,” Stirrup grumbled. “Fall back!” he shouted loudly as he could. “Fall back to the brass minotaur statue on Wall Street! Regroup there!”

He and Primrose galloped off amid the other ponies. The white-tails paused to fire at the changelings, to cover the escape of their new friends. Alas, they often stood their ground too long; one by one they fell beneath the thronging of the enemy, until their silver armor had been tarnished by the trampling of the changelings' hooves.

“Told you we were going to die,” said Kindling, winding up a spear and hurling it into a changeling.

“Now... now don't say that,” said Primrose. She loosed a burst of battle magic. “We're all still alive, aren't we?”

We sure are!

A pink blur hurtled down and smashed into a fell beast's head. The creature's skull cracked loudly and it tumbled from the sky. The pink blur banked and ricocheted much like a pinball, knocking changelings from the sky as it descended, til it hit the cobbled streets and bounced back up at once.

“Commander Pinkie Pie!” cried Primrose.

“You guys and girls had better get back!” Pinkie shouted, kicking up a spear and tossing it into a wyvern's head. “It's about to get icky here.”

“Commander, we keep losing ponies and deer!” Stirrup cried. “And we're-” he glanced over his shoulder, “we're backed up against that wall of web! They're going to crush us!” Even as he spoke the changelings surged toward them in a wedge. “Fire! All unicorns and white-tails, fire!”

Plinío slipped past both of them as Stirrup spoke. Standing at the forefront of the line he started whispering soft words in Laewtil. As he spoke his eyes glowed blue, and feathery blue light began to film off of his antlers. It wafted out in front of him and started sticking to the air, piling up and out until a barrier was formed, covered all over with flowing deerish script. At last the shield was finished and he turned back to his friends. “It will let things out, but not in. Keep the attack!”

“Fire!” Stirrup shouted. He himself picked up another spear and hurled it out, piercing one great wyvern in the neck. Battle magic blazed out of the barrier to cut down changelings as they buzzed and swarmed. A fell beast swooped above, began to screech before it was unusually cut off. Yet once again, as always, for every single changeling they destroyed two more swarmed in to take its place. They pressed and pushed, crawling on top of the bodies of their fellows, until in a black wall they pressed against the barrier, smashing up against it with their horns, biting it with their sharp fangs.

Minutes passed with their relentless pounding. At first the barrier kept holding, Plinío standing tall right at the front. As more time stretched, however, he began to falter. Sweat was beading on his light brown brow, the magic swirling round his antlers started flickering. A fell beast swooped and raked its talons on the barrier, making Plinío buckle to his knees.

“He's not going to hold!” cried Primrose.

“This is it!” said Kindling, tears were pouring from his eyes, but he was no deserter, he kept hurling spears and knives and throwing axes, though they were dangerously low now. The fell beast swooped around and dove right for them, building speed, ready to destroy the barrier from impact-

Then a blast of white came shooting from the sky, piercing the great creature through its heart, sending it crashing down onto the changelings massed below. Primrose glanced above. “Look!”

Two airships floated high above, both stamped with the Crystal Empire's seal. From them poured innumerable ponies, crystal pony unicorns adorned in shining crystal armor. As they fell they massed their horns and fired beams of white. These blasts were continuous, like rays of sunshine, and with coordination those great unicorns now swept them right into the buildings on each side of the desperate deer and ponies. Their blasts began to cut through stone and steel, the buildings started tipping, finally they totally sheared through and all the skyscrapers went toppling, crashing down. The changelings shrieked as they were crushed beneath the falling mass of metal and of concrete, dying by the thousands. Yet so precise had been the cutting that not even one small chunk fell down upon the ponies and the white-tails bunched against the wall of web.

Buoyed by their levitation magic, the unicorns touched gently on the rubble. Curving blades were mounted to their horns, and they spread out amid the piled stone. Every time a changeling reared its head they cut that off. Black bugs crawling out of the mess were rapidly destroyed, along with wyverns who had gotten caught up in the crash. It was efficient, and exceedingly cold-blooded.

“Stay in triads! Communicate with flash spells! Mass where needed to tackle group threats!”

The source of that proud voice was levitating gently to the ground. He wore crystallic armor over his white fur, his blue-striped mane and tail emerging here and there. He was a powerfully built unicorn, resolute and sturdy even with his younger age.

“It's him!” cried Stirrup. He burst from the defensive position and started climbing up the rubble. When he was on top he snapped off a salute. “General Shining Armor, sir!”

Shining Armor turned toward the shorter stallion and gave out a nod. “At ease. Your name, soldier?”

“Stirrup, sir! Formerly in Lieutenant Dreamside's company!”

“Where is Lieutenant Dreamsides now?”

“Dead, sir. I've been leading the mares and stallions- and the deer with us- ever since.”

“Hmf.” Shining Armor's cool and calm demeanor cracked with tightness in his eyes. “I knew Dreamsides. She was a good soldier.”

“She was, sir.”

Shining Armor trotted to the rubble's edge and glanced down at the gathered deer and ponies. “Hmm... you managed to save quite a few of your fellows, Private Stirrup.”

“Just doing what I had to, sir.”

“Well, I think it deserves recog-”

“Hi Shiny!”

The pink blur bounced beside him, and he cracked a massive smile. “Oh, hey Pinkie.”

“Oh my gosh Shiny that was so super cool and brave and you just breerrr cut through those buildings and they went like grrrmbblll and you just wasted those stupid changelings!”

“Tsun Saiga's Art of War teaches us that battle must conform to the terrain on which it's fought. In a place like this, the terrain can even become a weapon.”

Shrieks abruptly filled the air. Turning, all the ponies saw six fell beasts swooping toward them, mouths open for screaming, talons flashing in the sun. Their shrieks now worked their awful magic, sending even the stout crystal pony soldiers trembling to the ground.

Shining Armor, though, was not fazed. “I've got this!” He galloped to the forefront of his soldiers. His legs splayed wide. Pink light began to swirl about his horn. The ground trembled faintly, small amounts of dust began to lift off of the pile of rubble. The light about his horn was rising, blazing, blinding, so intense it seemed to be the middle of the sun, he cocked back-

With a thoom like some great cannon Shining Armor fired. The burst of magic filled all of the sky. The fell beasts saw too late their coming doom, and before they could fly away the radiant death was on them. All of them were vaporized within the massive blast, sending streaming clouds of ash down onto the rooftops. The brilliant blueness lingered in the air for some few seconds, and when it left it brought the smell of ozone into everypony's nostrils.

Pinkie's mouth dropped open. “Oh... my... gosh!”

“Heh,” huffed Shining Armor. “You didn't think Twily got all the magic in the family, did you?” He turned around. “Now, as I was saying, your bravery and leadership deserve recognition, Captain Stirrup.”

Stirrup's eyes went wide. “Ca... Captain, sir?”

“Are you going to start your new command by questioning a superior officer?”

“N-No! No, sir!” he snapped off a salute.

“I didn't think so.” Shining Armor glanced over his shoulder. “All right, soldiers! Get down there and tend to the wounded! Healing spells and potions! Double time!”

“Shiny!”

All at once the powerful, commanding aura around Shining Armor utterly gave way. He whirled around and smiled, face alight with childish joy. Twilight Sparkle landed and immediately galloped toward him. He galloped as well, and when they met they shared the tightest, fiercest hug one could imagine. “Twily!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, I can't believe it! It's so good to see you!” Twilight cried. “But what are you doing here?”

“Princess Celestia gave me permission to bring the Crystal Guard in as support,” he said. “She said Lady Falalauria told her that you all would need reinforcements.”

“Well I'm so glad you're here,” said Twilight. “And what luck to run into you where I was already going.”

“What were you coming down here for?”

“To look at that,” she answered, pointing with her hoof toward the wall of webbing woven between skyscrapers. “Those big spiders have cut us off from lower Manehattan, and I can't begin to think why.”

“Hmm,” said Shining Armor, “that's where the financial district is, right? And the harbor. What could Reiziger want?”

“Speaking of, has anypony actually seen Reiziger in a while?” asked Stirrup. “Last I saw of him, Lady Falalaruia was driving him across the city.”

“That's the last I saw of him too,” said Twilight. “I wonder if...” she glanced toward the wall of web. Her eyebrow rose. “Oh, hey, there's a hole in it.”

“Where?”

“Not a big one, but...” her horn began to sparkle and a magnifying lens appeared in front of them. As they all glanced into it at last they saw what she saw: a small empty space within the webbing. Even as they watched, however, one of the great spiders moved towards it.

“I got it!” Pinkie shouted. She suddenly burst off in a pink blur.

“No!” cried Twilight. “No, Pinkie wait-!”

She was already gone though, running with that strange cartoonish speed that she possessed. She couldn't always do it; that was just how the cosmos worked. But she could do it now, so now she hurried, now she streaked at superpony speeds, covering a mile in an instant. She was upon the wall of webbing now, just as the ungoliant was bearing down on it. The spider was not fast enough, however. Pinkie stuck her tongue out, angled for a makeshift ramp, rocketed into the air, and before the ungoliant could spin its final web, Pinkie shot into the gap and through it, out into what lay beyond.

Chapter 24

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“Woohooooooo!” cried Pinkie Pie as she went hurtling through the air. She fell down in a graceful arc. When she impacted the charred ground she did so rump first, and her spongy pink tail acted like a spring, bouncing her again into the air. She sailed another, shorter distance and then bounced again, flying even shorter now, until at last she just bounced briefly before settling upon her soft pink bottom. Rolling forward onto her four hooves, she swung her head around and let her blue eyes snap from place to place.

The scene around her was horrific. Buildings were destroyed, or else reduced to burnt out husks. Streets had been torn up; much of the old cobblestone had turned to molten rock, steaming up into the cloudy sky. The stench of burning oil and decaying flesh was heavy in the air. Looking back, she saw the solid wall of web that now blocked off lower Manehattan; the threads of spider-silk were flickering with magic, perhaps explaining why Twilight had not yet teleported in to join her.

Pinkie winced. “Man oh man, this place looks like it got a double whammy. No, a triple whammy!”

Even as she spoke she heard a mighty crashing sound. Her body trembled, and nearby a chunk of building crumbled to the ground.

“What's that?” What's that? Hello? No answer came. “Gotta find out!” She hurried off across the ruined landscape. She had to climb over some fallen buildings in her path, and had to bounce and hop through fields of shattered glass. It seemed forever that she moved, and the immense and awful shaking, crashing sounds got nowhere closer. Abruptly she was rocked off of her feet as one great smashing sound filled up the air. A burst of red light flared into the sky; the smell of ozone rose upon the wind. Pinkie gasped; she knew who it must be. She did not fear, however. Fear was alien to Pinkie, who could always find the ray of light within the deepest darkness. So she bounced up one great fallen building, crested its sharp corner, and looked down into a crater, not with fright but curiosity.

Reiziger and Falalauria were circling each other, antlers blazing red and orange, respectively. Pinkie watched them warily regard each other; one would step out and the other would step back, they'd knock their antlers up against each others', Reiziger would show his teeth and Falalauria would flash her white-backed tail. Suddenly they smashed against each other, venting power, sending rays of battle magic outward from their clash which blasted off great chunks of buildings all around them. Pinkie was close enough that she heard Reiziger when he proclaimed, “My goodness, half-breed, all my assaults and you're still alive. There must be more of the high deer in you than I had figured.”

“The high deer and the common deer are equal in me,” she replied. “As they were equal among the deerfolk before you spread your stain of bigotry!”

“Come now, half-breed,” he responded, “you esteem me even higher than I do myself! What bigotry I stoked already had its origins among the high deer. Why else would so many of them choose to follow me? I was a symptom, not a cause.”

“Liar! I have Seen into the past. The deerfolk lived in harmony, all six species equal to each other, until you started spreading your foul gospel!”

“You have Looked back with your Long Sight, but you did not live it, little girl. You did not experience the tensions that simmered between all the species by the end. You did not hear the disputes in the Parliament of Antlers. And you did not see how revoltingly crass and crude the common deer had become by that point.” His eyes narrowed, his lip curled up. “Always going out to the sporting events at the stadiums, always going to the gambling houses and the dens of ill repute! The common deer were lechers and intellectual midgets. They deserved a lower place by the time I emerged.”

“That is a lie,” said Falalauria, “a lie from you, the prince of lies.”

“The king of lies, thank you,” Reiziger replied. “I'll not have you demoting me.”

“All of this is futile. You are going to lose. I have foreseen it.”

“You know, I spent much time among the red deer. They were my allies til the bitter end, after all. I learned much about their Long Sight. It is a powerful thing, perhaps the most powerful of all the Gifts of the Elements. But it contains a cruel and crucial limitation: it must be used deliberately.”

“My Sight is all-encompassing, and highly accurate.”

“Oh, I don't doubt, it being mingled with the Truth Sense of the white-tails. But all the same, half-breed, you share the red deer's weakness: you cannot See what you do not look for. And behold, I have been operating just out of your Sight all this time, and all the efforts of you, and all your deer, and all the ponies here, have been in vain.”

Falalauria's star-studded eyes went wide. “What?”

“You must have Seen why I came here to Manehattan. Why, particularly, I wanted to come down here to the lower part of the island.”

“The old bison burial grounds,” she answered. “This is where the bison who once roamed all over Equestria buried their shamans and medicine men. Their natural magic has leaked into the land here and made it stuffed with power. That is part of why Equestria is such a strong trading and mercantilist nation, because the home base of its far-ranging economy is here.”

“Very good! Now, ping your magic. Is that power still here?”

Falalauria went flinching back. Her antlers shimmered, and right then she truly gasped. “But- I- I foresaw myself keeping you at bay!”

“Your wretched Sight was clouded by your hubris, half-breed! You thought that your own strength could match me because I was not yet at full power, that you could wholly battle me! That is because you have never bothered to See just how powerful I was at my full strength, and even how strong I was at half strength!” Reiziger's body smudged a little. The shadows round him pulsed, his eyes came flashing like two glimmering red stars. A crown of fire sat upon his head, he breathed out jets of flame from his black nostrils. “But I am very, very powerful, half-breed, more powerful than you could dare to dream. So powerful that I could pretend to battle you with all my strength while still keeping plenty of my power free to concentrate on other things- like draining all the strength of these old burial grounds!”

Falalauria sat down. She shook her head and gave a mournful chuckle. “Foolish.”

“Very,” Reiziger said, bearing all his white razor sharp teeth. “The power in these lands is mine now, half-breed, and I am nearly as strong as I have ever been. Equestria will fall soon. First, though, I think I shall-”

“Heya!”

Both great deer swung their heads around. Pinkie slid down the gray slope into the crater, then came bouncing toward them.

“Hey, Lady Lala!”

“Pinkie!” Falalauria exclaimed. “Pinkie, stay back! Don't come any-”

With a blazing blast of red light she was shot off to a far building, smashing into it and making it collapse into a cloud of dust. “No,” said Reiziger, “no, I think the pony should come close.” He turned about and grinned. “Hello there, Pinkie Pie.”

“Hey there, you big ol' meanie!”

“Oh, you wound me,” Reiziger exclaimed. As he walked toward her shadows swelled about him. Blackened stars and dying suns were trailing in his wake, while crimson fire burned about his antlers. “I'm really quite nice once you get to know me.”

“You? Nice? Fuggedaboudit!” She smiled. “That was my impression of a Manehattan accent! Did you like it?”

“Charming. Actually, a tiny part of me is refreshed to see my species' Gift bestowed upon a natural trickster. You do excel at making ponies laugh, don't you?”

“I'm the best! Nopony is better.”

“But is it all a subterfuge?” A deflection?

Pinkie felt dark claws begin to dig into her mind. She summoned up the bouncy pinkness she had used before, but Reiziger was sturdy now, was not so easily repelled. “Wha... no, I really do love making ponies smile! It's what I'm called to do!”

Leaving aside the arcane business of your cutie mark, I think there is no small amount of self-deception here. You like to make ponies laugh, yes, but it stems from the time you couldn't make anypony laugh, doesn't it?

She tried to flinch and run away, but Reiziger had rooted her in place. He kept on digging, red eyes blazing as he stared into her own. Pinkie felt the layers of her mind be cut apart and peeled away, as though she were some specimen on Twilight's surgeon table.

Ah yes, there it is...

“What is this?” her father shouted, shooting Pinkie's eyebrows up. The little pony cantered to the main room of the house, where she saw the stallion standing by her project, glaring with an angry gaze.

“Hey Poppy!” Pinkie cheered. “Guess what guess what guess what?”

Her father's face grew no less stern. “I'm listening.”

“I'm making a puppet show! And this is gonna be the background! See, look, I'm drawing some mountains there, and there's gonna be a lake there, and-”

“No!” Pinkie wilted as her father yelled. “This is our best bedsheet, Pinkamena, and you've ruined it!”

“I- I didn't-”

“And what's this? Coal? You've been drawing with fine, high-grade coal? You've been wasting rocks?”

“W-We didn't have any crayons! I didn't mean to-”

“Pinkamena, I don't know what's come over you. First you start wearing your hair so unruly! Then you start going on about that... that f-word...”

“Fun?”

“Yes! Pinkamena, fun has no place on this farm, do you understand me? The only thing that lives here is good, Celestia-blessed hard work and piety! And if you're going to destroy property, I have no choice but to teach you a lesson.” He grabbed her underneath his front leg.

“No! No, Poppy! Poppy, please!”

He did not listen, though. Instead, he bent her on his lap and spanked her, spanked her til she cried. And that night she was forced to watch as the bedsheet was burned.

Pinkie's eyes were leaking tears. “But... but...”

Everypony thinks that of you, by the way. No one thinks you're funny, or clever, or amusing. They think you are annoying, Pinkie, and they only laugh and smile at your antics so that you'll go away.

“I... I...”

Perhaps you ought to oblige them, then? Maybe you should go away for good? Reiziger grinned with all his teeth. I can help with that, of course.

Pinkie breathed hard in and out. Her mane and tail began to lose their bounce, her bright and brilliant colors started fading in their shine. She seemed poised over eternal despair. But then... she remembered. And she smiled anew. “Oh boy! You almost got me!”

What?

You almost had me sad remembering one of my worst times ever! And you were keeping me from remembering what came after that! But you just can't! Because what came after was one of my best times ever!

The party in the barn was winding down now. All the games were played, all food was eaten, nearly all the dancing had been done, though Maud was still engrossed in her strange rhythm. Pinkie sighed, a massive smile on her face. Her first party had been an absolute success!

“Pinkamena?”

She turned around, and then her smile dimmed. Her father stood there, firm and steady as he'd always been. And yet his eyes were... different, somehow. Less unyielding. She remembered her spanking from some days before, and winced away a little. “H-Hello, Poppy.”

“Pinkamena, I...” her father trotted to her and sat down beside her. “Pinkamena, this... what's it called...”

“Party?”

“Yes, this... this p-party has been wonderful. It's brought your mother and your sisters so much joy, joy I haven't seen from them in ages- maybe never before. And it's brought me joy also. I never before realized how good it is to have... to have fun.” He sighed. He took his hat off. “A few days ago, with the bedsheet... I wanted to say I'm sorry.”

“Really?” Pinkie's smile spread again.

“You have always been... different, Pinkamena, different than the rest of us. Not just in looks but in the way you act, the way you think, the way you see the world. For a time, I was worried you were cursed in some way, afflicted by some demon.” He smiled down at her. “But now I see that you were merely blessed in a very unique way. Thank you, Pinkamena, for sharing your Celestia-given gifts with us.”

“Oh, you're so super welcome, Poppy!”

He drew her close and wrapped her in a hug. “I promise never to spank you again, Pinkamena. I was wrong to do it before. And from now on, provided you still do your chores and duties, you may have as much fun, and throw as many parties, as you wish.”

Pinkie hugged her father tightly, tears sprung from her eyes. “I promise I will, Poppy! I'll make this farm the funnest farm that's ever been!”

“Hmm, we shall have to start inviting more of my relatives over, then, mine and your mother's...”

“So you see? In the end my Poppy did love me, and so does everypony else!” Pinkie pressed her mind on Reiziger, pink and bouncy brilliance pushing up against the wall of blackness in her head. And that's because everypony loves to smile, everypony loves to dance! We all want to feel happy! And if we can make other ponies happy, that makes us happy, too! So that happy ponies make happy ponies, until everypony's happy! Her cutie mark was glowing. And no matter how much YOU try to stop it, you'll NEVER stop ponies from being happy!

Cease this, thought Reizgier. He flung his mental strength at her- but with a gasp of shock he found he was repelled. Indeed, instead of pushing into Pinkie's mind, she was pushing into his! Stop this!

Why ARE you such a grump, anyway? You're the biggest, meanest meanie I've ever seen! You're even meaner than Nightmare Moon before she turned back into Princess Luna! Come on, SHOW me! Pinkie shoved her thoughts upon him. Her cutie mark was shining like the sun, her eyes were gleaming, blazing white.

No! Get back! But for the first time in more than five thousand years, Reiziger felt powerless. Pinkie's bouncy brightness smashed apart his old and mighty mental shields, diving deep into the corners of his thoughts that no one else had ever breached.

Two deer children were playing by a stream that flowed through rolling hills. Caribou the both of them, they were both occupied with different toys. The older played with a strange crystal thing that floated in the air and glowed within. The younger bounced a ball about, and looked decidedly unhappy to be doing so. In the distance, a great tent city rose, its pink banners aloft and fluttering in the soft breeze of spring.

“Oy!” said the younger one. “I want to play with the aleph now.”

“You had it for almost an hour,” said the older one. His right hoof touched the aleph, made it pulse and rotate, crystal arms spinning in all directions while the colors of the center swiftly changed. “Let me have it at least a little.”

The younger brother rolled over and scowled. “I don't see why I should ever have to share my toys. Isn't that what being a prince means?”

The elder brother chuckled. “Well, you may be a prince, but I'm the crown prince, so even you have to share with me.”

The younger caribou looked back upon his brother with a glare of deathly hate. He breathed out, then he breathed in, always keeping that same terrible intensity. At last, he rose and quickly trotted to the elder. “Oh yeah?” he asked, and swung his hoof. The older caribou was knocked back toward the river. Before he could react the younger was upon him, punching at him yet again. The older brother stumbled, nearly fell into the river, and that's when the younger brother made his move. He shoved the older brother down, then rolled him over, and with all his strength he shoved his brother's face into the river.

The older brother struggled mightily at first. It took all the younger brother's strength to hold him under- all his strength and all his hate. But after a few minutes those same struggles started dwindling. The older caribou went slowly limp, strength retreating from his limbs. Pressing as he was against his brother's back, the younger caribou could feel his heart slow down, and finally stop.

He pulled the corpse out of the river. “Oh yeah?” he said down to it. “Well I'm the crown prince now.”

Oh my gosh!, gasped Pinkie. You were even a meanie when you were a kid!

GET OUT!

With a mighty mental shock Pinkie was forced back to the real world, staggering from all the power she had felt.

YOU

“Wuh-oh,” Pinkie said.

“Pinkie!” she whirled and noticed Falalauria now running toward her. “Pinkie, get on! Hurry!” Pinkie dashed to her and crawled up on her back. As shadows swelled and crimson fire came down from the sky, Falalauria took a soft step, and disappeared.


In a corner of the Bronx the deer and ponies mingled, resting, healing, being happy they'd survived. “General,” said Stirrup, “is that everypony?”

“Everypony who's alive, I think,” said Shining Armor. He glanced across the river at Manehattan. Buildings had been toppled. Smoke and shadow lingered still in all the battlegrounds. Fires burned. The streets were filled with dead changelings and other creatures, along with fallen deer and ponies. He sighed. “It's going to take months, maybe years, to restore this place.”

“Why do all our victories against Reiziger seem to be fake?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Likely because he seems to get stronger no matter what we do,” said Rarity, leaning up against her.

“We just have to keep fighting!” Twilight Sparkle said. “Keep fighting, and keep strengthening our Elements of Harmony. We'll beat him, I know we will.” She chuckled. “Besides, for as powerful as he keeps claiming to be, I haven't exactly seen him do any-”

A telepathic ROAR filled all their heads, making many of them crumble to the ground from mental pressure. In that instant a blaze of crimson light filled all the air and all the ground and all of everything. There was a sudden smell of burning and destruction. A horrible crash that nearly deafened all of them rose through the air. Then, an instant later, all was still. They glanced across the river yet again... and gaped.

The middle of Manehattan was gone. A two-mile-wide chunk that ran the whole length of the island had been utterly destroyed, leaving only a great blackened scar. Steam was rising from the charred remains, buildings that had been but half-annihilated toppled over with great clouds of dust and soot.

“Oh my gosh,” whispered Fluttershy.

I AM GOING TO PEEL THE FLESH FROM YOUR BONES, YOU STUPID PINK PACK ANIMAL

Pinkie!” the five friends cried aloud, and hurried off.


Falalauria glanced back upon the ruins of Manehattan and was shocked. Even when Reiziger had battled her and Luna and Celestia amid the Broken Lands, he had not done that. “By the Wills,” she whispered.

“No! Not FAO Horse! I never got to go!” cried Pinkie. “I never got to cuddle the giant teddy bear! I never got to ride on the rideable train! I never got to blow the giant bubble blower!”

“Pinkie, we must go. We... we have to leave, we have to-”

NO!

Reiziger appeared beside them and then dug his antlers under Falalauria. He raised both her and Pinkie off the ground and flung them far across the Bronx park where they'd teleported. Pinkie fell off and bounced hard against some nearby grass, while Falalauria went flying into a great building, crashing through the glass facade.

“Lady Lala!” Pinkie shouted. She started moving, but Reiziger teleported right in front of her. She scowled at him. “What do you want now, you great big meanie?”

He was... unstable. His blackened form was pulsing, flickering, as though it were some plastic oozing from its mold. His antlers seemed occasionally to be too large and have far too many tines, while blackened tendrils wafted like a candle's flame from edges of his fur. His eyes were burning- literally burning, crimson fire blazing from the sockets. His mouth seemed far larger than normal, the razor teeth in them unusually long. As he walked, the buildings shook.

“I... confess I am at a loss,” he snarled. “There are so, so many terrible things I wish to do to you, and I want you to suffer through all of them. But even one of them will kill you in the end, so I must be selective. And yet... so many choices.”

“Well, it's like my Uncle Pinkerton always says: if you have a lot of choices, you really have none! He told me- AH!” Pinkie cried out sharp as Reiziger lunged down and bit her. His massive jaws clamped down onto her back, sinking deep into the pink fur and pink skin. She screamed yet more as he pulled back and shook her back and forth, as though he were a bigger dog and she a smaller one. At last he flung her from his bite, smashing her against a nearby tree.

SHUT UP!, he thought. “Always,” ALWAYS TALKING. “Do you” EVER “ever cease your mindless, brainless prattle?” His tongue ran out along his teeth. “At least you taste good.”

“Heh... I... I sure hope so!” said Pinkie, staggering onto her hooves. There were black stains around the bite marks on her back. “Do I taste like cotton candy? I've always hoped I did!”

“Not quite,” said Reiziger, sharp teeth glinting as he stalked to her. “But that doesn't mean I won't eat you alive.”

“Oh no you won't!”

He whirled. “Oh, spare me, Twilight Sparkle. Actually, I'm glad you're here. You can watch her die!”

“Leave her alone!” cried Twilight, standing poised and regal not twelve feet away.

“As I said, spare me. You are going to watch and you are going to-”

He did not finish. A blast of white and purple power rocked him off his hooves, sending him flying into the park and breaking several trees along his way. Falalauria emerged then from her crater, and she gasped. Twilight's eyes were glowing, and so was her cutie mark. Her horn was flashing, sparking, blazing with great power, far more power than she'd ever used before. “Twilight?”

“Lady Falalauria!” she shouted, not turning around. “Come on, let's get him!”

“Twilight, where on earth did you learn such magic?”

Where indeed?, asked Reiziger into her mind. Show me! And in that instant he brute-forced past all her shields. Memories flew by across her thoughts, all of them awash in one great instant. Reiziger reappeared nearby, and he seemed far more stable... and in strange good spirits. “Fëanor?” he asked. “You've been training with Fëanor?” He laughed. “That old schemer! Ah, seeing him still skulking about and weaving his creaky cobwebs makes me smile. I have recovered my good humor!”

“Twilight, you've been training with Lord Fëanor?” asked Falalauria.

Twilight flinched. “Well... I...”

“We're here!” cried Applejack. She and Rainbow Dash and Rarity and Fluttershy came surging next to Twilight. “Pinkie!” and immediately toward Pinkie Pie, who trotted slowly up to meet them.

“H-Hey girls,” she said, wincing at each movement.

“Pinkie, what on earth happened?” Rarity exclaimed.

She tastes delicious, by the way.

Dash shot up with lightning in her eyes. “You!”

“Stay together, Dash!” cried Twilight. “Gifts on!” Her cutie mark began to glow as she channeled the Element of Magic. Applejack began to focus on her Element of Honesty, Rarity upon the Element of Generosity, Fluttershy upon the Element of Kindness, and Pinkie, fitfully, upon the Element of Laughter. Dash fluttered back down and flipped on her own Element of Loyalty.

“None of you are strong enough to summon the Rainbow without your gems, not yet!” cried Reiziger. Yet even as he watched, the air began to shimmer faintly. The ghost, the whisper of a rainbow started winking in and out, and barely became stable for perhaps a second. “Not yet!” he repeated, though for the second time today he was uneasy.

“Do you want to take that risk?” asked Twilight. The six of them were facing him with firmest resolution.

Reiziger walked gently backwards. “No,” he said, “no, not yet. I have time still. As I mentioned to the half-breed, I've gotten what I came for. Farewell, my little ponies.” He took another step and vanished.

The rainbow utterly went out. Twilight breathed out slowly. “I... he's right. We're not strong enough yet.”

“But the rainbow! It was there!” cried Dash.

“Not as there as it looked. I used some color contrast spells to make it more visible than it really was. It was barely there... which isn't nearly enough.”

“Still, dear, that was brilliant!” Rarity exclaimed. “We actually frightened him! And with more effort and more practice, we shall be able to beat him for good!”

“I'm gonna count that as a victory,” said Applejack.

“I just wish it hadn't come at such a high cost,” said Fluttershy.

“Victory?” Dash snapped. “Manehattan is destroyed, Reiziger's more powerful than ever, and so many ponies and deer died today! You call that a victory?”

“Cheer up, girls,” said Pinkie. “It's like... like my Nanna Pinkie says... you...” she was swaying, “you... you can't...” her eyes rolled back and she fell to the ground.

“Pinkie!” her five friends cried for the second time today. Pinkie lay passed out upon the street, pitch black fluid leaking from the bite marks on he back.

Chapter 25

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Pinkie Pie slowly returned to consciousness. She was no longer on the concrete; she was now swaddled in a warm and fluffy bed. Her back was very sore, and there was also some uncalculated hurt that lingered in the inners of her bones. But she was, all told, feeling much better. She sat up and yawned. “Morning, everypony!”

“She's awake!” cried Rainbow Dash. Instantly the bed was crowded with all five of Pinkie's friends, along with a few other ponies.

“How are you feeling, Miss Pie?” asked a dark green unicorn with snow-white mane and tail.

Pinkie shook her head from side to side. She smacked her lips. She rubbed her hooves together. “Preeeeetttttyyyyy good, I guess,” she said. Her back itched, and she reached back to- “Oh!” She glanced over her shoulder. Her sides and back were wrapped in thick white bandages, which even now were vaguely stained with black.

“We stitched your bite marks closed,” said Twilight Sparkle, “but for some reason, they keep leaking this... stuff.”

Pinkie's mouth came open. “I'm bleeding?”

“It's not blood,” said a white-tail deer beside her bed. “Neither the unicorns here at the palace nor our own sorcerers can decide precisely what it is, though we are still running tests. It's hard to say just what sort of foul substance could have come out of the Herd Lord. He himself is made of awful stuff.”

A knocking came upon the door. When the green unicorn moved swift to open it, Celestia and Luna and Falalauria all stepped into the room. “How are you, Pinkie Pie?” Celestia then asked.

“I'm feeling super better, Princess Celestia!”

“I'm glad to hear it,” she responded. She turned toward the dark green unicorn. “Wizenbach, I should like to keep Pinkie Pie here overnight, just for the sake of more observation.”

“It will be done, my princess,” Wizenbach replied.

“Aww, am I gonna be stuck in this bed?”

“Now I didn't say that,” Celestia replied. She grinned. “Indeed, being cooped up in this bed is the last thing you need. Come, I have lunch prepared.”

“And then we must have a council,” said Luna. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, thy brother is here, and will be joining us.”

“Great!” said Twilight. “I'm looking forward to seeing Spike again, too.” She followed both princesses from the room, along with all her friends.

Or, most of them. Fluttershy stopped at the door, and when Pinkie brought up the rear of the procession, she stepped out and barred her way. “Pinkie,” she said, “I'd like to try and heal your bites.”

“But they're better, Fluttershy!”

“No,” she said, “not as long as they're leaking. Let me see if I can stop whatever's in them.”

“Okie-dokie!” Pinkie said, and swiveled round. She showed her bandaged back to Fluttershy, the blackness seeping once again into the gauze.

Fluttershy took deep breaths in and out. She focused on her Gift, upon her Element. Soft and gentle pinkish light began to wrap around her hooves. She pressed these glowing hooves into the bandages, willing peace and joy and comfort to flow out of her. She felt the wounds within her mind and pressed on them yet harder, working-

“Ow!” cried Pinkie.

The power swirling round her hooves turned black and ugly. It began to crawl upon her, creeping up her butter yellow fur like juice within a straw. “Eep!” she squeaked, and pulled away. The blackness was annihilated by the pinkish power of herself, but Pinkie's wounds remained. Indeed, the fluid stains upon the bandages had grown.

“Did it work?”

“N-No,” said Fluttershy, her ears flattening out. “I guess I'm not strong enough.” She eyed the black-soaked gauze with dread. “Come on, let me change your bandages, then we can catch up with the others.”


Lunch passed by in quiet, but not without tension. Everypony seemed to dwell beneath a cloud of great distress. Even Pinkie, though as bouncy and as boisterous as ever, was really quite reserved, at least for her. Celestia and Falalauria sat near each other, and throughout the meal would whisper to each other in Laewtil.

When all eating was done the six friends- and Spike, who had been staying at the palace for the battle in Manehattan- along with many of the learned unicorns and deer, all came into a large round room with a low, round, wooden table. Shining Armor stood before the fire, glancing into it.

“Heya, bro!” cried Spike, racing to him and enveloping him in a hug.

He smiled. “What's up, Spikester?”

“I missed the battle, is what's up,” he said. He turned back to Twilight. “I know you said it wasn't going to be safe, but there has to have been a way I could've helped, right? I was stuck here in Canterlot when I could have been useful!”

“Maybe you could have been,” Twilight said, “but all the same, I'm glad you weren't there.” She went and took a seat, one of many cushions spread around the table. Spike sat next to her; she drew him close, as much for her own comfort as for his.

When all were seated, Celestia said, “So... where do we stand?”

“Manehattan is lost,” said Shining Armor. “The city might as well be sunk. It's going to take years and years to rebuild everything Reiziger destroyed, even with magic.”

“But at least he lost much as well, didn't he?” Rarity asked. “I mean, all those changelings, all those monsters- all of them dead. He can't keep wasting forces like that, can he?”

“Very astute,” said Luna. “No, it follows logic that Reiziger cannot afford to waste his forces in too many more sacrificial battles.”

“And yet he has gained more than he has lost each time, in terms of how great a threat he poses,” said Falalauria. “With every source of magic drained, he has grown more powerful. Once he reaches a certain point of strength- a point which he may already have reached- he can simply conjure new soldiers from the ether.”

“Or just destroy everything personally,” Twilight added.

“And yet, based on reports, there were some successes, at least in terms of encouraging signs,” said Wizenbach. “Princess Twilight, you and your friends were able to barely summon the Rainbow of Light, I'm told?”

“Oh, yes!” said Fluttershy. “Twilight says she used some spells to make it seem more there than it was, but it was there, though maybe only a little.”

“So then Reiziger is not the only one who grows more powerful,” a slate blue unicorn observed. “All you six, the Bearers of the Elements, have grown in strength as well.”

“Which is of course borne out by various things that happened during the battle,” said Falalauria. “Fluttershy, your Gift of Kindness was able to heal several ponies completely, according to your own account.”

“That's right,” she answered.

“And you, Pinkie Pie, have grown so strong in the Gift of Laughter that you were even able to break through Reiziger's mental shields, though it came at a great cost.”

“Yep!”

“What was that like, anyway?” asked Dash. “I bet his mind is the grossest, nastiest place in the world.”

“It was pretty weird,” she admitted, “but I've seen weirder, honestly.”

“It would seem, then, that thy faith is being rewarded, Tia,” said Luna.

“Indeed,” said Celestia. “And I think the best course of action, therefore, is for you six to redouble your efforts to strengthen your Elements of Harmony. You are almost there. The Rainbow of Light can defeat Reiziger- he knows it, and it frightens him.”

“We won't let ya down, your highness!” Applejack said.

“We shall do our level best,” said Rarity.

“In the meantime we...” Celestia sighed, “we must hold the line somehow, though Equestria has suffered so much already. Prince Shining Armor- or rather, General Shining Armor, I would like you to remain in Canterlot and help coordinate the broad defense.”

“Happy to be useful, your highness,” said Shining Armor, snapping a salute. He turned to Falalauria. “My lady, by the way, I really have to commend your white-tails. They fought with valor, and they integrated very well into the overall structure of the battle.”

“I shall pass that along, Shining Armor,” she answered. “Perhaps my guardsdeer can assist you in some of your planning.” Celestia raised an eyebrow at that, and rubbed her chin. Only Twilight saw it, though.

“That would be great,” said Shining Armor. “I'll need all the help I can get.”

“Meanwhile, I think the Bearers of the Elements should return to Ponyville,” Celestia said. “You all have done such good work there, I should hate to change anything.”

“We'll keep getting better, Princess Celestia!” cried Dash.

“We're gonna get so strong we'll whip that big meanie like he's meringue!” Pinkie shouted.

“And Spike,” Celestia said, causing him to sit up straight. “I shall have some important correspondence coming your way in the next few days. I'll need you to be on alert to both send and receive messages.”

Spike saluted, just as Shining Armor had before. “I promise I won't fail you, your highness!”

“With that,” Celestia said, “I believe we have set our course of action for the next phase, though there are some things I am working on which may augment it. For the seven of you, there is a train to Ponyville leaving in about two hours.”

“Woo! Home sweet home!” cried Pinkie as all creatures round the table stood.

“Hold on,” said Wizenbach, “you're staying the night, remember?”

“Aww,” cooed Pinkie.

“I shall personally teleport thee back to Ponyville at moonset, Pinkie Pie,” said Luna.

“Woo! Home sweet home, in the morning!” She bounced around the table once, then bounced out through the creaking open doors and down the hall. Unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies and deer came streaming out into the sunny, stained-glass-covered corridor.

“Ah, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” said Celestia, for Twilight was nearly the last to leave, “could I have a word in private?”

“Of course,” she said. “Go on, Spike, I'll catch up with you in the courtyard.”

“This won't take long, Spike,” said Celestia. Spike nodded and smiled, then ran off. At last the alicorns were all alone; Celestia's horn shimmered bright gold, and the doors to the conference room swung shut. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said softly.

“Yes?” Twilight noted the expression on her mentor's face. “W-What's wrong?”

Celestia sighed. “Lady Falalauria tells me that you have been studying with Lord Fëanor.”

“Oh! Yes, yes I have. I suppose I should have told you.” She smiled. “He's been helping me get so much better with the Element of Magic, so much stronger!”

“I don't doubt it,” Celestia said. “And you put it on display yesterday- Lala tells me you used magic on the level of a high deer. You used so much power that you were even able to affect Reiziger.” She sighed again. “To a certain degree, this is really a wonderful occurrence. No creature alive knows more about the Element of Magic than Fëanor. If he is truly training you, you are receiving the best education in your Element that you could possibly get.”

“I am! It's wonderful, princess!”

“I just wonder what he's telling you apart from knowledge of the Element of Magic.”

“Telling me?”

“Fëanor is... stubborn. Hard-headed. I'm sure you've noticed that. He is very wise, and very powerful, and on a certain level even very open to learning. But when he believes he is correct about something, he will stick with that conviction to the bitter end.”

“But he hasn't done that,” Twilight said. “He's completely agreed with you about using the Elements to stop Reiziger. That's why he's training me! He's admitted his original plan was bad, and that yours is right.”

“That's what he says, I'm sure.”

Twilight's mouth hung open. “You think he's lying? But... but he's your old teacher! You owe everything to him! How can you not trust him?”

Celestia shook her head. “Twilight Sparkle, part of growing up is realizing that a pony- or a deer- can be beneficial to our growth, can be a hugely important part of our lives, and not be perfect. Like me, for example.”

“But... princess...”

“Even now, even when you yourself are an alicorn princess, you still put me on a pedestal. You revere me even more than those who pray in the temples do, Twilight, because you see me as the one thing even higher than a goddess- a parent. But parents aren't perfect, Twilight Sparkle. Your own mother and father aren't, and I am not, either.”

“But I know that!”

“Do you really?”

“I... yes...”

“I am not perfect, Twilight Sparkle. I have made mistakes, and I have flaws. Fëanor is the same.” She sighed. “The thing I ask you to do is be careful. Again, it's wonderful- ideal, even- that he's training you to use your Gift of Magic. You should accept that training, because it will help us stop Reiziger. Just give considered thought, and critical analysis, to everything he tells you. You have grown into a fine young mare, and you have been well educated in many different ways. You are capable of deciding things for yourself. Be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers.”

“I...” she bowed. “I will, Princess Celestia. Maybe I have been a little too trusting of Lord Fëanor.”

“I didn't say that,” Celestia said. “Maybe you've been trusting just enough- I do not know. I just want you, again, to be careful.”

“I will. I will!”

Celestia came up to Twilight and drew her into a hug. “That's all I ask, and I know you will make me proud.” Her horn glowed and the doors swung open. “Now, come along, we have to get you to the train station.”

Twilight was all smiles as they walked into the sunlight. When she was outside of the palace, though, her brow furrowed. Her expression kept on darkening as she and all her friends sat waiting for the train, and once it had arrived, and was huffing and puffing on the route to Ponyville, Twilight sat against the window, glancing out upon the rushing landscape, her face pensive and grim.

Chapter 26

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The Solar Court was bustling to and fro, ministers and aides going about their business with a studied, practiced energy. Yet anyone with knowledge of the court would notice instantly that things weren't as they should have been. There was a nerviness to the proceedings, unease flourishing within the too-fast walks, the tight maneuvers of the soldiers, the very faint stammers in the mouths of those who came up to Celestia. Loss and devastation had begun to work their toll upon even the sweet and the elite ponies of Canterlot.

Luna sat beside Celestia; both sisters had decided they could not afford to sleep while Reiziger was yet at large. Now they turned their heads downward as one pony approached them; it was a pegasus in armor, bearing some strain from a longish flight. “Thy report, Lieutenant Silver Shoes?” asked Luna.

“Well, my princesses,” said Silver Shoes, “there wasn't much to salvage from Manehattan. We got out everything we could- gold reserves, bank notes, the artwork from the museums that were intact- but all told, not a lot to bring back in the first place.”

“I see,” Celestia remarked.

“Um, beyond that, princesses, the island... there's... there's stuff on it, princesses.”

Both of them raised their eyebrows. “Elaborate,” said Luna.

“Well, you know the blackness in the path of Reiziger's destruction? We initially thought it was just scorch marks, but it's... it's spreading, your highnesses.”

“Spreading?” said Celestia.

“It's creeping up the buildings near it, and it seems to weaken their structural integrity as it does. Several of them collapsed as we were salvaging; we heard and saw them.”

Celestia sucked in a breath. “I see. Have you anything else to report, lieutenant?”

“Only that it also seems to be eating the corpses on the island. Just as well; there are too many of those to remove, and many of them belong to the Enemy.”

Celestia hid her wince and nodded. “Thank you, lieutenant. You are dismissed.” Silver Shoes bowed low and then departed. Celestia rubbed her temple with her hoof. “He is like a disease,” she said.

“A cancer,” said Luna. “I believe that is what Lord Fëanor called him.”

“And he's been right.”

“Let us hope that thou art right about the Elements of Harmony, then- and that they can achieve the power they need quickly.”

“I... I know I'm right,” said Celestia, nodding to herself. “Yes, the Elements will prevail, I'm certain.” A pony with white fur and reddish mane trotted up to them next. “Minister Berry Bright, good to see you.”

“Yes, your highnesses,” said Berry Bright, and bowed. “My Princess Celestia, I have presented your proposal to the Royal Guard's High Command.”

“And?”

Berry Bright began to fidget. “They will of course go along with your designs, but they have some reservations. Specifically, they don't want to disrupt the function of the Guard by putting non-ponies in command positions.”

“If the deerfolk are to fight alongside us, it is better for them to be fully integrated into the Royal Guard's command structure. That means that deer with requisite training and experience should be allowed to have command over ponies. It only makes sense.”

“They understand that, my princess. But they worry that members of the guard will be uncomfortable with it, and that it will affect their performance in battle.”

The throne room guard was changing, then. The early morning shift was leaving through the massive double doors to make way for the noontime group. One of the white unicorns stopped at the door, to keep on listening.

“The guardsponies in Manehattan did not seem to mind fighting side-by-side with deer,” said Luna. “I believe this imagined prejudice exists far more in the minds of the generals than in the normal soldiers. And if they have such a mindset,” Luna's eyes flashed, “perhaps they do not deserve their lofty perches?”

Berry Bright became uneasy; many of the royal ponies did in Luna's presence. “Oh, o-of course, My Princess Luna! No, you're absolutely right, prejudice has no place in the Royal Guard.”

“Then the order is given,” said Celestia. “The deerfolk of the Shimmerwood will be integrated into the command structure of the Equestrian Royal Guard. I shall have a formal announcement in three days time, right here in Canterlot.”

Berry Bright bowed low. “As you command, your highness.”

“You are dismissed.” With that, Berry Bright left. The guard who lingered at the door now left as well.

“So that is what thou hast been cooking up,” said Luna. “Integrated command structure? A fine idea.”

“It only makes sense,” Celestia responded. “If the deer are to fight alongside us, they should form a single unit with ponydom. We cannot let our past or our prejudices cloud the effective use of all our resources.”

“Very true,” said Luna. She smiled. “Do I see more hope than before on thy face, Tia?”

Celestia smiled. “I am hopeful. I believe the sunshine is coming soon. So we must stand strong against the dark.” She glanced up then, and readied to receive the next court business.


Twilight Sparkle dove into the brilliance of the Element of Magic. She felt herself pass through each level, but that passage just revealed how much more depth there was each level down. She felt the cosmos singing, felt all of creation pulse and echo to the whispers of the magic that infused it. Part of her wished to stop and look around, observe the wonders she was witness to. But she kept going. There was so much more to see and touch and feel.

“The universe has magic at its edges and its center,” Fëanor said, stalking round her. “It is both framed and centered by the forces of reality. More than that, the magic in all things links them together, forming a network, a web, that transfers power from one end of the cosmos to the other.”

“I... I can feel it!” Twilight cried, eyes open and glowing. “I can feel the way everything links together. If you touch one thing, push on one thing, everything else in the universe changes!”

“So then you realize how even the smallest magic can have enormous consequences. The simple blooming of a flower can destroy a galaxy. All things ripple and change in synchronization.”

Twilight's eyes kept glowing- and the glowing spread. It flowed out of her eyes onto her head, then down her neck, then all across the body. She kept on diving, kept on pushing deeper, further, faster. She started lifting off the ground and floating gently, hovering now up and down.

Fëanor noticed this, and grinned. “Now, Twilight, aren't you more powerful than any flower?”

“I... I am!”

“Aren't you more worthy?”

“I am!”

“Aren't you more magnificent?”

“I am!”

“Then make yourself known!”

Twilight's horn erupted with a burst of whitish light. Her eyes went wide. She willed, and for an instant, all the cosmos shook. The stars went off their tracks, the planets orbited in wrong directions, all that was and all that is and all that will become all became thrall to her cry of importance. Somewhere, beyond the fabric of existence, perhaps even the Wills That Draw the World looked up from their unending pencil work and said, my, what is that? The grass grew long around her, the trees erupted with new, fresh green leaves. And her whole body became swallowed up in brilliant white, shifting, growing, blooming in a sphere that spread forever outwards to the edges of infinity.

Fëanor drew back as the white light enveloped him. “That is enough, Twilight. You've gotten their attention.”

The magic was cut off. The white light slowly shrunk away, until the only thing that glowed was Twilight's body. Her figure shone a moment more, and then the light receded, setting her down gently on the ground. She smiled at him. “I did it!” She shook her head. “Oh, I feel kind of funny.”

Fëanor stared at her with wide eyes. Then he smiled. “Excellent,” he whispered. “I wondered when that was going to happen.”

“Did you say something, Fëanor?”

“Merely marveling at how powerful you have become. You are ready.”

“Ready to defeat Reiziger with the Elements of Harmony?” said Twilight happily.

“Ah... yes, of course,” said Fëanor. “And on that note, I believe we have done enough training for today. You should get back to Ponyville.”

“Okay! Thank you so much, again, for all of this, Lord Fëanor!” She smiled and nodded, then turned round and trotted from the clearing.

When she was gone, Fëanor grinned broadly. “No, Twilight Sparkle- thank you.”


Twilight hummed contentedly as she went back to Ponyville. She still felt funny, as though the world was not quite the same color as before. Truthfully, however, she did not mind. Indeed, she felt good, somehow- better than before. If she had not been so intensely focused on this feeling, she might have noticed other strange things, like how her hoofsteps seemed to cover more ground than before, or how her eyes had gotten higher off the ground. “Ah,” she said, reaching Ponyville, “home sweet home.” She trotted into town. “Hello, everypony!” she cried, at some passing mares and stallions. They stopped- they ran into each other, so quickly did they stop. They stood and gaped at her as she walked by.

“Hey Twili... Twi...” Bon-Bon stopped and stammered.

“Oh, hey Bon-Bon! How's Lyra?”

“She's... um, she's fine, and... wow,” Bon-Bon began to back away.

“Uh, is everything all right?”

“It's just... you're... you...” Bon-Bon fidgeted. “I've gotta go.” She galloped off.

“Huh. Weird,” said Twilight. She trotted for the center of the town. Everypony stopped and stared as she went by, though she was in too good a mood to notice. She saw- “Pinkie! Oh, I'm so glad you got back safe!”

“I sure did!” cried Pinkie Pie, bouncing up and down. Her back was still all bandaged up. “I- holy moly, Twilight! What happened?”

“Something happened to Twilight?” Rainbow Dash cried, flying down. “What's wrong? I'll- whoa!” her eyes went wide.

“Twilight, whatever happened?” Rarity exclaimed.

“Did it hurt? What did it feel like?” Fluttershy asked, trotting up.

“Tarnation, Twilight! How'd you manage to do that?” Applejack cried.

“Okay, okay, what's going on?” snapped Twilight, stomping down with her left hoof.

Her five friends shared a glance. “Well, darling,” Rarity said, conjuring a mirror, “see for yourself.”

Twilight looked upon herself, and was amazed. The pony in the mirror did not look like her. Oh, she had her colors, the same lavender coat, the same dark purple mane and tail with bright pink streak run through them. Even the same purple eyes. But this pony... this pony was tall. She stood more than a head taller than all her friends now. What was more, her proportions had changed greatly. Her legs had lengthened, and grown graceful. She'd lost every last hint of her old chubbiness; she now possessed a beautiful lean torso, swelling into a strong but polite chest. Her neck had gotten longer, and on top of it her head had lengthened, ending with a new and longer, far more graceful snout. Her mane and tail had even lengthened. The only thing that had not changed were her alicorn wings; in fact, with the changes to her body, they now looked like they fit better upon her, being in better proportion to her new shape. “I...” she at first barely recognized herself. Then she realized what- who she reminded herself of. “I... I look like Cadence.”

“You look stunning!” Rarity said. “But however did you manage to make it happen?”

“I guess... I was myself this morning, but- Fëanor!” Her jaw dropped. “His training... how much stronger I've gotten! I must have become powerful enough for it to affect my body. I'm... I'm becoming more of an alicorn, more like Princess Celestia!”

“My goodness,” Fluttershy whispered. “Do you feel all right?”

“I... actually, I feel great,” said Twilight. “I feel... freer, somehow.” Her ears drooped. “But I never wanted this to happen!”

“Y'know, you ain't the only one goin' through some changes,” Applejack said. She brushed her bangs aside to show her small horn nub. “This thing's startin' to get on my nerves. I reckon it's gettin' bigger.”

“Oh, are we talking about this now?” Rarity asked. “Because I've noticed my horn getting longer. And I seem to have gotten taller- my dress hems aren't as close to the ground as they have been.” Sure enough, Rarity seemed bigger, very faintly.

“Are we all changing?” Dash cried, hooves against her head. She glanced off to the side. “Hey, Carrot Top!”

“Um, it's Golden Harvest, actually.”

“Whatever. You're totally average in every single way!”

“Hey!”

“No, we need you! Come here!”

“Um, okay,” Golden Harvest trotted to the six.

“Stand still!” said Dash. “Now everypony compare themselves to her.”

They did so, and were stunned at what they found. All of them had gotten taller. Some more than others- Applejack and Rarity had grown the most, then Pinkie, and last Fluttershy. Even Dash, who naturally was shorter, was now taller than an average pony. Fluttershy, for her part, was now leaner, and when she stood right next to Twilight they could see a similarity in their physiques.

“We're all changing,” Twilight said. “The Elements really are growing more powerful in us.”

“Amazing,” Golden Harvest said. “You're all getting-”

“That's enough, Carrot Top, we don't need you any more,” said Dash. Golden Harvest's ears drooped, and she sadly walked away. Dash grinned. “I don't know about you girls, but this pony doesn't mind getting taller one bit.”

“We're gonna be super beautiful and magical alicorns!” Pinkie cheered, bouncing up and down.

“Yeah... great...”

“What's the matter, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked.

“It's just... all this change. I don't know if I like it.”

“But it's gotta happen!” Applejack said. “If we don't get stronger, we'll never be able to summon the Rainbow!”

“I know, I know,” said Twilight, pacing back and forth. “But...” her eyes now brimmed with tears, “I love the way things were. I love when we were just... when we were just ponies. When we were just friends!”

“But dear, we've never been just ponies,” Rarity said, “at least, not since we met you.”

“We became tied up with the Elements of Harmony on your very first day in Ponyville, remember?” Fluttershy asked.

“But... but... it was never just about that!” Twilight said. “We didn't just become gods and fight dark lords and learn ancient secrets. There were parties, there were games, there were pets, there was... fun.” She sat down, ears drooped low. “I miss it, especially because it's never coming back.”

“It'll come back when Reiziger's gone, though,” said Dash.

“No, it won't,” said Twilight. “We've changed too much- we've come too far, we've seen and done too many things, to ever go back to the way things were. Equestria has changed too much for it to go back to the way it was, either. It's like... like our lives are a story, but ever since the Shimmerwood burned, it's gotten a new writer. And now however that story was going- however it was originally supposed to end- it's different, and there's no going back to the original storyline.” She sighed, then sniffled. “I miss the old story. I miss when things were simple.”

The others did not know quite what to say. There was a long and discomforting silence. Pinkie, finally, took one deep breath. “Okay!” She began to bounce in place. Music filled the air.

“A song? Now?” asked Dash.

“Yep!” cried Pinkie, and then she began to belt:

It's time to...
Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

Change, cause that's what ponies say!

Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

Because the future is better off that way!

When I was feeling sad and lonely,
Ever-oh-so blue,
My Nanna Pinkie told me,
“Fate just wants what's best for you!”
So if you're worried sick and things
Are turning towards the strange,
Relax because the world's about to change!

You gotta

Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

Change, cause that's the only way!

Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

Cause nothin' in this world can ever stay!

You know that oceans once were puddles,
And mountains just were hills!
But things grow up and things grow old,
Like little towns to Ponyvilles!
It's just the way of life and love,
Don't mourn what's gone away,
Cause what comes next is better, all the way!

You gotta
Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

Change, get up and seize the day!

Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

And don't you worry 'bout what ponies say!

“Pinkie, I...” Twilight started. “I understand what you're saying, and I do accept that things have to change, it just... it makes me sad.”

“But some things won't change, Twilight! We'll always be friends!”

“Yeah!” said Applejack. “If'n we're all getting' powerful and magical, we'll all be together.”

“And once we beat Reiziger, we can keep growing and learning as friends!” cried Dash.

“We'll never abandon each other!” Fluttershy cheered.

“And we shall always be each others' very best friends,” Rarity said brightly.

“I...” Twilight looked upon the five of them, smiling eagerly upon her. Their love and good mood proved infectious. She smiled wide. “I guess you're right!”

“That's what I'm talkin' about!” Pinkie cheered. “Now everypony!” And so the five of them joined up in one great chorus, as all of Ponyville began to dance and flip and spin:

You gotta
Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

Change, so everyone can say:

Change
Change
Change
Change
Change
For the better!

I'd never have it any other way!

“That's right!” cried Twilight. “I'd never have it any other way!”

As the music stopped the six of them drew up in one great hug.

“You girls are the best friends anypony could ask for!” Twilight cried.

“Well, I guess we do try,” said Fluttershy.

“We're unbeatable!” cried Dash.

“As long as we stick together, anything is possible,” said Rarity.

“I reckon ol' Reiziger's got nothin' to say to that,” said Applejack.

“Yeah! Super best friends forever!” Pinkie cheered. She sneezed then, and pulled out of the hug to wipe her nose. But she jolted in surprise when she looked down upon her hoof. Her snot was black.


“The changelings lost in Manehattan must be replaced,” said Reiziger upon his throne.

“I... I understand, my lord,” said Metamorph. “I do wonder, though-”

“Are you questioning me, lieutenant?”

“No, no, no, I swear,” said Metamorph, wincing as the shadows rose around his master. “It's just... my lord, surely you must have realized that these newer, quicker-growing changelings are somewhat... lacking, compared to the old stock?”

“Of course I have noticed,” said Reiziger. “The ones that grow quickly are essentially mindless. They operate wholly by smell and telepathy, and know only how to breed and feed and kill. Did you think I was not aware of this? It is all known, and I find it acceptable.”

Metamorph's heart broke a bit to hear this, but he hid it. “I... I understand, my lord. But you must realize that such drones are useless for more complex tasks.”

“A good point. Henceforth I am pulling the remaining old stock changelings from combat duty. I shall reserve them for espionage, assassinations, and command positions.”

“That seems wise, my lord.”

“My lord!”

Reiziger and Metamorph looked up. A snow white Royal Guard pony came flying cross the throne room upon tattered, greenish wings. He touched down in front of the steps before the throne, and with a shimmer he resumed his natural changeling shape.

“My lord,” he buzzed, “I bring news from Canterlot, news I believe will be of great interest to you.”

Reiziger and Metamorph shared glances. “Go on,” said Reiziger.

“Princess Celestia is preparing to integrate the command structures of the Royal Guard and the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood. In particular, she is putting into place a system where deer would command ponies, if they had the necessary qualifications.”

“Oh really,” said Reiziger, a smile crawling out across his face. “And the ponies are still ignorant of that, aren't they? They don't know?”

“No, my lord.”

“Ha ha! Ahaha! She's going to put deer in charge of ponies, and the ponies don't know!” Reiziger threw back his head and laughed again. Then he turned toward his left and shouted, “Trixie!”

“Y-Yes, my lord?” came out the voice from in the dust. Trixie rolled and writhed within the filth, blue coat stained, red eyes wide and manic.

“Are you familiar with the game of chess?”

“W-Well, not especially, my lord,” said Trixie. “We haven't really- I, I, I haven't really played much,” she hit her head with each sharp 'I'.

“It was invented by the mammoths during the last ice age, to keep themselves amused during the long, dark winters,” Reiziger said. “It has been played and studied for thousands and thousands of years. Mammoths, pronghorns, dragons, deer and more have explored the theories and the strategies of chess. Entire libraries have been written about the game.”

“A-All right, my lord.”

“One of the consequences of this long scholarship is a lengthy list of set strategies. At the core of these strategies are a predetermined move, or set of moves. These are known as 'sequences.' They can be very powerful, and very useful, in the hooves of a skilled master. However, when a master is playing another master, he must be aware of the fact that the other master knows all the sequences just as well as he does. Therefore, he cannot simply deploy them carelessly. He must be deliberate and choosy on when in a game he makes use of them, to ensure their maximum effect.” Reiziger's head tilted to the side. “Do you understand?”

“We... we think so- I think so, my lord,” Trixie hit her head again. “So there's a set of moves you've been waiting to use in the war?”

“Yes,” said Reiziger. “There is a sequence I have been keeping tucked away in the back of my fur. I had thought I would be using it later on, as a sort of penultimate blow to truly break the ponies' spirits. Now, though, I believe I shall be deploying it much sooner.” His eyes began to burn. “Yes, much sooner indeed...”

Chapter 27

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A day went by in which Twilight Sparkle adjusted to her newfound size. The changes to her daily life were mostly small, but they were many, even down to simple things like getting out of bed. She had to make sure her new horn did not scrape up the bathroom ceiling, make sure that her chairs still fit her larger form, make sure her writing desk was properly adjusted. Spike had been as stunned as all her friends when he had seen her; he had cried a bit, but she had sat beside him in the dark and snuggled close to him, and he had fallen sound asleep tucked underneath her wing.

Now the sunshine filtered through the window, and Twilight yawned herself awake. Beside her, on her bed, Spike stirred. He blinked his green reptile eyes and looked up at her. “Morning,” he said.

“Morning,” she said. “How'd you sleep?”

“Probably better than you, giant girl,” he said, and smiled.

She laughed and noogied him. “It's not that cold. I'm surprised you didn't get hot under my feathers.”

“Eh, I was fine,” he said. He clambered off the bed, but stopped and turned to look at her. “Twilight, I... I'm sorry for being so scared of you.”

She smiled. “I know, Spike. You don't have to apologize. If I were in your place, I would have been freaked out, too.”

“I... I, um,” he glanced from one side to the other, and kept looking to the left, “I love you, Twilight. You, uh, know that, right?”

She nodded. “I love you too, Spike. That's all you need to say.”

“Ha! Well in that case- gack!” He belched up a great whiff of purple smoke, one which swirled and came together as a scroll. “Oh! A letter!”

“Who's it from?”

He broke the seal and rolled open the parchment. “'My dear Twilight Sparkle, you and your five friends, as well as Spike, are cordially invited to an official presentation before the Equestrian Royal Guard in two days' time. I shall be formally creating an integrated command structure for the Guard that accommodates both deer and ponies, and I would like you all to be present. Your faithful mentor and friend, Princess Celestia.'”

“She's integrating the deer into the Guard command? That's great!” cheered Twilight. “We'll definitely go! Write her back right now, Spike.”

“Yes ma'am,” said Spike, hurrying to get some paper and a quill.


A day later, the sun shone hot upon the plains of Gildedale. Clive Croexeus stood upon the very shallow hill that marked his Waystation, the resting place of pronghorns in the Pronghorn Network. He gazed across the endless fields of golden grass, noticing the wind that blew over the full expanse. It was quite peaceful, when one got right down to things. It put him well at ease.

“Clive? I say, Clive old bean?”

“I'm here, good fellow,” Clive said, glancing round as Niles Nigellus came up from the spiral ramp that led down to the Waystation. “What is it?”

“There's a message for you, sir,” said Niles. “From Princess Celestia.”

“Is there, now?” he said, turning round. “Well, then, you'll have to let me see it.” He trotted for the ramp and followed Niles down it, down into the cavern painted with the imprints of the Dreaming. Clive took a moment, closed his eyes, and knows for just a bit the echoes of infinity. He can feel her, feel Celestia, feel the pony he has known so long, feel her in the imprint of the message she has sent. They are united, as she is with all her lovers, and though he knows he is not the first, and will not be the last, he cherishes his time with her, and has cherished it all days since its starting.

“Clive?”

“Coming,” he said, trotting to the message grotto. He stood before the well of light and watched the new report.

Clive, darling, Celestia's voice hissed and snapped, I should very much like to see how you're doing. Could you come here tomorrow afternoon, to Canterlot? I am making an important announcement. I am going to integrate the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood into the Equestrian Royal Guard, and I could use some moral support. If you're busy, of course, I'll understand. But I would like you here.

“Integrate the deerfolk into the Guard command?” said Niles. “Well, by George, that's quite a large deal. Especially given the history of deer and ponies.”

“It is indeed,” hummed Clive. “I do hope Celestia knows what she's doing. I hope she is not upsetting too many ponies.”

“Why wouldn't she know what she's doing?” Niles asked. “Obviously the ponies know their history and are at peace with it. It's a sound decision in wartime.”

“Perhaps...” hummed Clive. “But regardless, Celestia's call is not one I can easily ignore. I'll be there.”


A day later, Falalauria awakened to the sound of chirping birds outside her tent. It was a curious thing for her to wake, at least as an outsider would perceive it. Her Sight worked even in her sleep, such that she knew the moment she would wake; but still she slumbered out of consciousness, so she only knew the moment she would wake as she awoke. It was a strange sensation, but she'd made peace with it centuries ago.

Now she yawned, and stretched as she arose. Her antlers shimmered, and a gentle music filled the air. She was ready to go out and have breakfast when a gentle tapping came at her tent's door. “Hello?”

“Um, hello, Miss Falalauria, ma'am!”

She smiled. “Hello, Spike. Come in.” The little dragon toddled through the entrance, coming to a stop and glancing up at her. She hoped she wasn't too intimidating; she sat down, just in case. “What brings you here so early?”

“A message, my lady!” he said brightly, holding up a roll of parcel. “I think it's from Princess Celestia?”

Falalauria engaged her magic and the scroll rose up into the air. “Thank you, Spike. Would you like to stay for breakfast?”

“I'd love to, but I gotta get going. Twilight wants my help organizing the Languages section of the library!” He backed up. “So if you don't mind...”

“I don't mind at all, Spike. You are dismissed.” He smiled, and then ran out of the tent. Falalauria turned to the scroll. “Now what could Tia want to contact me about?” She rolled the scroll open, and she began to read. “Hmm... hmm.... hmmm... integrating the command? An excellent idea. My deer will be excited, at any rate. And I'm certain this goes well for us.”


A day later, the parade grounds of Canterlot were filled with ponies. Unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies of every shade and hue were milling all about, though most of them glanced eagerly up at the large stage settled in the stony siding of the area. There must have been more than a thousand ponies present, and more of them, pegasi of course, rested upon clouds up in the air. Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Applejack all stood upon the stage, Spike right next to Twilight. Luna was there also, as was Shining Armor. Clive the pronghorn also stood there, though he fidgeted a bit at waiting for so long. Even Magus Javier was there, standing next to Fluttershy. Standing at the back of all was Falalauria, pink silk woven like streamers through her antlers.

In a burst of rainbows and sunshine Celestia appeared upon the stage, posing regally before the cheering of the crowd. She let them cry for several moments more, then raised a hoof for silence. “My beloved subjects,” she began, her voice projecting magically to the crowd, “I have gathered you here today for an important announcement- well, you've probably guessed that already.” A chuckle rose; she smiled. “The war with the dark lord goes well, but its waging could improve. Every day, brave ponies sacrifice their strength and love and lives for all Equestria, and they need every bit of help that we can muster. In particular, they need the recognition that not only ponies are fighting on our behalf.”

A murmur rose up from the crowd.

“As most of you are aware, the white-tail deer of the Shimmerwood have been our guests in Equestria for the past few months. They have behaved as kindly and as courteously as you might expect any guest to act, but they have gone beyond even this. Those of them that are trained in combat have assisted us in battling the dark lord. At the Battle of Manehattan, scores of white-tails served bravely in defense of the city, many giving their lives to protect it. This sacrifice deserves our recognition, and our thanks.” She smiled. “But it also deserves our awareness. The white-tails are a powerful and wise fighting force. Their armor and weapons and magic are an excellent augmentation of Equestria's own defenses. It is time they formally became a part of our war effort.”

The crowd was quiet. Falalauria could tell they were confused. It was a happy sort of confusion, however, and she could not wait to see how they'd react. But then of course she could See, couldn't she? It wouldn't hurt to peek fifteen minutes into the future. She had been so concerned with helping Luna and Celestia prepare today's event, she had not given time to seeing it within her Long Sight. Now her starscape eyes expanded, wheeled- she gasped. “Oh, no!”

“Thus, I am officially announcing that, from this day forward, the deer of the Shimmerwood shall be integrated into the regular military command of the Equestrian Royal Guard. Deer and ponies will drill together, train together, fight side-by-side.”

“Tia!” cried Falalauria, dashing up behind her; those both on the stage and off it startled at the disruptive behavior. “Tia, we must call off the ceremony. Do it privately.”

“Call it off? Lala, what are you doing? I'm in the middle of this,” whispered Celestia. She turned back to the crowd. “What is more, deer with sufficient command experience will be placed in positions of authority, even over ponies.”

“Tia, tell them to leave! Tell everyone to leave, right now! We're moments from disaster!”

Celestia, with furrowed brow, ignored her. “I realize this is a dramatic step. Not in half a century have pony soldiers been under the command of a different species. However, I am confident that this arrangement will lead to the greatest, the firmest benefit, and will lead us, in all our love and goodness, towards victory.”

Ah, yes, victory- but for whom indeed?

Everypony jolted as the voice ran through their heads- all did, except for Falalauria, who merely hung her head in full defeat. The others glanced in all directions- “Look!” cried out an earth pony, and pointed up. Those on the stage followed the hoof, and gaped.

Reiziger's head floated in the air. It was enormous, at least half as big as all of Canterlot. Its antlers stretched the whole width of the city, and its gleaming, whitish teeth were taller than most towers. It smiled, and its red eyes blazed. Hello, little ponies. Sorry to block your sun.

Celestia and Luna reared back, and the world erupted into blasts of gold and silver. The entire mountain range was shaking from the power of the magic, the whole sky gleamed with light so bright that nopony could see anything else. It nearly blinded some of them, and all of them could taste the ozone generated by the power being used. Moreover, the twin blasts lingered, hanging in the air for several moments, nearly driving everypony mad.

At last, the battle magic dissipated, and the sky grew clear. You're not going to get rid of me that easily, I'm afraid. With a swirl of shadow in the sky, Reiziger's head reappeared, grinning down at them.

Celestia noticed first. “It's just a projection!” she cried out.

“He is not fully here,” said Luna next.

No, indeed, I am not. I am miles and miles and miles away. What is more, it is taking all my strength to get through your considerable wards and shields. I could not hurt you even if I wished to, and you cannot hurt me.

“Then why are you here, you jerk?” Dash shouted.

Why, I had to be here. I had to witness for myself this momentous day, this day on which the natural order of things was restored!

“Natural order?” Twilight repeated. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

The order your dear princess just gave. Deer in charge of ponies! It makes me smile. So good to see that you ponies have come back to your senses, and recognized your one, true place!

“Oh no,” Luna whispered, and felt powerless.

“Our place?” growled Shining Armor.

The place you last occupied thousands of years ago, when the association between our folk was at its strongest- and at its most proper.

A prickle ran up Twilight's spine. “Wait...” she whispered. “Wait, hold on, thousands of years ago?”

Go on, Twilight Sparkle, think it through.

“Twilight, listen, he's lying-” said Celestia, eyes suddenly wide.

Don't interrupt!

“But thousands of years ago... during the height of the deerfolk... ponies weren't sapient. They couldn't have participated in your civilization!”

Oh, of course they could have- and they did! Just not in the way you arrogant ponies would assume.

The crowd was loudly murmuring. Celestia felt rooted in place, felt powerless to stop the nightmare playing out before her. Falalauria had stood, but now she stepped backward, and then she disappeared.

“They did?” asked Fluttershy.

Who do you think plowed our fields? Who do you think waited on us at table? Who do you think lifted our heavy burdens?

The crowd went dead silent. Everypony looked up shocked and horrified into the sky. Twilight's stomach dropped. “But... but you all had ma... mag...”

Magic? Why would we waste magic on such mundane tasks? Why, when we had such a ready supply of free labor? And then in everypony's mind there came a burst of images, so vivid and so real they could not have been faked:

Ponies harnessed, pulling plows across the endless fields. Ponies hauling deer around on litters, flying litters held by pegasi. Unicorns employed as magic batteries, deerfolk draining them to fuel themselves. Ponies kept in dingy, dirty stables. Ponies being whipped for misbehaving. Newborn foals torn from their screaming mothers. Ponies inspected at sales, deerfolk looking at their legs and hooves and teeth. Ponies slathered up with ugly makeup and made to perform in circuses and freak shows.

As the images departed, Dash was trembling. “You... you used us as slaves...”

Yes, that's right. It's all you're good for, after all.

She wheeled at Javier, her face a mask of rage. “You used us as slaves!”

“I... we...” Javier backed sheepishly away.

“I don't... I can't take it!” Dash cried, and she flew off in a streak of rainbow.

“Rainbow, wait!” cried Applejack, but she was gone.

“Javier, it's not true,” said Fluttershy, tears in her eyes. “It's not true, it can't be true!”

“No, it can't!” cried Twilight. “It can't be true, because if it were, we would already have known about it! There's no way something as... as big as this could have gone unknown by ponydom for all this time! Somepony would have found out about it, and written about it!”

Oh, some ponies knew about it- isn't that right, Celestia and Luna?

With awful slowness, Twilight turned around. Celestia and Luna looked down at the surface of the stage. Twilight walked up to Celestia, trying hard to look into her eyes. “It's not true. Please, Princess Celestia, tell me it's not true.”

Celestia looked down at her. “Twilight... you must understand...”

It's not hard to understand at all! Your princesses knew from the very beginning about the deerfolk's dominion over ponies, and they hid it from you! Makes you wonder where their loyalties lie, eh?

The crowd was thrashing, shouting, screaming. Twilight jolted back. “No. No!”

“Twilight, you must understand, ponies weren't ready to know!” Celestia said. “We- we-”

“How could you do this?” Twilight started weeping. “You lied to me! Every time I've ever asked you about the history of the deerfolk- all the books you've ever given me- all lies! I trusted you and you lied to me!”

Oh, don't feel too bad, Twilight. After all, it's not as though ponies were the only species under our subjugation. More images flashed through their minds.

Antelopes forced to pay tribute. Bison shoved off of their land. Elephants made to perform at shows. Zebras sold at auction. Giraffes made to fight to the death, while cheering deer looked on. Griffins used as royal guards against their will. Breezies grown and kept as pets. Diamond dogs made to bare-knuckle-box inside a filthy ring. On and on and on.

And why not? The deerfolk were the greatest civilization ever to live upon this Earth. We were the apex of culture, the pinnacle of sophistication. Why should every other species not bend the knee to us?

“How could you?” Twilight shouted at Celestia again. She stepped backward and vanished in a whisper.

“Twilight!” cried Celestia. “Twilight, come back! Please come back!”

Fluttershy was weeping. Applejack had sat down hard upon the stage. Pinkie Pie laid down upon her stomach, hooves over her ears. Rarity stood frozen in pure shock. Rage and fury came out from the crowd now. Some were throwing cans and bottles at the stage. Javier, like Falalauria before him, teleported far away.

Oh my, it seems I've killed the mood. The massive head was smiling broadly. Well, I did keep my pledge, didn't I? No harm done. Farewell, my little slaves! So good to see you back in the harness and back under the lash again! In a slow unspooling of black smoke, the head broke up and dissipated into empty air.

“Orders, your highnesses?” asked Shining Armor.

“I... I...” Celestia kept shaking her head back and forth.

“Allow the crowds to disperse,” said Luna flatly. “See to it that they do not hurt each other.” She glanced up at the sky. “The pegasi that were airborne... it is too late to catch them, isn't it?”

“It is,” said Shining Armor.

“So there will be no censoring this, then,” said Luna. “General Shining Armor, please see that nopony is harmed today.”

He snapped off a salute. “Will do, princess.” He started trotting off... but then he stopped, and turned around. “How could you?”

Luna closed her eyes and hung her head. “Please do thy duty, general.”

Shining Armor's eyes grew narrow, but he followed his orders all the same.

Chapter 28

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Luna gently rapped her hoof upon the door. “Sister?” she said softly. Silence followed. Luna knocked upon the door again. “Celestia, wilt thou not come out?” This time she spoke louder; still there was not any answer from within her sister's chambers. “Tia?” Luna asked, this time the loudest of them all. Finally, when she this time was not responded to, Luna sighed. She tried the door, but unsurprisingly she found it locked. She used her magic, felt the lock within the door's mechanics, and undid it. Pushing the door open she walked into the softly carpeted antechamber.

It was splendidly decorated, as was most of Canterlot and all the Palace of the Sun. Gentle overlays of gold and blue enamel wrapped around the pillars, a large and lovely fireplace was carved from stone, furniture of ornate make was scattered through the space. Still, Celestia was not here. Luna trotted through the room, to the other door, and entered into the next room, the bedroom.

At last, here was Celestia. She lay flat on her back upon her giant pillared bed, long white legs drawn up against her chest and hips. Her shimmering aurora mane and tail were 'leaking' off the bed, rippling upon the carpet like twin fountains never ending. Luna drew up to her sister's side. “Sister?” she said gently.

A few moments of silence followed. Then, Celestia said softly, “We are fools.”

Luna tried to say something. Then she reconsidered, and almost said something else. She reconsidered that as well, and finally, she sighed. “Yes,” she said. “Well-meaning fools, but fools regardless.”

“I am an idiot!” Celestia threw up her front leg. “I am an absolute idiot. I may as well have been holding an orb, a magical orb that makes its holder into an idiot- and I may as well have been holding it for sixteen hundred years!”

“I would not be so harsh. All the same, our errors- yours included- have been vast.” Luna climbed upon the bed, laying down beside her larger sister. “Tia, why didst thou not tell the truth about the deerfolk in my absence? I have always wondered that. I understood keeping it from ponies in the early days- things were too chaotic, the deer were too close at hand- but surely, some time in the past thousand years it became safe for them to know?”

Celestia stared deep into the ceiling paintings. “I suppose... because it was convenient,” she said softly. “I kept lying because I had lied in the past, and nothing bad had happened as a result. Oh, it wasn't physically convenient- I had to keep on wiping memories and rewriting history books and covering up archaeological sites- but it was... spiritually convenient, I guess. Equestria was peaceful and happy not knowing ponies were once slaves. Why change things?”

“I can understand,” said Luna.

“But all it did, in the end, was make things worse,” said Celestia. “I think, in fact, that our lie has done more damage than the deerfolk's slaving.”

Luna glanced aside a moment, wincing as she did. “I... called a meeting of the Royal Council. Almost half did not show up, and those that did told me they did so only to relay their displeasure. There have also been reports of guardsponies leaving their posts.”

“I can't blame anypony,” said Celestia. “Their rulers have lied to them for one and a half thousand years.”

“At the very least they are not forgetting about Reiziger,” said Luna. “They seem to be organizing defenses of their own cities and towns at a local level. The Council likewise. They seem at least to be determined to keep fighting the war- just without us.”

“Maybe it's for the best. Maybe we deserve to be forsaken. We are the greatest sinners in the land.”

Luna scooted closer to Celestia, moving til she was right up against her sister. Leaning in, she put a gentle kiss upon her sister's alabaster cheek. “Well, Tia, know that I shall not abandon thee.” She chuckled. “I have nopony else to turn to, after all.”

Celestia gave a bitter laugh. “We're all alone again, Lulu. Maybe more alone than ever.”

“As long as we are not apart, we shall not be alone.”

Celestia nuzzled up to Luna. “I suppose thou art correct.”


The white-tails formed a ring around their camp, hundreds strong and wearing all their silver battle armor. Ines stepped forward, scarlet eyes reflecting all the fires of the torches carried by the mob. “Please,” she said, soft but firm, “disperse.”

“Or what?” an earth pony cried out. “Are you gonna enslave us again?”

“Get out of our town!” a pegasus exclaimed.

“Technically we are on the outskirts of your town, on land that the princesses have given us.”

“So you admit it! You and the princesses are in cahoots!”

“I bet they're conspiring to enslave us again!”

“Get out!” a pony threw a bottle; it flew and smashed against Ines' antler. She winced from impact, but she held her ground.

“Listen to me!” Ines cried. “The Herd Lord has wormed himself into your mind. I have researched this about caribou: their telepathy can plant thoughts so persuasive you believe you have thought them yourself. You must resist! You know we mean you no harm.”

“Liars!”

Another bottle flew and cracked upon a deer's long antler tines. The pony crowd was growing ever more unruly. <Shall we attack?> one of the white-tails asked, speaking Laewtil.

<No,> said Ines. <No, we... we must... we must- I know!> her eyes began to gleam. The other deer caught on her plan and stood more firm against the ponies present. A gleam of orange energy began to build amongst them, growing just as all the anger of the ponies reached its apex. They were about to charge, they started forward- but the white-tails burst out arcs of orange that came out upon the ponies, washing them in dawnlike light.

The ponies skidded to a stop. Bon-Bon shook her head. “What were...” she glanced at Ines yet again. Her eyes grew narrow. “You... enslaved...”

“Please, return to your homes,” said Falalauria, coming up behind the deer. Tall and golden-hued and lovely now she stood above all others, ivory antlers shimmering with power. Her starscape eyes were gently drifting over all the mob. “Please, I ask you. Do not make things difficult.”

Grumblings rose from unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies; however, all the fight was out of them. One by one they drifted off at first, until at last the mass broke totally apart, sloughing slowly back into the edges of the town.

Falalauria let out a sigh. <I am glad there was no violence.>

<Lucky, too,> said Ines. <I'm just happy we were able to cut their wrath through our Gift of Honesty.>

<I doubt the effects will last long, however,> said a white-tail buck. He loudly sniffed. <The air is thick with the stink of the Herd Lord's magic. He has woven his spells powerfully. No deer and nopony can trust anyone now.>

<I can hardly blame them for being upset, either,> said a white-tail doe. <Their princesses have lied to them, and all this time they have been harboring those who once used them as chattel.>

<They should be furious,> said Falalauria. She sighed, and turned away. <We have much to answer for, even now.>

<Was it really that bad, my lady?> Ines asked. <Were we that bad?>

<We were,> said Falalauria. <Indeed, Reiziger glossed over the more vicious details. He did not mention the experiments, the breeding programs, the pogroms, the herd cullings.> She sniffed. <Sometimes I think the Wills That Draw The World allowed the Herd Lord to rise.>

<My lady!>

<Allowed him to rise and allowed him to bring about the end of the deerfolk... to cleanse the Earth of us.>

The white-tails gathered did not speak a while. Finally one said, <The ponies will be back, that much is certain.>

<My lady,> Ines said, <perhaps we should leave.>

<No. We promised to protect these ponies, and protect them we shall. We must, if we are to balance the scales.> Falalauria turned back toward her tent. <Keep a guard around the camp. I must consult the future further.>

<What have you Seen, my lady?>

<Shifting,> she replied. <I still see a happy ending, a defeat for Reiziger... but it seems less stable now, and other futures are now growing in coherence.> She shook her head. <It's very strange, really. I've never been so uncertain, even when I still maintain some certainty.> She chuckled. <I suppose I shall have to have faith. Isn't that what Tia says?>


The clouds that bunched and bundled over Ponyville were thick and not-quite-white. No rain had been scheduled, but those clouds, so many of them now, did carry in them hints of thunderheads. Uncertainty was in them- danger too. They were the clouds, as any weather pony might attest, that were most difficult to manage. They liked to snarl, to bite.

Rainbow Dash could feel the lightning in them, waiting to be birthed. She was enmeshed in one right now, covered everywhere in cloudy shrouding silence. Even as she laid there on her back, she batted at the cloudy siding with her hoof, drawing up some sparks, running those in currents up her leg and down her chest and withers. It was a good reflection of her mood. She wanted, now, to throw some of this lightning at most anypony- especially the princesses.

Absurd- to hit the princesses? It was madness, and was probably illegal. “I don't care!” she cried. They'd lied to her! They'd lied to everypony, and who knew if they had only lied about the deer? She should have been more trusting, should have thought upon the many times Celestia and Luna had been truthful, but the snakes of doubt were sinking fangs into her heart, filling it with poison that had blackened all her judgment. “Who else is lying? W-What if Twilight's in on it?” It was a crazy, wild thought, but it deserved consideration.

It may be said that some of Dash's own true spirit worked against her here. She was the Element of Loyalty, and now the loyalty she'd shown to so many around her- friends, rulers, allies- had been shaken. The power in her heart, the piece of Harmony she bore, was flaring, flashing, writhing in confusion and in pain. She could barely think straight now; she rubbed her head, she struggled and she snuggled up within her cloudy catacomb. She dragged her hooves against her face.

“How could they?” Was Reiziger, after all, the true face of the deerfolk? Were they nothing but a bunch of tyrants and destroyers? She couldn't believe a thing, she couldn't believe anypony now, no matter what they said. All she wanted was the truth! The truth, the truth, the-

Truth.

Dash's head snapped up; she raised an ear. “Wha?”

You are only able to hear my words right now if you are thinking a certain sort of thought; all others cannot hear. You are thinking that you can trust no one, least of all the rulers whom you so long believed in. You are thinking you are tired of being lied to. You are thinking that you want the truth.

Dash winced as images came streaming through her mind. Even as they started in a jumbled mess, they swiftly spread out and aligned. She could discern what they were doing: showing her a place, and landmarks and directions that would help her get there.

Well, if you want the truth- if you want an end to lies- I shall give it to you! Come to this place I am showing you. Be here by midnight. I shall strip the lies away, and reveal the honest nature of things. Tick tock.

Reiziger's projected voice dispersed. His words, however, echoed deep through Dash's mind. She could not banish them and their seductive offering. Standing up, she flapped her wings and fluttered to the edges of the cloud. “Crazy,” she muttered. “There's no way I'm gonna-”

Even as she watched, however, a bunch of ponies far below stopped speaking to each other, turned, and galloped off, heading out of town. She knew instinctively where they were going.

“I... they have no idea what they're getting into,” she said, ignoring that she did not know much better than they. Writhing indecision gripped her but she finally arrived at a conclusion. “I guess I'd better go see that they don't get hurt.” This, at least, was what she told herself.


Fëanor began to pace. It had been half an hour since the usual time when he and Twilight Sparkle trained, but she had not appeared. He bounced his head from side to side, glancing ambient magic off his antlers. He could feel a general unease, a tide of darkness swelling at the edges of perception. That, of course, was not surprising, given how the Herd Lord had infected all the land. Still, he thought he could detect some sharper currents of concern. What was the matter?

“You!”

“Ah, Twilight,” he said, turning. “I am glad-”

A blast of purple power hurtled at him. He only barely threw a shield up; even so the sheer force of the shot caused him to fly across the clearing. Rolling spinning twisting he bent round and forced himself to stand, antlers flared with golden light. “Twilight!” he exclaimed.

“You!” and there she was, graceful and resplendent and supremely terrifying in her semidivine way. Her eyes were flashing white, her horn was crackling with its magic strength. She flapped her wings and snorted from her nostrils; was there fire there?

“Twilight, whatever is wrong?”

“You enslaved my species!” She fired off another burst of magic, scraping off the grass and burning up the air. Fëanor this time remained in place, shield sufficient to absorb most of the blast; what burnt around him, though, went on and vaporized the trees for several measures back. He arched an eyebrow- she'd grown powerful indeed.

Still, there were more pressing matters. “Ah,” he said, “so you found out about that.”

Twilight's jaw dropped open. “You mean you're not even going to deny it?”

“Why should I? It's the truth.”

“But... but... you... everything I...”

Fëanor teleported beside her, glanced fatherly down at her. “I told you about this, Twilight, remember? That day outside the zebra's hut?”

“You... you...” she slowly shook her head all back and forth. At last, at length, she turned and stared into his golden eyes. “You said you just shared your culture. You said you advanced it, that was all!”

“And I also said that the things we did would, to lesser cultures, have seemed oppressive. You all- not just ponies, but zebra and antelope and giraffes and griffins and all the rest- were in substantial need of education, education and edification. That is what we provided. Our methods, admittedly, were harsh at times.”

“You think forcing ponies to work as pack animals is education?” Twilight snapped.

“We exposed you to concepts and ideas you would use later- and you have!” Fëanor swept out his front leg. “Think of this grand country you have built, this great Equestria. It would not have been possible without the things that ponies learned from the deerfolk. The whole of the modern world would not be possible without the deerfolk's intervention.”

“But... but you put us in chains, you whipped us, I saw it from Reiziger!”

“To a certain degree this is true,” said Fëanor. “However, Twilight, consider our perspective. At the time our civilization reached its apex, you ponies were primitive. You had not learned to speak or write or reason. We wanted you to have a role- wanted all folk to have a role- but you were not suited to be full participants. We gave you roles that were proper to you, given your evolutionary level.”

“I...”

“Consider the dogs you ponies keep. Would you let them operate a post office, or run a farm?”

“I... no, but ponies were sapient back then. Dogs aren't.”

“Sapient, but not competent. Not ready- not yet.”

“It just... it just doesn't seem right...”

“I know you see it that way, because it was your species on the receiving end. But if you had been in our position, and we in yours, you would have done the same thing. I assure you.”

Twilight swiveled up a purple eye to him. “Did you own any... ponies? Any slaves?”

“Yes,” said Fëanor. “My household kept a staff of about fifty. I treated them well, I assure you.”

“And you wouldn't try doing it again, would you? Enslaving us?”

“Oh, heavens no! Not now,” he said. “You are a competent race now. You can speak and write and reason. You deserve to be approached as equals, and so that is how we now approach you. Circumstances have changed, and so the behavior of the deerfolk has changed. What was once acceptable no longer is. Surely you can appreciate that.”

“I... I guess so.” Twilight sat down hard, and sighed. “If I had asked you, point blank, if the deerfolk had been slavers, would you have told me?”

“Yes,” said Fëanor. “You deserved to know. All ponies deserve to know.”

“Well you're right! We do!” Twilight stood up and began to pace. “We should have known more than a thousand years ago! Right at the start of Equestria! At least you wouldn't have lied to me!” Her eyes grew narrow. “Not like Celestia...”

Fëanor sighed in a patient, paternal sort of way. He came close and he patted on her shoulders. “Celestia... has often thought she knows best. Even when she was a student, when she became confident of something it grew very difficult to change her mind. It is a flaw of hers.”

“It is... I guess.”

Twilight could not see the smile on Fëanor's face. “Now, now, Twilight, I certainly don't want you angry at Celestia- even if she has lied to you for your entire life.”

“I know, but it's just so hard not to be.”

“Well it's only natural, that is true.” He drew her up against him. “For now, however, I should at least like to resume your training a bit. The Herd Lord has landed quite a blow upon Equestria. Worse attacks should soon follow. You must be ready, and you cannot rely on anyone but me.”

Twilight's eyes grew hard. “No, you're right- I can't.” She pulled away from Fëanor, but only so that she could bow. “My lord, what's next?”


Twilight in its oranges and purples was now falling on the field amid the high and craggy peaks. It was a mountain field with heavy ranges all about it; however, it had an easy trail that led to it, so going up was not so hard. As Dash descended from the clouds her sharp eyes saw a steady stream of ponies coming up the path into the open space. Unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies of every size and shape and hue came up the path not knowing what might come upon them. Dash, for her part, landed on a ledge that overlooked that open space. A whisper in her heart held back her full participation.

No, not a whisper- it was a yelling that was screaming in her heart, telling her that she should not have come. But then again another part of her was eager to observe what might transpire. What could she do? What should she do? At least now she was here. Applejack would tell her to turn back. Fluttershy would not even have come. Pinkie Pie would wait with eagerness. Rarity would have considered, but turned back. Twilight would have sensed the danger long ago. But now there was just her- just Rainbow Dash, bold and brave and lover of the lightning. She would dare the darkness, if she could.

The lightning. She clicked her tongue and felt the sparks upon it. The lightning had not ever left her, not since Niles Nigellus and his pronghorn friends had opened her up to its sparking flashing crackling radiance. The lightning- which was being- which was The Dreaming- which was lightning- sometimes came to her in odd occurrences, like when Scootaloo was talking to her about gentle things, or like when Twilight invited her over for tea and she was drinking a soft cup from Spike's proffered kettle and all of a sudden everything was sparkling and ablaze within her eyes- the lightning curled and sparked around her life, as it had for years since she had first become aware of it. She could feel the lightning now, read its moods as it went snaking through the heart of all the ponies gathered far below. For all things were a part now of the lightning, of the Lightning.

“Welcome!”

Dash's eyes came swiveling around into the center of the gathering, a clear spot where had suddenly appeared “Trixie?”

“Welcome, welcome, one and all, I say, welcome to the beginning of the End.”

Yes, there she was, or there was what was left of her. Dash winced. Trixie was a wreck. Her coat, a gentle blue, had darkened to the shade of midnight, and Dash could even see the craggles of a blackness on her hooves and on her forehead which then stretched up to her horn. Her teeth, so white, were sharp now, and her eyes were glinting with a redness much like they'd possessed when Trixie had obtained the Alicorn Amulet, though now the red was brighter, and much more infernal. She wore a pitch black cloak upon her back, and as she threw her front legs wide it billowed and it blossomed to display her drama.

“So many!” Trixie cried, one hoof on her heart. “It warms our bones to see that so many would forsake their princesses. But then, the princesses have forsaken you, haven't they? They forsook you long ago!”

“Yeah!” cried one pony aloud.

Trixie's horn went sparkling, and the brush about her caught into a blazing flame. “So you've come here because, at the end of the day, you had nowhere to turn. That's it, isn't it? You dove into the very teeth of your enemy because everywhere else, everypony else, had abandoned you.”

The ponies scattered all around her did not say a word. They glanced with sideways worries at each other, fearful and afraid, ashamed, to some degree, of what they'd done. Yet none of them went galloping away, instead they kept themselves all rooted to the space. They stood in place. They stood in place and did not move as all the space and fire blazed around them beckoning them all to run because what was transpiring within this space was utterly unholy. Yet all their desolation and despair kept all of them in place.

“Well far be it from us to keep you from your prize,” said Trixie. The flames reached higher now, and wrapped about her blazing and were also now a violent red, casting scarlet radiance upon the blackened space. Trixie turned onto the flames and bowed. “Come, my lord!”

The flames went flaring, and then Reiziger stepped out of them, blacker even than the blackest reaches of the night. Fire licked his hooves and burned within his crimson eyes and flared upon his forking, bramble-nested antlers. He grinned, showing all those awful razor teeth. “Hello, my little ponies.”

“Bow!” cried Trixie, horn alight with flickering red magic. “Bow before your lord!” The ponies gathered round her did not wish to bow, but with a blazing of her horn she forced all of them to their knees.

“Oh, my poor, dear little ponies,” Reiziger said, tut-tutting as though he were a disappointed father. “How out of sorts you must be to have turned to your greatest enemy for comfort in this time of lies and deceit. You cannot trust your princesses. You cannot trust the Elements of Harmony. You certainly cannot trust the deerfolk. What can you trust? Who can you trust?” He let the silence hang, then said, “Well, me of course! Because I shall be honest with you, in a way that none of these others will.”

“Hooray!” cried Trixie, gesticulating wildly.

“You've come this far for the truth, after all, and so the truth is what I'll give you. The truth, then?” His burning eyes grew narrow. “The truth, ponies, is that you are worth nothing.”

Dash's heart dropped to her stomach.

“Twilight Sparkle was right about one thing: we could have done all the labor we used you for with magic. It might not even have been hard. I believe we did do it with magic, once upon a time. So then, of course, you ask yourselves: why? Why bring an entire race under subjugation? Why treat every other hoofed species so poorly? The answer is that we treated you- treated them- only as well as they deserved.” He chuckled. “You ponies were an accident, a mistake the Wills made. Look at you, stupid stunted miniature horses. Small of body, small of mind, small of spirit, serving no vital function in the grandness of the world! You ought to thank the deer when you see them. We gave you purpose where you had none, because you have no purpose.”

“Fill our hearts, O Reiziger, O Herd Lord!” Trixie cried.

“And I find it important, for a creature's self-worth, that they know their purpose, their telos as the old philosophers might say. The reason they exist. You ponies were created without purpose, so purpose is what the deerfolk gave you. But other things- better things, higher things- are assigned purposes directly by the Wills That Draw The World. I, of course, am among that rank. Even so, I confess my thoughts have been changing of late. Once upon a time, when I first set out to consume the world, I sought merely to rule it. I fancied myself a dark lord, one of a number of dark lords who had come and gone over the millennia. Why, you ponies even had a dark lord up in the Crystal Empire. Dark lords are nothing special.”

“Tell us more, my lord! Enliven our hearts!”

“I have realized now that my purpose is far greater, far grander, than any mere dark lord's.” His eyes grew wide. “Do you dare to guess what it might be, little ponies?” He bent low to a trembling, weeping unicorn and cupped her 'neath the chin with his black hoof. “Do your lowly minds conceive of such radiance?”

“Tell us, we beg you!”

Reiziger smiled. “My purpose is to be the End of everything. I am Hunger, the endless hunger that devours without replenishing. And I am... Death. I am the True Reaper, the Unlife that was always destined to come.”

“All hail the End!” cried Trixie, eyes ablaze and wild. “All hail Death!”

“That's not to say I can't have a little fun in the meantime. In the end, however, I am the End. I am Not. I am the sunset and the moonbreak of this world and all worlds, all stars, all galaxies! All will disappear into the dark, and at last there will be nothing left.”

“All hail Death!”

Reiziger stood up to his full height, shadows surging all around him. “So then, my little ponies... that is the truth. That is what you came for, is it not? Enjoy it, for it is the last that you will know. This is your end, too.”

Shadows burst and rippled out of him, and then he was not caribou was not a deer at all but was a darkness without ceasing and a form that had no form and there were far too many eyes and far too many antlers and too many too too many teeth- Dash looked away.

When her instincts told her it was safe to look again, she peered over her hooves. The shadows drew together and formed Reiziger again. Where the blackness left, the ponies lay, stone dead, dull gray, gaunt and thin and drained of vital life. Reiziger's eyes flickered, and he smiled. “Ah, full strength- how long has it been since I was this powerful? Not since that final battle, all those years ago.”

“All hail Reiziger, Lord of All the Herds!” cried Trixie, dancing, gibbering and slobbering with wild eyes. “We are blessed to bear witness to the End!”

“Ugh!” cried Dash, galloping off of the ledge. “What was I thinking?” She'd truly been a fool to even consider listening to Reiziger. She'd just seen what happened to anypony who put any trust in him. “I've gotta get out of here.”

Oh, no, please stay. I went to all this trouble to lure you here.

Dash jolted. In a flicker Reiziger was standing right in front of her! “You!” she cried.

“Hello, Rainbow Dash. I'm glad you got my summons.”

“Yeah, right!” a snarl of lightning up her wings. “I only came because I wanted to protect those other ponies!”

“Well you failed,” said Reiziger with a wide smile. “Moreover, you would not have known where they were going in the first place if you yourself had not received my message- if you yourself were not having the same thoughts as they!”

“I... I...”

“Perhaps the Element of Loyalty is not so loyal as she thinks.”

“I'm loyal enough to turn away from you! I'm outta here!” She flapped her wings and hovered up-

“Do wait a bit,” said Reiziger. “I have found favor with you, Rainbow Dash. You are bold and vigorous and arrogant. You remind me of me, in a way. So I have an offer.”

Dash kept hovering- but she did not fly away.

“You heard me, just now. I spoke the absolute truth, as I said I would. I am Death, and my victory is assured. Equestria will fall very soon now. I have dithered and bided my time, but it was all so that I could focus on regaining the strength I had lost. Now that I am at full power I have no further use for this country, and I shall presently wipe it away. Then all the planet will fall, then all the universe! In the end I shall see to it that everything dies. Even you, even Trixie.” His head cocked to the side. “But, as I said, I am fond of you. So I make this offer: become my servant, fight for me, and I shall not drain you dry, I shall not wipe you away. My annihilation of the cosmos will take a long time yet- decades, centuries. You could be at my side all the while. It is very likely that you would live out your natural life and die your natural death. You would die, but in your own time. It is a luxury few others in the universe will be afforded.”

“I...”

He smiled. “There is no escape from me, Rainbow Dash. I shall see you die in time. But I offer you a kind of freedom, in exchange for your service.” He smiled broader, and his eyes glowed crimson. “What do you say?”

“I...” but then the image of her friends all bunched together came to her. “I say no way! The Elements of Harmony are gonna take you down once and for all!” With that she blasted off in streaks of rainbow, hurtling at blinding speed so far and fast away that none could catch her, none could hope to-

Regrettable, but predictable.

A band of shadow suddenly appeared around her middle, clamping closed her wings against her sides. With a scream Dash fell, hurtling downward-downward through the sky. A crimson glow then overwhelmed her and it caught her up, causing her to slow, making her descend more gently until finally she was just dozens of feet from the ground-

At which point the glow winked out. Dash fell all of the remaining distance and then landed hard, her back leg popping as it broke. She howled in pain, rolling over as her body curled itself in agony. Reiziger came stalking toward her.

“You ponies think you're so great,” he hissed. Crimson lightning crackled in-between his antler tines. “You change the weather.” That reddish, hellish lightning blasted out and coursed all over Rainbow Dash, causing her to writhe and scream in pain. “You grow the plants.” More lightning and more pain. “You shepherd the animals.” More lightning came.

Dash suddenly rolled up onto her hooves. Even on three legs she hurtled off, a flicker and a blur. But Reiziger's red magic caught her and then jerked her back.

“So fast! Do you know why pegasi are so fast? Do you know why earth ponies are so strong? Do you know why unicorns have such great magic?” The crimson power smashed her in the ground and covered her in dirt. “It's because my kind, my civilization, found those traits desirable, so we controlled each pony type's reproductive patterns!” His eyes went wide. “We bred you! We bred you like dogs!”

More lightning. Dash could taste the sizzling electricity within her mouth and tongue, so different than the lightning that she knew. This lightning had no life, had nothing at all was nothing had no spark no breath no brightness was but death.

“You are pack animals and beasts of burden and it's all you'll ever be! Indeed, you are better slaves than even I could have hoped. You ponies hold the powers of the environment in your hooves! You control the natural world, and you could change it however you wish. But you haven't! You've kept things exactly as they were in my time, in the time of your owners! Only the best of slaves continue to serve their masters when they're dead!”

“P-Please,” Dash cried between her groans of pain. “Please!”

“And all this time and trouble has only revealed how pathetic you are, and how much you deserve the bridle and the harness and the yoke! In fact, when Equestria is mine, before I eat the survivors I think I shall re-enslave them for a decade, just to be cruel!”

At last, the lightning stopped. Dash's body steamed as she rolled over, looking up at Reiziger.

He smiled down at her. “But I have something special in mind for you. I am in need of a destroyer, something that can wield considerable power. You fit my desires perfectly.” A crimson shimmer appeared next to him. Out of it appeared a silver bit and bridle, glittering with malice. “So come then, my faithful steed: let's get you harnessed.”

A Note on Immortality

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A Note on Immortality

Many of the supporting cast of Besides the Will of Evil are, if not perfectly immortal, then at least functionally so. Celestia and Luna derive their immortality from their divinity- as do Cadence and Twilight, though the latter has not made use of her immortality yet, and the former may have, or may not have- the show does not give us clues to her age. The various powerful deer- Falalauria, Fëanor, the three red deer sisters, Nordeshang- have achieved functional immortality through their considerable magical power. Reiziger is immortal from the vein of black nothingness that runs out of him.

What must this be like? It is worth pondering, for a moment, on the timespans not merely in this story but in the show itself. While the Dangerous Business version of Equestria has been around for about two thousand years, the show's Equestria is at least a millennium old, and seems to be noticeably older if we take our cues from the settled nature of Celestia and Luna's rule in 'old time' episodes like “The Crystal Empire” and “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” On these notes, Celestia's commentary that she merely found it convenient to keep lying to her ponies seems, at first glance, incredulous. How convenient could it be to hide the truth for two thousand years?

Yet consider your own life. How much do your days and weeks and months run together? Time slips by like a rushing river. The weeks become months become years become decades. It is not a stretch to consider that the decades might become centuries, and the centuries millennia. Even with an infinity of time, it would seem that a lack of time becomes a problem. Indeed, with all the time in the world, a lack of time seems to grow more acute than it ever could with limited time. Moreover, even a small problem may become something that is put off with too much time. Imagine the temptation to put off a large problem indefinitely, until the ending of the world makes it no longer a problem at all?

None of this is to excuse Celestia and Luna's actions. I offer it merely for the sake of perspective. It is also a warning, I suppose, for the Mane Six, as they stand on the threshold of godhood and immortality themselves. Be wary, girls, of thinking you can deal with a problem later. Later may be too late.

Chapter 29

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A flash, a flicker, and then Rarity awoke. Sitting up in bed she shook herself to clear the webs of sleep. “Oh my... what a terrible dream I was having,” she muttered. Pulling off her sleeping mask from where it perched atop her alabaster head, she rubbed her lovely sapphire-like eyes and shook her violet mane in its great ringlet.

She laid back upon her pillow, but removing her mask signified what she now knew deep down: she would not be returning to her sleep this night. Something in her mind and heart had waked her thoroughly.

“Oh, what now?” she muttered. Sitting up and crawling from beneath her well-tucked covers, Rarity formed a cocoon of comforter about herself as she sat up atop the bedclothes. She sniffed a breath, as dainty and as ladylike as she could manage as she wracked her brain for greater understanding. “I suppose I could read, or- oh, yes!” Now was perfect. She settled deeper into all the covers on her bed, opened wide her eyes, and Looked.

Stars began to flicker in and out of shape within her deep black pupils. First she gazed once more into the past. She looked upon the history of Old Equestria, upon the strange and feudal landscapes that had once been populated by those ancient lords and ladies of the realm. The shadows of deep forests, the glimmer of bright steel, the menace of the highways and the deep roads passed before her infinite consideration. Rarity next turned her gaze to her own time. She Looked upon the vast stretch of Equestria, saw the lights of Las Pegasus, saw with sadness all the wrath and devastation in Manehattan, saw the blackened rainbows billowing from Cloudsdale. Canterlot, at least, was still intact. Its white towers and gold-and-purple spires brought a sense of comfort to her.

Rarity, her normal eyes returning, breathed in deep. “Well,” she told herself, “here goes.” Stars appeared once more within her eyes, and then she turned her Sight into the future. All at once she was hit by a haze, a shadow crossing over all she Saw as though she had entered a dense fog cloud. She scrunched her nose, she blinked her eyes, she wished that she could-

And then she could. Her eyes grew open huge, and now they were completely black and filled with stars. Her eyes looked every bit like those of Falalauria. Rarity remained upon her bed, sitting quietly, as starscapes passed between and out her eyes. Minutes passed, first in bunches, then in dozens. All the quiet of the Carousel Boutique at night remained unbroken as its owner sat in silence, taking in the vision that had gripped her.

At last, with a shaking, Rarity returned to normal. She blinked hard. “Oh my,” she muttered. “Oh my... could that have been... was that real?” And yet she knew it was, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Oh dear,” she whispered. She crawled out of her bed. Trotting to the door, she went into the hall and down it, gently opening another door into another room. This was decorated in a style much like hers, but not so bright, not so overwhelming. It was more subdued, including the sleigh bed within the corner, where Sweetie Belle currently slept. Rarity came to her sister, and then nudged her gently. “Sweetie Belle?” She nudged again. “Sweetie Belle, do wake up.”

“Hmm? Mrgh...” with a yawn the little unicorn's eyes flitted open. “Rarity?” Her sister's face made her sit up. “Rarity, is everything okay?”

“It... I suppose so,” said Rarity. She smiled gently at her. “Sweetie Belle, you know that if you were in trouble, I would help you, yes?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And you know that if others are in trouble, I would help them?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You...” Rarity sighed. “You know that, if it were possible for me to help everypony in Equestria, I would help them, yes?”

“Uh, duh,” said Sweetie Belle. “You're the Element of Generosity! It would be weird if you didn't want to help everypony you could.”

Rarity turned away. “Yes... yes it would.”

Sweetie Belle craned out her head. “Rarity, are you sure you're okay?”

“I am now.” She kissed her on the forehead. “Go back to sleep, Sweetie Belle.”

“Okay,” she said, and nestled back into her covers.

Rarity went back to the doorway, but stopped within it. “I love you, Sweetie Belle.”

“Love you too.” The little pony soon was fast asleep again.


Tip-tap

It was a gentle, quiet sound. However, Applejack was used to gentle, quiet sounds: the mewing of a kitten, the rustle of the leaves, the creaking of the wood that made the barn. To be a farmer was to specialize in gentle things, for such things often made the largest difference.

Tip-tap

So when the gentle tapping came again, it was enough to wake her from her sleep. “Wha?” she said, yawning as she sat up in her bed.

Applejack?” The voice was muffled, but still clear.

“What in tarnation?” Applejack popped out of bed and turned toward her windows. Her eyes went wide: Rarity was standing on the roof outside. “Rarity, what in the wide wide world of Equestria are you doin' out there?” she asked as she went to the window, opening it up.

“Hoping to get your attention,” said Rarity. “May I come in?”

“Well sure,” she said, standing aside. When Rarity had entered, Applejack said, “I know Twilight wanted us all to meet here in the mornin', but I don't think she meant this early.”

“Oh, I know,” said Rarity. “But I needed to see you- just you. Our paths are about to diverge.”

“Wha?”

Rarity took a deep breath. “Do you know how I have had trouble with my Long Sight? My Gift of Generosity? Particularly, I could never See into the future.”

“I recall that.”

Another breath. “Well... not any more. I've had a vision, Applejack, a vision of the future. I know how everything is going to end. I know how Reiziger's war plays out all the way to its conclusion.”

Applejack's eyes nearly popped out of her head. “No way!”

“Yes!”

“Tell me!”

Rarity told her. The whole explanation took nearly as long as the original vision, dozens of minutes passing as Rarity related what she'd Seen in overwhelming detail. Applejack's eyes kept on getting wider, her jaw kept opening still more until she thought that it would hit the ground.

Finally, at long last, Rarity was done. Applejack sat down hard on the ground. “Lordy.”

“I know.”

“Well I'm glad it turns out well in the end. But gettin' there...”

“I... I know.”

Applejack abruptly stood and went to Rarity and wrapped her in a hug. “Are you sure there's no other way?”

“I am as certain of this as I've ever been of anything. This is the future, Applejack, the True Future. Lady Falalauria told me, that first night we met her in the Shimmerwood, that I might be able to someday See it even better than she. Well, I have- here it is.”

“We gonna tell the others?”

“No. It seems to hinge on them acting without awareness of it. Oh, I know it's hard... now I know how Falalauria must feel all the time. I told you because if I didn't, you wouldn't do what you must do.”

“And what...” Applejack swallowed, “what you've gotta do.”

“I'm not looking forward to it.” Those beautiful blue eyes grew firm. “But it must be done.”

“Guess you better get a move on, then.”

“I suppose I should.” She moved away, but stopped. She looked back at Applejack. Tears were in her eyes. “By sunset tonight, all of Equestria will hate me. You... you won't, will you?”

With a gentle smile Applejack moved up to Rarity and nuzzled her. “Nope. Can't never hate ya, Rarity. Willikers, if I could I woulda started ages ago. And if this here's the real, genuine future... then you gotta do what you gotta do. Can't hate a mare for doin' her duty.”

Rarity smiled broadly. “Thank you, Applejack. Go back to sleep- if you can, I mean.”

“Eh, I'm scared awake now. Might as well start packin'.”

With a nod, Rarity pulled up the window. Climbing out into the cool, clear night, she took a step and vanished off the roof. Applejack watched her reappear on the grass below, then take a moment to find her direction. Finally, with one last look at the old farmhouse, Rarity began to gallop, hurrying off toward main gate of the farm. Applejack tracked her until the darkness swallowed her. Then, closing up the window, she went to her closet and got down her saddlebags.


“It's gonna be great to see how these new training methods you want to test out work, Twilight!” Spike exclaimed, riding on her back as sunrise gleamed o'er the horizon. The sun was bloody red, casting orange and crimson light upon the apple trees and fertile fields. Sweet Apple Acres was a marvelous place early in the morning, when all the farm began to hum with life.

“I just hope they start working better,” said Fluttershy. “It feels like all of our training is starting to drag on without making any headway.”

“Well I'm excited!” said Pinkie Pie, trotting merrily behind them. She tried one of her usual bounces, but immediately winced, the bandages around her torso grew that much more stained with black. She paused to cough.

“You've had that cough for days now, Pinkie,” said Twilight Sparkle. “Do you want me to take a look at your throat?”

“No, no, I'm fine!” she brightly said.

“I still think you should be resting,” said Fluttershy.

“But I've been resting and I haven't got any better. So maybe by not resting I will get better!”

“That... doesn't make any sense...” said Fluttershy.

“Trust me, girls,” said Pinkie with a gleaming smile, “I'm super-peachy-keen.” She stopped and coughed with violence. Looking at her hoof, she winced to see black goo on it. She quickly wiped it off onto the ground.

“Well, I'm just excited to start giving these new methods a try,” said Twilight. “I pulled them from an old manual on magical conditioning. They should- Applejack?”

Twilight stopped abruptly, the others with her. Applejack was on the lawn before her house, going through her open saddlebags. Even as the four of them observed, she finished, and she nodded. Then she turned and picked up something with a glimmering green spot upon it- a champron! Then they noticed she was covered up in armor, reddish leather armor stitched with golden thread. A crest of three branches of grass was sewn into the crupper on her flanks.

“Applejack!”

“Oh!” she cried, turning to them just as she completed buckling on the champron. The emerald in the middle glinted in the reddish light of dawn. “Howdy, y'all.”

“Applejack, what are you doing?” Twilight said. “Why are you... why do you have your old Gildedale armor on?”

“Gonna need it,” Applejack said. “Gotta get goin'.”

“What?” cried Fluttershy.

“Holy moly, why?” asked Pinkie.

“Things are about to get bad.”

“Um, I think things are pretty bad already, actually,” said Fluttershy.

Applejack looked at them all. She was deadly serious. “Not as bad as things are gonna get. Equestria's about to get hit by an even bigger whammy o' Reiziger than it has so far.”

“So you're leaving?”

“To get help!” said Applejack. “We been fightin' this war on our own too long. It's time we got some allies, so I'm off to go find some.”

“But... who? Where?”

“Goin' to Gildedale, for starters. Figure the Daleponies are gonna be happy to help. Then gonna talk to the pronghorns, then prob'ly the griffins-”

“Applejack, the griffins are not going to help us,” said Twilight.

“It's worth a try! We need all the allies we can muster.”

“But... hold on, if things are going to get so bad, we should stick together!”

Applejack sighed. “That's the thing, Twi. We can't.”

“What do you mean?”

“And hey, where's Dashie and Rarity?” said Pinkie, head perked up.

Applejack winced hard. “They're... they're gone. Not for good, but for a while.”

“Gone?”

“Into darkness.”

Fluttershy crept backward, mounting horror on her face. “Applejack... what's happened?”

“Somethin' bad,” said Applejack. She flipped her hat onto her head. “Somethin' that means it's time for me to get out and get us all the help we can find.”

“I... I... but our training... the Elements...”

“In case y'all ain't noticed, my Element o' Honesty is in good shape. Likewise for Rainbow and Rarity's Elements.” Applejack smiled gently. “Us three... we got our training already. We had our journey. It's time for you three to have one too, even if it's gonna be different than the one we had.”

Those three- Magic, Kindness, Laughter- turned gentle glances on each other. It only now occurred to them that that adventure, that grand journey taken by Honesty, Generosity, and Loyalty, had bound them as much as it had bound the others. Not as closely- indeed, not nearly as closely- but it had set them on another course, and now it had united them again.

Applejack drew in and wrapped Twilight and Fluttershy and Pinkie one-by-one in hugs. Then she slid her saddlebags onto her flanks. “Gotta get goin' now,” she said. “I'll see y'all 'fore the end o' the world, I hope.” She reared back-

“Wait!”

Applejack glanced back at Twilight, who was breathing heavily. “If... if you really are going to leave... if things are really about to get even worse... take Spike with you.”

“What?”

What?” Spike shouted.

“I don't want him to be put in any more danger. It... I don't know how you know, Applejack, but I know that you do know the truth about things getting worse. I trust you. You wouldn't lie. And in that case, I want Spike to be protected. He'll be safer outside of Equestria than inside it.”

“No!” cried Spike. He jumped from Twilight and he stood before her, small fists clenched. “I'm not leaving you!”

“You have to!” Twilight said. “I... I should have sent you away at the start of things, it's not safe, it was never safe-”

“But if it's not safe for me, what about you?” Tears were budding in his eyes. “You... you can't! I won't let you!”

“Spike, please,” said Twilight, tears in her eyes too. “I... I can't bear the thought of something happening to you. Go where I know you'll be safer.”

“I won't leave you!”

“You have to!”

“Twilight!”

“Spike, please!” Twilight pulled him close, wild desperation in her tear-soaked gaze. “Please, Spike, please, I'm begging you. You mean more to me than anypony in the world. It...” She cupped his face in her hooves and made him look up at her. “If... if something happened to you... if you d... if you di... if you d.... if something happened to you it wouldn't be worth it for me to live any more!” The others' eyes went wide. Twilight hugged Spike tightly to her chest. “I'm begging you, Spike. I'm pleading with you.” She was sobbing. “Go with Applejack.”

“O... Okay,” he softly said. She let him go. He backed away, eyes not leaving hers. “Promise me I'll see you again.”

“I promise. I swear.”

Sniffling, Spike turned to Applejack. “Well... okay.”

Smiling gently, Applejack lowered herself. “I'll be mighty glad for the company, Spike.” With halting moves, Spike climbed onto her back. “I'll take care of him, Twilight,” she said, standing up.

“I know. I trust you, Applejack.”

“You don't mind a little cold, do ya, Spike? We're goin' up into the mountains first.”

“I'm fine,” he said, not taking eyes off Twilight.

“Well... I'll see y'all later. And it won't be just me and Spike when I come back.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Hold on tight, Spike.” When she felt his claws gripping her fur, she reared back and released a mighty whinny. “Yee-haw! Giddy up!” She broke into a gallop, heading from the lawn onto the road.

Twilight, Fluttershy, and Pinkie sat in silence for a moment. “Well,” said Fluttershy at last, “that was certainly-”

“Spike!” cried Twilight. She flapped her wings and burst into the air. “Spike, I love you!”

“I love you, Twilight!” Spike shouted.

“I love you, and I'll see you again! If I have to go all the way to Tartarus to find you, I'll see you again!

“I love you!”

“I love you!” Twilight called a final time. She watched them go, first down the road leading from the farm, then onto the main road, then onto the rolling hills beyond. She watched them go until the landscape hid them from her sight. Then she fluttered to the ground, and there she cried.


The sun maintained its reddish color for some time beyond the sunrise, glowering a rusty hue as it huddled in the distant eastern mountains. Rarity had run all night, crossing fields and vales and valleys with a speed that had left even her surprised. She supposed those three years of conditioning were still within her, making her more fit for longer journeys.

Now, at last, she'd reached her destination. The changeling hive loomed up within the valley, black and chitinous and ugly. Seeing it filled her with dread, but she had come too far to turn back now. She rounded a bend, descended a short slope, and then was in the vasty space before it. “Yoo hoo!” she cried out. “Hello-ho!”

With buzzing bursts of sound five changelings swarmed out of the hive, flying swift to Rarity. Though she was afraid she did not light her horn with magic. She knew they would not harm her. She knew everything.

“I say,” she said as they drew close, “is your master anywhere abouts? I was so hoping to speak to him, and it is rather rude to keep a lady waiting.”

Ah, yes, we must always maintain our manners, musn't we? In a flicker he was there, black and cruel and terrible. Eyes ablaze, his white teeth glinted as he smiled. “Hello, Rarity.”

“Hello, good master Reiziger,” she said.

Leave us, he thought, and the changelings buzzed away. “Now why would the Element of Generosity wander into my clutches like this? Not that I am not fond of the company.”

“Well, I suppose I am here with an offering, your grace. An offering I believe you'll find it very hard to turn down.”

“Is that so?”

“Read my mind, if you will. You'll learn everything you need to know.”

Reiziger's eyes glinted, and a vaguely pinkish aura wrapped his antlers. Rarity only now realized that when he used his Gift of Laughter he had often had a pinkish flicker round him, and come to think of it, when the white-tails used their Gift of Honesty there was a burst of orange power. Did the Elements all have auras that matched their Bearers' coat colors? That would be something. It made Rarity wonder if she and her friends were the colors of the Elements, or the Elements were the colors of she and her friends. Which had come first in the plans of the Wills?

“Interesting,” said Reiziger, the glow diminishing. “I believe you are wrong, of course.”

“Wrong?”

“About what is going to happen- about the vision you've had. I do not see myself losing in the end.” He smiled. “Indeed, I don't believe a thing of your so-called 'vision.' I believe you made the whole thing up, or merely dreamed it.”

“Oh, well, you're welcome to believe what you wish,” said Rarity. “Though I do wonder why you would deny someone trying to show you the whole outcome of your war.”

“Because I have heard it before!” he crowed, stalking round her. “Countless red deer have foretold my demise, some in great detail, and they have all been wrong. What makes you think a mere pony could be more accurate?”

“Oh, nothing I can quite explain,” said Rarity, her voice still light. “Just a sense I have. Call it faith, if you will.”

“Faith is for fools.”

“I suppose I am a fool, then.”

“Well that is plain.” He chuckled. “You know, if I am right and you are wrong, Rarity, future generations will curse your name forever.”

“If you are right and I am wrong, your grace, I don't really think there will be many future generations. I know your ambitions.”

“True enough!” He laughed. “Go on, then, Rarity. Do what you have come to do.”

Rarity bowed low. “I pledge myself to your service, Lord Reiziger.”

Chapter 30

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Fillydelphia had no warning. One moment it gloried in a bright and sunny day, happy for the gentleness and mildness the weather ponies had bestowed upon it. One moment it was peaceful and serene. One moment everypony in it was in harmony with all themselves and with the universe.

Then the skies grew dark. Clouds festooned with lightning bunched up in the air, crackling and sparkling with thunderbolts and wrath. Bursts of air began to spin, such that everypony's hair stood up from sudden atmospheric chill. Booming thunder rocked each pony's chest. As if that weren't enough, purple flames began to burn within the sky and in the lanterns and the lamps. A chilling, fouling wind blew up between the cobblestones.

From above there came a shriek, and out the sky there flew a demon all in black. It whirled around the copper tower on the top of Indepenprance Hall, swooped low over the great reflecting pool within the city's center, finally alighted on the grand old spire that had marked the highest point within the city from its very founding.

It was a creature near Princess Celestia in size, or maybe bigger. Its body was a shadowy and angled shape; its limbs were rickety and thin. It had no fur but only blackened, reptile skin, and from its rump and neck there drew out lines of straggly mane shaded in all the colors of the rainbow. It might have been a pegasus, but no- its large, bat-webbéd wings and massive size made its distinction clear. It was a thestral, a creature that most ponies only knew from foals' tales, but as it loosed a high and shrieking whinny its reality was clear to all. It flapped its leathered wings and swooped into the air, circling in spirals. It cycled its own wings and hovered. As it did the clouds began to swirl until tornadoes started falling from the sky, howling out with wind as they descended on the hapless city. Ponies ran and cried and ducked for cover as the massive windstorms smashed down on the buildings and the homes within the city.

Those ponies that hid soon heard the clop-clop-clop of hooves within the safer portions of the city. Glancing from their spots, they saw another animal that only had appeared in fairy tales. It too was near Celestia in size; it too was pitch black. But this creature was beautiful, although in an unsettling and haunting way. It had a long, slender tail that ended in a patch of purple hair. Its mane was likewise purple, though it was not near as full and vibrant as a pony's. It bore a beard of purple fur that stuck out from its blackened neck, drawing down toward the ground below. Even its long, straight horn was purple, and it glowed as if on fire from within. The little foals had never seen its like, but older mares and stallions knew its shape: it was one of the legendary Mythical Unicorns, the supposed predecessors of the modern pony type. Mythicorn the name was usually shortened, and now there was one standing in their midst.

Their wonder, though, was short. The mythicorn in flickerings of black drew near a bank of buildings, and with a flash of power, purple fire blasted from its horn. The buildings blew away, leaving gleaming smoke and smell of ozone. A turn, a whining sound of charging power, and the horn again erupted with the magic, blowing up a tower made of stone. A desperate family went charging from their hiding place, hurrying as best they could- alas, the father stumbled, the mythicorn drew close. “Stay away!” cried the mother, stomping with her hoof and wishing that she had a horn herself. The mythicorn's head tilted to the side, empty blue eyes seeming blind. Its horn blazed up with power, the family drew back-

In a flash of purple light, however, they were gone. Not dead, though- they reappeared outside the city, blinking, shuddering in fear. “Huh?” the father said.

“Come on!” the mother cried, tugging on him. Leaving musings on their fate to other times, the father took his son onto his back and joined his wife in flight. Nor were they the only ponies that were suddenly delivered from the darkness. Burst by purple burst more groups of ponies came to be outside the city, wondering just for a moment why the mythicorn was teleporting them instead of killing them. Only for a moment, though, and then they moved to flee.

The mythicorn had no such care for buildings, though. Purple fire blazed and blasted off its horn, wiping out huge sections of the city. Meanwhile the thestral swooped down low much like a bat, bringing with it wind that tore the tops off towers and a lightning that lit trees and parks ablaze. Unlike the mythicorn the thestral had no love of pony life. Its movings of destruction were complete and total, sparing nopony within its path.

At last, the city was a wreck. The thestral pumped its wings and hurtled skyward, while the mythicorn blinked out of sight and reappeared up in the air. Side by side they hovered, winds and lightning whipping, purple fire blazing. The air was humming, tense with mighty power, and the twin black horses reared back, fire blazed and lightning flashed and then there was a mighty rushing wind-

With a horrible, long, agonizing crash the city of Fillydelphia ceased to be. Lightning and fire razed it totally to the ground, while twisters and hurricane-force winds caught the debris and blew it far away into the sky. A noise like the end of the world echoed through space and maddened anypony around to hear it.

There was, in fact, one pony round to hear, a pegasus named Brickers. She had sprained her wing that week and so had not been able to fly to safety; now she hid below a hill and watched as all she'd ever known was blown away. “No...” she whispered, tears upon her cheeks. “No!”

Ah, good, a witness.

She shrieked in terror and she drew back filled with horror as Reiziger appeared before her. The mythicorn teleported to his side, while the thestral wheeled about and came to a galloping landing nearby, trotting up and stopping on its master's left. “Please...” Brickers cried, crawling backward, scared out of her mind... “Please, please...”

“Oh, I'm not going to kill you- not yet, anyway,” said Reiziger, grinning hugely. “I need you to deliver a message to your princesses.”

Brickers breathed hard in and out.

“Tell them...”


“Hippy-hooray, it's a brand new day!” cried Pinkie Pie, sitting up in bed. She smiled and thought. Gummy! Come here! The toothless alligator squirmed out of the bathroom, blinking his ridiculous and always-out-of-sync lavender eyes. Pinkie smiled as she passed her Gift of Laughter over him; she'd noticed, lately, that she'd started to be able to faintly read his mood. Not in any coherent sense- she couldn't read concrete thoughts from Gummy, likely because he didn't have them- but she could tell when he was sad or happy or angry or more. It made for a nice change of pace. “Well, I guess I need to-” she paused and hacked a cough.

Pain and terror slashed into her heart, and Pinkie suddenly could feel that it was not a good day not at all. She slid from bed, wincing at the bite marks that still burned and leaked with every shifting of the muscles on her back. She breathed in hard, then breathed out just as forcefully. She wouldn't let the blackness overtake her. She couldn't, there was no way.

“Just gotta... just gotta sing!” she told herself. The edges of her vision started growing dark. She shook her head as best she could to clear the foul sensations now enveloping her heart. She raised her voice and music swelled:

Oh, it's not easy being pink,
At least that's what they say,
When you're this color, ponies think
You always have a lovely day!

The trouble is when gloomy skies
Come blowing down the way,
You've gotta put your best hoof out
And have the very best day!

Pinkie went to her bathroom. She paused in front of her mirror, forced herself to smile.

So don't let blackness get you down!
Find sunshine's bright ray!
Turn that frown right upside-down,
Because I'm totally and absolutely positively gonna be okay!

Pinkie smiled broader, glancing at her haggard, worn form in the mirror- and the mirror cracked. Pinkie coughed, spewing up a rush of shadowed fluid. Her colors suddenly became dulled down and muted, as though she'd stepped inside out of the sun. Her bouncy, curly mane and tail wrung out, falling into streams of flat and perfectly straight hair that ran in curtains down her head.

“No I'm noooooooootttttt,” she bawled, black tears streaming from her eyes.

Hours later, Mrs. Cake rapped upon her houseguest's door. “Pinkie?” she gently said. “Pinkie, sweetie, you missed breakfast! Is everything all right?” No response. The plump blue pony pushed the door open, surprised to find it unlocked. She was even more surprised to find that Pinkie's room looked like a bomb had gone off. Covers and pillows were strewn everywhere, her huge pile of stuffed animals had been all scattered, even some curtains had been torn down. Gummy was frantically wriggling around the room, moving with a speed unusual for him. “Gummy, dear, have you seen Pinkie?”

The alligator scampered to the bathroom door. A sinking feeling in her heart, Mrs. Cake trotted to the doorway.

“Pinkie? Where are you- no!” The pony she'd been calling was sprawled out upon the floor, her bandages soaked through and leaking black onto the tile.


<Are you sure you need nothing else, my lady?> Ines asked. <Perhaps some tea?>

<I am perfectly all right, Ines, thank you,> said Falalauria. <At any rate, you are not a maid. You don't need to be busying yourself with my menial desires.>

<Forgive me, I suppose,> and Ines bowed. <My impulse always is to do you help. You do so much for us... now more than ever.>

<That may be,> said Falalauria, <but I do it out of love, not for praise of others, or for service. And while I am due some service as your leader, all I needed from you this afternoon was your company.>

<Unfortunately, my time is up. I must go inspect the watch around the camp. More ponies have been challenging our guards of late, so I must make sure there is no lapse in the protection.>

Falalauria sighed deeply. <Such a shame. Go, then.> Ines bowed again and trotted from the tent. Falalauria rose up out of her cushioned seat and wandered to her mirror. Using magic, she levitated up a silver file, and began to use it to enhance the sharpness of her antler's tines. It was a grooming matter, much like ponies brushing out their manes and tails. She found that it relaxed her, allowed her Sight a moment's rest. She sighed- and then her eyebrows rose. <Hello?> she turned around, glancing through her large and chambered tent. She could see no one, but she felt that she was not alone.

Putting down the file, Falalauria went walking through the tent, antlers flickering with magic, Sight fanned out for threats. She of course saw doom behind her in the past and doom ahead of her now in the future, but presently she could See no harm to come. And yet she felt it, yet she knew she was in danger. From whom, though? From where?

Then out of a bend in space there stepped a tall black thing. Purple was its mane, purple also its long beard and the curled tuft that ended its long tail. Its great long horn was sparkling with might. Its eyes were perfect, empty blue. Falalauria was startled, but then sighed. “Ah, I should have known. The only one who could hide from my Sight was another seer, particularly one as powerful as you, Rarity.”

The mythicorn began to circle her, eyes glinting with a predatory light.

“I should have anticipated this... should have Seen it coming.” She chuckled bitterly. “Reiziger is right. I don't See what I don't look for- and how could I have looked for this? But clearly you have Seen something. Clearly there is a necessity in this.”

The mythicorn stood boldly now in front of her. Its horn was glimmering, and also deadly sharp.

Falalauria now sighed. “I know you will not kill me, even though that is what your Master sent you here for. He must have known that my wards would alert me to his own presence, the presence of a powerful deer. However, there are no such wards against ponies.” She glanced aside. “My blasted bleeding heart... even so, I know you will not kill me. You must retain enough control for that. And I suppose you'll tell your Master I resisted, and you could not land the killing blow. Still, you must do something, musn't you?”

The mythicorn's horn began to glow the brighter, gleaming, blazing white.

Falalauria bowed low her head. “Very well then, Rarity. Do what you have come to do.”

The white-tails in the camp were suddenly aroused by a great scream. Their horror grew in strength as they realized it came from their beloved Lady's tent. “My Lady!” cried Filipe, dashing with a dozen fellow deer toward the great striped cotton edifice. Bursting through the door they found Falalauria sprawled on the floor. Smoke was coming from her closed-shut eyes, billowing out of the gaps between her eyelids. “My Lady!” Filipe tenderly approached her, sitting down and cradling her head. “My Lady, speak to me, please!”

Falalauria rose gingerly into a sitting position. She shifted, trying to get comfortable. Then, at last, her eyes came open- and the deer around her gasped. They were flat, matted black. No stars were in them, and they lacked all trace of life. “I...” Falalauria began, with trembling voice, “I... I cannot See. I can't see... anything.”


“Princess Celestia!” cried Twilight Sparkle, bursting through the throne room doors. Fluttershy was hurrying behind her. Pinkie was not on her hooves- instead she floated, motionless, between the running ponies, held aloft by Twilight's magic.

“Twily?” Shining Armor said, turning from his conversation with Celestia and Luna. “What's- Pinkie!” He hurried to his sister, stopping swiftly to examine her invalid friend with growing horror. Pinkie's mane and tail were straight and flat, falling cruelly off her as she hovered in the air. Her bandages were soaked completely with the blackness deep inside her- indeed, the noctuous emissions were so thick that they were leaking out, falling in soft drips onto the carpet. “What happened?”

“Mrs. Cake found her passed out in her room- oh, Princess Celestia, you have to help her, you have to!”

“Set her down gently, Twilight,” said Celestia, horn flashing as she conjured up a mattress. Twilight laid Pinkie upon it. Celestia drew close; her horn was glowing lovely gold, and now she ran it over Pinkie, aura round it flickering just as she did. Celestia's expression darkened as the examination proceeded. “The black power of Reiziger is sunk very deeply into her now. It's turned etheric- it's infecting her spirit, her soul.”

“You said she was going to heal!” cried Twilight. Anger spiked across her face. “Is that just another thing you were lying about?”

“Twilight, not now,” said Celestia, and then she winced at how her voice had changed. “Twilight Sparkle, I... please, calm down.”

“Fluttershy, didst thou not try to heal her?” Luna asked.

“Well, I...” Fluttershy's ears drooped, “I just... I wasn't sure I could. It's so bad...”

“You have the Gift of Kindness, Fluttershy,” said Celestia. “It is worth a try, at least.”

Breathing out, Fluttershy approached the mattress. She sat before Pinkie and took another breath. She clopped her front hooves sharp together, summoning what courage she possessed. She tried to focus on the Gift within her. It was a kind of touching of her heart, as though her own wings had reached in and gently fluttered deep inside her chest. She summoned up her love, willed herself to care so deeply about Pinkie and then press that care upon her. Her hooves began to glow a gentle pink, and now she pressed them onto Pinkie's back.

Her touch, her loving gentle mothering caress now pressed and pushed deep through the black and noxious ichor. Fluttershy dove deeper in her heart, tried to care just that much more, hooves kept glowing brighter, and Pinkie's back began to glow in turn-

“Ah!” cried Fluttershy as a streak of pain erupted through her hooves. She tore her hooves away; they smoked, and felt like they'd been burned.

“Oh, dear,” Celestia said softly. “I worry that only your Gift, Fluttershy, can truly and definitely heal her. Reiziger's poisoning is beyond my powers.”

“What a surprise,” grumbled Twilight.

However, that is not to say I can't help her,” Celestia said. Drawing close to Pinkie yet again, she bent her head down and began to sing. It was a wordless tune, a gentle blooming flower of a song, washing over everypony present in a way that bathed them all in golden solar warmth. With wide eyes Twilight saw that golden ripples washed all over Pinkie. Her colors got a little brighter, though they did not reach their full intensity, nor did her straight mane and tail re-curl. A breath came sharply in between her teeth, and Pinkie's sky blue eyes came open, slowly, tentatively, but definitively.

“I... where am I?”

“You're in Canterlot, Pinkie,” said Fluttershy. “You passed out in your room.”

“I... I don't understand...”

“Reiziger's black power has seeped into thy spirit, Pinkie Pie,” said Luna. “Have no fear, though- in time, we shall heal thee fully.”

“No... no... no, no, there is no time, there is no hope,” Pinkie's hooves wrapped round her head. “There's nothing, nothing left! All there is now is shadow, night! All I...” her eyes welled up with blackened tears, “all I can see is the black antler tines, like dead trees in winter! I'm naked in the dark and there's no hope!”

“Pinkie, please calm down,” said Twilight. “Everything's going to be okay!”

“You don't believe that. You can't believe that. That's impossible! The end is here!”

“Why is she like this?” asked Shining Armor.

“It's as Luna said,” Celestia replied, “Reiziger's blackness has seeped into her spirit. It has poisoned her happiness, infecting her soul as well as her body.”

“All is lost!” cried Pinkie, curling up and weeping quietly.

“We... we have to help her,” Fluttershy said softly. She looked down at her hooves. “I have to help her. I have to get stronger...”

“We have to stop Reiziger, once and for all!” cried Twilight. “He's the whole reason for this, for all of this! If we undo him, we save everything!”

“It is not enough simply to destroy Reiziger,” said Luna, “assuming that can even be done.”

“It can be and it has to be. He's a cancer and we have to cut him out!”

Celestia's eyebrows rose. “Twilight Sparkle, you're not the first creature to use words like that.”

“Because they're the right words- because it's true! Fëanor was-”

The great doors of the throne room burst asunder for the second time that hour. “My princesses!” a captain of the Royal Guard exclaimed. “My princesses, Fillydelphia has been destroyed!”

“What?” Celestia exclaimed. “When? How?”

“A few hours ago, ma'am,” the captain said. “We have a survivor here.” He turned about, and two guards pulled apart to reveal a brown pegasus now shivering behind them.

Celestia breathed deeply in. “Come now, don't be afraid.” The pegasus, still shivering, stood stock still for a moment. Celestia extended out her thoughts, pulsing calmness through the pony's mind. “Come, please, you are safe here.”

The pegasus at last walked slowly forward, still ashiver as she moved. “Your... your majesty.” She bowed on trembling legs.

“What is your name?”

“I am Brickers, your highnesses,” she said, nodding now to Luna. “I live... I lived in Fillydelphia.”

“What has happened to the city?” Luna asked. “Tell us, please, we beg you.”

Brickers breathed hard in and out; she was nearly panting. “I... I saw everything...” tears sprang into her eyes. “I saw everything! I saw the thestral and the mythicorn! They were black all over, and they were so tall!”

“A thestral?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Those are just legends- and mythicorns are, too.”

“No! They were real, I saw them both! The thestral's mane and tail were rainbow striped, and the mythicorn's were violet!”

Fluttershy and Twilight exchanged terrified glances.

“They blew the city away! They destroyed it with fire and lightning and wind! There weren't even any ruins left! And then he...” Brickers tumbled to the carpet, tears now streaming from her eyes, hooves held tight against her head, “And then he was there...”

Celestia sat down and rubbed her golden hoof quite gently over Brickers' soft back. “The black deer, you mean?”

“Yes! He... he appeared right in front of me! He said he wanted me to be alive, because he needed me to deliver a message- a message to you, princesses!”

Celestia and Luna shared a glance. “What message was that, O good Brickers?” Luna asked.

“He said... he said to tell you that he'd struck another blow against Equestria. He said to tell you that the next blow he struck would be mortal.” She curled into a ball and started weeping loudly, shoulders wracked with sobs.

“Mortal,” Shining Armor muttered. “So what's his next move?”

“Um, I'm curious, what does that word mean?” asked Fluttershy.

“By definition, a mortal blow is a blow that results in the death of the one who receives it, even if it isn't immediately fatal,” Twilight said. Her head cocked to the side. “But how could he strike the killing blow? He's already destroyed Equestria so thoroughly.”

“He's hit Cloudsdale, Manehattan, and now Fillydelphia,” said Shining Armor. “What's left?”

“The Crystal Empire, for starters,” said Celestia. “That city is a great stronghold, and an attack there would devastate us.”

“Lucky you had them reinforce their defenses,” Luna said.

“Beyond that, there's Las Pegasus, the second-largest economic center in the country... there's Trottingham out east... and of course there's...” Celestia's eyes bulged. “Of course there's...”

One by one, in horrible and terrifying seconds, all of them came to the same conclusion. “Shining Armor,” Luna said. “General Shining Armor, raise your barrier, raise it now-”

Then all of a sudden all the palace rocked hard to the side. No, not the palace- all the city. It shook with echoes and reverberations of great force. Celestia, with wild eyes, went galloping toward the balcony that led out of the throne room, Luna close beside her, Shining Armor and Twilight and also Fluttershy hot on their heels. They burst into the sunlight, gazing out into the mighty vista Canterlot afforded-

There he was, floating in the sky just out beyond the city. The thestral fluttered close beside him, leathery black wings flapping in slow and lazy circles. On his other side the mythicorn was floating, held aloft by magical ability. In the center, there he was, crimson fire burning on his antlers.

“Hello, Celestia!” cried Reiziger. “Your city- I want it!”

Chapter 31

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“No,” Celestia whispered. “Not now, not yet...”

“Orders, your highness?” Shining Armor asked.

“Wreck the city!” Reiziger said to the thestral and the mythicorn. “Bring it all down!” They swooped down toward the bustling metropolis below.

“Let's go!” cried Twilight, fluttering up, horn ablaze with magic. “We're not afraid of you! Princess Celestia, you-”

“Evacuate.”

Twilight's mouth dropped open. “What?

“Luna, the teleport projector spell,” said Celestia. “Go through the city and fire it. Get everypony out of here!”

“Where?”

“Ha ha ha!” cried Reiziger, blurring in a blackened smear right towards them. Celestia flew up and caught him as he streaked, catching up his antlers in her horn. Her wings whirled as she spun, once, twice, three times and she flung him out and down into the city.

“The Crystal Empire!” Celestia answered finally. “Teleport everypony there! And when you're done, go to Ponyville and do the same! Twilight, you assist her!”

“But princess!”

“That is a royal order, Twilight Sparkle!” With that Celestia tucked in her wings and dove, hurtling down toward the city where Reiziger had crawled from his crater and now streaked right up at her. They met in a tremendous red and golden clash, the power shattering windows, knocking down badly-supported towers, sending both of them now out into the sky.

Twilight turned to Luna. “I-”

“We must do as she requested, Princess Twilight Sparkle. Hurry!” Luna flapped her wings and soared off of the balcony. Soon she swept over the city, firing out bursts of silver magic. When they hit the crowded clumps of ponies, ponies who now screamed and ran and panicked, those grouped ponies vanished in great sparkling bursts. Twilight growled in anger, but complied.

“Shiny,” she said o'er her shoulder, “get Pinkie and Fluttershy out of here!”

“Got it!” he replied, already slinging Pinkie on his back. “Hold on to me,” he said to Fluttershy. With a final glance at Twilight, she complied, and Shining Armor took a step and vanished. Sighing, Twilight flapped off of the balcony and swooped down to the city far below.

With another crash of red and gold Celestia and Reiziger crossed horn and antlers. He grinned at her, manic in his glee. “So weak,” he muttered, shoving hard against her, “so weak, even you, the strongest of all! Ponies truly are a pathetic race.”

Celestia merely growled and bathed him in golden, burning solar light. Reiziger, however, shrugged it off and lunged, white teeth snapping razor sharp. Celestia reared back but not in time for now the monster's teeth were on her side and she cried out as they found purchase sinking deep into her alabaster flank. In that moment, the sun above turned red. Only for an instant- only for a moment's blinking eye- but still for just that moment all the world was bathed in crimson light. Wrenching free Celestia fired yet another blast of magic, but Reiziger caught it on his antlers and he bounced it harmlessly away.

“Again and again you try, again and again you fail! Have you not realized that I am beyond you now, pathetic pony goddess?” He bullrushed her and caught her up within his antlers, swinging her around with massive force. Celestia flew out and smashed against a nearby mountainside, Reiziger wound up the power in his antlers and he fired-

Twilight Sparkle, whirling when she heard the sound of magic, gaped in horror as a whole entire mountain was destroyed, vaporized in burst of dust and ash. “Got to... got to... got to focus,” she muttered, flying low toward a huddled, shivering cluster of Canterlot ponies. They were backed against a crumbled tower, scared out of their minds. “I'm here!” she cried. “Hold still, everypony, I'll teleport you away!”

“What about our homes?” a unicorn asked desperately.

“I...”

“The dark lord is finally taking everything!”

“No! Listen, we'll... we'll...” Twilight felt like crying, “we'll do something, I promise we will! For now, hold still!” They stopped their shivering. Twilight fired out a purple burst of magic; it hit them all, and with a blast of sparkles they all disappeared. Twilight breathed out, turned, searched with magic pings for more survivors as the city rocked and crumbled all around her-

With a crash the mythicorn came landing near her. The thestral then wheeled overhead. Twilight gasped and felt despair, for all reports were true: the thestral did indeed have mane and tail of rainbow stripe, while all the mythicorn's unblackened hair was violet hued. Despair- despair! It blossomed in her chest, and she, who had such hope, who had so often thought that all the love and friendship of the Elements of Harmony would finally prevail- the poison, the cancer of despair was in her now.

“R-Rarity... Rarity!” she cried up at the mythicorn. “Rarity! Rainbow Dash! I know you're both in there, somewhere! You have... you have to fight! We'll help you, please, please!”

The mythicorn now paused. Its graceful black head tilted to the side, empty blue eyes pausing for a moment to regard the little pony princess standing just before it. It blinked those empty eyes, hissed perhaps a silent breath. Twilight Sparkle started to smile- but then the mythicorn reared back its head and charged its horn. Twilight dodged in time to miss its blast of battle magic. The thestral whipped its wings and flung a twister at the city- this touched down and started shattering and sinking homes throughout the upper levels. The whole city was shaking, quaking with the fights outside and in. Twilight felt a spike of wrath. Eyes filled up with sparks, she snarled and blasted battle magic at the ponies who had been her friends and nearly vaporized them in her fury. In that moment all she heard was Fëanor: The Herd Lord is like no enemy you have faced. He does not kidnap princesses, he does not steal gems or harvest love. He wages war. Can you withstand him?

“No, no!” cried Twilight. She flapped and flung herself into the midst of those black ponies. She crossed horns with the mythicorn and knocked her back, then fired battle magic that sent that black pony reeling. The thestral blasted her with lightning but Twilight turned and she blocked it and she sent up lightning purple lightning of her own that snarled and snared the thestral til it howled. “Do you think you can beat me?” Twilight cried, cycling her wings, eyes aglow, suddenly a terrible thing. “Do you think I'll let you beat me?”

“Princess Twilight Sparkle!”

Eyes ablaze, Twilight turned round to see Luna approaching. The thestral and the mythicorn took that chance to attack, but Luna raised a silver shield to block their blows. “I can handle this!” cried Twilight.

“There is no more handling to be done,” said Luna. “The city is empty. We must retreat!”

“No! No no no no no no NO!” Twilight stomped her hoof. “I'm tired of running! I'm tired of retreating and settling for stalemates! We fight here!”

“No we do not, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Luna sharply said. “We retreat to a more stable posit-”

“More stable? More stable?! This is Canterlot!” Twilight screamed at Luna, eyes wide open, trailing tears. “This is our city! If we don't fight- if we don't hold it here- what good are we?”

The city quaked and rocked and shook. Towers crumbled. Streets cracked, showing open air for half a mile down. Shops and homes and alleyways were ground to dust, lives and livelihoods that stood for centuries were pounded into rubble. The thestral and the mythicorn had turned by now and kept on smashing up the city, throwing down all buildings they could reach. Far overhead, Reiziger sent Celestia careening through the Palace of the Sun, smashing up its tallest tower.

“We can't leave!” cried Twilight. “We can't, we can't-”

Luna's hoof snapped out and cracked Twilight upon her cheek. “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Luna snarled, “thou mayst be babied by my sister, but I shalt not tolerate thy insubordination. Stay if thou wishest- but stay and perish. I'll have no part in thy delusions.” Luna's horn now twinkled as she dropped her shield. She flapped into the air, wheeled once then twice, and flew away.

Twilight looked upon the city yet again, this city she had known from infancy, this city that, though she now lived in Ponyville, would always feel to her like home. There, if she squinted, she saw the small park where she and Spike had played while Shining Armor watched. Up on the near-highest level she saw Donut Joe's beloved shop. She could sniff and smell, through all the dust, the sweat and fresh-baked bread and hustle of the city that she'd so long grown to love.

But the ground cracked up beneath her, and she felt a blackness in her chest. “Agh!!” she roared, but flapped her wings and rose into the air. She pumped those wings as hard as she could manage, soaring up into the sky, following with sadness in old Luna's wake.

In the Palace of the Sun the throne room had been ruined. Celestia panted, gasped, streaked with dust and soot, aurora mane and tail now shining shades of red and orange. She tried to stand- but Reiziger put down a blackened hoof upon her back, pinning her into the crater where she'd landed. “Now, my dear, dear goddess,” he said, smiling, “any last requests? Let us hear the Sun's epitaph.”

Celestia glared at him with all her hate. He merely smiled. But she fidgeted- she twitched- and then she vanished. She appeared again miles away up in the sky. Pumping her white wings she wheeled about, steadying herself, and then began to fly away, heading for the north.

“Hmph,” huffed Reiziger. “Pathetic.” He raised his head. Crimson fire blazed upon his antlers, and he rose off of the ground. Dirt and dust and chunks of rock and marble stone began to rise up with him. Then he sharply dropped and slammed into the throne room floor, shaking the whole city like an earthquake or the world's end.

Twilight was now several miles away. Hearing the great crash, she turned and hovered, watching from afar. The city shook. A few long minutes passed, and then the city shook again.

This isn't real, she thought.

The city shook once more.

This is just a bad dream. I'm going to wake up now, and I'm going to be in my bed in the library in Ponyville, and all of this will be a nightmare.

The city shook a third time. Now the highest towers tumbled down. Now the lowest level sank at a strong angle from the higher portions of the city.

It's just a dream!

The city shook again- and broke. With a horrible, awful, terrible CRACK, Canterlot came unstuck from the mountainside. The city tumbled downward in a horrifying crash, towers, levels, roads and houses smashing to the ground below and raising up a cloud of dust for miles everywhere.

“No!” cried Twilight, weeping openly. “No!” But she could not stop it. Crying, weeping, bawling, she wheeled about and flew away, joining now Celestia and Luna in their swift retreat.

Yes, run! Run! Run to the ends of the Earth, for all the good it will do you! Ahaha! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Chapter 32

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The golden grass billowed and rippled in the evening breeze. Soft and gentle orange sunshine bathed the fields for miles in its loving and caressing touch, while quiet wind allowed the grasses to be rippled like a golden mane. That ripple, that billowed horizon, spread for miles all directions, far beyond the ranges of the sight. Horizon to horizon all directions was near totally unbroken, nothing but raw gold and light blue sky now filled up with the sunset in the west. Flat and vast and open, it beckoned with infinity of possibilities.

The fields were not full barren, though. Straight ahead, up from the golden grasses rose a stone foundation fathoms tall and thick as mountainside. Upon it, up the ramp that led to it, a barn sat, a barn bigger and far more expansive than many a small hamlet in Equestria. Its wooden sidings were the size of massive tree trunks- and had in fact been tree trunks long ago. A central window at its highest level looked out like a god's eye on the plains, catching up the sunlight and reflecting it, so that it seemed to gleam with molten gold. Gold too, silver also, were the trimmings round the roof, those bindings, fastenings that held all things together. Finally, the roof itself was thatched grass, dried and yellowed, catching now the fire of the sunlight and seeming to set ablaze in brilliance and in majesty.

Spike sat back and whispered, “Whoa...”

“Yep,” said Applejack, “that there's Thatchholm.” She wiped a line of sweat that now was streaking down her cheek. “Whew! Glad we made it fast as we did.”

“I hope I didn't slow you down, Applejack.”

“Shucks, hun, you were light as a feather. Now come on!” With that she broke into a gallop, hurrying the way that kept her parted from Thatchholm's tremendous frontal gates. Spike's eyes widened even further as they got much closer, for the great barn swelled yet further, until it was titanic, massive, bigger than most structures he had ever seen, at least outside of Canterlot.

The gates set in the foundation were large as well. Their iron fastenings were big as Spike, and they had platforms set onto their other sides- at least, that must have been the case, for otherwise the armored ponies whose heads he could see would have nothing to stand on. As they came very close one of the ponies on the gate cried, “Halt! State your business in Thatchholm, stranger!”

“Howdy, y'all!”

“Oh! It's you, Applejack!” The pony turned around and shouted downward, “Open the gates!”

Massive clanking noises rose as bars were shuttled back. Tremendous creaking sounded through the air, and slowly the great gates swung open, showing that indeed the Daleponies were standing on platforms nailed to their other sides. Another pony, stepping downward from the platform, trotted down the ramp into the grass. “Hail, Applejack! Well met! We did not expect to see you again so soon.”

“Neither did I, Stone Shoes,” said Applejack. “And I hate to say it, but I ain't here on vacation. Is the Timbered Court in session yet?”

“Not to my knowledge. Did you wish to speak with Lord Hammer Hoof?”

“If'n I can get in, that'd be great.”

“You will have to speak to Councilor Checkboard,” said Stone Shoes. “Regardless, we shall do what we can.”

“I'm mighty grateful.” With that, Applejack trotted up the ramp, the gates erupting with great creakings as they slowly closed behind her.

They emerged at length atop the great foundation. Spike spun in his seat atop her back, amazed, astounded at all that he saw. Ponies, ponies everywhere! And they were subtly but distinctly different than the ponies of Equestria. For one thing, they were largely shaded rough and darkened colors: reds, oranges, burnt yellows, browns, blacks. There was not a pink or green or blue among them anywhere. Moreover, they were more muscled than the ponies of Equestria, leaner and more fit for rough terrain. Many of them wore tough leather armor, much like Applejack's, and many carried spears, while many others had hoof-axes strapped onto their front legs.

Their gruff demeanors changed as Applejack went by, however. “Hello, Applejack!”

“Hi there Applejack!”

“How's Equestria, Applejack?”

“You're pretty popular,” said Spike.

“Well, you know,” Applejack shrugged, “you change a few centuries-old traditions, you transform an entire culture's way o' life, and suddenly they like you. Go figure.”

“Applejack!”

Smiling brightly, Applejack spun round. A strong and sturdy pony galloped toward her. He was as large as Big Macintosh, and his coat was red as well, though this red was a darker, richer red. His mane and tail were light gray with some dark gray streaks run through them. His eyes were deepest blue, and piercing. Applejack ran toward him. “Ashtail!”

They met each other, and they leaned in for a tender kiss. Pulling back, Ashtail said, “I'm happy to see you, but why are you here? Is something wrong?”

“Sure is, sugarcube. Things are bad in Equestria- real bad.”

Ashtail's grim face darkened further. “We had heard reports... something about a shadow...”

“A livin' shadow, honey. We're dealin' with a black deer over the mountains.”

His eyes went wide. “A black deer? A real black deer? I thought they were extinct.”

“This fella's the last o' his kind, and he's makin' a mess... so I've come to ask for help.”

Ashtail sighed. “Lucky it's summer, not spring. The komagas are long gone, so we're fully ready for a fight... provided my father approves, of course.”

“That's why I came to Thatchholm. Is the Court gonna be in session tonight?”

“Yes, in about half an hour. I'll get you in first on the docket.” His head shifted left then, and suddenly he saw that they were not alone. “And who is this?” he asked.

“Oh! Yeah, this here's Spike,” said Applejack, shifting round. Spike slid off her back. “Remember that vial o' green fire I was carryin', the first time we met? Well, he breathed it.”

“Ah! So this is the dragon whose fire allowed you to go on your quest.” He nodded. “Welcome to Gildedale, good sir Spike.”

Spike bowed low. “It's an honor and a privilege to make your acquaintance, O Ashatail, Captain and Prince of the Dale. May Equestria's blessings be on you and your nation.”

“Ha! He has excellent manners.”

Applejack chuckled. “Sure does. Learned 'em from Princess Celestia herself.” Spike blushed.

“Well, come in. It's hot out here,” and with that Ashtail turned and let himself lead Applejack and Spike into the vast interior of Thatchholm. There were Daleponies milling everywhere, talking, laughing, lounging upon cushions. A few were drinking ice cold water. Others polished their hoof-axes with some wax and rags. Still others put a special soap upon their armor, making it a waxy red. “I'll go speak with Checkboard,” Ashtail said, “wait here.”

He trotted off. Spike spun in circles, gazing up and round at all the vasty decorations of the space. “Wow... this is amazing!” He noticed carvings on the ceiling. “Is that... is that Discord? And that's Celestia and Luna!”

“Miss Applejack!”

Applejack turned toward the voice with smile on her face. “Hey there, lil' one,” she said happily, crouching down and swinging out her front legs. “C'mere!”

A little pony girl, her coat light gray, her mane and tail dark gray, hurtled cross the floor and swept herself up into Applejack's hooves. Applejack drew her into a tight embrace. “I'm happy to see you, Miss Applejack!” the filly squealed.

“I'm mighty happy to see you too, Silkstring. Is your momma about?”

“I am indeed,” and then another pony, larger, fiercer, stepped into her view. She had a light gray coat. Her mane and tail were white, and woven into braids. Her eyes were brilliant green and glimmered with a warmness at the visitors. “Hello there, Applejack.”

“Howdy, Shield Maiden. Wish I were seein' you under better circumstances.”

“I do wonder why you're here. Has it anything to do with the blazes and bursts of power we have seen? Sometimes they light the skies across the mountains in the night.”

“That's right,” said Applejack. “There's a dark l-”

“Mama mama look it's a dragon!” Silkstring exclaimed.

Shield Maiden's own face grew bright as her gaze drifted down to Spike. “My goodness, it is!”

“Ah, I'm Spike, of Ponyville,” he said, and bowed. “It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Heh,” breathed Shield Maiden. “I have never seen a dragon before. You always bring such wonders with you, Applejack.”

“Happy to please,” said Spike. He threw his head back and belched a tongue of glittering green fire. Silkstring squealed with glee.

“Applejack, I told you not to- oh, hello, Lieutenant,” said Ashtail, coming back into their midst. He now wore a golden necklace, accented with a large emerald.

“Hello, Captain,” said Shield Maiden. “Attending to court business?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “Applejack, I have gotten your audience moved to the top of the Court's matters. It will be in session in about ten minutes.”

“Then we'd best get a move on, then,” said Applejack.

“Uh, should I... um...”

“Spike, I'm gonna need your help,” said Applejack. “I reckon they'll believe me, but I'm gonna need you to help me plead my case. We gotta convince King Hammer Hoof, Lord o' the Dale, to help Equestria.”

“Do you need the Dale Guard?” Shield Maiden asked.

“We sure do,” said Applejack. “I'll tell y'all along with the rest o' the court when I see Lord Hammer Hoof.”

“Then we'd best be there. Come.” Ashtail turned and trotted, then came Applejack and Spike, next came Shield Maiden, finally Silkstring.

As it was the height of summer, sunlight still streamed through the windows in this evening, but despite that all the torches in the barn were lit, casting their soft orange glow upon them as they passed beneath the giant pillars. The gold filigree that wrapped occasionally round the pillars and the corners glinted beautifully in the torchlight, flashing as though all the warmth and love of all the folk of Gildedale had poured into them and was now reflected in the soft and supple radiance. At length, they came to a great ramp that sloped up sharply. There they stopped.

“We'll wait here a minute,” said Ashtail, lowering his voice. Around him Daleponies of every size and shape came trotting up the ramp. Many of them dressed with ornaments, though nothing quite as gaudy as was seen inside Equestria: mostly simple earrings or some necklaces of gold. Occasionally they wore instruments of precious stone.

“This is amazing,” Spike whispered. “Applejack's told me so much about Gildedale, but I never thought I'd get to see it.”

“I am glad you are pleased by our nation, master dragon,” Ashtail said.

A gentle hoof tapped Applejack upon her flanks. “Tut tut, Applejack.”

With a smile she turned round. “Niles!”

Niles Nigellus, pronghorn of the Pronghorn Network, stood behind her, saddlebags stuffed full with letters and provisions. He smiled in delight. “Howdy-do, my dear? It's wonderful to see you here and now.”

“What are you doin' here, anyway?”

“I have a message for King Hammer Hoof from the Matriarch of the Diamond Dogs. How about you? Are things all right?”

“I... actually, I ain't doin' so well, Niles. Equestria ain't doin' so well.”

“Is it the dark lord?” Niles asked. “The one old Clive has told us about?”

“It is! We haven't been able to stop him. And one o' my friends had a vision of the future... I reckon that right here and now he's swallowin' up most of Equestria in shadow.”

“Good heavens!” Niles' eyes bulged out. “So what are you to do?”

“Right now I'm here to ask Hammer Hoof for help.” She smiled gently. “Say, while I'm askin' for help from everypony, I... well, I know the pronghorns are always-”

“Neutral,” said Niles. “Yes, nearly without exception we do not intervene in conflicts.” He sat down on his skinny haunches, slender hoof now rubbing underneath his chin. “However, a dark lord who wants to consume the world might well be considered the exception that proves the rule.”

“You'll help?” asked Spike excitedly.

“I can't guarantee it, of course. However...” he rubbed his chin again. “I'll talk to Clive at the Waystation tonight. Once he hears how bad things have gotten, he'll almost certainly convene the Jovai. And there, prongers will talk... and we'll see what happens.”

Trumpets blew. “It's time,” said Ashtail. “Master pronghorn, if you wouldn't mind?” Nodding, Nigel stood aside. The party moved on up the ramp; Shield Maiden raised Silkstring up onto her back. Spike's eyes kept on growing wider, wider as they came up further, til at last they reached the upper level.

“Wow!”

The Timbered Court of Gildedale spread out before him. Throughout the open space, dead trees were stuck into the floor, boardings wrapped around them to make sure they stood upright. Nailed into the dead branches of those long-withered trees were leaves hammered from sheets of absolute pure gold, bushels of them, whole branches, a grove's worth of the precious metal leaves. They shone a radiance into the air as all the firelight reflected in their surfaces, beaming, beautiful, unearthly in their glittering magnificence. Quiet rumblings were billowing into the rapidly decreasing daylight from outside, ponies milled about in waiting underneath the golden boughs. They grew silent when Applejack passed by them, then the whispers rose again, many of them staring long at Spike.

The trumpet blew again. The Daleponies assembled quieted completely, breaking into soft and ordered congregations. A tall, thin pony with a painted coat, white and rust, emerged from to their right. He strode into the open space beyond the trees, where there was a great raised dais upon which stood a massive wooden throne. Further still behind the throne there was a huge and craggy rock that stretched high up toward the vaulted ceiling- this was the Dale Stone, upon which was carved the history of Gildedale, line by line, year by year, century by century.

The thin pony now stood beside the throne. When all, at last, were quiet, he clopped sharply on the wooden planking. “Hail, Ashtail, Son of Hammer Hoof, Prince of Gildedale, Heir to the Throne, Marshal of the Eastern Quarter, Captain of the Dale Guard!” On cue, Ashtail trotted from their midst, stopping sharply right before the throne, bowed gently, then trotted to the left of it, where he turned out and faced the crowd. All ponies present bowed; Applejack of course did so as well, and Spike was versed enough in etiquette to bow beside her. The thin pony stomped yet again. “Hail, Hammer Hoof, Son of Storm Chaser, Lord and King of Gildedale!”

With a steady and repeated thunk, thunk, thunk there was a walking heavy on the timbered floor. Spike raised up his eyes in time to see a mighty pony stallion make his way across the throne room, as tall as Princess Luna, his body thick with muscle. He was red-coated, much like Ashtail, and he had Ashtail's blue eyes. However, his mane was golden-hued, and he had a golden beard upon his muzzle. He wore a golden champron, massive ruby set within. The peculiar thunk within his walk soon showed itself: his front right leg was missing for much of its length below the ankle. Instead he had a lower leg of ivory, which culminated in a thick false hoof wrapped up in golden filigree.

The great red pony turned to Ashtail, and he nodded. “Prince Ashtail.”

“Father,” Ashtail said.

Hammer Hoof eased up onto the dais, whence he sat upon his throne. He rapped his ivory hoof against the boarding with a noise like thunder. “The Timbered Court is now in session! Councilor Checkboard, if you will begin the business.”

“My lord,” said the thin pony, stepping to the front, “tonight's business has been somewhat rearranged. At the request of Prince Ashtail, tonight's first supplicant is Applejack of Ponyville, and Spike the-”

“Applejack!” cried Hammer Hoof, his face split by a massive grin. “Come here, my dear. Don't be skulking about in there.”

“Howdy, your highness,” said Applejack, trotting forward. She bowed low, hat swept off her head. “Good to see you again, though I wish it were under better circumstances.”

“For you to come again so soon after departing us bodes ill. And who is this beside you?”

“Ah, well, this here's Spike the dragon,” said Applejack, pushing Spike into the front. “He's the one that breathed that green dragonfire in the vial- from my first time here, remember?”

“I do.” Hammer Hoof nodded with fatherly assurance. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, good sir Spike. Any friend of Applejack's is a friend of mine, and a friend of Gildedale.”

Spike bowed low, sweeping his arm up against his chest. “The blessings of the Wills be on you and your folk, King Hammer Hoof. I bring what good fortune it is in my power to grant.”

“Heh, he's got good manners.” Hammer Hoof's face, however, soon grew grim. “So then, Applejack, what is your business here?”

Applejack took a deep breath. “I'm... I'm appealin' for Gildedale's help on behalf of Equestria.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd. Checkboard stomped his hoof. “Order!” he exclaimed.

“Equestria needs help? What has befallen it?”

“A black deer,” and now a gasp rose up from out the crowd. “Ya'll've seen some o' the flashes and the magics over the mountains, right?”

“We have,” said Hammer Hoof. “We could not be certain what was transpiring, though we did grow worried.”

“Y'all should be worried. Reiziger, the Lord o' All the Herds, King o' the Black Deer, is back from the grave!”

A murmuring rose up so strongly that Checkboard stomped his hoof four times before he restored order. “Hold a minute, Applejack,” said Ashtail, “the Herd Lord....” he shook his head, “but he's just a fairy tale- a boogeyman.”

“He's as real as you an' I, dearest.”

“He's already destroyed Manehattan and Cloudsdale!” Spike exclaimed. “He's got control of the changelings, and he's making all sorts of horrible creatures with black magic!”

“Are you sure it is truly him, the worst of all the black deer?” Checkboard asked. “I know how powerful the high deer can be. It might be one of them claiming the title for himself.”

“If it ain't him, it's somepony doin' a darn good impression. He wants to take over all o' Equestria, and then he's gonna consume the life force of everything in the country! And then he wants to consume the life force of everything in the world!”

Shouts rose up, panicked whispers flew like buzzing locusts on the twilight air. “Order! Order!” Checkboard cried, stomping strongly with both hooves.

“Please, m'lord, Equestria's tried to fight him alone, but we can't! We've even got the deer of the Shimmerwood helpin' us, and it's still not enough! We need Gildedale's help! We need your help!”

“Hmm...” Hammer Hoof glanced toward the floorboards, blinking hard. His face was grimacing. “If he truly is the Herd Lord of legend, he must be extremely powerful. He may be too powerful for any force, for any creature, to combat.”

“But we have to stick together!” Spike cried. “You're... you're ponies too, right? The ponies of Equestria need you! You can't let them down!”

“Our own borders are in enough danger, being so close to Equestria,” said Checkboard. “You ask us to risk our lives for a nation not our own?”

“That is enough, Councilor,” said Ashtail.

Hammer Hoof took in a breath. “My first loyalty is to Gildedale. I must protect it, and the ponies that live in it. It is my nation, and they are my folk. They come first.”

“But m'lord-”

“Moreover, who is to say the Herd Lord- this Reiziger- won't consume Equestria and be satisfied? His plans for global conquest may be a feint to scare off folk. If I were to allow him to conquer your nation, it would be cruel... but I might save my own.”

“Your majesty-” Spike started.

“To go into battle against a black deer, one of the nightmare creatures of the oldest and darkest legends, invites disaster. Hundreds, thousands of Daleponies could be lost. We are not Equestria with its millions of citizens- lose too many in battle and Gildedale could never recover.”

Applejack bowed down her head, a sickened feeling in her heart. Spike, beside her, drifted close and rubbed her side, close to tears himself.

“And yet... there is a pact.”

Their gazes shot back up.

Hammer Hoof was smiling now. “There is a pact that was signed long, long, long ago... when Equestria and Gildedale first parted ways. It was a pact stating that, while the two nations would no longer be united, they would not be enemies, and that in the darkest of hours they would remember their old friendships. Put simply, the pact states that if one of the nations suffers catastrophe- if it is in dire need- the other will come to its aid.”

Applejack's breath caught within her throat.

“Now Equestria calls for help- and Gildedale will answer!” He banged his ivory hoof upon the dais. “Councilor Checkboard!”

“My lord?”

“Muster the Dale Guard. I want them armed and armored and ready to fight within a fortnight!”

“That seems like quite a while in which to prepare, my lord.”

“Not for how long it will take to muster all of them.”

Checkboard's eyes went wide. “All of them? My lord, think of the home defense-”

“There will be no homes worth defending if the Lord of All the Herds is not defeated! Every spear in Gildedale will ride to Equestria.”

“Hooray!” cried Spike, jumping up and down for joy.

“I'll never forget this, m'lord!” cried Applejack, tears within her eyes.

“One good turn deserves another, Applejack of Ponyville,” he said. “You will ride with us, and together we shall save your country.”

“Actually, m'lord, much as I'd love to help y'all get ready, I gotta be movin' on. I'm gonna go to Issidonia and talk to the griffins, see if I can get their help, too. If it's all right with you, I'll only stay the night here.”

“Do what you must. We shall await your return, and then we shall ride.” He smiled kindly, very kindly for one so tremendous and so fierce. “Now, my dear, is there anything else I can do for you?”

She chuckled. “Don't think so.” She tipped her hat.

“Then you are dismissed!”

“Come on, Spike,” said Applejack, trotting back toward the gold-leafed trees, “let's see if we can't rustle up some grub.”

Ashtail found them near an hour later. Spike was gobbling up hay and rocks within Thatchholm's great mess hall. Applejack was pulling off the last bit of her armor, grunting with relief as bare skin felt the cool air once again. She smiled at him. “Howdy.”

“Hello,” said Ashtail. “I think you were a great success.”

“I reckon so.” They drew together, and they shared a long and tender kiss. Applejack leaned deep into his lips. She suddenly could not forget that he's gonna die someday, he's gonna die and I'm gonna live on. I'm gonna outlast him. I'm gonna outlast him an' any children I may have with him, 'less they get to be immortal too.

“Applejack?” Ashtail pulled away and looked at her. Her eyes were wavering. “What's wrong?”

She shook her head. “Nothin', for now.” She leaned against him. “Well, apart from everything that is wrong, I mean.”

“Indeed,” said Ashtail. He nuzzled her. “I hope I can help in putting things right.”

“I hope so too.”

They pulled apart again, and suddenly he made a face. “Are you really going to Issidonia? King Darius probably won't even agree to an audience with you.”

“I gotta, sugarcube. I gotta try. My home depends on it.”

He sighed. “So stubborn- such faith.”

“Faith's got me this far. Can't give it up now.”

Ashtail drew her close again. “And your faith is one of the things I love about you.” He kissed her on the cheek. “At least I can be with you tonight.”

“Not a bad thing,” said Applejack. She drew him into yet another kiss, one which pulled them close and brushed them fiercely up against each other.

“Blech!”

“Aww, stuff it, Spike.”


Applejack awoke to the dull glimmering gray light of dawn beginning to emerge into her room. The sky outside was hued like slate, and cool mist hung over the golden grasses stretching far away. She yawned, and then she shuffled out of bed. Silently she buckled on her armor, pulling from where she'd piled it within a corner of the room. At last, she flipped her hat onto her head, and only then did she come back against the bed and whisper, “Spike?”

The little dragon mumbled in his sleep, but did not wake.

Applejack's eyes rolled. “Spike, come on! We gotta get a move on! Are you gonna-”

“Twi... Twilight... no, Twilight...”

Her face grew softer. She sighed, and gently rubbed his shoulder. “Wakey wakey, sugarcube. Don't think you wanna be havin' that dream any more, anyway.”

“Gah!” he cried, snapping up in bed. “Twilight! I- Applejack?”

“Good, you're awake. We gotta go, Spike.”

He yawned. “Are we gonna stop for breakfast?”

“I've got saddlebags full o' vegetables and fruits. We'll eat on the road, if that's okay. Not like Thatchholm's kitchen is open at this hour, anyway.”

Rubbing his eyes, Spike's face grew serious; he nodded. “Okay. Let's go.”

They wandered down the massive wooden ramps that led from Thatchholm's third floor to its second floor, and then down from its second floor onto the ground floor with its planking and its massive pillars. Applejack passed by the guardsponies, who nodded at her and permitted her to open up the great barn's double doors. Spike hopped on her back as she went cross the stone foundation. She nodded to herself, preparing to move out, ready to cry for the gates of the whole fastness to be opened-

“Wait!”

She turned. Ashtail cantered toward her from the open barn doors. He wore his own red leather armor, emerald set within its champron. Saddlebags were strapped onto his flanks. Applejack arched an eyebrow. “Sugarcube, what are you doin'?”

“If you are going to throw yourself into this foolishness, I'll at least be there alongside you,” he replied. “Darius may ignore you, but I am a Prince of Gildedale, his next door neighbor. I'll do whatever I can to get you an audience.”

“Ashtail, I can't ask you to leave your father and your country while it's gearin' up for war.”

“I spoke to my father last night. He thinks it is best I go.” His eyes wavered. “And even if he did not think so, I would go with you. I love you, golden dearest. I'll follow you to the ends of the Earth.”

Applejack's cheeks reddened. She nodded. “Well, all right then. If that's how it's gonna be, who am I to object?”

They smiled at each other. They chuckled, then laughed. Still guffawing Ashtail trotted to the ramp and down it, whence he cried out, “The Crown Prince of Gildedale withdraws from Thatchholm, bound for parts unknown! Open the gates!”

Yes, sir!” the gateponies all cried. They slid the massive bars out of their slots, and with the pulling of the winches and the levers made the massive gates swing free, opening onto the fields still gray and wet in morning's weak and early light.

“Issidonia is due north from here. At a good pace we can reach it in two days' time. I presume you haven't lost a-”

“Oh, good! I caught you!”

The two ponies and one dragon turned about. Coming down the ramp, through the gates whose closing had been halted, was Shield Maiden, who like Ashtail and Applejack was armored in her ruddy leather and wore saddlebags upon her flanks. Ashtail arched an eyebrow. “Lieutenant, I don't recall telling you I was leaving.”

“No, Captain, you did not. I learned it from Checkboard when I cornered him last night.”

“Shield Maiden, what about Silkstring?” asked Applejack.

“She is safe and sound, as safe and sound as she would be even if I stayed behind.”

“Lieutenant, this not official Dale Guard business. Where I am going, I go of my own accord. You are under no orders to accompany us.”

Shield Maiden made a face. “I wish to accompany you because Applejack is my friend, sir, and so are you, at least as far as protocol allows. I want to help however I can. At the very least I think you two could use another pair of hooves capable of a good punch.”

“I...” Applejack began.

“If you do not wish me to come- if you order me not to- I shall not. But sir... please?”

Applejack watched Shield Maiden and Ashtail look upon each other. She saw and realized how much was passing with their unspoken rapport. It occurred to her, all of a sudden, that she was not well-acquainted with their friendship, with all the hardships and the troubles that they must have seen together. There was a whole entire history between them that she was not privy to, but that which now was passing in between them.

Finally a smile spread on Ashtail's face. “All right, Lieutenant- you may come.”

“Thank you, sir!” She trotted forward til she was on Applejack's left side; Ashtail was on her right.

“You'd best not slow us down, though,” said Ashtail, humor in his voice. “I notice you've gotten a bit paunchy recently.”

“I certainly won't fall behind, Captain,” deadpanned Shield Maiden, “not the least because I'd hate to be downwind of you after watching you eat last night.”

“Ha!” barked Ashtail. “To Issidonia we go, then. I suggest you hold on tight, master dragon! In Gildedale we ride hard and fast.”

“Ready!” cried Spike.

“Yah!” cried Ashtail, rearing up and whinnying. The three of them thus broke into a gallop, kicking up the grass as they set off into the north.

Chapter 33

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The throne room of the palace of the Crystal Empire was colder, lonelier than Twilight Sparkle had remembered. Much of this, she told herself, was due to circumstances. Even so, as she sat stewing inside of the tall, high crystal walls, she could not help but shiver. Or was it fear, not grief, not cold, that made her quake? I don't know, she told herself. I don't know anything any more.

Celestia, sitting in the throne at the room's head, could not conceal her grief. “What news, Cadence?” she asked.

Even Cadence, who in all the times that Twilight knew her had erupted in great warmth and love, was dour, lovely pink coat, candy-stripéd mane seeming flat and muted. “We've... we've managed to accommodate all the Equestrian ponies.” She gestured to a window; through it, all who looked could see huge towers hastily sprung up from fast-grown crystal. “It's cramped in the tenements- it can't help but be cramped- but everypony has some space. The crystal ponies have taken in those they can fit inside their homes.”

“What of my white-tails?” asked Falalauria, blinking twice her sightless eyes.

“We've got a tenement for them, too... I'm afraid the Chief Crystal Engineer didn't make it as spacious as the Equestrian tenements. I argued with him about it- I... he's fired now.” Cadence sighed and sunk into her haunches. “I'm so sorry, my lady.”

“No matter. You have done what you could.”

Silence reigned in long and heavy moments. Finally, Fluttershy could no more stand the quiet. “What do we do now?”

“We... we have to regroup, of course,” said Celestia. “We must plan a counteroffensive-”

“There's nothing to do,” said Pinkie Pie, bandages now supersaturated with the blackened fluid, such that it was seeping down her back. “There's nothing to do! We've lost!”

“Don't say that, Pinkie Pie,” Celestia said.

“She's got a point,” said Twilight. “We've been driven out- and most of Equestria is being taken over by Reiziger.” Her purple eyes grew narrow. “We should have stayed and fought!”

“Twilight, we did not have the power,” said Luna. “Nor was it safe to unleash what power we did have with civilians so close at hand.”

“Always with that excuse! And look where it's gotten us! We've lost! We lost Cloudsdale, we lost Manehattan, we lost Fillydelphia, and now we've lost Canterlot! We keep losing! I'm tired of it!” Tears sprang to her eyes. “I'm tired of seeing Reiziger destroy my country!”

“Twilight, that is why you all must continue to strengthen your Elements of-”

“My Element of Magic is more than strong enough, but it hasn't done us any good! And in case you haven't noticed, the Element of Loyalty and the Element of Generosity are in Reiziger's control! We couldn't use the Elements even if we wanted to!”

“We will cleanse them, Twilight,” said Celestia. “We must... somehow, we must.”

“Somehow? That's all you've got for me? Somehow?

The glare that Twilight fixed upon her broke Celestia's heart. There had for so long been a wideness, an openness to Twilight's eyes. They had seemed constantly vast as she looked everywhere, eager to learn and to absorb all information that she could out of the world. Now her eyes were hard, and closed. There was a fierceness in them that reminded her of-

Everyone's horns and antlers suddenly itched- and no wonder, for with a flicker the Deer Elders stood there in the throne room, Fëanor and Nordeshang, Glorfindel, Nona, Decima and Morta. Celestia's breath drew in as Fëanor's gold eyes lit onto her. “You have failed.”

“Fëanor, I-”

“You have failed!” he roared. “Your plan has failed, and Equestria has paid the price for your foolishness!”

“We have not failed, I swear it. There is still time for the Elements of Harmony to set things right.”

“Two of them are in the Herd Lord's possession. A third is far abroad on a hopeless quest for reinforcements. And one of them is infected with the Herd Lord's black rot- she is not long for this world. So I ask you, Celestia, what Elements do you speak of? It cannot be the Six.” Ominously, Pinkie started coughing, hacking up black goo.

“I... I shall not give up...” Celestia's voice caught within her throat. “I still have faith.”

“Faith is for fools,” snarled Fëanor. Nordeshang made a face, but did not speak.

“Celestia,” said Glorfindel, “surely you must admit that thus far, your faith has not been rewarded.”

“One does not possess faith by virtue of reason,” said Falalauria. “It is knowing beyond knowing, a certainty beyond even the reaches of Long Sight.”

“We hate to see you in such distress, Falalauria,” said Decima.

“How do you feel?” asked Nona.

“Well enough, save that I have neither sight nor Sight.” She sighed. “I can... perceive dimly using magic, and my other senses. I feel lost, though. I... I know nothing now.”

“But could you fight if you had to?” Fëanor asked.

“I... perhaps, maybe.”

“You may have no choice.”

“I say you have no choice to fight,” said Celestia, face twisting with anger. “You are still forbidden from using your battle magic in Equestria.”

“Your country is gone, Celestia. You are no longer princess of anything, and thus you have no authority with which to stop me.”

Celestia stepped off her throne. “I can stop you right now.” Her horn began to shimmer with the golden light of dawn.

Curling up his lip, Fëanor advanced. Bronze-gold power played upon his antlers. Twilight felt the crystal palace begin trembling gently. Celestia and Fëanor drew nearer to each other; wrath was smoldering between their eyes-

Suddenly a cool blue light enveloped both of them, and they were both dragged backward. “Enough!” bellowed Nordeshang. “Enough! We are friends, remember?”

“I have no time for friendships with fools,” snarled Fëanor. “Even as we speak, the Herd Lord is swallowing up Equestria. He is draining it of life and getting stronger all the while! Morta, show them.”

Morta stepped forward. Her eyes became now dark and filled with stars, but then, in a move Twilight had not seen before, she projected those stars outward in a warm galactic cloud. The stars then bloomed and brightened, becoming a white field, and then that white field gave way to a terrifying sight. From above, a shadow was enveloping Equestria. It was spreading out from Canterlot (had already eaten Ponyville), moving north, moving south, moving east, moving west. Then the vision shifted, swinging down into the dark. Changelings buzzed and drained the life and love of woodland creatures. Wyverns scorched the grass and trees. Fell beasts nested in the mountains, ungoliants wove webs of darkest shadow. Above it all there swooped the thestral and the mythicorn, silently surveying what was now owned by their master.

The vision broke apart; Morta's eyes returned to normal. Fëanor's own eyes grew narrow. “You see? We must act. We must wipe the Herd Lord off the face of the Earth, no matter the consequences of our assault!”

“Um, actually-”

What?

Fluttershy squealed and jumped back twelve paces, wings aflutter. Fëanor's eyes lit into her, piercing her, terrifying her. And yet... she felt she had to speak. She took a deep breath, tried to keep from shaking, and stood up. “Princess Celestia has a point, d-doesn't she? I mean, what good is it to destroy Equestria to destroy Reiziger? In the end, he's already done his job, and our home is ruined.”

“Equestria is already lost, Bearer of Kindness. My concern now is for the world as a whole- and for all worlds beyond it.”

“B-But you weren't able to destroy Reiziger last time, right?” Fluttershy was slowly standing taller. “And even once you sealed him a-away, the world was ruined. If the Wills That Draw The World hadn't made things better, nopony would have been alive, and the Earth would have ended.”

“But Fluttershy,” said Twilight, “if we don't stop Reiziger he'll drain the life of everything on Earth! The whole world will be lost if we don't act!”

“But if you do act, the world will still be lost,” Fluttershy turned now to Twilight. “Even if you defeat Reiziger, the destruction he's caused will stay around. Even after he's gone, Equestria will still be ruined, and only the Elements of Harmony can fix it. So we'll still need them, even if you fight. Why abandon them now?”

“Because if we don't act now there won't even be land to save! We've already waited too long! We've waited and struggled and tried to make our Elements stronger, but it hasn't worked!”

“Yes it has. Our Gifts are all more powerful than they used to be.”

“We can fix Equestria after we've annihilated Reiziger and all his forces!”

Anger flashed in Fluttershy's soft heart. “Two of our friends are part of his forces now. Have you forgotten about that? Or were you planning on killing them, too?”

Twilight's eyes went wide, then narrowed up again. “How dare you. What's wrong with you, Fluttershy?”

“I...” her ears drooped. “I can't understand what's happened to you, Twilight. The Twilight who's my friend wouldn't talk the way you're talking.”

“I've changed. I've had to change. In case you haven't noticed, all of existence is in danger!”

“You're in danger too, can't you see that?”

“Stop it stop it stop it!” moaned Pinkie, hooves clutching her head. Fluttershy and Twilight stood apart now, only by a few feet, but the distance might well have been miles. Twilight glared across at Fluttershy, while Fluttershy's eyes had become turquoise depths of sadness and regret. The whole throne room- even Fëanor- had stood and watched the argument. Celestia and Cadence had been wincing at most everything Twilight had said.

“My my my, what a dour company.” Time and space rippled a bit. “Turn those frowns upside-down!”

Balloons, streamers, and dancing ponies wearing bunny ears suddenly burst into existence. A cake emerged within the middle of the throne room. It jiggled, it wiggled, and then from it burst Discord, a party hat upon his head.

“Ta da!” he exclaimed. He looked around. Nopony had laughed. “Whew, tough crowd.” Then he turned, and saw the deer, and grinned. “Why if it isn't Fëanor! How are you, old grumpy guts?”

“Hello, Chaos Lord,” Fëanor growled.

“Still as charming as ever, I see.”

“Discord, where have you been?” asked Fluttershy. “I've been worried about you!”

“Oh, I've been going to and fro across the world, walking all up and down it- that sort of thing.” He slithered from the cake and wound into the air. “The doings here in Equestria have most creatures very spooked. They're talking about the end of the world.” He dragged his paws down his long face. “Oh, my. It's a perfect time to have a party! Wouldn't you say, Pinkie Pie?” Pinkie did not answer, curled up and muttering as she was.

“It is not time for a party,” growled Twilight. “How dare you mock all this!”

“Mock? I'm serious. We celebrate at funerals too, after all. And-”

“You know, Chaos Lord,” barked Fëanor, “if you truly are reformed, why don't you just magic the Herd Lord out of existence?”

Discord put his paw upon his chin. He floated there, thinking- or pretending to. “Hmm... nah.”

The throne room gasped. “But Discord, why not?” asked Cadence.

“Because the deerfolk haven't learned their lesson yet. Why interrupt divine teaching?”

“Lesson?” said Morta.

“The Herd Lord has nothing to teach us!” barked Glorfindel.

“Come on now, chuckles,” said Discord, plopping a party hat down on Glorfindel's head. “Think about it. The Wills That Draw The World could have stopped him at any time, if they'd really wanted to. I mean, they did work to undo all his destruction once he'd been sealed away. Doesn't that mean they allowed all that destruction in the first place?”

“But... I...” Decima stammered.

“Which means, of course, that the reason Annatar wreaked such havoc is because the Wills allowed it. That seems like they were doing some teaching. Hmm hmm, they basically gave you all a spanking.”

“Glorfindel is correct- we have nothing to learn from the Herd Lord,” Fëanor said.

“Oh, really?” Discord said, voice dropping an octave. “Because from where I'm floating,” he swirled closer to Fëanor, streamers and confetti following behind him, “it seems to me that he's merely taken the deerfolk's philosophies of superiority to their logical conclusion.”

“That's absurd,” said Nona.

“Is it, though? You all believe that the deerfolk, the six species, are superior to every other race and culture and folk- that's how you justified dominating and enslaving them, right?” The Elders said nothing. Discord nodded. “Well, if we take this idea as true, then it stands to reason that within the deerfolk, there are some species superior to the others, right?”

“That doesn't follow!” barked Fëanor.

“Doesn't it? Why shouldn't the high deer have cracked down on the common deer? And even more, why shouldn't it be the case that even within the high deer, there were some families, some groups, that were superior to the rest of those four species?” Discord waved his paw. “And so on, and so forth, on down and down, until you reach the point where there is one deer superior to all the rest. Hence Annatar and his delightful megalomania.”

“You're talking nonsense,” Glorfindel said. “The heights the deerfolk ascended to don't mean that there should have been division between the six species.”

“Ha!” Discord laughed, but then he made a face. “Oh, you're serious, aren't you? My goodness, how can you be centuries old and still so naive?”

“Stop joking around, Chaos Lord!” snapped Fëanor.

“Oh, you want me to stop joking? Fine.” Discord's voice again grew low, and dangerous. “I know the Wills That Draw The World better than anypony who is and was and will be. I know what they're after, and it's obvious to me that the deerfolk haven't learned a thing. Not even Falalauria has learned enough,” he said, to gasps from Luna and Celestia. “So the unjoking truth, Fëanor, is that you all, you six species, have deserved everything that's happened to you- every bit of it. And I'm determined to see that you keep on suffering until you finally learn your lesson, or until you've been completely wiped off the face of the Earth... whichever comes first.” The silence deafened. Discord shrugged. “Wow, now this is a tough crowd. Ta-ta, everypony! Oh, and Pinkie Pie, do feel better.” Then he vanished in a burst of light.

Nordeshang sighed deeply.

“My lord...” Nona began, but stopped.

“Enough! Forget him! He has at least agreed not to intervene, and that is enough for me.” Fëanor glanced out upon the throne room. “We are going to move against the Herd Lord. We shall take what allies will join us, right here and now. Celestia?'

“Never.”

“Unsurprising.” Fëanor's eyes drifted downward. “Luna, I know you cannot approve of your sister's decisions. You were always the more practical one. Surely you can see that the time for hoping and praying has passed, that-”

“Dost thou think to separate me from my sister?” Luna said. “Nay, Lord Fëanor. I...” she glanced sidelong at Celestia, sighed, and bowed her head, “I indeed have had my disagreements with Celestia. But I am with her to the end, regardless. If she will not join thee, neither shall I.”

“Very well.” Fëanor again swept round his head. “Falalauria, what of you?”

Again she blinked her sightless eyes. “I... cannot See, any more. I no longer have the gift of foresight. I can say nothing for certain.” Her blank black eyes grew narrow. “But I can smell, and touch, and taste, and hear, and all those senses speak to me of your disaster. I shall not join you, my lord.”

“Fine,” snarled Fëanor. His gaze settled on Cadence. “You... what was your name again?”

Cadence rolled her eyes. “So you want me to help you, but you don't even care enough to know who I am?”

“Forgive me, O alicorn princess, I simply have not had the time to learn of you. But I think... Cadence, yes?”

“Well, at least you know my name.” Cadence's cutie mark sparkled for a moment, and pain ran cross her face. “You claim you want to cause all this destruction for the good of the world, but that's not what I sense. Your heart is filled with hate, Lord Fëanor, and nothing good can come of that. I've always sworn not to kill, and I won't be changing that now. The answer is no.”

“Hate is sometimes necessary,” Fëanor responded. “But I shall respect your decision. And at last... Twilight Sparkle?”

All eyes in the crystal throne room swiveled onto her. She took a deep and final breath, then said, “I'll join you.”

“But Twilight!” exclaimed Fluttershy.

“Twilight, I know you're angry, but this is a bad idea,” said Cadence. “Please, think of what he's asking you to do.”

“I have to do what I feel is right. I'm sorry,” Twilight said.

“I know that, Twilight Sparkle,” said Celestia. “I know...” her face twisted in sorrow, “I know you have always, always wanted what is best for Equestria. But this is not the way to go about it. Twilight, listen-”

“No, you listen!” snapped Twilight, whirling on her mentor and her teacher, eyes ablaze. “You lied to me. You've lied to me all my life! You've kept things from me, held things back, not just the truth about the deerfolk but so many other things! But when I learned about them, one by one, I still trusted you, because I thought you knew best. I thought that if I put my faith in you, things would work out. But now... now everything is gone! Everything's lost! I put my trust in you and all that's left is ashes!” She twisted up her hoof and sharply turned, showing Falalauria and all the ponies her back. “Fëanor is right. You have failed. Now I have to do what has to be done.”

Celestia breathed hard in and out... but then she hung her head. “I won't stop you, then.”

Fëanor could scarce conceal his grin. “Well said, Twilight. Come here- you don't know where our stronghold is, so you will have to hold tight while I teleport to it.”

“Yes, my lord,” she said. She trotted to him and she wrapped a hoof around his lower leg. Twilight spared a final glance back at the gathered folk. All of them were staring at her with a longing and regret that nearly made her reconsider. But then anger rose again within her heart, and her soft eyes grew hard.

“My offer still stands; we shall not attack for several days,” said Fëanor. “In the meantime, if anyone wishes to join us, come to the highest mountain left in Equestria. I shall keep my eyes on it. Farewell.” The power rose around him. All the air was tingling.

Twilight glanced one last time back upon her friends and allies. She saw Celestia with empty, haunted gaze. She sighed. “Goodbye,” she said. Then Fëanor vanished, and she did as well.

Nona, Decima, and Morta likewise winked out one by one, Glorfindel right after them. Nordeshang remained for a few moments, blue eyes shimmering with sorrow. “Forgive us,” he said, then he teleported far away.

The moment they were gone Celestia lost all composure. She bowed her head, her shoulders shook, and soon her weeping filled the throne room, golden tears drip-dripping on the crystal floor.


“Everything is over now,” said Pinkie, trotting down the crystal steps. Out of the palace she and Fluttershy came down, the latter wincing as the black rot seeped to gushing out of Pinkie's bandages. Pinkie's colors had grown seriously dark, her pinks and hot magentas seeming more and more like sunlight's final gasp before the setting. “We're doomed.” She tripped, and tumbled down the steps, rolling in a heap onto the courtyard stones. “We're doomed!” she bawled, thrashing where she lay.

“Pinkie, I don't think so.”

“I can feel the end coming, oh gosh I can feel it! Can't you hear it? The crunching and the cracking of the bones of the world? The sun's gone dim, the sky's turned black! Shadow, shadow everywhere!”

“Pinkie, I think-”

“Wrath and destruction and hate are all that grow now. No plants, no animals, no life- only death!” She was crawling on her belly, scraping cross the stone into a garden where the crystal shimmered in between the lovely flowers and the blossoming tall trees. She looked about it and then vomited black bile. “So awful, so terrible.”

“Pinkie, we need-”

“This is it, the last and final winter of the pony race. The end is here! This is it! Everypony will die, and all that will be left is a smear across the stars! We'll all be dumped into the jaws of the Beast, the Thing that blotted out the sun and smashed the moon! There is no-”

Pinkie!” At last, the writhing pony stopped her motions. She turned onto her back and looked up. Fluttershy was standing in the sunlight. It might have been a twinkle of the light- or might have been some twisting of her vision brought on by the rot of Reiziger- but now the butter yellow pegasus appeared to glimmer. It was a faint thing, barely noticeable, like the half-seen spark when flint strikes flint. In an instant, half an instant, Fluttershy seemed brighter, somehow. Then she sighed, and the soft spell was broken. “Pinkie,” she said gently, “ we have to leave.”

“L-Leave?”

“We have to leave the Crystal Empire. I... I don't know how I know that, but I do. W-We have to go back into Equestria, and keep training our Elements. We have to keep training our Gifts.”

“Why? Why bother?” Pinkie cried black tears. “Don't you get it, Fluttershy? It's over! It's done! The Elements of Harmony have failed!”

“I can't believe that. I won't believe that. I'm still here, and so are you, and we're still friends, and as long as there's a friendship between two of us, the Elements haven't failed. Not yet.”

“I... I can't see... I can't see anything good!”

Fluttershy sat down, was quiet for a moment. Then she gently said, “I... I know that I don't do much... or talk much. I know that sometimes I'm... scared. But one of the things that happens when you sit back and watch... so much... is that you realize how much things work out, in the end. Darkness never lasts forever, Pinkie. The sun always rises. The stars always come out. The rain breaks up, the rainbow comes. It happens even when you've forgotten that it ever did before.” Fluttershy went to Pinkie and rested a gentle hoof upon her cheek. “Hope isn't lost, Pinkie Pie. Faith hasn't failed.”

Pinkie glanced downward. “I don't have any faith left.”

“You don't have to. All you need to do now is come with me.” She smiled sheepishly. “I mean, if it's okay with you.”

Pinkie looked up into Fluttershy's deep eyes. They were wavering, quavering- she was not as confident as she was forcing herself to appear. But there was, just so, a strength somewhere, deep down underneath the fear. Pinkie breathed out. “I'll come.”

“Yay!” cheered Fluttershy. She turned around and showed her back to Pinkie. “Now, hop on. It'll be faster if we fly.”

Rising on her creaking limbs, Pinkie clambered atop Fluttershy, wrapping all four legs around her torso. Fluttershy spread out her wings. “Are you sure you can carry me, Fluttershy?” Pinkie asked. “Are you strong enough?”

Fluttershy sighed. “I'll try to be.” She flapped her wings. At first she gasped, for Pinkie's weight was no small thing, and even after all the training she had done to make the waterspout, she wasn't a strong flier. But she did not give up. She kept on flapping, kept on pushing, and finally she rose into a hover. Pumping her wings harder still, she rose into the air, and with a twist around into the south, both ponies flew away, off into the shadow that had eaten the horizon.

Chapter 34

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Twilight Sparkle rolled onto her back atop her bed. The ceiling of her room within the Deer Elders' fastness was beautiful. Everything here was beautiful- it was a sparkling, wondrous place, lined all over with graceful white stone and gleaming crystal, formed and shaped in swooping curves and wondrous lovely soaring vaulted heights. The fastness was somewhere inside the Archback Mountains- she hadn't really learned where, precisely, as she hadn't gone outside in the few days she'd been here. All she knew was that it was peaceful and quiet, that it brimmed with magic- and was filled with books! She'd stacked a pile of them on the table by her bed. She probably would not have time to read them all before the fight with Reiziger, but still she loved their titles and their looks. Practical Aeromancy, The Spells of Creation, Converging Harmonic Gifts With Charms- on and on, a master class in magic scholarship.

“So why does my heart hurt?” she asked herself, and it was a rhetorical question, nearly. She knew why she felt awful, why she felt that she was burning every step she took. I had to do it! There had been no other choice. She had to save the world, even if she no longer could save Equestria. It was, deep down, what Princess Celestia would want, if she could only think more clearly.

Still, Twilight reflected- as she sat up on her bed- that she had made a break that could be irreversible. If- when they defeated Reiziger, Equestria would no longer be habitable. Where would she go? What would she do? She was bound to the Elders now, and such a uniting seemed permanent.

“I'd better start brushing up on my Laewtil,” she told herself.

Just then there was a rapping on her door. “Twilight?” Fëanor's voice echoed through the wood. “Are you in there?”

“Yes, Lord Fëanor.”

“Good! I wanted you to join us in our council room. We must discuss our plan of attack against the Herd Lord.”

“All right!” she said, sliding off the bed. It was still so strange to be so tall, yet she was getting used to it. Opening the door, she saw Fëanor standing in the hall. She nodded. “Lead the way.”

On the went into the hall, then through it, out into the towering and gleaming chambers that were even now aglow with soft white light. A waterfall was thundering down a deep chasm that they crossed upon a stony bridge. Twilight wished to stop so many times, wanted to halt to observe her towering and glorious surroundings. Fëanor, however, did not slack his pace, so she continued, following him through the stony passages.

At last they reached two double doors. Fëanor's magic pried them apart, so Twilight saw a table around which Nona, Decima, Morta, Nordeshang, and Glorfindel had already gathered. “We are all here then,” Fëanor said. “So let us begin.”

The air was thick with magic. Twilight started filtering it in and out her horn, simply so that she could think straight. The spells and counterspells and countercounterspells were woven heavily, making clean perception difficult. Yet when Nordeshang spoke, his voice was clear as thunder: “So then, you mean to make your move, my lord?”

“I do,” said Fëanor. “The Herd Lord is settled in his fastness now. He is content. He is not expecting an attack. Now is the time to strike.”

“A pity we could not have recruited more from among the ponies,” said Glorfindel.

“A pity, further, that we could not find more deer about the world to rally to our banner,” Nona said. “What of the mule deer, the ones that lived in the Everfree Forest? Surely we could ask them.”

“We do not need common deer,” said Fëanor. “As harsh as it sounds, they lack the power for the fight we are about to commence.”

“Refusing help? Now? That is unwise,” said Nordeshang.

“Have you something to say, Lord Nordeshang?” said Fëanor.

“I have many things to say, Lord Fëanor. You know that. I have said them time and time again, yet you have chosen to ignore me.”

“Well I am not ignoring them now,” said Fëanor, his voice low and dangerous. “So why don't you get on with your lecture, old moose?”

“Take some wisdom from these tired old bones,” said Nordeshang, his voice remaining even. “You have alienated those who could help you with your bright line of devastation. Your talk of sacrificing Equestria did you no favors with Celestia and Luna.”

“I merely spoke the truth. I did what I felt was wise.”

“Celestia is wise as well, or have you forgotten? You still see her so much as your student, but she is now thousands of years old herself, and more than that, she is a goddess- she has a channel of her power and her thought that flows straight to the Wills That Draw The World. You will not even consider the possibility that she knows things that you may not.”

“I cannot see inside Celestia's mind, that is true. I can only look at the results of her gambit, and they are gruesome. She has failed completely.”

“Until all ponies are dead, and all Equestria is bathed in shadow, she has not failed to the fullest extent.”

“Father Nordeshang,” said Decima, “you don't seriously think Princess Celestia is right about the Elements of Harmony, do you?”

“Is anyone at all right about the Elements?” asked Nordeshang. “The Elements are beyond us. The Elements are beyond all creatures. They ripple out directly from the Wills. Their power is like nothing in reality.” He swiveled now to, “Twilight Sparkle, surely you can attest to this, you who have felt the power of the Elements of Harmony firsthand?”

Twilight flinched backward as everydeer stared at her. “I...” she started, stammered, “I...” she glanced down toward the ground, “I suppose... it's so hard to describe what it feels like- the Elements, I mean. It's like...” she raised a hoof and waved it round, “like suddenly you're so much smaller than you thought you were, and at the same time, you're so much bigger, too. Like all of a sudden everything fits together perfectly.”

“But you cannot access them without your friends, can you?” asked Morta.

“No...”

“So there we have it,” Fëanor said. “The Herd Lord has taken for himself two of the Elements, so using them is out of the question. We must beat him as we did before, with magic and with battle.”

“But we are not as we were before, Fëanor, can't you see that?” Nordeshang said.

“We have power as we did of old. Indeed, I should say the Deer Elders are stronger than ever.”

“Come to your senses, Fëanor!” snapped Nordeshang. “When you and I rode against the Herd Lord, after Gil-Galad fell, we, the most powerful of all the deerfolk, numbered thirty. Now we number six- seven, if Princess Twilight Sparkle proves as strong as you hope. And even when we were at our mightiest, we never defeated him, we merely sealed him away. Now you think you can annihilate him in open combat with so few bulls and cows? You are overestimating this force, Fëanor. Don't be a fool!”

“We held back before,” said Fëanor. “We held back, we were frightened, we still hoped that brightness would prevail at the last second. We know better now. Moreover, each deer here, individually, is more powerful than the thirty that were with us for the Last Fight. What we lack in numbers we make up for in ability and strength. We are capable of blasting the Herd Lord off this Earth.”

“Even if it means the destruction of Equestria? The destruction of multiple nations and folk, all over the world?”

“If it is necessary!”

“Gil-Galad would not have so callously consented to sacrificing species.”

“Gil-Galad did not face such circumstances as I face,” snarled Fëanor. “I must do what I can with what I am given.”

“Gil-Galad also never gave up hope of a better solution. He fought as a last resort. He-”

“I am not my brother!” roared Fëanor, lunging forward. Nordeshang, in shock, drew back.

However, he composed himself in short order. “No,” he said, “you are not. You are your own bull, for good or ill, and you must do what you feel is right. I, however, cannot consent to your decisions. My killing days are done, Fëanor. If you choose to crack the land, to boil the seas, to destroy everything simply so that the Herd Lord may be vanquished... you will do it without me.” He backed up, and suddenly it seemed as though a wall of tallest, hardest stone had come down in between him and the other deer. He glanced at all them, blue eyes fierce and firm and bright. “I wash my hooves of this business. All I shall say, before I go, is this: be careful, my beloved deer. Be careful.” Then he took a step- and vanished.

Fëanor sighed. “So then,” he began, “shall we discuss our plans?” The others remained silent. Fëanor arched an eyebrow. “What?”

“We... have never been without Nordeshang before,” said Nona, voice unsteady.

“We do not need him,” said Fëanor. “Twilight Sparkle is more than strong enough to stand in his stead- aren't you, Twilight?”

Twilight's throat grew dry. She swallowed, she breathed in and out so totally bereft and lonely that she had no thought or hope of what she might do if she wished to do a thing beside what she could hope for now- “Yes,” she said, throat still dry and parched. “Yes, I'll do whatever I have to!”

“Excellent,” said Fëanor. “Now, regarding our plan...”


Luna stood atop the highest reaches of the palace of the Crystal Empire, dusk finally falling on the land. She breathed in, smelled the creeping night and growing darkness dank and soft. She could smell the frigid air that came out of the northern wastes around the Empire. She smelled the faint traces of salt that came out of the distant sea. With a furrow of her brow, she swung back toward the south and could smell... nothing. The wall of shadow, blacker than the deepest depths of midnight, cut off not just sight but scent from all beyond it, leaving nothing to her senses.

Luna sighed, heart aching from sadness. But she had a job to do, the job that she'd been begotten to do. Her horn glowed silver, and silver light began to shimmer on her whole dark body. She raised up, flapping hard her wings, pulling, touching, gently guiding- until, with swelling silver radiance, the Moon rose over the horizon, soft and gentle. It was full tonight, or nearly so. Luna smiled up at it, and nodded. “A good evening to thee, kind sir,” she said. “I wish thou shonest upon a happier land.”

The Moon, of course, was silent. Its silver beams were bathing all the Empire, catching on the crystal surfaces and lighting them as though a pale soft fire burned in every wall and tower. Luna smiled. Then she sighed, her heart so heavy. She glanced down o'er the castle, seeing all the guards changing their stations as they marched, seeing-

“Tia?” There was her sister, standing on the tallest balcony out from the castle's tallest reach. Flapping wings of midnight blue, Luna fluttered down until she landed gently just behind Celestia. “Tia, whatever brings thee out here? It has been a long day.”

Celestia did not immediately answer. She sat upon her haunches, gazing up into the sky. In the moonlight her coat was particularly white and ghostly. Luna was about to speak again when Celestia finally said, “Lulu, you never quite explained to me how you became Nightmare Moon.”

Luna blanched. “I...” she shook her head, “I do not quite understand it, myself. It involved the Nightmare, a thing I encountered in my wanderings upon the Moon. I would often go to the Moon to brood and seethe in those later years, consumed with jealousy as I was. There I found the Nightmare- or I created it in my hate, I am not sure. It may have been there waiting for me. I think there may be more of them upon the Moon- or there may not be. Again, I cannot be certain. So much of those late, dark years is hazy to me.”

“Do you think you could conjure that power again- or draw that power to you, again?”

Luna's eyes bulged. “Perhaps... but why?”

“And if you could do it to yourself again, why not to me as well?” Celestia had still not turned around.

“Tia?” Luna said, with growing fear.

“You yourself estimated that, as Nightmare Moon, you were as powerful as Reiziger, or close. If you and I were both infected by Nightmares, surely the two of us could destroy him.”

“Likely we could,” said Luna, voice unsteady, “but then Equestria would trade one tyrant for two.”

“Surely we would not be as bad as he. Moreover, with our power we could repair Equestria, rebirth it. It would be a land of shadow... a land of dark moons and a black sun. But it would be a land, still... not a smoking crater.” At last, Celestia turned round. Tears were streaming from her eyes. “What say you, then, Luna? A Nightmare for each of us. Can you do it?”

“I... no! No, I shan't! Tia, thou art speaking madness!”

“I don't know what else to do, though!” Celestia exclaimed. “I... my faith is failing, Luna. It's nearly failed completely. Maybe Fëanor is right. Maybe I am a fool.”

Luna trotted up beside her. She sat down next to her, and then her dark wing stretched out, wrapping round Celestia's large sides. “Celestia, my sister dear,” Luna reached a hoof up, took Celestia's chin in it, and made those pink eyes look down into Luna's seafoam stare, “what dost thou feel? Is hope truly lost?”

“I...” Celestia stared down at Luna, “I...” She took a breath. “No,” she said at last. “I... I don't know how, I don't know why, but I have not given up hope. I cannot. Something in the back of my mind... in the depths of my heart... tells me that I cannot give up on the Elements of Harmony. I feel, in a way I cannot describe, that they will prevail in the end.”

Luna smiled. “Then I shall keep hope. I shall not give up.”

Celestia smiled, shook her head. “Neither will I.”

“Tia, I too have faith. Thou art not the only pony who believes in ways she cannot explain. I do not doubt, I do not fear.”

“I don't either. I mean, my head keeps telling me that everything has failed, but... my heart says differently.”

“Let us stay strong, then.”

Celestia nodded. “Yes. Let's be the princesses our ponies need us to be.” She reached out then, and wrapped her sister in a hug. “Thank you for not abandoning me when Fëanor tempted you.”

“I could never abandon thee, Tia. Thou art my family. I shall stay beside thee unto the ending of the world.”

Celestia nuzzled Luna gently. “You're the best, Lulu.”


Trixie shivered and fidgeted in her dirty corner of the throne room. She had grown gaunt and thin. Her coat had turned a stony gray, her eyes were bloody red, her mane and tail were nearly white with paleness. She gnashed her sharpened teeth, gnawing on the magic in the air. This place- this castle of her Master's- was new. He had forged it from pure shadow no more than a week ago, grafting it onto the mountainside where Canterlot had been. She was so happy to be here. It was not as cramped and damp as it had been inside the changeling hive, and she could better feel the magic of her Master. How she loved his presence! And yet, how she hated it! His power burned her skin, made her writhe. Always always in her mind he was and she said it was for the best but still she hated it and then she blinked and wrinkled up her nose a smile split her face he was coming he was coming-

And like that, Reiziger emerged, great doors swinging open at his entry. The mythicorn and thestral were beside him, walking close in stead. Continue to scour the hills for more survivors, he thought at them, thoughts also booming into Trixie's mind. He was always in her mind now, he was she and she was he and she was we. I know by now that most ponies have fled north to the Crystal Empire, but likely there are some dozens still scrounging through the nooks and crannies of the country. Find them and bring them to me.

“M-Master!” cried Trixie, scampering toward him. “Oh, Master, we missed you! We must-st be with you, Master!”

Ah, hello, Trixie, he smiled down at her. Trixie smiled back stupidly. How she loved his smile! How she loved that mouth of razor teeth that was her everything! He stretched out a hoof. Come now, my dear.

“M-Master, we loves you!” Trixie lunged forward and began to kiss the hoof, slobbering all over it. “We l-loves you so much, Master! Y-You are our everything!”

That's my girl, he smiled again, she squealed in glee. His antlers shimmered crimson, and a long leg bone appeared beside him in the air. Here you go, dear. Enjoy. His magic flung the bone into the corner. Trixie scampered to it; she skittered to a stop beside it, caught it up within her hooves, and started gnawing on it, sharp teeth stripping off the little muscle still upon the leg. Reiziger chuckled. That is all for now, he thought, turning to the thestral and the mythicorn. Go to your business. They bowed, and trotted from the room. The throne room doors slammed shut. Reiziger mounted the steps to his black throne, settling upon it. Now he could-

“Hello, hello, hello! Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo, I think that's how you say it.”

Starting up, Reiziger whirled around, antlers wrapped in crimson flames. He relaxed a bit, however, when he saw the source of the disturbance. “Ah, hello, Chaos Lord.”

“Hello, Annatar,” said Discord, floating down before the throne, “or should I call you Prince Elbert of the Caribou?”

Reiziger growled like a beast. “That name no longer has any meaning for me.”

“Well that's strange. You recognize it, after all.”

“Only as a snake recognizes its old skin. I am beyond it now- the Deer Elders made certain of that by stripping it from the world.”

“Oh, yes, that little detail is important, I suppose.” Discord spun around. “I love what you've done with the place, by the way. Black and spiky is très chic this season.”

Reiziger's empty red eyes rolled in their sockets. “What do you want, Chaos Lord?”

“Just wanted to take a tour of the place, and to see a dark lord at the height of his power. You don't always get a glimpse at these evil empires before they fall.”

“Ha! The world will fall, true, but only because I shall drain it of all life.”

“Hmm-hmm, yes, of course,” said Discord, leaning up against a wall and looking at his claws.

“M-Master, M-Master is greatest, M-Master is best,” stammered Trixie, crawling on the floor beside him.

“Huh?” said Discord, glancing down at her. “Hmm,” he hummed, and reached behind his back. He seemed to be rummaging through something, which was very odd because there was not a bag or sack or pack in sight. At last he pulled his paw back, revealing a pair of fluffy earmuffs. “I wonder,” and he slipped the earmuffs over Trixie's head.

Trixie blinked, her eyes becoming clearer. “Wait, what?” she said. She glanced down at herself, horror growing on her face. “What am I-” Discord yanked the earmuffs off, and Trixie's eyes grew red and hazy yet again. “M-Master!” she panted. “W-We loves Master!” She started writhing, rolling in the dust.

“Huh,” said Discord, stroking his goat's beard. “When you get in somepony's head, Annatar, you really make a home for yourself in there.”

“I am the focus and the end of all things,” said Reiziger. “All things will reflect me, and then they will perish.”

“I'm sure they will.”

Reiziger's eyes narrowed. “Do you doubt me, Chaos Lord?”

“Well, don't take it from me,” said Discord. He started roller-blading round the throne room. “Take it from Sombra, and Nightmare Moon, and Chrysalis, and the Sirens, and Tirek sooner or later, and- well, actually, you can take it from me. I've been on the business end of those six ponies too, after all.”

“The Elements of Harmony are finished. They are no longer a concern.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

Reiziger teleported right in front of Discord, eyes burning, antlers burning with red magic and red fire. “I am Death ascendant, you ugly, gangly practical joker! I shall not be disrespected, not in the palace I built on the corpse of my enemy's greatest city!” Reiziger channeled yet more power. The crimson fire on his antlers blazed and rose. “I am the Lord of All the Herds, first and last and greatest of the deerfolk! No buffoon of a draconequus will-” Discord took a deep breath suddenly and blew-

And the fire on Reiziger's antlers was blown out. Discord loomed above him. “Don't sass me, Elbert. It will only end in tears.”

Reiziger sighed and turned away. “Fine. But if you were going to attack me, you would have done it by now.”

“True enough. In fact, I'm not going to attack you, and I'm not going to help the ponies- but I'm not going to help you, either. I want to sit back and see how all this ends, so this is the last you'll be hearing from me- on one condition.”

“I'm listening.”

“There's a pony- a pegasus, soft yellow, long and wispy pink mane and tail.”

“Fluttershy,” said Reiziger. “I know her- bearer of the Element of Kindness.”

“She's a good friend of mine, and I was hoping I could take her away from all this if Equestria falls for good.”

When Equestria falls, you mean.”

“No, I said 'if.' If Equestria falls, I'd prefer if you not do anything to her.”

“Fine,” said Reiziger. “As I said, I have nothing more to fear from the Elements of Harmony. Take her when she is crying over the death of her friends and her folk. Take her wherever you wish. In time, no place in the universe will be safe. No creature in all existence will be able to withstand me in the end- not even you, Chaos Lord.”

“I'm glad you think so.”

“Ha! So we are in accord, then?”

“For the moment,” said Discord, stretching out his paw. “Shake?”

Reiziger stretched out his hoof, and the two of them shook as best they could. “You know, if you'll stay, I could show you around.”

“Oh, I'd love that!” said Discord. “Give me the grand tour!”

“Heh.” Reiziger trotted through a short hall to a great balcony that looked down onto deep, dark pits. “We'll start here, where you can get a good glimpse of my Foundries. Even as we speak, my dark power is crafting new nightmares that will topple Equestria once and for all- then the whole world after that.”

Discord floated down onto the balcony and looked below. Burst of light were rising; grunts and rumbles filled the air. “Ooo,” he said, “shadow and flame! Very nice.”

“I think so,” said Reiziger. “Now, if you'll follow me this way...”

Chapter 35

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The sky above was cloudy, and the northern winds whipped hard. The hills that had ascended gently over the past day were blown across by all the moving air, rippling the golden grass that in the dull gray light was nearly brown. Spike glanced beyond their place, beyond the hill they now ascended, into the gray sky. “Are we almost there?” he asked. “It's been hours since sunrise, and this is the third day!”

“No worries, Spike,” said Shield Maiden. “We are quite close.”

“In fact,” said Ashtail, “just over this hill...”

They crested the hill then, and Spike's jaw dropped. A massive range of snow-capped mountains surged before them, but these were not new- he'd seen mountains before. Never, though, had he seen art on mountains. But sure enough, many of the sheer rock faces had been carved with glyphs, with pictographs half-miles tall and wide. On some of the smaller mountain peaks, in fact, the summits had been carved into beaked heads that looked in three or four directions, great eyes staring sightless at the summits of the world.

“Golly,” said Applejack. “That's Issidonia?”

“Some of it, anyway,” said Ashtail. “There is a great vast valley that cuts into this mountain range. Much of the country runs along that valley, along the cliff walls and upon the mountaintops. The griffins live amid the mountains- their cities and their towns and their aeries are there. Most of the time they are cut into the very r-”

A shriek came down and all three ponies ducked as something swooped low o'er their head. It pulled back and then up. With great awe Applejack saw that it was a griffin- and no sooner had she picked it out amid the sky than all the air was full of them. A dozen of them flew in swirling circles overhead. Then they swung in wide arcs ever downward, spiraling descending til they nearly touched the manes of everypony on the ground. By this time, though, not even Spike was flinching.

Ashtail rolled his eyes. “That's enough of that!” he shouted. “Come down and speak to us!”

As if on command the griffins swung about and skimmed the grassy earth. One by one they touched down, wings folding upon their sides. A gray and white griffin, armored in bronze, curving sword upon his hip, padded forward. “Daleponies,” he said, his Equestrian somewhat accented, “what brings you to our borders?”

“Uh, actually,” said Applejack, stepping forward, “I'm the reason everypony's here.”

The gray griffin looked sidelong at her. “You are not a Dalepony- you have the colors of an Equestrian.”

“Sure do! I'm Applejack, of Ponyville. I'm here to request an audience with King Darius!”

“Ha!” the griffin laughed, and past his shoulder all his fellows laughed as well. “Yes, yes, you who wander in here like a charging buffalo- yes, we'll take you right away! I'm sure His Majesty will love to see you!”

“This is no laughing matter, master griffin,” said Ashtail. “Doom is coming. Blackness is spreading.”

“First of all,” the griffin said, “I am Duke Philip of the House Pahlavi, so we'll dispense with this 'master griffin' nonsense.”

“Delighted to meet you, O Philip,” said Ashtail. “I am Prince Ashtail, son of King Hammer Hoof of Gildedale.”

“Hmph,” huffed Philip. “Then I put the question to you: what is Gildedale royalty doing on our doorstep?”

“I am here on behalf of Applejack,” said Ashtail. “She seeks an audience with King Darius, as she has mentioned. I should like to add my voice to her petition.”

“We have no business with you, Dale prince, and one Equestrian pony very far from home is not going to sway us.”

“She is no mere Equestrian,” said Shield Maiden. “She is a bearer of one of the Elements of Harmony, which I am certain you have heard of.”

“Yeah!” cried Spike. “She's the Element of Honesty! She and her friends have saved the world a bunch of times!”

Philip arched an eyebrow. “Prove it.”

“How dare you-” Ashtail started.

“If she's really one of the Elements of Harmony, she won't object to me seeing what she can do. Go on, Equestrian.”

Applejack stepped forward. A shadow passed above her head; looking up, she saw an airship, a great wide-winged contraption, floating overhead. Her eyes went wide. It was so different from the Equestrian airships, powered by balloons; she'd heard that the griffins had such crafts, but seeing one was something else.

“Well?”

“Oh! Sorry,” said Applejack. She blinked hard, briefly at a loss- but then she grinned. “All right, honey, tell me somethin' about yourself.”

“You're the one who needs to talk!”

“This is part o' the demonstration. Now, go on- lay some details on me.”

“Hmm,” said Philip. “Well, my mother's side of the family traces its beginnings back to Atusa, one of our first and greatest queens. I am the true claim to that lineage, the one who bears the title Scion of Atusa-”

“No you ain't,” said Applejack. “There's somepony else you've swindled it from.”

Philip's eyes went wide. He shook his head. “Nonsense.”

“Come on, Philip,” said Applejack, stepping forward, “tell the truth.” Just then her cutie mark began to glow. A ripple tinged in rainbows spread out from it, tingling through the empty space.

“I... no... no that's not tr-” Philip jerked backward. “It's a li-” he twisted to one side. He flipped backward and started writhing on the ground. “It's not tr-!” his tongue curled back into his throat, and then he started choking, started flailing, clawing at his throat so much that feathers flew from it. At last, exhausted, he rolled onto his side. “You're right.”

“What?” a griffin bellowed.

“What devilry is this?” another griffin cried. “What did you do to the captain?” He drew his sword.

“No, no...” Philip stood up, “she is right.” He chuckled bitterly. “She is right!” They gasped. “In our family, only the true firstborn is allowed to bear the title 'Scion of Atusa.' But my mother's firstborn, her true firstborn, was a daughter. “ Gasps rose up. “She came out sickly, and died a few days after she was born. Thus the title should have lain dormant until my own children were born. However, my mother convinced the Royal Surgeon to manipulate the records and show her as having a miscarriage, show the birth as having never happened. So when I was born, I got to claim the title- and all the grand privileges that came with it.”

“My Duke... that can't be true,” a griffin said. “All this time- you've been lying?”

“Yes,” he said, and chuckled mirthlessly again. “I was going to carry my secret to the grave... but when you asked me, when you spoke... I just couldn't lie. I tried and tried but I couldn't.”

“I'm so sorry, honey,” said Applejack, putting a hoof on his shoulder. “T'ain't right for anypony to lose family.”

“How?” asked Philip. “How did you get that out of me? That was something I swore I'd never tell. I even used hypnotism to reinforce my unwillingness to tell.”

“That is the power of the Element of Honesty,” said Ashtail, “so now you truly know to whom you speak.”

Philip peered deeply in Applejack's green eyes. She smiled gently at him. He sighed, at last, and shook his head. “True enough,” he said at last. “I have heard of the Elements of Harmony, but to feel one's power is something different. And for my earlier flippancy I am disgraced! I will be stripped of my title. At the same time, I feel strangely... good.” He sighed, and even smiled a bit. “So then here are the Element of Honesty and the Crown Prince of Gildedale, eh? All right, fine! I shall take you to the king!” He motioned with his talons, and the airship slowly drifted to the ground. Its wings were canted upward as it landed, and the griffins in it kicked open the door. “We are bound for Elam!” Philip cried. “Go to the capital at full speed!”

The three ponies and Spike walked quickly into the enlarged interior, where wooden panels forged a warm and gently curving space, while bronze fixtures and brass controls were present everywhere. Philip and the other griffins crowded in as well; when they were all inside the doors were closed, a shimmer signifying magic passed into the ship, and slowly all were lifted off the ground. The great airship turned round and spread its wings, then gave a gentle flap, sending it into the vast and awesome mountains.

“This is amazing!” shouted Spike, clustered by the window. Looking down, he kept on gasping from his awe: every mountainside and peak was carved with pictographs and bas reliefs, many of them miles wide and long. In the cloudy sunlight they were dark and terrible, especially since many of them showed griffins locked in battle, fighting now with dragons, with deer, with minotaurs- and with pegasi. In fact, the scenes of combat between pegasi and griffins were the most common of all. “Hey, what's the deal with you guys and pegasi?” he asked.

“The pegasi are our enemies of old,” said a griffin nearby. “We have fought with them, and they with us, as far back as either of our kind can remember. Even when they joined together with the unicorns and the earth ponies to form Equestria, they still fought with us.”

“I do recall hearin' about that,” said Applejack. “The pegasi used to be the only soldierin' types in all Equestria. Heck, that's why most of the old knight orders are made o' pegasi families.”

“And why there are so many pegasi in the Royal Guard,” said Spike. “Twilight told me about it once- she said that more than half the guard was made of pegasi!”

“They are fighters, and so are we,” said Philip. “They are fierce, and so are we.”

“Whoa!” cried Spike again. “Applejack, Ashtail, Shield Maiden- look!”

The three ponies hurried into the windows, and they gasped as much as Spike. The airship was now passing quickly through the mountains. They had moved beyond most of the mountain carvings, though here and there a few still could be seen. What stuck out of the mountains now were homes. Towns, villages, whole huge cities could be seen carved directly into the mountain rock, firelight burning in their windows as the day remained all dark and glowering. Roads wrapped up in rings of life and light, sturdy towers jutted from the peaks, everywhere the glimmer of the stone, the flash of bronze, the shine of golden accents was a marvel and a wonder.

“By the Sun Queen,” whispered Shield Maiden. “I have never seen such wonders.” She shook her head and chuckled. “I am seeing so many wonders so often, now. Blessed be the day I became mixed up in Equestrian business!”

“Kinda looks like Canterlot, actually,” said Applejack.

“Ha!” said a griffin. “Your princesses got their idea of Canterlot from us! Their city is based on our cities.”

“It wasn't always so,” said Philip. “We griffins were once a folk of the plains, far to the south and the west. But when the pegasi moved north, we moved with them, and when they helped create Equestria, we attacked them. They repelled us with the help of their unicorn and earth pony friends. We had come too far, and were too many, to go back to where we once were, so we settled here.”

“And you are still unofficially enemies of Equestria,” said Ashtail, “though there is a pact of nonaggression between your nations. I am glad you are friendlier with Gildedale.”

“Formal peace with the pegasi? Such a thing is preposterous,” said Philip with a sneer. “But earth ponies are another story- we have no quarrel with your kind.”

They journeyed on across the soaring rocky mountains for more hours still, Spike and Shield Maiden frequently crowding at the windows to behold the marvels of the land. There were ribbons of red flowers running through mountaintop meadows. There were cities plated all over in bronze, so that when streaks of sunlight came out of the cloudy sky they seemed to burn and blaze. Great statues of griffins sometimes capped a mountain peak, while other times these statues sat down in the lakes at the bases of the mountains.

At last, from the front, the captain of the airship said, “We're here!” Every dragon, griffin and pony hurried to the front.

“Wow!” cried Spike, and for perhaps the nineteenth time today, his cry was well-deserved. A mountain spread before them. Unlike the tall sharp peaks all around, this mountain was broad and flat, stretching perhaps twenty miles all around. The city, Elam- the capital of Issidonia- was carved atop it. Rings and rings had been all chiseled out from round the middle of the mountain to the summit, so that the city seemed a great huge maze. Applejack's eyes bulged- even she, who'd been to Manehattan, who'd been inside the Crystal Empire, had never seen a city this enormous. Domes, towers, courtyards, plazas surged out of the bronze-hued rock. The air was dotted with many a swooping dot, griffins flying overhead, while airships hovered and then sunk then swooped.

“To the deck!” said Philip, crossing to the airship's back. There was a ladder there, and he quickly ascended it. When he reached the top he kicked a hatch open and hurried out. Ashtail bounded up the ladder, followed now by Applejack and Spike. The wind was cold and whipping now about them. The clouds of morning had been burned off by the blazing sun, so that all of the mountains all around were sparkling with black and red and white and gold.

There was a thud and two thickly-built griffins landed on the deck across from them. Their armor was of bronze lacquered with blue, and they wielded great spears. “Duke Philip!” one of them exclaimed. “What brings you so close to the palace?”

“I bring visitors direct from the borders. They must have an audience with His Majesty!”

The second burly griffin squinted. “Ponies? You bring ponies here?”

“I bring the Prince of Gildedale, and one of the Six Bearers of the Elements of Harmony! They are...” his face faltered, and then he twisted round. “Actually, why are you here?”

Applejack's eyes narrowed. “The Lord o' All the Herds is back! The King o' the Black Deer is back!”

The guardsgriffins erupted into laughter. “Do you expect us to believe in ghost stories?” one of them said.

“I...”

“Applejack, your Element! Your Gift!” said Spike. “Use it again!”

She took in a deep breath. Then she stepped forward and surged what power through her that she had. “I'm tellin' the truth.” Another rippling rainbow wave spread out from her.

The guards stopped up their laughing. They looked at her in awe. “I feel strange,” said one.

“I feel embarrassed,” said another, “like I should go talk with my wife... and like I should have believed you from the start.”

“I'm the Bearer of the Element o' Honesty!” said Applejack, standing tall and proud; her burnt red armor shimmered in the sunlight. “This is important! All the world's in danger! I need to see your king!”

The two guards glanced upon each other. Then they nodded. “Very well. We'll guide you down.” They flapped their wings and flew off, diving downward briefly before breaking into looping spirals that slipped slowly towards a massive square-topped building just below. The airship bent its wings and gently fell, tipped downward toward the building, which sat within a massive walled-off compound. Whole fields of great pillars, holding nothing up but merely sticking to the sky, sat in sections of the compound, along with tall steep ziggurats and great carved statues of- what else- stone griffins.

And real griffins, live griffins, milled about amid the sunshine and the crisp high mountain air. Most wore drapes of silk, many also wore gold chains and collars that were looped and dangled in between their beaks and chests. “Make way!” cried one of the guards, running through them. The other followed, and then Philip and all of the border guards, then the ponies, Spike riding atop Shield Maiden. They crossed the great and open courtyard to the tall, amazing, dominating palace, trimmed in gold, worked in marble, square and jutting to the sky.

Entering the massive open atrium just inside the palace's great doors, the griffins halted. “Now,” said Philip, “here we wait, I think.”

“Yes,” said one of the palace guards. “We must now speak with the majordomo. We shall plead your case- however, you yourselves may need to convince him, as you convinced us.” They flapped their wings and flew down a long hallway, whence they turned a corner and were gone.

Shield Maiden sat down, Spike sliding off her back. “Amazing!” she exclaimed, staring everywhere, and she was not wrong in her awe. The pillars and the walls were bone white marble, dropping down into a floor that was a black and white marble, arranged in squares much in the manner of a chessboard. The ceiling was of bronze- or maybe gold, they could not tell- and had been formed into a magnificent bas relief of griffins crowned and pedestaled in glory, standing on metal-shaped mountain peaks with all the valleys and the heights of Issidonia spread out before them.

“Man,” said Spike, “Princess Celestia always used to say that Issidonia was 'breathtaking,' and now I know what she meant.”

“It's certainly... showy,” rumbled Ashtail. “Perhaps a bit too gaudy for my taste.” His eyes flitted all back and forth. “By the way, Applejack, when we meet King Darius, don't be... put off.”

“'Put off'?” Applejack repeated. “What's that mean?”

“I think I know,” said Philip. “His Majesty is very... concerned... with... amusement. He loves nothing more than indulging his idle fancies.”

“He spends much of the royal treasury on games and shows and dances,” said a nearby griffin.

“He is not fit to be king,” muttered another.

“Oy! Enough!” snapped Philip. “I'll not have my patrol backbiting against His Majesty!”

“Ha!” barked the complaining griffin. “If you would take away our right to complain on the king, Philip, you would take away our right to be griffins at all!”

Soft hooves clopped on the floor then, and a voice said, “Well met, Applejack.”

She turned, and a great smile split her face. “Clive!” For it was Clive Croeuxus, old and grizzled as she'd ever seen him, saddlebags upon his narrow haunches.

“Well met, master pronghorn,” said Philip.

“To you as well, master griffin,” said Clive. “And of course to you Daleponies, particularly Your Highness,” and he bowed to Ashtail. “And...” he turned, “oh, hello Spike!”

“Heya, Clive!” said Spike in turn. “Nice to see you feeling better.”

“Ah, yes, I made a complete recovery from the Herd Lord's attack. Even managed to get the scorch marks out of my fur, eventually. Oh- speaking of,” he turned to Applejack, who held her breath. “Applejack, two nights ago the Jovai of the Pronghorns met in conference. We talked long into the moonlit hours, debating many things. The discussion got quite heated at certain points.”

“And?” said Applejack, heart racing.

“And... the Jovai have decided that the threat of Reiziger is too great to maintain our standard neutrality over. He is an enemy of every folk and race beneath the sun. If he triumphs in Equestria, and then moves on to other lands, everything we have worked for- all the peace and good relations we strive every day to build and maintain- will mean nothing.” Clive bowed low, sweeping a long leg. “The Pronghorn Network is at your disposal, Applejack of Ponyville.”

“Yeah!” cheered Spike, pumping his fist.

“Oh... oh thank you, thank you Clive!” cried Applejack, hurtling forward; she was upon him in a flicker, and she wrapped him up into a hug. “I'll never forget any o' this! Equestria won't, either!”

The griffins glanced in wonder at each other. “What is this?” one of them asked another. “The pronghorns breaking their neutrality?”

“I've never seen anything like it,” said the other.

“That should give you some idea of the danger the world is in,” said Ashtail.

With flapping wings three griffins soared back up the hallway to them. Two of them were guards; the third, right in the middle, was a rusty color, deep red with a lightly pinkish neck and head. He wore white silk and silver rings upon his talons, with a silver earring in one ear. “Order, order!” he exclaimed as he touched down. “What is this?”

“Master Baraz,” said Philip, “I bring ponies and a dragon from Equestria and Gildedale. They seek an audience with His Majesty.”

“As I have been informed,” said Baraz. “I recognize you, Prince Ashtail, but who are you, Equestrian?”

“I'm Applejack o' Ponyville, m'lord,” said Applejack, sweeping her hat off her head.

“Applejack?” he repeated. “That name... you are one of the Elements of Harmony, are you not?”

“Sure am!”

“Yes, yes, I am well aware of you and your five friends- I have heard enough about you from our emissaries to Equestria.” He snorted. “At least you aren't one of the pegasi.”

“It's an honor and a privilege to speak with the head of so great a household, O Master Baraz,” said Spike, bowing low. “May the blessings of Equestria, of the Sun and the Moon, fall down upon yourself, your king, and your country.”

“Hmm, such good manners,” said Baraz. “With such polite behavior, you at least deserve some consideration. If His Majesty were busy today, I'd turn you all aside. However, court has been slow. The king could use a bit more entertainment, if nothing else. And the strenuous pleas of all who have encountered you merit something. Very well- you may see King Darius. Come with me.”

He led them down the tall and massive hallway, lined on every side with griffin statues made of bronze. Clive fell in behind the ponies, Spike rode Ashtail, Philip and the other griffins followed in their train. All the while Applejack and Shield Maiden could scarce contain their awe. The palace was as grand as Canterlot, just as wonderful as Thatchholm, and yet it was so different from the other two, so fierce, so bold, so sturdy.

They reached the hallway's end and turned down yet another, this one lined with mirrors that reflected everyone. Traveling into the end of this they made a right, and there were suddenly two massive doors of bronze. Guards stood in front of them, yet as Baraz approached they flapped up to the great rings and they pulled. Slowly, with a loud and ringing creak, the doors came open, and one by one all folk stepped through.

Soaring heights and glorying great windows marked the throne room. At the back there was a great open pavilion, in which sat a pool and several lounges. Draperies of gauzy silk were hung from a huge canopy above the the throne room's back. Griffins dressed in silks and golds were gathered through the space, where they were milling round and chatting aimlessly. At the sight of the three ponies and of Spike they perked up, pointed to each other, and began to whisper. Spike fidgeted to be the center of such strange attention.

The clash of steel erupted through the air. Pushing through the crowd toward the front, Applejack came forward just in time to see two armored griffins lock their swords. The first griffin, a white one, lunged then, but the other griffin, who was gray, expertly stepped backward and brought up his sword to parry. The white griffin advanced again, the gray griffin slashed out but the white griffin batted off the sword and thrust. Flapping hard his wings the gray griffin sailed backwards, coiled back his mighty legs, and pounced, sword held high above his head. The white griffin flew up to meet him, so they wove and danced and hummed and hovered through the throne room with the ringing and the flashing of bright steel. Yet the gray griffin had his hidden move. He allowed the white griffin to lunge at him and thrust at him. So expert was the gray griffin's control of his own body that the sword scraped harmlessly upon the outer level of his feathers. Then his free arm and his leg and even now his tufted tail came in and wrapped around the white griffin and now the gray griffin flapped hard to the ground. The white griffin crashed back first on the light beige rug. The wind was knocked from him; his sword went flying from his talons. The gray griffin pressed his own sword's blade up against the white one's neck.

“Done!” cried a deep and mighty voice. “A good fight, both of you, but Sir Payam is the winner!”

Clapping filled the air, the whooping and the hollering of nobles erupted all about. With his eyes rolling, Baraz stepped through the last front reaches of the crowd, and bowed low. “Your Majesty, I bring you visitors from the borders seeking an audience with you.”

“They came all the way from the borders? And you let them in? My, that's interesting. Let's see them!”

The crowds parted around the ponies, Spike, and Clive. Those who had not seen them yet could see them now, and there were gasps and shouts.

“Ponies? You bring me ponies?”

A great lounge was situated underneath the canopy. On it, reclining, was the biggest griffin Applejack had ever seen. Not that he was fat- he was simply large, taller and more muscular than any griffin she'd before encountered. His feathers were mostly white, and white was the vast bulk of his enormous body, though there were fringes of a rich brown at their tips. His great shoulders, neck, and forehead were likewise a brown, such a brown as to be nearly bronze. This was helped out by a strange sheen that was glossed upon him, such that he seemed near metallic. His talons were jet black and razor sharp, while his fingers and toes and beak were golden-hued. He wore a golden collar, and golden lengths, thin and narrow chains, drooped downward from his beak into this. He also wore gold bracelets and gold anklets, and he wore a diadem in which was set a glimmering blue lapis stone.

“Your Majesty,” said Baraz, “they are here on urgent business. Here is Prince Ashtail of Gildedale, whom you-”

“Ashtail!” bellowed the great griffin. “How are you, my boy? Getting bigger every time I see you.”

Ashtail inclined his head. “Greetings and good fortune to you, O Darius, King of Issidonia.”

“And to Gildedale in turn- tell your father I wish him well.”

“This here is...” Baraz arched an eyebrow, “I'm sorry, my dear, who are you?”

She bowed low. “I am Shield Maiden, Lieutenant of the Dale Guard.”

“Ah, more Daleponies! You're all such grand company, especially when you're drunk.” Shield Maiden wrinkled her nose, but said nothing. Darius swiveled his purple eyes. “Now then who...” his eyebrows rose. “Say, you're not a Dalepony. You're too colorful!”

“I'm Applejack of Ponyville, m'lord!” she said, sweeping her hat off her head.

“An Equestrian!” he bellowed. “What a marvel. And... Applejack, hold on, that name... where have I heard it before?”

“She is one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, Your Majesty,” said Baraz.

At this there was a massive burst of talking; griffins turned toward each other gossiping like mad. Uneasy and nervous, Spike next stepped forward. “I'm Spike, Your Majesty, also of Ponyville.”

“And even a dragon! This is grand theater.”

Spike bowed low, sweeping out his arm. “I bring with me the blessings of Their Highnesses Princesses Celestia and Luna, of the Sun and the Moon, of all the pony types. I hope good fortune will fall upon you and your kingdom all the days of your life, and all the lives of your descendants, so long as the great land of Issidonia will endure.”

“Now that's something!” bellowed Darius. “What good manners.” He waved a taloned hand. “So now, what have you got for me, O Bearer of the Elements?”

“I-”

“Say now, which Element have you got? Is it Magic? Are you the Magic one? How about the Generous one?”

“I'm the Bearer o' Honesty, your majesty.”

“Now that's something!”

“I need to-”

“I keep asking Celestia to send you all here for a demonstration. We do love a good show here in Issidonia, and what could be grander than the Elements of Harmony?”

“M'lord, I-”

“Say, that hat- aren't you one of those wild west, mild west ponies from that southern part of Equestria? Oh, do some tricks! I'd love to-”

Hey!” bellowed Applejack. Darius jumped back upon his couch; the guards stepped forward, swords drawn from their scabbards. Applejack was undeterred: “Listen, I didn't come here to do tricks or nothin'! I'm here for help! The Lord o' All the Herds has returned!”

“Lord of all the... the Herd Lord?” said Darius.

“You mean the bedtime story villain?” asked Baraz.

“He ain't no bedtime story- he's real! He's come back, and he's takin' over Equestria! He wants to take over the whole world!”

Darius' eyes narrowed. “I don't believe you.”

“What?”

“Your Majesty, you should-” started Ashtail.

“The Herd Lord is just a fable! Just a legend from the time of legends when the deerfolk ruled the Earth!” Darius rolled his eyes. “Is this why you've come here? To tell me children's tales? Boring.”

“It ain't a lie,” said Applejack.

“You have to believe us, Your Majesty!” said Spike. “He's real, and he's destroyed a bunch of our cities! He's trying to take over Equestria and eat it!”

“Your Majesty,” said Philip, “I did not believe them at first either, but I have been convinced- I know beyond knowing, now, that the ponies speak the truth.”

“Suppose I believed you,” said Darius. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“We're... we're gonna stop him,” said Applejack, “we, the Elements o' Harmony, we're gonna stop him! His name's Reiziger, and he wants to kill the whole world- but we're gonna stop him! But we need help! We need some o' your forces, King Darius.”

“You expect me to commit my soldiers- stout fighting griffs, the best of our country- to this farcical quest against a magical fairy tale monster? And you've nothing to show me to prove you're even close to telling the truth?”

“I...”

“This is a bad performance, Applejack of Ponyville.”

Applejack snorted from her nostrils, suddenly enraged. “I ain't here to perform. I'm here to tell the truth! I...” her green eyes shone with pain, “I'm beggin' for help, m'lord. We need y'all! I need y'all! We need all the help we can get.”

“Gildedale has already committed to helping Equestria, Your Majesty,” said Ashtail. “My father, King Hammer Hoof, will be riding with the entirety of the Dale Guard. This is no joke. Have you not looked south and west at nights? Have you not seen the flashes and the flares of magic in the sky? Dark powers, terrible things, are gathered in Equestria now. This is a business for all the world, and all species, all folk, should devote themselves to solving this problem.”

“Oh, spare me,” said Darius, waving his talons. “You are both ponies, and one of the things I have learned about ponies is that they can be very silly. I mean, you all get spooked by butterflies, for hippogriff's sake. Who is to say this threat, this Herd Lord you've conjured, is not but smoke and mirrors?”

“You gotta believe us!”

“This is really turning into a comedy of errors.”

“Gildedale is not the only nation that has made its decision,” said Clive, stepping forward for the first time. “The Pronghorn Network has declared its intent to stop the Herd Lord- to stop Reiziger, as he is called now. And I have seen his power firsthoof, O Darius King. I have felt the infernal heat of his crimson flames. I have seen the hate and the hunger in his infinite red eyes. I know he means nothing less than the killing and the devouring of all life on this Earth.”

“Come now, master pronghorn-”

“And you, you should be more concerned for the threat that, when it finishes in Equestria, will surely turn its fangs both north and east. You should be more concerned with the existence of your nation, and not with constantly amusing yourself- which seems to be your only care!”

A gasp snapped through the throne room. Baraz said, “How dare you speak to His Majesty so insolently!” and as if commanded, a dozen griffins brandished spears and axes and stepped forward.

Clive said nothing, but he turned about, and lightning crackled in between his horns. Any thought of combat died at once- for Clive was a Jovus of the Pronghorns, and they are terrible when angered.

Darius huffed, and settled back upon his couch. “I still don't believe. I refuse to believe, and unless you can convince me otherwise, you'll get no help from me!”

“I... m'lord...” Applejack's heart faltered. She stepped backward. The crowd was murmuring and whispering. Tears sprang to her eyes...

“Applejack,” whispered Spike, “your Gift!”

She drew a sharp breath. “I'll make you believe! I'll make you see that I'm tellin' the truth!” She cantered forward, standing just before the steps up to the canopy. “You wanna show, Yer Majesty? You wanna see what the Elements o' Harmony can do?” She dove into her heart, working on the channels of her soul. At once she felt resistance- she felt as though a wall had hit her. There was so much lying in that throne room she was in. So much deceit, so much backstabbing and such huge amounts of gossip. It hurt her heart, it pained her, she grunted from the agony. But she welled up the thing she knew: honesty. She peered now through the hearts of those about her, trying to find, trying to approach and touch the truth that she knew had to be within them all. At first the lying washed against her like thick oil. It was so noxious, and so black. But she did not give up. She breathed out hard, she panted, her cutie marks began to glow.

One by one, the griffins whispering between themselves stopped talking. A strange sensation was now growing in their chests. They did not know how to describe it- it was a kind of... clearing. It was a kind of brightening, a kind of lightening. Darius sat up upon his couch. He was staring hard at Applejack.

Her eyes suddenly flickered. She stepped forward once again, putting one strong hoof upon the bottom step. “I'm tellin' the truth!”

There was a blast of rainbow-


“Huh?” said Twilight Sparkle, raising up her head within the stronghold. “What was that?”


“Oh my,” whispered Fluttershy, settled in the shadow of a scorched and blackened hill. “Pinkie, did you feel that?” Pinkie Pie raised her head, but did not speak.


The thestral and the mythicorn raised up their heads within their shadowed stalls.


There was soft light, and the smell of clean water. When these dissipated, there was Applejack- only moreso. She had grown bigger, longer legs, stouter torso, larger head than she had had before- she was now as tall as Ashtail. “So you see, m'lord,” she said, “I ain't lyin'.”

“I... I...” stammered Darius. Nor was he the only one at loss for words. All the griffins in the throne room stammered, shuddered, looked upon each other with silence and shame.

One of them said to another, “I've been unfaithful to you.”

“I... I've been cheating you out of those wagers,” said another to another.

“I had your daughter killed!” one bellowed out.

Exclamations, weeping, cries for mercy and for understanding echoed, rippled through the air. Darius, now off his couch, now standing still and tall, glared with terror down at Applejack. “What... what are you?”

“Harmony,” said Applejack, and something shuddered as she spoke. “Do y'all believe?”

“I... I... yes, yes! I do believe now! I believe you, beyond a shadow of a doubt!” Darius sat down hard upon the marble floor. “The Lord of All the Herds has returned!” He clutched his head. “The end of days is here!”

“No it ain't!” cried Applejack. “We'll stop him, m'lord- but we need your help!”

“Yes... yes!” said Darius, standing up again. “Yes, you may have my help. I shall help the Elements of Harmony in any way I can!” He shook his head, he chuckled, and some of his old humor filtered back into his voice. “Besides, it would be a shame if the pegasi were wiped out before we had a chance to do it ourselves!”

Applejack tipped her hat. “Mighty kind o' you, m'lord.”

“Yes!” cheered Spike, jumping up and down.

“Applejack, that was magnificent!” cried Shield Maiden.

“Thanks, y'all,” said Applejack, trotting back toward them. “Just glad I could do it.”

“Oh my,” said Ashtail, “you... you're tall.” They stared eye-to-eye now.

“Huh?” Applejack asked. She glanced down at herself; her green eyes widened. “Well would you look at that...”

“And what's that on your head?”

“What?” Applejack's eyes bulged. She felt upon her head- and sure enough, her nub had grown. It was nearly horn-shaped now, and was poking out above her champron. “Oh- oh, lordy.”

“What is it?”

“It's....” she sighed, and hung her head. “It's a long story, sugarcube.”

Ashtail rubbed her gently on the withers. “I suppose... you can tell it to me on the way back to Equestria?”

“I guess I- no! No, not yet!” She turned about again. “M'lord, King Darius, there's one more thing I need besides an army!”

“I... I can't think what more I can give that would be of use stopping the Herd Lord, but anything you need, I'll provide.”

“I need to borrow one o' your airships!”

Darius nodded. “That seems perfectly doable.”

“Why borrow an airship to go where we can go on hoof?” asked Ashtail.

“But we can't go where I wanna go on hoof,” said Applejack, “I mean, the Simmerin' Sea's too hot to swim through.”

A gasp rose through the throne room. Everyone's eyes bulged. “The Simmering Sea!” cried Spike.

“Applejack,” said Ashtail, “what do you mean? The only thing across the Simmering Sea is-”

“Carcosa? Sure is!” Applejack tipped back her hat. “And that's where we're headed. We're gonna go talk to the Dragon Emperor!”

A Note on Dragons

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Carcosa is the name of the 'homeland' of the dragons, but you would be hard-pressed to find the bulk of the world's dragons in it. Massive, ill-tempered, destructive, greedy, and prone to vanity, dragons could never all settle in a single nation, no matter how large- and Carcosa is not particularly big, area-wise. Instead, dragons are spread out across the world, living in every land, on every continent, in every country, among every other race.

Carcosa functions less as a full-blown homeland and more as a jumbo-sized capital city for the vast dragon nation, whose 'claimed territory' is anywhere a dragon is making his or her home. It is the seat of the Dragon Emperor, where he looms in hot darkness and communicates to his empire in ways no one fully understands. It is also the primary breeding ground of all dragons. While there are other 'migrations' all around the world, it is to Carcosa that nearly every dragon treks to truly mate and foster hatchlings. At all other times, perhaps only ten percent of the world's total dragon population resides in Carcosa. In fact, there are more dragons in Equestria than in Carcosa on any given day.

The dragons have twice attempted to take advantage of these numbers and conquer Equestria for their own. Both times they have been defeated. The first time, some 1400 years before the events of Friendship is Magic, actually served to bring Equestria closer together, jarring loose some of the barriers that still separated the three pony types as they were led by Celestia and Luna. It was a loose confederation of dragons that they defeated, with Luna serving as primary general and commander of the Equestrian forces. Though he had not officially sanctioned the campaign, the emperor at the time, Scatha the Frigid, nevertheless agreed to a ceasefire. Its terms were loose, its language tentative, but it served to keep the dragons and ponies at peace for 800 years.

This peace was thrown out 600 years before Friendship was Magic. This time the emperor, Glaurâg the Wingless, personally launched the attack, using the dragons already in Equestria to wage a rebellion that burned countless towns, cost countless pony lives, and even threatened Canterlot itself. However, this conquest attempt also met with failure, and this time all the more spectacularly. Led by a newly self-confident Princess Celestia, the combined forces of Equestria, Gildedale, the Buffalo Tribes, the Shimmerwood, and the Deer Elders crushed the uprising and drove the dragons back across the Simmering Sea. The final battle of the war took place on the volcanic soil of Carcosa itself, where Celestia forced a peace treaty after personally slaying Glaurâg in open combat.

But that's a story for another day.

Chapter 36

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“Just have to focus,” Fluttershy said softly to herself. She sat upon her haunches, settled underneath the shelter of the hill. She breathed out, and she breathed in, and she focused on what was within herself. She breathed out yet again, and this time, pinkish power swelled out of her hooves. It rippled on the grass, over all the flowers, and where it billowed outward, flowers and green growth were spread. She kept delving deep inside, pushing further in, but- “Oh!” she cried, and the pink emanations vanished. The grass grew dull and dead again, the flowers wilted and then died. She blinked back tears. “I... I have to keep trying,” she said.

“No-” Pinkie Pie jolted forward, coughing up a flood of blackened goo, “No... no hope.”

“Yes, yes Pinkie, there's hope, there has to be hope,” said Fluttershy.

Pinkie looked out past Fluttershy's place beneath the gray and cracked hill. The land was dark and dead. The hill above them was so scraped and barren that it seemed a razor from the earth. The grass was dead, the trees were wrecked and ruined blackened boughs. Above them in the sky the darkened shadow billowed, covering up nearly all the sunlight. “No hope,” she repeated, then vomited up shadow.

“Pinkie, hold on,” said Fluttershy, tears springing to her eyes, “I'll... I'll help, somehow, I will! I can't give up, I won't give up!”

Her head sunk down onto the dirt. “Dead,” she muttered, “dead like the desert.”

Fluttershy pulled back from Pinkie. She sighed softly, settling beside her, sitting back beneath the hill. Silence reigned a while. Finally, she broke the quiet. “I think... it's beautiful.”

Pinkie raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“This,” she swept her hoof out, seemed to draw in all the gray and cracked terrain. “This barrenness... this emptiness... I love it, actually.”

“What? But... but you love-” she coughed- “you love animals, and nature.”

“This is nature. It's part of nature. The deserts are nature as much as the forests. Javier... the mule deer... they helped me realize that, and over time I've just recognized it more and more. I mean,” she glanced aside, “when I was younger, sure, I thought that only things that grew, things that were cute and gentle and bright- I thought they were the only things to nature. But that's not all nature- that's not all the wild.”

“But it's so... empty.”

“The world needs empty places too, Pinkie. There has to be balance. There are wastelands and farmlands, deserts and jungles, fire lands and lands of ice. There's even light and shadow.” She put a hoof to her chin. “I wonder if Reiziger's even sort of natural. I mean, Discord did say that the Wills allowed him to exist. Maybe he was always meant to destroy.”

“But why? Why would they allow him to make so many things die?”

“Death is part of nature too, Pinkie. Most things die in time. Even the high deer don't live forever.” A little smile curled her lips. “Death is beautiful, too.”

“So you want it to... stay this way?”

“No, no!” said Fluttershy quickly. “It's just... I guess...” she blushed. “It's hard to explain. I don't like death. Death is nasty and mean. But it's natural. It has to happen. All things go on their way. The life after this one calls everything to it. Ponies go on to the Summer Lands, animals and other creatures go where they're meant to go.”

Pinkie slumped onto the ground. She rolled onto her side, black fluids seeping out into the dust. “I don't want to die,” she said with grating voice. “I'm going to die, everything's going to die... but I don't want to.”

“And I don't want you to die, either. You're not ready to die yet, I think.” A faint, yet steady fierceness rose within her heart. “And that's why Reiziger's so terrible. Wastelands are good, but he creates them where there should be fertile fields. Deserts are good, but he makes them where there should be forests. Death is good, but he brings it when there's still supposed to be life. He's out of order. He's against how things should be.”

“So he's not natural?”

Fluttershy laid down beside her. “I guess he isn't. Or maybe... part of him is or part of him isn't. I don't know.” She sighed. “These things... they're all too much for me. All this stuff about the Elements of Harmony, about Hunger, about Death, about goddesses and the Wills and ancient magic. I guess I never wanted any of it.”

“I thought-” Pinkie coughed violently, whole body wracked with spasms, hacking up blackness and also leaking it from her back. “I thought...” her voice seemed weaker, “I thought it was... fun. At least at first.”

Fluttershy smiled gently. “I guess we have different definitions of fun. Fun, for me, is being peaceful and happy with my animal friends. Fun for me is sunning with Angel bunny, or sleeping with my bear and weasel friends, or flying low and slow with my bird friends. Fun for me isn't exciting. Fun for me is... slow.”

“So I guess you must hate just about everything that's happened.”

“A lot of it... yes, I do.”

“All of it?”

Her expression changed. “Not all of it. Some of it's been amazing. Being around all the deer, all the high deer, has been wonderful. And seeing all the magic- even the destructive spells, they're beautiful and lovely. I can't do magic, but I've always loved to watch it. Even Reiziger's magic is... sort of beautiful, to me.” Her ears drooped. “But I guess I really wish that none of this had ever happened.”

Quiet again. The wind billowed over the barren lands. Fluttershy shivered, and curled up.

“Do you wish... you hadn't done it, right at the start?”

“Huh?” asked Fluttershy.

“The... the Elements of Harmony,” said Pinkie. Black tears were gently leaking from her eyes. “Do you wish you hadn't gone with Twilight that one day, to stop Nightmare Moon?” She edged a little closer to Fluttershy. “Do you wish you'd never gotten the Element of Kindness?”

Fluttershy drew back. “That's...”

“Do you wish we weren't your friends?” More coughing.

She didn't answer right away. She looked out on the endless gray expanse. It made her feel so small.

“I've thought about it.”

“Okay?”

Fluttershy swallowed hard. “And there are some moments where...” she turned aside. “I mean... you five are the greatest friends I've ever had, ever. I wouldn't trade our friendships for anything, even with everything that's happened.”

“But?”

“But... I do sometimes wish I could have stayed friends with you all without going to stop Nightmare Moon. I wish maybe we could have been seven friends instead of six, and then that seventh pony could have gone and gotten the Element of Kindness. Then we could be friends, still... without me being caught up in all this.” Fluttershy laid her head down in the dirt. “There are days I dream of what would have happened. I would have just kept tending to my animals, being your friends, living in Ponyville. I would have gotten old. I might have married, though I really don't think I could have. And some day I would have died, and the mule deer would have buried me quietly at the edge of the Everfree Forest, which is what I always wanted. It wouldn't have been an exciting life, but I think it would have been... nice.”

“I guess compared to everything else-” Pinkie vomited blackness- “compared to the darkness everywhere, that would have been a nice thing to happen.”

“Yes...” Fluttershy sat up. “But it's not what happened... is it?”

“F-Fluttershy?”

She looked into the sky. “It could have happened... but it didn't. Instead, I went with you all that night, and everything changed. There was no seventh pony,” her gentle eyes grew gently harder, “and that was meant to be. We, we six, weren't all just the first random ponies to stumble on the Elements of Harmony. We five weren't just the first five ponies Twilight happened to meet in Ponyville. There was something else going on... something we didn't understand when it was happening.”

“So... this was all supposed to happen?”

“Maybe sort of. I'm not Rarity- I don't have the gift to see the future. But I know that we... that I received one of the Elements of Harmony, and it was meant for me, and nopony else. And then no matter what I wanted... I was special. I had a job to do.” She smiled. “And it doesn't make me happy in the same way that living and dying quietly would have made me happy, but it does make me happy. It's a taller... higher kind of happiness.”

Black tears again ran out of Pinkie's eyes. “How can you be so strong?”

“Because I know we have a job we're meant to do... and I know that it won't fail. I believe in that.” She stretched a butter-yellow leg down. “Come on, Pinkie. We're the Elements of Harmony, and the world is counting on us. We won't fail- so let's not fail.”

Pinkie felt, just a little, that the black rot in her body got a little gentler. “I don't... believe there's any good left,” she hacked and coughed, “but... I'll go with you.” She stretched her muted hoof out, and allowed Fluttershy to pull her up. They trotted out from underneath the hill. “So where to?”

“I... I'm not sure,” said Fluttershy. “Let me think for a moment...”

Then both of them felt the pricking that came only with strong magic. Not being unicorns, they had no horns to sense it, but both felt it in the way of each one's kind: Pinkie's hooves itched, and Fluttershy's wings tingled to the edges of her feathers. They saw no one in front of them, but then they turned toward the east-

Mae govannen, dear pony friends. Well met.”

There he loomed, huge and brown and gentle, blue eyes glinting up against the darkened sky. Fluttershy smiled, if only for the company. “Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo, O master moose.” She cocked her head to the side. “Your name is... Nordeshang, isn't it?”

“Yes,” said Nordeshang. “And you are Fluttershy, and you are Pinkie Pie.”

“Plea-” Pinkie hacked up blackness- “Pleased to m-meet you.”

Nordeshang sighed deeply. “You are very sick, Lady Pinkie Pie.”

“L-Lady?” Pinkie actually chuckled a bit. “I'm not a lady, Mister Nordeshang.”

“Well, if I am called a lord and am really just a fleabitten old moose, then surely one of the very Bearers of the Elements of Harmony deserves the title of 'lady.'”

“Aww, you don't have to do all that, Lord Nordeshang,” said Fluttershy. “You can just call us F-Fluttershy... and Pinkie Pie.”

“If you will only call me 'Nordeshang,' I shall agree.”

“What are you doing all the way out here, Nordeshang?” asked Fluttershy. “Shouldn't you be with the other Deer Elders?”

“I have... fallen out with them,” he said. “I have broken with them over my unwillingness to slaughter. Lord Fëanor will soon put his plans for attack against the Herd Lord into motion. I did not want any part of it.”

“W-Why?” asked Pinkie, then coughed for near the thousandth time.

Nordeshang sighed. “The Herd Lord will not be stopped through violence. I have seen that. So has Fëanor, though he tries to ignore he ever saw it.”

“What did you see?” asked Fluttershy.

“We fought him, Fëanor and I. We fought the Herd Lord, along with twenty-eight of our fellow high deer. We fought him all across the world, and we fought him in the darkness, for he had already killed the Sun and the Moon. We brought all the power we could muster to bear upon him. We used spells, we invented new spells on the spot, we wielded such magics that the world has never seen and will not see again... but it was not enough. Each time we thought we had beaten him to death, he rose up stronger and blacker than ever. Eventually we were able to corner him in a mountain range and seal him in the most powerful binding spells we had. But kill him? Defeat him? There is no way, not with the magics we in this world possess.”

“But... then how will he be stopped?”

“With the Elements of Harmony, of course- they are what all tyrants and dark lords fear.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I think that too. But I'm... I'm trying to make my Element work, and it's not... it's not strong enough,” she turned away.

A soft but heavy hoof fell on her shoulder. “I know how difficult it can be to wield the Element of Kindness. I know the challenges... I too have the burden of being a Healer.”

“How do you do it?” Turquoise eyes swung up to him. “How are you able to heal the impossible hurts?” Her eyes flickered to Pinkie Pie, who was listing dangerously, black bile running down her back.

Nordeshang's antlers shimmered blue. Pinkie and Fluttershy were lifted off the ground and slowly settled on his massive back. “Come with me,” he said, and took a step- and vanished.

They reappeared in a much darker, deeper, blacker portion of what once had been Equestria. The hills had not just been stripped bare, but scraped, as though some monstrous thing had sharpened up its claws upon the earth. There was a buzzing- as they all watched, changelings flitted through the air and skittered on the ground. They scraped across the barren earth, searching for some sign of life that they could drain the love from.

“Ugh,” said Fluttershy, wincing. “Changelings...”

“They are only doing what they can to survive,” said Nordeshang.

“But... but they help Reiziger. They're his servants.”

“Even so, they wish to live. That's not so different from you ponies, is it?”

Fluttershy frowned. “I guess not.”

As they watched, one changeling scraped open enough dirt to expose some root. He started flickering as he searched it for love, but no sooner had he found it than he was attacked by all his fellows. They writhed and rolled, they bit and scratched. The root was soon forgotten as they fought each other in their hate. Nordeshang sighed. “Poor creatures. They do not deserve to suffer for their master's actions.”

“But... but doesn't he control them?”

“Yes- and more than that, he created them, though he could not spin them from nothing as the Wills do. All of the Herd Lord's creations, all his creatures and species, lack something. The changelings lack love. The wyverns lack inner self. The fell beasts lack tenderness. The ungoliants lack satisfaction. This is because their master, too, is lacking. He lacks everything they individually lack as species. From depravity comes only depravity.”

The changelings were now draining what little love they themselves possessed, stealing from each other in their hate.

“But... that does not make them evil. Or, it does make them evil... but not totally so.” He stepped forward. His antlers shimmered soft yellow, and pink waves started emanating from them, rippling in silence through the blackened air. The changelings stopped their fighting. They looked about, they skittered and they tripped over each other, but they did not more attack. Slowly, their faint quivering, their trembling from so long without love, stopped. They buzzed their wings and rose into the sky, flying far away.

Fluttereshy's eyes were enormous. “I didn't know the Gift of Kindness could... could make love.”

“The Gift of Kindness can do many things. Did Falalauria not tell you that it could heal all hurts? It can, and to do this it is tremendously powerful. It is perhaps the most powerful of all the Gifts, save that of Magic in the hooves of an elk.”

“But I...” she hung her head, “I can't do any of that. I mean, I can heal some things, and some ponies, but for some reason my Gift won't...” she glanced at Pinkie, who was now coughing gently, “it won't work on the things I really need to heal.”

“That is because you do not love them.”

“But I... I don't hate them! I try not to hate anypony!”

“And that is good! But not hating is not the same as loving. To love something, you must see in it something worth loving.”

Fluttershy flapped her wings and fluttered off his back. She looked around, at the darkened sky and blackened earth. “What's worth loving in all this?”

“That it exists at all.”

Pinkie slumped backwards. She nearly fell off Nordeshang, but he caught her with his magic and set her gently down. She was coughing softly but constantly, hacking up blackness, while her back spewed more dark fluid than ever.

A screech suddenly hit Fluttershy right within her heart. She squealed and jumped into the air. She was about to fly away when Nordeshang raised up a hoof. “Come.” He lifted Pinkie with his magic, and with her beside him he went up a hill. Fluttershy cantered after him, and when she crested the hill her eyes went wide. A fell beast was sprawled out in the dead grass, long neck and snakelike head swaying gently to and fro. She saw the reason it was stuck almost immediately: its right wing was in shreds, torn up and destroyed by Celestia knew what. It gave another fear-inducing shriek, its pain and sadness only magnifying how much terror that possessed.

“I mentioned,” said Nordeshang, “that the Herd Lord cannot create from nothing. He can only create from what is already existent- he needs love, life force, raw materials, something with which to base his nightmares on. Only the Wills That Draw the World can spin life from pure nothingness. And that life they spin, even when twisted and perverted by the Herd Lord... that is good.”

“Just because it's there?”

Pinkie vomited up black fluid. She wasn't moving near as much as she had been a while ago.

“Yes- simply because it is there. Everything that is, insofar that it is, is good.” He trotted gently to the fell beast. “This creature... it is lacking. It is in pain. It perhaps wishes it had never been born.” His antlers shimmered pink. The fell beasts stopped its shrieking. Its head swung toward the massive moose, but it did not move to attack. “But it exists, and that existence, that being, is a gift from the Wills. It is the first good, and the last good, and the highest good of all. To be is a very great thing- the greatest thing, even amid all the miracles and mysteries of magic.” Nordeshang's front right hoof glowed bright pink. He pressed it up against the fell beast's side, and waves of pink light started blossoming across the creature. Fluttershy's eyes went wide. The beast's wing healed and regrew, new bone and muscle and leathery skin swelling out over the injured portions. In a few minutes, it was completely better, and the fell beast hefted itself to a standing pose.

Fluttershy partly wanted to take off and flee, but her courage- and her fascination- kept her there. “So, even though it's... it was created by evil... and wants to hurt us... it's worth helping, just because it exists?”

“Yes,” said Nordeshang. He smiled. “But who says it wants to hurt us?” He reached a hoof up and rubbed the massive creature's head. To Fluttershy's amazement, the fell beast leaned into the contact. Its thin tongue came out and licked Nordeshang's hoof. “And that is the marvelous thing about valuing the mere existence of something. Such value is not forgotten. Such love is not ignored. You will often find that merely by caring that something- or someone- is there, you will cause change that you could never have anticipated.” The fell beast pulled away at last, flapped its massive wings, and flew away.

“But Reiziger...” the idea slowly blossomed in her mind, “Reiziger wants there to be nothing.”

“Very good,” said Nordeshang. “Yes, the Herd Lord's true darkness is that, in his hunger, he wishes for nonbeing. He desires death, and not even the death that brings new life in the next world- he desires ultimate nonexistence, which is the only true, real evil. He only values things insofar as he can wipe them out.” He chuckled. “And yet, if he wiped out everything else in the universe, he would still exist, so there would still be some being, and so there would still be good. So even the Herd Lord, for all his power, could never wipe away life and goodness.”

“I... I think I understand,” said Fluttershy. Nordeshang turned to her. His sapphire blue eyes glittered in the twilight. “It's not enough to... to care about somepony in spite of the things you don't like about them- or, to only care about the parts of them that you like. You have to care about them- you have to l-love them even with the parts you don't like, the parts that are bad, the parts that... scare you.” Her cutie marks began to twinkle.

“Yes,” said Nordeshang. He moved his massive body. Pinkie, who could now be seen, was breathing raggedly, black goo billowing out of her open mouth.

“I...” Fluttershy's ears drooped, “I haven't been able to heal Pinkie because I haven't liked her with her sickness. I didn't hate her... and I didn't stop being her f-friend... but I wanted to only keep the parts of her that weren't sick. I was s-scared that if I got to close to her, close enough to care, I'd get sick, too. I didn't want myself to get hurt, so I didn't want to give myself to helping her.”

Nordeshang nodded.

Fluttershy's cutie marks were flickering, pulsing like twinkling stars. She stood up. “But a real healer gives everything. A real healer realizes that until the world's hurts are healed, they're sick even when they seem fine. A real healer knows that things that are dark... and scary... can't be stopped by being scared, and can't be stopped by being dark. They can only be stopped with light... and love.”

“Yes.”

Her eyes went wide. “I was right... before. I was right that I had a duty to do what had to be done. But now I know what has to be done. The Element of Kindness... it's about being kind when everyone and everything else is cruel. It's about being kind when everything inside you tells you to run away, or to hate. It's about being kind when it doesn't make sense to be kind... because it does make sense. Being kind always makes sense, and you can't be afraid to be kind, no matter what.”

Nordeshang smiled. “Very good, Fluttershy.”

Light was rising around her. “Oh my!” she said. Her cutie marks were gleaming, blazing in the darkened air. She looked down. Her hooves were flashing, pulsing, swelling with pink light. She stared down hard at them. Then she looked at Pinkie, who was no longer moving. She looked upon her hooves again. Then she looked at Pinkie yet again.

“Go on,” said Nordeshang. “You can do it!”

Fluttershy trotted to Pinkie. Where she walked, the grass turned green again. Looming up above the pink earth pony, Fluttershy took a deep breath. Her body was coated in black goo now. Her mane and tail were limp and scraggly. Her eyes were blank and open, bloodshot. She looked deathly ill, and it was clear that touching her was dangerous. Fluttershy almost stepped back- but then she held. It is dangerous. I am scared. But that doesn't matter. She raised her glowing hooves. I'd rather get hurt so she can be healed. She reared her hooves back. I'd give up my own life for her life back! She shoved her hooves against Pinkie Pie's blackened back. Pink light swelled and blossomed outward. The blackness swelled up Fluttershy's front legs, coating her like ink. She did not stop, however. The blackness came into her mouth, but she did not pull off. It stretched over her cutie mark, she'd been wrong, she wasn't strong enough, she was going to be rotted away but she did not care because she loved her friend enough to give up everything- there was a rainbow-


Twilight whirled about, fluttering her wings to hover. “I felt it again!” she cried.

“No time!” said Fëanor. “Come!”


Applejack spun round inside the airship. “Y'all feel that?”


The thestral and the mythicorn reared back and whinnied.


White light, like sunshine, blazed across the darkened earth. Nordeshang sniffed; there was the smell of clean water. He breathed in gently, and his old and tired heart felt suddenly young and new. His sapphire eyes sparkled. “Fluttershy?”

The golden light pulled in. All the space around them had been healed: the grass was green, flowers bloomed, even the sky seemed a little bluer in all the blackness. With gentle steps, Fluttershy turned round. Nordeshang smiled. She had changed and grown. Her legs were longer. Her torso was both larger and more lovely, her neck was longer, her head had gotten larger. Her pink mane and tail were longer and more wispy, more ethereal. Somehow there was a flower tucked behind her ear. “Oh my,” said Fluttershy, looking down upon herself. She spread her wings. These had gotten larger, and more beautiful. They were so big now that when she folded them again they stretched up and behind her at an angle, like those of an arctic tern.

“You did it!” exclaimed Nordeshang. “I am so proud of you.”

Fluttershy's eyes widened. “But what about...” she turned around. There was still some golden light behind her. It finally cleared-

I'm BACK!

A pink blur shot into the air. Fluttershy watched it rise, then stop, then fall, and when it fell it bounced high up again, not quite as far, and fell, then bounced, and fell, then bounced, then fell, then bounced until at last it gave a springy hop and stopped completely.

“I'm back!” said Pinkie Pie. “I'm back, I'm me, I'm totally normal!” And she was! There was no speck of blackness on her. Her body was soft pink, her mane and tail magenta fluffs like bursts of cotton candy, her eyes were lovely bouncing baby blue, and when she smiled all the darkness and blackness around them seemed to vanish. “I'm back!”

“Pinkie!” cried Fluttershy.

“Oh, thank you Fluttershy!” cried Pinkie, zooming up to her and wrapping her in an enormous hug. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!”

“You're so welcome, Pinkie,” tears welled in her eyes. “I'm just so happy you're okay!”

“Me too, sister, you have no idea!” said Pinkie. She smiled even wider. “And look, you've totally gotten Cadence-sized like Twilight! Your Element must be super powerful now!”

“Yes, I should imagine it is,” said Nordeshang. “Welcome back to health, Pinkie Pie. I am glad to see you.”

“And thank you, Mister Nordeshang! I wouldn't be good ol' Pinkie Pie again without you!”

“I helped, perhaps,” he glanced aside, “but it was not I who healed you. Indeed, I wonder if I would have been able to do it.”

“That's because Fluttershy is the best, kindest, greatest, most awesome healer in all the lands of Equestria and beyond! She's super-spectacular, ultra-colossal, hyper-con-”

A great rumble shook the earth. Far off in the south, a blast of golden light erupted so brightly and enormously it bathed the heavens everywhere. This was followed by yet more eruptions of great power, making the ground thunder once again.

“Wuh-oh,” said Pinkie. “What's that?”

Nordeshang sighed deeply, hanging his great head. “The start of Fëanor's foolishness.”

Chapter 37

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Wrath came billowing in light upon the low plains of Equestria, setting air and water trembling like the stringèd tremors of a symphony. Burning, blazing, eating up the black skies came the Elders, one by one in trembling strains of light. Glorfindel arrived the first of all, and his was youthful fury, hot and daring, glimmering within his turquoise eyes. Then all now together came the sisters- Nona, Decima, and Morta- triple-colored red and green and blue, glorious and gentle, careful and reserved, echoing with hatred all the same. Then in swelling golden fury there came Fëanor, Fëanor the brother of Gil-Galad, Fëanor the last king of the elk. A radiance like fresh-waxed bronze was on him. Power and destruction tremored from his great and many-forking antlers. Hate as deep and black as night was lurking in the darkened centers of his eyes.

Then came Twilight Sparkle. Like a counter-melody among the soaring symphony she teleported into view. Glancing all about her she soon felt that she was out of place. She held not the high deer's hate. She thought, she dreamed she might have hated Reiziger; how foolish she had been? What knew she of wrath? What had she felt that was like the way the Herd Lord, black and terrible, had slaughtered and devoured all the splendor of the deerfolk all those centuries ago? She had lost her home. The deer around her had lost everything they loved. They had nursed their hate for countless moons and suns. It made her feel so very small.

Black and wicked stuck the Herd Lord's castle from the mountains, such a cruel and vicious mockery of Canterlot that now was dead. Twilight saw it, still could picture all the golden towers and white spires, and she felt perhaps a bit more kinship with the Elders standing, hating all around her. Not enough, however, so she stood, and did not speak.

Fëanor stepped forward. “Herd Lord,” he said, voice even and level but erupting with the clarity of sunshine, “Herd Lord, come, come and reckon with us.”

No response at first came from the castle. Fëanor curled up his lip. “Herd Lord!” he exclaimed, losing some regality as anger crept into his voice.

What is this?

Darkness simmered out into the air. Shadow wrapped and bent and twisted in a shape a mile wide, forging brambled antlers and a curling, sneering muzzle. Just as he had done that day above the skies of Canterlot, now Reiziger, the Lord of All the Herds, projected his head at enormous size into the sky. Red eyes blossomed in the last of all, glowing huge and bright like dying stars. White teeth tower-sized were shown as the great face split in a grin.

Is that Fëanor I see? And is that Nona, Decima, and Morta- the three kissing cousins? Morta's eyes went narrow at this, but her sisters did not move. And you... who are you, little elk? Glorfindel did not respond. And is that- Twilight Sparkle! So you have forsaken your race, and your friends, and your princesses?

“I...” Twilight pulled back trembling, “I... no! I haven't- I haven't forsaken them! It's just... I...”

Oh, I don't blame you. You were tired of failure, so you changed sides. It's only natural- even if you did exchange a lesser failure for an even greater one!

“Herd Lord,” said Fëanor, voice bright like the dancing of the light on adamant, “Herd Lord, come down here. Come and fight with us.”

Why should I?, thundered Reiziger. Why will you not come and see my court? I spent such time constructing it, but it has been so lonely. Come now, Fëanor. Let us be civilized.

“Come out, Herd Lord, or I shall scrape your castle off the mountainside.”

Are you really going to be so hasty? Savor this moment, Fëanor. Treasure these last minutes before your doom. I can only-

Fëanor moved one small gentle step, and tossed his head. There came off of his antlers something like the slaying of a sun, a light Twilight could not see, could not bear the brilliance. For a moment she could see the shadow castle blooming in the golden light as though it were some darkened rose in springtime- then it flashed away and with it all the mountainside. Naught was left of that tremendous peak.


Far away, the magic could be seen and heard and felt. Fluttershy's wings felt like they were burning. “Oh my goodness,” she whispered, as the gold light blossomed in the sky.

“It has begun,” said Nordeshang. “They will do great damage. I only hope it can be repaired.”

“Hmm,” said Pinkie Pie, rubbing her hoof up against her chin. Her eyebrows sharply rose. “Oh! Mister Nordeshang! Depending on how the battle goes, do you think you can do me a favor?”

Nordeshang glanced down at her. “That depends- what did you have in mind?”

“Wellll....”


Even as Twilight adjusted to the blast, however, on the very nearby mountain the great castle reappeared. Like black paint smeared upon a canvas those old shadowed towers reemerged, rekindled, burning up like candles made of pitch.

Very well, then. I shall just have to come down and deal with you!

So out of his great castle came Reiziger, steps like pounding hammers on the fabric of the stars. Crimson flames were burning on his blackened brambled antlers, crimson eyes like pits of Tartarus were set inside his pitch black head. He came and was enormous and the shadows all were with him. Twilight saw him and she knew fear now, for Reiziger was in a killing mood. Fëanor came forth and threw at him a wave of light.

The shadow rose and surged, red fire coming with it. It washed like a great ocean tide upon the land. All was swept away within its fury but the Elders did not stop. Light like sea and sunset, star and moonlight, played upon their high and mighty antlers, flashing with the power of the Wills That Draw the World. Twilight Sparkle no longer had time to think. The sheer backwash of magic that now swept upon her nearly tore her into atoms. Instead she merely surged- and fought.

Reiziger and all the Elders were like currents battling upon the sea. Fëanor, the first, was at the front, and from him washed the power that scraped grass from dirt and turned the mountains in his path to dust. It seemed as though a Sun were sitting on his antlers, so great and bright and golden were they. Gold light too was gleaming in his eyes, a gold light like his greatest student's sunlight, only this was harsh and overpowering, not life-giving. He sniffed out shadow and it vanished, vaporized by all the gold light's brilliance, along with all else that was in his way. He merely glanced upon a thing- a hill, a forest, a great city- and it came undone.

Glorfindel around and near him was as terrible. His light and fire were not quite as hot as Fëanor's, but somehow they were brighter, turquoise magic gleaming and destroying like the flarings of the sea. Shadow came about him but his faith was great, his focus righteous, and the darkness did not touch him, for he would not know it and it could not stand his midst. In rays of blue-green sunshine like the shining shimmering of growing life Glorfindel charged the herd lord, a star- so many stars- thrusting itself into a black hole. Reiziger the Herd Lord, Butcher of the Elk, marked him with the flaring of his fiery gaze and saw that he was brave- perhaps too brave, for shadows marshaled and the turquoise seemed to dim before them. Golden light came then and wiped away all in its path, for Fëanor would not see the last elk beside himself so easily be beat.

Nona, Decima, and Morta danced and surged like skimming boats upon the storm of shadow, on the blackened sea that cast all things in night and drew its power from all things that lived. They threw their might and fury at the shadow in their triple colors, one red and one blue and lastly one green. So often they were grouped together, and they did not mind, even in the days when there were many red deer, for they were dear sisters all, they loved each other, and they looked after each other, Looking too, their Sight beyond sight teaching each of them what both the others should be doing. Here and now, amid this light and storm, they charged with wrath upon the Herd Lord, fencing in his might and bending his own crimson fire back upon himself. Reiziger was always trying to devour them but they could See him coming, and they quickly danced aside out of the gnashings of his infinite white teeth.

In the midst of this, Twilight Sparkle nearly lost herself. She had long since stopped attempting to take in- to comprehend- what happened now around her. Even she, who had been witness to great magics that her fellow ponies never could have dreamed, was flailing, drowning in the overwhelming power sloshing to and fro. To move- to make sure she was not completely vaporized or torn apart- she fell into her oldest instincts, those teachings she'd learned as just a baby when her mother had instructed her on safety using magic. Move toward the cold, move away from the heat. Move toward the light, move away from the darkness. Yet even such essential lessons seemed to fail her, for the Shadow of the Enemy was everywhere. Thus she tapped a deeper well. She dove into the Element of Magic, floating in her heart and on her flanks, held her breath and plunged into the pool of gleaming light far deeper than the deepest sea. She gave herself to Magic, letting it direct her, making sure it filled her with the instincts that allowed her to survive.

Now she was not so afraid. Swelling with a might beyond her wildest dreams, plunging into power she could scarcely have imagined, now she was not so unsure. So unto the fore came Twilight Sparkle, Magic given life, and great strength was with her. The Sun was in her right eye and the Moon was in her left. Dusk was at her hooves and starry Night was in the feathers of her wings. She came, and brought with her a light and force like great disaster, and she came through the Shadow unto Reiziger, who even in his might and terror st