Three hundred years since the fall of Equestria, fractured states stand in its place. Now as an old threat stirs Adagio Dazzle and five other mares must face one of the architects of Equestria's collapse.
Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria...
That's how these stories usually start, but in a world where heroes of legend fell to corruption that once great nation is no more, and now only lingering divided remnants exist in its stead.
Enter Adagio Dazzle, a young and ambitious noble eager to prove herself and what better way to do so then by hosting the annual memorial festival. Unfortunately this year's commemoration is to be held in Ponyville where she must contend with an overzealous political extremist, an insane chef, a belligerent team of forest rangers, and an uncooperative weather patrol.
To make matters worst within the nearby untamed wilds of the Everfree Forest a storm is brewing. Not just any storm, but a herald of ancient evils soon to return.
For as the old saying goes, when it rains....it pours.
Adagio Dazzle’s rose colored eyes glared at the numbers on the page before her with all the venom she could muster as if her raw disdain for the sums would somehow make them jump hundreds of bits higher in fear. Yet despite her best efforts, the amber coated unicorn’s wrath failed to move the collection of ink scribbles one bit. The sums remained what they were and what they were was far too low for her liking. Horn sparkling with crimson light from between the ginger curls of her mane, she lazily reached out with her magic, plucking a hawk feather quill from its resting place in the nearby ink well. Another flick of her magic brought a fresh page of paper over and with a few dabs, Adagio set to her figures.
To any pony that walked in on her now the study that Adagio worked in would have seemed the picture of high class luxury. The walls were paneled with timber hauled from Whitetail Wood, stained and polished to a near mirror shine, from which hung tapestries of colorful geometric patterns and family portraits alike. A plush red carpet covered the stone floor and the furniture- from Adagio’s desk, to the book shelves and cabinets that filled the remaining wall space- was made out of a dark wood that surely came from somewhere beyond the borders.
But upon a second look, that same pony would notice the cracks in the facade. The tapestries were worn and in a few cases threadbare. The paintings, while showing tender family moments, wore cracks and flakes in the paint and even chips in some of the frames. Even Adagio’s desk wasn’t perfect, having a slight rock in it thanks to one leg being slightly shorter than the others. This was the office of a noble family that wasn’t quite the power that it used to be.
Those thoughts weighed down on Adagio as she worked, the light scritch-scratches of the quill joined the scattered birdsong floating through the study’s open windows. It was a brilliant summer day out- not that she could enjoy it- and her workers would be tending to the vines of her manor. For their sake, the harvest would have to be good this year, or many would be finding themselves darkening some other noble’s doorstep for employment.
Aside from worker pay, there was the upkeep for her meager house guard as well. Armor to keep maintained and weapons to keep sharp. Then the basic necessities of life. And finally, her investments. Her family had always grown grapes and sold them to other wine producers. But now, she was getting in on that. Plans to expand the vineyard into full wine production were going slowly but at least the Whitetail Lumber Guild was pulling its weight.
But as she slowly budgeted out every bit and jangle, every gem and crumb of food that passed through her holdings, Adagio couldn’t help but grind her teeth at the increasingly out of kilter numbers. As quickly as the bits flowed in, they flowed right back out. Expenses and taxes. It was always expenses and taxes. Groaning, she leaned back in her seat, rolling her gaze at the largest banner amongst all the others. Still well maintained it hung over the double doors to her study, proudly displaying the insignia of House Dazzle. It was a massive amber gem, flanked by twisting vines.
While the insignia always picked her mood up, in some ways she always carried the house insignia with her, as the amber gem was prominent in her own cutie-mark; the gem and a treble clef. It was a near constant reminder of her duties as the current head of the house.
Weary eyes returned to the ledger, a hoof brushed a wavy lock of orange mane back into place and Adagio’s focus fell upon the largest negative sums on the books. The first set came from her erstwhile mentor, Baron Fancy Pants. The ventures he had talked her into had generally gone bust. And then there was a sizable debt owed to what sometimes seemed like about half of Manehattan. Baroness Coco of House Pommel probably was the largest slice of that pie, followed by merchant Prim Hemline. All because of-
The doors to her office swung open and her scribe and assistant Suri Polomare trotted into the room. The pink and purple earth pony had a tray clenched firmly between her teeth, her head held high to keep a goblet, bottle and a pile of scrolls balanced on it. Her curly violet mane and tail bounced as she neatly crossed the room, carefully slid the whole thing onto Adagio’s desk and finished her task by dipping into a deep bow.
“Some missives for you m’lady, and some refreshment for while you work. I thought you could use some. Bookkeeping really is the worst thing.”
That mare. Her indentured servant did seem to possess an uncanny knack for knowing just what Adagio wanted. She peered at the bottle’s label. Sweet Orchard Hard Cider. From one of the smaller farms her family owned, if her memory was correct. The cork was popped loose and she poured about half the bottle into her goblet, before shoving it towards Suri. The alcohol was slightly cool from its time in the cellar, but Adagio had ways to make it better. A few notes of a song immediately sprang to her lips, her horn glowing as magic bolstered music and vice versa. She pushed the notes low, picturing the starkness of winter and the howling chill that kept ponies huddled in their homes.
From her horn, a winter wind flowed, coiling around goblet and bottle, chilling both to the temperature of a crisp mountain stream. Adagio waved a hoof towards the bottle. “Now, sit, share a drink and maybe you can help me make heads or tails of these numbers while I see who wants what.”
Suri smiled, taking a swig. “Thank you m’lady.”
She took a seat across from Adagio beginning to check her employer’s math. Adagio turned her attention towards the scrolls. It was a large stack, sixteen missives in all.
“Suri, why am I so popular today?”
“Probably because of that one,” Suri said, pointing to one scroll on the edge of the pile.
Its wax seal bore the mark of a chrysalis, a very familiar mark for Adagio. A chrysalis meant that the letter was from Queen Chrysalis, ruler of The Heartlands and her liege. Eyes lighting up with an eager energy, Adagio snatched it up with her magic, the wax seal crumbling under her arcane grip.
Lady Adagio Dazzle,
I hope this letter finds you well. This might seem like a strange fact to open a conversation on but it was pointed out to me that your twenty-fourth birthday was a few days ago.
That was true. Not that Adagio had done much to celebrate it.
Well, I have news that I think will lift your spirits. My husband and I feel that you’ve tutored under Count Fancy Pants for long enough and it is time to take full control of your barony. The ceremony making everything official will take place tomorrow night. May you rule with wisdom and harmony.
“Finally!” Adagio shouted, slamming her hooves so hard upon her desk that Suri jumped at the outburst. The desk rocked at the impact, forcing Suri to dive forward again to save the goblet and sending the other scrolls rolling across its surface. Adagio shoved the letter at her assistant’s snout, jumping to her hooves, almost strutting the width of her desk. “No more bowing and scraping to that stuck-up buffoon!”
“Mmm...and good riddance too."
“The ceremony is tomorrow night though. I’ll need a new dress—”
Suri coughed, tapping the budget scribblings with a hoof. Adagio’s face fell. There was clearly no room in her budget for a whole new outfit, at least not on such short notice. But if she showed up in any of her existing ensembles, she’d be socially drawn and quartered by that harpy Fleur Dis Lee. The image of the noblemare's smug face was already flitting about in Adagio's mind, tittering behind her hoof about how the poor House Dazzle couldn’t even afford basic fineries for such an important event.
Suri coughed again. “But ya know, I could always do some alterations with your existing outfits. Mix 'n' match a few different pieces to make something that looks like it's brand new.”
It was sometimes easy for Adagio to forget that Suri had tried her hoof at being a tailor before she had wound up indentured. At least easy to forget when she wasn’t actively looking at the earth pony’s debts that she had taken on. But it was a handy little extra skill for her assistant to have.
“Yes! That will do just fine. I’ll arrive in a full, resplendent regalia and show the court just what I’m capable of!”
But as soon as those words left her mouth, Adagio froze. The court. To counter Fancy Pants’ drain on her coffers, Adagio had been forced to cut deals with half the nobles in Canterlot. Her eyes flicked down to the pile of other scrolls. Grabbing them two at a time, she unrolled them, reading the messages in a sudden burst of panic.
“M’lady? What’s wrong?” Suri asked.
“It’s everypony I promised favors to. Word must have already gotten out and now they’re calling things due!”
Suri jumped to her hooves. “But...what are we going to do? They could tear the house apart-”
“Quiet!” Adagio snapped, holding up a hoof. “Get me a map of my demesne. I am not going to lose everything now!”
Suri scampered over to a shelf, plucking a map from amongst its books and scrolls. It was quickly rolled out on Adagio’s desk, the full extent of her land holdings unfolding before her stern glare. Like the holdings of many nobles, it wasn’t exactly contiguous. Her family’s manor house on the slopes of Mt. Canterhorn was separated from the rest of her barony by Fancy Pants. His lands cut perpendicularly across hers, severing her manor from the political and economic heart of her realm. The barony itself consisted of Ponyville, all of the Whitetail Wood, about one hundred square kilometers of open fields and- much to her chagrin- a small slice of the Everfree Forest.
“What’s the first one?”
Suri picked a random scroll from the pile. “Count Copper Coin. He wants the lumber rights from the Whitetail you promised.”
“I can talk him into investing in the existing guild,” Adagio said, after a moment of consideration. “He’ll get his money, and I won’t have to give up any actual land.”
“What about Marquis Hoity Toity?” Suri asked, grabbing another scroll. “He’s planning a trip to the Lunar Kingdom in a few months. Wants your support on some trade negotiations.”
“I’ve always wanted to visit the Lunar Kingdom anyway,” Adagio declared.
Suri rummaged through a few more bits of the pile. “Sir Tarnished Silver?”
There was a drawer somewhere in the office containing trees worth of poems he had written, praising her beauty in a poor attempt of courtly romance. “Cute,” Adagio said, recalling the stallion’s firm flanks, “but a bit over his head. I’ll just bat my eyes at him and he’ll be tripping over himself to assist a fair maiden.”
And so on it went, Suri sorting through the stack of favors with Adagio deciding how to either grant or defer the request. Eventually, they reached the bottom of the bundle and Suri reached for fresh paper and quill, looking up at Adagio with a silent question.
Adagio nodded back and began to dictate. “Dear Count Copper Coin. I have a proposal for you...”
- - - -
The night of the ceremony came fast. So fast that Adagio hadn't been sure Suri would be able to finish the dress in time. But her special talent had shown through and now they stood in one of Canterlot Castle's cavernous hallways. Or, more accurately, Adagio stood. Suri knelt, furiously attacking a ripped hem that dared to mar her creation.
The stitched-together ensemble, had turned out better than Adagio had expected. A maroon velvet hood rested loosely on the back of her head and neck, mane bundled up in a chignon knot underneath. The dress proper was a two layer affair. A deep green undergarment with an amber trim fell to the tops of her cannons. A maroon over dress, open in the front, dangled just a few inches above the hem of the latter. Adagio did enjoy how the skirt swished when she moved, even if it had gotten them into their current situation. Queen Chrysalis did love her rosebushes and the rush for the castle’s front doors had resulted in the dress getting snagged.
“Suri! Ow! Is that a needle or a sword?” Adagio yelped.
“M’lady, stop squirming! Thish is hard enough without you tryin’ to buck me, m’kay?” Suri spat back, around a mouthful of pins.
Adagio would have snapped at Suri for the disrespect, but now really wasn’t the time. Fuming, she let Suri work and resolutely set her jaw against pricks from the needles. Six of her house guard milled about behind her, their polished armor glinting in the torchlight, including their captain and her personal bodyguard.
Iron Will towered over the rest of them, leaning against the wall as he polished Adagio’s rapier. As a minotaur, he cut an intimidating figure. Most ponies gave him a wide berth. Partially because of his size and muscle, but mostly because of the rumors and stories about his homeland and people. Adagio had counted about eight different ones during her time in court, painting minotaurs as everything from tattooed barbarians that drank the blood of ponies under the dark boughs of forests, to some highly advanced magical super nation.
Never mind that if any of those clucking chickens opened a history book, they could clearly read that the Minoan City States were an island chain in the eastern sea and used to be a satrap state of old Equestria.
Iron Will was older for a bodyguard, pushing into his mid forties. But he had been Adagio’s guard since she was a foal and after twenty-four years of dedicated service, seemed to have no desire to leave. Indeed, despite the lines of age around his eyes, Will remained in excellent physical condition. Muscles that could shatter logs rippled under steel grey fur, his horns were still sharp as swords and his black eyes were still alert. Having become satisfied with his efforts, Will casually strolled to Adagio’s side and strapped the weapon in place.
“A shame about the dress. Armor, that’s what you do a coronation ceremony in! A dress and sword just don’t go together,” he chuckled.
“Doesh kind of ruin the effect,” Suri muttered. Spitting out her pins, she pulled the needle and thread taut, snipping it with a quick bite. “There. It’ll hold for tonight’s event and party.”
Adagio nodded grimly. “Good. Tonight needs to go off without a hitch!”
Iron Will gave her a firm pat on the back. “Just remember Adagio. Visualize so that you can actualize!”
He sure loves those made up words of his, Adagio thought as the great double doors to the throne room opened.
The white coated, sapphire blue maned mare that stepped through them was a familiar sight around Canterlot. Gleaming Shield, both head of the Royal Guard and a pony who could name every member of said guard from memory. She was like some mad wizard had combined a librarian and soldier into one unicorn. Adagio found her and her studious disdain for most ponies she interacted with to be off-putting. Gleaming was annoyed, her clear blue eyes flitting to each of them, a deep frown on her muzzle.
“I trust that everything is in order now and we can proceed without any further delay?” she asked, waving a rolled up scroll at the group.
There was only one answer for Adagio. “Ready.”
Her guard ranked up into two separate lines of three behind her, Iron Will at her right side and Suri at her left. Holding her head high, Adagio strode forward as Gleaming threw the heavy wooden doors the rest of the way open. Canterlot Castle’s throne room was a long, straight rectangle of sturdy granite stone carved from the mountain that gave the city its name. Wide enough that fifteen ponies could comfortably stand side by side, it was now nearly fit to bursting with all the nobles that had shown up for the ennobling. Banners of The Heartland’s major noble houses hung amongst enchanted stained glass windows, depicting important events from the history of the Equestrian successor state. Though, the most important of those events- the fall of old Equestria- was painted on the wall above the twin thrones. A plush red carpet had been laid out, running straight to those twin thrones.
Gleaming Shield unrolled her scroll and read boldly with all the strength of a knight. “Announcing, Lady Adagio Dazzle of House Dazzle!”
Setting off down the carpet, Adagio kept her eyes focused firmly on the rulers of The Heartlands.
Queen Chrysalis was, as always, the picture of inscrutability. The snow white alicorn sat tall in her white crystal throne, her gracious smile not quite reaching her eyes. Like Adagio, she had opted to wear her jade green mane in the chignon knot style, her glittering silver crown tucked into it. A golden necklace held a matching jade green cloak, trimmed with white ermine fur in place. As calm and as cheerful as she looked though, Adagio knew the reputation she actually had at court. Queen Chrysalis the deceiver. Queen Chrysalis the manipulator. Queen Chrysalis, the alicorn that had ascended from nowhere and was surely planning to overthrow The Heartlands someday. She hadn’t experienced any of that personally. Chrysalis had always gotten on well with her parents, before their passing.
Next to Chrysalis was her husband, King Sombra. Sombra, on his black crystal throne, was in many ways his wife’s opposite. In the days of old Equestria, he had been supreme commander of its military and it still showed. He was stern, frowning down at Adagio as she approached. An iron circlet was his crown, held tight against his slicked back black mane. Like his wife, he wore an ermine fur lined cloak, but purple. The color went well with his grey coat.
Reaching the end of her walk, Adagio neatly dropped to her knees, dipping her head in a deep bow. Will and Suri stopped behind her, dropping into their own bows as did her ponies stopping just slightly behind them, lining the sides of the path through the crowd of nobles.
“I who have been summoned, ask what you wish of me,” Adagio said, beginning her oath.
“We wish to know what you offer the throne,” Queen Chrysalis said.
“I offer my service and the service of all the citizens of Ponyville, to the throne,” Adagio intoned. “I will follow you in both war and peace.”
“We accept your service,” King Sombra replied, following centuries old tradition. “In return we offer you our protection and the protection of all The Heartlands in both war and peace.”
The room was so quiet that anypony could have heard one of Suri’s pins drop. Then Queen Chrysalis and King Sombra stood. The alicorns looked over the crowd, their expressions difficult to read. But then Chrysalis spoke, sweeping a wing back towards the mural behind the throne.
“Three hundred years ago, in the second age of harmony, Equestria was watched over by a mighty council of alicorns. They ruled with the principles of friendship and harmony, supporting each other and working to make the land great. Then, one day, a wandering mystic named Scorpan visited the court of Equestria and planted the seed of darkness. Of the council of eleven, six fell to darkness, their hearts chained by Scorpan’s lies.”
Adagio didn’t break the bow, but did roll her gaze upwards to look at the mural that told the story. The fallen alicorns were all clearly displayed, their silhouettes falling into a cloud of shadow that rose from Scorpan’s mouth like the tendrils of some monstrous squid. They emerged from the choking cloud warped and changed into mockeries of themselves. Chroma, the bringer of endless storms. Echinda, the mother of monsters. Bitterroot, reshaper of the land. Harlequin, the dark jester. Luster, princess of avarice. And Midnight, mistress of dark witchcraft.
King Sombra took up the tale now. “Countless died. Whole towns and cities were swept away in the conflict. We are all familiar with this history. We tell it to our foals. We tell it to our friends. We all know that my wife and I, with the help of Princesses Celestia, Luna and Cadance, used the Elements of Harmony, to banish them away. But we also know that Equestria did not survive. Our own Heartlands. The Exalted Solar Prelate. The Lunar Kingdom. The Crystal Empire.” A thunderous crash echoed through the room as Sombra stomped a hoof. “Though they are lesser remains of the former whole, we still and will always hold the ideals of Equestria close to our hearts!”
“Lady Adagio Dazzle. Your sword,” Chrysalis said. Her voice had lost its earlier kind quality and now held an icy sliver of commanding power.
Adagio unhooked her blade, scabbard and all, presenting it hilt first. Chrysalis’ magic took it from her own.
“Dame Adagio Dazzle. Do you swear to abide by the principles of Harmony? To be loyal to your kin? To always show kindness to those less fortunate? To be honest in word and deed? To be generous with your gifts? To always carry joy in your heart? And to always seek and strengthen the bonds of friendship?”
“Upon my word, I so swear.”
Sombra followed with the next set of questions. “Dame Adagio Dazzle. Do you swear to uphold the laws of the land? To honor the duties given to you by your sovereigns and perform them to the best of your ability?”
“Upon my word, I so swear.”
Adagio felt the tip of her rapier tap each shoulder, and then a medallion slipped over her neck. In the center, it depicted her cutie-mark, while the outer ring was inscribed with Chrysalis and Sombra’s cutie-marks, flanked by The Heartland’s motto; Through harmony, we endure. A symbol of her office. “Then rise and greet your peers, Baroness Adagio Dazzle,” Chrysalis said.
She stood, slowly and steadily, taking her weapon back from her Queen. Turning and facing the rest of the nobles in the hall, she gave her rapier a little flourish, clipped it back to her side and began to walk the carpet once more. Her guards turned as one, both lines facing each other. Adagio advanced between the ranks, Iron Will and Suri falling into step behind her. The crowd bowed to her as she passed, observing the tradition of showing due deference to the newly promoted noble. The smirk never left Adagio’s face as she walked, only stopping at the doors.
“The ceremony is now completed! Let the celebration commence in the Great Halls!” Chrysalis declared.
- - - -
The Great Halls were a collection of four previously linked chambers, that had their walls knocked out to form one larger ballroom, in the right wing of Canterlot Castle. They were used almost exclusively for social functions and meetings and in her role as a baroness (even one that hadn’t been fully empowered yet), Adagio had seen more than a few ennobling parties and other celebrations within these walls. And much like all of those other parties, her own celebration was as much a chance for ponies to mix and mingle as indulge on fine food and drink.
Not that Adagio was opposed to the food and drink, of which there were copious amounts. Dishes made from carrots, beets, potatoes, and asparagus were crammed onto long oaken tables, each vegetable cooked multiple ways. Full flagons of mead, wine (her own vintage) and cordials- both strawberry and blackberry- took the rest of the available space. The heady scents of the different dishes rose and mingled in the air, doing their part to make the Halls all the more warm and inviting. Adagio had already helped herself to a few mini-roast potatoes and was wandering through the crowd with a full goblet of the blackberry cordial.
Soft cheerful music floated from a group of minstrels playing near the back wall. They were an interesting trio, made up of the mint green unicorn on the lyre, grey earth pony on the lute and white unicorn on the tambourine. The white unicorn seemed to be particularly enthused, dancing in place to a tune seperate from which she was playing and shaking her instrument like it was a ship caught in a mighty tempest.
“Well done Lady Dazzle!”
“You look so regal in your dress m’lady!”
“What are your plans now m’lady?”
Yes, most of the compliments and well wishes probably came from ponies below her in rank, now seeking her favor. Not that the comments weren’t appreciated. The praise made Adagio’s blood race. This was what she lived for! Politics was called “The Great Game” by peasants and nobles alike, its currency the opinions of a noble’s fellows and what favors could be won from their superiors. And now that her power was fully realized, this party was the perfect opportunity to earn some points with her fellow court members.
It was just a question of who. Count Copper Coin would surely be in attendance, and earning some more favor with him couldn’t hurt. Baron Spring Fields was another good possibility. Farming was his love and his collection was vast. It was both a money maker and a practical thing to be involved in. Oh and of course, she couldn’t forget needing to find a husband at some point to pass on the family bloodline.
Slowly sipping her drink, Adagio let her eyes wander around the room some more. Queen Chrysalis was chatting idly with a blonde maned, white coated unicorn stallion. A rather handsome looking one at that. She’d have to find out who he was later. King Sombra was also locked in conversation. He seemed to be “talking shop” as it were with Iron Will and Gleaming Shield if their animated gestures were any indication. Most of the rest of the crowd were clustered around in groups, locked in their own conversations. Except for Count Fancy Pants. He was lurking around one of the food tables and speaking with Suri.
Frowning, Adagio slunk her way through the crowd, keeping her eyes locked on the pair as she went. Suri was squirming under Fancy’s intense glare, the unicorn’s mouth moving furiously. Suri looked around, her eyes desperately seeking for help.
“Suri! Fancy Pants!” Adagio smiled, neatly stepping out of the crowd. “Enjoying the party?”
“Yes! Yes, we’re fine!” Suri said. The nervous smile on her face betrayed the fear that was clearly churning behind the mask.
“Really now? Count Pants, you looked... upset. Anything I can do to help?”
Fancy Pants stiffened, his ears slicked back. “Your... servants are disrupting the decorum of the event. She shouldn’t be here and your minotaur is frightening the guests!”
“Iron Will certainly isn’t scaring King Sombra. And Suri? Disruptive? Really Fancy Pants. How is she disruptive?”
“For one, she is an indentured servant. This event is for the court and the houses that support it—”
Adagio smiled, clapping a leg across Suri’s back. “And guests. Suri is my guest. She works very hard for me and could use a night off.”
Truthfully, Adagio hadn’t imagined that there would have been a problem with Suri coming at all. Nobles had their supporters and hangers on. So, there was something else that Fancy Pants was upset about.
“Well, that may be, but her dress isn’t appropriate for the event. ”
So that was it. Normally, as a servant, Suri would have her own uniform. But it was never something Adagio had insisted on. She cared about how well Suri worked as an assistant, not how she was dressed. And in the rush to pull together Adagio’s own ensemble, Suri had neglected doing something for herself. At the moment, she was wearing a checkered scarf around her neck and a pale yellow one in her mane to keep her updo in place. By contrast, every other noble in the hall was wearing clothing. In some cases, multiple layers of clothing, to show off the fact they could afford that much of an indulgence. Even Fancy Pants was wearing a fine pair of his namesake. But Adagio had been forced to bow and scrape to her “mentor” for long enough and this would not stand.
“Well Fancy, as your constant bad advice has left my finances in a bad place, I just didn’t have the bits to get Suri a new uniform.”
“Preposterous! She is a tailor, is she not?”
“And taking care of her own clothes isn’t her responsibility. This mare” —she placed a hoof on Suri’s back— “put her trust in me when she sold me her bond. What kind of message would I be sending if I forced the poor dear to sew scraps together for an outfit?”
“Splitting hairs are we?”
Adagio raised her goblet to Fancy in a mock toast. “You were the best stallion to teach me that.”
Fancy glared at her, Adagio smirked back and Suri nervously looked between the two.
“Already showing such callous disregard for polite society, are we, Adagio?” Fancy Pants smiled. It was the kind of fake, venomous smile that wouldn’t be out of place on a dragon. “I would be careful. You just might find yourself under my banner again.”
When the kingdoms are reunited, Adagio thought. It was a flowery expression, meaning 'never'. “You are making the Canterhorn out of a molehill. Now, this is a party.” she smiled again. “Do try to relax and have some amount of fun.”
She began to walk past Fancy Pants, towards Queen Chrysalis and the mysterious stallion. As she advanced, she gave her mostly still full goblet a little flick with her magic. Blackberry cordial spilled over Fancy’s muzzle and down the front of his expensive shirt. Fancy sputtered in indignation, already dabbing at the growing stain.
“Oh dear! How terribly clumsy of me! You should go take care of that,” she chuckled, before leaning close to the unicorn. “Really Fancy, you shouldn’t go around picking on servants. It might ruin your sterling reputation.”
Fancy Pants cantered off, grumbling under his breath. Petty, but worth it. Adagio smiled as she strode off.
- - - -
Suri Polomare watched the retreating forms of Count Fancy Pants and her own master. Her heart was hammering a kilometer a minute. She was doomed. Completely and unmistakably doomed. There was not a chance that Fancy Pants would forgive such an insult. He’d lash out against both of them and they’d suffer for making him look like a fool.
Already she could feel the eyes of the other nobles in the room on her, silently judging her. With a lump developing in her throat, Suri quickly weaved her way through the crowd and towards the exit. Slipping out into the hallway, Suri slumped against the wall. Squeezing her eyes shut, she took several calming, deep breaths. The sting of tears leaked at the edges of her eyes, threatening to burst forth in a torrent.
“Not again. Not again,” she muttered.
The sounds of the party fell away from Suri as morbid thoughts of being broke on the streets danced through her head. Huddling in alleys to try and avoid the winter chill. Eating only grass or whatever food she could beg for. Never being able to sew or create again. All thoughts equally horrible. She might have sat there and sobbed for hours, had not the soft touch of a wing on her back pulled her from the depths of her misery.
Looking up, she was shocked to find that the wing belonged to Queen Chrysalis. Hastily, she rose to her hooves while trying to dip into a bow at the same time in a clumsy fumbling of limbs.
“Y-your Majesty! I-”
“Calm yourself, my little pony. What troubles you so that you’re out here, instead of enjoying the celebration?”
Suri bit her lip, unsure of how honest to be with the queen. But another thought was right on the heels of that and her eyes lit up.
“I formally request royal permission to be at the event tonight!” She almost shouted it in the rush to get it out before she lost her nerve.
Chrysalis took a step back, an eyebrow raised. “Pardon? Why would you require something like that? Adagio was always allowed to bring any guests she wished.”
“But Count Fancy Pants threatened me! He said that a practical slave like me had no business at the party, and then Adagio insulted him over me and ruined his clothes-”
“Enough,” Chrysalis raised a wing. “Miss Polomare, I assure you that no harm will come to you. Fancy Pants is much more bark than bite.”
“Please. Come back to the party. I’m sure you could use the break from your duties. And I can speak with Fancy and Adagio about their behavior.”
Suri sighed. She was trapped. “Okay.”
Together, queen and servant trotted back into the grand halls. The festivities were still in full swing, with no one the wiser to whatever arguments had erupted between Fancy and Adagio. Guided by the strong wing of Queen Chrysais, Suri quickly found herself standing before Count Fancy Pants again. The count was at one of the refreshment tables, back turned to them and angrily snacking
“Fancy Pants. You owe this mare an apology,” Chrysalis said.
Fancy turned to face them now, his angry mood melting away into an ashamed look, before dipping into a bow. “Ah. Yes. Quite your Majesty.” He dipped his head briefly to Suri. “My apologies Miss Polomare. I shouldn’t have taken your master’s inability to give you a proper outfit for the night out on you.”
Liar. Suri thought. She had been exposed to enough faux flattery in her life to know it when she saw it.
Queen Chrysalis looked around the vast chamber, nodding at Fancy’s apology. “Speaking of Adagio, where did she get to?”
“Why, I believe that I saw her walk off with the delegate from the Solar Prelate. Blueblood, I think his name was?”
“Ah. Good. Adagio will need to get used to dealing with foreign dignitaries. ”
Fancy Pants chortled at that. “Dealing with? With all due respect your majesty, is that what you’re calling it these days?”
“What are you talking about Fancy Pants?”
“Surely you’ve heard of Adagio’s tastes around the court? Has an eye for handsome young stallions. And that Blueblood chap is both of those things.”
Suri winced. It seemed that Adagio’s flirting for favors was coming back to bite her. Chrysalis frowned, her wings flaring slightly.
“Hardly! I’ve watched her string Tarnished Silver along on several occasions! The poor stallion is just trying to honor his chivalric code.”
Chrysalis swung her head around to Suri. “Miss Polomare. Is this true?”
Suri’s first instinct was to lie. While political intrigue was normal at court the unspoken rule was always the same. Don’t make it obvious and don’t get caught. If Chrysalis knew about some of Adagio’s more blatant manipulations she would be displeased to say the least.
“What? Nooo! Of course not. I think that Adagio is actually quite fond of him,” she smiled, hoping that her attitude would be enough to sell the lie. “In fact, she was telling me just a few hours ago that she thought he was cute in an endearing kind of way, m’kay?” She laughed, her chuckle something of a nervous tic in and of itself.
But she could already see from the look on Chrysalis’ face that she wasn’t buying it. She nodded to each of them once, curtly turned on her hooves and stalked through the crowd. Suri watched her go with a growing sense of dread.
Please be good Adagio.
- - - -
Adagio cooed at the touch of Blueblood’s lips on her neck. His forehooves roamed over her back and sides as he pressed her against the wall. Adagio’s own forehooves were exploring Blueblood’s muscled form just as eagerly.
They had started with a conversation, Adagio making small talk, intending to find out everything she could about this diplomat. Perhaps even find something she could use to advance her own house and its standing. But the discussion had quickly grown boring and he was quite the handsome pony. Though he must have thought the same, since he was the one that made the first move.
So, they had spirited away to the far east wing of the castle, to the art gallery. It was a collection of statues and paintings, gathered during the king and queen’s long lives. Famous ponies and events, depicted in paint and marble, made up a maze of artwork. The combination of numerous hidden corridors amongst the grand chambers and the fact that few- if any- came here during official events, as it was on the complete opposite end of the castle from the Grand Halls, made it the ideal place for a bit of fun.
But as Blueblood nipped playfully at her ears, she became aware of wet drops raining down on her head. Blinking, she looked up, to see a shimmering globe of water suspended directly above her head. She barely had time to cry out before the massive sphere splashed down over the pair of them. Adagio sputtered, her now soaked dress like a leaden weight. Blueblood was likewise shocked as he pushed the matted rug that was his mane out of his eyes.
Adagio looked around, ready to glare at whoever thought they were funny enough to do that. But her planned curse died in her throat as Queen Chrysalis shimmered into view, her invisibility fading away. The Queen’s glare was chilling as a winter blizzard and Adagio found herself immediately wondering just who had been whispering lies into her ear.
“Blueblood, I need to speak with my subject alone please.”
“Of course, your Majesty,” he answered, quickly backing away from the two of them.
“And Rector Blueblood? I’d suggest remembering the kind of diplomacy Celestia wishes you to engage in, next time.”
The stallion eeped, his backwards shuffle turning into a full gallop away.
I almost had him forget why he was here? I still got it. Adagio thought, a certain amount of pride swelling in her chest. But Chrysalis' next command demanded her attention.
“Look at me."
Adagio did just that, keeping her face neutral. Chrysalis glared down at her. “I found your servant, Miss Polomare, sobbing outside the Great Halls. She then begged me for a royal pardon for her presence at tonight’s events because she feared reprisal from Fancy Pants. You’ve been a full baroness for all of a few hours and are already picking fights with your mentor!”
“Fancy Pants was completely out of line,” Adagio responded evenly. “Suri hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“And your solution was to begin publicly fighting with him? Adagio, I expect better from you! To say nothing of the talk that’s reached my ears of you stringing stallions along with your charms just for favors.”
“Assuming that such accusations are true, they might have been done just to keep my house afloat. As far as mentors go, Fancy Pants leaves a lot to be desired.”
Chrysalis snorted. “So, that’s it then? ‘I did what I had to do.’ And then content to be a mediocre power broker in a sea of other power brokers?”
“For better or worse is that not the feudal system we find ourselves in?” Adagio frowned. “Besides, harmless flirting and protecting my parents' legacy hardly make me the worst member of court.”
Chrysalis sighed. “Perhaps not. But am I so wrong to think that you could live up to your parents' legacy? They were... great ponies.”
Adagio frowned. “And what would I have to do to live up to that legacy in your mind?”
Chrysalis considered this and a wide smile began to play across her muzzle. “Very well. The Festival of Remembrance will be in three days.”
The Festival of Remembrance was a festival about old Equestria, celebrated on the anniversary of its collapse. For most ponies, it was another chance to unwind and have some fun for a day. But Adagio knew from stories her parents told her that for Chrysalis and Sombra it was more personal. All of the surviving communities of the realms tried to make their celebrations the biggest and best they could both to outshine each other and to impress their monarchs who would visit the festivals on a rotating basis. Rumors were that Ponyville was going to be the destination this year.
“This year, I will be visiting the festival in Ponyville. As Ponyville is your barony, I expect that you shall oversee it, assist in its preparations, and make it a grand event for everypony.”
The news made Adagio pause for a moment but she puffed out her chest and nodded. “I will make sure that Ponyville will absolutely adore this festival!”
Suri Polomare awoke with a back ache. She grumbled and rolled over under her blanket, burying her muzzle in her pillow.
“Curse the ground,” she muttered. “Curse it and every last one of its stones.”
She really meant that. Her back felt like it had managed to find every last one of the blasted things during the night. So, she cursed them again, nature’s little grey daggers. Trying to settle back down into sleep, Suri found her efforts stifled by the still hard ground. That and the beam of morning sunlight that leaked in through a gap in her tent flap. Because they were walking- walking- to Ponyville!
Bitterness rose in the back of Suri’s throat along with the urge to now curse her current existence. Scorpan’s twisted tail! She was supposed to be a dressmaker, creating fantastic designs for lords, ladies and the growing merchant class! But as fast as the bile rose, Suri pushed it back down. Her current situation was nopony’s fault but her own. And for all her faults, there were masters out there a lot worse than Adagio Dazzle.
Sighing, she pushed herself to her hooves and shook her head in an attempt to banish the remains of sleep, now that it was pointless. Besides, somepony needed to get breakfast started. While her job was officially that of a scribe, in reality she did pretty much everything for Adagio. Fumbling about in her half asleep, half awake state, Suri yanked her traveling pack to her side. It was full of neckerchiefs, the one small collection of things she had managed to keep. After thinking for a moment, she picked one- light pink- and neatly tied it around her neck before using her lucky yellow one to tie her hair back.
Yawning, she pushed the tent flap aside and trotted out into the middle of their little camp. It had been set up a bit off the Great Western Road. The road was a marvel of old Equestrian engineering, paved with rectangular blocks of stone that remained sturdy, even three hundred years later. It ran from Canterlot, through Ponyville and then to the wilderness beyond. Suri knew from her own limited studies that it terminated somewhere in the lands controlled by Queen Luna.
Though, it wasn't the only remnant of the fallen nation they passed as they traveled. The Great Western Road had been laid down alongside The Canterhorn Aqueduct, a snake of sturdy granite that had once supplied the old capital with fresh water. Like the road it had weathered the ages surprisingly well. The sun was just starting to climb into the sky, casting its stone arches in a orangish light.
Iron Will and five other guards- one pegasus, one unicorn and three earth ponies- were gathered around a crackling campfire, despite the growing heat of the summer morning. Eighteen ears of corn roasted away, lashed to sticks angled over the fire.
“Good morning!” Iron Will called. His massive axe lay on the ground at his side, ignored as he tended to the corn. Suri wrinkled her snout. Of course Will was treating this like a morning stroll in the park. He lifted trees for exercise.
“Morning?” Suri managed to grunt back. She looked towards Adagio’s tent. She was still asleep it seemed. “Are you trying to make me look bad? Breakfast is my job, ‘kay?”
“You were taking too long getting up,” Iron Will chuckled. “You seem oddly out of sorts. Aren’t you usually more of a morning pony?”
“Indoor pony. I’m an indoor pony,” Suri groaned, rubbing at her aching back. “Not all of us are used to marching around.”
“None of us did when we started off either. When the going got rough, we had to get tough!” Iron Will said, jabbing a fist skyward.
The rest of his squad cheered at that and Suri shook her head. “My back wouldn’t agree with that.”
Iron Will glanced to the jasmine coated pegasus mare at his side. “Watch breakfast. Suri, lay down.”
She saluted and set to work while Iron Will came over to Suri. She raised an eyebrow but slowly lowered herself onto her barrel. Iron Will looked her over for a moment before placing his hands on her back.
“What—” Suri began to ask, only for the question to be immediately banished as Iron Will began to massage her back. His fingers moved slowly and steadily, finding each tensed muscle and sore spot before working it out.
“You do enough traveling and you’ll get used to this eventually,” he said.
“Mmmph. Is that where you learned how to do this?”
“When your back’s in pain, massage that strain! And a beautiful mare such as yourself shouldn’t be in pain.”
Suri rolled her eyes. “You’re corny as that breakfast, m’kay.”
"Iron Will calls things like he sees them!"
Suri rolled her eyes again but let Will work his magic. The massage was so relaxing, almost enough to carry her away to dreams of what might have been. At least until-
“Food’s ready!” one of the guards called.
“I’ll go wake up Adagio then,” Suri said.
While Iron Will helped his pony untie the corn, Suri trotted over to Adagio’s tent. It was slightly larger than the others and a warm sunny yellow color. Pulling the flap aside, Suri peeked in to see how her master was doing.
Adagio was sprawled out under her multiple thick blankets, each leg splayed a different direction, mane a complete mess, while she snored away in a most unladylike manner. The whole scene was both adorable and frustrating at the same time as Adagio had the benefit of a soft and comfy looking mattress to sleep on.
Suri walked over to Adagio’s side and gently shook her. “M’lady. Breakfast is ready.”
A grunt was Adagio’s response, followed by her flopping onto her side, back to Suri. So she sighed and poked Adagio again, harder this time. “Mistress Adagio! Wake up!”
This time Adagio jerked awake in a flail of limbs and a startled cry. She looked around, blearily blinking before she settled on Suri. “Morning?”
“Yes. Morning. Iron Will and his band have breakfast ready.”
Adagio idly nodded, almost looking past Suri. “Are we almost at Ponyville?”
“I think so. I can ask Will for more details.”
Standing up, Adagio shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I can. At least we’ll have a place to stay once we get to Ponyville.”
“Inn?” Suri asked.
Pulling a hairbrush out of her pack, Adagio began to attack her mess of a mane. “My family has a summer home in Ponyville. Spent a lot of summers there before you became my servant.”
“But...with all your financial problems-”
“Suri,” Adagio said, with a clear tone of finality to it. “There is no way I will ever sell that property. Ever.”
“Of course,” Suri said with a soft smile. She started to back out of the tent, but then paused. Something was gnawing at the back of her mind that she had to address. “M’lady? Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” she said, tying her mane back with a purple ribbon.
“What you said to Count Fancy Pants. Did you mean it?”
“Naturally. You may be my assistant and indentured to my family. But nopony talks to my ponies like that.”
Suri blinked. While she wasn’t entirely sure what she had expected in the answer to that question, that… Sighing to herself, she turned and pushed her way back out of the tent. Adagio was Adagio.
- - - -
The town of Ponyville rose from a small sea of fields and orchards, with very sturdy walls, as appropriate for a town situated as close to the legendary Everfree Forest as it was. Really, the location was probably amongst the least logical ones for a town, if it hadn’t been founded by refugees fleeing the devastation of the old capital Rhoam.
Not that it was completely without merit. There was plenty of land available for farming, a river that ran past it for irrigation and- perhaps the oddest thing going for it- was built around a large break in The Canterhorn Aqueduct. Its citizens had taken advantage of that by building a massive cistern to collect the water that would be wasted otherwise. It had been a long time since she had come to this town. Long enough that she had forgotten more than a few details about it.
“Suri, who do we need to speak with again?”
Suri pulled a scroll from her saddlebags, eyes quickly flitting over the suggestions she had drawn up. “Well, we should probably start by introducing ourselves to Mayor Glimmer. She needs to know you’re in charge now. And she’s technically in charge of running the festival....”
”Glimmer? Funny, I don’t recognize that name. To my knowledge it’s always been the Smith, Rich and Scrolls families who controlled the political scene in Ponyville.”
Suri shrugged. ”The records I found say that Starlight Glimmer has been in charge for the last few years now. I think Ivory Scrolls retired...or was voted out.”
Adagio sighed. “Fine. But we’re heading to the summer home first. I need a bath in a bad way.”
“If you have a dirty coat, for you ponies will surely vote,” Iron Will said.
Suri stared up at her companion. “Iron Will, do you listen to yourself? What does that even mean?”
“Being dirty builds character.”
Adagio ignored Will's ridiculous line and set off, marching straight for Ponyville’s gates. After a few minutes of walking the group came to the gates themselves, where a thin flow of ponies was coming in and out to tend to whatever assorted business they had. A few local guards were keeping watch over that flow, whose eyes immediately snapped towards Adagio, her armored battalion (complete with flapping banner bearing her house sigil) and Iron Will (and his axe) in particular.
“Halt! Present yourself,” the one on the right said, stomping a mailed hoof.
“Baroness Adagio Dazzle,” Adagio said, presenting her badge of office. Mentally, she sighed. Apparently this pony was either blind or stupid enough to miss her clearly displayed heraldic banner.
The guard examined it for a moment before dipping into a bow with his fellow. “M’lady. What brings you to Ponyville?”
“The Remembrance Festival. I’ll be in charge of the festivities.”
A smile, perhaps a little too wide played across the guard’s muzzle. “Ah! Well, very good m’lady. Carry on then.”
Adagio nodded again and set off with renewed vigor. She took in Ponyville as she walked through its streets, memories bubbling back to the surface. It was a bustling settlement for its size, lying on that hard to define line between large town and small city. If Adagio had to guess though, she'd guess the latter. Crowds of ponies filled the streets, trotting to and fro as they went about their lives, in a constant flow of motion that grew thicker the closer they drew to the marketplace. Most of the buildings in town were two story constructs and made from wood. They were tightly packed too, their builders obviously taking great pains to use as much space as they could within the walls.
After walking a bit more they came to the marketplace, which was a true riot of color between the cloth stall roofs, the garish signs hanging everywhere- bearing such names as Carrot Topper’s Apothecary and Ditzy’s Delirious Deliveries- and the sea of ponies that crowded and pushed to get their morning shopping done. The din of the shouting was something to behold, even for Adagio. And she had heard Queen Chrysalis use the Royal Canterlot Voice.
“Will,” she said nodding towards the crowds. “If you please.”
Iron Will nodded back. He and his fellow guards moved in a well practiced cadence forming up in a loose wedge with Will at the front and Adagio and Suri safely protected by the wings. Then they advanced as one, the armored V shape parting the crowd before them. Nopony wanted to be pushed aside by soldiers after all. Though Will was helping with that in his own way too.
“One side!” he bellowed. “Nobility coming through! Try to block and we'll show you how we rock!”
Ponies scrambled aside. Others simply stared at the procession. Of those who decided to look on most were focused on Iron Will with wide, shocked eyes (though a few were scratching their heads at his Willacisims). The rest were watching Adagio, curiosity etched on their features. Adagio reveled in the attention, holding her head high. She had no doubt that everypony in town would soon be talking about the return of a Dazzling to Ponyville by the end of the day.
And then the greetings began.
Every greeting came with its own smile. Smiles that, like the guard outside, didn’t seem entirely right. The stock phrase, the way their exaggerated grins never reached their eyes, the way they all nervously glanced around. All of it made Adagio wonder just what kind of town Ponyville actually was.
As they reached the far side of the plaza, they were suddenly free of the crowds, the shoppers returning to their business. Now unburdened by the throng of civilians their path began to take them away from the tightly packed wooden structures and into less dense stone ones. These were the homes of the merchants and artisans of Ponyville. Those ponies who had money to their name if not a noble title. But after walking almost a dozen more blocks they came to Everfree Square.
In reality, it was more of an elongated rectangle, running parallel to the outer wall. The buildings here were the most impressive, almost matching Canterlot’s more lofty constructions. Her family’s manor house was on the right side of the square, dead center. Its small yard (for a manor house at least) fenced in by a wall that looked like it was nothing but ivy, save for its wrought iron gate.
Memories came fast for Adagio now. The building itself was a standard two story stone affair, with a pair of short wings jutting forward and a slanted grey tile roof. When she was a foal, the house had been as impressive as Canterlot in her mind. She had spent a lot of time in the lush garden which took up most of the space between the gate and the front doors. A pair of lemon trees that she had climbed dozens of times flanked a cobblestone path that wound through square plots of dandelions, mums, tulips and roses. The plots had even been arranged in an alternating perpendicular pattern like the cobblestones that ran through them.
“Somehow, I was expecting bigger,” Suri said. Trotting forward, she pressed her face against the gate. “Hmm. Nice garden though.”
Adagio shrugged. “Well, space is something of a premium in Ponyville. Everything needs to fit inside the walls.”
Rummaging in her saddlebags she pulled a set of heavy keys out and unlocked the gates. With a push they swung open slowly, but neatly. As they should have. The cost of keeping her home away from home well maintained hadn’t been easy.
Adagio slowly wandered past the familiar lemon trees and all the neatly planted flowers, before stopping at the hardwood front doors. She ran a hoof down their rough surface, smiling softly at the gem symbol carved into the solid oak. It would be nice to stay here again.
Smiling to herself, Adagio faced her ponies. Then pointed to two of her earth pony guards. “You two! While I freshen up, run to the market and get us food for the next few days. It’ll be cheaper than eating out.”
The palomino brother and sister pair saluted and Adagio tossed them a bag of bits. While they eagerly galloped off, she turned her attention to the rest of her guards.
“I want the rest of you to set up a patrol schedule for the grounds. Make it so that everypony can see that somepony is in charge here. Will, take a break for now. You’ll be accompanying me while we visit the ponies we need to speak with. Suri, help me draw a bath.”
Satisfied with her orders Adagio unlocked the front door and strode into her old home away from home. But as she headed upstairs one thought ran through her head.
I wonder what kind of pony mayor Glimmer is?
- - - -
Starlight Glimmer’s tower... towered over the surrounding buildings, its peaked roof easily sitting at four stories tall. Otherwise it was a sturdy, square building with a balcony on the fourth level that clearly displayed a large telescope, pointing towards the heavens.
“Somepony has bits to burn,” Adagio muttered under her breath before hammering a hoof on the tower’s door as hard as she could. It swung open a moment later, a cheerful pink coated, curly purple maned unicorn beaming back at her.
“Welcome!” She exclaimed, almost bouncing on her hooves. “My name is Sugar Belle. How can I help you today?”
“Baroness Adagio Dazzle. I’m here to speak with Starlight Glimmer.”
“Oh my. We are busy today. Come on in though!”
Adagio followed the perky unicorn, Suri and Will squeezing in behind her. The room they walked into was a combination sitting room and waiting area for guests. The large chamber’s stone floor was covered by a thick rug, decorated with pink and purple swirls. A collection of soft looking throw pillows had been piled on top of that for sitting, most of them clustered around a low set coffee table. A coffee table on which rested a full plate of—
“Muffins?” Sugar Belle offered.
Even baronesses liked free muffins, so Adagio took one eagerly. It might have been a simple bran muffin, but it was still fresh and almost exploding with flavor. Will and Suri also eagerly took one as they all sank into seats.
“Have as many muffins as you want. I’ll go see if Starlight is available.”
With that, she disappeared through a side door, her hooffalls growing quieter as she headed up some stairs.
“Nice place for a mayor,” Iron Will observed. “Think she’s a member of a noble family at all?”
“Possibly. I’ve not heard of the Glimmer family, but there are cities outside of Canterlot,” Adagio mused. “This tower would have taken a lot to build not to mention the cost of the land itself. I certainly don’t remember it being here when I was young.”
Lapsing back into quiet, the trio returned to waiting, but Adagio’s mind refused to be still. Just who was this Starlight Glimmer? Swooping out of nowhere a few years ago to not only become mayor, but build a home like this? What were her long term goals? Was she backed by Fancy Pants or some other unknown rival? The more she thought about it, the more concerned she grew. Lack of knowledge this severe was deadly when it came to noble courts.
Her mind drifted back to her rapier, sitting back in her manor house, useless if Starlight turned out to be dangerous. Well, nothing she could do now except remember it next time and put her trust in Iron Will if things went south. After sitting in silence for what felt like much longer than it probably actually was, Adagio could hear hooffalls approaching again. Sugar Belle came sliding back into the room with a bow.
“Starlight is busy, but she can spare a few moments. She asked me to bring you up.”
“Very well. Lead on,” Adagio said imperiously.
Sugar Belle retained her energy taking the steps two, sometimes three at a time. They passed a landing on a second floor and came to a stop at one on the third, Sugar Belle eagerly pushing open a door. Adagio eyed it as she followed Belle through. The wood was thick and reinforced with vertical iron bands. Just what kind of room were they walking into?
The answer seemed to be a massive spell laboratory of some kind. A large raised dais dominated the center of the room, while the exterior walls of the circular chamber were lined by bookshelves and cabinets. The dais was positioned under four spindly brass mechanical “arms”, that split a few more times into magnifying glasses, crystal tips or grabbing pinches that could be rotated into place as needed. The only other furniture in the room was a large desk-podium combination, raised to look down on whatever item of interest would be placed on the dais at the moment.
A unicorn stood at that podium, a large book opened at her hooves, quill bobbing beside her head in a turquoise aura. She had a light rose colored coat, and a two toned purple and aquamarine mane, that neatly hugged the side of her neck in a wavy curve in the back, while her front bangs were equally divided on either side of her horn. Her cutie-mark was interesting. A purple and white star with a pair of two toned blue streams rising from it. Another unicorn- this one a stallion with a pale blue coat and curly dark blue mane- stood at her side with his own scroll and quill.
Whatever the pair were studying was blocked by the podium, so Adagio took a large step to the left. The item resting on the dais was... a rock. A single, spherical rock. Raising an eyebrow, Adagio watched as the mare engulfed the stone in magic. Her aura danced over its surface, while she scribbled down notes and observations. The stallion waited patiently while she worked and after a moment or two of non-action, the mare shrugged and dropped her spell.
“Well, that was sound and fury signifying nothing,” the mare sighed, before turning to face Adagio. “Baroness Dazzle, I presume?”
“That I am. You must be Starlight Glimmer.” She waved a hoof towards the rock. “Might I ask what all of that was about?”
“Just some experiments,” Starlight said, hovering the sphere over to her. “Mostly on the nature of harmony based magic.”
Harmony magic. That could only mean one thing.
“Is that supposed to be one of the Elements of Harmony or something?”
“That’s what the pony that sold it to me said. Supposedly pulled from the depths of the Everfree Forest.”
“You... don’t actually believe that, do you?” Suri asked. “I mean... just some pony selling an Element of Harmony? That’s ludicrous!”
Starlight sighed, dropping it back on the dais. “Well...yes. It’s a fake of course. Probably carved from some larger stone. But I had to be sure.” Her eyes narrowed as she regarded Adagio more carefully now. “You’re not exactly what I was expecting, Baroness.”
“... I’m sorry?”
“You’re more... lucid, than I was expecting. Were you feeling out of sorts when you sent those missives?”
Adagio couldn’t remember sending any missives to the likes of a Starlight Glimmer. There had been a Moonbeam Shimmer a year or so ago, but nopony by the name of Glimmer. Wordlessly, she looked towards Suri, on the off chance that her memory had failed her and she actually had written the mayor. Suri shook her head.
“I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Starlight arched an eyebrow. “M’lady, I have a book of the laws you passed for the barony. They have all been quite... interesting.”
“There have been no new laws passed since the time of my parents. I haven’t had the authority until recently.”
“Party Favor, would you be a dear and get me the book?”
The blue unicorn trotted through a door on the far side of the room, only to return a moment later with a crisp green covered tome. He passed it to Adagio with another one of the too wide smiles she had started to associate with the town since her arrival. Opening it, Adagio began to read.
To all citizens of Ponyville,
From this point forth, it is illegal to fondle a duck on the main promenade of the city, be it mallard, wood or other variety. All ducks must be contained in proper carrying receptacles. Ponies found violating this ordinance will be fined fifty gold bits or spend a night in jail.
-Baroness Adagio Dazzle
Affixed to the page was a wax seal bearing her house crest, next to the date the law was issued. A sense of dread began to settle over Adagio, the nervous smiles of Ponyville’s citizens beginning to make much more sense. She flipped the page.
To all citizens of Ponyville,
All pumpkins, squash, and gourds will be subject to a fifteen percent transportation tax.
-Baroness Adagio Dazzle
She flipped to another.
To all citizens of Ponyville,
Henceforth, all fish sellers within the city limits must be licensed to sell their wares. This is to combat the increase in ponies handling salmon in suspicious circumstances. Ponies caught selling fish without a license will be subject to a one hundred bit fine and two days in jail.
-Baroness Adagio Dazzle.
They went on like that. Each one as petty, stupid and maddening as the last. And as she read, Adagio came to one horrible conclusion.
These ponies think I’m insane.
She had a pretty good idea of who was behind this collection of fake laws, but she’d have to deal with Fancy Pants later. Right now, she needed to recover from this.
“They’re forgeries,” she said, shoving the book of lies into Starlight’s chest. “I only recently took full control of my territory and certainly couldn’t have sent those while I was stuck with a mentor looking over my shoulder on my decisions!”
Starlight took the tome and passed it off to Party Favor. “Hmm. But we have a new lumber guild in Ponyville thanks to you. It was one of your actual popular measures. Setup during about the same time period if I remember correctly.”
While she had sounded cheerful, the accusation had been clear. Adagio’s eyes narrowed. “It’s dangerous to call your direct lord a liar.”
Starlight shrugged. “If m’lady says they’re forgeries, than they’re forgeries. Truthfully, I’d never actually bothered enforcing them anyway, so it’s not like it makes much difference.”
For just a moment, Adagio faltered. A pony directly under her in the chain of rulership had just admitted to having never bothered with laws that had come bearing her seal. It was blatant insubordination, bordering on an act of rebellion and something that demanded swift punishment! But on the other hoof, the laws were clearly insane and hadn’t actually been sent by her. Could Adagio honestly claim that she would have been less angry if Starlight had just blindly gone along with them?
Forget it. I’ll just have to keep an eye on her from here on out, she thought. Smiling, she moved on. “Well at any rate I’m also here to oversee the Remembrance Festival. I assume you’ve already been working on this year’s event?”
Starlight’s answer was crisp and too the point. “We have. Party Favor has been assisting me with overall coordination and planning. I’ve also sent two of my other associates to respectively see to it that the weather patrol keeps the skies clear of any unexpected storms, and that the forest rangers keep any dangerous wildlife in check. Likewise, Sugar Belle here has been helping the Chef’s Guild organize the local restaurants to provide ample catering.”
“My... aren’t we... industrious.”
Starlight grinned. “That’s Ponyville! In our town, we work as a team!”
It was quite the effort for Adagio to not roll her eyes at Starlight’s saccharine nonsense. “Well, as I am overseeing the festival this year, I would like to see your notes on what you’re planning, so that I can make sure everything is running...smoothly.”
“Oh,” Starlight said, her smile growing smug. “Well, if this...really is the first thing you wish to manage in your barony, we can certainly help. Sugar Belle, could you be a dear?”
Now it was her turn to vanish through the far door. Adagio watched her go with a slight interest. “Your servants are quite well trained. Are they indentured?”
“Oh, they’re not my servants,” Starlight said, almost spitting out the last word. “We’re friends, coworkers and comrades! Every pony here has been freed from the chains of indentured servitude so they can live their lives to the fullest!”
A sense of apprehension settled upon Adagio, along with a deep frown. That had sounded like the rant that a fantatic would make. “That’s quite the statement. This is a...passion of yours?”
“It was part of my platform when I ran for mayor. No more slavery in Ponyville!”
Party Favor let loose a happy whoop at that, rearing onto his hind legs in a victory pose. Adagio could almost feel Suri’s eyes on the back of her head from the questioning stare she was most certainly giving her. Still, she bristled at that characterization. She wasn’t some kind of monster, keeping Suri locked in chains for the whole of her life! Besides, abolishing indentured servitude was for the courts, Chrysalis and Sombra to decide.
“Indentured servitude isn’t slavery. I’d expect a learned pony like yourself to know that.”
“Oh, but it might as well be,” Starlight said with a gasp. A gasp that Adagio could tell that she was overplaying. “Surely a connected Canterlot noble would be aware of the tricks some of your fellows engage in to keep ponies under hoof? The adding on of room and board to the debts owed? The veiled threats?”
Admittedly, Adagio had heard those rumors and worse. But it was Starlight’s next comment that almost knocked her off her hooves.
“The way I see it, everypony deserves to be equal,” she declared, voice dripping with a smug sense of pride, as if she had just revealed some universal truth.
It was too much for Adagio, who broke into a round of rolling laughter. She doubled over, almost falling to the floor at the sheer insanity of Starlight’s statement.
“Are you serious?” she managed to ask between chortles. “We live in a monarchy! Ruled by alicorns! What are you proposing? To march right up to the twin thrones and demand that they resign?”
Starlight stumbled for a moment, blinking in shock. But then she glared right back. “In case your forgot m’lady, Old Equestria was a Republic! The alicorn council worked with citizen senators all the time!”
“And look at where it got them!” Adagio said, her voice rising. “ A wise ‘guru’ ingratiated himself to the senate, whispered into the right ears and broke a nation that lasted for centuries!”
“So absolute authoritarian control is the answer?” Starlight snapped back.
“Monarchy is not the same thing as authoritarianism! Our system has rules! It has standards!”
The sense that Starlight was trying to get a rise out of her was beginning to grow in Adagio. There was no way one mare could both be so infuriating and so oblivious to the fact she was back talking to her direct superior. For a moment, she considered locking Starlight up in a stockade, but then dismissed it. Being annoying wasn’t enough of a crime to justify becoming the kind of tyrant Starlight had built in the depths of her magic addled mind. Thankfully, further debate was cut short by the return of Sugar Belle with a stack of papers.
“Uh...here’s the notes you needed m’lady,” she mummered, head bowed low.
Adagio snatched them from the earth pony, eager to be done with it all. “Thank you. Now, if there’s nothing else, I have work to do.”
Starlight smiled. “Of course Baroness! Far be it from me to tell an esteemed noble how to allocate her very important time. If you feel the need to make a personal inspection, by all means, proceed. I expect you’ll soon see for yourself, however, that we’ve already put everything will in order on our own.”
We’ll see about that! Adagio thought bitterly, stomping for the door.
Suri could see it in the way her master carried herself through the streets of Ponyville. Yes, she was holding her head high and her face was neutral. But her tail flicked at invisible flies, her ears twitched at every mutter, greeting and sideways glance from the crowds. Yes, Suri had seen this before. Resentment and anger were squirming under Adagio’s skin. Anger that had a good chance to be unleashed upon the next pony to cross her.
She jumped. “Yes, m’lady?”
“Remind me later to look into Miss Glimmer. No pony is so self-assured around their superiors unless they have some backing.”
Unless it's you and Count Fancy Pants of course, Suri thought. But what she said was, “Of course, m’lady.”
“Starlight had mentioned catering.”
It wasn’t a question, but a statement, telling Suri exactly what she needed to pay attention to at the moment. She quickly rummaged through the collection of notes and documents, parsing through Starlight’s sloppy penmanship.
“According to these, the pony in charge of the catering is a Sonata Dusk. Owner of the Southern Breeze restaurant.”
Iron Will glanced skyward, noting the sun’s position. “Getting towards midday,” he said. It was a casual observation, but one that was punctuated by a loud rumble from his stomach. “And those who fast, wind up dead last!”
Adagio stopped, glancing back at her bodyguard. “Your stomach is a never ending pit.”
“These muscles don’t maintain themselves!” Will said, flexing both arms to emphasize his point.
Despite the anger that Suri could still read in her body language, Adagio snorted, biting back a round of laughter. “Well...I suppose that getting lunch while we talk to Miss Dusk isn’t out of the question. Let’s go find her.”
Suri sighed in relief. Food would help. Food always helped.
- - - -
It had taken Adagio asking a random pony in the streets to find the location of Sonata’s restaurant. The Southern Breeze was almost completely on the opposite side of town from Starlight’s tower, near the towering walls that faced the Everfree Forest. It was situated down a little side street off the main promenade of the city- conveniently devoid of ducks or ponies engaged in the fondling thereof- and was in a word, quaint.
A single story building it, like most of Ponyville's structures, was made of wood. Unlike the others though, this one had been painted. The roof was a pale, sky blue, while the walls had been given a simple coat of whitewash. Though somepony had then come along with the pale blue again to trace some swirly, looping patterns that Adagio imagined were supposed to be breezes.
Despite the paint, the building still managed to look rough around the edges. The paint itself was chipped and flaking in a few places, leaving the exposed wood weathered and beaten. The little porch that framed the front doors was scuffed and cracked from the hooves the had trod it. All in all, it was a working pony’s restaurant. The kind of place farmers and traders would congregate at after a long day’s labor.
Aromatic scent of cooking wafted through two sets of partially open windows, stirring fond memories of the repast from her ennoblement ceremony two nights before. These scents had a different profile though. The ever so slight tingle in her nostrils told Adagio that the food served here used a bit more spice than some of the other establishments she had dined at in her life.
“No time to wait, let’s fill our plates!” Will declared, striding right past Adagio, proper protocol forgotten.
Adagio didn’t bother reprimanding Will for that. The smell of food had gotten her own stomach growling at the thought of an early lunch, so she followed after, her mind contemplating the nature of the cuisine waiting inside.
The restaurant’s interior walls had been left devoid of whitewash, but not the breeze patterns. They ran along the walls and ceiling, radiating outwards from an open doorway on the far side of the main dining room from the entrance. Glowing stones hung from short chandeliers, adding to the natural light creeping its way in through the partially open windows.
There were only a few ponies filling the tables at the moment, lunch having not truly arrived yet. So it was only a matter of moments before a waitress swooped down on them. As the pony was a pegasus, it was a quite literal swooping at that, as she had propelled herself across the room with a beat of her wings.
“Hellooooo! Welcome to the Southern Breeze! I’m Sour Sweet. How can I help you today?” she asked. The pony’s coat was the pale gold of ripe wheat and her straight, pony tail mane was the color of an equally pale rose (save for the one greenish-blue stripe) an observation that made Adagio even more hungry. Even her cutie-mark seemed to be getting in on it being a paired lemon and lime. “Your finest table for myself and my colleagues,” Adagio answered, waving her medallion at the server. “And I wish to speak with Sonata Dusk as soon as possible.”
Sour Sweet’s eyes flicked to Iron Will, her smile faltering for a moment. “Of course! Right this way m’lady. I’m sure that Sonata will be happy to speak with you,” she said, leading the way to the largest table in the dining room. But then her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Assuming she isn’t too busy with her apprentice!”
Adagio, Will and Suri exchanged a confused stare, but took a seat at the circular table. The bouncy smile was back on Sour Sweet’s muzzle.
“Today, we have a spicy vegetable soup with cornbread muffin side, bean durums, goat cheese stuffed green peppers and fresh baked bread. We don’t have any other specials, so don’t ask! Oh! And plenty of cider from Sweet Apple Acres, when they can get off their flanks to deliver it!”
Before Adagio could order, Iron Will dropped a bag of bits on the table. Sour Sweet jumped at the rattle of coins against hard wood, her eyes going wide. Adagio rolled hers, ignoring the stares from the rest of the restaurant’s patrons. As much as a guard paying for their meal while on duty was an impropriety, it was one that Adagio couldn’t bring herself to stop. Food was one of the few things Will spent his hard earned bodyguard pay on and he had been doing it since she was a foal. Always buying her sweets and snacks when her parents were out of town.
“Bring us some of it all, a few rounds of cider and send out Sonata. Please,” Will rumbled, idly motioning a finger towards the kitchen.
Sour Sweet didn’t argue, instead cantering her way through the maze of tables and disappearing into the kitchens. A moment later, Adagio barely made out another mare’s voice over the returning chatter of the other patrons.
Again, Adagio found herself wondering about a pony in this town. That question seemed more one a foal would ask, rather than the head of catering for a festival event. Sighing, she closed her eyes and flicked her ears back, purposefully shutting out the world around her for a few blissful moments.
No matter what she’s like, I have to play nice, she thought almost mantra like. Who knows what crazy rules she thinks I’ve passed. Besides, having a local restaurant owner and the appointed caterer for a civic celebration on my side should help fix some of Fancy Pants’ damage.
She wasn’t exactly sure how long she sat there, ignoring all the ponies around her, but it was clearly long enough for their food to arrive, judging by the soft (yet cheerful) voice that addressed her.
“Your highness? You wanted to talk with me?”
“M’lady is the proper term of address for a baroness,” Adagio answered, opening her eyes. “Save ‘your highness’ for the queen when she visits.”
Sonata Dusk was an earth pony and currently had a full tray of food balanced atop her head. A simple music note imposed over a heart stood out from her extremely pale blue-white coat. Her mane and tail were two different shades of blue, the darker of those formed into three long stripes. A white apron with a large front pocket was tied around her chest. She dipped her head in a bow, carefully sliding the tray onto the table as she went in a surprising display of grace. Sour Sweet quickly added a few flagons of cider to complete the impressive looking repast.
“I’m super happy that you decided to visit my restaurant, m’lady! ” Sonata said, in her extremely bouncy tone. “Are you passing through? Or visiting somepony?”
“....I’m here to take control of my barony and—”
Sonata squeaked. It was a strangled, fearful thing. Not unlike the cry a squirrel would make if it was stepped on.
“Please don’t take away my spices! I didn’t mean to handle a salmon in any bad way!”
“...What?” Adagio blinked.
“...I...I cook fish here sometimes. Some ponies like them,” Sonata muttered, nervously rubbing her hooves together. “I didn’t know it was super illegal, I swear-”
“Stop,” Adagio said, already tired of the rambling. “Those laws were a mistake and will be dealt with soon enough. I’m not here to take your spices or your restaurant.”
Adagio sighed. “Yes...for ‘realisies’.”
“Then...what did you want to talk to me about?”
Adagio motioned to an empty spot around the table, as she floated a bowl of the soup and a hunk of bread over to herself. Will and Suri were already eagerly tearing into their own meals, which was a good sign for the quality of the food.
Ripping her bread in half, Adagio dunked one half in her soup. “Sit. I want you to walk me through your plans for catering this year's Remembrance Festival.”
She popped the half into her mouth blinking at the sudden rush of heat that flooded her tongue. It seemed that Sour Sweet hadn’t been underselling the spicy nature of the soup. But it wasn’t too hot either. It burned just the right way, with a sharp kick at the front to help bring out the flavor of the vegetables.
Sonata squeaked again, but with a much happier tone this time. “Oh! Okay!” She was suddenly off like a shot, disappearing back into her kitchen. There was the sound of metal clanging against metal as pots and pans were presumably shoved aside. Then, almost as fast as she left, she was trotting back, a large sheet of paper gripped in her mouth.
Nudging a few of the plates and mugs aside with her nose, Sonata spread it out on the table before them. It was a map of a town square, one that Adagio recognized from her foalhood as Ponyville’s largest, built around the actual town hall, rather than Starlight’s personal tower of delusion.
She almost hadn’t been able to recognize it though, for all the things covering it. There were the usual- though very sloppy- ink scribbles that probably pointed out where tables, stages and booths were going to be placed for the festivities. But there were also stains in multiple shades of reds and oranges. The remains of spices and sauces that had splattered their way onto its surface.
“Tell me what I’m looking at,’ Adagio said. “This is so stained I can barely read it.”
“Oh! Those aren’t stains! ….Not all of them at least. Most of them are food samples. So I can remember which restaurant is going where.”
It was an impressively normal delivery of an idea that made such a complete lack of sense.
Gods help me, Adagio thought as Sonata plowed ahead.
“So, all of the food tables are going to be set up against town hall. It has a big fireplace inside that we can use to cook any extra stuff if we need it,” Sonata began to ramble, her explanation quickly gaining steam as she waved her hooves over the map. “That way the craft booths can take the outer ring like mayor Starlight wanted! And I got every restaurant in town and most of the farms involved! Everypony in town will eat like a queen...or a baroness,” she said, giggling at her own joke.
Adagio looked over the map again. Perhaps Sonata wasn’t as foolish as she first appeared. The plans made sense and the location would have enough space for a great deal of ponies.
“What about other parts of town? Not everypony in Ponyville will be able to fit in town square.”
“There are other stations set up near some of the other restaurants in town. Everypony will be able to wander around and sample what they want.”
“And the menu?”
Sonata waved a hoof at the food before them. “Mostly stuff like this. I do soups and wraps and breads. The other restaurants do their own things.”
Adagio sighed. As much as she hated to admit it, it seemed that Starlight and her ponies had competently arranged this part as least. “Thank you Sonata. That will be all.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure that I want more soup!” Iron Will exclaimed, shoving an empty bowl towards her. “And durums and peppers…. In fact, just bring us another round of everything.”
Sonata’s eyes lit up, the thoughts of the coming bill most likely running through her head. But Adagio’s mind was already seizing upon an idea. One that would let her extract a little bit of personal gain from this situation.
“Actually Sonata, I would like to have a better grip on everything you’ll be serving. Could you perhaps make us some samples of your other dishes? I need to have a firm understanding of your menu.”
“Sure!” Sonata said. “I’ll whip up some samples in two shakes of a pony’s tail!”
With that, Sonata vanished back into her kitchen. Sour Sweet glanced between the door and Adagio before giving a sheepish grin and scurrying off to tend to her other customers.
“So...umm…who are we going to talk to next? I mean, what’s the plan?” Suri asked, fumbling over her words.
“The rangers,” Adagio said after a moment or two of thought. “They’re known even in Canterlot and I’d like to see if they live up to their reputation.”
“They’d have to, wouldn’t they? I mean... the Everfree Forest is cursed... right?”
The cursed nature of the Everfree was one of those stories that never went away. Not fully, at least. As much as Chrysalis and Sombra discouraged the court from engaging in rumor mongering about the place, that never stopped anypony.
The Everfree captured pony souls. There was a town of undead ponies living somewhere in its depths. Its various monsters were building their own nation under its boughs. Lumberjacks who dared to try and harvest its wood soon were turned into trees themselves. Those were just a fraction of the insane ramblings she had heard during Canterlot courts. While Adagio suspected that many of them were exaggerated, she was also well aware that there was probably some kernel of truth in most of them.
For example, the monster nation rumor came from the fact the Everfree had its own race living in it- the caprataurs. They were supposed to be related to minotaurs, but the information surrounding them was so muddled that Adagio had no clue what was fact and what was fiction.
She shrugged. “We’ll see what the rangers have to say about it. They’ve probably spent enough time in that forest to see every bit of strangeness it can spit out.”
Before Suri could respond to that, Sonata was back with a full and heavy tray. It took her a little work to find room on the already crowded table. Most of it was familiar looking enough fare, save for a plate near the edge, full of folded bread, stuffed with vegetables.
“What, are those?” Adagio asked.
Sonata bowed again. “Just something I’ve been experimenting with, m’lady. Food easy to hold and eat at the same time. I’m thinking about calling them...foldies!”
Adagio blinked at the bizarre food items, but picked one up with her magic all the same. While stuffed almost to bursting, the folded bread shell was keeping the contents restrained. She took a large bite, finding herself quickly rewarded with a burst of flavor and the snap of lightly cooked vegetables. It seemed that as mad as she acted, Sonata was nothing if not a good chef.
“So! With all these plates and the drinks, the total bill comes to sixty five bits,” Sonata chirped. “Which would be a big bill for most of my usual customers, but that’s probably nothing to a noble like you.”
Truthfully, Adagio could have covered the bill even if Will wasn’t already planning to. She wasn’t that broke. But part of her chafed at the situation all the same. After all this was her territory and Sonata was her subject. If she dug up the right loopholes, Adagio could probably demand the whole restaurant from Sonata and still be entirely within her rights. But Chrysalis and Sombra wouldn’t approve of such a naked abuse of noble power and that just wouldn’t do when she was supposed to be showing them her potential. Yet, as Will began to count out the cost of the bill, her mind seized upon an idea.
“Actually, since we are tasting this food for the festival, shouldn’t our meal be covered?”
Will paused half way through counting, while Sonata's chipper demeanor fell away. It returned just as quickly, but in that moment, Adagio could see both disappointment and indecision in her eyes.
“Of course, if you can’t, I understand. But then there will be the question of the salmon…”
“Sure,” Sonata blurted out, the cheerful attitude coming back with a hint of mania this time. “Enjoy!”
“Hold on,” Will said, holding up a hand to interrupt her flight back to the kitchen. Sonata stared as he counted out the full amount of the bill and then a little more. “You’ve been such a good host. Take this with my compliment.”
With a sweep of his mighty hand, Will scooped the mass of gold into Sonata’s apron pocket. She made kind of a strangled, squeaking sound before she was able to find her voice again. “Why?”
Iron Will took one of her hooves in his hand. “Because, a mare as skilled at the pans as you, deserves bits for her hard work,” he said, before gently kissing her fetlock.
Sonata immediately burst into a round of foal like giggles, a blush managing to creep through her blue coat. “O-oh! Thank you! Well….enjoy!” Then she turned and ran back into the kitchen.
“Corny,” Suri said, with a roll of her eyes. “All of your pick up lines are corny.”
“Maybe. But it made her feel better, didn’t it?” Will said, shooting Adagio an angry glare.
Adagio ignored him, burying her muzzle into a mug of cider, her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
- - - -
A warm breeze cut across Ponyville’s shimmering fields of grain and vegetables, before ruffling Adagio’s mane as she walked along. The day remained glorious, with the sun shining overhead and the small smattering of clouds through the otherwise clear blue sky. It was almost perfectly picturesque in its serenity.
That just annoyed Adagio all the more. It was like the world was saying that she didn’t need to be here. But this was her barony! If she couldn’t even arrange a stupid festival, how was she ever going to prove to all the naysayers that she deserved her rank and power! And Starlight Glimmer. That mare was upto something, she just knew it. The mayor had effectively been running Ponyville as her own private fiefdom while she was locked out of controlling her own land. Of course Starlight wouldn’t just hand that control back over!
“One problem at a time,” Adagio muttered under her breath.
After walking for a bit longer, they cleared the the farmland and approached the lodge of the Everfree Rangers. They were close to the forest itself here, its dark boughs a greenish blob on the horizon. The lodge was built on a small hillock, the Great Western Road lazily coiling past it, on its way to the Everfree.
Its design was based on the hunting lodges popular with Heartlands nobility. Four stone buildings built connecting each other to form three sides of a rectangle around a central courtyard, with the last side being a sturdy stone wall. But where a normal hunting lodge would be built with an eye in mind for comfort, this one was built with a eye in mind for defense.
This wall was higher, standing at a good ten feet tall and a few feet thick. It had also been expanded to wrap around the entirety of the compound, effectively doubling the thickness of the other building’s foundations. Four tall towers- one at each corner- had been built into the wall itself, effectively turning the hunting lodge into a mini castle. A heavy pair of double oaken doors provided the only (visible) entry to the complex. A pair of carved, wooden wings were set over that door, painted black like those of a raven or crow.
Adagio paused in the middle of the road, twisting to look at her attendants. “Everypony be on your best behavior in there. The minute we cross that threshold, we’re technically not in my barony anymore.”
“How?” Suri asked, frowning in puzzlement. “I don’t remember us ever handing over a chunk of land like this.”
“The Everfree Rangers are autonomous. They act like a knighthood, each lodge given a small plot of land of their own, and generous stipends from the throne in exchange for patrolling the forest. Their chapter master is equal in power to a viscount,” Adagio frowned. It took a few moments of mentally sifting through her collection of knowledge and courtly trivia to recall what she could about the Ponyville lodge. “The Ebon Wing Lodge is the oldest of them, I believe.”
Iron Will squinted at the towers, shielding his eyes from the sun with a hand. “I can see some ponies moving around up there. They’re definitely watching us.”
“Then let us go and introduce ourselves,” Adagio said, striding towards the gates.
As she, Suri and Will approached, she too could begin to see ponies stationed on the towers. Their eyes tracked her as she drew ever closer to the gates, while they balanced crossbows in their hooves. Very heavy looking ones at that. When she was a few feet away from the doors however, one of them came swooping down from their perches.
The pegasus mare landed directly between Adagio and the gates, keeping the tip of her weapon pointed at the ground. She was lean and strong, trim muscle coiled under an aquamarine colored coat, ready to spring into action. Her amber and golden mane was swept back, presumably by the wind, while her orange eyes were probing. A sturdy looking set of brigandine barding completed the look stating that she was on duty.
“Present yourself,” she said, blunt and to the point.
“Baroness Adagio Dazzle,” Adagio said, quickly flashing her medallion. That introduction still sounded so good to her ears. “I’m here to speak with your lodge master about the forest. The Remembrance Festival-”
“Isn’t this a bit redundant? Mayor Glimmer already sent one of her ponies over to ask about the same thing.”
“Be that as it may, I’d like to check on things myself.”
The mare sniffed, rubbing the side of her snout. “What about your friends there?”
“My servant and bodyguard. They are with me.”
“Hmmph. Well it's no fur off my coat. Come on.”
The pony neatly turned on her hooves and launched herself back over the wall. There was a loud clank sound as the doors were unbolted on the other side, and one of the doors was pulled open. Adagio’s guide waved a hoof for them to follow as she set across the open courtyard towards one of the far buildings.
There had been a few other rangers doing some stretching exercises when Adagio first stepped through the gate. But as she, Suri and Will crossed the courtyard, they neatly fell into step behind Will. Adagio raised an eyebrow, but said nothing at the moment. It didn’t mean anything...yet. But something to keep an eye on.
As they drew closer to the central building, Adagio could make out a pair of silhouettes in one of the ground floor windows. It was a mare and a stallion, the former sitting, the latter standing. The stallion was also gesticulating as he talked, waving a hoof at something that Adagio couldn’t see. Following her guide into the building, Adagio found herself in what was clearly an office.
The office had a stern feel to it. Maps of the Everfree Forest covered the whole of one wall, many of them marked with red ink. A set of brigandine armor, colored a deep blue with a single yellow stripe running down each leg, was on a stand in the corner. The one variation from the sterile, military layout of the room was the large raven standing on a perch next to said armor. It peered imperiously at Adagio for a moment, before beginning to preen. Unfortunately, she had also walked into the tail end of an argument.
“...if you don’t clear the road, we won’t have any visitors from the Lunar Kingdom!” a white on white stallion exclaimed. He shuffled from hoof to hoof, clearly agitated.
The brilliant gold coated, oranged maned pegasus sitting behind a desk seemed unimpressed. Her glare back across the table was as stern as her office, but the battered look to her enhanced it to downright disdainful. Heavy scars covered most of her body, with a diagonal cut across her right eye, a ragged chunk missing out of the same ear and a particularly vicious one cutting across her left front leg being the most prominent. The map of healed wounds said it all. This mare had seen her fair share of combat. Even her mane and tail had a wild, constantly disheveled look.
“Double Diamond,” she growled, voice raspy and hard as nails. “I have received no word of any visiting caravans from Luna’s realm. Nor do I see the value in clearing the path in the off chance some might just happen to show up! The caprataurs have been restless as of late.”
“Excuse me Diamond,” the mare interrupted, looking towards Adagio. “Lightning Dust, who is this?” And then her eyes flicked up to Iron Will and her lips twisted into a sneer. “And tell me what that walking carpet is doing in my lodge!”
Anger surged through Adagio, but she bit it back for now. Lightning Dust saluted. “Baroness Adagio Dazzle mam. She’s here to speak with you about the festival. And the two-leg is her bodyguard.”
The mare’s violet eyes fixed on Adagio, burning with anger. “You have a damn ‘taur for a bodyguard? Are you completely off your royal-”
She didn’t get a chance to finish. Adagio’s horn blazed with magic and she sung. It was a simple, sharp note, cutting across the pegasus. And like a blade, it cut off the pony’s words, hexing her with silence. Adagio ignored the clicks of the crossbows all around her, the panicked whinny of Double Diamond and the warning growl from Iron Will. She fixed the target of her wrath with an angry glare.
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I don’t care who you are, or how autonomous you are. But you will not speak to my bodyguard like that. Iron Will has protected my house for decades and is above reproach. If you insult him, or any servant of mine, like that again, you will understand just how unfortunate a mistake that is. Do we understand each other?”
A heavy hand clapped across her withers. “Don’t mind her Adagio,” Will said.” Pretty sure I could take the pipsqueak if I needed to.”
Adagio let the spell end. Spitfire's wings flared in challenge, her face twisting into a furious scowl.
“Threatening me? Because you better be absolutely sure you want this political fight on your hooves, baroness.”
“You’re the one who threw tribest insults at my bodyguard. Very unbecoming of somepony who's supposed to be in a place of power in The Heartlands. So, I’d suggest that you bite your tongue."
The lodge leader glared back across the table. “Fine, m’lady. What can I do for you?”
“I am here to speak with you about the festival Miss..?”
“Spitfire. Baroness, I am not sending my ponies into that forest to clear a damn road right now. We’ll let the monster activity die down some, then we’ll do it.”
“Is Double Diamond correct about visitors?”
“Technically. But most of what we get from the Lunar Kingdom are trade caravans. I don’t even think they celebrate this festival over there. And the Everfree’s trees shifting around isn’t new. Sometimes they do it, thanks to the magic in that place. This is hardly an emergency.”
Spitfire might have had a point, as the Everfree was her domain of expertise. But she had also managed to get right under Adagio’s coat with her attitude. “Well, that might be the case, but The Heartlands were built in the principles of harmony. We must be welcoming to our fellow kingdoms!” she proclaimed, pressing a hoof to her chest. “I may not be able to order you to do anything, but I would strongly suggest that you do. After all, Queen Chrysalis will be coming to this festival. I’d hate to tell her that you weren’t living up to those standards.”
Spitfire's smile was strained. “I’m sure I could tell her some things myself.”
“Oh, don’t be so grumpy. It’s not like I’m throwing you out there alone. I have some of my own guard in town. They and Iron Will can easily help you clear the road.”
Spitfire blinked. “What?”
Adagio smiled, letting her comment sink in. “Will? You’d be happy to help wouldn’t you?”
Iron Will chuckled, cracking his knuckles eagerly. “Clear a path? Those trees will feel my wrath! And I will out clear you, little pegasus.”
“So, is there anything else we need to discuss?” Adagio asked.
“No,” Spitfire said firmly. “Now, kindly get out of my lodge before I have you thrown out!”
With her point made, Adagio made for the gates. There was only a little more to do and she’d have this festival completely wrapped up.
It might not have seemed like it to most, what with the wide open blue skies, but for weather pony Aria Blaze it was as clear as the muzzle on her face. It was impossible to miss the tingle in the roots of her feathers, or the sense of pressure in her ears. Far below her hooves the Everfree stretched out in an unending carpet of green, the source of so much of the strange weather that battered Ponyville.
Spreading her wings wide, she caught a rising thermal and soared higher in a lazy spiral, landing on a little fluff of cloud floating on its own. There were wisps of grey far on the horizon. A swirling vanguard of an oncoming weather system, that was about to cause Ponyville some problems. Even from this distance the power of the storm was evident. Her hometown was going to be subjected to an absolute deluge. As she pondered the ramifications of this particular downpour a piercing cry echoed through the air. Aria allowed herself a small smile at the large large red tailed hawk swooping around her. Wordlessly, she extended a leather gloved hoof, letting the bird land.
“Looks like we’re gonna have a stupid long night ahead of us Deathclaw.”
The hawk clacked his beak in response before nuzzling his owner.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get you some mice later, okay?”
Satisfied with that answer, Deathclaw took wing again. Aria followed suit, the pale fuchsia pegasus shifted the angle of her wings and whipped about, her purple and aquamarine pigtails tousled in the breeze. Soon the trees were behind her as she shot for a small circle of fluffy clouds floating around Ponyville’s outskirts. A pair of pegasi waited for her there. One was midnight azure coated with a wild white mane her forelegs draped over the edge of her perch. The other stood, attentive and wings twitching with a nervous energy. Her pale blueish-purple coat and neat blonde mane were a stark contrast to her companion. The second pony took a step back, giving Aria room to land. Deathclaw settled down on his master’s outstretched hoof a moment later.
“What’s it like out there?” the blonde asked. "Was I right? I was right, wasn't I?"
Aria frowned, rolling her eyes. “You were right Cloud Kicker. There's a thunderstorm heading our way. Should hit sometime tonight.”
“Great,” the other one sighed. “We have the Queen visiting! We can’t let a thunderstorm ruin the festival.” She glowered at her fellows. “You’re just going to have to pull an all nighter!”
Aria frowned. “Night Glider, we’re short hooved as it is.”
“So? Festival! Queen! Come on!”
“If Starlight Glimmer is going to send you to check up on us, you can’t just throw your weight around—” Aria began.
“Whoa, whoa! Calm down Aria! I’ll help out of course. Don’t need to lose your temper or anything.”
“You do have to work on that temper of yours,” Cloud Kicker agreed.
Aria huffed but nodded. “Alright. ...Sorry.”
Cloud Kicker blinked, jabbing a hoof towards the ground. “The hay? Is that a caprataur?”
Argument forgotten, Aria and Night Glider followed Cloud Kicker's outstretched leg. Sure enough, two ponies were walking along the narrow road towards Ponyville’s weather tower, followed by a large, horned bipedal figure. With a very large axe strapped across its back.
“Ponies are hiring caprataurs for guards now?” Night Glider asked.
“That’s not a captrataur,” Aria growled. “The horns are the wrong shape.”
“How do you know? It’s not like you spend time in the Everfree,” Cloud Kicker said.
“Lightning Dust does. She’s told me all about those things.”
“Well, did your mare—” Night Glider started.
“She’s not my marefriend!” Aria snapped. “Ugh! Night Glider, you are the worst!”
“Well, what do you think they want?” Cloud Kicker asked, shuffling from hoof to hoof. “They could be anypony! And that axe looks really sharp!”
The identity of the ponies and their associate was indeed a mystery. But answers weren’t going to present themselves on a cloud.
Aria flapped her wings a few times. “I’ll go find out. Stay here Deathclaw.”
Deathclaw gave a shrill cry in disagreement, before grudgingly shifting over to Cloud Kicker. She let loose a high pitched squeal at the sensation of taloned feet on her back. “Aria! I don’t want your bird! Get it off of me!”
“As soon as I get back!” Aria cackled, before rolling off the edge of the cloud.
- - - -
“I’m beginning to think that this town is paranoid,” Adagio grumbled.
Adagio, Will and Suri stared up at the impressive form of Ponyville’s weather tower. A singular lance of stone that stabbed into the sky, it was fortified like the ranger’s lodge and Ponyville itself, featuring a crenulated set of battlements at the top. To Adagio all of it was beginning to feel absurd.
Suri shrugged. “Maybe it’s because of the Everfree?”
“We’re two days away from Canterlot!” Adagio exclaimed, waving a hoof at the tower to insanity before her. “This isn’t some town on the outskirts of The Heartlands, surrounded by monsters!”
“Maybe somepony should tell the monsters then."
Adagio squeezed her eyes shut. Oh, what fresh torture is this?
Opening them again, she looked up at the voice that had addressed her. A pegasus hovered overhead, all purple and aquamarine and with a grumpy glare on her face. Adagio felt her mood improve slightly. Finally, a pony in this town that she could relate to!
“Who are you?” the pegasus asked.
“Baroness Adagio Dazzle. I’m here to speak with the head of the weather patrol.”
Before a response could be provided, a shrill cry rose from a small tuft of cloud, high overhead. “ARIA! Its feet feel really strange!”
The pegasus- Aria apparently- smirked. “That would be me. What can I do for you?”
“It’s a simple matter. I wanted to know the status of the weather for the festival.”
Aria sat back on her haunches with an idle ruffle of her wings. “Weather status huh? Well, we have a thunderstorm brewing over the Everfree. I’m guessing it’ll hit sometime tomorrow morning, assuming we don’t knock it out.”
A thunderstorm? Wonderful.
“...I’m assuming that you have a plan for that?” Adagio asked with a faux soft smile.
“Of course,” Aria said, her eyes narrowing. “The Ponyville weather patrol has handled plenty of thunderstorms and if it's big enough, we’ll call in help from the Ranger’s pegasi.”
In that sentence Adagio saw an opportunity. A chance to earn a little more good will with her subjects and Queen Chrysalis.
“Well, if you need an extra pair of hooves, one of my guards is a pegasus. She has strength and stamina to spare.”
Aria hummed, rubbing her chin. “I guess it’d be pretty rude of me to deny your generosity m’lady. I’d have her rest up though. We’ll be working through the night.”
Adagio glanced back at Iron Will with a raised eyebrow. “Will?”
“I trained everypony in that squad. I can guarantee that they can handle any amount of work you throw at them.”
“Alright then,” Aria nodded. “Have your pegasus swing by tonight.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to handle that,” Aria grinned.
Adagio watched Aria soar back up to her cloud perch before sighing and turning towards Suri and Will. “Let’s get back to the manor.”
- - - -
The journey back to the manor house had been thankfully devoid of any more distractions or shenanigans and once they were back, Adagio had been able to give her guards their new marching orders. With Will and her guards gone and Suri taking a nap in the servant’s quarters, Adagio found herself alone in the main bedroom.
The wide rectangular chamber had been her parents' bedroom back in the day and was still just as she remembered it. Her mother’s collection of hoof carved knight figurines resting on the mantle above the fireplace. Her father’s poetry books- most of them romance focused- still sitting neatly in their shelf.
She flopped backwards onto its queen sized mattress with a huff and a pout. She stared at the rich purple canopy, her mind racing over the events of the day so far. On analysis it had gone worse than she would have liked, but better than it could have been, considering the state of the situation when she arrived.
Letting her eyes drift closed, Adagio tried to fall asleep, and allow the stress of the day drain away. This quickly proved to be futile. No matter how she flopped, twisted or tried to lie on the bed, the mattress felt far too lumpy, itchy and just... wrong. Grunting, she rolled off the bed and walked down the hall towards her own childhood room.
It had been almost twelve years since Adagio had really walked the halls of her family’s summer manor. She just... hadn’t had the stomach for it. At least with Suri, Will and her guards the old place felt a lot less empty.
Like her parent’s room, her old bedroom was much as she left it when she stopped coming here. Voraciously curious as a filly, she had collected quite the library of journals and books as she grew up. The former were full of her own writings. Mostly observations on the politics her parents were involved in and amaturely scribbled poetry and songs that had never really gone anywhere. The books were all history, philosophy and science. All parts of her classical and nobility based education. Even during the summer, they had always wanted her to learn.
Lowering herself onto her old bed, she sighed in relief at the much more comfortable feeling of the familiar mattress that seemed to remember her just as fondly. Tomorrow was the festival and despite everything she had done today, the coin was still in the air on whether or not she had accomplished anything. There was a vice like grip that had settled into her stomach.
I wonder if Fancy Pants ever has these doubts? He’s always so confident, she thought. Of course, it’s not like he gives a damn about having the king and queen like him.
Perhaps that was the secret? To look out for oneself before the ideals of harmony that The Heartlands so wanted to embody? It was a question that danced enticingly at the edge of her mind. Had she been willing to be more ruthless, could she have already been a baroness? Could she have pushed her house back to glory?
But right on the hooves of those thoughts came memories and the soft words of her mother. If she were here, she’d cluck her tongue at such thoughts, and set to gently brushing Adagio’s mane while explaining what it meant to be a noble.
“We owe as much to our subjects as we take,” her soft voice said, echoing in Adagio’s ears. “A ruler needs the love and respect of their subjects. Without it we'd be no better than thugs, extorting tribute from travellers on the road.”
Adagio sighed and rolled onto her side. For now she’d see what tomorrow would bring.
- - - -
A cracking impact split the silence of the Everfree Forest, forest birds scattering at the sudden burst of noise. A moment later the wounded tree toppled over with a second thunderous crash.
Iron Will was in his element. Despite his bodyguard profession, his life serving the Dazzlings had been mostly uneventful... with perhaps one noticeable exception before now. There just wasn’t a lot of opportunity for the kind of exhausting, work up a sweat labor that he liked to do. And it gave him a chance to really use his axe for something besides intimidation.
Tightening the grip on his axe, Will pulled back as far as he could, and selected his next target. It was a thick pine tree, uprooted by the sudden shifting of the terrain, that had toppled across the sturdy stones of the Great Western Road. Bringing the blade down in an overhead strike, its razor honed edge clove into the wood like the talon of a mighty dragon.
All around him, the Everfree Rangers worked with his fellow guards to clear away the underbrush and the chopped up remains of trees he had already felled. He mostly ignored the fact that the rangers were very intently working as far away from him as possible. If they wanted to hold backwards beliefs, then they could do that in their little compound, as disappointing as that was. The sole exception to that was the turquoise pegasus at his side, Lightning Dust.
“You know, if you lose your grip on that, it’s going to be a rather cutting end to our relationship.” She smirked, setting to push one of the halves off the road
Will raised an eyebrow and began to carve the other half into smaller chunks. “....And I thought my jokes were bad.”
“Hey now, don’t go to pieces on me Will!”
She gave the log a strong buck, sending it toppling off the side of the road before looking up at Will with a cheesy grin. Will mentally shrugged. Battling puns it was.
“Now you’re really beginning to hack me off!”
“You want to fight big guy? I’ll take a little off the chop!”
“Really? I bet I could make you cleave me alone.”
Lightning Dust cleared her throat. “Cutting things.”
There was a momentary pause before minotaur and pony broke into roaring rounds of laughter, doubling over at the sheer horrible goofiness of the lines they had just finished throwing at each other. Adagio’s guards, familiar with Iron Will’s jokes, rolled their eyes and kept clearing brush. Spitfire was much less amused however. She swooped down on them, wings flared and tail thrashing.
“Would you two idiots knock it off and get back to work! I’d like to get out of this forest before nightfall and the rest of the damn ‘taurs show up!”
“Oh, calm down,” Will huffed, rolling his eyes. “We’re just about finished here.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes right back at him before galloping back over to her group. Will watched her go with a frown. There was something about that mare that was gnawing at his instincts. ...Besides the obvious speciesism. They were so very eager to get out of here. Which could be because of his distant kin, admittedly.
“She always like that, Lightning Dust?”
“Pretty much,” Lightning shrugged. “The Everfree is a dangerous place, even this close to the edge. The sooner we get out of here the better.” She raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you and caprataurs related? Two legs, similar names, horns.”
“So I’ve been told,” Will said, turning his attention back to chopping wood.
“Don’t you know anything about them?”
“Only a few stories. My people’s elders have always said that we drove our goat headed cousins out of the home islands centuries ago. Don’t know how true that is, but I’ve never seen one.”
Lightning bucked another log off the road, glowering all the while. “Consider yourself lucky. I’ve only tangled with the Everfree tribes once since I joined the Rangers. I thought I was pretty fearless until I saw six of those brutes come thundering out of the undergrowth, waving spears and clubs and screaming like they were Scorpan himself.”
“How long you been with this outfit?”
Another log was sent flying. “A couple of months. Transferred up from the reserves after a lot of training.”
“That why you’re not so anti-taur as your fellows over there?”
Lightning Dust winced, her ears flicking back. “Sorry about the lodge. They’re just...used to fighting creatures like you.”
Will waved a hand dismissively, sparing a backward glance towards Spitfire and her flunkies. Now they were scattered about in groups of two while working, occasionally muttering to each other while keeping an eye on the surrounding forest. He scanned their surroundings as well, in case his taller stature would let him see something that the rangers couldn’t.
The undergrowth was thick. Even as it was cleared away from the road there were still plenty of places they could be ambushed from, including the small rise in the ground just off to their left. The partial gloom from the thick canopy certainly didn’t help either. Really, upon a second look he could see plenty of reasons for the rangers to be worried about beasts slinking through the underbrush. Still…
Dropping his voice to a whisper, he tapped Dust on the back. “Tell me, you notice anything strange as of late?”
“Besides the new noble and her minotaur bodyguard?”
“I mean with your fellow rangers.”
Lightning Dust blinked. “No? Some rangers got redeployed to other lodges recently. But that happens all the time. What are you driving at?”
“I’m not entirely sure. Just...my gut instinct is telling me that something is up.”
“I’d suggest cutting down on the late night snacking. There’s nothing going on here.”
Will shrugged. Maybe Dust was right, maybe she wasn’t. For now, he’d give them the benefit of the doubt.
- - - -
Miles beyond where Iron Will and the Everfree Rangers worked, the crackling thunderstorm continued its approach. The massive thunderhead moved with the swiftness of a whole herd of pegasi, darkening the sky ahead of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Peals of thunder echoed through the trees, while lightning danced along the cloud’s belly like jagged daggers. The Everfree’s monsters and caprataur tribes alike recoiled at the clashing cacophony.
Even the largest of the Everfree’s beasts weren’t immune. Hydras dove to the depths of their lake homes. The mighty star beast ursas retreated to their caves, roaring at the sky for disturbing their hunts for food. Their responses were different, but the reasons were all the same.
Adagio looked down at the dresses Suri had laid out for her. A nice outfit was a necessity since it was both a public event and she’d be meeting the queen later. But an ensemble that was too fancy would make her seem out of touch with her subjects and that wouldn’t do either. With those facts in mind, Suri had picked out three possibilities for Adagio to decide between. While she might not have always voiced it, she did appreciate Suri’s knowledge of all things clothing related. Especially Heartland’s fashion trends.
After many minutes of back and forth mental debate, Adagio settled on the single layer pale green affair, whose skirt fell halfway down the leg. Singing softly to herself, she bunched up her mane in a ponytail and secured it in place with one of her jeweled mane bands. This one was one of her particular favorites, with a line of small amethysts studded across its top.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she took a deep, calming breath. “Time to make sure this town will adore me.”
She walked downstairs, where Suri, Will and most of her guards were waiting. She looked them over for a moment before smiling. “Okay everypony. It’s a festival. I have to hob-knob and make nice. You just have to relax and enjoy yourselves today.”
“Are you sure m’lady?” Suri asked. “I could help-”
“Suri. We’ll have plenty of work to worry about tomorrow. For today, relax. I can handle talking to the Queen.”
Suri bowed. “Of course m’lady.”
Satisfied, Adagio lead the way into Ponyville.
- - - -
Ponyville’s town hall had been constructed in the dead center of the settlement, so that the acting mayor could be approached by anypony from any district with minimal difficulty. The largest and most open of Ponyville’s town squares had been built around it. Perhaps because of that size or perhaps because of its proximity to the town hall, some of Ponyville’s nicest shops were located here, as were the theater and library.
But the feature of the area that Adagio always had the fondest memories of were the trees. The square was paved with cobblestones, but canny town planners had left gaps at regular intervals. Then they had planted trees in those gaps, creating little islands of shade for ponies to lounge under if there was room. It was a clever way to give the townsfolk a taste of nature in the safety of Ponyville’s walls.
Not that there was much room to find today. Between the long tables of refreshments, the flow of cooks coming in and out of town hall, the spots that had been claimed by entertainers, the game booths and all the townsfolk enjoying the festivities, moving around would be a tight squeeze.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to stick with you?” Will asked.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Adagio answered. “I’m not expecting assassins to strike here.” She eyed her bodyguard for a moment before smirking playfully. “Besides, you left your axe at the manor.”
“Iron Will doesn’t need an axe!” he declared, flexing both arms.
Suri rolled her eyes. “Just don’t start running wild in there or anything.”
Will rolled his eyes back at Suri, but a serious stare returned to his face in the next moment. “I will also point out that most of the ponies in this town still don’t like you.”
“Something I will have to change with some mingling,” Adagio said. She had worked the plan out in her head the night before. “Hiding behind my guards will just make me look more like the crazy baroness, lording it over her ponies.”
“We still have to protect you.”
Adagio considered that. “Spread out and keep an eye on things then. You know...guard casual.”
The look on Will’s face made that statement completely worth it. Laughing to herself Adagio’s spirits rose as she began to pick her way through the crowds. Smiling ponies were a good sign. A very good sign indeed! Her entourage quickly peeled off to seek their own amusements, so she set to her task of mingling with her subjects.
“Good morning! How are you enjoying the festival so far?” she asked a group that was lounging under one of the shady trees.
For the barest of moments, their expressions were natural and smiles genuine. But as they realized who had addressed them, the overly wide, grimace like grins sprang back into place.
“Oh, yes m’lady! We’re enjoying it immensely!” one of them answered before taking a big bite of one of those “foldie” creations of Sonata’s. His movements were so stiff from fear that he seemed more marionette than pony.
Frowning, Adagio moved onwards, beginning to become more aware of the changing mood of the crowd as she passed through. There was a distinct dip in the festivities whenever she drew near, replaced with its artificial mockery. It did a poor job of concealing the fear, anxiety and- in some cases at least- anger that her subjects were feeling over her very presence. As the effect continued, Adagio found herself wondering if there had been laws about enjoying oneself too much at festivities.
She could feel her anger beginning to rise again as she wandered towards one of the food booths in an absentminded haze. Her conversation with Starlight seemed to have no effect, which made her all the more angry. While she had been stuck running around, double checking everything for the festival, Starlight had done nothing to inform the townsfolk that Adagio was going to repeal those hated laws. With their fears unallayed they had grown like weeds in the prepared soil that was Fancy Pants' smear job against her reputation.
“Oh, she’ll pay for this,” Adagio hissed to herself. “I’ll make her life a living nightmare! None of those laws get repealed! And I’ll pass a whole new set, restricting all of her precious magic studies, undoing any reforms of hers! Then we’ll see who’s laughing!”
“Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Adagio froze. For the briefest moment she wondered if she'd gotten carried away in her own internal ranting and had actually begun laughing like the kind of megalomaniacal character one reads about in foal's tales, but no. This laughter carried the distinct tone of somepony else, somepony who was mocking her, and there was only one pony in this accursed town who would dare be so brashly arrogant.
Slowly she turned, fuming in her own barely restrained ire, towards the source of the insufferable laughter. Starlight Glimmer was casually leaning against one of the shade trees, smiling like a cat that had swallowed a canary. A fresh red apple and knife bobbed in her magic aura.
“You!” Adagio snarled.
“Me?” Starlight answered, as if feigning ignorance of her own part in turning all of Ponyville against Adagio. The mayor slowly cut into her apple, neatly slicing out a hunk as she talked. “Why, I'm just enjoying the festivities, that's all. Quite the lucky coincidence you should pass by though, I wanted to talk to you about an important matter.”
The conniving harlot, Adagio wasn't about to believe for a second that their meeting here was any kind of accident. “You backstabbing little- Why would I want to talk to you?”
“Because, it’s a matter of policy.”
Policy? It was a response unexpected enough that Adagio pushed her anger aside to focus on Starlight. If she was going to try something, Adagio needed to focus. “...What do you want Mayor Glimmer?”
“It’s about your indentured servant… well, really that entire accursed institution, but let's start with more immediate problems.”
“Whatever it is you're trying to insinuate, just get to the point already.”
“Let your servant go.”
Adagio narrowed her eyes, striding close to the uppity unicorn. “Why?”
“Aside from the fact she deserves to be a free mare, entitled to make her own decisions?” Starlight asked, continuing when Adagio nodded. “It would be an act of good faith and the start of what I feel is the next step for the province.”
“...You want me to abolish indentured servitude?”
“Yes. I do,” she said bluntly as she cut another slice of apple with her knife. “It is a barbaric practice!”
“Go to Tartarus!” Adagio snapped back, jabbing a hoof into Starlight’s chest. “Suri approached me! She practically begged me to buy out her bond because, to her, it was the better option!”
“And here we go again, that constant claim of ‘helping’ the less fortunate you supposed nobles like to prattle on about!” Starlight grinned, her voice almost dripping with sarcasm. “As if I’ve never heard that one before!”
“Oh, please! Don’t pretend to be so naive mayor Glimmer. It is a give and take relationship. Once her debt is paid, Suri is free to do whatever she wants. And as I took on her not inconsiderable debts, she owes me that money.”
“I’m glad you brought that up!” Popping her apple slice into her mouth, Starlight extended her magic aura and reached into a saddlebag at her hooves. Three bulging pouches levitated into view, each one stuffed almost to bursting. Starlight gave them a collective shake, letting the metal within clink against each other before dumping the whole lot at Adagio’s hooves.
“Consider that a down payment. I can easily cover the rest, as soon as you tell me what that amount is.”
Adagio faltered for a moment, her anger forgotten as she did a rough estimate of the amount of coins contained within the bag. Assuming gold over silver and that each bag looked around half a cubic foot, there were maybe fifteen thousand bits in those bags. And Starlight had just tossed it on the ground like a bunch of loose rocks she had found on the side of the road. How did a mayor have that much money?
“You aren’t spending tax money-”
“I. I said that I would cover the rest,” Starlight huffed. “My family is quite well off, thank you very much.”
Adagio viciously smirked at that. “So, spending your money to assuage a guilty- noble- conscious are we?”
“No. But even if I was, if it covers your servant's debts, do you really care?”
Starlight....might have had a point there. Not that it made Adagio any less furious.
“No,” she said simply. She scooped up the bags and shoved the lot of them into Starlight’s chest.
Now it was Starlight’s turn to be on the back hoof. She fumbled with the bags, knife and apple tumbling from her grip while she gaped and sputtered.
“Wait...what? ...I just offered to completely cover your servant’s debts! You’d both be completely free and clear!” She stomped her hoof, the cool demeanor of earlier rapidly crumbling. “You could let her go!”
“Let me make something clear,” Adagio said, advancing on Starlight. She jabbed the mayor hard in the chest. “I will not be blackmailed into doing anything. For better or worse Suri is mine. She will be released when she has worked off her debt to me or when I decide to release her and not a minute before. And how dare you even insinuate that I mistreat her!”
A twitch ran through Starlight’s right eye as she put on a strained smile. “Okay. Let’s assume that you are completely honest and ethical with your treatment of Suri. What about all the other nobles that aren’t? Don’t those ponies deserve to see release someday?”
Adagio grimaced. It was a hard point to refute, because she knew that there were those who abused the system, that would exploit any loopholes they could find to hold a servant indefinitely in their debt. That didn't mean it was as simple as Starlight made it out to be either though, and that was flaw Adagio could take advantage of.
“I’m surprised, Starlight. Didn’t realize you were pro-debtor’s prisons.”
“I’m nothing of the sort!” Starlight exclaimed. “Those places are even worse! They would have to go as well.”
“Ha!" Adagio couldn't help but beam with smug satisfaction now that Starlight had backed herself into a corner, "That's the problem with you political idealist types, because what other alternative is there? It's unfortunate, but sometimes ponies just get in over their heads, run up debts beyond anything they could ever hope to pay off on their own. Sure it might be nice if we lived in a perfect world where things like that didn't happen, but this is the real world with real consequences, and anypony who was actually as smart as you pretend to be should be able to see that."
Starlight glared back at her, the veins in her neck practically twitching in anger.
“Oh dear,” Adagio smiled. “Did I hit a sore spot?”
“QUIET!” Starlight roared.
The nearby section of the crowd that had been listening to the conversation recoiled from Starlight and her outburst. It was a reaction that Adagio enjoyed immensely. Let the townsfolk see that their mayor wasn't perfect.
“Seems like I did.”
Starlight’s lip twisted into a sneer. “You nobles disgust me! Is there a single decent one among you? Or are you all a bunch of petty tyrants?”
Adagio’s smile grew all the more mocking. “What a delightful little piece of rhetoric! Some pony clearly went to university!” But her smile quickly dropped back to an angry glare. “But we don’t live in a lecture hall. We live in the real world. And this is how The Heartlands work.”
“It’s not how it should work!”
“If things were the way they were supposed to be, we wouldn’t even be having this festival today,” Adagio said. Despite herself, there was a little less venom in those words. The collapse of Equestria remained a painful truth.
Starlight seemed ready to begin yelling again. But then she sighed and shot Adagio a glare. “This matter isn’t over.” She turned on her hooves and stormed off into the crowd.
Sighing to herself, Adagio did the same, heading the opposite direction. She couldn’t worry about Starlight right now. Queen Chrysalis would be arriving soon. As she moved through the crowd again, a chill wind tousled her mane. Glancing up, Adagio cursed under her breath at the few dark clouds on the horizon. Of course the Weather Patrol was slacking off too. Like she needed anything else going wrong today.
- - - -
“Wake up!” came a panicked shout.
Aria Blaze did just that. Thrashing limbs and wings in a half panic, she rolled out of her narrow bunk and landed on something soft. Soft and moving.
“Gah! Aria! Get off of me!” one of her co-workers shrieked.
A chorus of groans and grumbles filled the weather station’s barracks as bone tired pegasi tried to shake the sleep from their bodies. Aria shook her head a few times to do the same before looking to see who had ruined what little sleep she had been getting. Her whole body was aching from last night’s work. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had tangled with a thunderstorm that stubborn.
Cloud Kicker was in the doorway, eyes wide and mane disheveled. “There’s a second storm front moving in over the Everfree!”
That knocked the haze right out of Aria’s mind. “Wait, what? We had the skies clear!”
“It must have been an eye of calm or something!” she shouted. Rushing about the room, she began to push ponies towards the door. “This one’s massive! We gotta move!”
Aria groaned, stretching her wings as she stumbled after them. She hadn’t even had a chance to get out of her piecemeal falconing armor last night. The ruffle of small wings caught her ear as Deathclaw left his perch next to her bunk and settled onto the leather pad she wore on her back.
“So much for seeing the queen when she arrives,” Aria muttered as she stepped out onto the tower’s landing balcony. She stretched her wings a few more times, opening and closing them slowly to work the kinks out. Then, with a deep breath, she and her hawk took to the skies and joined the rising cloud of pegasi.
- - - -
The Ponyville crowds fell silent as a trumpet blare rang out across the central square. It had come from town hall, everypony turning to face it. A few of the cooks that had been carrying a fresh round of food out- Sonata Dusk among them- froze, looking about in confusion.
Adagio watched from her position near the stairs. She had a feeling she knew what was coming.
A small glowing sphere of light appeared on the deck of town hall. It rapidly grew, the other ponies standing on it shifting aside to give it room. In the next moment, the light bubble popped into a shower of sparkling, star like glitter. The crowd oohed and aahed at the display, only to break into cheering as the pristine white form of Queen Chrysalis appeared where the bubble had been a moment before.
“Hello my little ponies!” she called, smiling with all the warmth of the sun. “A happy day of remembrance to you all!” She paused allowing a round of applause to pass as she looked out at the buildings that hemmed in the square. “Ponyville has certainly grown since the last time I visited! Those walls are beginning to look a bit like an overly tight bodice!”
Most of the crowd chuckled at that joke, though Adagio caught a few farmer looking types scratching their heads out of the corner of her eye.
“Now, I must confess to being a little naughty,” Chrysalis continued with a cheeky grin. “I’ve been walking amongst you disguised as a normal pony, observing the festival. What I’ve seen; the happiness, the bonds of friendship and family, the love that’s in the air…. They all warm my heart. And as such I would like to congratulate those responsible for making it such a success.”
Adagio blinked, a sense of unease settling over her. If Queen Chrysalis had heard all of that, then she might have heard her disagreement with Starlight. If she had, then Adagio imagined she would be in for a very involved chewing out.
Chrysalis turned to Sonata and the other caterers, bowing her head. “The food has been exquisite. My compliments to all the fine chefs.”
Sonata was beaming.
“I would also like to extend my gratitude to the Weather Patrol for keeping an oncoming thunderstorm confined to the Everfree. It is a difficult task and one that deserves our appreciation.”
Adagio joined this round of applause, glancing skyward as she did. There was the hint of a few dark clouds in the direction of the Everfree, but she was sure Aria and company could handle it.
“Finally, I would like to congratulate the pony that arranged most of this festival. Mayor Starlight Glimmer!”
She pointed to a section of the crowd. It parted slightly, Starlight quickly trotting forward and climbing the stairs to stand next to Chrysalis. The applause and cheering were thunderous as Starlight waved to her townsfolk. After a moment or two of cheering Chrysalis raised a wing for silence.
“Thank you for your kind words your majesty,” Starlight said, bowing to her monarch. Adagio snorted. She certainly hadn't been shown any such deference. Starlight continued. “It's been a pleasure to work with so many fine townsfolk to achieve this celebration!”
Chrysalis nodded to Starlight before facing the crowd again. “As is tradition, I will be here to listen to any requests or petitions for the rest of today. The Rural Court is officially open. Let the celebration recommence!”
With that, she bowed to the crowd once more, turned and vanished into town hall.
Adagio blinked. She had just been snubbed. They hadn't even acknowledged she was here, let alone the assistance she had provided. Starlight, that little-
A plain white earth pony mare was suddenly at her side, her green mane done up in a tight bun. While the voice was familiar it took Adagio a moment to reconcile it with the very plain appearance of its owner.
“Walk with me. We have things to discuss.”
Adagio nodded. Thunder rumbled in the distance, echoing the sense of dread that had settled over her.
- - - -
The sight of the new storm made Aria’s heart skip a beat.
It was massive, billowing up and out so that it loomed over them like a mountain. The clouds were so thick and dark that they were almost black, churning with an angry energy and copious amounts of lightning. The flashes were coming so fast and frequent that the display was beginning to hurt her eyes.
“How are we supposed to take on that?” Sunny Skies yelled, her voice barely audible over the howling winds.
It was a good question, Aria thought. There was something distinctly strange about the storm. As strong as it was and as powerful as the winds that buffeted her body and tossed her mane about were, it should be effecting Ponyville already. But it was almost like something was holding it back.
“We have to find a way!” Night Glider shouted back. “Ponyville will get torn apart by this thing!”
Aria shook her head. “Come on! The more we stand around talking, the closer it gets!” She looked towards her hawk, who was flapping hard to maintain his position in the growing winds. “Find a safe place Deathclaw. Can’t follow me here.”
Deathclaw looked back with that imperius bird of prey stare and screeched an objection.
“Nope,” Aria glared back. “Find a tree.”
Deathclaw screeched again but dove towards the Everfree treeline. Aria made a note of which towering tree her pet had picked, before surging forward, the rest of her squad right behind. They approached the edge of the storm in a loose line formation, spread out slightly from each other. About two body lengths between each pony, give or take a few inches.
It was an old tactic, dreamed up by weather ponies during Equestria’s golden age for breaking up large thunderstorms. The intent was that a group of pegasi hitting the edge of a storm in a dispersed manner would break it into smaller chunks more effectively than diving into the middle in an arrow like stab. Aria braced herself, extended her hooves and prepared to burst through the clouds like she had a hundred times before. She took a final breath in the moment before the impact and….
Her hooves sunk into the cloud. The moisture refused to break up, almost stretching at the impact of her and her fellows. Before Aria could even blink, the storm surged forward. Her world descended into chaos, darkness and violent motion. She frantically beat her wings, struggling against the hurricane force winds that bore her along like a leaf in the breeze.
She wasn’t even sure which way she was being dragged. Up, down, left or right. It was impossible to tell. Rain soaked her to the bone, its chill even worming its way through her pegasi cold resistance. Hail battered and raked at her, certainly causing its share of bruises. Every so often, she caught a glimpse of another pony being shook about the same way she was. Aria was suddenly yanked a different direction, sharply enough to make her stomach do somersaults.
Then, with a final, head spinning jerk of motion, Aria burst through a bank of cloud and landed on another with a thud. Groaning, she shakily managed to stand. She looked around, surprised to see the rest of her squad stumbling back to their hooves.
“Is everypony okay?” Cloud Kicker asked.
“Oh, yeah, I’m great! We just got captured by a storm, but we’re all good!” Aria growled, shaking her whole body to dry off at least a little.
“We don’t need sarcasm right now!” Clear Skies shouted back.
“I’ll be as sarcastic as I want! What are we supposed to do about a storm that does...this!”
“We stick together!” Night Glider said, stomping a hoof for emphasis. “We punch right through the wall and get reinforcements from Ponyville.”
That wasn’t a bad idea. Ponyville had plenty of pegasi that weren’t actually part of the weather patrol. If they had enough bodies helping out-
“...Scorpan’s twisted tail…”
That comment had come from Adagio's guard. For some reason, she was looking upwards at the ‘roof’ of the cloud pocket they had landed in. Aria raised an eyebrow, followed her gaze and gasped.
A castle hung above their heads.
Made from clouds, it merged seamlessly with the arched dome a hundred feet above their heads. Its inverted construction made it resemble an entire cave floating through the sky. Lightning coursed through its base and into the storm around it, pulsing like a heartbeat of some torpid giant.
The chilly grip of dread clawed at Aria as she roamed her gaze over the castle and its environs. Its walls and the ceiling of the storm pocket were shaped to be jagged and rough, providing a hundred nooks, crannies and perches. For a moment, they seemed empty in the gloom of the chamber and the flickering light of the lightning flashes. But then the shadows they cast began to move. They rose and coiled through the air before diving with a cacophony of shrieking and cawing.
Aria’s eyes went wide as the blob of shadow grew more distinct. They were crows. Giant crows, each the size of pony. Lightning danced along their flight feathers, while their eyes glowed with a solid blue light. Swooping low, most circled overhead, falling into an eerie silence, while peering down at them like morsels ready to be snapped up. A few actually landed, forming into a circle around the group.
Most of her fellow weather ponies shrieked in fear and recoiled, pressing together into a tight ball. Aria grit her teeth and sunk into a defensive stance. Head down, wings flared to make herself look bigger and pawing the “ground” with a hoof. But none of the storm like crows seemed bothered with the display.
“What do they want?” Cloudy Skies shouted.
“I don’t know!” Sunny Skies shouted back.
“Everypony stay calm!” Cloud Kicker said. Her voice was shaking, but Aria could tell that she was doing her best to not lose control.
“We can’t stay here,” Night Glider said. “If we try and punch straight through the floor….”
A thundercrack tore through the air, eliciting a fresh round of shrieks from most of the group. Aria just gulped for another shape had lept from the castle. It was a multicolored blur, arcing through the air like a rainbow.
Aria backed towards her fellow weather patrol members, all of her experience with storm busting feeling all the more useless as stories her mother had told her for years sprang to mind. “Oh no. No, no.”
The cloud they were on violently rolled as the new figure landed hard before them. She was a large pony, easily the size of Queen Chrysalis with powerful wings splayed wide in the pegasus gesture of a challenge and a long sharp horn that poked past a shock of rust red mane.
An alicorn. Aria was staring at an alicorn.
Her build was lean, but strong looking. Muscles coiled under a blue coat so dark that it was almost gray. Other colors were present in her mane and tail as well. Orange and yellow and green and the rest of the rainbow were represented but in muted, dark shades.
She also seemed ready for war. A bronze breastplate was affixed firmly to her chest, while matching leg armor extended from knees to pasterns. A billowing red cape in the style of an ancient general lay between her wings. A cloth bag was tied around her neck, that almost seemed to be beating in rhythm with the lightning above.
But it was her expression that made Aria want to turn tail and run. For the alicorn was smiling in a manner that was meant to be reassuring, but in reality looked anything but. It didn’t really reach her eyes, which were crackling, glowing pools of yellow. They made the warm smile seem artificial. More something a bad friend would give when they were about to try and borrow some money.
The alicorn regarded them in silence for a moment before speaking. “Well, you all look like you’ve seen a bunch of windegos. You should probably take a deep breath or two before you pass out.”
“Chroma,” Aria said, barely above a whisper. The legends that surrounded her were many and impressive. One of the generals of Equestria’s legions, mother and best friend to her soldiers, rider of the rainbow bridges, the pony who single hoofidly carved out Equestria’s northern border against the griffin hordes.
Chroma’s ears twitched, the alicorn having apparently heard her anyway. The reaction was immediate. Turning on Aria she stomped a hoof with all the strength of a thunderclap, a large section of the floor vanishing under the Alicorn powered strike. But the smile never left her muzzle.
“That’s...not my name, okay? I mean, I know that I haven’t really been….” She idly twirled a hoof for a moment, searching for a word. “Well, let’s say ‘active’ for a while. But Chroma? That’s not my name.” She laughed. It was a clipped, manic thing, but then she was right back to talking. “It’s Rainbow Dash. Consul Rainbow Dash. And don’t you forget- Come on! Why are you cowering?”
Most of the weather patrol looked ready to pass out from sheer fright. Aria couldn't blame them as she was on the verge of doing the same. But Cloud Kicker managed to stammer out an answer. “B-because we’re just stunned by your g-glory!”
It was blatant sucking up but to Aria’s surprise, it seemed to work. Chroma puffed out her chest and threw her head back. “Well...that is understandable. I was the most amazing of Equestria’s consules! I can see how normal ponies would be stunned by my presence.”
Despite the severity of the situation Aria’s fear was momentarily derailed. The legends of Chroma that had been passed down through the ages spoke of her temperament as well as her deeds. The moods described were mostly of a boundless rage and a paranoia that made her lash out at everypony around her. Somehow, all of them had managed to leave out the existence of such an ego.
Chroma beamed as she looked them over. “Enough of that though! All of us? We need to talk about these ‘Heartlands’ of yours.”
“W-what about them?” someone asked.
“Uhh. They aren’t supposed to be here? Aren’t you taught anything about history these days? Your current ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ rebelled against the senate. This kingdom of yours- while adorable- isn’t legitimate.”
Aria was hardly a scholar but that seemed like a pointless technicality, even to her.
“But I’m here to change all that! It’s time for Equestria to reunite! For the lost consuls to be found and freed, the Deceivers to be cast down and this land to taste freedom once more! I offer you all the chance to fly with me and be the first to join my citizen legion!”
“The Deceivers?” Night Glider asked. “You mean Queen Chrysalis and King Sombra?”
Chroma twitched. It was a full body affair, that ran down her side and to the end of her tail. Really, it was more of a flinch away from the word.
“Okay. She’s...not a queen. She’s a lying, backstabbing, diseased guttersnipe of a creature! She is not even remotely worthy of your respect- And why are you cowering again!”
“We-we’re sorry!” Night Glider stammered. “We didn’t mean to make you angry.”
“Angry? Angry! I am telling you how much of a liar your ruler is! Who said anything about anger? DO I LOOK ANGRY?”
Those words were a thunderclap, so loud that Aria went deaf. Chroma didn’t seem to notice, instead deciding to continue her rant. As her hearing slowly returned, Aria could begin to make out bits and pieces of what she was saying again.
“...ponies...understand this. Now...prepare...my army and I,” she declared, waving a hoof at the ravens that surrounded them. “We shall remove the false queen and drag Equestria to greatness again!”
Aria wasn’t a deep thinker by nature. Like the blaze portion of her name hinted at, she was quick to react, usually trusting her gut that she was about to do the right thing. In that moment, she realized that somepony had to try and warn Ponyville. The hole in the clouds was still where Chroma had made it, waiting wide and open. There was really only one option.
Aria dove for it.
Ignoring the surprised shouts and angry caws, she flew as fast as she could. Aria whipped back through the maze of clouds, not even thinking as she blazed around corners, dove through clouds of vapor and pushed her wing muscles to the absolute limit. She couldn’t hear if Chroma was behind her or not and she didn’t dare look. She just needed to find her way out of this storm….
There! A flash of green under her hooves. Folding her wings back, she dropped like a stone through the gap and was soaring over the Everfree. Now just to grab Deathclaw out of his tree-
“You have spirit, I’ll give you that.”
Aria yelped as she found her forward movement halted, her body engulfed by a crackling net of lightning blue magic. She beat her wings helplessly against the arcane grip, only to be spun about and dragged forward to face Chroma.
“You’re a good flyer. Not many ponies would be able to keep their composure through my storm. And that spirit you showed would have served you well in my forces,” she said, a hint of sadness in her voice. Then she sighed, her expression hardening. “But if you are not with Equestria, you are a traitor to it. And there can only be one fate for a traitor.”
Chroma flicked her head. It was a casual gesture, almost like some pony throwing away a piece of rubbish. But Aria’s stomach heaved as she was sent cartwheeling through the air. She flared her wings, gritting her teeth as they strained against the force of her momentum, but managed to right herself.
Not waiting to see what would come next, she shot forward, trying desperately to escape this legend come to life. The tinkling chime of magic reached her ears though and she spared the barest of glances back towards Chroma.
The mad alicorn gave a mighty flap of her wings, whipping them forward so hard that they clapped together for a moment. Two screaming vortexes of wind roared forth, shooting right for Aria. She dove to avoid but Chroma’s magic moved with an unerring accuracy. The tunnels of wind crashed into Aria and she felt her right wing snap. Immediately, she once more found herself being tossed about by forces beyond her control.
She plummeted towards the Everfree, driven by storm and gravity, her broken wing flapping feebly against both. In the next moment she smashed through the canopy and a large tree limb, screaming as her left leg seared with pain.
Only the mighty trunk of the tree stopped her movement. She slammed into it with a bone jarring impact, the remaining wind from Chroma’s spell the only thing holding her there. Aria’s head swam. It was hard to focus. She had to...had to…. Unable to fight against magic and injury Aria Blaze, mercifully, passed out.
She dropped the rest of the way to the forest floor.
- - - -
Somehow the crowd seemed oblivious to Adagio and Chrysalis as they walked. They absentmindedly parted around them without looking, remained locked in their conversations, or focused on the games of chance they were playing.
Adagio suspected that magic was involved. It would fit with the queen’s reputation (and her own experiences) for always appearing at just the right moment to catch ponies in compromising situations. The fact that Chrysalis could divide herself into multiple ponies had come as a surprise though.
“Adagio...what is it that you really want from your position?” Chrysalis asked after about a minute of walking.
“My apologies your majesty. I don’t entirely take your meaning.”
Chrysalis frowned. “You are a frustrating contradiction of a pony. You treat your servants better than most nobles, yet you hang onto them like property. Not afraid to work hard when it's required, yet also quite comfortable with extortion and picking fights with your supposed peers.”
Adagio felt a chill run up her spine. “So you saw-”
“Your argument with Starlight Glimmer, yes,” Chrysalis sighed. “Adagio, do you do this on purpose? Tell me, were you going to put her in the stockade if she didn’t back down?”
Chrysalis’ glare was intense and a lesser pony might have quailed under such an assault. But Adagio steeled her nerve and met her queen’s gaze.
“I will point out that she was hardly acting any better. Bullying me into supporting her pet crusade against a perfectly legal enterprize? That’s in poor taste. Even for a mayor, unfamiliar with noble rules and decorum.”
“While I will have conversation with her about that later, I am not a believer in the concept of two wrongs somehow making a right, or stooping to the level of your opponent.”
“...There’d be ponies in Canterlot surprised to hear that.”
“There are ponies in Canterlot that would be surprised to hear a great many deal of things,” Chrysalis said, her tail flicking with irritation. “And I was hoping that you weren’t on your way to becoming another one of them.”
“With the deepest of respects your majesty, you do me a disservice. I am not some manner of monster.”
“No...you’re not,” Chrysalis sighed, squeezing her eyes closed. Her expression was contemplative and Adagio found herself wondering what exactly her queen was remembering. But then she shook her head. “Monster or mare, it truthfully matters not. Humble beginnings are no shield against falling to ego. Your parents-”
“Would you stop bringing up my parents?” Adagio snapped. The sudden burst of intensity had surprised her. And judging by Chrysalis’ shocked expression, it had surprised her just as much. But, to Tartarus with it, she was on a roll. “As much as you love to sing their praises, I don’t remember the crown being there when they needed it the most! What I remember was being spirited away to here by Will, only to find out later that they were...gone.”
Queen Chrysalis dipped her head. “I am…sorry you feel that way Adagio. Sombra and I always regretted not being able to do more.”
“Do more? Don’t you mean anything? I was stuck under Fancy Pants’ hoof! He almost finished my house off! What good are all these grand ideals you go on about when ponies who don’t care about them prey on whoever they like? Why shouldn’t I be just like them? Why don’t you and Sombra do anything about them?”
Whatever her answer to that question was, Adagio didn’t have the chance to find out. In the next breath, a mighty thunderclap split the sky and a solid wall of black clouds rolled in overhead. The rain came right on its hooves. It poured down in buckets, washtubs...whole cisterns worth, that immediately soaked both pony and dress to the bone. Adagio had never seen so much rain!
Her first instinct, as she brushed the waterlogged curtain that was her mane out of her eyes, was to blame the weather patrol. This was exactly what she had been afraid of! But then a second boom issued forth from the dark mass and something colorful streaked across the sky in an arc.
There was a flash and a series of loud pops, followed by the surprised shouts of ponies. Then came a horrible crash and the splintering of wood. Something slashed her cheek, drawing a thin red line of pain. A shock wave slammed into her a moment later, blasting Adagio to the ground. Queen Chrysalis screamed, her second body unraveling into the raw ether of magic in a brilliant flash of emerald light.
Gritting her teeth through the pain throbbing on her face and in her chest, Adagio stumbled back to her hooves with great effort. Her dress already felt like it weighed an extra ten pounds from all the water saturating it.
Looking around, she could see that the organized chaos of the festival had given way to the true chaos of a frenzied riot. The crowd was surging away from the pile of wreckage that was town hall in a desperate attempt to reach the four streets that lead out of the square. Sonata Dusk and the rest of the chefs lay a few feet away from where town hall had been and were slowly getting up, seemingly unhurt by the explosion. Will and her guards were rushing towards her, but their progress was being hampered by the crowds, while Starlight Glimmer stood at the foot of the stairs in a state of shock.
All of that had just barely finished registering in Adagio’s mind when she made out dark shapes swooping through the rain. Pegasi with crossbows- it took Adagio a moment to realize that they were the Everfree Rangers- and large lightning bound crows began to take up positions all around the square, both landing on roofs and blocking the roads out. The crowd now surged back from the new arrivals, falling into a helpless milling about, until….
“SILENCE!” a voice roared over the driving rain.
Adagio felt that. The words had been spoken with such force that they shook all the way to her core. A wave of blue magic casually tossed aside the heaps of shattered wood to reveal the speaker. An alicorn. One that Adagio had seen on dozens of paintings and tapestries.
Chroma had Queen Chrysalis pinned under her forehooves as she cast her gaze about with a baleful glare. “So this is what the might of Equestria has become? Foals cowering at a little rain?”
Adagio was frozen in place. Chroma radiated power and menace. What could she possibly do against such a being? Starlight seemed just as paralyzed. Sonata was trying to crawl away, her whole body shaking like a leaf.
“Chroma?” Chrysalis breathed, clearly straining under the other alicorn’s grip. “How? You were banished by the elements.”
Chroma’s head snapped down to regard Chrysalis more closely. “Yeah...that’s what I let you think. I mean, after you and the other backstabbers banished Fluttershy, I was the last one. Couldn’t take you all on myself.”
Chrysalis winced. “Should have known. You did go down too easy in the Badlands…. But the war….”
“Had drained a lot of ponies' will to fight. I know.” Chroma said, her tone oddly conversational. “The ability of a nation to wage war is dependant on the will of its populace to prosecute said war. I wrote that, remember?”
“Rainbow Dash wrote that as a warning! A warning against the temptation of striking at civilians in war! You unleashed a flood upon the citizens of Andalusia!”
“They were harboring spies!”
- - - -
Lightning Dust couldn’t believe what was happening.
A legend from the past had just dropped from the sky, destroyed part of Ponyville and was now holding her queen hostage. All of that would have been bad enough but what pushed the situation into true disaster was the fact her fellow Everfree Rangers had turned traitor.
Crouched down behind the counter of her game booth, Lightning had line of sight on the alicorn, just past Baroness Dazzle. And thanks to the nature of her game booth, she just might be able to do something if her former comrades wouldn’t.
She had set up a shooting gallery, so that those Ponyville’s non-rangers could try their hooves at pegging “monsters”. And while the bolts were blunt training dummies and the monsters were just paper drawings, she had brought her own weapon and case. Just to show off a little bit.
“Lucky me,” she muttered, ducking out of sight and pulling both out from under the counter.
Working quickly, she grabbed her metal pull lever and yanked the drawstring into position. As annoying as the storm was, at least it provided a little assistance in masking the clank of the mechanism.
She didn’t know why Spitfire had turned against The Heartlands, but a thousand different possibilities, each as horrific as the last ran through her mind. Was she being controlled by magic? Had Chroma replaced her somehow? Or had she become a traitor completely of her own will? That last possibility made Lightning shudder. The Everfree Rangers had been a part of The Heartlands since it’s founding. They couldn’t be doing this without being forced...could they? She shook her head, ignoring that dark thought for a moment. Chroma first. Ranger’s later.
Sliding a bolt into place, Lightning popped up again. Chroma was still fixated on Queen Chrysalis it seemed. The Queen was talking, but at her distance and with the roar of the storm, she couldn’t make out the words.
“Come on, come on…,” she muttered, lining the alicorn up in her sights. Her head was low at the moment while she hissed something at Chrysalis. All she needed was the right opening….
- - - -
“Chroma, enough!” Chrysalis winced. “You’re sick. You’re very sick! Let Sombra and I help you-”
“No. I am not sick! You are the deceiver, the liar. I see the real you.”
Adagio had no idea what Chroma was going on about. Logically, she knew that her duty as a noble required her to do something when The Heartlands were threatened. But…could her spell songs really do anything against an alicorn?
“I will rebuild Equestria and I will rescue my compatriots from where you banished them!” Chroma continued to rant and rave. “It took me forever without Twilight, but I finally found the power that Scorpan talked about.”
She pointed to something around her neck. Adagio followed the gesture and gasped at what she saw. It was a cloth bag that beat like some kind of heart. Chrysalis looked just as disturbed by the item.
“You...you didn’t!” she shouted.
“Just...shut up!” Chroma shouted back. “As a consul of Equestria, I pass judgement on you and your crimes! You shall suffer the fate you inflicted upon your former comrades. Banished for ages, until you are nothing more but a shadow and a memory to the restored Equestria!”
Adagio watched helplessly as twisted dark magic flowed out of the bag at Chroma’s neck, rising to meet her horn’s own aura. The combined wave of arcane force washed over Chrysalis yanking her skyward. She fought back, thrashing and grappling at the dark magic with her own. But the efforts seemed futile. Whatever was in the bag just overwhelmed her own spellcasting before smothering Chrysalis’s form. The Queen of The Heartlands cried out once and vanished in an burst of dark light.
The pound of the rain mixed with the excited cheers of the Rangers. One of the immortal rulers of The Heartlands had just been bested before their eyes. Chroma turned to face the crowd of stunned ponies, spreading her wings wide in a triumphant display.
“Why is everypony looking so scared? Bow to your liberator!”
The gathered ponies shuffled in place, many looking at each other and asking the same silent question. Now what?
“I said bow!”
Whoever bowed first, Adagio couldn’t see. But they were quickly followed by others, scattered at first but quickly flowing into a ripple as pony after pony dropped into a low headed bow. Even her own guards followed suit, save for Will who was staring at those he worked with in disbelief. Which left her and Will as the only pair left standing in the square. Chroma’s glowing eyes fell upon her and Adagio could feel the hairs on her coat standing on end.
But whatever punishment Chroma might have dealt out for Adagio’s “insolence” was interrupted as she felt something woosh right past her ear. A loud ping echoed through the air as a crossbow bolt ricocheted off the side of Chroma’s head. The broken pieces clattered to the ground and several things happened at once.
“Assassin!” Chroma bellowed.
A massive bolt of lightning jumped from the tip of her horn, blazing straight for Adagio. Starlight reacted instinctively, diving to the side as the lightning streaked past her. Sonata screamed throwing her hooves over her head as she hugged the ground. Adagio tried to run, her legs feeling like they were buried in knee deep mud. There was nothing she could do. She was going to die!
At the last moment, a hulking grey form jumped in front of her. Adagio’s eyes went wide.
Then her world was agony. Her screams mixed with Will’s as the lightning seared their bodies, flowing through the water that soaked them so thoroughly. Everything was pain.
“Hello?” Adagio called again. “Please! Is anypony out there?”
Her hooves carried her through the silent halls of Canterlot Castle, each step echoing eerily against the stone walls and distressingly empty halls. It was as if death itself had descended upon the castle and stolen its residents away. Aside from her own increasingly frantic calls, the castle was silent as the grave. No matter where she looked- from servants quarters to the throne room- she could find hide nor hair of anypony. She stopped in the Great Halls, angrily stomping a hoof in sheer frustration.
“Scorpan’s twisted tail, what is going on here?” she raged. Just two days ago, these halls had been full to near bursting with ponies celebrating her ennoblement, where-
The deep, gut shaking boom of thunder assaulted her ears. Dark clouds were right behind it. They seemed to flow from the stones themselves, collecting in the vaulted ceilings of the chamber. Adagio recoiled as another round of thunder pealed forth and a downpour began to cascade over her.
Adagio sputtered and shook her head in a futile gesture as the rain continued to fall. An icy chill quickly swallowed her pasterns and crept ever higher at a frightening pace, rising past fetlocks then cannons, then her knees, until the water was lapping past her belly and towards her withers.
She shrieked as she found herself forced to paddle frantically to keep her head above water. It was a process that was more difficult than it should have been. The almost supernatural chill of the black, brackish liquid drained warmth from her body and made her limbs sluggish and hard to control.
No! She thought. I won’t go out like this! If I can just get to the windows.
Kicking as powerfully as she could, Adagio paddled for the impressive stained glass windows on the far side of the chamber. She huffed and puffed as she swam, her limbs aching in protest but onwards she pushed, driven on by sheer will and survival instinct. As she drew close to them, she opened her mouth and channeled her magic. One raw scream of power would do it and then she’d be free-
Another roar of thunder and crack of lightning made Adagio scream for different reasons, her magic snuffing out as she lost control of the spell.
Ponies floated beyond the window.
In the moment the lightning cut through the room, it illuminated the nearly black ocean beyond the brightly colored scenes of The Heartland’s past. An unending expanse of dark water that had obviously swallowed the whole world. The bodies of ponies floated in that expanse. Cold and unmoving.
Something brushed past her leg. She looked down and splashed away in horror. Suri’s waterlogged corpse bobbed just below the surface. Her mane, having come loose from its bun, sprawled out in all directions, the hairs threatening to coil around Adagio’s leg like the tendrils of a macabre jellyfish. Her vacant stare was somehow accusatory. This was all Adagio’s fault somehow.
She kept paddling away, only to bump into something else. Another body, this one of Starlight Glimmer. She twisted around again, only to face Sonata Dusk. Again to see Aria Blaze. Once more and there was Lightning Dust.
They boxed her in, somehow floating just to block her path no matter where she tried to swim as the water rose ever higher. They were beginning to reach the high ceilings of the chamber and the storm clouds that hovered there at which point she’d run out of air and be joining the ponies- her ponies- that she had failed to protect. The ones she had insulted and taken for granted.
“Stay away from me!” she shouted, lashing out with a hoof.
Sonata’s mane caught her wild strike and Adagio quickly found herself tangled. She screamed again, thrashing and lashing out to try and get away from the chef, only to feel a tug on her tail.
The weight dragged her under the surface immediately, which made her thrash all the harder and kick up a flurry of bubbles. She twisted her head around to look at what else had grabbed her, only to wish she hadn’t. Iron Will was hanging onto her tail in a vice like death grip. His posture was slumped, almost resigned as he sunk towards the yawning abyss that was once the Great Hall’s floor.
A desperate panic beginning to set in, Adagio thrashed all the harder, kicking at her former bodyguard to try and make him release her. But his grip remained. As did the net that was Sonata’s mane. And now Suri’s mane. And Aria’s. All their bodies were beginning to cling to her now, dragging her ever downwards.
As she was swallowed by the darkness of the water, her limbs grew stiffer and stiffer. Her lungs burned, almost screaming for air. The light of the surface above faded dimmer and dimmer. She knew that she was dying.
And hearing things. That voice sounded almost like Queen Chrysalis.
Adagio Dazzle! You must go to Roam!
As her watery grave claimed her, Adagio could only wonder what the queen meant.
- - - -
Adagio returned to the waking world in a great deal of pain.
A web of agony pulsed across her skin, underneath what felt like tight wrappings of some kind. She could also dimly make out something stiff and cold snapped tightly around her right front cannon.
Mind swimming with a confusing jumble of memories, she tried to sit up. There had been the festival and then she and Chrysalis had argued and-
Chroma. Lightning. Will.
Memory of the lightning bolt was like a bucket of cold water, snapping Adagio back to her immediate surroundings. She was lying on her back, a warm blanket firmly tucked around her, a thick straw mattress underneath her. She could tell by the slight itch on her spine. The bed she was in was set right next to a small square window, through which she could make out Ponyville. Rain continued to lash the buildings, rattling out a discordant chorus on their roofs. It was quite dark out as well. Enough so that it must have been night.
Slowly, she pushed herself into a sitting position, ears twitching at a clanking rattle that followed along. Frowning, she looked down at her right foreleg and the odd sensation there. It was a manacle. Heavy and iron, it was connected to an equally heavy iron chain. Her eyes roamed across its length, following it back to one of the bed legs, where it was firmly secured. It seemed that the chain was just long enough to give Adagio some room to move on the bed, but not off of it.
Turning her gaze to the room, Adagio could see that it was a long rectangle, with two rows of beds and lit by flickering candles. In the flickering gloom, Adagio could make out two occupied beds across from her, one pony sized and one much larger. To her surprise, Sonata Dusk was at the side of the larger lump, dabbing at it with a sponge.
“Sonata?” she managed to croak out.
The chef jerked away from her charge, yelping with a mixture of fear and surprise. Even in the flickering light, Adagio could see a great deal of anguish on Sonata’s features as she turned. Her mane and coat were frazzled and she was sniffling and hiccuping as she talked.
“H-hello m-mlady,” she smiled. “G-glad to-*hic* see you u-up. I h-hope you’re not in t-too much pain. My a-app-prentice S-sugarcoat mixed your poultice.” A shaking, shivering snorty moan shook her body. “She-she’s studying to be a healer when n-not working for m-me!”
That would explain the wrappings. Bandages. “Sonata-”
“Would you l-like something t-to eat?” Sonata asked. “I t-think I brought some soup.”
She spun about, hooves fumbling with a tray on a bedside table. Adagio grit her teeth, yanking at her chain. “Sonata! What’s going on? Where’s Iron Will? What’s Chroma doing?”
Sonata glanced at the large lump at her side. “He’s….sleeping. T-the lightning hurt. Chroma...I think she’s talking to mayor Glimmer.”
Adagio’s heart hammered in her chest. If Will had taken the brunt of Chroma’s blast…. She shook her head. No, she couldn’t focus on that right now. She needed to know as many details as she could.
“Why am I chained up?”
“Because we’re due to be executed tomorrow.”
That voice, familiar and bitterly sarcastic, had come from the smaller lump opposite Adagio. As the pony it belonged to sat up, she quickly put a name to the face.
“You’re a member of the Everfree Rangers. Lightning Dust, right?”
“Former member now,” Lightning shrugged.
Adagio’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, executed?”
“We’re due to be hung at sun up for trying to assassinate a consul of Equestria. Because we’re traitors.”
That statement proved to be too much for Sonata. She broke into great, body wracking sobs and threw herself at Adagio, wrapping her arms around the stunned baroness’ neck. “Noooooo!” she wailed. “I-I I don’t want you to die Dagi! Or y-you D-dust. I d-don’t,” she took a deep heaving breath before breaking into more half sobbing-half talking, “I don’t want anypony to die!”
Despite the sobbing pony latched to her Adagio blinked, a realization suddenly hitting home. “You!” she snarled, jabbing an accusing hoof at Lightning Dust. “That was your crossbow bolt! It’s your fault that Will got hurt!”
Fueled by anger, she lurched forward, sending Sonata tumbling away with a squeak. But in her anger she forgot that she was manacled. The bed jerked forward a pathetic amount and Adagio was forced to catch herself before she face planted off the edge. Shooting an angry glare at Lightning, she tried to channel a spell, only for it to immediately fizzle.
“What?” Adagio shouted, reaching up to feel her horn. She could just feel some kind of iron band set around the base. “What is this thing?”
“The ponies outside called it a magic dampener…” Sonata managed to sniff as she got up. “Something that Chroma gave them.”
Adagio almost ground her teeth in frustration. Unless she wanted to be hanging from a gallows tomorrow, she needed to think of a way out of here. “Where’s Suri?”
“Pfft. Chroma won’t let her see you,” Lightning Dust snorted. “Doesn’t want your servant helping you escape.”
“Would you be silent!” Adagio snapped. “I need to think.”
“I hope you can think faster than you make friends. Or we’re in big trouble.”
Ignoring that crack Adagio looked over at the sleeping form of Iron Will. His breathing was shallow, barely moving the blanket. She didn’t care how powerful Chroma was. The alicorn had struck at everyone and thing dear to her and she wasn’t going to take it lying down.
“Sonata...are there guards outside?”
“Uh huh,” she sniffed.
“Good.” She jabbed at her horn with her free hoof. “Then get this thing off of me.”
- - - -
Across town Starlight Glimmer found herself wishing that she was anywhere else. Chroma glared down at her, eyes glowing with arcane energy. Even sitting as she was, the alicorn loomed her desk, the air around her humming with power. The buzz was occasionally punctuated by the rhythmic pounding of the twisted looking cloth bag hung around Chroma’s neck. It continued to pulse away, each thump echoing in Starlight’s ears.
Chroma wasn’t alone either. Spitfire stood in the corner, slowly furling and unfurling her wings to stretch them out. Her face was an unnatural mask of calm, despite the presence of a living legend less than two feet from her. But, considering that she and her Rangers had eagerly worked alongside Chroma… Well, it seemed that Spitfire had chosen her side. It was enough to make Starlight’s stomach churn, but she didn’t dare show weakness in front of Chroma.
“My allies in the Everfree Rangers speak highly of you Mayor Glimmer,” Chroma said, gesturing to Spitfire with a wing. She raised a goblet of cider from Starlight’s stores to her lips, quaffing it back in a strange parody of a raucous tavern scene. “Well liked by the citizenry, a skilled administrator and an advocate for the rights of ponies in bondage. In many ways, you embody all the ideals of Equestria.”
“Thank you, consul,” Starlight answered. The words were bitter on her tongue. They were hollow. Flattery meant to appease a madmare and nothing more. Even worse, her chosen cause suddenly felt...tainted by Chroma’s praise.
She glanced towards the corner of the room. Sugar Belle cowered there, clutching the tray she brought the cider on to her chest. Suri Polomare was at her side managing to look agitated and worried all at once, like she desperately wanted to say something.
“All in all,” Chroma continued. “I’d say you’re the pony to be governor of this province. Certainly you seem the more qualified choice than the ‘baroness’ Chrysalis...dumped on your doorstep?” She idly glanced at Spitfire out of the corner of her eye. “That’s the phrase, right?”
“Yes, Consul Rainbow Dash, that’s the phrase,” Spitfire nodded back.
Suri raised an eyebrow at her. “Been teaching our consul modern vernacular I see? The subtleties of the tongue?”
“Bite your tongue wench!” Spitfire sneered. “How dare you suggest our consul would need speech therapy.”
Chroma grunted. “Actually, modern slang remains confusing. I’m still not sure what fadoodle means. Is it a breed of dog? Sounds like one.”
Spitfire slumped a little. “No, consul. It means ‘foolishness’.”
“Ah!” Chroma perked up, slapping a hoof on the table. “Because you doodle the foolishness? Or is it because you put the fa in the doodle?”
Starlight nervously licked her lips. Chroma was almost acting like a normal pony. Maybe...just maybe she could be reasoned with? She could at least try to stem the violence...a little. “Consul...about Baroness Dazzle. I can’t see her being aware of what one rogue ranger was planning. She didn’t even know about a bunch of laws that some other pony had passed on her behalf! Isn’t there room for some leniency?”
Chroma poured herself another goblet of cider. “Something you gotta learn if you’re going to make governor. Power will make a pony cast aside their strongest morals.”
Pot calling the kettle black. Starlight thought.
“It’s too bad about Baroness Dazzle, really. But that’s war and if I roll over now, that will just empower the next five assassins. My sentence stands. Though, since you brought it up….”
Faster than anyone could react, Chroma seized Spitfire with her magic. Starlight could only watch, wide eyed, as Chroma slammed the pegasus against the wall, whirled about and pressed the tip of her horn against Spitfire’s throat.
“So, Spitfire my dear friend. Do you have any explanation as to why one of your supposedly loyal Rangers tried to kill me?”
Despite the horn at her throat, Spitfire kept her cool. “It surprised me too. Lightning Dust practically worshiped the ground the Rangers walk on. She showed up on my doorstep one day, demanding to be let in. Does that sound like the kind of Ranger who wouldn’t follow her brothers and sisters?”
“Clearly, you underestimated her loyalty to her sham of a ‘country’!” Chroma snapped back.
“Yes,” Spitfire managed to nod, ever so slightly. “Clearly I did. My mistake. I won’t make it again.”
A minute crawled by with only the sound of Chroma’s magic filling the room. Starlight looked from pegasus to alicorn, wondering if she was going to see another execution right here in her office. To her relief though, Chroma let Spitfire go, her mood turning again.
“Hah!” Chroma grinned. “Lesson learned then, but while you take that in, maybe get that stick out of your flank while you’re at it? You’re far too tense Spitfire. Reminds me of my old banner mare during the northern campaigns. I told you about the battle of Griffinstone, right?”
Spitfire smiled back. “About ten times so far. It’s still amazing, every time I hear it.”
Scorpan’s twisted tail! Starlight mentally groaned. How in The Heartlands did these two manage to wind up friends?
“We’ll have to skip the eleventh time though. Canterlot, remember?”
“Ah, yes,” Chroma smiled. It was wide, downright gleeful in fact. “It has been far, far too long since Sombra and I have clashed in combat! I will show him the error of siding against Equestria! And then The Heartlands will be restored and from there, Equestria!”
With that, Chroma got to her hooves, grabbed the cider and drained the whole of the bottle in one smooth motion. She glanced around the office, only to freeze as her eyes locked onto one of Starlight’s many trinkets.
“What, is that?” she snarled, jabbing past Starlight at the item of her ire.
Starlight twisted about, blinking at the rough stone sphere on one of her shelves. “That? It’s a rock somepony tried to pass off as an Element of Harmony-”
Without any warning Chroma's magic surged and the rock exploded with a crack, a shower of stone shards raining down on Starlight’s head. Sugar Belle cried out in panic, using her tray as a shield. Suri winced but stood firm, even seemed to step forward as if to further guard Sugar Belle from the debris.
“Harmony...is a lie and the Elements are its chief agents,” Chroma growled. “Do not be deceived by them.”
“Y-yes… of course not, consul.” Starlight said, bowing her head, though all the while never taking her eyes off the unstable madmare.
Chroma thrashed her tail in a whip-like motion, snorting down at the broken pieces of stone that now littered the floor. “Ponies...how often do they search the Everfree?”
Starlight blinked as did Spitfire.
“Not that many,” Spitfire answered. “It’s mostly trade caravans from Luna’s kingdom and occasional explores crazy enough to risk the caprataurs to search for-”
“Roam,” Chroma growled. “Sky above, Spitfire, why didn’t you tell me this?”
“Because when we met, you didn’t care about the Everfree! You told me you had lurked in it enough!”
Chroma’s eye twitched. “No, no…,” she muttered, more to herself than to anypony else in the room. “I’ve delayed long enough. Three hundred years I had to sit on my hooves, waiting and watching. I can not delay them again, even to chase after the Elements! This changes things… Spitfire, pick a few ponies you can trust. You’ll go into the Everfree and collect the Elements of Harmony from the ruins of Roam. I’ll continue with the main plan-”
“Of course, I’ll leave at once.”
“Wait,” Chroma frowned, holding up a wing. “Wait…,” she swept her wing towards Sugar Belle and the silver tray she cowered behind. “Bring that forth.”
She shook like a leaf at the attention, but managed to squeek out a response. “E-excuse me?”
“I said...STEP FORTH!”
The whole room shook, Starlight wincing as a painting of her mother fell from the wall. The alicorn’s rage was too much for poor Sugar Belle to handle. With a soft whimper, her eyes rolled back and she passed out. Chroma growled, taking an angry step forward and Starlight jumped to her hooves, terrified for the safety of her assistant.
Suri intervened, scooping up the silver tray up and holding it forth. “I have it, consul.”
Chroma snorted but seemed content to let Suri hold the tray. Her horn began to glow, brighter and brighter, before the lady of storms seemed to fall apart, breaking into a stream of light before flowing directly into the surface of the reflective metal.
Her magic aura remained however, shimmering around the tray. In the next moment three separate streams of light flowed back out. Red and orange first, followed by green and yellow and then blue and violet. They did a slow lap of the room, twisting and slipping past each other and the other ponies present before returning to the spot where Chroma had been standing and beginning to condense.
Starlight Glimmer gulped as three Chromas now stood where one had been before. Three Chromas...similar, but not the same. Where the original had her full rainbow colored mane, these ones were broken up the same way the light had come out of the mirror. They also looked a little cross eyed as they shook their heads.
“Ugh,” the red and orange maned Chroma said. She still had the purple bag hanging around her neck, so Starlight decided to consider her the leader. “I hate doing that! Still can’t believe that’s the best I could do...” She growled under her breath, trailing off into incomprehensible mutterings as she rubbed at the back of her neck.
Yellow and green faced Spitfire. “I’m coming with you to Roam.”
Violet and blue nodded. “I got Canterlot.”
Original finished her tirade. “And I’ll handle our other Everfree task.”
Starlight stared as three alicorns and a pegasus trotted towards the tower balcony, Chroma forcing the doors open with a flick of her magic. The driving rain didn’t seem to bother her. In fact, despite the downpour, the alicorn remained bone dry as she took a deep breath.
“CITIZENS OF PONYVILLE!” Her voice echoed with a frightening amount of power, roaring like the thunderstorms she had summoned. “THE GLORIOUS RESTORATION MOVES ON! I LEAVE YOUR MAYOR, STARLIGHT GLIMMER TO RULE IN MY STEAD! OBEY HER COMMANDS AS IF THEY WERE MY OWN, OR SUFFER MY WRATH!”
Starlight was sure that even the dead had heard that magically empowered shout. Chroma glanced back at her. “That goes for you as well, mayor Glimmer. Move against me and you shall find the gallows quite accommodating. My loyal Everfree Rangers will be keeping an eye on you.”
With that the four ponies took wing and Starlight slumped against her desk, utterly exhausted. It felt like she had just done a full day's hard labor and she wasn’t sure that she’d ever forget Chroma’s crackling, electricity infused glare. Her first thought was to just crawl into bed and prepare for the next day under the yoke of her new ruler. But….
“Starlight!” Suri shouted. “You can’t just let her kill Adagio! There has to be something we can do!”
Mentally exhausted as she was, Starlight’s analytical mind couldn’t help but grind into action. Chroma. Chroma was... well, maybe not afraid. But she was clearly concerned enough about the Elements of Harmony to divide herself so she could help check on them. That action alone gave new credence to the rumors that drove ponies to search for the ruins of the “eternal city”. And there was no question in her mind that if Chroma got them, she’d try to destroy the Elements of Harmony. But she was split right now. Did that split her power too? What what about this other thing she was chasing in the Everfree?
Suri’s second call snapped Starlight out of her contemplative reverie. “The Elements,” she muttered.
“...What?” Suri blinked.
“Help me get Sugar Belle up,” Starlight said. “I need her to get some things ready while we go rescue Adagio. ...I have a plan.”
- - - -
Adagio grit her teeth. Chroma’s pronouncement was still ringing in her hears. “I’m going to punch Starlight!”
Sonata carefully worked the magic dampener up her horn, twisting it a bit at a time. Apparently it wasn’t designed to just be yanked off all at once. “Don’t hit her. She’s nice!”
“She just stole my province!”
“Sure she did.” Lightning Dust rolled her eyes. “I’m sure that Chroma would have taken a ‘no’ for an answer if Starlight refused the position.”
“Oh? Do you think that your fellow rangers were forced into betraying the crown?”
“S-stop it!” Sonata sniffed. “We shouldn’t be fighting right now!”
“What’s going on in there?” a gruff voice shouted past the door.
The handle began to rattle and turn.
“Hurry up!” Adagio hissed.
Sonata twisted all the faster. “I’m trying!”
The door swung open and a buff looking member of the Everfree Rangers stepped into the room. He was a monster of a stallion, with mountain like muscles rippling under his pale gray coat. Adagio imagined he had a name like Slate or Granite or something else rock based. Shouting in anger he charged for Sonata.
She yelped and tumbled away, but the magic ring went with. The magic suppressor came off roughly, sending a burning lance of pain right through Adagio’s horn. But through those throbbing waves of pain and watery eyes Adagio channeled, unleashing a torrent of magic, along with a wave of song.
Hush a bye birdie, croon, croon
Hush a bye birdie, croon.
The sheep are gone to the Silver Wood,
And the cows are gone to the broom, broom.
The stallion’s legs were already wavering as Adagio’s spell settled over him. So she threw more magic into her spell, tears streaming down the sides of her face, her horn screaming in protest.
The birds are singing, the bells are ringing
The deer go galloping by.
Hush a bye birdie, croon, croon.
Hush a bye birdie, croon.
He hit the floor with a thud, a loud series of snores following suit. Lightning Dust gaped at the sleeping pony before staring at Adagio.
“Okay, I’m actually kind of impressed.”
“Glad I could show off,” Adagio smirked, wiping her tears away. The throbbing sensation was fading in her horn, thankfully. “Sonata, get the keys.”
Sonata grinned as she scooped them up and set to unlocking everypony’s shackles. “Dagi! That was so amazing!”
Adagio rolled her eyes. She’d correct Sonata later. “Both of you help me with Will. I’m not leaving him here to be hurt because the other prisoners are gone.”
Wrapping her magic around Iron Will, she strained to lift his bulk. Magic was much like a limb. The more a pony used it, the stronger it was. And while her magic wasn’t exactly weak, Iron Will lived up to his name and weighed a ton. Sliding him sideways off the bed, she guided him onto the waiting backs of Sonata and Lightning. Lightning grunted, but Sonata took the weight without complaint. Earth ponies.
Adjusting her grip around Will’s legs, Adagio nodded. “Do either of you know the layout of this place?”
“I do,” Lightning answered. “With all the lumps I’ve taken in the rangers, I’m on a first name basis with the healers.”
“Lead the way then. Take a back door.”
They set off through the halls at the fastest trot they could manage while carrying a minotaur. When that minotaur was as bulky as Iron Will, that speed wasn’t too fast. More of a trundle than a trot. Despite this, every step sent burning lances of pain through Adagio’s body. Whatever burns the lightning had inflicted on her…,they still really hurt. Really hurt. But she grit her teeth and pushed ahead. At least her horn wasn’t hurting anymore.
Down they went, taking one of the stair wells, the wooden stairs creaking under their hooves as they rushed onwards. Iron Will’s hands dragged along the wood as well, but the minotaur didn’t stir. Then they were at the bottom floor and trundling towards a door at the far end of a long hall.
“Faster!” Adagio hissed.
“Oh, sure. I’ll just break into a gallop with a minotaur on my back!” Lightning Dust hissed back. “What did you feed him!”
“Well, he did love my foldies,” Sonata said.
Adagio groaned. At least they were almost at the exit. After just a few more step, they pushed through and-
Bumped into two more Everfree Rangers. The pair were lounging on a pair of crates turned into impromptu chairs, but quickly scrambled to their hooves. While their figures were partially obscured by heavy purple cloaks that wicked the driving rain away from them, Adagio could just make out that they were a mare and stallion.
“Ascarids…,” she swore.
Up their crossbows came, strings taut and steel tipped bolts loaded.
“Not one step more,” the right stallion said. “Or you won’t even make it to the hangmare’s noose.”
Lightning winced. “Come on Swiftwing! We’re friends! How many patrols have we gone on together? This isn’t right and you know it!”
The mare on the left took a step forward, almost shoving the tip of her weapon into Lightning’s face. “We don’t let traitors and assassins walk!”
To Adagio’s shock, Lightning pushed the weapon aside and slipped out from under Will, Sonata grunting as she was suddenly carrying most of Iron Will’s weight. Lightning advanced on her former comrades, wings flared.
“Traitors? Morning Dew, I don’t remember turning against the crown! Have you two completely forgotten your oaths? By Scorpan’s twisted tail! You’re working against the monarchs who gave our founders the land our chapter house sits on for a mad mare!”
“You don’t understand!” Morning Dew shot back, letting her weapon fall to her side. “We live among the bones of a fallen empire! Consul Rainbow Dash has shown us the glory of old Equestria! Don’t you see? We can reclaim our pride!”
“I have plenty of pride,” Lightning growled through clenched teeth. “I am an Everfree Ranger! I help protect this town! That’s plenty to be proud of.”
Morning Dew swung raised her crossbow again. “Like I said. You don’t understand.”
“I don’t know…,” Swiftwing said, clearly hesitating. “It’s not like we ever really gave her a chance. Spitfire never really let us try and convince her.”
Morning Dew turned slightly towards towards Swiftwing. Though whether it was to agree or argue with him, Adagio didn’t have a chance to find out. Lightning lashed out with a wide hoof swing knocking their crossbows from their hooves before diving on Morning Dew.
“Don’t just stand there! Help me!” Lightning shouted as she attempted to put Morning Dew in a headlock.
It seemed to take a moment for Sonata to realize just what Lightning Dust meant. But as Swiftwing moved to gang up on her, Sonata yelped and charged forward in a clumsy rush.
Adagio shouted, desperately trying to hang on Iron Will herself. But the weight of his body was too much and he hit the cobblestones with a heavy thud and splash. Now furious Adagio scrambled past the fallen form of her bodyguard, already channeling, a new song and spell on her mind.
Both flowed forth, swirling around the rangers as they grappled with Sonata and Lightning. Morning Dew had managed to wriggle out of the lock but Lightning was proving quite difficult to pin down, blocking punches and bucks as she flitted about in the cramped confines of the alley. In contrast, Sonata had just pinned Swiftwing against the opposite wall with her body, looking quite satisfied with herself.
The ranger’s ears twitched at Adagio’s enchantment, but unlike their fellow inside, they didn’t fall. Adagio flinched, her own ears twitching at the constant roar and patter of the driving rain. That was the downside of sound based magic.
And over that driving hail of noise, Adagio failed to hear the approach of a new attacker. Talons raked across her back, tearing at her bandages and pitching her forward. Landing snout first in a puddle, Adagio groaned and rolled onto her side, peering up at whatever had attacked her.
One of Chroma’s stormcrows cackled at her misfortune. It loomed over her, wings spread wide to make it seem even larger than it already was. Under its glowing gaze, Adagio found herself calling to mind a somewhat morbid poem about a trio of ravens- and the dead knight they were planning to feast on for dinner- she read when she was younger.
The storm crow dove forward, wings spread wide. Adagio rolled again, her attacker’s talons scraping the stones where she was. She channeled as she came back up, not so much casting as just unleashing a raw ball of magic and force in a burst of fear and frustration. The crow reeled from the impact, giving an angry squawk of protest. But it quickly recovered, advancing more slowly now. As it did, lightning began to surge along its wings.
Why didn’t I bring my rapier to the festival? Adagio thought bitterly to herself. Could really use it right now!
The fact that the Rangers would have taken it when they locked her up was besides the point. A weapon was just a better option than trying to punch the lightning infused raven with her bare hooves.
It let loose a caw, a jolt of said lightning leapt from its throat. Adagio jumped back, the bolt striking the ground right at her hooves. Her back was against the wall of the healing house now and the otherworldly raven cackled in glee as it closed in.
Again, Adagio dug into her well of magic, trying to ignore the stabs of pain that were still wracking her body under the bandages. But the burst of energy that had come with the excitement of the escape was beginning to drain away. That, mixed with the rain, the cracks of thunder high above her head and those searing lances it was hard to maintain focus. Still, she gave it her best and whipped another raw blast towards the raven.
The spell slipped.
To Adagio’s horror, it shot right over her target, the raven’s head following it as it impacted harmlessly on the opposite wall in a shower of sparks. The raven looked back to Adagio, clacking its beak in what she could only classify as an imitation of laughter.
“I hate you,” she hissed.
The raven opened its beak in retort, throat glowing with power. Adagio braced herself for impact.
Three magic spheres came screaming in from the ally lip tearing into the creature’s side. The first two knocked it to the ground. The third popped it, a few sparkling remains glinting in the air before fading away.
A second spell chased right on the hooves of the first. Two scintillating spheres of color zipped through the rain, engulfing the Rangers in a flash of light. Adagio winced, covering her eyes for a moment. When she looked again, she was surprised to see both Rangers encased in glittering crystal.
She then turned towards the source of her salvation. Her heart and spirits rose at the sight of Suri rushing towards her. Even the presence of Starlight Glimmer and the twisted, two pronged staff held aloft in her magic were reassuring….somehow.
“Adagio!” Suri shouted- formal address forgotten- as she slid to an ungainly stop at her side. “Are you-”
“I’m fine.” Adagio pointed towards the unconscious form of Will. “Help grab him. We need to go. We need...to get out of...Ponyville. Link up with King Sombra…he’ll be planning a counter attack once he knows about what happened to Chrysalis.” She was rambling now, her mind rushing about, chasing half formed ideas. “We need to gather my guards and ponies-at-arms.”
Starlight shook her head. “Right now, we need to get back to your manor house.”
“We can’t stay in Ponyville! As soon as any of these rangers wake up and tell Chroma-”
“She’s not here. I watched her split herself and fly off in two different directions.” Starlight answered. “And I have plan.”
- - - -
“Help me get him upstairs.”
Adagio and Starlight were carrying Will now, their interlocked magic auras proving to be enough to support him. As they climbed the stairs to the main bedroom, carefully balancing a bandaged minotaur between them, Starlight laid out her observations and her plan. Adagio listened with a frown, carefully analyzing everything the mayor said. The idea that Chroma split up to go after the Elements of Harmony made a certain amount of sense. After all, if Canterlot was her sole target, why divide her power when Sombra would be there and be ready to put up a fight? He was always ready to put up a fight.
No, it was Starlight’s plan that made Adagio raise an eyebrow.
“The Everfree Forest? You want us to just walk in there and find the Elements of Harmony?”
A flick of Adagio’s magic pushed the door to the master bedroom open. “The Everfree stretches for miles and miles. Do you suggest we just wander in there and stumble around for them?”
Starlight rolled her eyes as they lowered Will onto the bed. “Adagio-"
Her eyes narrowed. “Baroness. Or m’lady. We aren’t friends Mayor Glimmer.”
“....Very well, m’lady. But I’m not talking about searching the whole thing. You know as well as I that the Everfree grew up around Roam. Not only is it the most logical place for them to be hidden in that direction, a split Chroma is heading that way!”
Adagio chewed on her lip for a moment. Starlight was right. Being Equestria’s former capital, Roam not only contained the complex for the senate, but the palaces of each of the consuls as well as a slew of other government buildings, all of which could contain hidden vaults. The empire’s primary mint, just as an example. But the counter arguments she could come up with as to why they couldn’t be there were just as valid. Perhaps the most important being “Why would the remaining consuls store them in an abandoned city?”
And then there was her dream. A crazed, lightning strike induced dream, but Adagio could have sworn she heard the queen’s voice in it, urging her to go straight to the place that Starlight was now saying the Elements could be hidden in.
She looked down at the unconscious form of Iron Will. His breathing was still shallow, though beyond that Adagio couldn’t tell how well he was aside from “badly hurt”. There was no question that something had to be done. But if Chroma was also heading there-
“Baroness! If we’re going to do this, we need to go now!”
“...Then get whatever we need for the journey and do it quickly.”
There really was only one choice.
- - - -
A little while later, Adagio stomped down the stairs, prepared for the worst fight she could imagine. Her rapier sat securely in its scabbard which was firmly lashed to her side. Any pretense of being fancy had been dropped, as she now had her mane done up in a tight and practical bun and wore the thickest all weather cloak she had been able to dig up.
Starlight had taken over the main sitting room with her assistants and Suri, who were putting the finishing touches on a quartet of saddlebags. Taking a quick stock, Adagio could see that they were loaded up with camping equipment, rations and other survival tools. Sonata and Lightning were nowhere in sight.
“Where did our two ‘friends’ go?”
Starlight didn’t look up from her own saddlebags. “I sent Sonata home. She was never in custody, so if she keeps her head down, the rangers might just overlook she was involved. They eat at her place enough.”
Adagio nodded. “And Lightning Dust?”
“Went off with your guards.”
Almost on cue, Lightning and her guards came trotting into the room from the servant’s quarters. They were all decked out in their armor, Lightning having clearly borrowed a spare set. As well as a spare crossbow, that she was glowering at as she stomped over to her saddlebags.
“Ugh. The trigger on this thing feels way too loose. And the stock is all wrong.”
“You’ll have to make do,” Starlight said. “We don’t have time to go looking for your crossbow.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just saying that these could be tweaked a little more. Your guards could stand to be a little better equipped Baroness.”
But Adagio wasn’t listening. She had instead focused on her guards. Her guards who had done nothing but run away when Chorma arrived. The ones that had left Will to face Chroma’s lightning bolt alone.
“All of you,” she growled, jabbing a hoof at the group. Approaching them, her eyes practically blazed with anger. “You’re just going to pretend that your dereliction never happened? That I forgot your failure?”
They fidgeted under her harsh words, none quite eager to look her in the eye. “M’lady,” one- the pegasus- managed to force out after a moment. “You’re going into the Everfree Forest. We would be failing all over again to allow you to go without protection.”
“I have protection! The mayor makes a superior guard!” Adagio snorted, gesticulating at Starlight Glimmer. “She came to rescue me! Did any of you? No! You hid here I presume, just like you cowered when Chroma arrived!”
“I...we…,” the pegasus shuddered. “I saw her arrive. She struck down the captain of the weather patrol like she wasn’t even there. How are we supposed to fight an alicorn?”
“Well, no need to worry about that! You can stay here and guard Will! At least he had the common courtesy to try!” Satisfied she had said her piece, Adagio grabbed the saddlebags set aside for her and stormed for the front doors. “Come on!”
- - - -
The quartet raced across town, bolting from alley to alley to avoid any watchful eyes that might be seeking them. For the first time since the rain began to fall Adagio actually found it to their advantage. It- and presumably the fear of Chroma- was keeping ponies off the streets and hiding their movements. So, it wasn’t long before they came to the west gate. To Adagio’s surprize there were only a pair of Everfree Rangers standing guard.
“Two?” she whispered, glancing towards Lightning Dust. They were huddled down in an alley across the street, preparing their next move.
She shrugged back. “We’ve only ever had thirty rangers in the chapter house at max. Usually it’s more like...fifteen when ponies are out on extended patrol.”
Adagio nodded. “I don’t see any town guard either.”
“I know most of them,” Starlight whispered. “Family ponies mostly. Pretty happy with their lots in life. I imagine Spitfire will need to talk them into falling into line.”
“Can you do that colored ball spell again?”
Starlight nodded. Twirling that gnarled staff of hers for a moment, Starlight leveled it at the pair of rangers and channeled. Her aura ran along both branches of the staff before bursting forth, a pair of spheres shooting across the street and towards the ponies. They reacted immediately, jumping back, wings flared as they prepared to attack whatever was coming at them. But the scintillating colors engulfed the two ponies and their crystal bound forms hit the ground with a thud.
“Go!” Adagio hissed.
They took off at a gallop, racing across the wide avenue. They were just at the gate when Suri gasped.
Adagio glanced back down the street, her eyes narrowing at the bulky shadow galloping towards them through the mist. She drew her rapier, preparing to fight or threaten her way out of this situation. So, it was to her surprize that it wasn’t another ranger that came rushing their way, but Sonata Dusk.
The chef had also clearly packed for a journey. Heavy saddlebags hung from her sides, stuffed almost to bursting. But she had also strapped another, even larger satchel to her back, that likewise seemed full to bursting.
“Wait!” she called. “I’m coming too!” She paused at the sight of the incapacitated rangers. “...Are they going to be okay?”
“They’ll be fine when the spell wears off,” Starlight answered. “They’re basically asleep.”
Adagio blinked as Sonata came to a stop before her. There was an immediate question that popped into Adagio’s mind. “How...did you even know about this?”
Sonata looked back at her with wide, cheerful eyes. “Starlight told me before she sent me home. But on the way there, I started to think.”
A dangerous proposition, Adagio thought.
“And I just couldn’t let Chroma get away with hurting ponies! So I’m coming too!”
Adagio sighed, rubbing her brow. “Sonata...we’re going into the Everfree. Do you even have a weapon?”
“Uh huh!” Sonata grinned. She twisted her head around and grabbed something hanging off her larger pack. She brandished it in her mouth, grinning around the handle.
It was a heavy cast iron frying pan.
“Seriously?” Adagio hissed.
Sonata pouted and hung it back on her pack. “What? It’ll give somepony a good bonk.”
“Do you understand what you’re doing Sonata?” Starlight asked, a deep frown on her muzzle. “I mean, if we don’t pull this off-”
“I’m not leaving,” Sonata said. Her voice had suddenly lost its cheerful, bouncy nature and gained a hard edge. “Will was nice to me. I don’t know if he’ll last through the night. I am helping stop Chroma. ...Besides, she doesn’t have a weapon!” she finished, jabbing a hoof at Suri.
“I’m not letting m’lady risk her life without me!” Suri said, stomping a hoof.
Adagio began to argue, when Lightning pressed a hoof to her lips. “We don’t have time for this!” she practically snarled. “The Rangers will be out looking for us as soon as your friends back at the healing house wake up!”
Lightning had a point. So she nodded and motioned towards the large gates. All five ponies placed their hooves against the doors and pushed with all their might. As they slowly swung open, they galloped off into the night and the storm.
The driving rain had turned the fields surrounding Ponyville into miniature swamps and was well on the way into turning those swamps into fetid pools of mud and muck. Every step Adagio took through the brown and green soup was a labor. It pulled and sucked at her fetlocks, soaking the hem of her simple traveling dress and accompanying rain cloak. Adagio snorted.
Under the torrential alicorn summoned storm, even the finest all weather cloak money could buy strained to keep away the damp. The water soaking the fields just added to the misery. The Great Western Road would have been dryer, if only slightly. But Lightning Dust had pointed out that said road would walk them straight past her old lodge and- even if there weren’t enough rangers to man the walls- Chroma had more than enough stormcrow things to do the job. So the plan had become to cut across the Ponyville farmland, enter the Everfree from there, then cut back the other direction to find the road and then the Canterhorn Aqueduct again. They’d be able to follow that straight to Roam, no matter how much the forest changed around it. Or so Starlight Glimmer said at least.
Adagio had her doubts. Doubts that were being exacerbated by the continued lances of pain from her lightning burns. In a moment of bitterness she wondered if her coat would ever grow back in those spots.
Pushing those dark thoughts aside for the moment she looked around at the rest of her merry little band of ponies. Starlight Glimmer was in the lead, her forked staff floating loosely at her side, presumably ready to blast any stray minions of Chroma they encountered. She was flanked by Lightning on her right and Sonata on her left, while Suri brought up the rear. All in all, they made quite the motley looking band of would be heros.
Well, we’ll probably go down in history, whether we succeed or not, Adagio morbidly mused to herself.
They marched in relative silence, save for Sonata. The chef kept looking around at the increasingly sodden fields and muttering to herself.
“Oh, this is bad! Really bad!” she whined.
“Quiet!” Adagio hissed.
“But Dagi, if the rain keeps up like this all the food is going to die!”
“It’s m’lady or Baroness for one,” Adagio growled her temper already growing short with Sonata’s mangling of her name. “For two, we won't be able to stop the rain if we get caught because of your yammering!”
“Oh,” Sonata pouted. But she fell silent all the same.
For about a minute at least.
“How long is it going to take us to get there?”
That...was a fair question. “Starlight, how long will it take us to get there?”
Starlight looked up at the cloud shrouded sky. “Well, I interviewed everypony that’s gone into the Everfree to find Roam...and managed to come back out. Using their stories and some old maps and accounts from the era, I know roughly how far Roam should be from Ponyville.”
Adagio blinked, waiting for Starlight to provide a number or a distance. When she wasn’t immediately forthcoming, she rolled her eyes and forced the issue. “Well? How far is that?”
Starlight winced. “Considering that we’ll be traveling through the undergrowth of the Everfree Forest and our weather situation….a few days?”
She looked to Lightning Dust for confirmation, who nodded in agreement. “I know a few tricks for fast traveling through the Everfree. But having only one flier...well unless Starlight knows a way to make me a massive mare, I can’t carry everypony.”
“It wouldn’t help,” Starlight said, her head drooping. “Going giant never helps. Especially in a forest with trees. Very big trees.”
Lightning cocked her head, wide grin suddenly splitting her muzzle. “Oh wait...I remember this now. You turned yourself giant once! Accidentally too, if I remember.”
“You’re kidding,” Suri said with just the slightest of snickers.
“Nope! I was in Berry Punch’s place- great tavern by the way- when a bunch of ponies go galloping past, yelling about a weird pony shaped dragon!” Lightning grinned. “Of course, once I got there it was just Starlight, half wedged through the door to her tower-”
Starlight suddenly stopped in her tracks, slowly turning her head to regard Lightning Dust with a strained smile.
“Lightning, do I have to turn you into a frog?”
While she should have chided the pair for their noise, Adagio couldn't help but enjoy seeing Starlight squirm. Apparently she wasn't completely little miss perfect.
Lightning Dust considered the threat, then smiled back. “Isn't a newt more classic in this situation?”
“It’s also horribly cliche!”
“Enough,” Adagio said, deciding that Starlight had been battered enough for now. “We can’t stay in this field and bicker all night. Not with the distance we have to travel and Chroma already on the way there.”
As nopony could argue that, they fell into silence again and set back to marching. Eventually the fields gave way to trees, but not the towering ones of the Everfree. Judging by the growing apples that stubbornly hung from the branches, even battered by the rain, they were in an orchard. Adagio frowned. Had she and Suri passed an orchard on the way to the lodge? Were they even going the right direction? As it turned out, that question was answered by Lightning Dust.
“We’re getting close. Sweet Apple Acres is the last farm between us and the Everfree.”
“Ah...so this is where we get our hard cider,” Suri mused, observing the trees as they passed.
“Hard cider from a hard family,” Lightning chuckled, before nervously peering at the shadows that closed in around them. “...Seriously though, you don’t want to make Apple Bloom angry. Trees shouldn’t bend like that.”
“Unless we’re planning to bring her along, we should really-,” Adagio began.
She was suddenly tackled to the ground, a hoof clapping over her mouth. For a horrible moment, Adagio thought that some of the rangers had caught up with them. But then she realized that the hoof in question belonged to Suri. Furious, Adagio struggled against her servant gone mad.
“Stop!” Suri hissed, pressing muzzle to ear. Even slightly muffled by the cloth of her hood, Adagio could hear the panic in her voice. “They'll hear you!”
Adagio rolled her eyes skyward. The rain and dark clouds had mixed with the night sky to form an oppressive opaque blanket that threatened to smother the countryside. That is, unless the rain washed it away first. But against that pitch black backdrop, lights were skittering back and forth in a zigzag pattern, dropping lower and lower with each pass. It was as the lights began skim just above the treeline that the crackling forms of some of Chroma’s stormcrows came into view. There were four of them, their heads sweeping back and forth as they searched the trees.
Suri dragged Adagio closer to the trunk of one of the many apple trees, the others scrambling to take cover as well. For the moment, the branches were giving them cover from the roaming eyes of the stormcrows, but it didn’t take a genius to realize that wouldn’t last. They needed to move. But they also couldn’t move while the four birds were in their perches. She...might have an angle. But she’d need just a little more time to implement it. Her eyes flicked towards Starlight, who met her gaze. Adagio pointed to the stormcrows, then herself, then placed a hoof over her eyes.
Starlight nodded, beginning to slowly channel. Adagio watched as she wove the arcane threads, forming them into an umbrella shaped curtain over their heads. A slowly shifting pattern of different shades of green moved along the underside of the magic. Not exactly what Adagio had been expecting, but it would work. A quick and light poke made Suri release her grip while Adagio stood, tall and proud.
She closed her eyes. The sound of the rain had disrupted her casting before, but she knew she could beat it. She had to beat it, if there was even a chance of defeating Chroma. The pitter-patter of each raindrop, the roaring crash of thunder above her head, the squawking of the stormcrows, the shimmering of Starlight’s magic and even the creak of the bowstring on Lightning Dust’s weapon all echoed in her ears. It was all sound. And sound was how she had earned her cutie-mark. Brute force casting over it was out of the question. There was far too many conflicting tones and the volume was too loud to directly overcome. But there was another angle to take.
Breathing in and out she let the cacophony of discordant sound fade away. Channeling, she wove the strands of a spell, softly humming a nameless tune. All the while she pictured her companion's’ voices, tone, pitch and even manner of speaking, projecting it all into the enchantment. Then she pushed it out, letting the little bubble of sound bob and swerve back the way they had come. Silent as it traveled, Adagio held it for as long as she was able. Only when the enchantment was at the very edge of her magical reach did she push just a little more into the spell weave and let the whole package burst.
Another burst followed, this one a chorus of arguments and yelling in all their voices. The screech of the crows and the ruffle of their wings told her that she was successful.
“Go!” she hissed.
And they galloped into the night once more.
- - -
The sensation of water hitting her face.
That’s how Aria knew she wasn’t dead. Though the pain in her wing, leg, head and back almost made her wish she was. The rough bark of a tree pressed against her back. Presumably the one that Chroma had slammed her into. Her eyes fluttered open and she hissed through her teeth at another round of agony. She very pointedly did not look down at her leg. Her very broken leg. Instead she looked up, squinting at what what bits of the sky she could see through the treeline. Aside from the occasional flashes of lightning, there wasn’t much to see.
How long had she been out? Was it night? Was that just the storm?
Feathers tickled the side of her neck and her unbroken leg came up automatically to gently pet her hawk's head. Faithful old Deathclaw. No matter what, she could always count on her hawk to stay by her side.
“Alright, alright. I’m not dead,” she croaked out. “Now stop fussing over me. We need to get out of here.”
Deathclaw stared up at her, cocking his head. But he hopped away with a relieved cry as Aria worked her way back into a standing position. Keeping the weight off her broken leg- it was her right front one- she moved it a few times to feel where the break actually was. She still didn’t look, of course. She could still move her knee, so it had to be somewhere in the cannon or fetlock. Her left wing hung limply against her side and like her leg she didn’t dare look at it. Broken wings were bad. The healers and barber-surgeons always seemed to have difficulty setting them.
“Can’t worry about that right now,” Aria muttered under her breath. “Can’t.”
She had to get out of the Everfree. With all the monsters and beasts that lived in the forest, it was a miracle that she hadn’t been eaten while she was passed out. As Deathclaw settled onto his leather perch again, Aria looked at “her” tree.
“Let’s see...I was flying west when she attacked me,” she mused, limping around the massive trunk to examine the opposite side. “Moss is over here...so that means Ponyville is back that way.”
With that established, Aria began to limp back towards home. Of course the question of what to do once she got there kept fluttering back to the front of her mind like annoying moths. Chroma must have made it to Ponyville by now and if she was powerful enough to make a giant super storm...thing, then she probably took over the town easily enough. ...Unless the queen was able to stop her?
“Okay, fine, you’re not damned. But this situation is. You have to agree to that.”
“Yeah...she really is the worst.”
Onwards Aria limped, slowly pushing her way through the underbrush and picking her way past massive trees. Her ears flicked towards every sound and she flinched at every thundercrash that shook the trees above her head. The shadows were oppressive, every one of them could be hiding a monster and the ongoing roar of the storm would made it hard to hear anything lurking its way towards her. At least she had Deathclaw as an extra set of eyes. Her hawk always kept watch...at least when he wasn’t sneaking off to hunt rats, voles and other such threats to Ponyville’s crops. Or when Aria was sending him to do that for some extra bits. Or… Sun and moon above, her limbs hurt. She was also cold, so very, very cold. Even her pegasi weather resistance was faltering, most of its strength having been stripped away by lying in a thunderstorm all day.
The temptation to lay down and rest again was great. As Aria continued to limp along, her head hung low and her shoulder’s sagged. Her mane, blown out of their usual pigtail style, hung limp with water. It would have been so easy to just curl up under one of these other trees and go to sleep again. But she didn’t dare. For she probably wouldn’t get up again if she did.
“Focus, Blaze, focus,” she chided herself. “Can’t get distracted in a place like this. There could be a caprataur hiding behind any one of these bushes for all I know.”
There was another flash of lightning, followed by a truly massive thunder crack at this point. But in that flash, Aria saw something that made her heart swell with a bit of hope. Vine choked stone arches loomed out of the forest ahead. The old aqueduct! It might not have been Ponyville but at least now she had something to follow and take shelter from the storm under. Buoyed by this break of good fortune, Aria limped a bit faster towards the aqueduct. Reaching its edge she reared up slightly to rest a hoof against its sturdy side.
“Thank Chrysalis,” she breathed. “Now just-”
On the wind, for the barest of moments in between the thunder crashes, Aria thought she had heard a cry. It was faint and hard to pin down among the other sources of sound around her, but had that distinct wavy, bleating quality that pointed to only one of two sources. A goat or a caprataur. With the fear of the latter pushing her onwards Aria began to limp even faster now, even using her one good wing to half flutter along in little bursts of movement. She panted and puffed as she moved now, struggling to fight through the toll that wounds and exposure had taken on her body. But, despite her panic, at first she didn’t see or hear any other signs of the dreaded caprataurs. It was all shadows and the sounds of the storm.
“Stay calm… Stay calm!”
There! A bleating call, then another. They were louder this time and clearly closer.
“Damn!” Aria cursed. A quick glance was spared at the aqueduct. The lowest level was probably four pony heights above her head and the stone of the supporting legs was wet and slippery. Of all the Tartarian luck-
There was another burst of cries. This time they came in a chorus, mixed with the echoing blast of a horn and were quite close indeed. Panic gripped Aria’s chest now. She had attended the safety meetings at the town hall. She knew the warnings provided by the Everfree Rangers. That flurry of braying cries meant that a caprataur warband was on the hunt. What were they even doing, hunting in the middle of a storm like this?
Spooked, Aria took off at a gallop without thinking and almost immediately toppled forward with a cry of pain. Suppressing the desire to curse her stupid broken leg again, Aria flopped her way back onto three hooves and returned to her panicked wobble run. But she had barely made it another pony length when the brush came alive with movement. A good dozen caprataurs thundered out of their hiding places, bellowing their war cries and swinging crude clubs and nets above their heads.
Aria had never seen caprataurs in the flesh before, only having heard stories told at the local watering hole. They truly didn’t do the beasts justice. She could see the resemblance to the baroness’ bodyguard in their features. Bipedal, their towering frames rippled with muscle that came from a life of living in one of The Heartland’s most deadly wildernesses. Their fur was matted, splattered with mud, sweat, pine tar and other unidentifiable substances. Their manes were just as disgusting to look at. Just as matted as their fur, bones, sticks and other bits of detritus were woven into those bedraggled deadlocks. They bedecked their gnarled and twisted horns in much the same fashion, tieing their chosen fetishes in place with bits of vine. Add in some disgusting looking loincloths and you had beasts that were the complete opposite of pony-kind.
But the brute at the back was the most terrifying of the lot. Sporting four horns instead of the usual two- two growing from the side of the head and curling around like that of a ram and two growing from the top like a goat- he closed on Aria with a calm and measured stride compared to his kin. He alone carried a sword, a slab of brutal black iron for hacking and cutting, while in the other hand was a coiled whip fashioned from a thorny vine. Aria shivered as his strange, flat pupiled eyes fell on her and he uncoiled that whip of his with a flick of his wrist.
“Wisha, pnah,” he snarled, jabbing his sword at Aria. “Tzak hak fvra Ga’Eiifvee!”
Aria fell back, pumping her one good wing in a desperate attempt to get skyward and dislodging Deathwing from his perch. If she could get her hoof on the edge of the aqueduct, maybe she could haul herself up to safety. But it was no use. She just couldn’t get high enough with one broken wing and the stones were just too slick and well put together.
“Damned ancient Equestrian masons!”
The caprataurs were almost upon her, their powerful strides having closed the distance with frightening speed. With no other options, Aria grabbed a heavy looking branch from the ground, grit her teeth around the wood and resolved to take as many of them with her as possible.
The caprataurs responded by throwing their nets over her.
Aria yelped, flailing against the twisted knots. Despite being woven together from scavenged vines, they were quite strong, holding firm against her wild half bucks and swings. The warband bounded across the remaining distance, took a firm hold of the nets and hauled Aria up like a fish in a net. At least until Deathclaw swooped around with an angry shriek and began to claw at the eyes of her captors. They bellowed back, furiously swiping their arms at the enraged hawk. Despite the seriousness of the situation Aria couldn’t help but chuckle darkly at how Deathclaw dove under and around their clumsy strikes. While they were distracted, she began to crawl away. Maybe she could hide under a bush or something?
A heavy hoof landed on her back, driving her into the mud with a squelch and fresh cry. Aria looked up and growled at the calm, leader of this little band of pain. He glared right back down, lips twisted in a mocking snarl. But then he shook his head and glared back at his fellows.
“Su nudhr! Gudh khuiqu!”
Once again, Aria found herself hauled up and bound in nets. She squinted through the rain at the vague shape of her faithful bird. Deathclaw couldn’t fight his way out of this. There was only one chance for her now.
“Deathclaw! Get help!”
The shadow hesitated for a moment, then turned and flew off. Aria sighed and slumped in her net. Now all she could do was hope.
- - - -
“Anypony have an idea how long we’ve been walking?”
Suri had asked the question both because she was curious and also because the silence between the group was becoming oppressive. Lightning Dust and Starlight had switched places once they had entered the Everfree proper. The ranger’s attitude was a bit chipper for their surroundings, at least as far as Suri was concerned. Despite the danger of the forest, there was an actual spring in her step and she’d occasionally fiddle with the crossbow borrowed from Adagio. They had been following the Canterhorn Aqueduct for a bit now, that much she knew for sure.
“We’ve walked about a quarter of a training run so far,” she answered, glancing back over her shoulder. “You’re not getting tired, are you? I thought earth ponies were supposed to be tough.”
Suri raised an eyebrow, slowly looking over at Sonata with her whole regiment’s worth of...stuff...she was hauling along without complaint. It felt unfair to be compared to somepony who, despite being a chef, seemed to be on the upper end of the earth pony spectrum. But Lightning seemed to be aware of that fact as she chuckled to herself.
“Just kidding Stitches. Admittedly...it’s a little hard to tell with the storm and everything, but if I had to hazard a guess, we’ve been walking for three, maybe four hours so far. We’re definitely on the other side of the mid night. We should be able to squeeze another few hours of travel before needing to rest at this pace.”
“Oh goodie!” Sonata grinned. “Then I can make dinner! I’ve had a few traveling recipes I’ve wanted to try for a while now!”
Suri was about to ask how she was planning to cook in this storm when a large blobby shape came rushing out of the darkness and settled upon Sonata’s bulging backpack. The shape shrieked angrily, eliciting a cry from Sonata.
“Claw! What are you doing here?”
“You...know this hawk?” Adagio asked.
“Uh huh! He’s Aria’s! This little guy loves begging for fish scraps whenever she swings by my place to eat.”
The hawk ruffled his wings, cocking his head in a rather pony like gesture of indignation. Sonata, who had been grinning at Claw’s sudden arrival, quickly lost her cheer as she looked around their little clearing.
The hawk jumped off Sonata’s backpack, did a lazy spiral around the group, flew back the way he came...and then came back again, re-aligning himself on the pack again. Sonata gasped.
“She’s in trouble!”
“...How did you get ‘trouble’ from that display?” Adagio asked.
Sonata ignored that question, instead choosing to charge head, following after Claw as he took wing again.
“Hold on!” Lightning shouted. “Don’t just go running off on your own!”
The group galloped after Sonata and hawk alike. At least until they came to another portion of the aqueduct. Here the ground was disturbed. More so than one would expect, even taking the weather into account. Lightning Dust knelt down at the edge of the disturbed ground, examining it with a deep frown on her muzzle.
“The rain is starting to wash them away, but there are caprataur tracks here.”
“Caprataur’s have Aria?” Sonata gasped. “We have to save her!”
Starlight frowned. “Are you serious? All of the Heartlands is at risk right now! We don’t have time to go chasing after a single pony!”
“...Starlight...I’m not comfortable leaving somepony in the hands of those beasts,” Lightning Dust muttered, peering out from under her hood. “You know as well as I that they sacrifice ponies.”
Hesitation flickered across Starlight’s face and Suri could see the conflict in her eyes. Her own stomach was twisting at the implications of the choice they were staring down. Both sides had their points but Suri wasn’t sure that she’d be able to forgive herself if they left Aria. ...Even if it ended up being the right decision in the long run.
Starlight’s hesitation was still there when she spoke again. “I’m sorry about that...but I can’t put one pony ahead of a whole country. We...have to think bigger.”
Sonata’s lower lip began to quiver, while tears leaked from the corner of her eyes. “P-please Starlight! I know...I know she’s grumpy and hard to get along with, but she’s actually nice underneath it all. We...we can’t…" She hiccuped, clearly on the verge of losing complete control.
“Sonata, I’m sorry-”
“Enough, Starlight,” Adagio interrupted.
Suri looked to her master. Her expression was...strange. She was looking right at Sonata with a frown and furrowed brow, but it wasn’t angry like so many of the furious glares that Adagio had unleashed on so many ponies that had angered her in the past. It was much more- in a word- sad.
“I understand your concerns Starlight. In fact, I share some of them myself. But Aria is one of our citizens. It wouldn’t be right to leave her to whatever horrible plans the caprataurs have for her.” She shook her head with a sigh. “Besides, we most like will have to face Chroma and her allies and that will require all of us to be focused and not dwelling on what fate we might have left Aria to.”
Starlight sighed and rubbed her brow. “Is that an order m’lady?”
“I’d prefer that it not be,” Adagio frowned back.
That phrase hung in the air for several long moments, with neither pony backing down from the intense glares they were giving each other. With two strong wills behind the argument, the only question in Suri’s mind was who would blink first. At length, it turned out that the answer to that question was Starlight Glimmer, as she looked away from Adagio and towards the ground.
“Very well baroness. If that is what you wish.”
Sonata squealed with glee, throwing her legs around Adagio in a hug.
“Thank you Dagi! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
As Adagio reached up to pat Sonata on the back, Suri allowed herself a small smile.
- - - -
It had taken all of Lightning Dust’s skill to sort out caprataur tracks from the churned mud and trampled grass that came from Chroma’s thunderstorm, even with Starlight Glimmer providing ample illumination from her staff. A few times she had even managed to lose the trail in the storm before seeing a snapped tree limb or bit of crushed shrubbery that indicated they were still going the right direction.
Adagio’s earlier confidence in this plan waned the farther away from the aqueduct they traveled. At first it had seemed to be running the same direction Aria had been taken. But the more they followed the trail, the harder it had become to see. The trees around them were becoming truly massive now, in some cases so thick around that Adagio doubted she and Suri could wrap their forelegs around the trunk, working together. These were trees that had never seen the bite of a pony’s axe, growing for centuries until they became mighty sentinels of the wilds. They were walking through ground that would have been shrouded in darkness, even in the middle of a bright, sunny day. For the first time since she had heard the volumes of rumors about the Everfree Forest, Adagio found herself seriously considering their plausibility. Their surroundings had an unmistakable sense of menace that permuted the very air.
Suri looked around as she walked, her ears pulled flat in unease. “...Anypony else feel like we’re being watched?”
“That’s because we probably are,” Lightning answered. She pushed aside a withered looking bush to peer around the moss choked trunk of another tree. Suri’s eyes flicked around at the shadows even faster now.
“...By the caprataurs?” she asked, taking a closer step to Adagio.
“Maybe,” Lightning shrugged. “They’re always out here, you know? Every time a charcoal burner or forester is foolish enough to operate in the Everfree, they’re probably within a league of a caprataur camp without ever realizing it. At least until they’re taken like Aria was.”
Suri shivered. “But...that’s what the Rangers are for. You save them right?”
“...I can guarantee that we save one hundred percent more ponies than would have been saved without us!”
Lightning’s voice had been cheerful, but Adagio hadn’t missed the twitch that ran through her wings. It was a little gesture but one that signaled to Adagio that Lightning had been smiling through the pain, as it were. Suri wasn’t prepared to take that response unchallenged through.
“What does that even mean?” she shot back, breaking into a canter to catch up to Lightning. “Dealing with the Everfree is your whole job-”
“It’s a job we’re supposed to have help with!” Lightning responded tersely, almost biting back the bile. “There aren’t a lot of us in the whole order and we’re scattered across a half dozen chapter houses. We’re supposed to be supported by the levies of other Heartland nobles in times of crisis. What actually happens is that the ones whose lands don’t border the Everfree don’t care! Sure, sometimes the caprataurs march out of the Everfree in one big mass and take a village, but it's not one of theirs.”
Her wings flared open now and quivered with barely contained frustration. “And no matter how much our Grandmaster back in Canterlot petitions Sombra and Chrysalis for support, we never get it! They’re too afraid to put their hooves down and become ‘tyrants’ like their fallen friends! So we Rangers suffer for the rest of Equestria! And Blackwing Lodge was worse off than most! That one,” she jabbed a hoof at Adagio, “didn’t even know what a caprataur was! ”
Adagio bristled, but bit back her immediate desire to unleash a torrent of venom upon Lightning Dust. The situation called for more tact than that. “My apologies Lightning Dust. But I was fighting to keep my house solvent while being actively sabotaged. I sincerely doubt you’d have been any better off with my tormentor in charge.”
Lighting peered back at Adagio from under her hood, muzzle scrunched up in a furious glower. “...You might be right. But with how things are…,” she shook her head. “I wondered why Spitfire joined with Chroma at the time. Now it seems a lot more obvious.”
The rumble of thunder and patter of rain became the only sound as they lapsed into silence again. At least until Starlight decided to ask a question.
“...If you’re so broke, why didn’t you take my offer to pay off Suri’s debt?”
“You did what?” Suri gasped.
“Shhh!” Lightning hissed, holding up a hoof. “The tracks are thicker here. I think we’re getting close to the camp.”
“Can you be more sure?” Adagio frowned.
“Just a moment and I will be.”
With a light flitter of her wings, Lightning shot into the air, quickly disappearing into the darkness of the treetops. Adagio carefully watched the shadows beyond Starlight’s bubble of light and, opting on discretion, lightly coiled the tendrils of her magic around the hilt of her rapier. If any caprataurs showed their snouts, she’d certainly give them something to think about. A quick glance over at Starlight told Adagio she was just as determined in case trouble reared its ugly head. She had moved her light spell over to her horn and had her staff trained on the darkness. Even Sonata had her stupid frying pan out. Only Suri remained without a weapon, so she stooped and plucked a stone from the ground, almost cradling it between her forehooves.
The rain and storm ground on, the occasional flashes of lightning providing its own discordant illumination to the area. Adagio could feel her tension ratcheting up with each lightning strike, her muscles tightening, ready to strike the moment a monster came wandering out of the brush. ...How long would they have to wait here anyway? Lightning had flown off without a light source of her own, so would she even be able to find what she was looking for?
A sudden horrible thought settled over her. What if Lightning Dust herself had managed to get captured? How would they be able to rescue her and Aria-
There was another boom of thunder and Adagio felt a light tap on her back. Out came the rapier in a flash of silver, its tip coming to a quivering stop an inch away from Lightning Dust’s nose. Lightning Dust returned a raised eyebrow and a bemused smirk before slowly reaching up and pushing the sword away.
“I know you’re happy to see me again, but swordplay will have to wait...I found their camp.”
- - - -
That wasn’t the only thing Lightning Dust had managed to find. She had also managed to root out a hidden place in a hollow under a massive tree...root. The tree itself had grown on the edge of a rocky ledge, situated at the back of small depression that the caprataurs had chosen for their home. At first glance, it had seemed sheer madness to maintain living space in what amounted to a large hole in the ground during the middle of the tempest that raged around them.
But there was a crude ingenuity to the camps construction. Flickering magical torches- for only magic fueled fire could have kept its spark in this weather- illuminated the whole area. The depression itself wasn’t completely level and sloped slightly upwards from the rocky wall to wide open gap between two vine clogged hills that Adagio assumed served as their main means of egress. The lowest point- be it through a natural quirk of the land or deliberate efforts- gathered water. A few caprataurs, were gathering water from their reservoir in clay jugs. They were all emaciated and hornless, some seeming to lack them naturally- due either being female or too young for them to have grown in yet- others still showing the jagged remains where they had been broken off.
One by one, they filled their jugs and began to march back up the incline. On their way they passed a pen of sorts. Lashed together from crudely hewn logs, beasts stalked within. Sleek like wolves, they were made from sticks, branches and other bits of plant life with eyes that glowed with a sickly green light.
From there was an unwashed mass of caprataur’s crouching half in the rain, half in crude shelter woven from vines and branches. There they picked and gnawed at a collection of refuse that would barely qualify as food. For a moment, Adagio thought the water bearers were bringing the refreshment to the pitiful masses, but they strode past without so much as a second glance. Their destination was a pavilion built against the right wall of depression. It was of finer construction...relatively speaking. While still crafted by crude hands, it at least seemed to have no gaps in its woven roof.
That was where the true biggest and strongest looking caprataurs reigned over their herd. There were probably two dozen beasts there. They laughed and cavorted in their rough sounding tongue feasting on food that was probably much better than the swill their lessers were sorting through. To Adagio it was like she was watching some peasant's badly scrawled rantings of how noble courts functioned made manifest.
A roaring bonfire, also most likely magical in nature, burned away in an open space before the pavilion. Another caprataur tended to the fire. For whatever reason, this one seemed to have a set of wings growing out of his back. Or was it some kind of ritual costume? That would explain the chanting.
On the other side of the bonfire was a large...Adagio guessed it was a statue, made from branches and sticks. It had been fashioned into a roughly tauric shape, the inside left hollow, though what it was supposed to be beyond that was lost on her. But trapped within the cage like stomach of the statue and illuminated in the flickering light of the bonfire was a pony shaped figure.
Lightning ducked back behind the massive root motioning for everypony to follow. Her expression was grim as she looked Adagio in the eye.
“It doesn’t look good. There’s a lot of them between us and Aria and that cage...thing looks sturdy.” She glanced past Adagio, lips pursed. “I’d need some kind of distraction while I broke her loose. Starlight, do you think-”
“If I could crystal trap the whole camp? No. Even with my staff, I can’t split my magic to that many targets at once. At least…” Starlight trailed off for a moment. “I do know a few fireball spells. The Bouncing Betty, the Sidewinder, the….”
“Forgetting for a moment how you know all these different fire charms, wouldn’t that make things easy for us?” Suri asked. “Just blast everything.”
“The warriors are right next to the cage! I mean, I like a little to be flashy with magic as much as the next mage but Fireballs are indiscriminate. I could hurt Aria if I’m not careful!”
“I suggest you figure out how to be careful and quickly,” Adagio snapped. “We can’t sit here and debate all night! Did everypony just forget about Chroma? She almost killed some of us, remember? Myself, Sonata-”
“...Wait,” Lightning frowned, looking around their circle. “Where did Sonata go?”
Equal parts dread and anger twisted in Adagio’s stomach at that question. With a curse of “ascarids” under her breath, she popped back out of their hiding place and glared down at the camp.
“Sonata, don’t do something stupid!” she hissed under her breath.
A pony of bright blue was easy to pick out amongst the muddy earth tones of the caprataurs and their camp and to Adagio’s sheer horror, Sonata was sitting at the edge of the reservoir, had rolled one of her massive packs off her back and was beginning to unpack food by the basket full. How Sonata had managed to scramble down the steep incline of stone and loose scree wearing those overstuffed saddlebags was beyond Adagio, but there was one thing she knew for sure.
“Lightning!” she hissed again, her fellow would be heros now squeezing into place along side her. “Go stop her before she does something else stupid!”
Lightning nodded, crouching as she started to throw herself off the edge of the rock face. But then-
“Come and get it!” Sonata called.
With the kind of luck that could only strike the very foolish or very suicidal, Sonata had yelled during a lull in the storm’s noise. Every caprataur eye in the camp snapped towards her and the two loaves of bread she was waving like banners in the breeze. In that moment, Adagio was absolutely sure that Sonata was dead. The barbarians were about to descend on her in an unstoppable horde of violence and rage and that would be that.
As predicted, a great cry did rise up from the caprataurs and the horde surged forward. But they didn’t rush forward as one. Those not allowed to partake in the main festivities raced ahead of the others, their cries almost frenzied. The warriors seemed slower to act, more than a few fumbling to grab axes and clubs before half walking, half stumbling down the slope towards Sonata. They looked...drunk?
The first group was on Sonata in a flash though, but to Adagio’s surprise she wasn’t the focus of their attention. Instead they almost pounced upon the repast Sonata had laid out before her, ripping into bread and dried fruit with a mad panic, lest the meal just vanish before they could eat their fill. Soon they were pushing and jostling for position as the crowd formed up around Sonata. She handled it with what could only be called an innkeeper’s grace. She simply dug more food out of her bulging sacks, beginning to pass out pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables now. It was all done with a smile. Sonata even made small talk with the horde of “customers” surrounding her, even if they didn’t seem to understand a word she was saying.
“Hey now! Wait your turn, I have plenty of pickles for everytaur.”
The warriors that had started their journey down the slope stumbled to a stop. They stared at Sonata and her crowd with expressions of pure confusion on their faces. A few even looked back up the hill at a particularly strong looking caprataur- presumably their leader- and gave helpless shrugs. It seemed that as brutal as they supposedly were, they weren’t eager to hack a path through their own to reach Sonata.
Adagio grinned, a horrible idea forming in her mind. “Oh, you brilliant little idiot.”
“M’lady?” Suri blinked.
“Listen closely, I have a plan.”
- - - -
That was the only thought running through Aria’s mind as she bit and chewed at some of the vines securing the side of her prison. Somehow the caprataurs had managed to find the most absolute vile pieces of plant matter to build a cage with in the whole world. Ontop of taste, they were tough vines too. Tough as old, battered leather. Still, she set at it, chewing and gnawing with all her might. Her captors were distracted with drunken partying at the moment, so maybe she could sneak away if she could just get out of this stupid cage!
Spitting a mass of the twisted plant material out of her mouth, Aria winced at another lance of pain surging through her broken appendages. With a groan, she flopped forward, dangling her one good foreleg between a gap in the branches.
Tired. She was growing just so, so tired. Her eyes drifted closed. Maybe it was time to sleep, just a little bit….
“Come and get it!”
Sonata Dusk? No...that was impossible. What would she be doing out here? Clearly, she had to be going mad, her mind wandering back to a pony she saw all the time in the warmth and safety of her home town. But, perhaps out of some desperate desire for her fantasy to be true, Aria opened her eyes. What she saw was without question, a strange sight. One of Ponyville’s top cooks, holding court amongst a bunch of caprataurs.
“...I really am losing my mind.”
A soft screech like call came from above her head. Aria felt her spirits lift as she looked up into the keen eyes of her hawk and the face of a familiar friend.
“Good boy,” she said, smiling at Deathclaw.
“Good boy?” Lightning whispered, somehow keeping mock indignation in her voice. “What am I? Week old oats?”
“You can be whatever you want if you can get me out of here!”
“Wait for it,” Lightning winked.
“Mhahgor ruk karuk!”
The winged shaman had spotted them and was now loping around the edge of the bonfire, brandishing the twisted staff he had used to poke the blaze. Aria recoiled from the raging caprataur recognizing the telltale swirl of magic that was beginning to build around his staff. Worse, the strong and silent leader that had caught her was striding their way as well, uncoiling that thorny whip of his as he went. To Aria’s surprise Lightning paid them no mind, dug a knife out from under her cloak and set to slashing at the vines.
“Lightning Dust! What are you doing?”
Aria’s answer was an explosion. A bright ball of flame erupted over part of the camp, the mass of caprataurs crowding around Sonata throwing themselves to the ground with an all mighty wail of fear. In the next moment, blazing forms came bounding up the hill, fast and low to the ground. At first Aria blinked in confusion but as they rushed into the crowd of drunken warriors, she gave a deep, hearty laugh at the sight.
Timberwolves. Somepony had set fire to the timberwolves and as another gout of flame crackled through the air, turning falling rain to steam, that somepony was herding them right towards gaggle of inebriated warriors.
The flaming monsters careened through the stunned caprataurs in a desperate attempt to escape the source of the horrible fire, knocking them down and aside with ease. Then another woosh and crackling ball of fire shrieked forth. Aria watched it sail over the heads of the warriors, bounce once in the gap between them and the tribal leaders and then smash into the pavilion and feast. There was a mighty secondary explosion as barrels of crude alcohol went up, turning the whole thing into a mighty conflagration.
Complete chaos descended upon the camp now. The leader and the shaman began bellowing orders as the warriors scrambled about, some swinging their weapons at still flaming timberwolves, others bolting back down the incline towards the water storage, still others moaning to the sky at the loss of their food and drink. At least until the beaten mass of other caprataurs- perhaps empowered by energy from Sonata’s cooking- came charging up the hill to throw themselves into a general melee.
The wall of the wooden cage fell away and Aria felt herself picked up by Lightning Dust. As the camp grew more distant beneath her hooves, Aria Blaze came to one powerful conclusion.
Fire was a wonderful thing.
- - - -
Adagio was practically strutting her way through the Everfree forest in the warm afterglow of the rescue. It didn’t even matter how tired she was from what was most likely an all night march at this point. She had orchestrated a daring rescue from a bunch of barbarians and that was something to be proud of, no matter what else happened.
Aria had been transferred to Sonata’s back- and Aria's hawk perched at the top of the stack- while Lightning Dust took the lead as they pressed onward. As tired as the group was by this point, Lightning had insisted they keep going to put as much distance between them and the caprataur camp as they could. She was the only one among the group that was in a cheerful mood, however. Sonata was sulking for some reason and the others were a mix of tired looking, focused or on the verge of nodding off.
Lightning Dust came to a stop, frowning as she looked around. “....None of this looks familiar.”
Adagio’s smile fell. “What do you mean? Shouldn’t this take us back towards the aqueduct?”
“I...that’s what I thought. But none of this terrain looks familiar. The ground we were walking on before was level! Now we’re in another ravine...thing.”
Adagio blinked before taking another look at their surroundings. They had indeed managed to wander into a ravine of some kind, their path now hemmed in by sheer slabs of grey stone.
“So...we’re lost?” Starlight asked, raising her staff a little higher to cast more light in the area.
“No! I marked the path out of that camp in my head,” Lightning shouted. “The only way this makes sense…”
Creaking groans echoed around them, rising to mix with the ongoing noise of the storm to form a true cacophony of sound. And as that cacophony echoed in their ears the trees began to move. Adagio could only watch as the massive trunks shifted all around them, creeping along the edge of the gully they now stood in. It was like they were being circled by a group of predators that would strike at any moment. But as bone chilling as the experience was, almost as soon as it started, it stopped.
“Soooo…,” Suri breathed. “I don’t suppose any pony knows why the trees in this forest move?”
Starlight Glimmer answered. “Bitterroot,” she shrugged. “She created this forest. So she either left some lingering enchantment behind or has a connection to it even while locked away. Those are my best guesses at least.”
“What if she’s not locked up?”
Everypony looked at Aria, who had half propped herself up with her good legs. She managed to shrug with her one good wing. “Chroma was supposed to be stuffed in a sack thanks to the Elements. What if the whole lot of them are running around?”
Adagio shook her head. “Impossible. She was ranting about freeing the others to Queen Chrysalis.”
A horn sounded, as deep and rumbling as the storm over their heads. It was close too. It had to be in order to carry over Chorma’s thunderstorm.
“Look out!” Suri shouted, pointing back the way they came.
Adagio winced as she turned about, drawing her weapon as she went. At the far end of the gully, perhaps a few hundred feet from them, were caprataurs. The crow winged shaman with his staff raised high and glowing with arcane power and light, the thug of a leader and a half dozen of their warriors, and all were riding timberwolves. Some of the wooden wolves still bore singe marks from Starlight’s fireballs, but others were unmarked and the fresh green of a newly sprouted branch. The leader raised his sword, threw his head back in a bellowing cry and dropped his muscular arm in a command of attack. Caprataur and timberwolf surged forward with a chorus of howls and curses.
“Starlight! Fire!” Adagio shouted.
Starlight stepped forward beginning to cast. The shaman cackled in response and threw his staff forward. A jagged black bolt of magic leapt forth and covered the distance between them in a heartbeat. It struck Starlight right on the tip of her horn. She gave a horrific shriek of pain and collapsed to the ground in a heap. Lightning Dust snarled back, taking to the air and firing back with her borrowed crossbow. Despite her earlier claims of the weapon being badly sighted, her aim was true and a blue fletched bolt sunk deep into the shaman’s shoulder. With his own bellow of pain and shock, he topped off the side of his timberwolf, rolling a few times as his fellows charged onwards without so much as a glance back.
“Run!” Adagio shouted, grabbing Starlight and throwing her onto her back.
They took off at a gallop, save for Lightning Dust. She flew backwards, hooking the stirrup of the crossbow over her hind hoof and reloading as she went. They moved as fast as they could, pumping legs and wings with as much power as they could muster. But Adagio knew that they couldn’t outrun the caprataurs. They were loaded down with gear and injured, while the barbarians were riding light and had fresh mounts. If she didn’t think of something and fast, they’d all be back in that cage, facing a dark fate.
Think Adagio, think! she mentally screamed to herself, wracking her brain for an answer. Her eyes roamed over the sheer stone walls around them, looking for a way up or something...anything that could help them.
It was as she franticly searched that something strange happened. Out of sheer, implausible coincidence, a butterfly happened to choose that minute to flutter across her path. She had no idea why she focused on the white winged insect but as she followed it with her eyes, she watched it disappear through a small gap between the stones. An entrance to a cave. One that looked a little too small for a caprataur to squeeze through.
“This way!” she shouted.
Turning, she almost dove through the open gap. Her hooves hit sleek stone on the other side of the opening and she almost slipped on a sharply downward angled slope. Quickly righting herself, she turned and extended her magic towards Aria, who was being gently fed through the gap by Sonata.
“Hurry Dagi! They’re almost here!”
“Got her!” Adagio said, grabbing Aria and stepping backwards at the same time.
Sonata tried to slip through next, only to find herself suddenly stuck. Her still rather full saddlebags were caught on the edge of the cave entrance. She began to flail, eyes wide with terror.
“Help!” she squealed.
“Stop failing!” Suri shouted. “M’lady! Give me some room!”
Guessing what Suri had in mind, Adagio took yet another step backwards, bracing her hind legs as to not slip on the path. It was a good thing too, as Sonata came tumbling forward with Suri, the pair almost tangled together. Outside the cave, there was another twang of the crossbow, followed by another roar of pain. In the next moment, Lightning Dust tumbled her way through the gap in a half stumble, half roll.
“Don’t stop!” she said. “Keep going!”
Adagio nodded, passing Aria back to Sonata as she lead the way into the darkness, the monsters of the Everfree howling in rage behind them.
In fleeing the caprataurs, she and her companions had plunged into the darkness of the tunnel without a second thought of what might lay beyond, rushing along its winding, labyrinthine length in a blind stumble of feeling along rough rock walls. At least until Lightning Dust regained her common sense and called for a halt. Then she had set to wordlessly rummaging in her pack while the rest of them had to wait in this lightless void.
In light of deciding to oppose a mad alicorn with a plan that was, at best, something even Sonata would most likely have called “half baked”, Adagio had started to think of herself as rather a brave pony. Walking willingly into the Everfree Forest, opposing the “local color”. Those were brave acts as well. But as engulfed by the nothing as she currently was, her imagination now seemed dead set on conjuring up the worst possibilities for what might be lurking just beyond leg’s reach. She immediately made a note to learn a light spell as soon as she had a chance and to curse herself out for not doing so earlier.
Giant spiders maybe? Perhaps armored purple worms that could gulp down a pony without so much as a second thought? Or this cave was the home of those undead ponies she had heard rumors about. Or-
There was a sharp snap sound of metal striking stone, their immediate surroundings becoming bathed in light. In the confusion of the darkness, they had wandered into a large cavern, with a vaulted ceiling that seemed about the size of an average pony’s house. There was a gap in the corner of the ceiling through which cascaded in a miniature waterfall, before it flowed through another gap in the floor and the unknown depths beyond. A few jagged tunnels had been hewn into the walls, leading further and perhaps deeper into the bones of the earth. Lightning Dust slipped past Adagio, an iron rod clutched between her teeth. It’s tip glowed, though Adagio didn’t detect the telltale tingle of magic, which meant that it had to be alchemical in nature. Either way it was the source of the warm light that was filling the cave. She stalked forward, sparing Adagio the briefest of glances and head nod. Adagio nodded back.
“Suri? Take Starlight for a moment.”
Once the unconscious form of Starlight had been hoofed off, Adagio advanced once more drawing her weapon as she followed Lightning around the room. She was coiled like a spring and despite the wide open nature of the cavern and the smooth, nearly polished, nature of the floor. Lightning was clearly determined to examine every bit of it, perhaps incase yet more monsters lurked in the shadows; invisible or imaginary.
After some time, Lightning then moved over to the waterfall, craning her neck slightly to cast light through its shimmering cascade. It took a moment or two of examination before Lightning determined whatever it was she was trying to puzzle out and then, with a shake of her head, she tossed the metal rod into the middle of the chamber, where it acted like an improvised campfire.
“Water’s clean. Probably coming in from outside. So, we got air. We got water. It might be getting close to dawn at this point...for whatever that’s worth.” She looked back at the group. “And since we have wounded, this is probably the best camp we’re going to find right now.”
Adagio nodded, her eyelids beginning to grow heavy. The exhaustion and her burns were catching up with her now that the thrill of the chase and the fear of the dark had been expelled. Sonata trotted over to the glowing rod and carefully placed Aria down beside it, before sliding her saddlebags and tent off her back. Humming happily to herself, she set to work raising it, even going so far as to drive the iron anchor spikes directly into the stone floor.
Lightning Dust eyed the spikes as Sonata worked. “Don’t suppose you have anything I can use to make some splints in those bags of yours?”
“Top backpack, right pouch. Wooden ladles!” Sonata responded happily.
“Spoons? Well, at least you’re using good equipment,” Aria responded, dryly as a desert.
“Come on,” Lightning smirked as she dug the improvised tools out of Sonata’s bag. “You’ll pull through. You’re of good stock!” She finished with a wide grin, almost daring everypony to guess the hidden meaning in that turn of phrase.
Adagio blinked then, despite herself, nearly collapsed into a fit of giggles. It was a stupid, stupid play on words, but at this moment, it was the kind of levity she needed. Suri joined in and soon, so did Sonata. For her part, Aria peered around at them with a raised eyebrow and a deep frown of displeasure.
“....I don’t get it.”
“Stock! Like soup stock.” Sonata supplied before animatedly waving a hoof at her ladles. “Because we’re using spoons!”
Aria groaned. “Seriously? Is that what passes for humor with you noble types? Because-”
Another groan silenced Aria’s objection, as Starlight began to stir. “What...happened?” she managed to croak, as Suri slowly lowered her to the ground.
“That shaman managed to hit you in the horn with a spell,” Adagio answered. She examined Starlight’s horn. The tip was blackened by the trauma of the spell, but it didn’t seem to be cracked or otherwise broken. “How do you feel? Can you channel?”
Starlight’s response was a wink and shake of her head. “Maybe...don’t want to try right now though. Sleep now. Horn tomorrow morning.”
Adagio wanted to argue. She could have pointed out that Chroma and her traitorous Rangers had a head start. She could have pointed out that they weren’t sure they had actually lost the caprataurs. But one look at the how exhausted and wounded everypony was and the objections died in her throat.
“Fine. Let’s rest of the night.”
She opted to help Starlight get into her bedroll while Suri unpacked theirs. Adagio had no desire to struggle with her own tent, and as such was surprised to see Suri fighting with its support poles, now that she had unpacked the beds.
“Suri, what are you doing?”
“Putting up your tent m’lady.”
The tent poles promptly slipped out of her hooves as she attempted- and failed- to stifle a mighty yawn. Adagio rolled her eyes.
“Suri, you’re exhausted. I don’t need to sleep in a tent tonight. The bedroll will be fine.”
Suri sat there for a moment before shrugging and letting the tent clatter to the floor. One by one they bedded down for the night...or perhaps the morning. As it was impossible to tell, Adagio supposed that it didn’t really matter. She vaguely considered suggesting a watch system of some sort, but consciousness was already fleeting and she was asleep before her head hit her traveling pillow.
- - - -
Chroma seethed with irritation.
Arriving in Canterlot had gone well enough. Three hundred years ago, the mountain it was built upon was riddled with gem choked caverns and tunnels. Now mostly empty, they had provided an easy means of slipping into the city. But the trip had stirred a bitter set of memories in Chroma’s mind. A mining outpost had once been built on the mountain's slopes and the wealth extracted from the stone had fueled Equestria’s early growth. She had overseen the opening of the initial mines alongside her friend Rarity. Oh, the pride that had swelled in her chest as the carts of gems had been dragged forth! But there had been frustration too. Her friend hadn’t been able to stop nattering in her ear about their luster and shine and how she was going to use them for such a “darling” little toga design she was working on.
At the time, she had rolled her eyes, sighed and pushed the rambling to the back of her mind. But as she had snuck into the city through empty tunnels that once teemed with energy and industry, she found herself pining for the sound of Rarity’s voice. Or Applejack’s simple provincial ways. Or even Twilight’s tendency to get lost in the scrolls and forget about everything else going on. Watching Equestria crumble to ruin on top of that had been sheer agony.
That had been then though. Now with the clarity of another three hundred years on her side, Chroma could recognize those thoughts and feelings for the mere nostalgia of her lost youth. That Equestria had been weak. That Equestria had been challenged by every rival empire and power in the known world. It was only after she and her friends had become powerful, had ascended, were they able to transform Equestria into a true empire!
All of those feelings and memories churned about in her mind while she grappled with every ounce of her self control to not cave in the skull of the fool in front of her.
Flashing Blade was the Grand Master of the Everfree Rangers and his sheer prattling ineptitude spoke volumes to just how far removed from Equestria, The Heartlands really were. Oh, sure, muscle that came from years of plying his trade still rippled under his coat, now dappled gray with age. That same gray bled into his wood brown mane and tail, which were neatly cropped like she’d expect from a knightly pony.
Yet, having been around the stallion for not even half a day yet and Chroma could already see the base, petty, pathetic, gnashgab-
No, that’s not right. That’s a pony who complains a lot. What’s that accursed word I’m thinking of? Fustylug? Lubberwort? She mulled over, while Flashing Blade rummaged in a cabinet. ...I should have my other self ask Spitfire what good slang for an idiot is.
For an idiot he was. Upon her arrival to the good pony’s estate, Chroma was aghast to find that while the leader of this part of her glorious reclamation had trained himself an army of rangers, it was clear to her he had no intention of leading that army anywhere. No polishing his armor, sharpening his weapons and preparing for battle. Instead he had been longing about his opulent home like a slug. He produced a bottle of wine from a cabinet he had been giving his attention to and began to pour. The red liquid sloppily spilled into a jeweled goblet, a few large globs splattering against the lush carpet. Chroma wrinkled her snout at his carelessness, but he came strutting back over to the map of Canterlot pinned on the wall, unconcerned with his sloven nature.
It had been hung under the stuffed head of a greater fire drake. The head’s mouth was twisted back in a horrible snarl of challenge, much like all the other heads and monsters that served as decoration in this sitting room. Here, the grand master seemed content to linger among plast glories.
“There,” he said, tapping the edge of his cup against one part of the map. “The garden between the grand hall and their private chambers. Tomorrow morning, Sombra will meet with his advisors and ministers before coming to the garden to tend it. ...Or at least the roses he planted for that ‘wife’ of his.”
“Why wait for morning? We alicorns might not...well...need to sleep. But it is nice..,” she shook her head. “My point is, why not attack him while he rests?”
“...We aren’t ready. Some of the Rangers from the northern lodges haven’t reported yet. And a few of my local allies seem to be wavering. Not as willin-”
A yellow loop of magic pulled tight across his neck. Eyes bulging in shock, the aging pegasus frantically beat his wings, the instinct to run punching through his alcohol addled mind. Chroma lifted him effortlessly, a grim smile crossing her lips at the strangled gurgle that escaped his.
“Three hundred years. That’s how long I’ve been without my friends. My friends who trusted me to have their backs. I’d ask if you had any comprehension of how long that really is, but I won’t waste my breath. Because ya can’t.”
Flashing Blade was beginning to panic now, frantically clawing at the magic around his neck and kicking his legs. But Chroma kept her grip tight. “So, when I find out that you’ve been dragging your hooves and that you don’t have some very simple things already in place for our armed revolution, it leaves me...well, to borrow words from a friend of mine, peeved.”
A casual flick of her magic sent Blade rolling across the floor, coming to a stop before the grand fireplace of the room. It was currently cold and dead but with a twitch of her eye and another spark of her magic, Chroma had it roar to life again. Flashing Blade looked from fire to alicorn, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
“So, now that we’ve made that clear, we are going to collect these ponies of yours and remind them of their obligations. And you, my dear Grand Master, will fight with the rest or face the fire.”
Flashing Blade audibly gulped before nodding. “Y-yes consul.”
“Good. Now tell me about Sombra’s current guard detail…”
- - - -
Miles away in the Everfree forest, another Chroma stood on a ledge that had once not existed in this place and looked down upon a city she hadn’t set hoof in since the civil war that tore her homeland apart.
While the glory of the old empire was long gone, there was a certain lingering glory to the buildings spread out beneath her hooves. Despite the plant life that choked the wide streets and snakled languidly up the sides of buildings, the marble domes and peaked roofs that poked through the verdant carpet retained a modicum of their ancient unblemished state. Silvery moonlight highlighted buildings and statues alike, for here there would be no summoned storms, no dark clouds to intrude upon the diminished perfection of her old home.
Still, there was something gnawing at her. A tingling sensation that ran right down the back of her neck and made her coat stand on end. Unless she was really wrong, there was a presence here. One that she hadn’t felt in a long time...
Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, Chroma sighed to push her dark thoughts and musings away from her mind. She had soldiers to command. A war to fight. A nation to save. Turning to face Ranger Spitfire and her crew, she set to the task of giving commands.
“We’ll have to search the city thoroughly. The Elements of Harmony used to be kept in the senatorial chambers, but the traitors would have to be completely bereft of their common sense to leave them there.” She flicked a wing, gesturing to the buildings below. “Split up, but not too much. No group smaller than two ponies. Understood?”
They had shouted as one, their voices rising together in a single roar of unity. Like a unit. Like a legion. ...Like friends. Beaming with pride, Chroma raised a wing...only for one of her stormcrows to drop from the sky in a ruffle of wings and shower of sparks. If one of her faithful creations had come to her, something must have gone wrong.
“Report,” she commanded with a nod.
The crow cawed and cackled, speaking in enchanted tongue that only Chroma could understand. It paid to have a network of eyes that couldn’t be compromised by a pony listening in where and when they shouldn’t be. That was a lesson hard learned. But as she listened to the words that flowed from the crow’s beak, a cold, familiar fury began to build in her chest.
“Damned incompetent fools!” she snarled, wheeling about and stomping towards the rangers. Sparks of lightning, white hot with rage, flew from her hooves with each strike against the earth.
Spitfire flared her wings in surprise, but resolutely placed herself between her ponies and Chroma.
“Consul Dash? What's wrong?”
Dimly, somewhere in the depths of Chroma’s mind she was aware that Spitfire was reaching out with genuine concern. But that little voice of concern was overwhelmed by the crackling, electric hum of anger that so regularly coursed through her.
“The traitors escaped! The rangers you left behind weren't able to keep some wounded rabble restrained and now mayor Glimmer is missing as well!”
Spitfire’s brow furrowed as her mind began to sort out the full reality of the situation. “So, that means-”
“That Ponyville is in open revolt!”
“It can’t be!” Spitfire argued back. “They have to know that it’s hopeless. Their only option would be to come here. Are Adagio and her thugs supposed to hobble their way past the caprataurs?”
“Well, what do you think they’re doing!”
Spitfire was shouting now. “Running, obviously! Adagio clearly doesn’t have the drive or spine to last in the nation we’re building, so she’s probably running far away, to set up some petty fiefdom where she can be useless for the rest of her worthless life!”
The fury of Spitfire’s rant was enough to give Chroma pause, despite her own anger. Admittedly, she hadn’t actually ever spoke with the unicorn. Lightning was something of a conversation ender on its own. So she was willing to take Spitfire’s word in regards to the ex-baronesses’ character. But Starlight Glimmer was another matter. The fake Element of Harmony in her office spoke to the mare’s interest in such things. Clearly, she had to be the pony in charge of this burgeoning rebellion, the true mastermind behind all the ponies she had talked into such a farce of a rebellion! Could they really be so bold as to follow her into the Everfree? Considering all of this Chroma juggled her own options before making a decision.
She turned to her stormcrow. “Take the rangers and the flock. Search Ponyville house by house. If you find them, detain them. If they resist, kill them. If Ponyville resists further, subject it to decimation.”
Decimation. The act of culling your own insubordinate ponies for the greater good. There had been a time she had viewed it as an atrocity, conducted by only the most underhooved thugs and petty dictators. Oh, how naive that opinion seemed after the collapse of Equestria. Now she was prepared to do what she needed to do. She also didn’t miss the ripple of nervousness that had ran through the assembled rangers. Even Spitfire.
“Rainbow Dash? Is that-”
“Don’t finish that sentence Spitfire. Don’t. Even. Dare.”
“But-” Spitfire began.
A bolt of lightning struck the ground and inch from her hooves. Her eyes flicked from the scorch mark on the grass to the fleeting wisp of magical power rising from Chroma’s horn.
“No more talk. We have our roles! To action!”
Urged on by their commander, the Everfree Rangers lept off the cliff edge and dove towards the city below. Chroma spared one last look at her stormcrow before nodding and following suit. For its part, the stormcrow watched its master disappear from sight before lazily clacking its beak and flapping its wings to take off again. There was a message to deliver and justice to mete out. But the message would never arrive.
It was a scant foot off the ground when the arrow struck, black fletched and made solidly enough to pierce the arcane flesh of the magically constructed creature. With a strangled caw, in toppled backwards, collapsing into a shower of sparks as it went. And as the last bits fades away to nothing, a pair of angry red eyes watched it do so with a grim satisfaction.
It was time to hunt again.
- - - -
Through the half conscious daze of fitful wakefulness, Lightning Dust could smell food and feel warmth. Slowly she opened one eye, then the other, to see a fire merrily crackling away in the center of the cave. At first, she wondered why and how it was there. A cave was not an abundant source of wood after all. Yet, there it was, complete with cast iron pot hung over it in such a way to be perfectly warmed by the flickers of flame. Some manner of spicy soup bubbled happily away inside, judging by the delicious smells that lazily rose with the steam over the edge of the rim.
A burr of light blue danced just out of the corner of her eye. It was accompanied by a melodic humming, light and airy in its tone. Shifting slightly under her blanket Lightning saw that the source was Sonata Dusk. The earth pony was hunched over a wooden cutting board, working away at a mound of dough, pounding her hooves into the gooey mass before neatly folding it over and kneading it again.
Lightning bristled, wondering how a civilian could have managed to wake earlier than she did. Months and months of Spitfire’s crack of dawn revelries and brutal training had to count for something! The act of running of a restaurant couldn’t be comparable! No matter how early one had to get up in order to do the work.
But as Lightning watched Sonata toil away a certain rhythm to her work became apparent. The slapping of the dough was in time with the humming, almost forming a new cadence to the sounds. She found herself bobbing her head slightly with the improvised tune, until Sonata was satisfied with her efforts and she began to sculpt little circles of the dough. Those were slid onto a flat piece of iron and shoved near the fire to cook. Seemingly satisfied with her efforts, Sonata Sat back on her haunches with eyes closed. It was a strange thing to do with food cooking away. But every time Lightning thought biscuits or stew was growing close to burning, Sonata would open her eyes and make a slight adjustment. A stir here, a shift of the plate there. It took a few such repetitions for Lighting to realize what was happening.
“Are you cooking by ear?” she exclaimed.
Sonata opened her eyes. “Well...yeah. Doesn’t everypony?”
Her tone was so simple and straightforward, as if the idea of having one's food talk back to them wasn't completely insane. Lightning rolled her eyes. “No Sonata, it isn’t common for ponies to listen to their cooking. We have to follow recipes and recommended cooking times.”
“Oh,” Sonata blinked. “That sounds horrible! Like you’re blind or something.”
“The rest of us will just have to deal with that fact I suppose.”
A mighty yawn rose from the lump that was Baroness Dazzle. Her blanket wraped form quivered for a moment before the whole mess was thrown aside and the noble bolted upright in a sudden, jerky motion. For a moment, she looked around the cavern, blinking blearily at her surroundings. Lightning Dust smirked back at the baroness, waving a hoof at her.
“Morning m’lady! We have biscuits.”
Adagio took a deep breath, letting the smell of the cooking dough fill her nose. “Mmmm. Is that a hint of honey I smell?”
“Did somepony say honey?” Starlight Glimmer asked, now awake herself. “I love honey.”
“You’re up and about pretty fast, considering..,” Adagio waved at Starlight’s horn.
Starlight shrugged. “I’ve always been a fast healer.”
The rest of the group was stirring now and as Aria woke, Sonata bustled over and began to poke at her splint wings and leg. Aria’s reaction was predictable.
“Hey! Stop it!” she shouted, flinching away from Sonata’s pokes and prods. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“I can see if they’re less broken!”
“Well, they’re not! It’s been a day!” she looked around the cavern, illuminated by sunrod and cooking fire. “...I think. Stupid underground.”
Sonata shrugged and returned to her cooking while everypony began to crowd around the fire, bellies already grumbling at the thought of breakfast. The chef dished out her carefully constructed repast and the group tore into it with gusto. It was a practice that Lightning was familiar with from her time in the Rangers. Hard work just had this way of building up and appetite and they had practically walked through Tartarus last night. She had a feeling that Sonata was aware of that fact more than she let on, for the soup they dined on was more of a stew, chock full of vegetables and grains. Almost a perfect marching strew, really. But her musings and the silence of eating were both broken by a question proposed by Aria.
“So...where are we going now?”
“To Roam,” Adagio answered. “Just like before. That's where the Elements of Harmony should be.”
“Okay…,” Aria frowned. “But how? We’re underground and I don’t think we can backtrack. I don’t want to take a chance with those caprataurs again.”
Lightning twisted about slightly to peer at the tunnels that surrounded them, before looking back at Sonata’s fire. The flames flickered and danced, almost tousled by invisible hooves. “We have a breeze,” she pointed out, gesturing to the fire. “That means air is moving through these caves. One of them should lead back to the surface. We can work out the direction to head from there.”
“Sooo...wander around and hope for the best?” Aria snorted.
“Please. The technical term is scouting.”
Aria rolled her eyes. “Right…’scouting’. So we just scout around and hope for the best. Do we even know what we’re looking for?”
“I know what we’re looking for!” Starlight shot back. “I’ve studied Roam and ancient Equestria extensively.”
“Ancient?” Adagio blinked. “It fell three hundred years ago. It’s not like those legends of Marelantis.”
“And what’s the plan for dealing with the pony who broke my wing?” Aria asked frowning even deeper now.
“We find the Elements of Harmony, right?” Suri supplied. “And then those let us blast her with magic or something.”
“Seriously?” Aria gaped. “Just...blast her with magic? I…. You have no plan! We’re opposing an alicorn without a plan!”
“But she’s vulnerable now!” Starlight argued. “I saw her split herself into three different versions of herself.”
“Do you actually know she’s any weaker?” Aria snapped back. “Or were you just grasping at straws out of fear?”
Starlight sat up a little taller, stomping a hoof against the ground. “I came up with the best plan I could at the time! Chroma is afraid of the Elements! You didn’t see her reaction when she saw the one she thought I had!”
“You’re right! I saw what she’s like in battle when she almost killed me!” Aria shook her head, her eyes nervously flicking from pony to pony. “Maybe we should turn back? If we make the right kind of deal with Chroma, she’ll let us go, right?”
“You didn’t see her with Spitfire in my office,” Starlight frowned, practically hunching over her soup. “She is not the bargaining type.”
Aria’s eyes snapped back to Lightning Dust, her one good wing flaring in a challenge. “Your group signed up with her? They had to be getting something out of it! Why are you even here?”
Lightning beat her own wings once, shooting her own nasty glare back at Aria. “I am loyal to The Heartlands! Just because I’m a Ranger doesn’t mean that I’m going to just go along with following a madmare!”
“Wellll…,” Sonata said, lightly rolling her eyes. “You did say you could understand why they did what they did. So it can’t be entirely crazy for you, right?”
Lightning swung her head around to glare at Sonata. “That doesn’t mean I want to rebel! I just wanted Chrysalis and Sombra to support us more!”
“They support you plenty!” Starlight shouted back. “They gave you a massive piece of land for your own personal fief! A perfectly good farm could have gone there to support a family!”
“Right until the caprataurs came and burnt it down!”
Now Suri jumped into the fray. “Really? I’ve seen the amount of time Canterlot pours into military training. They don’t just sit back and let whatever creature do whatever they want!”
“Could have fooled me!”
Everypony’s heads immediately swung towards Adagio. Her eyes were closed, like she had been lost in deep thought while the rest of them had bickered. “I will not roll over and accept that insane pony as my ruler and I won’t just sit back and accept mindless pining for a nation that was dead before these pony’s grandparents were born!”
She snorted, opening her eyes as she did. Lightning couldn’t help but notice that they seemed to blaze with the same intensity she had shown in the healing house. “You hear this talk flit around the Canterlot courts sometimes. Usually when some noble is trying to suck up to Chrysalis and Sombra. ‘Oh, your majesty, what a horrible tragedy!’, ‘I’m deeply sorry for your loss your majesty.’! It’s pathetic, pining over past glories that aren’t even relevant to our lives anymore.”
Lightning Dust could only stare after that sudden outburst and she wasn’t alone. Everypony seemed at a loss from Adagio’s sudden burst of passion. At least until Starlight Glimmer opened her mouth.
“You can’t be that dismissive of Equestria, Adagio. It was one of the world’s greatest nations. It’s art, philosophy, and architecture were without peer! That aqueduct we followed here is centuries old and looks like it was built yesterday!” She sighed, the sudden burst of energy that had come from her outrage falling away. “Like it or not baroness. We’re living among the bones of a greater nation. It’s hard to not wonder what might have been.”
“And what does that matter? Equestria is gone! And because of this damned nostalgia, we’re just sitting around, wistfully thinking about what could have been, instead of fixing our problems and trying to improve our situation!”
Now Adagio grew quiet, focusing on her stew. “The Heartlands won’t get better unless we do something about it. And since- to my knowledge- we’re the only ponies trying to do anything about Chroma...she won’t be stopped unless we do something about her.”
“Wow,” Lightning Dust smirked.
Adagio blinked. “What?”
“That was a nice rousing speech. It’s like you’re being an actual leader or something!”
A chorus of snickers rose from Starlight and Aria, while Adagio rolled her eyes. “Very funny. How about you do your job and scout us a way out of here while the rest of us pack up.”
“Sure thing m’lady.”
“Actually,” Suri said, placing a hoof on Adagio’s side. “Can the others pack up? I wanted to talk to you for a second...privately.”
Lightning watched them walk over to the cave entrance they had entered via, before turning to face the others. Digging another sunrod out of her saddlebags, she picked one at random and headed for it. Time to see what laid beyond the darkness.
- - - -
“What is it Suri?”
Adagio could only watch her servant struggle with what she wanted to say with a slightly bemused expression. Suri could usually be counted on to speak openly. It was one of the reasons that Adagio trusted her to assist in all of the business that came with running a noble house. So the scrunched up expression currently playing across Suri’s muzzle while she puzzled out whatever words she wanted to use was just...well...funny.
“Come on now, spit it out.”
Suri sighed. “Fine. Is it true that Starlight Glimmer offered to buy out my bond?”
In a moment, a half dozen lies ran through Adagio’s mind. That question was one that she dearly didn’t wish to answer. What was there to say? That she had thrown away a perfect solution to both their debt related problems out of...pride? Spite? ...It was probably both, if she was being honest with herself.
“Yes,” she found herself saying, the word tumbling out before she could stop herself.
“Why? Considering some of your money issues, it would have helped solve your problem at least.”
There wasn’t as much anger in that question as Adagio had been expecting. If anything, Suri seemed more puzzled by the decision. Adagio shrugged.
“Well, she did kind of try and use your release as a way to try and blackmail me into passing new anti indentured servitude laws. I couldn’t let that stand.”
Now Suri’s expression fell, a disappointed frown crossing her muzzle. “Oh. Well, that does make sense, I suppose…”
“It’s not the only reason though…,” Adagio muttered, rubbing the back of her neck. “I guess… Stars above, this is hard.”
“I don’t want you to leave!” Adagio snapped. She spun neatly on her hooves, suddenly unable to look Suri in the face. “I...don’t want to be in that manor house alone. Especially now, since I don’t know if Will is even going to wake up or not.”
“Why would I leave though?”
Adagio snorted, turning to face her servant again. “Don’t patronize me Suri. I’ve seen your dresses, your head for numbers and business, the work ethic you’ve developed since Manehattan. I may still not know the whole story of how you wound up in that much debt, but I know one thing.” Huffing slightly, her whole body slumped slightly, misery beginning to set in like one of Chroma’s storm clouds. “You’re too damned talented to stay the assistant of a never was like me.”
Suri gasped and in the next moment Adagio felt her hoof press against her forehead. “Are you feeling alright? Did Chroma do something to you?”
“Suri! Stop that!” Adagio squirmed. “I’m fine!”
“Scorpan’s twisted tail you are! I’ve never heard you talk about yourself like that before!”
“The possible collapse of everything I’ve worked for, my country and Will’s injury has left me...contemplative,” Adagio smiled sadly. “Let’s face it. Despite all my efforts and scheming, I don’t have much to show for it. You and Will are the closest things I’ve probably ever had to friends. And he’s seriously hurt right now.”
“With all due respect m’lady, that is a poor excuse and a poor attitude. I expect better from you, m’kay?” Suri shook her head, chuckling softly to herself. “I mean, you’re talking to a pony who ruined her life by being the kind of ruthless, out for herself pony that you're moaning about being. But then a sassy noble pony bought out my debt and things got better. And the Adagio Dazzle I know isn’t a has been. Especially after your little speech out there.”
She held up a hoof and plowed onward. “And another thing. If you want to make friends, there’s four ponies in the cave here to start making nice with. It is the six of us against the world at the moment. And even if I am freed, that doesn’t mean I’ll leave you right away, m’kay? Everypony knows you’d be lost without me anyway.”
Adagio rolled her eyes, but reached a leg over and yanked Suri to her side. She winced as some of her burns flared up again from the close contact, but didn’t let go. “Maybe.”
Suri raised an eyebrow at the leg resting on her withers. “...You’re being rather affectionate too. Are you sure that you’re alright?”
“...No...I’m probably not alright,” Adagio answered with a slight smile. “Chroma...just something about her got to me. I’ve never felt so powerless before in my life. And that includes...well, that night. With my parents.”
“And you realized how powerless some other ponies felt next to you?”
“Started studying philosophy have we?”
Suri gave a sly tilt of her head, “I prefer to call it deduction.”
“Hey, everypony!” Lightning Dust announced having returned from one of the caves and she was wearing a massive grin on her face,“I found the road!”
Adagio and Suri looked at each other for a moment before looking back to Lightning. “What?”
- - - -
Lightning idly waved a hoof at the near immaculately constructed road. Save for a jagged slice at the beginning, where the current stretch seemed to have been severed from the rest, it stretched down the winding tunnel as naturally as if it had been built here. In fact, to Lightning Dust’s admittedly untrained eye, it really did look like the builders of Equestria had decided to just build a road in the middle of a cave.
Adagio and Starlight, being the noble and the academic of their little band, were already wandering to and fro over the stones, examining them with an intensity that bordered on obsession. She, Aria, Sonata and Suri just watched this display with a mixture of bemused, confused and annoyed expressions. Through Aria’s annoyed expression might have had something to do with her holding the sunrod at the sametime. After a few more minutes of examination and searching Adagio looked up from the road and fixed Starlight with a quizzical expression.
“Well..,” Starlight mused, rubbing her chin. “Roam wasn’t just the city. It did have a lot of villas, farms and little villages around it. And I know that some of those villages were sites of battles during the war. They would have been swallowed by the Everfree too...and I guess that with the layout of the forest always shifting around, one of those towns could have been buried.”
Lightning trotted forward, squinting into the darkness beyond the boundary of their light. “I suppose we won’t really know until we look deeper, will we?”
Adagio grimaced, the experience with the caprataurs clearly still running through her mind. “Starlight? How up to casting do you feel?”
Starlight rolled her eyes up towards her horn. It was still a bit charred from the caprataur spell strike, but at a thought and a little concentration, it was engulfed in her normal magical aura. She held it for a moment, letting the magic scintillate up and down its length for a few cycles before releasing the channel.
“I think I’ll be okay. Though if things get intense-”
Adagio nodded. “Then we’ll have to be careful. Everypony stick together and watch each other’s backs. Lightning?”
“Up front. Aria, you’re wounded, so you stay in the middle.”
Aria grunted in response while Lightning slipped up to the head of the line. The group set off again, cautiously, as light from alchemy rolled the curtain of blackness back a step at a time. For a while they advanced with nothing more than the sounds of their hooves clacking against the well maintained stone. It was difficult to maintain a sense of travel time when underground, but by Lightning’s reckoning they had walked quite a while before the first glimmer of something besides an unending stretch of tunnel. A mile marker was the first thing their light spilled over. Square and blocky, it rose out of the ground like an overly ordered stalagmite, its sides marked with the blocky letters of Roaman style Equestrian.
Starlight was on it in a moment. “Centum Cellae,” she read, immediately perking up. “Ah! I’ve heard of this town! It was mostly an artist community. Did a lot of public works in Roam, especially for the senate.”
“Oooo! I love art!” Sonata grinned. “Maybe we can grab a piece or two while we’re here?”
“From who?” Suri remarked. “Are you expecting to find a working market in there or something?”
Lightning perked up with a sly grin. “Oh! Maybe! Maybe the whole town is still populated? The descendants of the original inhabitants, who are now these pale, shambling things that feed on blind cave fish but that’s starting to get boring and now really want to give succulent pony flesh a try! And then they’ll ambush us when we explore the place and chase us, then somepony will trip and then BLOOD!”
On the “blood” she flopped over onto her side. Making exaggerated gagging and choking noises, she thrashed her legs about as she “died”. She knew full well that everypony was staring at her. That was the point. Aria and Starlight rolled their eyes. Sonata and Suri looked confused. Adagio just frowned.
“Lightning,” she asked, voice deadpan. “Do you listen to yourself talk?”
“I actually make a point to avoid that whenever possible m’lady.”
Aria snorted, while Adagio shook her head. “That explains so much,” she muttered.
Lightning didn't miss the smirk she tried to hide though.
Moving passed the way marker they begin to enter the outskirts of what had once been a prosperous town. The ancient buildings in all their finery remains surprisingly intact despite the passage of time. While the domed and peaked roofs have merged with the rocky ceiling in places The columns and walls that supported them remain strong and covered with the works of its previous citizens.
As Lightning Dust lead the way she couldn't help but admire the statues and frescoes that surrounded them. They were tapestry of life before the fall of Equestria and the likes of Chroma and her ilk showing daily life in the former empire as well as scenes of triumph and glory from wars and diplomacy alike. The Great Road they had followed here snaked its way through the middle of the town and it they continued to follow winding through the rows of buildings and statuary alike.
“It really is amazing. Some of these pieces look like they're still being maintained,” Adagio said her eyes alight and she observed a statue of a mighty alicorn. “Is that?”
Starlight Glimmer- now their primary source of light as she carried the sunrod- eyed the statue as well. “Luster? Probably. She was Equestria’s primary patron of the arts. Even tried to keep it going after she went mad.”
“And how did that work out for her?” Aria frowned.
“She was the first to get sealed away.”
“Ha!” Aria beamed.
Lightning Dust chuckled herself. “You know, I’ve heard about suffering for your art, but I don’t think that’s what Luster had in mind.”
Adagio chuckled and- much to Lightning’s surprise- managed to smile in a way that didn’t look completely sinister. “Oh, I don’t know. I sat for many a family portrait when I was a foal. I remember them being particularly horrific.”
“You’d choose magical imprisonment over posing for a painting?” Lightning asked, eyebrow raised.
“I’d rather debate the finer points of ancient Equestrian agricultural law with King Sombra than pose for another painting,” Adagio snorted.
Everypony chuckled at that, save for Starlight Glimmer. “I don’t get it. Ancient Equestrian agriculture was fascinating! We still use half the techniques for field rotation and crop enhancement they came up with to this day!”
Starlight stared at Aria. “What?”
“Egghead. That’s you.”
“...Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”
“I don’t know too many other ponies who’d actually find old scrolls and books about farming, interesting.”
“Uh huh…,” Starlight frowned. “And what’s the difference between a stratocumulus and a stratonimbus?”
Aria pouted, her one good wing flaring out in the usual pegasus challenge. “That second one isn’t even a real cloud! It’s a nimbostratus, and weather is a completely different thing from farming!”
“Not completely different,” Lightning grinned.
“How?” Aria’s eyes narrowed.
“They’re both boring.”
The group shared another round of laughter, this time save for Aria, who sputtered indignantly. At least until Lightning threw a leg over her.
“Ugh,” Aria groaned, rolling her eyes. “You’re the worst Lightning.”
“You love me and you know it.”
The road chose this moment to hook a right hoofed turn, breaking between a pair of sturdy looking government buildings. Lightning held up a hoof for everyone to halt, before creeping forward to peek around the corner. The road ran on ahead for a few dozen more paces before passing through an archway in a high stone wall. It had merged with the ceiling at some point in the past, now effectively forming a cave within a cave. But like most of the buildings in this long abandoned town, the walls were covered in murals. These ones mostly depicted ponies engaged in making artwork of their own; painting and sculpting mostly.
“Well, that looks nice and homely,” Lightning muttered. “Hey, Starlight? I need your egg head for a moment.”
“...I’m never going to escape this nickname, am I?” Starlight grumbled, trotting forward all the same.
“Probably not. But do you know if this town was supposed to have any painted forts in it?”
“Forts? No, nothing like that.” Starlight joined Lightning, likewise peeking around the corner. “No, I’m pretty sure that’s the art academy. Training young minds and all that.”
“Well, that’s the only direction for us to go. I can’t wait to see what they were working on!”
- - - -
Whatever glory the academy once held was now long, long past. Compared to the rest of the town, it seemed to have suffered from far more neglect and in some cases outright vandalism. The hallways were choked with dust, cobwebs and the shattered remains of statues. Horrendous curses, insults and furious damnations against Luster and her fellow alicorns had been scrawled upon the walls, to the point where the frescoes beneath were barely visible anymore.
“Wow,” she muttered at one particularly graphic piece. “I didn’t even think you could do that with a gladius… Maybe if you used the grip side-”
Adagio whipped her head about, fixing Lightning with a glare that could have frozen Chroma in her place. “Don’t even think about finishing that.”
“What? It’s true!”
“What did I say about you being ‘the worst’?” Aria growled, sparing a moment to peek into yet another room they passed. “Another studio. This one’s full of half carved black colored rock. You know, instead of the white rock in the last room.”
“It’s almost like this was an art academy or something,” Starlight smirked.
“I guess I was expecting there to be more besides rocks.”
“Wood, paint and canvas wouldn’t last three hundred years without pony care. So metal and stone is probably about all you’re going to find at this point,” Starlight commented, waving a hoof at the hallway. “That’s why the frescoes are still here. They’re painted directly into wet plaster so that when it dried, the paint was locked in as well.”
“Doesn’t make looking at a bunch of rocks anymore interesting!”
Pressing onward, they came around a corner into a different, wider hallway. It was short though, more of a foyer than a true corridor. Here the frescoes depicted gardens and other scenes of natural splendor, before the mini-corridor opened up into what looked like a truly massive chamber that stretched far beyond the range of their light. Lightning advanced to the edge of the new cavern and waited for a moment, straining her ears for any sound of movement.
At first, she heard nothing save the soft breathing of her friends. But then in the distance came a slight...was that a tune? Her ears pricked up as she strained to listen more. Had music really been what she heard? Again, there was silence at first before the sound of music returned. It was a series of plucking, string like tunes. Maybe from a harp? Something like that at least. A quick glance back at the rest of the group told Lightning that they had all heard it too. Silently, those that had their weapons, drew them before advancing as a group again.
Their light rolled back the darkness head a bit at a time, revealing more and more of what once must have been a lovely looking garden. The topography was all there, now battered and decayed from the passing centuries. The empty bed of a little stream curled lazily off to their right, before dropping into a massive open hole that was once a lake of some kind. Every step they took kicked up dust from a carpet of crumbled grass and picked their way past half crumbled stone benches. The music grew louder as they advanced, settling into a light, airy tune that seemed to swirl and dance around them much like the dust clouds that billowed around their hooves.
“This must have been open to the sky at one point,” Starlight mused, looking above their heads. “At least before the town was buried.”
“How can you think about that when we don’t know what’s making that music?” Aria growled.
“It’s just music Aria,” Starlight frowned. “It could come from any number of sources. Remember, Luster used to patronize this town all the time when she was active. It could be some enchanted thing she created.”
“And you’re not worried about that, considering Chroma?” Aria glared back.
Lightning frowned. Aria’s accusation really got under her coat for some reason. It was just music after all. “Come on Aria,” she said, keeping her usual cheerful grin in place. “Not everything alicorns make is inherently evil. Look at what Sombra and Chrysalis have done. I’ve even heard that Celestia, Luna and Cadance have managed to not suck entirely in their kingdoms.”
Aria lapsed into silence remained locked in a fierce glower.
“Oh! Look!” Suri suddenly called out, pointing at a spot on the ground. “Is that gold?”
Lightning followed Suri’s outstretched hoof to a spot among the sea of ash. There was indeed a golden coin glittering among the grey. And another beyond that. And yet another past that one. She rushed forward, almost skipping as she began to follow the trail. It was vitally important that she find out where this gold had come from.
“Come on!” she shouted.
Up ahead, the empty river bed doubled back across the grounds, a quaint looking bridge arcing the expanse. Lightning could already see more glinting as the light began to creep across the bridge, so she didn’t even wait, leaping the distance in a heartbeat with the help of a flap from her wings.
What she saw made her heart soar.
Sure, there were mountains of gold and treasure piled around the area in a loose ring. But they seemed almost secondary to what was in the middle of the “clearing” they formed. The most beautiful marble pillar rose from the ground, while six smaller marble platforms slowly rotated around it, buoyed aloft by delicate pillows of magic. On those platforms sparkled six golden necklaces, each set with a different, ornate gemstone. Their craftsmanship was sublime. The chains looked somehow as fine and as soft as silk threads, but as sturdy as the mightiest boulder. The gems had been cut so well that Lightning didn’t think she could see a single flaw on their surfaces. Magic thrummed from them in such an abundance that Lightning could feel it. Right down to the roots of her feathers. A cheerful giggle escaped her lips and she almost felt like dancing right there and then. They had done it! They had found what they were looking for!
The Elements of Harmony.
“They’re...beautiful,” Adagio breathed at her side. “Chrysalis and Sombra must have hid them here after the war.”
Sonata was prancing in place. “Oooo! They look like a bunch of warm hugs!”
“I knew that rock I bought was a fake!” Starlight laughed. “Not a single drop of magic in it, but I had to be sure. But in the face of these...stars above, why did I even entertain the possibility it was one?”
“So, are we just supposed to take one at random?” Suri asked. “Or is there a way to figure out who gets which one?”
Lightning giggled again and took a step forward-
“What in the name of all the thundering thunderheads in The Heartlands is wrong with the lot of you?”
Everypony turned at once to stare at the furious form of Aria Blaze. She alternated between staring at them in shock and at their surroundings (and all the beautiful treasure) in a mixture of horror and disgust.
“What’s gotten into you?” Adagio frowned. “Don’t you understand? We’ve found the Elements of Harmony! ...Not that all this gold isn’t appreciated as well,” she finished with a grin and bout of laughter.
“You’re all mad!” Aria spat back, waving her good hoof at their surroundings. “There’s no gold here! No Elements of Harmony! You’re standing in the middle of a bunch of bones!”
Lightning shared a look with Adagio and the rest. Then they broke into a bout of laughter, Sonata almost doubling over from the intensity of her giggles.
“Perhaps you’re the one who’s lost it?” Lightning suggested. “I know that the caprataurs were scary, but come on! Gold isn’t skulls.”
Aria didn’t back down though, instead hobbling forward so that she was almost snout to snout with Lightning. “There isn’t any gold here,” she hissed. “You’re all being influenced by something! Think about this! What are the odds that we’d just happen to stumble on the things we were looking for in a lost town that we didn’t even know existed until just now?”
“But the fact it’s lost makes it a good hiding place!” Starlight argued back. “I’d be surprised if Chroma even remembers that this town is here.”
“Maybe if they were in a vault or something,” Aria argued back. “These are just so coincidentally laying right in the path we were already walking. Oh, not to mention, one of us is seeing bones and skulls!”
“Aria-” Adagio began.
Aria interrupted her, shoving a hoof against lips. “Look Baroness. I know that I’m grumpy and a pain in the flank sometimes. And I know that it's weird that we’re seeing different things. But...please,” she winced. “I’m asking you all to trust me and at least be careful. Can’t you and Starlight...I don’t know...do some kind of unicorn thing to check?”
For a moment, Adagio looked ready to spit some horrible insult as Aria took her hoof away. But then she slowly, she let out a deep sigh and nodded. “You’re right. At the very least, there might be something affecting you-”
The music from the Elements rose in a flurry of activity and intensity, like some invisible musician was now plucking at their strings with a new fury. Before she even began to realize what she was doing, Lightning began to run towards The Elements of Harmony. Vaguely, she was aware of Aria shouting something, but it was lost amongst the new chorus ringing in her ears. She was halfway to the Elements and all she needed to do was grab one!
It was at that point that a few things happened in rapid succession. Firstly, she felt something close down on her tail and yank her backwards. In the next moment, a mass of sticky looking white strands impacted into the ground where she had just been. Off balance from the yank, Lightning toppled backwards. It ended up being a lucky accident of timing. For the music cut out at that moment a large illusion spell on the high cave ceiling puffing out with it. Now instead of blackness, Lightning could see a crisscross net of massive spider webbing that choked the stalactites and a large bulk that was beginning to move within.
Landing hard, the wind was forced from her lungs for a moment. This also ended up being lucky, for it prevented her from crying out in shock when she saw that Aria had in fact been correct. Skulls, bones and shattered statues surrounded them, mounded up in macabre piles where the treasure had been a moment before. The bones were from a mishmash of sources. Some looked vaguely canine in origin, while others were clearly caprataurs. Others were even rarer in origin, including-
“Stars above, is that a manticore skull?” Starlight gaped.
Before anypony could answer a new voice rang through the cave. It was feminine, but cold, cruel and almost detached.
“Such polite fresh meat to roam into my parlor.”
Lightning looked towards the ceiling again, her hooves unslinging her borrowed crossbow instinctively.
The webbing quivered once before something crawled out on eight tree-trunk sized legs. The most massive spider Lightning had ever seen, but somehow even worse than she’d expect a spider of that size to be. It’s carapace was a lurid mix of sickly green and bone white, the latter of which couldn’t help but remind her of all the bones that surrounded them. The head, almost comically small relative to its body the size of a small barn, wasn’t that of a normal spider either. The face was flat and squashed. Like a furless minotaur had run face first into a stone wall. Though its mouth remained full of fangs that dripped and glistened while it chuckled coldly again. And perhaps the most maddeningly, it had a mane like a pony. Long and black it dangled light a straight waterfall as the...thing clung to the underside of its web.
Adagio didn’t even need to give the order to run this time. They were already galloping and flying towards the far side of the room.
“Now, now,” the monster chided, almost like a mother disciplining her foals. “It’s not nice to run out on an old woman during dinner.”
With a surprising amount of grace she plunged her eight legs into the bulk of her webbing and began to strum, using the silky strands as an instrument. The tempo struck up this time was faster, and more discordant with sharp plucks that picked and tore at Lightning’s ears.
“I liked your last tune better!”
The spider mare...thing, just cackled as everything around them began to shift into a chaotic mass of different shapes and colors. It was like trying to run through a painting and they came to a sudden halt. Save for Aria. She hobbled ahead, the illusions still not finding purchase on her mind.
A sound like a whip tore through the air and a sticky strand hit Aria right between her wings. Without even thinking, Lightning dove forward, grabbing onto Aria as both were yanked into the air. The world turned into a chaotic jumble of motion, the near sixty feet distance from floor to ceiling gone in a moment, and sound before Lightning found herself coming to a sudden stop. It was a sticky stop as well, with her forelegs stuck to the webbing that had Aria bound, leaving the two of them snout to snout.
“Aren’t you a strong willed one,” the spider chuckled, peering down at both of them, but addressing Aria. She had managed to snare them with a strand of webbing from her thorax, while continuing to play her webbing. “Your brain will be quite the tasty treat!”
“Go buck a beehive!” Aria snarled.
The spider laughed, her rear legs beginning to pull them in.
Then Adagio began to sing. She had picked a slower tune in direct contrast to the discordant tune that the spider had picked.
Alas my love, you do me wrong
To cast me out so discourteously
And I have loved you oh so long
Delighting in your company
“What is that saccharine nonsense?” the spider hissed.
Lightning blinked and spared a glance at the ground. She watched as the mishmash of clashing colors faded away, revealing Adagio and company below. The baroness’s horn was alight as she sang, weaving the song throughout the chamber.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my lady greensleeves?
The spider hissed, her own playing becoming more broken and disjointed. It took Lightning a moment to realize what was happening. Adagio was weaving her own music based magic into that of the spider’s, throwing off her rhythm and timing.
Right on the hooves of that realization, came a wooshing sound followed by a flash of light. Before monster or pony could react, one of Starlight’s fireballs struck the webbing near the spider’s massive legs. She gave a startled and panicked shriek before plunging towards the cavern floor, her perch destroyed. Lightning beat her wings with all her might, shooting backwards from the plummeting monster. Everypony else scattered like ants and not a moment too soon. The massive bulk of the spider almost shook the ground as it hit but, to both Lightning’s shock and horror, a fall of sixty feet wasn’t enough to slay the beast.
“You vile little creatures!” she shrieked, legs failing. “How dare you!”
With another roar of fury, she managed to flip back onto her legs and go scuttling after Starlight. She yelped, dove to the right and rolled behind one of the skull piles as one of the massive legs slammed down where she had been a moment before.
Adagio bolted out from behind a different pile, rapier gripped in her magic. Rushing past one of the spider’s legs, she thrust the blade at one of its joints, eliciting a another cry of anger from it and a small amount of purple ichor. Spider spun about with a speed that seemed impossible for her size and lashed out with a leg, sending Adagio tumbling head over tail into another pile of bones.
“This is bad,” Lightning winced. “And I can’t get my crossbow with my legs stuck to you!”
“You might not have to,” Aria said, looking over Lightning’s shoulder. “I think I see something.”
“Turn around and look up.”
Lightning did just that, spinning in place with a beat of her wings. This close to the ceiling, she could see other things trapped in the webbing. Gold, actual gold, glittered in the strand, along with perfectly carved statues...and a truly massive one of Luster. Fashioned out of gold, silver, platinum and gems, it depicted the alicorn in the rampant position, eyes closed and one hoof extended forward. More importantly it was nearly the size of the beast that had collected it.
“You see what I mean?” Aria asked, with a tone that told Lightning she was grinning.
Spinning around again, Lightning dove towards the ground below. The spider was scrambling towards Sonata, who was rummaging in one of her saddlebags for something.
“Look out Sonata!” Adagio shouted, charging at the monster from behind again.
Just before the monster reached her, Sonata produced a jar of red colored powder, throwing the whole thing as hard as she could. “Saddlebag Spice!”
The jar shattered against the spider’s face, spilling the spices into her eyes. Roaring in pain, it lashed out with one of its front legs in a wild, sweeping motion. Sonata tried to duck, but caught the limb right in her side and was sent flying through the air, and through yet another pile of bones with a cry of pain. Adagio immediately changed direction, rushing towards where Sonata fell while the spider clawed at her inflamed eyes.
Lightning dropped into a hovering position next to Starlight, who had taken refuge behind the same bone pile as Suri had, just as she unleashed another fireball. The sphere impacted against carapace, sending a shower of sparks across the floor and making her roar in anger again, but otherwise producing a quite lame effect. Lightning tapped Starlight on the back with a hind hoof, the unicorn almost jumping out of her coat before turning.
“...You do realize how ridiculous you two look, right?”
“Be quiet!” Aria growled.
“There’s a massive metal statue trapped in the webbing up there,” Lightning explained. “If we can get her to the right spot, can you hit the webs with another fireball?”
Starlight nodded. “I have enough magic still.”
“Where do you need her?” Suri asked.
Lightning glanced back up at the webbing, doing some estimates on her head. “There,” she said, waggling a hind hoof at a spot maybe twenty feet to their left.
To her surprise and before she could object, Suri nodded, grabbed a canine skull from the pile and charged back out into the open.
“Hey!” she bellowed at the spider. The massive monster had stopped clawing at her eyes, having rid herself of the spices. Suri reared onto her hind legs, wound up and threw her chosen skull. It clattered noisily, but rather uselessly against the carapace, but it did catch the monster’s attention. Suri glared at her as she landed back on all fours. “I’ve squashed bugs bigger than you! You couldn’t catch one of us for dinner if we were all tied up already!”
The spider screamed. The spider charged. Suri bolted for the spot.
With her huge size and massive stride, Suri’s head start melted away. Lightning swore under her breath and shot after both as they passed Starlight’s pile. As the spider reared to smash Suri to the ground, Lightning tucked her wings close to her body, shot between the outstretched legs and shouted to Aria.
Aria lashed out, her unhurt hind legs striking the spider right between her eyes. It wasn’t much, making her do little more than take a half hearted swipe at them as they flitted back out of reach. But in that moment, it gave Suri enough time to reach her spot.
“Starlight! Magic!” Aria bellowed.
With another woosh, Starlight let her fireball fly. It streaked through the air, covering the distance in a blink of the eye and impacting into the webs with an explosion. The spider stopped, looking up with wide eyes as the massive statue of Luster began to drop, barely hanging on by a single thread.
She turned to run, only for Starlight to leap out from behind her pile, grabbing at its massive legs with her magic.
“No...you...don’t!” Starlight shouted.
“Yes...I...do!” The spider screamed back, pushing through the arcane grip.
Then a new round of singing rose from Adagio. The baroness stumbled towards the spider, horn glowing bright as the sun, magic flowing over her target in a torrent, even as sweat gathered on her brow. To Lightning, it looked like Adagio was expending a tremendous amount of effort to do...whatever it was she was doing.
You didn’t know that you fell.
Now that you’re under my spell!
The spider froze in place.
The final strand of webbing burned away.
The statue of Luster fell.
It slammed, head first, into the spider’s over-sized abdomen with a sound not unlike a mushy, rotton tomato splattering against a hard wood wall. Suri shrieked and recoiled as a wave of purple icor washed outwards from the ruined remains of the body. A final, rattling grasp, shook the spider’s body, before it slumped to the ground. For a moment, all was silent, save for the occasional soft ping of a gold coin or gem clattering to the cavern floor.
Then with a squeal of joy, Sonata ran forward, almost tackling Adagio in a tight hug.
“We did it Dagi! We did it! We worked together and beat the monster and- Ow! Owie Ow!” she winced, clutching at her side. “That’s an owie.”
Adagio smiled and pulled Sonata into a light hug. “Yes Sonata, we did. You took a real risk with that spice.”
“Says the pony that charged it!” Starlight pointed out, despite the fact she was smiling too.
“While it’s great that we managed to not get eaten...can somepony please get Lightning and me unstuck?” Aria grumbled.
Lightning smirked, waggling her eyebrows at Aria. “You know you love me.”
“...You’re still the worst!”
Lightning chuckled. She hadn’t missed the smirk Aria tried to hide. While she wasn’t sure what Chorma had in store for them, she was sure of one thing as Adagio and Starlight started to unstick her.
At least they could work together.
Once they were pulled apart, she dusted herself off and grinned at everypony. “Onto Roam!”
It hadn’t stopped since Chroma made her appearance. A day and a half of a constant downpour.
“I used to love rain too,” Raindrops sighed.
The jasmine coated pegasus carefully dabbed a cool cloth against one of Iron Will’s many burns. The minotaur’s breathing was shallow, mostly unimproved from when Adagio and Mayor Glimmer had brought him home. The burns looked just as bad too. Then again, Raindrops wasn’t sure that she’d even be able to tell if they had improved. She wasn’t a healer. She was a guard.
“Well…ex-guard now,” she said to herself.
Baroness Dazzle’s vicious admonishment still echoed in her head. As much as she wanted to be angry at being tossed aside, Raindrops couldn’t shake the guilt that twisted through her like so many venom spitting snakes. As much as she wished it wasn’t so, there was no real way to avoid the truth. She and her fellow guards had failed their lord. They had failed their trainer too. All the training, all the drills, all the discipline that Will had worked into them as bodyguards and the minute Chroma had appeared, they had scattered like scared foals. Their attempt to make up for that had been rebuffed as well and now Raindrops didn’t even know where Adagio even was! Aside from “somewhere in the Everfree”.
“Why am I still here? The baroness fired all of us, we’re not under any obligation to stay,” she grumbled.
Despite her grousing, she kept cleaning Iron Will’s burns, trying to ignore the droning patter of Chroma’s endless rage. The bowl of water at her side grew steadily filthier from fluid, mopped up from the leathery patches of skin left behind by the lightning. They formed a spiderweb pattern across his body. Raindrops sighed again. Will’s coat was very unlikely to grow back in those places…assuming he lived. Once her cleaning was done, she looked glanced at the bandages she had removed and wrinkled her snout at their soiled state.
Raindrops threw the dirty rag she had been using aside and trotted for the hallway. She could hear her fellow ex-guards idly chatting on the floor below. It seems that none of them had left yet either. Then again…where would any of them go? She fluttered downstairs with a few beats of her wings before wandering into the main sitting room.
Caramel and Moon Dancer were locked in a game of chess. The fact that they hadn’t done more than exchange a few pawns told Raindrops that they were just as distracted and worried about everything as she was. Sassaflash was laying on her stomach, snout buried in a book that Raindrops wasn’t sure she was actually reading. The sound of pans clanking together from the kitchen gave away Sunflower’s position. He snacked when he was upset, so that was no surprise.
“Who has the extra bandages?” she asked.
Moon Dancer didn’t look up from her chess game. “They’re in my pack. I left it in the dining room.”
Raindrops nodded and started towards the dining room, only to stop at the sound of pounding on manor’s front door. Turning back around, she trotted to the front door and peeked through the peephole. With the gloom of the storm, she could just barely make out the silhouettes of two nearly pony sized figures. Raindrops’ muscles tensed. Who would be paying them a visit in the middle of a storm like this?
“Hey, everypony! We have company! Front and center!”
While they may not have been official guards anymore, training was training and in quick order they came filing into the entrance hall, ready to fight if need be. They took up positions, flanking the doors and preparing to strike. With her fellows ready, Raindrops yanked the front doors open.
“About time. It’s only a torrent out here.”
Raindrops blinked as a pair of ponies in cloaks pushed into the room. As they pushed back their hoods, she could see they were a pair of mares on the younger side, perhaps a year or so from full adult hood. The one on the right was wearing a deadpan expression, her coat a blueish gray color and her silvery mane done up in a pair of pigtails. The lumpy shapes of saddlebags were just visible under her cloak.
Her friend on the left, by contrast, seemed angry to even be here. Her coat was a golden yellow and her mane a lovely rose shade, broken up by an aquamarine stripe.
Raindrops looked from one to the other for a moment before asking a simple question. “You two are?”
“Sugarcoat,” the silver maned pony began. “And this is Sour Sweet. We work for Sonata Dusk. We’re here to check on your minotaur.”
“She’s here to check on your minotaur,” Sour Sweet grumbled. “I just got dragged along.”
“It was better than having you mope around the house till I got back,” Sugarcoat answered before rolling her deadpan stare back to Raindrops. “Where is the baroness’ bodyguard?”
Raindrops frowned. “I met Sonata before Adagio sent her home. Isn’t she a chef? What do you know about tending to someone? I’m not going to let some untrained youngster just go poking at our captain!”
“As I am studying to be a healer, I know a great deal about using alchemical compounds and herbs to effect greater health and well being and considering that I helped mix the healing poultice used on your baroness, you should really stop arguing and let me get to work.”
“Well…aren’t you…precious,” Moon Dancer said after a few moments of awkward silence.
“Moony, just…,” Raindrops sighed, rubbing her forehead. “Take her up to Will. If she wants to help, I won’t stop her.”
Sugarcoat smiled, ever so slightly, as she followed Moon Dancer upstairs. Sour Sweet huffed and took the stairs as well, while her friends wandered back into the sitting room. Raindrops hung back at the door though, holding it open to stare out at the rain choked town. As the downpour continued she saw a few lights from stormcrows zip past overhead and she sighed again. She didn’t want to stay here. She didn’t want to just wait and see if Chroma’s doom was going to come for them all if Adagio failed. She-
A shriek came from upstairs, followed by the sound of hooves pounding back down the stairs. Raindrops turned to see Sour Sweet, her forelegs soaked. “The bath just overflowed!”
Raindrops groaned. “Of course. Chroma’s stupid storm! It must be overflowing the whole pipe system…and probably the cistern as well.”
Sour Sweet gasped. “Oh no.”
“The river,” Sour Sweet waved her hooves. “The rain is already making the ground soggy, but if we’re adding the overflow from the pipes, the aqueduct and the river…”
While she trailed off, Raindrops could already see the implications playing out in her head. Water undermining the walls and other construction that was set on top of the increasingly soft ground, flooding the streets and destroying the pony’s homes. For a moment, she froze, the implications hitting her all at once. But then she shook her head. Sitting in the manor wasn’t an option anymore. She might have failed in her duties before, but she wasn’t going to do so again. Not when the whole of Ponyville was in danger of being washed away.
“Front and center everypony!” she barked out. “We make for the cistern!”
- - - -
The garden had started out as Chrysalis’ idea.
The intent was for her to have something that reminded her of home. A little slice of the life she had before The Heartlands. Sombra had ignored it at first, mostly content to let his wife tend to her flowers and bushes and trees. She liked to work on it in the early morning light, usually while discussing the problems and challenges they’d be facing the next day in the Heartlands. It had been over those morning conversations that Sombra had slowly found himself drawn into working alongside his wife. Not that said development didn’t have its own issues. The great Rose-Petunia conflict of a hundred years ago had managed to completely destroy the garden at the time and resulted in Sombra sleeping in one of the rooms they saved for visiting dignitaries for a few months. Still a legend amongst the current castle staff, it had resulted in the couple coming to an agreement to not discuss each other’s taste in plants, lest they start throwing them at each other. Strange, but every couple had their quirks.
As he neatly snipped off a wilted rose stem his primary assistant and master of schedules rattled off today’s docket.
“Baronette Sunny Days is due for her commendation today. I scheduled it for lunch, so that you can get some more face time with your knights,” Raven rattled off, not taking his dark brown eyes off of the scroll floating in his raspberry colored aura. “Then we have the tax projections to go over for the year, then Gleaming Shield wants to officially go over that crazy proposal-”
“I’m standing right here, Inkwell. My proposal isn’t crazy,” Gleaming Shield glared from Sombra’s other side. “We waste so much time having to call up our bannerponies and their personal forces every time a threat rears its head! I’ve calculated that efficiency will improve by at least thirty percent if we have a professional, standing army.”
“We don’t have the money for that,” Raven frowned, still not looking up. “Not unless our tax output jumps significantly, which is problematic, considering that the nobility seems to just not want to pay their taxes.”
“Which is why I say that we shouldn’t be coddling the louts!” Gleaming snapped back. “They take advantage of-”
“Gleaming, that will be enough,” Sombra sighed, dropping the clippers he had been using into a basket. “For now we’ll have to settle for reminding these ponies about the bonds of loyalty they swore.”
Raven and Gleaming bowed their heads, as Sombra straightened up to leave the garden. But before he could set off, another pony came into the garden. Sombra was surprised to see Flashing Blade. The ranger was dressed in one of his crisper sets of dress uniforms, a dark green jerkin with a fur lined cloak over top. He bowed his head quickly to Sombra as he approached.
“Your highness,” he nodded.
“Flashing,” Sombra nodded back. “What do you need?”
The grandmaster opened his mouth, but hesitated. Sombra frowned. Flashing’s body was tense, muscles coiled under his coat and his legs planted firmly, ready to strike or leap into action. Gleaming Shield noticed this as well, her magic loosely coiling around the hilt of her sword.
“Is something wrong, grand master?”
“...Yes. There is,” a scratchy female voice called out.
That scratchy female voice hit Sombra like a thunderbolt and he turned just in time to catch a heavy hoof strike across the chin. He felt his hooves leave the ground from the impact, the world going topsy-turvy as his body tore mighty furrow in the dirt and the plants, only coming to a stop when he hit the far wall. As the broken stone rained down upon Sombra, he rolled back to his hooves summoning a pair of crystalline swords as he went. His was already leaping towards him, an alicorn he hadn’t seen in quite some time, summoning her own crackling blades of lightning. Sombra swung his blades up to block and their weapons clashed together with an almighty crack of thunder. In the blink of an eye, they exchanged a half dozen more swings to a flurry of sparks and booming impacts.
More ponies came flowing into the garden now. Many were members of the Everfree Rangers but others seemed to have been drawn from the ranks of noble guard. Sombra recognized the crossed whip and knife of the Marquis de Saddle, as well as the gem encrusted hill of Baroness Upper Crust among the lot. While his focus was locked on Chroma, the Rangers unleashed a flurry of crossbow bolts upon him before the knights charged in to assist.
Sombra summoned a wall of black crystal with a flick of his head, the quarrels clattering uselessly against it, while he whirled about to deal with the knights. A heavy stomp of his hoof sent a line of his crystals tearing out of the ground, towards one of the groups. They scattered to avoid being skewered by the jagged shards. No sooner had they been knocked aside, than a shimmering sphere of pink magic sprang up around three of them and Gleaming Shield charged into the fray. What she did next, Sombra didn’t get to see, for Chroma slammed into him at top speed, carrying him skyward.
“You’ve grown soft Sombra! Been enjoying castle life a bit too much?”
“Writing laws isn’t the most active thing in the world,” Sombra shot back. Kicking out with all four legs, he sent Chomra spinning away from him for a moment. “You complained about that enough back in the day.”
Chroma, with only two of her usual colors in her mane, grinned. “We’re both ponies of action, Sombra. Sitting in a throne room is beneath you.” Her eyes narrowed, a small crackle of lightning dancing around them. “Which is why I’ll give you an honorable death.”
“Funny…I remember you saying something similar three hundred years ago…and yet here we are.”
Chroma snarled, beat her wings a few times, and charged.
- - - -
By the time Raindrops had lead her fellow guards to Ponyville’s main cistern, things were already beginning to spin out of hoof. An unending torrent of water was pouring out of the broken section of the aqueduct and into the overflowing reservoir below, which in turn caused multiple waterfalls to spill down its sides and into the street below. From there, it was beginning to flood the streets, joining other streams of water that were flowing out of the nearby houses and the ongoing fall of rain. It was already up to their fetlocks and didn’t show any signs of stopping.
“You’re going to need a really good plan to stop this,” Sugarcoat deadpanned from behind them.
Raindrops rolled her eyes. Both of Sonata’s assistants had decided to come along, despite her objections. Not that they were alone either. A large crowd of the local residents had gathered around the cistern, some milling about in a mixture of fear and confusion, while others formed a bucket brigade of questionable effectiveness. Even using pegasai to dump the buckets over the walls, it wasn’t making much of a dent in the flooding. Sugarcoat did have point though. Stopping an alicorn fueled thunderstorm was a bit outside their ability at the moment…but if they could stop the flood of water into the cistern, maybe, just maybe they could slow things down.
“Moon Dancer, think we can divert that water flow?”
She looked it over for a moment, shielding her eyes against the downpour with one hoof. “It’s possible. The edge of the aqueduct is technically above the town walls. If we were to attach some kind of extension to the edge of the aqueduct, we could have the flow spill outside for now. Of course we’d also need to cover the top of the cistern itself and have whatever we use be resistant to water. Some kind of treated wood would probably be the best.”
Sour Sweet snickered. “Water resistant? Why not use Sugarcoat’s first attempt at making a white sauce. It was so sticky and waterproof it was more glue than anything edible.”
“It was my first time. Just like your first day when you tripped and spilled a whole bowl of soup on a customer.”
“He stuck his leg out!”
“You know, maybe that’s our answer?” Caramel said, giving Sugarcoat a contemplative look. “Think you could maybe mix up another batch of that? We could apply it to the wood and then build our channel.”
“And if the inns, restaurants, and farmers have empty grain sacks laying around, maybe we could pack them with sawdust or anything else absorbent. Stack them up near the river? It would help at least a little.” Sunflower proposed.
“Either way, we’re going to need more hooves than just us,” Raindrops grumbled. She strode forward, pushing her way to the head of the crowd. Rearing up for a moment, she waved her forelegs to grab the crowd’s attention. “Everypony! My friends and I have a plan! But we’re going to need help to get it all done!”
“Ahh, go soak yer head!” a snappy female voice shouted from the bucket line. “We’re busy here!”
Raindrops glared at the pony in question. She was a tough looking one, with a yellow coat and a striking red mane done up in a ponytail. Her leg muscles seemed capable of kicking a tree over, and a bright red apple stood out on her flank. Raindrops rolled her eyes. “You’re also not making a lot of progress. We,” she waved a hoof at her fellow guards, “have another idea.”
“Sorry. Ain’t really in the mood to listen to the lackey of the crazy baroness. Ponyville can handle itself, thank you very much.”
Raindrops looked around at the water soaked streets, before glaring back at the pony. “Do you take me for a wazzock? This town is being swamped!”
“I take ya for something, that’s for sure.”
“Listen, you’re never going to out pace the rain with buckets! We need to build something-”
The rest of her explanation was cut off by the rush of wings and the crackle of electricity. Chroma’s stormravens were arriving in force, taking up their perches all around the cistern’s square. Traitorous Rangers followed along, two of them landing in front of the crowd.
“Everypony disperse! Return to your homes!” a pale yellow mare shouted. “Only those assisting with the bucket line should be out!”
“Go jump in the river Misty Fly!” someone shouted from the crowd. “All our houses are flooding!”
“Then proceed to the second floors of any available buildings, until the storm passes!”
“It’s been raining for over a day straight!Why should we believe that its going to stop?” another pony shouted.
“Yeah!” Apple pony joined in with a new target for her anger there. “How about you go fly off to your master and tell her to stop with the rain!”
Shouts of agreement rumbled through the crowd and Misty Fly took a step back, dropping into a huddle with her fellows. Raindrops could already see the danger bubbling under the surface of the situation. Cowed as the citizens of Ponyville had been by Chroma’s original appearance, now that she wasn’t here, the reality of the situation was settling in. And as the water level rose, so did their fear, which would erupt into anger soon enough. They had the beginnings of a riot on their hooves and while Ponyville might be full of brave ponies, but with the stormcrows, it could turn into a massacre.
“We need to get these ponies out of here,” she muttered to Moon Dancer. “Any ideas?”
“Nothing that won’t make us look like we’re collaborators.”
The huddle of Everfree Rangers broke apart now, with Misty Fly whistling to the stormravens. They advanced on the crowd from all sides, flaring their wings and clacking their beaks angrily. Some ponies recoiled, but others increased the volume of their angry shouts.
“Go back to your homes!” Misty Fly began again.
A mighty crack split the air.
Misty Fly toppled backwards, her eyes rolling up into her head as the shattered remains of a wooden bucket clattered to the ground. The apple marked pony, an expression of raw fury on her face, followed up with a buck, sending another Ranger flying. With her rage breaking, the underlying tension in the crowd exploded. With a roar of noise, half of them surged forward, hooves outstretched towards the Rangers and crows that were the symbols of their torment. The other half took off in a panic, rushing in a dozen different directions in a desperate attempt to escape.
“Crows! Take them down!” Raindrops snapped, already flying towards one.
Her target was surrounded by three angry ponies, who were clearly in over their heads. The crow leapt into the air, kicking out with its hind legs and wickedly sharp talons. As quickly as they had charged, the townsfolk went stumbling back, one clutching at a slash across his chest. Raindrops hit into the crow in the next moment, smashing its bulk against the front of the building it had just hopped down from. There was a rippling tingle that danced along her coat as lightning flowed between her and the bird. Her pegasai weather resistance pushed back against it, her muscles straining as she pinned creature in place.
“You had to be storm born,” Raindrops grunted.
It screeched back, bringing its talons up to rake at her barrel. The strikes mostly clattered against her armor, but one of the talons managed to slip through a chink in the chain mail and dig into her flesh. Gritting her teeth, Raindrops brought her free forehoof around, smashing it into the crow’s head. And then she did it again. And again. Each strike felt like she was plunging her hoof into the depths of a particularly rambunctious storm cloud and much like a storm cloud it burst apart into vapor, once Raindrops had punched it for the seventh time. Panting, she turned, ignoring the burning lance drilling into her barrel. It was probably a flesh wound anyway.
Ponies were scattered all over the square, a few ready to fight again, the others either unconscious or worse. The Rangers and stormcrows were both gone…though Raindrops had no doubt that it wouldn’t be for long. Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet were also gone. …All the better for them, really. Raindrops growled, shooting a furious glare at the apple marked pony, who still looked ready for a fight.
“Thanks for making the situation worse!” Raindrops snapped at her, before looking towards Moon Dancer. “Fall in, the rest of you. They’ll be back with more and we’re going to hold their attention here.”
“Ya’ll ain’t going to fight without us.”
“The name is Apple Bloom.”
“Fine. Apple Bloom. You’re not a guard or a knight and half the ponies that fought with you aren’t standing right now! So if you want to do me some good, you and the lot that can still walk, will get these injured out of here and stay out of our way!”
Wordlessly, the others that could still stand began to sling the unconscious Ponyvillians over their backs and trundle out of the area. Apple Bloom however, did not move. Instead, she began to stack the dropped buckets from the line at her side. Raindrops groaned. “You’re infuriating,” she muttered.
“Ponyville’s my home and I’m not abandonin’ it!”
“Raindrops…we’re going to need the help,” Moon Dancer interjected. Her eyes were scanning the surrounding roofs, which were beginning to fill with crows and Rangers once more.
“…It’s been a pleasure serving with you all,” Caramel said.
“Don’t talk like that,” Sunflower winced.
Chroma’s forces dove for them.
- - - -
The walls of Canterlot Castle shook, the sky above turning brilliant white for a moment as Chroma slammed her hooves together, a blazing bolt of lightning shrieking towards Sombra. He moved just as fast, throwing a circular shield of crystal in front of it. The magical lightning shattered it in a heartbeat, but it sputtered out in a loose collection of sparks. But even as that one fell away, a second blast- fired from Chroma’s horn- hit him in the face. Blinded by the lightning, Sombra felt himself tumbling through the air in a complete free fall.
He mentally cursed, hissing through his teeth at the sensation of crossbow bolts hammering his body. They may not have been able to puncture his flesh, but if Chroma kept softening him up, that would probably change. He met the ground with a sudden jolt, rolled with the impact and came back to his hooves.
“Wow. Sombra…I was just mocking you before, but you really have fallen far,” Chroma chided from above. Opening one eye, Sombra peered through the smoke that still rose from his face. The coat would grow back, assuming he survived this, though that was looking increasingly unlikely. He could see it in Chroma’s face. A mixture of disgust and disappointment was behind that sneer of hers.
Infuriatingly, she wasn’t wrong either. It had been centuries since he had faced down a threat of alicorn level strength. The rulers of Equestria’s successor states had agreed on staying out of each other’s affairs. The lands beyond the inner sea had turned inward since Equestria’s fall. While he remained one of the greatest fighters on the whole of Gallopia, it was measured against mortal ponies with mortal skills.
To his right, Raven was hiding behind one of Gleaming Shield’s bubble shields, while she clashed with Flashing Blade and a group of the attacking knights. Gleaming was fighting with her all, the power of her magic whipping her blade around like a viper. But Raven wasn’t a fighter and Gleaming was thoroughly outnumbered. Where was the rest of the damned Royal Guard?
“I mean, you trained me!” Chroma rambled. “That wife of yours didn’t put up a fight, but I was expecting that from her!”
At once, all other thoughts fell away from Sombra. “…What did you do to my wife?” he growled.
“I gave her what she deserved. Banishment for as long as you inflicted upon my fellow consuls and tried to inflict upon me!” she spat.
Well. That was that then. With a cold fury he sprang into the air again, this time summoning four different crystal blades with a thought. Two he sent flying two different directions, while the other two he threw straight ahead. Chroma conjured her own lightning ones to counter. As the magic swords whistled through the air and around each other, clashing and sparking against each other, Sombra mentally reached out for another kind of magic.
A purple haze settled around his horn, which grew curved and wicked sharp. Shuddering, his teeth followed suit, reshaping into fangs. It was always a vile experience, to call upon dark magic. The miasma of the power was sickening, like drawing water from a tainted well. Sombra likened the reservoir of power to a dark ocean that hid just behind reality.
A single flap of his wings shot him towards Chroma, who raised her forehooves in a defensive gesture. Less than a foot from her Sombra pushed his enchantment into its second stage. His body exploded into a billowing cloud of shadow, snaking around Chroma like a dozen whips. Then, just as quickly, he reformed on her flank and drilled a powerful kick right into the ribs. This time, Chroma was the one sent smashing into the ground, punching through a half dozen Gladiolus plants in the process. Without missing a beat, Sombra focused his magic, whipping a jagged crystal spike after her. The improvised lance hit right at the midpoint of Chroma’s right wing before digging deep into the earth beneath her.
Sombra took the momentary breather to soar higher, clearing the castle walls. Chaos was reigning in Canterlot, with birds forged from lightning clashing with pockets of guard scattered across the city. Setting his jaw, he flipped over, diving straight for Chroma with his hooves outstretched. But it seemed that he wasn’t the only alicorn who could pull off tricks with light. Just before he impacted, Chroma fell apart into a swirling mix of red and orange light. With a grunt, Sombra followed suit, once more becoming a roiling mass of shadow. For the next few moments, the swirling masses of magic that they had both become thrashed and grappled with each other forming an undoubtedly spectacular light show. But, more importantly for Sombra, being so close to Chroma’s magic allowed him to get a better read on her power. It was fractured and split, with vague lines flowing off beyond Canterlot towards Ponyville and the Everfree. At once, it became clear what Chroma had managed to do to herself.
Opting to change tacts, Sombra broke away from her. A quick channel sent a crackling ball of fire at Chroma. Sure to Sombra’s bet, she snapped back into a solid form, lest the detonation scattered her ephemeral body. This was what Sombra had been counting on, already winding up a second pair of spells right behind the first one. All throughout the courtyard, shards of his black crystal pushed their way out of the ground, wrapping around the hooves of Flashing Blade and his ilk. Almost simultaneously, a dozen jagged crystal lances popped into existence and plunged towards Chroma.
She manifested a shimmering arc shield of rainbow light around her, a few of the crystal lances crumbling against its surface. A few more managed to slip past, digging into her body. Chorma reared up, gritting her teeth as a nimbus of lightning grew around her horn. Sombra took the moment to charge forward, swinging a crystal blade at Chroma’s throat. She countered with another sword of lightning but found herself thrown even more off balance as Sombra pushed forward with muscle and magic. Before she could recover completely, Sombra slammed a hoof against the ground, sending a surge of magic into it. Empowered by his earth pony side, the power flowed through the dirt, mixing with the land’s natural power before erupting back forth directly under Chroma. The resulting spire of black crystal punched up and straight through her body in a goreless shower of light.
“Still think that I’ve fallen far?” Sombra sneered.
“Maybe not,” Chroma coughed. Her body was beginning to fall apart now, collapsing back into the magic from that spawned her. “But you’re not going to stop me. “Once I get my friends out…we’re…coming….”
Whatever other threats Chroma intended to make were lost as she collapsed completely. Red and orange spheres rose into the air before shooting off over the horizon faster than the eye could track. For a moment, everything was quiet while the rebellious knights and rangers considered the implications of their next move.
“Sire,” Flashing Blade began. “May I be the first to say-”
Sombra’s right eye twitched and a hoof sized lump of crystal smacked itself against the Grand Master’s head. He slumped to the ground with a pitiful moan, while Sombra turned to face the rest of the wretches. With a little more magic, the crystals at their hooves grew and encased the whole of their bodies, stopping at the base of their necks.
“Here the lot of you will stay until Canterlot is secured and those still loyal to the crown can take you to the dungeons,” Sombra stated, letting the dark magic go. Slowly, his horn and teeth returned to normal, the miasma of darkness fading away. “Gleaming, you are with me. We shall rally the royal guard and the forces of those nobles still loyal to us and retake the city.”
Gleaming Shield bowed. “Of course, your majesty!”
“Raven, I want missives sent to every city within the land. Warn them of the situation and the treachery of those involved.”
“Of course…but what of the queen? She was in Ponyville…”
Sombra grit his teeth. He dearly wished to march for the town at once and find a way to undo whatever evil Chroma had unleashed upon it. But every fiber of his military training told him the sheer foolishness of leaving his capital under attack while he went gallivanting about. Regain control of Canterlot first, then push onto Ponyville.
“I know where she was. But my orders stand.”
“As you wish.”
They set off with haste, leaving the ponies who had failed in their assassination attempt to contemplate that fact. After many long minutes of silence, one spoke up.
“…I think I have to pee.”
- - - -
Raindrops grunted as she hit the cell wall.
The Battle of Ponyville had gone poorly, despite the best efforts of her and her friends. They had fought hard. With everything they had, even managing to fell a good half dozen of those damned stormcrows in the process. But the numbers of them and their ranger allies had overwhelmed them in the end. Raindrops winced as she slowly sat upright, a chorus of ugly, purple bruises beginning to already show through her coat. She supposed she was lucky that they weren’t in a killing mood at the moment.
Her friends were locked up in a pair of cells across the way, Moon Dancer throughly unconscious thanks to a powerful kick from one of the stormcrows. Another grunt filled the cell as Apple Bloom was roughly tossed in after her. The moment she hit the floor, she was already jumping back to her hooves, charging the bars as the rangers slammed them shut.
“Don’t you walk away from me!” Apple Bloom shouted. “Open these bars and fight me like a real pony! One on one, without your damn birds to pull ya out of the fire!”
One of the rangers snorted back at her. “Oh, give it a rest Apple Bloom! This temper bit of yours got old years ago!”
“You’re gonna yell at me for my temper Spring Burst? You stabbed us in the back you snake! And you hit me when my back was turned! After all those years I gave ya extra cider for the Rangers too! At cost!”
Spring Burst turned away from Apple Bloom and towards a half recovered Misty Fly. “Did that stupid bird we sent after Consul Rainbow Dash get back yet?”
“It did not,” she grumbled, rubbing at her head.
“See if you can get a few more to try and make contact with her! This is getting out of hoof. We can’t lock up the whole town in here if they decide to riot!”
“Fine! I’ll go tell the bird brains!” Misty Fly grumbled. “I can never tell if they can understand us or not…” She turned and trotted off, leaving Spring Burst to give Raindrops and Apple Bloom a scornful glare before following after.
Apple Bloom looked ready to try and bend the bars open, but Raindrops flopped backwards onto the lightly padded bench. For now, her part in this little war was done. She just hoped that Baroness Dazzle’s efforts were actually making some kind of headway. Grunting, she rolled onto her side and let herself try to get some sleep. It would at least pass the time.
With the tunnels of Centum Cellae behind them now and no caprataurs chasing them, the Everfree forest quickly sank into monotony for Adagio. The endless sea of trees became just so much of a blur to her mind, all sense of time and direction lost under the dark skies and green canopy. She glanced down at her attire. The rain cloak was beginning to get saturated, even its water resistance being sorely tested by the storm. The simple traveling dress she was wearing underneath was ripped and torn in places from the battle below the earth, and splattered with mud from travel. Adagio couldn’t help but chuckle. Oh, if only the Canterlot crowd could see her now! They’d probably gasp at how uncouth and barbaric she looked.
Canterlot. She wondered how it was fairing? Normally, she would have every confidence in King Sombra to hold the city. But Chroma had banished Chrysalis with ease. What other tricks did the mad alicorn have at her disposal?
And what of Ponyville? Starlight’s plan had been the best one available. But the fact remained that they had been forced to leave the town behind, effectively leaderless in a crisis. Would they be able to handle the situation? Or would they return to a destroyed town?
Adagio began to trot a little faster.
- - - -
The Everfree seemed calm now. Adagio wasn’t entirely sure why. Maybe it just seemed more normal after escaping a giant, monster spider and the claustrophobic underground tunnels? Or maybe this part of the forest really was just not as monster infested as the rumors said it was? Either way, as the group continued to follow Roam’s ancient road system, they found themselves unmolested and the path unblocked. It was actually relaxing in its own way, despite the fact that Chroma was still out there, somewhere.
The rain had moved from the chaotic lashings that surrounded Ponyville to a steadier and perhaps softer chorus of pitter-patters. Somewhere, out of sight, a group of frogs were basking under the precipitation and croaking happily. Together they formed a sort of symphony of nature. If this kept up for the rest of the way to Roam, it might actually be a pleasant trip. Speaking of which…
“Lightning Dust, is there any chance you could scout ahead a little?” she asked. “We’ve been walking for a while now…”
Lightning sprang into the air, disappearing into the branches a moment later. Adagio watched her go for a moment, before deciding that now was a good enough time as any for taking a short walking break. While it was still difficult to get a read on the time of day due to the storm, it did feel like they had been going for quite a while already.
“Take a break. At least until Lightning comes back.”
Everypony slid their packs off for now, clustering under one of the larger trees just off the road that provided some shelter from the storm. Sonata took the opportunity to pass out some more of her dried snacks.
“Make them count everypony,” she smiled. “I’m actually starting to run low. Those caprataurs can really eat! We’re probably going to be grazing on the way back.”
“Can’t we be lucky for a change and have the Elements just teleport us back or something?” Aria grumbled.
“Pretty sure they don’t work that way. At least there’s no record of teleporation being one of the powers of the Elements,” Starlight mused, rubbing her chin. “Everything I’ve read has talked about…sealing, really.”
Aria raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t that make them big magical jugs that you shove evil into?”
“That…that is a gross oversimplification!” Starlight sputtered.
“But jugs are useful!” Sonata smiled. “What’s wrong with them being jugs?”
“Stop saying jugs!”
Adagio chuckled at Starlight’s flustered state, but a question occurred to her a moment later. “Starlight…did those books and scrolls of yours say anything about how one uses the Elements?”
Starlight nervously bit her lip. “No, they don’t. They just talk about Chrysalis, Sombra, Luna, Celestia, and Cadence claiming them and then unleashing them against Midnight, Chroma and their cohorts. The Elements themselves are reportedly the same as some of the virtues that Equestria espoused. Laughter, generosity, honestly, loyalty, and kindness. There’s also some vague references to a sixth element…”
“So…we’re going to have to just-”
“Experiment when we get there, I imagine.” Starlight shrugged.
“Remember that ‘lack of plan’ thing I brought up before?” Aria asked.
“Don’t you pegasai have an expression about winging it?” Adagio asked, tossing a few dried berries into her mouth. It wasn’t that Aria didn’t have a point. She was just getting tired of the constant nay-saying over the reality of their situation. Aria grumbled out a response and opted to bury her muzzle in her share of the snacks. Adagio sighed. “Look, you’re not wrong. But we have no other choice. We’ll just have to work together and figure this out.”
“…Fine,” Aria huffed again. “I’d still rather have a plan though.”
“I guess you could think of our plan as our lack of plan?” Suri proposed. “Chroma can’t anticipate what we’re going to do if we don’t know ourselves.”
“I guess we’ll have to take it,” Starlight muttered. With a flick of her magic, she produced a map from her saddlebags and unrolled it between the group. “I pulled this together based on every description of Roam’s layout I could find. Before the civil war, the elements were supposedly kept here,” she tapped a hoof against a building in the central part of the city. “The senatorial chambers. There’s no record of where they were placed afterwords, once everypony went their separate ways. Assuming both our and Chroma’s assumptions are correct and the Elements actually still are in Roam, I’d say that the senatorial chambers are a good first place to look. Followed by the royal mint.”
Adagio’s eyes roamed over the map, a few more possibilities running through her head. “What about the villas? All of the alicorns should have had their own villas and could have had their own vaults hidden underneath them.”
Starlight considered that. “I suppose it’s possible. The district with all the noble villas isn’t too far from the city center anyway. We could check them after-”
“Maybe we should check them first?” Sonata asked. Everypony blinked and stared at Sonata who shrugged. “This was her city, right? She’d know where they were kept before the war and stuff. If I was looking for a magic thingie I hadn’t seen in a while, I’d check the last place I saw it first. And I’d be waiting for anypony following me, just in case.”
Everypony blinked at her again.
“What? It’s just common sense.”
There was a certain amount of logic to what Sonata had spelled out. They were just…unexpected. Adagio looked back down at the map, mulling the point over. Did they take the Sonata path, or the Starlight path? A wrong decision here could lead them directly into Chroma’s grasp. Where would the alicorn be most likely to search first? She was in the middle of puzzling this out when something strange happened. A butterfly, with wings of snowy white, fluttered into view before aligning itself on the map. Adagio blinked. The insect looked…familiar. Unless she was very much mistaken, she had seen it just outside the entrance to the tunnel they had hidden from the caprataurs in.
“Aww! It’s so pretty!” Sonata smiled.
“Hey! Get off of there you stupid bug! I worked hard on that!” Starlight frowned.
Suri rolled her eyes. “It’s just a butterfly! Is it supposed to eat it?”
Adagio didn’t pay attention to them though, instead watching the butterfly as it crawled over to a specific building on Starlight’s map. Once there it slowly fluttered its wings a few times before flitting back into the air, doing a lazy circle around Adagio’s head before flying off into the darkness.
“…I think I know where to go,” Adagio said.
Suri cocked her head slightly. “Because of a butterfly?”
“Because of a butterfly.”
“What about a butterfly?”
Lightning Dust dropped back out of the sky, squirming her way into the group.
“Dagi thinks she knows where the Elements are because of a butterfly!” Sonata answered with her usual cheer. In response Lightning Dust turned and stared at Adagio.
Adagio huffed back, folding her hooves in front of her. “I assure you, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. I’ve seen that same butterfly before and I don’t consider it a coincidence that it keeps showing up while we’re on the way to Roam. Especially considering the dream I had before I woke up in the healing house. I heard a voice. It told me that I had to get to Roam.” She tapped the building the butterfly had landed on. “I say we explore this building first. Lightning, did you find anything?”
“Pillars and ruins mostly. But they’re starting to look thicker. We might be pushing into the outskirts now.”
“That would make sense,” Starlight mused. “I think we’ve been walking for long enough.”
Adagio pushed herself back to her hooves, wincing slightly at the aches and pains the trip had inflicted upon her. “Let’s get back to it then. The Heartlands need us.”
- - - -
Chroma considered herself to be a reasonable mare. When Equestria was at its height, her troops had spoken of her wit, even temper and brilliant command strategies. It was flattering, in a way, even if it had been somewhat overstated. But now?
She was absolutely livid.
Moments ago, a violet sphere of light had shot through one of the Equestrian Mints wide open arches. When it had rejoined with Chroma, it had brought with all the memories of her other self’s fight with Sombra. The traitor was alive! Centuries of preparation for that moment and Sombra was still alive! On top of that the search for the Elements had, so far, turned up nothing! The Mint and the Senatorial Chambers had proven to be Elementless. So, her fury was unleashed upon the contents of the ancient building and what remained within.
Lightning and fire melted gold coins to slag, cracked gems open, blackened statues and blasted mighty holes in the walls. Her “loyal” Everfree Rangers had bolted when her anger spiked, suddenly terrified to stand next to their liberator! Oh, they would face her wrath next! How dare they treat her as a pariah! She who only wished to make Equestria great once more! Snarling, she whipped one final fireball at a statue of Consul Celestia and stormed out of the building as it exploded into a dozen marble shards behind her.
As she emerged, her rangers scrambled to stand at attention. At least they had the bravery to show themselves and face the consequences of their cowardliness! Chroma’s furious eyes swept across the small crowd that…seemed smaller than it was when she first started tearing the Mint apart. A quick count revealed which ponies were missing from the group.
“Where are Soarin and Blaze?”
Spitfire responded quickly. “While you were dealing with the mint, we took the initiative to search the surrounding government buildings.”
Chroma perked up, her ears standing tall as the dark mood that had settled over her fled almost as quickly as it had arrived. “Ah! A fine decision! But that doesn’t entirely answer my question. Have they not returned?”
Spitfire winced. “They…have not. We were about to go looking for them.” She pointed towards a building across the wide central plaza. It was short, squat and plain looking, easily lost within the grander structures that surrounded it.
Chroma couldn’t help but smirk at the building the pair had opted to explore. “Somehow, I doubt that the Elements of Harmony would be hidden within the Grain and Farming Exchange. The only consul who really spent any time in there was Applejack. Buuuut I suppose it would be an ironic place to put them.”
A flick of her wings propelled Chroma across the square, landing neatly before the entrance. Stepping inside, she could see that the interior was much as she remembered it from centuries past. Still the same murals of farms, orchards and the bustling ponies that worked on them. Still the same low marble counters where runners would bring tallies of the harvests from all across Equestria for the local scribes to collect, collate and store in the record rooms below.
The pair of unmoving Rangers on the floor was new though.
Chroma kneeled to examine Soarin and Blaze. They weren’t dead. She could see their chests rising and falling ever so slightly. They also weren’t unconscious. Their eyes were open and the shock was clear within them. They were frozen, most of their muscles locked rigid. Chroma knew what was behind it though.
“Consul?” Spitfire asked. She and her fellows had flowed into the room behind Chroma.
“No more splitting up.” Chroma responded, lighting her horn with magic. “We’re being hunted and he’ll be trying to pick us off one at a time. We stay together and search in a grid pattern. We’ll find the Elements or him soon enough.” A light smile played across her lips. “It all makes sense...the Elements of Harmony haven’t just been left out here. They’re being guarded.”
“I’m sorry consul, but who are we looking for?”
“A centaur. By the name of Tirek.”
- - - -
As they continued towards Roam, Suri began to notice that the path was winding slightly upwards now, snaking between a few trees as it ran up a hill. She walked alongside Starlight as they went. The unicorn seemed lost in thought, half staring at the road as they clip-clopped along. Suri lightly bumped her on the side, snapping Starlight out of her funk.
“Something wrong?” Suri asked.
“Just…thinking,” Starlight frowned. “Running over what I’ve learned about magic. Especially everything I can remember about means of enchanted item activation.”
“Oh!” Suri gasped after a moment of thought. “Because of the Elements, right?”
Starlight nodded, her expression grim. “We’re probably not going to have a lot of time on our hooves once we reach the city. Claiming the Elements of Harmony and figuring out how to use them before we run into Chroma is our top priority.” Pausing for a moment, her tail flicked nervously under her rain cloak. “I’m the mage here. I’ve studied magic for years. What if I can’t figure out how to make the Elements…Element,” she finished lamely.
“What do you think the chances of that actually are though? If you’ve really been studying it for that long?”
“It’s still a possibility! What if I choke? What if I freeze? What if Chroma hits me on the head and I forget everything I’ve known?”
“Are you okay back there?” Adagio asked.
“We’re fine!” Suri answered. Placing a hoof on Starlight’s chest, she gently pushed her back a little bit. “Baroness, can you give us a moment?”
Adagio’s expression was puzzled but she nodded back. Satisfied Suri led Starlight back down the road till she was reasonably sure they were out of earshot of the rest of the group. “M’kay,” she sighed at Starlight. “What’s going on? You’ve run Ponyville as mayor on your own, why are you so nervous out of the blue?”
“Because I wasn’t running Ponyville by myself! I have Sugar Belle, Night Glider, Double Diamond and Party Favor helping me! Now? Everything is resting on my back! If I can’t figure out how these Elements work, all of The Heartlands are doomed! It’s all on me!”
“Well…you’re not completely alone. You have all of us to.”
A short, clipped, manic laugh escaped Starlight. “You? The only one of you that knows a thing about magic is Adagio and she’s basically a glorified bard! What possible help could you give me?” Suri raised an eyebrow as Starlight immediately realized her mistake and began to sink into a series of stammering half sentences. “I… I didn’t mean… Only in terms of academic magic study-”
“Starlight…why did you try to use me to blackmail Adagio?”
“It’s a simple question, m’kay? While I don’t think removing indentured servitude is a bad thing, I don’t really appreciate being used as a pawn.”
“But…I was trying to free you! To free a whole class of ponies! I thought that by giving her a solution to her problem, she’d be able to help my cause!”
“Baroness Adagio has her pride, Starlight,” Suri huffed, pacing back and forth a bit. She wasn’t afraid to admit to herself that the mage’s arrogance had gotten under her coat. “Even when battered down by the world around her. You picked the option that would have set her against you the most! Also, I am not a ‘problem’ to be solved! Or did you just assume that Adagio was mistreating me because I’m a servant and she’s a big bad noble for you to tilt against? Or that I was a useful tool to show off how compassionate you were?”
Starlight growled back, a fire in her eyes. “You think that I’m pretending? That the way I try to help ponies is some kind of show? I’ve been draining my family’s fortune buying out contracts and trying to cut deals with nobles! And I don’t do it for show, or because I feel guilty! I do it because ponies deserve to be free and equal!”
“No matter the cost?”
Starlight winced, but the glare returned and quickly. “You lived in Canterlot. You know full well what some of them are like there. Can you blame me for assuming Adagio was like them? With all the maddening laws ‘she’ had sent me?”
A memory of the fear Suri had felt at Fancy Pants’ anger came to mind. “…Fine, I can see how you thought that. But you can’t just go charging after your goals like a drunken lout! Take it from somepony that knows.” She turned away, taking a deep breath and then letting it out, allowing the frustration flow out of her. At least until the sound of a heavy thud and metal clinking against itself. Turning back towards Starlight, Suri was surprised to find a full bag of gold at her hooves.
“Take it,” Starlight said.
“No strings Suri. Just…take it,” Starlight sighed.
Slowly, Suri picked it up, balancing the weight of the gold on her hoof. It was…a lot. More than she had held in quite a while. Not since she had set up her business in Manehattan. She looked up at Starlight, who gave a half-hearted shrug. “This feels like a sudden change of heart,” Suri observed.
“Maybe it is,” Starlight smiled back sadly. “Or maybe you’re right and I sometimes get so wrapped up in my cause, I forget about the ponies I’m supposed to be helping.”
“It’s an easy mistake to make, I think. It’s what got Chroma, after all.” Taking a moment to carefully stow the gold in her saddlebags, Suri motioned towards the road. “Let’s get back to the others. We still have a country to save.”
- - - -
“There it is girls. The Eternal City,” Adagio said. She swept a hoof over the vista below them.
Aria furrowed her brow at the ancient skyline. “…Doesn’t look all that ‘eternal’ to me.”
Looking at the overgrown mass that was the city, Adagio had to concede Aria’s point. “Well, yes. But it hasn’t had anypony to look after it in the last three hundred years.”
Starlight looked up from her map. “Well, assuming that Adagio’s guess is correct-”
“And it is.”
“Then we should skirt the outside edge of the city until we reach the Alta Semita-”
“The what now?” Lightning Dust blinked.
“The High Path. The whole district was named after the main street running through it. From there, we should be able to find Adagio’s butterfly house.”
Adagio rolled her eyes and peered over the edge of the cliff. “Lightning, can you-”
“Say no more baroness!”
Lightning took a few minutes to fly them down to the ground below, one at a time.
“Stupid broken wing,” Aria grumbled on the way down.
From there they headed due west, avoiding the denser city core and, hopefully, Chroma with it. Even with most of the city overgrown, they found that they made good progress, using the city’s roads. Whether due to the distance they were from Ponyville, or due to some mercy of Chroma’s, the rain had slowed to a drizzle here. The sparser cloud cover finally allowing some non-alchemical created light into their lives. Perhaps there was something about her ancient home that quelled some of the alicorn’s endless rage.
Either way, the further they pressed on into what had once been the center of pony civilization the more lavish the overgrown structures became. The close packed brick constructed insula apartments giving way to the wealthier single family domus built from marble and other more expensive materials. Here they also found that the forest had reclaimed even more of the city, the open atriums and yards that once held carefully maintained gardens now having exploded into tangled thickets of thorns and other Everfree fare. More than once they found themselves having to take a round about detour to avoid the likes of a poison joke thicket or a tangle thorn patch.
“Anypony else wondering why we haven’t run into any Everfree creatures yet?” Aria grumbled, hobbling her way over a fallen trunk. Her hawk, having returned to his usual perch on her back, shrieked in agreement. “If no pony’s been here in three hundred years, you’d think that the place would be crawling with monsters. All these ready made dens and everything.”
Lightning Dust took the moment to soar a little higher, peering down their current path. “They could be here and just be hiding. Depending on how much noise Chroma made when she first showed up here, they could be spooked.”
“It’s a big city though. She could be miles from us.”
“My best guess is magic,” Starlight chimed in. “There have to be some kind of magical protections on them. Maybe even guardians of some kind. They could be keeping the monsters away.”
“Are you speaking from knowledge or just guessing?” Adagio asked.
“Well…,” Starlight paused, frowning for a moment. “It’s what I’d do at least.”
“Then I’ll leave you in charge of Element guarding when we get them out of this place,” Adagio smirked playfully.
Starlight rolled her eyes back before referring to her map again. “The house we’re looking for should be just ahead on the left.”
“You mean right where that mass of thorns is?” Sonata asked.
A mass of twisted black vines did indeed rise from the plot of land where the house in question should have stood. Gnarled and strong, they so completely choked the section of ground in question, that it didn’t seem like a house could have ever rested there, let alone be there now. Adagio’s eyes went wide and she galloped over to the mass.
“What? No! There’s supposed to be something here! I just know it!”
Lightning Dust landed beside her. “I don’t know Baroness. That doesn’t look like any house I’ve ever seen.” She wrinkled her snout at the thorns that bristled from the branches, their tips dripping with a viscous green liquid. “More to the point, those look incredibly toxic. I’m not sure we should mess with them.”
“But Starlight’s map showed that there was a house here!” Adagio hissed through gritted teeth. “And the butterfly- It lead us away from the caprataurs!”
“Sorry Dagi,” Sonata smiled sadly. “But that’s not a house. And even if there was a butterfly in the woods, it did kind of lead us down to where that big spider was. Maybe the forest is playing tricks on you.”
“I’m not seeing things!”
“Maybe you’re not,” Starlight shrugged. “But that doesn’t mean much in the Everfree. Maybe that butterfly is some kind of malicious nature spirit. Just because it’s real and magical doesn’t mean it's friendly or an omen.”
Adagio opened her mouth to argue some more, only to be interrupted by Suri placing a hoof on her side. “M’lady…there’s nothing here. And we have a very large city to search now. Maybe we should be thinking about our next move?”
Aria ruffled her good wing. “I don’t know…something doesn’t feel right about this place. Maybe there’s something hidden in one of these other nearby buildings? We could start looking there.”
A stiff nod was all that Adagio could manage. She had been so sure! The rest of the girls gathered in a lose circle around Starlight’s map, chatting to themselves about the next location to examine. Adagio tried to listen, but quickly found her mind wandering away from the discussion about whether to check the Grand Coliseum or the Equestrian Mint next and back to the nature of the thorn bush before her. The map had shown a building here, a fact that Starlight had sifted out of a dozen old records. But the bush wasn’t growing out of a cracked foundation, or wrapped around a collapsed pile of rubble. It was growing unimpeded and free.
The more she dwelled on that fact, the more she found herself thinking back to the spider in the caverns far below. A conjured illusion of the Elements of Harmony had ensnared them there, with Aria being able to see through it. Could these vines be an illusion? …But then wouldn’t Aria be able to peer past the falsehood here, as well?
But she doesn’t believe the Elements are here. Adagio mused. She didn’t believe they were in the tunnels, either. Maybe its an illusion designed to catch the skeptical? Or maybe it’s an illusion mixed with something else? What was it dad said? The more plausible the lie, the easier it is to fool a pony.
Before she even realized what she was doing, Adagio was walking straight for the vines. When she heard the others cry out in shock, she switched to a canter.
You’re not real! You’re not real! You’re not real! She thought to herself, dearly hoping she was correct.
A moment before she was to slam into the wicked thorns, the illusion fell away, revealing the more normal looking vines behind them. Normal looking vines that then creaked open, allowing Adagio to run straight through an open archway and into the building beyond. She slid to a stop, blinking both in slight surprise that her hunch had worked, but also in reaction to the contents of the room she found herself in.
Ornate rugs covered the floor, a swirl of reds, blues, greens and golds. The largest of them could have held twelve ponies easily. The walls were covered in tapestries, bearing characters and symbols the likes of which Adagio had never seen before. A basket of vegetables and herbs scavenged from the forest was pushed up against a few clay jugs of what Adagio assumed were water. Another corner had stacks of cloth, neatly folded. Cloaks or blankets perhaps? The very air was laced with the overlapping smells of spices and flowers, creating a mixture that had a soothing undertone to it. The source of the pleasant smells- a wooden incense burner- hung from the ceiling. A single doorway lead into chambers beyond. A moment later, everypony else came stumbling through after her, Suri at the lead. They joined Adagio in gaping at the decor.
“Well…,” Starlight sighed. “I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. There’s certainly something here.”
“What’s this script?” Lightning asked, poking at one of the tapestries. “It looks all…brushy.”
Starlight turned her gaze towards the swishy, almost pictographic strokes. “I…don’t know. The closest thing I’ve seen to it is rune magic but the symbols are all wrong. Not the right shapes, the sizes all all off…”
“Either way, somepony’s been living here,” Adagio mused. “And if it was being magically protected like this, it’s a good candidate for the hiding place of the Elements. Or at least a place to hide knowledge of their actual location. Let’s spread out and see what we can find.”
They did just that, beginning to ruffle through the paltry belongings. Aria's hawk took up a perch on one of the clothing stacks, watching them while they searched. It soon became apparent, however, that this room not only had no Elements of Harmony, it had no writings or scraps of information contained within it either. It was quiet and empty, perhaps intended for little more than meditation and rest.
Adagio was unperturbed though. “Let’s check the rest of the house then. You don’t waste time magically hiding a house like this unless there’s something here.”
“Something is indeed here,” a deep voice rumbled from behind them.
They whirled about to see a massive figure looming in the open doorway. Standing on four legs like a pony, it was also possessed of a minotaur like torso balanced upon that equine lower half. The details of the torso were hard to make out, obscured by a thick black cloak. Though a long white beard did billow out from the dark hood. Adding to the intimidation factor was the equine half’s coat. A deep, rust red color, that made the whole figure look like it had just stepped out of Tartarus. A wicked spear and sturdy looking bow strapped to his back completed the warrior appearance.
Her distress- and she assumed that of her friends- must have been evident, for the figure chuckled. “Is he friend or is foe, the ponies wonder?” He stepped forward, unslinging the spear lashed across his back.
Adagio and company responded in turn, brandishing their own weapons. For a moment, the two sides stared each other down, neither quite ready to make the first move.
“Who, exactly, are you?” Suri asked after a moment of the awkward silence.
Quick as lightning, Tirek lashed out with his spear, striking a specific spot on the wall. As the sound of stone grinding on stone filled their ears, Tirek lashed out again, this time sweeping the butt of his weapon across the legs of Adagio and her companions. Shoved as a group, they toppled backwards in a tangle of limbs and chorus of surprised shouts, disappearing into a yawning, black void.
For Adagio, there was only the sensation of falling. Where a moment before, her companions had been clustered near her, now she was surrounded by a icey, inky blackness that clawed at her coat and mane with a thousand skittering legs. In such a suffocating mass of blackness, it was impossible to determine how far she fell, or even how much time was passing as she did. Eventually the trip did come to an and end as Adagio hit the ground with a soft thud that knocked the air from her. For a moment she lay there, mind trying to process what just happened. A creature she had never heard of before, a hidden home in the old capital and now a pit.
“...Won’t find any answers just sitting here,” she huffed after a few more moments of thinking.
Getting up, she examined her surroundings, or lack thereof. Blackness still surrounded her, save for a small circle of light in which she stood. Slowly, she advanced, hooves clacking on unseen stone.
“Suri? Starlight? Aria? Are any of you here?”
Adagio froze as a scratchy, familiar chuckle echoed around her.
“Come on Twilight! You want to make peace with the changelings? That’s madness!”
A cold chill ran down Adagio’s spine as two ghostly figures walked right through her. The first was clearly Chroma but...not an alicorn. She was a completely normal pegasus, albeit one with quite the vivid mane and tail. Apparently it's rainbow nature wasn’t part of her alicorn state. The purple unicorn at her side was likewise familiar...in a way. Her coat was lighter colored and she lacked the wings that were so prominent in every mural, but Adagio knew the face of Midnight when she saw it. A near flock of scrolls floated through the air beside her.
“Rainbow Dash! That’s a horrible thing to say!” Midnight chided, even as she rapidly looked from scroll to scroll as she walked. “Just because we’ve had conflicts in the past, doesn’t mean we should give up on them!”
“What’s a changeling?” Adagio muttered under her breath.
Chroma took wing, zipping back and forth between Midnight’s scrolls. “Twilight! They’re changelings! When have they ever been straight with us?”
Midnight glanced up at Chroma. “And that’s why we’ll be careful about this. You will be working with Consul Sombra on security, yes?”
“Duh! I’m not going to leave you hanging!”
“Then let’s focus on how this is going to work, rather than how it’s going to fail. Now-”
Whatever else Midnight had to say was lost as she and Chroma vanished into the darkness again. Adagio frowned. This seemed some manner of memory, an echo of what was playing itself out now that a living pony was in the area. Or perhaps it did this on its own anyway? Either way, she knew that there was really only one option available to her. She had to advance and see just what these memories were hiding. Steeling her nerve with a deep breath, she pressed into the darkness before her.
- - - -
“Is she still breathing?” Starlight asked.
She was gathered around the slumped over form of Adagio with Aria, Suri, and Sonata. Meanwhile, Lightning Dust searched the ceiling of the chamber they found themselves trapped in. A long rectangle, made of simple carved stone, mostly unadorned and devoid of windows. They were spared from the darkness of such a sealed chamber by a lingering aura of light that almost seemed to cling to the slabs. Lightning was convinced that there was a way to trigger the trap door from this side, though Starlight wasn’t entirely sure herself. Teleporting out might be an option. She knew the spell. But it wasn’t something she was willing to risk with Adagio unconscious or worse.
Aria pressed her ear to the fallen unicorn’s side. “Yup. She’s still alive. Hey! Baroness! Wake up!” she shouted, shaking Adagio’s form.
Further attempts to shake the baroness awake were stopped by Suri placing a hoof on Ariar’s back. “Aria! Stop that!” she frowned.
“What? It works for me!” She sighed, looking towards the ceiling. “I hope that Deathclaw is okay up there.”
“Why pick on a hawk?” Sonata asked. “I mean, you’d have to be pretty evil to pick on a hawk.”
Starlight rolled her eyes and turned her attention to the only other thing in the room, an ornate stone pedestal. Shaped like an inverted V, it was made up of five smaller pillars, each one with a small circular top. The middle pillar was the tallest, with the next two slightly below that, and the last two slightly below those. Each of them had a crystal sphere resting on their tops, each one of those a different color. Orange, red, pink, blue and purple.
“Those look Elements of Harmony-ish to you girls?” Starlight asked.
“You’re the expert here,” Lightning answered, landing beside her. “Shouldn’t you be telling us?”
Starlight smirked, channeling for just a moment. Her horn was still aching from the caprataur shaman’s strike, but a quick detect magic charm was a simple enough thing to do. The weave of the spell settled into place and the crystal spheres began to softly glow with a nimbus of arcane energy.
“They’re certainly magic, that’s for sure. But they could also be a trap of some kind.”
Lightning Dust tilted her head slightly. “We never did work out how you’re supposed to activate the Elements, did we?”
“No, not yet. But just give me a little bit and I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out.” Starlight rubbed her chin, carefully sorting through the different possibilities. “Key words, would still be the best way, I think. Then again-”
She began to channel, weaving a detect magic enchantment around the Elements. But she was only part way through the enchantment when a horrible twinge of pain shot through her still charred horn. The spell sputtered out as she hissed in pain, rubbing at her horn. “Ascarids!”
“Are you alright?” Suri asked.
“Damned caprataurs,” Starlight hissed. “I knew this was going to cause problems!” Frowning, she tried again, only for another twinge of pain to drill into her. The battle with the spider creature had taxed her horn’s core and now even small enchantments were painful. “I think I’m going to need a few minutes to rest before I can try it again.”
Lightning rolled her eyes. “I’m gonna touch one!”
Before Starlight could stop her Lightning Dust shot forward, a hoof outstretched towards the orbs. When she was less than a leg’s length away, the blue gem burst apart, its shards rushing to meet Lightning. They swooped in around her, her eyes beginning glow with a bright white light as the shards settled into an orbit around her body. Both pony and stones then hovered in place, a soft humming sound filling the air.
“Starlight…,” Suri blinked. “What are we supposed to do about that?”
“Just...nopony touch anything, please?” Starlight grumbled, rubbing her forehead again. There was a headache coming on.
- - - -
Adagio heard the sounds of screaming before the images this time. They flickered back into being in scattered bursts, always scenes of violence and conflict, but piecemeal at the same time. A few ponies running in terror, some legionaries swinging back against shadowy foes, buildings wreathed in smoke and flame. But the attackers were never visible, at least not fully. All Adagio could make out of them were glowing blue eyes and an odd droning sound that seemed to accompany their movements. Her skin crawled every time one of those creatures drew near her and she had to fight the desire to turn and run back the way she came. An empty sensation settled in her gut when they were close, like the very ability to love or feel joy was being drawn away by the droning beasts.
It was after a dozen or so of these flashes of memory or the past, that she found Chroma again. She dropped from the sky like a blue bolt, stumbling as she landed. Her legionnaire armor was battered, dented and hanging loose in a few places with the straps sliced. Her coat was battered and scorched in some places, while she clutched at a jagged slash that ran up her right foreleg.
“Twilight?” she called. Her voice was cracking, the panic evident. “Rarity? Applejack? Where are you!” Her legs quaked for a moment and threatened to give out from under her. “Gah! Damned changelings! I told Twilight...I told her...”
A thin frown crossed Adagio’s muzzle as she paced around Chroma’s past self. “You were under attack...why? What’s happening here? Was this your start of darkness? Why are you showing me this!”
Chroma didn’t answer. She continued to look around, her ears flicking towards sounds that only she could hear. At least she did until a very loud buzzing sound settled over the both of them. Chroma threw herself backwards with a flap of her wings. In the next moment a large figure slammed down where she had been standing a moment before. The horrible feeling from before bore down on Adagio with a new ferocity as she found herself looking up at what she could only describe as a monster.
Tall as an alicorn, the figure was wrapped in a black shell, like some kind of bug or beetle. Yet, despite the shell, it’s body was full of holes, as were its gossamer wings and sickly green mane. Like an alicorn, it had a horn, but jagged and gnarled like an old tree branch. A fringe like mockery of a crown was set just behind the horn, as if the oversized bug was royalty itself. Adagio’s eyes roamed up its figure, taking in its horrible glory, even as she slowly backed away from it and the horrible sneer that showed off knife like fangs.
“Oooo, what do we have here?” the monster alicorn cooed in a buzzy, yet frighteningly familiar voice. “Twilight Sparkle’s little bodyguard all on her own?”
Adagio felt her mouth fall open, her sick feeling growing even worse. “...Queen Chrysalis?”
Despite the echoing quality in the voice, it was been unmistakable. Somehow, the creature standing before her. This...changeling...was one of the co-rulers of The Heartlands. It was almost too much.
“How?” she muttered to herself.
“You...you...traitor!” Chroma snapped. “We invited you in! Tried to be your friend! Twilight believed that changelings and ponies could live side by side!”
Chrysalis threw her head back, cackling with unrestrained glee. “Oh, how so hopelessly naive! There is only one way ponies will interact with my changelings.” Her eyes flashed with flickering green light. “As our food!”
She surged forward, mouth open wide, fangs glittering in the darkness. And just like that, as immediately as the vision had started, it ended; leaving Adagio alone in the darkness. Shaking her head to clear it, she examined her night shrouded surroundings again. No new visions, at least here.
Time to press on.
- - - -
Starlight Glimmer jumped back from the floating form of Lightning Dust. She had barely began to formulate a plan of action about the magic shards orbiting Lightning when they suddenly dove towards her. The pegasus’ body was momentarily obscured in a brilliant blue flash of magic.
“Lightning! Are you okay!” Sonata shouted, galloping forward.
Almost in response, the light began to fade, revealing a very much intact Lightning Dust. Starlight gave a sigh of relief, but immediately turned her attention to the new outfit that Lightning was wearing. The all weather cloak she had been wearing before was now a shimmering sky blue, its hem marked by a line of white lightning bolts, not unlike her cutie-mark. It was held in place by a circular golden clasp, a deep blue gem set in its center, also in the shape of a lightning bolt. The leather ranger armor she was wearing before almost glowed now, the leather sturdier and tougher looking. Even the crossbow she had borrowed from Adagio’s manor had been magically reforged. The stock was now dark and polished, Lightning’s cutie-mark emblazoned on the side. The mechanisms glittered in the magical light that filled the room, devoid of any flaw that Starlight could make out.
Lightning Dust opened her eyes and grinned. “Gadzooks! That was a rush!”
“...Lightning, what in the name of Harmony happened?” Suri asked, trotting over to her. She looked over Lightning’s cloak with a discerning eye.
“I talked to it!”
Starlight slowly blinked. “That...you talked to it?”
“Well...maybe talk isn’t the right word,” Lightning shrugged, before dropping back to the floor. “Felt a vague sense of approval maybe? It definitely felt like I did something good.”
“And that’s why you have new clothes!” Sonata beamed.
Lightning looked down at herself, tapping a hoof to her cloak clasp. “Huh...so I do.”
“So...not a trap then?” Aria asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Starlight shrugged.
Sonata bounced in place. “Ooo! Me next! Me next!”
“Why not all at once?” Suri proposed.
Starlight considered that for a moment, her tail flicking idly in thought. Then she nodded. “All at once.”
With the decision made, the group advanced towards the Elements as one.
- - - -
The next vision took place inside. It was a small room that Adagio found herself in, with a low bed and an empty desk. A collection of scrolls were piled on the floor near the door, while a pony sized lump huddled under the bed’s covers. Adagio trotted around to the front of the bed, where she could just make out the tips of Chroma’s rainbow mane peeking out from under the edge of blanket.
“So...Chroma’s room. And why am I here now?” Adagio grumbled to herself. Crossing back across the room, she turned her attention to the scrolls by the door. While they were quite intangible to the touch- magical or otherwise- most had been haphazardly tossed aside and a few had landed face up. But to Adagio’s frustration, despite her classical training in Old Equestrian, they were completely illegible. The scrawls skittered and flowed across the page when Adagio tried to look at them directly. The size of the characters was different across the scrolls she could see though, perhaps pointing towards the messages becoming increasingly frantic as time went on.
Those examinations came to an abrupt end when a series of heavy knocks echoed against the door. Adagio jumped back from it, only for a ghostly spear to thrust through her neck from behind.
“Who-who goes there?” Chroma asked.
Adagio glanced down at the insubstantial weapon passing through her body. “Somepony worthy of a spear, apparently.”
Midnight’s voice shouted through the door. “Rainbow Dash! Come out of there right now!”
“No! Go away! You might not even be Twilight! You could be a changeling! They could be everywhere!”
Stepping aside as to not have a ghost’s weapon sticking through her, Adagio spared a glance at Chroma out of the corner of her eye. She was haggard, no question about it, with bloodshot eyes and a coat that was matted down in far too many places. Adagio sincerely doubted that hygiene had been a concern of Chroma for weeks.
“I said no!”
There was a pause. Then there was a frustrated growl from the other side of the door. “That’s it! We’re coming in?”
“We?” Adagio blinked.
Midnight appeared with the soft pop of a teleport spell. Where before she was a normal unicorn, now she truly lived up to her namesake. Dark purple coat, full alicorn stature, powerful looking wings, and an ethereal mane made of billowing magical energy alone. As horrific as the sight of Midnight in all her glory was, it was the creature at her side that made Adagio recoil in horror.
For the legendary breaker of Equestria, the so called “Destroyer of Dreams”, the gargoyle struck an almost comical figure. Stooped over, his wiry figure looked ready to blow away at the first stiff breeze. That was most likely why he was leaning on a gnarled walking stick. He kept his other arm tucked close to his body, almost hiding it behind the long white beard that hung from his jutting snout. Adding to his harmless appearance was the expression he wore. A soft, kindly, almost grandfatherly smile.
Chroma looked between the two, blinking in confusion. “Twilight...what happened to you? Scorpan? What’s going on?”
Scorpan kept his grandfatherly smile as he shuffled over to Chroma’s side. “In light of the recent incident with the changelings, we decided that the balance of power needed to be...addressed.”
“...Nope!” Chroma shook her head. “This is madness! You’re both changelings, I just know it!” She thrust her spear forward, trying to bury the tip into Midnight’s chest.
Midnight responded by grabbing the spear with her magic and casually throwing it aside. “Rainbow Dash! I know that everything went wrong with my changeling summit, but that doesn’t mean that they’re hiding under your bed and behind every pony!”
“Then why are you an alicorn?” Chroma snapped.
“Because Scorpan helped me understand!” Midnight roared back. Her eyes began to glow with power as she lifted off the floor. “I am not a helpless little unicorn anymore! I am not a changeling! I. Am. Ascended!”
“It is time for you and the rest of your friends to step forth!” Scorpan added. “For years you have worked under Celestia and Luna as their most devoted servants and assistants! But now I can give you the power to act! The power to make sure that Chrysalis can never hurt you again. Can never hurt Equestria again!” He extended a clawed half towards Chroma. “Come Rainbow Dash. Let us turn Equestria into a nation that will never be humbled again!”
Adagio rolled her eyes. “Oh! That’s not suspicious at all! How did you fall for this anyway?”
Chroma nervously tapped her hooves together. “I...you’re saying I could be like Twilight? You...want me to be an alicorn? How is that even possible?”
“Scorpan found a way,” Midnight smiled. “Join me Rainbow. We’ll fix Equestria together.”
“I don’t know…”
Midnight’s smile grew even wider. “Trust me. Aren’t we friends?”
Chroma lapsed into a sulking silence. For a moment it almost looked like she wouldn’t take Midnight up on her offer. But then she raised her head, a new intensity burning in her vivid magenta eyes.
“You’re right Twilight. We are friends. And I’d never leave my friends hanging. I’m with you!”
With that, the scene faded out, once more leaving Adagio in darkness and with a burning question in her mind.
“Why did I see all of this?”
“Because you need to understand.”
- - - -
Starlight neatly twirled her brand new staff. Enhanced and strengthened by her Element of Harmony, it shared the twin prongs of her old one, but now had a purple gem was set in the middle of the haft. It matched nicely with the purple gem clasp for her new cloak, shaped to match her cutie-mark. Lightning Dust had been right. It was a hard thing to explain, but when she had made a connection with the dark purple gem, there had been a sense of approval.
She looked around the others, who were all likewise dressed in new cloaks and clasps and carrying new weapons. Like hers and Lightning’s, the color of the cloaks matched the cutie-mark themed gems on the clasps and had simplified patterns of their cutie-marks decorating the hems. Sonata’s was a light, airy pink color, Aria a sturdy looking orange and Suri a striking red color.
Their weapons were a bit more of a mixed bag. A pair of gauntlets slipped over Aria’s hooves and came up her fetlocks. They looked sturdy enough that any bucks or punches she delivered would have to hurt. She was also flexing both her wings now, the magic of the Elements having fixed the broken one. In Sonata’s case the Elements of Harmony had seen fit to enchant her cast iron frying pan, which now glittered in a whole new, silver metal. A lasso of enchanted thread hung off Suri’s flank, a glimmering, oversized needle dangling on the end.
“This is...amazing,” Aria muttered, slowly working her healed wing. “I’ve never experienced magic like this before in my life.”
Starlight grinned, happy that the damage to her horn had likewise been healed.. “Magic powerful enough to seal away multiple alicorns for centuries. The Elements of Harmony have power to spare!”
“Enough power to wake up Adagio?” Suri asked, pointing to her fallen master.
“I’d imagine so.”
“Great! ...How do we do that?”
“....I have no idea!”
- - - -
“Midnight?” Adagio frowned.
The unicorn shook her head. “We are borrowing her appearance. We know all the ponies worthy of carrying our power.”
Those words settled over Adagio, a realization turning in her brain. “...You’re one of the Elements of Harmony.”
“We are,” Midnight nodded. “We are the sixth.”
“The sixth, Starlight didn’t say anything about a sixth-”
“Knowledge of our existence tends to be deliberately kept vague. Ponies who carry our power have to prove themselves a little more.”
Despite the situation, pride swelled in Adagio’s chest. “Oh, well! I’m honored to that you think that I’m worthy-”
A raucous bout of laughter shook Midnight’s form, stopping Adagio dead. “You? Consider us officially flabbergasted, Adagio Dazzle! You managed to completely miss the point of that vision! The previous bearers were amongst the best and most worthy to carry our power and Scorpan still managed to corrupt them!”
She advanced on Adagio, eyes glowing with a magenta light. “But you? You’re a spoiled, power hungry, vainglorious, excuse for a pony! Any bonds of friendship you form, you only form because they can benefit you somehow! How irresponsible would we be to let somepony like that have my magic? To let her become a queen, as cold and as terrible as the northern gales?”
The pony seemed to unfold as she drew close to Adagio, other ponies stepping out of the first one. A light blue coated unicorn mare with a silvery mane and star studded cape and hat. A purple unicorn stallion with a short green mane. A white coated unicorn mare with lightning blue hair and some strange lenses strapped over her eyes. And they were just the first. Soon Adagio found herself staring down an army of ponies, from across the three tribes and new ones she had never seen before. And when they talked, they talked as one rumbling voice.
“We know you, Adagio Dazzle!” Magic roared in a chorus of scorn. “Understand us clearly! You will never wield the Element of Magic!”
Adagio trembled, a mixture of anger and fear coursing through her. Anger from the accusations thrown her way by the Element of Magic. Fear from the thought of what fate would befall the Heartlands if Chroma wasn’t stopped. However, she was sure of one thing at least. That she wasn’t going to be intimidated out of her course by anypony, not even one of the Elements of Harmony themselves. She took a deep breath, exhaled, then smoothed down her tattered, muddy skirts.
“My, for a fundamental force of Harmony magic, you’re certainly ignorant of a great deal,” she said, keeping her tone calm and conversational. “You say that I don’t care about others? I care. I care about Iron Will. That minotaur has been like a father to me. I care about Suri. She’s been one of the few true confidants in my life. Sonata, Aria, Starlight and Lightning? I care about them too. We may have only known each other for a few days now, but my life would be poorer without them in it.”
Perhaps a few days ago, that would have been a statement completely foreign to Adagio’s mind. But now, the words flowed naturally from her mouth, for it had somehow become true without Adagio even realizing it. “Sonata’s cheerful attitude! Aria’s grumpy realism! Starlight’s vast knowledge! Even Lightning’s dreadful sense of humor! They’re all wonderful in their own stupid little ways and that’s what makes them fun to be around!”
She shook her head, a genuine smile playing across her muzzle now. “I’d almost call it crazy. We’re all so very different as ponies. But we’ve come together and become...friends.”
It was true. They were, simply, her friends.
“Friends,” Adagio muttered to herself.
Even as she said the word, a sensation of warmth grew in her chest. Warmth that was something more than just the emotional resonance that came with making that connection in her mind. Adagio looked down at herself, raising an eyebrow at the sight of a pale magenta glow, just barely radiating past her coat.
Adagio looked back up into Magic’s army of angry ponies, unable to keep the victorious smirk from her muzzle. “That’s it, isn’t it? The sixth element, isn’t just magic, it’s the very concept of friendship! It’s even in the baronal oath I swore! ‘Always seek and strengthen the bonds of friendship’! Friendship is magic!”
“That means nothing. We still will not let you wield our power!”
“Why not?” Adagio frowned. “Because I play the game of politics?”
“Yes!” Magic snapped. “Look at what Twilight and her friends did after they were corrupted by Scorpan and they were ponies dedicated to the betterment of Equestria. You? You love power! You love the game of politics and the chase of getting what you want. We wouldn’t dare create a new queen, as terrible and cruel as Twilight and her friends! One that could corrupt and manipulate a whole nation to bow at her hooves! For we also know you Adagio Dazzle. All of you and every you.”
Adagio’s ears flicked towards a cascade of soft popping sounds from behind her. Turning, she saw an equally large army of herself standing there. It was an eclectic bunch. Tall minotaur like bipeds stood in the shadows of sinuous sea-serpents, both rising above the relatively small number of ponies scattered between them. Some were paupers, with little more than rags for clothes, while others were princesses bedecked in finery. Some were smirking with confidence, while others brooded and pouted. But one thing they all shared was the cold lack of warmth behind their eyes. No love or connections to others would likely be found in these lives. Just the love for power that Magic was so concerned about Adagio sharing.
For a moment, Adagio considered objecting to that. But she didn’t. Because it was true. There was a thrill that came with negotiating, a rush that came from getting one over on her political rivals. Even more so, in her own humble opinion, it was something she had real skill at. But that didn’t automatically make her a tyrant or a monsters. So, she took a different tact.
“And?” she shrugged.
“...We beg your pardon?” Magic blinked in unison.
“Then let me say it again, in case you didn’t hear me. And? What does it matter if I like politics? It’s something I’m good at! Perhaps instead of running from a pony with ability in that area, you should embrace it?”
“...Are you out of your mind? What ‘good’ have you actually done with your machinations for power so far?” Magic snarled.
“None...so far,” Adagio answered. “But that was before I marched through the Everfree. Before I made friends. Before Chroma humbled me. Scorpan is dead, so I’m not worried about him ‘corrupting’ me. I have friends now that can help keep me from wandering off the path. Times. Have. Changed.
If you wish to stay hiding down here, while Chroma drowns Equestria and ponies act less harmonious day after day, I suppose that is your right as a fundamental force of harmony. But I also think you’re just running away from the problem.”
Adagio imagined that if Suri was here right now, she would have done anything she could have to stop such backtalk to the Element of Magic. Magic...didn’t respond at first. She just stared back down at Adagio with a curious expression.
“Is that really how you view me, baroness?”
Adagio snorted. “It is self evident! Magic, I have made me case. Either accept me as your bearer or don’t.”
Magic turned away, her ears and tail drooping. She was quiet for quite some time, enough so that Adagio grew concerned that she had pushed things too far. But then, Magic spoke again, her voice quiet.
- - - -
Adagio awoke with a start, finding herself laying on the floor of a wide stone room. Her head was swimming. Hadn’t she just been talking to the Element of Magic a moment ago?
“Adagio? Are you alright?”
Suri. Adagio turned her head towards her servant, latching onto the familiar in the midst of the chaos swirling around her mind.
Failed. Beyond failed in fact. She had pushed things too far and with a single word she was denied an element. Denied an ability to do something about Chroma. Even as Suri helped pull her upright, part of Adagio wanted to just lie back down and cry. What were they supposed to do without all the Elements of Harmony? She looked around at her fellow seekers and saw that they had all been blessed with new cloaks and weapons. The Elements had found them worthy. Her mind began to race even faster now. Would five be enough? Maybe there would be enough power in those to sent Chroma packing?
“Baroness?” Starlight ventured after a few more moments of Adagio’s stunned silence. “What happened?”
“The sixth element rejected me,” Adagio answered, her tone deadpan. “It said I would never carry it.”
“Wait...there’s a sixth Element? Why didn’t any of my research talk about it?” Starlight glowered. “What even is it?”
“Magic,” Adagio answered, voice empty and deadpan. “The sixth element is magic. Friendship and magic and I...failed.” She looked around at them again, doing her best to smile softly and present some good news at least. “I see that you all have yours. Which ones did you get?”
“...Generosity,” Starlight answered, though she didn’t seem any happier about it.
“Laughter,” Lightning said. “Though I don’t feel like laughing right now.”
“Honesty,” Aria added.
Suri walked to Adagio’s side and placed a hoof on her back. “Loyalty.”
“Kindness,” Sonata pouted. “But...baroness...what do we do now?”
What did they do now? Despite the shock of her failure, Adagio began to focus her mind on that question. There would be time for misery later. Now, she needed to come up with a plan of action.
“We need to get back to Ponyville. With the five that we have, we should be able to at least drive Chroma’s forces away from the town. Then we can find somepony who can carry the Element of Magic. Maybe even link up with King Sombra somehow.”
It wasn’t a great plan, admittedly. Like many of the ones they had been running on since the start of this fiasco it was very much a loose guideline with lots of guess work filling up the inbetween bits. But it was what they had right now.
“Lightning, can you-” Adagio began.
But before she could even finish asking the question, a section of the ceiling began to move. To the sound of stone softly grinding on stone, the section in question unfolded, becoming a simple set of stairs. A moment later the still cloaked form of Master Tirek began to carefully pick his way down them. Deathclaw was perched on his shoulder, but immediately took wing at the sight of Aria, doing a happy loop around his master before settling on her back.
Tirek’s eyes lit up as she took in the group. “Ah ha! Master Tirek knew that the ponies could claim the Elemen-” Both his cheer and sentence were cut off when his eyes fell upon Adagio however. “Oh dear. The Element of Magic did not make itself known?”
“Oh, it did!” Adagio snapped, unable to stop her bitterness from bubbling to the surface. “It also said that I wasn’t worthy!”
Tirek winced, nervously tapping his fingers together. “This is not good.”
“Oh really? I wouldn’t have guessed!”
“No, you don’t understand. The enchantment that hides the Elements presence won’t hide now that they are bound to living ponies. Chroma will undoubtedly be able to sense them and the remains of her connection to the one she bore in the past.” His eyes flicked across the group again and he pointed at Suri. “That’s yours.”
“Oh joyous day,” Suri winced.
“Quickly!” Tirek shouted. “We must away before-”
An explosion rocked the building, quickly followed by another as the roof of the room they were in began to be peeled away. Stone by stone, it was simply folded out of the way as Chroma lowered herself into the chamber. The whole of her body crackled with power and lightning, an expression of pure rage etched upon her features. Adagio could feel her legs threatening to give out from under her. The burns from her last Chroma induced lightning bath prickled again as Chroma touched down.
Triek reared up, a golden glow beginning to dance along his arms and flanks. But before he could finish doing whatever it was he was planning to do, Chroma grabbed the whole of his body in an aura of lightning and smashed him against the wall. Dazed, Tirek struggled to enact his charm again, only to once more be smashed against the wall. And again and again, until he slumped in Chroma’s grip with a pathetic moan. Chroma then casually, dismissively, cast him aside and advanced towards Adagio and her companions.
“Baroness Dazzle!” Chroma smiled, wide and manic. “I see you escaped your execution date. A slight oversight, but allow me to solve that!”
As lightning coiled around her horn, the others sprang into action. A pair of crackling fireballs lept from the twin tips of Starlight’s staff, snaking through the air in a winding pattern, before detonating against Chroma’s coat. While the alicorn was obscured by the detonation Lightning Dust snapped off a shot from her crossbow. The bolt whistled through the air, sounding almost like a soft giggle as it plunged towards Chroma. An inch from the smoke that still obscured the alicorn, the bolt was seized by Chroma’s white aura and cast aside. She burst from the smoke with a heavy flap of her wings, shooting straight for Starlight. She yelped, vanishing with a soft pop sound and reappearing on the far side of the room.
Chroma didn’t miss a beat though and neatly spun in place, smacking Adagio aside with a wing while whipping a crackling ball of lightning towards Sonata. While Adagio was sent tumbling head over tail, Sonata yelped and shielded her face with her enchanted frying pan. Adagio looked up to see the lightning ball bounce off of the pan’s reflective surface and crash back against Chroma. But being a creature of lightning herself, it shattered into a shower of sparks with no effect. The alicorn snorted dismissively in response, grabbed Sonata with her aura and pitched her at Lightning, who was in the middle of lining up another shot. The pair crashed to the ground in a tangle of legs and wings.
“Go for the eyes Deathclaw!” Aria shouted. “Go for the eyes!”
Deathclaw swooped in with a screech, lashing out with his talons. Chroma grabbed the hawk with her magic before dismissively tossing him aside. Aria crashed into her a moment later, lashing out with her gauntleted forehooves in a blinding fury. The attack was so frenzied that Chroma actually stumbled backwards for a moment. But then she struck back, grabbing Aria, slamming her to the ground and pressing a hoof against her head.
“Doesn’t anypony I kill actually stay dead?” Chroma snarled. She began to press down on Aria’s head, eliciting a cry of pain.
Adagio drew her rapier and charged in now. At the same time Suri’s enchanted needle and thread whipped through the air, reacting seemingly to her thoughts. The threads wrapped around Chroma’s legs, pulling them tightly together. Thrown off balance, Chroma beat her wings and rose slightly into the air, giving Aria enough time to scramble away.
With the alicorn momentarily tied down, Adagio thrust her rapier into Chroma’s side with all her might. To her horror, the blade bent against Chroma’s dark blue coat, the metal flimsy as straw against an alicorn’s hide. Utterly unconcerned with her efforts, Chroma simply flicked her wings out and sent Adagio tumbling away again. Then she simply flexed her legs, bursting out of Suri’s enchanted thread.
“Everypony stay down!” Starlight shouted, beginning to channel another round of spells. But before she could finish unleashing whatever flurry of magic she was planning, Starlight was tackled from behind by Spitfire and multiple other Everfree Rangers, having now caught up with their commander.
Chroma lashed out with her magic again, grabbing the rest of her scattered opponents and dragging them before her. “This farce is done with! I warned you! I made it very clear what the consequences would be for opposing my glorious reclamation!”
“There’s nothing glorious about what you’ve been doing!” Starlight shouted back, struggling against the vice like grip of the Rangers.
Chroma’s eyes narrowed. “Bring the mayor forth.”
Adagio could only watch helplessly as Spitfire and company dragged Starlight over to Chroma. She peered down at Starlight imperiously as she was forced into a bow by the Rangers. “Our conversation was pretty clear Mayor Glimmer. That you would face the gallows if you moved against me?”
“Go to Tartarus!” Starlight spat back.
“I’ll consider that your defense then.” Chroma sneered. “We have no gallows, but there are other means to deal with a troublesome pony.”
The horribly familiar lightning began to dance around Chroma’s horn again, Adagio’s heart leaping in her throat. Before she even realized what she was doing, she was shouting at the top of her lungs.
Chroma actually paused, tilting her head slightly to peer down at Adagio with a questioning eyebrow raise. “And why should I, baroness? You are all traitors.”
“Because this was all my idea!”
“Adagio! That-” Starlight began.
“Don’t listen to her! Pay attention to me, Chroma!” Adagio shouted over her friend. “I am the ruler of the Ponyville Barony! All of these ponies serve at my pleasure and follow my commands! I am the responsible one!”
Starlight opened her mouth to object again, only for Chroma’s magic to wrap around her muzzle and clamp it shut. Chroma stared at Adagio now, her furious glower having given way to a puzzled, questioning expression.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“Because they wouldn’t be here if not for me,” Adagio said. It was a lie. A horrible, desperate lie, but if she was going to accomplish anything from this, she’d make sure that the others would live at least. “I’m responsible for their rebellion. If a punishment must be given...give it to me. Don’t kill them.”
A chorus of angry shouts rose from Everfree Rangers and her travelling companions alike.
“Consul, this is ludicrous!” Spitfire shouted. “Adagio was under lock and key! When could she have possibly given orders to Mayor Glimmer?”
“Adagio! Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare do what you’re thinking about doing!” Suri yelled, struggling all the harder against Chroma’s magical grip.
“Silence, both of you!” Chroma snapped.
A small ball of magic slapped Spitfire across the muzzle, stunning her into silence. Chroma kept her eyes on Adagio. For the first time there seemed to be uncertainty in the alicorn’s expression. “Showing loyalty to those under your command. That is a stance I can appreciate, baroness.” Her wings twitched and she frowned, seemingly deep in thought. “...Very well. Accept your fate Baroness Dazzle.”
The lightning began to build around Chroma’s horn again, crackling and flickering with lethal intent. Adagio braced herself, knowing that she wouldn’t be coming back from this particular strike. It was going to be worth it though. So long as the others would live, maybe there would be a later chance for them to strike back. Even if that never happened, they could maybe still build a life...somehow. So long as her friends were okay, this would be worth it.
Chroma’s lightning bolt leapt forth and Adagio squeezed her eyes closed. A chorus of frantic shouts and screams rose from her friends and...nothing. No pain. No sensation of lightning running over her skin.
“Noooo!” Chroma growled.
Adagio opened one eye. A collection of magenta colored gem shards floated in the air before her, blocking the lightning that Chroma was still channeling. Adagio blinked in surprise, before allowing herself a wide smirk that broke into a chorus of laughter.
“Oh my...I suppose the Element of Magic and I have come to an understanding!”
“There’s no understanding!” Chroma yelled. “The Element of Magic can’t save you!”
“Oh, but it can! That’s why Scorpan attacked the way he did! You, Midnight, the rest of your group? You were all brought together by the bonds of friendship. Friendship brought you together and made you stronger! So Scorpan had to corrupt that!”
“I am not corrupt you vomitous little gnat!”
The magenta shards suddenly glowed with a burst of light, shattering dispelling the lightning bolt as if it wasn’t there. As the shards then swirled around Adagio, she felt a warm light embrace her. The burns from Chroma’s previous lightning bolt faded away, her coat growing back in. Her muddy, torn clothes were instantly repaired as her weather resistant cloak became one of the fine ones like her friends were wearing, its hem marked with a gem pattern. Adagio couldn’t help herself. She laughed again.
She and her friends began to rise from the ground, slipping free of their bonds. Rainbow motes of light began to flow between them, a wellspring of power growing in their chests. Chroma snarled, unleashing a flurry of lightning bolts in a desperate attempt to stop what was about to happen.
“Oh come on!” she snarled. “This can’t be happening!”
“Sorry Chroma,” Adagio grinned. “But don’t you know? Friendship is magic!”
The magic reached its crescendo, twisting into a rainbow ribbon that then crashed down upon Chroma’s head in a raging torrent. She let loose a cry of anger and frustration as her magically constructed body fell apart into light, the spheres shooting into the air. As the magic faded away, Adagio and her friends gently touched down and turned their attentions to Spitfire and the Rangers.
“I’ll accept your surrender now,” Adagio smirked.
Spitfire’s right eye twitched. “This is complete and utter nonsense! How can a group of deplorables like you harness the Elements of Harmony? We’re the ponies with the righteous cause! We’re-”
Not in the mood to deal with Spitfire’s rant, Adagio rolled her eyes. “Starlight? Suri? With me, if you please.”
“With pleasure,” Starlight smirked.
Spitfire realized what was coming the moment Starlight pointed her staff their way. Taking wing, she and her rangers went for their crossbows. Adagio channeled singing a single, piercing note drilling into their ears. They screamed, clutching at their ears while Suri’s needle and thread zipped around them, wrapping the whole group tightly together into one mass of perturbed pegasai. Starlight’s spell struck home a moment later, encasing them in their own crystal prison. It was probably a little more than strictly needed, but Adagio reasoned that it would be better to be safe than sorry right now.
“Yes! We did it!” Sonata cheered. “We beat Chroma!”
“And all because of friendship,” Suri mused. She glanced over at Adagio, a smile playing across her muzzle. “I guess that means you really do like us?”
“Oh Suri, I always liked you,” Adagio smirked back. “But I do admit it. I’ve developed a bit of a taste for our shared camaraderie. I-” she yelped as Sonata pounced on her with a powerful hug. “Ack! Sonata!”
“I like you too Dagi!”
Adagio’s mind raced at the possibilities of what was to come. They’d all be up for accolades from the crown, that much she was sure of. Perhaps if she played her cards right she could get everypony a knighthood? They certainly deserved it with all the danger they had trod through. But her planning session came to an abrupt end when Aria loudly coughed to get their attention.
“Not to rain on everypony’s parade, but aren’t you all forgetting something?” she asked, glowering as always. When no answer readily came she sighed and jabbed a hoof skyward.”It’s still drizzling. And didn’t Starlight say that Chroma split into three ponies? Those spheres of light had to go someplace.”
“Ascarids!” Starlight cursed. “I was so wrapped up in the fact we beat Chroma that I forgot about her third part!”
“Where was that Chroma going?” Adagio asked.
Starlight shrugged. “I don’t know. She said that she was going to follow their ‘original plan’ whatever that means.”
“Well, those spheres looked like they were heading north west before they got out of sight,” Lightning said, rubbing her chin. “But the only thing that’s in that direction is more of the Everfree Forest. I have no idea where she’s going.”
“Master...Tirek...may be able...to answer that.”
Slowly, the hunched over form of Master Tirek tottered back to his hooves, even as he clutched at the sides of his undoubtedly aching head. Turning to face Adagio and her friends, she could see that he had a nasty welt developing on his forehead.
“She most likely journies to the Middle Mountains and believes that one of her friends is sealed away there.”
Adagio’s mouth was suddenly quite dry. “And is one of the other five there?”
Adagio could only stare at the gangly form of Master Tirek. Silence had gripped the the basement of the centaur’s devastated home at the implications of another mad alicorn being freed to join Chroma in her rampage.
“How do you know there’s another alicorn there?” Suri asked. “Who even are you?”
“I am Master Tirek. Wanderer and scholar from the far east,” he answered with a short bow. “Master Tirek helped seal the alicorns away,” Tirek answered. “I was there for each of the battles and fought against each of them!”
“Stars above!” Starlight gasped. “I knew it! It’s Bitterroot! The forest moves as she dreams!”
“You are not wrong...but Bitterroot isn’t trapped there.”
Starlight blinked, her brow furrowing. “Then who-”
“It doesn’t matter which one! We need to figure out a way to stop her before we have two alicorns to deal with!” Adagio interrupted.
“Chroma’s had a whole day’s head start on us though!” Aria exclaimed. “We’ll never be able to catch up with her on hoof and only two of us can fly!”
“Ah! If flight is what you need, then Master Tirek has the key!”
The centaur gave a sharp whistle, the note seeming to hang in the air for a moment with nothing to show for it.
“So...is the key invisible?” Aria asked.
Tirek rolled his eyes. “Any second now!”
Another second passed, before Lightning Dust pointed at something on the horizon. “Is that a cloud?”
Sure enough, it was a cloud. A golden tuft of a cloud came arcing over the the trees, leaving a glittering trail behind it as it shot towards them. Dropping into the basement, it aligned itself in the middle of the group. Everyone took a few steps back as it did, for the cloud was large enough that Tirek and a fair amount of supplies could fit on its surface. Or Tirek and six ponies for that matter.
Adagio walked forward and prodded its side, her hoof finding resistance like she was a pegasus. Starlight joined her, humming to herself as she examined it. “Hmmm. Like a cloud walking charm but on the cloud itself.”
“Cirrus is no mere enchantment! I won this magic item from the Monkey King of the Whitecap Peaks in a game of pai gow!” Tirek scoffed.
“....I have so many questions,” Starlight frowned.
“Ask them later!” Aria shouted, jumping onto the surface of Cirrus. “We have an alicorn to catch!”
Adagio and the rest of her friends scrambled to join Aria on the magic cloud, only to have to adjust their positioning again when Tirek clambered his way on, taking a seat in the middle of the fluffy surface.
“So...how do you make this thing goooooooo-” Adagio began, only to break into a shriek as Nimbus shot into the air at a speed far beyond that of a normal pegasus.
“Oh yes! Hang on tight! Cirrus has a bit of a kick to it!”
- - - -
Chroma dove towards the largest peak of the Dragon Rib Mountains. They were slate grey daggers jutting out of the carpet of green that was the Everfree Forest, the edges of the peaks, gullies and cracks as sharp as the edge of any gladius. Back in the days of Equestria, these mountains were the home of thieves, robbers, the occasional caprataur tribe bold enough to try and thrive within the nation’s border and- occasionally- dragons.
Angling her wings into a dive, Chroma dropped closer towards the slopes. It had taken her far too long to work out where at least one of her friends was hidden. In retrospect, Applejack being sealed away under the very forest she had helped summon was obvious. And while she couldn’t have done anything about it at the time, now she finally had the means to free her friends. A hoof strayed to the purple bag beating away in time with her own heart. The Rainbow of Darkness would help her carve through the rock and any enchantments the Elements of Harmony had put in place.
Dipping even lower, now she could see a patchwork maze of cobbled together wooden structures, tottering towers, battered totems and other crudely patched together bits of construction. The ramshackle easily covered half the mountain and Caprataurs swarmed over the whole wicked lot. Without the strong hoof of Equestria to keep the area clear, it had become a true capital of the caprataur presence in the Everfree.
Chroma’s rage began to bubble up from the depths of her stomach. All the battles she had been involved in against this rabble, all the sacrifices that she and Equestria’s legions had made and now it was for nothing! The caprataurs were all the stronger.
Worse, they were standing between her and one of her friends! Growling, she began to channel her reserves of magic, reaching out to all of her storm clouds scattered across The Heartlands. She could feel them, but in her split state she didn’t have the power to call them all to her current location. Thankfully, there were other means at her disposal. A casual flick of her magic opened the bag hanging around her neck and the magic within hungrily spilled forth. A miasmic black cloud began to swirl around her body as the Rainbow of Darkness added its considerable power to Chroma’s reserves.
Now, with a sharp mental tug, Chroma drew the storms directly to her. The sky above the Dragon Rib Mountains turned nearly pitch black as the clouds swirled and danced above her head. Thunder rumbled and lightning danced along the undersides of the clouds as the power continued to build.
The caprataurs began to react now, scrambling like an overturned anthill towards crude ballistae and catapults. But even as the boulders and missiles streaked into the air, Chroma paid them no mind. Continuing to channel,. Black and grey tendrils of magic rose into her massive thunderhead, bringing the churning lightning and crashes of thunder to a new height of fury and intensity. Hurricane strength winds began to rake across the caprataur settlement, picking up crates, boxes, ammo bundles and anything else not secured. As those caprataurs not blown away scrambled for cover, Chroma raised a hoof and then let it fall in a final declaration of intent. And upon her silent command, the over swollen clouds vomited forth lightning.
Bolt, after bolt, after bolt- most of them wide as a house- tore through the caprataur’s settlement. Wood was shattered to splinters and caprataurs were struck down en masse, much to Chroma’s glee. The rain of bolts continued to lash out indiscriminately, tearing through the crude city like it was so much paper. Soon enough, the bolts were joined by her legions of stormcrows. They chased down fleeing caprataurs adding to the general chaos, even as the sparks from her lightning strikes began to set what hadn’t already been destroyed on fire. As the crackling flames raced across the remains of the settlement, Chroma cackled with glee.
“Yes! Run! Run you filthy mongrels! Equestria strikes at you once more!”
She broke into a fresh round of laughter, doubling over as the flames swept ever onward through the caprataur city. Or she did, until three shimmering spheres of light crashed into her from behind. Chroma froze in shock as the disparate bits of her power merged back with her, bringing with them a cascade of conflicting voices and feelings. All at once, she found herself very acutely aware of the horror playing out blow her hooves. The uncontrollable snap and crackle of wood being devoured by the fire, mixing with the furious but yet still panicked cries of the caprataurs and the cheerful caws of her crows, to form a monstrous cacophony. It made her stomach churn with shame and revulsion. Instinctively, she dove towards the shattered remains of the once thriving city.
“No, no, no! What have I done? I…,” she muttered to herself. “I...I know they were caprataurs, but I never went this far before!”
But a counter argument was already snaking its way through her mind. That refusal to act was why Equestria suffered before Scorpan and Twilight showed me the truth. It was a necessary bit of cruelty for a greater kindness towards my own kind. Why feel sorry for the beasts of the Everfree?
“I fought with honor damn it! Where’s the honor in mass frying a bunch of civilians? Even if they are caprataurs!”
The venom like words returned though, twisting and coiling around her mind in time with the tendrils of the Rainbow of Darkness. They stand between you and your friend. They fight, pillage, and kill without remorse! Destroy them, crack open the damn mountain and free your friend!
Despite the conflict churning away in her heart, the thought of her trapped companion dragged Chroma forward. Landing hard on a (relatively) clear section of the slope, she shaped all the magic supplied by the Rainbow of Darkness into an arcane spear and thrust it into the side of the mountain. Rock and dirt squealed in protest as the dark magic obliterated it. Slowly and steadily, Chroma began to push her way into the depths of the mountain.
- - - -
“Hey! The rain’s stopped!”
Raindrops opened one eye, before twisting to glare at Apple Bloom. “What do you mean the rain stopped?”
“It just stopped! All the clouds are gone too!”
Blinking, Raindrops hopped over to the window and pressed her muzzle to the bars. The sun was indeed bright and shining, like the downpour that had threatened to wash the town away hadn’t even happened.
“I don’t think I see any of those stupid birds of Chroma’s either.”
Apple Bloom blinked. “Huh...wonder how long it’ll take before ponies start to realize that and do something about it?”
The answer to that question came quickly. A chorus of voices, sharp and shouting, began to rise at the far end of the street. In the next moment a horde of Ponyville’s citizens came storming around the bend, more than a few carrying torches now that there was no storm to snuff out the flames. And at the head of the angry mob was a familiar looking pair, Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet, the latter of which had a pitchfork clenched angrily between her teeth.
“...I’m beginning to wonder about those two.” Raindrops muttered to herself.
A few of the Everfree Rangers defending the prison dropped into view, their weapons raised and aimed at the mob coming their way.
“Disperse at once! Return to your homes!”
Despite the force in their voices, such a retreat didn’t manifest. Instead the mob of Ponyvillian’s roared in fury and surged forward in a wave. Now the Rangers fell backwards, their crossbows twanging as a pair of bolts was sent sailing into the crowd. Raindrops winced, as one of the ponies behind Sugarcoat fell, fuming at her own helplessness. At least until she noticed something flowing along the ground, in between the hooves of the charging ponies, sliding its way out from between the nearby buildings.
The shadows coiled around the bodies of the Rangers, before snapping solid, leaving them locked in black crystal.
“Oh my…,” Apple Bloom gasped.
The charging crowd came to a sliding stop, more than a few ponies managing to stumble and trip in the process. All eyes were on the pool of shadow that spread out around the trapped rangers and the dozen figures that rose from the depths. King Sombra stepped from the darkness with a flick of his billowing cloak. Eleven members of the Royal Guard followed behind him, their sturdy iron armor and brutal iron war shoes glinting in the sunlight.
“Would anypony mind telling me,” he asked after a few more minutes of very awkward stares from his subjects, “where Baroness Dazzle is?”
- - - -
The Everfree Forest whipped past so quickly beneath Tirek’s magic cloud that it was little more than a fluffy green carpet from Adagio’s point of view. Vaguely, the thought of asking Starlight what was powering this thing flitted through her mind. But no, that would have to come later. The threat of Chroma’s friends was the immediate concern. It had to be. The Heartlands was barely surviving one, let alone six! All else was secondary to stopping that nightmare event. And yet...and yet...
Those visions remained seared into her mind. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to look at Queen Chrysalis the same way again. Just what were changelings? How did one of their queens become the ruler of an Equestrian successor kingdom? Did she have a role in the collapse of Equestria? What did King Sombra know about all of this? So many questions. So many things she didn’t know. So many things she needed to find out! Despite the seriousness of their current goals, Adagio let her eyes drift closed and let her mind wander towards plans for eventually dealing with those other questions. At least, she did until she smelled the smoke.
“Stars above…,” Suri gasped.
“Woah…,” Aria muttered.
“That’s just not right,” Starlight said.
“This is bad,” Lightning grimly declared.
Sonata just whimpered.
Adagio opened her eyes. “...Stars above.”
They were approaching their destination, a towering set of mountain peaks rising out of the Everfree. But much to Adagio’s surprise, they were also approaching an ashen wasteland on the side of the largest peak. The amount of charred timber and the desert dune sized piles of ash pointed to there once being some manner of city having been built there. But now there was nothing...nor could she see anything moving amongst what was left besides the crackling dots that were Chroma’s stormcrows. Her angry stormclouds hung overhead, they and the rising smoke casting the mountain in such a gloom as to make the whole scene seem like a hunk of Tartarus ripped from the depths and deposited into the waking world.
“Just how many of those crows does she have?” Suri asked. “You know they’re going to swarm us as soon as we get close! And all they have to do is slow us down long enough…”
“Master Tirek will get their attention,” Tirek declared. “Just be ready to move.”
He stood up, bracing all four legs against the puffy cloud surface as he unslung the oversized bow from his back. Nimbus began to move even faster, the ruined settlement growing larger and larger with each passing moment. Adagio gulped, tightening her grip a few notches more as the collective dots that were the stormcrows rose into the air as one.
“Everypony gather close!” Starlight said. “I’m going to get us to the ground while Tirek deals with the crows.”
Part of Adagio wanted to object...but Starlight was her friend. “Okay Starlight. I trust you.”
It was difficult to move while the cloud was in the middle of its headlong dive but everypony, save Tirek, managed to crawl to Starlight’s side. Onward Cirrus dove, while the stormcrows wheeled and flocked towards them in one massive cloud. Starlight began to channel, the gem that was her Element glowing in tune with her horn. The familiar tingle of magic built up around Adagio, growing more and more intense, the closer they got to the onrushing flock. It was only at the last moment, just before Nimbus and crows were about to collide, that Starlight let her spell fly. There was a sensation of twisting, almost falling for a moment and then Adagio registered solid ground under her hooves again.
They were amidst the devastation the ash up to their fetlocks. Starlight had managed to land them near a jagged looking cave, running into the depths of the mountain. A relatively flat patch of mountain ground surrounded it, maybe large enough for a house or two to stand side by side upon. A few charred posts behind them pointed to a bridge having been there at one point, while a half collapsed pile of cinders and ash beneath a charred outline to their right pointed to what may have been a set of stairs before the conflagration. Perhaps more worrying and unmistakable though were the smoky tendrils of blackness that still clung to the cave edge.
“...That was made with magic,” Starlight glowered.
“And probably leads straight towards whichever stupid alicorn is down there,” Aria grumbled. “Should we go in after them?”
“Not on your life! In tight quarters like that tunnel, we’d have no room to move if we ran into them coming back the other way.” Lightning Dust argued. She pointed to one of the smouldering piles of wreckage. “It’d be better to hide out here and give them the full rainbow when they come out!”
Suri frowned. “Please tell me we’re not calling it that!”
“What’s wrong with full rainbow? It says what it is!”
“Focus girls!” Adagio said, interrupting the argument before it could get started. “Everyone take cover and get ready!”
They scrambled behind one of the collapsed piles, pressing their bodies low to the ground. At first, the only thing they could hear were the distant, angry caws from the aerial battle taking place high above their heads. But eventually, they could hear an echoing conversation coming back up the tunnel.
“Applejack and I were together for a while. After Rarity was captured we both headed far to the west before we got ambushed again.”
That voice was gentle sounding. So gentle sounding Adagio had a hard time picturing its owner as one of the legendary six alicorns that destroyed Equestria.
“That’s Luna’s territory these days. We’ll have to move fast. Sombra’s aware of my presence now and The Elements of Harmony have a new bunch of masters.”
Adagio closed her eyes, concentrating on the feelings she had when she first realized that the ponies at her side were her friends. A warm tingle flooded through her body and almost immediately she could feel her hooves beginning to lift off the ground.
Then she heard the growl.
Opening her eyes Adagio was surprised to find herself looking at a bunny. The white coated rabbit was perched atop one of the smouldering logs of the pile, peering at Adagio with its head cocked slightly in a curious, near questioning gesture. Deathclaw perked up from his perch on Aria and flared his wings.
Adagio frowned. “Shoo!” she hissed, waving a hoof at it. “Go away!”
The bunny blinked.
“Shoo!” Adagio hissed again. “Why won’t you go away?”
The bunny smiled with a vicious glee, its buck-teeth extending into true fangs, while claws popped out of the ends of its paws. It then launched itself off the log, shooting straight for Adagio with a blood curdling shriek!
“ASCRAIDS!” Adagio yelped. Instinctively, she went for her rapier, thrusting it at the fuzzy little death ball. To her horror, it pulled off an impressive mid air twist of its body, allowing the point to pass harmlessly by. In the next moment, it slammed into Adagio’s chest, knocking the breath from her body and the remains of her concentration from her head. She and her friends dropped back to the ground in a jumble, almost falling on top of each other in the process. The rabbit vaulted off of Adagio’s chest, doing a mid air spin before delivering a heavy kick to the side of Starlight’s head as she prepared a spell.
Starlight toppled backwards, landing hard on Suri, her magic missiles shooting high into the air. The accursed rabbit looked ready to pounce again, when Deathclaw came barreling down on him. Deathclaw’s talons managed to close around the rabbit’s neck scruff and he began to lift the little white monster from the ground. But, quick as a viper, he twisted in Deathclaw’s grip and sunk his fangs into one of the hawk’s legs. Deathclaw screeched back but released his grip all the same.
“Hey! Leave him alone!” Aria shouted, rushing the rabbit.
The rabbit let go of Deathclaw’s leg dropping back to the ground just in time to scamper aside from a heavy, gauntleted stomp from Aria. Quick as a flash, it then slipped between her legs and sprang up to kick Aria in the underside of her barrel. Aria grunted and rolled backwards, the rabbit circling around for another strike when the first voice they heard from the cave called out.
“That’s enough Angel Bunny.”
As quickly as they had appeared, the monstrous parts of Angel’s appearance vanished. The bunny turned, blatantly shook its stupid fuzzy rump at them, and hopped over to a tall, butter yellow coated alicorn.
Despite herself, Adagio’s breath caught in her throat for a moment as she laid eyes upon the newly freed alicorn...beautiful.
Long legged, with a coat that seemed to glow despite the gloom. A light pink mane hung in long curtains with tips coming up in gentle little curls. Even her cutie-mark was cute, being a trio of pink butterflies. Like Chroma, she still wore the accoutrements of old Equestria, but unlike Chroma it was less military focused. A clean white toga was wrapped around her body, while a victory laurel was perched between her ears. Despite her peaceful and beautiful appearance, Adagio knew better than to let her guard down. For Chroma had been joined by Echidna, Mother of Monsters.
Angel Bunny- surely the most inappropriately named rabbit in history- hopped onto its master’s back, still snickering at the earlier fumbling attempts made to stop it. Echidna rolled her eyes. “Angel, be nice. Rainbow told me all about them. It’s not these little ponies fault that they’re so easily confused.”
“Now, now. I’m not going to write off our perspective subjects without at least having a conversation with them first.”
She began to step towards them, pausing only when Adagio snarled at her, rapier raised. “Stay right there! The only talking I’m interested in doing, involves both of you surrendering.”
Echidna frowned. “Oh dear.” She glanced over at Chroma, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “Now I see what you mean.”
“We do have the Elements of Harmony now!” Starlight exclaimed. “I wouldn’t be so dismissive if you know what’s good for you!”
“The Elements of Harmony are impressive, it’s true.” Echidna smiled softly. “But they do suffer from one tiny little issue.”
Before Adagio or any of them could react, Echidna tapped out a loose pattern on the stone. The ground immediately began to rumble, the once sturdy stone and dirt shattering under their hooves. Adagio found herself hanging onto one of the larger chunks for dear life as the whole side of the mountain gave way. Down and down they went, swept along by the flood of scree and loose stone. The following few minutes were among the most terrifying of Adagio’s life as she struggled to stay upright and not be bucked off into the grinding flow of rock. She was vaguely aware of her friends shouting and screaming around her, but it was all she could do to hang onto her shard of rock.
“Hang on Adagio!”
Aria’s sturdy hooves wrapped around Adagio’s barrel and she was hauled skywards. Not a moment too soon. For a purple, serpentine shape poked through the flow of stone for the briefest of moments, before submerging again. Aria wheeled about carrying Adagio over to a more sturdy outcropping of stone, where the others were already gathered. A quick assessment of their surroundings revealed that they were a few hundred feet away from where they started and even deeper into the ruins of the caprataur city. The charred remains of another bridge stood just a little ways from where they were standing. At one point it must have spanned the narrow gap between their little rock and the sturdy looking great hall across the way.
“That ambush could have gone better,” Suri muttered.
“Gone better?” Aria exclaimed. “We got out flanks handed to us by a rabbit!”
“Yeah, well, it was Echidna’s rabbit! That has to count for something.”
Sonata shivered. “I’m more worried about that snake thingie. That thing made my coat crawl.”
“Probably a tatzelwurm. Mountains this wild and remote are lousy with them,” Lightning Dust commented, keeping her crossbow trained on the ground. “They burrow through rock, generally cause problems...and sometimes eat ponies.”
Starlight took a moment to glare at her. “...Thank you Lightning. I wasn’t worried enough about things trying to kill me today.”
“Better to know. Now you’ll know to shoot it when it shows it’s snout.”
Adagio was about to ask if anypony had managed to keep track of the alicorns during their fall, when Echidna’s voice called out from directly overhead.
“Aww. Poor little ponies afraid of my cute little tatzelwurm?” she chided. Far from the soft and kind tone she had been using when she first left the cave, now there was a snapping, mocking, cruel quality to her. Perhaps the previous kindness was a lie, or a remnant of the personality she had before Scorpan corrupted her.
Turning her gaze skyward, Adagio glared at Echidna and Chroma. One alicorn was bad enough! How were they supposed to deal with two?
“Jeese Fluttershy, a tatzelwurm? Don’t those things take years to digest their prey?”
“They do,” she shrugged. “So?”
“So? You turned that on living ponies! I mean, yeah, we gotta stop them. But that’s sheer torture you were about to do!”
Echidna sneered back at her. “Oh boo hoo! I was locked away for three hundred years thanks to those Elements! I’ll feed them to whatever I want!”
Chroma fluttered back from her friend, a pained wince clear on her features. The alicorn’s sudden hesitation seemed strange. Why after days and days of unending rain, the attempts to kill them, the mass slaughter of caprataurs would she be showing hesitation now? Adagio wracked her mind for an answer. Anything, even something small just might give them the edge they needed to survive!
Think Adagio, think! What’s happened to Chroma recently? She split herself, then we fought...in Tirek’s basement...
There it was. Chroma- or a part of her at least- had been exposed to the Elements of Harmony! She was at least partially free of the madness that clung to her. Enough to have doubts about her friend’s behavior. There was the opportunity. It wasn’t much, but it was an angle of attack Adagio could use.
“So, this is what the honor of Equestria is reduced to?” she called out. “Torture? Feeding your foes to monsters? I thought this was supposed to be a ‘glorious reclamation’!”
Echidna’s head whipped about to glare down at Adagio. “Quiet. The adults are talking.”
“Or what? You’ll sick more monsters on me? You’re already threatened the worst fate upon me and my friends!” Adagio then shifted her attention back to Chroma. “Is this the Equestria you imagined bringing back? One where where ponies would be thrown to monsters? You were even going to put me on trial for my ‘crimes’!”
“Don’t listen to her rambling!” Echidna snapped. She shot towards Chroma with a flap of her wings, almost pressing her muzzle into her friend’s face. “They’re enemies of Equestria! They’re your enemies! Show some of that backbone I know you have and help me strike them down!”
Chroma fluttered backwards some more, her pupils pinpricks as she stared at Echidna. “Fluttershy? ...You...you’re scaring me…”
“Scaring you? SCARING YOU?” Echidna roared. “You did everything you did to free me and now you’re scared?”
“Chroma…,” Adagio called. The alicorn managed to wrench her eyes away from her friend to look down at Adagio. Adagio stared right back at her. “Look me in the eyes, and tell me that’s the friend you remember and that you worked so hard to free.”
Chroma’s eyes flicked back and forth between Adagio and Echidna. “I...I need time to think,” she muttered, eventually.
Before Echidna could do anything to stop her, Chroma took off, soaring high into the air. It wasn’t long before her form vanished into the depths of the stormclouds overhead. Adagio allowed herself a victorious smile, polishing a hoof on the hem of her dress. One alicorn down, one to go.
Echidna hissed through clenched teeth, but then took a deep breath. “Well, aren’t you a clever little pony?”
Spreading her forelegs wide, Echidna began to sing, a teal magic aura playing around her horn. It was a light and airy tune, probably something that once helped carry young ponies off to sleep. But now the ground began to rumble and an intense buzzing sound filled the air. Rock and dirt were sent exploding skywards as a trio of tatzelwurms tore from the ground, their purple, serpentinite bodies swaying in time to Echidna’s tune. They surrounded the outcropping in a loose triangle formation, making sure that nopony could easily escape. But they weren’t the only kind of creature that answered her call. A multicolored swarm of fuzzy spheres, born aloft by translucent wings, buzzed and swarmed around Echidna.
“Parasprites?” Lightning Dust blinked.
Echidna’s song hit a high note and the monsters surged forward.
- - - -
“You there. You’re one of Baroness Dazzle’s guards, yes?”
It was still amazing to Raindrops how fast the remaining Everfree Rangers had been subdued. With them locked away, Sombra disappeared from view as he walked towards the prison’s entrance. The angry mob had watched the battle in a stunned silence and had fallen into a general milling about while their king investigated the building they had been so close to tearing apart. Though the presence of the Royal Guard certainly helped keep them and their emotions restrained.
King Sombra’s voice at the bars to her cell had almost made Raindrops jump right out of her coat. But now she turned to face the king’s question. “I am m’lord,” she answered, dropping into a deep bow. Apple Bloom watched the two of them, eyes wide and jaw hanging open.
“Where is she? What happened to Queen Chrysalis? Does Mayor Glimmer still live?”
“I don’t know exactly what happened to your wife m’lord. I saw Chroma banish her. Mayor Glimmer and Baroness Dazzle both still live...to my knowledge at least. They went to seek the Elements of Harmony.”
“...Come again?” Sombra asked.
“They seek the Elements of Harmony.”
Sombra’s brow furrowed as he mouthed the sentence to himself. After a few rounds of silent muttering, he fixed Raindrops with his intense stare again. “We are talking about the same pony here? Baroness Dazzle?”
“...And she marched into the Everfree forest instead of selling out The Heartlands for a better deal?”
King Sombra shook his head slightly but reached out with his magic. It took him a few moments, but he popped the lock and swung the cell door open. “What is your name?”
“Raindrops. Work with the guards I brought to keep order until I return.”
“Of course m’lord.”
Sombra gave a curt nod, sinking into a similar pool of shadow to the one he had emerged from originally. Raindrops watched it flow out of the jail fast as a rushing river.
“...How come you get ta be in charge?” Apple Bloom asked after a moment.
“...Let’s just find the keys and get everypony else out.”
- - - -
“Suri! Right side!” Lightning Dust shouted.
Suri threw herself to the ground just in time. The thick whip like tentacles of a tatzelwurm cracked through the air where she had just been standing. Suri grit her teeth, scrambling away from the hulking creature, even as she sent her enchanted needle shooting back at it.
Across the way, Adagio grit her teeth as the cloud of parasprites came around for another run on her. The little fuzzballs weren’t nearly as vicious as the tatzelwurms, but it was hard to concentrate on the chaos unfolding all around when they rammed into her en masse. There was no time to direct Starlight to unleash her fire upon them. She was struggling with one of the other tatzelwurms, galloping in a windy pattern to throw off their aim. Dipping into her magic, Adagio focused and sang a single note, one of the strongest she could muster.
A wave of magic and sound burst out from her mouth, slamming into the horde of parasprites. The insects went flying every which way, squeaking adorably as the magic scattered them like grain before a windstorm. Not that said scattering would last long. Not with Echidna’s singing constantly urging these creatures onwards.
“Adagio! Left!” Aria shouted.
The tentacles of the third tatzelwurm wrapped around Adagio, the creature immediately dragging her towards its gaping maw. She countered by swinging her rapier around, aiming for one of the wurms beady little eyes. Thrashed and yanked about however, the tip of Adagio’s blade dug into its rubbery purple flesh, just above the eye. The tatzelwurm bellowed in pain, whipping its body back and forth in an attempt to dislodge the source of that agony. But it continued to drag Adagio towards its gullet. At least until Aria dropped from the sky, landing on the tatzelwurm’s head with all four hooves. The beast roared again, releasing Adagio and rearing back, before vanishing back beneath the ground in a flurry of soil and gravel.
“Thank you Aria,” Adagio nodded.
“I couldn’t let you get eaten. That wouldn’t look good for me.”
“Wouldn’t look good for me either.”
An explosion echoed from behind them, as Starlight unleashed one of her fireballs on the tatzelwurm that had been chasing her. Right behind that spell, she wove another, summoning shards of ice and plunging them into the beasts side. Aria grimaced, sparing a glance skyward as Lightning Dust vanished under the mob of parasprites.
“...We’re up a creek here Adagio. When I was flying around up there, I saw a parade of monsters working their way up the mountain side. Drakes, manticores, basilisks...I even saw some one eyed beasts that look like a caprataur’s big cousin. If she keeps this up she might even wake up a star creature or two. We need to stop her control!”
Adagio nervously licked her lips. There was one possibility to undermine Echidna’s spell. Assuming her observations and guess work so far were correct. ...Still, options were few at the moment.
“I need you to sing.”
“...What?” Aria blinked.
“Just tell the others! After I channel, sing! Every time Echidna opens her mouth! Anything to disrupt her tune!”
Aria’s expression was doubtful, but she nodded and took wing again. With her friend spreading the word, Adagio set her hooves firmly against the ground and braced her legs. Drawing upon her magic, she quickly wove the enchantment. She didn’t want to alert Echidna to what she was planning, so she kept her verbal component as soft as she could get away with. Humming her way through the musical scales, low to high, would have to do. It was the concept of intensity and pitch that was important. The enchantment settled over her and her friends, almost wrapping itself around their throats. As it finished settling into place Adagio looked up at Echidna. Her yellow form stood out against the black clouds of Chroma’s storm. For a moment she was silent, perhaps gathering her breath for another round of song. Then…. A note, clear as crystal, rang out over the battlefield. The remaining tatzelwurms roared almost as if they were cheering on their master’s song. But then another song rose to meet it.
Alas my love you do me wrong To cast me off discourteously For I have loved you so long Delighting in your company
Greencoat was all my joy Greencoat was my delight Greencoat was my heart of gold And who but my mare greencoat?
Adagio blinked, for that sappy love ballad flowed from Aria Blaze’s mouth. It was unmistakably her to, for Adagio’s own enchantment made it so her voice carried like they were in a small room rather than an expansive battlefield. Adagio twisted about to observe the tatzelwurms. They had paused in their pursuit of Starlight and Suri, their mighty heads slowly tracking back and forth as the tunes competed for space in their minds. Even the parasprites had given up their attacks, instead flitting about in time to Aria’s tune.
Echidna’s voice then began to rise over Aria’s, her tune becoming more forceful and quicker paced. The tatzelwurms began to shake the confusion from their heads, but now Starlight launched into a song.
There were three ravens sat on a tree, Downe a downe, hay downe, a downe, They were as black as they might be. With a downe, downe, downe. Then one of them said to his mate “Where shall we now our breakfast take?” With a downe, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
And then Suri.
I should leave a happy life, sweet creature If only you truly realized That you were the cause of all my concern
Mare of cheerful bearing, Pleasing , bright and pure Often the woe I suffer To serve you loyally.
Echidna had stopped singing now and was glaring down at them with an expression that almost radiated fury. And then Lightning Dust decided to join in.
Every mare loves a bar and beer with foam so thick! You know what else a mare loves? A stallion’s big, sturdy, d-
Lightning’s bawdy tavern song (because where else would she have heard it) was a step too far for Echidna. A mighty scream of frustration escaped the alicorns lips as she dove towards the group, hooves outstretched. As she came in low, her horn began to glow as she summoned up a spell.
“Adagio! Move!” Starlight shouted.
Adagio threw herself to the side, looking up just in time to see the tatzelwurms go barreling past where she had been a moment before. Starlight, Suri and Sonata chased after. Starlight’s staff crackled with lightning. A near constant stream flowed from the staff tip, herding the tatzelwurms along as they tried to escape the source of their pain. Suri helped, jabbing with the tip with her needle. While Sonata...banged a hoof against her frying pan.
Echidna flared her wings, pulling out of her charge. But the tatzelwurms surged forward slamming their bulk into the alicorn. She toppled backwards, while the tatzelwurms- unbalanced by being near the edge of the outcropping- tumbled forward. Alicorn and monsters fell into the ravine below, a mighty crash echoing off the stony walls. Adagio ran to the edge of the ravine, peering down to see Echidna grappling with the very creatures she had summoned.
“Quick! While she’s distracted!” Adagio called.
Her friends ran to her side and she could immediately feel the magic beginning to swell within them. Once again they began to rise into the air, the rainbow motes of magic flitting between them as the power built. Echidna managed to throw the tatzelwurms aside, their bulk crashing against the mountain just as the Element’s power reached its climax. She scrambled backwards, eyes wide and panicked.
“R-Rainbow!” she shouted, turning and soaring into the air as the flowing rainbow of Elemental magic burst from Adagio and her friends. “HELP!”
A great boom echoed from the stormclouds overhead. Right on its hooves came an arcing rainbow that shot towards Echidna. The yellow alicorn was knocked aside, Chroma throwing herself in the path of the Element’s rainbow. It hit her in the next moment, the beam of magic carried onwards, sweeping Chroma away as it vanished over the horizon. With the magic unleashed, Adagio and her friends sank back to the ground, leaving the battlefield momentarily quiet.
Adagio almost collapsed as her hooves touched the ground. A sensation of exhaustion had settled over her, strong enough that it took every bit of effort she had to not pass out right then and there. Perhaps using the Elements twice in a day wasn’t the best idea. Still, she pushed through the staggering exhaustion. There was still another corrupted alicorn here.
“Again!” she shouted.
“Adagio...she’s gone,” Starlight answered.
Adagio blinked and actually examined her surroundings more properly this time. Indeed, Echidna was nowhere to be seen. Nor were her beasts.
“She must have fled when Chroma took the hit,” Aria frowned. “That’s just great. What are we supposed to do now?”
“Hey! Look!” Lightning said, pointing towards the clouds.
Chroma’s supernatural storm was breaking apart. The dark stormclouds fell apart, collapsing back into the water from which they were made. They were joined by showers of sparks as the stormcrows disintegrated. Without their master around to give them life, they too were crumbling back into their base materials. Warm shafts of noonday sunlight lanced through the increasingly tattered remains of the thunderhead, Adagio and her friends watching in silence.
“So...does this mean we won?” Suri asked as Chroma’s castle was exposed and began to list to the side as it crumbled.
“I...suppose,” Adagio frowned. She looked around at the ash stained landscape that surrounded them. Despite the bright and sunny they found themselves in, they were still sitting amidst devastation. Great furrows were still torn through the ground where the tatzelwurms had attacked them and she was sure that some of the lumps under the crushed and burnt buildings were caprataurs that had failed to escape the destruction of their home.
Chroma’s castle plummeted towards the ground, great chunks ripping away as it went. Like a wounded animal it twisted and thrashed as it fell, finally bursting apart into cloud vapor as it crashed into the Everfree.
“It doesn’t feel like we won,” Suri sighed.
Adagio was about to agree with her, when she noticed the white winged butterfly she had seen before flutter into view. It did a slow circle around the group before landing in front of them. As it touched down though, the little insect was engulfed in a brilliant white glow. Adagio shielded her eyes, only daring to peek past her hoof once the blinding light had faded. Queen Chrysalis ruffled her wings, bowing her head.
“In my experience, victory does have that tendency to leave an ashen taste in your mouth,” she said, sorrow clear in her voice.
Force of habit and tradition pulled Adagio into an immediate bow, a gesture followed by her friends.
“Rise, please,” Chrysalis said. “You six have risked and suffered enough on this journey.”
Adagio and her friends rose, though none of them jumped to talk ahead of their queen. Chrysalis stared down at them, nervously ruffling her wings.
“The Elements of Harmony,” she eventually settled on. “I have to admit...even when I urged Adagio to begin this journey, I wasn’t sure if you would be successful. But you have all greatly impressed me with your tenacity and the bonds you have forged with each other. You have managed to reawaken power that has slept for almost three hundred years.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Adagio said, dipping her head into another quick bow.
“Wait…,” Aria frowned. “Your majesty...you were the butterfly Adagio kept seeing in the forest?”
Chrysalis nodded. “Indeed I was. When Chroma attacked me in Ponyville, I was close enough to Adagio at the time to impart the barest spark of my power to her. Enough to provide...an anchor of sorts to the waking world, even when banished. I gave Adagio what hints I could. When I was lucid enough to do so.”
She paused for a moment, tilting her head slightly. “It was...difficult to make out entirely what was happening at times. When you touched the Element of Magic, for instance.”
She knows, Adagio thought. Her face remained a mask, but inside her heart was racing. She knows the Element of Magic talked to me, even if she doesn’t know the content. Fishing for answers, maybe?
“Adagio...you didn’t happen to see anything while in contact with the Element of Magic?” Chrysalis asked.
She was definitely fishing. Considering that nature of the visions she had seen when under, Adagio was willing to bet her whole fortune that Chrysalis was trying to work out if she had seen those images of her insectile past. And until she knew the truth of those visions there was truly only one option at Adagio’s hooves.
“Just…nightmares of what would befall The Heartlands if we failed. They were...vivid enough that I was convinced I had failed at first.”
Not a complete lie. Even if she had actually had that nightmare when unconscious in Ponyville’s healing house.
“Mmm...a grim fate, I’m sure.” Chrysalis looked up at the bright sunny sky and then back at the ruins of the caprataur capital. “It would be wise to return to Ponyville. Though I should let my husband know that I’m okay.”
A quick channel from her horn sent off a green tongue of flame that shot into the air and quickly out of sight.
“What about Chroma?” Starlight asked. “And Echidna?” She scanned the sky for a moment, frowning deeply when she didn’t spy what she was looking for. “And did anypony see where Master Tirek got to?”
“Master Tirek is, and always has been, a wanderer at heart.” Chrysalis smiled. It was light and genuine. “Now that he is no longer honor bound to guard the Elements of Harmony, I imagine he’ll be wandering off to go on another adventure.”
The smile was quickly replaced with a deep frown, however. “I shall search for Chroma. The Rainbow of Darkness is not something that should remain roaming free. ...Echidna will have to be prepared for and dealt with in time, I’m afraid.”
She took to the air with a flap of her wings. “Stay here. Sombra should be along quickly once my message reaches him.”
With that, she turned and took off like a shot, quickly vanishing from sight. Adagio frowned as she left, a single question burning through her mind.
What are you hiding?
- - - -
A fresh round of sobs shook Rainbow Dash’s body. The alicorn...ex-alicorn now, curled herself into an even tighter ball as another wave of misery crashed upon her. For the first time in centuries, Equestria’s martial Lady of Loyalty could see things clearly and face the truth of her actions.
Oh, how the magic of the Elements of Harmony had hurt. It had washed over and snaked through her body, burning away every last bit of Scorpan’s corrupted magic. Stripping away her unearned alicornhood in a matter of moments and leaving her just a pegasus again. Not that Rainbow Dash cared about that. Not now.
It was the faces of everypony she had ever hurt that was currently seared into her mind. Every incident of madness induced pain she had inflicted upon the world she had once cared so much for played out in her mind over and over again. Thousands of lives cut short. Even more ruined. Many had everything they had ever owned or built swept away in her storms. Others had suffered mental anguish at her hooves. All of it was wrong...but she had thought it right at the time. All because of Scorpan, his hunt for power and the Rainbow of Dark-
Rainbow Dash’s eyes snapped open, her hooves flying to her neck. No thick twisted cord. No bag that beat in time to her own heart. Panic gripped her mind, pushing the misery over her monstrous actions aside for the moment. Scrambling to her hooves, she frantically searched the forest clearing she had landed in with red, puffy eyes. She just knew it had to be around here somewhere. Unless the Elements of Harmony had managed to burn it away to nothing? Somehow, she doubted that. She wasn’t a lucky enough pony for that to be the case.
There! The bag was resting just behind a large rock. She flitted over to it, her hooves closing around the heavy, jagged stone. The Rainbow of Darkness pulsed away no worse off than it had been while tied around her neck. Rainbow Dash shuddered. Even without touching it, she still felt oily and dirty. The Rainbow of Darkness was perhaps the darkest of dark magic and she had been wearing it like jewelry!
There was only one thing to do. Take it back to Chrysalis and Sombra so they could safely lock it away. Maybe beg for mercy while she was at it. Shuddering, she leaned down to pick it up as carefully as she could. But before she could, a white blur cut across her field of view, taking the Rainbow of Darkness with it.
“Hey!” Rainbow exclaimed.
It didn’t take long for her find the blur. The snow white figure of Angel Bunny was perched on a nearby fallen tree branch. The rabbit idly passed the the Rainbow of Darkness from paw to paw, a mocking smirk on her his muzzle.
“Oh no you don’t!” Rainbow shouted, charging after him.
Angel Bunny snickered and dove into the underbrush. Rainbow Dash stayed right on his tail, weaving her way through the trees. At least, she did until a sky blue magic aura grabbed her and slammed her against one of said trees. She could only struggle helplessly as Fluttershy stepped into view. Angel Bunny hopped neatly onto her back, tying the Rainbow of Darkness into place around her neck.
“Fluttershy! Put that thing down! It’s dangerous!”
Fluttershy stroked it gently for a moment. “No more than any of us. And I need it to free the rest of our friends.”
“That thing is wrong!” Rainbow shouted, twisting helplessly in her friend’s grip. “Scorpan lied to us!”
Fluttershy sighed. “Oh dear...I was going to ask you to join me. But it’s clear that you’ve become tainted by the Elements of Harmony.”
A burst of magic slammed into her stomach, knocking the words and air out of her. Another trio of bursts impacted into her head, knocking Rainbow around like a rag doll. Blackness began to overtake her senses, her friend’s assault wounding her just as emotionally. Before sinking into complete unconsciousness Fluttershy hissed some final words into her ear.
“You always were the weakest of us.”
- - - -
“So, Adagio, why did you lie to the queen?”
Adagio blinked at Aria’s question, before pushing the surprise from her mind. Aria was Honesty after all. Sparing a quick glance at their surroundings to make sure that neither Sombra nor Chrysalis were eavesdropping, she explained as quickly as possible.
“I’ll tell you when we get back to my manor. The Element of Magic showed me something about her. Before Chroma and her friends were corrupted.”
“Are you saying she’s involved?” Starlight asked.
“Maybe...I just don’t know right now.”
Starlight was about to ask another question, but Adagio held up a hoof. “Later.”
Starlight pouted, but kept her question to herself. The rest of her friends also seemed concerned, but likewise held back any questions they had about Chrysalis. It was a good thing that they did too, for not long after King Sombra arrived. He came flowing in as a cloud of shadow condensing back into his alicorn form directly before them. Adagio dropped into a bow, her friends following suit. She could almost feel Sombra’s eyes on her as he carefully looked them over, his expression neutral. Then he sighed.
“My wife is never going to let me hear the end of this.”
“Only because I told you to not underestimate Adagio, honey.”
Chrysalis dropped from the sky, next to Sombra. They shared an affectionate nuzzle, the presence of their subjects forgotten as they met again.
“I was worried,” Sombra sighed after the moment of tenderness passed.
“I know,” Chrysalis answered. “But I truly had no idea Chroma would be paying us a visit.”
“Chroma...did you find her?” Adagio asked, rising out of her bow.
“I did not,” Chrysalis sighed. She stared past Adagio, peering at a point in the now clear blue sky. “Chroma always was fast. If she doesn’t want to be found, she’ll easily be able to escape. I am more concerned with Echidna. We will have to inform Equestria’s other successor states. She won’t hesitate to move against them.”
“Then let us return to Ponyville,” Sombra declared. “Once Baroness Dazzle is back in control of her barony, we can see to other plans.”
“Ugh. Not looking forward to trudging all the way back through the Everfree,” Aria grumbled. “It took us at least a day to reach Roam, never mind wherever we are now.”
King Sombra chuckled. “Worry not. There’s always….my way.”
Aria raised an eyebrow.
- - - -
The journey back to Ponyville was conducted via King Sombra’s shadow magic. It was fast, zipping from shadow to shadow, wrapped in a larger mass of the stuff. A journey that would normally take days was cut down to hours. It was also incredibly unpleasant, feeling not unlike being partially smothered by dozens upon dozens of pillows at the same time.
To Adagio’s great relief, Ponyville had not been washed away while she was gone. There was damage, yes. Some of the fields would need to be replanted and she could already tell that she’d be making an official request for relief from the crown before the day was done. But it was here and mostly intact. There would be time to rebuild and recover.
As they trudged through one of the open gates, she was so focused on the what that would all entail that the growing crowd watching their little procession escaped her notice at first. At least until a raucous cheer tore through them, followed quickly by the babble of the rumor mill.
“The queen returns!”
“With the baroness!”
“Look at their outfits! Oooo! So shiny!”
“And that jewerly!”
Normally, Adagio would have reveled at such attention. But for now, all she wanted to do was get home. So she smiled and waved as they marched all the way across town to her manor. On the way, she spotted her guards lingering in the crowd, uncertainty hanging about them like stormclouds. There would need to be a conversation and possibly an apology there. The journey only stopped once they were back at the manor and Adagio slammed the door closed behind Sombra and Chrysalis. Slumping slightly, she stumbled into her sitting room and threw herself onto one of the couches. Yet, just as she lay down, Queen Chrysalis coughed.
“Baroness Dazzle, while you and your friends have certainly deserve a rest, there is some business we have to discuss first.”
Adagio mentally sighed, but stood. Queen Chrysalis looked her and her friends over before speaking. “Kneel, please.”
Adagio knelt, as did her friends. Though they wore their confusion on their faces...save for Starlight. She was keeping her emotions under control.
Chrysalis looked them over again, before shaking her head slightly. “Normally, I’d wish to make more of a ceremony out of this...but that will have to come later. I wish to make this offical now.” A small flare of magic jumped from her horn, forming into an ethereal sword. “In the name of The Heartlands,” she began, tapping each of them on their withers in turn, “By the will of Harmony, I declare you their protectors and name you Knights of Harmony.
Sonata, Suri and Aria gasped. Lightning simply murmured out a simple “Thank you.”. Starlight bowed even deeper. Adagio bowed deeper as well, though the vice like sensation had returned to her heart. Knights had their own obligations of service to the crown, especially when it came to the protection of The Heartlands. Of course, being the bearers of The Elements, getting called upon to fight Echidna and the rest of her lot was probably inevitable. But now there were social chains connecting them to the Queen. And if she really was still the monster she had seen in the past….
She snapped back to the immediate reality of the room. “My apologies your highness. My mind was wandering.”
“I was simply saying that this will mean that Suri is released from her contract. She can not be owned by you and be a knight at the same time.”
“Of course your majesty. In fact,” she smiled over at one of her oldest friends and confidants. “I had already been planning to release her.”
“I am most happy to hear that,” Chrysalis smiled serenely.
“And you, Lightning Dust,” Sombra said, fixing the pegasus with an imperious gaze. “As one of the few Everfree Rangers that remained loyal to the crown, you will be instrumental in helping rebuild the order. As such the Ponyville chapter and its lodge are yours to restore as you see fit.”
Adagio mentally winced. Another reward, but another chain at the same time. Lightning Dust stammered for a moment then nodded numbly.
“We’ll be in touch Baroness Dazzle,” Queen Chrysalis nodded. “I leave your barony in your...quite capable hooves.”
With that the rulers of The Heartlands teleported away, leaving Adagio feeling very uncertain about the future.
“So...Adagio, what do we do now?” Starlight asked.
Adagio considered the question, but before she could answer it her ears flicked towards the sound of a door opening. Turning, she rushed towards the foyer. There at the top of the stairs stood a heavily bandaged Iron Will.
He blinked a few times, still looking a little worse for wear. “Adagio? Where did you get that outfit? Where’s that angry alicorn? ...What in Tartarus did I miss?”
A few tears of happiness leaking from her eyes, Adagio took the stairs two at a time. She embraced her faithful bodyguard, hugging him as tight as she could, just in case he’d somehow vanish.
“Okay...can somepony tell me what I’ve missed?”
Adagio allowed herself a small smile. She had the feeling that, somehow, everything would be alright. After all. She had her friends.
Adagio idly swirled a goblet of wine as she finished her story. Her friends were silent as the implications of her vision hung heavily in the room. It was late at night, the group having met back at the manor after resting from the battle and their adventure. Will was resting upstairs again. Adagio would fill him in later.
“Well...I can certainly say that I’ve never heard of a changeling before,” Starlight frowned. “But I could do some research…”
“If you do, be subtle. In the game between Chrysalis, Sombra and Midnight and company, I don’t know everypony’s places,” Adagio sighed. “Maybe Chrysalis underwent an actual change of heart. Maybe she’s running her own plan. I just...don’t know yet.”
“Could you ask the Element of Magic? Wouldn’t it know?” Sonata asked.
Adagio reached a hoof up to the mane bane that was the Element of Magic. “Maybe...if I can work out how to talk to it.”
“I can do some experiments. See if there’s a way we can reliably talk to them.” Starlight sighed.
“What are we actually going to do though?” Aria frowned, idly waving a hoof. “We’re knights now. Echidna is still out there. We’re going to get dragged back into this and we need to know what we’re going to do!”
“Echidna needs to be stopped, that much is clear,” Lightning declared.
“And The Heartlands need to be protected,” Suri added.
“Then…maybe that’s the answer,” Adagio mused. “We protect The Heartlands. From all threats.”
Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Including Queen Chrysalis?”
“If she proves to be one. We work together, look for allies, protect The Heartlands. Do some actual good in this country.”
“Aren’t we becoming altruistic all of a sudden,” Suri lightly chided her. Though she smiled all the same.
“Are we in agreement then?” Adagio asked, looking at each of her friends in turn.
One by one they nodded, the pact silently sealed. Adagio took a long draught of her wine, musing about their current situation. Six mares intending to save a country by themselves.