The Ones Who Returned From Stone

by Skijarama

First published

Equestria has fallen. The Crystal Empire is all that remains of organized pony society, and the survivors want their home back.

(This story is the sequel to The Fiend that heralds Dark Skies, which itself is a sequel to The Mare that eats The Monsters. Reading the first 2 stories is STRONGLY recomended to understand anything in this one.)

Twenty years ago, Princesses Luna and Twilight Sparkle were turned to stone and hidden away from Equestria by an old monster, once a pony, named Luminous Horizon. His intent was to release them when Equestria was nothing more than dust and rubble as retribution for the pains he suffered at Luna's hooves. They will be released before then, however, thanks to the efforts of Palmwood, Wonderboom and Moonrise Drifter. Together, they intend to set the imprisoned princesses free and bring an end to the unyielding darkness over the world.

This third and final story in the series will see the thousand year conflict end; for better or for worse.

Prologue - An offer of safety

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“This must be the place…” The brown stallion muttered under his breath, pulling the hood on his travel cloak back to reveal his dark brown mane and bright cyan eyes. He stood at the edge of a small patch of forested terrain, gazing out from the shrubbery at an old, pre-dark farmhouse that looked like it was abandoned. The presence of an earth pony stallion watering a few potted plants, looking to be no older than fifteen, quickly made it clear that this place was not abandoned. “I just hope these ponies can actually help us…”

Without another word, the stallion stepped forward out of the bushes, allowing himself to illuminated by what little light was available from the red ring. He took special care to make sure that his stance was as passive as possible. The stallion watering the plants looked up and immediately stopped what he was doing to make a break for the door of the house. “Mom! Dad! Somepony’s out here!” he shouted, throwing open the door and darting inside.

Soon after, two more ponies, both looking remarkably older than they actually were, stepped out of the farmhouse. The stallion of the two was a dark green unicorn. His mane and tail sported dark purple and dark red stripes and were both tied in careful ponytails to eliminate interference. His purple eyes narrowed and his horn lit up. A crossbow revealed itself, drawn from his back and now aimed directly at the oncoming brown stallion’s head. “Not a step further! Who are you?!” he shouted.

“I’m Palmwood,” the brown stallion said calmly, maintaining a neutral tone and passive stance. “I don’t want any trouble; I simply need to ask you lot a few questions.”

The green unicorn hummed quietly, but didn’t lower the crossbow pointed at Palmwood’s face. “I’m Blackberry Thorn. What do you need to know, Palmwood, and why do you think we know anything?”

Palmwood let his stance slowly relax. “My… companions and I have been looking for a certain somepony. We think you may know where we can find them.” he said carefully before glancing over his shoulder. “Though I’d rather not say more while in the open. Who knows if Horizon has fiends watching us or not.”

The mare next to Blackberry, a pegasus with a bright blue coat and a striking orange mane and tail, looked to Blackberry cautiously. He saw her worry and gently wrapped a foreleg over her shoulders while still keeping the crossbow at the ready. “It’s alright, Grapes. I’ll make sure he doesn’t try anything.”

“You’d better. Bramble’s still on edge…” the mare, now identified as Grapes, replied, nuzzling into Blackberry affectionately.

“I know, sweetie… Alright, come on in, Palmwood. Just don’t touch anything and don’t cause any trouble.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.” Palm gave a small smile and stepped forward to follow them into the farmhouse.

The next several minutes were spent in a tense silence while Grapes made some rudimentary snacks for their guest. Palmwood found himself puzzled by the display of hospitality considering the crossbow aimed between his eyes, but thought better of questioning it. The supplied meal was pretty simple. A small bowl of corn with a few leaves of lettuce on the side. Once that was set for him at the table, he and Blackberry took seats opposite of each other. Grapes left the room, presumably to speak with the young stallion Palmwood had seen a short while ago.

“I appreciate the hospitality, sir. It’s rare to see that these days, even if it’s with a crossbow aimed at my head.” Palmwood said with a small, friendly smile.

“Look, don’t go playing mister nice guy with me, Palmwood. I don’t know who you are or what you want. Until I know I am considering you a trespasser in my house and on my property. I am simply giving you a chance to explain yourself.” Blackberry said back in a low voice, leaning forward slightly. “Now, I believe you had a question for me.”

“A few, actually, depending on the answer to the first.” Palm clarified before clearing his throat. He rested his hooves on the table and looked into Blackberry’s eyes with a frown. “You see, I travel with a group of ponies who have been working towards locating Princess Luna and Princess Twilight Sparkle. We have reason to believe that you, or somepony in your family here, has found where Horizon has been hiding them.”

Blackberry scowled and steadied the crossbow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, buddy.”

“Considering your steadied aim, I’d be inclined to believe otherwise.” Palm replied simply, never losing eye-contact with the dark pony in front of him. “But please believe me when I say we can make it worth your while, sir.“

“And who the buck is ‘we’?” Blackberry snarled, looking more and more agitated.

“My sister, myself and an old, old veteran who… is basically a mother to us.” Palmwood answered, his gaze briefly losing its intensity.

“Forget it.” Blackberry said firmly, standing up sharply and glaring at Palm. “It’s too risky. Besides, who's to say the princesses are even still alive in those stone cases? I won't risk the only family I have left on a lottery.”

“With all due respect, you’re already running a pretty big risk being so isolated and few in numbers. This farm is pretty well disguised as being abandoned, but if I found you guys living here, there is no doubt a hungry fiend could as well.” Palmwood reasoned, slowly standing up and backing up. “But you don’t have to decide now. Let me name the reward we offer, first.”

“Hurry up.” Blackberry spat.

Palmwood nodded and reached into his cloak with a hoof. What he withdrew was a long, perfectly maintained silver chain pendant. The ornament that hung from the chain was made of a vibrant blue crystal in the shape of a heart, clasped in golden supports. He set the pendant on the table and looked at Blackberry squarely in the eyes. “Help us find the princesses and retrieve them. In exchange, you and your family will be given access to enter the safety and protection of the Crystal Empire.”

Blackberry looked at the pendant in shock, his crossbow drifting off aimlessly. “That pendant…?”

“We haven’t had a chance to bring them back in at least twenty years, mister Blackberry. I don’t know about you, but…” Palmwood pulled his hood back up and turned around for the door. “...well, the princess would very much like to be reunited with her aunt after so long. Think about it, okay? I’ll be back in twenty four hours to hear your answer.”

With that, Palmwood left the house, trotting for the edge of the forest, leaving the family to make their decision.

Chapter 1 - Lantern Light

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The small campsite was fully established when Palmwood returned to the small clearing. A small ring was cleared out in the center of the site, a rather sizable lantern placed in the middle. It cast a decent amount of light and had a heat enchantment, courtesy of Princess Cadance, but it also didn’t create smoke and could be turned on or off with but a turn of a knob. There were two tents that had been pitched, one of which was bigger than the other. There was also a folding table standing near the lantern. There were bowls and vials filled with chemicals and herbs on top it.

Palmwood smiled and shrugged off his cape before sitting down in front of the lantern. “Hey, Wonder! I’m back!” he called out after letting the heat invigorate his bones from the perpetual chill that blanketed the world these days. As soon as he spoke, he heard a pair of hooves galloping towards him from the nearby shrubbery. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled warmly as Wonderboom came trotting out of the foliage around them.

“Palm! You’re back! Did it go well?” she asked with a somewhat relieved smile, quickly throwing a hug around her older brother. A hug he happily returned.

“I didn’t get shot with a crossbow, so yes.” Palm replied, earning a smack across the back of his head from Wonderboom, who now stared at him sternly.

“Not funny.”

“It kinda is when I get a rise out of you.”

Wonder rolled her eyes and strode over to the folding table, looking over the various ingredients she had. Palm saw her cutie mark and couldn’t help remembering fondly the day she had gotten it. Her cutie mark was of a plant leaf that gradually changed into a flowing stream of blue magic that swirled and coalesced around a medical cross. “Yeah, well, just don’t go looking for material to ‘get a rise out of me’ with. We’ve been lucky to survive this long…”

Palm instantly lost his smile as his sister sagged slightly. He stood up and gingerly approached her. “No, not lucky. We were taught by Drifter, remember?”

“And we are lucky that we were found by her. Imagine if we hadn’t been spotted by her back on the train-”

“Enough.” Palm said firmly, resting a foreleg over Wonder’s back. “That’s in the past. We know how to handle ourselves now and we had the best teacher anypony could have asked for in this… scenario.”

“I… yeah, I know, you’re right. I just worry, is all. I don’t want to lose my brother.” Wonder finally said, pressing herself closer to Palmwood solemnly.

“And I don’t wanna lose you. Between the two of us and Drifter, we’ll take care of each other and be fine.” Palmwood said reassuringly before looking around a bit curiously. “Speaking of which, where is Drifter, anyway?”

Wonderboom dislodged herself from the hug and looked out into the foliage distantly. “She said she’s getting dinner. She’ll be back in a while.”

“Ah. I just hope she finds something we can eat, too.” Palm said before looking down at his belly begrudgingly. “I’m getting kinda hungry, here…”

“You and me both.” Wonder agreed before trotting over to the folding table. “I’m gonna mix us up a potion. Something to heal us or make us physically harder to hurt would be ideal, I think.” Picking up one of the vials on the table with her mouth, wonder poured a small amount of the contents into a mixing bowl.

Palmwood nodded. “Okay, just don’t put the wrong chemicals in, alright? The last time you did that-”

“Was over five years ago and I’ve told you to shut your face over it.” Wonder interrupted him after she put down the vile, jabbing a hoof in his direction with a frown. Palmwood chuckled merrily.

“You know I can’t; I wouldn’t be your big brother if I didn’t.” he said nonchalantly while throwing her an amused smile.

“And this is why Drifter gives you so much crap…” Wonder muttered before pushing a few flower petals of varying color into the bowl.

“And that is exactly what makes our little ‘family’ work.”

Wonderboom snorted but otherwise didn’t respond, focusing on her alchemy. Palmwood nestled down next to the lantern and closed his eyes.

“Welp, I think I’m gonna get some shuteye…” he mumbled as his body calmed down from the brisk trot back to camp. While it was no longer possible to tell the hour from the natural lighting, he could tell it was time for him to sleep.

“Okay. Goodnight, Palm.” Wonder replied before sliding a small, twisted root into the bowl. She picked up a blunt beating utensil and started grinding the bowl's contents into a flaky powder. For several minutes, she pondered which ingredients to use, adding them or removing excess before beating it down. Her mind examined each plant, remembering numerous little details about each one as her eyes passed over them. That one invigorated ones wakefulness, like coffee, but tasted awful. If combined with this other one just right…

A twig snapped. Wonderboom’s ears reflexively twitched and she herself briefly froze, listening carefully before returning to her work, making sure her ears were carefully listening to her surroundings. Her eyes darted left and right for a moment before refocusing on her bowl. After another moment, there was a soft thump and a relieved sigh. Wonder turned around and frowned. “You know, you could have said something when coming back.” she said bluntly, jabbing a hoof at Moonrise Drifter.

Drifter pulled down the brown hood of her cloak, letting her unkempt silver mane spill out. Her yellow reptilian eyes looked at Wonderboom humorously. “I could have, but, well…” she gestured to Palmwood. “Bozo’s asleep. Kinda don’t wanna wake him.”

“Eh. Fair enough.” Wonder shrugged before noting the corpse at Drifter’s hooves. She winced slightly at how the fiend’s neck was twisted and gouged open, but otherwise didn’t outwardly react. “Tough hunt?”

“Nah. Stupid thing was busy slamming his head against a rabbit's den entrance. I guess he didn’t know that the rabbits vacated a while ago.” Drifter replied before setting herself down and digging in. Wonder cringed.

“Do you have to do that here?” she whined, looking away and huffing.

“No, I don’t. But I didn’t want to be away from camp too long.” Drifter replied after swallowing a mouthful of flesh. “Besides, I want to hear how his trip went. Do we have our guides or what?”

“He didn’t actually say one way or the other. He said he didn’t get shot in the face with a crossbow, but we kinda derailed before he could say much else…” Wonder admitted sheepishly, looking down into her bowl intently.

“Eh. I’ll ask him myself when he wakes up.” Drifter waved off Wonder’s reply before taking another bite from her meal. For several moments she sat there, chewing thoughtfully to herself. Finally, she wiped a foreleg across her mouth to wipe away a small bit of blood dripping from her lips and sighed. “...Do you think they’re actually ready to forgive her?”

“Huh?” Wonder perked up and looked at Drifter curiously, stepping away from her table.

“Applejack, Rainbow… you know, Twilight’s friends.” Drifter clarified solemnly, a claw slowly extending from her forehoof and tapping against the dirt. “I remember how… upset they were when I saw them again after… well, you know.”

“Kinda hard to forget…” Wonder nodded morosely. “I was honestly worried that Rainbow Dash was going to kill somepony, she was so angry…”

“They’ve had twenty years. I’d like to believe they’ve moved on and have already forgiven her, but It’s hard to be sure. They say they have, but they haven’t seen her in so long… who knows what old feelings will resurface at the reunion?” Drifter said absently before biting down into the corpse beneath her, a bit more ravenously this time.

“Well… I can’t speak for them, but I bet they’re at least willing to give her a chance to make up for it if they haven’t.” Wonder added hesitantly before shaking her head. “Honestly, I’m more worried about when she meets Princess Flurry Heart.”

“Heh… that’ll be a shock.” Drifter snorted humorlessly. “She’s going to come home to find that the niece she had last seen as an infant is now almost as old as she is.”

“It’ll be a big and sudden change for her.”

“That can be said of literally everything, Wonder.” Drifter pointed out, shifting slightly on the dirt. “Shining Armor’s an amputee, Cadance is, well… she has her scars. Equestria practically doesn’t exist anymore as a nation. Yeah, it’s going to be a shock to her. We’re gonna need to break her in slowly. When we free her and Luna from their statues, we’ll need to do so in a remote location. Somewhere where we can get them up to speed gradually so it’s not too overwhelming.”

“Any locations in mind?” Wonder asked while nestling down next to the lantern herself.

“A couple spots come to mind. One of them is actually on the way to the crystal empire from, well, pretty much everywhere south of it.” Drifter replied, a smile of fond remembrance coming over her face. “I just can’t help but wonder if it’s still intact or if scavengers stole everything.”

“One of your old hideouts?”

“Yup. The one near Little Lapiz, where I took Twilight to heal-up when she and I first met.” Drifter’s eyes lost their fond shimmer and fell despondently. “Feels like such a long time ago, now.”

“It was twenty years ago…” Wonder pointed out before receiving a irked look from Drifter.

“Literally a thousand years old here, Wonderboom, remember?” she pointed her clawtip at her face as if to emphasize wrinkles. None were present, of course.

“Oh, right. I kinda forget to register that sometimes… you certainly don’t look that old.” Wonder replied, looking away slightly.

“Eh. Comes with having Horizon’s self-imposed agelessness, I guess…” Drifter mumbled dryly before taking another bite from her meal.

“So, wait… if Horizon dies, will that agelessness spell fade out?” Wonder asked uneasily. Drifter swallowed and shrugged nonchalantly.

“I have no clue. If it does I imagine I’ll just start aging again. I was about, oh… thirty something when my physical body stopped aging. I’d have somewhere between fifty to seventy years on my clock, I think.” Drifter replied thoughtfully before shaking her head. “It’s not really important. What would be important is Horizon would be dead.”

The two fell into a comfortable silence for a while, though that comfort was occasionally disrupted by Drifter continuing on her meal. Eventually, she bit down into a particularly stubborn lump of muscle and meat. She clamped down and yanked hard, grunting with effort before it suddenly pulled free, a stray piece of bone sent barreling through the air and into Palmwood’s side.


“Ack! I’m awake! Put away the whips!” he stuttered, still half asleep while flailing about on the ground. He finally righted himself and shook himself vigorously. He looked up to see Wonderboom struggling and failing to hold in a series of deeply amused giggles while Drifter eyes the meat in her mouth with annoyance.

“Pluegh! That’s too stiff. I think I’m done with this one…” Drifter muttered before shoving the fiend corpse out of the range of the lantern light. She turned back around to see Palm looking at her, bemused.

“What happened?” He asked in a still drowsy voice.

“Dinner was an asshole. It woke you up.” Drifter replied playfully before putting on a more serious expression. “Since you're awake; Palmwood, did they agree to help us?”

Palmwood shook himself again before standing up. “Not yet, but I think they will. I told them I’d come back in twenty four hours to hear their decision. I left them the pendant as a way of proving that our offer is genuine.”

“Hmmm… Risky, but probably a big step towards earning their help.” Drifter nodded along thoughtfully. “Alright, you two get some sleep. I’ll take first watch and wake one of you up when it’s time to switch out.”

“Alright. Goodnight, Drifter.” Palmwood said before settling back down to resume sleeping. Wonderboom simply nodded, yawned and retrieved her own cloak, using it as a blanket as she lay down by the lantern and curled up to sleep.

Drifter looked over the two before turning her eyes up to the dark red ring in the sky. Her eyes dilated slightly as a small spike of bitterness ran through her system. The sky had remained unchanged for twenty years. A cold even worse than eternal night had smothered Equestria in tandem with the darkness shrouding the world.

It won’t have to stay that way; We’ll get Princess Luna and Princess Twilight back. When we do… you’d better watch out, Horizon.

She looked down to her right hoof, letting it appear from under her cloak. It was covered in a thick leather gauntlet running all the way up to her elbow joint. She flexed the limb slightly and three long, steel blades extended from the tip of the gauntlet.

I’m not so defenseless against you anymore…

Chapter 2 - Agreement

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It had been a full twenty four hours now. Palmwood, sure enough, was once more making his approach to the isolated farmhouse, cloak on and hood pulled up to shield him from the biting cold. A wild storm was brewing in the distance by the looks of it, the mass of clouds appearing pitch black against the already dark crimson backdrop of the sky. Palmwood grimaced at the sight of it, especially when he saw lightning flickering inside the clouds. That’s gonna slow us down…

He turned his attention back to the farmhouse in time to catch a sign of movement beyond one of the windows. He heard the door unlock before Blackberry inched it open, looking at Palmwood cautiously. “You weren’t kidding about twenty four hours, were you?” he asked with a narrowing of his eyes.

Palmwood merely shrugged. “I wasn’t. So, have you made up your mind?”

Blackberry frowned at the immediate ‘down to business’ approach Palmwood was taking to the interaction. With a small sigh, he slipped out of the house entirely and closed the door behind him. He stood still for several moments before nodding slightly. “Yeah, we uh… We made up our minds.”

“And the verdict?”

Blackberry frowned and glanced uneasily over his shoulder at the house. “We’ll help you; or rather, I’ll help you. Grapes and our son will go to the Crystal Empire regardless of whether or not we find the princesses.”

Palmwood frowned at that, looking at Blackberry with an unsure expression crossing his face. “That would be extremely risky for them; we can’t spare anypony in our group to escort them to the Crystal Empire. They’d have to make the journey entirely on their own.”

“Grapes is tough, make no mistake about that,” Blackberry snorted as if offended. “She can take care of herself and she can keep Bramble with her. They’ll be fine.”

Palmwood nodded hesitantly, relenting. “I personally don’t like that idea, but beggars can’t be choosers. If you’re sure, then I guess we have a deal.”

Blackberry nodded solemnly, shifting uneasily on his hooves. “Alright. Wait here and, uh… I’ll let my family know it’s time.”

Palmwood gave a respectful bow of his head and stepped back to give him at least some sense of privacy and respect for space. With that, Blackberry turned and went back inside the farmhouse, leaving Palm to stand there and wait for him to come back out. Another flash of lightning caught his eye in the steadily approaching cloudfront.

One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three-

A deep, heavy rumble rolled over him and the surrounding landscape. Still a ways off, but it wouldn’t take long at all for it to fall over them and smother them in an even deeper darkness.

“You looking that thing over again?” Wonder asked from where she sat on the opposite side of the lantern from Drifter. The hybrid in question glanced up from the ancient, large sheet of parchment in her good-hoof’s claws to meet Wonder’s gaze.

She gave a small nod, tracing her other hoof over the heavily weathered and aged photo pinned to the sheet. A contemplative look appeared on her face. “Yeah. I’m kinda glad I found this, to be honest… you know, before they sent Canterlot tumbling to the base of the mountain.” she said quietly.

Wonder nodded slowly with a small, sad smile appearing on her face. “I can see why.”

Drifter’s gaze looked once more over the details of the certificate in her hooves, a small, forlorn smile slowly appearing on her face as well. It was her old birth certificate. She looked it over for what must have been the millionth time, pausing briefly on the name inscribed near the top of the document.

‘Sunlight Veil.’

“...Heh. Found this stupid thing fifteen years ago. You’d think I would have gotten rid of it by now.” Drifter sighed with a shake of her head. From where she sat, the smile on Wonder’s face faltered a bit.

“I’m also surprised you still have it, but... I understand why. In a way, it’s kind of the last thing Celestia left you. An heirloom, you know?”

Drifter looked back over at Wonder, her smile growing. “It's a bit more than just a family heirloom, you know,” she slowly looked back down to the parchment and, more specifically, the picture of herself, so tiny and innocent. In the picture she had her long white tail held in her mouth, with her forelegs wrapped around it as if she were hugging a teddy bear. She almost found it hard to believe that she looked like that, once. No scars, no cold, hardened expression. Her claws hadn’t even grown into anything more than tiny nubs under her hooves. Drifter closed her eyes and held the parchment up to her heart to take a deep breath. “Princess Celestia still cared. Even if she dropped me off in Hollow Shades, she was still my mother… she grieved when she gave me up. I can tell...”

Wonder nodded along, but didn’t say anything. Before the conversation could go any further, however, Drifter suddenly shot up to a ready position, her cloak billowing up from the sudden motion. Wonder stood, too, having also heard the sound of a twig snapping.

“Woah! It’s just us,” Palmwood announced as he and their guide stepped into the lantern light. Wonder relaxed, as did Drifter, albeit only slightly. “We’re ready to go if you two are.”

Drifter’s eyes looked Blackberry over before her claws sank back into her hoof. She carefully returned the certificate to it’s place in her saddlebags a moment later. It would be safe in the sleeve she had for it. When she turned back around to speak, Blackberry was glaring at her suspiciously.

“Who’s that?” he asked sharply, his eyes bouncing between her fangs, which poked out from her upper jaw, her thestral-like wings and the hoof that had just been sprouting claws a moment ago. “You sure that’s a pony?”

Drifter snorted and looked at Palmwood disapprovingly while lifting her gloved forehoof slightly in exasperation. “Seriously? It didn’t cross your mind to fill him in on me?”

Palmwood lifted his forehooves defensively. “Hey, I thought everypony knew about you! Cut me some slack.” he said, taking a step back.

“Maybe twenty years ago, Palmwood,” Drifter rolled her eyes before giving a slight bow of her head to Blackberry. “Sorry about that. My name is Moonrise Drifter and, to be fair, I’m not really a pony, technically speaking. I’m only half pony. The other half is fiend.”

Blackberry grimaced and glared at Palmwood, then to Wonderboom. “Half fiend? Sound like a horse-shit lie if ever I heard one. Dunno if you noticed, but these things don’t exactly take the time to mate with even themselves, let alone a pony. It’s just eat, eat, eat to them.”

“I know that,” Drifter said with a scowl swiftly twisting her face. “I’ve been hunting and fighting them since before even your great grandparents were conceived. As it is, how I came to be is not really important right now. What is important right now is finding the Princesses and getting them out of their stone prisons.”

Blackberry took a step back, a bit intimidated from the edge in Drifter’s voice. “A-alright, alright… okay, I know where they were, but considering you folks claim to have been looking for a long time, I’m assuming the fiends keep moving ‘em?”

“Exactly,” Wonder piped up, drawing everypony’s attention to her. “We typically have to do a lot of scouting to figure out where Horizon hid them. Usually, by the time we narrow it down, our snooping has been noticed and they get moved before we can make any sort of advancement. It’s why we decided to come to you.”

Palmwood nodded at his sister before turning once more to Blackberry, continuing where Wonder left off. “Exactly. We haven’t scouted this area out at all. We heard from a camp of ponies you help feed that you had found them, though. The fiends know that we’re after them, so they’ll move them away the second they think we know they’re there. Somepony on the side, though, isn’t going to be seen as a big enough threat to exert the effort required to move the ‘cargo’.”

“So, if you lead us there, then we should be able to get in and get the Princesses out before the fiends can relocate them.” Drifter finished with a firm nod.

Blackberry rubbed a hoof over his chin for a moment before grunting. “Tch. Fine. I already agreed to lead you there, so let’s get going, eh?”

“Right,” Drifter nodded and turned to the others. “Wonder, Palm, let’s pack it up and move out!”

The two ponies wordlessly complied, setting about turning off the lantern and getting their camping supplies put away neatly into their traveling packs and saddlebags. As soon as this was done, the three drew their hoods over their heads. Blackberry looked at the group with a raised eyebrow as they approached. “What’s with the hoods, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Drifter glanced at Blackberry from under her hood, her eyes glowing slightly in the dark. “The fiends know what we look like and as soon as we set out, we are going to be in the open. The closer we can get before they know it’s us, the better our chances of reaching the princesses will be.”

Blackberry nodded. “Makes sense, I suppose. Alright, come on. We’ve wasted enough time.”

“Yes…” Drifter nodded with a look of longing appearing on her face, hidden by her hood. “Yes we have.”

Chapter 3 - Crimson Rivers

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The red ring that was the sun was now thoroughly obscured by thick cloud cover, smothering any and all of the little light that was emitted heavy winds buffeting the landscape and slowing the group as they went. Drifter had taken the lead, seeing as she had better night vision than the rest of them. She followed Blackberry’s directions, keeping the lantern on a dim setting, letting it hang from her lower jaw.

“Shouldn’t be much farther, now!” Blackberry had to shout to be heard over the winds. “They’ve been holding the princesses in a secluded area underneath an overhang. Pretty good shelter from prying eyes.”

“How did you find them?” Palmwood asked, wincing slightly when lightning flashed overhead. Thunder boomed almost instantly afterword, rattling everything in the area and forcing a startled whimper out of Wonderboom.

“Sheer blind luck, really,” Blackberry replied, shaking his head a bit. “I was picking plants and herbs for medicine and tea. Strayed a bit too far from where I was supposed to be and found a vantage point where I saw the fiends dragging the princesses along like luggage.”

Drifter growled around the lantern’s handle, but otherwise didn’t reply in any way.

“So what’s the plan?” Palmwood asked Drifter, trotting up to be beside her.

“We get in close without alerting them,” Drifter began, speaking through the handle of the lantern. “They’ll spot us when we get close enough. When they do, we can’t give them any chance to react. We storm in and slaughter the lot of them. After that we can work on bringing the princesses somewhere safe to thaw.”

“How are you even going to do that?” Blackberry asked with a grunt as another gust of wind rushed by.

“The spell that Horizon used to petrify them used a somewhat similar principle as the glare of a cockatrice,” Wonderboom answered, still sounding and looking uncomfortable. “Cockatrice eyes are what hold the ability to turn things into stone. They also have the ability to undo such a petrification.”

“Yeah, but Horizon’s spell could easily dwarf dozens of cockatrices.” Palmwood added with a grimace.

“I killed a hundred of the damn things,” Drifter finished off before glancing back at the rest of them. “Took their eyes and delivered them to Wonderboom here. She’s good with alchemy and chemicals and such. A real potion brewer.”

Wonder nodded along before looking back to Blackberry. “I extracted the ‘remedy’ from their eyes. I have at least six vials of nothing but their cure for petrification. I imagine three of those vials should be enough to undo Horizon’s spell, or at least weaken it enough for the princesses’ natural defenses to break the spell.”

Blackberry nodded with a frown. “A hundred of them, eh? How long have you been at this?”

“How long have the princesses been gone?” Drifter countered coolly, her eyes tilting up to look at where the sun was supposed to be behind the clouds.

“About twenty years, right? They were petrified when I was ten, so-”

“There’s your answer.” Drifter grunted bluntly before pushing forward, her wings ruffling in agitation. Blackberry blinked and recoiled a bit at the sudden harshness in Drifter’s tone.

Palmwood cleared his throat, getting Blackberry’s attention. He wore a look that cautioned and warned Blackberry to be careful. “Drifter… doesn’t like being asked about ‘how long,’ especially if it’s coming from somepony she doesn’t really know. She’s been fighting the fiends for over a thousand years, but in these last twenty years…” he sighed and looked ahead at his mother-figure with sad eyes. “Horizon and his fiends destroyed Equestria’s chances of victory in the frozen north… Drifter’s been blaming herself for a lot of our losses. We’ve been trying to help her move on from that, but…”

“She’s ancient compared to us,” Wonder cut in with a small sigh. “She perceives time differently as a result. Add on to that the fact that she had been routinely successful in thwarting Horizon’s plans up until the first battle in Canterlot… it made her feel inadequate when the sun was stolen from us, when we lost the princesses…” Wonder closed her eyes and shook her head. “When she lost her aunt.”

Blackberry looked forwards to the back of Drifter’s head, which was still covered by her hood, with a slowly growing look of sympathy on his face. “Wow… she’s been through it, huh?”

“Like you can’t even imagine.” Palmwood confirmed.

“Hold up!” Drifter suddenly called from up ahead, lifting a forehoof up and coming to a complete stop. She set the lantern down on the ground and quickly set about turning up it’s light to max. The area lit up with a bright yellow glow, revealing that the area was peppered with small clusters of trees and bushes. With the new light on everything, they became plainly visibly.


There were several of them, perched on the branches and trunks of the trees like birds. Some had hooves, some had talons, others only had extra large wings. As per usual, the fiends sported a wide variety of shapes and sizes, each one resembling a horribly malformed pony, transformed into a salivating and blood-thirsty monster. One of them, which was all but covered in it’s massive leathery wings, uncurled from it’s branch. Under the wings was a long, writhing body, like a snake or worm. Hundreds of long, thin legs came out of it’s sides along the whole length, moving almost hypnotically as it creeped down it’s tree. It's face was elongated and lopsided, the teeth on its left side larger and sharper than on the left. A long tongue slipped out to lick its lips.

“Sneaky ponies… sneaking where they do not belong.” it uttered in a low rasp, it’s voice like sandpaper scraping on cobblestone. A few throaty clicks sounded, it’s adam’s apple jumping with each one. It inhaled deeply through it’s nose, it’s smirk widening. “Heh, heh, heh… oh, i smell fear… this will be delicious. I haven’t eaten in awhile…”

Drifter glanced around, taking in the number of fiends and their chances. Eight fiends in total… Against Drifter, Palmwood and Wonderboom, those were almost fair odds.


“If you were planning on eating us…” Drifter said slowly, a small smile forming on her face before her gloved hoof reached up to her hood. “Maybe you should have actually attacked instead of flapping your gums and monologuing about your hunger...” she pulled her hood back, exposing her glowing eyes, her fangs, and her unmistakable face. On all of her hooves, her claws snapped out with a wet, metallic scrape. “...Might have helped your chances a little, eh?”

“IT’S THE CANNIBAL!!” The fiend shrieked, scrambling back and away, it’s fangs bared and it’s wings flaring out. “KILL THEM ALL-!”

The fiend didn’t get to speak any further. Drifter launched herself forward, her blood swiftly filling with adrenaline and the rush of an inevitable fight. Her forehooves slashed out, raking the claws across the face of the fiend before her and sheering it’s head off it’s shoulders. Blood splattered across Drifter’s face and along the ground, the sound of rending flesh echoing all around her. She couldn't help but lick some of the blood off of her cheek with a smile before turning to the next fiend.

The rest of the fiends roared and hurled themselves upon the group. Blackberry emitted a panicked wail before turning to flee. Two of the fiends moved to intercept. The first one, a quadrupedal one with massive muscles making it look like a rhino, slammed into the ground in front of the panicking pony. It’s face split open into a four-jawed mouth, filled to the brim with razor sharp teeth and three wiggling tongues. The second fiend was the closest to an actual pony, a common example of the now uncommon ‘duck’ variety.

Blackberry flailed back and fell onto his backside, his eyes wide and his breaths coming in rampant gasps. “H-HELP!” he shouted.

“Get down!” Palmwood yelled, putting himself between Blackberry and the oncoming behemoth of a fiend. As the fiend approached, thundering along the ground, Palmwood lifted one of his forehooves, upon which Blackberry saw a thick leathery glove that he hadn’t noticed before. A metallic scrape filled the air as four long blades extended from the gauntlet before Palmwood thrust his hoof into the gaping mouth of the fiend. They pierced the flesh within easily, blood spurting free and painting crimson rivers down Palmwood’s strained face.

The fiend gurgled and warbled, it’s voice a distorted and throaty rumble, before falling still to the ground, blood still dribbling freely from the new holes in it’s head. As this was happening, the second fiend growled and pounced for Palmwood, who did not have enough time to turn and defend himself from his would-be assailant.

Luckily, he didn’t need to.

Wonder was there before the fiend, an intense glare etched onto her face. She turned a full one hundred eighty degrees and rocketed her back hooves into a powerful buck. A sickening crunch resonated through the area upon impact, the fiend squealing and roaring in agony while being hurled unceremoniously onto it’s hunched back. Wonder wasted no time. Similar to Palmwood, her right forehoof emerged from under her cloak, now clad in a thick gauntlet, which was, too, sprouting long claws. With a shout, she lunged and drove the blades into the fiend’s throat, ending it’s life before it could recover.

Palmwood nodded to his sister thankfully before shifting to look to Drifter. He couldn’t help the spark of amusement in his system when he saw just how much fun Drifter was having, tearing through another fiend with ease. That amusement quickly morphed into concern and worry for his surrogate mother. He refocused back on the battle at hoof and moved to intercept a fend that was trying to flank Drifter.

There were only four fiends left, now. Drifter ducked under the snapping jaws of her new foe. She seized the opening it presented and lurched up with her own mouth wide open. Her fangs sunk deep into the firm and muscled flesh of the fiend’s throat, drawing ample amounts of blood and filling with air with the dying gurgles of the monster. Using it’s own momentum against it, Drifter turned her body to hurl the now dead fiend into it’s oncoming, would-be savior. The collision sent both sprawling to the ground, the living one now pinned beneath its pack mate. Palmwood was on it in a second, sinking his own claws into it’s cranium and ending it’s miserable existence like that.

There were only two left. Wonder shifted and leapt in front of Blackberry again, thrusting her claws into the fiend that was leaping for the distraught survivor. A sharp cry of pain left her throat as the fiend managed to rake it’s own sharp claws along her shoulder and the side of her neck. Not enough to be fatal, but enough to cause her to crumple with the creature dying on her outstretched hoof.

The last fiend tried the wise option. It turned and unfurled it’s insect-like wings and leapt into the air, hoping to reach the relative safety of the rest of it’s pack. It was not expecting Drifter to reach out with her claws and grasp its tail, however. The fiend shrieked and hissed in panic as Drifter dragged it back down to the ground. She sunk her claws into its flank and pinned the monster to the ground, a fearsome glow coming to her eyes. “You scared?” she asked it in a low, murderous whisper. Her eyes were wide and dilated. The eyes of a predator toying with it’s prey.

The fiend squirmed in her grip, whimpering pitifully. Drifter reachout out the natural claws on her left hoof and used them like fingers to cup the fiend’s chin. She made eye contact.

“Let that fear soak in, would you?” Drifter continued in her low whisper, her fangs and teeth showing in a vicious snarl. “Because this feeling that you’re having right now… everypony and everybody in Equestria and the lands beyond it have felt it for two decades now… And it’s all. Because. Of you.” her claws constricted, shredding the chin, jaw and throat of the fiend. It gurgled and wined in agony for several moments before falling still and silent. A moment of silence passed before Drifter pulled her claws out of the creature and stared straight ahead. “...Because of all of you.

From the eight fresh corpses in the area came blood. Pools and rivers of crimson that stained the soil and grass beneath it. Drifter turned to look at the rest of the group, a confident and ready smile appearing on her face.

“Come on. They probably know we’re here. Let’s get the princesses back!”

Chapter 4 - Retrieval

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Wonder gasped sharply before collapsing once more, her good forehoof reaching up to the slice marks along her neck and opposite foreleg. From where he stood, Blackberry watched with wide-eyes as the fresh wounds bled profusely, sending streaks of blood down Wonder’s body. Cursing under his breath, Palmwood swiftly brought himself over to her side in an instant, shooting a glance towards Drifter, who had flinched slightly. “Go on ahead; the princesses won’t thaw themselves. We’ll catch up.”

“Alright.” Drifter nodded before turning and unfurling her wings. She shot a glance over her shoulder at the two before taking off into the air with a mighty flap and sailing away towards where their quarry waited. As she vanished into the fray, Palmwood gently nudged his sister’s hooves away from her wound so he could look. His face twisted into a disgusted grimace.

“Gh! How b-bad is it?” Wonder gasped out in pain, her voice strained and her body shaking.

“You’ve had worse, but still bad…” Palmwood replied grimly, replacing his sister’s hoof on the wound and then joining his alongside it, applying pressure to the gaping slash. He looked over at Blackberry intensely. “Hey!”

“Uh?” Blackberry seemed to snap out of whatever kind of trance he had been in upon hearing his name, shaking his head and then making eye contact with Palm, who wore an expression as cold as ice.

“Wonder’s saddlebags. Get them and bring them over here. Quick!” Palm ordered sharply before returning his attention to his little sister to speak with her in hushed words. “Deep breaths, okay? Deep breaths. Stay calm.”

“I’ve done this- ACK! ...Done this before, bozo.” Wonder groaned out, her words somewhat muffled from the set of hooves on her neck and chest. Despite her pain, she managed to slip Palmwood a small smile.

“Yeah, well, I’m reminding you anyway. Blood loss can cause delusions, remember?”

“I know.”

In short order, Blackberry came shuffling back while lugging Wonder’s saddlebags in his mouth. The pouches sounded like they were filled to the brim vials and glass bottles full of liquid as he sit it down, the bags clinked and clanking. “Thanks.” Palmwood nodded simply before flipping up one of the flaps and sifting through the contents within.

“You sure you have anything that can fix that?” Blackberry asked with a cringe as some more blood spurted past Palm’s hoof, painting a series of lines down his chest..

Wonder shot him a glare. “I’ve had worse and fixed much worse. Yes. We’re sure- ACK!” she grumbled before yelping in discomfort from Palmwood’s shifting.

‘Shit, sorry!” Palmwood apologized before, at last, he procured a vial filled with a murky red liquid. “Alright, open up.” he commanded gently while bringing the vial to Wonder’s lips. She opened her mouth obediently and slowly tilted her head back while the bitter liquid burned its way down her throat. Her face folded in disgust from the foul taste before Palmwood gradually removed his hoof from her wound. Already, the bleeding was starting to slow down.

“Woah… that’s some potent stuff…” Blackberry whistled, impressed.

Palmwood shot him a look. “It has to be. We’d be dead by now if it wasn’t.”

“Speaking of dead,” Wonder said, sounding a bit drowsy as she rose to her hooves. She wobbled a bit upon reaching her max height, prompting Palmwood to reach out and support her. “Guh… We need to go help Drifter take out the fiends.”

“Yeah, we do…” Palmwood nodded before shedding his cloak in favor of the more mobile and agile state of being unclothed. He then looked back to Blackberry. “Okay, I think you’ve done your part. You can wait here for us to get the princesses and go back to the empire with us, or go ahead to catch up with your family. It’s your call.” he explained shortly before turning back to gaze ahead. They could all hear the angry and even frightened shouts and howls of the fiends where Drifter was.

“Let’s go, Palm.” Wonderboom said before breaking into a gallop, looking like her wound was no longer hindering her in any away.

“Right behind ya!” Palm shouted, galloping behind her and eager to rend some fiends.

Stab. Slice. Tear. Shred. Duck. Dodge. Weave. Stab. Repeat.

Drifter ducked low and rose her claws into the fiend that had just pounced for her. The tips of said claws poked out through the creature’s back before, with a battle cry, she turned and hurled the dying creature into one of it’s oncoming comrades. Already, two more were upon her, fangs bared and claws ready to disembowel her. Acting fast, Drifter lifted herself into the air with one of her hind hooves rising to connect with the first fiend’s face. The claws on said hoof snapped free and burrowed into the face and throat of the monster, ending it’s life instantly.

The second took advantage of her momentary entanglement. It rose up and clamped its teeth on Drifter’s tail before yanking hard, bringing the hybrid into the ground with a considerable amount of force. Drifter gasped in pain from the impact before rotating herself, her other hind-leg stabbing it’s claws into the shoulder of the fiend that had dared to violate her tail. The monster shouted and let go of her. An opening was created.

Demonstrating her unnatural agility, Drifter pivoted in the air, bringing her other set of rear claws into the creature’s other shoulder with her sitting atop it, straddling the scruff of it’s neck. The fiend then began to thrash and scream in agony and fear, trying to buck Drifter off. She glanced up, spotting another fiend charging at her, this one aided by having extra long, muscular legs. It launched itself at her atop it’s friend’s back, roaring in rage.

Driven by reflex and instinct, Drifter stabbed her front claws into the sides of the neck of the fiend beneath her, then pulled up with a great flap of her wings. The now dead fiend reared up onto it’s hind legs, prompting the one that was charging Drifter to tackle it’s dead ally in the chest. It didn’t stop, continuing to push the corpse along towards a tall spear of stone that jutted up from the soil like a finger, with Drifter still pinned on the back of the fiend she was stabbing.

“Shit!” Drifter swore, bracing herself and covering herself with her wings. The stone came forth to meet her at alarming speeds before she was slammed into it with the weight of a corpse aiding the impact, along with the impressive strength of the burly fiend on the other side. Drifter gasped, breathless, upon impact. A small smattering of blood slipped from her mouth and speckled the stone in front of her muzzle.

The burly fiend tore it’s dead companion away from the stone, leaving Drifter there to fall to the grass below. Her vision swam somewhat before she turned her gaze up towards her assaulter. The beast, having now discarded it’s friend, bared it’s fangs and lunged for Drifter’s throat.

Drifter screamed in pain, having just been able to raise her forelegs in front of her face and head in time to avoid losing it to the ravenous monster before her. It growled and clamped its jaws even harder while shaking it’s head back and forth. Drifter felt her skin being torn away and the bone underneath bent and cracked under the pressure. Finally, she managed to kick out with her hind legs, creating several long slices along the fiend’s underbelly.

The creature howled and backed away, blood splattering along the ground wherever it went. Drifter collapsed into a heap, gasping in pain. She turned her eyes away from the still recoiling monster to where she had come from. A small smile came to her face when she saw Palmwood and Wonderboom charging the burly creature, both of them having just dispatched fiends of their own. With a unified shout, the two sprang into action. Palmwood lunged and stabbed his steel claws into the shoulder of the fiend, drawing another pained roar from it.

As he was doing this, Wonderboom made use of the fiend’s pinned condition. She ducked low into a slide just as she reached it and, using her momentum, shot by while slashing her own claws through its throat. Blood and severed pieces of tubing splattered along the ground in a vile, gory mess before the creature collapsed, lifeless. Palmwood yanked his claws from the creature before turning, eager to see if there were any others.

There weren’t.

Already, Wonderboom was at Drifter’s side, looking over the hybrid’s thoroughly mauled forelegs. “Yikes… okay, try not to move until we get you a potion, okay?”

“Right… ugh… great timing, you two.” Drifter replied with a small smile, earning a nod in response.

“Don’t mention it,” Palmwood nodded to her with a smile of his own. “I think we’re in the clear.”

As soon as he said that, everypony went stiff and quiet. For a moment, nopony breathed or moved a muscle. A stiff breeze washed over the area, rustling trees and bushes as it passed. Another boom of thunder sounded, though it was more distant, now. Grunting, Drifter lifted into the air on her wings, opting not to put any weight on her wounded legs. “Wh-where are they?”

“I dunno… come on. They can’t be far.” Palmwood said before cantering off, looking around. Wonder opted to stay by Drifter’s side, in case she needed help.

For a time, the group searched the area around the overhang. After a few minutes, they began to wonder if they had been too late, again.

Thankfully, that was not the case.

“OVER HERE!” Palmwood suddenly called out, not far away. Turning, Drifter and Wonder made their way over to Palm’s location without hesitation. Their route took them into a small, albeit very dense, patch of trees and shrubbery. Drifter couldn’t help but hold her breath, the twigs snapped under their hooves and the leaves sounding as if they were whispering as the two trotted by.

At last, they slipped into a small section where the bushes along the ground had been cleared away to make room for the two alicorn statues that were the occupants of this spot. Drifter’s wings failed her and her heart skipped a beat. There they were… Princess Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna. Luna was standing rigid and tall, her eyes wide and her wings flared open in defiance. Twilight was leaning back on her haunches, recoiling in fear with her ears splayed back against her head.

“We… we found them…” Drifter whispered, her eyes locking onto the statue of Luna.

“...We’re halfway there,” Wonder said quietly in assurance before smiling warmly at her brother and Drifter. “Come on. We need to move them somewhere safe.”

Palmwood nodded. “Right. I’ll work on getting them out of this shrubbery. Wonder, go get your potions and fix Drifter up. Once we’re all back at a hundred percent we can get a proper move on.

“On it!” Wonder gave a sharp nod before turning to leave, shooting Drifter a small smile before breaking into a full gallop to where they had left Blackberry and their supplies.

For her part, Drifter simply looked at the statues in shock, not sure if she should believe what she was seeing. They had finally done it… finally found Princesses Luna and Twilight. They found them and rescued them. Or, at least, they had started to. They still had to be thawed out of their stone prison, but that did nothing to disrupt the feelings of awe and relief Drifter felt.

Palmwood glanced back at Drifter and smiled softly. “...Heh. Yeah, I feel you. It’s kinda surreal… seeing them again after so long… even if they’re just statues right now.”

“They won’t be statues for long,” Drifter said firmly before rising to a sitting position on her haunches, smiling at Palmwood, then at the statues. “We’re going to make sure of that.”

Palmwood grinned widely and nodded. “Yeah, we are.”

Chapter 5 - Awake at last

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“Oh, You can hear me in there now? I guess they found you.”


Dust and ashes swirled across a mauled and desolated landscape. Fresh blood made up the numerous running streams that carved twisting paths through the decayed soil.

“They’re all dying out there, you know. All of them. Every last one.”

Screams sounded in the distance, accompanied by thrilled and excited howls of bloodlust. A pony tried to pull himself from the river of blood, only for an unformed mass of claws, teeth and eyes to surge after him.

“Stop… stop it…”

The poor fool was dragged helplessly back into the crimson river, his body shorn into pieces, his miserable and panicked cries for mercy falling on deaf ears before going silent. The monster enjoyed its feast.

“Not yet…”

More ponies tried to clamber out of the river and, like the first, they met gruesome ends. Either they were forcefully dragged back into the waiting maw of the monsters hidden within the gore, or their bodies shriveled and dried when exposed to the ash and dust that rushed by. More than a few mummified corpses now peppered the shores of the rivers.

“PLEASE! Stop this!”

They were screaming… all of them. Every one. They screamed and cried and begged for their lives, only to receive agonizing deaths. The river bubbled and gurgled in satisfaction as it consumed more and more and more, eating and eating and killing and killing...

“Why should I stop?”

Bones were becoming one of the only things visible on the shores. Bones, discarded flesh and smatterings of blood. Death was everywhere.

“They’re all going to die!”

Death was everywhere.

“...Isn’t that the point?”

The fiend hungered, unrelenting, unending, unforgiving. All that tried to escape died, being devoured. The screams and crunches and cracks and squelches began to blend together.

“They don’t deserve this! The ponies that wronged you are long gone! Please, stop this! Spare them, let them go! No more!”

Death... so much death...

“You’re asking me to let them live because they’re innocent…? Hmph. Enjoy the ashes, princess.


A scream, shrill and pained, echoed across the land of death and pain.

The river hummed, content.

Twilight screamed at the top of her lungs as her vision and mind came rushing back in a terrifying onslaught. Her eyes snapped open, only to slam shut again when a bright, flickering orange light struck her retina, blinding her. She screamed again and her forelegs flew up to cover her eyes and head. “STOP!” She cried out, curling up into a ball on the hard cave floor. “JUST STOP! PLEASE! STOP!!!”

“TWILIGHT!” A new voice shouted, hooves reaching out to touch her shoulder. Twilight jerked away and lashed out with her hooves, striking whoever the speaker was in the face. A feminine yelp met her ears, but the high pitch only served to send a sharp spear of pain through Twilight’s panicking mind.

“GO AWAY!” She wailed, trying to crawl away. She found that she had very little strength in her body, so she made no progress. Her desperate gasps, pants and cries grew worse when she realized just how little progress she was making.

“Psh! You three go away!” The voice said again, muffled somewhat, as if a hoof or something similar were smothering the speaker’s mouth. For several long moments, each one feeling like a terrible eternity, Twilight continued to wail, scream and cry before trying to open her eyes again, slowly this time. Everything hurt to look at and the world was blurry and washed out with glare. A few seconds passed before, at least, she could see properly. “Twilight, it’s okay…” Twilight’s eyes shot over to the speaker, spotting a grey thestral mare with a bloody nose and bandages covering her forelegs almost completely. “It’s alright. It’s me. You’re safe, alright?”

Twilight gulped down another lungful of air, her throat ragged and her body shivering horribly. Slowly, she looked around and examined her environment a bit more thoroughly. As she took in the cave around her, she began to calm down somewhat. She recognized this place… she had been here before, just after she had met... Her eyes turned to the thestral- no, to Drifter, again. “Wha… D-drifter? Drifter, is that you?”

Drifter nodded slowly, a disarming smile on her face. “The one and only…” she replied gently, inching a bit closer to Twilight. Twilight, in turn, twitched away involuntarily, a sharp inhale of fear rocking her system. Drifter stopped and shrunk back a bit. Deja vu… she thought, remembering how terrified Twilight had been of her the day they had first met...

“I… I don’t… w-what…” Twilight stuttered out nervously while shifting slightly. Her body, now that the adrenaline was beginning to wear off, felt unspeakably stiff, making any movement, including speech, difficult. She shook her head slightly to try and clear away the fog, though this only succeeded in making her dizzy. She began to topple over, letting out an alarmed yell.

“Woah, there!” Drifter quickly moved and caught Twilight before she could hit the ground. In response to the physical contact, Twilight jerked away, her breath once more accelerating into fearful gasps. Drifter backed off and raised her hooves to show she meant no harm. “Twilight, it’s just me. It’s fine. You’re fine. you’re okay. You’re in a safe place and I’m going to protect you. Just try to relax for right now, okay? Princess Luna is still thawing. She’ll take a few more hours to be released and wake up… then we can talk.” Drifter said gently, glancing back at the still petrified Luna towards the back of the cave. The mixture was slathered all over her and, thankfully, a few cracks were starting to appear on the stone. A few pieces had fallen away to reveal blue fur underneath.

“Wait… thaw…?” Twilight asked in confusion, trying to remember. “What happened…? How long was I out?”

“Twilight, please. Just relax for now, okay?” Drifter tried softly, but Twilight didn’t seem to hear her. In a frenzy, Twilight hurled herself at Drifter and grabbed her by the shoulders with her hooves.

“Drifter… what did Horizon do to us? How long have we been out? Days? Weeks?” Twilight asked loudly, her voice going hoarse as her volume went up. “What happened at mount eclipse!? Is Shining Armor okay? Tell me-! ACK!” Twilight let go of Drifter as her voice failed her. She fell to her haunches, a hoof on her chest as a violent coughing fit worked it’s way through her.

Drifter flinched back, her ears falling flat against the sides of her head. She reached out for a moment, then thought better of any more physical contact and set her hoof down again. For a time, Twilight’s fit continued before, at last, the coughing subsided and she met Drifter’s gaze.

“Drifter… please, tell me.” Twilight croaked, her voice barely a dry whisper, her eyes clearly conveying her desperation.

Drifter sagged as she saw her friend in such a horrible state. She bit her lip for a moment, then sighed in defeat. “Twilight… I want you to relax and brace yourself, okay? This isn’t going to be an easy story for you to hear…”

“...Is anything easy anymore?” Twilight sighed before lowering herself into a laying position and nodding to the hybrid.

“No, but… we’ve gotten used to it,” Drifter grimaced before sitting down in front of Twilight. “I want you to save your questions until I’m done, and i'm going to give you the very abridged version here, okay? I’ll go into more detail when Luna’s awake… I really don’t want to tell this story more than once.”


Drifter took a deep breath, then launched into her recap of the last twenty years. “...When you and Luna were petrified, Horizon made use of some pretty potent dark magic to instill fear and doubt into every single soldier and pony at the base of Mount Eclipse. It… it became a slaughter. Only a few dozen made it back alive. After that, Horizon launched a full-scale offensive on Equestria. By and large he disregarded the crystal empire, though nopony knows why for sure. For months, the fiends infiltrated, attacked and destroyed town after town, working their way up and slaughtering everypony in their wake.

“Every town that was destroyed had one of those gardens planted inside, bolstering the number of fiends Horizon had to work with. This went on for a while… I tried to slow him down, to give ponies a chance to get away, but… there’s only so much I can do when his forces are attacking from every possible angle and growing in number no matter how many I killed. Without you and Princess Luna, Equestria was disorganized and in chaos. For a time, Shining Armor and Cadance tried to fill in for you two, but… they wound up having to fall back to the crystal empire after only six months.”

“Six months?!” Twilight shrieked before her voice hitched and she began coughing violently again.

“Twilight…” Drifter called gently, coming over and touching a hoof to Twilight’s back. “Easy… easy,” she said softly. Eventually, Twilight calmed down and peered up at Drifter miserably. Please, let me finish…”

Twilight , with a pained expression, nodded to Drifter and said no more.

“Alright… About a year after you and Luna were taken, we… we lost Canterlot. The fiends found several points where the city connected to the mountain and… undid the supports. Violently. The city fell with thousands of ponies still inside… the pegasi that survived were swiftly picked off. Ponyville wasn’t far behind- don’t worry, your friends are all alive!” Drifter quickly added when Twilight looked to her with despair. “...The element bearers and their families are, at least. I… don’t know about anypony else. I’m sorry.”

“I… r-right.”

“Anyways, after that… well, it’s become a game of survival more than a war,” Drifter said solemnly. “There isn’t really any organized resistance in Equestria anymore. No government, no military… It’s not even a nation anymore. Just a bunch of bands and groups of ponies struggling to make it through every day. Over the first six months of the second year, the crystal empire was actively taking in refugees who could contribute something. But… well… they had to stop letting just anypony with a skillset in. Too many ponies, not enough food. They would have starved themselves.

“Plus, the crystal heart had to be modified just to keep the empire’s defenses up. I… won’t go into specifics. It’s something that Shining Armor should tell you.” Drifter finished before sighing and closing her eyes, knowing what Twilight was about to ask and dreading having to tell her.

“How… how long were we gone, Drifter?” Twilight finally managed to croak out in barely even a whisper. Drifter didn’t answer at first. For several long moments, the cave was quiet. “Drifter…”

“...Twenty years.” Drifter finally replied slowly before opening her eyes and looking sorrowfully at Twilight. The lavender alicorn looked back at Drifter with her eyes slowly widening in disbelief and shock. A hoof found a place on her chest to try and quell the sudden ice filling her heart. For almost a minute, the only sound was that of the fireplace crackling and spitting out embers not far away.

“Twenty… twha… wha… you… you can’t be… but that’s… that’s…” Twilight managed to mumble before she reached a hoof up to the side of her head, a migraine coming on. “This can’t be… this can’t…” Suddenly, Twilight was on her hooves and rigidly limping towards the mouth of the cave. Drifter was up and moving to stop her immediately.

“Twilight, please! You’re still weak from being petrified!” she pleaded, but Twilight ignored her and shoved past. Her footing failed her at the last moment and she collapsed at the cave entrance, gazing out disbelievingly into the crimson-colored, snow smothered land beyond. The red ring hung overhead, bleeding darkness across the sky. There was nothing alive for miles, and the air was as cold as the grave.

Twilight made a small sound, little more than a small gasp or a whimper. Her eyes were wide and unfocused, her jaw hung slightly loose and her body had gone rigid. Drifter came up to her side slowly, a freezing breeze causing the bangs of her mane to sway and swing lazily in the air.

“...I’m so sorry.” was all she could say to the young princess.

Twilight could do no more than look on and despair.

Chapter 6 - Rekindling Hope

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Ever since Twilight had her emotional meltdown from learning about her absence she had been silent, wide eyed and mostly unresponsive. She presently was resting by the campfire, eyes unfocused and mouth occasionally opening, like she wanted to speak, but no sound came out. Drifter had kept an eye on her the entire time, eventually allowing Palmwood, Wonderboom and Blackberry to re-enter the cave.

Not far away, the last pieces of stone were steadily crumbling away from Princess Luna, only a few pieces remaining on the back of her neck, making turning her head virtually impossible for the time being. Otherwise, she was resting on the cave floor, her body twitching occasionally as motor functions gradually switched back on in her mind. Drifter’s eyes kept leaving Twilight to check on Luna, more and more frequently.

“There’s only a tiny bit left,” Wonder finally pointed out, moving some of Luna’s unmoving mane back to expose her neck and examine the stone covering it. “I imagine she’ll wake up any moment now.”

“Let’s just hope she doesn’t wake up in a panic like Twilight did…” Palmwood added with a grimace before looking to Twilight sympathetically. The young alicorn didn’t respond at all to the mention of her name, remaining still.

“She’ll still be in shock, though I imagine she’ll have better control. Luna’s been around significantly longer than Twilight. She’s had time to gain some self control,” Drifter nodded before turning her eyes away from them all to look at Luna specifically. “Heck, her time as Nightmare Moon may actually have done her some tangible good in that regard; she knows better now how to channel her anger, fear and rage.”

“If she loses control, though… that could bring Nightmare Moon back, right?” Wonder questioned, her brow furrowing as she looked at the silently resting lunar princess.

“It almost happened when she and I were after Skeintooth. ...In a way, it DID happen to me.” Drifter replied with a solemn nod.

“Yeah, you told us,” Palm said simply before glancing over at Blackberry with a raised eyebrow. “You’re being real quiet over there, bud. You wanna add anything?”

Blackberry jumped as if startled, then shook his head. “Nah… I don’t. I barely know any of you and frankly, I just want to get to the crystal empire as soon as possible. I want be with my family, you know?”

“I understand,” Drifter nodded before trotting over to Luna and sitting down in front of her. “But we still need my aunt to wake up.”

“Can’t you do anything to speed it up?” Blackberry pressed, trotting forward with an impatient look creeping onto his face. Drifter shot him a glare.

“If we try to wake her up prematurely it could cause very serious damage to her mind and body. Everything is still switching back on. Her motor functions are working again, sure. But making her twitch when you poke her ribs isn’t going to be of much use. Her mind has been off for twenty years and if we wake her up before she’s ready we could cause serious and crippling damage. Memories may no longer be there, she may forget how to use magic, her brain could obliterate a critical part of itself from the sudden rush of information when it isn’t ready.”

“In short, we need to wait for her to wake up on her own.” Wonder confirmed before glancing at Blackberry. “And like I said, it should only take a few more minutes for the rest of the stone to peel off. She should come to any moment after that.”

“A-actually…” a new voice murmured in a rugged rasp from the floor. Everyone turned to look, excitement and surprise on all of their faces. Luna shifted slightly, her eyes cracking open just a small amount. “...I’m awake now.

Drifter suddenly lunged forward, drawing a startled yip from Wonderboom at the sudden movement. Drifter reached out and wrapped her forelegs around Luna in a hug, squeezing her tightly, as if she would disappear the moment she let go. For a moment, everypony was silent. By the campfire, Twilight’s eyes finally moved to observe, looking just a bit less empty now. “...Luna… don’t you dare ever make me look for you like that again, you hear me?”

Luna returned the hug weakly before shifting slightly and hissing in pain. Quickly, Drifter backed off and looked into Luna’s eyes. “N-neck! Hurts! C-can’t move my neck!” Luna hissed again befor Drifter nodded.

“Your neck is still somewhat petrified. Lay down and please, don’t move. Just hold still and wait. Wonderboom!” Drifter looked over at the mare in question. “Get something to help her with the pain, please.”

“Right!” Wonder nodded before turning and galloping a short ways away to start searching through her saddlebags, which rested against one of the cave walls.

“Okay, easy… easy…” Drifter said quietly while helping Luna set herself down. In a comfortable position. “There we go…”

“Thank you,” Luna rasped out before coughing. “Ugh… how long were we out? Is Equestria still standing?”

Before anypony could try to explain it gently, Twilight stood up and slowly trotted over, her expression blank. “We lost.”

Luna blinked and locked gazes with the younger alicorn. She looked… tired. Resigned. Her eyes showed no hope and her posture was sluggish and exhausted. That was the posture of somepony who had given up. “What do you mean, ‘lost’?” Luna finally asked.

Drifter sighed and cut in. “It means Equestria lost the war that Horizon launched against it… as a nation, Equestria doesn’t exist anymore. The Crystal empire is still around, though.”

“For how long, though?” Twilight asked bluntly, her ears twitching back. “All of Equestria fell in the first year, you said. How much longer can the Crystal Empire even hope to survive?”

Drifter looked at Twilight critically. “Let me tell you this, Twilight; the empire’s hopes just grew exponentially when we found you and Luna. Recovering you two has been my personal mission ever since Eclipse because ponies need you! Both of you. Getting you two back will boost morale and the hopes of everypony tremendously!” Drifter paused, having not realized until now how loud her voice was getting. She took a deep breath to calm herself before she continued. “And besides… As long as the fiends still exist and attack, The Empire can hold out indefinitely. Ironically, it’s the fiends efforts to attack the city that have made it completely impregnable to them.”

Twilight blinked in surprise. “Wha… how does that even work?”

Drifter winced and looked anywhere but into Twilight’s eyes. “...I’m not at liberty to discuss it. Shining Armor should be the one to tell you.”

“Ahem,” Luna cleared her throat, drawing attention back to her. “I am getting the impression that Twilight and I have been out for a long time. How long?”

“...Twenty years.” Drifter finally said with a sigh. “Aunt Luna, you remember Palmwood and Wonderboom, right?”

Luna nodded and turned her gaze to Wonder as she came trotting back with a jaw full of some kind of paste dangling from her lower jaw by a wire handle. “You’ve grown…” she muttered with wide eyes.

“We’ve grown up,” Palm corrected before smiling softly. “It’s good to see you again, by the way.”


“Now then,” Drifter said in a somewhat raised voice. “I think now is the time to go over what we need to do next. The Crystal Empire is still to the north and west of us, but to get there safely we’re going to have to pass through Lapiz Checkpoint, which isn't very far off. The guards there can send advance word to the empire to grant us passage through the barrier. Until we reach the checkpoint, though, we’re going to be vulnerable. IU say we rest here for eight hours and then move out. That way you two can rest and I can get you up to speed on all that’s happened in more detail.”

“Uh, hold on a second,” Twilight interjected with a somewhat hopeful look lingering behind her eyes. :Did you say Lapiz Checkpoint?”

Drifter grinned at Twilight. “Yes, I did. Little Lapiz is still around and going strong. It’s been heavily fortified, like a lot of border settlements, and there are a lot of soldiers and security ponies keeping things running smoothly, but it’s still one of the nicest places you’ll find. Especially with how the world is these days.” she explained, noting how Twilight seemed to visibly relax somewhat. She could understand why. That town made a strong impression on Drifter even now.

“Does… does Lumberjack still work there? Is he still-”

“Alive?” Palmwood interrupted with a knowing smirk. “Yeah he is. He’s still alive and kicking. Well, he isn’t kicking anywhere near as hard as he used to, considering how old he’s getting.”

“Heh. Yeah, Palm’s right. Lumberjack is still around and still prepares the best bowl of soup I have ever tasted. We can probably rest at his inn before we cross the rest of the way to the Empire.” Drifter finished with a small chuckle.

Twilight visibly relaxed, her expression warming somewhat. “...That’s good. I kinda like that town.”

“Kinda?” Drifter asked with a raised eyebrow. “Twilight, if I recall correctly; and I do, you absolutely came to adore that little town. Trust me; I did, too. Still do, really.”

Twilight scuffed the cave floor with a hoof. “Yeah, you’re right… but… I didn’t want to insult Ponyville at all…” she said quietly, her voice falling and losing some of it’s happy edge. There were a few moments of silence all around. “...I still can’t believe it’s been destroyed…”

“We’ll rebuild,” Luna said abruptly, drawing all eyes to her. “Anything Horizon has destroyed we shall rebuild. Any city he flattened will be restored. We’ll come back from this.”

“We’ll need to get rid of Horizon first,” Drifter pointed out with a small frown. “And he destroyed us last time we went after him. Hay, he took both of you down on his own!”

Luna met Drifter’s gaze intensely. “We shall not underestimate him again. The next time we face him, we shall make sure we are ready.”

There was a general murmur of agreement in the room from everypony present. Twilight’s face took on a sharp smile. “Sounds good to me.”

Drifter chuckled. “I see that fire hasn’t died down any. Still, you two need to recuperate from your petrification. We can worry about dealing with Horizon as soon as we return to the Empire.”

“Then do not keep me waiting any longer, Drifter,” Luna said, shifting slightly as some of the stone on her neck crumbled away. “Fill us in. What have we missed?”

Chapter 7 - A New One

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Nine Hours Later…

“Starting to wish we’d brought coats or something!” Palmwood shouted to be heard over the intense winds of the wild blizzard that had swept in out of nowhere. The group had been traveling for about an hour now and had been making good time. They were, until the blizzard barged in. The cloaks around each member of the group were supremely limited in what they could do against such a ferocious and unrelenting storm.

“You’re cold?” Drifter called back in a bid to lighten the mood with some playful banter. “Come on, get with the program. I’ve been to tropical beaches colder than this.”

“Bullshit, first off,” Palmwood snorted in mild annoyance while shooting an irked glare into the back of Drifter’s head. “Secondly, you’re the cold-blooded half monster of the group, remember? Your input on temperature doesn’t count for much.”

Drifter rolled her eyes. “Hey, I can’t help it if I’m worth a damn in the cold.” she jabbed.

“I see you all haven’t lost your banter.” Luna commented with a small smile, though said smile was quickly washed away by a fresh gust and flurry of snow.

“How do you think those two have stayed sane?” Wonder asked with a smile of her own. “I mean, we had to find some way of keeping our spirits up. For them, it’s giving each other shit.”

“Sister! Language!” Palmwood shot back with a frown.

Wonder chuckled in amusement. “And for me, it’s watching them act like idiots, always one upping each other.”

Drifter pouted and reached a hoof up to her chest in mock shock. “Stupid? Me?”

Palmwood got an almost predatory look on his face. “You did drop out of school, you know…”

Wonderboom bust into a fit of giggles at that before pointing at Drifter. ‘Okay, you gotta admit, he’s got you there.”

Drifter snorted before smirking back at them over her shoulder. “Last I checked… so did you two.”

Twilight couldn’t help the small smile that appeared on her face despite the cold. The fact that they were able to joke around and be so friendly and in control of themselves, even with the world having fallen apart around them, with every day a battle for survival… it was rather uplifting. Even with their lives in shambles and death waiting around every corner, they managed to find things to laugh and smile about. As she watched them, she felt a small flicker of hope in her chest. If they can be so confident, maybe the Crystal Empire really is as well protected as they’re saying…

“What was that?” Blackberry suddenly said, his body tensing as he stared into the darkness past their field of view. Everypony turned to follow his gaze, the laughs and smiles instantly melting away to serious expressions and a heavy silence. For several long moments, nopony said a word, all of them looking around their environment and scanning the area for movement.

“I don’t smell anything…” Drifter noted, sounding unsure. Still, the claws on her good hooves slowly slid free, regardless.

“The fiends can evolve with time, right? Maybe Horizon found a way to eliminate the smell on some of them?” Twilight asked uneasily, her heart starting to hammer in her chest at the mere thought of facing a fiend so soon. She shivered and her legs wobbled slightly. She looked up and saw the world flickering before her. The deep silence was replaced with the echoing screams of hundreds of soldiers and the hungry howls of fiends. Her bones rattled when an explosion went off to her right. Her breaths began to come in sharper, harsher gasps and her vision swam. Her legs gave out and she fell into the snow.

“Twilight!” Drifter’s voice cut through the screams, silencing all of the sound in Twilight’s mind instantly and returning her to the here and now. Twilight gasped sharply before looking up at Drifter regretfully, the mare in question having grasped Twilight’s shoulder firmly in an effort to draw her back to her senses. Drifter grimaced. “...Flashback?”

“Y-yeah…” Twilight mumbled before shaking her head and standing back up. Drifter helped her before looking into the distance again.

“Alright, let’s keep moving! But keep your guard up, your eyes open and your ears turning. We don’t want any nasty surprises.” She called to the group before gently motioning for Twilight to get a move on.

Blackberry hung back a few paces, fear etched clearly into his face. After a few moments, he took a deep breath and took a step forward.

Then something grabbed him.

Blackberry opened his mouth to scream when he felt a sharp stab in the side of his barrel. However, something thick and strong coiled around his neck and constricted, cutting off his airflow entirely. He thrashed violently, his eyes going wide with terror when over a dozen meaty limbs circled around him, constricting his body and squeezing. He could already feel his bones breaking from the strength of this thing’s grip..

“What the hell is that?!” Palmwood shouted in shock, though Blackberry didn’t hear this. Blackberry went still when he felt something burn it’s way into his body. A poison, perhaps, working it’s way through his veins quickly. A small squirt of blood escaped his mouth when the creature tightened it’s grip.

A blur and flurry of movement assaulted his vision, along with the sound of sharp claws tearing through flesh and the splattering of fresh blood. He gasped in a lungful of air when he realized that his assailant had let him go, several of the limbs it had been holding him with having just been cut clean off. Drifter caught him as he toppled before swiftly turning and rolling him towards Wonder. “Take care of him!” she ordered before turning once more to the fiend.

It was bizarre looking. It’s main body was a loosely formed ball of ulcerous sores and scab-like tissue. On the front was a single large eye, partially covered by an odd growth of infected tissue that hung over it like a sad lump. The creature had no mouth to speak of on its main body. From this main body were several dozen long tentacle-like arms, each one whipping around and wriggling in twitchy and jerky motions, moving the monster along in very unpredictable ways. Two of these tentacles were significantly thicker, each one topped with a long proboscis, one of which was dripping with Blackberry’s fresh blood.

Drifter had never seen this one before.

And that fact frightened her.

It lunged for her, using it’s big arms like legs while the rest swirled at Drifter from several directions. As it drew closer, she could see sharp, hooked barbs on the ends of half of the tentacles. Cursing, she ducked back in a bid to avoid it’s assault. It crashed into the snow where she had been and then rolled after her, it’s tentacles whipping around in a wild frenzy. Twilight emitted a shrill scream as one of these tentacles smacked her across the face and sent her sprawling to the ground.

“A little help, here!” Drifter shouted while rolling to the side to avoid another attack. The fiend pursued her with several of it’s tentacles wrapping themselves around her hind legs and dragging her back. “CRAP!”

At this moment, a blue beam of magic ripped through the tentacles holding her, snipping each of them in rapid succession like a masterfully used pair of scissors. Fresh blood sprayed out of the now severed joints. Drifter grunted with effort, as the parts still wrapped around her legs twisted and writhed as if they were still alive. Reflex, it looked like. The fiend turned and shot at Luna, the one that had attacked it, and lifted one of it’s feeding arms for a stab.

Luna lit her horn just in time to create a shield around herself, which the fiend bounced off of. It rolled back a few times, it’s tentacles lashing out at anything and everything that got too close. Palmwood yelped, just barely ducking one of the barbed limbs. The snipped tentacles flailed around as well, sending torrents of blood everywhere and distracting everyone that got too close.

Drifter watched it from a little ways away, watching for an opening she could exploit to get in a killing blow. None presented themselves, drawing a frustrated growl from the hybrid. “Damn it, we don’t have time to nickel and dime this thing to death!”

The fiend righted itself before turning and lunging at the still off-balance Palmwood. He let out a frightened shout as it came down on him, raising his clawed gauntlet in an effort to fend it off. Luna was on the case, thankfully. A concussive blast of magic shot from her horn and sent the fiend rocketing skyward for several yards. It’s feeding arms let out high-pitched whistles that sounded like they were made underwater, an indication of pain by the sound of it.

Then it stopped, hovering in mid-air as a lavender glow surrounded it. For a moment, the fiend struggled before one of it’s feeding arms began to twist against it’s will. It thrashed and howled in agony before, with a stomach-churning crunch, squelch and snap, the limb was torn away from it’s body. The proboscis was then pointed at the creature’s eye and shot in like a javelin. Instantly, the fiend's fell silent and still as it’s own limb destroyed it’s brain.

The creature was then brought down onto the ground, hard. Snow was kicked up from the force of the impact and it sounded like some of it’s ulcers erupted. The creature was lifted back and, and then slammed down again. This time, blood appeared on the snow of the impact point. Over and over was the dead fiend smashed into the snow, the blood stain growing every time.

All eyes turned to Twilight, whose horn was lit. Her eyes were screwed shut and she was shouting with every slam of the creature onto the snow. It was a scream of fear, of anger, of sorrow. Another slam, the fiend’s body starting to lose it’s shape, it’s insides probably getting very liquified. Drifter approached Twilight carefully, not wanting to startle the distraught alicorn. “Twilight, that’s enough,” She finally said. Twilight wasn’t listening, slamming the creature down again. “Twilight, stop!” Drifter tried again.

Now Twilight heard her and her eyes snapped open. The light around her horn fizzled out, the creature finally falling completely still. A gust tore by them, bringing another flurry of snow, but nopony even dared to move.

Finally, Twilight’s eyes turned to meet Drifter’s. They were wide and unfocused. “I… I’m sorry, I-”

“Shh,” Drifter said simply, putting a hoof to Twilight’s lips and silencing her. “It’s okay. We’re here.”

Twilight made a choking sound before screwing her eyes shut again, this time to try and hold back the flood of tears that were spilling out. She crumpled to the snow, crying quiety to herself. Drifter sighed and turned to Luna. No words were needed, the lunar princess coming forth to sit beside Twilight and offer her some comfort. While she did that, Drifter made her way up to the fiend’s corpse and examined it.

Palmwood soon joined her, cringing at the sight. “Us, please tell me you’ve seen this type of fiend before.” he said, queasy, before putting a hoof to his mouth.

Drifter shook her head. ‘No, I haven’t. This one was new.” she replied grimly before standing and looking to where Wonderboom was tending to Blackberry, the stallion having passed out by the looks of it. “How is he?” she called.

“He’ll live, but his life is probably gonna be pain for the next few days, at least. He suffered quite a few broken bones from that thing.” Wonder called back, applying a patch of gauze over the stab wounds in Blackberry’s side.

Drifter nodded and turned to Luna and Twilight. “Okay, take five. After that, though, we need to book it to the checkpoint. We can get Blackberry medical attention there.”

Luna nodded before glancing up at the sky. “...This snow will slow us down.”

“It already has.” Palmwood commented in frustration, glaring up at the clouds.

Slowly, Luna let go of Twilight and stood up, her horn sparking to life. All eyes turned to the Lunar Princess as she took a few steps forward. For a moment, Luna just stood there, letting her horn grow brighter before, with a grunt, an enormous beam of concentrated blue magic shot up from the tip and into the clouds above. For a few seconds this beam went uninterrupted, Before Luna let off. Above, the clouds began to part, dispersing for several miles in every direction. With this done, Luna wobbled slightly before reaching a hoof up to her head and wincing in pain.

“Luna… that was dangerous!” Twilight proclaimed, standing up and looking on with awe. “Barring the fact that any other fiends can find us now, that must have been an enormous strain on you!”

Luna shot Twilight a look. “Considering our dead friend over there, I think it’s safe to say Horizon knows where we are anyway,” She then looked up to she red ring in the sky and closed her eyes. “Besides…” her horn lit up again. For several long moments, nothing seemed to happen.

Then they saw it.

A crescent moon now hung in the sky right next to the faint crimson glow of the sun. Luna released her spell and took in the sight. A small smile touched her face.

It was a statement. An announcement. She had just sent a message for the entire world to see.

The Princesses were back. And now, everyone knew it.

Chapter 8 - Warmth and Guilt

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The snow-smothered road. Twilight recognized it as she followed closely behind the rest of the group. Even with the haunting and limited illumination of the Crimson Ring, she could recognize the incline around her, the snow covered trees that, in another time, had broken up the orange glow of the sun with streaks of shade. She looked ahead and saw the edge of the incline, where the path tilted back down into the small valley that housed Little Lapis. They had been going at this for hours, not stopping or resting and only talking a little bit after that fiend attacked them. To see such familiar territory and remember the warm, cozy village that had welcomed her with open hooves after the disaster on that train…

“Twilight?” Drifter called out when Twilight broke into a brisk canter, picking up her own pace somewhat to keep up. Twilight didn’t seem to hear her, moving ahead of the group with visible eagerness and hope on display. If they could see her face, they would see a hopeful and desperate smile as she approached the crest of their ascent.

When Twilight did, finally, reach the top of the rise, she froze and went rigid. Her ears fell flat against her head and her body visibly sagged. When Drifter and the others came up to her side, it became clear why.

Twilight had never seen the changes.

Where once there had been an open, cozy and inviting mountain village, there was now a heavily guarded military checkpoint with only minimal qualities one could associate with a town or settlement. Fortified stone walls surrounded the entire assortment of buildings, armed guard patrols walked on top of and around the walls while others still patrolled inside. Several of the ponies on the wall had high-end light spells going at all times, illuminating much of the surrounding environment in bright, multi-colored glows. Twilight couldn’t even see any foals from where they were.

Drifter closed her eyes and rested a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder in sympathy. “...I thought you would have seen this coming. I’m sorry.”

“I should have…” Twilight replied emptily, shrugging Drifter’s hoof away. “...I guess I was just hoping to see something familiar, is all… the area around the town is still the same.”

“That it is,” Palmwood added solemnly, looking at the two with a grim look. “There are still civilians in the town, though. Foals aren’t usually allowed outside unless they’re doing something productive, and the civilians help with manual labor, farming or maintenance on the Sunstones.”

“Sunstones?” Twilight asked, her ears perking up. She glanced at the group curiously.

“They’re artificial crystals made in the Crystal Empire.” Wonderboom answered, looking at the town critically. “They generate immense amounts of light and energy, not unlike the sun used to before it got smothered. They are portable and are typically used to feed the crops with a suitable substitute for natural sunlight. It’s how we’ve kept ourselves fed these last twenty years.”

“Wow… such bright light needs a pretty potent spell. How did they pull it off? Who worked on it?” Twilight inquired as the group gradually began to make their way down towards the town.

“Well, Sunburst worked alongside Maud Pie and Starlight Glimmer to get it worked out,” Drifter explained. “He did a lot of research on the magical theories and techniques for an easy-to-use version of the spell so that we could have enough of these stones to go around. Starlight handled the practical field tests and initial batch of Sunstones while Maud Pie helped them figure out which types of stone or mineral would have the desired effect.”

“Wait, Starlight? Sunburst? How are they doing? Are they still around?” Twilight pressed, remembering just how out of the loop she was when it came to her friends and acquaintances.

Drifter cringed visibly and looked away. It was Wonder who spoke up when she cleared her throat. “I mean, they’re alive. But, well… Starlight’s developed a deficiency with her magic. Too much strain has caused her mind and body to lose a lot of their fortitude when it comes to magical energy. She can’t use it in large amounts without serious risk. If she uses a large spell now… it could very easily kill her.”

“On the plus side, though, she doesn’t really need to use super strong magic anymore. All of her work is inside the barrier and that’s where Sunburst is.” Palmwood added with a small smile growing on his face.

“They’ve reconnected a lot, I take it?” Twilight pressed, though her face turned to one of confusion and bewilderment when Drifter burst out into a short and uncontrolled laugh.

The thestral look-alike quickly reigned in her reaction and shot a knowing grin at Twilight. “...Something like that.”

“I don’t get- oh…” Twilight stopped talking, a small red tint coming to her cheeks.

“I hate to interrupt,” Luna cut in with a frown on her face. She shifted Blackberry on her back to give her wings a bit more wiggle room. “But I think we’re noticed.”

Everypony else looked ahead and, sure enough, there were at least a dozen guards on top the walls glaring down at them. The group had yet to enter the bright parts of the illumination spells radius’. “Who goes there?!” One of the guards demanded.

“Are we in trouble?” Blackberry muttered from Luna’s back, looking up.

Drifter rolled her eyes and glanced back at Luna. “No, Blackberry. They’re just doing their job. Strict and heavy defense is one of the only things keeping things orderly inside the border. I think they’ll let us in when they know it’s us.”

“Then let us not keep them waiting any longer. Shall we?” Luna asked, a general voicing of agreement going through everypony present. As one, the group of ponies trotted forward into the light spell, revealing themselves to the guards atop the wall.

A collective gasp of shock and awe went along the entire wall and, much to Drifter’s amusement, one of the guards fainted. Drifter opted to speak up first. “Send word ahead to Princess Flurry heart; Twilight and Luna have been found. Let us in, we have wounded and would like to use Lumberjack's inn to rest and rejuvenate.”

For a few moments, there was silence. Then, the large metal gates before them swung open with a loud creak echoing across the valley. One of the guards, a pegasus, hopped down and gently glided forward until he came to a soft and graceful landing before the group. He looked at Princesses Luna and Twilight in awe and wonder before dropping into a deep bow. “...I didn’t think I’d ever get to see you two… it’s an honor to see you at last, your majesties.”

“PRIVATE! GET BACK HERE!” A loud and angry stallion shouted from the wall, but a sharp glare from Luna instantly made him shut up. Luna approached the kneeling stallion and lowered herself to be at his level.

“...How old are you?” she asked in a gentle voice. The pony looked up at Luna with young and wondrous eyes.

“I’m… I’m fifteen, your highness.”

“Fifteen…” Luna breathed, unbelieving.

“Not even an adult…” Twilight furthered, one of her forehooves now covering her mouth.

“It’s been a rough twenty years, you two…” Drifter said softly before nodding for the private to get a move on. “Everypony has had to their part for us to make it this long…”

The wooden door swung open with a jingle and loud creak. Instantly, a wave of relaxing and wonderful warmth washed over the entire group. For Twilight, it was the most relaxing and soothing thing she had felt since she woke up. The inside of the old inn was different now, as was to be expected. There were fortifications along walls and over the windows, as well as some varying weapons behind the counter and along the walls.

Behind the counter, looking over an old and worn book, was a familiar burly brown stallion. His mane, tail and beard had all gained gray streaks and his face was covered in wrinkles. He glanced up at the sound of the jingling door and smiled when he saw Drifter. “Well, howdy Drifter! It’s been a-” his gravely and aged voice stopped the moment he saw Twilight and Luna. “I… I must be seeing things… must be dreaming…” he whispered, his eyes wide and his smile gone.

Twilight was the first to approach, coming forth at a brisk canter and looking Lumberjack up and down with wide eyes. “You’re… You’re so-”

“Old?” Lumberjack finished tenderly for her, smiling warmly at the young Princess. “You know it’s been twenty years, right?”

“Yes… I know…” Twilight sagged and sat herself down on her haunches with her ears falling against her head. “I just… I guess no matter how much I tell myself things are going to be different, I'm not really prepared to believe it until I see it…”

Lumberjack nodded solemnly before moving out from behind the counter. Twilight’s eyes widened even further when his hind legs and waist came into view. They weren’t moving. Instead, his hind legs were supported by a pair of wheels on long metal legs. The squeaks and low rumble wheels echoed in Twilight’s mind. She opened her mouth to ask, but no words came. “Hey, chin up, now,” Lumberjack said, ruffling Twilight’s mane. She looked up into his face to see him smiling back. “I don’t need my back legs to make the best bowl of soup you’ve ever had.”

“I agree entirely,” Drifter said while closing the door behind the group. “Though, Jack? When are you going to acknowledge Princess Luna, here?”

Lumberjack stiffened slightly before turning rapidly to try and bow to the lunar princess. The speed of his turn caused his wheels to tip off balance, dragging him by the waist to the ground with a loud thud and agitated yelp. Everypony winced. “Guh… heello Princesss…” Lumberjack groaned from the floor.

“Lumberjack,” Twilight started with a small smile forming on her face, remembering how clumsy his bow to her had been when they first met. “Stop bowing to everypony. You’ll hurt yourself. That’s an order.”

Palmwood chuckled. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

Lumberjack cast an irked glance at Palmwood. “I can follow orders thank you very much!”

“You sure?”

“Ah, piss off,” Lumberjack grumbled before starting to roll himself to the fireplace that was still resting comfortably on the far end of the room. “I see you’ve got a wounded pony there, Princess Luna. Set him down on the couch over here. There’s a first aid kit in the closet on that wall over there. I’ll lend a hoof once soup is ready.”

Luna gave a curt nod and made her way towards the couch. Wonderboom made her way to the aforementioned closet for the first aid kit. Palmwood followed after Luna to check on Blackberry. Drifter stood idly for several moments before looking over at Twilight with concern. Despite the smile Twilight had been wearing, it was clear to Drifter that the alicorn was incredibly distraught. She turned and made her way for Twilight with a concerned look.

“Twilight? How are you holding up?” she asked gingerly, resting a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder.

Twilight twitched from the contact before looking down. “...Not good. Everything’s so different and… I mean, I know I should expect things to be different and I should prepare myself but… I just…” she began, her voice trembling and cracking frequently. “I can’t believe… I don’t… I’m... I’m so-”

“Shh, shh…” Drifter cooed gently, wrapping a wing over Twilight’s back in an effort to comfort her. “It’s shocking, I know… You’re going to be alright, okay?”

“...I’m sorry…” Twilight finally managed before shrugging off Drifter’s wing.

“What for? You didn’t do anything wrong, Twilight.” Drifter asked curiously. Twilight turned to look at Drifter directly in the eyes, revealing an unfathomable guilt burning behind her own.

“Yes, I did! I sent my friends away at Mount Eclipse! I kept telling them that we’d w-win it together! If I had kept them with me, we would have won! I’m the princess of friendship! What good does it do for me to be the princess of friendship when I forced my best friends away when I needed them most?!”

“Twilight, stop,” Drifter said firmly, her expression hardening. “None of this is your fault and don’t you dare start blaming yourself for any of it, you hear me?”

Twilight backed away and shook her head. “...You just keep telling yourself that, Drifter… But you’re not me. You don’t have my title or my responsibilities! You weren’t chosen by the tree of harmony to wield the element of magic, the keystone of friendship and harmony across all of Equestria and beyond! You’re half fiend! YOU-”

Twilight didn’t get to finish. A gauntlet covered hoof suddenly lashed out and smashed into Twilight’s cheek, sending her crumpling to the ground in a gasping heap. Drifter’s eyes were furious and a scowl had appeared on her face. “You think I don’t get it!?” Drifter shouted, the entire rooming going silent and still. Drifter marched over and, without trying to be gentle, rolled Twilight over until she was on her back and then pinned her down. “I am half fiend, Twilight! But I’m also half pony! Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?!”

Twilight was silent.

Drifter growled. “Every pony that dies at the claws of a fiend is a personal failure to me! It shames and disgusts me that I have to share even one percent of my genetics with those monsters! They are, by all rights, my brothers and sisters and I’ve had to watch them eat, rip,shred and murder countless hundreds of thousands of ponies! You can try to blame yourself for everything that’s happened if you want, but you’re wrong and you won’t make anything better by doing so!

“I should know. I’ve blamed myself for the fiends and every life they have taken on more than one occasion. It’s easy to attack yourself when you fail, but do you know what that does?” Drifter leaned down and drew her next words out through clenched teeth. “It makes you incapable of seeing the real enemy and incapable of stopping them. So stop blaming yourself right now, Twilight! I’ve already been through that whole song and dance and it got me nowhere. And right now, we need everypony to be at their absolute best!” Drifter then backed away from Twilight with a shove, taking deep, shaky breaths. She looked up to the rest of the room, where she saw everypony else looking at her with looks of shock.

Visibly wilting, Drifter shook her head and stormed out of the room, heading upstairs to the beds. For several moments, the entire room was silent.

Twilight sat up slowly, blinking. Her eyes followed where Drifter had gone before, with a hint of unease, she stood up and followed the hybrid out of the room.

Chapter 9 - Catching Up

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“Guh, that was stupid…” Drifter growled under her breath as she paced back and forth restlessly in one of the many rooms the inn had available. All but one of the lights were out and the curtains were drawn back. The one light that remained on was little more than a pale blue night light designed to simulate the gentle glow and shade of a normal night.

She was so involved in her own mind that Drifter didn’t even notice when Twilight gently pushed the door open, letting a small stripe of orange light run across much of the room’s floor. Twilight saw Drifter pacing and gulped. Even this tiny motion drew Drifter’s attention. She looked to Twilight, her ears laying back almost instantly. She turned away from Twilight and sighed. “...Sorry if I was too harsh back there.” she finally mumbled.

“It’s fine, Drifter,” Twilight consoled gently, stepping into the room and closing the door behind her. “I understand, I think.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Drifter commented doubtfully before shaking her head. “But it doesn’t matter. We’re not in some contest to see who's blamed themselves for bad things the most.” the hybrid’s eyes locked onto the night light, refusing to meet Twilight’s gaze.

“Of course not…” Twilight said gently before trotting up to Drifter timidly. “But… I guess I’m curious about what you’ve been blaming yourself for?”

“Nothing,” Drifter said instantly, still refusing to look Twilight in the eye. “At least not right now. I figured out how to dodge that bullet centuries ago.”

“Drifter,” Twilight said firmly, finally earning a glance. “...Please don’t lie to me about this. I’m no Applejack, but I’m sure she’d be calling out a lie right now if she were here.”

Drifter winced before shaking her head. “Ah… yeah… Applejack. She would, wouldn’t she? Heh… even with her… issues… she’s still one of the most keenly aware ponies I have ever met.”

“Issues?” Twilight asked, concern for her friend becoming very evident.

“I’ll let her show you when we get back to the Empire, Twilight. For now…” Drifter sat down on her haunches and at last met Twilight’s gaze with her own. “...You’re right, though. I have been, you know, beating myself up a bit… I know I shouldn’t be, I know exactly where all of the blame should go, but...”

“It’s easy to attack yourself when you fail,” Twilight echoed Drifter’s earlier sentiment. Drifter nodded.

“...Princess Luna is my aunt, Twilight, and the last member of my family that I actually care about. The only other one is… well, you know who it is.” Drifter growled out the last part, removing her gauntlet and trying to force her regular claws out of that hoof. All that came out were a few pointed nubs.

“You never fully recovered?” Twilight asked in barely a whisper, a hoof rising to her chest while she, too, fell to her haunches.

“No. He tore these ones out by the roots. Heck, even growing these nubs has been a miracle.” Drifter replied sadly while looking the hoof over. She could still remember quite clearly the white hot agony of having her claws ripped clean out of her hoof as if it were nothing…

“...That’s rough. Your father killed your mother and took away your aunt…”

“Horizon is not my father, Twilight,” Drifter said coldly before closing her eyes and putting her gauntlet back on. “My father died almost a thousand years ago. He was buried in a cemetery in Canterlot, with his wife, my mother, beside him. Horizon is a monster and abomination that I am just unlucky enough to share genetics with.”

“What about Princess Celestia?” Twilight asked, her voice cracking somewhat. It had been twenty years for the rest of the world, but for her? It was still a fairly fresh wound.

“...I can say I understand her a lot better now,” Drifter replied with the tiniest traces of a smile on her face. She stood and trotted over to her saddlebags, which were resting against the far wall. “Here, look at this.”

“Hm?” Twilight stood up and followed Drifter, who was now looking through one of the pouches. With a happy ‘aha!” Drifter procured a birth certificate. Twilight looked it over for several moments. Then her eyes widened. “This is you…” she breathed.

“Yeah. Me. Fresh out of Celestia’s womb. I don’t even think they knew I was half fiend, yet. I mean, the signs are all there, really. The eyes, the ears, the teeth. Even by normal thestral standards I was kind of an oddity.” Drifter replied with a distant look to her eyes.

“How did you get this?” Twilight asked gingerly.

“I found it in Celestia’s private chambers a few weeks after you and Luna were captured. She kept this one copy of my birth certificate, even after all this time. I… I admit, I was struggling just to stay focused at the time. I was distraught over losing you two, doubly so when my initial rescue attempt ended in failure… Everything felt like it had fallen apart around me, like… like I had been in control for all those centuries and then suddenly I… I wasn’t. I wanted something to hold onto. Something to ground me and remind me of something…”

“Remind you of what?” Twilight ventured after several seconds of silence.

“...I needed to remind myself of who I am and where I came from. I kept lying to and telling myself that I shouldn’t have failed so quickly when I faced Horizon for the first time, that I should have been there to help Celestia in Canterlot. I started feeling like… like I had lost my touch, or… I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense how I could go from routine success to complete catastrophe so quickly. This certificate… it reminded me that I may be half fiend, but I am still a pony at my core. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes… I’d put myself on a pedestal and thought I was above such mishaps. Remembering that I’m not…” Drifter made a small choking sound before lowering the certificate. “Remembering that I am still perfectly capable of making mistakes… it stung. It hurt. But I needed to know that so I could let go and focus on the real problem.”

Twilight put a hoof on Drifter’s shoulder in a comforting way, a sympathetic look on her face. “I take it some of that self doubt is still around though, isn’t it?”

Drifter nodded while putting away the birth certificate. “Isn’t that why you came up here after I punched you like that?” she asked before turning to look at Twilight again. “Yes, I still beat myself up every now and then over letting you and Luna run off to fight Horizon alone, or not doing something more to help.”

“You were the one to volunteer to fight Skeintooth, remember?” Twilight ventured cautiously.

“I remember, Twilight, and that was because I can’t hurt Horizon with my body, thanks to his damned genetic manipulation. If I hurt him, it has to be… indirect.” Drifter lifted her gauntlet and let the steel blades concealed within spring free.

“I see…” Twilight said. For several moments, the two sat in silence before it was broken again by Twilight. “Okay… I guess I should know this in advance, seeing as I’m going to be seeing them again before long…”

“What?” Drifter asked, letting her claws back into her gauntlet.

“...Do they- my friends, I mean… do they forgive me? For… for sending them away… breaking my promises?” Twilight asked carefully, her ears folding back.

Drifter smiled reassuringly. “I believe so. I mean, who knows how they’ll respond when they see you again? Plus, I think they’ve already taken most of that anger and bitterness out on me.”

“Huh? Why?”

“I told them that I knew about your intentions to send them back. I… got an earful from all of them and a few bruises from Rainbow Dash,” Drifter said, smirking slightly. “Boy, she was pissed.”

Twilight snickered weakly. “Yeah, that sounds about right…”

Again, the two fell silent. Drifter looked away for a moment. “You know, Twilight… this is nice, in a way. Just sitting here, talking… catching up. We haven’t really talked since you were freed from the stone.”

“Yeah… the same goes for Luna, doesn’t it?” Twilight noted.

“Mhmm,” Drifter hummed out a response before rising to her hooves and stretching a bit. “Maybe I should go fix that, eh?”

“You said it yourself, Drifter; She is your aunt. She’s family. Go spend some time with her before we head out, okay?” Twilight suggested while also standing.

“That sounds like the most relaxing thing I could do all week,” Drifter said before chuckling lightly. “Alright, come on. I think everypony is going to want to know we sorted this all out.”

With that, the two exited the room. For a moment, they went down the hall towards the stairs that would lead them back to the first floor and the common room. Before they reached them, however, Twilight reached out a hoof to bring Drifter to a stop. “Er, Actually, I have a question first.”

“Shoot.” Drifter raised an eyebrow.

“...I’ve been meaning to ask, but, who is this Blackberry pony? I don’t know who he is or where he came from. What’s his story?” Twilight asked, genuinely curious.

Drifter nodded slowly. “I don’t know much about his personal history, but i do know that he was a survivor in the heartlands of Equestria. He has a wife and son who should both be in the Empire right now. He was the one who found you and brought us to you. You can thank him for being free.”

“Oh, alright. I think I’ll go see him, then.” Twilight nodded before the two mares made their way downstairs.

Chapter 10 - Reconnecting

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Twilight stood a ways away from Blackberry, eyeing him curiously while Lumberjack gave him one more look over with Wonderboom assisting. He was sitting up on the edge of one of the tables near the fireplace, his forelegs propping him up. He seemed to be doing better, now with a large patch of gauze covering up where he had been wounded, held in place with medical tape and likely having a healing salve smeared over the area underneath. Blackberry chuckled slightly at some remark Lumberjack made before his eyes locked with Twilight’s. Twilight’s eyes flicked away for a moment before she shook off any of her unease and approached.

“...Princess Twilight.” Blackberry greeted with a small nod of his head as she approached.

“You all healed up?” Twilight said in a friendly tone.

“Yup. Wonder says I’ll need to take it easy and try not to let anything irritate the wounded area, but besides that I should be fine,” Blackberry replied before gently touching a hoof to the bandage. “Guh, it itches like a mother, though.”

Lumberjack caught site of Twilight then and rotated himself to look at her face. “You and Drifter get it all sorted?” he asked gently while looking for any signs of bruising on Twilight’s face where Drifter had punched her earlier.

“Yeah. We’re good. Drifter’s spending some time with Luna before we go… we’ve been gone a while. The two should catch up,” Twilight answered with a nod before looking down slightly.

“Well, don’t you forget that you’ve got… what was it? Eight? Nine?” Lumberjack trailed off and looked to Wonderboom for help. Wonder got a thoughtful look on her face.

“Let’s see… You’ve got Twilight’s main circle of friends and Spike, so that’s six. There’s also Shining Armor, Starlight, Sunburst and Flurry Heart. That’s ten ponies she’s going to be catching up with at bare minimum.” Wonderboom said while doing the math. Twilight’s eyes shot over to Wonderboom, widening slightly.

“Wait… Flurry Heart? But she’s just a-” Twilight began before stopping herself. She bit her lip before shaking her head in exasperation. “...Right… she’s all grown up now, isn’t she?”

Wonderboom sighed softly before trotting up to Twilight’s side and rested a hoof on her shoulder comfortingly. “Grown up and in charge of the Empire. ...Drifter doesn’t want us to say anything more than that for now, though. She thinks it’s best if you hear it from the rest.” she said before giving Twilight a small smile, though it was clearly forced.

“Right…” Twilight closed her eyes before taking a deep breath. She then re-opened her eyes and locked gazes with Blackberry. “Anyway, Your name is Blackberry, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Blackberry nodded curtly.

“Drifter says you were the one who tracked me down. That, in a way, means that I have you to thank for my release,” Twilight said before shuffling in place a little awkwardly. “We’ve been traveling together since I was released. And yet I know almost nothing about you. I guess I’m wanting to fix that.”

Blackberry raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Huh… not a question I’m used to answering. Where do I start…?” he hummed and put a hoof to his chin in thought for several long moments. As he did this, Lumberjack and Wonder silently excused themselves, trotting off to tend to the fireplace and meet up with Palmwood, respectively. “Well, I’m not anypony super special, first off. I was only a colt when Princess Celestia died; had only had my Cutie Mark for a year or so. Good at growing plants and especially good with blackberry bushes, obviously,” a small smile found its way onto Blackberry’s face. That smile then faded. “Well, once you and Princess Luna were captured, my life turned upside down along with everypony else's. My folks had the foresight to teach me the necessities of survival in case things got really bad, which they did… I’m grateful they managed to do that. I owe them...”

Twilight frowned when she heard the despondent and sorrowful edge creep into Blackberry’s voice. “...You lost your parents, didn’t you?” she asked carefully.

“That’s nothing new, Princess. A lotta ponies did. Those kids running around with your hybrid friend seem to be a pristine example,” Blackberry pointed out before sighing. “But yeah. Lost them when Canterlot collapsed. They were right in the impact zone at the base of the mountain, gathering supplies and food and whatnot. Then the city fell down the mountain. I was miles away watching it happen from our camp… Powerless...”

“I’m so sorry…” Twilight said softly, reaching out to comfort him.

“It’s fine, Princess. I got over it years ago,” Blackberry dismissed simply while brushing Twilight’s hoof away. There was still a downtrodden look about him as he continued. “But… I won’t lie, it was horrible at the time. I mean, sure, I knew how to make it on my own, but… I didn’t want to be on my own… Damn near offed myself a few times, I’m ashamed to admit.” a thin smile replaced Blackberry’s frown. “Heh… But then, like a freakin’ miracle, into my life came Grapes.”

“Grapes?” Twilight asked curiously, noting the way that Blackberry started to relax and look happier just thinking about it.

“My wife,” Blackberry elaborated before his muzzle scrunched up. “Well, I say ‘wife,’ but we never had a ceremony, never got officially hitched. Nopony around to seal the deal, what, with Equestria crumbling into dust at the time, you know? But… we just… kinda agreed. We’re married as far as we’re concerned.”

Twilight felt her heart and blood warm up a little at that. “Sounds like you really love her.” she said softly.

“I do. I love her and our little boy more than anything else in this world,” Blackberry said with a curt nod before slipping off of the table. “And to be honest, it was only thanks to the promise of their safety that I even agreed to help find you. If entry into the empire wasn’t the reward, I would not have left them for even a second, even if doing so would mean bringing you and Luna back.”

Twilight nodded slowly. “I think I understand…”

“I mean… I know Grapes can take good care of herself and Bramble, but…” Blackberry shook himself and sighed. “They're my family, you know? All I got left. Grapes has called me ‘papa wolf’ more than one because of how protective I am... They should be waiting for me up in the Crystal Empire by now.”

“Then let’s make sure we get you back to them, okay?” Twilight asked, a sliver of confidence and hope worming its way into her voice.

Blackberry grinned and nodded enthusiastically. “Hell yeah. Now, pardon me, but I’m going to go get some soup, okay? It was nice chatting with you.” he said before moving past Twilight to a table a little ways off that had an enormous serving bowl filled to the brim with warm, divine smelling soup on its surface.

As Blackberry strolled by, Twilight bit her lip for a moment, then turned to look into his back as he trotted away. “Oh, and, Blackberry?”

“Hm?” Blackberry looked over his shoulder at Twilight, tilting his head curiously.

“Thank you for helping Drifter… I owe you.”

Blackberry smirked over his shoulder at Twilight before chuckling. “You owe me, eh? Ah, shit, that’s an honor. Tell you what, you can repay what you owe me by making sure that Luminous Horizon bastard dies. Do that and we’re even, deal?”

Twilight grinned and nodded sharply. “Yes, deal.”

In stark contrast to the warm interior of the inn, Drifter and Luna were resting on the roof, having cleared away some of the snow and keeping more out with an invisible barrier created by Luna. They were both looking up in the general direction of the Red Ring. More specifically, they were looking at the moon, still faintly visible next to it. For a time, the two had just sat there, enjoying the quiet. Finally, Drifter looked at Luna to her left with an uneasy expression. “...Luna?”


“What was it like… being stuck inside that stone prison for so long?”

Luna grimaced and dropped her gaze away from the moon. “...To be frank, being trapped and then being released were the worst parts. My mind was completely shut down in there and Horizon didn’t seem capable of assaulting my mind with nightmares,” Luna snapped her eyes shut and shuddered uncomfortably at the memory. “But being petrified… it was a horrific experience. Your entire body locks up, unable to move. You can feel your body becoming heavier and more rigid as the stone spreads… you can feel it filling your lungs and you can no longer breath. You can only look forward, powerless. And then, even that is swallowed whole by the stone as it covers your eyes…”

Drifter nodded grimly. “Well, at least for you, it was over as soon as it started, right? Like somewhat knocked you forward in time with no delay?”

“Indeed. From the moment I lost awareness within that prison, it was mere moments before I found myself waking up by your campfire.” Luna confirmed with a small nod before opening her eyes again.

“...To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse,” Drifter began after several moments of silence, drawing Luna’s attention. Drifter looked out over the surrounding landscape. “For you, it must be jarring. Waking up and finding the whole world is so completely different than when you lost consciousness. But for me… for the kids…” Drifter’s eyes took on a far more somber tilt. “...for all of the rest of us, we had to see the changes. Played a part in trying to stop them and make the best of a worsening situation. We were able to harden ourselves against it all, but that doesn’t make it easy.”

“...The difference between intense pain that lasts for only a moment, and a dull throb that lasts for years,” Luna simplified with a small nod. “...Alas, I fear I cannot say for sure which one is worse. But that does not matter. All that matters is that it is suffering, the degree is arbitrary. All we can do now is ensure that this suffering ends.”

Drifter nodded confidently before the two fell silent again. Drifter closed her eyes for a moment before looking at Luna one last time. “It’s good to have you back, Luna.”

Luna smiled in returned before unfurling one of her large, midnight blue wings, and drawing Drifter in closer with in. “It’s good to be back. I am looking forward to rebuilding.”

Drifter nodded and relaxed somewhat, feeling her aunt hold her close. “So am I. But we need to deal with Horizon, first.”

“And we will,” Luna said, a cold edge entering her voice as she once more glared up into the Red Ring.

“...We will.”

Chapter 11 - The Last City

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Like a beacon of light and hope, casting a gentle blue glow across the otherwise crimson landscape, the Crystal Empire sprawled across the empty, dark fields of snow with a powerful dome of magical energy shielding it from any and all that would do it harm. Compared to when she had seen it last, Twilight noted dozens of changes. New buildings, fortifications, a new, physical crystal wall, presumably for use if the barrier fell, among other things. The dome made it hard to see what was going on inside the city, but the could see the tall, central tower of the crystal castle just fine. From it’s tip, a bright light shone for miles in a faint mimicry of the sun.

“Hey, you going to keep gawking or get a move on?” Drifter called from a ways ahead, having noticed Twilight’s lack of motion once the empire came into view.

“Oh, s-sorry!” Twilight quickly apologized, cantering up to the rest of the group. “It’s just so different…”

“Like everything,” Luna pointed out bitterly. “But we can take in the sights when we are safely inside the shield.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Palmwood said eagerly while picking up the pace. “The sooner we get inside, the sooner I can get some decent sleep.”

Drifter shot him a look. “We were just at Lumberjack’s Inn less than twenty four hours ago. Are you dissing his beds?” she questioned with a frown.

“No, of course not!” Palm defended with his hooves raised. “I’m just saying that a bed you’re not familiar with is always harder to sleep on.”

Drifter rolled her eyes at that, an amused smile forming on her muzzle. “You haven’t used your room in the Empire for three years now, Palmwood. I don’t think it counts anymore.”

“Hush, you!”

As the two bickered back and forth, Twilight continued eyeing the city and, more specifically, the small archway set into the wall that she presumed would be their entry point. A few guards were stationed right outside, muttering to each other. They had already caught sight of the group, by the looks of it.

“Okay, let’s try and focus, okay?” Drifter suddenly cut Palmwood’s next remark off before stepping towards the guards. Two of them came forward, both stallions, and gave salutes.

“Lady Drifter! We received word of your return not long ago.”

“At ease, boys. I take it Flurry Heart and the Elements are waiting in the castle?” Drifter said casually, to which the second guard nodded dutifully.

“Yes, Drifter. They’ve been rather eager, from what I’ve heard.”

“I should hope so. Alright, let us in.” Drifter ordered simply, stepping towards the archway, the rest of the group in tow.

“Yes, ma’am!” One of the guards saluted again before turning to bow towards Twilight and Luna. “And, uh, your majesties? It is an honor to have you back.”

Twilight winced slightly and bit her lip, before nodding simply. Luna was the one to speak, however. “Thank you, soldier… I just hope our return is enough.”

“It is,” Drifter said firmly, glancing over her shoulder at Luna and meeting her gaze intensly. “It has to be.”

Luna hesitated, then nodded silently before the group resumed their course. The barrier didn’t impede any of them as they went through, warping around them with a gentle magical hum. Once they passed this threshold, the cold from outside immediately gave way to a heavenly warmth. Twilight felt her body relax immediately upon stepping inside the borders of the city. For a second, she just savored the feeling, letting her body free itself of so much tension and stress. The whole group had the same idea, all of them standing idle for several seconds.

Drifter was the first to speak. “Luna, I’d appreciate it if you and I went to see Flurry first. Twilight,” she turned around to face said lavender alicorn. “It would be best if you wait for a bit to meet with Flurry Heart. You should actually meet with your friends, first. Shining Armor will probably be with them.”

“Okay, but, why should I wait to see Flurry?” Twilight asked curiously while falling into stride next to Drifter and Luna as they made their way for the castle.

Drifter’s ears fell and she looked anywhere that wasn’t Twilight. “Twilight, I’m sure they’ve forgiven you for sending them back, but… you and Flurry don’t have an unsettled matter to deal with. It would be best to make sure you and your friends are on good terms before you meet with Flurry. Besides, Flurry is, ah…”

“Excitable?” Wonder suggested, earning a grateful nod from Drifter.

“Yes, precisely. Very excitable. I think you should see your friends first, then talk to Flurry so that the day ends on a high note,” Drifter continued while returning her gaze to Twilight.

“Go along, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said reassuringly. “We’ll meet you later.”

Twilight nodded slowly before looking over at Palm and Wonder. “And, uh… what about you two?”

“I’m going with Drifter,” Wonder said simply with a shrug. “I kinda like Flurry.”

“You do that. I’m going to the bar.” Palmwood said with an eager tone and cantering away.

“Don’t get a hangover, now!” Drifter called after him.

“No promises!”

Twilight smiled softly at their banter before looking back to Blackberry. “And… you?”

He tipped his head at Twilight in a small bow. “Me? Well, Princess, my job is done, now. I’m going to go find my family.” he looked towards Drifter with a question, one which she predicted.

“There’s an old hospital down that road there where new arrivals and Refugees are housed until better housing can be arranged. I’d start there,” she said simply before nodding to Blackberry. “Thank you very much, Blackberry. Go on and see your family. You’ve earned it.”

Blackberry grinned, bowed, and then broke into a gallop down the street Drifter had motioned to. Twilight smiled warmly on seeing how happy he was to hear that, then closed her eyes and lost that smile to an uneasy frown. She opened her eyes and looked towards the castle.

Her friends were waiting for her…

The five mares, one stallion and purple dragon sat anxiously in a large room with a circular crystal table in it’s center, many of them resting in chairs while waiting for the Princess to arrive. None said a word, and all of them wore different expressions of their faces. A clock was ticking away on the wall, each ‘tick’ and ‘tock’ feeling like an eternity to everypony present. Of course, they had all already waited twenty years for this day.

What would another few minutes matter?

Finally, there was a gentle knock on the large double doors on the other end of the room. Everypony looked towards it immediately before it swung open. A crystal guard stood there, looking a little nervous. “P-Princess Twilight is here…” he said before stepping aside to let the alicorn in question into the room. Twilight strode in slowly, eyes turned down to look at the floor. She heard a couple of soft gasps from the ponies she knew were before her, but couldn’t find it in herself to look up.

“Well, Ah’ll be… Yer so young, Twi…” came the voice of Applejack, emotion unreadable, though there was no questioning the fact that she sounded older. Twilight lifted her eyes towards the farmer, and gasped in shock when she saw everypony in the room. Applejack, much like Lumerjack, was standing with her hind legs supported by wheels on metal legs. There was a noticeable mark on her lower back where the skin hadn’t healed quite right.

“I… Applejack… girls…” Twilight could barely form words, looking to each of her friends one by one. Rarity’s eyes were hidden behind a pitch black blindfold and her horn was broken. Rainbow Dash had no wings, only snipped stubs that sat uselessly on her sides. Fluttershy had a large chunk of the fur on her chest missing, specifically over her heart. Pinkie Pie didn’t seem to have any obvious ailments, but the moment her jaw fell open in shock, Twilight instantly saw the lack of a tongue in Pinkie’s mouth. Shining Armor, who stood on the other side of the table, was missing one of his front legs, yet he stood just fine. Spike, for his part, was about the size of a full grown pony.

All of them wore looks of disbelief, shock, awe… they were all so old… Wrinkles tarnished their skin, showing through their coats and gray streaks ran through their manes and their fur. Twilight couldn’t find any words, just looking on at her friends and brother in horror.

“I… I’m so sorry…” she breathed out, tears coming to her eyes. She looked away and screwed her eyes shut. “I… I shouldn’t have sent you b-back… If… If I had just… you’d all be-” She stuttered out through her tears before an impact in her chest sent her falling back onto the floor, crying out in alarm. She didn’t open her eyes, expecting a beating.

Instead, she felt somepony hugging her tightly and crying silently into her chest. After a second, she opened her eyes and looked down to see Pinkie Pie holding onto her like a lifeline, shaking her head even as she buried it into Twilight’s chest fur.

“Pinkie Pie has the right of it, dear,” Rarity began while rising from her seat. She reached out of her mouth and found a long wooden rod by her chair, which she took and used to navigate her way to Twilight. The rest of the mares in the room followed suit, all coming forward to stand before Twilight, looking down at her with smiles. Rarity set her stick down before sitting next to Twilight and Pinkie. “...We’ve all missed you terribly. Don’t make our reunion an apology for something we’ve all forgiven you for.”

Twilight looked between them all, wide eyed before sitting up. Pinkie still clung to her, unwilling to let go. “But… But I-”

“Saved our lives, Twi,” Rainbow cut in, a hoof pressing itself to Twilight’s lips and silencing her. “...Yeah, it hurt when you sent us away… but we heard how that battle turned out and very few of us were fighters. You saved us, Twilight…” she then smiled.

“Twilight…” Applejack began softly before wiping a hoof across her eyes and smiling. “’s good to see you.”

Pinkie shifted slightly and, hesitantly, unwrapped one of her forelegs from around Twilight’s barrel, gesturing for the others to get in on the group hug. There wasn’t even a word of complaint. All of them came forward and fell into the embrace, wrapping Twilight, and each other, in their hooves. Spike removed himself from his corner and joined them, sighing in relief.

“Don’t you ever go away like that again, you hear me?” he whispered to Twilight.

“I won’t…” Twilight whispered back, all her doubts and fears immediately washing away from the embrace.

Fluttershy said nothing and merely hummed, content.

From where he stood at the other end of the table, Shining Armor just smiled before making his way towards them. He didn’t say anything. He simply opted to work his way into the embrace, glad to feel his little sister’s presence once again.

Eventually, the pony pile untangled, everypony standing back up, but hesitant to move away from each other. Shining Armor, at last, spoke.

“Welcome back, Twily.”

Twilight turned to Shining Armor, her eyes locking onto his missing foreleg.

“Don’t worry about this old stub, sis. I got used to it years ago…” Shining said before she could comment before sitting down on his haunches. “Makes one on one hugs a bit harder, though.” he reached out his foreleg and smiled softly.

Twilight nodded before letting her big brother pull her into another, more personal embrace. For a long time, the two remained silent.

“I missed you… we all did.” Shining Armor finally whispered into Twilight’s ear. Twilight said nothing, instead opting to just tighten her grip on her big brother.

For the first time since she woke up from the stone, she felt… genuinely happy. She was with her friends again, at last, and they had forgiven her.

In the back of her mind, she found herself suppoing she should have never doubted them to begin with. After all… they were her best friends for a reason.

Chapter 12 - Empty and Silent

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“I still can’t believe they’re all so… scarred…” Twilight said quietly to herself, Shining Armor trotting along beside her down a mostly empty corridor in the Crystal Castle, his missing leg not causing him any problems. “I’d ask how it happened, but… I get the feeling I don’t want to know.”

Shining nodded in understanding. “I understand, Twily. Don’t worry, though. They’ve had their injuries long enough to get by just fine.” he said with a small smile to indicate that he was impressed.

“...I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

“Hey, we take what we can get at this point. Even if it means a lot of our humor has turned kind of… morbid.” Shining replied before sighing and shaking his head. “It’s the only way we can keep things inside the empire standing.”

Twilight glanced to Shining quizzically. “Actually, speaking of the Empire, I’m curious…”

Shining looked down at Twilight, listening.

“When I first woke up, Drifter mentioned something about the Crystal Heart being… modified. I guess I want to know what those modifications are. She was pretty adamant about making me hear it from you.”

Shining frowned and looked away. “...Ah. Well, you aren’t going to like it, that much I can tell already.”

“I don’t like anything about this, Shining. What’s one more bruise among the hundreds I’ve picked up?” Twilight shot back with a grimace. Shining sighed and motioned for them to stop at a window. He pointed out of it and towards the streets below.

“Look out there, Twilight. Look at the city and then past it. What do you see?”

Raising an eyebrow, Twilight trotted up to the window and peered out. She could just see the outermost edges of the main plaza that rested around and beneath the castle. Beyond that plaza, Twilight could see the spider web-like grid of streets and roads that connected and encircled the castle in straight lines. Ponies were going about their business, much of it seeming to relate to matters of rations, construction or repairs. Letting her gaze drift farther, Twilight saw the looming darkness of the world outside, the crimson sky reminding everypony of what was just past that barrier. That in mind, Twilight returned her gaze to the crystal ponies, seeing that none of them looked happy in the slightest. Downtrodden, exhausted, resigned, some were even fearful, their eyes darting to the sky frequently.

“...Nopony’s happy. They’re all…”

“The weight of everything is weighing heavily on everypony’s shoulders, Twilight. Losing Equestria, having to make our last stand here, watching ponies revered as heroes one by one fall to disability and crippling injuries…” Shining closed his eyes tightly and looked away, shaking somewhat. “...Having to raise our foals with all of this happening around us…”

Twilight looked to Shining with deep sympathy before wordlessly nuzzling into him. He returned the gesture gladly.

Shining then pulled back to continue talking. “Well, with emotions and morale plummeting, especially after the Battle of Eclipse, we needed to either find a way to lift everypony’s spirits, or turn their fear and anger towards the fiends into our shield.”

“So when you say you modified the Crystal Heart…” Twilight’s eyes widened in realization.

Shining nodded grimly. “Yeah. The Crystal Heart still stores love and happiness whenever it can, but it doesn’t project it anymore, given how rare of a resource it is. We’re saving that for a rainy day. The rest of the time, the Heart sucks up everypony’s anger, fear, hatred and other such feelings. Then it projects those emotions out into the barrier around the city. If anything tries to break through the barrier that isn’t supposed to, the whole thing flashes and alerts the whole city. Whenever a fiend has tried to break in, the fear that they might succeed fuels the heart and, by extension, powers the barrier, making it even stronger.”

“Woah… how… how did you manage to do all of that? How were you able to dodge the side effects of weaponizing anger and hate? That was a part of what King Sombra did and look at the monster he became.” Twilight asked, worry lining her voice.

Shining shook his head. “We… we were only able to avoid it because one pony chose not to.” he said in barely a whisper, his words dull and miserable.

Twilight felt her blood go cold. She swallowed heavily before reaching out to her big brother. “Who…?”

Shining flinched under Twilight’s touch. “...Cadance.”

“WHAT?!” Twilight shouted, her other forehoof instantly reaching out and grabbing Shining Armor tightly. “What did she do?! Is she alright?! Is she alive?! Please, answer-”

“Twilight, let go.” Shining Armor said firmly, looking into Twilight’s eyes cooly. Immediately, Twilight fell silent and backed away, her ears falling flat against her head. For a moment, Shining Armor stared at her intensely before any and all tension melted away into miserable resignment. “...She’s alive, Twilight… but only by the loosest of definitions.”

“What…?” Twilight choked out, barely even daring to breath.

“Follow me.” Shining muttered before turning and trotting down the hall. Twilight gulped, shuddered and then followed after him.

The door slowly creaked open, letting in the light from beyond flood into the otherwise pitch dark room in a long stripe. It was a small but heavily furnished and ornately decorated bedroom. Photographs from Shining Armor and Cadance’s lives covered almost every inch of the walls. On the left side of the room rested a large and luxurious bed draped in purple sheets and beautiful, deeper magenta comforters. On the right side were two lounge chairs with a tall bookshelf resting between them against the wall. A loveseat sat off to the side of these chairs, seemingly unused. A coffee table sat in front of the lounge seats and bookshelf. Most of the room was covered in a thick layer of dust.

Except for a line leading straight from the open doorway to a large, cushioned chair sitting against the far wall. Sitting in said chair, unmoving with her eyes wide open, unblinking, was the form of Princess Cadance. Bags had formed under her eyes, which themselves were now dull and unfocused. She was skinnier than Twilight remembered, her ribs showing from under her fur.

“Oh my gosh…” Twilight gasped quietly, reaching a hoof up to her chest. Cadance didn’t even react to the flood of light or the sound of Twilight’s voice. Slowly, she approached the seated alicorn and waved a hoof in front of her face. “Cadance? It’s me, Twilight. I’m… I’m back.”

There was no reply or reaction of any sort. Cadance took in a shuddering breath before letting it out, completely unresponsive to the world around her.

Slowly, Twilight turned to Shining Armor, who stood by the doorway, looking away with a pained look on his face. Slowly, Twilight backed away from Cadance before turning to face Shining. “What happened to her…?”

“When we were modifying the Crystal Heart… We needed a way to contain the effects of the hatred to just the shield. We researched ways of doing it for months and came up with nothing that could save everypony. In the end, the only method we found was…” Shining shook and sighed. “...was for somepony to concentrate all of that negative energy somewhere. The power derived from the emotion that the Heart sucks up is indefinite, but… the leftover emotions themselves would seep out like a corruptive force. It would have turned the empire on itself. So… Cadance took it. All of it.”

“She took in that much negative emotion?” Twilight asked quietly, glancing back over her shoulder with wide eyes.

“That much and more. She still takes it in, even now. She became intrinsically linked to the Crystal Heart after the modification spell was complete. As long as her body is alive, that corruptive force and emotion has somewhere to go without harming anypony else,” Shining looked to his wife with two decades of sorrow hiding in his eyes. “But the cost… the c-cost…” Shining looked down to hold back a sob.


“The cost… was her mind. She just… she screamed out as all of that energy flooded her mind all at once… there’s nothing left in there, Twilight… it was obliterated the second the spell was complete…” Shining sobbed openly and locked eyes with Twilight, tears streaming freely down his face. “And she didn’t even tell me… she knew I would have s-stopped her... she j-just told m-me that she was going t-to more research and then… the next time I saw her… she was…” he gestured vaguely and widely to the room before sitting down on his haunches, shivering uncontrollably.

“I… I’m-”

“Don’t say it,” Shining cut her off abruptly before looking up again. “Don’t say you’re sorry. Everypony keeps saying it and I’m sick and tired of hearing it…” he closed his eyes and another sob slipped out of him. “...I don’t want anypony to be sorry. I want somepony to kill Horizon already… I want all of this to mean something… if we can’t stop Horizon than… C-cadance… her loss will have been for nothing!” his voice rose in volume and intensity as he spoke before, at the end, he crumpled to the floor, covering his head with his only front hoof and screaming out.

Twilight’s ears were pinned to her head and she felt tears in her eyes as well. Slowly, she trotted towards Shining and set herself down in front of him. “...We will.” she whispered softly before pulling him into a hug, one which he gladly returned. “...Luminous Horizon will pay for this.”

“P-Please…” Shining stammered out, his breath still ragged from the sudden release of sorrow and misery. “Please… please… please…”

Slowly, Twilight turned her head to look at Cadance over her shoulder once more. Despite the scene unfolding before her, the pink alicorn didn’t respond in the slightest. Her body was motionless and unresponsive, save for slow and uneven breaths brought on by mere reflex. Her eyes were dull and empty of life, thought or emotion. The voice that once could soothe any crying filly into peace, or sing a beautiful melody that could touch the hearts of countless ponies, was as silent as the grave.

The Princess of Love, one who could spread love and joy wherever she went… was gone. All of her that remained was an empty, silent body, and her memory, preserved perfectly in the mind of a stallion crying openly in Twilight’s hooves. Twilight held him close, listening to his words.

“Please… please… please…”

She could tell that he was no longer asking for Horizon’s death. Such a plea had already been made and was promised to be answered. No… now he was begging for something else entirely. Now,

Shining Armor was begging and pleading for Cadance to wake up. He was begging whatever would listen to give his wife back.


A desire that would forever be unfulfilled.

Chapter 13 - Flurry Heart

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Finally, after what felt like an eternity of trying to comfort her big brother, Twilight stood before the large, ornate double doors that would take her to the throne room of the Crystal Castle… and to meet Flurry Heart. Unless something had changed in the last hour or so, Luna, Drifter and Wonderboom would all be in there with her, discussing the current situation and getting Luna up to speed. Maybe they were already discussing what they wanted to do about Horizon. With a deep breath, Twilight reached out with her magic and slowly pushed the doors open.

Any discussion going on beyond those doors immediately went quiet, the last syllables echoing into silence in the massive crystalline room. Drifter and Wonder stood off to the left of the throne, while Luna stood to the right. They were all looking to Twilight with a varied range of expressions on their faces. Drifter initially wore a warm smile, but it swiftly faded to a sympathetic frown when she saw the remnants of Twilight’s earlier misery. Wonderboom seemed to miss this, wearing an anticipating, yet uneasy, expression.

Luna wore an expression that, for lack of a better combination of words, said ‘brace yourself.’

And then there was Flurry Heart herself. Right now, she was about as tall as Twilight, maybe an inch or two taller. She was noticeably skinnier, but the closer Twilight came, it seemed to be less from a lack of food and more that the alicorn was simply in very good physical condition. Her eyes bored into Twilight, wide open. Her jaw hung wide open and her wings twitched sporadically on her back. The silence was so profound that the subtle clip-clop of Twilight’s hooves on the long red carpet sounded almost deafening. Twilight came to a stop a few feet away from Flurry, trying to process everything she was seeing in the mare.

Now that she was this close, she could see the little, adorable alicorn infant she had once played with behind those eyes. She could see a giggling and joy-faced baby playing with a stuffed bear. But that was all hidden deep behind those wide-open eyes… the eyes of a full-grown alicorn mare that had grown up in a world with little more than a crimson circle for a sun.

Twilight felt her breath hitch in her throat. She coughed slightly to clear away whatever was preventing her from speaking before locking eyes with Flurry Heart once again. “...Flurry?” she finally managed to utter in less than a whisper.

There was a moment of silence.

“AUNTIE TWILIGHT!” Flurry Heart suddenly squealed in delight, her wings snapping to full attention before, with a startling speed, she lunged and tackled Twilight to the floor with shocking strength.

“OOF!” Twilight grunted in surprise before her back slammed hard into the floor. Sparks exploded across her eyes while the breath was practically squeazed out of her by a very tight constriction around her torso. Her vision swam from the impact before refocusing on the incredibly ecstatic grinning face of Flurry Heart, who was only inches away.

“Oh my gosh, it’s really you, isn’t it?! Wait, let me check...” The princess spewed out so quickly that even Pinkie Pie in her prime would have been proud. Flurry’s horn lit up with golden light, consuming Twilight’s vision due to the proximity. Twilight, still confused and dazed, only grew more so when Flurry lifted her by the base of her tail with magic and held her upside down in the air. Flurry looked Twilight over with an incredibly criticle eye, tapping her chin before, at last, smiling and nodding. “Uh huh, yup! It’s you!” She declared. She then dropped Twilight rather unceremoniously to the floor.

The lavender alicorn crumpled to said floor like a sack of wet (and partially smashed) potatoes, the sound she made being eerily similar. “Ugh…” Twilight groaned in discomfort and tried to get up, looking at Flurry, who was now bouncing in excitement while giddily giggling like a school filly that had just been given a box of chocolate and told to ‘go nuts.’

“You weren’t kidding! You actually found her!” she then turned back to Twilight, grabbed her in her magic again, and dragged the helpless lavender alicorn into another very tight hug. Then everything went still and quiet. For several seconds, Twilight just tried to process everything that had just happened.

She was failing.

Luckily, somepony decided to come to the rescue. “Like Wonder and I said,” Drifter remarked mirthfully from the side, a hoof held up to her mouth. “Excitable.”

Twilight groaned dizzily before Flurry pulled back. The excited look in her eyes was still burning brightly, but she was swiftly getting some self control over herself. Now she looked into Twilight’s eyes, not with glee or euphoria… but with sympathy and sorrow. “You saw mom… didn’t you?” she asked quietly, her ears drooping a bit.

Twilight finally returned to reality at that remark. She sighed and looked down at the ground. Her own ears fell flat against her head and another tremble worked its way through her. “Yeah… Shining showed me. I’m so sorry, Flurry… that must have been horrible.”

“It still is,” Flurry nodded slowly, letting go of Twilight and getting back to her hooves. “But it was worse when it happened…”

Luna then politely cleared her throat, drawing Twilight and Flurry’s attention. “I think the rest of us should go for now and let you two catch up. You are family, after all.”

“Thank you…” Flurry nodded her thanks.

“I’ll go and get Luna up to speed on the Empire’s fortifications,” Drifter said while the three of them began to make their way for the door. “Then we’ll probably all go and get some sleep.”

Twilight and Flurry didn’t say anything. The double doors closed, leaving the two of them alone in the large room. For several long seconds, the two were completely silent. Gradually, Twilight raised her eyes back to Flurry Heart, hoping to say something. All that came out, however, was a grimace and the sagging of her entire body.

“I remember you, you know?” Flurry suddenly said in a hushed tone. Twilight’s ears perked up and she looked at Flurry in surprise. “I mean, the memories are kinda hazy. I was only a baby after all, but…” Flurry shook her head. “’s nice to see you again. So nice.”

Twilight gave a tender smile, gradually getting some life back into her eyes and posture. “It’s good to see you, too, Flurry. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting you to greet me like that.”

Flurry blushed while getting back onto her hooves rather quickly. She brushed herself off and chuckled sheepishly. “Ahem. Yes, well, I ah… it’s how I cope, I guess. Sunburst said that my emotions are, uh… oh, what was the word…?” she tapped her chin for a moment. “Ah, right! Magnified, he said. Like, I feel them the same as any other pony, but I express them a lot more enthusiastically. His words, not mine.”

Twilight nodded while standing back up herself. “I can see that…” she then looked Flurry up and down for a moment, a proud smile gradually appearing on her face. “Wow… look at you. You’ve really grown into a beautiful mare, you know that? I couldn’t even recognize you when I came in.”

Flurry waved a hoof dismissively. “Pshh! I mean, yeah, maybe, but that’s hardly something I really focus on. I kinda gotta focus on making sure everypony in the empire isn’t eaten alive by teethy thingies, you know?” she said with a playful grin. She then stopped and slapped a hoof over her mouth with her eyes going wide. “Right… you aren’t used to that.” she mumbled sheepishly while lowering her hoof.

“Uh… used to what?” Twilight asked with a raised eyebrow.

Flurry sighed and lowered her hoof back down to the ground, where it poked at the carpet uselessly. “I have something of a morbid sense of humor. Comes with the times I grew up in, I guess…” she sighed and looked away.

Twilight winced a bit, but otherwise made no comment. Instead, she chose to step forward and wrapped a foreleg around Flurry’s shoulders. “Hey… you remember all of the books I used to have back in Ponyville?”

Flurry nodded, smiling back at Twilight. “Uh-huh! You lent me some of your foal’s books before the shit hit the fan.” she proclaimed rather bluntly.

Twilight nodded, even if she inwardly cringed at the language. “Well, if you know me, you know how much I like books. Do you have a collection, by chance? I think it’d be a good opportunity to catch up, you know?”

Flurry grinned. “Oh, do I!”

“Bramble! Grapes? You here?” Blackberry asked in a slightly raised voice while moving through the halls of the hospital. There were a few other ponies here, sitting around while they waited for proper housing and work calls. Most sat off to the side or in the emptied rooms that lined the hall, minding their own business. Some of them shot Blackberry annoyed looks from his raised voice, but remained quiet as he continued the search for his family.

He had been over the first and second floors already, and was now on the third and final floor. He called out again, half-expecting their to be no answer like all the other times he had called out to them so far. He felt a small spike of worry and fear in the back of his head. What if they never made it? What if they were attacked by fiends before reaching the empire? He knew they could fight and take care of themselves, but anypony would be hard-pressed to walk out of a well-planned fiend ambush in any condition to travel.

He bit his lip anxiously and rounded a corner. Then he stopped. Up the hallway, maybe thirty feet, were Grapes and Bramble, who both looked back at him with a curious mixture of shock and relief. For a second, the three stood perfectly still, as if they were afraid to move. At last, Bramble bravely took a step forward. Then another, and another. At last, he broke into a gallop right for his father. “Dad!!” he cried out in relief, tackling Blackberry with a tight hug, sending both of them to the ground.

Grapes was quick to follow, sliding to a stop and lowering herself onto the ground so she could look her husband in the eyes. “You made it… oh, thank goodness…” she whispered while reaching out with a hoof.

Blackberry smiled and removed one of his hooves from Brambles back to touch it to Grapes’s. “I said I would, didn’t I?” he whispered back, fresh tears of joy staining his eyes.

Grapes choked down a sob before chuckling under her breath. “Yes you did…”

Blackberry looked down at Bramble and smirked. “It’s great to see you too, champ, but are you going to let me up? Your mom needs hugs, too.”

“She can wait her turn.” Bramble replied without taking his face out of his dad’s chest fur. He then looked up and met his father’s gaze. “Don’t you ever scare us like that again! We thought you were dead!”

“Whenever have I been that easy to kill?” Blackberry asked with a small grin before shifting so he could sit up a bit. “Besides, how could I die when I have you two to come back to and live for?”

“Exactly. Now shut up and kiss your wife.” Grapes ordered before reaching out to wrap one of her hooves in Blackberry’s mane. He yelped in surprise when she pulled him in, then hummed in contentment when their lips met in a passionate kiss.

“Mom, dad, there are ponies around!” Bramble wined upon seeing the open display of affection. “Can’t it wait til we’re back in private?”

His parent’s, for the first time in their time together, decided to ignore him for a minute. They needed this and they were going to savor the moment. I made it… and we’re safe. Blackberry thought to himself, joyfully leaning further into the kiss.

Around the reunited family, the ponies lining the walls looked on and could no longer suppress their genuinely happy smiles.

Chapter 14 - Quiet Words

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Several hours later, Flurry Heart and Twilight were still seated in the latter’s personal study, which also acted as her bedroom, just catching up on lost time. Plus, Flurry showed Twilight her collection of books, which the lavender princess had spent a not insignificant amount of time losing herself in. It was nice, really, just sitting there with the curtains drawn over the windows to keep the red glow away while the two of them just… bonded, in candlelight.

But the niceness eventually had to come to an end, as there were a series of questions burning in the back of Twilight’s mind that she needed answers to. All of them in regards to her friends…

“So, Flurry,” she began, lowering her ears and looking away slightly. “My friends… how…. How did they all get their… you know…”

“Their disabilities,” Flurry sighed and closed the book she had been looking at. The soft thump of the closing volume echoed in the room much louder than it really should have. “Are you sure you want to know? I mean, gruesome details are nothing new to me, having seen ponies being murdered in horrible ways right before my eyes since I was a little filly, but I know you aren’t as… used to it.”

“They’re my friends, Flurry. I have to know what happened to them,” Twilight replied solemnly, tensing up a little bit. “Just… just tell me what happened to them, okay? In order, if you can.”

“Alright,” Flurry nodded hesitantly, then cleared her throat. “It was actually Fluttershy who had her disability show up first. When Ponyville was being evacuated shortly before Canterlot fell off the mountain… I guess it was too much for her. She basically had a stress-induced heart attack, or something similar. That’s what the patch of missing fur over her heart was; she needed surgery. She has to keep up on some medication now that helps keep her relaxed and her heart rate low. She’s… pretty much had to stay secluded away from anything intense for a long time now. If her heart acts up again, she’ll die.”

“I was wondering about that… well, if nothing else, hers seems like the least… crippling,” Twilight commented quietly while screwing her eyes shut.

“Rainbow Dash was the next one,” Flurry continued, biting her lip and sighing. “I remember this one… I was six or so, and Rainbow Dash was helping Applejack and a few other ponies with something or other outside the barrier. They… were ambushed. A few fiends had stalked close by without being detected and jumped on the group. Applejack escorted the other construction ponies back inside the safety of the shield while Rainbow tried to fend off the fiends. She…” Flurry closed her eyes tightly. “...was pinned down. Against Dad’s orders, I wound up running down there to try and help. When I got there… they were… ripping her wings off with their teeth. I think one of them was laughing.”

Twilight shuddered and cringed, her stomach churning at the mental image. “That’s horrible…”

“Yeah… I know. We got her back inside the barrier pretty quick, but… well…” Flurry shook her head and opened her eyes. “We didn’t have the resources or the know-how on making prosthetic wings. So… she can’t fly anymore. Applejack’s spine was broken when she went to Canterlot to try and salvage something that could with that issue. She took an entire squad of Crystal Guard elites with her. She and one other were the only survivors, and had nothing but the permanent loss of her hind legs to show for their efforts,” Flurry actively growled deep in her throat as she thought back on that. “...Some of the guards we lost were my friends.

“Anyway, after Applejack, it was Rarity and Pinkie Pie who got their disabilities, more or less at the same time. They were in Little Lapis, trying to boost morale among the ponies there with some nice new decorations Rarity had put together and a shipment of cakes and other pastries that Pinkie Pie had made,” Flurry looked down and grimaced. “Pinkie was hit, first, if I’m remembering right. An entire swarm of duck-type fiends descended on the town and went after Pinkie first to try and keep her quiet. They tore her tongue right out of her mouth… would have killed her if Rarity hasn’t stepped in, swinging around an uprooted fence-post like a sword.”

Twilight couldn’t help a small snort of amusement at the mental image of Rarity clobbering monsters with a giant club. “That’s… if it weren’t for the fact she went blind and lost her horn from this story, I’d be tempted to laugh.”

“Oh, trust me, it’s hilarious,” Flurry added with a grin. “It’s funnier with a visualization. I went and asked one of the painters in the city to do a ‘dramatic recreation’ of Rarity’s finest moment, and the result is…” Flurry winked. “Fabulous.”

Twilight snorted again. “...You weren’t kidding about the morbid sense of humor, were you?”

“Nope~” Flurry shook her head, though her smile quickly faded to a grimace again. “...The ducks got fed up with her attacks pretty quickly, though. She’s lucky that her horn and eyesight are all she lost. An inch deeper from that claw strike and her brains would have painted the snow… That whole town got lucky that the guard were able to force the fiends out after that.”

Twilight sighed and nodded slowly. “Alright… alright, I think I’ve heard enough…”

Flurry frowned a bit more intensely. “Actually… there is one more thing I should probably catch you up on. Tell me,” she leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “Did Drifter tell you about what happened to Discord?”

Twilight blinked and shifted back a little. “Er… no, she didn't. Why? What happened to him?”

Flurry leaned back and scowled. “...When he learned about what had happened to Fluttershy, he lost it. He teleported to Mount Eclipse after uprooting an entire mountain. He was going to throw it at Horizon and try to kill him. It… didn’t work,” Flurry’s horn lit up with pale yellow magic, withdrawing a small locked box from under her bed. “I’m not sure what all happened, but…” she opened the box and procured the contents. Twilight’s eyes widened and a hoof flew up to cover her mouth in shock. For from within that box drifted three things; the tip of a red snake-like tail, capped with a tuft of grey hair, a yellow eye with crimson pupils, and a single, curved fang. “...Horizon somehow killed Discord. Right now, our best guess is he found some way of nullifying his magic, probably through the same dark stone the Changeling Throne was made of, or an equivalent, and then tore him apart when he arrived.”

“Discord’s dead…?” Twilight choked out, barely able to believe it. She never liked that trickster, if she was being honest, even after Fluttershy helped reform him, but he didn’t deserve this…

“Yep. Seems Horizon got payback on him after all,” Flurry noted grimly before returning the objects to the box and returning it to its place under her bed. “One of his fiends came up to the Crystal Empire’s barrier, regurgitated the contents of that box, then left… that was… a long time ago, now.”

Twilight sagged, the weight of all of this new information feeling unbearably heavy on her shoulders. “...Okay. Now I’ve heard enough.”

Flurry Heart nodded solemnly while reaching a hoof out to Twilight’s shoulder. “I’m sorry if I made you feel bad, Aunt Twily… We’ll fix this. Now that Drifter and the kids brought you and Luna back, we might have a full fighting chance.”

Twilight nodded, her face hardening with determination. “Damn right… We’ll need to discuss our plans for that soon,” she said through grit teeth, envisioning the pony-turned-monster that had caused her friends and country so much suffering. “...We’ll make him pay.”

“Yeah, we will,” Flurry agreed with a sharp nod before a small smile appeared on her face. “But that can wait just a little bit longer… There’s one last thing I need to take care of first. Plus, you, Luna and Drifter all need some good and proper rest.”

Twilight’s eyebrow raised with curiosity as Flurry Heart stood up and turned for the door. “What do you need to do?” she asked, shifting slightly.

Drifter looked back over her shoulder at Twilight and smiled brightly. “I gotta go thank the guy who found you and helped bring you back, of course! His name is Blackberry, right?”

Twilight nodded, smiling slightly. “Yeah, that’s his name. I’m sure he’d appreciate the gesture.”

“Heh, I hope so,” Flurry shrugged before pushing open the doors of her room. She paused, then, and looked back at Twilight one more time with a somewhat softer expression on her face. “...It’s been great seeing you again, by the way. It’s nice to really… know you.”

“You too,” Twilight replied softly with a small nod and gentle smile. Flurry’s own smile widened a few inches before she once again turned and resumed her journey out of her study.

“Little guy’s sound asleep,” Grapes noted in a quiet whisper while trotting over to Blackberry with a small smile on her face. They had been lucky enough to find a room that was essentially unoccupied on the top floor of the hospital, and this particular floor was the least populated. Bramble was, as Grapes had just noted, sleeping peacefully in the room just next to the one she was sharing with Blackberry. “Haven’t seen him snoring that peacefully in years.”

Blackberry smiled, sitting on the edge of the bed. It was really just two hospital beds that they had put together side-by-side and then held in place with some restraining straps that would normally be used to keep violent patient held down. “I’m glad…” he said simply, his eyes never leaving Grapes as she trotted up to him and sat down next to him on the bed.

“So am I,” she whispered, leaning over and kissing him softly on the lips. Blackberry hummed and kissed her back eagerly. A few seconds passed before the two separated, Grapes flashing him a tiny smile. “I’m also glad you’re back…” she leaned over and kissed him again, this time a bit more forcefully.

When their lips separated again, Blackberry had a small smirk on his face. “You seem extra needy tonight,” he teased gently, wrapped a foreleg over Grapes’ shoulder and holding her closer. She purred a little and gladly scooted up to his side, pressing her body against his.

“I’ve been without my husband for a while, Blackberry. I think I’ve earned the right to be a little needy,” she shot back before leaning in for another kiss. This time, though, she went past his head and kissed his neck while planting a hoof on his chest and rubbing small circles into the rough and unkempt dark fur.

Blackberry shuddered against her ministrations, a shaky breath leaving his lungs. “You, uh… you’re pushing my buttons, there,” he said awkwardly, a red tint coming to his cheeks.

“Good,” Grapes purred into his ear before pushing him onto his back and climbing on top of him, straddling his stomach and resting both of her forehooves on his chest. He reacted by resting his hooves on her hips and looking up at her with wide, eager eyes.

“Oh-hoh, now I get it.”

Grapes sighed exaggeratedly and rolled her eyes. “You always were slow on the uptake, weren’t you?” she asked teasingly before leaning down to kiss his chin, reveling in the feeling when his hooves began to glide up and down her back.

“I have a lot on my mind, give me a break,” he shot back when she slid lower down to kiss his neck again. He moaned slightly when he felt her hooves starting to explore his body a little bit.

“Well, right now,” Grapes nipped at his collarbone, eliciting an excited gasp out of him. “Put all of that other crap out of your mind and focus on us,” she continued trailing her kisses further and further down his body, and Blackberry’s mind did indeed gradually blank as he gave himself over to their act, even if they did their best to be quiet.

However, as their time together progressed, Blackberry felt his right side, where that unknown fiend had stabbed him, starting to throb with pain every few minutes or so. Not enough to take him out of the task at hoof, but enough to be noticable. Then, just as he and his wife were reaching the end of their endurance, the back of his head began tingling.

“Ah, good… you’re right where I need you,” a cold and emotionless voice said inside of Blackberry’s head, just as he and his wife moaned and gasped away the end of their act with the height of their passion. Collapsing onto Grapes’ back, gasping for breath and about ready to fall asleep, Blackberry’s face scrunched up with confusion. Who was that he had just heard speaking? What did they mean?

Those thoughts were obliterated when Grapes rolled onto her back beneath him and pulled him down for one more kiss. When they parted, her eyes were slowly starting to drift closed. “That was wonderful, Berry… welcome home…”

All other thoughts were washed away by that sleepy murmur, and Blackberry decided to not question the voice he had heard for now. Right now, he was tired, he was spent, and he needed some sleep. He rested himself down and wrapped his forelegs around Grapes’ belly, hugging her close against him. And it was in this way, resting with his beloved, that Blackberry fell asleep.

Chapter 15 - Royal Thanks

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Maybe an hour later, Blackberry was roused from his peaceful slumber by the voice of somepony awkwardly clearing their throat from the entrance to his and Grapes’ room. He cracked open an eye to glare at whoever had dared disturb their reunion and rest, although that glare quickly morphed into a wide-eyed look of shock when he beheld the ruling Princess of the Crystal Empire, Flurry Heart, looking back at him with a very slight tint on her cheeks. Blackberry glanced down at Grapes, who was still asleep and clutching tightly to his chest, then looked up at Flurry with a sheepish grin. “Uh… I’d bow, but…”

Flurry put a hoof to her lips to stifle a small laugh. “It’s okay. If you can work yourself free, though, I’d actually like to speak with you,” she said before looking down at Grapes and smiling pleasantly. “But there’s no rush…”

“Oh, uh,” Blackberry hastily said while very gently prying his wife’s hooves off of him. “It’s no trouble, your majesty. Just give me a second, here,” with an almost cartoonish pop, he managed to free himself from Grapes’ vice-like grip without rousing her, then cantered over to stand before Flurry. He then dropped into a low bow. “Uh, what brings you around, your highness?”

Flurry giggled lightly and turned to the side. “Walk with me, would you?” she asked while gesturing with her horn down the hall. Blackberry frowned, then looked back over his shoulder at Grapes. Flurry noticed his hesitation and put a hoof reassuringly on his shoulder. “Hey, she’s safe here, and so are you. If it makes you feel better, we don’t have to leave the hospital.”

That seemed to ease Blackberry’s mind a little bit, and soon enough the two were trotting down the halls of the building in an unusual silence. Flurry led them to the staircase and took them up to the roof. Once they stepped outside, Flurry turned around to look at Blackberry with an unreadable look. He looked back at her uneasily, shuffling in place while the door to the stairwell closed behind him. A cool breeze drew by, and the ever-present Red Ring hung high in the sky, reminding him of their situation; although the faintly visible crescent of the moon next to it helped to relieve some of that fear, filling the empty space with hope.

“Blackberry, you were the one who made it possible for Moonrise Drifter, Palmwood and Wonderboom to rescue Princess Luna, and my aunt, Princess Twilight, correct?” Flurry suddenly asked in a far more firm voice. Blackberry looked back into her eyes and nodded stiffly.

“Yes, that’s me… though I only did it to make sure my family could be safe here.”

Flurry put on an understanding smile. “That makes sense, and I don’t hold your priorities against you…” her smile grew even more. “But not only did you save yours… you saved a part of mine. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful it felt to finally see my Aunt Twilight after so many years, with only stories, photos, and fragments of foalhood memories of her to go by. I…” she blinked and ran a hoof over her eyes. “I haven’t felt that happy and hopeful in a long time, Blackberry. And that hope is spreading to the whole Empire, too. So…” she spread her wings wide and bowed deeply before Blackberry, making the dark green unicorn gasp in surprise and look around helplessly, unsure of how to respond. “On behalf of my people, and as a pony who wants to protect everything we have left… Thank you, Blackberry. Thank you very much.”

Blackberry rubbed the back of his head with a wide, bashful grin, and looked away. “Y-you’re welcome, Flurry. Eh heh, can you stop bowing, please? It’s weird…”

Flurry stood up with a smirk and playfully poked Blackberry on the nose with her hoof, making him go cross-eyed. “I’m weird,” she said plainly before looking out over the empire sprawling around them. “...I’ve had to be. If I wasn’t, I probably would have died trying to protect all of this a long time ago.”

Blackberry nodded slowly, looking out at the empire as well. “Yeah… I bet.”

Suddenly, a sharp throb flared up on his side, drawing an uncomfortable hiss out of him. He lifted a hoof to the scar on his ribs and ground his teeth together. Flurry looked back at him, concerned. “Blackberry? Is something wrong?”

“Ack… just-” Blackberry grimaced when the throb flared up even more. “J-j-just my scar acting up,” he opened his eyes, having screwed them shut by reflex. When he did, they widened when he saw that the world around him was being drained of all of its colors, save for varying shades of red. Flurry Heart was frozen in place, reaching a hoof out to him in alarm. The pain in his quickly faded away, along with all sound and other sensations. All was still. All was silent.

“How convenient,” a new voice, the same one that he had heard earlier, spoke from his right. Blackberry turned and gasped in shock when he saw a twisted and distorted shadow walking towards him. It had the shape of a pony, it’s two eyes glowing a dark and sickly purple, with six long tentacles, each one tipped with blades, sprouting from its back and writhing in the air. It was Luminous Horizon, and his teeth showed in a large grin. “Princess Flurry heart is right in front of you. I don’t think she could have timed her thanks any better.”

“What… how?!” Blackberry demanded, though there was no missing the terror in his voice. “How did you get here?!”

Horizon looked at Blackberry with an almost bored look on his face, the shadows flickering off of his body to reveal the gray, patchy fur beneath. “I’m not here. I’m still sitting upon my throne on Mount Eclipse. I’m just talking to you through that seed my child planted in your ribs.”

“Seed?” Blackberry choked out, looking down at his scar. Now that he looked closer, the flesh was turning darker, and the veins were swelling up. He looked up at Horizon again, his pupils dilating with rage. “What did you do to me!?”

Horizon smiled widely. “I see no harm in telling you. After all, you’re going to be dead in a few seconds, once your mind starts processing time normally again,” he explained before his horn lit up with crackling black and blue magic. Before them, a blue, transparent recreation of that tentacle-covered ulcer of a Fiend from the snow-covered wastes south of Little Lapiz appeared. “This creature has been in reserve for a good long time. I’ve been waiting for someone ideal to implant with its seed. I could have had one implant a guard, but if we’re being honest…” he looked at Blackberry and his sadistic grin even more. “...I want Luna to watch when I tear the Crystal Empire to the ground. I want her to try to stop it, but be absolutely helpless.”

Horizon then turned and sauntered up to Blackberry, who took a few steps back. Before he could react, Horizon jabbed one of his tentacles blades into the scar. Blackberry was shocked when he didn’t feel any pain from the contact. Horizon kept talking. “The seed that my child placed in you will create the ultimate Garden. Your corpse, the pot. The blood of the Empire, the water that makes it grow.”

Blackberry’s eyes widened, and he looked to Horizon with despair. “No… no, no you can’t!” he pleaded, taking a step forward. “I have a wife! A child! I can’t leave them alone, like this!”

Horizon didn’t respond to the sentiment. “Don’t worry; they’ll be following you shortly,” he said bluntly before flashing Blackberry another condescending smile. “On behalf of my children, as the father and King of the Fiends… I thank you, Blackberry, for being the carrier of my newest child.”

The form of Horizon disappeared in a swirl of erratically twitching black smoke before the color returned to the world. The pain in Blackberry’s side flared up to unimaginable levels, and he found Flurry’s hoof touching his shoulder even as he began to scream. “Blackberry, what’s-”

“GET AWAY!” Blackberry managed to scream, shoving Flurry’s hoof back before falling back to his side. Blood began to dribble freely from his mouth, and it was becoming harder and harder to breathe. He looked at Flurry, even with blood starting to turn his eyes red. “S-s-save my f-f-f-family…” he gurgled out.

His head fell to the floor, and his life ended.

At the same moment, his side exploded open in a spray of blood and gore, causing Flurry to scramble backward in horror. From the new gaping hole in Blackberry’s corpse, a slimy, putrid-smelling pitcher of twitching, pulsing green flesh rose. Tentacles almost immediately began to grow with venus-flytrap like heads sprouting all along their lengths. One such head lunged for Flurry, saliva and digestive fluids spraying free. Flurry Heart, crying out, was barely able to flap her wings and jump backward from the teeth.

Setting down on the street almost a block away, Flurry watched in disbelief as the horrific center of this Garden continued to grow larger and larger, the tentacles covered with mouths and teeth already coiling around the entire hospital and reaching down to the streets. She could just make out panicking shrieks from inside… “NO!” She shouted, her horn igniting with yellow light before she fired a beam of energy into the pitcher of the Garden. To her horror, the magic bent uselessly around it.

On the side of the hospital, one of the windows exploded open, one of the tentacles surging out of it, coiled around a struggling earth pony mare, whose screams sent a chill down Flurry’s spine. The mare kicked and struggling, then looked up at the still extending tip of the tentacle sprouted yet another gaping maw. Said mew chomped down on her, her screams instantly going silent. Flurry felt her stomach churning with disgust when the mare’s body began to dissolve from the digestive fluids inside the mouth.

Desperate, Flurry looked around and spotted a few of her guards rushing forwards with wide-eyed looks of terror. “What the hell is THAT?!” One of the guards screamed, pointing at the abomination.

“Sound the alarm,” Flurry ordered while quickly drawing that guard’s sword out of its scabbard with her magic. “And get a weapon!”

With the order given, Flurry kicked off towards the Hospital. With a grunt of pain, she tackled one of the third story windows, breaking through it and into an unoccupied room. Just beyond the entrance, she could see another fleshy tentacle writhing past, teeth already growing along its length. With a shout, Flurry brought the guard’s sword down on the tip of the tentacle, making a clean cut all the way through and severing the appendage. Then she turned and looked down the hall towards where she had found Blackberry. She saw several ponies trying to run in a panic from the writhing tentacle, even as it branched and grew hungrily snapping mouths. One stallion screamed out when a twitch of the tentacle brought one of its mouths to his hind leg, where it wasted no time in chomping it clean off.

“EVERYPONY GET BACK!” Flurry ordered while sending her sword deeper into the hallway, towards where the tentacle was coming in through a wall. The tentacle writhed and lashed out at her, it’s already regenerating tip crushing into her shoulder hard and sending her crashing back into the room she had just stepped out of. She cried out from the excruciating pain that exploded across her shoulder. She was sure that blow had broken something.

Looking back towards the hall, the tentacle sprouted yet another maw, which then rushed towards her, eager to make a meal of her. She scooted back, barely avoiding the first chomp. The teeth came for her again but were stopped when she used her magic to hurl the bed at it and shove it back, giving her a second of breathing room. An almost angry rumble sounded from all around Flurry, and the mouth-tipped appendage bit down upon the bed itself, making the item dissolve into a black, foul-smelling puddle on the floor in a matter of seconds.

Flurry took a step back and turned to fly out through the window, only for the tentacle to coil around and block her path. She was surrounded. Flurry took a step back, sweat pouring down her neck. “Well… shit” was all she could think to say before the mouth lunged at her again.

The whole thing suddenly stopped and spasmed, its teeth stopping mere inches from Flurry’s face before slumping lifelessly to the floor. Flurry blinked, confused, then looked out of the door. A few seconds later, Grapes flew in with Flurry’s sword in her mouth, it’s blade covered in brown and red blood. She spat the weapon out at Flurry’s hooves, then looked at her with hysterical eyes and panicky breathing.

“Princess, have you seen my husband?!"