Two large, burly stallions pulled her down the stone corridor, the chains binding her legs together clinking softly as they dragged along the uneven ground. The mare felt a trickle of blood running down her face, but between the chains and the guards she had no way of raising a hoof to wipe it away. Instead, it continued to roll down unabated, eventually dripping onto the floor below. A flash of lightning outside the empty window shed a bit more light on the murky path, a loud roar of thunder hitting a moment after, the empty hall causing the sound to echo over and over. Everywhere her gaze fell, the sorry state of the castle was quite obvious: broken and cracked stonework, windows without glass, and the occasional hole in the ceiling were constant reminders that the castle had been abandoned for over a thousand years before he started calling this place home.
With little else to do, the captive pony took a look at what bits of her body she could, trying to examine the damage from the scuffle with the guards that had taken place only a few minutes ago. Thankfully it didn't seem, or feel, like she had suffered too much from the ordeal. There were the expected bruises, cuts, possibly a fractured rib when she failed to dodge the debris that was thrown at her, but her wings were still intact so she had no reason to complain. She felt herself round a corner and, looking up, saw them approaching a large set of double doors, the still-new lumber of its construction a stark contrast to the decay that surrounded them.
With nopony at the doors, the stallion on her right used his spear to push one side open, revealing the expansive room below. The old throne room, why am I not surprised, she mused to herself. As she was brought through the opening, her head turned toward the two empty thrones on the far end of the room, frayed and decaying banners sitting above them: one bore a moon, the other a sun. A pang of regret cut through her, but she kept her face a blank slate, instead distracting herself with the only objects, and other pony, in the room.
A small wooden table, laden with a small assortment of food and drink, sat halfway across the room, one chair on either end; the nearest being empty, presumably for her. The other chair was occupied by a midnight blue unicorn, who didn't seem the least bit fazed by the entrance of the three ponies; he merely sat there, pouring himself a goblet of wine. While being dragged across the expanse, she shivered as a small stream of icy water ran down her back, the rain of the raging storm causing tiny waterfalls throughout the room from the holes in the ceiling above. A quick flick of her head dislodged most of the runoff from her mane, the last few drops running the length of her body.
When they reached the chair, the two guards roughly sat her down, taking a moment to lock the chains to the floor beneath the table; one final click, and the chains secured, the pair stepped back and looked at the unicorn. “Sir, is there anything else?”
Finally looking up with dark golden eyes, he shook his head. “No, I'm sure that I can handle her if the need should arise. Go back to the eastern wall where you found her, and keep an eye out: I'm sure her little band of rebel friends won't be too far behind her.” They gave a curt nod before making a rather speedy retreat, the door slamming shut behind them. His gaze turned towards the captive, studying her up and down. “Did you really think it would be so easy to sneak in here, tonight of all nights? I honestly thought much better of you, Rainbow Dash.”
Flicking her rainbow-colored mane behind her head, Dash shot a cocky grin across the table. “Figured I'd be able to sneak in and hide behind that ego of yours, Astral Darkness.” She said, a small snort of amusement escaping her body. “Seriously, could you have come up with a more self-centered name for yourself?”
Astral shook his head, smiling back. “Poke fun all you like, my dear pegasus, the fact remains that you were captured and restrained, meaning that I have nothing more to worry about until the time for the ritual is at hoof.” Taking another sip from his goblet, he waved a hoof at the barren room surrounding them. “A bit poetic, don't you think? Over a millennium ago, this castle saw the most powerful battle of all history take place between the two Royal Sisters. Now, after all this time, it will once again play host to an event of magical proportion that not even the Alicorn sisters could have imagined.”
Looking around the room, memories of her previous experience here flooded back to Rainbow; of six friends coming together against Nightmare Moon, banishing the evil within her and saving the young Princess Luna. “Yeah, this castle has seen a lot of really awesome stuff happen inside it. This is where the girls and I first used the Elements together.” She took a deep breath, her wings shaking for a moment. “Heck, I think I can still feel a bit of that magic in the air.”
“Yes, that was quite powerful what the six of you accomplished: along with the power used to banish the Nightmare Moon so long ago, I'm not surprised that the residual power of the Elements from those events created an artificial Node more powerful than ever thought possible.”
As their eyes met, Rainbow finally took notice of the stallion's mane, her face quickly growing sour. With a gesture that caused her bindings to rattle, she asked “Does it make you feel better about what you did to her, wearing your mane like Twilight used to? Hmm?” Not even bothering to hide the aggression in her voice.
His gaze fell to the table between then, his expression turning dark and remorseful as he reached a hoof up to idly caress his gray mane. “You... you know I never meant for that to happen.” He spoke quietly, voice filled with regret. “Things just... got out of hoof. We were supposed to do this together, unlocking the secrets of the Primordia and shaping the world to a better place. Instead... Instead I held her as she died, telling her that it would all be okay” Slumping lower in the chair, he whispered “Just like my baby sister.” Looking out the window to the tower beyond, a tear rolled down his cheek. “Twilight Sparkle... Sunny Skies... I wasn't strong enough to protect you; but after tonight, I'll be able to protect everypony, forever.”
"Oh stop that crap.” Dash growled, shaking her head in anger. “You can't seriously believe that there's enough power in that thing to have that much power, especially over death!”
“I don't expect you to understand, Rainbow. But these calculations were made by Twilight herself, and the potential power flowing through that Node tonight...”
Slapping a plate from the table, she rose as far as her bindings would allow. “That's all you have to defend yourself!? A... a piece of paper, a math equation is proof enough to justify all the ponies you've hurt, the ones you've KILLED, to get where you are tonight?” Breathing heavily for a moment, she sat back down and narrowed her eyes. “Sorry, but there isn't enough magic in all of Equestria to condone all the pain you've caused.”
With a growl Astral slammed a hoof on the table, scattering the food on its surface. “You still don't get it!” He roared. “Tonight there will be enough power in that Node to set everything right! I can bring back every single pony we've lost, I can rebuild Equestria to be better and safer than it ever was under the Sisters! The creatures that lurk in the Everfree will be gone, the Changeling swarm never to threaten us again, and even if Discord himself broke free once more I could cow him beneath the power bestowed to me.”
“And all we have to do to prosper is bow at your feet and worship you as the Supreme Overlord of All Everything.” She said with sarcasm dripping from her voice. “Sorry, already seen this in Daring Do and the Emperor's Crown, and you're much less intimidating than Caballeron and Ahuizotl are.” They sat there in silence for several long moments, before she spoke again. “So, what now?”
A soft bright blue glow surrounded his horn as he placed the food back into the proper dishes, his eyes not leaving her as he pondered briefly. “How about you talk.”
Dash shook her head firmly. “if you think I'm going to tell you where my friends are...”
“Oh no no, nothing of the sort.” He interrupted with a wave of his hoof, the light around his horn dying as he finished cleaning. “You know the ritual is tonight, which means that whatever you have planned has to happen in the next few hours. Knowing the window of your attack makes it easy to keep the guard alerted without tiring them, and there are far too few of you properly trained to cause any possible issues.” He shot her a particularly broad grin before continuing. “No my dear, I'm asking about you since your arrival here.”
The pegasus tilted her head quizzically. “You wanna hear about what I've been through? Why?”
“They say there are two sides to every story, and I'm rather curious to hear things from your perspective. You've been here for almost two months now; I can only assume you've been up to far more than I've heard about, and we have several hours before the ritual is set to begin. I'll even offer to share some of this spread with you, I certainly won't be eating it all and I have no reason to mistreat you as long as you behave. I will have plenty of other tasks to take care of, and I'd rather not add more work on top of the list. Besides,” He filled Rainbow's goblet with water from a small jug, “I can only imagine the fit they would throw to find out I'd killed you, even if I did intend to bring you back with them.”
“Still don't think that's a power anypony can control.” Dash mumbled under her breath, eagerly taking a deep drink from the refreshing water. “Alright, I suppose it couldn't hurt to tell you. But don't expect me to share any of our details with ya; I would never leave my friends hanging.”
Astral bowed his head slightly. “I would expect nothing less from the Element of Loyalty.” Pushing some of the bowls closer, he gestured with a hoof. “So, I suppose from the beginning then; I heard from Twilight what happened on her side of things, but I'm quite eager to know what you've been through.”
Rainbow shrugged. “I mean, I ended up here, what else is there to it?”
“My dear pegasus, as far as I can tell you are the only pony to have ever been inside the Primordia itself. While the Sisters and Twilight herself drew magic from it, they've only managed to scratch the surface. You were bathed in it.”
A shudder ran down her frame. “It sounds so wrong when you say that.” Taking a bite of an apple, she chewed on it thoughtfully. “Alright then, from the beginning. I guess for you, it's been over ten years. For me... well, it was barely ten weeks ago..............”
It was a bright and hot day in Ponyville, typical of the midsummer days. The weather pegasi had set up a patchwork of clouds above the Apple Family's farm to keep the trees from overheating and drying out, but the rest of the town was left bare to the sun's rays; many of the townsfolk took this opportunity to go soak in the cooler waters of the stream and ponds that dotted the landscape nearby.
One such pony was Rainbow Dash, fresh from her weather shift. Having worked up quite the sweat from her day on the job, she was enjoying a rather lazy swim in one of the ponds to help cool off and freshen up. While the sudden change from blazing to icy had been a bit of a shock, she had quickly grown accustomed to the water's temperature and was happily doing her best to beat the heat. Glancing over at the side, she noticed Pinkie Pie building up a sand castle: how she had found enough sand to make one tall enough for her to stand in was a complete mystery. Better leave it be, or I'll end up hearing how cupcakes were invented. Dash mused to herself, spreading her wings wide as she floated along on her back.
Her ears perked up as she heard a soft giggle off to the side. Cracking open an eye, she saw a rather small, yet distinctive, purple mane and tail floating above the water, slowly getting closer. Suppressing a grin, she pretended not to notice as it drifted toward her inch by inch. Right as it got up next to her, she flipped over and grabbed the filly, who let out a loud squeak, and perched her up on her chest. “Did you really think you'd be able to prank the master herself, Scoots?"
The orange filly giggled, squirming slightly in the larger mare's grip. “I'll get you one of these times Rainbow.” They floated along silently for a few moments, enjoying the quiet. “So...” the filly started, uncertainty in her voice, “... I was wondering if you were going to make it to my birthday party today?”
Ruffling her mane, Dash shot her a grin. “Of course, squirt. I wasn't planning on missing my favorite filly's birthday! In fact...” Glancing around, she tilted her head closer and whispered “I got you a surprise back at Twilight's library.”
Her eyes lit up, her small body shaking with excitement. “R-really! Oh wow, I bet it's the most awesome gift ever!” Overbalancing in her excitement, she toppled into the water with a splash. She surfaced a moment later with a broad grin plastered on her face. “Can we go get it now?”
“Sure kid, let's just dry ourselves off first. Can't imagine that Twi would be happy if we dripped water all over her library floor.” Swimming up to the shore, the blue pegasus waved up to the pink earth pony. “Hey Pinks, any chance you could toss us the towels?”
From her tower, Pinkie waved down. “Oh, the peasants have come to ask for funds from the treasury! Well, I'm sure for my most loyal of subjects that some can be spared.” With a flourish of her hooves a pair of large towels fell from above, folding up neatly onto the sand in front of them. “Let nopony say that I was never generous to my people.”
Shaking her head with a chuckle, Dash picked up the larger of the two. “Never would have dreamed of it, Pinkie.” The two pegasi trotted back towards the town, vigorously drying themselves off as they left the beach behind. Once dry, Rainbow let Scootaloo hop up, letting the young filly rest on her back as they walked into town.
Ponyville had an air of ease about it, the heat of the summer day keeping many indoors or, if they worked, in whatever shade they could find. Dash gave a small wave as she passed across the path from Applejack's stall, the orange country mare having moved it from the center of the square to be situated beneath a tree. Big Mac was with her as well, even in the shade a thin layer of sweat was covering his face, though he didn't show any discomfort. Continuing on their way, the filly waved through the window of the Carousel Boutique, and although she hadn't looked, Rainbow was willing to bet that Sweetie Belle had been inside, no doubt ensnared by her sister into helping with one of her latest orders. It was getting close to the school season, and Rarity would insist on having a full lineup for fillies and colts to look their best upon their return.
They passed several more buildings and ponies, all milling about their activities, and rounded the final corner to see their destination just ahead: the Golden Oaks Library. Rainbow had to admit, she had been rather skeptical at anypony actually living in the tree, but Twilight made it work somehow. Most ponies would have thought, after her recent coronation, that the new Princess of Friendship would find a more “royal” place to live; but most of Ponyville knew that Twilight would never call anyplace home that wasn't covered in books. As they approached, they saw the door already ajar, the sounds of sweeping and grumbling coming from inside. Tapping the door open a bit further, the pegasus stuck her head inside and looked around.
Even despite Twilight's normal routine of unshelving dozens of books on a whim, the library was usually kept in a fairly orderly state, thanks in no small part to her assistant Spike. Despite that, the floor was littered in books and crumpled papers, the actual wood nearly impossible to see beneath the disaster. The grumbling was coming from the young dragon himself, dressed in a purple apron as he attempted to sweep up the balls of paper and set the books in small, orderly piles. While his efforts were commendable, the effect was merely to drain a drop in an ocean of paper.
“Uh, hey Spike. Did I crash into the library again and forget?” Dash joked, slipping inside. Scootaloo's jaw dropped as she looked around.
“Wow, not even the Crusaders and I get this messy! This must be some kind of record!”
Spike let out a heavy sigh as he set down the broom and dustpan. “Hey Rainbow Dash, hey Scootaloo. Sorry about the mess, but Twilight's in one of her research moods again.”
Kicking around a few scraps of paper, Dash raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, but... even at her worst she's a lot more organized than this. What gives?”
“It's the weirdest thing! I have no idea what she's looking into, but whatever it is isn't in any of her books!” He pointed at a stack of particularly old books, the bindings creased or cracking from overuse in their time. “She has books and scrolls from Starswirl the Bearded, the Two Sisters, she even dug up a book about the private research of Clover the Clever!” The dragon collapsed on the floor, gesturing to all the surrounding stacks. “But she says there's barely even a hint of the thing she's looking at.”
Setting Scootaloo down on the floor, Dash gave her mane a quick rub. “Stay here for a minute, kid. I'll check in on Twi and make sure she hasn't gone completely crazy.” Carefully stepping over books, and taking care not to slip on the loose pages, she made her way down to the basement where Twilight did most of her experiments and more volatile research. Clear of the main floor's debris, Dash quickly trotted down the steps, glancing around the various machines and tables looking for the purple Alicorn. The basement itself was lit by several crystals on the ceiling, casting a rather pale, but clear, light around the room. Not wanting to call out and possibly startle her if she was in the middle of something delicate, she opted instead to descend the final stairs and poke around. She recognized a few pieces here and there, stripped from the machine Twilight had used in an attempt to understand the mythical “Pinkie Sense”.
Her ears swiveled at the sound of chalk being dragged furiously across something, and she maneuvered through the remaining tables and models to finally find her target. Twilight had her back facing the pegasus, the purple aura of her magic surrounding a piece of chalk as it scribbled along the board in front of her, oblivious to the surrounding world. While her mane was usually brushed a very specific number of times, a number Rainbow had been told and promptly forgotten, it was currently in tatters; strands and sections seemed to have fought over which way to flow and decided to have at it, sticking out in all directions. She could hear Twilight murmuring to herself as she furiously scribbled at the board, erasing seemingly random sections and rewriting them just as quickly.
Dash thought for a moment of attempting to poke her, or shout her name, but both would end terribly: the latter in her being ignored, and the former in a high-speed trip into the nearest wall. Instead, she opted to walk over to a table that held large stacks of paper, and what had to be Twilight's entire supply of quills and ink bottles. Looking over their perfect alignment, she reached up with a wing and deftly tapped one bottle, sending it sliding off the edge and shattering on the floor below.
The Alicorn spun around, the magic dissipating and dropping the chalk down with a soft dink. “Rainbow! Was that really necessary?”
The pegasus blushed, rubbing the back of her neck with a hoof. “Heh, didn't mean to smash it, I just wanted to move it a bit. My bad.”
Sighing heavily, Twilight trotted over and started cleaning up the mess, levitating a rag to clean up the ink. “How long have you been there, anyway?”
A small shrug. “Eh, not too long, just a minute or two.” She pushed away from the table, moving some of the disheveled mane from Twilight's vision. “How long have you been here?”
At that, Twilight blushed lightly. “Just... ya know, a day? Maybe two? I think?” She glanced around the room, her horn flaring as she brought a few more crystals to life, adding to the glow. “I've just been working really hard on these calculations, and I think I'm finally getting close to understanding it!”
Looking to the board, Rainbow tried tilting her head various degrees: the scribbles didn't make any more sense. To be fair, they didn't make any less sense either, so perhaps that was a good sign? “What exactly is it? Looks like magic?”
The Alicorn let out a soft squee of delight, dashing over to the riddled board. “Oh it's so much more than just magic, Rainbow! There's absolutely no record of this in any book we have, which is astounding based on these numbers!” Dash wasn't sure which numbers she was supposed to look at, so she merely nodded in agreement. “The source of this magic is so powerful and so pure, I can't fathom how nopony has found this sort of thing before! Hay, I'm not even sure how I never found this before; I've been sitting on top of it this entire time!”
“Siiiiitting on top of what, exactly?”
“Come upstairs, I'll show you!” the Alicorn said excitedly. With a spring in her step, Twilight led the bewildered pegasus back up the stairs to the main floor. Spike, with a little help from Scootaloo, had managed to make some small progress on clearing the floor, most of the books now in neat stacks while the papers were slowly being accumulated into piles. Said work was quickly undone when, with a brief flare of her horn, Twilight shoved the entire contents of the floor to the ends of the room.
“Oh come on Twilight, we were actually getting somewhere!” Spike exclaimed, throwing the broom down in defeat.
“I'm sorry Spike, but I have to show Rainbow what we found.” Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself, her four legs spreading slightly to solidify her stance. “Stay back everypony, and whatever you do: do NOT touch what you're about to see. I can't even begin to imagine what would happen.” Closing her eyes, a bright purple aura began to shine around her horn as she gathered her magic together. Another, brighter aura surrounded the first as her face began to show strain from the amount of magic she was attempting to wield. Rainbow felt her fur begin to stand on end as the energy surged around and around, coalescing in a pure white ball at the tip of the Alicorn's horn. After another moment she released the energy, the ball turning into a beam of power that struck the center of the room, forcing Dash to close her eyes at the sudden flare. When the light had finally dulled enough she slowly cracked them open, her jaw dropping at what now lay in the center of the library.
While the rest of the library had dimmed and looked as if it were covered in shadow, the very center of the room remained lit and untouched. In the middle of that spot, suspended at eye-level in the air, was an orb of swirling... something. The bulk of it was the color of emerald green, but there were small, moving contrails that were several shades both lighter and darker. As she focused harder on the mysterious ball, she felt a strange tingle run down her spine and shoot through her wings, flaring them full-spread; the familiar itch to takeoff into the air, cartwheeling and speeding around coursed through her feathers and her mind. She found herself unconsciously walking forward, slowly drawing closer to the center of the room; with each step, the aerial power and need to soar grew exponentially. Her mind began to fly a mile a minute, running and choreographing every maneuver and trick she had ever read or dared to dream about. Every hoof closer sprang to mind a thousand possibilities, a hundred performances, all with speed and fluidity untold. When she was barely half her length away, the pulsating orb winked out of existence and the room's lighting returned to normal.
Shaking her head several times to clear the haze, she took a few tentative steps back. “Woah. W-what just happened?”
Stepping forward, Twilight put a hoof around the pegasus' shoulders, rubbing gently. “It's okay Rainbow, something similar happened to both Spike and I the first time I revealed it a few days ago, and I've been studying it extensively since then.”
“So, what is it?”
Twilight stepped away, slowly circling the area the orb had been moments before. “It's an entirely new kind of magic that I've never seen before, but I recognize most of the arcane components inside of it: the magic of unicorns, pegasi, earth ponies, even dragons. The actual area itself is heavily infused with power, and it seems to bleed out from that orb and spill into the surrounding land and creatures, infusing them with the different types of magics. The object itself doesn't seem to be drawing the power from anywhere, but it isn't creating any either: the magic just... is.”
Rainbow shook her head slowly. “Any chance you could speak Equestrian for us?”
The Alicorn smiled softly. “Every race, pony or otherwise, has a special magic that runs through their bodies. Unicorn magic is the most obvious of those with our spells, but pegasus flight, dragon fire, and even earth pony strength are all attributed to magic in some fashion. The brightest minds in history have studied the source of that magic for ages, and the best they've ever found were the Leylines, essentially rivers of energy and the different magics that run through the land. But this is so much more than a simple river of energy: this is a Node, an actual omnibus of all the different magics of the races being formed in one spot, spilling out into the world.” She took a deep breath, steadying herself. “I think this might be part of the Magicka Primordia.”
Scootaloo tilted her head. “Magia what-ia?” She inquired.
“Magicka Primordia.” She repeated. “Only a few unicorns in history have ever suggested that all the magic in our world might come from a singular source, and they were usually scoffed at by the research community at large. Even Clover kept her theories about it a complete secret, only writing about them in her private research journals. They thought that all magic, whether it be unicorn, pegasus, earth pony, Alicorn, or even dragon and diamond dog, might come from some pure, all-encompassing form of magic.” She let out a loud squee, hopping from hoof to hoof in excitement. “And that's what we've discovered! A pure, unfiltered source of primal magic that has base traces of every known magical element! This is the magic find of a lifetime, probably several lifetimes!”
The pegasus chuckled to herself. She may not have completely understood what Twilight was going on about, but the enthusiasm made it obvious how important it was to her. “Well, that's really great Egghead.” She prodded with a wink. “I'd offer to help, but this seems juuuuuuust a bit over my head.”
“Oh but that's just it Rainbow, I actually could use your help for my experiment!”
Dash's face immediately grew suspicious. “What kind of experiment? I've seen what you did when you studied Pinkie Pie, should I be worried?”
Shaking her head, Twilight turned and started rummaging around. “Not at all! I was going to ask Spike, but it would be great if he could take notes instead while I'm casting the spell on you.” She turned around, starting to place a series of small stone pillars around the area.
“And what exactly are you planning to cast?” She inquired, watching Twilight go about her work.
“Well, the magic in here is purer than anything I've ever seen.” She explained, carefully making some chalk marks on the ground. “That means that I can use a lot less magic to get a lot more power for my spells. I was already doing some extra research on Starswirl's time travel spell I used a year ago to try and go back to warn myself; specifically, I was trying to find a way to reverse the effect of the spell and send a pony forward instead!” Setting aside the chalk, she pulled out a chest, opening it up to reveal the Elements of Harmony. Setting one on each of the five pedestals, she continued. “If my calculations are correct, I've made a spell that can send a subject exactly ten seconds forward in time. Using the Primordia to increase my magical abilities, it should be a cinch to cast!” She put the final Element around Rainbow's deck, clasping it gently.
She looked down, poking at it curiously with a hoof. “And the Elements of Harmony have... what to do with all of it?”
Setting the chest aside, Twilight started scrutinizing the entire setup. “For reasons I haven't discovered yet, the Elements seem to amplify the Primordia's power and make it more malleable. It's possible that it's due to the heavy amount of energy and magic the Elements are infused with, but I'll need to do further tests to be sure. Using these five to help channel the energy, the final Element on you to help focus their supportive energies, and with the runes I've drawn on the floor, you should be perfectly safe throughout the spell.”
“Whoa whoa whoa... should be safe?”
Gently pushing Rainbow into the center of the circle, the Alicorn nodded. “I've calculated everything three times, and the math says you aren't going to suffer any ill effects from the spell. In fact, you won't even notice anything has happened: you'll merely skip the ten seconds of time.” Stepping back from the circle, she gave the nervous flier a reassuring smile. “Rainbow, I'd never do anything to put you in jeopardy, you know that.”
Rainbow nodded, giving a small smile. “Yeah, you're right Twi. I trust you, it's just... ya know, really weird.” Looking around her, she fidgeted slightly, a chill running along her spine. “So, do I just stand here?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, just stand right there. You'll be standing next to the Primordia, so please don't accidentally touch it.” The Alicorn motioned with a hoof to the other two in the room. “Spike, Scootaloo, I need you to come over by me so you don't accidentally touch anything while I'm building and releasing the spell.”
Making their way over, Scootaloo gave her honorary sister a worried look. “Are you going to be okay Rainbow?”
Shooting her a cocky grin, she nodded. “Of course I am, squirt. Twilight said I”ll be gone for all of like ten seconds, so just imagine I flew out to clear the skies, and I'll be back before you know it. Then we can grab your gift and celebrate your birthday in style.” That seemed to calm the filly, who stood slightly behind Twilight and watched with interest.
With a deep breath, Twilight closed her eyes. “I'm going to start building the magic to cast the spell. Everypony stand still, and don't touch anything.” A soft hum began to fill the air, and a moment later the glow of purple magic surrounded her horn once again. Her teeth clenching in concentration, they watched as she began to slowly build and shape the magic, forming it to her desire. As the room grew darker, a second shade of magic began to shine around the first, the sheer amount of power in the air palpable to the two young spectators, who stared on in interest. The air began to gently swirl around the outside of the circle, pages flipping and papers twirling as they were shifted about.
As a third film of magic grew beyond the second, Rainbow saw the orb slowly coalesce beside her once again, the burning desire to fly returning with it. While the urge was not as strong as before, she still had to fight herself to not fidget or reach out, despite the part of her mind begging her to trace a wing through the source. The orb began to pulse and glow brighter, the shine of Twilight's horn growing as well. The pegasus watched as the five Elements surrounding her began to charge with power and shine themselves, the hum of magic all that could be heard in the room. The sound became entrancing, enticing, like the call of a Siren; singing to her and whispering words she couldn't quite hear, but both excited and worried her. The surrounding Elements shot a bright beam of colored light straight into her necklace, which grew hot against her fur and began to vibrate and spark; a moment later a ray of pure white erupted from her Element and slammed into the glowing orb at the center of the spell. The moment the two magics touched, Rainbow felt a great power tug at her very core, seeming to pull her forward though her legs never moved. The entire world spun around her, before it all slipped away.
Her body felt as if she were floating down a river, gently bobbing in the currents that both tugged and caressed her; flowing around her and through her. An instant and an eternity passed before her, feeling both as a filly and an old mare, tired and alert, grounded and airborne. The knowledge and ignorance of a thousand generations passed through her mind, both opening and closing the door to infinite possibilities. The entire world was laid barren before her eyes, both hopeful as the dawn and menacing as the dusk. She felt horn and wing, dragon and diamond dog, sun and moon, darkness and light... she felt the eternity of everything, and she felt the void of nothingness. All the magics of the land were hers to command, and yet she was powerless to wield a single drop.
With a lurch she felt herself land firmly on the ground, sprawled out on her belly. Panting heavily, she felt her eyes darting back and forth as her mind slowly began to catch up with her, the world slowly coming back into focus. A long minute passed before she could finally see straight, a sensation that felt incredibly foreign to her. Slowly crawling up to her hooves she turned her head this way and that, trying to make sense of what she was looking at.
“T-Twilight?” She asked softly, her voice raspier than usual, a twinge of fear creeping in. “Twilight, where... where are you?”
Chapter 1: A Skip In Time
“Come now Rainbow, you must remember more than that. The Primordia holds all of life and magic itself inside of it, and you're telling me all you can remember is that it was 'sort of green' and 'like a river'?”
Rainbow shook her head, the memories of the experience flashing in and out of her mind faster than she could comprehend. “It's like... I can remember, but I can't. I know it's all there, but it's also just out of reach. I really don't get it.”
Astral gave a sigh, sitting back in his chair. “I can't say I'm surprised, I suppose. Few ponies could possibly stare into the Primordia and stay sane, and fewer still understand what they were being shown. Certainly one like you.”
She struggled against the chains, causing the links to clank together loudly. “Hey, are you calling me dumb?!”
He held up a hoof to calm her. “Not at all, allow me to rephrase. When I say “one like you” I mean a pony that has little knowledge of the magical arts.” He took a sip of the wine in front of him. “No Rainbow, from what I've seen you are anything but dumb. If you were, this would all have been over by now.” He paused for a moment, looking across at her. “Still, it would have been nice to know what to expect when I look into the Primordia, but I suppose I'll just have to be surprised.”
The mare scoffed, her wings ruffling slightly. “What, and you think you're one of those 'special few' who are going to understand it?”
He shook his head. “I assume nothing, other than my mind will be strong enough to not break when I'm dipped in its essence. Besides, I don't have to understand the powers that are within, I merely have to use them.”
“Playing with a power you don't even understand... do you actually read at all? Cuz this cliché has been put to death by now, I think.” The pegasus sat back in her chair, wiggling a bit to get comfortable again.
He chuckled. “Perhaps so, but unlike most of your novels Rainbow I have done my research. I have spent the past decade looking, calculating, and handling every conceivable variable that might arise. I assure you, I am ready for this.” Refilling Dash's cup with water, he looked back up at her. “Now then, your arrival here; it must have been quite a shock, landing in Ponyville without realizing ten years had passed in the blink of an eye.”
She nodded, giving a sigh. “Tell me about it. One moment I'm there with Twilight casting her spell, and the next...”
“Twilight? S-Spike? Scoots?”
Cracks and holes in the top of the tree let in enough sun to cast a pale light on the inside, just enough for Rainbow's sharp eyes to see. Other than the shape, the library she was looking at bore very little resemblance to the one she had just recently lost sight of: dust, grime, and webs covered every surface and corner, from floor to ceiling. The shelves that had stood full a moment before were now mostly barren, a few tattered and torn covers barely visible against the rest of the muck. The air felt completely stale, like nothing had shifted it in a very long time.
And most of all, she was utterly alone.
“T-Twilight, if t-this is some kind of prank, it's not funny!” Dash said, her voice slowly regaining its strength and volume. There was no sign of the purple Alicorn, nor were there any signs of Spike or Scootaloo in the main room. With shaky steps, she slowly made her way back towards the basement, stumbling as her hooves moved far slower than they should have. Once she cleared the doorway, she stopped and stared at the room below, jaw agape.
Without the holed roof to spare any light, Dash had to strain her eyes to make out much of the mess: pegasi naturally had some night-vision, which allowed her to see across half of the expanse. All of the tables and complicated machines were completely shattered, torn asunder with pieces left strewn all around the basement floor. Metal edges, still sharp from when they had been destroyed, sat covered in rust alongside a host of different colored wires, some of which still sparked with magical energy. Without any more sources of light to navigate the twisted and dangerous debris, the pegasus slowly backed up the stairs and to the main room.
A quick search of the rest of the tree house revealed the same decay in every room she passed through, though the kitchen had the added “benefit” of stale food in the cabinets to assault her nostrils and gag reflex. Taking a moment to regain herself, she slowly paced around the room.
“What the hay happened?” She asked herself, turning and pacing back the other direction. “I mean, her spell did something 'cause this mess sure wasn't here a second ago. But then where did she go? And Spike, and Scootaloo?” Pausing mid-stride, she looked around the room once more. “This amount of dirt... this takes months or even years to build up. And all that rust downstairs sure didn't happen overnight.” Glancing at the door, she gave a small nod. “Maybe somepony in town can help me figure this out.” Her course decided, she trotted to the front door.
Putting a hoof on it, she immediately realized that something was off about it. Peering at it closely, she noticed the door looked to be in a much better, newer shape than the rest of the house did. In fact, outside of a few thin layers of dust and some odd scratches all around it, the door itself looked like it was brand new. She idly traced along the patterns of marks, a tingle passing along her hoof as she followed them in loops and arcs. Reaching for the handle, she gave a soft tug: the door refused to move. Getting a better grip, she gave it a rather firm yank, the door popping open with a soft click. A blue flash in the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she took a step back to search around for the source. After several moments and nothing coming to her attention, she slipped outside and shut the door behind her.
“Oh buck...” She swore softly.
Even from the little she could see, the town of Ponyville was completely in shambles. Several buildings had collapsed, leaving a scattering of support beams surrounded by the remains of what they once held aloft. Those that still stood were covered in ivy and other forms of vegetation. Stores that had once boasted lines out the door stood dark and silent, not even the familiar smell of sweets at Sugar Cube Corner was still present in the air. Several animals wandered through the streets, paying her little mind as they continued on their way.
Her hooves carried her forward without a thought, slowly pushing her deeper into the town beyond husk and ruin. Here and there she would pause for a moment, getting close to peer through the dirty and broken windows to houses and stores, but each time revealed nothing but emptiness. Her wings flared open partially, a defensive sign in most pegasi when they felt threatened. Every street and building that stood empty put her further on edge as she drew closer to the center of the town.
She rounded the corner, bringing the town hall into view. If there's going to be any clue of what's going on here, I bet it'll be in Mayor Mare's office, she reasoned. She wasn't exactly sure what she was going to be looking for, but she figured she would know when she found it. As she began to close the distance, her sharp eyes noticed what looked like a large piece of parchment on the main door to the building. Picking up her pace to a soft trot, she closed the last of the path quickly, determined to know what was going on around here.
While in just as much disarray as the rest of Ponyville, the town hall did seem to have held up slightly better; though, they had reinforced it after a certain grey pegasus had destroyed a large portion of it accidentally. Most of the paint had been stripped away, and several of the beams would need replacing soon, but overall it still looked sturdy enough to not be a danger. Approaching the front door she saw that it was, in fact, a large piece of parchment that sat fixed upon it: nearly in perfect condition by the look of it. Wondering how it could have lasted so long, she leaned in and gave it a sniff, nodding as her nose caught the faint whiff of magic about it. Squinting slightly at the overly elaborate-cursive, she slowly read through the message.
Citizens of Ponyville
Due to the increased acts of aggression against The Crown in
Ponyville and the surrounding Everfree Forest, His Lordship Darkness has decreed
that the town shall be evacuated permanently. Any citizen who wishes to remain
loyal to The Crown should vacate the area by nightfall three days from the posting of
this notice. After, the Griffin Guard shall empty the town and anypony found still
inhabiting it shall be arrested and questioned about the recent rebel activity.
Henceforth, the town shall remain empty. Any pony found within Ponyville's village limits
will likewise be arrested and brought before His Lordship. As always, any disturbance to
the Library shall be met with the harshest punishments.
Long live Lord Astral Darkness, and may his power return our lost ones to us.
With a rather divisive snort, Rainbow smacked a hoof against the page. “Well thanks, now I have more questions than answers! Stupid paper...” So preoccupied with the decree before her, she failed to hear the rustle in the bushes until it was too late.
A heavy weight smacked into her from the side, knocking her over and entangling her. She started to struggle against the weighted net she suddenly found herself trapped inside, squirming and wriggling as she attempted to untangle herself and escape. The sound of claws against wood caused her to pause, and she craned her neck around to look at the pair of griffins now standing above her.
“Well well well, didn't actually think we'd find any trespassers today; haven't seen any in months.” One of them, a dark grey chick, said with a chuckle.
“Looks like our lucky day then, I'd say.” The other, a light brown tom, answered.
Dash started to struggle again, the weights at the ends of the net starting to shift. “What's the big idea, huh? Lemme outta here!”
The female shook her head. “You know the rules, pony: any of you that we catch in town get to have a personal chat with the Cap. Now, you gonna behave, or do we have to do this the hard way?”
The male sighed, rolling his eyes. “Did you really have to bring that cliché into this?” Lashing out with his paw, he gave Rainbow a powerful swipe against her head, sending her reeling and seeing stars. “Let's just get her to Talon and pick up our extra rations; I haven't had a decent meal this week with all the trouble over the Forest.” Rainbow felt the net shift, barely registering the ends being tied up tight before she was lifted into the air by the pair.
“You're telling me, Feather. If he cuts our food any further, we won't be eating at all.” They flew for a moment in silence. “And you better not let him catch you mentioning him without rank, or you'll be lucky if your food is all he takes from you.” The buildings passed lazily below them; through her stupor Dash thought she saw a flash of blue and silver, but she couldn't bring herself to focus on whatever it might have been.
Feather adjusted his half of the net, causing Dash to end up facing skyward. “Yeah, well he ain't here Glide, so I'm sure it'll be peachy.”
Still a bit disoriented, the captive pegasus wasn't quite sure how long they had flown for before they started to descend. When she felt grass against her back again, she started glancing around to catch her surroundings: if Daring Do had taught her anything, it was to always know where escape was. She could still see Ponyville in the distance, so they clearly hadn't gone too far. Turning and squirming, she gasped as she saw they had landed at the edge of Fluttershy's house. It actually looked like it had seen recent use judging by the smoldering fire nearby, which would explain why it appeared to be in much better shape than most of the town.
“Hey, watch it!” She yelled as they started dragging the net along the ground. She started to struggle again, but the net was far too tight now to escape.
“Oh hush, you ponies are so whiny.” Feather grumbled, pulling her over to the lone tree that adorned her yard. “If you think being dragged is bad, just wait until the Captain deals with you.” Once against the tree, the tom pulled out a long length of rope and tied pegasus and net firmly to the tree. Turning around, he called out to his companion. “How much longer we got?”
Glide looked up at the sky, her beak moving quietly for a moment as she scanned. “An hour, I'd say, before our relief shows up. Then we just drag her back to the main camp and get our perks.” With a quick beat of her wings she launched herself into the tree, sitting on one of the higher branches. “Until then, we keep a lookout as usual. We'll also have to tell bossman that the ward is going to need replacing on that library.”
The tom scoffed, leaning against the other side of the tree and out of Dash's vision. “She's the first thing we've seen all month, I ain't worried about any others showing up. But keep a lookout if you want, I'm gonna catch some shuteye.” Some indistinct grumbling came from above, and Rainbow was sure it was a complaint against her companion's habits. Soon enough, a light snoring was coming from the other side of the tree. With nothing better to do, the captive pegasus squirmed her way around until she was facing up at the female griffon, hoping to get a few answers.
“So, what the heck happened to the town? I remember it being a lot more... not broken.”
Glancing down, she cocked an eye at her. “Pony, this town's been like this for... three years now. When those crazy rebels started using it to hijack the train and supplies, we shut the place down and kicked them all out; any that didn't leave got tossed in jail.”
“Okay, but why? I can't imagine Celestia and Luna upsetting enough ponies to cause an actual rebellion; that kinda stuff only happens in books, or like a really really long time ago.”
With a bewildered look, the chick landed next to the net. “What do you mean, Celestia and Luna? They've been gone for nearly seven years now.”
Her mind fizzled at that, and she took several long moments to recollect herself. “What do you mean 'gone'? Like, left Equestria gone? Or...” Her voice trailed off, unable to voice the implications.
“Gone like, gone gone. I don't know how he did it, but Astral... banished them or something, I guess? He's never mentioned specifics, and none of us are crazy enough to ask.” Studying the mare for a moment, she squatted next to her. “Girl, what's your deal? Everyone from pony to minotaur knows what happened. You're either a very special kind of oblivious, or you've got a real interesting story to tell.”
Rainbow looked around, taking everything around her: so much the same, and yet all of it foreign and strange. With a quiet sigh, she looked back at her captor. “Let's just pretend I've missed out on a lot, and start at the beginning. Just who the heck is this 'Lord Astral'?”
With a snort, she turned and sat by the pegasus, leaning against the tree. “He runs this show now. Like I said, I'm not sure how he got rid of the Princesses, but they certainly aren't around anymore. Never really met the stallion, mostly just seen him in passing, but he's gotta be one heck of a unicorn to pull that off. He's up in Canterlot, same castle your two pony Princesses used to rule from. Couldn't tell you much about him, but he's got a rather griffin-sense of running things.”
Rainbow gave a small chuckle. “Tough but fair, huh? Rule with an iron claw, but offer a paw of friendship to those who have your back.”
With a clack of her beak, Glide gave Rainbow a small but playful shove. “Griffon friend, huh? Gotta say, I don't think I've ever met one of you ponies that could actually put up with us.”
With a laugh, Rainbow shook her head. “Nah, she was the one who couldn't put up with me.” Her face fell. “But she and I parted ways a while ago, Gilda and I. We had a fight and... well, you know how stubborn griffons are.”
“Yeah, that we are.” They were quiet for a moment, both simply staring out at the Everfree Forest. “So you don't know Astral, or about the town, or the Princesses... just who the heck are you?”
“Name's Rainbow Dash, not that it...”
The griffon bolted up, roughly pulling the pegasus up to look at her. “Your pulling my wing, right? You can't be the Rainbow Dash.” With an incredulous look, the mare simply gestured to her multicolored mane and tail. Staring her down for a moment, the griffon shook her head. “No, there's no way... that pony disappeared nearly a decade ago. Even Astral and all his magic can't figure out what happened to her.”
“Wait wait wait, back up a second.” Rainbow halted, spinning her fore-hooves around in a backpedal motion. “What do you mean a decade?”
Dropping her back to the ground, Glide sat down once more. “Like I said, that pony disappeared almost ten years ago; something about a spell gone wrong? I've never heard anything but whispers and rumors about it.”
Dash looked down at the ground. “Spell gone wrong? Sure Twi casted one of her weird magic spells, but that was barely half an hour ago! And it was only for ten... seconds...” Her voice trailed off as she thought about it, her mind trying to come to terms with what she was being told.
“Twi?” The griffon questioned. “Do you mean Twilight Sparkle?”
“Yeah, you know her?”
She let out a soft whistle, shaking her head. “Look, you're either pulling my wing, or a serious batch of crazy. Whatever the deal is, you are definitely way over my head to sort out. Cap will figure it out, and for your sake I hope you give it to him straight: I've seen him break a lot of ponies in my time here.”
“How long have you been here?” Dash asked. “Griffons don't usually have a standing army, so... mercenary?”
Wink. “Dead on. They couldn't keep enough of the Royal Guard to keep things running smoothly after he took power, so Astral dropped a bunch of the Canterlot Treasure on us griffons. Captain Talon is his right-hoof and runs us all, but a lot of our groups still have some independence; we get told where to be, but it's up to us how to run the show from there. Our little band runs watch on Ponyville, though really it's this section of the Everfree we're here for.”
Rainbow looked off at the Forest, still as intimidating as ever. “Still a lot of monster trouble?”
Head shake. “Nah, that's where most of those rebels have taken refuge. Place is too dense and wild for us to go in and dig them out, believe me we tried, so we just keep our eyes on it for when they come slinking out. It's usually pretty dull, but that just means easy pay for us.” They lapsed into silence again, the only sound the gentle snore of the male griffon behind them.
“Why are you telling me all this? Isn't it a bad idea for your captive to know so much?”
Glide gave a shrug. “None of this is a big secret... most ponies, rebel or not, know where the particular clans are stationed. And it's pretty obvious who's in charge of everything now.” She glanced over. “Besides, you clearly aren't a rebel, so I'm honestly not sure what to make of you.”
“Oh yeah? How do you know I'm not one of those rebels just trying to get some information from you?”
Getting up, the griffon started to stretch herself out a bit. “Cuz the questions you're asking are far too simple to be of any use, and every rebel we've captured so far has been much more... vulgar, about us.” She gave a wry chuckle. “Though you'd at think they'd eventually come up with an insult more original than 'feather-brain'. Seriously, the last stallion we caught...”
She was interrupted by a large, powerful roar echoing out of the Everfree, loud enough to wake the sleeping male behind them. Springing around the tree, he stood up straight and peered outward. “What was that? Sounded huge.” As the roar echoed again, Rainbow's ear perked up, recognizing the sound.
“Uh, we should go.” She said. “Cuz, if I remember that sound right, iiiiiit's an Ursa, and it's definitely angry.”
Feather scoffed. “Please, there hasn't been an Ursa seen around here in ages. The odds of that happening...”
A large, constellation-filled blue bear came tearing out of the woods.
“... are apparently rather good.” With a quick flap of his wings, the griffon took to the air.
“Oi, where are you going? We have her to take!” Glide called up at him.
The tom turned, shaking his head. “Leave her, I'm not about to risk a tangle with an Ursa just for some stupid pony. We can come back if there's anything left.” With that, he darted off. Glancing between her retreating companion and Rainbow, the chick took to the air.
“Hey! Hey, you can't just leave me!” Dash cried out, struggling.
She paused and turned. “It's an Ursa, they usually only chase after moving targets. If you shut up and lay still, it's not going to notice you. Those monsters never come near this cottage anyway, it's why we keep watch from here.” With a powerful flap she shot off, quickly overtaking her partner as they flew off.
Rainbow continued to struggle against the net as the Ursa drew closer, letting loose another loud roar in her direction. “Buckbuckbuckbuck!” She swore, desperately wiggling and shifting. “How the hay does Daring ever break out of these things?” The bear now at the edge of the property, the pegasus froze solid and tried to control her breathing. She said if I stayed still, I'd be okay... oh please Celestia tell me she was right. The giant creature froze as it stepped onto the lawn, not even moving its head as it stared right at the bundled mare.
Then it shimmered, disappearing into midair.
“I suppose my illusions have improved since you last saw me, Rainbow Dash. They're even more great and powerful than before!” Flipping over, Rainbow looked up at the unicorn now sitting beside her.
“T-Trixie!?” She said incredulously.
With a chuckle, her horn began to glow a soft blue as it began to free Dash from the net, artfully untangling the weights from around each other and slipping it off from around one of her forelegs. “I'm glad you haven't forgotten my name, even after all these years. Truly, my name lives in infamy.”
“Infamy is right...” She grumbled, shaking herself loose of the net. “Look, I'd ask what you're doing here, but to be honest you're the most normal thing I've seen so far, and that really is something.” Standing up, she gave Trixie a solid look up and down.
It was definitely the same unicorn that had embarrassed her and her friends, there was no doubt about it; but she was a far cry from the petite thing from when Rainbow had last seen her. She looked much more fit, the lean look giving her the appearance more akin to explorer than scholar. Her mane had been cut fairly short, giving her a rather tomboyish look that Dash had to, grudgingly, admit looked rather good for her. Glancing along her body, the pegasus noted the number of small scars that littered her sides and back, wincing as her eyes passed over one or two particularly nasty looking ones. Despite everything, the blue unicorn still had that cocky grin on her muzzle, radiating her usual aura of confidence and swagger.
“Much as I would love to stay and play catch-up with you, Rainbow Dash, those griffons won't be gone for very long: the Skybreakers are rather intelligent, for mercenaries at least.” Turning around, she motioned to the forest. “I'd suggest coming along with me, there's a lot of questions we're going to have for you.”
“Yeah, I've got like a million questions too!” Dash declared. “And who is 'we'? Even you didn't refer to yourself that way before.”
Trixie chuckled, shaking her head. “Oh, I'm a far cry from how I was when we last met, Rainbow. But seriously, we should go. My illusions may be the best now, but they're still just illusions.” Setting off at a brisk trot, the unicorn headed for the Everfree, pegasus in tow behind her. As they crossed into the woods, Trixie turned to shoot her a glance. “So, do tell where you've been hiding all this time. Ponies have been trying to find you practically forever.”
She shrugged, ducking under a rather low branch. “I didn't go anywhere! At least, I don't think I did. All I remember is Twilight casting her spell, and now everything is all freaky and different. The griffon was talking about Celestia being gone, and some guy named Astral...”
Trixie stopped, turning around. “Wait, the last thing you remember is Twilight casting her time spell, and then you were here?” A nod, making Trixie furrow her brow. “Rainbow... she casted that spell nearly a decade ago.”
The pegasus shook her head. “No way, she said it was going to be ten seconds. Seconds, not years.”
The unicorn gave a small chuckle, turning back and continuing to lead the way. “Yes, because Sparkle's spells always go off as intended.” She quipped.
Hopping over a fallen log, she shook her head. “Look, it doesn't matter. Can you just explain what's going on? And why everything is so different? Even if I was gone ten years, what could have possibly happened?”
The unicorn paused at the sound of a snapping twig and a low growl, crouching low to the ground with Dash doing the same. Putting a hoof to her lips she whispered “Look, a lot happened, and I promise that we'll explain everything we can to you. But you have to be quiet from here: we may live in the Everfree now, but not even all of our efforts can control the forest and the creatures that live inside. Keep your head down, and let's get to camp in one piece.” Biting back a retort, the mare simply nodded. The two ponies crouched slightly and continued forward, moving as quietly as they could deeper into the trees.
Despite several trips into the Everfree, Rainbow had never really found any noticeable landmarks to lead her anywhere. Sure there was the old castle, and Zecora had her hut, but everything else was just trees and more trees. How Trixie knew where they were going, she had no idea; but without a better idea, or anypony more familiar to her around, Dash figured it was in her best interest to follow. They hopped logs, skirted some rather nasty-looking purple plants that appeared to have ensnared a hapless timberwolf, and carefully hopped over a ravine with a rather angry cragadile smashing away at a boulder. A deep, throaty howl from some distance away caused Rainbow to shiver: whatever had made it sounded much larger than even the Ursa Minor.
About an hour had passed, by Rainbow's reckoning, before Trixie finally stood up straight again. “We're nearly at the camp now, we should be safe the rest of the way.”
“Finally!” Dash exclaimed, giving a little hop over the next fallen tree. “Can I finally get some answers now?”
Trixie thought for a moment, before giving a nod. “I'll give you the short version while we finish the trek; I know our commander is going to be most ecstatic to see you again, and I'd hate to take away from her embellished story telling.”
The pegasus let out a snort. “Embellished story telling, huh? Didn't realize you'd let another pony muscle in on your turf.” She gave the unicorn a playful nudge with her shoulder.
With a soft chuckle, Trixie nudged back. “Like I said, I'm a very different pony than we last met; though I do admit to being jealous she took my spot. I am still a showmare at heart, after all.” With a deep breath, she skirted around a thorn bush and began. “So, the important things.”
“After you disappeared, Twilight grew frantic trying to find a way to bring you back. She didn't know what she had done, but obviously you were gone so something had gone amiss. Astral showed up in Ponyville around that time, and she took a liking to him: he was intelligent, well-read, and most importantly, was more than eager to help her research the magic she had been toying with. At some point during their work, Celestia called upon them and asked them to stop toying with the Primordia, saying they didn't understand the power they were playing with. Desperate to get you back, and with some prodding from Astral, they continued their work in secret. I was never privy to their research, but I know that Astral found a way to use it to deal with the other Princesses.”
“Deal with like...” Rainbow made a slicing motion along her neck.
The unicorn shrugged. “No pony really knows what went on in that throne room, or what happened between Astral and your other five friends shortly after. All we know is that they all disappeared, and he's been running the show ever since. He uses the treasury to continue funding his research, and to pay the griffons to keep things under control. Most ponies don't seem to mind his rule, as he hasn't exactly changed much. But those of us that know what he's digging into have been trying to put a stop to him for years now.”
Rainbow saw a clearing up ahead, not too far off. “So, what is he after? What's this Astral want?”
“Power.” Trixie said simply. “He's planning on finding a way to harness the Primordia and all the raw magic inside for himself. He claims he's only going to use it 'to keep us all safe' and 'only for what needs to be done', but obviously it's just a power grab. Thus far he has, obviously, been rather unsuccessful. But our informants tell us he's starting to get close to a breakthrough, so we're rather worried.” As they made it to the clearing, the unicorn gave a wave of her hoof and exclaimed:
“Welcome to Camp Crusader.”
Dash gave a soft whistle as she looked over the clearing. Despite its relatively small size, there were nearly three score tents and small huts built inside of it. They were all rather plain, but many were adorned with one or two small trinkets and markings, probably to show who stayed there. Her ears flicked as she caught the ripple of a stream, probably from the far side of the camp judging by the sound of it. Even with the lack of space, all sorts of creatures were milling about in the pathways between structures: mostly ponies, but she spotted a few griffons, even a minotaur or two among their numbers. A few small campfires littered the area, cooking pots steaming happily above their heat.
As the pair walked through the camp, all conversation stopped and eyes turned to stare as they passed by. Whispers began to abound, and while she didn't catch more than a few fleeting words of each, she knew it was about them. Glancing around, she saw a few ponies she actually recognized here and there, mostly with their jaws hanging open as they made eye contact with her. As they neared the center of camp, and a particularly large tent, the pegasus caught sight of a certain zebra hanging outside.
“It turns out the omens were correct! Rainbow Dash, our paths once again intersect!”
With a chuckle, Rainbow flicked her mane back over her shoulder. “Hey there Zecora, good to see a friendly face.” She said, earning a grumbled “Thanks...” from the unicorn beside her.
The zebra was definitely very much the same as she ever was, from mane down to tail. She bore a few scars of her own, though none seemed nearly as bad as Trixie's did. With a sad smile, Zecora shook her two-toned mane. “While I wish it were pleasing, seeing you here is rather uneasing. For now that you have come back you will cause a commotion, and I fear Astral's plans may finally be put in motion.” Looking back up, the Zebra gave a gentle wave. “But fret not for the events that have yet to run, for the spirits may be wrong and their future undone.”
Dash tilted her head. “Say what?”
Trixie gave a quiet sigh. “Zecora has been using her zebra magic to try and foretell the future, which we all know is impossible to do. But she's been under the illusion that the 'return of a pony from decade before' would be what Astral needs to finish cracking open the Primordia. Of course, it's all just speculation.”
“Do not, the spirits, underestimate. For once you realize the truth it may be too late.” The zebra warned.
“Yes, and last month you told me I would break my leg chasing after a chicken, which is ridiculous as Trixie... I mean, I would never stoop to chasing after a chicken.”
“And it is very well that you do not.” Zecora said with a smile. “For it is not often that the bones I cast are wrong in their lot.” Her gaze returned to the pegasus. “All the same, it is nice to see you again Rainbow my dear, you are certainly a ray of hope among all this fear. Come inside and take a seat, I know a pony that you will be happy to meet.”
Rainbow gave the zebra a hug, which was returned a bit uncomfortably. “Well now I know how you stayed safe in the forest... nopony knows this place like Zecora!”
Trixie nodded. “Yes, she's been a huge help in keeping the forest at bay, though it's also been less... temperamental, since we took refuge in here from Astral.” Nodding towards the tent, her horn lit up as she moved the flap. “Now, I think it's time you met the pony in charge.” The three figures moved inside, away from the slowly growing crowd that had gathered around them.
Rainbow traced her eyes around the interior, soaking in the details. A large table consumed most of the open space, covered in a map of Ponyville, the Everfree, and Canterlot itself, along with the lands in-between. Various flags of blue, black, and red littered the surface, with a rhyme and reason that Dash couldn't figure out. Several other rolled pieces of parchments sat around the table as well, some appearing to be maps and others covered top to bottom in scrawls of ink. The back portion of the tent was covered off, some faint grumblings coming from behind it. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but even straining her ears she couldn't quite place it.
“Stupid crossbow, I've already oiled you today, quit being such a jerk.” A soft twang, followed by a curse, sounded out. “And now I need a new string...”
Trixie cleared her throat politely. “We've brought a guest, ma'am. I think you'll be eager to see her.” Some faint clanking came from behind the cover, and another curse. Rainbow continued to look at the back as she leaned over.
“So who'd you get in charge? Spitfire? Shining Armor?” She inquired.
“That voice...” Another muffled curse, and what sounded like a chair falling over, before the curtain was thrust aside. “R-Rainbow?” She asked cautiously.
Her head tilted in confusion for a moment, her mind failing to catch gear as she took in the pony now before her. Her eyes slowly widened as the mare clicked into place, one piece at a time: pegasus, purple eyes, orange coat, purple mane....