Starlight Glimmer and the Runekeepers

by JPHyperX

First published

Starlight Glimmer's life changes when she finds an ancient secret she must uncover. Meanwhile, assassins plan to kill Twilight Sparkle.

Magic is full of unexplored secrets. When Starlight Glimmer makes a groundbreaking discovery with her friends after a terrible stroke of fate, she finds herself compelled to solve this puzzle in a race against time. Meanwhile, assassins attempt to overthrow the newly named regent Twilight Sparkle. Equestria is in turmoil again, who are the masterminds of this conspiracy?

Proof Reader: Moonshine Nutrix

Chapter 1: A New Problem

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Written by JPHyperX
Translated by Assarak and JPHyperX
Proof Reader Moonshine Nutrix

Chapter Theme

Magic comes in all shapes and colors. Every living being is connected to it, some stronger than others. Unicorns and alicorns, for instance, have a rather strong bond to the arcane forces. That’s why they can use them actively.

There is active magic and passive magic.

Active magic is recognizable by its visual appearance. A shine, flicker or beam.

Give three examples: Unicorn Magic, Changeling Transformation and Chaos Magic

Passive magic is hard to control, but can be triggered by emotions or is inherited in creatures and objects, such as artefacts.

Give three examples: Cutie-Mark Magic, Crystal Heart Magic and The Magic of Friendship.

Starlight Glimmer gave full points for this answer. This student had a really good understanding of this subject. That was five points and an extra point for mentioning the magic of friendship, an important subject for their school.

She leaned back, took a sip of tea and glanced outside the window into the late night. Finally, her work was done. Time to get home. Tomorrow she would present her students' test results. After a short sigh, she stood up from her chair, watered her plant Phillis, turned off the lights and left the headmares room.

She stepped through the chilly hallway towards the exit. On both sides, busts rested on their marble pedestals, each showing a different pony. The six so-called Pillars of Equestria. At night they looked a little spooky, because it was like they were watching all the time.

At the exit to the inner schoolyard, she looked at the clock above her. “Darn! It’s so late already?”

In five hours Twilight would raise up the sun again. She needed her sleep, or else the students would have to wait even longer for their test results. Swiftly she stepped outside, closed the door and almost forgot to lock it. She dug the key out of her bag, but unfortunately it fell on the floor. This had to happen in a hurry. As she picked it back up, a sudden shivering chill ran down her spine. “Who’s there?”

She turned around, but nopony was there. The square in front of the building was completely empty. Only the fountain in the center made a peaceful lapping of itself. Probably it was nothing. So she locked the door and crossed the yard, over the stream, past the splashing fountain.

She had the lingering feeling that something was nearby. Stalkers annoyed her, and if it was Discord again, with one of his lame jokes, she’d have to banish him from the school ground again. She whirled around with a glowing horn, but once again, she saw no one. Pretty strange, how paranoia suddenly caught up on her.

“It’s alright, Starlight. You’re just tired, that’s all,” she told herself and continued her way home with more awareness. Sometimes ponies happened to stray around here. That was nothing unusual, because the school was still rather new in Ponyville and there were these nocturnals that liked to dwell beneath the dark sky. There wasn’t much illumination on the school grounds, so every star in the sky shone bright and vivid.

She gazed upwards and found herself confirmed. The various constellations twinkled down on Equestria as they’d done for eons. There couldn’t have been a night more peaceful then this one. It probably was the last day of summer, so surely nocturnals weren’t unusual. As far as she knew, her friend Trixie Lulamoon, also liked to sleep beneath the clear night sky. But what was this cold?

That shiver wasn’t really there. It was her magic that shuddered. Starlight didn’t like that one bit. In a rapid trot she moved on towards the stepping stones that led across the small lake in front of the school grounds. But the feeling remained, so she decided to probe the cause of this strange sense.

Her horn lighted up and focused on a particular magic aura, but there were so many of them. In every house she sensed all the ponies sleeping peacefully in their beds. It was easier for Starlight to find the anomaly. A cold gust of wind hit her when she felt an unknown presence. “What in the name of Tartarus is that?” she whispered to herself.

She wanted to notify Twilight, but she had to let the sun rise soon. Besides, it would have taken too long to get parchment and feathers together. She had to deal with this on her own. The road led back to the school. She looked around and increased the radius of her spell.

She sensed a weak aura. A pony was behind the building, and Starlight felt the life force of this being fading. It was dying.

Starlight gasped, how could she not notice anything? While she had peacefully finished her work, there was a pony lying in the garden, obviously badly injured. How could it be? She hadn't heard a scream, not a single fight. It was like it was lying there all the time. Starlight galloped along the path to the rear garden. It was getting colder, but it wasn't the pony that caused these low temperatures. There was something else in the bushes here.

"Hello?" She shouted in a loud whisper. Nothing came back, but something was there, she could feel it clearly. The aura of the wounded pony was nothing more than a faint flicker. Starlight realized from the aura spell that it was already too late, it was no more.

But still, she had to retrieve the body. Secretly she hoped it wasn't one of her friends, lying dead in the garden. Her heart pounded wildly with these thoughts. But no matter who was lying there, she had to prepare herself for a terrible sight. She took a deep breath and moved on.

As she entered the garden, she thought she was stepping into a new cold season. The area was unusually icy for this late summer night. She heard heavy breathing. An unknown creature was there, something she couldn’t detect with her magic. She let her horn glow more brightly, and the turquoise magic light searched the trees and somewhere in between, a figure had bent over a body. It looked like a pony, all scrawny and pale. From there, Starlight could see that it had no mane and no tail.

“Hey! You there,” Starlight called out, not knowing where this courage came from. She heard a loud munching sound and then she realized this thing was eating another pony. She felt like she was going to be sick. The dinner consisting of a hay sandwich and an apple tried miserably to get through her gullet and caused great stomach ache. “Oh, no,” she gasped.

The pale pony with the curved horn lifted its naked head and turned it slowly around. It was completely furless. The skin seemed to stretch like leather over a bony frame. And there were its eyes. They were hazy and white, small pale pupils staring directly at the unicorn mare. In its mouth hung the bloody green leg of the victim.

Starlight swallowed a lump in her throat. She was unable to move, numb with shock. This scrawny figure walked towards her and dropped the leg to the ground. Blood dripped from its mouth. Then a long black tentacle tongue crawled out of it, hungry for more flesh.

Starlight was overwhelmed with new feelings. With shivering eyes she stared at the decapitated unicorn. Starlight knew this pony by sight. He'd been a student of this school.

“You’re one ugly motherbucker!” Starlight said to the pale monster in disgust. Her legs carried her back as it came closer. Starlight heard her heart pounding, her natural instincts begging her to run, to teleport or to scream. But what if it took more victims? This thing was in the middle of the school ground. A serious threat to her students and neighbors. She couldn't let that happen.

The pale pony drew its head back and let it snap forward, its tongue darted out. Starlight dodged it and showed her enraged and belligerent face. All tiredness was gone, the adrenaline rushed through her veins, her magic force raised.

“Oh, you want it the hard way?! You get the hard way!” she shouted. Her horn flared up. She shot a magic beam at that thing. The pale creature simply absorbed it and Starlight realized, “It feeds on magic?”

This was a good time to turn tail. Starlight jumped out of the bushes and ran back to the school yard. The creature chased her with a fast gallop despite its fragile frame.

Arriving in the yard, it jumped predator-like over Starlight and blocked her way. She curbed sharply. Her hooves dug into the dirt. Then she conjured a crystal shield in front of the creature and turned back, trying to escape into the building. The key refused to fit during all that panic, and she would have to gather enough concentration to simply teleport inside. But at the moment she couldn’t calm herself enough for that. The pale pony hurled its tongue through the shield as if it was nothing, towards Starlight. She ducked and the tongue slammed against the door.

Then she had the simple idea of kicking the door in, just like her friend Applejack during Applebuck Season. After two violent kicks she noticed, that the door had been built incredibly solid. The tongue returned and wrapped around her right front leg. A sharp pain spiked through her hoof. She cried out loud. The tongue pulled her rudely through the lawn and let her smash through a bridge railing, but she had hardly felt that, nothing hurt as much as her hoof. She felt something was draining her energy.

Then she was thrown into the river of the yard. The water splashed in all directions. As Starlight reappeared, she saw the tongue coming towards her again. This time she was prepared. She built up a water fountain and could fend off the next attack. When the tongue pulled back, Starlight finally had time to reach the riverbank and get out of the cold water. Her mane was soaking wet, and she was furious, incredibly furious. "You'll never French-kiss again!" she growled.

A magic wave shot from her horn and stirred up water and dirt. The wind whipped against the window shutters, letting them rattle loudly. But the pale creature didn’t seem to be impressed at all. No, it even consumed this magical energy.

The powerful unicorn mare levitated a few rocks towards her, but her right hoof was still burning. So much so that she had to falter. She looked at her limb and saw that it had turned dark. The pain pulsed like a living being of its own. “Ah! What’s that?”

The pale pony gave her no time to find out. It shot a white light beam out of its horn. It hit Starlight hard. She flew over the meadow like a toy doll and crashed head first against the next house wall. Headaches and an exhausted magic told her that this was probably her end. So soon after Twilight's coronation, so soon after her taking over the school and what about all the things she had planned for the future?

Her pale death slowly strode towards her, taking its time as it let its long tongue wave lazily through the air. Probably she would follow this student, but not before she’d revealed an ace up her sleeve.

This monster didn't notice the well hovering above its head that Starlight had ripped off its hinges when she fell. Before it came into range, she simply let go of her telekinesis. The pale monster was buried under it without even knowing what it was hit by.

Starlight granted herself a weak smile for her work. The creature's head stuck out of the rubble, its tongue still hanging out of its mouth. It looked like a flattened frog with a horn, that’s why she had to grin like that. But she was also badly hurt. Two broken ribs, a head trauma – that was her guess, and a disfigured hoof. She remained laying there and waited. There was also passive unicorn magic. It could initiate self-healing if the wounds weren’t too severe or magical. This was barely healable. The wounds closed and the dull pain in her head went down, too. But her hoof, it had taken on an even darker shade, no healing at all.

She looked back to the well in front of her and startled she realized that the pale creature dissolved like ashes in the wind. So there was no proof of the creature's origin. "This cunning thing," Starlight thought.

"I had fought, and lived to tell tales about it." That's what it would say in one of her diaries she was planning to write for posterity. All the students would find the school yard and be flabbergasted. The damage could be repaired, the school was well insured. She could tell them it had been the attacker. Would they believe her? That thing was gone, turned into ashes. But all this were sorrows she should deal with later. After she had closed her eyes, the dawn slowly set in.

Four hours later …

“Headmare Starlight! Headmare Starlight!”

The addressed mare suddenly woke up. At first it seemed to her as if she was back home in her bed and everything was just a nightmare, but she was lying exactly where she had fallen asleep. A pink hippogriffin and a blue-plumed griffon knelt before her. The hippogriffin held her healthy hoof and patted it. "Are you all right?"

Starlight groaned. She had no idea how to tell it. “Some rotten pony ate my magic.” No, nocreature would believe her, except Twilight and her friends, maybe. They'd been through enough to believe something like that. She tried to explain, "Silverstream... I’ve been... attacked, but the threat is over... OW!" Her leg still burned.

"Wait, I'll help you!" the griffon said. He tried to pull her up, but that only increased the pain.

"Gallus, it hurts! Better a teacher comes and takes a look on it!" lamented Starlight with sweat on her face.

Alarmed, he withdrew his claw. In the next moment they heard a familiar voice, "Please let us through! School counselor coming through! Thank you, thank you very much!"

Trixie squeezed her way through the crowd and pushed Silverstream aside. When the blue unicorn reached her, she gasped, "Oh, gosh! You look like you’ve been trampled by a buffalo stampede!"

That was her typical reaction. Amongst best friends, Starlight couldn’t help but agreeing with her. Sunburst stood next to her in a dark blue starry cape. "What happened to you, Starlight?" he called worried.

"I should have taken the work home with me after class, but I probably prevented a disaster," she moaned and looked at her darkened limb. "Sort of..."

Sunburst and Trixie helped her up gently. She didn't dare to put the right hoof on the ground because it was already hurting. Trixie noticed it and Starlight didn’t have to wait for her remark, "And your hoof... What happened to it? Looks like you walked through a fire!"

“Didn’t you prohibit magic experiments on school premises?” Sunburst added.

Starlight shook her head vigorously. "No, no, it was an attack. It was a..." She searched for the right words and looked at the students in order. "I can't put my hoof tip on it... Dry, bald, skin and bones... And when I destroyed it..." She pointed with her healthy hoof to the well. "…there it turned into dust."

The students looked at each other in concern. Starlight couldn’t blame them. What if another one of these creatures showed up or maybe that thing survived? After all these thoughts she made a decision, "School’s closed! You're all on holidays, till we know what’s going on."

"What!?" the ponies and non-ponies shouted at the same time. The whispers became louder. Starlight didn't care what they were saying. She had spoken and limped to the entrance of the school building. Sunburst and Trixie went after her.

“You seem to be a little upset,” Sunburst said calming. “Maybe you could take a day off und we take care of the school for you. Or we could ask Twilight to fill in for you.”

"She has enough on her plate already and I hardly think the problem will be solved automatically with the princess present."

Trixie piped up, “But what about Twilight’s other friends?”

“They’re all scattered. Rarity is in Manehattan, Pinkie Pie is on her way to an event with Cheese Sandwich and Fluttershy is visiting Discord’s dimension. Only Applejack and Rainbow Dash are in Ponyville, but they’re certainly busy”, explained Starlight. She dug the key out, opened the door and let her two friends in.

The students left the school yard. Starlight had hidden the fact that a student had died. She didn’t want to cause any panic. But in the empty auditorium, she revealed it to Trixie and Sunburst. While she explained, she took the bandages from a first aid kit and wrapped her foreleg around it to cover her ugly injury.

Both remained silent when she finished this story. Trixie looked at her supervisor with complete dismay and open mouth. Sunburst took off his glasses and cleaned them with the brim of his cape. The levitation of his magic shuddered and he snorted deeply through his nostrils. Then he breathed frantically against the glass and cleaned it for the third time. “We have to tell Twilight”, he said stern.

“But she…”

“This is a serious situation, Starlight! A student is dead and we have to check your leg. Whatever it was, it hit you pretty hard.”

“If you say so,” Starlight sighed and levitated some writing materials from the podium over to her. She let a quill slide into the ink and wrote everything down. What kind of face would Twilight make if she read that note? The first letter she got from her former pupil and friend Starlight Glimmer ever since her coronation years ago? A face Starlight was glad to miss out.

“It’s our only option,” Sunburst said as Starlight wrote. The ink splashed a little because she had used too much of it.

In the past, she had often written to her, but answers always came back late. She was probably just busy.

Starlight mentioned the monster and described it, the dead student, the temporary closing of the school and also her injured hoof. She waited for the ink to dry and closed the parchment with the seal of the school, then she immediately teleported the letter to Twilight.

It took a long time, very long. Trixie rested her hind legs on one of the tables. Essentially a rather bad paradigm for a guidance counselor, but Starlight hadn’t the nerves to discipline her. Sunburst incessantly fiddled with his beard, deep in thought. Starlight tried to sit comfortably, but her leg didn’t make it easy for her. The limb felt numb, the fur on her hoof seemed to fall out and the skin looked leathery. The bandages seemed to help, but not very much.

Suddenly the three ponies heard a teleport spell from outside and then several more in a row.

"This must be her. Did she come by herself?" said Starlight excitedly. She hadn't seen Twilight for years. Sunburst looked up in doubt.

They left the building and Starlight closed up behind them. There were several guards outside, all dressed in gold armor with the pink star in the center of their breastplate. Most of them were male, but there was also a female guard with dark purple fur and a pink, punkish mane. Her biggest mark was a broken horn. The cool, light blue eyes probed the area in astonishment when she noticed this chaos on the square.

The guards were accompanied by a big chariot, which was of a plain frame but decorated in gold and blue. The chariot’s door was already drawn open.

The tall guard mare took a step towards the three teachers. “I’m Captain Tempest of the Royal Guard! Princess Twilight Sparkle wants to see you immediately!”

Starlight limped to the guard mare. "I'm glad to hear that. How come she doesn't appear in person? After all, we’re good friends!"

Tempest just looked at her coldly. “Well, she wanted to come, but her presence is needed in Canterlot. She ordered us to get teleported here, so we would lose no time escorting you to her. The flight shouldn’t take longer than half an hour.”

The six white Pegasus stallions stepped forward and tied themselves into the harnesses of the carriage. After the flowing movement, they turned their eyes straight ahead, waiting for new orders.

Starlight nodded understandingly. That was one of the reasons why she didn't want to be a princess, bound to one place to lead the pony folk. She'd rather pass on what Twilight and her friends had taught her. She wanted to make a difference with her own powers to prove that everyone had the chance to make friends, no matter what the creature was made of. Was she successful? Yes, certainly. Her school wasn’t just for ponies. It was the means of future alliances for Equestria. This has developed over the years. Ponies, dragons, yaks, changelings, griffons, hippogriffs and the kirins all came to learn together at this school.

After Starlight sat down in the carriage with Sunburst and Trixie, her eyes went absent-mindedly to her closed school.

The pegasi left Ponyville quickly. They passed through several clouds and flew on the direct way to Canterlot. Flying up in a carriage was much more pleasant than going by train that had to traverse several tunnels and bridges in order reach Equestrias capitol.

They approached the palace that towered over the city on the edge of the cliff. It was surrounded by inner walls that limited the area of the courtyard. Meadows and bushes made the whole thing look more natural, as if the building had grown out of the earth. Even luscious green ivy grew up part of the wall. A river surrounded the palace, on which swans floated, their wings elegantly flapping and splashing water. Much to the annoyance of the palace gardener, because he was the target of these animals.

The carriage landed gently on the lawn in front of the palace and all the passengers stepped out. Tempest led the way, followed by her guards who escorted Starlight, Trixie and Sunburst.

The palace was ominous, and Starlight hadn’t seen it for a long time. It felt strange. After all this time, she felt something big was coming. As if the building was trying to tell her that it was time for a new challenge.

They walked up the white steps that bordered the palace gate. As the ponies stood directly in front of it, Tempest strode ahead and touched the great gate with her star-shaped jewel on her armor. Only then did it open for them.

The entrance hall was huge compared to the school. Back, when the two sisters had ruled over Equestria, there were two kinds of stained glass windows, representing day and night. But here they were dark purple with a pink star and the formerly red carpet was violet, which led over several steps to the higher level.

Tempest guided them through the bright corridors with even more colored windows. However, they were much taller than the first ones and each told a story. How Twilight and her friends defeated Nightmare Moon or how they saved the Crystal Empire.

Starlight only knew these stories from hearsay. Back then, she was busy subjugating a village. Yes, her story had been full of darkness and thoughts of revenge. She had even tried to change Twilight’s mindset, and although everypony involved had forgiven her, it still pained her to be reminded of this part of her past by something or someone.

Seeing these pictures made her realize, that she’d never go down in the history books as a heroine. She gave a snort, not only to suppress this unwelcome thought, but also to give vent to the pain in her hoof. It seemed to hurt even more the closer she came to the doors at the end of the hallway.

As they approached, the large folding doors opened and revealed the throne room. The first thing that immediately caught the eye was the symmetrical interior design. The throne in the middle stood on a ramp, to each side there were three water basins built in a row, sloping down. The water flowed down from basin to basin and ended in a small canal that led outside. The cool marble floor reflected the morning light shining through the windows. Thanks to the colorful patterns it added a rainbow shimmer on it.

The banners of the six pony heroes hung from the ceiling everywhere. The largest banner, of course, was that of Twilight Sparkle, and she herself sat on the throne directly below it. Next to her stood a few servants, all holding parchment rolls on a tray. The princess was really very busy, that much was certain.

But there was one thing Starlight noticed in particular. Twilight had grown. The purple alicorn was about the same size as the former princess Luna some years ago.

Captain Tempest bowed before the princess and everyone else hurried to do the same. Twilight finished the sentence on her parchment floating in front of her and put it aside on one of the trays with the others. Then she stood up, the servants next to her took a step back.

And how she had grown… Her wingspan had expanded considerably. That’s why the servants had to step aside to avoid getting feathers in their faces.

“Rise everypony, my closest friends don’t have to bow before me,” she said in a gentle voice to Starlight, Sunburst and Trixie and all three relaxed visibly.

Tempest took a step aside for Starlight so she could greet her old friend. She was thrilled by her sheer height. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time. Twilight had been a little smaller back then. An amazing amount of time had passed and she wished she could relive the good old days again, “Twilight! I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you …”

She wanted to extend her left hoof, but the pain in the other one suddenly spiked, as if a buzz saw was starting to move along the bone. She cried out, withering in pain. Her hoof cramped and gave off odd, gurgling noises. Then she lost control of it. Her leg swung towards Twilight, who stepped back in surprise.

Immediately, the guards came running, dead set on protecting their princess. But the out of control limb was incredibly strong. Without her intention, Starlight flailed around, forcing the guards to back off and forming a protective line in front of Twilight. The leg snarled and twisted in a nasty posture. All of a sudden, it started to glow in Starlight’s turquoise colored magic and extended to a grotesque tentacle. It lashed out for Twilight like a whip. Starlight screamed in the highest octave. One of the guards screamed as well, “STOP IT!”

Multiple guards jumped in the line between Starlight and Twilight. Each of them took a blow from the thing that used to be Starlight’s hoof, sending them flying against the columns and walls. Starlight tried to hold it back, like a crazed mutt, but it continued its attack unfazed. It reached back for a fatal blow, violet thorns suddenly sprouted from the tentacle’s flesh. Twilight applied a dome-shaped shield spell and the whip lashed aggressively on it.

Tempest’s broken horn sparked brightly. A blinding firework shot out, hitting Starlight and hurling her away from the purple alicorn. Starlight felt the burning pain, where Tempest had hit her. Her demonic limb wormed around, seemingly looking for something, hissing and growling like a wild beast. Starlight struggled to get on her hooves. Behind the wall of guards, she saw that look in Twilight’s eyes. This look she would always remember. It seemed to ask, “Why?”

Tempest reared up and threatened, "Don't move, whatever you are!"

She was prepared to fire another blast. Because of her broken horn, her magic was more uncoordinated and could get pretty rough. Starlight didn’t even dare to move towards her. Only her possessed hoof was eager to rip the princess into pieces.

Starlight slowly crawled to one of the bowls of water in the side of the throne and quickly dipped her tentacle hoof in. Her leg slowly returned to normal, but the throbbing pain persisted. With watery eyes and clenched teeth, she watched it under the water surface. It moved like it was breathing and she heard mad pounding sounds of a fast heartbeat. She held onto it until it finally calmed down. Then she gasped in relief. But she didn’t dare to move it. Who knows what else might happen.

The relaxed atmosphere in the room was completely gone. Instead, the servants and guards showed a distraught face. Sunburst and Trixie had also become quite pale. What had just happened there was like the result of a nightmare.

Completely drenched in sweat, Starlight turned to the princess. “Twilight … a shield, hurry!” she called out.

The princess kept her eyes locked on her old friend. She couldn’t believe that she had almost escaped death.

“Twilight, come on!” she cried in despair.

On her second plea, Twilight’s horn glowed pink and an equally colored transparent wall separated the whole room from Starlight.

Captain Tempest began to yell, “By all hells, how dare you attacking the princess!? Your longtime friend!” she huffed furious.

Twilight raised one hoof to calm her down. Starlight didn’t answer. She carefully pulled the hoof out of the water. It was like nothing had happened, but the black burn remained. Fortunately, she didn’t feel this thing inside her hoof anymore.

“Whatever it was, it wasn’t Starlight Glimmer. She tried to keep it away from me,” Twilight said.

Starlight at the throne-well closed her eyes in relief. She was overjoyed that Twilight believed her. Many years ago they had been enemies, then they became friends and day by day the trust between them grew. And till this day, she stood to her friends and her word was law. She had grown to a princess thoroughly.

“But I won’t touch you until we know what this is. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, but apparently it responds to my presence,” she continued.

Starlight looked at her hoof. It didn’t hurt anymore. It was either a one-time reaction or it was in resting. Regardless, she needed new bandages.

Sunburst and Trixie ran to Twilight. “But we can go to her,” said Sunburst. “We were with her the whole time, and nothing happened.”

Twilight nodded and opened a part of her shield spell. Starlight’s friends passed quickly through and the barrier closed behind them.

Sunburst examined his friend’s hoof very carefully. He seemed to be using an x-ray spell that could reveal Starlight’s guts under her coat.

“Don’t you dare looking at my flank, you perv,” Starlight joked.

Despite her nervousness, Trixie earned herself an impish smile. But the stallion kept a straight face, continuing his search.

Sunburst looked inside her body. He stayed like that for a while and concentrated on searching the inside of her hoof. Then he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head a little. Starlight began to feel uncomfortable. He could practically see her organs and that was more than just entering her comfort zone. Suddenly, Sunburst jumped up screaming, so that she startled. Her friend covered his face and screamed like a banshee.

He must have seen something terrible. Starlight crawled up to him and took him in her hooves. At first he struggled and whimpered like he was having a bad dream. Starlight tried to calm him down, “Sunburst! Sunburst! Open your eyes!”

Breathing heavily, he calmed down and looked on the floor. “There’s something incredibly evil in there,” He said with a sore throat. “I have no idea what it is, Starlight… but it reminds me of King Sombra’s dark magic.”

The entire room seemed to gasp. Twilight’s eyes widened in horror, “But my friends and I destroyed him once and for all! How can this be?”

Sunburst stood up and adjusted his glasses. His hooves still swayed a little. Slightly stressed he explained, “Sombra is gone, that’s for sure. But maybe there is someone or something with similar abilities. Dark magic is as versatile as light magic.”

Starlight knew the principle of dark and light magic. Both were caused by strong emotions. If catalysts like rocks or crystals were exposed to hope and love, they shone in a beautiful light and banished darkness. But if hatred and fear took hold, they turned dark and even could act destructive. But this wasn’t about crystals. This kind of dark magic was completely new.

Twilight turned to her, “Then the creature you told me about in the letter probably corrupted your hoof, just as Sombra did with the crystals of the Crystal Empire.”

This made sense. King Sombra had been a pony who had given himself completely to the dark powers. Starlight had to ask, “I don’t understand one thing. Why did my hoof attack you?”

Sunburst cleared his throat, “I have a theory: This, I say “curse” is made to attack good or light magic and there is no more delicate target than the Princess of Friendship.”

A shiver rippled over Starlight's back. Tempest took a deep breath, her ears flicked. "But doesn't that mean that..."

"Yes," Sunburst decided to end his statement, "we are talking about an attempted assassination!"

And again the throne room gasped for breath, this time much deeper. Twilight couldn’t get her mouth closed. “Oh, no…” She swallowed loudly and grazed her lung neck. Then she looked anxiously at her throne, as if she feared to see it about to burst into flames.

Starlight answered in a grasping voice that betrayed her rabid beating heart. She knew all too well that the princess would be struggling and doubting herself if nobody said anything. “Twilight, It’s only a theory, but I’m willing to protect you. You are the embodiment of the true Magic of Friendship, and you have many friends around you, including Sunburst, Trixie and myself. Whenever we’ve faced a problem, we’ve always faced it together. Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie! We all are there for you!”

“And don’t forget Spike,” Sunburst said with a smile. “Where is he anyway?”

“He is here, writing a book about the relationship between dragons and ponies. He’ll freak out when he hears about this,” Twilight replied.

“All right”, said Sunburst firmly, “we must find out what attacked Starlight and we must figure out who is behind this dark magic. Where do we begin?”

The princess smiled delightedly about this question, "Of course, where all the knowledge of Equestria is concentrated in one building!"

Trixie laughed and rolled her eyes. “Well, let’s go for the books then.”

Starlight nodded in agreement. Some things would never change.

Twilight focused her horn on the shield. It bent into a bubble around Starlight. On the ground a pink spell circle appeared with a star in the middle and several cryptic writings.

"I'm so sorry to have to do this. But it's for the best for both of us," said Twilight and walked towards her. Starlight had to accept this with a heavy heart. She cursed the creature in her mind that had done this to her. Her eyes became glassy and reflected the pink light of Twilight's magic.

The princess continued, “I will take you directly to the restricted section. If something has been written about dark magic, I am sure we will find it there. So, be ready!”

Again, her horn glowed and teleported Starlight, Sunburst and her most trusted guard pony Tempest from the throne room. Trixie remained rooted to the spot in front of the servants and the remaining guards.

"Uh... Hey, what about..." As soon as she finished her sentence, she disappeared with a bang.

Chapter 2: The Starlight Cavern

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The restricted section was a large round room without doors and windows. At least there had been an exit, but it was bricked up. Many ponies had tried to enter this area until Twilight decided to wall it up. Only with her permission ponies were allowed to visit this place, which located meters below the library.

Stralight Glimmer appeared in the center of the room. Of course, with the spell circle beneath her that followed her as she walked on. Sunburst, Tempest and Trixie appeared next to her. They lighted their horns up, because this area was very dark, despite the candles and firefly lamps.

“I’m simply speechless!” shouted Sunburst as he looked at all the dusty books on the shelves. “The Mysteries of the Memory Stone”, “The Three Forces” and “Changelings, Origin and Legacy, Are they aliens?” Wow!”

Twilight appeared on the stairs and trotted down the steps. “I haven’t been here for a while. It’s nice to have a look inside again.”

Sunburst was already delving into several books that he thought might give a clue to Starlight's curse. It was an old volume titled, “Dark Spells of Pre-Equestrian Times.” This one went way back in time.

Starlight looked at some artefacts stored in glass display cases. None of these objects seemed dangerous in any way. But then again, appearances can be deceptive.

Twilight joined Sunburst and started to read some books, too. Since Starlight had nothing better to do, she joined them as well.

Tempest kept the position and helped everyone to find some books. Trixie, on the other hand, kept looking around and yawned. Then she wandered around the rotunda.

Unfortunately, the first search for a clue wasn’t successful. Starlight threw the next finished book onto another stack and rubbed frustrated her head. If only she had the patience of Twilight. She seemed convinced that there must be something, "All it takes is a little hint. Let's split up and everypony take a separate stack. You too Trixie, please!"

Starlight had to admit that this research into the blue wasn’t the best strategy. “Isn’t there some kind of catalogue of the registered books of this archive?” she asked.

“Well, yes,” Twilight answered, “but the mechanical catalogue has not been well maintained for a long time.”

She pointed at an old, dusty machine on the edge of the rotunda. Its rollers were crooked and some of the modules were missing altogether. Somepony had probably tried to run this machine and must have fallen apart. "I've been meaning to get it fixed for a long time, but until now, I've been distracted," she said flushed.

Starlight sighed. Her hoof felt like lead. She had hardly moved it in the last few hours and felt that this wound was slowly spreading. She scratched herself and felt tingling sensation in her joint, as if one of her limbs went to sleep.

“I think, we should take a break,” she finally said as she closed the book of “The well-known curses of Equestria, volume thirty”. “Anyway, I need one, Sunburst, what about you?”

The stallion sat between two stacks of books and looked up. "Just go ahead. I have an essay about the talking rabbit creatures of Rautia. Supposedly they’re only fantasy figures, but some ponies think they have seen some of them. That's really interesting."

“And does it have anything to do with that monster at the school?” Starlight asked mockingly.

Sunburst blushed immediately when he realized how far he had drifted away. “Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!”

But Starlight didn’t bother, because she just wanted to move her legs again. She had been in this cellar for what felt like an eternity and it was getting cold. There had to be a draught somewhere, so she decided to look for it. The spell circle followed underneath her like a spotlight in a theatre show. She hoped it would last long enough, because this spell had to drain Twilight’s powers.

“Please don’t go too far, Starlight,” the princess suddenly exclaimed, “or the circle will be broken.” That was true, the luminous structure on the floor slowly faded. But the breeze was coming from the opposite direction. There was only one possibility. She called out to everypony, “I think I have something there!”

She heard the hoof steps of her friends and the spell became stronger again. Starlight walked a few steps ahead and reached a cracked wall from which an icy cold wind whistled through.

She knocked on the wall when her friends found her like that. Twilight shouted in amazement, “Unbelievable! There's actually another room?”

Starlight grinned at her pleased. “You can name this section after me if we find something.

A slight magical blow was enough to cause the wall to crumble. Sand was trickling down on Sunburst and Trixie. “Pff! Watch out or do you wanna bury us all?” shouted the latter fretted. She was probably peeved about all that pointless research.

The big hole gave a view into a natural cave. In the distance they could see rails and angular stone columns.

“Hello, Starlight Glimmer Cave!” yelled Trixie and the echo returned, “Cave… cave…cave…”

Twilight looked around and spoke a little nostalgic, “I recognize this place. These are the crystal caves of Canterlot. This was a mine once. Crystals and gems had made the founders rich. And once I was trapped here with my sister-in-law when Chrysalis had attacked the city …” Twilight stepped into the cave with a light dance and laughed, “My brother’s wedding. That was quite an adventure…”

Starlight remembered the Changeling Queen. “Oh, yes! Right… Chrysalis… If she hadn’t been so stubborn, I could have turned her on our side. I guess reforming our enemies isn’t my strong suit.”

Twilight ran ahead and smiled friendly at Starlight. “There was nothing you could do. The queen had chosen her path, and you had chosen yours. You have no responsibility for the decisions of others.”

As they continued to wander through the cave, the ponies passed a gorge. It was very ominous and no one could tell how deep it went. Tempest looked suspiciously at the darkness. “Be careful, Princess. We don’t know how far this cave extends.”

“Don’t worry,” she replied, “We’ll turn back as soon there’s nothing to see.”

They kept on walking and indeed they found the end of the path. Behind a ledge in front of them there was nothing but darkness.

“Well, that’s it,” Sunburst said disappointed. Twilight narrowed her eyes. Alicorns were known for their good vision and she wasn’t called the Pony of Dawn for nothing. “Wait a minute! Tempest, would you be so kind?”

The captain nodded, she charged her halved horn and shot a glaring spark into the darkness. Like a bright shooting star, the light flew down over a large rock formation. Then it exploded with a muffled “puff!”

All of a sudden the whole cave was illuminated. Crystals that had stored light within came to life. It was as if a whole starry sky had risen in the cavern, so there was much more to see. In front of the ponies, twelve large, dark columns rose from an underground lake. They were all set up in a circle and strange structures glowed on their surfaces. All ponies became big eyes, everyone’s mouth was open, and everyone shuddered before the beauty.

As the flares above the formation slowly sank into the water, Twilight took the floor, “As Princess of Equestria, I hereby rename this area Starlight Cavern.”

Starlight’s heart made a leap. She had expected many things, but this one had been the least likely. She had meant the naming as a little joke, but it just happened. Twilight had simply renamed the cave after her.

Sunburst applauded, “What a fitting name!” Then he stopped and inspected the columns. “What is this, anyway? Is this a temple?”

Twilight also spoke in deep thought, “I guess we’ll have to find that out. I’m not familiar with this architecture.”

Suddenly a deep humming sounded under their hooves. For a moment of shock, they thought the cave was about to collapse. A sloping stone slab rose from the ground next to them. On the surface lay something round and shiny. Sunburst raised his head in surprise and shouted, “Is this a pocket watch?”

Starlight approached the podium carefully. The golden lid of the pendant was decorated by Starlight's six-pointed Cutie-Mark star, as if this jewel had been made just for her.

“What is the meaning of this?” she shouted almost in shock. She opened the watch and found the clock face. “She has no numbers at all. “ She looked at Twilight, hoping for an answer, or at least a hunch.

But she only shook her head. “I have no idea, Starlight. It reminds me of something, but there are so many differences. We have to find out for ourselves… or maybe just you? Who knows?”

Starlight gazed at the empty watch with great skepticism. First her hoof and it seemed that a certain fate was weighing on her, pushing her down without mercy.

Trixie suddenly burst into laughter. It wasn’t her usual hearty cackling. It sounded much deeper and more vicious, “Tehehehe! You found it, not bad, and without a clue. I call that coincidence, nothing but puuure luck!”

The ponies turned their heads confused to the blue mare. She covered her face under her hat. Then she raised her head and showed two yellow, demonic cat-like eyes. “It is just wonderful how you stand in front of the oldest building of all times, completely clueless!”

Starlight has the uncomfortable feeling that this wasn’t Trixie the whole time. “Okay! Who are you?”

The fake Trixie drooled from her mouth and drew a grinning grimace that went far across her face. “Who I am doesn’t matter! I’m here to eliminate Twilight Spaaarkle, and then I’ll destroy you and take the watch with me!”

Tempest jumped in front of the princess and released glistening sparks from her halved horn. “Then you’ll have to get past me first,” she growled.

"Aah, hahaha! Tempest Shadow! The former lap dog of the Storm King! Opened your eyes lately?”

Tempest lost her posture when she heard this and stared at the pony stunned. “But wha…? How did you…”

Then the wrong Trixie let loose a bright yellow energy beam. Twilight jumped in front of the captain. Her eyes glowed bright and thousand little suns shone in her mane. The beam was repelled by a thick shield and yellow sparks sprayed past the princess.

The Trixie imitator grinned happily at Twilight’s demonstration of her power and mocked, “So tough is the Princess of Friendship? But you can’t protect everypony!”

“Enough of this foolish game,” Twilight yelled back. “What have you done with Trixie?” She spread her wings and strode forward in a menacing way, holding the shield steady. Her power became so strong that some loose stones lifted off the rocky ground. Her mane swirled around as if a real storm was blowing.

The fake Trixie laughed in the princess’ face, “Do you wanna know what happens to Starlight Glimmer? She’ll be your downfall; I’ll be your downfall!”

Starlight stepped in between. Her horn was blazing in rage, “What? What do you mean?”

Twilight shouted at her in a furious, half-loud voice, “Out of my way, Starlight!”

That crazy something kept on teasing, “I created a wither pony by resurrecting a corpse, its task was actually simple: Twilight Sparkle has to die. But I must have made a mistake, my wither pony got lost in Ponyville. Luckily, you came along…” He sneered at Starlight. “Actually, the wither pony was supposed to scar Tempest Shadow and then murder Twilight without really wanting to. But Starlight is also a good choice. Now she is bearing the mark, she is slowly becoming a wither pony and nothing, absolutely nothing can stop this transformation. Whoever touches its tongue is doomed to die.”

Starlight’s horn glowed weaker. Her breath stopped and she staggered a little to the side. What had this pony just said? She was slowly turning into a pale creature that she had fought in the school? Something inside her collapsed. Her whole body went limp as if something had cut off her nerves to the brain. This had to be the feeling when someone found out that they were about to die.

A magenta-colored beam whizzed past her and just missed the wrong Trixie. She leapt backwards and reared up, the magic stored in the horn. Twilight moved towards the pony. “You’re lying! Where’s Trixie?” she hissed.

“Tehe, she’ll be fine, she’s in my pocket dimension and sleeps. I will take you down, and then I’ll set her free. Everypony’s going to think Trixie murdered you all, isn’t that funny?”

Starlight somehow managed to free herself from her paralysis. She couldn’t believe what nonsense she heard and yelled out, “Are you an idiot or something? Do you really think it's believable that Trixie would be able to overpower an alicorn?”

With a wicked face the pony laughed at the others and spat on the ground. Its face seemed to melt from its head. “Your fates are sealed, and it doesn’t matter if I die in the process.”

A new pony emerged from this Trixie suit, a stallion with dark red fur and a black, disheveled mane. His demonic eyes were real and no affiliation of the suit. This crazy unicorn had been standing in the throne room the whole time, accompanying Starlight. He was a perfect actor and had fooled them all.

Twilight lifted this pony by levitation and let it float helpless in the air. “All right, my patience is wearing thin! Why are you doing this? Are you the only one who wants to bring me down? Spit it out!”

The pony in the air kept laughing. Starlight and the others knew it wouldn’t say anything. “You may be smart, Twilight. But so are we, and there are many of us. Don’t think everyone loves you just because you’re the Princess of Friendship, your brief era will be over soon. Watch your back!”

He pointed at Starlight. In all the frenzy, the spell had disappeared beneath her. She felt that thing in her hoof again, trying hard to break out. Sunburst wanted to intervene and build a protection wall, but his strength wasn’t enough. Tempest wanted to help, but her horn wasn’t capable of performing such spells.

“Twilight, Sunburst, Tempest! Don’t worry about me, just finish him off!” shouted Starlight in pain. Then she closed her eyes.

Only one last time she heard Sunburst’s scream. “Starlight, DON’T!”

She fell backwards into the depths of the gorge and splashed in the cold water. A high fountain sprayed in all directions.

Sunburst had just reached out his trembling hoof to her. Then he slammed the ground, “NO!”

Sunburst was sitting on the edge and couldn’t believe what Starlight just had done. Tempest tugged at his cape but clung on tight and just wouldn’t leave the cliff. Finally, the captain took him piggyback to carry him to Twilight. Sunburst recognized with watery eyes that the princess had seen it too and her horrified face was unmistakable.

The crazy stallion floating in the air made a confused impression, “Oh, wow! What self-sacrifice! Is that what you taught all your, friends, Twilight?”

The princess twirled her head around with snarling teeth. Her magic seemed less merciful and squeezed him. He began to choke, his insides cracked as Twilight's face darkened further and further. Before she completely crushed him into a ball, she simply threw him on the floor.

She stood in front of the red stallion, which lay there half-crippled and twitching, all his legs broken. Twilight’s thunderous voice echoed, “There is no worthy punishment for you! You used dark magic against my friends. I should turn you into stone and just throw you in the ravine!”

Tempest arrived with the distraught Sunburst and added, "That sounds like a plan, but as a prisoner he's indispensable."

Twilight’s mane and eyes no longer glowed. Instead she just looked at the stallion sadly. He wanted to say something, but he was paralyzed with pain. Twilight used her magic again to dislocate his legs to a normal state. Even though the unpleasant sound of cracking bones could be heard, the stallion did not feel anything. Still he couldn’t move because she had immobilized him up to his head.

“Speak or remain silent, what happens to you afterwards my staff will decide,” she said in a cold, authoritarian voice.

The stallion gasped hoarse, “Me-memento…” His horn glowed and screamed like an overcharged battery.

Tempest and Sunburst went flat on the ground. “Be careful, he’ll…”

In a cry of pain, the lunatic yelled loud, “…MORI!”

He exploded in a red fire ball. Tiny stones flew against the ponies like sharp bullets, but Twilight had built up her magic shield in time.

Sunburst stood up and had to adjust his glasses. Then he stared in bewilderment into the crater where a pony had lain before. “What was that spell?”

“Dark magic again,” Tempest said in a meagre voice, “It can only be learned if you already walk deep in the shadows and refuse to be pure in heart. That pony was lost, Twilight. There was nothing we could do.”

Twilight stared with wide, teary eyes at the small black spot on the floor.

Sunburst sat on the ledge and watched Tempest fire another flare over the lake. Twilight flew with a glowing horn over the water, where the light didn't reach. The crystals on the ceiling had not gone out yet. The cave was so bright and yet there was no sign of Starlight. Sunburst rolled a pebble back and forth under his hooves in deep sorrow.

He heard flapping wings behind him. Twilight had landed and gazed unhappy at the stallion. Sunburst looked even more clouded at the rocks. A deep urge to stay here sprouted inside him, hoping that Starlight would reappear. This mystery of twelve columns before him shimmered over the lake, waiting to be solved. At last he let the pebble rest on the ledge. Then he turned around, heavy hearted, and followed Twilight and Tempest back to the restricted section.

The entrance was a narrow hole at the foot of a circular wall, which was part of the foundation of the library. Right in front of it was a blue unicorn with a white mane without cape and hat lying on the floor.

"It's Trixie!" shouted Sunburst and galloped towards her. He held his hoof under her nostrils and felt a slight warm breath. "Thank Celestia, she's alive," he gasped.

Twilight spoke right away, "At the moment when this stallion died, she must have fallen out of his pocket dimension. Nothing just simply disappears."

They took Trixie into the round room and put her on a provisional book bed, which Twilight quickly assembled with her magic. It had become much cooler in the department, so Twilight covered her with a sheet.

Sunburst sighed as he sat on the floor, "How we will explain to her what happened to Starlight?"

Twilight put some books on the shelf and replied, "First, we're not going to give up hope. Maybe she survived and can find her own way out of the caves."

Sunburst turned to her and said, "Really? Do you think she's still alive? That fall was hard to take."

"She's a unicorn, and a strong one too, you know that." Twilight put the last book on the shelf. "At any rate, I'll send out a search team."

Suddenly Trixie soared up and gasped in confusion. "Huh? Where am I?"

Sunburst was amazed at how quickly she was back on track. Trixie rubbed her eyes and blinked at the ponies several times. She was trapped in this dark pocket dimension for a long time, disorientation wasn’t that surprising.

"Twilight", Trixie's voice sounded dull, "You look much more like Princess Luna..."

Twilight smiled sheepishly and grazed her long neck. Sunburst turned to the awakened one. "I'm so glad you're awake. We have some things to explain."

"Some things?" Trixie chirped skeptical. She raised one eyebrow and looked around. "Everything, where am I, anyway?

Twilight told her everything in detail. The curse in Starlight's hoof, the search for a possible cure, the discovery of the new cave area and of course Starlight's downfall into the lake.

Trixie sat fixed in the book bed and seemed to process the whole thing. Sunburst and Twilight were giving her time. Then finally she said, "This creep followed me down the street. He captured me and I could hear him something mumbling."

Tempest also approached to her. "Something we should know about?"

Trixie tried to remember and scrubbed intimately over her head. "I know he was reading something, and he read it out loud. The Swordshield Brothers... Yeah, I think he was reading something about the Swordshield Brothers!"

"Swordshield," hummed Sunburst and understood a few things. Everypony knew the tragic story of the unicorn brothers. They tried to revive their father who had died during a magic experiment. The result was horrible, both brothers lost their eye sight and were mutilated, and their father... nopony knew. The brothers' house burned down that day and all clues were destroyed.

Sunburst had to conclude something, "Can it be? The stallion told about a wither pony that was created in an attempt at necromancy. The Swordshield Brothers must have tried the same thing and created such a creature in the process."

Twilight continued his theory with horror, "So somepony deliberately performs a failed necromancy to attack me and my friends?"

Trixie watched them both wary, as if she was dealing with two conspiracy theorists. "But wither ponies are just old mare’s tales to warn unicorn foals against dark magic."

Twilight turned to her and sighed in reply, "Well... if Starlight wears this mark and the stallion was talking about it, I guess they're not just horror stories."

Trixie gasped and stared resignedly at her blanket, which was actually a tapestry. „Oh, dear… Starlight... will become a..."

She burst out in sweat and her eyes grew smaller. Then she hugged the tapestry as if it was a cuddly toy and rocked like a little foal that had just heard this scary story. "Is there no cure? We have to do something!"

Sunburst knew that Starlight and Trixie had always gone through thick and thin, they were like siblings mentally.

Twilight reassured Trixie with a calm voice, "We will find a solution, I promise. Starlight is my friend too, and I will do everything possible to save her!"

Trixie smiled thankfully and climbed out of bed so the princess could remove the books as well. Then Twilight gathered everypony around and prepared to teleport out of the restricted section.

Sunburst would miss these books he had read. He knew he couldn't simply borrow them.

A few drops fell on Starlight's forehead and woke her up. The water waves touched her waist so that her fur stood on end with cold.

She rose up and saw nothing for a while. But she knew she was still in the cave. Some crystals glowed in the distance and shone with little light. She sat at the foot of a natural column that had been formed into a small, steep island due to erosion.

She looked down at her dark blue hoof, which was unchanged and no longer throbbed in pain. When Twilight's spell had disappeared, the curse was about to break loose again. Starlight had acted on instinct and jumped into the water.

“Water…” she thought, looking at her reflection in the lake. Then she smiled as she hit on an idea.

"Ha!" she laughed and shook the said foreleg, "Now I know your weakness! How do you like that?"

Something rumbled inside her, but that wasn't her curse. It was her stomach, which called for a good meal.

Starlight looked up and let her horn shine more brightly. Then she recognized a lot of small, furry ears above her. A bunch of bats hung beneath a ledge. When Starlight turned on her light, they had woken up.

Starlight yelped and ducked as the swarm swept over her head. After the small mass panic of the bats was over, she was able to look up again. The animals flew in a said direction, probably towards the exit. So she raised her horn and levitated herself into the air.

She hovered over the water and left the cave column behind her. She gained more and more speed. Like a Pegasus, she flew past the other columns and stalagmites. The turquoise light of her magic surrounded her and reflected on the water surface beneath her. She knew how Rainbow Dash felt when she did her laps in the clear blue sky, a wonderful feeling, no doubt. Starlight had to laugh and dipped her hooves into the water as if she was riding across the lake at full gallop.

She saw the swarm in front of her that she had startled earlier and followed them at safe distance to avoid confusing the animals.

Far ahead she spotted a reflection on the water surface. The stream became faster underneath her. A big waterfall was right in front of her. She saw the sky at the exit of the cave, which had to end on a high cliff. She accelerated and jumped headfirst out of the hole like a skydiver.

She followed the waterfall down and circled it in a downward spiral. The water touched her mane and her back.

Then she turned around so that she could land on solid ground. The waterfall flowed into a lake at the foot of the mountain on which Canterlot laid. Starlight was directly under the city and she could see the airships passing overhead. The magical flight was comforting for her and she had almost forgotten that she was cursed. She was glad to be alive.

She set off for Ponyville and had to think about what to do with this curse. The dark marks on her front leg had grown a bit further. Even though she felt no pain, she was seriously worried.

She decided to teleport. Since she was no longer in a cave, she could do it with ease. It was necessary to have orientation and the known destination. So she concentrated on Ponyville, right in front of her castle.

She disappeared and reappeared in front of the building, Twilight’s former castle in Ponyville, which was not far from the school. It was Starlights home, a residence for students and a tourist attraction.

Starlight opened the big gate and stepped straight through the entrance hall. She might run into some students, as classes were suspended temporarily. She entered the main hall, a large round room with a table in the middle and six seats. It was the teacher’s conference hall.

Starlight's muscles ached as her magic was exhausted and she sat down moaning in her seat. She let some time pass and thought about what had happened. In her mind, she heard the mad unicorn say, "Nothing can stop it..." She thought of this creature at school: A Wither Pony.

When she was a little filly, she went on a trip with her family and Sunburst's family. Over a campfire, they told horror stories about the times when the three pony tribes lived apart from each other.

Starlight recited aloud the end of the story her father had told, "Beware the wither pony, my young filly and colt, don't seek the darkness, or your story remains untold.”

At the time, she had been so afraid of magic that it took a while before she could dare to cast spells again. Therefore, Sunburst had made considerable progress and received his cutie-mark before her.

She shook herself out of her memories and stood up again. She went into the kitchen to raid the fridge. She then prepared her personal sandwich, because after a proper meal she could always think clearly again.

While she was eating, she went back into the conference room. A small bread crumb flew to the floor. Her gaze accidentally landed on the pocket watch she was wearing around her neck. She opened it and still she found a clock face without numbers.

Starlight gazed into her and waited for something while she continued chewing, a glimmer of hope or whatever. Something that might help her, did anything happen? Of course not…

"Useless trash," she smacked in anger and tossed it on the table, which served as a map for all of Equestria.

She wanted to go in her room, but then all of a sudden, something flashed in the corner of her eye. The watch was hovering above the map table, spinning in circles and then it opened its lid. Starlight didn't notice that she had dropped her half-eaten sandwich.

The watch threw sparkling symbols out, which circled chaotically around it. Each of them was different and some of them resembled each other. There was an Aries-shaped symbol, a circular symbol with two horns. There was even a symbol that resembled the equal sign.

Starlight did not cease to be amazed. The lights were reflected in her pupils like a thousand little fireflies. Slowly, she walked towards this spectacle.

The symbols lined up in an ordered circle and continued to dance around the watch. It sank slowly back onto the table, the signs followed and rested on the edge of the map. Starlight tried to touch one of the lights. Then it moved up and floated to a certain point on the map, a mountain that Starlight had never seen before. "What's the meaning of this?" she gasped.

Suddenly she heard voices and footsteps. She rushed onto the table and grabbed the watch. The symbols disappeared just in time when the newcomers arrived. There were six students who had their quarters in this castle. Gallus and Silverstream were also amongst them. They wanted to prepare for their final exams next year, real model students.

A young stallion, named Sandbar, asked in surprise, "Uh... Headmare Starlight? What are you doing on the table?"

Starlight hopped down and cast a temporary invisibility spell on the watch. She didn't want to answer any more questions. "Nothing, I just... took a closer look at the map."

The students didn’t seem very convinced, but they left it that way. They wanted to prepare for the exam and use the map for something. Starlight had allowed everyone to do so, as long the room wasn't being used for conferences.

A young yak lady walked past her and all of a sudden fell down. As she had a natural layer of fat and a shaggy coat, a powerful thud was heard. She looked back and recognized the culprit she had slipped on, Starlight's half-eaten sandwich. Sandbar ran to her and helped her up. "Are you alright, Yona?"

Yona rubbed her chin and the others looked confused at the headmare. She couldn't help but facepalm herself. The tomatoes and cucumbers that Starlight had carefully laid on top of each other were scattered all over the floor. "I'm terribly sorry, Yona," she said sniveling. She would rather cast the invisibility spell on herself.

"It's all right, nothing happened to Yona" said the young yak lady with composure.

Starlight cleaned up the mess by conjuring the slices of bread and the contents to the nearest compost. She had gotten herself into a mess, and Smolder, the dragon girl asked the most awkward question, "Why was there a sandwich lying on the floor?"

Starlight had to come up with an answer, "I thought I'd eaten it already."

Her conscience shouted at her, "You couldn't have thought of anything more stupid!"

Smolder curled her muzzle, Gallus and Silverstream looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

“Are you okay?” Sandbar asked.

Starlight laughed up and waved declining, "Ah-haha, everything is alright! Keep on learning! You're doing great!" She quickly left the room before the students could ask anything else.

As they were alone, an embarrassing silence remained. The changeling Ocellus tried to understand the situation, "Is she sick? Her hoof didn't look very healthy."

Smolder tapped her forefinger under her chin and said, "Now that you mention it, I have seen it too. Something’s wrong with her."

"I suspect it has something to do with the incident this morning," Gallus explained. "Silverstream and I found her passed out in the park. When she woke up, she mentioned something about a creature that had attacked her."

"So it's true then?" Smolder asked with interest and leaned her claws on the table.

"Whatever it was," Gallus answered, "she must be after something."

"A sandwich monster, maybe," Yona asked in between.

Smolder laughed and held a claw to her eyes: "Yona, please!"

The other students shared the chuckles, and so they started with their calm studying.

Starlight had overheard them behind the door. Then she turned around and left the castle with mixed feelings. She trotted down the stairs, the watch on her neck reappeared when the magic faded away again. As she walked through the peaceful walkways of Ponyville, she pondered what to do next. In any case, she had to know if the others had managed to defeat this stallion. She counted on it.

After a long stroll she found herself in front of the post office. The building had the well-known post logo, which swayed in the wind as a wooden signboard. Starlight came up with an idea. "I'll just write to her!"

Sending letters to the princess by mail was cumbersome and if she wanted to write on her own, she would have to return to the castle and she didn't want to disturb her faithful students in their studies.

She entered the building and found it empty. At the counter was a silver table bell. Starlight inhaled a delicious fragrance, it smelled like muffins. She knew there was a mare who worked here that loved to eat muffins at lunchtime. She hadn't exchanged many words with her, but she made a nice impression.

She tapped the bell three times fast. It was loud enough to be heard throughout the building. Immediately Starlight heard a rumble and a grey Pegasus mare with a blonde mane dashed through the door. She gave her new customer a polite squint. Starlight greeted her: "Hello, uh... Could you do me a favor? I have to send a telegram to the princess."

The mare nodded and laid the papers ready. She wrote with a pen in her mouth. Most of the non-magic ponies did this and that extremely well. Starlight dictated the message to her:

"Dear Twilight. – I'm still alive. – Hope you're all right, too. – Made it out of the cave and into Ponyville. – Please bring Sunburst to me, and Trixie when she made it, I hope. – I've got to know how you are! – Starlight Glimmer."

She ordered this shipment with extreme urgency and paid the high price with a check. The grey mare folded the message into an envelope and flew out of the window at an impetuous speed. Starlight looked at her as she left the office.

Chapter 3: A Terrible Discovery

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The grey Pegasus mare flew eager minded towards the palace of Canterlot. The winds were strong, but she had flown this way for a long time to send important messages. Sometimes she'd mess up an assignment, but most letters reached their destination safely. She flew past the high towers. A bit scatterbrained as she was, she sometimes lost her flight path and therefore flew unnecessary detours or diagonal curves. The palace guards with their spears and golden armor registered her. But they knew her well and continued their patrol undeterred.

In the palace, Twilight Sparkle sat on the throne again, in front of her stood the chosen search troop in line. “I order to search the caves for my friend, Starlight Glimmer. We have been separated, and it is vital she remains unharmed,” she called.

There were various entrances to the mines below Canterlot. If Starlight escaped through one of them, she would contact them. So she had speculated with Sunburst, who stood with Trixie beside the throne.

Tempest saluted in front of the guard formally, ready to deploy the troops. She was a little stricter on the ponies than Twilight's brother Shining Armor was back then. But perhaps it was also what the Canterlot Guards needed; fresh wind, less pampering and sweet talk, more endurance and discipline.

The double doors swung open, which the palace guards caught quickly with their magic. It was Spike who entered, and if anyone thought Twilight Sparkle had grown up well, they should take a look at him. He had received a considerable growth spurt. His muscles had formed magnificently. The wings on his back had become wider and his teeth much longer. He wore a gold medallion around his neck; the sign of the royal advisor. He was the next ruler to Twilight Sparkle, so to speak. When she couldn’t spare any time, he was in charge of organizing. He also acted as an intermediary and ambassador between dragons and ponies.

Sunburst and Trixie startled a little when they saw him. They hardly seemed to recognize him.

“Twilight!” shouted the dragon in a grumpy voice, “Is this true? Someone tried to kill you?”

How he had found out was beyond even Twilight's comprehension. Perhaps he had overheard the guards chattering.

“Yes,” she confirmed, “Twice!”

Spike's scales became sharper with fright, “WHAT?!” He threw his claws over the head. Twilight wasn't lying. He would freak out. “Is that why all these guards are here?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, it's a search party for Starlight Glimmer...”

Spike's scales are sharpening again. “Are you implying that...?”

“No, no, Spike! We were separated in the caves. I'll explain later.”

Spike furrowed his brow. Everyone in the room couldn't blame him for reacting like that. “But don't we need these guards more urgently here at the castle?”

Tempest replied clearing her throat, “Probably. But the assassin killed himself. If he was a lone wolf, a new attack wouldn’t come so soon. But my guards always have a sharp eye. I trust them to protect you and the princess.”

Before Spike could ask any more questions, something crashed behind the gate of the grand entrance. Everyone looked up in a flash and whirled around.

The gate opened slowly screeching and a grey post mare staggered in with rolling eyes. She held a telegram in her mouth. One of the unicorn servants trotted up to her and requested her to hand it over. He inspected it thoroughly and when he discovered no traces of any spells, he levitated it directly to the princess.

Twilight unfolded the message and her eyes grew bigger. She even read it twice. Then she called out in relief, “She's all right! She's in Ponyville!”

Sunburst and Trixie lowered their heads calmly and sighed in unison. Tempest signaled the guards to return to their original posts.

Sunburst stood up again and spoke enthusiastically to Twilight, “This is good news. We have to meet her immediately.”

Spike scratched his head, “Well, I can still spit letters, remember?”

“Maybe there was a reason for it,” Twilight said pensive. Spike didn't seem too amused by this comment. When she noticed his reaction, she responded immediately, “But certainly not because of you.”

Suddenly Spike blew his cheeks open and belched a green ball of fire out of his throat. A parchment scroll materialized from the fire and fell right in front of Twilight's hooves. She picked it up.

“At least someone’s thinking about it,” Spike gasped contentedly and pounded himself on the mighty chest.

Twilight unfolded the role. “It’s from Applejack. She has discovered something and asks us to come quickly.” She looked at Tempest in surprise. “And she wants you there.”

The captain blinked confused and pointed at herself, “Me?”

“So it is written. She has found something with Rainbow Dash, and it’s extremely urgent.”

“But what if this is another trap?” Tempest replied. “It’s better if you stay at the palace and we send a representative.”

Sunburst called. “We're volunteering. We have to go to Ponyville anyway to meet Starlight.”

Twilight agreed nodding and rose from the throne. “Then follow me. I want to show you something great.”

Spike and Tempest grinned when she said that. Together they left the throne room.

They passed through the corridors of the servants’ and maids’ rooms. As they followed Twilight, Sunburst asked her a question, “How have you been lately? Have you, by any chance, found a possible faithful student?”

Twilight chuckled boldly and thought back to her mentor Celestia and the time she studied at the School for Gifted Unicorns. “Not yet, but I’ve heard that a baby foal at Magic Kindergarten already shows remarkable abilities. Her name is Luster Dawn and she can already read.”

Sunburst and Trixie opened their mouths when they heard that. “She could surpass Starlight,” gasped Sunburst with delight.

Twilight raised a proud glance and walked past her private library. In this room a pony was already sitting at a round table, a white alicorn with curly, purple hair. She studied intensely concentrated on the books. She was just as tall as the princess in her younger years.

Twilight spoke as she watched the learner. “It’s going to take some time for that to reach its full potential and until then I'll support Flurry Heart where I can.”

Sunburst wept a tear of joy when he saw the young alicorn mare. When she was a baby, he had fed and cared for her for a long time. The fact that she had grown so big apparently filled him with hope and pride for the following alicorn generation.

They left the library and walked up a spiral staircase of white marble. When they reached the top of the tower, they stood in a mid-sized room. The pink light of a magic circle reflected off the blue walls, which was as wide as a whole carriage. Spike explained right away what it was all about, “This is a teleportation circle. Twilight and some talented unicorns developed it. I was skeptical at first, but then I realized how useful it could be.”

“Unfortunately, it only works in one direction,” Tempest said. “We used it after Starlight Glimmer wrote us.”

Trixie and Sunburst looked at this magical invention with fascination. Twilight kept on explaining how the circle worked, “Even non-unicorns can use it. You just have to step inside and think long enough about the place you want.”

“Great idea,” Trixie called amazed.

Twilight pointed to the center of the circle. “All right then, please stand here and think about Ponyville. It will bring you there in no time.”

Sunburst, Trixie and Tempest did as they were told. The circle whirred up as it detected the presence of three beings. They closed their eyes to gain a clear picture for the desired target.

Twilight said goodbye once more while the sound of magic grew louder and louder, “Please send my regards to Starlight and that I wish her all the best. Tell her to hurry back and…”

A swirling stream of pure magic rose from the circle. The ponies inside vanished into thin air.

“…get well soon,” Twilight finished the sentence and lowered her head, deeply concerned with Starlight Glimmer.

The travelers fell through a deep, purple maelstrom of fire. It only took the blink of an eye to reach the middle of Ponyville. In front of them stood a large house whose façade had been built as if made off baking ingredients. Tempest gazed at the building in astonishment. “Okay, one of you is definitely hungry. Cause I wasn’t thinking about Sugarcube Corner.”

Trixie blushed and confessed as she drilled her right hoof into the ground, “That must have been me. I thought we could have a little snack in-between…”

Tempest rolled her eyes, but was forced to smile. If Trixie was a guard, she would tell her off for that. But luckily for her, she wasn’t one of them. “You go ahead. I have to watch my form. What about you, Sunburst?”

The stallion cleaned his glasses calmly while Trixie rushed into the cake shop. “No need. I’m used to eating very little and my stomach can’t handle too much candy.”

At the Sugarcube Corner, Trixie went to the cash register. There stood Mrs. Cake, who greeted her new customer, “A wonderful day, Trixie! How’s school business?”

“Oh, not much, just a little incident with Starlight Glimmer and a creature that nearly killed her.” She gasped when she realized she’d babbled a little too much.

Mrs. Cake was so startled, she drooped her face. “For Celestia’s sake! I hope she’s all right!”

Trixie smiled embarrassed and tried to calm the confectioner down. “It’s alright! Starlight handled it without any trouble. But our school is closed for the moment. Safety first. One box of mini crumb cakes, please.”

Mrs. Cake packed her order and Trixie paid before she was getting too uncomfortable. “Bye, Mrs. Cake!”

She trotted to the exit and saw a shady figure standing at the corner. It was a grey pony in a closed hood cape. Two glowing red eyes peeked out from under the shadow. “Quintus, successful?” he asked her in a smoky voice.

Trixie turned around and looked askant at the dubious shadow. “Huh?”

“Quintus?” he replied.

The mare did not quite understand what he meant and raised an eyebrow. “What’s a Quintus?”

The stallion said nothing, but the corner of his mouth pulled down frowning. He threw the cape over his head and disappeared in a haze of black smoke. Trixie knew these tricks, but there was real magic behind that. No smoke bombs or anything. Pale as a sheet, she pointed to the dark corner and looked over at Mrs. Cake. But she had turned to the closet behind the register. There’s no way she could have noticed anything. Trixie left the store thoughtfully.

Tempest and Sunburst were already waiting. “Well, that took long enough,” she huffed. “We have to find Starlight Glimmer as soon as possible and then go straight to Sweet Apple Acres.”

“Sorry!” Trixie just said and began eating the first mini cake.

Sunburst noticed her disturbed face. “Was something wrong?”

Trixie bit off a piece, chewed and swallowed before answering, “I don’t know, there was some guy asking me something weird.”

Tempest and Sunburst listened up. This gave them a sinking feeling. Tempest had to ask, “What did he ask, and what did he look like?”

“Haggard, dark fur, red glaring eyes, and wrapped in a frock, very edgy.”

Tempest stopped abruptly and stared Trixie straight in the face. Her halved horn flashed as she screamed, “ARE YOU BUCKING SERIOUS?”

Sunburst and some other ponies in the area stared at the tall mare in shock. Trixie had curled up into a little blue furry ball. Tempest Shadow’s brief outburst had a touch of her alter ego when she had served the Storm King. Twilight had told her to control such tantrums. Not only because she scared of other ponies, but also due of the strain on her broken horn.

Trixie buried the face behind her mane. “He-he disappeared in a black puff of smoke. I have no idea where he went.”

Tempest raised her head and took a deep breath, just as the princess had taught her. Calmly and steady she exhaled again. “Okay… This means extra attention. I hope Twilight, Spike and my guard are as well. At least tell me what he asked you.”

Trixie stood up again and levitated her cake box. “He called me Quintus and asked if I’d succeeded with something. I have no idea what Quintus means.”

Sunburst could explain it, “Quintus is old ponyish and means something like “The Fifth”. Probably an alias.”

Tempest went on and spoke disparagingly, “Of course it’s an alias. Assassins and criminals usually act that way when they have an intention.”

She remembered how the Storm King had given his slaves and minions new names. He hated most pony names and renamed everything that sounded too cute for him.

They crossed the square in front of the town hall, a round building that towered over all other village huts. Therefore, it was a popular meeting place for all villagers. Ceremonies, such as the Winter Wrap-up day, were started here.

Trixie nibbled the last cake and threw the box into a garbage can. Tempest looked around and watched every pony in the area. Concentrated, she spoke to the others, “If Starlight Glimmer is smart she’d be waiting for us here. Just about every pony is here at one time or another.

“Trust me, she is,” Sunburst replied calmly.

The three ponies walked towards the town hall. It seems there had been a small event. A chain of colorful pennants hung over the village lanterns. Also the terraces of the town hall showed some festive decorations. As they walked around, Trixie thought of something. “So the guy called me Quintus because he thought I was his accomplice. The guy who kidnapped me…”

Tempest lifted her ears in surprise. “Spot on!”

“Hey! I’m not that stupid!” Trixie huffed insulted.

Tempest shook her head smiling. “I really meant it! Well, it may be a little obvious, but it proves me you think the way I do, and I’m thinking like Twilight Sparkle.”

Trixie stopped for a moment after she had heard this compliment. Tempest just hoped it didn’t go to her head.

Starlight Glimmer sat on a park bench not far from the restaurant. It belonged to one of the most famous places in Ponyville, since it was near the town hall.

She stared absent-mindedly at the numberless watch. She had been at the hospital before. But the doctor couldn't do more than bandage the leg and prescribe a painkiller that didn't work for magical injuries.

“Starlight,” she suddenly heard a familiar voice. Trixie stormed up to her like a filly to her mother. It warmed her heart.

She opened her front legs to embrace her friend. “Oh, Trixie, you’re all right!”

Then she looked past her and spotted Sunburst and Tempest. After Trixie's hug, she wanted to jump into his hooves, too. “Sunburst, I'm so sorry!”

But he refused at first and spoke severely, “Please… Do not do that again… I almost died of worry!” But then he actually let her hug him.

Tempest strode satisfied towards Starlight. “Now that we're all together again, we can hurry to Sweet Apple Acres.”

“Why? Something happened?” Starlight asked in surprise.

“At the same time as we received your telegram, a letter arrived from Applejack via Spike,” Tempest replied.

Starlight hit her forehead. “Oh, the dragon mail. Damn, I could have done that as well. Sorry, after all the fuss, I forgot.”

“You'd better apologize to Spike,” The Captain quipped. Suddenly she looked up at the sky. Starlight felt the presence of a fast pony.

In the sky a rainbow trail passed over the thatched roofs and headed towards them. A Pegasus with a fringed mane appeared in front of them. Her face showed clear signs of distress. “There you are at, Tempest! AJ is waiting and the longer it takes, the more she panics! Why isn't Twilight with you?”

Rainbow Dash looked at the other three confused. “And what are you doing here?”

Sunburst waved at her with a crooked smile. “We’re here to represent her. There have been... um... several incidents, and for her safety she's staying in the castle.”

Rainbow didn't look like she could handle any more events. She let her hooves down and turned her eyes up. "Oh, great! Seems like, all of Equestria is in trouble... again!"

“Tell us, what happened," said Starlight.

Rainbow's wings beat faster as she shouted, “Just go and find it out! Especially you, Tempest! I really want to hear what you have to say about it.”

The last sentence sounded like an accusation. Then she dashed back to the farm. Tempest looked anxious and started to gallop. “Let's hurry.”

The farm consisted of a red-painted main barn, a small henhouse and a pigsty, and a huge apple plantation, the boundaries of which no one could really estimate. The ponies slowed down and Tempest turned up her nostrils when she caught the farm scent.

Everything looked peaceful. No sign of trouble. The owner of the farm, Applejack, was sitting at the entrance of the barn. She had a wild debate with Rainbow Dash. Next to them were Applejack's siblings. Big Mac had a neatly combed mane, and little Apple Bloom had grown quite a bit. She had braided her mane into two braids and freckles formed on the bridge of her nose, just like her big sister.

Applejack's stress level seemed close to the limit. Her blonde hair was disheveled, and she hissed loudly, “Whaddaya mean, Twilight can't come? This mumbo jumbo can only be handled by her or do ah look like a unicorn?”

“AJ, we'll ask her later. She sent help, including Tempest.” Rainbow Dash tried to calm her down. Then she spotted the others.

Tempest stepped forward and asked without hesitation, as if she were the exterminator in distress, “Where’s the problem?”

Applejack sparkled at her with light green eyes. “In the barn, and ah wanna hear a good explanation!”

The Captain ignored her quick-tempered manner and walked up to the house, the others followed. Big Mac addressed his smallest sister, “Apple Bloom, you stay right here. This isn’t for your eyes.”

“But ah've already seen it. Ah was there with Applejack when she saw it. What else can shock me now?” she protested.

Starlight went past them. “What happened exactly?”

The looks of the two apple siblings wandered tellingly to the barn. Tempest opened the door, and an even fouler stench blew towards the ponies. It smelled bestial, so that their eyes watered. But they finally overcame themselves and entered.

What they found there, strapped everyone's throats. Inside the barn, there were about a dozen pig carcasses at every corner. Their intestines and blood lay scattered on the floor and mixed with the straw. Black flies were swarming all over the place as if celebrating their feast. A circle of blood was drawn on the clean center, with unknown writings on the edges. It was also decorated with blown out candles. The wooden walls were also smeared and showed all kinds of different symbols. Guts and other dead pigs hung from the struts. It looked like a macabre slaughter festival. But what disturbed everyone more was Tempest’s name on the wall right in front of them. In blood-red letters they read, “Tempest Shadow.”

Starlight puffed up her cheeks in the face of disgust and horror. Trixie gave a suppressed choking sound and her face turned pale. Without hesitation, she ran out. Sunburst tried not to scream; worried one of the flies might get into his mouth.

Applejack stood in front of the door with a very grim face. Right behind her was Rainbow Dash, who helped her stay upright. “Twelve pigs… Only one piglet survived…”

Tempest turned around and showed a deeply shocked face. “I… can’t find the words.”

Applejack’s lower lip quivered and more tears gathered in her eyes. Her voice became louder, “Then explain me why ya gosh darn name is smeared on the wall?!”

Nopony found an answer. Wordless, as Tempest said. Neither the crime nor the reason why this name was written on the wall delivered any explanation.

Sunburst looked at the writings to decipher some spell. He found what he was looking for. “It seems to me that something has been conjured here.”

Starlight’s ears rang, her heart began to race. This sudden realization made her throat completely dry. “I think that was it…”

The stallion nodded agreeing. “Yes, I see we have found the source of your creature.”

Applejack calmed down and was able to contain her anger as best she could. “What creature?” she asked interested.

Sunburst held his nostrils closed and pointed towards the exit. “I’ll explain it to you, but first I need some fresh air!”

Everyone agreed with this statement. Starlight looked at one of the symbols as she passed by. Something about it looked familiar.

In front of the barn stood a pink unicorn mare with dark purple curls. She wore dungarees, like from the typical country times, when Ponyville was freshly founded. But what was especially noticeable on her was her small, round belly. Starlight recognized her. “Sugar Belle! How are you?”

The unicorn mare beamed and embraced her old friend. “I’m fine! As far as things go.” She looked worried at the barn. “Big Mac forbids me to go in there. But judging by Applejack’s reaction, I don’t want to either.”

Starlight looked at her belly and immediately knew how she could replace the subject with something more pleasant. “How long you’ll be in foal? It’s starting to look pretty heavy.”

Big Mac came up and snuggled her. Sugar Belle giggled, “Another good four month and yes, the little one is becoming heavier.”

Sunburst had sat down on a stone and played around with his beard. Then he took a stick and drew some symbols on the sandy ground.

Meanwhile, Trixie tumbled out of the outhouse. White porridge, which had once been a crumble cake, poured out of her nostrils. She reached into her stomach, held her neck stretched out and limped towards the others. Starlight spoke to her with concern, “Trixie? You actually threw up?”

“Nothing’s impossible for the great and all-powerful Trixie,” groaned the magician. Sugar Belle used her horn to pull a tissue from her overalls. Trixie immediately blew her nose with it.

“I feel the same way sometimes,” said Sugar Belle compassionately.

Starlight had to correct her, “No, I think it was that in the barn.”

“Oh, dear, is it that bad?” she gasped.

Trixie groaned again and dragged herself past them to sit next to Sunburst. “Oorgh! Please don’t remind me.”

Sunburst had eagerly drawn other symbols in the sand and tapped them concentrated with his stick as if he wanted to interpret a syllable. Applejack and Rainbow joined in and looked at his writing.

When he had gained their attention, he started to explain, “What we see here are symbols for incantations. Somepony has used a very specific spell: Necromancy.”

Applejack and Rainbow stared bluffed at him. But Starlight knew what it meant and she didn’t like it at all.

“Something like zombie ponies?” Applejack asked.

Sunburst nodded and continued, “Yes, as the soul escapes, only the body remains and only this one is revived. An empty husk, to which one can command everything, but with it comes something much more evil. Resurrections of this kind are against nature. Whoever breaks these rules will be punished severely, unless you know exactly what to do.”

Starlight wound up her bandage. “This morning I was attacked by such a beast! It caused me this!”

The others flinched when they saw this dark, leathery skin. Sunburst continued, “And these writings aren’t just incantations, they are orders. It says something like this: The creature is to mark Tempest Shadow, who will carry the mark forward to kill Twilight Sparkle.”

Applejack and Rainbow lost control of their jaws. “Somepony is out to get Twilight?” gasped Rainbow, "But why did that thing attack Starlight?

Tempest, who was standing a little further away, suddenly replied, “I think I know why. The wither pony didn’t know my real name. The assassin in the cave had mentioned that he had made a mistake and that his revenant was lost. Unfortunately, Starlight Glimmer was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Starlight wrapped up the rotten hood again. Rainbow scratched her chin with a smirk, “Oh, yeah, right! Your real name is not Tempest Shadow, its Fuzzy Bob Perry… thing?”

“Fizzlepop Berrytwist!” she replied sharply. Trixie burst out laughing and rolled over her back. Her nausea seemed to have disappeared. Tempest frowned and lifted her muzzle. Starlight nudged her friend with her hind leg to keep her quiet.

Rainbow grinned at Tempest, “Ha, looks like your alias from the old days saved Twilight’s life. I’m glad you kept it.”

“Fizzlepop… ti-hi!” Trixie chuckled softly.

Starlight thought about the signs she knew from the castle again and decided to share it, “I have something important to tell you. Some of these symbols I have seen today. I will show you. If you have the time, we will go to the castle.”

Sunburst pointed his ears with interest. “Where did you see them?”

Starlight hinted clearly that they should follow. But Applejack hesitated and looked bitterly back at her farm. “Whaddabout ma barn? Granny Smith is mighty sick, and Ah’ve some other things to do. Ah can’t…”

Starlight understood her and agreed with a smile. It was really too much for the apple mare. Rainbow stood with her the whole time and tried to cheer her up. Still, her loyalty persisted and Applejack kept her honesty.

Tempest walked up to the two ponies. “I’ll send a squad to help you clean up. Princess Twilight will hear about this, and we won’t rest until we find who’s behind all this.”

Applejack looked at Tempest and smiled gratefully.

On evenings like these, the castle quickly became dark. Starlight had helped out a little and illuminated the corridors with beautiful firefly lamps. In the darkness with the lanterns the castle looked very mystical, like a deserted city at night. The young students had long since finished their lesson and had gone to bed.

Starlight and the others had the conference room all to themselves. Here she was able to show the others her discovery undisturbed. “It happened when I threw the watch on the table...”

She gently placed the watch in the middle of the map table. Nothing happened for a long time and that made Starlight very nervous. If this was a one-time reaction, she would curse this table and the whole castle, which sometimes really had a mind of its own.

But it was worth the wait. The watch lighted up. As before, it flew into the air and spat out the symbols. Sunburst, Trixie and Tempest stared at this phenomenon with wide eyes. Then, as Starlight had expected, the watch with the symbols sank onto the table. Sunburst gave a whoop and held on to his glasses as if they were trying to fly away, “Unbelievable!”

Starlight smirked. The castle and the map had not let her down. “That’s right; they’re the same symbols you saw in the barn.”

Tempest looked skeptical. “If these symbols have anything to do with this dark summoning ritual, it can't mean anything good.”

“I doubt it.” Sunburst replied confidently, “Magic runes and signs are neither good nor evil. It all depends on their use. You can also use letters to write something bad or something very nice.”

“Nice comparison,” said Starlight and looked at one of the signs again. “When I touch one of these lights, this happens.”

She nudged at the Aries symbol, which hovered over a mountain as usual. In the past, this card had had a similar function. The Tree of Harmony detected conflict situations and called a pony to the card to solve this problem. Sunburst took a closer look at this symbol and the place where it circled. “I wonder if it’s the same as before.”

Starlight shrugged. “I guess we’ll have to find out.”

“Wait,” Tempest suddenly said, “I’m going to contact Twilight. I think she should see this, too.”

She pressed on the pink star of her breastplate. The crystal flashed in two short intervals, until suddenly an apparition came out of the stone and Twilight Sparkle was projected onto the table in transparent form. “Tempest! Any news? How’s Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Starlight?” she exclaimed excitedly.

The latter replied, “I’m here! I’m okay so far!”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief when she saw her missing friend again. “Thanks, to Luna and Celestia! What happened?”

Tempest reported, “Your friends are fine, but on Sweet Apple Acres, Applejack’s pigs were massacred and used in a summoning ritual. The family is outraged.”

Twilight stared bitterly at her, but Tempest continued, “We believe it was the origin of this wither pony and the culprit of this spell was certainly this stallion from the cave.”

"I'm sure of it," Twilight gasped.

“And another thing, princess.” said Tempest, “There may be other assassins at large. We must double our guards and also hand out wanted posters. I also suggest using the castle geese.”

“You’re right,” Twilight said, “We must make it clear to these assassins that we will not be intimidated.”

Starlight stood next to the Captain, “And I also discovered something: When I put this watch we found on the map, it glowed up. Look!”

Tempest moved a little further so that Twilight could see the symbols on the map. She was amazed. “It’s been a while since it did that…” She examined the map and the symbols individually in detail. “This symbol there on the mountain. I know that place.”

Starlight became all ears. “Really? What is that mountain?”

“Once there slept a giant red dragon, which only spewed smoke and almost took the fresh air from Ponyville. My friends and I had gone there to ask him to find his sleeping place somewhere else. Fluttershy had been the only one who could speak into his conscience.”

Starlight laughed. She would have loved to see Fluttershy make this dragon cry. Twilight continued, “I didn’t expect there is something left. Otherwise the mountain looks very insignificant. I hereby give you the mission to investigate.”

Sunburst completely in travel-fever kicked with his front-legs. “Oh, this is going to be exciting.”

Tempest smiled a little envious at the three ponies. “As wonderful as it sounds, I must protect Twilight. I have the feeling that dark times will be upon us again.”

The princess nodded gratefully at Tempest's loyal statement. Then she smiled at the others. “Sleep well, my friends! May Luna watch over your dreams!”

Thus, she ended the magical connection of her crystal ball, which stood in her bedroom, formerly owned by Celestia. Many stacks of books rested on a reading corner and a telescope was directed towards the sky in front of the entrance to the balcony. Twilight went outside and watched the sun. She closed her eyes and raised her horn. A pink stripe stretched across the sky as the glowing fire ball reached the horizon. Without any problems she hid the sun behind the mountains, it went dark. The stars shone brightly. Twilight cast the next spell and let the moon rise. It illuminated her worried face. A tear ran under her eye, which she wiped off immediately. That day had stressed her more than a whole week. She wondered who could have anything against the Princess of Friendship.

She had brought peace to the world, united new nations. She was popular amongst all ponies and other creatures. But someone was out to take her life. And he or she would also harm her friends to achieve his goal. Who? Who could it be?

Twilight looked around; she stood alone on this semicircular balcony. Peace had returned. Spike and the servants were already asleep. Twilight leaned over the railing and whispered in a low voice: “Flash? Flash, are you there?”

A shadow below her moved and flew up. An orange Pegasus stallion appeared above her, landing on the parapet. Twilight's heart suddenly pounded wildly. She ran to him to give him a hug. They spun around and kissed each other. Flash Sentry, like all ponies, was smaller than her, but he could make up for it by flying. He touched her cheek. “You cried?”

Twilight turned her head away and went back to her room. Flash followed her with a wondering look.

“Some of my friends aren’t doing so well and my day was pretty rough, too,” Twilight replied exhausted. She stretched and spread her wings. Her growth gave her a hard time. If only she had known that growing alicorns could have back problems. But that’s what Flash Sentry was for. He was not only a good lover and guardian but also a good massager.

Twilight lay down on her belly and Flash immediately started circling his hooves on her back. He actually found some muscle tension and Twilight puffed as he made powerful circular movements around her back.

“Starlight Glimmer was attacked and injured, Applejack lost her pigs and then assassins are after me,” she said.

Flash stopped at once and looked at her in shock. “That doesn’t sound good!”

“No,” drawled Twilight.

Flash continued the massage silently and Twilight sighed embittered, she needed some distraction. She blushed at this idea and raised one wing to show him her waist. Flash smirked at this implication and started to do so. Twilight's neck stretched longer and her face reddened. Then their eyes met. The tension between them increased, and so they kissed deeply. Promptly Twilight stood up and pushed the stallion into bed with an intense gaze. Her bed was covered with dark purple starry curtains. She could pull them behind her to enjoy complete silence.

In the very beginning, Twilight thought that Alicorns were only here to lead. There no room for love, until Princess Cadence married her brother and even had a foal with him. From then on, Twilight knew it was possible.

But she wasn't sure what her folk would say. She was the princess of friendship. Was there enough room for family? For the time being, she kept her relationship with Flash Sentry a secret. She regularly drank a contraceptive potion and waited to see what her friends would say. One day she would tell them. She enjoyed her time and didn't think about it anymore, just enjoyed that one moment.

Chapter 4: Fear not this Night

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Twilight Sparkle slept peacefully in her bed. The moon shone brightly into her room. The door to the big balcony was open, so a fresh wind blew in. The silky, white curtains ghostly floated in the gentle breeze. It was a time when the nights were still very warm. Twilight snuggled deep into her bed and breathed softly through her nose. Next to her lay Flash Sentry.

It was very quiet in the sleeping room. Sometimes the hallway creaked outside when a guard passed by. In every corridor there were guards posted. It was practically impossible to walk unnoticed through the corridors without being seen.

Twilight had put on a sweet smile in her sleep. After the little fun with Flash, she was deeply relaxed. The mattress wobbled as the stallion stood up. Like a shadow he bent over the princess and looked at her. His eyes lit up and a murderous grin ran across his face. Under his wing he had hidden a jackknife, small and fine, decorated with ornaments. He took it in his hooves. Twilight felt the movement in the bed and opened her eyes. Then she turned her head. With red glaring eyes, Flash stabbed her.

Twilight gasped in panic and reached for her throat. The dream had felt so real that she had actually felt this knife at her throat. It wasn't just a bad dream; it was a warning. Still breathing heavily, she looked at Flash Sentry. He lay on his back with his mouth open and played a relaxed snoring concert. Fortunately, the most beautiful thing had not been a dream.

She touched her neck once more and decided to take some fresh air. Carefully she pulled back the curtains and got out of bed. She slipped into her night slippers and put on a sleeping coat. Her mane was a little fringed, but that didn't matter at the moment. The previous dream caused her much more worry. Nobody dreamed that just like that.

Outside a fresh wind was blowing in her hair. She looked at the moon, which shone in all its beauty.

“Oh, Celestia, oh Luna! What would you do in my place?” she asked aloud and though of the sisters who spent their time off in Silver Shoals.

“How may I assist you, Your Majesty?” asked the familiar voice of Luna close to her. The pony of the night stood directly in front of her and smiled.

“Prince…” Twilight held her breath. She was about to call Luna “Princess”, but she just remembered that she had taken this title off. “Luna?” Are you really there?” she gasped.

The former princess strolled past her and looked at the wide panorama of Canterlot. "The nights in Equestria are still peaceful as I remember; a fantastic view. I am an alicorn who can guide dreams, even if I no longer rule over this kingdom, but sometimes I wonder, how are you?”

Twilight had huge respect for her abilities. She still didn't know if she was dreaming or really awake. Sighing, she sat down. Luna seated next to her and listened. “Even though I’m in the lead and have friends in all corners of Equestria, today proved to me that not everyone likes me. Assassins are after me.”

Luna looked at her in silence while Twilight continued to lament, “How can this be? Why do they want to harm my friends and me? I am good to my subjects, aren’t I?”

Luna gently reached for her shoulder. “No one says that governing is easy. Indeed, like my sister and I, you will encounter beings you can’t please. But you have companions on your side and they will always support you, because they know your goodness.”

She stood up with open wings. Her long shadow cast by the moonlight. Twilight remained seated and remembered Starlight’s words in the throne room. It was not time yet for the council of friendship she called together once in a moon. But this was the best solution. Starlight and Luna were right. Tomorrow she would call her friends together and tell everyone what happened. She shouldn’t bury her head in the sand and wait for more attacks. “Thanks, Luna! And thank you for freeing me from this nightmare.”

“You’re welcome! Guarding the ponies dreams is still my duty, even if my sister meant, “Let Twilight make the decision.”

Twilight liked to hear that and spoke a little more calmly, “I can cope with everyday life, but the dream realm still causes me difficulties. Often I’m too exhausted and…”

She looked flushed in the direction of the sleeping chamber where Flash Sentry was snoring loudly. Luna grinned and looked at her eyes. “Well, well...”

Giggling, Twilight put her hoof over her head. She never thought that Luna was the first to know about her little affair. But she was good at keeping secrets. With a hint of anticipation in her voice, she said, “Let’s watch over the night together. I will show you. It’s actually quite simple.”

Luna closed her eyes. A cool wind let her sparkling mane rise like a curtain. While Twilight watched her in the moonlight, the world around her changed. Equestria glowed and magical northern lights stretched across the sky. This was the dream realm and below her she saw all the auras of sleeping ponies.

Even Starlight’s aura in the castle calmed down instantly from a nightmare. Luna began to sing.

Fear not this night. You will not go astray.

Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way.

And you can always be strong. Lift your voice with the first light of dawn.

Dawn's just a heartbeat away. Hope's just a sunrise away.

Twilight slept in her bed again. She was very grateful for the dream Luna had given her. She no longer felt alone and snuggled up to Flash, who answered to her tender embrace.

In the morning the rooster crowed, waking up Starlight. She immediately remembered her nightmare. Her hoof had strangled Twilight and there was nothing she could do about it. Her friends screamed and begged her to stop. Then the picture blurred and she had seen Luna. She sang to her, and it gave her new strength and courage.

From then on she could sleep well again. She smiled gratefully and finally stood up to look out the window into the early morning light. Twilight also seemed to be doing well, otherwise the sun would not be in the sky. Starlight stretched and her back cracked. Then she checked if she packed everything last night. The trip to the mountain would not take too long, but it would be a steep climb, so she had packed climbing gear. Since it could also be very windy and cold, she took a woolly hat and a purple scarf that Rarity had sewn for her as a birthday present. At the end it showed her cutie-mark as an embroidery pattern.

If it hadn't been a vacation trip, she would have taken her kite with her, a huge hobby. Flying kites in the mountains... She remembered this idea and wrote it down on a piece of paper. This she pinned to a cork board. Next to the memo she hung pictures of her friends, images from the past, in which Twilight was only the princess of a small castle. If she had known at that time that one day she would rule over Equestria... No, Starlight could never have imagined that.

With a new zest for action, she left the room to meet with the others in the hall. The clock was still on the table and showed the symbols. Sunburst also stood there ready to travel and studied the map. He held a compass in his hand and murmured around: “We have to take this path if we want to reach this symbol.”

Starlight took a closer look at the symbols one by one. Sunburst seemed to have changed something, because they were all scattered in different places. “Morning, what did you do, Sunburst? They are all lying all over the place!”

The stallion noticed her. “Oh! Good morning, Starlight! I’ve found something very interesting.”

He had sketched something on a notebook, a map of Equestria, on which he had drawn these symbols. He had been to the baker on the side. Starlight took a pretzel from the bag and listened to him. “I woke up a little earlier to have another look at the map. When I touched one of the symbols, it flew to another place, and each symbol shows us on the map where it should be. This clockwork is very old, and yet there is so much magic in it.”

Starlight looked across the table with fascination and found that some symbols were right at the edge of the card. Another one even seemed to go crazy and didn't know exactly where to move it. It was flickering and always changing position. ”What's wrong with this one?” Starlight asked in surprise.

Thoughtfully Sunburst stroked the tip of his beard. “I don't know. Maybe it’s disturbed by some magical entity.”

Starlight asked further to change the subject: “Where is Trixie? Is she up yet?”

He looked in the direction of the dormitories. “I think you need to check on her. She might be sleeping.”

Grumbling, Starlight went to Trixie's room. She opened the door and found her sleeping of course. Her head lay on the pillow at an angle, snoring like a saw blade. Her sleeping position itself was an artistic marvel. She had pressed her head on the mattress and her backside was sticking up. Just like one of those yoga positions, only in a less graceful form.

Starlight took a deep breath and stretched her neck. The she added some magic to her vocal chords and shouted, “RISE AND SHINE, SLEEPYHEAD!”

The magic amplified her voice as if she was speaking through a megaphone. A neat little trick she learned by Twilight.

Trixie jumped out of bed like a whipped rubber ball and stuck to the ceiling with a tousled mane. Starlight continued speaking normally and smiled at her from below: “Good morning! We'll be on our way, shan’t we?”

It was typical for Trixie to sleep so late and Starlight had told her several times to go to bed a little earlier. Perhaps she was a late riser by nature. At least Starlight saw she had packed. Her two saddlebags lay filled next to her work table. In her bag she saw a couple of plates and a large checked sheet. Starlight frowned. “This won’t be a picnic.”

Trixie recovered from the shock and landed back on her mattress so that her bed cracked. Then she straightened up and blew a strand of hair out of her face. "Why not?” she asked dazedly.

“It won’t be a long journey and Sunburst has already bought something for us. There's no need to carry any more stuff,” Starlight replied.

Trixie moaned and threw her head back. Then she replied in a similar voice, “I appreciate you pointing that out, but I’m sure we’ll need these supplies. I understand you are serious about your hoof. But when you travel, you never know what’s coming.”

She grinned, thinking that she had found a quick-witted argument. Starlight had enough and turned around. “Well, fine! Just pull yourself together! I hope you have some climbing gear with you. We’re climbing a mountain after all.”

After she had left the room, Trixie noticed she hadn’t packed that yet.

Starlight returned to Sunburst, who packed his notebook and handed her the pocket watch. "The mountain is only half a day's walk away, so we don't need any sleeping gear if we hurry. Once we find the symbol or whatever it is, we can trot back to Ponyville and see what comes next.”

Trixie dragged herself into the conference room with her two stuffed saddlebags. She was bathed in sweat.

Starlight couldn’t believe it. She took off her luggage and rummaged through her superfluous stuff. Then she opened the other bag, and two white doves flew out. Then she found a meter-long chain of tied up scarves of different colors. “Honestly, Trixie, did you pack your whole magic wagon?”

Her friend smiled embarrassed, “No, of course I only brought the bare essentials.”

Starlight blinked at her confusedly, "You think a rubber wand is necessary? She levitated the wiggly thing in front of her. Trixie smiled again but didn't seem so sure about this decision.

“Maybe we can enchant a few... hikers with a magic show along the way?”

Starlight threw the stick away and growled at her. Sunburst came along before a fight broke out. “We are losing time. It’s best if Trixie takes one bag with her that has the essentials. We can divide up the rest.”

Annoyed, Trixie threw a saddlebag on her seat in front of the place card. In her other backpack were washing things, a sleeping mat, something to drink and snacks, also climbing equipment. Nevertheless, there was a lot in it that had nothing to do with the trip, the ribbon from the colorful towels, a folding top hat and lots of smoke bombs. But the latter was not a bad idea, as Starlight thought.

After they were certain they had everything together, they set off. Trixie put on her cape and put on her pointed hat. Sunburst straightened his robe and Starlight tied the scarf around for the cool morning air. Together they left the castle.

The morning Ponyville was found to be completely empty. As agreed, they headed west on the road. They could already see the mountains, whose tops were surrounded by thick clouds.

As they passed the town hall, they saw Captain Tempest standing on a grandstand with the mayor of Ponyville. Many ponies stood in front of them and new spectators joined them. It became a big gathering. The ponies talked in disarray and Mayor Mare asked in vain for silence, “I beg you, ponies! Listen to the captain, there is no reason to panic!”

Many questions arose in the crowd, “Is the princess all right?” “Why is Luna back?” “Will Princess Twilight be back under her command?” “Is she sick?”

Tempest waited patiently until everypony calmed down. Then she spoke, “Twilight is fine. Luna has appeared to us all in a dream because our princess has some heavy work to do.”

The three friends joined the crowd. “What's going on here?” Starlight wanted to know.

A yellow mare named Golden Harvest recognized her. Starlight always bought fresh vegetables from her. “Starlight Glimmer! Everything alright? I heard you got hurt!”

Then she noticed her bandaged hoof and flinched as if she feared it was contagious. “Then it is true! Oh, my goodness!”

Starlight wanted to answer something, the next mare came along. She was a light yellow pony with a red mane. “What did the creature look like? Is it still there?”

She was surprised how these ponies knew that. Tempest spotted them and ran to her. The other ponies made way. “Glad you came. The townspeople are restless. Looks like, a rumor has spread.”

Trixie pulled her hat over her face to hide her red cheeks. Starlight looked at the other ponies. The village bordered on an eerie forest, and it happened from time to time that something crept out of this forest and frightened the villagers.

She made a decision and pushed her way through the crowd. The Ponies noticed that she wanted to say something and scattered away, so she has a free path to the podium. She saw familiar faces. Lyra Heartstrings and Sweetie Drops, the mail-pony Derpy Hooves who delivered the telegram and the mare who ran the jewelry store. But Rainbow Dash and Applejack were not present. They probably took care of the barn.

Starlight shouted, without a magic amplifier, “Listen up, ponies! I know that these rumors make uncomfortable, and I’ll be honest, they are all true! Yes, a wither pony injured me! But you can all relax! I have eliminated this monster! There is no more Danger! Furthermore, the princess trusts you! She had united the Elements of Harmony! She and her friends had saved Equestria several times, and WE ALL had put these three villains in their place! So stop doubting! Support the Princess of Friendship!”

The town hall square became silent. Starlight wasn’t finished with her speech yet, “It looks like dark clouds are approaching again, but now it is the time to prove that we are strong together through unity! Let us show the enemies, whoever may come, that they won’t have it easy on us!”

The crowd stared at her spellbound. Even Sunburst looked at his friend with glazed eyes. Tempest couldn't help but marvel, and she was even more amazed when the first pony stomped to the ground in applause. Then the entire herd began to trample, causing the place to shake.

Starlight tried to show some modesty and chuckled. “That’s the spirit!”

She climbed down from the pedestal and whipped her man back as if she had accomplished a work that could change the world. Mayor Mare approached her. “My goodness, I hope you don’t offer yourself as a candidate at the next election.” Then she quietly added, “Please, please don’t do it.”

Starlight had to smile about the idea; she could already make good speeches. “Don’t worry; I have something else to do. Your post is secure, for now, Mrs. Mayor,” she said jokingly. Then she strutted away, before the old mare wondered what “for now” could actually mean.

The crowd split up. Ponyville returned to everyday life. Tempest, Sunburst and Trixie ran to Starlight. The captain had to compliment her, “I’ll pass on to Twilight what you said. This will encourage her. I’m sure.”

“I just had to shake them up a little,” said Starlight and looked at the individual chatting pony groups.

Captain Tempest nodded in agreement, “Now I can start with why I’m here in the first place. Twilight has asked me to bring you a gift.”

For Starlight this was quite unexpected. “For us?”

“For you! It’s this crystal!” Tempest tapped on her breastplate and the pink crystal star fell out. The captain caught it and presented it to Starlight while she continued, “I can have a new one. It will be useful for you. You can use it to get in touch with Twilight.”

That was a good idea, Starlight thought. It wouldn’t be bad to know if the princess was safe.

“I envy you a little,” Tempest said gloomily.

“Why is that” asked Sunburst.

She sighed deeply and spoke, “I was also on a journey, after I had renounced the Storm King. I had spread the word the he had been defeated and in the meantime I made new friends. I traveled with them. It was wonderful, but now I am the captain of the royal guard. I would have loved to come along.”

“But isn’t it also an honor to stand at the side of Twilight Sparkle?” Starlight replied with a smile.

“Yes! It is!” Tempest saluted goodbye. “Good luck on your journey!” So the three ponies left the village. The mountain called for them.

Tempest watched hopefully after them. Then she made her way to Sweet Apple Acres.

At the farm, volunteers and soldiers helped the Apple family by cleaning the barn. The carcasses were lying in a pile outside. Ponies with nose clips scrubbed the blood from the walls.

Tempest looked at this heap in disgust, gathered by flies and other animals. A guard sprayed everything with disinfectant. The family was up early to remove the things as quickly as possible, because with all the carcasses, diseases also came and an epidemic would be very bad for the Apple family’s business.

Tempest walked over to the two friends who were scrubbing the inside walls of the barn. “How’s it going?” she asked Applejack, who wiped the blood with both hooves.

“As you can see, very slowly!” she said in a harsh tone. Tempest looked around and realized that the writings were still legible despite all the drudgery. The barn had to be repainted, that much was certain.

“I have come to say that Twilight calls you to the palace. There will be an emergency conference,” she proclaimed.

Applejack tossed the sponge into the water bucket, so that the blood-water mixture splashed in all directions. “Ya know, Twilight is our best friend and Ah like her a lot, no, we even love her. But what’s really bothering me right now is not some conference, but the dead pigs on ma farm!”

Tempest understood their problem. “Oh, don’t worry about...”

“Ah don’t think about anything. Ah wanna ask you a question. When ya came pulling in here, did ya notice a sign out in the front of ma barn that said “Dead Pigs Farm”?”

“Applejack, you know my guard ponies will help you…”

“Did ya notice a sign in the front of ma barn that said “Dead Pigs Farm”?”

“No, I didn’t,” Tempest replied with an expressionless face.

“Ya know why ya didn't see that sign?” Applejack asked.


“Cause it ain't there cause farming dead pigs ain't ma bucking business! That's why!” she shouted. Tempest tried to remain calm so as not to be infected by the earth pony’s anger.

“Applejack, we’re not going to store…”

“Don’t ya bucking realize that if Filthy Rich comes along and finds these dead bodies outside ma barn, will damage our reputation for a long time? Our apples will no longer be sold. We’ll be out of business, plain and simple. That means no more Zap Apple Jam; we lose our best customers and maybe even the whole property. Ya know what’s at stake here?”

Applejack sat down and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “I wanna help Twilight, but Ah don’t wanna risk our existence for this, okay?”

Rainbow Dash stopped scrubbing and touched her calmly with her wing. “Hey, AJ, we’ll find a solution…”

“DON’T BUCKING AJ ME, RAINBOW!” the farmer shrilled. Rainbow flinched. Applejack took a short breather. She noticed that she had yelled at Rainbow Dash in sheer anger.

“Ah’m sorry, sugarcube, but Ah don’t wanna hear about “AJ” right now while our whole life is on the short line. Granny is very sick, Big Mac is becoming a father and what it all caps, we don’t have any pigs as a fertilizer for our farm.”

Tempest walked silently towards the two ponies. Only the hectic scrubbing of the guards and volunteers filled the barn. “I see your situation and can really understand your anger. Even I feel compassionate because the bastard smeared this name on the wall in pig's blood. I may know someone who can help us.”

She called the sergeant to her, a well-built Pegasus stallion with white fur and blue mane. “Sergeant Hoofstrong, I need your crystal. I want to contact an old friend.”

The stallion followed the command and pressed the crystal on his armor. Tempest performed a simple spell that brought her the desired creature. Instead of a projection, she heard a soft male voice. The quality wasn’t very good.

“Huh? That thing glows?” the voice shouted in surprise.

“Capper, it’s me,” the captain said.

“Fizzy? Hoo, man! It’s been a long time. Whassup in Equestria?”

Tempest came straight to the point. “You’ve heard of a gang that makes dead things disappear?”

The voice remained silent for a moment. “Eeh, yes… The Vultures of Klugetown?” What happened, for the love of Celestia, did you just…”

“Listen, this should happen as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Bring the guys in. There’s something on Sweet Apple Acres.”

“Yo, got it. Greet your pony friends for me.”

Thus, the conversation ended. Tempest glared at her sergeant. “And you mention nothing to the princess. We settled the matter without any problems.”

Hoofstrong saluted without a word. Everyone kept working and Tempest swept the floor.

The remains on the walls were still there, but they were all able to remove the worst of the dirt successfully. Applejack left the barn and was astonished to find the pile of carcasses had disappeared.

While they had spent five agonizing hours cleaning the barn, the aforementioned visitors had arrived. Some stallions of the guard must have been witnesses how these vultures had cleaned up there.

“Those guys were really fast,” said one guard.

“And efficient,” claimed another.

No matter how these guys did it, Applejack felt much better. Even though there was some blood on the floor, the problem was solved. “Tempest and her connections.”

The guards cleaned the remaining blood from the ground in which they dug up the earth. So it looked as if the Apples had a new field in planning. Filthy Rich wouldn’t care as long as he could trade with the Apples undisturbed.

“So,” Tempest finally said to the two friends, “Then would you be willing to come along?”

Rainbow Dash nodded decisively. Applejack came up to give her a moment, “Ah’m going to say goodbye to ma family real quick.”

She ran into the main house, which was also connected to the barn. She climbed the stairs to Granny Smith's room. She carefully opened the door and saw the green old mare lying in bed. Sugar Belle was sitting at her side.

Applejack's grandmother breathed heavily and loudly, her eyes seemed to be glued together. A damp cloth lay on her forehead to cool down the fever. She had been getting worse and worse for days and Applejack was beginning to worry that it was her time to go. Even though she knew that no one lived forever, this sight hurt her a lot. She took off her hat and pressed it firmly against her chest.

“Hey, Granny,” she said.

Her grandmother raised her head when she recognized her voice. “Applejack?”

“Ah will be away for a moment. Big Mac and Sugar Bell will take care of you,” she explained. She didn’t know why she always went up to say that. Probably because she feared it could happen at any moment. Granny Smith was in a kind of dawn sleep. Half-awake, half at rest, probably she didn’t know where she was anymore.

“Apple Bloom is there too,” Applejack said.

Granny Smith turned her head to the side. “All right, go ahead,” she said, and Applejack left the room again. Before she crossed the threshold her grandmother said, “But please, feed the pigs before you leave.”

“Sure, Granny,” she said and gritted her teeth as she walked down the stairs.

When she stepped out of the house again, she saw Filthy Rich, as she expected. He talked to Tempest, who explained everything was fine. Big Mac and Apple Bloom with the piglet in their hooves were also present. Applejack tried to put on a mask of false cheerfulness. Never before had this stallion been so unwanted. Only good that the vultures had removed everything in time.

“It has come to my attention there was an incident on the farm. I thought I’d take a look.” He blew his nose with a tissue, “It smells like you sprayed something.”

Applejack came running and answered with the most polite face she could put on, “Good afternoon, Mr. Rich! We’re fine, no problems here.”

At least here she could be honest. There were really no more difficulties. “And what are all these guards doing here?” asked Filthy Rich.

Applejack was never good at creating stories, nor was it in her element. But luckily Tempest answered for her, “A pest control, but Twilight took precautions and sent the best specialists.”

The guard ponies were pleased with this designation. Some stallions proudly hit each other on the hooves.

Filthy Rich raised his eyebrows with concern. “Pest control? I hope nothing has happened to my apple trees.”

Sometimes Applejack could slap him. His trees? She pulled herself together and replied, “These kinds of pests avoid those trees.”

Mr. Rich was satisfied with this answer and changed the subject. He drew a smile that only a business stallion could make, “Oh, that’s good to hear. Of course you have to protect the other trees, no question. How is Granny Smith, I haven’t seen the good old lady for a long time.”

Applejack sighed, “She is lying in the bed seriously ill. Until then I’m running the farm. She could really use some rest.”

Filthy Rich looked affected at the young mare and touched his chest. “Oh, that sounds terrible. I hope I can help your family with something.”

Applejack smiled thankfully, even though she wished he would finally disappear. “I appreciate that, be we don’t need any help right now.”

“Let me know if you need any. The Rich family will be there for you.” Then he looked at Apple Bloom and the little piglet in her hooves and stroked the animal. “Cute little piggy.”

So he left again and the Apple family, as well as Rainbow Dash and Tempest, could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

After the whole thing was finally settled, Applejack and Rainbow Dash prepared to leave for Canterlot. They washed at a faucet while Tempest waited. “The carriage is already standing at the town hall when you are ready. The soldiers will stay in Sweet Apple Acres and watch over, until we are sure everything is okay.”

Rainbow lifted her head out of the faucet’s water jet. Her wet mane formed a sweeping splash. “Why don’t we take the train or use your unicorn beam action?”

“Not everypony can do that,” told Hoofstrong, “While Twilight wanted every other guard to be able to teleport, most are not yet able to do so.”

Applejack and Rainbow Dash raised their eyebrows and looked at each other. They wondered why the princess was so eager for everyone to teleport. But in the end, there was nothing wrong with the guard being able to do more than just stand around grimly.

Applejack packed her things. A short hug from Apple Bloom and Big Mac was enough to give her new courage. Then she left the farm with Rainbow and Tempest. The two friends hoped they could Twilight somehow.

In the snow-covered mountains, far to the north of Equestria, the dark hooded figure wandered along the narrow path. Its shape appeared like a single shadow in the white nothing. No one could tell where his clothing began or ended. The stallion was like a ghost of dark smoke. His red eyes glowed through the mist. The deep snow and the beating wind did not bother him. Any other hiker would avoid this area. Up here, the weather was untamed. No Pegasus would be able to fly straight ahead without crashing into a mountain.

The stallion went over a rugged gorge. The crossing was held by two thin, rock pillars. They looked like they were about to collapse soon. The pony’s destination was a high mountain, on which a blue light was flickering.

Behind the bridge the rocks didn’t look uneven anymore, but smooth and solid. A wide stairway led to the blue light at the top of the mountain. There was a large bowl of oil in which the blue fire was blazing. The platform on which this bowl stood was surrounded by four columns.

The stallion climbed up these stairs without making any effort. He did not even pant. Right in front of the flame stood another stallion. He was also a unicorn, like the other one. He was much bigger and wore a black robe. But his hood was pulled back and showed his blue fur with black stripes, which reminded of a zebra. However, it wasn’t a zebra. His long, white mane blew lost in the wind and his green slit eyes looked gloomy into the flame.

When the other pony reached him, he spoke in a deep, rough voice without turning around, “You are late, Octavus!”

The grey stallion bowed to his leader. “Forgive me, master. Quintus hasn’t appeared, and the pony he abducted is no longer in his pocket dimension.”

The blue and black striped stallion turned up his nose. “That means he is dead. And Twilight Sparkle is probably still alive. I shouldn’t have sent him on that mission.”

Octavus grunted scowling at the failed mission. The big stallion turned to the side and looked at the mountains. “But he insisted. Twilight’s friends are obviously more powerful than he thought.”

“He was always a jerk,” grumbled Octavus.

“But he made a wither pony, didn’t he?” asked the tall pony and turned further to the stallion, who immediately replied, “Certainly, I saw it with my very own eyes.”

“Did it mark someone?” the big stallion asked further.

“Hmm… I don’t know, but from the looks of it, probably not. Or maybe someone not closely connected with Twilight.”

His leader raised his head to give a new order. “This is what you have to find out. Find the marked one and bring him to me. He or she will surely leave traces. If there are none, create a new wither pony and finish it!”

Octavus bowed. “Yes, Primus!”

The leader turned around again und looked into the flame. He called for further orders. “I will also tell Secunda what happened and I will put Quartus and Septimus on one of Twilight’s friends. According to your reports, there are two of them in Ponyville.”

Octavus nodded and replied. “Very well, after dawn follows darkness, Primus!”

“After dawn follows darkness, Octavus,” he said, staring further into the blue flame, in close contact with his accomplices.

Chapter 5: A Journey Begins

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“To climb steep hills requires a slow pace at first.”

William Shakespeare

The sleepy summer seemed to show its splendor once again. Despite the big autumn clouds in the sky. The Equestrian Plain spread out in front of the three ponies. Starlight, Sunburst and Trixie headed straight for the mountains. They followed the same path that Twilight and her friends had once followed to chase a smoking dragon from the mountain. Till this day no smoke was in sight. Still, there were rumors that sometimes music was heard. For Starlight it will be an interesting trip anyway.

The ponies were sweating, but the fresh breeze felt good. Only Trixie was exhausted and fell back a little. “Whew, Can we take a little break maybe, please?” she wheezed.

Starlight turned around and waited for her the fifth time, “We’ve just made the halfway point and you’re already tiered? You used to pull your magic wagon all the time.”

Trixie approached her step by step gasping, “Those… were… different… times!”

“We should repeat the trip to Saddle Arabia. Maybe that would boost you up again,” laughed Starlight and continued the way.

Trixie yelled at her from behind, “Don’t mention this vacation again. It nearly killed my nerves.

Sunburst looked at the map and spoke, “Well, this march will do us good.”

Starlight turned her head thoughtfully towards the mountains. “I’d love to know what's up there,” she told the others.

“A treasure maybe?” guessed Sunburst. “The mountain is said to have belonged to a dragon.”

“What if he’s back,” Trixie asked in an unsettled voice. Starlight giggled, “Trust me, we would have noticed that already.”

After a few meters they slowly felt thirst and hunger. It was time to take a little rest. They walked past a small, narrow stream, which they could easily jump over. Behind there was a resting place. Four stone stools circled an old fireplace. Here they rested. Starlight unpacked her sandwiches for her friends and herself. So they lingered, ate and drank with pleasure. Then Starlight emptied some drinking water over her right hoof. It had started hurting again. She was sure this thing was alive. Sometimes she felt it gliding and twitching through her veins.

Trixie watched her with a mixture of curiosity and concern. “I wonder what this wither pony infused into your arm. It seems possessed somehow,” she said.

Sunburst looked up at the azure blue sky above their heads. The clouds passed peacefully over them. “Wither ponies are revived bodies with a captured spirit, supposedly from Tartarus or afterlife. Legends said it should punish the user. But, as you saw in the barn, it seems that wither ponies obedience has been discovered.”

Trixie was astonished. “Wow, just like a golem?”

Starlight curiously raised her head, “You know golems?”

“I traveled with nomads once. They had one with them. He was very friendly to foals.”

Sunburst seemed to be interested, but stayed on topic. “Only wither ponies aren’t as nice. I think the ghost is angry because they trapped it in this hollow shell. And to answer your question, I think the ghosts can split up and spread the curse.”

With a dry throat Starlight stared to the ground and said, “They summon something just to serve them unwillingly. I kind of understand why those poor bastards are so furious.” Then she took another pull from the bottle.

After the meal, they marched on. Slowly the path became more stony and uneven. From here the ponies could see how steep this mountain really was. But there had to be another way, which Sunburst found right away. “Well, we can take the more dangerous but shorter path or the safe longer and one. I say we should take the shorter way.”

Starlight looked up. She would like going faster and thought about unpacking her climbing equipment. Trixie looked at her. She shook her head. After this signal, Starlight moaned, as she realized she had been outvoted without another word. “All right, let’s take the long way.”

The long way was not less dangerous, but much more relaxed. It meandered along the cliff rising up. The cliffs were overgrown with single dry bushes. The wind howled; probably the music. Their hoof noises echoed against the walls, like a whole caravan was marching up the mountain.

Starlight was glad to have her scarf on and also put her purple wool cap. Suspiciously she looked up to the cliffs. They seemed very unstable. The slightest bump could trigger a rock slide. In the distance she heard a soft metallic click. It came from above and at regular intervals. “Do you hear that?” she asked.

The other two listened. Their ears turned to the direction from which the bright sound came.

“Yes!” Trixie confirmed, “Sounds like a hammer and chisel.”

They followed the sound. The path led them directly to the first cliff of the mountain. The beats became louder and soon they saw its source. A gray earth pony struck a rock, which must have fallen down from above. The three recognized this mare. “Maud Pie!”

The earth pony in the blue-gray worker’s robe turned around and looked at them. Starlight ran to her and hugged her old friend. Maud asked without emotion in her voice, “Hello, what are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Starlight laughed.

Maud continued her work on the rock. Its surface glittered in the sunlight. “I am looking for gems. A commission from the jeweler in Ponyville,” she explained.

“Great”, said Starlight, then she pointed upwards, “We’re hiking to the top of the mountain. Something is up there that the map table has showed us.”

Maud looked up, then again at the three travelers. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Why?” Starlight asked surprised.

Maud knocked on the stone again. “Something caused an avalanche.”

Sunburst trimmed. “An avalanche? What?”

Maud put the tools aside and took cover under the cliff. “There is it again.”

The others didn’t saw any upcoming danger. The sky was blue. The wind not so strong and nothing looked in the slightest like an imminent threat. Nevertheless, they followed Maud’s advice and hid under the cliff.

Suddenly they heard a shrill sound. The scream of a guitar swept through the mountains like an electrically charged storm. The birds took off. The ponies covered their ears, crouching down. The echoing noise tore a massive rock out of the wall, which rumbled directly on the travelers.

Maud jumped up and round-house kicked against the rock. It cracked in two pieces. The halves fell to the ground one after the other. And Maud landed deftly right in front of it.

Trixie’s jaw dropped. Starlight was not surprised and closed her friend’s mouth again. She already knew that from Maud. Nevertheless, she had to thank her. “Way to go, Maud!”

The noise ended with a slight aftershock. The earth pony stepped towards the split rock. It was full of precious stones. “Now I have everything I need,” Maud said calmly and began to mine the gems.

It had become quiet again. Only the wind rushed past the cliffs. After they had overcome the shock, everyone dared to get out and looked up again. Starlight pulled her scarf a little looser. “What was that? It sounded like an electric guitar! Who in Celestia’s name plays Heavy Metal in the mountains?”

She unpacked her hiking equipment. She fastened the climbing claws to her hooves, which could attach themselves to the rock like paws of a dragon.

Trixie watched her. “Couldn’t you just use your magic to lift yourself up?”

Starlight smiled at the justified question. “Yes, but I’d rather save my strength. I’ll use a crystal shield in case another quake occurs.”

The others also unpacked their climbing gear. They connected themselves with a rope and fastened it with the help of compound anchors, which Starlight rammed with her magic into the surface. After most of the unstable rock had come down, climbing should have become a little safer.

Maud watched them silently, her luggage filled with gems. After a blink, she decided to walk with her hooves over the rock face.

While Trixie, Sunburst and Starlight climbed with great effort, Maud simply walked past them. Their faces looked like a toad having a fly escaped from its mouth. But actually it was clear. She was the sister of the notorious Pinkie Pie after all.

Maud made it up first and secured Starlight’s anchors. Then she helped the other ponies. When they were all up, they took off their climbing claws and stood in front of the cliff. The view was amazing. Sunburst took a deep breath as a fresh breeze blew against his face. Their robes and manes fluttered in the wind. Starlight joined them and looked at the view for a moment.

“So we have come this far,” said Starlight in amazement. “And so did Twilight and her friends. I wonder if they enjoyed the view as much as we do now.”

“Perhaps,” Sunburst said, “but now it’s our turn.” He smiled at Starlight and she grinned back. The mare suddenly thought of things she wanted to tell him but just didn’t dare.

She took a side step towards him. Sunburst kept staring at the view. Starlight had to blush and giggles like a schoolgirl. It annoyed her that she couldn’t control such feelings. Carefully, she tried putting her left hoof very close to his so that they almost touched.

Sunburst lifted his hoof and pointed straight ahead. “Look, there’s Ponyville!”

Starlight laughed playfully, but inside she screamed out of frustration. “Ah! Yeah, you’re right. Really great!”

Again they remained silent and watched a passing eagle circling and looking for prey. Starlight tried again, this time a little more offensive. She lifted her hoof to put it over his shoulder as if it was something natural. She whistled a bit. Then Trixie shouted, “Look at that!”

Sunburst turned around. Starlight missed the hug and fell. Thoughtfully she lay on the floor. “Well, maybe some other time…”

Trixie pointed to a rock face. It was marked with faint but recognizable patterns. “Aren’t those the symbols from the map?”

Maud approached and sniffed. “That was Pinkie Pie.”

“How do you know that?” Trixie asked astounded. Maud pointed to the signs. “Because she scratched, “Here was Pinkie Pie” in these rocks, it’s a little illegible, can happen.”

“Oh!” Trixie gasped when she noticed on the second look.

The ponies continued the ever narrowing path. They found a gorge. Their destination was to reach the other side.

Starlight pointed out a small lead, they could easily hop over. Bit by bit they skipped the gorge. Trixie was last. She looked down. “That’s a very long way down,” she murmured.

Starlight on the other side encouraged her, “Come on! It’s only a short jump!”

Trixie took a run-up and swallowed all her courage. Then she spurred off. She jumped over. It wasn’t really that difficult. But because she was carrying so much, gravity pulled her down. The landing was hard.

“Ouch!” The ground sank in beneath her. The impact broke the ledge off the cliff. Trixie opened her mouth to catch breath for a scream. The rock under her plunged into the depths, meters below her.

Trixie was barely caught by Starlight’s magic. But she lost some of her luggage. Among them was her climbing equipment. “Damn it! They weren’t cheap,” she shouted.

“But still cheaper than your life,” gasped Starlight and levitated her friend to her.

She stood again and cleaned the dust off her cape. “That was close. Thanks, Starlight! I can really count on you.”

The ponies looked back at the gorge. It had become much wider. A jump would still have been possible, but with their luggage they weren’t sure if they would succeed. Worries they had to take care of later.

The air felt thinner, the fresh mountain air blew under her hooves. Thanks to the eternal march, their bodies produced their own warmth. Sunburst looked at the map once more. He found a mistake. “This path no longer exists.”

He looked up. There was actually a high pile of earth in front of the travelers. A rock avalanche had come down here, too. A long, long time ago. There was only one way. They had to climb over it. Luckily, no equipment was necessary, although Trixie was already moaning, “More obstacles? Oh, this mountain really doesn’t like us!”

Starlight climbed, the others followed and were faster. Something was draining her strength. “I hope this horrible shredding of this electric guitar doesn’t come in the meantime,” she puffed.

In the next moment, when everyone was standing on the earth pile, it started again.

The shrill guitar solo was much louder than before. The ponies covered their ears. Maud lost her grip and slid down the pile with Sunburst and Trixie. Starlight clung on and wished she had kept her mouth shut.

Then she heard a loud noise. A huge rock rumbled towards the mare. She reared up. Her horn glowed. Then she built up a big arched crystal shield. The rock crashed against it so that it cracked. But that made the stone stop.

Starlight blew in her cheeks as she levitated up this massive boulder. Her brain throbbed with effort. Her horn felt like a burning torch. She threw it over her shoulder into the deep. Then she looked down at her friends, who stared at her with open mouths, heavily impressed by her magical power. Then suddenly everything blurred and black surrounded her. “I need a break,” she cried and fell down.

When Starlight woke up again, she was lying on Trixie’s mat. Her friends looked down her with concern. Starlight immediately felt her aching hoof as she tried to stand up. She realized she had passed out. All her strength was gone. That surprised her. Starlight had rarely exhausted herself, the she knew her limits. Casting a shield and levitating a mighty rock were not even half of her mana.

She looked at her leg. Under the bandage the dark spots showed up. Her half foreleg was cursed. Some spots attacked her healthy skin. What at first glance looked like a cool tattoo was in reality a painful wound.

“This damn wither pony!” she cried and slapped her hooves over her face. In her mind, she killed this monster again.

Sunburst offered her a water bottle. Starlight grabbed it and directly poured it over her hoof. She sighted in relief as the pain subsided. Then she took a big sip to calm down.

“You shouldn’t use your magic anymore,” Sunburst warned.

Starlight grumbled, “I noticed that too. But what else could I have done? Let myself get flattened?”

Sunburst pressed his lips together and stepped silent. Starlight also said nothing more and snorted. Slowly she stood up and stomped ahead. Trixie rolled up her mat. Without further ado, the ponies followed the disgruntled mare. Maud caught up with Trixie and asked, “Is that why you came here?”

“Yes, and we hope it can help us, “she sighed. Maud’s neutral gaze remained silently directed at Starlight.

Tempest escorted Rainbow Dash and Applejack to the carriage at the town hall. “We won’t keep the princess waiting,” Tempest said, “On the way, I’ll tell you how these assassination attempts happened.”

They entered the chariot, pulled by two Pegasus stallions. Tempest sat down and gave the order to leave. The pegasi snorted at the run up and galloped with flapping wings over the road mile. Pedestrians made way so the carriage could take off unhindered.

They flew over the thatched roofs of the village, gaining more and more height. The inmates saw the train station below them. A train stopped there, which was also on its way to Canterlot. They knew, however, that they would be faster with the carriage.

Before them they saw the mountain of Canterlot, surrounded by fluffy clouds. Behind the fog, the fir trees on the cliffs looked like shadowy figures that guarded the mountain.

The rough wind whistled over their manes. Rainbow Dash leaned against the edge of the carriage and watched the area. Applejack asked Tempest, “Do we actually know anything about this assassin?”

Tempest also stared at the clouds. “Nothing that could help us. He was familiar with black magic and could dress up in any pony. He had imitated Trixie and fooled us quite a bit.”

Two black contrails slowly caught up with the carriage. The clouds moved by themselves and were certainly not made by stunt flyers enjoying their free time. Rainbow Dash looked up and shouted at Tempest in disquiet, while keeping an eye on the possible threat. “Ahem! I don’t wanna be the bad weather mare, but this looks like trouble!”

Tempest leaned over the railing of the carriage. She also recognized the stripes and slowly became queasy about it. Promptly she cocked her head back and shouted to the train ponies, “Guards! We are being followed!”

The Pegasi shouted, “Yes, Captain!”

And the carriage picked up pace. Applejack and Rainbow Dash were pushed back. But it was too late. One of the smoke-trails shot past their heads. Out of the cloud appeared the head of a light gray unicorn with a red mane and several braids. He sneered at the mares. “Where are you going, ladies?” His voice was gentle and deep.

Then he fired a blue beam in Applejacks direction. He lost her balance and fell. Screaming, the earth pony kicked with her hooves. Rainbow had no choice. She rushed after her. Her wings whizzed as fast as she could. Before Applejack shattered on the sharp rock edges, the blue Pegasus caught her.

“Woohee! Ever get that feeling of déjà vu?” The farmer pony shouted.

“Way too much!” Rainbow growled. Applejack couldn’t help but grin about this answer.

A second cloud dashed at them. The head of a gray-blue stallion with short beige hair protruded. He fired at Rainbow with purple rays. But the mare was a well-trained Wonderbolt. She was able to swerve, even though Applejack’s weight was bothering her. “Urgh, why do earth ponies have to be so heavy?”

“These are ma well-built muscles for apple bucking, gettin’ it?” Applejack shouted. But Rainbow had to drop her off somewhere. The train to Canterlot rattled past them. Rainbow took the chance to land on the cars, before she slipped out of her hooves.

Applejack rolled over the long wooden roof and gave Rainbow Dash a well-earned break, landing panting behind her. The two clouds flew toward her. The farmer ducked, ready to fight.

The two figures split up and each landed rearward of the mares. The light gray stallion with the plaits ended up behind Applejack and the gray-blue behind Rainbow Dash. Both assassins were wrapped in dark robes. Both mares lined up back to back. Rainbow Dash spurred at the stallion in front of her, “Do you want to feel my left or my right first?”

The gray-blue laughed and charged his horn, “We prefer our magic!”

He fired his beam. The mares crouched. The shot bounced off a magic shield of the other assassin.

“Damn it, Quartus! Watch where you’re aiming!” roared the light-grey stallion.

“Not my fault if you stand in the way, Septimus!” the other replied casually. This made his face blush with rage. He decided to vent his anger on Applejack and attacked her with punches. Applejack blocked each time.

Quartus also started attacking. He pulled a small dagger which circled elegantly around his body. Rainbow evaded his blade.

“You’re too slow!” Rainbow sneered and kicked him in the face. Quartus fell onto the roof in an inelegant screw. Angrily, he threw his dagger at her and barely cut her colorful mane.

“Hah! Missed,” laughed Rainbow. But the stallion put on a big grin. As if from nowhere, the dagger flew back and whizzed past Rainbows’ legs. She fell and stared in surprise at her new bleeding cut.

The stallion raised his laugh and held his dagger under her chin. “Now you’re not so cocky anymore!”

“Quartus, you know we need them alive. So don’t hurt her too much,” Septimus said who wrestled with Applejack. He conjured two blue claws from his horn that grabbed the farmer’s chest fur. She struggled against this spell. His eyes lighted up like two glowing sapphires. “Now you will learn the true world of magic, earth pony!” he said confident of victory.

A large object flew alongside the train. Tempest stood in the carriage and glared at the assassins. Blue lightning flashed around her broken horn as she shouted, “The storm is coming, you brainiacs!”

Tempest gave free rein to her uncontrolled magic. A blazing lightning bolt shot across the stallions, who were completely irritated by this show. Applejack and Rainbow Dash were thus able to break free. Tempest grabbed two weapons from a drawer in the carriage. A slightly curved sky blade and a rope. These were the items the mares had brought along for their journey. She threw the weapons to them. They caught them with a jump.

Even though both mares had been hurt a little, their fighting spirit was still alive. Rainbow, who attached the popular Wonderbolt sword to her foreleg, had suffered a few cuts. Applejack with a rope in her mouth was covered with dents and bruises.

Rainbow Dash parried every attack of Quartus’ magical dagger, and Applejack was to hold her own with rope, whipping Septimus’ horn each time and subduing his spells.

“Not bad! But can you prevent that?” shouted Septimus. His hooves lighted up in a blue magic aura. He waved wildly as if he had seen too many martial arts flicks. Applejack waited for an attack. He punched from the right. She dodged out to the back and swung the rope. She wrapped Septimus up and threw him back in a single turn. He flew at his comrade who had been busy with Rainbow.

The rainbow mare turned around in surprise. “Hey! That guy was mine!”

The two stallions pulled themselves together again and attacked with the dagger and magic fists. Applejack and Rainbow Dash also teamed up jumped in lockstep towards their opponents.

Suddenly Tempest yelled to the mares, “Hey! Duck!”

Applejack and Rainbow looked up briefly, then to a tunnel behind them. The farmer lay flat.

Quartus hindered Rainbow for doing so because he swung his dagger upwards. If she had been lying down, she would have jumped right into the knife. Instead, she just flew away.

She dashed along the steep rock face, watching for the train. The stallions pursued her in their smoke form. Like two greedy vultures out for their prey, they pounced on the mare. They shrouded her in fog while Rainbow propelled her way through with her sky blade. But she can’t hit these unicorns in this form. Rainbow managed to break away from them and flew on. Eventually, she reached the rails again and the train howled.

Applejack was still on the train straightened up. She groped for her hat. It sat firmly on her head. In front of her, the landscape passed by, and a rainbow fighting against two dark clouds.

A light blue unicorn mare sat in car number five. She read a magazine of the famous fashion designer Rarity. Her name was Sassy Saddles and was a respected colleague. The mare had just returned from vacation and planned to open her boutique in Canterlot tomorrow. She was so absorbed in the magazine that she didn’t notice the fight at the window to her left. A foal drew her attention to it. “Look, Mom! There’s Rainbow Dash!”

Sassy looked out. In fact she watched as the famous Wonderbolt battled against two clouds. An impressive but bizarre spectacle. The other passengers noticed it too and stared out.

These aggressive clouds seemed as if they wanted to devour the mare. They circled her and tried everything to disturb her in flight.

Rainbow took a dramatic-looking dive and escaped the pursuers. Then Tempest shot past with her flying carriage and grabbed the mare. The cap ran over Quartus, who disappeared into thin air and showed up again somewhere else.

Septimus lifted his head out of the cloud and fired a blue beam at the carriage. Tempest turned her head and responded with a glaring lightning orb. Both projectiles collided and deflected each other. Septimus’ shot flew into the sky and evaporated. But Tempest’s shot flew towards a long bridge.

What happened then could haunt the Captain for a long time. The lightning struck right at the end of the bridge. It destroyed the scaffolding that should support the rails. Several fragments hailed down the cliffs and a hellish noise resounded from the craggy mountain.

Applejack noticed the rolling disaster and ran with the rope in her mouth. She jumped into the driver’s cabin. There sat a yellow earth pony stallion, completely in shock. When she landed beside him, he seemed to his senses again.

“Applejack? Is that really you?” shouted in surprise.

But the earth pony mare came straight to the point. “Stop the train!”

The conductor was still shaking all over his body and staring at Applejack with big eyes as if he had suddenly forgotten his job.

“Do it! NOW!”

Still trembling, the driver cranked the cover of the oven shut and tore the emergency air brake around. The train began to screech.

All passengers in the cars were almost thrown forward. Sassy Saddle’s mane fell over her face. The train lost speed, but they inevitably rolled towards the destroyed end of the bridge.

Applejack took her hat off and grabbed another rope that lay in the cabin around. Then she climbed out of the cab and worked her way to the top of the locomotive. The brakes suffered under her. The screaming sound tortured her ears. She finally managed to stand on both hind legs in front of the train. She quickly lassoed both ropes and swung them forward. She hit both rail carriers. Applejack gritted her teeth. It was insane, shier desperate madness. She wrapped both loops around her hooves so that she didn’t lose the ropes when the jerk came. The abyss and the tension came closer. She stared straight ahead. There was no turning back.

Rainbow Dash rushed towards the happening. Meanwhile, the stallions resumed their pursuit. But they were repeatedly heckled by Tempest, who took them under fire. Rainbow Dash was able to gain a huge lead. She noticed what Applejack was up to and scrunched her nose at this reckless plan. But there was no time. Despite the braking locomotive and ropes, it would literally tear the earth pony to pieces.

“Applejack! Are you crazy?” cried the Pegasus.

Applejack screamed through the noise of the brakes, “Rainbow! We have to stop it!”

“You’ll get yourself killed,” the rainbow mare shouted back.

Sassy Saddles opened the window. She saw the broken bridge. In spite of the brakes, they would all crash down. At this sight, her heart stopped. She hurriedly pulled her head back and thought. She hat to do something. All passengers were tense and silent. What would Rarity do in such a situation?

Finally, she stood up and lifted her front legs to address everyone in the train, “Listen up, everypony! At any moment the train will stop. But in front of us is an obstacle that will reach soon. The conductor is doing his best, but he needs our fullest support. Unicorns and everyone who can use magic, listen to my command! Let us stop the train!”

The unicorns, which formed the majority, stood up. With their combined magic power, they could save the train. A single magic caster would never have been able to do this. But the more individuals, that participated in an object, the stronger the effect of the active magic. There were as well a few kirins in the train, also spell caster. The message spread through the other cars and every creature was willing to do their part.

Everyone took each other in their arms and began to capture the whole train. The whole carriage began to shimmer like a rainbow. The Pegasi, earth ponies and other creatures wanted to help. They grabbed them by the shoulder and cheered the group on mentally. It worked. The train slowed down. But not slow enough.

Applejack saw that they had just passed the tied up rail stakes. Both she and Rainbow Dash prayed for an immediate stop.

Suddenly the ropes pulled Applejack vainly against the locomotive. An immense pain flashed through her shoulders. She cried out. The abyss, the destroyed bridge gaped right before her eyes. The locomotive reached walking speed. Then the ropes snapped and the farmer fell forward. Rainbow Dash quickly caught her, before she dropped under the wheels. Both ponies clasped each other and screamed together toward the end. The first two rail wheels left the tracks. The vehicle mad one last “choo-choo” and the train finally stopped. Only the Rainbow Dash and Applejack kept screaming until the mares realized that they didn’t have to do that anymore.

Quartus and Septimus soared down on the two ponies. Since they were so weakened, they were easy prey. But then a blue carriage rushed onto them. Tempest charged her horn. She released a tremendous energy and fired the dark clouds away. The beam sent them toward the horizon. Celestia knows where. At least far away from Canterlot.

A few hours later soldiers were standing everywhere on the tracks. A lot of airships floated to the bridge to collect the ponies. Sassy Saddles also flew up to Canterlot. She and ponies could see the damage from outside. They all realized how close they escaped a deadly catastrophe.

Captain Tempest brought the two heroines of the day into the carriage. A doctor was present to tend Applejack’s injuries. Both shoulders were dislocated. She needed medical help to fix them. She cried in pain, but Rainbow Dash held her in her arms. This calmed her a lot when a friend was by her side.

They flew to the capital directly to the Canterlot Hospital, a large building complex with purple roof tiles.

After landing, they placed Applejack on a stretcher and carried her to the emergency surgery. Her glassy green eyes were illuminated each time by passing corridor lights.

The doctors stormed into the surgery room. A unicorn doctor used his magic to reset the joints. Applejack moaned during the procedure. But she was quite relieved afterwards. The joints were back where they belonged and her nerves were frazzled.

Later she lay bandaged in the patient room. She was sweating and said harshly to Rainbow, “Please don’t let Apple Bloom and Big Mac know about this.” Her voice sounded much older than before.

Rainbow’s voice also sounded as if it had aged decades in these breif hours. “If the newspapers are printed, they’ll know it sooner or later.”

Applejack turned disappointed her head to the side, ashamed to have taken such a reckless action. After all, it was over and they were still alive. Her look turned very gloomy, then she growled, “Those filthy coyotes!”

Rainbow smiled with a touch of schadenfreude. “Don’t worry, AJ! Tempest blew them away.”

But somehow Applejack couldn’t laugh about it. She looked at her friend again and said, “Ah’m startin’ to realize, what the fuss is all about. Twilight needs us more than ever.”

Rainbow Dash turned serious again and nodded. There was no question that the princess would hear about it soon.

Chapter 6: How to Lift Heavy Metal

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The rocks were rough and dark. A tattered piece of cloth was blowing in the wind, which hung firmly under several stones placed on top of each other.

A thrush with a snail in its beak hopped across the path and struck it against the rocks to crack the shell open. But when someone came, it flew away quickly.

Starlight, Sunburst, Trixie and Maud had finally reached the top of the mountain. The last steps led to an ominous cave. The few trees that stood there barely bore any leaves. Here the view was even more magnificent than before. From here they could spot Canterlot. They even could see a train going up there to the capitol. But the ponies had seen enough already. Whatever the map had shown them. It filled them with greater interest.

Sunburst seemed like an easily impressed tourist, “I imagined it to be much smaller.”

Maud replied monotonously, as always, “Pinkie had told me that the dragon was bigger than two houses.”

Trixie was initially amazed at this size description. “And this monster backed down from Fluttershy?”

Starlight would never understand what had happened back then. But at least she was glad nobody lived in that cave anymore. She was hoping for that.

“Well then, let’s go,” she said impatiently.

A cold wind blew into their faces. Drops fell from the ceiling into small puddles. With every step it became darker. Starlight made a light with her horn. Then Sunburst and lastly Trixie. Maud looked at the walls that were illuminated by the different colored lights of the unicorns. “This cave is full of crystal rocks. No wonder a dragon lived there,” she said.

Trixie turned around and asked, “And how do you know that?”

“Dragons feed on crystals,” Maud replied. Trixie shook her head and asked again, “No, how do you know by just looking what kind of rock it is?”

“I work with stones often.”

Starlight found a wide cavern, which looked like an entrance hall of the cave. More drops fell on the ground and the ponies. Trixie’s hat became wet, so she had to shake it out.

“Pretty damp here,” said Sunburst. “It must have rained before and the water seeps through the ceiling.” Then he shook his mane and sprayed the others wet. “Hey, sorry!”

Trixie grumbled and had to shake her hat dry one more time.

Starlight started looking for the symbol. But as it seemed, it was an ordinary cave. Besides the puddles and pebbles, something shined. Coins, a thousand little coins, which lay around like forgotten. It wasn’t just any money. They were treasures from the past. Gold coins that didn’t match to the currency. Starlight picked one up and examined it.

Suddenly something rumbled. Stomping noises came closer to them. Trixie looked around in panic and dropped some coins, probably thinking she had triggered a trap. The stomping stopped. Instead, the four ponies saw two bright eyes looking out of the darkness.

“Who there?” shouted someone in a nasal voice. Trixie stood behind Sunburst. Their legs were shaking. Starlight watched this new thing, prepared for possible attacks. Maud remained calm. No one could really say what she’s feeling. Her expression was always the same.

The creature stepped into the light. It was a small green dragon with yellow spikes on its head. He was about the same size like Spike in his baby years. He raised his arms, begging like a dog and had no wings. That meant this dragon must be really young.

The ponies stared at him for a long time. Starlight dared to answer something, “A baby dragon? I thought there were no dragons here anymore.”

“Wrong, I live here,” said the little one and raised his nose confidently. “This is my home. One day I will become Dragon Lord of the Dragon Land!”

This was kind of cute how the little dragon puffed himself up. If Spike had been here, he would have laughed his scales off.

“So? What’s your name?” Sunburst asked smiling.

The little dragon swelled his chest. He spoke and tried to sound majestic as possible. “I am Prince Tabaluh! Son of Sabathum, King of Dragon Heavy Metal!”

Trixie chuckled, “Quite a poetic title.”

“Don’t you dare make fun of him, ponies! He is the greatest guitar player the world has ever seen and heard. One day all the dragons will fall to his knees,” called the little one.

Starlight raised her eyebrows and spoke to the others, “Well that explains the noise we heard while climbing.”

“Don’t call that noise!” Tabaluh hissed, “It is music. It is art and it will take your breath away!”

Starlight lifted a hoof calming. “Wow. Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

“Noise… Pah! Don’t say that in his presence,” Tabaluh warned.

Sunburst cleared his throat and asked that dragon, “How long do you live here? We thought the last dragon had moved out long ago.”

“Oh, you have to ask my father. I wasn’t even an egg at that time,” Tabaluh replied and kicked into the ground, digging up some earth.

“Can we see your father, perhaps? We are looking for something,” Sunburst asked again.

Tabaluh stood upright again and raised his claw. “Wait! If you seek an audience, you must first request one!”

“And with whom?” Starlight asked.

“With me, of course! Do you see anyone else?”

The ponies waited intently for is permission. “Well? Can we have one?”

“A what?” Tabaluh asked confused.

“An audience!” Starlight repeated slightly annoyed, “We would like to see your father!”

The small dragon thought about it sharply and drilled around the teeth. “Well, he had just been practicing and usually he takes a little nap afterwards. But I will ask him anyway. Stay here while I’m gone!”

He ran back. The ponies looked around during this time. Starlight suspected that a pile full of treasures had once laid here. That would explain the coins on the ground.

Sunburst dug something out of the ground. It was a piece of rubber, covered with sand. Maud inspected the find and found something out, “That was one of Pinkie’s balloons.”

Starlight laughed. “Amazing how you know these things, Maud.” She put the broken balloon in her saddlebag. Maybe she could surprise Pinkie with it, where she had found this piece of history.

Tabaluh stomped back. He scratched his head and said, “Okay! He wants to see you! I mentioned that you were ponies. I guess that caught his attention.”

“That’s great!” Sunburst said, “Please take us to him!”

Tabaluh nodded and marched ahead. The cave was larger than expected. A deep descent led into the mountain. The dragon hopped down from rock to rock, while the four ponies took a little longer. At the last rock, Trixie slipped and splashed into a puddle with her stomach ahead. Her pointed hat floated gently onto her. The dragon giggled, “Watch out! The last one’s pretty slippery.”

“I noticed that,” Trixie murmured and spat sand and water out.

They walked on through a hall held up by natural columns. These carried green, yellow and red gemstones, shining like Heart’s Warming Eve decoration. In the distance they sparkled in different intensities.

Sunburst looked at the size of the hall with a bit of concern. “Say, kid! How tall is your father?”

“Oh! Only about fifty-five meters, I guess!”

This raised the ponies’ hackles. The unusual size wasn’t the only frightening thing. Dragons could grow up in two different ways. The faster way was greed. The more treasures it hoarded, the bigger it grew. The other way was a natural growth and this size was different from dragon to dragon. Starlight had to ask cautiously, “Tell me! Is your father a treasure hunter?”

Tabaluh replied as if it was a matter of course, “Oh, yes! He is! But his music is worth more to him. Still don’t try to steal anything from him, okay?”

More and more coins were lying around. They heard heavy breathing. This snorting caused a strong wind that roared between the columns. That made the ponies’ manes blow. Trixie’s legs began to shake. With chattering teeth, she tried to find an argument for retreat, “Um… I think I should get some fresh air. Fresh mountain breeze is supposed to be healthy!”

“We’re not backing down, Trixie,” Starlight recalled, “He might know what these symbols are all about.”

“What symbols?” Tabaluh curiously asked.

I’ll explain when we reach your father’s place,” Starlight said.

The dragon nodded. “All right! We’re here already!”

He pointed to a large archway that revealed the entrance to a cavern. Behind, the gold shimmered on the gemstone-studded walls. A large dark blue dragon tail lay on the coin hill in front of them. It moved, carved a path through the jingling gold mountain. The ponies entered the room in awe. They noticed how big this pile actually was. Treasure chests peaked from it, as well crowns and scepters decorated with rubies, sapphires and emeralds. Light crystals provided enough brightness so that all unicorns could turn off their magic light.

Maud drew an unusually deep breath through her nostrils when she saw this splendor.

The pile moved again. A deep grumble came out of it. The whole ground vibrated. Tabaluh began calling for his father, “Sabathuuum! Sabathuuum! Your pony guests are here!”

The movement increased. Another bulge appeared under the coins and a few spikes stuck out. Then a large paw from the treasure grabbed a long object. It was an ominous guitar. At the same time the big head of Sabathum appeared.

He had two horns bent downwards. White steam came out from his long, broad snout. He touched his large, homemade musical instrument. The strings of the guitar were thick as small tree trunks and yet they seemed elastic. The entire body was made of wood, metal and crystal rock. Everything decorated with diamonds.

Sabathum growled something. First he looked around on his pile of gold as if he was searching something. Then he seemed to have found it and grabbed a polished, smooth stone from the treasure. It was a plectrum for the guitar. He immediately put it on the strings and played around a little bit. The hall trembled as the bass filled the room. Sabathum turned on the adjusters a bit, mumbled around again and finally raised his head. His blue slit eyes stared down at the travelers. “Rock on, poniez!” he grunted. Then he lifted his plectrum.

Then Starlight saw something on this rock. She found the first symbol. The Aries symbol shone on the plectrum. Before she could say anything, Sabathum started playing. And he played hard… The cave trembled, the coins jumped up. His solo blew the pony manes away.

“I am Sabaaathuuum!” the dragon growled, finishing his intro. Tabaluh gave a big applause with his paws. He prompted the ponies to take part. They joined in with stomping hooves and an awkward smile.

“He likes to do this every time,” Tabaluh explained as Sabathum gently propped up his guitar on a column. Then he pulled his legs out of the treasure mountain and sat down with a big “Bang”. The ponies had his full attention.

“Wazzup?” he said with a tremendous bass voice. None of the ponies wanted to say something. Their breath caught.

Starlight knew it was on her again and stepped forward. “Hello! Great… Sabathum! I am Starlight Glimmer and these are my friends Sunburst, Trixie Lulamoon and Maud Pie. We’re from Ponyville and…”

Starlight suddenly sounded not very convincing, but that didn’t seem to interest the dragon. He continued to listen to her.

“We heard your music and… wanted to know where it came from… and so…”

Sabathum beamed. He seemed proud that someone had heard his play. “Well, now ya know!”

Starlight picked up her courage and cleared her throat. “Now that we know each other, I wanted to ask what a dragon is doing so far away from the Dragon Land?”

Sabathum raised his head and grimaced at her. Starlight, however, continued speaking, “Another dragon lived here before. He had darkened the sky once.”

There the dragon widened his eyes and answered, “Ah, ‘dat was dis Razer! Yes, dis git told me about dis place. Said a kouple from yer pony clan chased ‘em away.”

His accent sounded very strange, but Starlight could still understand him. “So? Then what are you doing here?”

“Dis iz ma place, now! But I don’t smoke like Razer! Too unhealthy! I moved away, ‘cos Dragon Lord Torch didn’t like ma music very much. ‘e iz a damn uncultured swine, I say.”

Starlight noticed that this dragon hasn’t been up to date. So he must have lived here for quite a long time. So she brought him the news right away. “Torch is no longer Dragon Lord.”

Sabathum stunned in disbelief, “Wot?”

“His daughter Ember rules the Dragon Land and is in alliance with Equestria.”

The dragon seemed to process this. He kept staring at the pony from above, stunned, “Are ya kidd’n me?”

Sunburst caught his voice again and confirmed Starlight’s information, “It’s true! Equestria changed a lot last years!”

Sabathum just kept staring and said nothing for a while. Then suddenly he burst out into laughter, “Puhahaha! ‘dat was gud! Emba iz da Dragon Lord an’ da dragons are friends wit’ da ponies. Wot else? Are ‘da changel’n friends, too?

Sunburst sniggered because he had accidentally uttered another fact. “So it is! Our new princess…”

“WOT?” Sabathum interrupted him. Apparently all the news confused him. “Yer have annuver new princess?” the huge dragon chuckled and calmed down slowly.

Tabaluh took the chance to say something, “But, father, if this is true, we may have the option to go home. One day you could callange Ember and become Dragon Lord by yourself. That was your biggest dream. And then I could be your successor!”

Sabathum bent over and gently patted his son’s head. “Ah! Ma little Tabaluh, I wll no longa be ‘da Dragon Lord. But when yer past ‘da molt, yer kan try it.”

The little one crossed his arms and made a pouty lip. He probably would like to have his father as a Dragon Lord. Still, Starlight knew Sabathum was right. When dragon children have reached a certain age, their wings will grow. From then on, they could challenge the Dragon Lord.

“They’ve banned me ‘cos I was ‘da loudest uv ‘da dragons,” Sabathum continued, “I’ve challenged Torch an’ lost. ‘da losa fliez. Dis iz ‘da law…”

He grabbed his instrument for a new song. Again Starlight saw the symbol on the stone plectrum and this time she recognized it. It was clearly what she was looking for. She called before the dragon could start with his music, “I have a question! What is that symbol on your chip?”

Sabathum made an irritated look, then at his plectrum. “Wot symbol? ‘der’s nothing!”

“Can we take a closer look?”

Tabaluh jumped frightened up and waved with is claws. Sabathum stooped down with a grim face. He snorted, “You kan scratch ‘dat, missy! Ma plectrum an’ ma shred are ma own an’ I won’t let ‘da smallest bat near im.”

He wasn’t very happy about that question. But Starlight didn’t want to give up. She took the notebook from Sunburst’s bag and lifted her amulet. “We’re looking for symbols scattered around Equestria. There is this temple and this clock…”

But Sabathum didn’t want to hear it. He waved and snorted through his nose. “Oh leave me be wit’ dis pony tale. Eitha ya listen ta ma music or beat it!”

“But, please! Listen…”

The big dragon spread his wings and snorted a third time through his nose. This time two stab flames burst out. The ponies knew, this was the last warning. Starlight had hoped to convince him. She was at the end. Sighing, she let her things sink. “Well, all right. Go ahead and play.”

But the dragon put his guitar aside and himself back into his pile of gold. “No, you’ve made me tired wit’ all dis question’n. I’m gunna take a nap. Kome back lata. Or betta not. Yer might as well hear dat from outside.”

He lay down and closed his eyes. Tabaluh shrugged. “Well, there’s nothing we can do! He’s a sensitive guy, you know!”

He accompanied the ponies out to the entrance. Starlight was disappointed with herself. She shouldn’t have acted too hastily. Sunburst and Trixie seemed to feel with her. No reason to be angry as well. Still, Sunburst had to ask as they made their way back, “You saw the symbol on this stone? Because I didn’t.”

“I could have sworn it was there. I saw it twice.”

“When exactly?”

“The first time before he did his solo and then when he wanted to play for the second time.”

Tabaluh added, “I should have warned you there. Interrupting him doesn’t make a good impression.”

Starlight let her head hang until they all stood at the exit of the cave again. Tabaluh stopped, to say goodbye, “I’m very sorry it ended like this. He won’t be angry all the time. Although, actually, he will be… Maybe next year or something?”

Starlight turned around. Her amulet dangled lost on her neck. “What does it matter…? I am doomed.”

So they stood there in front of the entrance. Like ducks in a thunder storm. As if nothing had happened. But the sun was shining. Starlight had the finish line in front of her and like in a hurdle race, overlooked the last obstacle.

After Tabaluh had disappeared in the cave, Starlight looked into the distance to the other mountains. Her mane blew over her pale face.

Finally Maud came to her and offered one of her loaves of bread. They were hard, but the earth pony liked them that way. They chewed a while. Trixie and Sunburst also joined them. Trixie refused the snack. Sunburst took a bite. “Ouch!” he yelled.

Starlight looked farther to the horizon and spoke dryly to Maud after she swallowed, “I blew it.”

“Looks that way,” Maud said.

Starlight was surprised by her direct honesty. “And I just thought you were here to cheer me up.”

Maud took a sip from her water bottle. Then Starlight remembered she soon had to wet her hoof again before it ached.

“There is a possibility,” said Maud and looked at Starlight.

She noticed what she meant by her dull, fiery face. “Oh, no! You don’t suggest that we…”

“Exactly,” Maud replied, “We sneak up on him and somepony teleports this rock from his claws. Then we can see what it’s all about.”

Starlight considered. A quite risky undertaking. “It could work, but the magic isn’t necessarily silent. He might wake up at the spell sound.”

“Levitation is much quieter,” Sunburst suggested, “Somepony takes this rock with and then teleports it outside.”

That sounded much better. But who was the best suited for it? Starlight was excellent at most spells. But she was limited in her powers. Trixie was good at making things disappear but reappearing was still a problem. Sunburst wasn’t so good at teleporting and carrying large heavy items. Starlight’s gaze became more serious and determined again when she came up with a plan.

They crept back into the cave and made sure Tabaluh didn’t see them. Starlight had applied a silent-trot spell to her friends and herself. It worked. The little dragon didn’t hear them while he built a tower with a few gemstone blocks. He was pleased how easily these blocks could be stacked.

The ponies continued down the slope. This time they watched out for the last step, which was known to be slippery. The descent was without problems. The others let themselves be helped a little by Starlight’s levitation.

Then they trotted through the spacious hall with the columns and the gemstones. In the distance the ponies heard Sabathum snoring. Carefully they walked on until they reached the archway on the other side. The dragon lay on his back. The guitar rested on his stomach. The ponies stopped and gathered around to discuss the strategy again.

“Okay, Trixie, you’re going to take this rock. It’s flat, dark, and bears this symbol. Then I’ll teleport it to Sunburst who will be waiting on the other side. With Maud’s help, he’ll bring it outside.”

Starlight was a little bit sorry stealing from this dragon. It was the only way to bring hope, while the mark slowly consumed her. Maud and Sunburst ran back to the hall entrance. Trixie stared anxiously at the sleeping dragon. “And what if he’s a light sleeper?”

Starlight put the hoof on her shoulder. “He won’t. Dragons fall asleep very quickly if you don’t really disturb them.”

“Ookay!” Trixie replied and made her way through the open archway.

Sabathum snored so loud that the coins flipped on the bare granite floor. He cuddled with his instrument.

Trixie kept an eye out for the plectrum. Since she couldn’t find it, she had to come closer. Carefully she climbed up the coin mountain and watched Sabathum precisely. He scratched with relish his belly. Trixie couldn’t find this rock. If that lazy dragon lay on it, the plan was doomed then. But she didn’t give up hope and carefully crept around this sleeper. That took a while. She could just as well have walked a whole block around Ponyville. Thanks to the silent-trot spell, she could walk quietly over the coins. She shouldn’t knock anything over.

She stood behind the dragon. With wobbly hooves she scoured the other side. There she saw it. The stone was stuck under his back. She could touch the little bit with her magic. She concentrated on the object and pulled. But the stone hardly moved. She pulled harder. The coins slipped under her hooves. Sweat beads gathered under her forehead. The plectrum moved a bit further and Trixie became aware of her upcoming victory. One final jolt. Then she fell on her backside. But the desired was finally free. She could feel the weight in her telekinesis. It was like a pressure in her skull as if she was balancing it on her head.

But she wondered a little. There was nothing on this stone. Had her friend been mistaken? Anyway, she had it and that was important. She only had to trot back quietly. It wasn’t easy to hold this piece. Step by step she struggled her way forward. From this point on, the rock became too heavy for her; she felt the tremendous urge to put it down. Trixie took another step and knocked over a goblet. It tumbled down the slope like a rubber ball. At the end of this concert, it crashed onto the bare granite floor. Trixie’s pain-distorted face wasn’t just for the noise.

Sabathum woke up immediately. With a confused snort he looked around. Then he spotted Trixie and knew what’s going on. The little pony smiled and waved at him.

“Hi!” she giggled. Sabathum growled and prepared to strike. Trixie jumped away.

“STAAARLIIIGHT!” the pink mare heard her scream. Then she saw Trixie sprinting out of the archway. A furious dragon stormed after her. She was, despite the heavy rock, incredibly fast. Starlight spotted the shining symbol on the plectrum. Her friend found it. But the plan was about to fail. She should also start running.

Sabathum certainly did not have to think much to know that these ponies had planned this together.

“I’ll tear yer heads off, ya maggots,” he raged through the cave. The ground shuddered under his steps. Gemstones crumbled from the columns. Starlight ran after her panicked friend, who was miraculously faster that her. Fear could do a lot to somepony. They hid behind a long rock. Sabathum rushed at them like a steam engine.

Starlight grabbed Pinkie Pie’s broken balloon and used her magic to stretch it over her horn. The dragon came closer. She aimed and released. The rubber bullet directly hit his eye. Sabathum covered his face roaring. Trixie laughed, but not out of malice, “Well, if you wanted to make him angry, you did a great job!”

Starlight realized this was indeed an incredibly stupid idea. “In my head I saw that differently.”

Sabathum held his eye closed. The other stared enraged at the two. “I KRUSH YA!” he roared and stomped towards them. The ponies ran on and gained a huge lead. Apparently, the shot on his head had done something after all. But angry dragons had a certain range advantage. Sabathum stopped. Starlight looked back and noticed him taking a deep breath. Something glowed under his throat.

“Take cover!” She grabbed her friend.

The dragon spewed an enormous sea of flames through the entire column hall. Everything that wasn’t behind the pillars turned into ashes. Starlight and Trixie barely managed to hide behind the thickest pillar. Their hearts were beating. They smelled the burnt rock that hurt in their eyes. The massive column could withstand much, but the other side melted into glowing lava. Sabathum would risk even a collapse to get his beloved plectrum back. He took another deep breath and shouted, “I am da metal machine! Da plectrum iz mine!”

Starlight understood his fury, but she wasn’t here to contest his title. “That is not why we’re here!” she shouted.

Sabathum didn’t hear them, for the fire was still in the crackling air. The dragon stomped towerds her. Starlight turned to her friend, “On three, we run to the exit.”

Trixie nodded without words.


Sabathum tramped to the thick column.


He knocked over an applied mountain of stones. His mouth filled with flames again.

“Three!” Starlight Glimmer and Trixie galloped off. Sabathum accelerated his steps. He was ready to spit a fireball at them.

The mares went zigzag, split up and jumped over rocks. The dragon’s focus was Trixie because she was carrying the stone. Starlight teleported it to her, hoping that would confuse him. Sabathum blasted a fire ball but just missed Trixie even though she didn’t have the stone with her. Starlight had it and galloped toward the exit. Her friend hurried after her. There stood Sunburst, who had already noticed the ruckus.

“That didn’t seem to work pretty well,” he said looking at the rampaging dragon.

“Change of plans! I’m teleporting you all out of here!” shouted Starlight. She thought of the floor above them and brought all with a bang to Maud, who was waiting here.

Starlight misjudged the height and so they appeared a few meters further above the earth pony mare. They landed directly on her. Maud gave a dry groan away, “Ouch…”

It rumbled under them enormously. Sabathum climbed out of the descent. He used the rocks as a ladder.

Tabaluh came running. Of course he had heard this noise. The bunch of ponies lay in front of him. His angry father came out of the hole. Starlight and the others lined up. She moved the rock behind her back.

Tabaluh’s face shifted in outrage and he hissed, “How dare you?”

Sabathum had risen completely out of the hole. The hall of the cave was a bit smaller. So the dragon reached up to the ceiling. When Starlight held the rock behind her, she hoped he couldn’t spit fire without damaging his plectrum. In the presence of his son, he wouldn’t resort to excessive force. Tabaluh was a child after all.

“I warn ya for da last time, ya crooks! Hand it ova or I’ll get mad!” he threatened.

Starlight thought that words might help something. “Okay! We’ll give it back to you! But first, please here me out!” She stepped forward.

Sabathum rolled his eyes annoyed. “Oh, man! Ya really are wun uv da annoy’n kind, aren’t ya?” He crossed his arms and listened. Tabaluh did the same and sat down.

Starlight lifted her watch and showed the star-shaped gemstone in the middle. “We’re not here for your music, but your plectrum has an interesting symbol on it. We are looking for such signs and would like to know more about them.”

The big dragon pointed with the palm if his hand at them and answered, “But I’ve told yer ‘der iz noth’n on it! Why are yer wast’n ma time, pony?”

Starlight turned to Sunburst and asked, “Don’t you see this symbol either?”

“No, it’s an ordinary rock,” he replied and Trixie nodded. Starlight, fascinated, put a hoof under her chin. She stared at the symbol on the rock once more. It was there and shone in her magic aura.

"Wot iz?" shouted Sabathum impatiently. "Yer friends don’t have it on dere radar. So don't make us krazy!"

She pulled her watch off and spontaneously put it on Sunburst. At first he was confused, but then seemed to understand what she meant. He looked back at the stone surface and gasped, “By Starswirl’s beard! You are right! I see it!” He returned the watch to Starlight.

Trixie curiously jumped in, “Let me see too!” She let the necklace hang around her neck and gazed at the symbol as well. Her eyes became all moist and reflected the light. “Wow!” She stunned. “This is beautiful!”

Sabathum and Tabaluh raised an eyebrow with mixed-up feelings. It must have been strange for them to see the ponies staring at an empty surface, completely enchanted.

Maud also tried a look with the watch. She was wide-eyed. “Next to my friend Mudbrair, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said monotonously.

Finally, Starlight hung the jewel around her again. The ponies rubbed their eyes. “I can still see it, Starlight,” said Sunburst.

“Really? It must be like those spots of light when you stare at the brightness for too long,” Starlight assumed.

Trixie peered around the group. “Well, what now? How do we get this symbol off the stone?”

Starlight opened the lid of the watch. Suddenly she heard a chant. Whispers and voices she could not interpret. She couldn’t describe it, but something lured her to the sign. Like a moth to the light. It pulsed to the beat of the choir.”

“Starlight, what is it?” Sunburst asked. But she just closed her eyes and rammed the flat rock into the ground by telekinesis so that it stuck. Sabathum gnashed tense with his teeth.

The mare strode towards the sign. The light grew stronger and the chant in her head louder. Gradually, the symbol became visible to everyone, also for the dragons. They were flabbergasted.

The open watch started glowing and absorbed the light of the symbol. Magic and pure energy embraced her and flowed through her. It felt good, like a breeze on a hot day. Then her eyes glowed up. The watch shivered in her power as she received the first sign. Then it disappeared on the stone, and Starlight Glimmer sank to the ground. The magic faded and she rose up again.

The others behind stared at her as if she came from another world. Starlight looked at the clock face again. It was no longer empty. The ram symbol denounced on the north side of the round display. Starlight looked up to her friends and laughed boldly.

Sabathum snorted. It wasn’t clear whether he showed remorse for his behavior or was simply relieved that his precious treasure remained unharmed. He stomped to it and picked it up.

“If yer said it earlier, den perhaps I would have let yer’n,” he said and fumbled around the stone.

All ponies wheeled around, “WHAT!?”

“Ah, it was jus a little fun,” Sabathum laughed and waved away grinning.

But Trixie stomped on the ground. “Listen up you giant, fat-ass whale! You almost burned me and Starlight!”

Tabaluh puffed up in indignation. “I won’t tolerate to call him like that! Take it back right now!”

“Ah, leave it be, little wun!” Sabathum laughed. “Da ponies got it wot dey want.”

The afternoon sun slowly leaned towards the horizon. If they left quickly, they would arrive in Ponyville in the evening.

Starlight couldn’t wait to tell Twilight about it. She looked tired over to the mountain of Canterlot. “We have to go now! The way won’t get any easier.”

Sunburst tilted his head towards the slope of the mountain. “You’re right. Climbing in the dark is unsafe. Besides, Trixie lost her climbing gear.”

“Oi, let me handle dis!” said Sabathum and grabbed every single pony as if he was collecting blind bag figures. Trixie screamed as she was pulled up by the tail. Sabathum held the four ponies in his arms. Then he spread his wings and jumped off the mountain, sailing down. Trixie still screamed because she was held upside down. She kicked with her hind legs in panic.

Sabathum jumped down from the cliffs and the ponies were back at the foot of the mountain in no time. There the dragon set them off. Trixie stumbled into the bushes. “Never again…”

But Starlight was very grateful for the shortcut. In the end the ponies had found a new friend. “Wow! Thanks for that! Let’s hope your music will be big one day!”

Sabathum laughed out loud. His belly shook, “Bwahaha! Dis will take a while! Still I’m far from fame. But wun day ma little Tabaluh will challenge Lady Emba an den we’ll see ‘oo ‘da boss ere iz!”

“We will see”, Starlight teased. “Ember won’t give up the Blood Stone Sceptre so easily.”

Sabathum lifted two fingers into the air. “Rock on, friendz!”

Then he flew back up to the mountain. The sand beneath him whirled up. The bushes and trees wobbled with rustling leaves in the updraft.

Maud pulled Trixie out of the bushes and freed her hair from leaves.

Starlight suddenly collapsed when she felt her hoof again. There she had to make a worrying realization. The dark spots were clearly visible under the bandage.

Chapter 7: Call of Friendship

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Chapter Theme

The traffic in Canterlot was heavy. Zeppelins surrounded the capital like a bumblebee swarm. Despite the incident with the train, the situation remained calm, because no ponies were harmed.

Twilight Sparkle in the carriage didn’t diminish this strange feeling. This attack was a clear sign. No one was safe anymore. They were all targets of murderers whose names remained in the shadows.

The golden carriage drove quickly to the hospital. Captain Tempest and her guards guided it in fast pace. Twilight hated presenting herself like that. She felt like a caricature in a tight armor; a laughingstock of her subjects.

Her face appeared cold in the darkness, with the curtains down. Her whole body shivered, not just because the moving carriage. She thought all about Rainbow Dash and Applejack. The reports of the guards were vague. She had to convince herself, if they were really safe.

“We’re almost there, Princess!” said the guard at the harness.

“Good!” Twilight said, “Please take me to the back entrance.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty.”

Twilight wasn’t alone in the carriage. In front of her sat a unicorn stallion with a cane and white fur. He wore a dark red robe, the uniform of the highest archmage of Canterlot. This title he received after Starswirl the Bearded had retired.

“When all the representatives of harmony are together, we will do our best to protect Equestria,” he assured.

“Yes, Archmage Neighsay!” she said while she was absorbed in thoughts.

Twilight wished someone else had become archmage, but the majority voted for him. In a room with this stallion the mood was unbearable. Luckily, her advisor Spike was also there, who looked at his statement critically. “These are Twilight’s friends you’re talking about!”

“Yes, that’s what I meant!” he said clarifying.

This stallion slowly grew old. Wrinkles appeared on his face. He still had a look of a static sculpture, like during the conflict with Twilight’s school few years ago. The position as a royal archmage divorced him from reality. But he was indispensable and respected Twilight’s decisions; those of Spike as well. It was said he had helped in the battle against Tirek, Cozy Glow and Chrysalis, and his magic was quite comparable to his predecessor.

After the carriage had stopped, Twilight was the first to step out. As ordered, they held behind the hospital. Captain Tempest and the guard secured entrance and cleared a small corridor for the princess.

It wasn’t the worthy entry for a regent, but Twilight didn’t care. She didn’t want to engage more prying eyes. With rapid trots and tensed wings, she stepped through the double door. Two guards held the entrance, while two others guided the high visit along the hallways.

The medics knew about the princess’ appearance. Therefore, the head doctor came to her in person. “Your Majesty, your friends are recovering well. They were very lucky. Follow me, please.” He opened the patient room while bowing.

Twilight saw Applejack lying on the floor. She bent carefully back and forth while crossing her front legs over her body. Rainbow Dash propped herself up on her wings, sweating, holding her own weight. Both were bandaged and covered with plasters. When Twilight crossed the door, her friends noticed her. “Twilight!”

Their joy was out of bounds and let Twilight’s huge wings embrace them. The doctor had no time warning the two mares to take easy.

“I’m so glad to see you back safe,” cried Twilight in relief. Spike, Neighsay and Tempest greeted the patients one by one.

After the happy reunion, the archmage stepped forward with his wooden cane. “Greetings, Mrs. Applejack and Mrs. Dash!” He bowed and continued. “I must say, it was a heroic feat, the way you saved the train with all its passengers.”

Applejack stretched her neck, and Rainbow Dash relaxed her wings. They just looked tired, like telling him there was no room in their flanks. Twilight frowned a little. Her friends saved so many ponies in a huge risk. Still, it seemed like this action was planned weekly on schedule.

Finally, Rainbow Dash spoke, “This credit also goes to the passengers. Every creature did their part.”

“And the train brakes made sure it didn’t rip me into apple halves,” Applejack added.

Rainbow Dash hissed at her quietly from the side, “We’ll talk about that later, AJ!”

Neighsay cleared his throat, accepting their humility with a smile. “Yes, I have heard that. Unicorns and Kirins used their magic to stop the train, and every other creature supported them mentally. This is indeed the power of unity, learned in the School of Friendship.” Then he turned to Twilight, “I heard Starlight Glimmer had closed this school because of an attack, hm?”

The princess gave Nighsay a meaningful look. The archmage knew everything about the attack and the assassins. He didn’t need to know more.

“Well, one more question,” he finally said.

“Archmage,” Tempest interrupted him, “We should discuss this in the palace.”

But Neighsay ignored the captain’s suggestion. “What spells did the attackers use against you? Were they from darker nature?”

Rainbow Dash and Applejack gazed at each other to make sure they understood this question correctly. Then Applejack nodded with confidence, “Yeah, there was something mighty scary. His eyes lighted up and… and two magic claws crawled out of his horn.”

Neighsay stroked his chin beard with interest. “Obviously he wanted to capture you in his pocket dimension. This is practical, but forbidden. You can change into another pony like a changeling, but restricted in one form. I think, I understand the assassins’ plan. They just didn’t count with your strength.”

Rainbow Dash concluded this thought with sweat on her face, “Does that mean they want to take our place?”

Neighsay nodded with a deep expression, “Exactly! So it’s easier to reach Twilight Sparkle.”

Applejack gasped in horror, “But why? Why do they bother? And why do they want our friend dead?”

Neighsay walked with his cane to the window and stared at the palace battlements. He proclaimed the supposed goal of the assassins like a dark prophecy, “It is quite clear! You are the example of all friendships. You do not harm each other and will be friends until the end of all days. But what is this gruesome irony when the Princess of Friendship gets murdered by her own friends?”

He knocked the cane tip on the ground. Suddenly the room darkened. Archmage Neighsay cast a spell which allowed everyone present experiencing a simulation of his imagination. In this case it was a vision in which the assassins were successful.

They still stood in the same room, but instead of the window an enormous hole gaped in the wall. From there a completely different Canterlot appeared. Palace battlements and towers had collapsed. Houses and stores burned in a sea of flames. The sky had turned into an ugly orange brown, and war was taking place in the distance. Pegasi, Griffins and Hippogriffs fought against each other. Yaks stormed the streets, looted the still intact houses and trampled everything in their way. Niriks with burning manes pounced on the dark changelings trying to defend their territory. Meanwhile, huge dragons circled the sky and sent firestorms down on the city. A seething fire wall raced through the alleys and devoured ponies forever. It was a terrible image that Neighsay created. This kind of magic showed only one of many possible futures.

Twilight Sparkle saw her destroyed Canterlot. Her hair waved in the simulated storm. In this world she had been murdered by an assassin who faked one of her friends. With full of sorrow, her heart became so heavy and Years of work and effort ware in vain, like nothing had happened, like she had never existed. She closed her eyes to spare herself the details. Sparks flew by, the destruction rolled relentlessly upon her.

“Stop this!” Tempest shouted.

The magician noticed Twilight’s silent reaction and ended the horror scenario immediately. Humbled, Neighsay stepped back and bowed. “I am sorry, Your Majesty! I… I went a little too far.”

The captain stomped forward to the archmage with glaring eyes. “This idea from you doesn’t surprise me! You forget we will never let that happen!”

Spike’s shoulders seemed tensed with a great desire to punch this stallion in the face. “The leaders of the nations would never make war among themselves! We will see to that!”

Tempest crowded the stallion, which was actually smaller than her. But suddenly Twilight answered in a calm and composed voice, “Let it go, Tempest! Even if this vision didn’t reflect reality, an assassination would indeed cause a strong quake. Every creature would question the Magic of Friendship, all the knowledge; all my words would lose their meaning. The Princess of Friendship murdered by her own friends. This won’t end up in the history books.”

A small determent spark flickered in her eyes. “Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy are in grave danger. Although it’s a bit early, I call upon the Council of Friendship! We must make sure that my find their way safely to Canterlot. That’s why we need a capable team escorting them.”

Rainbow Dash jumped up full of energy. She probably heard the adventure calling. “Alright! Let’s go! I volunteer!”

Applejack grabbed her colorful tail and pulled her back. “Ma dear sugar cube, ya kinda forgot something.”

Twilight had to agree. Sending Rainbow Dash and Applejack out meant putting them in danger again. “It’s for your own good to stay in Canterlot, really.”

Tempest made another suggestion, “How about a task force? Mercenaries who are up to this mission.”

But Twilight had to disagree again. “They may not stand out, but we need someone with confidence. When my friends receive the message, they would trust strangers less.”

Suddenly Spike hit on his palm. “I got it, Twilight! Let me handle this! I know the right six-pack for the job!”

The princess gave her assistant a bright smile, already guessing who he meant. “Then don’t hesitate! Call them to the palace!”

The archmage tilted his head confused. After Spike had left the room, Neighsay asked, “Who is he talking about?”

“That’s not your business right now. I have another assignment for you: Find out who’s behind all this. Go through the criminal files. Bring in Stygian as backup. If you find something, report it to me immediately,” Twilight ordered harshly.

The Archmage bowed once more and left the hospital room like a scared mouse.

After Applejack and rainbow Dash had gone ahead, Twilight looked back at the city’s shining panorama once again. She asked herself a last question in the empty room. How long will this peace last?”

Spike soared to the palace, heading directly for his balcony. He stomped into his room, which had been Luna’s sleeping chamber. Thanks to the wallpaper, it was a bit gloomy here, but Spike didn’t bother. Illuminated candles with green fire gave enough light. They were carried by dark branches sticking out of the ground. The room was indeed an interesting place, because he could sleep well, which was probably a result of remaining magic.

Spike sat on a dark iron chair and started a letter. After finishing his message, he fanned the ink dry and rolled up the parchment, then sealed it with the royal sign of the advisor. The recipient would recognize from where the letter came from.

He spits a green flame on the parchment. It caught fire and dissolved into magical particles that floated through the open balcony window. Any dragon could send letters by fire breath with a little practice. Spike already had thought this a certain dragon, and this letter flew straight to her.

The particles flew over the treetops of a dark forest to a weathered ruin known as the Castle of the Two Sisters. From there grew a crystalline structure, which was a large tree with pink leaves that swayed gently in the wind. Its trunk was actually a massive house made of crystal.

In the building, Smolder, Yona, Silverstrean and Ocellus sat on the floor, playing a board game. Since they were done with learning, a break inside the Tree House of Harmony was a good idea.

The board game they had borrowed from Starlight Glimmer was called, “Dragon Pit.” Unfortunately, only four creatures could play it, so Gallus and Sandbar just watched them.

Smolder groaned when she saw the dice number. “Oh great! My figure has fallen into another trap!”

She had to watch how the sphere rolled on a switch and her playing figure fell in a trapdoor. The dragon roared in frustration, “This game offends my kind!”

Gallus laughed and slapped his lion’s thighs. The dragon girl puffed out smoke in indignation, but then she realized, how funny the last sentence was and had to laugh along. Suddenly she choked. Grabbing her throat, she coughed hard as a crumb was stuck in her windpipe. Ocellus jumped up at once, but the dragon lifted her finger. The changeling should wait for a moment.

With all her strength she spat out a glaring flame and cremated the game in the process. A parchment rose from the fire and landed on the floor. Sandbar lifted his hooves in shock. “You charred Starlight’s board game!”

“I noticed it, and I feel much better already,” the dragon girl croaked and picked up the scroll.

Gallus looked interested at the paper. “I thought only Spike can do that.”

“All dragons can do this theoretically, but a unicorn has to cast a spell on us, like Starlight did it on me. With a little practice, you get the hang of it,” Smolder explained and noticed the shiny symbol. As it recognized the presence of the students, it flashed and unfolded itself.

At the same time a purple creature flow on Silverstreams’s back. A creature mixed out of a chicken and a snake with two claws and small, leathery wings.

“Hello, Edith! Did you hear Smolder coughing?” asked the hippogriffin, and fondled the cockatrice on the neck, which cooed calmly.

Smolder read aloud, “My dear, loyal students! I have a task of utmost urgency for you! Please come to the Palace at Canterlot as soon as possible! Your old friend, Spike!”

Sandbar had to sit down to process this. He held his head tight with dizziness. “Oh, dear. A mission from above. We hadn’t that for a long time.”

Smolder rolled up the letter and burned it. Ocellus shrank and held her hooves in front of her face. “Wow, you like to burn things today. Why did you do that?”

“Well, it’s obvious,” Smolder replied shrugging. “We are called to the palace. That is not a matter of course. We have a huge responsibility to bear. In burned the letter, because it should only involve us.”

Gallus spoke to the dragon, tapping under his beak, “Not a random thought. Do you mean, then, we have a special secret mission?”

Silverstream grabbed her cheeks and squealed. Her cockatrice crowed in unison, “Oh! Almost like in those Power Pony Comics?”

Yona laughed and looked at the shelves where some volumes stood. “This makes Yona curious!”

With pure confidence they left the ruins together. Silverstream said goodbye to Edith and instructed her to continue looking after the tree house.

They crossed a hanging bridge and overcame the plateau where the ruin stood. Their way led through the Everfree Forest, which was not without danger, but over the years it had lost some of its magic, since the tree house creation.

They must stay on the path of harmony in order to avoid falling off course. It was, so to speak, the main track of the forest, which was sometimes covered by roots, moss coatings and other overgrowths. The six students already knew this way so well that they could follow it blindly.

They arrived at a river which had to be crossed. While Sandbar and Yona waded through the shallow water, Gallus, Smolder, Ocellus and Silverstream simply flew over.

Suddenly Yona stopped and pointed on something big on the other side. “Hey, what’s that?”

Everyone looked over to the shore. Gallus narrowed the eyes. His sharp vision recognized what it really was. “There lies a manticore!”

This lion-scorpion hybrid seemed to sleep on the riverbank, but it was known, these creatures preferred taking a nap in caves rather outside in front of a rushing river.

“Something’s fishy here,” the griffin noted and flew towards it, the others followed. The manticore didn’t move a bit, and even when Yona stumbled clumsily over the stone bank, the animal didn’t seem to hear her.

Ocellus flew over and observed it with her facetted eyes. Gallus took a stick, to poke it carefully. No reaction. From then on it became clear, what was wrong with this creature.

Ocellus stroked its frayed mane. Silverstream also touched it on the belly and spoke with deepest sorrow, “Rest in peace, poor soul.”

Smolder puzzled what had killed this manticore and examined every side. Meanwhile, Yona lay down and moaned, “Oh! Yona’s not doing well now.”

Sandbar also wanted to touch the lion being, but flinched. “Guys, we’d better wash our claws and hooves. Who knows, if this thing died of some disease.”

“It wasn’t…” called Smolder in earnest, pointing to the head. Everyone gathered around and recognized a large piece of skull was missing. A deep, bleeding hole gaped between it half-closed eyes.

Gallus croaked a choking griffin sound. Sandbar took a new guess about the death cause. “This looks like a precise magic beam.”

Gallus seemed unsettled and turned away from the sight of this grotesque wound. “Magic, in what way?”

“Well, an extremely strong beam with the horn. I’m not a unicorn, but I know there are very powerful spells that can do such thing.”

Ocellus shivered by this thought, “Brr! This makes my chitin shake.”

Gallus didn’t want to stay here and looked around. “Okay, we still have an appointment with the princess! Let’s go, nothing to do here!”

“Just wait,” cried Silverstream, who apparently held some kind of mourning ceremony. She placed stones around the manticore and built a road into the river. Then she tried to push the body inside, but didn’t have enough strength. Gallus sighed. Silverstream clearly had something in mind.

Without further questions, everyone helped. Only when Yona started pushing, the carcass moved. Just before it touched the water, something spouted out of the river. The large head of a mustached sea snake appeared, and the six students leaped back. Smolder and Gallus prepared for an attack. This sudden appearance splashed water over the friends. “Well, hello there? You’re not going to push that poor thing into my river, are you?” warned the sea snake.

Yona shook her fur dry, spreading droplets over the friends. After everyone had overcome the yak’s splashing attack, Silverstream folded up the front claws. “Oh! We are terribly sorry! We hippogriffs are used to bury our deceased in the water.”

The sea snake understood what she meant. “Oh, yes! You are living in the sea, too. I should have known that. But sweetheart, as much I appreciate your empathy for this unfortunate creature, you must understand, even a dead manticore keeps its deadly venom. It wouldn’t do the river and me any good, if you know what I mean.”

Silverstream nodded and let the quick funeral idea be forgotten. The sea snake smiled gratefully, “By the way, my name is Steven Magnet, the most beautiful sea snake in all of Equestria.” He twirled his beard around with a beaming smile.

“I am Smolder and these are my friends Gallus, Ocellus, Silverstream, Yona and Sandbar. Can I ask something? Do you know who did this to the manticore?”

Steven Magnet raised his head, “I have seen it. When I showed up, it was already gone. Two ponies were running up the river and one cursed things, I didn’t dare to say. These words were horrible.”

Everyone looked upriver. If these unicorns acted so brutal with this animal, it was certainly not a good idea following them. Sandbar shook head in resignation, “It’s depressing that such ponies still exists, even in Twilight’s era.”

“Not every creature understands friendship,” Smolder said, turning to the dead manticore. “And besides, we have something more important to do…”

“But what about that poor creature there?” Silverstream asked.

Smolder stood in front of it, stretching her knuckles. “I’ll bury it in the good old dragon way.”

Ocellus’ face became blank. “Let me guess… You’re burning it.”

“Damn straight!” She took a deep breath and let her fire simmer, till stomach began to glow. Then she spat out a huge fire burst. The manticore vanished behind the flames and the others covered their faces, while Smolder knelt down with fist on the ground. There she stared quietly into the fire for one minute long. As the flames devoured the whole creature, she stood up and marched past her friends. “Let’s go, the princess is waiting for us!”

The friends waved Steven goodbye, washed their claws and hooves, and continued the way. Behind them the smoke rose into the sky.

The two assassins in their robes rested farther upriver in the middle of the forest. In front of them lay three glowing stones, which did not burn like fire, but shared the same heat. The red-faced Quartus scolded as he used his magic to sew the scratches on his flank, “Curse this manticore! I hope it burns in hell and suffers agonizing pain!”

Septimus drank a calming tea that he had placed on the glowing stones. It was pure bad luck. After being launched off by Tempest, they landed right in the middle of the Everfree Forest, on top of a manticore. The creature had probably tried quenching its thirst at the river. It hit Quartus badly, and Septimus had just enough time to fire a magic beam, after that he had to listen to his friends cries for an hour long.

“You’re lucky he didn’t use his sting. Then you would be a goner,” he said and took a sip. Only the tea saved Septimus from madness. Quartus’ wound looked worse than it really was. It will leave scars behind and give his cutie-mark, three curved daggers in circle, a certain touch. Only his right flank was affected. “He shouldn’t fuss about it,” Septimus thought and swirled the tea to spread the aroma.

Quartus continued complaining. “If Quintus… Ouch! Didn’t screw up… Ah! Then we wouldn’t sit here! Hnggh!”

Septimus had to agree. Quintus had taken a simple-minded approach. It should have been the captain of the Royal Guard. A unicorn with broken horn and they were both defeated by her anyway. There couldn’t be a greater shame.

“Do we actually know anything about the real bearer if the wither mark?” asked Quartus in passing.

Septimus shrugged, finished drinking the tea with relish and said, “Not that I know of! If the wither touched a pony, it should already have bitten the dust.”

Quartus finished the last stitch and bit off the thread. Then he sat down and also sipped his tea empty. “Isn’t that good? This could mean, it has become a wither pony, and might try another attack.”

“Not if Quintus messed up the ritual, too. Then the wither pony would do what he wants and this could be bad for all of us,” Septimus explained and looked thoughtfully at the treetops. Catching Rainbow Dash and Applejack had failed as well, thanks to Tempest. Without her, the job would have been a success. He thought hard about other possibilities. Septimus could create a wither pony on his own, but he needed a victim and a lot of blood to write the spell.

Smoke wafts rose above their heads and Septimus stopped short. “What the hay?”

He stood up and ran to the river. Quartus limped after him with astonished looks. They saw a smoke column rising downstream, where they had come from. The assassins galloped along the river, while Quartus groaned in pain, because of his wound. As they arrived, the manticore burned before them.

“Dude! How did that happen?” asked Quartus aloud. “Is this typical for manticores? Do they catch fire when they die?”

“No! That would be new to me,” Septimus replied and sniffed. The fire smelled odd to him. “Do you sense that?” he asked his companion.

Quartus also began to sniff. “Phew! It smells like puke!”

Septimus explained, while scanning the fire, “Not just that. You smell diethyl, an important ingredient in dragon fire.”

Quartus snorted, “Whew! A dragon did this?”

“That’s right!” said Septimus, searching the ground. If he was lucky, he might find more clues. His sharp eye rewarded him, tracks on the sandy half of the shore lead right into the forest. They were from different creatures. “A dragon, a yak, a changeling, a griffin, a hippogriff, and a pony.”

Quartus chuckled, “That’s quite a motley crew!”

Septimus followed the trail. Then he raised his head sneering and pointed in the direction the creatures had run. “Let’s see what this troop is up to. Maybe we can rough them up a bit, what do you think?” Quartus grinned sardonic. He wouldn’t mind.

The six students hasted along the path. Smolder hoped reaching the train to Canterlot on time. They had already lost time and were determined to catch up.

The forest was peaceful during daytime. Nevertheless, they had no time, because evening would soon dawn. Sandbar still seemed to remember the burial ritual of the dragons and asked Smolder, “So you burn your deceased?”

“Yes, we make a big celebration, and sing and tell stories about him, if this dragon was very popular.”

Silverstream caught up with them. “That doesn’t sound like mourning.”

“Why should we? We prefer to celebrate because he was among us. Okay, we mourn a little bit,” Smolder said with a touch of pride.

Silverstream thought about something and said, “We hippogriffs, on the other side, are very dramatic. We cry about the dead and let them float out into the sea until the sun goes down. Then a green light flashes on the horizon. After that the family fasts for three days.”

Gallus spoke, as the topic has become interesting to everyone, “Sounds really frustrating, but just wait until you now the Griffins’ ceremony, because we don’t have one. We just bury them and the end.”

The others were shocked at this flappy way of burial. Ocellus asked him, “No tears? No funeral feast? No farewell?”

Gallus shook his head and sighed, “I wish it were different, but we are very reluctant showing such feelings. We like to mourn alone.”

Ocellus thoughtfully placed her hoof under the chin. “I remember Chrysalis had transformed the empty chitin shells into a slimy mass that was used for the larvae. I don’t know how we do this today. Until now no changeling after Chrysalis has died. Somehow we are living longer and as soon the time comes, we have to think about a new ceremony.”

“Yaks mourn silent!” Yona began to tell. “Yaks build mounds for dead yak and add property.”

Finally, it was Sandbar’s turn to contribute his part. He hesitated a bit, because thinking about it was hard. “Well we also bury our deceased and mourn for them. We also eat afterwards, but not in a cheerful way. The family shares the property. Sometimes we get into fights over it.”

“Sounds pretty dull if you ask me,” commented Smolder.

“What does that mean?” sandbar asked the dragon confused.

The dragon girl backed up a bit. She didn’t want to offend him. “Oh, don’t think about it. We live here and right now!”

The students crossed a fallen tree trunk, connecting two cliffs. Only Yona and Sandbar had to walk over, and Gallus must make sure, the yak girl didn’t fall off the trunk. It was always the same place she had difficulties with it.

They reached the other side without problems. There stood a light gray pony with red braids and a robe. He greeted smiling, “The sun salutes you, dear travelers!” He bowed. The accent of the stranger sounded like from Saddle Arabia.

“Hello!” the students greeted back.

“Do you have a moment?” I’d like to ask a question!”

Gallus crossed his arms skeptic and answered, “Actually, we are really in a hurry!”

“Just a moment! I want to know if this is the right way to Ponyville.”

Ocellus nodded kindly, “Yes! You are right!”

The unicorn boewed deeply once again und continued, “Thank you, dear friends! I am an old schoolmate of Princess Twilight Sparkle. I’m here to visit her.”

“Is that so?” buzzed Gallus with frowning eyebrows.

The stallion put on a bright, friendly beam, like had payed attention in Flutteshy’s lessons. That melted the ice, especially for Yona. “Yak trusts you. Pony Smile is really good!”

“Call me Gün Batimi! Tell me my friends; are Twilight and the others still good fellows?”

The students walked on with him and continued the small talk. Ocellus started, “You really have to be careful here. Many dangerous creatures are living here, Timberwolves, Pukwudgies and Manti…”

“…cores?” Gün Batimi ended. Smolder and Gallus shared a frowning look.

“Right! Do you know these beings?” Ocellus asked.

“Only read about them, but you haven’t answered my question, yet. What about Twilight’s friends?” the traveler recalled.

Silverstream just decided to reply, “Oh, they’re very scattered right now! As far I heard Rarity is in Manehatten, Pinkie is at a convention and Fluttershy usually hangs out with Discord. No idea what Applejack and Rainbow Dash are doing. Maybe they’re still in Ponyville.”

Gün Batimi seemed surprised, “Oh, aren’t they friends anymore?”

“Oh yes! But everyone has a lot to do right now,” Silverstream said giggling.

The traveler nodded and smiled, showing a sparkling gold tooth.

A dark shadow rushed over Sandbar and floored him. He was surrounded by a smoke cloud, making him immobile. Quartus materialized and held a knife to his throat. Sandbar cried out and kicked in the air, but the assassin pressed the blade harder against him to make clear, he’d better keep still.

The other five couldn’t react. The alleged traveler dropped his acting mask and conjured a dome around them. All were trapped. “Ah! Too easy! Your little fire was just magnificent!”

Smolder hissed with anger, “So it was you! I just knew it!”

Septimus cackled and bowed playfully, much like his old role as a peaceful traveler. “Quite right! Great perception! A pity this talent will be lost to the world!”

Gallus clenched his fists. “What do you want?”

Septimus wandered around them like a predator. “You’ll find out soon enough. First of all, I want to thank you for sharing such great information about Twilight’s friends.”

Silverstream quailed, kneeling down bitterly. With watery eyes she clasped her chest like this deception crushed her.

At last Septimus lifted his head and showed glowing blue eyes. “Now witness a ritual you’ll never forget!”

Quartus started a growling laugh and cut a red line in Sandbar’s throat, who screamed loud. Yona cried for him with stretching hooves. The students faced a real nightmare.

Chapter 8: Magic Awakens

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Smolder had no idea what to do. One wrong step and this maniac would cut Sandbar into pieces. Then again, she had the nasty feeling that they have to fear for their lives soon. Septimus spoke with a cynical smile, “Don’t worry! Your friend won’t suffer too long!”

He gave Quartus a sign to end it. He waited for this and aimed at the earth pony’s artery. Sandbar screamed a sharp cry and tried to free himself.

Suddenly something jumped out of the bushes and lunged at Quartus. A powerful blow hit him, causing to lose his dagger. Sandbar was free and crawled back into the thicket.

The attacker was cloaked with a brown hood and began to charge at Septimus. He summoned his flaming hooves to fight off this newcomer. The savior’s hood flew back during the fray, revealing a black-white striped head of a zebra mare.

Quartus reared back and attacked from the side, but the zebra swung her elbow sideways like she saw it coming. Then she grabbed him and hurled his body on Septimus, so that he lost concentration on his shield around the students.

In Smolder the fire of revenge seethed. She was about to charge, but the zebra was faster and blew a powder at the stallions. They waved with closed eyes their hooves around. “What is this stuff!” shouted Quartus.

Then blue dots appeared all over their coats. Quartus looked at his colleague and opened his mouth in shock. Instead of a comment, a deep frog noise came out. Confused, he paused. Then he quacked again and covered his mouth in irritation.

Septimus staggered back, shook his head and pressed the hooves against the temples. With great effort he said, “This is… Poison Joke Powder. I can’t think anymore. Think for me, you must!” He squinted at the zebra dopily and swiveled back to Quartus. “Nah… Fighting, no more! Gotta go!”

Quartus grabbed him under his shoulder and threw a knife with a smoking blade to the ground. A large dark cloud appeared, obscuring the others from view. After the fog had lifted, the assassins were gone. It would take a long time for them returning to normal again without cure.

Smolder threw her arms overhead. “Where are they? We have to stop these criminals!”

The zebra turned around. “These ponies aren’t quite normal. Don’t follow them. They aren’t moral! Evil creatures are everywhere, that’s why I have my Poison Joke Powder there!” She showed the students her brown pouch.

The friends knew this zebra that lived in the Everfree Forest. Twilight had often mentioned her.

“Zecora!” gasped Silverstream. “You came at the right time!”

The zebra mare went to a bush near the road. Behind it Sandbar lied slumped in the dirt. He was shaking all over and flinched as Zecora approached him.

“Young colt, the danger is no more. The stallions are gone and can’t hurt you anymore,” Zecora said calmly.

Sandbar was still frozen and refused to let anyone come closer. His neck bled. The pupils were shrunken. Zecora raised her head and looked at the others with concern.

Then Yona bent down and stretched her hoof out. Quietly she spoke, “It’s alright. Yona protect Sanbar!”

The stallion slowly reached his hoof out. Yona pulled him close into a hug. The yak’s fur was cuddly soft, so he calmed down again. With a shaking voice he cried, “He was going to kill me! I saw it in his eyes. He actually wanted to murder me.”

He cringed and squeezed thick tears out. Yona gently rocked him like a little foal. If the situation wasn’t so serious, the friends would have been touched by Yona’s efforts. Instead, they felt great pity.

Zecora ran ahead through the tree’s shadows and called, “We have to trot to my spot. After all this cause, you really need a pause!”

Gallus shook his head, “No time! We must hurry to the princess! We were called and are late anyway!”

“You aren’t ready for this way. I can restore your strength if you stay. Twilight will understand this decision, when you rest and move on under better condition!” Zecora said encouraging.

Every creature had to realize it. After this experience, a continuation would be anything but pleasant, and Sandbar wasn’t able to walk at the moment.

The students accompanied the zebra until they found her said home. It was a hollowed tree, like the Tree House of Harmony, but it resembled a natural oak. Zecora opened the overgrown front door and revealed her humble home. A cauldron of delicious-smelling soup brewed there. Various masks with deterrent grimaces hung on the wall. The room was covered with plates, shelves and different spice vases.

Zecora apologized for the mess, “I was sitting here at dinner just now, but I forgot an ingredient somehow. So I searched the Forest Everfree and suddenly heard Sandbars desperate plea.”

Silverstream sniffed the delicious food and licked her beak. “Hmm, this smells good! Thank you for the rescue and everything,” she said and sat down. Zecora offered each friend a bowl. The ingredient she had added was a plant, which enhanced the flavor.

While they ate gleefully, an owl hooted outside. It dawned already. Twilight would set the sun soon and wonder where they had gone. Gallus looked disappointed out the window.

Smolder recognized what kept the gryphon busy. “Hey, Gallus. I could write Spike a letter.”

He nodded agreeing. “Good idea! Tell him also what happened today.”

Zecora handed quill and paper to the dragon, which began to write the message. Sandbar snuggled with Yona as he silently watched the fire under the cauldron. Ocellus asked the zebra something, “Why are you speaking every sentence in rhymes?”

Zecora smiled amused at the young changeling’s curiosity. “My language rhymes with every word. Other accents, different herd. I got used to this for a while, still I hope you like this kind of style.”

Silverstream responded with full enthusiasm, “I think your language is great! Very poetic!”

Smolder had finished writing and controlled the text. Then she noticed something, “Aw, Tartaros! I wrote everything in rhymes!”

Everyone laughed loud and Smolder sent the letter without a comment.

The spell floated through the windy evening air into Spike’s room. He was about to write his book and felt suddenly the pressure in his throat. Quickly he stepped back and spit out the scroll. The letter was strange, but behind this poetry hid an alarming message. “Oh for Scale’s Sake!” he shouted and hurried to the throne room.

Twilight, Rainbow Dash and Applejack worked with Archmage Neighsay on the descriptions for the suspects. The long list was rolled up in front of them. A skinny small unicorn stallion stood beside Neighsay.

The pony, named Stygian rolled the parchment up. “I’ll get to work right away. I’d like seeing the temple, too. It’s starting to interest me.”

“All right, but before you go, you must find more about these assassins,” Twilight replied. Neighsay and Stygian bowed and left the throne room.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash also sat there and bandied worried looks. The pressure was huge, especially when an invisible blade was swinging above their heads.

“This temple in the cave. What is it exactly?” Rainbow asked.

“We don’t know. It reacted when Tempest had awakened the glow crystals. Then this pocket watch for Starlight Glimmer appeared. Seems like, the assassins know something. Now the watch is leading Starlight to symbols all over Equestria.”

Applejack remembered, “These symbols in my barn?”

“Yes! I hope nothing will happen to Starlight.”

Suddenly, Spike stormed through the double doors. He held a letter. “The students were attacked by tow unicorns in the Everfree Forest!”

The ponies jumped when they heard this. Twilight’s expression turned into deep horror. “These cursed…”

“They’re fine! Zecora had rescued them, now they are with her!” Spike followed up quickly.

Twilight dropped groaning into the seat. “How did they know? How do these assassins found out what we were up to, Spike?”

The friendship counselor shrugged his broad shoulders. Only both were aware about this message and Spike didn’t even know these assassins. Twilight dragged herself from the throne to look at the stained glass windows, lost in thought. In her young career as regent, she hadn’t felt such perplexity. She stomped on the floor. “That’s enough! I will send the guards in! They should search the forest for these criminals!”

She turned to Spike, her mane swinging open like a curtain. “Pick the students up at Zecora’s. I don’t want another incident like that.”

Applejack stepped beside her. “We’re on your side, Twi! Whatever happens!”

Rainbow Dash flew to her and laid her wing around her shoulder. “Trust me! We will put a stop to this foul play!”

Twilight smiled a little at her friends. But somehow she had the feeling this would be harder than before. “I’m very glad, you’re here,” she gasped. “Friends like you only come around once.”

Then she returned their embrace and nodded at her dragon friend. Spike immediately set off to travel to Zecora’s house via teleportation circle.

Twilight went to her throne and activated a crystal on the back rest. A short time later, Tempest came storming through the gate. Before the captain could take a bow, Twilight called the new order, “Two assassins have been spotted in Everfree Forest. We must send a squad before dark!”

Tempest grinned when she heard this. She summoned the guards with her crystal. Every guard in reserve was notified. Then she ran back to prepare herself for anything.

Twilight, Rainbow Dash and Applejack ran to the main balcony. From there, they could overlook the palace square.

Three dozen stallions marched out the barracks. The troop number was large enough to find two criminals in the forest. Twilight looked down imperiously but respectfully. Her mane waved in the evening ar. Even though she was the princess of friendship and ruled the land with kindness through her council, militey doctrine was held with care. Twilight knew that one day some threats couldn’t end with conciliation.

She spread her wings and shouted so that every guard pony could hear her, “Listen! I want those criminals in Everfree Forest alive, if possible. My advisor Spike is also there to meet six students from the School of Friendship. They need a safe escort to Canterlot. Nothing should happen to them! Both are priority!”

The guards saluted at the same time. Tempest yelled, “Be ready!!!” All soldiers presented their spears and struck the staff to the ground. A loud thud echoed.

Then the captain ordered the marching signal. All guard ponies boarded several flying carriages that soared off to Ponyville. Rainbow Dash marveled at this commanding power. “Twilight, you’re awesome!”

“Yes… But am I still a good princess?” She turned back before Rainbow could say something.

It was time to prepare for the sunset. Maybe she could delay the night ab bit to make it easier finding the assassins. Applejack and Rainbow Dash already seemed tiered and went to their rooms. Twilight wished them a good sleep.

As she reached the door to her room, something lighted up between the chinks. Her crystal ball was flashing. She turned it on and saw the delighted face of Starlight Glimmer. “Hellooo, Twilight!”

The ponies were resting in the same spot they had visited on their outward journey. Trixie had ignited marshmallows over the fire. Its sticky mass dripped down. Maud Pie ate her stone bread, audibly chewing. Sunburst studied his notebook and listened to the conversation. Twilight called out delighted, “Starlight! Any news?”

“You bet!” she spoke proudly, holding up the watch. The light of the message crystal made Twilight appear like a flickering mirage.

“Wow, fascinating! Have you figured how it works or do you need to complete the clock face?”

Starlight looked less pleased. “Well, yeah, looks like it. But I don’t have much time left!” She lifted her diseased hoof. The curse had taken over more of her skin. Almost her entire forearm was darkened.

Sunburst flipped through his notebook while he reported, “The next symbol is in Yakyakistan, far to the north.”

“Really, that’s not just around the next corner,” Twilight exclaimed in surprise. “You’d better be prepared and avoid the train. The assassins might come after you. Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and your six students have been ambushed by them.”

Something inside Starlight boiled. She really wanted to flay these ponys alive. Twilight sighted full sorrow and closed her eyes. “They survived the encounter. This gang… I believe they have eyes and ears everywhere. I’m serious. Take care of yourself, Starlight. We’re trotting in difficult times.”

“Thanks, Twilght! Take care of yourself, too.” With these words, she ended the connection and stared into the dusky distance to Canterlot. Immensely glad her students had escaped, but slowly she was overwhelmed with dread about what was to come. The princess had hidden nothing from her. She was scared and knew this face all too well from the past.

She turned to the camp with lingering concern and spoke to the others, “Let’s move on!”

Everypony packed up, extinguished the fire with sand and dirt, and continued the road to Ponyville. After few steps, Starlight’s hoof pained again. She opened her water bottle, but only a small drop flowed. “Darn it! If I hadn’t been so thirsty,” she grumbled.

Trixie searched in her bag. “Here, it’s not much, but I hope it helps.”

Starlight was surprised by her generosity, “But you have nothing to drink then!”

“Oh, pff! The great and all-powerful Trixie will survive this short trip without water.”

Starlight, quite touched poured it over her leg. The pain faded a little. I would have taken a little more, but this was just bearable. “Yes, this should do! Thanks, Trixie!”

Sunburst caught up, while he looked over the notebook. “If we keep walking at this speed, we’ll arrive in time for nightfall. But really, it should be getting dark by now. Hmmm…”

The sun was still halfway up in the sky. Twilight should lower it soon. Probably she was distracted. That also had been the case in Celestia’s time. Nothing unusual, when the sunset was a little late.

Starlight suddenly stopped, the others almost bumped into her. Their eyes were fixed on a pony, standing on the dusty trail, like it had just teleported here. Trixie was alarmed, as she noticed something. “Sunburst?”

Yes, Trixie?” he replied.

“That’s him, that’s the pony from the Sugarcube Corner. We have a great and powerful problem now!”

The dark unicorn stallion raised his head and showed two glaring ruby-colored eyes. Starlight growled, “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

She faced the unicorn straddle-legged. He said nothing, but kept glaring at her gloomily. There was a pure, lackluster malice in his gaze.

Then he sped forward, split into two shadows and circled the travelers. A black fire barrier surrounded them. The stallion appeared behind them. His horn flashed red. Starlight’s horn also lighted up, signaling him, she wasn’t defenseless. She whirled around.

The dark stallion slandered walked toward her. Starlight fired a warning shot. He wasn’t impressed. Unlike Twilight and her friends, she drew the line after the first warning and fired again, this time directly. But he parried the shot and kept moving. A red haze floated from his horn and formed a long-fingered claw. It grabbed after Starlight, but she managed to dodge, dangerously close to the black fire, which exuded no heat. She had the feeling to better not touch it. “It’s no use, marked one! You’re already dead!” the stallion growled.

“Oh, yeah? Can a dead do this?” She waved her horn and hurled small stones at the attacker.

At the same time Sunburst fired a beam. The dark pony could deflect the stones, but the beam hit his head, so that the hood slid down, revealing tousled black hair. With clenched teeth he stared at Sunburst. Then he raised the horn and, with a magical blast, knocked Starlight’s friends outside the fire circle.

Sunburst’s cape had touched the fire. He rolled over the ground, but the more he moved, the more it spread. With no choice he had to throw it off. The fire engulfed the garment and dissolved it completely.

Starlight was separated from her friends. The assassin tried to grab her every time with its magical claws. She sidestepped, and then shot in front of the stallion. Dirt streaked his face. That distracted him and gave her a chance to charge ahead. Somehow he managed to dodge. Starlight almost ran into the flames. Again the stallion attacked with his claws. She blocked them with a few shots. “Stop it! You groper!” she snarled.

The stallion laughed and didn’t let up. His two claws encircled her. She couldn’t hold back the spell much longer.

Sunburst tried again with a focused shot through the flames, but the stallion realized it and let the fire rise higher. The shot missed. Maud wanted to quench the flames with stones, but there she saw with spellbound horror how the fire simply consumed them, too.

Starlight tried something new. She teleported. But instead of land outside the circle, she reappeared inside. The stallion had everything under control. “My magic prevents such tricks!” he scoffed.

Another claw lunged at Starlight. She charged her magic in the collarbone area and set a blast wave free. The fire was caught by the wind, but the stallion was still standing. That finished her off and slumped down powerless. Her opponent strode triumphantly toward her. His splayed, magical claw hovered over and snatched her hind legs. A red portal opened before the dark pony and pulled her inside. Starlight screamed, tried to hold onto something, but she was dragged further into the hole.

Trixie cried out for her. Everyone could only watch as Starlight got dragged into the magical vortex.

Several came out the portal, grabbing her by all extremities. Her screaming mouth was closed. With watery eyes she flailed in the air. Her muffled cry grew louder as her hind legs disappeared in the portal, and then her torso vanished, then her head; and finally her outstretched limbs.

The stallion closed the portal and stared through the dark fire at the others. Everypony couldn’t move.

Slowly he went up into smoke and the fire dimmed in the meantime. Sunburst barreled to him like a raging bull. Before he could reach him, the dark stallion had disappeared. Sunburst fell on the dusty earth. Trixie and Maud ran after him. He sat on the ground staring. “She’s gone…” he sobbed.

Trixie bit her lip in anger and lowered the head to shed a silent tear. “What now?” How are we going to track him?”

A perplexed silence fell. Sunburst stood up and wiped his face. The cloak was burned, and Starlight had disappeared into a gateway to hell. “We will return to Ponyville. We must report what happened,” he said dryly.

Maud looked again at the spot where her friend had vanished and seemingly made a decision, “I will take the gems to Mudbriar and help you.”

Sunburst exhaled and wiped his face one last time. “Thank you, Maud!”

The gray mare tilted her head giving him a rare smile. “As my sister Pinkie said, that’s what friends are for.”

The group set off. This time at a fast trot, for they did not know how much they had left.

As she awoke, everything seemed dim. She felt the cold, wet floor. The tiles reminded her of a dirty bathroom with weathered concrete walls. Everything turned and twisted like in a stupor after a hard cider evening. While she tried to stand up, everything blurred. She grabbed her forehead in focus to make a light, but her horn wasn’t working. Then Starlight noticed she was standing crooked; or was it the room? No idea. So she dared to take a step. Her heavy hooves felt like lead.

Each hoof noise sounded deep and muffled. Starlight looked up with tired eyes and realized the room with five walls. Each side held a passageway. She spun around. Nothing seemed to make sense and yet here she was. Limping through one of the doors, she found herself back in another five-sided room. Then she walked on and noticed all rooms were like this. She was trapped here.

“No… No…” She shook herself, which was a mistake, because everything was even more blurry than before. No matter where she turned, her sight somehow lagged behind. She had to sit down. Her brain was buzzing violently.

Suddenly her hoof throbbed. A sign she wasn’t dead, and this was definitely not the afterlife. That would have been a terrible imagination. She walked on. Dazed, she lifted her head up and wobbled to the next room. It was just like any other. “Oh… Where is the exit?” she whined.

“You’ll never find it if you wander aimlessly around, my dear!” spoke a husky, masculine voice, which sounded withered, but strong and confident. It seemed to come from nowhere, apparently more from her thoughts, like she had a second, independent mind.

Starlight whirled around, “Who said that?”

“Look at your hoof!”

Astonished, Starlight stared at her bandaged wound. “Am I hallucinating? Am I going crazy?”

“Perhaps, but I am speaking to you! You’re in the pocket dimension of a unicorn, my dearest!”

“Stop calling me that… What are you anyway and why are you in my head?” spoke Starlight annoyed.

“I’m not in your head, remember? I am your hoof, much more what’s inside.”

“What!” she gasped out.

“Oh, yeah, you got that right!” the voice laughed. “I’m your little curse!”

Starlight groaned and sat down with a heavy heart. She grabbed her chest, because she had the feeling to burst. When she had calmed down again, she spoke in a composed voice, “Then you are the creature who massacred one of my students and tried to kill Twilight. What do you actually intend by these acts?” She almost sounded like a serious judge.

“Yes, I am the so-called nuisance. But I can explain: I am forced to do that so I can free myself!”

“Free?” stuttered Starlight.

The voice was silent for a moment. Then it spoke bitterly, “These creatures have bound me to a dead body in order to kill this so-called Twilight. I must obey, or will be stuck here forever in this world, sucking up your magic until you turn into a wither pony.”

“So you’re keeping me as a host until you achieve your goal?” How perverse!” Starlight concluded angrily.

The voice replied a little disappointed, “So you don’t feel pity for someone like me after all?”

“What the hell?” she sputtered. “Of course I don’t feel sorry for anyone who tries to murder my friends!”

“And I hoped you spoke the truth!” the voice said in sorrow.

Starlight paused for a moment and then spoke promptly, “Wait a minute! When and where should I have spoken the truth?”

Suddenly she heard her own voice, “They summon something just to serve them unwillingly. I kind of understand why those poor bastards are so furious.”

She remembered again. The voice sounded a little more satisfied, “Did I jog your memory, eh?”

“I… I said that, right…” she said in amazement, clutching her head.

The voice continued, “Well, you have to know, I was once a living being like you. I don’t remember what I used to be, but certainly not from this world.”

“You’re from Tartarus, right?” Starlight piped up.

The voice laughed out loud, “Haha! Wrong, where I come from you little pony mind would go crazy. It’s a place where I have a form and feel at home!”

Starlight just guessed what this thing was, “So, you’re a demon?”

“Call me whatever you want! We have our own names, but you give us others to take the fear away from yourselves. Shade, ghost, phantom or demon.”

“And why are you even speaking to me?” asked Starlight.

“For reasons!” the shade explained. “I’ve already told you the first one; you have empathy for someone like me. Second, I can do it in a place like this. We’re in the mind-world of a magical being, and everything’s connected there somehow, complex shit, you know… And third, there is something, that can help us and it dangles around your neck.”

Starlight took her pocket watch. She became curious and hoped to finally find out what it was.

The voice spoke, “Seems to be a very powerful artifact. I think it can help us both.”

Starlight’s eyes widened and just had to ask, “Do you know what it is and where I came from?”

“Nope, it must be from you world, but I sense a strong magic in it. When you absorbed this symbol, it became even stronger.”

Starlight suspected what it meant. Gemstones or crystals could be magically charged. That such a stone was inherent in this watch was quite possible. She saw the chance for a deal. “Okay, shadow. How do we proceed? Will you stop consuming me and help to get these symbols?”

The voice sighed briefly, “I guess I have no choice, but I do need some magic, otherwise I’ll starve.”

“Wouldn’t that be good for me?” Starlight said snappishly.

The shadow affected a laugh, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? It’s not that simple. I also have an instinct for self-preservation. Without wanting to, I will gradually wear you out until you become an empty shell. Then I have to do the command, bound on me on my own. By the way, if I die, you die too.”

“So you’re still targeting for Twilight”, Starlight grumbled, wrinkling her nose.

“That’s the job, sadly. I’m not doing this willingly, believe me. If you see Twilight again, my consciousness will shut down and I won’t be in control.”

That sounded nasty. Starlight still couldn’t trust this being, but if the watch could help them, she had to chance it. “I need a sign of faith,” she said firmly.

“What? Isn’t that enough what I’ve told you?” the creature spoke in surprise.

“It’s just hard for me on something unfamiliar like you. Besides, you killed someone, and I can’t let that trough.”

The shadow fell silent. Apparently he was thinking. “You’re pretty persistent, pony!” he grunted after a while. “Alright, I’ll give you a hint on how to get out of here. That’s all I can offer.”

Starlight accepted. “Okay!”

“Good, listen! I mentioned that you’re in the mind of a pony and everything is connected somehow. How do I know that? Because that very pony summoned me into a dead body. I have felt his thoughts and feelings. He’s full of hate.”

“But why are they so mad at Twilight?” She hoped to find the reason of the assassination attempts.

“Search me. Maybe he really doesn’t like her mane?” the voice said, much to Starlight’s disappointment. “Back to topic! You need to find something to get him riled up. Make him angry; be like a wriggling fish in a net, slowly slipping away. Once he can’t control his feelings, it’s easier to find the exit.”

“Starlight nodded, “And how I recognize it?”

“I’ll show you the way. You’ll see it.”

Starlight looked at the entrances. Each unicorn had pretty much its own pocket dimension, the so-called world of the subconscious. Depending on the emotional stability, it was something different. She still felt the daze that this stallion was purposely creating on her. The fact, all the rooms were the same, must have been because he was playing with her. She hoped the stallion could hear her and shouted, “Alright, you weirdo, now I’m talking to you! What’s your point in all thus? Power over other ponies?”

No answer came back, but she kept trying and shouted louder, “Do you hear me!? You’re a spineless stallion that despises lighthouses, because you can’t find a corner to cry in!”

Her voice faded into the distance. She thought she heard a rumble and trotted after it. A silhouette loomed behind her. The sound of a drainage channel could be heard. Starlight turned and saw a figure completely encased in black liquid. It stared at her with dead, white eyes. Her shadow spoke up again, “Looks like you got his attention. He sent a patron.”

“What is that?” she gasped as the thing slowly crept closer to her.

“No time for that, it wants to silence you!”

Starlight guessed the solution. Her scream from earlier must have triggered it. The slimy creature extended a long arm and grabbed her throat. Before she couldn’t catch her breath, she let out a shrieking scream. The monster let go and backed away, but it had also robbed Starlight’s strength. Her hoof throbbed and the voice spoke enthusiastically, “Wow! You have powerful vocal cords! Come on, again, I think something has happened in the dimension!”

“I… can’t… anymore…,” Starlight moaned.

“Go! Again! That could be it! Your emotions are stronger than his!”

The monster quickly recovered from the first setback and attacked again. Starlight took a deep breath and screamed again, louder, more intimately. She could take no more, her throat burned. The black something shrank and wriggled away from her. All at once she felt a violent tremor. The walls and tiles cracked. The grumbling in the distance grew louder. It sounded like the pony in whose dimension she was trapped. The voice in Starlight’s head called, “You did it! Now follow me!”

Her right hoof pulled her along. It was painful and almost fell to the ground. She stumbled as a large, invisible dog was dragging her through the corridors. Then she caught sight of what that could be the exit. It was still the same room, but a glaring portal shone in the middle.

A furious roar echoed in the distance and again the dimension shook. The leg didn’t hesitate and pulled her into the light. Instead of disappearing in it, she slammed the nose against something.

“Oops! This guy doesn’t want to make it easy on us, hold on a second. Imagine your hoof being angry.”

Starlight couldn’t follow, “What?”

“No time! Just do it!” The voice sounded stern.

She closed her eyes and felt that pain again like in the throne room. When she looked at her hoof, it had mutated into a black mace with purple spikes. Her breath stuttered by seeing this monstrosity. It took momentum and shattered the barrier surrounding the portal. Glass cracked. A deep, aggressive roar shook the dimension. The voice in Starlight’s head called, “You can go now! I won’t be able talking to you outside, but I’ll keep my bargain and help you complete the watch!”

Starlight strode in bewilderment to the portal. Behind her, she heard the gurgling sound again. The monster was back. Before it grabbed her with its arms, she had jumped through.