Eljunbyro

by Imploding Colon

First published

Bellesmith must perform experimental tasks in order to keep herself and her beloved safe.

Bellesmith is a pony who must perform experiments in order to keep herself and her beloved safe.

Rainbow Dash continues to fly east.

Morning Sun

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When the morning sun rose, I heard somepony singing. My eyes squinted as I gazed eastward, overwhelmed by a great dizziness. I tried to say something, but my mouth was dry. My hooves stretched into nothingness. The sky spun. I flung my limbs out to grab ahold of something, and I caught empty air. Something was lifting me up, pulling me towards the bright blue zenith. My muscles hurt and relaxed all at once. The air was freezing; I was breathless.

The singing continued. I looked up, only to realize that I was looking down. The world was spinning, twirling. Was I spinning upside down? Was I flipping? No—falling?

A scream escaped my lips; it was exultant. My coat shimmered with the glittering toastiness that only the morning could bring. Everything was weightless and wild, but the light on the horizon was my one anchor. I felt its warm waves washing over my body in multiple spins, as if I was being rotated before a heat lamp at the speed of sound.

The world stretched beneath me, rising up, blurring into my peripheral vision. I smelled wood and pollen. There was a great, waving, emerald sea of life beneath me, and I was sailing straight towards it. The air beat behind me. I glanced back with a twitching gaze.

Wings?

"Bellesmith, can you hear me?"

My body vibrated from the noise. I seethed and looked ahead. Treetops and treetops and treetops and—

"Your heart is racing. Try to calm down."

"Somepony tell me what's going on!" I exclaimed, and yet I didn't. I had no voice; I had every voice. A pony was singing, and I was flinging my way towards it. I saw birds darting up into the sky. I felt feathers and sweat and morning dew. "Blessed Spark! I'm dying!"

"You are not dying, Bellesmith. You've accessed a random sphere. Just take deep breaths and attempt to blend with the subject until your senses acclimate."

"I'm going someplace!" I shrieked. "I don't know where! The singing! It's deafening!"

"Just hold on. We're going to switch spheres. I promise you that we'll find something less stressful."

"Help me, Spark." I was crying, and yet I was smiling. My face and another were battling for the same mouth as a raspy scream came from a singular, cosmic throat. "I want to see my beloved again." My eyes twitched. An open clearing was directly in front of me. The singing intensified. There were shapes, colorful shapes, colorful manes. A picnic? A party? A grave? They looked at me. They waved at me. I was being sucked towards them in a laugh and a scream and a sob. "Nnnngh—Dalton! Please!"

"Switching now, Bellesmith!" The lights multiplied. The horizon exploded as the emerald around me stretched and blurred. "Hold on!"

I saw eyes. I saw smiles. I felt warm forelimbs, and in the center of it all...

Ash.

Starry Night

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I sat up, hyperventilating.

It was cool. It was night. Stars stretched majestically overhead. I looked straight up and saw the splinter edges of a crumbling house. The ceiling had caved in years ago. I smelled mist and pondwater. There was a dirty, plain mattress beneath me.

I tried to stand up and walk around, but my limbs disobeyed me. I strained and struggled. In spite of the tranquility of the moment, my heart was still exploding through my chest like a ball of firecrackers.

"Dalton?" I murmured, and yet I didn't. I realized that my jaw was tightly shut. My face was wet with tears. It was a glorious, warm, and yet hauntingly lonely sensation. "Dalton, where am I now?"

"Just relax, Bellesmith. It's a far more centralized sphere. It took me a while to localize it, but it's the calmest one I could find in such little time."

"I feel..." I stammered, then winced. "I mean she feels..."

"It's okay to be confused. If it helps you, darling, just describe your feelings to me. Don't be afraid or ashamed."

"How do I feel?"

"Yes. Do go ahead."

I gulped as I felt myself curling into a fetal position on the bed. The stars above blurred from my tears as I whimpered, "I feel lonely. So very lonely. It's a blessing and a curse." I bit my lip and managed to say, "I miss the singing. I miss the music and the colors and the warmth..."

"Very good. Very good. Just let it out..."

I sniffled and clenched my eyes shut. "I love myself and I hate myself. I'm so alive, and yet I'm so worthless. I can't stop moving. I can't cease for a single moment."

"Where are you heading to, Bellesmith?"

"I... I don't know..." I shudder and shake. "I don't care to know. I just don't care. All I want is just one chance to nuzzle her and tell her how I feel..."

"Who, Bellesmith? Who do you care so much for?"

I gasped. My eyes were brimming with tears as I sought a sparkling truth amidst the stars. "I don't know. If I found her, if I saw her eyes, I might die." A whimper escaped my lips. "Oh beloved, forgive me. By the Spark..."

The house began to shake and buckle. Beams of black obsidian pierced through the cosmos to envelope me.

"D-Dalton?!"

"We're losing contact! Another sphere is taking over!"

"Dalton, I'm scared—"

"We're pulling you out. Just stay calm, darling!"

"Dalton... nnngh..." My eyes were darting left and right. The world spun. I felt twin needles poking into—out of?—my forehead. "Dalton, you must go back where you began."

"What was that?"

"Twists and turns are my master plan..." I hissed as the world spun. My tongue cut itself on a jutting fang. "Th-then find the elements b-back where you began."

"Blessed Spark... Bellesmith! Listen to my voice! You must stay focused! You must stay—"

I plunged.

The Plunge

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I soared towards the heart of the golden rooftops.

The world was breaking, shattering. Gray bands of ash flew past me, a part of me, an extension and an embodiment all at once. The color was drained from my eyes, replaced instead by a white flash of light.

In the center of the maelstrom, the demon stood. He flashed me a hungry look. Twin pulsating orbs of crimson. The first color, the truest color. Sucking me in.

I tried to veer away from it, but I was anchored to him by screams and sobs. My hoof reached out, only to be impaled by a giant violet claw. I screamed, but giant leathery bats with spider legs were clawing at me. Goggles cracked against the stone floor while sparkling spheres circled the monorail tracks. Her royal mane billowed in the starlight as she gazed at me with pearl blue eyes. The explosion sent muddied water plowing through grunting waves of minotaurs. As soon as the ball flew into the net, the quarry eels snapped at me. I cried, dragging my bloodied limbs across the cavern, etching the last of their names into the wooden log beside the cabin. The death water made contact. The silver strips vibrated. He tossed his trenchcoat off and revealed a forest of steam pistons and sparks. They swarmed the street before the dress shop, watching the burnt husk on the cross of splintery wood, and her eyes weren't green. I wanted to scream; I laughed instead. We shared apple juice after a long day's work, and they hoofed me a parasprite as a sonic explosion split the atmosphere in wide bands of color. The spectrum spoke to me, and my eyes rolled back from the pedestal as everything that was everything turned to lavender light.

"Haaaaaaaugh—!"

And I was pulled up into the zenith.

Rapid Disconnect

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"Aaaaah!" Bellesmith shot up, her brown eyes wide and brimming with tears. Her horn glowed brighter than the sun. The cap over the end of it was smoking. The arcane wires fused to the metal piece were burning red. "Mmmmff—Aaaugh!"

"I thought you pulled her out!" Dalton shouted, sweating in the pale managlow.

"We did!" one of two ponies garbed in white exclaimed. They rushed across the dimly lit chamber and huddled around her, grabbing her limbs and trying to hold her in the seat. "Her leylines are still fused!"

"Apply more buffers to the sphere divide!" Dalton exclaimed, passing beneath an illuminated sheet of glass. "We must get her out more slowly than this!"

"It's too late! She's cut off from the sequence—"

"We can't afford to lose another!" Dalton shouted, his wrinkled face awash in concern. "N-not at this rate of the subject's decay!"

"Hnnngh—Beloved!" Bellesmith sobbed, biting her lips until they bled. "I want to see him! Blessed Spark! Blessed Spark, save me!" She jerked back as a heavy spasm struck her.

"She's collapsing!"

"Detach her! Detach her!"

"Sir! The instruments—"

"I'll take the blame for whatever happens! Detach her now!"

The metal cap popped lose. A stub of a unicorn horn sparkled in the pale light. The arcane coils above Bellesmith hissed and buckled. Metal shards littered the floor.

She panted, her entire world shaking. Glancing around the dark room in a pale sweat, she saw flanks of silver metal. A box sat in a pedestal directly across from her, shimmering from a focus of magic beams. Beyond that hung a tall metal cylinder. With a mechanical hiss, the device sunk into the floor. Steam rose; so did her eyes. A translucent window stretched close to the ceiling. Dark equine shapes loomed, still and ominous.

"Hold my hooves, darling!" Dalton said. "You're going to be okay! I'm going to get you back to your husband..."

She gnashed her teeth. Her brown eyes shook, darted, and flickered red-on-yellow.

Then all turned dark.

Belle Smith

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Waves crashed and receded.

A gentle roar filled the room, dwindled, and filled the room again.

Slowly, Bellesmith's eyes fluttered open.

A dull gray ceiling stretched above her.

Wincing, the young unicorn mare began to stir. She gritted her teeth and tried sitting up in bed. The effort took far longer than she wanted it to. She ran a hoof through her long brown mane and touched the tip of her stubby horn. The material was still hot to the touch. She hissed, then sighed. The gentle roar of waves filled her golden ears.

It was then that a gentle, elderly voice spoke from across the claustrophobic compartment. "For a moment there, you had me worried."

She gasped, clutching a bedsheet to herself. Glancing across the tiny compartment, she saw Dalton rising up from a lone stool. He stood in his white uniform beneath a glowing rod of pale manalight. His wrinkled features curved into a smile from behind a thick black mustache. Gently, he raised a hoof over a glowing orb atop a thin pedestal. With one tap, the orb dimmed and the sound of crashing waves was silenced. His next breath echoed intimately against the walls of the singular room.

"But I should have known you'd be resilient enough to pull through, Bellesmith."

With a deep breath, she relaxed. Brushing a few brown bangs from her yellow forehead, she smiled the elder's way. "Please, Dalton. You should know better by now. Call me Belle."

"I'm just glad to call you alive." He trotted over and stood by her bed. "You gave us all quite a fright."

She raised an eyebrow. "All of you?"

"Well..." He chuckled dryly. "I was worried beyond compare, of course. The others?" He sighed and gazed into the corner with a cold expression. "If I had a bit for every time I had to whip those incompetent grunts into shape, I'd buy my way out of this dungeon. It's inexcusable, Belle, darling. It's like they expected you to collapse like the rest of the sequencers. I swear, I think I'm the only one who sees your potential and—" He stopped in mid-speech, his eyes wide.

She was hugging him. "And I thank you for that, Dalton." She sniffled and tried to keep her composure as she nuzzled his neck. "That's another chance I have to see my beloved..."

He blinked, then reached a hoof up to pat her shoulder. "I just hate to see good talent go to waste. You were a lot more before they dragged you here. You should be teaching in front a classroom, not being a lab rat."

"Hey..." She parted the hug and stared at him with her hooves on his shoulders. "We all have to do our part. You have your own beloved to answer to."

Dalton nodded, gazing limply towards the floor. "I'm quite aware of that, Belle. Mildred thinks I've become one with the trotting dead sometimes, I swear..."

She chuckled and shook her head. "Don't be so hard on yourself. We all do best to abide by the Spark."

He gazed dully at her. "And what of the sequencers before you? How do they abide?" He gulped. "And just how have I helped any one of them?"

Belle bit her lip. She was about to reply when—

The metal door to the compartment slid open. Both the elder and the young mare looked over.

A unicorn stallion in a stone gray uniform and a black beret marched into the doorframe. With cold eyes, he glanced at the mare. "She awakes?"

Dalton swallowed. "She's still suffering from near-collapse. Her disconnect from the spheres was far too jarring. We're lucky she's in one piece to engage in sequencing again—"

"But she is awake?" the guard repeated, his brow furrowed. "She can stand?"

Dalton raised a hoof. "Now would not be a very good time to process her—"

"I have commands from Shell himself to bring her to Garnet," the guard insisted.

"Shell has little to no authority here!" Dalton sneered. "For Spark's sake, this is a Big Shelf matter—"

With a flick of his head, a light glowed from beneath the guard's beret. An electrified rod levitated threateningly before him. "All that is under the reach of Ledo is Enforcer business!" he sneered. "If you refuse to answer with fealty, you can answer with your flesh!"

"Now just one dang second—" Dalton growled.

"No..." Bellesmith reached a hoof over to Dalton's shoulder, softly holding him in place. "It's alright. I'm..." She winced and slid out from the bed, one aching limb after another. "I'm good to report to Garnet."

"But darling, you can't just—"

"I must, Dalton." She stood on wobbly hooves. He tried to help her, but she insisted on trotting forward on her own. With a flick of her brown tail, she regained balance. "You and I both know it's not wise to resist the Enforcers. Besides, this... this is our duty."

Dalton stood in place, shivering slightly.

She smiled at him. "I will see you later. When you get a chance, say 'hello' to Mildred for me."

"I shall, darling. Try not to let Garnet stress you unnecessarily..."

"I've been through worse," she remarked, waving her half-horn. With a subservient bow, she followed the gray uniformed guard out and into the concrete hallway outside the cramped room.

Dalton stayed behind, sighing. He pressed his hoof against the sphere and the sound of crashing waves once more echoed across the room. It brought him little solace.

Professor Garnet

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Bellesmith trotted nervously through the thick gray corridors, flanked by guards in colorless uniforms. No matter how many times she graced these hallways, she couldn't shake the pensiveness that overcame her limbs. Directly above, pale blue beams of mana swarmed down lines etched into the ceiling. The muffled sounds of a magically broadcasted voice echoed in the distant passageways. Occasionally, there would be a distant burst of noise—like a shrieking breath. Bellesmith's brown eyes darted left.

She caught sight of a line of military guards several junctions down, marching in formation.

Gulping, Bellesmith glanced right.

Two unicorns in white uniforms were pushing a hovering slab covered with an alabaster sheet.

One of the guards nudged Bellesmith in the shoulder, forcing her to the left.

She stumbled, trotting directly into an elevator compartment. The three guards stood in a ring around her and shut the door with a metallic clang. One stallion removed his beret and tipped his horn towards a nest of metal coils. With a single jolt of energy, the filaments lit up. A cold hiss filled the air as the elevator lifted up along a massive shaft. Pale bands of manalight swam across the compartment, forcing Bellesmith to squint. In a matter of seconds, the car came to a stop, its doors opening to a long hallway flanked by guards. A series of offices rested at the very end, and the young mare was being ushered towards them.

She marched evenly, keeping up with the silent stallions' cold gait. The air danced with static as a magic field scanned Bellesmith from head to hooves. She sighed, weathering the familiar sensation as she approached a door marked with the inscription: "Professor Garnet, Chief of Big Shelf Operations."

The guards muttered a few words to each other, saluted, and opened the door for Bellesmith. They didn't gesture for her to enter, but she didn't need them to. Slowly, she shuffled into the room, her golden hairs standing on end. The door closed behind her, and she was overwhelmed by an incessant ticking sound.

The office was luxuriously furnished with wooden tables, plush seats, and rows upon rows of bookshelves. Pictures showed majest buildings of granite design. At the far end of the office, above an oak desk, was a broad portrait displaying an aged mare with a gray mane and a stern expression. She wore a simple tiara, and her weathered blue eyes were as hard as stone. Beneath this painting, a stallion sat at a table. His blond mane glistened in the manalight of a nearby lamp. His horn glowed, and he was busy scribbling an essay onto a glass tablet with a burning pen. Smoke rose from his task as he sat back, squinted at the work, and looked beyond it to see Bellesmith.

"Hmm.." He muttered. "Your horn looks shorter this time, Belle."

She gulped. "Please, Professor Garnet, sir..." She shuddered. "Call me Bellesmith."

"Formal..." He nodded with an emotionless gaze. "I can do formal." With a wave of his hoof, the words on the tablet vanished, coalescing into an orb of mana light hovering above his head. Using expert telekinesis, he shot the pulse of energy into a crystal situated on the edge of his desk. Afterwards, he pivoted in his chair and motioned for her to march forward. "Come. Take a seat."

She did not protest. Slowly, she trotted forward and situated herself in a plush stool, sliding up ritualistically before the desk. She'd been through these motions before.

"Now, then..." Garnet squinted his blue eyes at another crystal. A beam of light jumped out of the shard and shot into his tablet. Telekinetically, he lifted the glass panel between the two as it lit up with magical incandescence. "Let's see if this goes any better than last time. Ahem."

He flicked his horn, and the swirling bands of manalight coalesced across the tablet to form a shape.

"Exhibit..." He droned.

The tablet broadcasted an image of a metal valve.

He looked with bored eyes her way. "Response?"

Bellesmith looked at the pale shape of a valve. Gulping, she said, "'Minotaurs.'"

Garnet merely nodded. He zapped another beam of light into the tablet. "Exhibit..." The image changed to the outline of an aqueduct. "Response?"

Bellesmith thought for a while, then quietly uttered, "'Dragons.'"

"Exhibit." Garnet switched the tablet to an image of a broad-rimmed hat. "Response?"

"'Constable,'" Bellesmith said.

The image of a campfire.

"'Caravan.'"

A gas mask.

"'Obelisk.'"

A hoofball.

"'Dance Hall.'"

A suit of armor.

"'Prince.'"

A hoofprint enveloping a solar crest.

Bellesmith's mouth hung open. Her eyes twitched; her features paled. Her tongue rested against the surface of her teeth, but no sound came out, not even a breath. Gulping, she bit her lip and looked helplessly from the tablet to the professor.

Garnet raised an eyebrow. He glanced calmly at the tablet, regarding the omega symbol and the solar bands darting from the circle to the right as if they were just any blemishes. He gave the mare one last, prolonged look.

She exhaled sharply and shook her head. "I... I-I'm sorry..." Her shoulders shrugged. "I... I don't have anything..."

"I see..." He nodded. With a wave of his hoof, the tablet darkened. He shot the beam of energy into the corresponding crystal and stood up with a sigh. "Looks like we still have some work to do."

Bellesmith hung her head.

"You've been working here rather extensively as of late, Bellesmith... or should I say Doctor Bellesmith?" He paced around her in the dimly-lit office, his hooves stepping in time to the cold clock ticks. "When was the last time you had a day off? Seven days ago? Eight?"

"Twelve," she muttered.

"Hmmm... Quite resilient, aren't you?" He stood by her side and rested a hoof on her shoulder. "You're as tenacious as the files proclaimed, of which I had no doubt—of course. I would not have procured you if I felt there wasn't a chance of you excelling where so many sequencers had failed. You've exceed in areas that took them months to get to. And, from what I hear of our ever-loyal Dalton, you've been faring quite a bit better than them."

"I'm alive," she said in a blunt tone.

"Yes, indeed, and so is your beloved." Garnet nodded and trotted towards the far end of the office. "We all do well to abide by the regulations of Ledo, for the glory of the Spark." He stopped before a painting of war zeppelins and straightened the picture frame. "We work best in pairs, as custom mandates, so that we can ascend with our soulmates into the stars beyond the Heights. But you need not hear me recite what you know by heart."

"Then why are you reinforcing it, professor?" she managed in a bitter tone.

He gazed at her calmly. "Because as exceptional as your performance in the sequencing has been, it still isn't achieving results. Dalton says that you succumb to distress far too often. Granted, that is understandable. The process is hardly a walk in the park." He paced back towards her. "Might I suggest you endeavor to do that which the previous sequencers managed so well? Find your focus. Think of your beloved. You may find that meditating on something so dear to heart will help you keep a firmer grasp of the mind as you engage the throes of the Spark."

"And what of the sequencers before me?" Bellesmith lifted her golden face. "When the Spark consumed them, did meditating on their beloveds helped them?"

"Of course it did, Doctor," Garnet said. "It helped them achieve union beyond the Heights." His eyes narrowed. "You would not want your beloved's spirit to wither into ash in the stars without you?"

Bellesmith trembled.

"Well?"

She hung her head. "No, Professor..."

He gazed silently at her. With a shuffle of his hooves, he trotted back to the other end of his desk. "There is more at stake here than the spiritual, my good doctor. What happens here at Big Shelf goes beyond both the material and the immaterial. We are at the crest of discovering the hidden heart of the spark, and the arrival of the subject is just the key we need to enter into a new domain of knowing."

He reached his seat, sat down, and gazed solidly at her from across the oaken furniture.

"You and I are the kind of Ledomaritans to appreciate such brilliant and unprecedented knowledge. However..." He folded his hooves atop the desk and leaned forward. "Our project of sequencing answers to a higher soul between Big Shelf and Queen Ledo herself. Shell is constantly watching, constantly observing. He wants results, and he wants them now."

Bellesmith closed her eyes. When she did so, she envisioned a dim room, reeling, and with a glass sheet of windows looming above. She saw several dark shapes from beyond the translucent material, and one taller and more rigid than the rest.

"Can I rely on you to appease Shell and his Enforcers?" Garnet asked with an inquisitive glare. "Can your beloved rely on you? Time is of the essence, my dear."

Bellesmith took a deep breath. Her eyes opened, and they were moist. Nevertheless, her voice was dry as a stone as she said, "I will give you results, Professor. I will engage the Spark with utmost vigor."

Garnet nodded. "See that you do." He aimed his horn at the door on the other end of the room. It slid open with a metallic hiss, and immediately two guards stepped in.

In a weary fashion, Bellesmith stood up from the stool and turned towards the hallway beyond.

"And Belle?"

Wincing, she turned and looked back at him, glaring slightly.

He was wearing a tranquil smile. "The subject is merely a tool. The only soul that shall be attached to it is yours." He pointed. "Remember that."

She nodded and quietly murmured, "I shall try."

The Sequencing

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Bellesmith stared off into space, remaining still as a statue as two unicorns in white uniforms fitted a metal cap to the blunt end of her horn. They murmured numbers and figures to each other, fastening arcane cables to the cap and affixing it to a mechanical contraption hanging from the ceiling of the small laboratory.

After a deep breath, Bellesmith glanced up. She eyed the sheet of glass, but saw no shadows beyond it. Her eyes wandered towards the far end of the room, spotting the porous metal box that stood on a pedestal straight across her seat. At the wall beyond it, a pair of metal tracks stuck out of the ground, empty and bare.

"You appear calmer than yesterday, darling," Dalton said, his gently smiling face coming into view. "Did you get enough rest?"

Bellesmith swallowed hard and said, "Professor Garnet gave me some good advice."

Dalton nodded, brushing an aged hoof over his mustached. He remarked, "He gave you advice? Or a steady dose of fear?"

Her chestnut eyes fell to the floor as the unicorns finished hooking her up to the arcane contraptions.

Dalton sighed. With a hopeful smirk, he patted her forelimbs and eased her back into the seat. "We will go about it easily this time. I promise that the session won't end with such a jarring disconnect."

"I don't know if we can afford 'easily,' Dalton," Bellesmith murmured. Her soft eyes pleaded with him. "Shell is getting impatient. My beloved—"

"Will be safe, I promise you," Dalton said. His wrinkled coat glinted in the pale mana light. "It's like I keep telling Mildred: Shell is simply a lot of hot air and an appetite for medals. He's all talk and no Spark. He couldn't even pretend to interfere with this project, for there's not a magical bone in his body that understands the sequencing."

"At this rate, he'll understand it well enough." She squinted and asked, "Why are the Enforcers so desperate to grasp the power of this subject?"

"I try not to let the military affairs of Ledomare affect my concentration," Dalton said, "And neither should you. We have tasks to do, and if we wish to see our beloveds again, it's best that we did or jobs dutifully. Remember, Belle..." He squeezed her shoulder and let go. "The Spark is pure and immaculate. If nothing else, trust in it."

"I'll try," she said, nodding.

The unicorns beside her exclaimed, "Sequencer is ready!"

"Prepare the first sphere!"

"Aligning with the subject!"

Dalton and the other technicians trotted away. The arcane coils connected to Bellesmith's horn started to glow with crimson light. She took a deep breath and tried to close her eyes, but the billowing light from ahead of her caught her attention, as it always did.

The box on the pedestal was emanating a ruby aura. With a mechanical hiss, the floor at the far wall slid open. A familiar cylinder rose into view. An aperture opened in the silver heart of the pillar, and a beam of light passed from it through the box and towards Bellesmith's seat.

"And lock!" a unicorn exclaimed.

Bellesmith hissed through her teeth as a deep dizziness overtook her.

"Sequencing with sphere in t-minus five... four..."

The young mare whimpered, her eyes twitching from brown to red to brown again. "Beloved..."

"...three... two..."

She jerked as her whole body was electrified. She had four limbs, then eight, then four again.

"...one."

Excuse Me

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I plummeted through the clouds.

Something was different this time.

Something was easy, natural, and glorious...

I was spiraling, twirling, kicking up vapors and slicing the wind until it whistled around my feathers.

I panted and panted, my heart pumping like a strobing pulse of mana. But soon, to my surprise, the fear gave way, and excitement filled the empty space. The adrenaline was mesmerizing. The danger was delicious. I felt like chuckling, and I did just that.

"Belle? Belle, can you hear me?"

"Heheheheh..."

"The sequencing has begun. Are you lucid? Can you sense the sphere you're in?"

"So... awesome..."

"We're monitoring you as best as we can, but we need to keep up communication. Can you describe what's happening?"

"I'm..." I hissed and sneered into the face of gravity. "...practicing."

"Practicing?"

"Heh heh heh..." I laugh; I cackle. "Hah hah hah hah! Wooo yeah!"

"Practicing for what?"

Just then, there was a flicker of lavender light, followed by a purple-streaked mane and bright violet eyes. The ground appeared around her, and I plowed mercilessly into her figure.

"Ooof!"

Together, we sprawled like dominoes into the mud. The liquid was cold and gritty against my coat. The sun shimmering down on us was blissful and warm.

I stood up, wobbling slightly, and glanced guiltily down at the petite unicorn flattened beneath me. Instead of immediately apologizing, I chuckled. "Eh heh heh heh..."

Leaning down, I gave an awkward smile as my voice cracked.

"Excuse me? Eh heh heh..."

"Mmmphghh..." She muttered.

I hovered above her and looked around. "Ehhh... Let me help you! Darting effortlessly up into the sky, I grabbed a piece of raincloud and dragged it down so that it hovered closely above her head. After giving the cluster of vapors a firm series of bucks, the unicorn was clean of all mud, albeit thoroughly soaked. "Whoops! I guess I overdid it! Uhmmm... How about this?! My very own patented Rainblow Dry! No no, don't thank me, you're quite welcome!"

Violet Eyes

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I wanted to stay here. I was happy. I was alive. I was laughing.

Then she spoke and I remembered that my ears weren't mine. "Let me guess, you're Rainbow Dash."

I tossed a cackling dragon whelp off my back and stood tall. "The one and only!" Hovering up, I gazed excitedly into her violet eyes. "Why, you heard of me?"

"I heard you were supposed to be keeping the sky clear!"

With a sigh, the lavender unicorn proceeded to introduce herself, but I was suddenly jarred by an alien voice seeping in over the golden thatched rooftops.

"Belle, your heart is the calmest it's been in days of sequencing. Can you describe where you're at?"

"Yeah, yeah. That'll be a snap! I'll do it in a jiffy! Just as soon as I'm done practicing!"

"Belle, concentrate. You're a sequencer. You can function independently from the subject."

I heard the raspy voice chanting excitedly about some group of expert fliers. However, I had become lucid, and I couldn't fixate on the unicorn or her violet eyes anymore. With a heavy heart, I allowed myeslf to become Bellesmith again and spoke in a ghostly voice outside of the sphere.

"She's home, Dalton. I don't know the name of this place or where it is located, but this is her home. She's... happy here."

"She is just a normal pegasus, then? She isn't some kind of—"

"It's been a long, long time since she's been happy. She laughs and she flies and... and..."

"And what, darling?"

"She lives. She lives, Dalton. There are no fences or electrical fields here. There is just an emerald landscape and a sapphire sky. I wish I knew this kingdom..."

"Let's take it slow, Belle. We're locating another sphere to send you."

"Oh, uhm... uh..."

"Yes?"

"Already? I... I am making a friend, I think. You should see her mane. It's adorable and hilarious all at once."

"If the sequencing works, your collective knowledge of the event shall develop a sphere of memories you can access at any time. We must proceed to the next sphere before there is a disconnect."

"I understand, Dalton. I am ready when you are."

"Alright, Belle. Initializing in t-minus five... four... three... two... one..."

Turquoise Eyes

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My breath left me. There were clouds everywhere. I blazed my way through fields of mist, relishing the wind in my mane. My limbs were petite. My muscles were still developing, and yet I could outfly cannonballs. I just knew I could. My gasps turned to laughter and my laughter turned to screams. I spun loops and corkscrews and barrel rolls.

As I dove through the clouds to increase my velocity, I heard a series of cruel laughter down below. I pivoted about and squinted through the wispy white streams. There, seated on a stretch of alabaster mist, were three pegasus foals. Two colts were leering at a dainty filly with the prettiest pink mane I had ever seen. My heart was leaping out of my chest. She was so sweet, so innocent, and just what were those jerks doing to her?! Why, I oughta...

In a blazing streak, I plummeted. The colts stopped laughing just long enough to lift their heads and look in every direction for the source of the thunder. I was about to bring it to them. With a clap of noise, my hooves touched the cloudtop. I leaned forward, sneering as I formed a living wedge between the bullies and the quietly shivering filly.

"Leave her alone!" I shouted. A lucid, adult part of me couldn't help but realize how adorable the desperate attempt at ferocity shouted, but her heart was beating and was becoming my heart and was filling me with her rage and I glared at the two.

"Ooooh!" the older cooed and sneered at me. "What are you gonna do, 'Rainbow Crash?'"

"Keep making fun of her and find out!" I exclaimed, my voice cracking. I backtrotted to stand closer to the dainty filly.

"You think you're such a big shot?" the larger colt asked, glaring my way. "Why don't you prove it?"

Without thinking, I gave a devilish smirk and said, "What do you have in mind?"

The two started beating their wings as they spat, "You, us, the cyclone race course! This afternoon! You beat one of us in a race, and just maybe we'll give a flying feather about what you have to say about anypony!"

"I've got an even better idea!" I exclaimed. "I'll race both of you blockheads! And when I win, you leave her alone forever!"

"Hah! As if!"

"What's the matter? You both chicken?! BOK! Bok bok bok bok BA-KOK!"

"Fine! We'll do it!" One colt growled as they flew away.

The other hissed over his flapping wings. "We're gonna make you eat those words, 'Rainbow Crash!'" And the two laughed as they soared off into the blue horizon.

There was a tiny squeak from the yellow filly at my side. I turned and squinted at her.

"What's wrong with you?! Letting bullies treat you like that? We're Cloudsdalians! Don't you have warrior's blood?"

She blushed and looked away from me. The edges of her turquoise eyes were starting to moisten.

I bit my lip. I didn't know why, but my heart was beating faster than when I was flying loops around the clouds. "Hey, look. Chillax. Not everypony can be as fast and awesome as me. Those two guys were jerks and they shouldn't have said those things to you."

She fiddled with her hooves, gazing halfway at me from beneath a dangling lock of silken pink hair. Daintily, she nodded. I think I saw a curve to her soft lips.

"They're gonna rue the day they ever messed with you." I winked and leaned in to nuzzle her. My heart was beating even faster. Why did I care so much for this weakling? "Stick with me, girl. I'll keep you safe. I promise."

"Mmmm..." She squirms and murmurs. Her voice is like a cluster of tiny bells. "Okay..."

"What's your name, girl?"

"Fluttershy," she squeaks forth.

"Well, Fluttershy, prepare to become famous!" I winked and slapped her on the shoulder. "Ha! I'm gonna honor this upcoming race after you! I'll even let you wave the checkered flag."

"Uh... if you want me to..."

I smiled at her. The skies were a dangerous place. Fluttershy looked like she could shatter at any second, and somehow I knew that would be a bad thing. I didn't understand why she was so alone. I hated being alone. I wanted to hold her, to carry her, to... to... to marry her? I—

"You're heart is beating heavily again, Bellesmith. Is everything alright?"

"I'm quite fine, Dalton. There's nothing to be alarmed with in this sphere."

"Are you certain?"

"Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I think I've learned some things."

"Do tell."

"The subject is from a place called Cloudsdale. However, it's different from the last sphere. This is a city built in the sky, populated by pegasi. I think this might be where she was born."

"Remarkable..."

"Also, I think she may be named 'Rainbow Crash.'"

"That doesn't exactly sound flattering, now does it?"

"I'm about—I mean... she's about to engage in a race. Maybe I can find out more..."

"We're receiving another branching stretch of energy. Another sphere is junctioning with yours. I believe there may be a common theme that you're exploring, something that can bring us closer to the present."

"You mean closer to the subject's termination?"

"Brace yourself, Belle, darling. There's another jump coming."

"Understood, Dalton. I'm good and ready."

"T-Minus three... two... one..."

Sapphire Eyes

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"Oh please! Oh please!" Her voice echoed across rooftops from where she dangled alongside the cylindrical building. "Somepony! Anypony! Save me!"

I was already sailing towards her, diving down from the clouds as swiftly as my adult wings could carry me. "Don't worry! I'm coming!"

"I'm slipping! I'm going to perish!" she wailed as her hooves gave way. She slipped another inch towards the hard earth, sobbing, "I am too beautiful and fabulous to die!"

"For the love of oats, will you chillax?!" I shouted, hurling myself towards the boutique. "I'm almost there—"

"Aaaaaaaiiie!" she screamed as she plummeted towards the ground.

Effortlessly, I swooped down and caught her pale body seconds before she could explode into pony paste.

"There!" I said, smiling through a relieved breath. "You're good! I told you that I'd—"

"Aaaaaaah!" she screamed into my ear, her whole body flailing.

I winced, nearly dropping her from the sheer sonic trauma to my skull. "Knock it off, lady! I just friggin' saved you!"

"Aaaaah—Ah.... Uhhhh... Oh..." She panted, gulped, and dangled within my grasp. "Oh dearest me. I'm not d-dead?"

"Don't tempt me," I grumbled, then touched down before the building with its super girly architecture. "There. Think you can stand on your own?"

"Oh thank you! Thank you!" She engulfed me in a dear hug, her pale body trembling. "I thought I would surely perish! But then you came out of nowhere and swept me off my hooves like an angel!"

"Uhhhhh..." I sweated nervously, glancing over her to see several ponies waving and cheering my recent heroics. "I was just sw-swinging by to survey the village. I'm gonna be patrolling the weather clouds starting tomorrow—"

"Oh! So you're our new weather flier!" She leaned back, her blue eyes sparkling with wonder. "No wonder you're so brave and resourceful! Oh, I couldn't possibly live under a nobler sky!"

"Yeah. Uh huh. I'll be leaving now." I turned around and spread my wings.

She tugged at my tail. "Oh, you must let me buy you dinner so that I can truly thank you for providing my salvation!"

"Nah. It's fine. I mean really—"

"I should have known better than to think I could repair the hole in my roof on my lonesome. Please, you must let me show you my gratitude for cleansing me of my foolish ways!"

"Really, I gotta go, Miss..."

"Rarity, darling."

"What the heck kind of a last name is 'darling?'"

"Oh, no... Heh heh heh. You have me at a disadvantage. I was simply—"

"Has anypony told you that you sound like a vampire?"

"Oh ho ho ho ho!" She giggled, waving a dainty hoof. "Your humor is obtuse and yet so exquisite! You must share more it with me!"

"Eh... I think we're good."

"I'll tell you all about my new fashion business here in Ponyville!"

"Oh. Jee. That sounds sooooo exciting—"

"I'll even show you my latest lineup of jumpsuits I've been commissioned to make for the Wonderbolts!"

I spun towards her and marched directly into the Boutique in one breath. "Okay. I'm starved! Let's chow down and totally girl-talk!"

With a victorious giggle, she trotted after me.

"Bellesmith, this is Dalton again. Are you receiving anything here?"

"Uhhhh..."

"Hmm?"

"Eh, no. Not really. Is there another sphere nearby?"

"Funny that you should ask. This one is far more recent. Are you ready for transition?"

"As long as it isn't too lame."

"Beg your pardon?"

"Jarring. I meant to say 'jarring'... or at least I think I did..."

"T-Minus Three... Two... One..."

Opal Eyes

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I winced, shivering trying to trot in a straight line, an impossible act. The library was filled to the brim with equine bodies, breaths, and bellowing voices. Loud music throbbed in my ears as I stumbled my way into a punch table, nearly knocking ponies into the bookcases.

"Dah! Sorry! Pardon me! Ooof—My bad!"

"Belle. Your heart rate—"

"I'm sorry, Dalton. There's just... uhm... there are a lot—and I do mean a lot—of ponies in here."

"Is it a social gathering?"

"It's a party of some sort." I trembled, gnawing on my lip. "You know I-I don't really do well with crowds..."

"You or the subject you're sequencing with?"

"I... I..."

"You've almost communed with her personality already. Try and concentrate. Feed off of her emotions. For the time being, don't think of yourself as Bellesmith the timid unicorn. Think of yourself as 'Rainbow Crash, the daring pegasus.'"

I took several deep breaths. "I'm a daring pegasus... a daring pegasus... a daring..."

My body froze.

With burning ruby eyes, I glared at the thick crowd.

"Pfft!" I heard myself exclaim in a raspy voice. "Screw this!" I flapped a pair of blue wings and hovered above everypony's head. "I'm watching the Princess raise the sun outside!" But just as I pivoted about to fly out the window—

"Hiya!" a pink face grinned at me upside down.

"Daaah!" I flew back, slamming into a bookcase. The floor was littered with several thick encyclopedia volumes as I watched an earth pony with fluffy pink hair swinging back and forth on a chandelier, her opal eyes locked on me.

"You must be Rainbow Dash! The local weather flier!"

"And you must be... really, really creepy..."

"'Creepy?' That's no name for an earth pony, unless of course she was born on Nightmare Night, and then it wouldn't have been a birthday so much as it would have been a birthnight and nopony ever celebrates their birthday at night cuz then everyone would be too busy sleeping to bother coming over for a party and—"

"You're... the..." I squinted at her swinging form. "...the child of Mr. and Mrs. Cake from Sugarcube Corner, aren't you?"

"Heeheehee!" She giggled, snorted, and smiled my way. "I'm their niece and I'm twenty-two!"

"Yeah. Sure. Is that in Caneighdian years?"

"Hahahaha!" She kicked her legs, swinging precariously from the chandelier in dangerous little circles. "Oh, that's rich! Ha! I wish I thought of that one!"

I couldn't help but smirk. "Wow, you're pretty easy to make laugh."

"Haha! Why not?! Laughter is like a cupcake that never runs out of frosting! It's the best gift given to ponies!"

"Really?" I smirked. "This one time, a horse walked into a bar and said 'Ouch!'"

"Snkkkt—Ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

I rolled my eyes and smirked at her. "I can't row a kayak. Canoe?"

"Hahahahahah!" She wiped a tear from her face and grinned my way. "Oh, you're such a crack-up, Rainbow Dash!"

"I've had teachers at flight school call me something similar, but they used a different word besides 'crack.'"

"My name's Pinkie Pie!"

"Of course it is."

"And I'm glad you could make it to my super special surprise party for Twilight Sparkle!"

"Oh yeah. I know that name," I remarked. "She's... She's..." I blinked. "Eh, who's Twilight again?"

"She's a crazy smart unicorn from Canterlot who came to make sure the Summer Sun Celebration was in top shape!"

"Oh yeah. Like, where the heck is she?"

"She should be on her way here! Word is that Fluttershy's roped her dragon buddy into relating his whole life story..."

"Heh. She's gonna flip once she sees so many ponies here, crashing inside the library."

"Remember! She gets the first slice of cake!"

"Cake?!" I exclaimed, suddenly beaming. "I love cake! Since when was there—"

"Shhhh!" a drawling voice flew across the room. "She's comin', y'all! Turn the lights down and get real quiet!"

I blinked, my wings freezing. I felt myself plummeting, spiraling, melting through the noise and color and heat of that place.

"Belle? Belle! What's going on?"

"I..." I looked across the library. The room had stretched for millions of miles into the blackness, and yet i could see a figure on the other side, as bright as a morning sunrise, with blonde tresses and emerald eyes. "I'm not sure..."

"Another sphere is colliding with yours! We have no idea where it came from! Hold on tight! We're pulling you out!"

"Don't... Don't want to..." I was murmuring, spinning, falling. I felt tears squeezing out of my eyes and they were hot as candle wax. "B-beloved?" I wimpered.

"Belle, concentrate on my voice! You're falling too deep within the sequence!"

"I... can't go back..." I hissed, my lungs tearing. "Must... fly..." I whimpered. "I'm dying. There's nothing left. There's n-nothing..."

"Bellesmith! Try to hang on—"

A giant claw pierced my hoof.

"Aaaaaugh!" I spun over, screaming into the stone and the blood and the crimson pits. My eyes rolled back.

A flank of violet leather.

My wing snapped in two.

"Haauckt!" I spat up bile and curled into a fetal position. There was something heavy hanging around my neck, and I felt my forehead melting in two places. "Hnnngh... Please... Please..."

A giant body leered over me, reaching with scaled fingers.

"Beloved. I j-just want to see you. I just... j-just want to love you..." I sobbed into my quivering forelimbs. "Please, hold me. Hold me. Hold..."

And the burning world dissolved into whiteness around me.

Sugar Cube

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I winced through the layers of white hot pain, my every limb tingling as if being stabbed with a thousand knives. Through it all, a strange voice wafted towards my twitching ears, tickling my breath loose with a ridiculously melodic drawl.

"Land's sakes! Are you okay, sugarcube?!"

My eyes opened. She came into focus, standing upside down below me, gazing with bright green eyes shadowed by an old, weathered hat. Behind her, rows upon rows of apple orchards glistened in the noonday sun, and yet no single fruit held the same sparkling glint as her worried gaze.

"Nnngh... What did you just call me?" I grunted.

"You just crashed into one of my trees."

"You didn't answer my question."

Suddenly her lips smiled, only she was upside down, so she was frowning. "Now look, I came gallopin' here all worried-like cuz I figured you banged yerself up pretty bad. But if y'all are just gonna be plum rude, then maybe you can do us both a favor and disentangle yer keister from them there branches!"

"Wow. Listen to you!" I grunted and stirred, trying to climb my way out of the sea of twigs. "You sound like somepony put a Whinnie Nelson record on repeat—Gaaah!" My voice cracked as I fell loose, tumbled, richocheted off a lower branch, and fell flat on my shoulders with a grunt. I groaned, seeing stars dancing between me and the blue sky. "Nnngh... th-that was fun..."

"What were ya doin' flying so low over these fields anyway?" She trotted towards me. She had thick, muscular limbs attached to her hooves. The filly must have been a professoional runner or something. But—wait—that was a farm...

"I was testin' the winds around this place," I grumbled, rolling over until the world hung in the right direction. "Cloudsdale's got it in their big heads to transfer me to this boring little town to do weather work."

"Yeah, well, this 'boring little town' happens to be where my family and I have lived for generations, and I don't take kindy to y'all sassin' it so. And I definitely don't take kindly to y'all flying low enough to strip the combs off of our roosters! T'ain't a good way for a pegasus weather flier to make a good impression, no-how!"

"Hey! Now listen here, hayseed!" I stood up. "I—Yeowch!" my voice cracked again.

She raised an eyebrow beneath her blonde bangs. "Now what's the matter?"

"N-nothing!" I hissed, flinching from a sharp pain just above my left wing. "I'm fine, I just need to fly it off—" I flapped my feathers and immediately sunk to the ground. "Nnnngh!"

"Here, now, lemme see..." She trotted towards me.

"What are you doing?! I said I'm fine!"

"Whew..." She whistled, gazing up close at my spine. "You've got a whopper of a splinter dug into your backside, just a hair's smidgeon above them blew wings of yern. Reckon it's from how hard you slammed into the tree. Good thing you didn't touch none of my apples."

"Ughhhh..." I shuddered all over. "Is it bad? If my wings go numb through this, the weather council won't let me hear the end of it! I'll be dead meat on my resume!"

"If you leave it in, then ya might have somethin' to worry about. I'd better take it out."

I blinked at her crookedly. "Take it out?!"

"Just gimme a sec..." She trotted over to a wagon.

"Uhhhh..." I was sweating profusely. "Uhhhh..." I heard the ringing of metal and my face paled.

"Mmmf..." She carried a thick pocket knife over in her teeth. Standing on her rear limbs, she braced herself against my shoulders and positioned the blade in the crook of her hooves. "I gotta pull the thing loose real quick. Now hold still."

"Whoa whoa whoa whoah!" I flinched and quivered under her weight. I hadn't realized until then that she was kind of bigger than me. "You're not a nurse or anything! What the hay are you?! Don't—"

"Quit yer dag-blame'd squirmin!" she exclaimed, holding me tighter. "I've done this hundreds of time, with sheeps in the field, mind you. At least they were a might bit easier to deal with. Now stop budgin'!" She planted the very tip of the blade against the splinter.

"OhgoshOhgoshOhgoshOhgosh!" I heard myself hissing as my entire face contorted with fear and stress. "Just do it quickly! Please! Nnnngh—Get it out get it out get it out—"

"Relax."

"Get it out get it out get it—"

"I said be calm! I done pulled it out seconds ago!" she lifted a bloodied stump of a wooden splinter in her orange hoof. "See? Quick and easy."

I blinked at it, sweating with embarassment. "Oh. Huh..."

"Still, no sense in ya flailin' around like a school filly." She tossed the splinter into the bushes before dusting off her hooves. "Though I guess I can't blame you at yer age..."

"At my age?!" I frowned at her. "Hey! I'm twenty-two years old, lady!"

"Hah!" She guffawed. "Hahahahaha!" She guffawed again, pulling her hat off to beat her left knee in the shimmering sunlight. "Hoooo boy! That's rich!"

"I mean it! I'm the best and fastest flier out of Cloudsdale!"

"Reckon you mean that you flew out of your momma's womb a month early." She smirked and slapped the hat back on her golden crown. "T'ain't nothing to be ashamed of. My cousin Caramel Apple is the same way; he's a small fry. They had to make a tiny plow for the poor little feller."

I fumed, gazing back at my splinter womb as I fluttered my wings with relative ease. "I am not tiny," I uttered, though my voice cracked to spite me.

"Awww, don't take it the wrong way, sugarcube. I'm just teasin' ya." She cleared her throat and stood in front of me. "Think you can be a kind neighbor and avoid flyin' so low above these orchards from now on?"

I avoided her gaze, frowning. I grumbled something.

"What was that?"

"Ugh..." I looked directly at her. "Fine! I'll stear clear of your farm, if only to—" I paused. I wasn't used to country pony manners. Her face had to have been no more than five inches from mine. I could smell earth and sweat and apple seeds. A pale array of spots dotted her hard, chiseled frown. "Did you—like—fall into a giant vat at the freckles factory or something?"

She blinked at me several times. With a groan, she rolled her eyes and trudged angrily off. "Pegasi. I swear to Celestia, they're a bit per bushel..."

"Hey! I'm sorry about the tree!" I called after her. "But in my defense, if you were growing bananas instead of apples, then maybe I would have bounced off it!"

"Go huff a cloud or somethin'!"

I turned around and flexed my wings. I felt my heart beating swiftly, but oddly enough I wasn't flying yet. I stood frozen in place, fidgeting. My heart had only ever raced when I was diving from a great height or soaring against the pull of gravity or something like that. What was going on here?

A brisk wind blew against me. I glanced down at a series of leaves scattering through my legs and past my tail. Suddenly—in perfect coordination—the leaves coalesced to form two symbols on the ground. I squinted at them, my brow twitching in confusion.

"What in the heck?"

"Bellesmith! Can you hear me?"

I tiled my head up, panting. I saw the blue sky melting away as a cascading layer of whiteness flooded the globe.

"We've located your sphere! We're pulling you out!"

"Who are you?!" I shouted, but my voice was being drained from me. I felt two painful spots forming on my brow. I fell to my knees, shuddering. Something flickered in my peripheral. I looked up and saw a stream of light—bright and lavender—pulling at me, tugging, burning the leaves' symbol right into my eyeballs with a horrendous flash.

Cold Sweat

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Belle sat up in the chair, gasping and sputtering. Her eyes flickered red, then back to chestnut brown as the wires flew free of her glowing horn.

Dalton rushed over to brace her down. "You're back! It's okay! The sequencing is over!"

"Nnngh... B-beloved!" she exclaimed breathlessly, sweating all over. The other white-garbed ponies flurried over the instruments behind her as she stammered, "I saw... I saw it..."

"Just try to calm down. We don't know what happened, but the sequencing fused with your leylines and pulled you away from our monitoring—"

"A tablet!" Belle exclaimed, looking at him with twitching eyes. "I need a tablet! Something to write on!"

Dalton bore a confused face. "To... write what?"

"Please! This is very important! Blue Shelf needs it!"

Dalton turned and motioned at one of the ponies. A mare in white rushed over with a writing pad and a pen. Sitting up in the chair, Bellesmith held the instrument in the crook of her hoof and began hastily sketching two symbols. She held her breath until the task was done, then limply passed it into Dalton's grip.

The old stallion held it, gazing intently. He glanced at Belle, then at the illustration once more. "Belle, darling, what is this?"

She had slumped back into the seat, panting for breath as her heart began slowing to a normal beat.

"What do these mean...?"

She gazed up, her eyes thin. She saw obscure shapes in the windows above. One of them was a tall figure, stocky and fitted with thick Enforcer Armor. After a prolonged stare, he placed the shape of a beret over his horn, turned, and marched into the shadows beyond the translucent sheets.

Then Belle closed her eyes...

Two Symbols

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Professor Garnet looked closely at the two symbols, his cold eyes narrowing in thought. He observed the twin horizontal lines on the left side as they curled at opposite ends and joined each other with a diagonal streak. He studied the serpentine pattern on the right that ended with a concave shape fitted with flaring dashes. After several minutes of intense scrutiny, he tilted his gaze up from the tablet in his grasp, raising an eyebrow.

Bellesmith sat across the oaken table from him in his office, fidgeting, waiting. The air pulsed with the ticking of an antique clock.

Sighing, Ganet zapped the image on his tablet clear with his horn and placed the glass sheet down. Folding his hooves he cleared his throat and spoke across the dimly lit compartment. "That is not the pattern we were looking for," he said.

Belle gulped, nodded, and stammered, "I know, Professor. But I'm telling you; it came to me. I saw it when I was last sequenced."

"The image we require data on is vital to understanding the subject," Garnet said. "The more information we have on the subject, the further we get to bringing glory to Ledomare."

"I am all for a successful experiment here in Blue Shelf," Belle said. "And I'm sorry, Professor, that I haven't gotten close to figuring out the meaning behind the symbol you've displayed to me previous." She pointed at the clear tablet. "But what I saw isn't a hallucination or a product of magical disconnect."

"Oh?"

"You have Dalton's reports," she said. "The last sphere I was in overtook the sequencing process. I had no control over the connection, and none of Dalton's assistants could pull me free until it was too late."

"Too late for what?"

"For me to receive a vision," Belle exclaimed, leaning forward as she spoke with emphasis. "It didn't just come to me after I was brought out; I saw it within the mental construct. The environment within the sphere was crafting the illustrations for me. This took place right after I had integrated deeply with a memory of great emotional importance to the subject. As a matter of fact, seeing the vision was what brought me back to a level of lucidity, allowing Dalton's team to pull me out. If I hadn't been allowed to see the vision, I fear I might still be in there, lost between the spheres."

"What do you mean... 'allowed,' Bellesmith?" Garnet's eyes narrowed. "You're a scientist, just like me. Surely you're not subject to flights of fancy."

"I know it sounds strange, sir. But if the Experimental Council of Ledo is right, and there is significance to the latest subject of Blue Shelf's sequencing, then this is exactly what must be expected. I believe we're onto something, Professor." She pointed once more at the blank tablet. "That image means something, just as much as the other one. All that remains is to find meaning to them."

"You mean names?" Garnet inquired. "Phonetics to the commands?"

Belle's chestnut eyes twitched upon hearing that. "You mean that's what the Council of Ledo requires?" She squinted. "Commands?"

Garnet took a deep breath. Without speaking, he extracted magic from a mounted crystal and produced a spreadsheet of data upon the tablet. Waving a hoof, he scrolled down the glowing words and altered a field of information at the bottom column.

Belle watched nervously.

Finally, Garnet spoke. "Fantastic work, Doctor. You've earned yourself a week up on the surface."

Belle exhaled sharply. She smiled wide and bowed her head slightly. "Thank you, Professor. I knew you would be impressed..."

"Oh, I'm not the one you've made an impact on," he said, gazing at her unemotionally. "I do not see the same progress that you believe has been made here. However, this decision is not up to me. Somepony higher up believes you must rest before engaging in what is undoubtedly going to be the most strenuous exercise thus far."

"Somepony higher up?" Belle remarked, blinking oddly. Her face paled as she murmured, "Shell..."

Garnet slowly nodded. "The leader of the Blue Shelf Enforcers was observing you in your latest sequence. I'm guessing the fact that you can still speak and function after such deep excursions within the subject's spheres is a subject of intense impressiveness to him. I am proud of you too, of course, but I must keep a professional and objective distance in my evaluations. Besides, you already have a mentor in Dalton."

"I understand," Belle said, then swallowed anxiously. "How... H-how much of an expressed interest does Shell have in me?"

"That remains to be seen. What matters is that you've proven to be quite resilient in the sequencing. And now that we know that the subject is capable of providing us more than the residual data that we've acquired, it would be as good time as any to start performing other experiments on it."

"What kind of experiments?"

"None that concern you, Doctor. After all, you've sacrificed enough as it is. And, like a good Ledomaritan, it is my task to pay you back." He leaned over and passed the tablet over. "Your hoof, please."

Belle swiftly raised her right forelimb and hovered it above a magical hologram. Bright red lines scanned her hoof, turned yellow, then turned green. One of the crystals on Garnet's desk flashed.

For once, he bore a smile, albeit a stale one. "Congratulations, Doctor Bellesmith." He stood up. "Now, go and be with your beloved."

Long Awaited

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"You sure you haven't forgotten anything?" Dalton asked as he stood next to Bellesmith besides a large, metal-framed elevator. "You've been down here over a week. There isn't a chance that you may have left your study books or journals back at the room?"

"I've got everything, Dalton," Belle said, fastening a saddlebag to her flank. She paused upon glancing at her cutie mark, an open book with a quill pen and ink well. She took a deep breath and glanced forlornly down the hall where several uniformed ponies in berets marched along concrete corridors. "There's no day I look forward to better than this."

"You most certainly deserve it," he said, but then glanced with concern. "Are you certain you haven't left anything in the lab? Lent anything to one of my associates who should have hoofed it back—?"

"I'm quite alright, Dalton. I mean it." She looked up at him and smiled. "You've been like a father to me, but that doesn't mean you have to go overboard."

He chuckled and nodded. "I'm just hoping that you get a chance to enjoy your coming week without any mishap. You've misplaced things before, and I know how easily you can let the small things get to you."

She shuddered. "Yes, well, for my beloved's sake, I'm trying to stop doing that." She ran a hoof through her brown mane and murmured, "Our days together are so seldom lately that I hate to ruin them by being worrisome all the time."

"I'm sure that he would forgive you, whatever the case," Dalton said with a wink.

She smiled up at him. "What about you? You've been working so hard here in the facility. Aren't you overdue for some time with Mildred?"

"Oh..." He took a deep breath, brushing a few of his gray bangs back. "My work here is extremely important. You're not the only one who gets close to the subject of sequencing. Sometimes, I swear, I don't know what Professor Garnet would do without me."

"He doesn't thank you enough for your hard work, Dalton," Belle said. "You should put your hoof down and go spend time on the surface with your beloved."

"Perhaps, perhaps," he said, nodding. "However, when you get my age, darling, you learn to practice patience in all things, especially if it's in anticipation of the sweetest of things." He took a deep breath, but then covered it up with a smile. "But that is not a philosophy I wish to impose upon you, not now. Go up to the surface and enjoy every moment of your youth that you have. By the time you come back, I'll have made some progress on the sequencing distributors."

"I look forward to it, Dalton."

"Don't lie to an old stallion."

Bellesmith giggled. Dalton's chuckles joined her, but were drowned out by the hydraulic hiss of the elevator lowering. The doors opened loudly, and two stallions in berets stared out.

"Doctor Bellesmith?"

"Speaking."

"You have performed well for the Council of Ledo. We've been asked to escort you to the surface of Blue Shelf."

"Guess that's my cue," Belle said, then spun around to nuzzle Dalton. "Try not to get too old down here."

He blinked at the end of her embrace, then nuzzled her back with a sweet smile. "It's a tough request to follow. I remember when this country was called Seramare."

"Maybe I'll become Queen someday," she replied with a wink. "'Bellemare.' How does that sound?"

"I think you need to go before the soldiers here get the bad idea."

She chuckled, waved, and stepped on board the elevator. As the doors closed heavily, she got one last glance at Dalton, and it was a melancholic one.

The shaft vibrated with the loud hiss of grinding machinery. With a spark of magic, the car slid up. Beams of manalight flickered on either side of her as she took several deep breaths. She glanced left and right; the unicorn guards were silent as the metal beneath them. Gulping, Belle shifted the weight of her saddlebag and looked straight ahead.

In a startling short time, the car hissed to a stop and the doors opened. Belle was immediately blinded. The smell of pine, cedar, and dew tickled her nostrils as she flinched away from the brightness. As her brown eyes relaxed, she saw the purple, smoky mountains stretching beyond the concrete structure of the elevator's exit. Sharply sloping hills of emerald green forest dipped into crystal blue lakes. Songbirds and insects chirped within earshot, almost drowning out the drone of distant soldiers and zeppelin motors.

As the glow from the eastern sun bathed the stub of her horn, Bellesmith put on a brave smile and trotted eagerly into the crisp air of Blue Shelf.

Blue Shelf

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An eight hundred foot, cylindrical spire of concrete was all that remained visible of the facility from the surface. Otherwise, all was mountain and greenery as far as the eye could see. Buzzing zeppelins with lateral propellers glided up to the spire to dock, loading and unloading supplies through the mana-powered lift that ran down the length of the spire and fed its way into the underground depths of the Ledomaritan installation. High above, towards the south, another spire loomed, positioned at the topmost peak of Blue Shelf. Most of the zeppelins were clustered there, refueling on gas and supplies as they made for the furthest reaches of the country.

Bellesmith wasn't looking at either of these behemoths of construction. Instead, she trotted briskly forward down a beaten path, her hooves crunching over fallen pine needles. Birds flittered through the tree tops as a brisk mountain wind blew at her brown mane. She reveled in the natural sensations, inhaling the forested scent along the high altitude breeze.

Gazing to her right, she saw a clearing before a series of wooden bunkers nestled in a cleft of forest. Several unicorns were exercising in regimental formation while a drill sergeant in a beret shouted orders to them. To her left, she heard the thudding noise of several hooves. She side-trotted to her right in time to avoid a thick line of jogging unicorn soldiers. All of them had their eyes forward; nopony gave her so much as a single glance. She was used to it.

Trotting down a curved slope that hugged the west end of the mountain crest, Belle could gaze beyond the concrete barrier and see a pearl blue lake joined to many sapphiric tributaries. Boats with thick hulls were pulling up to a distant dock. In many ways, the Ledomaritan vessels resembled their aerial counterpart, albeit with twice as many armaments. Equine laborers carried wooden crates full of tools from the vessels and into a tunnel that led to another underground compartment of the facility.

Belle heard a loud buzzing sound. She spun and glanced to her right, just as a tiny burnt smell lifted in the air. She saw a blue songbird lying on the ground, its legs twitching in repeated jerks. Smoke trailed from its feathers as it slowly died on the side of the mountain path.

With a somber sigh, Belle gazed up. Beyond the immediate line of trees, a blue field of energy had just finished fluctuating. She spotted—as she always did—metal spokes rising up out of the sloping earth of Blue Shelf in succession. A discreet hum emanated between the posts as they continually formed a magical barrier between the surface of the facility and the wilderness beyond.

Picking up her pace once more, Belle trotted onward. The winding path broke from the mountain's edge and led deep into the forest. Mana lanterns hung on wooden obelisks that flanked the path, illumating the road as it carved its way into the shadowy trees. Squirrels darted past her as she began passing tiny houses and log cabins. Soon, a tiny community appeared out of the woods. She approached a junction of six intersecting paths. There was a large two story town hall, a general store, a registry office, and several shacks that served as miniature warehouses for supplies. Wagons hovered with glowing mana crystals, carrying lumber and mulch and gardening tools. Several ponies were trotting about their business here, engaging in pleasant conversation and gossip in the cool shadow of the mountain pine.

She passed by a middle-aged stallion shoulder-deep in digging an irrigation trench. He wiped his brow and—upon seeing Bellesmith—waved pleasantly at her. She waved back at him, as well as two mares carrying laundry towards the nearby watering hole. She glanced up in time to see two young stallions fixing the sign on the registry office. She marched up onto the front patio, passing under their ladder carefully so as not to ruin their work. Once inside, she slid past a hurrying pony or two and trotted up to a machine. She placed her hoof before a mountain crystal. The device flickered from red to yellow to green, then buzzed lightly. A slip of paper slid out, which she promptly lifted with her mouth and placed into a pocket of her saddlebag.

Marching back out of the office, Belle strolled past a bulletin board flanked by two guards standing at grim attention. Several messages and placards hung off the onyx surface for the sake of public perusal, the largest of which boldly declared the nightly curfew as well as the consequences for failing to abide by it. There was the loud, grating noise of a mana siren. She looked in front of her, gasped, and jumped back in time to avoid getting run over by a large, metal vehicle hovering swiftly across the instersection via mana streams. The driver barked at her and accelerated down the mountain road. In the back of the transport, several young equines of different races sat in nervous, huddled droves. Four soldiers stood in the back with hovering tasers, overshadowing the emaciated newcomers. The ponies' eyes stared out at the village, and their gaze caught Bellesmith's.

Belle shuddered. The mana engines of the departing vehicle dwindled, and it took another thirty seconds for the villagers to start moving again, murmuring between each other in a muddled attempt to regain their spirits. Turning from the scene, Belle took a thin road through the woods and traveled south.

Her path ascended slightly, rising through a cleft of pale, exposed rock. A fallen tree acted as a low bridge over her a bend in the path. She ducked, easily lowering her stubby horn beneath the petrified bark. She breathed with relief as she came upon a straightaway where several tiny cottages rested in the sundered sunlight that was scattered through the trees. She counted her way past the stone gates and wooden doors until she came upon one. She smiled at seeing two hoofprints plastered to the brown finish of the entrance—one in black, and another in blue. It wasn't much of a marker, but it was what they had been flimsily allowed to bear on their dwelling—and for that sake it meant the world to her to see it upon coming home.

Pushing the creaking gate open, she marched up to the front door of a three-room cabin and opened the unlocked entrance. Biting her lip and attempting to stifle a foalish squeal, she snuck into the dwelling on catlike hooves.

The familiar smell of the place electrified her, but that wasn't what she looked forward to. Gazing left and right, she crept into the living room/kitchen, her heart beating heavily. She blinked several times in bright anticipation, and just then her ears twitched. She turned around a corner and looked into the sun-lit study.

"Mmmm... No, that's not quite right. O.A.S.I.S., try scanning it again." A striped form stood before a desk with thick black hooves mounted upon the side. A dull blue orb hovered above his dense mohawk, and it cast a stream of manalight that swept over the pages of an open book. As the beam of illumination washed over the text, the zebra nodded his head slowly, murmuring aloud, "Yes. Now that's more like it. The first Xonan king rose to power fourteen hundred years ago, not four hundred. Then that would make the coming decade from now the anniversary of the eastern kingdom's linguistic revolution. Hmmmm... Then what would explain the verbal disconnect between the warrior class and the laboring class?"

Belle exhaled gently. She leaned against the wooden corner of the room, simply gazing at him with a warm smile. She watched as the sun settled on his white and black coat, giving him an otherwordly glow.

Just then, he lifted his head. The hovering sphere lost its glow, became inert, and fell limply to the pages of the book. It rolled towards the edges of the desk, only for the zebra to stop it with a hoof. He physically lifted the ball until it clasped onto the front of a choker fitted around his neck. Turning around, he gazed blankly with clear gray eyes across the study, his ears twitching above a metal plate of glowing runes that lay affixed to his skull.

The zebra's nostrils flared once, twice, and then his face grew long. "Belle...?" he murmured, unblinking. "Belle, is that you? Are you... Are you home, beloved?"

Her eyes glistened as her teeth showed in a cracking smile. "Every time I see you, Pilate, I feel like I'm falling in love all over again."

Slowly, he shuffled towards her. It was a labored effort, with one hoof constantly waving in front of him at every third step. She closed the distance between them, clasping his forelimb in two of hers. His breath left him, and he smiled instantly, plunging forward.

"Eeep!" Belle shrieked, but caught his heavy embrace. She giggled into his ear and nuzzled him close as the two warmly reunited.

"Belle, I'm so glad that you're home," Pilate said, his voice wavering.

She closed her eyes and hid her face in his striped shoulder. "So am I, beloved. So am I..."

Beloved Household

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"I was studying about Xonan linguistic history," Pilate said as he shuffled across the cottage's kitchen. He felt forward, made contact with the counter, and slid his way to the left by hoof. After four paces, he stopped beneath the cabinets, reached up, and pulled out two bowls. "If the old texts are to believed, it would appear that Xona had one singular language before they became a militaristic monarchy." He reached into a tray to his left, felt through a bag, and pulled free a head of cabbage. With expert hooves, he grasped a knife and began cutting the green leaves into slices to make a salad. "It was the decision of Burrowhoof, the first king of Xona, to assign language to each class of ponies. The laboring class kept the common language. The language of neighboring kingdoms' aristocracy was used to command the Xonan army. Finally, a dead language from an arcande religion was used for diplomacy and regal ceremony. By creating a pyramid hierarchy of languages, the king was able to exert his command over the seperate sects of living. It might explain why Xona today remains so formidably powerful. They've been following a rigid system for nearly twice as long as the Maretriarchal Confederacy."

"Mmmmhmmm," Belle remarked, sitting at a table and leaning a smiling chin on her hoof.

"As a matter of fact, back in the age of Wessamare, several military tribunals had to learn the middle tier Xonan language of our neighbors in order to barter weapons technology. Granted, that was one hundred years before the Eastern Incursion that started this long-standing mess to begin with." Pilate chuckled, a slight zebra braying noise escaping his lips. He slid over to a sink and clapped his hoof over a faucet handle. With a glow of bright mana, a crystal-mounted dispenser sprayed water over the bowl of leaves, washing them. "I know it may seem as trivial information, but I'm quite happy Dalton lent us this book a month ago. It's nice to know a little bit about... our country's enemy..." He paused in speech, his ears twitching. "Belle?"

She sat up straight in her seat. "Hmm?"

"Are... you okay? You've been quite ever since—"

"I just love listening to you think out loud," she said with a soft smile. "It's positively riveting."

"Heh. If you say so."

"I mean it!" she exclaimed, briefly frowning. "You won't believe how many hours a day I spend listening to protocol or Garnet spewing out nationalist dogma—"

"Shhhh... Beloved, be careful," he murmured. "They fixed the faulty sentry by roadside while you were gone last."

She winced, biting her lip and glancing out the window towards where an obelisk lingered beyond a few pine trees. Her breath escaped her heavily. "I swear, sometimes it feels safer inside those concrete hallways..."

"I do not envy you, Belle."

"I just wish I could take you with me sometimes," she said, her voice choking slightly. She lowered her head, her eyes closed. "Between sequencing, there is nothing but sitting and feeling anxious for hours—even days at a time."

"Belle..." He turned around and paced evenly towards her. Feeling the table, Pilate crept his way over to the mare and nuzzled her gently. "I wish more than anything that I could join you too. But we both know our places here in Blue Shelf. It's a lucky thing that we're allowed in this community to begin with. I die everytime they take you away, but I can't help but think how worse off we'd be back in Mountain Fall."

"I know," she said, shuddering. "I just feel so bad for you..."

"For me?"

"I never wanted it to be this way, Pilate," she murmured, opening her moist eyes. She caressed his muzzle. "Especially after all you've been through..."

"Hey..." He felt her lips, smiling. "No sad faces. Hmm? How long did Garnet say you were here for again?"

"Mmmm... Seven days."

"Then let us make the best of them!" He said, grinning brightly. "You'll never guess what the poststallion dropped by here while you were gone!"

"Is it a new horn?" she mutterd with a bitter smile.

"Oh Belle. We'd have sooner won the war. Ahem." Pilate leaned back. "O.A.S.I.S."

The plate attached to Pilate's brow flickered with glowing runes. At the same exact time, the blue sphere on his choker brightened, detached, and hovered between the couple with a magical hum.

"Fetch." He commanded vocally. "Brass container."

The sphere flitted off into the bedroom on the other end of the tiny cottage.

Belle looked after it. "It seems to be a bit slower than normal." She turned and spoke in Pilate's direction. "Has it been losing its charge faster?"

"I recalibrated it a few times myself," Pilate said. "I think it just needs some pure energy to give it a new boost."

"Ugh... It's so frustrating!" Belle grumbled. "I built the darn thing. I should at least be able to charge it up."

Pilate gently caressed her stub of a horn. "You think I married you because your magic could lift me off my hooves any more than the sound of your voice?"

"I think you married me because I needed a zebra to make me salad really bad," Belle said.

"Hahah! Well at least Garnet doesn't need you for your culinary skills."

"Brrrr..." Belle shivered. "I shudder to think."

The sphere hovered back, levitating a brass cylinder in a blue field of light.

"Ah. Here we go." Pilate lifted his forelimbs up towards the humming noise. He clasped the cylinder and slid it open as the sphere rejoined the choker on his neck. "I think you'll find something in here that will lift your spirits." He pulled out a scroll of paper and passed it to Belle.

Belle took it. She leaned over, her eyes squinting. She gasped halfway through reading the parchment. "The University got a new extension to its science wing! They received enough funds to expand on the biomagica curriculum!"

"Heheheh..." Pilate nodded. "I think your colleagues are worshipping your name just as we speak."

"Oh wow!" Belle's voice reached a high pitch as she brought a hoof to her blushing face. "It says here that the student occupancy has increased by twenty-five percent!"

"I'm guessing that puts Mountain Fall on the map for Ledomaritan learning."

"Oh Pilate, that makes this whole thing almost worth it!"

"The Council of Ledo may be an intimidating bunch," Pilate said, "But they certainly know how to keep a promise."

"I feel... I feel..."

"What, beloved?"

"We should do something!" Belle glanced at him, smiling. "We should celebrate!"

"Erm..." He fidgeted, chuckling nervously. "There really isn't all that much here to do. And I'd rather not singe my mane on one of the mana fences like last time..."

"Come on! I've been cooped up in the belly of the earth for days and... and..." Belle sighed long. "Oh, how I wish I could take you places. The places I've seen..."

"Places you've seen?" Pilate asked. "Wait..." His metal brow furrowed. "Did... Did you succeed with the sequencing?"

She sat there, biting her lip.

His gray eyes gazed past her. "You... You've synchronized successfully with the subject?"

"It's... It's a very detailed account..."

"Belle! That's... That's remarkable! Nopony else has passed the first initial tests! No wonder they haven't shipped us out of here!" He gasped, "If you're merging this intensely with the subject, then that must mean we're that much closer to making progress with the experiment!"

"Yeah..." She gulped and ran a hoof through her mane. "Progress..."

He cocked his striped head to the side. "You don't sound all that excited."

"Well, Pilate, the thing is—"

Just then, there was a knock on the door and two antler'd faces peered in. "Hello!" chimed a bright-eyed, female antelope. "Anypony home!"

"Is that who we think it is?!" exclaimed her smirking husband. "Bellesmith! Since when did they dig you out of that giant sarcophagus of Ledo's?!"

Belle winced. She leaned in and whispered into Pilate's ear. "I'll tell you all about it later." Turning around and clearing her throat, she burst into a neighborly smile. "Kenna! Baxter! How good it is to see you!"

"Forgive us for being nosy," the female anteloupe exclaimed. "But we heard something about celebrating."

"Would you like to join us for some rest and relaxation around the fire?! We heard news of you coming back and thought it would be a swell welcome."

"Heh..." Belle dug at the kitchen floor and chuckled. "Swell? Why, it'd be awesome!"

The couple giggled and smirked at the unicorn. "Well, I don't know about 'awesome,' unless of course Dalton lent you some magic flame potion along the way here."

"Heh. If only." Belle gestured towards the sink. "Just give us an hour or so to have dinner together and we'll join you. Right, Pilate?"

"Huh? Oh, uh, sure, honey."

"Great! Just don't be too late!" Kenna exclaimed, trotting away.

"There's curfew up on here on the surface, remember?" Baxter added as he departed.

"I hope you don't mind, right, beloved?" Belle asked.

Pilate was gazing off into space, his lips pronouncing a two syllable word over and over again with a puzzled expression on his face.

"Pilate?"

"Hmm? Oh, not at all."

"You seem to have something on your mind."

He smirked and tapped the metal plate on his skull. "And who do you think I owe that to?"

The two chuckled together, nuzzled one more time, and finished preparing a humble dinner in the setting sunlight.

Camp Fire

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"You've been the talk of the town, Belle," said Baxter, grinning wide as he tossed a twig or two onto the crackling campfire before him and Kenna. "Everyone is chopming at the bit to find out about what you've been up to."

To the southeast of the tiny cluster of cottages, there was a small clearing made out of a soft bed of leaves and crushed pine needles. Several of the neighbors sat on logs, gazing into the warm embers as the sun set over the mountainous edges of Blue Shelf.

Baxter continued, his black-tipped anteloupe ears flicking. "There've been rumors of a new subject in the facility being used for sequencing. Somehow I knew you had the horn for a job."

"Heh..." Belle curled her legs beneath her as she sat in the leaves next to Pilate. Her earthen brown mane blew in the gentle mountain breeze. "It's not exactly a job; more like a commitment."

"From what I hear, Professor Garnet's been holed up in his office a lot lately," said Great Stare, a stone-coated buffalo with a pair of brass-rimmed bifocals that glistened from the firelight. He gazed across at the group. "Something must have him scared if he's stuck doing paperwork."

A white maned unicorn named Felicity leaned forward and said, "It's all on account of that Enforcer who's been shoving his horn into everything as of late."

"What's his name?" Placid, her beloved, sat beside her and murmured, "Shard? Shackles?"

"Shell," grunted a ram with an angry, gnarled face. True to his name, Grinder dragged a hoof across the leafy earth and spat towards the flames. "And sooner than you know it, this village will be overrun by bunkers! It's just like what happened on the Xonan border!"

"Grinder, we are nowhere close to Xona," Great Stare's beloved, a petite buffallo with sparkling eyes, said. "This facility is all about scientific research."

"Not from what I heard, Little Breath!" Grinder hissed. The ram sat alone on his log, shaking as his lungs growled from deep beneath his shaggy coat. "My wife and I lived around here before Blue Shelf had a name! Before the fences and the military drills and the sirens and—"

"You've told us all this before, Grinder," Placid said, his smile soft as his name. "But you have to admit, the forces of Ledo have kept this place rather immaculate."

"That's a lot of hoo-hah coming from a unicorn who keeps his nose stuck in glowing runes all day!"

"Hey!" Felicity frowned. "What my beloved does for the Council of Ledo is his business only! When was the last time you or your wife did anything for Blue Shelf other than complain—"

"Darling, please," Placid placed a hoof on Felicity's shoulder. "We're here to relax and celebrate Bellesmith's return."

"Tell that to hornhead over there!"

"Grinder will be Grinder," Baxter said, rolling his eyes. He waved a cloven hoof before his antlers, smirking. "If you ask me, I'd say things have been quieter lately around here, and not just 'cuz of Belle's absence."

"Oh?" Bellesmith asked, cocking her head aside.

"Lots of the other neighborhoods have been clearing out," Kenna added.

"How do you mean?"

"The cottages are emptying," Great Stare said in a deep bass voice. "Villagers are being relocated. The community on the west side is silent, almost haunting."

"Reminds me of the yellow plains back home," Little Breath murmured.

Great Stare reached over to caress her shoulder. "I know, beloved."

"Just where are they being relocated?" Belle added.

"We figured that you would know," Felicity said. "You've been in the facility long enough. Have you received any newcomers."

"I..." Bellesmith gazed down at her folded limbs, fidgeting. "I-I don't know..."

"She's been entrenched in a singular project all this time," Pilate said, his face aimed at the center of the group. The middle of his forehead blinked with glowing runes as he spoke, "She only knows as much as she's told. It's the same with all of our beloveds who go to do their shifts."

"Not me!" Grinder hissed, his face twitching. "They're always telling me what a sorry sack of crap I am!"

Felicity sighed and gazed lethargically his way. "Maybe if you stopped headbutting them as soon as the elevator let you into the maintenance corridor..."

"That's my way of saying hello! Grrrghh... Unicorns are so weak and puny!"

Pilate's dark lips curved. "Not from my experience."

"Meep!" Belle blushed furiously and nudged him hard. "Pilate!" she hissed.

He merely chuckled.

"Back to the conversation—" Great Stare said.

Baxter grinned goofily at him. "We were having a conversation?!"

After a glare, the buffalo continued, "Shell of the Enforcers is no small fry. I hear he's led several fearless legions into battle with the fiercest of Xonan warriors."

"Then what's a blood and guts guy like him doing here?" Kenna asked, shrugging. "Did he do something horrible that Ledo's army had to punish him with such a boring post?"

"Dalton doesn't speak highly of him," Belle said. "But so far, he seems rather harmless. All he does is hover about the sequencing room, observing from—"

Felicity squinted at Bellesmith. "They put you in an sequencing room with an observation platform?"

Belle's chestnut eyes blinked. "Well, yes."

Felicity fidgeted.

"What is it?" Pilate asked, craning his neck.

"Well..." Placid scooted over and sat closer to his beloved. "They only conduct experiments in such chambers if there's a high risk of breakthrough." He swallowed hard. "Or failure."

"'Failure?'" Little Breath asked, pensively.

"They put me in one of those chambers once," Felicity said in a low breath, her gaze weak and frail. "I was comatose for nearly a month afterwards..."

Kenna exhaled heavily. "So that's why you were gone for so long..."

"I figured you were gone because of heavy research," Pilate said.

Placid was nuzzling Felicity gently. "We only wished that was the case. I'm just glad that I came back in one piece."

"Hmmm..." Felicity smiled bitterly. "One piece too many."

"The heck do you mean by that?" Grinder grunted.

Felicity frowned at him. "Meaning that I didn't have what it took to get the job done! On account of my horn being completely intact, my leylines weren't capable of handling the unbridled flow of mana!"

Pilate tilted his head towards Belle.

She blinked nervously at that. "You don't say..."

"Now they've got this new subject from Spark-knows-where, and they're trying to repeat the same sequencing experiments!" Felicity shrugged heavily, sighing. "I'd be envious if I wasn't so angry at Garnet's peons hooking me up to something that I had no right being attached to in the first place!"

"What matters is that you're here with me now," Placid said. He smiled. "And we can perform research for the Council of Ledo together, like we did back in our university days."

"I can't help but think that this 'Shell' guy is here because we've underperformed or something," Baxter said, leaning forward and propping his chin on his hooves. "Blue Shelf must be really tanking if the Enforcers have to bail it out."

"It's all a plan from the get-go!" Grinder hissed. "You think those noisy zeppelins are hovering over our heads just for sight-seeing? They've doubled in number in the last three months alone! I can't get any beauty sleep!"

"Which has nothing to do with how your beloved snore," Baxter said, leaning back with a coy smirk.

"Say that a little closer to my horns, bucko."

"I think I'll pass."

"Think you can do something about this fire while you're at it, honey?" Kenna asked with a heavy nudge.

"What? Not hot enough for you?"

"Come on...."

"Fine..." Baxter took a deep breath and concentrated. His eyes glowed red, and sparks of energy bounced between his two pointed antlers. An orb of orange flame levitated for a few seconds in front of him, then shot into the embers, sparking them to life. Soon, a glittering flame billowed between the group, warming them for the bitter cold hour left before curfew.

"I can never get over how loud you flamestarters are," Pilate said with a slight shudder. "Nor how hot."

"That's a compliment I wouldn't mind somepony else giving me." Baxter winked. Kenna swatted him in the shoulder. "Ow! Hey! I'm just spitting into the wind!"

Kenna sighed and smiled Belle's way. "Don't mind him. Sometimes I think he was born with three antlers?"

"Huh? But what does that hav—?"

Pilate leaned in and whispered in her ear.

Belle blinked, then blushed furiously. "I swear, they should build one of those mana fences between your cottage and ours."

"Hahaha!" Baxter leaned back and forth, clutching himself and laughing. "Then you two would get bored quick! Wouldn't you?"

"Yes, well..."

"Oh! Speaking of fences!" Kenna glanced over at her beloved and waggled her eyebrows. "Is now a good time?"

"Oooh! Thanks for being my brain and tongue!"

"On occasion..." Kenna began fumbling through a canvas bag full of lumpy objects.

Great Stare and Little Breath leaned forward, curious. "What is this...?"

"The score of the century!" Kenna pulled her forelimb out, holding bananas between her cloven hooves. "Ta daa! Who wants a nibble!"

"Gimme gimme gimme!" Grinder hissed, his hooves raking the dirt beneath him.

"Better do it, honey, before he plows a hole through your chest," Baxter said, winking.

"Here ya go!" Kenna tossed the fruit his way.

"What is it?" Pilate asked. His nostrils flared. "Do I smell... citrus?"

Kenna pulled out a pair of oranges. "Sure do!" She tossed them at the zebra. "Get some extra shine to your stripes!"

"Where..." Felicity was squinting hard. "How did you get ahold of fruit?! Fresh ones, no less?"

"We went for an innocent frolic by the perimeter!" Baxter said, passing pears to the two unicorns. "There was this big, smashed crate chock full of the stuff! A zeppelin must have dropped it during one of its trips!"

"Then that means it's Ledomaritan property!" Felicity exclaimed. "You shouldn't have been that close to the perimeter to begin with! What if you two got caught?!"

"'All Kingdoms of the Confederacy Bring Glory to the Queen in their Multiplicitous Ways,'" Kenna quoted. "It's in the pamphlet we were given when we were dragged here!"

Pilate gazed blankly towards Bellesmith. "Beloved...?"

Belle's face cracked a wry grin. "Trust me, Pilate. If there was such a document, I would have run it by O.A.S.I.S. in a heartbeat." She smirked towards the anteloupes. "Still, it's been a long, long time since I relished anything that wasn't processed by the Ledomaritan ration committee. Would you mind if...?"

"Hah!" Baxter cackled. "How far the meek have fallen! Demanding to have some of my melons!"

"Baxter..."

"Okay, fine, but maybe something else." He pulled an orb out of the bag and rolled it the unicorn's way. "There you go. Hope your teeth aren't so sensitive."

"Please, Baxter," Belle scoffed and grasped the fruit in her hooves. "I'm a pony. The last thing I could possibly be sensitive to is—" She looked at it, and her irises shrank. A sharp breath escaped her lips, sounding vaguely like a whimper.

Pilate's ears instantly twitched. "Honey?" I sat up straight, as if in alarm. "What is it?"

"I..." Belle's face was contorting in something between a grimace and a sob. She turned the red apple around in her hooves as the sniffles began. "I don't know. It's just..." Her lips quivered. The flames grew distant, like a cold gasp of yesterday. She felt something missing, as if a great vacuum existed between her limbs where instead she should have been holding onto something dear and warm. She looked up and saw every face gawking at her, including Grinder's. A tear streamed down her cheek, and she dropped the apple with a tiny thud. "I'm s-so sorry," her voice cracked. With a rustle of featherlike leaves, she darted up to her hooves. "I gotta go! I c-can't stay!"

"Belle!" Pilate called out, panicked and trembling. He stood up, but any vibrating hint of her presence was gone. The sound of her scampering hooves disappeared into the fall of night.

"Mmmphfff..." Grinder grunted between mouthfuls. "I wish I could swim in bananas."

Night Falls

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Belle sat in a corner of the kitchen, hugging her limbs to herself. She shivered in the settling darkness around the cottage, her moist eyes struggling to stay open. Everytime she allowed her lids to lower, she'd see a flash of colors and patterns that she didn't understand, and several of them drenched in ashes.

Her lungs heaved and she squeaked in pain. She ran her hooves over the stubby horn on her crown, as if expecting the very tip to be glowing hot. It wasn't.

Belle's breaths were just starting to calm to a normal pace just as a heavy set of hooves shuffled towards the front gait, took a ninety-degree turn, and galloped evenly to the door of the cabin.

"Belle?! Beloved?!"

The door yawned open, and Pilate poked his head in. He glanced every which way, gasping for breath. His ears flicked for a sign, any sign.

"Belle? Talk to me!" He gulped dryly and tilted his mouth down to the sphere at the end of his choker. "O.A.S.I.S...."

"I'm here, Pilate," she murmured. "No need to b-bring out the mana sphere..."

"There you are!" He scampered over to her, feeling around. As soon as his hooves made contact with hers, he flew down and scooped her into a trembling hug. "You had me so worried!" he exclaimed, muffled into her shoulder. "You know how much I hate it when you just run off like that!"

"I know, darling. I know and I'm sorry." She sniffled and nuzzled him back. "I... I-I don't know what got into me. I..."

"Was it something you saw?" Pilate asked. "Something that Baxter handed you? It was the fruit, wasn't it?"

Belle was silent.

"I sniffed it. It was an ordinary apple. You've never had a problem with fruit before. What made you panic so much?"

"It's not panic, Pilate. It's..." She bit her lip and quivered. Her voice came out like a wilting foal's, "I just don't know. I don't..."

He gazed past her, breathing steadily. As her body began to shake more, he nevertheless smiled and held her tightly, allowing her to surrender into his embrace. "I'm not mad at you, beloved. I'm simply confused. Everything seemed just fine until that moment. Is there anything that I can do? Anything I can help you with?"

She sniffled and sobbed into his striped limbs. "You're doing it, Pilate. Bless you; you're doing it..."

"Shhh," he urged, and rocked the two of them together softly as night fully fell, and the magically-induced chime announcing curfew blared with finality across the heights of Blue Shelf.

Like One

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"'Rainbow?'" Pilate asked.

"Mmmmhmmm," Belle nodded. "At least, that's what her friends called her."

She and her beloved laid in bed under the dim orange dance of a pair of candles upon a nearby dresser. The window next to them was left open, allowing the cold mountain air to blow in gentle waves that kicked at the midnight blue curtains. They shivered slightly, but delighted in each other's warmth beneath the quilted duvet. Pilate's head and mane were propped up while Belle nestled against his upper body, trailing lone circles in his striped chest with a dainty hoof.

"'Rainbow...'" Pilate repeated again, gazing into nothingness as his hoof played gently with Belle's brown mane. "That's quite the odd name."

"She has many of them..."

"What, names?"

"No," Belle said, blinking out of her absent-minded stare. "Friends, I meant. She has many friends." She chuckled lightly. "And she met each and every one of them in very different, unique ways. They're so very different, so colorful, so... so remarkably interesting..."

"You mean she 'had' friends, right?"

Belle sat up, her mouth agape. "What do you mean by that?"

He stirred, startled by her sudden movement. "Only that the subject must have met an unfortunate end if she landed in the possession of Ledomare."

Belle sighed, deflating once again so that she rested her soft head against his chest. "All I know was that she was happy."

"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it?"

"Mmmm..." she shut her eyes and smiled. "I wish I could share it with you, Pilate: the feeling, the exhilaration of flight." She giggled lightly, her voice humming against his coat as she said, "It's more than the fact that she was a flying pony. She was larger than life, and she knew it. Proving how spectacular she was served simply as a byproduct of her existence. I wish I had that confidence..."

"You are confident, Belle," Pilate said. "More than—as a matter of fact. You couldn't have achieved so much esteem and respect if you were anything but reliable and assertive."

She opened her eyes, and they were thin, jaded things. "Sometimes, I think, the place where I am now owes itself to what I have, and not who I am." She swallowed a lump down her throat as she gazed at the candlelight, imagining the crackling embers of a fire before dear friends. "Or, rather, what I don't have..."

"Hey..." He reached down and caressed her head, stopping to treat her semblance of a horn with gentle care. "We're both here, we're both safe, and we're both happy. We weren't just given that. We earned that. You and me, through hard work, through careful study..." He stroked her chin and tilted her face up so that their muzzles made contat. "And, I trust, through our undying devotion."

She shared a tender kiss, then nuzzled him closely. Shuddering, she said, "I love you, Pilate. And I'm proud of what we've accomplished. But we could have so much more. I owe you so much more."

"You give me your love and your trust," he said, smiling as he caressed her face with both hooves. "What more can I ask for?"

She sniffled and murmured, "A life that's awe-inspiring... that's amazing... that's... that's..."

"Awesome?"

She bit her lip.

He ran a hoof through her mane and cradled her face. "Working for the Council of Ledo is not easy. I can't share the same burden that you carry, no matter how terribly I wish I could. What I know is that in spite of what we have lost, we could have lost so much more. And the reason we haven't is because you've sacrificed so much. And I'm happy, Belle. I'm happy to be here with you, and I cherish every moment we have together. The promise of another life, quite frankly, scares me, no matter how 'awesome.' Because I want nothing more than to be with you, just like I am now."

Her eyes glistened in the candlelight. "You're... you're n-not ashamed of how little we have?"

He shook his head, leaned forward, and kissed her on the forehead. "How could I be ashamed of having the most spectacular mare as my beloved?"

She swallowed hard, her face grimacing between a sweet smile and bitter sob. She buried her face in his neck, murmuring in a wavering voice, "Wh-why are you always so good to me, Pilate?"

"Because you're so good to be with."

"Mmmmm..." She kissed the side of his muzzle. "Good answer."

"Took me all week to think it up."

They laughed lightly into the mountain breeze. The candle-light flickered and steadied. Eventually, Bellesmith murmured, "Pilate?"

"Yes, beloved?"

"Remember when they first brought us here?"

"That I do."

"Remember what they told us about our role in the village?" She gulped and added, "How they said we were to operate?"

He nodded. "They said we were to be like one."

She sighed through her nostrils and gazed into the shadows. "Then why do they only need one pony at a time to perform the sequencing?"

Pilate stirred, his face twisting in thought. "Hmmmm..." His gray eyes reflected the candle-light before he uttered, "I can't pretend to think for the Council. I'm sure they meant what we've always expected them to; that half of us would operate the facility and half of us would run the village of Blue Shelf. But, as much as you feel like you are, I sincerely doubt that you're alone in your endeavors."

"They can't get more than one pony to sequence at a time, Pilate," Belle remarked. "Sometimes, though, I wish that they could. It'd help us balance the data more. Sometimes, I swear, the information is way too unbearable." She shuddered. "The subject—I swear—it's like she's a dead statue to me at times. I have to mentally scream to get through to her."

"Have you tried asking politely?"

"Huh?" Belle leaned up over him. "What do you mean by that?"

He smiled. "Simply that the Ledomaritan philosophy mustn't be lost during the sequencing."

"Pilate," she sighed. "I a doctorate in advanced manabiology, and I still can't understand what you're getting at."

"Think about some of the things you've crafted with your own two hooves." He furrowed his metal brow and tapped the dim runes across the surface. "If this half of O.A.S.I.S. simply slammed itself against my neurological system, would there be any hope of my body and the artificial leylines coexisting?"

"Of course not! They have to function together on the mystical plane!"

"So, it's as if O.A.S.I.S. and my brain are becoming one?"

"Where... are you going with this, Pilate?"

He caressed her and spoke gently, "Think of yourself and the subject in the same way. You're not just sequencing with an inert object, you're socializing with a remarkable equine. It's like having a reunion with a long lost equine, or getting along with a very close friend. There's give and take, not cold-hearted, mechanical invasion. Be natural, be fluid, and treat the subject like your missing half."

"And we will become whole," Belle murmured, swallowed, and added, "Like one."

"Exactly."

Belle smiled limply, relaxing against him as if a great weight had been taken off her shoulders. "Have I ever told you that you always see better than I do?"

"Mmmhmm. My hearing's not all that bad too."

"Heeheehee..." She cuddled close, shutting her eyes with soft finality as a lasting breeze made the curtains dance behind them. "All I need now is to learn how to sing..."

Pearl Blue

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I stood upon the brink.

Mist and froth thundered before me, evacuating into the nothingness.

The faintest hint of stars twinkled beyond the edge of the billowing atmosphere.

I had no breath to my lungs, no beat to my heart.

The world shifted and I fell with it.

A sound came from my throat, like the grinding of gears in the darkness.

I spun and flailed.

The tempests leapt to swallow me.

Then, a pale bed of feathers caught my descent.

I landed with a gasp, rediscovering my voice.

I tried calling my beloved's name, because he wasn't there.

Then again, I wasn't there.

I looked at my limbs.

My eyes twitched upon the sky blue color of the coat.

Something heavy was around my neck.

I moved to look at it, but my eyes traveled up the white feathers until I saw whom the wings belonged to.

She looked at me with eyes of pearl blue adoration.

"Bring it," the alicorn said.

I stammered. "Bring what?" a voice cracked.

"Bring the wind to Austraeoh."

My heart skipped a beat.

I began to tremble.

Then someone's desperate voice shattered the edge of the world.

"Belle? Belle!"

The alicorn's face split open from the rising sun, blinding and melting the world to pure white.

Not Fair

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"Wake up, Belle!" Pilate exclaimed, shaking the mare vigorously.

"Mmmmff..." She stirred from under the covers. She lifted her head. Her mane was a tangled mess of earthen fuzz. A thin pair of chestnut eyes blearly entreated him. "Wha—Huh? B-beloved?"

"Did you have a stroke in the middle of the night?! Get up!" Pilate exclaimed, shaking her some more.

"Nnnngh—Pilattttte..." She groaned into the pillow, her dainty limbs stirring under the rays of morning light. "Sooooo earlyyyy. Mmmf—We can visit town square when it noon..."

"No time for that!" he hissed, raising a hoof up to straightened his mane. "There's a tour!"

"A tour...?" Bellesmith muttered. Suddenly, her ears shook from the very real sound of creaking wagon wheels and murmuring voices just a few cottages down from them. The mare twitched once, twice, then suddenly sat up with an invisible wind toss of her mane. "A tour!"

"I know, right—!"

"Pilate!" she gasped, hopping out of bed and tripping on the bedsheets. "Gaaah!" She kicked and bucked and ultimately disentangled herself from the wrinkled duvet. "Why didn't you say so?!"

"But I just—"

"By the Spark! My mane's an absolute mess!" she hissed, hobbling around the cramped bedroom. "Stand in the yard!"

"But... B-but!" He hissed, "I can't just go out there without you! What if—"

"I'll be right out there! I promise! Now go, Pilate! Worst case scenario, they'll think I'm away at the facility!"

"Okay! But be quick about it!" he exclaimed. Pilate paced out the door into the kitchen and hung a right, counting his steps beneath his breath as his path took him out into the front yard of the cabin.

Panting, Belle scrambled up to a mirror. She fumbled for a brush, dropped it, and grunted in frustration. "Ugh! What I wouldn't give to be back at Mountainfall!" She clasped the brush in her mouth, flipped it in the air, caught it in the crook of her right hoof, and began brushing the tangles out of her mane. It was a swift and merciless exercise, and she winced on several occasions. Through the windows, the sound of wagon wheels grew louder and louder. She heard a pony orating in a militarized voice. Finally done with her task, Belle slapped the brush onto the mirror and pivoted towards the bedroom's exit. Marching her way out of the cottage, she skidded to a stop in the kitchen, rushed to the sink, and splashed a cold lather of water over her yellow face. "Blllblbbbblb—Nnnngh! Spark help me..."

With one last gallop, she burst through the front door, scampered to the front yard, and stood right next to Pilate, who was busily raking leaves clear of the front path, pretending to look busy and hospitable.

"Knew you would make it, honey," he said in a wavering breath.

"Don't lie. I hate it when you lie," she grumbled. She took one look at him, and—blushing—reached over to pivot the rake around so that the correct end was on the ground.

"Uhm..." He bit his lip nervously. "Thank you, dear."

"Don't mention it. Shhh. They're coming."

Pilate and Bellesmith weren't alone. Just one door down, Baxter and Kenna stood in the front yard, pretending to be gathering flowers. Across the dirt road, Felicity and Placid were situated next to their front gate. Great Stare and Little Breath were within shouting distance, and several other pairs of equines stood at attention before the front of their houses.

As the voices became more distinct, a trio of wagons rolled up from the lower level of the mountain village below. The three vehicles were flanked by firmly marching unicorns in dark uniforms and dark berets. Pulling the wagons were hovering spheres of pulsating mana, and a protective field of magical energy laced the edges of the transports. Seated within each wagon was a group of unicorns—finely dressed—with emblems on their collars that bore unique illustrations depicting separate geographical landscapes.

"And as you see here, representatives"—spoke an elderly soldier in the frontmost wagon who bore several decorative medals—"the humble residents of Blue Shelf are ready and waking at any moment to serve the Council of Ledo. With their diligent spirits and fine intellect, the promising future of the Confederacy's technology division is assured."

Belle leaned in and whispered into Pilate's ear. "Now, darling. Wave." Immediately, she and her significant other smiled wide and waved for the passing crowd of dignitaries.

Several stern eyes swept over the villagers as the caravan slowly rose up the dirt path. A loud vibration filled the air as a zeppelin hovered almost directly overhead, its intimidating cannons trained on every horizon of the forested mountain as it kept a careful watch over the precious occupants of the wagons below.

"Every other week, half of these equines leave the home to perform their duty to Her Royal Majesty, working for several hours of intense research and development deep within the magically reinforced bowels of the Blue Shelf Science Facility. By their labor and concentration, new forms of mana manipulation are inputted into the war effort, and to bring glory to Ledo."

"I don't understand," one elderly mare said. "I thought it was one couple to a household in the village here...

The soldier blinked at her, but nonetheless kept his confident voice. "Oh, but it is, Ms. Representative, I assure you."

She squinted and pointed into the line of cottages. It took Bellesmith a few startling seconds to realize that the hoof was being pointed at her and Pilate.

"Then where are their beloveds?" the mare asked in a disgruntled breath. "Are they milling about in the general store?"

The soldier cast one glance towards the pair in question. His jaw flexed briefly, but he maintained his composure. "These... are all the couples of this street, madame," he said. "Everypony is accounted for."

The mare glanced at two old unicorns next to her. Collectively, the three chuckled. One of the stallions coughed, caught his voice, and said, "My my, the Council must be getting desperate if that is what it takes to bring glory to Ledo these days."

"Next thing you know, the Confederacy will be marrying cattle and swine!"

Several dry laughs lit the air.

Belle's jaw dropped. With a snarling expression, she jerked forward inhaled sharply to shout—

A dark hoof was already reaching for her shoulder

She stopped in place, jerking to flash Pilate a pale expression.

His face was hung towards the floor. The zebra's lips were thin and expressionless, yet altogether peaceful.

She took a deep breath and shut her eyes, exhaling the frustration through her nostrils.

The soldier cleared his throat and spoke as the wagons rolled on. "Over here, we have a stretch of plateau where you can observe the mana gate in full operation. Blue Shelf is a marvel of societal engineering in the middle of the raging wilderness, and if it weren't for Ledomaritan technology—the same science which is improved on below ground here—then this peaceful community would be overrun with the likes of Manticores and jaguars..."

Slowly, the couples milled about and returned to their homes. Baxter and Kenna paused—their antlers glistening in the morning light—as they cast Belle an apologetic glances and shuffled indoors.

With a groan, Belle turned to Pilate. "I can't stand it! I simply can't! If I have to hear another sanctimonious bag of hot wind insult us again, I'll—"

"Dalton needs you. This facility needs you," Pilate said calmly. "And I need you." He smiled gently and leaned over to nuzzle her. "I love you, and that is a love that nopony can take away, no matter how unfairly we may be judged."

She gulped hard and murmured in a wavering voice, "Pilate, how can you be so calm about it? I mean... everywhere we go, it's the same thing, and—"

"Shhh..." His smile was calm, yet exhausted. "They're leaders, Belle. We can't expect them to understand." His lips curved with a bitter gleam. "Just lead."

She gulped hard and murmured into his ear. "I adore you so much. I just wish I had your tolerance."

"You have my heart. Isn't that enough?"

She chuckled dryly. "Silly zebra..."

"Lazy is more like it," he muttered, pivoting about at a right degree angle to face the bulk of the front yard. "I've been letting leaves take over this place while you were gone. Guess I should do my part." He tilted his neck so that the sphere could levitate freely from his choker. "O.A.S.I.S. Cleaning mode. Scan." The runes on his skull flickered as the sphere hovered over the grass, bathing the yard in a swath of white light that outlined every leaf obstructing the surface. Pilate diligently trudged forward, sliding his rake over the ground where the line was most distorted. In such a precise order, he blindly swept the yard slowly clear.

All the while, Bellesmith watched him, squatting down on the edge of the dirth path as she allowed the last lengths of sleepiness to escape her being. After several minutes, she sighed, then realized that the edge of her hoof was covered with dust. With a raised eyebrow, she glanced down at the dirt.

Her body froze.

Without knowing it, her forelimb had been fidgeting with the dusty top layer of the path the entire time. In the space of a few minutes, she had absent-mindedly drawn a pattern in the ground beneath where she and Pilate had stood. Her chestnut eyes followed the pattern of an omega symbol swallowing up a sphere with squiggly lines. It took her a few moments, but she suddenly recognized the image as the one that had been shown to her one day in Professor Garnet's office.

A cold chill ran through her body. She blinked her eyes, and in that blink she sensed a great black horizon lighting up, casting a golden sheen on a pair of pearl blue orbs, and then disappearing. Her ears twitched, as if expecting a motherly voice to be whispering in her soul, but all was silent once more.

With a nervous tremble, she stood up, kicked the image in the dirt clear, and trotted over to lend Pilate a hoof.

Bitter Sweet

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"Here you go," said a unicorn as she levitated a blue crystal into Bellesmith's grasp. "That fills your monthly ration slot. I'll already put a requisition in for another one in four weeks."

"Much appreciated." Belle turned from the wagon full of supplies in the crossroads of the Blue Shelf village. She trotted over and rested a hoof on Pilate's shoulder while balancing the crystal in her other forelimb. "Alright, beloved. Would you like a recharge here or should we wait until we get back home?"

Pilate shrugged as the sounds of trotting ponies and laboring residents echoed behind him. "I've got nothing to be ashamed of."

"Yes, Pilate," Placid remarked from from the front stoop of the general store where he and Felicity were weaving baskets for the upcoming harvest. "Consider it like taking a shot."

"Needles hardly leave me with lingering headaches," the zebra said, sighing. Nevertheless, he tilted his head towards Belle and smiled gently. "I'm ready to have my mind's eye back."

"It will only take a moment." She tilted the crystal towards his metal plate.

"I'm well aware."

She murmured a few words, and the runes on his skull lit up. The crystal resonated, pulsing in direct response. Slowly, a discharge of blue energy billowed out from the rod and drifted into the metallic part of the zebra's cranium. He shuddered a bit, but kept his legs firm as he stood bravely against the manastream.

"You know, I may be able to make that easier for you both," Felicity said. "A well-timed burst of magic from my horn could charge Pilate's device for days."

"That's a very generous offer," Belle said as she finished channeling the last of the crystal's sapphiric glow. "However, there's too great a chance of your leyline being merged with his neurological system."

"Oh?"

"We f-found that out the h-hard way," Pilate managed to say through seething teeth.

"Yes," Belle remarked, leaning back with the dull crystal. She fidgeted slightly, blushing. "Back when I could still perform magic," she said with a tilt of her stubby horn.

"Well, I should know better than to argue with a manabiologist," Felicity said.

"And a successful sequencer to boot!" Placid remarked.

Felicity grumbled, glaring daggers towards her beloved.

"Erm..." Placid gulped and put on a brave smile. "Thought I'm sure you miss your days back at the university even more!"

"Oh, I've learned to adapt," Belle said with a shrug, then leaned over to nuzzle Pilate. "You okay, honey? Was it too swift of a dose?"

"Just give m-me a moment," he stammered. After few deep breaths, he tilted his shivering snout up and said, "O.A.S.I.S. Calibrate."

The sphere glowed far brighter this time. With a tiny hum, it detached from his choker and flew several swift orbits around him.

Pilate's ears flickered, and he tilted his face Belle's way. "I assume it's working fine, or else there's a giant gnat flying circles around my head."

Belle giggled. "It appears to be powered up just nicely, Pilate."

"If you must know," Placid spoke, "It's been rotating between pulses of white and blue light evenly over the last twenty seconds. It's made about sixty revolutions in that time, Pilate, and doesn't seem to be showing any signs of slowing down."

"I think he's got the idea, darling," Felicity droned.

Placid shrugged. "I was just giving him my evaluation!"

"That's not an evaluation!" she grunted. "That's a summary!"

Belle trotted closer to Pilate's side. "How's your head?"

"A little tense, but I can manage." He tilted his muzzle up towards the forest canopy and cleared his throat. "O.A.S.I.S. Scan forward."

The sphere stopped in midair, swiveled one hundred and eighy degrees, and flashed a line of glowing white energy over Bellesmith's skull.

Pilate lowered his chin. "You've got an acorn stuck in your mane, Belle. Above the right ear."

She blinked. Raising a hoof to her head, she flicked the foreign object to the dirt path. With a giggle, she said, "Would you believe me if I told you that sometimes I'm envious?"

His lips curved. "I like to think that we just switched talents when we met."

She smiled. "Is that why you like to read so much?"

"It'd explain all the paper cuts to the nose."

"Pilate! I built you O.A.S.I.S. for a reason!"

"I know... I know. Call me old-fashioned."

"Okay!" Baxter trotted up, grinning and balancing a box full of gardening tools on his spine. "You're old-fashioned!"

"It's Baxter's world," Felicity groaned over her hoofwork. "We just have conversations in it."

"Hey, I'm an anteloupe," he said with a shrug. "I love jumping to the occasion."

"What are you up to today, Baxter?" Pilate asked.

"Thought I'd rent some tools from the general store to help Kenna with the side yard flower garden," he said. "You know how it lifts her spirits to tend to the earth."

"Lift her spirits?" Belle leaned forward curiously. "Is Kenna okay?"

Baxter took a deep breath, struggling to remain jovial. "Things have been tough with the facility as of late. It seems like the Council of Ledo has very little need of firestarters as of late."

"Well, that's alarming," Pilate remarked as the sphere returned to his choker. "When did this come about?"

"Just recently." Baxter turned to face the zebra. "Half the staff of the pyrokinesis wing have been relocated. Normally, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but it happened around the same time that the neighborhood two roads down from us was cleared."

"There's suddenly a lot of vacancy in these parts," Placid said. "Whatever's happening in the facility, it must be requiring equines with an unprecedented skill."

"That or Grinder decided to get drunk one day and clean house," Baxter said with a chuckle.

"I wouldn't make light of it too much," Belle said. "I know how much Kenna can get worrisome over her position within the facility."

"Yes, well, we're adaptable," Baxter said. "Quite frankly, if they move us back west to the Dry Ravine, the only thing we'll miss is you guys." He smiled at the surrounding group of neighborly ponies. "Things may have been stiff and weird at times, but it was a real thrill getting to hang with you bunch."

"Don't speak so solemnly about it, Baxter," Pilate said. "There's no point in jumping to conclusions."

"Didn't I just get done reminding you I'm a anteloupe?" Baxter said, smirking. "Paranoia's in our blood. The next thing you know, they'll send soldiers to come... knocking on... our... doors..." His ears flicked nervously on either side of his antlers as his wide eyes locked on a sight beyond Pilate and Belle.

"Baxter?" Pilate asked.

Belle, in the meantime, was turning to follow the anteloupe's gaze. She instantly trembled.

Two stern-faced ponies in berets marched over from a hovering manawagon. Their eyes locked instantly with Belle's. "Are you Bellesmith of Garnet's Wing?"

She gulped. "Yes, that I am." She side-stepped over beside Pilate. "Is there a problem, officers?"

They didn't wait long to speak again. "You are to gather some meager belongings and accompany us to the facility immediately."

Placid and Felicity exchanged glances.

Pilate's jaw fell. "What...?"

"For... For what reason?" Belle remarked.

"This is not a request," one officer said. "You are to come with us within the hour."

"But... B-But I don't understand!" Belle stammered, her breaths coming in fitful heaves. "I... I just got here! I-I was given seven days! Seven days!"

"This is a direct command given by the Ledomaritan Defense Enforcement Division," one of the soldiers icily stated. "As a citizen and a laborer of the Council of Ledo, you are bound to observe the rules and regulations of the Confederacy and obey your orders."

"Now just wait!" Pilate exclaimed, his brow furrowing angrily as his teeth showed. "She's done more than her fair share of work for the Council! She's earned her time with her beloved, as is the Ledomaritan way!"

"Sir, any further resistance will be perceived as an act of—"

"Resistance?!" Pilate started to seethe. "I'm stating a valid point! If you used your heads for more than sporting helmets and berets than maybe you'd undestand—"

Before Pilate could even finish, one of the officers was telekinetically unsheathing a slender black rod. With a pulse from his horn, the taser electrified brightly in the air. Baxter dropped his box of tools and Felicity could be heard gasping.

Bellesmith rushed over between the soldier and her husband. "It's alright! I will go! We're not resisting! You... you just caught us off guard, that's all!"

"Belle..." Pilate breathlessly exclaimed.

"I shall come with you two shortly," Belle said, gulping nervously.

"See that you do, miss," one soldier said before casting Pilate a rigid glare. "And while you're at it, talk some sense into your zebra."

"Belle!" Pilate hissed her way. "This is preposterous, you can't just let them—"

"Shhhh..." Belle leaned in towards him, grasping his striped muzzle with two shivering hooves. "I don't like it any more than you do, beloved."

"We have to report this," he remarked, his voice starting to waver. "Contact Dalton; get him to curry some favors or—"

"You know very well that such a thing wouldn't work," she said in a whispery tone. "Where's the stallion whose cool-headed thinking wooed me since day one?"

"I... I..." He shuddered. His gray eyes moistened as he leaned in to bury his face in her shoulder. "I just don't understand. I've m-missed you so much, Belle. They have you working until Spark's end in that hole in the ground, and n-now they're going to take you away from m-me again..."

"Shhhh..." She kissed him and leaned her cheek against his. "Nopony could ever, ever take me away from you. You are my everything, forever and ever." She gently carressed his muzzle. With two forelimbs, she brought his hooves up so that he could feel soft smile. "Whatever they require of me, whatever they need me to do, I promise that I shall do it in record time so I can be with you once again."

He sighed heavily, leaning into her embrace.

"Can you be patient for me?" she asked. "Can you promise that you'll keep your cool?"

He nodded, gulped, and braved a weak smile. "I can do anything, Belle, so long as you believe in me."

She kissed him again and murmured into his ear, "Now there's the zebra I fell in love with."

After a few seconds, she gave his shoulder a final touch, pivoted around, and marched in between the two soldiers. Their gait was quick, forcing her to trot swiftly towards her unwitting destination. It was a difficult task on her part, considering Belle's vision had turned foggy with tears.

Enforcer Shell

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A pair of cold metallic elevator doors opened, and Bellesmith was frowning. Escorted by two guards in gray uniforms, she marched down the long concrete corridors of the facility. Streaming manalight pulsated overhead as she was led directly to the door of Professor Garnet's office. A quartet of guards waited there, standing at attention, far more than normal. Belle paid them no mine, and right as the door was opened for her, she marched furiously inside.

"Ah, there she is," Garnet remarked, placing down a glass tablet and standing up from behind his desk. "Doctor Bellesmith, things have become rather complicated overnight—"

"And you believe that is supposed to pacify me?" she remarked, nearly growling.

"Doctor..." Garnet was shifting nervously for some reason. His nerves were on edge. "It may be prudent for you to calm yourself..."

"Don't tell me what is or isn't prudent!" she exclaimed, her brow furrowed. "I was promised an entire week with my beloved! It was my first time away from the facility in ten days! How can a sequencer perform her tasks for the Council of Ledo if there's no legitimate promise of restitution?!"

"My my..." uttered a cold voice from behind Belle. "She's a great deal more temperamental than you had described, Professor."

Belle froze in place, biting her lip. Her angry eyes went soft.

Professor Garnet nervously met her expression and glanced beyond her shoulder. "Do forgive the Doctor's anger. She's been laboring under extenuating circumstances.

"Good Professor, we are at war with Xona. Everypony is functioning under extenuating circumstances."

Finally, Belle turned around. She watched as a dark blue hoof pushed the door to the chamber open. The first thing she saw was a massive scar. The stallion's one remaining good eye stared at her with a cold gray stare. His uniform had more medals than she had ever seen in all her professional career. He didn't wear a beret like so many of his subordinates, not as if there was any hope of him sporting one; his horn was twice as prominent than most unicorn's, and it was chipped and scarred in many places from a life of unending conflict.

"Certainly you haven't forgotten your supreme duty to the Ledomaritan Confederacy," the stallion said, his one eye flaring slightly while his tone remained icy. "Spark knows I haven't."

Bellesmith felt like collapsing for some reason.

Garnet's voice was oddly warm in comparison to this officer. "Doctor Bellesmith, I do not believe you have met Prime Enforcer Shell of the—"

"Introductions are time-consuming," Shell interrupted as he shuffled into the center of the room on muscular limbs. "The only necessarily formal thing is the task at hoof." He cleared his voice and spoke aside to Garnet while staring at Belle. "Would you excuse us, please, Professor?"

Garnet's mouth opened, but no sound came out. He gulped, squirming awkwardly where he stood. Eventually, with a defeated slump, he surrendered the interior of his own office to the two, marching out like a chided foal and closing the door behind him.

The air grew even more chilly as Belle stood in place, allowing Shell to pace stonily around her.

"I was sent here two months ago because recent discoveries at the Blue Shelf facility were showing a great deal of promise. I did what I was told out of duty, as much as I hated being pulled away from the Eastern Front. It didn't help that I found nothing of interest among these subterranean experiments." He shuffled to a stop behind Garnet's desk, his eye tilting up. "And then I saw you sequencing with the subject."

Belle's face hung. She said nothing.

His good eye squinted. "You don't fully grasp the gravity of the item you are merging with, do you?"

She took a deep breath and finally spoke, "Sir, I know that the subject is unlike any species the Council of Ledo has discovered, sir."

"A winged pony," he said cooly, leaning over Garnet's desk. "Carrying an item of great mana conductivity. When word spread to the central authority that the western town of Aridstone had been visited by a dragon, a gigantic behemoth of a drake that dove down only to deposit the subject's limp body upon the edge of their farmland, the Council was understandably dubious. However, one of my former comrades in arms took a zeppelin out there himself to retrieve the subject. He was amazed at what he saw. The pony was inert, and yet her body possessed far more energy than himself or any of his fellow soldiers. Not even teleporters or firestarters have mana levels that can match what was deposited in Aridstone. To think that we might have been capable of sequencing with the creature seemed too good to be true. I held my reservations in hopes of having my relocation to Blue Shelf legitimized. And then you came along."

"I've only been doing as I have been told," Bellesmith muttered.

"Indeed." He raised one of Garnet's glass tablets in glowing telekinesis. "But then what does that make you? Just part of the dutiful crowd of peons who brings glory to Ledo through constant diligence and labor? No, you're much more than that, and that's why you're down here—just like why I'm down here. We both have something immeasurably epic to accomplish, for there is more to the subject than meets the eye."

"Permission to speak freely?"

"Hmmph... What are you, a soldier now?" His lips formed something resembling a smile. It made the scar covering half his face wider. "Speak your peace, Doctor."

"Is there a hurry for me to make further discoveries with the subject's sequencing?" She looked up at him with a pair of brave eyes. "Is the Council running out of time?"

"The Council answers to me from now on," Shell said coldly. "And it is not time that we are running out of."

"Then what?"

"Talent," he said, then flung the glass tablet directly at her.

"Gaah!" she ducked, flinching. The tablet glided bare inches over her head and shattered against the wall behind her. She huddled close to the floor, trembling fearfully.

Shell leaned over the table, glaring down at her. "Hmmm... So it's as I thought. Any normal unicorn would have caught that in a stream of magic, something you're incapable of. How pitiful..." He marched over towards her on heavy haunches. "And yet, how admirable, for where your horn fails you, it wins you talents in the task you have to perform here."

She stood up, fighting back a frown as she brushed her mane back with a hoof. "If you read over m-my files, sir, you would know all about my disability..."

"Anypony can fake things," he said bluntly. "No matter how loyal they may pretend to be to Her Majesty Ledo."

Her brow furrowed. "My beloved and I have given everything for the Council and—"

"You and I both know how it works, Doctor," he said, standing above her. "You were brought here from your outstanding position at the Mountainfall University to do menial lab work in a bunker built far below the surface of an abandoned mountain. As a scientist, you should know that the universe functions through circumstance. The 'Spark' is a word, for what motivates each and every one of us to work hard is the same thing that makes the common animal shriek for every last inch of life. We are all in this to survive, through ponies like you if need be. You think the war with Xona will win itself without innovations? There is more at hoof here than a few mental escapades through the fractured mind of an anomalous equine."

She looked up at him and gulped. "Do you mean to say that the subject is a weapon?"

"The subject is dangerous and powerful, and understanding what's inside of it will grant us power the likes of which the Confederacy has always needed." His nostrils flared as he said, "What I mean to say, doctor, is that this experiment of yours is no longer a concern of the Council. It is an Enforcer matter now, and that takes precedent over you, your beloved, and even myself. You're down here because what you see as a disability may actually be Ledomare's single hope for uncovering what lies beneath the obscure layers of the gift bequeathed us by a dragon on the western front."

"Sir, I—"

"Do I make myself clear?"

Her lips quivered. Nevertheless, she hung her head and nodded. "Perfectly, sir."

"Good." He tilted his head up and fired a pulse of light at the door, swinging it wide open. Immediately, a pair of guards marched in and stood at attention. "Escort the doctor to the experimentation chamber," Shell said in a dull tone. "Sequencing begins immediately."

They nodded and ushered Belle towards the hallway outside. She had to take extra steps to trot over the broken shards of the glass tablet littering the floor.

"Oh, and Doctor..."

The guards paused, forcing Belle to glance back over her shoulder.

Shell's good eye narrowed. "Aridstone: the town where the subject was deposited?"

She blinked at him. "Wh-what about it?"

Shell said, "Everypony was found dead when the Enforcer zeppelin arrived." His voice took on a hissing tone, "Slaughtered, massacred, and rendered to ash around the body of the subject, which was the only thing that remained untouched."

Belle simply looked at him, shivering.

"Remember that when you take the magical plunge," he said. "Sequence with the subject. Learn about the subject. Find us the secrets of the subject, but do not get too close with its lingering consciousness, or else what consumed the ponies of Aridstone could threaten to rip apart Ledomare's one living key to power." He waved a hoof.

And Belle was forced into a numb march.

Good Unions

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Bellesmith sat in her seat, numb, her face gray and silent.

Ponies in lab uniforms shuffled around her, attaching the necessary wires and cables to her limbs.

She glanced up only once, to witness the length of red coils being attached to her broken horn. With a sigh, her eyes fell towards the metal box standing upon a pedestal before her.

At that moment, Dalton walked into view. He bore a weathered, mustached smile. "Ever the diligent unicorn, I see."

Belle exhaled through her nostrils. Silently, she avoided his gaze.

His smile dissolved. With a nervous clearing of his throat, he leaned in and spoke in a soft voice, "Darling, I am most terribly sorry for the fact that you've been pulled here yet again. If only I had more power in the facility, I'd—"

"Garnet can't do anything," Belle said in a mumbling voice. "This is Enforcer business now. It's out of all our hooves, including yours."

Dalton's mouth hung open. With a melancholic drooping of his ears, and stared off into the shadows of the magically humming room. "There was a time when Ledomaritans had decency, when they saw science as a study of nature, and not some mechanical artifice to be exploited. We're supposed to be discoverers, not plunderers." With a muffled growl, he lifted his head up and glanced at the empty, translucent windows high above. "It's all this damn war's fault. Peace should have been made with Xona years ago. If Sera had been around still, instead of Ledo, then we would have had a Queen whose logic overweighed her pride and—"

"Shhhh..." Belle managed a weak smile. "Watch what you say this deep underground."

"But it's absolutely unfair! They—"

"If Shell's running the place now, then there're more eyes and ears down here than there ever were before," she said calmly. "Don't say things that will get yourself in trouble, Dalton. You can't afford it—not at your age."

His mouth slowly shut. He gave a gentle nod. "You're a genius as always, darling," he said. "Dare I say a saint as well?"

She managed a dry chuckle, parting her mane to the side as the technicians added the finishing touches to her limbs. "Well, Pilate thinks so."

"Did you get any time with him? Any time at all?"

She gulped a lump down her throat and said, "We didn't leave each other's side." Her eyes twitched, as if spotting the shine of a crimson apple. Still, she uttered, "Not for one m-moment..."

"How I envy you at times," Dalton said.

Her face twisted confusedly. "Me? You'd like to be worked to the bone as well, Dalton?"

"I envy the fact that you have so many years left to cherish," he said. "Especially with your beloved." He gazed past her into nothingness as he whispered, "Long ago, back before the Confederacy grew militant, a community of ponies had a vision. They dreamed of a society built out of commitment, out of love, out of respect for the souls that inhabit this domain. Ponies would love each other, and their unions would infect the structure of civilization with their devotion, making prosperity blossom and spread throughout the world."

Dalton's eyes grew jaded as his jaw clenched into a wrinkled frown.

"But then the Matriarchy began, and the concept of unions bowed before the power of the one. Peace was a barricade against the flow of reckless ambition, and breakthroughs in magic became advances in weaponry. The only way to prosper was to make sure our neighbors did so our way, and to that purpose we annexed them, one by one, until we became what we are today. No wonder Xona wishes to resist us so much; we're a patchwork monster of assimilated cultures."

Belle looked at him with a sympathetic gaze. "How do you deal with it, Dalton? How can you stand to weather such a truth?"

He looked at her, and his lips broke into a smile. "I have Mildred, I have my children, and I have you. The way I see it, we were all placed on this world to love each other to the best of our abilities, even if those in power above us don't believe in the same thing. The way I see it, you are all my beloveds."

She returned a warm grin. With a melancholic sigh, she looked aside and said, "I wonder if Prime Enforcer Shell has a beloved."

"If you ask me," Dalton said, stepping back. "It's war." He nodded towards the technicians.

The technicians nodded back.

"Are you ready, darling?" Dalton asked as the metal sarcophagus rose up out of the floor on the far end of the room.

Belle inhaled sharply and said, "As ready as I am to be finished."

"Take your sweet time, Belle," Dalton said as he stepped out of the path of manalight piercing the box on the pedestal. "If anything, you can be guaranteed that the subject won't pressure you."

"Maybe I'll ask her who her beloved is," she said without thinking, closing her eyes.

"Sequencing Interface ind Three... Two... One..."

Divine Deliverance

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I opened my eyes.

Starlight.

Moonlight.

The Milky Way.

The night sky hung over me like a glittering canopy. In every cardinal direction, the world stretched as a flat, emerald expanse. Far below, the rooftops of buildings glittered with candlelight.

I blinked.

"Dalton?"

No response.

"Dalton? Are you there?"

A cold gust of wind blew at me. I felt a silken nightgown adorning my figure. Rainbow colored braids billowed behind my neck. I ran a hoof back to feel them, brushing instead with a wing of feathers.

"I'm... I'm her," I stammered. My face twisted in a bout of confusion. "But... why do I feel so pretty?"

I wasn't sure why that made sense, but it did.

"Dalton?!" I called out again. There was no voice from beyond the memory. How could I have lost him so swiftly. "Dalton, I think there's something wrong with the sequencing! I can't... Where are..."

I nearly fell into nothingness.

"Gaah!" I steppedback. I realized, as if for the first time, that I was standing on an ivory white balcony. The reason why the world glittered above and beneath me was because I was near the summit of an unbelievably tall spire in the center of an enormous valley. "Wh-where in Spark's name am I?" I stammered.

"The Spark has many names," said a soothing voice directly behind me, albeit resonating with holy power. "But it only has one spirit."

I spun around, gasping. I hugged mys limbs to my body as I found myself trembling in a grand shadow formed in the starlight. Standing above me, tall and majestic, was a snow-white unicorn with pearl blue eyes. And then that unicorn spread a pair of alabaster wings, angelic and intimidating all at once.

"You do not belong here, but I am so very glad that you came," she said, and she did with a meditative smile.

"Dear heavens," I murmured, stumbling back, almost falling off the balcony's edge. "An alicorn..."

"Hello, child," she spoke. "I am Queen Whitemane. And we are all a long way from home."

"H-home?" I stammered. "But... I don't understand! Where am I?"

"Shhh..." She trotted forward. I jerked away, fearful, but she silenced that immediately with a stretch of her pale wings about my tiny figure. "Where would you like to be?"

I couldn't stop shivering. I was a scientist, and yet I was a weakling. I was an adult, and yet I was a little foal. At the faintest touch of her snowy feathers, I felt a part of me breaking, a part of me more fragile than the horn. I saw Mountainfall. I saw my students. I saw a zeppelin crashing outside the campus. I saw fire and bodies and broken limbs. I saw black and white stripes, and then his handsome face. I saw eyes that were full of truth and wisdom, eyes that could no longer see the beauty that he had given me. So I gave all that I could to him, and still it was not enough. It was never enough. It was never...

"P-Pilate," I stammered. The world had grown foggy. If this was a dream, it should have shattered by now. I felt the brief flicker of crimson and emerald hues, like an endless orchard in the back of my mind, and a pair of green eyes like the needles of fur trees on the mountain crests. I started to sob. "My beloved." I wept and buried my muzzle into her soft, downy wings. "I want to be with m-my beloved. Why am I here? Wh-why am I so far away from wh-who and what I love?"

She held me gently; she protected me. The tears came out like water rapids, and I was a gasp away from drowning in them. The alicorn was my anchor, for the briefest of heavenly moments, and I didn't have to do anything but be myself.

When the crying subsided, with the last hiccuping spasms drying into a dull sniffle, she tilted my face up to see her tranquil grin.

"Life is an adventure, and an adventure always means leaving our homes. But, more often than not, it's a journey towards the fulfillment of our hearts." She stroked my chin as a mother would caress her foal. "I see a great, amazing adventure in your future, for you have come here for a reason. You have come to bring her the wind she needs beneath her wings once more, for she too has a journey to fulfill, one that involves the hearts of this whole world."

"But... But who?" I muttered. I blinked awkwardly. "Rainbow...?"

She simply stared at me with that knowing smile.

And then, I knew too. "Austraeoh," I murmured.

Whitemane nodded. "For the pony to head east, endurance must be reborn. Wind is the energy, and the energy will produce a spark, a spark that this world has been waiting for."

"I... I don't understand! Just who are you?" I exclaimed, drying my tears on one of the nightgown's sleeves. "What do you know of this subj—I mean, of Austraeoh?"

"I am simply her emissary," Whitemane said. "I delivered her to one of the Divines. And the Divine delivered her to you. Now, you must make a delivery of your own, and the world's salvation shall be assured."

"How? I mean... what power do I have? I'm just a unicorn! I—"

"You are in the right place and the right time," Whitemane said. She stepped back, her mane billowing in the high winds above the spire. "I believe in you. Now, you must believe in Austraeoh for the next phase of deliverance."

"Next phase?" I remarked. "What is that?"

Her pearl blue eyes flashed hot white. "Eljunbyro."

And I fell back.

Back Again

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Belle landed in bed.

Her chestnut brown eyes flew wide.

With a gasp, she shot up—only to be held still by Dalton's hooves.

"Whoah there! It's okay!" the elder pony said. The artificial sound of crashing waves filled the tiny concrete room as she stood by her bed within the facility. "That's quite a start you had there—"

"Whitemane," Belle muttered. "The Spark..."

Dalton looked at her strangely. "You're... You're speaking!"

"Dalton!" she looked towards him in a cold sweat. "An alicorn! An alicorn took over the sequencing!"

"An alicorn...?"

"I couldn't contact you, but that's because I was... I was..." She seethed through her teeth as she jumped out of bed and began pacing. "I was being delivered a message of some sort! I had this vision! I'm pretty sure I was Rainbow, but this couldn't have been a memory. The alicorn was talking to me! She knew about my beloved! She knew..." She bit her lip and hugged herself. "I've never felt so scared and yet so secure in my life." She sniffled as a painful smile crossed her face. "It was heavenly, Dalton. I had no idea meeting an actual goddess would be so amazing. I felt true purpose and meaning for the first time and—" She turned towards him.

He was gazing at her with a shocked expression.

She blinked at him, then glanced at the surroundings, then looked towards Dalton once more. "I don't get it. Why are you looking at me like that?" She gulped. "Why am I here and not inside the laboratory?"

"You mean you don't know?" Dalton asked.

She slowly shook her head.

He cleared his voice and rubbed a hoof nervously over the head of her bed. "This... uhm... this is the first time that you've spoken to me since you came back to the facility, darling. I was c-concerned for a while there that you were mad at me."

"What...?" Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean the first time? I just came out of sequencing?"

"Belle..."

"I couldn't contact you because of the alicorn! It broke the session! I thought—"

"Belle, you've had over a dozen sessions, already."

She gazed at him blankly. "Huh?"

He gulped and said, "You've been sequencing for the past five days." He leaned forward. "You're telling me that you don't remember any of this?"

She fell back on her haunches, her face pale. "Five... days...?!"

"We were hoping that... heh... that you would open up and tell us something by now," he said in a nervous, hoarse voice. "We were hoping that you'd have some data to share about your sessions after so many jumps. Now, I-I've tried to curry favors and explain that you were just focusing on your work and all..."

"What do you mean, Dalton?"

"Well..."

With a cold swish, the door to the room slid open. Two stallions in berets stood with iron-piercing gazes.

Dalton looked from them to her. He spoke in low voice, "Enforcer Slade has been wishing to see you. He's not very happy."

Strong Ponies

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The cold door slid shut behind Belle as she sat at the stool before the barren desk. The reason there was no echo was because of the multiple bodies filling the air of the room.

What was once a well-furnished office had been stripped bare of everything except the grand portrait of Queen Ledo. Shell stood behind the desk, levitating a crystal over glass tablets as he "signed" off various documents. Without looking, the scarred war stallion spoke, "Garnet has been relocated. As Prime Enforcer tasked with overseeing the functions of the Blue Shelf facility, I have appropriated his office. In the meantime, he's been relocated to another part of the facility where his managerial skills may be placed to better use."

Belle sat still, twitching from the proximity of the rigid, uniformed ponies on either side of her. Two more flanked the desk. The room felt hot and stuffy from all of the still, unmoving bodies at attention, as if everypony was waiting for a gunshot.

Instead, Shell's voice rose yet again, "Such is the way of Ledomare, after all. Our talents are as important as our bodies, only... our talents can't be moved elsewhere. Our bodies, however, can." He paused and stared up at her with his one good eye. "Garnet had nothing to prove. And what about you?"

Belle bit her lip. She could only stare in pensive silence at the officer.

He blinked at her. Pointing the crystal with a tilt of his magic, he said, "Now you can't possibly be mute again. That elder worker... what's his name? Dalton? He told me that you were capable of speaking. That's why I brought you here, after all." He stood up, his hooves scraping sharply against the concrete floor of the stripped room. "Because if you can speak, then perhaps you can explain things to me. For instance, why—in five long days—has Blue Shelf's most prized sequencer produced absolutely nothing to stand on?"

Gulping, Belle dryly spoke, "I sequenced with the subject. I had a vision. And..."

"Hmmm?"

She bit her lip. She squeaked forth, "It's all gone."

He shuffled to a stop, staring at her. "Gone."

She nodded pensively. "I don't remember anything beyond the first jump. All of the spheres that Dalton claims I sequenced with, I—"

"Dalton claims nothing," Shell said, his voice hard and metallic. "He's a scientist. He collects empirical data and relates it to his colleagues. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's what you have a learned diploma in, Doctor Bellesmith."

"I know, sir—"

"Then explain to me how you could lose track of an entire week's worth of research," he said. "Is there history of deterioration in the short term memory of ponies who've sequenced with a subject's spheres?"

"I haven't a clue, Enforcer."

"Why not?"

She gazed strongly at him. "Because no unicorn has gone as deeply as I have."

He stared at her for a few prolonged seconds. Inhaling, he paced over to the far side of the office, standing beneath the portrait of the Queen. "I've seen a great deal of conflict in my life, Doctor."

She stared at him, shivering slightly.

"I've killed ponies up close, and from afar," he stated, his good eye lazily drifting towards the edges of the Queen's picture frame. "Xonans, pirates, outlying rogues. In truth, none of those deaths have moved me much. Whether you kill from a distance or you see the life drained from their eyes, they're still the enemy, and I've never been bested by a single stallion in combat. But I do remember one scuffle I had. I came out the victor, but I didn't feel so at the time."

He pivoted his face towards her and pointed at the right side of his face.

"It's how I got this, you see," he said, pointing at the scar. "I had gone on an expedition in the southeast jungles. We were attempting to find a mining facility run by Xonan militants. It turned out to be a wild goose chase, but that didn't stop my company and myself from galloping deep into the sweltering foliage. At one point, our unit got attacked by a pride of manticores. Half of our numbers were wiped out, so I grabbed a managun and I eliminated two of those beasts for every good Ledomaritan slain. That's when the leader of the pack singled me out. He pounced on me. The scuffle seemed to last for minutes. I took his life, and he took half of my face."

Belle flinched as Shell's hooves scuffled towards her.

"It was the most harrowing experience of my life, and I assure you that I remember every damned second of it," he marched icily towards her. His good eye glared. "Because after going through hell, I'd never forgive myself if I willingly chose to forget the one moment in my life that made me strong." He shoved a hoof in her chest as his voice rose, "So now I want you to ask yourself something, Doctor. Are you sure you haven't made yourself forget something you're too weak to handle, or are you just not a very strong scientist?!"

Belle blurted it out immediately; it almost resembled a squeak. "Austraeoh."

Shell's eyebrow raised.

"I was told a word in the first vision," she hissed through chattering teeth. "It's what the symbol means."

Shell grumbled, "What symbol?"

"The one Garnet wanted me to learn more about." She gulped and very bravely added, "Or were you too busy to learn that when you fired him?"

Shell was silent. His nostrils flared, and he glanced up at the soldiers flanking her. All he had to do was nod.

Suddenly, Belle was being hoisted up by glowing telekinesis. She gasped, flailing in a panicked fright as she was being pulled out of the office. "What?! Wh-where are you taking me?!"

"Do you care about your beloved?" Shell asked.

In a jerk, Belle looked up at the Enforcer.

"That zebra," Shell asked, his eye hard and sharp. "Do you love him?"

Her eyes moistened slightly. "Y-yes," she stammered.

"Then you would do best not to ask too many questions." He whistled.

And that's when the bag was placed over Belle's head.

The Wall

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Belle didn't dare ask where they were taking her; she barely had the will to breathe. She trembled in the telekinetic grip of the unicorns as she heard their marching hooves echoing through long corridors all around her. Shell's heavy limbs had disappeared in the sweat slick cacophony of the moment. A band of light strobed through the dense canvas material of the bag before her eyes, and she heard a swish of metal. She was lowered onto a metal platform that shifted with her weight. She heard the hiss of hydraulics, then the closing of the metal doors as an elevator began moving. From the direction her blood was rushing, she knew that they were descending.

Belle's heart pounded in her ears. Thirty seconds passed, a minute, a minute and a half. She could tell from the hum of the mana conductors that the elevator car was gliding downward at excessive speed. She was at a loss to guess how deep the unseen shaft led. Were they headed towards the very core of the world?

Finally, the blood settled in her veins. The doors opened, exposing her to a gust of hot, stuffy air. A voice shouted in what could only be Shell's tone, and she hoisted once again off her hooves. She drifted into the dank nothinginess, taking a winding path. Every now and then, a cleft of uneven rock would brush against her dangling hooves. She wheezed as layers of exhaust filtered in through the bag's material. She heard deafening salvos of industrial machines grinding against brittle substances. But that wasn't nearly as alarming as what she heard next.

Where she was, the place was crowded. What sounded like muffled raindrops grew more distinct in her ears until she realized that it was the shuffling of dozens if not hundreds of hooves. A low drone of countless moaning, grunting, hyperventilating equines echoed in the mysterious expanse around her. She heard the occasional cry, followed by an authoritative shout and the unmistakable snap of a manataser burning the air. For a few seconds, the hellish ambiance would grow silent, and then pick up again in rhythm with clanking and clattering machinery.

One groaning sound in particular echoed to Belle's right. She gasped and tilted her head aside. A breath escaped her at the startling familiarity. "G-Garnet...?"

Enforcer Shell said something, and Belle was tugged faster, straight ahead, against whipping artificial winds of heat. She coughed a few times, then sense a constant glow lingering just beyond the bag.

Finally, the magic field died, and she was dropped onto her hooves. Before she could gain her balance, the bag was hoisted off her eyes. A blinding world exploded in front of her, and she winced, trying her best not to collapse onto her haunches.

The peripheral of her vision came into focus first. She became aware of bodies, service workers in soot-stained blue uniforms. They were being ushered swiftly out of the room by unicorns with tasers. One figure in particular glanced across the cavern and met Belle's eyes. She gave him half a glance, noticing his shaggy coat and ram's horns.

Before she could utter his name, her attention was directed towards the spectacle before her. The clouds of her vision had dissolved, and she was staring at a great blue sheet of pale metal. It was unlike anything of Ledomaritan design; the surface was smoothe, pristine, immaculate to a perfect shine. She could even see her own reflection from the conjoined array of multiple mana lights propped before the solid wall that had been mechanically chipped away from solid bedrock.

There was only one noticeable anomaly along the flat surface of glistening material. Just as Belle started fixating on the engraving, Enforcer Shell marched into view. He saw where here eyesight was pointed and gestured swiftly towards the two symbols in question.

"Is this what you now know the name of?" he asked unemotionally.

She blinked. She saw a hoof-print on the left overtaking a solar crest on the right. The lines were thin, dark gray, and carved with perfect, geometric precision in what otherwise looked like unbreakable metal.

"Yes," she said simly, reaching a hoof up to straighten her mane from the haphazard trip down there. Her eyes briefly darted up towards the ominous stalactites. "This... this place..."

"Say it out loud," Shell said.

She looked at him, her face grimacing in confusion. "Huh?!"

His eye narrowed. The tip of his horn glowed.

Belle blinked, then gasped as she felt her forelimbs being yanked forward in the soldier's grip. In less than two seconds, she was thrust against the wall. Shell slapped the bottom of her hoof against the omega symbol.

"Touch the metal surface and say the name of the symbol!" he said, loudly this time, in her ear.

"Nnngh!" she winced, caught her breath, and sputtered forth. "Au-Austraeoh!"

Nothing happened. The guards glanced at one another. The back of the cavern echoed with the dozens of bodies beyond.

"Louder!" Shell snapped, crushing the silence like a dying insect. "Clearly! Facing the door!"

"D-door?!"

"Do it!"

She gulped. Steadying her shivers, she faced her reflection beyond the symbols and spoke as solidly as she could. "Austraeoh." Her voice echoed, then died. "Austraeoh," she repeated. Agian, there was nothing. Her chestnut eyes darted nervously towards the Enforcer.

Shell took a deep breath, then leaned in so that he spoke icily just between the two of them. "Is that not the name that was given to you in your vision?"

"It... It was, s-sir..."

"Did you just make it up to appease the Enforcers of Ledomare?"

"No! I-I know it's the name! I just don't understand what—"

"In all of your sequencing, did you ever have a moment when the subject used the word or embodied it in any fashion?" His brow furrowed. "If so, what did she do? What did she say?"

"Rainbow... is... th-the Austraeoh," Belle murmured.

Shell leaned back, the good half of his face twitching to match the scar. "Rainbow?! What the devil—"

"Give her wind..." Belle murmured, her eyes lighting up. Her heart skipped a beat. Other symbols were forming in the wall. She saw two parallel lines and a serpentine shape. "Eljunbyro..."

"What?"

She glanced aside and saw more lines, more figures, more geometric patterns forming in the immaculate surface. Soon, an entire halo of glyphs had morphed into being around where her hoof was making contact. "By the Spark... do you see them all?!"

The guards behind them murmured confusedly.

"Doctor, I don't see anything but a confused mare," Shell said.

"It's beautiful. She must have known..." Belle gulped. "She needs me to deliver them. That must be it. That must..." Her eyes widened.

The solar crest was burning, glowing, pulsating with lavender light. It rose over the edges of her hoof, filling her soul with warmth and purpose.

"The sunrise," she whimpered. "I must..." Her coat hairs twitched on end, but there were no feathers to answer her call. Instead of flying, she fell, and fainted in Shell's forelimbs.

Someway, Somehow

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"Nnnngh..." I stirred, feeling a velvety fabric enshrouding me. "Mmmff... My head..."

"Rise and shine, Dashie! The birds are singing! The sun is shining! The Canterlot homeless are rattling their bit jars—"

"Ugh! Pinkie! For Celestia's sake, darling, you're the most garish alarm clock ever!"

"Well, duh! How else are you sleepyheads gonna get up and enjoy a full day together?!"

"Mmmmf..." I turned over, burying my head into a pillow. "Five more minutessssss..."

"Up and at 'em, sugarcube!"

My hear skips a beat. I raise my head, only to be buried neck-deep in a sleeping bag. I fight and buck and claw my way out until I am gasping into the air-conditioned interior of Twilight's bedroom.

The world comes into focus, along with the blinding light from beyond the balcony window. There are five shapes sitting up, squirming about me in various states of wakefulness. I see a lavender shape hobbling towards the bathroom. I see Fluttershy squatting before the Sparkle family's pet dog and nuzzling it. I see Rarity fussing with several tangles in her mane. Pinkie Pie bounces across the room, opening the door to the smell of pancakes. And...

"Gosh, you look like you wrestled a pen full of hogs in yer sleep!" A sea of freckles glisten in the morning light, turning rosy as a delicious chuckle drips through the smiling teeth beneath them. "Have sweet dreams, Rainbow?"

I blink. I grin devilishly. "Only the sweetest!" I shoot up with a flap of my wings. "Best sleep I had in—" I slam my head against a ceiling beam. "Ow! Darn it, Twilight! Why do you unicorns have such tiny rooms?!"

"Uggggh..." A voice drips painfully out of the bathroom. "My leg still aches from shaking so many ponies' hooves..."

"Your leg is aching?!" Rarity scoffed. "I was the one who had to hobble halfway across Canterlot with one missing slipper!"

"You could have had one of my slippers, Rarity," Fluttershy softly said.

"Oh! Heaven forbid! I cobbled that shoe only for you, my dear! It would have been a crime to make another pony wear it! No other mare has hooves as dainty and fragile as yours!"

"Rarity, all of our golloshes got smashed somethin' terrible last night. Let's just learn to let it go and enjoy the rest of the time we have left in Canterlot."

"Well let's enjoy it downstairs, you guys!" Pinkie chirped from the adjacent hallway. "Pancakes and Twilight's parents are waiting for us! But mostly pancakes!"

"Sounds good to me!" Applejack tossed her frazzled blonde mane and galloped out of the room. "Race y'all down there!"

"Hey!" Twilight called out from the bathroom, poking her frowning head out. "No running around in my house! My parents will kill—Augh! This stupid, aching hoof..."

"Heeheeheehee!" I giggled, clutching myself as I hovered backwards in midair.

Rarity and Fluttershy glanced up at me curiously.

Twilight droned, "Rainbow, what are you laughing about?"

"Heee-I dunno!" I raised a hoof and wiped a tear from my eye. "I'm just feeling really, stupidly giddy right now."

"It's nice seeing you so cheerful, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy said.

"It'd be even nice to see me shove some pancakes down my gullet!" I grinned and blurred towards the doorway. "Hey! AJ! I bet I can eat more than you!"

"Nuh uh!"

I laughed, cackled even. The morning was crisp and the air was cool. Someway, somehow, I knew that this was where I was supposed to be.

The Best

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"Mmmmm..." Fluttershy took a deep breath, her cheeks rosy as she trotted happily down the elevated street overlooking the mid Canterlot shopping district. "The mountain air is so crisp and fresh. It's just wonderful..."

"Fluttershy, you were born in the clouds," Twilight remarked as she and the rest of her friends strolled down the line of richly furnished shops. "I'd think the mountains wouldn't compare to the fresh air you got up there!"

"The air is different here, though," Fluttershy said with a soft smile. "You get the delightful fragrance from the mountain forests, the misty breezes coming from the snowy peaks..."

"And don't forget the scrumptious aroma from the local confectionary!" Pinkie Pie chirped. "Oooh! That one sells peppermint! Can we go? Can we go?! Huh huh?! Can we?!"

"For goodness' sake, Pinkie!" Rarity exclaimed, balancing no less than four bulging shopping bags in her telekinetic grasp. "We've been to four candy establishments already! Don't you ever think of your poor teeth?!"

"Reckon you should pay as much mind to yer bit bag there, sugarcube," Applejack said with a wag of her eyebrows.

"Oh Applejack, don't be so swift to ridicule me! I rarely get sewing materials like this back in Ponyville! And even the ones that I do get my hooves on, I have to order by express pegasus mail! It would take me at least six months to compile all of the marvelous silks and ribbons I've gotten in the last two hours alone—" Shrieking, Rarity skidded to a stop, formed a flimsy fort out of her shopping bags, and hid behind it—trembling like a little foal. "That was him this time! I know it! It h-had to have been him!"

"Relax, Rarity," Twilight said, reaching a hoof over to pat her quivering shoulder. "That didn't even remotely look like Prince Blueblood."

"He had his mane and his eyes!"

"If that's true, then a whole lot of these stallions have had his manes and eyes!" Pinkie Pie said, giggling. "Stop being such a worrywhinnie, Rarity! It's a beautiful day! Wave your shopping bags in the air like you just don't care!"

"I keep feeling like he's going to be just around the corner!" Rarity said, whimpering. "It'll be last night all over again!"

"For the last time..." Twilight rolled her eyes and smiled consolably. "Celestia has her full assurance that we are not in any trouble. Yes, last night was kind of... crazy. But it's not like we're in a state of emergency!"

"Yup! These streets seem pretty calm to me." Applejack turned and smirked at Rarity. "Besides, darlin', from the what I saw of that upstart fussybottom, I'd say Blueblood got exactly what was comin' to him."

"He could disgrace m-me!" Rarity stammered. "He could soil my v-very name! My fashion career would be ruined!"

"I don't think he even remembered your name," Fluttershy said in a shocked tone.

"Blueblood is from the Azure Unicorn family," Twilight explained. "He was only in Canterlot during the Gala because Trottingham is experiencing a flash flood lately."

"Oh yeah!" Pinkie nodded. "I heard about that!"

"Twilight," Fluttershy said, looking at her friend with a worried expression. "Doesn't your cousin live in Trottingham?"

"Who, you mean Misty?" Twilight giggled. "Don't worry. She's alright. She didn't get flooded like all the houses closer to the coast. She sent me a letter just two days ago."

"Well that's good to know!" Applejack turned and smiled up my way. "Seems like it's a beautiful day for everypony after all!"

Her freckles matched the snowpeaks of the mountains beyond. The blonde wisps of her bangs fluttered in the cool breeze.

Her brow furrowed beneath her hat. "Rainbow?"

"Oh! Uhm..." I cleared my throat and gazed off towards the streets beyond. "Yeah! Nice day for..." I groan. "More and more shopping..."

"Is something the matter, Rainbow Dash?" Rarity remarked as she lifted the bags into a dainty hover beside her once again. "Still feeling the effects of sleep?"

"I'm feeling effects alright. But not sleep!" I flapped my whings and hovered even higher. "How far up do these mountains go? I wanna see!"

"Oooh! Carry me with ya!" Pinkie Pie exclaimed, bouncing as the group moved along again. "I wanna pet a mountain goat!"

"What if he doesn't want to be petted?" Fluttershy asked.

"I'd ask first! The mountain goats where I come from are really polite!"

"Uhhh... Rainbow?" Twilight nervously remarked. "I wouldn't go too high if I were you?"

"I'm just stretching my wings! This beats shopping for bunch of lame ribbons anyday—"

A whistle blew. I winced, nearly falling like a dead weight from midair. I glanced down to see a unicorn guard frowning up at me sternly.

"You! Pegasus! Mind the flight restrictions of Canterlot! Or else!"

Twilight wincingly smiled. "Tried to warn you..."

"Unnnngh!" I forced myself to levitate down just a few feet above the ground. "Stupid city flying rules! How the heck does the royal guard get anything done with such restrictions?"

"If I recall, the restrictions are made for the sake of the royal guard," Fluttershy said.

"If everypony agrees to fly below a certain level, then that allows Celestia's pegasus guard ponies to do their job more efficiently."

"What's so efficient about standing around and doing nothing?" I said with a grunt.

"It's not nothing!" Twilight exclaimed as we crossed a sunlit street. "They're protecting the interests of Canterlot citizens and keeping foreign monsters and creatures at bay!"

"I think somepony is too impatient to let the rest of us get some much-needed shopping done!" Rarity said with an upturned nose.

"I can't help it!" I exclaimed, pulling at my mane. "I just want to fly and let off some steam! That whole screwup with the Wonderbolts last night has gotten me bummed! I wanted to impress them again like I did at the Young Fliers Competition, but it turned out to be the worst night ever!" I sighed long and hard. "Now it'll be a lifetime until I get to see the Wonderbolts in person again."

Twilight looked at Applejack. Applejack looked at Rarity. Rarity looked at Fluttershy. Pinkie Pie had her eyes crossed.

I squinted at the group. "What's on everypony's mind all of the sudden?"

Twilight cleared her throat. "Well..." She smiled playfully. "We have an entire afternoon free now that all of the shopping's been done. I thought we might finish the tour of Canterlot by visiting the northeast district!"

"Pfft. Yeah?" I groaned, folding my forelimbs as I hovered limply ahead of the group. "What's so special about that side of town?"

Twilight pointed. "See for yourself!"

"Buh?" I turned and looked. I felt my eyes exploding. "No way!"

Before us rested a large circular building sculpted out of blue marble. I had seen postcards of the Canterlot Stadium before, but here it stood naked before me, and on the marquis it said: 'Wonderbolts Air Show: Performing Daily.'"

"They're... They're on tour here this week!" my voice cracked.

"Of course they are, silly filly!" Pinkie grinned in my face. "You think they'd just be in town for only the Gala?"

"And there's an exotic falconing show for the opening act!" Fluttershy said, twitching with excitement. "Oh, I can't wait to see them!"

"And I'm fixin' to talk to some of the local managers to see about enterin' the next Canterlot rodeo in this here circle!" Applejack said with a tilt of her hat. "See? We may have just had the worst night ever, but reckon that don't mean we can't have the best afternoon ever!"

"My BBBFF got us all in for free!" Twilight exclaimed, smilling brilliantly as she suddenly brandished six tickets. "What do you think?"

"I think it's so awesome!" I exclaimed, hugging myself as I felt like bursting. "Omigosh! You guys are the best! Squeeee—!" My eyes bulged. Blushing, I clamped a pair of hooves over my mouth. "Uhhhh..." I cleared my throat and pivoted to face them with a frown. "You totally just did not hear me squeak like a little foal."

"Heeheehee... Yesssss we diiiiiid!" Pinkie Pie bounced past me towards the stadium.

"It's okay, darling," Rarity said, winking at me as she trotted by. "We won't tell a soul."

"After all," Applejack added, her emerald eyes sparkling whether she knew it or not. "We are 'the best.'"

I gazed after them, my smile stretching my lips to the breaking point.

"You sure are..."

And I zipped after them in a blue blur.

Emerald Eyes

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"Wooohoo!" I flipped in the air and twirled into a grinning hover. "And did you see the way Spitfire came out of that Gyrating Griffon Spiral?! It was absolutely perfect! I'd kill just to have the balance and... and... awesomeness of that!"

"That does seem to be the word of the day," Twilight said with a smirk and a roll of her eyes.

"Oh! And Fleetfoot! I didn't get a chance to see how crazy cool she was at the Best Young Fliers Competition, but she was totally ripping holes in the clouds!" I bucked the air. "Blam!" I spun and punched my forelimbs one after another. "Whip! Pow!" With forward-flip, I somersaulted over everypony's heads. "And then came out with a Sideways Dragon Drag! Nyeaaaargh—Swoosh!"

"Rainbow Dash! Honestly!" Rarity exclaimed, frowning up at me. "Would you be a dear and settle down?!"

"Why you gotta be a buzz kill, Rarity?!" I swung back and forth, performing a whistling barrel roll. "Woooh! Ha! I'm electrified! Can't I live in the moment?"

"Well, could you wait until we've arrived in Ponyville before living in the moment?" Rarity pointed towards the far end of the train car. A star-lit landscape blurred past the passenger windows of the speeding compartment we were all in. "I swear, you are making everypony look at us like we're Commander Hurricane's pack of ruffians!"

I blinked. Hovering near the car's roof, I looked towards the seats on the far side. Several elite unicorns were glaring my way, several whose hats had just been blown off.

"Eh heh heh..." I blushed. My wings went slack and I plopped down in a bench besides Applejack. "Guess not everypony wants to feel the electricity as much as I do."

Applejack yawned, pivoted, and leaned a chin on her hoof. "Hmmf... Land's sakes, sugarcube. It's been twelve hours, and still yer goin' on about dem Wonderbolts?"

"Why would I not be?!" I grinned wide. "They were.. they were..." My grin cracked even wider, and I had to sputter forth, "The Wonderbolts!"

"Well, that much is obvious," Applejack said, yawning again.

"It was so much different than the last two times I met them! I mean, sure, I met them in person, but it's easy to forget just how awesome the real deal is until the real deal does what makes the real deal so cool right in front of you! I mean it; they get better everytime I see them! No wonder they didn't pay any attention to me at the Gala! I have to step up my game, especially if Fleetfoot can pull off the kind of sick tricks she did today and... and.... AJ, why are you catching flies so much?"

"Hmmm?" Applejack tiredly blink at me. "Oh, I'm sorry, Rainbow. It's been a long day and..." She sighed, staring out the window next to us. "Somethin' about dag-blame'd train rides that really does a number on my head."

"Oh yeah? Since when?"

"Shucks, I dunno. I don't leave home much to keep score." She stifled the next yawn before it could come out of her. "Nnngh... I reckon it's 'cuz it reminds me of when I was a little filly. I could never sleep when I was alone, so Pa had this habit of lettin' me lie on his back when he was out workin' the farm. I think he was fixin' to do some reverse psychology on me, get me to hate bein' around him cuz it was all sweaty and bumpy and stuff." She slid back further in her seat, smiling as her eye gazed into the floor of the train car. "But the joke was on him. It was like bein' rocked to sleep. For years, I couldn't get shuteye from lyin' still all dainty-like in bed. It just didn't feel the same."

"Heheh..." I chuckled and winked. "Who needs bed bugs when you're the one squirmin' all around?"

"Yeah, well, some of us ponies don't have us a nice fluffy cloud to drift off in."

"Guess that's your loss." I scratched my chin, gazing out the window. "Hmmm... I wonder how the Wonderbolts sleep..."

"Ugh..." Applejack rolled her eyes. "Give it a rest."

"Hey! This is important stuff to think about!"

"Rainbow, you and me and the rest of the gals have saved Equestria from Nightmare Moon, a dragon, and several parasprites all in the course of a year. Why's it so cotton-pickin' important that you join a bunch of high brow, winged showmares?"

"They're not just showmares!" I said, frowning. "They're... they're symbols!"

"Symbols...?"

"Yeah!" I grinned wide. "They bring awesomeness and inspiration to the whole kingdom! Why else do you think Princess Celestia have them going on tour to every major pony city?"

Applejack yawned and muttered forth, "Equestria's short on pillow feathers?" She curled her forelegs up and surrendered to the cushion of the seat. "Mmmm... speakin' of which..."

"You're just jealous that there isn't a band of travelling rodeo ponies as awesome as Spitfire's team!" I rolled my eyes. "Boy! That'd be rich! The Silobolts!"

"Mmmmmm... yer really not gonna be happy with yer life until you somehow get asked to join them cloud kickers, are ya?"

"Well... I..."

"Don't you have enough here, Rainbow?" Applejack asked, her voice having crumbled to an exhausted mumble. "Is Ponyville so boring that you can't just do what I do?"

"What, settle?"

"Live."

"You call what I do living?" I asked, her eyebrow raised. "Minding the weather day in and day out? Making squadrons of pegasi carry clouds from Point A to Point B? Cleaning up after another of Derpy's crazy messes?"

"Hmmmph..." Applejack's sleepy lips curved.

"Living is all well and good, but I wanna live large!" I turned and gazed out the window. "I wanna see what's beyond those mountains lying around us. I wanna scale oceans and cross continents. I wanna feel the winds of a billion different countries through my mane. I got the strength and energy to go places, AJ. It's just that, for as long as I can remember, one stupid thing or another has anchored me in place. And... and sometimes I'm just sick of it, y'know? I love you guys, but I gotta move. I gotta fly. I gotta..." I gazed back down at Applejack and froze in place.

She was lying still, her eyes fluttering gently beneath a pair of orange lids. The hat on her brow was tilted forward slightly, shadowing her freckled face as she slept in the seat beside me, her body rising and falling in slow, undulating drifts.

I blinked. My wings coiled at my side. With an exhaling sigh, I said, "I-I can think of two reasons for why I haven't flown away, AJ. And I can't see them right now." The next breath was a warm one, and I felt like smiling. So I did.

I didn't say anything else; I sat perfectly still. Applejack slept soundly for the rest of the train ride as we rolled through the cool dark of night. I may have watched her the whole way, and I might have fallen asleep too.

The Wind

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The next day came like a bang, and still I was staring at her. So long as I kept my eyes closed, the train ride didn't end. It was something I could allow myself, a tiny little morsel of a weekend that contained both the best and worst nights ever.

Even in the blistering winds, that memory remained, filling my wings with energy as I rode the currents, twirling over the yawning landscape below. I was so lost in the moment that I barely registered the object soaring my way until it blurred past me.

My eyes opened to a flash of daylight, and an even brighter flash of pink blew over my head, throwing me off-balance. I spun several times above Ponyville town hall, coming out of the twirl with a dizzying lurch. My wings beat again, allowing me to hover as I looked every which way for the sign of the unidentified bogey.

Finally, I saw it: a pink cloud was surging skyward, moving on its own volition. I was too angry to be overwhelmed by the shock of the spectacle.

"Come back here, you!" I bolted after the fuschia cumulonimbus, my ears ringing from the wind splitting on either side of me. In no time at all, I caught up with the errant cloud, tackling it with a victorious shout. "Gotcha!"

As soon as I tangled with the fluffy bed, I wished that I hadn't. Instead of grasping a tangible body of vapors, I was struggling to get unstuck from a goopy, sticky mess.

"Ewwww!" I instinctually moaned. "What is this?!" my voice cracked, and I shook my body from mane to tail. I was only partially successful in shaking the pink globs off of me. I glanced at a clump of the stuff sticking to my hoof. Impulsively, I lapped my tongue against it. I felt the taste in my mouth, and my face twitched upon the realization. "C-cotton candy...?"

Several more pink shapes darted past my peripheral vision. I glanced around me, gasping as more and more candied clouds swarmed over the heights of Ponyville. My heart started beating heavily, and I didn't understand why...

"The wind," a voice said.

My eyes twitched. I looked up towards the heavens, and the azure sky coalesced into two pearl blue spheres. I had no breath to gasp with.

"It belongs under Austraeoh's wings, not yours."

I gawked towards the skies. Just then, I heard a rumbling noise. I glanced straight up to see a slightly darker cloud of pink hovering above me. A single dark drop hit my forehead, and I growled.

"Wait a second!" I snarled. "It's not supposed to rain until tomorrow! You can't just—"

A torrential downpour of dark brown rain covered me from above, obsuring my vision...

Real World

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When the darkness cleared and Belle's eyes opened, the blue sky was gone. The chaotic clouds were gone. A gentle breeze wafted through the windows of her home, stabbing her eyes with the golden haze of a brilliant dawn.

She winced only once, stirring. She felt a warm duvet covering her limbs, and an even warmer shape beyond it. Gazing down at herself, she found that she was lying in the bed at her cottage. What was more...

"B-beloved?" she stammered breathlessly.

Pilate was seated by her bed, his upper body draped over the middle of the sheets. His features slowly rose and fell as his striped head lay in her lap. A single hoof was outstretched to constantly be in contact with hers. It was apparent that the stallion had remained in that position overnight.

She inhaled sharply, her eyes watering as she reached down to rub his forelimb. "Pilate... Pilate...!"

"Mmmff..." He stirred slowly. His ears were the first to move, flicking at the sound of her voice. His eyes opened, gray slits that peered thinly into nothingness. "Belle?" he entreated. "Are you awake finally?"

"Oh Pilate!" she flew forward and engulfed him in a hug, burying her face into his black and white coat. "I was gone! I felt like I was so far away! So far fr-from you!"

"It's so good to hear your voice again," he said, summoning a strong voice as he smiled and nuzzled her back. "A group of enforcers brought you here two days ago and—"

"Shhh!" she hissed, kissing his muzzle and murmuring into his ear. "I don't want to hear about the facility. I don't want to think about Blue Shelf anymore!"

"But... But I-I don't understand, Belle!" he stammered. "You were gone for so long! I thought that you had been drugged! What... wh-what's happening to you?"

"I don't know, and I don't care!" She sniffled and wept. "I-I just want to hear your voice. I just w-want you to hold me..."

"I'm here for you, Belle," Pilate said, engulfing her in his forelimbs. "I won't leave you. Someway, somehow, we'll get through this."

"I miss you," she whimpered, shamelessly. "I miss you so much."

"It's okay. Shhhh... You're here now. Just gather your breaths, beloved. I'm not going to leave you..."

She smiled painfully as a few lasting tears trickled down her neck. She looked past him through the windows, towards the tiny sliver of daylight lingering beyond the windblow curtains. For a moment, she thought she saw two pear blue spots beyond the clouds. But as the tears cleared and her vision returned, everything was clear and normal once again.

So she shut her eyes towards everything and reveled in the scent of her beloved as Pilate rocked her gently.

Twin Pairs

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"This goes beyond sequencing, Pilate. I... I'm being given a message," Belle said. "Whatever I interfaced with down there in the facility: something r-reached back. I think it even had a hold on me for a while. Either I was dreaming or..." She bit her lip. "Or I've been sequencing outside of the manalink with the subject."

"Outside of the manalink?" Pilate remarked breathily. The two of them squatted on the stoop to the front of their cabin. A gentle breeze wafted through the pine trees above them. A scattering of sunlight bathed their figures as they sat side by side. "How is that even scientifically possible?"

"I don't think the subject was the only thing I was sequencing with the whole time," Belle said. "There's more to the spheres within than just Rainbow Dash."

Pilate tilted his striped head towards her. "Rainbow... Dash, you say?"

"Yes. Though Pinkie Pie tends to call her 'Dashie.' But most friends—like Twilight and Fluttershy—just call her 'Rainbow' and—"

"Hold up... Hold up..." Pilate waved his hooves and patted her shoulder. "Who are all these ponies?!"

"Nnngh..." She tossed her head forward, resting her face and tusseled mane in her forelimbs. "I don't expect you to understand, Pilate, but I felt like I just lived the last two days in the body of Rainbow Dash, along with her close friends. They had just gone to this big dance that turned into a disaster, but they were all making the best of it. They went shopping in this city in the mountains called Canterlot, and then they went to see the Wonderbolts and took the midnight train to Ponyville—"

"Canterlot?" Pilate stammered. "Wonder... bolts?"

"Sorry!" she hissed. "It's just that I have so much information in my head and I don't know how to get it all out..."

"It's alright, Belle," Pilate said, stroking her shoulder. "I'm just... a bit amazed, is all..."

She sniffled, brushed her mane back, and glanced up at him. "And you said that I was still as a stone for two days?"

"More like three," he said. "At least, that's what they implied when they brought you here, unconscious."

Belle gulped. "Shell's guards?"

Pilate nodded.

Belle nervously fidgeted. "Did they... d-did they say when they would be taking me back?"

"They didn't say much of anything. I was quite furious with them," he said, his nostrils flaring. "I had thought they did something terrible to you. You were gone for a week, and then to be just dropped off like a sack of potatoes here..." He fumed for a bit, then blushed slightly. "A... uhm... a gorgeous sack of potatoes, of course."

"Of course," she smiled, reaching over to brush a hoof through his mohawk. "I guess I'm just surprised they let me go?"

"Why is that?"

"Well, because—" she began, but then her face hung in a cold grimace. She thought of concrete walls, of Shell's one glaring eye, of the sounds of muffled laborers and a wall of metal. She started panting, as if a bag had been hoisted over her head.

"Beloved...?"

She realized that several seconds had passed. Swallowing, she said, "Nothing. It's just that... before I woke up, I had gained nothing from the sequencing to tell them. And now..." She turned. She looked closely at him, at his fine black and white coat, at his handsome muzzle, at his softly twitching ears as he tilted his head towards her patiently.

"Now you have things to tell them?"

She thought of a question Shell had once asked her, and she inhaled sharply. She blinked before her eyes could turn moist. Clearing her throat, she said, "Yes. I have many things to tell them. But I don't know the difference from what is real information or what is just a hallucination."

"You think that something got crossed in your leylines?" Pilate asked. "Maybe there was a surge of mana feedback that disrupted your nerves."

"I did think of that..."

"In an attempt to fill in the gaps of comprehension, perhaps your mind constructed these tales about Rainbow Dash and Twilight Shy and Fluttersparkle."

She giggled. "Maybe. But I never saw myself as that imaginative. Or for that matter... religious..."

His brow furrowed around the runed plate. "Religious?"

"I... I had an experience, Pilate," she murmured. "Something glorious happened to me, something more fulfilling than the spark. It... it's been a long time since I had such release, and felt such contentment and freedom."

"This happened in your sleep?"

"It happened in a vision," she said. "I experienced something that hadn't happened before in the sequencing. I met an alicorn."

He murmured in a whispery voice, "An alicorn? As in from ancient times?"

"Yes," she replied just as quietly. "She said her name was Whitemane. She told me that..." She lingered.

"Told you what?"

"That... That I was to bring the wind back to Austraeoh."

"'Austraeoh?'" Pilate remarked. "Is that a place or something? A pony?"

"I believe it is me..."

"You?"

"I-I mean..." She seethed and ran a hoof over her head, gently tapping the stubby horn. "Rainbow Dash..."

"Oh Belle, you must be so exhausted from all this..."

"Yes. But..." she thought aloud, murmuring. "I have to understand. There's more than just that. I think Whitemane is trying to tell me something. I believe something in the subject is... is communicating with me, Pilate."

"Communicating in what way?"

"Ungh!" she tossed her mane and growled. "I wish I could just show you!" She stared at the dirt of the path leading up to the house. "There are these symbols that keep appearing in my visions. Garnet wanted me to interpret one, and now Shell does. I think I'm starting to get names for them in my head, but the meaning is still lost to me."

"Could you draw them?"

"I... think so..."

"Well, let me give it a look," he said. "I've been doing an awful lot of reading lately. Might as well put my mind to good use."

"Oh Pilate, you are always of good use."

"Humor me." He tilted his head back. "O.A.S.I.S. Standby."

The sphere detached from his choker and floated around the two.

"I think I can draw it in the dirt," Belle said, grabbing a stick.

"That'll do. O.A.S.I.S. has had a good eye lately."

"It can have an even better eye," Bellesmith muttered as she began drawing the four emblems in pairs. "I'm so behind on giving it proper maintenance."

"You need not bother. Kenna helped me with a mana recharge four days ago."

"Well, that was nice of her," Belle murmured in mid-sketch. As she dragged the stick over the dirt, she glanced up at the tiny cottages beside them. "It's awful quiet around here."

"Yes. I know."

"Kind of sad that Baxter has not been around at all. I miss his presence."

"He's been having to perform double the tasks in town," Pilate explained. "When he arrives back home, he immediately collapses and goes to bed. Kenna says he's been exhausted."

"Wow. When did he become such a workaholic?"

Pilate chewed on his lips before saying, "He's taken up Placid's job in the General Store."

"Oh?" Belle remarked, halfway done. "What for?"

"He's gone, Belle," Pilate said. "Placid and Felicity are no longer our neighbors. They've been relocated."

Belle froze. She turned and looked at Pilate. "Relocated?" she remarked.

Pilate slowly nodded.

"Well, what for?"

"We were never told." He shifted uncomfortably where he sat. "It happened rather suddenly too. The very day that you were brought back here, both of them were issued the order to move out. They didn't have any time to grab all of their belongings or even say goodbye to the rest of us. They were just told to leave, and so they did."

Belle squinted off towards the house across the dirt road. "Was it... the Enforcers?"

Pilate nodded again. He swallowed and said, "News is that three other couples were relocated as well. Mainstreet is a ghost town as of late."

"Why... are they sending so many ponies away?"

"I wish I knew, Belle. That's why I'm glad you're back," he said with a nervous smile. "It's been too quiet." He shuddered. "Too quiet for my tastes..."

"Oh Pilate..."

"How are... uh... how are the symbols coming along?"

"Oh. Uhm..." She sweated nervously and finished with the illustrations. "Almost done. There. Good thing there's a lull in the wind."

"This shouldn't take long." Pilate scooted over before the twin pairs of symbols under Belle's guidance. He tilted his muzzle towards the hum of the hovering sphere. "O.A.S.I.S. Image scan."

The sphere flickered with magic and levitated over the dirt. With a beam of white light, it covered every inch of the fresh impressions Belle had made: the hoofprint, the solar crest, the hash marks, and the blossoming serpent. It strobed a few more times before retreating to its socket in the zebra's choker. The plate atop Pilate's head flickered with alternating runes, and he positively jerked back from the flow of information.

Belle gasped lightly. "You okay?"

"I..." His brow furrowed as his mouth hung open for a few seconds. "...am intrigued."

"You... you know these symbols?" she asked.

"Hmmm..." He rubbed his hoof beneath his chin. "Great Stare..."

Belle raised an eyebrow. "The buffalo? What about him?"

"He should be running the town archives right about now." Pilate stood up on wobbly knees. "I think... it's time to pay him a visit, assuming he still has a few old tomes in his possession..."

"What kind of books?"

"The names escape me at the moment, but the symbols most certainly don't." Pilate turned and smiled at his mate. "Shall we?"

"Well, alright!" she smiled back and led him forward by the hoof.

Ram Horns

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Ponies trotted up and down the street in quiet shuffles, their eyes glued to the ground. The color was drained from their eyes, and they twitched every now and then while glancing nervously over their shoulder.

Bellesmith glanced at them with squinting eyes as she trotted down the path along with Pilate. "What's gotten into everypony? I know things are tough around here from time to time, but they look absolutely miserable..."

"Things have changed since Enforcer Shell took over Blue Shelf," Pilate explained. He leaned his head towards her as she guided him along. "The very air feels different. A lot of it can be attributed to so many of our neighbors being taken away."

"What, are they afraid that any one of them might be next?" Belle asked. She next whispered, "I know we've never said it much... but I'm sure there are plenty of us who would happily embrace moving elsewhere."

"Ledo takes and Ledo gives," Pilate said. "We always knew that."

"Yes, but..." Belle's jaw clenched. "None of it feels right. Ponies should be happy. They should enjoy... enjoy..." She blinked. "Harmony."

Pilate shuffled to a stop, his ears flicking. "Harmony?"

"Erm..." Belle shifted nervously. "What I mean was...."

Pilate's nostrils flared. "I smell old books."

Belle glanced to her right, observing the front stoop of a large wooden building nestled between the pine trees. "That's because we're here! I do hope Great Stare and Little Breath are in..."

"I'm sure there's no other place they'd rather be," Pilate said as Belle helped him up onto the platform before the entrance. "Being able to work takes a load off the mind, especially as of late. I'm sure we can both relate."

"Yes," Belle said, her voice trailing. "We can..." She staring across the busy street. As several ponies trotted by with wagons and wheelbarrows, she saw a familiar, wooly figure grunting and struggling to heave loads of lumber into a wooden cart. "Say, Pilate?"

"Hmm? Yes, Beloved?"

"I just need to talk with somepony real quick. I shouldn't be long."

"That's fine. I certainly know my way around books," the zebra said with a chuckle as he shuffled forward. "Well, O.A.S.I.S. does, anyway."

"Be with you in a minute." She hopped off the stoop and briskly galloped across the street.

On the far side, Grinder was angrily fussing with a large block of wood, attempting to balance it on his ram horns as he raised it up and into the cart. "Friggin, useless, termite bomb! Get in there or I'll sell your children for kidling!"

A dainty set of hooves balanced it evenly onto his head and helped him lift it into the cart. Belle smiled at him. "Hello, Grinder. Do you need a hoof with the rest of that lumber?"

"Bah!" he shrugged her off, snorted, and lowered his crown towards the next block of wood. "Hooves off, horsie! Go interface your horn with a manawhatsit. I'm busy doing real work!"

"I... uh... I notice..." She said, chewing on her lip. "And, uhm, I can only imagine it pales in comparison to the labor you do in the facility."

"Heaving stuff is heaving stuff," he grunted as he loaded another chunk of splintery logs. "I wouldn't expect a filly like you to know! Nnngh! All you heave is that black and white soft-bray around. Shouldn't have married him, if you ask Grinder. Hmmph. He'd be better off back at the university as somepony else's beloved..."

Bellesmith rolled her eyes and said. "Look, Grinder, I'm sorry for bothering you. But I noticed something—"

"What? That I have horns?! They could butt your tattoo off, lady! Now get! I've got firewood to shove up some Enforcer's—"

"I saw you down there, Grinder," Belle said. "In the depths, where there were noises of sweating, exhausted equines." She gulped. "Where there was also a wall... a tall, shiny, immaculate wall of metal."

Grinder stood in place, petrified. The white of his wool paled in the glittering slivers of sunlight through the pine trees.

"I may work for an Enforcer like Shell, Grinder. But I am no soldier; I am a scientist. I observe things to the best of my ability. Now..." She paced quietly around him and leaned over to peer into his suddenly pensive eyes. "You can't say to my face that you're incapable of observing things yourself. Tell me. What is going on down there? What did they find? Was it a building? A structure? A machine—"

Grinder hissed, his dirty teeth showing beneath his pale eyes. "No. We... We d-don't talk about that..."

Belle gasped. "So it is a machine! What kind of a contraption is it?" She leaned further into him. "How old is it? What does it do?"

"You... You sh-shouldn't be asking me about this, button nose..."

"Why? Because they'll keep you down there longer? Against your will?" She took a deep breath and added, "Like they're doing with Professor Garnet?"

Grinder's eyes twitched towards her.

Her mouth hung open. "Have you talked to him? Has he told you what's going on—"

"Nnngh!" with scuffing hooves, Grinder rammed her head on.

Thankfully, she was nimble enough to take the brunt of the blow to her shoulder. "Unngh!" Belle rolled twice over in the dirt. She sat up, wincing.

"You wanna get fed to the manticores?! You wanna become pelt, soft-bray?!" he hissed down at her. "Know your role and keep quiet, or I'll shut you up for the both of us, chump!"

Belle looked up at him. Her eyes open, flickering from brown to ruby and back. "Who're you calling chump, chump?!" She blurred towards him. "Rrrrgh!" She spun and her hooves flew across his horns.

Grinder fell back, slamming into the cart so hard that his horns made a dent. He merely blinked at her, wide eyed.

She panted and panted. After a few blinks, her features went limp, and she gasped at herself. "Oh dear! By the Spark..." Gulping, she tried trotting towards him with a gentle hoof outstretched. "Grinder... Grinder, I am so sorry—"

"Hey! Bellesmith!"

Belle turned towards the library.

Little Breath stood at the entrance, waving at her with a cloven hoof. "Your beloved has something he wants to show you! Come inside!"

Belle nodded dazedly. She turned back to look at Grinder.

Grinder was gone. A set of wheel tracks led to the wobbly sight of the wooden cart being pulled hastily away. The ram grumbled incoherent words to himself, taking his load of lumber up the mountain path and outside of the town square.

Fidgeting, Belle glanced at the many ponies standing still and staring at her. With her head bowed low, she sighed and trotted limply towards the building across the road.

Proto Lore

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Great Stare blew off the dust from a large, canvas bound book. When he opened it, a stale, musky smell filled the dark-lit interior of the town archives. The four Ledomaritans hovered around a table beneath a tall window.

"I've made sure this didn't get sent back to the central library on four consecutive occasions," Great Stare said. The buffalo smiled and looked towards the other three. "I think it's important that we keep a piece of history around us at all times, regardless of how obscure."

"Nothing obscure about it," Pilate said as he trotted up evenly with the tome. "It's more an issue of heresy."

"What do you mean by that?" Little Breath asked.

"The book predates the Age of Sparklight," the zebra explained as O.A.S.I.S. hovered over the open book before them. "Back then, the Confederacy was Byssomare. Queen Bysso felt that any old documents and books that proclaimed beliefs contrary to the Divinity of the Great Spark needed to be erased from public access."

"Alas, any excuse for purging," Great Stare said with a heavy exhale. She looked at Bellesmith. "The more work I do here on the surface of Blue Shellf instead deep within, the more at ease I am. I frankly don't know how you handle it down there."

Belle was staring out the window, at the blue sky and the wispy clouds. She bit her lip as her eyes narrowed.

Great Stare leaned forward. "Bellesmith...?"

"Hmm? She looked over at him. "Oh. Yes. Blue Shelf. It's... well... it's my job to do for the Queen..."

"Are you feeling alright, Belle?" Little Breath asked. "You seem distracted..."

"My head has been through the wringer lately," she muttered, running a hoof along her brow. "What are we looking at, Pilate?" she asked.

"This is the 'Book of Earth,'" Pilate said. "It's a translation of a translation of an ancient text that was native to this region and the land north of us. I've read it multiple times. I find history to be quite fascinating, especially when told by the cultures are no longer around. In this case, we're talking about the land of Bethlem, which took up nearly half of the modern day Confederacy."

"I've heard that word before," Belle said. "The Caribou back in Mountainfall would speak of it."

"It's believed that the Caribou dominated a great empire that spanned these lands," Great Stare explained. "It was over five hundred years ago, of course. It could very well have been Bethlem."

"What's interesting is that there are many writings concerning ponies in this text before us," Pilate said as the glowing sphere spun a low orbit of the group. "O.A.S.I.S. Scan." The ball shone a light over the book as he slowly flipped through the age-stained sheets. Golden letters and old engravings reflected the manalight. "And ponies didn't enter this region until a little over three hundred years ago. The desert to the west was always a barrier against equine migration, and we all know that the proto-Xonans arrived from the southern seas."

"This is all very intriguing, beloved," Belle said. "But what does it have to do with the two symbols that I showed you?"

"Because, if I am right..." Pilate murmured as he came to the middle of the book. "Ah. Here we are," he smiled as the runes on his plate pulsed, resonating with the information that the sphere's scan was relaying him. "This is the chapter dealing with the foundation of the world."

"We're going into ancient religions, then?"

"More or less," Pilate said as he ran his hoof along a page. "You see, there's a common thread in almost all lore. It deals with 'winged angels' that scattered themselves across the world, blessing lesser mortals with their eternal glory. It was said that their manes shimmered with cosmic brilliance, as if they were a gift from the stars."

"Sounds like you're describing alicorns," Great Stare said.

Belle flashed him a look.

"It would explain the subject of ponies," the zebra remarked. "If alicorns existed in this region five hundred years ago, then that might explain why the Bethlemites wrote about them." He flipped a few more pages. "And... Yes—Here, we have what should be a list of titles and offerings. But, as you may notice, there should be an illustration on the right page."

"Yes, Pilate," Belle remarked, leaning over to see.

"It would take O.A.S.I.S. a long time to provide me a mental picture. Could you describe it to me so I'll know if it's the one I saw months ago the last time I read this?"

"It's an engraving," Belle said. "It shows two reindeer standing on what looks like a pine forest on the edge of a mountain."

"Sounds like Blue Shelf!" Little Breath remarked with a smile.

"Could be. Could just be any other landscape," Belle said.

"I think it's coming together now," Pilate said, gazing blankly ahead as he raised a hoof. "Tell me, is there what appears to be a sun in the top left corner of the picture?"

"Top right corner," Belle said. "But good memory, regardless."

"Notice anything different about the sun?"

Belle squinted. After a few seconds, she remarked, "I... think so..."

"Do tell..."

"The illustrated sun is a perfect circle, and yet only half of it has these flaring lines to suggest sunlight."

"That's rather lazy of the engraver, now is it?" Pilate remarked with a smirk.

"What are you getting at?" Great Stare remarked. "It just looks like a normal illustration."

"The last time I perused this book, I faintly remember there being something odd in this illustration—something hidden, as a matter of fact," Pilate explained. "Just now, my beloved showed me two images from her mind that had been left there after her sequencing in the facility. I could have sworn I saw those symbols before."

"You think they're hidden in the engraving?" Belle asked.

"More like beneath it, beloved. You see, O.A.S.I.S. can capture more than just the surface of things."

"I'm well aware."

"Tell me. Do the edges of this page look frayed in any way?" Pilate asked. "In a consistent fashion?"

"Why... yes..." Belle remarked. "Yes, they do."

"Do you think you can... tug at the edge of the leaflet?"

"Wouldn't that rip the ancient sheet?"

"Humor me."

"Uhm..." Belle's eyes crossed on her stubby horn, then glanced at her clumsy hooves. She cracked a smile, "I wish I could, beloved."

"Here, allow me." Little Breath leaned in with an outstretched forelimb. "Sometimes, it helps to be cloven hoof."

"I'll take your word for it," Pilate said, waiting patiently.

Belle and Great Stare watched as the female buffalo carefully pulled at the frayed edge of the sheet. Quite easily, it peeled away, and a mutual gasp filled the air as a hidden page was revealed beneath the engraving. Several geometric symbols and patterns lit the air.

"They're... hieroglyphics?" Great Stare remarked with a furrowed brow.

"Something that undoubtedly would have been considered heretical under Bysso's regime," Pilate said proudly. "I'm guessing that's why it was covered." He turned his head towards where Belle was seated. "Beloved? See anything?"

She hung over him, staring with her jaw agape. There were several symbols on the page, but two in particular had stolen her attention.

"Austraeoh..."

The Spark

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"The writing on the pages before and after the sheet of symbols is rather vague and poetic," Pilate explained to the group. Bellesmith paced anxiously behind the zebra and two buffalo as O.A.S.I.S. scanned more of the old book. "It details the 'blessings of the angels' and how they brought 'life and animation to the dead world.'"

"Who would the angels be?" Little Breath remarked. "The alicorns?"

"It'd make sense for the Bethlemites to have given them an otherworldly description," Great Stare said.

"Many cultures speak of alicorns," Pilate says. "This really shouldn't be a big surprise."

"But what about the 'life and animation' they brought to a 'dead world?'" Little Breath asked.

"I'm not entirely certain," Pilate said. "But obviously these 'angels' had an important role to play in the land that was once Blue Shelf and its surrounding regions." O.A.S.I.S. flickered above his head as he pointed at a corner of the page. "Here, the translation conveys that the ancient caribou never built their temples above a certain altitude, but instead at the foot of the mountains. They apparently did it in order to not 'impede the will of the angels.'"

"They didn't want to rob her of her wind," Belle murmured.

The group turned towards her.

"What was that?" Great Stare asked.

Fidgeting, Belle turned and looked at the group. "I have met an alicorn," she said. Upon the buffalo's stupified stares, she clarified, "In my visions, dreams afforded me from the sequencing, I was spoken to by an alicorn named Whitemane."

"How..." Great Stare squinted at her. "How is that possible?"

"A hallucination?" Little Breath remarked.

Belle gulped before speaking. "I was there. I felt her wings encircle around me. I felt her warmth as she let me release all my pent up fears and sorrows." She sniffled and smiled warmly into the sunlight pouring through the window. "She truly was angelic in every sense of the term. But then she told me that I had a purpose, and it was to 'bring the wind to Austraeoh.'"

"And just who is this 'Ostr-ay-oh?'"

"The subject that she's sequencing with," Pilate said. "Erm... presumably." He tilted his head back from where he sat. "Right, beloved?"

She trotted over and stroked his shoulder. "Yes. And Whitemane also told me that I was to bring about something called 'Eljunbyro.'" She gulped and said, "I know this all sounds very strange, moronic, even. As a scientist, I'm not supposed to rely on intuition or dreamy notions. But I just know that a clear and distinct message has been delivered to me. What's more..." She pointed at the two pairs of symbols specifically. "I know that these two emblems refer to what she's told me."

"Well..." Pilate thought aloud as O.A.S.I.S. hovered over to the page adjacent to the sheet of exposed illustrations. "I had noticed long ago that the writings in this book contain a noticeable structure. There's a great bit of poetry in this section alone, and the number of cryptic messages are equal to the pairs of emblems."

"You think there may be some correlation?" Great Breath asked.

"It's quite possible," Pilate said with a nod. "Belle, darling. Would you read the third paragraph on this page?"

Belle leaned over, squinted, and read aloud, "'She will head into morning, for she sees the dawn and becomes it, and the equine knows no end until the world knows no end. Her wings bring animation, as they bring hope.'"

"That, presumably, corresponds to 'Austraeoh,'" Pilate declared. "And the twelfth paragraph?"

Belle read, "'A heart that doesn't bleed is a heart that cannot live. Her spirit will be frightened into and out of the darkness, so that endless guile will be her sustenance, along with the rising sun.'"

"'Eljunbyro,'" Pilate said. "Though I'm no literature professor, I think what we have here is a potential analysis of Whitemane's words, presuming they truly carry the wisdom of an alicorn." He pivoted about, facing the group. "Whoever this equine is, she's destined to head east, and she doesn't need the wind—she needs it returned."

"She seeks rejuvenation," Little Breath remarked.

"Rebirth," Belle said.

The others were silent.

"Guys..." Belle gulped and looked nervously at the group. "I know that what I'm going to say may sound heretical... dangerous, even. But..." She glanced out the window at the blue sky. "What if the Beloved Spark—that which we all respect and live for—somehow died ages ago, and it's needing to be reconstituted?"

The two buffalo glanced at each other nervously.

Pilate spoke, "A spark is something that only happens once, or randomly and at fleeting moments." He smiled awkwardly. "I've always known that. I just believed in my heart that the Spark leads to something that is everlasting. I've told you that before, Belle."

"I know. I'm just speculating..." Belle shuffled around, breathing heavily. "What... What if..." Her chestnut eyes wandered towards the group. "What if this world has been needing the Spark all this time, and that Spark is not just a force, but a pony?" She exhaled. "And what if all this time I've been crossing minds with her? The one and only? The Spark?"

Closed Eyes

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Pilate was humming, his lips smiling pleasantly as he trotted the long, winding way towards the couple's cabin. A few spaces ahead of him, O.A.S.I.S. hovered in a dull white glow. The path swam in a gradual curve, carving its way through the beds of pine needles that lined the sunlit slopes of Blue Shelf. All the while, he had a familiar thick tome balanced on his hindquarters. And all the while...

Belle trotted alongside him. Her gait was far more labored as her gaze fell towards the path below them. Her nostrils flared, and she looked forlornly at the setting sun beyond the trees.

"Hmmm... Nothing like a fine afternoon of research," Pilate said out loud. "I am enraptured that Great Stare allowed us to take this old book home with us. Judging from the expression on his and his beloved's faces, I'm certain they were just glad that we left so their heads could relax some." He chuckled, adjusting his path as the runes in his plate resonated from the direction O.A.S.I.S. was leading him. "If I could venture to say, Belle, we're onto something here. Alicorns, old Proto-Xonan emblems, a new angle of studying the Spark..."

"Yes..." Belle could barely manage. She looked east, towards the dark side of the sky as the day died over the Confederacy.

"Belle?"

She bit her lip. Something in the dull darkening of the globe haunted her, like the cold glaze of Enforcer Shell's one eye. She had difficulty breathing.

"Beloved?" Pilate had turned around to nuzzle her.

She leapt at his touch, gasping... ultimately regretting the breathy outburst.

He paused his place, his ears flicking. "You've been awfully quiet since we left the archives."

"I... I'm sorry, Pilate," Belle stammered. "I should be used to this by now. But... But it's all still so much."

"I did not mean to be insensitive, darling," he said, his voice close to her muzzle. He smiled. "I've always enjoyed helping you solve mysteries, and this one is the most remarkable of all. Whoever this Whitemane is, I can't help but think that she only wishes to bring you good news."

"Yes. I... I feel like I trust her too..." Belle stammered. "But..." She bit her lip. "I never asked her to get into my head. I sequenced with Rainbow D—" She winced. "I sequenced with the subject because it was my duty to Ledo. Now, what am I? A message in a bottle?"

"Oh Belle..."

She clenched her eyes shut and shook her head. "I don't like this! How could she expect me to bear all of this data? Does she even know a thing about me? Does she care?"

Pilate leaned in and kissed her softly. Leaning close to her ears, he said, "I care, Belle. And I'm going to help you through this. You're not just a bridge for data. You're the smartest, gentlest, most precious pony in the world. I think she reached out to you because she feels in you what I know is there: that you're righteous, and that you care about this world. We may not have alicorns amongst us, but I know for a fact that I have an angel right here."

She slowly smiled, gazing up at him. "Since when could a scientist grow wings?"

"Since she raised me up out of the ashes," he said softly, the runes on his plate flickering.

She leaned in and embraced him. Sighing, she gazed misty-eyed over his shoulder and into the pine trees. "What is this Spark, Pilate? What does it have to do with us?"

"One thing at a time, beloved. Let us enjoy this evening together," he said. "Before any force—caring or careless—tries to rob it from us."

"They can't rob anything from us," she murmured. "Not what we have right now. Right here." And her eyes closed.

Opened Eyes

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When my eyes opened, Twilight was leaning against the palace window overlooking the garden. "Twists and turns... twists and turns!" She brightened and spun to face us. "That's it! I bet Discord hid the elements in the Palace labyrinth!"

The girls and I turned to look at the Princess. Celestia nodded her head in agreement. "Good luck, my little ponies," she said. As Twilight trotted up, she faced her and proclaimed, "The fate of Equestria is in your hooves."

"Thanks, Princess," Twilight uttered with a smug smile. "We won't let you down!"

We all bowed as one and turned around, bolting out of the royal sanctum. As we made our way towards the rear of the palace, I could have sworn I heard the echoing laughter of something evil reverberating off the walls and marble pillars around us. I wasn't the only one. Glancing to my right and below me, I saw several of my friends trembling in mid-gallop. Rarity was sweating visibly, Fluttershy was whimpering, and Applejack was—

Wait, Applejack?

"Hey AJ, you okay?" I murmured from where I glided just a hair above her.

She panted while we sped onto the royal veranda. "Ya picked a mighty fine time for how do's."

"Seriously. You're not quivering in your horsehoes or nothing are you?" I smirked and whispered, "It's just a stupid ugly goat god thingy!"

"Yeah, well, it's a stupid ugly goat god thingy who can flip the weather upside down and turn all my crops to popcorn!" Applejack's face tensed. In the sunlight, she turned the expression into a defensive frown. "T'ain't a load of parasprites we're dealing with here, Rainbow. This here's some real fine trouble."

"How hard can it be to get this dude to cough up the elements?" I remarked. "We've kicked Nightmare Moon's butt! Just the six of us! Stop worrying!"

"I ain't worrying!" Applejack hissed up at me, her emerald eyes piercing. "I frankly don't care what happens to us!" With a sigh, she gazed ahead of where she was galloping. "I just can't stop thinkin' about the farm..."

"Applejack..."

"About Big Mac and Granny and Little Apple Bloom during all this mess—"

"Applejack, even you can't be a brave pony all the time!"

She squinted up at me, the sunlight glinting off her eyes.

I smiled wide and pointed at my flying self. "Cuz that's my job!" I winked. "So long as I'm around, no nasty jerk is gonna lay a hoof on you, or your family. You got that?"

Applejack blinked. Eventually, a wry smirk crossed her lips. "Half the time, I can't tell if yer bein' loyal or just bein' sassy."

"There's a word for it," I grin broadly. "It stats with an 'A'..."

"Ughh, Rainbow..."

"And if you say 'apple,' I'm gonna shove that hat where the sun doesn't—"

"Shhh!" Twilight hissed. "We're here!"

I looked ahead, seeing a wide series of green hedges stretching wildly before us. I touched down beside the group as we trotted to a stand still.

"We h-have to go in there?" Fluttershy remarked, trembling.

"Nope!" Proudly, I walked to the head of the group, flapping my wings. "Dopey Discord forgot about these babies!"

In a blue blur, I took off.

So Awake

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Bellesmith sat up. The covers flew off her.

She blinked, her eyes being stabbed by golden light.

She tilted her head to the left. An open window stretched by the bedside.

Climbing over a slumbering zebra, she fell gracelessly onto the floor, stood back up, and crawled towards the window.

She peered out.

It was morning. The crisp air tickled her nose. The rising sun burned over the horizon, forming swaths of shattered light through the trees.

Belle's irises shrunk, and she smiled wickedly. Spinning around, she wildly shook the warm body of the stallion on his side of the bed.

"Pilate!" her voice cracked. "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"

"Nnngh—Mmmf... Hhhuh..." His ears were the first to move. Slowly, he sat up, shaking his groggy skull. "Whuh... b-beloved?"

"How can you sleep at a time like this?!" she exclaimed in a raspy voice. "When it's such an awesome morning outside?"

"Awesome... morning..." he droned.

"Ffffffff..." she inhaled heavily, then tossed her mane back. The yellow hairs of her shoulder stood on end. "Ohhhh blessed Spark! I wish that wind would kiss my face forever!"

"Wind... kissing...?" Pilate's gray eyes fluttered open, as if seeking clarification beyond the moment. "Darling, are you okay?"

"Okay?! I'm alive! I'm here! I'm with the zebra of my heart and—Nnngh! Goddess!" she yanked his hoof out and aimed it towards the window. "Don't you feel that wind and sunlight?!"

"Gaaah!" Pilate yelped as he fell like an anvil out of bed and rolled against her. "Mmfff... I'm feeling the floorboards, h-honey..."

"Pfft! Screw the floorboards!" Belle galloped out of the room. "I'm grabbing my saddlebag! I want grass! I want pine! I want more wind in my mane!"

"Unnngh..." Pilate sat up. "Belle? Why are you... uhm.... why are you so much more awake than me?"

"Wrong A word, Pilate!" she called out from the kitchen, fumbling through several clanging items.

"Huh?"

"Stretch your legs! We're going out for a jog!"

"We are...?"

Miss You

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"Come on, Pilate!" Belle sing-songed as she galloped uphill. Pine trees and clusters of shrubbery flew by her. "Keep up, you silly Zebra! Heeheehee!"

"Belle! Wait!" The learned stallion huffed and puffed, struggling to match her ascending gallop. He stumbled multiple times as his hooves pulled him achingly forward. His floating manasphere weaved wildly left and right before him, pulsating with white strobes of light through the pine trees. "O.A.S.I.S. can't compensate for everything in the forest! I'm as blind as a bat here!"

"Then follow the sound of my voice!" Belle called back as she reached a clearing of even grass beyond the treeline. "You do know the sound of my voice, don't you?! Haha!"

"Well, of c-course, but..." He stumbled again, his legs wobbling. "Nnnngh—Belle?! Belle, where'd you go?!"

Out in the open, she was running at full speed. Her brown mane billowed behind her and her golden coat glistened in the sunlight over Blue Shelf. She worked her lungs to the breaking point, but was too energized to register pain. Through the strain of the endurance run, she smirked devilishly, and thrust her legs against the earth. She jumped high, gliding through the air, feeling the wind hitting against her face. She landed, kicking up grass, but jumped again just as instantly.

"Ha!"

She flew higher this time, her ears whistling from the wind. She landed in a slide, stopping just on the rocky edge of a hill's peak. She reveled in the drop that loomed immediately below: a good thirty foot plummet before the ground sloped once more towards the eastern edge of Blue Shelf.

Feeling her heart racing, she lifted her head and inhaled the fresh air of the mountain morning. She exhaled and opened her teary eyes, chuckling loosely towards the sky. Once more, her shoulder and back tingled, and her hooves scooted closer and closer to the edge of the rock cropping.

"Careful, dear! You've already damaged one horn!"

At the sound of the voice, Belle literally spin-jumped around.

A pair of anteloupes on a picnic blanket recoiled from her gesture.

"Eeep!" Kenna exclaimed.

"Whoah there!" Baxter chuckled, murmuring through half a mouthful of celery. He swallowed and spoke with a smile, "Somepony's got a runner's high!"

"You're looking alive as ever this morning, Bellesmith!" Kenna remarked. "What's the occasion?"

"I'm alive! And it's an awesome day!" Belle shouted back through a wide grin. "Can't you feel it?"

Kenna blinked, then glanced down at the wind-swept lengths of the hill. "Uhm..."

"Dang straight it's a good day!" Baxter exclaimed. "You won't believe the lengths I went through to talk bookworm here into a picnic in the sun!"

Kenna rolled her eyes and shoved her beloved in the shoulder. "I said I was fine with it—I just wanted to be sure it was cleared by the facility!"

"Darling, if you let the Enforcers tell you what to do all the time, you won't have any room left for living—"

"Exactly!" Belle shouted, suddenly in their faces. Both anteloupes leaned back and gawked at her felicitious exclamation: "You gotta pick a direction and keep galloping and not let anypony tell you when or what to stop for cuz—" Her eyes rolled back, and she spun about, inhaling the mountain air once again. "Mmmmm-Spark! If I could just take off again!"

Kenna raised an eyebrow. "Take off?"

"Hey..." Baxter stood up. "Where's Pilate on a day like this?"

"Belle!" a zebra called forth from the treeline to the west.

The anteloupes turned and watched him limp tiredly up the hill.

"Why, hello there, Pilate," Kenna said. "Are you..." She paused to glance between the two equines. "Are you going on a jog with Belle?"

"I've been jogging alone," he grumbled. O.A.S.I.S. flew over and locked in place on his choker. "Where's Belle? Has she been by here—"

"Boo!" Belle said, gripping him from behind.

"Daaah!" Pilate shouted, his ears drooping. His face grimaced as he glanced aside. "Belle?! What in Queen Ledo's name—?!"

"I swear, your black and white stripes switch places everytime you're startled!" She said, she giggled, she spun. "Hmmmm—This should be the highest spot in Blue Shelf! Screw the zeppelin towers! Screw the snowy peaks! This is it! This alone is as high as it needs to be!"

Baxter snickered. "You got that right." He glanced over at the zebra. "Pilate, have you been letting Belle sniff the mana that floaty ball of yours runs on lately?"

"No! She hasn't been anywhere near my ball! Er... I mean..." Pilate shook his head, frowned, and pivoted in Belle's direction. "Beloved, we need to talk—"

Only, she was on the other side of him. "Oh hey! You know what would be fun?! A race!"

"A race?!" Pilate stammered, twirling blindly.

"A race!" Baxter jumped off the picnic blanket and grinned wide. "Where to?"

"Depends," Belle said, smirking his way. "How far are you willing to run before you lose?"

"Oh ho ho ho hoooo!" Baxter cracked the joints in his neck and shoulders. "So that's how it's gonna be! How about to the bottom of the hill!"

"I can do better than that," Belle said. With thin eyes, she leaned in and uttered in a raspy voice, "How about to the manafences?"

Baxter's eyes twitched. "The... manafences?"

"The m-mana fences?!" Kenna gasped.

"ThreeTwoOne—GO!" And Belle blurred downhill. "You're already way behind, Baxter!" She shouted in mid gallop. "Are those legs of yours only good for pulling weeds?!"

"Oh, it is on!" He spat and sped after her with a chuckle. "Gonna... Make... You... Eat... Those... Words!' the anteloupe shouted in between bounding jumps.

"Baxter! Wait! What are you doing?!" Kenna exclaimed, waving her cloven-hoof wildly. She sighed, then tilted her head in Pilate's direction. "Any chance you might be willing to switch beloveds?"

"Kenna, please, can you help me down after Belle?"

"Absolutely, Pilate," she said, reaching out to him.

Far downhill, Baxter was making progress. He reached neck and neck with Belle as the two blurred towards a line of glowing blue light.

"Wow... Belle..." Baxter breathily managed. "I... didn't... know... you... had... it... in... you...!"

"Well of course I know how to gallop!" she somehow managed to exclaim in one outburst. "How else can I get the lazy trees' leaves to fall?!"

In mid-bound, Baxter went cross-eyed. "Huh?"

"See you at the finish line!" her voice cracked. "Tomorrow! Hahahaha—"

"Uh... Bellesmith?" Baxter mumured as she saw her bolt ahead at impossible speeds. "Belle?!"

"What's the matter?!" she huffed and puffed, surging forward with all her might. "Those horns of yours acting as windbreakers—?" Her voice was promptly cut off by a bright field of blue energy repelling her back. "Gaaaah!" she landed hard on her flank, jolting from mane to tail with mana. Her eyes flickered red then back to brown, and she looked up with a frown. "Hey! Who zapped me?"

"Belle, it wasn't anypony!" Baxter skidded to a stop behind her and collapsed, panting heavily. He gulped, pointed, and said, "It was the fence, ya nutcase! Congratulations..."

Belle stood up. She peered—as if for the first time—at a tall wall of fluctuating blue light projected between tall stalks of enchanted metal placed evenly along the border of Blue Shelf. Her chestnut eyes squinted at the translucent energy, then at the forest beyond.

"Hmmmm... talk about lamesauce," she muttered. Regardless, she turned and smirked at the gazelle. "Oh well! I win!"

"If you call that a victory," Baxter said. "Heh..."

"Belle!" Pilate's voice called through the air.

Belle groaned, rolling her eyes. "Is that egghead upset with me again?"

"'Egghead?'" Baxter made a face.

"Belle, what's gotten into you?!" Pilate exclaimed as he slid down the hill with Kenna's guidance. "Don't get too close to the energy field! Even a unicorn can't withstand that kind of a charge!"

"Actually, I'd say she withstood it just fine!" Baxter said with a smirk. "She took a full jolt better than even Grinder could!"

Pilate groaned and bucked Baxter to the grass.

"Ooof!" Baxter landed before a jittery Kenna.

Pilate stomped towards the sound of Belle's panting voice. "Belle... Beloved... Talk to me." He gazed towards her with a soft expression. "What's going on? Was it a dream? Was it something you remembered about Austraeoh?"

"Ugggggh," Belle groaned, batting his hoof away. "Austraeoh this! Eljunbyro that! Is all you ever wanna do is study?"

"I wanted to help you understand about your sequencing! About the connection you have to Rai—"

"And I just wanna do something cool for once!" she barked, backtrotting towards the fluctuating energy field. "And that sure as hay ain't happening back in that stuffy little cabin!"

"Bellesmith..." Pilate began.

There was a shriek behind him. Kenna pointed with wide eyes. "Look out! Behind you!"

"Daaah!" Baxter hopped up to his hooves.

Even Pilate was backing up, his ears twitching to a horrendous, thunderous approach of noise.

"Huh?" Belle's face scrunched up. "What's the big deal—?" She turned around and got a face full of manticore.

The creature shrieked and swung it's paw.

Belle stood absolutely still. Her eyes twitched once, but only because of the bright rivulets of energy surging outward from the beast's contact with the mana shield. Roaring, the monster swung and slammed its limbs at the fence yet again. It wasn't alone. At least three more lion-headed monstrocities joined their brother, exchanging flung paws and lashing scorpion tails. No matter how much they punished the fence, they could not penetrate their way to the tender morsel of a unicorn on the other side.

However, that didn't stop three of the Ledomaritans from backing up from the tempetuous confrontation between the beasts and the mana fence.

"I've never seen so many!"

"They'll burst through! I just know it!"

"Where's Belle?!"

"Belle!" Pilate shouted. "Are you crazy?! Get away from the fence! There's no telling how much damage it can take!"

Belle stood still, staring with a soft expression of awe. Her mouth hung open as her eyes took in the enormity of the creature just a thin field of energy away.

"It's like... it's like I am already inside its mouth," she murmured. She gulped, but her heart beats increased all the more. "I can smell the bile form its stomach. Blessed Spark, I'm so close..."

"Belle! Get up here, now!"

"Please, beloved!"

The manticore squatted down, its mane bristling as it hissed directly at Belle.

Belle stared back. Baring her teeth, she raised her front hooves and shouted long and hard back at the creature. It was an enormous yell, using the full extent of her lungs.

The manticores froze. They didn't flinch and they didn't jerk back; they simply stood still, blinking curiously at the little yelling equine.

After her exhale was finally over with, Belle stared at them... then began chuckling incessantly. "Heheheheheh... hah hah hah hah!" she fell back on her haunches, pounded the ground a few times, and pointed. "Look at them! I freaked them out! I totally did!" She frowned devilishly. "I wonder how many of them I could take out before they ripped me to pieces...?"

Belle's heart was beating faster than she could possibly register. Her limbs shook and her tail flicked. She stood up and grinded her hooves as if to charge horn first into the fluctuating blue field.

"Belle..." Pilate's voice said, and this time it had a wavering tone to it.

Belle gasped, her eyes flashing red one last time. She turned around and looked up the hill. Slowly, in a limping fashion, she trotted towards the shivering group. Kenna and Baxter stepped away as she approached Pilate. She had to squint to see for sure, but her breath escaped her as soon as she realized—

"Pilate... Beloved, are you cr-crying?"

Pilate sniffed. The stallion gulped bravely and said, "Let's g-go home now, Belle."

"Pilate, I..."

"I want to go home. I-I want us both to be somewhere familiar, somewhere safe," he murmured, his head falling towards the windblown grass. "This... This isn't you. I know you're going through a lot, but you're better than this! Please... please concentrate and try to find yourself..."

"But I am myself!" she said, giggling. She looked at her hooves. "I'm just..." She stopped, suddenly shivering. There were

...flecks of dirt on her forelimbs. She looked to her right and saw rows and rows of apple orchards. She looked to her left and saw a grand emerald plain under starlight, with two orbs of pearl blue hovering. At the sound of a choking breath, she glanced straight forward...

...and Pilate's tear-stained face was imploring.

"Come back to me. I don't want to lose you."

Belle's lip quivered. She sniffled, and a tear ran down her cheek. "I'm r-right here, beloved." She caressed his muzzle. "I would never leave you..." Her face broke into a grimace. "Oh goddess... oh goddess, forgive me, I would never abandon any of you... never..." She hunched over, shuddering, clenching her eyes shut. "I miss you all so much. S-so much..."

"Shhh!" Kenna exclaimed. "Do you hear that?"

"What?!" Baxter spun around, gasping. "Did one of the manticores jump the fence?"

"No, worse," Kenna remarked. Gulping, she pointed up at a dark shape in the sky. "Enforcers."

And the four fell under the shadow of a looming zeppelin.

Heaviest Anchors

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The air above the cabins hummed loudly and the pine trees swayed. Overhead, the Ledomaritan zeppelin roared away on churning propellers. Six enforcers armed with electrified tasers escorted Pilate, Belle, Kenna, and Baxter up the road from where they had been deposited.

"You will remain in your homes until a representative from the Council of Ledo is brought here to assess your infraction," one unicorn with a tight beret uttered. Frowning, he narrowed his eyes and added, "Trespassing beyond the boundaries allotted you is a criminal offense, and you shall all be dealt with accordingly."

"Yes, officer," Baxter said in an uncharacteristically somber tone. He gave Bellesmith a cold glance, then hung his head as he shuffled forward alongside Kenna. "We understand."

"It won't happen again, officer," Kenna added.

"That remains to be seen," the enforce said. His horn glowed as he tugged at the four figures, making them stand and bear the brunt of his dialogue. "You will all be lucky if you don't get sent to four completely different facilities after this."

Kenna gasped. "The Council w-would separate us from our b-beloveds?!"

The unicorn coldly replied, "If your luxuries here have allowed you to act in such foalish manners, then perhaps you don't deserve the beloveds you currently have. Tampering with the fence is beneath Ledomaritan behavior."

"Tampering?!" Kenna exclaimed.

"Kenna, honey..." Baxter reached out to her.

She shrugged him off, frowning at the guard. "Who are you?! You don't speak for Council! You don't speak for anypony!"

"The Enforcers are the council!" he said, his taser raised towards her antlers. "From now on! Now go to your cabins or I will be have to throw your unconscious body in!"

"Officer, please!" Belle exclaimed, breathing heavily. "Forgive them! They got involved only because of my impulsiveness!"

"Beloved..." Pilate begain.

Belle stomped her hooves and seethed towards the guard. "I led them astray! I haven't been myself since sequencing with the subject deep in the facility! They had no idea of this, and I brought them to the fence while in a state of confusion and—"

"Wait..." The guard turned towards Belle, his brow furrowing. "The Aridstone Pegasus Project. You're involved?"

Belle blinked. She glanced at the others around her.

Kenna was confused. Baxter mouthed 'Aridstone Pegasus' with a pale expression on his face. Pilate was dead silent.

"What's your name, pony?" the guard asked.

"Uhm..." Belle fidgeted, then turned to face him. "Doctor Bellesmith, from Mountainfall. I'm prime sequencer of Level Twelve Beta, Dalton's division."

Another enforcer leaned in and whispered into the guard's ear. The guard listened, nodding. Eventually, his eyes widened and the hardened features of his face grew relaxed. With a deep breath, he sheathed his taser and whistled to the others.

Every enforcer relinquished magical grip of their sparkling weapons.

Pilate lifted his head, curiously tilting his ears towards the absence of the tasers' electrified hum.

"You are free to go about as you pleased," the guard said in a neutral tone. "Return to your lives, and remember not to approach the mana fences."

"Wait..." Kenna leaned forward, blinking. "You mean we're no longer sequestered to our homes? We're n-not in trouble?"

"Go about your lives," the guard grunted, turning around with a scuffle of his hooves. He trotted down the hill in line with the other enforcers "Business here is concluded."

The four stood silently while the guards left as if nothing had transpired there to begin with. After a few seconds, Baxter chuckled nervously.

"Well," he said. "Guess it wasn't so bad a day for a picnic after all?"

"Baxter..." Kenna said breathily, her eyes watering.

He looked at her, and his smile left. Giving her a gentle nuzzle, the male anteloupe aimed her towards their home down the dirth path. "Come, darling. Let's go inside and rest. Spark knows I need a breather..." He gave Pilate and Belle a forlorn glance, but was soon gone with his beloved.

Belle sat on her haunches, exhaling hard. She ran a hoof through her mane as she glanced down at the road. The barest hint of four emblems lingered beneath her from where they had been "drawn" the previous day. The wind had blown so much of it into obscurity. The wind...

"Pilate," she murmured, her voice wavering. She gulped hard and turned towards him. "Pilate, I'm so sorry about all of this. It was like... it was like I c-couldn't control myself. It was like I didn't even want to think! I wanted to move! I wanted to run! I... I wanted..."

"You wanted to fly," he said.

She inhaled sharply, biting her lip.

He paced towards her slowly. "I can't lie, beloved, especially to you. I don't like what's happening to you, to your psyche. But what I like even less is not being able to do anything about it." He sat down and exhaled slowly through his teeth. "I was so excited yesterday, so thrilled by the prospect of discovery, that I lost track of what was most important." He gulped. "I lost track of you, of your mind, of how terribly lost you are in the sequencing..."

"Oh, darling," she said, sniffling. "I'm the one who's ruined so much today. Don't be hard on yourself. You're the last pony who should be—"

"Why did they let you come back, Belle?" he asked. "The Enforcers, I mean." He gestured towards the direction in which the guards had trotted away. "When have they ever shown this kind of mercy? That one guard was right; they normally would have split us all apart and sent us to the furthest reaches of the Confederacy. How come that hasn't happened?"

She rubbed a tear dry on her cheek and smiled pitifully. "Can't we just be thankful, Pilate?"

"I'm definitely thankful," he said, murmuring in thought. "But I am also confused. You're obviously very valuable to what's happening here in Blue Shelf, in the facility. Why would they let you come home when you could be of so much use to their experiments?"

"But I'm not of much use, Pilate. I... I..." She seethed. "Just listen to me!" She choked on a sob and hid her face in her hooves. "I'm so lost. So excited and scared all at once. I'm... I'm..."

"You're not the one," a voice said.

Belle gasped, raising her head up and panting heavily.

"Belle?" Pilate's ears twitched. "Belle, darling, what is it?"

"But you are the emissary to the one," the voice continued. "So long as she is in the earth, she cannot reach the sky, she cannot seek her wind."

"Wh-Whitemane..." Belle whimpered like a foal. "I-I can't do this. I don't... I d-don't..."

"Whitemane?" Pilate exclaimed, jittering with anxiety. "Belle, are... are you hearing her right now?"

"To be free, one must cast loose from one's anchors, and hers are the heaviest of all."

Belle's eyes twitched. She looked down and saw blue hooves. A green field stretched beneath warped wooden houses, and five piles of ash littered the sanctum.

"No..." she cried. "No, please. I don't..." She shook her head as her eyes pulsed red against the tears. "I don't want to be here! I-I don't want to see..."

"Belle!" a zebra's voice shouted. He sounded like he was a million miles away, and dwindling. "Belle, stay awake—"

"Pilate!" she sobbed.

She was spiraling through the heavens. The foundations of home collapsed. Winged ponies flew in random directions. A city dissolved into wispy oblivion, and a demonic voice chuckled beyond the nebulous chaos of it all.

"Pilate, I love you! Please... I don't want to g-go home! I don't want..."

She was falling. A pair of limbs caught her, but didn't. White feathers of an alicorn spread apart like seafoam, and all that lingered beyond was an ocean of darkness.

Belle plunged deep, and spread her wings.

Home's Foundations

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I was spiraling. Everything was spiraling. The winds were blowing everywhere. It was worse than I thought. I had to do something. I had to save everypony.

I flew like a missile through the northern skies. I brushed past clouds, gales, and squadrons of mail delivering pegasi. They looked at me funny, shouting in anger at my speedy flight. Didn't they know the danger at hoof? Didn't they realize that everything we had all built was going to crumble? Didn't they respect the legacy of Commander Hurricane, the formation of Equestria, the sanctity of the seasons?

They could have sat on their lazy flanks for all I cared. I had a job to do. If I needed to be a hero, then I was more than ready.

I sped over hilltops and lake beds. After cresting the ridge of a sharp plateau, I at last saw it. My heart leapt up to my throat. Cloudsdale was still in one piece. That meant that I wasn't too late! I still had time to save everypony! I had to be strong enough; I had to be fast enough.

With the cold winds whistling past my ears, I climbed sharply and made for the heights of the floating city. Wandering pegasi glanced and smiled at me, their innocent faces gawking at my hurdling approach. They waved at me, caught in blissful ignorance. I tried looking in their eyes, but all I saw were spirals.

I had no time to lose.

"Everypony!" I shouted. "Get out of here! This city's going to fall!"

To my shock, they gasped and stammered in confusion.

"Huh?!"

"What?!"

"What does she mean?!"

"Cloudsdale... Falling... hahahaha!"

"I mean it!" I shouted. "It's going to Fall! Discord is using his freaky magic to tear our kingdom to shreds! You gotta get out of here before the buildings fall out underneath you!"

"Discord?!"

"Who's Discord?!"

"Does this have anything to do with the clouds turning pink?"

"How could Cloudsdale fall?!"

"Nnnnngh!" Growling, I spun around and flew towards the first pony I could recognize. Gripping her by the shoulders, I shouted into her face. "Derpy! We've flown together countless times You know that I'm the most loyal pegasus there is! You gotta tell them! All of you have to believe me! Cloudsdale is doomed!"

"Whoah! Calm down, Rainbow Dash!" Derpy exclaimed. One of her eyes rotated towards me, and she squinted. "Say, why are your all gray? And your eyes are swirly..."

"You're one to talk!" I hissed and shoved her away. "Don't you featherbrains get it?!" I yelled at those hovering around me. "We're royally screwed! We gotta evacuate the city and then get a weather team to support the lower cloud beds and—" A deep rumble alighted my ears. I gasped, my eyes blinking wide. "Did you hear that?! It's happening already! Come on, everypony! Follow me!"

I soared towards the far end of the city. After passing two large pillars of sky marble, I looked over my shoulder. I braked in midair and hovered, panting incredulously. "What the hay?! Why aren't you helping?"

"Rainbow Dash? Are you feeling alright?"

"Yeah, Rainbow Dash. Snkkkt—hehehehe... is there something in Prancingville's water? Hahaha!"

"Ponyville!" I shouted back, snarling. "And I couldn't give a flying feather about that stupid old town right now! You gotta help me save Cloudsdale! Lives depend on it!"

"Cloudsdale's fine, Rainbow Dash. You, on the other hoof..."

"Yeah, when was the last time you saw a doctor, Rainbow?"

"Or a mirror. Hahahaha!"

"Nnnngh!" I kicked a cloud in their direction, forcing them to duck and shriek. "Fine! If you wanna fall and get crushed into the earth, be my guest! But don't say I didn't warn you!" I spat on my hooves, rubbed them together, and sped my wings into a blurring beat. "There's only room in Equestria for one hero! Make way!"

I soared through the foundations of Clousdale. Ponies gasped and dodged my descent at the last second. I heard murmuring voices soaring past me, words of concern, frantic voices asking for the local police. I didn't give them the light of day. I had a city to save. It was up to me. It was all up to me.

I had to do this. I had to. I had...

Loyalty's Labyrinth

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With a grunt, I clasp another ball of dense clouds between my hooves and soar up to the bottom edge of Cloudsdale. I slap the wispy material against the structure, giving it a good buck pack it in thick. That accomplished, I twirl—hyperventilating—and dive towards another island of floating cumulus below.

I've been frantically working at this for hours now. Police ponies tried tracking me down. Pegasi guards attempted to stop me. But I outflew them all. What else was I to do? Cloudsdale could have fallen at any moment. If only one pony had the guts to do anything about it, she wasn't about to let anyone stop her.

I grabbed another cluster of clouds and zoomed straight up for the foundations of the levitating city. Discord would have to have had the power of twenty alicorns if he wanted to zap this thing from the sky. And even if he did make it all fall, I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of making it go down easy.

I flew towards the cloudy base of the maretropolis and started layering the cumulus bits over the surface. As I did this, I felt a change in the wind. I realized that it wasn't the air that was changing, but something in my head. Some of the spiraling had stopped, making me realize that I had been dizzy the entire time up until then.

Briefly, I lingered in mid hover, a very dangerous thing considering the looming fate of Cloudsdale. But instead of focusing on that, I was having a moment of clarity. And through that widening hole of thought, colors were stabbing their way through to me: colors of purple, blue, gold, pink, and—last but not least—green.

I gasped. I reeled. I clasped onto my head as waves of pain overwhelmed me. The dizziness melted in the midst of it, like I was touching down, landing in the garden labyrinthe, staring at Discord. He was staring back, only this time he was sneering. Since when do messengers who deliver dire warnings sneer?

I felt the stab again. It pierced my heart this time, instantly producing tears. I never cried, and yet I bawled like a little foal. It took every ounce of my strength to keep my wings beating, to keep me so high up in the air as my spirit plummeted towards the center of the earth.

I clenched my moist eyes shut and seethed. When I opened them again, I was not levitating beneathing Cloudsdale. I was not in the skies over Equestria. My vision was ripping away from my body, absorbing all the colors of light, and zipping south, over the hills, through the trees, past the floating chaotic maelstrom that Ponyville had become, and into the center of town.

The Elements....

My Friends

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"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight Sparkle shouts. "Get over here!"

Pensively, Spike peers out from behind a large boulder wearing a ruby lightning bolt for a necklace. He gulps and waddles over to stand beside the five mares and their pendants. All are gray, except for Twilight.

Frowning, the crowned unicorn faces Discord and grumbles, "Alright! Let's get this over with!"

Discord stands unamused before them, watching only because he can.

Twilight closes her eyes. The star at the top of her crown lights up. An invisible wind blows across the scene as she and her four friends levitate up off the ground. From below, Spike watches nervously as the Elements of Harmony light up one by one.

Fluttershy's body tenses as her bejeweled butterflies pulse with golden light.

Pinkie's lethargic eyes reflect the fuschia glow of her pendant.

Applejack gazes off towards the horizon as her red and green element shimmers.

Rarity calmly allows her blue diamond to glow with deep intensity.

Twilight's eyes glow brighter and brighter. The five ponies float in formation, short one member.

Discord raises an eyebrow, intrigued by the increasing luminosity of the summoned spell.

Twilight's forehead begins to crease. Sweat runs down her temples as the star above her head glows brighter, hotter...

Fluttershy is the first to let out a pained grunt.

Pinkie Pie's eyes flicker with fear.

Applejack gasps, convorting in pain as the gray melts away from her coat. "What... Wh-what's happenin'?"

"Augh!" Rarity shreaks, her mane returned to its purple shrine. "Twilight! Something... is wr-wrong!"

"Guys! What's happening?!" Spike gasps from below, clutching his tail and stammering, "The Elements... Th-they're..."

"My my, well this is certainlyinteresting," is all an intrigued Discord can say.

"Aaah!" Fluttershy yelps, her tears evaporating in the burning hot wind. "I-I'm on fire! Oh Celestia... Oh Celestia h-help!"

"Make it stop! Make it st-stop!" Pinkie sobs.

"I-I can't!" Twilight Sparkle shouts. Her glowing eyes curve in pain and shock. "There's some k-kind of feedback! I can't reverse it! I can't even think!"

"Aaaaugh!" Rarity shrieks, tossing her head back as the diamond's glow spreads through her twitching body. "Oh heavens! There's so m-much light! So much! I... I..." Rarity twitches one last time, chokes, and her body explodes in a brilliant flash of dust.

"Rarity!" Spike screams, his face awash with tears.

"Wh-what happened?!" Applejack shouts. The pendants are generating a hum so loud that it forms fissures in the earth below. "Did Rarity just—"

"Mmmmngh-Gaaaah!" Fluttershy's body arches back as the glow of her pendant spreads through her and bursts in platinum fury. What was left of her body and feathers scatters to the ground in white ash.

"Fluttershy!" Pinkie sobs, curling up into a fetal position as the pendant spins her around in mid-air. "Nnnngh... No! Please, no! No!"

"Girls..." Twilight stammers, cries, and gasps for breath. "Girls, the elements. They... th-they're consuming us. I d-don't understand—"

"Aaaah!" Pinkie lets loose and twirls until her body flies apart in shimmering ash.

"Pinkie Pie!" Applejack shouts. Gritting her teeth, she spins around and hisses towards Twilight. "Twi! Do somethin'! Please!"

"I... I-I can't..."

"I wanna see my family again! Please!" The hat atop her head melts away as she grits her teeth with glowing eyes. "Make it st-stop! I'm begging you!"

"So... so much burning..." Twilight's eyes leak platinum froth towards the skies as she floats backwards and screams. "Nnnngh—Augh! Celestia—"

Twilight's crown explodes, and her body dissolves like spiraling fireworks along with it.

Alone in the glowing tempest, Applejack clutches her hooves to her chest and shivers.

"Must b-be strong. Must be strong for them! The Elements... We're..." Hot tears leak out of her eyes as her face wrenches in pain. "Oh my... it goes on forever..." She sobs and buckles. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry, y'all. I—"

A last flicker of emerald eyes, and the white heat absorbs everything.

Loyalty's Loss

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My eyes opened, brimming with tears.

I was falling the whole time.

I gasped into the shadow of Cloudsdale. Spreading my wings, I pulled up at the last second. Trees and gnarled branches slashed at me. I twirled through them, smashing through the leaves, and glided towards a crystal blue lake beyond.

I skimmed the surface, bouncing several times, and came to a sliding stop along the sandy shore. I hissed and winced all over. Pulling myself onto my hooves, I realized that they were blue.

My breath came out in steady pants. The spiraling sensation was gone. I stood up, wet from tears and pond water. I saw a tangled mess of rainbow colored mane in the corner of my vision. All the gray was gone, as well as the cloudy haze of paranoia.

And in its place...

My vision went foggy. I lurched forward, choking on my own bile. I shivered, watching as a tear drop or two littered the pond's edge below me.

Then, my jaw hurt. A rippling reflection showed an enraged equine with gritted teeth. My nostrils flared. I looked up, eyeing the southern horizon. I stretched my wings out, kicked my feet, and took off like a rocket.

The air immediately thundered. A crater of grass and dirt formed beneath me, and the clouds parted ways even before my blurring figure heatedly reached them. With the resolve of a burning comet, I made straight for Ponyville, leaving thunder and vapor trails in my wake.

My Harmony

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I was dragging thunder through the clouds, flying faster than screams, and yet I could already hear his laughter as I closed in on Ponyville. I headed towards it, my heart palpitating with the raw memories afforded me by the harmonic link. I hoped that it was just a delusion, a fantasy inflicted upon my spiraling mind just like his curse had done.

When I reached those golden thatched rooftops, and when I looked down upon the center of town, I felt the air around me distorting. Before I knew it, I was braking in mid-air, my wings threatening to rip off. I had no breath to give; all of it was dragged out of me in a mute scream.

There were five piles of ash, conjoined with the brittle metal filaments of royal pendants that no longer existed. There was a sobbing sound. I looked down past a floating chunk of chaotic rock to see Spike. The little whelp hugged his legs to his chest, rocking back and forth. He wore the pendant—the only pendant—and its glinting shine burned through my soul. I watched his slitted eyes stare through a brimming curtain of tears at one ashen pile in particular, blowing away in the wind like a lavender cloud.

Then I heard laughter, heavy chortles of deep bass hilarity. I looked across the holocaust to see him standing tall, a hand held over his hairy chest as he spat further guffaws out from his muzzle.

"My my... how interesting!" he said in a chuckling tone that shattered me to the core. "Unexpected, but interesting!" He turned and blinked towards me, his red on yellow eyes crooked and amused. "Oh! Hello! Fancy meeting you here. I'm afraid you've missed one heck of a show!"

Ash and grass kicked up in a straight line towards him as I landed on the ground with a vicious slide. "You!" I shouted as loud as I can. I had to hide the shaking in my voice. I had to. "You bring them back!"

"What?! Bring them back?!" Discord laughed even more. "My little fruit fart, I can't rightly bring back what I didn't destroy! It's your benevolent horse queen's friendship laser that did the unthinkable!" He frolicked upon the outskirts of the unmarked grave. "If you have a bone to pick, take it up with her. She's got several of them—bones, that is. She seems to be rather short of friends lately. Hmph—Maybe you two can keep her company now?"

"Nnnngh!" I hissed, feeling the veins tensing up along the edges of my face. "You friggin' monster! I'm gonna—"

"What?" He gazed at me with bored eyes. "Wonderbolt me to death? Make me twenty percent deader?" Lethargically, he examined one of his talons. "Face it, buckaroo. That ship has sailed; the Elements of Harmony are no more. Granted, if all they could do was destroy themselves, then I doubt they would have posed much of a threat to me anyways—but who's keeping score? Certanily nopony you care about. And if you wanna keep that list from becoming even smaller, Angstbow Dash..." He folded his arms and smirked. "Then I suggest you back off from a fight that you know your little ol' self is bound to lose."

I looked at him. I fumed and fumed.

My hooves scraped the ground.

He raised an eyebrow.

I was galloping away from him and towards Spike. The dragonling gasped as I snatched the pendant from his neck.

"R-Rainbow...?" He stammered. "Twilight. Our friends." He sniffled and choked. "They're... They're..."

I didn't listen to him. I didn't think. I swung the pendant over my neck, coiled my wings, and shot straight up in a prismatic blur.

Down blow, Discord was tilting his head up. "Hmph... She chose to be cowardly over stupid. Guess the world's a lot more chaotic than I thought." The dragonequus shrugged his shoulders. "Oh well! Plenty of centuries left to improve a masterpiece!" That said, he began "skating" across the center of Ponyville towards some unknown destination. "I think I'll start by turning every squirrels' tails into edible tofu—"

There was a gigantic, thunderous salvo of noise directly overhead. Discord gasped, reeling off his rear limbs as a huge flash of light emanated above. He looked up, having to squint, in time to witness rivuleting bands of color spreading towards every horizon. In the center, hottest of all, was a blue shape hurdling down towards him.

I gritted my teeth, sailing earthward like a missile. Pockets of air exploded behind me on several occasions. I curled my ears back, deaf to the cacophony I was making. My ears teared, fogging the image of the monster at the last second.

I pulled up.

"Aaaaugh!" he shouted, nearly being thrown off balance as my swooping dive ripped a literal swath of earth out from the ground. He regained his footing in time to shake a fist at me. "I don't know what you're trying to accomplish! But it could stand to be less noisy—"

Thunder exploded into his side; I had spun around for a return sweep. Flying in long arches, I came back around again and again, buzzing by him faster and faster. The force of my velocity was ripping the air into a vortex. Soon, he couldn't move, for a tempestuous cyclone had formed around his body. Gnashing his teeth, I saw him preparing to snap his talons. I flew even closer and rammed into his side before he could even contemplate teleporting.

"Ooof!" He stumbled onto all fours, struggling against the wind to stand up. "Okay! This is starting... nngh... to get really annoying, pony!"

I had no response. Only speed. I sped over the rooftops of Ponyville. I sped over the chaotic destruction he had wreaked. I sped over Spike's shivering form and the ashes of my dead friend. The distorted air around me heated up, and the vapor trail solidified with a colored streak. First it was blue, like my coat. Then it shimmered with lavender. Soon gold and violet joined the mix, along with green and pink.

A bulb of light pulsed beneath my neck. The Element of Loyalty was coming to life. I paid it no attention. I paid nothing any attention. I was anger, I was purpose, I was sorrow.

I was harmony.

"Mmmmf!" He hugged himself, imprisoned by the blurring winds that solidified brighter and brighter around him in mesmerizing color. He opened his eyes, and his red pupils shrunk. "No!" he shouted into the maelstrom. "No! Impossible! The Elements! They are destroyed! They're gone! Finito!"

I gnashed my teeth, spinning at an endless curve. My right wing pulled at its sockets, begging to rip off in the twirling wind. Regardless, I kept circling, faster and faster, until my eyes convinced me that I was seeing ghostly trails of my past and future self ahead of me. Soon, the whole world blurred into one rainbow streak, the color of the Elements, the colors of my friends, the colors of all the life that he had just robbed from me. Everything came together, and everything melted apart. I saw a brief flash of white light as the colors combined, and in the middle of that spinning crucible, I unleashed my fury.

"Nnnngh-Haaaaugh!" he screamed. He twitched. He convulsed. I became faintly aware of a crackling noise. I saw a phantom sight through my peripheral vision, of an agonized dragonequus turning to stone. Not until his entire body became gray—as he had so damned me—did I finish my assault.

I ended with a hideous tumble across the dirt. The ashes of my friends scattered around me. I heard Spike gasping. Looking up through my sweat and tears, I saw why.

Discord was frozen. He stood like a demon statue in the middle of Ponyville. His wide eyes were wrenched in pain, and they were locked on me.

I gazed at him. I lurched. I clenched my eyes shut and bowed my head as a deep hiss rose through my lungs.

Loyalty's Lament

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She slept soundly.

The hat was lying over her freckled face.

When the train came to a stop, there was a sudden lurch.

Finally, those two emeralds opened up.

She twitched at first, like a nervous foal.

The she looked up, her lids thin and contemplative.

And she smiled.

My Hope

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I opened my eyes. I was sneering. I was shaking. Sooner than I could breathe, I was screaming.

"Nnnnnghh-Raaaaaaaaugh!" I flew forward, hooves first.

I shoved the statue over.

A dragon whelp's eyes reflected its fall in slow motion.

When Discord's stone body struck the ground, there was no thunder that could match it or my voice.

Pieces flew everywhere, shattering into pale sediment.

His antlers melted into his skull. His talons became one with the shards of his limbs.

He was powder, refuse, garbage, nothing more.

And I stood over him. Leering. Seething. Hissing through my teeth like a ravenous canine.

I hadn't the good sense to dodge the effluent cloud of black mist surging out of the shattered statue and into me.

"Unnngh!" I fell back, convulsing all over. I felt sharp waves of pain knifing into my every limb. Black sparks danced between my ears, hooves, and gaping teeth. Then, in an obsidian blink, it was all over.

I was lying on the ground, panting. My eyes flew open, pulsing. I sensed the world flashing red then back to normal. Then everything was dead silent.

The landscape morphed around me. Slowly, like receding waves after the tide, Discord's chaos vanished from Ponyville. The floating rocks and swirling hills coalesced into a snapshot of normalcy. Ponies started coming out of houses. Frightened citizens gazed towards the center of the thunderous event.

For the first time in my life, I didn't wish to put on a show.

I rolled over, face first against the settling blades of grass.

I was aching, heaving. The pendant around my neck suddenly weighed a ton. On convulsing limbs, I crawled across the pieces of Discord, across the scattered remnants of my friends, until I stumbled upon a pile of ash still carrying an orange hue. I reached my hooves towards it, and the material spread from my touch, as if scattering away from me, melting like all the good things of the past.

And I sobbed. Openly and shamelessly, I sobbed, cuddling what was left of the ashes, what was left of my feelings, what was left of hope. I could not hear anything else. I could not see anything but tears.

I was alone.

The Rift

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When my ears heard the rustling of her elegant wings, the first thing I thought of was how unlucky I was to be alive. She touched down onto the restored courtyard of Ponyville behind me, and she wasn't alone. Soon, I had two sets of alicorn hooves shuffling to a stop behind me. Distant ponies murmured, their voices strung between intermittent gasps and tender sobs.

"What happened here?" Princess Celestia's voice said. I felt her shadow drawing over Spike's tiny body. "Spike?"

The tiny dragon said nothing. He hid his face into his knees as he hugged himself, shivering.

"The Elements. I sense a void." Her hooves trotted past me, then ceased with a noisy scrape. "Oh no..." Her breath shuddered, taking on a wavering pitch that shattered her royal voice. "My little ponies." There was a solemn pause. "Twilight... my most f-faithful student..."

I began breathing heavily. With icy menace, I lifted my frowning face up from the tear-stained ground.

"Rainbow Dash!" Celestia exclaimed. "You are alive!" I felt the aura of her figure bathing me in twinkling light. "I came here as soon as the chaos magics dwindled from the land. What manner of horror has transpired here? Twilight... All your friends..."

"Sister," Luna's voice said. It was neither sorrowful nor victorius. "Discord lies in pieces."

"In pieces?" Celestia's breath left her again. She pivoted towards me, and I caught a hint of two squinting eyes. "Rainbow Dash, what has happened? Please, tell us..."

The world spun. I was the fulcrum, and Princess Celestia was the receiving end. I think even she was surprised at the echoing clap of noise that resulted from my hooves slamming across her immaculate face. She took the blow with grace, neither reeling nor reciprocating. Her head tilted away from me and froze there, her eyes round and imploring.

I wasn't about to let her have peace. "You?! You would ask that?!" I snarled, I almost foamed at the mouth. "It's all your fault!" my voice cracked as I squatted below her, wings arched and hooves dragging through the turf. "Twilight was just a normal pony! She could have had normal friends, but you had to weigh her down with those stupid Elements!"

Celestia said nothing. She stood in sacred silence above me while scores of colorful faces looked upon the scene with shock and alarm.

I wasn't nearly finished. "Why couldn't you take care of Discord this time, huh?! What kind of a Princess are you!"

"Sister," Luna said, shuffling up as if she was oblivious to my outbursts. "This troubleth us. If Discord is no longer whole, then his magic—"

"Shut up!" I screamed, clenching my eyes shut as I gnashed my teeth. "Both of you! Just shut up! You did this! You killed Twilight and all her friends! You brought this stupidness upon us all! We'd be alive and whole if it wasn't for you! We'd be... We'd be..."

I heaved and heaved.

She looked so beautiful sleeping. She never knew, because I never told her.

"We'd not be alone..." I hissed, my tears falling again. I hated myself; I hated her. I hated everypony.

"Rainbow Dash," Celestia whispered, reaching a gentle wing towards me. "My little pony—"

"Nnnngh—Get away from me!" I squeaked loudly, shoving her away. As I did so, something ink-black ate at her wings.

A cold chill filled the air, followed by a low rumble. Several ponies in the distance gasped and galloped away as the land around is seemed to bow and fluctuate.

Even Celestia was in shock. "That power!" she exclaimed, backtrotting. "If feels just like—"

"Feast thine eyes," Luna said, standing beside her and pointing at my neck. "Loyalty."

Sniffling, I glanced down at my pendant. Black bands of energy were trailing out of the edges of the golden necklace. In the center, the ruby lightning bolt pulsed. I saw a pegasus' face in its reflection, and the eyes that belonged to her pulsed to red on yellow.

"Nnnngh-Haaugh!" I shouted in pain, falling on the ground and writhing. "Freezing..." I hissed. "Blood is... fr-freezing..."

"Rainbow!" Spike shouted, sobbing once more as he lunged towards me. A blue field of telekinesis yanked him back. I looked up to see Luna standing upon the fringes of a sudden cyclone.

"Something's forming!" the Princess of Night shouted. "Above the shards of Discord!"

"How is this possible?" Celestia exclaimed. "The Elements banished him!" Her eyes hardened. "His essence must still linger!"

"If allowed to reconstitute, it shalt form a new and more powerful creature," Luna said. "A second Discord."

"The only way to stop that is to seal up the rift!" Celestia shouted above the tumult. "Sister! Take Rainbow Dash and Spike away!"

"But sister—"

"My power has tripled during your thousand year absence! Only I can do this!" Celestia spread her wings and summoned a bright pulse of platinum light directly in front of her. "Now go! Stop more lives from being consumed!"

"As thou doth command!" Then Luna galloped straight towards me.

I would have resisted, but my sudden exhaustion was greater than my anger. I collapsed on the ground, curled up in a fetal position. Lightning and magic flickered above me. I turned to look, wanting to vomit. I saw a solid sliver of black incandescence levitating in the air, like a pocket of light was being ripped down the center from the other side of reality. Next thing I knew, I was being pulled away. The center of Ponyville spun with chaos. Celestia hovered above it all, forming a coccoon of light around her, brighter than the sun. I looked down at the ashes. They were dissolving in the magic. I tried screaming, but I fell into a pit of dizzying blackness instead.

Lonely Hearts

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"She does not feel the wind, because she thinks it isn't there."

Bulbs of moisture lined the ends of Belle's fluttering lashes.

"Find her, rescue her, and show her that she isn't as alone as she thinks."

Belle's eyes flew open. She shot up, tears streaming down her face.

She was lying in bed. The window to her cottage was shut. The light was dim, and everything was still.

Belle took several breaths. As the beating pulse softened in her ears, her face grimaced. She bent over and wept quietly into her hooves, hiccuping and shuddering from each wave of sorrow. Her sobbing noises echoed against the shadows of the place.

Eventually, she looked up, brushed a hoof through her mane, and whimpered towards the far ends of the room.

"Pilate?"

There was no response.

She blinked, swallowing a lump down her throat. Her jaw trembled.

"P-Pilate?"

Silence.

On numb hooves, she scampered out of bed. Making a bee-line for the kitchen, she looked all around the cottage.

"Beloved? Are you here? I... I've awoken. I've seen so much..."

Her shuffling hooves were swallowed up in ghostly stillness. She paced over to the study room. Upon taking a look, she gasped.

Pilate's desk was completely empty, swept clean, abandoned.

Her heart raced. She glanced towards the door and bolted towards it. Sunlight stabbed her through the trees. Her stomach was empty; her limbs were weak, but nothing stopped her from trotting limply down the rows of gravestone houses.

"Pilate?!" she exclaimed, louder, in desperation. "Somepony! Anypony! Have you seen my beloved?"

There were no answers from any of the houses. Panicking, she spun around and sped to her next door neighbors. She banged on the front door. "Kenna! Baxter! Are you there? Please! I need to find Pilate!"

There was no response. The house hung in silence. Only the rustling of leaves and pine needles could be heard in the wind above.

Peering closer at the windows, Belle could see into the anteloupes' house. Nothing was inside; even the furniture was gone.

Feeling a cold chill, she backtrotted, swirled around, and ran down the mountain trail. She slipped numerous times, only to pick herself back up and gallop even faster. Her course took her into the heart of town. Finally, see saw ponies there, but it was a tiny number, dwarfed by the population that had inhabited the village of Blue Shelf just four weeks ago.

"Please! I'm looking for my beloved! Have you seen him?"

Several depressed faces glanced up at her once, but continued on their course.

"His name is Pilate!" she exclaimed, her voice cracking. "He's a zebra, with a floating mana sphere for a seeing aid! You can't miss him! Please! He's not home, and I fear something's happened to him!"

The villagers simply trotted by, carrying their tools, wares, and carts full of belongings.

Frowning, Belle reached over and grabbed the nearest pony she could find. "Pay attention to me! The pony that I care for is missing! We have to alert the Enforcers—"

"Bellesmith, calm down," a deep voice said from behind.

Belle let go of the stumbling pony and spun around. She gasped with a tearful smile. "Great Stare!" She ran up to the front porch of the village archives and stood, panting, before the buffalo. "I'm so glad to see a pony I still recognize! So many are missing!"

"I know, Belle. About Pilate—"

"Yes! I was out for so long! Please tell me where he is!" she exclaimed, hyperventilating. She shook her disheveled mane back and gazed at him with imploring eyes. "He must be worried sick!"

Great Stare tried to smile, but his jaw failed him. He exhaled strongly and finally gave a limp murmur, "He took a zeppelin out of Blue Shelf just two days ago, Bellesmith."

Belle's eyes twitched.

"I'm so sorry, my dear," Great Stare said. "He... he left you..."

Moments Lost

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Belle sat on the stoop to the town archives, staring at the lines that rolling wagon wheels made in the soft dirt of Blue Shelf's village square. Her face was moist from tears, but her eyes were dead still. She breathed deeply, her body eerily calm.

A gust of wind blew at her brown mane, and then a pair of shadows crossed over her figure. Blinking once... twice... she looked up and squinted above her.

Kenna and Baxter stood side by side. They smiled nervously, a feeble attempt at joy. They had canvas satchels slung over their shoulders.

"We didn't think we'd find you here," Kenna said. "We're glad to see you one last time."

"Yeah!" Baxter exclaimed. "Odds are you were snoozing away in pegasus land—"

Kenna nudged him harshly.

He winced, his gaze falling elsewhere.

Belle blinked once more. "Uhm..." Her hooves squirmed nervously in the dirt. "What do you mean... last time?"

Kenna gazed at Baxter. She sniffed and put on a brave smile as she glanced down at Bellesmith again. "It looks like our talents are needed elsewhere, Belle. The Council of Ledo is moving us."

"Important business, it seems," Baxter added. "We've been told that firestarters like ourselves are incredibly qualified. Only the top magic practitioners are headed where we're headed! Erm... N-not that you're a novice at magic. I mean, you're good at what you're doing here... at least before the fainting and the sl-sleeping and... uhm..."

"Quite frankly, we don't have many options left when it comes to staying in Blue Shift," Kenna said. "We'd love to stay. We really do. But they've escorted so many ponies away as it is. There just isn't a real infrastructure anymore. They must not want this place to function anymore. It's all about the facility. It's all..." The female anteloupe clenched her eyes shut, took a deep breath and calmed herself. Eventually, she opened a pair of moist eyes and looked at Belle. "I just want you to know, in spite of all that has happened, in spite of how awkward things may have gotten, you are still the most remarkable pony we have ever met. It kills me inside to no longer have you as a neighbor. Your grace and eloquence will never be forgotten."

Belle nodded slowly. She smiled, but a tear trailed down her cheek. "Just the rest of me is forgettable, and that's nopony's fault but my own."

Kenna opened her mouth to reply, but had no words to give. She gave Baxter a forlorn glance before dropping her things, squatting down, and giving Belle a dear hug. She nuzzled the unicorn's shoulder and spoke in a wavering voice, "I don't understand why he did what he did. It's not like him. There has to be another explanation..."

Belle choked on a sob. "If there is..." She buried her neck in Kenna's shoulder. "Nopony is telling me."

"Everything changed after the Enforcers arrived," Baxter said, thinking aloud. "This place has always been regimental, but as soon as those beret-wearing goosetrotters came in, all the life around this place has been utterly stripped out! I don't get it! The Confederacy has always function through the power of its populace. Without couples, without workers and their beloveds, the spirit is gone! What do they expect us to be? Machines?"

"It makes no difference," Belle whispered. Sniffling, she gazed into Kenna's face and smiled warmly. "Wherever they are taking you, it has got to be a better place than this."

Kenna's face grimace. "I just wish there was something I could do. There's so little time."

"Then spend it doing what you can to stay together," Belle said. "Be honest with each other. Share your fears as much as your love. And most of all..." She lingered, her face tensing in pain as she added, "Share your moments, for they can go by so swiftly."

Kenna and Baxter exchanged glances. Before they could respond, there was a sharp whistle from behind. Several Enforcers stood by a wagon filling with ponies, buffalo, reindeer, and goats. They were glaring that way.

"Well... this is so long," Baxter said. He bowed his antlers and added, "Try not to stare down anymore manticores."

Belle smiled and whispered back. "I'll try not to."

Kenna and Baxter hesitantly turned away and shuffled off. They climbed into the vehicle on hovering manapanels. Not long after, the wagon resonated with a low hum and coasted away, around the corner. The anteloupes' faces vanished in a blur.

Belle wiped the tears clear from her face. With a sigh, she stood up and trotted slowly up the vacant hill leading towards her home.

And the emptiness inside.

Spark's Sake

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Belle's hooves crunched over errant leaves and pine needles littering the path. Her trot was a serpentine one, weighted by hunger and exhaustion as she limped left and right during her sluggish ascent. It hadn't occurred to her how little she had eaten, how little she had drank during her frequent bouts of collapse. Even opening her eyes was a difficult feat; the sun stabbed at her vision through the trees as she stumbled her way home.

Nevertheless, she kept her lids open. She had to stay focused, had to keep eying the forests, the ridges, the shapes of Blue Shelf for a single sign. She looked for black stripes, for twitching ears, for a handsome, smiling face. She saw nothing but blurred color hung between empty cottages as silent and cold as gravestones. If someone told her she was the last pony in Ledomare, Belle wouldn't have doubted it. Roads that were once full of travellers and yards that were once brimming with residents were empty now. An eerie silence hung over the community; it weighed on her like an ocean, and she was suffocating with each hoof step.

She knew she was home by its smell, not from the sight of its entrance. She stumbled through the gate, tripping once. For several minutes, she sat on the stoop before her house, not wanting to get up. If dreaming was something like death, then perhaps she might meet her beloved there.

There weren't enough memories to go by, nor were there any walls to silence her tears. She pulled herself up—a whimpering task—and more or less threw herself into the house.

She collapsed against the kitchen counter, and immediately lost her breath. A mana lantern was brimming right in front of her. She wasn't alone.

"Pilate...?" Her lips trembled. Shuffling about, she spun on her hooves and stood straight up with a pale, sickly smile. "Pilate!" She galloped into the study. "Pilate, you're—" She skidded to a stop, panting, her chestnut eyes wide.

Enforcer Shell looked up from a dusty book that was floating in his magical grip. He gave her one glance, calmly slapped the tome shut, and murmured in monotone, "I am not your beloved."

Bellesmith gulped.

His good eye gazed at her. Slowly, he shuffled through the windowlight and pulled two more books from a shelf. "The archives in and above the facility is lacking as of late. This is all property of the Confederacy anyways. I do hope you will not protest my acquisition of them."

"No... I..." Belle swallowed again and leaned in the office doorway. "I d-do not protest, Enforcer Shell..."

"Good," he said, lethargically flipping through the pages of another book. "I doubt you would have much strength to do so." He inhaled and formed a stack with the canvas-bound items. "Word is, you haven't been up to much, lately. You seem to be encumbered quite a bit with the continual side effects of your sequencing. One wonders if you ever sleep to rest anymore..."

"How..." Belle's eyes tiredly narrowed. "H-how did you...?"

"It is my business to know everything I can," he said matter-of-factly, not even looking at her. "That's why I took over the experiment from the Council of Ledo, after all. I had a problem to solve, and you were the key."

"I... I tried... tr-tried to..."

"What matters is you brought me halfway. For a moment there, it seemed as though I would be empty-hoofed," he muttered, squinting through a final manuscript. "Albeit, I am a soldier, and more than anything I know how to adapt and survive." He gazed uper at her, his one eye sharply glinting. "That's something you're sorely in need of learning yourself, Doctor."

"Enforcer... Enforcer Sh-Shell, sir..." She dryly coughed and trotted towards him, trying to stand as upright as possible. Nervertheless, her chin and neck trembled as she said, "Please. Take me back. Let me return to the facility so that I can do more sequencing."

"How noble of you," he droned. "But exactly what would that accomplish?"

"I... I can get more information—"

"That you would only reveal in spurts after a prolonged period of catatonic silence? I hardly doubt that—"

"Look, I can get you what you're looking for!" she suddenly shrieked, her eyes flaring. "I can get you Rainbow Dash! Austraeoh! Eljunbyro! Whatever! Just let me connect back with her! For real, this time! W-with the machines and-and-and Dalton as supervisor and the entire facility providing—"

"Doctor Bellesmith, the facility has provided all it could," Shell said unemotionally. "You were given every resource when Professor Garnet was supervising, and I certainly have given you all I could and more. But when you underdeliver, you underdeliver. I came here to get a mission accomplished, and quite frankly, Doctor, you do not have what it takes to get the job done." He slapped the last book onto the stack with a loud thud. "Consider yourself discharged."

"Then why do you keep me here?!" she shouted, rushing up to him. Shaking. "Why take away so many ponies, so many gifted and talented equines, and leave m-me in this place like some infected th-thorn?! It makes no sense! If you really need me, th-then let me be of use! Bring me back into the facility again!"

"Doctor—"

"I want out of here!" she shrieked. Tears streamed down her cheeks. After two heaves, she blurted again, "I want out of Blue Shelf! I will do everything I can to earn it! I have to get out of here! I have..." She bit her lip, grimaced, and hid her face in her hooves. "I-I need to find him. I need to track down my beloved. I've... I've failed him..." She sniffled, then sobbed. "I don't know how or why, but I w-wasn't enough for him. We l-loved each other so much. It just doesn't make sense... it doesn't..."

Shell gazed down at her quietly. He raised a hoof... and brushed her aside. Levitating the books, he trotted slowly into the kitchen on heavy haunches. "A lot of things don't make sense, Doctor. Some of us, however, know the fine art of patience. Maybe someday, you too will learn it. I, at least, have faith in you in that regards. That is why you're still here. The experiment must go on."

She slowly calmed her breaths, gazing up at him. Through her tears, she squinted at what he was carrying. With a furrowed brow, Bellesmith murmured, "What... Those are Pilate's books." She sniffled and stared at him squarely. "What do you need them for?"

He made for the doorway. "Not all of us are so hopeless, Doctor. We had what we need now. Stay here until further instructed."

Her mouth hung open. As Shell left the cottage, and the door slammed shut, her ears didn't twitch. She stood up straighter, murmuring aloud, "Why would you need me, unless I still had answers to give? But I had no answers. Just words... just symbols..." Her eyes twitched. With a gasp, she glanced into the kitchen, eyeing the glowing light of the lantern that resembled a floating manasphere. Just then, she clenched her teeth. "He left... on a zeppelin?!"

Her breath turn into a hiss, and that hiss turned into a snarl. With a ghostly burst of strength, Belle jumped onto her hooves and thundered out of the cottage. The door flew open and dirt kicked up beneath her legs as she rocketed towards the Enforcer.

Shell was turning around at the last second.

"You!" Belle shrieked and flung her forelimbs into him. It was like flower petals slamming against a gray stone. Shell held her back with one hoof, and yet she snarled and spat at him. "Where is he?! Where did you take him?!"

"You're weak and exhausted, Doctor," he said in an icy tone. "I think you should lie down—"

"No! No more sleeping!" she shouted. "No more sequencing, no more searching. All you want is answers! All you want is a solution to the puzzle! Is that why you took him?! Is that why you stole my beloved away from me?!"

"This proves nothing except that you are as hysterical as you are delusional—"

"He doesn't know anything!" she said, her voice degenerating into a sob. "He's a scholar and a researcher, yes! But he knows nothing! He hasn't seen what I've seen, or felt what I felt!" She hissed and shoved ineffectually at the stallion. "He has nothing that you want!"

"Nothing but a new series of clues," Shell retorted, his eye narrowing, slicing her panicked expression in two. "A living lexicon that can and will open the door that you are blind to."

"Let me see him!" Belle growled.

"And unlike you, he answers to persuasion—"

"Let me see him!" she shrieked. "I'll unlock your damn door! I'll tell you all about the pegasus! Just let me—"

"You have not flown all the paths she has flown," a thunderous voice rang in her ears. "You do not have her wind."

Belle's eyes widened. In a fit of dizziness, she tilted her muzzle towards the heavens. "No!"

"She is the key, the spark for this world, and for you..."

"No, not now!" she fell on her leg joints and heaved. The mountains spun around her. "Please, for Spark's sake! Not right now!" she sobbed.

"You can ask and you can beg but you cannot even help yourself," Shell's voice said as his blob of a shadow wandered off into the tempests. "And a Ledomaritan with no worth does not deserve a beloved..."

She clenched her teeth as her eyes flickered red and rolled back. "Don't... don't leave me..."

"Shhhhh..."

In a cloud of dust, Belle fell to the dirt below. "Pilate..."

"Listen to the wind, my child, and it shall save you."

Life's Lease

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"Don't... d-don't leave me..." I murmured. "Don't leave me. Please. Don't..." My eyes flew open.

An alabaster ceiling of marble hung over me.

I shot up with a shout, my wings spreading. Instantly, a cloud of dark blue magic fell over my body, pressing me gently back into a plush bed. I panted, gazing sweatily out through carved marble arches laced with midnight velvet curtains. Mountains loomed, along with crashing waterfalls that glistened with moonlight. Beyond, the stars hung over the wide expanse of Equestria as a deep mist drifted over the land.

"We giveth thee our assurance, thou art not alone."

Gulping, I glanced weakly up at the source of the magic.

Princess Luna stood above me, her royal features calm and wise. There was a tranquility to her eyes, something that reflected my exhausted features with no ambitious attempt at sympathy.

"Thou hast been unconscious for quite some time, Rainbow Dash," Princess Luna said. "For a moment there, we feared that thou may never have woken up."

"How long has it been?" I asked, rubbing my head.

With a straight face, Luna icily declared, "Nine days."

I felt my eyes twitching. I squinted up at her. "Nine days?"

"Indeed."

"But... how..." I glanced at my hooves. "How am I even alive?"

"Through great difficulty hath we brought thee to this place of waking," Luna said as she slowly paced around the bed. The midnight winds blew at her mane. "I took the greater part of our powers to keep thy body within this realm, and our magics have been taxed enough as it is..."

"Where am I?" I asked.

"Canterlot," she replied. "The Midnight Wing of the Royal Palace."

"You mean this is your room?" I inquired, squinting. I tried sitting up. "Why am I not in Ponyville? Where is..." My breath left me with a guilty grimace. Gulping, I murmured, "Celestia..."

"She is... preoccupied at the moment," Luna said, and her face gazed aside.

I noticed it. As I turned to get a better look, I felt an incredible weight tugging on my skull. "Unnngh... Huh?" My hooves reached up and fumbled over a golden band. I glanced down to see the edges of the Element of Loyalty hanging from my neck. "The hay is this still doing on me?"

"Rainbow Dash..."

"I... I-I gotta get back to Ponyville!" my voice cracked. I flapped my wings and tugged at my pendant in one movement. "I left the place in pieces! I—"

Suddenly, Luna's hoof was holding me in place, positioned directly over my pendant. "It wouldst not benefit you to remove that now," Luna said. "As a matter of fact, we'd strongly advise thee not to remove it ever."

"What are you talking about?" I exclaimed. I frowned in frustration. "What's happened since I was under? Where is Celestia?"

"Our beloved sister is in Ponyville, and before thou asks, thou cannot see her."

"Yeah? Why not?!"

"For the same reason thou canst remove the Element of Loyalty from thy neck." Luna narrowed her eyes. "Doth thou not feel it? Is there not an apparent change to your senses?"

"I..." I bit her lip, flying in place. I tilted my head around, reeling from a slight dizziness. "Everything's kind of... I dunno... fuzzy. But that doesn't matter!" I shook my head and pointed out the window. "I gotta get back home!"

"Rainbow Dash," Luna spoke gravely, her tone cold yet gentle. "Thou canst return to Ponyville, not now, not ever."

"Can I ask why?"

Luna stared into my face. "Because thou art dying."

My wings stopped flapping. I fell onto the bed, gazing up at Luna in a numb stupor. Eventually, I stammered, "Dying? As in... as in 'no longer gonna be alive' dying?"

Luna merely stared at me.

"But.. But I feel..." I looked at my limbs. I didn't tremble, nor did I shiver. Nevertheless, my voice wavered, "What happened to me? Is it the Element?"

"On the contary, the Element is the one thing that is keeping thee alive currently," Luna said. "It is bringing balance to your body, through no small feat of its own. We had to spend four solid days of deep meditation in order to come up with an enchantment that would make the Element ten times as resistant to the forces of chaos. However, even our powers aren't enough to hold chaos at bay."

"Chaos?" I murmured. My ruby eyes blinked, and I gazed down at the bed. "That... that stuff that flew into me..."

"We shalt not pretend to cast judgment on thy decision to eradicate Discord; his presence was an absolute bane to Equestria. However, when his body was destroyed, his essence remained. What's more, it sought a host. We taketh no joy in informing thee that thou art now the vessel of Discord's chaos, and as soon as thou fell unconscious, it started to... manifest itself in thy body and mind. The only solution we had to ward off the effects of chaos was to seal it away with the one device that thou didst use to defeat Discord in the first place: thy Element. With our enchantment, the power of the Element hath been magnified, but it is still only a temporary salve."

"How..." I gulped. I looked up at the Princess. "How long do I have to... to...?"

"Without thy pendant, less than a day," Luna said calmly. "With the Element protecting thee, it is difficult to predict. Several months, a year at best."

I held my pendant, breathing calmly as my brow furrowed in contemplation. "Gone... J-Just like the rest of them..."

I heard what sounded like thunder.

Blinking, I gazed out beyond the windows. To the far west, in the middle of the valley, a beam of dark energy shot randomly towards the sky, like onyx lightning.

"Ponyville..."

"It still standeth," Luna said. "Our sister doth see to that."

I took a deep breath. Eventually, I wrenched my eyes bravely from the shimmering sight in the distance and gazed up at Luna. "Your Highness, tell me everything..."

Moonlit Dawn

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Princess Luna's face tensed up. She tilted her neck up towards the heavens as her wings stretched wide. A bright point of light pulsated off the tip of her horn, then traveled down into her forehead. Soon, a golden glow overcame the shadowy vapors emanating from her being.

Then, over the east mountains, with the grace of a dissolving storm, the bright morning sun rose. It staggered at first, like a foal learning how to trot, but soon found an even pace that took it ever higher into the crisp, clear sky.

Luna exhaled heavily, her face and brow sweating as if she had just galloped a marathon.

"Crazy..." I mumbled, lying on the edge of the palace's marble platform a few feet away from the Princess. "So you're raising the sun now?"

Taking a deep breath, the midnight alicorn folded her wings and sat up straight beside me. "Affirmative, albeit with greater or lesser success. It's not all that difficult a task in theory, but we hath found ourselves lacking in the sheer strength our sister possesseth. She was always the more powerful one. As for we..."

"You were more graceful?" I muttered.

"More reserved, we suppose." Luna trotted over and squatted beside me, her folded limbs mimicking my slumped stance. "Raising the moon has been no simple task, but it was always a quiet one, a performance that greatly lacked an audience. There was a time when we detested such little attention, but these days we revel in it. There's a certain tranquility to monitoring the one beacon of the night, an atmosphere that promotes reflection and philosophy. It's calming, and we shall sorely miss it now that we are in charge of the day as well."

I glanced up at her, chewing on the edge of my lip. "How... h-how long will you have to be controlling the sun as well as the moon?"

Luna's nostrils fumed gently as she stared off into the burning horizon. "For as long as we have to. For as long as our sister's task is to seal off the chaos rift in Ponyville."

Sighing, I stared down at the golden pendant around my neck. "It's really that bad, huh?"

"If unchecked, the fissure in reality will spread. The unbridled chaos that occupies this pocket of space in which the world is suspended will consume all of Equestria and the lands beyond. The realm of harmony is like a vacuum, and it begs pure chaos to inhabit every corner of it, to pollute it. Currently, it is our sister's task to ward off that pollution, at least until the raw power manifested within the chaos rift subsides."

"How long would that take?"

"Fifty, one hundred, maybe even several hundred years," Luna said calmly. She gazed unemotionally at me. "It is but a season in alicorn existence. But, as for our little ponies, it means their very livelihood is at stake. Celestia has no choice but to wait out the chaos rift's fury. The Elements are no more, so there is nothing that exists physically upon this plane that can channel enough harmony into the rift and seal it any more swiftly."

I felt a lump forming in my throat. My hooevs shivered, so I tucked them under my forelimbs as I murmured into the winds, "Why did the Elements... blow up the way they did? Why did they backfire?"

"That is a mystery our sister and we are at a loss to determine," Luna said. "The most immediate hypothesis is that the Elements were not complete when the spell to seal away chaos was cast. As a result, there was a burst of erratic feedback, and chaos itself ruptured its way through the leylines that made the Elements a cohesive unit."

"So you're saying that the Elements went kablooey because they weren't all together when..." I took a deep breath. "When my fr-friends tried to take on Discord?"

"Such has never happened before," Luna said. "It is all a matter of speculation. If we had known that such a castrophic thing would have occurred, surely we would not have agreed to letting the fate of Equestria rest in thy mortal hooves. We would have... considered another option, along with our sister." Luna's face stretched thoughtfully. "We are... most exceedingly sorry, Rainbow Dash."

I seethed, shaking my head with a toss of my mane. "No, Princess..." I heard my voice cracking; I didn't care. "I'm the one who should be sorry..."

"Rainbow Dash..."

"I let them down." I scraped my front hooves against the marble as I gritted my teeth. "I wasn't there when they needed me. I was their missing piece, and they all blew up."

"Thou were under the influence of an enchantment that no living pony could resist—"

"I was weak!" I jumped up to my hooves, frowning. "I was weak and dense and stupid! I should have realized Cloudsdale wouldn't have fallen! Discord would have gained nothing from it! Instead, I let myself get all scared for nothing! I forgot all about my friends. I forgot..." I exhaled painfully, feeling a wave of dizziness come over me. The pendant weighed heavier as I held a hoof to my head and teetered. "I-I forgot to be loyal..."

"Young one..." Luna stood up and braced me with her forelimb. "Thy judgment was clouded, yes. But as soon as the fog that took over thy mind cleared, thou made forthwith to the location of thy friends to assist them."

"Pfft. Yeah." I exhaustedly glared aside. "Some timing..."

"Nevertheless, when thou were in possession of thy true consiousness, thou showed nothing short of absolute commitment and love." Luna gazed gently at me. "No doubt, thy heart must be in turmoil as we speak. We wish that we had given thee better news upon waking, but thou has always impressed us with thy honesty and resilience."

I was staring west, towards the sporadic fountain of black energy emanating from Ponyville every few seconds.

"Perhaps there is still time yet to learn more of thy condition—"

"I should see her," I said.

Luna raised her eyebrow curiously.

I looked up at her. "Princess Celestia. Your sister. I need to speak to her."

"Rainbow Dash, perhaps our message was not entirely clear," Luna stood back and said. "The chaos rift that our sister is guarding reacts to the energy resonating inside thee. The closer thou art to the location of Discord's demise, the more thy body shall be consumed by chaos. Thy lease on life is short enough as it is. If we bring you to Ponyville, thou willst surely die."

I smiled lethargically up at her. "Tell me something I don't know," I muttered. Then, with a deep breath, I said, "Take me to her, Your Highness. Please. Or I'll fly there myself."

Keeping Up

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My nostrils flared against the whipping winds. My brow furrowed and my wings sliced against the higher atmosphere as I flew ,u way west. The closer I approached the image of Ponyville, the more nauseous I felt, so that the urge to turn towards the opposite horizon increased by tenfold.

My flight speed varied, and this was not ignored by Luna. The Princess of the Night flew a few yards to my right. She glanced over with deadpan concern as the Canterlot Royal guard endeavored to stay with us both. The air filled with noise from the multitude of flapping wings. It was hard enough as it was to concentrate.

With a shudder, I maintained my westward path towards the town that I had learned to call home, the place that I had failed. As we drew closer, I saw the beaming vertical spout of black energy shooting randomly to the sky. Each time it pulse, I felt a twitch to my eyes, as if my mind was being sliced in two by the focal point of the image.

Then, my blood froze. I gasped and gnashed my teeth as I felt my mind twirling like a centrifuge within my skull. Soon, both horizons were flipping on either side of me, even though I knew that my wings were straight.

"Rainbow Dash..." Luna called out placidly from where she flew a few yards away.

"I'm f-fine!" I lied, hissing. "I just... I just have to..."

"The chaos is effecting thee. We warned that this would transpire. We should return verily to Canterlot."

"No! Let me just..." I coughed and wheezed into the spiraling maelstrom of my mind. "Lemme just... just catch a breath..."

I realized I was descending, I just didn't know how fast. I flapped my wings every now and then to slow my dive. Soon, a patch of green grass was sailing up at me. I raised my hooves for a gentle landing. Instead, I went sprawling like a meteorite across the emerald plain.

"Ugh! Ooof! Nnngh..." I rolled to a stop beside a pond, twitching involuntarily.

I heard several hooves touching down around me. Armor clanked as the pegasus guards formed a tight barrier. They parted, however, the moment Luna landed and trotted gracefully towards me.

"There is no need for such vigilance," she said to the guard ponies as she pushed them aside with her wings. "She is no danger to us." With a sigh, she knelt down beside me. "Thou art, however, a danger to thyself, Rainbow Dash."

"I... g-gotta... l-live up to my m-middle name somehow," I said, curling up into a blue ball and wincing.

"This is hardly the time for jocularity."

"Nor is it the time for me to be alive, but hey... live and learn, huh?" I tried to chuckle, but it only came out as a wheeze. I did my best not to whimper, and somehow I managed to vocalize, "J-just how l-long are th-these attacks supposed to last? Do you kn-know?"

"Every now and then, a pulse of energy attempts to pierce beyond the harmonic barrier," Luna said. "The essence of Discord within you is best described as a door, and the dimension on the other side likes to flex its muscle from time to time."

"What happens when it punches on through?"

"Thy body will not be able to handle the transformation it so desireth."

"Nnngh..." I ran a hoof over my aching forehead. "And so... my body loses, right?"

"Affirmative."

I took a breath and squeezed a teary eye open to look at her. "And what of my spirit?"

"Thou doth not belong to a spirit of monsters and shadow," Luna said. "Thy spirit shalt be displaced, and rejoin the energy of harmony from which thou didst spring."

"Jeez, your Majesty," I shuddered as I felt the dizziness clearing. "You make death sound so poetic."

"An easy gift to master when one does not face it," she said, standing up and extending a hoof. "Shall we carry thee the rest of the way?"

"No, I got it..." I hobbled up to my hooves.

"It is only a short distance remaining, and thou wouldst desire to be awake when thou speaketh with our—"

"I said I got it!" I snapped. With a gulp, I stammered, "It's alright, your majesty, but the day I can't fly into Ponyville on my own is the day I'll really be dead." I flapped my wings, took a deep breath, and blurred forward. "Now... try to keep up."

Cloudy Home

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I trotted into Ponyville, only it was a different village. Some dark, cloudy fascimile of a town stood in its place. At first, I thought it was because no competent weather flier had been overlooking the place for the past week. As I trotted deeper into the dim streets, I soon realized otherwise.

Up close, the bands of chaos energy bolting into the sky drowned out all natural light. It felt like an hour past sundown, even though it was the middle of the day. On either side of me, street lamps were lit beyond double the capacity. I saw torches propped up on fences and building fronts, but that wasn't all I saw.

Ponies were gazing at me, wide-eyed and breathless. Gasping droves of neighbors—most of whom I recognized—were standing at attention. They stood at street corners, hovered about shop fronts, and paused in the middle of reconstructing the damage left from Discord. I knew that their shocked gazes weren't locked on the Princess and her guard trotting behind me, because the Ponyvilleans' eyes were full of sorrow.

My nostrils flared. I couldn't look at them; I couldn't even pretend to bridge the gap. I stared forward and muttered, "This was a bad idea. I should have just flown all the way to the rift and touched down there."

"These art thy friends and companions, Rainbow Dash," Luna said in a low voice as she came up beside me. "They have spent the last week worrying over thy countenance. Their hearts and their concerns go out to thee."

"They'd have better luck looking forward to a plague." I fumed, my ears flattening against my head as I glared forward. "Face it. All I mean to them is a reminder of who's no longer here."

"But thou art here," Luna said. "Thou art a symbol that all is not lost."

"Isn't it, though?" I muttered. Just then, I flinched, for I heard several ponies calling out to me.

"Rainbow Dash! You're well!"

"We thought you were a goner!"

"Did the Princess make you better?"

"You've still got the Element?!"

"Look, everypony! It's Rainbow Dash! The one and only original!"

"Yeah, well..." I chuckled towards them, trying not to openly sweat as I trotted by. "Originality is no picnic. I'd love to stay and chat, but..."

"We were so worried!"

"Won't you tell us what happened?"

"Why were you gone for so long?"

"Look, I really need to... uh... go talk to the Princess," I said. There were so many ponies crowding around us. Just a week ago, I would have been thrilled at such attention. But now... "Look! I mean it! You guys can... I dunno... write me or some crud."

The murmuring voices grew louder and louder. I felt my breaths getting shorter. I blinked, and against my eyelids I saw piles of ash. I wanted to scream.

"Be still, our little ponies, for decency's sake!" Princess Luna said in a thunderous voice, instantly silencing the crowd. "There is a royal matter here that needs to be attended!"

I felt the crowd withdrawing pensively. Several ponies looked hurt and confused, but I wasn't about to complain.

With a shuddering breath, I smirked aside at Luna. "Thanks, your Highness. Though, making a crowd go quiet doesn't have to be as epic as making the sun and moon go down."

"We are working extensively on our public skills," Luna said. "However, we could use some practice..." She glanced aside in a strangely demure gesture. "We haven't... had our sister around so much lately to assist us in such a manner."

"Sooner than later, you'll no longer have to be stuck foalsitting me," I muttered and pressed on forward. "By then, you'll be better off—"

A purple, scaly figure plowed into me, knocking me to the floor with a dear hug.

"Rainbow! You're okay!" A pair of emerald slits blinked at me above a fanged smile. "Gosh, for a while there I didn't know what to think!"

My vision focused, and I let out a huge sigh before ruffling the spines on his head. "Hello, Spike. Still being as annoying and scrawny as ever."

"Hahah! You're just the same!" He said, nuzzling me. "And here I was imagining that the magic had turned you—" He stopped in mid-speech, his draconian nose wrinkling from proximity to the ruby lightning bolt. He glanced at the pendant around my neck, the tilted up to gaze worriedly at me.

I merely stared back. I was smiling, but it reflected dully in his eyes.

He gulped and murmured, "Is everything okay?"

With a dry chuckle, I shrugged and said. "As good as I'll ever be. How... uh... how have you been holding up?"

He smiled, but soon that smile wavered. The slits in his eyes fogged over as a tiny puff of steam filled the air between us. He tried sitting up straight, but all it took was a gentle push from my hoof and he was burying his face into my chest, holding back his answer with sniffles and dry heaves.

I held him to me with one forelimb as I gazed lethargically across the village. I saw familiar faces and coats and manes—all turned dull by the dim sky churning above us—and they turned away in solemn silence as the whelp continued his quiet sob.

After a while, I exchanged glances with Princess Luna and patted Spike's shoulder. "Yeah, well, that's... uh... that's all right. It can't be easy holding the fort here by yourself since everything went crazy bad..."

"Everypony h-has missed you..." Spike sniffled and glanced up at me, wiping the tears from his quivering face. "I've missed you, Rainbow Dash."

"Hey... I'm here..." I said with an awkward smile. "It takes a lot more than the end of the world to take me out—" I froze in mid-speech.

She looked at me from beside a tree, her ears drooping, her tiny body doing its best to stand still. Upon my return glance, she bit her lip and stared straight at the floor.

For the first time since I had arrived, I felt a lump in my throat.

"Ah jeez..." I murmured.

Gently, with everypony watching, I placed Spike on my back and trotted slowly over towards her. Then, gulping, I produced a warm smile and very bravely spoke.

"H-hey there, Scootaloo..."

Always Loyal

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"This town has seen better days," I said with a nervous chuckle, gazing at the swirling mass of black clouds above us. "That's for sure. Heh." I gulped hard as my vision fell upon the distant rooftops, the waving trees, anything and everything but the tiny face before me. "If I hadn't been slacking off on the job, this place would still be seeing blue skies."

There was no response.

Biting my lip, I scratched my neck and shifted under the weight of Spike on my back. "I just gotta have a word with the Princess. Heh... Wouldn't you know it? I'm flying with the likes of royalty these days. Guess that puts me in the big leagues."

It was still quiet. I heard a scuffling of a tiny hoof, but nothing else.

"But... But that's nothing," I said. Spike quietly climbed off of me and stood a few feet away. I glanced at his scaled limbs as I fidgeted in place. "After all that's happen, I just wish... I just wish that—"

"I'm sorry."

My wings twitched. I turned and finally looked at her. "Huh?"

Scootaloo's face was bowed. She was avoiding my gaze this time, and she did so with fitful spasms and sniffling sounds. "I'm so sorry, Rainbow Dash..."

"Kid...." I opened my mouth, seethed briefly past a wave of dizziness, then murmured, "What in the hay have you got to be sorry for?"

"What happened was so awful. Apple Bloom barely talks. Sweetie Belle's a wreck. And I..." She sniffled again and looked up at me. Her eyes were glossed over with tears. She was just a foal, and I think we both remembered it for the first time in ages. "I thought for a while that you didn't make it..."

I blinked. My lips parted.

"I-I thought that Discord had even killed somepony as awesome as y-you..." She stammered, running a forelimb over her quivering eyes. "I doubted you, Rainbow Dash. I'm so sorry..."

"Scoots... The fact that I'm still around has nothing to do with—"

She suddenly flew into me, burying her face into my chest and sobbing. I winced, feeling her every quiver shaking through me. I glanced over her mane at Spike.

Spike was biting his lip to the point of bleeding. He played with his tail, as if standing in the shadow of a long lost unicorn.

With a sigh, I brought a hoof up and ruffled Scootaloo's mane. I smiled painfully. "Why, of course I'm too awesome to have bitten the bullet! You think some st-stupid goat god thing would be powerful enough to take me out?" I brought the hoof down to her shoulders and squeezed her gently against me. "I'm made of stronger stuff, girl! And all the things too dangerous for me, I can outfly! That's why I had to make an exit to Canterlot for a little while! To catch my breath, y'know? It's my fault for not letting everypony know where I was, but I'm not gonna make that mistake again!"

"You mean... you m-mean you're not h-hurt or nothing?" She murmured against my soiled coat.

I swallowed. As I did so, the pendant around my neck weighed more heavily. Regardless, I said, "Heck no! I'm fit as a fiddle! I've just come back to take care of business. That's all."

"But... But..." She looked up at me, her eyes glistening. "Your Element..."

I blinked. "What about it?"

"I mean..." She sniffled and forced her breath to be steady. "It's loyalty? Is it still gonna protect you?"

"Why wouldn't it?"

"Because... because all the other elements..." She winced at her own words, but still had to murmur it. "All the others are gone..."

I gazed at her. With a sweep of my forelimb, I rubbed her brow and eyelids clean of tears. It was just the opportunity I needed to blink mine dry. When the gesture was over, we looked evenly through space at each other.

"Look at me, Scootaloo." My eyes hardened. The dizziness faded momentarily as I said, "There is always somepony to be loyal to. Always."

She bit her lip. Her lips curved slightly, and I saw her tail flick.

A beam of black energy sparkled over the heights of Ponyville. All the ponies around me had somehow gotten used to it. I, on the other hoof, shuddered. I turned and gazed towards the center of town.

Twilight's treehouse stood, its branches waving. Most if not all of the leaves had fallen clear of the branches, rendered dead from its proximity to the rift. Just a few spaces down, I spotted an interesting sight: a tower that was slowly piling upwards one concrete block at a time. Several royal guard ponies were performing a mass feat of construction, building what looked to be a gigantic obelisk fit to encase the billowing anomaly. From within—nearly obscured by the piling blocks—a bright glow fought with the constantly churning shadow.

"They're building a sarcophagus," Spike said behind me with a shuddering breath. "Once it's finished, it should completely surround the rift. That way, Celestia can stay inside and battle the rift without affecting the landscape around it." He gulped and toyed with his claws. "However long that will take..."

I took a deep breath. "Guess I'm here for the grand opening."

Princess Celestia

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My hoofsteps somehow managed to echo against the frame of the newly built tower. Before me, surging bands of black energy spiraled continually upwards from a focused point in what was once the natural ground of Ponyville. I saw a bright, glowing figure on the other side of the ethereal cyclone. Wincing against the dizzying array, I prepared to trot around towards her.

I stopped suddenly in my tracks. Turning around, I glanced back.

Princess Luna stood outside, just beyond the threshhold to the great tower. She sat on her hind quarters, gazing at me neutrally.

I raised an eyebrow. "Your Highness? You're not coming?"

"We hath escorted thee this far, Rainbow Dash," she said. "Thy conversation with our beloved sister is thine and thine alone. Far be it from us to interfere."

My brow furrowed. I felt there was more to her answer than she was willing to say, or myself for that matter. Regardless, I was thankful for her grace. I was just... thank you.

"You've done nothing but take care of me this whole time," I said. "While Celestia's been pinned with this awful job, while you've had to take on so many tasks for the good of Equestria." I gulped and formed the fairest of smiles. "For what it's worth, thanks."

"It is worth more than thou thinketh," Luna said, then nodded towards the far end of the tower with her horn. "Proceed."

Nodding back, I turned about and shuffled towards the light source. I rounded the billowing edge of the chaotic anomaly. My heart beat harder and harder with each shimmering inch of the Princess. Soon, she sat before me, her body paradoxically calm for the phenomenon at hoof. The only part of her that betrayed any degree of strain was a tensed furrow to her brow. I hadn't finished trotting when one eye opened, then the other. As though she was waking up, Celestia unfolded her wings halfway and gave me something I hadn't expected: a smile.

"You're quite grounded these days, Rainbow Dash," the Princess said. "Your wings must ache from not being given a workout."

"Believe me, I flew and flew until I couldn't fly no more," I said. I blinked. "How did you know it was me just now?"

"Maintaining equilibrium..." She lisped slightly, her brow furrowing tighter as she sat, ever-facing the column of onyx bands. "Keeping balance between harmony and discord... it gives me a keen awareness of life in all of its form..." Her lips curved slightly. "As well as anti-life, if you must know."

I gazed down at the stone masonry that had been freshly laid around the glowing mess. "Which do I qualify for?"

"I was hoping you would illuminate me," she said. "Have you recovered from your initial bout of chaotic affliction?"

"That depends," I muttered. "Can you keep the world from shattering and chew the fat at the same time... er... Your Highness?"

"I assure you, Rainbow Dash, I am more than qualified for observing both the rift and you," she said. "If it helps, it brings my soul great delight to see you in person. I'd go so far as to say that it makes this task all the easier."

"How can that be?" I asked, squinting at her. "You know how this all began..."

"I also know how worse it could have gotten," Celestia said, her rosy eyes softly reflecting the shimmering bands as she glanced my way. "This world has lost so much, and yet it could have lost so much more. It is hard to see past the pain, Rainbow Dash, but the defeat of Discord brought salvation to the entire physical plane."

"Yeah, well..." I gazed aside, exhaling hard through my nostrils. "Not all of us have the thousands and thousands of years to look past death so easily—"

"Look past death?" She stared at me straight, and for a while there I was afraid the rift would explode. Instead, she masterfully contained it with golden magic as she spoke in a somber tone, "Twilight Sparkle has meant more to me than any single soul in the last five millennia. I felt her first breath when she was foaled. I sensed the fabric of magic changing the very moment she first existed. The day she entered this world, I committed myself to observing her gifts and guiding her towards the masterful sorceress she was destined to be."

Her ears flicked, and a shadow crossed her pale features. Celestia gazed deeper into the tornado of darkness, softly exhaled.

"Or so, I had perceived that it was her destiny. In my heart, I knew that she was meant for great things. She had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, but she did not know why. I gave her the material she hungered for, but I knew that even that wasn't enough. Twilight needed to be flexible if she was to grow. So, I moved her along the path towards meeting her friends, towards developing a healthy life. I wanted the best for her, and when she discovered Ponyville and found her soulmates, my heart rejoiced. All was good with the world, for there was harmony... a harmony that existed in the souls and not in the substance of this reality."

I watched as her wings coiled tightly by her side. She took a deep breath and flexed the muscles in her neck.

"I provided everything that was within my power to her, and still it was not enough to save her, to protect her. My sin is not overestimating the resilience Twilight had at her disposal, but underestimating the forces of energy this universe had to offer in resistance. If I had been subtler, if I had kept a distance, then maybe... she would still be here today..."

I reeled slightly. I stared into the vortex and felt the dizzy swirls of a horrible day resurfacing to my mind. I had been made to think that Cloudsdale was falling and all the ponies with it. As I glanced down at the ruptured earth beneath the vortex, and the five splotches of ashen white along the circumference, I almost wished the city had indeed collapsed instead.

"This is all my fault, Rainbow Dash," Celestia murmured, her eyes reduced to soft, glossy pools. "This town, this rift, Twilight, all of your dear friends..." She narrowed her gaze upon the blackness. "I should have had the power to foreseen this. I should have known that the Elements would backfire the way they did. I should have known that there was no proper way of containing Discord." Her eyelids shut as she shuddered in mid-meditation. "What kind of a ruler am I to have let so much that is good go to ruin? How could my loyal duty to all ponykind have let those most precious to me perish?"

I felt my mouth opening before I could stop it. "With all due respect, Your Majesty..." I gulped and looked narrowly at her. "Loyalty isn't exactly your department, now is it...?"

Last Piece

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Celestia's head turned to look at me for once. "Hmmm?" Her inquistion came out in a low hum as her glossy eyes reflected the nebulous miasma.

"It was... always your task to lead us, to rule over us, to... t-to protect us." I gulped and said, "But loyalty? You were a mentor to Twilight, your Highness. You were her teacher, her guardian. You took care of her because you chose to. Me?"

I turned towards the cyclone of chaos. I took two bold steps and stood on the dizzying edge of the phenomenon. "I didn't expect friendship, not here, not in this place. I didn't think I'd get along with so many ponies whom I'd not give a flying feather about had things gone differently. A frilly fashion designer, a party-crazed lunatic, and an anxious bookworm? Heh..." I smirked ever so slightly, staring into the ethereal black ribbons. "Totally uncool ponies. I shouldn't have given them the light of day. And yet..." I swallowed dryly, my throat sore. "I-I couldn't stop myself. They just.... They made me feel... feel s-so..."

She stared quietly at me.

I sighed and ran a hoof over my hair. My head hung, and as it did so, my chin brushed against the damnable weight of the pendant. I turned and looked at Celestia with my lips hanging between a grimance and a frown.

"I never thought I'd be born as the Element of anything, much less Loyalty. But it's taken their death to make me realize what I was... and how much more I could have been. Now I'm just as l-lonely and friendless as I was before I met them..." I took a breath and murmured forth, "But I'm not the s-same..."

"Rainbow Dash, your strong and resilient, but more than anything I sense in you the ability to adapt—"

"How long ago did you foresee the Elements scattering and being bound to bearers?"

"You are defined by more than just that pendant around your neck—"

"How long ago, Princess?!" I growled.

Her nostrils flared slowly. She leaned her head back, her eyes trained on me. "Since they were crafted from the Harmonic Prism," she eventually said. "At the beginning of all things, when my sister and I brought life and purpose to this world, I knew that the Elements could eventually be broken down and disseminated among mortals for the sake of protecting the tranquility of this plane." Her wings flexed slightly as she spoke. "When the thousand years of Nightmare Moon's imprisonment was coming to an end, I felt that the time was right to give the power to the ponies of Equestria. That's how Loyalty came to you, Rainbow Dash. You were in the right time and place, as was my st-studen, Twilight." She hung her head with a heavy sigh. "I am sorry that your choice was not involved in the matter, but neither was mine."

I clenched my teeth and stared back into the blackness. "Mmmm... Yeah," I muttered. "I'll buy that. Most of it, anyway." My brow furrowed. "Couldn't the Elements have been safer as they were? Did you really need to lose control of something that you began?"

"You are right when you say that loyalty is not my department."

I turned and gazed curiously at her.

She was staring back, and her eyes were strangely week. "I am not immortal, Rainbow Dash. And neither is my sister."

My lips parted. Squinting, I raised a hoof and stammered, "But I thought—"

"I have lived for a long time, and I shall continue to live even longer, but not forever," she said, shaking her head. "What my royal subjects believe to be true is something that has protected them and their interests for countless eons. However, there will come a day when my sister and I will no longer have the strength to breathe. Like the alicorns who came before us, we shall perish, and all of the magic and energy we've brought to this world will be left to the devices of this plane." She cocked her head slightly to the side. "What are we to do? Allow things to decay? To fall to ruin? I am incapable of infinite loyalty, Rainbow Dash. But you, you are incredibly gifted and spectacularly versatile. A mortal such as yourself is capable of expressing loyalty infinitely, in such a precious and finite frame. I may not have been the force behind the Element of Loyalty choosing you, but I can see that it was a good choice. You brought Twilight and the other Bearers great joy and contentment. I suspect you were no less fulfilled while you were together."

I was breathing heavily at this point. I hung my head to avoid her gaze. My legs were shaking.

"Rainbow Dash..."

I didn't look at her.

"Rainbow, you did not need to come here. You did not need to see me. I sense great anger and distrust in your soul, and I cannot rightly blame you for such churning emotions. Still, you came here, facing the very sights and sounds of that which took our most precious companions. For what reason, I ask? I may be capable of sensing many things, but the complexities of your mind are a secret to me." Her horn glowed as she stabilized a rippling wave of chaotic energy and glanced at me once again. "I may be capable of fixing the heart of Equestria, but it is you I wish to repair most of all. You're the last piece of Harmony, Rainbow Dash. You're all that remains of something in this world that was good and pure. Please tell me how I may be able to help you."

"I came..." I whispered. I glanced up at her, frowning, and my vision was foggy. "I came... to give you something... the only thing you need..."

Her expression twisted in confusion.

I wasn't finished yet. "You say that I'm the last piece of Harmony? I wish that was true, your Highness. I'm just the pony carrying the last piece." That said, I brought my hooves to my neck.

Celestia's jaw dropped. "Rainbow Dash! Don't—!"

"It wasn't me who took out Discord with the power of the elements!" I said, seething into a blinding wave of dizziness as I hoisted the golden necklace off me and held it out towards her on quivering hooves. "It was this stupid thing! This right here is more important than me and more powerful than you!"

"Put it back on this instant! You'll die without it—"

"I'm alone either way!" I shouted, the hair rising on my neck as the world spun in madness. "Now take the last fragment of your stupid Harmony and finish what you started!" I heaved, fighting the bile rising up my throat. My head was splitting in two and bleeding out my forhead. "Be smart! Y-you can't be loyal to me forever! Be l-loyal to Equestria and use it f-for something better than k-keeping a miserable pegasus alive..."

"Rainbow Dash, without you, Harmony won't be—" She stopped in mid speech, gazing up as a huge wave of disruptive energy billowed through the black vortex. "Good heavens... the rift..." The blackness spread thicker and thicker, pounding against the walls of the half-constructed tower. Rivulets formed in the concrete blocks. Dust and debris flew in the wind. "It's intensifying! Rainbow Dash! Put the pendant back on! Please!"

I had collapsed at this point, wheezing and curling up into a fetal position. I felt on fire all over; the pain was unbearable. I closed my eyes and begged for the dark beyond the incoming wave of numbness. Maybe I'd be alone there, but I wouldn't be in the condition to know it.

"Rainbow! I can't do it for you! Sister! Luna, please—!"

Thunder and noise. I tasted my own blood. I clasped my hooves together and found talons instead.

So cold. Applejack hated the cold. I was always around. If only she asked for a hug. I wouldn't have made a big deal about it. No tears. No shivers.

If she had only asked...

Cliff Face

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Sunlight.

I shot up with a gasp. I was alive; I was in one piece. There was still a horrible weight around my neck. I flung two hooves to my throat and felt the pendant. My vision dashed down, and I saw a pair of ruby eyes being reflected by a golden finish.

I sighed.

"We hath noticed a disturbing pattern."

I jolted. Turning around, I looked across the edge of a cliff and saw Princess Luna sitting beside me. It was early morning; the wind was in her cosmic mane. Behind her, there stretched rows upon rows of rocky mountaintops. There was no civilization; we were someplace remote.

"Every time a favor hath been done for thee, thou shattereth its value by attempting to perform an even more dramatic favor in return." Her wings flexed in the golden light as her midnight eyes narrowed on me. "Selfishness and selflessness art indeed polar opposites, but we hath lived enough millennia to see both qualities become one within thee."

I winced. Running a hoof through my hair, I muttered in a cracking voice, "Is it still standing? Ponyville, that is?"

"Thanks to the masterful sorcery of our sister and the swift speed through which we relocated thee, that village remaineth in one piece. It would appear as though the essence of Discord within thy body is not only a danger to thyself, but it poseth a threat to the very stability of the rift our sister is endeavoring so desperately to maintain."

"I seriously, seriously didn't even think about that," I said, gazing down at the deep ravine below us. "I just... nnngh... I dunno what I wanted—"

"Thou hadst the intention of allowing thy pendant, the one remaining piece of the Elements of Harmony, to act as a buffer through which our sister's task could be either simplified or completed early. Twas a noble concept, but not a very smoothe undertaking."

"Tell me about it." After a deep breath, I smiled nervously in her direction. "I must say, Your Highness, in spite of my little tantrum, you're treating me with a great deal of respect."

Luna gently nodded. "We understandeth the motivations that brought you to such a melodramatic point, and we forgive thee for thy shortcomings." Her eyes blinked. "Besides, it would be very uncouth for a Princess such as ourselves to call thee a 'stupid bucking idiot.'"

I winced heavily. "Yeah... g-good thing you are not uncouth."

"Verily."

A long, hard sigh escaped my lips. I ran two hooves over my aching brow. "So lemme get this straight. I can't go anywhere near the rift, because the rift—as it turns out—could go kablooey thanks to the chaos energy that's inside of me...?"

"That is an affirmative."

"And on top of that, being closer to my home village drains the life out of me faster..."

"Indeed."

'But it doesn't really matter because in a matter of months, I'm gonna be dead anyways?"

"We art afraid so, Rainbow Dash."

"Then seriously, Princess, what's the friggin' point of keeping this darn thing around my neck?!" I swatted the pendant so it spun around my chin and frowned at her. "Time's the one winning here; not me!"

"We may yet find a cure for thee, Rainbow Dash. We have the finest sorcerors of Equestria working around the clock—"

"Do you seriously, for one second, believe that anypony has a hope of fixing me?" I asked in a low tone.

Luna held back her tongue. Her eyes fell to the rocky cliff beneath us.

I sighed, slumping down on folded limbs. "If Twilight was still around—now there is a master sorceress who could have figured a way out of this jam."

"We know that it may seem bleak, Rainbow Dash, but thou must not give up hope—"

"Where are we?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"This place!" I exclaimed, waving my hooves towards the craggy vista and the misty mountains beyond. "I've flown pretty much all over Equestria in my life; I've never seen these cliffs."

"That is because we art located on the eastern edge of the Canterlot Mountains."

I did a double take. "East of the mountains? That's... that's almost outside of Equestria's Borders!"

"Most certainly. Thou art correct."

"What the hay for?! Do I—like—have a death aura around me now too?"

"Not quite, Rainbow Dash..."

"Then what?"

"We hath learned that we had completely underestimated the impact thy chaotic essence hath been having on the rift. As soon as we brought thee to Canterlot for safe-keeping, pegasus messengers from Ponyville told us that there was a noticeable difference in the anomaly. The disruptive turbulence had lessened. So, while thou were unconscious, we took thee even further—beyond the very mountains of our capital. As we standeth here, it turns out that the rift is the calmest it's ever been since our beloved sister began guarding it."

"So..." I looked at her. I gulped dryly. "So I'm like a poison? And all of Equestria is at risk so long as I'm staying here?"

Luna said nothing.

My nostrils flared and I looked down at the rocky cliff. "All of my friends are dead, and I can't even hang out with and take care of everypony's who's left..."

"There is still thy place of birth, Rainbow Dash," Luna said. "By our estimation, Cloudsdale is distant enough from Ponyville for you not to serve as a danger to the rift if you wouldst desire to move in there—"

"Your Highness..."

"Thou could stay in the loving care of thy family—"

"Luna, you just don't get it, do you?!" I exclaimed, sneering. "There is nothing left! Nothing!"

She raised an eyebrow, staring at me with a neutral expression.

I groaned and ran a hoof over my head. "I... I never told many ponies about this, not even my friends. I didn't think it was a big deal at the time. But, I guess, having friends around made it so that it wasn't a big deal." Gulping a lump down my throat, I sniffled and gazed off towards the misty horizon. "My mom died over a decade ago. I never really knew my dad. I don't have any extended family to hang out with because—well—there are none. Cloudsdale is just a bunch of white mists with several cool pegasi living inside, but I never made friends with them! If anything, I saw them all as ponies I had to prove I was better than. So, when I was instructed by the Cloudsdale Commission to do weather flying in Ponyville, I took the job up in an instant. I wasn't one to back down from a challenge. Besides, I was... kind of kicked out of many social cl-clubs while I went through flight camp. I just didn't blend in with other ponies. I wanted so badly to show that I was better than the rest of them, that I could do stuff on my own. And then I met Twilight and the rest and... well... I-I guess a lot of that stubborn pride flew out the window." With a groan, I closed my eyes. "Now that window is shattered, and there's no climbing back through it again."

Luna slowly nodded. "We did not know of this..."

"It wasn't your place to know, Princess," I murmured. "Only mine." Brushing a hoof along the dusty cliff face, I grumbled, "There is no life for me in Cloudsdale, even if it is just a few months of living. I don't know why I was so desperate to 'save the city' after Discord gave me the zap."

"A wise pegasus once said 'There is always somepony to be loyal too.'"

I turned and squinted at her. After a blinked, I smirked bitterly. "Isn't it also uncouth for a Princess to eavesdrop?"

"Perhaps," she said. "But wouldst thou rule out the possibility of living a life in such a place?"

"You and I both know this is no longer about living," I said. "Guess existence is really just all about dying in slow motion." I gazed off into the mists once again. "Only I've got a ticket to the finish line sooner than the rest."

"We shall find thee a solution, Rainbow Dash," Luna said. "Thou must not give into despondency."

"I dunno about despondency," I grunted. "But I know a thing or two about wind."

"We beg thy pardon?"

"I'm sorry, Luna." I shook my head, groaning. "But I can't think right now. Not like this, not cooped up on the side of a cruddy mountain. I gotta..." I gazed upon the clouds, feeling my wings twitch. "I gotta fly. I do my best thinking when I'm flying." I gulped. "And my b-best feeling."

Luna quietly nodded. "If it would improve thy spirits, then please feel free to do so."

"I dunno what it's gonna improve," I said, extended my feathers, and took wing. I muttered against the blistery, foggy wind, "That's the whole point!"

And I lost myself.

Quite Fleeting

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The mists parted only because I was bursting through them. Solid rock and bouldery mountains lingered just beyond every wisp of gray fog. I flew furiously forward through the miasma, sweeping and diving and banking through the ravine.

The air was cold, thin, laced with frots from the gathered snowpeaks. I shivered, yet till it wasn't enough to numb me to the trailing dizziness collecting on the edges of my consciousness. I clenched my teeth and beat my wings faster, spiraling over sharp, jagged spires of stone. There was no sound, save for the echoing murmur of my breath as I skimmed polished cliff faces and slanted plateaus.

This place was strange to me; I had to turn my flight into a haphazard zig-zag, accomodating for the sudden twists and turns in the broken topography. I hadn't ever flown out this far beyond the Canterlot Mountains. It was exciting, but not exciting enough.

I flew faster.

The blood in my capillaries pulsed. I felt the ends of my hooves tingling. My tail whipped in the wind, making lashing sounds like a flag being pulled taut. I briefly feared that the appendage might come off, but then I figured that I would just fly on without it. So much of me had been lost already, torn off by the whims of fate and chaos. What tragedy would it have been if I lost another limb, an ear, or a tooth? I'd still be the same piece of meat underneath itself, collared by the same magical charm that ended everything, everything that mattered, everything but me.

I flapped my wings until I couldn't feel them anymore. I felt popping stabs of pain; blue feathers flew loose in my peripheral vision. I merely accelerated, angling my body as I came upon a steep, foggy ravine banking towards the north.

I threaded violently through the curve, my body twisting against the centrifigual forces that tore at my skin. All I saw was mist and blurring rock. My eyes threatened to close shut against the frigid winds. I fought tears and threw myself into the rest of the turn.

Then I met pure rock.

Gasping, I shot straight up. The hairs of my nose grazed stone, and soon I was spiraling up along a mess of craggy stone that formed the dead end of the curved ravine. Several shards of rock jutted out, and I couldn't slow myself in time to avoid them. I spun my body and hugged my legs to my chest. I somehow managed to squeeze through a pair of sharp spikes, soaring like a bottlerocket beyond.

I emerged through the top of the ravine with a burst of misty clouds. Evening out, I flapped my exhausted wings a few more times and landed to a skidding stop on a flat slab of gravel. I stood still, panting, my body doused with a sheen of sweat.

Gulping, I turned and looked behind me. The mist was still coalescing from the fresh swath my body had made in it. There was a hushed murmur through the ravine as the displaced air of my flight filled itself back up, and soon all was once more blissfully silent.

My heart was racing; my eyes twitched with each beat. I heard a rhythmic noise, soft at first, but then rising like the pitter patter of lizard feet. I was laughing, chuckling even. My voice cracked several times as I slumped down to my haunches and stared out beyond the mountains and mountains surrounding me.

I took a deep inhale, and when I recovered, there was no more laughter. However, a sound still came out. I looked into the emptiness, and the emptiness looked back. My breaths came out in shudders; my eyes went cloudy. Finally, my heart slowed to a normal pace, but by then it was too late. I had caught up with myself.

Limply, I laid myself down, buried my face into my forelimbs, and cried into the abyss.

Things Won

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"We should have a celebration!" Rarity exclaimed, her voice echoing jubilantly across Sugarcube Corner. "This is a most felicitous discovery, after all!"

"Ehhh... it's kind of cool, Rarity," I said, blowing multicolored bangs out from my face. "But I don't see why we all gotta get down and—I dunno—party over it."

"Are you kidding?!" Pinkie Pie all but shouted in my face. She went cross-eyed and leaned back to rub her chin in thought. "Cuz I'm the bouncy jokester around here, at least last time I checked. And though you're sarcastic from time to time, sarcasm was funny last decade. This is the decade of irony." Pinkie scanned one wall, a second, a third. Her eyes twitched and she gasped at me, "You weren't kidding! What's wrong with you?"

"Hey, chillax!" I shrugged, smiling nervously. "I'm not used to all of you guys getting all touchy-feely with me at once."

"Rainbow!" Twilight exclaimed, grinning warmly from across the eatery. "We just all found out that we got our cutie marks thanks to your sonic rainboom! Don't you realize how special this moment is?"

"Like I said, some celebration is in order!" Rarity exclaimed.

"I, for one, agree," Applejack said, her hat lowered as she smirked our way. "Who wouldn't want to leap upon an occasion like this one?"

"Uhhh..." I glanced towards the front of Sugarcube Corner. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom were nuzzling each other and giggling in the spirit of things. With a lethargic expression on her face, Scootaloo squatted lonesomely in the corner. I turned and smiled crookedly towards the rest of the group. "At least one pony's got the right idea. Let's just not all go overboard—"

"Why not?" Twilight said, smiling. "This is the most remarkable thing I've learned since I came to Ponyville."

I squinted at her upon hearing that. "For real? Like... out of all the crap—er—I mean nuggets of wisdom you've mailed to Celestia?"

"Friendship is what made me stay in Ponyville," Twilight said. "Now I know that it's what brought me here as well. Don't you realize what you mean to the rest of the Elements, Rainbow Dash? To the rest of us?"

"I... I was just doing my own thing," I said with a shrug, backtrotting away from the group. "I was a little filly showing off! I didn't know it'd somehow spark destiny into bringing us together or whatcrap..."

"What's the matter, sugarcube?" Applejack leaned in and smirked at me. "I thought you liked being in the center of attention."

I chewed on my lip. "Well, yeah... but... er... I dunno..."

"Rainbow Dash, you are always used to winning things," Fluttershy said, staring at me lovingly. "Have you ever once thought that the best things in life were won before you were even born?"

I opened my mouth to say something. I glanced at all my friends, at all their adoring faces aimed my way. I suddenly wasn't ashamed to be bearing flushed cheeks.

"Heh... I, uh... I guess a little victory celebration would be okay. Just don't you guys all smother me at once."

"Wooohoo!"

"Yeeeeha!"

"Smashing!"

Pinkie Pie ran into the kitchen to begin baking. Rarity and Fluttershy made for the Boutique to gather decorations. Twilight rambled to Applejack about writing another letter to the Princess, and I...

I stood there, all alone, but from the shape of my smile I certainly didn't feel it.

Things Given

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My eyes opened. They were moist, but I was getting used to it.

It was dark out. How long had I been sleeping? Through the night?

I tried sitting up, and I felt the weight of the pendant around my neck, like shackles. I sighed.

The mountains were still around me. I felt like I was in the belly of some unimaginably giant beast, exposed to the heavens. When I reached my hooves out, the mists parted, and I saw rows upon rows of jagged peaks, like teeth.

I exhaled slowly, leaning back down to the plateau beneath me. I couldn't sleep, couldn't fly, couldn't live. Crying was getting boring; I knew that I had to pass the time doing something before I could no longer afford to pass the time. It didn't help that I had the promise of random dizzy spells to punctuate my remaining existence at any given moment.

There was no telling how long it was since I last saw Luna. Most likely, she was worried sick about me, and I was starting to get tired really quick of disappointing her. In a way, she felt like the only soul left in the world worth feeling guilty about.

So, standing up, I flexed my wings and prepared to fly back towards Canterlot. It was then that my eyes were stabbed by something bright and golden.

"Augh..." I shuddered, squinting my eyes as half of the sky caught aflame. After a few seconds, my ruby irises adjusted, and I found myself staring at a flat slit of shimmering plasma. "Oh... wow..."

The sun was rising; it was dawn. The mountains melted under the brilliant glory, casting thick shadows through the fog as the vapors too dissolved in rivulets of gold. There was something cleansing about it, something inviting and frightening all the more. I knew how small I was, but I also knew how insanely smaller everything else was. If the rising sun had burned my coat off, I wouldn't have bothered shivering afterwards.

Hours passed, hours that were mine and mine alone, and still I remained standing there, facing east, breathless.

"Oh girls," I murmured into the morning light, my breath dissolving above the stone lengths of the dead world. "Where does it all end?"

Things Grown

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Princess Luna looked up from a scroll of parchment and raised an eyebrow. "Well, that is most certainly a curious question."

"Seriously, though," I remarked. I hovered across from the Princess of the Night in the throneroom of Canterlot Palace's Midnight Wing. "It can't go on forever. I mean, the Sun has got to come up somewhere. So where's the edge of the world?"

"Though shouldst know the answer to that, Rainbow Dash."

"Oh. Uhm..." I blinked, my ruby eyes squinting in thought. "The world is—like—a big flat chunk of earth floating in stars and chaos and stuff, right?"

Princess Luna paused. She placed her royal documents down and looked over at me squarely. "At thy age, we imagine that thou hast attended quite a few classes on the subject in thy schooling."

"Erm... eheheh..." I blushed and scratched my brow with a blue hoof. "I... n-never was all that good at staying in school."

"So we see..."

"Learning is all good and stuff, but there was just so much flying I wanted to do!" I shrugged. "Even at flight camp, they wouldn't let me fly enough. Was I there to get better or not?"

"And how wouldst thou say that things hath turned out?"

"Well, I have no intention of being a scientist anytime soon." I said, then sighed. "Or for very much longer," I muttered.

"Verily..." Luna stood up, flexed her wings, and paced across the throneroom in the midday light. "The earth is a long, flat plane. The latitudinal length far exceeds the longitudinal width."

"Eh?"

Luna sighed, then paused to look at me. "East and west hold greater distance than north and south."

"Oh, I see."

Luna resumed pacing. "The world floats in a piece of the cosmos dominated primarily by chaos energies. The Elements of Harmony have always served as a beacon of purpose through which life has thrived in spite of all the contradictory factors. As for the Sun and the Moon, they are bodies of luminous mana that the alicorns brought to this plane."

"So, wait..." I leaned my head to the side. "The Sun and Moon weren't always around?"

"Like so many things, Rainbow Dash, they were provided to this landscape when our own flesh and blood first arrived here. There are several ponies of alicorn descent spread throughout the world, but only our sister and we possess the powers of our forbears. With the magic at our hooves, we have kept the Sun and Moon in constant motion, illuminating the landscape from right here in the center of the bright half of the world, the kingdom of Equestria. For several thousands upon thousands of years, we have served as the sentries to this world, warding chaos and keeping dark energy at bay."

"That's... quite the commitment," I said.

"Indeed."

"So, like, where does the world end?"

"There are several edges to it. The north and south borders are feasible to reach, even by mortal standards. The east and west extremities, however, are thousands upon thousands of miles from here in either direction."

"Have... Have you seen the end of the world?"

"Affirmative," Luna said, nodding slowly. "We hath been to both the east and west edges."

"How many times?"

"A total of five," Luna said calmly.

I had to beat my wings faster to keep from dropping upon hearing that. "Wait. So you mean to tell me that in all of the crazy years upon years that you have been alive, you've only visited the ends of the world no more than five times?"

Luna nodded. "We do not believe we have emphasized the fact enough: the world is quite a vast place. Alicorns such as our sister and we cannot afford to make long and arduous journeys without sacrificing the task of protecting Equestria. The physical realm is too vast for us to do more than illuminate with light and harmony." She took a deep breath. "Now, far more than ever, it is an even greater challenge. With our sister putting all efforts into safeguarding the rift, we doubt very much that we can so much as leave the immediate borders surrounding us."

"Then how do you look after the rest of the world?"

"There was once a time when we could," Luna said. "That was when there were far more of us than there are today. The alicorns have since dwindled, and now the world belongs to the huge population of mortals who spread their kingdoms far and wide. In anticipation of this eventuality, the first alicorns introduced harmony to this land. It began with the Elements, but then the Elements would embody themselves in living ponydom."

"The Element Bearers..." I exhaled. "Twilight and the rest of us. We were the first to possess the Elements in spirit, weren't we?"

"Nay, Rainbow Dash," Luna said with a shake of her head. "Thou six were the strongest, but hardly the first. In truth, the Elements of Harmony have been blending with the living population of this realm for eons. When thou, Twilight, and the rest of thy ill-fated companions acquired the six Elements, thou completed the final stage of Harmonic Acclimation."

"Harmonic What-now?"

"It was the grand purpose of the Harmonic Prism since it was brought to this world at the beginning of all life here," Luna said. "Through Acclimation, the same spirit that gave alicorns vigor, energy, and peace of mind would be passed onto the sentient mortals of this world. Someday, Rainbow Dash, Celestia and we shall no longer be around, and it will be up to ponydom itself to maintain peace and harmony in the center of this pocket of the universe."

"So... then..." My brow furrowed in thought. "This world is kind of like a garden?"

"And a most exceptional one at that, full of both beauty and terror, and yet ultimately favoring life, which hath been our goal from the start." Luna took a proud breath. "We stand upon the edge of a new beginning for this world. It is a shame, however, that the final stage in its foundation would prove to be such a dark chapter. If Twilight and thy other friends had lived, we may have witnessed something even better than Harmonic Acclimation."

"And what would that have been?"

"Unification," Luna said. "Thou six were more than just mere mortals. The Elements were meant for thee; together, thou could very well have spread peace and harmony across the land in greater intensity than my sister and we are capable. The kingdoms beyond Equestria would have been united under more than just light. Ponydom would become whole, and would form a utopia that would banish chaos forever."

I stared down at my pendant, feeling the cold, golden surface with a trembling hoof. "I guess fate didn't wanna work with us much, huh?"

"This world is a good garden, Rainbow Dash," Luna said. "One way or another, unification will happen. We simply suspect that it will take a great deal longer than we had desired."

I looked beyond the balcony, towards the misty mountains lingering beyond Canterlot in the platinum sunlight. "I wanna see it," I murmured.

Luna glanced my way. "Hmmm?"

"I wanna see it all," I added, wings flapping harder as I stuck my muzzle into the windy currents. "I wanna fly those thousands of miles, see the kingdoms that are there to be seen, find mountains I've never imagined flying over before."

Luna breathily remarked, "It's quite a daring thought, Rainbow Dash, but hardly something thou art capable of, wouldst thou think?"

"Take a look at yourself, your sister, and all the powerful alicorns who came before you..." I turned towards her and stared hard. "And tell me... who doesn't die?"

Luna said nothing.

"I'm sick of waiting around, sick of being mopey, and sick of being alone," I muttered, staring out into the horizon yet again. "If I got a few months left—or even less than that—what's it matter? I want to see this garden that you've grown, Luna. I wanna see if it's truly that beautiful..."

"Rainbow Dash..."

"I wanna see if it was worth my friends dying for it," I said.

Luna trotted over towards me. "No single mortal has ever scaled the far ends of the world and lived to tell about it."

"So what?" I turned and looked up at her. "I'll be the first one."

Her eyes narrowed. "Harmony is a great power in this world, but it is still contested. Until Acclimation or Unifications takes hold, the landscape thou so desireth to see will remain wrought with peril. Thou wouldst need an entire batallion of Equestria's finest pegasi guards to protect thee—"

"And what?" I frowned at her. "Spread Equestria's defenses even thinner? Face it, Princess, you're down one Alicorn. You and everything that serves you is needed here." I pointed at myself. "What good would I be to you?"

"Thy soul is precious, one of a kind—"

"Then do something special for something as rare as me," I said, my eyes imploring. "Let me go, your Highness."

Luna said nothing.

"Let me go, Luna. I am nothing here." I sighed and gazed off into the brightness. "I am nothing anywhere but moving."

The throneroom was silent. A cool, misty wind blew through, then returned the marble floor and walls to a muted hush.

"We cannot and shall not stop thee, if this is thy wish, Rainbow Dash," Luna said. "But we do ask that thou taketh time to think this over—"

"Your Majesty, the time I could spend pacing in circles and rethinking my life, I'll soon discover that I'll no longer have a life." I pivoted about in my hover with my forelimbs folded. "So let me go live it, huh?"

"If there was any pony who couldst make it to the world's end, we would suspect it'd be you."

"Now that's more like it," I said with a smirk, glancing wearily aside. "And, who knows. If I don't make it, I'm bound to see some pretty nifty sights along the way."

Luna looked distracted. The Princess fidgeted, her nostrils flaring. Eventually, she said, "But if thou didst make it, and went even further, then perhaps thou wouldst have even more sights to see... for thou wouldst have gained an even longer lease on life."

I blinked at that. With my heart beating faster, I turned and looked at her. "Excuse me?"

She looked blankly at me. "The Midnight Armory..."

"The Midnight Whatsit?"

"Hast thou ever heard of it?"

I made a face, slowly shaking my head.

She nodded, then motioned me to follow her as she trotted down a long hallway. "Come, Rainbow Dash. Walk with me..."

Midnight Armory

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I squinted, then squinted harder. Before me stretched a tall, stained glass window, lit by the crimson hues of a setting sun. A black structure stood in the center, a jagged ziggurat of sorts. Through its porous edges, beams of light shot out and pierced the thick black void around it. On the furthest edges of the frame, thorns and the shadows of indistinguishable monsters loomed.

After blinking, I turned and gazed up at Princess Luna. "I give. What am I looking at?"

"The Midnight Armory, Rainbow Dash."

I winced heavily. "Right. I knew that."

"It's located on the very opposite side of the world from us, where only a circumnavigating trip could reach it," Luna explained. "It rests as the one bastion of harmony in the middle of the dark world."

"Uhhh..." I blinked at her. "Dark World?"

She gazed steadily at me. "Why, the opposite side of the earth, of course."

I did a double-take at that. I pointed incredulously at the window. "You... You mean to tell me that there's a side of the world..." I stammered, "Like b-beneath us? On the other side?"

She slowly nodded. "It was as this plane was discovered, Rainbow Dash. There were two sides, each capable of harboring life. When the pioneering alicorns realized this, they decided to plant the seed of prosperity on this landscape. Unfortunately, we only had enough resources to bring illumination to one side; the world was so vast. We chose the side of the earth that you were eventually born on."

"So the Sun and the Moon..."

"Only lights this edge of the realm," Luna said. "To do otherwise would mean overexhausting the reserves of our magic."

I whistled. "Crazy. Uhm..." I blushed slightly. "You know as well as I do that my schooling isn't all that great, Your Majesty. But... do all ponies know this?"

"Some do," she said quietly. "But most don't comprehend the true nature of the dark world, the sort of life it encompasses... as well as the dangers..."

"Is..." I ran a hoof nervously through my mane as I gazed forlornly at the stained glass window. "Is there life on the dark side?" I asked. "Are there ponies, Princess?"

"It is difficult to say," she murmured. A distant expression blanketed her royal features. "Chaos spawns chaos, and many beasts are known to roam the lengths of the Dark World. Discord himself came from a realm deep within the shadowed side of the earth. Without sunlight or moonlight, the surfaces of the realm are exposed ceaselessly to the essence of chaos. The dark world is a land of forsaken things, and most things that dwell there and dare to be cognizant are devoid of peace."

"And yet..." I raised an eyebrow. "You placed this... Midnight Armory thingy there." I turned and gawked at her. "What the hay for?"

"For many reasons," Luna said with a gentle breath. "Its presence there protects two things: the Harmonic Prism and the tranquil balance of the entire world."

"Just what is this Harmonic Prison you keep talking about?"

"'Prism,' Rainbow Dash. It is an object located deep within the dense bowels of the Midnight Armory," Luna explained. "Though it was not always situated there. It came from the Plains of Harmony, the birthplace of all alicorns."

"You don't say? Just where are these Plains?"

She turned calmly towards me. "Doth thou see the stars at night?"

"Yeah, of course."

"Beyond each and every one of them," she said.

I blinked. "Oh." I shifted nervously. "That's... uh... pretty far away."

"We came a long distance to discover places like this earth," Luna said, gazing back at the stained glass window. "And when we did, we found it our duty to plant harmony and aid the spread of life. The Harmonic Prism was our means of preserving our energy and focusing it on this landscape. It was what produced the Elements of Harmony, which have since bound themselves to the living populace of mortal kind."

I took a deep, shuddering breath. "Yeah..."

"The Prism is supremely powerful, Rainbow Dash. Even to this day, it has the ability to channel great light and energy. We built the Armory around it as a means of keeping it safe and secure. We left it in the Dark World so that its own luminescence would ward off any malevolent creatures wishing to seize and exploit it. After it was erected, most of the alicorns flocked to the opposite end of the world and used the harmony within us to illuminate the plane's surface with the sun and moon. A tenuous balance was formed: alicorn kind directly managed the blossoming of life on this side of the world while the Prism kept a modicum of harmony alive from its station within the Armory."

"I'm guessing you guys never thought you'd have to go back for the Prism."

"And we don't."

I glanced curiously at her.

She looked down at me. "Harmony maintains itself now, Rainbow Dash. Thou and thy friends were the first concrete instances of the physical manisfestation of the Elements among mortal kind. With the Elements destroyed, Equestrian civilization and ponydom beyond can still thrive, for they have been living off of harmony for so long. The Prism exists because it has to. The Prism is everlasting. Even a million eons from now, when most energy from the universe will have been diluted in this part of the universe, the Prism will still remain whole in one way or another. In such a time, it may serve a new form of life capable and willing to maintain Harmony just like we hath been. It was our place and remaineth our place to preserve Harmony at all costs, for the sake of life in general."

"Seems like the Prism is pretty untouchable, then," I said. "Why would it matter to me?"

"Because though the Elements in their corporeal form may no longer be needed, it does not change the fact that they can be restored, maybe even multiplied. Direct access to the Prism would allow a soul imbued with harmony to reconstitute the pendants that have served Equestria for so long."

"Okay, that's kind of cool," I muttered with a nod. "But, like, I thought your whole point is that the world doesn't need the Elements of Harmony anymore."

"I am not concerned with the world, Rainbow Dash." She turned and gazed directly at me. "I am thinking of thee."

I leaned back, my lips parting.

Luna's wings flexed as she boldly declared, "In restoring the Elements, the Prism may be able to extend the power of that which you wear around your neck." She bowed her head. "In turn, it would extend the life you have to live."

I gazed at her, at the window, then at her again. "For how long?"

"As long as thou wisheth to exist," Luna said. "Thy life no longer functions like that of a given mortal, Rainbow Dash. Thou art bound to both chaos and harmony, two completely contradictory forces. Because thou hast only the one element of loyalty to defend thyself against Discord's essence, the energy at thy disposal is buckling constantly to that which empowered him. In a matter of months, thou wilt be dead, as thou knowest. But if thou manageth to make such an arduous journey to the ends of the world, to the Dark World beyond, and to the Midnight Armory itself—"

"I could get the Harmonic juice I need to keep Discord's evil away forever," I murmured. "I'd be free of the curse..."

"Indeed."

"But..." I seethed through wincing teeth, battling a dizzy sensation. "You paint such a bad picture of the Dark World! It sounds most uncool, not to mention friggin' far! I mean... I'd have to cross the entire world, get to the other side, and fly my way through the forces of chaos just to get to a place that... that..." I grimaced and squinted up at her. "Can I even get inside the stupid Armory?! Me?! A mortal pegasus?!"

Luna exhaled slowly. "There is no guarantee of that, Rainbow Dash. The alicorns built the holding place of the Harmonic Prism to be impregnable."

"Then... you pretty much told me all of this for nothing..." I sat on my haunches, gazing blankly at the stained glass window. "Cuz it's a lost cause. Even if I flew as fast as I could, I'd likely die before I got there. What kind of hope is that?"

"The only hope, Rainbow Dash," Luna said. "We are sorry, but there is no greater light we can provide for thy path. It simply came to our attention that if thou wouldst endeavor to make such an epic journey, there may indeed be a goal for thee."

"A long, cross-world flight," I murmured. "Incalculable odds. Unknowable dangers. The edge of the world. A land that sees no light. Chaos and monsters. A giant black pyramid guarding an untouchable relic." I took a deep breath, then exhaled in a burst of chuckles.

Luna raised an eyebrow at me.

I turned and smiled up at her. "Sounds like fun..."

Packing Things

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"Thou shalt need flint and steel," Princess Luna said, pacing slowly around me. "For the cold nights that arrive, when thou shalt need to build a fire to warm thyself."

"Yeah, I kind of figured that," I remarked. I stood before a temple in the Midnight Wing, hoofing the items in question into a dark blue saddlebag. "Yeesh, Princess. Did you lend me enough blankets?"

Luna's graceful limbs fidgeted slightly. "It helpeth to be prepared, Rainbow Dash."

I smirked at her with a rattle of her golden pendant. "In so many tens of thousands of years, you're bound to start acting like a mother, huh?"

"We beg thy pardon?"

"Ahem. Right... Moving right along..." I swept more items into the satchel. "Cantene of water: check. First aid kit: check."

"Before thou beginneth thy journey, thou shouldst endeavor to acquire some fresh bread for the initial flight. Not all civilizations of pondyom are as densely populated as Equestria. It is quite likely thou wilt find large expanses without many townships to provide thee nourishment."

"Hey, don't ruin the surprise," I said with a smirking expression. "Uhhh..." With a ringing of metal, I held a thick blade at the end of a wooden stick. "What the hay is this?"

"A hatchet."

"Gazunteight."

"It is quite the versatile tool, Rainbow Dash."

"I'm not so comfy with carrying around a weapon, Your Highness."

"Its primary use is that of survivalism," Luna explained. "Thou might find it priceless when the day cometh that you need to build thyself a shelter."

"Well, yeah, okay. I'll buy that." I dropped it carefully into the satchel.

"We would be lying, however, if we declared that thou wouldst have no need of a weapon in thy travels," Luna added. "There are many adversaries to Harmony in the world beyond Equestria, Rainbow Dash, and many of them cannot be simply negotiated with."

"Well, here's hoping they can't fly faster than the swiftest pegasus on record," I said with a wink. I made to zip up the bag—"

"One moment, Rainbow Dash, if thou wouldst please."

"Hmmm?"

She leaned in and deposited a scroll into my forelimbs.

I opened it up, squinting at what appeared to be a large map of Equestria and its surrounding kingdoms. I made a face, glaring up from the parchment, tarnished with age. "What have I said about ruining the surprise?"

"The map will only aid thee so far," she said. "The illustrated lengths barely reach halfway across this continent, which is less than a tenth of the world's diameter."

"Huh, not that I'm complaining, but how come you've got so little drawn out?" I asked. "I thought you've been to the ends of the world."

"The last time we visted the eastern horizon, Rainbow Dash, was eleven thousand years ago." Luna took a deep breath. "We trust that much has changed in the landscape since then."

"Huh..." I glanced at the map, slowly nodding. "I don't suppose you've had many explorers since that time to do the dirty work for Equestrian map makers." I smiled wryly. "Maybe I could take up a part time job for you..."

"Perhaps thou can do something similar."

"Huh?"

"I wouldst desire to bestow thy pendant with a special type of enchantment."

I raised a hoof to the ruby lightning bolt and blinked curiously. "But—like—I thought you already zapped this thing enough, y'know? To keep the chaos away even more?"

"A different kind of enchantment, Rainbow Dash," Luna explained. "It's been many centuries since we've last done it, but we have a spell that can allow us to talk over long distances."

I leaned forward with wagging eyebrows. "You mean 'us' as in you and me or you and you?"

"As thou flieth over long distances, thou wilt have the ability to communicate with us, so long as you art located on the light side of the world."

"Hey! No kidding!" I smiled. "How's that work?"

"Thou wilt be limited to conversing with us when the moon is full," Luna explained. "Essentially once a month."

Rainbow Dash nodded. "Yeah. I figured there would be a catch."

"We fear, Rainbow Dash, that most of thy journey shall be performed in solitude."

I stared off into space.

She leaned forward. "Are thou prepared for that?"

I looked at her. I chuckled breathily. "Hey..." I shrugged. "It's a living... at least all the living I have left to do..."

"Rainbow Dash..."

I slipped the map into the bag and slapped it shut, snapping the lunar seals into place. "Gotta thank you for this wicked sick saddlebag, Princess." I slipped it over my spine and sagged slightly from the weight. "Whoah! Whew... tight fit," my voice cracked as I ran a hoof through my mane. "Nothing I can't manage. So... uh... you gonna give me the moon zap or what? Cuz then I'll be on my way. No reason to beat around the bush."

"Surely thou wouldst to wait at least one more day, Rainbow Dash."

"Why?" I asked, delirious. "What happens in the next twenty-four hours?"

"What doth thou think?" Luna asks. "Thou art not the only pony being given a send-off."

"Oh?" I looked at her. After a few seconds, my ears drooped, and a heavy breath escaped my lips. "Oh..."

Funeral Service

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I expected hundreds of ponies, not thousands. It was supposed to be a quiet event, but absolute silent was impossible with the huge flood of equines who had shown up in massive droves. Their combined breaths and somber murmurs formed a dull roar that echoed against the building faces and rooftops of Ponyville. From where I was perched, I could see every street and alleyway full of darkly dressed, long-faced ponies. Off in the distance, growing in number, more and more streams of Equestrian life filed in to pay respect.

It was unusually bright that day. The large tower was complete, and the dark aura from the chaos rift had been successfully sealed within the sarcophagus in the center of town. No less than forty feet from the location of the rift, a large object lay obscured beneath a big black tarp. Before this, Princess Luna stood. Several dozens of guards flanked her stage and patrolled the heights of Ponyville surrounding it. The attending ponies filed up, and from my vantage point, I could very easily catch the faces of those in the front.

The Apple Family, I discerned in a heartbeat. My pulse quickened, and I quickly darted my eyes away from their faces and centered on expressions that were even more distraught. A mare with Twilight Sparkle's manestyle leaned against a tall, blue stallion. A guardpony with several medals across his uniform stood next to them, along with a slender, pink pony whom I could barely recognize. There was a gasping sound, and I gazed further along the crowd to see two unicorns with grave faces, squatting down on occasion so that they could console a thoroughly weeping Sweetie Belle. A few more paces away, I saw two mares with gray coats and straight manes. A familiar baby alligator was perched on the back of one of them. Despite all my searching, there was no sign of Fluttershy's family, but I was never too familiar with the pegasus' closest relations to begin with.

My eyes darted further and further. I saw Cheerilee's face, brimming with tears. I saw Zecora, clad in a black robe and bearing a meditative expression. My vision traveled past an innocuous line of ponies in boring blue uniforms, and almost immediately my eyes snapped back. It took me a few seconds, but I recognized Spitefire and Soarin' from the crowd, clear as day. For some reason, my heart didn't skip a beat. I glanced beyond them and saw other ponies: the Mayor, Lyra, Carrot Top, Time Turner, Bon Bon, and even several ponies of the Canterlot elite.

My breath left me as soon as Luna's voice boomed over the crowd. The Princess of the Night stood on center stage, her voice resonating, yet delicate. She spoke on behalf of her sister, Celestia, who couldn't afford to leave the sarcophagus for one second. She assured the crowd that she was in complete communion with the proceedings, and that her heart went out to the families of those lost to the whim of Discord.

My ears drooped. Every time Luna spoke ill of Discord, I felt a jolt of pain shooting through my wings. The enchantment Luna had given me was still tingling through my feathers, and I struggled not to simply fly away from that scene and absorb myself in the glinting sunlight. I sat there on the rooftop, clad in my saddlebag and pendant, anchored to the words of Luna and the quiet sobs beyond.

I spotted Twilight's mother once again. The mare was losing the strength in her legs. Her husband and the guard pony came in close, nuzzling and cradling her as her tears came out in undulating waves of agony. A few paces over, the two gray mares found it hard to see straight. Cheerilee trotted up to them, said a few quiet words, and gave them a pair of shoulders to lean on. In the distance, a plume of fire briefly lit the air in a green-tainted sob. I spotted Spike on the side of the stage, clenching his mouth shut as he held a pair of hands over his moist eyes.

While observing all of this, hearing all of Luna's words, I remained silent. My eyes were dry and my nostrils flared with soft, even breaths. This was, however, before I turned away from the stage and looked once more upon the Apple Family. In the center of a huge cluster of reunited farm ponies, Granny Smith and Big Macintosh leaned against each other. Their long, sad faces served as a roof for Apple Bloom who lingered underneath. The filly clutched a green book to her chest, squeezing it tightly as she fought the urge to shed tears. She was only marginally successful, and soon her face grimaced in pain as several trickles of moisture ran down her face.

Gazing at the fragile sight for a prolonged minute, My vision was just beginning to fog over—but then Luna's tone turned into something jubilant. In one blink, I was glancing beyond the stage. The alicorn made a declaration before the crowd, and then in a burst of telekinesis Luna removed the tarp from the tall object beside her. The crowd watched as a monument was exposed to the sunlight. Six bronze figures posed heroically before the stone masonry of the sarcophagus. I recognized five of the frozen pony effigies instantly. My heart sang and broke at the same time, and then a cold hush shattered through me at the sight of the sixth pony. They way it was situated, it was no more pronounced than the other five, however it was pointed eastward, its wings full spread as it bore a brave expression that challenged the horizon.

With a deep breath, I hung my head, avoiding my own bronze gaze. I was residually aware of hundreds upon hundreds of ponies performing the same gesture to the statues in reverance. When a few sets of eyes finally darted up to the rooftop to gaze curiously at me, I almost wished I was frozen in bronze as well.

Caving In

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Hours later, I touched down beside Princess Luna on the stage. She calmly gazed over at me. Beyond her, I saw the thick crowd of Equestrian ponies dissipating. As the service came to its conclusion, several trotted back home. Others hung in thick clusters, holding private conversations in the streets of Ponyville about the past, both somber and joyful. The air still had a low murmur to it, laced with shadows and sighs.

"What you did here was a good thing, Your Majesty," I said in a low voice. My wings flexed over the midnight blue saddlebag as I felt the bulk of her gifts upon me. "Many ponies really needed this."

"And what of what thou needeth, Rainbow Dash?"

I gulped and managed a thin smile. "You've already given me everything."

Luna slowly bowed her head, then solemnly said, "We only wish we could giveth thee more."

"I... uh..." I squirmed, glancing off to the side.

"Did thou find the service to be fitting?" Luna asked.

I chuckled nervously and nodded. "Oh, totally. Though, uhm..." I shifted nervously and glanced up at one of the six bronze statues "I have only one thing I don't really agree with."

Luna followed the path of my gaze through the graying afternoon. She trotted over and stood in the shadow of the metal pegasus' wingspan. "It was agreed that all of the ponies that brought harmony to Equestria should be remembered."

"Most of them deserve the memorial, Luna," I muttered. "The ones who've given their lives..."

She looked placidly down at me.

I winced and smiled bitterly. "Yeah, I get it. Soon all six of them will be together anyways. It's just a matter of time."

"Thou doth not give thyself enough credit for the good thou hast done," Luna said.

"Believe me, Luna," I said as I approached the edge of the stage, my feathers fluttering in the wind. "The only good thing is what I'm... about... to do..." My gaze was lost in the crowd.

So many bright faces were gazing up at me. Ponies froze in talking, in trotting, in mourning just to gaze at me. Their eyes spoke of sorrow, pride, and shades of loss.

I bit my lip, leaning back from their eyesight as if I was facing a heavy wind. Luna walked up behind me and spoke softly. "Thou art a beacon of joy to them, Rainbow Dash," she said. "As much as thou needeth to lose thyself along the horizon, they dependeth on the knowledge of thy well-being."

"We both know enough about my 'well-being,'" I grumbled. Gulping, I glanced up at the sarcophagus. I saw tiny, ethereal streams of darkness seeping through the heavy concrete blocks. A wave of dizziness flew through me. I wasn't entirely sure how long I had left to stay in Ponyville before the chaos rift exploded through the pillar because of my proximity. No wonder Celestia couldn't speak for the funeral; just how much had she given up for me? "How... how much do they know?" I asked, trying to distract myself.

Luna looked at me solidly. "They only know that thou art departing." With a breath, she clarified, "From Equestria, that is. Not from existence."

I sighed and managed a weak smile. "I thank you, Luna, for being a Princess I can trust."

"The only souls who know are ourelves and our beloved sister," she said. "We do tell her everything, after all."

I shuddered and nodded. "Yeah. I suppose you do."

"She sendeth her best wishes," Luna said in a distant voice. "If it pleaseth thee to know."

I said nothing. I gazed towards the east, my body shivering.

"And..." Luna trotted close by and stroked a wing gently over my head and mane, forcing me to look up at her. "They wouldst wish to send thee their best wishes as well." She gestured towards the nervous crowd of familiar faces. "Perhaps, at least, thou shalt give in to their feelings?"

I bit my lip. I turned and looked at the vulnerable masses. With a sigh, I quietly uttered, "What if I just flew off right here and now without saying a thing?"

Luna said nothing. She didn't need to speak. We both knew what I was going to do.

With a single bound, I descended from the stage. My hooves struck the ground as I coiled my wings and trotted slowly through the group. Swallowing, I summoned a fragile smile and said, "Hey-ya, guys. Uhm... nice statue and all, but I can't really stick around and admire it for much longer. Celestia can't handle me being so close to the rift, and... well... I've got places to be—"

I nearly tripped. I gazed down to see a pale filly nuzzling my forelimb dearly. With a sniffling sound, Sweetie Belle looked up with misty, green eyes. "Can't you stay, Rainbow Dash? Everypony else has gone..."

My mouth hung open. I gazed past her to see a mare and a stallion dressed in black, their heads hanging. Not that far away, two mares in gray gazed with Gummy perched on one of their spines. Twilight's family stood beneath the front of Sugarcube Corner, casting me several lonely expressions from afar.

I gulped and smiled down at Sweetie Belle. "I can't, kiddo. There's a nasty vortex thingy inside that tower over there, and the one thing keeping it from going kablooey is hanging around my neck. It's... uh... it's very dangerous..."

"But you're not afraid of dangerous things!" Sweetie Belle sniffled again, a tear running down her cheek. "You've never been afraid..."

At that moment, her father trotted over and patted her on the back before giving a gentle tug to usher her away from me. I held a hoof up, knelt down, and gazed at Sweetie Belle at eye level.

"Yeah, I'm daring. Sure, I'm courageous." I swallowed hard and said, "But I've also learned to be smart about stuff. Some dangers are best prevented... because there are ponies around that I care about, y'know? Ponies like you. You deserve to live a long time and learn stuff too."

"Is that why you're leaving?" Sweetie Belle asked. "To go and learn about things?"

I blinked at her, but eventually smiled. "Yeah. Sure. That's pretty much it in a nutshell..."

"Goddess speed, Rainbow Dash," Sweetie Belle's father suddenly said.

I looked at him, my brow furrowed. "Yeah," I murmured. "I could totally use the 'speed' part." With a sigh, I smiled calmly down at Sweetie Belle and ruffled her mane. "You earn yourself a wicked awesome cutie mark, kid. I'll pay your family one hundred bits if it turns out to be unrelated to singing." I added a wink.

Sweetie Belle took a sorrowful breath. "You'll come back and see it when it happens, won't you?"

I stared at her. "You bet," I said with a glinting grin. Standing up, I gave her one last pat on the horn and trotted away.

The villagers of Ponyville spread on either side of me, forming a living aisle of color and tears.

"Have a safe journey, Rainbow Dash," Lyra's voice said.

"We're going to miss you," the Mayor added. "All of us..."

"Please stay away from trouble," Bon Bon said, her eyes glossy over a fragile smile. "We'll be thinking of you."

"All is right with the world, so long as your spirit lives on," said the decorated guard pony beside Twilight's parents.

I gazed at him curiously, then at the other ponies staring at me as I trotted slowly through the middle of the village. So many eyes were locked on me. Months ago, the attention would have been delicious, but now...

"Everypony just chillax and keep on with your awesome lives," I eventually managed. I tried to smile; it was just as easy a task as keeping my voice from cracking. "The Princesses are giving their all to keep this place up and running. Don't forget to thank them, and don't forget to—"

I fell into a deep hug. Rediscovering my lungs, I felt Cheerilee nuzzling me dearly. She leaned back, her face moist as she cracked a loving smile. "Thank you, Rainbow Dash. You and only you..."

I fidgeted. Everything was so close to crumbling. I couldn't allow myself to shatter along with it. "I haven't... I haven't done anything, not yet, at least." With a deep breath, I began, "I just need to catch a heavy wind and—"

"We know, Rainbow Dash," Cheerilee said as she trotted back and nodded. "And we understand. That's why we put something together."

I raised an eyebrow. "Who's we?" I heard a soft trotting of hooves. I glanced down and wished I hadn't.

Over a dozen little foals had approached the scene. At the front of the group was none other than Apple Bloom. She gripped a book with green binding in her teeth before setting it down and pushing it across the grass with a trembling hoof.

"We know that yer goin' far, far away, Rainbow Dash. So we all put our bits and minds together and came up with this little scrapbook. T'ain't much, but we think it will help you feel like yer back home, no matter where you might be."

I narrowed my eyes. I pulled the book towards me. I opened it limply. My eyes registered a blur of photographs, full of bright colors and horrifically familiar faces. Uncontrollably, I slapped the book shut with a wincing expression. I sensed the foals stirring, so I gazed their way with a forced smile.

"That's... that's really, really nice of you dudes." I steeled myself with a deep breath. "Thanks. I mean it. I'll keep this thing with me as long as I can."

Apple Bloom smiled. Soon, that smile melted as her eyes fluttered shut with tears streaming loose.

My lips parted. With a shudder, I trotted over the book and scooped her up in a hug. Apple Bloom literally fell into me, clinging hard, drowning her tears in my blue chest. There were no words, only tender seconds dripping away as I caressed her mane and let her release in my forelimbs.

Eventually, between the sputtering breaths, the little filly stammered, "I m-miss her, Rainbow Dash. I know it ain't fair to all the others, but I miss h-her somethin' awful."

I gulped and stroked her shoulders. "I do too, Apple Bloom."

"There were so m-many things I wanted to say, so many th-things I wanted to share..."

"You're not nearly as alone as you think, girl," I said. I looked up. "You've got ponies here who care about you. You've got..." My voice gave out.

Granny Smith and Big Macintosh stood a few feet away, their eyes thin and their heads bowed.

I bit my lip. A soreness filled my throat. I patted Apple Bloom's back and parted our hug so that I could smile at her. "You've got your sister's spirit in you. You know that?"

She wiped her eyes with a trembling hoof and murmured, "I do?"

"Heck yeah!" I smirked devilishly. "I'm willing to bet that in ten... fifteen years, everypony will be looking up to you just as they did... j-just as they did to AJ."

"You really th-think so?"

"I know so." I straightened the bow in her mane and added, "And, right now, there's a pony who could really, really use your strength."

Apple Bloom's amber eyes blinked innocently at me.

I pointed across the village. "Sweetie Belle. She... she could really use a shoulder to lean on right now. I think she'd be able to help you as well, but she needs a guiding hoof. Think you can be a big pony and help out your friend?"

Apple Bloom bit her lip, but ultimately nodded with a teary smile. "Who am I to let down the Element of Loyalty?"

"I don't think you're capable of letting down anything, Apple Bloom," I said. We both stood up, and I watched as she trotted quietly over to Sweetie Belle's side. The two ponies nuzzled, eventually sharing a tender embrace as Sweetie Belle's parents looked on.

All the while, I had grasped the book and slid it into my saddlebag. As I clasped the satchel shut, I froze. Trembling, I turned around and gazed to the side.

Granny Smith and Big Mac gazed back.

With a jerk, I avoided their gaze, staring at the grass. I took several deep breaths, each one reinforcing the tilt of my head as I pivoted back to courageously take in their sorrowful expressions yet again.

It was important that I remained strong. I should have just taken off and flown east without saying a word, like I suggested to Luna. I wanted to leave that place, that grayness, that nightmare without giving so much as a breath.

Then and there, before the two farmers, I failed.

"I'm..." I stammered. My face burned from the first of several tears squeezing out of my eyes. "I'm sorry..." I sniffed as my voice cracked, "I'm just so... so sorry..." My face grimaced as the world grew foggy. "If I had only... if I-I had just..."

At first, I thought I was being tackled. The gasp that came out of me was weak and foalish, but soon I felt their strong forelimbs around me, and I melted into their grace. I buried my face into Big Mac's shoulder while Granny Smith stroked my neck. I whimpered, sobbed, bawled like an infant. There was no chance that the whole of Ponyville didn't see me caving in.

They didn't speak a word of it.

Holding Fort

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My vision cleared by the time I reached the east edge of Ponyville, and that is when I realized just how much was already behind me. I dried my eyes and sat in a slump atop a hillcrest beyond the furthest row of houses. The sun was nearing the horizon behind me; I could feel its golden bands waxing down my back and wing feathers.

Something weighed at me, something heavier than the golden pendant hanging around my neck, bulkier than all the random things shoved into my saddlebags. I could still feel the trembles in Granny Smith's limbs and the heaves of Big Mac's lungs. Sweetie Belle's whimpers hung off my flicking ears, and somewhere Luna was passing me a lasting prayer upon the winds.

There were so many anchors: the green fields, the rustling leaves, the smell of flowers and hay and straw. For such a boring place, Ponyville had a plethora of fragrances, innumerable scents that I was just seconds away from no longer having the grace to count.

I wondered if there would be new smells, new sounds, and maybe even new colors. None of them would matter, I realized—not even the alien hues of the dark world. The only senses that ever mattered were the ones that had become a part of oneself. I had already been divorced from my friends, what would be left over if all the textures of life had been ripped away?

I was about to find out. It was a truly frightening prospect, but fear had always appealed to me a great deal more than sorrow.

I spread my wings and coiled my legs to spring. I heard a rustling noise, but there was no wind. With a shiver, I understood, and I spoke without turning around.

"Keep that up, and you'll get a throwing star for a cutie mark," I said.

The air was silent, until a tiny murmur—tinier than I expected—limply returned, "You can find out what it'll be with me..."

I closed my eyes, my nostrils flaring. Slowly, I turned all the way around and reopened them.

She was framed in a golden halo of light. The sun was setting over Ponyville, my last glimpse of it, and all of it dripping with platinum shades of the dying day, the shattered past. She sat in the midst of the effluent haze, her ears drooped, her violet eyes shiny and earnest.

"I can't stay, kiddo," I said. "I know..." I bit my lip, fidgeted, and said, "I know you were probably expecting a lot of things, but stuff has a nasty habit of changing on you."

"So much has changed already," she murmured, her eyes avoiding mine. "Must it be the same with everything?"

I had no answer to that.

Thankfully, she wasn't pleading for one. "I figured your eyes might be tearing..."

"Huh? What?!" I looked away from her, wincing. "Earlier, I was just—"

"Cuz of the wind and all," she said, fumbling behind her with a pair of hooves. "So, uhm, when I heard that you were flying out, I made you something."

My heart rose back from my gut. "Oh," I exhaled. "What's that, pipsqueak?"

"It's not much. And I know it may look and feel like leather, but it's not..."

"Wuh oh." I smirked.

She made a face at me, then took a deep breath as if she was about to offer a sacrifice. Instead, Scootaloo held out a pair of shiny lenses that glinted in the setting sunlight. I saw a strap attached to them, and immediately beamed—

"New goggles? Wicked!"

"You r-really think so?" she stammered with a nervous smile.

"Only one way to find out." I plucked the article from her hooves—and froze upon seeing the initials. "'S.L.?' What does that stand—" I blinked, then looked at her. "Oh."

She blushed slightly.

I brought the goggles over my ears and snapped them tight before my eyes. The refracted world grew before me, a beautifully dying evening. I whistled. "Dang, if these don't feel real sturdy. I think these will last me a long while."

"I'm glad you like them," Scootaloo said with a slight shiver. "I made them to last a long time and in rough weather."

"I guess I'll have to put them to the test."

"If they break by the time you get back, Rainbow, it's... uhm... it'll be okay..."

I was quiet. I gently slid the goggles up and gazed down at her.

She was biting her lip.

With a sigh, I said, "I can't... uhm... I can't say just how long I'm gonna be gone for, kiddo."

"I know," Scootaloo said with a nod, her eyes avoiding me as she exhaled hoarsely. "You've got things to do."

"It's not so much that I've got things..." I grimaced as I ran a hoof through my mane. "It's more like places."

"What kind of places?"

"Well, I guess I don't know yet..."

"I see..."

I shrugged and murmured, "But I'll always be thinking about this place, this town, these ponies..."

"Uh huh..."

"You are all really cool. It's... uhm... it's gonna be a real downer not having you all around."

She sniffled, her hooves curling up in the grass as she whimpered, "Then why are you going away?"

I opened my mouth to speak, but the air was filled with the quiet percussion of her sobbing voice. I felt my pulse jump through my chest, then descend into a soft murmur. So I lowered myself along with it. I scooped Scootaloo up in my forelimbs and hugged her for the first time ever.

She knew it would also be the last time ever. She buried her tiny head in my chest and released all of the confusion and pain that I was now tasked with keeping inside. I couldn't decide whether I envied or pitied her. I couldn't decide on anything, save for the choice to fly.

"I know I said that there's always somepony to be loyal to, kiddo," I murmured, running a hoof through her silken mane as she shivered against me. "But I'm lost, and I can't stay in one place. I have to go far away, Scootaloo. I have to go find that somepony before she gets too far away for me to help."

"St-stay here," she mewled, choking on a shuddering breath. "Stay here and we can f-find her together."

I clenched my eyes shut, tilting my seething face towards the sky. After a few seconds, I dredged a smile up from the depths of me and tilted her gaze towards mine. "That's gonna be difficult, seeing as you have a full-time job now, squirt."

"Hmmm?" She sniffled, her face wet with tears. Her lips quivered to produce, "I d-do?"

"Heck yeah!" I said with a devilish grin. "With me gone, it's gonna be somepony's job to be awesome for Ponyville! I can think of one candidate!"

She blinked innocently. Her cheeks turned red. "Me?"

"Well, it's sure as hay not gonna be Twist, now is it?"

Suddenly, Scootaloo snorted, shaking her head with a painful smile. "No... No it isn't."

I stroked her bangs aside and smiled at her. She had an innocent face, so full of trust as she clung to my every word. I wondered if this was what having a foal of my own would have been like. I decided to keep talking before I could think any harder. "You've always been way more wicked cool than you've given yourself credit for, kiddo. Stick to your guns, be there for your friends, and don't let the world treat you like crap. Cuz you're in charge of things while I'm gone."

She wiped her eyes dry with a forelimb, but still shivered. "Rainbow Dash, I... I don't think—"

"Can I count on you to hold the fort?"

She gasped at me, her wings twitching. "Why... Of course! I mean... if... if you believe in me..."

"You'll find that believing in you comes easy," I said with a wink as I ruffled her mane. I did my damnedest not to let my voice crack, and for once I succeeded. "When somepony like you gives so much, it's only right that the world gives back."

"You... really believe that?"

"I'm about to go give the world a swift buck in the face to be sure." I gently laid her down onto the grass. "So, go and be awesome, Scootaloo. Just not too awesome. I've still got some thunder in me yet."

She bit her lip with a tender shadow of a smile. "Will... Will I ever see you again?"

"Scoots, what you've yet to see..." I lowered her gift over my eyes before she could see me breaking. "...is only bound to be way more wicked."

I kicked against the earth. Scootaloo shrunk away, and the rest of Ponyville vanished in a golden blur, like dying starlight.

I never looked back.

Lonesome Spark

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After a major dunking, I flung my head straight up. I gasped as my wet mane filled the air with a wild splash of lake water. Reveling in the cold sting, I grinned devilishly, slipped Scootaloo's goggles down, and took off once more towards the sky, burning a straight path for the rising sun. The air bit harshly against my wet face. It served to remind me that I was alive.

"Why would you keep flying if there was no place for you to go?"


With my teeth gripped over the hatchet, I carved the last of five initials across a wooden panel. I stepped back from the abandoned cabin and observed the tiny memorial I had made. It wasn't much, but the place in between mountains was far holier than when I had first arrived. Putting my things away, I turned my back to the structure and soared east, blurring above the peaks of the rocky ridges.

"Why would you pursue life if you were nothing but death?"

I munched on celery, smirking across the campfire as Red Turnip and Ironhoof exchanged bickering diatribes, much to the snickering amusement of their fellow Wintergaiters. Fulltrot spoke under the hush of night, asking me a few questions about my travels. I answered limply; all the while my ruby eyes were locked on the unassuming motions of the "stallion" named Gold Plate.

"Perhaps the very reason is because she herself was life, something that could be encompassed in death, but never defeated by it."

I kissed her ardently. There was a gust of mountain air. I gazed at her, and her eyes weren't green. My body froze from the inside out. Before the tears could spring loose, I murmured something and took off for the stars. Gold Petals sobbed something, and I flew even faster, burning my way east.

"She gave up so much: her home, her Princesses, her friends' families. And for what? If she stayed where she was, all she would have done was died."

Gritting my teeth, I climbed up the rigid mountainside. My body was pelted with snow from all angles. I hissed as I forced my muscles into the brutal ascent, mentally begging for a break in the blizzard at any second. Many thoughts pulled at me, both tender and happy. I shook them off and trudged on, hoping to make it to the east side.

"She chose not to die slowly. She chose instead to live swiftly, like a comet streaking against the black canvas of night, burning out within a blink."

The cloak billowed around me as I bucked the ball down the field and past Cherrymane's gasping line of defense. I skirted past two or three more ponies before charging Grassy Fields. With a shout, I spun in the air, kicked the ball upside down, and watched as it victoriously ricocheted off the stallion's head and flew into the goal. The young populace of Ridgeside cheered all around me.

"If that blink would be the only slice of light afforded her, she would make the most of it. She would split it apart with a sneer and relish the colors that fountained off her wings."

My eyes sparkled as I flew over the wide valley of Emeraldine, only to stumble upon an impossibly tall spire in the middle of the landscape. Verdestone stretched towards the sky's ceiling, its alabaster rock glinting in the sunlight. Below it, sprawling far and wide, the world bustled with life. A sharp breath escaped me, and I grinned as I flew towards the sacred urbanscape before me.

"She didn't know it, but she was destined for more than even she had the capacity to hope for. There was a reason for all her struggles and trials."

I held my breath as I descended like a dull rock against the pelting sandstorm. Once I landed on the dry flats of scorched earth, I wrapped a blanket over me and tilted my mouth away from the surging sediment. I wheezed and hissed, hoping for a break in the madness, and another chance to fly east.

"She was more than just a daring pegasus, she was a spark of life... the spark, the one and only spirit of animation and courage that this world needs."

I gazed at my hooves as I trudged limply through the hazy, gray ruins of Silvadel. Sam Rose scouted ahead while Ember Speak, Swirls, and Stu guided me through the crumbled wreckage of ancient buildings. In spite of the grim situation, the survivors managed several hushed conversations and chuckles. I couldn't stop looking up through the cracks in the ruined surface of the world, hoping for a sliver of moonlight.

"She flew herself into her own destruction. It was an act of bravery on her behalf, but it was the product of too much spark and too little purpose."

I crawled across the cave floor, my body throbbing in agony. The earth rumbled around me, and then a huge claw split my wing down the center. I screamed in pain, only to be grabbed in Axan's hand and thrown against the far wall of the place. Somewhere in the beating, I thought of smiling faces.

"On her own, Austraeoh will accomplish many impossible feats. But the entire journey cannot be a lonesome one. The spark needs to be re-lit, for her endurance to be reborn."

I was flying somewhere. My body was numb. My eyes opened, and I saw a tiny village resting on a plateau of arid stone. Dozens of earth ponies gawked up at me as I drifted slowly to the ground. Several claws deposited my bandaged, broken body. There was a gust of hot air, and I saw the shadow of a giant dragon darting off towards the craggy hilltops. The ponies galloped towards me, and that was when my eyes rolled back, surrendering to cold darkness.

"She has so many gifts, but there is one thing she is lacking..."

Endurance Reborn

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My eyes fluttered open. I was clad in a silken nightgown. The stars of Emeraldine twinkled above me, full of nebulaic color and cosmic splendor. This was Verdestone; I understood now. I also understood who I was, and who I wasn't.

"She is lacking faith," I murmured.

Above me, Whitemane's angelic features smiled. She gave a gentle nod. "You are the means of rekindling that spark, child. You can bring the wind back to Austraeoh."

I panted, gazing down at my hooves. My coat was a golden yellow. I reached up and felt a stubby horn in the center of my head. A lump formed in my throat.

"You can help her save this broken machine of a world..."

A whimper escaped my lips. "Pilate..." I breathed heavily. "My beloved. I want to save him..."

"Tell me, child. How long have you been doing benevolent things for an industry that knows nothing but hate and pain?"

I looked up at her, my lips quivering in the starlight. A tear rolled down my cheek. "Ledomare has always been a source of strength, a foundation of science and—"

"To what end?"

I said nothing.

Whitemane lowered and nuzzled me dearly. She quietly murmured into my ear, "There will always be an end to things, my child. It is up to us to make something beautiful out of it. Tell me, where is the beauty in your life?"

I grimaced. My eyes clenched shut as I felt my head drifting towards the stone of the balcony. "It's... it's always g-galloping away from me... away from us. We were so close to finding purpose, and... and th-they took it all away." I sniffled and sobbed, "They're always taking so much away..."

"Shhhh..." Whitemane nuzzled me again, like a mother to her foal. I could feel the regal smile in the tone of her voice. "They shall not take away anymore. You have been robbed for the last time."

"I'm... I-I'm so weak... so helpless," I exhaled in hoarse bursts. "I don't know how to make it stop—"

"It is not about stopping, but about beginning," Whitemane said. She caressed my chin so that I was gazing up tearfully at her. "Re-energize the spark. Bring Austraeoh back from the depths. Give her the wind—the faith that she needs—and she will do the rest." She smiled, her eyes full of stars. "You and your beloved will find harmony."

"Harmony...?" I murmured.

"Yes, child. After all..."

Seeing Dawnlight

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"...loyalty deserves loyalty."

Bellesmith stirred, her lips murmuring unintelligible words. Sunlight cascaded over her golden complexion, and her face tensed.

"Bring the wind... to Austraeoh..."

She gnashed her teeth and hissed.

"Must... Must get her out..."

Bellesmith's chestnut eyes flew open and she saw the platinum glory of the rising sun.

"I must get Rainbow Dash out of the facility!"

A wooly ram blinked back at her with a bored expression. "You don't friggin' say?"

Bellesmith's face paled. She shot up in bed, wincing from her stiff limbs. "I have to get down there! I have to—" She bolted towards the ceiling, only to suddenly be missing wings. "Gaaah!" She toppled, tumbled, and fell out of bed, almost cracking what was left of her horn in half. "Ughhhh..."

Grinder let out a long sigh. "This is the thanks I get? Mmmmfgh... Last time I play hospice for a sissy unicorn." He spun on his hooves and made for the door.

"Mmm—No! Grinder, wait!" Bellesmith flailed upside down with the bedsheets. She dramatically waved a hoof and scrambled across the room, effectively blocking his exit. "Please! Don't go!"

"I've got crap to do, lady," Grinder hissed. "Blue Shelf is a ghost town, and I've wasted enough time force-feeding you in your sleep."

Belle gulped, her cheeks slightly red. "You... You really took care of me all this time?"

"Hrmph..." Grinder folded his forelimbs, glaring off into the far corner of the place. "Well, somepony had to..."

Belle managed a nervous smile. "That... That was awfully sweet of you, Grinder."

Grinder's eyes were momentarily soft as they entreated the shadows.

Belle's lips pursed. "Wait... What about..." She gulped. "What about your beloved?"

"Like I said," he muttered. "This place is a friggin' ghost town. Only fitting that Queen Lame-do decided to dump all her gruntwork on me. Not like it's something I ain't used to. Now will you get out of the way or do we have to turn this into another shove-fest?!"

"Grinder, wait!" Belle held a hoof up. "I thank you for all that you've done for me, and I'm sorry that you've been left alone here with so much on your plate." She clenched her teeth with a foalish expression and said, "But I still need your help."

"Heh. Fitting." He easily shoved her aside and made for the exit of the cabin. "Why don't you go into a coma again so you can be useful for once?"

"Grinder, please!" She scrambled after him, wincing as she fumbled with numb limbs. "There's a reason why they haven't sent you away! You're too important to the facility! They want you around to do more dirty work than you or I can pretend to know!"

"I pretend to know nothing," he said, swinging the cottage door open to the sunrise. "It makes it easier to shove rocks around that way."

"Grinder, you've seen it! You've seen the metal door!" Belle exclaimed, weakly clinging to the doorframe and watching as he marched onto the abandoned street between houses. "You know that there's more to this than any of us are being told! It's something dangerous, something evil, and we gotta keep that door from opening!"

"What do I look like, a key?!" Grinder growled back and made for the center of the empty town downt he path. "Go dream of all the doors you want!"

"For Spark's sake, Grinder, this isn't a dream!" Belle shrieked, frowning. "They... they have my beloved down there!"

Grinder stopped in his tracks, just barely beyond Belle's sight. He fidgeted, his features paling.

Belle heaved painfully and whimpered, "They have Pilate. They're gonna do horrible things to him until he helps them open the door..." She sighed and ran a hoof over her moist eyes. "And it's all my fault that they've chosen him. He didn't need to get involved... but he is... and I-I have to get him out of there..."

Grinder closed his eyes as his nostrils flared. Slowly, he turned and gazed at her. "Shell?" was all he asked.

Bellesmith gulped and nodded slowly.

He gnashed his teeth. After a rolling of his eyes, he produced, "Tell me, how good are you at impersonating a pick axe?"

Belle blinked. "Buh?"

Sincere Love

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The air rang with the echoes of a pained breath. There was a hiss of noise, and the darkness parted ways, casting a slit of pale blue light across his stained coat and bruised features. With a flash, the tiny concrete room lit up under a pale haze. Pilate remained lying on a mildew-stained mattress, his rear left hoof chained to a pillar two steps away. He didn't stop panting until a shuffle of hoofsteps marched towards him.

He clenched his teeth, his blood-stained ears pricking towards the source of the sound. As soon as the heat of the body came closer, he sniffed the air and frowned, turning his head and saying nothing.

With a one-eyed, icy stare, Enforcer Shell squatted down beside Pilate's mattress. He gazed at the trembling zebra, at his bruises caked over with dried blood. After summoning a deep breath, the soldier spoke, "I always wondered if zebra stripes stayed straight after healing up from a laceration. Now I know..." He brushed a hoof softly over the uneeven patches of fur. "Still, though, this isn't the sort of answer I've been needing from you."

Pilate bit his lip, his cheeks burning as he gave a blind glare to the walls. His metal plate sparked once or twice in runic fury.

"What?" Shell raised an eyebrow. "Do you think I enjoy harming a fellow countrypony of Ledomare? I didn't always have to harm subjects of the Confederacy, you know. After all, my career was built on slaying Xonans." He tilted Pilate's head up and examined the bruises on his muzzle. "Life, for all its hardship, is a great deal more digestible when you only have to swing the sword towards the front."

"Then g-go there and do it," Pilate finally spat.

Shell's nostrils flared. "So you can talk. Such a shame it's not full of what I need to hear."

"I know a thing or two about what a pony like you needs," Pilate hissed. He shuddered and added, "But I can't help you with what you want..."

"Can't you?" Shell's hoof ran along the plate atop Shell's head. "You're a great deal more valuable than you give yourself credit. At least you're not some winged anomaly in a coma. You have so much that you can teach us, so much that you can show us..."

"Only because you've bl-blinded yourselves to the truth," Pilate murmured in a hoarse voice. "It was always lying under the Queen's eyes, hidden through ignorance."

Shell's face registered the tiniest hint of a smirk. "Is this when you tell me that I'm a victim of my own irony? I've trotted those roads before, Mr. Pilate. What I'm doing here and now is part of my duty to the country. There's a war going on, and every second you withhold your knowledge of the symbols, Xona gets that much closer to pushing the front back towards the Capital of Ledo."

"There is nothing to t-tell..."

"Why are you so stubborn, unless there was something you wished to protect?"

Pilate shivered, saying nothing.

Shell took a deep breath, leaning back where he squatted. "You know, I had a Beloved once," he said. "Her name was Merrigold. She worked as a nurse along the southeastern bulwarks. When she was off-duty, she loved to wear lavenders in her mane. It matched her eyes... lit up her smile." His one eye gazed off into the concrete mess entombing the two of them. "She gave me that same smile the day I proposed to her. We were young at the time, and I had hopes for the war. I didn't realize how violent things were going to get, how long they would separate me from my beloved, how long she would be forced to mourn our warmth in the shadows that consumed her."

Shell adjusted the beret on his head and stared down at his heavy horseshoes.

"I game back from a two-year tenure against the Southern Xonan Incursion," he continued, "And I was informed by the Council of Ledo that the ponies of my hometown had delivered confidential information to the enemy. My very own neighbors were traitors, and the secrets that they gave away cost the lives of hundreds of Ledomaritans guarding the eastern posts." He stretched the kinks out of his neck and said, "So, I rounded them up and brought them to a detainment facility for questioning... heavy, intense questioning. To my shock and dismay, I found that my beloved Merrigold was among the group. She was one of the traitors, having consorted with the enemy of our Confederacy behind my very back. What was I to do? So many lives depended on me, and my very own mate was losing more lives than I was winning."

Shell took a deep breath, his good eye closing.

"So I questioned her first, with no less mercy than I would question anypony. She understood as much as I did what was at stake. And all throughout the process, the cutting and the blood, she kept screaming how much she loved me. And I killed her, because I loved her too." His one eye opened in a gray glaze. "When I came out of the interrogation room, soaked in righteousness, all of the other prisoners saw it... and they confessed immediately. We rooted out all the traitors to Ledomare and executed them on the spot. Thousands... if not tens of thousands of lives were saved."

With a shuffle of his hooves, Shell leaned over and re-gripped Pilate's muzzle, tilting the panting zebra towards him.

"It turns out that Merrigold wasn't a turncoat after all, but she was coerced into helping the traitorous neighbors accomplish their tasks. She was their leverage, but I couldn't allow her part in it to impede justice. There was no way I was going to let her live with the shame and the guilt that had been branded upon her." Shell's eye twitched as he sneered, "I loved her more than life itself, but there comes a time when we must give up that which we care about for the good of Ledo. She was selfish to have allowed herself to become such a pitiful device of our enemy in the first place. When I took her out of this world, I was being merciful, as a lover should be... as you should be thinking about your own selfishness right now, and how to be penitent about it."

Pilate hissed back, "The only thing I'm sorry for... is that after you've killed everypony in this world that doesn't march with you, you'll find that you'll be marching alone."

Shell's eye narrowed. "Such a noble lover you are," he murmured, then leaned forward. "And yet, how pitiable. To not be able to see the rosiness in your mate's cheeks, to see the happy little glint in her eyes or the brightness in her smiling teeth. You've been away for a very long time, Mr. Pilate. I've seen how she weeps for you, the crystal blue tears that well up in her face, the pale sheen to her golden coat. I've even seen her bedroom, and I'm willing to bet that she's lying there right now, in another one of Dr. Bellesmith's fortuitous comas." Shell swallowed, paused, and uttered, "Would you like me to tell you what her insides look like?"

"Nnnngh—!" Pilate thrashed forward with gnashing teeth.

Shell's face jerked back. He glared sideways, a thin trickle of blood running down from his cheek.

"You will not touch her!" Pilate's gray eyes were wide and angry as he shouted into the darkness. "You've tormented her long enough! Leave her alone!"

Shell took a deep breath before uttering, "That is an order you should consider issuing to yourself, Mr. Pilate. What makes you think she isn't already lying in pieces?"

A tear ran down Pilate's cheek as he lay on the mattress, hyperventilating.

Shell stood up, cracking the joints in his forelimbs. "No interrogation for today. Once we've resumed business tomorrow, I hope you will have taken the time to weigh your beloved's life with your own selfishness." He marched off with a cold shuffle. "I only have enough grace to give to one of you. I'll leave it up to you to decide whom."

Pilate curled up on the mattress, hugging himself and shivering. He was once more covered in darkness as the door to the cell shut with a hard clang.

Wooly Hate

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The blue manafield danced with rivulets of disrupted energy from the creatures' lunging paws. With drooling snarls, no less than half a dozen manticores prowled the edges of the fence, slamming and butting their mangy crowns against the barrier at random intervals.

In the glistening afternoon haze, several guards looked on from the inner ring of Blue Shelf. The unicorns' eyes narrowed on the rampaging beasts and their constant, bone-headed test of the defense field.

"Yeesh," one Enforcer muttered to another as they strolled up to the base of a concrete pillar. He had to speak loudly over the sound of a throttling zeppelin overhead. "What's their problem? It's like something's gotten into the air!"

"They always get rowdy when there's a shift change," the other guard muttered, examining his floating taser rod as the two approached the door to the facility's stone entrance. "They know that at this time of the day, ponies file in and out of this place."

"You mean they used to," the first guard remarked, adjusting his beret. "There're fewer and fewer going through the door each day. Just what the hay's going on down there?"

"Beats me, not that I care," the other grumbled. "So long as I get plenty of bits to send home to my beloved. Which reminds me. Did you hear about—?"

"Shhh..." The first nudged the other one and pointed down the mountain path. "Don't look down, but here comes wooly."

"Ugh... I hate wooly."

"Hey! Wooly!" The first guard smirked, swinging his taser about with telekinetic whimsy. "Why the long face? Woke up on the wrong side of the shears this morning?"

"Hahahaha!"

Grinder frowned, sweating as he hauled a heavy wagon full of rattling materials up the central path of Blue Shelf. "Keep talkin', pretty boy."

"Ooooh... Tough ram." There was another splash of mana; the sounds of raging manticores echoed throughout the pine trees beyond the fence. "Hey." The guard pointed behind him with a smirk. "I'll pay you twenty bits to let yourself get tossed over the barrier and have the manticores chase you for one hundred yards."

"Paint a picture of your face on my butt, and they won't even bother to chase me."

The other guard laughed, much to the first's frowning displeasure.

Straightening his beret, the young Enforcer marched up to Grinder and nudged his hovering manacart. "Look, didn't you haul a bunch of crud out of here yesterday?"

"What of it?"

"Why the return trip so soon? Don't you have farm duty back at the village? Crops to grow or something?"

"If I wanted to bloom roses, I'd just take a crap," Grinder hissed. "Which I just might do downstairs, thank you very much—" He made to move past the guard.

"Hey! Not so fast!" The guard yanked at the ram's cart with telekinesis. "I'm not done talking yet!"

"You'll sure as heck be done once Shell rips your tongue out for delaying a supply order for pickaxes!" Grinder spat. His eyes narrowed. "Or would you like me to drag you instead so you can find out first-hoof what Shell would have his grunts work on down there?"

The guard bit his lip, fidgeting.

The other leaned in and murmured, "You're better off with the manticores..."

The first one sighed, turned, and whistled to another set of guards. They nodded and pulled a lever alongside the concrete building. The doors slid open, revealing a metal elevator car.

"Go do your stuff, ram," the guard muttered. "If hauling junk is all you're good at, who am I to give a crap?"

"Thanks." Grinder said, then nodded his horns towards the hissing manticores. "Good luck with your girlfriends."

The guard did a double-take, his cheeks flashing red as his partner chuckled once more. They trotted towards a nearby bunker while Grinder made his way into the elevator car. He pulled a lever from the inside, and the doors slit with a loud rattling noise. Then, under the hum of mana, the elevator dropped swiftly down the black shaft.

After a deep breath, Grinder leaned back and spoke in a low murmur to the cart behind him.

"We're descending..."

The tarp stirred, and then a golden face peered nervously out from beneath the canvas material. "We made it past the guards?"

"You say that like it's a friggin' hard thing to do..."

"Oh thank you, Grinder!" Belle beamed, still whispering for whispering's sake. "You have no idea what this means to me—"

"Don't thank me yet, girl," Grinder grumbled, staring at the floors flashing past him. "They're taking us to the Black Level."

"Black Level?" Belle raised an eyebrow. She stirred nervously in the back of the cart as the tools around her rattled from the rapid descent. "But... But there's no such floor listed in the Facility's Registry!"

"That's because only a few ponies know about it," Grinder said. "And those who are allowed to know are threatened within an inch of their horns."

Belle gulped. "Or their beloveds?"

Grinder's nostrils flared; he said nothing.

"Grinder, what you're doing for me, it... it means a lot. And..."

"Don't pretend like this is something you can repay me for," Grinder said, glancing over his wooly shoulder. "Because you can't. Odds are, we're all gonna get a swift buck in the flank for this—and it will end up with our brains all over the concrete walls of this crappy-flank hole in the mountain."

"If I can just somehow get us to Beta Level," Belle murmured. "I can access security, and it should show me where Pilate is hiding."

"And then you're getting the heck out of here, right?"

Belle bit her lip, hesitating to speak.

Grinder saw it, and he rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He looked ahead. "I can only get you so far. If you wanna get to Beta Level, you're gonna have to get help from somepony else."

"Like who?" Belle asked.

"Take a pick," Grinder grunted, and just then the elevator slowed as a pair of doors opened to the sounds of heavy labor and anguished breaths.

Belle hid, shivering, as the cart drew forward into a detestable heat.

Black Level

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Bellesmith shivered. The world outside was dark, hot, and loud. She heard the hammering of tools against dull rock, followed by grunts of pain and exhaustion. She remembered an eternity ago when she was in the same hellscape, similarly blinded, with Shell yanking her through the audible nightmare.

Biting her lip, she tilted her head up and peered over the edge of the wagon, careful not to move the tarp away with her stubby horn.

What she saw stole her breath away. Literally hundreds upon hundreds of equines were chained together, forming solid lines as they heaved sundered chunks of rock from one tired soul to another. Towards the front of each line, ponies and buffalo and carabou lined up, sweating profusely as they hammered away at craggy walls of granite. Bit by bit, with agonized persistence, they uncovered an immaculate body of clean, smoothe metal from the meat of the earth. Torchlight bounced off the unnatural structure, covering their moist bodies with a ghostly sheen as they limped back and forth from labor to labor.

There was a flicker of bright lightning, and Belle shrunk further into the rattling wagon. She winced at the sight of grim-faced Enforcers marching up and down the lines, slapping their tasers across the skulls and flanks of ponies who were too breathless to keep up with the rest of the enslaved masses. Under the intimidating presence of the sadistic overseers, the equines worked themselves to the bone. Belle shuddered to see coats stained with blood, vomit, and other horrible juices. She saw thin waifs lying in the distant corner of the heated cavern, and many of them on top of one another. She squinted hard to see better, and still she couldn't determine whether or not the bodies were breathing.

"I'm the lucky one," Grinder muttered to the air in a voice that only Belle could hear from the wagon behind him. "It's these poor saps who get the short end of the stick. I just deliver crap for the Enforcers to shove into their hooves. I figured that if I just play nice and trot in line, then I don't find myself hammering away at them rocks. It sucks, but I have more at stake than just me being put into chains here. A lot of these saps don't last more than a month. I know my beloved wouldn't last a friggin' hour. Meh."

"How..." Bellesmith gulped, tossing her whispery voice towards him. "H-how long have they been here... forced to do this?"

"Take a wild guess," Grinder said, motioning with his horns when a guard's back was turned. Belle turned and gawked at a wide swath of exposed metal stretching over four stories tall. The glinting surface reflected like an iron mirror. "Black Level is growing and growing. I'm not sure what they're trying to dig up in this steaming litter box, but ponies have been at it for far longer than you or I have been here. I think this is what Blue Shelf is all about..."

"All this time..." Belle hissed. "You knew about this?"

"Hey, girlie, it's Ledomare," Grinder grunted. "Since when do you come home, tellin' your lovey dovey zebra everything you've been made to work on?"

Belle bit her lip, sagging where she sat in the wagon. She thought of her first experience here, of the words that had come out of Prime Enforcer Shell's mouth: the threats that he had made. She closed her eyes, and all she could see was Pilate's smiling face. She choked on a sob.

"Got any bright ideas, girl?"

Belle sniffled and looked up. She was shivering at this point. "Huh?"

"Well, you wanted to get in here so badly. What now?" Grinder took a left, and the cart swerved around several ponies trudging by with loads of rocks on their backs. "I've got a legitimate delivery to make, and I can't go making crappy little circles forever!"

"I have to get up to the testing chambers somehow," Belle murmured. Her eyes dashed across the violence and memory flicking before her. "I'm pretty sure I took an elevator down here when Shell dragged me through last. If only I can get back up..."

"I hate to break it to you, but we're alone down here, and there aren't many ponies willing to give me more than a frown. So don't count on me having friends."

"There has to be sompeony that we can—" Belle gasped in mid-speech, her eyes widening at a sight beyond the edge of the cart. "Grinder! Stop here!"

"Stop? How do you expect me to stop?! We'll get Enforcer tasers shoved down our throats?!"

"Pretend that the mana stones of the cart are broken! I don't care! Do anything!" Belle stuck her head bravely out from the wagon and hissed towards the nearest line of slaves. "Psssst! Hey! Over here!"

Two unicorns—a mare and a stallion—gazed over with haggard expressions. Their eyes lit up in the middle of their tortured faces, and both nearly dropped their chunks of rock.

"B-Bellesmith?" the mare stammered.

Belle exhaled. "Felicity... Placid..." She gulped. "By the Spark..."

Slave Labor

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"Bellesmith...?!" Felicity managed with a weak tremble. Several sweaty ponies around her and Placid glanced over with confused expressions.

Belle took a gamble, hopping completely out of the back of the wagon and pressing her back against it. Shivering in the open air of the cacophonous slave pit, she leaned forward and hoarsely exclaimed, "I thought you were sent abroad to other parts of Ledomare! What in Spark's name are you doing here?"

Feilicity's face grimaced as a tear or two sprang from her eyes. "Belle, I don't know how you got in here, but you must leave! Now!"

"If you have the power to sneak in and out, then get back to the surface as swiftly as you can!" Placid added in an intense whisper.

"I hate to interrupt your charming little pony-pony renuion, sweetcakes," Grinder grunted, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the patrolling Enforcers. "But this is hardly the time or the place for a tea break."

"Grinder, please!" Belle wheezed. She turned back to the unicorn couple. "I came here hoping to track down where they took Pilate."

"Oh blessed Spark, they brought him here too?" Felicity whimpered.

"Why him and not you?" Placid stammered.

"Never mind that." Belle leaned forward even more. "Just why are you ponies down here?"

"They told us that we were being relocated to other places within the Confederacy," Placid said, his usually calm face bearing a venomous frown. "All they did was seize our possessions and cart us down here to do grunt work."

"I've never moved so much as a slab of stone in my life!" Felicity exclaimed, panting and tossing back her dirtied mane. "There are ponies who have died here from overwork! They don't care at all about our well-being!"

A distant shriek lit the air, followed by the sound of burning tasers. The line of nearby slaves shivered, their faces paling.

Belle looked at them helplessly. She exclaimed, "Is this what became of everypony from Blue Shelf? You were all brought here?"

"Most of us were," Placid said with a nod. "But the others..." His voice trailed off as a terrible fear seized his facial expressions. Felicity was hiding her tears in her forelimbs.

Belle's face tensed. "I don't get it. There were others? Weren't they brought here as well?"

"At f-first," Placid stammered. He gulped, glancing beyond the nearby lines of workers with paranoia. "But then they were dragged away at random and brought to the elevators The last we saw of them, they ascended to the upper levels of the facility."

"Did any of the Enforcers say to where they ascended?"

"I... erm... that is..." Placid could only fidget.

"Department Blue," murmured a hoarse voice from the sidelines. "It's just below where you typically work, Doctor..."

Belle glanced over, and her chestnut eyes flew wide. "Professor!"

Grinder, Felicity, Placid, and several other nervous equines watched as Bellesmith galloped over and knelt beside an emaciated unicorn's side. The stallion sat, slumped against several other starving souls whose limbs were decaying to the skeletal degree.

Belle had to struggle to keep her lunch in. With a look of pity, she grasped his forelimb in hers and gazed at his face. "Professor Garnet. What... what happened...?"

He wheezed, gazing at her through thin, mucousy eyes. "Enforcer Shell happened. He's taken over this whole facility. He's owned it long before I was even transferred here..." Garnet coughed, hissed, and struggled to say, "Black Level was turned into a slave camp, and I wasn't even told of it. He was granted authority by the Council of Ledo ages ago, and only recently did he arrive here to see the fruits of his undertaking."

"I mean, what happened to you?" Belle stammered, her eyes moistening in pity and horror. "You... You're dying!"

"We've done our best to keep his health up," Placid said from a few paces over. "We've fed him half of our morsels, even at the cost of our own meals." He shuddered. "They've abandoned him since he could no longer heave rocks."

"This... this is terrible!" Belle frowned, glancing back at the others. "I can't believe the Confederacy would allow this sort of atrocity!"

Placid and Felicity hung their heads. Grinder paused in looking over his shoulder to utter, "It's only sunny on the top side of this lousy kingdom, girl. For having such bright eyes, you sure don't use them much, do you?"

Belle's mouth hung open. She clenched her eyes shut, seething. "Pilate... what have I dragged you into...?"

"This cannot last forever," Garnet hoarsely managed.

Belle looked over at him, sniffling. "How do you mean?"

He wheezed and said, "Most ponies here are planning a grand escape. In less than a day's time, as a matter of fact, they plan to rush the shafts to the upper levels."

Belle looked at the others. "Is... Is this true?"

Grinder's nostrils flared. "I was hoping to be topside when they attempt it. It ain't gonna be pretty."

"Anything beats staying here forever," Placid said with a frowning expression. "This has been in the plans for a while."

"So many ponies won't make it," Felicity said in a whimpering tone. Placid nuzzled her placatingly, but she still shuddered. "I still can't believe it's all come to this. Just what is this metal mess they're wanting us to excavate? None of the Enforcers will tell us."

"It matters little," Garnet exclaimed. "The Enforcers are dangerous, but they're spread too thin. They know this too, which is probably why they've shipped three hundred ponies to Department Blue in the last two days alone."

"Three hundred?!" Belle exclaimed whisperingly. "But, I don't understand! Department Blue is just a storage compartment! What kind of slave labor can be done there?! I don't think you can fit that many equines in such a place!"

"It doesn't change the fact that they were sent there," Placid managed. He gulped and added, "Kenna and Baxter were sent just two days ago."

Belle flung him a horrified expression. "Kenna? Baxter?"

"Even Great Stare and Little Breath," Felicity added, stifling a sob. "For some reason, they s-seem to be collecting most of the non-ponies."

"I may not live to see the daylight, Doctor Bellesmith," Garnet exclaimed, squeezing her forelimbs as a shudder ran through his thin body. "But if you're here, then that's a beacon of hope."

"Professor, you don't understand," Belle murmured as the sounds of labor echoed all around her. "I came here to find Pilate. My beloved was taken too. From what I'm hearing, odds are he's in Department Blue as well—"

"I don't think he's where all the other non-ponies are," Garnet murmured. "Enforcer Shell wants to gain access to what's beyond the metal, no matter what or who he has to used." He gulped and leaned forward with jaundice leaking from his eyes. "If you've made it this far, then there's a chance you can get to the upper levels. Maybe you can even do something to help all these ponies who plan to make a riotous escape from Black Level."

"What?! I mean how—"

"Most of the Enforcers are concentrated here; the laboratory levels are a ghost town. I have no doubt you can gain access to the central manabanks and disrupt security—"

"What I meant is: how can I even get up there? Grinder's little ploy can only take me so far!"

"Speaking of which," Grinder hissed as the echoes of nearby guards grew louder, closer. "Now's a good time to make like a turd and get buried, girl."

"Shhh!" Belle hissed and turned towards Garnet. "Professor, how can you expect me to—?"

"Two – Three – Four – Zero," Garnet uttered.

Belle blinked. "What was that?"

"The access codes to the elevators," Garnet managed. He gulped and said, "At least, I can only hope Enforcer Shell lacked the foresight to change them since I navigated such shafts. If they're still in effect, then that will grant you access to the laboratory levels..." He seethed and added, "As well as Department Blue."

"I... I don't know what to say..."

"Just go, Belle!" Felicity squeaked. "The guards are coming, and this place is going to explode sooner than later! The ponies here will start their riot in less than twenty-four hours!"

"Go up there and save Pilate," Placid added. "So long as the two of you make it out of here safely, then that will be an exceedingly good thing."

"Time to kick your hooves, girl," Grinder said, beginning to tug at the wagon.

Belle backtrotted, limply letting go of Garnet's hooves. "Two – Three – Four – Zero?" she murmured.

The unicorn nodded. "Yes. Make like the wind..."

Belle's face paled. "The wind... right..." She gave them all one last, apologetic glance. "I'm... I'm so sorry, everypony." She dove into Grinder's wagon in a blink. "I wish you luck..."

"We will all need it..." And they were gone in the heated haze of the place.

Charging In

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Grinder gave the signal with a grunting noise, which he had to repeat in order for Bellesmith to tell it apart from all his usual grumblings. With a gasp, she leapt bravely out of the back of the wagon and stood on sore legs before a large service elevator with a heavy door. A metal sheet lined the wall of steel reinforcement, and on it was a keypad glowing with faint manalight.

"Now would be a good time to do your magic, girl," Grinder said, then shifted nervously as he cast a wooly glance at her stub of a horn. "Or the next best thing. Whatever."

"Right..." She gulped and glanced behind her. Grinder had pulled the cart so that it acted as an obstructing barricade between them and the rest of the cavernous expanse of Black Level. The slaves and overseers trudged beyond view. Belle wasn't about to waste anytime.

With a deep, meditative breath, she shuffled up to the keypad and slapped her hoof over the numbers, one by one. "Two... Three... Four... and Zero..." She bit her lip and sat on her haunches. "Oh please. Oh please oh please oh please oh please—"

The console flickered, then brightend with a green hue. A loud his emanated from the elevator, and the doors icily slid open.

"Yes!" Belle squeaked, smiling with bright yellow dimples. "Praise the Spark! Garnet's code still worked!"

"Lukcy manure, if you ask me," Grinder hissed, then nudged Bellesmith forward. "Let's not celebrate for too long, girlie."

"R-right," she stumbled into the elevator. As swiftly as he could, Grinder pulled himself and the wagon in along with her. There was room for everything, but the hard part was doing it without making too much noise. Belle was already slapping her hoof repeatedly over a button to close the doors by the time Grinder was completely inside. The doors slid shut before any Enforcer could glance their way.

Belle exhaled a heavy breath of relief and entered a series of combinations before yanking at a lever. With a dull hum of mana, the elevator began its ascent.

"Where are we headed?" Grinder asked. He squirmed for a moment. "Department Blue?"

"No," she said, then gulped. "Not yet, at least. While I wouldn't mind getting so many Ledomaritans out of here, it's not exactly in my power to do. I need to get to my beloved."

"And then what?"

Belle sighed. Her moist eyes reflected the flickering lights between the metal grooves of the elevator car. "I don't know..."

"You don't even have a friggin' game plan or—"

"I don't know! I just don't know, Grinder, okay?!" Belle's voice cracked, and she ran a pair of hooves over her eyes. She gnashed her teeth as lights flickered under her tight lids, like rows of orchards that coalesced into circling piles of ash. The pear blue gaze of Whitemane was there and gone in a blink, and she opened her eyes to a teary world. "I just need to be with my beloved," she whimpered. "I need to be with the pony I love. Everything else will work out... somehow..."

Grinder gazed quietly at her in her moment of delicate vulnerability. "Harumph. You're a friggin' idiot."

Belle sniffled, then produced a weak smile. "I guess I'm just not used to doing stuff like this."

"Why, because it's dangerous?"

"Because it's impulsive." She took a deep breath and stood solidly on four legs. "But it's never too late to start." She reached deep into the back of the wagon and rummaged around.

Grinder squinted at her. He spoke above the hum of the ascending elevator. "What the heck are you doing now?"

"Just because there are so many Enforcers down below in Black Level doesn't mean that there'll be none guarding the facility." She produced two pick-axes, examined both of them, and discarded the more blunt tool. She felt the weight in her hooves, hiding a nervous shiver. "If I really want to get to Pilate, then that means I need to be prepared to do things more... impulsively."

"Have you ever even hurt a single insect in your life, much less a Spark-forsaken unicorn with taser weapons?"

"That's not for you to be c-concerned about, Grinder."

"Like the Queen's crap, it's not. Gimme that."

Belle gasped as Grinder effortlessly yanked the pick-axe out of her grasp. He spun it like an expert soldier and rested it across his horns.

"Grinder," she murmured, squinting quizzically at him. "You've done enough to help me this far. I can't ask you to go in there and risk life and limb for something that doesn't concern you."

"I can and will risk my sorry-flank if it means saving a mare from becoming dead meat in a second." He gazed at her with a remarkably calm expression. "Or do you think I'm unqualified?"

"I-I didn't say that. It's just—"

"What? You think I was sent to this crudhole of a place because I had smarts?" Grinder exhaled heavily and muttered, "I was a soldier, just like that bastard Shell. I know what it means to bust some heads, and then re-bust them into dust."

Belle gulped. "Then... then why were you brought to Blue Shelf in the first place?"

"The General of the Northern Brigade had a problem with me."

"Why?"

"I couldn't stop charging into battle, war time or peace time."

Belle stirred nervously. Still, with a brave smile, she said, "That... doesn't seem so awful."

"Even when one of the battles took place in his wife's tent?"

Belle's features went pale.

"Needless to say..." Grinder sharpened the pick axe with his horn. "Ledomare still hasn't won the war with the Xonans."

"Well... uhm..." Belle shrugged. "I'm sure you won many battles, at least."

The edge of Grinder's wooly lips curved. "The general's wife seemd to think so."

Belle blinked at him. She looked like she was going to throw up, but a high-pitched giggle came out instead.

Grinder joined in with a deep bass chuckle. The elevator car rang with brief merriment.

And then the hum of mana came to a stop. The lights flickered; they reached the main level of the facility.

The laughter ended. Belle and Grinder exchanged glances. Grinder brushed Belle aside. Belle nodded.

With a hiss, the double-doors slid open. Grinder slid out on scraping hooves, the pick-axe fitted in his mouth. He glanced left and right down the hallways. All he saw was concrete corridors and the sweeping strobe of blue manalight, faint but persistent.

After a few seconds, he tapped the pick-axe against the wall and motioned forward with his head. He trotted along, and a shivering Belle limped after him.

Compared to the heated cacophony of the Black level, the facility was dead quiet, a virtual cemetery. Hallways that used to be full of thick, marching troops were now quieter than selpuchers. There were no signs of lab technicians, no evidence to suggest that anypony had been there in the last few days.

Belle would have been feverishly checking each door for a sign of Pilate's whereabouts if only she wasn't preoccupied with the stillness of the place. "I don't get it. Did Shell send them all to Department Blue as well—?"

"Shhh!" Grinder uttered, slapping himself and Belle up against a wall. They remained perfectly still as something lifted in the distances, increasing in resonance. It was hoofsteps, and it was coming closer.

Belle bit her lip, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up.

Grinder's teeth gritted hard against the handle of the pick-axe, and just as the hoofsteps came around the corner, he pounced.

The target fell to the ground without protest. There was a raspy sound, that of an elder voice gasping for breath. Grinder hissed and raised the pick-axe to strike hard.

"No, wait!" Belle shrieked. Grinder froze in mid-swing as she rushed over to the pony beneath the ram's straddling figure. "Dalton?!"

"Nnnnckt..." The elder unicorn looked up, wincing. At the sight of her, his expression paled. "Bellesmith..." He gulped. "Bellesmith, darling. You are alive!"

"Why wouldn't I be?!" Belle said with a bright smile. "You've no idea how happy I am to see you!"

"Erm... y-yes..." Dalton wheezed again, a sheen of sweat blanketing his mustache as he glanced nervously between the unicorn and the ram on top of him.

Belle bit her lip. She tapped Grinder's shoulder and the ram backed off.

"Ptooie!" Grinder spat the pick-axe out and glared. "What gives, old stallion? Are you the CEO of the department of dust now or what?"

"I am happy to see you, Belle," Dalton managed as she helped him up to his trembling hooves. "Though I cannot say the same about your present company."

"We snuck in here, Dalton," Belle said. "We couldn't risk anypony discovering us."

"And I doubt you have to any longer," Dalton said in a low voice. "There are very few ponies left on this floor. All of Shell's Enforcers are elsewhere... d-doing tasks for the Council of Ledo." He ran a shaking hoof through his gray mane. "Or so Shell says..."

"That stallion is full of something," Grinder exhaled. "And it ain't mana."

"Dalton, what's going on here?"

"Everything... nothing..." Dalton's tired gaze fell to the floor. "All the experiments have been halted. All of the previous tasks under Garnet's administration is no more. And then anypony who pretends to put up any sort of resistance is sent to Department Blue."

"Dalton..."

"They barely stock us up on supplies. I haven't eaten in two days—"

"Dalton, Pilate is here," Belle said.

Dalton was silent.

She leaned forward. "They brought him here, and I need to find him. He has to be in one of these rooms, because if he's in Department Blue too..." She winced, clenched her eyes shut, and muttered, "I need to find him. I will do anything."

"I have no doubt of that, darling. It's just that..." Dalton lingered.

Belle opened her moist eyes. She and Grinder stared at the unicorn.

The elder stallion took a deep breath. He reached forward and caressed her chin. "You deserve to be away from all this madness. You and Pilate deserve your old lives back."

"I have to find him first."

"I may be able to help with that," Dalton said.

"And just how is that?" Grinder asked with a glare.

Dalton stood up straight. "Because I know where they put him." He motioned with his head and galloped down the hallway in a gray blur. "Follow me."

Beloved Reunion

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His panting breaths froze upon hearing a clatter of noise from across the darkness. Gulping hard, Pilate scooted to the far side of his mattress, pressing his flank up against the wall. He heard the hiss of the sliding door as a broad swath of light cascaded over his bruised features.

"Forget it, Shell," he grumbled, though he trembled with pain and hunger. "You can intimidate me all you like, beat me to a pulp if you must. I'm not telling you anymore. Whatever's down there isn't for you to fool with. I..."

His nostrils flared, but suddenly he paused on a sharp breath. His ears twitched to the incoming sound. The hoofsteps trotting through the darkness were soft, delicate, and pensive.

"Belle?" he murmured, his face grimacing.

"Pilate..."

The zebra seethed. "No..." He shook his head and kicked at the mattress. "You don't bring her into this, Shell! Do you hear me?!"

"Oh, Pilate..." The hooves galloped toward him.

He craned his neck and shouted towards nothingness. "You leave her out of this! You bring her back home—"

"Pilate, it's me!" Belle gasped, grasping his muzzle and tilting his panting face towards hers. She lifted his trembling hoof to grace her mane and half-horn. "Shell isn't here. It's okay."

Pilate's lips trembled. The voice that came out of him clung to her warmth. "Belle? How... wh-why did you come here?"

She smiled, sniffling as she caressed his face. "To get you, silly zebra."

He gnashed his teeth and clenched his gray eyes shut. "I... I tried to keep the symbols secret. But... but he found out a lot. I told him things. I'm so sorry, Belle. I'm so sorry—"

"Shhh, don't be sorry, P-Pilate," she murmured, nuzzling him dear as her voice took on a sobbing cadence. "Just be here." She hugged him dearly. "Be alive. Be mine."

He buried his face into her mane and whimpered in a muffled tone, "I was so worried that he would get to you... that he would hurt you..."

"He won't hurt us anymore, Pilate. I won't let him."

"But... But we're in the heart of the facility and his Enforcers—"

"I don't care," she suddenly growled. "I love you and I am getting us out of here alive, do you hear me?"

He swallowed hard and whispered, "I love you so much."

"It's okay. Everything is going to be fine. I promise you."

Two shadows loomed in the doorway, pensively glancing back and forth from the tender scene to the concrete hallway beyond.

"Darling, as much as I adore a tender reunion, we cannot tarry here," Dalton said.

Pilate gasped, but Bellesmith held him still with a hushed voice. "It's okay. He's here to help us."

"Dalton?" Pilate stammered, his breath leveling out. "You're still in the facility?"

"I'm afraid so, old friend."

"I could have sworn... th-that he got rid of everypony."

"For some reason, he still has use of me," Dalton said with a sigh. "For a moment there, I had hopes I'd be sent home to Mildred."

"Help me with these chains!" Belle exclaimed.

Grinder trotted over and yanked at the metal links with brute force.

Pilate tilted his head aside. His nostrils flared once... twice. He made a face. "Grinder?"

"Yeah, yeah," the ram muttered and ripped the shackles off their chains. "I'm here too."

"Do I even want to know how you got here?"

"What matters is that we have you now, Pilate," Belle said, giving him a swift kiss on the lips before hoisting him to his hooves. "And we have a job to do."

"Uhhh..." Dalton squinted across the dark cell. "I beg your pardon?"

"Job to do?" Grinder's wooly brow furrowed. "As in the job of getting the hay out of this crap well?"

"We can't let Shell get away with what he's got planned with this facility," Belle said as she trotted across the room with Pilate leaning limply against her weight. She gave Dalton a firm glare. "We have to head for the laboratories."

"What for?"

"Rainbow Dash," she said. "We're taking the subject with us."

Rolling Out

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"I am with you in every endeavor, darling," Dalton said, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. "But exactly what would freeing the subject accomplish?"

"It's more about preventing what Shell could accomplish," Bellesmith replied, rubbing Pilate's weak legs to get the blood running as he leaned against her weight. "If he gets his way, if he completely dominates power over Rainbow Dash and gets the door to the metal wall open down below, then this world will lose the one spark it has always needed."

"Spark? Belle, there is only one Spark!"

"I've seen things, Dalton. I've lived another life. Rainbow Dash needs to be freed."

"Belle, something obviously went awry when we hooked you up to that pegasus from Aridstone," Dalton said. "I fought and fought with Shell to have mercy on your exhausted nerves—"

"Dalton—"

"There's no telling just how many intense hallucinations you endured—"

"I was visited by an Alicorn, Dalton!" Belle exclaimed. She looked up at him, frowning. "Her name is Whitemane, and she had left an imprint of her holy magic on Rainbow Dash's soul. When I communed with Rainbow Dash's consciousness, I communed with her. Whitemane showed me the life of Rainbow Dash, along with her pain and her joys and her travels. She's on a mission that I barely understand—that I don't think Rainbow herself understands—but I am convinced it is for the good of this world."

"Caring about the world is a noble thing, darling," Dalton said. "But we can only do so much as it is for the Confederacy. The Council of Ledo is always present and—"

"Since when has the Council or the Enforcers done anything good for this world? Ever?!" Bellesmith seethed. "All they want is more power and more loyalty in order to win this stupid war, and to what end? We'll destroy ourselvse, Dalton. We've already destroyed so much of our culture, eradicated all of the diversity of beloveds past and present, just to support the legacy of a hollow matriarchy that serves only itself and not ponydom."

Dalton opened his mouth, but ultimately hung his head.

"I can't make you help us, Dalton," Belle murmured, leaning forward as she supported Pilate's hobbling weight. "But I ask that you don't try to stop us."

"She's onto something, Dalton," Pilate added in a hoarse voice. He cleared his throat and managed to add, "Whatever he's unearthed down there, it's something older than the Confederacy, older than most ponydom, and older than time. In an attempt to finish a war, Shell might find that whatever power he gains from the heart of this world, he won't stop using it until there's no world left to conquer."

"Rainbow Dash is the Spark to something greater than all of us, and we can't let Shell have that Spark." Belle took a deep breath. "Nopony should be allowed to have that Spark, but the Spark itself."

"I know... I understand..." Dalton shuddered. "It's just... He would stop at nothing to keep the subject here. How do you even plan to get her out of here, assuming she's in one piece?"

"She is in one piece. Whitemane's assured me of it." Belle managed a tiny smile. "And let me worry about what needs to be done when we get her."

"Well, let's friggin' do something already, jeez," Grinder muttered, staring anxiously out into the concrete hallway. "We're doing nothing but gathering dust here, waiting for some haybrained guard to eviscerate us."

"Okay... okay... okay..." Dalton leaned against a wall and ran a hoof through his gray mane. "Let me think. Please. Let me just... think of a way through this..."

Belle took a deep breath, trembling slightly in the sudden silence of the moment.

Pilate tried to take a step, but stumbled. "Ow ow ow..." He winced.

Belle steadied him. "Are you okay? Can you walk?"

"So long as you're with me," he said. Gulping, he lifted his muzzle towards her and managed a weak smile. "Listen to you... All brave and daring."

"Mmmmm..." Belle's cheeks turned red. "I've never been so sure about something in my life. Is that a crime?"

"I don't know. I rather like it."

"Well it did get us back together, didn't it?"

"Did Whitemane truly put you through all of those fainting spells just to give a message?"

"I wasn't just given a message, Pilate," Belle said. "I lived it. It was the only way I could understand..."

"Understand what?"

Belle exhaled and murmured, "That Rainbow Dash is supremely important."

Pilate gulped and remarked, "Even more important than us?"

Belle leaned in and nuzzled him. "Austraeoh needs us, Pilate. Don't you realize that? Our lives wouldn't be the same if she hadn't been brought to Blue Shelf. We're her means of rebirth, so she can be reacquainted with her spirit of endurance."

Pilate whispered, "Eljunbyro."

Belle leaned against him and nodded.

"But... But from what you told me, she should be dead. How could she have survived all the torment and pain she went through before Aridstone?"

"I think the answer is simple, Pilate," Belle said. "I think Rainbow Dash is more important than herself too."

"Okay..." Dalton spoke up. "I have a plan."

Belle looked up. "A way to reach Rainbow Dash?"

"We can't just grab the subject and cart her away. She's locked up inside her sarcophagus within the Alpha Storage Compartment of Department Blue."

"Then let's take an elevator down there and find her!"

"We can't do that!" Dalton hissed, glancing past Grinder and into the hallway. Fidgeting, he lowered his voice and whispered, "Alpha Storage is locked off, even to the likes of me. Only Shell's Enforcer stallions possess the means of opening the doors to that chamber."

"Then how are we to get to this darn pony?" Grinder exclaimed. "You said you have a plan."

"The sarcophagus is made to raise up via a platform through the ceiling separating Department Blue and the laboratory chambers of this level. If we go to the sequencing chamber, we just might be able to get the subject to reach us and gain access to her from there."

Belle suddenly gasped. "The sequencing chamber..." Her chestnut eyes glinted, as if she was staring at a ruby sheen in the midst of so much darkness. "Of course! There's something else in there! Something important!"

"How important?" Grinder remarked with a glare.

"If we want the subject to come out of Blue Shelf alive, we need to grab what's in the sequencing room too."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Pilate asked. "I certainly don't want to stick around in this place any longer."

"Sounds like a plan to me!" Grinder proceeded to shove everyone roughly into the hallway. "Lead the way, mustachio!" he grunted at Dalton in particular as they all broke into a swift trot. "Let's make like turds and roll out!"

Loyalty's Reward

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The door to the sequencing chamber opened with a cold swish. Dalton stood in the entrance, gazing in with a nervous shiver. Once he felt the coast was clear, he made a motion with his forelimb. Belle came in with Pilate hobbling beside her. Grinder took up the rear, and as soon as he stepped into the place, his wooly face paled.

"What in the brown, fly-swirling crap is this?!" he uttered over the sound of the door shutting behind him.

"Dalton...?" Belle remarked, staring wide-eyed.

"What is it?" Pilate stammered, wincing. "What's wrong?"

"I was afraid of this," Dalton murmured, marching up to a thick wall of black metal. A barricade stretched halfway down the room, cutting the length of the room in half. "It's been weeks since we've last had to strap you to the sequencing chair, darling." He glanced over his shoulder at the gold-coated mare. "Garnet never resorted to this, but ever since Shell took over, he's activated security overrides. This door is meant to prevent access to the sequencing equipment and sarcophagus platform."

"Then un-prevent the access!" Grinder growled.

"I'll attempt to," Dalton said, trotting over towards a console built into the wall. "I've yet to test out the limits Shell may or may not have imposed upon my security clearance."

"Something tells me you've yet to test out a ton of things, neckbeard."

Dalton licked his mustached lip, fiddling with the controls. After twisting several crystal knobs in a specific order, a blue glow filled that half of the room. A loud hum of mana resonated, then met with a buzzing sound. The black barricade shifted down the center, but refused to buzz.

"What in the hay was that?" Pilate asked, his striped face grimacing.

"Nnngh..." Dalton gritted his teeth. "It seems I've been locked out of some liberties I used to possess."

"Like what?" Grinder asked.

"I can't open the door entirely. Obviously, when Shell got rid of Professor Garnet, he threw mechanical prowess out the window as well. The mana rewiring here is a grunt's job; I'm able to unlock the door still, but that's about it."

"Then how do we get it open?"

"I'll show you how!" Grinder slammed his horns against the middle of the barricade. "Hnnnnngh!"

"Grinder!" Belle gasped. "Don't—"

"No, you!" Grinder growled. With a shout of major machismo, he pried the door open with his horns and stuck his upper body in. Slowly, the thinnest of passages was formed, exposing the far end of the sequencing chamber. "Grrrrrrr—How about this, ya numb bucks?!"

"Dalton!" Belle exclaimed. "I can see the pedestal, but the sarcophagus isn't there!"

"It will only rise once the sequencing process has been activated!" Dalton replied, still fiddling with the console. "One of us will have to get in the chair and pretend to be accessing the subject's spheres!"

"Can you help me, then?"

"I'm afraid to go in there and leave this console unattended!" Dalton replied. "The mana circuits are attempting to re-activate the door locks to the barricade! Bellesmith, darling, you'll have to bring the subject up to this level!"

"But if I'm sitting in the chair, how can I get to Rainbow Dash?"

"I don't know..." Dalton grit his teeth, sweating as he fought with the mana crystals. "I doubt very much the subject will trot out on her own..."

"Well, better think of something!" Grinder hissed, sweat dripping off his wool as he quivered between both halves of the door. "I kind of like my spine, and none of you are h-helping it here!"

"I can get her out."

Everypony looked at Pilate.

"Beloved..."

"I can do it." He looked up, smiling as he brought a hoof up to the orb dangling off his choker. "O.A.S.I.S. will guide me."

"But you're in no condition to—"

"To what? Help my beloved in her time of need? Are we or are we not Eljunbyro?"

Belle's lips quivered. "We... We..."

"I don't think we have any other option, darling," Dalton said.

"Friggin' go already before I kick you in the plots!" Grinder growled.

"You heard him, love," Pilate said.

Belle took a deep breath, grabbed the zebra, and threaded them both through the tiny gap. "Here goes..."

"Knock three times when you're ready to come out!" Grinder wheezed.

"Huh?"

The door slammed shut behind them with a resonating thud.

Belle and Pilate were cast into total darkness.

"Oh..." Belle droned. "That's not good."

"Allow me. Ahem. O.A.S.I.S. Illuminate."

A dim glow of silver pulsed in the center of the room. A series of stripes outlined Pilate's bruised muzzle and neck. His face tilted around as he breathed in Belle's direction.

"Does this help at all?"

"Yes, a little," she replied.

"Tell me where to point it, honey."

She gulped and shuffled forward. "Just follow my voice."

He hobbled behind her, aiming the floating sphere in the direction of her panting breath. Soon, a glint of metal shone in Belle's eyes, and she held a hoof out to stop him.

"Right here. Hold it."

"What is it?"

"It can only be one thing..." Belle walked up to the pedestal, atop of which was a porous metal cube. She squinted her chestnut eyes, attempting to see the precious item that lay within. "This box..." She gasped it in two hooves, lifted, and held the thing in the air before her. "There... there doesn't seem to be a lid or a latch or anything."

"Having trouble opening it?"

"There has to be some means of doing so, if only I knew how..."

"I can think of one way." Suddenly, Pilate reached across the silver glow of his orb, grabbed the box, and held it over his mane.

"B-beloved!" Belle gasped.

"Shhh." He smirked. "Don't panic." With one swift throw, he smashed the thing across the hard floor of the sequencing room.

Belle winced, then stamped her hoof with a red-faced expression of anger. "You could have warned me at least!"

"Hey..." He chuckled at her, wincing slightly. "Just following your lead."

"I'm not that impulsive," she muttered, shifting her hoof through a pool of metal shards. "Not yet at least..."

"Did it do the trick?"

She was silent.

"Belle?"

Belle's hoof lifted up, and when it did, an immaculate collar of gold hung from her grip. In the pale light, a fire-red lightning bolt dangled in infinite brilliance.

"It's... it's hers," she murmured, a glittering pattern cascading across her eyes. "It's just like I remembered..." She bit her lip. "Like she remembered. A piece of her..." She ran her hoof across its shiny surface. "It's perfect, Pilate. Not a single scratch on it. It's like it's from another world. Just feel it..."

Pilate raised a hoof up, and Belle guided it until it touched the center of the Element. His breath left him, and a touch of moisture collected along the edges of his gray sockets. "I feel... I feel..."

"Yes?" Belle breathed.

He gulped. "Warm," he said. "There's something... wholesome about it..."

"Harmony in its purest state," Belle uttered, clutching the item to her chest like a long lost lamb. "There's not much in this world that's more wholesome." She gulped and stammered, "Pilate, we're so close. I can feel it..."

There was a thudding sound from the other side, followed by Grinder's muffled shouts: "What's taking you honeymooners so long in there?! Dalton's sweating up an ocean here! Hurry up!"

Belle took a deep breath. "Right. I have to activate the sequencing process."

"And I should just open the sarcophagus when it comes?" Pilate asked.

"You... You have to do more than that, beloved." She thrusted the pendant into his grip.

He stumbled back, juggling it in nervous clutches. "Huh?"

"She needs this, Pilate. If we're to take her anywhere... if she's to be safe... then this needs to be around her neck."

"Her neck?" Pilate gulped. "If she needs it so much, then how's she been able to last so long without it?"

"I don't know, but I suspect we'll eventually find out." Belle galloped over to the chair and practically dove into it. She threw several switches and twisted an array of knobs before attaching a plethora of red wires to her stubby horn. "I have this set at half power. I won't sequence with her completely, so I should be concious enough to guide you along the way verbally, Pilate."

"Alright. I'm sure O.A.S.I.S. will do the rest."

"Just be careful." Belle paused to gulp, then added, "Whatever's inside that sarcophagus, it... it may not be what either of us is expecting."

"What does that mean?!"

"Just get the necklace on her, Pilate, and everything else will be fine. Trust me."

"I do trust you, beloved," Pilate said, though there was a nervous tremble to his bruised limbs as he pivoted away from the chair. The light of O.A.S.I.S. dimmed as a scanning field replaced the illumination screen. The sphere floated before him, ready to sense whatever would rise from the floor. "Just let me know what to do, and I'll get the job done."

"There's the zebra I fell in love with." She took one last breath, her body twitching slightly as bolts of mana surged through the red wires. She winced once, grimaced even, but meditated into a steady state of concentration. Soon, a glow of light pulsed into the floor, swallowed up in darkness. After a few seconds, a deep humming sound emanated from below.

With a resounding hiss, a panel slid open in the floor. Pilate stood his ground and stammered over his shoulder, "I think something's coming up! O.A.S.I.S. is going crazy!"

"Can you d-describe the shape of the object?" Belle managed to say, dripping in and out of sequencing.

"It... It's a large, cylindrical body. Polished metal, with a seam running vertically down the center."

"Good. Get a little closer, Pilate. Up close, O.A.S.I.S. should be able to locate the opening mechanism!"

"Alright..." He stepped towards it, the ruby pendant dangling in his grasp. He reached a hoof out blindly until it made contact with the smooth, curved surface of the locker. "This metal... there's something off about it. O.A.S.I.S. is sending me conflicting information."

"Like how so?"

"It's... It's almost wanting to tell me that the structure is actually organic, and not really metal. Closest thing I can recall from my runic memory is the texture of petrified bone."

"Petrified bone..." Belle's brow furrowed as more sparks of light danced along the wires attached to her horn. Her lips parted. "Chaos strips..."

"What was that?"

"I think I know how Rainbow Dash has remained alive for so long, but how Shell got ahold of it..."

"Care to fill me in?"

Belle cleared her throat. "One thing at a time! You have to open that up!"

"Okay..."

"Halfway up the height of it, along the seam, there should be a part where the structural reinforcement is doubled."

"Scanning... Scanning..." Pilate bit his lip as the sphere shone a steady beam of energy all along the front of the sarcophagus. "Right here, Belle! I sense what feels to be a pivoting hatch along the inside of the lids!"

"It's heat sensitive, wired to mana batteries." She tilted up from the bed, struggling to keep her voice straight. "Place your hooves on either side of the seam and rotate them counter-clockwise. The latch should follow your movement, like a magnet."

"Alright. Here goes." Pilate gripped the edge of the pendant in his teeth, sat on his haunches, and reached his forelimbs up. He placed his hooves on either side of the vertical seam, waited a few seconds, and twisted. With a victorious click, the entire sarcophagus began humming. Soon, there was a loud hiss, and the entire locker split open.

If Pilate's eyes had been blinking at the time, they probably would have frozen shut. A veritable arctic blast pelted his figured. He nearly fell back from the wave of frigid air. The pendant fell from his gasping lips, rattling to the floor.

"Pilate!" Belle exclaimed. "Are you alright?"

"Nnngh—Yeah! Just..." He coughed, wheezed, and picked up the pendant in thrice-shivering hooves. "Just wasn't prepared for the North Pole to say 'hello' to me."

"Is she in there?!" Belle exclaimed.

"Uhhh..." Pilate stirred nervously. O.A.S.I.S. floated in front of him, performing a full scan. As it did so, the zebra's ears drooped. "Uhm...."

"Pilate?"

"I'll... I'll get back to you."

"Huh?"

"Be patient, beloved." With a hoof, he slapped the sphere back onto his neck choker. Pilate took several deep breaths. Finally, he leaned up, up, and up. With slow precision, he inched the pendant forward in a pair of shaking forelimbs. His hooves brushed against sharp bristles, moist feathers, and pointed talons. He gritted his teeth and stood up on his rear hooves. His panting reached a fever pitched as he bumped hooves with a pair of gnarled branches. With one hoof, he felt down the jagged stalks until he sensed a wooly skull, a long snout, and a fanged muzzle. Once his limbs had found a slender neck, he held his breath, plunged into the forest of sharp objects, and clasped the necklace swiftly around the throat.

Pilate fell back in a slump, hyperventilating, for a blast of warmth had instantly melted the aura of cold upon the pendant's application. He winced as a strong pulse of information was cycled from the dangling sphere and into his metal plate. The runes on his skull flickered in an alternating pattern as his ears filled with the sound of rattling, clattering objects.

"Pilate?" Belle murmured from the table. "Did you... is she...?"

"Don't m-move from the chair, Belle!" he exclaimed, his head tilted towards the sarcophagus. He listened as more and more things rattled against the sequencing room's floor. He felt what could best be described as a carpet of fuzz blanketing his lower legs, along with several plumes of stray feathers. Finall, there were two thuds, and one of the branches settled to a stop, its sharp ends poking against him.

With a gulp, Pilate stood back up. On wobbly legs, he shuffled once more towards the sarcophagus. He slipped once, cursing under his breath, but caught his balance. A fine layer of shed fur and fibrous hairs had blanketed the floor. When he reached the open locker, he felt the same warmth, only now it was resonating in a pulsing fashion. He reached up—pensively—and felt a lithe torso with a silky-smoothe coat. He brushed his hooves up the slender shoulders, neck, muzzle, and was greeted with a normal mane atop a decidedly normal scalp.

Daringly, the zebra stood up, hugged the body tightly, and gave it a major tug. He heard several snapping noises as the canvas harnesses anchoring the subject to the inside of the sarcophagus broke loose. He tumbled back, surprised at how light the body was. Pivoting, he managed a hoarse cry in Belle's direction. "Now, beloved! I got her!"

Belle didn't waste any time. She ripped the wires from her horn and jumped out of her chair. Galloping across the darkness, she knelt beside Pilate and felt along his body. The two blindly shared the weight of the equine figure and hobbled their way to the door. Once there, Belle slapped her hoof against the barricade three times.

"We have her! You can let us through now!"

A hum of mana resonated through the barrier, and a bright slit of light appeared, along with Grinder's straining face.

"Took you long enough! Slide on through!"

"You first, Pilate!"

"If you insist." Pilate fumbled through the tiny passageway. Grinder gave him a frustrated slap against his flank, and the zebra slid through, yelping.

Next was Belle's turn, and she did it with more or less grace, clutching the body to herself and gliding out on her spine. "Nnngh!"

"They're out!" Grinder hissed and jumped out of the doorway. Once more, the front end of the sequencing chamber echoed with thunder.

The noise blurred Belle's vision. She sat up, wincing as she cradled the petite body in her lap. She gazed down, and when the world refocused, it was full of color. All breath left her lungs. Belle blinked, and yet she didn't blink back.

Rainbow Dash's eyes were shut, and yet the lids kept fluttering, as if something was desperate to be born beneath the surface of her living exterior. And she was very much alive: her chest expanding and contracting, her tail flickering ever so slightly. There wasn't a part of her that somehow did not have an immaculate sheen, as if she was carved out of the very gemstones that had constructed the perfect pendant clinging to her neck. Her lips hung open, as if frozen in eternal speech, giving a plea to the fading lights of the world that Belle knew all too well.

"It's as I thought," Dalton said, leaning back from the console with a smile of relief. He wiped the sweat from his brow and uttered, "She is still unconscious. What mortal could have endured what she has and still come out of it in one piece?"

"Heh, some mortal," Grinder muttered, squinting. "A pony with wings. Never thought I'd see the day."

"How is she, Belle?" Pilate asked between steadying breaths. He slid over and sat at her side. "What does she look like?"

Belle gulped and stammered, "She's b-beautiful, Pilate." She smiled sweetly, her eyes moistening. "Smaller than I imagined, and yet like a piece of the sky that was carved out on a clear morning." She sniffled as she ran a hoof through her prismatic tresses, then gently coiled one of Rainbow's wings to her side in a motherly gesture. "I never thought I would be..." She winced slightly. "She... She never thought she'd be with friends again." Belle choked on a happy laugh as a tear rolled down her cheek. "But I think she is." She nodded. "I think she is."

Pilate leaned in and nuzzled Belle's cheek before leaning his muzzle on her shoulder. He said quietly but firmly, "Friends or not, we got her this far. It's now time that we got her out of here."

"Yes, I know." Belle took a deep breath and nuzzled him back. "I just wish she didn't have to come here under these circumstances... after having gone through so much..." Her moist eyes narrowed as she brushed a hoof across Rainbow's forehead, observing as two spots of blood disappeared. "The metal that encased her... it must have stabilized the chaos energy that infected her. That's how she recovered from all her wounds; the curse actually healed her from the wounds that Axan inflicted."

"Axan?" Dalton made a face.

"Who?" Grinder made an even uglier one.

"What did Shell want with her...?" Belle murmured. "It couldn't have just been for the door alone..."

"Belle, beloved," Pilate spoke softly, kissing her tenderly and speaking into her ear. "We have to get going."

"Yes." Belle nodded firmly. "Yes, we do. Grinder?" She looked at the ram.

He walked over and helped her with Rainbow Dash. The two hoisted the pegasus until she was lying, draped over Belle's spine. Belle stood up straight, surprised that she could even do so.

"By the Spark... she's so light..."

"Could be malnourishment," Dalton said.

"Could be that half of her is friggin' feathers," Grinder added. "Should we wait for the bird pony thingy to wake up?"

"No." Belle shook her head. "No more waiting. We go. Dalton, give Pilate a hoof. He's still having trouble with walking."

"Sure thing, darling."

"Grinder, you and your horns lead the way."

"Heh, yes ma'am."

"It's time we said good bye to Blue Shelf."

Another Key

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"Nnnngh..." Pilate winced, hissing through gritted teeth as several runes flickered across his skull plate.

Belle glanced back, catching her breath from the effort of carrying Rainbow Dash through the concrete passageways of the facility. "Pilate? Is everything okay?"

"My head is impersonating a jackhammer from all sides," he muttered, shifting his weight against Dalton at the rear of the hurried group. "If I could see, I'd be seeing stars."

"We should be near the elevator soon, right, Grinder?"

"Meh. Yeah, I guess."

"Just a few more feet, Pilate."

"I don't understand why O.A.S.I.S. is being so annoying right now," the zebra said, wincing visibly and teetering on his hooves.

"Could it be some mana feedback? It's been a long time since I've been allowed to properly fix it for you."

"I don't know, Belle," he muttered as the four rushed with Rainbow Dash around a corner and towards a wide stretch of elevator doors. "It only started acting crazy just recently. It's almost as if the thing is overloaded."

"I'll take a look at it in the elevator," Belle said, shifting the weight of the unconcious pegasus on her backside. She gazed over at Grinder and motioned with her stubby horn. "Would you do the honors?"

"Consider it done," the ram muttered, slapping his hoof over a panel next to the elevator doors. The equines came to a stop at the dead end as a low, bass hum filled the air. "Where the hay are we gonna go?"

"We could take the elevator all the way to the top."

"Screw that. It's gonna be an Enforcer convention," Grinder replied.

"The only other way out is through Black Level and the adjacent elevator shafts."

"It's stupid, but we might have to risk it, girl."

"Augh!" Pilate winced once more. The sphere dangling from his choker was strobing now. "There it goes again! It's increasing in waves."

"Pilate, do you need to take O.A.S.I.S. off?" Belle asked.

"I... I'm not sure..." Pilate said, rubbing a hoof over his striped muzzle. He twitched, his ears flicking with thought. "Now that I think about it, it started acting like this after we got Rainbow Dash."

"Huh?" Belle looked over, squinting. "Beloved, do you think that she's somehow responsible for the manasphere's reactions?"

"That wouldn't make sense. Unless it isn't her... but..." Pilate bit his lip. "Maybe it's something on her...?"

"You mean that lightning bolt thingy?" Grinder remarked, pointing.

Belle tilted her head so that Rainbow's chin dangled just beside her neck. She saw the glint of the Element in her peripheral vision. "It's pure Harmony. I don't think O.A.S.I.S. has ever been in proximity to something like that before."

"What could it mean?" Pilate asked.

"It means that O.A.S.I.S. is capable of storing more than just basic information," Dalton droned, the first thing he had uttered in minutes. He sighed and lowered his eyes. "Which is exactly what I was afraid of..."

"Huh?" Belle looked up. "Dalton, what are you rambling about—" Her eyes widened.

Grinder's jaw fell.

The corridor lit up as two Enforcers marched around a corner, their tasers sparkling and levitating at ready. Then two more appeared... then four more. Soon, a thick group of over a dozen and a half unicorns stood around Dalton and Pilate, their berets reflecting the manalight in a collective sheen. Finally, with a scrape of his heavy hooves, Shell appeared, glaring at the rogue Ledomaritans with a single, cold eye.

"Oh blessed Spark..." Belle murmured.

"You can bless it all you wish," Shell returned coldly. "It was never yours to begin with, which is ironic, considering how stubborn you were about helping us find it in the first place." His one eye regarded the limp figure of Rainbow Dash atop Belle's spine. "Well, the subject certainly looks... cuter." His nostrils flared. "No matter." He reached over to Pilate's flinching neck and tapped the glowing sphere hanging from his choker. "It looks like we have the key after all."

"The k-key?!" Pilate stammered. "What do you—?"

"That which empowers the subject can find its way to other hosts, it seems." Shell yanked the sphere from Pilate's neck and held it up to his squinting vision. "I must say, though I detest scientists, I'm gaining a new apprecition for experimentation. Lucky me: to have my first ever hypothesis confirmed."

"I... I don't get it..." Belle stammered. "This... This whole thing..." Her chestnut eyes twitched. "You wanted us to free Rainbow Dash?!"

"Not like you'd have any hope of taking her anywhere, regardless," Shell slurred. He slapped the sphere back into place on Pilate's neck. The zebra flinched heavily, his runes twitching from the overload of energy. "The probable outcome to this scenario was my having an easier way to open the door. It was worth the risk, though it wasn't my life being risked."

"Then whose? I don't understand—" Belle froze in mid speech. Her eyes moistened. She gulped, and it was with a sympathetic exhale instead of a rigid frown that she allowed her gaze to fall upon Dalton.

Dalton wasn't looking at her. The Enforcers were gathered around him and Pilate, but none of their tasers were being aimed at the old stallion.

"Was it Mildred?" she asked, her voice shaking. "Was that why you used me and my beloved?"

Sadly, Dalton looked up. "I've told you so little, darling," he said. After a deep breath, he murmured, "My beloved's been dead for over ten years. It's my grandchildren, Bellesmith. Shell's stallions have them."

Beloveds Apart

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"Why you traitorous mountain of spoiled oats," Grinder hissed at Dalton, sliding a hoof forward.

The air heated up with a dozen tasers pointed straight at his horns.

The ram froze in place, glaring at the whole group of Enforcers with flaring nostrils. "I knew you were dirty from the moment I saw your mustache. I don't care if they have your grandchildren's grandchildren and their grandchildren's granchildren's kittens held captive somewhere. You're a no good snake in the grass!"

"He's a dedicated, loyal stallion of the Ledomaritan Confederacy," Shell said, strolling by and planting a hoof on Dalton's shivering shoulder. "Which is the least I can say about the whole lot of you." He took a breath. "But it matters little." Reaching over to Pilate, he once again jostled the glistening shape of the sphere dangling from the zebra's wincing neck. "You have all performed admirably for our Queen, whether or not all of you were anywhere as dedicated as my associate here. And now I have far better means of accessing the door than the subject could ever have given me. However, a stubborn zebra is hardly any better than a comatose pegasus, but I'm sure he'll become cooperative. We'll just have to come to an agreement between here and the door."

Shell whistled. Four of the Enforcers marched up at attention while the others remained trained on Belle and Grinder.

"Take them to Delta Wing," Shell ordered, motioning with his horn towards the far side of the facility. "Wait for me there, and we'll all take the express lift to Black Level and finish this experiment once and for all."

"If you think for one second that I'm going to help you open up that giant, metal mess—" Pilate started to hiss.

"You can and you will open the door for us with O.A.S.I.S.," Shell said, his cold eye narrowing on him. "Or would you rather be wearing your beloved instead of burying her tomorrow?"

Pilate gasped. Tears sprang from his eyes as he was carted away, along with Dalton. He tilted his head towards Belle and stammered, "Belle... Oh, darling, I-I'm so sorry..."

"Don't h-help them with anything, Pilate!" Belle whimpered, her eyes moist as she trembled under the weight of the unconscious pegasus. "Don't give in—"

"Don't hurt her!" Pilate sobbed, struggling weakly with the uniformed stallions carrying him and the glowing orb away. "Please! I beg you—"

"Pilate, I love you!" Belle managed, seething through chattering teeth. Her eyes twitched upon the glow of several tasers lining up in front of her. Looking up, she caught Shell's gaze from afar.

"You've always been a clever pony, Doctor Bellesmith," Shell said as he stood behind his line of glaring soldiers. "You should know that the swiftest experiments are always the least painful." His horn glowed, and he buffed the vibrancy of the deadly tasers in his stallions' telekinetic grips. "Do not resist, and it will all be over."

Belle breathed her last breath—

A cold schwish emanated behind them.

Belle looked over her shoulder. The elevator had arrived, and its door was wide open.

All of the soldiers' eyes flinched to look at it.

And that was precisely when—

"Nnngh!" Grinder jumped in front of Belle and bucked her back with his rear legs.

"Ooof!" Belle tumbled back. Her and Rainbow Dash's bodies went toppling loosely into the elevator car.

"Go!" Grinder snarled, for he was already bounding forward and goring his horns hard into a screaming guard. "Nnnnngh—Time for some good ol' fashion pain, ya beret wearin' spitjobs!"

Belle's eyes twitched. She reached up with her rear hoof—struggling under the limp body of Rainbow Dash to reach an elevator button, any button. She finally struck a node pointing "down" and slapped her hoof against a crystal lever. "Unngh!" The car filled with the resonating hum of mana.

"Raaaaugh!" Grinder slammed his way through two more guards. A taser swung at his woolly side, spilling blood. "Gghhh—Haugh!" He slammed into the stallion's side. Two Enforcers tackled his body. He shrugged them off, snarted, and galloped down the hallway and straight at Shell with a blood-curdling yell.

Shell didn't flinch. Breathing still, he calmly unolstered a metal weapon from his side. Red crystals lit the air as he unfolded the barrel of a levitating gun and cocked it.

"And you!" Grinder's eyes hardened as he performed a bounding leap. "Biggest waste of spit of all!"

"Duly noted." Shell aimed the gun forward and shot a bolt of magic into it. A clap of thunder filled the corridor as a crystal shard sailed out the barrel and flew through Grinder's forehead.

The last thing Belle saw as the doors closed was the ram's body sliding to the ground in front of the Prime Enforcer's hooves. Her ears ached from a loud ringing noise; the crystal had embedded into the wall of the car above her stubby horn. Blood dripped liberally from the soaked shard as it vibrated to a stop.

The unicorn's mouth hung open.

With a cold hum, the closed car slid icily down the shaft.

Faithful Ledomaritans

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"Doctor Bellesmith just entered the lateral elevator with the subject. Halt them on your level and eliminate both targets. Shell out."

"Copy that, Prime Enforcer!" A stallion shouted. He holstered a resonating sound crystal, unsheathed his taser, and gestured towards the uniformed unicorns on either side of him. "Follow me!"

No less than ten Enforcers galloped down the dimly-lit metal corridors of Department Blue. The rounded a corner and trotted down a long hallway lined with glass security alcoves. At the far end, a pair of thick doors lingered. They could already see manalight indicating a lowering lift through the creases in the baricade.

"Quick! Stop it! The targets are in there!"

"On it!" another unicorn shouted. With bright telekinesis, he yanked a metal console out from the wall and rearranged the crystals within. A discordant sound screeched through the walls as the elevator on the other side of the doors came to a stop in the middle of the shaft. "Nnngh... The security is malfunctioning on me. I can get the car to stop, but the doors refuse to open!"

"Then we'll get to them the hard way..."

The breathless Enforcers lined up in the middle of Department Blue, electrifying their tasers and tightening their muscles. Every set of eyes was trained on the elevator doors as their captain marched forward and shouted.

"We have you outnumbered! By the power vested in me by the Council of Ledo, I hereby order you to surrender and present yourself! I promise that we will give you a swift end!"

Silence.

The guards breathed evenly, energizing their tasers until they glowed even brighter.

"I repeat!" The Captain snarled...

Eljunbyro's Plea

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"Come out to face the punishment for your crimes! If you refuse, we shall break down these doors and remove you ourselves!"

Belle was panting, hyperventilating. She gulped and slid back against the blood-drenched wall beneath the mana bullet. Her forelimbs pulled Rainbow Dash with her, so that the unicorn was sitting with the limp pegasus lying in her lap.

As the guards on the other side shouted again, she bit her lip. Her chestnut eyes darted back and forth, watering with each progressive thought of Pilate and what Shell might be doing to him. She thought of Dalton, of the fate of his grandfoals. Then she thought of Grinder, and how the heroic soul had been reduced to a pile of meat in less than a second.

She choked on a sob, bringing a hoof up to her face and gritting her teeth as the tears flowed.

She became aware once more of the warm body lying against her like a sleeping infant. Belle's moist eyes opened as she gazed down at Rainbow Dash's peaceful form. The pegasus' head was lying against her shoulder, her prismatic mane impossibly bright and silky, like a curtain of light scattered to spectral beams between them.

Belle blinked, and in those flashes of darkness she saw bright faces, emerald vistas, sapphire skies—so many beautiful things that she was at a loss to comprehend them ending so bleakly. She was also, for a moment at least, at a loss to comprehend if they belonged to her or the peaceful relic in her embrace.

Perhaps they belonged to them both.

The soldiers shouted again, their tasers humming with threatening vigor. Belle gasped, sniffling as the tears streamed down her cheeks. With a grimacing sob, she reached down and nuzzled Rainbow Dash dearly.

"I... I-I don't know if you can hear me, or if you know who I am... what I've been through..."

More shouts. More humming.

Belle bit her lip, squeaked, and continued, "But I know a thing or two about you. I know how awesome you are. I know all of the trials and adventures you've been through to get here. I have no doubt now that you are the pony to save this world. I don't know how... but you're her; you're the one."

A few painful shudders went through Belle's body. She hugged Rainbow Dash tighter and buried her face in the pegasus' shoulder, stroking her hair as she cried.

"I ask of you... I-I beg of you..." She gnashed her teeth and stammered, "Save us too. Please save Pilate. Please help me rescue m-my beloved."

The guards were pounding against the elevator at this point. The world echoed with madness and chaos.

"Please..." Belle whimpered, sniffling and hiding her tears in Rainbow's coat. "I believe in you," she said. She whispered. "I b-believe in you..."

Rainbow Dash was still.

The pounding increased.

Rainbow Dash's ears twitched.

Another roll of thunder.

Rainbow's lids stirred left, right, then opened to reveal ruby red eyes, brimming with tears.

Rainbow Dash

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"This is your final warning!" The Captain shouted outside the elevator as he motioned to the other unicorns of Department Blue. His cohorts marched up to the barricade and aimed their tasers for the grooved crease down the center. "Come out or we will—"

The doors exploded.

Three bodies toppeled back, spitting blood from the metal slabs slamming across their bodies.

The Captain ducked low as his companions rolled past him. He stood up, wincing. His beret fell off as his eyes filled with color.

A blue body blurred through him, slamming his limbs into two more guards. They fell in a pile of groans and twitching hooves.

Three Enforcers lined up, swinging their tasers at the darting figure.

Four blue hooves scraped against the floor, spitting sparks. With a breathless leap, she dodged their swings, twirled, planted off the ceiling, and rocketed into the center of them.

The guards tried shouting—they vomited instead. Thunderous gut-punches slammed them in the stomach, forcing two of them to bend over and heave before a pair of blue hooves collided their skulls together.

Two Enforcers remained. One charged, yelling, swinging his taser at full fury.

Spectral mane-hair twirled as a pair of ruby eyes glared his way. A red lightning bolt glistened in the taser light as she dove over him, came down, and bit onto his tail. With one wing stretched out, she spun four times, eight times, sixteen times and released him across the hallway.

His body ragdolled through two guards struggling to get back up. They all collapsed to the ground, falling numbly unconscious.

The last guard unholstered a crystal gun, loaded it, and fired madly.

Her blurring figured darted left and right, avoiding the sailing shards. Then, with a rainbow leap, she pounced on his figure, rolled, and came out of the somersault with his gasping face in her hooves.

Frowning, Rainbow Dash slammed his skull into a sheet of glass window lining a security alcove. Cracks formed as he dizzily reeled from the impact. Then, snarling, she slammed his face into it again... and again... and one final time with a shout.

The glass shattered. The guard's forward body toppeled into the alcove, where a resounding groan echoed before his body went limp with unconsciousness.

Rainbow Dash stood, panting, haloed by thoroughly beaten equines and discarded berets.

Belle limped out of the elevator car, her jaw hanging. She looked at the stirring guards, listened to their indecipherable groans. With shuffling limbs, she approached Rainbow Dash's flank, gulped, and stammered, "Rainbow Dash... is... are you..."

With a prismatic blur, she was gripping Belle's shoulders and snarling into her face. "Where is it?!"

Belle gasped, shivering as she stared into the face of the hysterical pegasus. "Where is what?"

"Where they were keeping me!" Rainbow's voice cracked as tears joined the sweat on her face.

Belle blinked. "You mean... You mean Alpha Storage of D-Department Blue?"

"Take me there!" Rainbow Dash snapped.

"But... But—"

"Take me there! Now!" Rainbow Dash panted, draping off of Belle with sudden exhaustion.

"Okay! Okay..." Belle nodded, slid Rainbow Dash's forelimb over her shoulder, and stumbled towards the far end of Department Blue. "Let's do this together..."

Rainbow Dash breathed, very much alive, very much shivering...

Loyalty's Sake

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Belle trotted through the dimly-lit corridors of Department Blue with Rainbow Dash hobbling by her side. She gazed around fitfully, her brown mane frazzled from so much stress and carnage. Her thoughts on Pilate were only barely overwhelmed by an increasingly alarming sensation.

"Where is everypony?" she murmured.

The chambers were vacant. The hallways echoed with the two mares' hoofsteps alone. Every adjacent passageway opened up to more and more emptiness.

"But I thought Garnet and the other ponies in Black Level said that Ledomaritans were being sent here by the hundreds!" Belle gulped, her limbs shivering as she turned down another corridor. "Where are they? We should be bumping into dozens of them by—"

"Where is this Alpha place?!" Rainbow Dash grunted.

"Alpha Storage?" Belle stammered. "It should be right over here..."

"Hurry up!" Rainbow spat.

"I'm going to get us there!" Belle breathlessly retorted. "Don't worry! Just what's so important about—"

"Is that it?!" Rainbow Dash barked, pointing at a pair of wide, silver-laced doors.

"Yes." Belle looked up at the markings beside the door. "Yes, I believe it is—Whoah!"

Rainbow Dash leapt out of the unicorn's grip, spread her wings, and glided into the door. She had barely slammed into it before she was clawing and grabbing at the slitted groove of the entrance with her hooves. She hissed and grunted with the effort, but the barricade refused to budge.

"Come on... Come on...!" She squeaked. "Why won't it open?!"

"Uhm..." Belle shuffled over and pointed. "There's a console on the wall that controls the locking mechanism and—"

Belle shrieked as Rainbow bucked the console hard in the center, causing sparks to fly. The metal sheet bent at an odd angle. She gripped it in her teeth and yanked away. Crystals shattered as the entire console fell loose. Rainbow thrusted her left limb into the wall and severed a series of manawires. After a flash of light, a series of bolts clicked loose inside the metal framework of the door.

Grunting, Rainbow Dash reapplied pressure on the seams between the barricades. She slid the door open with desperate strength, then instantly darted into the blackness beyond.

Bellesmith stood alone, shivering in the middle of the Department Blue corridor. She bit her lip and glanced left and right. There was no sign of Shell's Enforcers. She didn't know if there were any reinforcements marching around since Rainbow Dash's dramatic awakening, but she wasn't about to find out.

With a nervous gulp, she strolled in through the broken doorway after Rainbow Dash. As soon as her nose passed the metal framework, she felt her insides curling up. She was confronted with the most nauseating stench in her life. Horrid flashbacks of university autopsies flickered through her mind, only this was far more magnified. She felt like vomiting, and she had to cover her nostrils with her forelimb just to keep from tearing up.

She stood there, careening left and right on her hooves for several seconds, before leaning her head even further into the black chamber.

Swallowing the bile down her throat, she murmured, "R-Rainbow Dash?"

All was silence in the onyx chamber, aside from the faint sound of a hyperventilating breath.

"Rainbow Dash, where are you?" Belle gnashed her teeth and bravely strode into the pungent interior. "Please. I... I-I need you. I need your help in—" She heard a nasty crunching sound. She looked down, and her jaw dropped.

Her hoof had snapped a leg-bone in half. Just half a foot away, an uncoiled length of intestine was lying like discarded rope. A fine cake of dark-brown blood stained the metal surface, and this organic grime increased more and more as Belle's eyes adjusted to the dim niche. She saw entrails, sinewy lengths of inarticulate meat, and shreds of bone belonging to countless different quadrupedal creatures.

Belle's pulse throbbed in her neck. Her voice cracked in barely audible pants as she looked left and right at the gradual detail decaying before her. There were stretches of abdominable tissue, shredded flesh with fur still clinging to it. Along one stretch of wall, bones were scattered everywhere as if a bomb had gone off. She couldn't count the bodies, because nothing was left intact that had once walked the earth.

Then, as the far ends of the place became more and more distinct, she noticed bloodstreaks on the wall, left there by razor-sharp talons and long claws. There were splashes of dried fluid against the metal where bodies were pulverized, reduced to piles of fleshy goo with hooves sticking out at odd angles. Skulls rested on the edge of the bloody heaps, their jaws collapsed as they gaped forever into the blackness.

Belle's whole body had become numb at this point. She didn't realize she was walking forward until her hoof bumped into a clattering object. She looked down, and her face paled. Beside two lumps of brown coated flesh, four shattered antelope antlers settled still from her contact.

Belle fell to her haunches, covering her mouth as shivers overtook her. Before her vision fogged over, she gazed across the room to where the lift was that brought the sarcophagus towards the facility above. The resting place of the chaos metal was where the carnage was piled up the most. Her eyes twitched, and she clenched her lids shut as several tears streamed out of her eyes. After several dry heaves, she choked on a sob and murmured to the air, "You didn't need a key, you insufferable monster. You're a soldier; all you ever wanted was a weapon." She hissed through clenched teeth. "Wherever you're headed, it is a place with no Spark... with no love..." Her breath wavered. "I hope you're happy with yourself..."

A heavy sigh shuddered through the room.

Belle forced her eyes open. Her face grimaced in pain, but she bravely wiped her cheek dry before gazing across the way.

A blue shadow sat in the middle of the mess, her shoulders hunched and her wings drooped.

"Rainbow Dash..." Belle breathed. She gulped hard, and approached the pegasus on shaky limbs. "Please, listen to me..."

"I should never have flown east in the first place," Rainbow Dash droned in a cold tone of voice. Her shoulders rose and fell with frigid breaths. "I should have just stayed there and died in Equestria."

"Rainbow..."

"It would have been the selfless thing..."

"Don't you—"

"Instead of becoming this monster..."

"They did this to you!" Belle shrieked, reaching Rainbow and gripping her shoulders from behind. Her tears dripped into the crimson stains below as she shook the pegasus spine, exclaiming, "They took something precious and wonderful and plundered it for the power within! You had no control over it, do you hear me?! It's not your fault! Y-you were practically dead—"

"And just what am I now?"

"You're alive! You're back and you're full of vigor and you're... you're..."

"If I'd known I would have done all of this..."

"Would your friends have loved you if they thought you were a monster?!" Belle shouted. "A monster isn't cherished for her loyal qualities, for her bravery, for her altruism and her warmth! You're a pony, Rainbow Dash! A spectacular one at that! You're the last precious piece of the Elements that all of Ponyville would gladly lay down their lives for!"

At that, Rainbow Dash's wings coiled up. She slowly, icily turned and glared over her shoulder with a cold ruby eye. "What... do you know of Ponyville?"

Belle gulped, then said, "Twilight Sparkle: she needed you in order to save Luna with her magic. You were the confidence that Fluttershy needed, the inspiration behind Rarity's generosity."

Rainbow Dash blinked. With a shiver, her eyes fell once more to the carnage surrounding them.

Belle leaned in so that her courageous smile blocked Rainbow's view. "Pinkie Pie, otherwise a limitless fountain of joy, found reasons to smile just because of you. They loved you, Rainbow Dash. All of them. They know that you were a good pony deep inside, just as I know that none of this is your fault!" With a firm breath, she then said, "I'm sure that... th-that even if Applejack was here, even she would say that—"

"Nnnnngh—" Rainbow Dash growled, her eyes flickering yellow on red as she spun around with a flurry of angry blue feathers. "RAAUGH!"

Belle fell back, smashing through a dusty rib cage. She looked up, her forelimbs curled as she shivered in fright.

"They are all dead! All because of me!" Rainbow Dash yelled, her eyes returning back to fiery rubies. "Just like all of these unlucky saps are dead! Because of me!" She stamped her hooves down on either side of Bellesmith's flinching body and sneered into her face. "I don't know who you are, or what you think you know, but this pegasus stopped being a normal pony the day that she failed her friends! Tell me something, if you're so friggin' smart! Why am I not dead too?!"

Belle looked up, a tear trailing down her golden cheek. "Because I b-believed in something, and I think... I think it's happening." She gulped. "And there are others who believe in something far older than the two of us, and you are the answer, Rainbow Dash. You are the Spark that can fix this world..."

Rainbow Dash seethed, her shoulders rising and falling in time with her flaring nostrils. She stood up straight, clenched her eyes shut, and reopened them. When she could see again, all she found was the same bloody carnage.

"Screw it."

Belle blinked.

"Screw this place, screw these corpses..."

"Rainbow Dash—"

"And screw you!" Rainbow snarled, her wings arching again. "Go believe in a giant dragon so it can smash you to pieces cuz that's all this lousy world has to offer!" She flapped her feathers and soared out of the bloody chamber.

Gasping, Belle scrambled to her hooves and limped after her hurriedly. "Rainbow! Wait!"

Rainbow said nothing. She hovered in the hallway, looking every which way, casting her frown towards every door she saw. She flew to the nearest one and bucked it open, revealing a weapons locker. She flew to the next one and kicked the door down, exposing crystal storage shelves.

"Please!" Belle panted, galloping after her. "Slow down!"

"Don't follow me," Rainbow Dash said, finally kicking the door open to a large supply room. She flew in and squinted through the grates of various lockers.

"Where are you going?!"

"Don't know; don't care," Rainbow Dash grunted, examining compartment after compartment. "Someplace that's vast, someplace that's empty, someplace where there aren't annoying-flank ponies like you to chatter in my ear..."

"Rainbow Dash—"

Rainbow Dash's eyes twitched. She grasped onto one locker, pulled hard, and yanked the door off its hinges. She reached inside and pulled out a hauntingly familiar saddlebag of midnight blue. "Someplace where there aren't ponies who'll be tossed onto obelisks or crucified before dragons..."

"Will you please stop?!"

"...or torn to bits by a chaos freak with no better sense to croak!"

"Hasn't it occurred to you that you're alive for a reason?!" Belle exclaimed, sniffling through a tearful frown. "That something bigger than all of history has brought you back?!"

"History has screwed up before," Rainbow Dash muttered as she fished around inside the locker and dragged out a hatchet and a pair of goggles. "I'm living proof."

"What you are is a living miracle!" Belle exclaimed. "And I'll be damned if I went through all that I went through just to have you come back and disappear into the horizon like some Spark-forsaken ghost!"

"Yeah, well, be careful what you choose to believe in, doe-eyes."

Belle slammed the locker beside her and shrieked, "You think I chose this?!" She panted, panted, gulped, and said, "You think I asked the divine Spark to drag me out of my experimentations, to drag me out of the comfort of my home, and force this... this entire crazy life of yours into my brain?!" She heaved and squeaked forth, "I believe in many things, Rainbow Dash; you're simply just a part of it."

Rainbow leaned against the saddlebag, gazing at Belle with a bored expression.

Belle fell on her haunches, sniffling and barely managing to say, "I believe in love, true love. I believe in a union that transcends body and spirit. I... I..." She ran a hoof through her mane as her chin quivered. "I believe in my beloved, Pilate. I love him... I adore him and...." Her eyes clenched shut. "I never asked him to be a part of this, but he is. He had to be. He's a part of my life, my soul, my everything. And now he's having to suffer for something that was never asked for. I would do anything to save him, but I can't. I put him into this mess, and now I can't bring him out." With glossy eyes, she gazed up at the pegasus. "But you can, Rainbow Dash. If you can save this world, then at least you can save my beloved. Please? You're the key to more things in this world than even the alicorns can know."

"And you, lady, are full of it," Rainbow Dash bore the slightest hint of a devilish smirk. She opened her saddlebag and prepared to stuff her things inside. "I don't care what trouble you think you're in, but whatever it is, you're way better off on your own than sticking... around... me..." Her voice stopped completely.

Belle dried her face, then craned her head to get a good look.

Rainbow Dash started to shake. She reached her hooves into the saddlebag, and when they came out, they were gripping a green, canvas-bound book. Her lips quivered and her head shook in disbelief. "How...?" Her eyes narrowed. "How... is th-this here?" She gulped. "I gave it to Ember Speak. She had it before I... before I..."

Belle stood up on wobbly legs. She waited for a few tender seconds before shakily murmuring, "You were reborn. Who's to know if there weren't ponies who foresaw it? Or other souls for that matter..."

Rainbow's eyes darted back and forth across the tome. "Axan..."

"She dropped you off in Aridstone," Belle said. "Maybe... Maybe she knew that the Ledomaritan Confederacy had the means to heal you..." She shrugged. "Maybe she... maybe she made a pact with the Silvadelians to get you to where you arrived."

"But..." Rainbow Dash's breath hissed as her brow furrowed. "Why?!"

Belle's voice was considerably calmer now. "You really, honestly think that everyone who believes in you is dead?"

Rainbow Dash was still.

Belle trotted over. With a firm breath, she uttered, "Why don't you look inside the book, Rainbow?"

"No!" Rainbow whispered, hugging the book to her chest as she clenched her eyes shut. "I... I can't..."

Belle rested a hoof on her shoulder. "Why not?" she implored gently.

Rainbow Dash's wings coiled tightly at her side. She resembled a foal hugging her pillow in fright. After a few painful shudders, she said, "There were so many times... so many countless times..." She gulped hard and gnashed her teeth. "I just wanted to ditch that boring town! I wanted to take wing, fly into the sky, and never look back. I wanted to see places... I wanted to go on adventures. And now that I finally have..." She bit her lip hard.

With a gentle stroke of her shoulder, Belle asked, "What stopped you?"

"What else?" Rainbow whimpered. With a sniffling breath, she looked once more at the book with moist eyes. "For so long, I hated myself..."

"Why?"

"Because I couldn't get myself to hate them," she murmured, caressing the canvass binding in a soft gesture. "Because I couldn't st-stop loving them. It was... it was just impossible. They were everything to me. I couldn't tell them because I knew how much it made me wanna collapse, because by being stuck with them, I was never free. But freedom somehow didn't seem nearly as cool as I originally imagined. Being around them... all of them..." She shuddered. "And now... and now they're gone, and I... I feel more for them than I ever did. They're dead ash scattered to the wind, and it's like th-they're more real to me than before. Nnnngh!" She slapped her head repeatedly against the tome. "Why. Do I still. Have this. Stupid. Book?!"

"Stop!" Belle reached in with a hoof. "Don't hit yourself—"

Rainbow Dash gripped her forelimb. Slowly, with mechanical precision, her ruby eyes traveled up her limb until she got a good look at Belle's tear-stained face, as if digesting her features for the first time. After slow breath, she spoke with a neutral expression. "You say you've got a coltfriend, huh?"

With her mouth agape, Belle slowly nodded.

"His name is Pilate... and you love him more than life itself and all that jazz?"

Belle's eyes glistened, and yet she again nodded.

"And you... and you would die for him?" Rainbow's eyes narrowed. "Give up everything, including your own friggin' life?"

Belle sniffed and shakily replied, "In a h-heartbeat..."

Rainbow Dash blinked at her, then gazed long and hard at the book. She sighed, and then her wings twitched. "Sounds like a pony with a death wish." After a few seconds, the ends of her lips curved in a demonesque way. "Mmmmmmmmmmmm... poopsicles." She slid the book into the bag along with the hatchet and goggles. Clasping the lunar crest shut, she slid the article over her backside with a rattle of her pendant. "I'm guessing he's deeper in this creepy place than we are."

Belle's breath left her. She smile brightly and nodded, drying her tears. "Yes. Way below. Where there's a door to the machine!"

"Gotta love that crap." Rainbow Dash flexed her neck, making it pop. "Whew..." She flexed her wings a few more times. "I don't suppose he's alone."

Belle winced and said, "There are at least four dozen guards between here and there with flesh-rending tasers."

"Cool!" Rainbow Dash made for the door. "I hope you're fast on your hooves, Miss... Miss..." She paused in her tracks, turned around, and squinted at the unicorn.

Belle's cheeks went red. "Oh, uhm. 'Bellesmith,'" she said, then added with a curtsy, "But you can call be Belle."

"Yeah, uh, no. That's boring." Rainbow Dash tapped her chin, then smirked. "'Ding Dong'. I like that a lot better."

"Huh?" Belle made a face. "What do you..." Her eyes crossed briefly. "Ohhhh..."

In the meantime, Rainbow Dash was reaching towards another locker. "What's this?" She found a violet beret. "Ooooh, souvenir!" Slapping it once against her knees, she planted it atop her colorful head and stood tall with a rigid pose. "There, what do you think?"

Still recovering from her emotions, Belle nervously shrugged. "You look... disastorously adorable."

Rainbow's ears drooped beneath the hat. "Unnngh..." She turned towards the door and trotted out the hallway. "I've been dead for Luna knows how many months and still ponies use the wrong a-word."

"Uhm..." Belle trudged slowly behind her. "Sorry?"

Rainbow Dash suddenly blurred back and hooked a forelimb around the unicorn's waist. "Hurry it up, Ding Dong!" She soared out.

"Yeeeep!" Belle managed, and they both were gone.

Dark Spark

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"Nnngh!" Pilate grunted as he was shoved against the hard rock of the stone floor.

"Shell!" Dalton exclaimed, frowning. The old unicorn was being escorted at taser-point across the large chamber before the solid metal wall of Black Level. "You have what you need. Must you toss him around like he's some object as well?"

"Your sympathy is noble, but misguided," Shell droned over his shoulder as he strolled up to the struggling zebra. "I know you're feeling conflicting emotions right now, Dalton. But, if anything, you've done this equine a favor." His horn glowed brightly. "If it weren't for the part you played, his usesfulness would have culminated in a closed-off chamber of Department Blue."

Pilate gasped as he was yanked up to his aching hooves by bright telekinesis. Shell dragged him towards the immaculate metal sheet, forcing his wincing face to tilt up towards the reflective material.

"We're here, Mister Pilate," Shell said calmly. Two dozen unicorns formed a crescent circle of charged tasers around the pair. "Those hundreds of voices you heard along the way here? They're ponies who have submitted to the Council of Ledo, thanks to the guiding hoof of the Enforcers and myself. At this point, it would serve you will to do the same as them."

"If you think..." Pilate hissed through a bloody mouth. "That I'm going to cooperate in any fashion..." He spat. "After what you've done to Blue Shelf... After what you've done to my Belle—?!"

"I do not ask for your cooperation, zebra," Shell muttered, yanking Pilate harder so that he was facing against his own reflective sheen in the metal. "That orb of yours is fused to your nervous system; I simply ask that you stay alive. Once I've gained access to the heart of this world between worlds, then we'll discuss your competency."

"Is this what you had in mind for Rainbow Dash?!" Pilate grumbled. "Will you kill her off when you're done with her as well?"

"If this works, Mister Pilate, then I suspect that what lies beyond the door is something that only the subject can empower." His one eye narrowed coldly. "And if that's true, I intend to take her to the realm beneath Xona and activate what I find there."

"I... I don't get it!" Pilate stammered. "What in Spark's name would that accomplish?!"

"I'm quite sure you felt what was inside that sarcophagus before you put the pendant back on it," Shell droned. "I think we both know what will happen to Xona if that gains access to the basement of our enemies."

That said, Shell yanked the sphere loose from Pilate's neck and held it before the wall. The curved features of O.A.S.I.S. flickered brightly.

"You're... You're insane!" Pilate managed to wheeze.

"Correction," Shell said. "I'm alive, which is the least I can say about Xona or any other kingdom that thinks it can oppose Ledomare from here on out." His eye twitched as he saw a circle of illumination forming across the wall. "Ah. I do believe something is happening."

"It... It's responding," Dalton said with a gulp.

"Ughhh..." Pilate's face scrunched in pain as the runes on his skull plate strobed in alternating patterns. He sweated profusely and his limbs dangled in Shell's magic grip.

The soldiers gasped and murmured as dozens upon dozens of symbols appeared across the surface of the wall. They flickered in a counter-clockwise pattern, then all brightened at once. With a hiss of cold air, a firm slit of golden light ran down the wall. The cavern shook; pebbles littered the floor from above. With a great groaning noise, the door began to open.

"Hmmmm..." Shell took a deep breath as his beret blew off from an unnatural gale. He turned and glanced over his shoulder. "Has a nice smell, doesn't it?"

Dalton said nothing.

Salvation Descends

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"The elevator car is nowhere to be found!" Bellesmith stammered, her voice echoing against the hard walls of Department Blue. She pointed at the empty, gaping shaft just beyond the doors that Rainbow Dash had blown open earlier. "It could be smashed completely! There's no way we can make it to Black Level now!"

One of the many guards on the floor started to wake up with a groggy groan. This ended just as Rainbow Dash blindly smacked him upside the horn while trotting towards Belle. "Just what's the big deal again?" She adjusted the beret atop her head. "That's our way down, right?"

"But with no car, it's hopeless!" Belle sighed. "Maybe if we found another way to the facilities above, we could take an alternate route through the exterior of Blue Shelf and—"

"Yeah, uh, that's not happening." Rainbow Dash smirked and gripped onto Belle. Her wings spread.

Belle squinted her chestnut eyes. "Just what are you—Waaaaaah!" She shrieked as Rainbow dove the two of them into the yawning shaft. Beams of manalight soared past the pair as they rocketed down the vertical tunnel. Gnashing her teeth, Belle clung to Rainbow and clenched her eyes shut. Soon, they came upon the dormant elevator car at the very bottom of the drop.

"Aaaaaaaand—Bangarang!" Rainbow Dash grinned as she swiveled the two of them about and ended with her hooves dropping first. The top of the elevator car smashed to bits, and the two landed in a shower of dust before the heated lengths of Black Level beyond. "Whew! It stinks down here! You sure this is where Enforcer Shovel went?"

"Sh-Sh-Sh-Shell," Belle squeaked, still clinging to her. "C-could you pl-please warn me next time you do that?"

"Hey, you wanna save your stallion or not?"

Belle forced her eyes open with a wincing expression. "But of course! I—"

"Then relax and let me do my thing." Rainbow Dash blinked, her eyes crossing briefly. "Erm... at least I think this is my thing. It feels crazy enough to be my thing. Ugh... I've been under for too long."

"Are you sure that you're okay to—"

"Pfft! Don't be silly. Never felt better. What about you, Ding-Dong?"

"Well, I—"

"Good! Let's roll!"

"B-b-b-b-but wait!" Belle exclaimed, her hooves dangling from Rainbow's grip. At the sound of her outburst, Rainbow put her down with a curious glance. "Do we even have a plan?"

"Uhhhhh... yeah?" Rainbow nodded with a frown. "We smash heads and kick flank."

"But that doesn't sound very much like a—"

"I don't care what it sounds like!" Rainbow Dash grunted. "How does it feel?"

Belle stared at Rainbow Dash, biting her lip.

"Well?"

With a nod, the unicorn stammered, "Yes. Smashing heads feels... appropriate."

"Snkkkt—hahahaha..."

Belle's brow furrowed. "What?"

"You're a riot, Ding-Dong. You kind of remind me of another egghead I once knew."

"Twilight?"

"Brrrr..." Rainbow Dash shivered. "Before all is said and done, I'm gonna need you to explain that to me."

"Sorry." Belle winced. "Is there... uhm... anything I can do to help you? Or to repay you for what you're doing?"

Rainbow Dash stared into the vaporous lengths of Black Level. Her ears twitched and her face lit up. "Hey. Yeah. You can totally do something for me."

Belle leaned forward, her eyes sparkling amicably. "What is it?"

With two hooves, Rainbow Dash stripped of her saddlebag and slapped the heavy article over Belle's quivering backside.

"There!" Rainbow Dash smiled as she tied the canvas straps shut. "You have no idea how long I've been needing a pack-horse."

Belle wheezed and nodded twitchingly. "You're... uh... m-most welcome."

"I doubt I'm gonna be for long." Rainbow Dash gripped Belle's shoulders. "You might want to hold your breath right about now."

"For what reason—wait, are you going to—?"

They exited the elevator in a blue and gold blur. Belle was a great deal more civil this time, but she clung—trembling—to Rainbow Dash nonetheless. The two flew over the torch smoke and mana steam of the slave pits. The sounds of misery dwindled, replaced instead by an ascending murmur of gasping voices as every equine forced into labor glanced up at the flying anomaly.

"Hey! Ding-Dong!" Rainbow Dash shouted above the noise of the echoing cavern. "Remind me! Which ones are the bad guys again?!"

"I would venture to guess the ones who are aiming tasers at the soot-stained ponies!"

"Uhhhh..."

"The ones in the berets, Rainbow Dash!"

"Oh! Right! Those melon fudges!" Rainbow Dash broke into a steep dive. "Now that's a start!"

"By the Spark!" Belle squeaked as she stared in horror at the cluster of Enforcers down below. "What are you planning to—?!"

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash shouted loudly, her ruby eyes glaring at the guards down below. "Salmon head!"

One burly guard sighed, swiveled around from a pair of slaves he was poking, and stared up at the ceiling. "What in the Queen's name is that racket—?" His body froze as his eyes twitched.

"I've got a special delivery for ya!" And with that, Rainbow Dash flung Bellesmith like a club.

Belle shrieked all the way down. Her torpedo dive stopped, only because the guard dropped his taser to catch her in his telekinetic grip. She floated in front of him for two or three hysterically numb seconds before a blue pegasus sliced through the scene with a drop-kick.

"Thanks, pal!" Rainbow's voice followed her hooves as they smashed through the stallion's teeth. Belle slumped to the floor as Rainbow cartwheeled over the Enforcer's collapsing body, and then proceeded to kick, jump, and smash her way through the shocked, witless guards in the immediate vicinity. "Merry Hearth's Warming, ya moth-eaten bags of lame!" Several skulls collided and tasers rattled to the ground as Rainbow Dash made quick business of the unsuspecting Ledomaritans. "Whew! Is it painful in here or is it just me?! Ha!"

Trembling, Belle struggled to get up on her hooves. Two unicorn waifs trotted over to her side, free from the glaring dominion of their uniformed oppressors. They helped her up and hugged her briefly.

"Belle! You're okay!" Felicity exclaimed.

"We were so worried. Especially Garnet." Placid gulped and winced in the direction of Rainbow Dash. "What, pray tell, is that which you've brought down here?"

"That, my little ponies, is salvation," Belle said. A tattered beret flew past her head, along with several dislodged teeth as Rainbow Dash's voice cracked a dry chuckle in the distance. "I th-think," she murmured with a gulp.

Flank Whooping

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"Is that..." Placid stammered, his jaw quivering as he gazed, wide-eyed, across the hazy room. "Is th-that a pony with wings?!"

Another guard screamed as his body was flung thirty-feet over the confused slaves' heads.

Felicity turned to glare at her beloved. "Jee, honey, what was your first clue?"

"I don't understand..." Placid gulped and looked worriedly at Belle. "What's she doing here? What's her part in all this!"

"Don't you get it?" Belle exclaimed over the rising commotion of murmuring equines. "She's the subject that this facility had locked away! That I was being sequenced with!" Belle swallowed hard and said, "But she's more than that! There's a secret to her, something that involves the foundations of the world and the sanctity of our very future!"

Felicity's head jerked as a blue blur soared overhead, shoving two guards into a stalactite before they collapsed to the floor with a thud. She squinted at Belle. "Does it also involve medication?"

"Is this supposed to... to help us with breaking out of here?" Placid asked.

"First thing's first." Belle leaned forward. "I'm willing to bet that Shell just went through here."

Felicity nodded with a cold shudder. "About twenty minutes ago: he had two ponies with him, being held against their will by his stallions."

"Was Pilate among them?!" Belle breathlessly exclaimed.

Placid ran a hoof through his soot-stained mane and shuddered. "You know... come to think of it, one of them seemed to have stripes. I thought I was just imagining things..."

"Where did they go?!"

"About three hundred meters northeast."

"What in Spark's name is 'northeast' in this infernal abyss?!"

"Calm down, Belle!" Felicity interjected. She pivoted and pointed past a pile of gravel towards a flickering passageway looming beyond. "The Prime Enforcer went that way! His whole ensemble trotted with him. Whatever it is they're doing, it was making a crazy noise, at least until your 'salvation' dropped in—"

As she said that, a groaning thug fell to the ground beneath them, along with a splash of no less than ten berets.

"Whew!" Rainbow Dash spat five more articles onto the purple pile of headwear. She grinned up at Bellesmith. "These guys are three loogeys short of earning themselves the 'Totally Lame Award.' Why the heck are you miserable ponies letting them push you dudes around down here, anyways?" She tilted her head up and blinked dully at Placid and Felicity. "Oh. Great. More unicorns."

"Rainbow Dash, I know where Pilate's gone! We need to hurry!"

"Never mind that! Look!" Rainbow Dash fished her hoof throught the pile of berets that matched hers. "I got more souvenirs!" She grinned devilishly and raised one up to Belle. "Go on! Try one one, Ding Dong!"

"Did you hear me?! I said—"

"Put on the beret!" Rainbow Dash screamed with twitching eyes.

Pale as a sheet, Belle sat on her haunches and flung a hat onto her skull. She gazed wide-eyed at Rainbow Dash. "B-b-better?"

"Awwwwwww yeah!" Rainbow Dash chuckled with flapping wings. "It's like we're having ourselves a regular hat party in this rock pile!" Her voice cracked between giggles, and she reeled dizzily. "Whew. Say, is it hot in here or what...?"

"Is..." Felicity winced. "...she with the program?"

Belle sweated beneath her oversized beret. "Well, she did just wake up from countless months of dwindling in a comatose state while her body mutated into a chaotic nether creature."

"And you woke her up... why?"

"I've got a better question." Rainbow Dash sneered, glaring at the two trembling unicorns. "Why aren't you wearing berets yet?!"

"Halt!"

Everypony within vicinity turned to look.

A tall, muscular guard galloped to a stop, aiming a mana crystal gun at the group. "Lie down on the ground or I open fire!"

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash gasped, pointing. "What's that right behind you?!"

The guard blinked and glanced over his shoulder, only to see Rainbow Dash's grin as she landed from her dive.

"Whoopsy-daisy!" Rainbow grapped him by the shoulders, flapped her wings, spun, and power-bombed him skull-first into the rocky floor. The unicorn groaned, his horn being embedded into the stone surface. With a deep exhale, he slumped—unconscious and upside down—like a living tent peg. "Woo-hoo-hoo!" Rainbow Dash dusted her hooves off and landed beside him. "Now you really are a daisy! A wilting one! Ha ha ha..." She smirked at the group of slaves. She blinked.

Everypony in close proximity had placed a discarded beret on their heads, including a trembling Felicity and Placid. They smiled nervously in Rainbow's direction. Belle gave the group one glance, sighed, and trotted over to Rainbow Dash.

"Rainbow, thank you so very much for taking out so many guards. I'm sure the ponies down here need it. But there's something I need still." She gulped. "Pilate is down here, and if we don't stop Shell soon, there's no telling what he might—"

"Let me guess." Rainbow Dash pivoted and pointed at the passageway beyond the pile of gravel. "They went in there."

Belle's lips pursed. "How... did you know?"

"Uhhhhh..." Rainbow Dash shifted where she stood. She gazed at the passageway; it was brimming with lavender light, piercing her eyes between each blink. She smiled nervously Belle's way. "Just call it a hunch."

With a nervous breath, Belle asked, "Are you sure you're up for what's going to come next?"

"Pffft. Silly Bill."

"Belle."

"Whatever." Rainbow Dash slapped a hoof on her shoulder, teetering slightly. "If you take time to question everything, how ae you gonna have time to answer everything?"

Belle's brow furrowed. "But you don't exactly look like you have it all together."

"And just how the hay would you know that?"

"Uhhh..."

"Let me do my magic, girl." Rainbow Dash spread her wings and offered a hoof. "You coming for a front row seat or not?"

"W-we are saving my beloved, right?"

"Just tell me which stallion not to punch, and we'll be golden."

"Well I guess that works—Gaaah!" Belle shrieked as she was whisked away in blue feathers. She shouted back over Rainbow's shoulders at the ponies watching them. "Tell Garnet! Tell him we're going to try and stop Shell! Eeep!" Belle yelped as the two threaded through the passageway like a missile.

The emaciated ponies stood in a line, staring at the two's departure.

Eventually, Placid murmured, "Do you think they're gonna be able to save us?"

"I don't know, honey..."

Silence.

"Do you th-think it's safe to take off these berets now?"

"Nope. Not in the least."

"I didn't think so."

End Boss

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"Hold it right there!" Shell shouted, raising a hoof.

The procession of Enforcers stopped dead in their tracks. Dalton shifted nervously while Pilate trembled in the company of the two guards holding him telekinetically in place. They stood in the heart of the machine, which was barely illuminated by a faint aura being given off by O.A.S.I.S. Below, above, and beside them, the golden arrangement of dormant pulleys, conveyor belts, and gears remained frozen in glistening silence. They had ventured at least four hundred meters into the subterannean labyrinth, and only know did the commanding unicorn issue an order to stop.

"Shell, I don't know what you have in mind," Dalton spoke. The stallions all around him twitched anxiously, gazing at the surrounding shadows. "But we cannot simply linger in here." The aged unicorn gulped and leaned forward. "The orb around Pilate's neck is dimming. Whatever power the subject imbued it with, it will fade sooner than later. We cannot depend on it lighting our path much longer, nor can we make a return trip through the door if we allow it to lose energy altogether—"

"Shhh!" Shell exclaimed in a shrill breath. He leaned over the edge of a platform and pointed straight down. "Funny that you should speak of energy, Mr. Dalton. I do believe I've found the heart of this ancient place."

"What in Spark's name is he going on about?" Pilate murmured.

Dalton whispered back. "I don't know, old friend. I suspect that—" He flinched, his eyes narrowing. "Wait..."

A hushed murmur rose through the group of soldiers as they all followed Shell's gesture. Below them, at a thirty meter drop, was a pulsating plume of red light. It mimicked a flame in the way it flickered and danced, but it also gave off an ethereal quality, like a sacred magic untouched through time.

"I knew that there would be secrets down here," Shell remarked. His brow furrowed. "I do believe we're at the beginning of something grand, gentlecolts."

Dalton frowned. "We'll be at the end of something ridiculous if we don't get out of here soon."

"Most of us will get out, Mr. Dalton."

Dalton's lips parted. He stammered, "What d-do you mean...?"

"You're a scientist. You've channeled countless types of magic throughout your years." Shell turned to gaze coldly at him. "I do believe you're best equipped to do one last experiment." Shell nodded his head.

Two Enforcers gripped Dalton on either side. The mustached stallion gasped, struggling in their grip. "What is the meaning of this?!"

"Please, Mr. Dalton, do not make a scene," Shell muttered as he motioned for the two stallions to bring Dalton to the edge of their high platform. "I've always assured the safety of your grandchildren. You, on the other hoof, are forfeit." He adjusted his beret and squinted towards the top of Dalton's brow. "However, not your horn. I suppose I'll at least have to take that back to Blue Shelf once you've absorbed the red flame."

"You can't just do blind experiments with this ancient mystery and expect some fantastic results!" Dalton exclaimed.

"Actually, I can," Shell droned. "All I need is more bodies. It's worked in my favor so far."

Dalton's jaw was agape. He gazed over at Pilate. Pilate said nothing.

"Let's find a way down, soldiers," Shell said, yanking the zebra over to his side so he had control over O.A.S.I.S.' illumination. "And if we can't, we'll simply toss him into the flame."

"Wait!" Pilate hissed.

Shell sighed. "Please, Mr. Pilate, you are the last equine here who can issue commands—"

"Do you hear that?!" Pilate whispered, his ears twitching.

The stallions all froze in place, even Dalton. There was a deep, resonating sound of gargantuan proportions. It was subtle at first, like a low bass rumble. But then it increased, bringing along with it a cacophony of whirring noises and hissing bursts. Shell and the others spun to see a faint light growing from the way which they came.

"What the devil...?" Dalton stammered.

"Something's been following us!" a guard exclaimed.

"No," said another. "At the rate it's coming, it must have accelerated from the point of origin just recently."

"Is this old place not vacant?!"

"Prime Enforcer Shell, what do we do?"

Shell's one eye narrowed. Then he twitched as an alarming thought ripped through his system. He grabbed Pilate and hoisted him in front, pulling out a taser and aiming it at the gasping zebra's neck. "Stand your ground, soldiers," Shell grunted. "We're no longer the only source of power in this place."

"Source of power?"

"Another O.A.S.I.S.?"

"Is the flame alive?"

Dalton gulped as his features softened. "It's her..."

Finally, their entire portion of the labyrinth lit up with golden brilliance. They turned out to be standing in the middle of one of many bridges stretching across a platinum cavern of frozen machinery. As the bright light engulfed everything, those frozen apparatuses came to life. Pendulums swung into motion. Gears spun and shiny lengths of chain ran vertically through the incalculably deep reaches of the place.

All of this served as a hearty welcome to the arrival of a blue pegasus with a frazzled unicorn in her grip. The two landed with a burst of air. As the inner atmosphere of the place settled, Rainbow Dash coiled her wings, adjusted her beret, and grinned devilishly at the gawking group of Ledomaritan guards.

"Sorry for being late to the party. The line outside this place was horrible!"

"The subject!" a guard gasped.

"She's wearing the pendant!" Another exclaimed.

"How in the Queen's name...?"

"Shhh!" Shell hissed, levitating the fiery end of the taser closer to Pilate's throat. "I told you to hold your ground..."

"Remarkable," Dalton gawked, the edges of hid dumbfounded lips curved slightly. "How in Spark's name did you get through the blockade of soldiers?"

"Hmmm?" Rainbow Dash blinked. "Oh. That." She reached over and unclasped a satchel of the saddlebag on Bellesmith's body. She then proceeded to dump twenty-two berets onto the surface of the golden platform. "Ta daaa! There's plenty for all of you—" She winced. "Ewww. You're all wearing them already. Well, most of you..."

"Rainbow... Dash...?" Pilate whispered. His face paled, and a tear trickled down from his grayed eye. "Belle? Beloved...?"

"I'm here, Pilate!" Belle exclaimed, her voice cracking as she smiled painfully. "Don't you worry!"

"Which one's Pilate?" Rainbow asked, leaning in. "The one behind the zebra?"

"No!" Belle hissed. "He is the zebra."

"Ohhhhh..." Rainbow Dash squinted. "The hay kind of a name is 'Pilate?'"

"Belle! Don't do something heroic!" Pilate sobbed. "I don't want you to die down here! I—hckk!" He winced all over as Shell zapped his chin with the taser.

Belle stomped her hooves and shrieked, "Don't hurt him!"

"I'm hardly the one hurting him, doctor," Shell said. "You should have accepted your fate when it was given to you."

"Wow, is he full of it," Rainbow Dash said with a frowned. She smirked aside to Belle. "Can I tell him that he's full of it?"

"And you," Shell spoke, his one eye glaring at the pegasus. "Your arrival here is anything but fortuitous. You think you have any worth? You think you mean something in the grand scheme of things?"

"Well, the word 'awesome' was pretty darn lonely until I came along and married it."

"You're only special because I made you special," Shell said as he held Pilate in his iron grip. "You were a hair's length from death, a bleeding meatbag of a corpse that the Council of Ledo chose specifically to nurse back to health."

"Only because it took a chamber of ancient metal to do it!" Belle exclaimed with a frown. "You used her accursed taint of chaos against her! You took something that was innocent and corrupted it, against her will!"

Shell's head icily pivoted. The tone in his voice took on a false cadence. "Is that what she told you?" He gazed back at Rainbow Dash. "Did she somehow convince you that you weren't responsible for all of the carnage your very own hooves wrought?"

Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth and took a bold step forward. "That's it. I'm gonna—"

"What? Rip me in half? Spill my entrails across the golden lengths of this holy place?" Shell's eye narrowed. "When the Council of Ledo found your body, there was nothing worth corrupting. You had done all of the damage on your own."

Belle bit her lip.

Rainbow Dash's face twisted in confusion. 'What do you mean...?"

"Simply that you were discovered with your pendant having been taken off by the locals. We realized this only because we found the golden object beneath a mountain of bodies. The entire township of Aridstone, where a massive dragon deposited you, had been consumed by a bloody massacre." Shell's nostrils flared. "You see, my little pony, we did not need to do anything to you. You were always... always a monster."

Belle trembled. She gazed nervously aside at Rainbow Dash with a wincing expression.

Rainbow's face had paled. She stared numbly into the golden depths of the place.

"R-Rainbow Dash..." Belle murmured.

"What?" Shell leered. "Did your new friend not tell you this? Did she not inform you of the carnage you've made before you ever became a test subject? I daresay she's the one who's been using you, not me."

"Prime Enforcer—" Dalton began, only to be silenced by a hoof smack to the face by one of the guards.

As Dalton collapsed, Shell continued, loudly. "As a matter of fact, you should be thanking me! I took over the project here in Blue Shelf! I made sure that your body was preserved! I found the right kind of metal that could reflect your chaos energies inward and keep it from poisoning your body! As a result, your bones and muscles mended, and you survived an otherwise agonizing death!" Shell's voice lowered to a breathy hiss. "Don't you see? I can give you the opportunity to live forever. Who's given you that chance before? I suspect that you come from a land that is magical and mysterious to all of our perspectives. But even there, in your home, did you have any chance of avoiding death? Of cheating annihilation."

Rainbow Dash gulped. Her voice limped out of her, "I never wanted to be a monster..."

"And yet you are one," Shell said. "That is a fate that nopony can changed. But I can give you purpose. You can have a future in the Ledomaritan Confederacy. Your chaos energy just needs to be channeled in the right direction. Only I can grant that to you: a long life spent in finding meaning and redemption, for there are enemies who deserve to face the wrath that you can bring, and I will aim you in their direction and theirs alone."

The air was silent, save for the sound of whirring and grinding machinery.

"Rainbow..." Belle reached a dainty hoof over and touched her blue shoulder. "I'm... I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Aridstone." She gulped and said, "But you weren't yourself then. Whatever may or may not have happened there: it wasn't your fault."

"According to you, a lot of things aren't my fault," Rainbow muttered.

Belle's eyes glistened. "Rainbow Dash, please. Don't—"

"I don't even know what I'm doing here," Rainbow said in a cold tone. She turned around, flexed her wings, and took off in a cold hover... back towards the entrance from which she came. She flew alone. "I... I have some thinking to do, Ding Dong."

"Rainbow! You can't let this creep get to you—!"

"I'm sorry, Belle. I've failed everypony; I'd only fail you too."

Belle reached for her, but it was too late. In a defeated hover Rainbow Dash was gone. The golden glow and animation retreated with her. The place returned to a dim, ghostly aura, centered upon the twitching zebra's mana sphere.

Belle slumped to the platform, her ears drooping as her eyes welled with tears.

Dalton looked up from where he too had collapsed. A sad sigh escaped his lips.

"Hmmm..." Shell exhaled, sheathing his taser. "Remarkably predictable. I would very much have liked to see if she could bleed."

"I hope you're pr-proud of yourself," Pilate murred through gritted teeth.

"I'll let the Council of Ledo decide whether or not my victory deserves pride." Shell turned and pointed at his soldiers. "You three, restrain the doctor. You two, bring Mr. Dalton down to the red flame so that we can proceed with the experiment—"

"Just kidding!" Rainbow Dash's jubilant voice soared straight back, followed by her wings as she rocketed violently through the entire line of soldiers. Bodies, berets, and tasers went flying everywhere. The place lit up with gold and screams as her blue form drop-kicked into Shell's skull. "Eat gravity, cyclops!"

"Gaaaah!" Shell shouted as the two of them plunged down into the depths of the labyrinth. They were accompanied by the flailing bodies of several soldiers as they collapsed onto the criss-crossing platforms below. Gasping, Pilate slumped to the floor—unhurt—as his ears took in the maddening chaos around him.

Belle and Dalton stared in breathless shock as only a few soldiers remained on their bridge, and they were preoccupied with gawking at their fallen leader in the gold-glowing abyss. "Commander!"

"Ooof!" Far below, Shell landed on a rolling conveyor belt. Swinging pendulums and thrusting pistons came to live all around him as the source of the golden light landed just a few feet away.

"Whew!" Rainbow Dash touched down, grinding her hoof against the conveyor belt's surface. "I'll give you one thing, buddy! You sure know how to take a bump!"

Shell gnashed his teeth. He stood up on the moving platform and growled, "You stupid, ungrateful little—Mmmph!" He struggled with a beret flung into his face.

"Eye front, soldier!" Rainbow Dash giggled, her mane blowing freely in a magical wind. She adjusted her pendant and squatted into a fighting position. "So how do you wanna do this?"

Shell ripped the beret out of his face. Frowning, he pulled a glittering taser out from a holster. The groaning air of cacophonous machinery hissed with his electrical fury.

"Ugh..." Rainbow Dash rolled her ruby eyes, then smirked at him. "It's only fair to warn you. The last time I butted heads with a unicorn end boss, it didn't fare so well for him—"

Acrid smoke filled the air as Shell unsheathed three more taser swords. He spun them around his body with agile telekinesis, then sliced a swinging pendulum in half before glaring Rainbow's way.

A drop of sweat formed along the pegasus' temple. "Oh. Well... then there's that."

"Hnnngh!" Shell galloped towards her, jumped, and spun a cyclonic flurry of electrical blades straight at her.

Rainbow Dash's vision filled with lightning. She bucked the moving platform, fell back, and flattened her spine against the floor. The swords swung over her. Breathlessly, she jumped back up, flipped, dodged the swords on their return, and landed awkwardly on the conveyor belt—

Shell slammed his shoulder into her side.

"Aaaugh!" Rainbow Dash flew violently towards a series of grinding gears. Gasping, she saw a length of chain in her peripheral vision. She reached out, grabbed the length of metal, and swung her body back onto the platform with a sailing kick.

Shell floated the butts of his tasers together in front of his chest to block her hoof, then shoved back. Rainbow Dash backflipped away from him, then had to dodge and juke as he came at her with a series of lightning-fast swings and stabs. Rainbow Dash stole any heart-skipping opportunity she had to dive at him and swing a hoof at his face, but the soldier expectly anticipated her moves and swung with retaliatory strikes. With each progressive sword-slash, Rainbow Dash was dodging by merely a hair's width. It didn't help that at one point, the conveyor belt moved them through a dense forest of dangling machinery. She grunted and jumped, flew, and side-strafed her way around jutting pistons, slashing pendulums, and lengths of chains. Shell dove fearlessly through the mess, spun about, and slashed all of his swords at her at once.

"Haaauchkkt!" Rainbow shrieked as one of the electrified blades made contact, spilling blood from her shoulder. She hobbled back on the platform, limply facing him with a pained expression.

Shell's hoof came down thunderously as he aimed all swords at her sweating face. "You're energetic, I'll give you that," he droned, glaring through the brimming electricity. "But every wreckless head only deserves to be cut off."

"Pleasant words to lame by," Rainbow hissed, clutching her wounded shoulder. "How'd you lose your eye, handsome? Did one of your monologues backfire in your face?"

"You know nothing of sacrifice," Shell hissed. "That's why you'll never be a hero. The only thing you'll ever amount to is a monster."

She glared back. "The only monsters are the ponies who don't know that they are one."

"Know this," Shell said. "When I'm done ripping holes into your flesh, I'll be the one to drag your carcass back into its cage. As we both know, death can't stop you from serving Ledo."

Suddenly, Rainbow smirked. "I don't need you of all ponies to preach to me about cheating death." With that, her wings stretched out.

Shell's eyes narrowed. "What are you—?"

"So let's cheat it together!" she hollered as she flew straight towards him.

Shell flinched. With a grunt, he tilted his glowing horn forward. All four blades converged on her suicidal figure. They made contact, but only managed to slice off the last inch of her tail hairs. "Unnngh!" the Prime Enforcer shouted as his body was plowed into by Rainbow Dash.

Together, the two toppeled off the edge, and plunged fatally into the screaming depths of the machine below...

Lesser Sparks

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Several moments ago, and high up above...

"Just kidding!" Rainbow Dash had barreled through the shrieking guards, knocking herself and Shell off the platform.

Belle gasped, gawking at Rainbow's surging comeback. She looked through the sea of sprawling guards to see Pilate standing between two Enforcers.

"Pilate!" she shouted.

The zebra's head turned her way. Across the dimming expanse, he gritted his teeth and uncoiled his muscles. His rear hooves bucked hard into the unicorn at his left. Caught off guard, the stallion flew off into dark space, screaming. The guard on the other side of Pilate growned and wrestled with the zebra. The two equines fought precariously on the edge of the golden platform.

Bellesmith winced and broke into a heavy gallop. As she did so, a guard telekinetically grabbed her hair from behind. "Gaaaugh!"

"You're staying right here, lady!" the Enforcer shouted, illuminating the bridge with an unsheathed taser.

Belle gnashed her teeth. Her chestnut eyes flickered back, and in a flash of platinum light she envisioned herself inside a wooden shack, struggling with a heavily muscled minotaur. After another flash, she frowned and yanked her head forward with surprising strength.

"Whoah—!" The guard was flung forward and onto her saddlebags, just in time for Belle to give him a timely buck to the midsection. He flew off, slammed against a swinging pendulum, and fell in terror to the darkness below.

Not wasting a second, Belle ran towards her beloved on the other end of the bridge. A guard appeared in front of her, swinging a glistening taser up high.

Belle blinked, and she envisioned leathery bat creatures swooping at her over the rickety platforms of a mountainside village. When her eyes reopened, she was already diving, flexing phantom wings as she rolled over, slid underneath the guard's quivering legs, and kicked him hard into a metal support strut. He fell unconscious as she scrambled up to her hooves—only to have a third guard tackling her from behind.

"You stupid mare!" the twitching Enforcer shouted. "I'm taking your head!" He raised the taser up high to cleave her skull in two.

"Raaaugh!" a gray figure blurred into him, shoving his weight off Belle's body.

Bellesmith looked up, hyperventilating.

"I've got him, darling!" Dalton managed, struggling with the stallion as the two wrestled over the taser. They rolled across the bridge, exchanging telekinetic punches and headbutts. "Nnngh—Go! Save your beloved!"

Breathless, Belle sat up and looked behind her.

Pilate had overpowered his opponent and was forcing the unicorn's cranium into a headlock. Seething, the guard merely jabbed his head up. His horn grazed the side of Pilate's cheek, spilling blood.

"Gaaah!" Pilate hissed in pain, twitched, and lost balance. Soon, the blind zebra and his adversary were teetering over the edge of the bridge.

"No!" Belle shrieked. Hissing for strength, she jumped to her hooves and sped towards the scene.

But Pilate was already plummeting. "Nnghhh-aaah!" He plunged into the black abyss below.

Belle jumped, slid on her chest, and flung her forelimbs over the edge of the bridge. Her upper body tensed, and her sweating face stretched to the breaking point. After several quivering seconds, she pulled and pulled, her rear hooves scuffing against the surface of the metal platform. Finally, with several squeaking breaths, she stood back up, pulling a frazzled zebra with her.

The two slumped onto the floor. Pilate was out of breath, and it didn't help that Belle's smothering kisses weren't allowing him to get the much-needed oxygen. He hardly complained. Hugging her back, he nuzzled her dearly and inhaled her scent, tears streaming from his gray eyes. The glow of the manasphere pulsated between their chests, making the couple look like the heart of the dimly-lit machine.

"Somehow I knew..." Pilate stammered. "Somehow I-I knew that you weren't... th-that you were never—"

"I will never leave you alone again," Belle murmured, sniffling as she nuzzled his cheek and kissed him repeatedly. "Do you h-hear me?" She hiccuped on a sob and whispered into his ear. "Never."

Pilate ran his forelimb through her mane, shuddering. "You... You came with Rainbow Dash..." He gulped. "Where is she?"

"Last I saw, she went plunging over the edge with Shell." Belle bit her lip. "You're... You're the only source of light in this strange place now."

"I hope she turns him inside out," Pilate spat. His facial features paled. "Wait... Where's Grinder? I haven't heard him at all since you arrived."

Belle was silent for a few seconds. Eventually, she whimpered and said, "He didn't make it, Pilate. He... He's the reason why I'm here... why Rainbow Dash is saving us as we speak."

Pilate slowly nodded. "I see. Well, at least we have—" His speech was ended by the butt of a taser sword slamming across his metal plate. "Unngh!"

Belle gasped and looked up.

A snarling guard slammed her in the face.

She fell back, spitting blood. Belle barely had a chance to breathe before the guard pounced her, his hooves gripping her neck.

"You!" he snarled. "It's your fault for bringing that demon pony here!" His eyes twitched in fury and hysteria. "All of my fellow soldiers are gone! Do you realize what you've done!"

"Get away from her!" Pilate snarled, charging towards the sound of the guard's voice.

The guard easily bucked the zebra away and tightened his grip on Belle's throat. "I'm going to crush your larynx, and while you sputter for breath, I'm gonna skin your beloved alive!"

Belle hissed and sputtered, her eyes rolling back in their sockets.

"Do you hear me?!" The guard snarled. "I'll make sure Shell paints the walls of this place with your insides—"

A taser sliced in out of nowhere and lopped the stallion's horn off at the base.

"Haaaugh!" the stallion screamed, magical sparks spitting chaotically from the shattered stem on his skull. He clutched his skull as blood trickled out of his ears and eye sockets. Before he could produce a second scream, a hoof slammed him upside the chin and sent his body flying off the bridge.

Belle wheezed, clutching her own throat as oxygen found its way back into her lungs. She gazed up with teary eyes.

A thoroughly bruised and bloodied Dalton stood, leaning against a metal support strut as the taser levitated in his magical grip. He finished panting in time to shake the sweat off his mane and mutter, "I do not expect f-forgiveness, darling..." He gulped and continued. "But I do expect you to pardon me if I faint." That said, his elder body slumped to the floor as he wheezed for an even breath.

Belle stared at him, slowly nodding. Pilate crawled over, and the two cradled each other beside Dalton as the three ponies recovered from the violent ordeal. After a few moments, Pilate murmured, "Now what?"

"Now..." Belle gulped. "We do what we've always been doing."

"What's that?"

"We wait for the spark..."

Ever East

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At that precise moment, Enforcer Shell struck the lower platform first. Rainbow Dash vaulted off of him, slipped, and landed in a slide.

Wincing, Shell grlared at Rainbow, crawled up to his hooves, and unsheathed his crystal gun. Less than a second later, Rainbow Dash spun, knocking the weapon out of his telekinetic grip with her tail.

"Ha!" Rainbow Dash shouted with a grin. "Not such a badflank without all your nifty toys—"

Shell's left hoof slammed across her face.

Rainbow stumbled back, only to be pummeled by a left punch, then subsequently bucked in the chest with Shell's rear hooves.

Spitting blood, Rainbow rolled opposite of the way the upper conveyor belt had taken them. The light from the red flame below glinted off her pendant as she struggled to her knees. The air thundered with Shell's heavy steps as he marched towards her.

With a hissing breath, she galloped towards him, spun, and bucked her legs high.

Shell side stepped, jumped, and came down with both forelimbs slamming onto her backside.

"Gaaah!" she exhaled. Before she could scramble away, Shell bit hard onto her mane hair, twisted his neck, and slammed her meatedly over the golden platform.

Rainbow Dash lost all oxygen in her lungs. She tried to inhale, but couldn't swallow any air from the sudden pressure Shell was applying from behind. He grabbed her in a vicious headlock and began twisting his forelimbs in an effort to snap her neck.

Struggling, she gnashed her teeth and flexed her back muscles.

Rainbow's wings expanded, shoving Shell off of her. In desperation, she kicked off the ground to gain some air.

"No." Shell's horn glowed.

Rainbow sputtered, lunging to a stop in mid-air. She saw magical light ensnaring her feathers in her peripheral vision.

"There is no escaping," he growled, then yanked his head to the left.

"Ghhhh!" Rainbow wheezed as she was telekinetically hurled to the left. She slammed hard into a swinging pendulum.

Shell clenched his jaw and jerked his head to the right.

Rainbow found herself being tossed against a metal strut. Her body went numb with pain as she was then forced to the floor. Spinning around, her body slid like a chunk of ice across the bridge and straight into Shell's waiting hoof.

He stepped hard onto the weak joints of her left wing.

"Nnngh—Aaagh!" Rainbow squealed in agony.

He leaned over and spat. "There is only dying." His eyes flickered from raw mana as he spun around completely. "Raaaugh!"

Rainbow spun, flailed like a ragdoll, and plummeted down the depths of the machine.

A horrendous clap of noise announced her rough landing atop a bridge below. She quivered all over, her face wrenched in pain. She tried crawling up to her knees, but could only collapse.

Then something tickled at her quivering eyelids: a hint of lavender light. Her ruby eyes flew open.

Straight ahead of her, at a length of twenty meters, was the golden pedestal mounted with red flame. As soon as Rainbow Dash observed this, the image was blocked by the shadowy figure of the Prime Enforcer landing between them with a thud.

"Let's face it, pegasus." Shell marched slowly towards her, adjusting his beret and cracking the joints in his bruised neck. "Dying is all you'll ever be good at. Why else would a pathetic waif like you be so far from home?"

She seethed, her eyes darting desperately to see the billowing red flame on the other side of him. She found her neck throbbing as a his harsh telekinesis was lifting her by the pendant.

Shell's venomous glare came into view. "You've obviously given up everything that's worth to you. So let me give you something to be loyal to." His horn brightened as he concentrated energy on the golden necklace. "In your death, you will be property of Ledomare, no matter how ugly that form of property may be."

She wheezed to say. "You... m-might not wanna d-do that..."

"It's never a matter of want," he said. The pressure of his magic field increased around the pendant, rubbing up against the ruby lightning bolt. "It's only ever about need—"

Just then, the Element responded, sending a bright pulse of flickering crimson light into his face.

"Gaaah!" Shell reeled, raising a hoof before his squinting eyes. His horn strobed awkwardly as his telekinetic grip faltered.

Rainbow saw it. With a sharp breath, she flapped her wings and soared forward.

Gasping, Shell tried physically reaching up for her.

She interrupted him with all four hooves slamming against his skull, then leaping off.

"Unngh!" Shell fell flat to the surface of the platform...

And Rainbow Dash soared.

Rainbow Dash dove.

Rainbow Dash's forelimbs reached deep into the red flame and grasped it...

FLASH!

She lurched forward under the purple canvas of night. A gust of cold wind billowed against her braided mane and silken nightgown. She looked every which way, shivering. All was silent and calm. After a few seconds, her ears pricked up. Rainbow Dash blinked, and very slowly pivoted about on the balcony of Verdestone.

A tall, milk-white alicorn stared down at her with a tranquil smile. Her pearl blue eyes sparkled with the cosmos.

"Whitemane..." Rainbow Dash stammered. She gulped, her face pale as she clung to her gown. She froze, then squinted. "Yeesh, were you always so friggin' huge?"

Whitemane let loose a dainty chuckle. Then, with a delicate stretch of her wings she uttered, "Eljunbyro."

Rainbow Dash blinked, then nodded. "Gesundheit."

"Endurance has been reborn," Whitemane said in a deep, melodic voice. "The spark may continue flying east, to reach the end of the world and beyond."

"Uhhh... yeah." Rainbow Dash gulped. "About that. I got a little side tracked."

"Did you, now?"

"I kind of sort of died."

"Then you are deceased as we speak?"

"Boy, wouldn't that be a mind-bender."

"Well?"

Rainbow Dash slowly shook her head. "No. I mean, you're talking to me and stuff. The only way that could happen is if you still had that mind-link thing going on."

"It was a fortuitous spell, Rainbow Dash. But my magic, like my alicorn blood, is limited. I regret to say that this is the last time I will have to speak with you."

"Oh... Uhhh..." Rainbow Dash ran a hoof through her wind-blown braids. "Well, that's cool. I-I-I mean..." She winced, and her voice cracked, "I don't think it's cool because you're going away, but it's alright with me, because I'm pretty sure I can handle getting to the Midnight Armory on my own."

"Are you?"

"Uhhhh..." Rainbow Dash bit her lip. "Yeah...?"

"Is it because of you and you alone that your voyage has begun anew?"

Rainbow Dash eyed the celestial horizon above Emeralidne. She narrowed her gaze. Then her wings flexed as she looked up once more at Whitemane. "Ding Dong."

Whitemane raised a royal eyebrow.

"Erm..." Rainbow Dash smiled nervously. "Belle, I mean. That stubby-headed unicorn saved me. She... She seems pretty cool and stuff, if not a bit on the prissy side..."

"She is in need of great help, as is her beloved."

"Yeah, so?" Rainbow Dash frowned. "I'm kind of in the middle of something here. As a matter of fact... eheheh..." She blushed slightly. "I'm more or less getting my flank kicked."

"Your destiny transcends death and space and even time, Rainbow Dash," Whitemane said. "You have the gifts that this world needs to stay intact."

"Well, hey! Whaddya know..."

"But you cannot discover all of these gifts on your own. A spark does not set itself aflame, after all."

"So... like..." Rainbow Dash scratched her left forelimb with her right. "What do you want me to do?"

"Soon enough, you will do that which needs to be done because it will be your desire, not that of an alicorn."

Rainbow Dash merely stared up at Whitemane.

"Help Bellesmith," Whitemane said. "Help her beloved. She helped you, after all. The difference is, she did not achieve Eljunbyro by choice. But you, Rainbow Dash, your choice is your endurance. Live the life that has been granted to you, and this world will prosper from it—both the light and even the dark."

Rainbow Dash exhaled heavily. "That's a tall order... helping the world prosper and all... sounds really dangerous." She blinked, and her wings stretched out vibrantly. "Where do I start?"

"Go east, Rainbow Dash," Whitemane said as the heights of Verdestone fell under a heavy fog. "Ever eastward, ever energetic, ever Eljunbyro."

Rainbow Dash smiled. A warmth came over her, and she took a deep breath. "Yeah..." She murmured. "I could do that in my sleep." Her teeth showed in a devilish grin, and before she knew it, she was flinging her body forward.

FLASH!

Her front hooves gripped the empty golden pedestal as her rear limbs kicked straight up.

"Nnnngh!" Shell was charging her backside with a missed swing.

Rainbow's back legs came down and gripped his forelimb blindly. With a well-timed twist of her body, Rainbow Dash snapped the stallion's hoof at the wrong angle.

"Aaaaaaaugh!" Shell wailed, hobbling back on three limbs as his one leg dangled loosely.

Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth, kicked off the platform, and spun three times before slamming both her rear limbs hard across Shell's gasping face.

With a stunted scream, Shell flipped off, spiraled, and plunged into the darkness below.

A loose beret fluttered to the ground, encrusted with the medals of the Prime Enforcer. A half-second later, Rainbow Dash's four hooves landed all around it. Catching her breath, the pegasus reached down, dusted off the stallion's hat, and replaced the common one on her scalp.

"Hmmmm..." She smirked as she fitted it over her mane. "Now that's a step up in the souvenir department, though it smells a bit like raw cabbage."

She took a deep breath, smiling casually as the machine realm around her lit up with a golden aura. Her pendant pulsated with magical red energy from the center. She gave the pedestal one last glance, tilted her head straight up, and flexed her wings.

"Still, some things smell better than others." She soared up through the platforms, pendulums, and gears. "Back at ya, Whitemane."

Dash Delivery

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"Do you remember the way in which you and Rainbow Dash came in?" Pilate asked.

"I... I..." Belle winced. "It all happened so quickly. Rainbow Dash carried us in here on a wing and a prayer."

"I'm guessing y-you were the prayer," Dalton wheezed.

Bellesmith spun and questioned him. "Do you remember how Shell brought you in?" she asked.

The aged unicorn sat up on the platform, shuddering. "It was more or less a straight line. But I doubt we'll make it far in this abysmal darkness."

"Besides, the energy is draining from O.A.S.I.S.," Pilate said as he tapped the gradually dimming sphere that was hanging from his choker. "I can feel my way around for eternity, but I'll be just as lost as you, with or without my device being lit." He managed a weary smirk. "The good news, at least, is that my headache is waning."

Just then, a blue pegasus shot up and gripped the zebra's shoulder. "Oh my goddess!" she gasped in his face.

Belle and Pilate jumped. "What?! What is it?!"

"You're not rhyming!" Rainbow Dash stammered, her ruby eyes wide.

Pilate's brow furrowed. Dalton slumped back to the floor while Belle sighed.

"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage," Pilate said.

"Something tells me that's easy to do."

"I can't believe it..." Belle crawled over and planted a hoof on Rainbow's shoulder. "You're still alive!"

"Yeah, that happens a lot, these days."

"But... but you fought Shell!'

"Buck yeah! I fought his horn off!" Rainbow Dash grinned, then twitched. "Okay, well, maybe not his horn. But the next best thing." She adjusted the beret on her head and struck a pose. "Ta-daaaaaa."

"Uhm..." Belle smiled awkwardly. "It's... uh... it's nice, Rainbow."

"It'll look even nicer in the sunlight, I bet," Rainbow Dash said. She squinted at the others. "You do have the sun in the sky over this place, right?"

"So I've been told," Pilate muttered.

"Rainbow Dash," Belle remarked. She trotted around the pegasus and marveled at the sight of a bright golden aura washing over the nearby machinery. "We need to get out of this place, and you're the only light source we have down here. Could you help us out?"

"First thing's first. Who here is a big fan of Black Shark?"

"Uhm... it's 'Blue Shelf,'" Belle said. She pensively raised a hoof. "And I, for one, am not a fan."

"There are countless hundreds of equines being enslaved in the caves just outside this place," Dalton managed to say. "So long as this facility stands, Ledomaritans will find ways to exploit their fellow ponies." He gulped. "I should know this truth quite well..."

"Even if we get out of here," Pilate said, "We'll have countless guards with manapowered weapons attempting to ensnare us."

"Yeah... so, like..." Rainbow Dash fished through piles of discarded berets. "I was thinking, why not stick it to this Ledo Martian crap? I mean literally?" She grabbed a beret and flung it at the zebra. "Here ya go. Catch."

Pilate stretched his left hoof out. The beret landed far to his right. After a deep sigh, Pilate's face went tight and he growled, "I'm blind."

"Of course you are."

"Uhm..." Belle strolled over to Rainbow Dash. "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, uhh...." Rainbow gazed straight up. A pulsating orb of lavender light glistened above her. She tilted her head back down and smirked at the others. "It'd be a lot easier to show you."

"You want us to go up?!" Belle exclaimed. "How... How do you expect us to follow you?"

"Let me worry about cheating gravity," Rainbow Dash said. She finished grabbing several berets and shoving them into the saddlebag around Belle. "I'm pretty good at giving thermodynamics the raspberry."

"Uhhh..."

"Everypony grab ahold of one of my limbs," Rainbow Dash said, stretching two of her hooves out. "We'll do this the hard way until I find an elevator or something."

"You certain you can... uhm... carry all three of us?"

"Two of you," Dalton said.

Belle looked over, jaw agape. "Dalton...?"

The mustached stallion waved his forelimb. "Face it, I deserve to be stuck here. I've done nothing but bring you and your beloved pain and misery."

"Dalton..." Belle's face went long. "You came through for us in the end. You don't deserve to be abandoned in this forsaken place."

"I'm responsible for Grinder's death!" Dalton frowned, his gray features paling in the gold light. "And Shell wouldn't have gotten a single hoof on anypony if I wasn't so willing to assist him."

"Your grandchildren were being threatened and—"

"I'm not going to argue, darling! I'm staying here and that's final. I've lived a long life. I've had my days..."

"Belle?" Pilate asked.

"Yes, beloved?"

"Help me over to Dalton."

"Uhm... okay..." Belle trotted over and gave Pilate a shoulder to lean on. Together, the ponies shuffled over to where the elder stallion was squatting. Once they reached him, Pilate bent over, felt around with his hoof, found Dalton's midsection, and punched it hard with all his zebra strength.

"Hcnkkkkt!" Dalton's eyes crossed as the wind was knocked out of him. He fell over in an unconscious slump.

"There." Pilate dusted his hooves off. "I'll carry him if you carry me, Rainbow Dash."

"Gotcha. I like how you think, Stripesy."

"Beloved? Think you can grab onto Rainbow Dash's other hoof?"

"I'd be delighted," Belle said with a nervous smile. "At least I know she's not about to punch me."

"Uh huh. Let's do this, Rainbow."

"Dash Delivery!" Rainbow Dash hoisted the three with mighty, flapping wings. "Next destination: Lavender Central!"

"Uhm, Belle? What does she mean by—?"

"Just roll with it, Pilate." And their breaths were stolen as they soared ceilingward in a multicolored blur.

Ignition's Spark

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"H-how far until we reach the t-top?!" Belle stammered, hanging dearly to Rainbow's leg.

Rainbow grinned as she bolted up, up, up towards the lavender glow. "Until we hit something!"

"Th-that's not very encouraging!"

"If you wanted encouragement, you grabbed onto the wrong pegasus!"

"Do not worry, beloved!" Pilate exclaimed as he held onto Dalton. "I'm quite certain Rainbow Dash knows what she's doin—Aaaugh!" He gasped as his body surged in Rainbow's grip.

The pegasus had come to a stop, hovering within the hollow of a domed alcove. A circular wall of consoles surrounded the group, covered with levers and switches and knobs. As Rainbow's pendant flickered red, the golden aura caught up with her body, making the tiny room turn bright as day.

"Well, if this place doesn't look... nice and complicated?"

"Where in Spark's name are we?" Pilate exclaimed.

"Oh, so now you're panicking!" Rainbow Dash chuckled, looking every which way. "Hang on a sec, lemme just... Here!" She reached for a lever that was glowing the brightest shade of lavender before her eyes. After yanking it, the walls shook, and a platform of metal extended in a circular pattern along the interior of the place. "Let's let you guys have a breather, huh?"

She placed Belle, Pilate, and Dalton down. Belle reached over and checked on Dalton before giving Pilate a gentle nuzzle. She held her beloved close as she squatted on the platform with him, gazing curiously up at Rainbow Dash.

"What exactly are you doing?"

"I'm not all that sure, but if this works as well as it did last time..." Rainbow Dash licked her lips and started grabbing levers and knobs at random. "Then the world outside is gonna get a new fashion statement."

"You've done this sort of thing before?"

"Kinda, sorta." Rainbow Dash chuckled slightly as she twisted knobs and pulled at levers. With each manipulation, the lavender light dimmed rewardingly in her vision. "I was a bit preoccupied at the time."

"With what?"

"Oh, it's all foggy. All I can think of is floating lightning balls, ugly gas masks, and a bunch of dead foals."

"Wait... what... I... huh...?"

"Exactly." Rainbow Dash pulled hard at a lever. Suddenly, a loud hum filled the chamber, echoing down into the bowels of the machine realm below them. "Ha! Success! Er... I think."

Belle's ears drooped as her face winced.

"Hey, don't be so freaked out," Rainbow Dash said. "This formula always works for me. Lavender light... flank kicking... machine fiddling... escape!"

"I... I don't..." Belle's eyes narrowed. "Lavender light?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Pilate said, then gasped as the entire place started shaking.

Even Rainbow Dash had to stop hovering. She gripped onto a side of the chamber and held on, her knees smacking together as the alcove shook more and more violently.

"I don't get it!" Belle shrieked, hugging Pilate close as her face paled. "What did you do?! Are we m-moving?"

"Feels like it," Pilate murmured.

"Yes, but where to?"

"If you wanna take my bet?" Rainbow Dash smirked with sparkling eyes. "Up!"

The ponies clung to themselves and Dalton, keeping steady as Rainbow Dash's dry chuckles added to the cacophony of the moment. Bright beams of gold light emanated from the console and swam down into the depths of the metallic place.

As the glowing lines wormed their way down, they illuminated the shivering body of a muscular stallion. Seething through his teeth, a bruised and bloodied Shell was in the midst of yanking telekinetically at a loose strip of metal. After much grunting and effort, he snapped the platinum shard loose and levitated over beside another one. With a pained expression, he began forming a rough splint around his broken forelimb.

When the glow of the place reached him, he paused in his agonizing ordeal and glanced up—sweating and panting—as the machine world came to life around him. Gears moved, conveyor belts hummed to life, and pistons thrusted faster and faster. The air filled with a rusted smell, humming with something not quite like mana, yet more powerful.

He gulped and murmured aloud, "It's her..."

Sticking It

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The depths of Blue Shelf shook. From deep within the mountain, something resonated. Dense rock split into gravel and layers of concrete crumbled as a great impenetrable object churned its way towards the surface of the world. One by one, the layers of the facility shattered upon the approach of a gigantic, metallic spike. The obelisk roared its way up through the multiple levels. Department Blue imploded instantaneously. Laboratories and storage compartments collapsed on top of one another. Garnet's former office, the sequencing chamber, interrogation rooms and locker closets: everything fell prey to the machine world's climbing obelisk.

Outside and above the facility, the hilltops shook and the trees swayed. Patrolling Enforcers had to brace themselves as a veritable earthquake roared across the land. They shared pained expressions, then shouted as the ground split up beneath them. Slowly, with the grace of an oozing volcano, a great golden spike emerged from the crust.

Soil and rock exploded, flying high into the sky. Pine trees collapsed in a grand ring about the impact site while dozens of boulders rattled downhill. The obelisk was at forty feet of exposure, and still it did not cease penetrating the sky. The tremors of Blue Shelf increased ten fold, and soon log cabins and concrete forts were collapsing. Soldiers and guard ponies ran for cover, their shouts and cries silenced by the cacophony of the pierced world.

Then there was a hideous groan. Stallions looked up and gasped to see the immense concrete zeppelin towers of Blue Shelf careening and bowing. Above the elevator entrance to the facility, one such tower undulated so far that it split down the middle. In horrifically slow motion, the entire cylinder of concrete crumbled to ashes, spilling dust and debris across the Ledomaritan summit. As it fell, two zeppelins barely managed to untether themselves. One dirigible, however, wasn't so lucky, and it was dragged down through the sky, its bulbous body colliding with the two trying to escape. The one airship imploded and fell in a shower of metal shards and shrapnel while the other two deflated and gradually careened towards the craggy landscape below.

In the middle of all this madness and destruction, the obelisk kept rising. Finally, just as the earthquake was at its strongest, the spire finally slid to a stop. Platinum lines of glowing energy swam up its body, then pulse all along the height. A loud, bass humming noise rose in volume, then culminated in a symphonic blast of noise that sent rivulets of arcane energy soaring across the landscape.

The soldiers gawking at the sight winced when the energy waves overcame them. One by one, their tasers went dead and whatever manacarts they had teetering around lost their vibrancy and died. The Ledomaritans could only watch in shock as every source of pony-manufactured sorcery shorted out from machine's emanations. Then, with a sound akin to crackling paper, the mana fences surrounding the ruined camp flickered and failed. Every glowing barrier went dim.

For a brief moment of hilarious silence, the guard ponies stared at each other and their inneffectual tasers.

"Awwwwwww crap," one uttered in the midst of the stillness.

As if on cue, the forests exploded with roaring noise, and a living layer of manticores charged out of the foliage. They bounded effortlessly through the dead fences and smashed their way onto the scene, tossing shrieking stallions left and right. The soldiers shouted and fought back, flinging rocks and blunt weapons with their telekinesis, but as the manticores tore into the haphazard scene, it turned out to be a losing battle for the Ledomaritans. Their screams blanketed the landscape.

Far, far down below, in the slave pits just outside the machine world's door, the tasers of the patrolling guards also shorted out. They stood in numb circles, struggling to bring juice back to their weapons. As the seconds ticked on, they sweated nervously.

The enslaved equines on the other hoof...

"Get them!" Professor Garnet shouted, his emaciated body invigorated as he stood up tall and pointed at the wide-eyed Enforcers. "Now's our chance at freedom!"

Every pony, ram, anteloupe, and bison in that room yelled victoriously, charging the shrieking guards and paying them back for months upon months of misery. Chains were broken, shackles were unclasped. Atop a hill of gravel, Felicity and Placid exchanged glances. The two unicorns smiled, dropped whatever load of rocks they were carrying, and happily joined the fray.

Quite effortlessly, the surging herd of laborers galloped their way under torchlight towards the northern elevator shafts, and towards felicitous liberty.

Until Death

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"I don't know what's happening, but it's really loud!" Pilate yelled.

"Rainbow Dash!" Belle shouted across the domed compartment full of levers and controls. "Don't you think now would be a good time for us to find a way out of this thing?!"

"Way ahead of ya, Ding Dong!" Rainbow Dash was in the middle of hooking a forelimb around Dalton's unconscious upper body. As platinum beams of light sparked down the golden lengths of the machine, the room around them began vibrating harder and harder. The platform below them threatened to rattle loose at any moment. "Yeesh, did we stumble upon the migraine factory or what?!"

"Just what is all of this accomplishing?!" Pilate exclaimed.

"I'll bet you twenty bits it's gonna annoy the ever living snot out of those Lame-Oh-Martians!"

"I don't suppose ponies where you come from believe in making plans?"

"Not half as much as they believe in making cupcakes!" Rainbow Dash reached out to Belle and Pilate. "Alright, kiddies! Grab ahold—"

But before Rainbow Dash could make contact, a flash of gold energy billowed through the room. It was enough to wake Dalton with a frightening gasp. It was also enough to make the floor give way with a sickening crack.

"Gaaaaah!" Belle shrieked. Rainbow Dash, Dalton, and the wall of controls fell out of view. All she knew was gravity, and gravity was devouring her one screaming second at a time. "Aaaaah!" she wailed, her brown mane billowing as she peered into the mess of machinery through which she was plunging. The unicorn was not alone; Pilate fell alongside her. "Pilate!"

"Beloved!" he screamed.

In mid-fall, she kicked off a golden piston and flew into him. Their bodies tackled together as one. She hugged him with numb limbs, and the two found themselves sailing into a metal chute that led far into the thick of the world's metal bowels. They slid and slid for an interminable period of shrieking, ultimately landing in a dark chamber. A bed of metal filament and gold dust cushioned their fall.

A platinum cloud billowed around them, then settled. Soon, the two were panting, sweating, clutching to each other in the claustrophobic space. Belle sputtered and spat before finally clearing her mouth of sediment in order to speak.

"Pilate! Pilate, talk to me! Are you okay?"

"Yes... at l-least I think so!" He coughed and winced, leaning into her. "Where in Spark's name are we?"

"I... I don't know, Pilate. It seems to be a small compartment of sorts..."

"How far did we fall?" he stammered. "Where's Rainbow Dash?"

"She must not have been able to catch up with us! She was up in the control room last time I saw..." Bellesmith's voice trailed off as her chestnut eyes traveled up. Her lips quivered in shock.

Pilate gulped, his ears twitching anxiously from the silence. "Belle? Belle, what is it, honey?"

She bit her lip, trembling. "Pilate...?"

"Yes, beloved?"

"The ceiling..."

"What about it?"

"It... It's..." Belle's voice squeaked pathetically. The room was getting smaller, and the golden light from beyond the chute that deposited them inside was fading. "We have to get out of here."

Pilate didn't need to be told twice. "Get on my shoulders, Belle!"

"Pilate—"

"Maybe you can reach the passageway we slid down—"

"It's too high! We'd need four ponies standing on top of each other to reach it!"

Their voices echoed louder and louder as the ceiling slid gradually down, just a minute away from crushing them into mush.

"Wh-what if we use O.A.S.I.S.?!" Pilate exclaimed. He fiddled with the manasphere on his choker. "If I put it into maximum levitation, maybe it can fly back up the chute and alert Rainbow Dash as to where we are—"

"There's no time! The sphere's too slow! We have to try it the hard way!" Belle then lifted her muzzle and shouted towards the collapsing ceiling. "Rainbow Dash!"

"Rainbow!"

"Rainbow Dash, down here!"

"Help us! Please! There's very little time!"

Belle summoned the breath to scream again, but she floundered. Up above, the ceiling was lowering past the chute. Everything was absorbing their voices. The world was nearly pitch dark.

"Rainbow!" Pilate shouted, his voice wavering as the air grew hot and compressed. "Rainbow Dash, please!"

"Pilate..." Belle murmured.

"We're down here! You have to hear us!"

"Pilate!" Belle grasped the zebra's shoulders. The two froze in each other's embrace. Belle tried saying something, but as the grinding noise of the machine filled her ears, her face grimaced and she leaned forward. Her eyes streamed with tears as she nuzzled Pilate's neck.

Pilate took a deep breath and held her back, rubbing his cheek against her neck.

"The Spark has done what was required of it..." Belle murmured, sniffling. "We are Eljunbyro. Nothing less, nothing more."

"Do you think she will make the rest of the journey on her own?" Pilate breathed.

Belle hiccuped on a sob and shivered. "I don't know, Pilate. I don't know."

Pilate took several deep breaths. His ears twitched as he felt the ceiling coming within a sneeze of their heads. "Belle, darling, listen to me..."

She stifled her whimpers for a brief moment.

He lowered the two of them so that just their chins waded above the pool of filament. He kissed her several times on the lips and murmured into her ear, "I would not trade a thousand lifetimes for the one that you alone have given me. I love you, Belle. Now and forever."

She sniffled and kissed his cheek, whispering, "And I love you too, Pilate. Thank you for being in my life..."

The air hissed as the last sliver of space was eaten up by the crushing ceiling.

"Hold me tight, beloved," Pilate said, clutching Belle and bracing his back against the ceiling as the two plunged into the drowning dust. "Don't l-let go..."

They submerged. The ceiling closed after them. All was dark; all was silent.

Stage Left

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Light exploded.

The pool of metal dust lowered as a fountain of it spilled out of the chamber. Pilate and Bellesmith emerged just below the collapsing ceiling. They spat out filament and ash before gazing towards the brightness.

A pair of ruby eyes reflected their shocked faces. With a glinting smirk, Rainbow Dash shook her head. "Yeah. I don't think so." She stuck two blue hooves in.

Belle and Pilate shrieked as they were yanked viciously out of the compactor. Just milliseconds after their tails swung free from the compartment, the sand exploded from the ceiling smashing its way towards the floor of the dust pool.

Rainbow Dash dragged the two soot-stained ponies onto a metal platform brimming with gold light. Dalton stood a few meters away, dizzy, but altogether in one piece.

"There..." He managed a weak smirk. "As soon as you told me that they fell down a chute, I knew they'd end up behind one of these compartment doors. Whoever built this place had a mind for recycling brittle substance."

Pilate wheezed, still spitting up dust. "Good to hear you too, Dalton..."

"You guys picked the worst time for an alchemist's mud bath," Rainbow Dash said. "Is anything broken?"

"I think we're fine—" Pilate began, but couldn't finish. Belle had tackled him and was baptizing his cheek with tears of joy. He smiled nervously and stroked her mane before saying, "Oh yes. We're definitely fine."

"Oh thank you. Thank you thank you thank you..." Belle sniffled and tilted her head around to bequeath Rainbow Dash a tender smile. "I'm sorry that I ever doubted you..."

"Hey, I couldn't let my saddlebag go to ruin, now could I?"

"Ugh!" Belle rolled her eyes, sniffled, and gave a weak chuckle. "You're impossible, Rainbow! If Rarity were here, she'd say—" Belle froze, clutching Pilate, her face hanging in a wince. "Uhm... Uhm, what I mean was—"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Rainbow Dash droned, waving a hoof. 'We'll sort THAT out later. In the meantime—"

"The pegasus here seems to have found a way out," Dalton said.

"Oh yeah?" Pilate asked, standing up and helping Belle to her hooves. "Where?"

"About one hundred feet up!" Rainbow Dash said. "I saw it while carrying Mustachio here along the way down to save your flanks."

"Up?!" Belle stammered. "But... But I thought there was only one entrance!"

"Maybe whatever Rainbow Dash just did made a new door," Pilate remarked. "If I'm to understand that this place has undergone some changes."

"Look, all I know is that the glowy rune thingies are there and I really wanna get the heck out of this clockwork." Rainbow Dash grabbed Dalton and offered limbs to Pilate and Belle. "Promise not to fall like dumb anvils this time?! I can only stuff so many tricks into this smelly beret to pull out later!"

"We pr-promise, Rainbow Dash," Belle said with a smile as she accepted the pegasus' limb. "And once again, from the bottom of our hearts, we thank youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!" she shrieked as Rainbow Dash hoisted the three ponies up at lightning speed.

They were moving too swiftly to see the equine figure below them, clinging to a length of golden chains rising up through the hollow of the risen obelisk.

Soaring up towards a criss-crossing series of platforms, Rainbow Dash hovered evenly and glanced all around. "I think I lost it. Horsefeathers..."

"Over there!" Dalton exclaimed, pointing as he dangled from Rainbow's grip. "Six o'clock!"

"Just because I called this place 'clockwork' doesn't mean you get to be snarky, old stallion."

"Will you just look?! For Queen's sake!"

"Oh... Hey! You're right!" Rainbow grinned towards a glowing circle of runes. As she fluttered closer towards it, the round assortment of symbols coalesced into a ring. With a flash of golden light, a hole formed in the metal wall, revealing the forested mountains of Blue Shelf in the reddening sunset. "Awesome sauce! Let's make like the wind and... uhm... be windy!"

"You'll hear no argument from me," Pilate stammered, holding on for dear life as Rainbow Dash soared out of the magical exit.

As the blue blur vanished, the equine figure from below rode up the last length of chain and tossed himself desperately onto the golden platform nearby. Wincing, Enforcer Shell stood up on three legs, his bad limb dangling in a haphazard metal splint. As soon as he saw the circular exit beginning to fade, he gasped and broke into an awkward gallop. Hobbling and hobbling, he rushed the door, and telekinetically threw his body forward like a living missile just as the runes lost their brightness.

"Nnngh—Gaaah!"

And all was silent.

Once Bound

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Down below the high ridges of Blue Shelf, besides a rippling river that wound its way along a southwest path, a stampeding group of weathered equines stormed out of a concrete building. The crowd numbered in the hundreds, and they carried with them the soot and grime of countless months, enslaved in the belly of the mountain. They squinted at the red bands of light wafting over the hilltops from the setting sun.

In the distance, there stood several Enforcers who had been minding a cluster of ships moored to the riverside docks. At the sight of the bustling slaves—who greatly outnumbered them and their ineffectual tasers—the guards surrendered their weapons and galloped for the forest beyond.

Laughter and cheers lit the air, especially as the emerging ponies additionally saw the crumbled buildings of Ledomare surrounding the golden obelisk that pierced the skin of earth. The wreckage of bunkers, mana fences, and crashed zeppelins was still careening off the edges of the sundered cliffs. The roars of manticores echoed in the distance, their growls sending ripples across the thick river streams.

Felicity beamed, tears welling from her dirt-stained eyelids. She wiped her face and smirked aside as Placid walked up with the trembling figure of Garnet leaning on his flank. The professor gazed at the landscape, his quivering lips forming an unpronouncible sob of joy. Before anypony could say anything, a bright object surged overhead.

The ponies gazed up, and their cheers doubled at the sight of a blue streak carrying three figures with her. Equines stomped their hooves and several liberated citizens waved their hooves as the pegasus took an easterly path and ended on a plateau of rock overlooking the forested north bank of the river.

Garnet took a deep breath, summoning the strength to stand on his own four hooves. He watched as Felicity and Placid leaned in to nuzzle each other. Across the riverside stretch of land, beloved couples were embracing, sharing laughter and sobs. With a deep breath, the professor closed his eyes, bore a meditative smile, then waved towards the docks.

"Everypony! Follow me! We'll take the boats, then make our way downriver towards western territories!"

The former slaves nodded and shouted in agreement. Soon, the huge group of ponies, rams, anteloupes, and reindeer marched as one, surging towards the vessels... and to their new lives.

Even Braver

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Belle and Pilate gasped as they were dropped onto their hooves along a dizzied Dalton. The three stood with swaying legs atop an outcropping of rock beside the dense forest. The red hues of the sun set split through the branches, casting a crimson kaleidoscope on their coats.

"Whew!" Rainbow Dash hovered before the group, adjusting the medal-studded beret on her prismatic scalp. "Aside from that freaky kerfluffle with the junk compactor and a brief scuffle with Shell the Army Guy, I'd say that went pretty smoothely!" A Ledomaritan bunker exploded in the distance, sending a shockwave over the landscape. Rainbow Dash winced and dripped forth, "Well, smooth enough. Ooooh! A pear!" She plucked a piece of fruit off a tree and shoved it into her mouth, scarfing down the juicy fragments. "Mmmmm-mmrmmff-Goddess! I'm so hungry, I could eat my own barf! Mmmmff..."

Pilate's ears twitched. He pivoted towards the sound of Belle's panting breath and shrugged with a smirk.

Belle gulped and turned towards the mustached stallion. "Well, it doesn't get much closer than that, but we made it." She stood still, blinking. "Dalton...?"

The aged unicorn was staring at the massive surge of ponies flocking around the trio of boats just five minutes' gallop away. He took a deep breath, his ears drooping in the scarlet sunset.

"Dalton..." Bellesmith trotted over and rested a hoof on his shoulder. "What's going on? Tell us what's on your mind..."

"It's not my mind that's being weighed down," Dalton murmured. He gulped. "It's my heart." He looked over with glistening eyes. "Things could have gotten a great deal more smoothely if I had just acted without fear..."

"You would have destroyed yourself if you defied Shell to his face," Belle said. "Trust me, I know how evil he can be." She gulped and gave a sympathetic expression. "As for your grandfoals—"

"They are no longer my concern," Dalton murmured.

"Huh?"

Dalton gave her a weary smile. "All the Enforcers who knew anything about me and my relatives are gone now, sealed away in the heart of that machine." He shuddered. "Or, if I play my cards right, I'm officially 'dead.' Either way, if there is any honor to be had in the souls of Ledomaritans, then the offspring of my offspring are safe. It's not how Mildred would have wanted to see it come about, but everything stopped being pretty long after she left this world. Well..." He chuckled breathily and stroked his hoof across Belle's bangs. "Most everything..."

She smiled weakly, then grasped his hoof in her own. Leaning forward, she spoke in a wavering voice, "What now, Dalton? Where is there for you to go?"

Dalton waved his horn towards the group gathering below. "Perhaps I'll leave it up to them. No doubt they'll wish to flee towards the land southwest of here. Blue Shelf has always acted as a barrier to Ledomaritan patrol. They'll likely make enough distance to spread out and hide amidst the rural populace before the Confederacy can catch up with them."

"What kind of a life would that be for you, Dalton?" Belle's brow furrowed. "Can you afford to be on the run at your age?"

"Do I have a choice?" Dalton gazed up at her. "Or you, for that matter, darling?"

Belle bit her lip. She gazed over at Pilate. The zebra's head was already hanging low.

"Face it. Shell and his lackeys may be gone, but if the Ledomaritan penchant for record-keeping is as zealous as ever, then the knowledge of our existence won't be wiped out so easily. The Queen will send meaner and uglier soldiers after us. Our days are numbered if we choose to stay in one place."

"He's right, Belle," Pilate murmured, lifting his head with a pale expression across his stripes. "We may be free, but freedom is a huge target in the Queen's land."

"Which is why I feel like I should be joining them," Dalton said, pointing once more at the crowd where the distant figure of Garnet could be seen. "They're not only free, but they're energized. And that's because they have something that they believe in. It's... been a long time since I believed in anything."

"Well here," Rainbow Dash said, tossing fruit down at their hooves. "Believe in pears. Your stomach will thank you." She took another bite and spoke with her mouth full, "Can't say the same about your ego though. Hrmmmf..."

Belle shook her head with a smile, then gazed lonesomely in Dalton's direction. "I'm sure that they'll do what they can to get you to safety, Dalton."

"And what of you, darling?" Dalton's lips persed as he squinted at the pair. "What of you and your beloved?"

Belle bit her lip. Pilate drifted over and held a hoof over her shoulder. "We... uhm..." The zebra fridged as he said, "We need to discuss that, Dalton. But..."

"But what?"

"...somehow I doubt that we'll be taking those ships with you and the others. As a matter of fact..." Pilate gulped. "You will all likely be safer without us."

Dalton stared for a few seconds, then thought aloud, "Because Bellesmith is a sequencer, and even with the subject unaccounted for, she's the closest link to the anomaly found in Aridstone."

"As long as I'm alive, I'm a bigger target than you and all the slaves will ever be," Belle murmured. "I'm so very sorry, Dalton." She leaned into Pilate and closed her tearful eyes. "But... but I can't go where you're going."

"Then just where will you go?"

Pilate and Belle said nothing. The couple leaned against each other, trembling slightly in the evening wind.

"Mrmmmf... Could life get any juicier?" an oblivious Rainbow Dash said as she hovered above with pears. A resounding belch wafted through the tree branches.

Dalton looked at her, then at the couple. He slowly smiled a knowing smile. "Hmmm. I see." He leaned forward and whispered, "Be it ever so awkward, I suspect you are in good hooves."

"We'll see about that," Pilate whispered back. "Dalton, I know what you may be feeling about yourself, but I want to thank you for being around when we needed you. Belle's depended on your support all those days in the facility..."

"One cannot help but cherish such a wise and gifted mare," Dalton said, shaking Pilate's hoof and smiling Belle's way. "Especially one in possession of a heart as exquisite as her mind—" He gasped, his eyes wide.

Belle was hugging him dearly, having thrown her forelimbs around his neck. She nuzzled him and spoke in a wavering voice. "You have been like a father to me, Dalton. There are no words to say how much I will miss you."

Dalton blinked. With a warm smile, he stroked her mane. "I'm sure you'll find the words, darling. And when you do, maybe you can share them with your children, and make future Ledomaritans that will bring righteousness to this landscape in ways I never did."

She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. "You have in more ways than you think," she said, then backstepped over beside Pilate. "I think Mildred would be proud of you."

Dalton's eyes watered, but he dried them with a lasting smile. "I'll be sure to tell her you think as much." With a gentle wave, he turned and trotted off into the sunset.

Belle shuddered, leaning against Pilate as he wrapped a forelimb around her trembling figure. "Oh Pilate... what's in store for us?"

"I don't know, honey," Pilate said, nuzzling her ear. "You've been such a brave pony as of late." He tilted his head towards the hovering pegasus above them. "You think you're ready to be even braver?"

Belle couldn't speak; she could hardly think. She looked at the image of Dalton walking towards the boats along the glittering river, and closed her chestnut eyes to the memory of Blue Shelf forever.

New Objective

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His breathing was labored, and the sweat that ran down from his horn was mixed with crimson fluids. Hobbling, he marched sporadically away from the huge golden obelisk that had pierced the surface of the earth. The ground before him lay in uneven chunks, and it would have been a task even for an uninjured unicorn to navigate all the pits and falls before him.

However, with patience and guile, every now and then bearing the sharp pain shooting through his right forelimb, Prime Enforcer Shell reached the edge of the sundered ground. As he approached the remains of Blue Shelf, the first of several frazzled soldiers galloped his way.

His beret missing and his uniform torn in several places, the stallion came to a grinding halt before Shell and saluted, trembling. "Sir! Prime Enforcer, sir! You're b-back from the facility?!"

"I... h-have emerged," Shell wheezed, then shuffled to a stop. With glowing telekinesis, he braced his broken limb while squinting at the carnage and wreckage around him. "Report."

"Sir, the object that pierced the ground emitted some sort of anti-magic shield. Until a few minutes ago, all of our mana-driven weapons and tools were malfunctioning. This included the manafences. We're struggling to get most of the devices operable again, but we've had to deal with a rampaging herd of manticores."

"How many Enforcers are accounted for?"

"We've been too preoccupied to make a proper headcount, sir. My guess is less than two hundred."

"In the Queen's name..." Shell muttered, his one eye gazing towards the toppeled towers and fallen zeppelins. "We had six hundred guards less than two hours ago."

"We were attempting to open communication with the rest of the Confederacy, but the communicative leylines have been unreachable since the obelisk appeared—"

Five Enforcers galloped up, led by a breathless lieutenant. "We've salvaged the manacore of a fallen zeppelin and we think we ca use it to fight off the last line of carnivores—" He froze at the sight of Shell, immediately saluting. "Prime Enforcer, sir!"

"Good work, lieutenant. As you were."

The soldier gulped and stammered, "Well, sir, it's been utter chaos since you've been gone. It took all of our efforts combined just to fight off the manticores. A lot of stallions fell prey to their savagery. I regret to inform you that—"

"What's that?" Shell asked, squinting past the soldier's shoulder.

The lieutenant turned and glanced down the forested mountainside, towards where the first of three boats were casting off from the docks along the glittering river. He turned and said, "They appear to have emerged from underground, sir. They number in the hundreds. We suspect they're what remains of the laborers in Black Level."

Shell took a deep, deep breath.

The lieutenant winced. "I'm sorry, sir. I understand. I'll switch every able-bodied stallion to the pursuit of those runaways immediately." He turned to shout the appropriate commands to his lackeys.

"No," Shell said.

The lieutenant glanced back, wide-eyed. "No... s-sir...?"

"Let them go," Shell muttered.

The Enforcers exchanged worrisome glances.

"But sir..." The lieutenant leaned forward, his face pale and sweating. "They're property of the Ledomaritan Confederacy! They know of the Queen's experiment deep down in the bowels of the earth! Surely, they know about the door and the key!"

"But they aren't the key," Shell said in a droning tone. "Which makes them hardly worth our combined efforts to track down, and our numbers are slim enough as it is. Today is a dark day, my little ponies..." Shell hobbled through the group and gazed past the smoke and debris of Blue Shelf. "We lost far too many comrades in the past two hours. Nearly two dozen fell into darkness inside the machine where I came from. But as I made my escape from the nether world, I saw the subject and the ones responsible for her freedom escaping before me."

After a deep breath, Shell turned and glared at those close enough to hear him.

"Gentlecolts, Blue Shelf is lost. Our experiments here are over. It is our task—our duty, now, as Ledomaritan guardians—to expend every effort and resource in tracking down the pegasus subject and her companions. Within them lies the key to our victory over Xona in the war. We can acquire slaves from the non-equine filth anyday. Allowing our pegasus—our key to the underworld—to escape Ledomaritan sovereignty is not an option. Do you understand this?"

Without hesitation, the soldiers nodded and replied, "Sir, yes, sir!"

Shell's brow furrowed. "Good. Gather your comrades. Salvage any weapon or tool that you can find, energized or not. Within two days, the Council of Ledo will be wary of our silence and send a rescue party by zeppelin. We shall take to the air and commence with our new objective."

As the soldiers ran to their various duties, Shell gazed once more towards the dark horizon opposite to the setting sun.

"We shall catch that flying pony," he murmured icily. "Or we shall die trying."

Party Begins

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"I'm hearing crickets," Pilate said. "Is it getting dark?"

"The sun is setting as we speak," Belle said as the two stood on a hillside bordering a Ledomaritan forest. "No doubt there will be Enforcer patrols coming by to assess the damage to Blue Shelf." She gulped and glanced into the trees. "I think we should take shelter in the woods; it'll be harder for anypony to spot us in there."

"Nuts to that," Rainbow Dash muttered. She hovered ten feet away, gazing solidly towards the darker horizon. Her eyes had a distant look to them. "If you stick around here, you'll be found one way or another. From the looks of it, most of those baddies who want you dead are unicorns. It's a real female dog trying to escape the watch of unicorns."

"Then what should we do?" Pilate gulped. "We're not exactly marathon runners. The Enforcers will catch up to us no matter where we gallop off to or how swiftly!"

"Then run faster, I dunno..." Rainbow Dash shrugged without looking. "Just where are you two from? Don't you guys have a home?"

"We used to live in Mountainfall," Bellesmith said, then shuddered. "But we can't go back there. We're fugitives of the state now. Ponies will recognize us, and as friendly as our old companions may be, I doubt any of them is willing to challenge the Confederacy by hiding us from the government."

"Well, alright, then. What's... uh... what's in the direction those boats are headed?"

"What, west?" Belle remarked. "Why, it's lowly plains and rural countryside..."

Pilate added "But then the land gets drier and drier until it hits a wide river bordering a dead, desert landscape with a great deal of smoke."

"It's wasteland as far as Ledomaritan mapmakers can see."

Rainbow Dash gulped. "Yeah, it certainly is..."

The couples' brows furrowed.

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath before asking, "Okay, so how about east?"

"Uhm..." Belle bit her lip, stifling a whimper.

Rainbow Dash turned finally, squinting down at her. "What?"

"Relatively speaking, we're in the westernmost province of Ledomare," Pilate explained as Belle leaned against him. "The majority of the Ledomaritan landscape stretchest east of here, including the capital city, the warfronts..." He shuddered. "And then beyond that is Xona itself, and nopony has ever crossed the boundary of Xona and lived to tell the tale."

"Hmmm... Well okay then..." Rainbow Dash gazed once more towards the horizon in front of her. "Sounds crazy..."

"Most certainly..."

"Really friggin' dangerous, even."

"Yes..."

Rainbow Dash's wings fluttered harder. The slightest of curves overcame her lips. "I think you should do it."

"Do what?"

"Y'know: head east."

Pilate grimaced. He frowned blindly into the sky. "Are you insane?! We'd be skewered by guards or monsters or bandits before we even made it ten miles from the edge of Blue Shelf!"

"No you won't."

"What makes you think so?"

Rainbow Dash's smile left. She shuddered briefly, as if a cold chill was rolling through her limbs. Then she tightened her jaw and said, "Because I'll take you there."

Pilate's mouth hung open.

Belle glanced at him, then up at Rainbow Dash. She swallowed dryly and murmured, "You... would take us there?"

"Yup."

"Across... across so much forbidden territory and treacherous landscape?"

"I just said that, didn't I?"

"Rainbow Dash... I... we..." Belle bit her lip. "That's awfully nice of you to ask, but we can't... there's no possible way—"

"I'll do it!" Rainbow Dash's voice cracked. "I'll totally do it! Past all the super evil unicorn patrols and manticores and whatcrap. I mean, why not? You two woke me up from the dead and stuff, right?"

"Well, in a manner of speaking—"

"Screw, speaking! You two need a lesson in doing!" Rainbow Dash folded her forelimbs and smirked. "And if you can do stuff and stay alive, then who am I to abandon you?"

"Rainbow Dash, we'll just slow you down," Pilate said.

"Uhhhh..." Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. "Or maybe I'll just speed you two up? You ever think of that?"

Belle and Pilate leaned against each other, lingering in thought.

"I mean, if you're both afraid, I can understand. But you should leave that crud at the gate." Rainbow Dash smiled again. "Besides, I'll whoop the flank of anypony who tries to harm you. Have I not done that sort of stuff so far?"

"How can you be so fearless, Rainbow Dash?" Belle asked.

"How can you not be?"

"I'm serious..."

"Uhhh..." Rainbow Dash gazed east yet again. For the thousandth time that evening, a pulsating glow of lavender light pierced her vision. It shimmered over the treetops and hillsides like a second sun. With a shuddering breath, Rainbow Dash turned and said, "Let's just say courage and coolness come hoof and hoof. If I take the time to analyze it, I lose grip of wickedly nifty opportunities."

"To do what?"

"Exist? I dunno. Who cares? You both coming or what?"

"I... we..."

"Well?"

Belle and Pilate nuzzled each other, sharing a warm sigh. Eventually, Pilate tilted his head up with a thin grin. "You've not let us down, Rainbow Dash. If you say that you can get us places safely, then who are we to argue?"

"We'd be wrong to have any doubt in you," Belle added. "After all, you are Austraeoh."

Rainbow Dash stared down at them. After a few seconds she groaned. "Unngh... STILL the wrong 'a' word. I swear to Goddess..." She zipped up into the air, surveying the landscape.

Belle and Pilate exchanged secret smiles.

"Alright. Let's move out!"

"Where to?"

"Follow my voice and I'll figure out the rest."

"W-we're heading east?"

"No, we're heading towards the constellation Stupidtarius—What do you think?!"

"Heheheh—Just checking."

"Let me be the one to check. In the meanwhile, hoof it, you too!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed as the couple galloped in a close pair, running down the hill towards a stretch of dark green countryside under the blooming stars. Rainbow Dash flapped her wings to soar past them, when her ears twitched...

She thought she heard whispering.

Glancing around with a perplexed expression, Rainbow Dash lingered briefly. There was no sound, save for crickets and the rustle of leaves in the wind. She gazed east, and the lavender light gazed back.

Silence.

"Hmmm. We already have a blind pony. I'd hate for one of us to go deaf." She soared after the two. "Hey! Don't go cutting ahead of me! I'm party leader, alright! Let's get that straight..."

The night swallowed the three gracefully.

Divine Intervention

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The three's ponies' distant departure reflected off a glistening, emerald surface.

The orb blinked, and with a deeply heated hiss, her eyecrests narrowed. She stretched her massive legs, standing up from where she clung to the side of a mountain half a mile from Blue Shelf. Her violet scales reflected the starlight with a cold sheen as she raised a dark blue crystal in her claws.

At that precise moment, the crystal pulsed with bright manalight. An elder voice boomed across the summit, resonating in the dragon's ears.

"She is alive, then?"

"Mmmmm..." Fumes poured from her mouth and nostrils as she spoke back into the crystal. "Yes, I do believe she has a longer lease on life. The expert magic of this land has saved her. I daresay she's even stronger than before."

"What delightful irony. I'm tempted to say that you did her a favor, sister."

She groaned, her two rows of teeth showing. "She heads east, just as prophesied."

"Then the fate of the world is in motion?"

"Relatively speaking..."

"Oh?"

"She is not alone," the dragon sneered. "Undoubtedly, this will slow things down."

"It is of no matter. If nothing else, it gives us more of an opportunity to prepare."

"Mmmm... indeed. I suspect that you want me to look after her now."

"She has Eljunbyro for that. The time will come when we will intervene to assure the spark's journey reaches the world's end. We've already done enough here."

"Understood." She spread her massive wings into the starlight. "I shall seek out the other two Divines."

"And I shall attempt communication with our sister on the dark side. Grace be with you, sister."

"Nnnngh..." She growled, hanging the blue crystal from a necklace. "I've had my share of grace." Then, with a searing breath, she soared skyward, breaking the clouds as she flew her way northeast, and towards the mountains beyond.

Out Run

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The dragons circled the gray air above Sanctuary, their flaming shrieks reaching a grand cacophony. Rainbow Dash had her back to this as she trotted up to the outer ring of the sunken Silvadelian ruins. Her ears twitched, but she refused to look back. The saddlebags weighed on her heavily, and still she trudged forward.

On the furthest edge of the horizon, the dismal malaise of smog broke. Golden rays of light shimmered Rainbow Dash's way. She could almost touch them.

For some reason, she froze in place. A huge lump formed in her throat, and she started to tremble.

Right then, the sunrise disappeared, like candlelight being snuffed out. She heard a whispering voice.

Her heart racing, Rainbow Dash finally turned around. What she saw sent a heavy gasp through her body.

On a sudden pile of rocks no less than fifty meters away, five pony figures were crucified to crosses of splintery wood. Bloodied and beaten, the centermost mare gazed up, her green eyes thin and swollen.

"Rainbow..." She whimpered as the shadow of dragons passed over her. "It's over. There's nothin' to outrun, darlin'."

Rainbow Dash's lips quivered. She felt something wet on her hooves and looked down.

The green book lay open, and in place of photographs the pages were bubbling forth a fountain of warm blood.

Screams lit the air.

Rainbow Dash looked back up.

The dragons around the five ponies were exhaling bright flame. With pitiful yelps, the mares melted into white ash.

Rainbow's mouth flew open as she drowned in the book's blood.

Bright Night

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"No!" Belle shrieked, sitting up in a cold sweat. She stared forward with shrunken chestnut irises, panting.

She was answered with starlight and foggy haze. Mountains and hillsides shone in a silver sheen as far as she could see.

Her hyperventilations cascaded, and she brought a pair of shivering hooves to her face. Before she could sob, a voice murmured from beside her.

"Mmmm... b-beloved...?"

Bellesmith took a deep breath. A tear rolled down her face, but she smiled gratefully as she lowered back down to the soft mound of leaves where a stirring zebra lay. "It's okay, Pilate. I'm... uhm... I-I'm just fine..."

Pilate nevertheless tilted his head towards her. "Was it a bad dream?" he whispered.

She curled her limbs to her chest, biting her lip. "It wasn't my bad dream," she breathily murmured.

"Still having visions?"

She nodded, sniffling. "Mmmhmmm..."

"It's okay, Belle. Here..." He crawled over and stretched his limbs around her.

She swiveled around to face him, easily surrendering to his warm embrace. She let forth a few tiny cries, hiding her muzzle in his striped chest as he stroked her mane.

"They'll go away," he said, nuzzling the top of her forehead in between gentle kisses. "Sooner than later..."

"B-but what if they don't, Pilate?" she murmured. "What if... what if Austraeoh and I are linked forever?"

"You have her memories," he said. "Nothing more. Otherwise, why would Whitemane have given you the message that she did?"

"But what if there's something she wasn't telling us?"

"I'm sure alicorns are a bit-per-dozen with their cryptic nature, but from what you described to me, Whitemane is the last goddess who would want you to be burdened with worry for the rest of your life."

Belle sighed, staring past his striped shoulder at the twinkling starlight above. "She has such vivid memories, Pilate." Belle swallowed hard, trembling. "And such intense fears..."

"Yes, well..." Pilate hugged her tighter. "She hides them well."

Belle's breath shook. "I wish I c-could, Pilate..."

He smiled blindly in the starlight. "You're stronger than you give yourself credit. I think—perhaps—Eljunbyro is a good thing to have happened to us."

For once, Belle managed a dry chuckle.

"What?" Pilate's brow furrowed around his plate. "I mean it!"

"I know, Pilate. I know. Just..." She shrugged within his grasp. "How can becoming fugitives to the state and having hiked across the Ledomaritan wilderness for three days be called a good thing?"

"Has it been three days already?"

"Yes, Pilate. And that doesn't answer my question."

"Well, thanks to Rainbow Dash, we haven't been gobbled up by any manticores. I think that's a good thing."

She snickered lightly. "That's hardly convincing."

"Very well then." Pilate took a deep breath, pondered, and eventually said, "For the last two years, we had been living in indentured servitude to a cold government that separated us, threatened us, and sent some of our closest friends to their deaths. For days on end, I would trot around the neighborhood, waiting for the day when the Blue Shelf facility decided that they were done sending electrical sparks into your head for one reason or another. And now that Rainbow Dash has zig-zagged her way into our lives—"

"We're cold, hungry, uncomfortable, on the run—"

"Yes, and...?"

Belle sighed, smiling painfully as she nuzzled his neck. "But we're together..."

His lips curved. "Exactly."

"I just... I just wish I knew where she was taking us..."

"East, I presumed."

"I know, but where?" Belle gulped. "What's there for us past Xona? What continents are out there? What's between here and the legendary Grand Choke?"

"I suspect Rainbow Dash doesn't know anymore than we do."

"What keeps her going, then?" Belle murmured, glancing over to see a petite blue figure lying still in the starlight. "I mean, this is the sort of life she's been living for months, Pilate. It seems like... such punishment..."

"You're the one with her memories," Pilate said. "I think you'd be more equipped to answer that question."

Belle exhaled slowly, her eyes squinting through the fog. "Adventure... discovery... opportunity..."

The zebra's lips curved. "I'm rather intrigued at such possibilities."

She glared at him. "You're enjoying yourself, aren't you?"

"Is that a crime?"

"No, but it's still robbery." She stirred, frowning. "What I wouldn't give to sleep in an inn or a hotel for once."

"You know that's not exactly a luxury we can afford right now," Pilate murmured. "Not that we've even stumbled upon any towns."

"I know... I know..."

"For me, it brings back memories."

"You're joking, right?"

"Not at all. When I first attended West Ledomaritan University, I spent half the semester in a hostel—"

Belle had to clamp her hooves over her muzzle to keep from waking the nearby pegasus with explosive giggles.

If Pilate could see, he would have been blinking by now. "What?"

Belle composed herself in time to say, "I cannot believe that you're comparing sleeping on a bunch of leaves on the top of a cold mountain to spending nights in those stables."

"Hey, it was a rough stable!"

Belle continued to giggle.

He frowned. "I mean it! It was bumpy, rough, and cold..."

She nuzzled him with a wicked glint to her eyes. "You just mean that you didn't have me to share the straw with."

"Even worse." Pilate shrugged. "No pillows."

She poked his shoulder with her stubby horn.

"Owwww... oh come on..."

"Make a joke like that again and I'll poke you lower."

"Heaven forbid!" he gasped. "You might—I dunno—blind me or something."

"Heeheehee..." She leaned against him, exhaling. "It's a shame, Pilate. There are sights here that Blue Shelf never had."

"Uh huh..."

"I mean, well, we could never see much of the night with our curfew and all, but the way the moon shines off these mountains..."

"I'll take your word for it," Pilate muttered.

Belle's face was pale. She sat up with a jolt.

Pilate tilted his head her way. "Now what?"

"The moon shines..."

"Yes, I imagine it does—"

"No! You don't get it!" Belle hopped up to her hooves.

"Gah!" Pilate stirred under the spray of leaves. "B-beloved?"

Belle galloped to the crest of the mountaintop and stared up at the night's sky, panting. Her eyes reflected a pale glint form directly above.

"Don't tell me this is another dream screwing with your head!"

"This time..." Belle's lips curved. "It's a good one." She spun about and dashed to the blue figure. "Rainbow Dash! Psssst! Rainbow Dash!"

"Mmmm..." The pegasus' wings twitched as she curled up into a tighter, sapphire ball. "Of c-course you can have my autograph... j-just sign on the beret—zzzzzzzz..."

"Come on!" Belle shook her heavily. "Wake up—"

"Mmmphhh... huh...?" Rainbow's ruby eyes squinted open. She immediately winced and covered her face. "Unnnngh... Ding Dong? Why the hay would you want an autograph?"

"Hurry! You gotta see this!"

"I already left my signature all over your brain noodle..."

"It's the first full moon of the month!"

"Then tell your zebra honeymooner to take craps behind a bush next time..."

"Rainbow...!"

After a few seconds, Rainbow's eyes flew open. She parted her forelimbs and glanced down at her pendant. The ruby lightning bolt was glowing with a magical aura. She jerked her eyes towards Belle.

Belle was smiling wide.

With a flurry of blue wings, Rainbow Dash hovered straight up. "Well, why didn't you friggin' say so?! I gotta get to a high place—" She proceeded to fly straight into a tree. "Oww! Darn it! My wing's asleep!"

Princess Luna

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"Come on... Come on..."

Rainbow Dash hovered back and forth like a father stallion pacing through a hospital waiting room. The moon glinted off her bangs, eyes, and hooves alike, but the glow of the pendant around her neck wasn't increasing.

"Get a signal. Get a signal, you stupid hunk of junk! Come on!"

"Maybe... uhm..." Belle stirred where she sat on folded legs besides Pilate. The couple gazed up at Rainbow Dash, worriedly observing her anxious figure. "Maybe if you flew higher up?"

"It's worked at this level before!" Rainbow Dash grunted, slapping at the Element of Loyalty with an errant hoof. "Grrrr... Maybe the Ledomexicolts did something all black magical to this thing. Unnngh... stupid world-manipulating unicorns—" Rainbow froze in mid-air, wincing. "Erm... sorry..."

Belle smiled softly. "None taken."

"Why?" Pilate mused. "I didn't hear her insult zebras."

Belle slapped him with her tail.

"Ow..."

"Or maybe..." Rainbow bit her lip as her eyes glistened with starlight. "Maybe the chaos rift finally exploded and Luna isn't there anymore!" She chewed on one of her hooves. "Or maybe Luna turned back into Nightmare Moon! Or... or... squirrels invaded from the north or something!"

"Rainbow Dash, don't fret so much!" Belle said in a soothing tone. "I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for it all. There's no need to worry. Besides, it's not like you." She paused, blinking. Belle then squinted and said, "Is it?"

"I doubt squirrels are ambitious enough to pull off a country-wide invasion."

"Pilate..."

"I should have prepared for this..." Rainbow Dash muttered, clutching herself with her forelimbs as her body dangled loosely from her flapping wings. "I should have asked Luna for some way to... I dunno... launch a magic moon fart her way that could alert her that I'm still alive or... or..."

"Maybe this is one night too early?" Belle remarked.

"Yeah." Pilate nodded. "Just because it's a full moon for us doesn't mean it's a full moon over in Eclopia."

"Equestria."

"I knew that."

"Nah... That's a good thought," Rainbow muttered. "But it's a full moon for the whole world everywhere, from what I understand. Just like it's a rising or setting sun for the whole world all at once."

"I still find it absolutely fascinating that the rulers of your home are capable of controlling the celestial bodies at will," Pilate remarked. "And yet, they never let their ambition get the better of them?"

"Huh?" Rainbow Dash glanced down.

Pilate tilted his head her way. "If Queen Ledo had even a fraction of the power as your alicorn goddesses—"

"Oh. Right. I get the picture."

"Do you, though?" Pilate's brow furrowed. "There are countless empires out there who would use such power to conquer and control. And yet, from the sound of things, your rulers seek peace above all else."

"Yeah. They're boring like that."

"Boring?!" Bellesmith made a face. "Rainbow Dash, do you have any idea how lucky you are?"

"I mean it!" Rainbow Dash shrugged. "For the longest time, I thought all they were good for was writing letters and attending tea parties! Heck, that's what I'd do if I was a princess."

"Well, if we had—"

"Then again, I'd never be caught dead becoming a princess..."

"Well, if we—"

"Princesses are overrated, if you ask me."

Belle frowned. "Are you done?"

"Sorry. Ahem. Shoot."

Belle said, "If we had tea with Queen Ledo, we'd suspect there was something wrong with her head. Besides, the Royal Matriarchs of the Confederacy have only ever attended ceremonies as part of some sort of political ploy."

"Yeesh. And just how long have you been dancing to this nutjob's tune?"

"Well..." Belle blushed and squirmed where she sat. "It's one thing to think less-than-satisfactory thoughts about one's government, but another thing altogether to act on them."

"We've trotted more distance in the last three days than we have in our entire lives," Pilate said. "I don't know if you realize that, Miss Dash. We've only ever gone where our government had allowed us."

"Yeah, well, your government sucks."

"They also protect countless ponies from crime and foreign invaders."

"At the cost of what? Freedom? Decency? Artistic expression?" Rainbow Dash shrugged. "It sucks."

"Verily, what sucketh?" The pendant around her neck glowed. "Who art thee, and how hast thou commandeered this leyline?!"

"Buh?" Belle's face contorted.

"Booyakashaaa!" Rainbow Dash bellowed, grinning a crescent moon as she tilted the glowing pendant up and nuzzled it. "Boy is it fantastic to hear your ugly-as-flank speech, your Highness!"

"We beg thy pardon? What manner of illicit communication is this?"

"It's me, Princess!" Rainbow Dash beamed. "It's Rainbow Dash!"

"Rainbow Dash?" The voice faltered, stammered. "Rainbow Dash, born in Cloudsdale?"

"No, Rainbow Dash, born in Courtneigh Love's left kidney." Rainbow Dash frowned. "Who do you think?! It's me, Luna! Element of Loyalty and Badflankery! Awesomeness personified!"

"Rainbow Dash!"

"Yes! Now you've got it!" Rainbow flew loopty-loops, cheering in the starlight. Down below, Pilate and Belle nuzzled each other, watching their companion with contentment. "Haaa-haha! How ya doin', ya looney sky goddess, you?!"

"Rainbow Dash, we... we had thought the dead..."

"Yeah, well, you wouldn't have been too far from the truth." Rainbow Dash's eyes lit up as she spun in lazy circles, smiling wider and wider. "But what matters is that I'm fine now and I owe it to these two fine specimens of radicalness. Oh! Luna! I gotta introduce you! Pssst!" Rainbow Dash squinted down at the couple. "Stripesy, Ding Dong, say hello to Princess Luna of Equestria!" She held her pendant out as far as it would dangle from her neck.

"Hello, Princess Luna of Equestria," Pilate and Belle both spoke as one, their eyes frozen in nervous expressions.

The pendant flickered back, "We greet thee, thou ponies of... erm... remarkably colorful names."

"Ehhh... their real names are boring. 'Driver the Zebra and Beauty the Unicorn.' I dunno. But what matters is that they rock my horseshoes off and I'm back in action all thanks to them!"

"Please forgive us, Rainbow Dash. We art... we art most grateful to hear of thy well-being... and..."

"Yeah...?"

"This is... this is just so alarming..."

"Don't drop the moon or nothing!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed with a wink aimed heavenward.

"We... we were almost convinced that thou hast perished. For weeks and weeks we considered informing our sister of thy passing—"

"Weeks and weeks?" Rainbow Dash blinked, her eyes wide. "Wait a second, Princess." She took a deep breath, as if about to take a mighty plunge. "H-how long have I been out of it?"

"Since the last time we communicated with thee?"

"Yeah..." Rainbow Dash gulped. "How long?"

Pilate and Belle tilted their heads up.

Eventually, the pendant flickered. "Why, we do believe it has been ten moon cycles, Rainbow Dash. We were worried beyond description for thy safety."

Rainbow Dash exhaled long and hard. She slowed her wings and lowered down to the ground, hanging her head as a soft smile lingered on her muzzle.

After a few seconds: "Rainbow Dash? Art thou still there?"

"Yes." Rainbow Dash inhaled sharply and tilted her head up, grinning. "Yes, your Majesty. I'm totally here." With a calm breath, she gazed at her two companions and exclaimed, "And boy have I got a story for you..."

Good Tidings

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"And so it's kind of a hairy game of hide and seek, only we're not just hiding from the Ledomaritan Enforcers; we're attempting to move our way east beyond the territories of the Confederacy and the country that they're at war with," Rainbow Dash said. "I've got tons of berets so far! You should see them!"

"We believeth thee, Rainbow Dash," Luna's voice replied through the pegasus' pendant. Several hours had passed, and a dim light was forming along the horizon beyond the mountains. "There is so much to taken in. It would appear as if thou hast been conscious for such a little time, and yet thou hast managed to acquire quite an ample helping of tasks on thy plate."

"You can say that again!" Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. "I wouldn't have it any other way! I'm always super duper hungry! Heeheehee!"

"There isn't much time left for our communication, Rainbow Dash. We feareth that we must rest the moon for the sake of raising the sun soon."

"Yeah, I know." Rainbow Dash gulped and stared into the cold morning winds. "Could you just tell me a little bit more about h-home, please?"

"Beyond what thou already knoweth?"

"There's gotta be a few things you skipped! Not that you're an absent-minded princess or nothing—"

"Perish the thought." Luna's voice paused for a moment, then continued. "The older brother to Twilight Sparkle—the unicorn known as Shining Armor..."

"Who, ol' squint-eyes? What about him?"

"He hath become engaged to a unicorn from the north, a member of royalty, no less."

"No kidding! Who's the lucky mare?"

"Princess Mi Amore Cadenza."

"Ewww. Ahem. Well, thank Goddess she's marrying. She sure as hay could use the name change."

"As always, Rainbow Dash, thy humor is lost to us."

"The only humor is that belonging to the parents who named her! Sheesh! Heeheehee..."

All the while, Bellesmith sat beside her beloved a few feet away. She had a long-lasting grin of contentment plastered on her face as the morning dawn rose in golden effluence.

"I don't understand..." Pilate whispered aside, his ears twitching. "Wouldn't now be a good time for Rainbow Dash to ask her ruler about the machine realm? Or about Eljunbyro? Or the edge of the world? Or—"

"Shhh!" Belle insisted, murmuring towards him. "There will be two or three days of the full moon for her to do such, Pilate. Allow her an evening to reconnect. Doesn't she deserve any less?"

"Hey, you'll get no argument from me. I just..." He sighed and leaned forward. "I'm just curious, I suppose."

"You're not alone, beloved," Belle said, nuzzling him. "But something tells me, even as much as Rainbow Dash knows... or pretends to... she will always be an enigma to us."

Pilate nodded. "An enigmatic salvation will do."

"Mmm... indeed."

"—around the lower lakes, irrigating the west fields. Indeed, it would seem as if Cloud Kicker has been doing a fine job with the weather flying since thy absence, though it has taken her a while to learn the fine skills that came easily to thee."

"Heheh..." Rainbow Dash smiled, her wings flexing. "I knew that mare could get the job done, if any. It's nice to hear that Ponyville isn't suffering a drought or anything."

"Affirmative. Even if some horrible disaster was to occur, Spike's mastery of the magic skills can aid the local climate control."

"Seems like he's gotten a lot better at sorcery since I last talked to you."

"He had a lapse two moon cycles ago."

"Oh?"

"He had to hibernate while his wings grew."

Rainbow Dash's eyes widened. "Spike's got wings?!" She twitched. "Spike can fly?!"

"Not terribly well, we fear. But it is of little matter. Your young filly friend is teaching him lessons—"

"Wait." Rainbow Dash craned her neck to the warming sky. "Wh-which filly friend?"

"The young pegasus with eyes like lavender flowers—"

"Friggin' Scootaloo can fly?!" Rainbow Dash beamed. She laughed hysterically, pounding her hoof into the earth. After a heavy gasp, she exclaimed, "That's great! That's super crazy great! Like—how long has she been able to do that?!"

"We would guestimate about four moon cycles since her cute-ceanara..."

"Holy—Snkkkt!" Rainbow Dash almost gagged on the blades of grass. "She's got her cutie mark too?!"

"It was apparently an event of major importance. All of her close friends congratulated her."

"Was... was she the first out of that little gang of pipsqueaks to celebrate her cute-ceanara?"

"Yes. We do believe that was the nature of their celebration."

"Hah! Why that adorable little turkey buzzard! Of course she'd be the first one to get it!" Rainbow Dash's teeth showed in her wide grin. "What is it of, your Majesty?! You gotta tell me! What's the cutie mark?"

"Why, it's—" Luna's voice faded.

Rainbow Dash blinked. She sat up straight, gasping. "Princess?! Princess Luna?!" Suddenly, Rainbow Dash was wincing.

The sun had glided over the eastern mountains, casting sharp rays of platinum light over the mountaintops.

Pilate bit his lip. Belle watched, her face stretched sympathetically.

Rainbow Dash blinked again. With a heavy sigh, she hung her head. Her shoulders shook once... twice...

Bellesmith gulped. She stood up and reached a hoof out towards her. "Rainbow Dash..."

"It's... it's gonna be full daylight in an hour." Rainbow Dash flapped her wings, masking the sound of a sniffle as she climbed against the mountain winds. "I... uh... I'd better go get a look at the landscape below us, in case there are any Enforcer patrols or whatnot."

Pilate stood up next to Belle, resting a hoof on her shoulder. "There's really no hurry, Miss Dash. We can wait a bit before we head out—"

"Pfft! Screw that! You guys wanna get to freedom or not?"

"Well... of course, we—"

"Then lemme scout ahead! I think I saw a town over the southeast mountain crest before the sun went down last night. Uhm..." She cleared her throat and put on a brave smirk. "I'll go and get a look-see. You two hang out here and don't take a step until I get back and tell you it's safe, got it?"

"We..." Belle lingered, then smiled back. "We got it, Rainbow Dash. We'll wait for you."

"I promise." Rainbow Dash winked and shot her way east. "I won't disappoint."

She left the couple in a blue blur. Pilate and Belle stood alone, gazing anxiously at each other in the morning glow.

Provincial Town

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"So, what is it?" Rainbow Dash asked, her prismatic tail flicking back and forth as she crouched along the hilltop.

"It's a town," Belle whispered back.

Rainbow glared. "I can see that. But what kind of town? You're the local Ledo Martini here, Ding Dong."

"I'm not sure," Belle remarked with a shrug, gazing down at the bustling settlement in the valley between forested hills. "It's not large enough to be any of the towns I heard of back in the facility. It's easily bigger than Blue Shelf's village. I can already count about twenty two-story buildings."

"Undoubtedly it's a trading post of sorts," Pilate remarked behind the two of them. His gaze blindly scratched the blue morning sky. "This far south into the countryside, zeppelins rarely fly."

"Except when they're looking for three unlucky ponies," Rainbow Dash added.

"Still, I imagine this must be a commune of sorts," Pilate said. "I've been to several myself before I landed in Mountainfall. Usually a single Enforcer is in charge of the local militia, and they have a crystal mana beacon to alert the central city-states of the Confederacy for when there's a Xonan incursion."

"Wowsers, you really know your stuff, Stripsey," Rainbow Dash squeaked. "You think if there was a map in that place, you could make mane or flank out of it?"

"A map?" Belle remarked, squinting.

"Yeah, normally I'm not a fan of them," Rainbow droned. "It loses the surprise and all. But I've got two satellites to juggle in my orbit, so it helps to be prepared."

"Seeing a map would help refresh my memory of the local geography," Pilate said.

"And my beloved has the best memory of any pony I know," Belle stated.

"Well, there's one objective then," Rainbow Dash uttered with a grin.

Belle gave her a double-take. "You're thinking of going in there?"

"Well, we could totally use one thing, assuming they have it!" The pegasus glanced at the other two, smiling bashfully as she rubbed a hoof over her blue tummy. "My stomach can think of another thing."

"Are the random fruit trees and tall grass not enough for you?" Pilate asked with a soft grin.

"Is it enough for you two love birds?"

Belle and Pilate said nothing.

"Right. So I think it's time we did some shopping."

"But it's not like we can just waltz in there and ask for stuff!" Belle exclaimed. "We're wanted equines, not to mention bitless!"

"Who said anything about waltzing?" Rainbow Dash smirked and began flapping her wings. "I'll be in and out before they knew what hit them."

"Wait!" Belle clasped onto her spectral tail with two forelimbs. "You can't be thinking of actually stealing from them?"

"Can't I?"

"Don't we have enough on our plate as it is?"

"Uhhhh..." Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes narrowed. "In case you haven't noticed, we're not exactly gonna be making friends with the citizens of Ledomare anytime soon. If they're so preoccupied with slitting our throats, I don't see why we gotta be so worried about following the Ten Commarements."

"It still doesn't feel right!" Belle hissed.

"Ten... Commarements..." Pilate mumbled limply into the wind, his ears twitching.

"Don't sweat it, Ding Dong. I'll take the fall for it. Besides..." She grinned from where she hovered a few feet above. "Once we're way out of this nasty Queen's bloated territory, then maybe we can account for our sins."

Belle frowned. "Can we at least try to do something a bit more... subtle?"

"I agree with Belle," Pilate said. "If we can avoid any actions that alert the locals of our presence here, it would be for the best."

"Nnngh..." Rainbow Dash plopped down onto her hind quarters and folded her forelimbs. "Fiiiiine. Either of you two geniuses have an idea?" Rainbow Dash's left eye twitched. "Doing stuff with subtlety is too smart for me, and I've n-never been all that good at... hmmm... brain sparking..."

"There must be a way in which we can proceed into the village and get the things we need in a civil manner," Pilate said. "Well, maybe not all of us."

"They've undoubtedly been warned about three fugitives," Belle said. "Perhaps four, if they think Dalton went with us."

"So which of us goes?"

"None of us are exactly inconspicuous, are we?" Pilate remarked with a smirk.

"Huh?" Rainbow Dash squinted his way.

Belle sighed. With a defeated smile, she pointed and said, "You've got wings, Rainbow. My beloved is a blind-eyed zebra. And... well..." She blushed and pointed to her stub of a horn.

"So?" Rainbow Dash blinked. "Why not let us chop the rest of it off and put a hat on your head!"

"Out of the question!" Pilate growled.

"I think she was joking, dear..."

"We'd call you by an earth pony name!" Rainbow Dash said with a smile. "'Dung Dong.' Heck, you're boring enough to pass as an earth pony."

"Uhhh..." Belle squinted. "You are joking, right?"

"We'd better make a decision soon," Pilate said with a long exhale. "It's still early morning. There are less ponies in the streets than there will be later. Now would be a good time to go about a plan."

Rainbow Dash was staring long and hard at the zebra. She rubbed her chin and spoke aside to Belle. "Hey Ding Dong, we still got at least one good blanket inside the saddlebag, right?"

"Oh! Uhm... Yes, I think so." Belle leaned back and reached into Rainbow's satchels on her flank. She pulled a brown article out. "But, y'know, 'good' is a relative term. I've tried for the last three nights in a row to shake this thing clean. How did you get so much sand in this?" Belle's face stretched. "Oh, wait. Now I remember."

Rainbow glanced down. "You do?"

"What do you have in mind, Miss Dash?" Pilate asked.

Rainbow Dash grinned back at him and said, "Try that again, only more like 'What are you planning, Rainbow Dash, though I hope it's not a plan most rash?'"

Pilate's ears drooped. "I beg your pardon...?"

"How's the juice in that magic ball thingy of yours?"

"Uhm... I do suspect it will last another two days. Why?"

"Heeheehee!" Rainbow Dash's giggling voice cracked as she flew down beside Belle with the blanket. "Okay. Here's the plan..."

Equinist Barn

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"And so I said, if you want the roof repaired so badly, why don't you grab a hammer and do it yourself?" An earth pony said in a dull tone. "Then she got mad, of course. But what's she going to do? I have a job to go to every day. She's the one who spends all the time at home."

Across the market table full of wares, a unicorn stallion nodded back. "I hear you. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to strangle my own beloved from time to time."

"If there were more jobs available in this place, then maybe she'd get her hooves dirty and she'd understand that when I come home all I wanna do is rest my flank. And it's not like the roof needs to get fix that desperately. I mean, there's less rain this time of year. I've got months yet to fix it."

"How much does she get out, anyway?"

"Oh, not... much... at all..." The earth pony's voice trailed off.

The unicorn raised his eyebrow. "Hmm? What's gotten you so flummoxed...?" He too stared over towards the side.

From across the street in the middle of the village, a cloaked figure hobbled. The equine was making a bee-line for the marketplace, with everypony around him pausing in the middle of their activities to stare. At one point, he bumped awkwardly into a wooden post, took a step back, reoriented himself, and made directly for the vendor stand, where he came to a shuffling stop.

"Uhhhm..." The unicorn squinted. "May I help you?"

"Ahem, yes, I was wondering if I could—" The figure's obscured face grimaced, his teeth grinding as if something was screeching in his ears. He sighed, cleared his throat again, and spoke in a low monotone, 'Hello... uh... kindly pony with a coat so fair. This is a bright morning for Ledomare."

The unicorn and earth pony exchanged glances, then looked once more at the cloaked stranger. "Well... it most certainly is, I suppose..."

"I hope your spirits are well, for I have... s-some things to sell."

"You wish to pawn some possessions of yours?"

"I wish to trade for a map and a meal, for I have a journey to make with much zeal..."

"Well, alright then, let's see what you have to offer."

"Yes... What I have... uhm..." The figure fidgeted, leaning his head to the side as if he was getting an earful.

The two ponies squinted curiously.

Unbeknownst to them, high above and perched atop a cloud, Rainbow Dash hid with the mana sphere of O.A.S.I.S. in her grasp. She peered over the fluffy bed of wisps, smirking as she whispered into the glowing ball. "Okay, Stripsey. Now pivot about twenty degrees to the left so that they think that you're looking at their wooden wall of stuff. From up here, I see a canvas bag of potatoes and some flour. If he's got a map, though, I bet he's hiding it."

Back down below, Pilate lingered under the cloak for a few seconds, sweating. He felt dozens of eyes on him while Rainbow Dash finished her speech.

"Reach into the saddlebag and pull out the hatchet." Rainbow's voice murmured to Pilate an Pilate alone. His metal plate of runes flickered from under the "hood" of the blanket over his head. "Place it on the table and try to pawn it."

"Okay..." He murmured from underneath his breath.

"Remember! You gotta rhyme!"

He gritted his teeth, but nevertheless reached into his saddlebag, pulled an item out, and slapped it onto the table. "Here, good gentlecolts, I have a blade. Of the finest metal quality... erm... it is made."

The two ponies stared blankly. "Uhm... That's a hat, not a blade."

Pilate gulped. He placed a hoof out and felt around the item, feeling the undeniable contours of a beret. "Oh... well of course it is." He winced. "Er, I mean. I know quite well it's a military hat, but I have the blade in addition to that!"

"Try it again, Stripsey."

"Quit rushing me," Pilate whispered, reached into his saddlebag again, and plopped the hatchet onto the table. "As you can see, its sharpness is quite unique. At twenty paces it could slice a—"

"Uhm, what are you doing?"

Pilate's hooves squirmed. "I am... simply attempting to... barter and trade with the fine citizens this Confederacy has made!"

"Yeah, we can see that, but why in the Queen's name are you speaking in rhyme?"

"Cuz you're a zebra shaman from the other side of the country!" Rainbow's voice cracked into Pilate's ears. "Tell them!"

Pilate sighed long and hard, but grinned regardless, making sure that his gray eyes were obscured from the sight of the ponies before him. "I'm a zebra of shamanistic livelihood, and you will find that I was born in a faraway neighborhood! I travel the world in search of meaning, and for that reason you will find my presence in this town fleeting."

"But that still doesn't explain why you talk in rhyme."

"Yes... well.. is it not a widely known fact that zebras are known for their lyrical tact?"

The two ponies exchanged glances, then gazed back at him. "Uhm... No. No, it isn't."

Pilate groaned. "That's what I thought too..."

"Huh?"

A magical voice squawked in Pilate's ear. He groaned, shook his head, and put on a plastic smile. "Then I must be one of a kind! So, please, good sir, what price for the hatchet have you in mind?"

Glory Days

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On the outskirts of the village, a frazzled earth pony was galloping up towards a wooden building, panting desperately. Shaking the sweat out of his mane, he knocked several times on the door to the two story structure while struggling to balance a saddlebag brimming with several sheets of printed paper.

"Enforcer?!" he exclaimed, his voice wavering. "Enforcer Josho?! Are you there?! It's... uhm... it's Red Oats, the town clerk. Are you awake?"

Silence hung off the grass, still glistening with dew.

Red Oats gulped and muttered, "Enforcer Josho?"

His ears pricked. He turned his head so that he was gazing around the edge of the building. A cacophonous snoring sound shattered the air, and it was coming from a lone, rickety outhouse beneath the shade of a spreading oak tree.

"Unngh..." Sighing, the earth pony shuffled over and slapped his hoof on the wooden finish of the outhouse. "Enforcer! We have a development! Please, you gotta—"

A disapproving grunt emanated from within, followed by the door flying wide open.

'Augh!" Red Oats grunted, receiving the full brunt of the panel sailing into his nose. He trotted backwards under a swimming sea of stars.

A gray-maned, portly stallion lurched out of the outhouse, his eyes bloodshot, his unbuttoned uniform hanging on his brown figure like a loose robe. "Nnngh..." He squinted angrily at the bright sky. "Every friggin' morning's on fire, I swear on the Queen's perfumed bridle." He belched, telekinetically raised a whiskey bottle to his muzzle, and took a deep sip. "Mmmmfff... why can't Xona just blow us off the continent already?"

"Enforcer Josho!" Red Oats gasped, flabbergasted. "What..." He gazed between the disheveled drunkard and the outhouse buzzing with flies. "What are you doing?!"

"Gettin' in touch with my good nature." The heavy-set unicorn weathered another belch, then brought a hoof up to scratch his gray neckbeard. "Which is the least I can say about you and your paper sucking desk job."

"Enforcer, sir, we have a town to run! I-I mean you have a town to run!"

"Tell me somethin' I don't know, kiddo," the stallion grunted as he lurched in a zig-zagged pattern down the length of his lawn. "Prime Enforcer of the Green Slope Province. I love this village like I love acne on the flank of the world. Mmmf..." He took another sip, leaned against a tree, and wiped his mouth clean. "Ohhhhh what I wouldn't give to be slicing swords through the flesh of invading ponytards again."

"Sir, I know how much you like to dwell on the past, but we got something of a situation here—"

"Did you know that back in my day, I could take on five Xonans at once?" Josho managed a lopside grin as he slapped his stained beret on backwards. "Yup. I'd look at those upstart mana-sucking tatooed freaks straight in the face and say 'Attack the confederacy, not on my watch, you insipid pieces of manure cheese!'" He sighed long. "And so, I defended the walls of Noontrot with a company of a ten stallions. We bathed in their blood." His lips curled. "And then a piece of shrapnel took my left foreleg. Meh. That's the price of being a badflank, I guess. What would you know, Red? The most you've ever fought was a stack of ledgers."

"Sir, the Council of Ledo has issued an alert." Red Oats pulled out one of several wanted posters from his satchel and held it before the teetering officer. "This is Category Red material. There are fugitives from Blue Shelf, reportedly traveling east at a swift rate. They need the Prime Enforcer of every Ledomaritan outpost to conduct a search of the local populace, including the province of Green Slope. Sir, that's you."

"What's me?"

"The Council is asking that every able-bodied soldier process this information that's being distributed. But with... with you and your bottle constantly making love to each other—"

"Just what would you know of—urp—love making, kid?"

"Huh?"

"I've got a better question for you." Josho frowned. "What's the square-root of negative one?"

"Uhm... I'm not s-sure at the top of my head, sir."

"Neither am I!" the bearded unicorn shouted, leering over the trembling earth pony. "Which is why I'm a dayum good soldier and not a mathematician!" He slapped the wanted posters out of Red Oats' hoof and squinted at it. "Lemme get a good luck at this crud. Hmmmm... Three ponies. A zebra, a unicorn with a stunted horn, and—" His eyes crossed briefly. Josho read the sheet again. "A pony with a rainbow mane who can fly?!" He glanced at the bottle and took another sip. "Well, heh, I should have no problem seeing that."

"Sir, this is serious..."

"Well, you're in luck, small fry. Because I'm a serious pony... at least when I'm not—urp—throwing up." With a deep breath, Josho marched towards the town hall building in the center of the village. "Go fetch me a cup of coffee and let's see if we can sort this junk out. Unngh... I already know this is gonna screw up caravan processing for the next month. Friggin' A, Queen. What gives?"

"That's just it, sir. We've had four groups of traders show up already. Wh-what should I do about them?"

"Mmmm... round up the militia," Johso said in a dull tone. "Form a line of processing at all entrances to the village. In the meantime, have your fellow secretaries spread the news. Nopony comes in or out until we get a good census of the equines in our provincial little butthole of a village."

"Okay. That sounds like a good plan—"

"You bet your damn tail it is!" Josho blinked crookedly at him. "It's my plan! Hmmmff... Anypony stroll by yet that meets the descriptions of these three pretty looking idiots?"

"Well, there's one figure, sir."

"Oh?"

"A zebra, sir. He was last seen in the marketplace..."

"Well, that sounds like something that deserves a punchline—Urp! Ahem. I'll go investigate myself..."

"Very well, sir."

As the two stumbled past a series of bushes, a yellow mare popped her head out of hiding. With a grimacing expression, Bellesmith trembled, gazed across the village, and broke into a gallop when nopony was looking. Trying to silence her worried whimpers, the former scientist snuck her way towards where her beloved had trotted under Rainbow Dash's guidance.

Uncreative Numbers

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"In addition to something hearty to eat, I was wondering if you might possess charts of a cartographical feat."

"Er... huh? You mean like a map?"

"Yes. Uhm... most assuredly," Pilate said, then blinked. "Erm... my good fellow of... sociability?"

The zebra was sweating. A crowd had gathered around the marketplace, and he didn't need to have vision to detect it. His cloaked ears twitched from the gaggle of Ledomaritan murmurs surrounding him in the morning air.

"Okay, now..." Rainbow Dash's voice cracked in his ears. "Pivot halfway to your right and point one hundred and twenty degrees up from the ground. Then ask if the hoodie comes in black."

"No!" Pilate hissed into his choker, frowning. "You come down here! You ask if it comes in black!"

"Awwww... come on..."

"Since when was any of this about hoodies?!"

"Hey! I'm parting with a good hatchet! I wanna make the trade worthwhile!"

"Uhm... Sir?" The unicorn at the market table leaned forward. "Is everything alright?"

"All we need is food and some map!" Pilate snarled at Rainbow Dash.

"Huh?"

"Erm..." Pilate gulped and smiled in the direction of the vendor. "So long as that can be done without mishap! I apologize for my awkward speech, good friends. I assure you I only mean to conduct good business in the end!"

"Well, alright. This is a mighty fine hatchet you have. I can give you some excess credit unless there was something else you specifically wanted besides what you've already asked for..."

Unbeknownst to anypony in the area—least of all Pilate—a gold coated form was diving behind a line of bushes. Belle peaked out from behind the market vendor and hissed Pilate's way, attempting to get his attention. She was anything but successful. Her face sweated more and more as a heavy set of hoofsteps shuffled in that direction.

"What we have here is fine, stallion of mine. Now I don't suppose you'd be willing to part with that topographical chart?" Pilate asked, pointing again.

"I don't suppose you picked up that accent in the northern provinces, hmm?" a voice slurred from behind the zebra.

Pilate's metal brow furrowed. His nostrils flared, and he bore a disgusted expression. Turning around, her leaned his face towards the offensive sound of flies buzzing.

Josho stood in a lean, his bloodshot eyes gazing suspiciously at the cloaked figure. A shivering Red Oats stood in the obese veteran's shadow.

"Who in the hay is this cat huffer?" Rainbow Dash's voice squeaked.

Pilate cleared his throat. "The only province from which I hail is... uhm... a land of the desert trail. How may I be of assistance, pony of... hmmm.. f-fine fragrance?"

"Where are you headed, my good sir?" Josho muttered between urges to belch. "If ya don't mind me askin'..."

"Oh crud!" Rainbow's voice echoed in Pilate's head. "It's a dude in a beret! Quick! Talk your way out of this! We'll... uh... find another way to get food!"

"I was just... uhm... passing through... to..." Pilate gnashed his teeth, squirming. "Frontier coordinates... one hundred and seven by twenty-two?"

Red Oats' eyes crossed in confusion.

Josho scratched his neckbeard, squinting. "Ya don't say? Those are some uncreative numbers, fella."

"Erhm..."

"Y'know, I once visited a village of zebras." The unorthodox Enforcer paced over. "I was on tour in the north, and we were protecting the village from local bandits and enemy incursion. We exchanged manafire with Xonans in the nearby swamps. To our luck, we had a lot of help from the locals. Them striped fellas were resourceful, nimble, fast as lightning. But they sure as the Queen's menstrual cycle didn't cloppin' rhyme!" With flashing teeth, he yanked the hood of the blanket off Pilate's head.

Several ponies gasped, their eyes flocking to the sight of the metal plate on the equine's skull. In the bushes, Belle was gnawing on the end of her hooves.

Pilate sighed long and hard, waiting for the murmurs of the staring villagers to subside.

"Sir..." Red Oats stammered, pulling out one of the wanted posters. "That looks.... That looks just like—"

"I ain't blind, ya scrub." Josho levitated the poster up for everypony to see next to Pilate. "Though I can't speak for everypony. Heh." He lurched forward on only half-sober limbs. "Those are some gray eyes you have there, my friend. I don't suppose the sky is any brighter than you where you come from."

Pilate leaned his head towards the soldier and muttered, "Look, I was just hungry and in need of directions. My tale may not have been all that legitimate, but my desire to pass through this town swiftly is."

"Now you see how smart you really are when you're not talking like a livin' nursery rhyme?" Josho squinted at the black-and-white stallion. "So maybe you'd agree that it's an awful lot to chew: what, you having trotted in here all on your own, ramblin' your tongue in circles like you were possessed?"

"It worked pretty well until now, didn't it?"

"What I mean to say, pal, is that it shouldn't have worked at all. At least not on your own." Josho shook the wanted poster, its paper material rustling in the air. "Exactly how does a lone, blind zebra walk hundreds of miles across the countryside without any help?"

Pilate said nothing.

"Hmmm..." Josho scratched his beard. "So now we're given the silent treatment. Y'know, fella, I do have the authority to arrest ya for questionin'. However, I'm not sure that would be very neighborly of me."

Pilate's face twisted. "I beg your pardon?"

"Naw. It'd do nothin but burst that bright, sunny cloud you have floating above your head." Josho shrugged and leaned back. "But, incidentally..." In a flash, his horn strobed. A double-barreled mana-rifle floated free from his unbuttoned uniform, glowing with crystal ammo. He aimed it squarely at Pilate's skull.

Ponies gasped. Belle stifled a shriek.

Josho's eyes twitched, and he smirked. With a twirl, he aimed the gun skyward and fired.

The morning air shook with thunder. Two streams of manashot flew into the atmosphere where they lit up the cloud directly overhead and vaporized it in a blink. A blue pegasus found her platform suddenly missing.

"Gaaaaaaaaah!" With a blood-curdling cry, Rainbow Dash plunged to the earth and smashed through a vendor stand. Wood and scraps of textiles flew across the marketplace. As the dust settled, she sat up—dizzy—with the orb of O.A.S.I.S. cradled awkwardly in her forelimbs. "Unnngh... Did I really just get dragged to the earth by a drunken beardjob?"

"Well, would you look at that!" Josho gestured to the blue pegasus. "A winged pony! And it isn't even Winged Pony Season in Ledomare!" He reloaded the gun, cocked it, and aimed at the zebra and his feathered friend in turn. "Well, now, if this isn't a fine way to crap out a morning?!"

Second Amarement

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"Ungh! For the love of—nngh—doorstops!" Rainbow Dash winced, sitting up and shaking the stars out of her head as she frowned in the Enforcer's direction. "What's with you Ledomorons?! Were you born ticked off?"

"The best of us die that way." Josho hiccuped, cracked the joints in his neck, and aimed his manarifle at the pegasus' blue forehead. "So, the Council says you're bad news. I've had my fill of bad news in life. Why don't we make this a bit more civil and trot ourselves into the local jail? As much as I'd love to shoot your wings off, cute-hooves, I'm sure the higher-ups would want something leftover that's healthy enough to talk back once they've swooped by to pick you up."

"You couldn't fire that stupid boomstick fast enough to take me out," Rainbow Dash said with a smirk, then yelped as a fresh pothole exploded beneath her spread legs.

"I'm sorry?" Josho grunted as he cocked a fresh crystal into the chamber of the smoking weapon. "I couldn't hear that over the sound of you being owned." He spat a loogey into the earth and squinted warily at her. "You're welcome to try outflying a true Ledomaritan markstallion, darlin', but I doubt your heart will forgive you once it's pumped out half of your blood through your flanks."

"Goddess, what a charmer. The last time a stallion made me swoon that much, I had to pop his jaw back into place."

"Hmmm... as if you're one to swoon for stallions, shortstop."

"Hey!" Rainbow's voice cracked as she nearly shattered the O.A.S.I.S. sphere in her grasp. "What in the flying feather is that supposed to mean?!"

"Only that I've lived long enough and seen enough crap that I can read ponies like a book." The Enforcer's teeth showed in a sneer. "For instance, you're thinking right now of backflipping behind the vendor stand to your left and kicking it towards me as a means of blocking my fire."

"Uhhh..." Rainbow Dash gulped. Sweat poured down her body as she stopped inching towards the structure in question. "Uhm..."

"A winged pony is a winged pony," Josho slurred. "I don't care if it's natural feathers or a Xonan thruster-pack. Hmmph... all punks are the same." He aimed the rifle squarely at her once more. "So are you gonna go dance into your corner with your zebra friend or what?"

"Uhm..." Red Oats murmured, stirring nervously in place.

"Nnngh—What, pipsqueak?!" Josho groaned aside.

"Wasn't... I mean..." Red Oats waved one of many wanted posters around. "Wasn't there three of them?"

"Meh?"

"Yaaaaaaugh!" a feminine voice did its dainty mimic of a war-cry. Belle came charging out of the nearby bushes. Shoving two gawking citizens aside, the frail unicorn dove head-long and grabbed two of Enforcer Josho's legs, slapping them and gnawing at the hooves for all she was worth. "Have at you! Grrrrr!"

"Buh?" The neckbearded stallion gazed down at her, blinking. "Did I drink too much whiskey, or am I really being attacked by a narwhal with a fancy braid right now?!"

"Let... my friends... go!" Belle squeaked.

"Beloved?" Pilate murmured into the air, his eyebrow raising curiously. "What on earth are you doing?!"

"Look! It's a simple distraction!" She looked up from where she gripped the soldier's limbs. "Quickly! You and Rainbow Dash run!"

Pilate sighed and shrugged. "Why didn't you just chuck a rock at his head or something?"

"Heh." Josho chuckled. "This lady is full of heart. But that's not what I'd call a distraction."

"Right." Rainbow Dash grinned. "Well, what would you call this?" Her body spun in a prismatic blur, at the end of which she launched the full weight of the O.A.S.I.S. sphere.

Josho looked up, only to have the orb slamming mercilessly into his horn. What happened next was absurdly magical. "Gaaaaaaah!" the stallion shrieked long and hard from an unexpected exchange of energy. Blue bolts of mana converged in the center of him and the conductive object.

A few steps over, Pilate collapsed, wincing in pain as he gripped the flickering plate atop his skull.

"Whoahhhh-ho-ho!" Rainbow Dash grinned wide as the ponies around her gasped in shock. "That's friggin' awesome! Hey Stripsey, who knew your ball could go ballistic on a jerk's head?!"

"Nnnngh—aaaugh!" Josho finished yelping. He literally flew back from the explosive contact, landing hard beside a shivering Red Oats. The mana-ball, in the meantime, fell down into Belle's twitching hooves.

"Ughh..." Pilate reeled, rubbing his skull as he teetered on four legs. He frowned in the direction of Rainbow's chuckling voice. "You crazy harpy! Did you actually throw my sphere at him?!"

"Hey!" Rainbow grinned as she helped Belle up to her hooves. "Would you trust anypony else to toss your balls around?" She winced and patted Belle's frail form. "Well, present company gorgeously excluded..."

"If a single mana-conduit inside O.A.S.I.S. has been singed..." Pilate snarled. "I swear to—"

"Calm down, newspaper print! I took the ugly lame-o out before he could bag us, didn't I?!" Just then, the shop vendor beside Rainbow exploded from gunshot. Belle shrieked and instantly leapt into Rainbow Dash, who collapsed.

"Josho!" Red Oats was heard gasping.

"Grrrrr-haaaaugh! You puppy-kicking trollop!" Josho hissed and spat blood, his horn steaming from base to tip with manafire. "You do not—I repeat—you do NOT smack the horn of a war horse with a hangover!" He pumped the rifle and aimed at the pair or mares. "It's not even noon yet! Carn sarn it—"

"Poopsicles!" Rainbow Dash squeaked and bucked Belle off of her. Belle yelped as the two split apart in a blink. For when the next millisecond had passed—

The entire storefront behind them exploded. Splinters and bits of lumber rained down on the downtown village. Ponies galloped every which way in a panic. Belle looked up from where she lay on the ground with the steaming O.A.S.I.S. in her clutches.

Rainbow Dash was flying in a curved arc, but it was difficult to see her from a distance on account of the air being distorted by constant explosions. The Enforcer was repeatedly aiming and firing at her, only to miss by a few screaming inches. In the meantime, savage holes and tears formed violently in the building faces and structures surrounding the chaotic scene.

"Make like a harlot and die already!" Josho growled, his bloodshot eyes rolling back as he fired a few more rounds, causing a flagpole to bend haphazardly and a wooden bank to implode. "Raaaaugh—For the Queen's sake! Stay still!"

"I'm not spinning!" Rainbow Dash twirled about, courageously dove towards him, and bore an upside-down grin. "You are!" That said, she slapped her hooves against his shoulders, throwing him onto his backside so that his next shot fired into a wagon full of hay, sending straws flying through the air, blanketing the town.

As Josho yelled in frustration—and a certain blue pegasus giggled into the air—Belle crawled over to a trembling Pilate.

"He's gonna destroy the town!" Belle exclaimed.

"I wonder if he's the one we should be worried about!" Pilate shouted as burning manadust flew over their shoulders. He hissed through clenched teeth, gulped, and stammered. "Belle, darling, I'm starting to wonder if we should take an early leave of absence."

"Hold that thought..."

"Huh?!"

Belle managed a smirk, reaching over across a delapidated vendor as she scooped up several potatoes and what looked like a roughly folded map. "We're not done shopping yet!" She tapped Pilate's shoulder, positioned the O.A.S.I.S. sphere in place, and tugged at him. "Follow me!"

The couple proceeded swiftly to scrounge whatever they could from the ruined downtown, shoveling the contents into the saddlebag on Pilate's flank. Overhead, Rainbow Dash came down from another dive, dodged another blast from the manarifle, and skirted past a series of galloping citizens.

"I got ya now, ya stupid blue fart!" Josho aimed across the village.

"Enough!" Red Oats rushed up, gripping the Enforcer's shoulders. "You're a psycho, Josho! Stop shooting that blasted gun, for Queen's sake!"

"Then tell her to stay still and it'll make all our lives easier!" The old soldier slurred.

"You call this easy?!" Red Oats frowned, gesturing towards the crumbling rubble and mess of the town. "This is four months of paperwork at least!"

Josho's eyes twitched. He took a deep breath, and his hairy ears drooped. "Nnngh... You're right, kid. I... I let myself get carried away. Thanks for sobering me up. I'm surprised at how mad I got—"

"Aaaaaaaaaaaand—" Rainbow Dash chose that moment to swoop by and deposit a bucket full of dirty water over Josho's eyes. "You snooze, you lose, Sir Beardalot!" With a grin, she bucked her hooves against his bucketed skull, producing a resonating clannnnng!

"Mmmmf!" Josho fell head-over-tail in the soiled earth. His hooves mimicked that of a dead cockroach as his obese weight struggled for balance.

"Haahaahaa! Looks like I made a stallion swoon for me after all!" She blew a kiss and flew off after the galloping figures of Belle and Pilate towards the edge of the village. "You're all wet, handsome. Maybe you should have joined the navy!"

"Rainbow Dash!" Belle shouted back. "We got what we need! Let's go already!"

"But I was about to say 'Bon Voyage!'"

"Hoof it or lose it!" Pilate added.

"Ungh... Fine..." Rainbow Dash darted towards the eastern horizon, and it was in good time too.

"Rrrrrrgh!" Josho shot up, growling and waving his rifle in the air. "Come back! I'll give you a new blowhole you... nnngh... friggin' sky dolphin—Gaaah!" He tripped over the bucket and fell flat on his face.

Ever Dizzy

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"Hcckkt—Hahahahaha!" Rainbow Dash was still clutching her sides as the three ponies stumbled their way up the side of a steep hill overlooking the village. A column of smoke rose west of them, gathering golden haze in the mid-morning light. "Ohhhhh! That guy was full of little gems! I gotta write some of them down!"

"Yeah..." Pilate wheezed, slumping down onto his chest as soon as he reached the shade of trees. "You do that... Whew... Ohhhhhhh boy was that unnecessarily loud."

"We gotta put you through more workouts, Stripsey!" Rainbow Dash said, panting as she hovered over the two winded equines. "How do 'blind hurdles' sound? We'll make you gallop in a straight line and shout 'goose' every time you have to jump something."

"Rainbow Dash... we appreciate... your tenacity and improvisational attitude..." Belle sputtered between heaving breaths. She faced the forest, trembling, snapping shut the pockets of the lunar saddlebag on Pilate's flank, securing the freshly pilfered provisions inside. "But we have to lay down some ground rules."

"She's a pegasus, beloved."

"Fine!" Belle grunted. "Sky rules! Air rules! Whatever! Rainbow, we just can't... c-can't have you doing all of those crazy stunts like you used to! I mean, I know it's what you did when you traveled alone, but Pilate and I can't handle it! We don't have the strength or the blood pressure or—heck—the daredevil attitude! I think the two of us are a great deal more fragile than you give us credit for and... and..."

Belle gulped, standing in place. The air felt very still for some reason. Even Pilate sensed it; the zebra's ears twitched in the air.

"Rainbow Dash?" Belle spun around. She gasped, her chestnut eyes widening. "Rainbow!"

Pilate felt the unicorn's hooves scampering across the grass. He stood up, still trying to catch his breath. "What? What is it, Belle? What's wrong with her?"

"I don't know!" Belle squeaked, squatting by the pegasus' side. "Rainbow? Is everything okay? Speak to me?"

Rainbow Dash had collapsed, but she wasn't unconscious. Instead, her body twitched involuntarily as she clutched at the green blades of the earth with shivering limbs. Her eyes were clenched shut, and she gnashed her teeth.

"No..." Rainbow Dash hissed. She breathed heavier, and struggled to keep the bile down her throat. "You g-gotta be friggin' kidding me. I thought it was over... I thought I-I was cured..." She clutched her head and rolled onto her back, whimpering. "I'm still alive, aren't I?! What gives?! Goddess alive, I don't understand it..."

"Rainbow Dash, talk to me." Bellesmith suddenly froze, and her lips pursed. She gulped. "Is it... is it a case of dizziness?"

"Nnnnngh—Darn it!" Rainbow Dash slapped her hoof repeatedly into the dirt, curling up into a fetal position as her voice shook. "Why is this still happening?! I died and came back! Why, Luna?! Why..."

Belle bit her lip, her eyes moistening. She stroked a hoof gently across Rainbow's neck, then looked towards Pilate. "Beloved, can you walk."

"Nnngh... but of course..."

Belle glanced worriedly at the flickering runes on his plate. "How's your head?"

"Better than Rainbow's, I suspect."

"But the sphere—"

"I'm fine, just a little bit of mana-feedback, but nothing I can't handle." He stood up and moved towards Belle's breathing voice. "Lean her against me."

"Okay. Rainbow Dash?"

"Yeah..." The pegasus shuddered, struggling up on wobbly legs. "It's.. It's passing, kind of..."

"Still, let us help you..."

Rainbow said nothing. With a sullen glare cast earthward, she trudged up the rest of the hill's distance and into the dark forest beyond. Belle and Pilate trotted closely on each side of her, supporting her.

"We've got food. We've got a map." Pilate smiled as he spoke in a reassuring voice. "Believe it or not, we have a leg up on things, Miss Dash. Let's just get somewhere far from here."

"Yeah..." Rainbow Dash muttered, her nostrils flaring. "East. Just... go east..."

The trio disappeared beneath the forest canopy.

Far down below, in the ash-settling center of the village...

The citizens trotted back, gulping as they gazed nervously at the ruined marketplace. Enforcer Josho was sitting on his haunches, rubbing his aching horn in one hoof and clutching his rifle in the other. Red Oats paced frantic circles around him.

"This isn't good... This isn't good at all..." Red Oats hissed under his breath. "When the next zeppelin rolls through here, they're gonna report all this damage to the Council of Ledo." He whimpered. "They'll ship my beloved and I closer to the warfront! Ohhhhh this is not good!"

"Unnngh..." Josho stroked his furrowed brow.

"Sir, what do we do?!"

"We have a leg up on things, Miss Dash..." Josho muttered, his face twisted as his horn glowed in uneven, steaming pulses. "We've got food... a map..."

"Huh?!" Red Oats gave him a confused glance. "The hay are you talking about, Enforcer?"

"I... I don't know..." Josho blinked towards the horizon. Everytime he faced east in a certain direction, his horn strobed with resonance. He wasn't the only one who noticed it. Several ponies gazed at the beacon on his forehead in curiosity. "Hmmm..." He sighed. "I think I need a drink."

Moon Talk

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"Is it as bad as thy symptoms previously?"

"That's just it, your Majesty," Rainbow Dash murmured into the lunar glow of her pendant. A canvas of purple stars hung over the solitary patch of forest on top of a lone mountain. "It feels exactly the same. It's as if the last ten months didn't happened, and I'm just as cursed as I was before a huge dragon tore me to bits."

"Hmmm... Thou didst say that thou were contained within a sarcophagus of tempered silver, yes?"

"Yeah. It looked just like the chaos strips that were used to summon monsters back in Windthrow."

"Thou observed this from inside the container?"

"Er... Let's just say I got a good look of it on the outside as well," Rainbow Dash murmured.

A few feet away, leaning over a soundly sleeping Pilate, Bellesmith listened. She gazed over softly, all the while stroking the hard bristles of her beloved's mane as his body slowly rose and fell.

"It is quite possible, Rainbow Dash, that when these dastardly-sounding Ledomaritans put thee inside the chamber, thy affliction achieved a state of equilibrium. The silver of chaos metal acts in a similar way to the sarcophagus that was built here in Equestria to keep Ponyville safe. Granted, our beloved sister Celestia is the one who is slowly curing the rift that formed after Discord's demise, but a similar container could be used to keep the dark sorcery inside thee preserved for an extended while."

"So, like, the entire time I was inside that silver coffin, I was becoming all... Discordy?"

"Affirmative."

"But I thought I only had a few months to live! If containing me could have kept me from—yanno—kicking sky bucket, why didn't you think of doing that to me in Equestria?"

"We did think of it."

"You... You did?"

"But we also knew that it would not prevent the inevitable. It does not matter to what degree thy body achieves equilibrium, the chaos inside thee is bound to eat thee alive, Rainbow Dash. Unless those Ledomaritans possessed a magic skill that is superior to alicorn prowess, then thou would have eventually perished, though it would have taken a far longer time than if thou were living free from an enclosure of chaos metal."

"So... in a way...' Rainbow Dash muttered, gazing down at her hooves. "The ponies who pulled me out of the thing saved my life..." She gulped. "Because chaos would have taken me out eventually, like a poison."

"Thou art a creature of harmony, Rainbow Dash. It is not thy place to house such hectic energies."

"Well..." Rainbow Dash chuckled dryly. "I guess I should look on the bright side. At least I'll never turn into a horrible Discord monster forever. Heh heh..."

A dull silence wafted over the midnight air.

Eventually, Luna's voice resumed, "Thy journey ahead is still a long one, Rainbow Dash. If thou has assessed the situation differently and wouldst desire to return to thy homeland—"

"I've got a place to go, and I'm sticking to it, Princess." Rainbow's nostrils flared as she curled her hooves in the soil. "I don't care if I get there in pieces. At least I'll be me when I get there. I don't want to come back to Ponyville with my last act of awesomeness being a failure."

"Rainbow Dash, we do believe that thou art being too hard on yourse—"

"Have you ever heard of 'Austraeoh?'"

Belle stood up straight, craning her ears at that.

Luna's voice lingered. "We beg thy pardon?"

"'Awww-straay-ohhh.' Y'know, like that one province south of Equestria with all the bearded ponies."

"Is there a context to which we should be contemplating the term?"

Rainbow Dash sighed. "Never mind, your Highness..."

"No, Rainbow Dash. Please, explain. We have very little time left to speak and every thing that thou has to tell us is exceedingly precious."

"My head's been made full of weird words and sayings since I started this crazy trip. I was wondering if the word 'Austraeoh' meant anything to you, especially when dealing with the dark side of the world and the Midnight Armory and crud."

"Rainbow Dash, thou discoveries art our discoveries as well. Thou hast undoubtedly found many things in thy journeys—things both joyous and horrific. The world is a grand place, and two alicorns simply are not enough to rule it in totality, nor would we wish to impose such a dominance."

"What... erm... are you getting at, Princess?"

"Quite simply, Rainbow Dash, that there are very old things in this part of the cosmos, many of which are older than Celestia and ourself. We wish that we could designate the purpose behind it all, but it is not our place to be explorers. We our protectors, Rainbow Dash, and our power extends strictly through light, so that we may illuminate the souls who inhabit this world—though it may not be ours—and bring them harmony as best as we can."

Rainbow Dash gulped and murmured, "Just what is this world, Luna? Is it real? Or is it made up?"

"It is a source of great life, a realm where miracles and massacres are both possible. So long as we can help ponies achieve that which is righteous—instead of that which is heinous—then we are more satisfied than ever a time when we receive answers to the origins of all things."

"Yeah. But, like, what if all things end?"

"Thou referreth to the words of the dragon Axan."

Rainbow Dash shuddered. "Yeah. That."

"We have endeavored to make contact with the other Draconian Divines since we last heard from her and thou. However, we have been unable to do so. If contact between the alicorns and the Divines has been severed, then that must surely mean that they have perished somehow."

"Even that fire-breathing monster was saying that she was gonna croak soon." Rainbow Dash made a face. "What's up with that?"

"We do not know, but for the last ten months, Rainbow Dash, we have been scouring the ancient tomes in hope of an answer. Thou can expect us to fill thee in as soon as we learn anything."

"If you couldn't find truth in ten months of searching, Princess, what's to know that you can find it in another four... or three... or however long I have left?"

"One must not give up hope, Rainbow Dash." Luna's voice began to fade. "Rainbow Dash, we cannot speak for much longer. We encourage thee to exit the boundaries of Ledomare as swiftly as thou can. There is one night left that we have to share discourse. We look forward to making contact with you again."

"Back at ya, Your Majesty. And when you get a chance..." Rainbow Dash smiled. "Tell Scootaloo she must look pretty silly with a wrench and gears on her butt."

"Affirmative. We shall inform her likewise of thy pride and happiness. Until next t—" And the sound of Luna's voice crackled to oblivion along with the dimming of the pendant's light.

Slowly, the smile on Rainbow's face faded. She sighed, rubbing her cheek in the moonlight. With a groan, she stood up, stretched her legs, and shuffled numbly towards the other end of the mountain.

Belle watched her, biting her lip. With a nervous twitch, she leaned over, nuzzled Pilate one last time, and trotted swiftly after the pegasus in the starlight.

Staying Still

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Bellesmith pushed and shuffled her way through a thick cluster of bushes. When she emerged, she saw a shimmering vista consuming the eastern horizon. Rolling hills of dark emerald tree tops slept under a silver sheen of moonlight. If it weren't for the waving of leaves and the occasional hoot of a lone owl, she would have perceived the world awash in a green sea.

Before this sight, Rainbow Dash perched, her hooves inching along the crumbling edge of everything. With dull, ruby eyes, she bowed her head and stretched her wings out into the wind.

"Going for a walk?" Belle mused.

Rainbow Dash's ears twitched. "Heh..." Her lips icily curved. "A sky walk. Sure."

"Rainbow Dash, I heard what the Princess said."

"Does it matter?" Rainbow Dash's head pivoted towards the unicorn. She bore a placid expression with the residual hint of a smirk. "Since as long as I can remember, I knew that life was worth as much as I was willing to live it, no matter how short. So maybe I have the same expiration date as before I met you and the only non-rhyming zebra in existence. Big deal."

"Of course it's a big deal!" Belle exclaimed. She trotted forward with a sympathetic face. "Rainbow Dash, I couldn't even comprehend how I would function while knowing how few days I had left to exist! How can you—"

"By being awesome, that's how!" Rainbow Dash snarled. "Look, I'm glad that you're—like—uber concerned and stuff, but I got this! If there's anything I've ever been in life, it's in control of things!"

"Are you?" Belle's gaze took on a piercing edge as she came to a stop before the pegasus. "Rainbow Dash, today you went ballistic on an Enforcer and nearly got a village torn to bits!"

"If I recall, it was lardo with the stupid magic gun, not me." Rainbow Dash chuckled. "And why are you complaining? We got the crap that we needed, didn't we?"

"That's not the point! There were at least a dozen other ways we could have gotten those materials without turning it into a circus act!"

"Hey... chaos is the name of the game." Rainbow's nostrils flared as her wings drooped. "Or maybe you've forgotten exactly what you've fished out of that silver fart box down in Blue Shift."

"Blue Shelf—and no, I haven't forgotten." Belle gulped. "But that doesn't matter. I know that, deep down inside, you're a creature of harmony, Rainbow Dash."

"No offense, Ding-Dong, but you don't know anything."

"Yes, Rainbow Dash." Belle frowned. "I do." She took a deep breath. "And you know it."

Rainbow Dash looked at her, her teeth clenched. There was a weak twitch to her eyebrows, and she wrenched her gaze away, digesting the stars instead.

"Maybe... Maybe it's time that we just... that we just slowed down and talked about what we both know, Rainbow."

"There is no slowing down," Rainbow Dash muttered, looking away. "That's not how it works. Not for me."

"Are you in such a desperate race with yourself that you will reject healing?" Belle asked. "You have so many days left in that body of yours, Rainbow. For your soul's sake, don't make the time any shorter."

"Hah. Yeah, that's some real confidence you're showing in me, Ding Dong. Maybe you and Stripsey would have enjoyed things better on that boat heading west with whats-his-mustache."

"I trust you, Rainbow Dash." Belle leaned forward. "But I have to trust that you won't get me and Pilate in unnecessary danger all the same. I adore my beloved too much to go on the same blind adventures that you do."

"And you're the one to lecture me on living?" Rainbow Dash flashed her a frown. "You're pathetic."

"I'm loyal," Belle calmly retorted. "I love Pilate, and I love you."

Rainbow Dash bit her lip.

"Did you not think that was possible?" Belle smiled softly. "Did you not think that you still had the capacity to make friends? That you were a soul capable of being loved? Like you were always meant to be?"

Rainbow Dash's limbs started trembling. She faced east again, as if it was her only recourse.

Belle's breath left her. "Rainbow Dash—"

"I... I just need to fly..."

"Where to? For how long?"

"Don't know. Don't care." Rainbow Dash flexed her wings. "I just... I-I just have to fly."

She took off, only to lurch back to the ground. With a muffled grunt, she gazed back over her shoulder. "H-hey!" her voice cracked. "What gives?"

Belle was hugging her from behind. Hugging her tightly. "Stay still for once, Rainbow Dash."

"Let go of me ya pincushion head!" Rainbow Dash grumbled and squirmed. "I'm totally not kidding! You're cramping my style!"

"No, Rainbow Dash," Belle peacefully said, nuzzling the pegasus. "I'm not letting go."

"Don't be a duncetard! I... I can totally fly loopty-loops with you clinging to me or not! Now let go!"

"Then you'll have to take off with me."

"You could get hurt!"

"I don't care..." Belle clung tighter, her voice deep and resonating. "It's a risk I'm willing to take."

"But it's not your risk!" Rainbow Dash hissed. Despite how tightly Belle was clinging to her, the pegasus' lungs were panting faster and faster. "None of this has anything to do with you!"

Belle softly gazed at Rainbow with misty eyes and an angelic smile. "Have you ever truly, truly been so alone?"

Rainbow Dash's face paled. Slowly, like melting ice, her wings drooped. She gulped, shivered, and said, "I never... n-never meant to abandon them..."

Belle hugged her, watching, listening.

"But... b-but I couldn't stop myself..." Rainbow Dash swallowed again as her lips quivered. "Discord... he... he used me. I tr-tried to fight his magic, but he t-tore me away from my friends... he t-tore me away forever..."

"There was nothing you could have done, Rainbow Dash..."

"And now he's inside m-me... killing me... but not fast enough..." Rainbow Dash clenched her eyes shut as she trembled, collapsed. Her voice hiccuped, "I'm alive, and all I-I can think of is that... th-that... that I n-never got to tell them..." She whimpered and covered her face with her shivering hooves. "I never g-got to thell them that I loved them..." Rainbow Dash sobbed, her voice a muffled sound cascading down the moonlit mountain. "Oh Goddess, I loved them so m-much..."

"Shhhhh..." Belle was cradling Rainbow Dash at this point, resting the mare's tear-stained muzzle on her forelimb as she stroked her mane with the other. "And you still do, Rainbow Dash. Each and everyday." She nuzzled her gently. "I know that too..."

Rainbow Dash's reply was an agonized wail, piercing the eastern horizon like a dying siren, challenging the sun to rise. All remained dark and cosmic, but for the first time in waking months, Rainbow Dash did not care. She fell to the earth, adrift in sobs and gasps, and Belle held her until the turbulence had run its fragmented course.

Allowing Things

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"She was annoying as heck, but it was impossible not to love her," Rainbow Dash murmured, lying on folded limbs before the crest of a new dawn. A brisk, morning wind blew on her and Bellesmith's face alike as she continued. "No matter what the situation, at any given time of the day, you could count on Pinkie Pie being happy, and wanting to make you smile."

"Hmmm..." Belle's lips curved at the notion. "It's nice having a pony to depend on... especially when it comes to feelings."

"It was almost as though she wasn't afraid of anything." Rainbow Dash's glazed eyes meandered over the glowing horizon. "I used to think that I wsa the only one not scared."

"Perhaps she found something infectious in you."

"Pinkie? Nah..." Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. "Whatever gave her strength, it came from within. She was—like—as super deep well of happiness. It was Fluttershy who..."

"Yes?"

Rainbow Dash bit her lip, blowing a tuft of mane hair out from her brow. "She was a total scaredy cat when we were fillies, but somewhere along the way, she got more assertive, less skittish."

"You think you had an effect on her?"

"Mmmm..." Rainbow Dash stretched a forelimb out and played with a few blades of grass. "Yeah. I guess I did."

"I mean, she didn't stay in that cottage the whole time, did she?" Belle asked. "She eventually moved into town, started talking with other ponies?"

Rainbow squinted aside at the unicorn. "You really have a lot of details in that head of yours, don't you?"

Belle blushed slightly. "You and I were... pretty intensely integrated. I think Whitemane is responsible for most of it."

"Well, it's true. Fluttershy became a social pony. There was a time when she'd be afraid of her own shadow. But that all changed with Twilight."

"Was it all Twilight, though?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, Fluttershy first made friends with you, Rainbow," Belle said. "If you ask me, I'd say that you were the bridge that connected her to a happier life."

"Hmmm... Sure, why not."

Belle giggled lightly.

"If you wanna talk about a pony who rarely got out of the house much, Rarity belongs in that category. There were days—I swear—where she looked as though she hadn't seen sunlight in months. Feh. Friggin' vampire."

"What changed?"

"Same thing as with Fluttershy and me. Twilight Sparkle showed up."

"She was the Element of... Magic, right?"

"Yup. I'm guessing 'Bookworms' was taken."

"Heeheehee..."

"Yeah, all our lives changed when Twilight showed up," Rainbow Dash said. "And, like, it wasn't as though it was a big deal. I mean, it was a big deal. We were the living bearers of these ancient Elements. But it never really felt like that, y'know?"

"Right..."

"We were just..." Rainbow Dash's nostrils flared. "A couple of gals..." She gulped. "We had sleepovers. We went on trips. We ate together, slept together, laughed together, cried together..."

"Did you, now?"

"Well, some of us."

"Mmmhmmm..." Belle gently smiled.

Rainbow Dash squinted. "Don't give me that look."

"Rainbow, if you ever wanted it, I'm quite certain they would have loved to let you show your feelings—both the good and the bad."

"It was never my place."

"Why not?"

"'Cuz it just wasn't!" Rainbow sighed. "So many of my friends... tchhh... they were friggin' softies, y'know? Like you."

"Okay..."

"Er... no offense."

"Heh. None taken."

"They all had so many crazy issues and stuff. When Pinkie Pie couldn't distract them or Twilight couldn't zap their troubles away..." Rainbow shrugged. "It was my place to... y'know... carry the burden."

"How so?"

"I dunno! I just did!" Rainbow ran a hoof through her prismatic bangs. "I'd have us go places, see some sunshine. I'd talk about random stuff. I'd lend my ear to Twilight and Rarity whenever they wanted to talk about whatever. Heck, the only pony who didn't need me to lift their spirits was..." Rainbow's face paled as her voice lingered.

Belle stared fixedly.

Rainbow gulped and lowered closer to the earth. "Yeah, well. She didn't need any help from me."

"Could you have lent her your help... regardless, Rainbow?"

Rainbow took a deep breath, staring ahead into effluent space.

Belle bit her lip. "Did... did she ever know?"

Rainbow closed her eyes. "Mmmm... no."

Belle smiled. "You sure?"

Rainbow's ears flicked. She reopened her eyes, glancing up at Belle.

Belle shrugged, smiling.

Rainbow shook her head. "It wouldn't have been right."

"'Right?'"

"I mean... she would never... she was not the type of pony..." Rainbow Dash winced. "She had a family... and a farm..." Her hooves dug circles in the earth. "And it didn't take a genius to know that she wanted to keep things that way."

"You were afraid of imposing...?"

"It was imposing just to even think about it." Rainbow gulped hard. "Besides... there was too much at stake, and I didn't want to lose that." She breathed out and whimpered, "I didn't want to lose her."

"Rainbow, even if... even if things didn't go the way you would have liked, I'm sure she would have understood." Belle gazed at her gently. "I really don't think it would have ended things."

"You don't get it. It wasn't her place to decide that. It wasn't anypony's place... but mine." Rainbow shut her eyes again. "So long as things remained the way they were, with her happy—as all my friends were happy—then it was just fine, y'know? It was all... just fine..."

Belle stared off in thought, a breath of wind kicking at her brown mane. She smiled and said, "Something tells me you knew a great deal about giving up stuff even long before you started traveling east."

"Yeah, well..." Rainbow Dash stood up, stretching her limbs. "I never asked to be the Element of Loyalty. It just happened." She bit her lip. "The best and worst things in life do just that."

Gently, Belle reached her hoof out and clasped one of Rainbow's forelimbs. She drew the attention of the pegasus' ruby eyes as she said, "I am glad that you happened, Rainbow." She smiled, her eyes moist. "For my sake and my beloved's. I know you have a lot of pain in your past, but you've been nothing but healing to us. And I think it's time that you allowed some of that peace into your life. Don't you?"

Rainbow Dash blinked. There was a light gurgling sound, and she winced with a blush. "Yeah... well... I think I'd like to allow some fruit into my tummy first, ya dig?"

And both mares giggled into the sunrise. It was a warm one.

New Friends

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"Well, from what I can judge, we're about a day's trip from the west end of Foxtaur Forest."

"Foxtaur?" Bellesmith blinked. "You mean the one with the dense canopy?"

"Yes, that's the one," Pilate said, nodding as his rune-capped plate flickered in cadence with the hovering O.A.S.I.S. sphere. His mana-powered instrument was busily hovering over the unfolded lengths of the map, casting a solid beam of blue light over the sketched lines as the zebra "read" the local cartography. "It'll undoubtedly give us plenty of cover from any zeppelins that might wander overhead."

"But..." Belle chewed on her lip as she gazed over the eastern foliage dotting the horizon. "I've heard that there are all sorts of nightmarish creatures nestled within Foxtaur. Must we really make a detour through that Spark-forsaken place?"

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash hovered lower in the air above the hilltop and gave Belle a playful nudge. "Who said I was gonna abandon you two?" She winked.

Belle chuckled slightly. "I'm just trying to think a bit more rationally than adventurously..."

"The way I see it, we have worse enemies in the Ledomaritan patrols pursuing us," Pilate thought out loud. "If we pace ourselves and make sure not to stir up too much trouble, I'm more than certain we can make it through Foxtaur in one piece."

"And stroll unhindered through the Sapphire Plains beyond?"

"Exactly. It'll be a long trek, but if we keep south of the city of Blue Nova, I-I'm pretty sure we'll be in the clear." Pilate retrieved O.A.S.I.S. to his choker and slumped back suddenly, rubbing his head. "Unnngh..."

"Beloved!" Belle rushed to his side. "Are you okay? Is... is the sphere in need of a recharge?"

He gulped and nodded. "Desperately." Wincing, he tilted his head her way. "And not just that, but I feel as if O.A.S.I.S. is undergoing some kind of feeback."

"Feedback?" Belle spoke as she folded the map and slid it into the midnight saddlebag. "Could there be a large source of mana nearby?"

"Well, the map did show two crystal caves between here and the edge of Foxtaur. It's quite possible that we might some resonance prisms in there."

"Yeah, but, is it really worth the risk?" Belle asked.

"Risk?" Rainbow Dash blinked, her blue ears perking up. "What risk?" She dove down. "Where?"

"Rainbow..." Belle squinted at her.

The pegasus smiled innocently. "I'm just curious!"

"If we were still in Blue Shelf, we'd ask a fellow unicorn or magical antelope to help recharge O.A.S.I.S.," Pilate explained, still rubbing his head. "Out here in the middle of the Ledomaritan Wilderness, we have to make do with whatever we can scrounge up."

"Pilate, crystal caverns aren't exactly known for their... ease of navigation."

"It's alright, beloved." Pilate patted her shoulder and stood up on wobbly legs. "I can manage without your delightful invention for a fortnight if need be."

"And wander around pathetically in the dark when we can reboot your 'sight' lickety-split?!" Rainbow Dash frowned and shook her head. "No friggin' way! We're going!"

"Huh?" Belle gawked up at her. "What have we been over about you risking yourself?!"

"Hey. It's a cave full of crystals." Rainbow Dash winked. "If you've poked around in my head long enough, you should know I've had my fair share of underground places in the last year and a half. I think I'm more than well-equipped to give it a look see for a 'prism battery' or what-crap."

"I'm fine, really," Pilate said with a sheepish smile. "You two can read the map and I'll fill you in on the details stored in my head."

"You just don't get it, do you?" Rainbow Dash flew down and poked his nose with a hoof. "This is not just about getting you two someplace safe, but getting you two someplace comfortable."

"Buh?"

Rainbow Dash smiled. "Chillax, Pilate. You and Belle shouldn't feel like you should give up on so much. I'm gonna get you your sight back, so let's make for the caves!" She soared off into the air and darted eastward. "I'll get a bird's eye view!" she shouted from above. "Follow along! I won't lose track of you, I promise!"

Pilate reached out blindly, and Belle guided his hoof as the two trotted along. "Am I the only one who noticed that she called me by my real name just now?" he stated.

"Heehee..." Belle smiled and nodded. "I think she just may have."

"What happened to the Rainbow Dash who dragged us out of the metal contraption in the earth?"

"I dunno, Pilate." She leaned against him and nuzzled his shoulder. "I think maybe... just maybe... she made some new friends..."

The two marched after the flying blue blur, christened by the golden glow of the passing day.

Steel Wing

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It was pitch black. A deep hum filled the darkness, punctuated by the occasional sounds of his labored breaths.

A metal brace surrounded his right hoof and forelimb. With a humming noise, the prosthetic lit up in a haze of bright blue mana. He shuddered, his weary features wincing from the waves of magic coursing through him. Then, as he grimaced in the darkness, a sparkling surge of magic rode up his body, shot out of his horn, and materialized in a spectral band of equine figures, leering down at him in the darkness.

"Report," muttered the middlemost of the flickering profiles in a ghostly voice.

"We have picked up the Enforcer of Green Slope Province," Shell said, lifting his head up. He finished wincing in time to open his one eye and gaze neutrally past the projections. "His alicornia condition has been tested by two specialists from the Council of Ledo. There is no doubt that his leylines have been temporarily fused with the device belonging to the beloved of Dr. Bellesmith."

"So, then, this Enforcer is able to lead you to the location of the fugitives from Blue Shelf?"

"He is able to convey to me the whereabouts of the sphere within their posession." Shell took a deep breath. "Whether or not the winged subject is to be found their company remains to be seen."

"For your sake, you had best hope that she is with them," one of the profiles said, its eyeslits glaring above a blurred array of military medals. "It was because of your incompetence in the field that the target was lost in the first place."

Another projection leaned forward and added, "The only reason you are tasked with this hunt and not another more qualified Enforcer is because you have had more experience with this pegasus than any other high ranking officer in the Ledomaritan Defense Initiative."

"And I promise you that I will seize her and the power contained within before the target has any hope of leaving the Confederacy's borders." Shell took a deep breath and continued, "Already we have determined the sphere to be located west of the Foxtaur Forest, bordering Sapphire Province."

"Then if she is with the possessors of the mana-sphere, that means she is heading east. She will be within proximity of Blue Nova soon if you do not capture her sooner."

"I have already assembled the resources to intercept her swiftly."

"Must we remind you, Enforcer, that your best opportunity to capture her is now?" Another projection hovered directly overhead. "If she and her accomplices pass beyond the Sapphire Plains to the east of Foxtaur, they will have entered the realm of the Green Mountains. She will be very difficult to capture in such a vast wilderness between Blue Nova and the Eastern Front."

"She will not make it to the Xonan Battlegrounds," Shell said with a frown. "I will bring her to her knees or she will bow down to the Queen in pieces."

"You would have won our confidence with such words, if your actions as of late have proven to hold as much weight, Enforcer."

Shell clenched his teeth shut, staring into the blackness beyond the images.

"We shall hail your fellow captain's vessel in a week's time to find out the nature of your progress." The projections began to dissipate. "We trust that you will make good with your loyalty."

"In honor of the Queen," Shell bowed. "I give myself."

With a splash of manalight, the projections died. All was dark and dull noise yet again.

Shell clenched his eye shut. After several seconds, he stood up—hissing through his teeth in pain as he shifted weight on his glowing blue prosthetic. Swiveling about, he marched down the echoing blackness until he approached a thin, vertical slit of metal. With a wave of magic, he pushed the doors open.

Light exploded into the cabin, along with the noise of wind and steam. Marching, Shell strolled onto an immense deck of dark gray metal bulkheads. Ledomaritan stallions in blue uniforms rushed past him, their hooves dutifully flurrying over various levers, knobs, dials, and handles. The ponies shouted commands and instructions over the high-pitched whine of gusting steam. Overhead, the bulbous copper body of a dirigible fluctuated in the wind. Tight ropes and metal coils groaned as the immense, steel zeppelin angled its way eastward.

It wasn't alone. Flanking the starboard and port sides of the cannon-covered battleship, two smaller aircraft of like design rode the cloudy currents. With telekinetic prowess, uniformed unicorns stood on the edge of the decks, waving red flags and signaling from one ship to another. Beyond the gusting steam and the venting engines of the armored blimps, jutting mountains and ocean-blue skies lingered. Down below: rolling green plains and emerald forests stretched far and wide, engulfing the Ledomaritan countryside with color.

Shell gazed at everything indifferently. The only thing his face registered was the knifing pain from his limb, but even that was a minor twitch at best.

Shuffling up, a stallion his age in a decorated blue uniform stood straight and saluted. "Prime Enforcer Shell..."

"Captain Filta..."

"The Steel Wing waits for your command. What news from the Council, sir?"

Shell's mouth hung in thin line. He reached lethargically into his uniform and pulled out a plain, drab, blue article. "They haven't sent me a new beret..."

"Sir?"

"We, my good Captain, are tasked with finding our elusive blue pegasus with wings of the west and a heart of chaos." Shell limped across the deck, his metal limb making dull thuds against the bulkheads as sweating crewmen dashed left and right before the strolling pair. "When we find her, we will drag her down to the ground until her spirit has no choice but to follow along with it. And there, in the shadow of her failure, where she has no friends except the bitter kiss of pain, we will hollow her out for all that she's worth."

Captain Filta cleared his throat. "Well, then, shall I set coordinates to such a noble juncture?"

"No, but you can send those qualified ahead." Shell shuffled to a stop, squinting into the wind as he digested the eastern horizon. "Have your stallions prepared the gliders?"

"See for yourself, Prime Enforcer." Filta marched up to an upper platform of the deck, pointing towards where a miniature runway had been erected upon the bow of the battleship. Three metal, mana-powered aircraft were being rigged with rockets. Two pilots per craft were settling in, checking their instruments. "They're prepared for their instructions. Are we certain we know the whereabouts of the subject?"

Shell's nostrils flared. He pivoted and gazed towards the stern of the ship, where a obese stallion with a gray mane was leaning over the edge of the battleship, his coat having taken on a sickly green hue.

"It would seem that though my reputation is the only thing on the line, it's not the trust that's being tested," Shell muttered.

"Who? Him?" Filta trotted over and squinted. He glanced tiredly Shell's way. "He's been trying to talk to you all journey, sir. I had imagined the two of you had personally convened in order to... strategize over this 'special condition' of his."

Shell shook his head. "That was something I've had the luxury to avoid... until now." He winced as he forced his forelimb into a steady trot along with the rest. "Be prepared for my order at any given time, in the meantime, guide the Steel Wing towards the northeast corner of the Foxtaur Forest. I must converse with our... 'guide,' here."

"Sir, wouldn't you rather stay down below?" Captain Filta pointed at the glowing blue prosthetic. "There are plenty of places in the cabin where you can rest yourself."

"I've no time to recover," Shell hissed, trotting away. "This mission is of supreme importance to Queen Ledo."

"If you insist, sir. I can't imagine the pain."

Shell grumbled as he approached the lurching figure of Josho. "Something tells me I'm just about to..."

Balancing Scales

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"Urp!" The rotund stallion lurched over the edge of the Steel Wing one more time before wiping his bearded chin and shuddering. "Someone stop the friggin' world; I wanna get off. Unnngh..."

"Enforcer Josho..."

"Buzz off!" He grunted, his teeth clenched as he a brought a hoof up to his fluctuating horn. "Can't you see my head is giving birth to an elephant?"

"Suffer with dignity, soldier."

"Ughhh..." Josho spun, snarling. "And just what kind of big bag of hot wind are you—?" He froze upon staring into a scarred face. "Holy crabshells!" He straightened his already crooked uniform and pivoted his beret, trembling. "Prime Enforcer, sir!"

Shell merely glared at him.

"I was just... er... surveying the last vestiges of Green Slope, sir! I'm more than capable of serving for duty—"

"As you were," Shell mumbled.

Josho squinted at him. He shrugged. "Suit yourself." His cheeks exploded as he spun about, lurched over the edge again, and retched with a disgusting gag noise.

Shell closed his eye, took a deep breath of courage, and trotted over to stand by the stallion's quivering side. "Captain Filta is ready to send his stallions towards the destination. The plan is to have the gliders flush the subject and her allies out of the Foxtaur Forest so that we can intercept them with the slower but more powerful Steel Wings."

"Aye..." Josho sputtered. "Sounds like a darn good idea, Prime Enforcer. Especially if you thought of it—"

"We need to know for certain that the subject is heading into Foxtaur, and, if so, exactly where in the forest they may be intending to make their sojourn."

"Yeah. I guess that would help."

"Then do it," Shell droned.

Josho gazed sideways at him. "Huh?"

"Help us." Shell pointed at Josho's strobing skull. "While you are still in the condition to do so."

"Unngh..." Josho clenched his eyes shut, rubbing a hoof over his lit horn. "It's... It's sketchy. I keep hearing words—almost like whispers—entering my brain. I think I'm hearing some of their conversations. But then they pass over me like wet dreams that fail to get to the good part. You remember having those when you were a colt? Heh, I bet you do—"

"Any details would be exceedingly helpful, Enforcer," Shell said with a hint of a growl.

"Oh... Uhm..." Josho concentrated hard, his eyelids fluttering. "A map. A sloping valley. Midnight conversations. The taste of apples. Green eyes..."

Shell raised an eyebrow over his one good eye.

"Mmmmm... Crystals. Recharging. Recharging the device... th-the magic device for the blind zebra..." Josho's eyes widened as he thought aloud. "Mana crystals. A hole in the ground—no, a cavern!"

"Doctor Bellesmith's beloved," Shell said. "They are likely in need of recharging his seeing device. It's been so long."

"Wherever they're headed to, it's someplace deep in the earth, and all glowly and crud," Josho said. "I'm sure of this."

"I see." Shell interrupted a passing crewman. "Go fetch Captain Filta."

"Aye, sir." The stallion scampered away.

"They'll be in a vulnerable moment!" Josho said with a hint of a smile. "It's like catching them taking a squat in the field, only there are more crystals and less corncobs involved—"

"Thank you, Enforcer, you've helped adequately."

"I only wish I could help more, y'know," Josho said, stifling another burp. He stood up straight in spite of his rotund self. "I've heard of all of the daring campaigns you made against those tattooed bastards along the southeastern front. You slew a buttload of Xonans in the name of Ledo. What I wouldn't give to have served with your brigade in such a time."

"Right..."

"I mean, it's a real damn honor, sir. It's been ages since I've seen any action—or done anything worthwhile for the Queen besides guarding a lousy town full of hicks. So this is a real opportunity for me to do something useful—"

"That remains to be seen," Shell muttered. Captain Filta strolled up, and the soldier asked him, "Where along the western edge of Foxtaur might there be naturally occurring manacrystal caves?"

Filta squinted in thought, then said, "Forty miles south of the northern edge, due east of the jagged summit of the Brown Mountains. Why do you ask?"

Shell motioned towards Josho and said, "We have reason to believe that our targets may be taking a proverbial dip in the magical womb of the world. I think we now have a place to send our gliders."

"Very well. When, sir?"

"Now would be a prudent time, Captain," Shell said. "Order your fliers to push the fugitives north. We'll chase them into range of the Steel Wing's cannon, and then the subject will have no choice but to surrender to us or die."

"Aye. A splendid plan." Filta spun about, blew a whistle hanging from his neck, and shouted towards the far ends of the Steel Wing. "Fliers! Here are your orders! Fly southeast and penetrate Foxtaur east of the Brown Mountains...!"

Filta flung commands to every uniformed stallion within earshot. The pilots scrambled to their mana-driven gliders. Bells rung as crewmen rushed to the steam controls of the vessel and pivoted it southeast. The two large airships escorting the Steel Wing adjusted to match the course.

"This is just perfect," Josho said, weathering his pain long enough to brandish a glistening smile. "Taking wing like friggin' dragons! We'll have that bright blue buzzard roasted in no-time!"

"Enforcer Josho," Shell droned, "It was a large, matronly dragon of epic size that deposited our subject—in her battered state—upon the western edge of the Queen's Territory to begin with."

Josho blinked. "What are ya tryin' to tell me?"

"Simply that she's obviously had her chance at combatting dragons, and even that wasn't enough to kill her. It was something I should have taken into consideration when I battled her in the heart of a machine world." He turned and glared at Josho. "And it's something you were too ignorant to know when—in a fit of drunken rage—you destroyed half a village in your vain attempt to slight her."

"Hey, I was only—"

"Understand this, Enforcer," Shell hissed, taking a metal step forward with his heavy prosthetic. "You are a beacon, a compass, a means to an end and nothing more. You stopped being a useful soldier the day you stopped having the common courtesy to march in a straight line, sober. The very reason you were assigned to a backwater trading post in the festering buttocks of Green Slope was because that's the most your legacy has ever afforded you. You say that you're honored to serve with me?" His one good eye narrowed. "I've lost over four dozen good officers in the debacle at Blue Shelf. They gave their lives for the sake of assuring Ledomare would acquire this fleeting source of power, and I failed them. Now I am chasing the key to a vast underworld of promise yet again, and I will know no honor until I have balanced the scales with the loss that has earned it. Until I give my everything—including myself—for the sake of this necessary victory, I can claim no right to honor. Now tell me, what can you claim?"

Josho's mouth hung open, about to stammer something, anything. He had no breath to give.

Shell's nostrils flared. "As soon as we have the subject—dead or alive—I do not want to be within the same province as you. I do think my reputation smells enough of failure." He trotted off, limping.

Josho watched him silently. In the meantime, the gliders took off—one by one—sending shrill screams of blaring rockets into the air as the three aircraft veered towards the southeast, and lit up with mana-powered energy. The Steel Wing pierced the winds after them like a hovering mountain.

Faith Hole

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"Is it..." Bellesmith gulped, trembling slightly. "Is it deep?"

"Yup," Rainbow Dash said.

"Is it dark?"

"Yup."

"Is... Is there a chance there might be horrible creatures down in there?"

"Yup."

"Is it possible that—"

"Good heavens, Belle!" Pilate exclaimed, leaning against her as the lights in his runic plate dimmed gradually. "What's with this sudden inquisition? We trotted all this way here for a reason, so let's let Rainbow do what Rainbow has to do!"

"But... But..." Belle gestured towards a large, gaping chasm in the earth, leading forty-five-degrees down into a spiraling tunnel lined with glistening red rubies and quartz. "It's so long and... and scary...!"

"Must I quote Platrot at a time like this?" Pilate managed with a smirk.

"Look, I know a thing or two about caves," Rainbow Dash murmured from above, hovering over the mouth as she made a grand survey of the enormous, rocky pit. The thin, emerald line of a forest lingered to the east of that site while an afternoon sun glistened shimmeringly overhead. "They're all a bit-a-dozen, but I've got enough wits about me at this point that I can fly through them in my sleep!" She paused for a moment, her eyebrow raising as she spun to glare at Pilate. "And who the hay is 'Platrot?'"

"Maybe we can rest on it!" Belle said with a nervous smile. She gulped. "Maybe... uhh... we can get a good night's sleep and then we can go down there in the morning once the sun has angled itself just right to cast more light down the shaft and—"

"Yeah, no. When I talk to Luna again, I wanna have this crap taken care of." Rainbow Dash cracked the joints in her neck and flexed her dangling limbs. "I'm going in."

"But, Rainbow Dash!" Belle pouted. "Maybe there's another, less... uh... scary cave—"

"Yeesh, what's your friggin' deal, girl?!" Rainbow smirked at her. "It's not like you're going down there too!"

Belle blinked. "I'm not?" She hissed, wincing. "I'm not! I know I'm not! But that's not the point!"

"Good!" Rainbow Dash angled herself towards the cave. "Wait here! I'll be back in a Manehattan minute—"

"There could be plenty of towns nearby that we can buy a crystal to recharge my beloved's machine!" Belle exclaimed. "Besides, even if you did find a magic shard down there, it's not like any of us can zap O.A.S.I.S. back to life! We'd need a unicorn—er... a unicorn with a full horn capable of magic and—"

"Beloved..." Pilate reached over and nuzzled Belle, smiling. "She wants to do this for us, and the sooner a chance I have to keep reading the map, the better for all of us, don't you agree?"

"I... I..."

"Look..." Rainbow Dash hovered down in front of Belle, smiling. "I'm not gonna do anything crazy. I know you're worried about my neck and all, but I'm not about to do anything stupid that could endanger myself. You think I'm that... uh... life-stupid?"

Belle gulped and her voice waveringly uttered, "You've done so much for us. I don't want a life as precious as yours being threatened by anything—"

"At this point, I'd be scared for death itself if it tried clawing at me again." Rainbow Dash winked. "Not like it's gonna matter. I have you guys to come back to, so the only stunt I'm about to perform is resisting the urge to slap you silly."

"Okay, Rainbow Dash..." Belle took a deep breath, nodding "I get it. I'll... uh... I'll calm down and let you do your thing."

"Dang right, you will." Rainbow pivoted aside. "Pilate, makes sure she doesn't lay an egg while I'm gone."

"I'll... er... do my best, Miss Dash."

"Call me Rainbow, for crying out loud! Yeesh! Are we fugitives or are we having a tea party?"

"Remember to watch your head for low-hanging stalactites!" Belle said.

"I will."

"And remember not to go flying too deep where it gets really dark!"

"I will."

"Oh! And don't touch anything moving that shouldn't be moving and—"

"Shut up, Belle." Rainbow dove deep into the chasm, disappearing like a blue speck beyond the throat of rocks, rocks, rocks...

Bellesmith sighed and leaned against Pilate. "I swear, I'm gonna have a heart attack because of her."

"I daresay you will have a heart attack because of yourself."

"I just want her to be careful from now on. Is that too much to ask?"

"I'd say it's too little to ask at this point." Pilate smiled. "Isn't it enough to have faith? It's brought us this far."

Belle gulped and gazed forlornly down the hole. "I just wonder if it's enough to bring Rainbow as far as she needs to go..."

Convenient Cave

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The reflections of the crystalline cave matched the color of Rainbow's eyes. Her vision darted left and right, and as the light grew darker in her descent, she brought a hoof up to her pendant and rubbed it with a few light circles. The Element of Loyalty lit up, casting a glittering red haze across the claustrophobic environment floating past all sides of her. It was a tighter squeeze than most caves that she had been familiar with, and yet its path did not wind like so many labyrinthine passages she had navigated in the past. It was almost as if some bizarre phenomenon had perfectly carved a tunnel forty-five degrees down from the earth's surface, and at some point in the past innumerable rubies had formed along the cylindrical walls of the cavern.

The gems were jagged, long, and gathered in thick clusters. They all reflected the light from Rainbow Dash's pendant evenly, but she was at a lostt to figure out which of them where innately enchanted. After all, she was after a stone capable of harnessing magic, not simply reflecting luminescence.

With an epiphanous plan, Rainbow Dash beat her wings faster and sped down the throat of the cave. She flew until the sunlit mouth of the cave was a distant speck. Once she was satisfied that she had flown deep enough, she paused in a gentle hover and covered the lightning bolt of her element with two forelimbs. Shutting out the light, she cast herself into inky-black darkness. Squinting, she pivoted about, looking around the body of the claustrophobic interior.

Finally, something sparked in her peripheral vision. She spun to the side, squinting, and focused on a tiny shred of light just in front of her. Floating over—she bumped her head on a cluster of rocks. Wincing, she rubbed her skull and lowered just a tad, gazing at the source of the light.

In the midst of so many long, jutting rubies, she found a tiny cluster of even thinner gems. These were crystaline rods, almost resembling door handles. They shimmered with a bright blue aura which intensified the closer her living flesh got to it.

"Hmmm..." Her voice echoed in the deep, thin cavern. "This had better do the trick."

Reaching forward, Rainbow gripped a stalk of the blue rods with two hooves. She pulled, twisted, and yanked with all her strength.

"Nnnngh!"

Finally, she wrenched a cluster of blue gems free. Three fell into her capable grasp. One, however, fell loose and clattered down into a deeper part of the dimly-lit cave below.

"Awwww poop..."

Rainbow Dash frowned, glanced up towards the mouth of the cave, then sighed. Angling her wings, she dove even further for the fallen shard. She squinted her eyes, looking for the source of the blue rod. She must have dropped for another minute and a half before she stumbled upon a bright bed of rubies, and all of them glowing blue and green.

"Ah... well here's where the party's at," she said, her lips twisted in an aquamarine grin.

The rock had evened out to allow for a plateau full of these glowing shards. She touched her hooves down—careful not to cut her fetlocks on the jagged bits of stone. Stepping cautiously through the spaces, she approached a tall cluster of rocks and gripped them. These very easily snapped off to her touch, and soon she had a veritable bundle of natural, mana-charged stones.

"Whew. At this rate, he'll be the only zebra in the world with his own power bill."

She turned to leave when something familiar struck her vision. The fact that it was something "familiar" deep down in the stomach of a Ledomaritan cave is what startled her. Doing a double-take, Rainbow Dash pivoted about and squinted at a wall.

There was a space of solid stone amidst the forest of glowing gems. From the looks of things, the wall was once covered by gems in the past, but something... or someone had hacked them all away. In its place was an elaborate set of carvings, all in a language that Rainbow Dash could not understand, all save for one pair of words.

"Windthrow..." Rainbow Dash thought aloud. She winced and smacked her skull with a clump of glowing gems. "No, not 'Windthrow,' you featherbrain!" She grimaced, gawking at the omega symbol that was eclipsing a solar crest. "'Austraeoh.'"

Her eyes lingered on the symbols, then on the pairs of cryptic carvings next to it.

"But... when... how...?"

She took a step forward, and her hoof bumped into something. Rainbow Dash looked down to see a long machete, worn by time and ancient use. Curious, she reached down and pulled it up by the handle... only to see that somepony else was gripping to the same instrument.

The skeleton of a long-diceased pony clung to the dull-edged tool. Its gaping skull dangled, pivoting beneath Rainbow's grasp.

"Oh... Hello..." Rainbow winced and dropped the whole machete altogether. "And... uh... ew, much?" She squinted at the dusty, crumbling skeleton before her. The pony's body was surrounded by discarded tools, moth-eaten satchels, and the tattered remnants of what must have been a well-laced robe in its time. "What the heck brought you way down here?" She glanced at the carvings on the wall, and back at the pony. Her eyes stumbled upon the remains of a dozen time-decayed feathers. "Heh. Hunting pheasant? Heheheh—Whoah, wait a second..."

Rainbow Dash knelt down low, her eyes wide. She reached a hoof out and traced the length of the skeletal wing. Sure enough, the avian bones were attached to the spine of the pony itself.

"A pegasus..." Rainbow Dash gulped. "Well if that isn't nifty." Rubbing her chin, she glanced across the dust-laden possessions of the ill-fated soul. She saw what looked like a bundle of wool in the corner, right where the smoothe stone and jagged gems converged. Curious, she reached towards it and turned it over. "Well, okay then."

Beneath where the wool was, a book was lying, an ancient tome that was thicker than any book Rainbow Dash had ever seen. There was no title on the cover of it, only two symbols... the only symbols that could have mattered.

"This just keeps on getting better and better..."

Having Faith

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"I don't like this," Bellesmith stammered, squatting on her haunches before the edge of the cave. She peered forlornly down into the depths of the cylindrical descent, her chestnut eyes squinting in desperation for any sign of Rainbow Dash. She was unsuccessful. "We should have contrived some way for us to message each other if something went bad..."

"Belle..."

"We should have given her a rope!"

Pilate actually blinked his cloudy eyes at that. "A rope?"

"Yes! Any pony with a lick of sense would bring rope while navigating a sharp descent!"

"Uhm... Beloved?" The zebra marched over, smiling, and rested a hoof on her shoulder. "Have you noticed that our beloved friend possesses wings?"

"But still?! It's so dark and jagged down there!"

"Considering the enormous amount of things Rainbow Dash has encountered prior to when we woke her up, I'm quite certain she can handle whatever that cave has to toss at her."

"But.. But..."

"And I seriously doubt that a giant, razor-toothed, dragon goddess could even fit in there."

Belle sighed, her mane sliding over her golden face in the afternoon light. "She's not invincible, y'know."

"Sometimes I wonder. I mean, she survived death itself, yes?"

"She was only mostly dead, Pilate. And she came out of that mess because we dragged herself."

"Not my point." Pilate squatted beside her. "Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps Austraeoh is bound to make it to the edge of the world, regardless of who or what helps her?"

"Huh?"

"What if other ponies were Eljunbyro, and not us?" Pilate shrugged. "What if some other event had caused her to recover from her excessive injuries?"

"But something else didn't happen, Pilate. It was us..."

"What I'm getting at, beloved, is that maybe Rainbow Dash is destined to make this journey to its fullest, against all odds, regardless of what form of help she gets or doesn't get?"

Belle bit her lip. She gazed off towards the distant, green line of Foxtaur. "It could be possible. I mean, it seems as if a great deal of what's been happening was... was prophesied—I don't know."

"I don't know everything either, darling, but I think there's something bigger than us helping Rainbow Dash make this trip." Pilate took a breath, then added. "And bigger than her as well, though she would rather die again than admit that such a divine thing bigger than her exists."

Belle squinted at him. "I thought I married a scientist."

"Did you now?"

She chuckled. "Since when were you an avid believer in fate?"

He leaned over and nuzzled her. "Because long ago, more than anything else in this crazy, confusing, cluttered world, I chose you and you alone to put my trust in." He kissed her ear and added, "And my life has yet to turn to shambles. I doubt that it ever will."

"Mmmm... You have way too much faith in me, Pilate."

"And you have too little in Rainbow Dash." He said with a wicked smirk. He motioned towards the cave. "Give her some more time. She's more patient than the both of us think. If worse comes to worse, I have enough juice in O.A.S.I.S. to fetch her. In meantime... just have faith..."

Belle leaned against him, shuddering slightly. "It's just so hard to at times..."

He nuzzled her. "It only rewards in the end."

High above the two, several hundreds of meters away, descending at a rapid rate, were three glinting shapes. Six ponies clung to the metal spines of three gliders—two pilots apiece. When they saw the two figures down below, the copilots signaled to one another.

After a mutual nod, the airborne Enforcers fired bright orange flares into the skies, banked their gliders to the southeast, and dove towards the cave... and the unsuspecting couple seated in front of it.

Dark Crest

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It was the most commonly reoccuring symbol in the ancient book. As Rainbow Dash flipped from page to page, she saw it appearing several times—even more so than the symbols that she was familiar with. Sometimes, it would be the header of an entire chapter or paragraph of ancient words.

She was completely incapable of translating the text within, but she was nevertheless intrigued. This was likely due to the gratuitous amount of pictures that the book contained. She saw maps, complex diagrams of architecture, engravings of mountains and wilderness, and more than a trough full of cryptic imagery.

Other than the one reoccuring crest, Rainbow Dash saw something that struck her funny. Even though she couldn't interpret the words or the many symbols surrounding them, there was something uniquely familiar about the hoofwriting. She could have sworn she had seen such similar brusthstrokes when being forced in grade school to skim over the old manuscripts covering Commander Hurricane and the founding of Cloudsdale. A motif feathers and marble architecture in various illustrations only further supported this.

"Was this thing... written by pegasi?" Rainbow Dash murmured aloud.

In the glow of crystals, she gazed aside at the winged skeleton. She saw what looked like the tattered remains of a robe lying a meter away from the pony bones. Reaching over, she turned the fabric around until the hood of the article graced the cave air. On the tip of the hood—above where the equine's face would have been obscured—was the same crest as that which was filling the book in her hooves.

"Looks like you had dedicated your life to something, pal," Rainbow Dash muttered. "You think it was worth it?"

Silence resumed, save for the flipping of pages as Rainbow Dash tore deeper and deeper into the tome. She slowed as she saw hauntingly familiar things. Towards the middle of the book, there were several detailed diagrams of gears, pendulums, conveyor belts, and pistons. She knew that she had seen all of these things before.

"How did these dudes see it?"

She flipped some more pages. The glow around her was intensifying. She found an illustration towards the end of the tome that occupied two sheets. Before her eyes, a majestic series of marble steps and concrete platforms extended into an unfathomably large waterfall stretched before infinite starlight. A grandiose palace bravely stood against the face of oblivion.

"The edge of the world..."

The cave was as bright as daylight at this point. A wind was picking up as the place echoed with a deep, bass resonance. Just as a shadow began creeping over Rainbow Dash—

She slapped the book shut, spun around, and smirked. "Ah ha!" She pointed at an immense shadow peering over the edge of the plateau of gemstones. "Thought you had me, huh?! I've been in too many caves to think that they're completely empty!"

A bulbous red shape leered at the stony edge of the platform. Two long, crimson feelers waved in the glowing air.

Rainbow Dash grinned. "What? You shy or something? It'll take more than that to scare me—"

A gust of musky air blew at Rainbow Dash, followed by a shrill shriek as the creature's head lunged up into the space of the cavern, followed by a pair of legs, then followed by another pair of legs... then another... and another... and another...

Soon, half the body of a one-hundred meter long giant centipede was thrashing before her, waving all of its legs as its headpiece curled about, looming directly over her.

Rainbow Dash had fallen on her flank at this point. She scooted backwards until her spine was to the wall. "Well then..." She gulped. "That's a start."

Another gust of air emanated from the giant arthropod's interior. At the front of its headpiece, a pair of feelers slimily unrolled to reveal twin bards of poison, beneath which was a razor-sharp array of hungry mandibles. The dagger-sharp stingers extended an extra foot each, and the massive thing lunged at the pony.

"Nnngh!" Rainbow dove out of the way.

The ground behind her splashed with gemos and the brittle remains of pegasus bones.

Rainbow scrambled over the shaking plateau. She had to hop over the dragging body of the centipeder—her tail hairs getting briefly caught in the monster's squirming limbs. She broke free, scooped up the book with one forelimb, scooped up a clump of glowing blue rods in the other, and took off for the ascending tunnel above.

The centipede at this time had recoiled its upper body and was lunging at her yet again.

The monster missed by a hair, smashing into the mouth of the gem-encrusted tunnel, showering red rubies down into the throat of the impossibly deep cavern.

Rainbow Dash easily outflew its attack. Once she was several meters above it, she perched on an outcropping of rock, placed her items down, and spun about.

"Okay, you barf-flavored bucket of crab legs!" Rainbow Dash sneered with a wicked grin as she grinded her hoof on the cliff of rock. "You wanna do this the hard way, bucko?! I'm gonna make you wish you had a hundred crutches after I'm done with—"

She froze in place. Her ears drooped.

The creature was thrashing and shrieking angrily below her. It was disoriented in its furious hunger. Rainbow could have pounced on it at anytime.

Instead, she stood up straight and turned around, gazing straight up towards the small speck of sunlight.

Rainbow Dash gulped. After a deep breath, her features softened, and when she looked down at the creature once again, it was with a tiny smile.

"You know what? As much as I'd love to do the dance of the million feelers, you're just not worth my time."

She scooped up the book and crystal rods yet again. Her wings flapped.

"Consider yourself lucky, lame-o."

She shot up, ascending towards the distant entrance of the cave.

The monster was not about to let the whole thing slide. Once it had gathered its bearings, the massive centipede gripped the walls of the cave in its countless limbs and clambored up after her. Its furious shriek filled the claustrophobic chamber as its rancid breath blew at Rainbow Dash's tail hairs.

There was no way Rainbow couldn't have felt it.

"Belle! Pilate!" she shouted as she sailed like a blue blur towards the tunnel entrance. "Now would be a very good time to call off this picnic and gallop away!"

Faith Rewarded

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The pilots were so close to the two equines at the mouth of the cave, they could see their mane colors. The air whistled past them as they angled out at the end of their dive.

"It's definitely them!" One pilot shouted to the ponies on the other two gliders soaring alongside him. "Capture them alive for the Prime Enforcer! Use lethal force only if necessary!"

"Aye!"

"Roger—"

A blue shape suddenly darted out of the cave. In one swift movement, she scooped the two yelping equines up and dragged them away from the cavern.

"Huh?!" One pilot reacted.

"By the Queen's mane!" The central enforcer exclaimed, turning his head as Rainbow Dash flew past them. "It's the subject! Lay in an intercept course—"

The air filled with a high-pitched shriek as the hulking body of a hundred-meter long centipede flew into view. Dozens of giant, thrashing legs sliced at the gliders.

"Holy—!"

Two gliders shattered instantly, its pilots flying in seperate directions under a shower of metal and crystal shrapnel. Screams filled the air as the hulking arthropod stormed over the chaotic scene.

The last glider was veering in an ascending spiral, its wings buckling from the hectic maneuver. The two pilots on board shouted confused commands at one another. Several razor-sharp legs thrashed their way. They tried veering off towards the north, but the mouth of the centipede had found them.

With a sickening snap, the aircraft shattered in two, and the unicorn operators fell—flailing—to the grasslands below. They joined their other four comrades in a hellish attempt to ward off the giant creature's rampaging attacks with flickering bolts of magic from their horns. An epic battle went underway of stallion versus abomination.

Several meters away, hovering over the crest of a hill, Rainbow Dash hung in mid-air with Pilate and Belle dangling under each forearm. The pegasus gulped, gazing at the absurd chaos as a bulb of sweat drifted down her temple.

Pilate's ear twitched as his face grimaced at the blood-curdling noises.

"Oh hey!" Belle gasped, cradling the ancient tome in her hooves. "A new book!"

Rainbow glared at her. "Seriously?! That's it?!"

"Well, I... erm..."

Pilate cleared his voice and said, "Wasn't there... uhm... a forest nearby?"

"Right." Rainbow Dash pivoted the group east and sped the three of them several meters before safely depositing them on the ground. "I could totally use some squirrel therapy right about now."

The fugitives made their way towards Foxtaur under the crimson kiss of a falling sunset.

Eat Pain

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With a rustle of leaves and moss, the three ponies sped their way into the body of Foxtaur. The forest was ancient, with the outermost trees resembling gnarled, twisting briars. Brown branches spread in every direction, several of them dipping low and turning the ceiling of the place into a claustrophobic maze of wooden tributatires. The thickest canopy imaginable stretched over their heads, cutting out all sunlight as the three came to a shuffling stop in the center of a bushy clearing.

Pilate and Bellesmith leaned against each other, sweating and panting heavily. Rainbow Dash hovered just above them, glancing every which way for signs of movement.

"Relax... Rainbow... Dash...." Belle managed to say. "Your luck... as always... threw our pursuers off..."

"Since when could unicorns fly?" Rainbow Dash uttered with a frown. "That's totally cheating!"

"I'm inclined to agree," Pilate stammered.

"What matters is they're gone!" Belle exclaimed. She gulped, ran a hoof through her mane, and added, "And so is that huge, nasty—"

The edge of Foxtaur exploded behind them. Through a shattering sea of branches, the giant arthropod lunged towards the three, its mandibles drooling heavily.

Belle was too breathless to shriek. Pilate blanched and froze in place. Branches and brambles fell towards them as the giant centipede sliced its way through.

In a blue blur, Rainbow Dash shoved the two ponies out of the way. She had very little room to avoid the falling branches and bits of trees. Eventually, she shoved the three to a stop against the trunk of a massive oak. Hopping up from the bodies of her trembling friends, Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth.

"Oh, you gotta be friggin' kidding me!"

The centipede swirled about, its many legs carving thick ravines into the leaves and soil of the forest floor. Its massive feelers swam through the air of the place, forcing its head to tilt closer and closer to the succulent trio.

"We c-can't outrun something with that many legs!" Bellesmith exclaimed.

Pilate gulped. "Legs?"

"Rainbow Dash, wh-what will we do?"

"Hurt less while I hurt it more!" Rainbow Dash blurred towards the creatures, swinging two forelimbs together until they slammed upside its headpiece. "Nnngh—Haaaugh!"

The centipede reeled backwards, its shell of a body toppeling two trees over. Everything was chaos and fluttering leaves.

"Rainbow—!" Belle hollered, Pilate in tow.

"Will you friggin' run, already?!" Rainbow Dash said before taking a leg to the back. "Augh!" She pinballed off two tree branches, kicked off a brown trunk, and avoided a fanged lunge from the head of the creature. In a splash of splinters and sawdust, she flew up and frowned down at the thrashing, thrashing thing. "Y'know, I went easy on you! I decided to leave you alone! But noooooooooo—We couldn't have that, now could we?"

With a foul-smelling shriek, the massive arthropod surged eastward, trailing at the two helpless ponies.

"Oh no you don't!" Rainbow Dash dove down and repeately kicked and bucked at its bulging body segments. "This is our dance! Now you stay put and fight like a—"

All it took was the lifting of three combined legs, and Rainbow Dash was knocked effortlessly into a cluster of bushes. She fought and fumbled with several dipping vines to disentangle herself from the mess. Looking over, she sweated to see her friends being cornered against a row of boulders.

Belle and Pilate were pressed against the wall. They considered running an alternate course, but the centipede had circled the trap with its entire body and was now leering its fanged pinches above the two. With feelers twitching, the creature prepared to lunge at the helpless couple.

Rainbow Dash hissed through clenched teeth. She flew against the rope of thorns ensaring her legs. Blood flew in the air, but she managed to slide free. With a pained groan, she soared towards the head of the creature and slammed into it before it could thrust its fangs at her friends.

The centipede's head flew towards an ancient tree, where it's upper row of legs were fortuitously stuck in the forking of several gnarled branches. Twitching and spasming, it fought to free itself.

Rainbow Dash flapped her wings... and flew away from the creature. She became a blur in the distant edge of the clustered forest.

Belle watched, curious. Pilate shivered, his ears twitching.

A low thunder rumbled through the air. Trees shook and branches wobbled. Finally, Rainbow Dash returned from her head start, surging at several thousand kilometers per hour. She angled her body into a drop kick and focused all her angry velocity on a pair of legs sticking out of the branches that the monster was trapped in.

A sickening snap filled the air. The creature howled in agony as two of its legs flew juicily in the air. Rainbow Dash caught one in her hooves, circled about, and perched atop the very crown of the creature. Positioning the razor-sharp limb like a spear in her grasp, she raised it up, took a deep breath for courage, and stabbed it down into the soft mouth of the creature. This, she repeated again and again, summoning many shrieks from the ensnared arthropod.

Below, Belle and Pilate shivered in the shadow of the melee. Belle stared with wide eyes. As more sickening sounds of a pummeled exoskeleton lit the air, she grimaced harder and harder. A wave of bubbling juices landed at her hooves, and still she kept wincing. Pilate was no less effected, his ears drooping to eliminate the sound of the centipede's painful wails. Soon Belle was looking green in the face, having to plant a hoof over her muzzle to keep her breakfast in. Finally, after half a mandible fell at her hooves, Rainbow Dash touched down beside them, half her body stained with giant bug juices.

"Now go home and pray I don't chase you there!" Rainbow Dash spat.

Yipping like a giant bag of beaten puppies, the hulking monster dislodged from the tree and limped painfully towards the west edge of the forest. As it pierced the edge of the canopy, there was the unmistakable silhouette of its headpiece having been pierced down the center with a jagged leg. In a swish of limbs and juices, it was gone.

Rainbow Dash stood in place, her nostrils flaring as she finally, finally coiled her wings.

Pilate and Belle stared in her direction, dumbfounded.

Gulping, Rainbow Dash spun around. She smiled briefly.

"So yeah! I found you guys a book! Heheh... ohhhhhhhh..."

And she collapsed in a dizzy heap.

"Rainbow!"

Passing Word

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"What amazes us is how fearless she is."

"Indeed. That is one of her most endearing qualities."

"For instance, earlier today, when she saved us from that giant, rampaging centipede, she didn't even break a sweat!"

"It hath long been misconstrued that 'loyalty' is a passive trait. We hath observed for ourselves that true loyalty inspireth unlimited action."

"But, for some reason, I think it's different now, Your Highness."

"Oh?"

"Yes. When she risked her neck for us today, it was only because it was a last resort. I mean, she could have battled the monster while it was inside of the cave..."

"Very true..."

"Instead, she grabbed my beloved and I and sent us towards the forest."

"That is hardly surprising. We perceive that she was thinking entirely of thee."

"Yeah, but I know for a fact that she's used to channeling everything through her anger. That didn't happen this time. I think... I think she's getting a bit level-headed..."

Rainbow Dash stirred, her lips parting as her forehead tensed under a gently-stroking hoof.

"Rainbow Dash hath been through a lot. Thy presence in her life is most fortuitous, for she must learn the hard way that there are limits to things... especially when it comes to this world..."

Her ruby eyes opened. She gasped and sat up, only to have Belle's calming hooves hold her in place on the forest floor.

"Well, sounds like somepony's up and at 'em!" Pilate said, smirking as O.A.S.I.S. hovered over the open pages of an ancient tome. A sheen of moonlight cascaded off his stripes and runed plate as he motioned his head towards the source of Rainbow's breaths. "Your subject is here, Princess Luna."

"H-Her Majesty?" Rainbow Dash dryly stammered. She gazed down at her glowing pendant, then up at the brief break in the forest canopy that allowed the lunar light to peer through. "Oh goddess, how friggin' long was I out?!"

"Several hours, Rainbow Dash."

"Oh darn it!" Rainbow winced, slapping her hooves together. "One way or another, I'm always wasting time!"

"Rainbow Dash..."

"I'm always making you wait for me, Your Majesty!" She gulped and tried sitting up. "How much time do I have left?"

"Shhhh..." Belle squeezed her shoulders, smiling as she eased her back down. "Not much... but don't worry. Pilate and I filled her in."

Rainbow gulped, sweating. "Ya did?"

"Verily, Rainbow Dash, your friends hath delivered an extremely detailed account of the events preceding this evening. We found it a most informative and felicitous discussion. The zebra in thy company, Pilate: his critical analysis would be priceless in the halls of the Canterlot archives."

"Heh..." Pilate shrugged and gestured a blind hoof into the air. "Just happy to be of service, Your Majesty."

"She has the utmost respect for you, Princess Luna," Belle added. "She says so all the time—"

"Hey hey hey!" Rainbow squeaked. "I'm awake now, alright?! No need to talk like I'm not here..."

Belle blushed. "Sorry. It's just, you saved our lives today." She gulped. "Again. And we know you wouldn't come out and just say something like that—"

"Oh really?" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. She blinked, then frowned. "Just how much else have you told her—?"

Luna's voice emitted something that sounded like a cough over the magical airwaves. "Fear not, Rainbow Dash. They simply regailed us with the tale of thy victory. We trust that thou wilt be heading further from Ledomaritan civilization?"

"Yeah... uhm... we're in a forest of some sort. Foxhound or something."

"Foxtaur," Pilate corrected, flipping a page of the book.

"Right. And apparently it's a really huge place. Heh. Wanna bet that next time we chat a month from now, we'll still be stuck here?"

"We trust that thy speed and resourcefulness shalt take you much further, Rainbow Dash, especially with the resources and assistances of such dependable friends. They truly hold the utmost admiration for you."

"Yeah... uhm..." Rainbow fidgeted, her ears drooping. "I'm starting to notice the pattern myself..."

Pilate and Belle exchanged smirks.

"So this is it, huh, Your Highness?" Rainbow Dash remarked, gazing sadly into the patch of starlight overhead. "Dead silence for another moon cycle? I'm not sure I can go on for that long, to be perfectly honest."

"Verily, we hath taken that into consideration, and we hope that thou wouldst not protest the actions we have decided to take."

"Huh?" Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"

"Seeing as this is the last evening that we have to converse with thee, we invited somepony into the palace to be present at such an occasion. When we heard that thou wert unconscious, we weren't sure if such an event should be delayed..."

"Well, I'm here, aren't I? What's the big deal? Just who is it?"

"A few seconds, if thou wilt..."

Rainbow Dash sat awkwardly, watching as the dim glow to her pendant shimmered briefly. There was a rustling sound, haunting, like hooves clapping against a wide hallway of stone. Then a filly's voice echoed against the trees of the place.

"Uhhh... Rainbow? Rainbow Dash?"

Rainbow Dash squinted in confusion. "Hello?"

The voice on the other end squeaked with an emotional gasp. "Oh, it's you! It really is you!"

"Uhhh... Hi there..."

"I never thought I'd get to hear you again! Oh, this is so awesome! Princess Luna was right all along! I haven't been this excited since I got my cutie mark!"

Rainbow Dash blinked... blinked... then jolted. "Scoots?"

"Hey, Rainbow!"

"Holy crap! Scoots!" Rainbow Dash sat up, her wings twitching as she smiled brilliantly into the nightly glow. "Killer! Wow... Your voice is—like—totally different!"

"Is it really? Sweetie's mom says so all the time, but I didn't believe it until you said so!"

"Sweetie? Don't you mean Sweetie Belle?"

"She only likes being called 'Sweetie' now. She thinks the 'Belle' part makes her sound like a big baby."

"Oh... well... heh..." Rainbow Dash smirked aside. "I can totally relate."

Bellesmith rolled her eyes. She scooted over and sat beside Pilate as the two smiled at Rainbow's conversation.

"In fact, Sweetie's all about looking and acting like an adult. A local talent agent heard her singing at a school play one day and got her to release a single. Ponyville's all buzzing about their newest, youngest music star."

"Screw that marshmallow and her ditzy ballads! Tell me about your talent!" Rainbow Dash leaned forward, grinning into the forest. "Gears and a wrench, huh? Who knew you were such a grease monkey?!"

"Yeah. Weird, huh? One day, my scooter got run over by a mule cart, and the stallion running the local sporting goods store said it was beyond repair. Well, I didn't buy that for one sec! I got my own toolcase and went to town! Not only did I make it as good as new, but Apple Bloom was asking me to fix her roller skates! And while I was at Sweet Apple Acres, I decided to tackle the plow that's been giving Big Macintosh a hard time over the past few months! Before I knew it, I couldn't stop tweaking or fixing things, and I nearly passed out. Then I woke up to Apple Bloom shouting her mouth off, grabbing me and hugging me. Turns out I got a cutie mark in my sleep!"

"Haaahaaahaaa!"

"What?!"

"Ohhhh that's so perfect! All that crap you went through to get that darn thing on your butt, and you get it while sleeping in axel grease!"

"Well, I got it, didn't I?! I sure as heck ain't complaining!"

"So what are you now? The town's local expert on rust buckets?"

"I don't really know yet! But every time we have a parade, I get to work on the floats to get some more practice! Cuz as I learned, getting a cutie mark isn't everything. Once you have your talent, you gotta perfect it!"

"Darn straight."

"I'm getting better and better at what I do everyday, Rainbow Dash. Just like you were all about being the best. And it feels so great, Rainbow. It really does."

"Doesn't it, though?" Rainbow Dash smirked. She slicked her mane back with a hoof. "Of course, being able to fix broken clocks doesn't even remotely stack up to flying faster than lightning, but hey—we call can't be perfect, now can we?"

"Heeheehee—Oh! Uhm... I don't think I have much time left..."

Rainbow Das winced, seeing the light in her pendant going dim. "Hey, tha's alright." She gulped and gazed back up towards the stars. "Scootaloo, promise me something."

"Anything, Rainbow!"

"I want you to round up Sweetie B—er, Sweetie—and I want you to grab Apple Bloom too. And I want you to, like, have lunch or dinner or something with them..."

"Heh. What, you think we're growing apart or something? Come on, Rainbow Dash, we're the Crusaders! We hang out all the time! We always will!"

"Yeah, well..." Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. "Just humor me, will ya?"

"Uh... okay..."

"Do you love your friends?"

"...huh?"

"What, are mechanics deaf or something? I asked if you friggin' loved them or not!"

"Well... uh... sure! I mean, of course! I totally do..."

"Then you should totally tell them that, Scootaloo," Rainbow Dash said. She inhaled sharply. "Just this once, at least, so they can—y'know—hear it and remember it and stuff."

"Uhhh... okay! Yeah, I can do that..."

The light was dimming even more.

Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes skimmed the darkness as she exclaimed, "And while you're at it! You can tell them that..." She bit her lip. "You c-can tell them that I told you that I love you too!"

"Awww... now you're just being sappy—"

"I mean it, Scootaloo!" Rainbow's voice cracked. "I love you, kiddo! You keep being awesome so I don't have to kick your butt!"

"Heeheehee... Oh, Rainbow Dash, you're the best. And if it makes you feel better, I love you t—"

The pendant dimmed.

Rainbow Dash sat, breathing heavily.

Belle and Pilate gazed in silence.

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes, inhaled long and hard, and brushed two hooves across either side of her face. After a few moments, her lips formed a calm smile, and she turned to gaze at her friends.

"Rainbow?" Pilate murmured.

"Are you..." Belle fidgeted. "Are you alright?"

"More than alright," Rainbow said softly. Her eyebrows waggled. "I'm friggin' starving!" She jumped up to the sound of her friend's dry chuckles and began pacing in circles. "Why haven't we started a campfire yet?! Did we or did we not steal some friggin' potatoes the other day?! Come on!"

Air Report

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With a grinding of his metal cast, Shell swiveled about. His eye narrowed from the glint of the rising dawn. Against the high winds, he uttered, "A centipede?"

Six stallions, bruised and frazzled, sat—slumped—on the deck of the Steel Wing after having been salvaged from the grassy plains below.

"An arthropod, Prime Enforcer, sir," one of the shivering pilots stammered. "One of gargantuan size. It came up out of the earth, summoned by the subject herself!"

"How do you mean..." Shell paced towards them as several crew ponies leaned in from their stations to listen. "...'summoned?'"

"She flew out of a deep cave precisely when we had engaged her two allies. No sooner had we noticed her, but this gigantic beast of a creature attacked us and tore our gliders to ribbons!"

"We were lucky to escape with our lives," another pilot managed. "The last we checked, the mammoth centipede was making its way into Foxtaur."

"Where the subject and her two pony companions had retreated?" Shell asked.

"Affirmative, sir," one pilot said, nodding.

Another exclaimed in fright, "It must be the chaos inside of her! If she can command creatures of the underworld at her leisure, then there's no telling how many armies it will take to—"

"Let me be the stallion to strategically assess the situation," Shell said. "For all we know, this was simply a case of extreme coincidence."

"She's not of this world, Prime Enforcer," one pilot said with a trembling sensation. "I'm telling you, we need an entire armada to take her out!"

"We'd have better luck defeating the Xonans than her!" another said.

Shell exhaled slowly, his face stuck in an iron scowl. He glanced over at Captain Filta.

Filta glanced back. He blinked, then suddenly woke up to the stupidly huge number of crew members who were frozen in place. "I'm sorry, did the Queen grant us shore leave?! Back to your posts, you lazy cloud kickers!"

The ponies jolted, galloping back to their stations, resuming the tiresome task of hauling up the shredded remains of the crashed gliders.

Sighing, Filta turned and spoke in a low voice to Shell. "I assure you, Prime Enforcer, that my stallions are not prone to exagerration. We've fought creatures across the countryside of the Confederacy before, but this tale? I'm not sure what to make of it. What if there is some truth to the account? What if this flying pony is capable of calling on powers that are beyond us?"

"Simple," Shell droned. "We become more powerful."

"I fear that my crew and the stallions of the other two ships do not have the firepower to combat an army of giant centipedes."

"Then it is a good thing that I am currently taking responsibility for them and not you." Shell paced over to the edge of the ship, squinting towards the east side. "What situation calls for is clear-headed thinking. Even if the subject was to become ten times more powerful overnight, we still have the resources, the lay of the land, and the firepower to make her escape from Ledomare an improbable scenario."

"If she's made it into Foxtaur, then we have problem," Filta said. "That forest is denser than anything this side of the warfront. The Council has only granted us three warships. That's not enough to cover all avenues of exit from the thick woods."

"Then we use every edge that we can," Shell said. "We already have one." He pivoted on his metal cast and spoke down towards the lower deck beyond a steep set of steps. "Enforcer Josho. Is there anything that your... present skills can lend us?"

"Unnngh..." The rotund stallion leaned against a set of barrels, rubbing his strobing horn. "Potatoes and bread. Mild spices. Could sure use a campfire and a kettle..."

Shell took a deep breath to calm himself. "Locations, Josho. I need any visions of landmarks you may be getting."

"Clusters... of Southern Oak," Josho mumbled. He stared blearily at the two officers. "Brown vines... almost rust red. West Xonan moss..." His eyes widened. "Most of the trees around them are dead or dying. It's like they're in nature's latrine."

Filta spoke up to Shell, "There's a line of petrified oak reported two leagues north of the nearest edge to Foxtaur. That could be a place to start."

Shell nodded. "Send the Steel Wing to fly over that spot, and have our two accompanying vessels fly fifteen leagues north and south. Once we've prepped the other gliders, we'll run recon between the three warships. I want a visual from an eye in the sky before we drop any troops down in those spark-forsaken woods."

"Aye, sir."

"Also, Captain." Shell stole Filta's gaze with a hardened stare. "I am no stranger to the exagerrated tales that air crew stallions are prone to making. The less said about this... arthropod incident, the better."

"I understand."

Shell's nostrils flared as he gazed off towards the glowing east horizon. "The last thing we need is for the common Ledomaritan public to get wild ideas about our mission out here."

Enter Roarke

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"Bam! Just like that!" A tipsy patron slapped the tabletop and motioned with his mug towards the poster plastered against the nearby wall. "She summoned a gigantic centipede! Straight from the earth!"

"No way!" The stallion across from him in the hazy, dim-lit tavern sipped from his glass, belched, and gestured. "I heard it was a herd of manticores! Just like the ones that took out that batallion of Enforcers out west where she emerged!"

"I'm serious! It was a giant centipede! Or a millipede! Or some other underground demon spawn bug thing!" The patron hiccuped and pointed once more at the wanted poster, where several stallions from all walks of Ledomaritan life stood, crowded under flickering yellow lanternlight. Ambient violin music played over a mana-powered sound system that crackled through the crowded bar. "I'm telling you, they should totally raise the bounty on that winged pony! Twenty thousand of the Queen's bits isn't enough to try lassoing that kind of fugitive crap from out of the sky!"

"Heck, I wouldn't walk a mile for two of the Queen's bits?"

"Ohhhhhhhh I see what you did there."

"Hah hah hah! Hey barkeep! Another mug of Antelope Brew—!"

"Word is out that a posse is forming in Blue Nova," the drunken stallion said with a smiling slur. "They're gonna grab a zeppelin, fly south, and see if they can catch this blue vixen themselves!"

"Why such a hurry?"

"Cuz the Queen's got her Enforcers out there combing the forests for the freaky mare!"

"Stil? Even after a bunch of centipede-riding manticores nearly killed a hundred of the Queen's special guard?"

"Nah, man, it was more like two hundred!"

"Where the heck do you get all of your crappy info from?"

"Same place you do, bub! Somepony knows somepony who knows somepony who sleeps with somepony who listens to the Enforcer chatter over the manawaves! There's a friggin' horse-hunt going on in the south, and nopony wants the rest of the Confederacy to know about it! I'm telling you, whoever this winged freak is, she's gotta be super dangerous... and worth way more than the reward they're offering!"

"So, what, you going to join that posse in Blue Nova or something?"

"Heck no! I like my life too much to throw it away!"

"Yeah, you just keep saying that to the bottom of your mug."

"Heh heh heh... Hey, the Queen's not gonna get all of my coins? You know what I'm saying? Some of us just have to look out for ourselves—"

Just then, there was a flurry of cold air. The tavern door swung open, and every single soul inside the place froze upon the sight of an equine figure clad in red and black metal armor. The place turned dead quiet—even the music was cut off. With hissing steam and clanking footsteps, the armored pony marched solidly into the place.

The figure wasn't alone. With little grace, it shrugged its flank and—with a whip of a long, metal, prehensile tale—deposited a groaning stallion bound in shackles onto the floor against the front row of bar stools.

Several patrons stood up and trotted quietly away from the sight of the groaning, hoof-cupped stallion. The unfortunate soul let out a low moan and collapsed, unconscious. The bartender peered over the counter and sighed.

"Roarke, please..." The old pony beheld a tired expression reflected in the glossy surface of the armored equine's helmet. "For once, could you not toss your... your 'spoils' onto my tavern floor like yesterday's garbage?"

The air snapped from the sound of the figure's metal tail retracting into its armored flank. With a hiss of steam, it tilted its helmet over to glare at the bartender. "Just relax, Smitty." The pony's voice had a metallic ring beneath the obscuring helmet. After a heavy, resonating breath, it finished with, "In less than an hour, the Queen's Finest will be rolling by to grab this sack of Xonan-sympathizing filth, and I'll be collecting enough to pay of my tab. So make like a good breeder and give me the usual nectar."

Wincing, the bartender nodded, shuffling backwards. "Right. Sure thing, Roarke. Whatever you say, Roarke."

Leaning back against the bar, Roarke glared at everypony else at the bar. The stallion by its side stirred slightly, so it slapped him hard with a metal-laced hoofed so that he went out like a light again.

The two ponies at the table gulped and tried to ignore the armored figure. They cast each other nervous smiles as they continued their conversation.

"So, how many airships has the Council of Ledo sent after this thing?"

"Six, at least. I'm sure of that."

"All just to catch one pony?"

"This is a pony with wings that we're talking about. Can you imagine if there's a whole race of them?"

"I bet the Queen would want to make first contact before the Xonans. They'd be an exceptional edge to the war effort."

"Not to mention really flippin' scary. I mean, a mare with wings?! That just means more crap in the way!"

"Hahaha... You suppose the freak has feathers or leather?"

"You wanna know what I think?"

"What?"

"Flaming bands—like a demon!"

"I think you should just take a barrel of that stuff home and sleep with your own stupid ideas."

"I mean it! How else could she have summoned creatures of the underworld!"

All the while, Roarke was craning its neck. The figure's helmet tilted to the side. Then, with a gust of steam, it stomped forward on heavy hooves. Several drinkers stood up and got out of the bounty hunter's way. Others froze in mid-sip of their mugs, staring timidly. Golden lanternlight flickered off the polished surface of its full body armor as it approached the wall and shoved several yelping ponies aside. Leaning forward, the pony within the immaculate shell breathed deeply, studying the descriptions of the "blue-winged monstrosity" and the scant details that there were to illustrate it.

"I'm telling you," the one drunkard muttered, careening in his seat. "This is by far the most dangerous thing that's crossed our countryside since the last Xonan incursion! I honestly doubt a posse of a thousand stallions could take this sucker out!"

Roarke turned to glance at the pony. Turning back, it stared at the poster once more. A hoof reached up and snapped off the lower piece of its helmet. Steam billowed out from the metal muzzle-piece, revealing a brown chin studded in equadistant spaces with metal plugs. A pair of lips curved until they smirked devilishly.

"Hmmm..." A feminine voice hoarsely uttered. "Now this is more like it..."

Exposition Woods

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"What I can't wrap my head around is the fact that you found another pegasus inside that cave," Bellesmith said.

"I'm still betting it's a bored earth pony that got into a wrestling contest with an albatross," Rainbow Dash said from a low hover.

"That's not very likely," Belle replied with a thin glare.

"A giant centipede is not very likely."

"How many times have you run into giant creatures in caves?" Belle remarked as she, Rainbow Dash, and Pilate shuffled under the dimly-lit canopy of Foxtaur Forest. They navigated brambles and low-hanging vines and bowing trees. "And the one time you stumble into something that's remarkable beyond measure, you play it off like it's nothing!"

"Hey! I scavenged the book from there!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed with a wave of her hooves. "That counts for something, right?"

"And a remarkable book it was," Pilate remarked as Belle reached back to help him scale a bumpy series of exposed roots. "Full of alarmingly detailed illustrations and maps."

"Yeah, you got a good look at that thing, didn't ya?" Rainbow exclaimed.

"Indeed." The zebra smiled blankly. "Now if only I could have interpreted it."

"You mean not a single word inside that thing caught your attention?"

"Oh, several bits caught my attention, alright," Pilate said with a nod. He spoke solidly into the dense forest air. "I saw several symbols that I had studied before in Blue Shelf. Some carry more gravity than others. What intrigues me the most is one reoccuring symbol, one that you said was on a piece of clothing located near the body of the winged pony, if I'm not mistaken."

"Oh, right. That thing." Rainbow Dash nodded from above. "Yeah, the pony had a swell hoodie of sorts. The symbol was on that."

"Just what we need," Belle muttered with glazed eyes. "More symbols."

"I can only imagine if it's something of special significance," Pilate thought aloud.

"Probably the Secret Cabal of Zadubadabu or somecrap," Rainbow Dash uttered with rolling eyes.

"You may not be that far off."

Rainbow squinted down at him. "You're kidding, right?"

"I only mean to say that it most likely is an organization of sorts," Pilate said, briefly stumbling over a cluster of twigs as Belle caught him. "Erm... or at least it was."

"Was?"

"There's no telling just how old that skeleton was, or what it was doing inside that cave."

"There were symbols carved into the wall besides where the body was lying, right?" Belle said.

"Yeah." Rainbow Dash nodded. "Seems like a lousy way to go."

"I seriously doubt that the pony went down there completely by accident," Pilate said. "If I had my guess, I'd say it was a purposeful expedition."

"To what end?" Bellesmith remarked. "What would bring a pegasus pony so far into ancient Ledomaritan country?"

"What has brought Rainbow Dash so far?"

Belle glanced up at Rainbow, then squinted at Pilate. "Beloved, you don't think... you don't think that—"

"Another Austraeoh?" Pilate shook his head. "I doubt it. That would belittle Rainbow's significance as the 'spark.' Though, stranger things have happened."

"Well, one thing is for sure." Belle smiled up at their guide. "Rainbow Dash is one of a kind."

Rainbow Dash belched. She scratched her left armpit and squinted up at the forest canopy.

Belle sighed and trotted alongside Pilate. "Checks and balances, I suppose..."

"Someone explain to me again why we're just trudging around in this dank and dark forest," Rainbow uttered. "I have a good mind to hoist each of you under a foreleg and take us the easy way to the far side."

"Rainbow, you saw those flying unicorns who attacked us!"

"Yeah? So? The centipede kicked their butts! Then I kicked its butt!"

"That's not the point!" Belle frowned. "The Enforcers not only know which direction we've taken through the countryside, but they're sending scouts by air to find us!"

"And...?"

"And... we have the Foxtaur Forest acting as a means of masking our trail!" Belle smiled. "I know how much you wanna whisk us to safety, Rainbow, but we gotta lay low for a bit. You may be able to show a giant arthropod who's boss, but an entire Ledomaritan army?"

"Come on! We can take them!" Rainbow Dash grinned wide.

Bellesmith merely glared at her.

Rainbow sighed and folded her front limbs in a limp over. "Fine. At least let's figure out what that stupid book's about. I'm bored."

"I'm not sure that's possible," Pilate said. "I'd need access to a huge library of ancient languages, the likes of which could only be found in hidden archives protected by the Council of Ledo."

"Oh right," Rainbow Dash said with a shudder. "You told me about their dumb phobia of—like—old languages and stuff."

"Also, we really need to give O.A.S.I.S. a rest," Belle added.

"What for?" Rainbow Dash asked with a quizzical expression. "I got the glowy crystals that you needed, right?"

"It's of no use to us until we find a unicorn who can transfer energy into the implant in Pilate's skull," Belle explained. She blushed. "Erm... a unicorn with a horn, that is."

"Ahhhhh. Okay." Rainbow gazed ahead of them. "Guess you're in for a long, dark hike, Pilate."

"I don't mind one bit!" Pilate said with a grin. "I find the forest air invigorating."

Belle giggled and nuzzled him. "Only you, beloved. Only you."

"Besides..." Rainbow Dash yawned and flew upside down in a reclining pose. "What are the friggin' odds we'd run into a unicorn lame enough to be hanging out in a place like this?"

Eagle Eye

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Elsewhere, the golden bands of sunlight scattered through the hanging leaves of Foxtaur, casting a platinum spotlight on a tuft of flowers atop which a single monarch butterfly gracefully perched. Its amber wings bent the light around it as the delicate insect fiddled with the silken petals of a blooming red clover.

Behind it, like rising moons, a pair of violet eyes came into focus, followed by a gentle smile. Squatting down low, a young stallion with a smooth, lavender coat stealthily approached the lone butterfly. Licking his lips, he concentrated and focused a beam of magic through his horn. Silken, violet tresses danced in an air of magic as he levitated a pad of paper on one side of his mane and a stick of graphite on the other.

"Okay... please... please... pleeeeease don't get scared off like the last dozen of your siblings," he said in a wavering pitch, his rounded muzzle haloed by a sheen of nervous sweat. Quietly, so as not to disturb the insect's pollinating, he scratched a swift sketch onto the paper floating beside him. "At least not before I get to capture this moment in all its brilliance."

The monarch butterfly pivoted slightly, as if to regard the unicorn with its beady black eyes. Then, as swiftly as it had stopped, it resumed its motions atop the pink flower.

The stallion stifled a foalish giggle, almost finished with his sketch. "Oh, thank Goddess! You have no idea how much this means to me. There are so few beautiful things left in this country, and you're one of them. Yes you are!" he cooed. "Yes, you most certainly—"

A shrill whistle flew through the air, like a songbird in its death throes. The leaves overhead shook, and the fateful vibrations ultimately scared the fluttering monarch away.

The pony stood there in a stupor, blinking. Slowly, a burning red came to his lavender cheeks as he hissed, "Now?! Oh, you gotta be flippin' kidding me!" Groaning, he shoved the pencil and paper into his black vest pockets, then fumbled over towards a bush where a set of weapons were lying. "Unnnngh... I picked the worst week to be sober!"

Frowning, the petite unicorn levitated a sword and shield and fastened them to the saddlepiece of his vest. Then, with remarkable swiftness, he galloped through the woods, jumping and hurdling over underbrush. Rodents ran into hiding and flocks of doves flew into the kaleidoscopic canopy as he made his way into the thick of Foxtaur, following the sound of the shrill whistle as it grew louder and louder in his twitching ears.

Soon, he had made his way to the base of a ridiculously thick tree. Panting, he stood on a disturbed cluster of leaves right where a partially obscured length of rope was fastened tightly to a wooden stake positioned below him.

"Ungh, what is this, a joke?" He pouted, glaring with hot violet eyes into the surrounding thickets. "I could have sworn I heard the signal."

"You did, Eagle Eye," uttered a deep voice from behind.

"Aackies!" Eagle Eye flinched, pressing himself against the tree. He panted heavily as a much taller unicorn shuffled out of the thick forest. "Zenith!"

"Shhh!" Zenith frowned, telekinetically sheathing a polearm into his saddlepiece as he marched up beside the smaller pony's side. "Don't shriek so loudly."

"Yeah, well, don't scare me so... so... stupidly!" Eagle Eye hissed.

"Ungh, just try to shriek like a filly a little less," Zenith said with a groan as he approached the disturbed patch of leaves where Eagle Eye was standing. He kicked some of the weeds and moss away with his hooves. "Phoenix is making enough racket as it is with his stupid signal."

"You think it's something important?" Eagle Eye gulped, trying his futile best to hide a series of trembles up his lavender spine. "Like... maybe the Enforcers have found us?"

"Meh. I'm sure it's nothing," Zenith spat and pulled a dagger out of his vest. "Probably just a canis minor that wandered out of its den. So quit your worrying, princess."

Eagle Eye frowned. "Look, Zenith. I've been in as many scuffles as you. I think I'm battle-hardened enough at this point for you not to call me prin—"

"Whatever." Zenith sliced the rope with the dagger. A second rope sprang into being, attaching a hidden wooden platform beneath them to a dangling net of weights high above. As the net fell, the platform beneath the two ponies soared up, sending them flying high towards the uppermost branches of the tree.

In less than ten seconds, they ascended to a series of wooden walkways fastened haphazardly to the tree's summit. Once the platform reached the top, it latched into place. Zenith calmly glanced down from where he was sheathing his dagger.

Eagle Eye was clinging to him, his eyes clenched shut from the harrowing ascent. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and chuckled nervously.

Zenith nearly shoved him over the platform's edge before marching towards the far end of the lofty walkway. "Mmmf. You're pathetic."

"H-hey! Am not!" Eagle Eye fumbled to trot after him. "I'll have you know I was out scouting like Crimson ordered!"

"Scouting for what?" Zenith remarked with a smirk cast over his shoulder. "Butterflies?"

"I... but... it... that..." Eagle Eye's violet eyes crossed. He stamped his hoof. "No!" Fidgeting, he followed Zenith, all the while keeping a tentative distance from the winding platform's creaking edge. "I'll have you know that I was... uh... faithfully minding the edges of our camp for signs of the Council of Ledo having sent reconaissance ponies to track our whereabouts!"

"You were making more damned sketches of nature and you know it."

"So what if I was?!" Eagle's voice cracked as he tripped over a knot of wood and nearly plummeted over the edge. Gulping, he straightened his silken mane and hurried after Zenith. "When we and the guys get back to Franzington, I wanna have a chronicle of our journeys that—for once—isn't full of blood and gore!"

"You enlisted in the Blades Guild," Zenith droned, ducking an errant branch of leaves as the two unicorns approached the source of the shrill whistling. "You should have expected nothing but blood and gore."

"Yeah, well, I was—pfft!" Eagle Eye spat out a few leaves as he failed to duck the branch. "Ahem—I was young and stupid then!"

"You're still young and stupid."

"But I know how to look after myself!"

"You mean you know how to condition your mane!"

"Hey!" Eagle Eye frowned. "At least I'm doing something about the lice!"

"Yeah. You're attracting them with that ridiculous shine."

"What? No! It's driving them away! Honest—"

"Shhhh!" Zenith hissed, climbing up a series of wooden rungs onto the topmost platform. "We can talk fru-fru fashion later. Let's see what all the hubub is about..."

Eagle Eye hesitated at the base of the ladder, gazing melancholically aside as he smoothed his mane back. "So what if I like the shine?" he muttered, the ascended after his comrade.

On the top platform, a mustached stallion with a dark coat sat, planting a pair of hooves over his mouth as he whistled shrilly into the air over the expansive Foxtaur canopy.

"Put a sock in it, Phoenix!" Zenith grumbled from behind the equine sentry. "We're here already!"

The stallion spun around, levitating a spiked mace. He blinked at Zenith. "About time you got here. This is big stuff."

"It'd better be. You're liable to attract all of Ledomare with that stupid birdsong crap."

"How else was I to get you guys up here?"

"Throwing rocks is a start."

"Oh, whatever, Zenith." Phoenix glanced over and smirked at the ladder. "Good afternoon, princess."

"For the last time, don't call me—" Eagle Eye gasped as he slipped from the ladder.

Zenith was already stretching a hoof out to catch him. Rolling his eyes, he gave his limb a firm yank and dragged Eagle Eye beside the two.

"Erm..." Eagle Eye bit his lip and straightened his vest. "Th-thanks..."

"So where the heck is Crimson?" Phoenix whispered, scanning the emerald horizon of leaves, leaves, leaves. "He's got the sharpest ears of all of us."

Zenith shrugged. "Odds are he's entrails-deep in another kill."

"Ugh, I swear, if I have to eat another boar tonight, I'm gonna drown myself in Eagle Eye's conditioner."

"Come on, guys!" Eagle Eye hissed back at the larger stallions. "It's not poisonous!"

"What, you've tested it yourself enough to know?"

"You two could use some of it yourselves! It'll drive the lice away!"

"Not to mention get a healthy shine," Zenith said, winking at Phoenix.

"And what's wrong with that?" Eagle squeaked.

The other two laughed into the high canopy winds.

"Guys... knock it off! I mean it—"

Just then, the entire platform swayed from a heavy body landing in their midst. A muscular stallion had just swung in on a rope system. Tossing the thing away with a flicker of telekinesis, the stubble-chinned warrior glanced at the others, adjusted the heavy hammer on his back, and trotted into the center of the platform. "Well, at least you're all punctual. Wish I could say that you were silent as the wind, but that'd be insulting the wind."

Phoenix glanced apologetically. "Look, I was only making sure you could hear—"

"Try throwing rocks next time."

"That's what I said—!"

Zenith planted a hoof over Phoenix's lips and smiled the leader's way. "Thanks for as smart as always, Crimson."

Phoenix spat Zenith's limb out and sighed. "Waiting on your word, Crimson."

"Uhhm..." Eagle Eye fidgeted beside the others, making an extreme effort to look anywhere but at the leader's chiseled facial features. "Reporting f-for duty, Crimson," he said with a touch of the same color to his cheeks.

Crimson glanced at his three subordinates. His eyes briefly rested on Eagle Eye. He groaned, but resumed pacing as he spoke. "No doubt, Phoenix's cry is about the object in the sky."

"Wuh oh," Zenith muttered, blinking between Crimson and the mustached stallion. "We got another scorpius trying to make a home in Foxtaur?"

"Idiot," Phoenix grunted. "Scorpiuses can't fly."

"Yeah, but they can fall!"

"Unngh..."

"Let me guess, Phoenix," Crimson exclaimed. "West by northwest? Hanging low over the canopy?"

"It's approaching slowly." Phoenix said, pointing as the other three ponies turned to see. "At first, I thought it was a thunder cloud. Then I realized it was dipping up and down, as if with propeller blades."

"What?" Zenith made a face. "It's a battleship? This far into the wilderness?"

"A b-battleship?" Eagle Eye gulped.

"It's hard to tell from down here, but I suspect something of Ledomaritan design," Crimson said "Phoenix, could you tell?"

"All I saw was something obviously pony-driven. At the rate it's coming, it'll be here by late afternoon."

"Well, what colors are it flying?" Eagle Eye remarked. "Xonan or Ledomaritan?"

"I was hoping you'd tell us, EE," Crimson said.

Eagle Eye did a double-take. "Me?"

"You live up to your name better than the rest of us."

All three sets of stallions glanced at the smallest of the group. He fidgeted, the sunlight exposing every unquestionable angle of his "spyglass" cutie mark. With a shuddering sigh, he said, "Alright. Phoenix, if you don't mind. You've got the best seat of the house."

"Yeah, don't get any ideas, Eagle Eye."

"Look, will you just move your flank!"

Phoenix chuckled, until Crimson glared at him. With ears drooping, the mustached sentry surrendered his chair. Eagle Eye hopped up and stood on his hind legs, leaning on a branch to stay upright. He squinted hard, studying the incoming bogey from the west. The high wind kicked at his silken mane, but still he didn't move.

"You see anything yet?" Phoenix asked.

"Let the stallion do his thing," Crimson uttered.

"Maybe he got too much conditioner in his eyes," Zenith muttered. A muscular forelimb slapped across his horn. "Ow! Come on, boss!"

"Shhh..."

Finally, Eagle Eye blinked. "Blue crest... silver emblems... what looks to be... the Queen Ledo's profile. But then..." He leaned forward, his eyes reduced to thin slits. "There is a figure on the bow... a bird of sorts." His eyes darted slightly. "The port side and starboard sides have silver illustrations... and the hull of the gondola is steel-reinforced!"

"Then it's as I thought," Crimson said in a breathy voice. "They sent the Steel Wing."

Phoenix almost pratfalled off the platform. "The Steel Wing?!"

"That's the biggest ship in the Ledomaritan Armada," Zenith added. He scratched his head and squinted. "Do they really wanna find us that bad?"

"Maybe it's because of that incident in the Upper Xonan Heights," Phoenix said. "They never did punish us for disobeying orders."

"Phoenix, the only reason they never punished us is because we galloped too quickly for them to catch!" Zenith said. "You can't punish whom you can't control."

"But they must be pissed that we've been gone for so long! There were twelve of us total who went AWOL!"

"And there're only four of us now! We mean nothing to them!" Zenith gestured towards the western edge of Foxtaur. "This makes no sense!"

"Perhaps it's not us whom they're looking for," Crimson thought out loud.

The other unicorns looked at him.

Eagle Eye hopped down from the seat, gazing up at the leader. "If not us... then for who, Cr-Crimson?"

"Something's coming this way," Crimson said. "A group. A pack, perhaps. It's disturbed several of the animals, and I've felt... a magical presence, as if there's a leyline entanglement nearby."

"Unicorns?" Phoenix raised an eyebrow. "On the run from the Ledomaritan Army?"

"But why would they come into Foxtaur of all places?" Eagle Eye asked.

"If they're that desperate to flee Enforcers, then maybe that explains why the Queen's Force is desperate enough to send a friggin' battlecruiser after them," Zenith said.

"Whatever the case, something is leading that thing towards us," Phoenix said. "And once they find our little merry hideout..." He bit his lip.

Zenith sighed and smirked sardonically. "I've always wanted to have a neck extension."

Eagle Eye shuddered. He looked nervously at the others. "Well, we gotta pack up! We gotta relocate the camp until winter comes to give us a good escape route to the south!"

"What we need to do right now is not panic," Crimson said. "We don't even know if this leyline entanglement is the reason for the Steel Wing being here."

"But it wouldn't hurt to check!" Phoenix exclaimed.

"Indeed." Crimson nodded. "This is what we'll do. We'll break up into two groups. Zenith? You and Phoenix flank the equines from the north. EE?"

"Yes?"

"You're with me."

Eagle Eye blinked, his ears drooping. "I-I am...?"

"We'll approach them from the treeline. If they don't prove a threat, we'll subdue them swiftly for questioning."

"I... I..."

Crimson glared. "I need you to be clear-headed, EE. One small slip-up, and our covern will be blown."

"Heh, good luck with that, boss," Phoenix said before sliding down a ropeline, followed by a snickering Crimson.

"Yeah, well... you guys... uhm... smell!" Eagle Eye barked down at the retreating pair. He adjusted the sword and shield on his spine with a huff. "Can't believe I don't friggin' poison their stew everynight..."

"Listen, don't pay those morons too much attention," Crimson said, laying a hoof gently on the petite unicorn's shoulder. "They don't know how much you've given for our Guild. If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have made it as far into Foxtaur."

"Uhhhh..." Eagle Eye glanced between Crimson and his hoof on his shoulder. He chuckled nervously, his upper neck flush-red. "Well, I was just... y'know... doing everything th-that you taught me, Crimson! Eheheh..."

"Look at me." Crimson said, staring firmly. "What we've learned in the field, we taught ourselves. I only showed you the way. I promise, one way or another, we're gonna get out of this stupid Confederacy."

Eagle Eye bit his lip, glancing aside with a melancholic breath. "There's no going back to Franzington for me, boss. You kn-know that...."

"Still. You'll get out, and you'll be alive. Which—as it turns out—is all that matters in this world. Now... can I count on you to keep your head in the game."

Eagle Eye took a deep breath. He stood up straight. "Sir, yes, sir."

"No need to be formal. Just be smart." Crimson prepared to slide down a ropeline to another series of platforms. "You're a lot smarter than you give yourself credit."

Eagle Eye beamed. "Even smarter than Zenith?"

"Let's... do things one hoof at a time, EE."

The stallion sighed as Crimson slid away. "Right." By himself, he muttered into the air. "Way to go, Eagle Eye. Really professional. Just run up and hug him, why don't you—"

"You coming, EE?"

"Oh! Uhm... Absolutely!" The small stallion gripped onto the rope. "Right after you, boss!"

Eagle Eye grabbed onto the rope, stepped off the platform, and immediately slipped. He fell—shrieking—through several snapping twigs before landing haphazardly on a jutting branch below.

"You alright?"

"I'll..." Eagle Eye wheezed and grunted as he climbed down the tree. "I'll be about five minutes—Gaah!" He slipped again.

Precious Wings

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"For real? You never saw a single one before me?"

Pilate and Bellesmith both shook their heads. "Mmmm-mmmm..."

"But, like, you heard of them before, right?"

"Only in legend," Pilate said. "It's just like we knew that alicorns existed."

"And evidently they still do," Belle added.

"True." The zebra nodded as they gradually trotted into an open clearing in the bushes. "But just as with alicorns, pegasi have not been witnessed in Ledomare for several ages."

"I wonder why that is?" Rainbow Dash remarked, shrugging as she hovered along. "And, y'know, this goes for most of the lands I've visited since I set out from Equestria."

"Uh huh..."

"It's like nopony's ever seen or heard of a winged pony before. I mean... heh..." Rainbow Dash smirked. "I don't mind the attention and dropping a few jaws here or there..."

"A few...?" Belle remarked with a raised eyebrow.

"Okay, a lot of jaws!"

"Heeheehee..."

"But I also kind of always wanted to wow ponies by... y'know... by being me. There's more to me than just being a pegasus."

"You're just a really fast, colorful pegasus." Belle flippantly uttered.

Pilate leaned in. "I'll have to believe you on the 'colorful' part."

"Oh hush."

"Pegasi have always kept to themselves, I guess," Rainbow Dash said with a shrug. "I just kind of thought we would have branched out in the world more."

"Right..."

"Most of our major cities are built to be moved around via the winds. So, I'd think that there'd be a major cloud community of pegasi hanging out somewhere in the world, shooting the breeze, keeping it real..."

"You mean like the lost city of Stratopolis?"

"Stratopolis is a myth," Rainbow Dash droned.

"Maybe there's something about pegasi in general," Bellesmith said. "Something that makes them rare... hard to find..."

"Or—heck—maybe when I reach the end of the world, I'll see a whole bunch of them all gathered together, running a super cool empire that runs on radicalness and awesome!"

"Or maybe they're just endangered," Pilate mused.

"Pilate!"

"What? I'm just being realistic!"

"Hey, I'm cool with that too." Rainbow Dash shrugged and smiled. "I don't mind being one of a kind, so long as ponies admire me for more than my wings."

"The way you speak, you make it sound like you want to make a huge impression on the world, Rainbow," Belle said, amusedly.

"Hey! Some things can't be helped." Rainbow Dash rubbed her blue tummy. "Lunch, on the other hoof, is another story."

"I'm inclined to agree," Belle said. She paused in her tracks and gestured towards the sunlit space between thick clusters of trees. "This seems like a nice place for a rest before we approach nightfall."

"We only have so many loaves of bread left, beloved," Pilate said in a neutral tone. "Wouldn't it be best if we conserved a bit?"

"I think I've got the right solution!" Rainbow Dash grinned, hovering low beside her friends. "I saw some fruit trees about twenty minutes back."

"Fruit?"

"At least I think I did." Rainbow Dash rubbed her chin, then brightened. "Tell you what, I'll speed on over there and come back lickety-split! Should be nice to bite into something sweet for once after all that stale bread."

"Hey, it's the stale bread you had us steal, remember!"

"Right! And I'm gonna make it up to ya! Just sit down, have a breather, and I'll be back before you can quote the Ledomaritan Pledge of Allegiance or whatcrap."

"But... uhm... we don't have a Pledge of—"

"Just sit your stupid flanks down! Goddess!" Rainbow Dash blurred away.

"Careful!" Belle shouted after her as she and Pilate squatted in the warming sunlight. "Don't fly too high! Keep using the foliage as cover!"

"I'll look both ways before crossing the forest too! Yeesh!" And Rainbow Dash was gone in a flurry of chuckles.

"You know..." Pilate began—

"Yes, yes..." Belle sighed. "So help me if I worry about her all the time."

"I think it's charming," Pilate said. "But I doubt she would."

"Perhaps it's karma, Pilate."

"In what way?"

"Rainbow's done nothing but worry about us for so long." Belle smiled as she brushed an errant leaf or two out of the zebra's mane. "Don't you think it's about time she let it rest?"

Soldier On

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"I don't get it," Eagle Eye said.

"Shhh!" Crimson insisted.

Biting his lip, Eagle Eye crouched low on his branch. Perched next to the muscular stallion, the petite unicorn leaned over and whispered, "I don't get it. You said you sensed an entanglement of leylines. I only see one unicorn, and her horn's shattered." He blinked his violet eyes. "Plus, she hasn't brushed her mane in over a week."

"I don't think it's the unicorn," Crimson said, pointing from their lofty hiding place above the forested clearing. "I believe it's the zebra."

"What does he have to worry about? His mane is naturally straight."

"EE..."

"Erm... S-sorry, boss," Eagle Eye stammered, his lavender ears drooping. "Is he a magical equine? I've heard of several hoofed creatures to the west who are capable of wielding magic even though they have no horn."

"Look for yourself. I can't exactly tell what's on his forehead."

Eagle Eye crept forward on the edge of his branch. Squinting, he murmured aloud, "A black tattoo—no, that's metal. It's a plate, and there are inscriptions on it."

"Runes..."

"Pardon?"

"Ponies to the north practice runeforging," Crimson said. "It's said to imbue a wielder with magical powers, connecting them to an otherwise inert leyline."

"So, he's, like, a magical zebra?"

"That's one way to put it."

Eagle Eye shifted the weight of the sword and shield on his vested flank. "Could he... could he pose a threat?"

"There's no real way to tell," Crimson spoke aloud, looking at the area around the clearing. "They must be capable of defending themselves if they made it all the way here on their lonesome."

Eagle Eye nodded. "They'd normally be timberwolf fodder... or food for an ursa major."

"Still, I could have sworn there was another pony with them."

"Another pony?"

"Hmmmm..." Crimson rubbed his chin and gazed towards the edges of the clearing. "An escort. A guide, perhaps. Whoever it is, it's a pony who can move fast."

"Maybe it's another unicorn—but with a functioning horn! A teleporter! That could be what you've sensed... uhm, sir."

"No, it's definitely coming from that zebra," Crimson said. "I sensed it first thing this morning."

"Why can't I sense anything? Or Phoenix or Zenith for that matter?" Eagle Eye blinked. "Is it because we're not at Prime Enforcer level training?"

"I doubt you've encountered leyline entanglement before. It was used a lot in the Blue Plateau campaign."

"Ohhhhh." Eagle Eye smirked. "You always have such amazing stories to tell of liberating the Ledomaritans of that region."

"Yes, well, I learned a lot."

"You were certainly very brave."

"That'll do, EE."

"Ahem. Yes, sir..."

"Are Phoenix and Zenith in position?"

Eagle Eye squinted towards a line of trees far beyond the clearing. "Yes. Twelve o'clock and two o'clock sharp. They're staying put just like you told them to."

"Are they? I can't even see them."

"I assure you, boss, they're there."

"Astounding." Crimson gazed softly at the smaller unicorn. "Your sight never fails to amaze me."

Eagle Eye hugged the tree branch, letting loose a breathy giggle. "At least I'm good for something, right?"

"You're not as clumsy as the others say you are, EE," Crimson muttered, squinting back down at the two equines. "Not so long as you put your heart into the matter."

"Well, that's what I'm here for, sir! To give you lots of heart!" Eagle Eye saluted. "After all, you carried us three back from carnage and imprisonment! The least I can do is—"

There was a cracking sound. Eagle Eye's branch lurched several inches.

Crimson blinked widely.

Eagle Eye gulped, frozen in mid salute. "—hold on tight?"

With a sickening snap, the branch broke and Eagle Eye went sailing down to the forest floor like a lavender comet.

"EE!" Crimson hissed, gnashing his teeth.

"Gaaaaah—Ooof!" Eagle Eye landed roughly between Pilate and Bellesmith.

With a shriek, Belle hopped up to her hooves. Gasping, Pilate stood up and planted his body in front of her, tilting his ears every which way.

"Who goes there?!" the zebra shouted.

"I... uhm... I—Ow!" Eagle Eye winced, his limbs flailing as he struggled to stand. "I mean you no harm—Ow! Sonuva..."

"What in blazes?" Pilate stammered.

"Who are you?" Belle asked.

"I... I..." Eagle Eye glanced up at her, his coat bespeckled with leaves. He blinked at Belle's cranium, then murmured, "I really like your mane..."

Dashed Aside

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"Huh?" Bellesmith gawked.

"Er... What I mean is..." Eagle Eye stammered, backing away from the pair of ponies. "That is, what I'm trying to say..."

With a heavy thud, Zenith landed to Eagle Eye's right from above. "He's trying to say that he's an incompetent, namby-pamby moron who wants to burrow into your mane and hibernate there for the winter."

"Zenith!" Eagle Eye's voice cracked. "That's not what I'm trying to say at all!"

Phoenix landed on the other side, smirking. "Simmer down, princess. We'll take it from here."

"Don't call me names like that—Ungh!" Eagle Eye tossed his mane and folded his forelimbs.

"Uhm... Beloved?" Pilate murmured aside to Bellesmith as the both of them trembled. "Is it just me, or is the forest raining ponies?"

"Don't worry," Zenith droned. "As if silk saddles here wasn't already a clue, we're not here to hurt you."

"You're not?" Belle remarked.

The heaviest thud of all sounded behind them. Crimson had landed, and he was trotting slowly towards the pair. "No. We're not."

Belle yelped as Pilate shoved her aside and raised his forelimbs threateningly. "You and your freakishly deep voice stay back, Mister! I've been known to kick the cutie marks off of flanks in my day!"

Crimson calmly blinked at the zebra, noting how the stallion was glaring a noticeable forty-five degrees to the left of him. He stepped to the left so that he was in front of Pilate. "That must have been well before your eyes clouded over, good sir."

Pilate bit his lip. A gentle, golden hoof rested on his shoulder.

"Please..." Belle spoke up, her face soft and worrisome. "Just tell us what you want."

"We would like to know what brings the two of you so deep into Foxtaur," Cirmson said while pacing around the pair. "And alive, for that matter. It's not an easy feat in this... well... this neck of the woods."

"An even better question would be what you ponies are doing here," Pilate said.

"It's the longest slumber party ever," Zenith mused. "Only, instead of scary ghost stories, there are nooses begging to wrap around our necks." He smirked.

"You..." Belle squinted, her eyes darting between their unconventional weapons and their sly expressions. "You are not Enforcers?"

"Neither are we bandits, before you ask that as well," Crimson remarked. His hooves came to a stop. "If you must know, we're of the Blades Guild. We hail from Franzington to the far south. We've made a place here in Foxtaur until winter arrives to give us cover for the rest of the journey home."

"The Blades Guild...?" Belle thought aloud. "From Franzington? I don't understand. Why are you so far from your home country?"

"They're mercenaries," Pilate spat, frowning. "The province of Franzington is famous for its warrior culture that sends hundreds if not thousands of hired hooves to fight for the Confederacy."

"You make us sound like we're souless freaks!" Phoenix exclaimed. "I know our country borders Searo, but we're nothing like those metal-spined, mechanical bounty hunters!" The mustached stallion shuddered. "The Blades Guild has honor!"

"Enough honor to go AWOL..." Pilate muttered.

"Just because your eyes are blind doesn't mean your spirit must be," Crimson said. "We served the Ledomaritan Confederacy for over two years—faithfully and courageously. We saved dozens of villages from the rampaging forces of Xona. But then, in the Upper Xonan Heights, we realized that the coilition we were working for was heartless and cruel. So, we sheathed our weapons and left the army. There were twelve of us then." He swallowed hard and exhaled breathily. "There are four of us now. Some might call it cowardice, but then they are ponies who don't understand the price of honor."

"What could have been so bad that you felt compelled to leave the army after two years of fighting for them?" Belle asked.

"Undoubtedly something traumatic enough to compare with what brought you two here," Crimson said, pacing towards them. "But that is not of extreme importance. However, there is something I would very much like to address."

Belle and Pilate leaned apprehensively against each other. "What's that?"

Crimson pointed. "The zebra—he has in his possession an item of magical attunement?"

Pilate's ears twitched towards the unicorn. His metal brow furrowed. "And what if I might?"

"Since you walked into this forest, our boss has sensed something awry," Zenith spoke up.

"There's an entanglement of leylines," Phoenix added. "But your horn is curiously broken, lady. So it can't be you."

"You insist that something is wrong with O.A.S.I.S.?" Belle remarked.

Crimson raised an eyebrow. "Oasis?"

Pilate sighed. "It's the rune-empowered device that I use to read things and navigate a simple landscape. Yes, it is attuned to my leylines. But if there was something wrong with it, I would be able to tell."

"Are you sure of that?"

Pilate was still.

"Because you are being followed," Crimson said.

"Followed?" Belle gasped. "By whom?"

"The key thing is not to panic," Crimson remarked. "If you allow us, I think we can very easily clear your leylines of the entanglement. That should buy us enough time to evade those who hunt you."

"Beloved?" Belle turned and nuzzled Pilate. "What do you think, darling?"

Pilate took a deep breath, his jaw clenched. "This is all so much to take in. But what choice do we have?"

"Should we wait for Rainbow Dash to come back?"

Crimson squinted. "Rainbow Dash?"

"Hey..." Phoenix tapped on Eagle Eye's shoulder and pointed into the forest. "Hey look, fruit!"

"For the love of oats..." Eagle Eye groaned long and hard. He turned around, frowning. "How many times do I have to tell you to stop calling me—" An apple flew into his skull, impaling itself on his horn. "Buh?" A second apple slammed into his face.

Four more tore into the clearing, knocking Zenith's hooves from under him and sending Phoenix spiraling backwards.

Crimson turned and did a double-take. His horn glowed as he reached back for his massive hammer.

"Nnnnnnnnngh-Raaaaaaaugh!" A blue body slammed mercilessly into him.

"Ooof!" Crimson grunted as he was shoved, shoved, shoved across the clearing and slammed into the body of a twisted oak.

"No!" Belle shrieked. "Rainbow! Please! Don't—"

It was too late. With metallic ringing sounds, Zenith unsheathed his polearm and Phoenix twirled loose his spiked mace. Shaking the apple bits off their faces, both stallions charged at the winged pony.

With a glint to her ruby pendant, Rainbow Dash backflipped, twirled through the air, and slid down in between them. She bucked Phoenix in the side, ducked a swing of Zenith's polearm, and slammed two of her hooves across his face.

As Zenith stumbled back, Phoenix came charging with the mace in full swing. Rainbow Dash squatted on the ground and flapped her wings in reverse. She went sliding backwards, passed through Phoenix's legs, and jumped up the other side with her teeth clasping his tail.

"Waaaaaaieee!" Phoenix shrieked as he was spun-spun-spun-spun-spun in Rainbow's jaws before being ultimately flung towards a series of branches snapping overhead.

As Phoenix's body hit the floor, Zenith came back with the polearm stabbing hard at Rainbow's hooves.

Rainbow jumped up, barely missing the bladed spear's charge. The polearm embedded into the floor. Rainbow's hooves came back down and perched on it. She galloped up the length and backflipped off the end of it, bicycle kicking Zenith so hard that the stallion flew back and toppled a dying tree's trunk in half.

As the forest rained with leaves and twigs, Rainbow Dash twirled around—only to get a face full of hammer.

"Haaaugh!" Crimson shouted at the end of his throw.

Rainbow managed to dodge at the last second, but the concussive blast of the lead unicorn's hammer impacting the ground sent her flying backwards. She flailed for half a second before flapping her wings, hovering upright, and twirling in a circular arc through the surrounding tree branches.

"Rainbow, quit it!" Belle shrieked. "They were only trying to help us! Stop before you get hurt!"

Pilate tugged on Belle's mane and murmured, "I think you're talking to the wrong pony."

"Beloved—!"

"Raaaaaaaaugh!" Rainbow Dash finally dove back into the fray.

Crimson levitated his hammer up high and blocked her charge. Sneering, he pivoted the handle and slammed it across her skull.

Rainbow spun from the blast, spinning like a top in the air. She lowered her hooves and grinded them into the earth. Twirling two more revolutions, Rainbow Dash came to a stop—frowning amidst a cloud of upended grass and leaves. Spitting blood into the earth, she flexed her wings and blurred forward with a crack of thunder.

Crimson's eyes twitched.

"Nnnnnnghh—!" Rainbow Dash flew past him.

Crimson's body reeled.

Rainbow Dash inexplicably flew back from the opposite direction within the same breath.

Crimson teetered.

Again and again and again, Rainbow Dash zoomed past his body, spinning around him and knocking into him from several alternating angles.

The lead mercenary hissed and grunted, taking each blow in stride. Finally, he raised the hammer high and slammed it down into the ground before him. The blow was heavy enough to send Pilate and Belle—several feet away—sprawling to their flanks.

Rainbow Dash, however, twirled high up from the blast, coiled her wings at her side, somersaulted, and came down at Crimson like a blue missile.

Crimson looked up at the last second.

Rainbow's hooves planted against his skull and vaulted off the unicorn's cranium like a springboard. Crimson flipped backwards from the blow and landed hard in the grass besides his hammer. "Unnngh..."

With gently flapping wings, Rainbow Dash hovered down to the center of the fray. She was surrounded by bodies of groaning, dizzied unicorns. After taking several breaths, she relaxed her wings and turned towards her two friends.

"Whew. Are you guys okay—?"

A shield flew into view, ricocheting against her skull.

"Oooomf!" Rainbow Dash's body ragdolled into a thick cluster of bushes.

Belle and Pilate winced visibly.

Ringing in the air, the shield flew back into a petite unicorn's telekinetic grip. Eagle Eye stood beside Crimson's body, blinking awkwardly as he levitated the sword and shield beside him.

The bushes shook and quivered for a few seconds before a decidedly angry Rainbow Dash poked her bruised head out. Her ruby eyes glared daggers across the way at Eagle Eye.

He gulped. "Oh jeez..."

Gritting her teeth hard enough to produce sparks, Rainbow Dash leapt out of the bush, flapped her wings, and thundered straight towards the last unicorn standing.

Eagle Eye dropped his sword and held his shield out, whimpering, "Oh jeez oh jeez oh jeez oh jeez—!"

"Yaaaaugh!" Rainbow flew full-force against the mercenary's guard, slamming and bucking and thrashing her hooves across the metal material.

All the while, Eagle Eye held the shield out, meeting each blow, deflecting for all he was worth. His horn pulsed; his hooves grinded backwards in the soil. He was pushed back by Rainbow's relentless onslaught, until his back was to a spreading oak tree.

Finally, with one last swing of her pounding hooves, Rainbow knocked the shield out of his grip and pressed her forelimbs to his neck. She shoved the quivering stallion against the tree trunk and raised a hoof to cave his skull in.

"I hope you've eaten plenty of fiber for where I'm about to send your teeth, ya sniveling little—" Rainbow Dash froze. Her breaths came out in labored pants, her sweaty brow furrowing as she gazed at his violet mane, lavender coat, and purple, tearing eyes. She blinked, and the next breath came out in a pitiful murmur. "—egghead?"

Eagle Eye sniffed, blinking heavily so that a tear wouldn't come loose. "Just leave most of my body intact! I-I-I always wanted t-to be buried as a whole!"

Rainbow Dash frowned. "The hay are you going on about?"

"You've done your damage, Rainbow, okay?!" Bellesmith exclaimed from behind. "Let them be, already!"

Rainbow Dash dropped Eagle with a pitiful yelp. She spun about, frowning. "But they were gonna tear you to ribbons and stuff!"

"No they weren't!"

"I saw them with their weapons and their evil, evil soldierness!"

"They were not gonna tear us apart!" Belle exclaimed, stomping her hoof into the ground. "They're not like the Enforcers!"

"Pfft! Yeah right!"

"Do you see a single beret on any one of them?! Huh?! Do you?!"

Rainbow Dash blinked. She gazed around at the multiple, groaning, stirring stallions across the clearing. "Uhhhh..." She flapped her wings, flew into the center of the place, and reached into the saddlebag where Belle had dropped it. Grabbing one of several berets, she flew over and planted it on Phoenix's head.

"Huh...?" Phoenix finally sat up, squinting dazedly at the violet article hanging off his horn. "What the—?"

Rainbow Dash punched him viciously in the face. She spun from his collapsed body and dusted her hooves off. "There! You happy?"

"Rainbowwwwwww!"

Foxtaur Four

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"Unngh... Who ordered the anvil with wings?" Phoenix grumbled, bracing his skull as Eagle Eye leaned in with a healing salve, dabbing it against his bruised cranium. The mustached unicorn winced. "Easy there, eh, Princess?"

Eagle Eye took a deep, fuming breath. "I am being easy on you, ya sissy."

"Some talk," Phoenix whimpered, glaring across the forest clearing. "She didn't even get to lay on hoof on you, ya lucky sap."

"True." Zenith marched past the two, stretching the kinks in his neck and shoulders. He flung an errant smirk in their direction. "But Eagle did get her good with the shield."

"Heh..." Eagle Eye glanced up, brightening. "I did, didn't I?" He blinked, then winced upon feeling a dagger-sharp glare from his peripheral vision. He returned to his treating of Phoenix.

Rainbow Dash hovered several feet away besides Crimson, who was flexing the muscles in his aching jaw.

"So, like, you weren't here to rob, kill, and mutilate my friends?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"I would certainly think that we'd be past that by now," Crimson muttered. He raised his hefty hammer and sheathed it along the back of his vest. "We simply didn't know what your companions were doing here. So we approached from up high until we could ascertain whether or not they were a threat."

"So, like, why were you crowding around them and stuff?" Rainbow Dash asked, still glaring.

"They did no such thing!" Belle exclaimed with a frown. She trotted over and rested a hoof on Crimson's shoulder. "I am so sorry, sir, that you were beaten so senselessly."

"Hey! Don't apologize!" Rainbow Dash barked. "You certainly seemed freaked out at the time! This side of the country is wicked scary! I didn't know what to expect when I saw these creeps bearing down on you!"

"We weren't freaked out!" Belle retorted.

"Ahem." Pilate cleared his throat and nervously smiled. "On the contrary, darling. I recall being... physically shaken upon their arrival."

"You were just wanting to protect me, Pilate."

"And I wasn't?!" Rainbow's voice cracked.

Belle sighed and closed her eyes. "I didn't mean to suggest that—"

"And who's to know that we're still safe?" Rainbow Dash frowned and hovered closer to Crimson, squinting in his face. "How do I know that you and your bosom buddies aren't plotting to slit our throats in our sleep now that you know that we're in this forest?"

"I rightly don't blame you for being suspicious," Crimson said. "If you've been exposed to Ledomaritan forces as much as we've been—"

"And, for real! Why the lack of berets! That... That's just confusing!" Rainbow Dash shrugged her forearms as she scoffed, "Are you soldiers or aren't you!"

"If life was as simple and black and white as that, then my comrades and I wouldn't be on the run to begin with," Crimson said, trying to keep his voice calm.

"Just why did you go AWOL?" Pilate asked, his ears twitching towards the muscular stallion. "Typically, such desertion is punishable by death."

Crimson took a deep breath. He turned and gazed back at the other three soldiers.

Zenith paced about, studying the fresh dents in his polearm. Phoenix winced as the last square inches of his bruise were tended to. Eagle Eye glanced over, shifting pensively. As soon as he made eye contact with Crimson, he pretended to look away.

Crimson exhaled heavily. He swung his head towards the group and muttered, "For years, we've done what the Council of Ledo told us to do. We slew Xonans, captured hills, and burnt down forts. Then, one day, we were asked to push the front full force into Xonan territory. There were over five hundred other soldiers in our group. We were far from the nearest base and low on resources. During our march, we stumbled upon a Xonan village beyond enemy lines. The storehouses there were full of rations, but there was one problem: dozens of unarmed citizens stood in the way."

Belle stared, her mouth agape. She gulped and murmured, "You... you didn't..."

Crimson shook his head. "No. But four hundred and eighty-eight Ledomaritans did." He sighed and sat back, stretching his leg muscles. "My company and I saved a hoofful of citizens while we split from the main group, but there was very little more that we could do. We had directly defied the same orders followed by an entire army. We had decided to spare lives, and for that reason, we've been hunted, we've been slaughtered, and we are now wanted stallions. Eight soldiers have died under my command. I still have three to look after, and by my honor, I shall get them home."

Rainbow Dash fumed. She folded her arms and glanced away. "Yeah, well, we haven't exactly had it easy with Ledomare either. We just came from a place where—"

"Quite frankly, I don't care!" Crimson said, his brow furrowed. "It is of no concern of me where you're from or what crimes the Confederacy perceives you as having committed. And furthermore, I would not bother asking you in the first place to tell us."

"Then..." Pilate leaned his head curiously to the side. "Why did you tell us why you're on the run?"

"Because if that's what it takes for you to trust us, then so be it. My stallions and I are deserters; we deserve to be hanged. If that's our punishment for refusing to commit atrocities in the name of dishonorable bloodlust, then so be it, but I'll be damned if I make things easy for the ponies who are chasing us. And I'm not about to make things any easier for those who want you three dead as well. If you're enemies of Ledomare, then that probably means that you're good of heart, and you deserve a better life than being on the run."

"We're..." Belle bit her lip. "We're not sure there's anything you can do for us."

Crimson turned and pointed towards Pilate. "His mana device still needs to be freed of the leyline entanglement. Between the four of us and our horns, I'm quite certain we can sever that which binds you to your pursuers."

"That..." Pilate nodded with a gentle smile. "That would be greatly appreciated, sir."

"All I can promise to do is try. In the end, it will benefit all of us as a whole to cut the mana trail loose."

"Where do we begin?" Pilate asked.

"If you would kindly follow me," Crimson said, turning and marching east of the clearing.

Belle and Pilate followed. For a moment, however, Belle lingered. She stared up at Rainbow Dash.

The pegasus eventually turned to blink down at her. "What?!"

"Rainbow, I know that you care very deeply about Pilate and me, more than you know..."

"Yeah, and?!"

Belle sighed long and hard, but she punctuated it with a soft smile. "Just... as you get more acquainted with your heart, don't lose track of your head. After all, it's possible to think with them both and not hurt every single pony that so much as breathes on us."

"Yeah, well..." Rainbow Dash fidgeted in midair. Her gaze lingered on a lavender shape to the edge of the clearing. "I'm working on it. I promise."

"For what it's worth, thanks."

"Thanks?!"

"For being so thoughtful and brave—"

"Pfft! Don't you mean stupid?"

"I only meant to say—"

Rainbow waved her on. "Yeah yeah. Go and help Pilate with his unicorn mind delve or whatever. I'll... uh... I'll be right behind you."

Belle eventually nodded, trotting briskly off to join Crimson and her beloved.

Slowly, with icy grace, Rainbow Dash glided towards the other three unicorns. Once she had their attention, she glared liquidly at them and slurred, "I have my eyes on you, dudes. Don't try any funny stuff."

"Believe me..." Phoenix moaned. "If I tried laughing right now, I'd throw up."

"Not while you're facing me," Eagle Eye said.

"Don't tempt me."

"Say, I know you totally owned our flanks and all, but those were some wicked moves you showed earlier!" Zenith stood below Rainbow Dash, glancing up with a smirk. "I've fought Xonans, war manticores, and saboteurs. I thought I had clashed blades with the best of them, but you and your wings? Whew! You pulled off some stunts on us I've only dreamed of!" He leaned on his polearm and squinted up at her. "Where does a mare like you learn to kick butt like that?"

"Mmmmm... meh..." Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Winter Wrap Up." She flew off to join her friends.

Zenith blinked into the depths of Foxtaur. "Winter Wrap Up..." He made a face. "Doesn't sound like any sort of martial arts I'm aware of."

"She must have learned it at Eagle Eye's ballet school," Phoenix muttered.

"Yeah, she must have—Hey!" Eagle Eye pouted.

Mother Feather

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"Are you feeling any discomfort?" Crimson asked.

"Er, no..." Pilate stirred where he sat. "And you, sir?"

"We're not through the woods yet," Crimson muttered, his forehead tense with concentration as a steady stream of energy wafted from his horn and illuminated Pilate's metal plate. "Figuratively speaking, of course."

"Try not to make puns, boss," Zenith said as he strolled around their humble camp site under a shade of spreading oak trees. "It comes across like swinging that big hammer of yours inside an outhouse."

"Give me anymore lip and I'll be swinging you into outhouses."

"Wuh oh!" Phoenix smirked at Zenith. "I think we all know who's on latrine duty for the next month!"

"You know nothing, idiot." Zenith swatted his tail against the mustached pony's bruised head.

"Ow ow ow owwwwww..." Phoenix winced, then frowned at his comrade.

"Are you sensing anything yet?" Bellesmith asked, leaning in towards the meditative pair.

"Only a slight tingly sensation in my ears," Pilate said.

"Actually, I wasn't asking you, beloved. But that is good to know." Belle cleared her voice and faced Crimson's way. "The entanglement. Is it still there?"

"It most certainly is," Crimson muttered, his eyes shut. His horn strobed a few shades of gold as the muscular stallion murmured, "I'm approaching the crest of the leylines. My magical dexterity isn't quite like my physical prowess, but once I've ascertained the cluster of manastreams, I should be able to... well... dislodge it from where it's currently inhibiting your companion."

"In all honesty, it hasn't inhibited me at all," Pilate said. "I've been capable of performing normal functions with O.A.S.I.S., at least up until its charge started to run out."

"Yeah, well, this is what we'd like to call in the field a 'psychic mole,'" Zenith uttered from the edge of the camp. "Xonans used to use it all the time on us years ago, until several battle-hardened unicorns started catching onto them. The enemy would infiltrate our ranks and pollute dozens if not hundreds of minds with mental tracking devices that could let the Xonans listen in on all sorts of Ledomaritan strategies."

"That's... quite frightening," Bellesmith remarked.

"Oh, totally. But the Council of Ledo intervened. It took a dozen years or so, but they invented a countermeasure that could prevent Xonans from pulling that trick ever again."

"And what of the poor soldiers who were used against their own country of Ledomare? Were they cured?"

Zenith shrugged, rummaging through a satchel of belongings. "It's hard to say."

"Why is that?"

"Well..." He smirked bitterly. "It's hard to care about being telepathically compromising once you've been executed by a firing squad, now is it?"

Belle winced. With slight trembles, she leaned over against Pilate. Without moving, the zebra rested a hoof on her shoulder.

Rainbow Dash gazed, listening—or at least pretending to be listening. She sat in a slump atop a log of wood bordering an extinguished campfire. There was a lavender shade to her right. She glanced aside.

Eagle Eye glanced back, midway through mending the worn patches in a strip of canvas armor.

Rainbow Dash gazed back at the magical meditation session. After a few seconds, she glanced back.

Eagle Eye was meeting her gaze yet again.

With a sigh, Rainbow Dash squinted. "What are you looking at?"

Eagle Eye gulped. He said, "I was going t-to ask you the same thing."

"I'm a pony with feathers and a rainbow mane. What are you?"

"A pony who wished he had feathers and a rainbow mane." He smiled. "Seriously, do you know how lucky you are?"

"Meh. The ability to fly is super special throughout the world, it seems."

"I was talking more about your mane but... erm... whatever..."

"It's nothing special," Rainbow Dash grumbled, frowning towards the fringes of Foxtaur. "Really." She lingered in silence. Fidgeting, she stealthily raised a hoof to her bangs, felt the silky follicles, then rolled her eyes with a sigh.

"There's so much in this country that's grim and dark and decaying. It's so refreshing to see such color, such vibrance, such—"

"Do me a favor," Rainbow Dash said.

"Lemme guess," Eagle Eye murmured, his ears drooping. "Stop talking."

"As a matter of fact, the opposite of that." She looked fixedly at him. "Say 'Dear Princess Celestia.'"

Eagle Eye's teeth clenched for a moment. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"Just say it."

"Ahem... 'Dear Queen Celestia.'"

"That's not what I asked you to say."

"Look, I don't like saying the 'P' word..." He winced, glancing fitfully over his shoulders. "Especially with those meatheaded bozos always squawking around me."

"Now say 'Spike, take a letter.'"

"'Spike, take a letter,'" Eagle Eye uttered, gazing at Rainbow Dash awkwardly as if she had the plague.

Rainbow Dash rubbed her chin. She squinted, her head tilting slowly from side to side. "You have a round muzzle."

"Jee. Thanks. You have a big one."

"And you're pretty small..."

"You're not exactly a heavyweight yourself."

"And what's your name again?"

"Eagle Eye."

"Yeah, but—like—when you walk into town and go shopping someplace, ponies call you..."

"Corporal Eagle Eye."

"Yes, but, like, when you're with friends and fami—" Rainbow Dash groaned and rolled her eyes. "You know what?" She waved her hoof. "Just forget it. Forget it."

Eagle Eye blinked quizzically. "Huh?"

"It's not important. Whatever."

Eagle Eye's eyes darted left and right, then his whole body jolted. "I'm a stallion!"

"Yeah, I got that finally..."

"For real, lady!" his voice cracked. "I'm a mother feathering stallion!"

"It's just that—Snkkkkt!" Rainbow Dash almost collapsed across the campsite. "Nnngh—Did you just..." She broke through a crooked grin. "Did you just say 'mother feathering?'"

"Yeah... well..." Eagle Eye folded his forelimbs. "I don't like saying the real thing!"

"And just what is the real thing?"

"None of your beeswax, girl!"

"Hah! Smoothe. I bet you use that on all the ladies."

"Not at all! Er... I mean..." He went bugeyed and barked, "Sure I do! I mean... not lately, because of the forest and the stallions and the running and sweating for our lives and all—"

Rainbow Dash hugged herself, chuckling.

"Stop laughing!" he exclaimed, his voice reaching a high pitch again. He covered his muzzle and growled. "Rrrrgh... This is crueler than when you were beating up my friends and I!"

"Oh come on..." She breathed slower, still smirking. "I hardly touched you."

"You treated Captain Crimson like he was a punching bag!"

"Yeah, but I did a number on your other friends even worse."

"Yes. Well..." Eagle Eye fumed, staring into the dormant campfire. "You had no excuse to beat up on Crimso—er... on us like you did."

"Something tells me the bunch of you are used to getting bumps and scrapes."

"Not like this," Eagle Eye muttered. He glanced forlornly over his flank. "I've never seen Crimson take a beating like that before."

"Hey, we all have our lousy moments," Rainbow Dash remarked with a shrug. "Goddess knows, I've had mine."

"Pffft. Yeah right," Eagle Eye chuckled while rolling his eyes. "You looked like the blue sky gave birth to you. What could you possibly fear?"

"You ever been dead?"

"Uhhhhh... no...?"

"It's not pleasant, trust me."

Eagle Eye could only blink at that.

"Still..." Rainbow Dash leaned back, reclining on the log and dangling one leg over another as she sighed towards the tree canopy. "The only thing I regret about the whole 'being dead' thing is what got me there to begin with. I hate losing; I know how much it sucks. So, for what it's worth, I'm sorry that you and your friends did the opposite of winning to day... mmm... because of me."

Eagle Eye opened his mouth to say something, but he was at a loss for words. His violet eyes wandered across the site and caught a glint of light shining off of Rainbow's pendant. He looked at the ruby lightning bolt within the center of the neckpiece.

Finally, he spoke.

"You must be from a long way's away."

"Hmmm?" She looked up. "Oh. Yeah. I'm totally not from around here."

"Are you going on an adventure of some sorts?"

Her head tilted up to squint at him. "What makes you say that?"

"Because if I had wings, that's the first thing I'd do."

"Heck, dude. You're a mercenary in the friggin' army." Rainbow Dash shrugged then laid back again. "Or, at least, you were. I'm sure you've seen enough adventure to make a lifetime."

"Too much, if you ask me," Eagle Eye said, "And none of it all that... well... colorful."

"Then why the heck did you sign up to begin with?"

He shrugged. "The whole family was born into it. Franzington Guild Members have very few talents beyond using a blade or a shield."

"Yeah... heh... I can totallllllly see that you're built for gladitorial combat."

Eagle Eye glanced at her. His eyes fell to the canvas armor he was delicately sewing shut. With a groan, he tossed the scrap aside and slumped down, his forelimbs framing his drooping chin.

"I'm a good soldier. I really am..."

"Uh huh..." Rainbow Dash muttered towards the forested ceiling.

He briefly frowned her way. "For real! I may not be as smart at Zenith or as resourceful as Phoenix or... or..." His cheeks flamed up for a moment as he stared into the trees. "As st-strong as Crimson..."

"So what?"

"So..." He glanced at her again. "If I can do stuff to protect other ponies' lives, then I'm happy to do it."

"Even if it means killing a ton of other ponies to make things... y'know... 'safe?'"

Eagle Eye took a deep breath. "I may not be Ledomaritan, but I was still born on this continent and I have a duty to do. Besides, I've never expected loyalty to be a clean thing to live by."

Rainbow Dash blinked. She sat up, her wings flexing. With a slight frown, she gestured towards the stallion's companions. "Yeah, well, it seems that loyalty can run out, right?"

"Hmmm..." He smirked tiredly. "Yeah, I guess it can. Well, some of it, at least..."

"Some of it?"

"Not all loyalty has to get dirty, y'know. Loyalty to one's self... that's about as clean as it gets. Sure, Crimson and I and the rest of us turned our backs on Ledomare, but considering what they wanted us to do... and considering what we didn't do..." He straightened his violet bangs with a trembling hoof, but managed a sincere smile. "I know I'm a wanted criminal, but I've never felt so clean in my life."

Rainbow Dash stared at him. She felt a weight on her neck, and her hoof gently stroked the edges of her golden pendant. She let a warm breath out her lips and quietly murmured, "Funny how fugitives can be so lost, and yet they're the ponies who find themselves in the end, huh?"

Eagle Eye blinked at her. "Huh?"

A bright flash of light emanated from across the site. Eagle Eye gasped as a familiar figure fell onto his flank with a grunt.

"Unnngh..." Crimson stirred on the ground, his horn smoking as if it had been dipped into boiling tar. "That's certainly a wake-up call..."

"Crimson!" Eagle Eye rushed over, stopped himself at the last second, and simply squatted beside him. "Captain, are you alright?"

"I will be once the forest stops spinning."

"Looks like you took quite the tumble, Crimson," Phoenix said.

"Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Corporal Windbag," Zenith muttered his way.

"I don't understand!" Pilate exclaimed, sitting perfectly still and safe. "I didn't even feel a thing! What happened?"

"There was a burst of manafeedback..." Crimson stood up, dusting his legs off. "It would appear that whoever is on the otherside of the leyline entanglement, he or she has had a professional practitioner of magic buffer the junction. It's kind of a ramshackled job—as magic goes—but it's too dense for me to break through." Crimson caught his breath and bowed slightly. "I'm so sorry, Mister Pilate, but I'm not sure I can clear your connections like I had originally hoped. We're dealing with Prime Enforcer levels of magical prowess."

"Prime Enforcer?!" Bellesmith exclaimed. "That would suggest we have a huge chunk of the Ledomaritan army on our flanks!"

"I wouldn't doubt it, especially considering the battleship we have seen circling nearby."

"How could a Prime Enforcer have gotten entangled with that device's magical web thingy?" Eagle Eye asked. "It couldn't have been by accident!"

"Or, y'know, it could have been," Zenith remarked. "A really freaky accident."

"What say you?" Crimson remarked, squinting at the couple. "Have you three wanderers had a run-in with an Enforcer recently?"

Belle shook her head. "Not since we first set out from where we met Rainbow Dash—"

"Beloved, the town," Pilate quietly remarked. "The Province of Green Slope... the local sheriff..."

Belle blinked. She glanced at Pilate, at the O.A.S.I.S. sphere, then at Rainbow Dash. Slowly, she sighed and gave Rainbow a lethargic stare.

Rainbow Dash blinked. Her blue cheeks burned, and she hovered instinctually. "Eh heh heh heh..." She rubbed the back of her neck with an errant hoof. "Yeahhhh..."

"I don't get it..." Phoenix craned his neck to stare at her. "What's the deal?"

"Well, I kind of sort of maaaaaaybe threw Pilate's magical ball thingy into the horn of this really homicidal unicorn stallion..." Rainbow gulped. "Who was totally wearing a beret."

Zenith, Crimson, and Phoenix groaned.

Eagle Eye glanced at his slumped partners. "Is that a bad thing?"

Zenith waved a hoof towards Rainbow. "What it means is that Wonder Mare here may have inadvertently entangled the leylines in the first place when she decided to play lame soccer with the zebra's mana sphere!"

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash frowned. "I'm not lame when I play soccer!"

"Oh go bore a hole in your brain and let the 'idiot' pour out," Zenith scoffed. "Why not write to Queen Ledo herself and just tell her your whereabouts while you're at it!"

"I was too busy kicking your sorry flank to think about it at!"

"Let's all calm down, ponies," Crimson droned.

"Yes! Stop picking on her!" Belle exclaimed with a frown.

"Seriously!" Zenith gestured towards Pilate and Bellesmith. "Why do you even follow this colorful bonehead around?"

"She's done nothing but save our lives," Pilate emphatically said.

"Plus, she's adorable!" Belle squeaked.

"Hey, watch it," Rainbow muttered aside.

"Well, what do we do now?!" Phoenix exclaimed. He winced, rubbed his aching head, and grumbled straight into Crimson's ear. "Boss, the longer we let the zebra's mana thingy connect to the bad guys' mana thingies, the sooner they'll find us here and soon we'll all become hanging thingies!"

"You're a hanging thingy," Zenith muttered.

"Your mom's a hanging thingy!"

"Enough!" Crimson grunted, silencing his subordinates. "I may have jumped the gun when I said it was impossible to clear the entanglement."

"But you already tried it yourself!" Belle said. "What more can be done?"

"Maybe not more, but instead less," Crimson thought out loud. "I'm a soldier, not a surgeon. Maybe what we need here is a unicorn mind that's not meant for bone-crushing. Perhaps the entanglement can be cleared if we just approach it a bit more delicately."

Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes widened. She hovered down, smiling. "Did somepony say 'delicately?'"

"Yes, why?"

Smirking, she looked over at Eagle Eye. Crimson looked at Eagle Eye. Everybody was looking at Eagle Eye.

He looked back, pale as a sheet. "What?" After a few blinks, his ears drooped on either side of his horn like lavender underscores. "Aw motherfeather..."

Sensible Fashion

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"Wow," Rainbow Dash remarked, folding her forelimbs as she leaned over in mid-hover. "That looks like it hurts."

"This is not hurting," Eagle Eye murmured, his eyelids fluttering as his forehead tensed. "This is concentrating."

"Should I also have my eyes closed for this?" Pilate asked, sitting directly across from the lavender unicorn situation. "Your Captain wasn't quite this... focused..."

"It's not about what you do, Mr. Pilate," Eagle Eye said, biting the edges of his lips. "It's about how well I can do what's requested of me." He gulped and continued, "Connecting with something like your manasphere is a great deal more complicated than examining the leylines of another unicorn. There's more... I dunno—ethereal cosmic cobwebs and stuff."

"Spoken like a good psychocolt," Zenith mused.

"Let him think," Crimson said, pacing around the huddled scene within Foxtaur. "Or else we'll toss you horn-deep into the Ledomaritan machina instead."

"Good. It'll relieve me from feasting on Foxtaur acorns and pine cones."

"Shhh!" Eagle Eye hissed, his brow creasing. "For real, guys!"

"I just feel like I should be doing something or—" Pilate's speech teetered off.

"Like what, beloved? Backflips?" Belle squatted down beside him and placed a gentle hoof on his shoulder. "Just let him do his work."

"The fact that you're all doing so much work is what amazes me." Pilate swallowed and said, "You've done nothing but show us all kindness. It's much appreciated."

"Hey, we're soldiers," Phoenix said with a smirk and a shrug. "Not monsters. Besides, eating zebras and unicorn mares is bad for my cholesterol."

"Even when you try to make a joke, you're bumping into things," Zenith muttered.

"Well, not all of us can settle for being jokes."

"Hah."

"Hold on..." Eagle Eye's ears twitched. "What's this?"

"What is it?" Rainbow Dash asked, hovering lower besides her two friends. "Is it something bad?"

Pilate winced, his mohawk blowing all over. "Uhm... Miss Dash? Your wings..."

"Er..." Rainbow bit her lip and hovered a safe distance away. "My bad."

"I sense something," Eagle Eye murmured, his horn starting to strobe faster and faster. Suddenly, his face stretched, as if he had just dove into a bucket of warm bathwater. "Seriously? That's it?"

Phoenix and Zenith glanced at their captain.

Crimson rubbed his chin, squinting. "I don't read you, EE. Is there something strange about the entanglement?"

"Well, it's... it's..."

"Formidably huge, right?"

"Well, sure, but it's so loose. It's like a short clump of yarn, all it takes is yanking on a string."

"So do it!" Phoenix barked. "Yank at the string!"

"I just have to find where the leylines are coming and going—Ah! Well, that wasn't too hard." Eagle's chin clenched and unclenched. "You really couldn't figure this out on your own? Erm... Captain, s-sir?" He blushed slightly.

"Hmmm..." Crimson managed a slight smile. "Looks like you still have the best sight of us all, EE. Be it visual... mental..."

"Fashionable," Zenith droned.

"Nnnngh..." Eagle grumbled, his horn starting to lose its luster.

"EE, would it help you concentrate if i snapped Zenith's head off and shoved it up one of his nostrils?"

"Wuh oh. Daddy to the rescue."

"Hold that thought." Eagle Eye licked his lips, leaned forward, and flashed a strobe of light. "Annnnnnd... got it!"

The plate on Pilate's skull flashed with brilliant magic...

Severed Ties

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...and sent a wave of energy straight through Enforcer Josho's skull.

"Gaaaah!" the obese stallion's eyes crossed as he fell back hard on his rump. Several crew ponies turned and watched as he sprawled across the deck of the Steel Wing. "Ohhhh..."

"By the Queen's horn!" Captain Filta gasped, strolling over with a cautious stare. "Are you alright, Enforcer?"

"Nnngh..." Josho hissed, wincing as sparks of energy fluctuated about his cranium. A workhoof helped him up to four lumbering limbs.

From a higher deck above, Prime Enforcer Shell appeared, staring icily down at the scene. "Enforcer Josho, is there something you would like to report?"

"Friggin' ghost piss in my ears, I swear to the Spark..." Josho wheezed, rubbing a hoof over his skull. "I have met the enemy and it smells like my ex fillyfriend's saddlebag..."

"We don't quite follow you," Filta remarked.

"Do you mean to suggest that somepony has interrupted the mana feedback with the zebra?" Shell asked, pacing over towards the officer.

"Interrupted?" Josho inhaled, exhaled, his nostrils flaring. "Ughh... More like tossed out the window." He stared up with bleary eyes at his superior officer. "The link was severed, Shell. Some glue stick or another cleaned the leylines in that walking newspaper's head contraption."

"A unicorn..." Filta glanced over at Shell. "A unicorn had to have been responsible."

"Hmmm..." Shell took a deep breath, strolling along the edge of the airship's starboard side. "But Dr. Bellesmith is incapable of natural, telepathic links. Which means..."

"They totally must have inducted another unicorn into their fugitive slumber party," Josho practically belched.

Filta's eyes darted between the two. "Runaways? Xonans? Who in their right mind would take up residence in Foxtaur?"

"I doubt this has anything to do with rightness of mind." Shell muttered, turning to stare out at the southeast horizon of trees, trees, trees that made up the emerald sea of Foxtaur's canopy.

"So, what do we do?!" Josho shrugged. "We lost our one good tether!"

Shell rubbed his chin with his good hoof. His eye blinked, and he turned to gaze at his subordinate. "Enforcer Josho, would you happen to know the approximate whereabouts of your target right as the link was severed...?"

Sky Five

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"You mean to say that they have been following us all this time?!" Belle stammered.

"Aye," Crimson nodded. He, Belle, Pilate, and Zenith stood on the high wooden platform along the roof of Foxtaur's forest canopy. They gazed west towards the looming gray shape of the Steel Wing as it pressed ever eastward. "It has been approaching quite swiftly, until now."

"You mean it's slowed down?" Belle asked.

"Well, duh!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. She was hovering besides the four ponies as she pointed towards the distant battlecruiser. "We just cut them off from listening in on us all this time, didn't we?"

"It's possible to assume that they're stopping to catch their bearings," Crimson said, stroking his chin in thought. "We may just have bought you three some time to make a run for it."

"A run for it where?" Pilate turned his head towards the lead mercenary. "So long as they know that we're in this forest, they'll stop at nothing to find us! They'll comb this place from tree to tree, for sure."

"All the more reason for you three to make some headway," Crimson said. "Personally, I suggest taking an erratic course to the southeast—away from the edge of Foxtaur that borders Blue Nova."

"Southeast?"

"Eagle Eye knows the path. He and Phoenix can guide you."

"Yeesh. I gotta ask." Zenith smirked. "What did you guys do to be on the Ledomaritan Armada's hit list?"

"Zenith, that is none of our business," Crimson groaned.

"Seriously, though! They must have done something wickedly epic!"

"And we didn't?" Crimson frowned at him. "If I've learned anything from my experience with Ledomare, it's not to judge ponies so heatedly."

"Yeah! Besides..." Rainbow Dash hovered over their heads. "If anything, we're guilty of being too friggin' awesome!"

"Look, lady!" Zenith waved his hoof, hissing through his teeth. "Will you get down? We brought you up here to take a look at your enemy, not fling your colors around!"

"Please, Rainbow," Belle pleaded, shivering slightly. "Let's not risk—"

"What?!" Rainbow shrugged, her back to the faraway speck of an airship. "We broke the link, didn't we? Besides, unless those saps have a dozen of their own Eagle Eyes, there's no way in heck they can see us—"

There were two bright flashes of light along the starboard side of the vessel.

Crimson and Zenith froze in place. Belle bit her lip.

Pilate's ears twitched like mad. "Uhm..." The zebra fidgeted. "Does anypony else hear that whistling noise...?"

A patch of forest exploded two leagues to the north.

Everyone gasped. Rainbow spun, her blue wings blurring.

A second shell impacted the forest floor less than two hundred meters away. A crack of thunder roared over Foxtaur, littering the air with twigs and soil.

"Gaaugh!" Zenith shouted. The entire platform rocked from the wobbling length of the tree beneath it. He and Crimson clung desperately to the railing of the outlook. "Somehow, I don't think they're shooting for pheasants!"

"I don't get it!" Belle shrieked, clutching Pilate as she and her beloved collapsed across the wooden floorboards. "How could they know where we are?"

"Looks like they're guessing!" Zenith growled. "With artillery shells!"

"We gotta get you guys down from this thing!" Rainbow shouted.

There was another series of bright flashhes: four this time.

"Here come more rounds!" Crimson yelled. "Everypony! Get on the lift—"

The forest around them exploded. One shell hit a cluster of trees several yards south, and it sent a huge chunk of wooden splinters flying the group's way. Shrapnel pierced the middle of the large tree atop which they were perched. With several crunching, groaning noises, the entire trunk began to teeter over.

"Belle!" Pilate shouted, reaching for her.

"Gaaah!" She was slipping, falling along with the rest of the lopsided platform as the tree broke its way through leaves and branches and ropelines.

Zenith was holding on by a single hoof. Crimson was already jumping to avoid being skewered by an adjacent tree's branches. Rainbow Dash—

"Just hang on!" She dove into the collapsing mess of wood and greenery as even more shells from afar randomly littered the natural environment.

Shell Shells

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With a loud shout, a cluster of ponies swiveled away from the cannon. It fired a huge shell, lobbed out into the eastern sea of Foxtaur treetops. After the weapon finished recoiling, the workhooves rushed back, loading the next shell.

Along the starboard side of the Steel Wing, several more cannons were fired and reloaded with such expert precision. The air constantly rang with the cacophony of long-ranged warfare.

Josho rubbed his aching head, flinging a dirty look behind Enforcer Shell's back.

Captain Filta strolled up to Shell's side and shouted above the noise. "That's an awful lot of ordinance you're ordering my stallions to fire into the earth, sir!"

"And I know that there is plenty more where that came from," Shell calmly said beneath the thunder.

Filta winced as yet another consussive blast of energy blew at his mane. "Might I ask what this might accomplished? Even if the target was located around Enforcer Josho's estimated guess, they'd likely have fled the site from now!"

"Then what remains to discover is exactly where anything in the forest has to flee to," Shell said. He pointed over the ship's side. "Observe."

Filta trotted over to the edge of the deck. He squinted at the distant impact sight of the mulptile shells. A steady wave of motion was rustling through the trees and branches. The air filled with noise as birds took to the air, surging in the same direction as the waving foliage.

"You're starting a stampede?" Filta remarked.

"I'm instilling fear," Shell muttered. Another nearby cannon fired as he paced calmly across the vibrating deck. "And if there's enough life inside Foxtaur to contend with as I suspect there is, then our targets will have no choice but to follow the flow of nature's panic."

"What of the main target? The pony who flies?"

Shell turned and gazed at the captain with one glaring eye. "If she exposes herself, then we will have her head." He motioned towards the ship's bow. "Rig the gliders. Prepare your finest stallions to take air..."

Bad Forest

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Far east, under a nonstop rain of tree and leaves, several chunks of wood had collapsed across a simple clearing. From within a dense cluster of emerald foliage, a lavender head poked its head out. Eagle Eye panted, glancing every which way, wincing as another shell landed not far from him.

"Captain!" He shouted, disentangling himself from several branches before hobbling out on all fours. "Crimson! Zenith! Where are you guys?"

There was a muffled noise from behind him.

Eagle gasped, spun about, and telekinetically parted a sea of leaves. From within, a mustached stallion spat several twigs out and crawled forth, wincing from bruises.

"Phoenix!" Eagle stammered. "Have you seen the others?"

"Love ya too, princess..."

"Now's hardly the time for—"

"Gang way!" A voice cracked from overhead.

Phoenix and Eagle Eye looked up. They jumped in opposite directions just in time to avoid the crash landing of a blue pegasus.

"Ooof!" Rainbow Dash grunted, collapsing with the bodies of Pilate, Bellesmith, and Zenith clinging to her.

"Holy crap-a-doodles!" Zenith wheezed, struggling with his polearm to regain balance. A shell went off, bathing his flinching body in shell and mulch. "That was too close!"

"Nnngh... Yeah, well..." Rainbow Dash got up and managed a nervous smirk. "I've had closer." Another shell went off, and a sharp chunk of wood embedded into the ground between her legs. She blinked, then blurted, "We should probably get out of here."

"I don't get it!" Belle exclaimed. "What do they think to accomplish?"

"They're doing a good job with the 'intimidation' part of their plan," Pilate exclaimed. He supported Belle as he turned his head towards the other ponies. "We might be fine so long as we get out of this immediate area!"

"Jee, thanks!" Zenith barked, helping Phoenix up to his hooves. "Did you earn those stripes by being a friggin' genius?!"

"Our camp's screwed!" Phoenix shouted above the noise. "What should we do?"

"I'd say head east to Site Beta!"

"What?!" Phoenix's eyes bugged. "The ruins?! You remember what was there last time—!"

"Do either I or the shelling look like we care?!" Zenith hissed back.

"If you know of a safe place, let's just go there!" Rainbow Dash swooped down and placed a hoof on both Belle and Pilate. "I wanna get my friends out of here before we end up everywhere!"

"Wait!" Eagle Eye shrieked. "The Captain! Just where is Crimson?"

"Right here!" A voice shuddered from above.

Everypony swiveled to look.

"Captain?" Phoenix made a face. "You're upside down..."

"Site B is the best idea right now," Crimson calmly said, dangling from where his rear legs were caught in the crook of a half-collapsed tree. "You all go ahead!"

"Captain! No!" Eagle Eye squeaked. "Not without you!"

Another shell landed nearby, splashing twigs and pebbles hotly across the scene.

Crimson spat, "Just go!" His horn glowed as he struggled with the branch he was stuck on. "I'll be right behind you—"

"Yeah, screw that." Rainbow Dash flew up to him and started pulling hard on the cracking branch. "You've risked your neck for us all. Nnnngh!" She pulled and she tugged. "We're all getting out of here together!"

"Will you just go already?!" Crimson shouted. "There's no telling when one of those shells is gonna split this whole camp in two!"

"Uhhh..." Pilate gulped, his ears drooping. "I believe we have something more imminent to deal with..."

"What are you going on about now, dude—" Phoenix froze as soon as he felt his knees rattling.

The entire earth was shaking. A deep rumble permeated the noise and chaos, hailing from the west. Rainbow Dash craned her neck, watching forlornly as the forest behind them parted ways with a multitude of stampeding bodies. Boars, rabbits, birds, and several large mammals burst out of the foliage. Soon, the air filled with a musky green mist, and the rumbling intensified. Several trees snapped apart, followed by a line of glowing eyes.

"Timberwolves!" Phoenix shouted, already breaking into an eastward gallop.

Zenith gnashed his teeth, yanked on Belle and Pilate, and forced the three of them into a brisk run. "Move! Move! Move! To Site Beta!"

Eagle Eye stood, frozen in place, his violet eyes reflecting the wave of living brambles that was charging the group's way.

"Uhmmm..." Crimson glanced at Rainbow Dash. "You may wish to hurry."

"Grrrr!" Rainbow Dash's muscles twitched as she yanked hard at the branch. The thing snapped suddenly, and both ponies fell—flailing—into the jaws of the beasts that had been forced out of their den.

Timber, Wolf

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The jaws of the first timberwolf snapped shut... and Crimson fell through it.

"Oooh!" He landed hard on his haunches.

Not wasting the time to wince, Crimson rolled to the side. He just barely avoided a slamming set of paws trampling overhead. The earth tore up on either side of him. He looked in time to see a second timberwolf lunging in mid-sprint to bite his head off.

With red telekinesis, Crimson yanked his heavy hammer free, twirled about, and flew skyward in a vicious uppercut. "Haaaugh!"

The timberwolf's skull split apart. Its body shattered into wooden bits, crumbling on either side of teetering stallion. He stabilized his vibrating weapon in time to face an onslaught of rushing fangs, fangs, and more fangs.

A shield flew over his mane and ricocheted across the sea of rushing monsters. They fumbled in their charge, giving Crimson time to breathe.

The muscular stallion looked over his shoulder.

The shield bounced back into Eagle Eye's telekinetic grip. Sweating, the smaller unicorn shouted, "Okay! Enough awesomeness! Let's jet!"

"You moron!" Rainbow Dash's voice cracked overhead, followed by her diving figure. "There's never enough!" She swooped Crimson's body up in her forelimbs.

"Whoah!" Crimson grunted, not used to being carried.

Rainbow Dash was evidently not used to it either—namely his weight. "Goddess! Did you eat the other half of Foxtaur before we came here?!" She hissed through a straining face.

"Let me down! I can gallop on my own!"

"Uhhhh..." Rainbow Dash glanced behind her to see wave after wave of panicked animalia charging after her. The forest shook all around them. "Yeah, that's not happening." She barked beyond Crimson's horn. "Hey squirt! Grab ahold!"

Eagle Eye nodded. Gulping, he sheathed his sword and shield, ran up a log, jumped, and clamped his teeth over Crimson's dangling hammer.

"Nnnngh!" Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth, channeling as much energy as she could muster into her blurring wings. She carried the combined weight of the two stallions eastward, through the waving foliage, towards the distant images of their other four companions fleeing the crest of the violent stampede. "This would help if you both weren't so full of muscles and testosterone!"

"Just lift us past that nearby thicket!" Crimson pointed.

"Deff-doff-derrhonne?" Eagle Eye mumbled into his mouthed grip. The free of them bumped into an errant tree branch, and the petite stallion lost his grip. "Gaaaah!"

"EE!" Crimson shouted.

Rainbow Dash flashed a nervous glance down.

Eagle Eye fell, bounced off two branches, and landed in a cluster of bushes below. "Ooomf!" He struggled to get up, his hooves caught in several brambles as the line of roaring timberwolves bore down on him.

"Miss Dash—!" Crimson began.

"Way ahead of you!" She spun once, twice, and flung him earthward. "Lay it down!"

With a warcry, Crimson plunged himself hammer-first, sailing towards the converging skulls of the rampaging monsters. A dull wave of thunder emanated from the point of impact, carrying along with it a scattering sea of branches, limbs, and enchanted twigs. The sundered timberwolves were already reforming, but Crimson wasn't wasting anytime. He spun in a circle, heaving the hammer with all his might, forming a barrier of defense around Eagle Eye.

One slightly smaller timberwolf broke through the mighty stallion's defense and lunged at his back.

Gasping, Eagle Eye finally ripped three of the brambles, unsheathed his sword, and sliced the wooden creature's front paws off. The monster collapsed into a cloud of mulch beneath the two as the lavender unicorn spun and deflected a paw swipe from another cretin. "Unngh!"

"We gotta regroup with the others!" Crimson shouted. "None of us will be safe at Site Beta unless we make it there together!"

"Crimson! I'm so sorry about this—" Eagle Eye managed while fending off more attacks with his shield.

"Knock it off!" Crimson shouted. "You would have done the same for me—" An immensely large timberwolf slid towards the group, digging up earth with its gaping maw. "Awwww crud."

Eagle Eye clenched his eyes and blenched behind Crimson and his hammer.

There was a rush of wind. Rainbow Dash flew down directly in front of them, stood on her hind quarters, and braced her pendant with two hooves. Concentrating, she summoned a bright red glow from her ruby pendant, utterly blinding the charging canine.

With a pitiful whine, the large timberwolf halted its sprint and reared back, blinded from the burst of luminescent glory. It barely had a chance to recover when a loud voice shouted from above.

"Haaaaugh!" Zenith came hurtling down, pole-arm first. He skewered the head of the creature and perched atop the timberwolf's skull, shoving its muzzle down towards the floor of Foxtaur. "Now, Phoenix!"

The mustached pony galloped out from a cluster of trees. Hopping over smaller creatures of the stampede, he spun around and launched his spiked mace with a burst of telekinesis.

The metal weapon soared through the throat of the monster. Its wooden skull hung precariously to the side. As Phoenix's weapon retracted, Zenith yanked his polearm loose and dove off the thing's lopsided cranium. "Do the honors, Captain, my Captain!"

Sneering, Crimson broke into a trot that broke into a gallop that broke into a charge. "Haaaaugh!" His hammer sent a wave of fury surging down the body of the beast, loosening its wooden frame all across its spine. The last of the timberwolves was defeated, ushering silence across that particular part of the forest for a brief beat in time.

"Sit boy!" Phoenix chirped, shouldering his mace. "Good dog! Heheheh—Gulp!" He hissed into the strangling hooves of an enraged pegasus.

"What are you doing here?!"

"Saving y-your sorry wings!" the mustached stallion uttered.

"Where's Belle and Pilate?!"

"Relax," Zenith said, cautiously eyeing the trembling forest around them. "They're safe behind a boulder facing away from the charge. Now's as good a time as ever to join them."

"More like twenty seconds before now," Crimson uttered, still panting from the fight. He pointed at the floor as the many enchanted twigs and branches of the shattered timberwolves began to float together, forming as one. "We can't stop all this from coming together! And once it does..."

"...it's gonna be really friggin' huge," Rainbow Dash said, wincing. Her wings were already twitching. "Okay, guys! Let's reunite with my friends and make it to your snazzy place of hiding before—"

"Wait!" Eagle Eye shouted above the tumult.

Everypony looked at him.

He bit his lip before uttering, "Has anypony noticed that the shelling has stopped?"

The group froze in place.

Forlornly, Rainbow Dash glanced skyward. Through the break in the forest canopy, the first of many glinting metal aircraft shimmered in the afternoon light.

Fine Toothed

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A dozen managliders soared over the waving treetops of Foxtaur, flying parallel to the path of stampeding wildlife barreling through the flora. The pairs of unicorns atop each vehicle signaled to each other, veered left and right, and split into twin, winding arcs in order to cover all possible avenues of escape from the central path.

They circled about in opposite directions, sweeping over the forest landscape, occasionally dropping explosive charges that forced the wild stampede of creatures to stay bunched together.

Hundreds of meters to the west, closing in fast, was the Steel Wing. No longer discharging cannon fire, the battleship had increased speed and was presently looming over the patch of forest that—just minutes ago—had been burning ground zero.

"She'll show her head," Enforcer Shell said, pacing along the starboard deck of the huge zeppelin as two more sets of mana-powered gliders launched from the bow. "She'll have to. If not for the sake of her own protection, then for the sake of the two souls she's foolishly shown a weakness for."

"How do we even know she's even in there to begin with?" Josho remarked. He winced upon receiving Shell's neutral stare. "I-I mean, we know that at least one of her companions was sucking on pine cones down there, but the target?"

"If the zebra's alive, then she's with him," Shell coldly replied. "A blind equine such as him does not make it this far into Foxtaur alive, much less across a good chunk of the Queen's continent."

"If I may add a thought, since I've already added so much ordinance to this cause," Filta murmured. He cleared his throat and gazed the Prime Enforcer's way. "I highly doubt that she will have clung to the zebra's side, or your former colleague from Blue Shelf, for that matter. If I was a pony with wings, the first thing I would do in a situation such as this is flee as swiftly as my feathers would carry me."

"My dear Captain," Shell murmured as he turned to gaze coolly at him. "If I may be so bold..." He gestured towards the hulking body of the Steel Wing beneath him. "Are you or are you not a 'pony with wings?'"

Filta blinked at that. "Erhm..."

"And would anypony be right if they said you were the antithesis of loyalty?"

Filta took a deep breath, gazing off into the forest.

Shell's one eye narrowed. "Those with spectacular gifts are endowed with spectacular duty." He gazed towards the east. "Even if it is a foolish delusion. Alas..." He gestured towards the circling mana gliders as they dropped bombs, bombs, and more bombs. "It is our job to teach her a lesson, even if it takes the blood and entrails of her pulverized companions to wash away her idiocy with."

"And what if all we do is manage to tick this mare off?" Josho's brow furrowed. "I've fought her before. It wasn't exactly easy."

"For your information, I fought her as well," Shell said, lifting his metal cast for emphasis. "And the day I settle for 'easy' is the day I give up my head before my legs."

Josho had no reply.

Shell gazed once more at Filta. "Convey a message to your stallions. If there's no sign of the pegasus breaking the canopy in the next ten minutes..." His cold brow furrowed. "Order them to drop the gas bombs..."

Old Faithful

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The green spires of several treetrops were lopped off as a managlider skimmed overhead. Two dark shapes flew through the air, fell through the branches, and landed several meters away from the group with a flash of enchanted flame.

Pilate winced. Belle clung to him and flashed the others a look. "They're right on top of us!"

"It's a miracle they don't see us already," Zenith hissed, supporting Phoenix's stumbling weight as he glanced aside. "Captain? Any ideas?"

"I'm working on it," Crimson muttered, his eyes darting across the bomb-swept forest as he panted heavily.

"Well, work on it faster!" Phoenix barked. "We're toast here if we wait any longer!"

"We're toast if we gallop any further along!" Crimson growled. "They know exactly where we have left to go! They're trying to herd us into a dead end!"

"There must be twelve... fifteen... at least eightteen gliders!" Eagle Eye exclaimed, getting an expert headcount of the bogies overhead. "Crimson—Captain, whatever we do, we gotta do it soon!"

"I don't suppose staying in place is in order?" Pilate remarked.

"Judging from those bombs, we'd better not play with that idea." Zenith looked to Crimson again. "Boss?"

"I'm thinking... I'm thinking!"

"This is all our fault!" Bellesmith uttered, trembling. "If we hadn't trotted into Foxtaur, we wouldn't have brought this madness upon you!"

"No time for those kinds of thoughts..."

"The Enforcers who are chasing us are familiar with myself and my beloved," Belle said. She nuzzled Pilate tightly, her eyes close to tears as she stammered above the tumult, "Maybe if we exposed ourselves and talked to them, they'd reason with us and allow you four to leave—"

"Heck, no!"

Everypony looked up.

Pilate's brow furrowed. "Miss Dash...?"

Rainbow was hovering higher and higher to the tree canopy. "I did not haul you guys all the way across Lamemare just for you two to give up the first moment things got dicey!" She frowned as her wings beat the leaf-riddled air on either side of her. "What we need here is a distraction! Those jerks wanna fight with me so bad, what say I give them what they want so the rest of you can get what you want!"

"Rainbow!" Belle exclaimed. "Don't even pretend to—!"

"What?" Rainbow's ruby eyes pierced her gaze from above. "I've outflown dragons! These guys are a piece of cake!"

"You know fully well that you're not invincible!"

"I'm pretty sure I'm better than invincible."

"Rainbow—"

"Look, Belle, I'll be fine." Rainbow Dash's grin broke through her iron glare. "I'm not gonna go ten rounds with them. As soon as I'm up there within sight, and I have those clopjobs on my tail, the rest of you book it and head towards Site Balogna or whatever it is!"

"Captain?" Zenith glanced aside at Crimson. He spoke in a low tone, "What do you think?"

"We'd better split up into two groups!" Eagle Eye hoarsely added, gulping nervously as more bombs went off beyond the nearby thicket. "Just in case!"

"Look, it's not like the decision is yours to make!" Rainbow Dash pointed a hoof down. "I'm gonna give them a slice of what they want, so you'd better use the window of opportunity that's at hoof! Once I've shaken these idiots, I'll make myself invisible then come and meet with you guys due east!"

"Rainbow Dash, it's suicide!" Pilate shouted.

"What makes you think you can lose them once they've seen you?" Belle asked.

"Lemme worry about that on my own."

"But—"

"I'll be darned if I let my friends bite it again!" Rainbow grunted.

Belle bit her lip. Pilate rested a hoof on her shoulder before she could summon the will to speak.

"Caps?" Rainbow looked at Crimson.

He muscular stallion slowly nodded. "We do appreciate it."

"Heh. You'd better." Rainbow began flapping her agile self towards the blue heavens beyond the canopy. "Now, promise you won't split my friends up or I'll paint your face with your namesake!"

In a clap of vaporous air, she rocketed skyward, taking several branches with her.

"Alright, everypony!" Phoenix hollered, already scampering off with the two Ledomaritans in tow. "Let's go! To the ruins!"

Belle and Pilate stumbled after them, with the chestnut-maned mare casting a forlorn glance towards the sky. Crimson, Zenith, and Eagle eye bounded off in another direction. The petite one of the group paused on a rock cropping, fidgeting as he looked towards the heavens above.

"EE?!"

"Right!" Eagle Eye bounded after Crimson's voice.

Danger Zoning

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A squadron of gliders flew low in formation. They angled towards the cluster of trees last disturbed by the stampede. The foremost wingpony held a hoof up and shouted towards his cohorts.

"Follow my lead! Incendiary rounds at the ready!"

A cyan blur lifted up beside the first craft. "Hey!" a voice cracked.

The two unicorns glanced over. Their goggles glinted as their jaws dropped in shock.

"The sky called!" Rainbow Dash yelled, frowning. "It wants its wind back!" At the last exhalation, she spun twice in mid-air and bucked all four hooves into the left wing.

The managlider spun wildly, breaking formation as it toppled towards the expanse of Foxtaur below. All of the remaining vehicles accelerated, trained on Rainbow's prismatic tail.

"Target sighted!"

"The winged pony!"

"Immobolize and capture her!"

"Yeah, you do that!" Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and bolted upwards.

The air thundered from nearly twenty managliders pulling up and flying muderously after her. The temperature heated up from so many magical engines burning through the atmosphere at once. Spacing themselves expertly apart, the airborne enforcers sliced their way towards Rainbow Dash's rear from several different angles, making intimidating progress.

"Yeah, okay," Rainbow Dash panted in mid-ascent. "They're a tad bit faster than dragons. Still—"

She pivoted her wings, dragged air, somersaulted, and flew straight back at them.

"Dumb as an ox is still dumb as an ox!" Rainbow Dash snarled angrily as she flew towards the managliders head on. "Bring it!"

The first pair of pilots in the charge gasped. They pulled hard on their controls and veered to avoid Rainbow Dash's psychotic plunge. The numerous aircraft trailing the initial vehicle followed suit, and soon all of the gliders were soaring back down in a cascading loop.

Rainbow Dash threaded her way through the bending sea of metal, mana, and mayhem. She twirled, dipped over and above aluminum fins, kicked a glider or two off-balance, and dove low towards the tree tops, heading west, flying decidedly away from where she last saw her friends and cohorts.

"You're going to have to do better than that, ya knobheads!" She smirked and glanced back, then bilnked awkwardly at how swiftly they had returned to formation. "Well, then, way to go—"

"Three gliders at the front of the formation exposed several rocket-propelled barbs from the clefts of their wings."

"Applesauce!" Rainbow Dash cursed. Already, she was twirling her body as swiftly as she could—

With ghostly whistles, the first three gliders fired their entire compliment. The sky filled with a spread of serrated projectiles like throwing knives.

Rainbow Dash held her breath as she twirled up, down, left, right, and in a maddening spiral to avoid the razor-sharp volley. Tree branches and clusters of leaves beneath her exploded from the falling projectiles. By the time she could breathe again, the managliders were catching up to her.

"Hold it steady!" The co-pilot of the foremost craft levitated a brimming taser, stood up in his seat, and swung hard at Rainbow. "Haaugh!"

Rainbow instantly twirled sideways, pivoted her rear legs, and clamped a pair of hooves over the enforcer's weapon. "Have you written gravity lately?!" Rainbow spat. "She misses you!" With that, she twisted her lower limbs, throwing the yelping stallion off his vehicle.

"Yaaaaaah—" The unicorn fell like an an