Celestia woke with a start. A shudder shot down her spine as her large pink eyes blinked back the darkness.
“Again...” she sighed softly, sliding her head back onto its pillow. Her mind returning, the Princess’ eyes danced lazily from one end of her four-poster canopy to the other. It had been like this for over a week now. Granted, the day to day minutiae of running a kingdom could be stressful sometimes, and what with the Summer Sun a week away...
In all her years as Princess, she couldn't recall a single night of lost sleep, but now... something was bothering her. She couldn't quite put a hoof on it, but even after the unpleasantness with her sister, there had always been sleep once the dark of night had settled.
She lay in the darkness, wrestling with this weight that had been wrapped around her dreams. Though dark clouds muddied the remnants of her reverie, flashes remained... faces that she had known, if from another life, ones that she could not recall...
The sweet sounds of a nightingale stole what remained of her torpor. Rousing herself from her warm bed, the ancient Alicorn draped a blanket around her broad shoulders, and flicking her stiff wings slightly, she shuffled slowly towards the far end of the room, with the slightest hint of a limp shaking the fringes of her flowing pastel mane.
"Sometimes," she mused quietly, "sometimes I think I just might be getting old..." She smiled to herself at the thought, stretching the stiff sinew along her withers. Before Luna had come back, there was no knowing who would ever be able to take over once she had stayed too long... of course, there was her young protege, but now...
Another shiver. Celestia had been uneasy for some time... and yes, the Hoofington Post had been writing some nastiness about the administration, some scandalous twaddle about misappropriated farm subsidies or something, but this was nothing new. Ever since her sister had returned there was always somepony or another who just couldn't accept it without raising hay.
A spark flew off the tip of her long slender horn, landing in the fresh kindling of the fireplace by the bay at the far corner of the room. She frowned, and walking over to the window, felt a burst of warm air rush over her as the fire ignited.
Setting her large head against the window frame, she admired the starry skies above her magnificent kingdom. She had missed Luna's nights so very much. There had always been a certain melancholic mischief to her sister's work, the way the stars played wistfully upon the wispy clouds that hung so very high in the sky, painting soft contrasts onto the deepest purples of the endless void... it was something Celestia could never quite duplicate. Her eyes slowly touched on each end of the horizon, hovering for a time on the one light in Ponyville, knowing that her beloved student would, of course, still be up at this hour, pouring over one book or another. She smiled softly. Her gaze shifted onward, as she took in the pristine peace of it all, this world that she had helped to create... It had always filled her with pride, that such a beautiful land was hers, what her dedication and hard work had been able to provide for her ponies; and on nights like this, the sacrifices all seemed worth it. One thousand years seemed worth it... Equestria was worth it, she thought.
Lost in the beauty of the full moon's night, as Celestia gazed out over the stillness, something changed in her, something subtle. An eerie emptiness crept over her mind, as the nightingale’s cries grew more urgent, and unsettling. Her eyes widened as her horn began to glow...
Celestia doubled over in pain as her hind legs flew out from beneath her, her large frame crashing heavily upon the marble...
Again, she recoiled, instinctively trying to will the pain away, tears flowing now, rushing down the side of her face, pooling with... with something red on the...
Celestia tried to cry out, but her voice had left her... she tried to get up, but her body would no longer cooperate... she heard a soft rustling behind her, moving with steady deliberation ever closer, ever nearer. Calling upon the last of her energies, she turned her head slowly towards the door, "who...dares..." she whispered hoarsely through the pain...
And then she stopped, and the last traces of anger fled her mien, replaced by the darkest sadness she would ever know...
"...you..." she exhaled, with the last of her strength....
There was a blinding flash of light...and then nothing at all, as a shadow slipped past the door and out into the world beyond that room...
Celestia was dead...
A Tangled Web
Vol. I: The Fall
ancient memories of pony lore
dashed upon the rocky shore
this was a place I’d been before
in tales my fathers tell no more
darkness burdens ev’ry dream
as prophets toil endlessly
unseen forces, ceaseless teem
these things are closer than they seem
Chapter One- Burning Night
A deep haze engulfed the world. There was no sound save a single piercing tone, no vision save for blurred remnants of something oddly familiar, no sensation save burdensome heat. There, rapt against the intrusive fog, a deep velvet unicorn lay silent, unable to speak, unable to move.
The universe swirled around her, cracking and fizzling, nearly singeing her pelt with each new turn. From the mist, strange shapes began to emerge, verging on symbolism, something that she almost knew, before vanishing back into formless void. Her eyes began to sag, melting into the dry heat as it became increasingly oppressive. Existence seemed to pulse and wheel, and every synapse in her body screamed against the pain. She tried to open her mouth to cry for help, but she choked on the fire that clawed down her throat.
Brilliance fading to dulled blacks and grays, the unicorn struggled impotently against the veiled bonds that controlled her, seeking vainly one last gulp of air, one last moment of consciousness. As her mind began to slip silently from this new reality, she could almost see the walls of her library, twisting and burning in the vapor; and a strange face floating just beyond her sight, an after image of a world she had once known. Somewhere outside this place, she thought she might have heard a soft voice, muted, cold, calling her name...
“Twiiii..LIGHT! Oh horse-feathers, Dash, will you clear this? TWILIGHT SPARKLE! Can you hear me?”
“Apple...jack? Wha...?” Twilight groaned, pushing the words through her teeth.
“Oh thank Celestia, it’s okay sugarcube, I need you to concentrate now, we have GOT to get you outta here... DASH!!”
Straining to see through the red stains that coated her vision, Twilight feebly struggled with the weight that constricted her movements.
“What... what’s happening?”
“I don’t rightly know, Twi,” the orange earthpony grunted, her forehooves flailing against some unseen force, “but right now, I need yer help.”
Grasping what small comprehension she could, the unicorn focused her magic on the offending burden, as a dim light flitted across her horn...
“NOW, DASH, GO!”
A surge of heat, a murderous crash, and all was dark once more...
Rarity’s mind was racing. Fast asleep, the alabaster unicorn had awoken first to what she’d imagined was hail, before the panicked cries had risen to a fever pitch, and the humid summer’s eve had run hot with chaos.
Trotting cautiously down what remained of the cobbled streets of Ponyville, Rarity hung now to the shadows, unsure of what steps were next to take. She’d already stopped at the town’s library, but it had been flattened. Sugar Cube Corner was naught but rubble, and nothing remained of the Town Hall but a foundation. She was getting desperate, as the chances of finding anypony left alive were growing slimmer by the minute. Anypony she could trust...
Rounding another corner, Rarity quickly slipped back into the shadows, as two hooded ponies stood not ten feet from what had once been the old Quills & Sofas. They seemed to be arguing, but about what was not clear. She was too far to hear exactly what was being said, but the larger of the pair seemed intent on imparting a sense of urgency upon the smaller. The longer she watched, the more familiar the smaller one looked, a light blue coat peeking from under her hood, but she couldn’t quite...
Rarity gasped audibly as her world became quite suddenly pink.
“Rarity! Oh my goodness! I was starting to get worried! Well, not worried as much as alone, but after what’s happened tonight, I don’t know anypony I’d rather see than a friend! And you’re ok!”
“Pinkie PIE!” Rarity hissed, slamming a hoof into the mouth of the pink pony, “Shush for a minute!” She turned back towards the old shop, but the two ponies were gone. Cursing softly, she turned again towards Pinkie. “I’m glad to see you as well. Did the cakes...”
Pinkie Pie’s face fell. “Mr. Cake broke his leg, but they got him out ok... they took him out to the Everfree Forest, but I... stayed behind to see if I could find anypony else.” Her face brightened a bit. “And now I found you!” she smiled. “Where is everypony else, anyway?”
“Well, Applejack has been rounding up survivors, and supposedly they are all heading out to Appleloosa. I haven’t heard from Rainbow Dash in a while, but I’d assume she’s taking Twilight out to Nurse Tenderheart as well. As for Flutter....” Rarity paused. She couldn’t think, she could scarcely breathe. “Pinkie pie,” her voice trembled. “Darling... hav..have you seen Fluttershy?”
Pinkie said nothing...
“Fluttershy!” Rarity wheeled back and sprang into a gallop.
“Hey! Wait for me!” Pinkie replied, bounding close behind.
The first thing Twilight became aware of was the wet ground upon which she lay, and the soft crackle of something burning in the distance. Her body felt sluggish, and she lacked a will to move; but she quickly surmised that the events of earlier that evening were no dream, as the acrid smell of rotting sulphur filled her nose with each breath.
Ticking down a mental list, she took note of each limb, and each joint, which all seemed to be in working order, if a bit sore. Slowly opening her eyes, a blue face gradually came into focus, as she found herself staring into the rosy gaze of Rainbow Dash.
“What’s with you and passing out today?” Dash quipped softly, a dark worry etched deeply into her proud visage, betraying the soft smile she tried desperately to present. “That’s twice now.”
“Where am I? What happened?” Twilight tried to right herself, but was met with a sharp ache that ripped across her torso.
Rainbow gently placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Easy now, that beam fell hard. A few inches to the north and...” she stopped herself, unable to finish the thought. “A..anyway, nothin’ I couldn’t handle.” She continued, puffing out her chest. “Applejack’s off helping everypony get out OK, so you don’t worry, just try’n rest.”
Twilight’s thoughts were flying, desperately reaching for some meaning to give the words she was hearing. Applejack? Evacuation? Beam?
“Rainbow Dash, what in the name of all things Celestial is going on?”
A dark sadness washed over Rainbow’s face as she scanned the horizon, dreading deeply what would come next. She was never very good with bad news, and as news went, this was bad. “Hold on...” she whispered, flicking her wings. “I’ll be right back”
Twilight stared into the inky blackness as the colorful trail of the Pegasus pony whisked past. As she lay there in silence, the mare did her best to put the pieces together, but the past several hours were awash in dark fog, and what small bits she could recall made no sense. A flash of light, fire, unfamiliar faces and a language she couldn’t place... nothing seemed to connect! In fact, the only thing the mare was sure of was that anything that could shake up Rainbow Dash like this...
A soft tug broke her concentration, as a winged shadow gently washed over her line of sight.
“Twilight, I...” Rainbow hesitated, staring at the wedged rock she had retrieved from the bottom of the hill. Shaking her mane slightly, the Pegasus carefully pulled Twilight up onto the flat side of the stone. “I’m sorry.”
Several minutes passed in silence, broken only by the cracks and whistles that crawled softly through the night air, mingled with the occasional flutter of feathery wings. Twilight took in the scene with quiet shock.
“Rainbow Dash,” Twilight rasped, finally, “what... exactly am I looking at?”
“This...” Rainbow sighed deeply,“was Ponyville.”
“Was...” Twilight breathed, carefully piecing the images together. “Was this a natural disaster? Was it an earthquake... a volcano?”
Dash stared out over the wreckage, and with an outstretched hoof, pointed slowly towards the capital city of Canterlot.
“It’s a disaster, Twilight, but there’s nothin natural about it...”
A sharp scream pierced the air, and for a moment Twilight couldn’t place herself. It was only after her aching chest reasserted its presence that she realized the scream had come from her; and that in the process she’d leaped several feet in the air. Her hackles now at full attention, she pushed passed the pain, limping forward, toward the castled city.
“WHAT... How... why...” Twilight knelt down at the edge of the hilltop. “Where are the princesses? How could this happen?” her voice cracked, as at last tears began to form at the edges of her face. “Where is everypony? Where.. oh Celestia, where’s SPIKE?” she slammed a hoof deeply into the ashen loam, struggling to stand. “Sp... Spike is in Canterlot, he’s in... THAT!”
Rainbow Dash stared mindlessly at the blackened spires of the castle. She knew that Twilight wouldn’t take this lying down, but knowing what she already knew was making this far more difficult than it would have been otherwise.
“Twi...it’s not just Canterlot. Fillydelphia, Stalliongrad, Cloudsdale. Equestria is burning, Twilight. And if you’re up, we’re movin’. Let’s GO!”
“Go where, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight spat the words angrily. “Unless it’s towards that castle, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Twilight, you’re in no condition to fight. You’re in no condition to THINK! Nurse Tenderheart has got some kinda hospital set up in the Everfree Forest, the fires haven’t hit there yet. We gotta get you checked out, and I gotta get back to Sweet Apple Acres to help AJ. If Spike’s with the Princess, he’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. If you’re up, let’s move!”
Twilight turned tail, staring down the Pegasus. She knew Rainbow Dash was right, she was in no condition to do anything. Pushing back her anger, she consented, and the pair trotted carefully down the far side of the hill, towards the Everfree Forest. Still, she found herself at a loss. Of all the things that were there, something wasn’t. Realization setting in, she turned towards the sky.
Something was missing, something very important.
“Rainbow,” Twilight hoarsed, “where’s the moon?”
Dash looked back sadly, shook her mane, and started towards the forest; as behind them, a new cloud of ominous crimson belched forth from the battlements of the beleaguered castle.
Approaching the edge of the Everfree Forest, a sharp chill descended harshly, and with it an eerie stillness. Slowing to a brisk trot, Rarity scanned the darkness, surveying the charred grounds, searching for something recognizable.
“FLUTTERSHY!” cried Pinkie Pie, to no particular direction.
“Hush!” scolded Rarity, “honestly darling, have you no tact? Heaven only knows what could be out here, what with the ...strangeness... of this night...” turning about, she added flatly, ”heaven only knows where here is for that matter...”
The Everfree Forest had never been of particular interest to Rarity. Not much in the way of gems, and what was there could hardly be worth the trouble one would have to endure to reach them, let alone the muck and drear that made its home in these wild woods. Fluttershy, on the other hand, was another story completely, and being her best friend, it was more than disconcerting that she couldn’t find her way.
“Besides, if we can find that bridge, we should be able t....” A sharp noise cut her short. Cracks and whistles sung out in the distance, followed by low, distinct rumbles. Rarity’s eyes grew wide, as the dark sky slowly inched closer to a malevolent shade of orange.
“Rarity...” Pinkie whimpered, a tremor slowly creeping into her voice, “my tail...”
A shared glance was all it took. Smoldering flecks of molten rock pelted the landscape as the two ponies bolted towards the treeline, dodging what bits they could. Rarity yelped as a bit of ember landed on her flank, and she stumbled forward.
“RARITY!” shouted Pinkie, skidding to a halt. “COME ON, HURRY!” The pink earthpony doubled back, and dipping her head, bolstered the velvet-maned unicorn as they picked the gallop up once more, narrowly avoiding a large chunk of char that fell from the night.
Debris was falling more heavily now, singed leaves and branches flying out of the forest. Ducking into an opening, they took cover under a thick stone wedged into the soft ground. Panting heavily, neither spoke as the firestorm rained down around them. Sharp points of light sparked and fizzled like fireworks, and small explosions shook the ground beneath their hooves. Angry shades of red and yellow swirled in the air. Rarity couldn’t help but think that under different circumstances, it would make for a beautiful display. Pinkie just stared off into the distance, narrow pupils cringing at each concussive blast. Just as quickly as it had started, the bedlam slowed, and ceased.
The two ponies remained flat against the ground a moment, neither wishing to reengage the wrath of the fiery onslaught.
Rarity was the first to stir. “Is it... is it over?” she whimpered hopefully. Pinkie blinked a few times, then nodded.
Cautiously peeking her head out from beneath the barrier, she surveyed the skies. Bright bolts of red and yellow, followed by trails of fire streaked silently overhead, towards the center of town, or what remained of it.
“Come on..” coughed Rarity, clearing her throat.... “let’s keep moving.
“MOVE’M OUT!” Applejack bellowed, hoisting the last bushel of apples atop the cart. Her hooves were bucked raw, but in just a few short hours the last apple had been released and the caravan was moving. Slowly. Too slowly for her tastes. “I swear, Mac, if these ponies were any slower...”
“Eeyup,” Big Macintosh sighed, plaintively chewing a stalk of hay, “They’re slow cuz they’re tired. Ain’t never seen this farm bucked this quick, even if it ain’t applebuck season. I reckon you know somethin’ about bein overworked, don’tcha sis?”
“Now just a minute there Mac!” Applejack started with a grin, “Don’t you go bringin’ that back up. ‘Sides, we had half the town workin’ for six hours, an’ the last of ‘em just started west. We gon’ need these supplies time we get to Appleloosa... If’n there is an Appleloosa...”
The siblings rested by the barn, watching the final carts pass out of sight. Even in the pitch of night, the sight of all those apple trees sitting there empty... It just didn’t feel right.
“Whelp,” crooned Macintosh, “I guess it’s ‘bout time we take up the slack. They’ll be watin’ for us.”
“Yeah...” Applejack sighed, shooting Macintosh a furtive glance. “Y...you go on ahead, my hooves are still a bit raw. I’ll catch up with y’all in a bit, y’hear?”
Eyeing his younger sister with some suspicion, Big Macintosh nodded, and after a moments lingering, galloped hard into the darkness. Finding herself alone, Applejack turned towards the barn, lit dimly by the fires burning in town, her face bearing an angry glow .
“T’aint fair...” she growled. “T’aint fair, and you know it. Y’work yerself to the bone, fight hoof and nail... You build it from the ground up!” Foaming at the bars, she spat angrily at the ground. Rearing back, she bucked the barn door.
“You work for yer kin!”
“You work for yer TOWN!”
“You work for everypony BUT YERSELF!” Seething, Applejack reared back, and bucked the barn door clean off. Sinking to her knees, the long built tears streamed effortlessly down her tired face. “T’aint right,” she sobbed in the darkness. “T’aint right at all...”
Several minutes passed. For all Applejack knew, hours might have passed. It hadn’t been just her dream, this farm. Mind, it had been in the family as long as she knew. Abandoning her home just didn’t sit right. Her sobs slackening, she started to stand, turning back towards the orchards, which seemed oddly visible in the dead of night. A pale orange glow shone heavily upon the bare branches, growing brighter, and more like...
Bolting out towards the caravan, brimstone began to tumble aimlessly out of the skies, now lit up against the darkness like a sunrise. Applejack dodged, left and right, sprinting away from the farm. Turning to look, a massive boulder slammed into the orchard, sending a plume of debris impossibly high into the firelit sky, while the fires spread out to her front. Turning tail, she sprinted back towards ponyville, only to find herself trapped by the flames.
Sensing she was boxed in, the orange earthpony ran back towards the barn, and threw open the cellar door, leading her into the underground. The old hatch slammed shut behind her, as with a sickening crunch, the barn collapsed in on itself, and onto the cellar door.
The pair trotted on in silence, periodically shaking the soot from their manes. Rarity had initially been hopeful that her friends cottage would have been untouched, as far as it was from the town proper, but that hope was all but dashed at this point. They’d been wandering like this for far too long, and her last nerve was beginning to fray. Her mind kept running over the events of that evening. If she’d been quicker to realize what was happening... If she’d only come out here sooner... Sure, the town needed her, and she’d helped with the evacuation efforts, but her best friend needed her as well, and now she couldn’t pick her way through the forest to find the cottage???
“Ugh...” Rarity grunted in frustration, “this is hopeless!” She reared back and bucked the nearest tree. Instantly realizing her error, she narrowly escaped the falling ash and branches that tumbled down, landing with a sharp sob on the soot that had caked heavily upon the peaty forest floor.
“It’ll be alright, you’ll see...” Pinkie tried to sound hopeful, but she was having her own issues. Since the onslaught had begun, a terror had begun to creep into her mind, and with it, she could all but hear Pinkamena whispering her dark mantras. She shook those thoughts from her head. “We just need to keep looking.” Several paces later she stopped, adding “It’s not your fault, you know. You can’t be everything to everypony, and with what’s happened tonight, with what’s happening right now, we’re doing the best we can... all of us.”
“Thank you, darling,” Rarity sighed, feeling a bit guilty, “I hate that you have to see me like this, I just can’t stand the thought of Fluttershy being alone right now. The poor thing must be terrified.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, let herself begin to consider the alternative.
The two stood in an uncomfortable silence, listening closely to the patter of the falling ash as it softly blunted the sharper edges of the world like fresh snow. Over the din of the weary wood, a muted mewl rose somewhere beyond the brush.
“Do you hear that?” Rarity whispered. “It sounds like...”
“...Singing?” Pinkie finished the thought.
Bounding through the brambles, they quickly came upon a clearing at the edge of the forest. At the far end, they finally spotted the shattered remains of Fluttershy’s cottage. By the looks of it, the fires had done their damage when the first wave had soared through. Pushing down the darker thoughts in her mind, Rarity raced onwards, towards the felled structure. The fires sweeping the skies provided a harsh light, revealing hastily opened cages crushed and melted, and stray pieces of wood strewn far across the field. The chicken coop was completely flattened, and bits of wire and fencing protruded dangerously from the softened grounds.
Rounding the bend towards the forest, they spied a hunched figure squatting by the treeline. Rarity turned full gallop, with Pinkie springing close at hand. Drawing nearer, the subtle shape of their friend materialized, shades of pink and yellow dotted with dark patches of grey and white.
A gallop slowed to a canter, to a trot... and as the image sank in, Rarity’s heart crept into her throat... Pinkie slunk to her knees....
Fluttershy rocked slowly on her hind hooves, shivering weakly as a pile of ash collected on her mane and shoulders. Red-ringed eyes staring blankly through the world, her face swollen with tears, she gently clutched a small, white, lifeless rabbit...
and through her sobs, she sang...
A Tangled Web Vol. I: The Fall
A lie told once can go unmarked,
told twice or thrice unseen.
While countless fictions foul minds
with one fell truth; they are wiped clean.
Chapter Two- Collapse
Twilight had never been one for hospitals. Sanitary, cold, they never seemed to have any life to them. Even in the dankness of this cave, the idea of being poked and prodded, even with magic, was unsettling at best.
“Now this will only hurt for a moment,” cooed Nurse Tenderheart, softly swabbing Twilight’s flank with wet cotton.
“EYOWCH!” cried Twilight, flinching violently.
“Uh, Twi... Y’know she hasn’t stuck you yet, right?” Rainbow Dash noted with a giggle.
A blush rose to Twilight’s cheeks, as she began to relax. Millennia of magical medicine, she thought to herself, the cure for every major disease known to pony-kind, and yet the only way we can draw a bit of blood... is with needles. She cringed as she felt the prick, and feeling a bit woozy, turned back towards nurse Tenderheart.
“All done,” Tenderheart sighed, the sample she’d taken spinning rapidly above her. “And you are good to go!”
“She’ll be OK, nurse?” Rainbow asked.
“Couple of bruised ribs, but no sign of infection. You take it easy, young lady, you’ll be fine.”
“Thank you, nurse,” Twilight sighed, allowing herself to relax as an orderly began to wrap a brace around her chest, “and thank you, Rainbow. You saved my life back there. I’m sorry I was so...”
“Don’t mention it,” Rainbow spat, a bit more quickly than she might’ve liked. “I..t was nothin’, really. Rough night, all around. If you’re gonna be OK, I really gotta get back to AJ, check on evac, y’know...”
“I understand,” Twilight smiled softly. “You go, I’m in good hooves here.”
Issuing a small salute, Rainbow Dash turned tail and trotted towards the mouth of the cave. A pre-flight sniff, and a few bars of rainbow trailed behind her as she gave a mighty flap of her wings.
Twilight lay silently on the make-shift cot, staring through the roof of the peaty cave. She’d recognized it instantly when she arrived, as it had once been the home of a very greedy dragon, and a very scary night. Shifting her thoughts from Spike, she began to contemplate the events that brought her to this place. The smoldering ruins of Canterlot, the strange visions in the smoke of her library... there were so many puzzle pieces. Seeing discretion as the better part of valour, Twilight noted with a deep yawn that perhaps she’d be better fit to consider these things with a bit of rest...
“Twilight,” Nurse Redheart whispered urgently. “Twilight, sweetie, I’m sorry to wake you, but there’s something you need to see.”
“gghgh...wha?” Twilight gurgled, her head swimming a bit. “How long was I out?”
“Only about an hour... as I said, I’m sorry to disturb your rest, but we....we’ve got a bit of a situation.”
Slowly returning to her senses, Twilight noted that the cave had gone eerily hushed, no orderlies bustling, no carts clattering. Lifting her head from the cot, she saw a herd of ponies dumbstruck, staring reverently towards the back of the cave. Tenderly rising to her hooves, she checked her balance, and began to limp softly behind Nurse Redheart.
“She just wandered in, like it was nothing!” Redheart explained. “Honestly it took us a moment to realize who it was, and by the time we did, she’d just... passed out!”
“Who exactly are we talking about, nurse?” Twilight asked dryly. “If it’s so important, why...” Twilight stopped cold. Before her lay an unconscious Alicorn, velvet as the night, bearing a cutie mark that resembled a crescent moon...
For all the weirdness this evening had brought, Rainbow Dash felt, if only for a moment, a bit more normal. Soaring high above the Everfree Forest, she sighed contentedly, finally able to stretch her wings. It wasn’t like she didn’t want to help Twilight, it was just... a bit uncomfortable, all that emotional stuff; up here, though, everything was much clearer. Darting and wheeling through the night sky, she felt as though she could see all of Equestria, all her problems laid bare.
Settling down a bit, she dared fly a bit closer to the trees, scanning the forest floor. She’d flown this route before, many times, but lit as it was by the various flames, it seemed... off. There was a strange sense of movement on the ground, like rats scurrying about when you flick on the lights. Dash thought it might just be the heat playing tricks on her eyes, and squinting against the wind, it was almost as though bits of the forest were getting closer.
Yelping loudly as a bolt of flame whisked past her right ear, Rainbow dipped sharply, cutting one wing to a heavy yaw. She threw both wings out harshly, shedding speed, and flapped to a steady hover. Scanning the forest floor, several points of light sped towards her new position, and she quickly set into a dive. Soaring past sharp spears of flame, she picked up, pulling out just below the canopy.
Dodging trees, she did her best to hide her trail, but each time she changed direction, a new volley of flaming arrows seemed to renew their pursuit. Diving further into the brush, a hot streak of pain ripped across her left flank. Cursing as she lost altitude, she pulled out once more, alighting softly on a thick branch of one of the larger trees in the canopy.
The throbbing in her leg subsiding, Rainbow Dash sat perched near a small knot of branches. Absentmindedly rubbing her wounded leg, her ears pricked sharply for any hint of movement.
Quiet. Short of the crackles and light mist that had begun to settle on the leaves, she could scarcely hear a sound. Heaving a sigh, she laid her back against the tree.
“Come on, Rainbow, think!” Rainbow Dash whispered softly, catching her breath. From this vantage point, she could see the forest floor spread wide beneath her, the various passages seemingly open. “But if I can see them, so can they.” Whoever they are... she thought to herself. A loud THUNK broke her concentration, and slowly twisting her head, she saw a flaming arrow not two inches from her face, stuck deeply into the trunk of the old growth.
“No more thinking, MOVE!” She exclaimed, springing from the branch. Soaring straight into the sky, Rainbow whipped back around, and spotting the edge of the forest, made a straight shot of it, as a new volley of fiery arrows and darts peppered the sky.
The long silence ended with a clamor of activity, as a new mass of injured ponies burst into the cave, and the nursing staff rushed back to work. Standing alone, Twilight eyed the Princess carefully, studying her features. Her breathing seemed normal, her eyes quite still, if closed. She didn’t appear to be sleeping, she just... wasn’t all there. Twilight moved to shift the hair out of the Regent’s face when a familiar voice stole her concentration.
“Good heavens, Twilight, what happened to your... well, everything?”
“Rarity!” Twilight said, lifting her good hoof in embrace, “Thank goodness you’re ok!” Stepping back, she looked sheepishly at the stains that still marked her fetlocks. “I... suppose nearly getting crushed by a tree doesn’t exactly suit me,” she continued with a sly grin, “and beige really isn’t my color.”
“I should think not darling, though I suppose in a pinch...” Rarity hesitated, glancing past Twilight at the felled Princess.“Is that...?”
“That’s her, alright...” Twilight said with a shrug. “No idea how she got here. The nurses say her vital signs are normal, they can’t explain why she won’t wake up.”
“Oh my, that is truly bizarre,” said Rarity, dropping to a whisper, “it’s not the only bit of strangeness I’ve come across this evening...”
“Well, back in ponyville before Pinkie very nearly took me down, I happened upon two very suspicious ponies, one of whom I could have sworn looked just like....”
“Wait, Pinkie?” Twilight interrupted, “Is she with you? Is she alright?”
Grimacing lightly, Rarity was for a moment taken aback. “Y..yes, she is, and Fluttershy as well...” Sliding back onto her haunches, she took a breath. “There’s... been a...”
“Rarity,” Twilight started, “what happened?”
As Rarity began to tell the story of how they found Fluttershy, Twilight’s throat began to swell. Knowing how sensitive the demure little pony was already, she couldn’t imagine what a shock like this would do to her, on top of everything else that had happened. Unsure of what to say, the two stood in uncomfortable silence. Around them, the make-shift hospital moved mechanically, seemingly unaware of the unfairness of it all.
“Twilight,” Rarity said, breaking the lull, “We’re going to bu...”
A stir rose from the front of the cave, and above it all, a flurry of words rang out.
“CANTERLOT! PRINCESS, run, RUN! fall, broken, HELP!”
“SPIKE!” Twilight screamed, galloping to the source of the commotion, nearly slamming the baby dragon into the dirt with a relieved hug. “Spike, you’re ok!”
Catching his breath, the purple dragon returned the hug, similarly relieved, and stepped back to see the entire cave staring him down. He gulped lightly.
“I’m OK, Twilight, but we’re not.”
Twilight stared at him, confusion washing over her face. “What do you mean, Spike? What’s going on, where’s the Princess?”
A wave of concurrence rose from the crowd, all wondering the same thing. Spike began to shake a bit, and tears began to form. Closing his eyes, he looked away from the expectant ponies, and clearing his throat, spoke.
In the cellar of what used to be Sweet Apple Acres, Applejack gimped wearily across the floor, nearly an hour of bucking the wrought iron doors had taken their toll. Slumping in the far corner, she rested her head against the footlocker that the caravan had left behind. Too heavy, Mac had said. She supposed he was right; but filled as it was with so many memories, it was all she had at the moment.
Fiddling with the lock, AJ deftly opened the chest, taking out a few photographs. They were aged, but they told a story. A story of triumph, of disaster, of feast and famine. It was her story; but so too was it the story of her family, and her kin. A grainy picture of Granny Smith, a very young Granny, she chuckled to herself, locked in a dance with her Grandpa Golden, holding their first daughter: Sweet Apple. Wiping a tear that had wet the surface of the old picture, she pulled out another memory. Lost in time, a sharp scratching at the cellar door snapped her back to reality.
“AJ, you in there?”
“Yeah, I’m here, Rainbow, s’that you?”
“No, it’s Pinkie Pie...”
“...Pinkie? Well, Run and get some help, I’m kinda stuck down here...”
Applejack heard a thud, followed by a word she was sure Pinkie would never use. “Are you sure you ain’t Rainbow Dash?” She inquired.
“Yes, AJ, it’s me, Rainbow...”
“Well why didn’t you say so?”
“AJ, I swear... look, I cleared the door, but I can’t get the lock unstuck, it’s busted or something. You got anything down there you could brace it with?”
Glancing around the dimly lit cellar, she couldn’t see anything that sturdy, unless...“Dash, you said the door is clear?” Applejack shouted, pulling the hope chest up against the metal hatch.
“Stand back!” AJ roared, rearing up and bucking down on the end of the chest. Slamming open, the chest flew out the now open entryway, crashing into the ground several meters away, the contents scattered over the distance.
Bursting out into the open, Applejack took a deep breath of air, and looking about, called to her friend.
“I’m right here,” came the muffled reply, under a pile of old clothes and picture books.
“Ah,” Applejack chuckled, “Sorry ‘bout that...”
“No problem,” Dash replied dryly, rising to her hooves, “After what it took to get here, I guess some old cloth is the least of m...”
“Land sakes, girl, what happened to you?”
“I’m fine, I’ll tell you on the way, but right now we’ve got to get back to the Everfree Forest and figure out what we’re gonna do about all this...”
“Sorry, Rainbow, but the only way I’m headin’ is thata’way.”
“Out west?” said Rainbow, incredulous. “AJ, come on, our friends are hurt, I still don’t know where half of them are, and they need our help. I need your help. I came out here to find you and help with gettin’ everypony else out, but that’s done and we gotta go. NOW.”
“Rainbow, I done told you, I gotta go get back with my kin.” I don’t have time t’...”
“Time to what? Time to help us fix this mess? Time to help your friends?”
Applejack sighed. “Look. I appreciate you comin’ t’get me. I understand that we might be able to help, but I gotta look after my family. You know they come first.” She sniffed the air, looking away. “They always come first.”
Frustrated, Rainbow Dash kicked the pile of clothes that once lay atop her. Looking a bit more closely, she saw something glittering in the darkness, seeming to have it’s own light.
“Then don’t do it for our friends, AJ. Don’t do it for me, heck, don’t even do it for your family.” Reaching into the pile, she picked up a jeweled necklace, bearing a large red apple, and tossed it at AJ’s hooves. “We got a duty, Applejack. Not to ourselves, not to our friends. To Equestria. To Celestia.”
Applejack sighed heavily. “Look, I...”
“AJ, Whatever this is, this insanity, it’s got Twilight and her egghead magic written all over it. She needs you... She needs all of us.”
AJ stared down at the necklace. The element of honesty; her element. Padding it softly, she lifted the pendant out of the dirt. It pulsed lightly in her hoof, the faint glow calling to her. Applejack closed her eyes, and a soft tear slipped the breach, rolling down her cheeks and wetting the dirt below.
“I reckon you’re right, Dash,” She sighed wearily, turning back towards Rainbow, “but you promise me, right here, right now, that as soon as we can, we head out to Appleloosa to check on everypony?”
Rainbow held up a hoof, and hocked a wad of spit on it, holding it out with a sly grin. “As soon as we can, sister.”
Returning the spit-shake, AJ cracked a smile. “Let’s do this.”
Twilight’s ears rung with a deafening tone; her sight blurred and dizzy, she fell back awkwardly onto her haunches. Spike’s voice ran through her mind in rapid repetition, as the world narrowed to a singular point of light.
“...dead...” he had said. Celestia, bringer of the sun, Goddess of an empire....Her personal friend and mentor... was dead.
She wasn’t sure what one was supposed to feel at a moment like this, but she was entirely sure she was doing it wrong. There was no sadness, no anger, no sickening sense of... anything. She was numb, from head to toe, empty.
Around her, the gasps and cries had fallen to a simmer. The nurses slowly returned to their duties, but most ponies just lay in shock.
Rising to her hooves, Twilight wandered aimlessly down rows of spent ponies, some with broken limbs, others with broken ribs- all with broken hearts. Soft sobs still echoed through the damp corners of the cave. Some painful, most mournful, the pitiful sounds lingered heavily on the peaty walls. The soft clatter of medical routine began to return as Rarity slowly approached her.
"Twilight…" Rarity whispered softly, "I… I truly have no words. I know how close…"
"Don't." Twilight rasped, a subtle anger edging her words, more than she'd have
liked. "I… Thank you, Rarity” she sighed, “I just don't think I'll be of any use right now.”
Rarity took a step back. She had been unsure of how to approach Twilight, but then she wasn't sure of anything anymore. Nopony was. She pressed on, "I understand darling, though I was wondering if you'd be up to helping us bury Angel. It... would mean the world to the poor dear, I'm sure."
Twilight stared blankly past Rarity for a moment, then nodded to nopony in particular. Trotting towards the entrance of the cave, the familiar scent of peat and decay greeted them as they stepped out into the forest. Gazing towards the skies, Rarity noted that the firestorm had all but ceased, for now, but she was anxious to get on with it. Much as she wanted to be there for her friend, she knew this night was far from over.
Stopping at the edge of a small hole, Rarity nodded towards Spike, who reverently laid the small rabbit neatly at the bottom of the grave. Sobbing softly, Fluttershy gently pushed a bit of dirt over Angel, as Pinkie tamped it down into a neat mound.
Hushed, the group stood silent for a moment, as Fluttershy knelt at the foot of the grave, periodically rubbing her eyes. Soft sniffles circled around, and Spike lightly scuffed his feet against the damp soil. Rarity coughed lightly, and Fluttershy, peering up at her friends, ambled slowly to her hooves. With tears in her voice, she began to speak.
“Um... th..thank you all.” Fluttershy croaked weakly, “I... um... I’ve lost little friends before, working with creatures often comes with that... problem. But...Angel was different. He...” Fluttershy faltered. New tears rose unbidden to her cheeks as she tried to continue... “He was my friend when nopony came out to the cottage... he... was my first... friend...” Fluttershy collapsed under the weight of the task she was performing. Rarity and Pinkie Pie rushed quickly to her side, leaving Twilight alone at the far corner of the grave.
Trotting slowly around the resting site, she nuzzled Fluttershy’s cheek, softly whispering words of comfort. “Rarity, I...I’m going to go check on the Princess, will you all be alright out here for a bit?” Rarity nodded solemnly, brushing a gentle hoof down Fluttershy’s mane.
Leaving her friends at the graveside, Twilight limped towards the back of the cave. The initial shock had begun to wear down, but the numbness remained; it was all that seemed to remain. She’d try to cry, but no tears would come, be angry but no ire. Frustrated, she sat with a huff at the back of the cave, facing away from the felled Princess. Staring blankly towards the forest, she could see Pinkie and the others helping Fluttershy to her hooves, as they began to slowly trot inside.
“Well, Princess, I’m lost.” Twilight started. “Your sister is gone, Canterlot is in ruins, my friends are in pain, and I don’t know how to help any of them. Honestly, how could things get any wors...”
Interrupted by a sharp rustle behind her, she turned to investigate. Princess Luna stood looming against the shadows of the cave. Her eyes were impossibly wide, and moist with tears, dark pupils narrowed to a fine point. Her horn began to glow white with heat, as energetic motes of light sparked off in every direction. As the two ponies blinked out of existence, a single sentence lingered in the ether...
“I’m not a Princess,” said Luna.
A Tangled Web Vol. I: The Fall
The trap is set
the bait’s been met
with bated breath we wait
The lie’s been told
now truth unfolds
the hour, dear sister, is late.
Chapter Three- Secrets and Lies
Deep within the trails of the Everfree Forest, a stallion galloped freely through the vines. Scarcely drifting from his path, even the peat seemed to stiffen underhoof, as though the forest itself parted for his presence. Dark of pelt, his flowing mane cast long shadows along his back. He bore a silver cutie mark, a soft quill shimmering against the darkness; while silver wisps of hair softened the edges of his brown fetlocks, shorn rough by time and stature.
Bursting through the forest’s edge, he slowed to a sharp canter, as he cautiously edged his way along the narrow clearing between the brush and a steep canyon masked by dark fog. Ducking beneath a rough bramble, he saw his target lay ahead. An ancient ruin, covered in a heavy coat of ivy, bearing two regal crests, seemingly new against the crumbling walls.
Hooves heavy upon the rope bridge, the old unicorn passed the gates into the main chamber of the castle, bending low into a deep, abiding bow.
“Your Highness,” he toned with a clear voice, raspy yet smooth. “I bear news from beyond the Everfree.”
“Rise, Silvertongue,” hissed a silky voice, “and come near. These shadows do us little justice, do they not?”
Silvertongue rose gently, stepping towards the firelit end of the chamber. Before him sat an Alicorn, white from hoof to horn. Her eyes, formed of deep slits upon her long face, shone a regal white, glowing very nearly blue in the darkness of the ruined throne room. Approaching the dim light of the altar, Silvertounge at last brought his gaze to meet his monarch.
“Now,” said the Alicorn, her words singing heavily on the still air, “what news do you bring us this fortunate evening? Word on the Elements, I presume.”
“My liege, the Elements have been provoked. Their actions will follow to your plans, and you will have them here by daybreak,” he paused, lowering his head slightly, “your apprentice will see to that.”
“You’ve met with her then?”
“Yes, your Majesty. I have made your instructions most clear.”
The Alicorn smiled lightly, her eyes twinkling in the fires glow. “And what of the whelp?” she asked, a chill settling into her voice. “Has she been deposed?”
The unicorn hesitated, stepping a hoof cautiously back from the throne. “There... was a mishap,” he shivered, “Luna...”
“What have you been told about that name?” The Alicorn bellowed, her eyes flashing a deep crimson. Fire streaked along the walls of the ruin, growing to magnificent heights, singeing the mane of the old unicorn who stood trembling at the altar. “I will not hear it again!”
“Yes, your Majesty,” quivered Silvertongue, bowing low before her. “It... will not happen again.” He paused, regaining his composure. “Sadly, when Her Highness dispatched the Usurper, the whelp was not in her appointed place. She... has eluded us.”
“Not a worry,” the Alicorn sighed, her fury vanished. “I have a feeling...”
“Not a WORRY?” cried a voice from the far side of the chamber, “Morana, you can’t be serious, after all we’ve been through to get to this point!”
“Aerona, my dear sister, you’ve awoken,” Morana sang with a thin smile, “come, join me at the altar. This is a night of jubilation.”
“That little harpy is still out there, after I killed her sister!” The younger twin huffed, turning as she strode to glare at the unicorn before them. “Can our servants do nothing right?”
“Silvertongue,” chirped Morana, “if you would be so kind, please take leave to your chambers, I must speak with my sister in private.”
Bowing sharply, the old unicorn turned about, trotting towards the hall at the far end of the throne room. Hearing the door clatter shut, Morana turned a soft gaze upon the younger, nipping affectionately at her neck.
“What is the matter, dear? This is our night!”
“I’m aware of that, Morana,” Aerona replied dryly, “but the fact that she’s still out there...”
“Dear sister,” Morana interrupted, “she is but a detail of our plans. Do you not still taste the vengeance on your tongue?”
Aerona’s eyes dimmed slightly, as she allowed herself a weak smile. “Yes, sister.”
“Do our fires not still cleanse the soil from which our enemies draw their feed, nor poison the air which they breathe? We have, in one swift movement, removed the true thief!” Cried Morana, throwing her hoof into the air. “I promise you, my beloved, that by the time our sun rises upon the lands that forsook our very names, we shall have our birthright once more!”
Blinking out of the ether, Twilight landed harshly upon a wet patch of ground in the Everfree Forest. Her horn lit white hot as she rose quickly to her hooves, turning about sharply to face the deep blue Alicorn.
“Who are you?” Twilight shouted, levitating anything she could find. “What are you? What have you done with the Princess?”
“I am Luna,” she replied flatly. “Sister of Celestia, and Regent of the Equestrian night...”
“But... But you said you weren’t a Princess.” Twilight cried, her hackles rising. “What, are you a Queen now?” she shouted, hurling a large rock at the Alicorn. “Nightmare Moon come back to finish what you started!?”
“Twilight!” Luna shouted, the projectile falling harmlessly off a magical field, “We don’t have time for this. If you’d let me explain...”
“Explain WHAT?” Twilight screamed, her skin crawling with rage. “Explain that you killed Celestia? That your petty little jealousy couldn’t be satisfied with just half the power in the world? Is that it?” Her eyes taking on a white glow, Twilight shot several more stones and branches at Luna. “That’s it, isn’t it? We’ll send you right back to the...”
“TWILIGHT SPARKLE, THAT IS ENOUGH!” Luna roared, a wave of magical energy sparking out in all directions, knocking Twilight back several feet. “Do you understand what ONE THOUSAND YEARS IS? What it is to be separated from everything, from everypony, from family and friends and your home?”
A flap of Luna’s broad wings brought her inches from the unicorns face. Twilight stared on with wide eyes as the Alicorn’s expression drew hard and set.
“But that wasn’t enough, was it?” Luna rasped, her voice low and edged with anger. “A thousand years, each night colder than the last; but still I saw my homeland. Every night, I could feel it. Every night, connected just enough for a smell, or a taste, only to have it ripped from my grasp... a cruel tease. No... you can not comprehend what that is, child,” she stood away, holding her head at full height. “I pray you never will.”
Luna took a half step back, turning to gaze into the forest. Glancing back at Twilight, soft tears began to form at the corners of her eyes. “And before you accuse me of treachery this evening, Twilight Sparkle,” she paused, huffing back tears, “please recall that you are not the only one who lost somepony tonight.”
Twilight sat awkwardly upon her haunches, dumbstruck as Luna turned to walk away. Watching the midnight Alicorn disappear into the shadows of the forest, she stood slowly, shaking some errant leaves from her mane. Stepping lightly, she followed the Regent into the brush.
“What do you mean, Vanished?” cried Rarity, pointing a hoof at the bewildered nursepony.
“They just... vanished...” Tenderheart replied, slightly shaken. “The Princess floated off her mat, and then there was this bright flash of light, then... poof! I’ve never seen anything like it...” she muttered, trailing incoherently as she fell back on her haunches.
“Well, that’s not at all helpful,” Rarity huffed, trotting towards the others. “If the Princess woke up, why would she just whisk Twilight away like that?”
Pinkie Pie shrugged. “Maybe she needed some privacy?”
“Fine, but she’s a Princess! Even after the inevitable bustle, she could have just ordered everypony away...”
“yes, but... um...” Fluttershy squeaked, shrinking a bit from the sudden attention “well, maybe she, um, needed Twilight’s help...” she paused, turning towards the back of the cave. “We could see if she left any clues, um... if you want to.”
Unconvinced, Rarity trotted over to the matted hay where the Princess once lay. Nothing seemed out of place, short of the missing Regent. Nudging gently at the straw, she carefully turned over a few matted bits, but found nothing.
“Hey, what’s that?” said Pinkie, bounding beside the startled unicorn.
“What’s what darling?” Rarity responded dryly, “I don’t see anything...”
“That spirally thing on the wall of the cave!” smiled Pinkie, her eyes widening. “It looks pretty.”
Upon closer inspection, Rarity saw what appeared to be an odd symbol: a dark, narrow spiral, rimmed with several sharp triangles around the edge. “Strange,” she said, stepping back. “It looks like something you might find at Zecora’s hut, but why would it be here on the wall?”
“Dunno,” replied Pinkie, “Maybe we should ask her!”
“Yes, well, we’ll have to go get Rainbow Dash and Apple...” she paused, glancing over at the now crestfallen pink pony. “Pinkie, dear, what’s the matter?”
Pinkie Pie sighed, glancing between her friends and the symbol on the wall. “Y..you guys go on ahead, Rarity. There’s something I gotta do before we leave.” she said, casting a sad eye towards the far end of the cave.
“Fluttershy and I will get our things, you can meet us outside in a few minutes.” she nodded, as the pair trotted towards the front of the cave.
Pinkie Pie stood quietly for a moment, before pacing slowly across the rows of cots, towards a pair of sleeping ponies against the far wall. Stepping softly up to the cot, she gently nudged the taller of the two, a yellow stallion with a square-set jaw. “Mr. Cake?” she whispered, “are you up?”
Receiving no response, Pinkie looked about, finding a pen and small scroll on the nurses stand. Carefully scrawling a letter, she sniffled slightly as she wrote, clumsily manipulating the pen with her teeth. Inspecting her work, she hastily scratched out the last line, rolling it neatly before sliding it beneath the sleeping stallion’s pillow.
She took a step back, leaned in and lightly kissed the stallion’s forehead, whispering a soft thank you as she began to back away. Wiping a tear from her eyes, the earthpony turned tail and trotted slowly towards the outside world.
Trotting in uncomfortable silence, Twilight’s mind was spinning. There were so many questions, and the one pony who might have some answers wasn’t quite up to talking. The pair passed endless rows of gnarled pines beset with a strange assortment of climbers and roots, while just beyond the shadows the forest seemed to writhe with a dark and eerie life; yet despite the foreboding nature of the forest, Twilight felt safe. For the first time in a long time, truly safe.
Steeling herself to the task, Twilight at last broke the silence. “Luna,” she started, clearing her throat...
“I have a final promise to my sister that I must fulfill,” said Luna flatly, “and then you can be on your way.”
“No, Luna, wait. Please... I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions like that, and... and I shouldn’t have made such a terrible assumption, that you would be so heartless as to...” Twilight paused a moment, biting her lip, “I mean, she was my teacher, but she was your sister... I’m so sorry Luna.”
Luna released a heavy sigh, slowing her trot. “I understand, Twilight,” she turned towards the unicorn, her eyes softening a bit, “and thank you... Honestly, in your horseshoes I might suspect the same thing.”
Twilight nodded, peering back into the forest ahead. “What is happening, Princess?”
“Luna, please.” she insisted, “I am no Princess.”
“Right, but Luna,” replied Twilight, “that’s what I don’t understand.”
“You’re a clever mare, Twilight,” started Luna, “I should know, Tia never shut up about it.” she grinned. “So you tell me. How is it that we’ve come to live in a Kingdom without a King, or a Queen?”
Twilight stopped in her tracks. She’d never really thought about it, actually. Her whole life she’d known the Princess controlled the Sun and Moon, and that was enough. Staring blankly at Luna, she shrugged.
“Hmmm..” Luna smiled dryly, “and what of the existence of a ruined castle deep within the Everfree Forest?”
“Well,” Twilight began, “I assumed that was where you and Celestia lived before...”
“Yes, that’s what she told everypony,” Luna interrupted, “but I can honestly say I’ve never lived there in my life. Neither had she to my knowledge.”
“Look, Twilight,” Luna continued, “I’m going to be honest with you. When...whatever happened, happened, I was still a foal. I don’t have all the answers yet, but when we get where we’re going, things are going to get a bit clearer...” the Alicorn turned about suddenly, murmuring softly to herself.
The two ponies stood in a small clearing, behind a row of large oaks. Looking around, Twilight slowly began to recognize small bits. Even in the darkness, she realized that she’d been here before. A rustle from behind one of the bushes startled the unicorn, as a tall hooded figure emerged from the shadows, and spoke in a very familiar tone...
“Though tidings grave have brought us to this place, in times like these I’ll take a friendly face.”
Trotting at the outskirts of Ponyville, Applejack kept a nervous eye on the horizon, scanning for any signs of movement. Her ears pricked sharply in constant motion, searching for a hint of danger, the slightest crack or hoof-fall out of place. A task made all the more difficult by the pegasus pony doing somersaults around her head...and talking.
“...So then I...”
“...Loop-de-loop around and...”
“...Nick of time!”
“RAINBOW!” shouted Applejack, panting lightly, “I got it, it’s a very exciting story! The first three times, anyway...”
“Heh, sorry...” giggled Dash, glancing sheepishly at AJ as she softly touched down.
“ ‘Sides, if the forest is as dangerous as you say it is now, we’ll need to be as quiet as possible time we get there.” AJ squinted against the darkness, trying to figure out exactly where they were. “Which should be soon, I’d reckon”
As the pair slowly crept up to the forest’s edge. Rainbow Dash grunted lightly, turning her attention to the char beneath her hooves. For once in her life, she was glad to be on the ground, the echoes of her last flight still fresh in her mind. Shaking her mane slightly, she stopped mid-stride, as her ears pricked back and forth.
“AJ,” hoarsed Rainbow, “did you hear that?”
“Yeah I did,” whispered AJ, ducking behind a felled branch. “Get down, I think somepony’s comin’...”
Laying in wait, the two ponies shared an approving glance, silently counting down as three shadows emerged from the forest. Passing closer, the shadows crept silently by the tree, as Rainbow pounced upon them.
“Gotcha-a-aah it’s Rarity!!!” she shouted, landing harshly on the alabaster unicorn.
“Nice to see you too, Rainbow Dash,” mumbled Rarity, “Now if you would be so kind as to get off of me...”
“Applejack!” Pinkie shouted, pouncing on the earthpony as she trotted from behind the tree.
“Hey, where’s Twilight?” asked Rainbow, expectantly, “I’d of thought this would be her...” she trailed off, seeing the expressions of her friends fall sharply at the name.
As Rarity quietly explained what they’d missed, the jovial mood slipped silently into the night. Rainbow sat back on her hooves, staring into the forest, fighting back tears, while Applejack’s jaw set hard against her face. A wistful silence fell over the group, broken only by the soft rustle of the forest behind them. AJ was the first to finally speak.
“Far as I see it, we got two options here,” she coughed, clearing her throat, “Do we go off towards Zecora’s, hopin’ that’s what the princess meant, or do we head back towards the cave, an’ start our search there?”
“Silly hayseed,” responded a haughty voice from the trees, “I think I might be of assistance there...but it’ll cost you!”
A flurry of sparks and cracks streamed out of the forest, quickly trapping the group in a tight circle. Bursts of color shot in every direction, nearly striking each of them in turn, as out from the trees swung a light blue unicorn, wearing a star studded cape.
“Well, well, well,” she laughed, her voice singing over the fiery display, “it looks like the gang’s all here...” her eyes narrowed, lined with malice, “well, almost all.”
“Trixie!” Applejack shouted, stepping forward. “What‘n the hay are you doin’ here?”
“Just dropping in, seeing if The Great and Powerful Trixie’s favorite Ponyvillians needed her help,” she paused, glancing around the group. “Which, as she suspected, seems to be the case!”
“Help?” snerked Rarity, “HA! As I recall our Twilight ran you out on a rail when that Ursa came to town. I hardly think...”
“Oh... Rarity, was it?” chuckled Trixie, “Yes, I’d recognize that rat’s nest of a mane anywhere... Trixie will admit that her performance in Ponyville was, shall we say, lacking,” she paused, turning to face the group with a hard glare. “...but Trixie got a new teacher.” she smiled viciously.
Rising to her hind legs, Trixie’s horn began to glow, as behind her a mass of stones and soil floated high above. Swiping her forehooves, the sod quickly burst into flames, peppering the ground where AJ and the others were trapped.
Bounding left and right, crashing into one another, the ponies fought bitterly to avoid the falling brimstone. Pinkie yelped loudly as fire ripped down her back, crashing heavily into Fluttershy, who covered her face in her hooves. Freeing herself from the melee, Applejack turned quickly, bucking the nearest branch she could find, narrowly missing Trixie’s head.
“That’s enough Trixie,” she shouted, panting as she turned back to face the startled unicorn. “Nice trick an’ all, but why don’t you tell us why you’re really here!”
“All business, I see...” Trixie glowered, pacing around the flames “Very well. The Great and Powerful Trixie happens to know where Twilight and your little Princess are,” she paused, turning towards the ponies with a wide and angry smile. “But more importantly, I know where they are heading...”
“So tell us!” screamed Rainbow Dash, flapping to a hover. “Tell us where they are or else...”
“Or else what?” Trixie snapped, a tight smile creeping onto her face. “How about we play a game. I’ll tell you where Twilight is when you find me,” she cackled, rearing back while her horn flared a bright blue. “Catch me if you can!” she shouted with malevolent glee, disappearing behind a conjured veil of smoke as she galloped deep into the forest.