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Beyond Judgment

Part I: Twilight's Discovery

It happened by pure chance; A simple connection that almost wasn't made. Had a single synapse in Twilight's mind fired differently in that moment she would have never pieced together the first two parts of a puzzle she didn't know existed.

Twilight was standing in her basement, pouring over a new book she had received from Canterlot the day before: The Safety Guide to Advanced Magic. She had been looking forward to delving into this one herself since the incident with Trixie, so extra precautions were taken to ensure that she wasn't disturbed. Every entryway into the building was closed, locked, and if possible, bolted. The door to the basement itself was even barricaded with a spare bookshelf, for good measure. Hoof written notes were placed neatly on the front door and the windows saying that Twilight was not to be disturbed and that the library was closed for the day.


“Is that really necessary?” Spike had asked her earlier after hanging the last sign. “You don't have to say the library's closed. You're the only pony around who actually reads any of this stuff.”

“That's beside the point!” Twilight replied, holding her head high and placing her hoof proudly on her chest. “The lack of business at this library should have no bearing on how I conduct it. It's a matter of principle.”

“If that's the case, then you wouldn't close the place and do your studying somewhere else.”

“No, this book is more important than the library.”

Spike slapped his hand on his face and sighed. “Whatever.”

“Don't worry, Spike, I've got a special job for you to do while I'm studying.” Twilight said, patting the dragon's head.

Annoyed, Spike swatted he hoof away, and then saluted at the idea of being given a task. “Right! What do you need?” he said, and produced a parchment and quill.

“First, I need you to go to Sweet Apple Acres and get me the largest apple you can find from the smallest tree in her grove. Then, I want you to go to Carousel Boutique and get me three ounces of powdered rubies – just don't eat it. Finally, I want you to go to Zecora's and bring me a jug of potion-grade purified water. Purify it yourself if you have to. Got all that?”

“Purified … water. Got it!” Spike said as he finished his dictation. “Wow, that's one heck of a list. It'll take me all day to get this stuff!”

Twilight used her magic to open the front door, and started to push Spike out through it with her head. “Well then, I guess you'd better get on that. Goodbye Spike. Remember, don't come back until you've got everything!”

Caught off guard and physically off balance by Twilight's insistence, Spike hesitated before closing the door. “Jeeze, it's like you're trying to get rid of me, or something. What's all this for, anyway?”

“I'll tell you when you get back. Hurry, though, you've got a lot to do and daylight's burning!”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm on it.” Spike said, turning to leave and waving back. “Have fun studying.”

Twilight sighed in relief as she magically closed the door. She then retrieved a quill and the checklist she had hidden from the baby dragon in the drawer of her study table. “Send Spike on a pointless errand that will keep him occupied all day … Check!” she said, ticking off the final item.

Spike was surprisingly resourceful on his errands, and never returned empty handed without good reason. So just to make sure he wouldn't get back until nightfall, Twilight had asked Zecora to spend the afternoon “keeping him busy” with that water – if it wasn't too much trouble, of course.

“If a stall tactic is what you need, have no fear, you can count on me!” Zecora reassured her. “He'll spend all day on a useless brew, and once upon nightfall, I'll send him home to you.”


All the effort of closing up the library and sending Spike out on a pointless quest wasn't just for her own peace of mind, but for safety's sake. After all, Twilight was preparing to study a safety manual, and it's impossible to practice safety during dangerous spells without, well, danger. A stray bolt of energy in an open field could go anywhere, but in her basement, at least she was contained. The downstairs room was at least as large as the main room upstairs, but the walls were of solid rock. The roots of the great old tree the library was carved out of weaved and tangled around the walls. Nooks and crannies carved out of the underground stump and stone served as shelves for books and other supplies. Other than that, the basement was left mostly empty. She usually reserved this place for running larger experiments like this. Twilight herself would be alright, probably, she just wanted to make sure everyone else would be, at least.

Back when Twilight had faced the grumpy Ursa Minor, she had used every bit of her magical power to ease him back to sleep. More power than she was aware she had at the time. The adrenaline rush at the time kept her going afterward, but she paid for it the next day with a terrible ache all through her body, especially her chest, head and, somehow, even her horn. She refused to pour that much energy into a spell until she could get her hooves on the Safety Guide for Advanced Magic.

And so, barricaded and secluded in her basement, Twilight spent hours reading through the first half of The Guide. Actual testing of her most difficult spells would have to come after she thoroughly studied the book, perhaps even memorized it. After all, the second most important thing other than being accurate is being safe. She took copious notes and kept them stacked nearby. Having anticipated the need for cross referencing some information, she made of a point of selecting every possible book she expected to need and placed them in the shelf she barricaded the door with. After verifying everything she could, it wasn't long before each and every one of those books were stacked in a pile around her. It was one of the most intense study sessions she had ever done.

As she began to get a migraine, Twilight needed to take a breather; so said The Safety Guide for Advanced Studying she had read long ago. This break was more or less involuntary as she collapsed on her side and several books, notes, and quills fell around her. One such note landed on her face, which she blew away with a snort.

“So tired … my head … but I can't quit.” Twilight mumbled to herself. “If I'm going to keep learning magic, I have to be able to learn even stronger spells … If I can't do that safely, I’m no good … This is too important … I can’t let Celestia down.

Twilight's heart wanted to go on, but her mind wouldn't. So, she rolled over with her head on a book as a pillow and allowed herself a small nap. Again, this was largely involuntary; she had actually rolled over because she landed with the spine of a book wedged against her own as she fell. Once she turned and her cheek touched the cool, soft leather binding of the other book it was lights out.


A few hours later, Twilight eased back into consciousness. She slowly staggered onto her hooves and looked around, dreary-eyed.

“The first thing to do after falling asleep during a study session is to determine where you were before you passed out.” Twilight said to herself, quoting The Safety Guide to Advanced Studying with a little bit of a dazed slur and a droopy eyelid

Twilight shook her head a bit to regain her composure and started to collect and organize everything around her, glancing through all her notes and the open pages of the books where they lay. They all swirled around her in a purple aura of magic before settling into their places. “Also, check any paper products in the vicinity of where your head was to ensure that you didn't drool on anything. If you did, immediately rewrite any notes, and tally the cost of any borrowed books that have been damaged.” she continued.

The thought of harming that wonderful book that was kind enough to be her pillow was enough to startle Twilight back into focus. She magically lifted it up to her face and examined it all over in a panic. Seeing that it was alright, she sighed deeply and indulged herself with one last nudge of the cheek before placing it down with the others.

“Okay, that's enough fooling around. Back to work.” Twilight said, delving back into The Guide.

The particular chapter she was on was about how a unicorn can tell if she is pushing her magic too hard. “ … It is difficult to verify what it is like to continue to increase the power of a spell with this kind of suicidal intensity as unicorns have forfeited their lives in this manner. However, there are records of a few unicorns that have pushed themselves to the brink and survived. Descriptions vary, but they all seem to involve the caster's physical feelings becoming numb. Almost as though the pony's neurological system is imploding in on itself into the very center of her body.

This line sounded familiar to Twilight. She thought hard, and searched her memory for where it was. “Feeling … center of body … I've heard that in a spell before … What was it? … Ah! A detection spell!”

Click. The first two pieces of the puzzle came together.

Abandoning her post, Twilight ran upstairs. Taking a moment to dislodge the bookshelf from the door, she went back into the main room of the library and began to search frantically for the Mind's Eye: A Compendium of Sensory Spells book she was looking for. The main room of the library was about two stories tall, all carved out from the inside of the tree. The lower level was where most of the books and other things were kept in shelves carved out from the wood. Floral design carvings adorned the shelves and other surfaces along the walls and ceiling. At the upper level there were balconies both on the outside and the inside, which also included Twilight and Spike's bedroom.

“Oh, if only Spike were around, he'd know where it was … Ah, ha!”

There it was, all the way in the back of the book, the most difficult spell listed in the “Sensing Ponies” chapter. “All living creatures seem to emit a kind of energy. Studying this energy is extremely difficult as only this, the most advanced sensory spell ever conceived, is able to detect it. If a pony is able to successfully cast this spell, she will be able to feel the energy in other creatures. This energy is always focused in the center of its body, around the heart.

“Oh, wow, so this detection spell senses the energy of a pony. The same energy that fades when a pony … uses too much magic?” Twilight whispered to herself. Something didn't seem quite right about that.

It was all getting a little spooky. But Twilight knew to be prepared for that when she read that unicorns had died from pushing themselves too hard. “Wait, I've heard that before too … Sensing the heart … Oh! It was in a story I read from a war history book!”

Click. Another piece fit together.

This story took twilight a little longer to find in all the history books. She was afraid she wouldn't find it at all since the story wasn't about magic, but about a scout who's companion was mortally injured during a failed mission: “She was bleeding so much, I couldn't do anything about it. I don't know healing magic, I just sense things. A fat lot of good it was doing us now! I kept telling her she would be alright soon, but she never said anything back. I just held her in my hooves. All I could do was sense. I sensed her blood spill slowly on the ground. I sensed her breathing slow. I sensed her heart stop. I sensed her energy fade away. I sensed all of it.

A chill went down Twilight's spine as she read the passage. But it all made sense. The energy these books were all talking about wasn't just magic or feeling, it was the life force of a pony. “I've read about the idea of a life force before … Medical books! I need healing spells!”

Click, click, click. The pieces were all coming together. Twilight was figuring something out, but she wasn't sure what it was yet. She had completely forgotten about magical safety at this point. To the contrary, she was making something very unsafe.

Most of the advanced healing spells Twilight read about made some kind of mention to a life force. It generally involved mending the body in such a way so as to let the energy flow naturally and aid the recovery of a patient. The finer points of this made her feel a bit squeamish. Each new connection made Twilight more and more excited. She was definitely making a big discovery.

“I've gathered enough evidence to prove the existence of a soul!” Twilight shouted, bounding around the room like Pinkie on an exceptionally good day. “I could write a thesis! I could write a book! I could win an award! I could-!”

Twilight stopped suddenly as a new idea dawned on her. She had evidence, but to really prove it she would need more than that. She needed a use for it.

“I need to invent a spell! My very own spell! I've never invented a spell! This kind of thing only happens once in a lifetime!” Twilight gasped. “Celestia will be so proud of me! I just need to think, what can I do with this?! Ah, I know!”

Click. Just one last piece left to fall into place.

Twilight recalled another quill and parchment from her desk. She then transcribed everything she had just discovered about the function of life force. The use of a telekinesis spell in combination with the sensory spell she just learned, she theorized how it would be possible to hold onto life force without letting it fade away. Of course, a number of healing spells would be necessary to recover the body of the pony whose life force was already fading. She then read aloud as she wrote the conclusion of her spell. Her writing was calm and steady, but her voice was shaky and ecstatic.

“And so, with the body restored from the initial injury, the life force is then pulled back into the body and allowed to fill back into it. All of this must be done shortly after the injury, since the body will immediately begin to decay. Furthermore, once the life force is faded completely, there is no known way to bring it back. Using these techniques, it is entirely possible to bring a recently dead pony back to life!”

There was a long pause in the library after Twilight finished her writing. The quill and parchment hung in the air as the significance of what she had just written sunk in, her eyes still wide and somewhat crazed. She could bring the dead back to life. She wasn't even sure Celestia herself had that kind of power.



A few hours later, just as night started to fall, Spike returned from his errands. He struggled to carry a jug of the most pristine water anypony had ever seen, while balanced on the lid was a measuring cup with shimmering red powder and topped with a small, green, unripened apple.

“I'm home, Twilight!” Spike shouted from behind his jug as he came through the door. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to purify all this water? I was blowing fire and boiling this stuff all day!” He set down his spoils from the afternoon, and then puffed out his chest triumphantly. “But I got it all by myself!”

Looking around, he noticed Twilight was nowhere to be found in the main room. Everything was perfectly shelved and organized, just as he left it earlier. “Huh, that's strange. I figured she'd tear this place apart like she always does.”

Spike headed up the staircase and looked for Twilight in the bedroom. “Twilight?! I got the ruby dust too! Rarity just about fainted when I told her I wanted to crush the stuff! Oh, man, that would have been great if she did! Uh, I mean I could have picked her up and carrier her to a couch, or something, and show off how strong I am!”

Unable to find Twilight upstairs either, Spike headed back down to look in the basement. He was starting to get a little worried; she never stays out late unless Pinkie's throwing a party or something. She wouldn't be anywhere but here while she's studying, but why wasn't she responding? “The apple was the hard part! Applejack's got all kinds of small trees, and most of them don't even have apples! The only one on any of them is this lump!”

Spike reached for the door to the basement and opened it. “Twilight?”

Sure enough, there Twilight was after all. She was just finishing up cleaning the last of her mess from earlier that day. Having apparently been too focused, or too distracted, to hear Spike shouting earlier, his short question startled her and she flinched. The book she was putting back also jerked, knocking a few more on the floor.

“Ah! Oh! Spike, you're home!” Twilight replied, sounding a bit jittery.

“I got everything you wanted. You okay, Twilight?”

“Yes, I'm fine, thank you. Did you find everything you needed alright?” She asked, starting to pick up the books she dropped.

“Nah, nothing you're number one assistant couldn't handle!” Spike said, puffing up his chest again. “But wait, you're the one who needed all this junk. What's it for anyway?”

Twilight trotted – cantered – up the staircase past Spike. “Oh, nothing, don't worry about it.”

“Nothing!” Spike shouted, irritated. “I spent all day getting this stuff, and you don't even want it?”

Turning back, Twilight said “I'm sorry, thank you for getting all this for me, really. I just don't need it right now is what I mean. It's been a long day, I think I just need to go to bed.”

“If you say so.” Spike said, then stretched and yawned. “Yeah, I'm worn out too. I walked clear across Ponyville today. It's like somepony picked the longest errand for me on purpose.” He said, raising an eyebrow at Twilight.

Twilight didn't respond, and just continued cantering up to her bed. A brief look of concern flashed across Spike's face. He didn't know what to make of her behavior, so he just shrugged it off. “Ponies!” he thought dismissively.


After having dinner by himself, Spike went up to the balcony to his own basket bed at the foot of Twilight's. She seemed sound asleep so he climbed in and started to settle down for the night.

“Um, Spike?” Somepony whispered.

The voice was so soft, Spike thought it may have been Fluttershy for a second before he realized it was coming from Twilight, who had lifted her head. “Yeah?” He replied.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Can it wait until tomorrow?”

“It's just that … Would you mind sleeping over here with me tonight?”

That caught Spike by surprise. “Huh? But we haven't slept together since you were a filly. Well, except that time you read that headless horse novel. Is that what this is about?”

“Um … Yes.” Twilight replied, forcing a smile.

“Eh, I'm too tired to care right now. Whatever you want.” Spike said begrudgingly before hopping onto Twilight's bed and curling into a ball. “Good night, Twilight.”

Twilight scooted over a little bit so she could feel Spike's back against her own. “Thanks, Spike.”

With the warmth of a familiar body next to hers, Twilight was able to get to sleep a little more easily. But still, she had a nightmare about ponies rising from the dead. Ponies from the past, many of which whose bodies were ravaged by time. They reached for her, calling out to her.

Why couldn't you save us, Twilight? Why couldn't you have been here earlier?”

Beyond Judgment

Part II: The Accident

Twilight didn't ask again for Spike to sleep next to her after that night. Although, the nightmares did persist for a few days. Eventually, by forcing her discovery to the back of her mind, and the instructions she had written into the back of some secret location, she was able to largely forget what she learned. Granted, forgetting things was not an easy task for her.

In the following months there was a subtle change in Twilight's attitude. She was aware of the difference, and she knew why it was, but she felt is was for the better nonetheless.


“Oh, man!” Spike shouted ecstatically from Twilight's back. “Do you think she'll actually do it this time?! Do you think she'll actually pull off another sonic rainboom?!”

“That's the idea.” Twilight said, trotting down the open road. “Dash has been practicing for weeks. I hope she finally does it again.”

It was an excellent day for flight practice. There was a scheduled rainstorm just a few days earlier, and all the clouds had been cleared out since. Taking the opportunity to fly in the bright, shining sun, Rainbow Dash was going to spend the day attempting to perfect her special move, and invited Twilight to watch.

“What's the point of doing the most super-rad trick ever if no one sees me do it?” Dash had argued.

Ignoring the fact that a sonic boom, rain or otherwise, could be heard for dozens of miles, Twilight took the afternoon off to support her friend. Her training grounds, so to speak, were on the outskirts of Ponyville so she had to take a long walk down a country road alongside Everfree forest to get there. Spike was insistent on coming along too, for his own reasons.

“Can you believe I've known her all this time, and I've never seen her do it? This is gonna be so awesome!” Spike said.

“She's only ever done it twice. You weren't even hatched when she did it the first time. Actually, you were hatching just as she did it.”

“I could have been there for the second time, if only somepony had given me that walk-on-clouds power.” Spike said as he poked Twilight's head.

“Ow! Stop it, you know that spell only works on ponies. I would have gladly taken you with us if only your wings would start coming in.”

“Yeah, they should be coming in any day now. I swear, I can feel them.” Spike said, prodding his back.

Twilight giggled and rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, Spike.”

“You know, I'm surprised we're coming out here at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“It's just that you never used to do stuff like this back in Canterlot. You were always study, study, study. We never did anything fun.” Spike explained. “You remember Moon Dancer? We never actually gave her that present for her birthday.”

Twilight paused for a moment as she remembered that bear Spike had gotten. She laughed to herself and continued trotting. “Of course, silly. That's because I've made such wonderful friends here. Besides, I don't think she liked me that much anyway.”

“I dunno, I think you've been extra friendly lately. Even after we moved here, you were still study, study, instead of study, study, study. But now you're just … study.” Spike continued. His expression immediately afterward suggested that his statement worked out better in his head.

Twilight giggled some more. “You're not making any sense!”

“Whatever. If it means I get to finally see a sonic rainboom, I ain't complaining.” Spike said, laying down on Twilight's back.

The two of them traveled on for a few minutes longer. Spike relaxed during the journey, but Twilight enjoyed taking everything in, from the birds chirping and the rustles of other little creatures that lived in Everfree. The place wasn't nearly as spooky during the day. She even recited the scientific names of some of the flowers they passed by on the roadside.


As Twilight and Spike arrived at the end of the field that Rainbow Dash was practicing at, Twilight could tell that her friend was already getting frustrated. Dash was flying in long stretches at a time, before starting to dart around in random directions, muttering angrily to herself. Practicing this move was always hard on her, but at least she wasn't having a mental breakdown like last time.

“Rainbow Dash! We're here! Hello!” Twilight shouted up to her, waving a hoof in the air.

“It's no good, she's too far up there and she's freaking out again.” Spike commented. “You're gonna have to get her attention with something.”

“Okay, let's try this.”

Focusing her willpower into her horn and briefly charging up energy, Twilight prepared to fire a flare into the air. In a burst of purple magic, a bolt shot from her horn, whistled in the air and burst like a firecracker.

The flare only traveled a few meters into the air, and was nowhere near getting Dash's attention.

“Come on, you can do better than that, I know you can.” Spike said. “You're the most powerful unicorn in Equestria, remember? Use a bigger spell!”

The words “bigger spell” made Twilight flinch. She hadn't thought of advanced magic since that day.

“Uh, are you sure? Maybe we should just watch from here.”

“Are you kidding? Look at her.” Spike said as he gestured to the distant blue pegasus flying around in increasingly erratic patterns. “Does she look like a pegasus that's about to pull off a sonic rainboom? She needs our help.”

“Oh, alright. Stand back.”

“Now that's what I'm talking about! Let's see some real magic!” Spike shouted as he jumped happily off Twilight's back and stood clear.

It was as good a time as any to try out the safety techniques Twilight read about before. She widened her stance and felt the support of the ground beneath and around her hooves, bracing her like an unbreakable tower. The only way to get a flare that high was to fire it out of her horn like a cannon. She angled her neck so the force of the recoil would go down her body and legs and into the dirt instead of flinging her head backwards. She drew energy from all through her body, instead of just around her chest where it was most plentiful – and most vital.

Once she was ready, Twilight released the flare. Her horn glowed purple as energy flowed into it. Like a prism, the energy changed shape and became the aerial bolt. With the force of a small howitzer, the flare shot high into the air, spiraling and whistling as it flew. At the height of its flight, the flare burst into a pink, six-pointed star resembling Twilight's own cutie mark, complete with smaller white sparklers.

Dash definitely noticed that beacon and, after recoiling from the surprise of it, started to fly down to meet her friends.

“Woo-hoo!” Spike cheered. “Now that was awesome! A little overkill, maybe, but I shouldn't expect anything less than incredible Equestria's greatest unicorn.”

Twilight blushed and giggled a bit. “Hehe, I guess I still don't know my own strength. I did practice a few new techniques a while back.”

“Hey, Twilight! Spike!” Rainbow Dash shouted as she came in to land. “That was a pretty rad explosion up there. Thanks for showing up.”

“No problem, Dash. How's your practice coming?”

“Ha! Are you kidding? I got three sonic rainbooms before you got here.” Rainbow Dash said proudly.

“Really? We didn't hear or see any on the way here.”

“Okay, you got me.” Dash said, hanging her head. “I still can't do it. But, I'm not leaving here today without a rainbow explosion in my wake!” She punctuated her last remark with a stamp of her hoof.

“That's the spirit! And we'll be right here to see you do it. Right Spike?”

“You bet! We're right behind you, sister!”

Dash smiled from ear to ear, and started beating her wings to hover just off the ground. “Right! Let's rock!” She declared, and started to head for the sky again.


“She's not getting any closer, is she?” Spike asked, an hour later.

“I don't think so.” Twilight replied.

“I don't get it. She did it before, why can't she do it again?”

“It's a very difficult skill. That's why she's only been able to do it twice.”

“Uh, oh, she's coming down here again.”

Rainbow Dash swooped down at a steep angle and then made a sharp turn to level out in front of where Twilight and Spike were sitting on the grass. She landed on her hooves with a thud and stomped around a few times out of frustration.

“Why does this have to be so hard?!” Dash shouted.

“Don't give up! I know you can do it.” Twilight encouraged.

“Yeah, and besides, I haven't been able to see you do it yet.” Spike said, and then the mares glared at him.

Dash sighed. “What do you think, Twilight? Can any of your fancy egghead stuff help me figure this out?”

Twilight shot Dash an incredulous look. “The reason flying at the speed of sound is so difficult is because wind resistance increases at an exponential rate the faster you travel.”

“Expo-what?” Spike and Dash said in unison.

Twilight sighed and put a hoof to her face before continuing. “What you're trying to do practically defies the laws of physics, so you're going to have to use any advantage you can. You might be able to get the most speed by flying straight down and letting gravity help.”

“Duh, every pegasus knows that.” Dash replied, derping her eyes. “But if I fly straight down for too long, I'll totally kill myself by crashing into the ground!” she continued, waving her hooves over her head for emphasis.

“That still might be your only chance. Remember when you caught Rarity while she was falling? You flew completely vertically and were still able to pull up at the last second. While carrying four other ponies, no less!”

“Yeah, but don't you know that's practically suicide?! I never would have tried that if she wasn't in danger!”

Twilight placed her hoof on Dash's shoulder. “I'm your friend, and I believe in you.” She said. “You're the greatest flier in Equestria. You're the only pagasus in recorded history that has successfully performed a sonic rainboom. You can do this, Rainbow Dash.”

There was a moment of hesitation as Dash ran through the scenario in her head. Then her eyes narrowed with intensity and a smile crept across her face. It might require taking a few risks but, by Celestia, it was going to happen. No fear.

“Stand back you two, you're about to see a sonic rainboom.”

Twilight smiled back and let her friend go. Rainbow Dash spread her wings and leaped into the sky. She pounded her wings as hard as she could and flew straight up as her friends shouted encouragement from below. The atmosphere was thin at higher elevations, so not only was it harder to breathe, it was harder to push farther. As high as Cloudsdale is, it was not really safe for a pegasus – or any pony for that matter – to be any higher. She took in a deep breath as she reached the elevation that regular breathing would be impossible. After a moment's more of hard flying, Dash reached as high as she physically could.

Looking around, Dash could not only see Ponyville, but other villages all around her. She could see Canterlot with its massive, white marble buildings. She could even see Cloudsdale in the distance. She saw mountains and valleys and fields and forests as she continued to flap her wings for as long as possible.

“This is what it means to be a pegasus.” Rainbow Dash thought to herself, looking at the large stretch of Equestria all around her. “And I'm gonna be known as the fastest flier in history. Before I'm through, the Wonder Bolts are gonna idolize me!”

The view at that elevation was breathless, which only compounded the problem that Dash was rapidly running out of air.

Dash hesitated a moment too long at that height. Her consciousness ebbed for just a moment as she started to fall. All the way from the ground, Twilight and Spike had no idea the condition their friend was in, only that she had begun to descend. They cheered for her as she tumbled end over end at terminal velocity, struggling to break out of her stall.

“Come on, Dash, come on!” She shouted in her head, still short on air, but beginning to reach an elevation in which she could breathe.

Gasping, but alright, Dash was able to regain enough sense to spread her wings and figure out which direction was which. She was falling very fast, and had quite a distance to go before she would hit the ground, so she determined to stay on course and pick up speed for as long as possible.

Rainbow Dash held her front legs out to push against the buffeting wind instead of taking it directly to the face. She tucked her hind legs in to reduce drag. She focused on the movement of every muscle in her wings to refine her flight path to perfection. Falling faster and faster, she was getting close to breaking the sound barrier. The roar of the wind became louder. She could feel the air on front of her becoming tighter and tighter like a wall. On the far side of that wall was her destiny.

In that fleeting moment, an instinct kicked in. A trained instinct that was drilled into her head at flight school. Even before a pegasus was taught how to fly, she's taught how to land and how to recognize when she was coming in too fast – and coming in fast she was.

A wave of panic hit Rainbow Dash harder than the wind was. She screamed as the ground came at her at hundreds of miles per hour and she pulled up. Having lost so much time in her free fall, Dash wasn't able to pick up enough speed for a sonic rainboom. The subconscious fear kept her from giving it her  all on the way down. She might have been able to pull it off if she hadn't panicked. She was several yards above the ground when she started pulling up. Not paying attention to what direction she was flying next, she frantically tried to get away from the ground menacing her. Instead, she banked directly into Everfree forest.

It's impossible for a pegasus to brake and change direction simultaneously. Dash had to focus on evading the trees at near-sonic speeds instead of bringing herself to a stop. She continued to shout as she darted up and down and around tree trunks as she tried to head up through the treeline. Shadows from the trees and the blur of speed made tight evasion difficult. Branches whooshed past her body with dangerous proximity. Wind resistance was slowing her down, but she was still moving far too fast to land safely. Leaves left paper cuts on her sides and flanks as she blew by. “Almost there … Almost there.” Dash whispered to herself as she approached the treeline to safety.

Seeing a gap in the upper branches of the trees, Dash tried to make a sharp upwards turn, but she misjudged. Angling upwards, she flew straight past the hole that would have led to safety. The maneuver dropped a lot of momentum, but she still wasn't out of the woods. Nose up, she crashed head first into a sturdy branch.

The branch fractured, as did Dash's skull, but only a hairline. Three bones in her neck also dislocated, severing her brain stem. She was gone before she knew what had happened. Her lifeless body tumbled through the air until she landed in a heap on the grassy floor. At least she landed on her side and didn't suffer even more injuries on impact.

Or, maybe it was less fortunate.


“She's in trouble!” Twilight had shouted when she heard Rainbow Dash scream and veer away into Everfree.

Spike was frozen. In the time he knew her, Dash had experienced a number of accidents. Some were scarier than others, but there had never been any serious injury. Something about that scream frightened him to the core, however.

Twilight immediately galloped off in the direction Dash flew. Out of a natural instinct of her own, her horn began to glow before she even attempted to use any magic. That didn't last long, however, as she immediately started punctuating her galloping with short-range teleportation, attempting to close the gap as fast as she could. She could teleport farther, but it wouldn't do any good if she didn't know where Dash was going to be.

Using her teleportation, Twilight didn't need to hesitate while chasing Dash through Everfree forest. In a series of flashes, she could move up and down branches and past bushes while galloping anywhere there was a clear stretch of soil. She could barely see Dash's body darting around in the branches, but it was no use; she couldn't keep up with her at the speed she was flying. She could still hear the shouting ahead of her. Not for help, but something more primal; she was shouting out of panic. Twilight tried to call back.

“Rainbow Dash! … Rainbow Dash! … Slow down! … What are you doing?!” Twilight shouted between flashes of teleportation

Suddenly, somewhere out of sight, the screaming stopped.  Twilight lost track of Dash for an instant, and then there was a crash, and a thud, and silence. She froze in fear, and then teleported to the highest branch over where she saw her last. She looked all around in a rush, but there was no sign of her.

“Rainbow Dash! … Where are you?!”

Teleporting around a few more branches, Twilight finally found where Dash landed, her neck at an odd angle. She paused for a long moment as she watched her, hoping to see her make the slightest movement.

“Oh, Celestia, no.”

Twilight jumped down from the branch and teleported to the ground next to her friend. She looked over her body, or tried to through the tears beginning to swell in her eyes. She wanted to hold her, but was afraid to touch her.

“… I just sense things. A fat lot of good it was doing us now! I kept telling her she would be alright soon, but she never said anything back. I just held her in my hooves. All I could do was sense …

The quote from that soldier of old echoed through Twilight's memory, and she shut her eyes tight. When she opened them again, tears were streaming from them, and they shone with a brilliant white light.


Beyond Judgment

Part III: Strange Ponies

Somewhere else, somewhere she didn't recognize, Rainbow Dash awoke in a daze and with a sharp pain in her neck. She tried rubbing it with her hoof, but that only made it sting more.

“Ow! What the, where the heck am I?!”

Slowly, the confusion started to fade, as did the pain. Rainbow Dash slowly stood and looked around. She was … nowhere. All around her was a fog so dense she couldn't see farther than a few yards. She seemed to be lying on a platform of some kind. It was circular, and made of stone. Glowing green markings were engraved along the edges of it like some kind of language she didn't recognize. The ground all around here seemed to be made from the same stone.

Dash's first instinct was to start flying and exploring, but she still hurt a bit and didn't want to move around. She resigned herself to tapping and scratching at the stone with her hoof to try and figure out what it was made of.

“Well, if it isn't Rainbow Crash.” A voice said.

The sudden noise scared Dash for a moment. “What? Who's there! Show yourself!” She jumped up on her hind legs and starting batting at the air with her front, but one more wave of pain knocked her on her stomach.

The voice simply chuckled. “I jest, of course, my dear. I hold you in nothing less than the highest of regards. That is why I am here to see to your care personally.”

The voice was smooth, yet deep; a little intimidating and yet completely calm. It was definitely a stallion's voice.

“Care? What care? Is this some kind of crazy hospital?” Dash asked, looking around.

“On the contrary, my dear Rainbow Dash, this is not a place of life, this is a place of death.”

That last remark really caused Dash to panic, and she ignored any lingering pain she had and tried to fly away. But no matter how hard she flapped her wings, she couldn't gain any momentum more than a foot off the ground and couldn't move away from where she was. It was as though physics itself was different there.

“Be still, Rainbow Dash. There is no need to be afraid. You have my word that no harm shall ever befall you again.”

As he spoke Dash could hear hoofsteps approaching from beyond the fog. At least two ponies worth of hoofsteps. A ringing in her ears made it a little difficult to keep track. Then, a pony Dash never witnessed before came into her view. He was tall and slender, like the princesses, but he had neither wings nor a horn. He did, however, have a second set of legs. His whole body was blue, with his mane being a darker shade than his coat. It was also somewhat elongated to account for his extra limbs. His mane also seemed to be real hair, unlike whatever ethereal matter the princesses had. His eyes were orange with a slight glow. He had a cutie mark. It seemed to be a streak of fire that started towards the back of his flanks, and as it traveled forward it changed into a dark streak that spiraled in on itself.

“W-what are you?”

“I am Sleipnir.” The stallion said simply, bowing his head. “It is my solemn duty to foresee the conveyance of the souls of the dead to the afterlife.”

“The what?!” Dash shouted and then renewed her attempts to escape, although she still only flew in place where she was. “I'm not dead, and I don't wanna be dead!”

Sleipnir made no attempt to restrain Dash any more than she already was, nor did he insist that she stop. He simply waited quietly and lied down to watch.

After a moment, Dash had tired herself out and collapsed in the same spot she was already in. “Come on, let me out of here! What did I ever do to you, huh?!”

“You have faulted me not, though I understand your anger. You have found yourself in this strange realm, trapped on a dais you do not understand, and talking to a horse you've never met. However, I am in no position to return you to your world. Even if I were to send you back, your physical form is in no condition to keep you.”

“My physical what?” Dash demanded.

The mysterious creature closed his eyes and chuckled a little. “It truly is a shame. In some of my more wishful moments I would have enjoyed challenging you to a race.”

That word perked up Dash little. “A race? You're a racer?”

“Not by profession the way you aspire to be.” Sleipnir said with a fair amount of pride. “But these legs of mine have their uses.” He then counted with his legs, clopping each of his hooves against the floor in turn, going all the way up to eight.

“That's … Okay, that's a little freaky.” Dash admitted. “But I'll tell you what, you get me outta here, and we'll have that race. If I win, you gotta get me back to Ponyville. Whattya say?”

“I cannot send you back, my dear.” Sleipnir replied sadly. “You are here because your body suffered a terrible injury, and could no longer sustain you. It was my duty, then, to rescue your soul before you simply faded into nothingness.”

“Then … how do I get back?” Dash said, her hopes weakened.

“There is no going back from here.” Sleipnir said simply. “I can do only this.”

The mysterious stallion walked up to the platform Dash was trapped on. He stepped onto it with one hoof and the markings stopped glowing. Then he turned to the side. “You may stay in this realm, lost and afraid. Or, you may climb onto my back and I shall carry you to the afterlife. You will fall to no harm there, and in time, all of your friends will return to you.”

There was a sincerity in his voice. Dash wasn't sure what was going on, but she felt like she could trust him. She took a few cautious steps forward, and found that she was no longer held in place by that mysterious force. Then, once she carefully reached out a hoof to him, something stranger still occurred.

Sleipnir's calm face suddenly turned to surprise, and then quickly to anger. “What? What's happening?! Who's doing this?!”


When Twilight had written the instructions on reviving a pony, she had imagined it being done by a team of unicorns. She never anticipated doing it all herself. Holding on to the last spark of Dash's life force was difficult enough without trying to heal her neck at the same time. She wasn't a doctor, but Dash's body was in perfect shape as far as she could tell. Then it was time for the theoretical part. Magic power surged forth even stronger and Twilight pulled her head back as she tugged on Dash's life force. She was tiring out from using so much power and wasn't sure how much longer she could hold on to her friend's life. She reared up on her hind legs and pulled with her whole body.


Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash hadn't the slightest idea what was happening. She only knew that it felt like her body was collapsing into itself, and Sleipnir was becoming extremely agitated. It wasn't a painful experience, at least not compared to when she arrived in this strange place, but she was becoming very frightened.

“How dare they interfere with my work!” Sleipnir shouted as he paced anxiously around the dais Dash was standing on. “Don't they know the consequences of this?! Don't they know who I am?!”

As Dash's body shrunk, she had a harder time seeing and hearing Sleipnir. The next thing she knew, she was somewhere else again. She slowly opened her eyes and looked up, fearing what bizarre world she had entered now.

“ … What happened? … Where am I? … Oh, and why does my neck hurt?”

“Don't touch it, Dash! You need to rest, just relax.” A shaky voiced pony said.

“ … Twilight? … Have you been crying?”

“It's okay now.” Twilight said with a great sigh of relief as she wiped her eye with a hoof. “You're okay. How do you feel?”

“My head is killing me.”

“That's perfectly normal. At least, I think it is. You hit your head really hard back there. I had to use a rev- I had to heal you.”

“Heal?” Dash asked, lifting her head up before immediately laying it back down again. “Ow! Since when can you heal?”

“I just learned it!” Twilight said sheepishly. “I know a lot of spells you've never seen me do before. Please, just stay still for a bit.” She collapsed on her own side across from Dash. “Ugh, I think I need to stay down for a while too. That spell took a lot out of me.”

“Wait, how big of a spell was that? How bad was I hurt?”

Twilight replied only with a soft snoring sound, having immediately passed out on the grass. The soil was even more pleasant than the leather binding of a good book.

“Oh man.” Dash lamented to herself. “That really must have been some epic wipe out. That was the craziest hallucination.

Rainbow Dash lied down her own head, adjusting her neck carefully into the most comfortable position she could and took a brief rest as well. She slept deeply but not without an unpleasant dream. It was about flying in a storm and falling into a forest and something about an eight legged pony. But by the time she would awaken both that dream and her experience in the other realm would have faded into a  vague memory.


A short while later, Twilight was the first of the two to awaken to a sound in the distance.

“The first thing to do after falling asleep during a study session is to determine where you were before you passed out.” She muttered to herself in a groggy daze as she sat up.

Twilight looked around in a bit of confusion. “Wait, why was I studying in … what appears to be the forest … And without books?”

“Twilight! … Rainbow Dash! … Twilight! … Rainbow Dash!” someone was shouting.

When her eyes fell on Dash, Twilight's mind snapped back into focus. She noticed that her friend didn't seem to be moving. “Dash? Dash! Wake up!” She cried, nudging her.

“Ah! What?! Where are they?! Ow! my neck!” Dash shouted as she was startled awake.

Rainbow Dash immediately jumped up and started to fly towards the threat she had imagined was shaking her, only to fly in a seemingly random direction. The pain in her neck brought her back to the ground almost as soon as she got up.

After another moment of confusion, shouting, and erratic flying, the two mares calmed down. The commotion had gotten the attention of the search party that was looking for them. Spike forced his way through some brush and came across the two ponies.

“There you mares are!” Spike said, jumping up to hug Twilight around the neck. “Do you have any idea how long I've been looking for you two?”

Twilight wrapped a leg around her assistant and hugged him back. “Sorry Spike, but we're fine. Right Dash?”

“Um … Almost.” Dash replied.

The blue pegasus sat up from where she had crashed last. Dash rubbed the side of her mane with one hoof while her head was leaning slightly to the other side.

Both Spike and Twilight raised an eyebrow and similarly leaned their heads to the side as they watched Dash's odd stance. “Is something wrong?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah, I think I just napped funny. It feels like I pulled a muscle in my neck, or something.”

Although she was certain she made no mistakes when reassembling her best friend's spine earlier, Twilight panicked on the inside when Dash mentioned the problem with her neck.

“Oh! Well, we have to get you to a doctor right away!” Twilight urged.

“Nah, it's cool. This isn't the first time I hurt myself.” Dash said, getting up. “I may fly crooked for a few days before this heals up, but I'll manage. Ow! An ice pack would be nice, though.”

Spike laughed. “Wouldn't that be fun to watch? Can you imagine her flying around in spirals from a busted neck?”

“No excuses!” Twilight said.

Rejuvenated from her nap, Twilight brought the power of her magic to bear one again. She levitated Spike onto her back, and then lifted Rainbow Dash into the air and held her there like she would a book.

“Woah, this is new.” Dash said simply as she hung in the air wide-eyed and sideways.

“I'm taking you to a physician and that's that.” Twilight said and turned back towards the edge of the forest.

The 180 degree turn also caused Dash's levitated form to swing around as well. “Wah!” She cried involuntarily, and in a flash of teleportation they were gone.


Twilight's teleportation spell was sufficient to get them all out of the forest, but she couldn't return them all the way to Ponyville. So, she intended to carry Dash the entire way there by telekinesis. Engrossed by the sensation, she didn't resist. At first. Although Twilight did have the capacity to carry her the entire distance, she decided to let her down after a few minutes of intense complaining, but only after making her Pinkie Swear to stay close and not fly.

A simple doctor's visit later, Dash checked out with a clean bill of health – save for the pulled muscle in her neck. As she said, it was going to heal itself after a few days. None of them were as relieved to hear that as Twilight. She didn't mention to anyone that Dash had technically been dead for several minutes, and Dash as a result didn't think it important to bring up the dream about the blue stallion with eight legs.

Again, Twilight's life slipped back into a sense of normalcy for a few more days, but her puzzle, once solved, had triggered a machine that could not be reversed.


Celestia had apparently concluded that it was proper to make that particular day particularly hot. Not even Twilight, her prized pupil, actually knew the reasoning behind why some days should be warmer and some cooler – beyond the inclinations of a given season. However, the sun was only one part of the complex weather system around Equestria, and the pegasi weather team had simply stacked some extra clouds in the sky to compensate with some shade. The resulting conditions were actually extremely pleasant, if a little dark for the daytime. There weren't any rains scheduled, but it wasn't unheard of for a pegasus to shout “Surprise!” at the top of her lungs and turn an otherwise cloudy day into a rainy one.

Regardless, Twilight took the opportunity to read a new book outside. As much as she loved living in a library, her new appreciation for life in the past few months dictated that she study elsewhere more often than before. She was laying on a bench in the middle of the park reading her new Ancient Conflict: A History of Wars around Equestria. Not even the occasional gust of wind would disturb her, as she could telekinetically hold the page down whenever she felt one coming.

“Twilight, there is danger in the forest! Your friends must gather, faster, fastest!” Somepony called out, although Twilight was quick to identify her.

“Zecora? What's wrong?”

“I was out this morning gathering herbs, when a found a sight that greatly disturbs! Pegasus ponies in barding of silver, flying through the jungle and over the river!They carried bricks from a stone quarry, what they intended caused me to worry! I followed them low and sought to scout, what they were doing I planned to find out! They are gathering at a spot with mortar and clay, and are building a structure without delay!” Zecora said in a panic as she approached.

Twilight absorbed all of that for a moment as Zecora's unique speech pattern can sometimes be difficult to understand. “Armored pegasi … building something in Everfree? I guess that's unusual, but it's no reason to panic.”

“You do not understand, student of Celestia; these pegasi warriors are not of Equestria!”

“Not of Equestria? You mean, you think we're being invaded?”

“I know not for what they came, but we must stop them all the same!”

“I don't know if violence is the right thing to do. But we do need to figure out what they're up to.” Twilight said, and thought for a moment. “Okay, here's the plan: You know where Fluttershy lives, right? Go find her there, and she can find Rainbow Dash. The three of you know the layout of the forest best, and can plot a way to wherever the pegasi are. I'll go through town to Sweet Apple Acres and pick up the others along the way.”

“The flying ponies I shall find. Hurry, so you do not fall behind.”

“I'll be there as fast as I can, Zecora. I won't stop to … uh … sniff the flora?”

Twilight had surprised herself. She wasn't sure how that sentence had managed to rhyme, and she was even less sure why she had tried to make it so. Zecora laughed at the attempt. “You spoke that phrase well, wise and young Twilight. Although your rhyming skill is still that of a neophyte.” She said with a wink, before turning to gallop away.


Twilight's first stop was Carousel Boutique. After explaining the situation to her, Rarity agreed to come along but only after being given ample time to pack.

“There are things to consider like whether or not it will rain and how much it will rain if it does. Oh, and venturing into Everfree is always so dreadful. Do you even know the required preparation for the dirt and brush we'll be dealing with? And the mud! Goodness gracious, the mud! Can you imagine what kind of shape I'll be in between the rain and the mud?”

As Rarity continued to ramble on in this manner Twilight concluded that the best course of action was  to pick her up last on the way back. She told her to just do what she had to do and that she'd come back for her later.


Pinkie Pie was easier to get a hold of. She literally tackled Twilight as she was coming through the front door to Sugarcube Corner.

“Twilight! Oh, I'm so glad you came! I was so bored! It's all dark and gloomy-woomy out there and no one was coming in to buy treats, but who wouldn't want to buy treats on a gloom-woomy day? It's the perfect thing to brighten up a day like this! In fact, I wrote a song about it I was so bored!”

Pinkie took in a deep breath of air as she was about to jump into another one of her patented songs, but Twilight stuck a hoof in it before she could begin. After explaining about Everfree to her too, she seemed practically overjoyed about a potentially dangerous mission if it meant getting outside instead of waiting for customers that probably weren't coming. She just had to stuff some balloons into her saddle bags and leave Mr. and Mrs. Cake a note, since they were out shopping for ingredients at the time.

Had Twilight stopped and read said note before they left, she would have found that it said only: “No sales so far, went to save the world! -Pinkie”


Applejack was next. Twilight and Pinkie caught up to her just as she was about to make the rounds through her fields to make sure all her trees were in good condition.

“Well, I'll be. Ah was a wonderin' when you'd mosey up my farm and tell me some monstrosity was gonna destroy all Equestria or some such threat of impendin' doom. It's been what, three months now? That must be some kind of record. Ah've seen blue ribbons given away at a county fair for less. Hold on, sugar cube, let me just go git my bags and lasso.”


Twilight finally just needed to stop by her own home for supplies and to inform Spike what was happening. Along the way they picked up Rarity, who had settled on a light blue rain slicker that matched her mane immaculately. Her own saddle bags probably didn't have anything of value to the mission, but at least she was prepared to go. Arriving at her home, Twilight wasn't sure how long the journey would take, and she was worried about the time they had already spent gathering everyone together. She dictated a letter to Celestia for Spike on the matter as she gathered her things and departed immediately. Had she waited around a little longer, she would have seen the quick reply stating that it was imperative that they were not to enter Everfree until she arrived there personally to handle the matter. Spike tried to chase after them to relay this message, but they were too far gone and a baby dragon couldn't hope to catch up to a group of fully grown ponies.

Beyond Judgment

Part IV: Everfree Expedition

Twilight, with Pinkie, Applejack, and Rarity in tow, finally arrived at Fluttershy's house by mid afternoon. Twilight only hoped that the others had formulated a plan to reach the invading army by then. That seemed to be the case, as they noticed Rainbow Dash idly doing stunts above Fluttershy's home as they arrived. Fluttershy and Zecora were sitting, apparently having a snack, around the small table in her front yard.

Upon seeing them, Dash bolted for the ground to fall in line with Twilight. “It's about time you girls showed up. I can't talk to Zecora with her rhymey speak, so I've had nothing to do out here.”

“We're here now, RD, and I know what you mean. Bless her heart, but I can't understand that zebra for a hill of beans.” Applejack interjected.

“Stop it, both of you.” Twilight scolded. “She's the only one who knows how to find those ponies, so behave yourselves.”

“Yes, ma'am.” The two of them said in unison.

As they all closed in on Fluttershy and Zecora, Fluttershy smiled sweetly and waved at them. “Oh, hello girls. Would you care for some biscuits?”

“Would I?!” Pinkie shouted, zipping forward and slamming her face into the platter to start munching away.

“Please, show a little bit of manners, won't you?” Rarity asked. She then levitated a biscuit that fell on the table when Pinkie dive bombed them. “Thank you very much Fluttershy, that's very kind of you.”

“Now, I hate interruptin' a meal as much as the next pony, but we've got work to do.” Applejack said.

“Oh, uh, right. I'm sorry.” Fluttershy apologized. “I spent some time talking to Zecora, and we know the very best way to get there.”

“Excellent.” Twilight said, jumping up on her hind legs and ready to charge. “Saddle up, everypony, we've got-”

“Um, wait, please. Twilight?”

The purple unicorn sighed and collapsed down on her stomach. “What is it now?”

“There's just, uh, one teensy tiny little thing you should know before we go. You know that quarry that Zecora said all the bricks were coming from. Well, uh, it's not actually a quarry.” Fluttershy then interrupted her own story to give a quick apology to Zecora. “I'm sorry. It's okay, though. I mean, you're not from around here, so you just didn't know-”

“Perhaps I best explain before their impatience turns to blisters.” Zecora offered with a smile. “The quarry I spoke of is the castle of the pony sisters.”

“They're taking apart the old castle?!” Twilight shouted, jumping back to her hooves. “Don't they know the historical significance of that place! It's practically a national landmark!”

“Psh, that place is a dump anyway.” Dash said, hovering above them all. “What do we care if they take a bunch of dumb rocks?”

“The area around that place is like a magical dome.” Zecora said. “That is why I chose Everfree to make my home. Strong magic lives within those stones. Whatever they are building will be a spiritual zone.”

“Beg pardon?” Applejack asked, still a bit muddled by Zecora's words.

“While I certainly would like to see that old place spruced up a bit.” Rarity said. “we simply can't just let them do as they please. What say we head on over there give them what for, right ladies?”

Everypony nodded in agreement, except for Pinkie, who only just then lifted her head from the food tray and concurred in her own way. “Not only that, but we'll give them what five! And what six! What seven even!” She cheered.

“On our way we must make one small detour.” Zecora added. “I must pick up a few potions and our victory will be sure.”

“Oh! Oh! What kind of potions?!” Dash couldn't contain her enthusiasm. “Will they give us super strength or super speed?”

“The potions I have in mind you must not ingest, if you wish for your health to stay at it's best.” Zecora replied with a sly smile.


A short while later, the group was galloping down the path towards Zecora's home. Dash wanted to scout out ahead, but it was decided that it was best that she didn't stray too far and that she definitely stay below the treeline. Dejected, she hung her limbs weakly as her wings kept her suspended in the air. Dash had to be in the skies at all times, she could barely stand not being able to move around whenever she wanted to. Trying to be stealthy was only tolerable for the sake of her friends.

 Also, much to Rarity's joy and Pinkie's chagrin, the clouds had not yet begun to rain and there were no mud puddles to splash through.

“Incoming!” Dash shouted suddenly as she bolted towards the ground.

The others crouched down where they were, ready to fight if necessary, except for Pinkie who merely gawked at the sky and Fluttershy who squeaked and dove for a bush. In the air above them, a squadron of pegasi ponies flew by, just as Zecora had said. They didn't seem to fly in any kind of formation, just one big flock of ponies.

The pegasi wore sliver barding formed of overlapping scales with gold trim. It covered their necks and sides. Plates on their chests were black and shaped like birds, and plates on their flanks were engraved with swans. Their shaffrons however, were small and seemed to just decorate their faces instead of protecting them. Twilight and Zecora mentally took note of this in case it came to blows. Their coats were all white, and their manes all light blue. This was not as odd as it may have seemed, as Celestia's royal guard similarly dyed their hair the same color to promote unity. Unlike the royal guard, they were all female.

Each of the pegasi were also carrying large, yellowed stone bricks in their hooves. They seemed to either not notice or not care about the ponies on the ground and continued to fly past. However, a couple of the armored couriers did catch on and swooped down. They landed in a huddle as irregular as the formation they were flying in as their stone cargo slammed against the dirt.

The invaders then began to speak – all three of them at once, and not even in unison. That seemed to catch all of them off guard for a second before the one closest to Twilight and the others went ahead and continued. Her voice was a bit loud, but gentle and pretty, and could best be described as heroic.

“I am-! … I am a valponie, and I claim this territory on behalf of all valponies. I mean no conflict, and I must ask you to turn back now.”

Applejack was having none of that. “Who do y'all think you are?! You come waltzin' in here and start takin' apart our history, and then make demands of us?! I outta buck you back to wherever the heck y'all came from!” She yelled, scratching at the dirt with her hoof, ready to charge up and deliver on her threat.

The Valponie were unimpressed. They lifted up their stones and flew back off. The one who spoke continued as they left. “You will not be asked again. The Valponies at the stronghold will not be so relenting.”

Dash, on the other hand, was more than willing to fulfill Applejack's threat anyway and rushed after them. Rarity's telekinesis brought a quick end to that.

“If you could put a hold on your brutish ways for just a moment, you'll find that we can't take on a stronghold by ourselves.”

“What if we had the elements of harmony?” Fluttershy suggested from behind her hiding spot.

“We gave them to Celestia, remember?” Twilight said. “We don't have time to get there and back. And we don't want to just pick a fight with them. We're trying to search, not fight. Figure out why they're here.”

“I think it's pretty darned clear why they're here.” Applejack said.

“Then the least we can do is figure out how many there are.” Twilight continued, looking across all her friends one by one. “Come on, together we've faced insurmountable odds before. Right now, we're the only ones that can get information on what's going on here and report to Princess Celestia.” She then held out her hoof. “For Equestria.”

The others agreed and each placed a hoof in the center, including Zecora who wasn't even a true Equestrian.

“For Equestria!” They all cheered together. Pinkie then blew on a party horn to celebrate.

Dash was excited to get moving again, especially after Twilight's speech, but she remembered that she had to stay low again. She was frustrated having to hold back so much for this mission.


After a bit more traveling, the group managed to arrive at Zecora's house undetected by anymore valponies. Like Twilight's, Zecora's home was carved out from the inside of a tree, although this one wasn't nearly as big. The zebra herself was somewhat of a hermit, so her home was mostly utilitarian. A single carved wooden mask hung above the door, and a number of potions hung from branches, presumably to ferment or cure.

“Wait here, my friends, I'll be back in a flash.” Zecora said. “Allow me to tap into my secret stash.”

With that, Zecora trotted not towards her home, but towards a seemingly random tree that was nearby. There was nothing remarkable about it, save for being a bit wider around than the others nearby. She stood up on her hind legs and started pawing at the trunk with her front hooves like she was feeling for something. With a swift and sudden kick, the bark of the tree cracked and she stepped backwards. The bark then opened outwards like a closet, revealing a number of potions and jars hidden inside.

“Wow, that was amazing!” Pinkie cheered. “Do you have more super secret trees like that somewhere?” She then started darting from tree to nearby tree, bonking her head against them in an attempt to open one.

“These bottles contain much danger inside, so I keep them inside this tree to hide.” Zecora explained. While I pick out the brews that we will need, can you hand me that basket with the beads?”

“Oh, certainly.” Fluttershy said. She then flew gently over to pick up a wide wicker container decorated with azure beads resting against the tree house. She placed it next to Zecora before removing the lid for her.

Zecora picked up the basket and set it on two hanging branches nearby. Studying her cache of hazardous potions a bit longer, she finally picked out several and carefully set them inside. Unlike most of her creations, these bottles were clearly marked, but with symbols from her own language. Finally satisfied with her selection, she closed up the container and her secret tree again. She then lifted up the basket and balanced it effortlessly with her head – a feat that surprised the others almost as much as the discovery of her stash had in the first place.

“So, what is it you've got there now?” Dash asked.

“This is the result of the darker side of my craft. Those who fool with these potions are surely daft.”

“So, what is it you've got there now?” Applejack asked again.

“I think what she means is that those are poisons and acids.” Twilight said, a little fearfully. “I don't know if we really need all that.”

“I truly hope that we'll need them not.” Zecora explained. “But I shall bring them in case times get hot. The potions will not kill, but some injuries they can instill.”

“If you say so. Just be careful with those.”

Zecora nodded. How she did so without dropping the basket nopony knew, but it didn't mean it scared them any less.

As they all turned to leave, Rarity walked up beside Zecora. “Darling, may I ask you something? I know you come from a distant land and all, but wouldn't it be easier to carry that on your back instead of your head?”

Zecora responded with another sly smile back at Rarity. “A useful skill that draws respect, including from pony boys. Any mare who can balance so must be full of strength and poise.” She answered, before trotting on ahead.

Rarity scratched her chin as she stopped to consider what Zecora said. Then she magically lifted her own saddlebags and suspended them over her head as she pondered the physics of what she was about to attempt. She straightened her neck and kept her head high as she carefully guided the strap between her horn and her mane. This was already causing problems as the bags now covered her eyes. Deciding to test out the balance part anyway, she released her telekinesis. She then squealed as the weight nearly tipped her over forward.

The others, looking back, had no idea about Rarity's little experiment, they only saw that she had spontaneously decided to wear her saddlebags on her face and that her hind legs were kicking about as they searched for ground, which she couldn't see. When she levitated her bags again, her first sight was her friends looking at her with confusion, except for Pinkie and Zecora who could barely contain their amusement.

“My apologies, everyone.” Rarity said, blushing profusely and returning the bags to their proper place. “I was just, um, testing my balance, that's all!” She said, laughing nervously. “Move along now, everypony, we have work to do!” She continued, dashing on ahead of everyone.

The sight of a pony running sparked an inner fire in Dash, and she started to fly faster ahead of Rarity, only for Twilight to remind her to slow down and stay with the group.


As the group drew closer to the Valponies' stronghold, they were having a harder time staying hidden. It was nearing dark now, so the shadows were on their side, but they were running into more and more patrols. Over time, they started to hear the sound of masonry in the distance, along with torch lights.

“Those Valponie are funny.” Pinkie commented to nopony in particular after another patrol passed. She said it in a tone that was unusually level for her.

“I don't think they're funny.” Fluttershy said. “I think they're scary.”

“You think everything's scary.” Dash interjected.

“Oh, no, no, no, I don't mean 'ha-ha' funny, I mean strange funny.” Pinkie said.

“How so?” Fluttershy asked.

Pinkie screwed up her face as she thought long and hard about what her muddled intuition was trying to tell her. “They're … missing something.”

“Missing? Oh my, I hope they're alright. But, what are they missing, exactly?”

“I don't know … My Pinkie sense has never sensed anything like 'em before. All I know is that they're not real ponies. They're faker-fakersons who try to look like ponies.”

Fluttershy started to shake a little bit more than she already was and moved to walk closer to Pinkie. “T-then … W-w-what are they?”

Pinkie concentrated for a little bit longer. “Hmm … I have no idea!” She decided, and went back to hopping merrily along.


By the time the moon started to rise over the trees, the group found themselves on the verge of a field. In the center of it was a partially built stone wall surrounding some sort of camp. Fortunately, Luna decided to bless them with a full moon that night and they could still see clearly.

“Well, we made it, now what do we do?” Dash whispered.

“Run away?” Fluttershy suggested.

“No, we need to find out what's going on here first.” Twilight said.

“We can't just all sneak around in one bunch like this. We simply must split up.” Rarity advised.

“We'll be easier to spot than Big Macintosh in a field full of fillies.” Applejack added.

“You're right.” Twilight said, and then thought for a moment. “ … Okay, here's the plan: Fluttershy, see if you can get one of your animal friends to get inside and count how many valponies there are. Rarity, you stay with her. I don't want anypony going anywhere alone. Applejack, you and Zecora go that way around the stronghold.” She said, pointing down one side of the field. “Pinkie, do you think you can be stealthy?”

“I'm already behind you.” Pinkie whispered, thoroughly terrifying Twilight so much that she almost gave away their position.

After a few panicked breaths, Twilight calmed down enough to continue with her plan. “Alright then, you go with them. Remember, the important thing is to stay out of sight.”

“What about me, Twi?” Dash asked.

“You're coming with me. We're going to pass by the other way around the stronghold. We're going to pass by Applejack's team on the other side, and we're all going to circle around back here. After that, we're all going to head home before anypony knew we were here. Got that?”

“Oh man, I should just do a super-speed flyover.” Dash complained. “I'll be all 'bam!' take a look around, and 'bam!' be out of there before anypony knows what happened.”

“No, we can't take that risk. They could be faster than you, for all we know.”

Rainbow Dash seemed visibly offended by that possibility. “Say what? How could- Seriously? Faster than-?”

“Focus, Dash. I need you on this.”

Dash sighed deeply and hung her limbs weakly again, but agreed. “Fine. If you need me on the ground, I'll stay grounded. But just this once.”

“Great. Does everyone know what they're doing?”

Everyone nodded in agreement, and went ahead with the plan. Fluttershy turned back and started calling softly for a bird's favor as Rarity followed. Applejack rounded up her team and headed one direction while Dash and Twilight went another.

Tensions were high as they split up, but one among them was so eager to rush out there that she could burst. Unfortunately, explosions aren't always useful in a stealth mission.

Beyond Judgment

Part V: Stronghold Siege

Twilight sneaked as quietly as she could around the valpony fortress. The moon was already starting to ride high in the night sky, but the moonlight was thankfully bright enough to see, for the most part. Despite being so late, the army inside still seemed to be hard at work. She could see movement just over the walls and hear the distinct sound of stone being chiseled.

“How dare they!” Twilight thought to herself. “Every chip on those stones is damage to our history!”

Dash hung in the air, fidgeting, but Twilight didn't notice.

Continuing around, Twilight noticed that the walls were still being built. As she moved along, she could see around gaps that had yet to be filled in. The entire area of the complex was about the size of a sports stadium. There didn't seem to be any buildings inside as of yet, but some foundations of stone did seem to be in place. There was some kind of monument being erected in the center of the stronghold, but she couldn't tell what it was from there.

“Darn it, here comes another one.” Dash whispered.

With a brief surge of adrenaline, Twilight darted as silently as possible around a few trees to get into a hiding spot, fortunately, the dark hue of her coat and mane lent itself easily to hiding. She couldn't see above the treeline from there, but that also meant anypony above the treeline couldn't see her. She definitely heard the wing beats of a pegasus, though. Looking back out, she noticed her friend wasn't making a motion to hide as well. “Dash, get down!” she whispered urgently.

“Hold on, I got this one.” Dash said, coiling up like she was preparing to jump straight into the air.

“Are you crazy? Get back here!”

“You there!” The guard overhead shouted, making Twilight's blood run cold. “Show your-!”

In a rainbow colored streak, Dash shot upwards, hoof outstretched. She delivered the most powerful uppercut she could muster, contacting square against the guard's jaw with a crack. The valpony spiraled backwards in midair before she collapsed face down on the ground.

“Yeah, you better stay down.”

Twilight jumped out of her hiding place as the valpony landed and immediately used her telekinesis to pull the body back into the trees and out of sight. Relieved of her tension, Dash trotted in after her, a big smile plastered on her face. “Did you see that?” Dash asked proudly “One hit, and pow! Light's out.”

“Do you have any idea what you've done?!” Twilight whispered angrily. “You've blown our cover! This pony knows we're here now!”

“But she's knocked out! She's not gonna tell anypony!”

“For now! This guard is supposed to report in to somepony, and when she doesn't they're going to come looking for her.”

“Okay, okay, fine. So, what do we do with her now, then? Oh! I say we interrogate her! We came all the way out here for info anyway, right?”

“We can't interrogate her when she's unconscious!” Twilight yelled as loudly as she could while whispering.

“Oh, right, my bad.” Dash laughed nervously.

Twilight sighed in exasperation and turned to face their captive. She was very clearly dead to the world, but she was breathing. A little bit of blood dribbled out of her mouth. She likely lost a tooth from the impact, but it was far from fatal. She looked just the same as all the other valponies besides that, with the heavy, intricate armor, and even the same coat and mane coloring. This one was even armed. A spear was hooked to the side of her barding. Twilight levitated it away from her and held it out to Dash, who was hovering overhead to watch. “Here, hold on to this.”

“Awesome!” Dash said, taking the weapon. She swung it around a few times, testing out the weight. “If only we had a some of these back at Appleoosa instead of a bunch of silly pies.”

“Please, that was the last thing we needed back there,” Twilight said irritably, still studying the valpony.

Noticing a few buckles on the backside of the pagasus' armor, Twilight decided to try and remove it. If she were lucky, there might be some personal belongings tucked underneath it she could learn from. Naturally, she concluded, the flanks would be the best place to secure pegasus armor. From the air,  pegasi warriors could be attacked from any direction, but so long as they kept flying forward their backsides would be the hardest to hit. Feeling around the plating with her telekinesis, she unbuckled all of it and was able to lift it off of her.

That's when Twilight noticed that the valponie didn't have a cutie mark.

“Dash! Look at this!”

Rainbow Dash then stabbed the tip of her new spear into the ground and balanced herself on the butt of it, looking down at the valponie. “Man, what kind of lamer do you have to be to not have a cutie mark at that age?”

“I … don't know. It's completely unheard of.”

“So, what are we going to do with that, then?”

Twilight looked over and saw that Dash was pointing at the heap of barding she had left on the ground. The she got an idea.


Applejack's group finished circling around and came across Twilight, Dash, and the valpony a few minutes later. They were not expecting to see an unfamiliar pegasus unconscious on the ground, nor were they expecting to see Dash wearing her armor.

“Well, how does it fit? Can you fly like that?” Twilight asked.

“What in tarnation's goin' on here?” Applejack asked, causing Twilight to flinch again. She had just about enough surprises for one evening.

“I'm gonna sneak in there!” Dash said excitedly, as she tried to fly upwards. She wasn't used to having so much weight on her, but she could still manage.

“You are?!” Pinkie shouted.

“Didn't I tell ya' to keep it down?” Applejack said, stomping her hoof. Pinkie bowed her head and smiled bashfully, and AJ turned back to Twilight. “It looks like Fluttershy's pullin' through for us after all. We saw some kind of owl swoopin' about there like he knew somethin'. We didn't see much from our end, just a bunch of pegasi buildin' some kind of wall.”

“Did you see that thing they were building in the center?”

“Not really. The wall's pretty high up there on the far side. We could hardly see a darned thing.”

“Well then, it looks like it's up to me to check it out,” Dash said, finally getting the hang of flying around in heavy barding. She made a few quick turns and sweeps through the air. “I'll be able to get a better look anyway. Who would you guys rather trust, me or some feathered birdbrain?”

They all resisted the urge to state the obvious, Pinkie less so than the others as she chocked back a chortle.

Zecora set down her basket between two branches like she did before so she could open it up and search for a potion. “Take this and hide it in your peytral,” She said, picking up a bottle in her mouth and holding it out to Dash. “Throw it down should chaos start to fall.”

“Hide it in my what?”

“It's the plate covering your chest,” Twilight said, using her telekinesis to stash it under the armor for her. “Just don't forget the plan,” She reminded her, levitating the spear and hooking it back on as well.

Dash saluted, and with a few strained wing flaps she gained enough momentum to clear the trees overhead. Together, the rest of the ponies made their way back to where they started to meet up with Fluttershy and Rarity, Zecora picking up her potion supply as they did.

Rainbow Dash made her way purposefully towards the stronghold. She kept her cool, or rather it was forcefully restricted by the armor. It didn't fit quite right, and she fidgeted as it started to chafe in a few places. As she approached the wall, she tried to imitate the way Rarity carried herself, hoping that might pass off as a refined, military stance. The barding mostly covered her spectral mane and sky blue coat, so she hoped she wouldn't be recognized.

“You there! Who are you, and where did you get that armor?!” The first valponie shouted that caught sight of her.

“So much for the plan!” Dash shouted, and immediately bolted back to her friends.

“Return here at once!” The valpony shouted, and started to give chase. A few other valponies noticed the commotion, and started to make their ways over the wall as well.


A moment later, the rest of the group noticed Dash incoming with a battalion in tow as they met up at the corner of the field. “Oh, what did she do now?!” Twilight shouted, stomping her hooves. “Everypony! Get ready to fight!”

Applejack and Pinkie formed up on both sides of Twilight, facing down the advancing valponies. Zecora and Rarity stood behind them, and Fluttershy dove for the bushes again. As the battle began, each pony fought with whatever abilities were available to her.

Twilight was the first to act, having the advantage of magic on her side. She didn't know a lot of combat spells, but she still had that flare. It wouldn't kill anypony, she admitted to herself, but silently she admitted that she really didn't want to kill anypony either. Bracing herself in a similar stance as before, she fired a couple bolts of magic from her horn. The valpony leading the charge didn't expect it, and was thrown from the air by the impact. The next few missed as the advancing line started to spread. As one got within striking range, she teleported out of the way and continued firing.

By this point, the valponies were starting to draw their spears as they approached. Applejack knew that the strength of her world-famous buck would be at a disadvantage against a weapon with range, so she would have to be careful. As the first valpony singled in on her, she rounded on her front hooves to strike. With a carefully timed side kick she pushed the spear tip outwards, which had the resulting effect of jerking its wielder's body off balance. With her other hoof, she bucked into the center of her attacker's peytral, causing the valpony to spiral off and away from her.

“Catch me if you can!” Pinkie shouted, leaping into the air. She leaped over the first valpony to rush her, and sailed over the pagasus' head onto her back. Mid jump, she pulled a party popper out of her saddlebags and and popped it into the back of the valponie's head. Springing upwards again, she forced the valpony into the ground. Her next target didn't see her coming as she bounced off the side of the warrior pony's armor and flung her into yet another valpony. Pinkie continued her ascent, leaping from one pegasus to the next, bursting poppers or throwing confetti as she flew. She wasn't doing any real harm to them, but was making a dent in the organization of their ranks.

Rainbow Dash careened into the ground past the front line and landed next to Rarity. “Quick, you gotta get me outta this thing! I can barely fly!” she begged.

Rarity was not a fighting unicorn either. She had neither Twilight's raw magical ability nor Applejack's brute strength, but she had advanced telekinetic powers, control over clothing, and a quick mind. Her first thought was to interfere with the valponies' armor, but her power didn't lend itself to reforming metal. However, each of those plates were held together with leather and buckles, which she could easily manipulate. Not all at once, but enough to interfere with one or two at a time.

Dash's plea came first, however, and she had to help her out of that hunk of metal. “Hold still!” she shouted and used her magic to unbuckle the straps and trim the leather support. The barding collapsed off of Dash like molting feathers.

“Yeah, now we're talking!” Dash shouted, jumping up and stretching her limbs freely.

Rarity was just about to say 'you're welcome' to Dash until the valpony Applejack had just sent spiraling away then landed between the two of them. The pegasus was followed immediately after by one Pinkie jumped from. Catching sight of even more hostility approaching, the two of them got to work.

Dash dug through the pile of scrap metal for the spear, and lifted off with it. By now, the valponies were starting to fight with more focus. Dash didn't have any training with the weapon, but her speed and agility far exceeded that of her armored opponents. Using her weapon more like a club than a lance, she darted from one target to the next, smacking them as she flew by. Most blows glanced harmlessly of their armor, but some managed to graze by unarmored areas along necks and heads. As Rarity began dislocating valpony armor, her strikes became more effective. Noticing how effective her fighting was, some of the valponies veered upwards in an attempt to chase her down.

None of the Equestrians present in the battle had killed anypony before. Some of them lacked the intent  or the ability to do so. As Dash flew through the battle with her weapon, she was the first to draw blood of any of them. Before she even realized it, she was also the first to end a life. There was no time for her then to think about such things, she was having too much fun with the exhilaration of flight as she swung her favorite new toy.

As all of this was occurring, Zecora picked a potion from her basket and watched the battle unfold with careful eyes. As valponies continued to fly in from the stronghold, they started to circle around her friends. There were too many enemies, and the seven of them would not be able to hold a line.

The best course of action, then, was to thin out the numbers.

With a large swing of her neck, Zecora flung one of her bottles out over the field towards the advancing valponies. It spiraled through the air, small and largely unnoticed by the approaching pagasi. It landed on the back of one and shattered.

The resulting explosion instantly killed three valponies, and scattered a few more. There was confusion among everypony around, as nopony but Zecora knew where the explosion came from. Several valponies realized it was her and landed on all sides. They poised their spears to strike.

Zecora picked up another bottle from her basket. Unable to carry all of them at once, she was effectively rooted to that location. “If you want to take me, come get some!” She shouted through her teeth, waving the bottle menacingly. “The first one here shall be blasted to kingdom come!”

Suddenly, a flock of owls emerged from the corner of the woods where Fluttershy had been hiding. By her insistence, they joined the battle, pecking and clawing at the valponies. She hated fighting more than anything else, but she knew that she couldn't just stand by and do nothing. She could do nothing else, though, and simply watched in fear and apprehension from her hiding place.

A dozen or so valponies had been incapacitated to some degree or another, but there were still tens more all around. Some pursued Dash, Pinkie, and the owls through the air, the others circled around the ponies on the ground. At least Rarity had disarmed most of them. Twilight was starting to teleport more often than she was attacking, and some were very close calls. She had taken a few jabs to the side, and a reactive instinct would kick in and teleport her in the opposite direction, whichever way that happened to be.

Another blade struck Twilight, and she teleported again. The stress was getting to her, and she was having a hard time focusing on what would be the most logical action. In an act of desperation, she projected a barrier a few meters wide around herself, pushing everything away. Fortunately, she only ended up hitting valponies in the expansion of magic.

“Twilight! Let me inside! Help!” a voice managed to ring through to Twilight's mind over the din.

The purple unicorn turned and saw Rarity banging on her barrier. She was wounded as well, but only once to the leg. She seemed to have been stabbed in the shoulder, and blood ran down her otherwise pristine white coat. Twilight opened a gap in the barrier to let her limp inside.

“We must get out of here! We can't fight all of them!” Rarity shouted. She used her magic and a scarf from her saddlebags to bandage her wound. She winced as she tightened the fabric around the cut to stem the bleeding.

“There's still too many! We have to at least make an opening first! Do what you can for now, I'll keep us safe!”

Rarity collapsed on the ground and let her injured leg stretch out. She whimpered a little as a few tears slipped from her tightly shut eyes. Another one of Zecora's bombs exploded nearby, the shock wave threw a valpony against Twilight's shield. She knew what she had to do.

Rarity lifted her head high and furrowed her brows as she brought as much of her magic as she could to bear. She used her power to separate one of the discarded armors into a swarm of metal scales. Some of the valponies who witnessed that, by then on to the friend's abilities, flew away from them as fast as they could. The scales veered off after them, each chasing a target.

Some of the valponies tried to break through Twilight's barrier to stop Rarity's telekinesis. They couldn't break the wall, but each impact deformed it a bit, causing Twilight to flinch as she struggled to maintain its form. Those that paused to do so were easier targets for Rarity's scales. The valponies there that still had armor were protected from the projectiles, but the rest found themselves with scale bullets in their backs. Spots of red blood landed on Twilight’s purple shield.

Applejack wasn't faring much better. Trying to fight with her bare hooves was a challenge when faced with armed opponents. She had plenty of spear scrapes, but she was tough enough to shrug most of them off. They circled around her as well. They all knew that the first one to rush her would likely be bucked to the face while only making a scratch on her, and they were hesitant to take that chance. She turned quickly, facing each of them, scowling and snorting, daring them to make a move.

Applejack decided that she had to use a lasso on one of them and quickly pulled the rope out of her bags. Getting a hold of an intelligent pony was much more difficult than a bull rampaging in a single direction. Her first couple shots missed and the opening in her guard left her vulnerable to a few jabs. Applejack was surprised to realize that valpony weaponry wasn’t incredibly sharp. Each of her many blows were drawing blood, but no single one was life threatening.

Finally, Applejack managed to rope one around the neck. Shocked, the valpony tried to lift off into the sky, but the orange pony jerked down on the rope causing the warrior to plummet back down again head first. There was an audible snap as she hit the dirt. Rearing back and pulling with the strength of an earth pony farm worker, Applejack flung the body around herself in a full circle, knocking it into the other valponies surrounding her before the rope snapped at the loop.

 Applejack considered running for the shelter of Twilight's barrier when she saw it, but there were too many valponies between them, and she knew she'd be useless inside that bubble anyway. There was fighting to be done, and the worst thing she could do was not help out, even if it was risky. Another one of Zecora's potions exploded, and she only hoped that zebra had a throwing neck as strong as her own to not be in range of that blast.

As the valponies recovered from the swing, another blade left a gash on Applejack's side, a good sized one that time. She bucked instinctively and a made contact with a jaw. She was running out of steam, but they would literally have to kill her to make her stop trying to protect her friends.

At the same time, Pinkie continued to ricochet between the valponies in the air. They were catching on to her antics as well and beginning to hold out their spears at her as she dived at them. A little bit of deft maneuvering and pinkie sense was protecting her so far, but she was definitely having less fun than when she started. She had already run out of streamers and poppers anyway. She dove for a valpony that didn't seem to have noticed her, but realized her approach mid jump. The warrior's spear was thrown up defensively. Surprised, Pinkie grabbed on to the shaft of the spear with her hooves, and tried push herself off to the side. The maneuver cost her a gash to the chest, but at least she avoided skewering herself completely. Unprepared to take a hit, she tumbled into the valpony instead of bouncing off of her. The two of them fell through the air towards the ground. Pinkie was the first to recover, and jumped away from the valpony to land. She hit the ground with a tumble, but was mostly unhurt. The valpony spread her wings to try and slow her decent, but landed straight on her outstretched legs, causing them to buckle beneath her. She hit the ground with a crunch and collapsed.

Pinkie wobbled to her hooves and inspected her wound. She looked with fear at the splotch on her coat that was a much darker shade of red than it should have been. She glanced around over the battle around her in horror, seeing valponies lying in the ground in pain and all of her friends hurt in some way even as they continued fighting. Zecora threw a third potion bomb with great effect. The bodies of valponies thrown by the explosion arched over her line of sight, and she watched them fall back to the ground. Then, something changed inside the happy, pink pony.

The look of dread on Pinkie's face slowly changed to that of determination as she started to charge in Applejack's direction as the orange pony was swinging a valpony by the neck. As she crossed the distance the air let out of her mane and tail. Her normally bouncy curls flattened out into a much straighter style.

By the time Pinkie reached Applejack, the lasso had snapped at the knot, reducing it to a normal rope. She immediately bit into the end of it and held on tight, much to the farmer's surprise.

“Pinkie?! What are ya' – yer mane!” Applejack stammered.

“Swing me!” Pinkie screamed.


“Do it!”

Pinkie started to run in a circle around Applejack, still gripping the rope, building up momentum until Applejack would do what she told her. She jumped over and under a few valponies who were recovering from Applejack's previous swing. Her straight hair billowed like a banner behind her.

Pushing aside the pain from her several wounds, Applejack pulled on the rope and started trying to swing Pinkie around like she did the valpony. The rope held this time, and the pink pony was circling around her like a wrecking ball, kicking at any enemy within reach. Although she was worried for Pinkie's safety, she finally had a weapon with range that outmatched the spears.

Back in the air, Dash was beginning to master the use of her spear. She knew that she couldn't face the valponies one on one – they still proved to be more skilled than she was – but she tried them anyway. She would approach one and attempt to clash weapons with her. Her heightened perception developed from years of flying at incredible speeds allowed her to quickly determine when a duel was going against her, and she would dart away before taking a hit. Out of all of the friends, she was one of the two who had yet to be hurt. Pinkie was doing an excellent job of being a distraction while she was up in the air with her, but the blue pegasus started to feel crowded with extra hostiles focusing on her when Pinkie fell. A flock of owls had appeared out of seemingly nowhere and were joining her in the fight for the air. The valponies seemed to be having an ever harder time fighting them off, but it wasn't enough.

With most airborne valponies locked on to her, Dash had to switch into evasive mode. Spear tips closed in around her from all directions, and she weaved and rolled over as many of them as she could. It was during this moment that she finally received some scrapes from their attacks. The sensation of being cut on her sides while dodging like that reminded her of the accident from a few months previous. The weight of the danger finally sunk in.

Dash had a fleeting vision of crashing into a branch, of meeting a blue pony with eight legs, of that pony telling her she was dead.

Panic flowed over Dash again. With one big burst of speed, she fled from the battle entirely. The valponies, knowing full well that they couldn't catch her, resigned to descending on the rest of the friends on the ground.

In a continuing wave of emotion, Rainbow Dash knew she couldn't just abandon her friends like that. She banked around and started to head back. On her approach, she saw spears lunging at the purple bubble protecting the unicorns. Zecora had also found her way inside somewhere along the way. She had one last potion in her mouth. The three of them were bandaged up with stylish clothes from Rarity’s saddlebags. Applejack had apparently collapsed where she stood a dozen meters away, Pinkie stood protectively over her and growled at the encroaching valponies.

They needed a miracle, and Dash could only think of one.

Dash poured every bit of strength and energy into her flight. She tucked in her limbs to improve her aerodynamics. She focused on every motion of her wings to refine them as much as possible. She approached the sound barrier, with felt like it was growing thicker the faster she moved.

Try as she might, Rainbow Dash couldn't break through that barrier. She didn't need to, however. The compressed cone of air forming around her was enough of a battering ram to scatter many of the valponies. With a roar of sound, the compressed air shook the field. Those also in the sky were particularly vulnerable to the air cone, and were launched away, unable to right themselves. The owls were also scattered and did not return. Those on the ground were knocked backwards and away from the friends. Everypony inside Twilight's barrier was safe even as the cone popped it. Applejack and Pinkie's hunkered positions allowed them to fare better than the valponies, but they were still knocked back some. In fact, they were shoved along the ground closer to the others.

As Dash swooped overhead to decelerate and land with the rest of the friends, they were arguing about  their next move. Rarity immediately started using the last of her clothes to mend Applejack the best she could.

“We must go now, hurry and take flight,” Zecora said. “If we stay, we will not survive this night.”

“Ah can … Ah can fight,” Applejack murmured as she lay on the dirt with her eyes shut tight. She had taking the most punishment of anypony. “Jus' … jus' get me mah lasso”

“We can't go on. We have to get out of here!” Rarity shouted, kneeling at Applejack’s side. Then, she shrieked when she saw the remaining valponies get back up. “Quick, we must go!”

“How are we supposed to get out of here, huh?!” Pinkie screamed. The anger in her voice was a disturbing thing for her friends to hear. “You two can barely move, and those ponies will be on us any second!”

Fluttershy finally emerged from her hiding spot and hurried back to her friends. “Oh, I'll, I'll carry somepony!” she said, trying to be helpful.

“Don't worry, I'm here now! I can get us outta here as fast as a sonic rainboom!” Dash exaggerated, but she fully intended to get them all out.

“No need, I've got this!” Twilight shouted.

As the others were shouting, Twilight was focusing all the magic power she had left. She was once been able to teleport Spike alongside with her, but the baby dragon had been slightly singed by the magical burnoff. She had never attempted moving an entire party in that way, but she had recently learned of a few techniques that granted her powers she never knew she had – Powers she never thought any pony could have.

Twilight’s horn burned with purple unicorn magic as she readied the activation of her mass teleportation. The valponies all around were rising to their hooves and readied their weapons. Twilight reared up on her hind legs and groaned audibly as she was about to release the spell. The valponies charged at the friends for one final rush to finish them off. Twilight stomped her hooves down hard and a flash of brilliant white light emanated from her horn, blinding everypony in sight. As the light vanished, so did the friends.

The valponies came to a stop as the light seemed to surround them. When their sight returned, they looked around, greatly confused.

A couple of valponies then said a single line. It was not said in unison, more like they had each thought to say it at the same time.

“I must tell father,” was that line.

Beyond Judgment

Part VI: Dissolution

Twilight's head was spinning when the group rematerialized elsewhere in Everfree Forest. She had expended so much energy during the fight between shooting flares and maintaining that bubble shield. Her new techniques allowed her to tap into more of her body's energy and use it more efficiently, but she still had the same amount of energy she always had. The mass teleportation was incredibly draining, quite literally.

… It is difficult to verify what it is like to continue to increase the power of a spell with this kind of suicidal intensity as unicorns have forfeited their lives in this manner,” Twilight recalled from her guide.

Voices were arguing around Twilight, but for the moment they were all swirling and unfamiliar, much like her vision. Her heartbeat was fast, and her breathing slow and ragged. Some of her extremities were feeling numb as though she was surrounded by a blizzard, when in fact it had been a fairly warm night. She suddenly realized that she had fallen over sometime after the teleportation was complete. She tried to get back to her hooves, but the dirt was like jelly moving around beneath her. Somehow she pulled off this stunt and was able to sit upright. Something warm and fuzzy gripped her, but she wasn't entirely sure what it was at first. Her vision started to stabilize, and the dual colored blob directly in front of her reformed into Fluttershy, who was apparently the warm and fuzzy thing keeping her upright. Well, it mostly looked like Fluttershy.

Careful now, little one. It's not your time yet. We have plenty of things to discuss, let me assure you, but this is not the time,” a voice said clearly, but Twilight didn't recognize that one.

“Di-discuss?” Twilight mumbled. “What time is it?”

The thing that was probably Fluttershy mumbled something else in reply.


“Oh, I'm so sorry, I said I don't know what time it is,” Fluttershy whimpered, burying her face in her friend's neck. “I really wish I could tell you, Twilight, I really, really, wish I could!” she pleaded.

Almost completely recovered from her nausea, Twilight flopped her hooves around Fluttershy and hugged her back. “I'm … I'm okay …  Just give me a minute.”

Rainbow Dash hovered over, placing a hoof on both of them. “Ease up a bit, will ya?” she said. “Give Twilight a little breathing room.”

“No…” Fluttershy said weakly.

Sighing, Dash continued. “Fine. Keep holding her. Just stop crowding her head, alright?”

Fluttershy nodded, nudging her face against Twilight's neck some more as she did. She moved over to hold on to her friend's side instead of her neck. She even kept a wing wrapped around her for security. Whether it was for the unicorn's security or her own, she probably wouldn't have been able to answer.

Dash landed with her side facing Twilight. Then she flapped her wings up and down randomly for a few seconds before stopping abruptly. “How many wings do you see?”

Twilight focused for a moment before answering. “ … Three. No, wait, that doesn't make sense … Two. Definitely two.”

“Good.” Dash said, lowering her wings again. “Now just keep still. Don't move so much.”

“An herb for your head I shall find,” Zecora said, “Stay here and do not leave me behind!” she then dashed off into the forest.

“Girls!” Rarity shouted. “I'm as worried about Twilight as the rest of you, but Applejack urgently needs help!”

Dash flew off to hover above the downed earth pony and Twilight, with Fluttershy's help, stumbled over as well. Applejack was lying on her side. She was very still, but still breathing slowly. Very slowly. Her sides and flanks were covered with a dozen puncture wounds, each of which wrapped and secured firmly with some article of Rarity's clothing that had been magically formed to her body, stemming the blood loss. Each bandage was a different brightly colored design and material, save for the matching blood stains. Fortunately, she wasn't injured on her head and neck, where she was most vulnerable. Rarity was laying down in front of her, looking over her carefully.

“It's okay,” Twilight said, “I can heal her.”

Twilight illuminated her horn to begin using the recovery spells she knew before Dash clamped on it with her hooves. Doing so wouldn't actually interfere with the casting of a spell had she not jerked the unicorn's head around a little bit.

“Hold on there, magic girl. I can't let you do that!”

“You can't be serious!” Rarity protested, rising to her three good hooves. “Applejack could die if she doesn't get help soon! Goodness knows where we are right now, and there's no telling how long until we can get her to a hospital.”

“I don't know squat about unicorn magic, but look at Twilight! She's in just as bad a shape as Applejack. Believe me, I know a thing or two about head injuries.”

“Using her magic is not going to kill her. Not using her magic will kill Applejack!”

“They should both be resting, or Twilight's just gonna get worse!”

The two friends were literally butting heads at that point, shoving back and forth with each point. They didn't even realize that the orange pony in question was already glowing with purple magic. Fluttershy noticed this, still clinging to Twilight's side, but didn't object, she just held on to her a little tighter.

“Will you two stop fighting!” Pinkie shouted, finally speaking up. He hair had still not returned to normal.

Rarity and Dash looked at Pinkie, only to follow her outstretched hoof to Applejack. The last of Twilight's magic faded away as they did. The earth pony let out a deep breath as the healing spells faded as though a weight was lifted off her lungs. She began to breathe more steadily, but her eyes remained closed.

“I … told you I would be fine,” Twilight lied with a smile, her vision going blurry again.

“Okay, fine, don't listen to me!” Dash pouted. “But if you try doing any more magic, I'm taking that horn from you. You got that?!” She waved a hoof menacingly at Twilight.

Twilight continued smiling and nodded. The world started to spin in a whole new direction as she did.

“So it's settled then. Hey, Pinkie, help me carry this workhorse glory hog and we can get out of here.”

Pinkie nodded and stood next to Applejack's resting form so Dash could lift her onto her back.

“You're going to have to help me walk for just a little while,” Twilight whispered to Fluttershy, “don't tell the others, okay?” The pegasus nodded and nuzzled her neck again.

“Does anypony know where in Equestria we are?” Rarity asked.

“We are a thousand paces north of where we fought,” Zecora said, emerging from the forest with a leafy plant in her mouth. “Can the valponies find us here? I think not.” She walked up to Twilight and extended the plant to her. “Chew on this, but you must not swallow. The juices will make your head feel less hollow.”

Twilight wasn't entirely sure what to make of that last rhyme, but she knew to trust Zecora's judgment – especially when it came to herbs and medicines. She took the plant gratefully and starting chewing it.

“We must continue north back to Ponyville.” Zecora continued. “Though we are far, the valponies might search for us still.”

“Nonsense! Nopony is going anywhere until you're all bandaged. Ow!” Rarity said, whimpering as she accidentally stepped on her injured leg. “We're only going to make ourselves worse if we all try hobbling off like this.”

The rest of the group agreed to that. And after Rarity tore apart the last of the clothes in her saddlebags for wrapping they continued their journey homeward. Twilight managed to wobble her way through with Fluttershy's support. Dash took to the treeline to keep an aerial eye out for anypony following them. Zecora, being in the best shape, took point to find the best path for her injured companions.

Rarity made herself a sling for her leg. It wasn't long before she was able to adjust her stance to be able to walk gracefully with only three good legs. By then, all that mud she had complained about earlier seemed inconsequential. She considered asking Twilight to heal it as well, but she didn't want to be a bother. It wasn't so bad, she could hardly feel any pain in her leg at all.

Pinkie carried Applejack the entire way. She didn't say much, and her head hung as low as her mane. None of them said much of anything, really. They were all very tired, and they had much to think about.

A little over an hour later, Ponyville's local physician, Nurse Redheart, had an abrupt awakening in the middle of the night. She hadn't encountered so many ponies in such bad shape at once since the “baked bads” incident, and she called in assistance from a neighboring village for that one. A bunch of ponies with sick tummies was one thing, but half the group that showed up at her door that night needed surgery – stat. There was no way she could get assistance for that one. She lived in her own wing of Ponyville's little hospital, so she was able to get right to work as soon as she got up.

Redheart quickly diagnosed Twilight with magical exhaustion and sent her to her own room along with Fluttershy and Zecora, whom she showed where some food could be found. Twilight desperately wanted to see Spike, but she knew that he would be sleeping like a rock at that hour and nothing less than a sonic rainboom would wake him up.

Applejack was placed in a bed adjacent to Twilight in the same room. She was still unresponsive, but stable. Redheart then brought Pinkie, Dash, and Rarity into the emergency wing to prep them for stitching. As Fluttershy and Zecora gathered some fruits, veggies, and even a few flowers for Twilight to eat, all she could do was stare at the comatose workhorse and will her to wake up.

“I'm sorry, Applejack,” Twilight whispered. “I shouldn't have taken you all along with me.” She tried to hide her face under the covers, but felt just as guilty not watching over her friend and poked her head out again.

Zecora returned with a tray of food balanced immaculately on her head and Fluttershy behind her. The novel of watching her do so had not worn off on the pegasus. Twilight was lost in thought watching Applejack that she didn't realize they had returned until Zecora placed the tray down on the side table in front of her face.

“Here you go, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, picking up a bunch of grapes and holding it out to her. “I know you're really, really, sleepy, but you have to eat at least a little before you do, please.”

The yellow pegasus looked like she was about to fall asleep herself. Her eyelids and tail were sagging low. Even her mane seemed to be drooping. It seemed like the only thing keeping her going was her  concern for her friends.

Twilight initially tried to use her telekinesis to lift the fruit Fluttershy was offering her, but she found that her magic wasn't responding. Her horn glowed faintly and produced a few small sparks. Fluttershy almost dropped the grapes on the floor as she grabbed Twilight's horn to make her stop. “Oh! No, no, Nurse Redheart said no more magic. Here, use your hooves,” She cooed, taking her limbs from beneath the sheets to pick up the fruit for her.

Having her horn snatched for the second time that night was almost as irritating as having her hooves held like that. Twilight also didn't appreciate being spoken to like a filly, but she knew her friend was only trying to help. She forced a tired smile and pulled her hooves free from the pegasus' grasp. “Thank you Fluttershy, I think I can manage.”

“Oh, um, okay. I'll be over here if you need anything.” Fluttershy said with a worried smile, taking a few steps back. “Really. Um, any-anything at all. Just name it and I'll be there. I promise, I'll-” She stammered.

Fluttershy was always helpful and eager to please, but the way she was acting seemed strangely clingy to Twilight. “It's okay, really. You just go sit down and have something to eat too, alright?” she said, still trying to smile warmly.

“O-Okay. Whatever you say!” Fluttershy snatched an apple from the tray with her mouth and hurried over to one of the benches that lined the wall across from the beds to lie down. Although Applejack could down an entire apple in one motion, Fluttershy nibbled at it in small bites. Zecora had already taken a couple of carrots and started eating by herself. She wasn't trying to be unsocial, she just had a tendency to do things on her own away from other ponies. Normally so used to holding everything with magic, Twilight fumbled a bit gripping her meal.

They all ate in silence until Fluttershy offered a question.

“Twilight?” She squeaked softly.

“Yes, Fluttershy?”

“ … That spark thing you used earlier … where did you learn that?” She asked. She didn't look up as she spoke, but stared directly at her half-eaten apple instead.

“You mean that flare? I actually looked that one up myself after Trixie came through Ponyville. She may have been a selfish show-off, but her fireworks were pretty. I thought it might be neat to be able to do that myself.”

“Did it take a long time to learn? Is it hard?”

“Well, that's two different things.” Twilight put a hoof to her chin for a moment as she thought about the best way to explain magic to somepony who wasn't a unicorn. “It is kinda tricky to have a flare sparkle and explode, since you have to give it the power to do that before you release it. A lot of spells are like that, so I have some practice. As far as it being hard...” She contemplated for a beat more. “I can make it as big or as small as I want, it's all about how much energy I put into it. Kinda like running, or flying I suppose, you can go faster by trying harder. To make a flare strong enough to … to …”

Twilight trailed off on her lecture, thinking back to the sight of valponies being singed and broken by her spells. Fluttershy continued to stare silently into her apple as Twilight spoke, reluctant to face anypony else.

“So, to really fight other ponies, you just have to try real hard?”

Twilight was surprised by the gentle natured pagasus' questions. Even Zecora craned her head around to see what she was getting at.

“ … Uh … yeah … Yeah, I guess so.”

“So … So if I can't fight other ponies … That means that I didn't t-try hard enough. T-That I didn't c-care enough about my f-f-friends…”

Fluttershy began to cry. Zecora, somewhat unfamiliar on how to handle an outpouring of emotions, hesitated before jumping up to her side. Twilight did so immediately, almost knocking over the side table as she did. Fortunately, she had long since recovered enough mental clarity to make this maneuver, or getting all the way over to her would have been impossible. She hugged her distraught friend tightly as she cried into her mane. Zecora rested a hoof reassuringly on Fluttershy's back.

“No, no, sweetie, that's not true! I've seen you stand up for yourself, for all of us before. Like the manticore, and the dragon. You stood up to a real, live dragon! You won a staring contest against a cockatrice! I'd be the Princess' cherished lawn ornament standing next to Discord right now if you hadn't done that! You are so brave, Fluttershy.”

The kind pegasus smiled just a little bit as Twilight explained all that and managed to control her tears. “T-that's different…”

“How? How is that different?”

Fluttershy raised her head to look Twilight in the eyes. “It's not me, it was them. The manticore was just upset, and the dragon and the cockatrice were being meanies. But the valponies … They weren't just being mean, they were really trying to kill us.” She glanced over in Applejack's direction. “And they almost did. I can calm down an angry creature, even make one behave if he's being rude, but to change a pony's mind when she's out to kill? I-I can't stop that.”

“It's okay. If only more ponies were gentle like you, then maybe we wouldn't have had to fight at all.”

“You think so?”

“Regrets and fears are like a poison for the soul,” Zecora interjected. “Lament on them too long and you'll turn dark as coal. If you disapprove of what you did yesterday, look to tomorrow and find another way.”

Fluttershy closed her eyes tight for moment, taking Zecora's word in, then shook her head. She then broke free from her friends. She flapped her wings and fluttered to the ground a few steps away. “I'm sorry. I think I'm just going to take a walk now, okay?” She turned and left before anypony could stop her.

Twilight stood up to catch up to her friend, but Zecora held out a hoof and stopped her. “Our words have been said. The rest is up to her instead.”

Zecora led Twilight back to her bed and insisted that she sleep. She protested a little and insisted that someone go after Fluttershy. The moment her head touched the pillow, however, she was out like a light. It was even more comfortable than the leather binding of an old book and a grassy knoll.

Twilight's rest was shattered at mid morning the next day to the sound of chaos in the next room.

“What do you mean, severed?!” A high pitched voice shrieked. “Why can't I move my leg!?”

The sudden disturbance shocked Twilight, causing her to flail about and fall out of bed. A midnight snack and a good rest being an excellent cure for magical exhaustion, she leaped up, horn glowing, to investigate the disturbance. She galloped out the door and turned to face down the hall where the racket was coming from.

Nurse Redheart was backing out of the room next door. She was holding up a leg to shield her face from a flurry of objects that were emerging with her. A bedpan rolled noisily across the floor. Rolls of gauze bounced off of her head and leg. A lamp flew at a high arc out the door and sailed over her head before crashing against a wall. The voice continued to shout from inside.

“I am an artist! Don't you know that I need all of my hooves?! How am I supposed to perform my craft like this?! And look at these stitches! They're hideous! And you call yourself a professional?! Why couldn't you fix me?”

Why couldn't you save us, Twilight?” The broken, echoing voice from Twilight's nightmare repeated in her head.

Twilight jumped up next to Redheart and projected a shield around both of them, blockading the door. This proved somewhat useless as the only thing Rarity had left to telekinetically throw in their direction was a couple of pillows from the neighboring bed. Out of ammunition, she collapsed back on her bed and cried.

“Rarity!” Twilight shouted.

“Leave me alone!” Rarity shouted, slamming the door with her magic.

“There was nothing I can do.” Redheart explained to Twilight. “Whatever cut her like that went straight through the nerve. I'm an Earth Pony, I can't heal that.”

“I have healing magic, I can-”

“It's not that simple. Even if you could repair the nerves in her arm, it's far too late to heal her now. Maybe if you did just after the injury, but not half a day later. The cells have already begun to decay. I'm sorry. Really, I am.”

“You mean she's paralyzed?!”

“With physical therapy she can get most of it back in time. She should consider herself fortunate that she still has the leg after walking on it all the way back here. Even more so that she has magic in the meantime.”

Twilight's head was spinning at the thought of Rarity being an amputee. She grabbed Nurse Redheart's head. “What about Pinkie?! How's Rainbow Dash?!”

Redheart pulled herself from Twilight's grip. “They're both fine. Rarity is the only one that had any kind of complication. They're both resting on the other side of the hall if you want to see them.”

“No, this is all wrong …” Twilight said, shaking her head. “This is all my fault. I should never have brought them with me!”

Twilight turned tail and bolted. She ran down the hall and teleported outside, startling a few ponies who were out on the street that morning. She continued running for home, teleporting past and around anypony in her way. Once her library tree was in sight, she teleported one last time to arrive on the highest balcony. She collapsed there and buried her face in her hooves.

“This is all my fault … “

Why couldn't you save us, Twilight?

Beyond Judgment

Part VII: Arrival

Celestia, from the back of her sister and her's royal pegasus drawn carriage, sat still. Very still. Her expression stony and tense as she stared intently straight ahead. She was stern and intense, focused deeply on the task at hand, carefully foreseeing every possible outcome of the scenario before her. By the time they arrived in Ponyville to assess this so called “invasion,” she would have developed a foal-proof course of action that stood no chance of failure.

At least, that's what anypony else would see by looking at the princess. Her slightly less ancient sister sitting next to her knew full well that she was panicking like a filly behind that highly developed poker face. As serious as the situation was, it was somewhat amusing to the Princess of the Moon watching her sister like that and knowing she was the only pony in the world that saw the truth.

That's not to say she didn't care about the fates of Twilight and her friends. To the contrary, she felt indebted to the six of them for purging her dark side with the Elements of Harmony the year before, not to mention helping her find a new meaning for the dreaded “Nightmare Night Festival.”

However, spending a millennium in exile taught Luna patience, among other things, including the habit of repeating thoughts to herself to fill up empty time. They had been out with a division of pagasi soldiers flying their way to Ponyville since early morning. Three more divisions of earth ponies and a handful of specialist unicorn squads were to follow them on hoof and would take an extra day to arrive.  There wasn't anything she could tell her sister to ease the strain of the situation so she just let her be for the moment.  There was plenty of empty time here to ruminate on things she already knew so she went about it again

Luna closed her eyes, exhaled deeply, and relaxed, lying down on her stomach. In a kind of meditative state, she recalled the events of the past day one more time.

Yesterday afternoon, Sister received a message that some hostile force arrived in Everfree Forest. Neither of us could imagine who, as there are no standing conflicts with anyone. There isn't even a hint of citizens being disgruntled, let alone forming an army in Everfree. That place was always very special and ominous though, even back in thine own time. Nothing good comes out of those woods.

Well, that's not entirely true,” Luna thought to herself with a faint smile that she tried to hide from Celestia, “One good thing went in there once.

It twas precisely that reason that Celestia didn't want them going into Everfree in the first place. She's spent nearly two decades grooming that talented young mare, and she doth not wish to lose her there to some wayward monster while she could help it. Granted, they had been sent on dangerous and important missions before, but only because she anticipated exactly how the six of them would respond to the situation and more or less predetermined that they would be fine. Well, not so much predetermination as it was precognition.

That is the wonderful thing about being immortal: there's so much time to plan. After the first millennium or two one hath pretty much seen everything, so nothing surprises one so much anymore either way. Sister knew exactly why that dragon was perched on that mountain when she received the report on it, she knew exactly what it would take to make him leave, and she knew exactly that the six friends had what it took to make him do so. They would figure it out for themselves once the time came.

“It was in that same manner that she orchestrated Nightmare Moon's, er, our final downfall. She had many centuries to prepare and we did leave a very clear prophesy. Had our thoughts been a bit more … composed during that time perhaps all might have turned out differently. But then again, she likely would have anticipated that as well. She always does …” Luna sighed and furrowed her brows.

She hath also predicted what would happen if she took that dying phoenix down there as well,” Luna thought, rolling her closed eyes. “She doth so much enjoy showing off like that.

That is the difference between her and us. She is the the brightest being in the sky, and she'll make absolutely certain that everypony knows it, even if it means creating a heat wave that everypony would have been perfectly fine without.

We, on the other hand, are the moon. We assume nothing and demand little, save respect. We do not shine as bright or speak as loudly as Sister – Well, maybe not so much now as she hath abandoned the royal voice. Oh, if only that Twilight Sparkle had heard her declarations instead of ours…” Luna added with a slight chuckle to herself, “We are more passive and subtle.

But we're digressing, aren't we? Back to the matter at hand, Sister did not anticipate this turn of events, which is why she is so distraught now. She ordered that Twilight Sparkle and her friends to refrain from venturing into the forest until we arrive to handle the matter ourselves. Even as she penned her response to stay put, she told me that the lot of them were long gone, and that her draconic assistant would be unable to catch them.

“With a royal declaration, we awoke a handful of soldier divisions and deployed them to Ponyville. With all deliberate speed we are now making our way there as well with the hopes that they're all still alright.” Luna finally concluded to herself with a short nod.

“Are you finished?” Celestia asked.

“Hmm?” Luna replied, opening her eyes.

The elder sister watched her sibling from the corner of her eye. “You've been lying there making faces to yourself for half an hour. Are you meditating again?”

“We are taking this opportunity to enjoy the journey. We have nothing to engage ourselves for the time being, so we are giving ourselves to the wind in our mane.” The younger sister replied, brushing a hoof through her hair with a disinterested expression.

“Your mane is ethereal.” Celestia said flatly. “The wind cannot touch it.”

“All the more reason to concentrate. We must make it billow in the wind's stead.”

“Such an act is without purpose. Have you nothing better to occupy your mind?”

“Beauty is a purpose unto itself. You must agree, otherwise you would not cause your own mane to flow as well.”

“Very well then, I shall cease,” Celestia said and immediately did so. Not just her mane but her tail both instantly stopped moving and hung in the air. “Does this make you happy?”

“Only if it makes you happy, dearest sister,” Luna said with a warm smile while nuzzling her elder's side with her nose. “Of course, that leaves the full burden of ethereal mane waving on our shoulders alone. Nonetheless, we shall persevere,” she continued, holding the back of her hoof to her forehead dramatically. After a second of pretend concentration, her mane and tail began to billow and flow even more than it had before.

The two sisters stared at each other for a moment. One's hair was immobile as stone while the other's flapped about erratically like flags in a hurricane.

Then they laughed, and their respective mane motions returned to normal.

“Thank you for that.” Celestia said, returning the nuzzle her sister had given her.

“We shall always be at your service, defying your orders and instigating needless arguments.” Luna said before they both burst out laughing again.

As per her usual routine, Rainbow Dash awoke sometime around noon. Finding herself laying on her stomach, she rolled over. A series of sharp pains shot through her side, and she immediately rolled back.

“Ow! What? Oh.” Dash stammered as she remembered where she was and why. She stretched out her legs and wings and sat up in bed, causing the sheets to slip off her shoulders. She was in the hospital bed she went to sleep in last night. Looking around, she noticed that Pinkie Pie was still in the next bed. Or, she assumed that was Pinkie. Whoever was under those covers was buried so deep in them it was like she was hiding.

Dash looked down to inspect her stitches. She had a couple shaved spots on her sides that exposed her closed up wounds. She stuck her tongue out in disgust. They were a bit unsightly, but looking at them more she thought they looked kind of cool. She had her own set of battle scars. Vanity wasn't exactly her strong point, but she did love attention. She could make them work for her.

After doing a quick routine of wing calisthenics, Dash lifted up out of bed and flew over to the mysterious hiding pony at the other side of the room. Her body was sore but at least her wings were intact. She preferred flying everywhere anyway.

“Hey Pinks, is that you?” Dash asked, poking the hiding form on what she assumed was the head.

A pink leg untangled itself from the pile of blankets and swung blindly at Rainbow Dash. “Leave me alone!” Pinkie whined.

“Sorry. Did I hurt ya? Are you still banged up down there?”

“I'm fine.” Pinkie pouted.

“Hmm … You know what? I think we need breakfast. Whattya think? Wanna head on over to Sugarcube Corner and get something to eat?


“Whattya mean 'no'? I've never known you to turn down a treat. Come on, let's go have some of Ms. Cake's blueberry pancakes.” Dash said, reaching down to pull on Pinkie's sheets.

The depressed party pony responded by hunkering down under her blankets even tighter. This only encouraged Dash to pull harder. After a brief tug of war, the pegasus had lifted the sheets entirely into the air with Pinkie dangling from them by her teeth. Her tail and mane were still straightened.

With a sigh, Dash let go and Pinkie landed on her rump back on the bed. The sheets draped over her as they fell.

“What's your problem? I haven't seen you like this since –“ Dash started, then stopped with a gasp. “Since your surprise party! You're not going to replace me with a pile of rocks again, are you?” she added, eying Pinkie suspiciously.

Pinkie growled in frustration and pulled the sheets off her head. “I'm not going to replace you all this time! It's just that … that …” She trailed off.

Dash landed and rested her forelegs on Pinkie's bedside. “Come on, whatever's bothering you, I'm sure it's nothing a breakfast muffin with extra blueberries with rose petal frosting can fix!”

The pink pony closed her eyes tight and gritted her teeth. Then she exploded. “It's just wrong! Everything's wrong! And everything's always been wrong and I just never knew it! It's like when you throw a party and you get everypony you know invited and they all come and it's super duper fun but there's other ponies who don't get invited, not that you wouldn't invite them you just didn't know them so they didn't come, but even if you did invite them they wouldn't come because they're all grumpy un-party ponies or even anti-party ponies and that's the worst kind!”

Pinkie panted, almost worn out from her run-on sentence. The exertion tugged at the stitches on her chest, and she held a hoof to them.

“Do what now?” Dash asked, dumbfounded.

“How can there be anti-party ponies!?” Pinkie demanded, tearing up just a little and ignoring the pegasus' question. “Sure, we met all kinds of meany-pants creatures before, like Discord and Nightmare Moon. Except Nightmare Moon was just Luna being sad and grumpy, and Discord was having his own kind of party. And don't even get me started on Gilda! She's the closest I've met to an anti-party pony, and she's not even a pony! How can she not like parties? How can anypony not like parties?! It makes no sense!

Still clutching her wound, Pinkie kept panting heavily. She stared at Rainbow Dash as though she could answer her questions.

“Okay, I have no idea what you're talking about.” Dash said “Who said anything about parties? Does this have something to do with the valponies?”

“This has everything to do with the valponies!” Pinkie shouted, jumping into the air and flailing her legs. Dash jumped back in surprise.

“Alright, alright, just chill. I'll tell you what, I'll go get us some waffles with a side of daisies and you can stay here and … figure out … something … whatever it was you just said,” Dash suggested, slowly backing up with an awkward smile. She made a bolt for it as soon as she was outside the door.

Pinkie growled in frustration and burrowed herself under the covers again. “Parties make ponies happy.” she whispered to herself. “Happiness is life. If somepony doesn't like parties, then that means … ”

The lonely pony buried her head under the pillow. She touched a hoof to her wound one more time. “How can anypony not like life?”

Twilight splayed herself out on the wooden floor of the highest balcony of her library tree house. She tried desperately to think of anything other that the events of the past day. She tried going through a mental map of Ponyville as if to consider a better layout of the village, but the thoughts of each of her friends' homes stuck out menacingly in her mind. She tried going through an inventory of all the spells she knew, even attempting to do so in alphabetical order.

She got as far as the 'D's with Detect Gemstone before an unpleasant image crept into her imagination: Rarity limping through crags on three legs as she struggled to pull a wagon of gemstones behind her. Then came Detect Life Force and the vivid memory of reassembling one of her best friend's spinal cord.

“Stop it! Think of something else.” Twilight told herself and rolled over, facing the sky.

Being shortly past noon, Twilight found herself staring directly upwards facing into the sun. She squinted and held a hoof out to shield her eyes. The weather pegasi must have cleared out the gloomy clouds from the day before and the full force of Celestia's blessing was smiting her retinas.

“Oh no, Princess Celestia …” Twilight moaned to herself, covering her face with her hooves. “What will she think? She'll probably be upset with me for getting my friends hurt. She'll be so disappointed. After all the things I've written to her about the importance of friendship and all I've learned about magic, she would understand more than anypony how I should have known better.”

Twilight got up and cowered into the shade of the branches closer to the inside of her house. Getting out of the shining rays of Celestia's condemnation coming from the sun made her feel a little less guilty. The movement of something inside caught her attention. She looked down and saw Spike walking across the main floor of their house, shelving books. She watched him move about the room, climbing up and down that ladder and shifting books around.

“Oh, Spike, you dependable little squirt.” Twilight whispered to herself with a smile as a tear formed in her eye. “No matter what happens you're always right there helping me out. At least you're okay.” She leaned over to rest against the glass of the window. “Maybe you might have been better off if I hadn't hatched you … Where would you be now if I hadn't? Probably an assistant to some other pony. I know that test wasn't really about hatching the egg, there's not enough dragon eggs lying around for everypony in that academy, but somepony else might have been able to hatch him. Somepony who was as good with magic as I am, just a bit more dependable.”

Twilight pushed off against the window so she could lie back down again. As she did, a stray splinter wedged itself into a sensitive spot near one of her wounds from the night before, causing her to flinch and yelp. Her scratches were minor compared to the others, so Nurse Redheart had only spent a few minutes to bandage her up while diagnosing her with exhaustion. Twilight removed the offending piece of wood with her telekinesis and tossed it off the edge of the balcony. She took a moment then to heal her wounds and clean the dried blood. So as not to disturb Spike, she teleported a wash towel from the kitchen downstairs to clean herself. As she removed the bandages she bundled them up, wrapped them in the towel, and set them aside. She hissed in pain repeatedly as the medical tape tugged at her coat when she telekinetically peeled them off.

The sound of a creaking metal hinge caught the unicorn off guard. “Twilight? You're here!”

Spinning around, Twilight saw that Spike had come upstairs and opened the door to the balcony she was on. He immediately threw himself at her and hugged her neck. She was deeply grateful that he didn't have to see her covered in bandages, but she still had the evidence balled up behind her. “Oh! Hello Spike. I was just getting some fresh air. It's nice and sunny out here, isn't it?” She replied with a nervous smile.

“Nice day?” Spike asked, surprised. “Is that all you have to say? Where have you been?!” He demanded, flailing his arms around.

“You know where I was. You sent the letter to Celestia herself.”

“But you didn't hang around long enough to get her reply. She didn't want you to go. She said it was too dangerous!”

Twilight hung her head. Her ears lied flat against her head and her tail drooped. “Oh, I know Spike, it's a disaster!”

The unicorn took a deep breath, preparing to unload everything on her mind and about what happened. But then she stopped. She thought about what she had just said to herself. “Where would you be now if I hadn't? Probably an assistant to some other pony. Somepony who was just as good at magic as I am, just a bit more dependable.

“You know what? It's nothing you need to worry about.” Twilight said at last.

“Nothing? Whattya mean, 'nothing!'”

“I said, it's nothing you need to worry about. I'll take care of it, Spike.” Twilight said. She then magically picked up the wad of bandages and went back inside. She made certain to keep herself between them and Spike so he wouldn't see what she had.

“What are you up to?” Spike said, following her.

“I'm not up to anything.”

“I know you're up to something right now. Your horn is glowing.”

Spike followed Twilight as she walked down the stairs, still keeping the evidence from the previous night out of sight. She didn't answer him.

“What was that? Are you hiding something?”

Spike tried to clamber onto Twilight's back so he could get a better look at what she was doing with her magic. She bucked gently and knocked him off. He bumped against the floor as he fell, but she knew a knock like that wouldn't hurt him. She giggled as he glared at her. “Come on, Spike, you'll have to try better than that!”

“Oh, no you don't. You're not getting away that easily!”

Spike pounced at her again, managing to cling to her rump. She galloped in a circle around the room as fast she could trying to dislodge him, laughing all the way. Spike practically forgot why he was trying to catch her in the fun of the moment. During one pass, the unicorn dropped the bandages into a trash can and telekinetically pushed them to the bottom.

Suddenly, Spike shouted out and let go. Thrown by the centrifugal force of Twilight's running, he rolled end over end until he hit a bookshelf. A couple books fell from their places, one of which landed on his head. Pulled from their momentary revelry, the unicorn galloped up to the fallen dragon.

“Spike! Are you okay?”

“Me?! What about you?!” His expression was one of deep concern.

“What about me?”

“You're bleeding!”

Twilight briefly panicked at the thought of having missed one of her cuts and letting Spike see. She glanced over herself and saw a small batch of dried blood on her flank. Apparently she was interrupted before she could clean that one off back on the balcony. “Ah! That's from, uh, I was-”

“I'm so sorry, Twilight! I didn't mean to scratch you! Dragon claws, you know? They really sharp. I try to trim them. Well, sometimes …” The baby dragon stammered, hiding his hands behind his back.

Suddenly, a hoof pounded on the front door.

“Don't worry Spike, this wasn't you, I promise. You just go get the door and I'll go clean up, okay?” Twilight said, then headed towards the kitchen to get a damp cloth.

“Oh, if you say so,” Spike replied, heading towards the door. “Wait, then where did that come from?!”

“The door, Spike!”

The baby dragon threw his arms up in exasperation and went to answer the door anyway. When he did, he was met by a stony faced pegasus guard.

“Spike the Dragon? Princess Celestia requests the presence of Twilight Sparkle immediately at the town hall.”

Spike stared at the soldier for a moment in dumb silence. Of all the ponies he could have predicted to arrive at that time, a royal guard was not one of them. “Uh, sure. Wait here, I'll get her,” he said with an uncomfortable grin before slamming the door and running to the unicorn in question.

By the time he got to her, Twilight had finished cleaning herself off and tossed a towel into the laundry. “Who was it? Did you just leave them at the door? You know that's very-”

“What did you do Twilight?!” Spike demanded as he grabbed her face and pulled it down to his. “There is a royal Equestrian guard here to arrest you and take you to Celestia himself!”

“Arrest me?! Why would he arrest me?!”

“Okay, maybe he didn't use the word 'arrest,'” Spike said, letting go of Twilight's head. “But he said he was going to take you to see Celestia at the town hall.”

“Princess Celestia is here?!” Twilight screamed, frazzling some of the hair in her mane. “Why in Equestria would she be here?!

“Oh yeah, she said she'd be. Didn't I tell you that?” Spike asked sheepishly and turning away. “It was in the letter from yesterday. You're usually around when I read them the first time, so I just kinda felt like you already – oh.” He started to explain before realize that the pony he was talking to had already teleported away. In fact, she had gone to the restroom to freshen up, comb her mane back down, and returned to the door before he had finished talking.

While the royal guard escorted Twilight to Ponyville's town hall, she was a nervous wreck. Her mane kept curling outwards in odd directions as she rolled over the different possible outcomes in her head. She kept stopping to brush it down with a hoof but it did little good.

Okay, nothing's really wrong. She's just here to receive my report on what happened. She doesn't know that everypony's hurt because of me. Yet. She doesn't know yet. I am going to tell her now, and then she'll know. And then I'll be in serious trouble. But right now, I'm not. That's a good thing, right? That means she won't banish me and throw me in a dungeon in the place she banishes me to. At least not immediately. I should enjoy these last few moments of daylight before I find myself in the center of the moon. Luna will help me escape from the moon, won't she? Sure she will, we're friends. Except for that one time I threw the power of the elements of harmony at her. Well, she appreciated that afterward. Maybe after a thousand years or so Princess Celestia will let me come back. If I live that long. Maybe Luna can show me how to do that too.

No! No. Princess Celestia is not going to banish me. Probably. Most likely. Fifty-fifty. At any rate, I should really just be prepared to explain what happened in a calm, level headed manner. I just need a few minutes to put my thoughts together.

“We're here. The Princesses are awaiting you inside.” The guard said, coming to a stop in front of the porch around the town hall across from another armored pegasus.

A few more strands of Twilight's hair went haywire and she mentally shouted an expletive she didn't commonly use.

Beyond Judgment

Part VIII: Interrogation

The mayor of Ponyville had been most apologetic about not being able to provide proper seating for Celestia and Luna. The princesses insisted that it was alright, for they knew that alicorns were much larger than the normal pony. Of course, the mayor had great difficulty figuring out the most tactful way to say as much. The sisters simply had the cushions from the carriage brought in with them, much to the relief of the mayor.

The royal sisters sat next to each other in the center of the circular hall next to a large table that was also brought in for their use. A map of Ponyville and Everfree Forest was unraveled across it, and Celestia was studying it carefully. Luna had returned to her mind once again, and the elder sister ignored her. She knew that the princess of the night was tired as much as she was bored; she was nocturnal by nature and being awake at this time of day was a bit of a strain for her.

The first thing Celestia had done when they arrived was deploy her guards all around the forest. She wasn't sure what was going on in there and she believed information gathering was the most important first step. The pegasi they brought were to observe the skies above and around but were ordered not to engage hostiles unless absolutely necessary.

The elder sister scrutinized the map carefully. A series of 'X's had been marked by her quill in red ink signifying where all the patrols were to be. She knew full well the range of her guard's ability, so that part didn't concern her as much as the unknowns. Twilight's message said that the zebra who lived in the forest said that the invading force was deconstructing their old palace and moving the blocks to another location. Where were they taking them? Was the location important? Why bother moving them? Even the minor detail of the zebra's home being unknown was an annoyance.

Of course, the princess of the sun showed no outward emotion while studying the map and worrying about variables she didn't know. Luna chuckled about something again, momentarily distracting her. Her sister's relaxed expression calmed her a little as well. If all else fails, the power of the two of them, as well as the elements of harmony which they brought, would be enough to level the forest itself. She shuddered at the thought of doing so, unable to completely mask her disdain for the idea.

The large double doors of the hall opened up, and a familiar purple unicorn slowly made her way inside. She noticed that Twilight's hair seemed to be a bit disheveled, but she wasn't hurt. Celestia nudged her younger sister with a hoof from underneath the table to draw her back to earth before calling out to the unicorn.

“Twilight Sparkle, my faithful student. I am so very pleased to see you are well.”

“Thank you princess. I'm glad to see you again too.  And you, Luna. I just wish it wasn't under these circumstances.”

“Our dearest friend, Twilight,” Luna said, “your poor mane is unkempt. Is this a result of your journey?”

“Oh! No. Well, yes. Kind of.” Twilight floundered, pawing at her hair again.

“Please, have a seat.” Celestia said, gesturing towards one of the other cushions across the table. “Tell me, where are your friends?”

Twilight sat down and tried to make herself comfortable. Her heart, head, ears, and tail all sank at once with the mention of the others. She hesitated for a moment as though she were preparing for a physical blow. “Oh, a-about that …”

“Are they all well?” Celestia asked sternly.

“Y-yes, Princess. They are. T-there was a … a fight, you see.” Twilight said, visibly squirming. “W-we all made it out okay, all of us. Applejack and Rarity were hurt really bad, though. I expect they're all still recovering at the hospital.” The unicorn couldn't seem to bring herself to look up at the alicorns.

“You are all very strong ponies.” Luna offered. “We've seen that for ourselves firsthoof. We are confident that they shall pull through, Twilight Sparkle.”

“If they need further medical attention, I will send for a doctor from Canterlot right away.” Celestia said.

“No, uh, thank you, but I don't think that will help.” Twilight interrupted. “They're all stable for now, and Nurse Redheart is an excellent physician. And, uh, I-I can actually heal most of their injuries myself.”

This came as a surprise to the royal sisters. Celestia practically hoof-built Twilight's lesson plans since she was a filly, and she never included any sort of medical magic. The unicorn would frequently add to her own studies voluntarily, but she always mentioned what she was reading and what she learned from it. Although Luna wasn't quite as invested in the mare's studies, she was at least familiar with her talents. Twilight had never mentioned learning how to heal.

“Since when could you do that?” Celestia asked.

“And why did thou not do so already?” Luna added.

“I-I-I couldn't.” Twilight struggled to say, answering one question. “Magical exhaustion. Right after the fight, I could barely stand. Fluttershy practically had to carry me back.”

Celestia took a deep breath and sat back down. “Perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves. Why don't you tell us about what happened right after you sent the letter?”

“O-okay.” Twilight said, and took a deep breath. After a moment, she composed herself enough to give a clear story. “I'll make this as short as I can, since we all have a lot to do. I gathered the other elements, as well as Zecora, to scout the camp that she claimed she saw. Along the way, we found our enemies. The first group we saw were just carrying stones. They were all white pegasi. They wore silver barding, and called themselves 'Valponies-'”

It was that final word that came as almost a physical impact to the royal sisters. Luna, who was up until then slightly groggy, was completely surprised into full consciousness. Her head jerked back, eyes widened, and she chuckled once before stifling the rest. Celestia stood up, but otherwise retained her composure. The two of them exchanged a look before returning to Twilight.

“Art thou certain?” Luna asked.

“O-of course.” Twilight said, startled and concerned by the princess' reactions. “They told us that we shouldn't interfere with them. We tried to stay low as we kept searching for the base Zecora told us about. Once we did, we searched around the perimeter, but we couldn't see over their walls.”

“You found the valpony base? Can you mark it on this map?” Celestia asked.

“Oh, um...” Twilight said as her eyes glanced over the chart unfolded in front of her. She was able to estimate the path they had taken following the ancient road and a couple landmarks. “It should be about … here.” She added, magically picking up a quill from a nearby inkwell and marking the spot with a castle icon.

The two sisters leaned forward to watch the unicorn's quill. The exchanged another glance as they sat back again.

“A patrol found us, but Dash managed to stop her before she could alert any of the others.” Twilight continued. “We tried disguising Dash as one of them, using the patrol's barding, but she was immediately found out. We had to fight before we could escape. We, uh, we did manage to, to kill a lot of them, though...” She trailed off.

This time it was Luna's turn to stand. She walked around the table and rested a wing around Twilight. “To kill is not a simple feat. Not even for a unicorn of thou's power.”

“Actually, the really scary part was that it was.” She replied, looking up with her big, lavender eyes.

“Did you return straight here after you escaped?” Celestia asked.

“We did. We immediately all checked into the hospital as soon as we returned.” Twilight hesitated before continuing. “ … Would you like me to report on their status?”

Celestia stood again. “That will not be necessary. If you say you can heal them yourself, then I entrust their recovery to you and Nurse Redheart.”

“Right. I'll go find them right away.” Twilight said, standing as well. Luna retracted her wing. “What will you two do?”

“I believe we have enough information now to prepare for our next move.” Celestia said. Luna nodded in agreement. “We will prepare to head into the forest to negotiate with them ourselves.”

“You can't!” Twilight shouted. “They'll kill both of you! You don't understand, they barely let us talk before-”

Celestia held up a hoof to silence her pupil. “Don't worry, my faithful student, everything will be alright,” she spoke in a calming voice. “They will not harm us, and they would have great difficulty besting the two of us together even if they wanted to, isn't that right sister?”

Luna nodded encouragingly. “That is correct. Do not forget that we defeated Discord himself long ago. These valponies shall be no trouble.”

“If you say so. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Celesta corrected. “Your information has been invaluable. I just need your help on one last thing.”

“Anything!” Twilight said enthusiastically. The thought of helping out the princess always brightened her mood.

“For future records, can you mark this map with the location of Zecora's home as well?” Celestia said, nodding her head towards the table.

“Of course!” Twilight galloped up to the chart and glanced over it again. After a few seconds of following the old trail, she picked up the quill again and marked it. She drew the symbol of a tree with Zecora's cutie mark on it. “It's right here. You can't miss it.”

Luna rolled her eyes as her sister leaned over Twilight's shoulder to watch. “Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. That shall be all. We will send a guard for you when we need your services again.” the night princess said.

“Okay. I'll go find my friends now.” Twilight turned and galloped away, heading out the giant doors of the hall.

“Dost thou feel better?” Luna asked her older sister, still facing the door.

“Do you mean about my pupil, or about the situation?” Celestia replied, studying the map.

“I mean about the zebra's home. How it must have bothered you not knowing that minor detail.”

“No details are minor. Everything is important.”

Luna smiled. “Whatever you say, Sister. About your student, however, she never ceases to surprise us. We would not have thought her capable of violence. Her powers are great, but killing does not come easy to our little ponies.”

Celestia sighed deeply. “You're right. I never taught her how to fight, nor how to heal for that matter. Do you suppose she knows something we don't?”

“If she has, I suppose thou art halfway to deducing what it is.” Luna replied, smiling again.

Celestia ignored her sister's smart remark. Luna returned to her spot behind the table lounged down on the pillow once more to rest her eyes.

“... Do you believe you can face him with a level head?” Celestia asked suddenly.

Luna smiled from her resting spot, then giggled like a schoolfilly. “Dost thou not trust us?”

“I'm being serious, Luna.”

“Thou art always serious. Worry not, for I shall remain in your shadow, as I always have. Well, almost always.” she continued, still smiling widely.

Not expecting a straight answer if she pursued the matter further, Celestia simply let her sister get some sleep.

As Twilight left the town hall, the first thing she saw was Rainbow Dash flying over a crowd of ponies in the square, waving a tree branch around. Twilight made her way forward to get her attention.

“And then wham! Pow! Ker-pow!” Dash shouted, swinging her stick at some imaginary things floating alongside her. “Fwoosh, wham!” She continued, spinning around in a circle, swinging her stick outward, and then swung downward at a single target. “I thought I got the last valpony around me, but then one snuck up behind and got me right in the flank! Anypony wanna see the stitches?!”

Dash landed in the middle of the crowd to show off her battle scars to anypony who cared to look. Some ponies in the crowd were curious enough to get a closer look. Others back away with a mixture of fear and nausea. Once Twilight heard the pegasus mention the word “valpony,” she forced her way into the center a little bit harder. As the show pony was about to land, Twilight telekinetically grabbed her by the tail and started pulling her outward.

“Sorry, everypony, nothing to see here!” Twilight said, pushing her way back out. “Don't mind her, she's just telling stories again!” Dash struggled for her freedom for a moment but then resigned to being pulled. She kept her wings going so as to stay floating through the air.

The crowd of ponies started to disband as the show came to an abrupt end. Twilight continued to ferry Dash into a nearby alleyway before letting her go. “Why did you go spouting all of that to everypony in Ponyville!?” She demanded.

“What?! Everypony has a right to know what's going on. Even more importantly, everypony has a right to know how awesome I was while it was happening.” Dash said proudly, still fluttering in the air.

Twilight had to fight the urge to ground her friend with magic, which would have likely torn open a few stitches.

“They need to know that everything's going to be okay, not that the valponies are trying to kill ponies!”

“Alright, alright. So when this all blows over, I can share my war stories, right?”

Twilight facehoofed. “Fine. When this is over, you can tell your story. But so help me Celestia, if I catch you leaking this to anypony else, I will heal the stitches right out of you, you got that?” She warned, waving her hoof menacingly.

Dash gasped, and tried to cover her wounds, which only ended up hurting herself a bit more. “Ow! You wouldn't dare!”

“Not. One. Trace. Of a scar.” The unicorn dictated slowly and deliberately, her eyes narrow slits.

“Okay, okay, you win!” Dash surrendered, darting behind a nearby trash can like it would help protect her.

“Good,” Twilight said, her expression softening. “Now, I need your help. The others are still at the hospital, aren't they?”

“I dunno.” Dash said, scratching the back of he head. “Pinkie was last time I saw her. She's looking pretty depressed again. And AJ's not goin' anywhere...”

“Than that just leaves Fluttershy and Rarity. And somepony needs to tell Macintosh and Apple Bloom...”

Dash hesitated awkwardly. “ … I will ground myself for a month if you tell them.”

Twilight shook her head. “Don't worry, Rainbow, I'll do it. I just need you to go find Fluttershy, and I'll handle the rest.”

Dash saluted, and started to fly off before stopping herself. “Right. I'm on it. Wait, what do you want me to do with her?”

“Do what you can to cheer her up. You've known her the longest. She feels really bad about not being able to fight last night. But, most importantly, I need you to get her to come over to my house by nine o'clock.”

“What happens at nine?”

“I'm gonna get Pinkie to throw us a party. I think it's just what we need to get everyone out of this slump.”

Dash stared at the unicorn for a moment. “So let me get this straight: you're going to talk to Rarity, who's probably flipping out over crippling her leg, tell the Apple family that their sister is in a coma, and convince Grouchy Pie to throw a party?”

“Exactly.” Twilight said with grim determination.

“ … And all I have to do is go find Fluttershy?”


“ … Alrighty then! Good luck with that. Watch out for buckets of turnips, buckets of apples, and buckets of whatever food Rarity's gonna throw at you.”

“I will. Thanks, Dash.” Twilight said before turning to run towards the hospital.

“That mare is crazy.” Dash commented before flying off in the direction of Fluttershy's home.

“All units have reported in, your majesty.” A guard informed Princess Celestia a short while later.

“Very good. What is the status of Everfree Forest?” the Alicorn replied.

The guard glanced, very briefly, to the side as something behind the princess caught his attention. “There are various creatures at all points along the forest's edge. However, all troops have been informed of the possible dangers as you have informed them and are managing their positions. One report mentions a cockatrice that was difficult to fight, but that's the worst one. Almost none of these creatures seem to want to leave the forest's edge, so most squads are maintaining their posts beyond the treeline.”

“That's fine. Any sign of the enemy?”

“No, your highness. No report has mentioned the presence of hostile pegasi.”

“They are there, we've confirmed that. We don't know what they're planning, but they may emerge at any moment. Inform each squad to keep watch over the forest at all times. Post four is directly between  their base and Ponyville, so keep them on high alert. If they spot an army on the move, send word to all squads to converge on them. Do not let them out of the forest if you can.”

“At once.” The guard said, spreading his wings.

“Luna and I will now head into the forest personally and attempt to negotiate with them. These are your orders until we return.”

The guard opened his mouth to speak, but stopped.“Yes, your highness,” he said finally.

Celestia nodded, and the guard turned to canter out of the hall to convey the message.

The princess of the sun turned to her sister who was still napping behind the table. She had rolled over in her sleep, and two of her legs were sticking up into the air. Walking around to get a better look, Celestia found her sister's neck also at and odd angle along with a wing. Her tiara had fallen off and rolled under the table. Celestia was certain the sight was what had briefly distracted the guard.

“Luna.” Celestia said softly, looking down at her sister.

The princess of the night snorted and rolled over on her side. Her wing tucked back in and all her hooves pointed in the same direction again. She still dozed soundly, however, and mumbled a word that sounded like “sleeper”

“Luna.” Celestia repeated.

The younger sister blinked her eyes a few times and she slowly awoke. She tucked her legs up underneath herself and sat up.

“Have you slept well? You seemed quite comfortable.” Celestia said flatly.

“Wonderfully.” Luna said, stretching her head and six limbs out. “What have we missed?”

“The guards are in place and they have their standing orders. It's time for us to go.”

Luna took her time standing up, continuing to stretch herself and adjust her hair which, despite being ethereal, had still managed to wrap itself around her body. “Have thou told the guards already? We would like to see their reaction when thou told them we were going ourselves.”

“I have, but there was only one. He remembered himself before voicing a protest.”

“How dull. We're disappointed,” Luna said, looking around for her tiara.

“As am I,” Celestia said, allowing herself a smile.

Finding her crown, Luna telekinetically lifted her crown from beneath the table and rested it on her head. “There, we are ready.”

“Your slipper.” Celestia said simply.

Luna looked down at her hooves and noticed that she had lost the shoe on her hind left leg. It was resting on the floor behind her. A half step backwards returned it to its rightful place. “There, now we are ready,” she said with a bright smile.

The royal sisters shared a laugh and proceeded out of the hall together.

A few hours later, while Twilight and Rainbow Dash were gathering their friends, Celestia and Luna were approaching the field around the valpony stronghold. Contrary to the local lore, there were actually quite few dangerous creatures in Everfree Forest. Those that were present were extremely dangerous, but they were still uncommon. Like the elements of harmony before them the night before, their journey into the forest was unassailed by vicious, clawed monstrosities.

“We have seen no trace of the valponies thus far.” Luna commented.

“Indeed. We didn't come from the direction of our old home, so we have no way of knowing if they're still taking it apart.”Celestia replied.

“How many can there be? How many of our hallowed walls do they need? The questions are endless.”

“I will not leave this forest until I find out.”

“We had best hurry. We would be remiss if we were late to rise the moon. Your sun has almost set.”

“If all goes well, this won't take long at all.”

Celestia, walking a few steps ahead of her sister, was the first to emerge into the clearing and see the full height of what seemed to be the completed stronghold. It was as large as the Cloudiseum, and stood just as high. The entire structure was built from yellowed stones. Not the stones the old castle was built with, the sisters noted, but the ones that were stored there for a very specific purpose. A purpose that the blocks were now preparing to serve, it seemed. In the evening light, runes could be seen engraved on each of them, etchings that could have been easily missed during the night and at a distance.

As the sisters approached the fortress, a group of pagasi rose out from the guarded walls. Brandishing their spears, they immediately rushed towards the intruders. Luna took a step back, but Celestia didn't so much as flinch. The valponies charged towards the princesses up until they realized who they were.

In short order, each of the white pegasi lowered their weapons and dropped to the ground. Their expressions abruptly changed from intense determination to surprised elation.

“Auntie Tia! Auntie Luna!” The valponies cheered.

Luna couldn't suppress a laugh, as odd and unexpected as it was. Celestia simply glowered.

“This is a joke … I can't believe he went to all this trouble for a joke!” the princess of the sun said angrily.

There was a brief moment of confusion and muddled speech as several of the valponies gathered around attempted to speak at once. Then, the one who just so happened to be nearest the princesses spoke up.

“Oh, this is no joke. I have never had the opportunity to meet our family, father's work is too important.”

“Why are you here?” Celestia demanded, pawing at the ground with a hoof.

“I have been sent here to build the portal for father.”

“That's no answer. He knows better than to interfere with the world like this. His portion of the covenant states-”

“The covenant has been broken.”

The valponie's words hung in the air for a moment as the sisters froze.

“What did thou sayest?” Luna asked.

“The covenant has been broken.” The valpony said simply. “By the two of you even. That's why he made no contact and decided to build the portal.”

“We have done no such thing!” Celestia said. Although she remained her composure, her stern voice would have made almost any of her own ponies cower.

“Which of the covenant's laws have been broken?” Luna interjected again.

“Any mortal crossing the threshold of death is not to return to the world of the living without consent.”

“Impossible. Although a magical pony could use a spell to do such a thing, we've made certain that nopony has studied such magic. I've watched the research of medical magic closely to uphold our end of the covenant.”

“Nonetheless, it has happened.”

“How is that so? There's only been a hoofful of unicorns in the history of ponykind that have even had the potential to heal the-”

All at once, everything clicked into place. Celestia's eyes widened, and she was stopped in her tracks again. “ … How much longer until the portal for Lord Sleipnir is ready?” she asked.

“It has been completed and is drawing power as we speak, but requires more time. He can visit you in Ponyville by noon tomorrow.”

“You pupil never ceases to amaze us, Sister.” Luna said.

Beyond Judgment

Part IX: Reconstruction

While the princesses were still preparing for their own journey into Everfree, Twilight Sparkle was preparing for a trial of her own. She stood at the outer gates of Sweet Apple Acres completely inert.

What am I going to tell them?” the unicorn kept thinking to herself. “Why is this so terrifying? How many creatures have I stared down now, and this is what stops me? I have a running list back home, but I can't get it now. A manticore, ursa minor, two dragons – or was it three? I'm losing track.” A slow, creaking sound went unnoticed behind her. “There was the cockatrice, but staring him down wasn't my brightest idea. Oh yes, and then there's Nightmare Moon and Discord. I mustn't forget them.

Twilight's internal monologue was interrupted by a voice. “Hey, I know you. Midnight, right?”

The lavender unicorn flinched and jumped into the air, caught by surprise. Her first response was to rush her apology. “Ah! I'm sorry! I couldn't help it! I – what?”

The startled unicorn turned her head to find the Apple family's field hoof, Caramel, pulling a wagon of lumber up from town. He took a step backwards and held up a leg in defense as Twilight panicked.

“Sorry? Uh, sorry for what?”

Twilight sighed and hung her head. “I have really bad news for Macintosh.”

“Oh, is that all?” Caramel said with a laugh. “Shoot, if it's for Macintosh, don't worry too much. He's a pretty level headed stallion. If you were tellin' Applejack bad news, well, just be prepared in case you have to duck!” Twilight groaned, but Caramel continued chatting. “One time, Big Mac accidentally bucked a tree in half and she hit him so hard in the ribs he was out of work for a week. She had to buck the entire grove herself after that. Kept tellin' ponies Mac hurt himself, but I know what happened. Come on, Midnight, I'll walk with you up to the house so you can tell him. Strength in numbers, right?”

“Thanks, Caramel.” Twilight said as the headed up the road together. “And I'm not Midnight, my name is Twilight Sparkle.”

“Oh, real sorry 'bout that, Ms. Sparkle.” Caramel said with another laugh, this time a little awkwardly. “I don't think we've ever had a chat before. Applejack mentioned you once or twice, so I recognized you by your coat and mane, but I just couldn't get you name I guess. Oh! I know I've seen you at some of Pinkie Pants' parties before. Along with that Rarity from next door.”

“Don't you mean Pinkie Pie?”

“Yeah, that's her!” Caramel said, laughing awkwardly again and scratching the back of his mane. “Heheh, I forget things sometimes.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at her traveling companion and then looked up. They were already a few yards from the Apple family farmhouse. Sure enough, the heavy, crimson form of Big Macintosh stood sentinel at the front of the porch, waiting for his sister's return and sitting on his haunches. His ever present harness rested over his bulky shoulders like a mantle of strength.

Taking a deep breath and stepping forward, Twilight began her apology. She closed her eyes as she spoke, not wanting to face the brother's inevitable glare of hatred. “Macintosh, I have bad news. As you know, Applejack and the rest of us went into Everfree last night to investigate a possible threat to Equestria. We found an army there and, well, we were discovered.” she began to shut her eyes tighter. “There was a fight. We all did the best we could and got away but Applejack got hurt. Really bad. She's at the hospital right now. … She's in a coma.”

“He's asleep” Caramel added from behind.

Twilight blinked a few times and turned back to face the sandy earth pony. “Did you forget Applejack's gender this time?”

“What? No, I'm talkin' about Mac. Look.” He said, pointing up to the big red pony.

Following Caramel's gesture, Twilight confirmed that Macintosh was indeed sleeping. He let out a deep snore. “He must have been waiting here all night for her.” Twilight said and reached out to poke him lightly.

Macintosh snorted as Twilight's hoof nudged him, and he began to tip over sideways. He regained consciousness just fast enough to catch himself before falling hard on the wooden floor.

“Hm? What? What happened?” Macintosh said, looking around in a suddenly awakened stupor. “Oh, Twilight, It's you. How's AJ?”

“She's, uh, well...” Twilight stammered, having lost her composure and spent all her initiative.

“There was a big fight in Everfree.” Caramel offered. “She's hurt and in the hospital.”

Twilight braced herself, yet Macintosh just sighed and shook his mane. Then he stood up and walked past Twilight, heading down the road towards Ponyville. “Confounded mare.” He mumbled.

Big Mac's dual words cut Twilight deeper than any valpony spear had. “I'm so sorry, Macintosh!” Twilight shouted.

The big stallion stopped and glanced over his shoulder back at the unicorn. “What are you sorry for?”

“B-because I was there and, and I should have-”

“Just hold it right there, missy.” Mac said, holding up a hoof. “Don't tell me, I reckon I can guess what happened. Ya'll were out there fightin'. Probably kicking flank too, I'd wager. Especially AJ. The thing is that she was fightin' too hard, wasn't she? There was probably some safe spot she should have been runnin' to but she wouldn't have any of it. It wouldn't even surprise me if she got hurt jumpin' in the way to save somepony else. Any of this soundin' accurate?”

“Well … Yes, but-”

“Then you have nothing to apologize for,” Mac went in in his slow, deep-voiced drawl. “Believe me, I know my sister better than anypony else. This ain't the first time she's been in the hospital. And it certainly ain't the first time she's been hurt doing somethin' she ought to have known not to do, as well intentioned she was a the time. I appreciate you coming all the way up here to tell me in pony, but now I've got to go and try talkin' some sense into her again.”

“She's in a coma...” Twilight said.

There was a brief flash of deeper concern in Macintosh's eyes. “... I still need to get goin' regardless,” he said, then addresses his field hoof. “Caramel, go unload that lumber over in the barn. Looks like the repairs are gonna have to be delayed a spell. Then, I want you to do some apple buckin'. I know you ain't as hardy and AJ me, but do what you can until I get back.”

“You got it, boss!” Caramel said with a salute and started hauling the wood away.

“So, you're not angry with me?” Twilight asked hesitantly.

“I reckon AJ will forgive you when she wakes up, if she blames you at all,” the red pony said over his shoulder as he continued walking. “I might could let you alone too.”

Twilight brightened immensely. “Thank you so much, Macintosh!” she shouted.

The unicorn jumped up and gave Mac a big hug around the neck, almost knowing him down again. He let out as surprised “Oof!” in response, but Twilight galloped back towards town before he could say anything else.

On the far side of Ponyville, Rainbow Dash arrived at Fluttershy's forest side cottage. A number of adorable critters covered in fur and feathers were roaming around the gardens, but none of them were Fluttershy herself. Dash looked around and noticed that the whole place was in a bit of disarray. Most of the animals roamed about. Part of the chicken fence had been knocked over and the chickens themselves were pecking at some burrows across the yard. Birds of all shapes and sizes were fighting squirrels over tree space. Some of the pet houses around were knocked over. Angel Bunny was wielding a carrot like a sword to keep an angry cat out of his.

Dash could have searched throughout Fluttershy's entire commune in approximately seventeen seconds, but she had one idea that was even faster.

“FLUTTERSHY!” The pegasus bellowed.

There was a squeak from inside the chicken coop and a thump as something hard hit wood. “Ow...” whimpered a soft voice from within.

“There she is.” Dash said, sweeping down to find her friend.

Squeezing her way into the coop, the azure pegasus found Fluttershy with her head in one of the cubbyholes where the chickens slept. Her eyes rattled as she pulled her head out.

“Oh, hello Rainbow Dash. I – Oh, are you alright?” Fluttershy said, distracted by Dash's stitches.

“Buck yeah, I feel awesome! A little sore, but I'm starting to totally dig these scars. My wings are still in good shape, so I can fly with my normal amount of radicalness. It's just as well you didn't do any fighting. It might scare off some of your pets if you looked like this.”

“Um … Yeah, I guess so...” Fluttershy said, averting her eyes and taking a few steps backwards. “I'm so sorry, but I have so much to do. The chickens broke their coop and escaped again and-”

Dash rolled her eyes. It was messy out there, but “chaos” was a bit of an exaggeration. “Sure thing. Just make sure you finish in time to be at Twilight's at nine.”

“What's happening at nine?”

“Pinkie and her are gonna throw a party to celebrate our awesome victory over the valponies!”

Fluttershy cowered at the thought of attending the party. More so than she cowered at the thought of normal things, Dash noted. “Oh, that's... nice. But I really shouldn't go. I... I didn't really do anything...” she said, looking away again.

The azure pagasus held out a hoof in protest. “Oh, no you don't. Twilight said to make sure you show up, so you're coming if I have to drag you by your tail. I did it to Pinkie once and you're a heck of a lot lighter than she is.”

“Well, I, uh.. I have a lot of work to do around here. Chickens escaping, creatures fighting, I really shouldn't be away for any longer than I have.”

A sly smile worked its way across Dash's face. “So, you have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time, huh?”

“Yes.” Fluttershy said proudly, thinking she had an ironclad excuse. It wasn't until too late before she realized what she was unleashing.

Dash squeezed herself back out of the coop. She took her starting line stance just outside on the ground: head down, rump up, wings out. “I can get everything in this place put together in no time flat,” she said with determination, “and then you'll be clear to go to the party.”

Fluttershy tried to make a grab for Dash's tail, but she couldn't fit herself through the door of the coop in time. In a flash of rainbow colors, she was off on her newest objective. Fluttershy tried calling for her, but to no avail.

The first thing Dash did was mend the fence where a post had been knocked over. She grabbed the loose post as she flew by. She nosed up and arched backwards, stretching out the chicken wire and partially pulling up the surrounding fence posts. She then slammed the post she was holding into the ground, planting it back in place. The resulting shockwave knocked over the loosened posts down the line. Some nearby chickens began to scatter and a couple gophers bailed from their dens.

Fluttershy galloped up to try and replace the posts. Before she could fumble the first one back into place, the blue pegasus was off to her next task. “Oh no. Dash, wait. Please?” Fluttershy whispered in protest.

Continuing her flight around Fluttershy's cottage, Rainbow Dash started lining up the pet houses that had been knocked over. The resulting wind current of a pegasus flying by ended up knocking just as many back over. Cats, dogs, and rabbits all fled from their homes to escape her. Fluttershy tried her best to keep up, setting houses back up straight, but she could never hope to match Dash's speed.

“Oh, no. No, no, no. Dash, wait.” The yellow pegasus pleaded quietly.

Her second task presumably done, Rainbow turned her attention to the Squirrel / Bird conflict in the trees. She made a dive for the nearest contested branch. Making a mess of her property was one thing, but Fluttershy couldn't let her rush into a group of defenseless creatures. It was more than likely she'd hurt one of them, even if she didn't mean to.

“WAIT!” Fluttershy finally managed to shout, flying up between Dash and her creatures. She grabbed on to Dash's haunches as she flew by and dragged her to the ground.

Dash groaned as the dust settled from their landing. “Okay, I take it back. Now I'm kinda in pain.”

Fluttershy jumped up and started brushing her friend off using her wing. “I'm so sorry, Dash! I really really didn't mean to hurt you. I just had to stop you from hurting the birds and the squirrels and-”

“Alright, alright, I get it,” Dash said, getting up. “I'll be fine, knock it off.” She tried pushing Fluttershy away, gently of course, with a leg but only managed to hurt herself a little more. She instead waved a wing wildly at her. “If you want to do it the slow way, have at it. But you better show up at Twilight's tonight or I'll bring you there myself!” she added, lifting into the air again.

“I can't Dash. I'm really sorry, but I have too much to do.” Fluttershy said.

Rainbow swung low and glared at the yellow pegasus with one eye. “Are you ignoring my orders?”

“No. Um, I mean, yes. These creatures need me.” Fluttershy insisted.

Dash raised an eyebrow. “So, you're standing up to somepony big and tough because some smaller creatures need your help?”

“Um... yes?” Fluttershy answered, not sure what her friend was getting at.

Laughing, Dash eased back. “See? You can be tough when you have to be.”


Dash laughed some more. “Think about it. And don't sweat last night. And seriously, get to work on your stuff here, 'cuz I'm coming for you later.”

With that, Rainbow Dash flew off to do whatever she does with her vast free time. Fluttershy briefly puzzled over her words before realizing: “You know, you could just stay and help me...” She suggested quietly, despite the blue pegasus being too far away.

Twilight returned to the hospital after galloping all the way from Sweet Apple Acres. She had to stop at the front door to catch her breath after the journey and then made her way inside. She chatted briefly with Nurse Redheart to learn where Pinkie and Rarity were.

“They're both still in their rooms.” Redheart answered. “They're not doing too well from an emotional standpoint. Pinkie hasn't eaten and refuses to get out of bed. Rarity brought in her sewing supplies and is holed up in her room. She won't let me go in there.”

“Yeah, she can be hard headed sometimes. Would it be alright if I tried talking to them?”

“Be my guest. Pinkie's room is the closest, right down the hall.” Redheart replied, gesturing in the direction.

Twilight trotted in the direction the nurse indicated and found Pinkie's room. The door was left open. “Pinkie Pie? How are you feeling?”

There was a mumbled reply from a pony buried under a heap of blankets on the bed. A rolling cart next to it had a salad of mixed greens and a glass of fruit juice.

“Now I see why you haven't eaten.” Twilight said. “This meal doesn't have nearly enough sugar in it for your tastes, does it?”

There was no reply from the huddled pony that time.

“Gee, I've never seen you like this before. Well, the least I can do is heal up those stitches. Hold still.”

Pinkie, despite her friend's suggestion, hadn't actually moved since she came in. Regardless, Twilight leaned in with her horn. She had to use a little bit of her life force detecting spell to sense where Pinkie's injuries were from underneath the sheets, but was able to heal them easily once she did. She pulled the tissue together and sealed them up with magic while easing out the thread. Afterward, she floated the extra stitching into a nearby ponyhazard bin.

“There. How's that feel?”

“ … Better.” Pinkie finally managed to say clearly.

“Great! And now you're talking too. We'll have you back to your old, crazy self in no time.” Twilight said enthusiastically.

There was a long, awkward silence as Pinkie didn't reply.

“Okay, can you do me a favor? Just get out from under those covers for a minute. I want to make sure that healing spell worked,” Twilight lied. She knew it worked fine, she just wanted to coax her friend into the open.

Pinkie sat up on her haunches and looked at her, and the sheets slid off down her back. The first thing the unicorn noticed about her was that her hair had fallen flat somehow. Twilight realized that it had been like that since sometime last night, but that was the first time she really noticed it. The second surprising thing was the pony's lack of emotion. Her face was dull. Twilight had seen her sad and even angry a few times, so a negative emotion wasn't entirely unheard of. But even during those times she was full of energy while feeling them. Pinkie not being enthusiastic about whatever she was doing was … unnatural.

“Good, good. You look great!” Twilight said, forcing a smile. “I don't really have a spell that can make your coat grow back around the wounds, but that should come back in a few days. There was this one time I accidentally used a hair falling out spell once. Would you like to hear that story?”

Surprisingly, Pinkie didn't show enthusiasm for the story that Twilight had long ago sworn never to tell anypony ever. The pony simply sighed and lied her chin back down on the pillow. She tried to pull the covers back over herself again but a well timed telekinesis spell prevented that from happening.

“Okay, listen.” Twilight said. “Everypony's been in a slump since last night. It was really hard on all of us, but we need to stick together now more than ever, as friends. Don't you agree?”

Pinkie looked over at the unicorn with one eye without lifting her head. She still didn't show any enthusiasm, but at least she was watching her expectantly. Twilight continued.

“We need to remind each other that we're still best friends, now matter what happened before and whatever happens next. And I need your help. I need you to throw us a party.”

At the word 'party,' Pinkie's eyes widened and her mane burst back into curly life with a loud pop. But then she scowled and pawed at it again with her front hooves until it went down flat again. “You want to do what?!” She shouted.

Well, at least she's emoting again,” Twilight thought to herself, recoiling.

“Don't you know what the definitions of a party is!?” Pinkie continued, flailing her hooves around. “Well, maybe I've never actually looked it up either, but I know! A party is to celebrate good times! We're not having good times! This is the worst time in the history of worst times ever! How can I throw a party when there are so many un-party feelings?!”

“What un-party feelings?”

“The ones from the valponies! And all the other ponies I've never even heard of! How many are there? Are they everywhere and I just never knew!? You know everything Twilight, why didn't you tell me?!”

“Tell you what?” Twilight asked, frightened by Pinkie's outburst. “I don't understand!”

“Neither do I!” the pony declared and collapsed sobbing into her pillow again.

Twilight paused for a moment to try and figure out what Pinkie was trying to explain. Her excitable nature sometimes made her hard to understand. The unicorn had no clue what to say, so she tried to do what her own mother used to do when she was upset. She wrapped a leg around Pinkie's shoulder carefully in case she tried to lash out again. When she didn't, she rested her chin on the pony's mane and nuzzled it a little.

“I know it looks bad right now, but we have to keep fighting for each other. Just like that time with Discord, right?”

Pinkie lifted her head out of the pillow and wiped her tears away. “I … guess so. So what do we do now?”

“You tell me. You're the party expert.” Twilight replied, her chin still on the back of the pony's neck.

Tapping a hoof to her chin, Pinkie thought deeply for a moment. “We're going to need hugs,” she said finally. “I remember there being lots of hugs. Oh! And Applejack gave me a cart ride! That was fun!”

As Pinkie thought back to happier times, her mane started to inflate again. This startled Twilight, whose face was still resting in it. As the curls sprung back to life once more, her head got entangled. She let out an involuntary squeak as she found herself stuck in her friends hair. She pressed her hooves against Pinkie's neck to dislodge herself and stumbled back against the wall. The party pony continued planning unabated.

“I also remember there being lots and lots of rope. Fluttershy got hogtied, and then Rarity and I got tangled up, and then Applejack kept lassoing Rainbow Dash. I had fun with the tangling part, but Rarity didn't. That's a shame, it was like flying! I love flying! Do you think we should bring rope? No, that would be preposterous! Who's every heard of a rope party? I haven't, that's who! And I'm a party expert!”

Twilight shook her head to clear out the stars swirling around her from hitting the wall. “Wait a minute, Applejack and I captured Fluttershy before we found you. How did you know we hogtied her?”

“That's not important! What's important is that we need streamers, lots of them! And enough balloons to lift a pony! And we have to do this fast. Oh! I'll go get my party cannon!”

“Party cannon? What's a party cannon?”

Pinkie rubbed her hooves together like an evil mastermind and narrowed her eyes. “It's my secret weapon. The howitzer of happiness, the falconet of fun, the culverin of craziness, the mortar of merriment, capable of firing twenty eight calibers of concentrated party at a distance of a hundred yards, for I'm awesome at alliteration!” She declared. “I'll go get it!”

Twilight had no idea what the party pony was talking about. In fact all that talk about heavy artillery made her deeply nervous, but she decided to let Pinkie do what she thought was best anyway. She was in a much better mood, at least. As she bounced out the door, the unicorn noticed one more strange thing about her.

“Pinkie, your tail's still flat.”

After glancing back at herself, Pinkie spun around and tried to hide her limp tail as though she was uncomfortable about it. “Oh, heehee, don't worry about that. I'm feeling much better, so don't you worry!”

Twilight didn't understand what Pinkie's feeling had to do with the state of her tail. But then again, she didn't know how it kept springing up and down earlier either, so she just chalked it up to Pinkie Pie being Pinkie Pie. This used to be the kind of thing she would investigate, but she had learned after the Hydra incident that some things were best left unexplored.

Oh yeah, the Hydra. I think I forgot to add that to my mental list of giant, fearsome creatures I've stared down.” Twilight thought to herself as she left Pinkie's room. “I've certainly led an exciting life since moving to Ponyville. I wonder if all friendships inherently carry that kind of risk. I'll have to investigate that and send a letter to Celestia on my findings.

“That was very well done.” Nurse Redheart said with a smile. “I saw the whole thing from out here. Are you a psychologist by chance?”

“Oh. No, I'm not.” Twilight answered, a little bit surprised. “I read a book or two on the subject before, but I was just trying to be a good friend.”

“You think you can coax out my other patient as well?”

“I think so. Rarity's a drama queen, or maybe a drama empress, but I'm certain I can reason with her.”

“Go right ahead. Good luck.”

Twilight stood in front of the door to Rarity’s room. She hadn’t heard anything from it since she arrived, and she wondered if Rarity heard anything either. The stylish unicorn did have a way of exaggerating the smallest of problems so Twilight was a little apprehensive to see how she would react to being partially crippled. There was no going back though, her friend needed her.

She raised a hoof and knocked on the door.

Beyond Judgment

Part X: Friendship

Twilight walked up to the next door and knocked on it. “Rarity? It's me, Twilight. How are you feeling?”

“I am lost in a maelstrom of depression!” Rarity lamented from within. “My career is over! My leg is disfigured! I can do nothing but hide in the blackness of my heart!”

Normally, Twilight would have excused Rarity's speech as needlessly melancholy, but that was just about the first time she was moping about something legitimate. Twilight pushed the door open with her telekinesis, only to have it slammed back in her face by Rarity's.

“Hey! Come on, Rarity, let me in!”

“No! I mustn't be seen in this condition!”

Twilight tried to dig her hooves into the linoleum flooring to get more traction for her spell, but it was too slippery to do any good. She was actually surprised by the fact Rarity was perfectly matching her spell power. She could have poured more power into the spell but she was afraid to rip the door right off of its hinges. The last thing she wanted to do was possibly harm her friend more.

After a moment of struggling, Twilight released the telekinesis spell. She had a much better idea.

“Ugh, I told you that I just want to be alone!” Rarity shouted as the lavender unicorn teleported past the door.

“I'm not abandoning you. I'm your friend.”

Rarity collapsed on the bed and wrapped the blankets around herself. It was then Twilight noticed that the room had been entirely redecorated. While all the other rooms were a sterile white, Rarity had apparently tried covering the room in stark black. It was strange, Twilight wasn't deeply familiar with Rarity's designs but she couldn't think of a time when the pearly unicorn used the color black for anything. Banners of black fabric arched their way across the walls. The bed linens were also darkened. The white curtains over the windows had been replaced with black ones, blocking out most of Celestia's light. Rarity had even concluded that she should hang black sheets over the lights, darkening the whole room. It was as though she had made a full conversion into a vampony, or something, and redecorated her room into her new lair. Twilight was at a little bit of a loss just taking the room in.

Empty bottles of dye and some of Rarity's sewing supplies were sitting on a desk at one side of the room. A couple boxes of sterile gloves had been brushed aside onto the floor to make room for them. Twilight was in awe of Rarity's ability to bring all of that in without anypony noticing.

“H-how did you do all of this?” The lavender unicorn stammered.

“Even in my darkest of times, I cannot fight the urge to create!” Rarity declared from under her blackened sheet. “But I can only give form to what's inside of me! You have no idea how hard it was to get everything just right with this cursed leg!”

“I don't understand. You said your career was over, but this room still looks incredible. Dark, but incredible.”

“It's not my designs, it's me!” Rarity shouted.

The white unicorn tried to roll herself out of bed, but with only three good legs she toppled out of it and landed on her side on the floor. Twilight jumped forward to help, but Rarity held out a hoof to stop her. Her hair was a mess, both mane and tail. Falling out of bed only made that worse. Her flowing curls were all out of shape and crinkled. Loose strands were everywhere. With a face of determination, Rarity struggled to stand on her own.

“The style and glamor of my heart and mind remains but I can barely move on my own.” Rarity said sternly. “Do you remember what I told Trixie all that time ago about what it means to be a unicorn? Grace and beauty, Twilight, grace and beauty. How can I be graceful like this?!”

Rarity tried to take a step forward, but only stumbled again when her paralyzed leg didn't respond. Twilight tried to catch her again, but she was similarly stopped.

“It can get better.” Twilight said. “There's got to be some kind of physical therapy to help, or something.”

“No, there isn't!” Rarity shouted, shutting her eyes tight. “There's no healing this, Redheart said so herself. Not even a magic healing spell can repair severed nerves after this long. It's hopeless.”

Rarity leaned against the side of her bed and sobbed. Twilight slowly stepped up, and tried embracing her like she did with Pinkie. She thought better of trying to place any weight on her back, so she settled with nudging her ruined mane.

“It will get better. Maybe not your leg, but everything else will be. I'm still here for you, and so is everypony else.”

“Applejack isn't.” Rarity replied bitterly, choking back tears.

As much as that stung, Twilight didn't let it get to her. Not just yet, anyway. “Macintosh would disagree. He said that she probably wouldn't even be mad at us. Even if she was awake, I'll bet she'd be right here with you too.”

“Humph.” Was all Rarity could reply.

Although she was still deeply upset, at least Rarity wasn't lashing out at Twilight anymore. Not sure what else to add, she just stood there with her, nudging her neck with her cheek. She looked down at the crippled leg, the hoof resting at an odd angle that must have been uncomfortable if the pearly unicorn could feel it. Twilight thought of moving it back into a more comfortable position.

“Wait, I have I great idea!” Twilight said, suddenly ecstatic. “Here, watch this.”

Rarity lifted her head to look at Twilight, who began channeling her horn. She followed the lavender unicorn's gaze to her own leg. Telekinesis engulfed it, and it started to tap against the floor like she was counting.

The next thing Twilight knew, she was propelled against the far wall by a burst of Rarity's magic. Hard.  For a moment she thought she cracked a rib or two. She collapsed on the floor.

“What in Celestia's name do you think you're doing?! Are you mocking me?! Do you intend to wiggle my hoof around at will like some plaything while I lack the ability to move it myself!?”

“N-no. Tele – ” Twilight coughed. “Telekinesis is the answer.”


“You have an incredible talent for moving things with magic.” Twilight continued, smiling up at her with tired eyes. “You can use it to move your leg, and you can learn to walk just fine.”

Rarity looked down at her ruined limb and considered what her friend said. She called on her own magic to support her leg, and for the first time in two days was able to balance herself like normal. Her eyes widened in amazement as hope filled into her heart again.

“Oh, Twilight, I'm so sorry!” Rarity pleaded as she leaped down to comfort her friend.

The lavender unicorn chuckled for a second until she felt a sharp pain in her side. “That's okay, I probably should have warned you I was going to do that.”

Rarity used her own magic to lift the two of them up, making a point to be extra careful with Twilight. “I feel absolutely dreadful. I've been a terror all morning, and you were all just trying to help me! Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

“I'm inviting everypony together for a party tonight at nine. A small one, though. Just the si- uh,  five of us.”

The pearly unicorn raised a hoof – the disabled one, even. “Say no more, I'll be there. Oh! If only there were more time, I could-” Rarity started, and then abruptly stopped herself by placing the hoof to her mouth.

“Could what?”

“Nothing, nothing, dear. I just have so much to do now. I must apologize to Nurse Redheart for my ghastly behavior as of late. And I simply must redecorate this room all over again from the floor up. So much black, what was I thinking? Even if it's just a small party, I'll need some time to doll myself up. I can only imagine how my mane looks.” She said, feeling her hair.

Twilight smiled brightly. “I'm just glad you're feeling better. Don't worry about your mane. At least it looks better than mine did when we first met.”

The two unicorns laughed at that shared memory, and embraced each other for a moment.

“I'm feeling so much better, thank you so very much. Now I have to take care of this room.” Rarity turned around and faced the center of the room. She started pulling down the banners with her magic. Each dropping sheet caused the room to brighten more and more.

“I'll just leave you to that then. I have some things to take care of myself before tonight.”

Twilight left and closed the door behind her, and Rarity abruptly stopped what she was doing. She walked over to the counter where her sewing machine was and rummaged through the drawers. She pulled out a pad of prescription sheets and a quill and inkwell. The sheets on the pad were small, so she tore several off at once and arranged them on the counter. She started making sketches.

“I know just the way to make it up to you. I'll make you a brand new dress. You and Nurse Redheart. But this... this shall be my grandest creation to date! I must merge my own flamboyant style with your simplistic preferences. A paradox, to be sure, but I am to the challenge!”

Rarity paused her monologue for a moment to consider a line she had just drawn, then scratched it out.

“Even if it takes the rest of your life, Twilight, I shall finish this dress for you.”

“That one sounded rough. Are you alright?” Nurse Redheart asked as Twilight emerged from Rarity's room.

“I'm fine, thank you. Just a bruise, I think. She's feeling much better now, and that's all that's important.” Twilight replied, closing the door behind her.

“That's great to hear. You've been an amazing friend.”

“Thank you. I feel really tired, though, so I'm just going to go home.”

“You go ahead and do that, I'm going to finish my rounds. Take care now.”

Twilight nodded and the two parted ways. As she headed towards the exit, she just happened to glance into an open doorway. What she saw quickly brought her to a stop and sapped the good feelings she had been building up all afternoon.

It was Applejack's room, where she still lied motionless save for her slow breathing. Macintosh was there too, standing by his sister's bedside, having arrived while she was talking to the others. A basket of apples rested on the floor as well. One of the apples had been placed between her resting hooves. Twilight watched as Macintosh brushed Applejack's mane away from her face, and then rested his chin on the mattress.

Twilight shut her eyes tight as frustration gripped her. There was no magic spell she could cast or words she could use that would restore her friend safely. Magic could be used to awaken a comatose pony, but that could cause severe neurological damage. Applejack would be fine waking up naturally, but there would be no telling when that would occur. It could be a few days from then, or maybe years, perhaps decades. Applejack's condition was the one thing she couldn't fix, and yet it felt like the most important.

Resigning herself to a deep sigh, Twilight slowly walked out of the hospital. She wanted to take a long walk home but found that to be impossible. An army of Earth pony soldiers from Canterlot had arrived and were deploying all around Ponyville. Twilight knew just enough about military procedure from being around Celestia and the guards to understand some of what they were doing. A lot were simply making patrols around the town, while others were going from shop to shop seeking supplies and lodging, or looking for storage or places to set up the equipment and tools they brought along with them. The shopkeepers supplied what they could, but most of the ponies around were worried and frightened by all the warriors swarming the town. The square around the hall was quickly being filled up with tents for the standing army.

Twilight passed by Sugarcube Corner on her way back home. She noticed a one pair of golden armored unicorns examining Pinkie's second-story bedroom from the outside. She didn't make out exactly what they were talking about, but one of them mentioned something about a “vantage point” and being “like a tower,” while the other agreed with him.

They're preparing for a battle.” Twilight thought with horror. “All the ponies around here freaked out when we were attacked by stampeding bunnies. A pitched battle is the worst thing that can happen here. Oh, I hope Celestia knows what she's doing.

Continuing her way around Ponyville, Twilight watched the bustling activity of Ponyville. It was surreal. There were just as many ponies around as there were on the busiest of days, but none of which were ponies she recognized, and all of them wore the same gilded barding. She tried to stay out of the way, lest somepony recognize her as Celestia's protegee and ask her for orders or something. Every now and again she would catch sight of somepony peeking out from behind her curtains in fear of what was going on around town. She took the long way home, walking around the entire village. It had been a very trying couple of days and she just wanted some fresh air and just not think for a little while.

The park was similarly converted into a campgrounds. Twilight did her best to find some comfortable patch of grass on the far end of the field to relax and clear her head. She lied down and held her nose up towards the gentle breeze. The faint scent of fresh apples from Sweet Apple Acres mixed with the aroma of some wildflowers washed over her. The cool wind lifted her mane and the ends of her hair brushed gently against her forehead. Twilight meditated in peace like that for a while. A few minutes, and hour, maybe longer, she didn't know.

“Excuse me, Miss, are you alright?”

Twilight opened her eyes. An earth pony soldier was looking down at her, carrying a bundle on his back that was to be his own tent. Looking around, she realized that the camp had expanded a lot while she was resting.

“Yes, I was just... relaxing. I'm sorry, I guess I'm just in everypony's way now, aren't I?”

The guard smiled, politely not saying the affirmative.

“I'll just be going then. Excuse me.” Twilight continued, and she left.

Eventually, Twilight found her way home. It was just after sunset, so it was just as well that she finally returned. She opened the door and stepped inside. Before she even had the opportunity to close the door behind her, a loud pop and then a squeal sounded from the center of the room. Immediately afterward, something splattered against the wall to her right and bits of it landed in her coat.

“Oopsy, whoopsy, doopsy!” rang out a voice from the darkness.

“Pinkie!” Shouted a few others in irritation.

Twilight flipped on the lights with her magic. Pinkie Pie was crouching behind a baby-blue cannon she had never seen before that was aimed at the door. Spike, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash were glaring at the pink pony while Fluttershy looked like she was about to hyperventilate. The lavender unicorn inspected the gooey material stuck to her wall and fur. It was cake.

“You, you scared me!” Fluttershy wheezed. “And I was trying so hard to brace myself for that...”

“Sorry, everypony!” Pinkie said, scratching the back of her mane. “Party cannon's got kind of a hair trigger sometimes.”

“Great, now it's all over the wall!” Spike shouted. “Do you know how long it'll take to clean all that up?!”

“Pinkie,” Twilight asked flatly, flicking her tail in irritation, “Why is there a cake plastered to my wall? And why did you shoot it out of a cannon at me? What's going on?”

“We were gonna turn your party around on you and make it a surprise party.” Dash answered.

“We just really wanted to thank you for all you've done for us today.” Rarity said. “We were at some of our lowest points today, and you still didn't abandon us.”

“I wasn't feeling low. This is radical!” Dash interrupted, showing off her scars again.

“Well, most of us were.” Rarity continued, waving her paralyzed hoof dismissively at the azure pegasus. “It's like you told me, we're all together.”

“Yeppers!” Pinkie declared, leaping into the air to tackle-hug Twilight. The unicorn magically caught her in mid-air before impact in self defense. That didn't actually stop her from talking, however. “And you reminded me to not stop fighting, even if I do feel sad. You also reminded me of the importance of hugging. Or was it the importance of rope? No, hugs! Now let me down so I can hug you!”

“Um, I know you didn't actually talk to me today,” Fluttershy interjected as Pinkie started flailing her legs around. “But I'm sure you would have if you just weren't so busy...” she said, pawing absentmindedly at the floor. “It's okay, though, Rainbow came and cheered me up.”

Twilight smiled and walked up to Fluttershy. Pinkie floated along above her, still trapped by magic. “You know I'd be there for you if I could,” the unicorn said. “We're still friends right?”

“Best friends.” Fluttershy said, and Twilight embraced her.

Rarity walked up as well, stumbling only a little, and hugged them both. Pinkie resumed protesting. “Hey, what about me! I wanna group hug!”

Twilight released her spell, and the pink pony fell on top of them. They all collapsed into a heap and laughed.

“Dog pile!” Dash shouted, flying in from nowhere. The impact from this addition to the group hug pushed them all back a few feet, but this only caused them all to laugh harder.

“Thank you, everypony.” Twilight said, tearing up just a little. “You're all my best friends.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door of the library. Twilight excused herself and tried to pull herself out of the pile of pony. When that proved too difficult she simply teleported away. The other friends worked their ways free as she opened the door.

The goddess of the sun, Celestia, was there. Luna standing slightly behind and beside her. Twilight was taken aback. “Twilight Sparkle, my faithful student, I have an important question to ask you.”

“W-what is it princess?”

“Since when have you learned to revive the dead?”

Beyond Judgment

Part XI: Secrets and Truths

Twilight's ear twitched involuntarily. Her beloved teacher, Celestia, showing up unannounced was a shock in itself, let alone the question she was asked. “... What?” was her only reply.

“May we come in?” Luna asked.

That was a request Twilight could more easily process. “Oh, um, of course. Please,” She said, standing aside before she could wonder how the princesses could actually fit through her door.

“Thank you.” Luna replied, and nodded to the squad of guards behind them to stay.

In a flash of light, Celestia seemingly teleported inside. The light from her spell was brighter than that of Twilight's, and happened even faster. Keener eyes might have barely been able to see Celestia change her form into that of light itself and then materialize. Luna's entrance was less grand but prettier to watch. She transformed into a nebulous cloud that billowed and flowed into the room before changing back. The other ponies bowed to their monarchs.

“I apologize for the intrusion, my faithful student. It has come to my attention that you've acquired a new magic spell. A spell that was outside of your curriculum. I would like to know how you found it.”

“Ooh, new magic?!” Pinkie interrupted loudly. “Lemme guess! Uh, is it a spell that turns trees purple? No! How about a spell that causes cats to float upside down? Oh, oh! It's a spell that makes waffles three times their size and taste like pumpernickel!”

Dash wrapped her front legs around Pinkie's head to make her stop talking. Rarity asked the more relevant question.

“Excuse me, your highness, but why is this spell so important? Twilight's learned countless spells since she moved to Ponyville. It seems like a lot of effort to come all the way down here over one silly little spell.”

“I'll explain everything once Twilight answers my question” Celestia replied and turned to her student. “You know what spell I'm talking about, do you not?”

Twilight looked up wide eyed at the princesses. She then looked across her friends. She watched Spike as he walked up and stood next to her.

“Come on, just spill the beans already. What's going on here?”

“I, I-I...” Twilight stammered.

The lavender unicorn was as much intimidated by the situation as she was afraid to tell the truth. The others in the room could see the fear in her eyes. Fluttershy fluttered over to her. She wrapped a wing around Twilight and nudged her neck – just like the night she helped her walk back from Everfree.

“It's okay. Just tell us what's wrong.” Fluttershy urged gently.

Twilight sighed deeply and leaned back against the pegasus. “I figured it out a few months ago.” She began. “I was studying advanced magic techniques. It mentioned some things about magical energy and life force. I cross referenced it with some other books I have on that kind of thing, and it just all came together. I pretty much figured it out by myself.”

“Figured what out?” Dash asked.

Twilight shut her eyes tight and cringed. “H-how to raise the dead.”

There was a pause as the weight of Twilight's words sunk in amongst the ponies and the baby dragon. Celestia and Luna shared a look and nodded.

“Whoa...” Spike said in awe. “That's, like, the greatest spell ever! Just think about what you could do with that!”

“We are, Spike.” Rarity said solemnly. “It sounds wonderful, but... I can't think of anything good coming from a spell like that.”

“Are you crazy?” Pinkie asked. “What if you lost some who was really, really important to you. Like, if some little filly lost someone who always made her happy and smile, and didn't want her to go? What if, if she didn't want to lose her Granny Pie...?”

“Well, yeah, of course that's really sad...” Dash said. “But you can't just make ponies stay around forever. You gotta keep goin' no matter what happens.”

“But, what if you didn't have to?” Fluttershy piped up. “With a spell like that, nopony would have to be sad about losing somepony else ever again. Everyone would be just like... just like the princesses.”

The conversation came to an abrupt end as everyone in the room look up at the elder Alicorns. Fortunately for them, Twilight drew their attention back again.

“The spell doesn't even work that way! I can't keep anypony young or even prevent them from dying. I can only revive them once they do. It would be like... like everypony growing older and older, and weaker and weaker, and being brought back over and over whenever they get sick or hurt. It would be terrible.”

“That's enough, my little ponies.” Celestia said. “It's precisely this reason that Luna and I have tried to keep this kind of magic a secret. It can only spread disharmony among ponies. Death is a natural part of life, just as important as birth. Everything comes, and everything goes, in time.”

“But you two won't.” Dash pointed out.

“Tis true, Sister and I know not the extent of our lifespans.” Luna explained. “But as such, we have responsibilities to this world. We must ensure that it lasts as long as we will, if not longer. Thus we raise the moon, and Sister the sun. Tis a burden we don't take lightly.”

“We are all straying from the matter at hand.” Celestia said. “Twilight, you admitted to having this power, but that's not the whole story, is it?”

“...No, Princess, it's not.” The unicorn replied, hanging her head.

“Please, it's very important that you tell us what happened.”

Rarity was the first to catch on to what they were implying. “You mean, you've actually used this spell before?!”

Twilight nodded slowly.

“Who was it?” Fluttershy asked.

Slowly, Twilight raised her eyes to look up at the pony she had revived. Everyone in the room followed her gaze up to Rainbow Dash, who suddenly became very agitated.

“What?! Me?! I'm not dead! You're kidding, right?”

“...It was during that one time I watched you practice your sonic rainboom. Remember when you veered off course into the forest and injured yourself? Well...”

Rainbow Dash, usually hovering in mid air even while idle, plopped down rump first on the floor. She wrapped her front legs around her head in panic “You mean I killed myself?!”

“It was only for a few minutes! I was right behind you and I healed you as fast as I could!”

“That doesn't change the fact that I was dead!”

Twilight leaped up out of Fluttershy's gentle hold and grabbed Dash by the head. “Listen to me, Rainbow. You're fine now. You're been fine for weeks. You didn't even realize you were hurt all the badly, right?”


“So don't freak out on me. You're fine, alright?”


Twilight let her friend go and took a few steps back. “I'm sorry for keeping this a secret from everypony, especially you Princess, but I didn't know what to do with that spell once I figured it out. I was kinda hoping I'd never need to use it. And then, all of a sudden, I did. I hadn't even practiced using it before then, but I had to try. You all understand don't you?”

“You used that spell on me without even practicing it?!” Dash blurted out, flailing her legs in panic.

“Calm down, darling, she didn't have much of a choice, now did she?” Rarity said.

“I'm so proud of you!” Pinkie shouted, giving Twilight another tackle hug. “You've gotten so good at that!”

“Yeah, the revive spell was really hard to cast.” Twilight replied, blushing a little bit. “It was the toughest spell I've ever used.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, that. I was talking about keeping secrets! You remember the last time you tried to keep a secret? That was a disaster. Oh! Oh! What other secrets are you keeping?”

“Um, nothing, Pinkie. That was the only one.” Twilight replied, smiling awkwardly and nodding.

The pink pony grinned smugly. “Right...” She said suggestively. “I get ya. Good job.”

“You indeed performed a great boon for your friend, Twilight Sparkle, but we are afraid to tell thee that there are consequences now for what thou hast done.” Luna warned.

“What kind of consequences...?” Fluttershy asked, cowering a bit.

“You all know that Luna and I do our parts to maintain the balance of the world.” Celestia explained. “We are not the only beings that do so. There are others that have their own responsibilities. Some of them are much, much more powerful than even we are. When you brought a pony back from death, you crossed a line into the duties of one of these beings.”

Celestia's words was enough to make all of the ponies afraid. They huddled together like they were being told a ghost story, only that one was much more real.

“W-what kind of being?” Spike asked, huddling in with the ponies as well.

“His name is Lord Sleipnir.” Luna answered. “His duty is the conveyance of the souls of the dead to the afterlife. When Twilight brought Rainbow's soul back, she effectively stole what was rightfully his.”

Rarity put a hoof to her forehead and just about fainted as she fell over backwards. Spike end up having to catch her. Fluttershy did successfully pass out quietly on the floor. Twilight and Dash were paralyzed. Not even Pinkie could come up with something to say at that moment.

“The valponies you fought are his.” Celestia continued. “From what we understand, they do most of the work under his direction. That fortress they've been constructing is actually a portal through which Sleipnir is to arrive tomorrow.”

“W-what does he want?” Twilight asked.

“We know not.” Luna answered. “He lives... in a different realm than us. Suffice to say that communication and travel is difficult. The valponies had to come here first and prepare the way for him. We shall all discuss the matter upon his arrival.”

Celestia stepped forward to the shocked and frightened ponies and lied down in front of Twilight. “I know that all of this seems intimidating, but I will do everything in my power to protect you. All of you. But until the dawn, you must all support each other. With the magic of friendship, I believe that we can all rise from this trial safely.”

“I understand, Princess. Thank you.” Twilight said reverently.

It was one of those times that Twilight wished she could embrace the princess like her mother. She couldn't do so, of course. As maternal as Celestia was to her, she was still a princess after all, and one does not hug a princess.

“Good. Luna and I must go now. We will send a guard for you in the morning. Until then, I believe Miss Fluttershy needs some assistance.”

The friends all looked down at the inert pegasus lying on her side on the hardwood floor. Almost in unison, they all rushed to wake her as gently as they could. Celestia chuckled to herself over the commotion. She nodded to her sister and turned to leave. In another flash of transformative light she left the way she came. Luna followed in her own nebulous cloud. The ponies, all preoccupied with their friend, didn't notice their leaving.

A few minutes later, the sister princesses returned to their temporary bedroom in the upper lofts of Ponyville town hall. Celestia prepared to settle down for the night, removing her armor and accessories and lying down. This was the prime time of day – or rather time of night – for Luna. However, she had been awake for much of the day and wished to nap for a while as well. She had already unceremoniously raised the moon on the way back through Everfree and required no more attention from her for the time being. Before the two of them could rest, however, Luna had a question.

“Why didst thou lie to thine pupil?” The younger princess asked.

“Whatever do you mean? I informed Twilight of as much as she needed to know about Sleipnir and the other elders. You know we can't tell them any more than that.” Celestia replied.

Luna shook her head. “We weren't speaking of that. Thou promised the safety of Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Thou hast no idea what could happen tomorrow, how canst thou say such a thing in good faith?”

Celestia closed her eyes and thought for a moment. “Very well, let me give you one more lesson on leadership in modern Equestria. Ponies in this age haven't seen true conflict for generations. In fact, your return, and subsequently Discord's, has been the only real trouble Equestria has witnessed in centuries.”

The lunar princess averted her eyes for a moment at the mention of her rebellion, but continued to pay attention to her sister's lecture.

“Modern ponies live in peace and tranquility, much unlike our world a thousand years ago.” Celestia continued. “It's a fundamental part of the world they understand. The thought of this changing can be terrifying to them. The best thing we can do is give them hope so that they don't falter. They stand the greatest chance of facing the unknown when supplied with optimism.”

“We disagree. Even if ponies of old lived in a harsher world, they triumphed over it through strength and determination, not flowery half-truths. They were honest with each other, as were we, even in the bleakest of times. Furthermore, the six of them hath shown greater promise than either of us could have expected.”

“I am as aware of their potential as you are, and I have the utmost confidence in the strength of their friendship as well as their magic.”

“That dost not explain why you made that promise.”

Celestia rubbed her eye and rested her chin on the pillow. “I am tired, Luna. We will continue this discussion later.”

Luna rolled her eyes and lied down as well, flopping down on her side on her pillow. “As thou wishes, sister.”

“We care for these ponies just as much as thou does.” Luna thought to herself before drifting to sleep. “All of them equally, not just a few favored ones. It is for that reason that we will not lie to them, and we will do what is best for all of Equestria.

Early – very early – the next morning, one of the guards knocked on the door to Twilight's tree house. Spike, the responsible young dragon that we was, lifted himself up from his bed at the top of the stairs and went to answer it.

“The princess would like to inform the Elements that Lord Sleipnir has arrived. She requests their presence immediately.”

“Oh... right, that.” Spike said, taken back a little. “They all just had a big slumber party last night, so...”

The guard's expression showed little sympathy for Spike's predicament.

“Fair enough. Hold on a sec.” Spike said, closing the door.

The baby dragon looked around the main room of the house. Despite all their troubles, the mares had managed to enjoy themselves for a bit last night, and made a mess in the process. They were all still asleep and scattered around the room. Dash had shoved all the books out of one of the shelves and had tucked herself there to sleep. Fluttershy was curled up in an adorable little ball on a pillow in the corner. Rarity was lounging on the couch that she had somehow dragged magically from her shop. There were still hair curlers in her mane. Pinkie was sprawled across the staircase in a manner that could only have been uncomfortable for a normal pony. Twilight was buried under a stack of pillows after losing a particularly epic pillow fight. Her tail sticking out from underneath the pile was the only part of her that was visible.

Spike awoke them all in the most efficient way he could think of. He took a deep breath and blew the biggest spout of flame he could muster into the center of the room. He was careful, of course, not to set anything or anypony on fire, just make a big burst of light and loud roar. It was successful. After some panicking, a little bit of arguing, and a lot of Rarity fussing her mane, the five ponies were all organized.

Twilight stepped out of her house first to greet the guard. “Sorry about all the racket. Please, lead the way.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XII: Lord Sleipnir

“Hey, Guy,” Dash asked the earth pony guard as they all walked to the town hall, “Did you get to see this Sleipnir guy?”

“Not me.” he replied. “He got here before Celestia rose the sun with a squad of those valponies. Only the night guards got a good look at them before they all went into the command post.”

“Command post?” Twilight asked.

“Sorry. Your town hall, I mean. That's where the princesses are stationed, so that's where commands are coming from.”

“Do you know what he looks like?” Dash pressed on.

“Negative. Nopony's been briefed on that yet.”

“Celestia said it was his job to bring souls to the afterlife, but she never mentioned what he was like.” Twilight offered.

“I'll bet he's some kind of monstrous slimy beast!” Dash said enthusiastically.

“That's repulsive,” Rarity said, turning up her nose. “For all we know he looks just like any other pony. He might even be another Alicorn, like the princesses.”

“Maybe he's a skeletal Alicorn, or a ghostly Alicorn!”

“Or maybe he's a monstrous skeleton covered in ghostly slime!” Pinkie offered, bouncing happily.

The other friends turned to give the pink pony confused looks – except for Fluttershy whose limbs locked up and she tilted over forward.

“Come on, you guys, you're scaring Fluttershy.” Twilight said, turning back to help the downed pegasus.

“Sorry everypony,” Fluttershy apologized. “I haven't been this nervous since we climbed the mountain to face that dragon.”

“Don't worry though, we're still going to be right beside you for this too.”

The others nodded in agreement, and Pinkie added “Who knows? Maybe you'll get him to go away by jumping up and down on his nose and giving him the stink eye too!”

They all laughed at that, and the guard continued the escort.

“You're all the last ones to arrive.” The guard said as they reached the town hall. “There's a table set up for the negotiations already, just go on in and sit down.”

“Thank you kindly.” Rarity said, curtsying.

The guard smiled back at her and nodded. “Anytime, miss.” He then saluted and left, returning to his duties.

“Alright girls, are we ready?” Twilight asked.

The friends agreed, some more enthusiastically than others.

“Alright then, let's go.”

Twilight called on her magic to swing open the heavy double doors of the hall, and the five of them walked inside. There was indeed a large hardwood table in the center of the building. Pennants and banners like the ones hung during the Summer Sun Celebration adorned the walls. Several figures set at one side of the meeting table at one side, and they all stood as the friends entered. Most of those were valponies which the friends immediately recognized. The one in the center was new. He was larger than a normal pony, about the size of an Alicorn, except that he had neither wings nor a horn. He did, however, have eight legs and a blue coat. His cutie mark was a straight streak of fire that started on the back of his flank that curled up and changed into a dark vortex as it traveled forward. Only one member of the party recognized him.

“Holy horse apples it's you!” Dash screamed, just about jumping out of her feathers.

Sleipnir laughed; not in a mocking way, but heartily. His voice was booming, but gentle.

“Dash, you know him?!” Twilight asked.

“I can't believe I forgot! I thought it was just a hallucination!”

“I can assure you, Lady of Loyalty, I am no hallucination.” the mysterious pony said, stepping forward.  “I am the Lord of the Afterlife, tasked with the conveyance of the deceased to their proper place in the hereafter. My true name comes from an ancient tongue that hasn't been spoken in this realm for thousands of years. In your language it would translate roughly to “Unfortunate Traveler,” but you may call me Sleipnir.”

“H-how do you know him?” Twilight asked.

 “When I had that big crash in Everfree, I-I saw him!” Dash replied, still panicking. “He tried to get me to go with him to the afterlife!”

“Before we were so rudely interrupted, I might add.” Sleipnir said.

Twilight rounded on her hind legs and faced the lord of the dead. Sparks of magic bristled from her horn. “You! This is your fault! It's because of you and your valponies that all of this happened!”

The Lord of the Dead kept his composure despite the accusation, and responded to Twilight in a level tone. “You speak of things you do not understand, dear, but I don't hold it against you. It will all be made clear by the moon's rising, though. I can assure you of that.”

“What's that supposed to mean!?”

“That's enough!” boomed another voice from the balcony of the hall.

Everypony in attendance looked up and saw the royal princesses flanked by a pair of pegasus lieutenants on the upper level. She spread her wings and jumped from the ledge followed by one of the guards. They glided in a grand sweep around the room before landing on the floor.

“I understand your feelings, my faithful student, but we are here to discuss a peaceful solution. Don't forget that.” Celestia said, chiding her pupil gently.

“You're right princess, I'm sorry.”

Luna followed afterward. Instead of flying around as her sister did, she simply jumped straight down to the lower level, using her wings only to slow her descent and landing gracefully on two hooves. The other lieutenant also followed her lead, but couldn't match the grace of the Alicorn's landing.

“My Lady of the Moon,” Sleipnir said, “It's truly a pleasure to see you again.”

“And thou as well, my Lord of the Afterlife.” Luna replied.

“It's been, what, a millennium since we all last gathered in the same place? We really should meet and chat more often, don't you all agree? If only some of us hadn't been so... preoccupied by the will of others... we might be able to do so.” Sleipnir said, glancing at Celestia.

“That is all ancient history now. What's more important is current events, isn't that correct?” Celestia shot back.

“Yes, of course, how silly of me. Please ladies, have a seat.”

The exchange between the elder ponies going largely over the mortal ponies' heads, the five friends took their seats on a series of cushions on their end of the table. Sleipnir himself remained standing until the princesses sat as well. The valponies followed his example, having thus far said nothing. The princesses' lieutenants remained standing in the back.

“I'm sure most of you believe me to be some kind of cruel and heartless monster,” Sleipnir began, “But first and foremost I would like to assert that I am not. Even after the six of you murdered my daughters, I am willing to forgive.”

“Daughters? You mean the valponies?” Rarity asked.

“Of course. I created them from my own will. We elders do not reproduce as you mortals do, but we are capable of creating life, to various extents. My daughters may not be what you call “sentient,” simply carrying out whatever orders I give them without thought or question, but I value them all the same.”

As Sleipnir explained that, he reached up with one of his legs and nudged the cheek of one of the valponies sitting next to him. She affectionately nudged his hoof back for a moment before he pulled away, after which she resumed her blank, stoic expression.

“Oh.” Fluttershy cooed.

“Hm? Is there something you wish to say, Lady of Kindness?” Sleipnir urged gently, leaning forward.

Fluttershy blushed and retreated into her hair a little bit, but then spoke up. “I... guess you can't be all bad. I mean, nopony who cares about their foals so much can be so bad. I'm sorry we hurt them.”

“I'm not.” Dash said stubbornly, crossing her front legs.

“Your daughters crippled my leg!” Rarity shouted.

“They nearly killed Applejack!” Twilight shouted as well.

“My little ponies, please.” Celestia urged, and they quieted.

Sleipnir remained silent and closed his eyes as the friends berated him. He continued once they ceased. “I understand your feelings. You may not believe me, but I do. You did what you did to protect those you cared about,” he said, glancing at Celestia again. “My daughters did warn you to stay away, but you chose not to listen to them. I doubt it's of any significance to you, but I suffered more losses in that battle than you did.

“They may all look the same, but each of my daughters is an individual to me. Some of them have stood by my side for countless centuries. Rainbow Dash, do you remember that valpony whom you fatally kicked in the jaw outside the portal? Did you know that she was three thousand five hundred and twelve years old? Can you even imagine the number of souls she faithfully delivered to my realm in that time? I created her soul from my own energy a very, very long time ago, and the first thing I did upon my arrival to this realm was to return her to my heart again. All because of one lethal concussion.”

Despite their best efforts, Dash and most of the others couldn't help but feel a little remorseful. Luna rubbed her eye, but Celestia seemed unmoved.

“Yeah, but, I was just protecting my friends!”

“Of course you were, that is why I hold no grudge. In fact, just to show you that I bear no hard feelings for these negotiations, I bring you all gifts.”

With a nod to the valponies at his sides, the five of them lifted into the air, each carrying a gift of a different size. Most of them were rectangular boxes, wrapped in colored ribbon that matched the coat of the ponies they were delivered to. Dash's and Rarity's presents were rectangular tubes as opposed to boxes. Fluttershy's box was very small, and Pinkie's very large. The valponies fluttered gently across the table and set their gift in front of each of the friends.

“Lord Sleipnir, where did you get these gifts?” Celestia asked.

“Oh, don't worry. They're not dangerous.”

“That's not what the issue I was referring to.”

“You were always such a stickler for the rules, Celestia,” Sleipnir said, and then laughed to himself. “Yes, I know that sounds silly coming from me now, of all times. But just look at it like this: If you let me bend the rules a little bit now and allow these trinkets to pass from my realm into yours, I'll be a little more lenient and let you bend the rules later, agreed?”

Celestia eyed him skeptically, but didn't voice an objection. Luna finally spoke up instead. “What can the harm be, Sister? Lord Sleipnir, we accept your generosity.”

“Excellent!” Sleipnir said happily. “It's just as well, I do believe the Lady of Laughter is chomping at the bit to discover what her present is.”

“Ohmygoshpresentsarethebestthingsever!” Pinkie declared in one breath, wagging her tail like a puppy. She was leaning in and examining her pink wrapped present closely, viewing it at all angles and trying to discern what it was without touching or opening it.

“There could just be a jar of dirt in there, and she'd probably be just as excited.” Dash noted sarcastically.

“Oh! Do you suppose it really is dirt?! That would be perfect! Gummy's scales get so dry sometimes, and a nice mud bath would be just what he needs. I keep asking Rarity if she would take him along for a spa date sometimes, but she never takes him.” Pinkie replied.

“I am not taking a mud bath with a miniscule alligator.” Rarity said indignantly.

“Don't mind them, darling.” Sleipnir urged the pink pony. “Go ahead, dive in.”

Pinkie needed no further encouragement. She dove in, face first, thrashing her head around as she tore the paper apart with her teeth in a blur of pink hair. When she was done, all that remained was the cardboard box that then fell open, revealing an ordinary wicker basket with an arched handle. It's contents was covered by a red and white checkered cloth.

“What, is that it?” Dash asked incredulously.

“I love it!” Pinkie shouted, hugging her favorite new basket.

Sleipnir laughed his grandfatherly laugh again. “No, no, look inside.”

“There's more!?” Pinkie said with wide, disbelieving eyes.

The pink pony pulled away the checkered cloth, revealing an ordinary looking pie. She was overjoyed at the surprise, and another wave of exasperation spread among the friends. Luna chuckled to herself a little. Celestia was still unmoved.

“Wowee! What kind of pie is it?” Pinkie wondered loudly as she leaned in to take in the aroma of the pie.

Then she froze.

“Is... is this what I think it is...?”

Sleipnir simply nodded.

Pinkie looked back and forth between the pie and Sleipnir with incredulous eyes. Then she turned to Celestia. “I'm really, really, super duper sorry, but I really, really need to go home.”

“Why is that, little one?”

“I just really need to show this to my sisters. I'm really sorry!” Pinkie said, bowing deeply. She then snatched up the basket and ran for the door with it.

“Her family?” Twilight asked. “Does she mean the rock farm? That's miles from here.”

Celestia turned to one of her lieutenants. “Go ready the chariot. Take the element of harmony anywhere she wishes to go.” The guard saluted and chased after Pinkie without a word. The princess returned her attention to the elder pony across the table. “What just happened, Lord Sleipnir? What did you just give her?”

“Why, I just gave her a pie, that's all.” Sleipnir replied, unable to restrain his smile. “You all saw it.”


“Very well, very well, calm down. As I said, that was simply a pie, nothing more. But it was a very special pie. It's a very special recipe I received from her grandmother.”

“But Pinkie's grandmother is...” Rarity began.

“Dead?” Sleipnir interrupted. “But of course she is. That's how I was able to receive it from her. Have you forgotten who I am, Lady of Generosity? It wasn't even all that difficult, really. Suffice to say, I just had to ask her.”

Although the five friends knew where Sleipnir came from, the revelation that he could talk to any deceased pony at any time came with a bit of a chill. Twilight managed to speak up anyway.

“So, what was so special about that pie, then?”

“It was a secret recipe that Granny Pie created specially for her granddaughters. It has no fewer than three main ingredients: Cherry, blueberry, and blackberry. She chose those fruits because they matched the coats of the little fillies, and she would always bring one whenever she visited. Now, none of you are expert pastry chefs, but using so many different flavors like that is difficult, and Pinkie has never been able to recreate the recipe herself.”

“Are all of these gifts meant to torment these ponies with memories of loved ones that won't return?” Celestia asked sternly.

Sleipnir was visibly taken aback. “Torment? You wound me, Celestia. I spent a great amount of time considering this gift. The Lady of Laughter is very pony-oriented; I had a difficult time thinking of a thing that she would like to receive. Granted, that did come as a shock to the poor pony, but I assure you she will return to us in a day or so and thank me personally. Would anypony like to open their gift next? How about you, Lady of Loyalty? Your gift seems to have peaked your interest.”

Rainbow Dash had indeed been puzzling over the blue, tube-shaped box she had been given. As Sleipnir addressed her, she was rolling it back and forth between her hooves on the table. “Huh? Oh, me. Yeah, I'm pretty curious. It's not a big stick from some great uncle I don't remember, is it?”

“Oh, you needn't worry. The Lady of Laughter's gift was the only one from a relative. The rest are from me personally.”

Rainbow Dash hefted the box up popped off a cap at the end of the tube with her teeth and peered inside. She couldn't see what it was at first, so she dumped out its contents onto the table.

It was a spear. It was similar in design to the ones the valponies were equipped with, and similarly the one Dash previously looted, but it was customized. The blade at the tip was shaped like the thunder bolt of Dash's cutie mark. The tassels behind the blade were the same spectrum of colors as her mane. Engraved down the shaft were the words “Rainbow Dash, Master Pikepony.”

“Woah...” Dash said, picking up the weapon and rising into the air with it. “This is totally cool, awesome, and radical at the same time! I haven't seen anything that can do all three since, well, me!”

“I'm glad you appreciate it. The weapons I gave to my daughters are not weapons of war. That spear you carry, however, is. I hope that you bear it with honor.” Sleipnir said.

“I see that you did, in fact, put a bit of thought into these gifts.” Rarity began. “You know what I certainly hope is in this case here? A functioning leg, because I could definitely use one.” She said, cool as a cucumber yet dripping with malice.

Sleipnir hung his head. “My apologies, Lady of Generosity, but the power to heal is beyond my capabilities; I am the lord of death, not life. I do hope that this humble offering might begin to appease your anger.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow at the elder pony, but used her magic to lift the white, cylindrical package anyway. With feigned disinterest she removed the cap and lifted out the object within.

The appearance of the roll of fabric Rarity retrieved from the package was difficult to put into words. It appeared to be as pristine white are the unicorn's own coat. However, it shimmered with every color of the rainbow. She unraveled the roll a bit to examine it more clearly. Fluttershy and Luna, who were sitting on both sides of her, leaned in to admire the sheen. Dash floated over to take a closer look as well.

“H-how is this possible?!” Rarity asked incredulously. “I've never seen a fabric shine in so many different colors...”

“It's made from diamond crystals embedded in the material.” Sleipnir said.

A moment later, the friends managed to return Rarity to consciousness.

“This thing is made of diamonds?!” the unicorn shouted. “Do you know what that means?!”

“Of course I do, I made it.” Sleipnir said with a smug grin.

“This fabric... it's practically indestructible... I'll only be able to trim it along certain angles... and even so it'll destroy any pair of shears. Is this sealed properly? If it's not coated exactly so, well, to compare it to sandpaper would be an understatement.” She said, reaching a hoof out tentatively for it.

“Of course it's sealed properly. Feel for yourself.”

Rarity reached out and touched the fabric, but she felt nothing. She tried touching it again and again before she realized that she was reaching out with her crippled leg. She could move it with her magic, but she still couldn't feel anything with her nerves still severed. Frustrated, she pulled her hoof back and dropped the fabric on the table.

“It is very nice, but that still doesn't mean I care for you, Mister Sleipnir.” Rarity said, turning her nose up at the roll of mystical material.

Sleipnir sighed and hung his head. “I didn't really expect you to forgive me. I may be the lord of the dead, but I take no joy in seeing pain. Death is a natural part of life, but I would do all I can to minimize suffering. I know you don't trust me, but believe at least this.”

“...I believe you.” Fluttershy said quietly.

The yellow pegasus received a few incredulous looks from some the other ponies. She squeaked and hid beneath her hair again.

“He... sounds sincere.”

“Thank you very much, my Lady of Kindness.” Sleipnir said, half smiling. “I believe you've become my new favorite. Well, perhaps my second favorite. Either way, why don't you open yours next?”

“Um, okay. Thank you.”

Fluttershy leaned over and lifted the lid off of the small yellow box that was placed in front of her. A hoofful of seeds was all that it contained.

“Oh … that's nice, but I think this one's for Applejack.” Fluttershy said.

“No, no, that's for you,” Sleipnir replied, “but I understand your confusion. You were another difficult pony to shop for – and before you apologize, don't – because you're the kind of pony who cares so little about things. I could have brought with me some poor extinct creature for you to care for, but there's a whole host of reasons why I mustn't. Instead, I brought you some near-extinct flower seeds.”

“Flowers? Oh, I hope they're really pretty.”

“Indeed they are,” Sleipnir said with a smile. “But I'll leave you to discover that for yourself. I must warn you though, those seeds are very finicky. That's why they're almost extinct. Well, one of the reasons, anyway. It's fair to say that those flowers will need as much care and attention as any pet you have.”

“Really? Angel can be a real hoofful sometimes. I never would have thought caring for a plant could be that hard.”

“If only Applejack were here,” Rarity said snidely, “she's quite the expert on raising plants. If only she wasn't, how did you put it, 'preoccupied by the will of others?'”

Sleipnir, starting to lose his composure for the first time, glared at the unicorn. “You are beginning to test my patience, Rarity.”

Grinning smugly, the unicorn shot back “What's the matter? Am I no longer 'the Lady of Generosity' by reminding you of your crimes?”

Sleipnir stood. “I have committed no crime!”

“That's enough!” Celestia boomed again. “I will tolerate no more of this needless fighting. Lord Sleipnir, is there a purpose to all of these gifts, or may we begin these negotiations?”

Sleipnir sighed, and sat again. “There is a purpose for everything, Celestia, and we have one last gift to open. Lady of Magic, you have been rather quiet. I know that you're the inquisitive type. Aren't you curious?”

Twilight looked from Sleipnir, across her friends, down to the purple, rectangular object in front of her, and then back up to Sleipnir.

“It's a book. I could tell just by looking at it. Your valpony tried to throw me off by placing it sideways in front of me, but I've been around books my whole life. That's not what I've been trying to figure out, though. I've been trying to figure you out, Sleipnir. You come all the way out from... wherever it is that you come from because we broke some kind of law of yours, and now that you're here, the first thing you want to do is give us all presents. Why? I've been listening to you very carefully. You seem to enjoy hinting at details but you sure don't like explaining anything. What is it that you're hiding? You keep acting like we should trust you, but from here, I can't find a good reason to.”

There was a pause after Twilight finished speaking. Sleipnir himself was the first to break the silence. He chuckled to himself at first, grinning and baring his teeth. Then he laughed out loud.

“My Lady of Kindness, I take back what I said before. The Lady of Magic is my second favorite again.”

“There you go again.” Twilight said. “Saying things you know we won't understand. Why am I just your second favorite? And who's your first?”

Sleipnir laughed again. “Very well, if you all want to get down to business, then let us all get down to business.” He said in a stony voice. “As you all know, the Lady of Loyalty recently died, but her soul was denied me due to the actions of the Lady of Magic. I hereby demand the soul of either pony to return with me to my realm. I'll let you decide which. If my demand is not met, I will declare open war with my valponies on all of Equestria until both of them fall and come to me anyway.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XIII: The Weight of Life

“No way!” Rainbow Dash declared loudly. “We're not gonna just roll over and die for you!”

“How dare you demand such a thing!” Rarity shouted.

“I knew we shouldn't have trusted you! This was your intention all along!” Twilight accused.

Three of the friends shouted over each other at Sleipnir, who remained calm and composed. Suddenly, a flash of bright light emanated from Princess Celestia's horn, distracting everypony and causing them to shield their eyes. Once the assaulting light eased, all turned to her.

“You make a bold claim, Lord Sleipnir. However, I do not believe that you deserve the right to it.”

“Do I?” Sleipnir mused with a smug grin. “And how do you figure that?”

“The law states that any deceased souls go to you.  However, Rainbow did not truly die. If she had, her soul could not have been recovered by Twilight's magic.”

“You split hairs, Celestia. Were it not for the Lady of Magic's revival spell, she would have died that day; she interfered. You do remember whose responsibility it is to prevent that kind of thing from occurring, do you not?”

“Wait a minute,” Twilight interjected, “Rainbow never really died. She was dying when I found her, yes, but I was able to pull her life force back and heal her body. She was never all the way gone. An afterlife was just a myth as far as I knew at the time, I never would have guessed I could bring a pony back from it.”

“The Lady of Loyalty's consciousness was slipping from this realm into, well, let's call it 'oblivion,'” Sleipnir explained. “There's a space between your realm and mine where a soul goes when it separates from its body. It's from there that my daughters and myself gather lost souls and bring them to the afterlife. You can't deny that she's never been there, she recognized me when she entered the room!”

“We do not deny that Rainbow Dash almost died,” Celestia said, “We deny that she fully died, and therefor your right to claim her. The law states that your claim is only absolute once a soul enters your realm, not oblivion.”

“Oblivion is a restricted zone, and you know it,” Sleipnir said, offended. “She would not have been able to return on her own had the Lady of Magic not used her revive spell. I make this claim on the grounds that my duties were interfered with.”

“He is right, Sister.” Luna said, speaking up for the first time. “If my Lord Sleipnir were to invoke the full force of the covenant, he would have the right to claim one of us instead of either of the ponies.” She then turned to face the lord of the afterlife. She took sighed deeply and said, “Twilight Sparkle is currently our sister's student. On the other hoof, Rainbow Dash was the pony who had first perished. We would suggest you claim her instead.”

Everypony on Luna's side of the table reeled – including Celestia, though she didn't show it outwardly. The shouting resumed again, this time towards the lunar princess. She bore it in the same manner Sleipnir did before, remaining still with her eyes closed. Celestia began to emanate a light from her horn again, but this one was much less bright. It still served to quiet the ponies.

“I will not warn you again to stay calm.” Celestia said.

“P-Princess Luna,” Fluttershy said, looking up with her big, turquoise eyes, “how can you just say that? After all Rainbow Dash did for you, saving you from your dark side?”

Luna did her best to hide the pained expression on her face as she replied. “We do not wish for this to happen any more than thou dost, and we have not forgotten our debt to all of you. But we have a responsibility to this land. Tis better to sacrifice one now that risk open war.”

“No, Luna.” Celestia said. “Rainbow Dash did not cross entirely into Lord Sleipnir's realm, so he does not have the right to her soul. We will not give up any of them.”

“Princess Luna, I have a question,” Twilight said. “You mentioned a covenant just now. What covenant do you mean?”

Sleipnir laughed. “You brought them here without telling them that? I'm surprised at you, Celestia.”

“Listen.” the princess of the sun said. “I told you all last night that there are other powerful beings like us. The covenant is the set of laws agreed upon by all of us that dictate our duties and obligations, lest the nature of the world itself become warped by our conflict and strife. I recognize that look in your eyes all to well, my student, but I'm bound by the covenant to not tell you any more than that. In fact, we're bending the laws as we are simply by letting you attend this meeting.”

“If this covenant is meant to prevent conflict,” Rarity said, “then isn't there something in it to keep him from waging war on Equestria?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” Sleipnir interjected. “However, should the actions of one elder being infringe upon the duties of another, all rules are off. One of the Princess' responsibilities is to prevent you ponies from using any magic that would interfere with any of us elders. Therefor, the blame for this entire disaster rests on their shoulders. As my Lady of the Moon pointed out, it's within my rights to punish both of them for their crimes, but I'm settling on either of you. You should be grateful.”

“I'll give you grateful.” Dash muttered between clenched teeth.

“Supposing you did wage war on us,” Rarity mused, examining her hoof nonchalantly. “Do you really think that's such a good idea? You'd be going up against the might of two Alicorns and the Elements of Harmony. Not even Discord could stop us.”

Sleipnir laughed, hard. “Discord! Ha! Discord is nothing but a hyperactive prankster. But since you bring it up, let's consider what would happen. First of all, you can't even use your “rainbow of doom” on me right now anyway; Two of you are missing, one of which is completely incapacitated. Second of all, the powers of your princesses are split between them, and you assume our powers are equal. Supposing it did come down to a straight out battle, two on one might not go the way you think. They may have an army of ponies at their backs, but I have my daughters alongside me.

“But, for the sake of argument, just consider what would happen if I lost. If I were to die – assuming that's even possible – I would simply be returned to my own realm. I am the Lord of the Afterlife, after all. Or, perhaps you were able to use the Elements of Harmony on me, what would happen? Would you turn me to stone? Banish me to the moon? The sun? Ha! That would be more detrimental to you ponies than it would to me.

“If I were to spend a thousand years trapped somewhere, on my own personal vacation, there would be nopony to perform my duties, unlike the Alicorn sisters. For a thousand years every pony that died would find herself lost in the space between realms with no means of escape or any explanation of where they were. They would wander, lost, for all eternity because I would certainly feel no inclination to gather them up, even if I could find them all. And that includes the six of you.”

The friends were all terrified by Sleipnir's words. Princess Celestia glared at the dark pony across from her. Even the lieutenants standing in the back exchanged worried looks.

Luna stood.

“My Lord Sleipnir, We're appalled at thine behavior. Thou cometh to us bearing gifts, and insists of thine own innocence and kindness. And now thou dost make idle threats of abandoning ponies in oblivion?! This is not the words of a stallion whose solemn duty is to carry ponies to peaceful slumber. This is not the Sleipnir we know.”

Having said her peace, Princess Luna turned away from Sleipnir and turned up her nose. The lord of the afterlife was taken aback. He sighed and hung his head.

“You are right, my Lady. My apologies, I should not have threatened you all. Bloody conflict is not my goal here.” Sleipnir said, then added with a chuckle, “indeed, that would only be more work for me. Truth be told, a lapse in my work would be nothing but trouble for everypony involved.”

Princess Luna glanced backwards. “That's better,” she said, and returned to her cushion.

“Think of it like this,” Sleipnir continued, “Lady of Generosity, if somepony stole one of your exquisite, carefully crafted dresses would you be so willing to let the thief go? Lady of Loyalty, would you relinquish an award to a pony who placed second in a challenge behind you? Lady of Magic, would you let a book of valuable knowledge be lost without having ever been read?”

“We're not talking about dresses or trophies or books,” Twilight said hotly, “We're talking about ponies' lives!”

“I deal in ponies' lives. That's what makes the situation so dire. You all get one opportunity and one opportunity alone. Any more is a violation of the law of nature, a law I am honor bound to uphold.”

“I don't care about you or your dumb laws!” Rainbow shouted, slamming her hoof against the table. “I'm not gonna abandon my friends! I'm not going anywhere and neither is Twilight!”

“I agree.” Twilight said, “My friends are the most important things in the world to me, and I'll fight for them no matter what.”

“You are the most uncivil boor I've ever had the displeasure of meeting, Lord Sleipnir,” Rarity said., “and I will not let you have my friends either.”

“We reject your claim on these ponies,” Celestia said, “Any further action you take against Equestria is a violation of the covenant, and we will not hesitate to fight back.”

Sleipnir hesitated for a moment, closing his eyes in thought. Then he stood, and glared at them all in resolve. The valponies stood with him. He smirked. “As you will. To war it is, then, but this is on your head, Celestia.”

“No, Lord Sleipnir, this is on yours.”

The Lord of the Afterlife proceeded to leave the hall, with his daughters still flanking him. He stopped as he passed by Twilight.

“You have yet to open your gift, my Lady.”

“I don't want it.” Twilight replied, pushing the book away and glaring at him.

“As you wish. But, it comes highly recommended by Starswirl the Bearded. I know he's one of your favorites.”

Twilight's ears perked up, but then she remembers how much she disliked the elder pony. “Why, did he write it?” she responded skeptically.

“He co-wrote it, actually,” Sleipnir said, and then continued his march out the door.

“Shouldn't we try and stop him now?” Rainbow whispered to Celestia.

“No,” the princess replied, “We must always treat our enemies with respect. Besides, there are too many civilians in the middle of Ponyville like this if a battle broke out with him.”

Two of the valponies lifted off the ground and flew ahead of Sleipnir to open the double doors. Then, the Lord of the Afterlife did something the others did not expect. He came to a stop in front of the opening and lowered his head. He pawed at the floor with each of his legs on one side, and then leaped forward with great speed. He soared through the air out the opening and hit the ground outside running, quickly hitting a velocity that could match even Rainbow Dash. In a roar of wind and with the sound of an entire stampede he was gone and the valponies took to the skies to follow after him.

“...You all do know he just dissed all of us, right?” Dash pointed out.

“What do we do now, princess?” Twilight asked.

“We prepare for battle. I did not wish for this to happen, but we did not arrive unprepared. I don't know what kind of force he has prepared, but he likely knows more about us than we know about him. Part of his duty is to know about every living thing on the planet.” Celestia scowled. “It's as though he planned and anticipated this whole thing.”

“The surest way to defeat a plan based on expectations is to do something unexpected,” Luna observed. “What do we think he expects us to do next?”

“He would expect us to hide away the elements.”

“Hold on there, Princess!” Dash interrupted, “I ain't goin' nowhere!”

“That's right!” Twilight added. “If Sleipnir and his army's coming for us, I don't want to hide while other ponies fight in my place. We'll stand with you, all of us.”

“I shall lend any support I can,” Rarity said.

“I'll do anything I can to help too,” Fluttershy asserted, “that is, if you think I can help with anything.”

“Lord Sleipnir likely expects them all to feel thusly.” Luna said. “We do not expect an order even from us shall keep the four of thou away?”

“Nope!” Dash said, smiling proudly and crossing her front legs.

“Then we all risk falling into his plan,” Celestia said. “Of course, you all must be there. You are all a treasure to Equestria, but we cannot risk all of Equestria by scattering you and hiding you away. I'm sorry everypony, but this is a matter Luna and I must discuss with our generals.”

“Wait, Princess, can't I attend?” Twilight asked. “I'm a part of this, after all, and there's so much I could learn.”

“I'm sorry, my faithful student, but you don't have any experience on such matters. Please, just wait at your home and I promise you'll be informed once we have a plan. You all will.”

Twilight knew better than to argue further. She hung her head and her ears drooped. “Yes, Princess.”

“Come on,” Fluttershy urged, nudging her friend's shoulder with a hoof, “Let's just let them take care  of it.”

The four remaining friends picked up their gifts and headed outside through the open doors as Celestia spoke to the remaining lieutenant. He nodded and took wing, following the mares outside. He closed both doors with a resounding thud and flew for one of the larger tents around the square.

Twilight looked up at the heavy wooden doors between herself and the princess while the other talked.

Dash stabbed the tip of her spear into the ground and sat on the butt of it. “What are we supposed to do now!?” she complained, throwing her front legs in the air. “They'll be discussing our fates in there, and we don't even get to see it!?”

“All that talk about tactics and planning would likely bore you to tears,” Rarity pointed out, “There's nothing we can do.”

Fluttershy set down the small box she was carrying in her mouth. “I wish we didn't have to fight...” she said simply.

Rarity sidled up next to the pegasus and nuzzled her gently. “Oh, everything will be fine, you'll see. We just need to keep ourselves busy and let the princesses handle things. The two of them together will be more than enough to outwit that brute.”

“You really think so?”

“Of course! There's no need to worry that adorable little head of yours! We just need to keep busy until they figure out a plan. What do you say we go and check on Applejack, and see how she's doing?”

“Oh! Yes, we can't forget about her. You'll come with us, won't you Rainbow?”

“I'd like to, but I think I should track down Pinkie. Somepony should let her know what's going on. You guys take care of my spear while I'm gone!”

Rainbow jumped down from the end of her spear, crouching down on the ground as she landed. She then pushed off against the dirt and leaped into the air, taking flight. “Do you even know where her family lives!?” Rarity called after her.

“Not really!” Rainbow said, picking up speed and fading into the distance.

“Of all the – that inconsiderate, short-sighted-”

“Now Rarity, that's no way to talk about Rainbow. She's only trying to help.” Fluttershy said.

“Oh, you're right. Of course she is. Twilight! Twilight, darling, are you coming with us to see Applejack?”

The lavender unicorn had not been paying attention to the others. She was still staring up at the doors, thinking.

“I.. don't know...” Twilight mumbled to herself.

Rarity cocked her head to the side. “You don't know? Well, why don't you just decide, then? Are you coming with us or not?”

“Hmm? Oh! Oh, no, I can't come. Id' really, really like to, but I have a lot of studying to do.”

“If you insist, but do try to come see us.”

“Of course I will,” Twilight said with a smile. “Somepony really should stay with her as much as we can. It may not look like it, but ponies in a coma can still hear what's going on around them.”

Fluttershy brightened up, even lifting into the air a little. She glided forward to twilight, bringing her wide-eyed face right up to hers. “Is that really true?”

“Of course. She probably won't be able to clearly remember anything when she wakes up, but if she hears all of us around her enough, she'll know.”

“Oh, then what are we waiting for!? It's been hours since she's heard from any of us! Come on, Rarity!” Fluttershy urged with all the volume she was capable of, which was still only somewhat above a normal pony's speaking voice. She snatched up Sleipnir's gift and grabbed the pristine unicorn by her front legs, lifting her into the air towards the hospital.

Twilight noted that Rarity protested being carried in such a way for at least as long as she was within earshot, but she had more important matters to attend to. Matters of such priority that they rivaled visiting one of her best friends.

“We're going to WHAT!?” Spike shouted when he heard the news of imminent war.

“Don't worry about it! Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are coming up with a plan as we speak.

I'll explain to you all the details later, right now, we have work to do.”

“Work!?” Spike continued shouting, grabbing Twilight's head. “How are we supposed to work while imminent doom is on the far side of Ponyville!?”

Twilight tried to pry off her assistant with magic, but the baby dragon had quite a grip on her skull. “Everything's going – urk – to be okay! Just as soon – ugh – as I can do some studying – oof – on Equestrian history!”

The lavender unicorn finally managed to dislodge Spike, and they both tumbled backwards away from each other. Twilight shook out her mane as got back up, and Spike hobbled to his feet.

“Whattya say Number One Assistant?” Twilight continued, “I need to catch up on what war is really like, so I need you to get me every book we have on the subject.”

Spike sighed and slumped over. “You just know I'll do anything you ask me to do if you call me that, don't you?”

Twilight beamed. “Yes.”


Beyond Judgment

Part XIV: Evening Falls

Spike walking back into the main room of the library, carrying a stack of three more books. He set them down and rubbed an eye. “Okay, these are the last ones,” he said.

“Great, bring them over,” replied Twilight.

The baby dragon picked up the stack of books one by one and tossed them haphazardly over his shoulders across the room. Twilight caught them with her magic and brought them in front of her face.  She read their titles and skimmed through the table of contents before moving them to their proper places in the two rings of other tomes orbiting her body at that moment. The additions made the rings too large again, so she split them up into three.

“Spike! This one's take place before the Hurricane Era of military tactics! I already read through that era!” Twilight said, waving one of the new additions over her head.

“Sorry. I missed that one on my first pass through the history section.”

The rings of orbiting books spun around Twilight as she reviewed their titles, picking out any of them that related to the Anti-Hurricanology – the study of military tactics that was was developed specifically to counter the legendary Commander Hurricane's stratagems.

“Go look again then, in case you missed another one. This is super important, Spike, I don't want to miss a single detail.”

“Alright, whatever you say. There's not that many, you know. Equestria doesn't start wars very often.”

Page after page, book after book, Twilight delved into the history of Equestrian military strategy. The tactical strengths and weaknesses of Earth Ponies, Pegasi and Unicorns, the proper fielding of various special talents, single race battalion tactics, cross race battalion tactics, the distribution of logistics and supplies, the withdrawal and medical support of the wounded and injured, leadership, morale, discipline.

It was all fascinating to Twilight in a way no other discipline had ever been before. Granted, everything was fascinating in some way or another, but tactics was different. it had the strict, understandable reasoning of any logical study, such as mathematics, in the deployment of troops and resources. At the same time, it had the more fluid, abstract nature of psychology in the way a commander would approach discipline and training of troops, as well as the subtle manipulations of the enemy.

Combat was more than just fielding one group of soldiers against the other. It was so much more.

The most fascinating subject was the combined use of ponies' special talents for the purpose of specialized squads. Historically, special units would be small groups hoof-picked for their abilities. They would train alongside each other to use their talents as a single force, be it offense, defense, espionage, whatever special talents were available to the commanding officer. On studying this, Twilight realized that even modern royal guards tended to work in pairs. There was effectively an infinite about of options given the limitless variety of special talents. So much potential, so much creativity, so many possibilities, it made a shiver run up Twilight's spine.

Twilight did her best to absorb everything she could, just like with any of her more intense study sessions. She tried to relate what she was reading to her own personal experiences, limited as they were. “Know your enemy” was a common theory, and she understood that. Twilight knew what a dragon was capable of, even before she faced one for the first time on that mountaintop. She was not aware what a Cockatrice was. Fortunately, she didn't really remember what that defeat was like, being an inanimate object at the time.

Twilight shivered at the thought. If Fluttershy hadn't been there at the time, she might still be a lawn ornament standing in the middle of Everfree.

Fluttershy” repeated an idea in the back of Twilight's thought processes. There wasn't time for that, though, so she kept studying and thinking.

There was just the one real battle Twilight had ever been in, that one with the valponies. She thought back to it, and everything that she did and witnessed. Just with a cursory knowledge of ancient strategies, she could still see nearly a dozen things that went wrong. They seemed so obvious to her then, and she didn't know how she could have been so foolish before.

Applejack” insisted that almost forgotten thought process. Twilight froze.

Fluttershy and Rarity are waiting for me to sit in with Applejack.

“Oh my gosh, how could I forget?!” Twilight shouted, seemingly out of nowhere to anypony but her.

Spike, who had been napping at the time, suddenly ceased to be doing so. He flailed around as he tumbled out of his basket at the unicorn's bedside.

“What time is it?!” Twilight shouted, running in panicked circles around the room, searching desperately for her assistant. The books were still stuck in orbit around her body, complicating the “searching” part. She let them all drop in a pile on the floor, which then started to complicate the “running” part.

“It's pretty late in the afternoon. It'll be dark soon. What's going on?”

“I've got to get to the hospital! Applejack needs me!” Twilight shouted, clambering over her mass of tomes. She fell over forward and smacked her face on the hardwood floor, but she recovered quickly. Shaking her head to clear her mind, she shouted up to the dragon. “Don't put these back on the shelves just yet! Uh, just leave them in the same order they were just in!”

In a poof of magic, Twilight was gone. Spike scratched his head and leaned over the ledge of the upper floor. He stared at the mess that was left for him.

“And what order was that supposed to be?!” He shouted futilely at the door.

Twilight galloped to the hospital. There was still a lot of activity all over Ponyville from the occupying army. It occurred to her that she had hardly seen a Ponyvillian since they arrived. The local populace was a panicky lot, and she imagined most of them hiding under their beds, or something like that. All the more reason, Twilight thought, to resolve this whole Sleipnir matter as soon as possible. Even she felt a little oppressed by all these unfamiliar ponies around, and she knew that they were all on her side.

Despite the urgency, Twilight couldn't help but admire the courage of the soldiers around her. She wondered how much they knew about what was happening, that a battle could break out as soon as the next day. Regardless, they were all making campfires for the oncoming night. Rations were being distributed and prepared, and the smell of roast nuts and beans started to waft through the air.

High protein intake,” Twilight noted to herself, “a lot heartier than a common Equestrian meal. They're going to need all the energy and strength they can get.

Twilight continued her run to the hospital. She barged through the front door and found her way to Applejack's room.

“I'm here, I'm here!” Twilight called, bursting through the door.

She was immediately met by a shriek from Rarity, and  having the door magically slammed in her face, knocking her back into the hallway. She skidded on her back along the linoleum floor.

Almost immediately, Fluttershy ran out to check on her fallen friend. Meanwhile, there was some kind of commotion back inside the room.

“Wha-what happened?” Twilight asked, groggy.

Fluttershy took one of the unicorn's hooves and lifted gently into the air with it, helping her to stand. “I'm so sorry,” she said, her voice cracking. “Rarity moved her things into Applejack's room, and she was working while we were talking to her. She, um, uh, didn't like being disturbed?”

“That's okay,” Twilight mumbled, stumbling just a little. “Totally my fault. Are you okay? You sound a little funny.”

“Oh, don't worry about me, I'm fine. I've just been talking to Applejack all afternoon.”

“All afternoon? As in, nonstop?”

“I guess so. It's the least I could do.”

“Well, you just give your voice a rest for a while. It's usually so pretty.” Twilight said, starting to walk back inside.

Fluttershy blushed and bowed her head. “Okay, if you say so. Thanks.”

Applejack was exactly the way she was since the night before, but Rarity was standing nearby with a  guilty smile on her face.

“Rarity? I though you were working in here. I don't see any of your supplies.” Twilight said, looking around.

“Oh, you know how I am.” the pearly unicorn said, waving a hoof dismissively. “I usually don't like ponies seeing my work before I'm finished!”

“Well, that explains the door, then. And the scream.”

“Terribly sorry about that, darling. I didn't hurt you again, did I?” Rarity asked, stepping forward.

“No, no, I'm fine.”

“Oh, that's such a relief. Now, would you like to sit and chat for a while. I'm simply a terrible conversationalist while I work and poor Fluttershy's going to lose her voice if she prattles on for any longer.”

“I'd love to.”

Twilight walked up to Applejack's bedside and magically pulled up a chair to sit down. She opened her mouth to start talking, and then came to a stop.

She just sat there, mouth hanging open, and stared down at Applejack's resting form.

She sighed and hung her head.

Fluttershy stepped up behind Twilight and nuzzled her side with her nose. “I know it's scary if you feel guilty. But just talk to her. Macintosh was here earlier, and he said that Apples don't hold grudges. You said that she can hear us, right? Just talk to her like she was awake.”

Twilight stared down at the pegasus, wide-eyed and a little teary, and slowly smiled. “I've got a better idea.”

The lavender unicorn turned back to face Applejack again, and closed her eyes as she began to speak.

“Dear Applejack, today I learned the power of forgiveness. It can be really hard knowing that you let down somepony you really care about. No matter how big or scary the mistake was, confronting your best friend and telling her about it can be much, much worse. But the important thing is that friends will always forgive each other, even if that mistake turned out to be something really, really big. They'll forgive you before you even before you apologize. Of course, you still have to do your part and apologize anyway, and do your best to make it up to her.

“I'm sorry, Applejack, and I'll do my best to make it up to you. Your faithful friend, Twilight Sparkle.”

There was a moment of silence after Twilight finished speaking, and she just smiled down at her friend, tears still welling up. Fluttershy nuzzled her again. “That was really good.”

Rarity, however, started crying outright. She galloped forward and tackled the both of them in a big hug. and gave the two of them a big hug. They embraced Applejack as well, but much more carefully.

“Go on,” Celestia said, “They're all waiting for you.”

“Art thou certain I should... 'make a show of it?'” Luna replied. “Theatrics are not our way. We tend to scare ponies when we act dramatically.”

“Of course! I do it all the time, you've seen it. They need a show of Equestrian might now more than ever. They're all out here, waiting to see you and your night. Just like you always wanted.”

Luna thought for a moment, her eyes glancing over the edge of the town hall's highest balcony to the sea of tents down below. Then she turned back to face here sister as a grin crept across her face. She nodded, and stepped towards the railing.

“Don't forget the royal voice!” Celestia whispered.

“No, dearest sister, we don't think we'll need it this time.”

The soldier ponies were gathered around their camp fires and tent circles, finishing off their meals and putting their equipment away. The sun was beginning to set, and they were all milling about, settling down for the evening.

Only some of the soldiers realized that Luna had approached the edge of the balcony. Few saw her spread her wings and rise up on her hind legs. Almost none of them saw her eyes close and mouth open slowly as she drew a deep breath.

All of them, however, saw what happened next.

A flash of white light burst from the tip of the lunar princess' horn. A sound emanated from it, high pitched like one metal blade glancing across another. All eyes looked up to her as the light from her horn split into three and started to swirl in a circle above her head. Her body seemed to float like this for a moment, as though the lights were holding her with a very nearly the force to lift her off the floor.

Then, Princess Luna brought her hooves back down again. The lights continued their circular path and traveled downwards as she did. There was the sound of wind being compressed as the lights converged beneath her, lighting the underside of her body as they grew brighter. Luna crouched and spread her wings, ready to leap into the air.

As Luna jumped into the air, the lights split again and rose with her, continuing to swirl around her body. She flapped her wings once for extra height. As the encircling lights reached the tip of her horn again, her body began to fall. With a flick of her neck, she flung the lights away from her, shooting them down towards the crowd below.

Luna landed back on the hardwood flooring of the balcony with her head low. Before the lights could strike anything or anypony on the ground below, she raised her horn, guiding them to swoop upwards into the air again. Leading the lights with her horn like a conductor's baton, she directed them to make a long loop through the air above the crowd. With a flick of her neck, the lights darted off towards the distant horizon.

 Everypony in attendance watched as they flew over the trees and disappeared. Then, slowly, the moon started to rise from that same place.

The crowd was silent for a moment, and then they started to cheer and applaud, stomping their hooves against the dirt. A few whistled. Satisfied, Luna turned back towards her sister.

“What dost thou think? Was that enough of a show?”

“That... was very well done.”

Luna smiled even wider and laughed a little. Impressing her ponies was one thing, leaving her sister speechless was another matter entirely.

“Thou must rest now, we can oversee everything from here.”

Celestia smiled. “Of course. I leave Equestria in your care. Good night,” she said, turning to walk back inside.

“Most glorious of nights.” Luna replied.

The lunar princess turned back towards the rising moon and the soldiers below. A lot of them still seemed to be chattering about her show. Some still just put out their campfires and settled down in their cots, but that didn't bother Luna. They all witnessed her little show. They all saw the moon rise. They were all camping out under the stars and the moon without being afraid of them. There were others things they had cause to fear in the morning, but for the time being they were at peace. Luna and her night caused that.

“Most glorious of nights indeed.” Luna whispered to herself again.

The night continued, and the last of the talking and campfires died away. All was dark and calm and still, including Princess Luna. She did not sleep during her nights, and chose to lay on the balcony to watch over her ponies and the town from her vantage point.

Luna's ears perked up at the sound of hoofsteps behind her. Too many hoofsteps.

“Tis dangerous to show thyself here.” the princess said.

Turning her head, Luna saw Sleipnir himself standing behind her. A spear was clenched in his teeth.

“What dost thou plan to do with that?” Luna said, standing up and taking a half step backwards.

Leaning his head back and quickly flicking his neck, Sleipnir let go of the spear and let it spin hazardously, yet perfectly balanced, on the tip of his nose. He then caught it in his teeth again and stabbed the tip into the wooden floor.

“I wish only to return it. Rainbow Dash seemed to have just abandoned it at the front step. After all I went through to get this for her, she's so ungrateful. Why, did you think I was here to assassinate you, or something?”

Luna brushed aside the question as she ran a hoof through her mane. “Rainbow Dash? Whatever happened to “Lady of Loyalty?” Dost thou's eloquence end when thou leaves the negotiating table? Am I no longer “Lady of the Moon?” After all, thou hast arrive here uninvited. Oh yes, and let us not forget waging war on our nation.”

“You will always be My Lady of the Moon.”

Luna glanced briefly to the side. “If sister finds us like this, we will have much to explain.”

“Like what?” Sleipnir said with a smirk. “Like how I helped you with your independence?”

“Hush!” Luna whispered, looking around nervously. “That was long ago, Sleipnir!”

Laughing, Sleipnir said “Worry not! Celestia is asleep. I made sure of that.”

Panicked, Luna gasped took an aggressive stance, spreading her legs and wings. Her horn glowed as she prepared her magic. “What did you do to our sister!?”

“Be calm, my lady, be calm. She's fine. I didn't lay a hoof on her. Although...”

Luna's eyes narrowed. “Although?”

“There is a prank that was invented in recent times. One pony would mark a sleeping pony with ink while she sleeps. Of course, it has to be on the face, so that she doesn't realize it right away when she wakes up. I also understand that a light touch is key.”

The princess's glare slowly softened to one of contemplation. The glow of her horn dimmed and her wings folded back down. “...That's brilliant,” she said at last.

“I would dearly wish to attempt that on the mare, but the risk is simply too high. Threatening her beloved pupil is one thing, but I believe she would downright murder me if she happened to wake up

while I marked her face with ink. Now that would be a dire situation.”

Despite her best efforts, Luna laughed at that. It was a laugh of relief as much as for humor. This was the Sleipnir she knew.

“Perhaps I could ask you to do it for me? I'll leave the portal open just for you so you can come visit and tell me how it went.”

“Thou needn't even ask!” Luna said enthusiastically. Then, realizing her volume, resumed whispering. “We must attempt this trick for ourselves soon.”

“Her coat is already pale as a canvas. You can draw on her like an artist.”

Luna gasped. “We must mark the side of her face she keeps concealed with her mane,” she said breathlessly. “Nopony shall know it's there for a fortnight.”

Sleipnir stepped closer. “Everypony would know within the first few moments. You wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. You would either have to confess, or the entire kingdom would think you mad.”

Luna stepped close as well. “Once I'm locked away for being a madmare, would you attempt to rescue me again, if you could?”

Sleipnir leaned closer to nuzzle his snout against Luna's cheek. She nudged him back. They closed their eyes and sighed as their cheeks touched, a collective breath that was held for over a millennium. They held this embrace for a moment, savoring each other's touch and their manes brushing against their faces.

“Of course I would,”  Sleipnir said at last.

“It's been a very long time.” Luna said, as she slowly pulled herself away.

“Indeed it has. Too long.”

Luna suddenly realized what she was doing, and shook her head to snap back into focus. “Why did thou come here? For that matter, why art thou doing any of this? Is the soul of Rainbow Dash that important?”

“I came here to see you. Believe me, if I could create a portal on the moon, I would have. And make no mistake, this conflict is absolutely necessary, whether you believe it or not.”

“Thou speakest vaguely. We believe thou art letting thy grudge against our sister blind thine judgment.”

“Bah! I hold no grudge against Celestia,” Sleipnir said, than after some thought: “A slight animosity perhaps, but I wouldn't go to all this effort simply to annoy her.”

“Then what about us?” Luna said, taking a step forward. “Would thou let this war end before it begins for our sake?”

Sleipnir hesitated, then stepped closer as well. “By 'us', do you mean the royal we, or you and I?”

Luna shook her head. “I mean the royal we, Sleipnir. Whatever my past - our past - my allegiance is to my nation alone. I turned my back on them before; I won't do it again.”

“So, to protect these... ponies,” Sleipnir said, waving a hoof dismissively, “you'd stand up against anything? Even another elder?”

“We would.”

“Even an elder that's more powerful than you?”

“You're not more powerful than we are.”

Sleipnir chuckled. “So I'm not.”

Luna glowered. “You must go.”

“If you insist, My Lady,” Sleipnir said, bowing slightly and turning. “But, please, do me a favor and ensure that Rainbow Dash receives her spear.”

“We shall.”

Sleipnir leaped from the balcony and landed on the ground with barely a sound. Luna watched him as he galloped quietly down the path and made his way out of Ponyville, passing by tens of sleeping guards as he went.

“The past is the past,” Luna whispered to herself. “Today, we stand for Equestria and Equestria alone.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XV: Frontlines

“Twilight!” A certain baby dragon shouted at the top of his lungs. Three of the four ponies slumbering in the hospital room immediately jerked awake. The fourth barely flinched.

“The first thing to do after falling asleep during a study session is-! What?” Twilight declared instinctively. Her sleep had been interrupted a lot recently.

Spike ran into the room as fast as his stubby legs could carry him. He launched himself into the air and hugged Twilight. “They're here! The battle's gonna start any minute! We've got to get you out of here right away!”

“Who's here?” Rarity asked on Twilight's behalf, as she was currently getting the air squeezed out of her by her assistant. “What's going on?”

One of the two guards standing outside the doorway answered. “The valponies have arrived and are massing on the edge of Everfree forest. The princesses are preparing to make one last attempt to negotiate.”

“And we're not here to make your escape,” The guard's partner said. “We're under orders to bring you to the headquarters, Miss Sparkle. Her highness insists that you be present.”

“Oh no you don't!” Spike said, letting go of the unicorn. He rounded on the guards and snorted, shooting a pair of green flames from his nostrils. “I'm not letting anything hurt her! Not the valponies, not you, not anypony!”

“She can't go!” Fluttershy interrupted, stepping up to Twilight's side. “She's not a soldier! We barely made it out last time we fought them! Just look at Applejack!”

Rarity jumped up to stand on the lavender unicorn's other side. “I'm with Spike! I'm not letting anypony lay a hoof on my dear friend.”

“Guys, quit it.” Twilight said, pushing past her friends and turning to face them. “I know you're just trying to look out for me, but I need to do this. The princess wants me there, so I'm going, end of story.”

“But, Twilight...” Spike pleaded.

“No! I'll be back. I'm not going there to fight, I'm going there to watch. Trust me.” Twilight said to her friends, and then to the guards: “Lead the way, sirs.”

The soldiers nodded, and turned to leave with the unicorn in tow. The three of them galloped out of the hospital towards the front line.

Fluttershy collapsed on the floor. Rarity was at a loss for words. Spike was fuming. The unicorn and dragon had the same idea simultaneously. “Come with me, I'm going after her!” They said in stereo.

The two of them started off after their friend, but Rarity was much faster. She used her magic to lift Spike onto her back. Under any other situation, he would have been absolutely giddy to be so close to her, but he had more important things to worry about. On seeing them leave, Fluttershy leaped up and chased after them as well.

Meanwhile, on a wide grassy plain beside Everfree Forest, three elders were meeting one more time. The Alicorn sisters swooped down from the sky and landed a hundred yards from the forest's edge. The eight-legged horse strolled casually out to meet them. In the shadows of the trees in the early morning sun, a legion of valponies in shining armor waited.

“You have one last chance, Lord Sleipnir,” Princess Celestia warned. “You can drop your claim against the ponies and we can all go home without a fight.”

“My claim is just as legitimate as yours, Celestia. You also have one last opportunity to surrender either pony to me, and nopony else needs to die.”

“Every loss on both sides will only result in more stress for you. You said so yourself. This war is not worth the lives of two ponies.”

“Nonsense, I love my job. The more friends the merrier, or so they say.” Sleipnir said with a dark grin.

Luna stepped forward between the two. She looked him straight in the eyes. The bickering elders hushed.

“My Lord Sleipnir,” The lunar princess said, “think not of your duty, the ponies, or your foolish pride. Think only of us. Four our sake, do not go to war.”

Sleipnir took another half step back.

“Your speech pattern confuses me again, My Lady,” Sleipnir said with a smirk. “Do you refer to yourself or the two of us?”

Luna said nothing, but continued to glare at him.

Sleipnir looked back at her, then his eyes widened as he understood. He looked away. Luna dared a faint smile, believing that he was the verge of changing his mind.

Raising his head again, Sleipnir said: “Let us make a deal. If you're so worried about the loss of life, how about the three of us agree to not interfere in this battle.”

Luna was shocked. She walked back to her sister's side, turning her back on the stallion.

Celestia glared at Sleipnir. “Agreed. Is there anything else you wish to discuss?”

“Nothing. Just one battle, and we can decide this here today. If your army falls, my daughters will find the Ladies of Magic and Loyalty, and will bring to me the first one they find.”

“And even if you do, you'll go back to where you came from?”

“Myself and every valpony.” Sleipnir said flatly.

“Good riddance.”

“Indeed. Let's get this over with.”

Sleipnir turned to walk back towards the cover of the forest. Celestia turned and left as well. Luna glanced over her shoulder at her new immortal enemy as he hung his head. She turned her nose up at him and flew off with her sister.

“Even if it means losing you, this war is absolutely necessary.” Sleipnir mumbled to himself, holding his head high again.

Twilight and her escort galloped to the the royal guard's temporary headquarters. Rarity and the others were some distance behind them, still unnoticed. The entire square was still packed with tents and crates of logistical supplies, but there was hardly a pony around. For the first time, Twilight noticed a few locals milling about, but they still seemed cowed, nervous, and uncomfortable, as though the swarm of intruders might return at any moment.

In the distance, Twilight could hear the pounding of hundreds of hoofsteps in unison. The army was on the march.

“Wait!” Twilight shouted, skidding to a halt.

The soldiers dug their hooves into the dirt can came to a stop a few feet ahead of her. “What!?” One of them demanded.

“It's easier to teleport when we're not moving.” The unicorn said as her horn glowed.

“Tele-what?” The guard said as the three of them disappeared in a flash of light.

Seconds later, Rarity and Fluttershy stopped at the spot where their friend vanished. Spike climbed off of the unicorn's back and stomped the ground.

“That crazy mare! What does she think she's trying to do?!”

“Which way did she go? How do we find her? Oh, Oh, what do we do now?” Fluttershy said, looking around.

“She's gone to that dreadful battle,” Rarity said. “Why on Equestria would they think it's a good idea to send her there, of all places?”

“Sleipnir will find her for sure if she's right there! Wouldn't the safest thing to do be to hide?”

“Rrah!” Spike growled, snorting more green flame from his nose. “Don't you get it?! Of course they know she'll be found there. They're counting on it!”

“Counting on it?” Rarity asked. “Whatever do you mean?”

“There's no time! Listen, can you hear that?”

Fluttershy pointed her ear to the wind. “... I hear a lot of hoofsteps to the southeast. Marching! That's where she went! Let's go, this way!”

The yellow pegasus grabbed spike by the arms ant tossed him into the air, catching him on her own back. The baby dragon was notably heavier than the other animals she carried that way, so she struggled to maintain flight at first. After she recovered, she sped off in the direction of the army as fast as her wings could carry her and her companion.

“Oh, curse these long journeys,” Rarity complained, “A diva isn't meant for this kind of thing.” Nonetheless, she ran a hoof through her mane one last time before galloping after her friends.

“Gah! What just happened?!” one of Twilight's escorts shouted as he rematerialized outside Ponyville.

“Magic, my good sir. Ah! That must be the command balloon!” Twilight declared, and immediately galloped away.

“... Are all the mares in Ponyville that crazy?”

“Don't ask me, I'm from Manehattan.”

Twilight headed in the direction of the large while balloon floating above the regiments of ponies before her. The stomping of their hooves was almost deafening as they marched in unison. She couldn't see it from the angle she was in, but she knew the front would bear a banner with Celestia's cutie mark. The basket was much, much wider than a normal balloon, about the size of a zeppelin. This gave its passengers more room and a better view of the ground. It was being towed by several pegasi, and several more were flying alongside of it. Unlike most of the soldiers she's seen, these pegasi had their natural coat colors. Lower ranking soldiers traditionally dyed their fur white to emphasize unity.

That balloon is carrying the general,” Twilight recited to herself, testing her knowledge. “It gives her the ability to look over the entire battlefield from the sky. Even if the general is a pegasus, the balloon still acts like a beacon watching over the troops. She can give orders to that flock of other pegasi who convey messages to captains on the ground. They also serve to protect the general from attack.

“Hey!” Twilight shouted up to the balloon. “Hey, I'm here! Permission to come aboard?!”

One of the messenger-guards noticed the lavender unicorn on the ground, and darted inside the basket. A moment later, she emerged again and swooped down to speak with Twilight. She had a pale brown coat and bright yellow mane. She wore armor like the other soldiers, but it was much lighter.

“General Flash is ready for you.” the pegasus said loudly over the din of marching hooves. “We were hoping to leave with you, but Celestia insisted we march immediately. If you wait here, I can arrange for a carriage to-”

“No need.” Twilight said with a smile. “I can get up myself.”

Seconds later, Twilight had teleported up to the balloon. Seconds after that, she was pinned to the floor with a blade to her throat. She wasn't sure how that last part came to be and she asked so aloud. The first response came in the form of a mumble through teeth clenching a weapon. The other was more easily comprehensible.

“One really mustn't intrude on a commbal,” said a soothing, gentlecolt-like voice on the far side of the balloon basket. “Especially one under the command of an old guard. They can be very... twitchy.”

“...Okay...” Twilight wheezed. “Can you get off me now...?”

A heavy old hoof was lifted from her ribcage and Twilight coughed once as the gladius was retracted as well.

“Terribly sorry, Scout,” said the owner of the hoof; a mature, azure earth pony in heavy plate armor. “Wasn't expecting company. Well, not company that I didn't have to-”

“Please tell me you didn't just kill Twilight Sparkle!” burst a pony off the side of the balloon. Twilight and the old pony looked to find the pegasus that had flown down to meet her just before. “Oh, good...” the mare said with great relief, letting her legs and head hang as her wings kept her aloft. “You're fine.”

“It seems I should have just waited like you wanted,” Twilight said, rubbing her throat.

“We'll take care of things from here, Zephyr, you get back in formation.”

“Yes, ma'am!” the pegasus said enthusiastically and saluted before veering away from the balloon to fly alongside the other messenger-guards.

“So, you're the famous Twilight Sparkle, are you?” the old pony said with a tone devoid of any enthusiasm.

“Yes, I am,” Twilight said, beaming. “You must be General Flash. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

“The sentiment's one way, Scout.” the general replied bitterly. She swung up a hoof and pointed out the side of the balloon. “I got nearly a thousand ponies on the ground out there. Every one of them is about ready to give their lives to protect you. A thousand lives to protect one just isn't right in my book.”

Twilight recoiled. She wasn't expecting that. “I-I'm not that important...” she said timidly.

“I know you're not. None of us are.” General Flash said and turned away, looking over her troops.

Twilight bowed her head and looked away. She suddenly felt very much out of her element and slumped down on her haunches.

“Don't let the old girl get to you,” said the gentle voice again. “Not all of us look at it that way.”

Looking back up, Twilight was met by a handsome, pale yellow unicorn in light barding. A pointed mace hung from his side. His mane was a deep shade of blue, and he looked to be several years older than she was. He smiled as he held a hoof out to her. She smiled half-heartedly back at him as he helped her back up.

“Her highness was reluctant to explain precisely what an elder was,” the yellow unicorn continued, “but the general consensus was that we don't like ultra powerful beings going about demanding things regardless. Every pony down there knows why she's here, don't you concern yourself about that.”

“Thank you, mister...?”

“Colonel. Colonel Morningstar, at your service. Your reputation proceeds you, Miss Sparkle; I seem to have you at a disadvantage. Trust me, however, I don't make a habit of treating mares that way. It will an honor to command this battle at your side,” said the stallion, bowing his head.

Twilight blushed. “Oh, um, Thank you. Really, I'm not that special. I'm still learning, after all.”

Morningstar laughed. “If that's the case, I cannot wait to see you fully developed.”

“Confound it, Colonel, will you stop hitting on the mare!” General Flash shouted, still looking over the side.

“Hitting? He wasn't hitting me.” Twilight said. “I really wouldn't like that,” she thought to herself, “that mace looks really sharp.

“At once, General!” Morningstar whipped, and turned to gallop to his place at her side. “Come, Miss Sparkle, have you ever been on a commbal before?”

Twilight followed the colonel, taking a look around the basket for the first time. There was a table in the center whose legs were permanently affixed to the floor. A map of the area surrounding Ponyville was stretched across it, held in place by an array of pins to keep it from flying off the side. There were several bins along the railings with various clipboards in them, but Twilight didn't have the time to look at them more closely. She walked up and stood next to Colonel Morningstar, keeping to the far side of him from the general.

“Do you mean this balloon?” Twilight replied. “No, I haven't.”

Morningstar laughed again. Flash just sighed.

“Commbal is shorthand for 'command balloon,'” the colonel explained. “From here was can-”

“You get a bird's eye view of the battlefield.” Twilight interrupted. “And those pegasi out there are messengers for carrying your orders to the ground.”

“Ah, very good, You know a thing or two after all.” Morningstar said, looking over to Twilight and smiling. “We're also carrying intelligence on the surrounding area and every pony under our command. Everypony down there is relying on us for direction and guidance.”

“Wow...” Twilight said breathlessly. She put her hooves over the railing to get a better view of the army below her. A thousand ponies clad in golden armor marched before her. Unicorns, Pegasi, Earth Ponies, all working in unison. Banners of various colors and designs rose over their heads, indicating different officers on the ground. The soldiers would all look to these flags as well as the commbal itself for support. Twilight felt empowered simply by being there.

“It's like having a thousand friends...” Twilight said, and then immediately regretted how silly it sounded.

“Something like that.” Colonel Morningstar said with a smirk.

“...Idealistic foal.” General Flash mumbled.

“Sir! You have more guests incoming!” Zephyr interrupted, flying up to the front of the commbal and saluting again.

“More?!” Flash said, irritated. “Shall we just invite all of Equestria up here and save time?! Who else could possibly need to be up here?”

“Hiya! I'm Pinkie Pie!” said the pink party pony, jumping in front of General Flash's face from underneath her.

The old pony leaped back in surprise. “H-how did you do that?!” she stammered.

“Do what?” Pinkie asked innocently, cocking her head to the side.

“Sneak up on me! I've trained for decades on how to respond to stealth attacks; above, below, behind, on the ground and in the air, and I have no idea who you just got so close. Morningstar!”

“Yes, Sir?”

“See to it that this pony is enlisted. I want to see her on espionage and intelligence training by this time tomorrow.”

“Right away, sir.”

“Wait, what!?” Twilight interrupted.

“Oh, oh, oh, if you're looking for intelligence, just ask Twilight!” Pinkie suggested, pointing to the unicorn. “She's chock full of intelligence! Like a jelly filled doughnut! Oh, that reminds me! Are there snack on this flight?”

“No, Pinkie, you are not getting espionage training!” Twilight insisted.

“Twilight, you've got to stop taking that mare so seriously!” said a familiar voice between laughs.

“Rainbow Dash?!” Twilight exclaimed, turning to find the pegasus behind her. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you all doing here, indeed!” Flash bellowed, startling everypony on-board except Morningstar.

“Um, we're with her.” Rainbow said, pointing to Twilight while simultaneously hiding behind her.

“These are my friends, Sir.” Twilight explained. “Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie.”

“The holders of the elements of loyalty and laughter. Astounding. I never would have dreamed to be in the presence of-”

“Stow it, Morningstar!” Flash shouted. “I've had just about enough of this nonsense! If you don't mind, we're preparing to wage a war here. A war to protect both of you, might I add. Now you three can just sit here quietly and let the adults work. Morningstar, up here. Now.”

“My apologies, ladies, but duty calls. Loudly,” the colonel whispered to the mares before taking his place at the front of the commbal.

“So, how did you two get here?” Twilight asked quietly.

“We spent the night with Pinkie's family.” Rainbow whispered back. “The guards that flew her there wanted to leave that night, but she wouldn't go. She bribed them with cake.”

“Hey, you ate some too, Missy.”

“Well, yeah, okay. We all ended up staying there until morning. The guys had to come straight here, so here we are. What are you doing here?”

“Princess Celestia wanted me to be here. I studied military strategy all night so I could try and help, but I don't think the general likes me.”

“Yeah, I'm getting that vibe too.”

“Really? Are you guys getting twitches too?” Pinkie interjected.

“What? What twitch?” Twilight asked.

“Oh no, is your Pinkie Sense going off again?”

“Not exactly. My leg's all noodley!”

“It's what?”

“Look!” Pinkie said, holding up her front left leg, which hung limply.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“I dunno. I've never had anything like this before.” Pinkie said, waving her leg around and studying it closely.

“Miss Sparkle, you're going to want to see this...” Colonel Morningstar said with a slight quiver in his voice.

Twilight stood up and walked to the front of the commbal with the two officers. The army had arrived at a clearing beyond which the Everfree Forest stood. The soldiers on the ground came to halt, and the messenger guards were starting to pull on the lines hanging from the commbal to bring it to a stop as well. An army was emerging from the forest. Valponies, more than Twilight could count, were marching out to meet them. She could clearly see, however, that they still outnumbered the Equestrians. She knew from her studies that numbers weren't everything, but they did account for a lot, especially on level ground. She swallowed hard.

“Is that Sleipnir at the front there?” Twilight asked.

General Flash picked up a pair of binoculars and looked through them to the opposing army. “eight legged pony? That has to be him.”

“So,” Colonel Morningstar began, still retaining a hint of apprehension in his tone. Then, taking a deep breath, he continued: “It begins.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XVI: Breaking Magic

“Sleipnir's leading the valponies himself?!” Twilight cried. “Where's the Princess?! A-and the other Princess! Shouldn't one of them be here for this?!”

“Not this time, Scout.” General Flash said. “Her Highness doesn't like getting her hooves dirty unless she needs to. That's our job. Zephyr!”

The tan pegasus flew up to the general again. “Yes, sir?”

“It's starting. Notify all the captains. Tell them to be ready on Morningstar's signal.”

“Yes, sir!” Zephyr said enthusiastically. Twilight watched as the pegasus darted away from the commbal and started giving direct orders to the other messenger-guards. One by one, they dove down into the ranks of the army below. Each one centered on one of the banners held aloft throughout the massive formation.

I get it,” Twilight thought to herself, “she's the pony in charge of the messengers.” Then, realizing that she as getting distracted, turned to face Morningstar. “Isn't there anything I can do to help? Anything at all? Just name it!”

“I keep telling you, Miss Sparkle, there's no need to worry. We will take this day.” The stallion reassured.

Twilight stomped a hoof. “Then why did Celestia even want me here?” she mumbled to herself. Looking back over the battlefield, she watch Sleipnir and his army continue their approach.

“Chill out, Twi.” Rainbow said, walking up from behind. Better let the professionals take care of this instead of us, for a change. Check out Pinkie, she's got the right idea.”

Twilight turned around to see what the pink pony was doing. She was still intently studying her limp leg like it was some great scientific mystery. Twilight had accepted long ago that every part of Pinkie was a great scientific mystery, but one best left alone.

“Have you figured it out yet?” Rainbow called back.

“Not yet! But I'm working on it!” Pinkie said enthusiastically, waving her noodley leg before returning to her analysis.

“Quiet back there!” General Flash shouted. The enemy will be withing striking distance in a matter of minutes. I don't want to hear a peep from an of you until this is over.

“You can't be serious!” Rarity called up to Spike as she ran.

“It's the only thing that makes sense!” the dragon called back, flailing an arm and his legs, almost shaking Fluttershy out of the air as she flew.

“But the princess would never do that to Twilight!” the pegasus said.

“Then why would she send her to this battle! I know about every spell, trick, and piece of information Twilight knows! I was there when she learned most of it! And I can tell you that Twilight won't do any good there! She's just there to get killed!”

“Really, Spike, you're just letting your imagination get the better of you again. At what point in this fanciful tale will she start exploding several times over?”

“I'm being serious!” Spike shouted, flailing around again. “And she could be exploding right now for all we know!”

“Please, Spike, don't move so much.” Fluttershy protested.

Rarity scoffed. “I don't believe Celestia would willingly put Twilight in danger.”

“Oh yeah, then what's gonna happen if we lose?”

Rarity opened her mouth to answer, then stopped as she considered to implications.

“...That's not important, because the army shall not be defeated.. We're going to help her anyway. Come on, Fluttershy, faster!”

The Lord of the Afterlife looked over the Equestrian army with mild curiosity. Legions of white and gray ponies spread out before him like pieces on a game board. They were a stern lot, to be sure. They were all well trained and naturally talented for their jobs, as ponies always were. Terrifying them to their souls would be a difficult task, but it was a challenge he was prepared for. Besides, it would not be for their benefit, but somepony else's.

Sleipnir stopped. The commbal was hovering behind the ground troops on the far end of the field, but he was close enough. Any closer and the Equestrians would feel threatened enough to charge. It wasn't time yet for that. As he halted, the sound of marching hooves behind him came to a stop as well. He looked over his shoulder. One thousand five hundred of his daughters stood at attention behind him. All identical in appearance, all similarly equipped, all with the exact same knowledge, but he knew them all by heart. He glanced over the faces of some of the valponies on the front row. He didn't just know who each and every one of them were, he could feel them, a deep recognition that comes from creating life from one's own life force. He tried his best to hold on to that feeling as most of those on the front line would not survive the day.

“Even though I willingly put you in danger, do not forget, I love you all,” Sleipnir whispered.

None of the valponies responded. Not that they would have even if they had heard him. Their ability to react to things was rather limited. Regardless, Sleipnir faced forward again. He took a deep breath and called on one of his powers, a fundamental power that every elder was capable of. A power that ancient Equestrians came to refer to as “The Royal Canterlot Voice.” Sleipnir rose on his four hind legs and spoke.

Attention, noble warriors of Equestria. You stand before the might of the elders. What's more, you do so to protect a mare who has committed a crime against the gods. Even in your lands, those who violate the laws are punished for their actions. This is your only warning, if you do not leave this field now, you will all be charged as accomplices to her crime. Anypony who raises a blade against me shall be judged. If you do not wish to see what lies beyond that, you should flee for your eternal souls.

Morningstar snickered. “Heh, fortunately for me, I wield a spiked weapon.”

“What is he going on about? We're already going to war, what bigger punishment could he have in mind?” Flash wondered aloud.

Twilight thought back to Sleipnir's words from the day before to try and decipher his words. What could he possibly do that's worse than death? She froze and her eyes widened as she recalled.

For a thousand years every pony that died would find herself lost in the space between realms with no means of escape or any explanation of where they were. They would wander, lost, for all eternity because I would certainly feel no inclination to gather them up, even if I could find them all.

“...Nothing.” Twilight whispered breathlessly. “The worst he could do is nothing.”

The two officers dismissed Twilight's words, not understanding the implications of what she was saying.

“You have to listen to me! He could-”

Valponies, claim them!” Boomed Sleipnir from the ground.

At the Lord the Afterlife's words, his army charged. The center line moved forward along the ground. Behind them, more valponies lifted into the air and started diving from above.

As soon as he saw movement, Morningstar fired a burst of magic from his horn. It was similar to the flare spell Twilight knew, but formed differently. It was much slower, but larger, about the size of one of Rainbow's toy balls. It glowed bright red as it arched over the Equestrian army. On that cue, they also jumped into action. Earth ponies on the front line charged forward. Various bolts of magical attacks were fired from unicorns behind them. Pegasi took to the air and charged from the skies. Barriers of magic formed along the flanks of the army.

While Twilight stood terrified and motionless, a sngle thought running through her mind. “This is my fault. This is all my fault. All because of that stupid spell!” 

Rainbow, on the other hoof, started cheering like she was watching a spectator sport. “Whoo! Go get 'em, boys!” She shouted, swinging her hooves around wildly.

The officers and Twilight watched the ensuing battle intently. None of them had any special perceptive magic, but Flash and Morningstar were trained see details from afar.

“Is this really the strategy of an elder being...?” the colonel wondered aloud.

“He's not using his aerial units to half their capabilities.” the general replied.

“What? What's he doing?” Twilight asked, still frazzled.

“His entire army consists of fliers.” Morningstar explained. “By all rational strategy, he should be dominating the sky. Instead he's directed all of them on our front line.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I'm not certain.”

General Flash barked an order to her messenger again. “Zephyr! We're extending the flanks! Order them all to sweep forward on blue!”

“Sir, yes sir!” the mare replied, saluting before zipping away. Twilight watched as Zephyr conveyed the message to a few more pegasi, who each started flying down to the flags again.”

“Oh! Good idea!” Twilight declared. “If they're focusing on one place, we can redirect troops from elsewhere on the field!”

“It's a gamble.” Morningstar admitted. “He can still spread his troops out at any time, and then it'll be total chaos. However, we might be able to contain them if it works.”

Twilight hung her front legs over the railing to try and see the battle as closely as she could. From the way they were flying around, they were clearly focusing all of their efforts on hammering the front line. They dove in and around at the ranks of gilded earth ponies, who pushed back against them with everything they had. At least, that's what Twilight assumed, as the air above them was flooded with aerial soldiers, all ducking and weaving and making passes at each other. It was hard to even see the ground. She could see pony after pony falling straight out of the sky, pegasi and valpony alike. She could only imagine what it was like on the ground, where most of the fighting would actually be happening. The indiscriminate sounds of clashing metal and shouting floating through the air towards them. Twilight was grateful that should make out what any of it was.

“Morningstar, blue, now!” Flash ordered, pulling Twilight attention back to the commbal.

In that same instant, the colonel fired another ball of light from his horn. This one matching the color the general declared. On cue, the ponies on the left and right side of the formation started moving outward and forward.

“Yeah, yeah! Let's move! Go, go go!” Rainbow Dash shouted as she leaped off the commbal to pursue the advancing infantry.

After nearly suffering a heart attack, Twilight magically grabbed the over-excited pegasus and threw he back into the basket.

“You are not going out there!” the unicorn bellowed with enough volume to rival Luna's Canterlot voice.

“Oh, come on! I was just going to-”

“You sit there with Pinkie, or I will heal your stitches!”

“Alright, alright! I'm sitting!”

Rainbow slumped over to where the pink pony was crouched in the corner, still waving her limp leg around. At that moment, she was bouncing it up and down on the top of her head.

“Any closer to a breakthrough yet?” Dash asked, disinterested.


Turning her attention back to the field, Twilight watched as the army's flanks continued their advance. Then, just before the soldiers caught up with the front line, a hoofful of valponies broke away from the main battle on each side. Each of them was carrying an item. Something small and glowing. Twilight squinted her eyes and leaned forward to try and figure out what they were.


Before the Equestrian reinforcements could finish approaching the front lines, the valponies with the items dove for the ground in front of them. The grass then immediately burst into flames. The conflagration was violent, and the fires quickly reached more than ten feet into the air, higher than any pony. They spread out far, pushing outwards for nearly a quarter mile before curving backwards towards the edge of the forest. The advancing soldiers were blocked off, but that wasn't the most disturbing thing for Twilight to witness.

The worst part was the fact that the fires were lit underneath the hooves of the charging soldiers.

General Flash swore. Colonel Morningstar stomped a hoof. “Blast. We walked right into that!”

Twilight screamed. “No! No, we have to go help them!”

“There are medics embedded in each of the battalions, Miss Sparkle. It's up to them now.” Morningstar replied, the levelness of his tone beginning to falter. “Please, settle down. You are testing even my patience.”

Flash assessed the situation. “It looks like he wants a war of attrition. Strange, seeing as how his numbers exceed ours. What could he possibly be up to?

At that distance, Twilight couldn't make out what was going on at the base of those fires. There was definitely commotion. Ponies running around. Most of them pushing to get back into formation and moving the line backwards from the flames. Others were running forwards, trying to support those that were running around erratically, their bodies glowing and giving off smoke.

Twilight couldn't move. She couldn't sit still. She paced back and forth, looking over the edge at the battle below. She thought she could prepare herself for war with an afternoon of studying, but she was wrong. That same though kept surging through her mind.

This is all my fault. This is all my fault!

Meanwhile, nearly a mile from the battlefield, Spike and the girls were still trying to catch up, but were rapidly running out of steam. Fluttershy wasn't used to carrying an animal as big as Spike at that speed across that distance. She had been gradually slowing down and losing altitude for the past few minutes.

“Come on, Fluttershy, you gotta keep moving!”

“I... I... I'm sorry!” the pegasus replied, panting. “I'm getting real... real... really tired...”

Spike growled in frustration and called to the ground. “Rarity, how are you doing down there?!”

“Not, not good I'm afraid...” The pearly unicorn said. “I'm not the athletic type, you know. If only Applejack or Rainbow were here...”

“Fine! I'm gonna go get Twilight if I have to run there myself!”

Spike twisted his body suddenly, causing Fluttershy to drop him entirely. He fell several feet to the ground before landing hard on his stomach. Although still a baby, he still had enough draconic resilience to mostly shrug off the impact. The sudden change in balance threw off the pagasus' flight, causing her to crash as well. Being as light as she was and already flying slow, she mostly just stumbled over her hooves and landed with a bump.

“Spike, what's gotten into you!? Dear, are you alright?” Rarity called, catching up.

Stumbling to his feet, the dragon declared: “Last time you all went on some grand adventure into Everfree, you almost didn't come back! It's my job to take care of Twilight! I'm her number one assistant! I'm a dragon for crying out loud, I should be able to protect her! I'm not gonna let her get hurt out there even if it kills me instead!”

With that, Spike turned around and sprinted on all fours towards the battlefield.

“Oh, Spike, darling...” Rarity whispered to herself, before stepping up to help Fluttershy back to her hooves.

“Do you think he's going to make it?” Fluttershy asked.

“...I don't know, dear. I really don't know.”

Twilight couldn't keep her focus. She kept pacing back and forth, watching the battle. General Flash issued orders to try putting out the fires, but the clouds brought in by the pegasi kept being dispersed by the valponies before the could be brought into position. Colonel Morningstar gave frequent assessments of the situation, though there was little change over the previous few minutes.

“It's as though he just wants us to fight in that one area.,” Morningstar observed. “We cannot move past them, and they can't move past us. Should we retreat?”

“Negative,” Flash replied. “We fight until routed. Those are Celestia's orders.”

“What?! You can't-” Twilight began, before Flash struck her with a hind leg, knocking her back.

“I've had just about enough out of you!” Flash thundered. “You either keep it down, or you get of this commbal!”

“Hey!” Pinkie shouted, indignantly. “Why are you- Wah!” she began as she stood, before falling over from her limp leg. She then lied there, perfectly inert, with her eyes wide open.

Pinkie's hair deflated.

“What about you, rainbow-mane.” Flash continued, staring daggers and Dash. “You got anything else to say?”

Rainbow shook her head.

“Good. Keep it that way.”

Looking over her two downed friends, Rainbow asked “are you guys okay?”

Twilight wheezed as she tried to pull air back into her lungs again. “My-” she coughed “My fault.”

“Your fault? No way, that general's nuts.” Rainbow replied with a hushed tone.

“No, I mean, all of this. All of this is happening because of me. Because I healed you.”

“What? No way, I'm the one who flew head-first into a tree, remember? You were doing the right thing. No one can blame you for that.”

“Sleipnir does.”

“And he's the bad guy, remember?”

“It's still my responsibility.” Twilight said, her voice grim. Her horn began to illuminate, and her eyes slowly started to glow white. “I have to fix this.”

“Twilight...? Twi, what are you doing?”

The unicorn's horn started to emit a hum. “You're the element of loyalty, so take care of the others for me. You were the best friends I could ever hope for.”

“Twilight, no.” Rainbow said. “What are you doing?”

Pinkie slowly raised her head and looked up at her friend. “... Bye-bye Twilight... I'll throw one last big party for you.”

Twilight smiled. “I'd like that.” With a flash and a bang, she teleported away.

“Pinkie!” Rainbow cried, grabbing the pink pony. “What's going on!?”

“I figured out what my Pinkie Sense was trying to tell me.” She said, teary eyed. “It means somepony's going away...”

Rainbow's eyes widened.

“Miss Dash, come look!” Morningstar shouted.

Twilight had teleported herself to the ground and was running for the front line. Naturally, the Equestrian Army was in front of her. The leveled her horn as she charged, and fired a beam of magic from it straight ahead. This bolt was more solid than an energy attack and just pushed ponies to the side as it traveled. It then split down the middle, pushing the surprised soldiers over even more and opening a path for Twilight to gallop through. Suits of metal armor clanked against each other, ponies grunted in pain and irritation, and a few flags toppled as she made her way to the epicenter of the battle.

On reaching the front line, Twilight realized just how many bodies were around. Too many. On both sides. She leaped outward and slammed her hooves into the ground. A shockwave of force nearly knocked over every earth pony nearby. Twilight's horn flared with energy as she raised her horn to the sky. She called on the spell her brother taught her long ago, and created a barrier around herself. She expanded it outwards, engulfing the remnants of he valpony army.

“Sleipnir!” Twilight boomed, her body floating and her horn and eyes glowing with barely restrained magic.

The ranks of valponies parted and Lord of the Afterlife stepped forward. “Yes, Lady of Magic?” he asked, his tone completely level.

Twilight eased her power, and slowly fell to the ground. Her eyes and horn dimming and returning to normal.

“...I surrender...” twilight said. “... Just make sure that everypony who died today gets to the afterlife safely, and I'll give myself up.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XVII: Surrender

Spike, panting hard, ran on all fours over the crest of the hill. Stopping for just a moment to catch his breath, he saw the Equestrian army ahead of him. A balloon of some kind hovered overhead, but he paid no attention to it. Beyond them stood two walls of fire and a massive barrier of pink magic.

He'd recognize that hue anywhere.

“Twilight!” Spike shouted.

Breaking into a full sprint again, he ran towards the soldiers. His closest friend needed him and he didn't have time to go around them all. He approached the line of ponies from behind and kept running, ducking and weaving between the hooves of the larger creatures.

“Woah!” one of the soldier cried as Spike brushed against his leg.

“Hey!” shouted another.

“What's that? What's going on?”

The soldiers were getting anxious and started shuffling around in the confusion. Spike was getting worried about being accidentally stomped on. It likely wouldn't kill him, but it would slow him down. He had bigger things to worry about.

“There it is! I got it!” somepony called out. Almost immediately, an armored hoof smacked Spike in the side. He was knocked back and flew into some other soldier's barding, clutching his ribs.

I don't have time for this, I gotta see what's happening to Twilight!

Ignoring the pain, Spike jumped to his feet and kept going. Several spear tips converged on the ground in front of him, blocking him off before he could get far.

“Easy there, little guy. What's the hurry?”

Spike whirled around and started to turn back. More spearheads cut him off again. That time, he tried going up. He lunged upward and grabbed a soldier by the face. The mare panicked and started to fling herself around. She was a unicorn, and the her horn worked as an excellent grip to keep from being flung off. Spike knew how sensitive they could be, and did his best not to accidentally break it while its owner was thrashing. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that he was close to a banner.

Letting go, Spike let himself be thrown in the direction of the flag, but the momentum from the startled mare wasn't enough to get him that far. Instead, he jumped across the backs and heads of a few more soldiers before throwing himself at the the flagpole.

“What's it doing?”

“Is that a dragon?”

“No way, it's too small. It doesn't even have wings!”

The gilded post was smooth and a little slippery, but Spike had a strong grip and not a lot of mass. He started climbing upwards even as the flag bearer started shaking the post to try and dislodge him. The climb was easier once he got high enough to grab on to the flag itself. Naturally, his claws ended up tearing a few holes in it. The soldiers really didn't like that.

“Hey, hey! It's trashing our banner!”

“Nopony disgraces the one-thirteenth like that!”

“Somepony get that thing down from there! That's an order!”

Finally reaching the tip of the banner, Spike looked over the battlefield. He had a better vantage of the fires and the barrier and did his best to make out what he could.

Just a... swarm of white pegasi? Oh, those must be the valponies! But I know that barrier spell, the caster shouldn't be able to leave it. Whatever's going on in there, Twilight's-!

Spike's train of thought was immediately interrupted by the flagpole being shaken again, this time much more violently. He lost his grip for in instant before clinging on again. He called on all the draconic strength he had left to hold on for as long as he could. He wasn't sure where to go from there, but he knew that he had to stay and watch over Twilight for as long as he could. He kept an eye on the shield as he was swung back and forth atop the flagpole.

“That's not working! I'll get him myself.” One of the soldiers said from below. “Come on down here and take your punishment you little whelp!”

The unicorn started using telekinesis on Spike's body in an attempt to pry him off manually. He held fast and was finally able to get a good view of the shield without so much movement. He watched it, intently, refusing to let go. There was movement inside. All of the valponies flying around seemed to be moving away from the Equestrian army. The swarm of them started to get smaller.

What are they-? They're escaping through an opening in the back of the shield?! Why would Twilight let them do that?! They're going back to Everfree!

“Stop picking on me and go chase the valponies!” Spike shouted down to the soldiers still trying to wrest him from their banner. “They're going-!”

Suddenly, the shield dissipated. It popped like a bubble and ceased to be. To Spike, that only meant one thing.

Time seemingly froze for the baby dragon as his eyes widened. The image of the shield fading kept repeating in his mind. The next thing he knew, he was on his back on the ground, surrounded by a lot of unhappy unicorns in armor holding spears at him.

“Wait, wait, don't hurt him! He's with me!” somepony called from overhead.

Spike was still lost in his trance, but the soldiers looked up at a sky blue pegasus with a prismatic mane and lots of battle scars.

“And just who are you?” asked the nearest captain suspiciously, a unicorn mare.

“I'm Rainbow Dash! You know, Element of Loyalty, saver of Equestria for, like, a hundred times, future Wonderbolt star. Any of this ringing a bell?”

“...And this is your dragon?” the captain continued, unimpressed.

“Yep!” Dash replied, swooping down and picking up Spike before any of the guards could object to it. “He gets away from me sometimes. Totally harmless, though. Thanks for catching him! I'll just be-”

“So he's your responsibility, then, is he?”

“Yes! I mean, no! We'll, he's kinda-”

“Then you're gonna pay the damage he caused to our flag!” the captain called, scratching aggressively at the ground and leveling her horn at Rainbow and Spike. The other soldiers rallied around her.

Rainbow panicked, and almost dropped Spike in the process. “Woah, hey now, I'm just-!”

At that moment, Zephyr flew in between Dash and the captain and reached her forelegs out protectively. “Stand down Bannerette! That's an order!”

“That deranged little dragon is a menace! It practically shredded our flag!”

“Oh, come now.” Zephyr scolded like an exhausted mother. “Stop fussing about your flag for one minute. Just take it to the quartermaster and have it fixed; there's no point in bullying civilians.”

Bannerette growled. “Fine, they're all yours then.”

“Good. This battle is over, we're moving out anyway. General Flash wants anypony with a medical background to the front for support. We've got some pretty bad burns up there. Everypony else is to fall back to Ponyville. Now, move out.”

“Yes, sir”

Turning to her troops, the captain carried on her orders. Zephyr faced Rainbow Dash.

“Sorry about that. Bannerette is pretty protective of her flag.”

“No problem. I've got a friend who's real fussy about her clothes like that too. You should have heard what she threatened to do after I-” Rainbow began, then her ears twitched as she realized what Zephyr had just said. “Wait, what do you mean we're leaving?! We gotta go get Twilight!”

“Sorry, but that's our orders...” Zephyr said, glancing away for just a second. “We came to protect Ponyville and repel the valponies. We're done here.”

“Yeah, we'll I ain't one of your soldiers!” Dash protested. “And we're gonna go get our friend, right Spike?”

Rainbow held up the baby dragon to get a look at him for the first time since picking him up. His head and limbs hung limply, as they had since she rescued him. “It's no use, we're already too late.” he mumbled.

“Whaddya mean, 'too late?' It's never too late!”

“I mean, she's g-” Spike choked over the word. “g-gone.” Then, tensing up again, he raged. “And it's all your fault! All because of you and and your stupid stunts! If you didn't crash into things all the time, none of this would have happened!

“Hey, don't you pin all this on me! It's not like I enjoyed killing myself!”

“You never take responsibility for anything! You're always lazy and irresponsible, and now Twilight's paid for it! This is all your fault!”

Normally, nopony gets away with talking to the great Rainbow Dash like that, but she forced herself to let that one go.“We don't have time for this. Come on, we're finding her!” Dash said, flying off towards the edge of Everfree.

“There's nothing to find but a body, now Put! Me! Down!” Spike screamed, and started thrashing around all over again.

Wresting himself free from Rainbow's hold, Spike started to fall back down towards the soldiers below. Most of them had turned away from the treeline and were marching back towards Ponyville. Spears hoisted over their shoulders, they formed a moving sea of blades as he fell. Zephyr swept in and caught him by his tail before he landed on one of them.

“Easy there, little guy! You-”

“Don't call me 'little'!” Spike screamed. “Put me down right now!”

“Alright, alright! Hang on.”

Zephyr flipped the baby dragon over to carry him in a more dignified manner. She carried him over to the edge of the army's formation so she could set him down on a clear patch of grass. Rainbow followed behind them. Spike continued to scowl at her throughout the entire process. After putting him down, Zephyr settled on the ground and knelt down to talk to him face to face.

“Listen, dragonling-”

“My name is Spike.” he said, leaning forward and jabbing his thumb to his chest.

“Sir Spike,” Zephyr corrected, gently. “I know what it's like to lose somepony. Really, I do. But blind anger isn't going to get you anywhere. If you need to blow off some steam, do it, but just be careful who you're aiming at when you do.”

“You want me to blow off steam?!” Spike shouted as though it was a challenge. He was breathing hard, shooting puffs of smoke through his nostrils. “I can do a whole lot more than steam!”

A few minutes earlier, Rarity and Fluttershy had caught up with the battlefield, reaching the crest of the hill as Spike had done before and looked over the army.

“Oh! Oh, look! We made it, there they are!” Fluttershy cheered, pointing at the obvious army of ponies in front of them.

“Finally! I haven't walked this much in my life!”

“Rarity! We're here to help Twilight and Spike, remember?”

“Oh, of course, darling,” the pearly unicorn replied, admonished. “I don't mean to complain, I'm just so very tired. We've come all this way, and we mustn't give up now. But, how do we find them now that we're here?”

“I'm not sure. It... looks like everypony's okay. So, I guess that means we won? Eep! They're coming this way!”

“No need to worry, they're quite a ways off. We've have at least a good- hey!” Rarity began before her winged friend grabbed her around the torso to fly her out of the path of the returning soldiers.

“Really, Fluttershy, the feats of strength you perform in a bind never cease to amaze me. Or, when you perceive a bind, that is.” Rarity said, noting the distance between their last position and the soldiers.

The pegasus blushed and hid behind her hooves a bit. “Hee hee, I panic sometimes, and then things happen. Sometimes I don't even realize it's me.”

“Yes, well, perhaps you can channel that nervous energy of yours into finding our friends.”

“I don't know,” Fluttershy said, floating higher to get a better look. “It'll be really hard to find Spike among all these -Eek!”

“What is it? What do you see?”

“Smoke! There's a lot of smoke! Was there a wildfire out here?! I hope none of the creatures got hurt...”

“One thing at a time, dear. Do you happen to see Spike or any of the girls?”

“Okay! Okay! Mustn't panic. Stay calm...” Fluttershy said to herself, and took a deep breath. “Um... Oh! That looks like Rainbow Dash! She's following some other pegasus. And she's got Spike! They're going this way, come on!”

“I'm coming! Ow, but I simply cannot run any further.”

Fluttershy landed next to her friend and walked alongside her. Inwardly, she was grateful for not having to rush anymore, and the sight of some of her friends in one piece reliever her in a way should wouldn't have been able to describe in words.

“Who's that auburn pegasus?” Rarity asked.

“I don't know. She's saying something to Spike. I can't hear from here.”

Then, Spike shouted. “I can do a whole lot more than steam!”

Spinning around, the young dragon snorted a few times as the smoke he was breathing gradually changed to bursts of fire. Then, after a sharp intake of air, he screamed. Along with that scream, a brazier of green flames exploded from his mouth, a brazier that would have been large enough to engulf a full sized pony were one in his way. A few feet behind them, several of the soldiers marching home were startled by the eruption, as were the mares who were watching him.

“Again!” Zephyr encouraged, stomping her hoof. “Let it out again!”

“You shouldn't have gone, Twilight! You should have just listened to me!” Spike shouted, releasing another torrent of emerald flames on the breath of his final word.

Rarity and Fluttershy stepped up as close as they dared. Rainbow settled on the ground as well next to Zephyr. The green light from the flames flickered across their faces as Spike continued to vent his frustration. Tears started to stream down his own face.

“Did... something happen...?” Fluttershy asked quietly.

“I don't know...”

“You should have just taken me with you!” Spike continued shouting. “I've never been able to go on any of your big adventures! I should have been able to protect you!” he screamed, breathing more fire into the open air of the field in front of him.

That burst proved to be the limit of his stamina however. During his shout, the flames started to flicker and die down. They gradually sputtered out as Spike emptied his lungs. When the last of his energy gave out, he collapsed belly-down on the grass unconscious.

“Spike!” Fluttershy cried as she leapt forward to pick him up.

“Spike! Spike, are you alright?!” Rarity said, stepping up as well.

“He should be fine, just worn out is all.” Zephyr said. “Is he a friend of yours too?”

“We are. Please, tell us what's going on.” Rarity said.

“It's Twilight!” Rainbow burst out. “She just-! … She just gave herself up!”

“She what?! Why didn't you try to stop her?!”

“There was nothing I could do! She just poofed down there and blew right past the guards! Next thing I know there's this magic bubble, and then it's gone, and now Spike says she dead! I dunno what's going on!” Dash said, throwing herself on the ground and covering her face with her hooves.

“Listen,” Zephyr said, “It's probably not a good idea for any of you to hang around here longer than you should. The valponies might come back, for one, or something else might come out of Everfree. That goes for you too, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow snapped her head back up and then stood. “No! Spike's right! I need to, to, to go do something! Yeah, isn't there something that Equestria's fastest flier can do to fix this?” she pleaded.

“Please, if you could just follow the troops back to Ponyville, that would be for the best. I'm in charge of communications for this legion, so I can make sure that somepony sends you a message as soon as we know what's going on. Until then, it's just not safe.”

One of the other messenger-guards then flew down with an order. “Zephyr, sir! General Flash wants to know why you're not giving her a report on the medical support!”

“Duty calls, guys. Please, just go. Now. You friend here should be fine. He just need to rest for a bit.” Zephyr said. Then, up to the messenger, “Tell her I'm gathering it now.”

With that, Zephyr lifted off the ground and headed towards the ponies still gathered around the dying flames of Sleipnir's trap. The other guard let the ponies be and returned to his own duties.

“Well, I... guess we should just head home now.” Fluttershy said with a sigh. “I'll carry Spike, since you're so tired...”

The sleeping form of the baby dragon was then engulfed in a gentle glow of baby-blue magic and was lifted onto Rarity's back.

“No, I think I can manage, thank you,” the pearly unicorn said with a smile.

“Okay,” Fluttershy said, visibly relieved. “Um, what about you, Rainbow?”

“I'll- I'm gonna- I need to go get Pinkie!” Dash said. Then, after kicking at the grass once, she lifted off to fly back to the commbal.

“Come on, Fluttershy, darling. We have a long way back home.” Rarity said softly.


The two mares walked in silence, besides the sound of marching from the soldiers ahead of them. Rarity was careful to walk slowly and gently as she carried Spike on her back, as he was in no condition to hold on for himself. A strong wind almost pushed him down once, but she was able to catch him with her telekinesis.

“...Do you think Spike was right?” Fluttershy asked at last. “Do you think that Twilight's...”

“I don't know.”

Another moment of silence.

“...W-what do you suppose will happen to Spike if...”

“Don't worry your pretty little head. If worse comes to worse I'll take care of him. He always sort of liked me the best, didn't he?” Rarity said, smiling and blushing a little.

“Hee hee, I-I guess he did, didn't he?”

Beyond Judgment

Part XVIII: Futility

Rainbow Dash was so frustrated as she returned to the commbal that should hardly fly straight.

Horse feathers, horse feathers, horse feathers! This is not my fault! And I'm gonna fix it! Where does Spike get off blaming me?! It's not my fault! There was nothing I could do! Twilight's still alive! She has to be! I won't let her die! I'm gonna get this entire army in gear and go get her back!

Looking around, Rainbow realized that she was so engrossed in her thoughts that she had completely flown past her target. “horsefeatherhorsefeathershorsefeathers!” she muttered to herself as she dove back down.

On arrival, she found the general watching Pinkie from across the basket with mild curiosity, who was still sitting glumly in the corner. Colonel Morningstar was looking over the chart on the table in the middle of the floor, moving pins around.

“What are you all waiting around for?!” Rainbow demanded. “The valponies are still out there! Let's go get 'em!”

“Oh look, you're back.,” Flash said, not looking. “I was wondering how your friend was planning to get down without you. I still don't know how she got here in the first place, so I was waiting to see how she leaves.”

“Listen to me!”

“I am listening to you,” Flash said, still not looking. “You just have no authority on my commbal. You're lucky I'm in a good mood, otherwise I'd have you grounded. We just completed a successful war - and with fewer casualties than predicted!”

“All the more reason we need to get back out there and chase those guys down! We've got 'em on the run!”

“What a brilliant and strategic tactical maneuver,” The general said flatly. “...Colonel Morningstar?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be a dear and hit her for me.”

“Yes, sir.” Morningstar said, scribbling an unrelated note on a piece of paper.

Although the colonel made no motions to do so, several of the messenger-guards converged on Rainbow Dash.

“Come on, we're gonna have to ask you to leave now. You're interfering with official business.” one of them said. “We're not gonna ask you again.”

Dash was irritated before, but then she was furious. “I'm not goin' anywhere! I've got something to say, and they're gonna hear it!”

Three of the messengers pounced on Rainbow, clinging on to her legs and neck, trying to weigh her down and pull her out of the sky. She was a stronger flier than they anticipated, and struggling against their combined weight, managed to stay mostly aloft. She thrashed around to dislodge them, swerving around in the air, but to no avail. Instead, she managed to grab on the the railing of the basket to keep from falling farther. She smashed the pony hanging onto her neck as she veered into the side of the basket, which causer him to fall away. The pegasus recovered before falling too far, however.

“You're all just a bunch of cowards!” Dash shouted, scrambling to maintain her grip on the railing. “You say you're here to help Equestria, but now these guys just ran off with somepony, and you won't raise a hoof to save her!”

The was a silence among the officers.

“...You know, General, I might just have to carry out that order after all.”

“You're supposed to carry out all of my orders, Colonel.”

“Indeed,” Morningstar said, turning towards Dash. “Let her go, ponies.”

The messenger-guards released Rainbow, who shook herself off and righted herself again. “There, are you ready to stallion up and go kick some flank now?” she demanded.

Colonel Morningstar stepped up to a section of the railing that was lower than the rest, low enough that a pony might simply jump over. As though on cue, four of the messenger-guards extended a platform from beneath the basket, which he then jumped onto.

“Miss Dash, her highness wanted us to work with you as best we can, and we have shown as much patience with you and your friends as possible.” Morningstar said calmly as the messengers detached the platform and began to lower it to the ground. “However,” he continued, his voice growing stern, “once you insult the honor and integrity of the Royal Equestrian Guard, the shoes come off.”

“Oh yeah?” Dash said with a determined grin, “and what you gonna do about it?”

Morningstar leapt from the platform just as soon as it was low enough for him to land safely. His hooves landed with a loud 'thump' against the ground and his body flexed to cushion the impact. He raised his head, leveling his horn at Rainbow. “I'll show you the strength of the Guard.”

“Psht, is that all you got?” Dash taunted, “You're gonna beat on a civilian instead of doing your job?”

Morningstar smirked. “Very well, I'll make you a deal. If you can best me in a one-on-one duel, I'll recall the entire army and we'll pursue Sleipnir to his portal.”

Dash crossed her forelegs and leered suspiciously at the colonel. “And how do I know you're gonna keep that promise?”

Morningstar crossed a hoof over his head and bowed. “I swear on my honor as a guardian,” he said, the glaring upwards again, “Not that you'll defeat me either way.”

“Alright, you're on!” Dash said, landing on the ground. “I'm gonna smoke you in no time flat!”

“Hah! Against a civilian, I won't even need my weapon.”

From above, General Flash called out. “Will you foals quit yapping and start beating each other already?”

The combatants glanced up and saw that Flash had ordered the commbal to be lowered. The messenger-guards were pulling on ropes to reduce its altitude. Morningstar assumed she did so purely to watch the fight.

“Once my knife hits the ground, you both start. All ready?”

Dash crouched low, ready to pounce, and pawed at the ground. Her wings buzzed as she flapped them rapidly, her hooves holding her in place until the signal fell. Morningstar braced himself and ignited his horn with orange magic, anticipating the first move. The two of them glared at each other for an endless moment awaiting the signal.

That wasn't the first time Dash had been in a brawl. She definitely had a bit of a mean streak in her younger years, especially back when she hung with Gilda. She had never tussled with a unicorn, though, just other pegasi. She didn't know what to expect from the colonel, but that didn't matter.

Then, the general's dagger fell from the sky, stabbing into the grass blade first.

Rainbow Dash was the first to act. She threw herself forward in a streak of prismatic light. She darted in all directions all around Morningstar, weaving in and out and back and forth, leaving a seemingly impossible rainbow trail in her wake. Staying low to the ground, she could make much sharper turns by cornering on her hooves than if she was purely in the air. She didn't aim to hit him yet, the first move was just meant to confuse him.

Morningstar glanced around, trying to follow any pattern in Dash's movement that he could find, but to no avail. He silently commented on her incredible agility. Without a mental lock on where she was, exactly, he couldn't even use telekinesis to bring her to a stop. Of course, that would have been a dishonorable tactic he would have never used anyway.

Instead, the colonel poured energy into his horn for a different purpose. It glowed and hummed, and a spread of small bolts shot from the tip. They spread out in front of him, shooting into the air or leaving small pock marks in the soil. None of them, however, managed to land on Rainbow Dash herself. As fast and erratic as her movements were, she was in enough control to watch Morningstar and see what magic he was using.

Upon seeing her opponent's focus turn to his ineffectual magic burst, Dash turned to the offensive. She launched herself legs first into his side, connecting squarely with his armor. Not only was the impact enough to leave a notable dent in his barding, it propelled him several yards away. He tumbled across the ground, but Morningstar knew how to take a hit like that. He tucked in his legs to keep them from get twisted as he rolled across the uneven grass and straightened his neck to keep from snapping his horn off.

Without missing a beat, the colonel rolled back onto his hooves and was standing as soon as his momentum was low enough.

“You had enough?!” Dash taunted.

“Not a bad kick.” Morningstar replied. “If only you had hit me a little harder. It's a shame the only blow you'll land on me wasn't enough to take me down.”

“Fine! I'll just have to try it again!”

Dash buzzed her wings again, and launched herself at her opponent. She retried her previous technique of high-speed evasion. Her body began to burn; Not just from the physical exertion that normally so exhilarated her, but because of the strain she was putting on her wounds. She could feel the stitches pulling at her muscles, but she pushed it out of her mind for the time being.

Morningstar looked around, still trying to find pattern tot he pegasus' movement he could exploit. Finding none, her empowered his horn yet again. Then, just as he was about to release another spread of photonic magic, he twisted his head to the side. Disrupting the release of energy with the sudden motion, the otherwise straight beams of light twisted in on themselves, and began to scatter in all directions. Spiraling and arching everywhere, there was no way for Dash to dodge them all.

Despite her already impressive speed and reaction time, Rainbow couldn't outrun light. Giving her best shot anyway, she tried to dodge and weave between the scattering bolts of magic. She screamed as her body was pelted nearly a dozen times, some of which striking her wounds directly. Dash veered away from Morningstar and headed for clear skies above.

Having completed his spell, the colonel looked around until he saw Rainbow above him. “Is that all?!” he shouted up to her “Do you concede yet?!”

“Not on your life, punk!” Rainbow called back down. “No more fooling around! It's do or die time!”

Rainbow pulled off a few quick loops in midair to build up speed, and then fired herself almost straight down at Morningstar like a meteor. She held her hooves out to push against the wall of air in front of her as she approached that critical velocity. Far too mad now for rational thought, she intended to hit him with a sonic rainboom.

The colonel caught on to Dash's plan, however. “Ha! Don't you know that sound isn't as fast as light!” he shouted as he called forth his special type of magic again. This time, he planned to disorient her. He raised his horn into the air and focused his willpower into creating as bright a nova of light as he could; So bright that even Flash and the messengers, watching from the commbal dozens of yards away, had to shield their eyes. For Dash, who was looking directly at him and on an inward trajectory, the effect was blinding.

Rainbow broke her concentration on the rainboom as she tried to save her vision. As her legs and wings recoiled, her aerodynamics were thrown dangerously off. She banked upwards again and started tumbling haphazardly through the air, falling instead of flying. The wind resistance was drastically reducing her momentum, but she was still out of control, barreling through the air with a lot more force than the last catastrophic crash she had.

Morningstar released his nova spell and latched on to the falling pegasus with his telekinesis as she tumbled overhead. He dug his hooves into the ground and pulled his head backwards with all the strength he could muster, trying to slow her down.

It was not enough. Rainbow crashed into the ground hard. The impact was enough to even disrupt Morningstar's telekinesis, causing him to fall over backwards as his connection was broken. The pegasus immediately lost consciousness.

Rainbow slowly opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was white. Her head was spinning, but as far as she could tell she was lying on her back. A blue pony's head, blurry as it was, came into her view.

“... Not... how I planned to get here... but I'll take it,” Rainbow mumbled, and pointed at the blurry blue face. “Now give back Twilight... Sleipnir.”

“I ain't Sleipnir.” The pony said. “But I respect your determination. If only somepony could smack the insubordination out of you, you'd make a fine guardian.”


“Don't worry, though. We have sergeants that can take care of that. If you survive, that is. That was a pretty nasty landing.”

“...Is that why everything hurts...?”

“Yes. Yes it is. I don't think there's a stitch in your body that stayed intact on that one. We're got you patched up for now, though, so try not to bleed to death before we can get you to a proper hospital.”

“Okay.” the injured pegasus replied meekly.

Slowly, Rainbow's vision cleared and she saw that she was talking to General Flash. The white thing in front of her was just the underside of the balloon. She tried looking around, but that didn't help with her headache and nausea, so she quit. Something pink wobbled into her line of sight, though.

“That you Pinkie?”


“Oh, good.” Rainbow said, and coughed. “Now I don't have to be alone when I die. Again.”

Pinkie smiled a kind of weak, tired smile of somepony on the verge of tears. “Nope. You're not going away yet,” she said, holding up one of her forelegs. “See? No noodle.”

Dash wasn't certain if Pinkie was just being Pinkie, or if her own delirium was worse than she thought. Either way, the earth pony’s hair had deflated again, and that was never a good sign. “Huh?”

“It's my Pinkie Sense. I figured it out. My leg gets all noodley when somepony I know goes away. The first time it happened was for my Granny Pie a long time ago. I didn't know about it until days later, so I didn't know what it meant. I just thought I slept on it funny when I fell out of bed that morning.” Pinkie chuckled a little. “I remember showing it off to my sisters and making them laugh. It was the first time I ever had a Pinkie Sense, so I guess that's where it all started. When I fell over a little while ago before Twilight left, I figured it out.”

Rainbow didn't catch all of that story due to her spinning head. Something about pies in bed, or something.

“That's nice. I'm gonna sleep now.”

Pinkie smiled again. “Okey dokey. I'll be there when you wake up.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XIX: Fluttershy's Day

Fluttershy awoke, as she did every morning, by the first glint of light from the morning sun. She tossed off the heavy comforter and stretched. Angel Bunny slept at the foot of her bed, but he would act grumpy all morning if he gets woken up as early as Fluttershy does. A few birds nests hung from the ceiling, but their residents were heavier sleepers. Instead, she carefully got out of bed and tip-hooved to her nightstand.

From there, Fluttershy began her morning routine. She took out her favorite brush to comb out her pink mane and tail, and touch up a few tussled spots on her coat. Then, she picked up a special fine tooth comb for preening in her mouth and set to work straightening out her wings. Throughout this grooming process she planned out her day. A whole week had passed since Twilight disappeared, and she had been trying extra hard to be there for her friends, even if they didn't always want her there.

First things first, however. There were a lot of creatures living in and around Fluttershy's home that needed her care and attention. There was food to prepare, nests to clean, eggs to collect, a raccoon with a bandage to replace, and a pregnant ocelot that needed checking up on. The thought of tiny nursing kittens mewling and playing with each other almost made Fluttershy squeal involuntarily, but she clopped her hooves over her mouth before she accidentally woke up Angel.

Fluttershy gave her wings one last inspection in the mirror and a couple test flaps to be sure everything was in order. She then looked at the reflection of her own face and forced a smile before tip-hooving to the stairs and making her way to the pantry.

It was shortly after noon when Fluttershy finished all the chores her little creatures needed her to do. Everyone was fed and clean - including herself - the ocelot mother was due any day, and the raccoon wasn't unmanageably fussy during his check up.

Walking down the small dirt path from her cottage, Fluttershy waved goodbye to her little friends, almost all of which waved back. Her heart fluttered a bit when they did and she smiled brightly. Angel looked up from his conversation with a couple of field mice and ran to her.

“Oh, would you like to come with me?” Fluttershy asked the bunny.

Angel climbed up the pegasus' leg and nodded.

“Okay then, hang on tight. Don't fall, now.”

Angel sat down on his mistress' back and gripped a lock of hair from her mane with his tiny paws. Fluttershy smiled seeing how cooperative he was being that day. He had a tendency to be handful from time to time. Turning back towards town, though, was something she dreaded a little on the inside. She already felt the bonds of friendship between herself and the others splinter a little when Applejack fell into her coma, but when Twilight sacrificed herself, it's as though it all just vanished with her.

Nonetheless, Fluttershy steeled herself to go and do her best anyway. That's what Twilight did, she assured herself, and she wouldn't want their friendship to break after she was gone. After all, the funeral was the next day, and Fluttershy wanted to make sure they were all okay before then.

Armed with her resolve, Fluttershy started trotting with purpose down to the village. Unfortunately, resolve was not a thing she frequently made use of, and trotting with purpose was also a new activity. It even felt awkward. She looked down at her own legs as though they had only recently sprouted from her body somehow. The pegasus giggled to herself a little bit from how silly she was acting. That at least lightened her mood a bit, and she continued onward.

The clouds above were gray and gloomy, but Fluttershy trotted confident that it wouldn't rain. In small villages like Ponyville, the local weather teams would usually fill the sky with clouds as a sign of respect when somepony dies. In large cities that would simply be impractical, but it was a nice symbolic gesture. Starting the day after the funeral of the lost pony, the clouds would slowly be cleared to represent the easing of sadness and the bright glow of the future that still lied ahead.

“Okay, first stop is Sugarcube Corner.” Fluttershy said to Angel as she strolled into Ponyville. She could already see into the busy street that lead into the market square, where ponies were selling their fruits and vegetables and whatever other goods they produced. The soldiers had packed all of their supplies and equipment and returned to Canterlot as quickly and efficiently as they arrived, and the local ponies returned to their normal lives. She took a moment to smell the air and take in the aroma of fresh food – besides procrastinating before marching headlong into a crowd.

The cake's shop was at the far end of the market from where Fluttershy was standing, so there was no helping it; she would just have to hold her breath and march right on in like she was wading into deep water. She looked back to Angel for guidance. His expression was stern as he nodded, whipped her mane like reins, and pointed at the crowd. Fluttershy faced forward and swallowed hard before starting to trot. The marketplace was busy and noisy and full of ponies and loud and crowded and, and...

And it wasn't long before Fluttershy's heart started to speed up and her breathing went out of control a little, but she did her best to just keep walking straight and push through it. One of the ponies she passed by noticed she was having some kind of trouble and asked if he needed help. The pegasus could only respond with a shake of her head and keep on going. It took her a moment to get over her anxiety and exhale, like she always does when she goes on a walk on her own.

Oh my, I haven't had to go through all that in the longest time,” Fluttershy thought to herself, gasping for air a little. “Not since Twilight moved to Ponyville and... and I made some real friends.

The thought saddened her. Fluttershy had always been okay with who she was – for the most part – she just didn't really have any pony friends. Even Rainbow Dash seemed to only tolerate her for the longest time, and they knew each other since they were fillies. She was so much more outgoing and expressive than she ever was, around her own friends at least; She didn't want to go back the way she was before. She couldn't. So, Fluttershy tried the resolve and purpose-trotting things again and kept going.

“We have to find Pinkie,” Fluttershy said.

“Here I am.”

Fluttershy squeaked and jumped into the air as Pinkie spoke out of seemingly nowhere. Angel was nearly dislodged from his mount. She looked around and, sure enough, the pink pony was standing right next to her like she had been there the whole time.

“Pinkie, you startled me.”

“I had a feeling you were looking for me, so I came over to see you.” Pinkie said with a gentle smile.

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. Something wasn't quite right. Pinkie was wearing her saddlebags filled with bags of flour and sugar, but something else seemed different about her. The pegasus dismissed the thought, though. “Oh, um, I just wanted to see how you were feeling before the, uh... you know. Tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I've definitely seen brighter days. And not just because of the clouds! But I'll find a way, don't you worry!.”

“I'm so glad to hear that. I tried to see you the other day, but Mr. Cake said you hadn't been out of your room for a while.”

“Well...” Pinkie said, rolling her eyes and rubbing the back of her mane, “I just needed some alone time, I guess. And I know that sounds weird because I never, ever like to be alone! Gummy kept me company, though. He always does a super-duper job of cheering me up even when nopony else can.”

“Oh, does that happen a lot?” Fluttershy said, concerned.

“Nope. That was the first time. Which is why I said always! He hasn't failed me yet!”

Angel slapped his forehead. Not even Twilight could have argued with that logic. “I'm really happy to hear that. I was going to find everypony and see how they're feeling. Do you want to come with me? Um, maybe you should throw another party and cheer us all up again?”

“Oh, no no no no no!” Pinkie said, aghast. “Believe me, I can find an excuse to celebrate just about anything you can imagine. One time I celebrated the eight month anniversary of the one year anniversary of my sister losing her third molar. But I can't plan a party so close to a funeral! It's just not done! Besides, I'm out right now because the Cakes wanted me to get some ingredients for the catering tomorrow. It's busy, busy, busy for me!”

“Alright then. I guess if anypony knows the right time to throw a party, it's you. I look forward to your next one.” Fluttershy said with a smile.

Pinkie smiled back and saluted. “Righto! I'll be sure to send you an invite! I think I'll send Gummy, though. He's been wanting to get out more anyway. Laters!”

The two mare waved before returning to their duties. Angel, on the other hoof, turned to watch Pinkie leave and cocked his head to the side. He patted the back of Fluttershy's head to get her attention.

“Oh, what is it, Angel?”

The bunny pointed back to Pinkie, who was walking casually down the street.

“Pinkie? What about her?”

Angel started jumping up and down, flailing his arms and legs wildly, and then stopped. Then he started jumping again, and stopped again. He pointed to Pinkie.

Being unable to speak, the bunny usually had to communicate to Fluttershy via charades. “...Would you like to talk to Pinkie too?” the mare guessed.

Angel shook his head. He got down on all fours and bounced up and down on her back before pointing to Pinkie again. The springing motion reminded Fluttershy of the way the pink pony always walked, and then it clicked what Angel was trying to say: She wasn't walking like that right then. She wasn't bounding or hopping or skipping, just walking.

“Oh, she's not as excited as she usually is, is she?”

Angel tapped his nose, and shook his head.

“I hope she'll be okay. You really do care about us, don't you Angel Bunny?”

Angel's ear twitched, and then he scowled before turning away and crossing his arms.

Fluttershy giggled. “Well, if you say so...” she said with a knowing smile.

The next stop was Carousel Boutique. Rarity would be there, of course, and Spike was still in her care since Twilight's disappearance. Fluttershy was relieved to be able to stroll out of the open market and  head towards the corner of Ponyville where all the specialty shops were, where it was much more peaceful. Along the way she passed by the spa that she and Rarity often visited. It occurred to her that they haven't had their weekly treatments for a while, and that she missed them more than she would have expected.

“I wonder, if Rarity isn't too busy, maybe we could go get an emergency spa visit?” Fluttershy asked her little companion.

Angel tapped his paw to his chin and thought, but ultimately shrugged.

“She's probably working on a dress for the– for tomorrow.”

Turning the corner around the spa, Fluttershy arrived at Rarity's boutique and home. She looked towards the upstairs room, hoping to find a glimpse of the unicorn darting around her workspace or reams of fabric being levitated about as she single-hoofedly created the newest era of fashion in Ponyville. However, the shades were all drawn and the pegasus couldn't see inside. The lights were indeed on, so she seemed have been home.

However, the front door had a sign posted to it that read 'Closed.' It was hanging crookedly and somepony had scribbled the words “Do not disturb me for any reason whatsoever I am working on the most significant masterpiece of my young career” across it, presumably Rarity herself. The text was so haphazard and written over the the original sign so that it was a barely readable mess of ink. Fluttershy wondered if perhaps the unicorn had asked Pinkie to write it out for her instead. She wanted to knock and see what the matter was, but she had a hard time saying no to anyone, including signs. It was this very sign that had kept her from entering for days.

“Maybe I should come back tomorrow?” Fluttershy asked, looking back to Angel.

The bunny shook his head and pointed to the door.

Fluttershy swallowed hard. That was the first day since the sign was posted that Angel came along, and turning around and trying tomorrow was never an option for her with him around. She raised a hoof and poised it over the door, but the sign kept glaring sternly at her with its warning to not disturb the quiet of the building it guarded. She kept trying to knock but her foreleg wouldn't cooperate. She whimpered each time her hoof stopped an inch from the door and the foreboding sign.

Angel slapped his forehead and climbed down her outstretched leg. He then kicked at the door repeatedly with all the force he could muster.

“Thanks...” Fluttershy said sheepishly as Angel climbed back to his spot on her back.

It took nearly a minute before Fluttershy heard someone approach the door.

“The sign says do not disturb,” mumbled a voice from inside.

“Oh, so sorry! I'll just try again tomorrow!” Fluttershy said quickly before turning to flee. Angel grabbed her mane like reins again and pulled to make her stop.


The door creaked open, and the purple and green head of Spike poked out. Fluttershy didn't know much about dragons, be she could tell he certainly didn't look well.

Leaning down to look at him closer, Fluttershy said, "Hello Spike. I haven't seen you in a while. I'm so, so very sorry for your loss.”

“I know... thanks,” Spike said dully. He opened up the door wider so that Fluttershy could go in. “You're probably looking for Rarity. She's upstairs working.”

Fluttershy watched as the baby dragon slumped over to the corner of the Rarity's downstairs showroom and climbed into his basket bed. He rolled over and faced the wall, ignoring her. A large, very plush pillow sat unused next to the bed, as well as a pile of uneaten gemstones. She desperately wanted to say something to him, anything to make him feel just the tiniest bit better. She raised a leg to step forward and opened her mouth, but nothing came. She breathed in a few times, trying to say something, but eventually the only thing that came was “We're all here for you.”

“...I know...”  Spike mumbled back.

With her words failing her, Fluttershy tried a gentle touch instead. She walked over to where the baby dragon was and lied down next to him. Angel saw what she was getting at and hopped off her back to let her do her thing. Instead he crawled onto the discarded pillow and lied down there.

Fluttershy carefully nudged herself over to the basket so that her side was resting against his back. His spines scraped against her a little, but she ignored it. He needed to know that he wasn't alone, he needed to feel somepony next to him while he felt completely alone and abandoned.

“I miss her too.” Fluttershy said softly.

“She was... my only friend.” Spike said.

Fluttershy reached her head around to rest her cheek against his neck. Doing so also caused Spike's spines to press against her throat. She suppressed a cough and adjusted a bit, nudging her neck against him as she did.

“She was all I ever had. We were supposed to be partners forever. What am I supposed to do now?”

“You're a dragon. You can do anything you want to.”

Spike grunted, unconvinced.

“Well, I can't really tell you that everything's gonna go back to normal someday. You won't find someone to replace Twilight. None of us will. You'll just, you know, find a new normal. And then you'll be okay. It won't be easy, and it won't be soon, but it'll happen. I hope you know what I'm saying.”

“I understand what you mean, but I don't believe you.”

“I know you don't. But you will, eventually.”

“Soon, eventually, someday,” Spike said, irritated, “but what am I supposed to do for right now?”

Fluttershy wrapped a hoof around her face. “Right now all you can do is just lie here and hurt. Just... try to remember that you're not hurting alone, if you want.”

Spike grunted again, and there was a moment of quiet.

“...I guess that's all I have to say. Would you like me to leave you alone now?”

“Do whatever you want. I don't care.”

That was as close to a yes as Fluttershy was expecting to hear, so she lied there with him for a few minutes, admiring the stack of pristine jewels that lied next to the basket.

Then, Spike reached to take one of the gems and munched on it.

Fluttershy smiled.

Beyond Judgment

Part XX: Tenacity

Fluttershy continued to rest by Spikes side for a while. He didn't make any motion towards her or talk to her, but he didn't try to nudge away from her resting form either. In turn, she left him to his thoughts. There wasn't much to be said, anyway, she just needed to make sure he felt okay – or at least a little bit better.

Eventually, the spines pressed against her neck and side started to become a concern for the pegasus. “I'm gonna go talk to Rarity now, if that's okay with you,” she squeaked.

“Uh huh.” Spike mumbled.

Rising to her hooves, Fluttershy quickly realized that one of her legs had fallen asleep. She wobbled a bit trying to get up and would have fallen over on top of the slumbering dragon had she not been able to keep her balance with her wings. She hobbled over to where Angel was. He too had fallen asleep on the plush pillow Spike had refused to use.

“Wake up little Angel, it's time to go,” Fluttershy said, nudging the bunny with her nose.

As expected, Angel just swiped at her a few times with his fuzzy little paw before rolling over to go back to sleep.

“Come on sleepyhead, no more rest, we need to go find Rarity now.” Fluttershy urged gently, nosing at him again.

Angel flailed one of his arms haphazardly around once more but otherwise refused to budge.

“Alright,” Fluttershy said with a sigh, “you can stay here for now, but you're coming with me when I get back.”

Fluttershy then left the two resting creatures for the staircase to Rarity's workroom, but not before wiggling her leg a few times to wake it back up. As she got to the first step, Spike called out to her.

“She's been locked up in her 'inspiration room' all week, working on that new dress of hers,” he said. “Sometimes she wouldn't come down for two days at a time. She won't even let me see what she's working on. Not that I really want to anyway.”

“Okay. Well, I'll see if she'll come down and have dinner with me. Oh! You can come with us too if you want!”

Spike lied down and rolled over again. “Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

Fluttershy smiled and giggled to herself a little. She was making so much progress! An hour ago Spike wouldn't even roll out of bed, and now he was willing to go out! Perhaps things were looking up after all?

Somewhere beyond the top of the staircase, somepony was rummaging about, muttering incoherently behind the closed door. The sound of hooves clopping impatiently against the linoleum floor emanated from within. Fluttershy approached the door, and was faced with a duplicate of the same sign that challenged her approach at the front of the store. Only this one was scribbled in an even cruder hoof. She cringed at the thought of another confrontation with an inanimate object. But, she had come so far by then, and she was feeling confident after helping Spike. So she braced herself and - with all her might - tapped lightly on the door.

“Rarity? Are you in there?” Fluttershy asked, pressing her ear against the paneling.

The sound of hoofsteps stopped abruptly and paused. Then, the pony inside galloped towards the door. It also sounded like she was swimming through paper to get there too. She stumbled along the way on a crippled leg. In her rush, she bumped head-first into the door before coming to a stop. It creaked open just far enough for Rarity to poke her head out.

Fluttershy thought Spike looked miserable, but the pearly unicorn behind the door seemed much worse. Her normally flowing mane was all crumpled and wrinkly. A mane curler was still stuck in the loops at the tip of her forelock. One of her eyelids had false lashes on it, the other did not. Both eyes had bags beneath them, however.

“Fluttershy? W-what are you doing here?”

“Oh, um, hi Rarity. You, uh, you look well.” the pegasi responded, doing her best to sound honest and cheerful. “Um, Spike told me that you haven't come down a lot lately, and I wanted to see how you were.”

“Oh, yes! I may have been a tad, ahem, preoccupied as of late, but I assure you I am doing quite fine.”

“That's... nice. Um, how's your leg? Are you walking okay?”

“Oh, yes, well.” Rarity said, holding up her limp limb. “My, uh, my magic's been sort of... on the fritz...  as of late. And the migraines,” she mumbled, then more enthusiastically, “But I'll be fine though, don't you worry your adorable little head about it.”

“That sounds like magical exhaustion to me.”

“Don't be ridiculous, darling! I've just been working very hard on this new design. I'll take a spa day as soon as it’s finished, you have my word.”

“If you say so... A-are you sure you're okay about Twilight's – about tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? What's happ-” Rarity began, then her eyes widened in horror and she gasped audibly. “Her funeral is tomorrow!? Gracious, I simply don't have a lot of time! There's so much preparation to do! It's not ready!”

With that, Rarity slammed the door in Fluttershy's face and set back to whatever she was doing.

Fluttershy tapped on the door again. “What's not ready? Do you mean that-”

Rarity rushed back to the door, opened it, and shoved a hoof in Fluttershy's mouth before she could finish her sentence. “Yes! That! Nopony must know about this work of art, the most important project I've ever made! That's why I threw Twilight out of there when she almost saw it before!”

The unicorn then retreated back into her inspiration room again. Fluttershy looked around. “But there's no one else here but Angel and Spike,” she said, “you put up signs.”

“Exactly!” Rarity called from within, resuming her furious work. Fluttershy could hear the unicorn pacing, and the distinct sound of magic lifting objects throughout the room. “What was once a gift of gratitude shall now become a tribute! A tribute to-! To-! T-to...” she trailed off. The sounds ceased.

It was quiet. Fluttershy held her ear to the door to listen more closely. She heard faint sobbing.

No, Rarity! No crying! Um, I’m coming in!” Fluttershy burst out all at once, before the apprehension could stop her. The instant she pushed open the door to go help her friend, she caught a very brief glimpse of the paper covered mess that was the inspiration room. Crumpled sheets covered the floor and nearly every inch of the walls were lined with design sketches. The only thing she saw that wasn't covered in paper was something shining and prismatic in the corner. She didn't get a good look at it because she immediately remembered that she wasn't supposed to be seeing any of it, so she closed her eyes as she ran.

“I'm not looking! I'm not looking! I'm not- oof!”

Charging blind, Fluttershy ran headfirst into Rarity, and the two of them tumbled and rolled across the bunched up paper on the floor before coming to a stop in a heap.

“I'm so sorry!” Fluttershy said, using her wings to lift off of her friend. With her eyes still closed, however, she still couldn't see where she was flying. She backed up in midair into one of the posts of Rarity's bed, which caused her to squeak involuntarily and temporarily lose control of her wings. She would have then faceplanted into the linoleum had an aura of blue magic not caught her. It quickly flickered out, however, causing her to fall again. At least she managed to land upright.

Then Fluttershy heard chuckling. Not the kind of mocking chuckle that used to torment her foalhood, but the joyous, relieved chuckling of a pony that desperately needed to chuckle.

“... I still don't want to open my eyes,” Fluttershy said, prostrate on the floor. “Please tell me I didn't break anything.”

Rarity then began to laugh her tittering laugh in earnest. She stumbled forward to lift Fluttershy and pull her close into a warm embrace. “Thank you so much, dear. I really needed a bit of a distraction. That was very brave of you, bursting in just for me when you heard me. Oh, you're always such a good friend. Just... just like Twilight...”

“No, no! No more crying! Please?”

“Well, I certainly can't promise that...” Rarity said, raising a hoof to wipe her eye. Or, she attempted to,  as the first hoof she tried couldn't make its way all the way up to her face. “But I'll soldier on, as they say.”

Fluttershy smiled and hugged Rarity back. “I'm glad you feel a little better... Can I open my eyes now?”

“Oh, Fluttershy,” Rarity said, giggling. “No, you can't.”

“Okay... Would it be alright if I went with you on your spa day?”

“Certainly. I wouldn't have it any other way. I can only imagine how dreadful I look. I must be a fright by now!”

“Oh, no, you look as radiant as always!”

“You're such a poor liar, you know that, darling?”


After Rarity insisted that she simply wasn’t hungry, Fluttershy decided to leave. She had to explain to Spike that they weren’t leaving after all, but he didn’t seem to care. She took a walk towards Ponyville Hospital. It was late in the afternoon, but there was still a few hours of sunlight left. Most of the ponies had finished their jobs for the day and made their ways home to have dinner and snuggle up with their families. This was just fine with Fluttershy, as that left the roads wide open for her and her acute claustrophobia. She allowed herself a moment of pride for all the good she'd done that afternoon before getting back down to business.

“I really hope she's out of intensive care,” the pegasi said to her little traveling companion. “I haven't been able to see her since the, uh, since the... accident.”

The bunny responded by standing up as tall as he could and slapping his paw against his chest.

“Tough? Oh, yes, Rainbow is very, very tough. I've seen her get herself hurt in flight school a lot of times, but she was never this bad before. They wouldn't even let me in to see her yet. And that she's in really bad shape. And that she wasn't even awake most of the time.” Fluttershy said, gradually trotting faster and faster as she listed off what Redheart had told her. Angel had to hold on to her mane to keep from falling off. She spread her wings and lifted off to get there sooner.

“No, I will not let you out of this building!”

“Come on! I'm good enough to walk, so I'm good enough to walk out of here!”

“You are not good enough to walk, you're going to need crutches for at least a month!”

Fluttershy listened in on the argument between Rainbow and Redheart from down the hallway. “Well, she's certainly feeling better.” she said to Angel, who nodded in agreement.

“If that's all it takes, than give me the crutches!”

“No! You're in no shape to walk!”

“Fine then, I'll just fly out of here!”

“No! You're not flying!”

“No, no, no, is that all you can say!?”

“Until you're recovered, yes!”

“You know what? I think I want a new doctor!”

“Don't make me have to restrain you!”

Fluttershy crept up around the corner and peaked into the room. It was identical to the room Applejack was resting in, down to the beds and medical supplies on the counter. There was even one of those rolling beds for moving ponies around in the corner. Rainbow was lying on her side in bed, most of her body covered in bandages, from her legs and torso to even one of her wings. She was as excitable as ever regardless, swinging her forelegs around as she argued with Redheart. She wasn't sure how long they had been arguing, but it was starting to have a toll on the nurse's pink mane bun.

“Ha! You and what army?!”

“An army of squirrels could-!” Redheart began, before stopping herself. She put a hoof to her forehead and sighed. “Listen, just keep taking your antibiotics and we'll see about letting you out as soon as possible.”

The nurse then turned to leave, and Rainbow Dash made a face at her back. Fluttershy involuntarily ducked away from the door as Redheart approached. She was muttering to herself when she walked by and didn't even seem to notice her as she passed.

Not wanting to bother her while she seemed so upset, Fluttershy opted to just sneak quietly into Rainbow's room, who perked up immediately upon seeing her.

“Hey, Fluttershy!” Dash whispered harshly, trying not to let the nurse hear her before she got far enough away. “You gotta sneak me outta here!”

“Oh, um, hi Rainbow. Um, I really don't think that's a good idea...”

“What, just because of what Dumbheart said? I've totally got this.”

“Rainbow!” Fluttershy said sternly, “That's not very nice.”

“Okay, okay, I'm sorry. But we've got work to do! We need to go get Twilight.”

Fluttershy looked away and took a few nervous steps back. “Oh, well, y-you see, um...”

“What's the problem? You want to get her back, don't you?”

“Of course I do!” Fluttershy blurted out.

“Awesome! Now hitch yourself up to that stretcher over there and fly me out the window!”

“... Excuse me?”

“We'll we're not getting past the staff, now are we? We have to make an escape using good old pegasus power!”

“Maybe we should just wait until Redheart lets you go, i-if that's okay with you.”

“No!” Dash said, pounding a hoof against the mattress, “There's no time to wait around! I can rest all I need to when we get her back. Until then, nothing else matters.”

“I don't know, that sounds dangerous...”

“Come on, Fluttershy! You're the only one who can help me! I need you to do this!”

“W-well, I guess-” Fluttershy started to say, stepping towards the stretcher.

Before she got there, however, Angel tugged on her mane. She turned to face his stern expression glaring right at her.

“You heard her, she needs my help...” Fluttershy said sheepishly.

Angel raised an eyebrow, causing the pegasus to lower her head.

“Who knows? Twilight could still be out there...” She said, unconvincingly.

Angel facepawed and shook his head. He stomped his foot and knocked on the top of Fluttershy's head.

“Ow! Angel!”

Rainbow Dash was becoming impatient. “Come on, what's the holdup! We gotta fly, Fluttershy!”

The yellow pegasus reached around and scooped up the bunny from her back and set him on the floor. “I'm really sorry. But... I have to do this.”

The bunny was so shocked that Fluttershy was going to do something so clearly pointless that he didn't respond for a few seconds as she put him down. Once he started going again, he burst into a flurry of gestures that nopony would have understood anyway. Meanwhile, Fluttershy walked up to the stretcher and squeezed herself into the harness. She sometimes carried a couple of animals around in her own wagon, so she figured she could carry Rainbow in a stretcher. Probably. Besides, she had just about as much medical experience as Redheart. Sort of. She could take care of her. Most likely.

“That's my girl! Now wheel yourself a little closer so I can climb on.” Dash cheered.

Fluttershy complied and brought the rolling bed closer. Moving carefully, Dash lifted herself up and stepped on before collapsing down again, wincing and squeaking in pain the whole way.

“Are you sure you're up for this?”

“Oh yeah, I'm fine. Just – ow! – Just take it nice and slow.”

“If you say so.” Fluttershy replied, then back to Angel. “We'll be back soon, okay Angel? Um, try not to let Redheart know what we're doing, if you want.”

Angel responded only by crossing his arms and turning away. Fluttershy hung her head for a second, and then spread her wings. It took her a moment to adjust for the different weight and balance, but she was off the ground with Rainbow in tow in no time.

“You go Fluttershy!” Dash cheered, leaning over the side to see the two of them floating. “Now, to Everfree! And Twilight!”

As the pegasus pushed open the window and flew out, she knew full well that there was no chance to find her lost friend. But, she was getting tired of not taking action. The first time nearly killed Applejack, and the second caused her to lose Twilight as well.

Useless action was better than no action, or so she figured.

Beyond Judgment

Part XXI: Loyalty's Gambit

It was a strange experience for Rainbow Dash to ride on a stretcher, for several reasons. First and foremost, Dash was a very self-reliant pony – especially when it comes to getting from here to there. She wasn't used to being carted around, and by Fluttershy of all ponies! That detail more than the others blew her mind. And could she really not fly any faster? Were she under her own wingpower, she could have flown to Everfree, single-hoofedly saved Twilight, and returned with her on her back by then. Compared to the normal rush of wind against her face and through her mane, the gentle breeze created in the more timid pegasus' wake was downright depressing. Didn't she know they were in a hurry?

She wanted to at least pace around for a bit to help pass the time. She wanted to get there faster. She wanted to make sure Twilight was okay. She wanted to stop feeling so responsible for everything.

“Hey, Fluttershy, do you think you can pick up the pace a bit?”

“Sorry! You know I'm not as strong a flier a you...”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Rainbow stretched out her wings to feel the wind, hoping it would help calm her nerves a bit. She immediately had to retract one of them from the pain, wincing as she snapped it back. Her memory was a little fuzzy after her crash, but she was fairly certain she landed on that wing. She kept the other extended anyway, and felt the curvature of the wind as it flowed through and around her feathers. Waving her wing gently, she played with the current – letting it push against her and pushing back.

This meditative trance lasted for about a minute and a half before Dash got bored again.

“Are we there yet?”

“No. I'm sorry, but I really don't think I can make it all the way to... um... where we're going before nighttime.”

We could if you'd move faster!” Dash thought involuntarily, but rather said “Well, how close can we get?”

“That... depends.”

“Depends on what?”

Fluttershy squeaked something incomprehensible.

“What was that?”

“...Where are we going?”

Dash slammed her face into the mattress she was lying on and muttered into it. When she came back up for air, she said as calmly and carefully as she could. “We need to go back to Everfree. We need to find that castle the valponies built. I'll bet my wings that's where he's got Twilight.”

“Okay, you just tell me where to go.”

“Me!? But I don't know! You're the one who lives next to Everfree, don't you know where it is?”

“Of course not! I'm too afraid to actually go into the forest, you know that. I just live there so the creatures can find me, if they want to.”

Dash buried her face in her hooves and muttered some more. “Okay, fine, who can get us there?” she said aloud, tapping a hoof to her head. “Think, think, thin-ouch!” she cried, having tapped the hoof to a soft spot under a bandage.

“Zecora's the one who lead us there in the first place.” Fluttershy suggested. “We can try asking her again.”

“Good idea! Please tell me you know how to get there!”

“I know how to get there.”

“Great! Let's do it!” Dash said, then paused, a thought dawning on her. “... Do you actually know how how to find her, or did you just say that because I asked you to?”

“No, no, I really know where she is.”

Dash sighed in relief. “Oh, good.”

Lying back down, the injured pegasus tried her best to relax but found that she couldn't. She couldn't pace with most of her legs wrapped in bandages so she settled on focusing all her anxious energy on tapping her one good hoof against the mattress. “Come on, Fluttershy, come on! I have to go save Twilight. I have to. It's all on me.

“It's getting kind of dark, though. Her hut might be hard to find through the trees.”


“D-don't worry!” Fluttershy said, flustered. “I-I can find it! No problem at all!”

“Do you mean that, or is it just what you think I want to hear?”

“Actually, I-”

“On second thought, I don't wanna know! Just keep flying, and wake me up when we get there.”


With that, Rainbow laid her head down with her nose towards the wind and rested her eyes. Fluttershy's  slow flight left a gentle breeze flowing against her face very unlike the winds she's accustomed to experiencing in her own trick maneuvers. The effect was quite relaxing, especially alongside the view of the setting sun to side. She was extremely exhausted from the adventure already because of her injuries, so she allowed herself to have a small nap.

Luna walked casually down the white marble corridor of the castle towards her personal study. She had just raised her moon a few minutes earlier and watched it rise for a time – an excellent way to start any evening, she believed, and she never understood why nopony else seemed to agree. Of course, there were the seemingly infinite small matters to attend to, and being a matriarch of Equestria was more than just juggling heavenly bodies.

The raising of the moon had not been as spectacular as it was the night before last week's victory. Her little lightshow and backflip maneuver, while flashy, had been completely improvised. She felt as though she could do better. A few ideas had been rolling around her head since then, but she hadn't decided on any at that time, and so continued to raise the moon as silently as she always had.

As she walked, Luna passed by her older sister's room. She heard the tapping of gilded hooves walking along the floor from within. Stepping up to the door, she pressed her ear against it to be certain.

“Awake at this hour? How very unlike her.” Luna whispered to herself. “With Twilight Sparkle's ceremony in the morning, she would most certainly have gone to bed by now.”

Luna gently pushed the door open with her nose and peeked inside. The solar princess was pacing an agitated circle in the middle of her room, making laps around the violet mattress she kept there. Noticing her immediately, Celestia glared at her, perhaps more harshly than she intended. “Yes, Luna? Is there something you wanted?”

The lunar princess stepped inside. “Oh, no, nothing at all. We simply wished to see how thou fared. What art thou doing?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Nothing. I'm doing nothing at all.”

“Is that so?” Luna replied, watching as Celestia completed another lap. Then she spread her wings, anticipating the next pass. When it happened, she fluttered over to walk alongside her. However, the older sister stood a bit taller and had a longer stride. Furthermore, she was on the outside of the circle they were walking in. Luna had to canter to match her sister's speed.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, dear sister, same as thou.”

“Luna!” Celestia warned.

“Celestia!” Luna warned back.

The elder Alicorn sighed. She knew better than to wage a war of nonsense against her sister. “What is it that you want?”

“Thou hast been anxious ever since our victory a fortnight ago. We came to raise your spirits.”

“And you plan to do this by mimicking me?” Celestia said, raising her one visible eyebrow.

“If that is what's required of us, we shall do our best.”

“Is there nothing more important for you to do? Have you checked the reports on Cloudsdale's factories yet? What about the exports from Stalliongrad? The taxes from Manehattan?”

“We art thou's foil, dear sister, and thou art ours. There is nothing more important to us than keeping thou in balance.”

“I have everything under control. I am in balance.”

“Thou art not. There is something missing inside,” Luna said, and placed a hoof on her sister's chest. “Here.”

Celestia followed her sister's hoof, and then stepped back. “Your imagination is running away from you.”

“Thou misses Twilight.”

The solar princess turned her head so that her mane hid her face. “You are being foalish. You know as well as I do that she hasn't simply ceased to exist. Not even Sleipnir can make that happen. She's just away now.”

“Away from thou.”

Celestia turned back, angry. “Yes! Away from me! Just like every apprentice and protegee I ever had. Spectral, Soul Guard, Magenta Rose, Starswirl, Swift Heart, the list goes on. All of them. Gone.”

“Yes, Sister, just like the countless millions that have come and gone in our lifetimes. Why is this one so different?”

“Because I was never the direct cause of their deaths! Millions have died fighting in my name, but they did so by their own will, not because I mani-!” Celestia said, haltingly.

“Thou didst what was best for Equestria.”

“I know that! I know...” Celestia said, and collapsed on her floor mattress.

Luna lied down beside her sister and nudged her neck. “All will be well, in time.”

“Yes... and we have all the time in the world, don't we?”

“It would seem so”

The was a moment of stillness as the Alicorn sisters leaned against each other.

“If thou wishes, we may seek out her Tome, and reflect on her life story in its entirety.” Luna said at last.

“Please, don't bring mother into this.” Celestia responded wearily.

“Very well, would you like us to let you rest now?”

“That would be lovely.”

A bump roused Rainbow from her sleep. She flinched and tried to stand, which didn't end well and she collapsed down again.

“Huh? Ow! Fluttershy! What's happening?”

“We landed.”

“Awesome! Now let's go get – wait, this isn't the valpony fort. Where are we?”

“What is this before my eye?” Called out a voice. “It's my old friends, the pegasi!”

The two mares turned to see the lyrical zebra emerge from her hollowed tree home. It was already dark, and the lights shining through the windows of the tree and several of the bottles hanging outside cast an eerie, multicolored glow around the area. Nonetheless, the owner of the place was cheery and welcoming. She was also wearing an eye patch.

“Zecora's place? What are we doing here?”

“I... didn't know where to go.” Fluttershy said sheepishly.

Rainbow leaped up again and pointed accusingly at her friend. “I knew it!”

“Friends, friends, do not stall!” Zecora urged. “Come inside before the manticores consume us all”

Fluttershy needed no further encouragement. She squeaked and galloped inside, pulling Dash along behind her – who didn't appreciate the jostling, especially when she tried to squeeze through the door. Zecora followed, chuckling to herself.

Upon entering the tree, the pegasi were enveloped by the myriad of scents that perpetually filled the hut. A number of herbs, spices, and other ingredients wafted around them and filled their noses. As naturally inclined as Fluttershy was, not even she could identify them all. Comforted by the surrounding walls, she relaxed enough to look around at all the bottles and jars filled with strange liquids adorning the many shelves. Zecora's cauldron was bubbling away in the center of the room, as it usually was, and was releasing a sweet and slightly minty aroma.

“Rainbow Dash, are you alright? I did not expect visitors this night.” Zecora said, rummaging through her shelves.

“I've been better.” Dash groaned, shifting her weight to a more comfortable position. “I picked a fight with some more of the valponies again. Must have gotten nearly a hundred of them this time.”

“That's not what I was told.” Fluttershy said, confused.

“Okay, fine, I lost a fight against the colonel.”

Zecora laughed. She picked up a tray of empty cups and set them down next to her cauldron. As she spoke, the glow from the fire illuminated the underside of her face. “You, my dear, are no soldier. I would not see you injure yourself further. The valponies also came to my place. When I fought back, they struck my face. I could not fight them without my cache, but I had no access to my stash. So then I waited for a day, until they up and went away.”

“Oh my, they hurt you? Are you okay?” Fluttershy asked.

Zecora waved a hoof dismissively. “The valpony struck me with her spear's butt, and the swelling has forced my eye shut. Just a bandage with a touch of thyme, and all will be well in a bit of time. What have you come to this place to do? Tell me, while you have a sip of brew,” she said, dipping the glasses she had into her cauldron and setting them down in front of the pegasi.

Dash stuck her nose into her mug and sniffed it. “What is this? Another one of your crazy mystical potions?”

“Just try it and you will see, it is only a cup of mint tulip tea.”

“Oh.” Dash said, and gripped the mug with her teeth before pouring the fluid into her mouth. “Hey, that's not bad.” she mumbled into her glass.

“We're actually trying to find the the valponie's place.” Fluttershy said, taking a sip of her own drink – though holding it more politely with her hooves. “I was hoping you could show us how to get there again.”

The zebra took a long, thoughtful drink of her tea. When she set it down, she looked over the two and said “You seek revenge for your fallen friend. Poorly is the only way this can end. You seek to do with two what could not be done with six? I believe your heads could both use a fix. Rainbow Dash is already on the verge of death. If she leaves in this state, she will breath her last breath.”

“Hey! We're going whether you let us or not! You're not stopping us. Right, Fluttershy?” Dash warned, stamping a hoof.

“That's right! I'm not abandoning my friends anymore. Um, but if you'd like to let us, that would be nice.”

Zecora sighed. “I may not be able to stop you, but there is one thing I can do. There is a potion Rainbow could try. But, by morning, she might rather die.”

A chill ran down Fluttershy's spine. Dash was intrigued. “What are you talking about?”

“I know of a potion that can heal, but the cost of drinking it is very real.” Zecora said with grim seriousness. “It can make you right as rain, but while it works you will feel great pain. In your condition, this risk reaches a great height. You may just not survive the night.”

“I don't know...” Fluttershy said, concerned. “I don't like the sound of that.”

Rainbow scratched her chin with her hoof and flicked her tail as she contemplated Zecora's idea. Then she smiled and narrowed her eyes. “You know, I've got a rhyme for you too: No pain, no gain.”

Very well, now prepare yourself. Let me get my things from the shelf.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XXII: Reawakening

The pony rolled around on the floor in agony. Everything hurt. Hooves tried to hold her down, trying to keep her from hurting herself more. She fought to push them off. She didn't know who she was, or what was happening. She just knew that she had to get away. She had to fly. She didn't know where to go but she had to escape. She didn't know anything but the creeping sensation enveloping her entire body. But, something kept her from doing so: A pair of voices that somehow shone clearly through the din of her erratic consciousness.

Come on, you can do this! Just hang on! I know it hurts, but you're tougher than this! I know you are!” cried a voice in her mind. It was soothing and familiar, and the pony did her best to stay still.

Yes, do try not to die again, my Lady. You have yet to complete your role in my plan.” said another voice. The voice was smooth, yet deep; a little intimidating and yet completely calm. It was definitely a stallion's voice.

The second voice made the pony angry, but she didn't know why. She thrashed more, shaking off the hooves holding her down. She got up and charged at nothing, crashing into a shelf. Her body hit the corner of it, tearing out a small chunk of flesh coated in sky blue fur. The pain of the injury wasn't any more intense than what she was feeling all over. She was subdued all over again and withing moments, it completely regenerated.

Nurse Redheart had almost finished her rounds. There were only a few patients, mostly a hoofful of young foals in quarantine with the pony pox. They had all been very well behaved and played amongst themselves without causing too much trouble. Besides them, however, were her two special patients.

The first one, Applejack, seemed to have made no progress. The patient was still sleeping soundly as she had been for weeks. Redheart sighed and went to the drawers. She fished around in one by the nose until she found a stethoscope and put it on. She gripped the bell in her teeth and held it to the slumbering pony's chest.

Bump-bump... bump-bump... bump-bump...

“Oh, now that's interesting.”

Bump-bump... bump-bump... bump-bump...

“Her heart rate... it's faster.”

Redheart's own heart skipped a few beats. She knew that didn't necessarily mean that the patient would recover anytime soon, but that was definitely a good sign and she allowed herself a brief moment of joy. She shifted the bell around to a few different places on the patient's chest just to be certain counting the beats in her head.

“Yes! That's definitely an improvement!”

Satisfied, the nurse returned the stethoscope back to its proper place and set off to finish her morning rounds. There was only one patient left, and she trotted happily to the last door. Though troublesome in the past, there was nothing that patient could do to spoil her good mood!

Redheart pushed the door open and went inside, only to find a white bunny sleeping on the bed Rainbow Dash was supposed to be in.

“Oh, horseapples.”

Princess Celestia would have liked for that visit to Ponyville to be her most inauspicious since the events of that day were not about her, but the arrival of the bringer of the sun to anywhere could never be so simple. She was heading an entire convoy of flying chariots that morning. Her younger sister was riding beside her in the lead chariot. Directly behind them, Twilight Sparkle's family rode in a vehicle of their own; her brother, Shining Armor, and parents, Night Light and Star Sparkle. Behind them was Princess Miamore Cadenza, her old foalsitter, who had traveled a great distance to attend. Even the general and her colonel from the battle at Everfree in which Twilight was lost. From there on, for nearly a dozen more chariots, other ponies came who had more... distant relations to the deceased. Scholars, magical elite, historians, newsponies, even a few other royal guardians who were at the battle.

It annoyed Celestia somewhat that so many ponies were coming that had no actual relation to her former student. Twilght was never a pony that felt comfortable in the crowd, and the princess would have preferred that her funeral reflect that. Her parents were insistent, though. Their precious daughter was lost, and they didn't want her passing to seem so fleeting and insignificant as to warrant only a hoofful of guests. She saw it differently herself, like many things, but it was their choice to have such an open event.

Celestia herself had opted to lead the ceremony and give the eulogy. She had spent the entire night before preparing for it. After all, Twilight had spent most of her adult life, and much of her foalhood, under her care. She had probably spent more time with the mare than her own family. There have been other protegees like that as well, so she insisted that the young mare visit home more often. None of them ever listened.

The princess' chariot touched down first along the runway at the edge of Ponyville that was prepared just for the occasion. Everypony disembarked from their respective vehicles and gathered their things. Some of the lower ranking soldiers brought their equipment instead of formal wear, the scholars and magicians brought various tomes, and the photographers brought their cameras.

At the head of the line, the Alicorn sisters were greeted by the Mayor of Ponyville, who bowed deeply.

“Please, everypony, may I have your attention?” The mayor called out to the congregation. “On behalf of the citizens of  Ponyville, and all of Equestria, I would like to offer my condolences to the family of Twilight Sparkle, and all who were close to her. She was a blessing to us all, and though she was not born here, everypony in our small village was grateful for her presence. Preparations have been made for all of you at our local inn, if you would follow me, and the ceremony will begin in a few hours.”

Most of the guests then meandered in the direction of the Mayor, bustling quietly with their things. However, it was the truly important ones who lagged behind, and it was them that Luna stepped aside from her her sister to speak with.

“The Mayor speaks the truth,” the princess of the moon said to Twilight's family, who only bowed halfheartedly on her approach. “Thine daughter was a gift to Equestria. Were it not for her, the land would still be trapped in eternal night at our hooves, or lost in chaos from Discord's will.”

“Yes... she really was a special one.” Shining Armor said. His parents were silent.

Luna stalled for a moment, searching for just the right words. Then, she turned towards the horizon.

“Yonder,” the princess said, pointing. “Tonight the sun shall set and the moon shall rise. In between these two phases of time are the dawn and the evening. From any one place on this world, these events would seem to come and ago, but 'tis not the case. Always between our heavenly bodies exists the dawn and the evening.”

Turning back to Night Light and Star Sparkle, Luna could see that the grieving ponies didn't see what point she was reaching for. “No matter what you may perceive,” Luna concluded, “twilight is eternal. It may appear gone, but it shall always be. Dost thou understand?”

The parents smiled and Night Light nodded. Luna grinned in reply. “Wonderful. Now please, follow us.”

Slowly, the pony's consciousness came to her. It came to her in a strange way. She didn't open her eyes to the world around her because they were already open. Instead, the world itself formed around her from nothingness and came into focus. Well, a kind of focus. It felt as though her eyes were always open and that she had been lying on her side like that for all eternity. She realized that she was breathing really hard as well. Was that a new development? Had she always been that way? She couldn't remember.

The pony's eyes focused on something big, gray, and round in front of her. She chose this because everything else was brown. But, there was something more. Something moving, emerging from the gray thing. It was both pink and yellow at the same time, and seemed to swirl around itself. The swirling thing made a sound, causing her to suddenly became aware that she could hear. Most prominently, she could hear a loud and constant ringing that surrounded her from all directions. She wondered why she didn't notice it before.

Then, there were other noises. The pony couldn't identify what they were, but there was precisely two of them. She couldn't figure out what they were or where they were coming from because they swirled around her like her sense of direction, even though she was lying still on the ground. The noises continued, and she realized that one of them was almost lyrical in the way it consistently repeated certain sounds.

The pony tried to move. This immediately caused problems as she tried to make sense out of the rest of her body. She had far too many limbs than she felt was necessary, all of which coming out from all directions. There were two in particular that felt the most natural to her, the ones behind her. She waved them around in a way that felt familiar. Well, one of them at least, since the other seemed to be caught underneath the rest of her body. She struggled with the rest of her limbs to rotate herself and free it. The whole world swiveled around as well, which she also regarded as strange.

The thing that was both pink and yellow returned, filling up the pony's vision with its dual colors. But, suddenly there was a third one. Two orbs of a light turquoise color were facing her. Eyes. The thing was looking at her. It seemed... familiar, but she couldn't figure out what it was just yet. The memory was hanging, stuck, at the tip of her brain. There was no time to ruminate on that yet, there was the wing thing to figure out. Wings! That's what they were! They had a purpose... something extremely important. But what was it?

Working her wings still proved to be troublesome to the pony. She tried to beat them together but couldn't manage the coordination quite right. The two flapped at different speeds and with different timing. The forces caused her body to rock back and forth on the floor until she learned to keep herself steady with her legs. It took some practice before her wings managed to flap in sync.

Oh, the pink and yellow thing was talking.

“What... Rain... ...okay... What... you... you try...”

It was a mishmash of words the pony could and could not understand. She focused on the flapping of her wings and closed her eyes. She wasn't sure what was going on, but she knew that was the most important thing she could do. Flap. Flap. Flap. Just keep going. Flap. Flap. Flap.

As the pony got better at flapping her wings, images and thoughts started to come into her mind. She could see puffs of white amid an infinite realm of pure blue. It was beautiful and inspiring. She loved the color blue. It was... sky! The infinite sky! She wanted to experience it. To move through it and feel it against herself. But there was something else blue that was important...

Flap. Flap. Flap. As the pony continued to think and remember, she continued to move her wings. Flap. Flap. Flap. Each beat produced lift, and her body began to rise. She held herself gradually higher and higher on her legs.

Blue things... blue things... What else was so important? They moved, as well. They moved through the sky. But it was more than that. They moved in a way nothing else could. They were experts at moving through the wondrous sky. Wonder.... The Wonderbolts!

Memories started to come faster now. Memories about flying, and the sky, the rush, the thrill, the excitement of speed. Of racing. She wanted to race again. She wanted to go, and go as fast as her wings could take her. She remembered races she had with other ponies. Ponies like herself. She remembered all the way back to her very first race. It was against a couple punk colts who were picking on-


The pony opened her eyes and saw Fluttershy clearly for the first time since coming to consciousness. She looked concerned and kind of sad. Then the pony remembered that she always looked like that. She also realized that she had ceased to have contact with the ground. Her wings were flapping and she could float. She looked around at Fluttershy and the gray, round cauldron and some black and white pony she didn't recognize.

There was still something missing. The pony didn't remember who she was yet. She closed her eyes and dove back into that last memory. There was something important about it. She remembered going fast. Very fast. Faster than she had ever gone before. She remembered turning around and-

The sonic rainboom.

The pony's eyes shot open. She remembered performing it. She remembered spending countless hours upon days upon weeks upon months perfecting the maneuver, only being able to do it a few times. But, the sonic rainboom wasn't just a trick. It wasn't just a skill she had learned and nearly perfected after years of practice. The sonic rainboom was her. It was a speed. It dashed across the sky like nothing else could. It dashed brilliantly. It dashed in all the colors of the rainbow. It was Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow felt triumphant. She backflipped in midair, doing loops that got progressively tighter and tighter, until she was spinning in place in the air. She tucked in her wings and started to fall as she twirled, until she landed on her hooves on the solid wood floor.

“Fluttershy!” Dash said.

“Rainbow!” the yellow pegasus replied, leaping up and hugging her friend. “Are you okay now? I was so worried!”

“It was... really weird...” Dash said, holding a hoof to her head. “What just happened?”

“Rainbow Dash, do you not remember? I warned you that the potion would burn like an ember.” The black and white striped pony said.

Rainbow looked strangely at the pony. Then she turned to ask Fluttershy. “Who is that and what did she just say?”

Fluttershy was shocked. “Y-you don't remember?”

“It's a side effect of a certain kind, should the potion have to mend a mind.” The pony rhymed again. “It's severity is like a coin toss, but there is a chance for memory loss.”

Dash eyes the strange pony suspiciously. “... How do you keep doing that?”

The yellow pegasus grabbed Rainbow by the head and turned her back again. “Rainbow, listen carefully. That's Zecora. She's a zebra that made a potion that healed you. Don't you remember? We were on our way to find a bad pony named Sleipnir.”

That name struck a chord with Dash, even before she remembered why. In an instant, she recalled it all. She recalled the valponies, the battle at the fortress, Applejack, the battle outside Ponyville, and Twilight.

Rainbow gasped loudly. “That murderer! I remember! We have to go save Twilight!”

“You can find the stronghold north by north-west. If you wish to get there in time, you have better fly your best.”

“Right!” Rainbow said, saluting Zecora. Then grabbed Fluttershy by the waist. “You ready to go?”

“Um, well, I'm not sure if-”

“Right! Let's rock!”

In a flash of rainbow light and the sound of Fluttershy shrieking, the pair of pegasi were out the door, back on their quest. Zecora trotted calmly outside after them.

“Farewell my dear friends. Please, be careful.” Zecora said, and nothing more.

Beyond Judgment

Part XXIII: The Day Arrives

It was one of the most elegant scenes ever displayed in Ponyville. The funeral was to take place in front of the town hall. The casket, carved out of the richest mahogany in Equestria, was carved and painted with Twilight's cutie mark. The white sparkles in her mark were set with diamonds. It was empty, of course, but it was a symbolic thing. An archway of lavender and other indigo colored flowers stood behind it, from which hung a large portrait of the mare back when she still lived in Canterlot. To the side stood the podium from which her friends and family were to speak. To the side awaited a quartet from Canterlot who were imported just for the occasion: a cellist, sousaphone player, pianist, and harpist. The area was surrounded by a series of temporary stone pillars wrapped in vines and with streamers hanging from one to the other.

Despite all the space this event was taking up, there was nopony about yet – save for the players who idled about, checking the strings and the tones of their instruments. Not even the civilians of Ponyville were out that morning. They all knew what was happening, of course, it would have been difficult not to. Everypony was everypony else's friend in Ponyville, but this was a very special occasion. Many decided that it was best reserved only for those who needed to attend only.

The cellist, a dark-maned beauty, looked down at an hourglass they had been given and watched as the last few grains fell into the bottom reservoir. “It's time, gentleponies, the guests are on their way,” she said.

With that, the quartet raised their instruments in earnest. The sousaphone player, a sky blue mare, was the only one with all four hooves still on the ground and was thus obligated to tap out the metronome from which the group would play. After four perfectly timed clops against the ground, the band began to play a song. Their tune was slow and serene. Not quite sad, but still possessing long, gentle notes.

A few minutes into the serenade, the procession rounded one of the shops down the road and walked towards the arrangement. They were led by Celestia and Luna themselves, with the immediate family right behind them. Of Twilight's six closest friends, only three of them were in attendance. They were all struggling with their personal contradictions.

Pinkie had to actively fight her habit of skipping and hopping as she walked. Being around so many other ponies felt like a party to her, but she knew better. She knew that she had to tone down her normal exuberance for the sake of everypony else, lest they think she was being disrespectful – and that would have been terrible!

It took a very long time for Rarity to decide what to wear that day. She has reams of fabric of every color under Celestia's sun, but black is so uncommon that she only had one half of one bolt – a roll that she had purchased so many years ago she had forgotten exactly how many years it was. She had crafted it into as very simple dress. In fact, it was the least fabulous outfit she had ever made, let alone worn. There was almost nothing special about it, save for the tiered pleats along the skirt. She simply couldn't go out with something completely plain. She also wore a black hat of the same material with a dark, netted veil. But none that was unimportant. This day was not about her. It was about Twilight, and the parting gift she had been working so hard on. She was carrying it with her magic in a lavender box.

The most trying internal conflict was withing Spike, who was riding on Rarity's back. For his entire life, the princess was this great mentor not only to Twilight but to himself. But, in his eyes, Celestia was just as guilty as Sleipnir for the mare's death. She knew Twilight would give herself up like that. She always knows. And now she was about to speak at the funeral? Unbelievable. He glared at the back of her head as they all traveled to the site of the funeral. The thought of it made him furious on the inside. It also made his back itch.

Celestia, sensing that someone was staring at her, casually turned her head. When her eyes met Spike's he crossed his arms and rolled his eyes away from her. Confused, yet stoic, she faced forward again. He glanced back to her again before clawing at his back one more time.

“Spike, will you please stop scratching. It's unseemly.”

“I can't help it! Are you sure there's nothing on my back?”

“No, there's nothing at all, now hold still. You're ruffling up my outfit.”

“Sorry, Rarity. It's been driving me nuts all day.”

“Do you have a mosquito bite, or something? You haven't been around Froggy Bottom Bog, lately, have you?”

“Are you kidding? A mosquito couldn't get through my scales if it tried! I dunno what's wrong with me.”

“We'll look into it later, I promise. You'll just have to contain yourself for now.”

“Right, I know. I wouldn't miss this for all the diamonds in Canterlot.”

“Me neither.”

The congregation of ponies assembled in front of the town hall, in the area encircled by the decorated pillars. Celestia continued to walk towards the podium and took her place behind it. She cleared her throat, and had the full attention of the crowd.

“Thank you everypony for coming,” she began.

“Yeahoo!” Rainbow Dash shouted as she emerged from Zecora's hut, soaring upwards towards the sky.

Rainbow swerved through the dense branches of the trees as she climbed. She didn't have to hold on to Fluttershy any longer as the pony had by then started to cling resolutely to her side. Her presence altered Dash's aerodynamics and balance a bit, but she was able to compensate quite easily. It was as though she had been flying her entire life!

Then she realized that she had. “Wow, that potion really did a number on me. I'm gonna have to watch that.

Ducking and weaving through the canopy of Everfree forest, Rainbow finally emerged into the light and warmth of the sun. She spread he forelegs and wings wide, basking in the warmth and the glow of the heavenly body. She closed her eyes and focused on the sensation of the wind around her body, brushing through her mane and her fur and her feathers. She hung in the air for a second as gravity started to catch up with her momentum.

Then she started to fall. Dash curled up her limbs, nosed down, and dove straight for the canopy of the woods again. At the last second, she spread her wings and angled up, speeding inches above the trees. Then the pressure of Fluttershy's forelegs around her ribcage started to become a little bit too much.

“D-d-d-dash!” Fluttershy squeaked. “C-c-c-can you slow down just a smidge! P-please?!”

“'Kay!” Dash was able to wheeze out through her constricted lungs.

Looking around, Rainbow found a nearby cloud to land on. She remembered that Fluttershy wasn't the best of fliers and would probably have a hard time simply letting go and starting to fly on her own. It helps to have a landing pad of some kind.

Dash hovered over the nearest cloud and waited for her clinging passenger to let go. Fluttershy merely wiggled her hing leg at the cloud, searching in vain for a hoofhold. After waiting impatiently for a few seconds, Dash lightly flicked the pegasus on the nose, causing her to drop.

Fluttershy plopped into the fluffy cloud with a squeak, causing tufts of fluff to scatter about. She got her head stuck for a second before pulling herself loose.

“Come on, lead-hooves, let's get flying!” Dash said.

Fluttershy stood, her back still towards Rainbow. She flapped her wings a few times halfheartedly, but never lifted off. Instead, she just plopped back down and hung her head.

“Fluttershy? What's the problem? We gotta go get Twilight!”

Does she really not know? Did the potion make her forget? Did nopony tell her? Twilight's... We can't just go get her!” Fluttershy started to think. Then, she shook her head and knocked her hooves against her temples. “No! No more doubting! No more being afraid! I gotta be stronger, like Rainbow Dash!

Fluttershy started beating her wings again and took off. “I'm ready! Let's go and, um, do it?”

“Close enough. Listen, we've lost a lot of time, and we're gonna have to push hard if we wanna make up for it. I could get there in a flash, but I need you with me. Do you still remember how to draft?”

“Draft?” Fluttershy asked, looking around. “But we're outside. Of course there's a draft.”

Rainbow slapped her forehead. “No, not that kind of draft! It's like... oh, how did they describe it? You just stay really close behind me, right on my tail, and like, the wind's supposed to let you fly faster, or something.”

“Really? You can do that?” Fluttershy asked, amazed.

Rainbow sighed. “Yes, you can do that. Seriously, how did you get through flight school?”

Fluttershy hung her head, and her mane fell over her eyes. “I didn't...”

The implication of that flew over Rainbow's head like the summer breeze before she caught it. “...Oh! Right! Um, no problem! Application is always easier than theory anyway! Just stay as close behind me as you can, and I'll take care of the rest, okay?”

“O-okay.” Fluttershy said, rubbing her eye a little.

Rainbow started off slow, as slow as she could possibly bring herself to fly, heading north by north-west as the stripey-pony had said. As she gradually picked up speed, she periodically glanced over her shoulder to see if Fluttershy was keeping up. Amazingly enough, she was. Even more surprising was the expression she had on her face. It was an expression she knew very well, but had never expected to see it on that particular face.


Heh, after all these years, some of my awesomeness might be rubbing off on her after all.” Dash thought proudly, and took her acceleration up a notch.

“-but we mustn't forget that Twilight was more than just a hero to Equestria and a personal student to myself. She was also a dear friend to everypony in Ponyville, and many more in Canterlot. While it is regrettable that not all of them could attend today, some have expressed a desire to give a few words. Miss Pinkie Pie, would you like to go first?”

Celestia had finally finished speaking. She had given a thorough history of Twilight's life, from her birth, to enrollment at the academy, rising through her classes at an almost unheard of pace, and then to the historic encounters with Nightmare Moon and Discord. Everypony in attendance was silent and still – not just in respect for the departed, but in respect for the one who was speaking. The entire time, Spike couldn't contain himself from the immense itching on his back. Fortunately for him, he was near one of the stone columns and was able to scratch his back on it like a cat. At one point, Rarity had to use her magic to keep the thing from tipping over.

All the while, Spike kept glaring at Celestia. How dare she speak at Twilight's funeral?

Once the princess finally decided to step down so that Pinkie could speak, the sensation in Spike's back finally subsided. He hunched over and sighed deeply in relief, wiping his forehead. Pinkie slowly walked through the crowd of ponies towards the podium, and all eyes followed her.

There was an odd moment of silence. Pinkie walked up to the proper place and put her front hooves on the podium, lifting herself up high enough so that she could see the entire herd. For a long moment, she didn't say a word as she looked over each and every pony in attendance. Her expression held only the smallest trace of apprehension. Then, she looked over towards the empty coffin belonging to one of her many, many dear friends.

“You should all stop.” Pinkie said at last.

This was met with a lot of murmuring throughout the ponies in attendance. Night Light was shocked, and Star Sparkle looked like she was about to cry. Shining armor was visibly offended and glared at the pink pony. General Flash groaned and pressed a hoof to her temple. Morningstar chuckled a little.

“Oh! No, no! No! I mean, you should all stop being sad! I don't want you to be sad! And if Twilight were here she wouldn't want you all to be sad either! Well, if she were here, we wouldn't be here having a funeral for her either – but that's not the point!”

The crowd was still uncertain about what Pinkie was trying to say, and she was growing worried.

Come on, focus,” Pinkie whispered to herself. “This is not the time to go all zig-zaggy with your words! Say it right, like Twilight would.

The party pony lifted her head high and spoke again. “When Twilight first came to see us in Ponyville, she wasn't a very happy pony. She wasn't just sad because nopony would believe her about Nightmare Moon, she was sad because she didn't have any friends. And we can't be like that now! We can't let sadness control us. I hid away in my room for a week because I was sad, and I didn't get the teensy-tiniest bit less sad while I was there! We can't forget Twilight, but we can't forget to be happy, either. We can't forget that there are ponies still here who love and care about us. I just want everypony to remember that.”

Night Light turned his head to his wife and smiled softly. She looked back up at him with tired eyes and smiled as well. Shining Armor, who had spent a lot of time as of late thinking about his foalhood and that of his sister's, began to think about it more broadly. His mind drifted to another pony that was always there as well. A pony that was beautiful, kind, and always made him feel... fuzzy. He casually turned his head towards Princess Cadenza, and saw that she was looking at him as well. Surprised and awkward, the two of them glanced away again.

“I love you, General.” Morningstar said flatly.

“Oh, stop it.” Flash replied, annoyed. The lieutenant chuckled to himself.

Pinkie scanned the crowd again, tying to gauge everypony's reactions to see if she she got her message across properly. Satisfied, she stepped down from the podium, and bounced happily back to her spot. Celestia took the stand again. “Thank you, Miss Pie. Miss Rarity, would you care to speak now?”

“Yes, your highness, I would,” Rarity said.

The pearly unicorn picked up her lavender package and approached the podium. The moment where should present her gift was finally upon her. After this, there would be no sadness or regret.

Beyond Judgment

Part XXIV: Tribute

Fluttershy couldn't remember the last time she flew so fast. In fact, the thought of flying as fast as she was then was enough to make her feel giddy. Maybe it was Rainbow's wonderful leadership. Perhaps it was the draft thing she was doing (whatever that was). Or maybe she was having another one of her excited bursts of strength. In any event, she was soaring like she never had before. The normally leisurely pony looked down, wide eyed, as the trees zipped by in a blur of green shapes beneath her.

“How you doing back there, Fluttershy?!” Rainbow Dash called back over the howling winds around them.

“It's incredible! Whatever you're doing up there, it's working!”

“Ha! I'm not doing anything! It's all you, 'Shy!”

“Really?” Fluttershy said, amazed. “But, I thought you were using a draft?”

Rainbow laughed, and twisted her body around to face her friend. This meant that she was flying backwards, but she was still able to keep the pace. “I'm not drafting, you are! I'm not doing anything to make you faster, you're just riding on my winds! Or something like that, I forget how it works,” she said, scratching her head.

“Wow. This is amazing!”

Fluttershy tried stretching her legs out to feel more the rushing air. She wasn't as adept at adjusting to changing wind currents as Dash was, however, and she almost fell out of the sky as she did so. She flailed for a second before tucking her limbs back into proper position again. Dash chuckled.

“Starting to feel daring, huh? How about we try doing a loop?”

“A loop? I've never tried one before. Is it scary?”

“Hahaha! You can handle it, cream puff! Just stay right on my tail!”

With that, Dash turned herself around again and picked up a little more speed. A little concerned, but curious, Fluttershy pushed herself a little bit harder to match her. The two of them skimmed along the canopy of Everfree before Rainbow pulled upwards, with Fluttershy tailing her. Dash gauged the radius of the loop carefully, making it wide enough that her friend could manage it easily, yet small enough that she would still feel a little bit of centripetal force.

At the height of the loop, Dash heard screaming behind her. The kind of scream that was a mixture of terror and excitement.

She smirked, satisfied.

Completing their arc through the sky, Rainbow leveled out and spun around again. “So, what do you think? Did that curl you wing feathers, or what?”

Fluttershy looked like she was on the verge of hyperventilation, but she kept flying. “I... haven't... flown... like that... since we all chased after you in that hot air balloon.”

“Ha ha ha! Yeah, that was some pretty slick flying then too. Wanna try it again?”

Fluttershy gasped. “Not now, look! Quick, slow down!”

Rainbow flipped over again and saw that they were approaching the valpony stronghold. It was just as she remembered it, a fort composed of high stone walls protecting some smaller structure within. There were dozens of valponies about, standing watch and making patrols. They all still bore the same silver armor. Except now that structure was completed, as was the wall. In the center of the stronghold stood an archway made of yellowed stone. It glowed a deep blue, and the inside of the archway was filled with a magical power.

Immediately, Dash put on the air brakes and brought herself to a halt. Fluttershy, however, wasn't prepared for that maneuver. He inertia combined with the power of their draft caused her to continue soaring forward with the force of a small cannon. She screamed as she careened over Dash's head and across the clearing, ultimately crashing into a tree on the far side. Dash covered her mouth as though doing so would actually reduce the noise. It was no good, the guards had already known they were coming. She had been careless all over again. She darted after her friend to protect her from the valponies.

Fluttershy had gotten herself tangled in couple branches, but wasn't hurt overly much. She poked her head out in time to see Rainbow fly up. The more skilled pegasus took a defensive stance in front of the tree in preparation for the invading army. Her wings and legs tightened as she readied herself for a fight, and she gritted her teeth.

Strangely, though, only one valpony was approaching. Slowly. And leisurely.

When Fluttershy saw the single valpony flying unmenacingly towards them, she squeaked and ducked back in again.

“Do not be afraid!” The valpony called out. “I come in peace! I have a message for you!”

Rainbow did not lower her guard. “...What kind of message?”

“Father's been expecting both of you. Please, come with me, and I'll take you to him.”

“And why should I trust you?” Dash said, eying that valpony seriously.

Fluttershy popped her head back out of the tree again. “Um, because that's why we came here in the first place?”

“...Right. Okay, let's go then!”

Dash took off, flying up and over the valpony, who didn't even flinch. She soared over the walls of the fortress, drawing the attention of all of the guards. Finally, Rainbow landed in the center of the inner courtyard, in front of the mysterious archway. She looked up at it, and then glanced around to all the valponies that surrounded her, studying them. They made no aggressive moves, but instead watched her with mild curiosity.

“Well?!” Dash shouted, “Where is is he? Don't tell me you've turned tail now, Sleipnir! I got a score to settle with you!”

Meanwhile, back in front of Ponyville town hall, Rarity had stepped up to the podium to speak. Nopony had really noticed before, but now that all eyes were on her, everypony saw that he horn was constantly aglow, and one of her forelegs was enveloped in her sparkling blue magic. Bringing the mysterious box with her, she took her place and paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. She closed her eyes and pointed her nose to the wind, feeling in flow through her perfectly coiffed mane.

“Oh, she's a lovely one.” Morningstar noted, almost involuntarily.

General Flash groaned. “Keep it down, Colonel. Now is not the place.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then, Rarity spoke.

“Twilight Sparkle is one of the most amazing ponies I've ever had the pleasure to meet. Her strength of heart and spirit, as well as her strength of mind and magic. Why, I'm not afraid to admit that there was a phase in my foalhood where I was quite arrogant in my own intellect and arcana as I pined away at the glamor and sophistication of the beautiful Canterlot. Had we met then I believe she might have become my greatest adversary, because I've seen her perform spells and wield magics beyond my meager capabilities.

“But one cannot forget that magic doesn't come from raw talent alone, not even in Twilight's case. She's had the determination and zeal for knowledge to refine her natural abilities into the greatest magical power of our generation. She was such a strong willed and determined pony. She always charges head-first into the most dire of problems. Not just the likes of dragons and manticores, but against the fears and self doubts of her friends.

“There was a very brief time not so long ago that I injured this leg. I was ready to give up my entire career to self pity and shame, but Twilight showed me that I wasn't completely helpless. It was then that I set out to create for her the perfect dress to show my gratitude. How can I call myself the Element of Generosity if I cannot return the kindness of one of my dearest friends? I now present to you all... my magnum opus.”

With a flick of her neck, Rarity flung the box she was carrying into the air. The ribbon tying it together was pulled apart by her magic, and the box opened up, spilling its contents. A white object fell out of it that shone with a prismatic light. Rarity caught it with her magic and filled it out, revealing it to be a beautiful dress – which came as a greater surprise to some of the guests than it did others. She did more than just hold it out with her magic, she formed her telekinetic energy into the shape of a pony. Not just any pony, but a unicorn with a perfectly kept mane and a long, straight tail. The mirage pony floated gracefully down to the ground, stopping to hover just above the coffin of Twilight Sparkle. The crowd “ooh”ed and “ah”ed as it descended, seemingly forgetting they were still at a funeral.

The princess immediately recognized the material that the dress was made from. The skirt over the mirage pony's back was made from overlaid sheets of it. The fabric was cut into diamond shaped patterns that overlaid each other along the back and rump, whose sheets tapered into points along the sides and behind the flank. The hind legs, however, were exposed save for the sheer foal blue skirt beneath the layers of diamonds. Along the chest were strings of silver chains like an intricate necklace that sparkled as well. The design also had matching boots made of the same material stitched together like a quilt, and layers and smaller diamond shapes overlaid across the back of the neck, all the way up to the ears and horn of the mirage pony.

“I both love and hate this dress,” Rarity continued. “I made this as a tribute to my dear... dear departed friend.” She started to choke up a little, causing the form of the mirage pony to falter and warp a little as well before she managed to pull back her composure. “It is a symbol. Not just of her but of all of us, all of our friends. It is made from an indestructible diamond fabric given to me by Sleipnir himself, the very stallion who took her from us. However, like this dress, our friendship can never be truly destroyed. As you can see, this design reveals the wearer's cutie mark. This is to remind whoever looks at it that this dress is as much about the wearer as the outfit itself, and that we mustn't forget who this dress is for.”

As Rarity spoke those final words, an extra lavender light began to glow from within the mirage pony. Inside of it, between the flanks, the purple light took the form of Twilight's cutie mark and shone through the skirt of the dress as though it were a real mark.

There was a pause after that. Rarity said no more as well and quietly stepped down to return to her place among them. She hung her head at first as she walked back. She felt strangely empty, with the whole project completed and presented. She wasn't sure what to do next, what her life might be like one friend short.

Then, an applause began. It started with a single pony stomping in the crowd, and spread through the entire audience. She stopped for a second to look over them all. She saw Pinkie and Spike applauding as well. It warmed Rarity's heart. In the glamorous way only she could do, she lifted her head with a toss of her mane and walked proudly.

The applause died down and Princess Celestia stepped forward again. “Thank you very much, Miss Rarity. That was very generous of you. Now, Shining Armor? You wished to speak next?”

The captain of the Equestrian Guard stepped up. “Yes, your highness.”

“You started that applause, Colonel. Cheering a speaker at a funeral? What kind of stallion are you?” General Flash whispered as Shining Armor began to speak.

“Yes, sir. She looked like she could use a little bit of reassurance. Like the pink one said, one mustn't forget to be happy.”

Dash paced back and forth in front of the shimmering portal, glaring at it intently. Fluttershy, on the other hoof, was more or less relaxing a few yards away. While her friend was eagerly anticipating the return of Sleipnir, she had recruited a few of the local squirrels to help her picks twigs and leaves out of  her hair. Having since accomplished that, they were all chatting about the weather.

“Come on!” Rainbow shouted. “You said he was waiting for me, so where is he?! I've been waiting for him for, like, and hour!”

“It's only been seven minutes.” One of the valponies corrected.

“Details, details! I've got places to go and naps to take, I don't have time to hang out around here and wait for Sleipnir to show up! Death waits for nopony, right? But I've still been waiting for him for half an hour!”

“Seven minutes,” the valpony corrected again.

Suddenly, a rumbling sound emanated from the arch. Everypony in the fortress stopped and turned towards it. Fluttershy instinctively cowered from it a bit just as the squirrels she was conversing with cowered behind her.

“I am not the Lord of Death, my lady, I am the Lord of the Afterlife,” boomed Sleipnir's voice from within.

“Oh yeah? Then you should have no problem giving Twilight back!” screamed Rainbow.

Come on, Fluttershy, be strong. Be strong.” The tender pegasus reminded herself.

Fluttershy stood, then squeaked once as the urge to fly took hold. She shook it off and took a few steps forward.

The face of Sleipnir emerged from the shimmering wall of energy contained by the arch. He walked out of it, the rest of his body and his eight legs surfacing through the field of ancient magic.

“Hello, father!” Each of the valponies cried out merrily as they all crowded around him. The armor of those who moved in closest clanged and they bumped against each other. Sleipnir smiled and laughed as he nudged the faces of some of them with his extra hooves.

“Hello to you too, my daughters! Are you all keeping watch over the fortress like I asked?”

“Of course! We made sure none of the monsters of Everfree forest got close.”

“Wonderful! That's my girls.”

“Hey!” Dash shouted. “What's goin' on here!”

“My apologies, Lady of Loyalty. It's not often that I give my daughters such special tasks. I wished to see how they fared on their own in such unfamiliar territory. Come now, step back girls. Father has work to do.”

The valponies did as they were told and stepped away from Sleipnir, giving him room to approach Rainbow Dash. One of them, however, nudged his side with a hoof.

“Hmm? Is something the matter?” Sleipnir asked.

“It's one of the patrols, Father. They never returned last night.” The valpony replied.

“What?! What happened? Did you send backup?”

“Of course. A larger patrol was sent to look for them. They found them turned to stone. It was a cockatrice.”

“No! I warned you all to be extremely careful about them!”

“You did. All patrols were recalled at that time to the protection of the fortress, and everypony is accounted for. The next day, a patrol was sent to recover their statues.”

“Where are they now?”

“They were left in the corner of the fortress, over there.” The valpony said, pointing.

Sleipnir and the two friends followed the extended foreleg of the valpony, noticing for the first time the pair of statues in the shade of the walls in the distant corner.

It was one statue, really, the two of them fused together in stone. The first valpony was standing on the ground, her head turned to the side and one leg raised in apprehension. The other was above her, holding on to the first with her wings outstretched as she tried to carry her home.

Sleipnir dashed towards the valpony statue with an incredible burst of speed and came to a halt in front of it. He was silent as he raised a hoof to nudge the cheeks of his petrified children.

“Hey! Hey!” Rainbow shouted, her wings flaring. “I've been waiting for you all this time, and now-”

Dash's rant was interrupted by Fluttershy tapping her shoulder.

“Shh. I, um, think you should give him a moment,” she whispered.

“What? What for?”

“...He's mourning.”

“Wha-? Mour-?” Dash stuttered, then rounded on Sleipnir “Hey! I've had it up to here with you!” She flew up to the Lord of the Afterlife, who turned back to face her. “Mourn on your own time! We've got a score to settle, and we're gonna settle it right now!”

Sleipnir closed his eyes as though in concentration for a few seconds. Then he opened them a furrowed his brows. He smirked. “Very well. We have much to discuss. You want Twilight Sparkle back? Convince me why I should give her to you.”

Special Bonus!

Sketch of Rarity’s dress here.

Beyond Judgment

Part XXV: Eternal Bargain

“Surely you came all the way out here with some kind of plan,” Sleipnir continued. He started to walk casually in a circle around Rainbow Dash. “Of course, it would be very much like you to rush in head first without thinking.”

Dash snarled. Did she have a plan? Her memories were still a little foggy after the potion thing the night before. If she had one yesterday, she certainly didn't have one now. “I'm more of a 'make things up as I go' kind of pony,” she replied.

“I should have known. If that's the case, you would have been better off bringing Celestia along to negotiate with me again. Or better yet, Princess Luna...” Sleipnir stopped his pacing and rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he considered the lunar princess' presence. “Regardless, it's always such a hassle to come to this world, and I very rarely get the opportunity. I'll tell you what: give me your best shot. Convince me why I should let Twilight go.”

With that, Sleipnir lied down on the ground and crossed his forelegs over each other comfortably. His tail swished back and forth casually as he eagerly anticipated the pegasi's response.

“Sheesh, you talk more than Twilight does!” Dash said, wings flaring. “If you don't stop talking and give her back right now, I'll-!”

“A fight, is it?” Sleipnir interrupted. “That's certainly not going to work. You couldn't even take on my daughters, let alone me. It would take nothing less than the Alicorn sisters' combined magic to stand up to my physical prowess.

Dash's rage was on the verge of boiling. “Keep it up, tough guy, and we'll see how tough your physical prowess really is!”

“Wait!” Fluttershy called out from behind Rainbow.

“Hmm? Oh, it's you.” Sleipnir said. “I had almost forgotten you were here.”

“Hey! Nopony talks to Fluttershy like that!” Dash shouted.

Sleipnir raised a hoof. “You're right, that was rude. I apologize, Lady of Kindness. I should not have spoken to you like I would this ruffian.”

Dash scratched at the ground and prepared to charged at Sleipnir, but Fluttershy extended a wing to stop her.

“Lord Sleipnir,” Fluttershy began, “I know that you're big and strong, and have magic world traveling powers, and an army of valponies, and you said that somepony has to go... but this world still needs her. She's not just one of the elements of harmony, she's the only one who can activate them. In the past few years we've had to rely on that magic twice. Who knows when we'll be needed again? For the sake of this whole world... we need her.”

Sleipnir's swaying tail came to a stop as Fluttershy spoke. He sighed as he stood. She started to step back as he moved, but remembered to stand firm.

“I commend your courage, Lady of Kindness, and you make a valid point. Understand that it is not my intention to disrupt the balance of this world. To the contrary, my actions are meant to protect it”

“Protect it!?” Rainbow shouted. “You call this protecting!? Invasion and murder!?”

Smirking, Sleipnir replied “As a matter of fact, I do. There are powers I must contend with and rules by which I am bound. You do not see yet, but this is the only way.”

Dash was so frustrated with Sleipnir at this point, that she couldn't keep herself still. She lifted off the ground and hovered there, trying to burn off just enough steam to keep from going aggro on everypony in sight – save Fluttershy, of course. She refused to lose her cool this time, but that blasted stallion just kept pushing her.

Fluttershy, on the other hoof, was trying her hardest to come up with an agreeable solution. “What if you... Maybe we could... or maybe...” she said, trying think of something to say, but nothing was coming out.

Sleipnir raised an eyebrow curiously as he watched Fluttershy search for words.

“Couldn't.... couldn't you just let her go?” Fluttershy said at last. “I know we don't have anything to give you in return, and the only reason I can give you to do it is that a lot of ponies really care about her and want her to come back. Her funeral is going on right now and I know it's so sad! We need her, and we all really, really miss her. So please, sir, won't you just give Twilight back to us?”

Sleipnir stared down at the yellow pegasus, and glanced over towards the fuming Rainbow Dash. He stepped forward and raised a foreleg. With one swift, sudden motion, he struck Fluttershy across the face with the back of his hoof. She squeaked in pain and surprise as she fell away, skidding a short distance against the ground.

“You disappoint me, and you waste my time. Begging will get you nowhere if you can't put any kind of power or incentive behind your words. I would at least respect a threat, as humorous as that might have been.”

“That's it, punk! Now it's go time!”

In a flash of rainbow light, Dash rushed at Sleipnir, hooves swinging. Without missing an instant, the Lord of the Afterlife held up his own  forelegs to defend himself. As Dash brought her forelegs to bear against him, kicking at him angrily, Sleipnir deftly parried each of her attacks. Roaring, Rainbow spun around and started bucking with her hind legs as well, kicking at him as hard as she could. It made no difference, as Sleipnir was able to deflect blow after blow with ease.

Dash pushed away from her opponent and performed a backwards loop through the air. Turning back, she charged forward with as much speed as she could muster. She held out all four hooves, betting that at least one of them could make contact. Sleipnir reared up on his four hind legs to block with his front four. There was a loud crack as they locked hooves, all four of Dash's making contact with Sleipnir's raised legs. She beat her wings hard, trying to push against him. He stood firm, though the force of Dash's wings was able to slide the two of them backwards along the ground, Sleipnir's hind legs formed grooves in the dirt as he was pushed.

Then, Sleipnir swung his head, colliding with Dash's for a punishing headbutt. The impact broke her concentration, allowing Sleipnir to push back and throw her against the ground.

“Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy shouted, finally recovering from the blow to her face. She looked from her fallen friend, to the looming elder as he approached. Instinctively, she jumped up to stand over Rainbow.

She glared at Sleipnir with one eye, as the other was blackening for the backhoof and hurt to keep open. Fluttershy released the most powerful Stare she had ever performed.

Sleipnir paused, mid-step, as he stared into Fluttershy's eyes. “My... that is a magic I've not yet encountered” he said, then chuckled to himself. “Be at ease, my Lady, I have no intention of killing ether of you. You're too important for that.”

Fluttershy shook her head to clear it after using her stare. “Wh-what do you mean, 'important'?”

Evading the question, Sleipnir continued. “That still leaves us at an impasse. You cannot convince me to give the Lady of Magic back, but I should have known better than expecting diplomacy from Rainbow Dash. I see now that I'm wasting my time.” He turned to leave. “If you cannot best me in wits or strength, I'd rather simply return to my work.”

Dash worked her way to her hooves, having previously been left in a heap after Sleipnir's headbutt. She could already feel the beginnings of a welt.

Glancing over his shoulder, Sleipnir added “If only you could best me in just one thing...”

Rainbow growled and leaped to her hooves. She shouted into the air as loud as she could. “I challenge you to a race!”

Sleipnir stopped and chuckled to himself. He turned around, saying “Really, now? That's your grand scheme? A race?”

“Yeah! A race! That was probably my plan! I mean, that is my plan! I challenge you to a race, winner take all!”

“A fool's errand. If only the mortals of this realm knew more about me, you'd know that I'm the fastest being on your world and mine.”

“Oh, yeah?” Dash said. She began to flutter her wings a bit, lifting off the ground. “Well, now I'm the fastest being above this world!”

Sleipnir laughed again, this time with more humor and less malice. “Very well. Assuming I did feel compelled to accept this challenge, what would the wager be? It cannot be a winner take all bet, seeing as I still hold all the cards.”

“I bet myself!”

“Rainbow, no!” Fluttershy shouted. “We can't lose you too, that wouldn't be fair either!”

“She's right, it wouldn't. Somepony must still pay the price for what the two of you did. If I was to grant anything for this wager, it would be to allow a trade. If I win, you come with me to my realm. If I lose, you still come with me, but I return the Lady of Magic in your place.”

“Deal!” Rainbow shouted.

“No!” Fluttershy protested. “I can't let you! I already lost one friend, I can't lose another!”

Dash swooped down t land in front of her friend. “Hey, hey, Fluttershy, it's alright. You know, it's all kinda my fault anyway, right?”

Fluttershy jump up and hugged her friend tightly around the neck. “No, it's not!”

“It kind of is. I'm the one who crashed in the first place, aren't I? I'm the one who picked a fight with the valponies in the first place, didn't I? It's okay, really.”

“But I hate losing friends.” Fluttershy mumbled, shutting her eyes tight.

Rainbow hugged her back. “I don't want to go either. But... I think this was my plan from the start, when I told you to fly me out of the hospital.”

“You think?” Fluttershy asked, confused.

“Yeah. That zebra potion did some weird things to my head, but I know I felt guilty. This is all my fault, and Twilight took the hit in my place. It's not fair to her. This is my mess, and I gotta do this. Besides, this place could use an extra egghead way more than it needs a jock like me.”

“Rainbow! Don't say that!”

“It's okay, Fluttershy, just trust me on this. I gotta go.”

Rainbow raised her wings and started to fly. Fluttershy, still hanging from her neck, clung as she ascended. Rainbow had to pull her hooves apart to make her let go, and she fluttered gently back to the ground. She looked down at her before turning back to confront Sleipnir.

“You'd better be ready to lose, octo-freak!” Dash taunted, “There's no way you can be faster than me! I can do a-”

“A sonic rainboom?” Sleipnir interrupted, flatly.

Dash crossed her forelegs and grinned. “Impressed?”

“You've done no such thing. You think you have, but you've deluded yourself.”

“...What?” Dash asked, offended.

Sleipnir started to pace casually, walking past Rainbow. “I'm surprised that the Lady of Magic never told you, seeing how she's supposed to be the intelligent one. She was probably just sparing your feelings, if she was even aware at all. It's not surprising, though, as nopony has actually performed the feat in the past. I should know, I was there for all of it.”

Dash swung around to look Sleipnir in the eye. “Hold up there, Stretch. What are you talking about?”

“I'm talking about the speed of sound, and how you have never actually exceeded it. You've come close, of course; Skimmed along it like a pebble on the surface of a lake, but you've never actually broken the surface”

“Um, yeah, I have! I've done it, like, three times!”

“She has, I've seen it!” Fluttershy said.

Shaking his head, Sleipnir explained. “You're not listening. You think you've broken the sound barrier, but you haven't. You've come close, but you have not once maintained that speed. Tell me, what was the shape of the wave you produced as you produced your... 'rainboom.'”

“It was, like, a big circle. What was the word Twilight used once? A disk.”

“Precisely. A disk radiating from a single point. It was at that point and that point alone that you reached the speed of sound. Then you became complacent. You always relaxed at your presumed achievement and dropped to sub-sonic speeds. Think about it: if you had maintained your speed at that critical moment, you would leave a cone of rainbow colors in your wake, not a disk.”

Dash dropped to the ground and sat, trying to wrap her mind around what Sleipnir was saying. Physics wasn't her strong suit and she wished that Twilight was around to try and explain it in laypony's terms. Or Spike, rather, since he was better at translating her sciencey-speak for the others. She quickly gave up on that and shook her head.

“Fine, then. Let's assume I can't fly at the speed of sound, can you?”

Sleipnir grinned and chuckled to himself. “Race me and find out for yourself.”

“I don't like this, Rainbow. This is a bad idea!” Fluttershy interrupted again.

“Don't worry, Fluttershy, he might be bluffing. And did you forget about these babies?” Dash said, fluttering her wings. “He may have a bunch of legs, but I can fly! You're on, Sleipnir!”

Dash spat on her hoof, and extended it towards the Lord of the Afterlife. He hesitated for a second before spitting into his own hoof and pressing it into hers. Being the size of an alicorn, Sleipnir's hoof dwarfed Dash's at almost twice the size. The clopping sound as their hooves struck each other caused Fluttershy to physically shudder. It echoed loudly in her ears as though they were in a large, hollow cave. She knew Rainbow. Applejack may have taught her the spit promise, but Dash never went back on anything she set out to do. Whatever was about to happen, it was out of her hooves then.

“So, where to?” Dash asked, beginning to become excited. “Oh! Oh! How about to Ponyville!”

Sleipnir rolled his eyes and waved a hoof dismissively. “Psht, that distance is merely a brisk stroll; Hardly an endurance test for the likes of me. We must travel farther. To Canterlot!”

“Canterlot, huh? Never traveled that far in one race before...” Rainbow said thoughtfully. That soon gave way to giddiness. “Hehe, awesome! If I'm goin' out after this race, I wanna go out in the record books!” she declared, raising a hoof.

“Not just to Canterlot, but to Canterlot and back. We touch the nearest wall of the castle and return to the portal.”

Dash’s hoof hung in the air for a moment as she took in Sleipnir’s words and mentally calculated the distance.

“Oh... kay then. Uh, yeah! I got this! No sweat!”

Fluttershy opened her mouth to protest, but stopped. The situation was out of her control, but the least she could do was support her friend.

“You can do it, Rainbow Dash! You show him who's the fastest pony in the universe and kick his flank!”

Sleipnir and Dash stared at the pegasus for he uncharacteristic outburst. Rainbow laughed. “Heheheh, yeah! You ready to eat my wake, Sleipnir? Because I’m taking you down!”

“Of course, Lady of Loyalty. I’ve been waiting for this race for a long time.”

Beyond Judgment

Part XXVI: Life, Death, and Speed

Being a nurse in a small town can sometimes be exceedingly dull. Fortunately for Redheart, she had managed to make a friend that morning to keep her company. He was a stubborn sort of rabbit, but a good one. He just needed to be shown a little bit of authority, is all. Case in point: he had absolutely refused to wear that adorable little hat she made for him out of gauze. All she had to do was insist in just the right way and he acquiesced. After all, if he was going to be her assistant for the day, they had to wear matching uniforms.

The two of them were rummaging in the supply closet, taking a regular inventory. Redheart jotted down the number of syringes she had just counted on a clipboard. Mr. Fluffington hopped down from a shelf onto her back and tugged on her mane bun.

“How many boxes of little bandages do we have?” Redheart asked her assistant.

The white bunny gently stomped on the nurse's back, twice with his left foot, five times with his right.


The bunny nodded.

Redheart smiled. “Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Fluffington. Now hop back up there and count the large ones for me,” she said brightly before turning back to her work.

Steamed, the rabbit tugged on Redheart's bun again – this time a little harder.

“Ow! What did I tell you about doing that?”

Mr. Fluffington stood up on his tip toes and waved his arms. He bent his ears into the shape of a circle over his head. Redheart just laughed. “You keep doing that, but I don't know what it means!”

The bunny slapped his forehead. Regardless, he turned to jump back up to the high shelf he was on before stopping suddenly. His ear twitched. Instead, he ran off Redheart's back and out of the supply room.

“Hey! Fluffingon! Where are you going?”

Nurse Redheart followed her assistant and cantered down the hall, losing sight of him as he turned into one of the rooms. She checked the tag on the door as she followed him in. It read “Applejack.” She found the bunny sitting on top of the bed next to the patient, leaning in closely and sniffing Applejack's face.

“What are you doing in here?”

Fluffington look up. He waved for Redheart to step closer. Then he pointed to his ear and then to Applejack.

“You... heard her? Redheart asked.

Fluffington nodded.

“Hmm... get me a stethoscope, stat.”

Nurse Redheart stepped into work mode and ran a battery of tests on Applejack. Respiration, nerve response, ocular response. They were all weak, but they were there. She checked Applejack's chart over the past few weeks to compare. Nine breaths per minute... eleven BPM... ten... and then thirteen. A sharp uptick. Lower than what it should have been, but still improving. She looked down at her assistant.

“Well done, nurse. I wouldn't have come in to check up on her for another few hours, if you hadn't heard her,” Redheart said. She picked up a pen in her mouth and jotted down the new information on Applejack's chart. “We're going to have to keep a close eye on her. Or perhaps a close ear.”

Mr. Fluffington nodded and saluted.

“Come on, let's get back to the supply closet.” Redheart said. Fluffington jumped up on her back. “I don't know where you came from, little guy, but I wish more troublesome patients would mysteriously disappear and be replaced with helpful animals.” She stopped, then hung her head. “No, I don't... I don't know where Rainbow Dash went, but I really hope she's okay.”

The bunny leaned over and patted Redheart on the back of her head comfortingly. She turned to smile back at him.

“Thanks, little guy.”

Meanwhile, at Twilight Sparkle's funeral, Spike was sitting on Rarity's back, cheeks in his hands. Shining Armor had just finished his speech telling stories about what she was like as a filly. Looking prim and proper in his crimson full dress uniform, he regaled the crowd with stories about the first spells she ever learned, many of which he taught her personally. Fundamental spells like telekinesis and illumination, but also a few that were a little trickier. Shining still sounded so proud of his little sis. But his voice belied a deeper sense of loss. Spike was still very, very young before the stallion moved off to the academy, but he still remembered how fond they were of each other.

Shining Armor had told a story about teaching his special spell, the kind of magic that a unicorn becomes highly proficient at, generally the one learned just before getting a cutie mark. He taught Twilight “Shield,” a sphere of protective magic around the unicorn who creates it. The same one that she was seen using at the battle outside Everfree where she was lost. He chuckled to himself a bit as he mentioned how nopony actually knew how strong her shield was for the longest time. Naturally, she couldn't use any other magic to attack her own shield while she was maintaining it, and he certainly wasn't going to throw anything at her! The crowd laughed a little at that too.

Spike scratched at his back some more. He figured that it was good ponies were enjoying themselves at the funeral. Pinkie had made a good case for staying happy, sort of. Seeing Celestia chuckle along with everypony else made his whole body tense. Especially that snobby way she laughed, holding her hoof up over her mouth as though she might have some stray piece of cake in the back of her gullet that somepony might see.

Shining Armor stepped down from the podium and walked to his place, the pones in attendance applauded politely and quietly. As Cadence began to step forward to take his place at the podium, Shining stopped in front of the empty casket. He stared at it for a long moment.

“Y-you know, when I taught Twily that spell, I never would have imagined that she'd actually use it.” Shining Armor said. He was quiet and somber, even more so than when he gave his speech. Only the ponies in the very front could hear him, including Cadence, and Spike with powerful dragon hearing. “My special talent is protecting ponies,” Shining continued, “but I... I guess my spell just wasn't good enough.” He looked to Cadence, his eyes pleading for understanding. “I just wanted to protect one pony. J-just... one...”

Princess Cadence leaped to Shining Armor just as his knees began to buckle. She caught him as he collapsed and wrapped her wings around him. His parents galloped to him from the front row. Spike couldn't remain still either. He jumped from Rarity's back – not down to the ground, but straight ahead -  as though he could clear the distance all the way to front without touching the grass. He couldn't, of course, and fell face-first in the dirt.

“Oh, Spikey, are you alright?” Rarity asked, lifting up the fallen dragon back up with her magic.

“Yeah, just let me go! My family needs me!”

Rarity set him down, and Spike scampered off through the crowd as fast as his stubby little legs could carry him. His small stature worked to his advantage despite his short legs. The determined little dragon weaved his way through the crowd to his adoptive family. They embraced each other, the remaining members of Twilight's family, surrounded by Cadence's loving wings.

Princess Celestia stepped forward and addressed the crowd quickly. “I believe that it's time we all had a break. If you'll all follow me, we have prepared refreshments from the local bakery.”

Upon hearing this, Pinkie immediately perked up. She bounced to the front of the crowd and started trying to lead everypony. “Oh! We should all totally do that! They're super-extra duper delicious! I made a bunch of them myself!”

Twilight's family held each other tightly, ignoring the other ponies as they politely walked towards the town hall that contained the food. As the pounding of the many hooves died down, Spike whispered.

“There's something you guys should know about what happened.”

Rainbow Dash and Lord Sleipnir stood side by side. Dash was crouching with her head low and rump high. She buzzed her wings, flapping them quickly, as she held herself still with her forelegs. At an instant's notice, she was prepared to release her brake and take to the sky at full speed.

Sleipnir, on the other hoof, was standing idly at his opponent's left side. He hadn't even bothered to stretch.

Before the two of them was a valpony floating just above the ground. She held her spear in her hooves and was dragging the tip through the dirt, drawing a line. Fluttershy stood a few feet in front of them as well. She was trembling a bit from nervousness, but she was doing her best to hold herself together.

“Mission complete, Father,” the valpony drawing the line said as she returned her spear to its sling on the side of her barding.

Sleipnir chuckled to himself a little. “Yes, thank you.” he said to his daughter, who then flew off to return to her post. Then, to the pegasi, “I don't suppose the two of you would consider scratching out a starting line a 'mission,' but I never assign such simple tasks to these valponies. The ones you see before you are normally charged with guiding ponies from this realm into mine. A very important task, as you are all well aware. Only the truly significant ponies are graced with my own presence when-”

Rainbow ceased her eager fluttering and shouted at Sleipnir. “You're doing that talking thing again! Do you mind? I'm trying to have a race for my best friend’s soul, here!”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Sleipnir replied. “So impatient. If you only took the time to stop and learn a thing or two you wouldn't even be in this situation. Isn't that right, Rainbow Crash?”

“Talking!” Dash repeated.

“Oh! This is familiar!” Fluttershy said. “This is just like the time we all got our cutie marks.”

“Is that so?” Sleipnir said with a smirk. “Fascinating.”

“Come on, come on!” Dash said, becoming increasingly agitated by all the needless chatter. “I've got places to go, ponies to save! Are you ready to do this or not, Sleipnir?!”

“Very well. My work is certainly piling up by the minute, and I've had enough fun.” Sleipnir lowered his body as he crouched into a sprinting position alongside Rainbow Dash. “My Lady of Kindness, we begin at your mark.”

“Oh, um, um, okay.”

Fluttershy wasn't comfortable at all in her position as the flag mare. But, she did as she agreed to do. Shaking, she slowly rose her wings. She constantly had to fight the urge to clamp them down. The only thing stopping her from doing so was the knowledge that it would cause the two to begin the race.

Seeing her friend struggling like that saddened Dash, but she couldn’t lose her focus on the race. “Come on, Fluttershy, just cut me loose. You can do this. We can do this. For Twilight.

The two racers locked their eyes on the timid pegasus' wings as they struggled to rise, Sleipnir on the right, Dash on the left. Fluttershy closed her eyes tight as she extended them fully. All she would have to do then was drop them to start the race.

“You know, Sleipnir.” Dash said with a smirk. I'm not sure how you're gonna get out of here. You don't have any wings, and your little valponies never built a door to this place.”

Sleipnir chuckled. “An astute observation. But let me assure you, that will be of no consequence.”

All at once, Fluttershy squeaked, dropped to the ground, and snapped her wings to her sides. In a flash of rainbow light, Dash took to the sky. Sleipnir, too, lifted off the ground; not with the glow of lightning, but the sound of thunder. He leaped, kicking against the ground with enough force to leave an impression in the dirt. With a single bound he sailed over the walls of the fortress and landed, running, on the other side.

Dash pushed hard and reached cruising speed in record time, even for her. The first tip to a long distance race: don't push yourself to the limit too early. It was the first time she was able to fly free since she had awoken in Zecora's home earlier that day. To her, it was as though she was flying for the first time, and it was exhilarating. She held her hooves forward to push through the wind resistance as the flowing currents moved through her mane and tail. Behind her, Rainbow heard roaring thunder. It reminded her of the trail left by the Wonderbolts as they flew, as special kind of Pegasus magic that only they knew, and she was empowered by it. It was as though she, too, was a Wonderbolt.

Then, Rainbow suddenly realized that she didn't actually know how to create those thundering trails. Furthermore, Celestia's sun was shining brightly above her. The weather above the Everfree Forest was unpredictable, but there wasn't a cloud in sight. Where was the thunder coming from?

Looking around, Dash found the thunder was coming from somewhere beneath as well as behind her. Somewhere under the cover of the trees something powerful was stampeding. Fast. It was actually catching up to her. Trees were snapping in its wake, and not small ones either. Rainbow's eyes widened and a chill ran up her spine. She didn't need Pinkie sense to guess what was coming. Refocusing on her flight, Dash kicked up the speed a bit more to stay ahead of him. A stone mound rose up over the forest in front of her, and she nosed up to fly over it.

Suddenly, Sleipnir's thundering stopped. Rainbow continued ahead. She wasn't sure what was delaying him down there, but she was willing to take any advantage she could get.

Sleipnir braced his eight legs and ground to a halt. He hadn't seen the rocky hill though the pesky trees he had to weave though, otherwise he would have ran around it. However, that wasn't the reason he stopped. There was something else blocking his path that he hadn't anticipated. It was a bear. Light blue in the day's sun and with angry yellow eyes, it was stomping around the front of the cave.

“What's the matter, young one? Have we disturbed your nap? You Ursas are always sleeping. It's a wonder you get anything done at all.”

The Ursa Minor turned to Sleipnir and glared. It clambered over itself in a drowsy rage as it rushed towards him. Mere feet from his face, it let out a mighty roar that shook the ground.

Sleipnir tilted his head to the side as a glob of Ursa saliva nearly struck him in the face.

“I'm going to have to do something about you, aren't I?”

The echoing roar of something massive faded away as Dash flew. Whatever was back there, she was glad Sleipnir was dealing with it instead of her. She didn't let herself relax, however. This was too important to play around. Laser focused, she locked her eyes on the tip of Canterlot Mountain over the horizon. She pushed out all other thoughts. No thunder, no trees, not even the sky nor the wind. Just her and her wings.

It was the most important thing she could do. Flap, flap, flap. Just keep going. Flap, flap, flap.

Beyond Judgment

Part XXVII: Catching Up

The Ursa minor sized up Sleipnir. Concluding that he was, in fact, quite small in comparison, it raised  a translucent azure paw and struck. The Lord of the Afterlife merely sidestepped the blow, narrowly avoiding the large impression it made in the dirt. The Ursa snarled and swung downward again, only to miss once more by inches as Sleipnir casually dodged.

“You're going to have to do better than that, young one. And you better do it quick. I don't have all day to play with you. In fact, I'm already in the middle-”

Sleipnir was cut off by the Ursa roaring in his face again. He furrowed his brows in response, finally showing agitation.

“Perhaps the Lady of Loyalty was correct. I do talk too much.”

The blows from the Ursa began to rain down again. It continued to miss its target, pounding paw prints into the ground instead of the elder. Sleipnir deftly stepped around them, dodging like a fly around clumsy hooves, avoiding each crushing blow by mere inches each time. The Ursa changed tactics and swung its massive paw sideways along the ground.

“Now!” Sleipnir shouted as he leaped over the sweeping paw, launching himself towards the Ursa's face. His front hooves made contact with the bear's nose. It howled in pain and surprise as it recoiled and rolled over on its back, nursing its face.

Sleipnir thrust himself upward again. Not towards the downed Ursa, but nearly straight up into the sky. Although he lacked the ability to fly outright, a single bound was enough to nearly reach the top of Everfree Forest. His body decelerated as he reached the height of his jump and he seemed to hover in place for a second. He glanced over the treeline to see how far ahead Rainbow Dash had gotten. There was the faintest glimmer of her rainbow trail over the horizon.

Psht, she's nowhere near fast enough.” Sleipnir thought to himself.

Turning his attention back towards the ground and the Ursa that gravity has then drawing him towards, Sleipnir angled his body so that he would land hind legs first. He began falling quickly towards the bear and its exposed belly as it was beginning to recover from his surprise kick.

“Stay down!” Sleipnir shouted as he collided with the Ursa minor. At the moment of impact, he bucked hard with his powerful hind legs directly into its stomach. It bellowed in pain and collapsed, unconscious.

Immediately, another roar emanated from the cave it had emerged from. Its mother had heard them. Sleipnir jumped down from atop his defeated enemy. “Now go back to sleep.” he said before dashing away to continue the race.

“There's that roaring sound again.” Shining Armor noted, looking over his shoulder and scowling into the distance. His royal guard training had taught him to be wary of unusual noises. “Is the Everfree Forest always like that?”

Shining Armor turned to look around the stage that he and others were standing next to to make sure that the rest of the congregation was still secure inside the town hall. The grand double doors were still closed and he could hear ponies inside chatting.

“I didn't hear anything.” Night Light, his father said.

Confident that everypony was safe, Shining turned and walked back next to Princess Cadence where he was before.

“Sometimes. I didn't think anypony else could hear it.” Spike said, scratching at his ear. “But that's not important, don't you understand what I just finished telling you?”

“I don't know, Spike,” Night Light said. “Celestia has been watching over our daughter for a very long time. I can't imagine that she'd just willingly put Twilight in danger like that. I... guess it's strange that she was there at all, but she was all the way in the back. She was protected.”

“There, see? It is weird!” Spike shouted, pointing at Night light. “She shouldn't have been there at all! If anyone knew that, it should have been Celestia. Especially Celestia! She knows everything.”

“She does not know everything,” Star Sparkle said with a hint of a scolding tone, “Princess Celestia is very old and very, very wise, but she's not omniscient. You've known her ever since you were hatched, you should know that.”

“But she is!” Spike blurted, throwing his claws into the air. “Just think of all the other crazy, dangerous missions Twilight and the others were sent on. They've always had just the slightest nudge from Celestia, and everything turns out okay. She knew exactly how they were gonna play out. Remember when we were sent to Ponyville in the first place just before Nightmare Moon came back? Celestia told us to! The dragon that camped out on the mountain that was spewing smoke everywhere? Celestia didn't send Shining Armor and the royal guards on that one, she sent Twilight! And that disaster at the Grand Galloping Gala! She knew that sending them all there would cause a scene, she told us!”

The others thought back to those events as Spike listed them. “I did give a request to be sent on that mission with the dragon.” Shining Armor said. “There's an elite corps of pegasi trained specifically to handle them, but she sent Twily and the others instead. It was so weird... Celestia just said that it would make an excellent friendship lesson. What do you think? Princess Cadence? You haven't said anything yet.”

Cadence was the only one among them who was lying down. She had indeed been silent as Spike explained his conspiracy theory about her aunt. She offered no rebuttals or accusations as the other did, she merely listened quietly and considered his words very, very carefully. After Shining Armor addressed her, she finally spoke. She worded her response slowly and deliberately.

“... I... remember a long time ago.... Aunt Celestia gave me some advice. It was just before I met Twilight and the rest of you for the very first time. I hadn't met any ponies before that weren't royalty or royal servants before, and I was really nervous. I wasn't sure how to act, or how you all would react to me. Celestia told me that... that I was going to live for a very long time. She said that meeting new ponies can be scary sometimes, but eventually I'd... learn how they would act. After enough time, I wouldn't just learn what ponies were like, I'd start predicting what they would do. She said that once I was as old as her, I'd know exactly what everypony was going to do before they did. I... just needed time around them first.”

As Princess Cadence finished speaking, Spike hopped up and down and pointed at her. “There, you see? She's been leading us on for years. Every move carefully calculated to make us do whatever she wanted!”

“It's not like that!” Cadence said, scolding the baby dragon. “It's not about controlling ponies, she told me so herself. It's about experience in dealing with ponies and coming to understand how they think.”

“A likely story.” Spike said, crossing his arms.

“Spike, that's enough.” Shining Armor said. “You may have a good point about this whole thing being strange, but that doesn't mean you can just start throwing accusations at the Princess. Have you talked to her about this yourself?”

“Well... no. I haven't.” Spike said, crossing his arms.

“Then we'll all just ask her about this later, alright? After the funeral. I don't want to cause a disturbance at a time like this.”

Shining Armor's family agreed, even if Spike only did so begrudgingly. They all then turned to the town hall to join the others.

However, the first thing they all noticed as they looked towards the great hall was a certain white, winged pony standing on the upper balcony of the building, seemingly taking a casual walk around the building for fresh air. With her wings outstretched and tall in her usual manner, and her evening sun shining behind her, she seemed like quite the imposing figure. Although swayed by Spike's words moments before, Night Light and Star Sparkle felt a bit intimidated looking at the princess. Even Shining Armor and Spike himself was suddenly reminded of the Alicorn's status as monarch of the nation.

However, there was one thing that Shining Armor noticed with his honed military reflexes that the others did not. Just as the group had looked towards the hall, he saw the the princess had been watching them, looking away just as they had turned their attention. Princess Celestia then resumed her walk around the balcony as the group approached the doors below, seemingly unaware of them. Shining Armor raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing.

Miles out of town, beyond the far side of the Everfree Forest, Rainbow Dash was continuing the race with an enormous lead over her opponent. She had been flying straight ahead for quite some time with no trace of Sleipnir since he got stuck in the forest and that roaring thing, whatever it was. Had that been any other race, she might have just declared herself the winner and went home for a well deserved nap. Not that time, though, it was too important. That time was for Twilight, it was a race for somepony important to her, not for fun.

Dash chuckled to herself a little bit at the thought. A race not for fun? How surreal.

Then, she heard it. It was faint at first, and very distant. She almost couldn't even hear it over the sound of the wind in her ears. It sounded like a stampede, and it was getting closer. Dash wasn't flying anywhere near full speed at that moment, but there was only a few ponies that could match her right then, let alone begin to overtake her.

Rainbow turned her head. It was him! Sleipnir was catching up, fast. He was a speck in the distance, weaving around hills across the grasslands behind her. She had minutes until they would be on top of each other. She looked back ahead. There wasn't much she could do to slow him down. She considered trying to pick a fight with him or trip him up, but that didn't work very well last time. Perhaps there was some obstacle she could lead him through instead?

Then, in the distance, she saw her target. Rambling rock ridge. It was a massive canyon, nearly a quarter mile wide in some areas, shaped almost like a half pipe. Sleipnir may have been faster than her, but he was still ground bound. Between the harsh crags and uneven terrain, it would at least buy her some time if she could trick Sleipnir into running into it. If she were really lucky, some diamond dogs might hassle him too. She streamlined her body and kicked up her speed.

Dash changed course a little to the east towards the ridge. Doing so turned her away from Canterlot directly, but she was counting on Sleipnir staying on her tail. She looked back and saw that he was still directly behind her. Both were closing fast, the ridge and Sleipnir. The nearest edge of the ridge has a sharp drop, and she was certain that her opponent on the ground wouldn't be able to see the cliff until it was far to late to stop or change course. Dash searched the upcoming ridge frantically, trying to find just the right ledge to lead him off of.

She saw it. Taking another slight turn to her right, Dash flew towards her new target. It was one of the narrower parts of rambling rock, but the cliffs on both side were steep, and she could see a lot of sharp rocks emerging from the ground beneath. It was the perfect trap. She took another glance backwards. He was still there! Right on her tail, just like he wanted! He was almost on top of her, close enough now to see that he was staring directly at her. The rumbling sound of his many hooves striking the ground at super speed sounded almost like a full stampede of animals. She could begin to hear it louder and more clearly through the rushing sound of the wind around her.

The two of them approached the ridge at high speed. Dash was still ahead, but Sleipnir was closing by the second. The thundering of his hooves grew louder. Dash had to stay on course and couldn't risk glancing backwards again. But it didn't matter! Given her opponent's momentum, there was no way he would have been able to turn back without throwing himself off the edge!

Rainbow cleared the gap. Confident that her plan must have worked, a surge of excitement and adrenaline coursed through her veins. She pushed her speed up another notch again.

Then, she saw him, out of the corner of her eye.

It happened in slow motion. Dash peeked around to see Sleipnir fall into her trap. He galloped, full tilt, straight towards the edge of the ridge and went straight off of it. But he didn't run, he jumped. There was another sound of crashing thunder as he kicked against the ground with incredible force. He leaped off the cliff and sailed through the air. Even without touching the ground and without wings, he still managed to close the distance with Rainbow. Dash panicked. She flailed her wings and legs as she desperately tried to turn and fly away from him, but he was coming in too fast. Sleipnir twisted his body so that his legs were towards her. The maneuver was exactly like the four-legged kick she had delivered to him earlier. Only this time, Sleipnir had more mass, more strength, and more legs. Dash braced herself for the crushing blow against her body. “Be gone!” Sleipnir shouted as he forcefully shoved Rainbow dash away from him.

The impact from the kick sent Dash spiraling away from Sleipnir. She tumbled end over end as she tried to right herself. The erratic wind currents coming off of the jagged rocks below complicated matters, as she struggled to catch the wind with her wings. The world spun, but she caught glimpses of a rock face coming closer and closer.

Fortunately, this was the kind of problem Rainbow was proficient in handling. The amnesia had wiped the memories of much of her training from her brain, but her body still seemed to remember. She spread out her wings and legs to catch as much air as she could, slowing her descent and stopping the nauseating spinning. Her fall started to stabilize, but she was sideways. With a sudden twist of her body and tucking her legs back in, Dash managed to turn her fall into a glide.

Dash righted herself and skimmed through the ravine, mere feet above the solid stone ground. She was gliding fast, and had to duck and weave around a few jagged rocks as she nosed up, flying higher into the sky once more. Had she not been falling into a canyon, she would not have been able to recover before slamming into the dirt.

“Horse apples!” Rainbow shouted to herself. “Now I'm way off course!”

Continuing to nose upward, Dash turned her ascent into a half-loop and headed for Canterlot once more. She could see Sleipnir again, on the far side of the ridge. He had managed to jump clear over it while throwing her down into her own trap! She gritted her teeth and pushed her wings harder.

“No more screwing around, big guy, I'm coming for you now!”

Beyond Judgment

Part XXVIII: Suspicion

“We apologize, truly, but we are not yet prepared to give further details on the result of the battle.” Luna told the reporter, straining as best she could to keep her voice level.

The reporter was insistent, however, to get any amount of information he could. He was practically quivering with excitement at the prospect of being the pony that would break the story for his paper. His camera rattled around his neck. “Are you sure, your highness? That whole Sleipnir affair came out of nowhere. Who knows if he could pop up again in some other cursed forest? It would put a lot of ponies at ease if you could tell us more about why he left.”

“As we hath explained – repeatedly – Sleipnir came to this realm for one purpose. With that purpose complete, he has since returned to his own world. It is as simple as that.”

“With all due respect, your highness, I've been in this business long enough to know that nothing's so simple.”

Luna was taken aback. Did the ponies of this new time really show such little respect for the authority of her sister? When she left Equestria before, her little ponies were in awe of herself and her power, and would never speak to her in such a manner.

“Dost thou doubt the word of thine princess?” Lune said sternly, leaning in closer to the reporter's level.

“Oh, of course not! No, no, nothing of the sort!” The pony said, pulling a little bit at the collar of his camera brace. “I'm just trying to inform my readers, is all. Knowledge is power, and all that.”

Luna straightened her neck again. “Then thou may inform thine readers that they have the word of their princesses that their nation is secure and their foe retreated. That is all, scribe.”

With that, Luna turned and left the reporter, who began to rummage through his saddlebags for a notepad and pencil. She thought to herself that the “interview” must have taken longer than she thought; she could not locate her sister. No simple task, she was certain. One does not miss a full-sized Alicorn in a room full of ponies. Spreading her wings, she took to the air and flew to the upper level of the hall so that she could look outside. Perhaps she was out there.

Using her magic to open a door to the outside, Luna saw that her sister was indeed out on the balcony. She was standing, in her usual majestic fashion, head high and wings outstretched. Her eyes were closed as she was taking in the gentle wind and absorbing the mid-day warmth from her sun.

“Sister? What art thou doing out here?”

Celestia opened her eyes and looked to her sister. “I'm making an appearance,” she said.

Rolling her eyes, Luna said “thou speakest in riddles. For nopony is out here to appear to.”

“Not nopony. Twilight's family did not come with us earlier. I needed to be certain that they saw me.”

“Indeed. So, is all faring as thou hath predicted?”

“Yes. Twilight's family is suspicious, especially since Cadence has told them about the foresight of elders, but they will not speak out about a conspiracy against us. Spike will, but none will listen to him.”

Luna sighed. “Thou seekest to make him a martyr?”

“I seek only to preserve the covenant.” Celestia said sternly. “As much as we may dislike it, Sleipnir's solution was simply the best one. Twilight brought it upon herself. And Spike is too loyal for his own good. That is out of our hooves.”

Luna sidled up to her sister and looked out over the edge with her. “So much power between us, and yet we are still so limited.”

Celestia said nothing. Luna resigned to standing next to her sister. However, facing the sun was always such a strain on her eyes, so she opted instead to lie down in the shade of the balcony ceiling. She often wondered if her sister was actually capable of staring directly into her sun without injuring herself, but she enjoyed the mystery more than the truth would actually provide, so she never asked.

“You're giggling to yourself again,” Celestia pointed out, “is there something on your mind?”

“Hmm? Oh, no,” Luna said, smiling.

A moment passed in silence as Celestia warmed herself in her sun and Luna made a feeble attempt to hide from it. Then, the younger sister spoke again.

“There were two guests missing this morn. Dost this concern thou?”

“No, it does not. I expected it.”

“Of course, thou did.”

Celestia shot her sister a sharp look before turning back to the balcony again. “Rainbow Dash, injured from her conflict with Colonel Morningstar-”

“Whom thou personally requested to attend the battle.” Luna interrupted.

“Yes, I ordered that he and General Flash command the field. After Rainbow Dash fought and lost against the colonel, she was in no condition to do anything reckless – such as seeking out Sleipnir and avenging Twilight.”

“What about Fluttershy?”

“In her compassion, she would try to keep Rainbow Dash in her bed and tend to her. But, in her meekness, she would be persuaded by Rainbow Dash to take her to Everfree anyway.”

Luna nodded. “Were they Earth ponies or Unicorns we would be concerned. Pegasi, on the other hoof, would be safest in the skies above the cursed forest. But, we do not understand. If thou predicted that Fluttershy would take Rainbow Dash to Everfree, why send Colonel Morningstar to injure her in the first place?”

“An extra precaution,” Celestia explained, still looking over the horizon. “Rainbow would not be able to cause any harm in her state, and Fluttershy would not allow her to come to harm. The two would fly over Everfree, see that Sleipnir is nowhere to be found, and then return. After a long, uneventful night, the two are sleeping now in a pair of hospital beds, unharmed from their journey.”

“So, thou believes Sleipnir to have returned to his own realm?”

“Of all the things I have predicted so far, I am more certain of that than anything. Sleipnir is nothing, if not absolutely dedicated to his duties as dictated by the covenant. It's why he started this disaster in the first place. Having resolved the matter, he is most definitely returned to his realm.”

“Is this so?” Luna said, raising an eyebrow.

“There is only one thing that I am not entirely certain of. The Zebra of Everfree, Zecora, is an enigma. Nopony even knows why she is there in the first place. Twilight spoke of her several times in her reports, mentioning that she is a wonderful healer. Fluttershy might have gone to her for help, either in finding Sleipnir or healing Rainbow Dash, but she was unable to do either.”

“What makes thou certain of this? Our ties with Zebrabwe have always been very loose. We cannot know the extent of Zecora’s power of healing.”

“That may be true, but Rainbow Dash has been under critical care for most of the week, and she has lost much of her strength. Zecora’s potions may be able to speed the healing process along, but there is no way that she could be fully cured in one night.

Luna nodded, slowly, her expression uncertain. “So, what shall we do now?”

“The worst is over, at last.” Celestia said, sighing deeply. “Twilight's friends will gradually adjust to their new lives without her, as will her family. They will mourn their loss, but the pain shall fade. Time heals all things.”

“Not all things.”

The solar princess glanced back to her younger sister again, albeit briefly. She then looked over her shoulder to the doorway that led back inside, and the guests within. “I have been out here for long enough; It's time I returned. Are you coming, Luna?”

“Not yet. We believe that we shall stay for a bit longer,” she said, then stretched out her wings and legs. “We are quite tired from our daytime duties, and we require a nap. Perhaps we shall retire elsewhere.”

Celestia nodded, and began to walk back inside. “Very well. It means a lot to me that you came today.”

“Of course. We are also grateful to Twilight Sparkle and her friends for saving us from ourselves. This is the least we could do to honor her memory.”

“Yes. Thank you, Luna,” Celestia said and stepped inside, magically closing the door behind her.

Standing, Luna stretched her wings again. Not for comfort this time, but in preparation. Something Sleipnir had said to her a few weeks back had stuck itself in her mind. It was on that night when he fearlessly infiltrated Ponyville.

“I came here to see you. Believe me, if I could create a portal on the moon, I would have. And make no mistake, this conflict is absolutely necessary, whether you believe it or not.”

We know Sleipnir better than anypony else – even sister,” Luna thought to herself. “He's not so strict when it came to adhering to the rules as she believed. After all, it was him who forged the armor we used when we-

Luna shook her head to end that train of thought where it was.

The stallion that we knew from so very, very long ago would not go to such great lengths to secure the soul of one mere pony. If we had been told one thousand years ago that somepony had evaded death itself, we would have expected Sleipnir to come to this world to congratulate that pony in person, not to lay claim to her. This is the very same elder that, weeks ago, conspired with us to scribble ink on sister's face! Something is not right here. Tis something else he is after.

Luna had to escape the gathering, but she had to do it discreetly. Instead of taking to the skies, she changed form into that of a nebulous shadow. She could not pass through sunlight in that form, so she seeped into the floorboards of the hall and made her way downward, slithering through the walls and into the ground below.

The Zebra is not the only thing sister has failed to take into account. She believes that she can predict everypony's movements because she is an elder, but Sleipnir is almost as ancient as we are. He would know that Celestia would be predicting his every move. Overcoming such a disadvantage would actually be quite simple: Do something completely unexpected. Whatever he is planning, it must be the least likely thing he expects Sister to expect. Unless he's expecting her to expect him to do that, in which case it's the next unlikely thing. Or the most likely thing.

A throbbing pain started to emerge in Luna's incorporeal head. “It's like dealing with Discord all over again!

There was no more pacing, no more taking it easy, no time for strategies, Rainbow Dash just had to fly as fast as she could. She could rest when she was dead, which was going to happen soon either way.

Canterlot Mountain rose higher and higher before her as Dash pounded her wings, straining to get every last drop of wingpower. She could hear the earthly thunder before her. Scanning the ground, she saw Sleipnir approach the mountain as well. They would be on it in seconds. But, at least she was catching up.

Then, Sleipnir took a sharp turn. Dash flinched, thinking he was about to pull off some other trick, even though he was nearly a quarter mile ahead of her. She chided herself for it.

Rainbow watched as Sleipnir veered away from the mountain, making a path that seemed to circle around it, instead of up towards Canterlot. Dash started to panic again, wondering if she was remembering the course properly. He did say to go to the castle and back, didn't he? She was sure he did.

Dash chided herself again, smacking her temples with her hooves. “He's getting in your head! Don't lose your cool now, you've got this. Just keep flying.”

Banking upwards towards the castle, Dash kept an eye on Sleipnir, trying to figure out just what exactly he was planning. He was galloping towards the railway track that ran into the mountain. Then he took another tight corner and disappeared into the tunnel.

“Ha! Of course!” Dash shouted to herself, ecstatic. “He's still ground-bound! He can't just run up the side of the mountain, he has to follow the train tracks! Chalk another one up for flight!”

Although Rainbow Dash had been to Canterlot many times before, she usually had to travel by train since there were non-Pegasi traveling with her. It always struck her as so inefficient and time-consuming, having to weave in and out and all around the mountain in order to ascend it. And how much time must it have taken to dig giant holes out of the mountain, anyway? It takes about half an hour to ascend the mountain by train through the series of tunnels, as opposed to the five minutes (or more, for a Pegasus who was not the fastest flier in Equestria.) to just fly straight upwards. She had friends to hang with for these journeys, so it wasn't so bad. Now she was thankful for it.

Rainbow ascended the mountain at full speed, quickly closing with the underside of the castle. As silly as the tunnels are, she had some serious respect for whoever built a castle that hangs off the side of a mountain like that. That would have been nothing for clouds, but solid stone? She always assumed the princess' magic had something to do with keeping that place together. There was no telling where Sleipnir was at that point, but Dash wasn't going to waste her advantage by thinking about it. Instead, she focused on her next maneuver before she slammed into that stone face in front of her.

Flying straight upward at full speed for as long as possible, Dash suddenly tucked her wings in to her body and let her momentum carry her the rest of the way. She flipped her body around so that at the height of the trick her hooves made contact with the hanging floor Canterlot with a loud “clop!” For a brief instant she stood, crouched, upside down. Before gravity started to pull her away again, she kicked off against the stone floor and rocketed herself towards the ground.

The sensation of flying downwards reminded Dash of that day in the fields. The day that started that whole mess. She remembered Twilight's advice on reaching maximum speed and performing a sonic rainboom. She narrowed her eyes and focused.

Just keep flying. That's the most important thing I can do. Just keep flying.

If there was any chance of breaking the sound barrier – and keeping it broken – that just might have been Dash’s best chance. It would definitely build up that lead she was getting. She held her hooves forward and tucked them in close, streamlining her body. She carefully controlled every minute motion of her wings, getting the most thrust out of every muscle. The ground was closing, but her elevation was high. She just need some time. Just a little more time!

The air in front of Rainbow tightened like a drum. It was becoming hard and hard to eke out more and more wingpower. The wind forces was causing turbulence all around her, but she stayed steady. She pushed downward with everything she had.

“A little more...! Just...! A little more!”


That was it! Dash could feel the eruption of sound resonate through her body as she hit the speed of sound. Glancing back, she saw the ring of rainbow colors expand from a single point behind her. Being as close to the mountain as she was, part of the wave crashed against the nearest rock face. The myriad of colors swirled and buckled around each other there as some of the rock began to crumble.

Dash screamed; Partly in fear, partly in frustration. She was slipping again! It was just a disk, not a cone like Sleipnir said! Furthermore, she was blasting apart the mountain! The mountain that was holding up Canterlot!

Pulling upward, Rainbow lifted herself out of her dive bomb. It was just as well, as she was getting dangerously close to the ground. Changing to a shallower angle, she kept pushing herself as hard as she could. She was right at the edge of the barrier. She could feel it.

Boom! Boom-boom! Boom!

More sonic rainbooms, but none of them had any staying power. Four different rings of prismatic power surged through the air, crashing against the ground in front of the mountain. Trees cracked and buckled. A nearby pond was almost emptied of its water when one rainboom splashed into it.

It was too much. Dash dropped her speed to something much more manageable. She gasped for air after holding her breath from the tension. She looked over her shoulder towards Canterlot. She had gained quite a lead, and Sleipnir was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he was still going through the tunnels? Maybe he didn't plan for that?

“Maybe,” dash panted to herself, “maybe that'll be good enough...”

Beyond Judgment

Part XXIX: Sleipnir vs. the Mountain.

In contrast to Rainbow Dash's panicked flight, Sleipnir was quite enjoying his sprint. It really had been centuries since he had a good gallop and he was determined to make the best of it. Sure there was work to do, but that little journey up the mountain was part of a larger plan. A more important one. Work would just have to wait. His daughters could take care of things well enough in his absence. For a while at least. Sometimes somepony just absolutely refuses to go and requires a little bit of... coercion... but it was sure to be fine until he returned.

Of more pressing matters was the oncoming train.

Sleipnir grunted in annoyance to himself as he continued galloping through one of the many tunnels inside Canterlot Mountain. There was always the possibility of one coming his direction, but there was no good way to determine whether or not one actually would when the time came. He could hear the engine running some distance away, but he couldn't determine exactly how far away it was; the reverberation of the sound through the rocky walls of the tunnel made it impossible to place. The tunnels were just wide enough for a train to pass through and he was simply too big to squeeze past it while inside the tunnel. He would have to find an open area between two tunnels to wait for it. He was faced with two options, lest he face it head on: turn around and wait for the train to pass him, or go faster and hope that there's a place to avoid it father ahead.

Bringing a mere speeding train to a halt would be a small feat after pacifying that Ursa Minor, but then there would be all that debris and injuries from the wreckage to contend with, and what if somepony was killed in the crash? That would just be that much more to attend to later. Regardless, Sleipnir opted for the riskier choice. He accelerated.

He accelerated like a vanilla cream cake out of Pinkie's party cannon.


Lowering his head and pushing harder, Sleipnir quickly built up his already considerable momentum. With a few strong kicks, he quickly pushed his speed into the near-sonic range; No need to tear up the mountain with a sonic boom. The sound of the rushing wind resonated through the tunnel, and the vacuum of air in his wake threatened to rip the train tracks out from the ground.

The tunnel ahead curved to the right, and Sleipnir banked with it. The centrifugal force of the turn pushed him outwards towards the wall. With a small jump, he leaped into it, and started to run sideways along it. Although much fainter compared to the rush of air behind him, the rumble of the approaching train grew louder as the two charged towards each other. The tunnel was getting brighter; there was an opening ahead. In a flash, Sleipnir moved into the light and out of the tunnel. He responded quickly and jumped before he ended up flinging himself off the side of the mountain.

But the light in front of Sleipnir wasn't just from Celestia's sun; It was the headlight of the oncoming train meeting him at the end of the tunnel. There wasn't enough clearance for the two of them at the narrow opening. Not entirely, anyway. Sleipnir aimed high (or from his current orientation, left), and threw himself through the breach. He extended his foremost hooves and made contact with the engine's smokestack. The force ripped the cylindrical steel pipe from the machine like it was made from cardboard.

Sleipnir sailed through the air, carrying the shredded smokestack, until he hit the mountain wall above the next tunnel's entrance – leaving the rest of the steam engine unscathed. His eight hooves impacted with the stone surface at near-sonic speeds, leaving an impression in the mountain and crushing the steel pipe into a sheet of scrap metal.

Leaping down to the ground, Sleipnir waited for the engine to pass so that he could continue his little fun run. The train and its cars continued their journey as he watched, and finally cleared the way for him to continue. He chuckled to himself.

“I wonder if that conductor is even aware of what just happened? He's going to have quite a surprise when he emerges through the other end of that tunnel and finds that part of his engine is missing. I would like to see his face.”

Boom! Boom-boom! Boom!

Sleipnir's ears perked. That was a familiar sound. “Hmm?”

Stepping over to the ledge, Sleipnir looked around over the countryside to see where the sonic boom had come from. There was a streak of multicolored light shooting over the plains back towards Ponyville. A series of concussive waves were emanating from its wake and damaging the surrounding terrain.

Sleipnir took a small, but sharp intake of breath. He took a few more steps towards the edge, his eyes locked on the small figure leading the shockwaves of sound and wind. She was flying at a steep angle, moving towards the ground with significant speed.

“Come on, come on...” the elder whispered under his breath.

The pegasus in the distance leveled out entirely, and her speed dropped considerably. Sleipnir swore and stamped a hoof, causing a small, splintering piece of rock to detach from the mountain and fall off the cliff.

“Useless mare. I can't believe you're all I've got to work with.”

Sleipnir galloped into the tunnel, but did not need to return to sonic speeds. If what he just witnessed was any indication, the time didn't call for it again quite yet.

Princess Cadence had insisted that Spike take it easy for the time being and not raise a fuss during the funeral. There were proper channels for that kind of thing, she assured him, and that was neither the time nor place. Nonetheless, he was still feeling anxious. There were ponies all around him, talking about history and magic and news; things relating to Twilight but actually about her. He couldn't bear to hear any of it. Nightlight and Star Sparkle were immediately surrounded by ponies offering their condolences, but nopony really gave him all that much attention. It didn't bother him too much since he was pretty used to being ignored while the mares got all the attention. He was too busy thinking about Twilight and the princess anyway. His head was a blur, and his back was scratchy. Seriously, why wouldn't that go away?

Out of the corner of his eye, Spike saw Princess Celestia step in from the balcony and rejoin everypony back inside the hall.

“If I may have your attention, please,” Celestia said, instantly hushing all of the chatter in the room, “Since there are no more eulogies prepared, you are all free to remain here at your leisure. At nightfall, the coffin bearers will return to Canterlot, where Twilight will be laid to rest.”

Spike had been offered the opportunity to speak before, but he refused. Not that he didn't care, of course, but because he didn't know what to say.

Or, rather, he didn't know how to say it in so many words.

Twilight wasn't just a pseudo-sister figure to Spike. She was the greatest pony he ever met. And considering the company she kept, that's saying a lot. She was talented beyond comprehension. She had been able to learn and internalize facts and information on any subject. She had a love of learning that drove her to do amazing things. Her mastery of magic was beyond even the scope of spells she knew. There was no limit to her potential. And she had so much heart. She cared deeply for her friends and all of Equestria, throwing herself into dangerous situations without a second thought.

In Spike's mind, he never considered himself an indentured servant, forced to stay by his mistress' side and serve her for life. It wasn't even just part of his Dragon Code that drove him to catalog Twilight's countless books, and run her errands, and make her food. With her ability, she could have done all of those things herself no problem!

No, it was an honor to serve her.

Spike knew full well the potential of his adoptive sister, and all the good she was going to do for Equestria. It was already starting to happen once the two of them moved to Ponyville. Day one: Uncover lost Equestrian history and defeat a mythical invader. There wasn't anything she couldn't do! And if there was even the slightest thing he could do to give her a better chance to shine, than it would be worth the work.

“Spike, stop that this instant!” Hissed a mare's voice.

So caught up in his own thoughts, Spike didn't even realize that somepony was talking. He looked around and saw that Rarity was looking straight at him.

“Huh? Stop what?”

“You're clawing at your back again. If you're not careful you'll scratch your scales right off!”

Evidently, Spike was so caught up in his own thoughts that he hadn't realized he was scratching more vigorously than before. He blushed and tried to hide his claw awkwardly. “Hehe, Sorry.”

“Come now, have you eaten yet? Princess Celestia spared no expense on the hors d'oeuvres, and I can think of nopony else in attendance who has such a refined taste as you, so to speak,” Rarity said, turning towards the buffet table.

Reluctantly, Spike followed. “I dunno, I may eat rocks, but I can't keep down some of that fancy schmancy stuff you ponies eat.”

“Oh, posh! You could use a little more sophistication. And besides, there's a whole tray of deviled amethysts that's only going to go uneaten without you.”

“...I didn't know you could devil an amethyst.”

“Neither did I, but they're a beauty to behold. I'm very certain she enlisted a top group of chefs and geologists to figure it out. I'm very curious as to how that tastes.”

“I tried explaining it to Twilight once, but it didn't go so well. I told her she'd have to eat one for herself to really understand. That didn't go so well either.”

Rarity laughed. “That's our Twilight; Infinitely curious.”

“...Yeah,” Spike said with a sigh, “she was pretty smart...”

Using her telekinesis, Rarity picked up Spike so she could nudge her cheek against his. “It'll be okay, Spike, we'll get through this together, alright?”

Spike blushed a bit as Rarity set him back down. “Uh... yeah, of course!” he said. “Sure...”

At one edge of Canterlot stands a bridge. It's a short one, only a dozen or so yards in length, as it passes over a babbling creek. It is used only for the railway to travel through the city before it leaves elsewhere. In the middle of this bridge stands a pair of guardhouses; tiny sheds that house a pair of royal guards and their box lunches during their shifts. The guardsponies there, gray in coat and adorned with golden armor, stood at attention with a finely developed glaze in the eyes. They gradually came back into focus at the sound of an incoming object. Slowly, however, it dawned on them that the object in question was not a train, but sounded rather like a rumbling thundercloud. The two of them stared at the bend in the train tracks ahead of them, where it disappeared behind the side of the mountain. The rumbling grew louder and louder, and did so faster than a normal train would.

Suddenly, a large, dark-blue stallion with eight legs came charging around the corner at incredible speed. This came at such an unexpected surprise to the two guards that they didn't really know what to do about it. Instead they just stood there and watched as the stallion galloped right past them and into the city. They turned to look where he was going, peeking around the sides of their guardhouses.

Predictably enough, the dark-coated intruder continued along the train tracks up towards Canterlot. He made a bee-line for the nearby station. Nopony was on the platform at the time, as the last train had just departed a short while ago. The intruder galloped towards the building, kicked off against it, and continued charging in another direction as though he was a ricocheting pinball.

Unpredictably enough, he then took a hard turn and dove off the side of the mountain.

The guards were silent as their minds slowly processed this event.

“That was, uh...” one of the guards said.

“Yep, that was weird,” his partner added.

“No, not that. Well, yes, that. But that was actually that one pony, wasn't it?”

“Yep, I think it was. What was his name?”

“I don't remember. It was something foreign. Slipper?”

“No, that would just be silly. It was something like that, though. Slipner?

“... Sleipnir!”

“Yeah, yeah. Sleipnir. That guy.”



“We should go report that now, shouldn't we?”

“Yep, that we should.”

Barely noticing the guards he blazed past, Sleipnir continued his journey back towards his fortress. He wasn't sure what section of Canterlot Dash passed through, but that's just how it is with such a large checkpoint; the term “nearest wall of Canterlot” would be up to interpretation. He chose to tag the first wall he came across inside the city: the side of the train station.

After diving off the cliff, Sleipnir started to slide down the steep mountainside. While gravity was previously working against him going uphill, he would make use of it heading back down. At an elevation near vertical, he was practically free-falling. Half galloping, half sliding, he descended the mountain. He dodged around sharp ledges and fought to maintain his balance on the rough, rocky surface. Pebbles began to break away from the rock, already loosened from Dash's sonic rainboom, and followed him down. They rolled between his legs and underneath his hooves, making it harder for him to stay upright.

Barreling down the side of the mountain like an avalanche, Sleipnir laughed, thoroughly enjoying the thrill.

A ledge came into view that was too wide for him to sidestep, and too long for him to jump over without completely throwing himself off the mountainside. Sleipnir had no option but to crash into it. He took a small jump to land evenly with all eight hooves against the ledge, despite this, there was a loud sound of crunching stone. The force of the impact was well within his own tolerances, but the precipice cracked and buckled under the strain.

Shearing away from the mountain it was once a part of, the ledge started to slide down the mountain as Sleipnir was before. Unfazed, the elder looked down over the side of his falling platform to gauge his descent. Judging that he was then moving more slowly than he was before, he scoffed and jump off of it and started to run ahead.

Sleipnir continued his galloping, free-falling descent down the mountain. Only this time, there was an actual avalanche behind him. He struggled to remember the last time he had enjoyed himself so much.

Alas, Sleipnir's slide of stone came to an end when the mountain did. Approaching the ground, he leaped outwards, transferring his downward fall into a forward lunge. He hit the ground running as a mound of rocks and stones crashed into the earth.

Having wasted enough time with his fun, Sleipnir lowered his head and began to push harder. His many hooves beat against the ground in perfect rhythm rapidly, so that they began to sound like one constant rumble. He charger faster, and faster, making up for lost time. Rainbow Dash had enough to a head start, it was time to make her sweat a bit.

Now, it was go time.


Beyond Judgment

Part XXX: Flash Back

Dash was still a while ahead of Sleipnir; it would take a few minutes to catch up. He could have closed the gap a bit sooner, but he chose not to. A whisper in the back of his head told him that he was being foolish, but he dismissed it for the time being. He let his mind wander through the joy of speed.

Even though his opponent possessed the ability to fly, Sleipnir would not trade thing her possessed for the ability. How boring would it be to move in a straight line anywhere he wished? Experiencing and exploring the ground was far too entertaining. Galloping across the countryside a shade over the speed of sound, every gentle slope and rolling hill became a ramp with which he could launch himself into the air. He could bend and flow with the curvature of the earth like a stream. He would never know what was just around the next bend or over the next crest, and it was a thrill to experience the path as it came. The terrain wasn't just a thing to fight against or manipulate in order to travel, it was a toy that played with him as much as he played with it.

There were times, long ago, that Sleipnir and his Lady went on moonlight journeys together. While Luna wielded her wings with grace and elegance, not even she was capable of coming anywhere close to his speed. Of his several regrets, the most minor was the fact that he was never able to show off to her the full power of his gallop. Instead she would make gentle swoops through the night sky as he played on the terrain below. Together, and yet apart. Such was how it always was, even before the Covenant.

There was a place, far from where he was racing, that the two of them would often visit. It was rockier than the badlands on the southern edge of Equestria and without the looming annoyance of dragons. Of course, the sky was always the sky to his Lady of the Night, but the rough, jagged terrain of the Sawtooth Hills were especially engaging for Sleipnir to run in. The Rambling Ridge that Rainbow Dash attempted to trap him with was a mere crack in between cobblestones compared to his hills.

Indeed, those were the last times Sleipnir last had so much enjoyment while galloping.

Of course, navigating such terrain would have been dangerous – even for Sleipnir – under the fog of night. That is why the two of them went together under the glow of Luna's full moon. He was younger then. Much, much younger. Back when his legs were more tone and less muscle, and his eyes wilder. He had great difficulty remaining still then.

There was a game Sleipnir would play with Luna. Whenever she would glide at her lowest, Sleipnir would bank towards the nearest vertical ledge and run up it. Launching himself into the sky towards his Lady, he would try to get as close to her as he could. She would always see him coming, though, and gracefully slip out of his grasp. Having no control over his movement in the air, he would then fall back downwards again – but not before she would kiss him on the tip of his nose at the height of his jump.

There was once when Sleipnir almost managed to catch his prey. Luna had drifted low, much lower than usual – that should have been a sign. Running up a nearby ledge, he threw himself at her. The lunge drew him closer, and closer, but at that pivotal moment where his hoof almost grazed her side, she dematerialized into a cloud of nebulous magic. He sailed through the cloud like a vapor, and fell as he always did without making true contact. Upon landing, he called up to her, annoyed.

“Thou art a cheater!” Sleipnir shouted to the arcane cloud.

Drifting lazily through the air, darting this way and that, the vapor settled on a nearby spire, still somewhat out of Sleipnir's reach. “We know not what thou means...” Luna said, materializing again.

The princess was more petite then, as well. In fact, that was before she was a princess at all. She was always less... towering than her older sister, but back in those nights Luna was only a bit taller than a common pony. She was closer in proportions to her niece, Cadence, in modern times. Her mane and tail were mostly a pale blue, with only their tips beginning to acquire an ethereal quality.

“Thou cannot use magic to evade thine grasp! Tis against the rules.” Sleipnir said, indignant.

“We have been informed of no rules,” the princess said nonchalantly, inspecting the shine of her slipper. “How could we have broken a rule we did not know existed?”

“Feigning ignorance does not suit thee,” Sleipnir said, pacing. “We hath played this game times enough to know the rules of conduct.”

“Hmm... If that is so, then the one who has broken the rules here is thou, beloved.”

“Thee? Thee!?” Sleipnir was shocked and insulted. He shifted his weight into an aggressive stance as he spoke. “Thou violates the rules of our game and then accuses thee of treachery?! Explain thyself!”

“The game has always been such that thou wouldst lunge at us, and yet miss. This time, however, thou came dangerously close to marring our finely brushed coat.” Luna said, casually brushing her side with a bejeweled hoof.

“But I hath always attempted to catch thou!” Sleipnir said with a stomp. “Yet thou always manages to elude thee!”

“So thou admits it, then?”

“Admits what!?”

“That thou are not a cheater, but rather incompetent?”

Sleipnir opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. He opened it again to say something else instead but still failed to form words. He tried a third time but again failed. Luna began to laugh. She rolled over on her perch as she giggled to herself, clutching her belly and kicking her hind legs into the air. Her companion, from the ground below, scowled at her. He could not maintain the expression for long, however, and himself began to laugh.

“Thou art as cunning as thou art beautiful, my Lady of the Night, even when thou chortles like a mule.”

Luna immediately stopped laughing, and rolled over. She puffed out her cheeks as she pouted and glared down at her stallion, who began to-

Sleipnir suddenly found that he couldn't breathe. His lungs began to burn instantly as his body used so much oxygen maintaining his sonic speeds. Rocked from his daydream, he started to lose control of his legs. He fell forward and began to tumble end over end as his momentum flung him across the countryside. He clutched his legs as closely to himself as he could, partly to grasp his convulsing chest and partly to keep them from breaking like twigs in the ensuing crash. He began to slow down as his velocity dropped, starting to slide across the grass more than bouncing off of it. He eventually came to a stop in a bleeding heap on the ground.

In a brief flash of interdimensional light, a pair of Valponies appeared in the sky above Sleipnir and glided down to his side. Were it not for his supernatural endurance, he would have already been dead as they arrived.

“Father, are you alright?” The elder of the two valponies asked – not that anypony but Sleipnir himself could tell the difference. He chuckled at the question, and then coughed harshly. No, clearly he was not alright.

Testing his muscles slowly and carefully, Sleipnir attempted to judge the damage. It was quite a stumble he had just experienced. “Two broken legs...” he choked out. “One... three... four... six.... Six broken ribs. Wait, was that all the numbers...? I think I missed one.”

“That wasn't all the numbers, father. You skipped two and five.” One of the valponies responded.

“Really...? Better add concussion to the list... I think I've fractured my pelvis a few times too.”

“The degeneration is progressing faster than expected,” the younger valpony said.

“You need to be restored. Return my energy to you so that you may be healed,” the elder valpony added.

“Return my energy as well to delay the degeneration,” the younger valpony continued.

Sleipnir thrashed at the idea, which only served to exacerbate his condition. He tried to hold up a hoof to stop them, but it only flopped back down again as soon as he raised it. “Daughters! No! Not both of you!” Sleipnir choked out. “It's not time for that yet. Not yet...”

“You must take me to heal yourself and continue the race.” The elder said.

“I offer myself as well, father,” the younger added.

Sleipnir looked at his daughters. His beautiful, beautiful daughters. Coats as pure as fresh snow and manes of flowing gold. The only distinguishing feature between them were their eyes. Each of his daughters, every single one of them, had a distinct eye color. Sometimes the difference was subtle, but it existed. It was something they could call their own and be individuals, even though he couldn't grant them true identities. His valponies were strong and obedient, loyal and hard working. If only he could have made them intelligent as well...

There's one of those regrets again. That certainly does happen a lot to dying ponies.

The urgency of the valponies' words belied the stoicism of their expressions. They were simply doing as they were told, following his instructions as simply and logically as he had given them. They were to watch him from the other side, and come to him if the illness struck and he needed help. It was easy for them to cross realms – it's what he created them for – but he couldn't do so without a portal. His inner power was too great.

Unfortunately, that power was fading. But he had a bigger problem.

His daughters were absolutely right. It wasn't time for Sleipnir to stop running yet. He had to finish the race. With his injuries, he couldn't move. It was only a matter of time before he died where he lay, degradation or not, and that would cause all kinds of new problems. There was only one way he was getting back up. One of them had to die.

Sleipnir looked to the elder valpony. He recognized her instantly, as he did all of them. Her eyes were a deep amber, bordering on a muddy brown. She was seven thousand four hundred and twenty eight years old. Older than most. How many beings had she brought dutifully to the afterlife in her millenia of service? How many important ponies had she personally conveyed to their final resting places? After so long, to be sacrificed so unceremoniously in a place like that would be unthinkable.

Sleipnir looked to the younger of the two valponies. Icy blue eyes, with just a hint of green. Five hundred and twelve. So young! She was so very young. She had such life ahead of her. So much more she could accomplish. So many important figures she could meet, figures that she would watch be born, grow, age and die before she brought them home. He couldn't take her. Not her.

There was no choice. There was nothing Sleipnir could do, but he had to choose. He groaned as he strained to lift a hoof.

Vision blurring and muscles weakening, Sleipnir couldn't precisely select one of his daughters even if he wanted to. Extending one of his remaining good legs, he attempted to point to the space in between the two of them.  He could see his hoof wavering; not from indecision, but his inability to hold it steady. Given his injuries, there was no telling where he was actually indicating. In a moment of weakness, he let chance decide.

“You... Just you... Do it. The other... stay.” Sleipnir said, closing his eyes tight.

“Yes, father,” the chosen valpony said. Sleipnir strained to not notice which one the voice was coming from.

A bright light began to shine from outside Sleipnir's tightly closed eyelids. He felt a warmth envelop his body, seeping into every part of his being. With a tingling sensation, he began to feel he body repairing itself. Muscles merging back together, bones snapping back into place, sinews stretching back to where they should be.

Slowly, Sleipnir stood, his strength returned to him – for the time being. He had to move fast if he was to wrap everything up before it was too late. The energy inside of him began to subside, settling to where it needed to be – where it originally was before he used it to create that valpony in the first place.

“Are you better now, father?”

Sleipnir looked down at the valpony who spoke, and he knew. It was the eyes. From that color knew which of his daughters was the survivor and which was the sacrifice. He looked at her for a long moment, thinking back to the missing eye color so that he would not forget. He stared for long enough to confuse the valpony, causing her to tilt her head to the side in wonder.

“I'm fine now.” Sleipnir said at last. “Go back home and return to your watch.”

“Yes, father.”

The valpony spread her wings and took to the sky. She flew gently upwards, disappearing in the same flash of light in which she and her sister appeared before. Not even her armor remained of her now. Sleipnir took a deep breath, and raised his eyes to the sky. In the distance, just on the edge of his vision, he could see the annoying, stupid little blue pegasus that he needed.

He had lost many of his daughters on that fateful day in Everfree, when the Elements fought them. More than he expected, to be truthful, and he returned them all to his soul just as he did the one just then. It was painful, of course, but it was with purpose. A purpose that he explained to them, though they barely comprehended. A purpose they all volunteered for, though they did not understand.

But that? That was needless. It was wasteful. It was cruel. And he had to do it. A minor aberration in his grand scheme with a terrible consequence.

He knew he should have been taking that run more seriously.

Sleipnir clenched his teeth and shut his eyes tight. He threw his head back and roared into the sky.



In a burst of newfound strength, Sleipnir leaped to full speed. Approaching mach III, the ground flew by him at a pace even he could barely keep up with. His powerful stride quickly became a series of powerful leaps from one hilltop to another.

It only took seventeen seconds for him to catch up to his opponent.

Beyond Judgment

Part XXXI: War of Winds

Spike's ear twitched. There was that sound again. He cupped a claw around a scaly ear and tried to listen carefully for the noise. It was like an explosion, and explosion of thunder. He waited quietly, trying to focus on the sound over the din of the crowd of ponies.

“Spike, is your head getting itchy now too? I'm beginning to think there's something wrong with you.” Rarity said, interrupting the baby dragon's concentration.

“Huh, what? No, I just thought I heard something.”

Rarity cocked her ears up and listened around, trying to see if there was anything to be concerned with. “Hmm... I don't hear anything out of the ordinary. Just a bunch of ponies chatting.”

“It's farther off. Really far. It's definitely coming from Everfree.”

“Really? I didn't know you had such good hearing.”

Spike blushed. “Heheh, there isn't usually a need for it. There's noises coming from that place all the time, but this is different. It's like an explosion, or something. I've never heard of that coming from Everfree before.”

“An explosion? Gracious! We must inform Princess Celestia at once.”

“...How about we tell Luna instead.”

Rarity gasped. “Spike! I'm ashamed at you!” Then, whispering and leaning close, “I know you don't like her right now, but if you believe there's some danger to the town, Princess Celestia is the best one to handle it.”

Spike hung his head, his shoulders slouching. “I know, you're right. It's probably nothing, anyway. Just some dragon taking a stretch and blowing some fire before he goes back to sleep in his cave. I shouldn't have mentioned it.”

“Are you sure?” Rarity asked, eying Spike carefully.

“Yeah, I'm sure. Like I said, weird sounds come out of Everfree all the time. But I'll keep an ear out, just in case.”

“Very well, you do that,” Rarity said, then, turning back to the hors d'eourves table, levitated a piece of brushetta to her mouth. She nibbled at it before dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “How is that deviled amethyst after all?”

Spike looked down at the snack in his other claw. They really were a marvel of culinary and geological engineering. His was on his third one, being the only person in the room capable of eating them. It was a split geode filled with a kind of amethyst paste. He couldn't even begin to imagine how they pasted amethysts. There were even tiny bits of amethyst mixed in and a ruby on top. The geode itself was bland and tasteless, of course, but provided just the right kind of crunch and texture that mixed in with the amethyst filling when he chewed it.

“It's... surprisingly good.” Spike answered. He then stuck out his snakelike tongue, wrapped it around the snack in his claw, and pulled it into his mouth to begin munching away.

“I have to admit, the filling does look quite appetising.” Rarity said, inspecting the tray of geodes on the table.

“I wouldn't try it if I were you.” Spike mumbled with a full mouth. “You'll probably chip your tooth, or worse.”

“Hmm... I can imagine.” the unicorn replied, noting the “Not for Ponies” card that stood in the middle of the tray.

Across town, there was another creature with sensitive ears listening to that mysterious sound. A small white bunny, abandoned by his old mistress and renamed by his new one, stood at attention on a windowsill in the hospital he found himself trapped in. The caretaker of the hospital left him to his own devices for a while, as there were no more chores to do around the building. Being a rabbit and not really having any devices to be left to, he decided to watch over the only patient in the hospital he recognized.

Just as the baby dragon across town had picked up on the strange explosions in the distance, so too had Nurse Fluffington, formerly known as Angel. He stood at the window, ears twitching, trying to place the sound.

However, the most surprising sound came from behind him. It was a groan, and the shifting of bedsheets.

Fluffington looked around, half-fearing that Redheart had returned for him. But, the room was empty. Empty all except Applejack, who still remained motionless in her bed. The bunny cocked his head to the side and thought. Were he any other animal, he might have second-guessed what he heard. But not for a bunny. Regardless, he turned his attention back towards the window.

Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash was closing in on the final stretch of the race. She had been flying over the plains between Canterlot Mountain and Everfree, and crossed over Rambling Rock Ridge without incident. She had taken a few nervous glances behind herself to see if there was any sign of Sleipnir, but it had been a while since she had seen any trace of him.

The treeline to Everfree was rising just beyond the horizon. Dash had gotten a good head start from those trees, and her opponent would be slowed down by them again even if he did manage to catch up before she got there. She had been traveling at a pretty good flying speed since her attempt at a true sonic rainboom back at the mountain. Her muscles had been feeling the burn for a while, but she couldn't slow down too much. If Sleipnir really could gallop as fast as he said, he could be on top of her in seconds.

Dash was always more of a “gust” kind of flier, instead of a “breeze.” In non-pegasi terms, she was a high-speed, low-distance kind of athlete instead of the other way around. This was definitely a new kind of exercise, and it was taking its toll. Being a trick flier, the hardest part of her routines wasn't so much her body's ability to keep up with what she wanted to do, but the air responding to her motions the way she wanted. The sky to her was like a dance partner – if she was really all that much into dancing. Now she was having to fight against it to gain momentum, instead of using wind resistance to channel her movements. It was straining.

Then, suddenly, he was there.

A mere half second later, his wake was there too. A wall of wind rushed up and buffeted Dash from behind. She flailed around as the harsh winds threatened to knock her out of the sky. She splayed out her wings and legs to try and keep herself from tumbling end over end. The force pushed her away, but she was quickly able to right herself once more. Distance may not have been her specialty, but quick recoveries were.

Unbeknownst to Dash, Sleipnir had dropped his speed considerably from the initial thrust. It wasn't the time for speed right then, it was the time for tension. Like the air in front of his own nose, Dash needed to feel the pressure closing in around her. He found that to be an excellent motivator. A little under mach one would do for the time being. He kept an eye on where Dash was to see what she would do.

“You're not getting the drop on me that easily!” Rainbow shouted as she veered back in Sleipnir's direction.

Charging nose-first towards her rival, Dash attempted to tackle him. Sleipnir may have been bigger, but she was able to almost knock him off balance before. But the closer she got, the more the wall of wind tried to push her away. It was like an impenetrable barrier around him, a shield that deflected and repelled anything that came close.

Dash was an expert at feeling the wind, however, and she sensed an different angle of attack. It was a technique she hadn't used in a long time, because there were so few other pegasi that she could use it against.

Nosing upward and curling into a ball, Dash let the wind push her where it wanted her to go, away and behind from there Sleipnir was. Although the force of the wind was pushing her away from Sleipnir's front, the displacement of air was creating a vacuum behind him. Spreading her wings at just the right moment, Dash righted herself once more and leveled out directly behind her target.

Just keep flying. Don't ever stop. It's the most important thing you can do. Go!” Dash shouted in her head as she pushed her wings as hard as she could.

One instant, she was buffeted at all sides from the assaulting winds, threatening to rip the feathers right out of her wings with their unstable currents. The next, she had moved into Sleipnir's wake, and all the chaotic winds solidified into a single coherent force, thrusting her into a single direction. She assumed her full-throttle flying posture and flew with the momentum. The power of Rainbow's wings combined with the vacuum force of Sleipnir's wind barrier caused her to draft through his wake and sail through it like a rocket.

Meanwhile, Sleipnir was moderately impressed.

Go! Go! Go!” Rainbow Dash screamed to herself in her head.

Dash felt the wall of air in front of her again, tightening and solidifying as though it was intentionally trying to block her path. Something else she felt was the increased burn in her wings as they continued to tire and weaken. Her vision became blurry from the wind in her eyes, the pain, and the exhaustion. Her body was nearing its limit, legs wavering and body becoming unsteady as she flew. Her wings were the only parts of her still functioning properly, moving on their own from the muscle memory induced by countless hours of training. Around her, streams of rainbow colored light began to glow and dissipate, as she was on the verge of sonic speed. They billowed away from her body like angelic ribbons of light.

As a passing thought, Rainbow remembered an old tale she had heard about in flight school. The one about the Mare of Thon, Pegadippides. She was a courier in an ancient Pegasus army, who flew so hard and so fast to deliver the news of victory, that she died immediately on arrival; her last breath being the words she traveled so far to say.

Rainbow Dash was fading, and Sleipnir could sense it. “No! Don't you give up on me now!” he bellowed, the sound dissipating instantly in the torrential winds surrounding them both. “I've sacrificed too much already for you to fail here! You can't die before I do!”

Interrupting his futile shouts, Sleipnir began to sense something else. A link had been made. A link between that realm and his own. “Bah, that cheater! Fine, if that's what it's going to take, let her do what she wants.”

“Rainbow!” Cried out a voice. It came from nowhere, and yet the pegasi could hear it clearly. It was confusing, but the sound was so familiar. “Rainbow Dash, it's me! Twilight!”

The realization in itself just about shocked Dash out of her exhausted delirium. “Sweet Celestia, you're alive!”

“Yes! Well, no. Well... sort of. It's complicated. I'll have to explain it to you later if I can. But I have to tell you something. Something important!”

“What's that?”

“I've been watching you all. I've been watching all this time. Sleipnir showed me how. I know how tired you are, and I know you too well to ask you to quit.”

Rainbow chuckled to herself a little. She redoubled her focus, picking up more speed. The streams of light emanating from her began to glow brighter and larger. She was on the verge of breaking the sound barrier, like it was inches from her face. “You got that right, Rainbow Dash never quits!”

“I just need you to know that I believe in you. We all believe in you. Fluttershy believes in you. And if our other friend even knew that you were out here, they'd believe in you too. You're our friend, and we've got your back. Just like you're out here fighting for me.”

“Yeah, I can do this... I got this!

“You're the fastest pony in all of Equestria. Perhaps in all of Equestria's history. You can even fly! If there's anypony who can get back before Sleipnir does, it's you. You can do this! You're my friend and I believe in you! Go, Rainbow Dash! Go! You can do it! Go! Go! Go!”

“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Dash shouted to herself and to the ethereal voice of her friend. Spurred by the words of Twilight, she began to beat her wings harder and faster. Muscles tightening, strengthening, power returning to her from the force of her own will. Armed with that second wind, her speed pushed higher and higher, inching towards the wall of air pressure that was the sound barrier, the wall that has stood in her way for a long, long time.

Boom! Boom-boom-boom! Boom-boom!

Waves of light exploded from Dash's position as she flew through the air at just the speed of sound. Individual, circular waves indicating the very speed of sound. But it wasn't enough. She remembered Sleipnir's words and didn't slack for an instant with each purse she created. She had to keep flying, keep pushing harder. She had to go faster. Faster. Faster!

Having thus far been matching Rainbow Dash's speed, Sleipnir found himself directly alongside her as the destructive waves of rainbow energy and light tore into the countryside. The first one came suddenly, and he had to quickly jump forward out of its range lest his body be torn to pieces by the explosion. He stayed several steps ahead as each successive burst ruptured the ground behind him.


With one final, continuous explosion, Dash managed to break the sound barrier and keep herself there. The multiple bursts of energy solidified into a solid cone, as Sleipnir said, just as she had done back at the mountain. A cone of light, energy, and wind formed from Dash's pure strength of will tearing through the sky, bringing her body with it.

“Better,” the elder thought to himself, “Now let's see if she can hold onto it.”


Kicking up his own velocity to match, Sleipnir galloped alongside and below Rainbow Dash. A cone of his own developed around him as he pushed through the air in front of him. Due to his proximity to the ground, his sonic boom was much less destructive to the environment around him; all the forces pushing upward and to the sides, but not downward.

“Just a little more pressure... She'll have to reach her potential now, or everything will collapse.”

Catching the motion just out of the corner of her eye, Rainbow looked down towards the ground. Sleipnir was still there. But not only that, he was still accelerating. “No! Nononono! He can't still be faster! He can't! I don't have much more! I'm gonna die as I am!”

Frantic, Dash looked all around her, as though some tool might be floating at just over mach 1 that she could throw at Sleipnir to make him slow down. She look a the countryside ahead of her. The Everfree forest was ahead of her, splayed over the horizon. She remembered the way back through it to get to the fortress. It wasn't a straight shot from where she was, the two of them made a curve around-

Dash's eyes widened. “Ponyville.”

That was it. Like divine inspiration directly from Twilight, Dash had a plan. It was a risky one, but it was the only plan she had.

Rainbow banked to the side, turning towards the village. “See you, sucker!” Dash shouted, saluting her opponent, “I'm gonna take a shortcut!”