Regrets - A prelude
[Fair warning - the prelude is a lot more grimdark than the main story. If you dislike grimdark, I suggest you skip it and go straight to the main story, which is a lot less horrific. It was written as a challenge for me to make a better pony horror than Cupcakes. So fair warning, read at your own discretion, yadda yadda, enjoy.]
The Grand Inquisitor was standing in front of a door into a small room. Listening to the door, she could easily hear somepony inside the room, breathing heavily. The room was built so echoes were sent around much easier, due to the quite useful intimidation effect it had on ponies that were to be interrogated. She could not claim to be happy at the thought of what was ahead of her, but on the other hand, it wasn't something that really put her off either. It was a job, a job that needed to be done. No more, no less. She did not put any thought into it beyond that. If she did, she would most likely go more or less insane. She was not a monster, she really was not... But sometimes, sometimes, one needed to commit evil acts for the greater good. She was Celestia's hand, protecting the meek and smiting those who would threaten to upset the peace. And at times, that job required some... Certain things of those who held the position. To mix personal feelings into it was futile, silly. It could not lead to anything good. With a heavy sigh, she opened the door and entered. The room behind it was small and dark. A single oil lamp was hanging from the ceiling, casting a dim light onto the scenario. In the middle of the room was a table of sorts, to which a pony lay strapped. Behind the table, where the light of the lamp did not reach, she saw the outlines of numerous objects and small tables.
She turned to face the pony on the table. Twilight remembered her name from back when she had lived in Ponyville. Bon-Bon. Never had liked her much. And now, this... A traitor to the crown. Why was she not surprised? All these ponies, so weak, so gullible, so easily talked into betraying the one who brought them the Sun and Moon every day and night. Such insolence was intolerable. Twilight had no pity to spare for somepony who would even consider this. But of course, this was an interrogation, not an execution. Well, it was an interrogation for now. The rest depended on how co-operative the Earth pony decided to be.
"So, Bon-Bon..." Twilight said as she prepared something behind the table, outside of Bon-Bon's view.
"I'm assuming you already know why you're here."
"I... No, why?"
Twilight looked at Bon-Bon. A few scratches and bruises. They had been rough, but not as rough as some of the other times. Twilight cast a muffling spell on the door and walls before turning to the table again.
"You are accused of betrayal towards Her Highness, Princess Celestia. Do not try to plead, we already know the truth. You now have the choice between telling me the names of all your accomplices and going free or... Not telling me. The first option contains far less unpleasantness for both of us, so I would advise you to choose that one."
Bon-Bon looked utterly confused. A good actor, but then of course, she would need to be in order to avoid the attention of the law for this long.
"Accomplices? I, I don't know what..."
Twilight procured forth a bucket of burning coals. Sticking out from the top of it was a metal pole.
"Now," Twilight said. "I will ask you one last time, Bon-Bon, before I begin this: Who has been helping you?"
"I don't know!" Bon-Bon said, tears welling up in her eyes. "I don't-ARGH!"
She let out a small scream as Twilight removed the branding iron from her side. The stench of burning flesh was filling the room.
"Such a useful method, is it not? You only feel the pain for a brief moment before the nerves are killed, but it is intense. And the after-effects... Permanent. It really is an intriguing way of extracting information."
Bon-Bon was sobbing. She looked at the mark, tears streaming down her face. It was a small sun, the symbol of Celestia and her followers.
"Hey!" Twilight said.
Bon-Bon looked at her, and Twilight continued.
"This is what happens when you lie, Bon-Bon. Do you understand? Whenever you lie... I will mark you. When you have three marks, I will move on to more extreme measures. You see, I have no patience for filthy traitors lying to me. You think you're smarter than me. I don't like that. So come on, Bon-Bon.
Are you going to tell me?"
"But I don't know anything, I swear." she cried.
"Stop lying to me. Stop lying, Bon-Bon." Twilight said as she moved the branding iron over Bon-Bon's exposed back. She let it hang there for a second, savoured the emotion in the moment before letting it drop. A scream escaped the pony on the table once again, and the stench of flesh burning was filling the room once again, as was the sound of it seething and bubbling.
"That's two," Twilight said in a tired voice. "Are you really this dense? Just tell me the truth. Come on."
"But I don't know! Stop it, I don't know anything!"
Twilight moved the iron into position, then stopped.
"And why should I believe that, traitor?"
"I'm no traitor! I'm not! Please just listen to me!" Bon-Bon was crying uncontrollably. Completely unable to contain herself. Such a pity. Even if the pony there was innocent, she was quite useless. Not much would be lost if she simply disappeared. As so many had done before her.
"Come on now, Bon-Bon. The names, give me the names. That's all you have to do. And then you can go back to Lyra - oh yes, I know about your feelings in that regard - you just have to provide me with names. That's it."
Bon-Bon was still sobbing with fear, completely unable to string together a coherent sentence. Words would occasionally escape her mouth, but Twilight could not make any sense of them. Instead, she decided to take the pony's silence as lack of interest in talking. It did not really matter anyhow - Twilight already knew how this would end. It had been evident since the beginning. It always was. But she had to go through all the procedures nonetheless. So she lowered the branding iron one last time. A low squeal escaped the other pony, but she seemed to have broken at last. This time, Twilight kept the iron there for slightly longer, letting it sink into the burning flesh. When she removed it, there was a bit of flesh on the business end. Disgusting. Putting away the coal and iron, Twilight moved closer to the table in the middle and whispered into Bon-Bon's ear.
"The names. Give me those damn names. Come on."
"I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING! I DON'T KNOW!" Bon-Bon screamed. "Please just let me go. Please." She had stopped crying. Now she was just shuddering. Afraid. She had been all along, but the emotion was overcoming her now. Twilight had seen it before. Acceptance. She was beginning to realise that nopony was coming to her aid.
"Well, in that case..."
Twilight made a small wagon roll up between them. On the wagon was a simple metal cylinder. Twilight said nothing for a few seconds as she let Bon-Bon stare at it, let the other pony's imagination do the work. She then lifted it up with her magic. The cylinder opened and clamped itself around Bon-Bon's leg. A screw was sticking out of it.
"Now..." Twilight began, emphasising each word with a small twist of the screw. "You will tell me everything. Every single thing. You understand?"
Bon-Bon felt the cylinder tighten around her leg. "But I don't know anything... Please, just let me go! I'll do anything!"
"I hate liars," Twilight said. Suddenly, she twisted the screw fast. Bon-Bon felt excruciating pain in her leg and screamed as a nauseating crunching sound started escaping it. She kept screaming and screaming as Twilight tightened the instrument until it could do no more. With a final, sickening crack, she released it and removed it from the shattered remains of the leg. At this point, Bon-Bon was lying almost perfectly still. She would twitch in agony every now and then, but she seemed to have given up. Now all that was left was to finish the job.
"Do you know why the cutie marks of traitors are removed?" No answer. "It's because a pony's cutie mark holds her identity, her essence. Without it, she might as well not have existed in the first place. Do you see where I'm going with this?"
Bon-Bon started crying again.
"Are you afraid?" Twilight asked.
Bon-Bon could only bring out a faint whisper. "Y-yes... Please just..." She did not finish the sentence.
"Well..." Twilight said. "Pinkie once sang a song for us. Here, let me sing it for you." She picked up a large surgeon knife from the table behind Bon-Bon. "Bon-Bon, you gotta stand up tall, learn to face your fears..." She moved it towards the other pony's cutie mark. "You'll see that they can't hurt you, just laugh and make them disappear..." Twilight readied the knife. "HA!" She inserted it into Bon-Bon's flesh. A tremor went through both their bodies. "HA!" She twisted the knife around. "HA!" With a ripping sound, Twilight removed the pony's cutie mark. Blood was flowing freely from the wound as she placed it on the surgical table. For a second, a wave of regret washed through Twilight's entire body. This was wrong, so wrong...
"I'm so sorry... I really am," she said. Bon-Bon did not look as Twilight brought the knife down to her neck and jammed it in, ripping open her throat with a quick, clean cut. Blood ran onto the floor and down a small drain made specifically for it. Soon, somepony would come and clean up this mess. Twilight took a last look back as she walked out of the room and closed the door behind her. As she did, she looked to the side and vomited. Slowly, the unicorn started walking away, knowing that tomorrow would bring just the same as today.
It had been five years now. Five years since that day. It was still clear in Twilight's memory. She remembered every scream of pain, every chant shouted praising the name of a malevolent goddess. The fires. The bonfires had never really left her, not for a second. She thought about herself standing there, attending the execution of all the captive unicorns that had been opposing the supremacy. Had it felt right, even then? No. But she had still done it. Without letting mercy or remorse slow her down, she had ordered that several hundred unicorns were burned alive. The pegasi and Earth ponies had not been her responsibility. Those had been herded together, had their cutie marks removed and were then killed swiftly. But the magic users, they got a special treatment. They had been deemed too dangerous for there to be taken any chances. All were burned alive, their ashes scattered in the wind. But the first night had been the worst. She had gone to Ponyville with a battalion of soldiers, gathering all those who were known as traitors. When she heard that Fluttershy had made her escape, it filled her with joy inside. Of course she had not shown this, but it had been the only good thing to happen that night. On the night of the screams and the fires, there had still been a tiny sliver of light. Even then. All the fillies that had been killed on her order... The blood would never leave her hooves. No matter what she did throughout the rest of her life, the knowledge that she had caused so much pain would never disappear.
It all began about three months before that. The first whispers of the organisations of dissidents that had formed in northern Equestria had been dismissed as just that. Just rumours. But they were persistent, and one day, a royal decree declared that no more than three people were allowed to gather in the same spot for any kind of private meetings. It was then that Twilight realised what was going on. The rest had happened so quickly. Within Ponyville, ponies had gathered in the dark of the night to discuss the possible rebellion. More and more ponies joined, and everyone began suspecting everyone else of treason. Twilight was Celestia's personal apprentice, so she had not expected any of the others to tell her anything. But then, one day, Fluttershy out of everypony, had confessed to her. Twilight had tried reasoning with her, tried telling her that Celestia's rule was for the best, in the interest of all the ponies in Equestria. But Fluttershy was stubborn and refused to listen. It was completely out of character for her to behave in such a manner, and not something Twilight could understand. But she did now.
Celestia had requested a meeting with Twilight soon after. She had asked so many questions, questions about whether Twilight knew what was happening, who was responsible... So many questions. And Twilight had told her. She had told Celestia everything Fluttershy and the others had said. She immediately regretted it, but there was no way to retract her statement. Celestia had then asked her whether Twilight was one of the dissidents. No. The princess had then said some words that had imprinted themselves firmly into Twilight's memory:
"Twilight, you are my dearest apprentice, and I always value your opinions. But you must understand that we are merely doing what is necessary. We are saving them from themselves. From the anarchy that will ensue if they succeed. More will die if we allow it. You must understand this. You must understand that in assisting me, you are doing the right thing. You are saving lives. You are saving Equestria. Will you do this?"
Twilight had nodded. After that Celestia, had told her what to expect and what to do once it happened. Twilight had returned to Ponyville. She was still in doubt over whether to tell Fluttershy when they came. The princess' soldiers. It turned out that a large number of ponies had somehow been alerted to what was happening and fled, most of them into the Everfree Forest. Those that did not, were rounded up and killed on that night. It seemed that Rainbow Dash and Applejack had also left - she did not know that any of the others were part of this, but she supposed this confirmed whatever suspicions she might have had. Only Rarity and Pinkie Pie were still in town. And Pinkie did not come out of her room that night. Not at all. Twilight could not blame her. It was a horrifying sight, to see so many of the people they knew and had walked among every day for years being burned alive. But it was necessary. That was what Celestia had said. Back then, Twilight had believed her. But it had all changed. She had been blinded by her own trust, but no more. Not after she saw what had happened. Not after she witnessed the aftermath of her own and others' actions.
It was not long before magic became something that was reserved for those serving directly under Celestia. Twilight had watched in horror as the princess ordered that all those of her loyal subjects who were not working for her would have their horns removed. She remembered Rarity begging Twilight for mercy as she was put into a wagon with the others, to be taken to a place where their horns would be removed permanently. It was then that Twilight had realised it. Realised that this could not go on. She had left Ponyville and followed one of the wagons, using her magic to release the prisoners. Rarity was not among any of the unicorns in that shipment, though, and Twilight had not seen her in all this time. She took the scared group of unicorns under her wing, saving them from a grisly fate. It was not much compared to the damage she had done, but she had to make amends for her sins somehow. More had since joined them, expanding their little herd. But Celestia's army was always present, always a threat. Each morning, Twilight woke up, thankful to still be alive. But for how much longer could it go on?
She looked to her left from where the voice had originated and saw Lyra standing there with a look of anxiety upon her face.
The memories still became too much every now and then. She used her knee to dry one of her eyes as Lyra responded.
"You really need to get inside. The night is cold and we have to get up early tomorrow and move the camp."
"Yes, you're right. Thanks. I'll be there in a second."
Lyra went back inside. Twilight looked up at the moon and wondered. How could it still look the same, despite all that had happened? How could the stars still be in their place? It felt as if her entire world had shifted, yet the sky looked the same as it always had. It was surreal. She took a last glance at it before going into the tent to rest for tomorrow.
”Come on, everypony. We need to make it to the other side of the valley before sundown.”
Twilight heard Lyra order the herd, but she did not really listen. Instead, her mind was focused on the blasted landscape around them. This area used to be part of the Everfree Forest back in the day. Now, it was a barren place. Celestia’s army had burned it to the ground in order to keep anyone from taking refuge in the forest. These days, only a small bit still remained, somewhere to the west, but it was said that the place was filled with animals so savage that even the army avoided the place. As they climbed over a small hill, they witnessed the remains of an old battlefield. Equine skeletons were strewn all over the place. Twilight wanted to look away, but knew that it was pointless. She had seen this so many times. The armies of Celestia would remove the cutie marks from all the fallen, then leave them for the scavengers. Even her own soldiers received this treatment. The only ones that were given any kind of proper burial were the unicorns – their corpses were cremated to avoid them cursing anyone from beyond the grave. Even among those who opposed Celestia, fear of magic was still very prevalent. Propaganda had painted all sorcery as being the domain of Celestia, something excessively dangerous that only she could control. Unicorns now had their horns removed at birth, “for their own protection”. That is, unless the parents willingly offered their fillies to Celestia. In that case, they would be taken away to be trained at the Royal Academy as servants of the throne.
So they were on their own. The little herd of about thirty ponies and fillies only had each other now. Magic was universally loathed, so they could not even seek refuge in the camps of the dissidents, who would believe them to be Celestian spies. They did not take any chances, which was of course understandable, but also highly unfortunate for any unicorn who was seeking to keep her horn. Twilight looked at the ponies behind her. They were tired and hungry. So was Twilight. For the last five years, her dreams had been haunted by fire and the dying screams of those she had killed. While she was certainly the most powerful magic user in their herd, she had to depend on Lyra for leadership. Twilight’s knowledge of the world limited itself mostly to the knowledge she had obtained through the books Celestia had provided, which were almost solely about the nature of magic. In retrospective, it was also quite obvious that the princess had removed all offensive books form the library before Twilight had moved in. Then again, all of this was obvious when looking back; they had just ignored the signs.
Lyra was looking at her. It took a few seconds before Twilight managed to process the words and find a suitable answer.
There was a look of worry upon Lyra’s face, to compliment the frightened one that had never left since Twilight saved them three years ago.
“Do you really think that we’ll be safe on the other side of the valley? I mean, I know there’s food over there, but it’s awfully close to Hoofington.”
No, she was not sure. She had not been sure of anything for a long time now. Of course, showing that would only result in the others being as frightened as she was.
“I know it’s dangerous, but it’s not like we have much of a choice. We haven’t lost anyone for two months now and I hope to keep it up.”
“Yes, of course, but what if someone sees and reports us? What if the inquisitors are already in town?”
Inquisitor. That was what Twilight had been. Grand Inquisitor Twilight Sparkle. There were few things more hypocritical than using magic against criminals whose only “crime” was that of using it themselves. All of the most talented unicorns at the Royal Academy had been appointed as inquisitors and Twilight became their leader. And now she was one of the most wanted ponies in all of Equestria. There had already been both inquisitors and bounty hunters out for them, looking for the infamous Twilight Sparkle. So far, they had been able to fend off attackers, but it was only a matter of time before some of the more powerful royal mages would turn their attention towards Twilight. For now, however, those were thankfully occupied with more important matters.
“Then we’ll fight. We’ve survived thus far, and we will keep doing so. We’ll live for as long as we stay together.”
Lyra nodded, but much like Twilight herself, she did not appear to really believe it. As they moved across the old battlefield, there was a certain sense of dread in the air. Their breathing was laboured as the air seemed to stand perfectly still in this one place. There was not even the slightest of breezes. It was unsettling to move across the terrain, carefully avoiding any of the skeletons lying around. Even now, scavengers were still here, searching for any possibility of food. For each step Twilight took, dust rose slightly into the air and small creatures darted away from her hooves. Everything and everypony seemed so quiet as they moved through the battlefield. It was only when they were all beginning to climb up the hill on the other side that some of the other ponies started talking again. Twilight, however, was still uneasy. She knew what this place was. During a meeting among the rebels, Celestia’s troops had made a surprise attack, spilling into the valley and slaughtering most of the ponies without giving them a chance to fight back. Only a few of the attackers died when the dissidents had fought back, one of them a unicorn. Twilight had not known her, but each dead unicorn was quite a loss back then, as they were very few in numbers. But when Celestia succeeded in training the army of battlemages she was currently training, that would all change.
Twilight turned around and saw Lyra looking at something in the distance. Squinting, she could just make out the form of something moving through the air towards them.
“What do you think it is, Twilight?”
Twilight thought of all the possibilities. There was only one that really seemed possible when comparing size and distance, but it was highly implausible. She hoped.
“I’m not sure. But we’d better get a move on before it gets here.”
“Right,” Lyra said, nodding in agreement. “Everypony, hurry up! We need to climb over as quickly as possible!”
They all did as Lyra said. Twilight still occasionally glanced over her shoulder, seeing the shadow move closer and closer. She wouldn’t be wise to upset the others if it was a false alarm, but on the other hand, if it wasn’t... She turned to Lyra and whispered something in her ear.
“You sure, Twi?”
“No, I am not. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, is it not?”
“So what do you propose we do, if you’re right? We can’t tell them. If they panic, things will just get even worse.”
“I don’t know.” Twilight looked at the ever-expanding shadow. “I just hope... Look.”
Lyra glanced at where Twilight was looking. The shadow had moved out of the direct sunlight. It was a pony, but she was riding a monstrous creature. A dragon.
“Run. Run, RUN!”
Lyra did not even have to give the order. Ponies were already scrambling for their lives. Some of the fillies were crying for their mothers. Twilight started running herself when she realised that the ones at the bottom could not be saved, but Lyra ran back there.
“Lyra! What are you doing? Run away!”
Lyra did not respond. She ran to the back of the herd, trying to move the fillies and the weaker ponies. Twilight wanted to help, but she knew it was useless. She kept running until she reached the top of the hill. Just as she did, a roar boomed across the valley, followed by the screams of somepony behind her. The dragon had exhaled and burning ponies were now scrambling in all directions.
Twilight managed to see Lyra and the others, caught between the dragon and the wall of fire. The unicorn atop the dragon shouted something and glowing spears spewed forth from her horn, raining down on those below. Twilight saw Lyra trying to escape, but it was useless. Just like the others, one of the glowing spears caught Lyra in the back and pinned her to the ground. As she laid there bleeding, Twilight saw the dragon return for a second strike. Just as Twilight met her friend’s eyes, Lyra was engulfed by the flames.
“Not again... No...”
The town square in Ponyville. Noon. A group of unicorns were herded together onto a raised platform. When they got up there, they were tied to poles. A list of their crimes was read to them. Then, someone threw wood up there, around them, sheltering the ponies gathered from the sight of the betrayers. Twilight merely watched with disgust as someone poured oil over the wood. She was the one who gave the order to ignite it. The wood lit up, flames engulfing it all in less than a minute. The terrified screams of those caught inside made Twilight feel sick inside. Back then, she had thought it was at the thought of the crimes that these ponies were guilty of. Deep down, though, she knew it was not them that caused it. It was herself.
Twilight cried as she realised what has happened. All of this... Everyone was gone. Dead. Killed for the ambitions of a mad goddess. No longer. She would not take this any longer.
The dragon was already coming towards her, but she did not care. The unicorn on the back was already forming a spell.
“Just who do you think you are?! You’re a murderer, a monster, nothing more. You’re despicable! And I’ll just tell you this right now...”
The unicorn launched the spell again, directing all of the glowing spears at Twilight.
“YOU. DO. NOT. HURT. MY. FRIENDS.”
With those words, Twilight used her powers to grab the spears out of the air. With a savage smile, she sent them back at their owner. The unicorn on the back of the dragon was suddenly impaled by a dozen of the spears which vanished almost instantly. She could not even scream as she slid off the back of the dragon, plummeting to the ground. The dragon, suddenly without any directions, turned to see what happened to its handler. Twilight wanted to do something, but she knew it was pointless. Dragons were immune to magic. She simply stood at the edge of a large slab of rock, silently awaiting her inevitable fate.
“Hey there, scaly!”
Twilight turned and saw something else move through the air. With blinding speed, it attacked the dragon. The Pegasus pony looked tiny in comparison to the dragon, but it still attacked with blind determination, dodging all of the creature’s attempts at knocking it out of the air. As it paused for a second behind the dragon, Twilight recognised a familiar face.
Somehow, Dash had heard her and looked back.
The dragon now realised where the sound was coming from and turned to face its attacker. Dash simply flew away from it and over to Twilight.
“Dash, it’s been so long. I just want to...”
“What are you waiting for? Run! I don’t know for how long I can distract it!”
The dragon was now moving up behind Rainbow Dash. Twilight wanted to point it out, but the Pegasus was already on the move, luring it away from Twilight once again. With a last look at the scene, Twilight turned and ran away. Her last thought before she left was how much she hoped to see her old friend again someday.
It was raining. The realisation suddenly struck Twilight. Not a pegasus pony in sight, and it was raining. There was a bit of evidence that this ground had once been part of the Everfree Forest before being uprooted for lumber. It was now a barren, rocky area with only the occasional half-dead plant to break the vast expanses of desolate wasteland. Twilight was hungry and tired at this point, but she could not stop. The other inquisitors would know that one of their number had been lost. There was a telepathic failsafe to prevent such things going unnoticed. In retrospective, Twilight should be grateful that she had been of high enough rank to avoid having such a thing implemented - her thoughts were fortunately still her own. Though right now, she wished she had someone to share them with. As she climbed over rocks and small hills, her thoughts kept going back to the sight of Lyra being burned alive. She never got to say farewell. What if Lyra had just listened to her? Or if she had listened to Lyra? Would it had made a difference either way? Most likely not, but the possibility was still there. And all the others... But Lyra most of all. Had Lyra not believed that Twilight had honest intentions, the others would have killed her as soon as they were set free.
Twilight looked around. This place had once been filled with life, and it was only a few years ago, really. Celestia's army had used magic fire to deplete the area of any resources. Wild areas like the Everfree Forest were not something Celestia endorsed, and as such, they were removed. It was far too easy for fugitives to hide in there. Of course, that was no longer the case - Twilight herself had seen several reports of entire battalions of soldiers going missing in the forest right before she deserted. The remains of the forest were guarded by some malicious force that would not accept any outsiders. But did it really matter at this point? Did anything? She sat down for a second. Her legs were aching horribly and she was famished. She managed to get a bit of water from sticking out her tongue and gathering the rain, but she was still rather thirsty. All of her attempts at making up for her actions, all of their secrecy and their work... All gone to waste. So many lives lost, and it was her fault. If she hadn't made them get so close to Hoofington, perhaps the inquisitor would never have found them.
She decided to make herself a small shelter for the night. Using her magic to move some rocks, Twilight built a precarious little hut and went inside. As she laid there, she pondered some more. Had that really been Rainbow Dash? Was she still alive or had the dragon gotten her? No, it was impossible, she was tougher than that. But up until today, Twilight had considered many things impossible. The fact that the entire herd was lost was still sinking into her mind. She sat there, throughout the night, thinking all on her own. During the night, some shadows moved past in the distance, and Twilight hoped that they would not notice. Fortunately, it was dark enough that they did not. She sighed with relief as they disappeared out of view. As dawn's first rays broke on the horizon, she went out of the shelter. Carefully, she scattered to rocks so that there was no indicator that she had ever been there. She started marching on, her stomach aching and her throat dry. She continued her journey across the wasteland. As she moved in silence, she started thinking about those days in Ponyville, before all of this began. She had never really been grateful for her life back then, not as much as she thought she would be after this. Would those times ever return? Unless Celestia was stopped, it was doubtful.
She smiled as she thought of Fluttershy's taming of a wild dragon. She had used the exact same words that Twilight herself used earlier. Of course, Fluttershy had saved Dash from a dragon, whereas it had been the opposite with Twilight. It would be quite amusing if she was not so afraid of what had happened to her old friends. Were any of them even still alive at this point? There was always a bit of hope, no matter how small. She had to hide herself from another group of ponies as they passed by. They might have been a patrol or refugees, but even if they were not soldiers, she was still a former inquisitor and thus not exactly popular, even amongst her own kind. So what to do? For now, she had to find food and water. In the distance, there was a thin pillar of smoke rising. Had she been less desperate, she would have stayed far away from it, but she needed something to eat. As she began seeing the area where it originated, it became quite clear what had happened. The corpses of dead soldiers were strewn all around the place. She knew they were soldiers, as they were all still in their royal armour. There were no other bodies in sight. Twilight looked at the carts that the soldiers had brought with them. Could it be? Twilight used her magic to break open the lock on one of them. It contained large barrels filled with grain and hay. Exuberantly, Twilight began eating. She highly doubted that the food was poisoned, and even if it was, she did not really care at this point. Looking around, she noticed that the soldiers had been pausing at a water hole. One of them had fallen into the water when he died. Filled with disgust, Twilight moved the dead pony and started drinking from the other end of the pond.
The entire scene was bizarre. Why would someone just kill a group of royal guards and then leave all the valuables? Who was even capable of doing such a thing? Many of the soldiers had been impaled by their own weapons, so it would appear to be the work of a unicorn, and an exceptionally powerful one at that. Twilight herself was the most powerful sorcerer she knew, and even she doubted that something like this could be achieved. Perhaps it was a group of unicorns that had been scared off by something? Whatever the reason was, Twilight was just happy to finally get some food and water. Sometimes, she felt as if she was bringing corruption to everypony that came close to her. But this was no time for self-pity. She gathered some of the food in a set of saddlebags that were also inside the carts. She then found a small water container on one of the dead bodies and filled it with fresh water. After that, she thought that it would be wise to get as far away from the scene as possible. Once again, she walked away, more alone than she had ever been.
[Removed by popular demand. Don’t worry, I’ll put this in with some other short stories somewhere, some day. Cheers! If you really wanna read it, look here: http://omgzecookiez.deviantart.com/gallery/#/d3expe8]
End of intermission
As she saw the first signs pointing towards Fillydelphia, Twilight took a deep breath. At this point, she felt fairly secure in her knowledge that she was not going to get caught. The guard patrols around this city were almost non-existent since it was so far from Canterlot. While she had not come across any others like the destroyed one she had seen earlier, she had also only had to hide a few times. It seemed as if Celestia was occupied elsewhere - normally, this would worry Twilight, but right now, she was thankful that at least some of her problems were taken care of. She was still wondering who could have taken down the group of soldiers she had seen earlier, but concluded that as long as she did not have to be the one to find out, it was probably best just to be happy that she had not been in their place. For the last couple of days, she had been thinking less about Lyra and the others. It was not that her sadness had decreased, but there were many other things to worry about now.
Around the cities, pegasus ponies were always busy at work. Celestia thought that pegasi were too unruly for day-to-day work in the army as well as being unable to wear armour during flight, while unicorns were too important for such trivialities. They were mostly used as messengers. However, there were always some pegasus guards around cities. And today was no different. As the first spotted her, Twilight did not notice it. Not until one flew down and stood in front of her did she back down in surprise.
"So... A unicorn with her horn still attached that is not part of Her Majesty's army. How interesting. Are you lost, perhaps?"
The pegasus was large, bulky and muscular. More began landing around her, encircling Twilight. Most of them were female, but, but a few, including the one in front of her, were males. They were easy to recognise with their large bodies. The brown colt in front of her had a weight as his cutie mark - unlikely to be a good indicator of Twilight's chances of fleeing.
"Hey, look at that cutie mark. Haven't I seen that before?"
The voice came from behind her. Another soon joined in.
"Yeah, could this be that Twilight Sparkle one that has a huge reward on her head?"
The one in front of Twilight observed her with a look of interest.
"Maybe she can tell us herself. Or is she too stupid for that? Eh?"
He kicked some dust into Twilight's face. She simply shook it off while still thinking about what to do. If she used the full extent of her abilities, there was no way that Celestia would not be able to detect it. Even a simple teleportation would clearly point out the Princess where Twilight was. So she would have to figure out something that would allow her to escape without using her teleportation skills.
"COME ON, YOU LITTLE MARE! SPEAK!"
The one in front spat in her face. It took exactly three seconds from him doing that until he was lying on the ground. The others were dumbstruck by the unexpected turn of events, allowing Twilight to give them the same treatment. Before they could make any more of their stupid remarks, they had both been swallowed by the ground beneath them, only their heads sticking above the surface. Twilight did not want to kill them if she did not have to - and besides, killing them would allow the inquisitors to find her much faster than leaving them here to be found by the other guards. As they started yelling and screaming, she sighed and cast a muffling spell on all three of them. More would no doubt arrive soon, so Twilight started running, as far away from the city as she could get. Would Celestia be able to see a connection between the death of one of her inquisitors? Perhaps. She was not stupid like those fools Twilight had left back there.
She ran until the night arrived. At that point, it became too dark to see anything. Once again, Twilight made herself a small hovel. This time, however, it was raised out of the ground. Lying there, alone as always, she noticed some sounds moving closer. Quickly, she closed up the side of her hut, leaving only a small hole for peeking out. Someone was coming this way, alright. But it appeared to be a lonesome figure, dragging along slowly. As the pony came closer, Twilight was able to begin making out the colour of her hide. It was a light blue. Could it be Dash? Still observing, Twilight noted that the pony had no wings. So not Dash. But who else? The other pony stopped. Before she could make up any theories about the reasoning behind that, Twilight's hut collapsed. Astonished, she pulled herself out of the remains, but was then struck by something on her back. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something glowing. So it was a unicorn. But it could not be an inquisitor - those used far more destructive spells. So who... Another rock went for her head, but this time she managed to duck. This was definitely not an inquisitor. And as such, there was no reason for them to fight - a unicorn with her magic intact who wasn't an inquisitor was an ally, not an enemy.
The other unicorn ignored Twilight's call and flung another rock at her. This was getting ridiculous. Twilight braced herself and ran as fast as she could towards the other unicorn. The other one tried to escape, but stumbled and fell. As Twilight reached the outstretched pony, she pinned her to the ground.
Twilight took a long look at the other pony's features. This was uncanny.
"Unhand me you ruffian!" the other one screamed. "Do you have any idea who I am?"
Twilight would not let go, but she was pretty sure she knew who this was. The tattered, grimy cape, the dirty mane... Much had changed, and yet so little was not still exactly the same.
"No one treats the Great and Powerful Trixie in such a manner!"
Twilight stepped back in surprise. This gave Trixie enough time to fling another rock at Twilight. This time, she did not manage to avoid it. It hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious. As she sank to the ground she found herself wishing yet another time that things could just have remained as they were, back before all of this. The last thing she saw was a shadow bending over her, observing her with what appeared to be curious interest.
Twilight awoke to find herself unable to move. As her eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness around her, she noticed that someone was looking at her. Her memory slowly returning, she remembered. Trixie? But that was... How could she still have her magic? Trixie had been a flamboyant performer and certainly brave enough to try and take on an Ursa Minor. But she was not nearly as powerful as Twilight herself. So how could she have survived for this long?
"Rise and shine," Trixie said. "We have some things that we need to set straight. It is doubtful that any of us needs to introduce ourselves to the other, Twilight Sparkle."
The last two words had been said with such contempt that Twilight was beginning to worry about what Trixie was capable of doing.
"Well?" Trixie asked. "At least try to pretend like you aren't an idiot."
The words did not anger Twilight. In fact, they felt almost reassuring. There was something about the way they were said. Trixie did not like Twilight's silence. She was insecure of this. Of course, the last time they had met, Twilight had single-handedly stopped an Ursa Minor from rampaging through Ponyville, but that was a long time ago. Things had changed since then. Still, it seemed most sensible to at least try and act friendly.
"Trixie. How have you been?"
These words seemed to confuse the other pony even more, but the response still came promptly.
"Less stellar recently than in the past. But surely, someone as smart as yourself could guess as much."
The compliment threw Twilight off. Sarcasm surely, but still oddly out of character.
"Why have you tied me up like this?"
"Well, it is kind of enjoy seeing you in that position."
Twilight was flabbergasted. She had definitely not expected that response.
"Oh, please. These are dangerous times. Given your track record, it is really only sensible. Surely the former grand inquisitor would understand why I might take such a course of action? Come on, you're not that stupid, are you?"
No, she was not. But right now, acting like it seemed more sensible than anything else. She was guessing that it would not be very hard to escape these ropes, but there was no telling whether Trixie had made some kind of trap if she attempted that.
"Listen..." Trixie said. "This is a proposition. None of us are especially fond of one another. However, walking around on our own is dangerous at best. You are a deserter, so we both have our reasons for not wanting to be caught like this."
At this point. Twilight noticed that she had yet to refer to herself as "The Great and Powerful Trixie" since their encounter, and she had not used "I" at all. Odd.
"That doesn't sound like the Great and Powerful Trixie I met back then. Why the sudden change in behaviour?"
"That is of no concern to you. For now, you are given the choice of forging a necessary alliance, uncomfortable as it may be for both parties involved. Take it or leave it."
"Fine. But first, will you please remove these ropes so I can get up?"
Trixie glanced at Twilight, then said: "Cut it out. You can free yourself easily. Stop acting so helpless. It is quite annoying."
With a simple spell, Twilight freed herself from the ropes. For a moment, she feared that Trixie had set up some kind of trap to trick her. But nothing happened. She turned to the other pony who was regarding her with a haughty look.
"So," Twilight said. "How did you avoid losing your horn all these years?"
For a moment, it seemed as if Trixie was going to change her expression out of anger. But then, her face turned into a smirk that made Twilight more than slightly uncomfortable.
"As recently stated, that is none of your business. But thank you for caring. It is certainly inspiring how far your concern for the well-being of others extends. Truly an admirable quality. Now, if you will excuse me..." Trixie's horn glowed for a few seconds, and a hole appeared in the darkness. Light flooded in. It was almost blinding, and Twilight shielded her eyes. "...I will go search for something to eat. Those scraps in your saddlebags will not last long. You can stay here if you want to. That is really none of my concern, as long as you are here when I get back."
As Trixie left the cave, Twilight found herself looking at the other pony until she was no longer visible. She then felt a sharp pain in the back of her head. That rock had really hit its mark. For a moment, she thought about Lyra and all the others. Would they have died if she had not been there? Would they have survived if she had acted sooner? If they had taken a different path? Tears started running down her face as she pressed herself against the wall of the hovel. No matter how bad Trixie would turn out to be, the thought of having someone to talk to, just to know that someone was there, was a great relief. Perhaps Trixie herself felt the same way. Twilight liked to think that she did. No one wanted to be alone.
"So what's your brilliant, grand scheme?"
Twilight heard the words, but she continued to act as if she was sleeping. That was none of Trixie's business. Not now. Not before she had thought it over some more.
"Hey!" Trixie kept insisting. "Look, you're not sleeping. It's obvious. Just stop the act already."
Twilight turned slowly, looking at the other pony with a sullen expression.
Trixie sighed. For a moment, Twilight thought that she had succeeded in making her angry, but no such luck.
"Look... You're the bookworm here. Surely you must have some kind of plan prepared? Walking all by yourself... In these times, you are lucky that you have not been captured or worse at this point."
"Who are you?"
The question confused Trixie.
"What do you mean? You already know that."
Twilight smiled. She had the other unicorn right where she wanted her now.
"Are you really the Great and Powerful Trixie? Because you don't look like it to me, honestly. Come on, say it. Who are you?"
"No," Twilight said. "I have a plan. But before I hear you say your name, before I know who you really are, there's no point in me telling you. I want someone I can trust. So come on. Who are you really?"
Trixie shifted nervously. Her arrogant facade seemed to have vanished completely. For a moment, it seemed as if she was ready to kill Twilight with a look. Finally, she gave in.
"I... I'm Trixie."
Smiling triumphantly, Twilight waited for a few seconds before asking again.
At that point, she almost regretted asking. Anger filled Trixie's face as tears welled up in her eyes.
"Just Trixie. I'm just Trixie, okay? Now, shut up about it and tell me your damn plan!"
The smile vanished from Twilight's face and was replaced with a business look. She was in her ace now.
"Right. Have you heard about the Nightmare Moon incident?"
"Who hasn't?" Trixie almost spat out the words, making no effort to hide her contempt.
"Right." For a moment, Twilight thought that she might have been too harsh. No, it had been necessary. No matter how unpleasant, some things had to be done. "Well, the only thing that could defeat Nightmare Moon were the Elements of Harmony."
"Please do explain for those of us who don't have the same amount of experience with saving Equestria as yourself."
Twilight took a deep breath before continuing. Trixie was not the most cheerful or friendly of travelling companions, but right now, she was the only one there was.
"There are six Elements of Harmony. Before the rise of Nightmare Moon, the only known ones were kindness, laughter, generosity, honesty and loyalty. When the five are assembled, the sixth - magic - will appear. Only when the six are together are they powerful enough to defeat someone like Nightmare Moon."
"And you think they'll also work on Celestia?"
Twilight paused for a moment. "Do we really have any other options?"
Trixie shook her head. "I guess not. So where will we find these... Elements?"
Twilight picked up one of the rocks that was lying on the ground and started drawing with it. Trixie looked on as a rough map of Equestria started forming.
"We will need to find five ponies who carry the Elements within them. but they are scattered all over Equestria and I'm not sure where to find any of them, or whether they are even alive at this point."
"As you said yourself, it's not like we have a choice. So where do we go first?"
Twilight moved the rock again and encircled a small area. Trixie snorted.
"You can't be serious."
Twilight looked back at the other unicorn. "But I am. I think that might be where she is. I know it's dangerous, but..."
"Dangerous? It's more than dangerous, it's practically suicide. No, let me rephrase that: It's suicide, plain and simple."
"You are free to come up with a better idea," Twilight said.
"Anything is a better idea. Heck, we might as well just walk right up to the castle in Canterlot and tell Celestia that she can take that horn and shove it up her..."
"Trixie," Twilight interrupted. "Do you trust me?"
"I trust that you've gone completely nuts if you think this is a good idea."
"Right." Twilight started gathering her few belongings. "In that case, I'll go myself."
With a knot in her throat, Twilight started walking towards the hovel's exit. Just as she was about to reach it, Trixie shouted behind her.
Twilight turned around.
"Look... If you think that this is what we have to do... Then... Then I'll do it. I... I trust you, Twilight Sparkle."
She tried to hide her relief, but Twilight was overjoyed. "And you'll follow me wherever we need to go?"
"Even in there?"
"Even into..." Trixie swallowed nervously. "The Everfree Forest."
They had been walking in silence for most of the day. Every now and then, Twilight would tell Trixie where they needed to turn or one of them would notice a patrol. Most of the time, however, they were quiet. It was an odd feeling. At the same time, Twilight wanted to get rid of Trixie, but she also felt a weird sense of comfort around her. Trixie herself did not make any display of emotions. As they reached a hilltop, they saw the forest in the distance. In the years since most of it had been cut down, the border had become an impenetrable mess. Thorny vines had completely blocked off the outside world, allowing the plants and creatures within to prosper without the disturbance of Celestia's soldiers. Every now and then, they would attempt another raid. The forest had countered this by becoming so humid and dense that fire could be extinguished before it did any harm and retaliation could be performed just as quickly. In the beginning, it had been a constant war, but it now seemed as if Celestia only occasionally dared to poke the remains of the forest, as if to remind it of her existence. Every time, however, it cost her some soldiers.
But it's been a long time since that meant anything to her.
The memory of what Celestia had once been only made the whole thing worse. Twilight was still pondering about why this had happened. She had trusted Celestia. Her mentor and almost like a mother to her for so many years. But could she really fathom how the mind of a god worked? No. All they could do now was try to usurp Celestia by themselves and hope that Luna would show herself to take over Celestia's position as the bringer of dawn and dusk. But Luna had disappeared before Twilight had even moved to Canterlot to become an inquisitor. Nopony had seen her for five years. There had been rumours, but that kind of thing would always spring up in a situation like this. Luna might even be dead somehow - Celestia had not wanted to tell Twilight about the fate of her sister. At that point, Twilight assumed that she had merely fled the country. As more and more horrific truths surfaced, however, it became likely that Luna was, indeed, gone. As she was wandering in her own thoughts, she realised that they were now approaching the edge of the forest. An impressive hedge of vines and thorns rose in front of them. Twilight was surprised at how abruptly it started. It really did look like a wall. Trixie looked at her with a sullen expression.
"And what's your suggestion here?"
Twilight pulled out a map.
"Well, according to my memory from... Back then. It appears as if we have to get through this somehow. One way or another, the forest has managed to become its own little eco system with no help needed from the outside. It's closed."
Twilight's horn glowed as two tips from the spears of fallen guards back at the destroyed caravan floated in the air.
"So? We cut through."
"And what... Exactly is going to happen if we're lucky?"
"We'll be able to catch her attention."
"Nothing worse than what Celestia is going to do to us."
Trixie took a deep breath.
"Go for it."
With frightening efficiency, the two small blades swept across the foliage, cutting small pieces off every time they passed. Faster and faster they moved, turning into a flurry of gleaming metal and plant matter. Eventually they stopped. There was a small entrance, just big enough for a pony to pass through.
"You go first," Twilight said.
She had expected a sarcastic response, but to her surprise, Trixie merely nodded and walked on through. Either she was not as distrustful as she had been at first. Or she was just too afraid to protest. Twilight followed her. The forest was actually an impressive sight. It was dark and oppressive. Massive trees were standing tall, taking most of the sunlight from above. Low noises could be heard all over the place. But the noises were not from animals, it was more as if...
"It speaks," Trixie said.
The realisation struck Twilight like a hammer. The forest was speaking. Was it telepathy? Magic? What was it? She could not make it out, but there was something there.
"I don't like this. Not one bit," she whispered.
"Oh, please," Trixie responded. "Don't be such a filly. Come on, now. We've got to do this."
Twilight was surprised. Given how afraid Trixie had seemed before, her adamant behaviour in the face of danger was more than a little impressive. Twilight nodded and followed her as they moved deeper into the forest. No animals could be heard, but as they moved further in, distances seemed to widen and the whole thing opened up. The outside seemed like a defence against invaders. If there had been more of them, Twilight was sure that the response would have been faster. As it was now, it felt like something was observing them. Perhaps the forest itself. It was immensely old. The forest had been here when Celestia first defeated Nightmare Moon. The temple was still somewhere in the forest. The temple that had once held the Elements of Harmony. Where she and her friends had...
"Twilight," Trixie whispered. "Over there."
Twilight looked where she pointed with her horn. There was nothing.
"What did you see? I can't find anything."
"Of course not," Trixie snorted.
Before she could make up a retort, Twilight screamed as something pinned her to the ground. She looked at Trixie, who herself seemed to have surprised her own attacker and was now fighting two or three creatures. Twilight herself used a blast of air to remove the one on top of her.
"RUN!" she yelled.
Trixie did as she said after knocking out one of the things with a tree branch. This was where Twilight first got a good glimpse at one of the things. It was a frog-like being with a slick, moist skin. It had a prolonged snout, a long tail and sharp teeth.
"What are those, bookworm? Surely you must know that, with all of your studying!"
"I have no idea, but they look hungry. Wanna go back and ask?"
Trixie stared at Twilight for a second, wearing a look that dripped with poison. But rather than making a caustic comment back, she followed Twilight's advice and started running. More scuttling creatures and larger things moved all around them. They ran for what seemed like an eternity , when in reality, it was more akin to a few seconds. Suddenly, a massive creature landed in front of them. They both looked on in awe as the sphinx blocked their way. More animals appeared all around them to block every venue of escape. Twilight prepared herself for a battle, and so did Trixie, well knowing that there was no hope. And then Twilight looked at the sphinx. Something on its head was moving. A small, white creature was regarding them, holding up its paw to stop them from attacking.
"WHY DON'T THEY ATTACK?!" Trixie yelled.
Twilight looked at her. Tears of fear and rage were welling up in the other unicorn's eyes. Twilight waited a bit before responding.
"I think... I think that's Angel."
Trixie looked at the little creature. It was definitely a bunny, with the long ears and white fur. Twilight managed to catch its eyes. It looked at her for a while before she looked away. With a gesture, it told the other creatures to move. Most of them started going away, but a few moved over to Twilight and Trixie, indicating that they had to move in the same direction as the rest, Trixie pushed a small creature away as it tried to force her, mumbling something that sounded like a snarky remark. She did, however, oblige as a larger one did the same.
"And I repeat my last question, Twilight: What?"
Twilight thought for a bit before answering.
"I think we're in luck."
Trixie regarded her with a sullen expression.
"They're taking us to her?"
"Yes. Either that or we're about to get cooked for dinner."
"Oh," Trixie said. "Those must be the best odds we've had in quite a while, then."
They were lead through the dense, humid forest, beasts walking all around them with a strangely militant discipline. It was almost as if they were communicating without any kind of sounds or gestures, only occasionally taking a look at their prisoners to make sure they were not trying anything. Of course, they would not. First of all, they most likely would not make it out with their lives. And secondly, Twilight knew where they were being taken. Exactly where she wanted to go. She had lost track of Angel, but she knew the bunny was somewhere ahead of them. She thought she had seen a flash of white on occasion. Looking at Trixie, she noticed how the other unicorn was simply looking straight forward, focused completely on their goal. She seemed full of confidence, something that Twilight was unable to muster in the amounts that she wanted to right now. Trixie's bravery was quite admirable, and somehow made Twilight herself believe more in what she hoped. They would do this, they would find the Elements of Harmony and stop Celestia... Somehow.
As they had walked for a while, they arrived at a clearing. Where the forest was incredibly dense in most places and had been cleared before them by the large creatures in front on the way here, the glade was incredibly large. The sun shone down from above the trees, which had holes in the foliage overhead, allowing for rays of sunlight to get through, creating an impressive effect. Looking over the place, Twilight saw that hundreds of birds were sitting all around in the trees, seemingly waiting for something. As the small procession moved forward, more and more of the animals moved to the side, only a few staying to guard Twilight and Trixie. The birds followed them with their gaze, something which Twilight found quite eerie. Even Trixie had lost a bit of her composure, occasionally making short glances at the treetops above them.
The animals directly in front of them stepped aside, pushing them slightly to signify that they should step forward. They then made the two unicorns stop as Angel appeared again, now walking up to something in front of them. It was an enormous tree. Its roots were formed so that they looked like a throne of sorts, and birds were sitting all over. A veil of leaves was obscuring whatever was situated in the there. Angel lifted the leaves slightly as his diminutive form made its way in behind it. He emerged a moment later, beckoning the two unicorns towards him. Twilight and Trixie did as they were told. Entering the "throne", Twilight could see that the entire tree was hollow - she had heard of this phenomenon before, but now was not the time to study it. More birds were sitting in here, observing them. Something moved in front of them. As Twilight and Trixie watched, a yellow and pink pegasus pony slowly moved towards them, every step seemingly a fight against her urges to turn around and run away. Just as she took the last one, however, he posture changed, and she stood up tall.
Twilight was baffled. "Fluttershy, you..."
"Kneel." The echo reverberated the entire tree, even though she had almost whispered it.
Twilight did as she was told, knowing better than to be obstinate in a moment like this. Trixie, however, had no such reservations.
"Why should I kneel to you? You're not..."
She did not get to say more, as all of the birds in the tree sang simultaneously, the echo amplifying the sound to the point where Twilight covered her ears out of fear that she would go deaf. Trixie fell to her knees and the sounds stopped immediately.
"Fluttershy..." Twilight began again. "It's been so long. I'm sorry for..."
"Sorry..?" Fluttershy interjected. "Sorry? Well... Yes. Yes, you are sorry. Do you even know, what... What has happened? What you helped do?"
"I know and I'm sorry. I thought Celestia was right, that you were a traitor... I was going to warn you, but..."
"Me?" Fluttershy looked down for a second, then looked up again. "This... Isn't about me. Look around. This is all that's left of the Everfree Forest... And we have to protect it all the time. All the poor animals... So many dead, so many without homes. And it's your fault too. Sorry? Yes, I bet you're sorry. I..."
She looked away for a few seconds, allowing Twilight a chance to talk.
"Look, Fluttershy. I'm sorry about all that happened, but things have changed. It's different now. I'm out to find the Elements of Harmony to defeat Celestia, and if you could please just..."
Fluttershy seemed to be getting angry, but her voice was still not much more than a whisper. "So why did you bring her?" She gestured at Trixie. "Do you... Um, do you even know what she has done?"
Twilight regarded Trixie, who was now losing her calm exterior completely. She looked as if she was about to turn and run as she did all those years ago, but it was useless. She just stood there, afraid to look anypony in the eyes, instead trying to return to her usual haughty look, albeit less convincing than before.
"Look, Fluttershy... We put that past us. She has helped me with my task, and I was hoping that you would do the same. I know it's not fair to ask of you, and I know that we do not deserve it, but please. Forgive us."
Tears were welling up in Twilight's eyes - she was not even sure anymore. She had thought her friend would be quicker to forgive her, but she knew that was foolish.
"Where..." Fluttershy waited for a few seconds before correcting herself. "What are you going to do? Gather everypony... From back then?"
Twilight nodded. "Yes. Only together are we strong enough to defeat Celestia. Please, Fluttershy. This is our only chance."
Fluttershy looked down for several seconds, her hoof scraping into the ground. Angel hopped over to her, and pointed to the two unicorns. Fluttershy looked at them, then looked back at him and slowly shook her head. Twilight's heart sank for a bit as she thought what that gesture could mean and imagined the worst. Fluttershy turned to her.
"Dash and Applejack are... In a rebellion camp. Not far from here. They, um... Occasionally get to take some plants from the forest... You know, for food. I haven't actually spoken to them... But I know it's them. My friends tell me." She raised her hoof at the birds. "They tell me many things. Rarity is still in Ponyville... I think. And Pinkie is gone. Nopony knows where she is. I'm sorry, but that's all I can do to help... I will have my friends watch over you. When you need me... Just tell one of the birds. I need to stay here for now, but I will help you bring down Celestia... You can stay for as long as you want. We will supply you with whatever you need. Um... So you can do what you must."
Twilight was looking at Fluttershy in amazement, not sure what to say or do.
"If... If you want to, that is," the pegasus said, her face half-obscured behind her mane.
Twilight regained her senses and looked at Trixie, who seemed just as baffled as herself.
"Yes, we'd like that. We'd like that very much."
They left the forest the morning after the next. While Fluttershy and her animal friends had give Twilight and Trixie everything they had needed and asked for, it had still felt tense all the time. Fluttershy was as kind and caring as ever, but the animals did not seem pleased at the two unicorn ponies’ presence. Trixie had taken the first chance as soon as they were alone to tell Twilight how much she disapproved of the situation they were currently in. Twilight’s response had simply been asking Trixie if she thought that the upcoming tour of Ponyville was something she looked more forward to. As they walked out of the forest, it struck Twilight how stark of a contrast the lush, green woods were in comparison to the grey, blasted landscape around it. It was very clear why Fluttershy wanted to preserve this small bit of the past. Twilight felt a sting of regret as they started walking out. Trixie, however, seemed more than relieved to finally be free of the claustrophobic trees. Looking around, it quickly became obvious that despite Fluttershy’s best efforts, her and her friends were fighting a losing battle. Even though they had managed to fight back every attack that the princess had sent at them so far, each one had taken its toll. There were dead, withered and burned plants around the edge of the forest. Animal remains were not visible, but this was probably due to the fact that the forest creatures took care of their dead. Still, with so many large being in such a small area, problems were sure to arise sooner or later. Twilight hoped that it would be later.
One of the birds from the forest was going to show them the way to the rebel camp where Rainbow Dash and Applejack could supposedly be found. Twilight looked at Trixie who merely nodded as they started moving again. As they did, they occasionally came across other ragtag bands of refugees. One of them seemed to have spotted the two unicorns at one point, but thankfully decided that whatever was happening was not worth their time. And time was slowly beginning to become more and more important.
Twilight turned to Trixie. “Have you noticed,” she said as the blue pony turned her own head to listen. “How things are actually slowly crumbling around us? Nothing is constant, everything seems to be changing. I even think that the sky might be darker today than it was when we went into there.”
Trixie took a glance upwards. “Well, yes, that does tend to happen when it is overcast.”
Twilight merely sighed. “Stop being sarcastic, you know what I mean.”
The other unicorn looked slightly indignant at the remark, though she quickly collected herself again. “Well, yes, I was merely trying to... Never mind. Yes, I know. I’ve seen it too.”
“And what do you think?”
To Twilight’s surprise, the question merely made Trixie shrug. “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the smart one here. You’re the one who used to be Celestia’s star student. I’m nobody. Not anymore.”
Twilight did not respond, instead making a mental note to herself that she needed to address this once they reached the encampment. But for now, they had to keep on travelling. They had both had their saddle bags filled with food and water, but Fluttershy had said that it was still a few days of travelling on hoof. So they moved. As they made their camp for the night, Twilight considered whether she ought to ask Trixie about her problems. But the blue pony was already fast asleep, and waking her up merely for that seemed rather rude. She tried to lay down herself, but her thoughts were a violent tempest, constantly churning. She simply could not rest. And when she finally did fall asleep, her dreams were haunted with strange visions of alien places. Impossible geometry, twisting into shapes that hurt the eyes, polished surfaces and creatures that were quite simply beyond description. She woke up to the sound of Trixie’s voice. For some reason it soothed her. She realised that she was covered in sweat.
“I...” Twilight was still blinking as her eyes got used to the light. “I had a nightmare.”
Trixie’s facial expression flashed to worry for a second, before returning to the usual mask of arrogance. “Well,” she said. “Was it anything like this? Because then I can understand your concern.”
Twilight looked and saw that Trixie was pointing with her hoof at the wasteland around them. She did not respond, instead merely getting up and preparing for another long day of walking. The bird had been sitting nearby all night and was now flying around them. As they got ready to leave, it started guiding them again, going high into the air and slowly making its way forward. They merely walked without speaking a word until Trixie suddenly noticed something.
“Hey, Twilight. Look over there.”
Twilight turned her head. Something was gleaming in the distance. Trixie began sneaking over there and, despite all of her instincts telling her otherwise, Twilight followed suit. As they got closer, it quickly became clear to Twilight that she had seen this before. It was another patrol of royal soldiers, all dead. And once again, it seemed like they had been killed with their own weapons.
“Who could have done this?” Trixie said, her voice actually trembling slightly.
Twilight did not respond. This was somehow worse than the last time. She could not quite put her finger on it, but the entire scene was immensely grotesque. Some of the bodies were young colts, barely adults. Celestia was definitely not picky with who she drafted.
“Come on,” Twilight whispered. “Let’s leave.”
Trixie did not seem to react. She moved among the dead, walking as if she was in a dream. Time was an illusion as she made her way among them, pondering her own mortality. So many lives, just taken away like that. She was willing to bet that none of them had expected this when they set out for the day. Did anyone ever truly expect to face their own death? No, she doubted it. Trixie turned and looked at the unicorn behind her. Tears were streaming down the blue fur.
“Twilight, this... This is us, isn’t it? If we fail. If anything goes wrong. Then we end up like these poor souls. Dead. Forgotten. Alone.”
“No.” Twilight started walking over to Trixie. “No, it’s not. Because we won’t fail. We can make it through this. You just have to trust me. Trust yourself.” She reached the other pony, gently wiping the tears from her face. “Look, Trixie... I’m scared too. I’ve literally trembled with fear at times. But you know what? The heroes in the stories, those whose names are still remembered to this day? They were scared too. They were just as scared as you and me. But they pulled through. Despite all odds and despite their own doubts, they made it through. Because they had the will to do it. Because they had courage. Because they had each other. Do you understand?”
Trixie nodded. “Yes, Twilight. I understand. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright.” Twilight brushed a few stray strands of hair from the other unicorn’s mane back into place. “Now, let’s get out of here.”
Trixie nodded again. Together, they moved away from the grim scene and followed the bird once more. For some reason, Twilight felt much safer now than she had the night before. And for the first time since they left the forest, she smiled. She could not explain why, but she did. Perhaps the future was simply less grim than it had seemed before. Or perhaps it was just because she had realised that neither of them would need to go through it alone. Whatever happened, they would experience it together. And they would make it through. She knew it.