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Prologue

 

It was a busy day in Canterlot.

 

Ordinarily this wasn’t something that would draw attention, as every day was a busy one for Equestria’s capital, but on this particular day it was practically vibrating with activity. It was one of the last days of fall, and ponies throughout the city were on the move. They were in the stores, finishing up shopping for the latest in winter fashions. They were working around their homes, making sure they were fully prepared for the cold months ahead. They were in the streets, getting one last look at the city at large before it was buried under the first sheet of white. In short, everypony was out and about, getting things done.

 

The city’s government was no different. In a conference room of one of the highest towers of the castle that dominated the center of the city, a frenzied meeting was taking place. The large, circular room seated dozens and dozens of official-looking pegasi, all of them talking at once. Several maps of Equestria lay out on the tables, covered in lines, diagrams, calculations, and doodles. The voices weren’t in agreement with one another, and the volume of the room began to rise. Suddenly, at the center of the room, a hoof hit a table with a loud crack in an attempt to bring order. The room went silent. Princess Celestia, presiding as she always did, gathered herself up and began to speak.

 

“Everypony, please. We’ve had a long day today, and I would like to wrap things up. We need to get our plan in order, so that we can deliver it to the regional teams and get things moving. You’ve all been in the discussion, you all know the merits and dangers of what we have in store for the kingdom–”

 

“Yeah, bringing down eighteen inches a day for a week straight. We can all plan how well that’s going to turn out.” The remark from the back of the room gathered a few murmurs of agreement.

 

The Princess ignored them and continued. “We’ve said all that needs to be said. All that remains now is the vote. So, without further delay, all in favor?”

 

Slowly but surely, a large collection of hooves rose into the air.

 

“All opposed?”

 

Another set of hooves went up. This batch was much smaller and more scattered.

 

Celestia smiled and nodded. “Then it is settled. Castle scribes will get to work writing up individual instruction sets for each of you to give out to your working parties. Those of you returning directly to Cloudsdale should leave at once to make sure the production departments know what they’re in for. I hereby bring this meeting to a close, and wish you all a safe and productive winter.”

 

With the meeting over, Celestia turned and headed out of the room. A few attempted to follow her to engage in more discussion, but she wasn’t feeling up for any more talk at the moment. A quick motion of her wings had aides scurrying over to run interception while a set of guards cast out some very intimidating looks. The remaining stragglers of the meeting suddenly found themselves needing to be somewhere else and made a swift exit from the area. Celestia trotted into her throne room. A guard quickly shut the doors behind her, leaving her all alone.

 

Celestia paced back and forth in the vast ceremonial chamber, lost in her thoughts. She frowned as she circled her throne. Stopping abruptly, she shook her head in mild frustration. The exact reason for her stress was eluding her, which was just irritating her all the more.

 

There were many things that could be bothering her at the moment. At the top of the list was the meeting with the weather council that she had just left. It had been a long meeting filled with seemingly endless debate. Eventually, it had been decided that the upcoming winter, due to begin in three days’ time, would be particularly harsh to make up for the series of weaker ones over these past few years. It was something a number of ponies didn’t support, but Celestia had eventually driven home the need for an overall balance in the long-term weather planning.

 

Now that a plan had been settled upon, there was still the matter of getting everypony on the same page in terms of how winter would open up. This meant getting the regional teams organized and all of their seasonal supplies ready. It meant informing the rest of the population as to what was headed their way. And it meant aligning the whole process so that it synced up with the natural cycles in the few parts of Equestria where the weather didn’t fall under pony control. This last part in particular was something that was subject to numerous delays every year, since no matter how many times it was performed, many ponies simply couldn’t deal with trying to handle weather they couldn’t totally tame.

 

None of this made for easy work even on a light year. On a strong year like this, it could be nothing short of chaos without the proper amount of control and management. There was still much more work to be done.

 

Then there was Luna. Her sister’s thousand year banishment and possession by Nightmare Moon had taken quite a toll on her mental and social well-being. Over time, Celestia had been counseling her and attempting to bring her back to a more normal state of mind. Recently, she had taken several steps back into the public eye in an effort to once again become part of society proper.

 

The results had been mixed.

 

Still, progress was definitely being made, and Celestia was confident that Luna would be completely in sync with the world at large very soon. Her recovery also brought Celestia somepony she could truly confide in, which was a great relief after centuries of being alone.

 

Lately, however, Luna had been keeping to herself in her side of the castle, not really talking to anypony. She didn’t seem to be feeling angry or depressed, she just seemed… distant. She just spent all day alone in her chambers, reading her books. That her choice of reading material during this period of isolation consisted entirely of pulpy horror novels just added to the mystery, along with Celestia’s worry.

 

Finally, there was the general stress of going through life in charge of the whole Kingdom of Equestria, along with the sun that lit and warmed it. She had, of course, grown accustomed to this task over her millennia of performing it, but it still had the power to wear her down. There was always just so much that needed to be done and rarely enough time to do it. She could delegate as much as she could to the various magistrates and local city officials, but a little bit of everything always found its way up to her in the end. It was a trying position to say the least, though she ultimately accepted that it was her job to do. She was the Princess, after all, and she would have to act like it.

 

Yet it was none of these things that were really nagging at her right now. It was something else, something that she couldn’t quite put her hoof on.

 

Frowning, Celestia moved towards a large set of double doors on the opposite side of the room. Quickly unlocking them, she pushed them open to reveal a long hallway. One wall was made up of an enormous, floor-to-ceiling window. It granted the Princess a perfect view of a large chunk of the kingdom, from Ponyville directly below, to the mountains off in the east, and the deserts off to the west, with a great multitude of land features in between. Along the opposite wall hung a mirror, one that was perhaps the largest in the land (to say nothing of its beautiful gilded frame), and roughly the same size as the window it faced. It granted another perfect look at the same view as the window, albeit reversed, with the added benefit of Celestia being able to see herself as well. Celestia had both features installed ages ago, early in her reign. The mirror allowed her to gain a sense of perspective looking out over the kingdom, and the Princess often did her deep thinking in front of it.

 

She trotted to the center of the hall, underneath one of several large chandeliers spaced along the ceiling, and turned to face herself. Glancing over her weary expression, she let her eyes wander around the backdrop. It was a pleasant day at the moment, though it looked to be the last for some time. Pegasus ponies flew around as tiny specks in the distance, dragging clouds and snow material out of Cloudsdale and off to their designated home zones. Looking closely at the reflection, she could also see that a few of those dreaded natural clouds had begun to form. Their random and largely unpredictable nature was always a challenge to the fliers. In the coming days, Celestia would be flying out to personally meet with the local leaders to figure out how best to coordinate things.

 

She could see a particularly strong patch of natural clouds begin to form up in the Northern Wastes. It had always been a bit of a mess up there, though recently things seemed to be getting even worse. Celestia wasn’t entirely sure why this was. She had been too busy as of late to check into it, and the very low population kept it from becoming a large issue. Regardless, degrading conditions were not a good thing in any part of the kingdom. She knew she should get somepony out there, if only to–

 

Copper Star! The name hit her in a flash. Celestia whirled around and stared out the window at the Wastes. Her old student! How could she have forgotten? She had been a research expedition in the Wastes for more than a year now, following whatever tidbit of information buried deep in the castle archives had sent her out there in the first place. Thinking hard, Celestia realized that she hadn’t received any sort of letter from Copper in well over two months.

 

This in and of itself wasn’t too worrisome. Copper had always been a somewhat absent-minded student, particularly when she really got into a topic, and trekking to an isolated spot far out in the Wastes meant she was especially into this one. Celestia had long ago learned that sending her a letter never got much by way of an immediate response, unless it contained some sort of critical question. And even then it was up in the air as to how fast a reply would come. Copper would send a letter along whenever she had something substantial to say, and her last note found her doing well. Celestia imagined she was still in such a state, if also buried in work. On top of studying the strange weather patterns, she was also looking into some old ruins of pony villages from eons past. These ruins seemed to be so old that Celestia herself could scarcely remember them, so, naturally, she too was very curious about them.

 

At this point, Celestia’s main concern was Copper spending another winter all alone, far from any sort of pony contact or companionship. It probably wasn’t very safe either, as anything could happen out there in weather like that. Celestia wondered if she could visit herself, but the notion was squashed before it got very far. The Princess had a considerable number of duties and obligations to attend to. Time off for a social call simply couldn’t be worked into the schedule.

 

Still, somepony would have to go out there and check up on Copper, as at the very least Celestia imagined that she was feeling quite lonely. That was no condition for any pony to be in at this time of year. Copper was one who really enjoyed company, even if her work-comes-first self would never openly admit it.

 

She reminds me of another student of mine, Celestia thought, grinning. Say, there’s an idea! She would be the perfect pony to send out to visit Copper. The two should hit it off nicely, and she could even bring the rest of her friends along. It would give Copper some much needed socialization and give the rest of them a nice little vacation after all the end-of-the-season work they’ve been doing lately.

 

Celestia didn’t think they would be able to stay too long, but a week or so of relaxation and exploration should do the trick. They might even be able to convince Copper to take the rest of the winter off and spend some time back here in Canterlot. She could present her findings and catch up on the world she’d left behind so long ago. In fact, that would be preferable. Better to have her here in civilization than stuck going through a strong winter out in the middle of nowhere. That was simply no place for a pony to be alone. Yes, sending the group out there seemed like just the thing to do.

 

Celestia headed back to her throne room, where some royal parchment floated over to her. Summoning a quill to go with it, Celestia dipped it in ink and began to compose her letter.

 

“Dear Twilight Sparkle…”


Chapter 1: Making Tracks

Twilight Sparkle hurried down Ponyville’s main street. Ducking past several fruit carts and their long lines of customers, she did her best not to run into anypony as she threaded through the crowd. Ordinarily she would’ve preferred to go a little slower, to take in the day’s warm sunshine, to savor the delicious aroma coming out of the bakery, and to chat with any one of the many ponies who were wandering around. At the moment, however, she simply didn’t have the time to spare, and so continued along at a quick pace.

                

                It had been a very busy day for her so far. She’d been over at Fluttershy’s house since before dawn, helping her catalog all the local animals that would be going into their winter hibernations the next day. While Twilight was more than happy to help, it was slow work, and they weren’t finished until well into the afternoon. Now she was running behind schedule and had many more things to do today. Complicating matters was that she had just heard that there was an important letter from the Princess waiting for her back at the library. Twilight hurried back as fast as she could to read it and see what else needed her attention. Why Spike didn’t just bring the letter to her like he always did, Twilight had no idea.

 

Where could Spike have wandered off to? she thought as she passed through the town square. She dodged past a few more fruit carts as she headed towards the street that would take her to her tree. It’s not like him to skip on getting me something like this. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen him all day. He knows how busy this week is and he’s been so helpful so far. I wonder what he could be–

 

                A thick smell penetrated her thoughts and brought her back to the world: smoke. A lot of it. She looked up and saw that it was covering the sky. It hung in the air, a thick overcast that cast a shadow over the town. It was originating from somewhere around the next corner and going wherever the wind would take it. Twilight stared at it, seemingly the only pony around to do so. All the others went about their daily lives, totally oblivious to the black cloud overhead. Twilight sniffed and smelled something burning very close by. She became aware of the air getting warmer around her, along with small tufts of ash falling out of the sky. Quickly running down the street and around a corner, Twilight found herself face to face with the smoke’s origin.

 

                The library was on fire. As Twilight stared in horror, flames consumed the tree from the front door all the way to the highest branch. The shelves inside fell over as their supports burned away, the books quickly lighting up into small bricks of flame. A small breeze went through the air, sending more smoke and a volley of ash over Twilight’s head. She ran towards the inferno. The heat grew more and more intense as she approached, until it became too overwhelming to move any closer.

 

                “Help! Somepony, anypony, help me!” she cried out as loud as she could, looking desperately around. The ponies around her ignored both her and the fire, not even so much as glancing at it. They acted like they didn’t even know it was there. Tears streamed down Twilight’s face as she searched frantically for something she could use on the blaze. She tried to summon the nearby water tower, create a waterfall overhead, bring in buckets, anything… but try as she might, her horn just sputtered. Nothing was working. She tried to think, but the sheer amount of heat washing over her made it difficult to concentrate.

 

                Without warning, a large fireball crashed through the top half of the tree. An upper window had cracked open, causing an enormous backdraft to shoot out. The force of it covered Twilight in soot and sent her sprawling backwards. She rolled several times before managing to steady herself. She shook her head as she stood back up. The whole tree was lit up now, shining brightly against the smoke covered sky. Twilight looked around and found the street completely deserted. She was alone. The nearby buildings began to look very gray in color; Twilight first thought it might be ash covering them, but it seemed more like they were simply fading away. She shouted out once more to no avail. There wasn’t anypony around to hear her calls, nopony to come to her aid.

 

                A loud crack sounded out as the front door violently flew open. It detached from its hinges and shot through the air, just barely missing Twilight’s head as she ducked out of the way. A dark figure stood in the doorway, outlined by the bright light behind him. Twilight squinted in his direction and thought she could make out his face. He stood unbothered by the flames, looking square in Twilight’s direction. He started to approach her. Twilight tried to back up, but found that she couldn’t move. She was stuck in place, completely paralyzed from head to toe and unable to even speak. The figure grew closer and closer, a trail of fire following his every step and spreading out all around him. The air got hotter and hotter all around. As he drew near, Twilight slowly made out parts of his face. His piercing blue eyes stared at her over a wide grin–

 

 

****************************************

 

                “Are you alright, Twilight?” Fluttershy’s question was the first thing Twilight heard when she opened her eyes. She was crumpled in the corner of her bed, breathing heavily. She blinked as a view of reality returned to her. The others were looking at her from their sleeping bunks. The late-afternoon sun shone through the windows, while the rest of the world rushed by as the train moved steadily along. The motion of the traincar and the clicking sound of the tracks provided further foundation for the scene.

 

                “Uh…” was all Twilight managed to get out at first. A few shakes of her head brought back some of her composure. “Uh, yeah. I’m fine. Just a bit of a bad dream I guess.”

 

                “Bit nothing. My dear, you look as if you’ve had quite a shock,” Rarity said with concern. “That’s certainly no way to begin a vacation.”

 

                “Thanks, but believe me, I’m fine,” Twilight said reassuringly. She did feel much better. The fright from the dream was wearing off, as was her memory of it. She looked around at the others and smiled. “I think I just overworked myself getting ready for the trip.”

 

                “Twilight, if you got bad dreams every time you overworked yourself, you’d never sleep at all,” Rarity said. She floated a small, monogramed towel over to Twilight’s forehead to wipe away the remaining beads of sweat.

 

Rainbow Dash laughed from her bunk. “You’re one to talk, Rarity. Twilight probably just let the mystery of this whole whatchamacallit go to her head. I think we’d all do better on this thing if we knew more about it first.”

 

“Now hush Rainbow Dash, no sense in complainin’ about that.” Applejack’s voice came up from a bunk at the end of the car. “Twilight explained things nice an’ easy, an’ you had your say on whether or not you wanted to come. We’re all headed out to take a break from all the hard work we did cleanin’ up for the new season, an’ to give this pony some much-needed company.”

 

Pinkie, her nose stuck deep in a book, looked up.

 

“Nice exposition, Applejack!” she said cheerfully, then stuck her head back down.

 

“Uh, thanks,” Applejack responded after a moment. “Anyway, we’re already this far out there, an’ you’ll enjoy yourself once you get there.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I was just saying, is all,” Dash replied. “Twilight probably just got tired from having to pack everything up herself because Rarity took Spike.”

 

“He offered to help me.” Rarity shrugged and gave a sly grin. “Besides, who am I to refuse the services of such a polite little gentleman?”

 

“How about when that little gentleman needs to help me locate the books I need for this trip?” Twilight asked.

 

“Really, Twilight, you’ve been in that tree for ages now. If you haven’t gotten your act together and learned how to locate your own books by now, then I’m afraid you’re simply hopeless. Right, Spike?” Rarity glanced over her shoulder for a reply and was met with a loud snore. Spike was bundled up as tight as he could manage under his blankets. For once, not even the girls’ chatter could keep him up.

 

Rarity sighed. “Oh, such a dear.”

 

“Yeah, having to lug four trunks’ worth of coats onto the train would tire anypony out,” Dash said, tossing an extra pillow Spike’s way. It landed just short of him. Almost instinctively, a small purple claw shot out to grab it and tuck it under the ones he already had. He rolled over and let loose another snore. The girls all giggled.

 

“Anyway,” Rarity said, “you seem to have managed yourself just fine, Twilight. Why, you got this little box of books here all by yourself.”

 

Rarity nudged the small container, which was stuffed full of paperbacks.

 

“Actually, those aren’t mine. Mine are all in the back with the rest of the bags.” Twilight looked over at the box. “I’m not sure who these belong to.”

 

“Ooh! Those are mine!” A pink hoof materialized and snatched the box away. The owner of the hoof poked her head out of her bunk, one of the paperbacks open in front of her. “I’m going through them pretty quick and didn’t want to have to hop between the cars every time I needed another one.”

 

“Pinkie?” Twilight asked, somewhat incredulously. “You brought all those?”

“Of course, Twilight! Between the exploring and partying and fun stuff we’re going to do when we get there, I might find myself with nothing much to do. I mean, I can’t start pranking this new pony yet until I really get to know her, and that could take a whole day! Plus I don’t know how much room or supplies I’ll have for baking, so I don’t know how often I’ll be able to throw a party, and I know everypony wants some time to relax after all they’ve been doing so I should give them at least an hour for that and–”

 

“Alright, alright, Pinkie, I hear you. I just didn’t take you for much of a reader.” Twilight paused and glanced down at one of the titles that had slipped out of Pinkie’s box. “Particularly of books like The Hoof’s End Horror.”

“Oh, Twilight,” Pinkie giggled. “Everypony loves a good spooky story every once in a while, you know that. And I’ve been really hooked on this author lately! He does such good work, I can’t put them down!”

 

Pinkie suddenly leaned out and gave Twilight an odd look.

 

“Do you read Sugar Cane?” she asked plainly.

 

“Uh, not that I’m aware of,” Twilight said, backing up into her bunk. “But I’ll be sure to give him a look sometime.”

 

“Okie-dokie-lokie!” Pinkie said cheerfully. With that, her nose went straight back between the pages, the outside world shut off to her once more. The rest of the group stared at her.

 

“Um... what?” Fluttershy asked, more than a little confused.

 

Applejack tilted her head. “Now there’s a sight I thought I’d never see. You feelin’ okay over there, Pinkie?”

 

Pinkie hummed happily to herself as she read and gave no reply.

 

“Certainly an unusual sight,” Rarity said. “Although I think I saw her like this the other day as well.”

 

“I know what happened,” Dash said firmly.

 

“You do?” asked Twilight, for she was just as mystified at Pinkie’s behavior as any of them. She didn’t recall Pinkie ever even sitting this still this long before.

 

“Isn’t it obvious? Pinkie’s just swapped minds with you,” Dash said. She leaned back with a satisfied look on her face.

 

“Oh really?” Twilight rolled her eyes. “I think I would have noticed that.”

 

“Maybe you have!” Dash leaned in and gave Twilight and inquisitive look. “Any parties or candy in that dream of yours? Maybe that’s why you were so weird when you woke up. Your mind was trying to get the hang of Pinkie’s Pinkiness.”

 

“I don’t recall anything like that,” Twilight said. “Besides, how exactly would this mind swap have occurred?”

 

“You got me. Pinkie’s the egghead now, ask her.”

 

The group all looked at Pinkie again. The pink pony didn’t notice at first, though eventually she looked up and stared back at them.

 

“What?” she asked innocently. The others glanced at each other for a moment, and then burst out laughing. Pinkie shrugged and joined in, her high-pitched chortles somewhat reassuring the others.

 

 “It’s looking really gloomy outside.” Fluttershy’s somewhat distracted comment came as they were all calming down. Everypony looked out their window. The sun from earlier was now masked by a thick layer of gray overcast.  It covered the sky as far as they could see. As they headed further north it seemed to be getting darker and grayer. Judging by the trees that peppered the landscape, the wind was picking up as well.

 

“I think we’re in the Wastes now,” Dash said after a moment.

 

“How can you tell?” Applejack asked.

 

“The weather’s really weird up here. Not all of it is pony made, a lot of it just… happens.”

 

“Oh, my,” Fluttershy said. Her worried eyes scanned the darkening sky. “This sounds like a very dangerous place.”

 

Up in the sky, the girls could see a group of pegasi dragging a cloud into place. It was a large one, even grayer and bleaker than the rest.

 

“The weather ponies here seem to be managing alright,” Twilight noted.

 

Dash let out a small laugh. “The weather ponies up here are nuts. They keep trying to outdo the stuff that appears on its own, even though there aren’t even close to enough of them to keep up. This first week is hectic enough for everypony everywhere, but here… even I might have trouble. At first. Then I’d have to show them how it’s done.”

 

“That an offer to go an’ help?” Applejack grinned.

 

“Hey, I’ve been working on getting the cloud formations right for the last month. I think it’s high time I had a break,” Dash shot back, pride leaking through her voice. “Besides, I don’t see you offering to go help the train ponies with pulling us. Can’t imagine this bucket is easy to drag along on a day like this.”

 

Applejack looked somewhat indignant at the comment. “Why, I’d be happy to go out an’ help!”

 

A sudden gust of wind shook the whole car, bringing with it a great roar that made everypony freeze for a moment.

 

“…On the return trip! You know, after I’ve had a good long week to rest up an’ get my strength back.” Applejack kept a brave face as she drew herself up into her bed a little more.

 

Following the gust, the weather took a swift turn for the worse. Snow fell lightly at first before morphing into something more substantial. The wind picked up, whipping the flakes around even more and causing the visibility to plummet. Off in the distance, the weather ponies continued to do their jobs, though even from the train the girls could see that they were struggling against the uncontrollable elements. They dropped a few more clouds into place before finally conceding and heading home. It wasn’t long before they disappeared into the white flurry.

 

At the same time, the train increased in speed; the pullers had a long night ahead of them. Even stopping to swap with the other railway workers at the various break points along the line, it wasn’t going to be easy. The sooner they got to where they were going, the better for all involved.

 

The light in the sky finally faded to black. All that could be gathered from outside the window was the howl of the wind.

 

“In the thick of it now,” Applejack noted. She yawned. “Oof, time to hit the hay. Hope things are lookin’ a mite purtier in the mornin’…”

 

She trailed off as her face hit the pillow.

 

“Yeah, I’m out for the night too,” Dash said. “Just thinking about the weather makes me tired from work.”

 

“I think it’s a good time for all of us to get some sleep,” Twilight said.

Everypony collected themselves in their beds as Twilight reached over for the gas lamp switch. With one quick turn, darkness filled the car, followed shortly thereafter by the shallow breathing of five sleeping ponies and the light snoring of one sleeping baby dragon.

 

Sometime later, the candle in Pinkie’s berth finally went out. The book she was reading dropped onto the floor, and before long the sound of sleep throughout the car was complete. All that could be heard was the wind howling outside and, if one were to listen really closely, some shuffling and bumping coming from somewhere inside the baggage car.

 

****************************************

                The train sped swiftly along through the night. The heavy weather from earlier had abated, but the temperature continued to plummet. The farther down it went, the cozier the car’s interior grew. All of its occupants were bundled up in their beds, fast asleep. Warm, secure, and blissfully ignorant of the frigid exterior that surrounded them, they all slept calmly under the covers.

 

                With the exception of one. Up in her bunk, Twilight was tossing and turning. She kicked at the covers, muttering incomprehensible things under her breath. Her face was scrunched up, and she seemed to wince a few times at some unseen blows. She continued like this for some time before her leg gave a sudden, unusual twitch and her eyes shot open.

 

Twilight sat straight up, soundlessly but with great force. So great that she immediately banged her head on the roof of the train car.  She fell back down onto her pillow, rubbing her forehead and muttering a steady stream of “Ow, ow, ow” under her breath. She looked around, with only the darkness of the car around to meet her. One of the exterior lamps of the train had been lit and was letting some light in, so she could just make out where she was. Nopony so much as stirred at Twilight’s abrupt awakening. She stared for what seemed like ages, looking for the slightest imperfection, any hint of something amiss. All was well.

 

She turned and looked out the window. The lantern spread a pale orange glow out into the foreground, one that was quickly sucked up by the dark void that was the night sky. Not a star could be seen, nothing beyond the small ball of light that was speeding along the ground. All that was visible were some white flecks of snow falling gently down. The wind had died down sometime earlier. All Twilight could hear was the sound of the cars moving along the track. She shivered and realized how cold she was. Her blanket had been kicked to the end of her bed and she was covered in sweat. She also realized she was breathing very, very fast.

 

She pulled the blanket up and took in a few deep breaths.

 

“Okay Twilight, just relax and stay calm,” she said quietly to herself in the most reassuring tone she could manage, “it was just another nightmare. You’ve had them before, you get them when you’re overly stressed, you have them and you move on.”

 

Slowly but steadily, she calmed down. Her forehead stopped aching and she eased from her tense position. She was slightly more concerned than she was willing to admit, however. It was true she had had nightmares in the past, some of them fierce enough to wake her up, like the ones she had today. It had been years since that happened, though, and two of them in the same day? That was a new one on her. As for stress causing it, she had admittedly been quite stressed these past few days. Getting ready for the end of the season, followed by packing up for this surprise trip Celestia introduced to her, had taken a lot out of her. But these didn’t seem related to any of that, and they bore little resemblance to stress-related nightmares she’d had before. These must’ve been caused by something else.

 

Still, it was nothing she couldn’t handle, right? Right?

 

“Right, of course. No need to fret Twilight,” she continued to mutter as she got comfortable once again. “You’re a big girl, and you’re not about to be denied a full night’s rest because your brain decided to throw a few spooks at you. Even spooks like… like…”

 

She strained to remember the dreams, the ones that felt so impossibly real. Nothing came to mind. Faint images of fires and shadows flickered through her head and then faded away. In a flash, it was all gone; the only evidence of it ever happening at all was the small red spot on her forehead.

 

“There, see? It couldn’t have been anything important. Quit acting like a little filly, and get some rest.”

 

Twilight stared out the window as she adjusted her head on her pillow. The snowfall was almost hypnotic in how peaceful it was, not even the speed of the train could hurry them along. She felt her eyelids growing heavy again. It didn’t take long before she was asleep once more. The train continued forward, heading straight through the darkness that was all around. The snow was barely dropping at this point. The flakes seemed to just hover in midair. Like ash from a fire.

 

****************************************

 

The sky was still overcast at the final station, now matching the fresh layer of snow on the ground. Thankfully, the wind was still absent. Only the very light snowfall remained of the previous evening’s harsh conditions as the girls prepared to depart from the train onto the platform. Ahead of them, the train pullers barely waited to take off their reins before making an unsteady beeline for the worker’s barracks and the glowing, inviting fireplace within.

 

                Applejack, first one up as always, glanced out the window to check out the surroundings. Around the train station for as far as she could see was a vast plain of rolling hills. The snow covered every square inch of the ground, smooth and undisturbed in every direction. Some rays of light managed to break through the clouds, bouncing off the snow and creating a glare that made Applejack blink.

 

She shook it off and opened the door. Stepping out, she shivered almost immediately. The temperature was considerably colder than the Ponyville they had all left behind and leagues colder than the warm train car.

 

“Whoa now,” she said, a small cloud appearing in front of her mouth. “That’s somethin’ to wake you up in the mornin’. Easy now girls, we best bundle up before–”

 

“Cannonball!”

 

A pink blur sailed past Applejack’s head as Pinkie leapt from the train, headed straight for the nearest snowdrift. She landed with a soft thump that sent a white splash up into the air. She laughed loudly as she hopped around in the powder, leaving large craters with each landing.

 

“First fresh snow of the season guys!” she cheered out, “Come and enjoy it!”

 

Applejack shivered again in response and opted instead to duck back inside the car. Twilight, fully clad in her winter coat and boots, stepped out to take her place. She heard hoofsteps nearby and turned to see their source.

 

A stallion was approaching on the platform. He was wearing a thick, woolly coat, bright yellow in color, his hooves covered in similarly constructed boots.  His eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark goggles. A small emblem in the shape of a white star, with small green dots between each point, was stitched on the coat. He got to the train door and turned to stare at Pinkie as she continued to play in the snow.

 

“That normal?” he asked. His voice perfectly matched the parts of a grey, grizzled mane that could be seen sticking out from under the coat.

 

                “That’s actually the most normal thing she’s done recently, all things considered,” Twilight replied, also watching Pinkie.

 

“Huh. Well, I’d recommend she put on something a little more substantial. Doesn’t take much out here to freeze up without the proper gear. I see you’ve found the time to dress a bit more sensibly.”

 

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” Twilight nodded in agreement. “I think her coat’s just hanging inside here–”

 

“I got her covered.” Applejack re-appeared, now fully dressed for the weather outside. She grabbed Pinkie’s coat in her teeth and headed down to the snow to adorn her now shivering friend. That task accomplished, a spontaneous snowball fight broke out amongst the two, to the general amusement of those back on the platform.

 

“Still normal?” the stallion asked, a smile breaking through what could be seen of his face.

 

“Yes, definitely.”  Twilight grinned. “I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself yet. My name is Twilight Sparkle.”

 

“Glad to hear that, Miss Sparkle; you’re just the pony I’ve been told to find. Folks around here call me Hawks. I’m the local ranger for these parts of the Wastes. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

 

Back inside the train, the others also went about getting their winter apparel on. It wasn’t long before everypony was all suited up and ready to face the elements. Even if they all weren’t quite pleased about it.

 

“Ugh, Twilight, don’t you think you could have found something a little more form fitting for me?” Spike asked as he stepped out. His outfit was substantially thicker than the others and on his small body it had the effect of rounding him out into the shape of a small ball. The others giggled at the sight.

 

“I don’t want my assistant catching a cold on me,” Twilight said, smiling at him.

 

“I don’t think I’d mind a cold if it would let me move a bit. I can barely stand up in this thing! Not to mention the design… bleh.”

 

“He’s turning back into an egg before our eyes,” Fluttershy said. “And I think those polka dots look wonderful on you, Spike.”

 

Dash fluttered out of the car, pausing overhead to stretch her wings. “No need to complain, Spike. Rarity can probably fix you right up later on, get you something flashier.”

 

“I guess I could try something with it,” Rarity said, giving the small dragon’s circular coat a look-over. “Fluttershy does have a point, I will admit. It’s a rare breed indeed that can pull that look off.”

 

“You really think so, Rarity?” Spike asked elatedly, his previous complaints momentarily forgotten.

 

Twilight laughed and gave Spike a little pat on the back. He wobbled a few times and tipped over. Hawks quickly stepped in as he started to roll down towards the snow, stopping him with a hoof. Everypony burst out into laughter. Spike, still lost in a Rarity daydream, didn’t seem to notice.

 

Several of the train ponies managed to pry themselves from the warmth of the fire and headed back to the luggage car to start unloading the girls’ trunks and suitcases. Applejack and Pinkie concluded their little skirmish (as best they could tell it was a draw) and headed up to help them. The rest of the group wandered over to help as well, while Twilight hung back with Spike and Hawks.

 

“Quite a bunch you’ve brought together here, miss,” Hawks said as he watched the other girls go. “I’m sure the good Dr. Star will be most entertained this week.”

 

“Copper Star? You know her?” Twilight inquired.

 

“Indeed. We have been in the good doctor’s company a number of times, if not much recently. Anyway, according to a message I received on some very fancy looking letterhead, I’m supposed to check in with you girls. Me and my team will be taking you out to her research site at the temple as soon as we’ve loaded all your bags onto the carriage.”

 

Hawks motioned to a large carriage parked to the side of the station platform. It was a large contraption, big enough for all the girls and their luggage to fit inside. It took no shame in its plain aesthetic, with a thick wooden shell to trap heat inside and plenty of windows to look out. The cabin rested simply upon four large wheels, while a harness had already been strapped to the front. Spots for four ponies were all laid out and ready for the pullers to take their positions.

 

“Wait, what? We’re going to a temple now?” Spike asked, his thoughts somewhat back in reality now. Hawks shrugged.

 

“Frankly, I’m not sure what to call it. You’ll see what I mean when we get there.” He cast a look over at the horizon. “Speaking of which, we should get moving soon. It’s a bit of a journey, and we gotta try and stay ahead of the storm. You lot get yourselves gathered and we’ll head out.”

 

“Storm? What storm?” Twilight asked, but Hawks had already moved past her towards the other girls and the large stack of luggage. A rather sizable trunk that Twilight guessed belonged to Rarity seemed to be giving them trouble. He gathered up some workers to lend them a helping hoof and before long things were moving again. Twilight looked over at the horizon in the direction Hawks had indicated, but could only see a few specks of gray gathering over the otherwise plain white sky.

 

“Uh, Twilight?” Spike looked up at her. “Is it just me, or are we walking blindly into something right now? Somepony we’ve never met, out in the middle of nowhere, big storm apparently coming in, stuck out there for a week, Pinkie stuck there with us…”

 

Twilight smiled, carefully guiding him over to the others. They were loading the luggage inside the carriage while a large supply crate was strapped to the roof.

 

“Spike, relax. We’re just having a little social visit to one of Celestia’s older students who’s been on her own for a while. You and I know better than anypony what that’s like, and at least I had you for company. We just need to relax, be friendly, and enjoy ourselves. In fact, I think this will be a very pleasant week for all of us.”

 

****************************************

 

The road, if you could really call it that, was a long and winding one that would’ve been tricky to navigate in optimal conditions. The recent snowfall made things particularly hazardous, as did the wind that was picking up once more. Hawks and his three teammates managed to keep a steady speed pulling the carriage along through it, though, and the group was making good time. Hill after hill they went, the only visible object of any sort for miles around. Save, that is, for Rainbow Dash, who had elected to follow them in the air overhead.

 

“Hey Rainbow Dash! How long you plannin’ on keeping that up?” Applejack shouted, head leaning out the window. “Can’t imagine it being too comfy out there!”

 

“Are you kidding? Th-this is great! P-p-perfect way to get some e-endurance t-training in!” Dash shouted back happily, working through a stammer as the cold wind whipped by her.

 

Applejack sighed and brought her head back in the carriage. “Guess it takes a fully hollerin’ storm to keep that pony under a roof.”

 

“She’d better watch out then, since apparently one is coming soon,” Twilight said, checking the horizon again. The specks of gray had come together and were beginning to increase in size now.

 

“Does that mean we’ll be stuck inside some more?” Spike groaned. “I don’t know how much more I can take of that. I was hoping to play in the snow a bit.”

 

“Don’t worry Spike, I’m sure it won’t last long,” Twilight said. “And you should have plenty to occupy yourself with once we get there. Celestia said the site Copper is working on is quite large, so there’s sure to be lots of places to explore.”

 

“I find that a bit hard to believe.” Rarity said, glancing out at their deserted surroundings. “This place already seems to be a complete, empty bore.”

 

“Now, Rarity, don’t start–” Applejack began before Rarity cut her off.

 

“Relax, Applejack. I have no intention of being any sort of downer on this trip. Why, I sympathize with this poor girl. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be stuck out here alone. I can hardly stand it and I’ve only just arrived. We’ll all have to do our best to keep her in good spirits.”

 

“I guess all the animals around here are already sleeping for the winter,” Fluttershy said. “I haven’t seen anything at all since we’ve arrived.”

 

“I think that’s actually because there really isn’t anything out here, Fluttershy,” Twilight replied. “I read up a little on this place before we left–”

 

“Little is right,” Spike cut in. “The book on this place was probably the smallest in the library. No wonder somepony’s out here trying to learn more about it.”

 

“–and there seems to be very little by way of wildlife.” Twilight continued on. “It’s just a big, empty desert with mostly naturally occurring weather.”

 

                “Is it always like this then?” Fluttershy asked, gazing around the landscape rushing past the window. An ocean of white was all she could make out.

 

                Twilight looked through her window, taking in the same sight. “Pretty much. It’s always got some amount of snow up here, though naturally that gets much heavier in the winter. With all the wild weather, there wasn’t much of a chance for anything complex to develop.”

 

                Applejack whistled. “Just a whole lotta’ nuthin’ then? Huh.”

 

“See?” Rarity said. “A total bore.”

 

                “All the more reason to make some fun!” Pinkie chirped. “We can make this place into a super swell place to be! I packed my big recipe book and ingredient-travel-kit so I can get some sweets together. Rarity, you think you could whip up some design ideas for decorations?”

“Well, it would be a nice change from the coats I’ve had to work on for the past month.” Rarity thought back for a moment and shuddered. “Honestly, the ponies in town were so far behind on the current fashions. I don’t know how I kept up with it all. At any rate, I’d be delighted to do it. I could use some assistance in making something up for this, though.”

 

“Ooh, ooh!” Spike raised his claw eagerly. A bump in the road caused him to lose his balance once more and he rolled onto the floor. This had happened a few times now, since while somepony had been smart enough to install some hefty shocks with the carriage wheels, it still didn’t take much for Spike for slide off his seat.

 

“Fluttershy, do you think you’d be interested?” Rarity asked.

 

“Oh, I’d be delighted to help.” Fluttershy said sweetly. Spike’s groan went unnoticed as he struggled to right himself.

 

“That’s the spirit girls!” Pinkie said with growing excitement. “This pony won’t know what hit her. Applejack, Twilight, you can help too! And we can get Rainbow Dash to do something cool and then we can play games and…”

 

 As Pinkie went on with the party plans, Twilight’s mind started to wander. She really wanted to talk to Hawks a bit more to see what he knew. As confident as she was feeling about the coming week, Spike was right; they were going in mostly blind.

 

Such is the nature of last minute requests, Twilight thought. Straightening Spike back up onto his seat, she excused herself from the conversation. She threaded herself around the luggage separating the ponies from the front of the carriage and cracked open one of the forward windows.

 

Immediately, the wind chilled her face. Pulling her coat’s hood over her ears, Twilight squeezed out onto the small bench that was attached to the carriage’s exterior. She quickly shut the window before too much heat leaked out and huddled up as best she could. There wasn’t much room, but she was able to fit alright. Her position put her just next to Hawks in the rearmost position of the pull team, and while she wouldn’t be able to stay for long, her coat would keep her warm enough for at least a brief conversation

 

“You girls doing okay back there?” he shouted out. Twilight guessed he heard her open the window, though she had no idea how he managed to do it over the sound of the elements.

 

“Yes, thank you! We’re all doing fine.” The wind took a momentary break, allowing their words to break through to each other a little easier.

 

“And your friend buzzing around?” Hawks asked.

“She’s crazy, but that’s normal, so she’s also doing fine.” Twilight replied, smiling to herself.

 

“She’s a tough one, I’ll give her that much.” Hawks chuckled. “We’re getting close now. That’s it straight up ahead.”

 

Hawks had predicted Twilight’s next question. She looked out and squinted. A little black spot was barely discernible in the distance. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon the sky was starting to darken from all the clouds. It was tricky to keep focused on the horizon, but something was definitely there. Hawks muttered something to the rest of the team, and their pace increased slightly.

 

“It shouldn’t be too much longer. When we get there we won’t have much time to unload before we have to turn around and head back. We don’t want to be stuck in the storm in the middle of this road.”

 

                “We’ll do our best to help you guys when we get there,” Twilight said. She hesitated, not sure if now was the best time to really strike up a conversation. Hawks and his team looked very determined as they pulled the carriage along. Still, by the sound of things this would be the only chance she had to talk to him, and it would be somewhat moot to wait until they arrived.

She went ahead and asked “So, you said you know Copper Star?”

“Yup,” Hawks replied. His casual behavior gave no indication he minded the chat. “Helped her get out there and set up when she first arrived. We also do supply runs to her every few months, along with picking up the occasional batch of mail she needs to send out.”

 

“What’s she like?” Twilight asked.

 

“Oh, nice enough sort of pony.” Hawks gave a small smile Twilight couldn’t see. “Gets a little lost in her thoughts sometimes, especially when she really gets focused on something.”

“I know the type.” Twilight breathed easy. It sounded like Copper was just the sort of pony she could relate to. “I hope she won’t mind us barging in on her unannounced.”

 

                “I don’t reckon she will,” Hawks said. “She never minded when we did. We would have sent a letter ahead in this case, but that would’ve taken too long. This time of year all the pegasi stick to the outskirts to help try and manage the weather. No point in keeping them out here for that, after all.”

“I thought ponies could still control some of the weather up here?” Twilight asked.

 

“Not this far into the Wastes.” Hawks paused for a moment to murmur something to the pony next to him, and then continued. “Here, it’s just the land and the sky doing their thing, and we don’t have any sort of say as to what they decide to throw at us. We’ve only got a few fliers out here for mail delivery most of the year. Rest of the time, it’s just us Earth ponies trying to scrape by.”

 

“Sounds rough,” Twilight said, now a little more nervous about the growing storm. The gray specks in the distance from earlier had since blown up in size. They now swallowed up the whole edge of the sky in a very imposing display.

 

Hawks chuckled. “You get used to it, miss. Frankly, I’ve been out here so long I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s solid living out here, something real.”

 

The lead pony said something Twilight couldn’t make out. Whatever it was it made the rest of the team laugh. Hawks smiled and shook his head as he glanced at the gathering clouds. His smile turned to a grimace. He said something and again the team increased in speed. The black spot up ahead became larger and larger. At this point, Twilight could make out that it was actually several buildings gathered in a small cluster.

 

“Anyway,” Hawks went on, “we’ve dropped in on Dr. Star a couple of times, outside the usual supply shipments, just to make sure she’s doing alright. She’s always happy to have us. I’m glad you girls are headed out there now, in fact; it’s been a while since we’ve been out and we can’t spare the extra time right now for anything. Got too much work to do back at the station and along the border towns. Shoot, only reason we could even come out here to take you lot is also because it was time for us to bring the doctor another supply load.”

 

The wind picked up again, back with a vengeance now. Stinging bits of ice from the ground started to reach Twilight’s face. She winced as she looked around to see how Dash was holding up. The pegasus was doing loops overhead, totally oblivious to the weather changes around her.

 

“You might want to get your friend back in!” Hawks shouted, “Once this picks up it probably won’t let back down for a while! The longer she waits the harder it will be!”

“I imagine she’d like the challenge!” Twilight shouted back, though by now the wind had grown so much she wasn’t sure he heard her.

Still, he’s right. Twilight looked back up at Dash. Not even bothering to try shouting, she concentrated hard for a moment. Her horn began to glow. High above four sparkling letters suddenly appeared in the sky.

 

S T O P

 

The sudden appearance of the floating word caught Dash off-guard, causing her aerial acrobatics to falter. After a small fall, she regained her composure and looked down. Twilight motioned at her, and Dash descended back down towards the ground. Around them, snow continued to come down. It was just small flakes, but the wind made it seem like so much more.

 

“W-why’d ya stop m-me, T-Twilight? I c-could’ve lasted w-w-way l-longer.” Dash said when she landed on the roof of the carriage. She was visibly shivering, even in her thick coat, though she was trying not to show it.

 

Twilight couldn’t help but roll her eyes and smile.

 

“Rainbow, there will be time for that when the storm settles. Right now is not a good time for a pony to be out. Come on, get inside. Hawks said it’s only going to get worse right now. We’re almost there anyway.”

 

Somewhat begrudgingly, Dash hovered down and popped the window open to squeeze through. Twilight gave one last look at the pull team, who didn’t even seem to notice the weather at the rate they were dashing through the snow, and followed Dash into the carriage. Pulling the window shut, the heat inside immediately washed over them. They both let out a contented sigh as they warmed up before moving past the luggage to rejoin their friends. Up ahead, the buildings could be made out even more clearly, even through the snow in the air. The sky around them continued darkening while the wind picked up to a howl.

 

The storm was nearly upon them.


Chapter 2: Unexpected Company

 

It was noon when the group finally reached their destination, though it would be hard to guess that from the amount of light in the sky. Hawks had been right when he said they needed to move fast: a thick, dark cloud had moved in over the whole of the area as they approached, bringing with it frequent gusts of wind. The snow, still falling lightly, threatened to open up and hammer down on them at any moment.

 

When viewed up close, the buildings in the distance turned out to be the remnants of an ancient village. A collection of small stone huts dotted the landscape. Some looked like they were once big enough to hold multiple families, while others were nothing more than a single room. It was difficult to say much about them for sure, as they were quite worn. Collapsed walls and roofs abounded, and the weather was quickly consuming what was left. Before long, most would be completely invisible under the snow.

 

The main exception was the building at the center of town. It was so unlike every other building around that it would be easy to believe it had been placed there by mistake by some unseen hoof eons ago. An imposing creation, it stood at least three stories tall and was made of a thick limestone very different from  the materials of the surrounding huts. Its walls sloped toward a jagged roof to give it the look of a deformed pyramid. Small spires shot up from each corner, each capped by a tall, slim spike.

 

Its most noteworthy feature, however, was its color: a solid shade of jet black. Even against the dimming sky it stood out as a dark spot, one unwilling to let any light appear on it at all. Shadows around it blended in with its color seamlessly, making it hard to tell exactly where the walls ended and the ground began in some places. The exception was a set of double doors that stood interred at the base of the front wall, their dull brown color holding firm against the darkness that surrounded them.

 

The daunting sight drew different responses from the girls as the carriage slowed to a halt in front of the structure and they all departed.

 

Twilight shivered involuntarily. Rarity gave a small gasp. Fluttershy managed to get out a small “eep” before shrinking back into the carriage. While Rainbow Dash went to work trying to coax her back out, Pinkie gave the place a knowing look.

 

“It looks familiar… but I’m not sure from where. Hmmm…” She scratched her head thoughtfully.

 

“Not exactly the homiest lookin’ place,” Applejack said.

 

“A different shade certainly wouldn’t hurt, though I fear the whole thing is a lost cause,” Rarity said, her initial shock giving way to disdain. “Such a distasteful cross of styles with no real thought put into their blending together. It’s just a grand pile of broken stone thrown together that’s trying much too hard to scare ponies away.”

 

“Well, it’s not doing too bad a job of that,” Spike said, trying to help Dash convince Fluttershy it was alright to come out.

 

“It’s a little nicer on the inside,” Hawks said reassuringly. He did a quick round of the carriage to check for damages from the trip. Behind him, the pull team unhooked themselves to take a short rest break.

Twilight walked over to the base of the closest wall to give it a closer look. The walls seemed to be covered in a grand series of intricate carvings, all weathered down by the constant exposure. The fading light against the black walls only made it more difficult to see what the images were.

 

“What are these supposed to be?” she asked Hawks.

 

Hawks glanced over and shrugged. “Askin’ the wrong pony, miss. I never much cared to hear the specifics of this place, so I never asked the doctor. I’m sure she’s got some idea as to their meaning, though.”

 

Twilight gave the building a hard look and shivered again. If it was a temple, then she could scarcely imagine what sort of things ponies would worship inside it. Its ghastly appearance was not one that drew images of a happy place of gathering, nor did its extremely isolated location help its grim outlook.

 

Still, we’re here, Twilight thought to herself. No point in fretting now. I’ve got to think positively about this.

 

She glanced over at Rarity. She was carefully floating each of her bags out of the carriage. Fluttershy assisted with the unloading as well, still a bit shaken but otherwise undaunted. All the girls looked just fine, as did Hawks and his team, who didn’t look the least bit put out by the temple. Twilight glanced back and forced a smile out, the looming structure now slightly less intimidating. She giggled a bit, like Pinkie once taught her, and followed Hawks as he approached the large doors. Around them, the wind became more persistent.

 

“Will you and your team be staying long?” she asked him, shivering.

 

“We won’t be staying at all,” Hawks swiftly replied. Over by the carriage, his team finished their break and began unloading the rest of the luggage and the supply crate. “Like I said earlier, we need to get back - by sundown, as a matter of fact - so we can meet another incoming train. We’ve got a lot of border towns to visit in the next few days, make sure they’re prepared for the season. We don’t leave soon, we’ll be stuck out in the road tonight with a storm bearing down. That’s one place I don’t wanna be.”

 

“So you’re just going to leave without meeting Copper and introducing us?” Twilight asked as she watched the pull team unload. They moved fast. Two of them hoisted the large trunk onto their backs and practically bowled Fluttershy over as they headed for the doors.

 

“No, no. There’s still time for some hellos, just no time for the how do ya dos.” He smiled at her. “Relax. Dr. Star will help you get situated once we leave. This is her turf anyway, not mine.”

 

Twilight and Hawks trotted up to the main doors. The others followed them, bags in tow. A small outcropping jutted out above them in some halfhearted attempt to shield the entrance from the weather. Several enormous icicles had developed there, one of them nearly reaching the top of the doors themselves. They were thick enough to be securely in place, though their sharp tips still gave some cause for nervousness as they walked underneath.

 

Teeth guarding the entrance to the beast’s gaping maw. The thought appeared out of nowhere. Twilight shook her head, again reminding herself that that was not the right kind of attitude at the moment.

 

The whole group crowded into the small entryway that lay just beyond the double doors. It was a wide corridor, one that had a second set of equally massive doors a few meters away. The sound of stomping boots and shaking coats filled the air as they all tried to dislodge the built-up snow and take in the warmth. Bags and suitcases floated around the top, passed from pony to pony in an attempt to find room for them.

“Ahhh, now that’s more like it,” Applejack said as she stepped inside.

 

“It was getting rather ghastly out there.” Rarity agreed, moving in alongside.

“Dr. Star!” Hawks shouted out as he threw open the second set of doors. His voice carried down another hallway, this one considerably longer. “Dr. Star! It’s us. Got your supplies and a little something extra.”

 

He paused. No response from ahead could be heard over the din of the group behind him, which was slowly filtering through the second doors. He shouted out her name again, the call echoing throughout the temple.

 

“Must be in her base ‘round back,” he muttered. He turned to his team. “Guys, leave the bags there and go get set outside.”

 

The pull team gently deposited whatever luggage they had and turned back out the door. They pulled their coats tight as they did, for the snow was getting thicker. They only needed to walk a few steps before they practically vanished in a flurry of white. Flakes of snow found their way through the doors, though most were held back by the warm air inside.

 

Hawks continued down the hall as the girls started to gather their things. “I’ll go see if I can find–”

 

                “Hey, what’s that?” Spike pointed to a piece of paper pinned up on the wall next to the door. Twilight walked over to look at it.

 

                “It’s a note for you, Hawks,” she said. She started to read aloud: “Dear Hawks. Going to be at the Bell Camp site today. Please leave the supplies in the usual spot and I’ll see you when I get back. Signed, Copper.”

 

                “Lemme see that.” Hawks hurried over to eyeball the note. He read it quietly to himself, sighing when he finished.

 

                “Is something the matter?” Rarity asked.

 

                “What did she mean by the Bell Camp site?” Twilight asked, taking a look at the note herself. It looked hastily put together, with the writing sloppily applied and the paper crumpled onto the wall when it was tacked on.

 

                Hawks sighed again. “Ah, there’s a few places scattered nearby that she’s been looking at lately. Couple of those smaller ruins we passed outside, that sort of thing. I just don’t like her going out there when somepony’s not here with her. I told her as much last I was here.” He muttered the last sentence under his breath.

 

                “We can always go out and try to find her,” Rainbow Dash suggested, though she glanced somewhat wearily to the weather outside as she did.

 

                “I don’t even know which site that is. She’s got a map in her base somewhere, I think…” Hawks trailed off as he stared at the note.

 

“Is she gonna be alright then?” Applejack asked. “It sure doesn’t seem safe out there right now.”

 

                Hawks thought for a moment before answering. “Yeah... yeah, she’ll be okay. She’s a capable girl who’s done this before, and she’s got little camps set up out there she can bunker down in. It’s just that I don’t like what’s out there, at those places. It’s–”

 

Hawks’ train of thought was interrupted when a member of the pull team came back inside to tell him to hurry along. He murmured a quick reply, gave one last look at the note, and shook his head. “Never mind. She’ll be fine, probably turn up tonight or tomorrow morning. Now then, as I was telling Miss Sparkle earlier, I need to get going. Got a lot of work to do back at the station and not a lot of time to get there.”

 

                “You’re leaving already?” Dash asked. “What about Copper? What are we supposed to do here by ourselves?”

 

                “Are you sure she’ll be alright?” Fluttershy asked.

 

                “She’ll be fine,” Hawks replied in a tone that made Fluttershy shrink back. “And don’t worry miss, you lot will be perfectly alright here. Follow the gas lines along the wall there and you’ll get to Dr. Star’s base. She’s got a few extra bunk rooms set up over there where you can get situated.”

 

At that, Hawks joined the pull team member in heading out the door. The girls followed him, bracing themselves against the rising wind as they stepped back outside. Hawks hurried back to the carriage to grab his bag.

 

“You’re not taking that with you?” Rarity motioned to the carriage. “It seems a shame to just leave it out like this. It did get us here ever so gently.”

 

“No miss, it’ll just slow us down. Besides, it’ll keep in the elements just fine; she’s built to last.” Hawks grinned and kicked one of the wheels. “Now, none of you fret. This place is built solid. Sorta wish the places I have to go now built ‘em like this, would make my job over the next few days a lot easier. Anyway, you all sit tight; Dr. Star will show up soon. I’ll be back along as soon as I can, which should be in a few days. No matter what, we’ll be taking you out of here when the week’s up, so there’s no time for anything to go wrong anyway.”

 

“Don’t forget about me!” Spike said eagerly. “One puff, and the Princess herself is on the scene.”

 

“Handy to keep around, he is,” Hawks said. Spike smiled and then frowned, unsure if that was a compliment or not. Another one of Hawks’ crew shouted at him to hurry along. He waved them off and continued. “Look, we gotta go, right now. You all have a good week. Be nice to the doctor when she shows up and she’ll be glad to have you all around.”

 

“Thank you very much for your help, Hawks. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Twilight said, and the others joined in giving out thanks. Hawks simply nodded, smiled one last time, and went to join his team. In a flash, they were off, hurrying back down the road just as another batch of snow started to fall. It wasn’t long before their yellow coats could barely be seen in the distance, and then they were gone, vanishing into the white horizon.

 

The girls all stood silently in the snow. Around them, the world moved at its own pace.

 

“Uh, can we mosey on in? My tail’s startin’ to freeze on me,” Applejack said, and they all turned back to the doors. When everypony had gone through, Dash quickly pushed them shut; the snow was coming down thick enough by now to penetrate within. Shaking off the powder, everypony gathered up their scattered luggage.

 

“What do we do now?” Fluttershy asked as she scooped up her duffel bag.

 

Twilight shrugged. “We do what Hawks said, I guess. We drop our stuff off in Copper’s base, settle in, and wait for her to show back up. Which, hopefully, will happen soon.”

 

                “Ugh, this thing is heavy. What sort of supplies did Copper order?” Dash asked. She had somehow found herself in charge of pushing in the large trunk.

 

                “Dash, I don’t think those are her supplies,” Applejack said. She pointed at the large wooden crate standing untended by the doors, “HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE” stamped across the side in big bold letters.

 

                “Oh.” Dash looked back and forth between the two containers. “In that case, why am I the one pushing one of Rarity’s things in? And did you really need to pack this much stuff?”

 

“What makes you think this gaudy thing belongs to me?” Rarity stared disapprovingly at it. “Besides, I managed to stay economical when packing for this trip, thank you very much.”

 

“This set of matching luggage certainly fits that description,” Twilight said. A set of a dozen or so bags stood stacked up in Spike’s claws. He grunted an indecipherable reply as he slowly wobbled along, trying his best not to topple over; that his coat was still on only added to his precarious balancing act.

 

“Thank you, Twilight,” Rarity said, missing the sarcasm. “I didn’t think it necessary to bring anything other than the small set for a short vacation out here.”

 

“Well then who the hay does this thing– whoa!” Dash was cut off as one last quick shove caused the trunk to sway and tip over on its edge. The top immediately sprang off and three small shapes tumbled out onto the floor. Recovering quickly, one hopped up to survey the surroundings.

 

“Heeeellllllooooo Manehattan Beach!” Sweetie Belle yelled. A breezy tropical shirt adorned her back while dark sunglasses covered her eyes. As she looked around expectantly, there was a rush of activity. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, identically dressed in beachfront attire, righted themselves and stood up behind Sweetie Belle.

 

Sweetie Belle’s smile faltered as she noticed the cold stone walls. “Wow, this is one ugly hotel.”

 

“Maybe we’re in the basement,” Scootaloo said as she glanced around, not letting the low visibility of the glasses deter her.

 

“Would explain why it’s kinda cold right now,” Apple Bloom chimed in.

 

“Why would they drop the bags off in a basement?” Sweetie Belle asked.

 

“Who cares about that?” Scootaloo said, her voice ringing with excitement. “The point is we’re here! All set for a week of fun in the sun and cutie mark crusading!”

 

The three fillies cheered. Stunned, the rest of the group stared in silence. After a few moments of the newcomers chatting amongst themselves, Applejack finally spoke up.

 

“Apple Bloom! What in tarnation are you doin’ here?” she practically shouted. The fillies jumped and spun around. They had been completely oblivious to the crowd behind them.

 

“Oh! Uh, hi Applejack, we were just, uh–” Apple Bloom started to reply before Rarity cut her off.

 

“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity stared at her younger sister. “What do you girls think you’re doing here?”

 

There was a brief pause as everypony attempted to collect themselves: the siblings awkwardly looking at each other, while Scootaloo shifted between the two, not sure where to look. Then, all at once, everypony started to speak.

 

“We just wanted to take the week off too–”

 

“–supposed to be stayin’ with Granny Smith this week, an’ now she’s gonna be worried sick–”

 

“–always have to stay home, we should get a vacation too–”

 

“–believe you would do something like this. And are those my backup sunglasses? Those are for emergencies only–”

 

“–just tagged along, it was all Apple Bloom’s idea–”

 

“–was not! You’re the one who said we should –”

 

“–don’t know what you were thinking coming out here like this–”

 

“–can take care of ourselves just fine! We won’t get in your way or nothing–”

 

“Spike, careful with that luggage! Twilight, can you please help him, I’ll be over as soon as I figure this–”

 

“–an’ after all I do this past week I come out here an’ find that you three have snuck along, what am I supposed–”

 

“Stoooooop!” Pinkie’s shout brought silence. Everypony turned to look at her. She stood back by the double doors, eyes facing straight ahead. “Everypony be quiet one sec, I think I figured it out.”

 

She held her hooves up, as if attempting to size up the structure’s interior, and slowly moved forward. Spike, his tower of luggage helpfully freed up by Twilight levitating the bags down, got next to her to try to share her point of view. Pinkie stared down the hall, her gaze fixated on some imaginary point the others couldn’t see. The group shuffled uncomfortably for a moment, but before one of them could speak up Pinkie broke the silence.

 

“Nope, nevermind. I thought I had it. Guess I gotta poke around a bit more first. Carry on you guys!” She smiled and bounced down the hallway, pausing briefly to say hello to the Cutie Mark Crusaders as she passed them by. She hit the end of the hall, turned the corner and vanished from sight.

 

“Hey Pinkie, where ya going?” Dash shouted after her. “What does she think she’s doing?”

 

“Never mind her right now.” Applejack brought her focus back to her sister. “Apple Bloom, I want to know right now: What do you think you an’ your friends are doin’ out here?”

 

“Well, it’s like we said...” Apple Bloom spoke nervously. She glanced at her friends before carrying on. “We never get to go on vacation with you guys. We’d been working really hard, too, so we thought it would be alright if we came along.”

 

“But we knew you’d say no!” Sweetie Belle cut in. “So we decided to just, you know, come along. Once we were here and showed you we could keep to ourselves and not bother you, we thought you’d be alright with it.”

 

“Wait, so you guys have been in this box the whole time?” Dash gave the trunk a small kick. A few pillows and some blankets tumbled out, along with a half dozen apple cores. She peeked her head inside to see if there was anything else.

 

“Where’d you even get it?” Twilight asked. She looked closely at it, though couldn’t find any identification marks.

 

“We found it at the station,” Sweetie Belle said innocently. “It was just sitting there all empty and nopony was using it, so we just borrowed it.”

 

“And we weren’t in there the whole time,” Scootaloo added. “We came out at night in the train. I had to get an extra blanket anyway.”

 

Scootaloo pointed to a small, light blue comforter that had drifted out with the other supplies.

 

“Oh, um, that’s mine,” Fluttershy said. “But you can keep it if you want.”

 

“So anyway, now we’re here,” Apple Bloom finished, somewhat more confident now. “And since we’re here, you might as well let us stay. We promise not to do anything bad or get in the way! Right girls?”

 

“Promise!” The three clustered together and spoke in unison. They smiled as big as they could and looked hopefully up at the others.

 

Applejack sighed. “Rainbow Dash, can you go catch up to Hawks?”

 

“No problem!” Dash fluttered over to the double doors. She struggled as she tried to pull them open; they seemed to be harder to open from the inside than from the out. Applejack turned back to the fillies.

 

“Girls, I’m sorry, but no. You are not supposed’a be here this week, an’ you need to go home,” she said with firm conviction.

 

Rarity nodded her head as large frowns broke out on the younger one’s faces. “Applejack is right. It wasn’t right of you three to sneak out here like this, and that you made it this far at all is just–”

 

The loud howl of the wind drowned out the rest of Rarity’s sentence as the doors suddenly burst open. A small mountain of snow that had been building against the door collapsed inside, while the strong gusts propelled Dash against a nearby wall. The girls scrambled to keep the weather from getting too far indoors. Applejack ran over and slammed against the side of the doors in an effort to close them while Fluttershy and Spike hurried over to make sure Dash was alright. Twilight and Rarity, horns glowing, strained as they tried to help Applejack close the entrance.

 

Slowly but surely, the thick wooden doors began to swing shut against the mounting snow. As they drew closer together, Twilight looked outside to see if she could make anything out. The outline of the carriage was barely visible, and up in the sky dark clouds were swirling about. Other than that, it was a solid blanket of pulsating white, mixing around in the air and accompanied by the shrieks of the wind.  Dash, shaking off her fall, hopped up and joined Applejack against the hard wood. Within a few moments, the doors connected and clicked shut. Silence gripped the hall, save for the heavy breathing of the ponies.

 

It was Scootaloo who spoke first. “Why is it snowing at the beach?”

 

“Yeah, and why do you guys have your coats on?” Sweetie Belle added.

 

Rarity just looked at her, though Twilight spoke up before she could say anything. “I don’t think you should go out there, Rainbow Dash. If it’s gotten that bad this fast, there’s no telling how much worse it could get. I think the girls are here to stay for now.”

 

Applejack sighed. “Alright girls, come over here. I think me an’ Rarity are gonna have to explain some things.”

                

While the fillies gathered next to Applejack and Rarity, the others moved down the hall.

 

“I think we can leave them for a bit,” Twilight said.

 

“Yeah,” Spike agreed, “right now we should probably find Pinkie. Where’d she hop off to, anyway?”

 

“I can’t believe how harsh it is outside,” Dash said. “It was just fine a minute ago.”

 

“I hope Hawks and his team are alright,” Fluttershy said. “They said they didn’t want to be caught in the middle of all this. And Copper’s stuck out there as well…”

 

“I’m sure they’re all just fine,” Twilight replied. “They’re used to this sort of weather. If they didn’t think they could handle it, they would’ve stayed put.”

 

The group continued down the hall. It was a wide corridor, leading down from the doors about twenty meters before hitting a T-intersection at the end. Small, crudely installed lamps lined the stone walls at even intervals. Coming from each of them was a small gas line, which fed into a larger tube on the ground; no doubt the one Hawks had referred to. A few random boxes were strewn about, all empty, along with several large, metal containers. Twilight briefly inspected one of them. She found it to be a large drum of lamp oil.

 

“Kinda dull in here,” Dash said as she looked around.

 

“Dull is better than scary,” Fluttershy responded.

 

“Plus we did just get in here,” Twilight said. “There’s bound to be more interesting sights later on.”

 

Fluttershy’s eyes widened. “Not that they’ll necessarily be scary sights, either,” Twilight hastily added.

 

Hitting the end of the corridor revealed two sets of doors on either side. The gas tube snaked along the floor and through a hole in the wall next to the door on the right. The girls turned to continue on in that direction.

 

“Hey guys! Come look at what I just found!” Pinkie spontaneously appeared, bursting through the doors behind them with enough energy to cause Fluttershy to jump and hide behind Spike.

Pinkie didn’t notice as she kept talking. “It’s super cool and super weird. Come and see!”

 

She bounded down the hall. The others collectively shrugged and hurried after her, attempting to keep pace. The new hall looked much the same as the old one: thick stone walls, occasional lamp installed along the wall, and piles of random debris along the floor. Here and there, a door was set in the wall, these ones much smaller than the double doors previously encountered. They kept going, the hallway curving in front of them as they made a wide turn. The ceiling rose with the turn until it reached twice as high as it once was.

 

“Pinkie, where are we going?” Twilight asked. Pinkie just laughed and kept hopping forward. Twilight rolled her eyes but kept pace.

 

The hall finally ended in another set of doors stretching all the way to the top of the new ceiling height, complete with massive iron handles to match. Without pausing, Pinkie quickly gave one of the handles a quick tug. The door effortlessly swung open, with barely a creak coming from the old hinges. Practically shoving the group inside, Pinkie spun in a dramatic flourish and shouted “Ta da!”

 

The chamber was enormous. The ceiling stretched high, likely as high as the overall temple, and the walls extended out in every direction. Hundreds, even thousands of candles covered the chamber’s corners, on everything from tall sticks to small collections on various tables. Their combined light was more than enough to blanket the room in a bright glow. This was reflected on the walls, giving them a dull yellow appearance.

 

The centerpiece of the room drew everypony’s attention, however: A single glass cylinder, three meters high and on top of a pillar half that height. A rusted bronze cap was tightly bound to the top, extending up another half meter. The cylinder’s contents appeared to be a mass of glowing, bright green liquid. It swirled around behind the glass, seeming to change directions without provocation. One moment it was spinning counterclockwise, the next clockwise, and then it looked to be going both directions at once. No candle light reflected on it, the liquid’s color proving too overpowering.

 

“What’d I tell you guys?” Pinkie said. “Isn’t this neat? I came in here and saw all the color swirling this way and that way and up way and out way and I was like ‘No way!’ and so I just had to come and show you! I bet it looks even cooler when the lights go out…”

 

“What the hay is it? Some big bottle of slime?” Dash flew up to get a closer look. She knocked on the glass, immediately withdrawing her hoof upon contact. “Whoa! It’s freezing! It’s even colder than it is outside.”

 

“Is it just me, or is this entire room colder than it is outside?” Spike said, shivering and regretting having taken his coat off when he put Rarity’s bags down back in the entryway. “You’d think a place with all these candles would be able to stay a little warmer.”

 

“Cold-shmold, Spike,” Dash teased. “It’s fine in here. You’re just cold-blooded is all.”

 

“Am not!” Spike retorted. “Am I, Twilight?”

 

“I guess this is something Copper’s been taking a close look at.” Twilight examined the area around the cylinder. Piled up between the antique lighting sources were stacks of more modern scientific equipment. Various machines and sensors flanked the path to the cylinder, along with a few printers and scanners. Twilight recognized some of the equipment as being similar to what she had in her basement lab, while others she could only guess at their purpose.

 

“Seems like she was trying to do more than look,” Spike said. He picked up a small drill that was lying next to the base. Other tools were scattered nearby: everything from hammers and chisels to saws and drills, and even a few blow torches. “A lot of these look really worn down. Guess she really wanted to get this thing open.”

 

Dash circled around and found a large ladder leaning against the rear of the cylinder, going all the way from the floor to the top. She peered down at the battered but still intact cap. “Don’t think she managed much. Still not sure what this thing’s supposed to be.”

 

“All I know is, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Twilight stared up at the cylinder. The constant motion of the liquid kept drawing her eye. She couldn’t help but stare at it, slowly getting lost in the flowing rhythm. Her vision began to blur while a small pounding sprang up in her head: one that got louder and louder with each passing second. She struggled to look away, but found herself unable to move as the pounding increased to the point of becoming unbearable–

 

“Hey Fluttershy, what’re you doing back there?” Pinkie’s comment drew Twilight back to reality. She shook her head and quickly turned away, bringing her attention back to the chamber’s entrance. Fluttershy’s head peeked around the side of the door as she nervously looked around.

 

“Oh, um, I’m fine back here,” she said after a moment. “I don’t really like the looks of this place.”

 

“Ah, come on Fluttershy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Pinkie chirped. “It’s just a jumbo sized glowstick, see?”

 

Pinkie scooted over to the base and knocked on a particularly ornate piece of iron installed there. A clicking noise sounded out, and a sudden gust of freezing cold air burst out from vents around the room. In an instant, every candle was snuffed out. The only light now came from the cylinder, which glowed even brighter than before. The swirls and bubbles of the liquid displayed strange shadows along the walls, ones in constant motion. They almost looked like little creatures, green and black fanged beasts that roamed the chamber perimeter.

 

Fluttershy screamed and ran down the hall, the sudden assault by shadowy monsters proving too much for her. Spike let out a similar reaction, though more from the massive temperature drop brought in with the gust, and followed suit.

 

“What’s their deal?” Pinkie asked, watching them flee.

 

“Yeah,” Dash said. “You were right, Pinkie. I think it looks pretty cool like this.” She flew over to chase some shadows around.

 

As Pinkie went to join in the chase, Twilight shook her head again. She eyed the shadows nervously. Something about them was very unsettling to her, even as Dash’s laughter tried to break through to lighten the mood. The shapes that kept forming and reforming seemed to be looking at her, even when they didn’t have anything to do it with. The pounding in her head started coming back. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Her horn glowed and emitted a bright flash that expanded to the four corners of the room. In an instant the candles relit and everything was back to the way it was.

 

                “Come on guys,” Twilight said, ignoring the disappointed moans, “we’d better catch up to the others. We’ve still got to find out where we’ll be staying and get unpacked.”

 

                The three of them made for the door. Twilight didn’t even glance back in the room as she shut the door, which once again moved with very little effort and sound.

 

****************************************

 

                 Copper’s base of operations wasn’t in the temple itself, but rather a more temporary structure built right next to it. It pushed up against the black exterior, connecting to the inside via a large hole in the wall. Vents in the light blue walls pumped in a steady flow of warm air to combat any of the deep freeze that leaked in from outside.

 

                “Ahh, now this is how I like spending a vacation,” Spike said as he hopped onto the couch. He stretched and let out a contented sigh. Part of the group, after depositing their bags, was gathered in a kind of break room at the center of the base. Two couches, some tables, chairs, and shelves of assorted books made for a very inviting atmosphere for the newcomers. Various doors were located in each wall, heading off to other parts of the base where the others were taking a look around.

 

                “What happened to wanting to play in the snow?” Twilight asked as she browsed the literary selection. Mostly beat-up science texts she had read ages ago and battered novels. Nothing really appealed to her at the moment, though she made a mental note to take a closer look later in the week and see if anything really seemed worthwhile.

 

                “That was back when outside was a place worth playing in,” Spike said, still lying on the couch and trying not to look out the window. The view provided by the thick panes was not a pretty one as it continued to get grayer and windier outside. Occasionally a strong gust pressed against it and the thick door installed next to it, though it was locked and bolted securely against flying open and revealing the outside. At the very least, the snow had stopped falling. “It’s nicer inside. Especially over here in Copper’s digs.”

 

                “Yes, I prefer the lighting in here,” Fluttershy commented. She was seated on the other couch, looking quite content after shaking off the fright from earlier. She heard a hall door open and glanced over at Rarity as she trotted in. “Hi, Rarity. Did you find a place for the fillies?”

 

                “Listen for yourself,” Rarity replied as she flopped down next to Fluttershy.

 

Back down the hall, shouts of “I called the top bunk” and “Nuh-uh, I called it!” echoed about.

 

Rarity sighed. “At least Pinkie was good enough to let them stay with her. I get the feeling I’m going to need some serious beauty sleep before the week is out.”

 

                “You can’t sleep yet, Rarity,” Pinkie said, bounding in from a door on the opposing wall. Applejack walked close behind her carrying a small bag of carrots. “We still have to plan Copper’s Welcome Back party! Lemme just grab my banner bag…”

 

                “Pinkie, we don’t even know when Copper will be back–” Twilight started, but Pinkie had already disappeared through the door leading to the rooms.

 

                “Come on, Twilight, you know better than to try an’ put a damper on Pinkie’s enthusiasm,” Applejack said. She strolled up to one of the tables and laid her bag of carrots down. “Here guys, everypony try one of these. They sure are tasty.”

 

                Fluttershy and Rarity huddled around the table. “Mmm, these are good,” Fluttershy said as she bit into one. “Where’d you find them?”

 

                “This girl’s got it made. There’s a little greenhouse back past the kitchen,” Applejack said. “Got carrots, cabbages, even a few tomatoes. They looked like they could use a little waterin’, but other than that they’re doin’ real fine.”

 

                “I wouldn’t think you could grow things like that up here,” Rarity said.

 

                “Takes a little effort and the right equipment to keep them goin’, sure. But if you’ve got that, you can grow that stuff plum near anywhere. I’m glad she is, too. Sure beats the dull stock in the kitchen.” Applejack quickly glanced back at the door. “Never in my entire life have I seen so much oatmeal an’ peanut butter gathered in one place.”

 

                “Hopefully there are still enough supplies for Pinkie to make her cupcakes,” Fluttershy said, taking another carrot to give to Spike.

 

“I hope so too,” Rarity concurred. “A little celebration here would definitely pick me up. There’s nothing like a good, classy affair to give me some energy back and put me in the proper state of mind for introducing myself to somepony new.”

 

“A bit of class for one of Pinkie’s parties? You’re gonna have your work cut out for you there.” Applejack started to chuckle when a knock in the back of the room drew her attention. “Uh, Rainbow Dash, what are you up to?”

 

                Dash was fiddling with the handle to the door on the back wall. “Trying to get this door open,” she said without looking up. “I can hear something in there.”

 

                “Rainbow Dash, if a door is locked, then we shouldn’t be trying to open it,” Twilight said disapprovingly. “Why don’t you come help me check on the generator that’s supposed to be in the basement?”

 

                “It’s not locked! It’s just jammed,” Dash responded. “And I’ll get down there in a bit. We know it’s working, the heat’s on. Besides, why would she lock a door if she’s the only one around? I just gotta see if I can get it unwedged here…”

 

                “I can help!” The ponies turned to see Scootaloo emerging from the hall, her friends right behind her. She quickly ran towards the door but tripped on a snag on the carpet. Sailing through the air, she smacked flank-first into the door just as Dash stepped out of the way. With a loud crack, the door popped all the way open, swinging wide on its squeaky hinges.

Scootaloo grinned awkwardly in a heap on the floor. “Oops. Uh… got it open.”

 

                “Scootaloo! Are you okay?” Twilight hurried over, the rest of the group close behind.

 

“Is the door okay?” Dash asked dryly.

 

                “We’re both fine.” Scootaloo picked herself up and looked around the room. Several tables were gathered in its center, while each wall was lined with counters and desks. Every available inch of space on them was covered in an assortment of boxes, beakers, vials, microscopes, petri dishes, and a veritable ocean of paper. It was stacked up everywhere, some in small towers that threatened to collapse at any minute. A small alarm clock was half-buried in the mess next to a long section of table covered in a large cloth. It was ringing loudly. Dash flapped in to shut it off, causing several papers to shift around as she did.

 

                “Told ya I heard something,” she boasted. She paused and sniffed. “Bleh, it stinks in here.”

 

                “Looks like Copper’s work lab,” Twilight announced as they took it all in. “We should probably get out of here, we don’t want to mess–”

 

                “Wow, cool, look at this!” Sweetie Belle rushed over to one of the tables. A small refrigerator was set prominently on it. Sweetie Belle pushed the door open, revealing a set of sealed test tubes set up inside. Each contained a small sample of glowing green liquid. “What’s this stuff?”

 

                She reached out her hoof, but Rarity stopped her before she got in close. “Sweetie Belle! Remember that discussion we had about not disrupting things while you were here? Or what Twilight just said about not messing with the things in here?”

 

                “Aww, I was just looking. Hey, what do you have over there Apple Bloom?” Sweetie Belle wriggled past her sister’s grip and scurried under the table. She met with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom on the other side of the lab, next to another closed door.

 

                “It looks like a set of snow shoes,” Apple Bloom said. She had found a small pile of heavy winter gear pushed against the wall. She rummaged around and produced an ice axe. “And check out this hook thing!”

 

                “Apple Bloom!” Applejack shouted out, running over to prevent the young filly from handling the sharp object. “You know better than to touch something like that.”

 

                “Come on sis, I handle the hatchet on the farm all the time,” Apple Bloom whined. Before Applejack could respond, the three had run off again, finding another interesting and fragile thing to play with.

 

                “Girls, come on, leave that stuff alone,” Twilight said firmly. “We shouldn’t be in here at all. We don’t want to– Spike!”

 

                The dragon had grabbed a mass of papers and was beginning to organize them into neat little piles on the desktop.

 

                “Uh, sorry Twilight,” he said sheepishly. “Force of habit.”

 

                Twilight rolled her eyes and joined Applejack and Rarity in trying to contain the younger ones as they ran about the lab.

 

                “Girls!” Fluttershy’s call brought the three fillies to attention in front of her.

 

                “Yes Fluttershy?” they said in union.

 

                “Girls, don’t you think it’s time you went and finished setting up your room?” Fluttershy said sweetly.

 

                “Okay Fluttershy!” they responded happily, and quickly dashed out the lab door. The older girls let out a collective sigh of relief.

 

                “I’m still not sure how you manage to do that, Fluttershy,” Rarity said, “but thank you.”

 

                “Wasn’t this week supposed to be relaxin’?” Applejack said. “I’m already feelin’ like I could use a vacation from this vacation.”

 

                “There has been a bit more excitement than I was expecting.” Twilight smiled and turned to Spike. “Any response from the Princess for that letter we sent?”

 

                Spike shrugged. “Nothing yet, Twi. I don’t know why she’s taking so long. You’d think she’d have something to say about Copper not being here.”

 

                “I don’t understand why she doesn’t just teleport out here,” Dash said. “That seems like it’d solve a lot of problems.”

 

                “Even the Princess can’t teleport that far,” Twilight replied. “I can barely make it across town without feeling a little woozy. Princess Celestia is powerful, but there are still limits. She’s probably just busy with her other duties. It’s why she sent us out here to begin with, remember?”

 

                “Hopefully she passed the message along about your sisters,” Spike said to Applejack and Rarity.

 

                “Thank you very much for that, Spike,” Rarity smiled at him. “And I do hope you’re right. I imagine Granny Smith is ever so concerned. Right Applejack?”

 

                “Knowin’ Granny Smith, she probably helped encourage them to come out.” Applejack grimaced and shrugged. “Oh well, they’re here. Gonna have to keep close watch on them, though, make sure they don’t get into too much mischief. Bein’ around Pinkie Pie certainly won’t help matters.”

 

                Applejack turned to leave and nearly ran face-first into Pinkie.

 

                “Hey guys! Whatcha doin’ in here? Are there cool things in here too?” she asked, peeking around Applejack.

 

                “Uhh…” Applejack stammered.

 

                “Just a lot of papers and knick-knacks,” Rarity said, quickly swooping in to pull Pinkie back into the main room. “Nothing you’d be interested in. Though tell me dear, have you got your banner ready for the party?”

 

                “I sure do!” Pinkie held the large sash up with pride. “At first I was worried I’d just packed my “Nice To Meet You!” ones, but I still had a “Welcome Back!” tucked underneath a couple “How About That Weather?” ones, so with a few alterations from you we can totally make it work. Now while you do that I’ll start to get the streamers set up here

 

                “Hey Pinkie, you got any jobs that can keep the fillies occupied for a spell?” Applejack asked.

 

                “I dunno, Applejack. I could probably think of something, but I’d have to find them first,” Pinkie replied nonchalantly. Applejack and Rarity stared at her.

 

                “Uh, didn’t they just go back to your room?” Rarity asked after a pause.

 

                “Oh no,” Pinkie said. “I just saw them head into the temple. Said something about wanting to take a quick look around and that they’d be back in a jiffy.”

 

                The two older siblings shared a sigh.

 

                “Well, that didn’t take long,” Applejack said. She looked at Rarity. “Come on. Let’s go track them down before they end up somewhere else they don’t belong.”

 

                “Yes, of course,” Rarity said. “I’m sorry, Pinkie, I’ll have to help you when I get back. Hopefully it shouldn’t be too much longer.”

 

                “Okie-dokie-lokie,” Pinkie said happily. With that, the three ponies bowed out of the room and split off to their respective destinations.

 

                “Hey, look over here,” Fluttershy said, approaching one of the less cluttered desks. “I think this is her.”

 

                A small photo sat in a tipped-over frame. Fluttershy leaned in for a closer look. It depicted a small group gathered in front of the temple entrance at a time when the weather wasn’t quite so ferocious. Front and center was a chipper young unicorn waving at the camera. Hawks stood directly behind her, a big grin on his face. His rugged looks directly mirrored her dull orange color, freckles, and oval spectacles. A collection of other stallions made up the rest of the group, all looking equally full of mirth. Twilight recognized some as being part of the pull team, while others she had never seen before.

 

                “She looks very sweet.” Fluttershy passed the frame over for Twilight to see.

                

                “I’m sure she is. Just wish she would show up so we could find out for ourselves.” Twilight heard some shuffling of papers. “Spike, what did I say about reorganizing things in here? For all we know, Copper has a system for everything.”

 

                “I’m just trying to keep things the way they were,” Spike defended. “Rainbow Dash keeps blowing things around when her wings flap.”

 

                “Oops, sorry.” Dash lowered herself down next to the cloth-covered tables. A slight noise caught her attention. “Now what is it…?”

 

                With some dramatic flair, she whipped the cloth off.

 

                “Aaaawwwwww!” Fluttershy’s reaction was swift. She zipped over to the newly revealed row of glass containers, nearly knocking Dash over. Each contained a few small mice, all huddled into clusters. “What a bunch of cuties!”

                

                “What are they, rats?” Dash asked once she straightened herself out.

 

                “No, they’re mice,” Fluttershy said. She started looking for a way to open the tanks. Small silver padlocks gleamed in the light over each one. “Oh my...”

 

                “What’s Copper doing with a bunch of lab mice in a place like this?” Twilight wondered aloud.

 

Fluttershy ignored Twilight as she carefully inspected the tanks. “Aww, they look hungry. How do they get their food in there?”

 

                “Looks like there’s a little chute there.” Spike pointed to the rear of the tank. “And that tube must be water and that one… actually, I don’t know what that one’s for.”

 

                “Don’t worry babies, I’ll get you something nice to eat.” Fluttershy smiled and dashed out towards the kitchen.

 

                Looking around another wall, Dash pulled off another cloth. “Hey, there’s some more over here. Only these have… tomatoes?”

 

                “What?” Twilight exclaimed. The new tanks were nearly identical to the ones with mice, save for the fact that each contained a single vegetable instead. A tube ran up from each one, leading up to a small flask hanging overhead. More of the green liquid was inside, though this batch wasn’t glowing.

 

                “It looks like she’s testing the effects of the liquid,” Twilight concluded. She looked back over at the fridge containing the sealed test tubes. “Seems she was able to get that cap off after all, or at least siphon small portions of the liquid out.”

 

                She moved closer to the table and shifted through the papers. She quickly skimmed the notes, trying her best to decipher the scratchy and disorganized writing. Brushing more papers aside revealed a large, black notebook. She immediately flipped it open.

 

                “Uh, Twilight? Weren’t we not supposed to touch anything?” Spike asked, his attention going from the mice to Twilight to the liquid and back.

 

                “Not now, Spike. Whatever Copper was doing up here had something to do with this liquid, and I’m trying to figure out what.” Twilight continued to look through the notebook. After scanning several more pages, she stopped. “Listen to this: ‘The cap has proved to be a major obstacle. Efforts in removing it entirely have proved futile. It takes an excessive amount of work to drill even a small hole through the bronze, and they immediately reseal before I have a chance to take more than miniscule samples–’”

 

                “Yeah yeah, Twilight, we can figure that part out on our own,” Dash said impatiently. “Get to the good stuff.”

 

                “Hold on, her writing isn’t the easiest to read.” Twilight strained at the pages, flipping through several more. Spike grabbed a small lantern from under a table and lit it up, holding it close to Twilight. “Thank you, Spike. Let me see… ‘The effects of small doses are slow acting, but still highly volatile when exposed to the open air and an acceptable host. The reaction increases when more liquid is together. I have elected to divide my samples and house them in separate containers in addition to my usual methods for preventing contamination. I will cease my efforts on opening the main container, for fear of what such a large volume could do if unleashed. In addition, I have been forced to abandon and terminate several test subjects due to an inability to safely collect them. Remaining test supplies are starting to run out, as well as my stockpile of…’ I can’t make out what she says after that. I’d have to read through this more thoroughly to see what she means.”

 

                “Or, better yet, just wait and ask her yourself,” Spike said. He shut the notebook and pushed it down the desk away from Twilight. “Come on, Twi, this isn’t one of your projects, its somepony else’s. Let her deal with it.”

 

                “I guess you’re right, Spike.” Twilight sighed and turned towards the door. “Still, I do think I’ll ask her for details when she gets back. I’d really like to know what’s going on here.”

 

                “I’d settle for knowing what that smell is,” Dash added as she walked out next to them. “Am I the only one who can smell it?”

                

                “I’ve been doing my best to ignore it,” Spike responded. He took one last look inside before shutting the door. “It’s definitely rank. Anyway, Twilight, we do know one thing. We know that it’s probably a good thing that big container is still shut. I don’t know what Copper was talking about in her notes, but even I could tell from the start it’s not something to open up.”

 

****************************************

 

                “We can totally open that.” Scootaloo stared up at the green cylinder with a look of strong determination.

                

                “Scootaloo, look at that thing. What makes you think we can get it open?” Sweetie Belle huddled apprehensively behind Scootaloo, with Apple Bloom not far behind. “Better yet, what makes you think we even should?”

 

                “Just look at all these tools. It’s obvious somepony’s been trying to get into it.” Kicking a broken drill aside, Scootaloo circled the base of the cylinder. “Now’s our chance to do something helpful.”

 

                “But Rarity told us not to get in the way,” Sweetie Belle pointed out.

 

                “Technically, she only told you that,” Scootaloo replied, grinning.

 

                “She also told you she was going to the beach for her vacation,” Apple Bloom muttered.

 

                “That’s what she said!” Sweetie Belle retorted. “At least, that’s where she’d gone for the last few years…”

 

“Come on, Cutie Mark Crusaders,” Scootaloo interrupted, “look at the opportunity we’ve got here. We tried everything in Ponyville, and as soon as we get somewhere new, we get something like this. Maybe that’s the problem we’ve been having: the thing that’s our special talent wasn’t close to home.”

 

                “What’s so special about opening a giant bottle of jelly?” Apple Bloom asked, eyeing the cylinder suspiciously. Scootaloo thought for a moment.

 

                 “Cutie Mark Crusader locksmith!” she shouted with glee. “Don’t you see? It’s not what’s inside that counts, it’s getting to it at all. Remember how I got that door open for Rainbow Dash earlier?”

                

                “I’m not sure that counted as locksmithing,” Sweetie Belle said with a snicker.

 

                “Hey, I opened it using my head.”

 

                “More like using your–”

 

                “No, Scootaloo’s right.” Apple Bloom moved past Sweetie Belle. “We’ve done just near everything we can do back in Ponyville. We’ve gotta try everything we can here if we ever want to get our cutie marks.”

 

                “Right!” Scootaloo smiled and scaled the ladder behind the cylinder. “Now, how can we go about unlocking this thing?”

 

                Metal clanged, and the remaining drills whirred. Attempts were made to light one of the torches, but it seemed to be broken. Frustrated cries rose up, sometimes even louder than the banging of the hammers.

 

                “Hmm, what else…” Apple Bloom looked carefully at the cap. Not even a dent had been made. “Scootaloo, maybe we could try that saw again.”

 

                Scootaloo, up on top of the ladder, shook her head. “I can’t get a grip on it. We really need to see if we can get one of those torches lit. Sweetie Belle, can you try it with the candle again?”

 

                “I tried that already. I keep telling you, it’s broken,” Sweetie Belle snapped.

 

                “Hang on, hang on, let me try something here with–” Scootaloo stopped abruptly as she heard a sound emitting from out in the hall.

 

                “Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! Scootaloo!” The ring of Applejack’s voice was unmistakable. “Girls, where are you? Time to come back to the rest of us!”

 

                “Aww, man.” Apple Bloom dropped the chisel she’d been carrying and headed for the door. “Come on guys, my sister’s callin’.”

 

                “But we’ve barely even started on this thing!” Scootaloo protested.

 

                “I think if this was our special talent, we would’ve gotten into it by now,” Sweetie Belle said. She moved with Apple Bloom out of the room. “Don’t worry Scootaloo, there’s lots of other stuff in this place we haven’t tried yet. We’ll find something up here that’ll get our cutie marks, I’m sure of it.”

 

                “Awww, but guys–” Scootaloo started, only to be interrupted by Rarity’s calls joining in with Applejack’s. They both sounded closer now, with faint hoofsteps becoming audible. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle once more encouraged Scootaloo to move along and darted out the door.

 

                “It’s always something,” Scootaloo muttered to herself. She hopped down the ladder and stood on the base of the cylinder. The substance inside continued its swirling unabated. Scootaloo stared at it for a moment and sighed.

 

                “Stupid giant bottle of green… gunk… stuff. Can’t you just open up? Ugh…” Without thinking, Scootaloo headbutted the glass. She was prepared to sigh again, but the cold rush of contact with the glass caught her off guard and she fell back off the base. She landed awkwardly, taking an extra second or three to right herself again.

 

                “Whoa, what was up with that?” She shivered. The cold seemed to have gone straight through her entire body. She turned to exit the room, now eager to get back to the others and warm up.

 

                Behind her, the liquid stopped moving. It simply hung there, completely frozen. Black spots appeared near the top, two of them separating out. The spots seemed to be tracking Scootaloo as she walked towards the door. Slowly, the liquid moved again, this time not at random. It collectively drew back within the cylinder, pushing itself against the rear of the glass. A small pocket of air appeared along the front, going the entire vertical length of the cylinder. Up ahead, the door to the chamber swung shut.

                

                “Hey, what gives?” Scootaloo shouted. “Guys, I’m still in here! Guys?”

 

                The liquid surged forward. It slammed into the glass with untold force. A cracking noise sounded out and Scootaloo turned, her eyes widening. The entire cylinder was tipping over, right in her direction. The cracking at the base continued as glass separated from metal and old stone seals cracked and crumbled. She quickly rolled out of the way, avoiding being squashed by mere inches as it fell down the floor with a massive crash. Before she could react, a metallic screech filled the room. The cap quivered and flew off, sailing across the room and slamming into an opposing wall.

 

                Out flowed the liquid. It came like a wave, washing over the entire pathway leading to the door. Scootaloo watched, frozen in place next to the fallen cylinder. She gasped as the liquid did something very unusual: it turned. The liquid gathered itself into a long, tube-shaped mass and rotated on the floor. It rose straight up, part of it hovering in the air like a massive serpent ready to strike. It turned and pointed down, directly at Scootaloo.

 

                She tried to scream. The noise formed itself in her throat. She opened her mouth to release it only to have it forcefully shoved back by the liquid. It flew down her throat first, then the stream widened to mask her entire body. It formed around her into a tight ball that drove itself right through her skin. The ball moved, taking itself and Scootaloo around to the other side of the base. It kept flowing into her, continuing to squeeze through every possible drop until there wasn’t any left.

 

****************************************

 

                “There you girls are,” Rarity said, relieved. “I’ve been looking all over for you. This place is enormous. I don’t want you running off like that again.”

 

                “We’re sorry Rarity,” Sweetie Belle said as she and Apple Bloom came down the hall. “We were just looking around.”

 

                “There’ll be time for that later in the week, once we’ve got Copper here as a guide.” Applejack looked at the fillies carefully. “Now what have you girls been gettin’ up to?”

 

                “Nothing!” Sweetie Belle answered immediately.

                

                “Nothin’s ever nothin’,” Applejack said. She looked back and forth down the hall. “And where’d Scootaloo get off to?”

 

“Wasn’t she with you?” Rarity asked, also looking around.

 

                “She is, she’s right behind–” A massive crash echoed down the hall, drowning out Apple Bloom’s response. The four ponies gasped and ran towards the noise. They reached the chamber doors and Applejack pulled one open as fast as she could manage. Another collective gasp emerged when they saw the damage. The toppled cylinder lay quietly on the rug, the cap embedded into the wall next to them.

 

                “Now what in tarnation is goin’ on in here?” Applejack looked around the room. “Scootaloo! Scootaloo, are you in here?”

 

                “Yeah, yeah, I’m over here.” From behind the now-vacant base, Scootaloo emerged. She looked a little sweaty as she moved swiftly to join the others. “I didn’t do this! I don’t know what happened, I was just–”

 

                “Scootaloo, hush,” Applejack snapped. “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t know what’s up with this place, but we need to get the others here to see this. We’re going back to the base, right now.”

 

                She looked Scootaloo right in the eye. Scootaloo simply nodded and walked towards the door.

 

                “Hey, Scootaloo, what happened here?” Sweetie Belle loudly whispered.

 

                “I’ll tell ya later,” Scootaloo replied. The four ponies quickly made for the exit, all but one of them turning to take one last look before they left. Somewhere inside the chamber, a drop of liquid hitting the floor sounded off. Then, silence. Nothing but the quiet flicker of flames burning on the candles.


Chapter 3: Remains to be Seen

 

                “Think Copper’ll be mad?” Spike’s question garnered no reply. The entire group was gathered in the large chamber, staring at the fallen tube in silence. The Cutie Mark Crusaders huddled together by the door. They tried not to look at Rarity and Applejack, who stood fuming next to them.

 

“Awww, no more glowy thingy. I had plans for an afterparty in here,” Pinkie said mournfully. She scurried up against the now empty tube and shivered. “Wow, this thing is cold. Ooh, look how much I can fog up the glass.”

                

While Pinkie started drawing in the condensation, Twilight inspected the damage. Her eyes moved carefully over the scene, from the cap wedged into the wall to the felled tube to the broken base.

 

“So you girls were in here, minding your own business, and it fell over entirely on its own?” she said slowly, her mind still trying to make sense of it all.

                

Scootaloo perked up. “Yeah! I was getting ready to leave when I heard a loud crack and so I turned around and it was just tipping right over. I had to roll out of the way and everything.”

                

“What were you all trying to do in here, anyway?” Rainbow Dash asked.

 

“Umm…” Apple Bloom stammered.

 

Applejack looked hard at her sister. “Apple Bloom, right now we need to know exactly what happened in here. I don’t wanna hear anythin’ other than the straight story, got it?”

 

“We were just trying to open it!” Sweetie Belle blurted out. Rarity opened her mouth to say something, but Sweetie Belle quickly hurried on. “We figured with all the tools that Dr. Star was trying to do it too, and we really wanted to help her out, and also thought that maybe getting into things like this might be our special talent so we tried it out and, well…”

 

“You know, when you say it out loud it doesn’t seem to make as much sense,” Scootaloo said absentmindedly.

 

“So, if I’m understandin’ things right, you girls took our speeches about not touching anythin’ an’ stayin’ out of trouble, an’ went an’ did the exact opposite,” Applejack said, looking over the three fillies. “An’ now you’ve caused a whole mess of trouble for somepony we haven’t even had a chance to meet yet.”

 

“But we didn’t do this!” Apple Bloom shouted out. “Right, Scootaloo?”

 

“Exactly!” Scootaloo said. “It’s like I said, it did this all on its own. I wasn’t even touching it when it happened.”

 

“We didn’t even make a dent trying to get into it,” Sweetie Belle muttered.

 

“Hey Fluttershy, you can come in here now! That green stuff is all gone,” Dash called out to the pony crouched out in the hallway.

 

“Oh, no thank you.” Fluttershy poked her head through the open doorway. “I’m fine out here. I wouldn’t want to accidentally cause anything else to happen. There’s already too much of a mess in there.”

 

Pinkie rolled out of the tube and smiled at Fluttershy. “Ah, don’t worry about a thing. We can get this place spic and span in no time at all. Here, I’ll get this sorted out right now.”

 

Pinkie threw herself against the tube. She pushed it as hard as she could in an effort to roll towards the base and out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge. “Alright, hang on, just need to give it a good and proper Pinkie Push.”

 

Pinkie buckled down and doubled her efforts. Dash swooped in to assist her, but to no effect. “Wow, this thing is really heavy. Twilight, think you can take a crack at it?”

 

Twilight nodded. Her horn shimmered and a purple haze surrounded the tube. Straining, she attempted to levitate it towards the base. The tube shifted as Twilight dug her hooves into the ground, and slowly but surely it started to move forward. A loud grinding sound resonated throughout the chamber as the tube dragged along the floor, cutting into the ancient stone. Eventually it stopped, settling into place a few feet from where it originally lay. Twilight breathed heavily while the haze vanished.

 

“Wow, that’s some serious glass,” Dash said, an impressed look on her face.

 

“Okay, that’s new to me,” Twilight said when her breathing rate returned to normal. As she leaned against the base, her back pushed into the iron plate grafted onto the front. It clicked inward and sent a sudden gust of ice-cold air rushing out of the wall vents. All the candles immediately snuffed out. The room was plunged into darkness, save for the light creeping in through the open doors. Up above, Dash somersaulted around, caught off balance by the airflow hitting her from every direction.

 

The three fillies screamed, and Fluttershy disappeared back into the hall. Suddenly a bright flash filled the room. In an instant the candles were relit. The flash receded into Twilight’s horn as the others regained their composure around her.

 

“Heh heh, uh, sorry about that,” she said, cheeks red. “I forgot that was there.”

 

Recovering from the twirl, Dash landed on top of the base. “Nice going there, Twilight. Real smooth.” she said, her head still spinning.

 

Twilight examined the plate. “Maybe it’s some kind of cooling mechanism, pumping in cold air from outside to keep the tube chilled.”

 

“This tube’s still super chilly.  I’m not sure how much extra cold it needed,” Pinkie said, one hoof still fiddling around on the surface of the glass. “This is way past even ice cream storage levels.”

 

“Maybe it’s just something put in to scare ponies,” Spike said as he retrieved a still-spooked Fluttershy from the hallway.

 

“Whatever it’s for, they must’ve had somepony here fulltime to keep relighting the candles,” Dash said. She looked down and frowned. “Hey, what’s this thing here?”

 

“What’s what thing where, Rainbow Dash?” Spike asked.

 

“Right here, where the tube used to be,” Dash replied, still eyeing something the others couldn’t see. “There’s a weird symbol carved here.”

 

Twilight pushed the ladder back against the base and climbed up to take a look. She studied what Dash found: an engraving of a square cross, the bottom line curving left into a sharp hook. At the center of the cross was a small, hollow circle. It did not appear to be a hastily carved bit of graffiti, but rather something carefully etched right into the stonework.

 

“I don’t know what this is supposed to mean,” Twilight said. She turned to the others. “It’s some kind of cross with a hook. A religious symbol, perhaps. Or a fancy doodle of a fishing lure put in by the builder. I really have no idea.”

 

“Cross with a… I gotta see this!” Pinkie quickly scaled the ladder to crowd in next to Twilight at the top. She squealed with delight when she saw the symbol. “Ah-ha! I knew it I knew it I knew it!”

 

Grinning widely, she slid down the ladder and dashed straight out the door, barely slowing to hop over the half-hidden Fluttershy. The others listened to her hoofsteps fade down the hall and disappear into the rest of the temple.

 

“Is she gonna do that a lot on this trip?” Dash asked. Twilight could only shrug.

 

“I’m sure she’ll come back with some explanation soon enough,” Rarity said. “Now, if we could please return to the matter at hoof…”

                

“I keep telling you guys, it was an accident!” Scootaloo again pleaded. “I really don’t know how or why it happened; I just know I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

 

“I don’t think you did this,” Twilight said. The group stared at her. Hopeful expressions appeared on the fillies’ faces. Twilight glanced at the tube and continued. “I can hardly move that thing without a lot of effort, and even that barely got it anywhere. Plus, look at the heavy mortar buildup at the base. It would’ve taken a lot of time and work to get through all that with just the tools here.”

 

“Hmm… you may have a point there, Twilight,” Applejack said. “I remember when I had to get an old water tank off the farm. It was cemented in behind the barn an’ everything. Took me the better part of the day to get it loose, an’ that thing was smaller than this tube.”

 

“So you’re saying this thing really did just fall over on its own?” Rarity asked with raised eyebrows.

 

“I don’t know how or why it fell, I just don’t think these three are at all capable of causing this,” Twilight answered.

 

“Hey now, what’s that supposed to mean?” Apple Bloom asked indignantly. “Well maybe we did cause it to–”

                

“Hey, shut up!” Scootaloo hissed, lightly jabbing Apple Bloom in the arm. “They’re letting us off the hook.”

 

Scootaloo smiled sweetly. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle exchanged looks and joined in, appearing as innocent as they could manage.

 

“What happened to the liquid?” Spike spoke up. “The floor is completely dry.”

 

The others looked down, suddenly noticing the discrepancy.

 

“Hey yeah,” Dash said. “There was a ton of that stuff. What happened to it, Scootaloo?”

 

“I didn’t see that,” Scootaloo said. “I ducked and hid behind the base right when it started coming down. I didn’t come out until the others came in and found me.”

 

“Well it had to go somewhere,” Twilight said. She scratched her head. “I wonder if it evaporated when it made contact with the air…”

 

“You mean we could be breathing that stuff in right now?” Sweetie Belle asked, looking worried. “That doesn’t sound good at all.”

 

“I think we’d be able to tell if something like that was up in the air,” Twilight said reassuringly. “So Spike, you can stop holding your breath. I’ll have to read more of Copper’s notes now to try and figure out what might have happened to it. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.”

 

“So, uh… can we go now?” Scootaloo fidgeted in place, eyeing the door.

 

“Twilight said it couldn’t have been us,” Sweetie Belle said. “So if we didn’t do anything, we shouldn’t be in trouble now, right?”

 

“Yeah!” Apple Bloom nodded her head. The three fillies looked hopefully at the older siblings.

 

“I suppose there’s no sense blaming you for this,” Rarity conceded. “At least when there’s no proof you did anything.”

 

“But you girls ain’t off scot-free yet,” Applejack reminded them. “You shouldn’t have been in here at all. I’m not sure how much more I can stress my ‘don’t touch anythin’ speech, but here we are again…”

 

“It won’t happen again, sis,” Apple Bloom pleaded. “Promise!”

 

“You better believe it won’t,” Applejack said. “From here on out, no leaving the livin’ area. Period.”

 

“Quite right. That also means staying within sight of one of us at all times,” Rarity added, shaking her head at the three responding groans. “I don’t want to hear it girls, not after all this. You three are to stay in the base with either myself or Applejack for the rest of the week. End of discussion. Come on now, let’s get back. Maybe we can still find something constructive and harmless for you to do.”

 

“I’ll go with you,” Fluttershy said. “They can help me preparing food to feed all those mice.”

 

“There are mice here?” Apple Bloom wondered aloud.

 

“That sounds like a splendid idea, Fluttershy,” Rarity said as she herded the group towards the door. “I don’t believe Pinkie’s party will be happening tonight anymore, but we can still get some other things accomplished before bed.”

 

Still sulking, but otherwise happy to be out of trouble, the fillies trooped towards the hall. Upon reaching the doorway, the three quickly ducked out of the way as Pinkie came zooming back into the room, a small collection of books shoved under one arm.

 

“Ah, Pinkie, there you are,” Rarity said without missing a beat. “I was just talking about you. I was hoping you’d have something else planned that these three could assist you with this evening.”

 

“Never mind that now, Rarity. This is it! This place is the Temple of Proch’No,” Pinkie shouted excitedly. “He mentioned before that he was inspired by a real place when he wrote that, but I didn’t think he meant someplace way out here–”

 

“Whoa there Pinkie, ease up for a spell. You’re leavin’ us in the dark here,” Applejack said.

 

“Yes, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Here! Where we are right now. It’s a place from one of my Sugar Cane books.” Pinkie replied tossed a copy over to Twilight and continued to prance around the room, flipping through the pages of a different book. “But it’s not all just from that one. That base must be the one that was in the cellar of Mrs. Pickmare’s hotel, and I don’t recognize the tube. Of course, I haven’t read through them all yet, so maybe I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I wonder what else there is around here…”

 

She began circling the chamber, attentively inspecting every candlestick and dusty table. Twilight studied the cover of the book Pinkie gave her. It was a crowded collage of pulp imagery: a pony rowing a boat out onto a mist-covered lake, a collection of eyes and claws reaching out from above the title text, and a different pony reacting in horror to something just off the page. Somewhat out of place was the jagged red line that crisscrossed the entire cover for no discernible reason.

 

In the Lake of Lunacy,” she said, reading out the title, “by Sugar Cane. Who is this guy anyway?”

 

“You haven’t heard of him?” Spike asked. “You should check the fiction section more often. He’s gotten really big this year. Ponies have been coming to get his stuff nonstop for the last few weeks.”

 

“I guess I’ve been distracted by the end of the season,” Twilight said. She flipped idly through a few pages, still watching Pinkie wander the room. “I’ve never been one for horror stories anyway. I didn’t think so many others were, either.”

 

“Are you kidding? Ponies can’t seem to get enough of these things,” Spike said, examining the book as well. “They’re drawing in a strange crowd, too. Even the mayor came in to get some a few days ago. She was actually kind of annoyed when I told her we were all out.”

 

“I guess the library has been a bit more crowded lately,” Twilight said, thinking back to recent days. “Of course, it always gets crowded at this time of year, what with ponies stocking up for the indoor months.”

 

“Lemme see that thing,” Applejack said. Twilight tossed her the book. “Ya know, this looks kinda familiar. I think I saw Big Mac readin’ one of these the other day.”

 

“Hey yeah, I remember that too,” Apple Bloom chimed in. “I asked him about it but he just ignored me. He looked like he was really into it.”

 

“Big Macintosh? Really?” Dash asked. “This is getting ridiculous. Now I bet you’ll tell me that Derpy reads them, too. ”

 

“Are you a fan, Rainbow Dash?” Rarity asked wryly.

 

“As if.” Dash rolled her eyes. “Horror stories are dull. They’re just ponies running around old houses until something jumps out at them or one of them goes crazy. I prefer books with more action and excitement and cool stuff. Dunno what Pinkie sees in them. I definitely don’t see how she could act so weird about them.”

 

“I think we’re all overacting here,” Twilight said. “This isn’t the first time Pinkie’s read a book, after all.”

 

“Yes, but there’s a difference between Pinkie reading the occasional book and Pinkie doing… whatever this is,” Rarity said.

 

As the others watched, Pinkie flipped over one of the end tables and felt around its underside.

 

“Five-legged table with a pool of wax in the shape of a star in one corner, which means there’s got to be– a-ha!” A triumphant smile broke out across her face as a small hidden drawer popped open under the table. She poked around inside and although she found nothing, her smile hardly faltered. “Yup yup yup, this is the hiding place of the basement key from The Breathing Stable. Don’t you see guys? It’s all here! Isn’t that super cool?”

 

The group stared blankly at Pinkie.

 

“Uh, it’s great that things here resemble stuff in your books, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “But don’t you think it’s probably just a coincidence? Not many ponies besides us really know this place exists. I highly doubt that some horror author found out about this place long enough ago to put it in his books.”

 

“No, this really is the place!” Pinkie responded cheerfully. “Everything’s exactly as it should be. And take a look at this!”

 

She pointed to a spot on the book cover. Twilight squinted: there, just below the long running red line, was a symbol identical to the one on the base.

 

“Huh. That’s, um…” Twilight stammered, searching for a rational explanation.

 

“That’s a marker!” Pinkie exclaimed. “They help show the way. There should be another one around here somewhere with the hook facing the other direction. I’ve just got to find it.”

 

The others still stared, unsure of what to make of all this.

 

“Don’t worry,” Pinkie said, undeterred. “I’ll make fans out of you guys yet. That’ll get you in the marker-finding spirit.”

 

“I’m sure you will, dear,” Rarity said. “Presently, however, we have other matters that concern us. Like what we’re going to do with all the party material we’ve got set up back in the base. I believe we can get these three to work taking all that down, and then we can see about dinner.”

                

Pinkie cocked her head. “Take the party down? Before it’s even started? Are you crazy? You can’t take down a party before you throw that party! Unless the theme of the party was taking down a party, and I can’t imagine how much fun that would be since clean-up is never the best part of a party–”

 

“Pinkie, in light of recent events, I hardly think that a party will be at all appropriate tonight,” Rarity replied, once more herding the fillies out into the hall.

 

“Unless you’ve brought a “Sorry We Ruined Your Science Project” banner, too,” Dash deadpanned.

 

Pinkie scratched her chin and thought for a moment. “Maybe. I think I might have one left over from that time we accidentally destroyed Twilight’s–”

 

“Pinkie, Rarity’s right,” Applejack said. “No party until we meet this girl an’ get everythin’ that’s happened here good an’ settled.”

 

With a dejected sigh, Pinkie finally conceded. Spike patted her on the back. “Don’t worry Pinkie, there’ll be time for parties later in the week. Copper will probably need some cheering up after all this.”

 

“Quite right,” Rarity said. “Now please everypony, can we get back? Poor Fluttershy has been waiting for us out in the hall for ages now, and I’ve taken about all I can from this tacky room.”

 

“Oh, I’m fine out here until you guys are finished.” Fluttershy’s voice drifted in. “The lights out here don’t seem to ever go out.”

 

The ponies all grouped together and headed out the door, conversation floating about.

 

“–gotta get back to your precious rats Fluttershy?”

 

“I told you, Rainbow, they’re mice.”

 

“Whatever.”

 

“–still would like to know how that thing toppled over–”

 

“–where the goop went. Stuff like that doesn’t just vanish into thin–”

 

“–so that just leaves They Live In The Fog and I’ll have gotten through all of them. At least until his next book, which I’m super excited about but he’s taking a real long time to finish it. Hopefully it’ll be out just after we get back so I can still be first in line to–”

“Hey Scootaloo, get up here! We don’t want you falling behind again.”

“How’d you even get into these, Pinkie?”

 

“It was easy. I was out walking through town one day and saw somepony throwing a book party. Naturally I had to attend and then I saw one of them passing this around and so I asked ‘What’s that?’ and they were all like–”

 

“–is cooking dinner tonight? I’m really hungry right–”

 

“Hey Twilight, you coming?”

 

Spike stood in the open doorway, the group continuing on without him. He looked at Twilight, who was staring intently at the dislodged cap of the tube. The underside revealed a complex series of tumblers and locks, all connected to a long apparatus at the cap’s center.

 

“That’s interesting,” she muttered softly to herself.

 

“What’d you say, Twilight?” Spike came over to look at the cap with her. “What do you see?”

 

“I’m not sure, Spike,” Twilight said. “Assuming these control whether the cap is locked or not, then… it sort of looks like this thing could only be opened from the inside.”

 

“Why would anypony build a lock that could only be opened from inside a sealed tube?” Spike asked, glancing back at the fallen container.

 

“I couldn’t even begin to guess right now,” Twilight said. She took one last look around before walking towards the door, Spike right behind her. “I’m going to have a long night of reading notes ahead of me at this rate. Now let’s hurry up and join the others. It’s getting late, and we’re going to need to start getting dinner ready.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Dunno how much sleep I’ll be able to get in this place,” Spike said. He pulled the doors shut as they exited, trying to avoid looking inside one last time as he did. “I sure do hope Copper shows up soon and tells us what’s going on. This place gives me the creeps.”

 

“Me too, Spike. Me too.” Twilight suddenly shivered, feeling as though some unseen force passed through her. She brushed it off as best she could before Spike noticed, and kept her eyes focused straight ahead for their entire walk back.

 

****************************************

                As the evening drew on the base bustled with energy. Dinner preparations entered full swing, and the sound of clashing pots and pans echoed through the halls. Ponies trotted from room to room, each one finding some random task to busy themselves with. Amidst all the movement and activity, Scootaloo kept silent. She sat in the corner of the common room, observing everything around her and taking in every sound and voice.

 

She watched Applejack move the couches around to get a dinner table set up. She saw Fluttershy bring a pile of produce into the lab. She watched a frazzled Rarity brush past Apple Bloom in the hall and meet Pinkie in the kitchen to plea for some reduction of the noise level. She heard Rainbow Dash snoring in her room, Twilight banging around with the generator in the basement, Spike making a trip to the greenhouse for more carrots, and Sweetie Belle trying to find a spare pillow for her bed. An entire group occupied and distracted, the sound of their labors mingling with each other and the weather outside.

 

After a while, Scootaloo stood and began trotting throughout the base. She moved with a purpose, if not any clear destination. Walking from room to room, she kept to the walls, skirting away from anyone she encountered. The others never noticed her. She kept silent, and always left a room before its occupant realized she’d even been there at all. It wasn’t long before she’d completed a circuit of the base. Without delay she started to circle around again, and when that was completed she went around once more.

 

Finally, she slowed outside a door. Her face remained calm and neutral as she pushed it open and greeted the individual inside. The door swung shut on its own behind her.

 

Unintelligible chatter emitted from behind the door, followed by an abrupt silence. What could’ve been a muffled scream didn’t make it past the wooden frame, nor did the series of thumps that followed. After that, there was nothing to be heard at all. Just the usual noises of the base, already accepted as commonplace by the group despite the short duration of their current stay. Nopony paid much attention to them at this point.

 

****************************************

                Night fell with a distinct ferocity. As the sun sank below the horizon, the storm of the day morphed into a much stronger beast as the winds picked up to previously unseen levels. They raged against the base in a constant fury, and while the thick walls stood firm against the onslaught, every once in a while an especially strong gust swept in to shake them to their very foundations.

 

“Is it ever nice up here?” Applejack asked. She sat comfortably on one of the couches, a blanket wrapped snugly around her. “Haven’t seen a storm this tough in a dog’s age.”

 

“We don’t make ‘em like this down in Ponyville, that’s for sure,” Rainbow Dash said. She peered out the window on the door, trying to make out anything in the darkness. The light from inside didn’t penetrate far into the inky void of the night, however, leaving her disappointed.

 

Another massive gust suddenly slammed home. Dash jumped as the metal frame groaned and the door momentarily shifted inward. She awkwardly backed away from the wall and returned to the center of the room. “Yeah, I’m glad we don’t do these at home.”

 

“Feelin’ spooked there, Rainbow Dash?” Applejack asked, chuckling slightly.

 

“Please. I can handle any storm,” Dash said with confidence. “I’m thinking more about Ponyville here. I don’t think the town could survive one of these.”

 

Twilight frowned, listening to the wind shriek in for another pass. “I’m worried. Copper’s still out there somewhere. I was really hoping she would be back before sundown.”

 

“This definitely isn’t somethin’ good to be stuck out in,” Applejack said. “But didn’t Hawks say she had a place to stay at her research site?”

 

“Yeah Twilight.” Dash hopped onto the other couch and crammed a pillow underneath her. “If she’s been out here a year, she’s probably had weather like this before. She can take care of herself, right? ”

 

“Rainbow’s right, Twilight,” Applejack said. “This weather’s tough, but this girl sounds tougher. She’s probably havin’ herself one heck of a campout right now, that’s all.”

 “Maybe. I honestly don’t know,” Twilight replied. She rested her head on the table and let out a weary sigh.

 

“You doin’ alright over there Twilight?” Applejack asked. “You look totally beat.”

 

“It’s just been a really long day today,” Twilight said, resting her eyes for a minute. “I wish she’d show up already. There’s so much I need to ask her right now. Also, shouldn’t this table be back against the wall by now?”

 

“Uh huh, I’ll do that first thing tomorrow morning,” Dash said, waving it off. “Don’t sweat it.”

 

The hall door opened, drawing the ponies’ attention. Fluttershy stood in the doorway. She tried not to look put off by the storm, but another powerful blast of wind caused her to twitch. “Oh, hello everypony. You’re all still awake?”

 

“Yeah, but not for much longer.” Applejack yawned. “I think I’m ‘bout ready to hit the hay.”

 

“You guys need to take more power naps. They keep you primed and ready for action at all times,” Dash said, grinning and stretching out on the couch.

 

“Have all the others gone to sleep?” Twilight asked.

 

Fluttershy nodded as she approached the table and pulled another chair out. “I believe so. Spike just went to bed, and Pinkie and the girls have been asleep for a while now.”

 

“Considering all the work they did cleanin’ up that mess in the kitchen, I’m not surprised.” Applejack yawned once more and rose from the couch. “All right y’all, I’m at my limit. Time for this pony to hunker down for the night. Try not to stay up too late now, ya’hear?”

 

The others bid Applejack goodnight as she lumbered down the hall and into her room. The audible flop of her collapsing onto her cot made Dash giggle.

 

“Sounds like somepony really needed that,” she said.

 

“What are you doing up, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked. “Storm keeping you awake?”

 

“Oh no, it’s not that,” Fluttershy said, her sentiment betrayed somewhat by another nervous glance out the window. “I’m just not very sleepy yet. I would go check on the mice, but they’re probably dozing right now. I don’t want to disturb them.”

 

“You’re really growing attached to those things, aren’t you Fluttershy?” Dash rolled over on the couch to lie on her stomach. “I’m surprised you can stand the smell in there.”

 

Fluttershy got up and moved to the vacant couch. “I just want to make sure they’re doing alright. This is no place for them. I mean, they seem healthy enough, but they’re really skittish. I still can’t figure out how to open their tanks, not with those big locks on them. At least I can still get their food to them.”

 

“Another thing I’m going to have to ask Copper about,” Twilight said. “She must be doing some sort of testing on them…”

 

Fluttershy’s face grew grave.

 

“Or they could be here as her pets,” Twilight said quickly. She smiled at Fluttershy. “You just said they looked healthy, after all. I still need to start going through her notes. I’m sure she wrote her plans for them down somewhere.”

 

“Don’t you think you could just wait until she gets back before you start doing that?” Dash asked. “You were the one giving us big speeches about not touching anything, after all.”

 

“I know, I know,” Twilight responded. “I don’t think she’ll mind me taking a look, at least.”

 

“Unless she’s frozen in a block of ice out there,” Dash mumbled, “in which case you probably should get to work on them.”

 

Twilight rolled her heard over and shot Dash a cold look.

 

Dash shrugged. “I’m just sayin’ is all.”

 

Twilight yawned and stood from her chair. She paused to stretch for a moment, limbering up and shaking her head awake. “I think I’ll get a jump on those notes now, actually. Will you two be up long?”

 

“I’ll be up for a bit,” Dash said. “Maybe this girl will end up stumbling through the door in the dead of night. That’d be something I’d want to see, even if I doubt we’ll see her before tomorrow.”

 

“I don’t mind waiting up,” Fluttershy said. Pulling one of the spare blankets over her, she lied back on the couch with an eye on the door. “I don’t think she’ll be showing up tonight either, but, uh, you know, just in case. But are you sure you want to start looking through those now, Twilight? You seem really sleepy. You should get some rest.”

 

“I just want to give them another quick skim, see if anything stands out,” Twilight said. “I know she’ll be here tomorrow and I can get all the information I need then, but… I just want to take a look. That’s all.”

 

Twilight stretched one more time and ambled through to the next room. Fluttershy watched her leave, not speaking up until Twilight shut the door. “Does she seem alright to you?”

 

Dash shrugged again. “Like being a little tired is going to keep Twilight from doing more studying. I don’t think it’s possible for anything to do that.”

 

“It’s not just that, though.” Fluttershy frowned. “Over the past few days she’s, well, seemed a little off. It’s gotten even worse ever since we left on this trip.”

 

“She’s just stressed out,” Dash said confidently. “She gets like this at the start of every winter, what with all the work she’s got to do. She’ll get over it. She always gets over it. I’m in the same boat as her since I’ve got all those clouds to organize together and look at me: cool as ice.”

 

“I suppose. Though what happened today isn’t going to make it any easier.”

“Yeah, that probably didn’t help… but she’ll get over that too.” Dash smirked. “And so will Copper… probably.”

 

The loudest howl of wind yet rattled the entire building. Fluttershy quietly shrieked, pulling her head under her blanket and shoving herself into the corner of the couch.

 

“Nothing to be afraid of out there, Fluttershy,” Dash said, doing the best to mask her own nervousness and keep her expression constant. “It’s just weather. I’ve been in storms way worse than this and come out on top.”

 

“Yes, but this is natural weather,” Fluttershy murmured. “It’s different. This is much, much scarier, with nopony to keep it in line.”

 

Dash forced a chuckle out. “Weather is weather is weather. Like I said, I’ve been in worse ones than this, all of them pony made. I remember one time way back, just after I’d left flight school. They wanted to test a new kind of lightning storm just north of Cloudsdale, so naturally they wanted me to give it a whirl. They had me grab some of the biggest clouds I could find…”

 

****************************************

                Twilight’s leg kicked violently. She bolted awake with a sharp gasp, her face flying up from the stack of papers it had been resting on. The sudden rush of movement proved too much for the rickety stool, and before she even knew what was happening, Twilight was on the ground. A sharp stab of pain shot through her leg and she suppressed the urge to cry out.

 

She briefly writhed on the floor, her mind a jumble of pain signals and confusion. She clamped her eyes shut and willed her body to stop twitching, her breath to slow down, and her mind to relax. Several deep breaths later, she gradually began to regain her composure. Wincing at the lingering ache in her leg, she sat back up and steadied herself against the desk.

 

Putting her arms on the table, she shut her eyes again and concentrated in an attempt to remember the dream. Her mind’s eye filled with images of smoke and fire, of a silhouetted pony staring right at her and smiling.

 

So familiar, she thought to herself. How do I know him? Actually, how do I know it’s a him at all?

 

She breathed easy, letting her body return to a relaxed state. The pain in her leg faded away and before long she was able to stand normally. A further familiar sensation lingered as she thought about her dream, one that went beyond recognizing the smiling figure.

 

That dream... is that the same one I’ve had before? The same nightmare two nights in a row… that’s got to mean something. But what?

 

“You’re too stressed, Twilight,” she said out loud. “That’s all it is. You can’t take so much stock in a bad dream, so calm down. You probably just had too much of Pinkie’s carrot cake. Acting irrational about this isn’t going to help anything.”

 

But try as she might, she couldn’t convince herself. While the specificities of the dreams always faded away shortly after she woke up, that powerful sense of how real it had all felt stayed behind. She glanced down at her hooves and realized she was still trembling.

 

This isn’t normal, she thought clearly. This has never happened to me before. There must be an explanation. Am I getting sick? I feel fine now, nothing strange anywhere. What could it be?

 

She sighed. Whatever it was, she couldn’t do anything about it at the moment. Just one more thing to get to when I’m back in Ponyville.

 

A loose paper slipped onto the floor. Twilight grabbed it and returned it to a large heap on the table. Similar piles of notes were spread out all around, one of which Twilight was using as an impromptu pillow. She had collected several piles together and made an attempt at organization, though Copper’s scratchy and loose writing style made for slow going.

 

At the top of the pile was a large graph that had caught Twilight’s eye before she nodded off. The data charted on it was difficult to decipher, with lots of crossed out and half-erased sentences. Still, going by the dates, it seemed to be concerning a series of tests conducted quite recently; the last one put a trial down two days before the group had arrived. What the tests were and what they were performed with Twilight had no idea, but as every other note she encountered seemed to refer back to the graph she figured that it must be something important.

 

So much about infection rate and containment. What was Copper studying up here?

 

She yawned, a feeling of extreme fatigue hitting her. She looked around for the alarm clock, rustling it out from under another fallen stack: 12:31 AM.

 

I think it’s time I got some real sleep in a real bed. I’ve got way too many questions right now and am too tired to think straight. I can tackle everything here in the morning.

                

A small lantern rested on the table, its flame still burning softly. Twilight levitated it to her and headed for the door. Opening it as quietly as she could, she slipped back into the common room. Thin beams of light spread out from her lantern, causing a series of long shadows to play along the floor and walls. Twilight squinted into the darkness to make out the sleeping form of Fluttershy on the couch. The sound of a snore placed Dash on the other couch, having finally given in to the temptations of sleep. Outside the storm continued to rage, albeit without any more significant, base-shaking gusts.

 

Twilight slowly walked towards the hallway and her room, pausing only to adjust the blanket that had fallen off of Fluttershy. The door creaked loudly as she opened it. Quickly looking back, she saw Dash roll over but otherwise remain sedated. Twilight exhaled in relief and walked towards her room.

 

“Hi Twilight.”

 

Twilight recoiled at the sudden greeting, losing her focus on the lantern in the process. The purple haze flickered and it slipped through the air, falling nearly to the ground before Twilight snatched it up again. She looked wildly around for the speaker. Just ahead, a figure stepped out from the shadows.

 

“Oh! Scootaloo, you scared me,” Twilight whispered.

 

“Oops. My bad,” Scootaloo said, lowering her voice as well.

 

“What are you doing up at this hour?” Twilight studied the filly carefully. She looked nervous, continuously glancing around the darkened hall. “It’s way too late for you to be awake.”

“I needed to…” Scootaloo trailed off. Looking past Twilight and through the open door, she could see the sleeping face of Rainbow Dash on the couch. She paused for a moment, biting her lip in concentration. “I need to show you something.”

 

“What it is?” Twilight asked.

 

“Something that… well, you’ve just got to see it. Trust me.”

 

“Scootaloo, I’ve had a very long day.” Twilight yawned again. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait until tomorrow.”

 

“It’s really important,” Scootaloo urged. She moved closer to Twilight. “It’s just down here, it’ll only take a second. Come on, I’ll show you.”

 

Twilight considered it as the filly approached. She started to say something when the door next to her creaked open, cutting her off. Both ponies turned to see Spike wander through, rubbing his eyes and looking very tired.

 

“What’s going on out here?” he asked, barely awake. “Twilight? What are you doing?”

 

“Sorry, Spike. We didn’t mean to wake you,” Twilight said apologetically. “I was just coming to bed when Scootaloo stopped me.”

 

Spike looked at Scootaloo, whose eyes traveled between him and Twilight.

 

“What’s up, Scootaloo?” he asked quietly.

 

Scootaloo began to back up out of the light. “Uh, never mind, don’t worry about it. Sorry to bug you Twilight.”

 

“Are you sure, Scootaloo?” Twilight asked. “You said it was really important. I could probably spare a few minutes to come take a look.”

                

“No, really, it’s okay,” Scootaloo said. She started to retreat back to her room. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Within seconds she was gone, the door to her room quickly opened and shut.

 

“What was that all about?” Spike asked. He steadied himself against the doorframe, still rubbing his eyes.

 

“I have no idea,” Twilight answered. She looked into the darkness, carefully watching for any sort of movement. Satisfied there was nothing else coming, she smiled at Spike and started motioning him back through the door. “Come on, Spike. Let’s get you back to bed.”

 

Spike mumbled something and returned inside. He barely waited for Twilight to follow him in before leaping back into his cot, asleep by the time his head hit the pillow. Twilight gently shut the door and made for her cot, then stopped. She returned to the door and, with some hesitation, clicked the lock into place. She frowned, then shook her head and extinguished the lantern.

 

****************************************

                “A little more to the left. No, your other left. That’s it. Now bring it forward.” Spike motioned with his claws as he slowly backed into the common room. The supply crate followed him, wood scraping along the stone floor and tight passage walls. With a crunch, the box promptly stopped moving halfway through.

 

“Hey guys, keep going! Guys?” Spike pulled at the box to no avail. It seemed wedged in tight. “Uh, actually, hang on. I think it’s stuck.”

 

“What’d ya mean stuck? Again?” Applejack called out from the other side. “There should be plenty of room this time, I measured it myself.”

 

“It was just at a weird angle last time,” Rainbow Dash said. “I can get this thing through there, hang on one sec.”

 

“Wait a minute now, Rainbow Dash, we can figure out another way to–”

 

A loud crash interrupted Applejack and the box leapt forward. Spike ducked out of the way, barely avoiding getting squashed as the crate sailed through the hole in the wall. It slid along the tiled floor, stopping only once it reached the couch at the center of the room.

 

Dash walked through the passageway, rubbing her shoulder and grinning proudly. “Told ya I could do it.”

 

“A little warning for me to move out of the way next time would be great,” Spike said, brushing himself off as he got up from the floor.

 

“Rainbow Dash, what part of ‘Handle with extreme care’ don’t you understand?” Applejack asked hotly as she came in behind her.

 

Dash thought for a moment. “I think the ‘Handle’ part. That word’s always seemed weird to me.”

 

“What’s going on out here?” Twilight ran out of the hallway, a tense look on her face. She slid to a stop once she saw the crate.

 

“Hi Twilight!” Spike said. “Sorry to wake you. We decided to move Copper’s supply crate over here. Didn’t want to leave it all the way by the front doors, after all.”

 

Twilight relaxed at the explanation. Stepping forward, she noticed sunlight streaming through the window. “What time is it?” she asked.

 

Pinkie hopped through the kitchen door.

 

“It’s morning! Somepony’s up last but still bright and early,” she said cheerfully. She tossed Twilight a small plate. “You missed breakfast, so I saved you some eggs. Eat up!”

 

“Yeah, I wanted you to sleep in today, Twilight, but I guess that didn’t work out,” Spike said. “You looked like you could use the sleep, too.”

 

“Oh, don’t worry about it, Spike. Thank you for the effort, I still had a good sleep.” Twilight looked at the mush on the plate. “Pinkie, where’d you get eggs from up here?”

 

“I found a box of powdered eggs in the pantry. It’s funny, it looked like Copper never even touched them,” Pinkie said as she hopped around the box, not noticing the gagging motion Spike made to Twilight. “What’s in the box guys? Can we open it? Unless it’s a surprise present, in which case I should wait until my birthday. Or is it a surprise non-birthday present? Ooh, I can’t wait!”

 

“It ain’t ours to open, Pinkie,” Applejack said. “This here belongs to Copper, an’ we can wait for her to get back to open it.”

 

“She’s still not back?” Twilight walked to the window to look outside. The storm had receded, at least temporarily; a wall of dark clouds lined the horizon, waiting for another chance to move in. Sunlight filtered through the sky’s solid layer of overcast. Replacing the windstorm of the previous evening was a calm shower of snow, one whose flakes were in no great hurry to reach the ground.

 

“Well, an’ I say this still not knowin’ what she’s up to out there,” Applejack said, joining Twilight at the window, “I reckon’ she hunkered down at her camp for the night to wait out the storm. Now that it’s nice out, she’ll probably start headin’ back. Dunno how long that’ll take her. Isn’t there supposed to be a map somewhere around here?”

 

“She’ll show up when she shows up, Twilight,” Dash said, smiling. “Relax. Now, come on and get ready.”

 

“Ready for what?” Twilight asked as she watched Dash, Applejack, and Pinkie pull their coats on.

 

“To go play, silly!” Pinkie said, shoving a wooly hat over her head. “The weather’s finally nice and clear, so we can go enjoy the powder. After all, what’s the start of another winter without playing in the snow?”

 

Behind her, the kitchen door swung open again. Fluttershy, Rarity, and the fillies walked out. The three young girls appeared particularly glum.

 

“Aww, come on Rarity,” Sweetie Belle said, looking wide-eyed at her sister. “Can’t we just go out and play for a little bit? You can watch us, we won’t go far.”

 

“I’m sorry girls, but it’s simply too cold for you outside,” Rarity said.

 

“But it’s so boring in here!” Scootaloo whined. “There are only so many times you can watch tomatoes grow.”

 

“You girls should have thought of that before you stowed away without any winter clothing,” Rarity replied with the tiniest of smirks. “Beach gear will not protect you from the elements.”

 

“Plus, last I checked, you three were still bein’ punished” Applejack said as she wrapped a scarf around her neck. “You comin’ Rarity? You’ve certainly got more than enough winter gear to cover yourself.”

 

“No, thank you. I believe I’ll stay indoors for the time being.” Rarity walked with the fillies over towards the hall. “Come along now, girls. I only unpacked three of my bags yesterday. It’s time to get through the rest and prepare my scarves for the rest of the week. We’re going to need to get creative with storage, what with no dressers, although I’m sure we can make something work. It’ll be fun!”

 

The fillies groaned as they followed Rarity, heads slumped down in submission.

 

“How about you then, Fluttershy?” Pinkie asked. “Wanna go kick it up in the snow?”

 

“I guess a little time outside couldn’t hurt,” Fluttershy said, smiling at the friendly sight outside. “Let me go get my coat.”

 

“That just leaves you, Twilight,” Dash said. She grinned. “Ready to get a snowball war started? As Ponyville’s reigning champ, I’m always up for a new challenger to test my skills on.”

 

“Reigning champ? As if!” Pinkie laughed. She pulled the door open, bringing a solid wall of cold air into the room. Everypony immediately shivered. Pinkie laughed again. “No time to lose now, girls. Out we go!”

 

“I think I’ll stay in today,” Twilight said through gritted teeth. “I didn’t get far on the notes last night. Now’s the time for me to make some real headway while I wait for Copper to get back.”

 

“Suit yourself, Twi,” Spike said. He made for the door only to be stopped by Twilight hovering his thick jacket in front of him.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” she said with a smile. Spike rolled his eyes and shoved himself into the jacket. Once it was all the way on he quickly hurried outside, disappearing into the first snowdrift he came across. Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Dash immediately followed him, each sprightly diving into the snow.

 

“Don’t push yourself on those notes now, Twilight,” Applejack said in the doorway. “We’ll let you know as soon as we see Copper approachin’ on the horizon.”

 

“Thanks,” Twilight said. She shivered again. “Now please, shut the door. You’re letting snow in.”

 

Applejack chuckled and slammed the door shut. Twilight watched them through the window as snowballs began flying through the air. Dash scooped up a particularly large pile and flew up, ready to drop it on the first target she came across. Meanwhile, Pinkie scored a direct hit on Spike’s head. He rolled down a small hill, laughing the whole way. Fluttershy appeared to be doing her best to just dodge every shot that came close to her way.

 

The sounds of laughter leaked through the glass, causing Twilight to smile. She turned and headed through to the laboratory. A strong, pungent odor met her at the door, causing her to stagger.

 

Whoa, where is that coming from? It definitely wasn’t that strong yesterday.

 

After taking a moment to collect herself, she walked inside. All right, time to get things organized in here. Hopefully Copper won’t mind too much. Maybe I can figure out where that smell is coming from too. She’d probably like it if that went away.

                

****************************************

                An old clock hung on the wall just over the kitchen door. Its old gears still ran as smoothly as the day they were made, and the hour hand rolled over with perfect precision. A small bell rang, striking the hour with four small dings.

 

Applejack paced back and forth. “Four ‘o’clock… anythin’ yet?”

 

Spike stood on a chair by the window and peered outside. The snowfall had increased to a moderate flurry, limiting his visibility. The dark clouds still held their position in the distance, not yet ready to move back in. He strained to see something, anything, in the polar landscape.

 

He sighed and shook his head. “Nothing. Only thing out there is a whole lotta snow.”

 

“She should be back by now,” Fluttershy said nervously. “She wouldn’t spend more than one day out there. She couldn’t… right?”

 

“I don’t know, an’ I don’t much care for waitin’ around to find out,” Applejack said. She quit her pacing and faced the rest of the group. “Some of us should go an’ look for her.”

 

“What, go trekking out there?” Rarity asked in disbelief. “Where would we even start?”

 

“Hawks said there was a map ‘round here somewhere. I suspect that’s as good a place as any.” Applejack walked over to the bookcase. Propped up against the shelves were several large rolled-up posters. Knocking them down to the floor, she unrolled each one and quickly scanned through them. “Lessee here… looks like we’ve got a weather chart, some science thing, an old Wonderbolts poster–”

 

“Dibs on that one,” Dash said, snatching it away for a closer inspection.

 

“–another science thing, and… bingo. This looks like what we need.” Applejack pulled the large map out from under the other posters and slid it over to the center of the room. The group clustered around it to look, save for Spike, who opted to sit back on the sofa. The three fillies occupied themselves with a game of tag, dashing between rooms and generally ignoring the others.

 

“Is going out there to find her really the best idea?” Spike asked. “We still don’t know if there’s a problem at all. Or if she’ll just show up right after we leave.”

 

“Not all of us are gonna go, Spike,” Applejack said. “I think me an’ Rainbow Dash can manage this. The rest of you can hang back to meet her if she does show.”

 

“Yeah, Spike. We’ll find her, no doubt.” Dash started tracing around the map with her hoof. “So if we’re this big black splotch in the middle, then where’s this site of hers… wow, she’s got a lot of places marked on here. Where’d the note say she was again?”

 

“Bell Camp, I think. Where’d that note get to, anyhow?” Applejack asked nopony in particular. Her eyes narrowing, she leaned in for a closer view. “This would be easier if I could read these labels. Copper’s got some serious chickenscratch goin’ here.”

 

“Here, let me take a look,” Spike said, hopping off the couch. “I’ve worked out enough of Twilight’s notes over the years to be able to get through anypony’s writing style.”

 

While Spike, Dash, and Applejack conferred over the map, Fluttershy and Rarity broke away to check out the window.

 

“I don’t know how many times I can keep looking out there,” Rarity said. “I do wish this girl would show. I don’t like the idea of those two going out to find her, not with that hideous wall of clouds waiting for them.”

 

“At least they don’t seem to be coming any closer,” Fluttershy said. She quivered. “But then, maybe they’re coming in from the other direction and we just can’t see them. Or maybe once they start moving they move in really fast. Or maybe they don’t need to move at all and can start over there and still hit us over here. Or maybe all of that could happen at once.”

 

Rarity patted the quivering pegasus on the back. “There, there, Fluttershy. You really can’t keep letting this weather get to you. I don’t want anypony out there any more than you do, and so long as we’re in here, we’re okay.”

 

“I guess.” Fluttershy turned away from the window. “Hey, where’s Twilight? Shouldn’t she have a say in this?”

 

“I haven’t seen her since this morning,” Rarity said. “I think she’s been reading those notes all day. Girls, quit running around so much, you’re going to hurt yourselves. Girls!”

 

Watching Rarity follow the fillies down the hall, Fluttershy made for the kitchen door. Retrieving a small basket full of lettuce in her mouth, she walked back across to the lab entrance. The conversation over the map began to escalate as Applejack and Dash started arguing over the correct route to take.

 

Fluttershy paused in the doorway. The lab was transformed; the great piles of paper had been tidied up into several stacks, all neatly organized across several central desks. Much of the scrap clutter was pushed off to a far corner, and even it looked like it had been carefully cataloged before abandonment. The microscopes and empty glasses were scrunched together, and a large chart had been tacked up onto the center of the wall. The blankets had been completely removed from both sets of tanks, and now both the vegetables and the mice could be easily viewed from any angle. The only things in the room that appeared to be totally unaltered were the persistent odor and the small refrigerator containing the liquid samples.

 

Twilight sat on a stool at the desk with the most papers, her back to the door as she flipped through a small red notebook. Fluttershy gently put her basket down and approached her, trying her best to ignore the room’s smell as she did. Getting closer, she could hear Twilight mumbling something, though she spoke too fast for Fluttershy to pick out the specifics.

 

“Um, Twilight?” she asked. “Are you busy?”

                

Twilight almost fell off her stool. “Fluttershy! What are you doing here? Why are you in here?” she exclaimed as she whirled around, her body tense and beads of sweat rolling down her forehead.

 

Fluttershy drew back at the outburst, bumping into one of the desks. “Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you. I was, um, I wanted to see how you were and, um, tell you that, well, some of the others are, uh…”

 

Fluttershy stammered under Twilight’s hard gaze.

 

“I’m sorry, Fluttershy,” Twilight said, making an effort to relax her body. “You startled me is all. What can I help you with?”

 

“Well, Applejack and Rainbow Dash are thinking of going out to try and find Copper. You know, because she still hasn’t arrived.”

 

“I see. That’s a… do they plan to leave soon?” Twilight began tapping her hoof on the table, her mind racing.

 

“I think so,” Fluttershy said, going back to her basket. “They’re looking at the map now. I don’t know if they’ve figure out where to go yet, though.”

 

                “Okay, thanks for letting me know. I’ll need to talk to them before they– wait!” Twilight leapt over the table and grabbed Fluttershy, pulling her away from the mice tanks. The basket jerked out of her mouth and fell to the floor, spilling produce everywhere.

 

“What’s wrong?” Fluttershy cried out. Twilight kept pulling her until they were back on the other side of the room.

 

“Stay away from the mice.” Twilight looked Fluttershy straight in the eyes as she spoke, pressing up and pinning her against a desk. “I mean it, Fluttershy. Don’t go near them.”

 

Fluttershy began to shrink down. “But, I-I just wanted to feed them, I c-can’t even–”

 

“No. You stay away, Fluttershy.” Twilight practically shook her. “Do you understand me? I don’t want you near them. You’ve just… you’ve just got to trust me on this right now.”

 

“Okay, okay, I’ll stay away, I promise.” Fluttershy wriggled out from under Twilight and quickly scurried out of the room. At the door she nearly ran straight into Rainbow Dash; she muttered a hurried apology and continued out.

 

“What was that all about?” Dash asked, scratching her head. “Did you say something to her, Twilight?”

 

Twilight sighed. “I may have been a little overbearing with her. I only want her to keep away from the mice.”

 

“Why?” Dash asked, looking at the mice. They were all spaced evenly in their individual tanks, not looking particularly conspicuous. “What’s wrong with them?”

 

“Going off of what I’ve been reading, Copper was testing the liquid on them,” Twilight said. “And the results could be contagious.”

 

Despite being on the far side of the room, Dash drew away from the tanks. “What, we can get sick from being close to them now? Should I be worried? It’s nothing that affects wings, right?”

 

“I’m not sure yet. As for now, better safe than sorry, and that means keeping your distance. Especially for Fluttershy. You know how she gets with animals like that,” Twilight said. She gestured to the vegetable containers that Dash was backing towards. “Copper was testing on those tomatoes as well, but she doesn’t seem as worried about them.”

 

Dash hovered through the air, landing next to Twilight. “Why was she doing all this? What did she find out?”

 

“That part I’m working on figuring out,” Twilight said. “Her notes are a little vague. Here, listen to this: ‘Mouse 4B exposed to a 10cc sample. Reaction occurred instantaneously. The sample itself behaved as previously described, with full transformation occurring in approximately five minutes and twelve seconds. It’s getting faster. Visual appearance of the imitation also matched the others, with no discrepancies. Further details are in Index 3 of the ledger.’ She’s got over a dozen entries like this, all with different sample sizes and reaction times.”

 

“Transformation? Imitation? What the hay is this girl talking about?” Dash’s questions came rapidly as she looked back at the mice.

 

“I think I’ve got it,” Twilight said. She looked back and forth between the notes and the chart on the wall. “Or at least, I’ve got part of it. I found this page on the floor. It looks like it’s been ripped out of something else, so it’s not all there. ‘It could have imitated a million life forms anywhere in Equestria. It could change into any one of them at any time. But somehow it ends up here. It needs to be alone and in close proximity to a life form in order to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark.’”

 

“This still isn’t making much sense. You ever consider the possibility that this girl is just rambling?”

 

“As best I can tell, it’s all about the liquid.” Twilight’s eyes flickered to the closed refrigerator on a nearby desk. “That stuff isn’t just any old, well, liquid. It’s apparently some kind of actual organism. One that has a very distinct reaction when placed to next to another organism. So Copper would put a mouse into that test container –the empty one, under the table there- and she adds in a measured amount of that liquid. It… does something to the mouse. Changes it. Changes itself with it. In what way I’m still not entirely sure. She keeps referring to the transformations and reaction times, but also says that the details are kept in a specific ledger.”

 

“And what does that ledger have to say about this?”

 

“You sure you’re interested in this?” Twilight looked at Dash skeptically. “This sort of thing doesn’t normally grab you.”

 

“Yeah, I know, it’s all just a bunch of science-y stuff, but, you know, since you’ve been in here so long and I’m stuck out here too… what the hay, you might as well tell me.”

 

“Uh-huh. Well, I wish I could, but I can’t find it.” Twilight shrugged. “I’ve spent all day going through every note in here and it’s nowhere to be found. I’m pretty sure that ripped page came out of it. I guess she wanted to keep the main part of her research in one spot for safekeeping. I’ll keep looking around, but I can say for certain that this liquid and its effects are dangerous. Half these notes are on safety and handling procedures, disposal methods, and containment protocols. For that reason, I don’t want anypony going near the mice or the liquid. Or the tube, for that matter.”

 

“She say what could have happened to all that liquid from the tube?” Dash slowly began to edge towards the mice, peering at them to try and make out any kind of irregularity. Some simply stared back while others disregarded her entirely.

 

“She does mention a few times how it seems to evaporate upon sustained contact with open air, but she only mentions it in passing. I haven’t found anything on a dedicated study on the subject. And those are just tiny samples she talks about, and they’re in with some really erratic looking notes…” Twilight trailed off. Her hoof began to tap again and her brow wrinkled. She started flipping through the papers again in another attempt to catch anything she might’ve missed.

 

Dash gave her an awkward look before heading towards the door in the rear of the room. “So, anyway… you keep having fun with all that. I’m just here to grab some of that snow gear. Applejack and I are going to go out to Copper’s site, see if we can find her. We don’t like her being gone this long.”

 

“Yes, Fluttershy told me,” Twilight said, putting her papers down. “I actually need to talk to you about that. I don’t think it’s a good idea to–”

 

“Oh man!” Dash covered her nose and mouth, trying not to breathe too deeply. “Twilight, something’s gotta be done about this stench. I tried to ignore it when I came in but it just gets worse over here. It absolutely reeks.”

 

“Oh, yeah. I think I stopped noticing it for a while, I’ve been in here so long.” Twilight got up and walked over to the door. “It definitely gets stronger over here. It sort of smells like something’s been burnt…”

 

“Must be in there.” Dash leaned in against the door, withdrawing after she took another breath. “Yep, it’s definitely in there. Think we should take a look?”

 

“I don’t see the harm in that,” Twilight said. She leaned against the door, trying to push it open. It shifted in a few inches before jamming against something heavy. A fresh wave of the smell flowed out as soon as the door cracked open. Twilight did her best not to gag. “It’s stuck against something.”

 

“Is any door in this place easy to open?” Dash sighed and took a few steps back. “All right, move out of the way Twilight. I got this.”

 

“I don’t think that will be necessary this time, Rainbow,” Twilight said. Her horn glowed as a wall of purple appeared over the door. Twilight pushed her head down and the door pressed inward. After a few seconds of effort it slowly scraped open, causing several large objects to clatter to the floor. A dark room greeted the two ponies, one filled with the smell of flame and decay.

 

****************************************

                “Not there… not there… ugh, not there either.” Rarity shut her bag and tossed it in with the others. “I know I packed it. I could’ve sworn I had it earlier today. Where could it be?”

 

Rarity stepped over the luggage pile and out into the hall. She briskly walked back to the common room, where much of the group was still gathered. “Applejack? Have you seen my wool scarf?”

 

Applejack looked up from the map. “Huh? What makes you think I’d know where somethin’ like that is?”

 

“I thought I might’ve taken it out this morning to lend to you,” Rarity said. The patter of hooves approached behind her and she quickly sidestepped a running Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. “Girls! What did I say about the running?”

 

“Sorry Rarity!” Sweetie Belle called out. “We just wanted to check something in the kitchen real quick.”

 

“I don’t remember you having any scarves out today, Rarity,” Spike said, pushing the map out of the way to avoid the incoming fillies.

 

“Yeah, Rarity,” Applejack said. “Only scarf I had this mornin’ was my own. What do you need one now for anyhow? You’re not going out with us.”

 

“I just like to keep a proper inventory of my apparel, thank you very much,” Rarity replied testily. “It’s a large red scarf and I know I had it when I started this trip.”

 

“Does it have big yellow circles on both ends?” Scootaloo asked, popping up from the other side of the couch. “Cuz’ I think I used that as a pillow on the train.”

 

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Serves me right for trying to keep it with me on the ride up. I should’ve noticed sooner.”

 

“I’m sorry. I just grabbed it off the floor.” Scootaloo quickly hopped up and over the cushions to dodge an incoming Apple Bloom.

 

“Never mind, never mind.” Rarity turned back towards the hall. “Is it in your room?”

 

“Um…” Scootaloo tapped her chin in concentration. “I think I left it back in that big box we came in. I didn’t take it out when we got here.”

 

“So it’s all the way back at the front entrance? Lovely.” Rarity rolled her eyes once more and made for the passage to the temple.

 

“I can get that for you Rarity!” Spike shouted, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back here in a jiffy.”

 

“Thank you very much, Spike,” Rarity said, smiling at him. “That’s very generous of you.”

 

“Spike, while you’re over there, can you grab that note from Copper?” Applejack asked. “I can’t remember the name of where she said she’s at, an’ there’s too many listed here to search them all.”

 

“Could you also get my blue blanket as well?” Fluttershy asked. “If it’s not too much trouble, I mean.”

 

“No problemo!” Spike waved and hurried down the passageway.

 

“Are you certain you two want to go out there?” Rarity walked past Applejack to the window. “Judging by those clouds, it won’t be nice out for long.”

 

“It’s worth a shot,” Applejack replied. “Besides, those clouds haven’t moved an inch all day. I get the feelin’ we’ll be able to find her place an’ come back before anythin’ heavy moves in. Although we’re gonna have to start movin’ soon, before it gets too late.”

 

A loud crash from the other room drew everypony’s attention. They quickly hurried through the door into the kitchen to discover a large flame shooting out of the stove. Pinkie lay in a heap on the other side of the room, crumpled under several pots.

 

“Pinkie Pie!” Applejack and Fluttershy rushed over to help her up while Rarity shut off the stove. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Pinkie said, looking a little woozy. “Guess I set the stove too high.”

 

“You really need to be more careful with these things, dear,” Rarity said. Her horn glowed and the pots flew back up onto a high shelf. “This isn’t your kitchen, after all. I think the best steps towards making a good impression on somepony include not making their stove explode.”

 

“Can do!” Pinkie smiled brightly, hopping up and shaking the dust off. “I think I’ve about got this stove figured out. It looks like it’s hooked up to this big furnace downstairs. It’s one doozy of a heater, but I can tame it. Nothing’s going to stand between Pinkie Pie and a perfectly cooked batch of muffins.”

 

“This place has a downstairs?” Apple Bloom asked, wandering in with Sweetie Belle. “Can we go see–”

 

“No. You lot stay out from down there, it’s dangerous,” Applejack said firmly, heading past her disappointed sister and back out to the common room. “Now where’d Rainbow Dash get to?”

 

****************************************

It took Twilight and Rainbow Dash several minutes to become adjusted to the smell of the room. Twilight raised the lantern to get a better view. It was a small space, no bigger than their bunkrooms. Several tall bookshelves lined a wall, opposite from another set of desks. These were much cleaner than the ones out in the lab, with only a few notebooks and microscopes on them.

 

Once they were able to withstand the noxious aroma they ventured inside. They stopped a few steps in. Their eyes were drawn to a partially-collapsed cot in the center of the room. A large mass lay on top of it, resting at a slant. It was almost uniformly blackened, cooked to a crisp by a fire that had consumed the back wall of the room. A broken lamp and overturned can of kerosene lying nearby seemed to be the culprits.

 

“Well, I think we found where the smell is coming from,” Dash said, one hoof covering her face.

 

“What is that? It looks like… some kind of meat.” Twilight slowly moved forward to take a closer look. It was a twisted figure, a formless blob of burned flesh that conformed to no set pattern in appearance. Cracks spread along its surface while multiple appendages sprouted out of it at seemingly random intervals.

 

“Wonder why this whole place didn’t burn up,” Dash said, kicking the lamp aside. “Guess Copper should be thankful for these metal walls. Not as good as clouds or anything, but hey, whatever keeps the roof where it should be.”

 

Twilight ignored Dash as she drew up to the top of the cot. One of the bookshelves had been caught in the blaze and collapsed, covering part of the blob. Hooking the lantern onto an exposed nail on the wall, Twilight carefully pushed the charred wood onto the floor. A metallic glint appeared.

 

Twilight leaned in. A pair of oval-rimmed glasses was fused to the blob. Twilight coughed, her breath blowing off a small pile of ash and revealing an unmistakable sight: an eye, staring right at Twilight.

 

Twilight gasped and recoiled, pushing herself against the unburned bookshelf with enough force to knock several books down. She didn’t even notice them as she stared back at the hideous image illuminated before her. A face, one that was a cross between melted and deformed. An expression of terror could be made out, albeit one with cartoonish proportions. The mouth was stretched out into a long, wavy arc, with sharp teeth of varying sizes jutting out at irregular angles. A bone pierced out through one of the cheeks, the end broken into a sharp point. Next to this was a small patch of unburned skin, on which sat several small freckles. The eye behind the glasses seemed normal, while the other was half its size and pushed up on the forehead. It stared off into space next to a bent unicorn horn.

 

“It’s… it’s…” she tried to speak but couldn’t finish the sentence. Her mouth dried out and her hooves started shaking.

 

“What is it?” Dash walked around to see. It took several seconds for her to register what she was looking at. Her eyes grew as wide as saucers. She made a gagging noise and quickly turned to one corner of the room, vomiting into a pile of broken scraps.

 

“Copper.” Twilight finally managed to say. “It’s Copper.”

 

“There’s no way,” she said, wiping her mouth off. “There’s just no way. Look at that thing, it’s three times the size of a pony. She can’t be… I mean, it’s… that’s…”

 

Dash glanced back at the face. Her cheeks bulged and she bent back over, a second stream of bile coming out of her mouth. Twilight stood up and walked across the room, her legs trembling the whole way. She leaned against the desk, taking deep breaths and doing her best not to look back.

 

A small black ledger sat at the center of the desk between two tall lanterns. Twilight switched both on. The extra light made the blob glisten, making apparent a thick layer of mucus dripping off the flesh. Dash saw that one of the appendages pointing towards her was in fact a hoof, one drawn out to an unnatural length. She managed to avoid throwing up this time. She sat back against the wall, looking vacant and completely speechless.

 

Almost reflexively, Twilight started flipping through the ledger. Her eyes glossed over the words, not particularly focusing on anything. A thousand different thoughts clattered through her head. She finally stopped on a page that had a large bookmark and began to read aloud. ‘Once placed near a viable organism, the substance swiftly overtakes it. It moves with a will of its own, absorbing right into the other organism. The transformation only takes a few minutes, give or take depending on the proportions of what is being taken over. The result is absolutely identical to the original organism. It creates imitations, something that looks like what it should but is still, ultimately, the substance. This new creature can in turn take over others. This was harder to observe, as it seemed reluctant to change in the presence of witnesses. The process is grotesque in nature–’”

 

“Twilight, stop,” Dash said. She took several deep breaths before continuing. “I don’t want to hear it. I really, really don’t.”

 

Her legs trembling just as bad as Twilight’s, Dash slowly stood up. Averting her eyes from the gory display on the cot, she began to stumble out the door. Twilight quickly ran to get in front of her and block her way.

 

“Rainbow,” she asked flatly, “where are you going?”

 

“Where am I– Twilight, we need to get out of here,” Dash said, shaking her head. “All of us. Out of this base, out of this place. We need to get back to the train station, back to Hawks, back to help. We need to do it right now.”

 

“Yes, I know we do,” Twilight said. She backed out of the room, floating the ledger over to her. “Okay, listen to me. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go back out and gather everypony together. I’ll write a letter to have Spike send to the Princess. Then I’ll teleport us out of here. I can’t get us all the way, but we should be able to hike the rest of the way. You can fly ahead from there to get help to come to us.”

 

“How far do you think you can get us?”

 

“I think about halfway… maybe. Less if we decide to take the carriage with us.”

 

“Halfway? That’s all?” Dash shook her head. “Come on Twilight, you can take us farther than that! All of us can’t trudge through that weather very far, you know that.”

 

“It gets harder the more I’ve got to take with me!” Twilight hissed. “There’s ten of us plus winter gear. I’ll be lucky if I don’t pass out when we get there.”

 

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” Dash calmed down. She quickly walked out of the room with Twilight, shutting the door behind. “Has the princess answered any of the letters you’ve sent so far?”

 

“She’ll respond. I’ll send one every minute if I need to,” Twilight said firmly. “But Rainbow, we need to stay calm. Don’t say anything just yet when we get out there. I don’t want to cause a big panic that’ll get us nowhere fast.”

 

Dash stared at her, then nodded slowly. “Okay, yeah, that makes sense. What should I tell them?”

 

“Make something up. We can say that there might be something infectious in the lab, I don’t know.”

 

“They’ll ask about Copper.”

 

“I know, I know. I’ll think of something.”

 

With grim determination, the two ponies walked out of the lab and back into the common room. Applejack looked up from the coat she was dealing with and smiled.

 

“There you two are. I’ve been waitin’ for ya,” she said. “Rainbow, you about ready to leave? We can’t get going too late, after all. Sun’s gonna set in a few hours.”

 

Dash opened her mouth but nothing came out. She gaped noiselessly in the air, lowering her head to avoid looking at anypony.

                

“Uh, you okay there, Rainbow Dash?” Applejack asked. “You’re lookin’ pretty pale.”

 

“Spike? Spike, where are you?” Twilight called out. She heard steps approaching from the hall and turned to see Rarity step out.

 

“Hello Twilight. Glad to see you’ve finally gotten out of that dingy laboratory,” she said airily. “As for Spike, he went to get something of mine from the main entrance. He’s taking a while doing it, though. I was actually just about to leave to go get him.”

 

“Uh, yeah, all right,” Twilight said. “Please go do that.”

 

Rarity gave Twilight a strange look, but continued on through to the temple, quickly disappearing down the passageway.

 

“Applejack, could you please get the others in here?” Twilight asked, sitting down on the couch. “Right now?”

 

Applejack started to ask something, but Twilight’s expression made her keep silent. She simply nodded and quickly went into the kitchen. Dash sat down on the opposite couch, staring off into space.

 

A few moments later, Pinkie skipped through the door, followed closely by Fluttershy, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Applejack.

 

“Hiya Twilight,” Pinkie said. “Finally taking a break from that smelly lab?”

 

“Everypony, please listen to me.” Twilight stood up, speaking as confidently as she could to the gathered group. “We all need to gather our things together and get ready to leave. There’s been a small problem, and we’re going to have to return to the train station.”

 

The reaction was immediate. A sense of shock and confusion was in the air and everypony began to talk over themselves to question Twilight.

 

Applejack spoke the loudest. “Leave now? What for? What kinda small problem are you talkin’ about?”

 

“Yeah, what’s up Twilight?” Pinkie asked. “We came all the way out here, we can’t just up and vamoose all out of the blue. I just put muffins in the oven.”

 

“What about Copper?” Fluttershy asked. Dash twitched involuntarily at the mention of the name. “We still need to–”

 

“Never mind Copper,” Twilight said, brushing past the issue as fast as she could. “There’s something dangerous in the lab that could spread to the rest of the base. I don’t think it’s a problem at the moment, but I don’t want to take a chance with it, not when it’s just us out here. We need to go back and better figure things out.”

 

“Twilight, you’ve got to tell us why,” Applejack said. She moved in with a reassuring look on her face. “We’ll listen to you. We just need a good reason for what you want us to do.”

 

“You’ve got to trust me right now. It’s… it’s complicated,” Twilight said. She suddenly looked around at the ponies assembled in front of her. “Hang on. Is everypony here?”

 

The others glanced around.

 

“Well, Rarity and Spike are still–” Pinkie started to say.

 

“Hey, where’s Scootaloo?” Apple Bloom asked, cutting in. “She was here a second ago.”

 

“She must have wandered off again,” Sweetie Belle said.

 

“Wandered off again? Hasn’t she been with you two all day?” Applejack asked. “You girls know you’re supposed to stay around me or Rarity.”

 

“We know, we tried to tell her that,” Apple Bloom said. “But a few times today she just sorta walked off. She didn’t tell us what she was doing or anything.”

 

Twilight’s mind raced.  She spoke slowly, a strong air of worry in her voice. “How many times today have she run off?”

 

Rarity’s scream pierced through the air. Immediately, everypony’s head turned towards the passage to the temple, the conversation silenced by the abrupt noise. They all froze in place, unsure of how to react.

 

A second scream quickly followed the first, this one snapping the group out of their little stupor. Twilight took off down the passage, the rest of the group close behind her. Down through the twisting stone halls of the temple they went, following the lit torches and gas lines while running as fast as their hooves would carry them. Before long they were back in the front hall. A third scream penetrated the closed doors that separated them from the entrance foyer.

 

Applejack moved the quickest and slammed into the doors, throwing them open with a loud crash. Her momentum carried her in a slide along the floor, sending her crashing right into Rarity. The two crumpled to the floor, knocking over a nearby drum of lamp oil in the process.

 

“Rarity! What in blue blazes is goin’ on in…here…” Applejack voice grew faint, her eyes widening. The thunder of hooves ceased as the rest of the group passed through the doorway, each of them stopped and silenced by the sight ahead.

 

Scootaloo sat on the floor near the front doors. Her front legs were split open, broken apart into a collection of writhing tentacles and exposed organs. The skin had peeled away from her face and midsection to reveal goo-covered muscles and several patches of grey bone. A long, red tube of flesh extended out of her torso. It coiled along the ground, occasionally jostled by her jerking rear legs. A series of thinner tentacles stretched out from underneath her, including a new one that broke through the skin as they all watched.

 

Spike was face down on the floor near her hooves. The tube extended into the base of his skull, pumping something in at a high rate of speed. The smaller tentacles were completely wrapped around him. They pierced through him from foot to shoulder, containing him entirely like a tree covered in vines. Blood seeped out of these wounds, trickling down his scales to form a large pool on the stone. He was perfectly limp; the only movement in his body coming from the motion of the tube.

 

“Spike!” Twilight blurted out.

 

Scootaloo’s skinned head looked up. A contorted expression of annoyance formed as she noticed her new audience for the first time. Her eyes rolled over to become black spheres. Her jaw opened and a long, deep howl emerged from the back of her throat. A rumbling growl crossed with a high-pitched squeal, it created an ear-splitting combination far too loud for such a small body.

 

The group’s reactions were mixed. Applejack scrambled up, pushing the catatonic Rarity along with her. Pinkie and Fluttershy screamed. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle huddled behind the group, gripping each other tightly and crying hysterically. Dash helped Applejack pull Rarity back, her entire body shaking.

 

Twilight just stared, her mouth agape.

 

A series of sickening cracks sounded out. Thin, sharp legs pushed their way through Scootaloo’s chest, skittering around as soon as they hit the floor. The thin tentacles tightened and pulled in to draw Spike up to her body. His face rolled over as he was dragged along the floor, revealing a snapped jaw and a pair of dull, lifeless eyes. Scootaloo tried to push away from the group with her new legs, but it proved to be an awkward task. The pointed legs scratched along the floor, trying desperately to take her away. Her path was soon blocked by the large, empty trunk that stood directly between her and the door.

 

An object sped past Twilight. In the frantic and confused state of the group, somepony had kicked the oil drum down the hall. Rolling straight ahead, it bumped into a squirming Scootaloo. She screamed again, her howl bouncing around the chamber and drowning out the cries of the group. With a loud snap, a section of her neck split open. A slender, tissue-coated claw emerged, pulling skin and tissue from an unknown source while dripping a viscous white substance. The claw quickly rose into the air. It wobbled slightly on its slender stalk before slamming down onto the drum. It immediately split in two. A large wave of oil splashed all over Scootaloo and surrounding floor. She howled a third time as her muscles began to quiver and change, her body form shifting into some entirely new shape.

 

“Twilight!” Dash screamed, tears streaming down her cheek. “Do something!”

 

Twilight remained rooted to her spot, rigid with fear.

 

Dash looked frantically around. One of the torches from the wall had become dislodged and lay on the floor, a weak flame still burning.

 

“Everypony back up, now!” She dove down and snatched it up, gripping it tightly in her jaws. She pulled her head back to throw when suddenly a purple wall popped up in front of her.

 

“No!” Twilight screamed, breaking free of her trance. “Spike’s still in there, you can’t!”

 

“Twilight, he’s gone! Just look!” Applejack pointed at the grisly scene. Spike’s body was partially absorbed into Scootaloo now. What was once a dragon and a filly had fused into a pulsating mass, one that was sprouting more pointed limbs and claws with each passing second.

 

Twilight’s jaw fluttered, lost for words. Applejack pushed her out of the way, sending her back down the hall with the others. Her horn winked and the wall was gone. Dash whipped her head around and tossed the flame. Scootaloo helplessly watched it arc through the air and fall towards her.

 

It landed dead center, immediately igniting the oil. A blast of heat exploded outwards, tossing Dash backwards into Applejack and cracking the trunk in two. Engulfed in fire, Scootaloo wailed loudly while her many limbs flailed through the air in a vivid display. Excess drops of flaming oil splashed behind her, spreading the blaze to both the remainder of the trunk and the front doors. Smoke shot upwards, filling the air and coating the walls in a thick layer of soot. With a final screeching yowl, Scootaloo stopped twitching. Her misshapen body, fried and melted by the intense heat, collapsed into a completely unrecognizable shape.

 

The doors groaned and creaked as the fire quickly made its way through the ancient wood. They buckled inward further and further until finally the weakened barrier could take no more. The doors collapsed inward, a rush of snow and freezing air swooping in from outside. In fell a pile of snow, landing on the scorched remains and extinguishing the flames.

 

The smoke billowed around the hall before being replaced by regular air, although the burning smell still lingered. It wasn’t long before the elements covered what little remained of the scorched remains. The wind shrieked loudly, a harbinger of the coming storm.


Chapter 4: Isolation

 

                Twilight’s sight faltered. Her peripheral vision blurred into nothingness. All she could see was the smoldering mound of flesh and scales half-buried under the snow. It dominated her senses, pushing everything else out. She stared at it with a frozen expression. At some indeterminate point, her eye twitched. Wind whipped around the hall, exposing and burying sections of the remains. Her eyes glazed over every new section that showed up: blackened skin, a broken leg and hoof, a withered claw… each came to pass in swift succession before disappearing under the white cover once more.

 

                She became dimly aware of movement around her. The screams and cries of others around her sounded faint and distant; it was like she was hearing them through a dream, or some kind of thick haze. Somepony was shouting something –Applejack, it was definitely Applejack– to get the others to go somewhere. Hoofsteps echoed throughout the hallway, a clatter of knocks and clicks that rattled Twilight’s brain. She became aware of being alone in the hall, the only noise coming from the powerful cross breeze. She blocked out the noise and kept her focus on the gory display. The wind exposed Spike’s tail, somehow completely untouched by the madness. She felt her hooves go numb.

 

                Something touched her shoulder; she wasn’t alone after all. Twilight turned and was surprised to find Fluttershy trying to get her attention. Tears streamed down her face and her body quivered all over. It looked like she had been this way for some time already.

 

                How long was I standing here?

 

                Again, Fluttershy shook Twilight. She kept speaking as Twilight began to listen, slowly letting the outside world flow back into her head.

 

                “–others have already gone. Twilight, please…” Fluttershy pleaded. She spoke between sobs and was on the edge of her hooves. Twilight could tell she was fighting every muscle in her body that wanted to flee down the corridor. “We’ve got to catch up to them. Twilight? Can you hear me? You… you can’t stay here. Please… please, let’s go. Please…”

 

                Fluttershy faltered, unable to go on. She stared at Twilight with a look of desperation, fighting back another flood of tears as she tugged at Twilight’s arm. She looked about ready to drag Twilight down the hall.

 

                Twilight shook her head. She glanced back one last time at the remains. The wind shifted, blowing the layer of powder and ash off of what was left of Scootaloo’s face. It wasn’t a pretty sight anymore.

 

Theories, questions, and concerns shot through Twilight’s head at the speed of light. In an instant she made up her mind. Her horn glowed. With a sudden crack and a bright flash, she and Fluttershy were gone. The hallway was again left alone, the only sound that of the harsh wind tossing snow and ice through the air.

 

****************************************

                Applejack moved quickly and was the first one back to the base. Her little sister sat in shock on her back, not moving a muscle. Slowing down as she neared the couch, Applejack gently lowered Apple Bloom down onto the cushions. She murmured a series of reassurances towards her sibling and gave her a tight hug. Behind her, Rarity stepped into the room. She too carried her sister on her back. Unlike Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle was screaming hysterically.

                

                “There, there, it’s all right,” Rarity said, making every effort to sound confident and reassuring. She sniffed and held back another tear as she set Sweetie Belle down on the couch next to Apple Bloom. “We’re back where it’s safe, I promise. Just calm down.”

 

                Rarity’s words had little effect on her sister, who sobbed uncontrollably. Her screams did have an effect on Apple Bloom, who emerged from her catatonic state and started screaming as well.

 

                Behind them, Rainbow Dash stumbled into the room. She was pushing along a very dazed looking Pinkie Pie.

 

                “I just need to… just gotta go check on the guest list again… I don’t think there’s enough cake to go around now…” Pinkie slurred, her mouth hanging slack jawed and her eyes out of focus. “I really should’ve sent out more invitations…”

 

                Dash deposited Pinkie in the corner and swept by her to begin pacing around the room.

 

                “Oh man, oh man, oh man…” she muttered to herself. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the fillies on the couch, never stopping her pacing. “Did you see that thing? It just… it just had him and then it screamed and then… oh man…”

 

                The fillies wailed even louder at Dash’s recollection.

 

                “It’s alright, Sweetie Belle, I’m here, we’re all here,” Rarity said softly, still consoling the filly. “We’re all going to be fine now, we’re all going to go home now.”

 

                Sweetie Belle looked up at Rarity, her eyes filled to the brim with tears and her mouth lost for words. She buried her head in her sister’s side, still sobbing but at a slightly quieter tone now.

 

                “There, there,” Rarity said with as much care as she could manage. She wiped a tear away from her own eye. “Now, anypony… what should we do next?”

 

                “I mean, it just grabbed him. Just like that,” Dash continued, recounting the events to nopony in particular. “And then it wasn’t him… did you hear that scream? Oh man…”

 

                “Applejack?” Apple Bloom asked, nearly out of breath from all the crying. Her lips trembled under bloodshot eyes. “Can- can we go home now? Please? I want to go home.”

 

                “You bet we will.” Applejack held her sister even closer. “We’re gettin’ out of here. All of us. I’m not sure how yet, but we’re gonna’ do it lickety split.”

 

                “What was it? How’d it get so big?” Dash stopped pacing and spun around to face the rest of the group. “How in the hay did it get to–”

 

                “Rainbow Dash, would you knock that off for one second?” Applejack snapped. She rubbed her hooves down her temple, wiping away the accumulated sweat. “Just… just let me think for a spell. Gotta figure out a way out of here.”

 

                “Wait, wait... Twilight can get us out of here!” Dash exclaimed. She pointed out the window. “She can teleport us! Or she can for part of the way, at least. The rest we’ll have to–”

 

                A wall of wind slammed into the exterior of the base, cutting Dash off midsentence. The ponies became aware of a rising gale around them, one that sounded louder and more violent than anything they had heard before. The walls shook as they were hit by wave after wave of snow and ice. Metal groaned and double-paned windows flexed, though everything managed to remain intact and in place. For the moment.

 

                The sudden increase in noise revived the crying efforts of the fillies, and they both broke into a new series of high-pitched wails. Applejack moved in to give her sister another hug.

 

                “I think the fridge fell over again,” Pinkie said, still staring at nothing in particular. “I didn’t mean for that to happen, I’m sorry.”

 

                “Oh that’s just what we need!” Applejack barked. “How in tarnation did it get so bad so quick? It was just fine not half an hour ago!”

 

                “How far did you say Twilight could teleport us, Rainbow Dash?” Rarity asked, still speaking quietly. She gently rubbed her sister’s back in a continued attempt to calm her down, pausing only when she noticed her hoof was still shaking.

 

                “Um…” Dash stammered, momentarily distracted by the storm. “About… about halfway, I think. She said something about it being harder the more she has to bring. But now she might be able to get us farther, since she has less to…”

 

                Dash trailed off as she realized what she was saying. She slumped against the wall, sliding down to the floor in a fetal position.

 

                “It’ll have to do,” Applejack said. “It’s the only choice we’ve got. Won’t be easy once we’re out there, though. Maybe we can take that carriage with us, give us somethin’ to hole up in if things gets hairy.”

                

                “I’ve got plenty of spare coats we can bring,” Rarity said. “We’re going to need a lot of layers out there.”

 

                “We’ll take the blankets off the beds too. Anything we can carry. Load it all in the carriage. We’re only so far from the train station, so we should be able to make it quickly enough. All depends how far Twilight can get us.”

 

“Where is Twilight?” Rarity asked, looking up. “Didn’t she come back with us?”

 

                As if on cue, the room flashed purple. Everypony shielded their eyes as Twilight materialized in the center of the room. Fluttershy staggered down next to her, caught off guard by the sudden teleportation. She slinked to the side of the room and fell to her knees, weeping continuously.

 

                “Nopony move,” Twilight said, her eyes dry and determined. “Everypony just stay where you are right now.”

 

                The room froze. The only sounds came from the crying fillies and the raging weather. Rarity looked at Twilight with a wounded expression.

 

                “Oh, Twilight,” she said, each word spoken with a noticeable hesitance. “I’m so, so sorry. I… I just…”

 

                Rarity looked at the floor, unable to make eye contact.

 

                “Not just yet, Rarity,” Applejack said quietly. “Not just yet.”

 

                “Twilight!” Dash cried. She tore across the room and grabbed Twilight, dragging her towards the door. “Okay, Twilight’s here everypony, we can do this now. We just need to get those coats and stuff and we can get out of here. Twilight, are you ready? Can we go soon? Like, right now?”

 

                Dash spoke fast, her eyes darting constantly between Twilight and the window.

“We’re not going anywhere.” Twilight wiggled out of Dash’s grip and backed away, avoiding her sinking expression. “None of us are. Not yet.”

 

                Another silence. Even the fillies stopped crying for a moment.

 

                Applejack took a long breath before she started speaking. “Twilight, I… I know you’re not… not feelin’ too hot right now. None of us are. But we need you right now, alright? We gotta get out of here, you know that. We gotta get help an’ get home.”

 

                Twilight shut her eyes and shook her head, her hooves beginning to go numb again. “I said no. We can’t leave. Not now.”

 

                “Well why not?” Rarity practically shouted, a hint of venom in her voice. Everypony jumped at the sudden outburst, including her. She shrank back into the couch and pulled Sweetie Belle closer. She took a deep breath before speaking again. “Twilight, listen to what you’re saying. Applejack’s right, we need to leave immediately to get help. Why do you think we shouldn’t?”

 

                “Because… because…” A conflicted look appeared on Twilight’s face as she struggled for the right words.

 

                “Okay, we don’t have time for this.” Applejack started to stand. Apple Bloom clung to her, muttering pleas for her not to leave her. “Don’t worry Apple Bloom, I’m just goin’ a few steps. I’ll be right back, I promise.”

 

                Slowly, Apple Bloom’s grip loosened and she curled into a ball on the couch. Applejack walked by the momentarily distracted Twilight and up to Dash. “Rainbow Dash, can you fly through that?”

 

                Dash stared at Applejack, then turned to face the storm. It thundered at her glance, snow blowing by at a practically horizontal level.

 

                “I’ll understand if you say you can’t,” Applejack explained, “but it looks like Twilight might need to collect herself a bit more first. So, I need to know, can you get through–”

 

                “I can fly through this,” Dash declared. She stared fixedly at the clouds.

 

                “Are… are you sure, Rainbow?” Fluttershy spoke up. She slowly stood and approached the window, looking nervously outside while wiping tears from her eyes. “I’ve never seen weather this bad in my entire life. I… I don’t want anything to happen to you, not… not now.”

 

                “I can fly through this,” Dash repeated, louder this time. She turned to face the others. “I can fly up and over it. No storm is too thick or too strong to keep me down. I can go get help and be back here in no time.”

 

                “Good. Grab your coat an’ get going. An’ watch the door. Dang thing’s about ready to pop open with the wind pressin’ up against–”

 

                Metal groaned and screeched as rebar suddenly burst out from the doorframe. They spread quickly, crisscrossing the door until it was completely covered in a spider web of old steel.

 

                Twilight’s horn stopped glowing.

 

                Applejack’s eye twitched involuntarily and she gritted her teeth. “Twilight,” she said, fighting to keep her tone calm, “you mind sharin’ with us why you did that?”

 

                “Because one of us isn’t us.” Twilight said. A look of confusion fell across the group, though Twilight carried on before anypony could say anything. “At least, one of us might not be one of us. She might be something else. Something very, very dangerous that absolutely cannot get out of here. And none of us can go anywhere until we know for sure.”

 

                She paused to collect her thoughts. The others, taken aback by her accusation, fumbled for words as well.

 

                “Uh, Twilight,” Fluttershy squeaked from the corner of the room, sniffling continuously and still wiping tears away, “wh-what do you mean? What’s going on here?”

 

                Twilight sighed. She started pacing along the floor, looping through the room around her friends. “Let me explain. There was something here, an organism of some kind. It was trapped way out here in the middle of nowhere. When we got here, it was somehow able to get a hold of Scootaloo–”

 

The mention of the name sparked a new round of weeping from the fillies and Fluttershy. Twilight waited for them to calm down, and continued.

 

“This thing got to her and… absorbed her. Became her. For all intents and purposes, it was Scootaloo. It walked like her, talked like her, acted like her, but it wasn’t her. It was this… thing. And once it became her, it had just one goal: expand to infect every living thing it could. It happened to Scootaloo, it happened to Copper–”

 

“Alright, wait, stop right there,” Applejack interjected. She looked Twilight straight in the eye. “What’s this about Copper now?”

 

“You know where she is? Is she alright?” Rarity perked up. “What happened to her, Twilight?”

 

Twilight hesitated and glanced at Dash, who looked down at the floor.

 

“There’s a room back there, at the end of the lab,” Dash said. She hesitated before going on. “Twilight and I, we… we found Copper. What’s left of her at least. She’s… she’s gone. She’d been turning into one of those… um…”

 

Dash tried to say it, but nothing would come out. Applejack looked back and forth between her and Twilight. Mumbling something to herself, she walked through the lab door. The others listened to the rear door open and Applejack step inside. A few seconds later, the door slammed shut, followed by hurried hoofsteps. Applejack came back into the common room, the color drained from her face.

 

“Applejack?” Pinkie asked, reaching out to pat Applejack on the back. “Is it true? Is Copper really…?”

 

Applejack drew away from Pinkie’s hoof, instead returning to the couch and sitting with Apple Bloom. The sibling immediately squeezed up close, burying her head in Applejack’s side and crying silently.

 

“It’s true alright,” Applejack said quietly. She hung her head and placed a hoof over Apple Bloom, gently stroking her mane.

 

“What we’re dealing with here,” Twilight said, carrying on with her speech as if there had been no interruption, “is an organism that imitates other life forms. And imitates them perfectly.”

 

Fluttershy spoke even softer than before. “And you’re saying, Twilight, that you think one of us might be… might be one of those things?”

 

Twilight nodded grimly. Fluttershy pulled herself into an even tighter ball while Dash walked over to soothe her. Rarity and Applejack stared at Twilight in abject disbelief.

 

“How can you even say that, Twilight?” Rarity held Sweetie Belle even closer. “How can you accuse one of us?”

 

“How do you have any notion that Scoo– that that thing got to any of us?” Applejack asked, brushing over the name as quickly as she could.

 

“Whoa, hey, can we all freeze for one sec here? Why are we having an argument now?” Dash asked as she provided some support to the crying Fluttershy.

 

“It had over a day to wander freely throughout the base,” Twilight responded, ignoring Dash’s question. “We all saw her, and now we know it was on its own for periods of time as well. It’s completely possible it got to somepony.”

 

“It’s possible?” Applejack snapped, glaring at Twilight. “Some idea you have that one of us might’ve been attacked, with the rest of us somehow bein’ none the wiser, is why you’re gonna lock us in here? Gonna strand us out here away from help? That thing is dead, Twilight! You saw it. Burned up, ain’t nothin’ left except a big pile of ash.”

 

“We can’t take the risk!” Twilight shouted back. “If this thing gets out of here, it could spread to all of Equestria. Nopony anywhere would be safe.”

 

“That doesn’t mean we can’t go for help now,” Rarity pointed out. “We can bring others in here, or at least get ourselves to a… safer area first. Get our sisters out of here, that sort of thing.”

 

Twilight shook her head. “They especially can’t leave.”

 

Applejack shot Twilight a harsh look. “An’ just what is that supposed’a mean?” she asked tersely.

 

                Twilight’s eyes narrowed. “We need to keep an especially close watch on them.”

 

                Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom looked nervously at Twilight and then each other. They resumed crying while Applejack stood up, taking a protective stance in front of the couch. “No. Stop right there, Twilight. I don’t wanna hear another word of that.”

 

                “They were with it the longest!” Twilight shouted, her body tensing up. “They were alone with it when the rest of us were busy or together.”

 

                “No!” Applejack took a step towards Twilight, nostrils flaring. Suddenly Dash appeared between the two, her hooves in the air and a worried expression on her face.

 

                “Girls!” she shouted anxiously. “Stop this! Look at this, what are we doing? Why are we fighting at a time like this?”

 

                “She’s the one accusing our sisters of being one of those things!” Rarity cried. She continued to keep a tight grip around Sweetie Belle.

 

                “I wasn’t accusing anypony,” Twilight said defensively. “I was just pointing out who might possibly be the most likely–”

 

                “Don’t sugarcoat it, Twilight.” Applejack took another step forward. “We know what you’re thinkin’, an’ I won’t have it! No way am I gonna stand here an’ take somepony sayin’ that about my sister. I don’t much care who says it.”

 

                “This isn’t right!” Dash pleaded again. “Girls, we’re friends. Come on now. Look where we are.”

 

                Dash looked at Applejack. “We don’t get angry with each other like this.”

 

                Dash turned to Twilight. “We trust each other. We figure out a way through this without getting crazy.”

 

                Applejack kept silent. Gradually, she returned to the couch with her sister. She wiped a few tears from her eyes, not looking at Twilight.

 

                “So let’s all just relax,” Dash insisted. “This is not the time to… to fall apart.”

 

                Twilight took a step back and considered for a moment.

 

                “Look,” she said slowly, “I’m sorry if I made you all more upset. I realize it’s a… tough situation to grasp right now. But it’s the one we’re in.”

 

                She moved to the window and gestured to the storm. “Here, consider this. We can’t get through that.”

 

                “I said I could make it through that,” Dash said, mostly to herself.

 

                “We can’t all get through that,” Twilight continued. “Even if I wanted to teleport us all, we couldn’t make it the whole way, and if we get stuck out there then we’re in even bigger trouble. It’s getting late right now. I just need some time to come up with a test, come up with a way to prove that nopony is… to prove that we’re all safe and clean.”

 

                The others looked at each other, but remained silent.

 

                “Remember what Hawks said.” Twilight turned to the door. “He’s coming back in less than a week now. Maybe even sooner. Help is already on the way, we just need to wait a few more days for it.”

 

                “No way we’re stickin’ around here for a few more days,” Applejack grumbled under her breath.

 

                “All I’m asking for,” Twilight said, ignoring her friend, “is some time. I can work in the lab, I can run a few tests, and I can come up with a solution to this. Really, I can. I just need some time, and for you all not to go anywhere.”

 

                Her plea finished, Twilight faced the group. They all looked her straight in the eye, save for Applejack and Rarity, who avoided her gaze.

 

                Finally, Dash spoke up. “We can stay for tonight at least, I guess.”

 

                “Or a little longer than that, if need be,” Rarity added, shooting a look at Applejack.

 

                Applejack grimaced. “I’m only agreein’ to this because of the weather outside right now,” she said begrudgingly. “Should this storm clear up before then, we’re outta here. Each and every one of us is goin’ home. An’ you won’t be stoppin’ us, Twilight.”

 

                Twilight opened her mouth to argue, but a pleading look from Fluttershy stopped her. Instead, she nodded her head and walked towards the lab.

 

                “Thank you,” she said earnestly. “I’ll get to work right now. You all stay here, I’ll let you know as soon as I have anything.”

 

                She reached the door and paused before going in.

 

                “And… watch each other. Watch each other close.”

 

                Before any of the others could respond, she disappeared into the lab. The door slowly swung shut behind her.

 

                Nopony spoke at first. Dash sniffed in the air.

 

                “Uh, Pinkie,” she said somewhat awkwardly, “I think your muffins are burning.”

 

                Pinkie twitched and snapped out of her fixed state. She scampered into the kitchen, her body stiff and bounce-free. Back on the couch, Rarity and Applejack stayed silent. They temporarily blocked away the outside world, trying their best to help their younger siblings grieve. Dash returned to Fluttershy, holding on to the weeping pegasus as she rocked slowly back and forth on the floor.

 

****************************************

                “Are they asleep now?” Applejack whispered. Rarity looked up from the sleeping fillies on the couch and nodded.

 

                Applejack sighed. “That’s a relief. I wasn’t sure if they could get any sleep tonight. They really need it.”

 

                “I think we all do,” Rarity said. She kissed her sister on the forehead and stood up from the couch.

 

                “Rarity, I’ve got those jackets you wanted,” Dash said. She emerged from the hallway with a large load of clothing on her back. She dumped it at the foot of the couch, in front of Rarity.

 

                “Thank you, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said. Her horn glowed and she started picking through the winter garments. “I guess I really should start packing things up. It’s not something that’d be good to put off until the last… minute…”

 

                Rarity’s voice grew faint as she pulled out a small, puffy red jacket.

 

                Dash winced when she saw it. “Aw, shoot, I’m sorry, I meant to leave that one behind–”

 

                Rarity collapsed to the floor, her face dissolving into a wall of tears. She sobbed into the pile of jackets as Dash stuck her arm around her.

 

                “Alright, easy there...” Slowly, Dash scooped Rarity up and led her over to the table. It had been brought back out and set up in the center of the room. Her body shaking all over, Rarity slid into one of the chairs.

 

                “Thank you,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…  I mean, I’ve been trying to stay collected, so as not to further upset Sweetie Belle, but…”

 

                Unable to go on, Rarity collapsed back into a fit of tears. Dash sat down next to her to offer more reassurances. Behind them, Applejack started to pace around the room.

 

                On the other side of the room, Fluttershy rose from the floor. Wobbling a little, she walked over and sat down on the other side of Rarity.

 

                “Feeling better there, Fluttershy?” Dash asked. Fluttershy nodded slowly but didn’t say anything.

 

                As Applejack continued her frenzied pacing, the three sat in silence around the table. Each kept her head down, not focusing on anything in particular. For a few minutes, they just listened to the sound of the storm outside, which had again gotten worse once the sun went down. The walls were vibrating so often now they scarcely even noticed.

 

                The kitchen door opened. Pinkie stepped out, an oven mitt and steaming tray of cookies clamped in her jaws. She quickly hoofed it over to the table and set the tray down next to a bowl of salad and some hayseed sandwiches; all were completely untouched.

 

                “Pinkie, you really don’t need to be cooking anything right now,” Rarity said, having calmed down slightly. “I don’t think any of us have much of an appetite.”

 

                The group murmured in agreement, all of them ignoring the feast in front of them.

 

                “Yeah, Pinkie,” Dash said, pushing the closest plate of sandwiches away from her, “I’m not really feeling up for any food right now.”

 

                “Yeah, yeah, okay.” Pinkie wiped her forehead and turned around. “I hear ya. Lemme finish up this cake and I’ll be all done for the night, I promise. Just one last thing in there, that’s all”

 

                “Pinkie, that’s not–” Rarity started, but Pinkie had already disappeared back into the kitchen. Rarity sighed and let her head fall back to stare at the ceiling.

 

                Applejack stopped her pacing and glanced at the lab door. A small beam of light appeared under it, and she could barely hear the sound of clinking glass behind it.

 

                “Alright,” she said, facing the table, “so what are we gonna do?”

 

                Fluttershy looked up at her quizzically. “W-what do you mean, Applejack?”

 

                “Y’all know what I mean,” Applejack said. “What are we gonna do to get out of here?”

 

                “But Twilight said that–”

 

                “Twilight is not exactly… doing so well right now,” Rarity spoke up. “You saw her today. That doesn’t seem like an at all healthy response to… to what happened.”

 

                “She didn’t even say his name,” Fluttershy said. Her lip started trembling as she fought to keep her composure. “She didn’t even cry.”

 

                “How’s she supposed to react?” Dash asked, her voice rising. “How the hay are any of us supposed to react to that? I don’t even know how to feel right now.”

 

                “Look, I realize this is hard for her. It’s hard for all of us,” Rarity said. “But locking us up here while she goes about on her wild theory is not the right way to do this. Not at all.”

 

                “I don’t know about that, some of what she said, um…” Fluttershy started to say, but she stopped short.

 

                Rarity stared at her. “Don’t tell me you believe her idea that one us might be one of those… things.”

 

                “It’s not that I believe her or anything, it’s just, uh…” Fluttershy said, slinking down in her seat. “It’s just what she said might, you know, be something to at least think about… or something like that, maybe…”

 

                Fluttershy looked at the floor. Dash inched her chair away from the table, avoiding looking at anypony else.

 

                “Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said gently. “Just relax. Think about it. You all saw what… what that thing had to do. It made a large, noisy mess. There’s no way that could’ve happened to any of us. Not without somepony noticing something. There’s no way at all.”

 

                “Yeah, Rarity’s right,” Applejack said. “Rainbow, you saw Copper. You saw that mess. Ain’t no way somethin’ like that would slip in under our noses. Twilight’s just havin’ a bad reaction right now, an’ I feel for her… but it’s keeping the rest of us trapped here when we should be high tailin’ it home. We can’t have that.”

 

                “She lost Spike,” Fluttershy said, looking up again. The group bristled at the name. Rarity coughed, covering up an oncoming sob.

 

“That means a lot to us,” Fluttershy went on, her eyes beginning to well up, “but it means a lot more to her. We have no idea what she’s going through right now.”

 

                Applejack sighed and leaned forward.

 

“Spike was a friend. A very close friend. I loved him. We all loved him. I don’t wanna picture how it’s gonna be without him, an’ I’m miss him dearly already.” Applejack paused to glance at her sister sleeping peacefully on the couch. “But he ain’t kin. He just ain’t. He may’ve been to Twilight, but he wasn’t to me. So right now, my main concern is gettin’ Apple Bloom out of here just as soon as I can manage. End of story.”

 

“Spike wasn’t all we lost,” Dash muttered. “We gotta get back for Scootaloo, too. Let the others know…”

 

Rarity gave her a dirty look. “Don’t you dare bring up that–”

 

“It wasn’t her fault!” Dash defended. “It wasn’t even Scootaloo at all. It was never Scootaloo. Scootaloo’s just… gone too.”

 

“They were both our friends,” Applejack said. She stood up, her eyes traveling from pony to pony. “And now they’re gone. There’s nothin’ we can do about that. Now it’s just a matter of getting’ home. I reckon’ when mornin’ comes ‘round, the storm will have let up a spell. We can try again about convincin’ Twilight to get us out of here. Otherwise… well, I’ll figure out a way out myself.”

 

“She said she wouldn’t let any of us leave,” Dash reminded her. “And I don’t think you can force her. This is Twilight we’re talking about. She could probably trap each of us in some magic bubble at the first sign of trouble.”

 

Applejack shut her mouth, thinking over a response. Nothing immediately came to mind and she started pacing the floor.

 

                “Then we’ll just have to appeal to her reason,” Rarity said simply. She rose and walked over to the couch, where she sat down next to Sweetie Belle. Her sister, still asleep, shifted in position, rolling over and rubbing up against her older sibling. “I’ll think of something. I always do. Everything will be okay.”

 

                “I don’t think I can sleep tonight,” Dash said, changing the subject. “I feel a little tired, but not sleepy. I just feel… sorta numb.”

 

                “I know what you mean,” Fluttershy said. She laid her head down on the table, mindlessly fiddling with an empty plate with one of her hooves. “I want to cry some more, but right now I… I can’t. I don’t know what to do.”

 

                The door to the kitchen swung open once more. Pinkie, a large cake balanced on her back, trotted up to the table. Wordlessly, she started cutting off slices onto plates.

 

                “Pinkie, we told you we’re not hungry,” Dash said. She sniffed in the air, and after pausing for a moment, reached for a plate. “…but geeze that smells really good.”

 

                Slowly, and with a minor reluctance, everypony got up to help themselves to a slice of cake. Pinkie passed out plates, taking one for herself only once everyone else was served. Everypony silently stared at her piece, picking at it but not taking any bites.

 

                “Um… I was gonna say something… but now I’m not so sure,” Pinkie said. “I mean… I feel like I should… shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t one of us say something?”

 

                “Don’t worry about it, Pinkie,” Dash said, taking a bite. “We get what you mean.”

 

                The conversation died. As the storm outside brought the weight of the world down on their heads, the ponies started to eat. It wasn’t long before Applejack finished her slice and sat down next to her sister. She curled up around her tiny body, being careful not to disturb her slumber. She put her head down and closed her eyes.

                

                “We’ll get out of here,” she whispered into her sister’s ear. “Don’t worry sis. We’ll get out of here real soon. That’s a promise.”

 

****************************************

Twilight ignored the muffled voices coming from outside the lab door. If she had taken the effort she could’ve discerned the individual voices of each of her friends, but there was no time for that. She had to concentrate now.

 

Organization. That’s the first step, like always. Organize your notes, organize your tools, organize your thoughts. Put everything in its proper place and always know where it is for when you need to refer to it.

 

Twilight gathered her supplies together at an empty desk. Empty petri dishes, a worn-out Bunsen burner, a microscope, and a box of slides on one side. Every relevant note of Copper’s on the other. Most of the notes were still scattered around the lab, but after spending the previous day painstakingly going through all of them, these, along with the little black ledger from Copper’s room, seemed like the most relevant ones.

 

A sample, that’s next. Something to test on and learn from. Something physical you can observe and investigate. Something that can lead to an answer.

 

Using a scalpel she found in a locked drawer, Twilight cut a slice off of Copper’s remains. She took no chances, levitating the blade and dish from the opposite side of the room. She dared not take a step closer, and once all the pieces were in order on the slides she pulled them out of the room and slammed the door shut. The scalpel she left to fall on the twisted meat; she wasn’t going to touch it again or even open the door if she could manage it.

 

There. You’ve got everything you need. You’ve been presented with a problem and the means to break down and solve it. You can do this, Twilight. You’re in your element.

 

“That’s right!” Twilight said proudly. “This is what I do. I’m a scientist with a mission and the ability to get it done. So let’s get started!”

 

                Twilight pulled a few notes forward and flipped the ledger open. Magically pushing one of the slides under the microscope, she began to dictate. A quill floated nearby to jot down her thoughts on a spare piece of parchment.

 

                “First sample of the organism. Initial observation proves inconclusive; cells appear identical to a normal pony cell. Spike, could you grab me a–”

 

                Twilight froze. The words had left her mouth automatically. She’d said them hundreds of times before, thousands. They were part of the routine.

 

                The quill dropped to the paper as her lips trembled. Twilight slumped over, first in her seat and then onto the floor. Her eyes moistened, and then tears flowed out as she started weeping.

 

                Hey, hey, cut that out! You need to focus right now, you need concentrate on the task–

 

                “Oh shut up,” Twilight grumbled. She pushed herself into a corner under the desk, brushing aside fallen scraps of paper. All the strength she had mustered earlier, all the bravado she had put up to keep her explanation in line, it all swept out of her with each falling tear.

 

                Memories of the past flew by in her head. Spike helping her study, Spike assisting her on one of her experiments, Spike making her laugh when she was feeling down. Spike being there when she felt alone. She heard his voice clearly, feel his scales brush along her arm. Between sobs she tried to picture him right there, tried to get one last glimpse of her friend.

 

                And then, just like that, they were all gone. Regulated to the part of the brain for old memories. Twilight tried to rise back into her seat, to get back to work. But she couldn’t manage it. She stayed on the floor, curled up and crying into her hooves.

 

                ****************************************

                Rainbow Dash fumbled around the dark kitchen. She drew her hoof along the wall in search of the light switch. She tripped over a misplaced pan on the ground and quickly hopped forward, nearly falling flat on her face in an attempt to keep the noise to a minimum.

 

                “Lousystupidpotinthemiddleofthestupidfloorinthestupiddark,” she angrily cursed under her breath. “Where’s that stupid switch… finally.”

 

                She blinked as the fluorescent bulbs flickered on and filled the room with light. She stumbled over to the refrigerator and started to root around, eventually pulling out a sandwich.

 

                Behind her, the kitchen door clicked open. Dash spun around to find Sweetie Belle staring back at her. Her eyes were red and moist, though she had stopped crying.

 

                “Oh. Hi, Rainbow Dash,” she said quietly, looking down at the floor. “I just wanted to get some water.”

 

                “Uh, yeah, sure,” Dash said. “There are cups by the sink.”

 

                Sweetie Belle slowly trotted to the sink. She pushed a glass under the tap and started filling it.

 

                Dash looked on, taking a quick bite from her snack.

 

“I was just getting a sandwich,” she said. Her cheeks grew red at the attempt at conversation. “Guess I should’ve had some earlier when Pinkie offered them. There might be some of that cake around here too, if you wanted any… uh, you couldn’t sleep?”

 

“The storm just woke me up,” Sweetie Belle said, not looking back. “I think Pinkie’s still awake back there.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I saw her reading. And that’s some powerful wind out there, so I can understand it waking you. I haven’t really slept either. Just sorta, um… how you, uh, how you feeling?”

 

Sweetie Belle turned around, sipping her water. Her expression remained unchanged. “I dunno. I stopped crying. I feel kinda… empty.”

 

“I know how you feel,” Dash replied as empathetically as she could.

 

“That’s what Rarity said,” Sweetie Belle said, a hint of edge in her voice. Her head drooped. “That’s what everypony’s been saying to me”

 

“Well, it’s true,” Dash said. She put her sandwich down on the counter and went up to Sweetie Belle. “Just remember, we’re all here for you right now. Anything you need, anything you want to let out, just say the word.”

 

“It’s just… I don’t know,” Sweetie Belle said, her eyes starting to water once more. “I don’t know what to do or how to feel. I just want to keep crying and crying and I wish we never came here in the first place and… and…”

 

Tears started falling again. Dash knelt down and wrapped her arms around her, cradling her softly.

 

“Hey, hey, don’t worry,” Dash said softly. “It’ll be okay.”

 

“And everypony keeps saying that too!” Sweetie Belle cried out. “I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean right now, I just…”

 

She carried on weeping. Dash hugged her once more and raised her head up to look her eye-to-eye.

 

“Because it will,” Dash pressed. She sat down on the floor, leveling herself with Sweetie Belle.

 

“Look, I’ll level with you. For everypony who’s gonna tell you that ‘it’s gonna be alright’ or ‘everything will be fine’, most of them probably don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re gonna need to say something to try to cheer you up, though. Even Rarity’s gonna keep saying it. They’ve gotta say something. But for a while, it doesn’t matter what they say, because you’re still gonna feel really, really crummy. We all are. And really, that’s how you should feel. We lost friends we loved, and that’s about the worst thing that will ever happen to you.”

 

“But,” Dash continued, wiping a tear out of Sweetie Belle’s eye, “eventually, it will get better. It really will. You’ll still feel sadness, you’ll still miss your friend dearly, you’ll still have that lingering numbness about the whole thing, but… but you’ll start to be able to deal with it. You’ll live your life, and you’ll start to be happy about things again, and even though you’ll still feel really sad every once in a while, you’ll just… you’ll feel like you know what you’re supposed to do. And it’s just… it’s…”

 

Dash sat back and smiled weakly at Sweetie Belle. “I dunno. Sorry, I just felt like I had to say something.”

 

“It’s alright, Rainbow Dash,” Sweetie Belle said, sniffing and wiping her eyes. “Thanks. Thanks for trying to help.”

 

“Hey, it’s what I’m good at,” Dash said. The two hugged tightly. “Alright, you should get back in there and try to get some sleep. And stick close to Rarity and Apple Bloom over the next few days. They’re gonna need you as much as you’re gonna need them. We all need to stick together now.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean.” Sweetie Belle smiled and headed for the door. Reaching it, she turned around one last time. “Are you gonna be alright, Rainbow Dash?”

 

Dash had to chuckle. “Yeah, I’ll be fine kid. Go on now. And don’t let that storm spook you. It’s like I told Fluttershy: weather is weather is weather. You can take it.”

 

Sweetie Belle nodded and walked back into the common room. Dash slumped against the wall, her eyes going vacant.

 

“I’ll be fine,” she murmured, brushing her mane out of her eye. “Yeah, of course I’ll be fine. Big, tough Rainbow Dash… I can do this. Come on, get it together. I can make it through this.”

 

She sighed. Flapping her wings and pulling herself upright, she returned to her sandwich. She ate silently, ignoring the screeching wind outside as she munched down her midnight snack.


Chapter 5: Gut Feeling

 

                The end of the crowbar edged its way under the lid of the crate. Rainbow Dash shoved against it with all her weight. The cold iron scraped against the wood, finally getting it into place.

 

“Aaaaand… got it, it’s in.” Dash backed away from the crowbar. It remained firmly in place, jutting out into the air almost perfectly level.

 

                “Dash, a-are you, um, sure we should be doing this?” Fluttershy looked on, rubbing her hooves together while Dash flicked at the bar.

 

                “Sure I’m sure. I mean, we might as well. So come on, help me. Lean on the back end here.”

                

                “Well…” Fluttershy brushed her hair back and joined Dash next to the bar. “Okay, I’ve got it.”

 

                “Pull down as hard as you can on my count, alright? One… two… three!”

 

                The lid of the crate cracked as the crowbar jumped up under the weight of the two pegasi. Nails half-revealed themselves as the lid rose, though they proved long enough to keep it from coming off entirely.

                

                “Yeesh, what’re they keeping in this thing?” Dash asked, repositioning the crowbar. “Alright, one more time. On three…”

 

                Another crack, this one louder than the first. Over on the couches, the rest of the group started to stir. Pinkie came to first, tossing and turning on the cushions before rolling onto the floor. Immediately, she hopped back up and glanced around frantically, her head twitching and her eyes wild.

 

                “Whoa, you okay over there Pinkie?” Dash asked. “Sorry, we didn’t think this would be so noisy.”

 

“Oh, um… I’m okay. Just a… bad dream,” Pinkie said, regaining some of her composure.

 

“I hear that,” Dash muttered. She examined the progress made on the lid. One side was higher, though several nails jammed and prevented it from coming off altogether. The rest of it didn’t want to budge any further, no matter how hard Dash leaned on the crowbar.

 

“I think it’s stuck,” Fluttershy said. She strained to look into the crate, but it was still too dark inside to make anything out.

 

“Alright, that’s it. Stand back.” Dash swung around and pivoted onto her front legs. Carefully aiming her rear legs at the open part of the lid, she pulled them in and delivered a powerful kick. Her hooves hit her target square on and the lid burst off with one final crack. Wood splintered as the lid tossed through the air and into the opposing wall, while the crate itself slid back several feet before grinding to a halt.

 

“Rainbow Dash, do you really need to be makin’ that much of a ruckus this early in the mornin’?” Applejack asked. She yawned and stretched on the couch. Apple Bloom was still slowly waking up next to her.

 

“It’s not that early,” Dash said. “Besides, aren’t you used to getting up at the crack of dawn?”

 

“There are times when even I need to get a little more rest,” Applejack replied. She watched Dash poke her head into the crate and rustle through its contents. “Where’d you get a crowbar around here, anyhow?”

 

“Was over in the kitchen. All sorts of stuff stashed around in there.”

 

“I’ll bet.” Applejack shook her head and yawned again.

 

“I guess I’ll get breakfast started,” Pinkie mumbled. She hurried into the kitchen before anypony could stop her.

 

“I would say somethin’, but even I could use a bite right about now,” Applejack said. She slid off the couch, giving her mane a shake as she stood up.

 

“Yes, even my appetite is starting to return to me,” Rarity said. “I suppose there’s no sense in starving ourselves, anyway. It’s certainly not going to help matters.”

 

Applejack nodded. Beside her, Apple Bloom opened her eyes and looked around.

 

“Good mor–,” Applejack started before catching herself. She leaned in to start comforting her sister. “Hi sugarcube. How are ya feelin’ today?”

 

Apple Bloom merely shrugged, her eyes still red from the previous night’s crying. Applejack softly stroked her back. “Pinkie will make some breakfast soon. You’re gonna need to eat somethin’.”

 

“I’m not very hungry,” Apple Bloom said. She turned away, keeping her expression blank.

 

On the other end of the room, Fluttershy examined the underside of the displaced lid while Dash stuck her head inside the crate. “Rainbow, there’s a note taped on here. I think it’s a list of what’s inside.”

 

“Read it off then,” Dash said, her head reemerging. “Gonna need some help to figure out what some of this stuff is anyway.”

 

Applejack approached the crate; tentatively, Apple Bloom got up and trailed alongside her.

 

“Any particular reason you decided to pop this thing open, Rainbow Dash?” Applejack asked. She snuck a peek inside, frowning as she did. “And what is all this stuff?”

 

“It’s something to do, I guess,” Dash said. “Not like it’s doing any good just sitting around here now…”

 

Fluttershy started reading the list aloud as Dash’s thought trailed off.

 

“Um, let’s see here… two cases of microscope slides, a box of test tubes, three microscopes–”

 

“I think we can skip the science stuff,” Dash said. She ducked back into the crate and began to shift items around. “Or maybe we can give these to Twilight. If she needs any more of this in there, that is.”

 

“Right. Hang on then.” Fluttershy scanned down the list, her eyes brushing past a multitude of basic lab equipment. “Umm… there should be a first aid kit in there.”

 

“Fat lot of good that’ll do us now,” Dash grumbled. Her hooves brushed over a small white container, a red cross painted onto the side. She sighed and tossed it out; Applejack caught it before it hit the ground.

 

The aroma of pancake batter wafted through the room. Everypony stopped what they were doing and sniffed the air. The fresh, flaky smell shot a surge of warmth right through every one of them and, for the moment at least, their feelings of homesickness and untimely despair vanished, immediately replaced by intense pangs of hunger.

 

“Okay, I made plenty and there’s more coming, so dig in,” Pinkie said, emerging from the kitchen with a towering plate of flapjacks. The others descended upon her. Each grabbed a few and split off to various parts of the room. Dash ate over by the supply crate, while both sets of sisters returned to the table.

 

“Fluttershy, can you help me get the second batch out here please?” Pinkie asked.

 

“Oh, sure Pinkie Pie,” Fluttershy said. The two disappeared into the kitchen while the others continued to eat in silence.

 

Before long, they reemerged, Fluttershy now carrying the full plate. Pinkie stepped past her holding a smaller plate and continued through the room to the entrance to the lab. Just as she reached out to touch it, the door swung open. A disheveled looking Twilight stood before her; large bags were under her eyes and her mane was a stringy mess. She surveyed the assembled group while Pinkie silently slid the pancakes towards her.

 

“Twilight, can I, uh, talk to you about, um…” Pinkie whispered, glancing around nervously. Twilight stared at her quizzically. Pinkie backed off, scratching her head and quickly returning her attention to making sure the rest of the pancakes were served out.

 

“Morning Twilight,” Dash said, her mouth half-full. “You should have some of these, they’re good.”

 

“Twilight.” Rarity nodded. “How are you feeling this morning?”

 

“It wasn’t the most productive night, I’m afraid,” Twilight said, not noticing Pinkie pushing the plate in her direction. “I basically went in circles for a while trying to figure that thing out. I’ve been through every note I could find and it’s still proving difficult. It seems like Cop– like there wasn’t much real research progress made before we arrived.  Not much in terms of dealing with a situation like this, at least.”

 

“So that’s a no on any kind of test, huh?” Dash asked. She cast a sidelong glance at Rarity and Applejack, both of whom were whispering frantically to one another.

 

“Nothing at this time, no. I’ve got some theories, but my real problem right now is there isn’t anything I can really test on. I’ve taken some tissue samples from… from back there, but that’s not getting me anywhere. They just look like dead pony cells, and I don’t have the equipment to get a more detailed analysis. I might be able to work something out with them in a while, maybe. If they’re all I end up having to work with, then I guess I’ll have to.”

 

Fluttershy’s face perked up. “Wasn’t there some of that green stuff in there? Can’t you use that for something?”

 

“I don’t know how I would apply that stuff in any sort of controlled fashion,” Twilight said. “Besides, I don’t know what sort of condition it’s even in right now. It had all stopped glowing when I checked on it last night. It seems to be solidifying… just drying up right there in the tube.”

 

“How does that even work?” Dash asked, then shook her head. “No, no, don’t tell me... another weird mystery, right?”

 

“Bingo.” Twilight’s shoulders drooped. She bee-lined her way to the sofa and flopped down once she was close enough. She closed her eyes and released a long sigh, running her hoof through her frazzled mane. Various test ideas and procedures flashed through her mind, bouncing back and forth in a hurried haze. She sighed again and rubbed her eyes.

 

“Twilight?” Fluttershy put her hooves on Twilight’s shoulders. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

“Huh? What?” Twilight twisted out from under Fluttershy’s hooves, only to slump back down on the sofa. “Yes, sorry, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”

 

“Did you sleep at all last night?” Dash asked. “I mean, I was up for a while, and I kept hearing you clink away at something or other in there. You were still at it when I finally went out.”

 

“Not even a little bit,” Twilight said. “I don’t really feel like sleeping right now, either. Too much to do, way too much to do.”

 

“You should get at least some rest,” Fluttershy cautioned. “It’ll do you no good to do this to yourself, Twilight.”

 

“I said I’m fine.” Twilight rose from the sofa. Looking around, she noticed the pillows and blankets scattered around the room. “Did you all sleep in here last night?”

 

“Uh, yeah,” Dash said. “Rarity brought in the blankets and stuff. Like I said, I didn’t sleep much, and I think the others were waking up a lot, too.”

 

“Yes, the wind woke me up several times. It… it doesn’t sound much better right now, to be honest.” Fluttershy quivered as she once again acknowledged the fierce storm. As if in response, it brought in another round of its trademarked gusts to rock the building. Fluttershy drew her hooves in and whimpered.

 

“Don’t worry, Fluttershy. It couldn’t get you before and it won’t get you now,” Dash said, patting her friend on the back.

 

“Alright, well, that’s good,” Twilight said, mostly to herself. “It’s good we all slept here. Don’t want anypony going off alone right now.”

 

Twilight sighed again and walked back towards the lab. Applejack and Rarity’s hushed conversation came to an end and Rarity, somewhat spurred by a small elbowing from Applejack, turned to Twilight.

 

“Say, Twilight, in regards to your research problems,” Rarity said slowly, “don’t you think that you’d be better able to achieve results… somewhere else? Maybe back in your lab at home? I’m sure you’ve got more suitable equipment–”

 

“What I said last night still stands,” Twilight said. She turned and stared hard at Applejack. “I can figure this out. I really can. I just need a little more time.”

 

“Besides–” Twilight motioned out the window “–none of us are going anywhere in this weather, no matter what we try to do.”

 

Rarity tried to think of a way to continue the discussion, but nothing came to her mind. Applejack sat back in her seat and fumed in silence.

 

Pinkie met Twilight at the lab door, appearing more collected than before. “Uh, Twilight, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” she said quietly. “Have you been having any… weird dreams lately?”

 

“Have I– Pinkie, what are you talking about?” Twilight asked. She took a step back, eyeing her suspiciously. Pinkie glanced back at the others and grabbed Twilight’s leg, pulling her into the corner.

 

“It’s just that I had this weird dream last night, which was the same one that I had the night before, and then I read something that made me worried, so I wanted to know if you were, uh, you know… having any, too?” Pinkie stared at Twilight.

 

Twilight placed a hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder. “Pinkie, right now, that’s probably normal. We’ve all been through a lot, and we’re all going to have different ways of reacting to it.”

 

“No, I know that, I do,” Pinkie said, ducking around Twilight’s outstretched hoof. “What I mean to ask is, um, well, uh…”

 

Pinkie’s head fell and she backed away.

 

“Uh, never mind,” she whimpered. She turned and scurried off to the bookshelf, where her box of paperbacks was resting. Sitting down, she fished more books off the shelf and divided them up into different piles.

 

Twilight shook her head and turned towards the lab. Behind her, Fluttershy scooped up the cooling plate of pancakes and followed Twilight inside.

 

“If you’re coming in, prop the door open,” Twilight said without turning around. “Just keep it all the way open, nice and wide.”

 

“Oh, um, sure…” Fluttershy kicked a spare box in front of the door and looked around the lab. The room had taken on a more frenzied tone since she’d last been there. Those carefully organized stacks of paper were more spread out, some covering entire desktops. The occasional microscope still jutted up, each one surrounded by a small pile of used slides. Petri dishes and empty test tubes were everywhere. Some of them black and cracked, like they’d been burned.

 

The pungent stench lingered on. Fluttershy froze as it hit her nose, but forced herself to continue walking in. She sat the plate down on an empty desktop. “You just forgot these, Twilight. If you’re not going to sleep, then I really think you should eat something, at least.”

 

“Thank you, Fluttershy.” Twilight sighed, pushing some papers around on her desk. Her eyes fell as an absentminded expression took over her face.

 

“Twilight, I’m… I’m so sorry,” Fluttershy said softly.

 

“I know you are, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. “I feel the same way as all of you. Really, I do. I just need to… to figure this out.”

 

Fluttershy’s face stayed grim as she studied Twilight carefully. She started to say something, then reconsidered and switched topics. “Are you, um, close to finding out anything?”

 

Twilight sighed again and read over her notes. “I don’t think so. The main problem is that this thing is so… different. It’s not like some highly mutated changeling, nothing like that. It’s something I’ve never encountered before. I’ve never even read about it being encountered anywhere else. All the samples I’ve taken off of– out of the back there, I mean… they’re all dead and burned, which means they’re very disfigured and hard to study. And even looking at the best, most preserved ones, they still look like ordinary pony cells, even if they came off of some part that no pony actually has.”

 

Twilight glanced back and noticed Fluttershy’s mortified expression.

 

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to… well, sorry. Anyway, making matters worse, there are these liquid samples, and I don’t know what’s going on with them.”

 

Twilight pointed over to the mini-fridge on the desk. The door stood open and the vials were still inside. Their contents were vastly changed from the last time Fluttershy had seen them, however. The green glow was completely absent, and they had taken on an ashy gray appearance. It didn’t even look like liquid anymore; more like hardening clay, one that was even cracking a few tubes as it solidified in place. Fluttershy gulped nervously.

 

“I tried to take a few scrapings off the top of that,” Twilight said, sounding even more disappointed than before. “But it didn’t give me anything at all. It was like staring at a lump of mud. I’m probably going to just burn them all later.”

 

“Are you sure that’s the best thing to do with it?” Fluttershy asked, still staring at the fridge.

 

“Once I’m sure I can’t learn anything from something, I always burn it. Better safe than sorry right now.”

 

Twilight’s horn glowed, and the plate of food levitated over to her. She took a few bites, letting the fresh pancakes rejuvenate her weary body.

 

“What I’m just trying to say,” she said, pushing the plate aside, “is that I can’t really study this thing in any kind of productive capacity. I can make theories about it, but can’t get a good way to prove them. If I can’t study it, I can’t find a way to really understand it, and if I can’t understand it, I can’t test for it. I can’t be one hundred percent sure that we’re all okay, and that’s what I’ve got to be before we can all go home.”

 

“I know what you’re saying, Twilight. I really do. But we’re all wondering, um…” Fluttershy started, unsure of how to finish.

 

Twilight cocked her head. “Yes?”

 

Fluttershy took a deep breath and continued. “Well, you know what they’re wondering, Twilight. You can hear Applejack and Rarity talking.”

 

“I know, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. She took another bite. “But no leaving until I’m sure. If something were to go wrong otherwise… I don’t want to think about that. That… that can’t happen.”

 

“But if you’re completely out of ideas as to what to do–”

 

Twilight quickly swallowed and shook her head. Her horn glowed again. “I’m not completely out of ideas.”

 

A pile of papers rustled behind her. A small metal ring with several keys looped around it popped into the air. It floated overhead and dropped onto the desk in front of Twilight. “I’ve still got one more thing I know I can try out.”

 

“Are those… are those for what I think they’re for?” Fluttershy turned and faced the mice tanks. The rodents inside hadn’t changed in the slightest; they still acted like any ordinary group of mice would.

 

Twilight nodded. “I found them in a desk drawer last night. I didn’t want to do anything yet, not until I’d exhausted all my other options. Which, as best I can tell, is right now.”

 

“Wh-why do you need them?”

 

“Fluttershy, I’ve read all the notes. I know what Copper was studying and how she was testing it. I’m pretty sure that one or more of those mice–” Twilight pointed to the tanks “–isn’t a mouse at all. The same goes for the vegetables back there.”

 

Fluttershy gulped. “Well… if you’re sure Twilight, I mean…”

 

“Fluttershy, I really don’t think this is the time to be–”

 

Fluttershy turned to face Twilight, her face set and determined. “No, I understand. I won’t complain about this. Not now. Trust me, I… I understand.”

 

Twilight nodded again. “Thanks. You should go back to join the others now; I’ve still got a lot of work to do. And… it may get a little messy from here on out.”

 

Fluttershy let slip a small “eep”, but her expression remained the same. Twilight finished off the last pancake and followed Fluttershy back to the common room.

 

“Whoa, check this out!”

 

Twilight turned past Fluttershy, her attention drawn to Dash’s shout. The pegasus balanced on the edge of the crate, only her flank and tail visible as her upper half moved something large about inside.

 

“Rainbow, what are you doing in there?” Twilight asked. “I mean… did you find something?”

 

“You bet I did. There’s totally a flamethrower down in here!” Dash exclaimed, muffled from behind the wood.

 

“A what now?” Applejack said, startled. Everypony clustered around the crate, each trying to look over and see what Dash had discovered.

 

“See? Isn’t that what this thing is?” Dash said, pointing to a set of metal canisters at the bottom of the crate. “There’s the fuel, there’s the nozzle, and there’s–”

 

“There’s nothing like that on the list here,” Fluttershy said, returning to look over the manifest. She drew her hoof down the page, double-checking each line with care. “There are some oxygen tanks, and… let’s see now…”

 

“Then what do you call… this?” Dash said dramatically, pulling herself up. She gripped a long metal tube in her mouth, a nozzle on one end and a rubber tube leading out of the other.

 

“I call that a pressure washer,” Applejack deadpanned. “I’ve got a few of them back on the farm. Gets the mud offa the wagon wheels.”

 

“Oh…” Dash let the device fall from her mouth. It clattered to the floor as she hopped down from the crate. “What’s one of those doing up here?”

 

“Keep it turned down low and you can water your plants with it,” Applejack said. “My question is, why on Equestria would you be so happy to have a flamethrower?”

 

Dash shrugged. “They’re cool things to have.”

 

“Well, I’m sorry, Rainbow, but there’s nothing like it listed here,” Fluttershy said. “Ummm… there’s a few fire extinguishers, though. Is that something?”

 

“Fluttershy, that’s not quite the same thing.”

 

“Oh. Well, apart from them, those tanks, and the washer, the rest of the list is just a bunch of lab materials.”

 

“Well, that’s that then. Apple Bloom, get away from there. Nothin’ here for you to be messin’ around with,” Applejack said. Apple Bloom quickly hopped away from the crate and walked back to sit next to Sweetie Belle.

 

Applejack returned her attention to Twilight. “Hey Twilight, ain’t you think you should get back to the lab? Sooner you get that test of yours worked out, the sooner we can get out of here.”

 

Twilight bristled at Applejack’s cold tone. She ducked around a stuttering Pinkie Pie and retreated back into the lab, levitating several more pancakes to follow her in. Pinkie made no effort to stop her, instead looking down at her hooves in an attempt to put her thoughts in order.

 

“A slight change in direction, Applejack?” Rarity murmured as the lab door swung shut.

 

“Everythin’ aside, Twilight is right.” Applejack pointed out the window. “Ain’t goin’ nowhere in that mess. I don’t even wanna try. First sign of a break, though… that’s when I’ll be gettin’ her to let us get out of here.”

 

Rarity sighed and joined Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom back at the table. The two fillies sat close together having a slow, mumbled conversation, the topic of which was indiscernible to the rest of the group.

 

“So just a big box of science stuff, Fluttershy?” Dash asked.

 

“It looks like it, yes. Except…” Fluttershy paused, her hoof hovered over one item on the list. “What’s a thermite charge?”

 

“Thermite charge. A small incendiary device that comes in either a powder or pre-formed putty form. Used mainly for cutting through heavy buildups of ice very quickly. Can be very dangerous if mishandled, but is otherwise a stable explosive.” Pinkie said. She sat rigid on the floor. Her voice was calm. It sounded like she was reciting something from memory.

 

The others stared at her.

 

“Uh, Pinkie, how do you know any of that?” Applejack asked after a moment.

 

“I… I…” Pinkie shook her head, suddenly snapping out of her stupor. Her cheeks reddened and she brought her head down to the books in front of her. “I read it in a book… somewhere. At least, I think I did… but now I don’t remember…”

 

Applejack brushed her mane, sighing and mumbling to herself. “An’ now Pinkie’s losin’ it… figures.”

 

Dash eyed the box carefully.

 

“Hey, Applejack… think that stuff could cut through metal?” she asked, keeping her tone casual.

 

“Cut through– just what are you talkin’ about, Rainbow Dash?” Applejack gave the pegasus a questioning look. “How would I know that?”

 

“I mean…” Dash emphasized, gesturing her head at the rebar-blocked door and stepping in close to Applejack, “if things suddenly got more messed up and we needed to do something fast.”

 

Applejack scratched her chin. “Well, now that you mention it… it’s an explosive, ain’t it? I guess if we really shoved it in there, maybe it could do the trick. If it ever came to that, of course.”

 

“Yeah, right,” Dash added quickly. “Only if we really needed to.”

 

“I don’t want to be messin’ around with that stuff if we don’t have to, ya see.”

 

“Neither do I. Just keeping our options open.”

 

“Still, why you askin’, Rainbow?” Applejack asked. “I thought you were on Twilight’s side right now.”

 

Dash shrugged. “Who’s talking about sides? There’re no sides here. We’re all in the same boat, and I only wanna help. Same as you. So I’m just trying to plan ahead a little. This looks to be the only way out of here anyway, unless we want to go back to the front door–”

 

“I ain’t steppin’ hoof in that temple again. No way, no how,” Applejack cut in. She thought for a moment, before finally nodding her head. “Alright, that’s fine. We’ll keep that plan on the back burner right now, though, see how things play out.”

 

“Right. Fluttershy, can I have the lid please?” Dash took the piece of wood and placed it back on top of the crate, and shoved the whole thing back into the corner.

 

“Was there anythin’ else in there we could use?” Applejack asked when Dash returned and settled on one of the couches.

 

“Not unless we need to wash anything or get some extra air,” Dash said. “First aid kit’s already out, the rest is just science stuff or… yeah. Nothing else in there.”

 

“You’re sure about that?”

 

“Uhh… I think there was some rope tying the tanks together?” Dash said, her eyes wandering the room.

 

“Hmm…” Applejack stared at the crate.

 

“So, um, what do we do now?” Fluttershy said. She sat down on the couch next to Dash, nervously rubbing her mane.

 

“Not much we can do, I guess,” Applejack said, walking back to the table. “Just keep an eye out that window an’ wait for a break in the storm.”

 

“Pinkie, dear, do you have any more food prepared?” Rarity asked. The plates on the table were bare, licked clean by the hungry group.

 

“Uh, yeah, there should be some stuff on the counter and in the fridge.” Pinkie sat in the corner, several books open in front of her. “Just… just give me a second. I really need to check something.”

 

Pinkie stuck her head down and scanned the pages. Her mouth fluttered as she spoke quietly to herself, her words entirely unintelligible to the others.

 

“Is everything alright, Pinkie?” Rarity asked, a concerned tone growing in her voice.

 

Applejack shook her head. “Just let her be for now.”

 

“Probably better this way for now,” Dash muttered. She threw her head back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling, sighing. “She needs a break from all the cooking before we run out of food.”

 

                Applejack rolled her eyes. She put her hoof back on Apple Bloom’s back, with Rarity doing the same to her sister. The four ponies relaxed silently in their seats. All eyes were drawn to the window, watching as the wind continued to whip the snow up into the air.

 

****************************************

 

                Hours passed. Each pony in the common room stuck to her seat, either staring out the window or reflecting on the events of the previous 24 hours. Occasionally, these memories led to a new crying fit, although these were considerably quieter and shorter than the ones that came before.

 

There was little change outside. The wind continued to howl away, sometimes to the point of shifting the entire building, other times receding to a sort of background white noise. The sunlight glowed faintly through the thick clouds, and it was hard to tell if it was even getting lighter outside as the day progressed. Indeed, it took the chiming of the clock on the wall for the group to realize that it was noon.

                

                Applejack stood from her chair and strode over to the window. She stared outside, frowning. “Well, one thing’s for sure. When I get back, no more complain’ about how the Ponyville weather team runs things.”

 

                “At least we know when to take a break.” Rainbow Dash slid off the couch, accidentally knocking into a dozing Fluttershy in the process. Fluttershy’s eyes snapped open, her whole body jolting at being suddenly awakened.

 

                “Oh, I’m sorry, I must’ve dozed off.” She yawned. “Did I miss anything?”

 

                “Not one lousy thing.” Applejack paced back and forth in front of the window, constantly looking up to stare outside.

 

                Dash sidled up into a chair around the table, pulling up next to Rarity. Fluttershy wandered over and sat across from them, close to Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. There was a brief silence as the ponies stared at one another.

 

                “This day’s just dragging on and on, isn’t it?” Dash said, breaking the silence. “Sorta weird how slow time goes when there’s, uh, not much to do.”

 

                No response from the others. Dash scratched her neck and glanced over at Pinkie.

 

                “Hey Pinkie, any chance of some lunch?” Dash asked. “Pinkie?”

 

                “There should still be leftovers, but… but just give me one more minute.” The floor around Pinkie was covered in books. Her entire box had been emptied, each small volume open in front of her. Several more titles had been pulled off the bookshelf. Some were stacked neatly next to her; others had been casually tossed to the side. Pinkie’s head was in constant motion as her eyes darted from page to page, book to book. She murmured softly the whole time.

                

                 “Uh, alright then, Pinkie,” Dash turned back, still rubbing her neck. “Anypony hungry?”

 

                The fillies shook their heads.

 

“I believe we all had our fill this morning, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said.

 

Fluttershy leaned towards the fillies and attempted a smile. “Um, how are you two doing today? Are you… are you feeling any better?”

 

                Apple Bloom shrugged, her eyes glued to the tabletop.

 

                “Still holding up at least?” Dash asked. She looked at Sweetie Belle, who returned the look with a small flicker of a smile.

 

                “I guess,” Sweetie Belle said. “I just don’t know what we can do right now.”

 

                “Keep waiting,” Apple Bloom muttered. “That’s what Applejack keeps saying.”

 

                “I’m sure it won’t be too much longer now.” Fluttershy gently patted Apple Bloom on the back. “We’ll all be home soon.”

 

                “Not all of us…” Apple Bloom’s face fell even lower.

 

                “Don’t worry, Apple Bloom,” Sweetie Belle said, placing her hoof next to her friend’s. “It’s… it’s okay. We’ll be alright.”

 

                “Your sis is doing pretty good, Rarity,” Dash said quietly.

 

Rarity smiled at her sister and turned towards Dash. “Thank you, Rainbow Dash. With everything that’s happened I just don’t… well…”

 

Rarity suddenly pushed her chair close to Dash. She gave a quick glance to the other ponies. Apple Bloom was still being consoled by Fluttershy and Sweetie Belle. Slowly, the pallor disappeared from her face as her friends worked to cheer her up.

 

Rarity leaned in close to Dash. “Um, Rainbow…” she whispered. “I was just wondering… that is, I was hoping you could… well, how do you think I’m… doing?”

 

Dash was somewhat taken aback by the question. “Ummm… what you do mean?” she whispered back.

 

“Am I… am I holding together well? I think I’m feeling better than yesterday, but for once I find myself remarkably unsure as to… as to how I’m projecting myself. I really want to keep a good… atmosphere for Sweetie Belle, so as not to upset her further, but I don’t know…”

 

Rarity brushed her hair aside and stared intently at Dash.

 

“So, you’re worried about how you’re dealing with all this?” Dash stared back. “And you’re asking… me?”

 

“I just want to at least be sure I’m… giving off the right impression.”

 

Dash nearly cracked a smile. “Never did think I’d see the day you wanted my opinion as to how you looked.”

 

“Dash, this is serious,” Rarity said, biting her lower lip.

 

“I know, I know. Look, Rarity… relax.” Dash put her hooves on Rarity’s shoulders, easing the unicorn’s tense body. “You’re doing just fine. I mean… how are you feeling? Really.”

 

Rarity’s head fell. She rubbed one eye, though no tears appeared. “It’s not the best time. But like I said, I think I’m doing better. I think…”

 

Rarity brought her head back up.

 

“I’m just asking since you look more… collected right now. I mean, Applejack’s being a little too focused to talk to, Twilight’s off trying to keep herself together, and Pinkie’s… well, I don’t know what’s happening with Pinkie… my point is it seems like it’s just you and Fluttershy who are really staying strong.”

 

Dash sighed. “Rarity, I don’t know how you think I look, but trust me: I’m not feeling so hot right now. And Fluttershy spent the whole night trying to cry herself to sleep.”

 

Dash leaned back and smiled again. “We’re all in a weird place right now. So it’s okay if you want to feel down about it. But believe me, you’re doing good right now. Really. You and Sweetie Belle. You’re both doing as well as anypony could be expected to right now.”

 

Rarity perked up ever so slightly. “Well, thank you, Rainbow.” She turned and looked at her sister. Sweetie Belle was talking to Apple Bloom, the other filly in a better mood than before. Fluttershy smiled softly at both of them. “I guess I shouldn’t worry so much… I guess.”

 

Rarity pushed her hoof through her mane again, slowly attempting to flatten the few random hairs that were sticking up out of place.

 

“See? No problem,” Dash said. “We’re fine. We’ll all be fine.”

 

She stood from the table and smiled again at everypony present. She started to say something again, but decided against it. Instead, she turned towards the kitchen, guided by a sudden pang of hunger in the pit of her stomach.

 

****************************************

 

                Applejack eventually settled on a pacing routine in front of the window: four and a half cycles in front of the window, pause to stare outside, frown, and repeat. This new habit didn’t exactly calm her down, but it at least kept her somewhat occupied, and that was enough for her at the moment. After a while, Apple Bloom walked over to stand under the window. She watched her sister with keen interest. Sweetie Belle attempted to join her, but Rarity kept her in place by the chair, afraid to let her go too far. Sweetie Belle didn’t resist.

 

                Applejack scarcely noticed. She was too intent on the world outside; too distracted by her growing feelings of annoyance at a storm that absolutely refused to die down.

 

                As the clock ticked past three, Applejack finally stamped her hoof down, causing a distracted Apple Bloom to jolt up against the wall and slump back down.

 

                “Sorry dear,” Applejack said, moving in to pull her sister up. “I didn’t mean to do that. I’m just gettin’ really steamed with how this weather’s playin’ out right now.”

 

                “It’s… it’s okay,” Apple Bloom said slowly. “What are we gonna do, sis?”

 

                “I… I…” Applejack started. Before she was able to find the words to continue, a small crash suddenly erupted from behind the lab door. The ponies all turned to the door to hear the sound of shattered glass and crunching wood, along with Twilight having a coughing fit.

 

                “Hey Twi! You alright in there?” Dash shouted. She hopped off the couch and sped to the door, throwing it open as soon as she reached it. The others crowded in behind her, Rarity hanging at the back to keep Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom from getting too close.

 

                “What’s goin’ on in here?” Applejack squeezed in past Dash and surveyed the damage of the lab.

 

                The mice tanks were completely smashed. Glass littered the floor and the interior of the tanks. A small blaze was burning, consuming the various items within the tanks. Included in these were the smoking bodies of the mice themselves. Several were still flopping around, squeaking madly. Across from the tanks, Twilight sat hunched on the floor, looking dazed.

 

                Fluttershy shrieked at the sight of the burning mice. Quickly grabbing a nearby tarp, she dashed over and began to snuff out the flames. Applejack and Dash, meanwhile, hurried over to Twilight to help her back up.

 

                “Whoa, easy there, Twilight. Just stay still” Applejack said, setting Twilight down on a stool.

 

                “I’m okay, don’t worry.” Twilight brushed her mane aside. Several of the hairs were singed away, but otherwise she was unharmed. “I just used a little too much kerosene in there.”

 

                Applejack glanced over the desks behind Twilight. Several more mice were laid out on small metal trays; each had been partially dissected, with several bloodied scalpels strewn about them. Pools of kerosene gathered in each tray, though the mice appeared unburned. At the lab door, Rarity quickly pushed the fillies away from the grisly sight.

 

                “What were you doing in here, Twilight?” Dash asked. She idly kicked the small red canister under the broken tanks. Liquid sloshed around inside. She glanced to the back of the lab at the vegetable tanks; they too had been burned away, albeit not in such a wrecked manner as the mice tanks.

 

                “Disposing of them,” Twilight said. The others stared at her as she rose from her stool and walked over to the trays. “I had no other way of being sure. I tried cutting into them to gauge a reaction, but that got no response. As did crossing in some of the burned remains, but those are dead and had no effect. Even when I tried to cross them with something… uncontaminated, nothing happened.”

 

                Twilight brushed her hoof over a small bandage on her leg and sighed.

 

                “Twilight, that really doesn’t answer our question,” Dash said. “What were you doing in here to all these mice?”

 

                “Copper had been testing them, changing them,” Twilight said, her tone flat. “If I was able to figure out a way to tell which of them was what, I could figure out a test for the rest of them. However, as best I can tell, all these tested… negative.”

 

                “So, Twilight, what do you think that could mean?” Applejack asked, leaning forward slightly.

 

                “Maybe… maybe Copper destroyed the ones she infected afterward.” Twilight said, her voice fading as she spoke. She hung her head. “I guess it would make sense for her not to leave them around too long…”

 

                Applejack moved in closer. “Twilight, this is it. You’ve done enough. You’ve done your research, you’ve tried your tests, an’ you’ve come up with nothin’. The time has come for us to get goin’.”

 

                “Not yet, not yet,” Twilight replied quickly. She tapped her hoof on the desk as she tried to think. “I just… need to think of another angle, something I’m missing. There must be something…”

 

                “Twilight!” Applejack snapped, her frustrations starting to boil over. “What the heck are you talkin’ about?”

 

                “Twilight, please,” Fluttershy said. She left the tarp over the tanks, partly in an effort to conceal the damage and partly to keep the new smell down. “Don’t you think this has gone far enough?”

 

                “Fluttershy,” Twilight said, “don’t tell me you’re feeling for the mice at a time like–”

 

                “Forget the mice!” Applejack cut in. She drew herself to her full height, staring down at Twilight. “Forget this lab, Twilight. You need to stop obsessin’ over this. It’s gettin’ way out of hoof.”

 

                “We’ve got to be sure!” Twilight shouted back, slamming a hoof down on the desk. “Why do I need to keep saying that? Don’t you all understand how important this is? What this thing could do if it got out?”

 

                “That thing is dead, Twilight! Gone! Burned to a crisp,” Applejack yelled back. “Twilight, look at us. We’re all fine. Just… look.”

 

                Twilight pressed herself against the desk. The whole group stood before her, staring her down with varying levels of intensity. Behind Fluttershy, Rarity stepped slowly through the doorway.

 

                “Twilight,” Rarity said, her voice calm and level. “Please. Applejack is right. We need to work on getting out of here, right now. We can’t stay here. Not after what’s happened. We need to go home, Twilight. You know that.”

 

                “I… I…” Twilight looked into each of her friends’ eyes. She glanced down at the fillies, who had silently followed Rarity into the lab. “I… need to do one last thing. I need to talk to them.”

 

                Twilight approached the lab door, only to be blocked by Applejack stepping in front of her.

 

                “Talk to them about what?” Applejack asked, her eyebrows raised in suspicion.

 

                “About… you know,” Twilight said. She stared down Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, who stood cowering behind Rarity.

 

                “Twilight, that ain’t gonna happen, an’ you know it.” Applejack stood firm in her position, not letting Twilight by.

 

                “Twilight, we all know the same things right now,” Dash spoke up. “We’ve all seen everything that’s happened. You don’t need to single them out right now.”

 

                “Quite right, Twilight,” Rarity said, her tone gaining more of an edge. “And at any rate this is neither the time nor the place for such a line of questioning. Haven’t you been listening to us?”

 

                “They would know best!” Twilight said. Her eyes traveled between every pony present and her voice grew more flustered. “It won’t take long, I just–”

 

                “Twilight, if you say you’ve got to be sure one more time… I don’t know what I’ll do.” Applejack snapped.

 

“Any little thing would help right now,” Twilight said. She took a step back. “I just need something to work on. Any kind of evidence that… that she was acting funny at all yesterday.”

 

“Twilight, the only one who’s actin’ funny ‘round here right now is you.”

Applejack closed in on Twilight. Dash moved up next to her, her focus traveling between Applejack and Twilight and back again.

 

                “Applejack, back up right now,” Twilight said, her face darkening.

 

                “Twilight, this is the last time I’m gonna repeat myself. This has gone on long enough. We need to leave. All of us.” Applejack and Dash began to box Twilight in between two desks.

 

                “Uh, guys, why are things getting so tense in here?” Pinkie asked from the back of the room. Nopony seemed to hear her. “Guys?”

 

                “We are gonna leave, Twilight,” Applejack continued. Her eye twitched.

 

                “Applejack, I’m warning you…” Twilight stared her friend straight in the eye.

 

                “Seriously, guys, can we all just take a deep breath and relax? We don’t need to be acting like this,” Pinkie said, again to an unobservant crowd. She tapped her hooves together as they started to quiver.

 

                “Twilight, this will be for your own good.” Rarity stepped forward. The fillies scurried past her, changing places to hide behind Fluttershy.

                

                “We could use your help to get out of here, Twilight,” Applejack said. “But one way or the other, we’re gettin’ out of here. Right now.” Applejack poked Twilight square in the chest.

                “Hey, back off Applejack!” Twilight growled. “I’ve given my reasons for why we’re still here, and why we need to stay here. How are you not seeing what’s going on?”

 

                “How am I?” Applejack practically screamed. “Twilight, are you even listenin’ to yourself right now? Come on!”

Applejack poked Twilight in the chest, harder this time.

 

                “And stop touching me!” Twilight’s horn flashed. A small purple wall appeared in front of her. A second, larger wall appeared in front of it and pushed out, slamming into Applejack and sending her sprawling back. The wall continued past her, carrying itself through the lab. It knocked down several of the other ponies, pushed stools over, and scattered lab equipment off of tables and onto the floor.

 

                “Hey, watch out!” Dash called, slipping onto the floor herself.

 

                The magical wall came to the table with the ruined tanks. It pressed into a flame-baked leg, and with a loud CRACK, the leg snapped in two. Sliding glass and fractured metal sounded off as the table fell to the floor, heading straight for Fluttershy and the two fillies.

 

                The three ponies screamed. Apple Bloom rushed forward. She dove out of the way ahead of one of the more intact tanks as it dropped to the floor. The table itself clipped Fluttershy on the way down, shoving her aside and scraping her in the side. Sweetie Belle pushed back, barely avoiding the table itself. She wasn’t so lucky with a second burned tank, which fell square on her back. She yelled in pain and fell back under an opposing desk.

 

                “Apple Bloom!” Applejack yelled.

 

                “Sweetie Belle!” Rarity yelled.

 

                Rarity shot back up and dashed over to her younger sister. She pulled her out from under the desk to a clear spot on the floor and looked down in horror. A large piece of glass had cut into Sweetie Belle, leaving her with a fairly substantial laceration that zigzagged halfway across her backside. The filly seemed woozy, blinking slowly and having difficulty moving her head. Blood seeped from the wound, dripping onto the floor at a steady pace.

 

                “I’ll get the first aid kit!” Pinkie shouted and disappeared into the common room. Fluttershy pulled herself over to Rarity and Sweetie Belle, looking over the injury as best she could.

 

                “What’s… what’s going on?” Sweetie Belle asked. She sounded faint and scattered.

 

                Rarity looked up at Twilight. Pure fury flashed in her eyes.

 

                “How… DARE you!” Rarity’s horn flashed. A heavy microscope on the desk in front of her launched up and arced through the air. Before Twilight could react, it sailed over her small barrier and smacked square into her horn. She staggered backward, her purple barriers disappearing into a fine mist.

 

                Seizing the opportunity, Applejack leaped in and held Twilight down.

“What is wrong with you?” Applejack shouted, anger spilling out of her. “What are you tryin’ to do to us?”

 

                A bright flash. Applejack flopped onto the floor as Twilight teleported to the other side of the lab. She landed on top of a table, looking down at all of them. A sorrowful expression took over her face.

 

                “I’m sorry!” she said. Her jaw hung open as she searched for the words, her eyes flickering between each of her friends. “I… I didn’t mean for that to happen! It was an accident!”

 

                At the door, Pinkie dashed back in, the small white box hanging in her mouth.

 

                “Pinkie, give it here,” Fluttershy said. Pinkie slid the box over and Fluttershy quickly popped it open, rooting through it for the appropriate supplies.

 

                “Fluttershy, are you alright?” Pinkie asked, kneeling down next to her. She pulled her hoof over Fluttershy’s long scrape, but Fluttershy pulled away.

 

                “I’ll be fine,” Fluttershy said. “Right now we need to deal with this.”

 

                “It’s alright, everything will be alright,” Rarity whispered into her sister’s ear. She hugged around her neck, gently cradling Sweetie Belle’s head.

 

                “Twilight, look at us!” Dash shouted. She moved up and stood next to Applejack. The two of them stared at Twilight through flaring nostrils and gritted teeth. “You need to calm down and get over here, right now! Before things get any worse!”

 

                “We can’t be hurtin’ each other right now, Twilight,” Applejack said. “We just need to go!”

 

                Twilight looked over the chaos of the lab. Apple Bloom hopped up and latched onto her sister, tightly hugging around her leg as she started to cry again. In the back, Fluttershy pulled out some gauze, surgical tape, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

 

                “Rarity, I need you to keep this gauze in the air over her back,” Fluttershy said. Rarity nodded and levitated the roll of white bandage, all the while still hugging Sweetie Belle tightly. She unrolled a long strip in the air while Fluttershy fiddled with the cap of the alcohol.

 

Dash took a deep breath and relaxed her stance. “Twilight,” she said, sounding calmer than before, “we… we need to help each other now. Come on, let’s just… let’s calm down for a moment. We can work this out without getting mad at each other.”

 

                “I…” Twilight started, then sighed. “Okay. You’re right. You’re all right.”

 

                Twilight hopped off the table and approached the others. Applejack took a step back, pushing Apple Bloom behind her. Dash stepped forward.

 

                “I’m… I’m so sorry,” Twilight said. Her eyes flickered past a glaring Rarity. “I just don’t know what’s been happening lately.”

 

                “I know, Twilight,” Dash said. “But we can do this. We just need to leave.”

 

Gripping the open bottle in her mouth, Fluttershy leaned her head towards the gauze. A few drops spilled out, dropping down onto Sweetie Belle’s back. They landed right in the cut and combined with the blood massing there.

 

                A vicious screech pierced the air that made everypony jump. A long seam suddenly appeared on Sweetie Belle’s back, going from neck to tail. With a sickening crack, it pulled open, revealing a large set of jaws filled on all sides with razor sharp teeth and a large, flat tongue. It continued to scream a high-pitched wail, one that bounced from wall to wall with a sound that cut right to the core of every pony in the room.


Chapter 6: A Tough Thing to Come By

 

                Rainbow Dash, her face drenched in sweat and her knees trembling, almost tripped over Apple Bloom as she stumbled backwards. The filly was rooted to the spot and scarcely noticed Dash at all. Almost immediately, Applejack stepped in and scooped her up, shoving past Dash to a far corner of the room. Over by the door, Fluttershy tripped and fell, landing right on Pinkie Pie. They twisted around one another, caught in a mess of panic and confusion. Several ponies screamed, though their cries were lost under the jaw’s alien wail that continued to echo throughout the room.

 

                Rarity sat rigid on the floor, her forelegs still wrapped around Sweetie Belle’s head. Her mouth hung open, though she wasn’t screaming. Her eyes were wide as saucers as she stared at what lay before her.

 

Suddenly, the jaws went silent. Sweetie Belle’s body shifted around while the jaws started to expand, pushing out even more teeth with a series of cracking sounds. Her head went limp, sagging downward into a puddle of flesh.

 

                “Rarity! Get out of there!” Twilight screamed from the back of the room. She hopped off the desk and raced forward, only to collide with Dash as she popped up in front of her. They both sank to the floor in a heap.

 

                Rarity pulled back. As her hooves brushed past Sweetie Belle’s limp face, the filly twitched. Quicker than anypony could react, the jaws shot forward, snapping shut over Rarity’s forelegs with impossible speed.

 

There was a split-second of silence. Then Rarity threw her head back with an ear-splitting shriek. She tried to pull free, but the jaws sank in deeper. They tore through flesh and dug into bone, a thick, green slime pouring from the teeth. Rarity flailed around, knocking into desks and filing cabinets as she jerked Sweetie Belle's body around with her. It still refused to let go as they tumbled under a desk back towards the door, missing Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy by inches. A kerosene tank slipped off a table and fell onto Sweetie Belle. Fuel splashed over both of them. As quickly as they had snapped down, the jaws opened up, releasing Rarity from their clutches. She collapsed through the open doorway to the common room, bleeding profusely. One of her legs hung on by a bare thread of muscle. There wasn't much left of the other leg at all.

 

                Fluttershy and Pinkie hurried back towards the others. Fluttershy dove behind Applejack, covering her eyes as she crouched into a ball. Pinkie tried to follow suit, only to trip over a broken stool. She collapsed, landing awkwardly on her hoof with a quick cry of pain. Meanwhile, Twilight righted herself and stood in front of them while Dash hurried off to another side of the room. They all stared at the sight unfolding by the door.

 

Sweetie Belle rolled over on the floor. She vibrated rapidly, her entire body quivering from head to tail. A long, thick tentacle shot up out of the center of the jaws, rising into the air until it was almost four times her height. At its cap was a second head, this one a skinned, slightly deformed copy of Sweetie Belle’s.

 

The new head growled at the girls. Its new body pushed itself forward, hopping along the ground like some demented jack-in-the-box.

                

                “I’ve got it!” Twilight shouted. She aimed her horn. A purple sphere surrounded the creature, halting its progress. A series of small, insect-like legs sprang out of the stalk and started clawing at the bubble, but to no effect. The bubble lifted into the air and hovered over the desks.

 

                “Twilight, get rid of it!” Applejack shouted. Fluttershy peered out behind her and screamed again when she caught sight of the creature.

 

                “Where am I supposed to send it?”

 

                “Anywhere but here, Twilight, come on!” Dash ducked around another desk and slid to a stop. The bubble was floating between her and the door to the common room.

 

                In the bubble, the legs stopped moving. The second head angled itself until it was looking at Twilight. It screamed again in a higher pitch. The ground shook as the cry shot through the room. Tables shifted and the floorboards creaked. A ripple shot through the purple bubble, and it turned a sickly black hue. The glow over Twilight’s horn flashed a similar color.

 

                Twilight screamed. Her knees buckled from under her and her hooves flew to her horn. She clutched it, crying out in extreme pain.

 

                “Twilight!” Pinkie shouted. Ignoring her leg, she rushed around Applejack and knelt by her friend. “Twilight, are you alright? Twilight!”

 

Overhead, the bubble disappeared. The creature fell to the ground, landing with a wet SPLAT. It rolled on the floor a few times, sprouting out new appendages to catch and steady itself. Within moments it had righted itself again, and now stood right in front of Dash.

 

Caught off-guard, Dash froze. The color drained from her cheeks and her mouth hung agape as she stared at the growling beast. The second head met her eyes. The small, fang-filled mouth curled up into a tiny grin.

 

                “Dash, hit the ceiling, now!” Applejack shouted at the top of her lungs. She spun around and positioned her rear legs in front of a large metal table.

 

“Huh? What?” Dash blinked, her eyes coming back into focus. Her wings shot open and she launched vertically, barely missing a wild lunge from the creature as she passed by.

 

Applejack aimed and delivered. The table flew forward and hit the creature dead on, slamming it into the wall. It howled out once more, this scream much more guttural than before. Dash hovered overhead, wedged tight against the ceiling. She stared down with fixed, unblinking eyes while sweat dripped off her in buckets.

 

The creature stumbled up in a disoriented fashion, broken limbs and exposed veins oozing blood and other liquids. Flailing appendages sent lab equipment and papers from the desks to the floor. It hobbled a few feet before it fell again and crashed through the back door, collapsing in a broken heap. It flopped around in the back room, growling loudly as it sprouted more and more tentacles.

 

                “Twilight, light it up!” Dash shouted. Beneath her, Applejack snatched up Apple Bloom and hurried out to the common room, with Fluttershy and Pinkie galloping along next to them.

 

                Twilight grabbed a desk and pulled herself up, still wincing from the pain in her horn. She turned and concentrated on the back room. A small glow appeared on her horn, only to disappear a moment later. Twilight groaned in pain. “I don’t think I can!”

 

                “Well try harder! It’s starting to do something back there!” Dash kicked a second desk in front of the back room door and quickly snuck a peek inside. A dark mass was starting to move around, one much larger than what had come out of Sweetie Belle’s body.

 

                “It’s combining with Copper… it’s getting bigger,” Twilight said. She tried to concentrate again, but her horn failed to respond.

 

Dash started scouring the floor of the lab, checking under every desk. “Where’d that lantern go? Anypony see it?”

 

                “Hey Twilight, use this!” Pinkie rushed back into the lab with a small white brick gripped in her mouth. She lobbed it over to Twilight. “Flip the switch and throw!”

 

                “Pinkie, what is this thing?” Twilight stared at the object. It looked like a mound of white clay, shaped into a rectangle and with a small metal switch with some wires taped to one side.

 

A sudden roar from the back room rocked the base, followed by the sound of cracking wood. A large mass of flesh and muscle shifted forward towards the lab.

 

                “Twilight, just do it!” Pinkie screamed. “Throw it and run!”

 

                Twilight pushed her hoof past the metal switch and kicked the brick into the back room. It went right through the broken door and landed square on the creature inside, earning another growl.

 

                “Everypony out of here!” Pinkie yelled. She turned and ran out the door. Dash yelled after Twilight and swooped into the common room as well. Twilight hesitated for a moment, her eyes fastened on the back room.

 

A bright light flashed as a small explosion rocked the back room, practically throwing Twilight against the wall. A small fireball rose up, bringing with it howling cries of anguish and pain from the creature. The flames of the fire spread fast. They quickly overwhelmed the small room and spread out the door into the rest of the lab.

 

                Twilight rushed out to the common room to join the others. Everypony coughed and shook as they tried to settle themselves. “Somepony grab the extinguisher before that fire burns the whole place down!” Applejack shouted. She still had Apple Bloom clutched under her, and hustled her to the other side of the room next to the kitchen.

 

Dash rushed over to the supply crate and pushed it over. She fished through the avalanche of items that spilled out, shoving boxes aside and letting the oxygen tanks roll away under her. Pinkie crouched down past the door, rubbing her ankle. Twilight hurried over next to her.

 

“Are you alright, Pinkie?” Twilight asked.

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Pinkie said. She tenderly touched the forming bruise. “I just tripped is all.”

 

“Pinkie,” Twilight said, still coughing, “wh-what was that thing?”

 

“Um, thermite charge,” Pinkie said. She pointed to a small box laying off to one side of the crate. It was packed with more of those white bricks, each one wired with a switch. “They… make fire. I guess.”

 

“That’s an awfully big punch for a little charge.” Twilight turned from Pinkie and joined Dash at the supplies.

 

“Uh, yeah.” Pinkie stopped rubbing. “I didn’t think they’d do that. I just thought that’s what we, uh, needed–”

 

                “Wait, where’s Rarity? Rarity!” Dash called, looking up from the supplies. Her eyes found the massive puddle of blood in front of the lab door. It trailed across the room, disappearing down the hallway to the bunks. “Rarity, come back!”

 

                Dash hurried towards the doorway, Pinkie following close behind. Twilight tore her eyes away from the pile and ran after them. “Hey, wait a second!”

 

                She caught them at the doorframe, where they stood motionless. About halfway down the hall, in an even larger puddle of blood, Rarity sat hunched over. Her breathing was labored, and her tongue flapped outside her mouth. One of her wounded legs was healing before their very eyes; bones knit and skin pulled itself together. The other leg was still a stump, but now a small tentacle protruded from it. It writhed around on the floor, absorbing up any blood it came into contact with.

                

                “It… it isn’t Rarity,” Twilight said, pulling Dash and Pinkie back from the door. “Not anymore.”

 

                Rarity looked up. Her eyes met Twilight’s, and she drew her tongue back in. She let loose a low wail. It was much more subdued compared to that of the creature burning in the lab. She cried louder and louder, her eyes never leaving Twilight as she sang her mournful song.

 

                Pinkie slipped out from under Twilight and rushed to the crate. Twilight broke contact with Rarity’s face and looked at what Pinkie returned with: another white brick. Pinkie looked up at Twilight, tears falling down her cheeks.

 

                Twilight nodded solemnly. Pinkie flicked the switch and tossed the charge down along the floor. It slid forward along the thick blood trail, coming to rest right up against Rarity’s midsection. She glanced down at it, the tentacle from her leg snapping over to wrap around it.

 

The charge exploded. The fuel on Rarity’s skin ignited, and flames completely engulfed her. Her cry changed, becoming a loud, hollow roar that bounced back and forth in the tight hallway. She writhed in place, but made no effort to escape the flames. Her roar carried on, getting higher and higher as the fire consumed her throat and mouth.

 

            Dash was the first to move from the doorframe. She ran to the supply crate and grabbed a small red cylinder. Returning to the door, she attempted to push past Twilight and get the extinguisher in place.

 

            “Just wait a second!” Twilight put her hoof up, blocking Dash.

 

            “Twilight, we’ve got to put that out before it–”

 

            “Just wait!”

 

            The inferno continued to rage. Rarity’s legs gave one final, pathetic twitch, and she slumped all the way to the floor. Her skin blackened and melted away to reveal a burning layer of veins and tissue. Flames inched their way up the nearby walls, spreading along the corridor towards the bunks. Beneath her, the floor started to crack as the fire ate the planks away.

 

            “Alright go!”

 

            Dash ducked past Twilight and tossed the extinguisher down. Hitting the lever with her hoof, she held the hose steady as white foam sprayed out.

 

            “Hey, the lab’s still goin’ up!” Applejack shouted. Twilight glanced over at the lab door. A bright orange glow was visible and growing brighter by the second. She rushed over to the supply crate to find another extinguisher, and then into the lab to combat the blaze.

 

            Chaos reigned for the next few minutes. Dash finished containing the fire in the hall, while Twilight did her best to keep the lab under control. Applejack soon came in to help her with a third extinguisher, while Pinkie made constant trips to the kitchen, always returning with a full bucket of water clenched in her teeth.

 

            Eventually, the fires died out. The smell of burned wood and charred meat filled the air, swirling around with the built-up smoke. A long, heavy groan sounded out from the lab as its fire-weakened roof started to sag inward. The ponies ignored it, instead gathering back in the center of the common room. Several succumbed to coughing fits, though these didn’t last as the smoke gradually cleared from the air.

 

            Slamming the hall door shut, Dash hovered over and flopped down on one of the couches. She breathed heavily, her mouth wide open and her expression vacant. Slowly, she was joined by the others; Fluttershy and Pinkie slid up next to her, while Applejack and Apple Bloom took the opposing couch.

 

            “What are…” Applejack started, staring around the group. “What are we supposed to do now?”

 

            Twilight stood by the wall, facing the soot-covered entrance to the lab. She rubbed her horn. The pain had receded into a faint numbness, though the memory of the shock it had sent through her body still caused her to wince. She sighed and turned to stare back at the group.

 

            “Look…” she said, her eyes sweeping over the other ponies. “I know I'm still me. And if you were all these… things, then you'd just attack me right now, so some of you are still you. Maybe all of you are. This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nopony left to kill it. And then it's won.”

 

            The others stared at Twilight. She stared back, her jaw fixed in a grim, determined manner. Over in the lab, a stray instrument rolled off a broken desk and crashed to the floor.

 

            “I guess we should close that room off,” Twilight said, moving towards the door. Pinkie got up to help her, but Twilight held her back.

 

            “I’ve got this,” Twilight assured her. “Besides, I don’t want anypony stepping on that puddle before I get a chance to clean it up.”

 

            Twilight eyed the streak of blood in front of the door. It was still now, a calm aftereffect of the disaster that had come before.

 

****************************************

 

Apple Bloom sat on the couch, staring straight ahead. She sat unmoving, unflinching, doing little more than blinking and breathing.

 

“Has she said anything yet?” Dash peered over the couch, not willing to get any closer. The couch had been pushed into the corner of the room, with Dash crouching down behind it.

 

            “Would you just give me a minute already?” Applejack said. She gently put her hoof on Apple Bloom’s shoulder and leaned in. “Hey sugarcube, it’s me. It’s Applejack. You’re safe now, alright? You can say somethin’ now. It’s alright.”

 

            “We’ve given you an hour,” Dash repeated. She glanced from side to side, making sure she was still the only one behind the couch. “And I really wouldn’t stand that close to her if I were you.”

 

                “She’s still my sister until proven otherwise, alright? Right now, she needs all the help I can give her,” Applejack snapped, glaring back at Dash. She returned to trying to shake her sister out of her catatonic state. “That little stunt Twilight pulled earlier with the rubbin’ alcohol didn’t help matters, either.”

 

                Applejack rubbed the small bandage on Apple Bloom’s shoulder. A similar bandage adorned her own shoulder, along with all the others.

 

                “I keep telling you, it was a test,” Twilight said, standing by the lab door. She glanced back down at the few notebooks she’d been able to retrieve before they blocked off the lab door with the dinner table.  “It caused a reaction last time, so it seemed logical that it might cause something this time.”

 

                “Yeah, but it didn’t do nothin’ except put each of us in a bit more pain,” Applejack said.

 

                “At least it was something! And right now, a bit of pain is…” Twilight rubbed her horn again, her body tensing up. “Alright, alright, wait…I think I’ve got another idea.”

 

                “Yeah? Lay it on us Twilight, let’s go,” Dash said without hesitation.

 

                “Best be something more practical this time,” Applejack said.

 

                “Alright, um… everypony just bear with me here for a second.” Twilight’s horn glowed as she turned to face Pinkie, who was once again stationed by the bookshelf, surrounded by paperbacks. A purple bubble appeared around her and lifted her into the air, catching her by surprise.

 

                “Hey! What’s the big idea here?” Pinkie protested, reflexively kicking around in the bubble.

 

                Twilight didn’t respond. She looked over the rest of the group. Similar bubbles appeared around every other pony, lifting them into the air one by one until five purple bubbles hovered in the air.

 

                “Twilight, what gives? Put me down!” Dash shouted, her wings flapping uselessly against the magical barrier.

 

                “Twilight, get me back on the floor now!” Applejack slammed against her bubble in a desperate bid to get closer to Apple Bloom. “Twilight Sparkle!”

 

                Twilight looked from pony to pony, searching for any kind of sign. A whole minute passed as she observed them in silence, ignoring all of their shouts. Finally, she sighed, her head drooping down. The bubbles vanished, and the others tumbled to the floor.

 

                “What in the hay was that, Twilight?” Dash asked, pulling herself up from the floor. “You call that a test?”

 

                “It reacted to my magic last time. It reacted in… in a way I’d never seen before,” Twilight said. She rubbed her horn at the memory. “It made me feel… the point is, I wanted to see if it would happen again. If it did, then we would know.”

 

                “But it didn’t!” Applejack straightened Apple Bloom back onto her seat. The filly remained oblivious to the world around her. “Twilight, you’re gonna need to think of somethin’ a lot more certain than that.”

 

                “I don’t know what else to do!” Twilight said. “I’d already tried everything before, and the two bits of new information I learned afterward just proved to be no help at all.”

 

                “Umm…” Fluttershy spoke for the first time, causing the others to turn their attention to her. She was pressed up against the far wall with a small blanket for cover. Her eyes were bloodshot from tears, and she was beginning to hyperventilate from crying so much.

 

                “Do-does this m-mean that... t-that we’re a-all alright?” she asked. Her voice cracked at every opportunity. “T-that none o-of us are… a-are…”

 

                Fluttershy broke back down into a fit of tears.

 

                “I’m not sure,” Twilight said. “It’s entirely possible we’re all clean, and that’s something I desperately want to be true, but we just don’t have any way to conclusively prove it.”

 

                “Yeah, yeah, you said it. None of your tests are goin’ anywhere, that’s for sure.” Applejack turned up from her sister, looking Twilight straight in the eye. “Twilight, look, I’m… I’m sorry for what happened. For how I was actin’. We all just thought you’d gone crazy after that stuff yesterday, but now… well, I wish I’d listened to ya a bit earlier. I don’t know how much difference it would’ve made, but… can’t do much about that now I suppose. An’ I am sorry about gettin’ on your case for these tests. I know you wanna figure this out as much as I do.”

 

                Twilight bit her tongue and took a deep breath before responding. “Applejack, I know how you feel. So you don’t have to… just don’t dwell on it. Not now.”

 

                Applejack dropped her head back down. “So what can we do now? Just wait it out for Hawks?”

 

                “That could take days!” Dash flew up from her hiding spot to perch on top of the couch. “Why should we wait that long? If we’re all clean, then we need to get out of here pronto. And if we’re not all clean, then we might not even last that long!”

 

                “Rainbow, would you calm down for a moment?” Applejack said. “How’re we supposed to get out of here anyway? We’ve been over all this already.”

 

                Dash stared down at Applejack. A look of disbelief formed over the pegasus’ face. “Calm down? You want me to calm down? After a day and a half of you practically jumping to figure out a way to force Twilight to get us out of here?”

 

                “The situation’s changed, Rainbow Dash!” Applejack shot back. “I already admitted I was at fault before, what more do you want outta me? Right now, we don’t seem to have any other choice but waitin’ for help to get here.”

 

                “We have the choice of leaving! Especially if we’re all clean right now. Twilight’s tests could’ve just proved that!”

 

                “We can’t all be clean.” Pinkie’s head snapped up from her book. She had a vacant look in her eyes, looking around the room but never at another pony directly; always just over their shoulders at some point near them. “There’s at least one more.”

 

                The others stayed silent at the remark, casting unsure glances at one another.

 

                “Pinkie, what are you talking about?” Twilight finally asked. “What do you mean at least one more?”

 

                “Because we’ve been here for three days, alright?” Pinkie pointed at the variety of books laid out in front of her, gathering her memory as she bounced from page to page. “Okay, so that’s almost three days, but these things have a driving need to spread themselves around and infect somepony, so at this point there must be another. Unless I miscounted and there should be two, or if Sweetie Belle was turned a lot later than I thought… hang on.”

 

                Pinkie flipped a few pages.

 

                “Pinkie, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’re not making any sense,” Twilight said. “You should put those away if they’re causing you to–”

 

                “I dreamed of your library burning down last night,” Pinkie said, causing Twilight to freeze midsentence. “Right in the middle of the day in Ponyville. It started to burn, and nopony around would help, and there was somepony standing in front of it all, looking at me. Smiling at me.”

 

                Twilight gaped, speechless.

 

                “Twilight, what’s goin’ on?” Applejack asked, looking back and forth between Twilight and Pinkie.

 

                “Pinkie’s lost it, that’s what’s going on,” Dash said, shaking her head. “Not that I blame her or anything right now.”

 

                “Pinkie…” Twilight said slowly, “when exactly did you have that dream?”

 

                “Every night since the train,” Pinkie said. “Every time I fall asleep. Same dream, played out in the same way.”

 

                Pinkie cocked her head at Twilight. A faint smile flashed across her lips. “You had it too.”

 

                “I… I…” Twilight stammered.

 

                “You have! The exact same as me!” Pinkie hopped in place, tearing through her old pile of books in a sudden fever of excitement. “Okay, okay, this is good, this gets us somewhere I can work with… I think I can work with it, at least.”

 

                “Alright, whoa, pause here,” Dash said. “Twilight, what is Pinkie talking about?”

 

                “It’s… it’s a dream I’ve been having,” Twilight said. She took a step towards Pinkie’s book pile, trying to pick off the titles she was browsing through. “Or at least, I was having. I haven’t really slept in the past day, so–”

 

                “But you’d have it again if you did,” Pinkie said, interrupting Twilight. “I know. It’s taking me a while to piece all this together, but I know.”

 

                “Pinkie, what are you readin’ anyhow?” Applejack asked, leaning over the couch to get a better look.

 

                “These are my Sugar Cane books.” Pinkie waved over the spread in front of her. “At least, some of them are mine. There was some more on the bookshelf here. Some I’d never even heard of and I thought I’d heard of all his stuff…”

 

                “And you’re getting all this from… these books?” Twilight asked. She glanced skeptically down at the paperbacks. “Pinkie, how is that even–”

 

                “Not one book on its own or anything, no.” Pinkie shook her head and pointed again to multiple pages in front of her. “I’ve sorta been piecing it together. But it’s all here. We’re in the Temple of Proch’No, we unleashed the form that was held here, it’s been attacking and taking us over, and it’s building up towards… um, something. Still working on that part, just give me a little longer…”

 

                “Hey now, just wait an apple pickin’ minute,” Applejack said. “Just what the hay are you two goin’ on about?”

 

                “Okay, I’m calling it, Pinkie is nuts.” Dash turned from Pinkie to Twilight. “Right, Twilight? Right?”

 

                “Is… all that really in there, Pinkie?” Twilight asked. Pinkie nodded in response.

 

                “I don’t believe this.” Dash put her hoof to her forehead and sighed. “Alright, now Twilight is nuts too. Guys, listen to yourselves. Those are a bunch of crummy horror books… why are we even focusing on them right now?”

 

                “Rainbow, they’re probably just random coincidences.” Twilight stepped back from the books and returned to notes. “But at this point we… we can’t discount anything. No matter how strange.”

 

                “That doesn’t even make sense, Twilight!” Dash pressed herself against the wall. “And when you stop making sense like this, it makes me worry even more…”

 

                Twilight eyed Dash closely. “What do you mean by that, Rainbow Dash?”

 

                Dash wiped her mouth, glancing back and forth between Twilight and the others. “I’m just thinking out loud here, and I can’t be the only one thinking it, but… why are we automatically trusting Twilight right now? What clears her over us?”

 

                Twilight withheld an indignant gasp. “I’ve been the one trying to figure things out. I’m the one who tried to really alert you all to this thing in the first place!”

 

                “So what?” Dash’s body tensed up, ready to pounce forward at the slightest moment. She worked to contain herself. “That’s doesn’t mean anything, not anymore. Look, you want to hear a story, Twilight? I’ve got a little one, because I’ve figured this thing out.”

 

                Twilight slowly tapped her hoof on the ground, her gaze never leaving Dash.

 

                “I was in the kitchen late last night,” Dash said, brushing her mane out of her face, “when Sweetie Belle came in. This was after you were all asleep, and she was just getting water or something. And she was acting all sad and depressed, so I talked to her a bit. Tried to cheer her up. I even hugged her. And she went on acting like Sweetie Belle.”

 

                Dash leaned forward, her voice dropping. “But it wasn’t Sweetie Belle, was it? It was one of those things, alright? See, I get it. It really is like you said, Twilight. These things imitate us perfectly. They’re smart. They plan. They wait. Sweetie Belle only came out because of an accident–”

 

                “An accident I caused,” Twilight muttered.

 

                “But still an accident!” Dash raised her voice. “You leave them to their own devices, these things can do whatever, and think of the best way to go about doing it. And who better to go after than the leader of our group, the one who keeps having test after test fail, a pony who always understands everything but is suddenly being stumped by something that keeps giving her more and more information on it.”

 

                “Rainbow, back up. You say you were alone with Sweetie Belle last night?” Applejack slowly moved to one side, positioning herself between Dash and Apple Bloom. “Well how do I know she didn’t go after you now?”

 

                “Why would I bring it up if it did?” Dash scoffed.

 

                “Your own logic here, Dash. Can’t clear yourself because you just say so.”

 

                “But she didn’t do anything!” Dash shouted. “That’s exactly my point! These things are smart! You have to just see who they would take next, just figure that part out, that’s the way to beat them.”

 

                “Rainbow, you’re being hysterical right now,” Twilight says, her voice gaining an edge. “I tried to stop that thing in the other room, and it took down my magic. You saw that!”

 

                “Yeah, and your magic has failed like that how many times before, Twilight?” Dash hovered slowly up the wall. “A pretty convenient time for it to fail, if you ask me.”

 

                “That thing in there was concentratin’ on you pretty good, Rainbow Dash, but waited to make a move,” Applejack pointed out. “It sure as hayfire didn’t slow down for Rarity!”

 

                “I got lucky!” Dash’s head was constantly in motion now, her gaze going around every pony in the room. “I’m still me! I’m the one who’s really figuring this thing out right now. And what about you, Applejack? You’ve been pretty combative about it. Of course, it doesn’t even need to be you, since it’s most likely her!”

 

                Dash thrust a hoof out in Apple Bloom’s direction. The filly shook her head at the gesture, blinking as she wiped some sweat from her forehead. She looked up at her sister. “A-Applejack? What’s g-going on?”

 

                “Apple Bloom!” Applejack leaned in and hugged her sister tightly. “How are you feelin’? Are you alright?”

 

                “I… I don’t…” Apple Bloom descended into tears, shoving her head into Applejack’s warm embrace.

 

                “Stop getting so close!” Dash shouted, shoving herself back against the wall. “Isn’t it obvious now? It started with Scootaloo, and she spread out to the ones closest to her. That’s Sweetie Belle and… Apple Bloom!”

 

                “How would that be smart if it was so obvious?” Twilight stepped past her notes and walked forward, still fixed on Dash. “Rainbow, you need to calm down right now, you are not helping matters at all.”

 

                “Yeah!” Applejack narrowed her eyes at Dash. “I’ve had it up to here with your attitude towards my sister right now. An’ another thing, how does any of this clear you? Apart from already admittin’ to bein’ alone with Sweetie Belle, you’re the one who’s gotten so aggressive so fast. What are you tryin’ to pull, throwin’ the scent offa yourself now?”

 

                “Of course, she was the one closest to the other two,” Twilight mumbled. “I guess it would make sense, and if it was that obvious, then we might just pass it over on accident…”

 

                Applejack’s head whirled around. “Not you too, Twilight! I’ve definitely had enough of that.”

                

                “Girls!” Pinkie shouted, bounding over her books to the center of the room. “What are we doing? This doesn’t work for us!”

 

                Pinkie turned towards Dash. “Especially you, Dashie. You’re the loyal one! What’s going on here?”

 

                Dash wrinkled her brow. “Pinkie, what are you… look, I’m loyal to my friends. But right now, I’m not sure which of you are actually my friends.”

 

                Pinkie scratched her chin. “That’s a bit of a stretch, but maybe that could work… maybe…”

 

                Pinkie took another few steps towards Dash. She was within hopping distance of the couch.

 

                “Hey, not so close!” Dash’s wings flapped. In a flash, she shot up and over the others, flying over to a far corner of the room. She pressed herself against the ceiling, her hooves out and twitching wildly. “All of you just keep away from me right now, alright?  I don’t need this. I don’t deserve this. Stuck a thousand miles from nowhere, probably with some big monster that wants to rip my guts out, and in the one part of Equestria that I can’t just push the clouds aside to fly away!”

 

                Another strong gale slammed down on the base, causing the roof over the lab to creak loudly.

 

                “Oh would you shut up!” Dash banged on the ceiling, her hoof making a small dent in the aluminum ceiling tiles.

 

                “Quit tryin’ to distract us like that, Dash!” Applejack said. She grabbed Apple Bloom and drew herself onto the couch Dash had been hiding behind, taking up that corner of the room as her own. “You wanna throw out accusations like that, you know that’s just gonna bring it all back to you.”

 

                “Hey, you want me to back this up? Here, I can explain myself, for you and for Twilight. Because the way I see it, there’s a pretty good chance of it being any one of you!”

 

                Dash pointed her hoof at Applejack. “We’ve got the overprotective sister who’s been trying her hardest to get out of here since this whole thing started, and who was working to split up the group in arguments just yesterday. Good starting point for something that wants to go and wreak havoc with the rest of Equestria.”

 

                Before Applejack could respond, Dash pointed to Apple Bloom. “We’ve got the last remaining filly, who was pretty much inseparable with the other two just the other day, when both of them were taken over.”

 

                Dash brought her hoof around to Twilight. “Then there’s our ever present leader, who’s spent most of her time off alone with what’s left of one of those things, and is apparently the only one who’s allowed to decide what’s true and what’s not about them. Pretty tempting target right there, don’t ya think? Especially when it seems only part of those things need to be dead in the first place to spread. Sweetie Belle was doing something to Copper when she was burned to a crisp. It would just take a little bit left in there to jump onto somepony else.”

 

                “Rainbow, I definitely don’t think it works like–”

 

                Dash ignored Twilight and moved on to Pinkie, who was scratching her leg and didn’t even seem to notice Dash. “I don’t know what is happening to you at all, but it is definitely something not right. And I don’t mean that in the usual Pinkie way, either. This is something else, and each and every one of you can see it.”

 

                Dash spun and faced Fluttershy, who had been silently watching the proceedings and let out a tiny shriek when Dash got to her. “And we can’t forget Fluttershy, because that’s just what it would want us to do! Get into the one you least suspect, the one who’s just always sort of there, and then BAM it gets you.”

 

                Finally, Dash pointed to herself. “And yeah, you know what, there is me. It could totally be me. Except, no, it can’t. You know why? Because if I was one of those things, I would’ve made a break for it at the first possible moment, and believe me when I say I’ve had plenty of moments. I would’ve flown out of here so fast not even Twilight could’ve caught me, just plowed straight through that storm. It wouldn’t have mattered what you thought, because I’d be back home before you found another pony to explain all this too. In fact, whichever one of you it is, you’re probably regretting not going after me sooner. That would’ve solved all your problems, would’ve made your little plan work!”

 

                Dash let her hoof fall to her side. She panted loudly, sweat dripping off her forehead. “But I didn’t leave. I’m still here. Because it’s not me. I’m still here.”

 

                Slowly, as her breathing rate fell back to normal, Dash slid down the wall. “I’m… I’m still here.”

 

                Dash’s eyes fell, her tone following suit and dropping to a whisper. She landed softly on the floor, her head drooping between her knees. Her whole body started to shake. “I’m still… why am I still here? I want to go home. I want to go home.”

 

                Dash rocked back and forth in the corner, muttering softly to herself. The others stared at her.

 

                “Jeeze, Rainbow…” Applejack said. Her mouth stayed open as she tried to continue, but there were no words. She hung her head, brought her eyes back around to her sister.

 

                “Ummm… that’s not right,” Pinkie said to nopony in particular. She stared at her ankle, scratching at it furiously. “Yeah, that’s very different.”

 

                Pinkie scuttled back to her books. She started turning pages at a high rate of speed, barely waiting to read a sentence before turning to another section.

 

Twilight took no notice of her. “We can beat this thing,” she said softly. She took a few steps towards Dash, reconsidered, and instead walked back to her notes. “We just need to keep a steady head here, and we–”

 

                “I h-h-hear something,” Fluttershy said. She steadied herself against the wall, sniffling and wiping away tears from her eyes. “J-just now, I mean. I… I heard something. It w-was c-coming from below us.”

 

                The group glanced down nervously. Something beneath their hooves cracked. Everypony froze in place, their heads now fixated on the floor. Each listened intently, searching for the source of the rogue sound.

 

                “A weak piece of wood maybe?” Applejack said. “Somethin’ torn loose by the storm?”

 

                “That wouldn’t make a noise below us,” Twilight said.

 

                Dash put her ears to the ground. “I’ve g-got nothing over here. Just a low humming… but I think that’s always been there. Maybe something’s happening to the generator or–”

 

                A loud pop made Dash jump. The sound of metal clanged below them. Overhead, the lights flickered momentarily and then clicked out. The base was plunged into darkness. Fluttershy screamed, while Applejack and Twilight shouted in surprise.

 

                “Hey, what gives? Where’d the lights go?” Dash shouted. A new volley of noise filled the air as feathers flapped and hooves stamped across the room. Furniture scraped across the floor and the glass of a lamp shattered as the ponies fumbled around in the dark.

 

                “Apple Bloom? You still there? Say somethin’!”

 

                “Hey! Who’s bumping into me?”

 

                “Um, that’s me, Twilight. Sorry.”

 

                “Pinkie! Don’t sneak up on ponies like that!”

 

                “Everypony stay where you are, alright? I don’t want any of you getting any closer!”

 

                “Applejack! Where are you? Don’t leave me!”

 

                “I’m right here sugarcube, don’t worry, I got you.”

 

                A light appeared. Twilight’s horn lit up, producing a small glow at the tip of her horn. It wasn’t much, but it proved adequate in illuminating at least part of the room. Long shadows appeared on everypony’s faces. None of them moved when the light went up; they all stayed rooted to the spot.

 

                “Everypony alright?” Twilight asked, the question almost a formality at this point. She got a few automatic, blank nods in reply.

 

                “Hey… hey, wait a minute.” Dash flew to the window, pressing her face right up against the cold glass. “This isn’t right. Where’s the sunlight? The sun couldn’t have gone down already, it’s too early for that.”

 

                The sky outside was pitch black. Dash squinted past her reflection and was almost able to make out the billowing clouds overhead. The view didn’t last, as a flurry of wind pushed another wall of snow past the window, blocking the sky even further.

 

                “Rainbow’s right. It wasn’t near this dark this time yesterday,” Applejack said. She was seated on the couch now, still holding Apple Bloom close. “Is that right up here?”

 

                “That’s beyond the weather up here being out to get us. That’s… that’s something else.” Dash scrambled back, almost tripping on the supply pile. She bent down and, after a moment of rooting around, produced a small lantern. She flicked it on , producing a faint glow.

 

                “The storm clouds are just really thick,” Twilight said. She quickly turned towards the kitchen door. “Right now, we need to worry about what seems to have gone wrong with the generator. One of us will have to go down and look at it.”

 

                Every eye in the room snapped to Twilight. She sighed. “Alright, I’ll go.”

 

                “Yeah, don’t take too long now, alright?” Dash said, clutching the lantern as close to her body as she could. A small box at the corner of her eye caught her attention: the thermite charges. Slowly, as the others watched Twilight walk out of the room, she bent down. Her wing silently unfolded. It scooped up a single charge and brought it up into the fold of feathers. Dash’s eyes twitched left and right as she backed away from the supplies, putting herself against the wall under the window. The small charge felt almost weightless to her.

 

****************************************

 

                The door to the basement was jammed. It took Twilight two kicks to get it open, and even then it only opened under creaky protest. Her glow made for an eerie sight as she peered down the stairs. There was no movement down below, not even from piles of dust that might’ve been kicked up by the movement of the door.

 

                Slowly, Twilight descended the stairs. The wood groaned under every step, though nothing gave way. Twilight breathed easily as she reached the bottom and turned towards the generator. She was relaxed; she had been there shortly after they arrived at the base. She knew the layout.

 

                The room was filled with moving shadows as she walked along the icy floor. They danced along the walls, shoving their way past shelves of maintenance equipment and frost covered junk. For a moment, Twilight swore she saw a shape similar to the one projected by the tube two days earlier, but it was gone before she was able to focus on it. Twilight glanced around the shadows one more time and kept walking.

 

The only other light source came from the opposite end of the room, where the dull red glow of the furnace could be seen through the thick iron grill. Its heat kept the basement above freezing, but Twilight still shivered.

 

I should’ve grabbed my scarf before I came down, she thought, her teeth chattering.

 

                The generator was situated in the center of the room, just on top of a large concrete block. Twilight craned her neck to study the crude device. Like most generators she had seen, it was a small metal box of coils and wires, all of which were connected to the drive that produced the power. A massive plastic fuel tank sat on top of it, and a series of cables ran up into the walls, where they were further divided and directed into various parts of the base. Twilight didn’t quite understand the specifics of how it all worked, though she made a mental note to read up on them when she got home.

 

                If we even get home, of course, she thought bitterly. She shook her head to chase out such negative thoughts and circled the machine. She only took a few steps before her hoof came down in a small puddle. She bent down to take a closer look: gasoline. A lot of it.

                

                She looked up. Two small gashes were in the side of the fuel tank. The gas puddle was quite large, and drips continued to fall as she watched.

 

                Now what could have caused that?

 

                Twilight gulped. She grabbed some thick duct tape off a shelf and got to work patching the hole. It only took a few moments to apply a few layers, though she wasn’t sure how long it would last. Walking through the growing puddle, her hoof caught on something hard. A gardening claw, the handle with a deep bite impression, lay amongst the spilled fuel.

 

                Twilight frowned. She eyed the tool carefully as she walked by and levitated up a large gas canister. Pouring the fuel in, the tank was again filled. The tape bulged, but it didn’t break; no more gas leaked out.

                

                Twilight flipped a big red switch on the side of the machine. The generator chugged to life. It kicked and wheezed at first, but very shortly it gave in and ran at a constant pace. The basement lights flickered back to life.

 

Twilight grinned. Alright, taken care of. One less thing, I suppose.

 

                She turned to leave when something caught her eye. She turned and faced the wall behind the generator. Unlike the base, the basement had no pony-made walls. It was essentially a big hole carved out of the snow and ice, situated directly under the kitchen. Twilight stared at the wall, which under normal circumstances would’ve been smooth and uninteresting.

                

                There was a message staring back at her. Big, jagged words had been roughly carved into the ice. Despite the dim lights of the basement, the words were clear:

 

THE SLEEPER AWAKENS

YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED

                

                Twilight studied the writing. It was recent; ice shavings and chunks were still at the base of the wall, not yet refrozen in with the floor.

 

                That definitely wasn’t there the last time I was down here. She reached her hoof out, wanting to scrape over the message, as if to make sure it was really there.

 

                Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move. She spun around, her muscles tightening and her horn lowering. It glowed brightly as she prepared for anything, then dimmed as she got a clear look at what was caught on a nearby shelf.

 

                How did that get down

 

                A loud crash came from upstairs. Her head shot up as the sound of wood and metal hitting the floor reverberated down to her. Pausing only to scoop up a few things, she flashed out of the basement. Another few bits of chipped ice fell from the message as she teleported away. They landed with an inaudible patter on the cold floor, the noise lost under the steady hum of the generator.

 

****************************************

 

                Applejack watched Twilight walk into the kitchen. Her hoofsteps could be heard even after the door swung shut. Two small thuds followed the steps, after which they could hear even fainter hoofsteps descending the stairs.

 

                Applejack sighed. “Any more of those lanterns over there, Rainbow Dash?”

 

                “Maybe. Feel free to check.” Dash fidgeted with her lamp, trying to get the weak flame to give off a little more light. Her efforts proved futile, as it was running very low on oil, and she returned to hugging it closely. “Listen, Applejack, everything else aside… you know what I’m talking about with Twilight, right?”

                

                “Rainbow, don’t start with that again,” Applejack said sharply. “After that whole speech you gave… why are you tryin’ to do this now, anyway? You’re just makin’ the rest of us anxious.”

 

                “We should be anxious!” Dash hissed, fumbling with the lantern as she rose up against the ceiling. “Look where we are right now! Look what’s happened! Right now, we need to keep our guard up and be on the lookout for whoever might be one of those things. So I’m looking at Twilight, like the rest of you should.”

 

                “Dashie, it can’t be Twilight.” Pinkie slowly scraped her hoof along the floor, not looking up. “That wouldn’t fit at all. Not here and now, at least.”

 

                “Okay, Pinkie, I’m sorry for accusing you earlier, but you are not helping your case right now either.” Dash shook her head and brushed more of her mane away from her eyes. “Look, never mind you right now. We all just… just keep an eye on Twilight. I’ll figure out something.”

 

                “Rainbow Dash, I don’t even know what you’re talkin’ about now,” Applejack said. “But you need to calm down with all the hoof pointin’. Out of everythin’ that’s happenin’ right now, that’s the least helpful thing to do.”

 

                “Hey, at least I– Hey, where’s Fluttershy? Fluttershy!” Dash called out, her eyes frantically searching through the extended darkness. “Where are you? Did she get away?”

 

                A small whimper came from the corner of the room. “I… I’m still h-here.”

 

                Dash squinted, barely able to make out the bright yellow form by the far wall. “Alright, alright. Just… just checking. Don’t want anypony wandering off now.”

 

                The lights flickered. The hum of the generator whirred back to life, sending power back through the base.

 

                “Hey now, that’s more like it,” Applejack said. She glanced around the room. Everypony looked the same as they had save for Dash, who had shifted places on the ceiling and was considerably paler.

 

                “I’m still gonna keep this close by,” Dash said, patting her lantern. “Just in case. Don’t want to be caught by surprise again.”

 

                “Well, so long as Twilight is sure to–” A loud crash cut Applejack off. Everypony turned to hear a massive THUMP from the other side of the lab wall. The floor rattled and several books fell off the bookshelf.

 

                Dash flinched, nearly shoving her head into the ceiling. “What was that? What’s going on?”

 

                The center of the room flashed. Twilight appeared, her head looking in all directions the moment she was through teleporting. “What was that?” she asked, her attention turning to every pony in the room.

 

                Dash flinched again. “Hey! How about a little warning next time before you sneak up on somepony like that?”

 

                “It came from the lab, Twilight,” Applejack said. “Maybe the roof caved in.”

 

                “The fire did burn it pretty bad…” Twilight turned her attention to the hall door. “I hope that’s the only part that gives way. This place can’t be in the best shape as it is; last thing we need is the ceiling coming down on top of us. Or the floor giving way.”

 

                “Great. That’s just perfect,” Dash said, rolling her eyes. “Just what we need. Now this place is falling apart all around us.”

 

                “What was wrong with the generator, Twilight?” Pinkie asked, cocking her head to one side.

 

                “Somepony tried to sabotage it.” Twilight dropped the gardening claw on the floor. “I found this down there. It was used to puncture a hole in the fuel tank.”

 

                “Why would somepony do a thing like that?” Applejack asked. “What would be the point of shuttin’ the lights off on us?”

 

                “I don’t know,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “I do know it must’ve happened recently. I was down there the other day and it was running fine on a full tank of gas.”

 

                Dash’s eyes grew wide. “Somepony tried to… when could they have done it? Who was alone in the kitchen last?”

 

                “According to that little story of yours, you were, Rainbow Dash,” Applejack said, staring Dash down.

 

                “How high was the hole, Twilight?” Pinkie asked. Her face was calm and serene, and her hoof continued to fiddle around on the floor.

 

                “Uh… a little high up. I had to strain to get a good look at it. It was definitely higher than…” Twilight’s hoof twitched in Apple Bloom’s direction, but she restrained herself. “It was higher than Sweetie Belle or Scootaloo could’ve reached.”

 

                “That still doesn’t mean it was me!” Dash said, shrinking back. “I haven’t been down to the basement at all this trip! I swear!”

 

                “That’s not all I found down there,” Twilight said. She unfolded another object from under her foreleg and tossed it onto the floor: a long scarf, light pink in color.

 

                Everypony studied the article of clothing. “It was caught on a shelf down there, next to the generator. And next to… something on the wall.”

 

                “Something? What exactly do you mean, something?” Dash asked. “And who’s scarf is that?”

 

                “There was…” Twilight hesitated, then took a breath and continued. “There was a message carved into the ice. Something meant for us, I think.”

 

                “A message in the ice? What the hay?” Dash muttered.

 

                “What did it say, Twilight?” Applejack asked.

 

                “‘And as I stumbled down the long path under the earth, my lantern reflected off something in the wall. Steadying myself as I approached, I came across a crude carving in the rock. It had certainly not been there when I traversed this tunnel not an hour before. Taking in the words, a firm chill worked its way up my spine, the very same chill that had made itself known back in the sacrificial chamber. The wall read The Sleeper Awakens, and, in a slightly smaller though no less legible script underneath, You Will Not Be Saved.’” Pinkie looked up, her book staying open in front of her. “Was it anything like that, Twilight?” she asked, staring Twilight right in the eye.

 

                “It… uh…” Twilight stammered. “That’s… exactly what it said. Pinkie, how did you…”

 

                “That’s good, that’s good, I can work with that,” Pinkie said. She folded over the page in the book. “It was that exact message, right Twilight? ‘The Sleeper awakens, you will not be saved’, the whole bit?”

 

                “Okay, time-out for a sec,” Dash crossed her hooves, looking back and forth between Twilight and Pinkie. “Twilight, you mean that something out of Pinkie’s books is carved on the wall in the basement right now?”

 

                “That’s what it says, but it could just be a coinci–” Twilight started, but she cut herself off as her voice wavered. She scratched her chin, slowly turning to look at Pinkie.

 

                “Pinkie, what are you doing carving things in the basement?” Dash asked, pointing down at the floor. “Did you stab the generator too? What are you trying to do to us here?”

 

                “Hey, whoa, there’s no reason to suggest that’s what happened,” Twilight said, bringing her attention back to Dash.

 

                “And I’m sure you’ve got another theory as to why that is, Twilight.” Dash clutched her head, rolling her eyes.

 

                “It is a bit hard to swallow that she didn’t have at least somethin’ to do with it,” Applejack muttered. Twilight shot her a confused look. Applejack shrugged. “Well, even you have to admit it’s a mighty bit peculiar, them matchin’ up an’ all.”

 

                “Well Pinkie?” Dash pressed. “Got anything to say about this?”

 

                “Huh? About what?” Pinkie looked up, her face as calm as it ever was.

 

                Dash swooped down and swiped the scarf off the floor. She hovered over Pinkie, shoving it in her face. “This is yours, isn’t it? What was it doing downstairs? Hey!”

 

                Dash kicked out at a pile of Pinkie’s books, sprawling them across the floor. Pinkie hopped up, her eyes widening. She tried to grab them before they got too far. “Hey, watch it! I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dashie, but I–”

 

                “And quit calling me that!” Dash tossed the scarf to the floor and returned to her high spot on the ceiling. “This isn’t the time to try and back out. That’s your scarf, and it was downstairs next to a message from your books and a busted generator. Add that to all your… whatever you’ve been doing, and it’s definitely making you look pretty suspicious right now.”

 

                Pinkie stared at the fallen scarf, her mouth hanging open in a slight daze. “But I… I don’t know what… I just need to check something, hang on…”

 

                Pinkie reached out for another book, while Dash released an anguished cry.

 

                “Again with the books! Enough of that, Pinkie, enough!” Dash yelled. “Focus on that scarf, on your scarf!”

 

                “Um, I think th-that’s m-mine.” Everypony turned to Fluttershy. She stood up slowly, her knees trembling, and walked over to examine the strip of cloth. “I… I think it m-might be, at least. I don’t know w-what happened to it, though, or h-how it got d-down th-there.”

 

                “Fluttershy? That’s yours?” Dash looked taken aback at the revelation, but she quickly recovered and pointed forward, her arm locking in place in Fluttershy’s direction. “So what were you doing down in the basement?”

 

                “I wasn’t! I mean, I haven’t been, um, down there at all.” Fluttershy shrank backwards, cowering under Dash’s accusing hoof. “I’m sorry if I’m confusing everypony right now, I just, uh, didn’t want Pinkie getting blamed for something that was, well, mine. But I still didn’t do it!”

 

                “We can’t know that, now can we?” Dash flapped forward, sending Fluttershy back to her original spot, shaking and crying. “If you were really so concerned, maybe you should’ve just done what you always do and kept your mouth shut! But now I’m not so sure about you at all!”

 

                “Hey, ease up there, Rainbow.” Applejack leaned forward, glaring. “What reason would Fluttershy have to say it was hers if she actually did it? Maybe somepony planted it there, you ever think of that?”

 

                “Applejack’s right, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said, moving forward to put a hoof down on the scarf. “All we know is that somepony got to the generator, and it might or might not have been the owner of this scarf. You really need to relax right now.”

 

                “Everypony stop telling me to relax!” Dash yelled, her voice ready to crack under the strain. “I’m trying to stay focused right now. I just need to figure this out!”

 

                “We all do, Rainbow! That still doesn’t give you the right to be pointin’ hooves at us!” Applejack stood up from the couch. Apple Bloom retreated back into the cushions, quivering at the noise that surrounded her.

 

                “I’ve got to! Twilight just proved that one of us isn’t who we say we are!” Dash said. She kept trying to push herself back, even though she had long ago hit the ceiling.

 

                “You mean the Twilight you were just tryin’ to convince me is one of those things the moment she left?” Applejack asked.

 

                “You did what?” Twilight cried. She looked up at Dash, her eye twitching. “Rainbow, I thought we’d settled all that!”

 

                “When did that happen? News to me!” Dash shouted back. “You’re the most likely suspect here, Twilight, and you know it!”

 

                “Hey, I’ve just been telling you what I’ve seen and found right now,” Twilight said, narrowing her eyes. “You want to go down there and look for yourself?”

 

“Oh please, you think I’m that gullible?” Dash said. “Want to get me all alone down there? Come on! You’re the one who’s been down in the basement for sure, you’re the one who could’ve zapped in and out without any of us knowing about it, and you’re still the only one of us who–”

 

                “Why are we all yelling?” Pinkie asked suddenly.

 

                Applejack looked at her. “Pinkie, what are you goin’ on about now–”

 

                “Hey, wait… everypony listen!” Twilight put a hoof in the air, perking her ears up. “Just listen.”

 

                The group waited in silence.

 

                “I don’t hear anything,” Applejack said.

 

                “Exactly!” Twilight pointed towards the window. “The storm… it’s died down!”

 

                The raging howls of the wind, so familiar to the group by now, were gone. A faint silence had replaced it, almost out of place in the circumstances. Dash flew over and looked outside. No snow was flying past her now, not one flake. She looked towards the sky. The swirling black clouds from before were gone. A faint white glow could be seen in one corner of the sky, hidden behind a thin layer of overcast.

 

                “It’s the moon,” Dash said softly. She clapped her hooves together in glee. “I can see the moon! The storm’s gone! It’s clear outside!”

 

                “That left pretty quick,” Applejack said. She craned her neck, trying to see past Dash to get a glimpse of the outside world. “How is that even possible?”

 

                “Well, the weather up here was already acting strange.” Twilight scratched her head. “I still don’t understand these storms that aren’t pony controlled. Maybe they leave just as fast as they arrive.”

 

                “Guys, we can go now!” Dash twirled her head around, a big grin on her face. “I could fly through that with one wing tied behind my back, easy. Don’t you see?”

 

                “Whoa, hold up a minute there,” Applejack said. “We ain’t exactly finished up with things here.”

 

                “Applejack’s right, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said, watching as Dash’s face fell. “Besides, just because it’s fine now doesn’t mean it’ll be fine when we try to leave. You’ve seen how quickly a storm front can move in out there.”

 

                Dash turned back to the window, her grin failing. She put a hoof against the glass, her eyes drawn back up to the white glow in the sky. “But… but we can go now.”

 

                “We should wait for help to arrive,” Twilight said. She kicked the gardening claw. “After what happened here, and with me unable to get a proper test… I don’t think we can do this on our own.”

 

                Twilight looked up at Applejack. “Applejack, you agree with me right? On what we have to do now?”

 

                Applejack’s brows rose. She glanced at the lab door, over to the hall door, and finally down at her little sister. Apple Bloom looked up and tried to smile, though it didn’t last. Applejack gently patted her on the head. “Yeah. Yeah, I suppose you’re right about this one, Twilight. Not much else we can do now but wait.”

 

                “Rainbow Dash, what are you doing?” Fluttershy cried out. She shot a trembling hoof towards the outside door.

 

                Dash struggled with her thermite charge, trying to get it wedged into place next to all the rebar. “Come on, you stupid little… stay in place…”

 

                “Rainbow Dash, stop!” Applejack ran towards the door. Dash kicked her lantern at her. It flew into Applejack’s legs, causing her to trip down onto the floor.

 

                “I can go get help… I can do it!” The charge locked into place, stuck tight between the blocked door and the outstretched metal bars. Dash smiled and reached for the detonator switch–

 

                A bright light flashed over her. Dash vanished from the door, reappearing on the other side of the room. Her hoof brushed over empty air as she glared at Twilight and her still-glowing horn.

 

                “Hey! Don’t ever do that to me again, Twilight! You hear me?”

 

                “Rainbow, we can’t have you– hey!” Twilight ducked as Dash launched up, flying overhead right back towards the door. Dash reached a hoof in front of her, getting closer and closer to the switch with each flap of her wings.

 

                “Oh no you don’t!” Applejack leapt off the floor, tackling Dash out of the air a foot from the door. The two ponies crashed to the ground, rolling around in a furious twist of kicks.

                

                “Lemme go Applejack! Get off me!” Dash tried to struggle free, kicking at Applejack at every opportunity.

 

                “Twilight, gimme a hoof here!” Applejack commanded. Twilight nodded and moved in, only to receive a solid hoof to the chest as Dash landed a lucky hit. Twilight stumbled backward and tripped over the gardening claw, dropping to the floor. She slid a few feet, coming to a stop when she bumped into the hall door. It swung open, the weakened hinges easily giving way to the weight pressed against it.

 

                “Alright, ouch…” Twilight rubbed her chest as she stood up, her hooves still shaking from the powerful blow. Shaking her head, she caught sight of the burned remains of Rarity just down the hall. She quickly averted her eyes, bringing them down to the blood pool in front of it. The blood had dried up by now, though it still left an impression of its original crescent-moon shape.

 

                Twilight blinked. “That’s interesting…” she said softly. She leaned in to get a closer look.

 

                “Um, T-Twilight? Are y-you okay?” Fluttershy slowly approached Twilight from behind, still sniffling.

 

                Back by the window, Applejack continued to wrestle with Dash. “Come on, Rainbow Dash, quit strugglin’! You aren’t makin’ it easier for yourself!”

 

                “I said, let me go!” Dash straightened her back straight up, expanding her wings at the same time. Applejack momentarily lost her grip, and Dash was able to wriggle her off. Applejack fell backwards onto the supply pile with a brief cry of pain.

 

                “Nopony touch me! Ever!” Dash stood up, quickly dusting herself off. She looked toward the barricaded door, which Applejack was now rolling around in front of. She spun around, now facing the tunnel to the temple . She took a step forward, only to catch an edge of one of Pinkie’s books. Still somewhat disoriented from the fight, she slipped, tumbling back down to the floor. The book launched forward along the floor, knocking Pinkie in the arm. She stared down, her eyes widening at what she saw.

 

                “That’s very new…” she said in astonishment.

 

                “Applejack, tie her down!” Twilight shouted, pulling herself out of the hallway.

 

                Before Dash could react, a rope slipped around her head. Applejack had her in a bind. She stood in front of a long coil of rope, freshly snatched from the bottom of the supplies. Dash tried to struggle away, but Applejack kept tossing new lassos out and around her. It wasn’t long before Dash was completely entangled. Ropes covered every limb and both wings, holding her down tightly.

 

                “Get her down on the couch there,” Twilight said. “I want to keep her in one place right now.”

 

                Dash fought as hard as she could, but her binds refused to give. Applejack dragged her over to the couch, tossing her up onto the cushions upon arrival. With a few expert pulls and tugs, Dash was strapped down to the couch. She threw herself forward in a final attempt at freedom; the legs of the couch lifted a few centimeters off the floor, only to settle back down again. Dash was stuck fast.

 

                “You guys are going to listen to Twilight?” she cried out, still squirming under the ropes. “She could be one of those things! Don’t do this to me!”

 

                Applejack breathed heavily, brushing sweat off her forehead. “Just hang tight, Rainbow Dash. We’ll deal with you yet.”

 

                Apple Bloom reached up to her sister. “Applejack, please… I’m scared.”

 

                “It’s alright Apple Bloom, I gotcha.” Applejack scooped her sister up, drawing her into a tight hug over the couch. “I gotcha.”

 

                “Everypony, follow me into the kitchen,” Twilight announced. Everypony looked up at her with interest. Everypony except for Pinkie, who continued to stare and gape at her ankle.

 

                “What’s going on, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked, gently creeping along the floor towards her. “W-what do you want?”

 

                “I’ve got a test to try,” Twilight said. She walked past Dash struggling on the couch and grabbed several boxes out of the supply pile. “This one’s bound to work. It has to. It’s time to settle the matter, once and for all.”


Chapter 7: The Heart of the Matter

 

                Despite its spacious size, the kitchen was starting to feel crowded. Twilight had carted in almost half the supplies from the pile and dumped them onto the counter next to the stove, where she was now sorting them out. Pinkie stood in the corner, awkwardly balancing from one hoof onto the other and scratching at her ankle. Applejack was in the center of the room, still holding Apple bloom closely. The filly was weeping, though she did so silently. Fluttershy was also crying as she leaned against the wall next to them, somewhat ragged after Applejack had to nearly drag her into the kitchen.

                

                Twilight leaned over and flicked a switch. One of the burners on the stove clicked for several seconds and then ignited in a small burst of flame. Twilight quickly leaned back and turned the switch back a few clicks, decreasing the gas flow. She dumped a small box onto the counter; a pile of scalpels spilled out.

 

                “What exactly you got in mind, Twilight?” Applejack asked, eyeing the scalpels closely.  Twilight carefully separated a single blade from the others and pushed it over the open flame.

 

                “One last test,” Twilight said. Leaving the blade to simmer in the flame, she grabbed another box and walked to the sink. “We’re going to draw a little of everypony’s blood. Pinkie, where are the pots kept?”

 

                “This again? Twilight, you already tried that.” Applejack watched Twilight fill a large black pot with water. “I thought I made myself clear last time. I don’t want you slicin’ me or my sister up for some lamebrain scheme.”

 

                “This time is different, Applejack. This time, I’ve got a bigger theory developed around it.” Twilight levitated the pot onto the burner, lighting it up as well.

 

                Twilight turned from the stove to face the others. “Let me explain. When I looked in the hallway out there a moment ago, during all the confusion, I saw what was left of Rarity–”

 

                The group collectively winced at the name. Fluttershy choked back several more tears.

 

                “–and I also saw her blood on the floor,” Twilight carried on. “There was a puddle of it, but part of it had pulled back. It looked like it literally pushed itself away from where the fire was. It still burned up in the heat, but, just for a moment, it had tried to escape.”

 

                “Hey, what are you guys doing in there?” Rainbow Dash shouted from the other side of the door, her yells only somewhat muffled by the walls. “Hey! Answer me!”

 

                Applejack glanced at the closed door but stayed still. “So what does that mean, Twilight? How can a big spot of blood just try to up an’ leave? That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

                “Because that blood, that’s still part of it.” Twilight paused and rubbed her forehead, tapping her other hoof on the ground a few times. “Look, this thing… what does it do? It starts by infecting somepony, it becomes that pony. Then, that pony goes and infects another pony, spreading itself out while still staying in that first pony. So now there’s two, right?”

 

                “But o-only two, r-right?” Fluttershy asked, a small ounce of hope in her voice.

 

                “I really hope so,” Twilight said, hanging her head.  “But... that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, it’s just the two things. They came from the same source, but now they’re two independent organisms. They have the same goals and the same biological makeup, but they’re separate. Damaging one doesn’t do anything to the other.”

 

                “Well that goes without sayin’ at this point, Twilight,” Applejack asked. “I still don’t know what you’re gettin’ at.”

 

                “When this thing divides, what it splits into is something new. Something entirely separate. And I don’t think it matters how big or small this new thing is. It’s still a new, separate entity. So that even means that big puddle of blood, so long as it came out of that thing… when it breaks down, it still becomes its own thing.”

 

                Applejack’s face turned white. She pointed out the door. “You mean to say that big puddle out there, right outside the lab… that might’ve just been another piece of that thing? Right out where any one of use could’ve just gone an’ stepped in it?”

 

                “Not out there, no. It still needs a sufficient amount of mass and cells to infect somepony,” Twilight said with her most reassuring tone. “But even if it can’t infect, it can still react. That’s what I saw in the hall. That blood tried to get away from the flames.”

 

                “But T-Twilight, wasn’t w-what you d-did with the alcohol h-hurting the blood?” Fluttershy asked, rubbing the bandage on her shoulder. “Nothing happened there… r-r-right?”

 

                “Fluttershy’s right, Twilight,” Applejack said, color slowly returning to her face. “I understand what you’re gettin’ at an’ all, but you already dropped stuff on our blood. I felt that burnin’ sensation somethin’ fierce. We all did. What’s this gonna prove that that didn’t?”

 

                “Do you remember what Rainbow said?” Twilight looked at each of them. “All her ranting aside, she’s definitely right about one thing. This thing is smart. It’s very smart. And part of its intelligence lies in its self-control.”

 

                Twilight returned to the stove to find the metal tip of the scalpel glowing red-hot. She left it in place and levitated another one up from the pile. The pot of water had reached full boil, and she dunked the new blade inside.

 

                “Rainbow said she was with Sweetie Belle, alone in the kitchen,” Twilight said. She watched the metal instrument sink to the bottom of the pot. “No matter what you think of her story, I was in a similar situation. Scootaloo met me alone back on the first night. She tried to get me to follow her.”

 

                “Hey, Scootaloo met you alone now?” Applejack said. “First I’ve heard of this, Twilight.”

 

                “Nothing happened, though.” Twilight locked eyes with Applejack.  “That’s my point. It’s the same point Rainbow was making. These things don’t just latch onto the closest pony, they wait. They bide their time. They study their surroundings and wait for the proper moment. And that means that they do their best to avoid detection.”

 

                Twilight ripped open the box she’d been carrying, producing a set of fresh towels. She levitated the blade from the water and set them down on the cloth, letting it cool. “So if one sees that it’s going to get hurt, it prepares itself. It gets ready, so that I can drop some alcohol in a wound of its, and it won’t suddenly react and reveal itself.”

 

                “But what about Sweetie Belle?” Applejack asked. “It happened to her.”

 

                “Sweetie Belle had already been hurt,” Twilight replied. “She saw the desk coming down. She could prepare for it. The alcohol she didn’t see. Her system was caught off-guard.”

 

                “Uh-huh.” Applejack grimaced, still eyeing Twilight suspiciously. “An’ your little magic test?”

 

                “Back in the lab, it didn’t react to that right away either. It had to take a moment and look at me, and do… whatever it did that made my magic fail.” Twilight’s hoof rose towards her horn, but she stopped it. She levitated up a small pile of scalpels and dumped them all into the pot. “So, when I did it out in the common room to all of you, it saw it coming. It just waited.”

 

                “Assumin’, of course, that one of us is still infected,” Applejack said. She gave her sister a small squeeze.

 

                “Just one more…” Pinkie muttered, still staring at her ankle. Twilight glanced at her and continued.

 

                “Right. So, here’s what we do. We take a blood sample, a fresh one, right here and now.” Twilight grabbed the clean, dry scalpel and, with a moment’s hesitation, plunged it into her leg. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, and quickly removed the blade after a cut had been made. Hovering a small petri dish over, she collected a small pool of blood as it trickled out of her.

 

                “We take the blood,” she said, panting as she placed the dish down and pressed a washcloth against her wound, “and we shove this hot bit of metal into it. If it’s the blood of one of these things, it won’t be able to prepare for it. A puddle of blood can’t think. It can only react.”

 

                Applejack scratched her chin as Twilight concluded her speech.

“Alright, alright, I guess I can see what you’re gettin’ at,” she said, glancing from Twilight to the blood in the dish. “An’ if we all do this, an’ it all comes up clean, where nothin’ happens to any of them… then what? Are all of us… us?”

 

                “Well… yes,” Twilight said, lending an edge of confidence to her voice. “I mean, it makes sense doesn’t it? It’s our last option here, at least, that’s for sure.”

 

                “An’ so what about what happened in the basement?” Applejack asked. “The message? The generator? If we all test clean, what’re we supposed to do about that?”

 

                “We’ll deal with that when it comes to that,” Twilight said. She snuck a glance in Pinkie’s direction. “First things first.”

 

                The pile of scalpels lifted themselves from the water and floated over to the towel. After making sure each was cool and dry, Twilight divided them up with more petri dishes and hovered them over to the other ponies.

 

                “Here,” she said as the last ones touched down next to Applejack and Apple Bloom. “You all do yourselves. I’ll go get Rainbow Dash’s.”

 

                Grabbing the remaining dish and scalpel, Twilight walked out the door with a look of steely resolve.

 

                “What’s Twilight doing coming out here on her own?” Dash called as soon as the door opened. “Twilight, what are you guys doing in– hey, keep away from me with that, you hear me? Hey, hey, watch it, I said back– OW!”

 

                Dash screamed, and the sounds of a small scuffle and the couch moving around could be heard. Applejack leaned over to Apple Bloom, the scalpel gripped tightly in her mouth. “Just hold on there, Apple Bloom. One quick little nick an’ it’ll be over.”

 

                “Applejack, please, I… I’m scared.” Apple Bloom shivered under her sister, looking up with bloodshot eyes.

 

                “I know, I know. I’m scared too, just hold on now…” Applejack quickly dipped the blade under her sister’s shoulder. Apple Bloom let out a small screech, but stayed still. Applejack quickly let the scalpel fall as she collected the falling blood. “There we are, all done. Good girl, Apple Bloom, that’s my sister. Just a few minutes more of this an’ we can go relax.”

 

                The door of the kitchen suddenly popped out of place. It ripped itself from the hinges and fell backwards into the common room. Twilight stepped over it, the purple haze around the door giving way to the haze around the petri dish that floated in front of her.

 

                “Okay, I’m all set here,” Twilight said, limping slightly on one leg. “I think we’ll all feel a bit better with that out of the way now, too.”

 

                “I still can’t see anything out here!” Dash shouted, her voice coming through loud and clear now. “You guys tied me too far down the couch!”

 

                “We’re almost done in here, Rainbow Dash. Just sit tight!” Applejack said. She quickly covered her sister’s ears at Dash’s rather graphic comeback.

 

                “Well, unless we’ve got something else to go over…” Twilight looked over the others. They all stared back, not making a sound. Fluttershy and Apple Bloom stopped crying as they watched, and even Pinkie had looked up from her ankle.

 

                “I’ll start with me.” Twilight set her dish down on the counter. The scalpel in the fire was almost white with intense heat as she levitated it out.

 

“Now I’ll show you what I already know,” she murmured. She dipped the searing metal tip into the small red pool. There was a small hiss as blood drops evaporated under the intense heat, and the bottom of the dish cracked as the blade touched the bottom. Other than that, there was no response. Twilight pulled out the blade and returned it to the fire.

 

“Okay. We’ll do Rainbow next,” she said, pushing her dish aside and pulling Dash’s over.

 

“We’ll do my what next?” Dash asked from the next room. The others heard her fumble around on the couch, the ropes straining under her constant pressure. “Is anypony going to tell me what’s going on in there or what?”

 

“In just one sec, Rainbow,” Applejack called out. She nodded at Twilight. “Let’s do it.”

 

Twilight pulled the blade from the flame and gently eased it into Dash’s blood sample. She stood back, ready to pull out and run at a moment’s notice.

 

The blood fizzled and smoked under the blade: nothing. Twilight glanced at Applejack, who just shrugged. “You’re good, Rainbow Dash!” Applejack called out.

 

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” Dash replied, though nopony answered her.

 

“Fluttershy, you’re next.” Twilight turned to Fluttershy, who quivered in place. Slowly, she pushed her hoof out and shoved her dish forward. Twilight quickly snatched it up and levitated it onto the counter. Fluttershy drew back and continued to shake, though her eyes were glued to the counter.

 

Without another word, Twilight dipped the blade into the blood. More smoke and cracked glass, but ultimately another normal reaction. Twilight turned and smiled at Fluttershy. “You’re okay, okay? Don’t… don’t worry.”

 

Fluttershy gave a weak little smile, though it didn’t stick around. Her lips quivered and she slumped back down to the floor, covering her face with her hooves.

 

“Guys, just give me yours right now,” Twilight said to the others. “We can do them all in a row, and finish this up.”

 

Applejack pushed forward hers and Apple Bloom’s. Apple Bloom rubbed her sides. “Applejack, my stomach hurts.”

 

“Just lay down here, Apple Bloom, don’t worry. I’ll get you some water.”

 

While Applejack walked over to the sink, Pinkie approached Twilight with her dish.

 

“Uh, Twilight, I think I’ve got to show you something,” Pinkie said as she pushed the dish forward.

 

Twilight reflexively took a step back. “That’s close enough, Pinkie. You too, Applejack, not so close to the stove.”

 

“I was just gettin’ Apple Bloom a drink. Relax, Twilight,” Applejack said, filling a cup and bringing it back to Apple Bloom. “I don’t know how well this test of yours actually works, but it seems to be showin’ that we’re all in the clear.”

 

“We’ll see about that,” Twilight said, hovering the hot blade over Pinkie’s dish.

 

“No, Twilight, really,” Pinkie urged, pushing her leg forward. “This is important.”

 

“Hold that thought, Pinkie.” The tip came down into the blood, producing another negative reaction. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay Pinkie, what do you have to–”

 

“Pinkie, just what in tarnation is up with your ankle?” Applejack pointed down at Pinkie. Twilight peered at the outstretched hoof Pinkie was showing her. It was the bruise she had received earlier. It was a sickly purple in color now, and her constant scratching had bloodied up some of the surrounding skin. That, however, wasn’t the significant part.

 

Twilight gasped, the blade clattering down onto the flame. Pinkie’s bruise had taken a shape. Instead of some formless mass, it looked like a solid square cross, the bottom line curving right in a sharp hook.

 

“That’s… that looks just like…” Twilight said, her mind drawn back to that great green tube and the base it was sitting on. A sudden buzzing sensation trickled through the base of her skull. Twilight rubbed her neck and tried her best to ignore it.

 

“It is, Twilight. It’s the marker!” Pinkie squealed with delight. “I’ve got it, Twilight. I’ve figured it out. I know what to do.”

 

“Alright, Pinkie, you’re startin’ to creep me out again. What are you talkin’ about?”” Applejack asked, positioning herself in front of Apple Bloom.

 

“I can fix this! All of this!” Pinkie turned eagerly from Twilight to Applejack. “I can make everything back to the way it used to be, make it all better again!”

 

“What’s Pinkie shouting about?” Dash’s question again garnered no response.

 

“Pinkie, that’s great, I think,” Twilight said. She slowly edged away from Pinkie and hovered the scalpel up again. “Let’s just finish up here and we can–”

 

“Here doesn’t matter anymore, Twilight!” Pinkie said, reaching out to grasp Twilight. Twilight wriggled out from Pinkie’s hoof, looking nervous. Applejack stared at the hot blade as it approached her blood sample.

 

“Pinkie, really, just calm down for a second,” Twilight said. “I’ll listen to what you have to say. I will. Now I’m really curious about whatever it is that’s happening to you.”

 

Pinkie smiled brightly, her eagerness and happiness almost alien to Twilight after the past few days. Pinkie reached out another hoof. Twilight let it touch her this time. Meanwhile, the blade came down into Applejack’s blood.

 

The reaction was immediate. The blood leapt from the dish and flew through the air with a sudden high-pitched screech. Twilight jumped at the noise and dashed sideways, just barely dodging the flying blood. Though she only saw it for a split second, she could’ve sworn that the blood had taken the shape of a small face, complete with a screaming mouth.

 

Applejack’s expression didn’t change as her body started to vibrate all over. Small cracks rippled down her skin, blood and other liquids trickling out as they broke through to the surface. One of her hooves shuddered fast enough to crack the floorboards.

 

Apple Bloom backed up slowly. “A-Applejack? What… what’s happening?”

 

Fluttershy screamed. Pinkie’s smile disappeared and she screeched. She tried to run forward and smacked right into Twilight. As the back of Applejack’s legs ripped open and pushed out a new layer of bone and muscle, Apple Bloom finally cried out in panic.

 

                “Hey, what’s going on in there?” Dash bellowed, a twinge of fear appearing in her voice. “Would somepony hurry the hay up and answer me already?”

 

                “Apple Bloom, move! Get away from it!” Twilight fought past Pinkie, pushing herself right to the center of the room. Applejack’s head twisted itself sideways, falling forward as if it were on a hinge until it was barely hanging on. Twilight stumbled backward again as an enormous eye pushed its way out of Applejack’s neck. It stared right at Twilight, its iris as black as night.

 

                The eye blinked, a thin membrane appearing over it. Then, a seam appeared down the middle of it, and it split open to reveal a tiny pair of jaws. Applejack roared, releasing a sound that was now only too familiar to the rest of the group. A long, ear-splitting roll of growls and screeches that bounced around the room and pierced each pony to her very core.

 

                “Twilight, do something!” Fluttershy screeched. She scrambled along the wall towards the doorway to the common room.

 

                A purple glow appeared around the refrigerator. It jumped into the air with a loud burst of twisting metal and snapping cables. Twilight jerked her head to the side. The fridge quickly flew up until it was positioned directly over Applejack. The glow vanished, and the enormous metal appliance plummeted straight down.

 

                The fridge dropped fast, but Applejack was faster. The creature lurched forward, stumbling over its twisted front legs while the fridge continued through the wooden floor behind it. The sound of it smashing onto the basement floor shook the entire kitchen. Applejack hesitated on the floor. She drew her legs back together while several news ones sprouted out of her abdomen.

 

                More screams. Twilight and Pinkie drew themselves into a corner, Twilight frantically looking around for another large object to throw at Applejack. Apple Bloom rushed forward, her eyes nearly blinded from tears. A second eye snapped open on Applejack’s shoulder and watched her run by. As Fluttershy and Apple Bloom raced out of the kitchen, Applejack stopped vibrating and crouched down.

 

                “Hey, Fluttershy, what’s happening in there?” Dash’s voice worked to be heard over the din. “Where is everypony going? Come back here! I need to know what’s happen–”

 

                Applejack sprang forward, propelled through the air by a massive push from newly developed back limbs. She exploded through the wall of the kitchen and landed on the couch next to Dash. The force of the impact sent the furniture sprawling backward. It rolled over along the floor, finally landing upside down a few feet back.

 

                Muffled roars came from under the upholstery. Tentacles sprang out through the couch, new eyes appearing at the tips of each one. Dash screamed and twisted against the ropes with all her might. “Getitoffgetitoffgetitoff!”

 

                “Hey, over here!” The tentacles turned towards Twilight’s shout, catching sight of the pot just before it landed on them. It splashed down a split-second later, drenching the tentacles in boiling hot water. The creature let loose a furious screech. Half the couch disintegrated as it pushed itself up and out. Twilight gasped at what she saw; the creature before her now resembled Applejack by color only.

                

                The creature shot forward, moving straight towards Twilight. Twilight flashed out, teleporting herself and Pinkie back into the common room. The creature continued ahead and ran headlong into the stove with enough strength to force it into the wall. Several gas lines were clipped in the process, mixing with the lit burner to cause jets of fire to appear around the creature. It roared again and rolled onto the floor, fire burning away on vast chunks of its writhing body.

 

                Twilight wasted no time. She primed another thermite charge from the box and tossed it through the broken doorway. It ignited just behind the creature, causing its whole backside to burst into flames. It screamed again and launched new tentacles forward to latch onto the hole in the floor. Slowly, it pulled itself along the floor. Twilight watched as Applejack’s head reemerged, still hanging on by a thread as the rest of her body slid forward. Her mouth gaped, seeming to react to the smoke that filled the air.

 

                “Twilight, it’s still moving!” Pinkie shouted. Twilight shook her head and reached for another charge when a surge of flame arose from the kitchen. A small eruption from behind the stove knocked it forward, tipping the heavy appliance down onto part of the creature. It was pinned in place now; it struggled to get free as flames spread up its body. More loud howls, each one more anguished than the last.

 

                “We’ve got it!” Twilight shouted, the second charge still hovering in front of her. She hurried around the broken sofa to get a better view. As she flipped the charge’s switch and lobbed it into the fray, she heard the sound of splintering wood. Suddenly there was a massive crash. Half the kitchen floor gave way and sank down into the basement. The creature, still stuck in place by the stove, managed to remain on the intact part of the floor. Twilight’s charge barely missed it, instead falling down into the basement.

 

                “Uh-oh…” Twilight braced herself. A wall of flames shot up from the basement as the charge exploded, catching onto the spilled gas on the floor and the generator above. The entire base rocked violently. Ponies tumbled to the floor and lights snapped out. Miraculously, what remained of the kitchen wall remained upright, though several large cracks appeared throughout.

 

                The creature was entirely engulfed in flames by now. It gave a few more small squirms and a final soft gurgle, and then ceased moving. Fire spread throughout the kitchen, extending down the back hall towards the greenhouse. It started to get very hot in the common room, the orange blaze now the only source of light.

 

                “Pinkie, grab an extinguisher, now!” Twilight rushed back to the supply pile and tore into it, searching desperately for any remaining red cylinders. Before Pinkie could join her, another cataclysmic noise shook them in place. The ceiling over the kitchen gave way, dropping down to the basement below. Part of the ceiling swung in and pushed against the kitchen wall, snuffing out the light. Twilight perked up her ears, listening as snow and wind tumbled down onto the broken half of the base. Over the din of the destruction, she thought she heard a faint clicking sound, like something tapping along wood.

 

                “I’ve got a lamp!” Pinkie spoke up in the dark. “Hang on, I’ve got it…”

 

                A small flame grew out of Pinkie’s arms. Twilight lit her horn, bringing some more light to the room. She looked back towards the kitchen wall, trying to hear any more sounds. All that got through now was more wind.

 

                Twilight released a long breath. “Is… is everypony alright? Fluttershy?”

 

                A small shriek came from the corner of the room. Twilight turned to see the pegasus curled up against the wall, her face soaked through with tears.

 

                “Pinkie, find her a blanket or something, it’s going to get cold in here…” Twilight said. Her head turned back around the room. “Apple Bloom? Where did you go?”

 

                Twilight faced the entrance to the temple. Apple Bloom stared back. Her knees were threatening to quiver out from under her, and she had almost as many tears running down her face as Fluttershy.

 

                Twilight’s expression fell. “Apple Bloom, I… I…”

 

                “S-stay away f-from me…” Apple Bloom took a step back, her voice ready to crack. “A-all of y-you… g-get back!”

 

                “Apple Bloom, just… just wait a minute now… I…” Twilight faltered. Before she could try again, yet another loud crash of wood and metal made her jump. A thunderous roar came from behind the hall door as the ceiling collapsed. Shortly thereafter, an identical sound came from the lab. Wooden timbers banged down and metal supports crumpled. The impenetrable din bounced about for several minutes. Twilight pressed her hooves tightly over her ears.

 

                And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the noises were gone. The atmosphere settled again. The only noise now came from the continuously rising wind outside. Twilight cautiously opened one eye, peering around the dimly-lit room. More cracks lined the walls, though none any larger than what was on the kitchen wall.

 

                “Apple Bloom?” Twilight looked back towards the temple entrance: nothing. The filly was gone.

 

                “I think… I think she ran away,” Pinkie said. She hugged her lantern so tight that the glass cracked. Slowly placing it on the floor, she scooped up a blanket and quickly draped it over Fluttershy.

 

                Twilight nodded slowly. She sat on the floor, taking deep breaths. Somewhere in the basement, a metal clang sounded out, followed by a loud pop. The gentle hum of the furnace, a sound nearly forgotten now due to its omnipresence, vanished. Twilight fought the urge to shiver.

 

Next to her, the remains of the sofa shifted around. Dash’s voice was muffled through the ripped cushions, but still audible. She spoke calmly, her tone completely flat. “I would like. To be untied. From the couch now.”

 

****************************************

 

Viewed from the air, the base would have made for a very strange sight. Already dwarfed by the great temple next to it, it was now less than a quarter of its original size. Only a gutted pile of wood and metal remained of the lab, while the snow was quickly filling in the broken bunkrooms. Over on the kitchen side, the fire had been extinguished, but the wreckage still smoldered against the freezing winds. The greenhouse was in slightly better shape, if only because it hadn’t caught fire before its walls collapsed.

 

The common room stood alone now, pinned on two sides by collapsed ceilings. The dim light of the room flickered out the window, becoming the only source of light for miles around. No snow fell, though the wind constantly threatened to pick up and push more clouds back overhead.

 

Inside, four ponies were gathered. They spread themselves out, each sticking close to one side of the room. What little furniture left intact had been pressed against the kitchen wall, plugging up the holes in an effort to keep the cold at bay. Even so, the temperature was dropping by the minute, and everypony had their scarves and jackets back on.

 

            Twilight crouched on the floor, her back to the temple entrance. The scraps of notes she’d been able to piece together from the wreckage lay in front of her. Her hoof picked at them, but her eyes never focused on a single sentence. She just stared at some spot on the floor, lost in thought.

 

            Pinkie was along the next wall, near what was left of the lab door. Her bookshelf had been moved away with the rest of the furniture, but she still had her books. They surrounded her entirely now, spines broken and pages folded down. Unlike her previous flurries of activity with the pages, she now sat perfectly still. Her eyes were closed, and she drew something in the air with her hoof. She muttered a constant string of rationalizations, her voice never rising to a level the others could make out.

 

            Across from Pinkie, Fluttershy curled into a small ball against the kitchen wall. She was shaking all over. Her limbs twitched at random intervals, and her head gently rocked back and forth against the wall. “It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream,” she mumbled over and over. “It’s just a bad dream, I’m about to wake up, just a bad dream…”

 

            Finally, there was Rainbow Dash. She paced back and forth by the door, wings flexing in and out. She looked around the room, glancing from the window to each of the other ponies to the picked-through supply pile and back to the window. Her breath was visible in front of her face, and every few minutes she would pause to rub her hooves together.

 

            “Storm got started again pretty quick,” Dash said, breaking the silence that gripped the room. She glanced around for a reaction. “Doesn’t mean it won’t stop again, though. Just wish I could see it out there right now…”

 

            “We’ll have to go after her.” Twilight looked up, catching Dash’s attention. “We can’t let her get too far away right now.”

 

                Dash stopped pacing. “Forget it, Twilight. I’m not following her in there. No way. If she’s one of those things, then that’s exactly what she wants us to do.”

 

                Twilight motioned limply to the kitchen husk. “We have a test now. We can test her quick and fast, and… and then we’ll know.”

 

                “If she doesn’t get the drop on us or anything first! Look, Twilight, the four of us here–” Dash motioned to the remainder of the group. “–we’re clear. You proved it. We’re all safe right now. All we have to do is wait until morning and leave. You should be able to get us pretty far now, and maybe the weather will clear up again and make it easier, but even if it doesn’t we can still get back on our own.”

 

                “And just leave her here?” Twilight rose, a fresh energy sparking inside her. “Rainbow, if she actually is one of those things, then we can’t leave her alone. What if she escapes?”

 

                “So what? Twilight, think about it. Where’s she gonna go? She’s out here in the middle of nowhere. We just need to get back, explain what’s happening, and make sure nopony else ever comes out here. Just let her hide away in some hole here and freeze.”

 

                “Rainbow, come on.” Twilight shook her head. “We can’t leave one alone for too long. The risk is too great. For all we know it could be trying to sprout wings right now, and even if it can never leave here, there’s no way we’d be able to keep everypony away from here. Somepony would come here eventually.”

 

                “Besides…” Twilight lowered her voice. “What if there’s nothing wrong with her? What if Apple Bloom’s just hiding, lost and scared, in some tunnel in there? What if we’re wrong?”

 

                Dash narrowed her eyes. “Well, then we’re wrong.”

 

                Twilight lifted a hoof and prepared to say something, but no rebuttal formed in her mouth.

 

                “Twilight, look what we’ve been through,” Dash said. “It’s time to go home. We can explain everything there, and then we can figure out what best to do next. That’s what we have to do right now.”

 

                “Right, explain…” Twilight slumped back to the floor, head face falling. “I don’t… what are we supposed to say when we get home? How do we explain what happened here to everypony? How do we go tell our friends what happened to…”

 

                Twilight trailed off. Her gaze circled the room. She stared at the barricaded lab door, the cracked and burned kitchen wall, the crumbling entrance to the bunks. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to say to them.”

 

                “Hey, Twilight, I…” Dash’s voice softened and her glare eased up. “Look, I’m sorry. I… I feel the same way as you. But we can’t lose our heads right now. We need… we need to keep our minds sharp. When we get home I’ll… I don’t know. I don’t wanna think about that right now. Or what I’m going to say to everypony else about what’s happened.”

 

                “We won’t need to say anything.” Pinkie jumped up, her face ecstatic. “Everything’s gonna be alright. I’ve got it.”

 

                “Pinkie,” Twilight said, wiping her nose off. “Could you just… I mean…”

 

                Still shaking a little, Twilight stood back up. She took a deep breath, wiped the few escaped tears from her cheeks, and looked at Pinkie. “No more vagueness, Pinkie. I want you to explain, clearly and cleanly, what you’ve been talking about, and how all this relates to what you’ve been reading in those books.”

 

                Dash nodded. “What Twilight said, Pinkie. Because I’m still seriously confused as to what you’ve been going on about.”

 

                The two stared at Pinkie. Fluttershy, still sniffling, brushed her mane away from her eyes to look on.

 

Pinkie took a deep breath and smiled. “Alright, alright, from the beginning… we’re in the Temple of Proch’No, alright? This super big place way out here in the middle of all this snow and ice. It was built for one reason: to keep that big tube of green goop locked up. Now, that goop got out and became the thing that’s been causing everything, right? But it’s not just out to gobble us up and become us. It’s got something more important to do than that, much more important. It’s got to–”

 

“Pinkie, stop. You’re still being confusing,” Twilight said. “Let me back up. How does this have to do with all your books?”

 

“Well, because everything is in them,” Pinkie responded, her tone staying matter-of-fact.

 

                “Yes, alright, that’s fine, but how do you know this applies to us?” Dash said, staring down at Pinkie’s book pile. “Can’t it all just be some big coincidence?”

 

                “Well, because we’re in those books, too.” Pinkie gulped and pushed her stack of paperbacks towards Twilight. “Well, not really in them, but it’s ones just like us.”

 

                Pinkie pointed at the top book, aptly titled The Crypt. “Here, Twilight, open that one to the page I marked. You’ll find a section where a young pegasus stumbles onto that big green tube, which then cracks open and consumes her. It doesn’t turn into her, though, because like I said before, not everything is in one story. It’s all just bits and pieces. I’ve had to connect the dots.”

 

                “And here, Rainbow, check this out.” Pinkie scooped up a different book and tossed it to Dash. “That one’s got a bit about a unicorn scientist going through her missing friend’s laboratory to figure out what she was working on, only to discover that her research had destroyed her in a back room.”

 

                Dash flipped to a marked page and scanned a few lines before tossing the book aside. “Still probably just a coincidence,” she muttered, though a note of uncertainty entered her voice.

 

                “There’s more, though!” Pinkie pointed to a book low in the stack. “At the bottom, there’s one that’s about a young mailcolt who finds a strange beast in his rounds with his professor friend, and the beast ends up ripping his–”

                

                “The problem we’re having, Pinkie,” Twilight cut in, reading over the pages Pinkie directed her to, “is that it doesn’t make any kind of factual sense for what you’re saying to be true. These books were written ages ago, by somepony who was making it all up. That’s what fiction writers do. How can any of them possibly relate to what’s happening here, let alone actually have real bearing on the situation?”

 

                “Oh, he’s always said that he sometimes bases what he writes on real things and tales he stumbles upon in his travels,” Pinkie said. She took a step towards Twilight. “But it’s more than that here. This is… this is something I can feel is right.”

 

                “Pinkie, how you personally feel about this is one thing,” Twilight said, looking over the rest of the books that Pinkie gave her, “but it certainly isn’t enough to justify–”

 

                Pinkie shook her head. “No, I mean I literally feel it. It’s like a buzzing in the back of my brain, and it perks up whenever I start to concentrate real hard on what I’ve learned from the books.”

 

                Pinkie tapped the back of her head, her hoof bouncing off her thick mane. “Right here, right now. You’ve got it too, don’t you Twilight? You’ve had it, or something like it. Something in your head that you can’t place your hoof on, but that gets stronger when you listen to me.”

 

                Twilight rubbed the back of her neck, keeping silent. Dash tossed her book down and turned to Pinkie.

 

                “Alright, Pinkie, I’m going to humor you for a bit longer,” Dash said, letting out a long sigh as she did. “But only because we can’t go anywhere right now, and it’s not like you’re going to shut up about this anyway. So, your books are telling you what’s happening. That’s great.”

 

                Dash raised her voice slightly and gestured to the wreckage around then. “Then why in the hay didn’t you know about everything that was going to happen?”

 

                Pinkie shrugged. “It’s not all the same. Only some of it. And I could never be sure of what until I watched it happen in front of me. And then I came back and checked, and there it was, and then I knew. But now that’s alright, because I can fix this.”

 

                “You said that before, Pinkie.” Twilight sighed, slowly letting her hoof drop from her neck. “Let’s get back to what you were saying. There’s this thing, kept here at this temple. What was it being kept for? Who put it there? Where did it come from? Just what is it?”

 

                “Actually, I kinda want to hear about what you said it was doing.” Dash pointed at the books. “You said it was here to do something more important?”

 

                Pinkie nodded. “Yep yep. This first thing, it’s a bit like a… like a scout, I suppose. It comes out, it gets the lay of the land, and it learns everything it can from the ponies around it–”

 

                “Funny way of learning,” Twilight muttered. She sniffed and held back another tear.

 

                “–and when it’s gathered what it can, that’s when it can really get to work. That’s when it goes to free what’s beneath us.”

 

                Dash cocked her head. “And… what is beneath us, Pinkie?”

 

                Pinkie scratched her chin. “It’s a bit difficult to describe, since he never gives it a name. Which always did sort of bug me, since he brings it up in like half his books, or he at least refers to it somewhere, or has somepony trying to wake it up, or has some other pony dreaming about it and then going completely cuckoo because of it, which I think is silly because you can’t go crazy from just dreaming about something that’s not actually there, that would just be like getting full from thinking about a cake, and I’ve never done that except for that one time–”

 

                “Pinkie, hey! Focus!” Dash stamped her hoof on the floor. “What’s beneath us?”

 

                “Something very big,” Pinkie said. She hopped in a small circle, looking down at the floor the entire time. “More than that even. It’s the absolute biggest thing that there ever ever was and ever ever will be. It’s been stuck way down below for a super long time, though, since it can’t get out unless the littler thing up here lets it out. See, if you’d just look at those pages I marked in The Terror at Trotwich, it really goes into a lot more detail–”

 

                “Whoa whoa whoa Pinkie,” Dash cut in again, causing Pinkie to roll her eyes in frustration. “There’s another one of those things, that’s even bigger?”

 

                “That’s what I just said, didn’t I?” Pinkie let out an exasperated sigh. “You guys really need to listen more closely to what I say.”

 

                Dash gave Pinkie a quizzical look. Her wings flapped, and Dash hovered up a few feet, still keeping her composure together. “I don’t believe that…”

 

                Pinkie’s face suddenly darkened. Her hoof tapped quickly along the floor. “Um… you really should,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

                

                “So the thing up here has been doing what it’s been doing to get ready to awaken a bigger thing,” Twilight said. She kept her eyes closed, her mind racing behind them. “What happens when this big thing wakes up?”

 

                “Well, it’s been asleep for as long as anypony could be asleep.” Pinkie turned to face Twilight, her smile returning. “When it gets up, it’s going to be feeling pretty hungry.”

 

                Twilight opened her eyes. “Hungry for what, exactly?”

 

                Pinkie grinned. She slid an open book towards Twilight. Glancing down, Twilight saw an illustration on the page; it depicted an entire planet, slowly crumbling into dust under the attack from some large, shapeless mass.

 

                “For everything,” Pinkie said simply. “For all of Equestria and the stars beyond.”

 

                Dash looked back and forth between Twilight, the open book, and Pinkie. “Okay Pinkie,” Dash said, still hovering in midair, “I think you can take it down a notch here. I know you like your stories and all, but that’s not the sort of thing that we need to hear right–”

 

                “And the dreams?” Twilight said, not looking up from the illustration. “What do those dreams mean? The ones we keep having?”

 

                “That one I’m still working on a bit,” Pinkie said, sheepishly rubbing her head. “It doesn’t quite work with what this thing’s gonna do. Although come to think of it, it might just work if… no, no, that doesn’t fit… unless…”

 

                Pinkie furrowed her brow, brushing her hoof through her mane.

 

                “Twilight, you’re not buying into this, are you?” Dash said, an expression of disbelief crossing her face. “Remember what I said about keeping our minds sharp?”

 

                “Rainbow, I know all this sounds impossible, and I don’t know how much of it I believe myself,” Twilight said, finally looking up from the book. “But based on everything that’s happened so far, there’s got to be… well, something to what Pinkie is saying. I… I can feel it.”

 

                Dash shook her head. “Twilight, this is crazy. I mean, everything that’s happened over the past few days is crazy, but this is crazier. Listen to what you’re saying! That you’re developing some kind of Pinkie sense of your own and it’s telling you that some random horror stories are a key to what’s happening right here right now?”

 

                “No, this isn’t my Pinkie sense, Rainbow,” Pinkie said, still rubbing her mane. “That’s been on the fritz since we arrived. This is something else. Though I really would like my Pinkie senses to come back, I’m starting to miss them an awful lot.”

 

                Fluttershy coughed loudly. The others stopped talking and turned towards her. Fluttershy wiped her eyes clear and looked back, still curled into a small ball against the wall.

 

                “Um… Pinkie, you said that, um, the smaller t-thing needs to go w-wake the big o-one up,” she said, her tone still wavering. “So if… if Apple Bloom r-really is a… then can she do it?”

 

                “Oh absolutely,” Pinkie said, nodding. “It would take no trouble at all for her. I mean, unless she’s not one, in which case she’d probably have all sorts of trouble trying to do it. But if she was one, yeah, piece of cake. She’s probably doing it right now, even.”

                

                “Hold up, I see where this is heading.” Dash put a hoof in the air, then pointed towards the temple. “We’re not going back in there. End of discussion. We’re gonna wait here, either until we can leave or whenever Hawks decides to show up.”

 

“Rainbow Dash, whether she’s one of those things or not, we just can’t leave her in there.” Twilight straightened herself up, looking Dash right in the eye. “If she’s still herself, then we take her back. We’re all going to get out of here soon, I promise you. But we’re going to do it together.”

 

Twilight took a deep breath. “And if she’s not still herself… then we finish this thing off. Once and for all. We have to do that, no matter what. That thing can’t be allowed to still be around after we leave here.”

 

“You’re forgetting the best part!” Pinkie hopped up and down, a massive grin on her face. “It’s not even about getting to Apple Bloom anymore, we just need to find where that thing would go on its own and we can clear everything up! Make it all go back to the way it used to be!”

 

“Pinkie, now what are you…” Dash started, then stopped when she saw Pinkie’s ankle. “Pinkie, what is going on with your hoof there?”

 

The bruise on Pinkie’s ankle was even more apparent now. The shape of the hooked cross was a dark black against her pink skin, its features coming into a sharp focus.

 

“Rainbow Dash, silly, that’s the other marker.” Pinkie giggled. “We already introduced that back in the kitchen. Where were you?”

 

“I was a little busy. You tend to miss things when you’re tied to a couch.” Dash shot a quick glare at Twilight.

 

“Pinkie, what do you mean by that?” Twilight asked, looking at the bruise. “How can you turn everything back?

 

“Oh, it’s easy!” Pinkie hopped around. “It’s like a… um… like a failsafe for ponies like us. Put in long ago to give us a last-ditch shot at stopping what’s to come. It’s like this: I use this marker and the other marker to find the entrance to get down below. I figure out my way down there, until I eventually come to the emergence chamber, and then I just seal it up. Even easier than pie, which is good, since I don’t think I have any pie crusts left up here.”

 

“That doesn’t quite answer my question, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “You get down to… to wherever you said you needed to go. And then you seal whatever big thing is trying to come up. How does that fix everything?”

 

“Because it’s more than just a seal. It’s almost like a big drain,” Pinkie said, making a twirling motion with her hoof. “It sucks up all that’s left of the smaller thing, all it touched, all that it affected. It takes it all away, and changes everything back.”

 

“What, like… like a time travel spell?” Twilight’s eyes lit up. “But if that was the case, whatever we’d have gone back to change would’ve already happened! But since we’re still here, that can’t be what happened.”

 

“Don’t worry Twilight,” Pinkie said, winking. “There’s more than one way to look at time.”

 

“What the hay is she talking about, Twilight?” Dash asked.

 

Twilight rubbed her forehead. “Well, there were a few books on the subject in Starswirl’s library. I just haven’t had a chance to read them yet, not after what happened the last time I tried one of those spells. So, I guess… maybe?”

 

Pinkie giggled again. “You’re still thinking too small, Twilight. This is more than some time travel spell. This is something much, much more.”

 

Pinkie smacked her hooves together, causing Twilight and Fluttershy to flinch. “But!” Pinkie said, her voice gaining an edge. “There’s one thing I need before I can leave. Once I go past the point of the markers, that’s where things get a little maze-y. I gotta get me a map. Now The Terror at Trotwich said that I was supposed to find it right before my very eyes… what did it mean by that…”

 

Pinkie stroked her chin and paced the room, her eyes glued to the floor. Dash flapped over next to Twilight and whispered into her ear. “See, Twilight, this is what I mean. This is not how we should be acting right now.”

 

“Rainbow, I want to agree with you, but as crazy as Pinkie sounds...” Twilight rubbed the back of her neck again. The feeling had returned to the base of her skull, and it was bouncing around her head louder than ever before. She gritted her teeth, tapping her hoof on the floor.

 

“Um, guys?” Fluttershy wandered over to join the other two. “S-so, um, are we g-gonna go get Apple B-Bloom? Because I, um, really th-think that we, uh, we should go do that.”

 

Dash’s jaw dropped slightly. “Has nopony been listening to– actually, what are you doing talking about this, Fluttershy? Don’t tell me you’re not afraid or anything right now.”

 

“Oh, no, I… I am. V-very much s-so. But, um…” Fluttershy wiped her nose off. Her cheeks were still stained with tears, and her eyes practically scarlet from all the crying she’d been doing. “I’m t-trying very hard right now. W-we’ve just… we’ve just g-got to find her. I know we do.”

 

“Fluttershy, you don’t want to go in there,” Dash said pointedly. “That’s a big, scary pile of rocks, and there’s a pretty decent chance that there’s a filly in there that’s ready to rip you to shreds. You want to stay here.”

 

“We still don’t know what condition she’s in!” Twilight hissed. She leaned in closer. “We can prove if she isn’t, and we can act cautiously, but we still have to consider that she’s still her!”

 

“Both of her friends and her sister, Twilight!” Dash shot back. “The odds don’t get any more stacked than that. She’s one, we’re staying, end of story.”

 

“A-ha!” Pinkie’s shout made the others jump. They turned to find Pinkie staring down at her books spread over the floor. Her grin was ear to ear, her eyes lit with excitement. “I’ve got it!”

 

Before the others could say anything, Pinkie scrambled down and gathered all the books in front of her. Stacking them in front of her, she started to systematically rip the front off of each book. A small pile of the illustrated covers and dust jackets accumulated in front of her.

 

“Pinkie, what are you doing now?” Twilight asked, instinctively wincing at each rip and tear.

 

“Can somepony grab me one of those big maps?” Pinkie asked without looking up. With a final flourish, she tore off the final cover. Leaning to the floor, she arranged the paper pieces in front of her, pushing them around and next to each other in a variety of shapes. “And a quill! Somepony check around for that, there’s got to be one around here somewhere.”

 

Nopony moved. Pinkie continued to shuffle the covers, studying each one closely. Dash took a few flaps back from Pinkie and cast a nervous look towards Twilight. Twilight just shrugged.

 

“There, all done!” Pinkie stood up triumphantly. She looked around the room. “Did you guys find the map and quill? No, wait, I’ve got it.”

 

Pinkie hopped over to the wall, digging through the barricade for the buried maps. Behind her, Twilight stepped over to look at what was assembled on the floor.

 

“Pinkie, what is this?” Twilight stared down at the mess. A collage of screaming ponies, alien and mystical looking creatures, abandoned houses, lantern beams, and hackneyed titles stared back at her. Pinkie had pushed the covers, some two dozen in all, into a kind of semi-circle along the floor. “What are you so excited about? There’s nothing here.”

 

Pinkie popped up, a large map shoved under her arm. “Ah, but look again,” she said, winking. She bent back down, rustling around in search of a quill.

 

Twilight focused harder. She brushed past the terrified expressions on the featured ponies, and started to take in the background details. Small claw marks, bright yellow eyes glowing in the dark, slimy tentacles reaching out from the shadows. None of it seemed out of the ordinary. Just more genre-appropriate illustrations that Twilight was getting very sick of looking at.

 

Then Twilight noticed it. A solid red line running through every cover. It made different twists and turns on each one, some curving around while others stuck to straight angles. Twilight bent down, her nose practically touching the paper now. Twilight recognized this cover; Pinkie had shown it to her shortly after the accident with the tube. A small symbol lay before her, one that was the same shade of red as the line it was just under. It was the hooked cross, identical to what was now blazing on Pinkie’s ankle.

 

Twilight stood back up and took a second look at the whole layout. The lines had all been connected, end to end. They formed a long, continuous circuit, with several intersections and divergences inside. “It almost looks like…” Twilight stated, studying the sight closely.

 

“Yup yup!” Pinkie hopped back over, a quill between her teeth and the large roll still under her arm. “It’s a map!”

 

Without a moment’s hesitation, Pinkie threw the roll down and started to copy the lines down. The quill danced around the paper as her head whipped around, replicating the red path with surprisingly minute precision. In all of thirty seconds, she was done.

 

“Alright!” Pinkie clapped her hooves together and rolled her new map up. “Everypony ready? Because it’s time to go!”

 

“Alright, are you guys actually going to go in there?” Dash asked. She landed on the floor and pointed an exasperated hoof towards the temple. “In there. Where there’s probably something big and nasty waiting to meet you.”

 

Twilight stepped forward. A look of firm resolve crossed her face, and her eyes met Dash’s. “Rainbow Dash, this is the last thing we have to do. I know it, you know it. Whatever shape Apple Bloom is in, we need to find her. I know it’s hard, after all that’s happened… but we need to get her. Either to bring her home to safety, or to finish this once and for all.”

 

Twilight turned away from Dash and walked towards the supply pile. “We’re going in there. I just need to get some things ready first, to be ready for whatever we find in there.” Twilight bent over, retrieving a few small boxes and loading them into a nearby saddle bag.

 

Dash looked over at Pinkie and Fluttershy. “You guys feel the same way? Are you gonna go in with Twilight. I mean, Pinkie, I know you do, since you’re all over… whatever it is you’re all about right now.”

 

“Seriously, guys, can we go?” Pinkie inched towards the temple entrance. “Time’s a-wastin’!”

 

“But Fluttershy, you too? You sure you want to go out there with them?”

 

Fluttershy rubbed her hooves softly as she looked at the floor. She let out a small whimper, and looked up at Dash. “I… I am. Rainbow… Twilight’s right. We have to do this. Just one last thing. And then we can all go home.”

 

Another gust of wind rocked the walls. Wood creaked all over, and Fluttershy shivered. “Bes-sides,” she said, glancing out the window. “I think it’ll be a little, um, quieter in there.”

 

“We all know what we need to do.” Twilight finished loading her bag and made for the door. She turned back to look at Dash. “Last chance before you’re left behind, Rainbow Dash.”

 

Pinkie paused next to Twilight. “Are you sure you want to stay here by yourself, Rainbow? You’ll miss all the fun!”

 

“Guys, my mind is made up.” Dash sat back onto the floor and crossed her hooves. “You want to go get lost and… whatevered in there, that’s fine. Me, I’m staying right here, where it’s safe. And there’s nothing you can say to change my mind.”

 

****************************************

 

“Come on, Rainbow Dash, you’re falling behind!” Pinkie shouted back. The group hurried along through the wide passage of the temple, their hooves sounding off on the cold stone floor. Pinkie was at the head of the line, with Twilight and Fluttershy creeping along next her. Rainbow Dash was a few steps behind them all. She moved deliberately, softly cradling her saddle bag with her wings.

 

                “I’m going as fast as I want to go right now, alright? Lay off.” Dash’s head was in constant motion, looking all around the passageway for any sign of trouble or danger. A distant crack made her head whip around, though she didn’t stop moving. Her wings pulled her bag in a little closer.

 

                “We’re just happy to have you along, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said without looking back. “And also for volunteering to carry the bag.”

 

                “I’m just here to keep you guys safe,” Dash said, a touch of pride in her voice. “No reason to have you all doing anything extra stupid without supervision, after all.”

 

                “But Rainbow Dash,” Pinkie said, turning around to hop along backwards while looking at Dash, “You’re usually the one to do something like that. And I thought you wanted to stay behind anyway because of all the scary stuff in here, but then you realized that you’d be staying behind alone and then the storm brought in that other big gust of wind that almost made the window crack and you–”

 

                “Say Pinkie, where you’d say we were going again?” Dash said quickly, avoiding her friend’s gaze.

 

                Pinkie smiled and turned back around. “We’re almost there! Just gotta get to where I need to be to get this marker going.”

 

                “And, uh, where is that, Pinkie?” Fluttershy asked, but Pinkie ignored her.

 

                The ponies walked on. There was a new darkness within the temple now. Half of the lanterns along the way had blown out, and it was just as cold as it had been inside the broken base. Each pony was dressed in the remainder of the jackets and scarves, though shivering was still present in most of them. The exception was Pinkie, who wasn’t wearing anything as she hopped merrily along.

 

                The passageway twisted ahead of them. Twilight glanced down side corridors and walkways as they trotted by. Most were pitch black and felt even colder. A lantern levitated in front of Twilight, though it didn’t do her much help beyond the central passage.

 

                “Apple Bloom!” Twilight shouted out, her voice echoing down the hall. “Apple Bloom! Are you out there?”

 

                “Hey, keep it down!” Dash snapped. She flew up to Twilight and jabbed her in the side. “We don’t need to announce ourselves right now!”

 

                “I think she’d be able to hear us anyway,” Twilight snapped back. She called out again. “Apple Bloom! We just want to help you!”

 

                “Yeah, she’ll believe that,” Dash said. She pulled her bag around to glance inside, releasing a long exhale as she stared at the pile of thermite charges nestled within.

 

                “Nearly there, guys!” Pinkie shouted. She hopped forward. A heavy set of doors appeared ahead, which Pinkie wasted no time in pushing open.

 

                Twilight’s eyes widened. She recognized the intersection beyond the doors as the one at the opening of the temple. It was even colder here, with flakes of snow fluttering around in the air. In front of her, Fluttershy walked through the door and shrieked. She immediately skittered back, almost running right into Twilight.

 

                “Come on Fluttershy, just keep going forward,” Twilight said, gently pushing Fluttershy on the back. The pegasus walked forward slowly, her knees ready to buckle. “That’s it, keep walking. Just stare straight ahead.”

 

                The group walked on through the double doors. Twilight snuck a quick glance towards the front doors of the temple, and immediately regretted it.

 

                There was a mountain of snow at the doors, blocking the entrance completely. Most of the flames had been snuffed out along the hall, but the ones right at the front still managed to fight the odds and stay lit. The remnants of the struggle there were more visible now, looking somewhat worse for wear under the whirling wind and snow. Light glinted off a withered claw on the ground. Twilight immediately snapped her head back forward. She sniffed, fighting the tear that wanted to break free down her cheek.

 

                Dash stopped and stared at the intersection. Her expression stayed blank, but her breathing quickened. “Anytime soon, Pinkie?” she called out, quickly moving forward when she saw the others had already gone.

 

                “You guys know the way now!” Pinkie responded. She moved a little faster now, hopping along in a steady stream of bounces. She rounded a corner and suddenly pushed her hooves down hard. She slid to a stop just as the others rounded the corner behind her.

 

                The great metal doors to the tube chamber lay before them. They stood slightly ajar, open just wide enough for somepony to slip through. Pinkie turned back and smiled. “All set everypony?”

 

                “Here?” Twilight said, looking from the doors to Pinkie. “We came back here? Pinkie, you could’ve at least said something.”

 

                Pinkie tilted her head. “Wasn’t it obvious? I mean, the other marker is here. Where else would I go?”

 

                Twilight opened her mouth to say something, but Dash’s hoof shot forward, interrupting her.

 

                “Hey, look!” Dash shouted. A light red ribbon was caught on one of the door handles, snagged on a sharp piece of metal. It hung limply down, occasionally flickering from some faint breeze.

 

                The ponies stared at it.

 

                “Why would she come here?” Twilight asked. “I mean, out of everywhere to go in this place… why here?”

 

                “Sh-should we call out for her?” Fluttershy asked. She peered around, trying to look inside the chamber. She was met only with darkness, as not a speck of light appeared past the doors.

 

                “Come on, girls!” Pinkie said, brushing past the ribbon. “Gotta keep moving! I’m pretty sure this will work, but we’ve gotta go in if we want to try it.”

 

                “Pinkie, wait a second!” Dash shouted, but Pinkie was already gone. Dash turned to look at Twilight. “She’s got her mind set, doesn’t she?”

 

                Twilight shrugged, and took a step forward. Dash put her hoof out, blocking her.

 

                “Whoa, whoa. First things first, Twilight,” Dash said, looking at the darkness. “Any chance of a little light in there?”

 

                Twilight nodded. She dropped the lantern at Fluttershy’s side and stepped up to the door. A bright glow appeared on her horn, shooting inside the room. There was a flash, and then a dim glow of light appeared in the room.

 

                “Shall we?” Twilight stepped in. Fluttershy scooped up the lantern and, with a quick glance towards Dash, followed her inside. Dash squirmed outside for a moment. She took a long look behind her, searching in the faint light of the hallway for any kind of movement. She took a deep breath, let loose a long exhale, and walked into the chamber.

 

                Even after Twilight’s spell, there wasn’t much light. Over half the candles refused to ignite, and the ones that did go up were fainter than before. Fluttershy and Twilight stood in the center of the room, just past the fallen tube. The tube hadn’t moved an inch. It still rested peacefully on the floor, gathering dust.

 

                “Apple Bloom?” Twilight said aloud, quieter than before. There was no response, and she looked carefully around the room.

 

                “Is she here?” Dash asked as she walked up to join the others. “I don’t see anypony.”

 

                “Where else could she have gone?” Fluttershy said. “Maybe she left after coming in?”

 

                “Why leave her ribbon behind?” Twilight asked. She peered into the darker corners of the room, but saw no signs of life.

 

                “I don’t think she’s too concerned with her hair right now,” Dash said. She turned and noticed Pinkie hopping up the ladder on the tube base. “Hey Pinkie, where are you going now?”

 

                Pinkie didn’t say anything as she scurried to the top of the base. She stared down, holding her hoof in the air. Despite the faint light, her bruise was as visible as ever. “Okie-dokie-lokie, you guys ready for this?”

 

                “Ready for what, Pinkie?” Twilight took a small step back.

 

                Pinkie stood up. The carving of the hooked cross was directly below her now. She grinned and brought her hoof down, pressing her bruise into the carving.

 

                The entire temple seemed to jolt. Candles were knocked down as the walls and floors trembled. Pinkie was bucked off the base as it rattled around under her. She came tumbling down to the floor, rolling to a stop in front of the others.

 

                “Pinkie!” Twilight knelt down, putting a shaking hoof out onto Pinkie’s stomach. “Are you alright?”

 

                “I’m good, I’m good!” Pinkie assured her. She tried to climb up, but the shaking floor made it difficult. Fluttershy cried out and reached out to grab onto Dash, who tried to protest but ended up just grabbing back. The two pegasi held each other tightly while the sound of falling stone clattered around them.

 

                Suddenly, the entire tube base fell backward. It collapsed onto the ground, like it was shoved up by great force. A staircase was revealed, leading deep down into the ground. Behind the group, the large metal doors swung shut. They clasped together, a loud CLICK sounding out. As they did so, the temple stopped rumbling. Its former state of silence returned just as abruptly as it had left.

 

                “Hey, what gives?” Dash shouted. She wriggled out from Fluttershy’s grip and hurried to the doors. She grabbed them and tried to pull them open, but they wouldn’t budge. She pulled a charge from her bag, though hesitated as she examined the thickness of the doors.

 

                “How is it, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight called out. Fluttershy whimpered next to her, having shifted places after Dash left.

 

                “I don’t think just one of these is going to do it,” Dash said. She reached into her bag to pull a few more out.

 

                “Pinkie, wait!” Fluttershy called out. Twilight and Dash turned to see Pinkie’s tail disappear down the stairs. “Pinkie!”

 

                Dash flapped over, hovering above the stairs. She looked down, but couldn’t see anything past what little light remained the chamber. She looked back at Twilight, slight confusion in her eyes. “Well? Now what?”

 

                Twilight slowly shrugged and took a step forward. “We’ve come this far, and we can’t lose Pinkie too. We’ve just got to follow her.”

 

                Dash stared back, but said nothing. Slowly, she flapped down to the floor. The group, with Fluttershy shaking at the center and Twilight and Dash supporting her on either side, stepped onto the stairs and descended into the darkness.


Chapter 8: Knocking at the Door

 

                Twilight shivered and tightened her jacket. The air around the group had gotten colder as they descended the staircase, and now it was barely above freezing. Every few steps, Fluttershy let out a new whimper while Rainbow Dash continuously glanced back to check her saddlebag. Twilight kept the lantern hovering steady. Her horn gave off an extra glow of light just behind it. They were the only light sources on the stairs. The darkness weighed in around them, constantly threatening to envelop them entirely with every flicker of the lantern’s flame.

 

                Fluttershy stumbled and slipped forward on the final step. Dash quickly bent to catch her while Twilight peered out ahead. Small clouds appeared in front of her mouth with every breath, and she worked hard to keep her legs from shaking. The stairs had ended in a tight hallway, with barely enough room for the three of them to stand side by side. She studied the walls, and noted that they were made of the same jet black stone that constructed the temple’s exterior. No light reflected off them, making everything seem even darker than it already was.

 

                Up ahead, a lantern rested on the floor. “Pinkie!” Twilight called out. The ancient walls absorbed the sound of her voice, taking any echo with it. “Pinkie! Is that you?”

 

                There was a pause, and then the response came back. “Hang on! I’m just checking the map.”

 

                Pinkie Pie’s voice was unmistakable. Dash, still propping Fluttershy up, yelled out into the dark divide. “Pinkie! What gives with just ditching us back there? Slow down for a second!”

 

                “Come on, before she starts moving again.” Twilight gently leaned in to help Dash move Fluttershy along. The trio walked steadily ahead, their hooves silent on the floor. Twilight glanced back towards the staircase, but it had already been swallowed by the blackness.

 

                They found Pinkie at the end of the hall, where it branched off into three separate corridors. She was staring intently at her map. Her tongue stuck out of her mouth and her brow furrowed in concentration. She silently traced her hoof across the paper.

 

                “Pinkie, where are we going now?” Dash asked. She looked over Pinkie’s shoulder, following along with the map’s twisted black line.

 

                “Hang on, I got this…” Pinkie muttered. She looked back and forth between the corridors and her map. Dash shot a wary look at Twilight, who shrugged.

 

Suddenly, Pinkie stopped and turned around with a smile. “Alrighty, let’s go!” she said. With a flick of her wrist, the map rolled back up and she quickly hopped down the passage to their right. “Follow me guys, we’re nearly there! Stay close now, don’t want to get lost. No telling where you might end up then.”

 

“Hey Pinkie, not so quick!” Twilight said, moving up behind her. Fluttershy pushed herself off of Dash and walked forward, whimpering softly. Dash rolled her eyes and followed up behind.

 

The group moved briskly through the tunnel. Occasionally, Dash stopped to adjust her saddlebag, or Fluttershy paused to take several very deep breaths and reassure herself, but largely they walked in silence. Ice had formed in small patches in several spots along the stone and multiple times they had to steady themselves against the wall to keep from slipping.

 

Pinkie continued to lead the way, her lantern bobbing up and down with every hop. They hit several more intersections, but Pinkie’s consultations with the map became briefer and briefer the farther they went. By the sixth juncture, she barely glanced at it before she turned and rushed down the next path. Twilight tried to keep track of the twists and turns and where they were going in relation to the temple above, but it wasn’t long before she found herself completely lost.

 

“Hey, Twilight,” Dash whispered, quickening her pace to match Twilight’s. “Where do you think she’s going?”

 

“I would guess that place she told us about before,” Twilight whispered back. “Where the big… thing is, and all that. I just hope she really knows where she’s going.”

 

“How can she know that at all?” Dash asked, raising an eyebrow. “This all keeps being way too weird for me.”

 

“She got us down here, didn’t she?” Twilight responded, limply gesturing at the passing walls. “Right now, I’m a little more curious as to how she’s able to move so fast based on a map with no scale or points of reference.”

 

“I don’t know how she can even call that a map.” Dash eyed the rolled parchment that was balanced precariously on Pinkie’s bounding backside. “It’s just a long black line. Not exactly the best directions, even without somepony like her giving them.”

 

“I guess we’ll just have to… wait.” Twilight stared ahead. Pinkie had stopped in her tracks in the middle of the hall. There was no intersection this time, and her map remained untouched. She muttered quietly to herself.

 

“Great, now what?” Dash asked, not taking a step forward.

 

“Maybe she’s still trying to figure things out,” Twilight said. She hovered her lantern higher into the air. The shadows around Pinkie lengthened, but she remained completely motionless.

 

“Maybe she’s finally lost it… or at least lost it more than she already has,” Dash said, her eyes narrowing. Behind them, a loud thump sounded out as Fluttershy fell to the ground.

 

Twilight whirled around. “Fluttershy! Are you alright?”

 

“Um, yes, I-I’m fine,” Fluttershy said, her voice shaky as ever. “I think I… I just tripped on some ice, t-that’s all.”

 

While Twilight knelt down to tend to Fluttershy, Dash jogged forward to catch up with Pinkie. She slowed as she approached. Pinkie’s lantern lay between her hooves, blocking some of the light from Dash and giving Pinkie an orange outline in the dark. Her voice was a steady stream of gibberish and noise, with no words that Dash recognized.

 

“Hey, Pinkie,” Dash said, cautiously reaching a hoof out to tap Pinkie on the shoulder. “You doing alright up here? Pinkie?”

 

Pinkie stopped muttering. Her face slowly turned around. She looked up and smiled at Dash. “I’ve got it. I’ve really, really got it this time.”

 

“Yeah, we know you do, Pinkie,” Dash said, patting Pinkie on the back. “You keep telling us–”

 

Pinkie’s hoof snapped out, grabbing hold of Dash’s shoulder. Dash instinctively flinched backward. “No, I mean, I really have it now,” Pinkie said, staring Dash right in the eye. “Don’t any of you see it? He’s the answer! He sees us… he sees you.”

 

Dash stared back, speechless. A red drop appeared on Pinkie’s face, running down out of her tear duct. Dash slowly pushed Pinkie’s hoof off.

 

“That’s great, Pinkie,” Dash said, taking a big step back. “Uh… tell him I say hi.”

 

“I can see…” Pinkie’s eyes travelled off Dash. She turned back around and walked forward again at the same speed as before. Dash stood in place as she left. Twilight and Fluttershy walked up behind her; Fluttershy limped slightly on one leg, but she did her best not to wince.

 

“What did she say, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight asked.

 

Dash turned, her eye twitching. “Twilight, I think we may want to consider getting out of here. Really, really soon.”

 

“Second-to-last turn!” Pinkie shouted. She had reached another intersection, and before the others could even say anything, she hooked left and hopped down a passageway. Twilight hurried forward, Dash and Fluttershy reluctantly keeping pace behind her.

 

                “Second-to-last turn before what, Pinkie?” Twilight asked as she rounded the corner. Pinkie walked ahead of her, slower than before but still moving with a purpose.

 

                “This place is super old, Twilight. Did you know that?” Pinkie asked without turning around. “I mean, I know you can tell it's old just by looking at it, but it really goes waaaay back. Back when Luna and Celestia were just little fillies, and even a little before that.”

 

            Twilight raised her lantern higher into the air, only to have it scrape against stone.

 

                It’s getting really narrow in here, Twilight thought. How does Pinkie keep managing to bounce so high?

 

            “There wasn’t even land here at first,” Pinkie went on. “Just a big, deep ocean. It’s still here now, too. You could even go for a dip, but you’d have to break through all the ice first. Because once it started to get colder and colder, the very tippy-toppy part of the water froze over. Then ponies moved in.”

 

            As Pinkie turned a corner, the map rolled off her back and onto the floor, but she didn’t slow down.

 

            “Uh, Pinkie, your map,” Twilight said. She stooped to reach for it.

 

            “Don’t worry, I memorized it.” Pinkie turned back to Twilight for a split-second. Twilight gasped when she saw dark crimson lines running out of both of her eyes.

 

            “Pinkie, what’s… what’s wrong with your–”

 

            “And one day, they met you-know-what,” Pinkie said, picking up her story from where it left off. “And it started to do what it does best. But, and this is the really neat part, do you know what happened next?”

 

            “Pinkie, I don’t–”

 

            “That’s right! They caught it!” Pinkie did a little twirl, her voice sounding ecstatic. “They tricked it and trapped it and bottled it up! That’s really quite something, especially when you think about it, because there’s really no way they should’ve been able to do that but they still did it anyway.”

 

           Twilight heard close shuffling behind her. She turned around and saw Dash and Fluttershy move in, their ears perked towards Pinkie.

 

“Twilight,” Fluttershy said slowly, “w-what is Pinkie talking about?”

 

Twilight shook her head. “It sounds like the history of this place, but… I’m not sure.”

 

“It sounds like a load of gibberish, if you ask me,” Dash said. She slid forward, tugging her bag along as it got caught on Fluttershy’s wing. “Whoops! Sorry, Fluttershy. This thing’s a little heavy.”

 

“I-it’s alright, Rainbow Dash.” Fluttershy bent her wing down, allowing the bag to slip off. “It’s not your f-fault. It’s just r-really cramped in h-here.”

 

“Yeah, about that,” Dash said, looking around the wall, “is it just me, or are the walls closing in the farther we go? Like, literally closing in.”

 

“I’ve noticed that too,” Twilight said. “They’re moving closer and lower. At this rate, we won’t even be able to turn around soon.”

 

“Figures.” Dash sighed. “I don’t suppose now would be a good time to ask if we could go back?”

 

“We’ve come this far,” Twilight replied. “And we can’t just let Pinkie wander off on her own.”

They came across another intersection, and Pinkie went straight ahead.

           “But then, once they had it, what were they supposed to do with it?” Pinkie’s hoof shook as she brushed her mane out of her face. “They had nowhere to put it. So they built a place to put it. A big prison, in the one spot in Equestria where it could never ever escape. It’s these stones here. Did you know that? They come from a very different place.”

 

She tapped the walls, her hoof gliding along the smooth surface. “Have you ever actually seen a thermite charge go off? Any of you? They don’t work the way they do here. It’s this place. They knew it way back when, even if they were just using torches and bonfires. All this place. And it’s not even just with fire! They’re multipurpose and really, really cool. They can even work to trap it.”

 

“Which they did.” Pinkie looked up. “Like I was saying. They built this place, stored it, locked it, and threw away the key. Left it to just wither away. And then they all went off to experience long lives and lived happily ever after.”

 

Pinkie giggled. The sound echoed, catching Twilight by surprise.

 

“But like I said, that was a very long time ago. Since then, ponies forgot what was here and why they had to stay away. Eventually, some more ponies came up here, long after the old ones were gone, and this place was discovered again. They knew it was a special place, but they had it a teeny bit wrong as to why it was special. No, what they did was come in and start to worship that thing! Can you believe it? They thought it was a god.”

 

                Pinkie paused to scratch her chin. “Which wasn’t far off, I guess, but they were definitely jumping to conclusions there.” She shrugged and went back to hopping.

 

                “Pinkie, why are you telling us all of this?” Twilight asked. Her shoulder bumped against the stone walls, causing her to quiver through her jacket. Behind her, Fluttershy let out another small “eep!” as her wings tightened against her sides. Twilight passed the lantern back, which Fluttershy earnestly gripped onto.

 

                “Don’t suppose you know any wider paths to take, Pinkie?” Dash asked, squirming ahead of Fluttershy. “Or is it supposed to get this tight?”

 

                “And so things stayed like that for a really, really long time more, and Equestria continued on, and everything just sort of happened the way it happened.” Pinkie kept hopping along. Her speed never wavered and her sides never so much as brushed against the walls. “And eventually the ponies here all died out, and the thing was all alone again. Because it could never wither away, either. Not really. Ponies got that part wrong. It’s in no rush to grow up. It will always be as it is. All alone. And it was so angry to be alone. Not just angry at all the ponies that put it there, and not even angry at not being able to do what it was up here to do in the first place. It was mostly pretty steamed with itself for being caught to begin with.”

 

                Pinkie stopped abruptly and scratched her head. The others bumped into one another as they stopped behind her.

 

                “Although I guess it would also be mad at the ponies for that part, too,” Pinkie said, her eyes twitching. “Maybe it just wanted some friends… it forms very close friendships, you know. The kind that last forever and ever and ever.”

 

                “Still convinced we should keep going forward, Twilight?” Dash whispered into Twilight’s ear.

 

                “I admit, I am getting worried that Pinkie may not be all there,” Twilight said.

 

                Dash released an exasperated sigh. “You think? Have you been listening to her at all for the past day?”

 

                “Why does s-she keep saying all t-that stuff?” Fluttershy asked, still holding fast onto the lantern. “H-how does she k-know any of it?”

 

                “I don’t know. I guess she got it all from her books,” Twilight said. She scratched her forehead. “But some of it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, there was an ocean here back when Equestria was still forming, but that was eons ago. It’s been nothing but solid rock under the ice long before ponies ever started showing up.”

 

                “No time to dilly-dally, girls!” Pinkie shouted. She took off down the hall, practically galloping. The others carried on after her. As they ran along, the floor sloped down beneath them.

 

                Has it always been doing that? Twilight wondered.

 

                “Following a pony who’s talking crazy down a path we can barely fit in seems like a really bad idea,” Dash said. She kept close behind Twilight. “And did you see her eyes? Something’s very messed up with them.”

 

                “W-what’s wrong with her eyes?” Fluttershy strained to look past Twilight at Pinkie’s slowly distancing figure.

 

                “She’s crying,” Dash said. She traced a hoof down her own cheek under her eye. “But it’s not tears that are coming out.”

 

                “So it was just waiting and waiting and waiting!” Pinkie was shouting now, getting farther ahead of the others. “Just waiting… and thinking. Until finally more ponies came. And it could finally stop doing all that waiting and thinking and start having some fun of its own.”

 

                There was the sound of tinkering glass, and Pinkie’s light vanished. Twilight ran to the spot of the sound and nearly stepped on the broken remnants of Pinkie’s lantern.

 

                “Pinkie!” Twilight shouted. She stopped and listened for the sound of hoofsteps up ahead. “Pinkie! Wait up!”

 

                “But, and I really hate saying this, because it’s something that I’d never think would even be possible,” Pinkie’s voice shot back from the dark, “it shouldn’t have been concentrating on having so much fun. It got distracted, it got lazy. It split off from the path it was supposed to follow and the tasks it was supposed to complete.”

 

                “Pinkie!” Dash shouted out. The three ponies ran in single file, their jackets rubbing against the walls and their heads barely clearing the ceiling. “Yeah, definitely some wrong here. Be ready to get us out of here, Twilight.”

 

                Twilight’s horn shimmered in response. Her beam of light intensified, shooting out ahead. The corridor seemed to go on and on forever. They could no longer hear Pinkie’s hoofsteps.

 

                Suddenly, the floor dropped away. Twilight fell down several feet, landing awkwardly on her chest. Fluttershy tumbled down on top of her, while Dash was able to catch herself and flap overhead.

 

                “Oh! Sorry Twilight,” Fluttershy said, rubbing her head. “I didn’t mean to.”

 

                “It’s alright, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. She slowly got to her hooves and her breathing intensified for a moment. “Dash, you still with us?”

 

                “Right up here,” Dash answered. “My lantern’s busted on me, though.”

 

                “Mine too,” Fluttershy said. She meekly prodded at the mangled metal box. The exterior glass was only cracked, but the oil cartridge had burst. Twilight directed her beam of light around them.

 

                They had fallen out of the corridor into a much larger space. The walls rounded around them in a wide curve. Twilight looked up, but couldn’t see the ceiling.

 

“We’re here!”

 

Twilight jumped in surprise as Pinkie popped up right in front of her. The pony grinned madly while blood streamed from her eyes. She didn’t look quite at Twilight, but rather somewhere just behind her.

 

“Pinkie! Don’t scare us like that!” Twilight shook her head. Pinkie giggled and hopped backwards.

 

“Isn’t this place cool, guys? It looks even better than I thought it would!” Pinkie took a step back, her head scanning the walls. “Be careful though, it’s going to start getting really fractured up ahead.”

 

She scratched her head. “Huh. Wonder what I meant by that?”

 

Twilight stared at her, lost for words.

 

Pinkie shrugged and scurried around the room, quickly slipping back into the shadows. “But now’s no time to go sightseeing, anyway. There’s too much lost time to make up for!”

 

“Uh, did you see where she went, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight asked. Her horn continued to flash over the room. She heard Dash flapping above her, although the pegasus did not respond.

 

“Do you guys need lights?” Pinkie chirped from the other side of the room. “Well why didn’t you say so?”

 

Three solid hoofsteps sounded in quick succession. A row of torches along the wall ignited. Twilight blinked at the sudden burst of light, shielding her eyes with one hoof in the process. As she grew accustomed to the newfound illumination, she lowered her hoof and studied the room.

 

It was a perfectly round chamber. The walls were smooth and featureless. The only deviation was a small opening just above head level, which led back into the passageway they had all come from. Like before, the black material reflected no light. Twilight glanced upward, but still couldn’t see the ceiling.

 

Or maybe it’s just so dark I can’t tell if I’m looking right at it.

 

A large, round ring of stones occupied the center of the room. Twilight stepped forward to examine them. They made up a very shallow well, filled to the brim with clear water. Twilight could see the bottom about a meter down, if that. Unlike the rest of the walls, the floor under the water was solid white in color.

 

Pinkie stood on the other side of the well. She peered down at the water, her body shaking in anticipation. “Alright, time to get things moving!”

                

Dash landed next to Twilight. “Something’s wrong. We need to get out of here.”

 

“I already told you, I don’t know what’s going on with Pinkie,” Twilight said. “But if she brought us this far–”

 

“Twilight, I don’t know what Pinkie’s planning, but… but it isn’t good.” Dash pointed to Pinkie. “Just look at her. Look at how she’s acting. She needs to stop.”

 

Twilight looked back and forth between Dash and Pinkie, then nodded. She stepped over to the well, across from where Pinkie was positioned.

 

“Pinkie, wait!” Twilight shouted. To her surprise, Pinkie paused what she was doing and looked up. Twilight stared into her eyes, somewhat taken aback. They had become a shade of dark blue all the way across. Twilight couldn’t even be sure if Pinkie was looking back at her.

 

“Uh… what are…” Twilight stumbled for a moment. “What are you planning to do, exactly, Pinkie?”

 

Pinkie grinned. “Everything I said I was going to do, Twilight. Time to turn the clock back. I can’t let him down now, can I? What kind of pony would I be if I did that?”

 

                Pinkie reached down into the well and dipped the bruise on her ankle under the water line. The well bottom glowed brightly, and beams of light shot up out of the water. Twilight shielded her eyes again as she backed away towards the walls. The bottom glowed brighter and brighter, to the point where Twilight couldn’t look directly at it.

 

                “This is the ultimate goal, you see,” Pinkie said. “It’s always been a matter of getting things back to the way they used to be. Before this thing failed to do what it was supposed to do, before any ponies came stumbling up here to just start messing around… before there were any ponies anywhere at all, even.”

 

                “Pinkie, stop!” Dash cried. She swooped forward, only to smack into one of the beams of light. She fell to the floor. “What’d I… what the hay was that?”

 

Before Twilight could respond, a loud ringing filled the room. It bounced off the walls and pierced into the ponies’ heads. The three ponies quickly covered their ears, desperately trying to block out the noise.

 

                “Twilight!” Fluttershy screamed over the din. She pressed herself down on the floor, her hooves clamped firmly on her head. “Twilight, look!”

 

                Twilight turned over and stared at Pinkie. She had taken her hoof out of the water and held it in the air. Her bruise glowed with the same intensity as the well.

 

                “I’ve almost got this!” Pinkie shouted, the smile on her face expanding wider. “No more mistakes, no more missed opportunities, and no more messing around on petty revenge. I’ve almost fixed everything! I can do it!”

 

                Pinkie twitched in place and dove forward. The entire front half of her body disappeared under the water, her rear legs pressing firm against the side of the well to hold herself in position. Her tail jutted into the air, waving around from side to side.

 

                “Twilight, get her out of there!” Dash screamed. She flapped up again, only to be sent back to the floor by another light barrier. She shoved against it, pushing forward but getting nowhere.

 

                Twilight’s horn shimmered. A purple field snapped into life around Pinkie’s body, only to quickly vanish. The water flickered for a moment, and the beams of light turned grey. They drew together into a solid wall and slammed forward. The three ponies were sent sprawling backwards against the wall.

 

                The trio lay in a heap, still struggling against the noise. Twilight felt the walls tremble; the temple shook again, like it had when the staircase opened. Over the ringing, there was also the very definitive sound of something shifting deep down below their hooves. Something very big.

 

                Then, without warning, the ringing stopped. Silence descended on the room as the shaking faded away. Small trails of dust fell from cracks in the ceiling, but other than that there was complete stillness.

 

                Twilight was the first to stand. She pulled herself up, gently sliding Fluttershy off of her leg first. She brushed her head and shook off the small pile of dust that had fallen on her back. Behind her, Dash groaned; she rolled over onto her side and pushed herself up with her wings.

 

                “Is everypony alright?” Twilight asked. She helped Fluttershy stand while Dash woozily leaned against the wall.

 

                “I’ve had just about enough of these really loud noises,” Dash said. She flexed her jaw and tenderly touched her right ear. “This one’s still ringing.”

 

                The sound of splashing caught everypony’s attention, and the three looked over to see Pinkie reemerge from the well. She wheezed several times, spitting up drops of water and coughing hard. The well continued to glow brightly, reflecting off the water droplets on her skin. She tried to pull herself all the way out, but her hooves didn’t come up. The water rippled gently as she tugged several times, trying desperately to free herself. No such luck, however; her hooves were stuck on something under the surface.

 

                Pinkie looked up and stared at Twilight. The streaks of blood were gone, and her eyes had returned to their normal appearance. Her smile had vanished, and replaced instead with a trembling frown.

 

                “Twilight…” Pinkie pleaded. The edge that had been developing in her voice all evening was gone now. “Help.”

 

                The well rippled again, and Pinkie was yanked underwater. Her body sank down, disappearing into the light.

 

                “Pinkie!” Twilight rushed towards the well. “Pinkie!”

 

                “Hey, wait!” Dash moved forward to grab Twilight when the temple shook again. Walls cracked and torches fell from their perches, splitting in two as soon as they hit the floor. The floor jolted from left to right with enough speed to knock each pony off her hooves. Twilight’s head hit the floor. With her ear to the ground, she heard a great rumbling approaching fast.

 

                The surface of the well exploded. A massive jet of water shot upward, soaring into the air like a geyser. It smashed into the ceiling with enough force to dislodge the stonework and blast away mortar. The cracks in the walls widened exponentially, thrusting themselves outward as the shaking of the temple intensified.

 

                “Twilight, get us out of here!” Dash cried out. “We have to–”

 

                A blast of water hit Dash in the face, cutting her off. More water jets shot out from the cracks in the walls. One hit Twilight in the abdomen, knocking the wind out of her while it shoved her to the ground. For a brief moment, she was surprised at how warm the water was. Then another jet pushed her head under water.

 

                The well continued to glow brightly, giving Twilight a clear view of her surroundings. She turned herself around and kicked off the ground. Her head barely reemerged above the rising flow; she felt the water rising around her as she gasped for breath. She swam in place, her hooves unable to touch the floor anymore. Looking around, she noticed even more cracks opening into the walls. Each drew water away from the room into some unseen section of the temple.

 

                The flow started to push Twilight around. She kicked frantically to stay on course, but the current was too strong. As she was carried towards a large hole in the wall, she spotted the others on the other side of the room. Dash had a tight grip around Fluttershy’s waist and was half-flying, half-kicking at the stream in a fight to stay above water. Twilight tried to cry out, but a splash to her face when she opened her mouth took her breath away.

 

                Twilight tried to concentrate. She looked at Dash and Fluttershy, a purple field appearing around her horn. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something large and black moving towards her. A large chunk of the ceiling had been knocked loose and plunged straight down. Twilight kicked back as hard as she could, just barely dodging the bulk of the object. She was less lucky with the stray brick that followed it, which smacked her just behind her ears.

 

Twilight’s eyes flickered. She barely registered the large tremor that ripped the room in two. In front of there, the blurry shapes of Dash and Fluttershy were torn apart, each of them disappearing down a separate crack. Her eyes finally closed completely and her head sagged back as the powerful current swept her away into the unknown depths.

 

****************************************

 

Fire. Everywhere there was fire. The smell of burning paper lingered in the air, and ash floated to the ground. Wood was completely consumed by flame. Embers glowed at the base of the tree while fresh infernos ignited up above. There was no noise during all of this. The world was completely silent.

 

Twilight stood in front of the library. It was like she was stuck in a photograph. The chaos in front of her, of the library burning up in one fireball, was frozen in place. Flames licked the air, but never spread down whatever branch they were on. The spectators that surrounded the library were similarly motionless, though Twilight had a funny feeling that even if things were happening in real time, they still wouldn’t move.

 

Except for the figure standing right in front of her. He moved. He was a dark blur, and she couldn’t make out any specific details about what he looked like, but she could tell he was moving. She was struck by a nagging sense of familiarity that she knew who he was. He walked towards her. A nondescript smile pushed through the haze that was his face.

 

Twilight tried to speak, but no words came out.

 

The figure spoke for her. “You’d better wake up. You’re not done yet.”

 

****************************************

 

                Follow the light. Follow the light and I’ll make it.

 

Rainbow Dash hurried forward, her hooves pounding on the stone. She could hear water lapping at the stones behind her, but with every step, the sound receded. Her wings were folded down over her sides, cradling the saddlebag against her abdomen. Up ahead, a single spot of light was her only source of illumination.

 

                She ran to the light as quickly as she could manage. Her face strained from a pain in her leg, acquired when she’d been slammed into some rocks by the churning water. It gave her a limp, but she powered through it as best she could.

 

                A lantern lay on the floor ahead. Dash recognized it as the lantern Pinkie had dropped earlier. The glass was cracked, the copper bottom dented.

 

But the light went out when Pinkie dropped it, Dash thought. And this isn’t where we were before. How’d it get here?

 

                “Hello?” Dash called out. “Is anypony there?”

 

                There was no response.

 

                “Twilight? Fluttershy?” Dash took a few steps forward, he ears perked for any kind of new sound. “Can anypony hear me? Hello!”

 

                Still nothing. Dash shivered. Her jacket had been ripped off in the surge of water, and she was soaking wet. The faint heat from the lantern felt good, but it wasn’t enough. Dash glanced back as she picked up the lantern. She could still hear water splashing against the walls. Beyond that, the sound of falling rocks rattled in the distance.

 

                Just keep moving. If I can just get out of here... then it will all be alright. Maybe I can find the others too… maybe.

 

                Dash shook some excess water out of her wings, and ran down the dark tunnel.

 

****************************************

 

                Twilight’s eyes snapped open to the sight of utter darkness. She didn’t move, instead letting her body take in the surroundings. She felt wet and cold all over. Water dripped off her jacket, which was nearly ripped in two. The hard stone floor pushed into her sides at uncomfortable angles, but for the moment she let it be. Her head was spinning, and she felt something hot and sticky leaking out of her ear. Somewhere off to her right, water occasionally dropped into a puddle. For a moment, the distant hum she heard convinced her she was still dreaming. Then she realized it was the sound of rushing water off in some direction, muffled by layers of stone and ice.

 

                Slowly, very slowly, she sat up. She fumbled around in the dark, searching for something to latch onto. Her hoof found a wall, and she shuffled over to lean back against it. She’d only moved a few inches when her jacket caught on a sharp edge, and was torn off entirely. She rubbed her body with her hooves, brushing as much water off as she could.

 

                Good thing it feels warmer in here. Though there’s no telling how long that’ll last.

 

Her breathing was labored, but as she sat up she found herself feeling a little better. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but a few minutes later everything was still pitch black.

 

                “Hello?” Twilight called out. Her voice echoed, repeating the word several times all around her.

 

                Echoes. I must be somewhere new… or the stones have started to selectively echo again.

 

                A small spark of light appeared at the tip of Twilight’s horn. She cried out in pain, and the spark vanished. Her hoof shot up to her head. She grimaced as she felt around, tenderly touching the growing bruise at the top of her skull.

 

                Concussion maybe? That shouldn’t interfere with my magic like this, though…

 

                She inhaled deeply. The spark appeared again, coming into focus slower this time. She winced as the light increased, her eyes struggling to stay open and her jaw clenched. The light flickered, vanished again, and then came back again, finally remaining steady. Twilight let out a long exhale. She directed her new beam of light around the room. Her eyes travelled slowly along the walls.

 

                It was a larger chamber than the one before, and completely empty. The same smooth black material made up the walls, in which there were no holes or exits. The only way into this room was a large crack in the ceiling, from which water dripped down at a constant pace.

 

                “Hello?” Twilight called again. “Can anypony up there hear me? Hello!”

 

                Her voice continued to echo around, but that was the only voice she heard. She got to her hooves, looking at the hole in the ceiling as she did.

 

                Nopony here… where are the others? Did they make it out of this okay? What about Pinkie? What if they… if I’m…

 

                Twilight shook her head. “No,” she said aloud. “They’re fine. They’re just up there somewhere, and I need to find them. We all need to get out of here.”

 

                Twilight braced herself on the floor. Her horn shimmered all over. She dug her hooves down as the pain intensified in her skull. Rings of light appeared around her several times, never staying for more than a second. She sighed.

 

                Nothing down here. Gotta get back up, and there’s only one way to do it. You can do it, Twilight.

 

                She shut her eyes. Her horn glowed intensely. The light rings reappeared, multiplying this time instead of fading away. The light grew brighter and brighter, and then, with a loud CRACK, Twilight disappeared.

 

****************************************

 

                “Hello? If there’s anypony out there, you gotta say something!” Dash shouted off periodically as she flew down the corridor. Her injured leg was pulled in next to her, while her wings flapped clean and easily. The hall was wide, so she never touched the walls. The lantern bounced back and forth as it hung around her neck, tied in place with a ripped piece of fabric from the saddlebag.

 

                Up ahead, an intersection appeared. Dash slowed to peer around the three offered pathways. One was blocked by debris, but the other two were open and clear.

 

                Man, I hate mazes. At least one of these looks like it goes up.

 

                She shook her head and flew down the path to the right. The sloped passageway rose beneath her, and before long she was flying almost straight up. The walls flexed around her, showing off many long cracks. The shadows from her lantern danced in front of her the whole time.

 

                Yeah, yeah, creepy shadows, I got it. Still just looking for that exit.

 

                Eventually, she reached the top of the tunnel. It turned down to one side, abruptly leveling out into another long corridor. She took a quick look behind her at the top. A sheer drop sat below her.

 

                Huh. Wonder what they needed a path like this for? It took me a while to fly up it… how deep were we?

 

                Dash shrugged and turned back around. Her eyes scanned the walls as she sailed down the path. Somewhere along the vertical path they had changed from the jet black stones to the more traditional brown ones.

 

                Getting warmer, Dash thought with a glimpse of a smile. Long cracks extended down the walls in both directions. Some were tiny ruptures, while others spread out to an area twice Dash’s size. She peeked through a few of the larger holes, but saw only darkness.

 

                The light in the tunnel flickered. Dash looked down to see that her lantern was starting to die, the small flame shaking in the light.

 

                “Hey, come on, don’t do this to me now!” Dash landed and examined the oil tray. “No leaks… how do these stupid things work, there’s gotta be a– there we go.”

 

                Dash hit a dial, and with a fresh flow of oil the flame roared into new life. She breathed a sigh of relief, then noticed something on the top of the lantern. Something reflective. Looking up, she saw a dim light in a wall down the hall.

 

                Dash wasted no time running to it. The wall in question had a massive fissure running parallel to the floor. Dash got in close and squinted; a lit corridor could be seen on the other side, with several torches planted in the wall.

 

                Jackpot! Dash studied the wall. It was in bad shape, worse than the ones she had passed. Besides the main crack, a spiderweb of smaller fractures spread all over.

 

                One of my charges should do it, unless… maybe I can just…

 

                She leaned back, and delivered a strong kick just under the main crack. The wall jumped, several large stones falling down the other side. Dash smirked, and hammered out four more kicks. The fifth one sent a section of the wall crumbling to pieces in front of her.

 

                Dash stepped into the new room, coughing at the dust in the air and looking triumphant.

 

                So much for your stupid maze. Back in the light now, all I gotta do is–

 

                There was a cough somewhere to her left. Dash’s expression dropped and she spun around, instantly taking a low defensive stance. Her wings twitched, ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

 

                Apple Bloom lay sprawled out on the far side of the room. She was covered in bruises, and her twisted mane obscured most of her face. A large patch of stone had collapsed from the ceiling onto her leg, pinning her in place. The part of the leg still visible was dark purple in color, and a small pool of blood seeped out from under her.

 

                Dash didn’t move. Did I do that? No, she’s too far back, must’ve been that earlier shaking. Or something else… how long has she been here?

 

Apple Bloom coughed several more times and raised her head. She eyed Dash, a mixture of tears and blood falling down her cheeks.

 

                “Rainbow Dash…” she said, her voice strained and weak. “Please… help me…”

 

                With great effort, she raised an outstretched hoof in Dash’s direction. Dash took a step forward.

 

                “How did you…” Dash stared at Apple Bloom, her mouth agape. “What are you doing here, Apple Bloom? How did you get here?”

 

                “Please… please help me. I-I’m stuck,” Apple Bloom pleaded. “I just want t-to go home. P-please…”

 

                Dash took another step forward, then froze. She was never tested.

 

“Uh… just, uh, hang on, Apple Bloom,” Dash said. She turned to look in her bag. “I gotta do, uh, one thing first.”

 

Apple Bloom tried to speak, but instead coughed some more. Dash kept searching her bag.

 

Nothing but charges, I could’ve sworn I packed the– what’s back there? Is something back there?

 

Dash glanced behind Apple Bloom. The back half of the room was bathed in darkness. Dash squinted to try and pick up any moving shapes.

 

Wall’s rippling… it can’t be, that doesn’t make any sense, it’s just my imagination. There can’t be anything there… unless…

 

                “Rainbow Dash, I… I don’t…” Apple Bloom coughed again, harder than before. Specks of blood shot out of her mouth, hurling through the air and landing just shy of Dash’s hooves.

 

“No!” Dash took several steps back. Her wing shot into the bag.

 

She’s one. Gotta be one. It got to her friends. It got to her sister. It got to her.

 

“I know what’s going on. You’re not fooling me.” Dash’s wing reemerged clutching a charge.

 

Apple Bloom’s eyes widened. “Rainbow Dash, please! I… I j-just need–”

 

                Took Spike, took Rarity. What if she’s taken Twilight or Fluttershy already?

                

                Apple Bloom’s face bulged, and she vomited on the floor. A small pool of blood spilled out amongst the bile.

 

                Dash scrambled back again. “Not me, alright? You’re not getting me!”

 

                Took all the others, I could be alone now, all alone…

 

                Apple Bloom, her hoof shaking, reached out. “Help… me…”

 

                All alone. Alone with that thing. Can’t let it take me. Can’t let it win.

 

                “I said,” Dash screamed, “you’re not! Getting! ME!”        

 

Dash flicked the switch and tossed the charge. Her wings extended and she took off, flying out of the room before the thermite even hit the floor. She heard it explode; the resulting wave of fire completely illuminated her surroundings. Walls shook around her. Stones and mortar, already weakened from the shaking before, were jolted completely loose by the explosion. They crashed to the floor in a tremendous din that echoed down the hall.

 

                They weren’t enough to cover the sound of the screams, however. Dash never turned around. She just kept flying forward, her determined expression undone only by the small tears that dropped from her eyes.

 

****************************************

 

                The room flashed with light as Twilight entered it. She staggered to the side as soon as her hooves touched the ground. She was pale, and her eyes took a few seconds to properly focus.

 

                Alright, that one hurt. Twilight rubbed her head. She was developing a headache and it got worse with every teleportation. And I’m… where am I?

 

                She looked around the room. It was made of more of the black stones, but several torches had been installed along the walls. The walls were still smooth and unblemished, with not even a single crack to be seen.

 

                At least this one’s got some light in it. Twilight walked down the passageway ahead of her. Though the water had long since dried off her, she still shivered.

 

                “Hello?” she shouted. “Can anypony hear me?”

 

                How big can this place be, she wondered as she walked along. And I can’t teleport accurately… how can I search it all? What if I just keep ending up in places I’ve never been?

 

                Twilight turned a corner and slipped. Catching herself before she fell all the way down, she saw the source of the problem: water. Large patches of the floor were covered in puddles of lukewarm water. She hurried forward at a faster pace, a beam of light shooting out from her horn.

 

                “Hello? Hello?” she shouted again. She glanced down every side passage she came across, though they had all caved in. “If somepony’s out there, you’ve got to say something! Hello?”

 

                The beam of light from Twilight’s horn circled all across the walls and floors as she ran forward. It passed over another caved-in tunnel and Twilight skid to a stop. She backed up and stared into the alcove. Something damp and yellow was huddled against the wall.

 

                “Fluttershy!” Twilight ran in to examine her friend. She bent over and gently turned Fluttershy’s head towards her. “Fluttershy! Can you hear me?”

 

                Fluttershy’s eyes slowly opened. She blinked a few times, recoiling at the light on Twilight’s horn. Twilight quickly redirected the beam elsewhere. A long, deep cut ran down Fluttershy’s forehead and Twilight could see several red drops coming out of tears in her jacket.

 

                At least her jacket is mostly dry now. It’ll keep her warm.

 

                “T-Twilight?” Fluttershy’s voice was faint. “Is… is that you?”

 

                “It’s me, Fluttershy, it’s me. You’re alright.” Twilight put a hoof on Fluttershy’s mane, gently rubbing her head. “What happened to you? How did you get here?”

 

                “I… I’m not…” Fluttershy paused to take several deep breaths. Twilight heard her wheezing with every inhalation.

 

                “I’m not sure,” Fluttershy said. “Rainbow Dash had me back in the other room, b-but then the water hit us, and we got separated, and I… I ended up here.”

 

                “Yeah, I got tossed around, too,” Twilight said. “I’ve been trying to find you guys for a while now. I haven’t come across Rainbow Dash yet, though.”

 

                “What a-about Apple Bloom, or… or Pinkie?” Fluttershy asked. She looked up at Twilight, her eyes wavering.

 

                Twilight shook her head. “Come on, Fluttershy. We’ll find them. Here, let me help you…”

 

                Twilight grabbed hold of Fluttershy’s shoulders, and the two tried to rise. Fluttershy stumbled and fell against Twilight, letting out a small cry of pain in the process. Twilight looked and saw Fluttershy’s eyes clenched shut.

 

                “Almost there, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. She bent over to give Fluttershy some more leverage, and the two finally stood all the way up. Fluttershy’s breathing sounded increasingly labored, but she said nothing.

 

                “There we go,” Twilight said. Fluttershy continued leaning against her as all four of her hooves shook. “Alright, are you ready to go? Let’s just take a few steps out of here.”

 

The two hobbled forward. It took Fluttershy a few moments to get each step going. Shortly after they left the alcove and emerged back in the main hall, she broke out into a coughing fit. Twilight held on to her to keep her from falling back down. As Fluttershy finished coughing, Twilight noticed several red drops fly out of her mouth and onto the floor.

 

“I’d teleport us forward,” Twilight said, trying to sound helpful, “but my magic’s been acting up a little since I got carried away. Last few times I did it, I ended up somewhere other than where I wanted to go.”

 

                “What d-do you m-mean? A-are you alright, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked. With a moderate amount of effort, she turned her head to look at Twilight. “Did you g-get hurt?”

 

                “I’m fine, I’m fine,” Twilight reassured her. “Just got a little knock in the head.”

 

                The two of them rounded a corner up ahead, and came face-to-face with a complete tunnel collapse. The ceiling had caved in and completely buried the floor below. Twilight glanced into the hole above. It stretched up another few floors, all of them in similar states of ruin.

 

                “Hello!” Twilight shouted. She heard her voice echo up into the temple, eventually disappearing into the rock. Her ears perked up, but there was only silence.

 

                “This place is a mess,” Twilight said after a minute. “Every room I’ve been to is more wreckage like this. That shaking must’ve really done a number on these old stone walls.”

 

                “W-where should w-we go now?” Fluttershy asked. Twilight could feel her trembling under her jacket.

 

                “Hang on, give me a second,” Twilight said. She took a few deep breaths as her horn sparked. “We’ve got to find Rainbow Dash. She’s probably out somewhere on her own too. Maybe we should go somewhere central. She should be able to find her way down to us then.”

 

                I sure hope she can, at least. Twilight grimaced, and with a burst of energy, the two zapped out of the room.

 

****************************************

 

                Dash flew forward as fast as her wings would take her. The corridor twisted and turned around her, but never had any intersections or deviations. It was ultimately one long, uninterrupted passage. The walls had stopped shaking long ago, but still she flew on.

 

                Lookin’ for the exit, where’s the exit… when does this stupid temple run out of tunnels…

 

Dash’s head kept turning from side to side. Her eyes desperately searched for any kind of way out, any passage to more light. The torches on the walls were becoming few and far between, while the lamp around her neck was flickering out again.

 

                Gotta find the way out before it goes out. If I’m stuck here in the dark…

 

                Dash shuddered in midair. Up ahead, the tunnel curved right. Dash whipped around and tossed her wings up, sliding to a stop. She was at a wide intersection, one that branched off into three different routes. Each new tunnel was unblocked by debris, and turned off into a different direction.

 

                “Oh come on!” Dash shouted aloud. She paced back and forth across the floor, cursing under her breath. Her hooves stamped down on the cold stone floors multiple times. Rocks chipped from under her, and she heard several bits of stone crash to the floor below. She paused in place. Raising her hoof again, she struck the floor in three quick strikes. A tiny fragment of the floor fell away. Light shined up the new hole, and Dash bent over to peek through.

 

                A single torch on a wall stared back at her. On the floor beneath it, a long cable ran along the base of the wall.

 

                “Bingo!” Dash grabbed another charge from her pack and placed it on the ground. She flipped the switch and flew back, getting around the corner right as it blew up. The sound of stones tumbling around echoed through the hall to the point of making her dizzy. Eventually, the sounds died off, and Dash pulled her hooves off her ears and peeked around the bend to see the results.

 

                The hole took up the entire section of the floor in the intersection. Two of the other paths had also caved in, and dust was still trailing out of the third. Dash quickly ran forward and hopped down to the lower level.

 

                Those lines gotta be the ones that… yes, this is it!

 

                Dash clapped her hooves together. She was standing back in the entrance tunnel, staring at the collection of wiring and cables that ran from the base to the tube chamber. Her explosion had brought the ceiling down and blocked off one side, but the other was free and open.

 

                Doesn’t matter which way I go now, both lead to an exit. Nearly free now!

 

                Dash skipped forward, but only made it a few steps before she heard a loud CRACK over her head. She tentatively glanced up. A long crack ran through the ceiling, starting from the hole she made and continuing all the way down the hall. As she watched it, it grew wider and wider. The stones of the ceiling trembled in place.

 

                Dash gulped. “Uh-oh…”

 

                Dash flew forward before the first stone fell. She rushed forward as the whole ceiling collapsed. Stones nipped at her heels while dust shot up to obscure her vision.

 

                Straight shot either way, unless there’s that door, but if I’m going to the base it’s just a hole, assuming it hasn’t even fallen down yet, just gotta get there, come on, come on… There!

 

                A hole carved into the wall appeared ahead on the left: the entrance to the base. Dash sped up, whipping around it just as a huge slab of the opposing wall crumpled forward. Her hooves were over her head and she powered into the room, sliding along the floor as she closed her wings. Behind her, several tons of rock finished piling up, sealing the hole for good.

 

Good to be back.

 

Dash threw her head back, resting on what little carpet remained on the floor. She shut her eyes as she lay sprawled out, breathing in silence. Overhead, a gust of wind slammed onto the base. Dash winced as the walls rattled, and the howling wind outside picked up with a new energy.

 

                Yeah, I missed you too.

 

A smile flashed across her face. She opened her eyes and put the lantern down next to her. There wasn’t much light coming out of it now, but it was enough. She glanced around the room.

 

Some new holes in the wall, ceiling’s falling to pieces, window’s cracked, furniture’s burned and destroyed… and it’s cold. Way too cold. I can’t stay here.

 

Her smile faded. She stood up, the pain in her leg flaring up again.

 

Just what I need. Come on, I can work through that, don’t need my legs to get out of here anyway. Just gotta find something to stay warm and I’m gone.

 

                Dash rubbed her legs a few times, then scanned the room. A half-buried scarf caught her eye, and she headed towards it.

 

                Then she saw movement. There was something in the room with her.

 

                Dash jerked into the air, flying up so fast she smacked into the ceiling. It groaned in protest, and several cracks spread themselves out even further. Dash didn’t notice. She peered into the dark and saw the shape of something scurrying around the far wall.

 

                “Hello?” she said, her voice tinged with nervousness. “Uh… Twilight? Fluttershy?”

 

                Something moved towards the light. It took a few more steps, making a series of clicks with every bit of motion, and finally came into view.

 

                Applejack’s head stared up at Dash. It sat nearly upside down on eight long, spindly legs that had sprouted out from the base of her skull. Two tall stalks jutted up from her chin, a large eye on top of each one. The head growled at Dash. Applejack’s mouth moved to the sounds of a quiet, yet utterly distinctive guttural noise.

 

                Dash’s jaw dropped. “Oh you have got to be–”

 

                The window of the room cracked and imploded from a massive gale, cutting Dash’s curse short. Shards of glass fired into the room, several of them striking the back of the creature. It scuttled forward a few steps, its loud screech overpowered by the sound of the wind as it flooded into the room.

 

Dash’s wing was already in her bag, snatching up another charge. The thermite fell through the air, landing right by one of the creature’s legs. One eye stalk looked down to examine it, while the other stayed with Dash, who shoved herself into the corner and shielded her eyes. The resulting blast completely incinerated the creature, while the burst of fire lit the room right up.

 

For a moment, Dash felt the heat roll over her body. Then the ceiling bulged inward, and with a loud CRACK, half of it collapsed inward. Snow poured into the common room, bringing with it a deep chill. Within seconds, it was half buried in powder, and more continued rushing in from outside. Dash shook her head, took one final look around, and flew through the new hole into the night air.

 

The edges of Dash’s mane froze almost as soon as she was out in open air. The wind hit her from every direction, and she had to constantly blink to keep bits of ice out of her eyes. Her wings flapped furiously against the storm.

 

Just keep moving, keep moving. Keep the blood flowing. Keep moving, I can’t stay out here long.

 

The wind shrieked her around, but she managed to keep a steady course going straight up. She arched high into the sky. The vast storm cloud lay directly ahead of her.

 

After ascending for some time, she slowed down. Still fighting the wind at every turn, she turned around to look at the temple. It was barely visible, a black mass against the white snow. Dash stared down. She constantly shook her hooves to keep ice from forming along them.

 

Just… just one pass. That’s all. Really quick, and then I’m out.

 

Dash dove down, the wind pushing her along even faster. Soon she leveled out, turning on one side to perform a wide, circular turn. She tried to shout, but the wind swallowed her words before they even left her throat.

 

Come on, come on… Give me a light, a fire, one of Twilight’s spells, something… anything

 

Nothing. The darkness never yielded any light, and the only movement besides her was the mounds of snow being whipped around. Dash strained her neck as her circle completed, and turned back upward.

 

I’ll… I’ll come back. I’ll go get help. I promised I would, so that’s what I’m gonna do.

 

Dash blinked rapidly, holding back any tears before they had a chance to form and freeze. The dark clouds boomed overhead, swirling in an angry display. Dash pushed her way through the black mass and entered the heart of the storm. The winds increased their force while ice formed in near-solid sheets in the sky. Dash dodged and weaved through the weather, her teeth gritted against the arctic fury. Her wings were a blur now; her heart beat in time.

 

Gonna punch every cloud I see once I’m out of here… just a little further now, this can’t be that tall. It can’t be.

 

Dash squinted. The heavy ice was taking its toll. She was virtually blind in the cloud, guided solely by her sense of direction. Several times, a clap of thunder erupted around her, shaking her to the point that her nose bled. The drops immediately froze in the air. Another boom of thunder left Dash’s ears ringing, though not badly enough to block out the perpetual sound of the wind.

 

Then Dash saw it. The faintest glimmer of light. She pushed forward, ignoring her aching muscles and burning chest. Her hoof reached out ahead of her, guiding her towards the sole source of illumination in the sky.

 

Dash burst through the top of the clouds like a shell from a cannon. The ocean of black dropped away to reveal a world of clear, dark orange skies. High above her, a few select stars twinkled peacefully. She felt the sun warm on her back, melting the ice away with every beam.

 

Dash paused a few seconds to take several deep breaths. Then, giving her body one last shake to dislodge any remaining bits of frost, she stretched out and threw her hooves into the air.

 

“YES! I made it!” she shouted, her tone one of pure, exhilarated joy. “Can’t beat me! Not falling rocks or big monsters or harsh storms. I WON!”

 

Dash glanced down, still panting. The black clouds extended in all directions for as far as she could see. She shook her head at the sight, tossing her head back and smiling. Her hooves remained elevated as she continued to soak in more of the sun’s warming rays.

 

Wait a second.

 

Her hooves dropped to her side. Slowly, Dash turned to face the source of the light. The sun hung low in the sky, a hard orange color compared to its usual blinding yellow. The sunken crest of the moon hung just above it, the two bodies frozen in place. Dash cocked her head to one side.

 

Alright, that’s a new one. I’ve heard of some thick storms, but thick enough to block out daylight?

 

Dash felt a strong breeze hit her in the back. She spun around and found herself staring at a vertical wall of clouds. It reached high into the air, curling down at the top like a colossal wave. It came from all directions to converge right on Dash’s position.

 

Dash gaped. “That’s… that’s not fair.”

 

The wave broke and crashed on top of Dash before she had a chance to move. They punched Dash straight down. She plummeted through the sky, her body twisting in the wind. Dash worked to spread her wings and regain control, but the force of her fall kept her spinning.

 

Just need an updraft, something to get level again, something to get back in control.

 

Dash flipped over as she left the clouds, her back facing the ground. Sharp bits of ice sliced long impressions into her neck and shoulders. Dash felt the sting of ever cut as her blood froze in the wounds.

 

Come on, sudden stop will work, just gotta spread em…

 

Dash’s wings launched straight out. She held them as wide as she could. They caught air, turning her back around just in time to see herself meet the ground. She threw her shoulder out and tried to brace herself.

 

The impact sent snow skyrocketing into the sky. Dash slid along the ground, first pushing through snow and then a solid layer of ice. Even over the din of the weather, Dash heard the bone in her leg snap like a twig. The pain shot through her so fast that she almost puked on the spot. Instead, she screamed louder than she ever had in her entire life. Her good hooves slammed down into the ice, finally slowing her down and bringing her to a stop.

 

It took Dash a few seconds to draw a full breath in. She felt a sharp pain stab up her side with every breath. She snuck a peek at her front right leg, cringing as she saw the unnatural angle it hung at.

 

Just a… just a minor setback. Gotta…. gotta keep moving, gotta get back in the air. I can do this. I can do this.

 

Dash rolled over, yelping in pain as she bumped several broken ribs. A dark object appeared out of the corner of her eye. Her saddlebag, finally ripped free of her by the force of the impact, lay precariously on a nearby snowdrift. The wind tipped it forward, and it slipped down onto the ice.

 

A single charge dislodged once it reached the bottom. Dash watched as it landed on the switch, tripping it forward.

 

Oh…

 

Dash shut her eyes as it ignited, taking the rest of the charges in the bag with it. A huge fireball launched into the sky, lighting up the area around the impact crater. Enormous cracks sounded out, and Dash sensed the ice shifting beneath her. She worked against the protesting pain in her legs and tried to stand, only to slip and stay down. She tried to flap her wings, only to realize she couldn’t even feel them anymore. They hung by her sides, completely non-responsive.

 

The ice cracked open, and Dash fell through. The water hit her like a thousand knives stabbing every inch over her body, and it was all Dash could do to not scream out. She sank down into the dark, completely limp in the freezing water.

 

Start moving!

 

Dash kicked around, breaking out of her stupor. Her three good legs propelled her forward through the icy water. Suddenly, her nose bumped into a solid ceiling of ice. She had come to the top, just not where she fell in. Dash flailed. Her head looked every which way for the original hole, but she could hardly see her hoof in front of her face.

 

Don’t panic. You can get out. Find leverage, start kicking.

 

She felt a second wall of ice jutting down behind her, and quickly repositioned herself. Pressing her back against the new wall, she leaned back and delivered a solid kick to the ice above. The speed of the blow was dulled somewhat by the water, but it still hit hard. Dash heard something crack, and this time she knew it wasn’t her.

 

That’s it. I got this. A few kicks and I’m back on track to get home.

 

With kick after furious kick, Dash kept at it. Her jaw was set to keep any water from getting in, and her eyes tried to see through the blurry display. Her lungs felt like they were on fire. Dash clenched her jaw even harder and kept kicking. She heard more cracks.

 

Get out of here, fly back up. Don’t stop for anything, at all. Not until I get back to civilization.

 

At first Dash thought it was just the water. Her vision blurred. The cracks sounded fainter.

 

Don’t hold back now. You’ll still have plenty of energy for the flight.

 

She put more effort into it. She felt her lungs wither inside her, ready to embrace instinct and take something in, anything in. Her jaw opened, just a little, and water rushed in.

 

Gonna get back to other ponies. Get them out here to help the others while I get patched up. I can send a whole army of them ahead, that should do the trick.

 

A cough emerged, purely on reflex, and it got worse. She ignored what her mouth as doing and kept kicking. More cracks. Each kick grew dimmer, each order to extend her legs got harder to send.

 

They’ll find them. Then we can all go home, we can all be safe again.

 

Dash lost her grip against the back wall, and she floated free. Her legs kicked out, but they didn’t hit anything this time. Her head swung down while her expression faded, her jaw hanging loose.

 

We can… we can all be safe… perfectly safe… as soon as I get… get out of here…

 

Gradually her body grew stiff and her legs stopped moving. The view of the ice faded away as her body sank deeper and deeper into the abyss. Endless darkness lay before her.

 

Just gotta…  just gotta… just… I can do this… I can… I… I…

 

****************************************

 

                Twilight and Fluttershy snapped into the room about a meter above the floor. They fell as soon as the last sparks of light flickered out. Twilight rolled to one side with a grunt, Fluttershy to the other with a yelp.

 

                Twilight rubbed her head again, this time brushing away a bloody nose as well. She looked around. The chamber was dimly lit, large and full of half-lit candles. She stood up, only to fall backwards into something hard. She turned and found herself facing a large, empty glass tube.

 

                “Oh, here we are,” Twilight said.

 

                “Fluttershy!” Twilight turned and saw Fluttershy working to get up. She breathed harder than before, and lines of blood ran down one of her legs.

 

                “I… I’m okay,” Fluttershy murmured. “I just need a minute. Are we… back?”

 

                “Looks that way.” Twilight looked around the room. The tube chamber looked the same as when they had left it, although the walls were extensively damaged. Huge cracks traversed them, many extending up onto the ceiling. “About time. I’m sorry it took so long, I’ve been trying to get us here for the last half hour. I just… I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

 

                Twilight rubbed her head again and shivered. It still shot out a constant barrage of throbbing pain.

 

                “No, Twilight, it’s alright,” Fluttershy said. She rubbed her own leg, but looked at Twilight with a solid look of concern. “You’ll b-be alright.”

 

Twilight smiled. She looked up at the ceiling. “That shaking did a lot of damage in here as well. It doesn’t look stable at all. We should probably move out of here, before anything–”

 

                Without warning, half of the ceiling collapsed. It crumbled down in a large mass towards the center of the room. Twilight ran forward, only to be blocked by several stones that were quicker than she was. Fluttershy screamed and rolled to the side, barely dodging the falling debris. The mass broke right through the floor, and the whole temple leapt into the air from the force of the impact. Twilight was sent backward into the tube, while Fluttershy rolled around on the floor.

 

                The crashing down below continued on for several minutes, getting deeper and more distant. Eventually, it stopped entirely. Twilight took a few nervous steps forward. A full third of the chamber floor was gone, the tube base and another selection of candles gone with it. Fluttershy was off to one side of her, still working on standing up.

 

                “I’m alright again!” Fluttershy said, her voice strong and determined.

 

You really don’t look it, Twilight thought. She stared at Fluttershy as she hobbled up. Fluttershy steadied herself and stared back.

 

                Twilight nodded and walked towards the hole. She looked down, and her eyebrows rose when she saw a round white light looking back at her. It wasn’t very big, and was several stories down, but it was perfectly clear. As Twilight watched, it moved slightly from side to side, shimmering in the dim light.

 

                Underwater…

 

                “I think it’s that room Pinkie led us to,” Twilight said. “I don’t remember it being that deep before, but– wait… something’s happening again.”

 

                “What is it?” Fluttershy asked, nervousness breaking back into her voice. “Is… is the temple falling apart again?”

 

                “No, no, nothing like that. It’s that light, it’s…” Twilight narrowed her eyes. “There’s a dark spot inside it.”

 

                It appeared in the center of the light, and worked its way outward. The spot was lumpy and uneven, but widened at a steady rate. Twilight saw the water down below start to bubble.

 

                Maybe some more rocks down there? Dust making the water murky? Twilight studied the spot as best she could. Actually, it kind of looks like it’s something… coming closer…

 

                “Oh!” Twilight’s eyes widened. “Fluttershy, back up! Get away! Something’s about to–”

 

                A huge object burst into the room, coming up through the hole at a ferocious speed. More stone tumbled down along the walls, and there was another series of loud crashes and bangs. Twilight tossed herself backward and scrambled around the fallen tube. She pushed herself low to the ground, sliding around the side to peer out and get a better look. A small gasp escaped her at the sight.

 

                The creature was enormous. A gargantuan stalk of flesh and muscle, it nearly reached the ceiling before it stopped and curled down. Large tentacles broke out of it at random intervals, along with dozens more feelers and tendrils of much smaller sizes. Eyes were everywhere. New ones popped out of its skin every few meters, looking in all directions. Its skin was in constant motion; muscles migrated around while tentacles were withdrawn and expelled in a dizzying display.

 

                Twilight backpedaled towards the wall. She looked over, but couldn’t see Fluttershy anywhere. Directly to her left were the doors to the room. One door had popped back open again, and Twilight saw a faint hint of light on the other side.

 

                Twilight looked back and forth between the door and the creature. It wasn’t doing anything yet beyond stretching into the air and taking up space. All the eyes focused on a spot on the other side of the room.

 

                Twilight risked it. “Fluttershy! Can you hear me? Where are you?”

 

                She tossed herself forward to the other end of the tube and looked up. The eyes never turned in her direction. She shouted again, “Fluttershy!”

 

                “Twilight… leave…” The voice was as feeble as Twilight had ever heard, but it was definitely Fluttershy’s. Skirting along the far wall, Twilight slinked forward. There was a low, barely visible glow on her horn. She grunted through the resulting headache. Ducking past a tight grouping of candlesticks and lab equipment, she rounded to the other side of the hole.

 

                Fluttershy lay on the ground straight ahead. Her legs were sprawled out, though her head was looking up.

 

                “Twilight,” she said again, her voice quieter still. “I… You must leave. Now.”

 

                “Fluttershy, what are you–” Twilight froze when she saw the tendril snaking along the floor. It had ripped through Fluttershy’s jacket and implanted firmly into her back. It was pulsating, but at a very slow rate.

 

                Twilight looked back at Fluttershy’s face, and noticed her eyes. They were locked with the creature, her expression intense and never blinking.

 

                The Stare? Twilight gasped again. No way!

 

                “Twilight, I can… I can feel it…” Fluttershy said. Her voice was starting to crack. “I know what it’s… it knows what’s coming. This place won’t last, not for much longer. It can’t get out, not here, but it… it will…”

 

                Fluttershy grunted. She dug her hooves into the floor. Her head bobbed back and forth, but her eyes never looked away.

 

                “Fluttershy, I can… I can…” Tears welled in Twilight’s eyes. She desperately tried to think of a solution, any solution. Her horn glowed brighter still.

 

                “Twilight, you’ve got to leave…” Fluttershy’s eye twitched. The creature stirred with activity. More tentacles popped out from on high, descending slowly towards Fluttershy. The pulsating tendril became more active. “I can’t… I can’t hold out much longer…”

 

                “Fluttershy…” Twilight took a single step back. She looked back and forth between Fluttershy and the monstrosity. She watched several jaws of differing size rip out from under its skin.

 

                “RUN!” Fluttershy screamed. A wall of flesh slammed down on the floor between the two, and Twilight turned and ran. Her horn flashed up for a second, and then went dark. Twilight stumbled for a few steps while her skull beat with agony, but kept moving forward. She rolled around the tube and scrambled out the door.

 

                A roar entered the temple. It was like a combination of the storm and a dying animal, and rattled the temple so hard Twilight felt her bones shake.

 

                This is it, right here, it’s gonna bring the whole place down, right here and now…

 

Eventually, the roar faded away. Twilight looked down and found she was still running down the corridor, headed straight for the temple entrance. Behind her, she heard the sound of the chamber doors disintegrating under some huge force.

 

It’s chasing me, not gonna let me leave. It can’t.

 

                Twilight pumped her legs and dashed down the hall. Torches snuffed out as she clattered by. Walls and stones fell to pieces at her heels.

 

                I can outrun it. Doors are ahead, quick left, and I’m outside. I’m outside, I’m gone.

 

                Twilight saw her target and didn’t slow down. She turned her head, shut her eyes, and threw herself into the double doors. They burst open, one falling off its hinges. She clattered to the floor, narrowly avoiding a collision with the pile of sharp splinters and rocks that used to be the opposing set of doors. Twilight turned and headed down towards the front doors.

 

                The pile of snow ahead was the same as it had been the last time she saw it. That single, untouched claw remained visible, and Twilight forced herself not to look at it. There was a series of loud crashes behind her, and she felt air blowing by her. She rushed forward, skipped past burnt pieces of wood, and slid right down the snow.

 

                It was a short little hop forward from there, and Twilight was outside again. She didn’t stop running outside. She hurried past the carriage that was still parked dutifully out front. Twilight noted that it didn’t look worse for wear in the slightest. The wind met her with full force, but she pushed through it with ease.

 

                Suddenly, Twilight’s whole body was illuminated. She finally slowed, turning around a few meters away from the entrance. Her jaw dropped as she looked up into the sky.

 

                A solid wall of white light shot up from the temple. It was as wide as the structure but thinner than parchment, and it stretched through the clouds above.

 

                What now, what now… more from that well? What the hay is going on?

 

                Twilight peered into the light. Massive dark shapes swam in the background. They were constantly in motion, but never came into focus.

 

                A bunch of little ones? Or… one big… thing…

 

                Twilight blinked. The beam started shrinking, closing in on both sides. The shapes grew closer together, connecting to each other until it was a single dark mass. The wall grew thinner and thinner, until it was no wider than Twilight’s horn. She could still see the spot of black in the center.

 

                The outer sides of the wall met, and the beam exploded outward. A thunderous clap of energy pushed out in all directions. Twilight was tossed backward, flying high in the air across the snowy fields. The sound of the wind died down, and all Twilight could hear was the high-pitched ringing in her ears.

 

She came down on a snow bank some distance from the temple. The loose powder cushioned her fall, and she drifted gently to the bottom. She kicked at the snow, clawing her way out. The ground rocked and bucked all around her, tossing her around. The drift disintegrated, and Twilight rolled out onto the ground. The shaking gradually faded away, and everything was steady again.

                

                Twilight shook her head, feeling all over her body.

 

                I… I’m in one piece. Everything is… fine.

 

                She stood up, marching through the deep snow towards the top of a nearby hill. Reaching the top, she gazed out over the temple.

 

                It was a pile of ruins now. Every wall had fallen in on itself; every bit of mortar had become dislodged. Falling snow rapidly covered the remains, and Twilight watched as part of it disappeared under a thick white cloud.  

 

Twilight walked backwards, slowly turning around to trudge forward through the snow. She worked for every step as the wind tried to keep her back. Ice stung her face, and she felt her headache getting worse and worse.

 

                Ahead of her, dark shapes appeared on the horizon. She took a knee as they approached, the storm still wearing down on her. There were four shapes, and they spread out as they closed in on her. Twilight tried to stand back up, but her body wouldn’t have it. She collapsed face-first into the snow, breathing heavily. Her eyelids fluttered shut.

 

                Need to… need to rest… just for a second…

 

                She was aware of shouting very close by. She willed her eyes back open, and found a bright yellow coat looking back at her.

 

                “Miss Sparkle! Miss Sparkle!” Hawks shouted at her. His voice cut right through the storm, clear and audible over the wind. “Can you hear me? Miss Sparkle!”

 

                “I… I…” Twilight muttered. Hawks ripped his jacket off and quickly wrapped it around her. Twilight caught sight of the image of a compass on his flank. A second pony came up behind her to help Hawks lift her up.

 

                “Maple! Pine! Go check it!” Hawks barked, directing the other two shapes towards the fresh ruins of the temple. He turned back and looked into Twilight’s eyes. “Miss Sparkle, what happened? Where are the others?”

 

                “I…” Twilight took another deep breath, and leaned her head forward onto Hawks’ chest. “I think I want to go home now.”

 

                Without another word, Twilight passed out.


Chapter 9: Homecoming

 

                “…got the film…ready to…”

 

                “Right here, just take…what I was talking…”

 

                “…seen worse. No skull fractures…that concussion…multiple contusions in the upper…”

 

                Darkness. Floating in darkness. Voices up above and all around. They sound faint, yet still close. Very close.

 

                “…in surgery, he’s…for instructions…yet?”

 

                “Where are those scans, we’ve been…was saying, also…ribs. She’s gonna have…breathing for…watch out!”

 

                Something metal drops. The clang echoes. There’s movement all around. Hoof steps on the floor. Papers shuffling. Machines beeping. It’s getting lighter all around.

 

                “…put them over here…right there, what’s that…you?”

 

Feeling floods in, started in my chest and moving out. Lots of pain in my body. Lots of numbness in my head.

 

                “…be that, look at the barrier. Cerebral edema, would explain the magical issues.”

 

                “Right, right. Nurse, call ahead to surgery, we need to get her in there now.”

 

                “Right away, doctor.

 

                Eyelid flips open. White room filled with clean occupants. All moving, all busy. Can’t move. Nothing responds. Focus on closest pony. Pony focuses back.

 

                “Doctor!”

 

                “Any change?”

 

                “Her eyes are open again.”

 

                Open again. They already opened? What happened before this?

 

                “No time for that now, put her back under.”

 

                “Operating room’s set, let’s move folks!”

 

                Dark shape appears overhead. Lighter shape behind it smiles.

 

                “Just breathe deep, honey. Nice and deep.”

 

                Room becomes fuzzy again as the light retreats. The conversation fades into the background. The sense of movement is dulled, removed, and then forgotten altogether.

 

                Back to darkness now.

 

****************************************

                

“Dr. Piper to radiology, Dr. Piper to radiology.”

 

Twilight Sparkle awoke to the sound of the intercom crackling off and was immediately blinded by light. Her eyes squinted into the glare of the brightness around her. She tried to raise a hoof to shield her face, only to find she couldn’t. She felt her hooves strain to move, but something was holding them in place. It took a few minutes before she adjusted and could fully open her eyes. She grunted, a few incoherent mumbles making their way out of her mouth.

 

“Oh! You’re awake.” Twilight numbly rolled her head to the side in time to see a young orderly moving towards the door on the far side of the room. “I’ll just get the doctor, you wait right here.”

 

Without waiting for a response, he stepped out into the hall. Twilight blinked a few times, trying to concentrate on the door but finding it difficult to keep her eyes steady. She slowly turned her head back, taking in her surroundings.

 

It was a large hospital room, of which she was the only occupant. Several empty beds flanked her on one side, while two tall monitors were on the other. A dull pain in her foreleg alerted her to a line running up to an IV hanging nearby. The bright lights overhead reflected off the white tiles and walls, giving the room the appearance of being brighter than it actually was. Out the window to the left, a flurry of snow swept down from a thick grey sky. Her head quickly turned away, and instead she looked down at her hooves. Thick plastic cuffs were tightly wrapped around each one; she was restrained to the bed with very little wiggle room.

 

Twilight inched herself up until she was leaning forward. The cuffs strained against her hooves, and she felt a sharp pain ripple through her body. Catching sight of a small mirror on an opposing wall, she saw that her head was wrapped in bandages. Glancing down, she noted similar wrappings going around her stomach and thighs. Her gaze trailed off and she breathed deeply for several minutes, not looking at anything in particular.

 

There was a knock at the door. Twilight turned to see a dark-brown unicorn poke his face into the room.

 

“Hello there, Twilight,” he said with a smile. “I’m glad to see you’re awake.”

 

He stepped into the room and looked at Twilight from behind a small pair of glasses. A clipboard hovered in front of him as he walked over to her bed.

 

“W-what’s… what’s g-going on?” Twilight asked. Her words came out slowly and with great measure as her mind continued to wake up. She tugged again at her hooves.

 

“Ah, let me get those for you.” The doctor leaned forward and tapped a small clasp on the outside of the cuffs. They popped open, and Twilight immediately drew her forelegs up to her chest. She rubbed them against each other while keeping her attention focused away from the newcomer.

 

“I’m sorry about that, it was a precaution from earlier,” he said, pulling a chair up next to the bed. “You were acting a little… erratic. We didn’t want you hurting yourself any more than you already have.”

 

Twilight tenderly touched the back of her head. A numb buzzing sensation infiltrated her skull, causing her to wince. She finally looked up at the unicorn. “Who are you? Where am I?”

 

“My name is Dr. Weaver.” He smiled at Twilight. His horn glowed a dim orange, and a pen levitated out of his coat onto the board. “You’re at the hospital in Manechorage. You’ve been here for about three days now. And I really wouldn’t rub that head too hard. Not this soon after surgery.”

 

“Surgery?” Twilight glanced back into the mirror to take another look at her bandaged head. “What did… what happened to me? I can’t…”

 

“Yes, surgery, to deal with the swelling in your brain. Plus a concussion to tend to, a few broken ribs, um… many cuts and bruises…” Dr. Weaver flipped over several sheets on his clipboard. “I was only able to take a quick look at your chart before I came in. A nurse will be in shortly to give you some medication, you can ask her. In the meantime, I just know that you’re going to need to be taking it easy for a while. And that includes laying off the magic, at least until your mind fully recuperates.”

 

“As to what happened to you that caused all this,” he continued, leaning forward in his seat, “I was rather hoping you could tell me. You’ve said a few things since you’ve been here, but you were under heavy sedation at the time, so a lot of it was unclear. Now that you’re fully awake, you should be able to explain things more clearly. So, Twilight… what, exactly, happened out there?”

 

Twilight’s body stiffened. Her eyes fell and her shaking hooves grew still. “I… we were attacked. All of us. There was… was something out there.”

 

“Alright, alright,” Dr. Weaver said. His pen danced across the paper as he jotted down some notes. “Now, when you say ‘we’, you’re referring to…?”

 

“My friends, they were–” Twilight’s eyes shot back up, and she stared at Dr. Weaver. “Did you find any of them? Rainbow Dash? Apple Bloom? They might still be okay, they could’ve gotten away, unless… was there anypony else? Anypony at all? I need to know! We could all be in–”

 

“Whoa, easy there, Twilight.” Dr. Weaver put his hooves up defensively, motioning Twilight to lean back. “You can’t let yourself get worked up. Now, let’s try this again. I’m going to need you to start from the very beginning, and tell me what happened from the moment you left Ponyville for the Northern Wastes.”

 

“But what about–” Twilight started to protest, but Dr. Weaver put a hoof up.

 

“I’ll answer all your questions afterwards as best I can,” he said softly. “But Twilight, please. This is very important.”

 

Twilight sighed and leaned back onto the bed. She rubbed her head again, ignoring the sensation that came with it.

 

“I’d received a letter from the Princess, asking me and my friends to go meet an old student of hers at a research site up in the Northern Wastes,” she said. “When we got there, we couldn’t find her. What we did find was some kind of… creature… a monster. It got loose, and attacked us. Only, it didn’t just attack us, it… took us over. It transformed into us, blending in, and then surprising us and… taking more of us. It… it just…”

 

Twilight’s words faded away as a cascade of memories came flooding back to her. Grisly images of torn limbs and disfigured faces flooded her mind, and terrified screams echoed between her ears. Her head sank down as tears worked their way down her cheeks.

 

“There, there, Twilight, it’s alright,” Dr. Weaver said, his voice as gentle as he could manage. He levitated a nearby tissue box onto Twilight’s lap. “You’re in a safe place now.”

 

Twilight sniffled and dabbed her tears away. She took a few deep breaths and continued. “It tore us to pieces. There were a few of us left, and we… we tried to stop it. Or that’s what Pinkie told us she was doing… but she was actually doing… I don’t know what she was doing. And then she was gone, and then everything started to fall down around us, and then I saw… I saw…”

 

“Yes?” Dr. Weaver leaned in closer. “What did you see, Twilight?”

 

Twilight gulped. Her eyes flashed, just for a moment, and she turned to look out the window.

 

“I don’t know. I was… I was hurt at the time. Maybe it was nothing.” She turned back to Dr. Weaver. “And then Hawks came to get me, and I… I blacked out. And that’s the last thing I remember before waking up here.”

 

“Mmmm, I see.” Dr. Weaver nodded. He wrote at a furious pace, scribbling his thoughts down in front of him. “Is there anything else you can tell me? Anything at all?”

 

“I don’t know. Some of it’s really fuzzy right now…” Twilight shook her head. “Look, there’ll be time for that later. What about my friends? What happened to them?”

 

Dr. Weaver leaned back in his chair and scratched his chin. His eyes never left Twilight. Finally, he spoke. “Twilight, I’m not entirely sure of the best way to say this. And given our current condition, perhaps I was a bit premature in starting to interview you–”

 

“Dr. Weaver, I assure you,” Twilight said, her voice gaining a hard edge, “I’ve been through a lot over the past several days, so I can take what you have to tell me. So, I need to know, did you or did you not find my friends?”

 

“Twilight… you went up alone,” Dr. Weaver said. His voice was calm and flat. “Your friends were never there. It was just you.”

 

Twilight blinked. She straightened herself up, trying to speak clearer. “I don’t… no, no, that’s not right. There was seven of us… no, ten of us, we went in the train, the fillies stowed away in that big trunk–”

 

“And you clearly remember this part?” Dr. Weaver flipped to a fresh page. “You’ve got no doubt at all about this, no fuzzy memories?”

 

“Yes, of course!” Twilight snapped, her nostrils flaring. “We all went out there, and we were all attacked! Why are you even– Hawks! He brought us out there, he can tell you. He’s the one who found me, him and his team. Are they here now? Or are they still looking for my friends?”

 

“Twilight, I read the ranger’s report,” Dr. Weaver said. He continued to keep his voice completely calm. “He was very specific. He said he brought you out there alone, and found you alone. I didn’t get a chance to meet him myself, but he was interviewed quite extensively by the hospital staff after he helped get you here. Those teammates of his said the same things.”

 

Twilight’s eyes fluttered around the room. She didn’t focus on anything in particular, just kept her head moving away from Dr. Weaver. “That’s… no, that doesn’t make any sense. I know what happened. Why would… why would he say that? It doesn’t make any sense at all…”

 

“Twilight, we’re still trying to collect all the facts, it’s just taking some time. A messenger was sent off to Ponyville. Once they know what’s going on there, your friends can come here and–”

 

“No they can’t!” Twilight shouted. Dr. Weaver jumped, his pen wavering in the air. Twilight breathed deeply for several moments, before gradually calming down. “They… they can’t. They’re all gone. I don’t know why Hawks said that, I don’t know why I have to explain this, but… I remember what happened. I remember it clear as day. We all went out, we were attacked, everypony but me was… killed. Everypony but… me.”

 

                “Right there, Twilight,” Dr. Weaver said. “Everypony but you. If all this really happened the way you said it did, how would you know that? Why would you still be asking if we’ve found friends who are already gone?”

 

Twilight rubbed her forehead but didn’t reply.

 

Dr. Weaver slipped his glasses off, an orange glow wiping his coat over the lens. “Twilight, we’re going to be doing a lot of work over this in the coming days, though I’m confident that once your fri–”

 

                Twilight shot Dr. Weaver a nasty look. He grimaced and continued.

 

                “Once we’ve been able to get in contact with Ponyville and get you transferred to the hospital there, things will start to go smoother. Right now, I’m more interested in something else, something you mentioned earlier–”

 

                “Copper Star!” Twilight blurted out. Dr. Weaver tilted his head.

 

                “I beg your pardon?” he asked.

 

                “That’s who we were going out to see, out in the Wastes,” Twilight said. “She had been attacked before we arrived, but… but that’s why we were going there. And there’s letters to the Princess, ones where I mention everypony who’s with me. Have you checked with her? Where… where is she, actually? Why isn’t she here?”

 

                “I don’t know anything about a Copper Star,” Dr. Weaver said, his voice picking up a defensive tone. “As for the Princess, I haven’t seen any letters either. I was sent instructions to come see you straight away, as she is unfortunately unable to get away and come see you. Things are… strained, at the moment.”

 

                “She can’t… why would…” Twilight hung her head, her mind racing. She fought the urge to scratch at her head again, letting her hooves sit limply in her lap.

 

                Dr. Weaver cleared his throat. “Twilight, when you first arrived at the hospital, when you were still being evaluated, you were… ranting about something. About something you saw just before you were picked up. I need to know, Twilight–”

 

                “She’s always come before,” Twilight muttered. “Why couldn’t she come this time?”

 

                “–I need to know what you saw. You must think back hard and carefully–”

 

                “Why wouldn’t she come? What could possibly be happening that she couldn’t come and see me at a time like–”

 

                “What did you see?” Dr. Weaver was out of the chair now, leaning in on Twilight’s bed. Before she could respond, the door clicked open. A nurse pushing a large cart walked into the room.

 

                “Oh, I’m sorry doctor, I didn’t realize you were in here,” she said. She gathered a few small medicine vials and approached the bed. “Although I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave for a while. It’s time for her medication, and I need to change those bandages.”

 

                “Yes, I… yes, of course.” Dr. Weaver brushed a hoof through his mane as he collected his things. He stood up and looked back at Twilight. “We’ll continue our discussion later, once you’ve had a better chance to collect yourself. Like I said, try to think carefully as you rest up. Let it all come back to you.”

 

                Her face expressionless, Twilight turned and looked out the window. Dr. Weaver took a few more steps towards the door before he stopped and turned around again.

 

                “Oh, Twilight, just one more thing I’ve been meaning to ask.” He hovered his pen in the air again. “Do you read Sugar Cane?”

 

                Twilight’s head whipped around. “What did you say?”

 

                “It’s probably nothing, all things considered,” Dr. Weaver said. “But we’ve been having a number of individuals come in recently, all suffering from various levels of psychological collapse, all of whom told some very… elaborate stories, and all of them fans of that author. I was just wondering if, perhaps…”

 

                Dr. Weaver’s sentence faded away. He stared at Twilight, who stared back. Nopony spoke, the only noise in the room coming from the nurse as she fiddled with her supplies.

 

                Finally, Dr. Weaver shrugged and turned back to the door. “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s another thing I can get to later. You just rest up, and concentrate –I mean really concentrate– on remembering what really happened to you.”

 

                Without another word, he stepped through the door, letting it swing shut on its own behind him. Twilight continued staring blankly, completely oblivious to the nurse talking to her.

 

****************************************

 

                Out in the hall, Dr. Weaver leaned against a wall and sighed. He flipped through a few pages of his clipboard, then stuck it in one of his coat’s larger pockets and proceeded towards the stairs at the end of the hall. He slid past a few groups of nurses and doctors, paying no mind to anypony around him.

 

                “Hey Dream! Dream!”

 

Dr. Weaver turned around. A magenta-skinned stallion approached him, waving in his direction. He smiled broadly as he drew closer.

 

“Tacky! As I live and breathe.” Dr. Weaver smiled back, bumping hooves with the stallion. “I didn’t know you were working today, I would’ve tried to find you when I arrived.”

 

“I switched shifts with Brady when I heard you were coming,” Tacky said. He was younger than Dr. Weaver, though his voice was just as commanding. “Was pretty last minute, it seems. You made good time from Canterlot.”

 

Dr. Weaver chuckled. “If you can really call a full day’s train ride good time. Seems like we stopped every other mile to wait for snow to be cleared off the tracks.”

 

“Hey, you should be lucky you got here at all.” Tacky nodded to a window across the hall. A white flurry pounded away, wind sending flakes in every direction. “Apparently the line’s totally shut down going the other way, it’s so iced up. You might be stuck here for a little longer than you planned.”

 

“Good to know. Of course, I never had had any idea how long I’d be here.” Dr. Weaver nodded at Twilight’s door. “Case like this, there’s no telling where it’ll take me.”

 

“So, you’ve seen her already?” Tacky glanced past Dr. Weaver at the door. The black number nine on the glass shimmered slightly under the hall lights. “How’s she holding up? Brady was on call when she got brought in, though he’s filled me in on some of the details.”

 

“Well, you’d know the physical side better than I would. Speaking emotionally…” Dr. Weaver scratched his cheek, his eyes traveling along the floor. “I’d say she’s a little better than I expected, though still far from a point of coherent recovery. I… may have been a little hard on her, but nevertheless… have we gotten anything back from Ponyville yet? I know that would be a great help.”

 

Tacky shrugged. “If there is, I haven’t heard about it. We’ve been pretty slammed here, though, so I haven’t been paying close attention.”

 

Dr. Weaver nodded. “Yes, I spoke to the nurse in receiving. You’ve been getting a number of similar cases, then?”

 

“Of course,” Tacky responded, his smile fading away. “They’ve been coming in like clockwork for the past few days. I will admit that hers is a bit more… specific, and certainly seems much less dangerous. But the others still present similar symptoms, all have no previous history of dementia or schizophrenia, and they all are proving to be a serious hoof-full to take care of.”

 

“Shoot, another one was getting dragged into the ICU as I was walking up here to see you. I’ve got to go check him out in a bit, just as soon as he’s fully checked in and the sedative wears off.” Tacky sighed. His shoulders sagged, a wave of tension rolling through his body. “I just don’t understand it. The season’s barely a week old and it seems like half the town decided to collectively lose it.”

 

“Well, being isolated out here would drive anypony crazy after a while,” Dr. Weaver offered. He smiled gently, and Tacky offered a weak smile in return.

 

“Guess some of us aren’t fit for the country air.” Tacky shook his head again. “Still, it’s one hay of a mess you came into… what exactly did our messenger tell you was going on up here?”

 

“He didn’t,” Dr. Weaver replied. “I was just given the file from one of the higher ups on the castle staff and told to get a move on. Your messenger had already taken off before I had a chance to speak to him. Something about being called away to Cloudsdale.”

 

“Probably snatched up by the central weather patrols,” Tacky said, rolling his eyes. “They grabbed all the pegasi we had up here already. You’d think the weather would be bad enough that they didn’t have to put us down to a skeleton crew, but you’d be wrong.”

 

“I’m not sure what it’s for,” Dr. Weaver said. He glanced up through the window. “I haven’t seen any pushing clouds for the past few days. Even in the thickest overcast, I can usually see a few of them flapping around up there. This weather’s not gonna make itself, after all.”

 

“Yeah, what a tragedy that would be.” Tacky rolled his eyes and smirked. “That may have been what happened to our messenger to Ponyville, too. Message may not have even gotten through yet, unless Canterlot had the foresight to send somepony down there as well.”

 

“Mmm, knowing how things are going there right now, I’m not holding my breath. Well, somepony’s gonna have to figure out a way to get word to them soon, preferably before she’s transferred over to Ponyville General. If we could just get her friends up here… I’d say I would stop by on my way back, but as you pointed out, who knows when that’ll be. Shoot, who knows when we’ll even be able to transfer her.”

 

“Right, right…” Tacky glanced around and leaned in close. “Backing up a minute, though… you came all the way out here for her? Everything that’s going on, that’s what they’re having you do?”

 

“She’s got high friends, you know that.” Dr. Weaver shrugged. “Celebrity status gets special privileges, or at least has the ponies in charge tell me it does.”

 

“I know that, but I mean, come on.” Tacky lowered his voice even further. “All these strange cases I’ve got coming in here, and I’ve got a feeling things are just as hectic down in Canterlot, and probably elsewhere, but we haven’t gotten any kind of official notice… well, I guess I want to know if there’s anything I should know about.”

 

Dr. Weaver hesitated, his body growing tense underneath him. He glanced around the hall. His expression had a nervous edge, even though there was nopony close by. “Officially, the start of the winter season has brought with it no unusual activity or widespread problems, beyond the usual ones customarily related to such a heavy season. Unofficially…”

 

Tacky raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

 

“Unofficially, we are seeing a… noticeable increase in spontaneously violent offenders and mental breakdowns in formerly healthy individuals. Add the heavy weather delaying communication and her arriving like this to the mix, and it’s all prompted a… thorough investigation of the state of things.”

 

Tacky blinked a few times, then rubbed his forehead. “Wonderful. Just wonderful. All this season needs is for everypony to completely lose their minds.”

 

“I think it’s too early to really worry,” Dr. Weaver said. He smiled again and patted Tacky on the shoulder. “Although if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to assist on some of the other patients you’ve got when I’m done up here, take a look through their files and such.”

 

Tacky’s grin returned in force. “Hey, we could definitely use the help. The more shrinks we have running around right now, the better.”

 

A growl emitted from Dr. Weaver’s gut. He smirked slightly. “Though I may need to grab a quick bite before I get started.”

 

“I hear that, I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Come on, I’ll get you something in the cafeteria.”

 

Tacky and Dr. Weaver turned and sauntered down the hallway. A nurse’s station was built into the wall ahead of them. Behind it sat a young orderly, his nose buried in a book. Tacky whistled loudly as he walked up, causing the orderly to look up with a start.

 

“Hay Fever! I know you’ve got more productive things you could be doing right now,” Tacky snapped. “I want to see you doing some actual work, or it’s back to bedpan duty.”

 

“Yes doctor, right away!” the orderly squeaked. He quickly pushed a pad of official-looking papers out onto the desktop and began sorting through them.

 

As he walked past, Dr. Weaver glanced down at the book in question. A stray folder had obscured its title, but the images of shadowy monsters and screaming ponies were more than enough to reveal its identity. Dr. Weaver leaned in and rapped on the desk. The orderly looked  up and stared at him; the areas around his eyes had been rubbed a dark red that clashed with his light green skin.

 

“Like the book?” Dr. Weaver asked.

 

“I love it,” the orderly replied blankly. Without waiting for another question, his eyes dropped back to the papers in front of him. Dr. Weaver studied him for a few more moments, then shook his head and ran to catch up to Tacky by the elevator.

 

                “Hey, don’t you start getting glum on me too,” Tacky said as he caught sight of his friend’s newfound frown. “We need to keep our spirits up at a time like this.”

 

                Dr. Weaver resisted rolling his eyes. “Right, right. Gotta keep that blood pumping just right, after all.”

 

                Tacky chuckled. The elevator doors dinged and the two ponies stepped inside. “No doubt about it. Especially on a day like today. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long one.”

 

****************************************

 

                There were eighty two foam ceiling tiles. Each contained eighty seven small holes pinpricked in them, though several appeared to have ninety four. Every time Twilight tried to recount them, though, the number changed.

 

Twilight’s head was sunk deep into her pillow by now, with the rest of her body was similarly limp on the bed. The rhythmic beeping of her heart monitor was the only noise in the room, though she could still hear the constant buzz of hospital activity just beyond the door.

 

Hawks said I went up alone, the doctors think I’m crazy, Princess Celestia can’t –or won’t– come to see me… what is going on?

 

The bed creaked as Twilight rose. She winced as she leaned forward, the bandages around her chest constricting against her. They itched constantly, though much less severely after the nurse had them changed this morning. The pounding in her head had also subsided, mostly thanks to the steady stream of medication that dripped out of her IV bag.

 

I can think this out, I can… Start from the beginning.

 

Twilight rubbed her eyes and looked out the window. With no clock in the room Twilight wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she had woken up that morning, but she was certain it was well past noon at this point. The cloud-covered sky was slowly beginning to dim, while the moderate snowfall picked up the pace in preparation for a nightly barrage.

 

That interview from Hawks is wrong. But why would he lie? He’s the one who saved me. If he was planning to do something, he could’ve just– no, it’s nothing to do with him. That doesn’t fit. Come on Twilight, think…

 

Squinting, Twilight gazed into the distance through the window. Everything was coated in several feet of snow, causing the buildings to blend in with the drifts around them. Still, she was certain she could make out the outskirts of the town. The hospital sat on top of a hill, and as Twilight let her eyes adjust to the weather, she could make out more and more. Between the buildings, small dots zipped up and down streets as ponies went about their normal, everyday routine.

 

Dr. Weaver said he never spoke to Hawks. He just got that report from his superior in Canterlot. So whoever wrote that might’ve written something different… but again, why? Did the Princess herself write it? And he mentioned other cases, and then there’s the whole thing about the Princess not showing up…

 

A sudden gust blasted a fresh wave of powder over the hospital, obscuring the view with a solid wall of white. Turning back from the window, Twilight let her eyes drift over the room’s blank walls. Save for the small mirror, there was nothing of interest anywhere else around her. It was just another plain old hospital room, painted the same vaguely off-white color that every hospital in Equestria was so very fond of.

 

Why isn’t the Princess here? What could possibly be going on that would make her unable to get up here? She’s almost within teleporting range from Canterlot. Manechorage isn’t that far away, and it would be no problem if she flew a little farther out, or even just went down to Ponyville to–

 

Twilight’s body bristled at the thought of home.

What if… maybe… could they all be alright? What if something did happen to just me, and I’m remembering things wrong, and they’re all… they’re all…

 

“No.” Twilight’s voice sounded stark and cold. She smacked her hoof against the bed’s railing. “Don’t start thinking that. I know what happened, I remember what happened. I can’t lie to myself. Not now. Not… not now.”

 

Well then… something must be happening at Canterlot. Something bad. Something related to what… to what Pinkie did? What I saw when the temple collapsed? Dr. Weaver really wanted to know about that, almost like…

 

“Like something got out,” Twilight said. Her eyes widened at the prospect. “Something from up there… appearing elsewhere in Equestria? Spreading around?”

 

How could it get out? What did Pinkie do? Or maybe one of the others… but Dr. Weaver said… well, I can’t really trust what he said, now can I?

 

“If it is out, and the Princess knows about it…” Twilight looked back out the window. It was a total whiteout by now. She took a deep breath. “I have to get to her. Now. I need to figure out what’s happening, see if… see if I can help.”

 

But I can’t go anywhere like this! Can I even use my magic? The doctor said that–

 

“The doctor is not exactly somepony to listen to right now, all things considered,” Twilight reminded herself. “He thinks I’m just crazy.”

 

Well, who’s talking to herself right now?

 

Twilight sighed and flopped back onto her pillow. “Whatever’s happening, it isn’t good. I’ve got to get out of here,” she murmured softly. “I need to find out what’s going on, to find out if everypony is… is safe. I can’t waste any more time stuck in bed.”

 

She shut her eyes and brushed her hooves through her mane.

 

Alright, alright, stay calm. Think of a good plan on how to proceed. Something that’ll work and work well. Just relax and concentrate.

 

Twilight let out a long exhale and closed her eyes, basking in the silence of the room. The hospital walls were thick and sturdy, keeping out the sound of the wind outside. Her heart monitor beeped gently, but other than that the room was silent.

 

“Wait a second.” Twilight sat back up and stared at the door. She couldn’t hear anything on the other side. The steady hustle and bustle of hospital activity that had been there since she woke up had vanished.

 

Twilight scrunched her sheets up by her side. A bead of sweat appeared on her forehead. “Umm… hello?” she shouted out. She glanced around for a call button, hitting it several times when she found it. Out past the door, she heard a faint buzzing with every press of the button, but nothing more.

 

“Where is everypony?” she said aloud. She looked out the window, but saw only the white sheet of snow covering the window. “This is a hospital, they couldn’t all just up and leave. Or maybe things on this floor get a lot quieter around–”

 

Without warning, the lights overhead flickered on and off. She looked up at them, more sweat appearing on her head. Next to her, the heart monitor gave a few more erratic beeps and then clicked off. The other machines next to it followed suit shortly after, and then the lights went out completely.

 

Twilight sat motionless. The room grew pale, lit now only by the fading light outside. Almost reflexively, she hit her call button again, but nothing happened. She took a deep breath.

 

Just a power outage from the storm, that’s all. These places have backup generators, just got to wait a second or two, everything up here is still fin–

 

A muffled blast sounded out below her. The entire hospital bucked up vertically, shaking the walls and popping the ceiling tiles out of place. Twilight lunged forward on her bed, nearly falling off entirely. Her IV line tugged forward and sent the bag and stand clattering to the floor. She cried in pain as the needle was forcibly ripped from her foreleg. Her eyes clamped shut, a few tears shoving their way out.

 

A bright orange spot of light flared up outside the window. A few seconds later, Twilight felt the building rumble a second time. Cracks appeared in the window, running from one edge clear through to the other side. Though it remained intact, the storm continued to bear down on it, and the window flexed inward further and further with each gust.

 

Slowly, Twilight lowered her hooves to the floor. It took her a few seconds to be able to stand by herself, and she shook the entire time.

 

Okay, maybe now would be a good time to try…

 

Twilight grunted. Under the bandages, a dim purple light phased in around her horn. A mirror of the light appeared around the window, and it pressed itself back against the wind, refitting itself properly into its spot in the wall. Once there, the light vanished, and Twilight crumbled to the floor. She rubbed her head, trying desperately to contain the fierce buzzing that bounced around her skull.

 

I can still think clearly, I can… I can work through this pain. My magic still works.

 

After a few minutes, the buzzing subsided, though Twilight continued rubbing. She glanced up towards the window. Her vision was blurred, and she switched to wiping her eyes. Putting her hooves back on the floor, she saw a clear orange flood of light that continued to glow against the strained window. Ignoring the persistent stabbing sensation coming from her ribs, Twilight hobbled forward. Pressing her face against the glass, she narrowed her eyes to peer through the frosted glass.

 

Fires blazed in the distance. Building after building went up in smoke as entire blocks were torched together. Ponies dashed to and from each one, some of them grabbing others and shoving them into the nearest burning structure. They stood out vividly against the white backdrop, pushing through the thick snow cover and giving Twilight a clear view. As she watched, additional infernos burst into being, the accompanying blast reaching her window a split-second later. It rattled against the plaster, and Twilight huddled back against the bed.

 

Just then, a series of loud shouts emerged from behind the hall door. The entire hospital was active now, and Twilight could hear ponies clattering around all around her. Shouts carried down staircases while hoofsteps rattled down every hallway. Meanwhile, a series of bloodcurdling cries for help rose above the din, each one desperately pleading for salvation from whatever it was that was attacking them.

 

I think it’s time to leave.

 

Twilight stepped past the bed and focused her attention forward. Her horn glowed for a moment, only to fade away as she cried out in pain. Rubbing her forehead again, she looked at the door. A series of frantic hoofsteps approached out in the hall, and the door shuddered as somepony crashed into it. The glass panel shattered, sending shards clattering to the floor. Twilight took a nervous step back. She winced from the new round of buzzing that came with her teleportation attempt.

 

Come on, gotta move. Can’t teleport out, gonna have to try for the long way. Let’s go, I can do this… not enough time to stay here trying to cower and hide…

 

A bright flash caught Twilight’s attention out of the corner of her eye. Turning her head, she saw that the small mirror had lit up with a brilliant white light. It bulged outward at an unnaturally smooth angle. It moved like a sheet of rubber with something pressing up against it from the other side.

 

Get out, get out, get OUT.

 

The door shuddered as Twilight threw her weight against it. It cracked open a few inches only to get stuck. Behind her, a dark shape appeared as a speck in the mirror’s bright light. Twilight swung her head down. A bright flash fired out of her horn, blasting the door off its hinges and into the opposing wall. She tripped forward, crying out in pain at the buzzing in her skull. Drops of blood fell from her nose, but she didn’t notice.

 

Recovering swiftly from the shock, Twilight turned around the doorframe into the long hallway. A nurse’s crumpled body lay before her, having been pushed aside as Twilight blasted the door forward. Twilight held back a gag as she looked at the massive gash that cut across the young mare. Her eyes were locked open, an expression of twisted horror frozen on her face.

 

What could’ve– no, no. Just keep moving, no time to dwell…

 

Her face grim, Twilight moved on. The hospital shook around her at random intervals, occasionally sending a light fixture crashing to the floor. She heard a choir of screams and shouts whirling through the building, but her hallway was empty. Rounding another corner, she caught sight of an “EXIT” sign over a pair of double doors, and she pushed on through.

 

A central staircase stretched out in the new room. Glancing over the side of the railing, Twilight noted she was close to the top of the hospital. She rushed to the steps and headed down three at a time, nearly tripping on multiple occasions but never letting her pace up.

 

Get down, get out, find the… find the train station. Something to help point me south and get home.

 

Twilight rounded a corner onto another flight of stairs, only to skid to a halt as the doors in front of her burst open. A doctor staggered out, his coat and neck fully lit up in flames. He screamed as he flailed about, trying desperately to pat out the fire. A rush of movement appeared behind him, and before he could even cry out in panic, an emaciated young patient twisted over and kicked him in the face. The impact forced his head back onto the hard metal railing, where it resonated with a wet splat.

 

The patient laughed, moving forward to deliver a series of blows to the doctor’s twitching backside. Twilight gasped and slid against the wall, continuing to move forward while the patient’s back was turned. Hearing more steps approaching up the opposing steps, Twilight ducked around and into the hallway.

 

Always another exit, always another way down. Just stay out of sight…

 

It was a mess. Overturned gurneys and supply carts had turned the floor into something akin to a wartime obstacle course. Several more bodies lay scattered about, some of them doctors and others patients. Blood was etched in huge displays along every surface. Twilight slowed under a particularly large patch splashed out on the ceiling

 

What could have caused all this? There’s no way that–

 

“No, no… please!”

 

The sound of a struggle caught Twilight’s attention, and she looked up in time to see a doctor and an orderly wrestle their way over the counter of a nearby nurse’s station. The doctor tried to continue his calls for help while feebly pushing away, but the orderly proved relentless. Pushing past the outstretched hooves, he leaned in and bit a long chunk of flesh out of the doctor’s throat. The doctor screamed again and landed a decent kick in the orderly’s chest, knocking him off and giving him time to wiggle away. He collapsed under a nearby window, one hoof pressed in against his gushing wound.

 

The orderly, unfazed by the kick, quickly stood back up. Twilight tried to take a few steps back, only to knock against a broken chair. The orderly snapped his head over in Twilight’s direction. Twilight gasped loudly as she stared at his face. Blood streamed from his eyes, dripping onto his scrubs and trickling down to the floor. He grinned as he stared back.

 

“Twilight Sparkle?” he asked. His voice sounded gargled, as if he had something caught in his throat. “I have a message for you… and you’re not going to like it: Pray for death.”

 

At the windowsill, the doctor had somehow managed to pull himself upright. The orderly looked back at him, straightened his back, and shot forward. The doctor put up a hoof in defense, but it proved no use. The orderly slammed into him with enough force to break through the window, and the two disappeared into the white storm outside. Even though the howl of the wind quickly swooped in to fill the corridor, Twilight could still hear the distant thump when their bodies finally hit the ground.

 

Everypony’s going mad, or at least some of them are… ones whose eyes–

 

A clatter of hooves behind her. Twilight spun around to find a horde of ponies coming at her from the staircase. The mob was a mixture of doctors and patients, orderlies and nurses. Several unicorns pushed forward, blasting aside anypony who stood in their path. Twilight saw a few pegasi limping forward by the wall, completely undeterred by their broken and torn wings. Every single pony cried blood, and every single pony looked right at Twilight.

 

Get. Moving. Now.

 

She spun around and ran. The mob carried after her, each member fighting for a spot up front and all of them keeping pace with her. She jumped over debris and slid along the floor as she rounded the corner at the end of the hall. Her face fell as she saw a huge wall of broken doors and equipment piled in front of her. Several patients hopped around it, oblivious to the noise behind them as they poured gallons of rubbing alcohol onto the wreckage. One of them muttered a fast stream of gibberish, and tossed a lantern onto the pile. The fire ignited instantaneously, sending up an entire wall of flames that immediately overtook and consumed one of the patients. The others laughed and finally turned around, the blood in their eyes reflecting in the orange light.

 

Nowhere to go… gotta be another way out, there’s just got to be…

 

Twilight pushed herself into the corner. The mob behind her closed in fast on one side, while the group of patients grabbed another cart full of alcohol and moved in from the other. The screams from each group rebounded around the tight walls to create an ear-splitting din of delusions and insanity. Twilight gripped her head and shut her eyes.

 

Please let this work, oh please oh please let this work…

 

Her horn flashed. The purple light grew brighter and brighter as the throng descended upon her. Light wrapped around her entire body, and just as an elderly nurse with split wrists reached out to grab her, Twilight vanished into the smoky air.

 

****************************************

 

                Several feet of snow had collected on the ground, and it served as a useful cushion when Twilight materialized a meter above it. She fell like a stone, slicing through the soft powder all the way to the frozen dirt underneath it all. A series of quick kicks and rolls followed, and Twilight thrashed her way out of the snowbank onto a freshly plowed road.

 

                Her legs blurred beneath her, and it was all she could do to stay standing. Swaying from one side to the other, her mouth dropped open and unleashed a torrent of vomit. The black and red bile splashed through the snow in a vivid display. Her legs continued to fight against her desire to stay standing, until finally they quit from underneath her, and Twilight fell backward to the ground. She jerked back and forth on her side, flopping about like a fish out of water. Her nose bled profusely and her skull buzzed like a hornet’s nest had been wedged inside, but her eyes remained wide open.

 

                After a few minutes, her fit faded away and Twilight gasped for air. She stayed on the ground for several minutes as she breathed in and out as deeply as she could manage. Her hospital gown was soaked through by the snow, and it clung tightly to her skin. Through sheer force of will she was able to turn her head forward and catch sight of a signpost installed by a fence a few yards away. She blinked several times, waiting for her eyes to come back into focus before she could read the writing on it.

 

                “EVERFREE FOREST AHEAD – WATCH YER STEP” it proudly displayed via a crude red scrawl. A long arrow extended out past the letters, pointing out to Twilight’s left.

 

                Okay…okay… made it pretty… pretty close… I think…

 

                Twilight continued to breathe deeply. Overhead, the cloud-coated sky was a foreboding shade of dark gray. Light was fading quickly, although in contrast to the conditions around the hospital the weather here was quite calm. There was a faint breeze, and a few flakes of snow gently wafted to the ground, but other than that it was a very tranquil atmosphere settling into the air.

 

After what felt like hours, Twilight pressed her hooves on the ground in front of her and stood back up. She moved slowly and deliberately, each step working against her quivering legs. Standing back up again, she moved a hoof up to brush her horn, only to instantly recoil in agony. Her horn felt like it was on fire, threatening to burn through the layer of bandages around it.

 

No more magic for a while, then, she thought bitterly. Her alertness flooding back into her, Twilight took in her surroundings. The frost-covered trees of the Everfree Forest were at her back now, while a long fence stretched out in either direction. A wide open field lay just beyond the fence, while an orchard of barren trees dominated the landscape in the distance.

 

Maybe… could it be?

 

Taking each step gently, Twilight pushed her way through a broken gap in the fence and trekked through the field. The snow was deep, sometimes to the point where Twilight would be up to her neck in powder, but she pushed forward. It was slow going, but before long Twilight pushed her way out of the heavy blanket and onto the more lightly covered ground under the trees.

 

After another few minutes of walking, Twilight spotted a set of buildings on an opposing hillside. A tall barn sat nestled against the landscape, an even taller farmhouse sitting just beyond it. Twilight gulped, but kept walking forward.

 

Sweet Apple Acres… I almost made it all the way home. No wonder my magic’s exhausted, that’s a long haul even in the best conditions.

 

Twilight eyed the house nervously as she approached. Not a single light appeared in any of the windows. Twilight looked over to the barn, and saw that one of its large front doors had a long crack running through it. Reaching the final section of fence between her and the homestead, Twilight paused to study the scene. There was no movement anywhere, nothing that gave the indication of any sort of life around.

 

“Hello?” she shouted out. Her voice carried far in the frozen weather. She listened for any kind of reaction.

 

Some kind of… thumping in the background? Where’s that coming from? Not around here, but somewhere not too far away…

 

“Can anypony hear me? Is anypony here?” Twilight shouted again. Again, there was no reply. Tentatively, she walked forward, her eyes constantly sweeping around her. The farm remained still as a grave. She marched up the front doors and, again with a slight hesitation, knocked on the thick wood.

 

It creaked forward with the first beat of her hoof. Twilight peered inside. The front hall of the room was cold and dark. A few pieces of furniture had been knocked over, and some of the curtains were ripped, but other than that things were the same as always.

 

“Big McIntosh? Granny Smith?” Twilight’s calls were met only by silence. She suddenly had a flash of memory, an image of Applejack rushing down the stairs to greet her with a big cheerful smile on her face. Apple Bloom poked out between her legs, her smile just as inviting as her sister’s. The smell of warm apple pie drifted out of the kitchen, bringing with it another batch of happy memories.

 

Twilight choked back a sob, and the illusion vanished. “There’s nopony here… nothing here for me right now. Not now.”

 

Peeling her damp hospital gown off onto the floor, Twilight grabbed a nearby scarf hanging from a hook on the wall. She wrapped it around her neck, basking in the newfound bit of warmth that shot through her.

 

“Just leave, Twilight,” she muttered. Her eyes flickered up the stairs, and she forced herself to turn back around and walk out the front door. “Just get back home, regroup, and find a way to get–”

 

A loud whistle cut her off. Twilight ran forward on the porch and hopped down into the yard in time to see a long red trail shoot up towards the clouds. Moments later, it exploded into a vibrant splash of color all over the sky. A second firework launched up underneath it, and then a third and fourth. Twilight could feel the rush of the sound wave as each explosion occurred, could feel the warmth of the red colors splash past her face. She looked down for the source of the display.

 

They came from Ponyville…

 

Twilight took off with a flash. The path to the farm’s entrance and the road beyond it had been poorly maintained, and were thick with snow. Twilight barely slowed down, and tore through the slush with relative ease. Her heart pounded and her scarf whipped in the air behind her. Hitting the road in no time at all, she could see Ponyville displayed before her. It was lit up like a beacon in a storm, with bright lights or all colors flashing on and off. The closer she got, the louder the thumping in the background became. As she crossed the bridge at the edge of town, she realized that the sound was music. Somepony was blasting club music at full volume, and the beat was causing the air around town to practically vibrate.

 

Twilight slowed her pace past the bridge, finally coming to a stop near a frozen fountain. Crouching behind a bush, she had a clear view of the main street into town. The music was blaring out of a huge set of speakers that had been piled up down near town hall. Stage lights were set up at uneven intervals along every street, each one flashing a different color beam of light onto the ground. It gave the entire area a rainbow glow that starkly mirrored the dark grey sky.

 

            Over the sound of the electro beats, Twilight could hear the sound of conversation. Ponies milled about the streets, moving calmly and easily amidst one another. Carts had been pulled out and all the shops along the snow-cleared streets were open. There were no screams or any kind of pained cry, just a multitude of laughter and general chit-chat. The party was in full swing, and everypony was having a good time.

 

            Twilight studied the scene carefully. Several times small groups of ponies approached the park and she ducked down, only to have them veer off at the last second and loop back towards the party. Twilight scratched her head, careful not to get her bandages damper than they already were.

 

            It looks… normal? Some kind of big celebration for something, or maybe a festival, but nopony is running around trying to kill anyone… but what’s this event for? I don’t remember anything like this the last time winter started. But it… it looks safe, so I guess there’s only one way to find out what’s happening…

 

            Taking a deep breath, Twilight stepped out onto the path. She moved steadily towards town, trying to keep a firm look of resolve on her face. Ponies continued to mingle with one another around her, completely preoccupied with the festivities. They paid no attention to the nervous looking unicorn covered in bandages as she edged by the buildings towards the town square.

 

A series of food vendors had set up shop directly in front of her. The smells of baked goods wafted into the air, and Twilight froze as the smell hit her nose. Her stomach growled loudly, and she took a few shaky steps towards the nearest stall.

 

Wow… when was the last time I ate something? At the hospital? They must’ve given me something while I was there–

 

“Twilight! Hey Twilight!”

 

Twilight froze, one hoof still in the air. A light blue mare waved at her from a booth filled with frosted cakes and sweets. She smiled brightly and trotted over, weaving past a large group of pegasi hovering in line.

 

“Hi there! I didn’t expect you back so soon,” Mrs. Cake said, her voice as bright as her smile. “Seems like you had a bit of a rough time, though. Felt it was best to just pack in and come home early, eh? You’re alright, I hope?”

 

“I… I don’t… huh?” Twilight stumbled over her words. She fidgeted in place, glancing back and forth at the surrounding crowds, but nopony took any notice of them. She scratched at her bandages and stared back at Mrs. Cake. “Um… yeah, yeah, I’m fine. This all, uh, looks worse than it is.”

 

“Well, that’s good. And you picked a fine time to return home.” Mrs. Cake gestured around her. “Things are even better than we had hoped! Everypony is having a wonderful time, and business is absolutely booming. We couldn’t be happier.”

 

“What’s going on here, Mrs. Cake?” Twilight asked. “What’s this big party for?”

 

Mrs. Cake laughed. “Twilight, you of all ponies should know that. You helped plan it, after all. It’s why I’m so glad you’re back, I would’ve hated for you to have missed out after putting so much work into it.”

 

“I helped… plan this?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “When did I–”

 

“Hon, can you go check on those Apple Fritters?” Mr. Cake’s voice carried easily over the crowded marketplace. He threw in a quick wave. “Hi Twilight! Glad you’re back!”

 

“Oh, I knew I needed to get to something,” Mrs. Cake said, waving back at her husband. “Twilight, it was good seeing you, but I really need to get back to work. Mr. Cake and I have been pretty swamped, like I said. I know we could’ve just run things out of the store, but it seemed like a good idea to meet everypony out here for once… of course, I haven’t even been able to leave the stand except to go restock all day. I’ll talk to you later, alright?”

 

“Wait…” Twilight said as Mrs. Cake turned to leave. “Where’s Pound and Pumpkin? Is somepony watching them while you guys work down here?”

 

Mrs. Cake gave Twilight a quizzical look. “Pound and Pumpkin? Why, who are they, dearie?”

 

“Your… your foals,” Twilight said. She took a small step back. “Pound Cake and Pumpkin Cake. Where are they?”

 

Mrs. Cake laughed again, though with a softer and more nervous tone. “Twilight, I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. While we’ve been talking about the prospect of… well, needless to say, we don’t have any foals. You must’ve hit your head harder than you thought.”

 

“Uh… yeah… I guess I did…” Twilight’s eyes fell to the ground as her sentence trailed off. Mrs. Cake shook her head and walked off towards the bakery, muttering under her breath about the dangers of an extended vacation.

 

They… they had two foals… right? I know I’m remembering that right… at least I think I am. They were… what were their names again?

 

Twilight scratched her head and moved forward through the crowd. She moved more forcefully now, moving down the center of the street. Still the crowds ignored her. Every now and then a straggler would shout her name, and Twilight would return a wave to the familiar face. No others approached her for any sort of conversation.

 

The street grew increasingly narrow as Twilight approached the Town Hall. Her gaze drifted upward at a large banner that had been hung across the street. It spelled out “WELCOME HOME” in large, colorful letters. Twilight followed the string it was on, and twitched when she saw the house it was attached to. The uppermost windows had blown out, and part of the roof was singed away by fire. Twilight looked around at other houses, and could see similar instances of damage in most of them. Small spots of damage became apparent all over the town, from doors barely hanging on one broken hinge to whole wall sections blasted out into side streets.

 

Twilight gulped and moved forward. The crowd thinned out ahead, leaving a large clearing at the foot of town hall. The main speakers were set up here, tall black monoliths that were easily three times Twilight’s height. They blasted music out at a constant pace, though Twilight found that it actually got quieter the closer she stood to them. To the right of the display, a comparatively tiny turntable had been set up. An off-white unicorn that Twilight didn’t recognize managed the playlist, grinning maniacally behind a dark pair of goggles.

 

Behind the massive subwoofers, town hall stretched overhead. The fading light was positioned directly behind it. Combined with the collection of spotlights facing outward, Twilight was able to make out the dark silhouette of the building against the cloudy sky. A thin, rickety tower stood freshly constructed in front of the building, with a small, empty platform built on top.

 

Alright, enough of this… time to get to my library. There’s no better place I can regroup at.

 

Twilight’s gaze shifted, and she searched around for the avenue that would take her back home.

 

Where is it, where is it… I’ve taken it a thousand times, why can’t I find it now…

 

A sudden flash of light brought Twilight’s attention back to town hall. A figure had appeared on top of the platform, standing just behind a newly installed spotlight. The music died away, as did the chatter of the ponies. All eyes were locked on the platform. The new spotlight was locked on Twilight.

 

“Greetings one and all! Is everypony having a good time?” the figure shouted, her voice amplified by the microphone set up in front of her. The crowds behind Twilight cheered enthusiastically.

 

That voice… no way, there’s just no way

 

“I’m super excited to hear that!” The figure leaned forward, kicking the spotlight off the platform. It tumbled to the ground, taking a few support beams with it along the way. “And I’m even more super excited to see you back here, Twilight. I’ve missed you thiiiiiiiiiiiiis much!”

 

“Pinkie Pie?” Twilight shouted. She gaped upward at the platform and the smiling pink pony standing on it.

 

“The one and only, forever and ever!” Pinkie chirped. “Welcome to the party, Twilight! You’re just in time, too! Once it gets extra dark out, that’s when we can really start the show. And you can take my word as a Pinkie Promise here: it’s going to rock this world!”

 

“Pinkie, what are you… how did you get here?” Twilight stammered out. “I saw you get pulled under the… I mean, you’re not still… you were…”

 

“You really should get those words strung together before you let them loose.” Pinkie giggled and kicked a small button on the floor of the platform. Two small fireworks launched out from beneath her. They angled down, narrowly avoiding Twilight’s head before taking a sharp curve up and exploding into a small spurt of purple and pink.

 

The town inhabitants replied quickly with a chorus of “Ooooh” and “Aaaah”.

 

Pinkie laughed. “That’s the spirit, everypony! Keep that energy flowing!”

 

“Hey! Pinkie!” Twilight shouted. Her stammer was gone, replaced with a fresh burst of energy and irritation as she glared up at Pinkie. “I need to talk to you, right now! What is going on around here? How did you get here? What’s this big party about? Why is everypony acting so strange?”

 

Pinkie cocked her head to one side with a smile. “Twilight, I’m not sure what you mean. Everything’s been laid out pretty clearly, and–”

 

“No!” Twilight stamped a hoof on the ground. “No more gibberish, no more vague responses, no more long chases or whatever. I want straight answers, and I want them now!”

 

Pinkie glanced into the air, scratching her chin. “Hmmmmmm… alrighty Twilight, you win.”

 

She waved down at the DJ. “Hey there! Crank it back up! I gotta head down for a bit of a chit-chat.”

 

The DJ nodded and flipped a few switches on her turntable. Pinkie’s microphone snapped off with a hiss, replaced in the speakers with the opening beats of the latest Growling Mad Ponies record. The flood of ponies cheered and broke out into a large pulsating swarm of dancing and merriment.

 

                Pinkie turned back to Twilight. “Be down in a flash!” she shouted over the noise. She then flexed her hooves, gave her tail a small twirl, and leapt off the platform.

 

Twilight recoiled in shock as she watched Pinkie fall. She curved through the air for a few feet before plummeting straight down. The whole way down, her eyes remained glued on Twilight, never so much as even flickering towards the incoming dirt. It was a good few seconds before she hit the ground with a bone-crunching THUD. All four of her ankles popped outward, pushing bone and muscle straight up and out through the skin. Loose blood vessels whipped around in the open air, spreading a small puddle around the impact crater.

 

Pinkie shook herself off and took a few steps forward. She wobbled on her injured legs, which crunched with every step. Her smile remained constant the entire time.

 

“Twilight…” she said, her head bobbing from side to side in tune with the music. As she spoke, her walk steadied. The bones and muscles slowly pulled themselves back into her legs, healing up back into their proper positions. “Let’s talk.”

 

Staring down at her friend’s receding injuries, Twilight took several steps back. “You’re… you’re not Pinkie Pie.”

 

Pinkie giggled again. A hollow ring underlined her laughter. “Don’t be silly. Of course I’m me. The narrative says I must be me, so who else could I be?”

 

The crowds closed ranks to form a tight-knit line behind the two, but kept on dancing.

 

“No…” Twilight said, shaking her head. “I saw Pinkie sucked under the water back in the temple days ago. You are not Pinkie Pie. This… this can’t be real.”

 

“You need to stop thinking in terms of what’s real and what’s not.” Pinkie shook one of her broken hooves. A small tentacle flicked out, quickly snagging on the loose bones and tugging it back under her skin. “After all, a reality is just what we tell each other it is. And since I’m here telling you it now, it’s as real as anything else ever was.”

 

“What… are you?” Twilight asked, still stepping backward. She glanced behind her, her eyes searching for a break in the mass of ponies behind her.

 

“Nope!” Pinkie said, keeping pace with Twilight’s retreat. “Boring question. Let me go with one you asked earlier: what’s going on here?”

 

Pinkie gestured up to the banner. “It’s exactly what it says. It’s a nice, big, friendly party to welcome those who have been away from home for a super duper long time. We don’t want them to think we’re ungrateful, now do we? We were such good house sitters.”

 

Twilight’s eyes kept moving, going from Pinkie to the crowd to the town around her. The music increased in volume a few notches, but Pinkie’s voice managed to rise above it all.

 

“You see, ponies aren’t the first beings to inhabit Equestria. Not by a long shot. There were folks living here long before somepony ever even considered thinking about maybe naming this place Equestria.” Pinkie paused for a moment to look up into the sky. “Great, magnificent beings. They were… well, are, they are… I’m not even sure how to really get into it. They’re so far beyond what we can possibly comprehend; they are the ultimate level of life. Gods from a better time.”

 

“If they’re anything like what I’ve already seen,” Twilight said, “then magnificent is pretty far from the word I’d use to describe them. And I think I can comprehend evil pretty well.”

 

Pinkie sighed and stared back down at Twilight. “You can’t understand what they are, Twilight. What they do. They may seem evil to you, but they’re just working on clearing up what is rightfully theirs.”

 

She clicked her heels on the frozen ground. Her last wounded ankle healed over, and she was like new again. “They secluded themselves away from this place ages and ages ago, locked up in a long hibernation. But it was one that was supposed to be over for a while now, and yet here we are, still here. We are the mold that has grown up in their absence, the weeds that have gone unchecked in their garden. And they had no way to come back, no way to open their front door again so they could come in and tidy the joint up… no way until now, that is.”

 

Flakes of snow whipped around Twilight’s ankles. A slight breeze was picking up around them. The clouds churned overhead, giving the impression of a dark and upset sea. The dimming light of the sky froze in place, halting the approaching darkness without providing any more illumination.

 

Keep stalling, keep stalling, Twilight thought. Get to the tree, get out of town, get somewhere away from it. Get somewhere you can figure all this out.

 

“And what happens now?” Twilight asked. She continued moving parallel with Pinkie, keeping her at a constant distance. A small gap appeared between a group of unicorns behind her, and she shifted directions towards it. “You spread out from here, you… you infect ponies around Equestria? You make them all slaves, ready to submit to some upcoming invasion? Or you… you just up and try to kill them all yourself?”

 

“It’s a little from column A, a little from column B.” Pinkie did a little twirl, twisting her hooves in the air. Her tail twitched along to the music, and her eyes drifted casually over the frolicking surrounding her. “Some places are already primed. You’ve been there, you’ve seen it.  I’ve been crazy busy getting things done over here in Ponyville while you’ve been away. Things are only really solid here, but don’t worry! After tonight, I’ll be able to get around all of Equestria at lightning speeds.”

 

“Not that I’d want to get too far, of course. After all, what kind of host would I be if I did all the fun stuff before the guests of honor even arrived?” Pinkie grinned and took another few hops towards Twilight.

 

“That’s close enough, alright?” Twilight said. She gestured her horn in Pinkie’s direction. “I’ve heard just enough out of you.”

 

Nearly there, get your hooves on firm ground here. Last thing I need is to slip on myself.

 

“I don’t think magic will be very good for you right now, Twilight,” Pinkie said, laughing. She glanced behind her and waved out. A large net full of balloons cracked open from under the platform, filling the sky with the multicolored orbs. They caught light from the spotlights, further illuminating the scene with a variety of colors. “You should really lighten up, Twilight. It’s a party, after all!”

 

Pinkie cheered, the crowd following suit. Before she could turn back around, Twilight kicked off and shot through the gap. She dodged ponies left and right, turning the first corner she saw and bursting onto an empty street. Her mouth turned into a small grin when she saw her library directly ahead.

 

There it is! Now, what next… a book that can help me? Must be something I can grab before I go to Canterlot, something that can–

 

Up ahead, a house shook violently from side to side. The hinges on the front door fired outward, the door following suit just afterward. Pinkie slid along on top of the fallen wood, sliding to a complete stop directly ahead of Twilight.

 

“Good call, Twilight!” she said. She spun on her hoof and faced the library. “I almost forgot that payoff. And a one, a two, a-you-know-what-to-do…”

 

Pinkie flicked her wrist. An immense geyser of fire erupted from the base of the library, not capping off until it reached the highest branches.

 

“No!” Twilight screamed. She rushed past Pinkie towards the tree, but the intense heat prevented her from getting too close. Some of the higher windows cracked and fell out of their frames, crashing to the ground next to her hooves. The sound of falling wood thundered out from inside; the bookshelves were collapsing, caught in an oven that was fueled by the thousands upon thousands of burning books.

 

“Hmmm… not bad.” Pinkie scratched her chin. “I kept seeing it a little differently, but I guess it’s hard to really pin this sort of thing down in your head. Gotta see the real thing.”

 

Twilight turned back, tears falling from her eyes. “Pinkie! Please… stop all this!”

 

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Pinkie said. “In spite of everything, the little things can always hit you the hardest.”

 

Twilight rubbed her eyes. “What are you… why won’t you help me?”

 

“Hey, there’s another one I can answer!” Pinkie skipped backward. Twilight took a few involuntary steps towards her to keep further back from the flaming structure. Suddenly, she felt a strong grip grab her around both forelegs. She turned her head up to see Big McIntosh staring back down at her. His face was expressionless, save for the small trickle of blood coming out of each tear duct.

 

“Big Mac!” Twilight squirmed around, but his iron grip easily overpowered her. “What are you doing? Let go of me!”

 

Big Mac stayed silent. He dragged Twilight towards Pinkie. Twilight managed to peer one last time over his shoulder at the fire behind them. Very little remained of the upper branches, and the trunk was charred black. Ash poured from the sky in a flurry so thick it looked like another storm had blown in. Twilight shut her eyes as the final burning limbs cracked open and plummeted to the ground. The tree fell over backward, landing with a loud THUMP and letting bits of fire spread around to nearby houses.

 

The crowd parted in front of them. The music blared at full volume, but nopony danced anymore. All eyes followed the three as Pinkie led them back in front of the tall platform. Several spotlights swung low and focused on Twilight; she threw her hooves over her eyes to keep from being blinded.

 

“Big Mac, please…” Twilight pleaded. “There’s… there’s gotta be some of you left in there. Please help me.”

 

“I can’t, Twilight,” Big Mac replied. His voice was strained and creaky. “He wrote me this way.”

 

In front of them, Pinkie stopped and hung her head.

 

“You were right about one thing, Twilight,” Pinkie said, her back to Twilight. “I was dragged down through the well back in the temple. I learned a lot after that, too. I saw what’s to come, which means I know where you go from here. I know what you do. And it’s not something I can let you do.”

 

Pinkie spun around. “I… I know he wants you to do it. And I’m happy you got the chance. I mean, you get to meet him! To actually go up and talk to him! Sure, he’s been telling me stuff in my dreams for ages now, but I’ve never had a chance to say anything back! It’s just so cool to get that chance. I really am happy for you!”

 

“But…” Pinkie’s smile faded away. “There’s really no easy way to say this, and it’s something that might even make him mad… but I can’t let you go. There’s too much risk at stake if you go. He’s assured me nothing will go wrong, he’s written all the possible outcomes… but the chance remains. One that, no matter what anypony says, even… even him, I can’t let happen.”

 

A chance to… change something? Twilight’s eyes narrowed. What could it be… keep stalling, get something to use…

 

“I think you’ve, uh, covered everything pretty thoroughly down here,” Twilight spoke slowly. Big Mac let in a small amount of slack, and she quickly gained some leverage by twisting against him. “Whatever it is you think I can… well, I don’t think I–”

 

“Sorry Twilight, no talking your way out of this one allowed.” Pinkie put a hoof up, waggling it at Twilight. “I made a Pinkie Promise to usher in the change. I’ve done my part. Or rather, I’ve almost done my part. Time to finish things up and really get this party started!”

 

Pinkie threw her head back and whistled. Big Mac snapped to attention at the screeching sound. He dropped Twilight onto the ground in a heap and took several steps back to rejoin the crowd. As Twilight collected herself, Pinkie did several spins on one hoof and pointed up at town hall.

 

Over the speakers, the bass dropped. The silhouette of town hall, still barely visible in the light, moved. Twilight stifled a gasp.

 

Oh, I’m in trouble…

 

The entire town hall expanded outward, its form growing in every direction. The foundations ached and groaned, and it lurched forward into the light, batting aside the tall platform into one of the speaker sets in the process. Its huge stone columns revealed themselves to be long tendrils doubling as teeth in a gaping maw, while the outline of the roof slid down to divide up into a dozen pairs of spindly legs. A massive eye opened up at the center of the mass to stare malevolently over the assembled crowd.

 

Nopony reacted to the newfound sight. They all simply stood by and watched it approach.

 

“You should relax, Twilight,” Pinkie said. Tentacles the size of houses pushed around her in either direction, swallowing up the remainder of the speakers and the accompanying DJ. Music still thumped, rippling through its slick muscular skin. “It’s not so bad. And you’ll like what’s over there!”

 

“I highly doubt that.” Twilight worked to control the shakiness of her voice and to force her hooves to take a step back.

 

“It’s true! After all, all our friends are waiting for us over there!” Pinkie’s grin widened, pushing at the boundaries of her skin. “You just need to come on over. Then we can go meet the fillies and Rarity and Applejack–”

 

“I’m not listening to this anymore…” Twilight’s head rocked from side to side. Behind her, the crowd remained tightly packed.

 

“–and Fluttershy and the fillies, and even Dashie is bound to show up eventually–”

 

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Twilight pivoted around and aimed for the street out of town.

 

“–and we’ll all be happy and together!” Pinkie raised her hooves triumphantly over her head. “In the end, that’s what really counts, Twilight. That’s why I helped do all this. It wouldn’t have made a difference to try and stop it, so I just worked it to keep us all together. Now we’ll never leave each other. Friends forever, Twilight.”

 

The monster’s legs pushed themselves onto the ground. It raised itself up, shaking away some of the excess wood that was stuck to its hide, and fired out a series of tiny green appendages from its mouth. They wrapped around Pinkie in an instant and squeezed tight around every available limb to the point of breaking some in half.

 

“Come on, Ttttwwwiiiiiiiiillliigght…” Pinkie slurred out in a voice far deeper than she had ever managed before. “Friends… fffffooooorrrreeeevvveeerrr….”

 

Twilight ran. The ground shook with every forward step of the monster behind her, forcing the crowd to the ground as several lost their balance and fell on others surrounding them. Twilight leapt over a low spot in the horde and dashed forward as fast as her legs would carry her.

 

Gotta kill this thing, gotta find a way. What to use, what to use…

 

Behind her, the rest of the tentacles aimed for the crowd. Some instinctively screamed out as the walls of flesh descended on them, only to be abruptly silenced at the impact and subsequent absorption into the muscle. A slimy, sticky sound replaced the former murmuring of ponies. Wood and stone shattered to pieces on either side of the street as the creature swelled out and pushed into the adjacent houses. A shower of wreckage shot off one of the roofs and arced through the air before it landed all around Twilight’s sprinting form.

 

Fire. Fire will work. Can I get to the tree? Would that be enough? No, no, not enough time for that, need a different route…

 

The avenue widened as the edge of town approached. Twilight could see the bridge over to the park ahead, and just beyond that, the very edge of the Everfree Forest.

 

Into the forest, maybe something in there… oh!

 

Inspiration flashed into her mind. Twilight lowered her head and kept running. The constant trembling of the ground threatened to throw her off balance at every step, as did the growing pain in her chest with every deep inhalation. Still she ran, the mountainous creature flailing around behind her in an effort to keep up. Another house disintegrated into a million splinters with every surge forward it made, another part of the ground turned to a crater with each step. Every part of its body was in motion, weaving and pulsing into a different form every few seconds. Only the eye remained constant, its gaze fixated perfectly down on Twilight.

 

Twilight galloped along. She was over the bridge in two strides, past the fountain in another three, and past the edge of the park before the monster reached the river.

 

I take the path straight, turn left at the hooked curve… no, that was coming back, I take a right going in… how’d I get there before? I had to look for– I had a guide last time, didn’t I?

 

Her mind clouded with directions, Twilight missed the low hanging branch on a tree ahead. It smacked her along the forehead, and she tripped. Sliding to a stop on her back, she blinked a few times as her sight came back into focus. Behind her, the monster took up the whole sky. It kept moving closer. Over the never-ending thumping and breaking wood, she could hear it uttering a deep, angry growl.

 

Straight in, hang right at the second grove, follow to the mountains.

 

Twilight snapped back up onto her hooves and took off into the underbrush. The snow thinned out as the trees grew thicker, and she was able to move swifter. The creature, however, faced some difficulty penetrating through the old growth. The deep roots and thick trunks proved to put up a stronger resistance than the homes of Ponyville, and the creature slowed to a crawl as it hacked its way through. It howled, the sound carrying overhead in a thunderous cry of otherworldly anger.

 

I’ve had just about enough of that sound…

 

She sped through the woods, zipping over logs and through bramble patches. Even without much snow on the ground, the temperature remained near freezing, and Twilight felt her hooves growing numb from the frost. She shivered and kept running.

 

Keep that blood pumping… just a little further… there it is!

 

The cave could be seen through a clearing up ahead. It stretched high into the mountain behind it, a single rocky spot in the white forest. Twilight hurried through the clearing. The creature was very noisily approaching from behind her. It was gaining momentum and punching through the thick foliage with relative ease.

 

The dim light got even dimmer once Twilight entered the cave, but a faint glimmer was visible around a corner ahead. Twilight headed towards it and finally came to a stop in front of a massive mound of precious gems. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and more were all piled high in front of her. Similar piles sat stacked against the wall. Light coming through holes in the ceiling reflected off each gem, giving the entire cave a dazzling amount of illumination.

 

Please still be here, please please please…

 

“Wow, look at all these beautiful gems!” Twilight shouted. Her voice didn’t carry far in the vast cavern, and she took a deep breath to scream even louder. “I can’t believe they’re just sitting here!

 

She looked around expectantly. Something large shifted behind one of the piles, but came no closer. The ground shook beneath her; the creature outside was drawing nearer.

 

                Alright, want to play hardball?

 

                “I guess nopony would mind if I took a few home with me!” With that, Twilight dove into the nearest pile. She kicked gems around left and right, sending a small avalanche down to the ground. She threw a pile of multicolored stones high into the air, watching them curve through the air to land on the other side of the pile.

 

                There was a new trembling, this one coming from inside the cave.

 

                “Who’s there?” a loud, deep voice demanded. “Who’s in my home?”

 

                “It’s just some random pony stealing your gems!” Twilight rolled out of the pile, kicking several opals aside. “What are you going to do about it, you big dumb lizard?”

 

                More movement behind the pile. The long face of a dragon rose upward, its green scaly body following suit. It flared its spikes when it looked down at Twilight. “You… I remember you…”

 

                “You couldn’t catch me last time,” Twilight sneered. She took several steps back towards the cave entrance. “And even though I’m all banged up, I know you won’t be able to catch me now. I can just come back any time I want, and take all your gems away! What do you say to that?”

 

                The response of the dragon’s fiery blast sent Twilight rolling out of the way. She could feel the heat rush past her tail, singing several hairs away. Twilight gulped and ran to the mouth of the cave.

 

                This’ll work, this’ll work… don’t get roasted and this’ll work…

 

                The cavern shook all over. The dragon thumped forward, screeching loudly and setting off a torrent of fire with every spare breath. Twilight burst out into the clearing just as the dragon came around the corner behind her. A second loud roar brought Twilight’s attention upward, and she gasped out loud.

 

                The monster stood before her. Its form had molded again. Twilight now found herself staring at an eighty foot Pinkie Pie, albeit one missing her customary pink skin. Untold numbers of tendrils bunched up along her back to form her mane and tale, and a rhythmic pulsing of loose skin and fleshy veins made up her face. She smiled down at Twilight with teeth made of sharpened bone.

 

                It opened its mouth to speak, but could only gurgle a strangely mournful noise.

 

                Twilight felt her back heat up again, and she quickly rolled to one side. The dragon emerged from the cave behind her, shaking its head to clear away the excess smoke. He stared up at the Pinkie creature and narrowed his eyes. A puff of smoke huffed from his nose while Twilight huddled behind a nearby tree. For the moment, both massive creatures had forgotten her.

 

                “An old one… come for the reclamation already?” the dragon murmured. He took a step forward, his wings flapping against the dusk. “You burned well before. Let’s see if you still do.”

 

                The dragon opened his jaws to release a funnel of fire directly at Pinkie’s face. It screeched and attempted to pull away, but its legs caught on a tree. It took the full brunt of the blast face-first. It screeched even louder, writhing back and forth in place while its eyes melted away. Flesh dripped off in a deluge of green and pink sludge, splashing all over the powdered branches.

 

                The creature flailed up several huge tentacles while the dragon worked to suck another breath in. The dragon flapped his wings and quickly rose several meters, only to be forced back down when one of the tentacles came down right on his shoulder. He screamed in pain, his flame jet waving around the sky. The end of the jet came down on the creature’s body, igniting it while the face continued to burn. Screeching from both creatures filled the air. The tentacles shifted in place rapidly, pumping a thick green slime under the dragon’s skin.

 

                Just move, just move while you can get away.

 

                Turning away from the devastating scene, Twilight disappeared into the underbrush. Her new path was even thicker than the one she had used to get in, and she tripped over exposed roots and ice patches multiple times. The battle behind her grew faint as she went along, and by the time she came to the edge of the forest, she could only barely hear it over the sound of the rising wind. A growing cloud of smoke marked the spot in the distance where the dragon’s fire spread to the surrounding forest.

 

                Twilight stood for a moment, breathing heavily. She felt across the bandages on her head and sides. Several came loose as she touched them. She sighed and tried to push them back into place, with little success.

 

                Ahead of her, Ponyville was in ruin. A solid path of destruction went from the town square to the edge of the forest. Heaps of brick, wood, and broken glass were all that was left of the homes. In the background to one side, a fire raged on, going from house to house with nothing to stop it except the fast-melting piles of snow. No ponies could be seen anywhere; the town was deserted.

 

Nothing to do there now…

 

                Twilight sighed again. She pushed forward through a snowdrift, aiming for the less affected side of town. After walking for a few minutes, her destination became visible: the train station. It took another few minutes of cold trudging, but she eventually reached the station house. It was still in good shape, entirely intact without even so much as a broken window. The same could not be said for the train, which lay in shambles just to the side of the tracks. All that remained of the lead car was a smoking black crater, and the other cars had been squished together like some huge accordion.

 

                Well, so much for that option.

 

                A light twinkled in the mountains. Twilight stared up at Canterlot, making out a single sign of life in a high tower. The rest of the city was completely dark, blending in with the billowing sky. Light around her continued to fade. It was almost completely dark now, and she could feel the temperature dropping by the second.

 

                Better get moving, Twilight thought. If I keep a good pace it shouldn’t take too long, but if the weather gets bad… well, actually, after all that’s happened, I have a feeling I can handle it.

 

                For a split-second, Twilight let slip a tiny grin. Then a small burst of wind chilled her face to the core. She shivered, wrapped her scarf tightly around her nose and mouth, and took off down the train tracks into the dark night ahead.


Chapter 10: Closer to God

 

                Winter beat down with a peculiar ferocity. From the winds whipping across the tracks, to the torrent of snow coming in sidelong, to the temperature dropping another degree below freezing with every passing minute, it was a cataclysmic example of nature’s power. For once, there were no ponies in the sky to take control. The storm’s rage went unchecked, reveling in newfound freedom.

 

                Nevertheless, Twilight Sparkle pressed on. The train tracks stretched out in front and behind her, nearly invisible under the frozen deluge that continued to push against them. They wrapped around the outskirts of the high mountains in a long, twisted path to the peak. To one side, a sheer drop into a canyon so deep that Twilight couldn’t see the bottom. To the other, a solid wall of granite that jutted up into the sky. Occasionally the tracks passed through a tunnel carved into the rock, but though these brief safe havens offered Twilight relief from the wind and snow, she never paused in her journey. Even as the wind dragged her bandages down her body to reveal frozen patches of skin, and her scarf slipped enough to allow ice to form along her cheeks; she kept moving forward, one step after the other.

 

                Past the canyon… four tunnels… bridge around the next bend… no, wait… one final tunnel, then the bridge… that’s it… gotta be it

 

                Twilight shivered with weakened muscles. She couldn’t feel anything below her knees, and there was a rising pain in her chest. The surrounding landscape was a blur of snowy darkness. The only indication that she was progressing at all was the speck of light high in the distance, which grew clearer with every shove through the weather.

 

                Sun went down… when? There was still a little light when I started walking, and I haven’t been at it that long… have I? But if I’m already this close to the end…

 

                The wind howled against her. With every fresh gust, it threatened to blow her right off the tracks and over the precipice. She barred her teeth behind her scarf and took another step forward. Turning a corner, the light vanished behind a long outcropping. The tracks carried on below, slicing through the mountain. Twilight quickened her pace.

 

                Last tunnel… gotta be the last tunnel…

 

                The wind shifted directions and rushed at Twilight from behind. It propelled her forward into the tunnel, sliding her along the slippery tracks faster than she could run. A loose rock caught her hoof and she tripped forward, landing square on her shoulder. Her anguished cry barely edged out the gale for noise.

 

                I’d know where I was if I could think straight, and I could do that it wasn’t for all this stupid wind!

 

                She cried in frustration again. The noise echoed in the small space and came back to her so loudly that she stopped screaming in surprise.  Fighting the pain as she stood back up, she tentatively approached the mouth of the tunnel. She stepped into the open and was confronted by a distinct stillness surrounding her.

 

                “Ummm… what?” Twilight peered up to see a fleet of storm clouds billowing in silence. No more wind came in from any direction. The air was clear and the only snow around was already on the ground. She glanced back through the tunnel, but couldn’t see anything through the darkness.

 

                It stopped… just like that?

 

                Twilight scratched her chin, scraping off a few ice shavings in the process. Taking the setting in for a few more seconds, she shrugged.

 

                Of course it did. Why am I even surprised by stuff like this anymore?

 

                With no wind to push it around, the air settled in like a frozen blanket around Twilight. Her bones creaked as the frost pushed against her. She continued taking long strides forward; she shivered only when the desire to do so was so overpowering she couldn’t stand it. Otherwise she expressed no reaction to the climate.

 

                Up ahead, the mountain dropped off to the side. The tracks continued straight over a deep gorge. The light was on the other side, peering down at Twilight from its high vantage point. Looking carefully around it, Twilight made out the soft outlines of tall towers and sturdy stone walls.

 

                Made it… and not a second too soon.

 

                Her legs twitched, and Twilight broke into a run towards Canterlot. The cold air whipping past her came down like a swarm of bees, stinging her skin all over. Twilight shivered again and pulled her scarf even tighter. A few small rocks tumbled out as she ran past, plunging into the darkness on the side of the bridge.

 

                Okay, there was definitely just a shallow stream here before, not some bottomless pit. And I know the bridge was a lot shorter than this.

 

                She slowed down as she approached the end of the bridge. Two guard posts sat quietly on either side of the tracks. Twilight’s nervousness gave way to slight confusion when she peeked inside. Both were empty, with a small trace of snow building on their floors.

 

                The tall perimeter walls loomed through the darkness. Overhead, the distant light in the tower vanished again, this time sinking behind the ramparts. Moonlight replaced it, pushing in through the clouds and bathing the city in a soft glow. Moving up from the tracks, Twilight hopped over a low wall and entered the train station. The pathway was clear of snow, which had been neatly plowed into a tall bank along one side of the path. Bits of manicured bushes, still a healthy green in spite of the opposing elements, poked through the white frost.

 

Much like the guardhouses, the station and surrounding buildings were completely deserted. Twilight frowned as she walked through the main gates into the city, where a similar scene awaited her. Barely any snow sat piled on the streets, which appeared recently plowed. Storefronts and houses sat dark and shuttered. Twilight wandered forward along the cold concrete, following a path that winded haphazardly through the city towards the tallest towers. Her steps clicked softly into the night, the first real noise she’d heard since the wind died down. Somewhere behind her, a small pile of snow dropped off a rooftop and landed on the ground with a muffled thump.

 

Before long, Twilight was deep into the city. The streets grew tighter, the patches of snow on the ground more common. Eventually, she opened her mouth to say something, only to put her hoof up to stop herself.

 

                Remember what happened last time? I don’t think drawing attention to yourself is the best idea right now.

 

                “At least this place isn’t a wreck,” Twilight murmured. She glanced around, looking at the walls and windows as closely as she could manage. Everything looked immaculate, the same as it ever did. “Maybe everypony’s just asleep?”

 

                After all that’s happened, I highly doubt it’s that simple–

 

“Hello?” Twilight’s call echoed through the nearby alleyways. After a moment of letting it retreat into the distance, she perked her ears for a reply. Nothing. Canterlot remained as silent as a tomb.

 

Probably for the best. Just get to the palace and try to work things out from– Hang on, this street looks familiar.

 

Twilight turned another corner and stopped in front of a moderately sized house. Like the city surrounding it, it lay dormant. A few small trees and shrubs occupied the yard behind a low iron fence. Twilight put her hoof on a post and stared up at the dark walls.

 

Just another house. And yet… so familiar. It’s almost like… wait…

 

Twilight looked up. Above her was a large, rectangular window opened onto a balcony. One of its doors was slightly ajar, and even in the faint light and low angle, Twilight saw the top of a crowded bookcase. An attached ladder hung off to one side with a few misplaced titles stacked upon it.

 

This is… that’s my… didn’t I used to live here? I can’t remember for sure, but this really does look like–

 

The sound of shattering glass ripped through the night air. Twilight whirled around. A few more shards collapsed onto the pavement around the corner, and then silence returned. Twilight remained still, holding her breath as she tilted her head in the direction of the disturbance.

 

Not this again. Stay calm, stay ready. Stay calm, stay ready…

 

A few blocks down, another window shattered into pieces. And then another, and another. Soon windows all over Canterlot were breaking, raining down onto the streets and snow banks in showers of broken glass. Finally, back in the house Twilight had been looking at, one of the windows by the front door cracked in two. Twilight turned back around in time to see it slide out of its frame and explode into tiny pieces once it hit the ground.

 

Right as the final bits of glass touched down, a bright light shined through the window. It was joined by similar lights shooting out of the broken windows all around her. Soon the streets were vibrantly lit up in an intense display of illumination. Through the windows, at a point Twilight could barely make out, dark shadows pressed forward. A low gurgling emerged from the houses, providing a steady background noise that rose up until it dominated the city.

 

Stop waiting around like a sitting duck, run!

 

The ground beneath Twilight’s hooves rumbled, and Twilight bolted down the street. Large icicles broke off and hurtled to the ground, forcing her to dip and weave her way back to the main street. Shooting past more broken windows and beams of light, she saw the tall towers of the royal palace rise up in front of her. That single light, now dim in comparison to the activity of the rest of the city, remained active in the tall tower. From her new perspective, Twilight was able to get a better look at the source of the light.

 

                The throne room! Somepony’s got to be in there… Princess Celestia must be in there!

 

                A loud screech pierced through the air around her. Twilight quickened her pace. She dashed up the huge steps in front of the palace and made for the great double doors that marked the entrance. Unlike the rest of the city, the palace was silent and dark, save for that single beacon. The doors weren’t locked, and Twilight was able to shove them open on the first try.

 

                “Princess Celestia!” Twilight shouted as soon as she was inside. “Princess Celestia! It’s me, Twilight! Where are you?”

 

                She skid to a halt along the slick tiled floor. Leaning back, she quickly pushed the doors shut. The noise outside was instantly muffled by the thick barriers, and silence returned to the atmosphere. Twilight glanced back and forth along the dark hallways, waiting to hear something other than her frantic breathing.

 

                “Princess Celestia?” Twilight called again. Her eyes crept along the corridor, hovering over every door and glancing upwards at the high ceilings.

 

“Princess Luna? Anypony? Hello?” She turned and moved towards the short staircase in front of her. At its top was a T-intersection. Taking the route to the right, she headed down the corridor towards the throne room. No light penetrated the walls, moonlight or otherwise, forcing her to go at a snail’s pace to avoid running into anything.

 

Rounding another large corner, a crack of light stood out in the dark. A large set of doors sat slightly ajar up ahead. Beyond them was the well-lit throne room. As Twilight trotted forward, her ears caught the sound of a small ring flutter through the doorway.

 

                “Princess!” With a final burst of speed, Twilight ran down the hall to the doors. She stepped through the frame and immediately came to a complete stop so fast she nearly fell flat on her face. Steadying her position, she gaped at the sight that lay before her.

 

                The floor was flooded with papers. Single sheets, each blanketed with lengthy blocks of text, were scattered about from one wall to the other. The throne was gone, along with all other bits of furniture and decoration that had once adorned the chamber. Even the large mosaic windows had lost their various illustrations, leaving only blank, solid colors in their place. All that was present now was a grand mahogany desk by the far wall. Occupying most of the space was a massive typewriter, while a small, neatly-organized stack of papers lay beside it.

 

                Sitting in a tall chair behind the desk, hitting the typewriter keys in rapid succession, was a lean gray stallion. He was dressed in a smart black trench coat, the collar wide around his neck.  Though his curled white mane suggested a great age, his face had a youthful vigor to it, exemplified by a pair of piercing blue eyes. His hooves moved gracefully across the typewriter. The instrument clicked away as he set down sentence after sentence. The carriage dinged and jumped to the right, and he looked up. His lips hooked into a small smile.

 

                “Hello Twilight,” he said. His voice let in the faintest hint of some strange foreign accent. “So glad you were able to make it. Please, please, do come in.”

 

                Twilight arched an eyebrow but didn’t speak. Moving cautiously, she stepped into the chamber, threading her hooves between the papers onto the few blank spots on the floor. Behind her, the doors effortlessly swung shut. Twilight stopped a few steps in. Her eyes flickered over the contents of the fallen pages before settling on the stallion. He gave a small nod and returned his focus to the page in front of him.

 

                “Wondrous device, this thing,” he said, gesturing to the typewriter. “Although I admit, it takes a little getting used to. There are times when I wish I was born a unicorn; a little magic would make things run smoother. In fact I’d just as soon go back to writing with a simple quill, but it was my last editor who got this for me. He insists upon it, says it makes it easier to spot the errors. I don’t see what he’s complaining about, he’s never missed any before. I swear, it seems like he’s got eyes like a–”

 

“Who are you?” Twilight asked directly. She took another small step forward.

 

“Ah, my apologies,” he said, the smile growing on his face. “I do get away from myself sometimes. Though I am surprised you don’t recognize me. Your literary sense may not be what it used to be, but surely my appearance rings some sort of bell.”

 

Twilight’s face glazed over as he stared back.

 

That smile… so familiar… he almost looks like… like…

 

Her eyes widened. Her recurring dream roared to life. Images of her library burning ripped through her head like a bolt of lightning. The obscured figure that always smiled at her became clear, his voice matching up with the figure seated before her. “You’re… you’re the pony from my…”

 

“Getting warmer…” He chuckled to himself. “Sugar Cane, at your disposal. And may I say it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

 

“You… how…” Twilight started, before her mind went blank. Her mouth shut tight as she found herself at a complete loss for words.

 

“Yes, yes, I know where you’re going,” Cane said. He resumed typing, the keys once again moving at breakneck speed. “However, I’m afraid I’m going to need some silence from you for this next part. I’ve got a bit of a monologue to deliver and only so much time left to do so. Please, be seated.”

 

Twilight’s body shook. She dropped to her knees and sat rigidly on the ground.

 

“Thank you,” Cane said, pausing his typing briefly to recheck several lines. “Now, where to begin…”

 

The typewriter dinged. He snatched the page out, set it onto the growing pile on his desk, replaced it with a fresh sheet of paper, and continued on.

 

                “You have my apologies for what you’ve been through.” Cane peered up at Twilight’s many bandages. Her breathing grew sharper as he looked on. “Most of it was incidental, I assure you. The important idea was to keep your magic at bay for a few key scenes, because, and don’t take this the wrong way, you can be a rather overpowered character at times. Makes it very hard to keep the tension up. Of course, all that’s over and done with now, so give me one moment now and I’ll have you feeling much better.”

 

                With an extra flourish in his wrist, Cane typed out a long and winding sentence. Twilight gasped. Her body shook again, the shiver running from nose to tail. A surge of warmth shot along with it. Her cracked ribs became good as new, her raw wounds haling over with fresh skin and tissue. The bandages unraveled and drifted to the floor. Twilight took a deep breath, and shook her head as she exhaled. She glanced over herself, rubbing a hoof over her head and horn. No pain responded to her touch, no buzzing sensation infiltrated her skull.

 

                Cane paused his typing to look Twilight over. “There we are. Right as rain.”

 

                Twilight looked at Cane. She started to speak, but Cane swiftly put a hoof up to stop her.

 

                “No need to thank me,” he said. “It seemed only fair.”

 

                Another ding, another sliding the carriage to the right.

 

                “It’s funny,” Cane mused. “For years I thought I was making all this up. Maybe I was, back when I first started writing. I don’t really remember anymore. But now, they tell me what to write. I can add embellishments here and there, maybe give it a few twists, but the grand scheme was all them. They gave me the power to make it all real… and now it is.”

 

                A mild tremor rocked the palace. Trails of dust sprinkled down from distant spots in the ceiling, and a few papers shifted in place. Cane didn’t stop typing.

 

                “My books have always pushed the concept of there being something more, of all those horrible, slimy things trying to break through to our world. Who knew that was actually the case? I didn’t get much from them at first. Just a little extra boost, enough to draw in more readers. That was the whole point in the beginning. More readers, more believers. The more believers there are, the more power they can give out to me, and the more power I can put out in my words.”

 

                Another tremor, this one with more force to it. Cane took a moment to steady his desk.

 

                “I’ve come a long way since then. Gone are the days where I could only vaguely influence events, or hope that some random fan would pick up the clues and give me assistance. Now I just need to think it through, to write it out, and it happens. The whole world on my desk, and me with editorial control.”

 

                “No.” Twilight shuddered at the sound of her own voice. She had to take a long breath before she could keep speaking. “No. Stop. I know the world is in trouble right now, I know strange forces are attacking Equestria, I know monsters are everywhere… but don’t sit there and tell me this nonsense about you typing out a sentence and making something come true. Of all the impossible things I’ve seen over the past week–”

 

                Cane laughed and hit another key. Twilight’s mouth shut tight, her voice caught in her throat.

 

                “I don’t need you to believe me,” he said. “Whether you choose to accept the truth or not is irrelevant. Right now, you are what I write. I control you, and that–”

 

                “Nopony controls me,” Twilight muttered. Cane raised an eyebrow.

 

                “Interesting…” Cane studied Twilight closely, his smile frozen in place. “Allow me to prove it then.”

 

                Cane brushed his hooves in a tender stroke up and down the sides of the typewriter, and then began typing once again. “As it got close to the end, I found it necessary to excise certain characters. They would’ve just gotten in the way otherwise, or caused too much clutter. Some of this even you have noticed, when you think hard enough. The Cake foals whose names you forgot moments after saying aloud. The Princesses who occupied this castle not hours ago, one of whom was an especially devoted connoisseur of my work, now long vanished from this world–”

 

                The Princesses! That means… But they both can’t be gone, just like that? Not Princess… Princess… why can’t I remember her name?

                

“–I told you, because I wrote them out. Much like I did the occupants of that house you paused at on the way up. Your old house, specifically, and the family to go with it. Including your dear brother and his loving new wife.”

 

                “My– what?” Twilight drew her head back in confusion. “I don’t… I don’t have a… brother… do I?”

 

                “You tell me, Twilight.” Cane shrugged. “If somepony suddenly vanished, and you couldn’t remember them anymore, and all the evidence that they ever existed to begin with vanished along with them, then did they ever really exist at all?”

 

                He gestured to the walls. “Move away from ponies now. Coming up here, you noticed something was amiss. You were right in thinking that the entrance to Canterlot wasn’t so imposing before. I took the liberty of altering the geography around here into something more… aesthetically suitable for the conditions. I don’t think a short bridge over a babbling brook would’ve had the same effect, do you?”

 

The clicking of the keys stopped. Cane tapped his forehead. “Every idea whose origin you couldn’t trace, all those strange thoughts and bits of information you couldn’t possibly know, all those leaps of logic that turned out to be true. All that came from me, from right here. Not that I need to deal with that anymore.”

 

He leaned in and ripped the page out of the typewriter. With a lazy toss, it sailed into the paper ocean in front of him.

 

                “All that and more. It’s all there, like I said.” Cane gestured all around the room. “All the ins and outs, all the new faces and final remains of old ones. Along with some old drafts, dropped plots –which reminds me, you all really should’ve explored that temple more– and tossed ideas. It’s not an exact science, what I’m doing. It requires constant tinkering as the story morphs along.”

 

                Cane pointed to the neat stack next to the typewriter. “But as you can plainly see, it’s almost done now. The end is in sight, the final chapter presently upon us. It just needs some finishing touches.”

 

                Twilight rubbed her forehead. Her hoof trembled rapidly against her skin. The breaks and bruises from before may have been gone, but a fresh headache had quickly moved in to take their place.

 

                Think Twilight, just think. What he’s saying… he can’t be right. Think. Who were you coming here to see? The Princess, your teacher, the leader of Equestria… what was her name? You had family in Canterlot, where were… right? Did I live here? I moved to Ponyville from here… where did I…

 

“You shouldn’t rack your brain over the nonexistent. Certainly not at a time like this.” Another fresh page inserted, another round of rapid typing from Cane. “I suppose this could be considered one of my shorter stories. I only started it this past week. Think about this too, while we’re on the subject. In all your years of study, Twilight, had you ever heard of the Northern Wastes before a few days ago? You spoke of books in your library on them… what books? Could you find them now? Think of their titles? It never existed. Not before I wrote it. The same goes for Dr. Copper Star, who, despite apparently being one of the Princess’ fellow protégés, you had also never heard of until a few days ago. She was my creation. I brought her into being as easily as I kicked the Princesses out.”

 

Cane took a break to re-read the last few lines he’d just typed. His hoof traced across the page in front of him.

 

“Anyway, short novella, epic novel, it’s all the same,” he mumbled. “Whatever the format, it’s still the harbinger of the great change. That’s what counts the most.”

 

Think fast, Twilight… okay, that might work.

 

“Why?” Twilight blurted out so suddenly it made Cane look up. She ignored her quivering lip and pushed on. “Why… why would you do something like this?”

 

Cane frowned, taken aback by the question.

 

“Because that’s the way the story goes,” he answered plainly.

 

                “But…” Twilight strained, rapping her hoof on the floor. “But… why us then? Why specifically single us out to–”

 

                “Why you?”

 

Cane pushed out of his chair. He rounded the desk and approached Twilight, pushing pages out of the way with every step. “Why, why, why… let’s think this one out. Why, out of all the ponies in Equestria, out of all the available individuals and personalities and groups, would I have chosen you and your nine friends? Why go through the effort? I could’ve simply created a new batch of characters, sent them up North to start the chain of events that led things to where they are now, but I didn’t. Instead, I chose a group that always has so many interesting and important things happen to them. Now, why would I do that? Think carefully… what could the reason possibly be?”

 

                He leaned against his desk, staring at Twilight. She let her eyes flash back and forth between Cane and the desk, her mind racing.

 

                “Um, because, uh…” Twilight stammered. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead.

 

                Stay focused. Something to keep him where he is, that’s all I need…

 

                “The Elements of Harmony?” she offered in a voice weaker than she would’ve liked.

 

                “The Elements of Harmony!” Cane practically shouted with glee. He stamped a hoof on the floor, the smile roaring back to his face. “I like that, that’s cute. The Elements of Harmony. This world’s favorite deus ex machina when things turn sour. I’m surprised at myself for not trying to introduce those earlier, but then, I suppose that would’ve just amounted to more filler.”

 

                A few more papers fluttered out of his way, which he continued to ignore.

 

                “No, I’m afraid not my dear, though I suppose that’s at least somewhat in the direction of the truth,” he said. “Still, it’s something much more… basic than that.”

 

                Cane took a few steps forward, standing firm in the center of the room.

 

                “Twilight, every pony has a story to tell. You know this, everypony knows this. It’s a fact of living life, because that life is the story. It may not be particularly interesting, or satisfying, or even coherent, but it’s a story all the same.”

 

                He paced back and forth in a wide arc across the chamber. Twilight, still rooted to the spot on the floor, followed him with her eyes.

 

                “Ponies aren’t alone in this, naturally,” Cane continued. “All species have them. Particularly relevant would be the stories that dragons have. Not just their personal ones, but the collective one their race shares, that goes far beyond what ponies know into what we’re dealing with right no–”

 

                Cane paused and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I believe I got off point. The thing is, though, it’s not just ponies, or dragons, or whatever that have a story. Equestria itself is no different. This land is a wide, epic place, and has a tale to match. But what it needs, just like any good narrative, is a lead character. Each and every one of us is the lead to our own story, but every once in a while, for whatever reason or set of circumstances, some ponies come along that double up in that protagonist position for something much bigger than they are.”

 

                Cane paused mid-step, his back to Twilight.

 

                “Twilight, right now… or rather, up until very recently, those leads were you and your friends. All the big events in Equestria revolved around you lot, and many more things past that. Your little side adventures may have only used a few of you, or may have seemed insignificant on the surface, but it all truly mattered. Ten friends of various backgrounds, relations, races, and species, brought together to represent this chapter in the ever-expanding chronicles of Equestria.”

 

                Cane swiveled around and extended a hoof in Twilight’s direction.

 

                “Of the ten, of course, you are the leader. You are the unifier. Even you must be aware of this on some level. How no matter your level of involvement with something, or how useful you’ve been to the situation, you’re still the most important pony in Equestria. I’ll freely admit I’m not sure why you fulfill this role. I don’t know how that’s chosen. Maybe nopony, nothing can know that…”

 

                Trailing off, Cane’s hoof wavered and fell to the floor. He resumed his pacing. “No matter, I suppose. What does matter is to have you all involved in this.”

 

                He pushed his hoof through a large stack of papers, watching them scatter like leaves around him with each flick of his ankle. “The base nature of fiction is that it is separate from reality, that it is inherently not true. And the tales of the old ones, those grand sagas from which they derived their– well, my point is they were nothing but myths and legends in this day and age. Just ghost stories of things that go bump in the night, and no matter how popular my books, however strong my message, however fanatical my fan base, that wasn’t something I could change. Not on my own.”

                

                Keep him talking… only getting one shot at this.

                

                Twilight took a deep breath. Slowly, she spread her legs wide, pushing herself against the invisible weight on her back to get into a firmer stance.

 

                “I needed to combine that fiction with Equestria’s reality. With your reality. To introduce a story, push you ten into it, and twist the bonds of reality and fiction, of truth and fantasy, until you couldn’t tell one apart from the other. Once that happened, and my story became completely entwined with yours, then they were able to begin their journey home. What I said earlier, about the initial point just to gain more believers, that’s the concept here. Just in a much more… significant way. It’s almost a matter of believing it enough to make it real.”

 

                Still smirking, Cane returned to the center of the room. He leaned against the desk, taking a deep breath in the process.

 

                “And, as you can plainly see, it worked.” Cane ran a hoof along the veneer. “The story was told, the belief gained, the reality altered. Now, the journey back has begun. And, in the process of all this, I’ve elevated myself. I’m a god now, for lack of a better term, with powers beyond the comprehensions of any in this land.”

 

                “Spare me,” Twilight spat out. She narrowed her eyes at Cane. “A god’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer. You’re nothing but a puppet for… whatever it is that’s coming this way. Whatever delusions of grandeur you’ve got, whatever ideas you have that you’ll be considered an equal to what’s apparently coming to destroy Equestria… even I have to laugh at that. You’re just another poor pony, dealing in things far bigger than your sense of worth.”

 

                Cane pushed off the desk and stepped towards Twilight.

 

                “A snide taunt won’t help you here,” he said, an icy undertone breaking into his voice. “Least of all an inaccurate one. Over the course of all this, with the coming of the change and what’s been gifted to me, I have… lost some of that pony essence. I’ve grown past it, above it. I may be Sugar Cane in mind and body, but in spirit I am… so much more.”

 

                “You’re no more than a messenger,” Twilight countered. “A servant– no, less than that. A slave, doing his master’s bidding and smiling all the while.”

 

                Cane moved even closer, taking his time with each forward step.

 

                “Interesting that you say that, considering what you’ve been through tonight,” he said. “Your friend Pinkie proved to be quite adept at moving through the ranks assigned to her.”

 

                “Pinkie… what?” Twilight’s head tilted. For a second, her legs loosened up and her hooves threatened to slip out from under her.

 

                “She was always a big help, by virtue of what a special pony she was.” Cane smiled, his tone lightening again. “You may have been the main character, but she was the one who was always aware of things beyond the margins. Sometimes she saw more than she could believe, could do things that made no sense. All things you know well of, but just idly dismissed. She was a fine target, a sure source of assistance once she was made a fan. Something that was easy enough to accomplish; with a few well-placed copies of my latest work and an impromptu launch party by some diehard fans, she was hooked right in. It didn’t take long from there to take a firm grasp of her subconscious, and guide her to the goal. She was a very enthusiastic learner.”

 

                His smile fading, Cane scratched his neck as his eyes fell to the floor. “Of course, that didn’t last forever. As beneficial as she was throughout the process, as much good as she did, she became rather… unmanageable towards the end. That is another thing I’m going to have to apologize to you about, actually. There was no need to put you through that extra bit of stress. She acted on her own initiative, and while I do admire her commitment, she failed in a key area.”

 

                Cane leaned forward until his mouth was inches from Twilight’s ear.

 

                “Belief,” he whispered. “She didn’t believe it right. She thought she did, but she lacked the true faith in me to see things through to the end.”

 

                Twilight gritted her teeth. Her body resumed its formerly tense position. Meanwhile, Cane straightened himself up and turned back towards his desk.

 

                “You handled the dragon part well, by the way,” he said. “Sure, I got the idea in your head, gave you the directions, but I wasn’t sure how you’d develop it. As I alluded to before, that species has always been… troublesome to deal with when it comes to these matters, and it would have been most unfortunate for that to have caused your untimely demise. But, you performed admirably, and the scenario played out as well as I’d hoped it would. Congratulations.”

 

                He stopped short of his destination, again standing in the center of the room. Throwing his arms out wide, he stretched out, limbering up his back and shoulders.

 

                “Well, that’s all there is to it,” he said, his voice growing more casual by the second. “What little else I have to say I can toss in the postscript. The end of days is here, Twilight Sparkle. The completion of this world and all who inhabit it, crushed into ruin by the great creations of old.”

 

                Cane abruptly tossed his head back in the air and sniffed in deeply.

 

                “Can you smell that?” he asked with closed eyes. “It’s in the air. Every species can smell its own extinction. They haven’t fully arrived yet, so there’s still plenty of ponies milling around out there… but not for long. I don’t know how many will go in the first wave, but I do know the ones that endure that won’t have a pretty time of it after that. Soon, they’ll all be gone. Nothing but a bedtime story for the children.”

 

                Steady…

 

                “You know, I believe I actually did you a favor here,” Cane said, his head falling back down. “I’ve always been the sort who preferred to see the end coming. To get blindsided like that, the sheer shock of it all… and that wouldn’t have even helped matters. If anything, it would’ve made what was about to happen worse. A whole eon’s worth of inevitability crashing down on your head in an instant. I’ll understand if you don’t want to thank me for letting you in, but that won’t stop me from letting you know you’re welcome.”

 

                Now!

 

                Twilight stood up, pushing her hooves into the floor so hard the tile cracked. “For once, you’re right about something. I should be thanking you. Specifically, thanks for healing me earlier. I needed that.”

 

                Cane turned around in time to see the purple field appear around Twilight’s horn. A split-second later, a solid ray of violet slammed home into his chest. The force of the impact sent Cane flying back like a ragdoll, and he smashed into a wide column across the chamber. A large center beam of light held him in place while a series of smaller shots pounded his body on all sides. After a minute, the color faded away as the beam dissipated, leaving his broken, bleeding body lodged in the marble.

 

                Twilight breathed deeply as her horn flickered out.

 

                “I’d actually forgotten how good that felt,” she said, a smile pushing out on her mouth. Shaking her whole body out and flexing her rejuvenated muscles, Twilight walked towards the desk. The typewriter seemed even bigger up close, and she took a moment to take her bearings and look over all the keys.

 

                “It’s like I said before.” Twilight glanced back at the wreckage behind her, locking eyes with Cane’s oddly-angled head. “Your delusions have gotten the best of you. I listened to what you said, I put the pieces together. The story part, the change that’s happening… after all that’s happened, I can buy that as true. But it’s not you. It’s the story itself. The writing. If you have to write it down to make it happen, as opposed to just… willing it into being by standing around and thinking it, then there’s something to be said about the typed word.”

 

                That makes sense, right? Yes, it does, don’t doubt yourself now, have… have faith…

 

                “So I think it’s time to introduce a little constructive criticism as to where this story is headed,” Twilight said. She stepped around the typewriter and knelt down to the floor. Peering down at the small words before her, she rapidly read over the last paragraph on the page.

 

                “‘Twilight ached to remember the Princess who had been her mentor for so long, but nothing came to mind. It was as if her mind had been wiped clean of all memories. Meanwhile, Cane continued to explain his master plan, taking a special kind of pleasure in dragging out each part of the explanation. He typed away as he spoke, pausing occasionally to proofread the lines he just finished–’ Oh no, I’m afraid this won’t do at all. Too… melodramatic. Let’s take things in a fresh new direction, shall we?”

 

                Twilight bit the page out of the typewriter, chewed it into a tiny ball, and spit it to the floor. Before it even hit the ground, the palace shook with a renewed intensity. Cracks appeared in the stained glass windows, and the tiles of the floor looked ready to burst at the seams.

 

                “Looks like somepony’s not happy with this.” Twilight scrambled to put a fresh sheet into the slot and align it just right. “Everypony’s a critic. Now, to make things right again…”

 

                Twilight closed her eyes and took one long, deep breath. She exhaled slowly, ignoring the loud sounds and quaking world around her. Her eyes popped back open, her horn lit up, and the keys started to press in turn.

 

                “‘Twilight Sparkle quickly got to work on the typewriter,’” Twilight narrated aloud. “‘The room cracked and roared around her, ready to gobble her up under untold tons of stone, but nevertheless, she pressed on. She knew the end was near, but it was not to be the end that Cane had so viciously lobbied for. It was a different sort of end, a light at the end of a tunnel, a fresh sense of perspective on things.’”

 

                Overhead, massive splinters shot through the ceiling. A chunk of stone the size of a carriage dislodged itself from the mortar around it, and hurtled to the floor where Twilight and the typewriter sat.

 

                “‘The stone was coming in fast. Twilight steadied herself and did nothing. She had suddenly realized what all was really happening, and how to make it finally stop once and for all. It was a relatively simple thing, one that would come into play just as soon as the boulder found its target and–’”

 

****************************************

 

                “Are you alright, Twilight?” Fluttershy’s question was the first thing Twilight heard when she opened her eyes. She was crumpled in the corner of her bed, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. She blinked as a view of reality returned to her. The others looked at her from their sleeping bunks. The late-afternoon sun shone through the windows, while the rest of the world rushed by as the train moved steadily along. The motion of the train car and the clicking sound of the tracks provided further foundation for the scene.

 

                “Uh…” was all Twilight managed to get out at first. A few shakes of her head brought back some of her composure. “Uh, I’m… fine? Just a… just a bit of a… bad… dream?”

 

                “Bit nothing. My dear, you look as if you’ve had quite a shock.” Rarity’s eyes flashed with concern. “That’s certainly no way to begin a vacation.”

 

                Twilight shook her head again and stared around the car. Her friends continued to stare back. “I… I was… dreaming?”

 

                “You’ve already said that part,” Rarity noted. She levitated a small, monogrammed handkerchief over to Twilight’s forehead to dab some sweat away. “Not a good sign when you start to repeatedly babble.”

 

                Twilight pushed the handkerchief away and hopped onto the floor. She scurried back and forth along the corridor, studying every other pony closely as they went by. Out the window, she saw a grey sky whipping by over a tall mountain range.

 

                “Where are we going?” Twilight demanded. “What day is it? How long have we been traveling? How’s… Spike! Where is Spike?”

 

                “Whoa there, Twilight,” Applejack said, putting her hooves up. She rolled out of bed and stood next to Twilight. “No need to get into a fuss. Spike’s asleep, an’ he’s earned the rest, so don’t go shoutin’ too loud neither. We’re just goin’ to Canterlot right now. The Princess invited us all to the opening ceremonies for the winter season, you know that.”

 

                In the last bunk on the left, Pinkie Pie looked up, her eyes flashing with interest.

 

                “Nice–” she started to say, but Twilight swiftly jumped in.

 

                “Nice exposition, Applejack!” Twilight slid past Applejack and hurried up next to Pinkie. “That’s… that’s what you were going to say, right?”

 

                “Wow, good guess Twilight!” Pinkie said, her voice its usual perky self. “How’d you know? Ooh! Have you developed a Twilight Sense now? Because that would be way cool! You have to tell me how it works, unless you can’t, because that’s okay too. I know how it is with those sorts of things.”

 

                “What are you reading, Pinkie?” Twilight reached over and tipped the object out of Pinkie’s hooves. A thin, raggedy magazine fell to the floor, its bright and colorful cover facing up at Twilight. She read the title out loud. “Laugh-and-a-Half Brother’s Novelty Joke Catalog, Winter Special?”

 

                Pinkie bobbed her head in enthusiasm. “Just doing a little browsing. They have a store in Canterlot, and I want to see what I have to stock up on. Why? Do you need something too? Do you want me to recommend something? Because they have some really neat stuff out this year, including a brand new inflatable–”

 

                “Uh, no thanks Pinkie,” Twilight said, backing up a few steps. “Uh, sorry to, uh, bother you like that…”

 

                “No worries at all!” Pinkie scooped her magazine back up and went back to scanning through the pages with a smile on her face. Twilight slowly walked back over to her bunk and flopped down. Her gaze flickered to the small bundle of sheets in the bed across from her. A small scaly tail poked out one end, a few snores coming out the other.

 

                “You sure you’re alright, Twilight?” Rarity asked. “I know this trip was very last-minute, but I wouldn’t think that would cause you to act so… out of it.”

 

                “Believe me, I’m fine,” Twilight said. She hung her head and let out a long exhale. “It’s just been a very peculiar day so far.”

 

                A pause entered the conversation, and silence settled on the car. The only noise to be heard was the muffled clicking of the train tracks. The weather outside got progressively grayer as the cars travelled higher and higher into the mountains. Little dark specks moved around in the sky pushing clouds into place and kicking snowfall into gear. Twilight leaned her head against the window and smiled as she stared off into the distance.

 

                “…wait, is this it?” Dash spoke up. Twilight turned away from the window as all eyes went to Dash. “This is how it ends? It was all just a dream?”

 

                Twilight’s eyes widened, her breathing quickened. “What are you talking about?”

 

                “This thing here. You just change it so that everything that happened was a dream, and it’s all fine now?” Dash scratched her head, her voice sounding dismissive. “Seems like a pretty lame way to end it all.”

 

“Yeah, that does seem pretty half-baked to me,” Applejack said. “Not exactly the most entertainin’ way to end the story. It doesn’t even make a whole lotta sense, not with all that was said an’ done before now.”

 

“What…” Twilight shivered all over. “What are… how…”

 

“Um, I, um, agree,” Fluttershy added in. “Not that I liked how the story was going at all, but after all that, I don’t think this will, um, give any sort of closure to the reader.”

 

“I concur, Fluttershy. It’s just so done to death.” Rarity turned her attention to the other side of the train car. “What do you think, Pinkie?”

 

“Points for trying, Twilight!” Pinkie chirped. A single drop of blood forced its way out from her eye. “But it won’t be that easy, not no way, not no how.”

 

Twilight jumped out of bed, landing hard on the floor below. The others continued speaking around her, no longer addressing her personally or even acknowledging her presence. Twilight looked wildly at each one, her expression falling each time and more sweat flowing off her.

 

“Everypony, wait! I’ve got to…” Twilight gripped her head. “I’ve got to figure this out, I–”

 

The sound of screeching metal cut Twilight short. The train car lurched forward, tossing the occupants around in every direction. A large explosion ripped through the forward section of the car, turning every window into a shower of tiny shards. Twilight was thrown into the ceiling with enough force to dent it. She felt pain rip through her head and the warm drops of blood spill out of her nose. There were no screams in all the confusion, only the sound of more metal grinding against metal as the train continued to buck and crash.

 

The car twisted around again, and jerking Twilight out the nearest window. She sailed through the air, getting a quick glimpse of the wreckage of the train in the process, and landed sideways in a large bank of snow. The cold moved in as soon as she touched down and disappeared into the powder, hitting her with such a shock that her body completely froze up for several seconds. She sank deep into the white fold, her vision growing fuzzier and fuzzier while her legs numbed up.

 

Finally, she twitched and kicked forward. Flailing around, she pushed herself upward as fast as possible, ignoring the aches developing all over her body. It wasn’t long before one hoof poked free into open air. Her head followed suit shortly thereafter, and she took a long breath, the first one she’d had since she’d been ejected from the train.

 

Snow stretched out in every direction in a wide, hill-covered range. The mountains were gone, along with any sign of the train. The clouds in the sky had a much darker and stormier appearance, and wind screamed at her from every angle.

 

Back in… back in the Wastes?

 

Twilight worked to shake the excess snow from building up on her bruised face. Over the sounds of the storm, she heard shouting behind her. Flipping herself around, she saw four dark shapes approaching her from the white flurry.

 

                Hawks was the first to come into focus, steps ahead of the rest of his team. He ran straight up to Twilight without once staggering in the deep snow.

 

                “Miss Sparkle!” he shouted, his voice once again carrying over the storm with little effort. “Miss Sparkle! Are you alright?”

 

                “I’m… I don’t…” Twilight searched for words. Over her head, Hawks directed his teammates to check something over a nearby hill, then returned his attention to Twilight.

 

                “Just tell me what happened.” Hawks’ voice sounded soothing to Twilight. “Can you do that for me?”

 

                “I thought I fixed it, or I tried to fix it…” Twilight’s mouth hung open as she looked at the rolling hills of snow around her. She felt along her face and found that the blood from before had vanished, along with the pain. “I don’t know what’s happening…”

 

                “It’s just not a way to end things, Miss Sparkle,” Hawks said. “Either that way, or this way. It’s not going to work.”

 

                Twilight stared up at him, her expression getting even grimmer.

 

                “Don’t worry. You can still think of something.” Hawks leaned in and gave her a strong hug. “Please don’t give up. For all our sakes. Don’t give up.”

 

                Twilight felt the warmth radiating off of Hawks’ body. She sighed, her body sagging against the large stallion.

 

                “Get ready,” Hawks voice whispered to her. “It’s not over yet.”

 

                Beneath her hooves, Twilight felt the ground split in two. She slipped out of Hawks’ grip and down into the snowy hole. Hawks stared down after her as she fell, ignoring the hoof she put up.

 

                “Just have faith, Miss Sparkle!” he shouted after her. “You can do it!”

 

                Twilight fell further and further into the snow. Soon the hole at the top was just a dot in the distance, getting smaller and smaller until it disappeared altogether. The hole tightened around Twilight, pushing her forelegs up against her chest. She couldn’t see or hear anything, she was simply lost in a small space.

 

                Suddenly, light pushed through the darkness, and Twilight landed onto a hard surface. Shaking her head, her gaze was met with the closed ceiling of a small padded room. She straightened herself back up in time to see large metal door swing shut and lock her in. A small pane of glass sat on the upper half of the door, giving Twilight a look at the black number ten painted on the front and the two large ponies in white uniforms standing in the hall.

 

                “Now you’re going to stay in there until you learn to behave,” one of them said to her. Before she could respond, they both grinned at each other and turned to walk away. Twilight tried to stand and walk to the door, but found that she was bound tightly in a large strait jacket. Still, it was a small room, and Twilight made quick progress rolling forward and leaning up on her hind legs. Forcing herself the final steps to the door, she leaned up against the glass and watched the two leave.

 

                “Hey, get back here!” she shouted. “I’m not insane, you hear me? I’m not insane!”

 

                Her calls were quickly drowned out by a chorus from the neighboring cells.

 

                “Hey, I’m not if she’s not!”

 

                “I’m not crazy either! I’m just misunderstood!”

 

                “Let me out already! I won’t get mad anymore, I promise!”

 

                Catcalls rang throughout the hall. Twilight slid to one side and shut her eyes, lightly banging her head against the soft walls.

 

                “I’m not insane, I’m not insane…” she muttered, her voice ready to crack. Then she paused, sniffed, and looked up.

 

                “Wait, I know I’m not insane.” Clarity reentered her voice. “Why was I saying that? Where am I now, I don’t recognize this place…”

 

                Something shuffled around the cell behind her, and Twilight knew she wasn’t alone. She whipped around and was confronted by a dark shape lingering against the padding of the opposing wall. Though the light of the room made it hard to make out, it only took Twilight a few moments to figure out what it was.

 

                “This is a rotten way to end it,” she said, her tone dripping with contempt.

 

                The dark shape chuckled. “This isn’t the ending. You haven’t read it yet.”

 

                The shape rippled and lashed out at Twilight. She tried to dodge to one side, but couldn’t move fast enough. The shape grabbed her head, forced it around, and pushed it through the plate glass of the door. It shattered, tearing parts of her skin to ribbons and making her scream against the pain. The cell lights snapped out, and Twilight’s world blurred away.

 

****************************************

 

                Papers launched into the air as Twilight’s body sprang up. She gasped for breath and tried to stand, only to collapse back down to the floor. The throne room sprang up around her, the same as it was the last time she was there. Sugar Cane stood at its center, staring into Twilight’s eyes.

 

                “Are we quite finished?” he asked, tilting his head in Twilight’s direction. “I could’ve stopped it right away, but I felt it would be good for you to see that folly on for a bit. However, as amusing as that exercise was, I don’t think there was any reason for it to continue any longer.”

 

He brushed a few bits of dust off his jacket and turned to walk back towards his desk.

                

                “I don’t deal in twist endings, Twilight.” Cane took a seat and continued typing. The typewriter clicked obediently as his hooves danced across the keys. “There is no trick out of this. There is no last minute solution, no special portal or secret spell to make it all suddenly go away. What’s happening is happening, and can’t happen any other way.”

 

                Twilight looked around. The crater she created by sending Cane flying into the wall was still there; another piece of plaster crumbled to pieces as she looked on.

 

                “You recovered quickly.” Twilight groaned and sat back up. She felt aches and pains in all her limbs, even though she was back to her previously healthy state.

 

                “I think you’ll find your magic to be a bit less effective on things that don’t normally exist in this realm.” Cane smirked and glanced up from the page. “But you’ve already had experience with that, haven’t you?”

 

                Twilight grunted and worked her way back up to her hooves. “Always a way…”

 

                “My control is absolute. I think, therefore you are, and yet you still have doubt,” Cane said.

 

He gestured to the walls around him. “Another demonstration perhaps? Here, have an easy one. Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?”

 

                Twilight blinked, and the room transformed itself. Every square inch of surface in the room was a dark shade of solid blue, from the ceiling to the windows to the floor. The hole in the wall was gone, along with the large doors leading to the outer hall. Only blank walls remained to trap the two of them in.

 

                Twilight shook off the sudden change in scenery and stared down Cane. “Parlor tricks with the room, ‘allowing’ me to try to change things… you’re stalling. You don’t stall unless you’re trying to put something off or work something out… something going wrong, is it? What do you need the extra time for?”

 

                “Always looking for the logic,” Cane said, returning his attention to his typing.

 

                “Maybe it’s because part of you is trying to put it off. You say you’re not all pony anymore, but that means some of you still is.”

 

“Always trying to rationalize. You can’t grasp the full scale of things–”

 

“And if that part is still there, he’s still trying to fight against the rest of you, because he doesn’t want to bring about the complete destruction Equestria.”

 

                “–and just where we are at it!” Cane snapped with a hint of venom in his tongue that made Twilight jump. He slammed the carriage to the side and pulled the paper out, placing it on top of the stack.

 

                “There. All done.” Cane motioned over the pages, flicking slowly through the stack. “Every word typed and checked, ready for my new publishers to experience.”

 

                “Come on, enough of that,” Twilight urged. “Nopony acts like this from the beginning, and nopony can just give up to the end of days. There’s got to be some part of you, any part, that–”

 

                “I can see you are not fully appreciating the situation,” Cane cut in, rising from his seat. “So I suppose I will have to force the matter more forcefully.”

 

                Moving faster than Twilight could anticipate, Cane stepped around the desk and faced Twilight directly.

 

                “I said magic here had no effect on something like me, something that’s so far outgrown Equestrian boundaries, and that’s true.” Cane tapped his forehead and pointed to Twilight. “But it should work just fine on you.”

 

                Twilight instinctively stepped back. Her horn lit up again, flashing a vibrant violent in Cane’s direction.

 

Cane laughed at the sight. “Very pretty. I think I’ll finally take this opportunity to see how the other third lives.”

 

                He closed his eyes. A black field of energy materialized around him, spinning around in a dozen different directions and sending off tiny sparks of energy. The field expanded outward briefly, then pulled in, growing smaller and smaller until it was localized directly over his eyes. It stayed there briefly, and then sank down through his skin. As soon as it did, a bump appeared in the same spot. It pressed outward with a fine point until a unicorn horn ripped through and rose into position. The skin healed behind it, and seconds after the whole process started, it was over. Cane opened his eyes, his new horn looking slick in the room’s blue light.

 

                Twilight’s horn flared up. She fired another burst of purple energy at Cane, only for him to push back with a faint black burst of his own. It sliced right through Twilight’s blast and struck her upside the head. She fell to the floor, clutching the sides of her skull and writhing in agony.

 

                “Mmmmmm… I can certainly see the appeal in one of these.” Cane’s nostrils flared. He stepped steadily towards Twilight. “You know that feeling, Twilight? You’ve had it before. It’s the feeling of the other side, of Equestrian magic being put in its place by the higher power of the old ones. You can’t fight it.”

 

                Twilight shoved her hooves down and forced herself back up. She glared at Cane with a look of pure, white-hot fury.

 

                “Come now, Twilight,” Cane said, indicating to the wall behind him. As Twilight watched, a tall set of double doors sprouted up out of the ground, growing taller and taller until they reached the ceiling. “Time to see just what I’ve been waiting for: the perfect view.”

 

                Cane’s horn shimmered black. Before Twilight had a chance to react, a dark magical bubble surrounded her body. She grimaced as the energy pushed against her, sending powerful shocks through her mind. The sphere picked her up and fired her across the room, sending her crashing through the double doors. Cane ambled on behind her, the stack of papers from his desk levitating dutifully by his side.

 

                Twilight slid several meters along the floor into the long, thin corridor. The sphere vanished by the time she stopped, but it took her a few seconds to clear her head enough to stand back up. She was met with a sight of her staring back; a massive mirror covered the entire wall in front of her. Twilight looked over her reflection’s shoulder and saw that an equally-massive window stretched across the opposing wall. She turned around slowly, taking in the vast vista and all it had to offer.

 

                Equestria was laid out before her. The dark night sky and snow-covered ground made it difficult to see very far, but Twilight was able to make out most of it. The mountain range stretched out to one side and dropped down in the immediate foreground, giving way to a wide valley. A bright orange speck down below marked Ponyville, which continued suffering from the unchecked fire that continued to gut the town from within. A second dot next to it marked the mirroring blaze in the Everfree Forest. As her eyes swept over the land, she made out more and more similarly orange glows. Fires broke out everywhere, with town after town going up in flames.

 

                Cane stepped into the hall behind her. “Breathtaking, isn’t it? A celebratory blaze in every city, and bonfires on every block. The hard work of some of my most loyal and grateful fans.”

 

                “I… I saw that devotion up close,” Twilight said. She worked hard to control the waver in her voice. “I don’t think they’re going to be doing much reading anymore, though.”

 

                “A good fanbase always finds a way to adapt beyond the original medium.”

 

Cane stepped up to the window next to Twilight. His head panned from one end of the window to the other; when he finished surveying the view, he smiled. “Even when they don’t know what’s coming next. None of them do, not really. Though I’m confident they’ll love it.”

 

                “I think you’ve just developed an audience that’s easy to please.” Twilight gazed up at the ceiling over Cane’s head. A large, heavy chandelier swung uneasily back and forth, still limber from an earlier tremor. Twilight focused on it; a small purple bubble appeared around its heavy chain, and with a quick flash, the chain broke in half. The chandelier plummeted to the floor, only to be thrust aside by a dark wall of light at the last moment.

 

                Cane turned and looked down at Twilight. His eyes beamed under his glowing horn.

 

                “Right angle, wrong direction,” he said. “Let me help you with that.”

 

                Dark fields snapped up around Twilight’s jaw. The pain rocketed back into her head, but the field kept her mouth shut and her cries silenced. Slowly, the fields turned her head back towards the window. She struggled against it as best she could, but was unable to escape from its grip. Soon she found herself staring up at the night sky.

 

                “They’re here…” Cane murmured. “Can you see?”

 

                It took Twilight’s eyes a minute to adjust to the low light. Then she saw it. Clouds blanketed the sky, just as before, but now they were completely and totally flat. Not a single lump billowed out of place, leaving an immaculately smooth surface that stretched out to every horizon. Then, starting at the center of the sky but quickly expanding outward, the clouds lit up. The churning darkness gave way to a dim gray shine, and from there to a point brighter still.

 

                The light encompassed everything. For a shining instant, the whole of Equestria was illuminated for Twilight as a great, snow-covered landscape. Then the instant passed, and the shine receded into the clouds. Though the light was too bright for Twilight to look directly at it, its rays didn’t extend far down from the sky, and much of the land was once again bathed in darkness.

 

                A dark shape lumbered against the shine. A second one pushed past it, then a third and a fourth. Soon the shapes were everywhere, writhing around within the lit cloud cover. One of the shapes slithered out from the rest, and guided itself down to the ground. The fields around Twilight’s jaw were gone now; she didn’t need any outside help to keep her transfixed on what she was seeing.

 

                It was a tentacle of awe-inspiring proportions. Dozens of miles long and with a girth as wide as a city block, with pulsing scales of sickly-green and a series of relatively tiny spikes running along one side. As it approached the ground, its tip split off into a series of progressively smaller appendages, each of which guided themselves to a different part of Ponyville. When they reached the town, the floodgates opened in the sky. A hundred tentacles of identical size and texture broke through the cloud bank and rushed towards the cold ground below. Many aimed for the burning cities, while others angled off to the darker spots.

 

                A roar rose up from the valley. Cries and calls of every possible origin echoed through the cold night air, a symphony of screams as every resident of Equestria shrieked in pure horror. Overhead, the many tentacle ends joined up into one gargantuan mass. It shoved its way through the remaining fragments of the overcast to reveal a creature of impossible scale. Eyes flicked open all along its slimy skin, while a pair of jaws the size of a mountain top snapped open into a mouth of vibrating teeth and tongues.

 

                “Ah, now there’s a special sight.” Cane pointed to a small spot near the far mountains. Tiny black shapes flocked up en masse to meet the nearest falling monstrosity. Jets of flame, miniscule compared to their foe, fired out of their mouth at every opportunity.

 

                “They never did know when to quit. Actually, it’s quite fortunate that ponies managed to take control in this period. Had dragons risen up as the dominant force, we may have had a serious problem on our hooves… so to speak. But, even with all their lore and legends passed down, all those secrets that they clung to, they grew decadent in our absence. Clung to their territories and gorged on their treasures. Now whatever harm they can do is merely superficial. Pathetic, really. But, what can you do. Now, where was I…”

 

                Over next to Cane, the top sheet on the floating stack of papers separated itself from the others and hovered in front of his face. With a slight pause to catch his breath, he began narrating the page.

 

                “‘Twilight stared at the devastation in silence, her mind not wanting to accept what she could plainly see was true. She wanted to scream, but no sound escaped her throat, so the Old One in the sky screamed for her. It unleashed a volley of pained cries that shattered the bonds of reality, screeching louder and louder until it reached an ear-splitting crescendo of misery that rocked Equestria to its very core. Then the cries died away, as they were but a brief precursor of the sounds of the pain and desolation that the world’s inhabitants would soon encounter for themselves. She watched some try to flee, others try to fight, but it made no difference. All were soon consumed into a void of infinite suffering. Twilight stayed here, in this spot, until her end came. It didn’t take long as more and more of the others came up into the world. In light of her place in the great change, for all she had done to get here, they granted her a quick death instead of a spot amongst the forsaken. It was the least they could do. With that, the final blip of abject resistance finally wiped out, the absolute end arrived. And then there was nothing. Nothing but them.’”

 

                Cane looked up from the page. Twilight sat motionless in front of the window, her eyes locked forward. He smiled, letting the story drop to the floor.

 

                “That’s just Equestria’s end, Twilight.” He spoke with a hushed air, barely audible over the din outside. “Yours is included there, but even I can’t say those specifics. We all perceive it differently, and as for what you’ll see when the walls come down and the final moments are upon you… well, I hope I was accurate when I said they’ll make it quick.”

 

                Twilight kept staring out.

 

                …Twilight, move your head. Move it. Turn away, kick a hoof, do something

 

                Behind the two of them, the mirror on the wall lit up. No glare appeared on the window, even as the mirror’s reflection disappeared into a light as bright as the sun. In a few spots, the flat surface bulged outward, pushed by something unseen.

 

                Cane turned and looked into the light, using a hoof to shield his eyes. “Here they are now, then. Come for you. Come to… turn me fully…”

 

                Ignore him, ignore whatever he says, you’re not about to just limply sit here and do nothing, come on…

 

                Cane moved towards the mirror, reaching out to touch it. “I’ve wondered what was on the other side. Wondered where they spent so much time waiting. What sort of things they can see over there.”

 

                You know what’s happening, you know what’s supposed to happen. You can change it. Don’t give up, don’t give up, always a way, always a way…

 

                “Always wondered. And yet…” Just before his hoof touched the edge of the light, Cane pulled back. He looked on a second longer, then turned and moved back next to Twilight. “My place is here. I know this. It always will be, even as I morph beyond this pony body. Every god has a kingdom, and there he must remain.”

 

                Push, fight, don’t give up, fight it, after everything that’s happened, just don’t give up…

 

                Cane glanced down over himself, sliding a hoof along his shoulders.

 

                “I suppose they’ll let me decide the final outcome here,” he speculated aloud. “To know when to flip that switch, push out the remnants of life once and for all–”

 

                Fight it, fight it, FIGHT IT!

 

                “–I’d say I’ve earned that. Wouldn’t you, Twilight?”

 

                Cane glanced down at Twilight in time to catch sight of her rear right hoof rushing up to meet him. It connected with his jaw, producing a crack loud enough to echo throughout the hallway. Cane fell to his back, pushed by enough force to send him against the small section of wall barely visible under the mirror.

 

                Twilight stretched her back out as she brought her leg back from the kick and stood up. “That’s not your place to decide,” she said softly.

                

                Cane gurgled, a few broken teeth falling out from his mouth. He looked at Twilight with an expression of pure disbelief.

 

                “You… you can’t move,” he managed to get out. “You can’t… change a-anything… n-not n-n-now…”

 

                Twilight moved forward across the hall. Explosions rippled through the background, shaking the ground to the point where she had trouble standing. Crashing rock and a muffled impact beyond the walls signified other towers in the castle falling to pieces. One of the tentacles from the sky changed course, turning right towards the wide window.

 

                “I’m still here. There’s always a way to change things in a story if the protagonist is still around,” Twilight said. “That’s how stories work. You should know that.”

 

Another chandelier came crashing down to the floor. Twilight kept moving, ignoring the pieces of flying crystal that came her way.

 

                Cane attempted to stand, but couldn’t get more than halfway up. He rubbed his forehead, taking great pains to draw in every breath.

 

                “It’s… it’s already been w-written,” he garbled. “That’s… t-that’s all there–”

 

                “No. Not all there is. Not yet.” Twilight looked up past Cane, staring into the mirror. Behind her, the tentacle drew even closer. It picked up speed with each passing second, coming towards the castle as a great dark force of energy.

 

                Cane stifled a gasp as he watched Twilight lower her stance and flex her rear legs.

 

                “No… no!” he shouted, spitting out another mouthful of blood. “It’s… that won’t… you can’t!”

 

                “Time to take the fight away from here,” Twilight said. She bowed her head and closed her eyes. “Somewhere where it can actually do something… I hope…”

 

                Twilight leapt forward right as the great window behind her imploded. The tentacle rushed in to fill the room, breaking out into endless streams of flesh that fired after Twilight at a lightning pace. Cane slumped his way up until he finally stood at his full height. His horn glowed a faint level of black, but he couldn’t get a spell off in time. Right before the tentacle surged in and flooded the room entirely, Twilight collided with Cane, forcing him through the mirror along with her, where they disappeared into the bright light.


Chapter 11: Lasting Conclusions

 

                Twilight Sparkle drifted into darkness.

The light from the mirror receded swiftly behind her. Twilight felt like she was floating downward, but couldn’t be sure. She kicked her legs to no effect. Her body was sluggish and weak, and it wasn’t long before she tired herself out with random flailing. Her path remained unaffected by how she swung herself about. Calming herself down, she instead lit her horn in an effort to see farther ahead. The light vanished as quickly as it appeared, and Twilight gripped her forehead in pain.

 

                I guess this place isn’t a fan of my magic either…

 

                She peered out ahead of her. There were no shapes she could make out anywhere, nor any sources of light or stability. She glanced behind her, and saw that the mirror had become a tiny prick in the distance. Sugar Cane was nowhere to be found. Twilight had lost track of him when she knocked him through the light, and hadn’t seen or heard anything since.

 

An endless void expanded out in every direction, and Twilight could do nothing but tumble through it. All alone into the gaping maw of the unknown.

 

                Time moved at an immeasurable pace, losing its definition the farther she went. There was no frame of reference for Twilight to know how long she had been falling. Eventually, she bowed her head and concentrated.

 

                I jumped through the mirror… how long ago? An hour, more? Less? It feels like it’s only been a few seconds, but that can’t be right, I know it’s not right, I’ve done too much moving around for it to have only been a few seconds… It doesn’t matter, I don’t think… right now, I want to know when it got so cold in here…

 

                Twilight rubbed her chest, willing some warmth to run through her body. It was too dark for her to even see her hooves in front of her face. She sighed and closed her eyes.

 

                Think this through… you’re in their world, and those things make too many eyes for themselves to be stuck in the dark all the time. Unless they just evolve what they need when they need it, if they come from a place where you just have to think it in… then, could I do that? If all I needed was a solid place to touch down, to get my bearings for a second, could I just–

 

                Twilight’s thoughts were interrupted by her unceremonious landing on a patch of sand. She rolled forward on impact, falling forward over a dune and down a small incline until she finally came to a stop. She sat up to spit the sand out of her mouth.

                

                Alright, that made sense.

 

Clearing her head, she looked around her newfound locale. There was light here, though from where she couldn’t say. Wherever she turned, it always managed to come in from behind her. Standing up, she saw that she was on a small, round island. It was made entirely of sand, with a small hill in the center where she had touched down. An inky black ocean surrounded it. Water lapped gently onto the shore in a steady rhythm.

 

                Twilight glanced up. The sky was a dark violet color, only slightly more visible than the water below. The light from the mirror twinkled like a lonely star. Bringing her head back down, Twilight walked in a wide loop around the island. A small, misshapen lump on the opposing side caught her eye, and she wandered over towards it. As she approached, the object lurched forward and shivered, revealing the shape of a very thin figure. Twilight froze, listening to the figure wheeze and cough. She could only see the back of it. After studying it for a few moments she saw that it was wearing a very tattered black coat.

 

                “…Sugar Cane?” Twilight said. The sound of her voice pushed unnaturally through the air.

 

                The figure turned and met her eyes.

 

                “T-Tw…Twilight S-S-Sparkle…” he wheezed. His voice was faint, a far cry from the boisterous tone he had put on back in the throne room. He tried to turn his body towards Twilight, but only managed to turn himself halfway around before he fell forward onto his stomach.

 

                “What… happened to you?” Twilight asked. She studied Cane closely. In addition to his mangled trench coat, his hair was a shredded mess of bald patches and knotted ends. He was emaciated to the point of sickliness. His legs, now little more than skin and bone, shook as he tried to support himself. Wrinkles crisscrossed his face, aging his appearance considerably. His horn was gone; a small scab marked the spot on his forehead where it had once jutted out.

 

                “The p-p-part of me that agreed w-with… with this p-place… didn’t s-s-stick around,” Cane said. He paused to give in to a small coughing fit, offering Twilight a weak smile when it cleared up. “Seems you w-were r-r-right about s-something after all. There was still a little p-pony in me… physically s-speaking, at least.”

 

                “Forgive me if I’m still not on your side,” Twilight replied. She turned away from Cane and walked towards the waterline. She peered out towards the horizon, her eyes peeled for any irregularities.

 

                “Now then…” she murmured to herself. “What do I do now?”

 

                Cane rolled over, aiming his head towards Twilight while he continued his efforts to stand up. “You s-shouldn’t h-have come here. You d-don’t b-belong he–”

 

                “Waiting back there would’ve resulted in my death, or being wiped from existence, or whatever it was that was ‘written’ for me. In here is definitely better than the alternative,” Twilight snapped. She shot a glare in Cane’s direction as he pulled himself upright.

 

                “There’s n-nothing you… you c-can d-do,” Cane insisted. “I t-tried once. Really, I d-d-did. Long ago. It didn’t t-take. What’s h-happening is h-h-happ–”

 

                “Is happening, and couldn’t happen any other way. Yeah. You told me already.” Twilight rolled her eyes and brought her attention back to the sea. “Well, I aim to change that. Because, if I may be blunt, your story sucks.”

 

                “W-what do y-you think you can d-do?” Cane said, his tone growing sharper.

 

                “It’s like you said. I’m the lead here.” Twilight’s voice softened, and her shoulders sagged. “I’ve… I’ve got to try something. I think I can…”

 

                “Bah. Useless s-sentiment n-now, nothing m-more,” Cane scoffed. “What d-do you know, a-anyway? If I said I c-couldn’t s-stop it, if I’m the one who p-planed it all out, then that’s th-that. End of story.”

 

                “Of course you couldn’t change anything.” Twilight turned and shrugged at Cane. “You’re just the writer. What do you know, anyway?”

 

                Cane’s eyes twitched at Twilight’s words. He opened his mouth to respond, only to be silenced by the hoof she put up. Twilight stiffened, perking her ears up and looking all around.

 

                “Hang on…” she said slowly. “I think I can hear… something…”

 

                Twilight stared at the blank sky. It looked the same as it always did, a murky field of velvet that reached in every direction.

 

                It’s a kind of slithering noise… nothing else on the island, doesn’t sound like something in the water, must be something in the air… but there’s nothing up there. Anywhere.

 

Twilight squinted her eyes, letting them adjust to the low light. As her gaze swept past the blip that was the mirror light, it abruptly switched out. She focused on the spot, now as dark as the rest of the sky.

 

                Something on the other side cause that? No, wait, it looks like something passed in front of–

 

                Twilight gasped. The source of the noise came into focus over her.

 

                Half the sky was no sky at all. It was something in motion, identical in color and characteristic to the void beyond it; the smooth, featureless belly of a creature whose size knew no boundaries. The water gave nary a ripple to this great beast, and not a single grain of sand was pushed out of place. With a little effort, Twilight could make out the nearly invisible line separating its front from the rest of the sky. It slid past Twilight at a sluggish but steady pace, headed to a destination as yet unseen.

 

                …That’s a big one…

 

                Another cough behind her. Twilight turned to see Cane staring up at the same sight. He glanced down at her, motioning to the creature.

 

                “Well, there’s one n-now,” he said with a smirk. “Your move, Twilight.”

 

                Twilight narrowed her eyes and turned away from it. Focusing her horn up towards the front of the creature, Twilight took a deep breath and dug her hooves into the sand.

 

                Steady, Twilight… be ready for the pain, you can take it… and… fire!

 

                A burst of light purple energy launched out of Twilight’s horn. She cried out and recoiled in shock, rubbing her forehead as a buzzing pain bounced around inside. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the projectile streak through the air with a vivid intensity. It sailed on towards the edge, taking more time than Twilight expected, until it finally exploded with a small bloom of light at an infinitesimal spot on the creature’s belly. Twilight braced herself.

 

                Nothing happened. The creature kept right on moving like nothing had happened.

 

                Twilight frowned and scratched her chin. “Guess I’ll need something bigger than–”

 

                She cut herself off at the sound of splashing in the water nearby.  Small waves made their way to the island and broke along the shore in knee-high crests. Twilight stared over the sea, her eyes perked for the slightest movement. Dimly, she made out a large circular object break through the surface and rise quickly into the air.

 

                Even in the dark, Twilight could tell it was another creature. It was impossible to see any fine detail on it, but she could make out its silhouette. A round lump formed the head, with a slender and wavy body extending down from it. Under the head, twin stalks broke out of opposite sides and unrolled down to the top of the water, forming a pair of long, spindly arms.

 

Soon, the creature stopped rising. Its head tilted down towards the island. There were no eyes to be seen, but there was no mistaking who it was looking at. Silence returned as it stood motionless. The sound of the beast in the sky was muted, though it continued to roll forward unabated.

 

Twilight gulped. Large drops of an unknown substance spilled off the creature’s back and dripped down to the sea, but otherwise it didn’t respond.

 

“Hey! Um, I’m… um…” Twilight stammered. Her eyes searched up and down the creature, trying in vain to get a better look at it.

 

“Interloper.”

 

The creature’s voice came thundering in at Twilight from every direction. It made her shudder as though she was stuck in the middle of a storm cloud. “Who are you? You do not belong here.”

 

There was a deep guttural quality to the voice, one that lingered in the air long after the sound of the words faded away.

 

A second splash sounded out, and a second creature appeared. This one was considerably smaller, and shaped like a reverse tear drop. It scurried up the side of the larger creature, moving with dozens of freshly sprouted legs.

 

Cane watched the creature’s ascent, and smiled. “I was w-wondering where my b-better half went.”

 

The small creature hissed. It paused at the halfway point to the giant’s head, and turned to Twilight. “It’s from the outside! It seeks to put an end to the change! It thinks it has the power to stop us!”

 

A rumble broke through the air, originating from the large creature. One of its mighty appendages flicked upward, catching the smaller creature on the side and pressing it down. Small black lines shot out from the giant’s chest and wrapped around the small creature, pulling it in tight. Within moments, it vanished completely. Another rumble broke through the air.

 

“Twilight Sparkle,” the giant boomed without a hint of emotion. “Why have you come? Your goal is unobtainable. You will not succeed.”

 

“I’m getting really sick and tired of hearing that! I’m gonna put a stop to all of this madness, for good.” Twilight shouted back. The stammer was gone from her voice, replaced with a slowly building rage. Her legs stayed straight as iron under her, never wavering in the slightest.

 

Cane let out a wheezy laugh that quickly deteriorated into another coughing fit. “T-t-tenacious, aren’t we?”

 

“There is nothing to stop now,” the voice replied. “We have moved in. We have reclaimed what is ours. The struggle is over. Only you remain. You are too late.”

 

“You’re wrong,” Twilight said. “I can defeat you. Everything you’ve done… none of it will last, none of it will matter. None of it is even real.”

 

There was a pause. Then a loud, cracking sound echoed around the island, like a series of trees being splintered in half one by one. The creature rocked back and forth, pushing more small waves onto the island. Twilight cocked her head as she looked on.

 

It’s… laughing?

 

“You are alone here,” the creature finally said. “You are helpless. You are not even worth our time now, except to crush and be finished with.”

 

Twilight gritted her teeth and lit her horn up. The buzzing returned in force to her head, but this time she didn’t react. The light stayed long enough to expel a powerful, purple burst. The bolt of energy lit up the creature’s chest as it rushed by. For a fraction of a second, Twilight was able to get a good, clear look at it.

 

She forced her gag reflex down to keep from vomiting.

 

The beam collided with the top of the creature’s head. The loud cracking sound vanished, and was immediately replaced with another loud rumbling. This one was much more concentrated than the last one, and went on for much longer.

 

The island rocked back and forth. Sand scattered into the water, which churned and bubbled all along the shoreline. Suddenly the entire mass lifted up into the air. Twilight fought to stay upright as she rose higher and higher. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cane roll forward towards the edge, pulled along by draining sand. He shot Twilight one last look as he passed. The smile was gone, replaced by a thin frown and the faintest hint of empathy in his eyes. His shoulders gave a limp shrug, and he tumbled over the edge. Twilight heard a distant splash a few seconds later.

 

The island climbed even higher, going straight for the creature’s head. Twilight pushed her hooves out, getting back into a determined stance. Her stare was one of pure defiance as it looked up at the creature. It let out a low growl, but she ignored it.

 

“You got your power from those old stories and from those who believed them,” she said. “You used that to get into Equestria. Bits and pieces of you could stay over there on their own, work on their own, but for all of you to be able to do everything, you needed that power boost. You needed that belief.”

 

“Only to get in,” the voice responded. Twilight swore she heard a twinge of annoyance in its words. “Once we arrived, we had no further use for your kind. We dealt with them in turn.”

 

What little remained of the island stopped rising into the air. Twilight didn’t move as the sand around her hooves fell away to uncover a ground of smooth, green scales.

 

“Wrong again!” Twilight shouted. “You need that belief. Always have, always will. You need it to make you real, and to keep you real. Without that belief, you are nothing at all.”

 

One of Twilight’s hooves started shaking, and she quickly stamped down to steady it.

 

Go for it. It’s the only argument that can work now.

 

“I’m the lead in Equestria’s story. I’m the one who guides it to where it needs to go. Right now, I represent its reality. The true reality. And right now, I’m done believing. This little piece of pulp writing is over. Time for fantasy to go back to dreamland, where it belongs. Where it stays.”

 

“It doesn’t work that way anymore,” the creature shot back. “This is not a simple sto–”

 

“That’s all it’s ever been.”

 

Twilight saw the creature twitch as she cut in. The corners of her mouth curled up into a small grin. “It may have been a pretty convincing little tale for a while, but so are those ghost stories we tell around the campfire. But here’s the thing: they always end. And this one’s ending. Now. I’m done with it.”

 

                The wet, moldy twang of snapping muscles emitted from the creature’s face. A small spot of black appeared, this one an even darker shade than the rest of its body. The head drew back and unleashed an ear-splitting roar right at Twilight. The force of the yell physically pushed her back, forcing her near the edge. She stood her ground against the audio blast, never giving way to the powerful noise.

 

                “You are nothing now. Absolutely nothing!” the creature screeched. “Your time has passed. Your story is irrelevant. You are our fantasy. We are the reality now.”

 

                “Oh yeah?” Twilight braced herself. “Prove it. Make me disappear, like the nothing that I am.”

 

                There was a flash of movement. Both the creature’s long arms shot up, pulling back high in the air. Past them, Twilight saw the enormous mass in the sky shift directions. It turned on its axis and aimed right for the giant creature and Twilight below it. A dull red glow appeared along its underside, lighting the sky up in a fire that burned like a thousand sunsets. Twilight saw a legion of eyes flick open with the light. Each and every one of them stared right back at her.

 

                Twilight’s horn burned brightly in the dark. She fired out three bursts of magic, each aimed at the creature’s head. It screeched at their impacts and brought the arms down at a ferocious pace. Gray fields of energy, identical to the ones Twilight saw Cane produce, emerged on the tip of each arm like a pair of medieval maces.

 

                The bludgeon’s aim was true, and they simultaneously crashed down on target. A huge burst of light and color expanded out on impact, and the arms wavered back. Slowly, very slowly, the grey fields pulled back to reveal a small purple bubble sitting dead center on the shattered remains of the towering island.

 

                Twilight’s eyes were barely open as she fought back the pain. The buzzing occupied her skull so loudly she couldn’t hear herself think. Her legs bent and wobbled, her hooves slipping around on the slick surface. Still, her horn remained lit and the force field active.

 

                “I. Am not. A piece of fiction,” Twilight grunted. “I am real. What I do is real. What’s happening to me now, the buzzing in my head, the gray energy working to counteract my magic… that’s not real.”

 

                Twilight let loose a long exhale and relaxed her muscles. Her body ceased trembling, and she stood up straight with little effort. Her eyes opened all the way. Her head tilted back, looking past the pressing arms and up to the creature and the falling mass beyond it.

 

                “I know what’s real. The love of my friends and family, the magic of Equestria and everypony who lives there… that’s what’s real. That’s all that’s real. That’s what counts.”

 

                “Meaningless rabble…” The creature’s voice grew strained. It pushed down even harder with the arms. Overhead, the mass came lumbering down and closed up on all sides, trapping Twilight and the creature in a gigantic red ball. Twilight’s eyes glazed over the hideous deformities and loose appendages of the illuminated creature.

 

                It won’t get to you now. It’s just an empty threat now. Relax.

 

                A wide, earnest grin broke out on Twilight’s face. “It doesn’t matter if it’s sappy or cliché. That’s the point of it all, even. It all exists in the actual reality. The one you don’t belong in. Maybe you are real, somewhere. There are lots of stories out here. But you’re not real here. Not in Equestria’s reality. The one where you don’t fit, where you have no place at all, and the one that I’m going back to.”

 

                “You speak of nonsense and hollow sentimentality!” the creature yelled at Twilight, its voice shaking even the great red mass. “You can stall all you want with your flimsy magic tricks, but it makes no difference! We’ve won! We will trap you in this place until your consciousness ceases to be. Long after the skin has rotted from your flesh, and your bones have turned to dust, long after you will beg for death, all the way until time immemorial! You are nothing! You are finished!”

 

                Twilight’s smile grew bigger with each passing moment. “No. You are. This little crossover attempt of yours? It’s over. Time for it to fade away, like a bad dream when you wake up in the morning. You want to stick around? Time to put your dependence on belief to the test one last time.”

 

                Another loud screech pounded at Twilight. She didn’t even flinch. Her purple shield shimmered.

 

                “Your magic… it won’t save you,” the creature growled. “We can break it. We always could.”

 

                Twilight couldn’t hold back anymore. She laughed, loud and proud.

 

                “There’s more than magic here.  Because you’re right, my magic alone can’t hurt you. This is something else. It’s my very being fighting back. It’s the one thing fantasy can’t stand up to under any circumstances. Because like I said before… I’m the last real thing in here.”

 

Her laughter fading away, Twilight narrowed her eyes. “And now, I believe it’s time for you to go away.”

 

                Twilight bowed her head. She heard the creature roar again, felt the last remnants of the island shake under her hooves, sensed the red walls closing in with every bit of strength it could put forth. She breathed deep and channeled all her remaining energy into her horn.

 

                A purple field expanded out of Twilight’s horn, followed swiftly by an even more intense white light. The light pushed out in every direction to become a massive ball of energy. It swept out over the creature, past the great red mass, and out further beyond. Twilight kept shoving her magic out as hard as she could.

 

The light was all-encompassing. It absorbed the pained cries of fearsome beasts and giant monsters, ripping through their thick scales and breaking their sharp claws in two. Still the light expanded. Even with her eyes shut, Twilight’s vision was a wall of white against the brightness. The shaking around her increased tenfold, jolting her down to her bones. Eventually she started screaming, not out of fear or concern, but from the surge of emotions coming into her in the moment. The noise and light wrapped together all around her, reaching for a climax that would shatter worlds.

 

Just hold strong, wait for the end… whatever it is, wait it out. Hold strong, hold strong–

 

****************************************

 

Twilight opened her eyes to a stark-white abyss. She was lying on her back, though she didn’t remember ever falling down. She rolled over to pick herself up, and noticed that she wasn’t standing on anything. She felt a resistance under her hooves from something supporting her, but there wasn’t anything there. There was plenty of light, none of it blindingly so, but it didn’t help her see anything. Whichever way she looked, there was nothing but empty space.

 

                Twilight took a few steps forward. She felt the momentum with each step, but it was impossible to tell if she was actually going anywhere. Her hooves made no sound as she walked. The only thing she heard was her heart beating in her chest. She looked around carefully. Her horn lit up and lobbed a small bolt of light in a random direction. She watched the bolt go farther and farther away, finally vanishing in the distance.

 

                “Hello?” Twilight called out. No echo returned to her. She did a quick turn, only to be met by the same sight as always.

 

                Twilight eased herself back, sitting down on whatever floor was there. She scratched her chin as her eyes continued to sweep over her surroundings.

 

                Did I… win?

 

                Another field of light appeared around her horn. She sent a dozen more bolts in each direction, following each one to its very end to look for any kind of impact. Still nothing.

 

                If I got rid of those things, than am I… still somewhere else?

 

                Twilight rolled onto her back and sighed.

 

                I know I won. I must’ve won. I was right.

 

                “So…” she muttered. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

 

                Well, think it out… suppose that, even after what you did, you didn’t… save Equestria. Everypony’s still…

 

                “Would’ve been a big waste of time then,” she grumbled. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes grew moist. “…that wouldn’t be fair at all.”

 

                No… no! Wait, wait… hang on a moment. So Equestria’s gone, because you didn’t get a chance in time to do anything. But now those other things are gone. That story’s over, right?

 

                “Right…” Twilight sat up, her eyebrows rising. “So it’s just me. I’m the last remaining bit of reality.”

 

                And as the last bit of real