Twilight Sparkle couldn’t sleep. She was used to her bed in Ponyville’s library, surrounded by the faint rustling of leaves and Spike’s soft, wheezing snore. Inside Sweet Apple Acres’ barn she had neither of these to comfort her. While there were real beds in the house proper, she’d insisted that the group was better off staying together while they slept, a decision she was now starting to regret. She spent half an hour rolling back and forth on the pile of straw she’d been given before giving up and rising to stretch her legs. Of the ten beds they’d put together only two were currently occupied, both by members of the Apple family. The only noise came from the soft breathing of her two friends and the dirt under her own hooves.
A thick plank of wood lay across the inside of the barn door, held up by two supports nailed hastily but firmly into place; Big Macintosh had done a fine job, under the circumstances. Twilight levitated the improvised lock away and rested it soundlessly against the wall. Even having come this far, it took a few seconds for her to muster the nerve to raise a hoof and push the red door open.
The unicorn winced at the sound, freezing in place and listening closely. There was no noise from outside, but one of the faint snores from nearby had stopped. “Where ya goin’, Twilight?” Applejack mumbled.
“Just getting some air,” Twilight whispered back. “I’ll be back soon.” Applejack looked at her suspiciously, momentarily afraid, but put her head down and went straight back to sleep. Twilight sighed and took a step outside.
The air was cool and crisp, chilled by pegasi to perfection in preparation for a winter that had never come. Inside the barn it had been quiet, but out here the silence was deafening. Not a bird sang, not a cricket chirped, even the wind was still. It had been a while since Twilight had brushed up on her meteorology, but she guessed that meant the weather ponies in the surrounding regions had stopped flying as well. She tried not to dwell on this and looked up.
While nopony would openly admit it, there was no denying the night sky was beautiful. Now that the lights of Ponyville had gone out Twilight could see the stars, more stars than she'd ever seen even with her beloved telescope. Even Canterlot, which was usually visible at all hours, had fallen into darkness. Luna's moon covered all in a soft glow, even brighter since the infamous Mare in the Moon had vanished. It echoed the silence of Equestria below, filling the watching unicorn with a feeling of stillness, of perfect serenity. It was times like this that she was grateful for the silence, the self-imposed ban on noise that had kept them safe this past month.
The silence was shattered by a scream.
Twilight's eyes snapped back to the road in front of her. "Rarity," she said aloud, breaking her own rule in her panic. A terrified scream wasn’t on the list of emergency codes she’d put together, but there could be little doubt about what it meant. She began to gallop in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres’ main gate, only to be met by another figure coming in the opposite direction. Rarity's face mask was covered in blood, obscuring her vision as she ran and causing her to stumble. Twilight caught her, gasping as she saw the mare's passenger; Sweetie Belle was lying limply across her back.
The unicorns hurried inside. Twilight threw the bar back across the door while Rarity tore off her bloodied mask and started to wail. In seconds Applejack was up and shouting. “Rarity, what in the hay are you— Sweetie Belle!” The normally unflappable pony froze, words catching in her throat.
Carefully, Twilight levitated Sweetie Belle off her sister’s back and lowered her to the ground. The filly swayed slightly as she sat up, somehow looking even paler than usual. She was fully conscious, but sheer terror was keeping her mercifully silent. A large gash tore across her shoulder, preventing her from standing. Despite the severity of the wound there was no blood anywhere on her. “Am I gonna die?” she whispered.
“Going to,” Rarity corrected automatically. Her eyes widened and she began to cry harder.
“Naw, sweetie, you ain’t gonna die,” Applejack said, trying to give the filly a hug without actually touching her. “You’re gonna be just fine. Right, Twi?”
Twilight inspected Sweetie Belle’s wound. “I’m not sure,” she admitted, missing Applejack’s pleading look. “It looks bad. The whole leg’s gone, and... I just don’t know. I’m sorry, I just don’t know.” She turned to Rarity. “How did this happen?”
Rarity sniffed, trying to stem the flow of tears. “We were at the front gate, and we were fine, but... but I guess I just closed my eyes for a second...”
Applejack stomped angrily. “Consarn it Rarity, Ah let you two have the gate watch because you said you weren’t tired!”
“I wasn’t! I... I mean... I couldn’t just let you...” Rarity’s lip trembled. “You two were exhausted, and I... I just wanted...”
“It’s not your fault, sis.” Sweetie Belle strained to raise her head and rested it against Rarity’s leg.
“She’s right,” Twilight cut in before Applejack could object or Rarity could resume crying. “We’re all tired. These things happen. Please, just... continue.”
Rarity lowered her head and fought to control her breathing, talking in a low, even voice. “I just closed my eyes for a second. And then I felt Sweetie Belle shaking, and when I looked she was being...” Her voice turned into a barely-intelligible squeal. “Savaged.”
“Just like that?” Applejack poked the filly gently. “Why didn’t you cry out or nothing, partner?”
“I was scared.”
“Why? You’ve seen ‘em before.”
Rarity finished for her. “Because it was Pinkie Pie.”
A hush fell over the group. Twilight’s eyes flicked to her friend’s discarded mask, still coated in red. She gulped. “Did you get her in the head?”
“Yes.” Rarity hung her head. “The mask worked perfectly. Nothing got in my eyes. But it was awful.”
“Give her to me.”
Everypony jumped as a loud, male voice broke into their conversation. While they’d been talking, Applejack’s brother had risen and laid down a tarp in the corner of the room, along with a few tools. Soundlessly he’d walked over to where the others were talking and stood over them. Even though he’d been sleeping, Big Macintosh was still wearing his usual harness. “Give her to me,” he repeated more softly. “She doesn’t have much time.”
Rarity tried to lift her sister with magic but in her frantic state failed, only managing to produce sparks from her horn. Twilight helped and levitated the filly across the barn to the red pony’s corner. Applejack only stared, as though in shock. Big Macintosh turned to his sister. “Applejack, get Rarity inside the house.”
The orange mare kicked at the ground uncomfortably. “She should be out here with her,” she insisted.
Big Macintosh glared. “Applejack, get Rarity inside the house!” Applejack squeaked and started to usher Rarity towards a door at the back of the barn. Now it was Twilight’s turn to stare; she’d never known Big Macintosh to ever raise his voice, or Applejack to give up on something so easily. The big pony turned to her. “Twilight, you too. This ain’t gonna be pretty.”
“Are you sure?” Twilight took a step forward. “I can help you. I’ve never actually practiced medicine, but I know all the structures in the body and I can hold your tools and—”
“No, Twilight.” Big Macintosh shook his head gravely and gave the unicorn a gentle push towards the door. “Ah know what Ah’m doing. You look after Rarity.” Twilight gulped and went out the back door after the others.
The Apple family’s kitchen was uncharacteristically bare. Almost every surface had been torn apart for material and all but the smallest utensils were gone, leaving the once-lively room looking dusty and hollow. As soon as Twilight had shut the door behind her, Rarity grabbed her and held her tightly. “Is she going to be okay?” she asked in a trembling voice.
Twilight considered her answer carefully, but couldn’t think of anything comforting. “I don’t know, Rarity,” she said, electing for honesty. “It’s a bad cut, and it’s already stopped bleeding. If she’s going to survive she’ll have to... she’ll have to lose her leg. Maybe more. I don’t know, Rarity, I’m sorry but I just don’t know.” Both ponies put on brave faces and held each other, each trying not to think about what might happen. Applejack stood a little distance away with her back to them.
In the ever-present silence, everything could be heard from the other side of the wall. Big Macintosh had started to speak, comforting the injured filly with his slow Southern drawl. “Sweetie Belle.”
“Big Macintosh, I’m scared...”
“Sweetie Belle, look at me. It’s okay to be scared right now. If there was ever a time to be scared, this is it. Nothing to be ashamed of.” He paused to nuzzle the filly affectionately. “Can you just do one thing for me right now?”
“Tell me the name of somepony who loves you.”
In her frightened state it took Sweetie Belle several seconds to understand the question, but no time at all to think of an answer. “Rarity.”
“That’s right, Sweetie Belle. Rarity loves you. I want you to think of her now, because she’s thinking of you, now and forever. Can you do that for me?”
Sweetie Belle could only nod. Big Macintosh gently stroked her mane. “That’s a good girl,” he whispered. Rarity’s tears had returned. She rested her head against Twilight’s shoulder and wept.
Rarity’s head shot up. He wouldn’t.
A second, loud Crunch rang out, softer and wetter than the first. Big Macintosh was nothing if not thorough.
Rarity bolted back towards the barn. Applejack turned around and tackled her to the ground inches from the door, instantly gaining the upper hand over the hysterical mare. “Ah’m sorry, Rarity, Ah’m so sorry,” she grunted, pinning her friend to the floor, “but y’really don’t want to go in there now. It’ll only make it harder. Trust me, Ah know. Twilight, can you give me a hoof here?” When Twilight didn't respond, Applejack looked up in alarm. “Twilight!”
Barely hearing Applejack’s warning, Twilight Sparkle pushed open the door. Like in a dream, her friends’ voices seemed to fade away behind her as she stepped into the barn. She stared expressionlessly at the scene in the corner. Big Macintosh had rolled the tarp into a bundle and tied it closed. Nothing was visible through the thick material. The big pony had turned on a tap once used to fill a water trough for the local pigs and was using it to carefully wash his hooves. Lines of red and white streaked up both his forelegs; he’d brought them down on something hard. Something wet. Something twice. “Why?” somepony asked, and several seconds passed before Twilight realized the word had come from her.
“Had to. She got bit.”
“I thought... I thought you were going to save her.”
“Couldn’t. She’d stopped bleeding. Another minute and she’d have turned. Filly her size, nothing we could do.” Big Macintosh slung a spade across his back and clipped the rope on the tarp to his harness. It made a gentle sloshing noise as he dragged it along the ground.
“Nooooooooo!” Rarity finally broke away from Applejack and lunged for the makeshift bag, tumbling across the floor as the orange mare grabbed her hind legs. “Let me see her!” she cried.
“Macintosh...” Twilight took a step forward and reached out a hoof, but couldn’t bring herself to touch him. None of this felt real to her. “Let her see her.”
“Nope. She’ll make a mess.” Big Macintosh didn’t even look back. Rarity screamed again and leaped at the bag holding her sister, only to be met by a powerful hoof. The blow wasn’t strong by Apple standards, but it was enough to send the unicorn sprawling. The red pony finally looked her in the eyes. “No means no, miss,” he said firmly. “You should get some rest.”
Rarity stared. Despite all that had happened Big Macintosh’s eyes were still half-closed, the same slightly vacant expression on his face. He looked calm... no, he looked cold. There was no trace of empathy in those eyes, no sign of remorse. Anger flared in her but next to his colossal form she felt tiny, helpless. Slowly the feeling drained out of her body and she deflated, collapsing to the floor. Wordlessly Big Macintosh turned away and walked towards the barn door, dragging her sister behind him. “Sweetie Belle...” Rarity whimpered, then hung her head.
Applejack put a hoof on Rarity’s shoulder, this time comforting rather than restraining. “Ah’m sorry, sugarcube,” she whispered. If Rarity heard her she didn’t respond. “You can sleep in my bed tonight, if you want. If that would help.” After some thought, the silent unicorn shuffled a little closer.
At the far end of the barn, Big Macintosh stuck his head out the door and stomped twice. “Anypony out there?” he whispered. When no undead ponies came hurtling around the corner he went outside and turned sharply, walking around the side of the barn. He counted exactly six pony-lengths to himself before stopping.
Behind him there was a soft pop and a flash of light. A familiar form appeared on his left. “How could you... How could you?” She tried not to show it, but Twilight was near tears. “How could you do that to her?”
Big Macintosh unclipped the tarp from his harness and gently put it down. “Had to,” he repeated. “She got bit.” He pulled the spade from his back and started to dig.
“Yes, I mean, I understand that. You did... you did what you had to do.” The words made Twilight sick, but she pressed on. “But, I mean... to Rarity. She was her sister.”
“You didn’t even let her say goodbye.”
Twilight forced herself to not raise her voice. “You really hurt her.”
Big Macintosh straightened up and put down his spade. “I know,” he sighed. In an instant most of his accent had vanished. “I know what it’s like to lose somepony you care about. Right now, Rarity’s thinking about Sweetie Belle. About how much she loves her, and how much it hurts now she’s gone. And do you know what else she’s thinking?” He shot Twilight a hard look. “She’s thinking about me. She’s thinking about that dumb, heartless Big Macintosh that took her little sister away from her. How I took her away, Twilight. It wasn’t Pinkie Pie, or eternal night, or her own carelessness that killed her. It was me.”
The large pony picked up the spade and resumed digging. Twilight was frozen to the spot, only partly aware of the tears making their way down her cheeks. “Why?” she whispered.
“If yer gonna have demons,” Big Macintosh grunted around the handle in his mouth, “best they’re the kind that don’t actually want you dead. She’ll live longer if she doesn’t blame herself.” He planted his spade in the ground a second time and looked at Twilight thoughtfully. “You’re good with that horn of yours, right?”
“What?” She followed his gaze. “...Oh.” Trying not to think about what she was doing, Twilight closed her eyes and focused energy into her horn. A perfectly square section of dirt rose out of the ground and deposited itself nearby. Big Macintosh picked up the tarp with his teeth and placed it carefully in the hole. He reached for his spade, but with another wave of magic the hole filled itself. “Don’t thank me,” Twilight blurted as the red pony opened his mouth. “Please. I don’t want anything to do with this.”
“Nopony does,” Big Macintosh said gently, placing a hoof on her shoulder. She shivered at his touch. “But somepony has to. Might as well be the strong one.” He straightened up and placed his spade across his back again. “Somepony also has to watch the front gate. Might as well be me too. I don’t think I’ll be welcome inside for a few hours.”
"I'll walk you there," Twilight said. Big Macintosh looked at her in surprise, but said nothing. They started walking together down the long dirt road to the gate. "Macintosh," Twilight half-whispered, her voice growing quieter as they neared the perimeter, "just before you... I mean... when you were talking to Sweetie Belle, you asked her a question."
The red pony sighed. "I asked her the name of somepony who loves her."
"That was for me." He hung his head, and for the first time that long night a trace of sadness crept into his voice. "I killed a little filly tonight. I did it because nopony else would, and because everypony would be in danger if I didn’t. You might think with that kind of logic I’d start to think of ponies as just bodies, numbers instead of living things. I know this would be a lot easier if I did think that way.” He took a deep breath. “But I can't ever allow myself to think that killing is okay. It's inequine. So before I do anything else, I ask for a name. The name of somepony who loves them, who’s going to miss them when they’re gone. That keeps them real to me. It’s a reminder that death doesn’t just hurt one pony, it hurts everypony. I won’t ever let myself forget that."
Twilight's lip trembled. "So... you've done this before?"
"How... how many times?"
Big Macintosh shook his head. "Don't ask, Twilight. Just don't ask."
They walked another minute in silence. “Applejack knew, didn’t she?”
“Why didn’t she say anything?”
“I told her not to. I reckon she’s afraid of me now. With good reason, too.” He sighed again. "Apple Bloom was the worst. I thought she'd say her sister's name, or one of her friends. But she looked up at me and she said mine. 'Big Macintosh loves me,' she said. And it's true. I miss her so much..." For a second the big pony seemed about to break down, but he breathed out and his face returned to its normal position.
Bile rose in Twilight's throat. This time, she was sure she was going to throw up. "You... you killed..."
"Don't, Twilight. Just don't." He looked over and saw that she was trembling. "I'm sorry. Maybe I talk about it a little too casually. I've had awhile to come to terms with it."
"You..." They had almost reached the lookout point for the gate. The gently rolling hills were broken by a fence made from logs and rough sheet metal, curving away in either direction as far as the eye could see. The pair slowed down, lowering their voices to a dull whisper. Twilight gulped. "You're a good pony, Big Macintosh," she said. "You've just been put in a place where you have to do some very bad things. And..." She realized she was trembling again, but for a different reason. "And I don't think anypony else could be strong enough to do what you've just done. I know I couldn't. You're the toughest pony I've ever met. But... but you shouldn't demonize yourself like this. You make yourself sound like a monster, even to your friends, even to your family. But you're not. You're a wonderful pony and you shouldn't hide that from them."
She turned to face him. He was staring at her with that same unreadable expression. "Come back," Twilight pleaded. "Apologize to Rarity, and to Applejack. Tell them how you really feel. There’s still time for them to forgive you. Don't make yourself into a murderer for their sake. We've already lost so much because of the night. We... I don't want to lose you as well." She took a step closer. Their noses were almost touching. “I mean...” Her heart was pounding. “Big Macintosh... can’t somepony love you too?”
Before the big pony could respond, she leaned forward the final inch and kissed him.
Twilight had read that even if her first kiss was clumsy and awkward, it would be magical. Sparks would fly, hearts would melt, and all would feel right in the world. For a few seconds, this was the case. A soft, warm tingle spread from her lips to the rest of her body, and joy flowed through her like she’d never felt before. Then, just as abruptly as it had come, the feeling stopped. Big Macintosh wasn’t freezing up or pulling away, but he wasn’t returning the kiss either. He stood stock-still, barely reacting to the gesture. Twilight pulled away and looked into his eyes. Where before she’d seen warmth and pain there was now only a look of cold detachment. “You don’t want to be my friend, Twilight Sparkle,” he said in a low, flat voice.
Big Macintosh held up a hoof to cut her off. “Applejack never told you what happened to Spike, did she?” he asked, his Southern accent starting to creep back into his voice.
“She said... she said he went to get... help...” Twilight’s eyes widened as the penny dropped. “You... you didn’t.”
“Ah did.” Big Macintosh turned away from her to face the gate. “Ah thought dragon scales were tougher than pony teeth. Turns out Ah was wrong. His head cracked just the same, too.” Twilight opened her mouth, but no words would come out. “Don’t pretend this changes nothing. Ah know it must be hard to hear, because his last words were your name. You should be proud, Twilight. He was brave right to the end.”
“You... you...” Twilight’s horn started to glow threateningly. “We don’t even know if dragons are susceptible! He could have been completely fine!”
“Ah couldn't take that risk. An undead dragon could have killed us all. Keep your voice down, Twi’. Somepony might hear us.” Big Macintosh glanced in her direction. “You should get some sleep, while you still can.”
“No!” Conflicting emotions coursed through her. She could almost feel Spike’s familiar weight on her back, something nopony would ever be able to replace. The light from her horn grew more intense. “You killed Spike, you, you—”
Something rustled outside the gate, breaking Twilight’s concentration. Her horn flickered and then went out. The rustling grew louder and closer, then abruptly stopped. A tapping took its place, growing into steadily louder knocking as bare hooves beat against the fortifications at Sweet Apple Acres’ edge. “Go,” Big Macintosh said over the noise. “Ah can take care of myself.” He reached around behind his harness and pulled out a mask, stretching it over his face so it covered his eyes and mouth. “Go, Twilight,” he repeated, voice slightly muffled by the thick fabric. Twilight didn’t move. “GO!” he roared, rearing up to give her a shove before settling back into a fighting stance, facing the growing pounding from beyond the fence.
And Twilight ran. She barreled down the road towards the safety of the barn, sobbing loudly, no longer caring how much noise she made. She thought about Spike, and a heavy weight filled her heart. Then Sweetie Belle; just earlier, he’d washed her blood off his hooves as easily as if it were tree sap. Twilight gagged, trying to get the taste of Big Macintosh’s lips out of her mouth. And sweet little Apple Bloom too, his own sister, and Scootaloo — sure, Scootaloo too, why not? They would never get their cutie marks now. Twilight slowed down, then stopped. So many lives, so many innocent minds, each with somepony who loved them, ended.
Because of him.
Twilight turned and, slowly at first but building speed, started to run back towards the gate.
Her voice in the sky
A Somepony who loves you Story
The coop was empty. That was how she always remembered it. There were no bodies, and no signs of a struggle. Everything was just... gone.
Something shifted, and Rainbow Dash startled awake. Bodies pressed against her sides in the darkness. She leapt to her hooves, and, just like every time before, smacked her head against the layer of cloud hanging just above her. Instinctively she started to cry out, but then bit her lip, cutting off her squeal. She listened carefully, her heart racing, but the noise seemed to have gone unnoticed. Equestria was silent around her.
Once the initial shock was over, Rainbow looked around and tried to assess her situation. The cloud she was on was roughly circular and stretched three or four pony-lengths in every direction. A second cloud of equal size hung directly overhead, leaving barely enough room in between to sit up, let alone stand. Four bodies surrounded her, three adults and one foal lying on her mother’s back. Only the filly appeared to be asleep. The others were awake; while the darkness made it impossible to make out their individual colours, Dash could see their eyes gleaming as they stared at her. She smiled, pointlessly since they couldn’t see her expression, and pulled herself closer to the edge of the cloud.
Her first instinct, absurdly, was to wonder what the time was. A quick glance at the world outside confirmed that this would be impossible to measure. The moon was in the same position it had occupied when she’d shut her eyes, locked in place a third of the way up in the sky. Having grown up in a city that never needed clocks, being unable to keep track of time by the positions of the sun and moon was proving infuriating for Dash. Had she been asleep for an hour? A day? Just a few minutes? It hardly seemed to matter; she always felt just as exhausted every time she woke up. It was only the roaring emptiness in her stomach that convinced her to keep moving.
She still couldn’t get over how quiet it was.
Rainbow shuddered as she peeked over the edge of the cloud. Left untended, most of the cloudfield had drifted upwards into a thin, smoglike haze that cast long and shifting shadows over the landscape, making it difficult for her eyes to adjust. Countless hoof-sized wisps littered the air below. She could make out the leaves and branches of a forest far below, but not much else. Around a hundred pony-lengths away she could see other clouds, double-stacked like the pair she currently lay between. From this far out there was no way of telling if there were any ponies left within the structures... or, for that matter, on top of them.
Back in Cloudsdale, the two-cloud rule was taught to every pegasus foal as soon as they were old enough to fly: during times of danger, push two clouds together and hide between them. The strategy had been developed during the skirmishes with the griffons many hundreds of years ago, and had been used by pegasi ever since. Between the fluffy structures it was possible to ride out storms, invasions, natural disasters... anything. Every pegasus who was raised in a cloud city knew about it. Dash gritted her teeth. Every. Pegasus.
Her stomach growled, interrupting her thoughts. Rainbow Dash shook her head and quietly berated herself for getting distracted. Idly, she rolled a piece of cloud between her hooves and pushed it downward, keeping an eye on it as it vanished into the shadows below. She focused on the cloud pair nearest her. I’ll aim for that one. I haven’t been there yet. She scanned the forest beneath her, nodding as her eyes landed on a darker patch. Right there. That should be a clearing. All I have to do is fly down, and...
Dash shifted uncomfortably, but didn’t move. Despite the coolness of the air beyond the cloud, the fog in her head was refusing to clear. She spread her wings and tugged at the straps of her saddlebags in irritation, trying uselessly to pull them into a more comfortable position. They’d been made for a colt much younger than she was, so the strap tightened painfully around her middle. Worse, they hadn’t been treated to rest on clouds, so she didn’t dare take them off for fear of losing them.
Some movement to her right made her jump. One of the others, the pegasus with the foal on her back, had broken away from the group and crawled next to her. Now that she was closer to the light, Dash could make out a tiny horn poking through the filly’s mane. The sight both awed and terrified her. During the first two days of hopping between clouds Rainbow Dash had met a couple of unicorns using cloud-walking spells. After that, though, it was only pegasi. It wasn’t their fault; re-casting the spell was exhausting, and nopony had expected to be hiding for this long. She’d heard that the cloud-walking spell wore off slowly, over the space of a few hours. First one hoof would plunge through the cloud’s surface, then another, until... She shuddered. Without the support of the larger pegasus beneath her, the unicorn filly would have simply plummeted through the cloud to the ground below. Suddenly, the tightness around Dash’s middle didn’t seem so bad.
If the other mare noticed Dash’s sudden change in demeanor, she didn’t show it. Instead she leaned forward, craning her neck upwards. At all times she kept her wings and tail slightly elevated, to catch the filly just in case she slipped. She must have been in some pain after bearing the burden for so long - had it been days? weeks? Rainbow Dash could no longer tell - but her face only showed determination. With the utmost caution she raised her mouth to the cyan mare’s ear and whispered the first words Rainbow Dash had heard in what seemed like years.
“You can do it, Rainbow Dash.”
Without another word, the mare sat back. Somehow, even in the darkness, Rainbow Dash could see her smile. The multi-hued pegasus flicked her ear and looked down at the ground, her heart now pounding. There was no time to think. Thinking led to distractions. Distractions led to mistakes. And mistakes...
I’m coming, Fluttershy.
Rainbow Dash dove off the edge.
She raised her wings and brought them down in a sharp, powerful flap, changing the angle of her descent so that she would skim along the top of the treeline instead of crashing through it. Just one flap, barely a whisper of wind in the endless sky, but in her heart she knew that it was enough. Without needing to look back, she could already tell that she was being followed.
They stood on top of the clouds. It had seemed like a blessing at first. Even though the practice was deeply ingrained in the minds of every pegasus old enough to fly, the grim and silent ponies who now ruled the sky never seemed to notice the living beings huddled within the two-tiered structures. Perhaps their intelligence had dropped, or maybe all trace of their former selves was erased completely at the moment of death. For whatever reason, those at rest simply settled down on top of the concealing clouds. So long as the ponies within stayed still and quiet, they could remain safe and hidden until the creatures above moved on.
Except they didn’t move on. They didn’t leave, they didn’t speak, they never even seemed to breathe. They simply stood, waiting. Packed tightly on some clouds, absent on others, their numbers were impossible to count. Once the winds died down to nothing, they didn’t even have to watch the skies. They only had to listen. And at the first sound of a raised voice, the clop of a hoof, even the single beat of a pair of wings... as one, they pounced.
Rainbow Dash curved along the tops of the trees, searching desperately for the clear patch she’d seen earlier. Her ears strained to hear the sounds of wingbeats behind her, but thanks to the roaring in her ears she couldn’t make out anything. Dash grunted in frustration and wished, as she did every time she attempted this, that they would make some noise. Not words, though, that would make them too... real. Too alive. But even a grunt or a groan, a cry like animals made, some bare indication of thought or emotion, that would make her job so much easier. But no. They flew in absolute silence, their speed and numbers invisible to her.
At last, she spotted the clearing she’d noted from above. She banked sharply and braked hard, throwing her body into a tight spiral that deposited her neatly into the space between the trees. Pulling herself almost to a complete halt, she touched down lightly and held her breath, trying to calm her rapidly beating heart. Her ears pricked up, waiting for the sounds of wingbeats above her. There was nothing. Several seconds passed before she allowed herself to exhale. Perfect run as usual, she congratulated herself. Nopony outflies the Rainbow.
Reassuring as it was, Rainbow Dash had no time to enjoy her momentary victory. She began tearing up the ground, flinging grass, weeds, tiny shrubs into her saddlebags - anything edible, anything that would fit. All the while, she kept one ear turned to the sky, ready to take off at the first sign that they’d discovered her landing spot.
Dash froze, a leafy branch halfway to her side. Her ear twitched. Was that... She looked back and forth nervously, but the shadows of the trees around her were utterly impenetrable. She laid the branch down gently and closed her bag, her muscles already tensing up. Once again, she held her breath and tried to ignore her pounding heart. Somewhere, the faintest sound, like hooves on dew-covered grass... or was that her imagination?
Somewhere. Rainbow Dash closed her eyes. I know I heard... there! With blinding speed she turned to the side and bucked out with both hind legs. One hoof met empty air. The other hit something solid with a loud thud, toppling the pegasus off balance. She bounced limberly off her front legs and took to the air, her rapid wingbeats letting her gain height in seconds, only sheer concentration keeping a scream from erupting from her throat.
Rainbow Dash careened through the sky, desperately trying to gain height as quickly as possible. If they weren’t after her before, they definitely were now. There was no time to look back, no time even to think - without the head start of the initial drop, there was absolutely zero room for error. The slightest hesitation, the first hint of a falter, and they would be upon her.
In the darkness, something clipped past her wing. A yelp escaped from Dash’s throat and she put on another burst of speed, clapping her hooves over her mouth. The sky spun above her as she climbed. She’d lost sight of the clouds, only the moon providing any point of reference. She could practically hear the roar of air behind her, feel the hot breath snapping at her ankles. The moonlight was blinding.
The moonlight was blinding.
It had taken her a whole day to reach the cottage. At least, that’s what she’d judged it to be. Between running, hiding, searching for survivors and forming a perimeter at the farm, there simply hadn’t been time to reach the outlying areas of Ponyville. After hour upon hour of crawling through bushes, carefully avoiding the gazes of the ones who watched from on high, the moonlight had been blinding when she’d emerged.
But the chicken coop was empty. The fences had been torn down, roughly, as though in a great hurry. No sounds emanated from the cottage itself; the little house was dark and silent. The door hung loosely off one of its hinges.
And Fluttershy was gone.
Rainbow Dash blinked. No. She gritted her teeth. In the space of a single wingbeat, countless thoughts rushed through the pegasus’ mind. I survived the first attack without a scratch. I outraced a stampede while carrying three fillies. I pulled off the first ever sonic rainboom! She raised her forelegs in front of her and beat her wings even harder. And as long as one of my friends is out there, none of these freaks can even dream of outflying me!
Suddenly, everything seemed clearer. She felt her heart rate slow, and her wings fell into a less frantic and more natural pattern. Speed came naturally, effortlessly. She leveled out and pulled herself into a wide curve, not daring to risk a spiral for fear of colliding with one of her pursuers. A quick scan of the sky revealed that she was already above the cloud she’d been aiming for. Can’t go there right away, she decided. Without the head start that she was used to, she couldn’t risk leading them directly to her next hiding spot. Need to give myself some space first. She grinned. How about routine number six?
With just the slightest twitch of her wings, Rainbow Dash pushed herself upwards and looped into a wide somersault ending with her facing directly towards the ground. She fell into a tight corkscrew, leaving a multi-hued streak of light in her wake. This then led into another flip, narrowly dodging several smokelike wisps as she pulled herself back up through the sky. The pegasus’ smile widened as she went through her entire repertoire, performing unending loops and twists at breakneck speeds. If not for the grimness of the situation, it would be easy to pretend that she was simply going through some late-night flight practice.
A dull ache in the mare’s stomach reminded her that she still needed to land. She slowed a little and looked around, easily locating the pair of clouds she’d been aiming for. Awesome. Now I’ll just swoop down, and- Something brushed past her tail. Dash gulped and dove sharply. “Oh, come on!” she muttered aloud, though her words were lost on the rush of air. Instinctively she tried to look behind her, but winced as the turn of her head caused her to lose speed. Focus! she chided herself. Just don’t think about what’s going to happen if they-
Too late. She’d thought about it.
Oh, ponyfeathers. Dash looked around desperately, ignoring the chill of fear that was once again working its way up her spine. I just need one break. Something, anything...
There! Around halfway between the remaining cloud layer and the ground, the moonlight glinted off a tiny spot of whiteness. It was the puff of cloud she’d dropped earlier, still making its way slowly downwards. It was tiny, not even the size of her head, but it would do. She’d performed more complex tricks using less. Well, not successfully, but the physics of it had always made sense in her head.
Gritting her teeth, Dash banked sharply and dove, pointing her hooves directly at the little puff that was her salvation. She felt a chill run down her belly as she skimmed over something directly beneath her, but quickly shrugged the feeling off. She flapped more and more quickly, pushing herself downwards at a speed that would leave most pegasi dizzy. The dot of whiteness wavered as she approached it, shifting in and out of focus. She narrowed her eyes and tried to keep steady. Come on... come on...
With a decisive whumph Rainbow Dash collided with the cloud and ricocheted off of it, blasting the condensed water into vapor and changing her direction by ninety degrees in an instant. She rocketed upwards as the forces behind her continued downwards, unable to match her shift in trajectory. Rainbow Dash twirled in midair and took a moment to orient herself before locking on to the cloud she'd selected earlier and diving towards it. She circled around it once, throwing her wings open to slow her down, before slipping neatly between the cracks and landing on the lower cloud with the faintest sigh. Instantly she crouched down and looked back, preparing to launch herself out again if her pursuers were right behind her.
There was nothing. The sky was completely empty.
Back in the darkness, Dash stared a few seconds longer before lowering herself to a crawling position and squinting towards the structure's interior. This cloud pair was smaller than the one she'd left, maybe only four or five pony-lengths across at its longest point. From somewhere in the middle, a pair of bright blue eyes flicked open. She froze and raised her wings, bracing herself to take off again, then relaxed as the other pony nodded to her before sinking back down again.
Dash approached the figure. This pony was another pegasus; to her disappointment, a stallion. Again, within the clouds there wasn't enough light to make out his colours, but from his outline she could see that he was clearly starving. Not a large pony to begin with, ribs now stuck out clearly across his chest, and his movements were weak as he tried to bring himself to his hooves. Dash smiled sympathetically and reached for one of her bags.
The pegasus froze. She glanced at the other pony, who was still staring eagerly at her saddlebags, apparently having heard nothing. Slowly, she peered skyward. The sound had come from above them. She waited with bated breath, privately wondering if it had been her imagination, and listened intently for any further sound. They sat in absolute stillness for a full minute before Dash finished the grab for her saddlebags and silently pulled out her bounty.
It was a discouraging run. In her haste much of what she'd grabbed was inedible, either rotted from lack of sunlight or more earth than plant. She let the dirt run down through her hooves, which travelled down and passed soundlessly through the cloud, and picked hungrily at the bits of grass and leaves that remained. At last she discovered a leafy tuft that seemed more filling than the others and passed it to the stallion, who accepted it gladly. As he began to chew ravenously, she leaned down and whispered the words she'd repeated countless times over the many days before.
"Have you seen Fluttershy?"
The stallion was too weak to give a full answer. He only shook his head, looking up sorrowfully before continuing his frantic chewing. Dash sighed and resumed digging in her bags, hoping to find something to quell the roaring in her stomach.
There was no food left in the cottage.
Dash could tell as soon as she walked in that it had been cleaned out. It wouldn't have taken long; Fluttershy's animal friends were dependent on her, but they weren't stupid. With a group effort, they would have been able to carry all the supplies they needed in a single trip. To where, exactly, was another question. The dark ones seemed to be everywhere, and the endless night had only compounded the problems in the Everfree Forest... though that, too, seemed to have fallen silent. They would have been stuck between a rock and a dead place, and Dash privately doubted that such a group would have made it very far.
And as for Fluttershy herself? She would have taken to the clouds. She must have. Sure, she would have made sure her animal friends were safe first, or at least stuck by them until there were none left, but then she would have flown to the clouds and hidden safely. There was no other explanation. It was in her blood. Throughout their years of flight school they had performed the exercise dozens, no, hundreds of times. After they met at the camp during their first year, they'd usually done it together. Things like that didn't fade over time.
Dash slowly crushed a dirt clod between her hooves. She barely noticed as precious strands of grass were ground into a fine paste. She wouldn't forget. We prepared for this all our lives. She's out there, somewhere. She wouldn't abandon m-
Something on the edge of hearing caught Dash's attention. She looked up, carelessly letting the dirt clod fall away from her. The other pegasus looked up as well, but didn't get to his hooves. Silently, Dash pulled herself to her knees and crawled to the edge of the cloud, trying to locate the source of the sound.
As the seconds wore on, the sound became louder and more distinct. It was coming from somewhere not too far away, carrying well on the empty air. It sounded like a faint sniffing or high-pitched breathing, like somepony was trying to hold in a sneeze. Dash's eyes focused on another cloud. With mounting horror she realized the noise was coming from the cloud she’d left just minutes ago, the one holding three pegasi and the filly unicorn. With that in mind, the pitch and intensity of the sound started to make sense: the foal was crying.
Dash found herself sinking lower into the cloud beneath her, desperately holding in a cry of her own. “Don’t do it, kid,” she pleaded under her breath. The noise only grew louder, breaking into distinct, heart-rending sobbing. “Please, kid,” Dash whispered, as though her words could carry across the distance between them. “Please. You have to be quiet.”
As the sobbing continued, other sounds joined it from every direction: the faint rustling of feathers, hoofsteps on cloud tops, faint sounds of movement only audible to ears accustomed to absolute silence. Countless pairs of eyes were turning, locking on to the source of the sound. Rainbow Dash slid a little lower and gnawed anxiously on her hoof. Why now? she thought. She’s lasted this long already. Why would she start crying now? An unpleasant thought crept up on her. Is this because I left? Without noticing, Dash desperately shook her head. No. I’ve been cloud-hopping for ages. She must have seen that. She must have known I wasn’t coming back. She must have. She must have!
Taking deep breaths, the cyan pony focused all her attention on the clouds across the sky. She knew that the other ponies would be doing all they could to quiet the filly down, for their sake as well as hers. She concentrated hard, hearing her own thoughts in the mother mare’s whispered voice. Please, calm down, she would say. Everything’s going to be okay. I know you’re hungry, and I know it’s scary, but we all have to be quiet now. So long as we’re together, everything will be okay.
Slowly, painfully, the muffled sobs began to die down. Dash sighed in relief. She could almost picture what the mother must be doing; cradling the filly in her forelegs, whispering sweet assurances to her, smothering her tears with love and kisses. It was a soothing, heartwarming image, and Rainbow Dash found herself almost smiling before a high-pitched cry snapped her back to reality.
“Rainbow Da- Aaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”
Dash clapped her hooves over her mouth as the filly’s desperate shout turned into a shriek of pure terror. She stared, eyes bulging, as a tiny dot fell from the cloud and tumbled towards the ground below, the unicorn’s cry rapidly becoming more distant as she fell. Something moved in the darkness. There was no time to think, no time to react. The filly’s scream was cut off long before she hit the ground.
Rainbow Dash backed away. She clawed at her throat, struggling to breathe, and at the same time trying to strangle the scream making its way out of her. Her rear legs bumped against the stallion behind her, who looked up in fear and confusion. She wanted to shake him, slap him, shout into his face until he understood the horror she’d just witnessed.
She dropped her foal.
The pegasus clutched at her head, the impossible thought ringing between her ears louder than a dragon’s roar. She clamped her lips tightly together, only allowing short, ragged breaths through her nose. No way. She wouldn’t. She... she couldn’t! It must have been one of the others. It must have! Suddenly she lunged for the gap between the clouds and retched, dry-heaving painfully over the side. In that moment she no longer cared how much noise she made, but the tightness in her throat kept her mercifully silent.
Aside from Rainbow Dash’s forced breathing, Equestria’s sky was quiet once again. The blue mare stared in horror at the clouds across from her, watching desperately for any sign of movement from within the structure. There was none. Once again, her thoughts raced uncontrollably. How were they staying so still after such an event? Were the other two having to hold the mother down, clamping her mouth shut with their hooves to keep her from screaming? Or were they all sitting calmly, still unmoving, uncaring of anypony’s fate but their own?
Numbing minutes passed. Rainbow Dash found her breath becoming more regular, more from exhaustion than any calming effect. She stared up again at the clouds in the distance, but couldn’t seem to focus on them. “How can you stay so quiet?” she breathed, her words disappearing noiselessly into the night.
It was a useless question. She already knew. It was the same way she’d stayed quiet when she’d gone up to the bedroom.
The kitchen was just as bare of supplies as the front room. The stacks of animal feed were either gone or completely emptied, not even a crumb left on the floor. A number of cooking utensils had been left behind, but with no clear idea of how long it would take to get back, Dash didn’t try to carry any of these on her own. There was no sign of life anywhere, but, encouragingly, no sign of death either. She was just about to start searching for a trail outside when, on a whim, she decided to do a quick sweep upstairs as well.
Rainbow Dash beat her wings gently to hover up the stairs; even in such a familiar environment, she didn’t want to risk breaking the silence with a creaky floorboard. She landed gingerly on the rug at the top, noting grimly that Fluttershy’s favorite vase had been knocked over. With a sad smile, she leaned down to pick it up. That’s when she saw that the bedroom door was open.
The window over the bed had been broken. Moonlight spilled in, casting much of the room in a pale, ethereal glow. Rainbow Dash could make out the unruly bedsheets, the fallen picture frames, the cracked and splintered writing desk. And, facing away from her, the silhouette of a pegasus. Standing. Waiting. Not even breathing.
Dash remained silent. She left the vase where it was and turned away, tip-hoofing away to the window opposite and slipping away into the night. Because she knew, without having to guess, that this was the very pony who had broken into her friend’s house, and driven her and the animals out. It was the only explanation. And staying just a second longer, going into the light of the bedroom, letting the apparition turn to face her, would have been the worst thing she could have possibly done. It would mean that she would never see Fluttershy ever again.
The pegasus sat back, defeated. She sighed. The darkness of the cloud soothed her. There was no point in questioning anything. She knew exactly how the world was.
Fluttershy was out there, somewhere, hiding between the clouds just like she’d been taught. There was no other answer. And that wasn’t all. The rush in the sky was the mother leaping down to catch her filly before she hit the ground. And other pegasi were learning how to make it to the ground and back, so starvation wouldn’t be a problem. And the defenses at the farm had held, and Pinkie Pie had led the rest of Ponyville to Hoofington in safety. And somewhere, all the animals were safe, and Canterlot had never really burned, and some day, some day very soon, the sun would rise once again.
Things worked out for the best. That was just the way the world worked. Anything else wasn’t worth thinking about. Thinking led to distractions. Distractions led to mistakes. And mistakes... mistakes led to more things to think about.
Numbly, Rainbow Dash finished combing through her saddlebags for sustenance. Aside from a pair of decaying dandelions, there was nothing else worth consuming. Her stomach growled angrily at being taunted with such a pitiful snack, making the stallion beside her look up in alarm. Dash sighed and emptied the last crumbs of earth from her bags. She pulled herself to the cloud’s edge and looked down. There’s another empty patch, she noted, nodding at the forest below. I’ll find another cloud on my way up. Without another thought, she took a deep breath and hurled herself over the edge.
I’m coming, Fluttershy.
A Somepony who loves you Story
Without fail, the best part of Cheerilee’s day — she refused to call it anything else — was when the time would come to put the foals to bed.
“Goodnight, Silver Spoon,” she whispered, kissing the filly on her forehead. Silver Spoon smiled faintly and settled down into the pile of loose sheets that served as her and her friend’s bed. Her gorgeous braid was starting to unravel, and she'd lost her glasses sometime in the rush from the library. She accepted the tiny glass of water she was given, a white pill slowly dissolving at the bottom, and obediently drank it down.
"Goodnight, Diamond Tiara." Cheerilee leaned down to kiss the second filly as well, but Diamond Tiara turned away. Still, she took the water Cheerilee gave her and drank it as well.
"It's always night," the filly mumbled, then sank down into the sheets.
Cheerilee crossed over to the other side of the classroom. The few desks and chairs that hadn’t been taken apart had been pushed into the corners, leaving a wide, open space in the middle of the room. She knelt down next to the other set of sheets. "Goodnight, Snails," she whispered, kissing the colt just below his hairline.
"Goodnight, miss Cheerilee," Snails whispered back. Without his best friend by his side he'd become even more quiet than usual, rarely if ever speaking to or playing with the others. This was the only time in the day when Cheerilee got to hear him speak, and it always soothed her as a reminder that he was still there, that he was still okay. She gave him his glass and he drank it slowly, loudly swallowing the pill at the very bottom.
The final foal was still afraid of pills. She had trouble swallowing them, always secretly afraid that she would choke, and needed Cheerilee to hold her hoof as she drank her water down. Once the filly was finished, Cheerilee took her glass away and kissed her on the tip of her nose. "Goodnight, Twist," she whispered.
"Mith Cheerilee? I'm hungry," Twist said, putting her head down.
"Don't worry. We'll have a big breakfast in the morning." The teacher stroked her favorite student's mane and turned away, putting the glasses on a tray before picking it up. "Goodnight, everypony," she whispered a final time, her voice filling up the silent classroom. "I love each and every one of you."
There was no light to turn off. Cheerilee exited the classroom and quietly closed the door behind her. Bathed in utter silence, the boarded-up windows allowing only thin slivers of moonlight to slip through, the four foals began to drift to sleep.
Cheerilee's smile began to fade as she made her way down to her private office. By the time she closed her door behind her, her face had settled into a familiar expression of grim acceptance. She washed the four glasses in the sink, then filled one of them again for herself, only allowing the water to move at a thin trickle. It was fortunate, she supposed, that the city's pipes were still working; in fact, now that far fewer ponies were using it, their water supply would probably last much longer before it would need to be replenished. Even so, sooner or later the reservoir would run dry, or an old pipe would burst, or some filter in the depths of somewhere would clog, and there would be nopony left who knew how to fix it. But that was a problem she could deal with later.
Picking up the large bottle on her desk, Cheerilee twisted the foal-proof cap open and gingerly slipped one white pill out from the interior. She mentally checked one off of her tally, then spilled the rest of the bottle out onto the desk and counted them individually anyway. There were nineteen pills left, not counting the one she’d removed. Three full nights, more if she didn't take any herself. Soon they would need more. Like everything else, the things that kept them alive were running out.
The bottle was labelled with an incomprehensible sticker naming chemicals with more syllables than any word should rightly have. To Cheerilee, the title meant something far simpler: painkillers. It was prescription medication for her migraines, which she thanked her lucky stars she'd had the foresight to refill a week before the disaster. It wasn't meant for foals, but one of the side effects was drowsiness, and in the eternal dark she hadn't had any other ideas. She'd told her little ponies that it would help them sleep, and it did that. It did it almost too well. Certainly there were no more nightmares. Sometimes she stayed a little while after they'd gone to bed and watched over them, listened to their faint breathing and watched their tiny chests rise and fall, and it seemed almost unfair that they could be so peaceful.
The teacher carefully scooped the pills back into the bottle, dropping the one for herself into her glass. She swallowed it in one long gulp, wincing slightly at the bitter aftertaste. Then, already feeling the effects creeping through her, she unlocked her desk and pulled out the other, unmarked pill bottle.
She wasn't sure why she bothered to count these. The number never changed, but then again, maybe that was why; she needed to reassure herself that they were still there, that one or two hadn't vanished during the night. She shook them out onto her desk, staring blearily at the tiny dots. Six white pills. They were the same white colour as her medication, but a little smaller, and, in many ways, a lot more potent. She pointed at each one in turn, counting out six pills time and time again, before dropping them back into their tiny bottle one by one and locking it safely inside her desk.
Then, after washing out her glass and storing it safely beside the sink, Cheerilee lay down on the floor beside her desk and let herself fall into dreamless sleep.
Cheerilee woke up long before her students. The pills seemed to be affecting her less and less with each passing day; it had occurred to her that her drowsiness might be more of a placebo effect than anything else, but she tried not to think about it for fear of losing her sleep altogether. There was no way of telling how long she'd slept. She'd foolishly left her watch on her nightstand at home, and the school clock was stuck at a quarter past six. Still, if the past was any indication, she would have a few hours more before her students would wake. It was time to get to work.
She slipped down the hallway in silence, peeking her head into the foals' classroom just long enough to confirm that they were still happily asleep. With a satisfied smile, she increased her pace and made her way outside.
From the inside, the schoolhouse was secured by a standard lock. The outside was another matter. Since Cheerilee had rarely bothered to lock the doors before the eternal night had come, it hadn’t seemed all that important when she’d misplaced the key a few months back. To keep her precious students safe in her absence, she’d built a thick metal slider that allowed her to lock the building from the outside. It had taken two days to install, nervously screwing each section into place and scratching away at the once-beautiful wood, constantly listening for any unwanted attention the noise might bring. Even now she took a full minute to slide the metal bar into place, not allowing even the faintest of scraping noises. Once she was convinced the building was secure, she blew a final kiss towards the nearest window. “Goodbye, my little ponies,” she breathed. “Please be here when I get back.” Which I will. I promise.
The trek through town was torture. The silence wrapped around Cheerilee like a physical presence, smothering her, assaulting her senses. She walked as quickly as she dared, moving only one leg at a time, wincing every time her hoof crunched against the dirt road. Once she reached the paved streets she was more daring, taking mere minutes to cross from one road to the next, but as she neared the center of town she slowed to a crawl once more. Instead of hiding in the long shadows that the moon cast, she avoided them at all costs, never stepping anywhere that wasn’t clearly illuminated.
The road the teacher took was winding, sticking only to streets that she knew for certain were safe. Time and time again she’d considered branching out, finding a safer, faster route, but she always shot the idea down. There was no knowing what might be waiting silently behind a closed door, or in the middle of an empty street... and if, Celestia forbid, she did stumble across some stray pony, she would be completely at their mercy. She’d already made that mistake once. And it had cost her so, so much.
The first stop, as always, was Sugarcube Corner. At a glance, the building looked more fantastical and delicious in the night, though Cheerilee hadn’t been able at first to put her hoof on why. A closer look revealed that two of the windows in the cupcake-shaped loft had been broken, apparently from the inside, raining pieces of glass onto the roof that sparkled like frosted sugar in the moonlight. The door had been left wide open. Cheerilee approached the building with a little more confidence, stepping gingerly over the creaky first step, and relaxed as she walked inside. It didn’t matter that this was probably the most dangerous stop on her daily excursions; even after all that had happened, there was nothing that could ever make Sugarcube Corner feel unsafe.
The bakery’s back storeroom was well-stocked and sealed. The teacher estimated that this room alone would keep the five of them fed for two or three months, provided they rationed themselves. With the cold, dry air and abrupt disappearance of all vermin, she hoped that the supplies would last. First, she picked up a large sack of raw hay and balanced it across her back; after stressing the importance of the three-tiered food pyramid in class, she would sooner risk death than feed her students a poor diet. On top of that she placed a sack of flour, a bag of sugar and a pouch of chocolate chips. Mixed with water and a little imagination, they could almost pretend that they were having cakes and cookies every day. As a bonus, on her way out she found a single, unopened packet of caramel squares and held it between her teeth as she left. In any classroom, regardless of the circumstances, she’d found that the best way to keep order was through rewards for good behavior.
The way back to the schoolhouse was no slower than the journey away, though it was markedly more tense. The extra weight on Cheerilee’s back did little to change her already glacial pace, only causing occasional shifts to account for her heavier hoofsteps. She paused at the first street corner, glancing in the direction of Ponyville’s clinic. Not today, she decided. Tomorrow, when I don’t have food to worry about. And if they’re not stocked, well... She shuddered at the thought, but pressed on. There’s always the hospital.
The dark streets became a blur as Cheerilee trekked another indeterminate length of time in silence. It almost depressed her how quickly she’d gotten used to the eternally empty streets. Of course, if she saw another pony coming towards her now she’d probably jump out of her skin. Her muscles ached for her to move faster. When the schoolhouse finally came into view and she felt the comforting weight of the lock under her hoof, it was like climbing out of a dark and watery dream.
Silver Spoon was waiting inside as Cheerilee shut and locked the door behind her. “Good morning, my little pony,” the teacher said as she slid her bags off her aching back. “Are you ready to eat?”
“Miss Cheerilee?” the filly said. “Snails won’t get up.”
“Don’t you ever do that again, you hear me?” Cheerilee sobbed through clenched teeth. “Don’t you ever, ever, ever do that again!”
“I’m sorry,” Snails repeated, though he still didn’t understand why. All he’d done was lie in bed a little while longer after feeling really tired and hungry when the others woke up. The two fillies opposite had laughed and said they were going to get him in trouble, but Twist had said they were just teasing. Now Cheerilee was holding him like she thought he was going to fall apart, and her voice sounded like his mom’s had the time he and Snips accidentally knocked down the old shed behind his house. The fillies stood nearby, Diamond Tiara looking triumphant, Silver Spoon considerably less so. Twist kicked morosely at the scattered bedsheets, trying to move them back to some shape resembling a bed.
After an uncomfortably long time, Cheerilee finally released Snails. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “I only... I’m sure you were just tired.” She stood up and smiled weakly, looking around at the little ponies around her. “Let’s all go eat breakfast, okay? Then after that we can do whatever you want. How does that sound?”
The response was, predictably, unenthusiastic. Cheerilee didn’t care. She gathered up her little ponies, reassuring them with her smile, and led them to the sink to prepare a breakfast of cakes and candies. Then they would play a word game, or read a fairy tale from one of the schoolhouse’s old books, or invent a board game out of broken wood and lines drawn in the dust. It didn’t matter what they did.
So long as they were happy.
I'm confused? How did this all start, dose the stories take place after Nightmare Moon's return or something?
A Somepony who loves you Story
Fourteen painkillers. Six little pills. Two more nights of restful sleep.
Cheerilee stared at the unmarked bottle for a while before putting it back in the drawer. Not for the first time, she was tempted to get rid of it. Having it around felt unsafe, somehow, even when under lock and key. She thought about hiding it somewhere more secure, somewhere outside, but had the feeling that its mere presence would haunt her no matter where it was.
Just before the three groups had parted ways, Twilight Sparkle, the nice librarian who had united the Elements, had pressed the bottle into Cheerilee’s hoof. They’d looked at each other, and they’d both known exactly what this meant. But before the teacher could protest, they’d been whisked away in opposite directions by the parting crowd. That had been the last they’d seen of each other.
The days seemed to be getting shorter. Which was absurd, of course. The days were only ever as long as she said they were. Though there was no proper way to tell the time any more, Cheerilee did her best to keep her little ponies on a twenty-four hour schedule. It wasn't enough to eat when they were hungry and sleep when they were tired; they couldn't trust their own bodies any more. That's why they needed the pills.
At first, sleeping had been easy. The first night, exhausted from the frantic journey across Ponyville and covered in the eternal darkness, their tiredness had allowed them to sleep through their fear until well into the next day. Without the sun to wake them up there was a constant haze over their minds, a subconscious warning pulling them back to their beds. But not long after, that had changed. The night stopped having the calming effect it had had before. Darkness became the norm, not the night, and in days the easy drift into slumber had turned into long nights of tossing and turning. The same subconscious impulses that had drawn the ponies to their beds were now striving to keep them awake. It's been night for far too long, their bodies were saying. You can't sleep for any longer. It must be time to wake up.
And then the nightmares had started.
Cheerilee shuddered as she swallowed her pill. She felt the loss as it entered her, felt the chance of one more night of sleep flood through her system. Her students needed it more than she did, she knew. Their sleep was more important than hers, and not just for sentimental reasons. They'd been lucky before, but now that Ponyville's silence was absolute, having one of them wake up screaming would be a death sentence. Their happiness kept them alive.
One more night, Cheerilee begged, recapping the bottle as drowsiness built up in her once again. I just need one more night. I'll get some more pills, and then I'll stop taking them. I just need to make it to the clinic. I just need one night of rest.
Just one more night.
Leaving wasn't the difficult part.
The foals were asleep when Cheerilee walked out the door. It was strange how easy it was to accept, how routine the actions had become. Sliding the bar across the door was simple. More than that, it was comforting. She'd spent a large chunk of her life watching her students walk away from her, leaving the schoolhouse for their own homes. It had never bothered her before, in the same way that reversing the situation didn't truly bother her now. She'd always known, with an instinctive certainty, that by the very next day they would be together again.
The walk into town was no different than usual. She resisted the urge to look around, taking the long-familiar route to Sugarcube Corner. It was only when she approached the first unfamiliar junction that Cheerilee began to slow. With the bakery in view, the tortured crawl across the final stretch lengthened from five minutes to nearly twenty. At long last her hooves dragged to a complete halt at the place where she’d decided she would turn, and with a heart heavy with dread she turned to face the darkened road ahead.
The road was empty. Not abandoned-empty, with discarded carts and broken wood strewn here and there, but truly empty, as though it had been swept clean. The buildings on either side were silent, houses on the left, stores on the right, locked up as they would have been on any other night before. It wasn't difficult to imagine that ponies might be sleeping inside them, tucked up warm and safe in their beds, dreaming of seeing the sun rise again.
Cheerilee shook these thoughts off angrily, but she still couldn't bring herself to move. Memories flooded back, of the night so long ago — she'd stopped counting by accident, and the numbers slipped further away from her with every passing day — when she'd had to make the journey into town for the first time. She'd prayed to Celestia that she wouldn't need to. Twilight Sparkle had told her to wait in the schoolhouse until the caravan came. But the caravan never came.
She remembered the exact moment she'd decided that venturing outdoors would be unavoidable. Diamond Tiara had gotten a splinter in her gums from chewing on wood, and it had been up to the teacher to carefully extract it. But the filly had refused to sit still, wriggling back and forth in discomfort as Cheerilee reached down time and time again with a needle, until she'd had to lie down and cradle Diamond Tiara close to her chest as she gently dug the splinter out. Holding her that close, feeling the filly's frailness as she struggled weakly, having her knee brush against every one of her protruding ribs, that had been the final straw. The moment the pesky splinter had been removed, Cheerilee had stood up, walked to the front door, and without saying a word, left to find some food.
The same needs motivated her now. Cheerilee gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, visualizing the pill bottle that she needed. The faint whimpers of unrest haunted her, the screams of nightmares past even more so. That wasn't a fate she would wish upon anypony. She knew what lay behind those sleeping eyes.
That push was all it took. Breathing silently, Cheerilee lifted her front hoof and set off down the unexplored street.
The first time she'd forged ahead like this, making her way to Sugarcube Corner, then later to the hardware store nearby, she'd compared it to walking into a manticore's den. Over time, she'd realized how inaccurate this analogy was, and she was glad that she hadn't seen it earlier. A killer beast could be waiting behind any rock or shadow, it was true, but the den she traversed was far from full of manticores. If a manticore was woken by a stranger in the night, it would roar. There would be the thundering of paws and a great flapping of wings and a warning, a chance to flee, some way of knowing that she'd made a mistake. They would offer no such respite. If one of the dark ponies of the night caught sight or sound of her as she crept through their home, there would be no warning. If she was very, very lucky, she might catch sight of a pony making its way towards her, perhaps galloping, perhaps at a crawl like hers; she had no idea. Then, all she would feel was the unforgiving grip of a set of once-friendly teeth upon her neck.
She knew this because she'd heard it before. On that first and final night, the night when they had run from the library, when the ponies around her had vanished into the darkness one by one, she hadn't heard anything at all.
Slowly, with more care than ever before, Cheerilee forced herself to put one hoof in front of the other. She counted down the number of steps until her destination, alternately squeezing her eyes shut and keeping them fixed on the ground. Silence swallowed her, the threat of searching eyes and listening ears holding her back like a physical barrier that she had to push through with every step. Keeping her students always in mind, she crawled ever onwards, always — always — staying out of the shadows.
The clinic had been torn apart.
Cheerilee stared at the building in shock. She'd almost missed the small white building, muscle memory carrying her further to the library a few streets over, but she'd come to an abrupt halt as her hoof nearly collided with something lying in the road. It was a pill bottle, the cap off and the label scratched beyond recognition. Cheerilee picked it up. It was empty. She stared up at the building on her right, her destination, and her heart stopped. The clinic's door was open. Everything inside was chaos.
A new kind of anxiety rising, Cheerilee approached the building and peered inside. The lights were off, and the position of the moon meant that no light shone through any of the windows, but the teacher's eyes had grown accustomed to this level of darkness. The room within was in disarray. The waiting room where ponies could see the nurses in town was intact, but the attached pharmacy was in ruins. The shelves close to the door had collapsed, releasing a cascade of boxes and bottles that had rolled all the way out to the street. As Cheerilee slipped inside, her flank brushed against the open door, resulting in a short but deafening creak. She instantly ducked and cringed, waiting for the grim molars of death to descend upon her. After a minute of any ravenous undead ponies failing to materialize, she forced herself back upright and shakily continued.
A closer examination of the disaster convinced her that the damage hadn't been caused by a violent outburst or deliberate sabotage, but simply by ponies in a hurry. Whoever had come this way had been untidy, but thorough; everything had been taken, from bandages to novelty toothbrushes, apparently without regard to whether or not it would be of actual use. Cheerilee walked back and forth across the room glumly, stepping carefully around empty boxes and sticky patches on the floor. Nothing left that we can use, she decided with a sigh. I hope that whoever took these supplies was able to put them to good use.
With the possibility of salvage out of the question, Cheerilee turned her attention to the desk at the rear of the room. Beyond the counter where she normally picked up her migraine pills, similarly stripped bare, there was a closed door leading back to the innards of the building. She’d only seen occasional glimpses through it, but the setup had looked straightforward enough. She’d committed the complex label on her bottle to memory. So long as she could find a drawer with the same name, she could guarantee her little ponies restful sleep for as long as they needed.
Except the door was jammed.
Cheerilee immediately stepped back and took a deep breath. She’d kept herself composed in far worse situations than this; she wasn’t going to give in to panic now. Bracing herself carefully, she placed one shoulder against the door and turned the handle, gradually and gently increasing pressure. Slowly, something started to give. The door swung open, accompanied by the silklike slide of something on the linoleum floor beyond. As soon as the crack was wide enough Cheerilee slipped through, quickly catching the chair that had been propping the door closed just as it started to overbalance. A sigh of relief nearly escaped her as she set it down soundlessly, confidence rising for the first time since she’d set out. Then she turned to the rest of the room and her heart leaped back into her throat.
A single window high up on the wall, this one turned towards the moonlight, illuminated chaos. Virtually everything in the once-pristine room had been overturned. Two whole walls of pillboxes and drawers had collapsed over a pair of broken desks. A set of filing cabinets had been toppled and emptied, their contents burned to ashes in a set of metal bowls nearby. A hallway could be seen at the far end connected to the clinic, debris continuing along it. But worst of all, every last pill in the building, large and small, had been gathered up and heaped into a pony-sized pile in the very middle of the room.
Cheerilee’s veins filled with ice. “Oh no,” she breathed, mouthing the word to herself even if she couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud. “No, no, no.” With unusual haste she scrambled over to the pile and knelt down, searching in vain for any kind of pattern or label. There was none. The mass before her was simply a lump of white, dotted with specks too dimly-lit to make out, much like the treats she served to her students every day.
A kind of frenzy overtook her. Cheerilee thrust both her front hooves into the mix, for once deaf to the faint clattering as pills were shifted. She pulled out hooffulls of white and held them up, weighing them and measuring them with her eyes. After all, she’d counted these pills out one by one five times a day, hadn’t she? She should know them by their size and weight, shouldn’t she? She couldn’t let something like this stop her. Not when her little ponies were depending on her. Not when she knew what waited in their dreams. She couldn’t let them dream. She couldn’t let them dream.
Something slipped under her hoof. That one wasn’t a pill. She held it closer, squinting. It was a tooth.
Cheerilee gasped and scrambled back, dropping the pearly object to the ground. It bounced and spun before coming to a halt. The mare stopped when her tail hit the wall, raising a hoof to her chest to calm her quickening breath. What— How— What? Her eyes widened as the full realization of what she’d picked up sank in. She started to wipe her hoof on her side but then stopped, trembling in place. There was no telling what kind of mouth that had been in. There was no telling what it might have been infected with. She needed to find a sink, fast.
Keeping her front hoof carefully raised, Cheerilee started forward again, then halted. In the hallway leading to the clinic, amidst what she’d overlooked as mere debris, there was another tiny shape in the middle of the floor. Another tooth. And further on, another. Cheerilee gulped. Then, as if in a trance, she started walking.
The chaotic pill room quickly turned to sterile corridors and closed, unmarked doors. The teeth continued in an unbroken trail, each about two feet from the last, that Cheerilee followed in her awkward, three-legged gait. The fifth tooth had a spot of black next to it, a once red liquid hardened into a dark and clotted stain on the linoleum. The following tooth was surrounded by three of these. This pattern continued with each successive tooth, occasional droplets turning into a steady stream of smears that began to weave back and forth as Cheerilee followed, keeping her hooves well away from the mess.
The thought occurred that whoever was responsible for this was probably also the one who had caused the destruction in the room before. The thought occurred that she might not be alone in the building after all. The thought occurred that if there was another pony here, there was very little chance that they would be the living kind. Still she went on. An ancient instinct drove her; the only thing worse than going forward would be going back. She simply, irresistibly, needed to know.
At the twenty-third tooth, the trail abruptly came to an end. It rested before a door at the end of the hallway, the broken tip pointing almost invitingly. Cheerilee stopped and stared, willing herself not to breathe. This door was cracked slightly open. Inside she could see moonlight, and the corner of an examination table. Fresh paper lay across it, waiting for its next patient. Beyond the door, all was silence.
Cheerilee held her breath and listened, straining her ears for another pony doing the same. She counted seconds as they went by; up or down, she couldn’t tell. Her heart screamed at her to turn back. Her eyes hungered for the darkness beyond. In one swift movement, she stepped forward and pushed open the door.
The room was empty.
The desk within had been cleared out with the same thorough haste as the shelves out front, its drawers pulled out and piled in the corner of the room. The frosted window on the far side had been broken, apparently from the inside, and looked out onto an empty street. Unlike the hallway, the floor was unmarked.
The small sink near the door appeared functional. Cheerilee rushed over to it, then gagged; more than a dozen more teeth filled the basin. Still, she turned on the tap to a thin, silent trickle and waited for the water to warm until it was nearly scalding, then with a generous helping of hoof soap she washed every part of herself the tooth and her hoof had touched.
Stepping away, her eye caught a piece of paper that had fallen to the ground beside the sink. She picked it up, holding up to the light to read three lines of unfamiliar writing.
For my family.
I’m so sorry.
We will see each other again.
Cheerilee stared at the note for a long time. She traced the shaky writing, wondering in the back of her mind if it had been written with a mouth, horn or hoof; whether the author was one of the nurses at the clinic, or some poor passer-by who had gotten trapped at the worst possible moment; whether they had been a stallion or a mare, whether they had any children, whether there was any hope that this last promise would ever be fulfilled. She only moved again when a faint splash startled her out of her trance. Unbidden, tears had started to run down her face. She put the note gently on the rim of the sink and, seeing as her body wasn’t cooperating anyway, allowed herself to lurch into the corner and curl up into a ball to cry.
While her outer self shook to silence her gasps for air, Cheerilee’s mind hardened in its resolve. Sadness was a luxury she didn’t have time to afford, not with four little ponies depending on her. Searching for a fifth had only been a waste of time. Silently she tied another knot around her heart, tightening the armor of what she chose to call optimism against any future tears that tried to escape. She permitted herself to cry just this once, while nopony was watching, but told herself that it wouldn’t happen again. There were things at stake more important than her own feelings. She knew what could happen when she let herself lose control.
Clearly, the clinic was a dead end. Even if by some miracle she did get lucky with the monstrous pill-pile, she would never find enough medicine to justify the time it would take. Searching house to house might have been worth the risk, if only she had more time. There was always the hospital—
No. The closer she got to it, the more the idea repulsed her. The hospital wasn’t an option.
There has to be another way. Cheerilee shifted in the corner, swallowing the last whimpers of her moment of weakness. Moonlight fell across her face, leaving her half in shadow. She stared up and out over the world beyond. Pills aren't the answer to everything. Nurse Redheart always said so. What else can stop a living Nightmare? Laughter? Memories?
Several streets away, towering loftily over the buildings around it, Cheerilee could see the branches of Ponyville's library.
Moving again was difficult. Cheerilee slowly uncurled herself from the corner and stood up. She felt strangely light, as though her body was being held together with nothing but string, but when her legs began to move again they stepped with confidence. Not trusting the window, she began to retrace her steps back through the clinic, a new route forming in her head. While she had no desire to return to that haunting place, a memory of something captivating seemed to tug her onwards. After all, she reasoned, trying to paint over her dread with positivity, didn’t we always say that Harmony would save us?
A Somepony who loves you Story
It was difficult for Cheerilee to find a book the first time. It wasn't just the lack of light in the library, though that certainly impeded her; even by the moonlight and the semi-random flashes and sparks from the middle of the room, she needed to squint for nearly a minute to make out some of the smaller titles. It was just that given the circumstances, subject matter was more important than ever. The foals with her had been through a lot already, and she knew better than to frighten them further with a lengthy adventure story. But at the same time, no foal would be able to take heart in a comforting tale about love and sunshine in a time as dark as this.
Almost all three of her classes were gathered near the stairs, huddled together for warmth and comfort. Some were with their parents. Most had come alone. Cheerilee had rounded them together almost automatically, without needing to volunteer, and had been trying to keep them entertained ever since. She’d assumed it would just be for a short while, until the committee from the town hall returned. That had been three hours ago. They’d been expected back in two.
After what seemed an age, Cheerilee picked up a heavy book from the bottom corner of a shelf. She paused as she read the title over twice, then clutched it resolutely. Another pony might have called it the worst possible choice, but she knew better than that. She knew where their salvation lay. Nodding to herself, the teacher moved quickly to the base of the stairs and sat down in a moonbeam, laying the book down in front of her with a faint thud.
Instantly, the eyes of all the foals were on her. Without bothering with her usual introduction, Cheerilee began to read. "Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters who ruled together and created harmony for all the land..."
The rest of the room was listening too, she knew. None of the adult ponies would look at her, but she could see their ears swiveling in her direction. The library was packed. Aside from the foals, there must have been around fifty ponies crammed together in the main room. Despite the cramped conditions, nopony seemed keen on spreading to other areas of the building. Mostly they sat in silence, giving each other knowing glances and holding on to each other as they waited.
There was one mare she recalled, a green unicorn, who couldn't seem to sit still. She would constantly rise to pace back and forth, jumping up to peer out windows and hopping skittishly from hoof to hoof, until the earth pony she was with would call her to sit back down. This repeated around once every five minutes, with the tone of the warning changing every time it was uttered, sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp. Mostly the others in the room seemed to ignore the pair. They didn't seem to be making enough noise to be bothersome.
"And so, one thousand years went by. The ponies of Equestria believed that Harmony had won for good, and they lived their days and nights with renewed hope and joy. And they forgot the fear of the dark, and they forgot the threat of envy. They even forgot that there had once been such a pony as the Princess of the Night."
Besides the moon, there were two other sources of illumination. One came from the magical glow of unicorns at work in the middle of the room. Pipes and metals connected a series of beakers, some actual, some improvised, that glowed with all colours of energy as they were magically passed back and forth across the table. Some of the glass containers were filled with liquids and sediments. Others contained flesh in various states. Nopony gave too much thought — intentionally, at least — as to how these samples had been collected.
A mix of doctors and scientists clustered around the organized chaos. Some of them Cheerilee recognized, while others looked like they came from out of town. They worked diligently and never seemed to argue, only speaking to each other to compare results in hushed voices. Twilight Sparkle circled around them, occasionally darting in to offer a slight alteration or a comforting word. While she kept herself and the others constantly busy, she still found the time to smile or nod at the frightened ponies around her. Cheerilee couldn't begin to comprehend the kind of work they were doing in that circle, but she was certain that if anypony would be able to lead find a solution to the crisis, it would be her.
"And at this, the wicked Night Mare laughed. 'Does my crown no longer count, now that I have been imprisoned for a thousand years? Did you not recall the legend? Did you not see the signs?’"
A few ponies were giving Cheerilee some dirty looks at this point. Even so, she didn’t speed up or stop. She embellished the voice of Nightmare Moon as she would on any other occasion, and when she reached the wicked Queen’s evil laugh, she didn’t hold back in the slightest. Her students cowered in front of her, clinging tightly to one another with bated breath. But her little ponies were braver than most adults would give them credit for; not one cried out or turned away. All their eyes were fixed upon her, and not, crucially, the horror that burned outside.
The library’s third source of light, distressingly, was Canterlot. Mere hours after the moon had frozen in the sky, it had sprung up into a glorious red blaze that shone like a second sun over the mountain and surrounding countryside. As the crisis wore on the fire had only grown, perhaps feeding on the magic woven into the stones of the city itself, and had gradually shifted through every colour of the rainbow before settling on a deep violet. It had stayed this way for some time, casting a flickering purple glow that rose and fell at unpredictable intervals. Staring directly at it for more than a few seconds hurt her eyes, so Cheerilee had soon devoted every part of herself — body and mind — to ignoring it.
"But Pinkie Pie wasn't frightened by the faces on the trees. Instead, she laughed! She giggled at the ghosties that had appeared in the forest, and she told her friends to do the same.”
By that point, nopony had seen the real Pinkie Pie in over four hours. There were whispers that she had gone to gather supplies, though what and where remained unspecified. It didn’t seem to have crossed anypony’s minds to worry about her, though. Imagining a pony like her being hurt was somehow unthinkable.
From the doctors’ table there was a spark and a puff of smoke that quickly rolled down onto the floor. Amidst the sudden coughs and shuffling hooves there was a gasp of delight, followed by excited whispering. Twilight Sparkle ran to that section, a smile on her face, and more frenzied discussion and explanation began. It took a great deal of Cheerilee’s willpower not to stop reading then and there and listen in.
The spark was all it had taken to bring the room back to life. Ponies began to whisper to each other again, stirring their limbs for the first time in ages. After the threat of eternal darkness, hope had started to return. Cheerilee’s fixed smile became a little more real as her story reached its climax. “But just when all hope was lost, just when it seemed like Nightmare Moon had won for good, Twilight Sparkle heard a noise. She looked back to the front of the hall, and she saw a light, and heard voices and hoofsteps coming towards her. It was her friends, coming to help her. And that’s when she realized something, something she’d been very foolish not to see right from the start.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Cheerilee saw the real life Twilight Sparkle blush. She grinned and raised herself up, speaking just a little louder. “She turned to Nightmare Moon with a smile on her face. And at the sight of that smile, even the Night Mare found herself afraid. ‘You think you can destroy the Elements of Harmony just like that?’ Twilight said. ‘Well, you’re wrong. Because the spirits of the Elements of Harmony a—’”
One frightened scream plunged the room back into silence. Cheerilee glanced up and froze, her mouth still open. The green unicorn had risen again and was standing in a moonbeam, looking around in confusion as other ponies backed away from her. One mare stood her ground, the cream-coloured earth pony she’d been with earlier. She stared at the floor between them, trembling in place. Realization dawning, Lyra followed her gaze and slowly raised her front left leg.
She left a bright red hoofprint in its place.
The library was surprisingly easy to reach. The moon was almost perfectly aligned with the streets in this part of town, leaving flat, brightly-lit roads with no broad shadows to circumnavigate. The door was closed as Cheerilee approached; evidently the last pony to leave had had the foresight to close it on their way out. This meant that the building was almost certainly secure. They didn’t bother with such formalities.
She instantly resisted the idea that somepony else might have returned in the meantime. The evacuation had been complete. There was nothing here worth coming back for.
The heavy door opened soundlessly, a little residual magic masking its usual creak. Cheerilee stepped briskly inside and shut it behind her, taking a deep breath before looking around. She instantly regretted doing this. A swamplike stench lay thick upon the air, sickeningly sweet, but at the same time bitter as a mouthful of rust. Cheerilee gagged, covering her nose and mouth in an effort to keep what little hay she’d consumed that morning from making a reappearance. Breathing as little as possible, she took a few stumbling steps into the middle of the room.
A few seconds delayed, the realization of what she was breathing hit her. Her eyes widened, and only a sudden, pressing need to hold back vomit kept her from simply bolting for the door. She pressed her mane across her face and breathed through it, reassuring herself that the smell wouldn’t harm her if she didn’t stay long. At least she could say with some degree of confidence that the air wasn’t infected.
It was clear that her suspicions had been correct; nopony had come this way since the group had left. Chairs had been overturned, one cracked pitcher lay on the now-empty table, and a copy of Tales of Harmony was still at the base of the stairs where she’d left it. She made her way over and picked it up, then immediately dropped it as her eyes watered. The pages reeked of the same smell that permeated the rest of the library.
With equal parts sorrow and resentment, Cheerilee turned her eyes towards the far corner of the room. Some volunteers with strong stomachs had cleaned up once it was over, leaving no visible evidence behind. But the smell seeped up through the floorboards, haunting the building with its presence. Sadly, Cheerilee shook her head. I can’t bring back anything from here. Not with that smell. It would only bring the nightmares back faster.
On a hunch, she went upstairs and found herself facing a closed door, which opened into Twilight Sparkle’s bedroom. To her relief, the smell didn’t seem to reach up as high as this, and she quickly set about exploring. Unfortunately, the books that Twilight kept close to her were of little use. Mostly they were thick texts with needlessly long titles about advanced magical and mathematical theory, which Twilight evidently considered ideal late-night reading material. There was certainly nothing that might catch the minds of young ponies, not enough to drag their thoughts away from the nightmares. What looked like a toy chest lay against one wall, but it was empty.
Frustrated, Cheerilee checked the desk nearby, and at last she had some luck. Within one of the drawers she discovered several thick packages of paper, both blank and lined. Most of their supplies of these at the schoolhouse had been eaten by Snails during their first few hungry days, and the rest had quickly been consumed in the weeks to come. Happy memories. Healthy minds. Stories to drive the terrors from their dreams. Cheerilee nodded. These will have to do.
She left the quills and ink; they had plenty of those already. The blanket had been stripped from Twilight’s bed, which was something of a relief — dragging that through the door would be nightmare fuel in and of itself — but she found some spare sheets in a cupboard, and placed those on her back as well. She did a final sweep of the room before heading back downstairs, placing a corner of a sheet over her muzzle so she could breathe.
Before leaving the library, Cheerilee stopped at the door and let the sheet fall from her face. She looked towards the basement door and breathed in slowly, smelling the cause of all their problems for what she hoped was the last time. “I’m sorry,” she said aloud, without fully understanding why. “I never got to say it at the time, but I am. I’m so... sorry.” With that, she turned away and walked back out onto the streets.
The journey back was always easier. In one short trip the roads had become familiar again, with considerably less threat that every step might be her last. The papers were far lighter than her usual load, and the sheets provided a little warmth against the enduring chill of the night. Though she had a far longer trek before her than usual, her heart felt lighter than it had in a long time. The pills were only a temporary measure anyway, she reasoned. We have hope. We have each other. That’s all we need. That’s all we’ll ever need.
Almost as soon as she was through the door, Cheerilee was caught in a desperate embrace from a filly on either side. “Cheerilee!” Silver Spoon cried, pressing herself against her teacher’s foreleg. “We were so worried about you!”
“We thought you weren’t coming back,” Twist sobbed from her other side.
“It’s all right, girls. I’m here.” Cheerilee quickly turned the inside lock and gave both of her students a squeeze in turn before gently moving past them. Both trembled at her touch. “You know I’ll never leave you. Don’t ever worry about that.”
Diamond Tiara sat at the end of the hallway, her forelegs folded across her chest. “Miss Cheerilee,” she whined as soon as her teacher was close. “Snails tried to make breakfast by himself, and then he spilled flour everywhere and tried to clean it up by drooling all over it.”
“Not now, Tiara. We’ll deal with that in a few minutes.” Cheerilee lowered herself and unloaded her bounty, prompting a smile that the spoiled filly wasn’t quite able to hide. “I found some new sheets, and some paper! Won’t it be nice to start drawing again?”
Snails stuck his head around the doorframe, his muzzle covered in white powder. “Miss Cheerilee? I can explain...”
“It’s all right, Snails.” Cheerilee put on her best smile. “Everything’s all right.”
In the end, the damage to the flour wasn’t as bad as Diamond Tiara had made it out to be. Snails had only spilled a little, the foodstuff’s tendency to spread making it look like a lot more, and Cheerilee was able to salvage most of it. While her students set upon their new art supplies, she began preparation of what she supposed was a late lunch. The trick, she’d found, was adding just the right amount of water to the flour. It had to be just enough to make it into a paste, but not enough to leave it dripping to the touch. She hummed as she worked, sifting miniscule amounts of sugar and chocolate into a large bowl. At home, she’d never had much patience for cooking. Now, after just a few weeks of practice, she felt like a true gourmet.
The foals were hard at work when Cheerilee bustled back into the room, carrying their meal and a mismatched set of smaller bowls. The three fillies huddled close together with one of the new sheets pulled over the three of them, differences momentarily forgotten as they squinted down at their pages in the dim light. Snails sat nearby, amidst a pile of salvaged quills and pencil crayons. Cheerilee put the bowls down, approaching the colt first with a smile. “And what are you...” She stopped dead.
Snails wasn’t much of an artist. He’d drawn a blocky yellow unicorn with a long neck and sticklike legs, almost an image of a uni-giraffe if not for the green mane and tail. Beside this he’d drawn another unicorn, this one short, round and blue, a red mane half-finished around his head. “I couldn’t get the colours to look right,” Snails said, leaning back to admire his work. “But I think it looks okay.”
Nodding vaguely, Cheerilee walked over to the other foals. Twist had drawn herself with the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Diamond Tiara had drawn her family. And Silver Spoon... Silver Spoon had drawn everypony. Every foal from her class was neatly grouped together, with plenty of space for more to be added. With a small flourish she finished the tail on Sweetie Belle, then looked up expectantly as Cheerilee stared down at her.
For what was probably too long, Cheerilee only watched. She felt almost weightless, and for a moment she was struck by the feeling that her heart had stopped beating for good. It was only a pulse of blood behind her ears that reminded her that she still had duties to attend to. “They’re all lovely,” she said weakly, a smile plastered to her face. “Why don’t we eat?”
Without protest, the group rose and reassembled around Cheerilee’s setup. She doled out portions of the sugary dough in carefully practiced servings, making sure that all five of them received the same amount. She smiled at the group before digging in to her portion. It didn’t taste like anything much; to this day, she wasn’t sure how much of the flavor came from the food, and how much from unwarranted optimism.
For some reason, the others didn’t seem as interested in eating. Twist stared at her food for a good ten seconds before dipping a hoof into it, and Silver Spoon only began her meal once Diamond Tiara started hers. Cheerilee swallowed hard, glancing around nervously. None of the foals were smiling. “You really should eat,” she said to Snails, who was simply pushing his food around in his bowl.
Snails shrugged. “I’m not hungry,” he said.
Less than a second later, the colt’s stomach growled. Cheerilee giggled, but the sound fell flat across the still room. “It sounds like you’re hungry,” she said. “Don’t you think you should eat just a little?”
“I guess.” Snails pushed the dough around some more, then shrugged again. “I just don’t really feel like it.”
Diamond Tiara snorted. A smirk appeared at the corner of her mouth, and she turned towards Silver Spoon to whisper. “Maybe he’s a zombie.”
In a flash, Cheerilee was on her hooves. Diamond Tiara froze up as she realized she’d said something wrong, and Silver Spoon actually shrank away from her. Cheerilee stomped towards the filly and raised a hoof as if to strike her, genuine anger burning on her face. “We do not use that word!” she almost shouted, coming within an inch of raising her voice.
The moment passed. Cheerilee lowered her hoof, the anger fading from her face. “I... I’m sorry,” she mumbled. Diamond Tiara only whimpered. Cheerilee looked left and right. Her other students were staring at her in much the same way, as if they didn’t know whether to apologize or run. “Really,” she said desperately. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
It was deeper than that, she knew. They all remembered what had happened the last time Cheerilee had raised her voice.
Now shaking, the teacher stepped back. She knelt down and spread her forelegs, beckoning all four foals towards her. “Come here,” she whispered. None of them moved. “Please,” she added. A tear started to build up in the corner of her eye. One by one, her little ponies pushed aside their bowls and moved towards her. All of them avoiding the gazes of the others, they clustered together in a group hug.
Cheerilee felt a chill run through her as she held her students close. There was no strength in any of their limbs. Every one of them was shivering. Every one of them was cold to the touch. She held them as tightly as she dared, pressing her face desperately into their collective manes. “I love you, my little ponies,” she whispered. “I love you so much.”
Tomorrow I’ll go to the hospital.
A Somepony who loves you Story
Cheerilee didn’t go to bed right away that night. After giving the foals their pills and saying goodnight (not goodbye) she waited outside the classroom for a while, listening through a crack in the door. Much as she longed to, she didn’t dare peek her head through the door. Not tonight. Tonight needed to be just like any other night.
For a minute, there was only the soft in and out of little ponies breathing. Then there was a rustle. From the set of sheets nearest to the door Cheerilee could hear a pony turning over, then a whisper. “I don’t think you’re a thombie.”
There was a long, silent pause. Then: “Thanks.”
After that, there was no more. Cheerilee squeezed her eyes shut and waited for five more minutes until she was certain that all of her students were asleep, then crept away and shut herself in her office. Gravely, she reached into a drawer on her desk and slowly unrolled a map of Ponyville.
Reaching the hospital wouldn't be like her journeys in the past. The building was on the far side of Ponyville, not an unreasonable distance by air or at a gallop, but a full day's journey at the crawling pace she set for herself. On top of that, she had to be back before bedtime the following evening. If her students were forced to sleep without their pills, without her being there for them, then all this would be completely pointless.
Taking the winding path through town was looking like a bad idea. Cheerilee sighed, tracing her practiced safe route on the map with her hoof. Though it was more direct than any other way, going through what was formerly the most heavily populated parts of Ponyville and having to constantly maneuver around shadows would hold her back far too much on this particular journey. Instead, it might make more sense to walk around Ponyville, following the river until she came around to the hospital from the side. Measuring with her hooves, she determined that the shortest route would be to double back and cut across fields directly to Sweet Apple Acres, then swing north and stick to the outskirts until the grounds came into view. It was risky, but no more so than any other route would have been.
Once she actually reached the hospital, however... that was another matter. She was just going to have to figure it out from there.
Sighing again, Cheerilee walked over to the sink and poured herself a glass of water. She spilled her medication out onto her desk and counted the pills again, subtracting one as she swallowed her own. Nine white pills. One more night after this. At the very least, she'd given herself some breathing space. She scooped the pills back into their container and returned it to its place by the sink.
The second bottle came out as well. Six little pills. Six little...
Cheerilee yawned. She tidied these pills away as well and locked them safely away in their drawer. She lay down and wrapped herself in a sheet that she'd selfishly kept for herself, laying her head down and closing her eyes against the darkness.
And to think, she thought to herself as tiredness fell upon her, she called it a cure.
"Goodbye, my little ponies. Please be here when I get back."
Cheerilee gulped. She hesitated in front of the building for longer than usual before turning away. Her little ponies had nothing to worry about, of course. Only twice had she ever actually returned to them before they woke up, both times when her nerves had failed her on some menial task that could safely be put off. They were used to waiting, knowing that their teacher had promised she would return. How long would they wait today? A few hours longer than normal? Until it was time for dinner? How long did she have before they began to suspect she might not be coming back?
The teacher turned to the road and began to walk. I will come back, she told herself. I have to. I promised.
Instead of taking the usual road into Ponyville, Cheerilee turned directly off the path the moment she was a safe distance away. Almost right away she slowed down, acutely aware of the difference in sound from the dirt road to the grass. The tiny stalks squelched under her hooves; they were soaked in dew and blackened at the edges. Her attempts at grazing early on had made her gag, even during the first month of night. She tried not to think about the state of what she was walking over now.
Traversing a field was a very different experience to walking Ponyville’s empty streets. At first, every step across the dark expanse was an exercise in bravado. Cheerilee felt totally exposed, without even the illusion of safety that walls on both sides of her provided. Every time a squelch from the grass reached her ears, she cringed and returned to a painfully slow crawl for a few minutes more. But after nearly an hour of every landmark fading further and further away from her, she started to realize that being able to see in all directions was as much an advantage for her as it was for them. Out here, there were no corners for them to hide behind, no shadows for them to lurk in. The buildings to one side were far too distant to feel like a true threat, and as the fields to her left turned into rows of withered and decaying tomatoes, Cheerilee almost felt like laughing with relief. The monsters of the night had no reason to be out here. Even if one did manage to see or hear her, she would spot it from a mile away.
As to what she would do if that actually happened... well, she resolved not to worry about that.
This unfamiliar feeling of relative safety only grew as the river came into view. As the grassy plains beneath her hooves gave way to rows of deeply browned heads of lettuce, for the first time in months Cheerilee heard a sound from the natural world. Against all odds the river was still trickling, slowly but surely sending a steady stream of water towards Ponyville’s reservoir and down the frequent channels across the wilted and decaying farmland. To her delight the noise was just enough to mask her hoofteps, if she was careful, and despite her haste she allowed herself to come to a halt and look around. All was calm and quiet — not silent, just quiet. There was nopony else around as far as the eye could see.
I could bring the foals here, Cheerilee thought, and realized to her astonishment that she was smiling. So long as they’re quiet, and they Pinkie Pie promise not to splash in the water... we could make a field trip of it. With a soft sigh, feeling a little more of the tension she was carrying slip away, Cheerilee stepped towards the river and leaned down to take a drink. Just before her lips touched the surface, she noticed that the moonlight wasn’t reflected off the water.
Sharply, Cheerilee straightened up and hurried on her way.
The river began to flow more swiftly as the ground curved upwards. Eventually a new dirt path came into being beside the waters, and even when the river began to curl more directly northwards to her destination Cheerilee chose to follow this instead. Sweet Apple Acres loomed up ahead, and in no time at all she was within its borders.
What little security the river had provided evaporated instantly. The farmland beside the path turned from the untouched remains of berries and carrots to plants that a pony could conceivably hide behind, only a thin wooden fence on her left separating Cheerilee from the impenetrable shadows of the orchard. The smell of decaying and fermented apples grew stronger as she walked. She gagged, silently wondering whether it would be wiser to abandon the path entirely, when she rounded a corner and Sweet Apple Acres' main gate came into view. That's when Cheerilee stopped, staring. This was not the gate that she knew.
Instead of the friendly and welcoming gap leading into the orchard, a wall of metal and wood barred the way. It seemed to be made from any number of materials, from roughly-cut logs to sheets of siding, miscellaneous planks, chicken wire, broken pipes, apparently anything the ponies responsible could get their hooves on. The more cluttered sections were cracked and splintered, as if they’d been broken down and repaired multiple times. The fence on the far side of the gate to where Cheerilee was standing had been torn up, and a new, similarly constructed fortification now cut much more sharply inwards across the orchard.
Cheerilee’s heart skipped another beat as a word forced its way into her consciousness. Survivors.
The teacher very nearly charged forward, but managed to hold herself back. She fidgeted in place, weighing her options before continuing. On one hoof, if other ponies (among them the Apple family, obviously) had managed to find a way to hold out against the Nightmare, it was imperative that she made contact with them. On the other hoof, she couldn’t just trot up and knock on the door. A fence like that was only used to keep things out, which meant that there were plenty of things around that needed to be kept out. Any sound that might attract any living ponies within would no doubt also bring a lot of unwanted attention. In fact, it was probably folly even to be this close. Cheerilee whinnied silently and almost stomped in frustration, leaning back one moment and forward the next.
Another observation caused her to make up her mind. In front of the gate she could make out several dark shapes scattered in the road, the size of apples but the wrong shape. Unable to allay her curiosity any longer, Cheerilee crept forward to the gate, constantly looking around for signs that she was being watched. The tiny lumps came gradually into view, each one ragged and misshapen, and her stomach lurched as she realized what she was looking at. Even so, she made her way all the way up to the gate and examined them closely before coming to any conclusions. Lying twisted and shriveled in the middle of the road were half a dozen chunks of desiccated meat.
Bait, Cheerilee quickly decided, choosing to believe that the animal or pony who had provided these had died naturally and painlessly. Bait that nopony’s taken. That’s a good sign... I think. Satisfied that she wasn’t about to be ambushed by any waiting monsters, she turned her attention to the gate. There was a clear divide down the middle of it, bound by a heavy chain, with no clear means of unlocking it. She fretted for another minute; every moment she wasted here was one taken from her mission of reaching the hospital.
Inspiration struck. Cheerilee eyed one of the dried clumps of flesh on the road. Provided it was light enough to not make noise, she could throw one or two of these back over the fence. That would signal to whoever was on the inside that somepony out there was alive and thinking, however long it took for them to find it. With no time to lose, trying very hard not to think about what she was doing, she reached out towards one of the blackening shapes on the road.
The moment Cheerilee picked up the lump, however, this plan fell apart. The meat collapsed in on itself, dissolving in her hoof into a bright pink mass with the consistency of a thick broth that dripped in putrid chunks back to the road. She dropped it and automatically stifled a gasp, biting her lip to keep from wincing as she wiped her hoof on the ground. All at once an all-too-familiar smell hit her, the nauseating scent of syrup laced with rust. Her eyes widened again. Among the slime and flakes of dried skin, partially dissolved by the liquid mass around it, was a small, perfectly spherical shape.
Everything trembled. Everything came to a halt. Unable to stop herself, Cheerilee kicked over another of the horrifying lumps. It dripped as it fell onto its side and cracked open, spilling partially liquified contents out of a decaying husk. A tiny white shape could be seen, apparently having been crammed into what had once been solid flesh, before a tide of foamy innards smothered it again.
Cheerilee backed up. She breathed deeply, and then tried very hard not to breathe at all. She reached the grass and wiped her hoof again, this time more thoroughly. Another flash of pink caught her eye. She looked up. Tied around one corner of the fence was a frayed pink bow.
As stiffly and as silently as possible, she turned northward and ran.
For the most part, all she could remember were noises.
“If we do nothing, she’ll die.”
Twilight Sparkle had said those words first, directly to a pony in a doctor’s coat but loud enough for all to hear. After that the words had persisted, though Cheerilee wasn’t sure whether she’d heard others repeating them or if she’d simply been reassuring herself, time and time again, as the night dragged on and on.
It had all seemed so reasonable.
For the longest time, there was only whispering. The others in the library had remained surprisingly calm, under the circumstances. Lyra had been moved to the far corner of the room and Spike, the little dragon who lived with Twilight Sparkle, had brought down a blue blanket from upstairs to cover her with. Cheerilee stayed with the foals near the stairs, leaving only glimpses of the injured pony visible through the forest of legs separating them. More smoke periodically erupted from the table in the middle of the room, which was starting to turn the air sour, and the ponies around it muttered constantly to one another. They worked as carefully and painstakingly as ever, but there was an urgency in their hushed discussions that hadn’t been there before, a tension stretching across the room and keeping everypony in the library on edge.
Cheerilee had tried to carry on with her story at first, but it was clear that nopony’s heart was in it any more, not even her own. It was better that the doctors had no distractions, anyway.
With finality Twilight Sparkle’s horn lit up, and everything fell silent. Cheerilee counted the mare’s hoofsteps as she turned and walked towards Lyra — one, two, ten muffled clops of hooves against wood, then nothing. Twilight tried to speak, but somepony stopped her. There was nothing that needed to be said.
In the middle of the room, there was a soft click as a tiny shape coalesced and was placed into an empty container.
In the pause that followed, Cheerilee gestured for her students to gather close to her. “Make a wish,” she said. Countless eyes stared up at her; all she could make out clearly among the flickering shadows were their eyes, wide and shining. Cheerilee smiled at them. It seemed to come naturally. “Lyra needs our help right now. The doctors are doing all they can, and they need all the help they can get. I want you all to close your eyes and wish as hard as you can for Lyra to get well again.”
Nopony questioned this, not even the ones who were old enough to know better. As one the foals closed their eyes, some mouthing words to themselves, others pursing their lips in expressions of extreme concentration. Cheerilee caught a few adults nearby following suit, and she couldn’t help but grin as she closed her eyes as well.
Minutes ticked by. All the visible clocks in the library had been stopped, each showing a different time, so there was no way of knowing how long they sat in silence. There was nothing but the sound of ponies trying to breathe quietly, the faint hum of magic, and clatter after clatter as little white shapes were dropped onto a growing pile of medicine in the middle of the room.
A loud cough broke sharply through the stillness, causing a flurry of heads to turn to turn towards the far corner of the room. Cheerilee opened her eyes without meaning to, catching a glimpse of a green mane rising up from beneath a blue blanket. More ponies in the middle of the room stood up, cutting off her view completely. She heard Lyra take a deep breath, which turned into a long, powerful yawn, as if she were just waking up from a deep sleep. The mare spoke.
“I feel something.”
Then she coughed again, and this time she didn’t stop. Her choking got louder and more ragged, as though something were expanding inside her throat — there was a thud as she steadied herself against the wall — and the noises turned to harsh, wet retching. That’s when Cheerilee shut her eyes tight and wished as hard as she could, for real this time, that everything was going to be okay.
As much as Cheerilee tried to recollect those moments — and she did try, whether she wanted to or not — she was never certain whether she had imagined the sound of something soft and wet hitting the floor before Lyra began to scream.
There had been shouting. She recalled hearing the sound of her own voice — “Close your eyes!” — but she couldn’t remember saying anything. She was certain that she’d spent those first moments moving amongst her students, shutting opening eyes, turning frightened faces back towards her, but she remembered none of this. She’d been half-sobbing. “Don’t look. Please, just don’t, don’t look.” Had she looked? She must have done. Even when her eyes were closed, all she could see were flashes of green, and blue, and pink.
The screaming echoed. It filled the room from all sides at once, and while Cheerilee could shut her students’ eyes, there was nothing that could drive away the noise. This wasn’t what pain was supposed to sound like. This was raw, and guttural, and it never diminished even when it was being forced through liquid. And above all else, it just didn’t stop. It jolted and quivered as the mare’s body thrashed again and again against the floor, and it halted every few seconds only for the length of a ragged gasp for air that was almost as painful as the scream itself. Mere minutes in another voice joined her, screaming almost in unison, and although this cry was more natural and not interrupted by shaking and internal fluids, it carried just as much agony and sorrow.
Cheerilee cowered. At some point she’d grabbed a pair of the smaller foals and desperately pressed them close to her; she still wasn’t certain who they’d been. Her eyes were clenched firmly shut. A smell began to creep up on her, and her first thought had been that somepony had eaten too much candy and thrown up again, and she’d already begun to map out her route to the supply closet before reality came back and struck her once again. It was only the secure warmth of the foals against her breast that had prevented her from losing control of her own body right then and there.
It didn’t stop. Somehow, it just didn’t stop. So much time passed — ten minutes? Twenty? — just spent trembling in place, listening to the same sounds crash through her over and over again, before either of the screaming ponies showed any signs of slowing down. Even then, she didn’t fade; she simply sounded as though she were shouting from further and further away, and then, further and further underwater. The other voice never stopped. Even when Lyra’s flailings came to a limp halt, even when her cries became so weak and so muted that they might not have been there at all, the pony who stood over her never faltered in her sorrowful wailing. It was around then that other ponies started to move. That’s when Cheerilee found the strength to open her eyes.
There was nothing coherent, only snapshots. Her students, clustered around her like foals to a mother. All of them were deathly pale. None of them would look straight at her. More ponies looking around, as if waiting for somepony to tell them what to do. Twilight Sparkle against a wall, white as snow and trembling like a leaf. A pile of pills among toppled equipment on an abandoned table.
There was Lyra. She looked like she was sleeping. Bright pink drool dripped from her lips. A blue blanket covered the lower half of her body, stained in many colours. “Don’t look,” Cheerilee repeated, only partly to her students.
In front of her, a cream-coloured mare with a striped mane. Her face was dark and matted with tears. She was still screaming. Two ponies were at her sides, one supporting her, the other trying to hold her down. She ignored them both.
Other ponies were talking. Somewhere to Cheerilee’s left, a mare was speaking in a shaky voice. “We should never have come here. This isn’t right. No cure could be worth this much pain.”
At the same time, a stallion on Cheerilee’s right was shaking his head. “We’re worse than they are now,” he was saying. “They never do this to each other. We’re the real evil. It’s us who’s the killers.”
As quickly as it had begun, everything died down again. Ponies started to move, then stopped. The events that had just transpired were still echoing, far louder than anypony could bear to deal with. Eventually the wailing pony collapsed, breaking down into sobs and shaky repetitions of Lyra’s name. The ponies who had been crying swallowed their tears. Slowly, the room descended back into silence.
And all that could be heard was a steady, persistent knocking at the library door.
A Somepony who loves you Story
Cheerilee felt the hospital long before she saw it. After an uneventful trek across the town's undeveloped western edge, she crossed the river back into Ponyville to take the final stretch up the more familiar roads. Before long the remaining houses began to thin out, ending in half-finished construction projects before leaving nothing in between the teacher and the building on the distant hill.
Even at this distance, the sheer presence of the hospital was staggering. Set between rising hills a short distance away from town, it stood grim and blackened even against the dark sky, as though the moonlight had been sucked from the air around it. A reluctant closer look revealed that this wasn’t just a trick of the light; a colossal sphere of shadow the same shape as a unicorn’s force field surrounded it, stretching more than double the length of the building in every direction. While over the rest of town the clouds had drifted or been carried away, here they congregated by some unseen force, further blackening the exterior. There was no trace of life visible on the hospital grounds, moving or otherwise. All was still and silent.
Cheerilee halted at the very edge of Ponyville, gulping. She stared at the hospital, doing her best to shake off the feeling that it was staring back. This is it, she thought. All I need is inside there. Just a little further, and this can all be over. Swallowing hard, she forced herself to pick up her hooves and carry on walking.
There had been a great deal of whispering in the library about what had ultimately become of the hospital. While she’d made a point of putting the place out of her mind, Cheerilee hadn’t been able to help hearing the word “overrun” more than once. Coming up from the front, it was difficult to tell if that was the case. But as she crept closer and closer and more details came into view, it became clear that something terrible had happened here. While most of the doors and windows seemed intact, near the middle of the building, high above the main entrance, it looked as though the top two floors and part of the roof had caved in. A roughly circular gap exposed the hospital’s innards to the elements, filled with a darkness so black that even the limited moonlight couldn’t penetrate it. The walls around it were cracked, the windows shattered, as though the building had been struck by something moving at high speed.
Cheerilee ignored this and worked on her plan, limited as it was, as she trudged up the path to the hospital at her same tired, silent pace. She'd visited Ponyville General twice before, once for an emergency, the other time for a medical concern that had turned out to be nothing, so she had a basic idea of the layout. The storeroom was somewhere in the back of the west wing, easily accessible in case of emergencies. There wasn’t a single locked door in the entire building. Once she got in, even if she couldn't find a light source right away, she could probably feel her way to the room by intuition alone. She checked that she still remembered the name of her prescription down to the letter; it was still there. All she had to do was get inside. Simple as that.
The air was clean. Cheerilee took a few deep breaths as the hospital got closer and closer. She braced herself for any hint of sweetness, or the rank stench of decay. There was nothing. There wasn't even the artificial, antiseptic cleanliness that usually hung around hospitals; everything was pure and cold.
Cheerilee slowed down when she reached the shadow. The wall of darkness cut directly across her path, fading immediately from bright moonlight on the outside to dim blackness underneath. There was no clear barrier as she might have expected from a shield, only a rapid fade into darkness. Right at the edge she halted, her instincts clashing with her need to move forward. Helplessly she looked ahead. The hospital loomed.
She stood still for what she’d intended as just a pause to catch her breath, but was quickly turning into something far longer. Her gaze felt like it was being sucked into the blackness at the sphere’s center, at once drawing her in and warning her to flee. Time crawled over her, a subtle awareness that she was wasting her chance, but her hooves wouldn't budge. The darkness beckoned. She stared.
It all came down to this. There was no turning back; there was no other option. Hidden somewhere within that mass was the one thing that would stop the screams from returning to the schoolhouse ever again. Her students’ happiness — their lives — depended on her going through with this. Nothing was more important to her. No cost was too high. No danger was too great. There was absolutely nothing, nothing that could keep her from keeping her little ponies safe.
The last time she'd walked in shadow had been the rush from the library. That was when things were supposed to start getting better; the plan was coming together, the caravan was forming, and everything was going to be okay. Any immediate danger had been led away by a group of ponies nopony expected to ever see again, a charge led by an earth pony with a fire in her eyes who had screamed so loudly and so fiercely on her way out that she made all that had come before sound like a whisper. And then there had just been silence, and then hoofsteps, and the parting of the ways.
Cheerilee looked to her right, stretching over her shoulder to glance around, and then to her left. Ponyville stretched away behind her, leading away into dark forest and mountainous foothills. There was nopony else. She was completely alone. The moonlight bathed everything but the path ahead in a soft glow.
They’d agreed that the library was no longer safe, especially for foals; the air was thick with smoke, full of Celestia-knows-what. It had been her responsibility to keep the foals safe while they’d made their escape, first to the schoolhouse, then onwards to Hoofington. And she’d done so well, at first. There had been so many foals with her then. She'd worried that they would make noise if left unsupervised, that she couldn't possibly keep this many silent on their own. She needn't have worried. Not one opened their mouth the whole time.
She began to shake. Keep it together, Cheerilee, she scolded herself. There's no reason to be afraid. They're depending on you not to be afraid. But even so, she found her trembling beginning to spread.
Staying in the shadows had seemed so logical. She'd tried to make it into a game. Like hide and seek, she'd called it. They'd darted from house to house, like little mice — she kept a grin on her face all the while, determined that nothing would keep her spirits down, that nothing would ever keep her from spreading joy. The streets had been completely empty. There had been no hint of any danger. Just running along, like foals at play, but not too quickly; not enough to make heavy hoofsteps, not enough to rattle the vile little container tucked into the thick folds of her mane.
The dark hole loomed like a whiteless eye, staring down at her. The hospital’s wings were like arms reaching out towards her, the gaping door a mouth with broken and crooked teeth. Just a little further, Cheerilee told herself. Just a few more steps, and this can all be over. She didn't move.
A tiny hoof had brushed against her leg, a tiny set of eyes quivering in the darkness. She'd leaned down, expecting to offer a whisper of reassurance, and a tiny voice had made her heart stop. "Where's Rumble?"
Just forget it, she commanded. Her eyes were shut. It's in the past. It doesn’t have to be that way. This is what you need. This is what you need.
A head count in the darkness, panic rising again — every second spent standing was another they might be discovered. She’d moved back through her little ponies, trying to discern faces within the shadows, becoming more and more aware of her own hoofsteps. One pony short. She’d nudged her way out of the mass, commanding them to stay where they were, and without a thought, acting only on impulse, rushed back into the darkness the way they’d come.
It wasn’t your fault, she told herself. Her shaking was getting worse and worse. Please, not now. Don’t make me relive this. Not now.
She’d tripped. Just two houses away, her hoof had met something in the darkness and she’d fallen, her haste causing her to overbalance and land heavily on the ground. She’d almost cried out, expecting the worst, but had held her breath and counted down from five before opening her eyes. She’d looked behind her, fear dissipating.
Please... She was crying. I can’t...
A young pegasus lay limply in the road. Her hind legs now lay sprawled across his. His wings jutted out, one of them at a crooked angle. And as she moved to lift herself up, his head turned towards her.
She looked into his eyes.
And she saw the drop of red running down between them.
Foolish, so foolish...
...she’d been the one who’d screamed.
Cheerilee opened her eyes. The dark abyss in front of her was blurred, at once soothing and mocking her. Her breath came in gasps, and her legs shook violently; it was only sheer will that was keeping her upright. I can’t, she thought, choking out words between internal sobs. I can’t do this...
And I can’t go back...
More minutes crawled by as Cheerilee did her best to calm herself. She clenched her mouth shut and took the deepest breaths she could, holding back the hatred and self-pity that was threatening to crush her. She knew that ahead of her lay the only thing capable of keeping her stable; if she could make it back with that, neither she nor anypony else would ever have to feel this way again. But she also knew that if she crossed that line, if she took one more step and walked into the darkness once again, there was a good chance that she would never make it back at all.
Maybe I can just call this a trial run, she tried. I have another day left, two if I don’t sleep. I can go back, and figure something out, and come back when I’m feeling better... Moving very slightly, she shook her head. No, I can’t. We’ll need food by then. And... She thought about the advice she might have given one of her students in the same situation. And putting it off won’t help anything. Nothing’s going to change. It has to be now, or never at all.
The shadows beckoned.
She steeled herself as much as she could. She took one deep, final breath and cleared her mind, thinking only of her students. She thought of the looks on their faces when they smiled at her. She thought of the feel of their bodies when she held them. Follow your heart, they told her, just like she’d told them so many times before. Do what you know is right.
Cheerilee lifted her hoof.
She breathed out.
She turned and walked away.
Perhaps it was just in her head, but the moon seemed to shine brighter than it had before.
Cheerilee had expected the walk home to be a guilt-ridden torture. Empty-hooved as she retraced her own steps, she stared down at the ground in front of her, waiting for the cold accusations to wrap themselves around her. Somehow, they just didn’t come. She’d mustered all the guilt she could at the edge of the darkness, and the darkness had consumed it, just like it had consumed everything else. All the pain and despair that she’d been holding onto for the past few months had been left behind. She strode onwards without fear and without regret, for the first time since this had begun, finally feeling free.
Without the pills the nightmares will return, she cautioned, but this no longer seemed to hold as much weight as it had previously. And we’ll face them together. Slowly she began to straighten up, looking ahead and around instead of down. No more sleeping alone. We’ll all stay together, one big slumber party. We’ll play and learn throughout the day and tell stories until we fall asleep. And if one of us has a bad dream... Her heart soared. Then we’ll all wake up and deal with it together. We’ll talk about how scary it was, and then we’ll talk about the good dreams we’ve had before, and then we’ll laugh and all go peacefully back to sleep...
The more Cheerilee thought, and the more she reassured herself, the better and brighter her plan seemed to get. She smiled up at the darkened sky, letting the moon and stars bathe her in their light. She barely noticed as she sped up from a crawl to a walk, and even to a light trot. For the first time in a long time her hoofsteps reached her ears, and to her surprise the sound delighted her. Looking around, she felt no sense of danger from the hills around her. All was just as it should be.
Everything’s going to be okay. I just know it.
It was only when she began to approach Sweet Apple Acres that Cheerilee slowed down to her usual speed. Some of her old worry flashed across her as she began to ascend the hill towards the farm, though not nearly enough to bring down her newfound cheer. Maybe I shouldn’t go this way, she thought as she followed the indentations of her tracks up the winding path. Going back to the river would be faster, and there’s no need...
This thought never reached its conclusion. Cheerilee came to a halt as she stared up the long road to the farm. From this direction, she could see Sweet Apple Acres’ main entrance from much further away. Among the blackening trees she could see the shape of the new, twisted fence as it cut sharply across the orchard, enveloping a much smaller portion of the farm in safety. And at the front, the gate now hung open.
Cheerilee’s lips moved soundlessly. Her eyes widened and she sprang forward, then quickly restrained herself and proceeded at a safer pace. Her heart beat faster and faster as she made her way across the curves of the hills, keeping her eyes fixed on the gate in front of her. There was no movement that she could see, nothing heading in or out. She hurried as fast as she dared, silently begging for somepony to be alive when she arrived.
It was ten tense minutes before Cheerilee reached the front gate. She slowed further as she got close, peering cautiously forward. The area in front of the gate looked as though it had been swept clean; the lumps of meat had vanished, without even a drop of pink to show that they had ever been there. Half of the gate had been opened inwards, gouging deep marks into the ground in the process, while the other half seemed to be locked in place. The resulting gap was about wide enough to drive a cart through, though Cheerilee couldn’t see any tracks leading in or out. The path inside looked no different than the path she was on now.
The teacher gulped. She approached the gate and stuck her head through nervously, looking back and forth for any sign of danger. There was nothing. She crept inside, slowing to her familiar soundless crawl as the last of her hooves entered the farm. All around, there was nothing but silence.
Traversing the interior of Sweet Apple Acres was no different than walking the outside. Here the apple trees seemed a little more well-tended, and most of them were free of the fruits that were gradually fermenting outside the border. The orchard now surrounded Cheerilee on both sides, and often as she told herself that nothing was there, walking amidst cover that a watcher might be hiding behind never ceased to unnerve her. She kept up her cautious pace, periodically glancing from side to side until she finally came upon the Apple family’s home.
The farmhouse looked like it was in rough shape. Sections of the upper floor had been broken or removed, probably to provide emergency repairs to the new fence. The surrounding area seemed similarly stripped clean. The front door had a large chain bolted across it, but circling to the side, Cheerilee noticed that the large barn doors hung slightly open. A shape around the next corner caught her eye as she approached, and she strayed a little further to look around the back of the house. Against the far wall seven short sticks had been planted in the ground, spaced even distances apart.
The barn door creaked loudly as Cheerilee pushed it open. She winced, but nothing more happened. Feeling brave, she loudly whispered “Hello?” as she stuck her head inside, but got no response. A lantern hanging from a hook on the far wall had been left on, casting some illumination across the large room. Much of the barn was taken up by large piles of straw in varying states of disarray, each showing some use as a bed. Most of them had been smoothed down, but as Cheerilee made her way further inside, she noted that the ones furthest from the door were more disordered than the rest. Hope rose up in her again. Somepony had been sleeping here recently.
The silence only seemed more pronounced as Cheerilee entered the house proper. She couldn’t help but gasp as she saw the state of the Apple family kitchen, and held her hoof over her mouth for several seconds. The once warm and welcoming room had been completely demolished, counters and tables torn away to expose iron pipes and stone foundations. “Hello?” she whispered again, raising her voice just a little. “Is anypony there?” There was still no answer.
The surrounding rooms were similarly empty. Cheerilee almost couldn’t bear to look around, seeing this once lively home so ruthlessly torn apart. Gulping, she went to the stairs and started to climb. The steps creaked underneath her hooves, but she ignored them.
The upper floor of the house felt significantly colder than the bottom. What greeted her at the top of the stairs was a doorway without a door leading into what had once been a bedroom. Further on was a long hallway, leading to two more doorways. One was similarly doorless, opening into another stripped and empty room. The other, however, was soundly closed.
Cheerilee approached the closed door slowly. She tentatively raised her hoof to knock, but stopped herself. Feeling her trembling return, she grabbed the handle as gently as she could and pushed the door open.
It was clear right away that this had been Apple Bloom’s room. Shining ribbons and a nightcap hung from hooks next to the door, and pictures of fillies at play lay on the floor where a desk might have previously stood. A former four-poster bed had been disassembled, leaving a splinter-covered mattress collapsed on half a torn rug. The far walls of the room were gone. From here the house opened up to the sky, leaving the remains of the ceiling sagging. At the farthest corner a purple unicorn sat facing away from Cheerilee, staring out at the stars above. There was no wind to disturb her as she perched calmly on the splintered ledge. To her left was a telescope, angled towards the moon. To her right was a small stuffed donkey, grey and ragged from age.
Cheerilee’s breath caught in her throat. She spoke before she could stop herself. “Twilight.”
Twilight Sparkle looked back at her. She didn’t look happy or sad at the teacher’s arrival, only worn down, as though she hadn’t slept in a very long time. “Hi, Cheerilee,” she said quietly. She stood up for only as long as it took for her to turn around, settling down again immediately afterwards. “How are you?”
“I...” Cheerilee took a step forward. She was half-convinced that she was dreaming. “How did you get here? Where is everypony?”
“They left.” For a moment, Twilight turned her head to look at the horizon. “Our food was running out. There was nothing more for them here. I’ll be going soon, too. I just came back to... get a few things.” With magic she picked up her stuffed doll and turned it around as well, nestling it closely against her side. “What about you? Did you make it to the schoolhouse?”
Cheerilee froze. She gulped, but did her best to hide it. Twilight wasn’t looking directly at her. “Yes,” she said, conscious of her voice shaking. The whole story could wait. “We made it.”
“Good,” Twilight said. “I’m glad.” She continued to look down at her doll. “Do you... still have the pills I gave you?”
The teacher’s eyes narrowed. “I do,” she said. “All of them.” She started to raise her voice. “I never forgave you for giving them to me.”
“I know,” Twilight said. “And I’m sorry.”
A few moments passed in silence. Cheerilee started to walk forwards again, but stopped when Twilight spoke. “They did work, you know. I mean, technically. They did what they were supposed to.” She glanced up, but then immediately looked down again. “I figured out what went wrong,” she added after a pause. “We were looking for an infection. We made the medicine to seek out the cause of the sickness and destroy it. But we were wrong.”
Silence fell again. Cheerilee waited for the mare to continue, but no answer seemed to be coming. She opened her mouth to break the silence, only for Twilight to interrupt her. “There is no infection,” she blurted. “Do you understand that?” She finally looked up into Cheerilee’s eyes. Twilight looked like she was trying to cry, but no tears would come. “There’s no transformation. There’s no evil force turning us into something we’re not. There isn’t a single thing in them that isn’t already in us. And the pills, they...” She bit her lip, choking back invisible tears. “They destroy whatever’s in us that gives them life. We didn’t... we didn’t just stop Lyra from turning into one of them. We destroyed her, from the inside out.”
Twilight picked up her doll and wrapped her forelegs around it, cradling it close to her. She closed her eyes, still trying and failing to weep. “That’s why I gave one of the batches to you,” she finished quietly. “In case... in case there was no other way. Because they’re the only way you can know for sure that when you die... you won’t get up again afterwards.”
Cheerilee breathed slowly. “Nopony blamed you,” she said. “Not once, not even for a second. What happened wasn’t ever your fault.”
“I know.” Twilight sniffed. “And... thank you,” she said, opening her eyes. “For coming for me.”
Cheerilee waited as Twilight gathered herself up. The mare magically folded her telescope until the whole thing was no bigger than a lunchbox, lifting it away from the house’s edge and placing it against the remaining wall. She held onto her doll for a little while longer before putting it down as well, sitting it neatly down on the ledge. Cheerilee waited for Twilight to join her near the door, but the unicorn stayed where she was. “Cheerilee,” Twilight said unexpectedly. “What are you living for?”
“For my students,” Cheerilee answered without hesitating.
“I see.” Twilight nodded. “And what are they living for?”
Cheerilee couldn’t answer right away. She stared back blankly, her mind suddenly shutting down on her. “Promise me something,” Twilight said once it became clear that no response was forthcoming. “Don’t live for another pony. Don’t live for anything that can be taken away from you.” She spoke with absolute calmness. “Because it will. One way or another, the world will take the thing you’re living for away from you. And when it’s gone, no matter what you have left to rebuild your life with, you’ll feel like you have nothing. If you live for another pony, then your world will end when they do.”
Involuntarily, Cheerilee shuddered. “Then what?” she asked, her voice sounding hollow, and she realized the question wasn’t rhetorical. “What am I supposed to live for?”
Twilight gulped. “Cheerilee?” she asked. “Do you think that one day, things will get better and the world will go back to the way it was?” She paused, but continued before the teacher could answer. “Promise me you will. That’s what you need to live for. Even if you can’t do anything about it, you have to believe that things are going to get better. That’s the only thing that can keep you safe.”
Cheerilee hesitated. Something vast and dark loomed in the back of her mind. “I...”
“Cheerilee, promise me.” Slowly, Twilight stood up. Her legs were unsteady, as if she hadn’t walked in a while. One of her hooves slipped, and she almost toppled off the edge of the house. Cheerilee rushed forward and steadied her, catching her at the last second. “Promise me you won’t let go,” Twilight mumbled, as though nothing had happened. “Everything’s going to be okay. Promise me you’ll believe, Cheerilee. Don’t let that light fade. Promise me you won’t give up.”
Cheerilee started to step back. Twilight embraced her, wrapping her forelegs around her in a vise-like grip. “Promise me.” The unicorn coughed. Something warm and wet dripped down Cheerilee’s back. “Cheerilee, promise me.”
There was a loud scrape as Cheerilee drew back the lock on the schoolhouse. She kicked open the door and threw herself inside before slamming it shut, leaning against it and panting heavily. In seconds Diamond Tiara was prancing around her, apparently oblivious to her teacher’s state. “Miss Cheerilee, guess what?” the pink filly said, grinning with unrestrained glee. “Silver Spoon and I caught Snails and Twist kissing!”
Cheerilee ignored her student, focusing on gasping for air until she’d gotten her breath back. By this point she’d almost dried off, but her mane and parts of her coat were still noticeably damp. Once her heart rate had returned to something approaching normal, she turned towards Diamond Tiara with the calmest expression she could muster. “Sweetie, get the others,” she said. The words stung her throat. “It’s time for bed.”
“What? No it’s not.” Diamond Tiara frowned. “We haven’t even had lunch yet.”
“Bedtime is when I say it is!” Cheerilee shouted. Diamond Tiara jumped back in fright, her confidence suddenly gone. From the further doorways, small faces peered cautiously out at her. Cheerilee took another deep breath, calming herself as much as she could. “Please,” she begged. “Just get your things. It’s time for sleep.”
Nodding, the filly quickly crept away. Cheerilee pushed herself up and staggered past the classroom to her office, roughly shoving her door open. “One more night,” she mumbled to herself. “Just one more night.”
As soon as she was inside, she stumbled over to her sink and retched. Nausea forced up spittle and a thin line of yellow liquid, but no more. Her insides were still burning from throwing up on her way back; it felt like there was nothing left inside of her but acid. She turned on the tap and lapped at the fast-flowing water, choking as it trickled down her searing throat. Once she'd managed to keep a whole mouthful down, she left the tap running and unsteadily swiveled towards the middle of the room.
With a swipe, Cheerilee picked up the bottle on her desk and twisted the cap off, spilling the contents onto the hard surface. Nine white pills. She picked one up and threw it to the back of her mouth, swallowing hard. She choked painfully as it vanished down her throat.
Every part of her trembling, she staggered to the sink and filled four glasses of water, only afterwards remembering to turn off the tap. Blearily, she took one of these for herself and drank some of it, swilling it around in her mouth. Without thinking, she picked up another pill and dropped it into the glass, then downed it in one gulp. She refilled the glass and put it back on a tray with the others.
Shaking her head, Cheerilee reached over to the other side of her desk. She clumsily unlocked the drawer and pulled out the second bottle, ripping off its lid as well. A cluster of white pills dropped to the desk. They scattered, mingling with the other pills in front of her. She counted them, squinting to make out the different sizes, once, twice, six times. Six pills. Five pills. Six pills. They were still there. They were still safe.
Momentarily satisfied, she reached behind her and picked up the tray of water. When she looked at the desk again, she paused. Cheerilee frowned, setting the tray down. Her eyes narrowed. One, two... how many pills was she meant to have? Thirteen pills. Thirteen little white shapes. Was that right? Maybe it wasn’t important. It was only one more night.
Stifling a yawn, she reached down in front of her. Her hooves had stopped trembling. In fact, they felt numb. Feeling around carefully, she separated out four pills and dropped them into the four glasses, one by one. She knew them by their size and weight. She’d held them so many times before.
Cheerilee picked up the tray again and put it next to the sink. She reached around for the pill bottles, but could only seem to find one. The one for her medication had vanished somewhere. She started to look around, sighing internally, but then stopped. She looked at her desk. Nine little white shapes stared back at her. Nine pills. Nine painkillers. Without thinking about what she was doing, she reached out a hoof and pushed them all into a little pile. She held up the pill bottle at the edge of the desk and carefully slid them inside.
She dropped the bottle on the floor. She wasn’t sure if it was intentional.
Before she knew what she was doing, she reared up and stomped on the container as hard as she could.
The bottle flexed, cracked, and shattered. Plastic made to look like glass dug into Cheerilee’s hoof, but didn’t cut her. The pills were turned to powder. She made a noise half sob and half scream, stomping again and again, driving the hateful little things out of her life once and for all.
From behind her, there was a knock.
Cheerilee whirled around, snarling, then froze. Silver Spoon peered nervously through the open door. The teacher coughed. “What is it?” she asked, the anger only slowly fading from her face.
“Miss Cheerilee?” Silver Spoon fidgeted. “Are you mad at us?”
“What? No!” Cheerilee painfully wiped her hoof against the floor and then limped over to her student, falling to her knees in front of her. The pair of them could feel, rather than hear, the others listening in. “No, sweetie, I would never be mad at you. Why would you think that?”
“Well...” Silver Spoon wouldn’t look at her. “You yelled at us, and you keep leaving...” She kicked at the ground. “And sometimes, we think... you’d be happier if you didn’t have to look after us.”
Cheerilee paled. “No, sweetie, no.” She stretched out her front legs for a hug, but the filly didn’t come any closer. “Silver Spoon, please,” Cheerilee pleaded. Grudgingly, the grey filly stepped forward and allowed her teacher to embrace her, squeezing her like a stuffed doll. “All I want is for you to be happy,” she mumbled. “I tried so hard to keep you safe. I’ve done so many things wrong. But I’m going to make it up to you. And I promise, I promise, that from now on, things are going to get better.”
The pair stayed that way for a full minute before Cheerilee let go of her student. She pulled away only slightly, letting Silver Spoon get a close look at her face: the bags under her eyes, the stains beneath her lips, the slight twitching in her left cheek. “No more hiding,” the teacher promised. “No more waiting. No more bad dreams. Just give me one more night. Just one more time. Let me hold on to something. Then in the morning, when everything’s okay, we’ll start to build again. We’ll go back to the way things used to be.”
Wordlessly, Silver Spoon turned away and walked back into the classroom. Standing was an effort. With the closest she could manage to a deep breath, Cheerilee went back to the sink.
A minute later, Cheerilee almost dropped her tray as she pushed open the classroom door. For some reason, she was having trouble balancing all of a sudden. She steadied herself at the last second, smiling as her students pulled their sheets further over themselves. “Together,” she slurred, gesturing vaguely towards the middle of the room. “No more staying apart. We all sleep together from now on.”
As the foals hurried to arrange themselves, looking at one another in silent confusion, Cheerilee put her tray down. She pulled the blanket she was carrying off her back and added it to the growing jumble in the middle of the room, then picked up the first glass and carried it over to the makeshift bed. A tiny white pill was starting to dissolve at the bottom.
The foal on the end shakily accepted the glass she was given, drinking it quickly and without complaint. “Goodnight, Silver Spoon,” Cheerilee whispered, kissing the filly on her forehead. She took the glass back and returned with a second, passing it to the second of her students. “Goodnight, Diamond Tiara.”
Diamond Tiara hesitated before drinking, but the slightest shift in her teacher’s expression made her quickly gulp the water down. “Goodnight, miss Cheerilee,” she mumbled. For once, she gave no complaint when Cheerilee leaned forward and kissed her goodnight as well.
Snails swallowed his pill as soon as Cheerilee gave it to him. “Goodnight, Snails,” Cheerilee said, kissing him just below his hairline. Snails said nothing.
The final foal seemed reluctant to accept her drink. Cheerilee held her hoof as Twist raised the glass to her lips, but some compulsion stopped her from opening her mouth. After what felt like several minutes, Cheerilee put her head to the side as Twist lowered the glass. “Is something wrong, Twist?”
“Mith Cheerilee...” Twist stared down at the pill floating in her glass. “I want you to have thith one.” She looked up at her teacher. “You need it more than I do.”
Surprise broke through the haze surrounding Cheerilee’s mind. “But... aren’t you afraid of the nightmares?” she asked.
“Well...” Twist looked down again, then shrugged. “They’re only dreamth, after all.”
Gradually, a warm smile spread over Cheerilee’s face. “You’re braver than I’ll ever be,” she said. She leaned down and kissed Twist on the tip of her nose, then took the glass from her and held it up. “And I want you to know that I’m so very, very proud of you.” Sighing contentedly, she threw back her head and gulped down the pill.
The world was beginning to swim in front of Cheerilee’s eyes. Instead of returning the last glass to its tray, she dropped it to the floor and let it roll away. Drowsily, she stepped around the ponies in front of her and slid into the middle of the tangle of sheets. The foals to her left and right were pressed against her sides, cold bodies slowly growing warm. “Goodnight, my little ponies,” she whispered. She felt something. “I lo