Song Tags (Number in story text denotes where suggested song should be played; (~) indicates where song ends in story):
(#) - Song Title (Artist)
(1) - Battle Of Dark Vs. Light (Two Steps From Hell)
In Tooth and Mane
Episode 1: Malice in Wonderland
(1) A sudden burst of adrenaline got Rainbow Dash up on her hooves, though a wave of heat and smoke nearly bowled her over again. One look at the unnaturally high flames licking at the surrounding trees was enough to tell her that trying to fight the blaze herself would be pointless; assuming water would even do anything to this stuff, it'd take a whole army of weather ponies to even contain the blaze, let alone put it out. Speaking of which, that unstoppable blaze was still spreading quickly, still moving rapidly across the forest floor.
Still moving right towards her.
Heaving for breath in the thickening haze of smoke and ash, Rainbow Dash pushed herself into an ungainly trot away from the focal point of the fire. The heat lessened a bit as she got farther away, but the smoke never thinned no matter how far she walked. It was almost like the smoke was following her, like a lost puppy looking for the one kind soul who would take him home. Considering what she'd just seen, it wouldn't have been a half-bad guess to say that it was.
Even with the magical fire gaining on her every second, Rainbow Dash couldn't help but stop for a moment as she began to think more seriously about what exactly she had just seen. That pegasus, whoever she was, had created this fire right in her hoof and then thrown it like a baseball. It took some pretty strong magic to do something like that, the kind of magic that only an immensely powerful unicorn would be able to pull off. The pony who'd done all this, who'd beaten down the greatest flier in Equestria without even breaking a sweat, wasn't an immensely powerful unicorn. She wasn't even a unicorn at all. She was a pegasus. And normal pegasi didn't do magic.
So what did that mean? It meant something seriously weird was going on right now, and Rainbow Dash would've bet her eighteen-by-thirty inch autographed poster of the Wonderbolts that the explosion she'd just heard had something to do with it. But her head wasn't in any state to come up with a connection between that and those two…whatever they were. She needed time to think. She needed time to figure this out.
She needed to get the hay out of this smoke.
With a great deal more effort than she was used to needing, Rainbow Dash spread her wings and lifted herself up above the treeline, out of the smog and back into the relatively clean morning air. Holy smokes, it was still morning, wasn't it? It had felt like the middle of the night inside that cloud…
With a clear head came a realization that nearly knocked the wind out of Dash for a second time that day. Those two creeps were headed for Ponyville! And she was the only one who knew it, the only one who could stop them. She had to warn somebody, get some kind of defense set up. If the pegasus and that cloud thing made it to town before her, there was no telling what would be left once they were done.
Dash was still in the middle of accelerating up to full speed when a horrified scream punched through the canopy below her and another bolt of memory hit her square in the chest: Scootaloo! She'd completely forgotten about her and her friends, and there was no way they'd get away from that fire by themselves. But she, Rainbow Dash, was Ponyville's last, best hope for survival, and while there was a slim possibility that she might have been able to beat the two other creatures there if it were just her flying by herself, there was no way she'd make it in time with three school-aged fillies along for the ride. She'd have to choose: the whole town, or three fillies who didn't even have their cutie marks yet.
Just leave 'em!, screamed the voice inside Dash's head. The whole town's gonna go down if you waste your time going back for them! And Dash was so close to obeying that impulse, until she thought of how overjoyed Scootaloo had been when she had agreed to show off for them. If she had said no, they wouldn't even be out here right now. If they died, it would be entirely her fault.
Rainbow Dash shook her head, and began to pick up speed again. Half a dozen yards later, she stopped in midair, let out a frustrated growl, and then whipped around and sped back into the forest.
By now, the smoke had reached the base of the treeline and had spread over at least a third of the forest. The clearing where Dash had left the three fillies were still visible, but because of that she was also able to see that it was empty. They must've run for town once the fire started. Which meant that somewhere in the smoke cloud were three terrified little foals whose only chance at rescue had no hope of finding them.
Dash's brow dropped, and a strangely exciting shiver ran across her shoulders. If there wasn't any hope, then she'd just have to create some. Sucking in one last deep breath, Rainbow Dash pulled in her wings and dove into the cloud. Almost immediately, she wished she hadn't.
With the leaves of the trees trapping most of the heat from the fire, Dash felt like she was flying into a furnace. Her lungs searing even with her mouth closed and her eyes reduced to slits by the smoke, she could hardly even keep herself aloft for longer than a few seconds. She touched down quickly with her eyes screwed up in pain, and in blindness called out in whatever direction she was facing.
"Scootaloo! Sweetie Belle! Apple-"
The words crumbled in her mouth as a fit of coughing shredded her throat apart. "Apple Bloom…" she finished weakly. She tried to breathe in again, and got nothing but a lungful of smoke and another coughing spree for the effort. With a silent apology to Scootaloo, Rainbow Dash spread her wings and kicked her way back into open air again.
She allowed herself a few moments to cough all the smoke out of her system, though it felt like the sickly taste of the stuff would never leave her mouth now. When she had pushed the precious time she had left to rescue them as far as she thought was reasonable, she descended back down into the haze again, wasting no time trying to hover over the ground this time. The moment she touched down, her manufactured hope built on desperation and panic finally earned itself a shred of validity.
"Scootaloo!" Dash shouted back. "Where…" She bit back as much of the cough as she could, but not before something black and shiny slipped out from her throat and sprayed onto the bed of leaves beneath her hooves. "Where are you?"
"I'm comin'!" Dash replied, stumbling around sweltering ferns and the immense trunks of the forest towards the faint sound. "Hang on, you guys! Just keep talkin' to me, I'll find you!"
Directed by intermittent cries for help from Scootaloo and, once, what sounded like Apple Bloom, Dash finally found the Crusaders huddled against one of the tallest trees in the forest, nearly tripping over them in the unnaturally dark smoke. Sweetie Belle had broken down completely and was clinging desperately to Apple Bloom, who looked like she was quickly approaching her chalky-white friend's level of composure. Scootaloo's eyes were still dry, but the mask of terror across her dirt-streaked face was unmistakable. Her only thought being of escape, Dash started to move towards Sweetie Belle, only to find that her hooves no longer seemed to work properly. Her legs felt like they were weighted down with lead.
The most powerful fear Dash had ever experienced swept through her veins when she realized what was happening to her, and in that moment the smog in her head finally cleared away for good. That psycho thought she could burn down this whole forest with her inside it, thought she would fall like a flightfoal in a thunderstorm. Thought that if she tried to go against her, she would lose. Well, she was going to have another thing coming, because this was Rainbow Dash she was talking about. The greatest flier to ever come out of Cloudsdale. The Element of Loyalty, the one who would never leave another pony behind. Scootaloo's idol and mentor, the one pony that filly trusted to save her when every possible odd was against her.
And if there was one thing she wasn't, if there was one thing that she would never let herself become, it was a loser. Because the only thing Rainbow Dash liked more than racing…
In a single motion, Rainbow Dash bounded forward and threw Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle over her back, hardly even feeling their weight in the rush of the moment. "You feel good enough to fly?" she shouted over the roaring inferno to Scootaloo, who nodded vigorously. "Then follow me!"
For the last time, Rainbow Dash kicked up off the ground and ascended out of the clouds, catching onto a nearby updraft and using it to put some serious distance between her and the flames below. Beneath her, Scootaloo was riding the same current, her still-developing wings fluttering for all they were worth. But it wasn't going to be enough, and Dash knew it from the start. Scootaloo started coughing almost as soon as they cleared the treeline, and it was only a few seconds later when her strength began to fail her and she began to sink back down again. Rainbow Dash's heart kicked into overdrive as Scootaloo's fear gave way to absolute panic, and just before the weakening orange filly dipped below the smokeline again, Dash swooped down from above and caught her between her front legs, pulling the little pegasus up close to her chest as she held on with her own forelegs with what felt like a vice grip.
"It's okay," Dash said with a grimace, more to convince herself than her three passengers. "I gotcha…I gotcha…" Rainbow Dash flapped her wings harder, and the tendons in her back sang with pain.
Somehow, Dash found the strength to get them all back out to where the path from Ponyville entered the forest, and with a final stretch out over a sagging oak she landed in a heap on the hard-packed dirt road. For a minute or two, all four ponies lay where they fell, Sweetie Belle still sobbing quietly and Scootaloo's eyes wide as dinner plates. Dash forced herself to break away from Scootaloo's stare and get to her hooves. They had to get back to town. It was surely far too late to prevent whatever was going to happen or—Dash's stomach twisted into a knot just at the thought—had already happened; all they could do now was get to someplace safe and find out how bad the damage was once they arrived. (~)
Rainbow Dash didn't bother to ask if any of the Crusaders could walk. There wasn't any other way they were getting back to Ponyville. "C'mon," she sighed. "We gotta get you guys home."
The prospect of seeing their homes again seemed to break the Cutie Mark Crusaders out of their paralysis enough to get them up and moving. Along the way, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle managed to get their emotions mostly in check, though their friend Scootaloo was so pale her orange coat looked almost yellow under her eyes. Rainbow Dash was concentrating too much on putting one hoof in front of the other to devote much thought to the three fillies other than to make sure they were still behind her, but she did pick up on how close Scootaloo stuck to her side the whole way. She also picked up on the fact that not a word was spoken by any of them during the entire long, shuffling trip back into town.
The first thing Rainbow Dash saw when they crested the final hill before the path sloped down into their hometown was the stomach-churning column of smoke rising up above the housetops. The electricity that jolted down her spine was a lot less inspiring this time and a lot more terrifying. As they finally reached the town limits and the central square came into view, Dash broke into a trot that extended into a run, which soon evolved into a full flying sprint. As her wings beat furiously and the Cutie Mark Crusaders stood forgotten behind her once more, all that remained inside Dash's head as far as thoughts went was a steady and pounding chorus of .
Upon entering the square, Dash fell back to the ground and skidded to a halt, the full brunt of what her decision to go back for the Crusaders had resulted in for the town finally fully revealed. Sugarcube Corner lay in ruins, the lower floor charred black with ash and the remnants of the garish upper floor strewn all across the front courtyard and embedded in the walls of the neighboring shops and houses. She didn't see any white sheets covering anything on the street outside, but that didn't mean there hadn't been someone inside when it…
In an instant, every nerve in Rainbow Dash's body went numb. Pinkie Pie had been working at the bakery that morning. She would've been inside when the silver-eyed pegasus reached Ponyville. She was…
…sitting on the front stoop roasting a marshmallow?
"Hey, look, Rainbow Dash is back!" the bright pink earth pony shouted, popping her thoroughly baked creation into her mouth as she turned and waved. "'Ey, Ain'oh 'Ash!" she finished a moment later, grinning like her world just wasn't quite right without a burning building in the background.
"Well, butter me up and serve me for breakfast," another voice cut in. "Nice to see y'all finally decided to show up."
"Appleja…" Rainbow Dash whispered, her brain still on full lockdown trying to piece together what was going on.
"Been one mare of a mornin' ya missed out here, Rainbow Dash," Applejack continued, seemingly not at all fazed by her friend's slack-jawed expression as she trotted up from near what was left of the bakery. Off in the distance, Fluttershy and Rarity, still wearing their robes from the salon with their manes done up in brightly colored rollers, were watching the efforts of the Weather Patrol's Fire Containment Team as they brought in more clouds to stamp out the last few vestiges of flame. "Where did y'all run off to anyh-"
Rainbow Dash's tongue became functional again long before the rest of her head did. "B-but…s-s-silver eyes!" she stammered. "And the cloud thing! We gotta find 'em!"
"Find who and the what now?"
"They said they were comin' to Ponyville! They blew up the bakery! We gotta catch 'em before…we can't just…"
"Don't just stand there. Sound the alarm! Assemble the troops! Load the cannons! Do something!"
"Sugarcube…" Applejack said slowly.
"What?" Rainbow Dash screamed.
"What in tarnation are you carryin' on about?"
At first, all Rainbow Dash could do was stare. "Wha…but the…bakery…"
"Didn't you see what happened to it?"
Applejack shrugged. "All I know's that Pinkie Pie put somethin' funny in her cupcakes this mornin' that made 'em start bouncin' around every which way. Best we can figger, one of 'em hit a gas line."
"I said I was super-duper sorry!" Pinkie Pie assured Rainbow Dash from over by the rubble.
"So…it wasn't the psycho pony and the cloud thing?"
"Don't think so."
"You tellin' me they didn't even come over here?"
"Well, I reckon I saw somepony floatin' around the shop right before it went up, but they were gone once I got close enough to get a gander at 'em," Applejack said, her eyes turned upward in recollection. "I figgered the explosion musta scared 'em off." She turned her gaze back down and saw the look on Rainbow Dash's face. "You feelin' all right, Rainbow?" she asked in the motherly tone she tended to slip into whenever somepony got hurt.
Rainbow Dash sputtered for a moment, but before anything coming out of her mouth could form itself into something resembling words, a piercing shriek from somewhere behind her drew both her and Applejack's attention to a filthy little yellow pony with a tattered pink bow still hanging limply from her scorched mane.
"Applejack!" the little filly screamed, already running towards her utterly baffled big sister.
"…Apple Bloom?" the elder member of the Apple clan had time to mutter before being bowled over by her unexpectedly ecstatic sibling, her trademark duster rolling off into the shrubs in front of a nearby house. A similar scene occurred with Sweetie Belle and Rarity a few seconds later, the latter of whom was significantly less ecstatic about her little sister ruining the perm she'd just spent half an hour receiving. As Rainbow Dash's back legs finally gave out and she slumped into a sloppy sitting position, Scootaloo finally entered the square and came to stand by Dash, her lower lip clenched between her teeth and her head swiveling back and forth scanning the crowd in front of the bakery. There was a long moment where a uncomfortable sensation of pity began creeping into Dash's stomach as she realized that the filly was looking for her parents, whom Dash hadn't seen since she got back.
But soon enough, the crowd shifted a bit to expose a red-haired pegasus mare with strong-looking wings and a feathery purple mane that matched Scootaloo's to a T. As the mare turned and saw Scootaloo coated with grime and standing next to Ponyville's equally sullied resident flying expert, the little filly could do nothing but stare. A moment later, though, the spell was suddenly broken. Scootaloo galloped across the rest of the square in a matter of seconds, dove into her mother's chest like it was the last train out of Siregon, and with a good majority of Ponyville watching, bawled like a newborn foal.
Hypnotized by the spectacle that effectively silenced the entire square, Rainbow Dash didn't even notice that Applejack was the first to tear her gaze away. "You mind tellin' me what ya been doin' this mornin', Dash?" she said, nudging Apple Bloom back onto her hooves as she stood up herself. "Startin' with why y'all look like ya just climbed out of a coal mine?"
"She saved us, AJ!" Apple Bloom cut in before Dash could even begin to think of how to explain herself. "Rainbow Dash was showin' us how to be cloud clobberers and she was flyin' really fast and then this weird ol' pegasus hit her and Rainbow beat 'er up but then the forest caught on fire and there was smoke ev'rywhere and Sweetie Belle was cryin' and Scootaloo couldn't fly and Rainbow-"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up a mite," Applejack cut in. "The forest caught on fire?"
"Well, yeah!" Apple Bloom replied. "Didn'tcha see the smoke?"
Applejack glanced over towards the Whitetail Wood, her eyes widening noticeably at the sight of the massive cloud of smoke hanging over the once peaceful grove. In all the commotion around the bakery, she hadn't even looked over in that direction all morning. She turned back to face a faintly smiling Apple Bloom before looking up at Dash again.
"Well, I'll be," she said breathily. "Seems Ah owe ya a debt'a gratitude, Rainbow. That was mighty brave of ya, getting' 'em all of that mess all by yourself."
Even with the only part of her brain still firing on all cylinders being the capacity for basic motor skills, Rainbow Dash still managed to put on a smirk. "Eh, it wasn't too hard," she said. "Just another…"
Rainbow found herself gazing off at the smoke billowing up from Whitetail Wood again, and trailed off as an overwhelming sense of fatigue washed over her. She felt like she'd been awake for days, and her wings hadn't been this sore still her first day at Flight School. What she needed now was one of her patented Rainbow Dash Extra-Strength Power Naps, and how. To be fair, there were very few moments of any given day where she wasn't looking for a chance to sneak in a patented Rainbow Dash Extra-Strength Power Nap, but right now the mere thought of finding a place to take one was all that was keeping her mostly upright. She might've even fallen asleep right in the middle of the square if yet another pony hadn't screamed her name at the top of her lungs. Seemed like that was becoming somewhat of a pattern this morning.
"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight shouted, galloping across the rest of the square and pulling her into a neck-crushing hug just as the sky-blue pony's eyes began to crack open again. "Oh, thank Celestia you're safe!"
"Oh, yeah…" Dash mumbled into Twilight's shoulder. "Morning, Twilight. 'S all good." The pegasus opened her eyes a bit further and noticed Twilight's unexpected companion. "'Sup, Derpy."
"Hey, Rainbow Dash!" Ditzy replied cheerily, evidently untroubled by the nickname she wasn't supposed to know she had. "Aren't you supposed to be on break?"
Rainbow Dash chuckled as Twilight pulled away. "Can't remember…" she mumbled as Twilight gasped at her first full view of Dash's condition.
"Rainbow, what happened to you?" Twilight asked before vigorously shaking her head. "Never mind, you can tell me later. The chariot from Canterlot will be here any second, and we all need to be on it as soon as possible."
"Canterlot?" Applejack repeated, echoing the sentiment on Rainbow Dash's mind. "What d'we need to go to Canterlot for?"
A look of discomfort passed over Twilight's face. "I'll explain on the way," she said, turning her eyes towards a quickly approaching blob coming from the capital city jutting straight out of the side of the Northern Mountains. "Here they come now. Go get Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie. We can't keep the Princess waiting."
"Do I hafta go?" Rainbow Dash groaned from her now completely horizontal position on the ground as Applejack motioned for the other three members of their group to come over.
"Yes, Rainbow," Twilight sighed. "We all have to go."
"Can I sleep on the way there?"
Rainbow Dash rubbed her forehooves against her eyes and groaned. "Good enough," she muttered.
"Pardon me for sayin' this, Twilight, but you're givin' us a whole lotta orders an' not a whole lotta reasons ta go with 'em," Applejack said as the rest of the group reached the spot where Rainbow was getting a head start on her promised naptime. "What's got your mane all in a twist?"
Twilight glanced back at Applejack for a moment before looking back up at the mountains. "Princess Celestia needs to see us all immediately," she replied. "She said it was too complicated to tell us about in just a letter."
Applejack raised her eyebrows and sucked her lips back against her teeth. "Yep, that'd do it for me, too," she admitted. "When do we leave?"
Twilight turned back towards Canterlot again, just in time to see the chariot sent from the capital city touch down in the middle of the town square. "Right now."
• • •
"So lemme see if Ah got this straight," Applejack concluded after a moment's pause. "You got a letter from Princess Celestia this mornin' after that first explosion way off yonder, that said we all had ta fly up ta Canterlot in a big white chariot so she could tell us all about somethin' that could decide the entire fate of Equestria as we know it. And that's where we're goin' now."
"That's the gist of it, yes," Twilight confirmed. "There was also the part about it being the gravest threat to our security and well-being that Equestria has ever seen."
"Yeah, no pressure or anything," Applejack grumbled. "What about all that fuss with Nightmare Moon, though? That wadn't a grave threat to our security an' well-bein'?"
"Apparently not as much as this."
"An' that's why you're so nervous, huh?"
"I'm not…" Twilight tried to argue back.
"Sugarcube, if Ah lined six'a ya up together, Ah could strum y'all like a guitar," Applejack interrupted with a soft smile. "'S all right if you're a mite scared. Ah know Ah ain't lookin' forward too much to hearin' 'bout this either."
"Well, Rainbow Dash seems tranquil enough," Rarity interjected from the back of the overlarge chariot as she gingerly removed the last of the salon curlers from her mane. She flicked her eyes for a moment over to the prone pegasus snoring away on her back, one wing sticking out awkwardly from underneath her side. "Although if half the things Sweetie Belle said about this morning are true, I can't begin to blame her."
Applejack just nodded in reply, and all three ponies gazed at the sleeping figure between them with a shared feeling of respect. Nurse White had insisted that she give Rainbow a thorough check-up before allowing her to go dashing off to Canterlot, and although the cyan pegasus had slept through most of the examination, Nurse White eventually concluded that their friend would be fine, though considering the amount of smoke she had inhaled it was almost a miracle that she would be.
Sensing a quiet, solemn moment within a hundred miles of her current position, Pinkie Pie backed off of the railing where she'd been looking for weird shapes in the clouds and forcefully entered the conversation, jumping right in front of Rarity and ending up standing right over Dash's unconscious form. "Isn't today exciting, Twilight?" she gushed. "I mean, first there were the cupcakes and they were bouncing around all like, boing boing boing boing…"
In case anyone in the chariot was confused about the complex and multifaceted meanings of the word "boing", Pinkie demonstrated the action by bouncing around the cramped carriage in step with her exclamations. "…and then someone broke an egg and everything went whoosh-BOOM, and then the chariot came and we're going to Canterlot and I'm sososo excited because I've never been to Canterlot except for that one time for the Grand Galloping Gala and I've always wanted to go back 'cause it's the most super-terrific-fabulousically-amazerful place in all of…" Pinkie sucked in a tremendous gasp in mid-sentence, and a euphoric grin spread across her entire face. "I know! I should sing a song about how super-terrific-fabulousically-amazerful Canterlot is! Ohhhhhh-"
Just before the onset of the first verse, Pinkie Pie's mouth was unceremoniously forced shut by a cyan blue hoof coming from somewhere beneath her. As Pinkie's cheeks puffed up with the unreleased words of her song, the rest of the group looked down between her forelegs to see Rainbow Dash, eyes still closed in what appeared to be peaceful slumber, sticking one foreleg straight up in the air and pressing it calmly but unrelentingly against their pink companion's jaw. Eventually, her cheeks bulging at full capacity, Pinkie Pie hummed something that sounded like, "I'm done now," and with a satisfied nod and a faint grunt, Dash relinquished her grip on Pinkie and tucked her foreleg back up against her chest as the collected words in her friend's mouth squeaked out like the air from a deflating balloon. Pinkie Pie was silent for the rest of the trip.
The group's entrance into Canterlot was, for many of them, the first time they had seen the city without a sheen of celebration over it. The castle grounds were punctuated with gleaming white towers and spacious fields of grass, but much of the city behind it was built of storm-worn gray stone taken from the long-dormant volcano the capital was built over, with some of the older buildings carved right out of the side of the mountain. The farthest reaches of the city were far from bleak, though: the storefronts were painted with every color imaginable and the upper floors of the larger buildings overflowed with natural plant life and carefully manicured rooftop gardens and topiaries. It was a place that radiated a heady sense of life and prosperity, and for the first time in a long time Twilight began to remember how much she had once loved this city. Ponyville was more in tune with the wild expanses of nature, but at the price of slowing down the pace of life to a sluggish crawl at times. Canterlot never stopped moving, not even at night when the glowlamps came on and joyous music and laughter could be heard on every block until the infant hours of the morning. She wished she could've shown her friends all those things before meeting Celestia, but the Princess had made it abundantly clear in her letter that their trip to the opulent capital of Equestria was for business, not pleasure. As the chariot began its descent into the castle courtyard, Twilight nosed open her satchel bag and floated out the scroll she'd received that morning, the text inside written in a quick, hasty scribble that she almost hadn't recognized as Celestia's:
My Dearest Twilight Sparkle,
It is with the utmost urgency that I request your presence in Canterlot this morning, along with the other five avatars of the Elements of Harmony. I cannot explain anything to the level of detail it requires within this single letter, but let me assure you that nothing less that the fate of all Equestria rests upon your success in the endeavor I will soon ask you to undertake.
I have already sent a chariot to collect you and your friends in anticipation of your acceptance of this invitation. I'm afraid time, as with words, is no longer something we have the luxury of wasting. Should the trip go smoothly, I will expect to see you in my castle as soon as possible.
Yours in good faith,
If there had been any doubt in Twilight's mind about the gravity of the occasion, Celestia's addendum of "should the trip go smoothly" would've been more than enough to assure her of it. Twilight didn't have any idea what could've possibly complicated a fifteen-minute flight from the valley up into the capital, but if the Princess thought it was a possibility, then that was enough for her overactive imagination to consider it a guarantee. It also didn't help that the shadow from the angry black cloud over Whitetail Wood was starting to seep farther and farther into Ponyville airspace with every minute that passed. Applejack had been right on the money about Twilight's hooves: she could hardly even feel her ankles for clenching them so hard. The young unicorn had never been so happy to feel solid ground beneath her as when their chariot finally touched down in Canterlot without a hitch.
As the chariot clattered to a stop and a contingent of golden-armored members of the Royal Guard trotted out to meet them, Applejack nudged Rainbow Dash awake. "Huhwhat?" Dash mumbled blearily, before her eyes widened at the sight of the approaching platoon. "Whoa…check out those duds," she whispered to Applejack as the guards' armor gleamed in the midday sun. "Think I could snag a set while we're here?"
"Ah think it might be best ta keep that question ta yourself, sugarcube," Applejack murmured back. "On account'a they don't look too happy ta see us…"
Overhearing her friends' exchange, Twilight couldn't help but agree. The normally stoic faces of Celestia's guards had a distinctly darker air about them than she was used to, though that darkness didn't seem to be directed at them. She really, really hoped it wasn't directed at them.
"Hey, fellas," Rainbow Dash said brightly as the guards reached the chariot, predictably ignoring Applejack's advice. "Long time, no see! You guys get that application I sent ya last week? You're gonna wanna keep that autograph…you know what rookie cards are worth these days."
The head of the line was not amused. "Let's go," he said to Twilight before nodding for the rest of his colts to fan out into a ring around the exit to the chariot. With a shrug from Applejack and a pout from Rainbow Dash, Twilight led the group out of the chariot and through the courtyard, with Dash, Applejack, and Rarity in a line behind her and Pinkie Pie bouncing along by her side. Fluttershy, who hadn't spoken at all during the entire trip over, was bringing up the rear and trying to make herself as small as possible in the presence of the muscle-bound guards.
For a few blissful moments, Twilight knew where she was; the passageway inside from the courtyard opened up into the back hall of the castle, where she'd spent more than one evening in miserable attendance with the Princess during some social event that she usually couldn't wait to escape from. But soon enough, a pair of guards swung open a thick wooden door for them, and the group entered a maze of passageways that Twilight hadn't even known existed before today. Her best guess was that these were the corridors the day-to-day personnel of the castle used to get around. And, in this particular case, apparently the Princess herself as well.
Every door they went through had another pair of guards in front of it, and every hallway they walked through was narrower than the last. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie didn't seem to notice the increasing eeriness of their path; Dash was too busy trying to march in step with the guard ponies and imitate their stony-faced glares, and Pinkie Pie…well, Pinkie Pie was Pinkie Pie. Twilight, however, shared a sickening feeling of weightlessness with Applejack and Rarity that only got more potent with every step deeper into the castle they took, a feeling that eventually resulted in all three of them taking protective positions around Fluttershy, who was making no effort at all to hide her distress. By the time they reached one last set of doors with four guards in front of it, Twilight wasn't bothering with it either.
The leader of the group's escort turned to face Twilight. "The Princess is expecting you," he said gruffly. "Don't keep her waiting." Twilight swallowed audibly and bludgeoned her quivering lips into a smile before looking at the doors again. The emblem of the Royal Equestrian Army—a faceless pegasus pony with wings spread wide over a iron-spiked horseshoe—was just barely visible on the spotless wood. She'd only seen that symbol once, in an old history book about the Second Great War. Supposedly, the REA had been disbanded over three hundred years ago. She gulped again. What were they getting themselves into?
"So we just walk in, right?" Rainbow asked, suddenly noticing the fact that no one was moving. When none of the guards deigned to object, she shrugged and scooted around Twilight over to the doors, pushing them both open with raised forelegs. With a heavy sigh, Twilight followed her inside, the rest of her friends sticking close by her tail.
The room they entered quite literally took Twilight's breath away. It wasn't a room so much as a cavern: it was at least a hundred feet to the opposite wall, and the ceiling was so high above their heads that it was too shrouded in shadows for it to be visible. Despite that fact, the room was relatively well-lit, with dozens of candles placed at regular intervals along the walls and in abundance on a large rectangular table in the center of the room with ornately carved legs and comfortable-looking cushions surrounding it. At the far end of the table were the only two ponies in the room. The one on the right was a dark brown, almost black pegasus wearing silver-plated battle armor and what appeared to be an impeccably trimmed goatee under his somewhat elongated chin. The one on the left was Princess Celestia.
Twilight hardly even had a chance to bow before the Princess interrupted her. "Oh, Twilight, thank goodness," she said. "Please sit down, all of you. We have many things to discuss and very little time with which to do it."
Glancing at Applejack for help and getting only a "your guess is as good as mine" look in reply, Twilight nodded to the Princess and began to trot forward, only to have Rainbow Dash nudge a foreleg into her side.
"Isn't this so awesome?" the cyan pony hissed excitedly. "That's Captain Max!"
"Who?" Twilight whispered back.
Even without looking, Twilight could tell Dash was rolling her eyes. "Geez, Twilight, don't all those books ever teach ya anything important?" she complained. "That's Captain Maximus Thunderhooves over there! The toughest pegasus in, like, the entire world! I heard he has a necklace full of manticore teeth and a belt made of the manes of all the ponies he beats in battle!"
Twilight took another look at the burly-looking commander's neck. "I don't see any teeth."
Rainbow Dash looked too, and bit her lip in deep thought. "He…probably just isn't wearing it right now," she finally said confidently. "Doesn't want to scare anypony too bad. Not that I'd be scared. But Fluttershy probably would. I bet he took it off for Fluttershy."
Twilight thought she did a fairly good job concealing her sigh as they finally reached the end of the table where Celestia and Captain Max were sitting. Out of habit, she took the seat closest to the Princess, while Rainbow Dash unsurprisingly chose to sit right next to the Captain, scooting her cushion over closer to his the instant she was settled down on it. Applejack sat down next to Rainbow, and Fluttershy placed herself delicately between Twilight and Rarity, her back hunched and her overlong bangs positioned to hide as much of her face as possible. Once she got to the table, Pinkie Pie hopped right over the cushion next to Applejack and plopped herself down smack in the center of the table, her immortal smile only on about fifty percent power. For all intents and purposes, that was the pink pony's "serious" face. After a moment's pause, in which Celestia stared at an oblivious Pinkie and Twilight wished very powerfully for her cushion to be the living kind that would eat her alive within the next second or two, the Princess chuckled softly to herself and stood up to move to the head of the table.
"Thank you all very much for coming," she began. "I know that this was on very short notice, and I'm truly sorry that I couldn't have given you some kind of warning in advance, but as this…" The Princess seemed to have a good deal of trouble thinking of the next word. "…development was something that I was only just informed of this morning, I'm afraid our options have become rather limited."
"And I assure you, Your Highness," the Captain added, much to the silent delight of Rainbow Dash, "that the Guard is communicating and has always communicated everything we know about this event…"
"At the present moment, I see no reason to accuse you or any of your colts of any wrongdoing, Captain," the Princess interrupted, much to the silent outrage of Rainbow Dash. "You would do well to remember that."
The Captain nodded and pressed his hooves together on the table, giving no inclination that he had anything further to say on the matter. A moment later, Rainbow's hooves were pressed together in an identical fashion.
"Miss Celestia…Yer Highness," Applejack said haltingly, her hat clutched respectfully in her hooves. "Mighty sorry if Ah'm speakin' outta turn just now, but yer letter to Twilight here didn't have a lotta details in it and Ah'm…well, Ah'm sure we'd all here like to know what exactly it is ya called us up here for. 'F that's all right."
"It's perfectly all right, Miss Applejack," the Princess replied in a warm tone, though one with a strangely lifeless tint to it. "The last thing we need today is to have our thoughts muddled up in…" She paused as, once again, everyone looked at Pinkie Pie, who was emphatically licking away at a giant red-and-white-swirled lollipop she'd gotten from who knew where. "…petty formalities," the Princess finished as Pinkie noticed all the eyes on her and held the lollipop out in front of her, brightly asking the Goddess of the Sun through sticky, red-stained lips if she wanted a lick.
"I will explain everything in due time, Miss Applejack," Celestia continued as Twilight sent a withering glare in Pinkie Pie's direction that didn't seem to have any effect on the sugar-coated earth pony. "And I'll start by explaining what it is we're fighting against." Another pause, and then Celestia looked to Twilight again with solemn eyes. "What do you know about the Legend of the Four?"
Twilight could see the eyes of the Captain and Rainbow Dash on her, and feel the eyes of the rest of her friends. "Um…" she mumbled, racking her memory for a book to connect to the name. "I know that it refers to a group of four mythical horses who represent the four malevolent forces of the universe. And the legend tells of a time far in the future when the Four will be summoned to this world and bring about..." Twilight's sudden recollection of how that tale had ended struck her dumb for a moment. "The end of the world," she finally whispered. "Is…is that what this is about? Is that legend…real?"
The Princess blinked—a slow, drawn-out affair—and then sighed, an action that seemed to suck the light out of every candle in the room. "At the present moment…no, that's not what this is about," she finally said. "But the legend is very, very real. And if we don't take action now, it may become our reality."
"Then what is this about?" Rainbow Dash shouted, unconsciously rising up into the air a few feet before sinking back down meekly into her seat, her downcast eyes twitching fervently back and forth between the Captain and the spot in her lap where her front hooves had fallen. "If it's…not those other guys, I mean," she mumbled, her face flushing pink under the Captain's glare.
"It's about the pony who may try to summon them, Miss Rainbow Dash," the Princess explained patiently. "A pony who may have already begun the process."
A grim silence overtook the table. It seemed that everything knew the question that had to be asked, but didn't quite know how to say it. Even without that fact, though, the pony who finally did speak up still would've come as a shock to nearly everyone in attendance.
"Who is this pony, Your Highness?" Fluttershy said, managing to make eye contact with the Princess for a second or two before looking back down at the table again.
Once again, Celestia sighed. This time, the answer seemed to pain her even when it was just a thought inside her head. "His name was Moonlight Acanthus," she said in a voice almost quiet enough to be considered a murmur. "Born and raised in a dilapidated old farmhouse east of Fillydelphia. His parents died when he was young, and his sister was sick for much of her life. When he came to Canterlot, to my school, he had no living relations left."
The Princess turned in the Captain's direction, but whatever she was looking at wasn't him. "He was…a brilliant student, immensely talented with magic. He won every award, aced every exam…the university president practically gave him the key to his office." Another sigh, this one much deeper than the first. "A few more years, and he could've been my apprentice." The Princess's eyes disappeared behind radiant white lids. "He knew what regard I held for him…how much I cared for him."
"What happened to him?" Twilight asked.
"He fell in love," Celestia replied darkly, as if the words brought up agonizing memories that she would've much preferred have stayed forgotten. "She was another prodigy, lived her whole life in the city. They met at the University, and she…she became his entire life. His passion for her was unlike any I've ever seen. When they were apart, no magic was enough for him anymore."
The Princess blinked, and Twilight realized with a start that she hadn't even thought of the Princess as somepony who could cry. "Eighteen years ago, she became terribly sick," she continued, her voice still unwaveringly stoic. "The doctors did everything they could, but there are…some diseases that magic can only do so much to prevent. He tried everything, tore the library apart looking for a cure, but…there was none to be found. She passed away the day before their graduation."
"Sweet mother'a mercy…" Applejack whispered, her eyes wide and beginning to grow wet around the edges. Rainbow Dash showed little emotion on her face, but the muscles in her shoulders were clenched so tightly that her entire upper half was shaking. Fluttershy's eyes were leaking giant, crocodile-sized tears, and Rarity was nearly beside herself with grief, loudly blowing her nose in an embroidered hankerchief she had yanked out of her custom-made saddle bag. Even Pinkie Pie seemed to be affected; her smile had faded into a melancholy frown, and her ears were pinned flat against her skull.
"I should've foreseen what happened to him," the Princess said. In another first for Twilight, she heard her mentor's voice take on a harsh bitterness. "I should've known that he wouldn't give up."
"But she had already…died, hadn't she?" Twilight pointed out, absolutely sure that she was missing something important. "What else would there be to work for?"
The Princess stared at Twilight for a curiously long time before answering. "By then, Moonlight didn't see things that way," she said. "Put yourself in his hooves, Twilight: the love of your life has died, and all you want more than anything else in the world is to have them back with you, to steal them right off Death's back and drag them back to this plane whether they like it or not. Can you imagine the lengths to which you would go to make that happen?"
"No spell can bring back the dead once they're gone," Twilight answered weakly. "I-I would be sad if it happened to me, but…I would accept that they were gone."
Celestia's lips curled into a wan smile. "It's so easy to say that when it's just something you can imagine, isn't it?" she said in a hollow tone. "I said the exact same thing to Moonlight eighteen years ago."
Twilight no longer had to guess at the pain Celestia was feeling; it was spilling out through every twitch of her mouth, every flutter of her eyelids. "He became convinced that I could bring her back, and I was just refusing to help him," she went on somberly. "He was delusional. He refused to eat, and rarely slept unless his body overcame him or someone forced him back to his room. And one morning, he was gone. Just like that.
"This year was the first time since then that there's been any sign of his presence in Equestria that I could ever confirm to be valid. The rest were rumors, stories told in darkened houses of a bedraggled unicorn driven mad by grief, who called himself Manedrake and wandered the countryside by night looking for the secret to everlasting life. But six months ago, I received a troubling report regarding the passing of a homeless old pegasus in one of the back alleys of Stalliongrad. She had nothing to her name, no family, no enemies anyone knew about, and yet the autopsy showed that her death was not a natural one. Eventually, someone who lived on one of the streets she frequented pointed out something odd: a small drawstring pouch that she always carried with her was missing from her body when the city guard found her. The same witness also remembered seeing a pony following her that night that matched Moonlight's description in everything but the color of his mane. I believe that Moonlight killed her for whatever was in that pouch. And I also believe that the contents of that pouch may have led him to the scenario we find ourselves in today."
"Which is?" Rainbow Dash asked with only the slightest bit of impatience.
For the moment, Celestia chose to ignore Dash's question, though her rationale became clear a moment later. "Twilight, do you remember anything else about the Legend of the Four? Any parts of the ritual that had to take place for the summoning to work?"
Twilight screwed up her eyes in concentration. "Yes, there was something else, but…" she muttered. "There were…the Seven. Something about the Seven Vices?"
"To summon the Four, the Seven Vices must be summoned first," Celestia finished. "Only with their terrible power combined may be the truest of all evils be awoken. Unfortunately, the knowledge we have at our disposal, of which there is very little, I must admit, does not elaborate on what exactly those vices are, nor how they could be summoned. But the legend was very clear on one thing: that the Call, the portion of the summoning that would awaken the Seven Vices, would take the form of…" The Princess closed her eyes and concentrated on a clearly memorized description. "'An awesome ring of golden light, reaching o'er the heavens in the name of its Holy Master's wrath.'" The Princess turned to face the entire table once more. "Such a ring appeared over Canterlot early this morning."
"Sooo…just to make sure I got everything clear here," Rainbow Dash said, taking advantage of the sudden hush in the room once the Princess finished. "This crazy magic-y guy wants to bring his fillyfriend back from the dead, so he runs away for eighteen years to go figure out how to call up the biggest, nastiest, evil-est forces that anypony's ever seen before, so they can give him all their power and he can go rule the world. And we have to go find him and kick his flank all the way back to Canterlot before he wakes up those Four guys and blows up all of Equestria. Right?"
"In a blunt sense, yes," Celestia confirmed.
Without even a second of hesitation, Rainbow Dash's face coiled into her "dangerous" face, the one everyone always saw right before she did something no other pony in the world would've been crazy enough to even think about. "Sounds awesome!" she shouted, floating up from the table again and pumping a hoof in midair. "Where do I sign up?"
"While I appreciate your…enthusiasm, Miss Rainbow Dash," the Princess answered carefully. "I'm afraid this isn't as simple as just asking for a show of hooves for who wants to go." She shifted to face the entire group again. "The reason why I asked that all of you be here today is because you six are the physical expressions of the Elements of Harmony. Although you may not realize it, you are our foremost and best defense against this kind of magic, the kind that fights not in territories or countries but on entire planets. The Captain and I can fight to destroy, but only you can fight to restore. The six of you are the purest embodiments of the Elements that Equestria has to offer, and it is that purity that allows you to tap into the very roots of magic itself, to become more powerful in certain ways that I or Luna could ever hope to be." Suddenly, something odd seemed to register in Celestia's mind. "Speaking of whom…" she muttered before craning her neck around to a far corner of the room that Twilight hadn't even looked at during the whole time she'd been inside it. "Luna, why haven't you joined us yet?"
As Twilight watched with a mixture of shock and amazement, one of the shadows flickering on the wall in rhythm with the sputtering candle beside it sank down onto the floor and then swirled up into the air, eventually forming into a midnight blue alicorn with a lighter blue mane that looked like it had been purposefully swept over her eyes. A quiet gasp of surprise made its way around the table while skipping over Applejack, whose mouth was thoroughly occupied with holding onto Rainbow Dash's tail so she didn't bolt for the newly revealed Princess.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sister," Luna apologized in a breathy, strangely nervous voice. "I-It's just that I wasn't there for any of that stuff you were talking about with Moonlight and all, and I didn't really understand any of the rest of it, so I-I thought it'd be better if I just…"
"I invited you here for a reason too, Luna," Celestia said, finally displaying a completely genuine smile. "You have as much a right to be part of this discussion as Twilight and her friends do. Please, join us."
Luna looked at Rainbow Dash, then at Twilight, then back at Rainbow Dash. As Dash stared back, eyebrows cocked in silent judgment, Luna's mouth dropped open and she stumbled back a step or two. "Oh…I don't know, I-I think I'm okay back here…"
"That wasn't a suggestion, little sister," Celestia continued softly but firmly. With her lip noticeably clamped between her teeth, the younger alicorn relented and took the empty seat next to Twilight, giving a stiff nod to the purple unicorn next to her before staring unblinkingly back at Celestia again.
"By now, I've told you everything I know," the elder Princess concluded once Luna was seated relatively comfortably. "It is now time for you to make your decisions. You all, of course, know which choice I hope you can find the strength to make, but if any of you does not wish to put their life on the line in this manner, you may leave now with my understanding and my blessing."
Celestia's assurance meant nothing, and everyone in the room knew it. Applejack was the first to speak up. "Well, y'all know me," she said wryly. "Somepony's gotta keep Rainbow flyin' straight." She flipped her duster back up onto her head and gave Celestia a determined nod. "Ah'll go."
"I'll go too," Twilight said next. "What happened to Moonlight was awful, but…he needs to be stopped. I can't allow myself to stand by and let him destroy Equestria."
"I'll go three!" Pinkie Pie added jubilantly, jumping to her hooves and sending both Luna and Fluttershy into a flurry of motion to get away from the precariously creaking table. "I bet it's nothing that a smile or two can't fix!"
"Well, I, for one, think this entire state of affairs is just ghastly," Rarity interjected, her eyes still puffy and red and her nose still sounding a bit on the stuffy side. "But I agree with Twilight. If the fate of Equestria rests in my hooves, then so be it."
All five of the consenting Elements of Harmony turned to the sixth one who hadn't answered yet. "C'mon, Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash implored the pink-maned pegasus. "We're gonna need you too for the whole purity magic thing to work right."
Fluttershy looked down at her hooves again and rocked back and forth ever so slightly. "I don't know…" she whispered. "I'm not very good with confrontations…"
With a flutter of her wings, Rainbow Dash cleared the table and came to a hover right in front of Fluttershy's veiled face. "Well, that's a stupid thing to worry about," Dash said, reaching out with one of her forelegs and lifting up the lock of hair that Fluttershy was covering her face with. "If there's any confrontating between here and this Manedrake guy, AJ an' I'll take care of it. You just gotta, y'know, be yourself. Talk to the nice animals, yell at the mean ones, tell us what you're afraid of so we know that it's harmless…" As Fluttershy lifted her hoof and began tracing it along the purple velvet of her cushion, Rainbow Dash noticed Twilight glaring at her and returned the incensed look with one of confusion. "What?" she said. "That's how it always happens…"
Twilight sighed and shook her head slightly before giving Fluttershy a comforting smile. "Everything's gonna be fine, Fluttershy," she said. "I promise."
Fluttershy looked around at everyone, Celestia and Luna included, then gave the tiniest of nods. "I'm really scared," she said, a bit of body imbued into her words this time. "But I'll go."
Twilight couldn't help but notice the relief that swept over Celestia's face the moment Fluttershy agreed to go with her friends. "Then it's settled," the Princess said, taking on the regal tone Twilight had always known her to have. "The ponies in the Arithmancy labs should have been able to calculate the rough size of the golden ring's arc when it reached Canterlot by now, and from that get a general idea of where it originated from. If the sources we've consulted are correct, the ritual to summon the Four should take about a week to complete, assuming Moonlight is only working with himself and the Seven Vices. You'll have until then to reach him and put an end to this. At that point, the Captain and I will have mobilized an attack force that will move on the location the Arithmancy labs have provided for us with or without your assistance. Is that clear?"
In other words, if they hadn't reached Manedrake in a week's time, Celestia's distraction for them would become a suicide mission and their entire world would meet a most likely violent end. Twilight nodded her understanding.
"Good," Celestia nodded back. "I'll have the chariot prepare for your return to Ponyville. I expect you'll take care of any business you have there with all due haste."
Twilight took that as their cue to leave, and with another nod and a disjointed bow to both Princesses, the six heroes of Equestria began to make their ways toward the exit. But just before Twilight reached the double doors they'd come out from just a short while earlier, she heard a voice behind her speak up one final time.
"And Twilight?" Princess Celestia called out. Even after she had the attention of the motley crew of ponies that every one of Equestria's hopes for survival now rested upon, she still hesitated to continue for a moment. "The Seven Vices are nothing like the Elements of Harmony that you six personify. The Vices are powers unto themselves. They can, and will, take any form that suits their need at any given time. I have no knowledge of what they may look like, what kind of defenses they may have, or even what specific vices they represent. All I can tell you is to remain vigilant…and to be careful about whom you trust. The bonds between true friends contain a magic more powerful than any one sin could ever overcome, but if you allow these Vices to divide you amongst yourselves and fracture that bond, your fate may be far worse than whatever the Four may do to Equestria. Remember that, and live by it. By the end of this journey, it may be the only way that you can."
Completely unsure of how to respond, Twilight eventually settled for another nod and a quick exit, stage left. Once the doors of the great chamber slammed shut again, a barrage of words gushed out of the younger of the two Princesses.
"Darn it, why must I always act like such a foal when I'm around them?" Luna said. "It's just so…so strange to see them like this, after everything that happened-"
"They have forgiven you, Luna," Celestia assured her sister, gently interrupting her in mid-tirade. "It's high time you learned to forgive yourself as well."
"You keep saying that, and I'll keep saying that it'll take more than a few months to make up for a thousand years of mistakes," Luna grumbled back, although she did stop berating herself after that. When she did speak again, it was in a much more solemn tone.
"Do you think they can do it?" she said. "Do you think they'll stop him in time?"
A myriad of answers long and short flew through Celestia's mind in each blink of her eye, but in the end she settled on the simplest and most terrible of all. "They'd better," she murmured, before turning to Captain Thunderhooves. "I believe we have some troop deployments to oversee," she said wearily, a proposition to which the dark-haired pegasus replied in the affirmative. With Luna in tow, the pair of regal horses, each monarchical leaders in their own right, made their way towards the same door that Twilight and her friends had just trotted through, the larger of the two extinguishing each candle they passed by. By the time they reached the door, only one softly dancing light remained.
Before leaving, Princess Celestia turned one last time to gaze upon the empty room. The war room. And just before the door closed behind her and the greatest fight in the history of Equestria began, a single thought occupied every square inch of her brain.
Please be strong, Twilight Sparkle. Please don't let me make the same mistake twice.
Celestia said none of this aloud, and neither the Captain nor her sister had anything to add either. As the three powerful figures strode out of the war room, the doors closed behind them with a loud creak and a gentle click. As the multitude of locks on the doors engaged of their own accord, the four members of the royal guard outside them fell in step with their departing ponies of interest.
And as the final candle behind the doors flickered, jumped, and then silently vanished, the darkness inside the war room became complete.