Rain without Rainbows
The unsung example of a golden effort!
Co-Author: Cyros Lugoth
!Disclaimer!: The last time I tried to claim commercial right over something, I ended up stranded in Dodge Junction with Rarity. I loved it, but she didn't, so let me spare her makeover. I don't own the rights to the show, likenesses, or products. All rights go to Faust, Theisson, and Hasbro.
Rainbow Dash is back, everypony! After a much-needed encounter with Luna, the power of the Element of Loyalty awoke Rainbow's inner strength, and now she's ready to take on the monster who has caused everything, Alucard.
Before she can, though, she and her friends need to find a way to breach his stormcloud lair. Rainbow has a devious idea, but she'll need the help of the princess to make it happen.
ACT III - The Prestige
Chapter fifteen: Conflagration
The storm was gaining strength. With the evacuation of Canterlot into the palace finally complete - despite some regrettable losses - Alucard was no longer content to blindly strike the city. Each bolt of his lethal lightning was concentrated, spearing and striking the fuchsia barrier that stood in his way. He was determined to bring down Canterlot Castle next, and he knew that the unicorn guard couldn't outlast his might for long.
His work was seen on various streets and nearly all the buildings. The poor souls who could not evade his power were lying limp in the roads, some only a few yards away from their home or a building. The buildings themselves were in terrible condition, many having massive holes blown out of their sides or roofs. The prowess of earth pony construction meant that none of the buildings had toppled, but Alucard would be sure to amend that after he had his way with the refugees.
It was mid-afternoon.
The inside of the palace had effectively settled to an uncomfortable atmosphere. Even those who knew nothing of Alucard, the Ponyville assault, or the injuries their princess suffered could easily tell that they were under siege. What they did not understand was why the Canterlot Military had not reacted in kind, and instead chose to house the entirety of two towns in one building. Nearly every room and hallway in the palace was filled, some to capacity, as the guard maintained the barrier around the castle.
The same could not be said of the palace throne room, which was a far sight more empty than anywhere else. Inside the throne room, a group of eight mares were gathered, six of which wore powerful artifacts that glowed with immense power. The two remaining, Celestia and Luna, were looking upon them, mulling over the plan that they had just been told. The 'idea' that Rainbow Dash had proclaimed just moments ago.
"You realize," Luna stated, "that this plan of yours means that you will have no further support. Everything will be riding on you and what your friends can do."
Rainbow Dash looked at her, a calm confidence speaking volumes. She nodded slowly, having already considered the problem earlier. "It also means that all this ends today. Alucard has done far too much already, and I won't allow him to do any more."
Celestia leaned down, making eye contact with the newly-restored pegasus. "And what are you prepared to do in order to prevent any more damage?"
Simply, Rainbow replied. "Whatever it takes." She stamped a hoof on the floor for emphasis. "I've already been blamed for murder once - maybe I'll get to feel what it's like for real."
The statement gave everypony pause as they realized that she truly was ready to go any length. Nearby, Twilight and Rarity exchanged looks, while Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie looked a little surprised. Applejack, however, nodded imperceptibly, as though knowing it would have come to this.
The two princesses considered the mare, each thinking that she had become more suicidal in the days she had last attempted it. However, without options or any other method of reprisal, they weighed the consequences of what could, and most likely would, happen. Luna nodded first, eager to see justice enacted for her broken wing. Celestia's nod followed shortly thereafter, wanting to get her sun and city back.
"Very well, Rainbow Dash," Luna spoke on behalf of the royalty. "I can help you to begin, but it's the only assistance I can provide. Once I am finished, the rest is up to you. To all of you," she amended, nodding to the line of Bearers.
Twilight stepped forward, never one to leave details unexplored. "Princess, please be careful. When I tried the spell, it was far too difficult to perform on more than one pony. Casting in on four could prove...problematic."
"Relax, Twilight Sparkle," the moon regent assured. "I once commanded the Elements as well, don't forget."
The librarian nodded, her doubts settling below her radar. In her mind, Rainbow's idea was nothing short of ludicrous, based on chance and faith and all things unscientific. While it was true that magic would work wonders, what her friend had in mind could only be thought of as miraculous. To enact a phenomenon that was already a legend, then to add five more ponies into the mix...
"Go over it one more time, please," she asked.
Rainbow turned and explained her ludicrous idea. Either the result of her Element or her confidence, she had the idea of performing her signature Sonic Rainboom, while using the magic of her Element of Harmony to help breach the clouds above. She reasoned that, once she got in the air and gained enough speed, the rest would be easy.
The trouble arose with the numbers. Rainbow said that all six of them could do it - enact a Sonic Rainboom at the same time, and use the combined power of all six Elements to punch through the clouds. Obviously, the first problem came with how it would be possible, but she had thought of that. One of the princesses, Luna (who still had magic), would cast the flight spell that Twilight had once used on Rarity. In theory, the alicorn's magical prowess would be enough to give the four non-flight ponies the wings they would need.
The next problem came with gaining a good enough start to make this possible, but Celestia had solved that dilemma. The old headquarters of the Wonderbolts was nearby, which had since been condemned and was scheduled for repurposing into a museum early the following spring. Inside the headquarters was a training area, complete with a launch pad from which they could jump. Given enough altitude, the team of six could reach the necessary speed in much less time.
The time was vital. In order to even use the pad, Rainbow and her friends would need to brave the open city. As soon as they were beyond the shelter of the barrier, they would be targets for Alucard to entertain himself. They needed to be sure to not stop for anything while they were exposed, be it on the ground or in the air.
In essence, Rainbow's plan had five phases - gain wings for everyone, reach the Wonderbolts' building, use the pad to gain good speed, fly fast until they all broke Mach One, then invade Alucard's personal space and send him packing with his tail between his legs.
Or, more likely, send him down to earth. Hard.
"I can't stress enough how important it is that we stay in flight formation," Rainbow Dash told them like a true team leader. "If we break apart, then the plan falls apart, and we will not be given a second chance. Stay on me no matter what."
The five friends with her all looked back, some with lingering doubt or wonder. Understandably so, since most of them had no experience in flying, much less while in formation. In time, however, they all nodded, ready to stand against this monster and reject his evils.
The group of six was connected, that much could be said. But their motivation for bringing Alucard down was askew, since only one among the Bearers had ever made contact with him. While Rainbow Dash had true motivation, both for wanting answers and for making things right, the rest wanted either one or the other. They didn't even know what he looked like.
There was so much more that Rainbow Dash wanted to say. In the four years she had been hiding, she had dwelled on her thoughts and experiences. She had come to appreciate everything that she had once taken for granted, and the fact that she had given it all up still caused a twinge of regret. Not regret for her, but for her friends, because they were also denied the happiness of having her around.
She smiled. Right now, though, none of that mattered. Her conscience was clear, and only a few questions remained unanswered. The only way she could gain those answers was by facing the one pony behind everything. Then, after things were made right, she would say what she wanted to say.
Rainbow Dash turned and nodded to Luna. The alicorn nodded in turn.
Luna closed her eyes and called on her power, which had still not fully recovered from Alucard having his mind in hers. She had strength enough for this, and planned on giving the ponies she saw less as allies and more as friends as strong a gift as she could manage.
A dark blue light began to envelope the bodies of Twilight, Rarity, Pinkie, and Applejack as the spell began to work. The light spiraled until their forms were unseen, the magic beginning to spark with bolts as dark as night. Unlike the lightning that Alucard commanded, these bolts were promising.
The corona of magic surrounding Luna's horn darkened to a solid hue, and four shining orbs of power emerged. They flew lazily through the air until they reached the four ponies, where they hesitated. Luna cracked one eye open, making sure she wasn't making any mistakes. Then, with a huff of effort, she gave one final push. The orbs sank into the fields that surrounded the mares.
The magical output caused a small explosion, which caused Luna to sink to her knees. She cried out as she finished her incantation, effectively draining what magic she had recovered in her rest. The burst of power caused a flash that temporarily blinded everypony, with the lingering magic in the air flowing and tickling their senses.
For a moment, nothing happened. The first to speak was Pinkie Pie, her clear voice chipper as always. "Ooh, pretty!"
Luna, Rainbow, Celestia, and Fluttershy all opened their eyes to view the handiwork. The spell was a complete success, but on a deeper level than the two pegasi were expecting. Rainbow Dash gasped in surprise, while Luna sighed in relief.
Rather than the butterfly wings of which Rarity had once been proud, the four mares had been given translucent, almost crystalline pegasus wings, each pair mimicking the color of their owner. They stood out rigid, settling in to the nerve systems of their owners, already fluttering and bending in reflex. They were like cut diamond, but moved like real wings. The light they caught from the glowing Elements refracted and danced along the walls and ceiling, much like sunlight in water.
They were beyond Pinkie's statement of pretty. They were gorgeous, ravishing, stunning, magical.
"So much...different than when I had tried it," Twilight muttered, admiring the sheer beauty and innate strength they held.
"This is concentrated, Twilight Sparkle," Luna explained from her position on the floor. "I didn't want to risk spreading the power so it would last for three days. I've given you all the magic I can spare, enough for at least six hours. This power should give you the flying tone to equal Rainbow Dash, although..."
Pinkie looked over. "Something wrong?"
"Well...there can be no substitute for experience. You all will need to get accustomed to your wings on your own. They should work just like extra appendages, but you'll need to remember that they are there."
Rainbow Dash gave a firm nod, satisfied with the result. "Six hours, then. Plenty of time to make things right."
The first phase of her plan was complete, done without a hitch. Twilight, Rarity, Pinkie, and Applejack spent a moment to test their new gifts, kicking off and hovering without too much effort. It was, needless to say, an otherworldly experience for the mares, but the power given them by their Elements seemed to include confidence. Somehow, they knew they would be able to fly. The only question was how well.
It was a question that would have to be answered through application. When the moment of testing passed, the six friends looked at one another, then to the sister princesses. Then they turned, moving as a unit, and galloped toward the throne room doors. Soon their forms vanished behind them as the doors closed, and their rapid hoofsteps were heard only for a moment before the palace was rocked by more lightning.
Celestia and Luna watched them go, the younger pushing herself from the floor to sit comfortably. Not to say that either of them were comfortable, with their conditions nor the entire horrid affair. Yet something deep, intuitive, and simply unknown to them seemed to give them hope. A glimmer in the dark, much like the shine of the Elements of Harmony in the sight of the eclipse.
In spite of the circumstances or situations, this simply felt right. There really was no other way for this to be. Rainbow Dash was reconnected with her Element - and, more importantly, with her friends. Her presence came with a promise, one that said action would be taken. Changes would be made. And the influence of that promise was as colorful as her mane. A rainbow without rain.
"None of us said goodbye," Luna pointed out, not looking away from the closed doors.
Celestia nodded. "None of us wanted to."
Phase two of Rainbow's plan was put into action as soon as the team reached the great hall. They rounded a corner and were immediately met with teeming masses of frightened ponies, many of whom were not aware that the Element Bearers were in the building. They all soon noticed easily, largely due to them pushing through their condensed mass. It was hard to miss shimmering wings and six radiant lights running past, not to mention the rising cheer of hope that followed their wake.
"It's them...it's them!"
"The heroes who stopped the eternal night!"
"No, the ones who ended chaos!"
"They've come to save us! We're going to be okay!"
"Go! You can do it! We believe in you!"
As the cheers rose, so did their spirits. Eyes narrow, minds clear, the praised Bearers passed a row of unicorn guards who were barely coping with the strain. The sight of the six mares seemed to give them strength, and the guards were able to push a little harder.
Rainbow Dash and her friends reached the doors, forced them open, and finally got a good view of how far along Alucard's storm had ravaged the city. The streets were littered with fallen bricks and mortar, criss-crossed with timbers and beams. Trees and fountains had been annihilated, spewing leaves, limbs, stone and water wherever gravity carried them. The buildings looked poxed, their innards revealed through wide holes and deep cuts, some even shearing the corners of rooftops. The lightning had not been able to light any fires - a small comfort - but the resulting darkness made the scene even more nightmarish. But the worst of all were the occasional bodies of ponies who had not been fast enough.
Rainbow couldn't help but look ahead, to a point only a few dozen yards away. There, two mares were still, their eyes wide and frightful and completely empty. The mother and daughter from earlier, taken, just like Celestia's four pegasi guards. Just like the four Wonderbolts.
The resolve in Rainbow's mind burned hotter. She would make this right, no matter what the cost. Too much had been paid by others already.
She turned, spotted the decrepit Wonderbolts building down the street, and gauged the risks. There was absolutely no cover once they were clear of the barrier. They would have to rely on speed and surprise in order to stand a chance of making the distance.
It would be difficult. One chance only. They needed to be absolutely swift, and could not afford any setbacks. Even the smallest could spell disast-
The barrier shone white with dispersing power as a bolt of lightning struck a point directly over their heads. The sound of the crack forced them to crouch out of reflex. Rainbow looked up, seeing the few remaining sparks of magic fly outward as the barrier barely held.
Clearly, they did not have the element of surprise. Disaster had been averted, but just barely. They had to move now.
Wordlessly, Rainbow took off at a full gallop, pumping her wings for speed. Her five friends followed suit almost immediately, matching her speed. They reached the edge of the barrier and its light, and once they passed it, they were plunged into the darkness of Alucard's storm. They felt the unblinking gaze of his eclipse on their backs.
Rarity called on her magic, spreading a cone of light in front of them. With the aid of the light, the six friends were able to avoid the wreckage of buildings and café tables, sometimes leaping over them with the aid of their wings. They ran, knowing that lives depended on what they did.
The air around them became electrified, and Rainbow chanced looking up. The clouds above them were reacting, forming a bolt in an attempt to intercept. Ethereal black magic met and converged on a point, joined shortly after by dancing patterns of white. It fired.
The cyan pegasus pumped her legs and dived to the side, rolling away. The spot where she had been only a heartbeat before became enveloped in lethal magic, and the sound of the blast caused her ears to ring. But she had avoided the bolt, avoided catastrophe. A quick look behind her told her that her friends had done the same. Five harried faces looked toward her, shaken but alive.
The spot where the lightning had struck was torn asunder, like somepony had extracted a section of the sidewalk with nothing more than a stick of dynamite and a lapse in judgement. Rainbow panted with exertion. They had been lucky twice now - best not to see how far their luck would hold.
She jerked her head toward the Wonderbolts building, which was still a distance away. Her friends rose and regrouped, Rarity's light spell giving them sight in the darkness. They took off once more, still wary of obstacles in the road and the death from above.
The further they ran, the more troublesome the lightning became. Using the lack of light to his advantage, Alucard began striking the nearby buildings once more, bringing down debris to block the streets further. While it certainly slowed the approach of the six mares, it did not stop them - Rainbow's experience was prepared to handle tighter spaces than this, and her friends followed closely, stepping precisely where she stepped.
Fatigue began to crawl up their throats, but still they galloped, the sight of the headquarters giving them strength. They were getting closer, but the blasts of lightning had slowed - Rainbow looked skyward to gauge what her enemy was doing. At the cloud layer, jagged streaks of power were converging, combining for a much larger strike against them.
"Rainbow, look!" Rarity called, staring at a point ahead.
The pegasus brought her gaze around, and saw the problem. Before the building they were running toward was a large wooden fence, Canterlot-grade, with a sturdy gate and lock on the front. Tacked across it were notices of condemnation, but that wasn't the problem. The real problem was that the fence was too high to easily fly over it, but they could not afford to back up and gain height. Doing so would give the lightning above more than enough time to fire. And this time, Rainbow wasn't sure she and her friends would be so lucky.
An idea dashed across her mind. "Twilight!" she called.
Almost immediately, a bright purple flare sped past her head, cackling with magic. The flare washed over the lock, dissolving it with no effort. The gate of the fence was exposed, lightly singed with the residue of Twilight's spell.
With an extra burst of speed, an orange mare with magical wings ran up and broadsided the gate with the force of a train car. A sharp crack went out as the wooden planks failed, and the gate was forced open. The entrance to the Wonderbolts' old headquarters was fully revealed.
Rainbow allowed a surge of happiness to course through her. It was good to be back with her friends.
They crossed the threshold of the fence and double-timed toward the doors. Above them, they heard the clouds cry out as the overpowered lightning was released, arcing directly for them. It became a race, one with the highest stakes.
One final pump of their wings fed air behind them, and they leapt through the weakened doorway. The air became electric as the lightning neared them like a ravenous predator. One, two, three ponies cleared the doorway. Four, then five. Fluttershy was inches behind, equal parts panic and courage behind her eyes.
The lightning struck the ground just outside the doorways, kicking up strands of power that crawled up walls and shattered windows. The force of the blast carried Fluttershy into the building, safe and sound and very, very terrified. She crashed into her friends and joined them in a collective huddle. Then the burst of noise washed over them.
The displaced winds and various debris buffeted the group as they huddled together, praying that their shelter would hold. The sheer presence of the magic's sound caused their ears to ring once more, so they felt the ground tremble but did not hear if it was cracking. Plumes of dust rose up like waves, stealing their vision as well. The entire building could have collapsed on them, and they wouldn't have known until it was too late. They gripped each other tightly, their only knowledge of each other's safety in their embrace.
Whose heart was pounding fastest? It was impossible to tell. But all six hearts were pounding.
After an age that lasted only seconds, the world seemed to settle into perfect darkness, save the glimmer of six Elements. Slowly, the group of friends relaxed their hold on each other, though they all still held their breath. Rarity moaned and recollected her magic, casting a more gentle light about them.
Sight restored, the friends gauged their surroundings. They looked at each other, quieting any fears of whether or not they were okay. Each of them panted hard, allowing the excitement of the danger to ebb a bit at a time.
Applejack looked behind her, whistling in appreciation. "Whoa, nelly, that was a mite too close for comfort."
The force of the magic had completely toppled the entrance of the building, bringing rubble down. It was not possible to see where the doors had been - if they were not vaporized, then they had been buried. Piles of planks, bricks, and mortar met and merged into one great hill, effectively sealing the entrance. It had also saved their lives.
Two more deadly blasts of magic struck the building, but none further. Alucard fixed his attention on the palace once more, apparently more interested in the population of two towns than six ponies on their own. As the sounds of rumbling thunder moved away and the dust of the shaking settled, Rainbow and her friends recovered themselves. The run had been hard, exciting, and very close, and they were grateful for the reprieve.
Rainbow Dash finally allowed herself a breath. Phase two, complete.
"Applejack!" Twilight started. "You're bleeding."
The draft mare brought her left shoulder around, where a mild but steady stream of blood slowly flowed down her foreleg. "Would ya lookit that. Yep, Ah'd say the gate out there had a thing or two to say about bein' plowed over like that." She didn't sound the least bit concerned. Without a second thought, she strained her head and began to lick at the wound, spitting out the blood that collected on her tongue.
Fluttershy walked up, inspecting the injury. "Ooh, that looks like it might get bad. Shouldn't we..."
"Later," came the reply. "Ah'd suffered bruises ten times worse than this and slept easy."
With a huff of amusement that was ironic given the state of things, Rarity spread more light around them. The spell allowed them to properly take stock of where they were. Surrounding them were chairs and tables, with a set of long desks nearby, clearly indicating a lobby. Along the walls were life-sized posters of the Wonderbolts, their names, signatures, snapshots of their routines, and sky-view paintings of various cities where they had performed - many of the frames askew from the tremors of the storm. The lobby itself was shallow, like half of the room was sealed off.
In the middle of the room was a simple staircase leading up a floor, and in front of those stairs was a pedestal that was at-odds with the rest of the room. Resting atop the pedestal was a simple engraving, clearly an addition after the aerial team had dissolved. Curious, Rainbow inspected the engraving, and felt a wave of melancholy.
The words on the stone depicted a summary of the team and their feats, including the dates of their existence. The team had been formed by a pegasus named Microburst, barely eight years before Rainbow was even born. Their first show had been outside Fillydelphia, as a treat to the locals. They had gained world renown in so short a time, and their time was cut off far too early.
Rainbow's body tightened. She fought the urge to swear.
The light around her grew as Rarity walked up beside her. The Bearer of Generosity spent a moment to read the engraving, then touched a hoof to Loyalty's own in an attempt to pass comfort. "Rainbow, darling? Are...you okay?"
The pegasus sighed, coming to terms with herself again. "I never imagined my first time here would be like this."
"Oh, yes, I...I'm sorry."
"Heh," Rainbow scoffed. "It's fine. I may have had my dream taken from me, but it's nothing compared to what's happening now."
"That's right," Twilight chipped in. "We've got to stop this monster and set things right again. What's the plan from here?"
Rainbow Dash arched an eyebrow. She smiled. "You know, normally you're the one who leads these crazy adventures."
The lavender unicorn bowed her head, also grinning. She said nothing
With a nod, Rainbow gazed up the stairs. "This place is built for pegasi, and this room looks like it was cut off part-way through. I'm willing to bet that the Wonderbolts had their diving platform somewhere high up, where they could free-fall all the way to the ground floor. We need to get there."
'Phase three,' she thought.
The ascent through the headquarters was, thankfully, uneventful, but the ponies did not give themselves any more breaks. They kept a swift pace, climbing one set of stairs after another, passing a trio of floors dedicated to different needs. The third floor, as it turned out, was the living quarters of the team, complete with bedrooms and a large kitchen. The fourth story held their trophies and awards for competition, entertainment, and public service. Clearly, Spitfire had been proud of the legacy she had woven.
The real sight, however, began at the fifth floor, where the ceiling fell away and gave access to an impressive pillar that led higher and higher into enclosed air. Rainbow Dash and her friends slowed to a trot out of appreciation. The pillar shot upwards, beginning at an edge that fell straight down to the ground floor. It had been decorated at the base with various pony mannequins with old Wonderbolt flight suits, the trademark bolt-and-wings emblem, and visages of pegasi flying toward the sky. Despite being a pillar of pegasi use, there was a set of stairs that wound to the top - which was easily another ten stories up.
Beyond the pillar was empty space for another few floors, but the walls of the headquarters still surrounded them. The entire launch pad was enclosed within the building. Rainbow could only guess that this launch area was specifically for training free-fall while in formation, whereas the real choreography would take place elsewhere.
She scowled. That was a problem. If they could not get back outside once they jumped, then her plan would completely fail.
Fortune was on their side, it seemed. After the lightning had sealed them inside the lobby, Alucard has sent two more blasts against the building, blasts that had rent a hole in the wall that was now above their heads. Rainbow Dash craned her neck and inspected it. It was far from ideal, and was not as high as she wanted, but it would fit her team.
The thought gave her pause. She had just thought of her friends as a team, here in the headquarters of the greatest aerial squad in history. Under different circumstances, she might have been happy to have a team here. She might have been completely content with her life.
"Rainbow Dash?" somepony called from behind her.
She shook her head, dispelling the wave of emotion. Lives were counting on her, and every moment lost was one more bolt against the palace. There would be time for sad memories later, when all this was done. Rainbow turned and joined her friends - her team - as they ascended the staircase that wrapped around the pillar.
The trot upward took an annoying amount of time, and Applejack had something she wanted to voice. She slowed down, allowed her two unicorn and fellow earth pony friends to pass her, and joined Rainbow Dash at the end of the line. "Hey, Rainbow...how ya feelin'?"
Rainbow kept her gaze forward, like solid steel. 'Hadn't she asked me that on the day of the tryouts?' she wondered. "I'm okay."
"Well, yeah. What else can I be?"
Applejack scoffed, but held some of it back, making a dry cough instead. "Plenty, I reckon. You haven't flown since the night you left."
And there it was. Rainbow's face turned grim for only a moment, her lips tightening and her eyes narrowing. "I know," she whispered, reigning in her feelings before they lingered.
That was a truth that she had been avoiding since her plan fell into her sights. It was easy, real easy, to just talk about flying, especially after Luna had cast such a valuable spell on her friends. But out of the six of them, only Fluttershy of all ponies had the most recent flying experience. Rainbow Dash hadn't flown in four years, and she was doubting that even the power of her Element could reverse four years of negligence.
"I don't have a choice, Applejack," she told her friend, still keeping her gaze forward and rushing up the steps two at a time. "Things are the way they are because I didn't stay. We could have stopped all this if I had only waited for the princess to come. The simple fact that I left you all behind gave Alucard the time he needed to prepare. I won't...can't let that happen again."
"Ah know, it's just..." The blonde pony struggled to find the words she wanted, her attention divided as it was - the pain in her leg made the climb harder. "This plan of yours ain't exactly normal, even for you - and especially for us," she added, flexing her magical orange wings in reflex. "Ah told you that Ah would try to keep you safe this time, because Ah couldn't last time...and, frankly, Ah don't see how that's possible, y'know?"
"We all made promises that we're not able to keep, A.J.," Rainbow said, leaping up the final four steps to reach the upper landing. "All we can do now is keep this one promise we have to the ponies stuck in that castle. They're all relying on us. On me."
"You don't owe them anythin', Rainbow."
The cyan pegasus finally looked her friend in the eye, and Applejack was rooted by the power in the gaze. Rainbow's eyes, magenta and solid and so full of life, were more sharp than any other time Applejack could remember seeing them. Her gaze spoke volumes - libraries, even - of what was contained within. The pain, the guilt, the shame, everything that Rainbow Dash was forced to bear over the years.
"You're wrong," she said. The words weren't harsh, or even cold, but Applejack flinched nonetheless. "No less than ten innocent lives have ended because of my choices. Ten lives and four years, and everything is coming back to me and Alucard. He will take whatever he wants, so it's up to me to give back. Give back with whatever I have left to give."
"But..." Their friends had turned to see their exchange, sensing that the topic was important. Applejack didn't look at them, instead choosing to stare right back into Rainbow's eyes. "But...you said it yerself. You were gone for years, Rainbow - what can you possibly give them?"
Rainbow smiled a sad smile and turned away. "What was it you had said, back in the library? Something about destroying the root?"
The sentence halted any rebuttal the farm mare had, as well as those in the throats of the other ponies. Everyone knew exactly what she meant.
"Remember what Celestia asked me," she continued, walking toward the lip of the pillar. She walked with her head high, her legs tall, her mane full and long. She walked along the platform like it was the edge of the world, knowing full well that she could be diving into a nightmare. Despite the fear that she held, she did not show it.
For the first time in very, very long, Rainbow's mind was absolutely clear. She was Rainbow Dash, and many things scared her. But they would not stop her...she would not allow them.
She stopped at the edge of the platform, stretching her wings to their full span. Her chest inflated with a deep breath, soon contracting with a satisfying sigh. She closed her eyes, and finished. "Whatever it takes."
For an agonizing moment, her five friends stood still. They looked at her, then among themselves, not quite sure what to make of her statement. Inklings of concern began to seep into their minds, concern that threatened to shake their newfound unity.
In the distance, a blast of thunder sounded, like a wicked knell sounding in the air. Rainbow stood on the edge, waiting for her friends to join her. But after the moment passed, only one body was nearby - Applejack, of course, her face a mask of stern hope.
"That ain't good enough, Rainbow."
The pegasus cocked an eyebrow and turned to look at her. She said nothing, allowing her curious glance to respond for her.
"You shouldn't think for a minute that you should give everythin' to folks you've never met. We here needed to deal with a heap o' trouble, too," she said, her crystalline wings fluttering toward the ponies behind them. "If you think you owe all ya have to them Canterlot ponies, then great. In that case, I bet you owe us a few things, just to be fair."
That captured Rainbow's intrigue. "Owe...you five?"
"That's right," the draft mare nodded. "We just now got you back, and ya think you can just go down swingin' and everythin' will be better? No, ma'am, that won't do at all. You still owe us four years worth of friendship, and we ain't gonna let you wiggle your way out of it that easily."
"What?" Rainbow asked, both surprised and a bit amused. "What are you saying?"
Applejack groaned. "Did that lightning back there knock a few screws loose, ponygirl? Ah'm sayin' we ain't gonna let you die here. No way in Equestria."
Those were the words that the rest of the mares wanted to voice. They nodded, smiling, finally walking toward their pegasus friend. Rainbow, meanwhile, was touched by the dedication in Applejack's voice, and the way Rarity, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Twilight all immediately agreed. She met the gazes of each of them, unable to hold back a warm smile.
'This is what I left behind,' she realized. 'And this is what I can come back to.'
She turned to face Applejack, lifting up her foreleg as she did, hoof-out. "Still haven't given up on me, have you?"
Applejack matched her smile and knocked her hoof against Rainbow's own. "Never."
The six Elements of Harmony glowed a little brighter.
Words ended between the six friends, but then no words were really needed. Their concern dispelled, they turned their attention to the edge of the platform, and then to the expanse of air below. Rainbow wordlessly guided them to their flight positions - a narrow V shape - with the cyan pegasus herself taking point.
This was the moment that Rainbow Dash feared the least, but still feared. She took two breaths to steady her nerves, and wondered why, now of all times, butterflies had taken flight in her stomach. Rainbow took a step forward, which was immediately mimicked by the friends at her flank. 'Now or never.'
Time seemed to slow for her, giving her a moment to picture the days she had flown. As she began to fall, she saw the first time she had ever accomplished a Sonic Rainboom, during her filly days at flight camp. She remembered, warmly, how that incident had allowed her greatest friends their own cutie marks, and how it had marked the start of their interlaced lives.
Her fall gained speed, and an empty weight filled her gut. She saw the ground floor rushing to meet her, and she recalled how the merciless rocks of the hills had done the same, before the bonded magic had kept her alive. It was a strange feeling - back then, she had wanted to die, a desire brought on by guilt and panic. Now, knowing that she could die today, but for a purpose, she felt calm.
The freefall caused her mane to whip past her face, but she kept her wings folded at her side. She was rapidly running out of space, and knew she had to make her move soon. But one final memory emerged, one that was far more recent and a good deal more welcome. The memory, from only a day ago, fueled her determination further.
"Do you still want to make things right? Get up, and move forward. Be better than me."
Spitfire's face was still fresh in Rainbow's memory. She had always served as a role model, a beacon, a goal. The fiery pegasus had adopted the team's motto of reaching for the horizon, constantly striving for a more perfect standard. Now Rainbow Dash would strive for the same.
"Be better than me."
Rainbow Dash snapped her wings outward, and they instantly caught the air rushing past her. She tilted her feathers inward, and the speed of her fall allowed her to change course like a baseball being struck. In an instant, she turned upward, flapped her wings once, and began to climb. Her five friends, most with ethereal wings, all did the same with only slight hesitation.
Without time to think, she adjusted her vector and aimed for the center of the jagged hole on the wall. Barely a second later, she cleared it, and was out in the open skies of Canterlot. Behind her, still in the tight formation, her five friends all passed through the hole. None of them were showing any trouble with their wings.
Back in the headquarters building, Applejack's hat hit the ground floor with a soft pat, fallen off during their descent.
There was no rain in Alucard's storm, so the airspace was open. Rainbow Dash sped along, held aloft by stiff wings and the momentum of her jump. But she allowed herself the sight of the city, far below her altitude as she continued to climb higher.
Elation filled her being. She was finally back in the skies, a pegasus free in the air. Her wings began to flap by instinct rather than by will, and she revelled in the feeling of her feathers against her sides. The constant rushes of air that held her aloft were familiar, like the embrace of a mother.
She laughed, cheered, cried, did something, but she didn't notice, nor did she care. For that moment in time, nothing else existed - not the city, not the storm, not even her friends. Just Rainbow Dash in the air, where she belonged. That moment, her first flight in four years, was something that she was sure to cherish for the rest of her life.
The moment of elation dissolved, and she glanced backward. Her five friends flew behind her, their formation shaken by the sudden direction change and the need to clear the opening. They slowly straightened themselves, once again solidifying into a recognizable V. The magical wings of the unicorns and earth ponies glowed, their existence empowered by the energy of their respective Elements.
None of this was noticed, because Twilight Sparkle was frantically pointing to a spot ahead of them. Rainbow turned her gaze, and immediately saw a gathering sac of magic. Thin white lines of lethal power met with the sac.
Rainbow twisted and dived, her team following her movements. A moment later, a streak of black lightning tore through the air where they had been. The sound of the air splitting rendered the mares deaf for a second, and their V line loosened once more.
"No!" Rainbow Dash screamed, hoping that they were paying attention. "Stay together! It's our only shot!"
A second bolt flew past her wing, another near-miss. It was obvious that Alucard had seen them emerging, and decided that six mares who had saved Equestria twice over was one thing he could do without. Whether or not he knew it was them, earlier in the city streets, didn't matter. Back then, they were just targets - now, they posed a potential threat.
More bolts flew only seconds apart, each one steadily growing closer to the Bearers. Rainbow continued her dive, hoping to turn the speed into something that would break the sound barrier. But the magical lightning strikes were ruining her flight integrity. If she reached the correct speed at all, it would not be on this pass.
Rainbow narrowed her eyes to slits, fighting the wind that was urging her to blink. "Up!" she shouted. The word's force scratched her throat, but they worked. She angled her body, quickly coming out of the dive, and leveled herself with the tops of the Canterlot buildings. Palace spires and roofs of buildings whipped past them, soon struck by magic as Alucard's lightning chased them. With a twist of her body, Rainbow led her formation further into the city, using the empty buildings as cover. Behind them, the sounds of falling rubble followed, proof that her cover was working.
She tilted, rounded a corner, and was over the fuchsia shell of the palace barrier. Rainbow folded in her wings and dropped, feeling a streak of lightning speed overhead a heartbeat later. She landed on the magical barrier, which easily held her weight, and galloped as hard as she could, harder than the run in the city streets. The momentum she carried was impressive, aided in no small way by the jump from the platform. In only a few short seconds, the six mares crossed the span of the shield, and they again leapt into the air.
Inside the palace, the residents of Canterlot and Ponyville looked out windows and through skylights to see their heroines speed along. A resounding cheer of hope rose up against the crashes of thunder, and the barrier grew just a little stronger.
A moment later, a large, overpowered bolt of magic impacted the barrier dead-center, in defiance of the cheering within. The shield flared, glowed, then cooled, unbreached.
Rainbow was thankful - the time Alucard spent silencing the cheer was time she could use to gain more speed. She rose into the air, pumping her wings, knowing that her friends were doing the same. She looked over her shoulder, relieved to see the formation straight and solid.
As Rainbow flew, she imagined Spitfire's last words to her - "I have faith in you, kid." - repeating them in her head, making them a mantra. She bared her teeth.
'Alright, phase four. Stay with me, girls.'
Rainbow arched her back around, bringing her body perpendicular to the eclipse above, before she twisted, stuck out both forelegs, and dived almost straight down. The jagged edges of the mountainside sped past her peripherals. Her wings folded at her sides, and her mane was blown back and completely flat. Slipstream tugged at her, contacting her friends, who in turn made their own and allowed for greater speed of the whole unit of six. Slowly, Rainbow began to see the edges of the sound barrier, a white cone of vapor that she wanted to tear open.
Blasts of lightning streaked down, attempting and failing to contact her. She ignored them, focusing all her attention on the cone before her. It grew larger, more prominent, appearing as physical as a plain white sheet. She reached out, stretching every tendon in her body, desperate to grasp at it, knowing that she wasn't long before hitting the city. If that happened, then she had no chance of surviving, Element or no.
The V formation narrowed, the mares within trying to reduce the effort Rainbow was giving. The gee-force brought tears to their eyes, which were quickly claimed and carried off into the dark, dry afternoon. Their descent was rapid, far more rapid than any pegasus knew was safe. They dove from the sky, glowing Elements marking their position, absolutely certain that one of two outcomes was about to occur.
Then, finally, one did. An event that was talked about for generations that followed.
A brief period of silence overcame Rainbow, and then it shattered in an explosion of color. A ring of multiple colors emerged, the apex marked by the point where her forehooves pointed. Her speed increased as behind her, a brilliant spectrum of color sped outward, lighting up the skies of Canterlot.
But another, more incredible feat occurred at that same moment. Scattered behind the ring of multiple colors, five additional rings appeared, each a single, vibrant color. Purple, orange, pink, white, and yellow bursts all trailed behind the single circle, each of them expanding like their multi-colored example.
They had done it. A Sonic Rainboom, with five more following in harmony. The phenomenon would eventually become known as the Promised Day, and the sheer presence of it sent a wave of emotion across all who saw it. And there were many, many ponies who saw it.
Above the city, Alucard saw it, and spent a moment in shock and awe. Even he couldn't help but appreciate the strength of the blasts.
Within Canterlot Castle, the residents and refugees saw it, and all of them gave their loudest shout of hope yet. Spike, Applebloom, and Sweetie Belle were the loudest of all.
Inside the palace throne room, two regal princesses saw it, and said silent prayers to the six mares who had done the impossible.
And at the edge of the Everfree Forest, two former celebrities saw it, and gasped in sheer appreciation. Both wore wide smiles, though for two different reasons.
Indescribable feelings coursed through Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy. The formation they held sharply arced away from the city, heading directly for the eye in the storm clouds. In their wake, streaks of colors marked their trajectory, five of solid colors, one of many colors. At the front of those wake trails, the telltale glimmer of the Elements of Harmony was seen, tiny but brilliant lights against the darkness.
Before the wave of emotion fully passed by, Rainbow spotted activity ahead of her. Alucard, abandoning all pretense, began to forge yet another overpowered bolt of black lightning, this one far larger than any he had done before. The converging point of his magic was in the center of his storm's eye, effectively giving an iris to his eclipse. Wavering limbs of black magic came from all directions, pooling together in the center of the eclipse's gaze. White lines of power did the same, acting as veins to the magic, giving lifeblood to the attack.
Rainbow didn't waver. She narrowed her eyes once more, aiming for the heart of the converging magic. She could feel herself screaming, but she couldn't hear it...nor could she tell if it was out of fear, courage, rage, or simply because it felt necessary. The distance between her and the sac of lethal magic was closing rapidly, each moment allowing the converging power to grow larger.
With a blast of sound that was like a roar, the black lightning was released, giving off a flash of its own light and sparks of power. The arcing power raced to meet Rainbow head-on, and neither showed any signs of breaking off.
The six Bearers had time enough for one breath before the lightning reached them. Rainbow's pointed hooves contacted the exact tip of the bolt of lightning.
Silence reigned. Then the impossible, again, was done.
The power given to Rainbow from her Element of Loyalty, combined with those of the other Elements, then augmented further by her incredible speed, gave her the edge she needed. The bolt of lightning split into numerous smaller streaks, each one firing off in random directions, none of which contacted the five other mares in the V formation. At the tip of Rainbow's hooves, a small curve of power separated her body from the magic. That curve, though she didn't know it, was the combined gift of the six Elements of Harmony, the same gift that had thwarted the Lord of Chaos, and the Queen of the Eternal Night before him.
It was no small wonder that the six Elements were accepted as the most powerful magic known to ponykind. And though Rainbow didn't know exactly what the small curve was, she knew the nature of it, and was grateful all the same.
The force of the lightning, however, had greatly slowed their climb into the clouds. Soon, instead of the pointed V formation, the six Bearers were in a single straight line, each of them meeting, and dispersing, the gargantuan bolt before them. The sheer force of the magic shook them all to the bone, and more than one of them was screaming in surprised desperation against the roar of the magic.
It had only been a few seconds. And it was only a few more before the black magic finally gave out, and faded from existence.
The screaming of the Bearers halted, only to be replaced by cries of surprise. Now without the force of the bolt to fight, the six of them found themselves tumbling upward, into the ring of exposed airspace. Their momentum carried them higher, clearing the altitude of the clouds around them. But without the steadiness of flying, they could only fall again.
They all rolled end over end, already trying to right themselves before they went beyond the apex of their height. Legs wildly reached for nothing, and wings flared and spasmed without cohesion. Without overcoming their surprise, there was no way to recover enough to reach the clouds.
Then, just as sudden, the clouds closed on themselves, sealing the eye of the storm. Rainbow and her friends fell and landed unceremoniously on the dark, billowy material, letting out a slew of oofs. Though far from any solid object, the clouds were enough to knock the wind out of the mares, and they lied for a moment in their stunned state.
Above the clouds, the gaze of the eclipse was now solely on the Bearers of Harmony. Below the clouds, the blasts of lightning halted, but rumbling thunder still echoed off the city. In the air, the shine of the six Rainbooms faded into the distance, once again leaving the city dark and silent. In the city, plumes of dust and loose debris fell and settled in the streets. Inside the palace, a tense atmosphere held the breaths of everypony.
Rainbow was the first to gather herself, propping herself on her forelegs and shaking away her dizziness. "Mmmph..." she breathed, feeling a sudden onset of a headache that speared through her temples. With one eye open, she scanned the area before her. It was like an empty plain, bereft of life, and completely dominated by the unblinking gaze of the eclipse.
The pegasus turned her head, and smiled in relief. Each of her friends had made it with her, shaken though they were. Oddly enough, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Twilight were all holding their heads, as though they too were suffering a splitting headache. Pinkie was on her back, rolling over, blinking roughly to set her vision straight. Applejack, the toughest among them, was already trying to stand, but stumbled as her hurt leg folded under pressure.
They were all battered, but they were all there. The six of them...when there should have been seven.
Applejack looked up, spotted her friend, and grinned. The smile quickly froze, and the glint of satisfaction behind her eye shifted into confusion, and then panic. "Rainbow, look out!"
The cyan pegasus turned her head to look in front of her, but movement below her caught her gaze. Near her body, the clouds were shifting and rotating - an area surrounding her was moving in a clockwise rotation, faster than she could register. An errant flicker of white magical lines occasionally revealed itself, quickly consumed by the rapid movements.
Rainbow came to the conclusion that she did not want to be where she was, and struggled to her hooves. She pushed off the ground and spun, reaching out toward her friends. She didn't get the chance to reach them.
With a sharp snap, a dark wall of magic shot upwards from the cloud-floor, cutting Rainbow off from her friends. The wall was a deep blue, nearly black, with a multitude of dancing patterns flickering within. Her hoof contacted the magic, which was as solid as a cinderblock. It was electric to the touch.
She glanced up, seeing that the magic was closing into a dome, sealing off the air above her. Beneath her hooves, a layer of cloud had vanished, revealing a solid bottom to the dome. All around her, the white patterns danced within the magic, mocking her.
Nearby, Twilight gave an involuntary cry, and Rarity felt dread settle into her stomach. This magic was just like the one that had trapped, and nearly killed, Twilight.
With a brief hesitation, the five friends rose and rushed toward the magic, hammering at it in a vain attempt to break it. They cried out Rainbow's name, asking if they could hear her, desperate to know if she was alright.
Within the dome, Rainbow pushed her side against the magic, trying to force it away. She called out to them, only receiving her own echoes in answer. The darkness within the magic was heavy, and the glimmer of her shining Element was only a small comfort. Not to disprove the state of the world - everywhere was dark, but this was different. This darkness was a pressure on her, a leaden weight, threatening to suffocate her by its existence alone.
"Damn it!" she cried, slamming her whole body against the dome's side. "Applejack, are you there? Rarity, Twilight, anypony!"
As if in response, the polarity of the magic changed, going for a near-black tint to a ghostly blue-grey. Within, Rainbow saw them frantically banging on the dome, wondering how in Equestria they would help her. Outside, the five ponies could see the shape of Rainbow's body, but not her expression, neither could they hear her voice.
Rainbow's mind whirred, taking a moment to figure out exactly what in Tartarus was happening. Though it was like the magic that Rarity had described to her, she was still able to breathe freely. And the white lines were contained within the planes of the dome, not reaching out and stabbing her like they had done to Twilight.
'This is different. Somepony doesn't want me dead,' she thought.
Her headache spiked, and a deep voice sounded, seemingly from everywhere at once. "Brilliant deduction, my dear."
From the outside of the dome, Applejack and her friends saw a blurry shape rise behind Rainbow. With the simple knowledge of who the shape must be, she banged harder.
Inside, Rainbow turned around, and felt a surge of fear chill her blood. There was another pony in there with her, one taller, darker, and a great deal more threatening. A dark stallion, standing inches taller than Celestia, dark coat and white mane rippling with untold power. The wings along his back were leathery, like a bat's wings, and his horn emitted a sharp light that chased away the darkness. His eyes, once red and piercing, were white and terrifying.
The dark stallion's horn flared, though barely. He grinned warmly. "Well, well..." he began. "This is a surprise. What would persuade miss Rainbow Dash to visit me at this hour?" A dry, mirthless chuckle bubbled up his throat, giving a sharp contrast to the silence within the magic.
In the span of a heartbeat, Rainbow's mind raced. She saw the dark stallion, instantly able to see that he was, indeed, the charming colt from her supposed dream. The magic he commanded had turned him into something nightmarish, something that she would have never imagined in a thousand years. And above all, she saw the result of his trickery, his lies and murders, what he had gained through his evil...the end to his means. Yet she still didn't know the why behind the means.
Her heart pounded in her throat, but she forced herself to breathe slowly. She met his blank gaze, swallowed once, and spoke.
End chapter fifteen
Author's comments: *Throws arms into the air* Done! Christ, these few chapters are proving to be the most satisfying challenge I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. The effort put into them is placing my earlier works to shame, and all this based around a cartoon about colorful horses. God, I love writing.
Needless to say, this is the last major chapter before the climax of the plot finally comes to a head. I'll try all I can to get it out quickly, because I'm just as eager to see the apex of this mystery as the rest of you. I'll see you on the other side!
P.S.: Anyone good at fixing things? I think I broke Cyros.
Co-author's comments: Uuuuuuuhhhhhh...
Next chapter: "Come, now, surely you must know why it had to be you. All you need to do is look at yourself, Rainbow Dash. Every part of you is unique, tempting the envy of your peers. Do you really need to know why I chose you? Hm...let me tell you."