The Everfree Forest had never been a good place to wander, even in a fairly large group. The monsters that lurked within it's fearsome, murky depths were fearless of ponies, unafraid to attack at will anyone who dared venture within. That the rescue party for Twilight Sparkle was about to be used as a demonstration of just how fearless the monsters of the Everfree were was an irony not lost on Applejack as she weaved her way through the thick underbrush. The crash of trees as the massive manticore behind her barreled through the forest spurred her to even faster speeds, as she desperately tried to lead it away from the rest of the group, hoping to loose it over the bridge to the old castle.

They had come looking for Twilight after she had ran off from the village in a somewhat misguided attempt to 'protect' everyone from herself. Granted, the whole 'Trixie going on a monstrous rampage after loosing herself to the same transformation' part was worrying, but Twilight had never shown any other signs other than her physical transformation. It had only taken an hour to gather up everypony in Twilight's inner circle of friends to go chasing after her, the last trace of Twilight's new form having long since vanished into the Everfree by that point. They'd struck out into the gathering darkness of the dusk, heading out into the forest knowing only that their best friend was in dire need of their help and comfort.

The sudden impact of Dash's flank into her face interrupted her thoughts, as the two tumbled end over end through the small clearing they had collided within, skidding to a painful halt against a trunk. Faintly, Applejack could swear she heard Pinkie screaming their names in terror over the roar of the massive manticore. All she could think about was getting to her feet, the farmer pony stubbornly ignoring the pain as she rolled to her feet. The hammering blow of the beast's paw cut her recovery off, as she felt her form flying across the clearing, the darkness rising up to swallow her about as fast as that nice tree seemed to be coming up to her face.

Spike looked on in horror as he watched Applejack slam into the tree trunk, the sickening thud of the mare's body hitting the tree terrifying to hear. Now they didn't just need to find Twilight to save her from herself, now they were the ones needing to be saved, and the only thing he could think of that could stand up to the over-sized manticore was a full grown dragoness, especially one that theoretically could still harness the full range of unicorn magics. Fluttershy's wail of horror could be heard as she dove for Applejack, paying no heed to the manticore as it rounded on Rainbow Dash.

"Pinkie! We've got to do something!" Spike shouted into her ears frantically, trying to get the frightened stiff earth pony to move before the beast noticed them.

"I brought stuff to cheer a dragon up, not to fight a manticore! Where am I going to find an aluminum bat and a pie launcher in the Everfree?" Pinkie's wild rant left Spike wondering how those two items could ever actually defeat a plus-sized manticore, even as he looked up from Pinkie's fluffy mane to see Dash living up to her name as she tried to do her best in stopping the manticore.

"Pinkie, get Spike out of here! I'll hold it-" The cyan pegasus found herself being thrown through the air mid-sentence, as the monster took advantage of her moment of distraction to swat her from the sky. The impact sent the pegasus crashing to the ground near Applejack as the manticore turned it's attention to the remaining moving object before it.

The pink earth pony squeaked for a moment as the massive paw swiped through the air towards her head, barely missing as she threw all of her energy into a frantic leap to one side. The rumble of the pony-sized paw crashing into the ground shook the clearing as she ran for her life, trying to figure out something to keep it busy long enough for her to throw a distracting party, or let Dash and Applejack tag-team the horrific beast. Tail whipped before her eyes, the stinger of the manticore stabbing into the forest floor before her in terrifying proximity.

Spike hung on as best he could, dimly recognizing his own voice screaming for help as Pinkie twirled around the obstruction, using her almost unnatural agility to her advantage. The force of Pinkie's rapidly speeding up movements threatened to drag him out of her mane, as he was whipped rapidly from side to side. The crashing of talon and tail into the ground could be made out over the blood rushing through his eardrums, roars of rage growing louder as the beast furiously tried to pin down it's prey. A swiping paw sliced in from the side, at last catching Pinkie off guard, sending her and Spike tumbling to the pile of ponies where Applejack and Rainbow Dash were just coming around under Fluttershy's care. The triumphant scream of the towering monster shook the branches of the overhanging trees, the manticore taking a step towards the cowering group.

At least, before it's scream of triumph turned to one of pain, as it fell to one side, blood dripping from a gash on one shoulder, the glint of light from a blade gleaming in the dim light of the forest. Everypony followed it's path, looking in shock at the visage of righteous fury etched into Rarity's face. The exhausted unicorn panted as she caught her breath from having chased after the group all the way from Ponyville, taking a moment to get enough air to speak. She straightened up before the manticore could, brow furrowed as she summoned her shear spells, the two-dimensional constructs sharp to the point of almost cutting air itself. "Someone's been a baaad kitty!"

The group stared in astonishment as the deadly dance began, Rarity using every ounce of her power and knowledge to turn her talents against the massive beast, throwing her constructs to clash against tooth and claw. Rarity could already feel the sweat building on her brow, panting as she kept up her bladed whirlwind. She wished desperately that one would have been enough, but the sheer bulk of the monster protected it from her relatively small blades. Her offense rapidly found itself blunted as she found herself forced to call up more and more shield spells to counter crushing blows from the beast. Each hammering paw slap against her magical shields actually slid her across the clearing. Rarity realized she had already been backed into a corner, the thick bulk of several trees blocking her from retreating any farther.

Her eyes darted about for anything she could use to regain her initiative, the growling of the manticore almost atop her by that point, drool dripping to the leaf-covered ground as it imagined her taste. Rarity's frantic eyes caught a glimpse of her friends, a growl of her own filling the air as she realized she was the only thing keeping the manticore from devouring them alive. Her magic's glow grew brighter as she drew upon her last reserves, a lance of energy modified from her archery spell whipping out, throwing the beast back as she charged out one last time. Everything she could throw into her attacks ripped at the tough hide of the manticore, tree branches snapping and leaves scattering under the intensity of her whirlwind. She could feel herself weakening with each step, as she slowly drove it back as far as she had retreated, the swishing of air parting around magic blades filling the air as she stumbled. Her attack paused for a moment before she could raise her head once more, feeling the tears of pain from magic overuse starting to blur her vision. The manticore began to stagger to it's own feet in the breathing room, Rarity trying to conjure just one more strike to drive it away.

She struck out, her vision breaking into a kalediscope of shapes and colors as she vaguely realized she had failed her friends, and missed her target. The darkness began to squeeze at her head, Rarity feeling so tired, so very tired from the strain of her onslaught, even as a blinding pain erupted against her face. Unconsciousness carried her off even as she felt herself floating through the air like a graceful dancer, the faint sound of someone calling her name touching at her mind as she felt herself sliding to a halt.

Once more, the manticore screamed in triumph, though raggedly from the numerous cuts that criss-crossed it's flanks. The white morsel had taken more out of it than it could have imagined with those nothing-blades. It would enjoy taking it's revenge from the little morsel's hide as it stomped forwards. Gone was it's former grace, it's former patience. This time, kill them all instead of feasting on their flesh live. Better that way, no more distractions. It was time to end... this? Why were the morsels looking past it, shrunk down even more into themselves? The ripping screech of trees being rent asunder, timber being tossed aside like a foal's toys was it's first clue that it was about to loose it's dinner entirely. Followed shortly by the ear-splitting roar of an enraged dragoness.

"You! Will! NOT! HURT MY SON!" Twilight's roar of rage could be heard across the Everfree, clear into Ponyville as she charged into the clearing. The manticore barely had time to react before her swiping tail slammed into it's flank, sending it skidding across the clearing. She glanced down at her friends, seeing the shock and awe, along with their injuries from fighting the creature before her. All her fault. If she hadn't run away, this would never have happened.

"Twi... M-Mom?" Spike gingerly peeked above Pinkie's mane at the former pony who had raised him, something in him knowing she was still herself where it counted, as he looked into her sorrowful eyes. Twilight seemed to be about to say something, clawed paw raising from the ground, reaching to him seeking forgiveness for leaving him. Then it struck again, Twilight screaming as she found herself rolled onto her side by the attack, feeling her scales starting to part under the rending claws.

Instinctively, she struck out with talon and magic, horns glowing as a telekinetic smash threw the creature from her form to give her breathing room to scramble to her feet. Her claws dug into the tangled earth of the forest floor, holding firm between her opponent and her friends. Her hord...- NO! Her friends were not treasures to horde, and she would not become that, never that! Her growl at her own self's thoughts were interpreted as a challenge by the monster, which charged at her, tearing through the canopy.

Purple flames were it's response as she gave into her motherly rage, her knowledge letting her channel it into a multi-thousand degree jet of superheated hatred, instantly incinerating much of the canopy above them, the sunlight shining through to glitter against her scales. Tumbling to a stop, the beast screamed in pain, having been clipped by the cauterizing flame, a jagged burn etched into it's side.

"Twiliiiight! Buck it!" Applejack's shout reached through the angry haze clouding the dragoness's mind, a sudden realization striking her as she uprooted herself, twisting around in spite of the pain arcing through her side, hindpaws limbering up.

The beast had a moment to look up, into the shadowy bulk of the dragoness that had defeated him, before the heavens-piercing blow of two dragon paws kicking full force into his face sent him careening skywards, stars seemingly shooting past his face as he arced clean past the horizon.

Twilight chuckled once, remembering how she had always wondered if learning how to applebuck would have ever come in handy again. It was getting harder to think, as she looked to her flank, realizing that the painful scratches the beast had inflicted had in fact been deep gashes into her hide, what should have been iron and crystaline scales still soft and supple, and easily parted. Her breath began to hitch in her throat as she slowly slumped to the earth, the world growing dim around her as Spike's... her son's screams of horror could be heard, his tender claws pressing at her bulk as everything faded to black.

And yet, why was the sun shining in her eyes? Couldn't she die in peace, having so royally screwed things up? Her ribs grumbled at her as she breathed, eyes screwed tight in pain as soft prodding poked at her hide. Mumbled voices whispered all around her, her pained mind unable to make sense of them as she reached out weakly, trying to drive off her friends so they wouldn't have to see her bleeding out. "Go'way... don't do this guys... Don't let Spike see this."

Her rumbling voice still was so strange to her own ears, so much harsher than her old one. She just wished it wasn't going to be the last thing it heard. The soft prodding grew harder, more insistent, before a hoof reached forth, beeping her muzzletip gently. The strange soothing mumbling could be heard once again as the sunlight grew even brighter in her closed eyelids, almost resembling the silhouette of Celestia in her feverish state.

"I know I've described Philomena as a dramatic, but I never thought it would apply to my faithful student, no matter what form she took... though I'm afraid you'll certainly wish you were dead these next few days..." Celestia's voice drifted into her ears, soothing and uplifting. It took but a moment for her eyes to snap open, gently glowing irises focusing on her now comparatively diminutive mentor. She seemed almost to glow with immeasurable power, the former unicorn realizing she could see Celestia's magic now, in all it's blinding glory, even as it began to fade, revealing a host of familiar faces. Her friends, and her family. And everyone from Ponyville she had helped in her stay in the tiny village, who wore looks from shame to joy at seeing her alive, if not entirely well. A look up revealed she was in a giant tent in town, a view of town square easily visible beyond the throng. Longing filled her heart, as she could see her currently unoccupied library at the edge of her vision, impulse striking her heart.

"SPIKE!" Her anguished shout sent pain rippling down her side as she cast her eyes across the crowd, looking for her little purple and green-

Squeezing paws clutched tightly at her foreleg, as she looked down to see Spike clutching tightly to her leg, almost afraid to let it go in worry that she'd vanish without him once more. "Don't leave me again, Mom... please don't leave me..." Sniffles echoed in the tent amidst the sudden silence, as Twilight laid there, uncertain as to what to do for a moment. She caught the eyes of her mentor, the alicorn smiling broadly for a moment before giving a 'HUG HIM' gesture as subtly as she could.

It took only that motivating push for the gentle dragoness to do so, Twilight sweeping Spike up into the embrace of her forearms, clutching him tightly to her chest as she began to cry. Realizing how much she had become for him, and just how badly she had hurt him by running away in her silly, stupid flight of fear squeezed at her heart like holding onto someone pulling out of a sonic rainboom. Slowly, softly at first, she began to soothingly croon to him, nuzzling him as he cried into her scales. Then, as she grew more used to it, she began to softly whisper into his ears, repeating the single best thing she could say to him in the tone only a mother could muster. "Not again, never again Spike. I love you, and I'll never leave."

The gentle rocking continued for a minute, before Pinkie at last broke the revere. "Awwwww... told'ya she'd come around! We should throw a 'WELCOME BACK! party for her!"

The cheer that rocked the tent was deafening, as her friends held back the majority of the crowd from her, the startled purple dragoness popping her wings in surprise and shock from the thunderous cheer, even as her parents squeezed through to in front of her circle of friends, looking up at the bulk of their transformed daughter. The noise began to quiet down, letting Twilight tremblingly close her startled wings as the nurses shooed everyone but Celestia, the element bearers, and her family from the tent.

"I... uh, never thought you'd become famous quite like this, honey..." Twilight's mother looked up into Twilight's tear-streaked face, as her daughter smiled awkwardly at the approval shining up at her. She'd never thought that her parents would be... okay with this.

"I have to say, it's certainly quite awe-inspiring...I love your look, even if it wasn't your choice. Your mane really does look nice on you, even in this form." Her father's words made her reach her free paw up to her neck, feeling the thick, tangled mane there. She'd changed again, though she was glad that anything left of her old self was a good thing. Before it had all been cruel, jagged spikes lining her neck, running down the back of her head.

Purple eyes shot back to her flank, where just beyond the thick wrapping of slightly bloody bandages her cutie mark could once again be seen, gracing her hide with it's slight glow. She knew in her mind that her jaw must have dropped at that point, as she stared numbly at the reaffirmation of her identity, wondering when it had reappeared, or if it had been there all along and she'd been too blind to see it.

"Twilight, sugarcube, it's like Ah said, you haven't been honest with yourself. You never stopped being yourself in favor of being a dragon. Everything that made you, well, you is still there. Just more of it now. Who cares what'chya look like, or if you sound like Big Mac gargling salt water now. We still all know you're the Twilight we came to know and care for." Applejack stepped forward, plopping herself down against Twilight's flank.

"And even if you hadn't been, we would have been incalculably heartless not to give you a second chance to get to know you, no matter what form you appear in darling." Rarity sat before her, primly throwing her mane back as she snorted at the mere idea of abandoning Twilight to her fate.

"What kind of friends would we be to let you get hurt out in the Everfree? Loyal to the end we're supposed to be. Besides, I'm not letting the one pony... err, dragon, who's 20% cooler than I am get hurt because I couldn't be a friend." Dash flew up, landing gingerly on Twilight's back, leaning around her shoulder.

"And just thinking about how cold you must have been out there, even if you are kind of scary, it's just not right. I couldn't leave you out there by yourself! Especially with Spike looking for you." Fluttershy so boldly hugging her shocked Twilight, as the dragoness wondered what kind of a crazy world she had fallen into.

"Besides, who knows what kind of crazy awesome you could get into now! You're so big, and fast, and zoomy-zoom-zoom! And zaaap! Ker-pow! You saved us all with that craaaaaazy applebuck!" Pinkie seemed to almost be teleporting, as she bounced about, appearing on different sides of the dragoness faster than she should have been able to bounce.

"Such is the power of Harmony, Twilight Sparkle. I would have thought you learned that when you saved me. Now, though, I must interrupt your rest, and reunion, with dread news. Trixie (the not so great and powerful) has fallen, like you thought you had. She has stolen the bag, and seeks to awake the dark lord Tirek, and there is not a moment to loose." Luna's form darkened the opening to the tent as she strode in, her armor once again upon her as she gazed fearlessly up into Twilight's eyes, knowing what the answer would be.

"Oh, no." Twilight could feel her heart pounding in her chest, the name ringing an unfortunate bell in her mind. She knew that name, instinctively and from legend. A monster. A Nightmare. Spike dried his eyes with a fist as he looked up at Princess Luna, who slowly strode deeper into the makeshift medical tent.

"Yes. Luckily, she is wandering randomly at this point, from all accounts unaware of the Tomb of Tirac's locations. Even luckier is that she currently is heading the wrong way to find it. Both of which give us time." Luna telekinetically lifted her helmet from her head, the silver sheen of it's steel shell glinting in the sunlight as Luna set it down on a nearby table.

"Ah hate to be a bother, but who or what is a 'Tirek', and why is it a bad thing? Ah say let Trixie go. She's done nothing but hurt you, sugarcube." Applejack raised an eyebrow inquisitively at the name, unfamiliar with it other than a vague unease. The farmer pony knew she was probably going to regret the answer, but she had to at least ask. Especially given the horrified looks that Princess Celestia and Twilight were giving the Lunar Princess.

"Applejack, imagine Nightmare Moon." Twilight's voice trembled as she spoke to the orange mare, others catching the fear as well. Anything that could scare Twilight in her new form, well...

"I hear ya, Twilight. So, I'm guessing this Tirek guy is 20% scarier than Nightmare Moon, or Discord?" Dash hovered about, hanging before Twilight as the dragoness winced slightly at the raw nerves in the deep gash in her side.

"Try 200% scarier, and able to do to anypony what happened to Trixie and me once he gets that bag. He was able to withstand Celestia and Luna working together at their full power when he last rampaged. They sealed him away in a tomb of pure Admantium, and threw it far into the corners of the world, so hard that all even they know is the direction they flung it in." Twilight spoke over the gasp of Rarity, knowing the mention of the rarest, and most precious metal known to Equestrian lore and science would catch her attention. What she didn't expect was for the fashionata to swoon and faint at the thought of the sheer tonnage of Adamantium needed being wasted on a dread tomb to be cast aside.

"I think you overdid it, sugarcube." Applejack trotted over to the white unicorn as she spoke, looking around for a bucket of icy water to splash her with.

"Um, what exactly do you mean by that, Twilight? You mean he's responsible for..." Fluttershy squeaked beside Twilight's mother, the elderly unicorn looking at her funnily as the butterscotch pegasus squeezed up against her. "Those big, mean, scary, gobble a full grown pony in one bite dragons? Uh, oh... sorry Twilight, I didn't mean to..."

"Offend, no... We, er, all dragons still carry the taint of Tirek in their blood. All of them can trace their lineage to the mortal races that were corrupted by his power. Even... me." Twilight swallowed nervously, realizing the horrible danger to her that the bag Trixie had found represented. Oh hay, the danger to all of Equestria when the dragons fell sway, if they hadn't already, to even- Her fierce growl as she realized that Spike was in danger as well caused her own parents to jump in surprise, backing away from the purple dragoness's flanks in surprise as she tried to crawl to her feet. "NO! I can't let her do that! Tirek won't have my Spike! I won't-" Her defiant roar of anger was cut short as she fell back to her stomach in pain, a strangled moan squeezing out of her as she clutched her stomach and ripped flank.

"I'm sorry Twilight, but not yet. You are not yet healed, and we need you, especially you. You represent something we never had the last time we faced the dark lord. A dragon beyond his touch. That is why you have transformed once more, cruel scales becoming clean, tough hide, spiked crest becoming mane once more. You were offered a choice no dragon before you has ever been able to make. That you were one of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony allowed you to make that choice." Celestia's hoof gently ran down Twilight's side, a numbing sensation spreading out from it's touch as the pained moans eased from Twilight's form. The dragoness looked to her mentor and friend questioningly, wondering what that was supposed to mean.

"You mean I was in danger of- of falling?" Twilight found it hard to accept that she had been right all along, and that she still might be a horrifying danger to all of Equestria. Maybe it would have been better to throw herself off that cliff after all.

The bold, lightening laugh from her mentor shocked her out of her thoughts, the white alicorn clutching her aching ribs slightly from the intensity of the her echoing laughter. "Oh, heavens no, dear Twilight. Your friends insured there was never a danger of you falling to his influence. They kept you true to your upbringing, my training, to the elements you all hold. Their loyalty, honesty, their generosity and kindness and levity kept you from sliding into despair and ruin, and even in your darkest hour, they came calling for you. Their steadfastness will be of great aid to your quest as you journey with my sister." Celestia gently corrected her student, her words brightening the faces of each of Twilight's fellow element bearers in turn as they realized the full importance of what they had done.

"I- I don't know what to say. I guess, well, thank you. All of you, for saving me from myself. I don't know how I could ever repay all of you for being so selfless to me." Twilight continued to soothe Spike, even as she let her wings droop, settling over her friends in thanks for their actions.

"Be the Twilight we remember, darling." Rarity spoke first, Twilight's heart dropping slightly at the words. The one thing she couldn't b-

"We're not talking about how you look, or the way you act, Twilight. It's about who you are inside." Twilight perked up as Dash beeped her nose, the cheeky and bold pegasus looking eye to eye with her. The laughter of her friends caused her to blush for a moment, realizing she must have an utterly befuddled upon her face.

"You're still the wonderful pony who has helped all of us so much. You're still our wonderful friend through all that's happened to you. Um, even if you are rather big, and scary." Fluttershy's timid, quiet voice quieted the laughter as Twilight began to smile, realizing her friends were utterly right. Sure, she wanted to horde knowledge, and seemed to have a mean streak now, but she was still the same individual who had become Celestia's dear and faithful student. Just... grown up, so to speak.

"You always knew how to be funny, even if it wasn't what you were going for! You put up with all of our craziness even after you started letting everything get to you and that big new noggin of yours!" Pinkie bounced once more, reaching to grab a hold of Twilight's head so she could swing up atop the dragoness. Luckily, Applejack calmed Pinkie down with a hoof to pin her tail, so that Twilight wouldn't rear back and hurt herself again at the bouncing pink so close to her face.

"And you have always at least tried to protect us in town, even now. When you were being a silly filly, and thought you were going all dragony-evil, you ran. Ran to protect us from what you thought you were going to become. Wasn't the smartest thing Ah've heard of you doing, but it's the thought that counts." Applejack's drawl seemed thicker than ever as she held the squirming pink menace in place single-hoofedly, doing her best not to crack up at the various strange antics Pinkie rapidly went through to free her tail.

"Oh, a silly filly, am I? Who was it who decided to take on her family's whole orchard on their own, and nearly got all of Ponyville flattened when she wouldn't accept help? Seems about as silly as abandoning someone's friends because you're too scared of yourself and what you've become." Twilight reached out with a talon, tussling the farmer-pony's mane. The dragoness realized they were all right. She had already done the impossible, had stood in the fire when no-pony else could. Her gaze passed over her friends, no, family in remembrance of what they had already been through. For good or ill, she'd do it, no matter what her fear said, no matter if she was in danger. For Spike, for her parents, for even the members of her family she wasn't actually related for, the least she could do would be to go.

Applejack's snort elicited a raised eyebrow from the dragoness as she tried to figure out what the stubborn country pony found so funny, even as her parents butted in. The two elder unicorns looked around in confusion, realizing that they had been further out of Twilight's life than they could be comfortable with. "Twilight, honey, how exactly did all of this get started? You haven't written for a few months, so I'm afraid I'm in the dark as to why you ended up, well..." Her hooves spread wide, as she gestured at Twilight's extended bulk stretched across the tent.

"It's kind of a long story how, er, Mom ended up like this." Spike looked up at Twilight's face, her muzzle creaking into a grin as she raised her paw up to let him clamber onto her back. Spike didn't seem to notice how natural it was for him to address Twilight as his mom, something the lavender dragoness made a mental note to ask her mentor about, even as she nodded her head, tailtip flip-flopping a bit as she got started.

"Well, the best point to start with a long story is the beginning. And since I don't think I'm going to be ready to move for a while, I suppose I have the time." Twilight blinked as all of her friends squeezed in around her parents, sitting before her. She hadn't realized she hadn't really explained the whole crazy story to them before. The eager faces, including the princess's own, staring at her were so insistent, and yet foal-like and curious. "Well, if everyone wants to start at the beginning, once upon a time, there was a beautiful unicorn named Twilight Sparkle, the best and brightest student of the wise and fair ruler of the land, Princess Celestia."

The collective groan was definitely worth the aching ribs from her deep bellylaugh, she decided later that day. 120% worth it, all the way.