Path through Everfree
Dusk was watching out of the window of the library in Ponyville, a deep dread settling in his heart. Everything looked so normal, with everypony going about their normal business like nothing had changed. They had no idea that the most powerful and malevolent being in all of Equestria's history was out there right now. His chaos hadn't spread too far yet, it seeming to have stopped for now, but he knew it was coming… if the girls couldn't stop him.
Not for the first time, he scolded himself for being so useless at a time like this. All the knowledge that he had whirling around in his head, his manipulation of colour, what good was it here compared to the Elements of Harmony? This was something that he'd always dreaded secretly, for a situation like this to arise where he wouldn't be able to help his friends in a time of need. He was just sitting on the side-lines, as useless as he had once believed he was that he still sort of did believe, despite all that had happened…
"Dusk, you okay buddy?" Spike's voice snapped him out of his brooding and he turned to look at him.
"I'm… I'm just worried Spike," he admitted. "I want them to come home safe… I can't help it."
"I know how you feel, best thing is to try and ignore it." He set his mop against a wall and gestured to Dusk to join him at a table. "They beat Nightmare Moon, they can beat this Discord guy for sure."
"I wish I had your confidence Spike," sighed Dusk. "But Discord is quite a formidable foe, possibly more so than the corrupted Luna."
"He's that bad huh?"
Dusk nodded. "Think of how bad things could possibly get, and then add another suitcase full of bad… in simple terms."
"How do you know so much?" Spike asked.
"I did a project on early history in Equestria from the Unification of the Three Sects." He flushed a little at this. "I did quite a lot of extensive study on the subject."
Spike chuckled a little. "Heh, you and Twilight, you could outsmart Albert Hoofstein from how much studying you both do."
"I suppose so, her definitely," Dusk conceded, chuckling along with him.
"What do you know about him then?" he enquired, leaning back on his chair.
"Only what any historian would know. He came to power not long after the Unification at Hearth's Warming. He saw the potential for spreading misery and disharmony and he took it, reigning over them for a very long time."
"Why does he do it though?"
Dusk shrugged. "It's in his nature, as much as eating gems is for you. He's a spirit of chaos and he lives to spread it. Many ponies were tormented under his rule, my ancestor as one example."
"You mean Fore Sight?"
"The same. Discord plagued him with visions that depicted his family and friends in danger and he unable to save them. Soon, Fore Sight couldn't distinguish between his own true visions and the ones that Discord tormented him with and he was driven mad." He sighed bitterly. "That was how it was for everypony, he was just one…"
"Until Celestia and Luna rose up against him?"
"Yes, but even then Fore Sight had trouble recovering from the torment Discord put him through. Then one day he just… left."
"Left? Left where?"
Dusk shrugged again. "Nopony knows, but he was gone for a very long time. In fact, everypony thought he was dead until he returned many years later, aged greatly and near exhausted. He died not long after. He was still quite deluded towards the end, records saying things how he'd failed to find the pieces that were scattered, how it was still broken…"
Spike raised an eye ridge. "How what was still broken?"
"Again, nopony knows. He never said and he took the secret to his grave." He shook his head. "What I wouldn't give to know what he was searching for, it's one of the most celebrated mysteries of historians today."
"Well, everypony loves a good mystery." He rapped him on the arm encouragingly. "Maybe you'll be the one who finds out."
Dusk laughed at this. "Perhaps, but I don't think so."
"Well you never know, you mi-" He stopped and grabbed his mouth. A second later, he belched up a roll of parchment. "Hey, a letter!"
Dusk noted the black seal on it. "It's from Princess Luna." He took it as Spike passed it to him and unrolled it. As he suspected, it was addressed to him.
Doubtless thou already knows of what has been transpiring across our fair land. The spirit Discord has been freed and is one again wreaking chaos throughout Equestria. We know that thou must feel, as they say, like a fifth wheel at the moment, being unable to help thy friends in this dire time.
But there is something you can do, mine little pony. Something that you can find that may give us an added edge to defeat our ancient foe. Doubtless, thou knows of the ruins of the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, deep in the Everfree Forest, where the Elements were re-discovered. If we are right, what thy seeks lies there.
If thou wishest to help thy friends, go there and find it. If we are right, thou will know when thou finds it. We wish you the best of luck, for the Forest is a treacherous place as thy knows. But know also that your Princess has faith in thee and thou will succeed.
Good luck, Dusk and be safe.
Princess of the Night
Dusk felt his fear grow as he read over the letter again, taking it all in. The thought of the Everfree Forest still sent shivers down his spine. He'd had enough experiences in that place to last him a lifetime. But if Luna was right and he had no reason to doubt her, then there was something in the Castle that would give him the ability to help the others somehow. If there was a chance that he could do anything, he would be willing to take it.
He told Spike the contents of the letter and the dragon shook his head in disbelief. "You gotta be crazy! You can't just go off into the Everfree Forest by yourself again."
"I know and I'm not exactly enthusiastic about it myself, but I have to try," Dusk said, well aware that his voice was shivering with fear.
"But the Forest is filled with dangerous and weird things, you know that. What if this thing isn't even there? You don't even know what it is you're looking for!"
"That may be true," agreed Dusk, "But Princess Luna thinks that there's something that can help. I trust her, as I would Celestia and if we can't trust the word of our rulers, who can we trust?"
Spike looked as if he were about to argue, but he sighed and gave up. "I can see what Twilight meant: you can be both smart and stupid at the same time."
"As compared to who Spike?" Dusk smiled at his friend. "Remember when you tried to see how many gems you could stuff in your mouth before you choked?"
"Hey, I thought we agreed never to mention that!"
"With good reason, I'm the one who had to resuscitate you." He accepted the claw that the dragon offered to shake. "Keep an eye on things until I get back."
"Will do. Good luck bro, you're gonna need it."
"Don't I know it?" He gave Spike one last smile, then set off out of the library, through Ponyville and beyond the town to the edge of the menacing trees.
"W-We have to go in there?" a nervous Fluttershy asked, as they looked up at the imposing entrance of the maze. Even Twlight had to admit she wasn't exactly looking forward to venturing inside the vast labyrinth herself.
"Nope! Dopey Discord forgot about these babies!" She looked back at her wings then took off. "I'll just do a quick flyover and we'll have the Elements in no time." Suddenly, in a white flash, her wings vanished and Rainbow crashed to the ground. "My wings!"
Another white flash, followed by a scream and Fluttershy's vanished too. The same again, only when Twilight looked to Rarity's and her own head, her magical horn had gone.
"Your horn! My horn!" She couldn't help but panic at the loss of such a vital part of herself, as much as her tail or legs.
Before them, a glowing ball of green light appeared, growing steadily brighter until the mismatched form of Discord appeared before them, accompanied by claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, laughing madly. His face was an expression of utter mirth and amusement.
"You–You should see the looks on your faces. Priceless!" As he fell about laughing again, Twilight stepped forward.
"Give us our wings and horns back!"
"You'll get them back in good time." He vanished and reappeared behind Applejack. "I simply took them to ensure there's no cheating. You see, this is the first rule of our game: no flying, and no magic." He traced his finger down the side of her face and she wished she still had her horn. She would like to have seen him turned into a swarm of butterflies.
Rainbow seemed afraid of this. "The first rule?"
"The second rule is everypony has to play or the game is over, and I win. Good luck, everypony!" He vanished again, his sinister laughter echoing in their ears.
Seeing the others looking so demoralized, Twilight knew it was her job to bolster their confidence. "Never fear, girls. We have each other!"
"Yeah! Like Twilight said, there's nothing we can't overcome if we all stick together!" put in Rainbow.
They all walked towards the entrance to the maze, even Fluttershy was looking fierce and determined. "All right, girls, let's do this!"
"Together!" They cried this in unison and stepped into the maze.
No sooner had they done this, they were all screaming as the walls of the maze suddenly rose up and separated them, trapping each of them in their own section of the labyrinth. Discord's work, she thought to herself, moving to calm the others.
"Stay calm, girls! Everypony head to the middle as fast as you can, and we'll regroup there!"
"Moving out!" affirmed Rainbow.
"See you in the center," promised Rarity.
"Yee-haw!" sounded Applejack.
"See you guys there!" added Pinkie.
With that, Twilight set off at a gallop into the maze. She heard Fluttershy cry out somewhere behind her, but there was nothing she could do. These hedges were too thick to push through and she was without her magic. They were on their own, until they reached the middle of the maze, where the Elements would probably be. Then they would stop Discord.
She once again felt an ache regret, wishing that Dusk were here. How would he be coping with all of this, robbed of his special magic and unable to track them? He might panic at first, but then she would calm him down gently and promise to meet him at the center of the maze as quickly as possible. She had a way of doing that. Then he would probably quote somepony a little nervously and set off bravely. He was like that, even though he had low confidence. She remembered something he'd read to her from a story, when the characters were in a similar maze…
"In the maze, you'll find no dragons or creatures of the deep. Instead, you'll face something far more challenging. You see, ponies change in the maze. Oh find the cup if you can, but be warned: you could just lose yourselves along the way."
Hoping that what he said was far from the truth, Twilight carried on into the maze, praying she'd find the center soon.
Dusk made his way through the path in the trees, the grass brushing against his hooves as he softly walked. He wondered how Twilight and the others were doing. He felt a pang of worry, along with a desire to see her… he hoped she was okay.
Feeling a strong sense of déjà vu, he looked up at their wicked branches. He remembered the last time he stood at the entrance to the forest, on that cold winter's day. The girls were in danger and he looked to be the only one who could help them. In a way, it was the same again, even if he had changed from last time. He gulped as he looked up. Even in summer, the forest didn't look any less foreboding.
"Here I go again," he muttered to himself. Then, he took a deep breath. "Oh well… onwards and upwards, as they say."
With that, he stepped into the Everfree Forest, already feeling his dread increase with every sound that his hooves made. He remembered when he'd asked Twilight the route that she and her friends had taken through the forest when they were going to the castle. He had to follow the path until he reached a steep cliff face, a series of natural platforms providing a way down, as it was too far to fall. Then follow the path deeper until the trees become thicker, that would take him to a river shallow enough to wade through. Once on the other side, he had to find a rope bridge that would take him right across to the ancient castle. In theory, it sounded simple enough, in practice…
Quelling his fear, he followed the path as he remembered her telling him, reaching the steep cliff face she'd mentioned. By the looks of it, part of the rock had fallen away, possibly due to some natural event… or somepony had caused it. He tried not to think about it, as he slid down the grassy hill to the edge, where he dug his hooves in hard to stop himself. Feeling his stomach jump, he spotted the platforms and started to jump down onto them. Well, so far so go-
He felt the platform shift beneath his hooves, leaning forward in a precarious way at the foremost of it. He scrambled backwards as the stone came loose, he had to get back. Hurry, hurry! It was going to fall!
Luckily, he heard the sound of the breaking rock just in time and gripped the stone as hard as he could, a chunk of it tumbling away from his added weight. His heart pounding against his chest, his breathing short and rapid, he waited a few moments to calm himself before jumping down the rest of the way and breathed a sigh of relief. He looked up to where he had been standing. If he had fallen there, he might have broken his legs… or worse.
Shuddering and feeling a lot tenser, he carried on away from the cliff, thankful he wouldn't have to try that again anytime soon. Twilight had told him how they encountered a manticore on this part of the route. There were a few tracks around, but his magic told him that they were many days old and there wasn't one close by. At first, he thought he wouldn't have any trouble from the forest's many dangerous inhabitants. Until he reached the thicker trees…
Trying to ignore how much darker it was, he shone a light for good measure as the trunks closed in around him, like the forest itself was trying to trap him. He told himself to stop thinking like that. The trees weren't alive… well, not all of them anyway. He whipped his head around when he heard the sound of something behind him.
Nothing there. He was letting his fear get the better of him. He walked on, until he heard the noise again. His eyes darted from shadow to shadow, his ears raised to pick up any sound, his legs tensed, ready to fight… or to run.
He waited. Had he imagined it? Was he just hearing things, being paranoid? Or was-
Something hit him hard on the back of the head, a sharp pain rising from that area and his vision blurring. As it did, he could see two-clawed prints being formed seemingly from nowhere, until they suddenly stopped before one of the trees, claw marks appearing in the trunk. Shaking his head to clear his vision, he could see the odd set of prints appearing all over now. He was surrounded.
Chameleodemons, he thought fearfully, whirling around to try and see them, though he knew it was pointless. These creatures had a superb natural camouflage that rendered them near invisible to their prey. Usually, they never even knew they were there… until it was too late.
Another sharp pain erupted from his leg and he looked to see blood trickling from a three-clawed scratch that had appeared there. He punched the air but it hit nothing, the creature already scurrying away. It was nothing serious… they were just toying with him. It was time he did something to fight back.
His sharp mind went to work, considering strategies. He couldn't outrun them, as they were fast enough through the trees, which they knew better, to catch up to him in seconds. They had the advantage of invisibility, but it didn't seem like there were too many of them. They weren't very strong either, it wouldn't take much to knock one out. They needed concentration to maintain their camouflage… perhaps a distraction.
He quickly weaved a few colour swirls, dancing them around the trees, giving a little more extra light. At first, it didn't seem like this would work… until, very briefly, he saw the outline of one nearby, a brief flash of red.
"I see you," Dusk whispered and charged forward. Before it could run, his hoof made contact with it, sending a slight pain as he saw appear suddenly out of thin air and fly backwards, sprawling on the floor.
He didn't have time to look at it, as he heard another close by, scuttling up to him. His left hoof had been put into a patch of mud, which he now flung out in the general direction of the noise. A patch of brown gave one away, floating eerily in the air, until a kick from Dusk sent it flying backwards into a tree.
No sooner had he done this, he felt a weight leave his head and looked up to see his hat, which was now floating mysteriously in the air, dancing away from him, a rasping cackle sounding from it. Even if it was just a piece of headwear, Dusk was still annoyed at its theft. However, it did let him see his enemy, as it scampered away.
"Big mistake," he growled and swiftly caught up to it, ramming a hoof into the source of the sound, catching his hat and putting it back on his head. "Nopony takes my hat."
As it slumped to the floor, he had the chance to have a good look at it. It was rather small, no taller than his leg, with a pointed face and hooked nose and wicked small eyes. Its legs were thin and gangly, ending in two toes and its arms ended in wicked black claws, which were stained a little red. The one that had scratched him, he thought with grim satisfaction. A vile looking creature, but he still didn't like having to fight it.
A screech snapped him out of his thoughts and he whirled to see one dart from a tree straight at him, claws red and yellow eyes alive with malice. It might have got him, were it not for his quick thinking. Luckily, it had made the mistake of letting him see it, which meant he could catch it with his magic, which was just what he did. He held it there in a dark blue aura, as it struggled furiously in the air trying to escape, hissing and spitting at him.
"Sorry about this," he said to it and threw it at a tree, knocking it out along with its fellows.
He waited a few minutes to see if there was anymore. But none came. It had just been those four. Wincing a little, from his head and leg and leaving his fallen foes behind him, he pressed on, knowing that he would soon reach the river.
When he did, he stopped at the bank, making time to clean his wound with the cool clear water, as well as to take a drink. He would just have to ignore his throbbing head for now. He remembered what Twilight told him about when she came through and the trouble that they had. Almost falling off a cliff, the manticore, being scared out of her wits… he wondered how they'd view his little adventure through the forest today… he wished they were here with him.
He wondered what exactly the Princess thought that only he could find. He knew that the Castle was the last known place of the Elements of Harmony at one point, but they were now stored away in Canterlot under magical lock and key. What else could it be? Some other magical artefact, lost in myth and legend? Some kind of power source? Whatever it might be, he would find out soon enough… if it was there at all.
"Excuse me my good sir, are you quite all right?" A voice from the river brought his attention back to the world.
A huge serpent, the kind that lived in these waters, was gazing at him with concern. His scales were a rich purple that looked like they were well cared for, as did his quaff of orange hair and rich orange moustache that was styled quite impressively. Dusk let out a breath of relief and smiled up at him. River serpents were just as intelligent as ponies, though many were scared off at first glance. He seemed friendly at any rate.
"I'm fine, thank you, just a small scratch and a bad head, nothing to worry about," he assured him, showing his leg.
"Oh, that looks nasty." He leaned in for a closer look and scowled. "Chameleodemons, I never could stand those horrible creatures."
"Tell me about it." Now that he was closer, Dusk could see something else tucked into his hair. A strand of styled tail hair, that looked very familiar. "Pardon my asking, sir, but did a white unicorn mare give you that?"
"Oh this?" He preened proudly at it. "Oh yes, a very generous soul, she was so understanding of my plight. My moustache had been sliced clean in half, can you imagine?"
"No I… can't." Dusk decided not to say anything else, as he carried on.
"Anyway, she was kind enough to slice off her own fabulous tail in order to make my marvellous moustache complete again. After it grew back, it seemed like such a horrible shame to throw it away, so I kept it, to remember her and her wonderful friends." He looked down at Dusk eagerly. "You don't know her by any chance, do you?"
Dusk realised who this was now and knew he could get a chance for some help. "Yes I do, they're very good friends of mine. Her name is Rarity, by the way and you'll never meet a more generous pony anywhere."
At this, he beamed and nodded. "Oh I know, she's marvellous, you're lucky to know her. Are you wishing to cross the river perchance, my little friend?"
"Indeed," affirmed Dusk. "I don't want to impose, good sir, but I don't suppose you'd oblige?"
"But of course! Anypony who's a friend of the generous Rarity is a friend of mine." Reaching out with a massive clawed hand, surprisingly well manicured he noted, the serpent gently lifted Dusk up and across to the other side. "There you go, glad to help."
"Thank you very much Mr…"
"Ah, you may call me Reginald," bowed the serpent. "And yourself?"
"Dusk Noir, my good serpent." Dusk tipped his hat to him. "Thank you, Reginald and I'll give Rarity your regards."
"Would you? That would be fabulous! Safe travels Dusk." He smiled at him and turned to go. "Oh and by the way, I just love that hat!"
Dusk glanced at it and beamed proudly. "Yes, I'm quite fond of it myself. Good day, Reginald." With one last wave, he sprinted off, knowing he was close.
He was soon there. As he reached the rickety bridge, crossing over its rotting planks to the crumbling stone ruin, he felt a sense of triumph as he stood before the gate. He'd actually made it. That was the hard part over, now it was time to see what he came for.
Twilight carried on through the maze, doing her best to stay calm and collected, despite her growing fear. This maze was huge, with twists and turns and dead ends galore, it seemed endless. She wished the others were with her… she wished Dusk was here.
As she rounded another corner, she came across a strange sight. A wooden door stood before her, with the sparkling star of her cutie mark emblazoned onto it. This door definitely looked like it wasn't meant to be here. It could be one of Discord's tricks… but she had nowhere else to go, other than back the way she came. Cautiously, she opened the door and stepped inside.
In the middle of the grassy clearing was what looked like the makings of a library. Two shelves laden with books, some of which were flapping about like birds, surrounded it, with a fireplace in the middle of it, in which burned multi-coloured flames and pink smoke. Two plush arm chairs were placed before it and in one of them was Discord, wearing reading glasses and peering down at a book open on his lap. The chair, she noticed, was floating.
He looked up as she entered, his red eyes fixing on her and beamed at the sight of her. "Twilight Sparkle, so nice of you to visit. Welcome! Pull up a chair, pick a book, and make yourself comfortable. Here, try this one."
He tossed the book to her and she caught it with fumbling hooves. She hated being deprived of her horn. The book was completely illegible: some words were the right way round, others were sideways, long ways, mirrored, upside down. Some weren't even words, just random squiggles and shapes on the page.
"Do you like it? I penned it myself," he said proudly. "I call it A Study of Chaos. It's really quite good, if I say so myself."
Twilight knew he was just trying to mess with her head. She closed the book and tossed it back, remaining defiant. "I've read better."
"Everypony's a critic," he groaned and snatched it back up, letting it fly back onto the shelf.
Something just occurred to Twilight as she watched him. As long as he was here, she might as well try and ask. "You said in your riddle that we'd need more than the Elements to beat you this time, even if we did find them."
"Oh, sudden change of topic to catch me off-guard." He grinned wickedly at her. "Won't work I'm afraid, I invented that trick."
She ignored him and pressed on. "What did you mean by that?"
He just chuckled and wagged a finger at her. "Now, now Twilight Sparkle, it's not a good story if you read ahead to the end. I think your second assistant would agree with me in that respect, wouldn't you say, Miss Sparkle?"
She flushed at the mention of Dusk, a spark of worry beginning to form. "Why are you so interested in him? He's nothing to you."
"Really Twilight Sparkle, that's not a very nice thing to say." He hovered up behind her, still wearing that grin. "I just think it's such a shame that he's not here, missing out on all of this. I thought he was meant to be your friend."
"He is!" she yelled in spite of herself. "He's not your concern, we are, just leave him out of this."
He ignored her, facing her upside down. "You know, it really is a pity he's missing out on all of the fun. I wonder what he's doing right now." He snapped his fingers and a book appeared, flicking to a page. "Let's have a look, shall we?"
Unable to resist, Twilight looked down at the page. In it was a moving picture depicting her best friend. He seemed okay, she thought to herself, but her eyes never left him regardless. He was tentatively walking into the ruined halls of a very familiar location, one of mossy walls and crumbling stone.
"That's the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters," she whispered, her hoof tracing over the image. "But… what's he doing there?"
"You tell me, you're the smart one." She looked back up at Discord, who was glaring at her with malice. "What would he be doing there, I wonder. What do you think?"
"I… I don't know," she replied desperately. She didn't like the way his eyes glowed like that.
"Aw, that's a shame." He went into a mock thinking pose and snapped his fingers. "Hey, why don't I just go and ask him myself. I've been so looking forward to meeting him, so I can do that at the same time. Good thinking Twilight Sparkle!"
"No! No! Leave him alone, he's not-" He raised a hand to silence her.
"Don't fret, I won't be gone long. Just a quick hello, that's all… who knows, I might have some fun with him." He grinned once more, giving a little wave. "TTFN: Ta-ta for now!" With a snap of his fingers, he vanished again, leaving Twilight alone.
Feeling very scared now, she gazed back down at the book, watching as Dusk stepped into the main hall. She wanted to warn him, to scream that Discord was coming for him. But she couldn't do anything. All she could do was watch.
Oh no! Discord's going after Dusk! How's this gonna turn out? Dusk has made it to the Castle, but what will he find there?
See you next time!