Applejack looked to the horizon. Under different circumstances, she’d have been looking wistfully. Even at the town hall, muffled booms and reverberating cracks could be heard all the way from the wall. Just the thought of how far away she was from the action made her gut wrench.
“Please darling, I understand that you have nothing else, but surely an entire wheelbarrow of clocks... No, I understand that they’re valuable, but I said ‘necessary to survive’...”
Of course, Big Macintosh would have none of it. These ponies see you as a leader, he had said, and leaders need to lead. If the resistance doesn’t get here in time, then you’ll have to be the one bringing them to the surface. If necessary, you’ll be their last line of defense.
Listening to his reasoning was the hardest thing she ever had to do.
“Well I admit that I have taken a disliking to them recently, but that’s not... No, I’m most certainly not... Well then who’s going to carry them, my dear? That cart won’t fit through the tunnel!”
So she’d said her goodbyes, gave her brother a hug, and let other ponies do the fighting for her. Her whole body tensed with the desire to hit something, and she found herself not caring overmuch what it was. I’m letting them die for a lie. For a darned lie. Big Macintosh...
But they wouldn’t understand. They’d have nothing to fight for. Half of them would desert to join the evacuees, so at least this way they had a chance.
If by ‘they’ you mean ‘we’.
“Then just take the gears, we can make... Yes, I’m exceptionally aware of how hard it is to find quality wood these days... Darling, if you try to drag those clocks up the escape tunnel before a single one of these other ponies, I swear to Celestia I will burn the lot of them, and that’s my last word on the matter.”
Applejack rolled her eyes, perking her ears away from the argument. Before her, milling about haphazardly, everypony that wasn’t fighting on the wall or bedridden at the hospital was gathered in the town square. Rarity had put out the call to be ready for evacuation, but what exactly that meant depended on the listener. As Applejack looked around, she saw everything from carts to clocks to hats to barrels next to huddled ponies, terrified of starting a new life with literally nothing yet again.
One pony caught her eye however, a lanky fellow that Applejack recognized from the old days in Ponyville. He didn’t appear to have any carts or crates or even saddlebags over his back. Curious, Applejack made her way over.
“Howdy sir, How’re ya making out with the procedures so far?”
The lanky pony sat down on his haunches, looking smugly nonchalant. “I’m a mite annoyed I suppose, but nothing too bothersome. If our boys down at the wall are still fighting by now, they ain’t going down anytime soon, the way I figure.”
Applejack smiled, glad to find someone with their head still on their shoulders.
The tall colt continued. “Way I see it, they can hold out long as they need to, easy peasy. When the resistance shows up behind those unicorns, they’ll surrender quicker than a cat in a henhouse. Hey, you alright there, miss?”
Applejack imagined that she had turned politely away and that she certainly didn’t run out of sight. She might have hurried, sure, but her suddenly sick stomach demanded it. Once she was inside the town hall proper, she collapsed into a damaged chair and tried to calm her mind. How can I tell them now? How can I take what little they have left? It would be downright cruel. I want to tell them, I know I do, but I can’t. Just like I can’t be on the wall, even though that’s what’s right, helping these folk is more important. Her resolve settled her stomach a bit, but it still felt like she had swallowed a rock. I can’t tell them. Not yet. Twilight will understand.
“Fire at will!”
Snap could barely hear his sister over the roar of destructive magic around them, and it only became louder as the order was taken up. Looking out of the window on the third floor of the guardhouse he could see only an expanding dust cloud, the shapes of their besiegers long lost. Only the screams let him know that any targets remained.
He gathered his strength and loosed it through his horn, equal parts hope and desperation. Crackle was next to him a moment later, her uniform spotless as she fired her own blast of magic. Snap focused his barrage again, all the tension and near panic flowing out of him with every attack. The waiting had been bad, not knowing if their magic would return in time had been worse, but now the unicorns were in the fight and everything depended on them crushing the attackers before they could regroup. The guardhouse they were encamped in was isolated, overlooked by the enemy only because it was too far away from the fight to be garrisoned by rock-throwers, and if the enemy turned their attention on them in force then they would be overwhelmed.
There were no more commands from his sister. They all knew what was at stake and what needed to be done. Snap saw movement in the dust cloud and fired at it automatically, his eyes following his shot. He saw it hit the shape and explode, and he fired blindly as fast as his strength would allow, peppering the battlefield in desperate flames.
He caught movement again, another shape charging through dust clouds. No, it was the same pony, closer now! He fired again, and saw other bolts arc toward him as well. They exploded, but the dark figure leapt from the flames almost as soon as they enveloped him.
“Sis,” he said, a tinge of panic returning to his voice. Had it ever left?
“I see it,” was the only reply. The shape was illuminated by the explosions around it, revealing the shape of a squat but hefty pony moving quickly. Too quickly.
Something is wrong, he realized, taking a step back from the window. We hit it. It’s dead. How does it move so fast?
The strange pony’s horn lit up, but nothing fired from it. Instead, the space between Snap and the eerie figure seemed to glow with black and blue with the colors of midnight and fear. The building rumbled, and Snap realized the pony wasn’t firing; it was enveloping the entire building in magic.
The rumbling abruptly increased, and Snap looked to his sister’s wide eyes. His last thought was that the ceiling was lower than he remembered.
Something is wrong, Red thought, his hoof whizzing another stone into the darkness. It had been some time since he had heard a resounding scream, but the blasts of magic from the guardhouse had also ceased. The dust in the air choked his lungs as he gasped, his body struggling for fuel as he heaved rock after rock into the void ahead of him.
Red dropped the next rock before the last word was out of Big Mac’s mouth. Though he panted and heaved, his eyes scanned the darkness restlessly from atop the wall. Had they won?
No. Something is wrong.
The dust cleared slowly and silently as he watched. Seconds became minutes as he blinked dirt from his eyes, his breath slowly returning to him. And then something moved in the darkness.
“Mac,” he grunted, stone in hoof.
A larger rock flew over his head, arcing unerringly at the figure approaching them. Red heard a thud, but he could still make something out in the dust. A moment later he could see movement, and then he could make out the shapes of legs carrying a large body directly towards the wall.
Red briefly wondered whether the pony was mad, charging the wall by himself, but his stomach wound itself into an even tighter knot. Something was wrong, something was downright unnatural about what approached them now.
Big Macintosh was shouting orders below him. “Pop, send up a signal again, don’t let our forces let up on the assault. Red, take him down!”
Red heaved and heard his stone make contact. He didn’t even try to deflect it. The soldier kept charging.
The soldier’s horn flared and Red ducked reflexively. His eyes widened as the wall beneath him began to glow, and by instinct he half jumped, half slid down the wall toward his friends.
Something is wrong, he tried to yell, but by then it was obvious.
As soon as his hooves hit the ground, he was bracing himself against the wall. Big Mac and the handful of defenders left threw themselves against it in quick succession, pushing back against the magic that enveloped the wall. The aura washed harmlessly around Red’s shoulder, yet his fur seemed to stand on end wherever it touched.
The wall groaned and Red redoubled his efforts, solid earth grinding beneath his hooves as he heaved against the wall. It was ludicrous that one unicorn could pose any sort of threat to the behemoth of a structure, not when it had weathered hundreds of magical bolts already, but such logic wasn’t helping the uneasy feeling in his gut.
Red heaved again and the wall groaned in protest. He redoubled his strength when he heard the ominous creaking of stone of stone. The wall before him began to give way, to tilt forward-
Oh fuck. “No! Stop!” he shouted, jumping away from the wall. “They aren’t pushing, they’re pulling! We’re helping them pull the wall over!”
There was silence for a moment as the other defenders realized what was happening. Big Mac stepped back, uncertainty flashing across his face, but it was too late. With a grinding, scraping sigh, the top of the wall swung forward, paused, and followed its new center of gravity forward.
The wall didn’t simply tumble over, constructed as it was of a hundred pieces of rubble and reinforced debris. Boulders that had been packed tight with repeated magical blasts no longer rested on each other and began to fall one by one. There was no climactic crash or plume of dust sent skyward, just a landslide that quickly grew and then receded. The wall had slumped forward, now more horizontal than vertical, and nothing but a mound of rubble the height of a normal pony stood between the defenders and the besiegers.
For Red, everything was happening at once. A soldier peered warily over the rubble and was immediately met with a rock in the jaw, but a turquoise ray of magic knocked the defender who had thrown it off his feet. Big Mac yelled something to Pop, who nodded and fired a signal flare skyward. The flare burst, green fading to red like a firework from Red’s childhood, and somewhere Red registered the flare as the evacuation signal. Another blast of green magic zipped past Red’s head, and when he turned to follow it the remaining half of Pop was smoking violently on the ground.
Panic receded as he wrestled control of his body back. The other defenders were dead. Big Mac was surrounded by three unicorns, but two others lay dead at his feet. One of Red’s legs was numb from the flank down and he was grateful that his adrenaline rush had blocked out the pain of whatever had hit him.
He charged, limping as he was, too Big Mac’s aid, crashing into a unicorn from behind and sending him off the bridge to the rocks a few meters below. Another soon joined him, and the last crumpled beneath Big Mac’s blows when the red giant’s hoof landed on his neck. But even as the last one twitched and died, more scrambled over the rubble. In their midst came a barrel on legs, his torso as thick as Big Mac’s though not so tall. Red recognized the black and blue magic that shot from his horn, vaporizing the stone in front of Big Mac.
“Red,” Big Mac began. “The townsponies- “
“I’m not leaving,” Red interrupted. “The signal went off. We hold the wall.”
Big Mac grunted. Red liked to believe he had smiled at that, but he never knew for sure. The soldiers never paused nor waited for an order from their leader, simply swarming down the rubble pile on exhausted and unsteady limbs. Red recognized desperation in their eyes. Nopony would flee from this fight.
The General swam in a haze of red and black. Something moved his limbs for him, stepping surefooted over the rubble. Exhaustion tugged at him, the pain of a failing body registering in his mind, but something kept him sprinting forward. He hadn’t stopped moving in… he didn’t know how long. He remembered something about his friends, dust and lights and death, and then somepony had taken over for him. He was relieved, in a way, except that he couldn’t just lay down. Every movement was as exhausting as if he had made it himself, leaving him without any energy to even think.
Ahead of him, the red haze coalesced into two boulders. No, earth ponies. They moved side by side, but The General moved with them. Other shapes swarmed towards them from behind, unimportant shapes, survivors, and the two red monoliths lashed out. Magic flared, flesh burned, and the general turned his attention from the scene in front of him, receding into the pain he had once registered as his pounding head.
Blood, he registered as magic sliced through the front leg of the lesser red giant. Death, he added as the other pony leapt forward, crushing a soldier into the dirt. The scenes gave him strength, fueled his focus, and the general’s attention came back to the fight. As easy as thought, he enveloped the two red earth ponies in magic, willing them into the air. He grunted in confusion when they moved only a few centimeters forward, their hooves seemingly glued to the earth. A stone the size of his hoof struck him, blinding an eye and breaking his concentration but causing no more pain. His entire world was already pain, nothing else could add to that.
He was moving forward again, the two ponies turning their attention fully on him. The larger one said something, and he felt his jaw move and his throat vibrate. Had he said something back? He tried to focus, to hear what had been said, but it was so hard and there was so much pain.
You had your chance, something echoed in his head. And then he was falling, the scene fading as he was pushed into the back corner of his own mind, his way back blocked by indescribable agony.
“Come then,” Big Mac said, not wanting to waste words on the monster in front of him. Fur that was either dark grey or black stood on end beneath colorless black armor, seemingly crawling across the skin of the colt in front of him. It looked like it would crumple nicely beneath his hooves.
“I see your death,” The unicorn said, his voice rough and jarring as if he was unused to words, and then he was firing.
Big Mac braced himself, drawing strength from the stones of the bridge beneath him. Dark blue magic lanced toward him from the unicorn, crashing into him like an icicle and sapping his strength, but he weathered the blows with the strength of a mountain. Even when the jolt of magic passed, the numbing effect remained, and Big Mac’s first step forward cost more of his strength than he wanted to admit.
The unicorns next to the barrel-chested monster stood arrayed like a firing squad, heads lowered and horns pointed at the final two defenders. For a brief moment, Big Mac hoped they would stay out of the fight until their commander ordered them otherwise. Even as the thought passed his mind though, their horns lit up in a plethora of colors, launching a rainbow of fire at him a moment later.
Big Mac ducked his head and set his hooves, refusing to give an inch under the onslaught. The pain was incredible, flame washing over him like a current and searing away coat and mane and flesh. The barrage must have lasted less than a moment, yet afterwards it took all of Big Mac’s strength not to fall to a knee. His nostrils were filled with the smell of charred meat and his eyes were blinded, perhaps permanently, with the blazing light.
Hoofsteps echoed from off to his side, and Big Mac knew that Red had fared better than him. Somepony let out a high pitch scream, followed by a gurgle of blood as another pony’s swear was cut off mid cuss. Big Mac mustered what strength he had to shamble blindly forward in a grim parody of a charge, willing his eyesight to return before he limped right past the attackers.
His vision swam with greys and whites, light seared into his eyes, but something darker and coalesced into shape in front of him just as Big Mac leapt. He felt himself land on a pony near as big as him, his flesh seeming to crawl and writhe under Big Mac’s weight. Rather than going flying as Big Mac had expected, the other pony grunted and sagged under Big Mac’s weight, but weathered the crushing mass as well as any earth pony, his body seeming to sap the heat from Big Mac’s skin in moments.
There was a brief flash and a wave of force seemed to pass through Big Mac, lifting and throwing him back from the unicorn. He twisted in the air, trying desperately to turn and and see where he was headed, but he only succeeded in landing heavily on his side, skidding a few feet across the gravel-strewn bridge before coming to a halt. He lifted his head as best as his flagging strength would allow, watching helplessly as Red rose into the air, his body engulfed by a cloud of black and blue magic.
Big Mac struggled to his hooves, grunting and panting with every exertion. The cold that seemed to pierce his body in rivulets left muscles unresponsive while contrasting the lingering smell of burned mane, but Big Mac rose all the same. With all the weight and stubbornness of a mountain, he began a final lumbering charge.
The leader of the unicorns turned his gaze towards Big Mac, casually flicking his head and sending Red soaring off the bridge. Even through the tunnel vision of his charge, Big Macintosh registered a stab of regret at the casual disposal of his friend. The bridge quaked beneath every hoofbeat, reverberating to the beat of his pounding heart as blood and fury pumped through the gargantuan pony. His vision filled with the black and blue magic of the unicorn as it tried to lift him into the air, but the bridge held on to it’s defender as surely as the defender guarded the bridge, and Big Mac lumbered ever closer. The magic abruptly disappeared, reforming instantly beneath his hooves, but he was too close now. He could see alarm rising in the unicorn’s one good eye, the other openly weeping blood from an earlier wound, and Big Mac lowered his head and jumped.
Or tried to. As his hooves tensed beneath him, there was an abrupt crack in the stone beneath him. He pushed off the ground to leap, he found himself pushing only air while the brick, mortar, and strength of the bridge crumpled to the rocks and river below. His eyes never strayed from the unicorn’s as he fell, slamming into the edge of the gap hard enough to break his jaw and tumbling the rest of the way down.
The shock of the cold of the water knocked what breath he had left, and he reflexively gasped in a lungfull of blood-choked river. His strength and anger ebbed away with the river, the rubble blocking the light from above as it settled around him.
Big Mac’s last moments were not of fury nor peace, but confusion. We held so long. Where is the resistance? Sis, where...
Petty Sergeant Lucent Starglow had been busy composing his tale of epic victory when he chanced upon the six civilians. In his version of the story, he had been one of the first of Her Royal Majesty’s soldiers to brave the wall, slaying three, no, four rebel earth ponies the size of houses. It had been his own magic that had first begun burning down the rebel base.
In actuality, he had been one of the first unicorns to survive going over the wall. He even saw the giant red earth pony get swallowed up by the river as he followed his General’s coat tails. Seeing as everypony else that had gone ahead of him was dead, however, made him the de facto first pony into the breach.
One of the two in front of him whimpered, drawing a frown from Lucent. He knew Private Smallhorn, a ridiculous name given his subordinate’s size, was looking to him for orders. Smallhorn had more combat experience and was the only other unicorn in the squad to survive the assault on the wall, but his rank still made him subordinate to the brass like Lucent.
Lucent shrugged. He didn’t particularly like killing civilians, but orders were orders. In his tale, he would say that he had swung downriver to scout out any fleeing defenders and avoid civilian casualties, and at least one of those was true. It was just bad luck that one of those eventualities had occurred anyway.
He let the magic in his horn gather as he stared the group down. There was at least one family and probably their neighbors. The colt standing in front of the children at least looked like he might have been a defender, ignoring the obvious limp in one leg. He seemed stubborn enough at least, his eyes remained defiant as everypony else’s widened in fear.
The fear made Lucent smile a bit. Two members of his squad had died screaming, and no small part of him wanted revenge.
Lucent whirled around and was faced by a large, wet, smelly mass of red fur. He looked up, the magic fading from his horn as his eyes widened. A large, wet hoof rested on his head as Lucent pissed himself in fear. To his credit, the red behemoth never smiled as he pulled his and Smallhorn’s heads together.
Red nodded to the townsponies after the bodies collapsed, but had no consolation to offer the crying fillies. They would remember that for the rest of their lives, he was sure, but unless they all stayed focused, that would be gruesomely short.
Red blinked, lost track of time, and found himself farther south of the town, striking inland, a gaggle of townsponies at his back. To his right, flame was spreading throughout the houses of the town, even the stone buildings having their thatch roofs burned into smoke and ash.
He faded out and in again, realized he certainly had a concussion, and was past the town.
It wasn’t until he had almost arrived that he knew where he was going. A throng of ponies loomed ahead of him, loud despite their best efforts as they tried to squeeze into a single door in the cavern wall. His group of survivors ran ahead of him, thanking him profusely as they passed and rejoining loved ones. Two ponies near the rear of the larger group turned and trotted to him, the nascent glow from the town fires illuminating the faces of Mayor Rarity and Big Mac’s sister.
“I remember you,” Rarity said. “Foreman Red.” She hesitated a moment. “Just Red now, I suppose.”
“You’re from the wall, are there survivors?” The orange pony who red now remembered as Applejack leaned forward, one hoof half-raised in anticipation. “My brother, Big Macintosh, is he okay?”
Red looked her in the eyes, but through either exhaustion or his concussion he had no filter to soften the blow. “I didn’t see him die,” He said, “but no unicorn would have crossed that bridge while he lived. I’m sorry, we held for as long as we could, but the resistance never arrived. The wall fell as soon as the evacuation signal was sent.” His voice held none of the sympathy of his words. These ponies hadn’t watch their hopes die one friend at a time.
The two fillies looked to each other. “I’m sorry,” Rarity began.
Just then there was a clap of thunder deafeningly close, bright white flashing over the townsponies-turned-refugees.
“Lightning,” Applejack muttered, her face dazed and distant.
“Twilight,” Rarity supplied. “It must be. Come dear, we must be there or all is lost.” She turned to Red, the rising flames from the town illuminating the desperation in her eyes. “Red, you’ve been through so much, but please do us this last service. Make sure these ponies escape safely and guard them until we… for as long as you need to.”
Red nodded, the throbbing in his head making him feel disconnected with reality. Had he thought about it, he might not have been sure about his ability to fight anypony like this, but he knew it wasn’t safe to rest yet. Maybe on the surface he could catch some sleep.
He stumbled through the iron door to the safehouse, the sick, young, or enfeebled refugees making way for him. He climbed the ladder that had been erected to the natural vent in the ceiling, crawling on all fours through the cramped tunnel. All the while his head, limbs, and battered body demanded that he rest.
And suddenly he was outside on the dirt, the stars shining brighter than he had ever noticed before, though that was likely the concussion. He was struck by the realization that the battle had lasted through the entire day, that we was the only survivor of the fighting, and that many of his friends were dead. He wanted to laugh and vomit and sleep all at once. In the end, he settled on a slightly hysterical smile.
He looked about at the ponies around him, his smile fading as he noticed the scores of uniformed ponies that had been waiting for them.
Twilight did her best not to vomit as she was flown over the bridge. As much as she told herself to stay focused, she couldn’t keep from scanning the bodies laying about for the familiar faces of her friends, though every glimpse brought trepidation, relief, and guilt for feeling relief. She had to assume that most of the defenders were buried under the rubble half submerged in the water, but the scores of unicorns between the cavern entrance had given her some hope of success. Until she had seen the fires.
The cavern that housed New Ponyville was not so big that one couldn’t see from one end to another, but in the eternal gloom of the underground little more than a speckle of lights were usually visible of the town upon entering. Now, however, the entire cavern was at least partially aglow from the flames engulfing the town, the light slowly changing from a constant, dull orange across the faces of her friends to a violent yellow light that threw frantic shadows behind them as they neared. For whatever survivors remained, Twilight knew, this was likely the last time they would ever see wood burn, and it was their own homes.
Rainbow Dash let Twilight down gently on the other side of the bridge, The pegasus openly panting with the exertion of hauling her friend so far. The captain, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie all touched ground beside her, Pinkie staring straight ahead while the others blanched at the carnage.
The captain turned to Twilight, face inscrutable beneath her mask but her voice wavering just slightly. “We should head for the evacuation tunnel. Any survivor’s are either there or dead by now.”
Twilight didn’t want to write off anypony still among the flames, but the situation demanded focus. “I agree. Dash, captain, fly ahead and make sure we don’t bump into any marauders. Fluttershy, keep an eye on any building we pass for anypony trapped inside, but stay close. Everypony stay low and quiet, we don’t know how many soldiers are left and we don’t want them turning on us. It’s possible they don’t know where the evacuation tunnel is and we don’t want to lead them to it.”
Everypony nodded in unison and moved out, Pinkie Pie never looking away from the flames ahead. They all fell into stride as they neared the burning town, skirting the side as they circled south and around the homes they had arrived too late to protect. They moved swiftly, passing only a pair of unicorn’s whose helmets had been flattened together, leaving a grotesque scene around their splayed bodies. The silhouettes of Dash and the captain could sometimes be seen flitting between buildings, but Twilight found it impossible to distinguish one from the other. Other than her rising anxiousness, the trip was uneventful until they were almost past the town.
Twilight was looking at the rocky ground beneath her when she heard the thunder, but she saw the lightning briefly illuminate the entire cavern. Her head whipped up and around towards the noise, her mind trying to process a dozen things at once. Lightning underground? It came from the town. Is Dash okay?
The last thought was answered a moment later as Dash and Fluttershy alighted in front of her, the latter visibly quaking. “What was that? What happened?” Twilight asked, ears back flat in worry. “Where’s the captain?”
Dash extended a wing around Fluttershy, pulling the quivering pegasus closer. Twilight noticed that even Rainbow’s wing wasn’t completely steady. “The captain flew off as soon as we saw. It’s Nightmare Moon, Twilight. She’s here.”
The General strode through the town, snarling and every shadow and torching every window. There were other soldiers in the town, but they had long since spread out to plunder and destroy as they would. Some of the more loyal ones had only departed after the stocky unicorn had simply abandoned words and rank in favor of growls and prodigious use of destructive magic. What remained of his face was covered in blood, his lips permanently pulled back in a snarl, and he trembled as he walked as if wracked with fever chills, extreme exhaustion, or both.
Well behind him, stepping tenderly around pieces of burning debris, came Trixie.
The general stopped suddenly, as if sensing something in the air, twisting his head around with one wide eye, he looked directly where Trixie was standing, narrowed his eye, and continued forward, muttering under his breath. To him, Trixie knew, there was nothing except empty air, the invisibility spell being one of her first of many to master. She had been present for most of the battle of course, quietly watching as her “gift” ate at his weak little mind until only strength remained. She could have helped more directly, but it suited her just fine to be forgotten amongst the chaos. Plus, he seems to have things well under control, she added with a quiet snicker.
The general raised his head in paranoia again, blew the front wall off a nearby building, and shuffled aimlessly down the street.
Despite the sights and smells of victory all about her, Trixie felt unease quietly gnawing at her. This is all secondary. Where is the captain? Would they have evacuated a prisoner, or is she locked in a cell in one of these buildings? Trixie frowned, her pace quickening slightly. None of these look like anything more than houses and stores. I need to find the town center and confirm that the esteemed captain is chained, beaten and helpless before this idiot torches her trail.
The general stumbled and turned down a side street, yelling something about voices as he staggered through the flames. Trixie turned from him in disinterest and followed the main road, catching sight of a taller building between pillars of smoke.
The Great and Powerful Trixie always finds what she’s looking for, she thought herself as she cantered forward.
She rounded the corner, saw the town hall clearly, the flames only beginning to lick at it, and was halfway through her first step forward when the lightning struck.
The sound was incredible. Deafening beyond measure, and not just in her ears. Her bones vibrated with the subsonic tremors as her head was whipped back from the shear force of the strike. She had used lightning spells countless times before, but this was similar only in appearance; the air immediately filled with magical energy so potent that every hair in her coat stood on end, mimicking the static effect that real lightning would have had. Her horn sensed magic in the air so strong it hurt, as if she had taken a breath so deep that her lungs ached to bursting. And to top it all off, Hey Royal Majesty Nightmare Moon was now standing in the town square.
Trixie, the chess master who had manipulated events to win the throne from a goddess, could only think one word. Shit.
Her body, thankfully, had better reaction. She had pulled herself back around the corner, he back pressed against the wall of a building she prayed would not collapse on her. What the hell is she doing here? How much does she know?
Her questions were answered a moment later as a magically amplified voice rang throughout the entire cavern, the floor rumbling with the amplified bass of the voice of divinity.
“Trixie Lulamoon! Rainbow Dash! Come to me, I will have answers now!”
Her beloved captain appeared first.
Luna had not known for sure that she would be here, or even still alive, and yet she was not surprised at all to see her. The captain approached out of the smoky darkness, flying swiftly to the ground in front of the alicorn and going to one knee.
Luna looked down, her mind split between contempt and regret. She didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what she was doing. She knew that somepony had been lying to her, deceiving her, and she instinctively distrusted Trixie, but Rainbow Dash and Twilight…
She shook her head. She was tired of questions, and her impatience had won out. By right of rule, she demanded answers from her subordinates.
The silence stretched on, punctuated only by the dull roar of flames and the noisy collapse of a nearby house. Luna reached out with her magic, sensing other ponies nearby, trying to root out Trixie. Her absence helps confirm her guilt.
To her surprise, she sensed not just one other nearby pony, but eight.
Her unasked question was answered a moment later when a pink earth pony came bouncing out of the smog, her dead expression contrasting with the comical skip. Behind flew a yellow pegasus, almost lost amongst the light from the fire, a white unicorn, a yellow filly-
Luna’s eyes widened.
She was standing in a ruined temple, the air cold around her, staring down the defiant purple unicorn. She was recoiling, a city wreathed in flames around her, being stared down by the same unicorn. She was standing over a grave, one she had dug and filled and dug again, full of bones and regret. She was young and prideful and angry at her sister. She was old and full of emotion and confused beyond measure
“Twilight Sparkle,” She finally said.
“Nightmare Moon,” Twilight replied, her gaze narrowing. “Come to see the fruits of your labors?”
“I killed you,” The deity answered, her voice flat. “You’re alive.”
“And she’s staying that way this time!” Rainbow Dash said, landing in a crouch beside Twilight.
Twilight watched as Nightmare Moon’s eyes flicked to Rainbow, the captain, and back to Twilight. It was only then that Twilight really looked at her eyes. For just a moment, she saw the pain within, and her expression softened.
“I’m sorry,” Luna said, seemingly to everypony.
Several things then happened at once.
Luna screamed, throwing her head back in a primal wail that could only convey absolute agony. The black, star-speckled cloud of magic that comprised her mane flew away and behind her, gently gathering in the shape of pony.
Trixie allowed her invisibility spell to face, concentrating her strength in her one attack. Her smile was the first thing to return to sight, floating in the air for a moment while she seemed to appear around it.
Behind Twilight, another pony screamed, but this one echoed with bloodlust. This time, Twilight turned and tackled Dash out of the way of danger as the general came hurtling past, his lumbering and incoherent charge an unintentional imitation of Big mac’s last stand.
The general kept charging, hurtling toward the captain seemingly at random. The captain flew at Trixie, and though Twilight could not see her face she could imagine the horror, rage, and despair that must be driving her. Twilight detangled herself from Dash and lept to her hooves, her five friends all gathering close around her.
“The elements!” She shouted. “NOW!
The glow around her began soft, but quickly eclipsed even the glow of the fire. From every direction, the magical auras grew in intensity as Twilight watched the battle. The captain had tackled Trixie but was almost instantly caught in her magic. The barreling general slammed into Trixie’s side horn first, causing them both to scream in pain. The captain was released and flew down to Luna’s side, cradling her limp head. Yellow goggles snapped up to glare at Twilight. Do it, she mouthed, or perhaps shouted. Twilight couldn’t hear over the magical hum around her.
Another light flashed above Twilight’s head, but as it lowered towards her, it became increasingly clear that something was wrong. The light that accompanied it began to rapidly dim, and the stone began fading as soon as it appeared. Twilight's eyes became filled with fear as she realized that something was horribly wrong. The sixth element faded long before it reached Twilight, and the ponies turned their confused and terrified gazes upon Trixie, now looming triumphantly above them, the general swinging limply in the air.
No, it was supposed to work, it had to work! Twilight looked to her friends, and the answer was immediately written on Applejack’s face.
The filly looked completely downtrodden, ears back in genuine shame, but Twilight had no room for sympathy. “I-I’m sorry Twilight, I never got the chance to tell them. They all died, Big Mac died, and they never knew.”
“Applejack,” Twilight said, color draining from her face. “What have you done?”
Something crashed into the building above Twilight, a pair of squat legs left just visible poking through the wall of a stone building. A scream a moment later brought Twilight’s attention back to Trixie, draining what breath was left in her lungs.
Trixie held the captain and the limp body of Luna to either side of her, but that wasn’t what terrified Twilight. Trixie had swelled to over twice her previous size, standing just short of where Nightmare Moon had. Where Nightmare Moon had once had armor the color of midnight, Trixie’s coat openly swirled and writhed with black waves and tendrils of something, seeming to emerge, ripple, and sink into flesh again. The effect was like seeing a giant laughing hysterically while worms of rot wriggled visibly beneath her skin, and Trixie’s eyes held nothing but psychotic murder in them.
“We wonder if you somehow remember,” Trixie said as she stepped forward, discarding the captain and the former queen like used tissues. Her voice was recognizably Trixies, with with something else vibrating beneath the surface. “Dying before us, that is. Do you remember the betrayal you felt? The confusion before your death? We savored it for a long time, you know. It was our first meal after a thousand years.”
Despite her fear, Twilight stepped forward, hoping her eyes would hide her near panic. “That wasn’t me, and it wasn’t you either.”
“Foal,” Trixie shuddered, the ripples across her skin becoming a tide of black that rose, spread across her, and receded. Twilight swore she saw agony briefly in her eyes. “Do you really think Princess Luna would have done those things on her own?” Twilight saw her friends encircle her more protectively as Trixie approached, but even she knew it was an empty gesture. Without the elements, they were doomed.
Trixie, or the thing that had been Trixie, scoffed and stopped, glaring down in full pride at the ragtag group before her. For a moment, Trixie’s voice was a guttural croak, as if she was unfamiliar with how speech worked. “Luna’s bitterness let me in, and I was only too eager to escape that empty rock in the sky. I gave her what strength she needed, and she allowed my into your world. But her will was too strong to master, so a more…” The unicorn held up a hoof as if inspecting for quality “malleable vessel was ideal.” The black ripples receded slightly, and Trixie’s voice returned to the surface. “We find this arrangement to be much more profitable for both sides. Power for power, after a fashion.”
Trixie continued walking forward, causing the speechless Twilight to retreat a step. “For what it’s worth, you know, using the elements was almost clever. They’re not just harmonious with each other, but with everything, including the world around them. Your little lessons almost mattered, in the end.” The Trixie-thing lowered her horn. “But, understand, this is the end.”
The bolt struck as quick as lightning. Twilight would have almost expected Dash or maybe the captain to do something stupid, like throw themselves in front of the bolt, but Dash was only just tensing to her side and the captain was laying insensate. So when her view was filled by the outstretched body of a pony, Twilight was surprised on two fronts.
The shock of the moment passed, and Twilight looked down at the shattered gold chain of the element beneath her. The glimmering apple-shaped pendant lay between her and the motionless body of Applejack.
“Heh, such loyalty,” Trixie said, her voice becoming more unrecognizable with every sentence. Twilight caught movement over the towering unicorn’s shoulder. “Maybe she should have gotten that element, instead of your easily-tempted friend.”
Twilight looked to her friends on either side. Their expressions were stubborn and carefully fearful, but Twilight knew her friends well enough to read their true expressions. They were ready.
Twilight looked back to Trixie, smiled, and kicked the Element of Honesty.
Trixie grinned and spun, following the movement and throwing a sickly black and green bolt of lightning at it. Rainbow Dash was there first though, scooping it up and hurling it towards Fluttershy. Fluttershy caught it high in the air, squeaked, and dropped it into the mouth of Pinkie Pie, who took off between Trixies legs before she had even turned around. More annoyed than confused, Trixie spun around again in time to come face to face with the captain, now holding the pendant in one hoof.
“Good suggestion, but we’re one step ahead of you,” Twilight said. “The captain made a pretty good case about being loyal, but her best trait was knowing she couldn’t work against her only friend when she was needed most, even when she thought she had lost that friend. She was honest, with herself, about who she was and where she stood.” Twilight grinned, “let’s see how self honesty factors in with these elements.”
Trixie turned and loosed a bolt from her horn in one motion, the magic heading straight for Twilight’s head. It crashed into her with the crackling sound of static and electricity, flowing around and discharging behind her harmlessly. The tiara now resting on her head gleamed in defiance, and Twilight saw the white of her own eyes reflected in Trixie’s.
The friends floated closer until the glow from their auras mingled with each other, creating a rainbow that formed around them before shooting outward, wrapping around the twisting unicorn. Twilight was sure that Trixie was screaming, but she could hear nothing about the comforting yet deafening hum of the elements.
The rainbow eclipsed Trixie and shot upward in the same moment, crashing through the roof of the cavern. Despite the weight of the mountain directly above them, Twilight had no doubt that the rainbow vortex had continued unimpeded all the way to the moon.
Twilight was the last one through the escape tunnel, watching with a sort of detached hope as the slightly blue patch of darkness ahead opened to a starry sky. When she finally emerged, she was surprised at the level activity around her.
Military grade tents had been erected for the refugees as uniformed ponies walked through the camp, many with their yellow goggles raised. Each Shadowbolt carried packs of supplies on their back, passing out food and water to the wary but grateful ponies around them, the captain barking orders not far ahead. A golden pendant gleamed around her neck, The shining white skull of the Shadowbolts somehow seeming to look less than threatening. Most of the survivors were gathered around a large red earth pony who lay on his back, feebly trying to ward off the ponies tending to him.
Twilight walked calmly forward. In truth, this was not her first trip up and down the tunnel, but her fifth that night. Her and her friends had descended and returned again and again, at first for survivors, then for supplies, and then for the bodies they could find. Despite their agreed upon priority, Twilight had returned from the first trip carrying Applejack, though nopony had dared to approach her about it. The orange mare was laid out peacefully now among other casualties, being carried by a thin white cloth to await burial. Somewhat disturbingly, the unicorn general had not yet been found, though Twilight suspected he had been swept up in the same magic that had carried off Trixie.
Twilight turned from the camp and headed a short way into the woods, exchanging a nod with the captain as she passed. She didn’t need to go far, just over a rotted tree that had fallen and around the far side of a boulder. Far enough that voices wouldn’t travel and other ponies wouldn’t come looking.
Against the far side of the boulder, Rarity and Pinkie looked on as Fluttershy tended to Luna, the alicorn barely managing to sit up against the large rock. Twilight set down the pack she had brought up from the tunnel, rummaging through it and levitating the contents towards the nursing pegasus.
“It’s mostly salves for the pain, no real medicine,” Twilight said, addressing Luna directly. “I don’t know how it measures up to what the Shadowbolts have, but I think they’ve already used up what they brought. Some more will be back from Canterlot soon though, they left almost an hour ago.”
Luna looked at Twilight with weary eyes. She seemed so tiny to Twilight now, barely larger than a child. Her mane had receded from a starry night sky to a simple light blue, her wings small and frail against her side. She looked as if she had been starved for weeks, but she had steadfastly refused any food so far. “I thank you, Twilight Sparkle. And all of you.”
Twilight smiled thinly, feeling more than a little tired herself. She turned around at a soft rustling, watching Rainbow Dash touch down beside her. The captain was not far behind, her torn uniform and raised goggles doing nothing to conceal her own rainbow mane.
“Right on time,” Twilight said, turning to the group as a whole. Everypony gathered around, looking at Twilight expectantly, but she shook her head and pointed a hoof at Luna. “Don’t look at me, she asked me to gather you.”
Luna managed to sit up a little straighter as all eyes turned to her, hiding her grimace behind a thin smile. “Thank you, Twilight,” she began, “These ponies will have a long trip back to Canterlot, but they are safe now. New Ponyville is no more, and for that I am deeply sorry.” She paused for a moment as if choosing her next words carefully, “I… will not be returning with them.”
Fluttershy murmured quietly to Pinkie and even the captain pawed the ground uncomfortably. It was not exactly surprising, but it left important questions.
“The reign of Nightmare Moon is over, and I think I’ll barely have the strength to travel now, nevermind rule.” She paused again, looking the other ponies over. “I have no right to pass any sort of leadership on, so the choice is yours. Somepony must guide everypony in this world, and you must decide who.”
“We all will, together,” Rarity said, stepping forward.
“I won’t,” interrupted the captain, moving to Luna’s side. “Where Luna goes, I go.” She smiled warmly down at her injured friend. “Exile can get pretty lonely on your own.”
Luna smiled up at the pegasus but said nothing.
“Uhm, I’ll try my best, but I don’t know the first thing about ruling anypony,” Fluttershy muttered, moving next to Rarity.
Pinkie stepped over quietly. “A New New Ponyville will have to be founded. Maybe a New New New New New Sugarcube corner…” For the first time since she had left New Ponyville, Twilight saw Pinkie smile.
That only left Twilight and Rainbow Dash. Twilight looked to her friend silently for a few moments before nodding. “We’re going to stay and help,” She said with finality. “It will take time to find out how to get home, even if we wanted to. But to be honest, I think you ponies need our help more than our friends do.”
“And the Shadowbolts will need a new captain,” the captain said, “perhaps you’ll reconsider that offer.”
Rainbow Dash frowned. “I think I’m done with leading ponies anywhere,” she said, “but Twilight is right. We’ll do whatever we need to do to get Equestria back on its feet.”
Twilight nodded, looking around at her friends. “It won’t be easy. We still have no day, little food, and no idea what state the rest of the world is in.” She sighed, smiling a little despite herself. “But I’m sure that if we work together, we can move forward. We may never return to what Equestria was, but we’ll survive.” Looking Directly at Luna now, Twilight asked, “Will you at least stay with us until you’re well enough to travel? A few days or weeks perhaps?”
Luna looked to the captain, both smiling. “A few days. Then… we’ll see.”
Twilight smiled and looked towards the sky, admiring the stars again. The moon was out now, the craters seeming to form the glaring face of a familiar pony. Around it, shooting stars fell gently, a few streaking across the entire night sky.
Twilight breathed deep of the fresh, cool air, the smell of damp and decaying vegetation as familiar to her now as home. There would be more trials ahead she knew, but for now everything was peaceful. Dash moved up next to her, extending a wing in camaraderie. Twilight sighed and leaned into her friend, suddenly realizing how tired she was.
Too happy for sleep, she found herself thinking. It’s finally over. I wish this night would never end.