Though the night had passed, shadows were cast across the decrepit ground by the light from Sugarcube Corner. In some part of her mind, Twilight noted that the presence of the light was not only unnerving in and of itself, but also accentuated the eerie silence. Perhaps she had simply grown used to the effects of daytime, or perhaps a light that could banish unnatural darkness was likely quite unnatural itself. Even Dash, normally fidgety after only a few moments of staying still, was silent and unmoving next to her.
The two mares stood in silence, not sure what to do next. It wasn't the frantic silence from their sprint through the Everfree, but very different. Twilight couldn't put her hoof on how one absence of sound could feel so different from another until it clicked. It was the silence of a predator stalking its prey.
The creak of floorboards reverberated through the building just a few yards away from the mares. Twilight knew what was coming before it happened, but didn't know what to do to stop it. This was what they had come for, but for one moment of panic it was also the last place on Equestria that Twilight wanted to be. She closed her eyes as the hoofsteps stopped, followed by the wrestling of a stubborn doorknob. As the door swung open and light poured over Twilight's face, she forced her fears down and tried to quiet her nerves.
A moment later, Pinkie Pie was standing in the doorway and the chance to leave had passed. Pinkie blinked once, only half her face visible with the light behind her, before her face split from ear to ear in a grin. "Girls!" she squealed, dashing out at them.
Twilight instinctively recoiled, but it did nothing to abate the fury of Pinkie's embrace. Her face was squished together with a squirming Dash's as Pinkie nuzzled them both. Before she could utter a single word, Twilight's world tumbled into chaotic motion and light. Shaking her head to clear the dizziness, she found herself seated in the storefront with an equally dazed Dash at her side and Pinkie across the table.
In the even light, Twilight was able to get a good look at her pink friend. When last they parted ways her mane had been straighter than a razor, but now it was as poofy and bouncy as ever. The dirt and soot marks had been cleaned off her face and body, and even the interior of the store looked good as new. The display case had been polished to a mirror sheen, despite the lack of any baked goods to display. Twilight tried to turn the situation over in her head while Pinkie stared at them both silently, still grinning ear-to-ear. On the one hoof, she almost could have believed she was back in her Ponyville. On the other, there was one minor detail keeping her worried. In the middle of the store, going through a hole in the ceiling and into Pinkie's room above, was a two-story tall pile of rocks.
With a sideways glance, Twilight could see that Dash's gaze was also fixed on the rock pile, and the bench underneath them both rattled quietly from their shivers. With Dash obviously not doing too well in the situation, Twilight returned her gaze to Pinkie. I can handle this, Twilight thought, it's almost as if we were back home!
"So..." Twilight began, breaking the silence. Step one, break the ice, check. "It's... good to see you again Pinkie! How are you, I mean are you... alright?"
Pinkie's grin had never faltered since they had arrived, and as Twilight petered out it had grown even wider. Some part of Twilight wondered what would happen the day Pinkie's smile really did grow too big for her face, and another part of her worried she was about to find out.
"Oh." Pinkie said.
Twilight waited a moment, unsure if she should say something.
"My." Pinkie was now visibly vibrating.
Dash had frozen, and Twilight's mind again began to think of pregnant silences.
"Celestia!" Pinkie logically couldn't have exploded into confetti, but to Twilight it looked like she certainly tried. A moment later, Pinkie's face was leaning over the table, mere inches away from the two startled mares. "You're really here! Oh my gosh oh my gosh, I haven't seen you in forever! Where have you been? I looked all over town for you! Well, okay, maybe mostly I just looked around here for you, but I still looked! Why did you wait so long to come visit again?"
Twilight and Dash looked at each other, and it was Dash who cautiously lifted a hoof. "Er, because last time we were here, you kinda tried to kill us?"
Twilight was terrified that a lot of things could happen. Mr. Slide could begin to rumble or Pinkie's hair could suddenly go straight, but to her relief the pink pony just giggled. "Oh yeah, sorry about that, I don't know what I was thinking. I was a little coco in the loco, if you mean what I know."
Twilight's brow arched, not bothering to try rolling that one around in her head. It was a familiar reaction to Pinkie's antics, and on some level Twilight found it... refreshing. Confusing, perhaps, but at least it was familiar.
"... but I was all 'You should be nicer to ponies!' and he was all 'Rawr I'm made of rocks!' but after you left I realized just how silly he was and how silly I was being so I decided to stop being so silly and just be fun like normal."
Twilight blinked. Missing even a moment of one of Pinkie's stories was enough to get you lost, another breath of fresh air. She looked to Dash, whose gaze still flickered back and forth from the rock pile nervously. "Who did what now?" Twilight asked.
"Uhh, after we left, she argued with her rocks and then rebuilt the store again." Dash whispered, her voice more hushed than it necessarily had to be. For a moment, Twilight wondered why she was so uncomfortable before she remembered her situation, chuckling to herself a little bit.
"Well Pinkie, I'm glad to see that you're doing so much better. And the store looks a lot better as well."
"Thanks Twilight! I put a lot of work into keeping it clean every day, just like the Cakes taught me! Too bad I don't have anything to actually sell, but it works out 'cause nopony ever wants to buy anything. Well, except Mr. Slide, but he never has any bits anyway." Pinkie lifted her hoof across her mouth as if considering something, and Twilight found herself smiling.
Well, they do say that laughter is contagious, Twilight thought. Sure, Pinkie was still talking about her rocks as if they were alive, and it was true that not everything was quite right, but Twilight's imagination was quick to remind her of all the ways it could have been much, much worse. Truth be told, they had no way of knowing if Pinkie would even still be here, or if she still had her Eleme-
Twilight perked up, straightening out of her laid back pose. She had come here with a purpose, and although it was good to see everything going so well she had to put business first. "Pinkie, we actually came back because we, all of Ponyville in fact, need your help with something."
Pinkie smiled, her hair bouncing as she stuck her head forward. "Oh, Twilight, you know I always love to help! Remember that time I threw you a party and you never even knew you were getting one? Ooh, hey! Does somepony else need a party? 'Cause I could totally go for a party right now!"
Twilight smiled. If she was being honest with herself, she could really use a party herself. Now that was a rare thought! She made a mental note to talk to Pinkie again after all this was over.
Twilight's vision was suddenly blocked by a blue leg. She almost screamed in surprise as she tumbled backward out of her chair, catching herself as she realized that it was only Rainbow Dash jumping on the table. "R-Rainbow, what are you doing?"
The pegasus ignored her, advancing as much as she could towards the startled party pony. "Alright Pinkie, I don't know what you're up to but we need your Element of Harmony. Just tell us whether or not you have it so we can leave."
Twilight reached up to grab her friend, pulling the pegasus and table down on top of her. As they scuffled on the ground, Twilight hissed, "Dash, what the hay are you doing?!"
Dash kicked away from Twilight and stood, backing away from both mares. "There's something funny here Twilight, let's just get what we came for and go."
"Rainbow Dash, you're being rude! Pinkie, I'm so sorry about this, it really is great to see you again and relax, I don't know what's got into her." Twilight struggled to upright the table, looking up worriedly at Pinkie.
The earth pony was only smiling, looking pityingly at the pegasus. "Oh, it's okay, I know we didn't really leave on the best of terms. I'm sorry, but I don't have my Element anymore. He does!"
Twilight followed Pinkie's outstretched hoof, her gaze settling on the colossal rock tower. As if in recognition of their presence, a single pebble tumbled to the floorboards.
Dash hovered over to Twilight, leaning in towards her ear. "Twilight, listen, this is even creepier than last time. We need to get out of here, we can come back for it later-"
"Rainbow, what is wrong with you?" Twilight gave her friend an appraising eye, noting that her tremors from earlier clearly hadn't stopped. Rainbow's forehead was wet with sweat and her eyes were wide with near panic. She shifted rapidly from hoof to hoof, her eyes darting between Twilight, Pinkie, the rocks, and the door. Twilight's head cocked and her eyebrow arched, caught between concern and confusion. "Rainbow, look, Pinkie is clearly doing much better than last time we saw her. It's warm and bright in here and you want to go back out there, without even taking Pinkie or her element with us?" Rainbow stopped fidgeting as much, her ears drooping a little bit as she calmed down. Twilight smiled and nodded to her friend. "Look, let's just relax and stay here awhile, make sure that Pinkie is okay before we bring her back with us. We also need to figure out how we're going to get that necklace out of Mr. Slide."
"The rocks." Dash corrected.
"Whatever," Twilight countered, a little annoyed at the hostility. Turning back to Pinkie, she found her smile instantly return. Something about the pink filly was just putting her in a good mood today. "Pinkie, do you think Mr. Slide would let us have the necklace?"
"Huh. I don't know, he's certainly never given me any of his rocks, but I've also never asked him!" Why would I need rocks anyway? I mean, besides to give to him, and I've given him a lot of rocks, but it wouldn't really make sense to borrow rocks to give to him anyway."
Twilight looked back at Rainbow Dash, who had scooted, perhaps unconsciously, towards the door. The pegasus was still twitchy, but had calmed down some now that the conversation was moving.
"What do you need it for anyway?"
Twilight smiled, enjoying the fuzzy glow that seemed to pervade the room. "Oh, uh, the same thing as last time I guess. We have to save Ponyvi- I mean, New Ponyville. From, uh-"
"Nightmare Moon." Rainbow Dash finished, her eyes locking accusingly with Twilight's. "Listen to yourself Twilight, something is up and the sooner you admit it-"
"It was just a slip of the tongue, Dash." Twilight felt her forehead pulse with an impending headache. With some bitter irony, she noted how Dash was proving to be a bigger problem today than Pinkie was.
"Well that's silly!" Pinkie scoffed, rolling her eyes and ignoring the pegasus. "Nightmare Moon is gone! Duh!"
Duh, Twilight thought. "I mean, I duh-n't know what you're talking about."
Twilight smacked herself in the face with her hoof as Pinkie and Dash both cocked their heads at her. "Ugh, I mean, Pinkie, Nightmare Moon is still at large and her army is right outside New Ponyville, or maybe even inside-"
"New Ponyville? Why did we get a new one? I like the old one!"
"We got a new one because the old one burned down." Twilight said without missing a beat. Talking with Pinkie was like playing a competitive game, half of the skill was learning to adapt to your opponents moves on the fly.
"Pfft, don't be silly Twilight! We're in Ponyville right now!"
Twilight looked around. Pinkie really had done a remarkable job recreating Sugarcube Corner, but it was still only a recreation. The town around them was nothing but ruins and cinders, but... well, technically, they were still in Ponyville.
Rainbow Dash pushed past Twilight, hissing at her. "If you aren't going to ask, then I will." Clearing her throat before Pinkie, Dash spoke a little more loudly than necessary. "Pinkie, Ponyville is ruined and Nightmare threatens your friends. Will you help us or not?"
Pinkie bounced out of her chair, matching Dash's stance and voice. "Ponyville is just fine thank you very much, not that you'd know since you left."
Something in the back of Twilight's mind began to tickle.
"Look outside Pinkie! All you can see is scorch marks and rotted grass."
Pinkie sprinted to the window, pressing her face up against the glass. In an instant she was back, shaking her head. "Dashie, you're acting all kinds of weird today. It's the middle of the night, I can't see anything!"
"Duh," Twilight rolled her eyes at Dash.
In the space of a second, the blue pegasus was in her face. "Twilight, get a hold of yourself! It's not night, it's day! This is the day now because Nightmare Moon is in control and Ponyville is gone and pretending otherwise won't bring it back!"
Twilight stepped back, her mouth open in shock. It wasn't Dash's words that had shocked her, but her face. Her eyes had gone red and puffy as they began to leak tears, her voice croaking with every word. Twilight stood for a moment, only Dash's chokes breaking the pregnant silence. That is, until the giggles began again.
"Oh Dashie, you're so random." Pinkie had jumped back into her chair, chuckling at the scowling pegasus.
Twilight ignored her, looking at her friend's panicked face. She was scowling, true, but Twilight had been around her long enough to recognize her defense mechanisms. Dash's eyes were always what betrayed her, and although her teeth were bared in anger her eyes were wide and pleading. Twilight recognized not only fear, but concern.
"No Pinkie, she's right." Twilight smiled at Dash, who let out a deep breath. "I want everything to go back to the way it was too, but staying here waiting for customers that will never come and talking to your rocks isn't going to bring it all back."
Twilight looked at Pinkie. The earth pony was still smiling, but her eyes lost their smile as her glance flickered between the two mares. "I don't know what you're talking about," she managed to say through her grin.
"Yes you do Pinkie, how many times have you rebuilt Sugarcube Corner?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Rainbow Dash stepped forward. "You said you remembered trying to kill us. Why did you do that?"
Pinkie pushed herself away from the table, trying to laugh, smile, and talk at the same time. "I don't know what you're talking about! Ponyville is fine and I get lots of customers and Mr. and Mrs. Cake are both alive and I can laugh and laugh every day and you can't take that away from me!"
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. In one movement, Pinkie had stood from her chair and flipped the table towards Twilight and Rainbow. Twilight's first instinct was to deflect it with her magic, and only too late did her memory catch up with reflex. Dash, on the other hoof, had been ready for anything since they had walked through the door, and the first thing to hit Twilight was not the accelerating furniture but rather her friend as she pushed her out of the way.
Even as she hit the floor Twilight was scrambling to her hooves, her gut already telling her what would happen. She whipped around to Pinkie as soon as she could, but the pink mare already had her head buried inside the rock pile. Her head snapped back up just as Twilight gathered air to yell, but the sight of the piano wire in Pinkie's mouth stole the gasp right back out.
There was an earth-shaking groan from above them, but Twilight didn't stop to listen. Turning on her front hooves, she bucked wildly at the table on top of Rainbow Dash, letting a blue blur escape from underneath. She spared a final look towards Pinkie as Rainbow Dash hit her chest, carrying them both towards the door.
Pinkie's eyes locked with hers, seeming to freeze the moment in time. Her forced grin had finally vanished, her jaw hanging slack and her mane halfway to deflating. A boulder fell between them both, crashing through the floorboards and blocking their view of each other. Time seemed to return to normal just in time for Twilight to hit the front door at full force.
If she had any air left in her lungs, it was firmly knocked out of her by that point. Her crash into the ground moments later just seemed like a cruel kick from fate, and she could do nothing but lay stunned for several moments. She could feel the rise and fall of Dash's chest on her own as she desperately tried to inhale, but she could do little more than listen to the deafening cacophony of falling stones. Her hooves and sides were impacted several times by debris, but their fall had hurt her more than any of the stinging debris.
As her vision began to spot from the lack of oxygen, her lungs finally responded to her brains urgent messages. With a gasp of fresh air, her legs also regained enough strength to roll Dash off of her.
"Bwa-grmph?" Dash mumbled as she hit the ground, her hooves jerking in the dirt. "Wha- wait, Twilight? Are you okay?"
"Fine." Twilight choked out as she rolled over, coughing into the ground. She spared a smile for Dash as her friend leaned in, both of their faces covered in dirt. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it." Dash huffed, wincing as she spread her wings. "What happened to Pinkie?"
Twilight caught her breath long enough to properly sit up, her eyes looking back towards towards the rubble behind them. With the building destroyed, the beacon of light had vanished and Twilight was left utterly blind after just a few yards in every direction.
Rainbow Dash's ears perked towards the rubble, catching a sound that was out of place. A moment later, the unmistakable sound of a sniffle returned. Dash looked down at Twilight, who nodded her assent. Twilight stood cautiously and began to pick her way through the rocks towards the noise. With a careful flap of her wings, Dash took the lead to find the stablest boulders to climb over.
It took a minute, but the silhouette of Pinkie was unmistakable when she finally entered Twilight's field of view. She sat staring towards the sky, her back to Dash and Twilight as she choked back sobs. Even when Twilight stumbled next to her and alighted to her other side, the darkness around them all made any further distinctions impossible.
"You were right." Pinkie stated. To Twilight, Pinkie's voice had never sounded so empty. "I couldn't just laugh it all away. I just... I just wanted to smile again-"
"Pinkie, it's okay." Twilight interrupted. "No hard feelings, okay? You're our friend, and we're here to help you through this." Twilight gesture to the horizon with her hoof, though she wasn't sure Pinkie could see anyway.
"Yeah," Rainbow added, "There's still stuff to smile about. Most of our friends are still alive and in one piece, for one."
"That's not what I mean though. Girls, who could laugh in a world like this? Who would want to? There was no place for laughter in Ponyville, so I made my own Ponyville, and maybe I wasn't happy but at least I wasn't sad." Pinkie choked back another sob, and Twilight tried to see Dash over the bowed mare's head. "You guys go ahead and save the world, but I can't help. I've nothing left to laugh about."
For a long time, the three mares just sat and stared into space together, the silence split by Pinkie's sniffles. It was Twilight who first raised her head, clenching her jaw. "No. Pinkie, you were the one who taught me that hiding from your fears doesn't work. You have to face them, and laughter is the best tool to help you with them."
"Twilight, those were trees! There are no ghosties to laugh at here, it's real monsters now."
"It doesn't matter. If you stop laughing at what scares you then you let that fear win, and pretty soon you won't be able to laugh at anything. We might not be able to lie to ourselves, we're in a lot of trouble and the odds are slim, but that just makes it more important that we keep on smiling."
"You can laugh at how ridiculous it is, if nothing else." Dash offered. "I mean, you tried to kill us twice now. With an avalanche. From inside a house. I mean, I saw it happen and it still seems absurd."
The sniffles quieted a little. "I guess that is a little funny", Pinkie admitted.
"See?" Twilight said, "If any of us can bounce back from this craziness, it's you Pinkie. Just give it a shot!"
Pinkie drew in a slow breath, stumbling slowly to her hooves atop the shifting rubble. Drawing in a deep breath, she leaned forward. "HAH!" she shouted into the darkness.
In the heavy silence, it didn't even echo.
"That, uh, wasn't exactly what I meant." Twilight chuckled. From the other side of Pinkie, she could hear Dash begin to snicker.
Pinkie jerked her head between both mares before falling back down on her rump. After a moment, she coughed in what was almost veiled mirth. "I guess that was a little silly."
"Pfft, just a little." Rainbow said before collapsing into laughter.
"Heh, I didn't mean, y'know, literally laughing at- pfffah ha ha!"
Pinkie looked at the mares on either side of her as they collapsed in laughter. They might have partially been laughing at her, but Pinkie knew that they were just trying to help. As she listened to them laugh, she felt her lips curl upwards as a big, warm bubble began to rise in her chest. And then, more naturally than anything she had felt in a long time, she was on her back in a fit of giggles, her mane reinflating as she rolled around with her friends.
"Thanks you guys," she managed to say between laughs. "I think I really needed this."
"Yeah, believe me, we know." Dash chuckled as she got back up. "But hey, we can't hang around here all day, we've got a lot of work to do."
"It's good to have you back, Pinkie." Twilight smiled as she got to her hooves, "It really, really is."
Pinkie rolled over onto her hooves, standing up suddenly, she pawed at the ground in a few spots, darting around until something seemed to catch her eye. Pushing a rock aside, her head darted down to emerge with something small and golden. Fastening the brooch around her neck in one motion, she smiled at her dumbstruck friends. "It's kinda funny actually," she giggled. "This was the first rock I ever gave Mr. Slide. I wanted to laugh so bad that I thought that having laughter as a friend would help. The harder it got to laugh the bigger I tried to make him, and I think I kinda lost sight of the core after awhile."
When Pinkie walked back over to her friends, Twilight pulled her into a hug. "That's fine Pinkie, you've found it again now. And now we've got everything we came for! Mission accomplished, girls!"
Pinkie giggled and Dash cheered, and Twilight began to pick her way out of the rubble. Dash began to turn away as well, but halted mid step. "Hey Pinkie?"
"I heard you sniffling before, well I mean obviously we heard you, but I thought 'cause you were trying to hide it- ughh, look, what I'm trying to say is, just because you're the Element of Laughter doesn't mean you aren't allowed to cry."
Pinkie stood still for a moment, her eyes moistening. "Thanks, Dashie."
Rainbow turned away to follow Twilight, and Pinkie's smile grew wider. It was a new type of smile, a sad smile, but it was a smile nonetheless.
If the strength and fury of a roaring thunderclaps were condensed into a single moment, the warrant officer imagined it would sound something like what he was listening to.
General, he corrected himself.
It felt strange. Everything felt strange. He was standing barely a few yards from The Great and Powerful Trixie, not even blinking as her horn began to glow again. His troops formed a semicircle around the pair, standing well back from the rock wall hiding the entrance to the rebel hideout. It had been easy to lead Trixie back to the scene of where he had let Rainbow Dash slip through his hooves.
Another condensed roar split the air. When they arrived, Trixie had smirked and ordered everypony to step back. Everypony but the General had obliged. When her horn had first started to glow, everypony but the General had receded even further. The hammering of his heartbeat and sweat of his brow, normally his near-constant companions, were replaced by an alien sense of coolness. The most terrifying pony in his life was splitting open a mountain right in front of him, and he wasn't even nervous.
Another crack of sound, and the General watched the fork of light hang in the air between Trixie's horn and the scorched rock for a moment. Cracks spiderwebbed throughout the already rugged stone surface, and the General was mildly surprised the stone door had held out this long already. Another crack, and this time the General felt splinters of stone cut through his mane.
The spectacle gave him time to think, something he'd been doing a lot these last couple hours. He felt almost empty without his companion of terror, but looking at Trixie made his gut churn with something else. It was an emotion long buried, pushed aside as dangerous and protected against by memories of the past.
"By Celestia you're pathetic."
The General almost quashed the memory out of habit, but on reflection decided to let his mind wander. There was no fear to goad him into action, and with a piqued curiosity he allowed the flashback to play out.
The Great and Powerful Trixie stood in her tent, her hood thrown back and her armor freshly polished. "By Celestia you're pathetic. Since you and your idiot friend of yours came to me, you've done nothing but botch everything I've asked of you."
The General peered out from behind his hooves, even lower to the ground than he was used to. He was no longer a general, simply some foal looking up at The Great and Powerful Trixie's scowl. "I-I'm sorry, Trixie! I did it just like you said, I focused and concentrated and, uh, t-that other thing..."
Trixie stamped her hoof, sending what pages were left of her spell book flying into the air. "Aim, you foal! You didn't aim! That's why you hit my notes instead of the target!" The foal watched her stomp over to the center of the room, using her magic to collect the scattered pages into a loose pile. "I swear, sometimes I don't know why I keep you around."
"But I'm getting better, right? I mean, I got the spell to work that time!"
"Not good enough!" Trixie yelled, scattering the pages again. As soon as the words left her mouth, she grunted and sat down, her front hooves going to her temple. The foal stood and rushed to her side, trying to look at her face without getting in her way.
"Trixie, are you okay? Is there anything I can-"
"Just shut up! Ugh, it's just a headache, probably a side effect of Her Majesty's gift to me." Trixie brought her hooves away from her head, turning to look at the foal again. The foal stood silently, ready to help in any way he could. Trixie sighed. "Err, Trixie did not mean to yell. Trixie is just in a bad mood." She rubbed her temples again, looking the foal in the eyes with a twinge of regret. "Trixie is... I am sorry. Her Majesty gave me a taste of her power, but it's more than I expected. When she gives me a position in her court, I'm sure you'll be good enough to be my officer." In a lower voice, she mumbled "All this practice has to pay off eventually."
The foal brightened, nearly jumping for joy. "Really!? You think I'm good enough?"
Trixie stood, taking a deep breath. "Not yet, but that's why you need to practice. Now go find your friend and try not to break anything. And find me something for this headache."
The general shivered despite the relative warmth of the air. With every crack of lightning a fresh wave of heat rolled over his face and settled over his skin. For several moments he simply stood and stared at Trixie, soaking up the warmth and feeling his skin shiver and writhe in time with his stomach. He felt something towards Trixie, something he couldn't quite pin down, but it was no longer fear. Once, long ago, he had felt something positive towards her, but now the mare in front of him was almost unrecognizable.
Another crack rent the air, this time followed by the grating slide of stone on stone. A moment later, the top half of the stone slab fell forward, causing even Trixie to jump backward as it hit the ground. Another smirk and crack and the passageway was laid completely bare.
Trixie disappeared inside without a word, causing the General to raise an eyebrow. He had expected at least a token brag about her power, but something must have had her distracted. Grunting an order automatically to the troops, the General followed behind his leader.
As he entered into the passageway his horn automatically lit up with a yellow glow. Just yesterday such a spell would have required his full concentration, but since that scene in the tent... the General had expected a lot of things to change, not having any idea what to expect from a taste of Trixie's, and by extension Her Highness's, power. So far, however, the only change he had noticed was that spells seemed to come to him easier, even automatically in some cases. He still wasn't sure if his newfound courage in front of Trixie stemmed from whatever vague power he had absorbed, but whenever he thought about it the same image came to mind. Nightmare Moon, her wings expanded to fill the tent, glaring down at a terrified Trixie.
The General rounded a corner in the bare passageway, and he saw a pale light bobbing ahead of him. Judging by the speed it was bouncing, Trixie must have been all but trotting down the tunnel. The General continued forward at an even pace, noting that the ground had begun to slope downward.
Other than the muffled curses of stumbling ponies, the trip down the tunnel was uneventful. When the flickering glow of torchlight finally greeted his eyes around another corner, the General paused. A shadow pulled away from the wall in front of him, throwing its hood off and letting its mane spill forth.
"Taking our sweet time, are we General? Might I remind you that you are about to engage in hostile warfare?"
Two things immediately registered in the General's mind. First was that part of him had honestly forgotten the danger of the situation, and second was Trixie's particular use of pronouns.
"Sorry, Ma'am." His answer was automatic. If Trixie noticed the insincerity, she didn't remark on it.
Instead, she scoffed and turned her nose upwards, one eye darting warily towards the tunnel exit. "I have my own mission here, one of highest importance. While I carry it out General, I expect you to lead my ponies to victory. Is that clear?"
"...Are you not planning on asking what your orders are?"
The General shrugged, almost annoyed. Now there's something new. "Victory, Ma'am?"
Something slapped against his cheek, making him recoil. With eyes wide, he turned back to a glaring Trixie as her horn dimmed. "You should know better, General, than to test my patience. Now, I'll make this simple for you." She leaned forward, the venom in her voice practically burning the General's nostrils. "Crush their defenses. Rout their armies. Bring me the heads of their leaders. Is that clear?"
The General nodded. Without another word Trixie turned away, her cloak sweeping out behind her and slapping against the General's face. He watched her walk down the tunnel until she blended in with the shadows, seeming to vanish well before the opening into the main cavern. The General wondered whether Trixie cared anything for this invasion other than a distraction for whatever she was planning. He did know she cared nothing for his life or the lives of the ponies under her.
The shivers on his skin returned, the feeling of heat on his skin flaring and crawling as he stared at the spot Trixie vanished. His lips stretched thin as his eyes narrowed, letting the feeling wash over him. He still had no name for it, but it made him feel euphoric when the wave passed through his head. It was like a second wind that came again and again, sharpening his focus like a razor and perking his ears towards every disgusting breath she drew.
He didn't have a word for what he felt towards Trixie, but he knew he didn't like her.
Big Mac grunted as he slammed into the stone slab, finally tipping it over its center of balance. With a reverberating crunch, the monolith came to rest against the wall across the bridge. As the other ponies who had helped move it stopped to catch their breath, Big Mac stood back to survey their hoofwork.
At first glance, their wall looked like a pile of junk. Everything from loose stone to boulders to a wall of a house could be picked out inside of it, but its ramshackle appearance belied its strength. Big Mac could feel it in his hooves every time he pushed a slab into place. It was an innate feeling, strong because of its hurried construction as much as in spite of it. It was a feeling only an earth pony could fully grasp, just like the wind under a pegasus' wings or the flare of magic for a unicorn. The wall stretched across the bridge, ten hooves high and perhaps twice that in length. It was hardly a bastion of safety, but Big Mac knew that every inch thrummed with the tensions of its builders.
On their side of the wall, chunks of debris seemed to stick out at regular intervals on the ground level. Although they might have seemed like rushed mistakes, they were anything but. In addition to giving the wall a resistance to being pushed backwards or unbalanced, they allowed a pony to scramble up to see over the top. In effect, the entire construction was a single battlement.
It was off one of these protrusions that Red jumped down, hitting the ground with a thud. His face told Big Mac all he needed to know, but he felt obliged to see for himself. Moments later, his head peaking out over the top, he saw the light down the tunnel.
He looked down. The bridge was backed up with volunteers, far more than could effectively man the bridge. They looked up at him on his impromptu podium, their faces ranging from frightened to resigned. Big Mac never laughed, so he recognized the hysterics for what they were when he felt a chuckle try to sneak out.
"You want a speech," he said. It was not a question. It was written all over their faces. "I'm not going to give you one. If y'all need motivation, think of how far we've come since Ponyville. I don't know about you, but I intend to make it through this."
He knew a speech would have been better, but the truth was that he had nothing to say. Either help would arrive or they would die. Stating the obvious didn't help anything, but he wasn't about to lie to his colts. False hope was a terrible thing to die for.
The General felt the light wash over his face as he stepped out of the tunnel, a pensive calm enveloping what should have been a whirlwind of emotions. A hundred paces to his right, a multi-story building stood dark and boarded, tunnels dotting the wall behind it. A hundred paces of open ground stretched ahead of him, ending at a bridge with a heap of rubble halfway across. Above him and to his left, darkness stretched until the torchlight ran out. As the Royal Guard came to halt behind him, silence fell over the chamber.
The General thought he caught movement atop the wall, though it was too far away to be sure. He knew that the rebels' eyes were on him, waiting. He felt that he should say something, some last dramatic ultimatum, but what was there to say? Crush their defenses, rout their armies, bring me the heads of their leaders. These ponies had to die, and the General had never been a fan of the dramatic. Not since Trixie, anyway.
The General caught another glimpse of movement atop the wall, and this time he was quite sure of what he saw. By reflex, he jumped to the right just as something whizzed by where his head had been. He turned his head at the cracking sound behind him, eyes widening slightly at the hoof-sized boulder now wedged into the cave wall. He grinned. There goes that opportunity, I suppose.
He stomped his hoof and the ponies began to march past him as one . The double column they had adopted in the cave became three, then four, then five as the Royal Guards emerged. Black armor that was designed to cover their faces as much as their bodies glittered in the torchlight as their ranks swelled. Of his hundred soldiers, not even half emerged before he stamped his hoof again, telling the others to wait. With such a narrow room for retreat, it was better to leave nothing to chance.
The General caught a flurry of movement from atop the wall, but this time he did not try to leap aside. That would mean that the pony behind him would take the bullet, and that was not acceptable. Instead, his horn flared to life at the same time as the ponies next to him, and a split second later the rocks made contact.
In a fraction of a second, a stone the size of a hay ball had grown from a distant spec to a deadly missile before halting instantly barely a yard in front of him. His horn flickered slightly, but the yellow shield around him held. Before the rock even hit the ground, two more made contact. In moments, the General's magic was the only thing between himself and a horizontal hailstorm.
Though his magic flickered with every hit, the General knew he was in no immediate danger. With some surprise, he noticed that the unicorns on either side of him were not faring as well. They were holding to a pony, but he caught a wince here or there as a large missile made contact. Perhaps he was finally seeing the difference of Trixie's gift, for he knew that many of these soldiers were far more adept at magic than he was.
A crash in front of him brought his attention back to the enemy. Whipping his head around, he realized that a boulder only slightly smaller than a normal pony had landed right in front of him. In the distance, he saw another boulder arch gently over the wall, disappearing momentarily into the dark overhead. His eyes followed its trajectory, shouting to the back lines as he imagined its course. The Royal Guards in the back had time to clear a landing space as it crashed down, but another makeshift mortar was already in the air.
"Sergeant, get those out of the air! Private, keep a light on them so he can see!" The General surprised himself with the orders. He hadn't even thought about the situation, but he somehow knew what he needed to do. His only military experience had been acting as Trixie's lapdog, but something was clicking now. Things were beginning to make sense. The hailstorm of rocks continued as another boulder arched up, this one slightly smaller. He watched as a blue cone of light wavered from behind him, following the boulder haphazardly.
For a split second, all the sound in the cavern seemed to dampen. At the same time, a sound like an muffled thunderclap reverberated through his body. The dust-filled air in the searchlight wavered as the air distorted, the phenomenon travelling at the speed of sound towards the boulder in the air. The impact was soundless. Instead of a boulder striking his back line, it was nothing but dust and debris.
He smiled. His Sergeant's cutiemark was a megaphone. When he had first seen it months ago, he'd assumed the stallion would be relegated to communications. Leave it to Trixie to take something so mundane and turn it into a sonic weapon.
While maintaining his shield through the barrage of rocks was becoming automatic, he noticed that one of his stallions on the front line had fallen back. Before he had fully moved out of formation, a mare had stepped forward to take his place. These ponies had the military training to keep themselves in relief rotations for as long as they needed, and with less than half of his force inside the cavern it would be easy to keep up their defenses indefinitely.
Like a subconscious nudge, something clicked for him again. His defenses were settled, a foothold was established. It was time to go on the offensive. He took a step back, letting another Royal Guard take his place on the front line. With his attention taken off of maintaining a barrier, he let an altogether different spell form in his horn.
He knew that every unicorn's magic was tied to their cutiemark. Basic spells came with training, but special talent could only be found in the areas one's flank designated. But with the right frame of mind, most any talent could be turned to warfare. In his own case, he focused on the top of the wall, watching as the distant shapes of heads and hooves leaned above to huck their rocks before ducking down. Like a barber pulling the hair to just the right length before cutting, he waited until a brown stallion stood up just a little too far.
Snip, he thought. He almost laughed to himself at that.
Red barely had time to wipe the sweat from his brow between boulders. He grunted as he rolled another into position behind Big Mac, backing away hurriedly. He couldn't help but wince at the crack of metal on stone as Big Mac bucked back, sending the boulder over the wall. Even with horseshoes, that had to hurt like hell.
Before he could roll another stone into position, a sound like garden shears reached Red's ears. It caught his attention because of how out of place it was, but he remembered it because it prefaced the first scream of the day. Red whipped his head around as a brown pony tumbled off the wall, his body landing with a sickening thunk.
Before Red could move to investigate, two ponies had arrived with a makeshift stretcher and began hauling the body unceremoniously back towards town. He knew they had to keep the area clear, and he knew that casualties were bound to happen, but it still struck him as inhumane to move him so carelessly before even checking his injuries. A mare nearby began vomiting, and Red found himself grateful that he hadn't gotten a closer look at the victim. In his imagination, there was a chance that he had survived.
The General's head was buzzing. He... he had done it. It was a perfect kill. Precise, quick, and intuitive. It had been a surgical execution in the middle of a pitched battle.
Intuitive. He was running across that word a lot lately. It was if his role as commander was running itself and he was only along for the ride. As soon as he heard the scream he had felt the slithering heat rush across his skin, had felt his forehead tightening for another blast. Now he was calmer, but for a moment he had nearly lashed out again in blind bloodlust. Where the hell had that come from?
There was a crash and a yell from behind him. He turned his head and tried to look through the cloud of kicked up dust, but he already knew what had happened. One of the airborne boulders had made it through his sergeant's defences.
There was a tingle like shattering glass from beside him, followed by several sickening thunks. By the time he had turned back to the front, the stallion to his left was already on the ground. The General frowned at the sight. The soldier had let his magic fall to rocks. Rocks. And from the swelling bruises on his face, he'd be lucky if he was only in a coma.
"Relief units, to the front!" Six ponies came forward and five fell back, plugging the hole instantly. Another boulder arched over the wall, and the General caught himself wondering if they had some sort of cannon back there. It was the only explanation.
Something had to be done to take the pressure off his troops. It might leave them more open, but they had to attack. Standing in the open and weathering the rebels' assault would only serve to whittle themselves down until more stupid mistakes were made. As he made up his mind, a familiar feeling churned in his gut. Soon, he was going to kill again
"First line, concentrate on your shields. Seven and Eight, don't let those boulders touch ground again! Lines two through six, tear that wall to pieces!"
He could feel heat on his ears as a fireball passed overhead, and all manners of projectiles following it. In arching trajectories and instant beelines, a deluge of multicolored projectiles made their way towards the wall.
Big Mac was blind with sweat, but he didn't notice. He didn't need to see to buck stone. If he was less focused, he might have noticed that he was tired. He might have realized that one horseshoe was bent painfully out of shape. If he could think of anything besides the moment of contact between his hooves and rock, the gratifying give as his power launched it into the air, then he would have realized all manner of problems.
It wasn't until that moment vanished that he came to his senses. His back hooves were extended into the air behind him, but they hadn't made contact with anything. He turned his head over his shoulders, sweat-slick mane whipping into his wide eyes as he searched for the boulder that should have been there. Instead, he saw a hundred different colors of light shining over the wall.
The ponies that had been rolling boulders for him were already running towards the wall, and Big Mac wasted no time galloping to it as well. His flank hit the stone just as the barrage of spells impacted the other side, and the momentum knocked the wind out of him. Some of the smaller earth ponies were bowled over completely, and to Big Mac's horror he felt the balance of the shamshackle barricade shift slightly. Just as quickly, the townsponies had gathered their strength and redoubled their efforts to push back, letting the wall settle with an ominous creak. The spell barrage continued, but it lacked the strength of its initial impact.
Somepony choked above Big Mac before tumbling off the wall. Red was on her in seconds, a hoof between under the blue mare's head and the ground. A stone tumbled out of her grasp, and Big Mac knew what had happened. She had foolishly tried to break cover and continue their own barrage, and a stray spell had hit her. Unlike the invaders, the earth ponies did not have the means to defend themselves and attack at the same time.
The wall creaked again, its weight shifting slightly. Big Mac grimaced, sweat burning his eyes as he looked to the darkness above. He hadn't wanted to play this card so early, but he had no choice. Gathering a lungful of air, Big Mac brought his hoof to his mouth and whistled as loud as he could.
From the cavern ceiling, the battlefield below looked like a toy. Tiny shadows flitted around as spells lit up the room, but from such great heights it was like watching distant fireflies. Even the sounds were muted, the distance delaying them like thunder and lightning. The cavern ceiling seemed to exist in its own world, the warring factions below doing little more than making the weaker stalactites tremble slightly.
One sound, however, was remarkably different. As Big Mac's whistle floated up to the rocks, something did change. On the side of one stalactite, a pair of pegasus wings spread and flexed. Around him and invisible to each other, a dozen others did the same.
A black and red pegasus took off from his stony perch. "Positions!" he yelled, but the others were already in motion. With a speed born of desperation, they organized themselves at varying points next to different stalactites.
The pegasus looked below him. It was like watching a fireworks display from the wrong angle, and he forced himself to turn away. They had the signal, it was no time to get distracted.
He couldn't see his colts in the darkness, but he knew they were there and ready. "On my mark," he yelled, tensing his legs as he prepared to buck out. "Mark!"