Disclaimer: I do not own My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or any of its characters. I make no money from this writing.
Equestrian Knights: the Two Powers
Chapter 3: Many Meetings
Twilight Sparkle looked out from the shelter of her cloak. The dark world rushed by beneath and around her. It was silent save for the wind streaming past her and the steady beating of the wings of the Pegasi pulling the chariot she sat in. Rarity sat beside her to her right, also in silence, though Twilight paid this little heed. Her eyes were fixed upward, peering beyond the brim of her hood to the night sky above.
She had always loved the stars of the night, since before she had even become a student of Princess Celestia, and that had been when she was very young. They always twinkled above her, their pure light surrounded by the blue-black darkness yet always untouched by it. They were always there, even if smoke or clouds or the canopies of forests hid them from sight. Whatever happened down on the earth, they would always stay shining. Always shining, her mother had told her, and always watching over them. This thought had always brought a certain measure of peace to her heart. Looking up at them now, Twilight felt that peace return to her, welcome after the earlier events of that night. "High above us the stars do shine..."
"Hm?" Rarity turned to look at the other pony, blinking her tired eyes. It had been a long night, for all of them, and it was most certainly just the adrenaline from the fight that had allowed them to go on this long. "What was that, Twilight darling?"
Twilight turned her gaze away from the stars to Rarity beside her. "That? It was...nothing. Just a bit of Elkish lyric my mother taught me as a filly when I had trouble going to bed. Looking up at the sky brought it back to mind, I guess." Twilight's gaze returned to the stars above them, and if she could see from where Rarity sat beside her, she would see the light of the stars reflected back in her violet eyes. She coughed and cleared her throat. When she began to speak her voice rang clearly in the night, tall and strong as it reached past their chariot to the others around them, where her friends rode.
"High above us the stars do shine,
And I have not lost all that's mine.
It waits for me at journey's end,
So I must hurry past this bend.
Though our hearts may fill up with dread,
Heroes hold on to true love's thread.
Through shadow, through the Dreaming's wake,
Keep your hope, darkness will not take."
Twilight's voice faded away, and for a while she sat in silence. Then she looked from the stars again to find Rarity looking upon her with a new light in her eyes, like something of great beauty had awakened within her. Twilight remembered her mother telling her she had looked much the same when she had first heard it. "It is a small part of the "Lay of Farlendil", the last High King of the Elk folk, before their world war ravaged everything. It was one of many poems composed between the end of the war and before the coming of King Cronus and ponykind. What I have just sung to you is one of the little bits that have survived the many millennia through pony minds."
Rarity moved a bit closer to Twilight, looking up at the stars with her. "I see. It is very beautiful, even in its reduced state. It reminds me of a song I heard Lady Falalauria sing, the night Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and I stayed in the Shimmerwood, during our journey to the Archback Mountains." A wistful smile grew on her face. "I hope I get the chance to visit there again someday, to walk among those graceful trees with those mysterious deer and listen to the Lady's singing. It was...quite enchanting, you must understand."
"I can imagine." Twilight shifted into a more comfortable position, her gaze drifting not to Rarity or the stars, but to the distant horizon. There the sky had begun to lighten, the life and light of Equestria's capitol city never quite ending, even at the darkest night. It was still mostly shrouded in shadow, yet still, with her almost Pegasus-keen eyes Twilight could make out the beginnings of life moving about around the city and castle, more than usual for how late it was. She could make out the large scaffoldings and skeleton structures where the city was still rebuilding from her attack, repairs still going on 14 months after it.
But Twilight's mind did not dwell on this, but on more recent events. "You may have your chance to see deer again sooner than you expect, Rarity. Tonight's attack could only be the beginning of something far larger. Aggression like this from the diamond dogs has been unseen for the past 127 years. If what he said about war coming is true, then it will concern all races and peoples. Look down below."
Rarity did as asked, and let out a gasp at the sight she beheld. On the earth below streaked dozens and dozens of bolts of lightning. They lit up the ground like the stars did the night, and seemed to travel in all directions. After several quiet moments of watching, it became clear that the most seemed to be heading where the ponies were heading; Canterlot.
"Are they all...Pronghorns?"
Twilight nodded, also watching the trails of lightning as they passed along the ground. "Yes, though there probably aren't quite as many as it looks, they're just going that fast. With the roughly two hours it took for us all to gather our things and for our chariots to arrive, Princess Celestia seems to have called in as many Pronghorns as she can. Now she must be sending them out all across the world, contacting as many of our allies and friends as she can." She frowned, her countenance growing dark beneath her hood, worried. "Whatever reason she had for summoning all of us, it must be staggering, possibly catastrophic. We should be on our guard."
"Hmph!" Rarity gave a flick of her mane, puffing out her chest as she held her head high. "Indeed, this must be of the utmost importance! Why, perhaps it is related to the attack by those horrible diamond dogs on Ponyville? Oh! What if we noble knights must go on some sort of quest, braving terrible dangers and seeing incredible sights for the fate of Equestria! Oh I'm so glad I brought along my adventuring ensemble!"
Twilight looked at Rarity and quirked an eyebrow. "Rarity, if the you from 14 months ago could hear you talk, they'd swear you were a different pony. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I just...maybe you should stop reading all those fantastical romance novels you blast your way through?"
Rarity gave another flick of her mane, this time accidently smacking Twilight in the face with it and making her sneeze. "Why Twilight Sparkle, I never thought I would reach the day when YOU, of all ponies, would suggest somepony not read as much. And besides," Rarity grinned at her. "I haven't read those old things in months. Why read about a romantic adventuring life when you LIVE it! WAHAHA!"
Twilight rolled her eyes and turned away. "Yeah, whatever. You and Big Mac go have your 'romantic adventuring life' somewhere else. I hope you'll be happy for the rest of your days and whatnot."
A silence grew between the two ponies, like a great distance. It was a silence Twilight would have been more than happy to have last the rest of the trip. The peace and calm she had cultivated through watching the stars was gone, replaced by a sickening agitation. It would have been easy to blame this feeling on one thing, but she could not. It had come from thinking about the earlier attack, and her encounter with Nero. It had come from seeing the Pronghorns and realizing the gravity of whatever situation they were entering. It had come from the Unicorn next to her seeming to have no concern at all for the gravity of the situation.
"Five minutes before we arrive, miladies," spoke the lead Pegasus pulling the chariot, breaking the silence. Twilight spared a glance toward him, and then went back to watching the stars. The moon had wandered into her vision by now, an ivory disc sailing through the sea of stars. Its surface was clean and unmarred, so different from how she remembered it as a filly, even as a young mare in the university.
Then Rarity shifted closer, and Twilight released a sigh she had not even noticed she had been holding. "Twilight," said Rarity, looking at her with eyes filled with worry. "Is everything all right, dear? Earlier you seemed...happy, dare I say it. Rainbow Dash and Doctor Whoof back in our lives, Sweetie Belle's singing extraordinary; oh, thank you for that by the way. But anyway, now you seem so...so withdrawn. Angry. Sad. I mean, you've never shown any sign of resentment towards me or Big Macintosh, but just a moment ago you could've cut diamond with your sharpness."
"Hmph, so sorry to cause you concern," Twilight growled. Then after a moment she sighed and lowered her head. "I'm sorry for that. You and Big Mac are a great couple, I meant no...well, I did mean to hurt a moment ago, but I shouldn't have. I simply...I..." Twilight shook her head and started again. "I'm not like you, Rarity. I have no desire for grand adventures or epic quests, and I neither desire nor deserve romance or love. Nor do I deserve the forgiveness and mercy you and the others have shown to me. This isn't what I want."
"Then what do you want," whispered Rarity, though she dreaded the answer with all her heart. "What do you think you deserve?"
Twilight Sparkle looked to the moon and was silent for the rest of the chariot ride.
The three chariots touched down onto the designated landing platform, a large circular area of white stone and gold accents the size of the entirety of Ponyville. It clung to the side of the mountain a hundred feet above the Canterlot castle itself, 12 pillars as big around as Twilight's tree home connecting from it to the main body of the castle. Built into these pillars were stairways and magic-powered cargo elevators, allowing troop movement from the castle to the landing platform and vice-versa without soldiers once exposing themselves to the open where they could be attacked. More such passageways were built into the mountain itself, leading to storage facilities and housing areas, in which a group three times the size of Canterlot's population could hide away if worse came to worse. Yet with the Sun and Moon Princesses themselves guarding the city, along with the second-largest standing military in the world, those safe houses had never been needed.
Once both wheels had settled onto the cold stone and the Pegasi soldiers pulling the it had slowed to a stop, Twilight leapt from the chariot, steadying herself with her wings. This high up, winds strong enough to knock a pony off their hooves were not uncommon. She was followed right after by Rarity, who levitated their personal bags with her. From the chariot to Twilight's right came Big Mac, Applejack, and Doctor Whoof, while from the chariot to her left a single Unicorn soldier stepped off, levitating all the rest of their bags with him. Everything seemed accounted for to her.
Rainbow Dash and Ditzy swooped down out of the sky into trots as they landed in the center of the gathering group. Rainbow Dash trotted over to Twilight. "So hey, we're in Canterlot, now what?"
"I'm not entirely sure." Aside from the Pegasi soldiers that had arrived with them, pulling the chariots, the platform was almost entirely devoid of life. The only other ponies there were more soldiers stationed every couple of yards along the perimeter of the area, acting as lookouts for expected and unexpected arrivals. Other than them, the area was deserted. "I was expecting somepony to be waiting for us." Twilight turned to the closest of the Pegasus chariot pullers, waving to him to get his attention. "What are we to do now?"
The Pegasus pointed a hoof past them, to a set of buildings of the same white stone as the landing platform. "The stairs and cargo elevators open up there. From there you can travel down to the castle itself. From there, I suppose you proceed on to the royal audience chamber. The princesses have secured themselves in there since early this evening."
"Oh, well thank you then." The Pegasus nodded and turned away. Twilight turned back to the others, taking in their expectant looks with a steady gaze. "Well then," she said. "We have some choices. We can either walk all the way over there," she indicated with a hoof over to the structures, easily a quarter-mile away from where they stood "and then take a couple hundred flights of stairs down to the castle. Or I can teleport us and our stuff down to the entrance hall myself. Anypony feel like walking?"
A round of "no's" and shaking heads followed this question, causing the ghost of a smile to flit across Twilight's features before she returned to her placid stance. "I figured as much. Okay then everypony, gather close and hold still. Also be quite, a teleport this distance is going to need a lot of concentration."
Once the others had done as she asked, Twilight closed her eyes and felt for the core of magic inside her. It was something easy enough to find, as closely connected to magic itself as she was. In her mind's eye it became visualized as a burning sphere, a core of energy like a molten ball of shifting metal. Then she began to concentrate on the castle's entrance hall, imagining-
[Greetings, Twilight Sparkle and friends.]
Twilight's eyes shot open, her concentration breaking at the sound of another voice in her head. It was a powerful voice, deep and soft, elegant and wild, incredibly ancient yet young, like the ringing of crystal; the closest Twilight had ever heard to it was Princess Celestia's voice, yet even this comparison did not do it justice. Looking around her Twilight saw matching looks of surprise and confusion...except for three. Rarity's, Rainbow Dash's, and Applejack's faces had lit up in seeming recognition of the voice, a sudden light in their eyes as if upon the return of a long-missed friend. Rarity especially, Twilight noted, had a look of utmost joy.
"It...can't be," Rarity said aloud, though Twilight had no doubt whoever had spoken in their minds could hear her. "My Lady, is that you?"
Their answer came in a sudden shifting of space around them. One moment they were standing atop the landing area for Canterlot's air forces, bodies huddled close as they braced themselves against a fierce mountain wind; the next moment they stood at the center of a magnificent stone hall of white and gold, red and purple banners depicting stylizations of the sun and the moon respectively adorning the walls around them. Just ahead of them were massive steps, leading up and away deeper into the castle. Twilight recognized two things immediately. First was that this was the Grand Hall of Canterlot, the accursed place she had suffered the hoof-shaking of easily a hundred Grand Galloping Gala attendees. Second was that they had just experienced Deer-style teleportation, and that could only mean one thing.
"Welcome, brave knights, to the great capitol of Canterlot."
That same voice echoed through the hall, not in their heads but instead coming from just behind them. The group turned around, and Twilight could not help the gasp she released at the sight they all saw. There before them, flanked by two Deer in elegant leaf-green armor, stood a beautifully massive Deer. She was nearly as big as Princess Celestia herself, though larger if counting the enormous antlers sprouting from her head. For indeed, they stretched as broad across as the average pony was long, and from the antlers streamers of white silk draped down almost to her hooves. Atop her head sat a crystal circlet, and all about her there seemed an ethereal glow, the source of which Twilight could only understand to be the Deer herself. There before them all stood the great Lady Falalauria, of the Shimmerwood.
Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and all the others sank down into a bow to the Elkin Lady, all except for Rarity, who broke from the group and ran to her. Twilight watched in amazement as the ivory Unicorn and golden Deer pressed necks together as if old friends, and for a moment wondered if this was how other ponies felt whenever she expressed her informal familiarity with Princess Celestia. She did not wonder this for too long, as Rarity quickly began to speak.
"Lady Falalauria," Rarity said, her voice barely above a whisper yet loud enough for all to hear. "It is simply such a pleasure to see you once again! Our last meeting was so brief, and under such terrible circumstances. Although, I must confess to some level of surprise. I had believed that, well..."
"That we Deer are private creatures," said the great hind, finishing Rarity's thought and smiling with warmth enough to dispel any feelings of embarrassment the Unicorn might have felt. "That we stay secluded in our forest homes, content to allow the larger world to pass by as it will? Feel no shame, Rarity, for you were correct in your thinking. Yet I Looked to the future, and Saw a great shift in the world coming. Ponies will not stand alone when they face it."
As Falalauria finished speaking the ponies stood up from their bows. Rainbow Dash darted forward to Rarity's side, followed soon by Applejack, limping along. Falalauria turned her star-filled gaze to them and smiled, though this one was markedly less happy than the smile she had given to Rarity. Twilight thought she could guess the reason for that. "Rainbow Dash, Applejack," the hind said, nodding to each of them. "I am grateful to see you both as well as you are. You especially, Applejack."
The cowpony nodded to this. "Yes, milady. Though...I wish I had your gifts, sometimes. I reckon some things would've been quite a bit easier ta handle if I'd known they were coming."
Though these words were said as politely as necessary, it was impossible not to detect the hard, bitter edge to them. All ponies present shifted uncomfortably at them, and even Falalauria's light seemed to fade for a moment. Gazes pointedly did not go to the scar across Applejack's flank.
"Yes," said Falalauria, slowly and sadly. "It is a curse of knowing things, to always think on what could have been. Yet not all alternatives are better than the reality we have. Do not dwell too much on what you could have done differently with Fluttershy, Applejack, or you will not even notice as all the many things you still have are lost to you."
Applejack bowed her head, the nod she gave barely perceptible. "I'll try, milady."
Falalauria's smile brightened at these whispered words, and then she turned to Rainbow Dash hovering beside her. "And yes, I was just as surprised as you were to learn you are the avatar for the Rainbow of Light."
The rainbow-maned Pegasus shut her mouth, having just opened it to ask, and folded her forelegs across her chest, sticking her bottom lip out in an utterly ridiculous approximation of a pout. "No fair, answering questions before I ask them is-"
"Cheating?" finished Falalauria. She and the others present broke into fits of laughter at the face Rainbow Dash made at this. Rainbow Dash simply huffed and dropped to the ground, where she remained sitting on her haunches with her forelegs folded.
"Cheater," she said.
Falalauria brushed a delicate hoof over Rainbow Dash's mane, and then turned away. Her eyes fell on Twilight, and the purple Pegacorn could feel herself being examined. Not just physically, with those eyes like the night sky, but her mind and soul as well. It felt as if her whole being were laid out for Falalauria to see, without even the most insignificant detail being left out. To the forefront of her mind came images, scenes from her past all the way back to when she was just a young filly seeing Princess Celestia for the first time. The images went by in a blur of thought, steadily progressing in time toward the present. Fear arose in Twilight, and with a cry of effort she wrenched her mind from the reach of Falalauria, the effort required sending the Pegacorn to her knees.
A look of surprise passed over the golden hind's features. Rarity and Applejack stepped out of the way as she walked toward Twilight. "You are afraid of me," Falalauria said. It was not a question; it was a statement of fact. "And I have never met any pony capable of hiding their thoughts and mind from me. You are as powerful as your teacher has told me."
Doctor Whoof approached Twilight to help her up, but she shook her head. She climbed back to her four hooves and looked up at Lady Falalauria towering above her. Their eyes met, but only for a moment before Twilight looked down. "Of course you scare me," Twilight said. "Your ability to see the past and future defies almost everything I understand about magic, and if it wasn't for Rarity I wouldn't even believe in your ability. But even more than that, I'm scared of you because...because you are so bright, so GOOD. And I am so..."
"Twilight Sparkle," whispered Falalauria, but not aloud. Twilight's head jerked up, her eyes open wide as that voice echoed through her mind and hers alone. "Many Powers reside in this world for both good and evil, both great and small. Do not trouble yourself about it now, for it is only at the end of a life when all things are revealed and good or evil are decided. When the time comes, you will know where you stand."
Then Falalauria's voice quieted in Twilight's mind, and the Lady looked up and past the group. "That is enough idle chat for now, I think," she said, looking towards a wide set of double doors. They were the doors to the Royal Audience Chamber, Twilight recognized. "Princess Celestia is finished speaking with the other arrivals that came with me. I must confess I think I made them rather uneasy with how I brought them here."
"Huh?" Twilight and many others looked at Falalauria in confusion at this seemingly random statement. But then Twilight looked around her and saw Applejack with a strangely excited look on her face. "AJ, do you know what she-"
The doors slid open, gliding silently on enchanted hinges. From the room strode Princess Celestia and Princess Luna side by side, followed close behind by a pair of earth ponies Twilight did not recognize. One was a mare, with a medium grey coat, white mane and tail, and green eyes. Her mane was long and loose, falling down around her shoulders. Her cutie mark was a red and gold heater shield. The other pony was a tall stallion, at least a head taller than Twilight and the others. His coat was dark red, his mane and tail light grey with streaks of charcoal coloring through it. His eyes were deep blue, deeper than Rarity's, and had a fierce light to them. His cutie mark was an arrangement of three pieces of golden wheat.
"Ashtail, Shield Maiden!"
This time it was Applejack who broke from the group, followed close behind by Rarity. The dark red stallion, who Twilight now recognized to be Lord Ashtail, the prince of Gildedale, smiled and quickened his own pace, meeting Applejack between the two groups. There they paused for a moment, either unsure of what to do or embarrassed, before simply giving each other a very close and, Twilight noticed, friendly hug.
Rarity meanwhile had met up with Shield Maiden, and conversed in excited tones about all manner of things. They were soon enough joined by Rainbow Dash.
Then Ashtail and Applejack ended their embrace, and he looked down her body to the scar across her flank. The look of pain that crossed his face left no confusion to those watching as to how he felt. "I had heard from Rainbow Dash what happened when she came to visit, but seeing your wound for myself is much worse."
"Aw shoot, don't worry none about it." Applejack turned her head to look at the scar, turning her body a bit to the side so Ashtail could more easily see it. "Most days it don't even hurt, and I can still push myself to a gallop if I have ta. And 'sides, you should see the other-" Applejack stopped. Her eyes went distant, and then she returned. "I mean, it don't matter none."
Ashtail nodded in acceptance at this, and moved forward to neck hug Applejack again. "Very well then, we will speak no more of that. Besides, it is foolish to get lost in the past when the present requires seeing to."
"Well said, Lord Ashtail," said Princess Celestia, drawing the attention of all the ponies to her. Princess Luna stood to Princess Celestia's left, her expression one devoid of emotion, cold and distant as a winter's night. To the Sun Regent's left had moved Lady Falalauria, calm and serene as a moonlight lake. Princess Celestia herself stood tallest, her eyes filled with warmth and love for all those she looked at, yet also with the faintest amount of carefully hidden worry. It was not much, but Twilight had known her long enough to recognize it.
"My little ponies," continued Princess Celestia. "We have all been gathered here by the tides of fate; yes, even I and my sister. Though once more envoys arrive from the more distant lands I will give a fuller council, I will tell what I must to you all now. This evening both Lady Falalauria of Shimmerwood and I were granted a vision, a revelation of the present and future; her through her natural magic, and I through the Magicahedron, a powerful magical device connected to the Dreaming itself."
Gasps and murmurs ran through the gathered ponies at this. Twilight's eyes narrowed and a chill ran through her body. She remembered her brief use of that infernal device quite well.
Princess Celestia waited for the murmurs to quite down before proceeding. "A terrible vision was shown to us. The Crown of Cronus has revealed itself." She quickly raised a hoof to prevent any questions. "I understand that many of you have no knowledge of what that is. Know this. Thousands of years ago, after the Deer wars had ended and the world lay in ruin, a being from beyond the Outer Darkness came in the form of a mighty Pegasus stallion. He called himself King Cronus, though never did he desire or make attempt to rule the people, only help them. It was he who taught the Pegasi to control storm and sky, saving all from death. It was he who set new stars into the sky to replace those lost in the wars. And, many centuries after he arrived, he mated with a Unicorn mare, leading to the birth of two Alicorn foals. Myself, and Luna."
Here Princess Celestia stopped speaking and lowered her head. Princess Luna moved closer and pressed against her. Lady Falalauria took over. "It was soon after Luna and Celestia came into their own Cronus left the world, returning to wherever he came from. To help govern the world, he left three artifacts of incredible power. To the gryphons he left his mask, with which they could advance the world with wisdom and knowledge. To the dragons went his helm, with which they could protect the world and put an end to war with strength and courage. And to his daughters, Cronus gave his crown, with which they were meant to lead the world, and preserve it."
"What happened," asked Rarity.
"Everything," answered Princess Luna, taking over. "The gryphons retreated into their mountain fortresses, delving deep into both the knowledge granted them by the mask of Cronus and leaving the world to its own devices. Without that wisdom to stop them, the dragons launched a campaign of conquest over the world, using the power from the Helm of Cronus to full them beyond the strength granted them. It was all Celestia and I could do to create Equestria, a safe haven for ponies and any others that sought refuge. This state of things lasted for five hundred years, until somehow the gryphons, perhaps trying to find Father, created a rift in the world to the Outer Darkness, the Void, from which came Tirek."
"Oh, oh, I know the rest of this" shouted Rainbow Dash, waving a foreleg about. "Luna and the original Knights of Equestria kicked Tirek's butt and sealed him away!"
"Indeed," spoke Princess Celestia. "Yet there is more to those years than that. Tirek's war on us lasted for many years before the final battle. Much was destroyed or lost, including all three artifacts given by my father. The mask was never seen after Tirek appeared. It is probable he destroyed it, or took it as his own. The helm was worn by the king of the dragons, Agni, into the final battle, and with it he managed to fight Tirek for a time. But eventually he was overcome and killed, and the helm ruined. Actually it does continue on in some fashion, for it was from Agni's scales and the helm's remains that the necklaces for the Elements of Harmony and the Elements of Balance were forged."
"And the crown, your majesty?" Doctor Whoof took a half-step forward and looked up at Princess Celestia. "What happened to that, to make it possible to come back?"
The elder Alicorn's countenance darkened, the light in her eyes fading and the ethereal wind leaving her mane. It only lasted a moment, but it was a terrible moment to those assembled. "I am afraid...I lost it. I was there that day, that moment when the king of the dragons fell and the power and pride of that race was broken. My rage and horror at this blinded me to reason, and I did the one thing none were to ever do. I set the crown upon my brow, intending to seize all its power for my own and claim the title of Queen Celestia to destroy Tirek. But it was not a moment later that the crown burned me, and disappeared, and I was left powerless against the full might of Tirek. Were it not for my sister arriving just then, I would have been destroyed."
A deathly silence filled the hall. Princess Celestia sat down, her head hanging low. A few unbidden tears fell from her shut eyes to the floor. "I sought more power, more control, than was allotted to me. And for that all the power was lost to me, at least for a while."
Twilight lowered her head, her own hot tears wetting her cheeks and dripping down. She heard her teacher's story, burned it to her memory, and found she already knew it by heart. Only the story she knew did not star Princess Celestia but herself, Twilight Sparkle. The irony was terrible.
"Then," spoke Ashtail, breaking the silence and reminding Twilight that there were others present, "the crown has come back now because...you have learned from what happened?"
Princess Celestia looked to Ashtail when she answered. "Perhaps, but I think not. Rather, I think it might sense that it is needed. A new darkness has begun to move in the world, whispers of a nameless terror to the east, rumors of a dark specter to the south. Now to the north comes word that the frost giants have begun to mobilize their forces, and Twilight," here she indicated to the Pegacorn with a nod of her horn, "sent word mere hours ago that Ponyville was attacked by diamond dog raiders. That Nero led them, and that he promises war."
A cry of anger and dismay came arose, and all attention turned to the main entranceway. There stood a cloaked figure, though his hood was down to reveal a scarred Zebra, his grey mane wild and his yellow eyes surrounded by scars.
Princess Celestia took a step forward and looked at the new arrival in confusion. "An envoy from Zebrica? But I only sent Nigel with my message less than an hour ago."
The Zebra shook his head and strode closer to the gathering. "A message from Nigel? Nay, I've been on my way for a while. I come with word from King Luu, but it seems there is also one from you. Weeks ago, you should know, Nero launched an attack on Cape Hope. Now we Zebra people are at the end of our rope."
Rainbow Dash hovered close to Shield Maiden. "This guy's rhymes suck."
Princess Celestia frowned. "If what you tell me is true, then things are worse than I feared. Nero's reach has grown long indeed if he thinks he can attack the Zebras. The intent is obvious, to draw our forces out, stretch them thin so that he can strike a mortal blow. And yet...." Princess Celestia turned and shared looks with her sister and Lady Falalauria. "We cannot leave our friends and allies on their own. We face this growing threat together, or not at all."
"But sister," said Princess Luna. "It will take days to send out calls for full military mobilization, and weeks for all our forces to be ready and an expeditionary force prepared, not accounting for the time it would take for our army to actually arrive at Zebrica."
"And there are far fewer Deer than there once were," spoke Lady Falalauria. "We cannot commit to multiple fronts and still be able to guard the Archback Mountains. Except...." She looked at Princess Celestia and half-closed her eyes for many moments. "Ah, I see. My Sight has waned of late, yet I see no better choice than this."
Princess Celestia nodded, before returning her attention to the Zebra and gathered ponies. "Much has been revealed to all of us, and now a decision has been reached. I myself shall journey to Zebrica with their envoy, and assist in the battles there while my sister Luna watches over Equestria. Lady Falalauria shall rejoin her people in Shimmerwood. Lord Ashtail, Shield Maiden, I ask that you return to Gildedale and have them prepare; war is upon us."
"A moment, your Majesty." Applejack strode to right in front of Princess Celestia and looked her in the eye. "If it's all right with you ma'am, I'd like ta, er, I mean if it's okay...I'd like ta go with Ashtail and Shield Maiden. To help them prepare and...stuff."
All ponies there shot surprised looks at Applejack, none more surprised than the two Gildedale ponies. Princess Celestia merely shared a knowing look with Rarity, before looking back to Applejack. "If that is what you want, then go with my blessing."
Applejack bowed and gave thanks, before returning to the crowd. She sidled up next to Ashtail and Shield Maiden and smiled at them. Princess Celestia then drew all attention back to her with a heavy tap of her hoof on the hard marble floor. "One final assignment is to be made, and it is quite likely the most important of them all. My brave, my loyal knights; Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Doctor Whoof, Rarity, Ditzy Doo, Big Macintosh, I charge you with this quest. Find and secure the Crown of Cronus. Everything, absolutely everything, hinges upon this."
The named ponies exchanged looks between them, the gravity of the situation clear to them all. Rainbow Dash stopped hovering and dropped down to her hooves. She looked to Princess Celestia and nodded. "We won't fail you."
The moon was full in the sky, just beginning its downward descent to the western horizon, and Twilight Sparkle watched it from the balcony of her room. It was one of the smaller guest rooms in the castle, not much
Twilight watched the moon, but her mind was elsewhere, the events of the evening playing out again and again before her mind's eye. After the meeting had ended arrangements had been made by Princess Celestia. The various groups would be leaving at first light the next day, right after the sun was finished being raised and before the daily court began. From Canterlot Ashtail and Shield Maiden, with Applejack, would be going west and a bit south, cutting through Ponyville on their way to the Drackenback Mountains and then on to Gildedale. With this Applejack would be able to tell Apple Bloom and the others were and why they had all gone in such a hurry.
"I'm glad Applejack's going with them," Twilight said aloud. No one else was in the room, but a response came all the same.
"Yes, seeing old and familiar sights, and being near the stallion she fancies, will be good for that earth pony. She shall perhaps even escape the unjust punishment she has suffered at those called her friends."
Twilight nodded in acceptance of these words, and then turned her mind back to the plans. Applejack would not be the only Equestrian leaving tomorrow. At the same time as Applejack and the Daleponies headed west, she, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Big Macintosh, Ditzy Doo, and Doctor Whoof would be heading north. The Magicahedron's vision to Princess Celestia had indicated one thing in the way of directions; the old fortress of Khaza Rim. Named for an infamous dragon military hero, the fortress was the northernmost Equestrian outpost, just barely within the realm's boundaries in the region of Gallopfrey. Only a small contingent of soldiers, barely more than a hundred, kept watch there; a small but highly trained guard for in case the frost giants ever tried invading again.
"That will be a long, dangerous road fraught with peril" said the Voice again. "Other forces will learn of your quest, Twilight Sparkle. You will face diamond dogs again, for sure; you will face dragons, and gryphons, and their accursed spawn drakes. There will be dark sorcerers seeking this power for themselves, and perhaps things...so much worse."
"I know all this," replied Twilight. She looked down from the moon to the castle grounds, spying walking through the royal gardens Lady Falalauria and Princess Celestia, deep in conversation. Twilight watched them a while, the distant sound of their occasional laughter rising to her ears. The moon had moved a visible amount in the sky before she spoke again.
"It's probably selfish of me, but I can't stop thinking about what it is we're going after, and what it has done." Twilight's body sunk down and she rested her head on the windowsill. "I can't stop thinking about what Princess Celestia told us. It seems like every pony given a measure of power or authority gets taken in by it."
"Yessss, this does seem true. Just look at Luna, and her turn to Nightmare Moon to end what she thought an injustice. Just look at your Celestia, and her attempted taking of the Crown's power to stop Tirek. Just look at you-"
"I will not," said Twilight, silencing the Voice. "I know what I have done, the pain I have caused, and the reasons it happened. I will never forget what I've done, even if I wanted to. And I don't, I really don't."
"You're lying to yourself," said the Voice, and then it went silent. It would trouble Twilight no more that night, she could tell. Sometimes it would go hours without a word, other times days; the only constant about it was that it always ended the conversation with the same statement.
"You're lying to yourself." Twilight didn't know what that was referring to, and she didn't care. She didn't really care at all for the Voice, or anything it told her. She never talked back to it, at least not out loud. No one else knew about the Voice as far as she knew, and she had no desire to appear crazy to any other ponies. She knew she wasn't crazy, as deeply as she knew the Voice wasn't some fractured part of her psyche or a foreign mind invading her own. She simply...knew it.
"Whatever." Twilight turned from the window and began trotting over to the bed. She only wished the Voice didn't use the voice of her sister.
"All you have to do is take a cup of flour, add it to the mix. Now just take a little something sweet, not sour, a bit of salt, just a pinch!"
Pinkie Pie danced through the sterile white kitchen, singing her own little song at the top of her lungs. She bounced and slid from counter to counter, mixing batters at one, arranging ingredients at another, sliding trays of batter into ovens at yet another. The forth counter in the rectangular room, exactly the same dimensions as the kitchen she remembered from Sugarcube Corner, went unvisited. As she danced about Pinkie's hooves squeaked and skid on the white linoleum floor, her mane and tail bopping and swishing around to a tune that was only in her head.
"Baking these treats is such a cinch, add a teaspoon of vanilla. Add a little more and you count to four and you never get your fill of..."
A steel door set into the southern wall of the room opened with a rusty screech. Pinkie Pie stopped her singing and dancing and looked over at it, her bright blue eyes growing wide in barely contained excitement. Happiness seemed to pour off her, coloring the whole room in pink as, with the slow clop of hoofsteps, a new pony walked into the room, a Unicorn. This new pony was a bit taller than Pinkie, and thinner. Her coat was a deep purple, with a few streaks of grey running horizontally along the sides. Her mane was long, reaching down to the middle of her chest, and with a very slight forward curve to it. It was yellow as the sun, with a strip of purple going from her temple down to the end. Her tail was the same. Her left eye was the same purple shared by many Unicorns throughout Equestria, while her right eye was honey-yellow. Her cutie mark was a pair of white stars one over the other, surrounded by several smaller stars in a random pattern.
"Hi, Dusk!" Pinkie grabbed a tray of pink and green cupcakes from the counter and hopped over to the Unicorn, who after shutting the door behind herself had immediately materialized a chair to sit in. Pinkie rammed the tray at her. "Want a cupcake? I just made them and I'd so love to share them with a special pony like you!"
Dusk gave a weary smile to Pinkie, one that the pink pony readily returned, and levitated a green-frosted cupcake from the tray. "Thank you, Pinkamina." One, two, three bites, and the cupcake was entirely finished. Dusk wiped a few crumbs away from her mouth and took another cupcake, this one pink. "Has Fluttershy arrived back with Jack yet? I have news."
Pinkie gave a short, fast shake of her head, making her mane flop about wildly and Dusk giggle. "Nope, sorry Dusky-Wusky. But it's a long trip from Midnight Castle to here, so I betcha they won't be here until tomorrow. Ooh, maybe even the day after tomorrow. Buuuuut..." Pinkie leaned in close and placed a quick little kiss on Dusk's cheek. "I bet telling ME the big news you've got all bottled up inside will make you feel better. Then we could tell Fluttershy and Jack together!"
"That sounds good." Dusk finished her second cupcake, but instead of going for a third she turned the chair into a couch with a flicker of her horn and patted the spot beside her with a hoof. Pinkie Pie let loose a high giggle and jumped onto the spot, snuggling in close to the Unicorn. Dusk smiled and wrapped a foreleg around the earth pony's shoulders.
"Well," the Unicorn began, "everything proceeded at Princess Celestia's meeting as I remembered. I think Princess Luna might have sensed my presence, goddess of subtlety and illusion that she is; Lady Falalauria definitely knew I was there, but that doesn't matter. The rest were all clueless. The Knights seemed in good shape. Rarity and Rainbow Dash were overjoyed to see the Lady of Shimmerwood again, and Applejack was more than overjoyed to see Lord Ashtail. She's healed fine from the wound you and Fluttershy left her. Not fully, but fine enough for our purposes."
A look of pain crossed Pinkie Pie's face, before she gave a little smile and nod. "Good, that's good. So she'll be going to Gildedale where she'll be out of the way of our daaaaark plans, right?"
Dusk nodded. "Right, she'll be out of the picture for a good while. So will Princess Celestia, because she's going south to help the Zebras. I had...forgotten that." Sadness entered the Unicorn's eyes, an indescribable pain that only comes from loss. "It seems my dreams of that meeting are not as accurate as I thought. Still, they shall have to do. They're all we have to go on."
"Oh, but that's not true!" Pinkie giggled and kissed Dusk again on the cheek. "We'll have Jack and his magical mumbo jumbo stuff to go on too! Why, I bet he's gonna have all kinds of cool stories to tell from his time, um...not alive. Then maybe we could take a break from our evil plotting to have a little get-together, tell some jokes, eat some cupcakes. Oooh, it's been over a year since he had a cupcake!"
"Hmm..." Dusk put a hoof to her chin, making a show of thinking over what Pinkie had said. After a few seconds she shrugged. "Well, I suppose you're right on all accounts. Anyway, it will be a while before Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, and all the others reach this point in their journey to the north. Leave the heroes to their questing and our villains to their plotting. No need to hurry or stress out or anything while I have..." the hoof around Pinkie's shoulders slid lower, caressing down the pink pony's side to her flank. "More important plots to focus on right now."
Pinkie Pie giggled, a light blush almost invisible on her cheeks. She fell backwards onto the couch as Dusk Nox leaned forward into her.