March on Canterlot
As cool as it would have been to recount the epic tale of her escape, she found herself with no pony to tell it to. But what a riveting tale it would have been: full of flying kicks, cursing, and general bad-assery that would make mares and stallions alike weep and get on their knees, begging her to put some of that awesomeness into their life! Yet, even if there were ponies who would pay attention, she just could not tell the tale of her daring escape. It would be too big of a lie.
That demonic creature, whatever it was, LET her go. Not only that, but it had almost literally opened the door and kicked her out onto her flank. But why? If it wanted to, it could have kil- No, she could not die again. Utterly destroy her, or freeze her into a statue for all time? That sounded more like it, but she had still not suffered any sort of punishment for breaking and entering.
Okay, that was another lie.
The gray forest stretched out in front of her at all sides, as far as the eyes could see. Rainbow Dash hovered over the canopy, seeing endless expanses of wood and mountain. She had been dumped into a section of the woods she did not recognize, so she could not get back to her sermon. Like that ever helped anyway, she scolded to herself before taking off in a random direction.
Soaring through the skies had always been enough to get her focused and determined, but this time she merely glided from treetop to treetop, unwilling to spend the energy. Her body was still stiff from the intense cold, but she feared her heart had turned to stone. "I had all that time I could have talked to her," she sighed as she kicked off another high tree. "But I didn't say buck all. Sure, we talked about this, and that, but..." Rainbow shook her head off from the studious unicorn. Even if she herself was not dead, it never would have worked.
Hours seemed to pass as mountains ahead faded into the distance behind, yet she still did not recognize anything. Perhaps this was a way to start anew? Granted, it was not like she had made a lot of progress back where she was. The idea of new souls to save made a smile creep across her face. Even if she could go back home, there was a lot more good she could do in the depths of the hells.
Glancing to the ground after hitting another tree, she saw a curious sight: two stallions sitting together in the middle of the thicket on a high spot above the fog bank. A yellow earth pony stallion with a mane of flaming red was hunched over a brooding green colt with a blue mane. Puzzled by them, she descended from the trees and landed in front of the two, wondering just what in the world was going on.
"Yo, bud?" she asked the lighter pony. He looked up into her eyes, pits as black and warm as burning coals meeting her rosy gems. She was shocked by his immediate reaction since everypony else was busy moaning and complaining to themselves over anything and everything. "Uh... you okay?"
"I am, but he is not," he spoke in a smooth and classy Trottingham accent while gesturing to the colt. His front leg was wrapped around the former Pegasus's shoulders in a light embrace. The scars on his sides gave away that much, anyway. "I have tried everything conceivable to get him out of his shell, but nothing seems to work. He keeps mentioning a mare he loved, but could never confess his feelings to, until it was too late." A look of sadness came across his face as he regarded his companion. "Can you help?"
"Sure, I guess," the rainbow warrior shrugged as she came closer. "It can't hurt to try, anyway. Did he say her name?"
"Lily, I think," he answered.
Rainbow sat directly in front of the sobbing colt, the other removing his hoof so that she could speak to him directly. She scrutinized him for a little bit before reaching out and lifting his chin. "Look at me," she spoke firmly. "I know how you feel, colt. I love... loved a mare myself and never got the chance to tell her either. It hurts... it really does, and I doubt it will get any better. But guess what? Moping and wandering this place forever won't do BUCK. It's not going to get Lily back, I'll tell you that much!"
His light blue eyes seemed to widen when she finished, as if seeing the mare for the first time since she started talking. They darted over her, a look of surprise coming over his features. Seeing her chance, Rainbow went in for the proverbial kill. "Love hurts. Especially if it's not returned or you never got the chance to confess it. I know how you feel, but... I keep moving, even through the pain. Yeah, it's cliché, but it really works."
"Easy for you to say," the stallion mumbled sadly, looking to the forest floor. "Still... I... I guess being sorry and moping isn't going to change anything..." He sighed to himself and looked up, his eyes beginning to water a little bit. "I've been a foal, haven't I?" Suddenly, Rainbow found herself in his embrace and returned it, a smile as wide as Pinkie Pie's on her face.
"You have, but hey, so was I until I realized I was beating myself over something in the past."
"How can I ever repay you, miss?"
"Easy, go out there and spread the word! Tell ponies that just because they're here, it doesn't mean that they have to mope forever. Tell them to buck up! Make them listen to you! Never give up on them. And when they do snap out of it, ask them to do the same: to spread the word!" The soft clopping of hooves echoed through the small grove, making the mare pull away and look at the other pony present, a smile plastered on his face.
"A valuable piece of advice indeed. Congratulations, Rainbow Dash," he smiled.
"Thanks, but you did most of the work. Wait... How did you know my name?" she asked slowly. "Have we ever met before?"
A smirk came across his face before a sudden flash filled the clearing. The Pegasus beside him was startled and jumped back, a pair of green wings extended in surprise. He stammered in confusion before the other pony silenced him. "Your penance has been paid, Rainbow." The stallion turned to the other. "Go spread her word and yours shall be paid as well. Even if you never gathered the nerve, Lily does miss you."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop the train for a moment!" Dash shouted. "Who the buck are you and how do you know my name? And what do you mean by 'penance!?"
The stallion's smile only became wider. "All answers will come to you in time. Go home, Rainbow Dash."
Before she could protest, the world and everything else around her was gone in a flash of bright, white light. She floated endlessly in a nonexistent sea, unable to tell up from down, existing in only the barest meaning of the word. What had happened? Was everything she had ever known a dream? What about all of her friends? Were they all made up as well? No answers came to her. The place was soundless, but it felt like she was being called... somewhere.
Something pressed into her cheek, but when she went to feel it with her hoof, she noticed she had no hoof: she had no body at all! Panic began to rise in her heart as she feared this was something worse than the Sorrel Hells, if such a thing existed. However, another firmer nudge to her cheek seemed to rock her.
Her eyes opened, but the field of white remained... but it was not a flat white like how she remembered. A breeze blew across her fur, the grass tickling the bottom of her hooves. "Ah, you're awake, Rainbow Dash," a familiar voice softly spoke. Craning her neck up, the face of a beautiful, white alicorn smiled down at her, making the Pegasus jump and stutter in surprise.
"P-Princess Celestia!?" she exclaimed in confusion.
A smile spread across her face as the sunrise and her laughter echoed in her ears. "It's Celestia now, dear. JUST Celestia," she spoke once her mirth had faded. Rainbow stood on her hooves to examine her surroundings. Rolling plains of emerald grass shimmered in the bright, warm sun. Pegasus ponies played on the clouds, or with their earthbound friends. Even a few alicorns (although not as large as the princess) could be seen frolicking among them. "Welcome to the Eternal Herd, or the Great Plains. Whatever name you prefer."
"The Sorrel Hells are a place of punishment, but in very few cases is that punishment eternal. The number of years there or the number of kind acts done is your penance for your sins, and it is paid in full." Rainbow gawked at her as if she had sprouted a second horn, eliciting another happy chuckle from the former monarch. "Come now, there are ponies wanting to see you." Trapped in her revery, the blue Pegasus followed, a smile spreading on her face as she walked in stride.
I'm sorry I can't be there, Twilight. But, I hope you know I'll always be with you in spirit...
In most kinds of darkness, you cannot see much more than the darkness itself. Deep in the basements of Canterlot Castle, however, the darkness was different. Not only did it inhibit one's vision, but it could almost be felt: as if all the hope and happiness were being leeched away.
But none of that really mattered to the purplish grey unicorn. She lay upon the cold, damp floor of her dungeon cell with her eyes half lidded in the darkness. The unyielding stones were rough against her skin, making any position she took uncomfortable. Sleep only came when she was too exhausted to remain conscious anymore, and even then she would wake with her joints stiff and muscles sore.
Chains binding her legs to the floor rattled loudly as she shifted to sit on her haunches. The clattering echoed painfully in her ears and made her head swim as if somepony had grabbed her and given her a liberal shake. Dinky winced at the noise, but would not give the guards the satisfaction of hearing her groan. If she could give one thing to the architects of the castle, it was that they knew how to make imprisoned ponies suffer.
Gentle drops of groundwater dripping down into the cool cell added to the mix, dampening the air and augmenting the chill she felt. If she could see past the darkness, she would not be surprised if she could see her own breath. But she could not, so she had to rely on her other senses. For example, she smelled only damp unicorn and she itched something fierce, but could not scratch lest she deafen herself more.
I wish the girls were with me, she mentally sighed. I could even do with Sweetie Belle for company. At least we know for sure that she isn't a traitor, even if it is a little late to apologize now. She idly scratched her leg as her thoughts drifted to her fellow unicorn and their Pegasus friend. A lot had happened so fast that the events of the day were a blur to her, all except for two moments that she was sure would never forget, even if she lived to be a million.
"Oh, Applebloom," she mourned softly. Of all the things she knew Eos was capable of, she had no idea that sadistically killing a pony like that was among them. Most of the time, she took a back seat and let her underlings do the actual horrible deeds, and had not seen the battlefield since before the ill-fated Cloudsdale Assault. Since then, she appeared to have mellowed out, since she was no longer fit for war council, according to Jade.
It was a great relief to hear her voice when they were dragged into this horrible place. The queen might be a tyrant, now possibly insane to boot, but she still had not set an execution date for them. As much as it was a relief, Dinky could almost feel the Sword of Damocles hovering just an inch over her head. Twilight would not let them die, would she? She would hear about what the queen had done and mount a rescue, right?
Not likely, her own inner voice told herself. After all they had said and done to her, it was not likely that Twilight would be the white horse and gallop to their rescue. If she were still alive, that is. Dinky sighed a little to herself and gently ran her hoof against the stone walls of her cell out of sheer boredom. She had lost track of time, but she guessed they had been locked up for over a week by then. If she did not know that Applebloom would buck her for it, the unicorn would have been happy to curl into a ball and mourn her friend the whole time.
Meanwhile, Scootaloo sighed in her own cell further down the hall, not more than a couple away from where the guards would sit between their inspections. Her wings were cramping under the tight iron clamp keeping them in place, yearning to be flapped, or at least spread to relieve the tension. Her legs were hugged with iron braces, chaining all of her legs together to impede her movement, not that she could get far. Around her neck was a thick iron necklace, chained to the wall, digging uncomfortably into her neck.
The two unicorns with her were in similar chains, but had metal rings on their horns to stop them from casting magic. It had not stuck her immediately, but Jade had lost a lot of weight. The green mare's ribs were almost visible and her eyes appeared sunken, no doubt starved as part of her interrogation. Her coat was peppered with bloodstains and bandages, sporting a black eye and a nasty cut to her left flank as well.
Sweetie, she noticed, was crying quietly to herself in the corner of their shared cell, no doubt over the death of their old friend and co-founder of their fillyhood secret society. Scootaloo closed her eyes and looked away from the distraught white unicorn for fear of her seeing the tears building in her own eyes as memories of younger, happier days bubbled into her brain.
Always the loyal and optimistic one, Jade noticed her superiors' conditions and immediately decided to break the unbearable silence between them. "So..." she started with her voice raspy and horse from her pained cries.
What was there to say that could cheer them up? They all knew that rescue was about as likely as Celestia coming back to life and saying everything had been a cruel prank. Was there really nothing left to hope or fight for? There had to be something, anything to say: if not to make them feel better, then to distract them from the doom ahead of them. Then Jade realized when there was nothing left to say, one should sing to spite the darkness.
"When darkness came, and tore the land," she began, loud and proud with a hint of hope in her tune, "our brave leaders stood to fight and hoisted fast our noble flag o'er Equestria's fair domain. Here shall it wave, our hope, our light; we're joined in love together. The hoof, the wing and horn combined, the Crusaders forever!" It was slow and steady, but as she sang on, the volume increased, and so too did the number of voices to the choir.
"...Equestria, our land of green. Equestria forever! Stars save the queen; her end is nigh. Equestria forever!" The song ended on a high note as the girls sang along with her. A bit of light and hope was put into their hearts by the knowledge that, even if they died, there would be others out there ready to take up the cause, ready to fight hoof and nail to free their once prosperous nation from the tyrant's clutches.
"She wouldn't want us to linger on her death," Sweetie spoke not long after the song she wrote ended. "Applebloom would want us to stay strong and buck back even harder! I'm sure once Twilight hears what happened, upset at us or not, she'll come here and give that nasty old mare what she deserves!"
"Yeah!" Scootaloo chimed in. "We've been worse off before, but we always bounced back because, while the queen might have infinite power, we have what she can never have: friends! Friends really make the difference, and I know our friends out there would want us to remain strong and fight! So, let's not disappoint them! Let's show them and all of Equestria that even if we die, our ideas never will, for ideas are immortal!"
"We are the voice of reason," Jade added. "We are the light of hope and the sword of justice! While we have had arguments, we will always be friends. The worst the queen can do is kill us, and when we die, we shall graze with the Eternal Herd. With Applebloom! Luna! Celestia! Zecora! Derpy! And all the innocent lives cost by that demon in a mare's body!"
"And Rainbow Dash!" the orange filly added in with a little squeal. "She was the only mare known to hurt her! Did you see that limp when we were dragged down here? She's going to need a wheelchair at LEAST, when Twilight meets her!" The three mares continued chattering at length, as loud as they could. They needed to be heard, wanted to be heard by her and everypony in the castle. They weren't afraid of her.
Even though she was in a different room, Dinky found herself singing along with them, despite the painful echo of her isolation cell. They had written the song together to boost morale of their troops over the years, but it was amazing that it had such an effect on them when used to raise their own spirits. A smile cracked upon her face as she imagined the queen lying beaten upon the rocks of the mountain with Twilight over her, ready to end her reign once and for all.
A gentle breath of wind played across the white pony's coat, tickling her as it gently caressed her form. A sea of green and dozens of other colours sat before her like a watercolour painting, albeit, one that had been smudged by a careless foal. Vinyl Scratch sighed quietly to herself as the raging inferno known as the sun edged ever closer to the horizon.
It was still hard for her to believe that the world was still turning past the loss of her friend, even if she knew deep down that she was only a single pony: a single grain of sand on a vast beach. Over time, it had become easier for her to indulge herself in a pity party, where other mares began to move on. Not that they would ever move on completely, but she felt... incomplete. That was the only word she could think of.
For the first time in a long while, she had decided to let her next steps be planned out by others rather than herself. Although she had her own goal in mind, she did not feel up to looking over details, or getting too in-depth on how to go about it. She figured she would go by the seat of her pants (not that she owned any) and do what she felt needed to be done when it needed to happen.
Looking out over the fields and forest, however, she felt more at peace than she had in a very long time. The gentle song of the wind, carrying with it an orchestra of birds and other woodland creatures, felt like a tune she had never heard in her entire life. It was almost like the world itself had its own rhythm and tempo and that every creature on it was just another instrument.
Her reprieve was broken only by the soft sound of hooves upon the dirt road leading up to her spot. At first, she wondered who it could possibly be who wanted to see her, until she remembered that she was actually waiting for somepony to show up. "Hey, Vinyl," the mare chirped. "Oooh. Nice spot for us to meet! Twilight would come here all the time to read and think 'bout stuff. Speaking of, why did you want to talk to me way out here?"
"Have a seat, Pinkamena," the former disk jockey spoke, patting the spot beside her idly with her hoof.
"Okey dokey lokey!" she replied with that ever present cheer.
The pink party mare plopped her flank right beside the other mare, who continued to look out over the grassy knolls and scattered ponds that surrounded Ponyville. She waited patiently for the other pony to start talking, since she sounded pretty serious when she asked her. However, as the moments passed into minutes, she found herself unable to take the silence anymore. "Vinyl, is something wrong?"
"Pinkie Pie," the musician started in a somber tone. "You hurt me once. You hurt me really badly, and I don't think I can EVER forgive you for it. I don't care if you were in your right mind or not. I just can't."
"What do you mean?" she asked uneasily.
"What do you mean by 'what do you mean' Pink!?" Vinyl cried, looking at her blurry pink face from behind her shades. "You blew up ou- my old apartment and left me blind! You RUINED my career and you have the STONES to ask what I mean!? You're a real piece of work sometimes, Pinkie!" She got to her hooves and made to leave, only to be stopped by a trademarked Pinkie Bear Hug.
"Oh, Scratchy~!" she bemoaned, tears building up in her cerulean eyes. "I... I didn't know. I didn't know it was your apartment! Even if I did, I wasn't in control! I'm sure you've heard by now... about that mean demon thing? I know it's not an excuse, because I LET it take control. I... I understand if you don't... don't want to be my friend anymore." Soft sniffs escaped the mare's muzzle as she finished.
"Let me go!" she struggled in her grasp. "I don't like you! I don't want to know you anymore, so just let go!"
"Why are you being such a grouchy grumpy Gus? I mean, usually you'd laugh something like this off and say something about how you don't need to 'see' music, but feel it in your soul or something and that being blinded is just a setback. Unless... Oh no! Something bad happened to Octavia! Did... did she get caught in the explosion? Oh Celestia! You... you deserve to hate me if she was..."
"What?" she paused, looking back to the pink pony. "N-no... she wasn't hurt at all in the explosion. It just... scared her a lot."
"It's okay," Pinkie replied, releasing her friend. "I just want you to know that I am here for you, Vinyl. Even if you want some space, you can always come and chat to me. I can't stand to see a friend suffer, and you will always be a friend of mine. There's nothing you can do about it."
The white mare grunted in reply and started her way down the hill since the last thing she wanted was for another pony to pity her. After walking onto the road, the soft clop of hooves on dirt behind her tapped in her ears, ticking her off. Did she not understand that she wanted to be left alone? She did not put it past Pinkie to be so oblivious to the notion, but she was annoyed enough to round on her and shout obscenities at the pony.
However, standing behind her was a brown earth pony mare with a white mane and the mark of a letter upon her flank. Her black eyes held an expression of bewilderment at the seething unicorn in front of her, gazing into her sunglasses in a lost sort of way. "What do YOU want?" Vinyl asked bitterly with a scowl on her face.
"Uh... T-Twilight Sparkle?" she asked nervously. Vinyl shook her head slowly, wondering what pony in Equestria had not known about her. That is, until she saw the flag wedged between her body and one of her saddlebags. It was a gilded marking of a griffin in an intricate circle and fine gold leaf on the edges against a black background. She was obviously a diplomatic messenger from the Griffin Kingdom, hence her nervousness.
"Not her, but I know her," she replied bitterly. "Follow me, if you want. Or don't. Either way, I don't give a buck." She turned around and started down the road into town, messenger pony trotting right behind her with a chipper, yet nervous, expression on her face. Vinyl had to give her credit: to be an expendable tool in a foreign and hostile land, the mare had to have a lot of stones to show up, especially while carting a Griffin diplomatic flag. Scuffs and blemishes on her coat told her that it had not gone unnoticed.
"I have to admit, Equestria is a very lovely country," she spoke to try and brighten the mood. "I used to live near the border, but never did I imagine that it was so lush and green. Granted, home has some very breathtaking scenery as well! You should see the great cliffs of Clover once the war is over!"
"Uh-huh," Vinyl replied to the chatty mare. Having been tempered by the fires known as Pinkie Pie Patter, she tuned out the mare with machine-like efficiency and speed. Yes, it was a little rude to do, but she was only here to see Twilight and, quite frankly, she did not care about being polite to some stupid messenger from a race of taloned, oversized featherbrains.
Mercifully, the Library soon appeared through the winding cobblestone streets of the small town. "Wow!" the messenger gasped. "I had no idea a tree could be a building!" Vinyl rolled her eyes as she spoke, forgetting that she could not see her subtle hint behind her heavily tinted sunglasses. Ponies in the street had stopped what they were doing to watch the procession. Many of them were glares of hatred or fear, and some others (mostly the foals) of curiosity and excitement. Of course, it all flew over the messenger's head.
The former DJ opened the door to the library and held it for the mystified mare as she casually trotted inside, the flag flying no higher than her head, so she did not have to remove it. "Wait here and I'll go get her," she spoke as she followed her in and shut the door. The other mare nodded and started nosing around the books on the shelf, that smile refusing to fade even a little bit, though she was certain she had seen the faces of the other ponies. It was a rare occurrence to find such an unflappable mare, to say the least.
Climbing the stairs, she could only hear the thunks of her own hooves against the wood, since the former Crusader generals had put up a soundproofing spell so they could discuss the battle plans in peace and security. However, she had never cared for such things in the first place, so she had no trouble knocking on the door. "Yo, Twilight?" she called into the room. "There's some envoy or messenger or something from the Griffin kingdom to see you. She's a mare and she refuses to give the message to anypony but you."
There was a long stretch of silence after she spoke, submerging the hall into an uneasy silence that made the DJ's hairs stand on-end. Eventually, the door clicked and opened a crack. "Are you sure it's a mare and not some sort of disguise?" peeped a teal eye and yellow face from the hairline gap.
"I didn't FEEL any sort of illusion spell, no," she replied genuinely. A moment later, the door opened and Twilight Sparkle emerged from the room with Fluttershy right behind her. She nodded to the white unicorn, who took that as her cue to lead her back downstairs. "Here she is," Vinyl spoke as they climbed down the library stairs. The strange mare did a double take before nervously smiling and walking over to the purple mare, a hoof extended.
"So, you're from the Griffins?" Twilight asked, refusing the gesture offered by the messenger. Although her face fell a little bit, her smile remained the same on her face and nodded.
"Yes. Yes, I am," she replied verbally. "Specifically, I am the official runner for General Gilda, who has asked me to hoof-deliver this message for you, Miss Sparkle."
"Gilda?" Fluttershy squeaked. "As in, Rainbow's old friend who was very mean to everypony, and roared in my face because I accidentally walked into her once, and made me cry?" Everypony blinked since it sounded like she was on the verge of crying just from speaking about the memory.
"No offence," Twilight spoke to the runner. "But I don't really care what she has to say about anything. Not just because she is a griffin, but for the shoddy way she has treated us personally."
"My orders are to deliver it and make sure you read it; nothing more, nothing less. No reply is expected, or wanted."
The lavender pony sighed and dug into the other mare's bags with her magic, extracting the letter from the fake leather folds of the carrier. "Fine, I guess I'll read it aloud," she spoke enthusiastically.
"Dear Dweebs- Yeah, that's Gilda, alright-
"I don't care if you read this letter or not, but I figured I might as well let you in on something. It's NOT because I feel sorry for anything I have ever done to you; in fact I would do it all over again and more if given the chance. I am only doing this for Rainbow Dash's sake, and for the friendship we used to have before you turned her into a lame-o like yourselves!
"Anyway, we Griffins are planning to betray those stupid and arrogant dragons after we breech Manehatten and attack the city of Fillydelphia. Since Equestria's army will be engaged with ours and theirs, it would be a prime opportunity to march on Canterlot and kill that loser Queen Eos when most of her army is away. The attack will happen on the 5th, right before the sun sets, so you'd better be ready if you're going to!
"I dunno what will happen after that. Likely, it will just be the two of us fighting each other for Equestria while the dragons are pushed a little closer to extinction. Frankly, I don't care either. However, I do have one small request: when you face the queen, make sure to knock out a few teeth for me. While you did turn her into a dweeb, Dash was still one of my best friends!
Commanding Officer of 501st Griffin Legion, Gilda."
The attack was going to be at sunset on the fifth? That was TOMORROW for Celestia's sake! They had not even finished deciding on their plan of attack yet, either! Twilight took the letter and, with Fluttershy in tow, went back upstairs, leaving the other two mares to their own devices. Vinyl looked at the messenger mare, who looked back with the same look of incomprehension. Confusing times were ahead for all of them.
Hundreds of ponies meandered through the narrow streets of the town, or clogged the skies with more air traffic than was usual. It had not dawned on any of them how massive a gathering they had on their hooves until they had woken earlier that day. Yet, as time progressed, even more continued to overrun the small village, to the point where the population had exploded to thrice its normal size!
Twilight Sparkle and her friends slowly worked their way over to town hall from the Library, navigating through the sea of ponies as well as they could. The ill-fitting shoes from hell clicked upon the cobblestones uncomfortably as the sickening off-blue gems sparkled in the sun's light. With so many on her side, she could be seen out in public again, for any pony foolish enough to start anything would instantly be mobbed by the throngs of supporters. Although she appreciated their love and support, she could not deny the idea was quite scary.
She had never wanted the reins of power, yet now, according to quick counts, she had a literal private army of around one and a half THOUSAND ponies at her disposal. Granted, they were all untrained and had never handled weapons before, but she knew they outnumbered the guards of Canterlot by a fair margin. Of course, each guard was very well trained and very dedicated, at least as far as she remembered.
Ponies would do their best to move out of the way of the procession of the unicorn and her friends, but they were usually hindered by the narrow streets and the rest of the crowd. Having lived in the fairly large city of Canterlot, Twilight was used to crowds: however, the town's infrastructure was not. Despite that, it was a very strange feeling to have her every move watched closely. I guess I have a little bit of an understanding of what Celestia goes through, she thought.
Worry pressed itself against her mind as they walked through the streets together. Today would be the day: they would either usurp Queen Eos, or they would all die in the process. Although her sun shone brightly above, a cool breeze stole some of its heat, turning a hot day into something far more pleasant. The Pegasus ponies would have little trouble flying, as the breeze blew right towards the imposing castle in the distance. In a way, the feeling of the wind against her hide braced her for the mental and physical trials to come.
"Ah know you're worried," Applejack confessed as they passed the splintered remains of Sugarcube Corner. "We're all a little worried, sugar cube. But that's okay, it just means we'll be careful when the time comes. Besides, we all believe in you. Now, you just gotta believe in yourself."
"Easy enough for you to say, AJ," she retorted. "You've had experience marching ponies to their deaths, no offence. I've only killed one, by accident, and a demon. How am I supposed to convince them all to put their lives on the line? I'm not sure I can do this. I'm no leader: I'm barely a librarian!
"Twilight, it's great that you are modest, but sometimes it can be SO overbearing," Rarity chimed in. "These ponies are here because they don't NEED convincing. They see the problem and they WANT to put their lives at risk to defend their homes, families and livelihood. All you need to do with your speech is simply exterminate any doubt they have. If you are confident, they will gladly march to the Sorrel Hells and back with you."
An unconscious shiver ran down her spine as the mere mention of the name brought back rather recent and unpleasant memories to the forefront of her mind. She shook them off with a mental toss of her head and reminded herself of the task at hoof. As they walked, they passed by several stalls where ponies busied themselves manufacturing weapons and armour and a number of different tools they would need.
The clang of hammers and murmur of work filled the air as her friends went off to get their own supplies for the conflict ahead. Twilight, meanwhile, wandered around the area to take an interest in their labours. She was not the kind of pony to need armour, especially since her target could cut through it effortlessly. Nor did she need any weaponry since her magic was an arsenal in and of itself, and if need be, she could manifest a sword made of pure magic.
Of course, that did not stop some of the blacksmiths from trying. "General Sparkle!" one of them cried out, yanking her from the street and under his yellow tent. She went along with him willingly, not wishing to see a well-meaning pony torn apart by a mob. The stallion had a coat like charcoal and a mane white with small gold streaks running through its length. If the dirty apron or burning hearth behind him was not an indication of his special talent, the hammer and anvil on his flank cemented it. "I haven't seen you since your appearance at the Everfree Camp!" He smiled, throwing her off a bit.
"Uh... Okay," she trailed off, unsure what he wanted from her.
"Well, when I saw you, I knew this day was coming, so I went ahead and crafted for you the finest set of armour I ever have!" He grabbed her and, using his unquestionable Earth pony strength, pushed her past the hearth and over to a smaller yellow tent just to the side.
"Oh, no, it's okay. I don't need any, but thank you kindly for the offer," she spoke as her hooves dug into the dirt. However, the stallion either did not hear her protests over the ambient noise of his fellow blacksmiths, or he did not care and was just too eager for her to see it before he would take her rejection to heart.
Inside the tent, there was a large, plain mirror sitting opposite of the tent flap reflecting her not-so-impressed look, the stallion's face twisting from a happy smile to one of realization. However, his enthusiasm would not be dampened. "Please," he spoke gently after finally letting go. "I worked on it for weeks. Could you please try it on first, before you say 'no'? It would mean a lot to me."
Twilight sighed. "Fine," she replied reluctantly, a look of glee coming across his face as he left her alone to fetch it. On the bright side, it wasn't like I had anything better to do, she mused as she sat in the comforting silence. I'll let him try and say it does not fit, or something. It's not like he could have taken measurements.
A few moments after leaving, the stallion returned with a heavy wooden box on his back. The purple mare faked a smile as best she could, secretly wondering how Celestia could pull off such a face for hours on end without a single crack breaking across her mask of composure. She closed her eyes, giving off the impression that she wanted to be surprised, and stood in front of the mirror to let him work.
The feeling of cold metal caressed her skin, laying on her like a metallic blanket. First, a large, heavy piece closed around her front, making her lean onto her front hooves before another piece clasped from her thigh to her back. She winced as the straps pulled themselves together, catching stray hairs and the colt gingerly feeding the hairs of her tail through the hole on her dock. Only when her legs and head were covered did the stallion take a step back. "Okay, that should do it."
A second after opening her eyes, the loose and bulky hunks of metal suddenly closed around her body and molded themselves to her form, causing a small gasp to escape her as the cool touch went from muzzle to fetlock. "It's cold," she explained to bring down his look of pure euphoria. How did he do it? It had to be a spell of some sort, but he was an Earth pony, not a unicorn.
During her musing, she got a good look at herself in the mirror. Looking back was a stunned unicorn in shimmering steel tinted into an off-lavender colour that tried to imitate her coat, but was a few shades lighter. Fine, intricate designs of emerald spiraled around the breastplate, helmet, back plate and greaves like a majestic, delicate flower. There was not a single solid angle to be found, giving it a distinctly feminine feel. Her eyes drifted to her flank to take in the back plate, her mark embezzled in sparkling amethyst and polished diamonds for the smaller stars.
Her ears stood out from their holes in the helmet, twitching in surprise as her mane was allowed to flow unobstructed from her head. Aside from her face, the helmet only had another hole to accommodate her horn, fitted precisely against the base of her appendage. "How... when..." she stammered, flabbergasted by the quality. "Is that Adamantite!?" she pointed to the green decorations with her hoof.
"Just on the helmet," the stallion explained with a wide grin on his face. "Very expensive stuff, that. I was lucky to get any, but I have connections."
"How did you get a form-fitting spell on this if you're an earth pony?"
"Oh, I have a friend that makes armour for the Royal Guard. Well, used to, anyway. That set is enchanted to fit your form and protect primarily from magical attacks, although the actual metal will do well against most blades and blunt objects," he explained.
Twilight gawked at him for a minute before returning her gaze to the mirror. She was not a fan of wearing something meant for war, but the sheer amount of work and craftsmanship that went into it was stunning. It would be a grave insult to turn him down, after he had obviously spent many hours just on the forming and assembly. Indeed, since it was enchanted to fit her shape, it would be quite useful if she had to ditch her disguise. Besides, who was to say a guard would not try to interrupt the battle while she was focused on a complicated spell?
"So, uh... how much do I owe you?" the unicorn gulped, preparing herself for the sticker shock.
"Absolutely free, general!" he chirped. "On the condition that you give that no-good horse a proper bucking, of course. I mean, the saviour of Equestria needs a set of armour to match her station. Something fillies and colts hundreds of years from now will look at and say 'Wow! I can't believe Twilight Sparkle wore that!' You know?"
She smiled and walked towards him, noting how the armour did not impede her movements in the least bit, almost like a second, cooler skin. "Thank you, kind sir," she spoke and wrapped her front legs around him in a hug. It was the least she could do, considering. With that, she left him to his work, since there were still some final preparations to be done.
Walking out from his booth, she could see the other blacksmiths cursing themselves for not coming up with the idea, or having the stones to pre-fabricate her some armour or a weapon themselves. But it was just as well, since she always had her sword spell for close-range combat. It was a surprise, to say the least, when she found that the armour actually felt light: probably enchanted with a featherweight spell, no doubt.
"Hey, Twilight!" cried out a familiar voice from above, breaking her out of her revery. Hovering above the organized chaos of the market below was a yellow mare with a flaming mane and tail. She did a quick loop in the air before landing expertly in front of the lavender unicorn. "Lookin' good, Twilight! If Dash were here, she'd say you look totally awesome, and she wouldn't be far off the mark either."
"Thanks, Spitfire," she replied, blushing a little bit at the praise from the famous ex-Wonderbolt.
"It wasn't so much a compliment as it was stating the truth, Twilight. Just like when I say: looking into your eyes, I feel confident that you can lead this rag-tag bunch and have a real chance of winning too!"
"That might be a little bit much," she sighed as she removed her head from the helmet. The unicorn did not feel any more able or ready to lead a bunch of ponies than she did when this whole fiasco started. What was supposed to be a quick errand had, as usual, blown up into some stupid save-the-world quest. A few of the less-than-kind deities were probably laughing at her from above.
"Twilight! There you are," Trixie panted as she raced up behind her sister, gaining her attention. "Every pony is waiting in the town square and it is almost noon. If we don't leave soon, it will be dark by the time we get to Canterlot and out window of opportunity will have shut." Looking over the purple mare's shoulder, she added, "Oh, hi, Spitfire."
The stunt flier Pegasus smiled and waved to the blue unicorn before taking to the air again, probably to get fitted into her own gear. "Do I really have to do this?" Twilight asked once she was gone, her lavender helmet floating beside her in her magic. "I'm not really sure what to talk about. You and AJ kind of sprung the idea on me last night and I never had time to prepare."
"Trust me, sister," the magician spoke, putting a leg around her neck as she lead her to the town square where the majority of the ponies waited on her for the order. "In times like this, it is better NOT to have something rehearsed. The Great and Powerful Trixie always improvises and she is the most talented and beautiful unicorn is all of Equestria! I mean, sure, you've got SOME marginal talent, but only Trixie has the raw power needed to... what were we talking about again?"
Twilight giggled a little bit at her antics, pushing her off playfully with a bit of a smile on her face. "Never change, Trixie," she smirked as they walked into the main plaza. Even for a town the size of Ponyville, she had never seen the plaza so packed! It was as if the Wonderbolts or a popular band were performing, except the entire crowd was in battle attire. Heads turned as she made her way to the town hall, ponies creating an aisle for her, some even bowing!
It was intimidating, to say the least, but her friends waited for her at the podium on the veranda, smiling confidently at her from afar. She had come too far to give up now, or to be scared of some silly little speech... That she had no practice on... and no idea about what she would say. Suddenly, the weight upon her shoulders had returned, but in a metaphorical sense rather than her sister's leg.
Behind them, the golem governors stood side-by-side, all identical except for their choice in tie colour and suit cut. The one she identified as Ironhead nodded to her as she climbed up the short flight of steps and took her place at the podium. The once loud and unsettled crowd of ponies suddenly fell silent at her appearance and the clink of her helmet on the wooden floor beside her.
Twilight gulped audibly as the audience focused their attention solely on her. She had never been nervous when speaking in public before, but without a practiced statement, she was beginning to see why some ponies like Fluttershy, who even now was hiding behind everypony else, could not stand it. Her ears throbbed as blood pounded into her brain, almost able to hear her own heartbeat as the pressure mounted.
Deep breaths, Twilight, the voice she knew as Eos spoke to her. Speak from the heart, and I am sure that you will do fine. Speak from the heart? What good would that do? If she were to speak from the heart, she'd be going over every single little horror she had been through since stepping into the pool, or how she felt betrayed by her friends only to get them back. Wait... her friends!
"My dear friends," she spoke, gaining everypony's attention. "I know that... that I have not been with you through this... whole journey. I know... that I have not suffered the same losses you have, or for as long. Yet, many of you see me as... the herald of a new age, or as an infallible rock. The truth is that I am flawed: maybe more so than most of you. I have made mistakes in the past, many due to my own weaknesses, and there have been terrible consequences as a result. I do not feel that I deserve the trust and loyalty of all of you here today.
"But here we all stand, united against a foe far greater than ourselves and ready to put our lives on the line for a cause we KNOW to be right. We stand for REVOLUTION! We stand for the fall of tyrants! Together, we will oust the foul alicorn from her castle and end her reign! Certainly, blood will be shed in the battle to come. Much blood has already been shed, and we cannot stem the tide now. Not until ONE pony's blood stains the ground. Once Eos falls, we may once more claim our destinies! We may once more rule our OWN country!
"So let her marshal her forces against us! Let the cowards on the sidelines say we are weak compared to the Royal Guard! We hold the secret to a FAR greater power than she has. We have numbers, and a common goal. And we have JUSTICE on our side. All who fight with us shall go down in history as heroes. And all of you ARE heroes, for without you I cannot stop Eos. It takes a NATION to destroy a dictator! Let us teach the bloody tyrant the fear of her people!!"
Thunderous applause ripping the stale, silent air asunder as her words echoed in their hearts and minds, driven by her passionate and sage advice. Twilight did not think too much of the speech, but considering that it was her first attempt at ad libbing, a satisfied smirk came over her face. She stepped down from the podium to find herself quickly in the midst of a group hug.
"Good job, Twi!" Applejack complimented. "Ya bucked that tree like it was nopony's business."
"I'm sure that there were a couple of ponies who couldn't hear you though..." Rarity said, "In Sweet Apple Acres."
Pinkie giggled at the joke and playfully shoved the well-kept unicorn, her smile as wide as ever. "Oh Rarity: you and your silly metaphors! I think you did a super-awesome splenderific job! If that doesn't get them going, then nothing will, although I'm sure the actual battle will be super-scary, but you're a smart pony and I know we'll be fine because it is YOUR plan and your plans usually work, especially when they need to!"
"Thanks Pinkie," the lavender unicorn spoke to get her tirade to stop. Between her and the crowd, she had heard only little bits of Fluttershy, who was hiding behind Trixie's leg.
"Don't ask me, I didn't hear it either," the blue unicorn added in. "Good job on the speech, sister. And you said you were worried. Now, if TRIXIE had gone onto the stage, they'd be marching on Canterlot already with no regard for something petty like orders. Still, since you are NOT Trixie, she supposes you did an acceptable job."
She looked to her friends, each nodding in approval with their armour lined against the wall of the town hall. In their eyes, she could see confidence, both in themselves and in her as a leader. Giving them her own approving nod, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I think we're ready to move out now. Ironhead? Can you spread the word? We leave for Canterlot in..." Looking to the clock tower to the south, she was it was just about quarter after noon. "... fifteen minutes."
"Can and will, Miss Sparkle," the golem spoke before flagging down a runner from the crowd. "Spread the news to the criers that we move out at twelve thirty." The plucky, young Pegasus saluted and swooped over the crowd, diving only to exchange quick words with another pony before moving on. Twilight looked back to her friends, who already began to get themselves ready for the battle ahead. It was going to be all, or nothing.
All was calm in the streets of Canterlot that afternoon. The occasional screams of playing foals or boisterous laughter of a well-placed joke were the only sounds to break the din of murmurs and hooves upon the smooth stone streets. Clubs and bars were just beginning to open their doors as the sun dropped ever closer to the horizon, almost ready to leave for the night.
A rhythmic thud and clamour began to fill the streets just a few minutes after five in the evening, causing most ponies to pause and look for the source. It was almost like the pants of a train pulling out of the station, but no train in the world could make the ground vibrate in time with it. City guards ran left and right, towards the city gates with a look of panic in their eyes.
The clank of chains and scraping of metal on stone echoed through the front plaza of town, the ponies there seeing the guards struggle to shut the portcullis and heavy wooden doors on either side. Half a dozen heavy wooden beams spanned across each of the doors, each about two hooves thick in order to prevent any pony from getting inside. The invisible barrier around the top of the walls shimmered to tell outsiders they were not welcome.
Ponies living in the imperial capital had been through enough drills to know what these meant: an invading army on their doorstep. Parents snatched up their foals and ran for their homes, or public shelters to be clear of the exterior walls. The town guards watched from the battlements with a smirk despite the size of the army marching upon them, for they knew the defences had held against bigger threats.
Twilight Sparkle stood on the other side of the gatehouse, completely unimpressed by the security measures thrown at her. Not that she was one to brag, but they would not stop her, or the hundreds of ponies behind her. She took a couple of steps ahead of the halted army and charged her horn with magic. Once the spell was cast, there would be no going back. They would either win, or die.
City guards congregated around the large doors of the main city, poised with their swords, bows, and magic ready to defend their queen and country from the rebellious traitors on the other side. They were confident as the doors shimmered in the ethereal glow of magic, designed to repel anything thrown at it. Never before had the doors, walls, nor ancient and magical shield in the sky fallen to a pony army.
In an instant, the world was upside down loud ringing in their ears throwing off all sound as pain washed over their bodies like a river. Cries of commanders filled the plaza and battlements, urging their comrades to hold them back as a herd of ponies stampeded through the cloud of dust and debris that choked the plaza and winded soldiers. They were right about one thing; the doors of Canterlot would never fall: they were vaporized.
Whoops, I guess I put in too much power, Twilight thought to herself as she charged in with the other ponies through the burning remains of the gatehouse and into the shattered and broken streets of the city. "To the castle!" she shouted. They could not afford to be broken off in pursuit of smaller battles, or else the castle would fortify their position. She ran at full gallop, quickly falling behind the front line as faster, more agile ponies went ahead of her.
Guards poured out of the streets ahead with their weapons brandished, jumping onto the ponies on the front. As she ran past, both guard and militia ponies were locked with their swords crossed, struggling to gain ground, for the most part. However, she had to be careful in her sprint and not look back, as the Pegasus guards would dive bomb their flightless cousins or drop large, heavy rocks from above.
A resounding crack filled the air as the barrier above cracked, sending sharp pieces of solidified magic hurtling to the ground below. Pieces of stone and crackling magic exploded in front of them, the tight quarters of the street leaving very little room for anyone to maneuver. But it was a necessary evil, as it allowed their own Pegasus troops to take the battle to the air, which would mean less stones in the long run.
Applejack had been one of the ponies to rocket out in front of her at the beginning despite her heavy armour. A guard lunged out at her suddenly from around a corner, but a quick jump and buck ended his day real quickly, causing Twilight to have to hop over his bloodied body. Meanwhile, Spike had taken a position behind her, preferring to use his flames as his weapon of choice. As a dragon, it made perfect sense, even if it creeped her out just a little bit.
Running beside her on her flanks were Trixie and Rarity, their horns aglow in their respective colours of magic as they hurled enemies out of the way and shot down Pegasus guards who tried to drop things on their friends. Pinkie Pie was being her usual enigmatic self, but her Party Cannon was, admittedly, an effective complement to the arsenal. Where it had come from, and HOW she managed to use confetti as an offensive weapon mystified the unicorn to no end.
No, Twilight. Focus! she chastised herself as she realized her mind was wandering from the task at hoof. Looking back as they crossed the threshold into the mountain tunnel linking the castle to the city, she could see her friends still right in front of her, despite being slowed by their equipment. But something felt off as they stampeded through the tunnels and hanging roads
Emerging from the other end, the feeling was instantly vaporized as a loud, familiar bell rang out through the slowly dimming sky. Already, four dozen of their Pegasus troops had arrived and were harassing the guards on the battlements. With every second, and every step further, she kept wishing, praying for the drawbridge to remain down. It would not stop them, but it would delay and complicate matters exponentially.
"Spread out and swarm the castle," the lavender unicorn ordered. "Those of you with objectives: go and get them done!" While the ponies behind her began to fan out, she thundered on towards the large double doors leading into the Entrance Hall. With a mighty blast of magic, the two portals were blasted open, raining down splinters of charred wood on the guards inside.
The sight of nearly a hundred guards waiting made the mare skid to a halt: there were spears, swords, and crossbows all at the ready, all pointed towards her. "Clear a path," a voice from behind calmly called out. Before any pony could react, seven ponies made of solid rock rushed out from behind the unicorn and charged into the crowd, denting armour and breaking bones, by the sound of the screams. "Miss Sparkle," Governor Ironhead spoke as he bucked a guard's face in, coating his hoof in blood. "You have an appointment to keep. It would be best if you were not tardy."
Giving him a quick nod of the head, the lavender pony rushed up the steps leading into the throne room. Guards poured out from halls on the second and third floor: archers who had been waiting for a pony to burst in. The arrows bounced off the rocky skin of the golems and disintegrated upon contact with her armour. She was glad she acquiesced already as she wrenched open the doors to the anteroom and slipped inside. A wall of magic coated the wooden doors before stone and marble twisted and fused to seal it behind a patchwork wall.
Twilight sighed in relief, grateful that they would not be interrupted by some lowly 'mooks', as Trixie would call them. The room she was in was uncharacteristically dark before she lit it with her horn and created a sword of lavender magic. Her body felt wound up like a spring as each step echoed off of the solid walls and back into her ears. Anything could be hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce.
She opened the door to the throne quickly and stepped inside, her hooves muffled by the red carpet upon the marble floor. The alabaster columns sparkled in the dying light of the sun from the skylight above as the stained glass windows painted the floor in all the colours of the rainbow. Eos sat on her throne of gold and obsidian in a way that spoke of confidence and regal composure, knowing full well that she had seen her last sunset.
And yet, she was laughing.