A year has passed above our heads, my friends. A whole entire year has come to an end, swallowed up by the eternal force of time itself, against which not even the most devout of warriors can fight against and live to tell the tale. As we have entered a new year in our great Celestial Empire, you may ask yourselves one thing...ARE YOU WORTHY?
This year, whether it brings sorrow or glory, will mark another year in which you must FIGHT to survive and thrive off the spoils the charred corpses of your enemies leave behind. But as you begin this journey, I must ask once again, ARE YOU WORTHY?
Were you honorable and BRAVE enough to follow the Warrior's Way, or did you falter in your fights? Do you still believe in the POWER of your sword, the FURY of your anger and the MAGIC of friendship. HAVE YOU BEEN LOYAL TO YOUR DESTINY?
This is where it all begin, my brothers! This is where your old lives end and the new becomes a blazing sun of glorious might, with the strength to incinerate even the toughest of foes, the most disfigured of monsters and the greatest enemy of them all, YOUR LACK OF MANLINESS? Join me and bathe in the rejuvenating light of dragonfire and step out as bold, stout men of valor and pride, ready TO PUNCH THE MOON, RIGHT IN ITS DARK SIDE!
TO BABES, BOOZE AND GLORY, MY BROTHERS IN FIRE AND STEEL!
((thank you everyone for your continued patience! I had a bit of an illness to deal with, but am luckily doing much better now. This chapter is a little shorter and lacks some of the usual ridiculousness, but I assure you, bear with me because the insanity will not stop until the end now, all it needed was just a tiny little more build up. I assure you that you'll see a lot more weird zaniness before the end, but I also have to continue building the characters, if I'll want to continue onwards into an original adventure with Sir Spike, once I'm done with the pilot episodes. You're all really swell people and I love you all, thank you for your continue attention! Hope you'll continue to enjoy the story! :D))
Any seasoned veteran who had experienced more than a brief bar scuffle and has also experienced the magic of comradeship would speak volumes of how important teamwork was in any successful band of warriors. One needed to be honest about the danger, but also loyal enough not to back out of a contract, once the risks are properly counted for. If all positive qualities and even the stars themselves aligned in a perfect way, no harm could ever come to whichever party managed to attain this level of fellowship.
Needless to say, that was not the case here.
"For the last time, get it through your thick head, Scaly!" Rainbow Dash growled, turning back towards Spike in a fit of rage. "I'm not a spy and I'm neither am I an ally of Nightmare Moon, got it?"
The others seemed let out a collective sigh as they proceeded through the forest, their presence fully obvious thanks to the argument going back and forth between the dragon knight and the rather furious pegasus. Twilight realized by now that leaving them together might have been a bad idea, though she had little to no clue the drake would accuse Rainbow with something as serious as this.
Spike seemed to have different opinions of the matter, but held his words back for now. He merely let his opinion by known through a light growl and the several cubic meters of smoke fuming from his nostrils. His squire had seen him angry before and knew quite well those usually ended with her writing lengthy letters about why such excessive force was without a doubt needed. Said letters tended to become somewhat hard to believe though when several houses were burnt down in the midst of a simple sparring match. This conflict between the two helped little to advance their already shaky efforts, making her worry even more.
"Ah can't believe these two are already bitin' at each other." Applejack spoke up, keeping close to the unicorn. "Ya barely left 'em alone for five minutes."
"Trust me, I've seen him do worse things in less than five minutes." she mused, but couldn't help shake her head to the highly disapproving look on the orange earth pony's face. "But I suppose you're right. I'll try and talk to him."
"Good. Ah'll set Rainbow straight while ya do that."
"I hope one of your will start handing out popcorn soon." Pinkie called back, rather amused by the situation. "This just keeps getting better and better."
"Shut up, Pinkie." Twilight grumbled and slowed down slightly to get in line with the dragon. Although she was better than to show how much she enjoyed doing that, silencing the pink pony had been a surprisingly joyous moment for her.
"What is it, squire?" the dragon's tone was a little snappier than what she was used to, making her flinch slightly, if just momentarily. Spike had the tendency to become a fierce force of nature when angered enough, but he had never let this anger spill into any interaction he might have had with her.
"I wanted to ask about Rainbow Dash." she spoke up again after a brief pause, her voice timid and soothing. She hated to see her knight upset for any reason, regardless how rare it was.
"You can go ahead and ask her yourself, if you're so curious." Spike said, only to notice he was outright scaring his young companion by now, making him reconsider his words in an instant. Sure, he had issues with the blue pegasus, several all at once, but they weren't worth doing this to his most faithful friend. "I'm sorry, Twilight. I shouldn't be talking like this to you, of all ponies."
"It's alright." she raised a hoof and pat his arm gently, letting him know she wasn't mad about it. "I'm just concerned for what's going on and why you think she might have betrayed us. You know I trust your judgment."
"I know you do and sometimes I wish to Celestia you didn't." he sighed, but manage return the soft smile she was giving him. It was nice to have someone so reliable by his side, even if she was still an inexperienced filly compared to him. "Lady Nightmare seemed to have implied it."
"And that's enough for—wait, Lady Nightmare? Sir, she kidnapped the Princess and has made night eternal!" she raised a brow, though the thought that he was the traitor instead had not crossed her mind at all, even for a second. "For once, forget about your code and call her out for what she is, a cruel old hag!"
Sir Spike de Draco barely resisted wincing visibly to her words. While she might have underestimated the rate at which Nightmare Moon was observing them, he had little to no doubts she was watching their every move and would not be amused in the least bit about Twilight's opinion of her. He guessed the only creature worse than her at taking criticism was Celestia. He dared to do so before, but made damn sure every single time beforehand that a viable escape route was always available.
"Even if she's evil, she's still royalty and second only to the Princess herself, at best. I have to give her the proper respect." he tried to make her see reason, but the unicorn would have none of it. Celestia had allowed him to take her as a squire even though there were many more suitable candidates and as such, she felt like she owed the alicorn this much, if not more.
"You're the most impossible dragon I've ever known." she groaned in anger, rubbing her forehead with one hoof. "As far as I'm concerned, I respect her claims of royalty so much I'd let her lick my fetlocks clean, at best."
She quickly seemed to realize her mistake as the air around grew colder by the second. She looked up at the knight, who just nodded solemnly, confirming her fears. Nightmare Moon had been observing them a little more closely than the unicorn had expected and she was fairly sure this little outburst of hers didn't quite score any good points with the Mare of the Night.
"Er...that reminds me, shouldn't we hurry up and get those Elements?" she chuckled nervously and to his slight amusement, turned straight around to do so immediately.
He was glad she could get sidetracked so nicely by her nature and thus didn't press on about his suspicions. As much as he trusted his squire, he knew the confrontation he'd been expecting was inevitable and had already prepared for it, without her knowledge. Sometimes it paid off to think ahead every once in a while. He glanced at the pegasus again as she kept listening to Applejack with varying degrees of acceptance, his expression unreadable.
"-I don't care! If he thinks I'm suspicious, so be it, see if I'll care." she huffed and stopped in her tracks, stomping the ground with a hoof. It's been a while since Applejack had seen her this mad, without someone questioning her flying abilities.
"Rainbow, we're all in this together, ya know that." her friend kept trying to calm her down and make her see reason at the same time, two tasks which were both very hard, when performed upon the cyan pegasus. "And actin' like someone bit yer flank isn't going to make it any better."
"I know, I just..." the pegasus trailed off for a moment, looking away. "I'm not a traitor. You know I'd never do that to anypony, especially not you."
"Ah know, sugarcube. And he'll know, too. Just be on yer best behavior, ya can do that, right?" the orange earth pony nudged the grumpy speedster again, who after a long while, had finally managed to crack a smile to all her efforts.
"I suppose I can." she surrendered herself to the will of the apple farmer, though without the slightest bit of mockery. "And...thanks AJ. It's good to know there's always somepony on my side."
"Ya can always count on me, Rainbow." Applejack chuckled, seeing how the pegasus had finally buckled to her words.
Getting through to her wasn't always an easy job, but it was certainly worthwhile. They'd known each other ever since she had chosen to live closer to Ponyville. While they might have clashed on a number of occasions, in no small part due to Applejack's far greater sense of duty and responsibility, Rainbow knew she would always be the first to stand before her and everyone else. The earth pony was quite confident the pegasus would do the same for her as well, which is why she could tell how much it pained Rainbow to be suspected of collaborating against them.
"I'll scout around from the air, if it's okay. Might cool my head off, too." she offered, feeling like she could use a breath of fresh air right now. These woods had a constricting effect on her and it was becoming uncomfortable.
"Go ahead." the earth pony nodded understandingly, letting the pegasus take off into the air right away. "Just keep an eye on us and don't get lost!" she called after her. The dragon knight walked past her with a somewhat disapproving glance, but she didn't bother react to it. She knew Rainbow Dash was trustworthy and that was the only important thing right now.
The pair of flips and a quick corkscrew trick helped little to calm Rainbow's nerves. She was less bothered by accusations now though and much rather by the visitor she'd been expecting for a while now. She was not the most perceptive person around, but she'd been feeling it for several minutes: eyes watching her every move, her every single breath observed by somepony hidden from mortal eyes. She didn't need to be a genius to figure out the identity of her mysterious stalker, especially considering Scootaloo was nowhere in sight.
"Why are you following me?" she spoke up, addressing the night itself.
She received no answer though and it made her blood boil. She was not some kind of toy to be fooled around with, even if an almighty goddess was watching her. She snapped her gaze from side to side, her wings flapping in a much more hasty, irritated manner.
"Show yourself! I know you're here!" she called out again, her voice rising in pitch just a little. She would have been lying to herself, if she claimed she wasn't afraid at all.
"Very well, my little pony." a voice like no other spoke to her, both soft and cold.
The pegasus retreated just a little as the night sky itself seemed to twist and turn, distilled into the fine mist she'd seen the alicorn disappear into before. The mist swirled and sparkled like hundreds of stars and she could see her breath coming out in little puffs from the sudden chills the magic or the exile's presence brought.
Nightmare Moon materialized from the mist in a rather modest flash, her long, dark wings extending into the sky. The stars glimmered upon her helmet, while her ethereal mane coursed around the air like an unruly cloud. Enemy or not, Rainbow had to admit the mare had a way of presenting herself.
"I do apologize for having to play around like this, but I can't help but feel your...friends would not approve of my presence." she had that voice again, the same that brought chills down her spine when she caught her outside the Town Hall. It was like Rarity upon seeing an exceptionally large sum of money offered, but this was directed at her!
"No, I don't think they like you that much." she said, trying not to show how uncomfortable she was. Sure, Nightmare Moon surprised her right away by not hurting her in any shape or form, but then again, those glances and that voice would have given anypony goosebumps.
"They'll change their minds eventually. Or perhaps I'll change it for them." the alicorn chuckled, her borderline-reptilian eyes glimmering with glee. "It's not as if they have much a choice, anyway. I'm here to stay, whether they like it or not."
"You still haven't told me what all this has to do with me though." Rainbow Dash cut in, not really in favor of her gloating. "Why are you following me around, why are you...watching me?" she couldn't word it any better and it certainly seemed to describe the alicorn's actions well.
"I believe I've already said why." the mare tilted her head and gave her a surprisingly honest smile. "You're the first pony I've seen in a thousand years. Your mere presence was special, like a breath of fresh air. You can't imagine how that feels on a rock with no atmosphere to speak of."
"So that's it then? Well, I'm glad we talked that over, I have to-"
"But that's not all and you know that as well." Nightmare Moon outright purred and strode closer to the pegasus, towering over her smaller frame. The alicorn could hear her swallow, moving her heart even more. She was the last person in Equestria she wanted to frighten. "You have nothing to fear from me, Rainbow Dash. I am perhaps the only person upon this planet, who would never, ever hurt you."
The elder mare let her mane extend towards her, almost cradling the pegasus in its strange, shapeless matter. She felt her jump slightly to the first touch, the strange texture obviously very unexpected and awkward to feel.
"I wish for you to join me as I rule Equestria." Nightmare continued, dropping all notion of manipulation in favor of a direct offer. She deemed Rainbow worthy of playing clear cards with. "I need someone to be my eye and hoof in the sky, but most importantly, I need someone I can trust. A friend, to speak of."
The pegasus honestly flinched to that, having expected far worse explanations than this. She found the alicorn to be sincere, to the point of vulnerability. She could hardly understand what exactly she saw in her at all and now she was outright offering her a very high-ranking position, possibly something as important as being part of the Wonderbolts, if not even more.
"Everypony I had known has died a thousand years ago." the alicorn continued, noting her silence and the way she tried to avoid looking her in the eyes. "I'm thrust into a new and probably vastly different world than it had been when I was banished. It's a difficult situation and I need to rely on someone to guide me through it. The solitude on the moon was maddening, but was suddenly broken by an explosion of color into my tiny little world there."
Her mane seemed to change shape, acting as a less elaborate brush as she let it run through the pegasus' ruffled rainbow mane, gently stroking it. Said pony felt herself break into sweat as the alicorn kept gazing at her with affection she'd rarely seen from anyone, let alone an all-powerful deity bent on bringing eternal night over Equestria. She wasn't properly prepared to deal with such a situation.
"Uh...I'm happy I made you happy then." she mumbled, trying her best not to just shove Nightmare Moon away. "Can I go now?"
"More than happy, I assure you." the alicorn chuckled, finding what she perceived as shyness adorable. She ruffled the pegasus' rainbow mane a little, amused of the slightly irritated look on her face. "In any case, my offer still stands. I offer you to be my agent of the sky, with all the power you could possibly want, if you pledge yourself to my cause."
"I'd have to abandon my friends for that though, wouldn't I?"
"Of course. I'd hate for you to get caught in one of the many traps I've prepared for them." she assured, giving her a cheeky wink, as if she hadn't been discussing possible harm to her friends.
"Traps? Oh no, I gotta get back to them!" she immediately made a move to free herself from the magical embrace of Nightmare's mane, only to find it holding onto her like a vice. The alicorn's eyes were downright glowing, but without the anger Rainbow had expected to see in them.
"Whether you save them or not, they won't trust you. They wouldn't understand anything or nor could they, for they have no idea of the misfortune a fiery spirit brings." she could tell Rainbow's interest was piqued by her words, even though the rush to save her friends was also there. "I've learned a thousand years ago that when your spirit burns brightest of all, everypony will try to drag you down. I would know, I've seen it before."
The pegasus made a half-hearted attempt to break free from her embrace, but Nightmare could tell her words had reached her, either because she was truly that convincing, or what seemed like a far more likely possibility, that Rainbow had already experienced something like that. She smiled and gently pulled the still somewhat struggling mare to her.
"Listen to me and you may learn a lot, Rainbow Dash." she purred, her voice like the softest breeze of the night sky.
"So...none of you have ever been in here before?" Twilight asked timidly, trying to keep her sights straight, a task made quite difficult by the number of warning signs more or less lucky travelers have placed upon various places.
At first they were just short messages warning them to leave the Forest as quickly as possible, but by now, she saw trees that had carved images of cutie marks crossed out on them and one rather memorable memento seemed like a bizarre collection of items, ranging from broken pottery, to an unnaturally red flower basket. Even Sir Spike seemed slightly unnerved, once they had come across a crude necklace of what seemed like a particularly large and ancient set of dragon teeth.
"Heavens no, just look at it! It's dreadful!" Rarity complained loudly, avoiding mud patches small and big along the way, by stringing her movements into what seemed like either involuntary muscle spasm, or a very elaborate and obscure dance. Either way, the knight definitely wasn't one to complain upon seeing the lovely pony jump around constantly.
"And it ain't natural." Applejack added, a little bit of worry mixing into her voice. She was indeed somewhat anxious about their situation, but also because she hadn't caught sight of Rainbow Dash for some time now. She hoped nothing had happened to the pegasus as a rescue effort without knowing where she was would have been fruitless. "Folks say it dun work the same as Equestria."
"W-What's that supposed to mean?" Twilight glanced back at the apple farmer, rather surprised to hear that. She couldn't quite imagine anything to function differently than what she had known until now, though she guessed that might have been because she knew next to nothing of the Everfree. She shook her head and trotted to become the lead of the team, Sir Spike following her shortly.
"I've mentioned that as well, don't you remember?" Pinkie spoke up suddenly as well, while Fluttershy merely shuddered to her words. Living so close to it, she knew exactly how different the Everfree Forest was, but couldn't really put it into words. "The Forest is...for lack of a better word, exactly what it says on the packaging: free. That goes with all the benefits and drawbacks you can think of and I'm pretty sure we're about to see what made it into what it is now."
"I don't get it..." the lavender unicorn muttered in confusion, still not quite grasping it.
"You're really quite slow, aren't you?" the pink earth pony smirked, a spark making her eyes glimmer briefly, something Twilight had quickly learned was never a good sign. "I'll follow you through it then." she chuckled and stopped briefly, turning to face the unicorn.
"We're heading towards an ancient, ruined castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, where the Elements of Harmony are supposedly located." she listed and Twilight's mind immediately leaped forward, making the necessary connections finally, long before Pinkie finished talking. "Nightmare Moon. Princess Celestia. Ruined castle. Elements of Harmony. Just put it all together."
"There's...no magic discharge that could do this..." Twilight ventured, struggling to take it all in.
While Pinkie might have just scraped the surface of the issue, her mind already went to work on analyzing the situation. The Elements of Harmony were powerful enough to banish Nightmare Moon and possibly even destroy the castle where the battle had taken place. Yet to imagine the Elements to signify a force potent enough to permanently alter the landscape and its laws, was something frightening truly frightening.
She had heard many times how unsupervised magic could turn a lush garden into a desolate wasteland even with the best intentions, but this was still incredibly hard to comprehend. This probably stood for the Elements as well, more so than any other spell. Could the clash between Princess Celestia and Nightmare Moon truly have brought such unexpected devastation, or was this purely the Elements' fault. She suddenly felt the weight of their mission pressing down her and doubt lingered in her mind like a vile snake. Was she truly prepared to try and utilize artifacts of such power, or was she merely a filly who thought far too highly of herself?
"Well, whatever did cause it did a pretty nasty job. Ever since then, the Everfree has been a place of shadows and torment." Pinkie's voice brought her back from the depths of her mind, but the content of her words calmed her none at all. "We always try and warn everypony who attempts to cross through it, but sometimes they don't listen-"
"Pinkie dear, please stop." Rarity called out suddenly, sounding somewhat worried by now.
"-and then, after that one little scream in the night, we never see them again." the pink pony continued anyway, that nefarious glint in her eyes again. Twilight had been sure by now that the earth pony always knew more than she let anyone in on, but still found herself shivering to the thought of the Forests claiming so many lives over the years. "Oh...actually, we do. Sometimes we do see them again, but never more than a hat, a dress, strands of their manes, or maybe even-"
"Pinkie Pie!" the white unicorn raised her voice so much that even the bundle of pink flinched to it, surprised of Rarity being so loud to her all of a sudden. She had good reason to do so, as she had one hoof around the timid pegasus who had been following them silently, was furrowed deep into her coat, trembling all over. "You're scaring Fluttershy." she returned to her normal tone, while gently trying to sooth her friend.
It didn't take long for Pinkie to realize what she had done and for the first time since she had gotten to know her, Twilight saw genuine regret in her eyes. She was almost sure the earth pony wasn't even capable of feeling such a thing. Sir Spike and Applejack had stopped to catch up with them again, wondering what all the fuss was about.
"I'm...sorry. I didn't mean to do that." Pinkie sighed, lowering her head for a moment. She truly had forgotten to think, for a moment there. Out of all of them, Fluttershy lived closest to the Everfree Forest and as such, probably knew all too much about the things going on in these woods. "I just meant to say that this forest really isn't the kind of place anypony should linger in for long. Best is to just be quick, lay low and tread lightly."
It was as if Pinkie had just sealed the end of an arcane ritual with her words, as within mere seconds, huge cracks formed in the ground under them. Before any of them could have jumped aside, the whole cliff side crumbled to tiny bits, leaving the ground without any leverage at all. Sadly enough ponies, let alone an armored dragon were notoriously heavier than air and as such, had the unfortunate tendency of falling.
Pinkie tumbled upon the rocky slope for a second or two, before her mind jerked her body alive once more. A primal fire burned in her eyes, the unrelenting force of survival governing her senses that instant. She managed to hold her balance long enough to turn sideways, her fetlocks nearly drawing sparks from the rocks she kept sliding over. She hissed in pain, but held on and sure enough, she managed to slow her slide to a near-crawl. That gave her ample time to see how the others were doing, now that she was out of the way of immediate harm.
The others didn't fare so well and continued tumbling downwards, Twilight unfortunately leading the race. Fluttershy, the only one of them who had managed to take off into the air by pure instinct and stay there as well, leaped into action and managed to grab Rarity's tail between her teeth, halting the unicorn's fall. Although she did seem slightly pained by the sudden pull, it was preferable, than to fall to one's certain death.
Sir Spike seemed to ponder upon the best course of action as he headed downwards, not only standing, but cutting deep lines into the ground with his shoes. He was perhaps the most unfazed of them all, though the plight of his new teammates didn't elude him. What was surprising though, was the lack of a second pegasus nearby. None of Rainbow's excuses mattered anymore, as her absence right now was more telltale than anything. He narrowed his eyes and leaped into the sky, flying right past his tumbling squire and into the dark chasm below, leaving the rest of the ponies guessing why in Celestia's name would he opt to have done that.
Twilight cried out for help as she barely managed to stop herself from falling off right away, holding haphazardly onto the rather slipper ground. She forgot all about her Sir Spike's teachings of bravery, strength and willpower, deciding on screaming in fear instead, her grip slipping more and more with every second. She noticed Applejack just barely managing to bite down upon a loose root and thus not ending up sharing the wide open space of the edge with her.
This is it...I'm going to die. The unicorn thought with uncomfortable solemnity. She felt her insides squeeze as she felt like crying. She had failed her knight, her Princess, the whole of Equestria. She had been a fool to think she could pick up a fight against Nightmare Moon, when in reality, she couldn't even help herself.
"Hold on, Twi'!"
The unicorn forgot all about her sadness and picked her head up again, only to see Applejack sliding to a halt right before her. She reached out and managed to grab her hooves, putting tremendous effort into preventing her from falling to her death. This quickly proved to be a rather difficult task though as she could only barely hold on as well. There was no way she could have pulled the unicorn up as well.
"I can't climb up! Applejack, what do I do?" she cried, trying desperately to find some sort of footing. There was none she could rely on. She just kept losing strength and stability with every second and now threatened to pull the earth pony with her, if she fell. She noticed the apple farmer looking aside for a moment, before turning back to her again with a very determined, but kind look on her face.
"...are you crazy?" the unicorn cried, her voice cracking from her fright by now. Was this her great idea, asking her kindly to let go?
"No I ain't. I promise you'll be safe." the earth pony said with a soft smile, her hold already loosening slowly, much to Twilight's utter horror.
"You can't be serious! Please, Applejack, you can't do this to me!" she whimpered, breaking into cold sweat by now. She was just about suspended in the air, at the mercy of a pony who has apparently cracked at some point within the past five minutes.
"Now listen here, what I'm saying to you is the honest truth." Applejack's voice was soothing, but not exactly to someone who was about to experience death by falling quite a lot. "Let go and you'll be safe."
"No bucking way!" Twilight cried, slipping another few inches from her frantic cry alone, now barely even dangling off the edge. She wanted to cry out for her knight to rescue her, only to remember he had jumped ship earlier. Apparently dementia was a virulent disease in these parts of Equestria.
"Twilight, trust me. You'll be alright." the orange pony said again, causing the lavender one to scream in pure terror as only Celestia's grace kept her from falling.
"Applejack," she growled, looking up into the earth pony's eyes. She knew she could hardly do anything by now, but wasn't about to give up anyway. She was past the initial fright and now just wished to exert herself to the fullest and live, by any means necessary. "If you don't pull me up, then Celestia help me I will-"
And at that precise moment, Applejack let go.