It has been a long time since I've last had the honor to address you all...my friends, my colleagues, my brethren. Alas, time is a cruel mistress and often allows little of her gift to befall mortals. It is however at these times, when I truly understand the importance behind the teachings, the ones we are bound by blood to follow. These are the occasions, where I truly comprehend that only one true truthful truth exists.
WE ARE THE WAY. WE ARE THE LEGACY. WE ARE THE FOLLOWERS. WE ARE PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE AND ALL THAT EXISTS IN-BETWEEN!
Dark times befall our heroes and heroequines as intricacies and hidden agendas become visible to the naked sun, or in this case, everlasting darkness. Faith is put to the test, trust falters and with every step, we get closer to the darkest pages, where even I need Celestia's grace to proceed. THE END IS NEAR.
You, brave warriors, who have followed me along this way I ask but this...though it may seem like the ballad is fast approaching its dark end, do NOT falter in faith. Remember the teachings, remember the words of POWERyou've been taught. Remember, that your glorious destiny is still before you. NOTHING IS OVER, UNTIL THE LAST SWORD IS BROKEN, THE LAST FOE LAYS SLAIN AND THE LAST OF THE MAIDENS ARE IN NEED OF PLENTIFUL SAVING.Believe in the Dragon. Believe in the truth.
TO GLORY HERE AND NOW, BEYOND MORTAL BOUNDS, ONCE AND FOREVER, MY BRETHREN!
((And again, I'll have to apologize for the huge delay. My exam period lasted a little longer than I had hoped, albeit I did manage to get through most of them with reasonably good marks. XD In return though, this is the longest chapter so far and...quit honestly, I'm still not satisfied with it. The plot was supposed to go waaaaay beyond where I got now, but hopefully the scenes themselves will make up for it. I promise I'll kick it to speed in the next part, since no matter how I look at it, there's probably just 2 chapters left of the Ballad! Thank you everyone who has been following this story so far, every new reader and generally everyone who liked it, even just a tiny little bit. You're all awesome people and I couldn't ask for a better audience.))
Within the deepest of pegasus pony flight enclaves, falling is documented as the great, unbreakable antithesis to flight. Many aerodynamic experts have tried fruitlessly to come up with a solution to this highly common problem, but as of yet, this law of the universe has remained constant. What must go up, must come down, either willingly or through applied force.
Yet there is a certain faction, or rather yet, a sect who claim falling to be just as exhilarating as flying, if not even more. They draw difference between the graceful drop of a feather and the hurtling of a stone, seeing form and substance in the feeling of being completely at the mercy of the winds themselves. They also do their best to share this knowledge, this enlightened state of mind with every new flyer, much to the dismay of flight coaches around Equestria. Thankfully though, their numbers are ever-decreasing, usually due to over-indulgence in their beloved art form.
Part of it seemed true though, to some. Falling had a certain sense of freedom and helplessness to it, a sensation some outright crave for. The thought of not having to bother with whatever might happen appeal not only to pegasi, but to earth ponies and unicorns as well, sometimes. It was a solemn decision to pursue such an experience, but there was something about it that drove them in, something ancient, exciting and-
On second thought, scratch that. Falling is a horrible experience with the promise of way too much pain and hurt once you hit rock bottom, in more ways than one.
As Applejack's hooves slipped Twilight's grasp and she felt the first tiny, but progressively stronger whistling of the wind around her ears, she knew this was one experience she could have done without. Not only her own, but several of her ancestors' lives seemed flash before her eyes, her face locked in an expression somewhere between shock and dull surprise. It took all but a fraction of a second for her mind to piece everything consider and for once, she honestly wished it hadn't.
The most terrified of cries erupted from her throat as she dropped like a pony-shaped stone from the sky, plummeting down towards the depths below. Even though she had hardly fallen more than a foot yet, she already swore with all her might that if any single bone remained unbroken in her body, she would surely use that to kill the orange earth pony.
She came to a sudden and quite forceful stop though, as she felt something snake around her body and pull her out of her fall, with the added grace and gentleness of several trains crashing into one another. Still, it did the job though, as she preferred a fall against a railing, rather than a fall against the distant ground.
"I couldn't let my trusty squire become a hole in the ground, now could I?" she heard a familiar and highly welcome voice just a couple of inches from her.
She picked her head up and was immediately relieved to find Sir Spike, sporting his usual kind smile. His situation was no less dangerous, considering his grip on the rocky slope was hardly better than what she had, but as long as she wasn't going downwards, she was quite accepting towards the situation. Apparently the knight had realized earlier that not even Applejack could pull her up and instead decided to take action in a slightly unusual way. Sure enough, to see one's liege-lord and hero jump off a cliff certainly helped little to bolster her confidence at the time.
"How are we going to get back up?" the unicorn asked, tentatively letting the magic in her stir alive, shown quickly by the soft glow of her horn. In the growing darkness of Nightmare Moon's eternal night, even this little extra light was more than welcome.
"We're not going back up. We're going down." the dragon stated, taking note of how quickly Twilight seemed to be drained of color, from lavender to almost blinding white.
"What? Y-You're kidding, right?" she whimpered, trembling all over. She made the mistake of looking down from their current very unstable lookout point, prompting her to grab onto the knight's arm like a particularly stubborn armlet.
"Relax, it'll be a piece of cake." he assured, giving her a toothy grin. Although he usually had one of these when he was convinced the situation was in no way life-threatening, the fact that this was his general outlook on just about every encounter throughout his life made Twilight less than trustful of it. "We're just waiting on one more passenger."
"I won't keep you waiting then!" Pinkie Pie called from just a couple feet above them. While Fluttershy had just taken Rarity to safety and Applejack was in the midst of keeping her hooves firmly planted on the ground, the pink pony had been sliding downwards slowly, but surely. She couldn't help but smirk at the absurdity of the scene as she shook her head once, her grip in the ground about to give up.
"Save me, oh great knight!" she called out in mock-fright and jumped straight into the endless dark void below.
Before Twilight could even think of using her magic to help her, Sir Spike set his feet against the side of the cliff and leaped off with blinding speed. The unicorn once again let out a scream as they flew through the air in an arc, closing in on a particular bundle of pink. The drake reached out when the time was right and with the same motion he'd pulled Twilight to safety, grabbed hold of Pinkie as well, who instead of whimpering in terror, seemed much closer to busting a gut from excited chuckling.
With two ponies occupying his arms, the dragon found himself quickly reassessing the predicament at hand. It certainly seemed like a rather nasty scenario to simply fall and as much as he was convinced he'd survive, he rather wished to avoid the kind of hassle it would be to climb up again from several feet underground. He thought of using his flame breath to slow their impact, but while he couldn't see them in the dark, there was a high chance of Rarity and Fluttershy already waiting for them at the bottom and the last thing he wanted to do, was to char them into pony-husks. He even gave the nearby trees a brief look, but didn't want to waste time climbing down amongst the dense labyrinth of branches.
"What I'd give for that manticore right now..." he muttered, lamenting the loss of his temporary flying steed. The other end of the chasm was getting closer with every passing second though, intensifying the situation. However, panicking was strictly forbidden by his Code and he was determined to stay loyal to it till the very end. As such, once he considered all option, he decided to give out the most sensible order he could think of. "Twilight, get my boots!"
"Get your what?" the unicorn asked back with the most confused look she's had in a while. Even Pinkie, who was in no ways a stranger to oddball ideas, seemed entirely befuddled by his request.
Nevertheless, she wasn't around to second-guess him all the time and with just a little bit of magical assistance, pulled the dragon's footwear off, levitating both to her. She grabbed onto them, only to suddenly break out in bitter tears, her stomach flipping around several times, like a drunken pegasus. Her vision blurred within moments and she could swear even her horn felt like it'd melt on spot.
"You promised me, no bio-weapons!" she complained loudly, much to the amusement of their other passenger.
Spike didn't bother to answer though and instead positioned himself like a falling cat, with both hands and feet facing the cliff-side. Twilight felt their support dwindling slightly and grabbed onto his breastplate with Pinkie, both of them holding onto his armor and each other as tightly as possible. Despite knowing Sir Spike wouldn't let harm come to them, the unicorn couldn't help but feel a tiny bit scared. Though it was rare for her age to so much as think about passing, she certainly didn't want it to occur in a manner that would leave her and the earth pony as bloody, mushy stains on his armor. She wanted an at least slightly more dignified death, than that.
The knight braced for impact, focusing on landing in such a way that would not hurt the ponies holding onto him. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, he felt the familiar fire burning in his belly; the mighty flame, the inextinguishable burning heart of the Draic Kin. He had no fear, no trepidation or worry anymore. He was within the moment, the quiet tranquility and certainty that everything would be alright. He would not fail.
He landed upon the rocky surface almost exactly as he wished, his strong scaly fingers and talon-endowed feet sinking into the cliff-side as if it were made of butter. He tensed his arms and legs, trying his best not to instinctively bend them and thus possibly crush both mares. He let out a low growl and sunk slightly deeper, letting the wall of the chasm absorb all his impact. Twilight whimpered a little as they got closer and closer, but quickly found them as a whole heading downwards instead.
Much as Sir Spike had expected, the rocky texture simply wasn't built for situations like this and as such, immediately gave way to his talons, resulting in the odd bundle of dragon and ponies to slide towards the ground in a manner that was not fully unlike a cat's descent upon a curtain. The two continued to hold on as they sped towards the bottom, while the knight tried his best to keep his grip steady.
Their velocity was increasing rapidly though, threatening them with a nasty landing, if they didn't find a way to slow down. Spike tried to sink his hands and feet deeper into the rocky surface, but could do little at this point. He closed his eyes and decided to use his head to alleviate the danger. Without another moment to spare, he slammed his head right into the cliff-side, the ridges on top of his head acting as a brand new set of brakes for them to rely on.
His plan worked exactly as expected, the extra friction slowing them down enough, where he was sure none of them would suffer injuries. Once close to the bottom, he pulled his feet free and prepared, meeting up with the ground mere moments later. It took him a moment or two for his muscles to properly transfer the excess energy, but in the end, all three of them managed to land safely, if a little scuffled and disoriented.
"Oh, thank Celestia you're all alright." Rarity's voice was they first they've noticed, followed by the lovely unicorn herself. She looked positively moved to see them unharmed, which made even Twilight smile a little, albeit she first had to wait for the world to stop shaking before her eyes. Looking over them however, she couldn't resist the slightest of frowns. "I'll definitely treat you all to a little spa-time. Trust me, you look like you need it."
"I-I'm so sorry I couldn't help more!" Fluttershy's meek call followed suit. "I'm not used to holding anything more than a bunny or two."
"Nonsense, Fluttershy dear." Rarity waved dismissively, smiling at her. "You were positively heroic back there. You saved me!" she commended the pegasus, leaving her even more flustered than ever before.
"Nice to see y'all safe 'n sound." Applejack cut in, trotting over to them. She had a few beads of sweat trickling down, implying she'd gotten down the hard way as well, though probably not in the form they had. The slight twitch under Twilight's eye made her reconsider getting closer, however.
"Pray that your huge family has at least one doctor amongst them." the unicorn grumbled, her horn lighting up already.
She was almost sure Applejack only let go of her because she had seen Sir Spike ready to catch her, but that still didn't make the experience any better. She never got the chance to do anything though, as another voice pierced the night. One they hadn't heard in a glaringly long time now.
"Did I miss something? What happened to everypony?" Rainbow Dash's voice came from right above, said pegasus swooping into sight mere moments later. Her reception though, was less than warm.
"You just missed the party, Dashie, that's all." Pinkie Pie spoke up first, her expression unreadable. Then again, as much as Rainbow could tell, that wasn't a unique thing from her.
The silence following her words did leave her both confused and worried, however. She tried to hurry back as quickly as possible, but had a hard time actually finding them. Now, as it seemed, something had to have happened while she was away, something potentially dangerous and she had not been around to help.
"Like Pinkie said, you hadn't missed out on anything." the dragon spoke up, his voice about as sweet as two rocks rolled together in an acid bath. "I trust you had fun with Nightmare Moon though?"
"What? I did not!" she quickly retorted, though not everyone missed out on the nervous tone in her voice. "I told you already, I don't work for her, I'm with you guys!"
"Of course you are. You just happen to have something urgent to do, whenever she makes an attempt at our lives!" Spike raised his voice slightly, making most of the ponies wince. As difficult as it was to aggravate the dragon, nothing set him off more than people who dishonored their friends or their convictions.
"She did what? I-I didn't know! If I were here, I would have helped!" she cried, visibly shaken by the fact that in her absence, Nightmare Moon had taken a shot at eliminating her friends. The alicorn had warned her that she'd do something like this, but she didn't think the Princess of the Night would get to it this quickly.
"No need. The others helped plenty where you hadn't. All that's left for you is to go back and report." he didn't wait for a reply and took his leave, intent on getting to the castle ruins within the hour.
Twilight briefly glanced at the pegasus, before following her knight. She still wasn't sure Rainbow was intentionally missing or not, but it did seem rather suspicious. A sigh escaped her throat as she continued, her thoughts taking an inevitable dark turn. If she would become a liability to their mission though, she knew they would have to drive her off somehow. She just hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"Twilight? Rarity? Pinkie Pie?" Rainbow called out their names as they each turned away to catch up with Sir Spike's large steps. Her body felt unusually heavy for her wings, forcing her to the ground as she kept on going without so much as looking back at her. She glanced aside, noticing the timid little pegasus she'd known for such a long time.
"Fluttershy, you know me! Tell them I'd never betray anypony!" she tried to put on a smile, but it came out as horribly mangled and faked.
"I...I don't think you're...against us." she mumbled, struggling with the words. She was obviously very uncomfortable with the situation, but her friend deserved an answer at least. "But this hurt them, bad. And it hurt me too. You've always been there for your friends and now you were just...gone." she kicked the ground a little, trying to find some way of saying it that wouldn't hurt the cyan speedster even more.
"I'm sorry Rainbow. You're still my friend...but I'm not sure if you know who your friends are." she almost squeaked those last few words, but to her friend, they were as loud as a cannon. She looked aside for a moment, before trotting after Sir Spike and the others, leaving Rainbow feeling absolutely horrid.
"I reckon ya said ya'd fly low." Applejack stopped next to her, her eyes gleaming with anger and disappointment. Somehow, Rainbow Dash felt more afraid of her words, than the fact the others had left her behind like this.
"Horseapples!" the earth pony slammed her hooves down, making her cyan friend wince. "What the hay do ya think yer doin'? Ah'm tryin' to prove you'd never go hooves-in-hooves with Nightmare Moon, but Ah can't do anythin' if ya keep this up!"
"I know, I'm sorry AJ." she sighed, her wings folding up. She felt absolutely miserable by now.
"Ya darn well should be!" she said, only to shake her head in the end. "Rainbow, this ain't like you. Ah don' know why yer bein' like this, but Ah don't like it. Git yerself together, ya stupid mare." her words softened by the end, though they did leave the pegasus horribly ashamed. "Let's git goin'. We shouldn't fall behind."
Rainbow Dash refused to move though, far too upset from what just happened. Sure, she'd been scolded over a hundred times by Applejack just about every day, but she hardly ever had been this genuinely angry, rather than just mildly annoyed. She flinched only the pony suddenly pushed her forwards from behind, forcing her to get back on her hooves.
"Come on. This ain't the best flyer in Equestria I know." she called, managing to make even the distraught pegasus crack a faint smile.
An uncomfortable silence had fallen upon the group as they continued their trek across the Everfree, their minds heavy with conflicting thoughts about what had already occurred and what may have been waiting for them. Until that dangerous fall not long ago, they hadn't fully comprehended the weight of their mission, nor the risks involved. They had little choice, but to press on, for if they truly had the eyes of Nightmare Moon upon them, it was doubtful she'd let them flee without repercussions.
Sir Spike was leading them once again, perhaps all too certain they were going the right way. Normally, Twilight would lead him, her skills at cartography and topography serving both of them well on a number of occasions. Such did not seem to be needed though as Nightmare Moon was leading them exactly where they were supposed to go, or wherever she wanted them to go, as part of their little off-stage duel.
The first few stray trees and peculiar markings may have been just by accident, but once the moon's light had begun to carve a path for them and some bushes shifted their sizes almost before his eyes, he had no doubts that either the forest was fully sentient, or the exiled princess' hooves were guiding them. Neither sounded particularly good, but as of right now, he was in no position to refuse the assistance.
The recent events did trouble him though. She had warned him outright, but it still surprised him how forceful she was about endangering all the ponies under his protection. If they were any less capable or resourceful, that fall would have been a costly experience. He was almost completely sure she wasn't finished with them, either. He hadn't been dealt the best of hands, but while she may have held all the cards at the moment, he was no less busy in spinning his own plan, one that would flip the table over on her. He ran every element of it through his head once more, while listening in on the conversation that had finally sprung up.
"-have you known each other?" Twilight asked, walking alongside Rarity and Fluttershy. Pinkie caught up with them soon enough to listen in, leaving Rainbow Dash and Applejack guarding their rear.
"Well, Fluttershy and I have been friends for a couple of years now." the white unicorn was the first to speak. She seemed somewhat relaxed they were talking once again. The gloomy silence was getting on her nerves by now. "I know Applejack and Rainbow Dash also go back years. And of course, everypony knows Pinkie Pie."
"Pinkie Pie knows everypony." the mare repeated Rarity's words, though the switch hadn't gone unnoticed by Twilight. She found it strange, but decided not to stress it.
"And do you all...well...trust each other?" the unicorn continued to prod, wondering just how tight-knit the group really was.
She hated going along with such thoughts, but questing for the Elements was a hopeless endeavor, if they would be stabbed in the back mere moments later, thanks to the tiniest prod by Nightmare Moon, a move she already seemed to be practicing on Rainbow Dash. To her surprise though, Rarity outright stopped in her tracks, giving her a look she honestly had not expected at all.
"Now just listen here, Twilight Sparkle." she said, her voice twisted by what she could only perceive as pure anger.
"Rarity, please..." Fluttershy meekly called out, trying to stop her before she'd explode on the lavender pony. She was a soft-spoken and generous soul, but hell hath no fury like a the dressmaker's rage.
"I understand there might be some issues between us as a group, but by Celestia, I will not have you asking these kind of questions about any of my friends. Trust? Do you honestly think this is a subtle way of interrogation?"
"I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." the unicorn stammered, taken aback by the ferocity Rarity was showing all of a sudden. To her surprise though, while she continued huffing for a moment or two, she did calm down soon after.
"No...I don't honestly believe you've meant it, either." she sighed. Her anger faded, but her expression was still rather serious. "But if you assume we'd betray you at the first possible opportunity, we might as well turn back right now, because we'll never find those Elements of Harmony."
"And that means that until we're sure the other is collaborating with the opposition, we should not make things worse by constantly accusing each other." she added, looking at Sir Spike this time around. The knight remained silent and continued walking, but she was sure her words had not fallen on deaf ears.
Fluttershy felt a bit relieved Rarity managed to keep her calm, as she usually ended up as a destructive force of nature, whenever her temper spiked too much. She smiled softly, the soft breeze of eternal night playing with her pink mane. As dangerous as the Everfree Forest was, she knew it had aspects worth knowing. Quite a number of birds and critters would only live here and as such, were always a unique experience to see, much less treat. Although she didn't have any papers to show for it, everypony knew she was the go-to pony on all pet problems. Even the Forest seemed to have understood this after a while, as sick and wounded creatures from it always ended up near her cottage, whenever they needed treatment.
It was this unique connection to nature that quite possibly saved all of their lives. The faintest of noises, a tiny little whiff of a particular odor and she immediately leaped aside, shoving Pinkie Pie away from them before she could have uttered so much as a single syllable. Sir Spike reacted only a moment too late, unable to grab after the long tail that appeared before him for just half a second.
Fluttershy cried out loudly as clawed paws grazed across her yellow coat, the creature's strength far more than whatever force her tiny weight managed to put towards keeping her on the ground. The surprise attack left the rest of the ponies tossed aside by the sheer force of it and surprised even the dragon enough that he didn't manage to grab after the long, scorpion-like tail. They collected themselves as quickly as possible though, frantically looking around for their vanished friend. Not only had the darkness become thicker, but even the faint moonlight, that had been guiding them till now, seemed to have dimmed.
"...my hair..." Rarity gasped, paling as she felt her beautifully kept mane becoming a tangled mess of purple from force of the ambush. A second later though, she no longer care about it though, remembering why she'd been tackled in the first place. "Where's-"
"A manticore! A manticore took Fluttershy!" Pinkie hollered with a surprising amount of worry in her voice.
She sharpened her gaze, as if trying to cut through the dark of the night with her glare alone, scouring the trees nearby for their lost friend. The second cry made them flinch one more, Applejack and Pinkie immediately turning towards where they were sure the noise had come from. Nothing escaped an earth pony's keen senses, not even in such an unfamiliar territory. Sir Spike scowled, knowing Nightmare Moon had to be behind this once again. Manticores were very infamous predators that although usually hunted for other beings, it could get an acquired taste for ponies as well. They rarely went hunting and always liked to take a bite out of their prey right away, to savor them.
They had but minutes to spare.
"Twilight!" he called out, as not even his eyes could penetrate the darkness at this point.
"On it!" the unicorn didn't need to be told what to do, her horn already blazing with energy. Many assumed Spike had only taken her as his squire because he was obligated to, or because she was just plain cute. In reality though, he was simply amazed by her quick wits and her ability to work together with him, using just a bare minimum of words.
She adjusted her stance and lowered her head slightly, finishing up the incantation. She used a fairly simple, but very useful spell she'd found and perfected to her liking, with a little help from Princess Celestia. Sir Spike readied himself as a stream of bright light erupted from the unicorn's horn, already knowing what to expect.
The stream quickly shaped itself into a disc and had begun to spin in the direction they'd heard the scream from. Twilight's face contorted from the exertion the longer she let the disc fly. Once it was suitable far from them, it seemed to break apart, the speed of its spin forcing the torn bits to shower the nearby trees like shrapnel, illuminating them one by one. The dragon scanned every single inch of the trees, only to finally find his goal: the shadow of a pair of bat-like wings.
Without a moment to waste, he dashed forwards, running straight towards the tree upon which the manticore was perched upon, waiting to feast on the pegasus. The rest of the ponies followed him suit, with the exception of Twilight, who was still breathing heavily from the strain the spell had put on her. The rest were all galloping towards the tree at full speed, not about to let their friend be disemboweled.
Forgoing all sense of subtlety and elegance, Sir Spike de Draco downright slammed shoulder-first into the tree, a horrible crack echoing the untimely demise of it. The manticore let out a confused growl, lurching back as the branch he'd settled upon shook violently. A moment of uncertainty passed, before the whole tree began to tilt at an extremely unhealthy degree. Free from the paw pinning her down, Fluttershy whined, the scrapes the monster had left burning painfully.
Her wings had seized up from her fright, but she decided to make her move nonetheless. Manticores hated losing their prey, thus she knew she had to get away from it as quickly as possible. She hadn't seen her friends approaching, but trusted them enough to know this had been their work. Putting her life in the hands of fate, she forced herself to roll right off the branch and down into the pitch-black darkness.
All she could see was a faint rainbow blur, before feeling the comfortable touch of hooves. She sighed and closed her eyes, holding onto her obvious savior.
"...thank you..." she panted, trembling slightly. She'd always been easily frightened, but few times has she ever been this close to death for real.
"Don't you ever scare us like that again, Fluttershy." the cyan pegasus muttered, having a shortness of breath as well. Rarely has she ever been forced to go this fast, this sudden and for such high stakes. She decided this certainly wasn't a trick she wanted to repeat anytime soon.
"I won't. Promise." she almost giggled, but it ended up as more of a hiss.
The euphoria from being rescued was far more welcome than the fright of such a deadly predicament. Her injuries were light, but still painful, though nothing she couldn't cope with. The Everfree was ripe with herbs and she knew some of them by name even. Finding one that would relieve her would take next to no effort.
While Rainbow Dash was busy getting Fluttershy to safety, the rest of the team had a much different task ahead of them. The manticore finally realized its resting spot has been compromised and lunged off the tree, growling in rage. Spike quickly stood before the ponies, shielding them with his own body, in case the creature tried to grab any of them again. The beast let out a roar of anger and swooped down towards them, an otherworldly frenzy burning in its eyes.
The knight set his feet firmly upon the ground, taking the manticore's assault with full force. Almost immediately, he could tell this was a much more mature and more powerful specimen, than the ones he had fought before alongside Nightmare Moon. His muscles tensed as held the monster back by its shoulders, rendering it unable to properly claw into him, either. Losing his initial flight advantage, the being dropped onto its hind feet, putting its full body weight towards toppling the drake.
Sir Spike wasn't about to have any of that, however, and with one forceful move, extended both arms to shove the manticore back. It was obviously confused by the sudden burst of strength, but the knight was far from finished. His fist flung forward and connected with its jaw, copious amounts of saliva and even a bit of blood bursting from its mouth from the impact. Slightly dazed, but perhaps even more crazed than ever before, the beast quickly spun in a half-circle, catching the knight with its armored tail, just as he pulled his fist back.
The dragon raised his other arm to defend himself, but was still sent back a couple of feet from the power of that one hit, his armlet cracking from the force it had been subjected to. A simple glance into its eyes told a lot though, as he could hardly see even the most basic of animal instincts in them, only hatred, confirming Nightmare Moon's influence being at work. It took but half a second to collect himself, but to his amazement and slight worry, it had been enough for the secondary assault force to make its move.
"No one hurts Fluttershy, no one!" Pinkie Pie cried out loudly as jumped up onto the rebounding tail, hopping right up to the creature's neck using the momentum.
Without warning, she struck down upon the top of the manticore's head with both hooves, earning a pained howl as it lurched about, putting together what just happened. The pink earth pony seemed to have become possessed by the same bloodlust it had against them, as she viciously pulled at its mane with her teeth, not doing much actual damage, but pain aplenty. Growling from the assault, it raised a clawed paw to swipe the unwanted pest off.
That signaled the need for another contestant to enter the ring and so she did, dashing straight for the remaining front leg. Calling upon the strength of every Apple ancestor she'd ever heard of, the orange pony turned around the moments she was close enough, giving the manticore's leg the most powerful buck she could muster. She could feel her trusty double-barreled organic weaponry doing the job well, the leg sliding right off the ground, unsettling it enough to slide out from under the beast, depriving it of support.
Pinkie held on as the lion-like predator collapsed, only to jump off right away at the first signal from Applejack. A moment later, a torrent of jagged rocks rained down from the air, bombarding the manticore, some of them scraping it even through its thick fur. Rarity and Twilight were both standing next to each other, their horns glowing brightly as they gathered ammo for another rocky rainfall. The lavender unicorn had read enough about these creatures to know none would retreat just from this attack alone. The dressmaker's rage helped power the spell tremendously though, so much that she made a mental note not to even endanger her fashionable appearance, lest she wished to face an early demise.
Sir Spike gazed over the fight, ready to go back and send the beast backing right away. His slide across grass had left him close to Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, the latter of which had carefully examined the yellow pegasus' wings for any damage. While her other injuries were more prevalent, albeit not dangerous, she knew from experience that any damage to the wings could bite back in the most painful ways possible.
"Nice save." he spoke up, though his voice sounded more like two boulders rolling off of each other.
"Yeah." she replied, not paying much attention to the dragon. Fluttershy could feel tension still bubbling between them, but this wasn't the time to try and smooth thing out.
"This be one ornery critter!" Applejack's voice distracted all three of them though as she bucked the manticore right in the face, causing it to step back and growl. Pinkie immediately backed up the offensive, biting down on one of its bat-like wings this time around.
That set it off though and sent it reeling around in pure pain, the howl of pain almost making their ears hurt. The pink pony could only hold on for so long, before she was launched through the air, crashing right into Twilight and Rarity, breaking their concentration and sending the whole bundle rolling in the dirt. The rocks they'd been using as ammo all stopped as one, no longer guided by the magic of the two unicorns.
Free from its tormentor, the manticore's ears twitched, the movement of the earth pony behind him not going unnoticed this time around. It's large, scorpion-like tail sprung up from the ground and coiled around the approaching earth pony, her cry following the echoes the fight had generated so far. The creature turned around, jaws snapping in anticipation as it growled and slobbered in raw, unrestrained hunger as it eyed its soon-to-be meal, helplessly bound in the air.
Its feast was once more rudely interrupted by a projectile, though this was had a much more pony-like shape, than the earlier barrage of rocks. Rainbow Dash slammed into to beast's side with all the force she could muster, but could hardly even unbalance, much less topple the mighty creature. It glared at her and smacked the obnoxious pest into the ground. The pegasus landed on her back, her wings ruffling up from the impact.
"Rainbow!" Applejack outright screamed, hitting the tail holding her several times, but to no avail.
The manticore turned to the cyan pony instead, the growl of its stomach driving the monster mad by now. It had never felt so empty and hungry before in its entire life. It loomed over the dazed Rainbow Dash, ready to swallow her whole even. Applejack continued to kick and scream, desperately trying to escape the hold of the scorpion tail. The last thing she wanted to see was her friend getting hurt, while she had no method of helping her whatsoever. Its teeth were barely inches away from pegasus' belly, its hot breath making her flinch, but all too late.
A bright glow suddenly broke through the dark of the night, a blinding white that left the creature howling in pain, its eyes wholly unaccustomed to such intensity. Even Applejack, who'd been under Celestia's sun her whole life, had to squint her eyes as the shine from Rainbow Dash's chest overwhelmed the manticore. It seemed to downright hurt the creature, since its howl quickly turned into a pained one. An upside to this was that its grip on the orange earth pony loosened enough so that she could freely wiggle out of the tail's vice grip.
She quickly looked back at her friend, the light from her body slowly fading back into a hardly noticeable glow. The pegasus herself seemed awfully shocked as well, though nopony could have been described as more confused right now, than Applejack. She wasn't sure Rainbow Dash had even realized what just happened, but the sight before her made her heart wrench in ways she'd never expected it could.
The quiet moment was broken a mere second later as a large stone slab sped right past the two and hit the wobbling manticore like a steam engine, driven forwards by a justifiably angry dragon knight. He pulled himself into a stop soon enough, but tossed the stone forwards, letting it carry its passenger a little while longer, before crashing into the closest tree. Pinkie, finally back in action, rushed over to see if the two ponies had suffered any injuries, while both Rarity and Twilight grabbed hold of the stone and used it to keep their attacker pinned to the tree for as long as possible. Spike cracked his knuckles in solemn anticipation, more than prepared to put an end to this fight, before any more of the ponies under his knightly guard would be threatened.
"Wait!" Fluttershy cried, making the drake flinch. The yellow pegasus had flown all the way over to them with a surprisingly determined look on her face. She was still deathly afraid, he could tell, but she wanted to stop this needless fight at least as much as they did. "I think I know how to...pacify it." she said.
"So do I." the dragon remarked, raising a brow. "A fistful of hurt and pain should get it under control."
"I have a better idea." she assured, gazing into his eyes.
At that moment, he was reminded of that soft, but prickly feeling he kept getting the first couple of times she looked into her eyes like that. He felt needles under his scales once again, a cold feeling running down his spine. He had heard of ponies possessing such unique abilities at times, but to come across one, let alone a pony so timid and graceful, was truly something extraordinary. He nodded slowly and proceeded pay close attention to every detail of her plan.
It had understood. It took a moment or two to grasp why the pain had been there, why it burned so much, but as it remembered the dark, the laugh, the glow, the hunger and the thirst, it no longer had any doubts left. The smell of blood once again roused its appetite and feeding time was long overdue by now. The magic on the stone binding him was strong, but nothing compared to a manticore's strength. This forest did not belong to the ponies and it was determined to prove this debate by feasting on the opposition's flesh.
"Sir, the stone is crumbling, we can't hold it for much longer!" Twilight called out, closing her eyes as she desperately tried to keep the slab together, while Rarity continued to apply the force needed to keep the animal pinned to the tree. With their magic divided though, both were having a difficult time restraining the raging beast.
"It's okay Twilight, just let it go. We're ready." the drake calmly stated, preparing himself for the upcoming showdown.
"At ease, squire. Trust me."
Although it still bothered Twilight as to what her knight may have had on his mind, especially with possibly the most unconventional weaponry she had seen in her life, but she'd long since learned that sometimes, it was best not to ask questions, as long as there were visible results. As such, she signaled to Rarity, upon which released the stone from their magic at once. Almost immediately, the remains of it were shattered into tiny pieces by the raging manticore. It glanced around in a crazed bloodlust, before its eyes centered upon the closest possible target, namely a highly odd dragon-pony duo.
"You ready for this?" he asked, glancing down for a moment.
"Oh, yes, of course. Just please...um...be careful." Fluttershy nodded twice. She was scared, but no less prepared than the others.
"Don't worry, I'll be as careful as a dragon can possibly be." he assured, though this wasn't quite one of the best reassuring speeches he had ever given.
The manticore's roar didn't faze him much, especially as he had since gained the most efficient weapon ever created to combat such a rampaging forest-dweller. He gently readjusted his grasp a little, carefully balancing the strength of his grip, so that he wouldn't hurt Fluttershy in any way. She inhaled deeply, staying still as the knight held a pair of her legs in each hand, tilting her upwards slightly, so blood wouldn't rush into her head. As the creature began to dash towards them, he pitched her body upwards just a bit more, so she would face it head-on.
"This...is my pony!"
Just before the manticore could have raised its paw to tear Fluttershy's head off with a single swipe, the pegasus opened her eyes to the fullest, her glare burrowing deep into the creature's very skull. Almost immediately, it stumbled back with an agonized howl, feeling as if someone had put a fist through its brain. It was already seeing weird colors and sparkles everywhere just from this one hit, hardly even realizing what was going on anymore.
Sir Spike de Draco jumped out of the way as the enraged animal tried to swipe at them anyway. He rolled right before the stumbling creature and pulled his trusty pony-rifle up again. Fluttershy didn't need to be told what to do, as she unleashed the power of her gaze once again the moment their eyes met. Its cries now more closely resembled that of a wounded cat, but rather than give up, it just whipped itself into a final stage of frenzy.
Hardly anything mattered now, as it desperately tried to either claw the dragon to death, or just smash him into a bloody pulp, using it's tail. Spike anticipated the move though and briefly let go of Fluttershy's front legs, grabbing the appendage before the sharp stinger would have made a crude opening in his head. Instead of just hanging limply however, she used her wings to steady herself in the air and glared into the manticore's eyes once more, further shattering its already crumbling mind.
The beast let out yet another roar of pain, but it gradually faded into a crude whimper. The knight used to opportunity and pushed on both the tail and the animal itself. Hardly even able to think, much less move, the creature wobbled for a second, before collapsing on its back. Approaching the barely conscious manticore, he raised his Fluttershy-toting hand once more, aiming her eyes right at its face. The pegasus used the animal's head as leverage, though she avoided looking into its eyes right now.
"You poor little fool." she sighed, gently running her hoof across its ruffled mane. "It's that wicked evil pony who made you this angry, right? Or was the promise of some fresh equine meat too much to resist? I hope not...I would be very disappointed to hear that." she warned and Spike could swear he heard it whimper.
"Relax now. Just look into my eyes and you'll feel better when you wake up, promise." she purred, smiling softly at the creature that not five minutes ago tried to eat her friends.
It didn't want to be angry anymore though, or hungry. These feelings and cravings were aching so badly, he just couldn't take it any more. Slowly, the manticore raised its head to face Fluttershy more clearly, earning a soft little kiss on the nose in return.
"Good boy." she said, stroking it's face. "Now...sleep." she lowered her voice to a whisper, before gazing into its eyes as deeply as possible one final time. It never even growl or roar this time around, just dropped its head back on the ground, its mind lost in a sea of lasting calmness.
Twilight was the first to approach the two, just as Sir Spike gently put the pegasus back on the ground. She glanced at the motionless manticore, finding it highly unnerving how simply they've subdued in this time around. Fluttershy shook her head a little and gently rubbed her eyes, indicating the attack had left a little mark on her as well. The unicorn was awfully curious about what just happened, though one question in particular bothered her.
"No, of course not! I would never—I could never do such a thing!" Fluttershy protested with a shocked look on her face, waving a hoof dismissively. "Um...he'll be asleep for a while, but he's fine."
"Oh...great going then!" Twilight said, smiling at the pegasus. Although she wasn't entirely sure how this was the best idea ever, it did the job well and even she confirmed that it'd have no lasting effects. She noticed Fluttershy wince though, which instantly made her remember that she had gotten the short end of the stick, during the scuffle. "Where are you hurt?"
"I-It's nothing to worry about, really." she ventured. Twilight nonetheless examined her a little closer and found several scrapes across her body. She was right, none of them were particularly bad, but they were probably painful nonetheless.
"Fluttershy, I cannot ever repay you for this." Rarity's voice was positively trembling as she approached them, her gratitude and concern making the pegasus smile.
"It's alright, Rarity. At least nothing really bad happened." she shook her head lightly, while the others gathered around them as well. She winced a little once more though the more she kept talking, eventually getting her to accept the almost overbearing concern they were showing. "But...if one of you...could get me a few leaves off that bush over there, I'd be grateful...um...only if you could, that is."
"That ain't even a question, sugarcube." Applejack assured, knowing exactly what plant she was talking about.
This particular bush and its leaves were one of the reasons why ponyfolk still came to the Everfree Forest on occasion. The water found in those leaves were very good at easing pain and reduce swelling. She and Big Macintosh often used them whenever they over-exerted themselves, especially during Applebuck Season.
"Just rest yer hooves and Ah'll be back here lickety split." she added, quickly trotting off towards the plant.
Truthfully though, she needed a moment to herself anyway. The smile she had on her face faded almost immediately as she remembered what she had seen just a few minutes ago. She still couldn't believe it, every fiber of her being protested against the thought, but for the first time since they'd left, the seeds of doubt had begun to bloom in her heart.
She'd known Rainbow Dash for years now and would have trusted her life on her any day, but right now, she wasn't so sure anymore. That moment, when the mysterious glow protected her from the manticore, she'd seen something she was sure should have not been there. For at that moment, a unmistakeable sigil had shone brightly upon the cyan pegasus' chest, one that for all intents and purposes, should not have been there:
The glowing image of a crescent moon.