They moved under the cover of nearly perfect darkness, the only lights in the sky the stars. It was all part of the plan, had been since the Princess had met with Ink Well and thought she could sneak out of the castle. The two black forms practically slithered through the streets of Ponyville, one goal in mind.
A quaint house, covered in snow, a few boarded broken windows showing recent disdain for the residents, a feeling the invaders felt as well. They crept up to the door, one of them springing the lock in a manner of seconds with a flick of green magic. The other slid inside, zapping the dog before it could bark, leaving the animal well and truly sleeping in its bed. He signaled to his partner outside, leaving the aging beast to its slumber as they both hovered silently upstairs on insectoid wings.
There were many doors, two of which obviously announced rooms for young fillies, but that didn't bother the intruding parties. They were assassins, plain and simple, and sympathy was the enemy. They were just two of a dozen on similar missions all around Ponyville, one dressed in armor like an imperial knight, one in the garb of a republic soldier, both with the same destination in mind.
They settled down silently just outside of the couple's room, seeing the two sleeping ponies on the bed inside. They shifted across the room like shadows, indistinguishable from the darkness until their knives slid free, catching the faintest starlight in their blades. With a nod to each other they raised the weapons, ready to set the plan in motion…
The blades plunged into the mattress, the two ponies that had been lying there replaced by two chitinous forms, each grinning wickedly at the baffled attackers. “You messed with the wrong ponies.”
* * * * *
A heavy thud slammed on the other side of the wall, rousing Ink Well from his uncomfortable resting place on the floor as it shook beneath him. Rose looked at him worriedly, jolted awake by the sound and vibration and wondering what was wrong. Ink Well went to the door, pushing it open slowly and peeking out. A moment later he waved for her to follow, pushing it open all the way and running to the bedroom.
Never had he been more happy about a paranoid decision than he was right now, seeing his two changeling friends in the middle of tying up their attackers, one dressed in the uniform of each army… As Rose walked into the room, the friendly changelings put on their disguises, one becoming Time Turner, the other Ditzy Doo. Ink Well smiled at them. “Thank you for agreeing to this. I've never been so worried of being right.”
Rose looked at the two for a moment, confused. “You two are changelings? How long has that been the case?”
Ink Well looked at her with a smile. “Remember when Dinky 'went off to study' twenty two years ago?” Rose nodded. “Well, she and her mother have been on an adventure since, and since there was a gap in Ponyville, these two kindly stepped into their place.”
“And you knew?” Rose said, still having her misgivings with changelings from their invasion so many years ago.
Ink Well looked guilty for a few moments. “Well… The Doctor asked very nicely, and they promised they wouldn't hurt anypony...”
Time Turner rolled his eyes. “Is this really the time?” He tapped his hoof against the armor the false knight was wearing.
“Right, sorry…” Ink Well said, inspecting the two captives. After a moment, he tugged on a loose piece of armor, ripping it off with ease, and was able to rip a patch easily off of the soldier’s uniform as well. When he did, he sighed. “Aha… evidence to place the blame on both parties at once. They didn't just want me dead, they wanted turmoil.” As he spoke, the sound of a gunshot rang through town, followed by more, seeming to pepper Ponyville.
Rose ran to the window, looking out on the dark streets and able to see flashes of light from flying magic. “I think they have it, but who could want such a thing?”
Ink Well stood at her side, seeing the beginning of a war brought to Ponyville. It had been… was it thirty years since the Battle of Ponyville? And yet, here another had sparked from his presence. “I don't know… but I have to stop it. Turner, Ditzy, keep them here and keep yourselves safe.” Ink Well ran to the doorway, then stopped, holding a hoof out for Rose. “We need to stop it.”
Rose grabbed his hoof as quickly as she could, not quite as used to running as her fugitive husband was. “Right behind you.” They both ran down the stairs and into the dark, hoping the answer would come to them before too much damage was done.
* * * * *
Applejack's armored hooves pounded the dirt road from Sweet Apple Acres, but she wished she was the only one. Then maybe she wouldn't be barking orders nopony seemed to be listening to. “Knights! Fall back! We gotta protect th' princess!” She'd been yelling it since she'd left the barn, and right now she didn't care if they were protecting Twilight or Celestia, so long as any of them stopped this darn fighting!
A bullet pinged off of her armor and she glared at the direction it had come from, unhooking her helmet from where it had hung on her waist and placing it over her head. She hadn't ordered an attack, and she didn't know what exactly had started this mess, but she was darn sure it was going to end here.
Applejack galloped down the street like an unstoppable force, watching gunshots light faces up in red, a heavy darkness over everything. “Knights! I said fall back! We're here ta escort, not ta fight!”
“They attacked us first! I'm not going to let them—AH!” One of her knights dropped, clutching at his bleeding shoulder and screaming in pain. Another of his unit looked at Applejack, his eyes narrowing beneath his helmet.
“How do we even know you're the Commander? One of our own turned on us, we've got changelings everywhere! You could be one of them!”
“Are you plum crazy? I ain't a changeling, and I ain't—” a shock of electricity went through Applejack's body, her armor conducting it away from her, but her tail still went on end at the shock. She glared at the knight, his horn still smoking from his attack. “Why you low down...” Applejack rushed forward, punching the insubordinate knight right against the helmet, making his ears ring. “Don't ya dare attack yer superior!”
Her actions had the opposite effect of what she wanted, as more of the knights in the area started to look at her angrily, a trend that only stopped as another gun went off, this one skimming across the armor on her back.
This was all getting too hot-headed. “Knights, we back off, an' then we—” She went deaf as she was hit in the side, the metal surrounding her absorbing the blow but ringing as it did. She was barely able to dodge a second kick, backing away from ponies she had personally trained as they surrounded her, pushing her towards the rival army.
She heard another shot, causing her to scramble back on instinct, and she ran back to back with another pony. Looking over her shoulder, she immediately recognized that traitorous rainbow mane. As she looked back on the approaching knights, though, she took comfort in that fact. “Rainbow, that better be th' real you, cus tonight's weird enough without a changeling messin' with me.”
Rainbow Dash looked over her shoulder, recognizing the mare in the cold, heavy armor. “It's me, AJ, but I don't think changelings are the problem here.” She looked at the ponies surrounding her from that side, all of them ones she'd been fighting with for years… it made her sick. How could she be fighting with ponies who lost their conviction so easily? “They want a fight and don't care who.”
One of the soldiers lunged towards her, and she deflected him, pushing him to the side as Applejack did something similar to one of her knights, the two colliding in the center and slumping to the ground. AJ glared at Rainbow then. “I don't blame 'em, wantin' ta stop yer kind from breakin' apart Equestria.”
Rainbow threw a punch over AJ's shoulder, stopping the knight behind her in their tracks, while AJ's armor deflected a bullet that had been going straight for Rainbow's back. “We weren't breaking it apart! We were trying to wake it up! You remember the aftermath of the Weather Factory. How could you honestly follow a Princess that did all of that to people?”
Applejack turned to face Rainbow, bucking an incoming pegasus out of the air as she did. “Some of us were still loyal to our nation, RD! Everypony makes mistakes, an' even one big one ain't enough ta erase years 'a perfect records with the Princess.”
“Perfect records? How many times did Celestia send us in to do her job? How often did we have to fix problems she'd ignored until too late? Even that crystal map ended up being more useful than she was on a daily basis!”
Both Applejack and Rainbow Dash punched across each other, taking out an attacker and ending up back to back once more, each staring down their own sides of the war. “Let's agree ta disagree an' argue about it later!”
“Agreed.” They both settled into defensive poses, ready to fight as long as it took.
* * * * *
Wind's eyes darted open when she heard the gunshot, immediately recognizing the sound. She might not have had much first-hoof experience with the war, but more than a few of those damnable, deadly things had been brought into the workshop, even before the deal Clockwork had tried to make, and she'd never wanted any part in them. Now, without warning, they were going off in her home town, and there was but one thing she could do.
She jumped out of bed, closing the windows and the shutters of the loft apartment, giving just that much more protection against the madness outside. Her wings fluttered at her side, telling her to run, to get as far away from here as possible, a trait she'd picked up from her father at a very young age. Now, however, she had a pony to run with, and fear for more than just her own life. “Steam, come on, we have to move.”
Steam was sitting up in the bed, her ears swiveling to catch the yells, clangs, and shots outside. Timbucktu had been far enough away from the border that ponies there hadn't armed themselves too heavily, a fact that was likely one of a myriad reasons that let her sit in bed fearing for her life once more. The commotion outside… who knew how it would spread? With the two armies butting heads, the death toll could be catastrophic. At the sound of Wind's words, Steam jumped up, grabbing the Ready Wings in her magic as both mares made their way to the stairs.
The distillery was dark and quiet, its thick walls making all of the dangers of outside seem so distant, so inconsequential. It was only the heavy smell of alcohol and fresh oil that warned of the bomb they could be standing in at that very moment. It was built like a fireworks factory, for much the same reason: heavy walls, solid foundation, and a roof designed to blow skyward at the first sign of trouble. If war was raging outside, this was both the first and last place a pony would want to be. Despite all of their work to fix it up, as they trotted through, neither felt too much tying them to the shop past memories of the time together.
Just before going through the doorway, Steam stopped, putting on the mechanical wings so they could be ready for a quick escape. It took some help from Wind to get the straps properly tightened and all of the wires in place, but once the wings were securely donned, she was ready to continue into the storefront.
As they went through the door, a flash of light from a passing magic bolt illuminated the street outside where ponies ran in all directions: some from the fighting, some to get into it, some to get another vantage point… It didn't matter why they ran, Wind and Steam just wished to join the running and get as far from here as possible.
One figure outside stopped in front of the store. They were cloaked in shadows, at least until fire sprung up in their hooves, a rag being lit before it was stuffed into a bottle. In the dim light, only a dark black bandanna could be seen covering the pony's mouth as the pony wound back their arm, aiming straight for the picture window Wind was looking through. A moment later the bottle left the pony's hoof, sailing through the air, smashing the windowpane…
Wind leaped back, her wings spreading to save Steam from the shattering glass before another crack was met with the roar of flames, eagerly devouring the fuel that had been in the bottle with the lit rag. It spread over nearly half the store, alighting on perfume bottles, making them crack in the heat engulfing them. Wind grabbed Steam's hoof, but she could see the fear in Steam's eyes. They reflected the fire dancing in front of her, so similar to the one that had taken her home…
Small pops sounded all around them, more fuel sent flying as perfume bottles exploded, spreading the fire all around them in a matter of seconds. Even if they wanted to leave through the door, there was no way now without being burned by the flames. Panicking, Wind ushered Steam back into the other room, not willing to let the unicorn's fear cause her any harm.
Back in the distillery, Wind ran for the stairs, knowing they had only one other exit. It would be dangerous, but Steam would have to make a flying leap, even with less time than she'd had in her apartment. When she reached the stairs, however, she found she was alone, Steam nowhere to be seen. “Steam?” When she got no response, her heart began to pound, and she darted between the boilers and machinery looking for her dearest friend.
Steam was huddled just inside the shop door, her body shivering and her eyes wide open. Once more, she was facing the flames, life or death hanging in the balance… Once more, she was about to kill Wind with her actions… She couldn't do it. She was safe now! She'd made it through weeks in the wilderness, though all of that searching and survival… She was in the Empire! This wasn't supposed to be happening! She could hear Wind's worried calls, but she was hardly able to think, the weight of the Ready Wings on her back nothing compared to the weight on her heart, pinning her where she was. There was no escape… After all of that…
“Steam! Steam, snap out of it!” Wind was by her side the moment she found her, holding her friend close, her wings wrapping around the unicorn's horrified form. Beyond the door the sound of a crackling fire could be heard, but in here the only warmth was from her body, cradling Steam in safety. “We need to move, Steam. Please, we don't have time to be doing this.”
“The fires… there's nowhere to go! We're going to die!”
Wind hugged her friend even tighter, speaking determinedly into her face. “We aren't going to die here, Steam. We made it out of your apartment, we'll make it out of this. Nopony has to die, you got that? Not you, not me, not even the ponies out there. But we have to move, now!” Steam continued to shake, and Wind just closed her eyes, her voice becoming desperate. “I'm not going without you, Steam… please, snap out of it.”
Slowly Steam returned to the moment, feeling her friend's embrace, hearing the sadness in her words, remembering the danger they were in… How much time had she wasted just now? As the chase through Timbucktu's skies had proved, seconds saved lives, and here she was wasting the precious commodity. She nuzzled Wind's cheek lightly in thanks, then stood up. “You're right, we need to move. Lead the way.”
Wind almost laughed as her friend broke out of it, but instead she hopped into the air, leading Steam through the distillery and up the stairs. “We'll have to be quick about it. The ground isn't far away, and you won't have long to catch yourself before—”
Splinters of glass flew everywhere as the window shattered open, the shutters behind swinging loosely as they were shoved aside by the force of the gunshot that had pierced the cover. Wind dropped to the floor as she saw it happen, which was the only thing that saved her from the bottle careening through the rest of the window, leaving a fiery puddle over the ground, some of which splashed onto her back.
Wind screamed in horror, almost tumbling down the stairs, but Steam caught her, rushing her down before helping to pat out the flames that clung to her fur. There were a few singed spots, but otherwise they were unscathed, which was little comfort when they looked at the inferno raging at the top of the stairs.
The two mares slowly backed into the center of the distillery, trapped in a time bomb with nowhere to run.
* * * * *
Rarity's hackles were raised as she watched yet another fire spring up in the center of town. Whether it was rogue magic or somepony causing problems, she didn't know, but didn't they realize how insensitive it was to try to burn this place down? Ponyville had enough bad memories after the Battle of Ponyville, though nearly thirty years was a long time for most ponies to remember… And yet, it was only yesterday for a pony like herself.
And a pony like Fluttershy, who stood beside her looking absolutely horrified. She had been assured that this would be a peaceful meeting, that all sides had agreed to meet with no threat of fighting… Ink Well's letter had said so, and all the leaders had seemed so intent. The few doctors she had brought with her were likely still asleep, the sounds of battle hardly audible all the way out here, but a passion was burning inside her, surging forth with each new blooming flame.
“Get out there, Fluttershy. They need you. Even if they are only hurting themselves, there's nopony more able to save them than you.” Rarity looked over at her, knowing her best friend's thoughts even after so long apart. Fluttershy just nodded before running back to camp. She would need supplies if she wanted to save them. Hopefully Angel would've gotten them ready after waking Fluttershy up.
Rarity watched her leave, proud of the bravery the mare was showing, before she turned to look at the battle scene again. This all seemed like some cruel joke… She was going to have none of it. “I want this taken care of, darlings,” she said to the air around her, the only answer the sounds of battle on the wind. “I want the town safe, I want those fires put out, and I want to know who dared disturb our little peace talks. Do you understand?”
The shadows around her seemed to shift, and where once there had been one lady looking indignant at the scene before her, there was now The Lady surrounded by a dozen diamond dogs, clothed to blend into the night. The one at the head of the group nodded, Cooper's voice coming from behind her mask. “We do.”
“Nopony is to be harmed unless absolutely necessary. Civilian, Royal Army, Republic Army, it doesn't matter: they all will walk from this alive, is that clear?” All of the figures around her nodded, causing her face to form a wry smile. “The second you find out who started this mess, you report it to me. If the coward is lucky, even they will keep their head tonight. Go!”
The diamond dogs nodded once more, then all of them set out, dashing through the night and spreading throughout the city. Cooper remained at the head of the pack, her eyes grim as she watched the fires lighting the city. She'd finally gotten to see this beautiful town… Whoever tried to mar it would pay dearly, no matter what The Lady ordered.
* * * * *
Flora shook the cold from her body as she ran down the road from Sweet Apple Acres, fighting against the tide of ponies fearfully fleeing from Ponyville. All of Ponyville knew that the safest place to evacuate to was out this way, and only a fool or somepony involved would run towards a battle. Flora was neither of those things, but she had yet to see a single family member pass her, and even if she had, that wouldn't have been enough to stop her. Her crystal bush was in there, the source of her cutie mark sitting in the middle of a war zone, with only a bit of hard plastic separating it from Celestia-knows what else. It was only just showing signs of life… she couldn't possibly leave it to burn.
As she entered the town itself, the streets began to empty of civilians, all of them sane enough to have already left or barricade themselves inside as battles raged a few streets over. She could hear the shouting, the clanging of hooves striking armor, she could even see the flashes of magic veering wildly off target. If just one of those got near her precious greenhouse…
She skulked down an alleyway, trying to avoid the screeching gryphons and the firefight she could hear in the next street, only to discover two knights that seemed to have had the same idea. She tried to show that she was unarmed, but that didn't do too much to stop the unicorn from charging up a magic spell as his friend charged her with a spear. She pressed herself against the wall, barely avoiding the spear tip and kicking out her legs, flinging the armored pony hard into the wall beside him, sending him to the ground in a stunned heap.
As Flora turned to charge the unicorn, about to unleash his spell at her, she saw a figure dart from the dark sky, landing on the unicorn hard enough to kick up dust. Flora ran down the alley to see what had happened, running into a familiar face as the dust cleared. “Silver?”
“You're really lucky I know you so well, Flora, or I might've thought you'd be evacuating,” Silver said with a smile, getting off of the unconscious unicorn with a very slight limp. “Though… the last two ponies I saved were just lucky it's so dark.”
Flora shook her head. “You don't need to be here anymore, Silver. Get to somewhere safe. I couldn't bear to think I got you hurt.”
“No way. Crusaders don't leave a pony behind, so I'm not going anywhere.” She began to hover just off of the ground. “I'll get an aerial view, tell you where it's safe or not. Just look for me in the sky.” With that she was back in the air, a light grey shape in a moonless sky, moving between the stars.
Flora shook her head, thinking that Silver was crazy, but glad that meant that there were two crazy ponies out here as she moved from alleyway to alleyway, following the flying dot of her best friend. All around her there were sounds of battle, and at the end of one alley she was witness to two members of the Republic Army getting zapped by spells, twitching lightly on the ground and smelling like burning feathers. She tiphoofed around them once the coast was clear, and fairly soon she had reached the calm garden near her greenhouse. She waved her thanks to Silver, then ducked inside, hoping to get started on her actual mission.
Meanwhile, Silver had sight of all of the insanity. Near the center of town was a mess of both armies, clustered around what… honestly, looked like President Luna trying to fend off the combined hordes of Tartarus the way fires flashed and magic blazed. Somewhere down there she knew her mother was fighting too… If she could get to her side, join in the fight…
As she hovered where she was, a gryphon's battle cry caught her attention, though she wasn't able to turn towards it before he had tackled into her, claws gripping tightly to her hooves as he dragged her towards one of the thatched building roofs. He pecked at her a few times, scratching and screeching while she fought to get free of his grasp. The two of them rolled off of the building, and only through a lot of flapping was the landing anywhere near soft, though he was still on top of her. He screeched again as he pinned her arms down, his beak pulling back as it aimed for her neck.
A moment later her arms were covered with scratches as the gryphon was smashed into the side of the building, a dark figure in armor throwing his weight at the attacking gryphon, who screeched again before an armored hoof bashed into his face, silencing the raging warrior. With that done, Silver's savior walked over, offering an armored hoof to help Silver up from the ground. She took it gratefully, looking into the blue eyes of a changeling, his right ear missing. She smiled, even despite his alien appearance. “Thank you for that, uh...”
The changeling smiled for just a moment. “Sandstorm.” After that, his face was serious again. “If you can't evacuate, get to somewhere you can barricade and lay low. Even if you're battle trained, I suggest you stay safe, miss, and maybe we'll all get through this.” He started to hover on gossamer wings, looking to join the battle again and hopefully help somepony else.
Silver's heart fluttered for a moment as she watched him prepare to leave, the effect of a knight in shining armor not lost on her, even with her injuries. “Silver Lining!” she called out as he left before turning around, wondering how far she was from the greenhouse. It was just across the street, so she limped that way on lightly bleeding legs, the scratches from the gryphon deep enough to draw blood.
She was able to make her way to the door uneventfully, ushered inside as soon as Flora recognized her. In the middle of the room, the crystal bush glowed, letting off a soft light, and Flora had been studying it. As she saw her friend's injuries, though, she abandoned her plan to move the bush. Whatever it was doing, she wanted to be here to keep it safe and let it happen.
* * * * *
Ink Well fought against the tide of ponies abandoning the fighting, forcing his way through them at Rose's side, refusing to take to the air for fear that they would be separated. When finally they broke through the lines, both of them made a break for Town Hall, certain the center of town would be the perfect place to try to plan.
Unfortunately, not a street later, they found themselves stopped by a small group of knights. They recognized Ink Well, and with the madness going on around them, this seemed like the perfect time to start something. Twelve armored ponies formed a circle around Ink Well and Rose, ready to take out their frustrations on the pony who 'started the war.'
As the first hoof was thrown, however, it clanged off of heavy armor, deep blue against the knight's gold. The orange flightless pegasus within stood guard over Ink Well and Rose. The knights just glared at the interloper, and she glared back, her purple eyes seeming to glow in the night as she brought her hoof around, taking out two with a single blow.
Rose and Ink Well scurried aside as the other ten knights tried to take revenge for their fallen friends. Even when they landed hits on Scootaloo's helmet, however, she seemed to take them in stride, hardly noticing the blows to the armor she moved so effortlessly in. It was practically laughable how easily she tossed them aside, the Orange Demon, as the empire soldiers called her, living up to her name.
Within seconds the battle was over and she made her way to the two she'd been protecting. “Luna and Twilight are both at Town Hall. I'm assuming you're trying to find them?”
Ink Well shook his head. “I'm just trying to find out what happened. You didn't order an attack on the others, did you?”
Scootaloo looked at him like he was mad. “They outnumbered us ten to one and we were trespassing in their lands. We were walking on eggshells. They went after us, tried to jump us while we slept for today.”
Ink Well looked at the sky then, his brow furrowing. “Today… you wouldn't happen to know what time it is, do you?”
Scootaloo shook her head. “Sweetie Belle had a watch on her, but she's focusing on evacuating civilians as I clear out pathways. When she gets back, I'm sure she—”
“Scootaloo!” Sweetie's voice called from down the street, her figure running out of the darkness, flanked on both sides by familiar faces. One, a yellow mare with a red mane, the other, a young, powerful looking dragon in purple scales. “Scootaloo, you won't believe who I found on the edge of town!”
“Apple Bloom?!” Scootaloo ran over to her old friend, looking at the mare threateningly. “As in, the head of research and development for the empire? What are you doing out of your castle?”
Spike immediately stood in the way, twice the size of Scootaloo, even in her armor, and fire trailing from his mouth. “Don't you think she could've done more damage to you if she wanted? It's thanks to her that—”
“This ain't th' time, Spike, we'll argue later!” Bloom shoved her way past her protector, standing in front of Scootaloo and looking at her with a clear show of purpose. “I've got a urgent message fer Twilight, an' I need help gettin' to her. Are ya' gonna help me, or am I gonna havta count just on Spike?”
“How do I know this isn't some trick for you to poison the President?” Scootaloo continued to look angrily at Apple Bloom, while Sweetie Belle stood to the side looking worried. She knew how Scootaloo could get. She'd been there for the rants. “Why should I keep helping somepony who wouldn't help me?”
Ink Well tried to step in, but Rose stopped him, shaking her head. This was something the two mares were going to have to work out on their own.
Bloom kept her cool in the dark Ponyville street, matching Scootaloo's gaze. “An' why should I be askin' you fer help when you abandoned yer country to fight against 'em? When yer whole goal in life was ta take down the buildin' I was livin' in? I should be throwin' acid on ya, or settin' ya on fire with the gel I've got sittin' unused in the lab.” In the distance, the crack of magic cut through the air, followed by the pops of a few guns firing in retort. “But I ain't, 'cus I trust ya, Scootaloo. I knew ya'd never hurt me, an' I made sure my discoveries wouldn't hurt y'all neither. So you gonna keep tryin' ta fight me, or are ya gonna help yer fellow crusader deliver a message ta th' Princesses?”
The two mares seemed to study each other's eyes for a good long while. Long enough for a fight to break out on the end of the street, ponies scuffling and projectiles flying, blocking the path to the Town Hall. After a long silence, Scootaloo nodded. “Let's get moving. We've got a message to deliver.” She started to run down the street, barrelling towards the brawl at the end of it, and everypony else there followed, ready to break through when she cleared a path. Honestly, it didn't take her long, flinging aside a couple ponies, her heavy armor blocking the bullets that rained on her from the Crystal Empire fighters.
Using the distraction she made, everypony else got past the dangerous intersection, though not without a loud cry from Sweetie Belle. “Cutie Mark Crusader Messenger Service, YAY!” Both Apple Bloom and Scootaloo actually joined in on the 'yay,' Scootaloo breaking away from the fight once the others were through to charge ahead and clear the path further.
As they ran, Ink Well moved to Sweetie's side. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Why?” Sweetie said, concentrating too much on running to think about anything else.
Meanwhile, Ink Well looked up at the moonless, pitch black sky. “Just a horrible feeling I'd like eased.”
When they paused in the running, the skirmish ahead too large for Scootaloo to instantly clear, Sweetie looked at her watch, using her horn's glow illuminating the face so she could see it. “It's… 8:30, why?”
“That late in the morning?” asked Rose, looking up at the sky as well. “Why is it still so dark out?”
Ink Well nodded, starting to run once more as another path was opened. “My thoughts exactly. The moon has set, so where's the sun?”
* * * * *
Battles were springing up all over the town, to the point that Fluttershy, in order to stay safe, had to remain on the outskirts. She had bandaged and sutured her way around to the train station, with Dented following behind. At the train station she had found an early casualty of the Gryphon Kingdom, lying weakly and bleeding onto the floor.
Initially he had refused her help, but when his claws didn't even have the strength to push her gentle hooves away, he really didn't have much say in the matter. Immediately Fluttershy got to work, with Angel Bunny's help to get the things she needed. Dented had lagged behind, offering to finish up on the previous patient while she moved on.
Fluttershy, her bunny, and her patient were alone in the building, the rest of the gryphons and their allies out protecting Cadance and Grandis from forces converging on them or out fighting the knights and soldiers. Sweat trickled down Fluttershy's brow as her hooves carefully managed the needle in them, sewing shut a nasty gash in the gryphon's side. “There, there, we're almost done. Just a few more stitches, then we bandage the minor wound in your thigh.”
Angel walked over with the gauze as Fluttershy finished up the last stitch, getting a pained cry from the gryphon. When Angel gave the gauze over, her ear twitched, the faintest sound coming from the shadows behind her. She turned around, trying to spy whatever it was, and in the flash of a spell outside saw the unmistakable gleam of light on a gun barrel.
She didn't have much she could make in the way of noise to warn Fluttershy, and breaking the medic's concentration could have bad consequences for the gryphon, so Angel just ran up her back, hoping to push her down slightly as the bunny's body went where she believed the bullet would go.
The gunshot rang throughout the train station, followed by the sounds of fleeing hooves as the attacker made their escape. Fluttershy jumped at the sound, looking first at Angel, laying on the ground motionless, shivering in fear. However, when Angel felt no pain, she looked over, finding the actual resting place of the bullet.
Dented Angel coughed, immediately losing his balance on his one rear leg and collapsing to the ground, blood seeping from his chest. “Dented!” Fluttershy cried, immediately switching her attention to the new wound while the gryphon got to his feet, weakly pursuing the coward that had tried to kill his medic. Fluttershy didn't even have the focus to stop him, propping Dented up and making sure he kept breathing. “Dented… Why'd you do it? You didn't have to…”
Dented coughed, smirking at her painfully. “Oh? And who would've come to treat the best medic in the field? Nope… better the damaged goods go down than anypony as crucial as you.”
Fluttershy held out a hoof, and Angel already had the forceps ready, which Fluttershy unfortunately had to dig into the wound without anesthetic. “No… None of this would have happened without you. I wouldn't be where I am without you giving me the idea… You can't die on me, Dented.”
He winced and groaned as she dug out the bullet, placing it aside as she went for her other tools. When she looked back, his eye was looking directly into hers, tears forming at the edge of it. “You already saved my life once, 'Shy… it was the least I could do to return the favor.” He winced again as blood seeped from the bullet hole. “You know… Even when you were a model, I thought you were beautiful. And now… after traveling with you…” He coughed again, his eye looking glazed over. “I… I'm glad I got to know how beautiful you are throughout. I… I love you, 'Shy. Never stop… changing… the world.”
Dented Angel's head lolled to the side, causing Fluttershy to shake her head, holding him close to her. “No… no no no, I'm… I can't lose you! Not after all of this, not after you said that…” Tears were forming at the edges of her eyes, and never more had she felt like crying, but she held it back, holding out her hoof for the next tool she needed. “No… You're going to make it, Dented. Even if nopony else does tonight.”
Soon, silence descended once again on the train station, the only sound the frantic work of Fluttershy and Angel Bunny, working to keep themselves from losing another Angel.
* * * * *
President Luna and Princess Twilight worked together to barricade the Town Hall, their magic and the few loyal members of each army outside all that stood between them and chaos. Pinkie Pie and Rarity were both in there with them, having made their way once the fight had started. They were making sure the entrances other than the main one were closed off, and they were doing a fantastic job of it. A little magic and many piles of chairs essentially kept the four inside safe from the three armies warring for the town.
As Twilight continued to maintain the main barrier, Luna was deeply troubled, looking out of the window. “We lowered the moon at the prescribed time, as we have every day despite this war. Why has our sister not raised the sun?”
Twilight shook her head. “I don't know! Nopony's seen her at all, and nopony can find out where she is!” She felt a knocking on the barrier and ran towards it, hearing a familiar voice calling from outside.
“Twilight! It's Spike, let me in!”
“Spike?!” Twilight created a gap in the barricade to let the door open, which it was immediately by Spike with Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, Ink Well, and Rose all filing in behind him. Most of them were just happy to be safe, but Twilight seemed to ignore them all for Spike and Apple Bloom. “What are you two doing here? I thought you were still in Canterlot.”
“We were, but there's something you need to see.” Apple Bloom gave Spike a note she was holding, which he gave to Twilight to look at. An elegant scroll, with one word scrawled quickly across it. 'Help.'
Apple Bloom piped up after that. “Tha whole castle's on lock down like they're goin' ta war! An' as we got out, we saw the royal chariot bein' pulled into the castle. I think our Princess was foalnapped!”
“How does one just foalnap the Princess of an entire nation without anypony noticing?” Sweetie Belle asked, confusion in her voice.
“Discord did it quite well back when Twilight found the Tree of Harmony...” Spike answered, sparking a thought in everypony's mind.
Rarity then shook her head. “It wasn't Discord, darling. It was Ironsides.”
Twilight's brow furrowed. “The General? How would he do that? How do you know?”
Rarity raised an eyebrow at Twilight. “Really? You asked me how I know?” Twilight then nodded, conceding the point. “Now… how he did it alone, I don't know, and that upsets me… if not for the message and the lack of sun, one might think she did it on her own.”
Hearing all of this, Ink Well walked over to President Luna. “Please, you have to get out there and tell the ponies what is happening. This madness has to stop.”
Luna shook her head, peering through the window in the direction of Canterlot. “We have tried to talk to Our soldiers, but most are too worked up into a frenzy to listen. Many want revenge, and those that don't seem confused as to who to blame for this. We considered raising the moon once more, but only more fear and madness would be spawned that way.” Her face looked grim. “We cannot think of a peaceful way to get their attention or the support of the Knights. We fear the only outcome is a massacre…”
Ink Well's shoulders fell as he looked at Luna, the defeat on her face passing to him. “It's all my fault...” He backed away from her slowly, looking as though he'd just been beaten to a pulp. “I… I called them all here. I started this fighting.” He slumped to a sitting position. “I… I was a fool to think we could have peace.”
“Stop that right now.” Hooves wrapped around Ink Well in a loving hug, Rose propping him up against his own fears. “Your actions were noble, your beliefs just.” She turned him to face her, her face determined. “You have returned, after years of running, because you believe there can be peace. You sent letters to this room, to the world, promising a better time to come with the dawn. And you never break your promises.”
She could tell she wasn't getting through to him, and with a slight head shake, she made him look her in the eyes. “Somehow, this will all work out. I believe in you. And even if I am wrong, if we are wrong… It doesn't matter. I will be by your side from now until the day we die.” She smiled at him warmly. “You have a gift that can move mountains and hearts alike… you'll find a way.” With that, she kissed him deeply, letting her love flow into him, building his confidence back up to the stallion she knew. He returned the kiss, not ready to give up… Even if he failed, he would fight to the end for peace in his time.
* * * * *
Smoke billowed through the perfumery, causing Wind and Steam to cough as Wind tried to keep a clear area around them. It was working, but barely, and the sounds of growing flames were reaching both of them.
Steam shuddered where she was, hating everything about this situation, but most of all that she had gotten Wind trapped in it as well. “You should have left when you had the chance… You could've flown out the window, and then only one of us—”
“Shush,” Wind said, cutting her off. “I didn't leave you at the apartment, and I'm not leaving you now. After creating the wings… after all we've been through, after all that time together… I can't leave alone. And knowing how thick the smoke would be without me…”
Steam worked the letter between her hooves, knowing that this might be the last time she could ever give it to Wind. “I just… I brought you into this, and after everything you've done for me, if you die here too…”
Wind looked into Steam's eyes, her own glowing with determination. “Steam, we aren't going to die here. We are both going to get out of here, because…” She shook her head. “I can't imagine life without you.”
Steam closed her eyes, tears forming at the edges of hers as she wrestled with herself, wanting to work up the courage, wanting to say what she'd written down weeks ago. As another cloud of smoke rolled through, she came to a decision, pushing forward, her lips meeting Wind's as the letter slipped from her hooves.
The burning smoke raged around them, but for those two, time stood still as their lips connected, all of the emotions of months of time together finally coming forth. Eventually, Steam started to pull back, only for Wind to pick up the kiss, pushing forward and showing her own affections unsaid. As the heat grew, Steam wrapped her metal wings around the two of them, shielding them in a bubble where, perhaps, their last moments would be. But at least they would be in bliss.
* * * * *
Flora tried to bandage up Silver's scratches, using what she could of the greenhouse first-aid kit, though it really wasn't designed for anything like this. Outside, the battle raged, and it seemed only luck had kept it from raging in the direction of the fragile greenhouse walls.
Suddenly she heard a rapping at the door, followed by a voice she'd recognize anywhere. “Flora, please, open up!”
Flora's heart skipped a beat, but her eyes narrowed. “What do you want, Jazz? Trying to get rid of the 'cowardly pegasi' hiding away?”
“I want ta apologize, I want ta know ye're safe, and I don' want us ta die hatin' each other.” He went quiet for a while, then spoke quietly. “I didn' know what I wanted when I yelled at ya before… I didn' know what Ma wanted, I didn' think war'd be like this… Please, Flora, let me in… They're comin'.”
Flora continued to glare, but with a nudge from Silver, she finally stepped aside, letting Jazz into her greenhouse. He looked around for just a moment, the brightly glowing bush in the center of it grabbing his attention for just a moment before he turned to look at her. “Flora...”
“Jazz, you hurt me. You hurt me very badly, and just a little apology isn't going to cut it.” She looked him in the eyes, but was distracted by Silver sitting off to the side.
Silver looked at the two, then seemed to understand the situation. “Right… I'm gonna just…guard the door. Don't mind me.”
As Silver limped to lean against the door, Jazz looked at Flora again. “I… I know what I did was wrong, an' I don' expect ya ta forgive me in one go, but… I love ya, Flora. I love ya more'n anythin', an'… An' I just hope ya still love me too.”
“Um… There's ponies coming towards us… they don't look happy.”
Silver was ignored as Flora looked into Jazz's eyes, glaring at him before she held up a hoof. “You insulted my family, insulted me and all of my efforts to help your farm. You spit in my face, refused to listen to me, wanted to be a part of this mess outside…”
“There's three of 'em, and I don't think I can hold them off alone…”
“I said some stupid things, Flora, an' you have every right to hate me, but if there's any way we can make it work… I just… Nothin's the same without ya.” Jazz held out a hoof, grabbing Flora's and pulling it towards his heart.
“This is really touching, but is this the best time?”
Flora took a step closer to him, their muzzles inches apart. “First, you never say anything like that about me or my family again. Second, you promise me you'll never do anything looking like a fight again. And third…”
“Guys, seriously, they're—” Silver tumbled forward as one of them smashed against the door.
Flora continued to look in Jazz's eyes. “Third… You promise you'll love me for the rest of your life.”
Jazz nodded. “I do.”
Flora leaned forward, kissing him deeply, their time spent apart and the yearning for each other's touch evident in every moment. Three ponies stalked towards them, then stopped, looking at the crystal tree sitting in the center of the room.
“Um… Jazz? Flora?”
At the bottom of the tree, three lights shone, blindingly bright, with a rainbow coming off of them as they diffracted through the crystal leaves. The entire plant began to shake, then glow so brilliantly white that it could have rivaled the sun.
A moment later a crash echoed throughout Ponyville, the greenhouse shattering and pieces of it sparkling like stars as they rained down around the tall, proud tree standing in the center of the town. Six large fruit hung from its bow, each their own moon, all of them making the town shine like the middle of day.
At the top of the tree, Flora and Jazz finally broke their kiss, laughing confusedly as they tried to make sense of what just happened.
* * * * *
Ink Well and Rose broke apart as a blinding light shone through the Town Hall windows, making them have to shield their eyes after the darkness of the moonless night. Everypony inside was at the window, looking at the great crystal tree that had formed nearby. Luna gasped when she saw it. “Is that…?” She shook her head. “No… it's impossible.”
Ink Well cocked his head at her words, noticing something, or rather, a distinct lack of something. There was silence. The constant sounds of battle had calmed down, all eyes glued to the tree… It was his one chance. “Twilight! Can you do the spell to amplify my voice?” Twilight nodded, not sure what he wanted it for, but hearing the urgency in his tone. Her horn glowed, his throat tingled with magical energy, and then he was outside, flying high above Town Hall.
“Ponies, gryphons, peoples of all nations, listen to me! What you look at now is a Tree of Harmony, blooming even in this troubling time, proving that even from this chaos, there can be peace.” He could see eyes turning from the tree to him, and though sweat began to drip from his brow that he'd say the wrong thing, he knew in his heart that he'd find the right words. He'd have to.
“You continue to fight your war, even with your leaders actively opposing it. Even with your leaders missing. You, right here, decide the fate of Equestria. It can continue to be ripped apart, limb by limb, taking blood for every misdeed done to you until all of us are bled dry. Or you can realize that your enemy is not the pony next to you, who fights for their country and their beliefs as readily as you. Your enemy foalnapped Princess Celestia, orchestrated a coup to pit you against each other, and even now laughs as you struggle to beat each other to a pulp.”
He could hear the uproar at the mention of Celestia's absence, something he knew would occur. “Didn't you think it odd that, despite it being nearly nine, there is no sun? President Luna lowered her moon, as is her duty, precisely on time. Princess Celestia was unable to do her share. She has been thrown into the Canterlot dungeon by a false leader who even now is crouched upon her throne, and there is but one way she can be saved: you all must put aside your differences and fight for her freedom. Fight for a true, united Equestria.”
Ink Well could hear murmurs of doubt throughout them all… he hadn't convinced them. Even this display and his words couldn't bring together two warring nations… However, as he hovered where he was, he saw a distinct light fly from Canterlot Castle, followed by several more. Fireballs, like those that rained on Cloudsdale five years ago… it couldn't be mistaken. “If you needed proof, it flies at us from the castle. We can flee, leave the town to burn and continue our fight amongst ourselves, or we can band together and see Cloudsdale is not repeated!”
Ink Well had not been the only one to notice the fireballs. Both Applejack and Rainbow Dash were running towards Town Hall, barking orders to their ponies to fall in line and rally up the defenses. Twilight and Luna removed the barricade, each of them calling out to the ponies around them to help as they could. Even Fluttershy took to the sky from where she was hidden, calling for the Peace Corps to be ready for anything.
The following few minutes were a blur of motion that Ink Well could only watch, knowing his voice would just get in the way. Twilight, Luna, and Rarity led the unicorns and changelings in forming a shield, the dome of which covered the town, while Rainbow Dash, Grandis, and Cadance took the pegasi and gryphons to the skies, whipping the air into a frenzy to slow down and weaken the incoming flames. Earth ponies, meanwhile, led by Pinkie Pie and Applejack, with the help of diamond dogs they hadn't noticed until then, ran between houses, dousing fires and preparing water buckets for anything that made it past the first two defenses.
It was then that Ink Well noticed that Rosewater had been one of the buildings set on fire during the battle, and he sighed with relief when he saw the ash covered, but otherwise unharmed figures of Steam Cloud and Wind Key emerge. He joined with them, Rose, Flora, Jazz, and Silver to help prepare water buckets for the coming fires, while Apple Bloom, Sweetie, Scootaloo, and Spike all joined with Fluttershy and her medics, ready to find and help anyone injured during the defense.
It was amazing how organized they had become in the ten minutes it took the fireballs to fly, and when the first of the dozen impacted the barrier, it rained down embers, not death. The weakened ball of magical fire popped on the combined barrier of the unicorns, sending small tongues of flame out that rained upon the town, only to instantly be doused by the bucket brigades below.
The second sphere was not far behind the first, but it, and all of the fellows behind, were stopped just as easily. A few ponies found themselves too close to the fire, or were caught off guard after a fireball crashed against the barrier, but they were immediately tended to, leaving nothing but minor burns and some slightly scorched houses to show for the bombardment from Canterlot Castle.
When the final fireball was taken care of and the fires were being beaten down, a cheer rose up throughout the town. Soldiers hugged Knights, gryphons cheered with changelings, and even a diamond dog or two got caught up in the celebration as Ponyville was saved. During this time, President Luna came up to Ink Well, a look of curiosity on her face. “That is not a Tree of Harmony. Though We modeled it after one, that was actually a Tree of Hope. We are curious as to what one is doing here, though.”
Ink Well looked at Flora, who was cheering along with the rest of the crowd, and smiled. “My daughter grew it, or at least tended it until it grew itself… Why are you so confused by it?”
Luna looked at the tree, watching it continue to glow and shine, the light refracted through its leaves creating the perfect party lighting. “We grew them on the moon while We were banished… When We were freed, We thought they had all died. Where would a sample have come from?”
Ink Well just smiled, remembering his travels, his little glimpse into the future… “Perhaps, Selene, the moon is not as lifeless as everypony thinks.” He noted the strange look Luna gave him, but before she could follow up his comment Twilight Sparkle had taken a place of prominence and started to speak.
“Ponies of Equestria! While we have saved this town, this fight is by no means over. Princess Celestia has been taken hostage, and it is going to take every fit pony we can find to assault the castle and free her.” Twilight looked over the crowd, her princess demeanor causing a hush to fall. “Those who are injured or unable to fight can stay here, as can those who do not wish to siege the castle. Those who are willing to help me save the princess…” She then flew down to Luna's side, landing lightly. “Rally behind us.”
There was a small uproar among the Knights who didn't believe Luna had their best interests at heart, but she stepped forward. “While we may seem like enemies, this is not a march for war. This is a march for peace. To free Our sister! To end this war! Let us put an end to the fighting once and for all!”
“For the Republic!” yelled the soldiers.
“For the Empire!” chanted the knights.
“For the allies!” cried the gryphons, led by their king.
“For peace! For unity! For Equestria!” Ink Well led the last few chants, trying to get everypony's head in the right mindset, and it seemed to work, as moments later all hooves and claws were raised in solidarity.
“FOR EQUESTRIA!” the cry rang out, and soon those who would end this war marched towards Canterlot beneath a re-raised moon, led by Luna and the Elements of Harmony, all united once more.