Fluttershy’s eyelids twitched, but they did not slide open. There was no warm sunlight on her face; it was not morning yet.
“Fluttershy. Get up.” Applejack’s voice grew harder, and a hoof nudged Fluttershy in the shoulder.
Fluttershy gave a moan of protest, but she rolled her hooves underneath her and at least made a show of trying to push herself up. She did not want to be awake. In her dreams, she had been warm and cozy and safe, and she knew that when she opened her eyes, she would be… not.
“What time is it?” she yawned, covering her eyes with a wing and delaying the onset of reality for a few moments longer.
“It’s about an hour before dawn,” Applejack said, still with that same hard edge in her voice. “We need to get movin’.”
“Before dawn?” Fluttershy blinked the last traces of sleep from her eyes. “Applejack, why do we need to move so early? Shouldn’t we at least wait until it’s light?”
Big Mac’s day had started like any other. He’d risen with the sun, had his oats and coffee alongside his sister—with minimal conversation, of course, because it was early and neither of them felt very chatty—and headed out the door to work the fields. There was a certain stability and rhythm to farm life that Macintosh felt he quite enjoyed.
Unfortunately, this was farm life in Ponyville, so the stability and rhythm parts of the equation flew right out the window. Just as he was getting ready to hook himself into the plow, a magical accident involving an ancient chalice, Lyra and Bon Bon’s anniversary, and something the Cutie Mark Crusaders wouldn’t end up actually doing until ten years later tore open a hole in space time, throwing the stallion into another dimension.
That was about the point Big Mac realized it would be one of those days. He sighed. “Eeyup…”
Apple Bloom turned and bucked hard against the thick vines covering the cave. The vines shuddered under the first impact, cracked under the second, and then finally splintered under a third. Apple Bloom smiled to her friends. “See? Nothin’ to it.”
Scootaloo shook her head and frowned. “It’s not cool acting proud, Apple Bloom. None of us want to be here.”
"I know that, Scootaloo, but since we ain’t got a choice we might as well try to keep our spirits up a little." Apple Bloom sighed as Scootaloo walked into the cave first, with a sour expression on her face. Sweetie Belle at least forced a smile for Apple Bloom’s sake, while Dinky Doo, Berry Pinch, and Silver Spoon just looked terrified.
It wasn’t their fault, really. Most fillies and colts from Ponyville stayed far clear of the Everfree Forest. “There ain’t nothin’ to be scared of, y’all. We used to go in th’ forest all the time when we were crusaders.”
Dinky seemed unconvinced, looking side to side in a fright as the six of them walked slowly through the darkness of the cave. “Mama says… always used to say… that the Everfree Forest was too dangerous.”
Scootaloo grumbled to herself as she buzzed her wings and sped through town on her scooter, only slightly paying attention to her path. “Stupid Sisterhooves Social. Stupid Crusaders with their stupid sisters that don’t have stupid Wonderbolts training every stupid weekend.”
It was the kind of angry grumbling that tended to distract a filly, and Scootaloo didn’t notice as the smooth, packed-earth road became a bit rougher. She didn’t notice as the open fields and nicely tended gardens changed into scraggly trees and overgrown vines. She didn’t notice the light being dimmed by the canopy above her, or the eyes peering out between the tree trunks on either side.
She did however notice the loud roar.
Scootaloo turned her scooter hard, skidding to a stop and looking around in a panic. Where in Equestria was she? This looked like the Everfree forest! That was when she saw the timberwolf prowling slowly toward her, its empty eyes glowing a bright green. Scootaloo’s ears folded back, and she jumped back on the scooter and took off at full speed, screaming in a panic. “Aaah! Get away get away get away!”
The timberwolf charged after her, and matched her pace easily, and she couldn’t help glancing back every few seconds as it chased her. She bounced the scooter over rocks and roots in the path, her wings buzzing as hard as they could go. She looked back again, only to see the wolf’s teeth snap just behind her tail. She turned back around just in time to see the branch right in front of her face.
“AJ, how much farther do we have to go?”
Applejack looked up at Rainbow Dash. “Last message from Fluttershy said she was on th’ edge of th’ Everfree, Dash. Even if she’s been headed our way the whole time, we’ve still got a few hours ta go ‘fore we can expect ta see her.”
“Good. Hopefully then, in a few hours we can begin heading back to civilization. I for one could do with a good bath when we return.” Rarity sniffed. “As could a few others I might mention.” At the jab, a muck-encrusted Scootaloo cringed back into Rainbow’s side, sending the pegasus mare’s armor a bit askew.
“Lay off, Rare. It isn’t the Crusader’s fault we’re out here; even if they did rile that Hydra up, that don’t mean you get to harp at them.” Rainbow twitched the edge of her still muck-encrusted tail towards Rarity, who shied away from it. “Besides, at least now we’re a little better-armed. The hydra’s card oughta be pretty useful if Fluttershy’s message was right.”
“For you ruffians, maybe. If I must fight, I prefer it to be with grace and finesse rather than brute force.”
Rainbow was woken rather abruptly form her dream by the shouts of a filly, just below her cloud. Jumping to attention, she zipped to the edge and looked below, to the vast moonlit savannah, trying to pinpoint where the shout had come from…
There! A zebra filly was galloping in panic, shrieking as she pushed high yellow grass aside, being chased by something more than double her size, looking predatory enough in its feline gait to sound an alarm in RD’s head.
She bolted off the cloud with enough force to dissipate it, diving straight for the feline’s muzzle, hoof outstretched.
"Try someone more your size, won’t ya?" She delivered, allowing the lion just enough time to turn before the hoof connected and blasted its whole face, dissolving it into sand, partly picked up in Dash’s contrail as she sailed past.
She hovered in place to survey the scene. “Whoa,” she said, glancing at her hoof in disbelief. “Are all things around here this dehydrated or something?”
Rainbow Dash banked hard to her left to dodge the first of the falling rocks, and then dove as quickly as she could to dip under the falling pillar. The venture into the catacombs of Night’s Sweep had turned out like one of her Daring Do books, only this wasn’t a work of fiction, and the collapsing masonry really would hurt if it fell on her.
Rainbow Dash screamed out in anger as the colossal gates of the lower crypts closed up, scant meters away from her. She beat her wings furiously to slow herself down, practically screeching through the air until her hooves gently tapped the solid granite gates. The pillar below smashed into the ground, cracking open the ground and sending a rippling effect over the floor tiles as the hole got bigger and bigger, swallowing up the floor and scattered pottery fragments.
She watched the roof and followed the cracks going up to it, waiting for the ceiling itself to begin to crack and split. The open skies lay just a floor above her, so close, but sealed by a meter of stone. The cracks split up and came to a stop nearer the top of the tall walls, and all that happened was that more and more brickwork fell down around her.
If the explosion of pain was any indication, my shoulder had probably
been broken when I impacted the wall. I tried to gather my hooves
beneath me to stand and face what he had become.
The yelp probably came from my throat.
"The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown," he proclaimed.
He just stood there, now, boasting. I tried to ignore him. The pain
made it easy.
I tried to focus on finding my blade-motes again. Ten pieces of topaz.
The pain made it hard. He kept talking, and I still heard him,
Celestia damn it.
"The lion kicked the unicorn all around the town."
I heard him begin to move. Slowly, confidently. I dared not open my eyes.
I found three of them.
"I must thank you, Cavalier, on brining me the Star Sapphire. Who
knows how long I’d have had to scheme and toil to obtain it. And here
you bring it directly to me, yes, thanks are in order.”
Grasping them in my telekenisis, I hurled them at him.
A whirl of motion later, I felt myself airborne once again. A whirl of
motion later, another bloom of pain wracked my body.
I may have blacked out.
"—traying Daring Do like that," He was still talking, always talking,
"was absolutely perfect! Now I find myself with celestial power and my
nemesis locked safely in my dungeon!” He laughed.
So she wasn’t dead yet. There was hope, then.
I found five pieces of my blade this time. My eyes opened to see where
I now lay.
I wished I hadn’t opened them.
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.)
(He’s half-lion and she’s a former unicorn. Totally counts.)
Twilight Sparkle ran through the doorway in a frenzied gallop, and nearly fell as her hooves skidded across the dusty floor of the ancient castle of the royal sisters. After a moment, her hooves found purchase on the old stone, and she managed to start moving again just in time to avoid the swipe of razor-sharp griffon talons through the air behind her.
The griffon roared as loudly as he could, and shouted at her. “Get back here!”
Twilight’s eyes widened in panic as she turned another corner, flapping her wings to keep her balance and traction this time. She’d only been in this castle a few times and she didn’t even know where she was. She dodged around fallen masonry and then jumped over an overturned table. The scratching of taloned feet behind her seemed to be getting closer by the moment. “My crown! He’s after my crown!”
"No one can hear you, Princess!"
Twilight dodged left just in time to avoid the heavy stones that the griffon hefted after her. This was insanity! She focused her magic and teleported at speed, which was never really a good idea. The world disappeared, and a moment later came rushing back in, with a stone wall just in front of Twilight’s full gallop.
She saw flashing stars before her as she staggered back to her feet after the collision. Standing, she found herself in a dead end hallway, but at least one that was familiar. Turning to run away from the end of the corridor, she saw the griffon ambassador approaching at full speed, eyes blazing in the dark castle hallway.
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
The first of the iron machines came in the late afternoon, great engines of destruction, spurred by the malice and contempt of their drivers. Regular ponyfolk like you or I, cruelly snatched from their homes and brought to this wicked place; their fates sealed by powers that dwelt in manses of luxury and gold.
The crumbling roads cracked and split as heavy metal legs stomped their way down the street. Destitute refugees hid under collapsed buildings and great mounds of indistinguishable rubble. The groups were a muddied huddling mass of souls: mothers clutching foals, rich rubbing shoulders with beggars, and soldiers who found no relief in their weaponry.
The first salvo of rockets launched from the iron machines, soaring into the overcast skies like grand phoenixes of old, and came screaming to the ground in the far distance, illuminating the horizon in a dull orange haze. The response was swift and merciless, with shell after shell raining down into the plaza. Where there had once been a grand stone design in the floor of two unicorns circling a crown, gilded with filigree, there were now only pits filled with muddied water and rocks.