The pony groaned. Her head was pulsating. Her legs and neck felt stiff and aching with disuse. She felt like she was on some kind of boat, drifting back and forth. There was a taste of metal in her mouth. She didn't know how she'd got there.
She concentrated and focused her energy, attempting to move at least one part of her body. With as much effort as she could muster, she forced her eyelids to flutter open. The world was dark and blurry, but gradually grew clearer as she rapidly blinked, and felt tears rolling down her face. The first thing she saw was a set of purple hooves lying against a wooden floor. Her hooves, she realised with a jolt. She was Twilight Sparkle. Why was that such a surprise to her?
With a heave, she rolled onto her front. Some of her hooves wound up underneath her, the others were splayed at different angles. With what felt like a massive effort, she slid her legs underneath her and pushed herself upright, her legs shaking as she did so. As soon as she was fully on her feet, she looked about.
It was her room, her library. But it all seemed wrong. All the windows were boarded. Chains weaved across the room, along every shelf, holding back all of the books, which seemed to be down by a third of the number they used to be. Her bed had been flipped over. The stairs had been torn in two, every single one. She unsteadily walked around to see the kitchen, and found it completely and utterly ransacked. She wondered how she had even got there. The last she remembered, she was in the forest...her friends kept vanishing...she was running scared...Nightmare Moon?
She opened her mouth, but found her throat dry and her voice creaking. After a few tries, she cleared her throat, and called out again. "HELLO?" she shouted, "SPIKE? OWLOWISCIOUS? ...ANYPONY?" Finally, her head hung, she made towards the front door. She pushed her hoof against it, then both her hooves, then heaved both her hooves and her head against it, then took a step back, her horn glowing as she amplified her speed, and charged at the door. She fell through as the door and the boards stuck onto it splintered like rice-paper, then as she nursed her shoulder she looked up, and instantly wished she hadn't.
The sky was black in uncountable shades and hues, separated only by the lines of cloud. The hills and trees looked like holes cut out of existence, they were so darkened. As for Ponyville itself, for a moment all she could see was glimmering shapes beyond fractured windows. Then all of a sudden, with a rush and a roar, a huge tower of fire rose up in the near distance, became an iridescent ball in the air, and the sole source of light. Then she saw it. Then she saw all the houses, now hovels scarred and torn to pieces, barely closed off to the open air. She saw the towering armoured horses just out of sight, patrolling the streets with disturbing discretion. She saw all of this, and she knew three things, things that were more questions than facts. There was something strange that night in the Everfree forest. She had been gone for a long while. And something terrible had happened to Ponyville.
When Twilight got to her legs again, they were shakier than ever. Her head was pounding. The world seemed to be swimming. Over and over she kept asking herself; what in Celesta's name is going on? Suddenly, in her haze, she felt something prick inside her head. A little twinge of clarity, like a minuscule light shining inside of her head. And it was coming from a certain direction. She swayed her head, like a drunkard would hold a compass. Once she found her direction, she gradually lolloped forward, her hooves growing more and more used to moving along the ground.
It wasn't long before she found herself headed straight towards Sweet Street ...Yes...yes that's what the little light in her head was. Something bad had happened, and she was concerned about her friends. Where they all right? She held her head up, galloping faster and faster. It wasn't long until she could see the make-believe gingerbread house that was Sugarcube corner. It was as dimly lit as the rest of the town, the masonry confectionery hacked to pieces, but that just made her move faster. But even as she barreled towards Pinkie Pie's door, she could not shake the feeling she'd just gone past somepony. Somepony around the corner, watching her even then.
Twilight couldn't help but slam the door shut behind her. Her own futile attempt at shutting out the horror that the world had become. As she caught her breath, she took the time to look around the shop. Gone were the pretty little cupcakes, the beautifully decorated puddings, the cookies oozing with chocolate. The shelves and front desk looked as though something had decided every piece of furniture looks better after at least one go with a lumber axe. They were very sparsely stacked, and this time with small, lime green boxes, with black stamps on the lid that were hard to make out in the gloom. They seemed more like rations now, as if there was a war on. Twilight noted equidistant candles sitting around the place, nearly burned to nothing. They must have been the only source of light nowadays.
There was a burst of orange light through the windows as another fireball went up.
Well, apart from that. Taking advantage of the sudden glow, Twilight headed up the stairs. "MR CAKE?" Before long, she got to a number of doors, rendered nondescript by tearing and scrubbing of some kind. She began opening each one, finding bedrooms, a bathroom, things you would expect of course, but nothing more than that. In other words, none of the rooms had anything to set them apart from just any place's equivalent. They were all blank, all grotty, no decorations, boarded windows, and more importantly no one in them. "MRS CAKE?" Twilight had almost exhausted her options, and couldn't help letting out a snarling groan of frustration. Just before she tried the attic, she caught the final door out the corner of her eye. She went to open it, but then stopped in her tracks. She saw something she hadn't before, something that seemed glaringly obvious now. A beam of light, faded but present, shining through the key hole. Something inside was softly glowing. The first speck of pure light she'd seen. "...PINKIE PIE?...Pinkie? Are you there?"
Her hoof on the door handle, Twilight was ready to fling the door open and embrace her friend. But she remembered the last time she was alone in a house, and flung open a bedroom door. She turned the handle, and gradually the door creaked open. Twilight winced, but better a creaky hinge than a nasty shock. She nuzzled her way through the crack in the doorway, and slipped into the room.
Twilight drew a soft breath. It was Pinkie's room all right. Streamers hanging from the ceiling, ruffles on the curtains, big poofy cushions in the corners, a cupboard hanging ajar revealing dozens of costumes. A framed picture of Pinkie and Gummy wearing party hats, Pinkie winking and smiling with a party horn in her mouth, hung on the wall above the bed. It all felt rather dizzying, being the most vibrant...place Twilight had seen so far tonight.
But at the same time, like everything else, it didn't feel right. The room was disordered, as if Pinkie had just left, but everything was gathering dust, as could be seen in the gloom. It all seemed rather meticulous in it's own messiness, like if someone wanted it to be just the right sort of mess, just the right sort of crooked, just the right sort of sty. Twilight almost dismissed the thought, almost decided she was just being silly and there was no such thing. But then she noticed something she couldn't ignore. A piece of paper lying on the bed, dotted with what could only be the remains of tears, written on which were these words.
Kept your room the way you left it, hope you like it.
Sorry couldn't find you. Been so dark lately.
Feels so long now. Can't tell time anymore. Have you changed much? Please don't.
Miss you so much. You made everything happy. Maybe even could have made this happy.
Come home soon.
Carrot and Cup xxx
Twilight crinkled the letter as she shut her eyes and fought back tears. She felt more and more alone with every passing moment. There were no signs of life from anywhere she'd been, except for those horses she'd seen, and now she wondered if those were even there. Her friends...Her neighbours...Everypony was gone. How? Where? WHY?
She opened her now misty eyes a crack, and was slightly surprised by the white light mixing with the dark. She remembered why she was there in the room. Turning around, she found the source of the light. On the wall opposite the bed, there was a cabinet with an oval mirror on top, a reflection barely discernible in the dulled glass, and a feather boa draped across weaving through miniature pony dolls. The light was coming from the topmost draw. Twilight opened it with her magic, and looked inside. There was a popcorn kernel, a misshapen bit of flint, a ragged balloon, a pair of red sunglasses, a gold ticket, and one little box, no bigger than a hoof, wrapped in red ribbon like a gift, and something shining from beneath the lid.
Twilight stared at it for a moment. The little signal inside her head was pointing right at this thing. It was either a trap, or a clue to answer to this whole thing. She didn't see what difference it made at this point. Twilight took a deep breath, then threw caution to the wind, and in two shakes of her head pulled away the ribbon with her teeth and knocked open the lid.
The light was so brilliant she had to squint for a moment. Then as her eyes grew accustomed, she saw the shining object float up into the air. It took a second to recognise it, but Twilight realised that this was a golden chain, made a pendant by the oval shape attached to the circle. There was no doubting it; this was the necklace of the Element of Laughter, one of the six Elements of Harmony from that Summer Sun Celebration which sealed their friendship. The only thing missing was the blue topaz within. The necklace turned and twirled a strange fishlike dance through the air. It slowed to a halt in its ascent, but continued to turn until the oval gemstone container pointed at Twilight. It paused in its dance, as if marking its target, then without warning it coiled up, and shot through the air like an arrow of lightning.
Twilight recoiled as it struck her, bumping into the bed behind her. The white light had gone from the room. The gold necklace had...gone into her? Twilight's knees buckled. She felt so strange, like her body was moving on its own, bubbling and churning and writhing inside and outside. She panted and groaned, imagining her veins bulging and making bizarre patterns all over her. Then, as she opened her eyes to look at herself, Twilight began to change.
Her hooves had turned from purple to blood red, and continued to morph in colour. It felt like invisible paws were massaging her skin into new shapes, and it was traveling up her body from all sides. Her bones felt like they were thinning, growing lighter, becoming more limber. There was an aching pain in her forehead as her horn was pushed backwards into her skull. The magic that flowed through all unicorns constantly felt like it was drying up, evaporating. Her throat constricted and twisted, her voice breaking and unbreaking as it was forced into an outlandish squeak. As the massaging continued over her head, pulling at her jaw and yanking at her teeth, her vision flooded into a manic ripple of assorted hues, as she felt her new irises slide into place. Her perfect hime cut shriveled up, leaving her hair and tail a lumpy mess, then suddenly burst outwards into a hurly burly curly style. As the sensations subsided, Twilight stared down at herself in uncomprehending terror, until suddenly PEP!
And just like that, it was over. With a Pep. Or a sound like one. It had gone off inside her head, like someone had yanked out a metal stick of memory, and plugged in a new one in the same instant. It left her feeling kind of blank for a moment, after which she began to realise that she had new thoughts, memories, emotions buzz buzz buzzing in her head. The other ones had gone, just like that, and Pinkie felt completely at home in her skin now.
Wait, Pinkie? As in, Pinkie Pie? She looked up at the mirror on the cabinet, wiping it down to get a better look. Another fireball was thoughtful enough to go off outside, and the light went through the rafters and onto the mirror. Yep, that was Pinkie Pie there all right. Hair and eyes and balloons on her butt and everything.
"Hi, Pinkie Pie!" said Pinkie Pie, waving at the Pinkie Pie who waved right back. "It's really dark out, i'nnit? Nice night though. Or is it a day? Wow, I feel really dizzy right now, don't you? 'Course you do, you're me! But I thought I was Twilight just now. But now I'm not! I'm silly ol' Pinkie Pie!" She rolled along the desk, then looked back into the draw. "Ooo! Look, Pinkie Pie! It's my favourite sunglasses, my favourite balloon who died, my favourite rock from when I was a filly 'cause it's shaped like Zecora's continent, that popcorn that I thought was Gummy's tooth but wasn't, and my ticket to the Grand Galloping Gala where I had the BEST NIGHT EVER! I wouldn't know all that if I wasn't Pinkie, so I am Pinkie, so why was I Twilight? Oh! Maybe it was because I haven't done something very Pinkie Pie, so I need to do something Pinkie Pie! And that can only mean PARTIES! I'm gonna get the party ready so all my friends and HHHHP!" She brought her hooves to her mouth with that gasp, horror and sadness bursting onto her face. "Oh no! I almost forgot! My friends can't come 'cause I can't find anypony! Mr Cake! Mrs Cake! GUMMY! They're gonna be so worried! I'm gonna find them, and I'm gonna throw a Don't Worry Party, and it'll all be better."
There was no time to lose. Pinkie burst out of her room, and bounded downstairs in four hops. She landed with a KRUMP at the bottom, and looked up in time to see the silhouette go by the window. ...After much consideration, Pinkie decided to bypass the door. Moving so fast she became a blur, Pinkie found the fireplace, stuck her head inside it, and began her ascent up the chimney. She did this by scooting her legs up and down the sides, making what in her mind were caterpillar noises. She finally emerged from the top, covered head to tail in soot, feeling like a very accomplished ninja.
The cloud cover was finally starting to part above her, and out from behind it peered a bright white moon. It should have been a sign of comfort and hope after everything that had happened tonight. Instead, some clown had decided to mark a slit pupil onto the front. It was the ultimate in propaganda imagery, and a sure sign to every living thing in Equestria that big sister was always watching them.
"...Spooky! Hee hee hee!" Pinkie clambered out of the chimney, ran to the edge, and proceeded to hop from rooftop to rooftop into the night, startling a few birds as she went.
On reflection, Pinkie might have chosen someone closer as the next friend's house to visit. As it happened, though, Pinkie had decided to go for the most dependable friend she knew to help her through all this weird dark stuff. She couldn't go to Twilight because well she was Twilight just now so that probably wasn't an option. So that meant the next best bet was Applejack, and that meant trekking over to Sweet Apple Acres.
Fortunately, Pinkie Pie knew a few shortcuts. The sort of shortcuts that came in handy that time Rainbow Dash was trying to avoid her. A hop, skip and jump through them made passing over the rooftops easy as apple pie. She soon found herself right down at the farm, but unfortunately, apple pie most definitely seemed to not be on the menu.
The orchards seemed just about fine, if you were blind to the point where everything was a black shape. Every tree seemed to be in bloom, but each and every one was completely blanketed in shadow no matter what light you threw on it. As if they'd been painted that way. There was an orange light and Pinkie bristled. She looked over her shoulder, to find that the fireball was closer than ever. There was a bumpy dark metal structure in the field, with a funnel in the top from which the fire issued up. Looking about, Pinkie suddenly realised there were other fireballs issuing up, around six or seven at most, from sources dotted about the town.
Pinkie continued on through the orchards, and finally made it to the farmyard. It was, as expected, a wreck, its big red barn now a greyer shade, even in the fading light of the fire. Pinkie knocked on the door, then knocked three times, then knocked five times, then knocked out the tune of her favourite cupcake song, then finally decided to let herself in.
"Hi!" She said from the front door. No one responded.
"Hello?" She said from the pantry. No one responded.
"Apple Bloom?" She said from the rafters. No one responded.
"Big Macintosh?" She said from the bin. No one responded.
"Granny Smith?" She said from the stairwell. No one was there.
"...Aaapplejaaack..." She called out as she made her way to the bedrooms. "Ready or not, here I cooome..." She moved closer to one of the doors. Achey shoulder, shifty knee. Something was getting up in there.
"...AHA!" She burst into the room. There was no one there. Nothing except a torn bed, a splintered wardrobe, a few loose apple cores, and the Element of Honesty necklace floating into the air and pointing straight at her. "Uh oh."
The necklace zoomed. Pinkie ducked, letting the charm skim over her head. "Ha ha!" She dodged again, it missed her leg. "Can't catch me! Wee!" She sped off down the stairs. She could hardly believe it, she was outracing that necklace and "Wo-Whi-WHOA!" One poorly placed step was all it took to send the pink pony off her hooves and cartwheeling down stairs. She landed badly on her front, legs sprawled everywhere. "Owwie... Uh oh, big owie!" But it was too late to react now. She felt a sting as the necklace shot into her, shocking her onto her feet, and she began to change once again.
It didn't hurt this time, maybe because she was prepared for it, but Pinkie still felt the sheer strangeness of her flesh gaining a mind of its own, and was grunting and groaning all the while. Her skin massaged itself in a wave across her body, giving it a bronzer hue. Her limber leg muscles made for bouncing and dancing all day long were becoming packed with protein, bulging into amazonian brawn. Her voice box twisted and turned again as it reshaped itself, breaking and unbreaking her voice all over again and plunging into a deep abrasive drawl. Her face subtly reconfigured itself again, but this time her cheeks pushed themselves outwards, until with a sequence of popping sounds six freckles burst through her face like moles through a canvas. Her eyes went through a bursting of colours once again before settling on a new tone. Her poofy mane swelled up with a creak, and burst like a balloon into straight flat locks, which looped back behind her head and tied itself off at the end. As if from nowhere, she felt something distinctly hatlike appear and drop onto her head.
"Ouurgh...I don't think I'm" PEP! "never gon' get used t' that." Applejack blinked in surprise at the sudden dialect change, then grew concerned as she checked herself, her hooves, her hat, her cutie mark, then finally melted into frustration. "Well ain't this a crock o' rotten fruit. First ah'm Twilight Sparkle, then alla sudden ah'm Pinkie Pie, an' now 'fore you c'n say 'appleseed', ah'm Applejack! Can't a buncha gem-less medallions make up ther' minds already?! Ain't it enough that ah wake up, got no horn-swoggled clue what happened last night, alla' Ponyville's flipped on it's head, all three sets o' family 'n' friends're missin', and ah keep switchin' bodies 'n' brains like dance partners at a hootenany! WHAT IN THE SAM HAY IS GOIN' ON HERE?!" She screamed at the ceiling. She kept on staring at it, breath heavy, until finally she decided she was getting no answers from whatever was still up there.
"Whatever." She sighed, giving a backwards glance at the ceiling. "Ah gotta go find somepony." She trotted to the door.
Applejack almost had a heart attack. Evidently, Pinkie had forgotten to close the door behind her. And now standing in the middle of the exit was one of the beings she'd seen in the dark corners outside the library. A pony about as tall as Princess Luna, perhaps a few inches taller. It seemed to be covered in plates of black leaden armour, if not entirely made from it. The only real openings were a disturbing grating over the mouth, and deep holes where the eyes could just barely be seen inside, if you looked closely enough. As for the voice, rendered echoing and hollow by the helmet, it couldn't seem to decide if it wanted it be a childlike chirp or a gluttural throb, but was firmly decided on being flat, emotionless and void of soul.
"Now wait jus' one apple-pickin' moment. Ah ain't goin' nowhere without some aynswers. First 'f all, who're you s'possed to be?" She jumped again when she suddenly saw another armoured one beside her.
"Hold on, 'nother question. What's this here glory-givin' you menshunned?" The next speech came from her left, giving her yet another start.
"(Well, this is a mite new t' me) An', if ah may ask," She turned to behind her, were there was indeed another armoured minion. "Who is this benev'lent laydee?"
Applejack's breath froze, along with her heart.
"...Riiight, hokay, ah'm gonna lay mah cards down here," Applejack put on a smile, which oozed nervousness. "See, a-a-ah've been outta town fer a while, so ah ain't really caught up in the general goin's on yit. That's why ah'm a little outta the know on the new rules...'n' management..."
Applejack had a sudden thought. "Sure thing. Jus' one more thing, mind. 's there anypony else that wound up in that there anim'l pen o' yers?"
The police advanced, but Applejack's spirit's were lifted. "Sure thing, sir, 'r, ma'am, 'r, whadever. Applejack's the name."
The Surrogate Kin of Madness and Oblivion reared up, their hooves leaving ragged trails of shadow. A dagger whipped out the side of the right-hand Kin's hoof, which it swiped at Applejack. Applejack darted to the side, straight into a bearhug around the head from the left-hand Kin. The grip tightened like a vice around her skull, but still she struggled, until she managed to bring a front leg around its neck and squeeze. The front-hand and rear-hand Kin leaped forward, throwing themselves bodily onto Applejack. There was three seconds of the heap shifting left and right, until with a building warcry, the orange pony burst free. A backward kick shortly followed, to the side of the rear-hand Kin's muzzle, sending it straight to the floor. As the others charged again, Applejack grabbed a chair with her teeth and swung it around, catching the pair off guard. She barely had time to turn her head when the right-hand Kin struck her in the chest with a front right hoof, then lunged with the blade again. A quick duck ensured that the knife made only a light cut on the shoulder, and embedded in the table behind Applejack. While it struggled, she stood quickly upright, headbutting in the chin, then pushed its head straight into the floor, charged over its back, and bolted straight out the door.
The moment she was out, Applejack rounded a corner. Jumping up a barrel safely out of sight, she proceeded to clamber a well-worn series of ledges, windowsills and crevices. They'd served her well when she was a young'un, and they served her better today. Applejack soon found herself on the roof, where she could breath a sigh of relief. It was a terrible shame it had boiled down to a fight like that. She took no pleasure in violence, not least fights that brutal. But, at the same time, she recognised the world she'd been dropped into was a deadly one. She had a feeling there were more fights to come.
Looking down, she could see the remaining two Kin reconvening outside. They were muttering about 'them' coming back, and bringing the Elements of Harmony with them.
One of the Kin went off and into the night. Applejack then made up her mind. She wasn't getting any information from these 'Kin', and there was no chance of getting any anymore. She needed someone normal, or closer to normal, to get her some answers, and the pony mentioned as being at the pens was her best bet. It may be this pony had been driven mad by whatever had happened to Ponyville, but it was the only lead she had. With that in mind, she unsteadily made her way off the roof, and along the road the Kin was carving out.
It didn't take long to figure out where the Kin was headed. The knot in her stomach had started then, and had only gotten worse as she got a clearer view of the vicinity. So now here she was, at the entrance to Ponyville's brand new prison; Fluttershy's old home. From her cover behind a bush, she could see huge timber cages that dominated the old back garden. Each was filled with a brand of animal native to Ponyville, and each was the same size. It didn't matter how many poor things were crammed inside, or how grotty the spaces were, it was the same for everyone. Applejack squinted. In the gloom, it was impossible to tell which of the fourteen cages held the pony in. And she could have concentrated a lot better without that imaginary light niggling in her head. The one pointing towards Fluttershy's house.
Applejack suppressed it as she emerged discreetly from the bush. She knew exactly where it was taking her. The moment she got there, something big, gold and pointy would shoot out like a bat out of heck, she'd go through an extremely uncomfortable morph, and wind up as someone else. It was confusing enough having to register three conflicting life views in under two hours, let alone another potential three! She wasn't going for that trick again. But, said a voice in her head, possibly even Twilight's voice, what if the Elements of Harmony are the only things left of my friends? Or, if those two Kin talking was anything to go by, what if they were the only things that could help this mess? She couldn't just let them fall into the wrong hooves. Applejack had to agree, but what about... she'd just wandered over to the house while she was daydreaming. So, was she going to go through with it?...well, why not? Worse things had happened today.
The boarded window wasn't a match for a good hard kick. But it made a heck of a noise as it broke, and Applejack found herself repeating Twilight at Twist's house. After a few seconds of curling up into a ball inside the house, she deemed it safe to walk about. After a few scans of the scene, and a few pointless calls of the resident's name for old time's sake, Applejack was at the door of her bedroom. She closed her eyes, took a breath, kept her hooves steady and pushed the door open.
Applejack barely felt the necklace enter her. The sensations that followed, while still intensely uncomfortable, she could find at least somewhat bearable. Her skin rippled across her, sapping the reddish hue from her hide. She felt the toned muscles across her body shrink and dissolve, going even beyond what Twilight and Pinkie had, making her feel like she was liable to blow away in the wind. The most painful part came with the stubs pushing her way through her sides, stubs that grew longer, branched off like the bones of a paw, and sprouted soft feathers. Her murmuring moans grew softer and gentler, until they were less like a sheet of sandpaper and more like a ribbon of silk. Her freckles retracted into her face, and her eyes were felt changing behind closed lids. Her mane loosened itself, and cascaded elegantly over her gentle face. Last of all, her trademark hat faded into the air, and ApplePEP!shy slowly opened her eyes and took a deep breath, as she let her happy memories permeate her brain.
Still, there was no time for reminiscing. Fluttershy drifted down through the entrance that Applejack had made. As she peered around the corner of her house, Fluttershy felt the sharp sting of sympathy pains. Those poor, helpless creatures! Those terrible ponies would have to face up to their actions soon enough. But she couldn't fight them. Even if she could even bear striking another living thing, she wasn't nearly as strong as Applejack would have been. She needed some help.
Turning to the shrubbery and trees that had been an earlier hiding place, she called out into the leaves with her hushed, soothing tones. "Are you there, little ones? You can come out now, you're safe here." There was a few seconds pause. The bushes started to rustle. Fluttershy gasped and braced for an attack. But to her everlasting relief, a small number of birds came free of their hiding places, nuzzling up to this wonderful person they hadn't seen for so long.
"Yes, yes, I missed you too, little dearies. I'm sorry that things aren't nicer tonight, but I'm working to make it all better. There's somepony in the cages I need to see. I need one of you to find a pony in the cages and pick the lock, and the rest of you to distract that pony in the armour going back and forth. Do you think you can do it?"
The birds up past their bedtime chirruped. Anything for their pony friend.
"Yippee." Fluttershy began her walk very slow walk towards the cages. A young woodpecker had already zipped off, and the other three made a beeline for the guard. They swarmed in its face, they flapped, they chirruped, they even pecked at the soldier's eyeholes. The Kin was utterly unfazed, and continued its vigil. All the same, its view was obscured enough to let Fluttershy slip past. She was at the first cage already, but couldn't help pausing when she saw the poor little pigs inside, moving up to the bars and squealing pathetically.
"Hush now, I know, I know. I'll find a way to help you, and I'll set you all free again, I promise." There was an insistent chirping at her ear. Fluttershy turned to her feathered friend and followed him quickly across row after row of cages. They were near the very end, on the left hand side. The cage was slightly ajar now, within was Fluttershy's old peep of chickens. Fluttershy stepped inside, but before she could start saying 'hello' to each and every one, she saw the shape lying in the corner.
"Hello?" she drew closer. The shape didn't seem to be moving. "Are you all right? I'm here to help." The shape was trembling, making tiny little 'no no no no' sounds. Fluttershy could now see it was an earth pony, about her size, curled up with her hooves over her head, and marked all over with cuts and bruises. "It's okay. You're safe with me now." She pushed a hoof away. A wild, staring eye rolled around beneath, unseeing, unregistering, until all of a sudden it locked onto the pegasus.
"...Umm...I guess so-"
"Fluttershy!" The girl was completely unprepared as the earth pony pounced on her, wrapping her front legs tightly around her and weeping tears of joy into her shoulder. "It's you, it's really you! I thought it was an illusion or me going crazy from the lack of food but no, no, no, it's really you and you're here and we're all safe again!"
The earth pony backed off. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I forgot you don't like people being this personal. It'd be a different story if it was Pinkie. "
"No, that's fine, you've been stuck in here for so long that...wait a minute, you're Cheerilee, the teacher."
"Yes, yes I am. Sorry you hard to see me like this, all covered in mud with chunks of hair cut off..." She looked about nervously. "W-where are the others? Were they with you?"
"It's...kind of a long story."
"Well, we can't stay here. They'll be onto us by now. We need to go somewhere else, deeper into the town, where they won't OOF." Cheerilee had decided to walk forwards, managed two steps and promptly collapsed. Fluttershy pushed her head underneath her, and wriggled it about until she could tip Cheerilee onto her back.
"N-need my bag..." gasped Cheerilee, "In tree by...schoolyard...then find safer place...not safe even there..."
"I'll take care of it. Rest, Ms Cheerilee." She gently tipped the gate closed behind her. Fluttershy felt very secure, now that she was actually helping someone. The other friends of hers that she'd been, they were scared because they were alone. And there's nothing really to be scared of in the dark. Except maybe bats, and spiders, and rats, and tall thing that just snuck up behind her and started playing This Little Piggy with her feathers.
Fluttershy screeched and bolted.
Security was once again reached once they were in the confines of the Carousel Boutique. The bag had been recovered without a hitch, and now as the pair of them rested in the main room, Fluttershy had been regaling Cheerlie with stories of what she had done that 'morning'. To prove her little story, she had found the Element of Generosity in Rarity's room.
On this occasion, she decided to look herself in the mirror, and watch the transformation for herself. She watched as her lemony skin bleached into pure white, as her wings retreated into her body, as her face was dusted with eyeliner and eyeshadow, as her horn pushed out of her forehead while innate unicorn magic stirred within her. She continued her story as she spoke, noting her voice gently lowering. As she neared the end, her mane twirled and twisted, before bursting out in a spiral of dark blue. At long last, there was a PEP! in her brain, a diamond cutie mark popped into place on her haunches, and the last sentence of her anecdote was concluded in a cultivated mid-atlantic accent.
"Well, that's quite a story, Flutte-uh, Rarity. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I probably wouldn't believe it. Then again...there's been a lot going on recently..."
"Well of COURSE there has dear Cheerilee. I could see that when the street was ruined and the sky was drenched in darkness! Enough about me, my dear, tell me exactly what happened when I was gone from the world with all my dearest friends! Tell me everything, and spare no detail, however small."
"Alright, let's see...well, after you went into the forest, about a month ago, I and the rest of Ponyville simply waited for you. It was agonizing, really, sitting there, twiddling our hooves, hoping that the kids would be okay. Finally, we decided by consensus that you'd been gone too long. We were starting to set up a little team to go into the forest ourselves, and then...they came. Dozens upon dozens of soldiers, dressed in the all black armour. And through it all, stepping out of the forest it lightweight armour of her own, none other than Nightmare Moon herself."
"Nightmare Moon. So it's true."
"None of us knew how it had happened, but the next thing we knew, the soldiers had loaded us into our houses and barred us in. The sliver of light on the horizon? That was the last we'd see for a long time. When we were let out again, Nightmare Moon told us all what she had in store. Both the princesses had now been placed in one another's satellites this time, how, I don't know. In Nightmare's kingdom it would always be eternal night, while somewhere else would have eternal day. She knew about the crops being under risk from no sun, so she commissioned that heat would be funneled from the eternal day, and shadows draped over all the plants would absorb the heat and light on the inside and keep them going. As for our heating needs, she had the Fire Orb Spitters made."
"What's the fuel for them?"
"I don't know, and I don't want to know. Finally, she said that certain places in Equestria would be handed over to Baronesses for control. She'd picked each one herself, for their certain skills or lack thereof. Here in Ponyville, we have Mistress Mould. Mistress Mould, put simply, is insane. Not in the wacky, knife swinging way, mind. He always looks completely calm and stony faced. Instead, she vents her madness in...other ways. Look out the window, Rarity, tell me what you see near the mountainside."
Rarity trotted over to the window. "I see... some kind of circus tent? It looks about three times larger, four points, and in grey and green?"
"That's her special dominion," said Cheerilee matter-of-factly as Rarity came back. "She seems to hold the belief that an unhappy citizen is a good citizen. So at every Glorygiving, she puts on these ironic circus shows, where acrobats plunge to their near-death, clowns are made to wear burning makeup and painful outfits, and where the magicians torture and mutilate their volunteers. All this, just to make the people lose faith and hope."
"That's the worst thing I've ever heard in my entire life! Someone has to go up there and teach that bloodthirsty mare a lesson."
"Many have tried. All ended up circus acts. Her tricks worked, pushing the whole town into such a depression that they just do anything she tells them. They wander about when she tells them to wander. The rest of the time they stay indoors. I have to keep reminding myself not to look out my window. All I see anymore are confused, shambling townsfolk with no will of their own, members of the Kin stalking the darker spots to pounce on their innocent prey, and...and...and sometimes, I catch a glimpse of...that other one. The one in the suit, who always walks on two legs, the one who started all of this, coming back to admire his handiwork, no doubt. But I'll tell you one thing. I stayed strong. I made sure they'd never break me. I rebelled, something I hadn't even thought to do since the eighties. Most of all, I kept faith in my belief, that someday, somehow, the Bearers of Harmony would return. Someday..." She looked up with a tearful smile, "...like today."
There was a moment of silence, while all of this sunk in for Rarity. "...WELL, heh heh, be careful what you wish for I suppose! Now you've got all of them...and at the same time only one of them!"
In spite of, or perhaps because of the sheer hopelessness of the night, the two couldn't help laughing.
Rarity sighed. "But in all seriousness, Cheerilee, I am so, so sorry I allowed this to happen. I hereby vow to help you in any way possible." She looked forlornly back at the window. "I'm just...not sure how much I can do with there being just me, and all my friends being shelved away somewhere." The sadness of the situation began to creep up on the corners of her eyes.
"Could you switch?"
Rarity's gaze snapped back in surprise. "I'm sorry?"
"If you absorbed the elements and turned into each friend one by one, I find it hard to believe that you couldn't have some way to pick and choose. Do you think you could switch between them?"
"I'll...give it a try." Rarity screwed her eyes up and thought, thought, thought with all her might about being Twilight again.
"...No, I'm sorry, it doesn't seem t-WHAT THE?!"
Her skin colour had spontaneously gone purple while her eyes were closed. Twilight took a moment to get her bearings, then thought, thought, thought once again. The next moment, she was Applejack and a cowboy hat was dropping onto her head. The changes happened in an instant, blink and you'd miss the transition, and this time she barely felt them. Growing giddy with happiness, Applejack was rapidly replaced by Fluttershy, then Pinkie Pie, and finally Rarity once again.
"This is wonderful, Cheerilee! Now all of my friends remain with me at all times, and I can all access the Elements of Harmony!"
"Not quite, Ms Rarity-Applejack-Fluttershy-Sparkle-Pie. For one thing, all the elements are missing their gemstones. Where do we find those?"
"I would suggest they be in the grip of the strongest force in the land. And this, of course, means entering into the belly of the greasepaint beast. If we fail, there's no telling what will happen. If we succeed, the first of many tyrants will topple, and we will be one step closer to defeat the dark menace!"
"All right, my friends. I'm behind you all the way; I've suffered too much not to play a part. Oh, and Rarity? There's just one more thing..."
"The Element of Loyalty? I sensed it the minute I picked up your satchel."
"Ah, I see." She went towards it and started undoing the flaps. "I recovered it from a scrap of cloud drifting down to the town. I knew I would need to hand it over when the time to save Equestria came. May it serve you well."
She undid the last strap and flipped the lid open. The shining golden chain did its hypnotic dance higher and higher into the air. Rarity couldn't help smiling at the sight. "Well, I suppose I'd better kiss my etiquette and fashion sense goodbye," Rarity mused, a second before the necklace plunge into her chest.
She closed her eyes as she felt her body rework itself once again, letting out nary a grunt this time around. Her skin rippled about her, taking on a sky blue hue. Her leg muscles expanded just enough to give Applejack a run for her money at a race. Makeup faded with the wind. Her horn retreated into her skull, the magic following suit, and as if the horn was a button that had been depressed, two strong wings burst out of her sides. Her mane swayed as it took on a wild assortment of colours, then promptly shook itself about, shredding the elegantly curled locks into tomboyish spikes. At the very moment of the PEP! of a new mind slotting into place, Rainbow Dash's red eyes shot open.
"Bring it on!"