Chapter 1: A Day of Black Clouds
It was a particularly bright and beautiful morning in Ponyville, Twilight Sparkle could not help but notice as she exited her library home to begin the day. The clouds had all been brushed aside, allowing every drop of sunshine to bathe the ponies below in its radiance. "Rainbow Dash must have been in a good mood today," the purple alicorn observed to her companion Spike, who sat comfortably upon her back. "She isn't usually so thorough with her cloud-checking duties."
"Aww, I like a few clouds in my day," Spike replied with a chuckle, "they're so white 'n' fluffy, and its fun to watch the Pegasus ponies play around on 'em."
"Sounds a bit like you're the one who wants to play around," Twilight said, smirking.
"Who, me? Nah, cloud-games are for creatures with wings, 'n' I've still got a long wait before I get mine," the young dragon said, sighing melodramatically at the end. "Only twelve years to go…"
"If that's your 'subtle' way of reminding me that your birthday is coming up," Twilight groaned, "it's going to be a long week."
Spike simply gave his best innocent whistle, to which Twilight rolled her eyes but smiled nonetheless. Trotting along briskly to the town square, she began looking around for Applejack's apple stand in the hopes of a healthy breakfast. The streets of Ponyville were oddly sparse that morning anyway, however, making it that much easier to spot the bright orange pony and her soft blond mane among what crowd there was. As it so happened, though, the farm pony spotted Twilight first, smiling brightly and waving her over to the stand. "G'mornin', Twilight!" she greeted energetically as the unicorn approached. "Can I interest you 'n' Spike in some breakfast apples? No better way to start the day!"
"That was just what I was coming to get, actually," Twilight giggled, her horn glowing softly as she used its magic to levitate the proper money out from her pack and onto the front of the apple stand.
Applejack returned the giggle, nuzzling the coins into her cash box. "Thank ya kindly for your patronage," she said, bucking Twilight and Spike a pair of apples with her hind hooves. "Enjoy yer meal!"
Even as Twilight took the apples in hoof and prepared for her first bite, however, a rainbow-colored streak bolted down from the sky, swooping and crashing right into her. "Good morning to you too, Rainbow Dash…" the sprawled-out Twilight grumbled from beneath the crashed Pegasus pony, the dislodged Spike thankfully spared a fall by Applejack's quick reflexes.
"What d'ya think you're doin', Dash?" the earth pony asked sternly after letting the rescued Spike out of her mouth safely. "You know better than to land in the middle 'o' town like that!"
"I know, I know…!" the disoriented Dash groused, floating off of Twilight and apologetically dusting the unicorn off with a few strong beats of her wings, "Sorry I was in such a rush, but I had to find Twilight right away! Me 'n' the other Pegasus ponies have a big problem, and we thought you might be able to help!"
Shaking the stars out of her eyes, Twilight raised a brow in confusion. "Problem? There isn't a cloud in the sky…"
All but neighing with impatience, Dash fluttered around in anxious circles. "Believe me, that is not a good thing in this case."
Seeing the confusion still in Twilight's eyes, Dash gave her a light push with her head. "It'll be easier to just show you what I mean, c'mon!"
Rainbow Dash was many things, but Twilight knew the Pegasus pony did not alarm easily; if she was this concerned, it had to be worth at least investigating. "OK, Dash, lead the way," she said.
"Y'all be careful, OK?" Applejack asked, doffing her hat respectfully. "I'll join up with ya as soon as Big Macintosh takes over my stand for the day."
Twilight and Dash both nodded. "This way, Twilight, 'n' keep up!" the Pegasus pony instructed tensely, zipping off into the sky toward the edge of town.
The unicorn followed as close behind as she could on hoof, and before long both of them were out of sight from the town square. Spike, nibbling on his breakfast, looked to Applejack, noticing the earth pony looked quite concerned. "Don't worry, Applejack," he comforted between bites, "I'm sure it's nothing serious, they'll be fine."
"I hope so, Spike," Applejack replied, eyes still looking toward where Dash and Twilight had been heading. "'cuz I've got a powerful bad feeling about all this…"
Galloping along as quickly as she could, Twilight began to hope she and Rainbow Dash would reach their destination soon. The Pegasus pony set a punishing pace, after all, and while far from a slouch, Twilight was no athlete. Thankfully, it was only a few miles before Dash landed, just outside of Ponyville by the mountain pass. "Just about there, Twilight," Dash said firmly, leading her behind a large formation of rocks and stones.
"Good, because I'm…" Twilight started as they rounded the corner, only to be greeted by a sight strong enough to bring her sentence to silence.
There, herded cautiously by a flock of Pegasus ponies and cautiously tucked behind the rocks, were all the clouds that usually floated over Ponyville…only they were not their normal fluffy white, but instead the deepest, darkest black the young unicorn had ever seen. "At first we thought it was just a bit of unscheduled rain that needed to be squeezed out," Rainbow Dash said, "but no matter how much me and the rest of the Pegasus ponies tried, we couldn't get a drop out of them! We've been trying all morning to get the clouds back to normal but so far, nothing's worked."
"What can I do, then?" Twilight asked, a note of nervousness in her voice. "I may be an alicorn now, but that doesn't exactly make me an expert on Pegasus business like this!"
"I know, but we're all out of other ideas," Dash replied. "We just thought you could at least try to fix the clouds with your magic. We don't know what else to do!"
Twilight gulped then sighed. She really couldn't turn her back on Rainbow Dash when she needed help, and these dark clouds were a problem that needed to be solved. "Alright…" she said uncertainly, "I'll…I'll see what I can do."
Setting all four hooves firmly on the ground, locking her gaze on the ominous clouds, and silently hoping that at the very least this did not simply make things worse, Twilight Sparkle focused her mind and magic, recalling her many lessons under Princess Celestia. "Return to normal, clouds…return to normal, clouds…." she thought over and over again, giving the power its purpose. Slowly but surely, the flow of magic entered her horn, causing it to shimmer and sparkle as the unicorn's spell took shape, her wings gently unfolding along the way.
Rainbow Dash nodded encouragingly, while the other Pegasus ponies floated away from the clouds in case the spell needed room. Brighter and brighter the light of Twilight's horn grew, as the unicorn pooled her best magic into the coming spell. Soon, the glowing light around Twilight's horn began to expand, honing into a beam as beads of sweat began to roll down the unicorn's face from exertion. At last, with a crack like thunder and a blast like lightning, the beam of light shot out from Twilight's horn toward the blackened clouds, exploding into a burst of brilliant white as soon as it made contact. "THIS…IS…AWESOME!" Rainbow Dash cheered, even as she and everyone else had to shield their eyes from the awe-inspiring flash.
Yet as soon as the burst had appeared, it faded…
…and the clouds were still perfectly black.
Twilight hung her head in shame and slight exhaustion. "I'm…I'm sorry, Rainbow Dash…" she panted sadly, "I put everything I had into that spell…and it didn't do a thing…"
Though Dash was frowning, she nonetheless gave Twilight a comforting nuzzle. "You did your best, Twilight, it's all we could've hoped for…" she said somberly. "Now we just gotta figure out what to do with these rotten clouds…"
"I'll…get Spike and go…to the library…" Twilight said, still catching her breath a bit. "There might be…something on black clouds…in one of the books there. You…you tell the Mayor about the situation…"
"Sounds good to me," Dash said, clearly eager to do something, if only to alleviate her mounting tension.
"Just make sure to keep this information between as few ponies as possible, though…" the unicorn advised, starting to recover from her exertion. "We don't want to set off a panic needlessly."
Dash only half-listened to that part, but gave a meager nod nonetheless. "I'll head straight to the mayor. The rest of you, stay here and keep an eye on those clouds. Report to me if anything changes, OK?"
All the Pegasus ponies nodded, and like a lightning bolt, Rainbow Dash was off.
Thankful she would not need to keep up with the swift flyer for the return trip, Twilight made ready to return to Ponyville and begin her research. Curiosity and caution both tugged at her heart, and as she gave one last look at the clouds behind her, she also felt a twinge of fear. "It's nothing to worry about…" she assured herself as best she could, "just some…anomalous clouds, that's all. No danger here…"
She only wished she could bring herself to fully believe that.
Voices in darkness…
"The door is almost open, Master…the way is almost complete…"
A castle of shadows…
"Is the raiding party ready?"
Bloodthirsty eyes, ragged teeth, growls and snarls…
"Yes, my Master…we are ready…"
A sound…thumping? No. Beating. Like a living heart, thudding and rhythmic, and beating, beating, beating…
"Good, good. You know your mission, my servants. Bring back as many as you can…and at last I may be free…"
A great hand reaching out from the endless dark, its skin red as blood, its palm wide enough to flatten a boulder…
"At long last, the Night shall never end…"
The hand finds its target…the source of the beating. A pouch, as large as the hand's palm…throbbing, as if alive, and highlighted by an ominous violet glow within its cloth…
"At long last…MY time shall come…"
The hand strokes the pouch, and tendrils of…something…stretch out from within…and like serpents, they strike…
"No…NO! STAY BACK!"
Kicking violently, Princess Luna flopped out of her silken bed, collapsing clumsily to the ground. A dream…? A nightmare. "How fitting…" she grumbled to herself as she got back onto her legs. After all, since her time as Nightmare Moon, it seemed to be the only kind of dream she was capable of having anymore. Still…this one had felt different. More visceral. Most importantly, one of the voices that had spoken in that dream…it sounded unnervingly familiar. "Your highness? Is everything alright?" a voice called from nearby.
Turning to her bed chamber's doorway, she saw it was only one of the guard-stallions, standing at attention and visibly ready for emergency. "Thine alarm is unwarranted…we are fine..." the winged unicorn answered timidly; even after all this time back in her home, it felt…strange…to be a true Princess again, instead of just a prisoner. "We simply...had a rather bad dream, 'tis all…"
"Understood, Princess," the guard answered politely. "If you need anything, please do not hesitate to find me…"
She then trotted back to his post, not far from Luna's room.
Watching her go, the blue-maned Princess only found herself able to say "…thank you…" when she was well out of ear-shot.
Nuzzling gently back under her covers, Luna took one last look outside her window at the beautiful sun shining over Canterlot. With a low snort, she quickly turned her back to all that light.
Trying her best to forget the horrible nightmare that had awakened her, she closed her eyes and hoped that this time, things would be better.
She hoped that this time, she would feel loved.
It had been a few hours since Twilight Sparkle had returned to her library, Spike in tow, to begin looking for some kind of explanation to the black clouds. Thus far, the total amount of leads, or even potential leads, she had managed to find within her books was a grand total of zero. At this point, she was on the third volume of "Cumulonimbus Clouds and You" with no real progress in sight. "This is hopeless, Spike," she grumbled, quickly flipping through the book's pages (as she was a highly gifted speed-reader), "We've been through almost the entire lower level of the library and there is nothing here on black clouds other than stuff on rain clouds which we already know they aren't!"
"Relax, Twilight," Spike said, casually checking out the contents of "Altostratus Adventures", "So the clouds are black for no reason, big deal. It's not like they're hurting anyone."
Tossing her latest completed book aside and picking a new one up with the magic of her horn, Twilight answered swiftly, "Only we don't know what the clouds being black means, and we can't get them back to normal either which is unusual, and 'don't know what it means' plus 'unusual' means 'panicked ponies if we let the clouds into town', not to mention that it might actually indicate something is wrong with the clouds which would be bad because Ponyville needs clouds because without clouds we can't have rain or snow which means the seasons would fall out of balance and our crops wouldn't be able to grow and then we'd starve or worse!"
It took the infant dragon a moment to process all that. Once he had, he simply gave his unicorn friend an odd glance. "Um…right. Just don't forget to breathe over there, OK?"
If Twilight heard Spike's advice, she did not acknowledge it, instead flipping through her newest tome, again with no luck. At that moment, however, a knocking came at her door, surprising the aliciorn out of her focused state (complete with a slight "eep!" of shock). "JUST A MINUTE!" she called as politely as she could to whoever it was outside. "Keep going, Spike, I'll see who it is."
Mentally making a note of where she was in "Statustacular", she opened the door and found three welcome friends waiting on the other side. "Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity!" Twilight greeted happily, relieved to have good company in this stressful situation, "What are you three doing here?"
"Like I promised, sugar-cube, I'm here to help now that I'm done sellin' apples fer the day," Applejack said confidently. "Rainbow Dash told me what you were up to 'n' I thought you could use a few extra sets 'o' eyes to look through all these books."
Rarity, giving her brilliant purple mane a soft toss as she stepped forward to greet Twilight, nodded. "Once dear Applejack told us about the situation, we simply knew we had to assist in any way we could. Besides, this gives me the perfect chance to put my new reading glasses to work!"
As the white-furred unicorn proudly displayed the gold-encrusted spectacles she had hanging around her neck (attached to a pearl necklace, of course), Fluttershy timidly sidled up next to her. "Um, also," she added meekly, "I think Rainbow Dash is taking the Mayor to see the black clouds for herself, so she won't be able to join us, but I'll help. Um, if I can, that is."
Twilight smiled warmly at her friends' display of camaraderie; she knew she had told Rainbow Dash to keep the matter between as few ponies as possible, but she also knew she could not ask for more trustworthy ponies to give that information to than her friends. With a polite bow, she invited them all into her home…and then realized somepony was missing. "Oh, but wait a second," she said, "what about Pinkie Pie?"
All three pony friends exchanged a telling glance with each other before looking back at Twilight. "Um…yeah…" Applejack said with a bit of an embarrassed chuckle, scratching the back of her golden mane, "We thought about gettin' Pinkie Pie to help, but then we realized that this was gonna need calm, focused work, 'n' she's…well, she's…"
"She's Pinkie Pie," Rarity flatly finished for the orange Earth Pony.
That got a chuckle out of Spike, who hopped off the stool he'd been perched on and politely offered it to Rarity, a light blush which he was thankful was difficult to spot against his soft-purple scales on his cheeks. "Thank you, Spike darling," Rarity said kindly, taking the seat and levitating a book from the nearest bookcase over to her with her horn. "So, Twilight, what exactly are we looking for?"
"How 'bout some chocolate muffins?"
Everyone nearly jumped out of their skins at the unexpected new voice that had just squeaked excitedly at them. Standing at the back of the library, as if she had been there all along, was Pinkie Pie, who had a tray of chocolate muffins balanced on her hindquarters. "P-Pinkie Pie?" Twilight stammered in surprise. "When…? How…?"
"Oh silly," Pinkie Pie giggled, trotting along and distributing her treats to the others, "Rainbow Dash told me all about how you were gonna be working hard in the library 'cuz of the spooky black clouds on her way to see the Mayor 'n' I just thought you could use some treats to give you energy."
"T-t-that's very thoughtful of you," Fluttershy said, coming out of the hiding spot behind a bookshelf she'd rushed to upon being surprised, "but next time, could you perhaps be not so…um…out-of-the-blue with your entrance?"
Pinkie Pie gave her a pair of muffins as she emerged, nuzzling her gently. "Sorry if I scared ya, Fluttershy," she said kindly, "I guess I don't know my own strength."
Still trying to piece together exactly when Pinkie Pie had entered and how she had done so without anyone noticing, eventually just concluding that this was Pinkie Pie she was dealing with after all and letting it slide, Twilight cleared her throat loudly to get her friends' attention. Once she saw everyone's eyes were on her, the unicorn began to speak with a kind but commanding air. "I thank you all for coming to help," she told them, "but if we're going to do this, we need to be focused and swift. The longer these black clouds persist, the more difficult it will be to keep the rest of Ponyville from finding out about this situation and becoming panicked, so our goal is to find what information we can as quickly as possible. To that end, I propose I assign each of you a different section of the library to look through for any books on clouds you can find, allowing us to cover a greater amount of ground more efficiently. Does that sound like a plan?"
The others all nodded (except for Pinkie, who gave an over-dramatic salute).
"Excellent. Then let's get started!"
Only the barest rays of day could make their way into the depths of the Everfree Forest. It was thus a natural hunting ground for all manner of dark creatures and vicious beasts. Among them, the Manticore, with its lion teeth and scorpion tail, was among the most feared and ferocious. Upon that very morning, one such Manticore was stalking about the heart of the forest in search of its breakfast when an enticing scent caught its nose. Growling with excitement, the beast made swift tracks toward the source. Bounding through the thick vines and bushes, it eventually found its desired target, though it was not at all what the animal had expected: a meager pile of dead rats, covered in what looked to be some kind of sauce. "You really fell for that old gag?" an unseen enemy asked sardonically. "How pathetic."
Without warning, from up above, the Manticore found itself tackled in a flutter of feathers, fur, claws, and beak. By the time the lion-beast was able to strike back, lashing out with its front claws, its attacker was already gone. "Oops, too slow!"
Another attack from behind, this time picking the lion-beast up by its thrashing tail only to drop it quickly back to the ground. Roaring its frustration, the Manticore struggled to get back on its feet, whipping its head around quickly and finally catching sight of its enemy, floating arrogantly around in lazy circles above the beast. A female griffon with a cocky smirk. "What's wrong, whiskers?" she taunted, "Can't fly like me?"
The Manticore growled lowly, flapping its wings to show it could indeed fly…but ultimately, it knew better than to face a griffon in the air. Taking one of the rats in its mouth, it beat a hasty retreat, giving one last whip of its tail as it vanished into the brush. "YEAH, YOU'D BETTER RUN!" the griffon shouted petulantly after the fleeing beast. "'CUZ GILDA GRIFFON DOESN'T MESS AROUND!"
Snorting in disgust, Gilda returned to the ground, picking up the rats and licking them clean of the sauce she'd used to enhance the appeal of their scent. "This is so boring…" she grumbled. "I'd have at least thought this stupid forest could give me a challenge…!"
Of course, it was not really a challenge Gilda was looking for. That hunt was merely a distraction from the real desire that still festered in her heart, fed by bitter memories. Nibbling on her gamey snack, she knew what she truly wanted…
Whoa. That wasn't her thoughts talking just now! Jumping back from the bait pile, talons at the ready and wings spread menacingly, Gilda glared defensively at the shadowy depths of the forest around her. "Who's here?" she hissed. "Who's stupid enough to mess with me during my snack?"
"Isn't that what you really want? Revenge against the ones who humiliated you?"
"That is none of your business, pal!" Gilda answered, growing all the angrier for her inability to pinpoint who she was talking to.
"Your pride, ruined…your oldest friend, stolen. All because of those pathetic ponies…."
Gilda scowled at the memory of it. That ditzy Pinkie Pie and all the other ponies who lived in that lamebrain village had conspired against Gilda, luring her into a party so they could trick her into snapping at Rainbow Dash and spoiling their friendship. The mere thought of it made the griffon clench her talons into the ground. It was indeed true that nothing would make her happier than to deliver some well-earned retribution to those miserable mares…
"We share a common enemy, griffon. We are bound together by a common hatred. If you truly wish to see your enemies brought to ruin, I can make sure that happens…"
Pacing around the rat-pile, tail swishing along the ground with a smooth and steady rhythm, Gilda weighed the facts she had available against each other. On the one claw, she did not know who this voice belonged to, why she could not see him, or how he knew about her visit to Ponyville. On the other claw, he also seemed to hate those stupid little ponies, and even seemed eager to help her get back at them. Brash a beast as she was, the choice was fairly easy for Gilda to make.
"OK, buddy…you've got my ear," she answered at last. "What's the deal?"
"Swear that you will use your swift wings and sharp claws in service to my commands," the voice told her, "and I shall guide you through the course you must take to have your vengeance."
"Sounds good to me," Gilda said, "but only so long as we go our separate ways once those ponies get what's coming to 'em; I ain't interested in bein' bossed around forever."
"As you wish."
Grinning wickedly, the griffon kicked her rat-pile over; no more distractions for her. No more lounging around in this backwater forest. If this…whoever-it-was was as good as its word, the time was right for her to take back her dignity, to get back at Rainbow Dash for turning on her, and to make all those lame-brain ponies suffer for making a fool out of her. For that, Gilda was ready to do anything. "Alright, buck-o...let's hear the plan."
It was afternoon now, and even with her friends helping her scour the library (with Pinkie Pie providing "moral support" as requested), Twilight Sparkle still had yet to make any progress in her search for answers. "I hate to say it, Twilight," Applejack sighed, "but this is like lookin' for a needle in a haystack, 'cept the haystack's inside of another haystack…"
"I must agree with Applejack," Rarity said glumly. "I've been through all five volumes of 'Rainy Day Ruminations', and haven't seen a word on unnatural black clouds."
Bouncing in circles along the floor, Pinkie Pie was more upbeat. "C'mon, guys!" she cheered with a sing-song voice. "Don't give up now, we've only covered a third the library!"
That earned a groan from everyone. "Only a third?" Spike whined. "Oh man, at this rate we're never gonna finish!"
"Now Spike," Pinkie warned sweetly, "don't let your attitude get sour, or I will bust out my new song on your tail!"
"Don't tempt her, Spike, she means it," Twilight said flatly, though she too was losing hope. Even with everyone doing their best, it just seemed like there were no clues to be found in this library.
"Um…Twilight?" Fluttershy suddenly called meekly from the upper level. "I think I've found a clue."
The timid Pegasus suddenly found herself at the center of everypony else's attention, causing her to give an all but inaudible squeak of bashfulness. After some slight hesitation, however, she nonetheless hovered down to the ground floor of the library where the rest of the group trotted over to meet her. "What is it, Fluttershy?" Twilight asked, trying not to panic her friend but anxious to know what lead she may have found even so. "What makes you think you've found something?"
Gently, Fluttershy placed the book she held on the ground. "That," she replied, pointing to the cover: a picture of a black cloud, underneath which was the title "Tragedy in Equestria: A History".
"Silly!" Pinkie Pie giggled. "You can't judge a book by its cover!"
"I think it's OK in this case, Pinkie," Twilight said, using her horn's magic to open the book up and flip through its pages. "Though I admit, I don't know how much we can really expect to find about natural phenomena in a history book."
"Perhaps there's another prior incident with black clouds in Equestria's past?" Rarity suggested, peeking over Twilight's shoulder (with her golden reading glasses on, of course) and reading alongside her.
Applejack, also looking at the pages as Twilight flipped through them, hummed in curiosity. "I dunno; if this sorta thing's happened before, you'd think we woulda heard 'bout it before now, or at least seen somethin' in any 'o' those cloud books…"
Twilight paid little heed to either of them, too caught up in making sure not to miss a single word as she speed-read through the book which was thus far their only potential lead in this bizarre case. Then…she saw it. Another picture of a black cloud. "THERE!" she yelped in excitement, startling the others.
Soon, everypony (and Spike) was crowded around the book, examining the page on which the picture had been found (save Fluttershy, who kept a respectful distance). "According to this," Twilight read aloud with a tense tone to let the others know to give her some space, "there is only one other instance of unnaturally black clouds in Equestrian history. The details are vague; apparently no first-hand records of the incident exist. All it says is that…"
She paused suddenly, going silent. The others waited a moment, but still she did not resume. "…Twilight?" Applejack prompted worriedly. "Sugar cube?"
Suddenly, the unicorn turned around sharply, her expression both deadly serious and extremely concerned. "Fluttershy, find the Mayor and tell her to instruct everypony to get inside. Spike, I need you to send a message to Princess Celestia immediately. If what I've just read is true, Ponyville is in terrible danger."
The streets of Ponyville were far more active than they had been earlier. That was great news as far as Big Macintosh was concerned; more ponies meant more business, and though the soft-spoken stallion was not as talented a salespony as his sister Applejack, his quiet charm and striking red fur made sure he could bring in good numbers even so. Except, of course, that today he had a rather unexpected guest on account of Granny Smith's protracted narcolepsy…
"PLEASE can I try sellin' some apples?" little Apple Bloom begged from on top of Big Macintosh's saddle. "I know how bad it went last time, but now that I ain't so worried 'bout getting' my cutie mark on account 'o' my bein' friends with the Cutie Mark Crusaders 'n' all, I can focus on doin' the job as best I can!"
"Lemme think about it," Mac answered, chewing his hay straw contemplatively for a moment. "Nope."
"Aww c'mon, Big Macintosh! That ain't fair! When're you gonna let me live that mess down?"
Eyeing his littlest sibling with that distinct mixture of relaxation and authority he possessed, the crimson colt replied coolly, "When Mr. Whoof stops turnin' white every time he sees ya."
Bloom was ready to retort that she had already told Mr. Whoof how sorry she was, but the thought was cut off before she could begin to speak by a firecracker swooping down over her head, close enough to singe the tips of her bright pink bow. Yelping in surprise, the tan-furred filly leapt off her brother's back in a panic, hiding beneath his sturdy legs with a quiver. "W-w-what was that?" she squeaked timidly.
"You there!" a shrill voice called, "That firecracker is the property of the Great and Powerful Trixie, and you will return it at once!"
The two Apple siblings soon found themselves approached by a hopping-mad blue-furred unicorn wearing a sparkling purple cape with matching pointed hat. Apple Bloom seemed to recall her sister grousing about a similar unicorn for showing her up in the middle of town, but she was too busy quivering under Big Macintosh to really worry about it. Before long, the unicorn was snout to snout with the crimson Clydesdale, glaring fiercely at him. "Well?" she asked. "I need that firecracker for my magic show, and I expect you to return it to me at once!"
"You mean that firecracker?" Macintosh replied nonchalantly, gesturing to the projectile behind him, which was now embedded within the apple cart. "The firecracker that frightened my little sister 'n' ruined my apple stand?"
"Yes yes, what of it?" Trixie replied impatiently.
Macintosh's normally-soft gaze had gone quite sharp; there were few ways to anger him faster than disrespecting his kin. Just as the confrontation looked to be getting ugly, however, he and Trixie found themselves abruptly separated by a swiftly-flying Rainbow Dash. "Hey, Dash!" Apple Bloom greeted cheerfully, the boisterous Pegasus' presence dispelling her earlier fear.
"Hey kiddo!" Dash replied happily, but she quickly turned serious. "Really wish I could chat 'n' stuff, but I'm in a bit of a hurry; d'you know where Applejack is?"
"Last I heard," Bloom said, "she was headin' over to see Twilight Sparkle at the library."
"EXCUSE ME!" Trixie shrieked angrily, "There is still the matter of my firecracker!"
Rainbow Dash could only roll her eyes. "Yeah yeah, it's, what? A hoof away? Two? Get it yourself, O great 'n' powerful one!"
She then turned back to Apple Bloom. "Thanks for the information, Bloom, I'll swing by Twilight's library first thing!"
Before Dash could take off, however, a second Pegasus flew up next to her, stopping just in time to bonk against her in mid-air. "Watch where you're…!" Dash started to reprimand, only to stop when she realized who had hit her. "Derpy Hooves? What're you doing in town? I told you to wait with the other Pegasus Ponies!"
"Gee, Dash, I'm sorry 'n' stuff," the wall-eyed Pegasus said remorsefully, "but I'm thinking maybe you'd wanna know why the other Pegasus Ponies sent me to find you. See, we tried to stop 'em, but they just sorta up and walked away from us!"
Dash was going to ask what that meant, but Apple Bloom's (and Trixie's) panicked squeals and the ever-darkening shade hanging over them was a more than sufficient answer. "…uh-oh…" she whispered, joining the rest of the town in looking to the skies with fear and confusion as the herd of black clouds began to amass in the skies over Ponyville. "They're moving? On their own?" Dash asked Derpy anxiously. "I thought that only happened in the Everfree Forest…!"
"There's somethin' else goin' on up there too…" Bic Macintosh observed calmly but seriously, gently tucking Apple Bloom close to him, "'n' I don't think even the Everfree Forest has clouds that do that."
He pointed one hoof up at the black clouds, which had begun to mold together into one imposing mass, casting its ominous shadow across the entire village. The winds began to whip ferociously all around, causing difficulty for even Rainbow Dash to stay in the air. For a moment, the panic everypony below felt was eased by the low, thunder-like rumble the clouds began to generate, but it was quickly undone as the expected lightning never came. Instead, a terrible deep crimson glow began to emanate from within the darkness, streams of its frightening light beginning to pour out over Ponyville.
Then, highlighted by the terrible red glow within the darkness that was slowly consuming the sky, forms began to take shape.
They emerged with bloodcurdling roars: bulbous, dragon-like monsters with dark green scales and piercing gold eyes, wide thin wings on their backs and sharp-ended tails behind them. Out from the clouds they flew, in ones, then fives, then tens, until the sky swarmed with them….and then an entirely different beast joined this demonic herd at its head. It too had wings, but that was its only similarity with the dragon-monsters; rather than four legs, it was poised on two, its highly muscular body coated in light-brown fur save at the hands and feet, its pale, long-snouted face couched within a thick lion-like mane.
"What are those things?" Trixie squeaked in terror.
"I don't know," Rainbow Dash said, landing to better brace against the still-sharp winds, "but I'm guessing they're not friendly!"
The dragon-beasts circled above the town slowly, like vultures watching a carcass. The winged ape-creature that seemed to be their leader, meanwhile, hovered at the center of their menacing patrol. "Hear me, citizens of Ponyville!" he barked down, "Your days of freedom are over! From this day forward, you are all the prisoners of Lord Tirek, the Master of Castle Midnight!"
And then, one by one, the dragon-beasts descended toward the town…
To Be Continued