The forest was still, not a single sound contesting the hooffalls. They echoed deafeningly, even as the undergrowth did its best to muffle them. Applejack led the way, followed by Rainbow Dash, then Fluttershy and Rarity, with Pinkie Pie bringing up the rear of their tangled line.
The pink pony kept an eye on the ground, the smattering of pale light barely giving notice of the odd rock or fallen branch.
The trees broke away, becoming a wide open plateau that ended not far ahead. Applejack skidded to a stop, each pony behind her scattering with growing desperation. Pinkie herself was a mere nose away from Fluttershy's rump as she veered past.
"Where is she?" the farm pony yelled, sweeping her head across the clearing.
"Did we lose her?" Rarity panted.
"No way! We've come too far for that." Dash glowered. "She's gotta be somewhere in there."
Pinkie followed the blue pony's gaze across the rickety rope bridge. Thick tendrils of white hung in the distance, drifting a few meters from the cliff's edge, its enormous volume consuming half the latter portion of the bridge. A large, rectangular shape danced in the darkness, its perimeter shifting endlessly.
"Heeey..." The pink mare squinted. "Isn't that where we got the Elements?"
"Yea." Applejack adjusted her hat. "Funny how that works."
"Look! Up there!" Rarity shouted, hoof aimed high, at the ghostly yellow squares flickering in the fog.
"Um, isn't that...?" Fluttershy shrunk.
"So it wants a rematch, huh?" Rainbow drew herself tall.
"Or perhaps Twilight is calling for help." Princess Celestia's voice wafted in.
Pinkie jumped and whirled, her heart relaxing when she saw the white alicorn.
"Princess Celestia!" The girls' unified relief filled the air.
"Hello, my little ponies." The sun princess trotted into their midst, her eyes drifting from one pony to the next. "Are you ready?"
"With you here? More than ready!" Dash grinned.
Princess Celestia shook her head. "I'm not coming."
"What?" The collective disappointment crawled from the clearing.
"Do you not notice the stillness of the forest?"
"Yep! What's wrong with that?" Pinkie Pie asked, tilting her head.
"Evil approaches. Nameless is rallying monsters. Monsters that even the creatures of Everfree know to avoid. I will hold them back, but you must hurry."
"But, Princess, how can we even hope to stand against such power?" Rarity inquired.
"Though I cannot go with you, I can still help."
The alicorn's horn danced with magic and Pinkie felt something warm wash over her, like a great big, invisible hug. She felt a confidence rising in her chest, more spring in her hooves, an extra bag of sugar in her bloodstream.
"W-what was that?" Fluttershy mumbled, eyes wide.
"Just some minor enchantments," the princess replied hurriedly. "Now go, before it's too late."
"Wait. Pinkie, take my saddlebags." Applejack motioned with her head.
"Um, okay. But why?"
"A fight's a brewin' and me and Dash will need to lead the charge."
"We ain't got time to argue. I ain't liking the idea any more than you, but we gotta be ready. We ain't getting a second chance."
"She's right." The princess' horn glowed, the bags darting up and over before quickly settling on the pink pony's back. "Now go. I have faith in you. Bring her back to us."
Thick metal bars protruded from the ground, encircling Twilight within her own mind. She rattled with all her might, both body and magic, but they remained firm and unmoving.
Floating before her was a large panel, its width several times her length. An image was embedded into it, the grey stone pillars and floor both cracked and perforated with neglect. A dark, empty stairwell sat just beyond the farthest pair of columns.
A green sphere sprang into existence from the side, magic flitting about it. It started floating across, stopping when it reached dead center. The orb's vibrant green became pale, then grey and finally black.
'Mmmm, Twilight, have you never noticed how your body longs for magic?' The voice was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The artifact flew upward, disappearing from view. A scant second later, the tinkling of glass echoed back.
'With each sip, it quivers. It knows of the power locked inside these... baubles. And it lusts for more. For the drink of the divine.'
Another object slid into sight, this time a short, gemmed wand. Its silver sheen and luminous hues quickly vanished, leaving it as hollow and lifeless as the last.
'Stop! Siphoning is dangerous!' Twilight cried out, her time doubtlessly wasted.
'Oh, Twilight, you're just so adorably naive.' The patronizing chill crawled across her coat. 'That's a myth, made up by your princesses. Born out of fear, they forbid the absorption of magic so that I might never come across a powerful unicorn. Did you already forget why Celestia took you in? She didn't want to help you. You were a liability.'
'Enough! Your lies won't work anymore!'
'Unfortunately for them, even the almighty alicorn couldn't watch you every moment of the day and your natural ability just needs a little... enhancement.' The depleted wand casually pitched forward, shattering against the ground. 'Soon, Twilight. Soon you will be stronger than Celestia. You needn't fear her any longer, for you will be her master. And all the knowledge in Equestria will be yours for the taking. All will revere you as Twilight, the Sage Princess."
'I don't fear her. Your future is meaningless to me.'
'Oh, really? Then all those memories of worry: the banishment, being locked in a dungeon... magic kindergarten, that was not fear?' A bronze amulet drifted into view.
'I...' They were gone. The when, the how, the why, all of it. Sweat formed on her brow. She fought against every natural instinct, the urge to lose herself fading away. 'That was then. But now I understand. I won't let you toy with my emotions any longer.'
'Pah, fine, this is getting boring.' Nameless discarded the blackened amulet. 'Let's move on to the main entertainment.'
'Your friends are here. I can feel them, creeping up the stairs, thinking they can save you. How droll.'
Twilight gritted her teeth.
'But here's how it's going to work: they're going to waltz in that door, then I'm going to tear them apart, limb from limb and you're going to watch. Isn't that exciting?'
Rage welled up in her chest, its warmth radiating up to her cheeks. 'You... you'll never win. Together, our friendship is unstoppable!'
An amused laugh echoed through her mind. 'We'll just see about it. Oh, look, here they come now.'
Each of the ponies filed in, forming a V with Applejack at the head. The earth pony began a cautious advance, determination filling her and everypony else's eyes..
Applejack's hoof touched down and the air behind her exploded in a wave of searing orange destruction. Twilight's mouth dropped, feeling a prickle at the corners of her eyes as her ears drooped.
'No!' Light flooded from her horn, the cage's bars rattling violently. But they rattled in vain. The unicorn fell to her haunches. 'No... It... it can't...'
Pinkie Pie coughed. Her eyes snapped open in time for a puff of smoke to roll across her face. She blinked a few times, pushing herself from her sprawled position. Her joints protested, but upon seeing the golden globe surrounding her, she decided she could not really complain.
As the dust cleared away, the glimmer from each pony signalled the safety of her friends. The pink pony allowed herself a quick sigh of relief before turning to face Nameless. An arrogant smirk spread across its face.
"Interesting. So Celestia has her hoof in this after all. Fine, I'll play your little game. Try not to bore me."
"You ready?" Applejack asked through gritted teeth.
"I was born ready." Dash grinned.
They took off, flashes of orange and blue working their way up the outsides of the pillars. Bolts of white leaped from nowhere, striking in rapid succession as the attack followed in their wake. Columns exploded, throwing splinters all over the floor and tufts of impenetrable black into the air.
"Look out!" Rarity yelled, ducking behind the nearest pillar. One of the bolts whizzed by, the golden barrier guarding Fluttershy's head sending it into the ceiling.
The yellow pegasus' pupils practically disappeared, a terrified "Meep!" escaping her lips.
Dash was a prismatic blur, projectiles flying wide as she zigzagged across the open floor. She took to the air, form returning as she stopped dead, extended forehoof little more than a nose away from Nameless' face. The unicorn turned and laughed as the crumpled purple barrier flexed, flinging the pegasus in a short arc that ended with the wall. The gold shield intervened once more, bouncing the blue pony roughly to the ground.
Applejack charged, making a beeline for the unicorn's flank. With a quick leap, she planted her forehooves, dust grinding audibly as she brought her hind legs round with enough force to make Pinkie cringe. The barrier bent sharply, prodding Nameless hard enough to send her stumbling forward. The shield rebounded, throwing the orange pony into the floor, her bubble deflecting her against the wall and back.
Pinkie stared intently as she advanced, keeping her eyes on the objects orbiting Nameless. They rode a faint current of magic, rotating lazily. An idea struck her hard enough she paused to gasp.
"Come on, girls, we have to get those magic thingies!"
"The magic thingies! Here, I'll show you!"
Pinkie rushed forward, hastily closing the distance and lunging for the nearest artifact. She crashed into the ground, a small storm of dust forming as she slid. She scrambled to her hooves, biting ferociously at another, to no avail.
Applejack and Dash struck with growing desperation, battering their hooves against the shield with lightning speed. Nameless turned, the ground under Applejack growing black and inflated. The farm pony was tossed into the air as bubble turned to explosion.
Fluttershy streaked by, golden amulet dangling from her mouth. She had hardly flown more than a few meters when the amulet glowed magenta, pulling away hard. The pegasus' eyes widened as she spun wildly, nearly crashing into the floor.
Rarity's horn glowed, the magenta overlaid by light blue, a magical tug-of-war ensuing. Her brows furrowed, mouth tightening as though something was squashing her head. The white unicorn gasped, collapsing to her knees as the trinket escaped.
Pinkie made another leap, feeling the amulet brush up against her hoof as she sailed by.
A cracked echoed through the air. The pink pony turned to see Rainbow's forehoof embedded deep within the barrier and Nameless' head turned sideways. The unicorn's own hoof swished through the air, skimming off the top of Dash's mane.
Seeing her opportunity, Pinkie lunged at the amulet, grasping it firmly in her teeth. She galloped away as fast as she could, sliding behind the pillar beside Rarity. She wondered how long she had until she was found out. Her eyes fell on her saddlebags.
"Pinkie, be a dear and give that to me." The white pony's eyes were lit up, staring at the earth pony as though she had just come up with a new dress design.
After a quick stare, she let the amulet fall from her mouth. A net of blue light caught it, holding it steady.
"What are...?" The pink pony stopped short, glancing between the trinket and Rarity's furrowed, almost pained, face. The artifact began to come apart, fine piece by fine piece. A white glow was gathering in the center, each second bringing it closer to enveloping the unicorn's blue. As a large piece came off the back, an alabaster eruption burned away Pinkie's world. A loud pop sent her ears ringing and something hard hit her forehead.
"Owie..." Pinkie Pie groaned, practically falling over as she clutched her forehooves to her temples.
"Apol... that... ugh... unexpected," Rarity said, words ebbing and flowing as the earth pony's brain pounded against her skull.
Once Pinkie could think again, she forced her eyes open. Just a few centimeters from her snout were charred golden fragments. She turned her head up, wincing at the sudden movement. Rarity grimaced in return.
"At least it worked." Rarity eyed the broken remains. "I'll just have to be more careful with the next one."
"Okey... dokey..." the pink pony mumbled, pushing herself upright, "lokey."
Fluttershy came galloping up, eyes darting from earth pony to unicorn and back. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, dear, I just had a minor mishap."
"Oh, okay, if you say so."
Pinkie stood up, flashing the pegasus a smile. "We've got it figured out now. We just gotta get Rarity more of those magic thingies. C'mon!"
The yellow pony hardly had time for a nod when the earth pony took off at full gallop.
Pinkie Pie approached the three battling ponies, their deadly dance having fallen into a slower rhythm. The unicorn moved slowly, methodically, avoiding Dash's swoops and keeping her distance from Applejack.
Pinkie charged straight in, eyes locked on the crystal ball. The purple pony pulled clear, leaving the pink pony with nothing but air. She whirled, returning her eyes to the prize.
An orange blur streaked in, turning sideways at the last moment. Applejack's full weight crashed into the purple shield, sending Nameless stumbling backward. A rainbow flashed by, and the ball was gone.
"Fluttershy!" Dash's voice, then the crystal ball, escaped the formless rainbow as it reversed direction.
The yellow pony's eyes went wide, fumbling to adjust her course. The ball hit the ground, emitting a dull clack before the pegasus snatched it into her wing.
Pinkie made another pass of her own, coming away with a silver bracelet.
"Grah! Stop doing that!"
The pink pony glanced behind her in time to see a jet of flame running alongside Applejack as it tried to catch up with Pinkie. She flicked her mouth, aiming for the orange pony's path before throwing herself behind the nearest pillar. The faint golden glow at her side told her she had done so in vain.
A swift nudge from the farm pony's forehoof sent the bracelet sliding over to Rarity's column, where it remained. A magenta glow snagged the trinket, speeding past Applejack even as she dove for it. She crashed to the ground, skidding behind the pillar.
"Can't you go any faster?" the orange pony yelled.
Rarity let out a loud huff. "This is a delicate process! They're practically bursting at the seams as it is. I've been blown up enough today, thank you very much."
"All right, all right, I getcha."
"Pinkie!" Rainbow Dash's voice stole her attention. She poked her head out. A star shaped locket was flying through the air. Pinkie Pie reached out her teeth, but the magenta light interfered once more, immobilizing it. The pink pony leaped out, not even sure if she would make it.
Fluttershy came barreling down from the ceiling, swooping at just the right angle to pass over Nameless' head. Or should have, if not for the magic shield. The pegasus collided with the barrier, pressing it right into the unicorn's rump and sending her sprawling.
Pinkie grabbed the locket, bounding away with the chain clenched firmly between her teeth.
"ENOUGH OF THIS!" Nameless' rage blasted through the room, followed by a crushing invisible force. Pinkie Pie was sent flying, spinning through the air in her golden bubble. The locket escaped her mouth, plummeting to the ground.
The pink pony counted herself lucky as her hooves touched stone and she seized the opportunity, making for where the trinket had fallen. She snatched it off the floor, looking up just in time to be bombarded by the awe-inspiring storm of magic pouring from the purple pony's horn.
"Somepony stop her!"
Dash streaked in, only to be launched away when the white nova erupted.
The locket fell once more as Pinkie stared, dumbfounded at the light washing over her. She felt her hooves giving way and she dropped herself low, digging desperately at the stone. And then the stone was gone. The earth pony crashed down on her belly, air squeezing out as she deflated onto the floor.
Pinkie gasped for breath, her body refusing to do anything else. When she could finally look up again, she searched for the locket. But the only thing on the ground was a pile of fine, silver powder.
"Gah!" Dash's scream sent the pink pony scrambling. At the end of the hall, the blue pegasus hung in the air, flailing against the magenta aura.
"Let her go!" Pinkie cried, charging straight at Nameless. Or so she tried. Her muscles were sluggish, her destination so distant. She glanced around in her confusion. Rarity and Applejack joined her, the same bewilderment quickly filling their faces.
A volley of black energy leaped forth, reaching them almost instantly. They crashed down around Pinkie Pie, fragments of stone nipping at her coat. Her friends cried out in shock, but she did not dare look back.
The earth pony's body was suddenly rigid. She struggled to regain her stride, but her muscles refused to obey. She tumbled head over hooves, first along the ground, then through the air. Once her world stopped spinning, she found herself suspended in front of Nameless.
"Heh, fine. Since you're so anxious to die, I'll do you first."
The pink pony shrieked, her bones creaking as the sinew of her left forehoof tried to tear away from her body. Her right followed suit, her vision going blank as the pain radiated up and down her innards.
"Hehehe, that's it, squirm." The voice that was and was not Twilight's crept into her ear. A deep sorrow gripped Pinkie's heart. Sorrow that her friend was just out of hoof's reach. Sorrow that out of all the things that could happen, this was how they might part. Through sheer strength of will, she brought her quivering lips together.
"T-Twilight... is my... best... bestest friend... whoopee... whoopee..."
"What is this? Ah, yes, that's right. You're the insane one."
The earth pony felt the fur of her neck stand on end as an invisible force brushed across its entire length. But she did not care. She needed to speak her mind.
"And... not a... big, dumb, evil... meanie, meanie..."
"Enough of your drivel. Be quiet."
She gagged, twitching feebly as her throat tightened. Dark spots crept into her vision. And then she was falling, barely aware of the dull pain in her flank, then her head. Dancing stars appeared as she reeled from the impacts.
"Oh, no. Pinkie, are you okay? Please be okay." Fluttershy appeared in front of her, nosing into her side.
"Ooph, y-yea..." She smiled weakly at the yellow pegasus. Her eyes brightened as they slipped past her friend to the shivering, yet unmoving purple unicorn. She sprung to her hooves, almost toppling right over again. Despite her body's protests, she forced herself to limp forward. "Come on, girls! Now's our chance!"
Each of her friend's twitches taunted Pinkie in her uncertainty. Each half meter was a battle of its own, which the pink pony fought with renewed zeal. When she was finally in front of the unicorn, she raised her forehooves high, wrapping them tightly around the unicorn, adding a long nuzzle for good measure.
Each of the other ponies followed suit, surrounding Twilight in a warm embrace. Light danced from their necks, a gentle rainbow playing over the six friends.
The bars cracked and faltered, the expanding dome of energy tearing them to pieces. Shards of various sizes were thrown violently into the darkness. In the wake of the destruction stood Twilight, chest rising and falling. A torrent of magic ran round her coat, every hair standing in defiance.
'Oh, my, aren't we just violent tonight?'
'I won't let you hurt my friends any longer!'
The wraith pony materialized in front of her, its misty form solidifying into the black silhouette of a pony at least as large as Big Mac. Twilight held her ground, undaunted in her fury.
'Tsk, I'm afraid you have no choice, my dear. Or did I hit you so hard you don't remember the last time you tried?'
The purple pony stole a glance at the mysterious panel, catching flashes of pink and yellow fur.
'This will be different.'
'I've heard that one before. And not just from you. You're out of your league, filly.'
The shadow darted forward, its form igniting in a blaze of dark purple and blue energy. Twilight braced herself, responding with a white beam as wide as herself. The two attacks collided, a mighty wave of power blasting to the sides. Neither pony nor magic budged. The unicorn grunted, pushing harder with each passing moment.
Then, the resistance was gone, the purple pony's concentration waning as the attack extended endlessly into the darkness. She gritted her teeth. 'Focus, Twilight. Focus.' She waited a few seconds before letting up, just to be certain.
The ground began to rumble and Twilight took several steps back, eyes widening, as she searched for the source. A column of magma erupted where she had stood, its heat brushing roughly against her cheek, even as her shield deflected the deadly spray. She galloped away, the entirety of her face matted with dampness. When the tiny meteors ceased to strike around her, the purple pony turned. To her dismay, the lava was creeping everywhere, including a faster stream aiming straight for her.
The unicorn's horn glowed, taking a moment to reinforce her barrier. With her defenses shored up, a flood of blue shimmered into existence, swirling chaotically around her. She felt herself rising, slowly at first, then with a rapidness that made her glance down. Intense orange-red light pressed itself against the purple shield, trying to worm its way into the peephole at the bottom of her whirlwind cocoon.
Content in her safety, the purple pony returned her attention to her spell. Twilight felt the gravity become more intense again, her ascent slowing greatly. Blue turned to white as she began to fall, her stomach pressing up against her back. A bead of sweat rolled freely down her face as her channeling became more frantic. After a few moments, she breathed a sigh of relief, her cocoon exploding.
Flexing her new wings, the unicorn fell into a wobbly swoop that almost ended with her headbutting the lava lake. 'Gah, Rainbow makes this look so easy!' She pulled up sharply, narrowly missing another magma column. Her heart was racing: not even ten seconds of flight and her modifications were already twice tested. She stole a quick glance backward, breathing again when she saw her ghostly purple tendrils were fully intact.
She leveled out, scanning the endless magma below.
'My, Twilight, your imagination is rather... concrete.'
Twilight whirled, flapping furiously as she nearly overturned. A sly smile hung across Misty's lips, the grey unicorn standing stock still, as though the air were solid ground.
Magic danced from the purple pony's horn, illuminating the other mare's face. 'Misty?'
'It's okay, I'm here now. I've subdued Nameless for you.'
'That is what we call it.'
'But... how? You're dead.'
'That's what it thinks. But I bonded a preservation spell with the Elements' attack, allowing my spirit to survive. I'm sorry I couldn't help you sooner, but I had to wait for the right opportunity.'
'I guess that makes sense. But what do we do now?'
'We take the fight to it. Take my hoof, Twilight. The two of us together, we can win. We can put an end to this, once and for all.' Misty extended her hoof.
The purple unicorn reached out her own, stopping a few centimeters away.
The grey pony looked down at Twilight's hoof, then up at the pony herself. 'What's wrong?'
'You.' The purple mare's light intensified, expanding into a hot white flare. Misty screeched as it bit into her face. And then she was falling, Twilight following closely behind. As the grey unicorn picked up speed, the lava thinned, its colour fading until it ceased to exist.
Misty hit the ground with a sickening crunch. A dull thud echoed out as the winged unicorn came down in a vicious stomp. The other mare was gone.
Nameless' gaseous form drifted up in front of her. 'Ugh, enough of this! Forget your memories. I'm going to destroy you here and now and be done with you.'
N-no...!' Twilight screamed as an unbearable agony tore through her mind, her very existence searing into nothingness. She fought back with all the strength she could muster. But her consciousness continued to ebb away. 'H-help me... somepony...'
With a prismatic flash, the torment melted away. Countless silhouettes of different shapes and sizes surrounded Twilight, forming a shield of bodies.
'What, what is this?' Nameless scowled.
'I see now..." Twilight breathed as she pushed herself to her hooves. "All these ponies... they're victims. You stole their memories. You took them from their loved ones. But that also makes them a part of you, whether you like it or not. And they're tired. Tired of hurting other ponies."
'Gah, enough! Back in your cages!' A cone of black light lashed out, the majority of the crowd melting away.
'You can't suppress them all.'
Twilight knew this was her chance. Her only chance. But she was calm. She could feel her friends, waiting for her. And together, they were invincible.
"Now, girls! Lend me your power!" Twilight was shocked by the obedience of her mouth.
'Haha... you idiot... you're going to take power from your friends right now? Planning on... giving in to me after all?'
'No,' the unicorn shook her head. 'I plan on ending this.'
And then Twilight's body was hers once more. She smiled, the warmth of her friends kindling the fire in her heart. She could not lose now. The purple mare looked up and, as though on cue, Pinkie shoved her snout into the apple embroidered saddlebags. Out came the crown, clenched between the pink pony's teeth. Twilight quickly accepted her Element, levitating it up to her head. Barely was it seated, when the Rainbow of Harmony shot up into the air, dispersing into dozens of small, glittering prisms. Each beam looped back and struck the unicorn head on. Her friends let out cries of surprise as they were thrown back, the rainbow whirlwind engulfing her.
'No! This... this is impossible!'
'I believe you said that once before. Seems you haven't learned your lesson.' Twilight smirked.
'Pah, you arrogant little filly. You haven't won yet. Enjoy your freedom while it lasts.'
Twilight was suddenly aware of a great weight falling away from her mind. Without needing to think, she knew her psyche was truly her own. She was almost lost in the euphoria, but Nameless' final words echoed back to her. Staring upward, she spotted a glittering blue-purple mist hissing its way into the air.
'No... after all this... it's going to get away? No... I won't let it end this way!'
Twilight frantically searched her mind, sifting through hundreds of spells, many of which she did not even remember learning. She needed something decisive and with that goal in mind, her concentration was true. She flung a quick fireball, which unfortunately passed harmlessly through the mist.
Sweat dripped down the unicorn's brow. The mist was completely free now. Free to terrorize other ponies. To reap the same horror on them as her, should they fall into its trap.
"That's it!" she whispered, a wicked grin creeping onto her face.
Magical energy gathered around her horn. The purple pony kept her eye on the mist, her blood catching fire as it grew ever distant.
"Come on....come on!"
A soft blue pulse resonated from her horn. And the mist was gone.
An intense clarity washed over Twilight, the white glow of magic escaping her eyes. The rainbow whirlwind started to close in.
'What... what is this? How?!'
'Hello.' The purple pony smirked again.
'You keep using that word.'
Twilight's smirk widened. 'Oh, I just naively bound you to myself again. That's all.'
The rainbow finished closing in, its deafening roar overpowering even her thoughts.
Reality returned and Twilight was suddenly tired. She sagged to the floor in slow motion. She brought her cheek to a rest, setting it gently against her forehooves. She saw no harm in taking a nap. Just a little rest, then she could see her friends again. As the Element of Magic slipped away, she thought she could see the face of a grey mare, sea blue bangs dancing above a thankful smile. She grinned weakly, a bare whisper escaping her lips.
"Sorry I took so long."
Twilight felt sore all over. Her head in particular felt like somepony had taken a rock to it. And yet, her mind welcomed the pain. She had been without body for far too long. So long as the purple pony could tell she, and not anypony else, was in control... any feeling at all was exhilarating. Not that everything was pain. A comforting softness surrounded her body, trying its hardest to ease her aches. Realizing she did not know where she was, her eyes snapped open. But when she saw that ceiling she would know anywhere, the unicorn's face melted into a smile. She was home.
"Twilight!" Spike yelped from the purple pony's right. She turned her head in time for the dragon to finish scaling the bed and envelop her in a great big hug.
"Hello, Spike," she said, nuzzling him in return.
After a few moments, she glanced up and found Rarity at the foot of her bed. Her mind froze, running headlong into deja vu.
'Was it all a dream? Is this a dream?'
"Twilight, dear?" Rarity said, snapping the purple pony back to reality. "Are you feeling all right?"
Twilight shook her head. "I... I don't know. I guess?"
"Spike, would you go get the others?"
"Uh, okay!" the dragon said, casting one more glance at Twilight.
"The others? Is everypony else here?"
"Yes, we've been worried sick ever since we found you laying on the floor. We've been taking turns watching over you. I hope you don't mind that we stayed the night."
"No, not at all," Twilight answered absently.
'Was all that pain my imagination?' The purple unicorn threw her covers off, inspecting herself, particularly her hind legs. 'Nothing out of the ordinary, but...'
"What's wrong?" Rarity raised an eyebrow, circling to the side of the bed as she did.
"It's nothing." The purple mare flashed an uneasy smile. Her eyes fell on her friend's lower chest, near the white unicorn's right leg. The fur was bald. "Rarity, what happened?"
"Oh, this? Just a little injury. The princess was kind of enough to mend it, so it's no big deal."
"But what about your coat?"
Rarity shook her head. "A small price to pay. Besides, it'll grow back."
A nearly unending torrent of hoofsteps clattered up the stairs.
"Twilight! Twilight! Twilight!" Pinkie yelled, crossing the room in a single bound.
"I'm so happy! We should totally have a party right now!"
"Now, hang on a second, there, Pinkie. She just got up," Applejack interjected.
"Duuuuuh! That's why we need to celebrate!"
"She does have a point." Dusky's voice was barely audible enough for Twilight to follow it to the back. Her head was turned toward Ditzy Doo, who was standing beside her. The mailmare was the first to perk up at the unicorn's attention, her gaze pulling the charcoal pegasus with it. "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to ruin the moment."
"Oh, come on! Stop being such a stranger!" Pinkie hopped up and down.
"Were you waiting all this time too?" Twilight smiled.
"Actually, I... we just finished our shift and wanted to stop by to see how you were doing," Dusky answered, glancing at the floor.
"Well, that's very nice of you. And works out just fine."
"What do you mean?" The grey pegasus raised an eyebrow.
"I need to apologize."
"To who?" Dusky and Ditzy asked at the same time, looking at each other.
"Both of you. Actually, all of you. For this whole ordeal, for what you had to go through on my account. I... I'm sorry, everyone. And thank you for standing by me through it all."
"We weren't about to let some old geezer... whatever that thing was, mess with our friend!" Dash struck a pose and grinned mischievously.
Fluttershy nodded slowly, her own smile forming. "We're just glad you're safe."
"Yea! Besides, we know you'd do the same for us," Rainbow added.
Twilight's lashes tingled. She blinked a few times, but only succeeded in shifting the dampness to her cheeks. "I don't know what to say."
"Perhaps there isn't anything left to say." Princess Celestia poked her head through the doorway.
"Princess Celestia! And Princess Luna!" The purple pony's mouth gaped as the two alicorns stooped under her doorway. "How long have you been standing out there? I... is it okay for you to be away from Canterlot like this?"
"Oh, Twilight. You worry too much. My advisers can handle the castle for a day while I give the heroines who defeated Nameless their due. A few minutes' wait is nothing."
Twilight's cheeks flushed as the ruined throne room flashed through her mind. "Er, about the castle. I'm so sorry, I...."
Her mentor held up a hoof. "I know."
Princess Luna smiled. "What you did was a commendable feat. What are a few nicks in the wall compared to that?"
Pinkie came up beside the bed, a big grin on her face. "Hey, everyone want to know a secret?"
Twilight blinked. "Uh... okay?"
The pink pony leaned forward, motioning inward with her forehooves.
"Uh, Pinkie?" Spike raised an eyebrow.
"Shhhh, just trust me," the party pony hissed, her waving becoming more dramatic. Fluttershy looked uncertainly at Dash, who rolled her eyes.
Applejack shrugged and stepped forward, starting a continuous chain that brought everyone closer until all their heads were pressed together in an oversized huddle.
"Well?" Rainbow asked impatiently.
Pinkie's eyes shifted left, then right.