Chapter 6: Dusk Shine, Get Ready!
With a loud thud, and the sound of wicker forcing dirt and rock out of the way, Dusk Shine's balloon landed at the outskirts of the Everfree Forest. The balloon was close to the gnarled, sharp and unkempt treetops, but none of the six ponies were concerned with its safety. In a hurry, Rainbow Blitz flew out of the basket and landed on the ground, beginning to tap his hoof as soon as he touched the soil.
"Come on, hurry it up. We don't have all day!" he snapped, looking to his friends.
"We're goin' as fast as we can, Blitz," Applejack replied, hopping over the edge and landing near Blitz. He took a brief moment to shift his hat out of his vision. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the sound of grunting and hushed curses coming from the balloon. Both he and Blitz looked over to find Dusk angrily kicking the door to the balloon out, and in his short outburst, he tripped over the edge of the basket and fell forward. Dusk let out a yelp as his front hoof came in contact with the ground, and he groaned while attempted to stand.
"Shoot, Dusk! Lemme help ya out!" the orange stallion cried, rushing to help the unicorn off the ground. "Ya gotta be careful when your hoof ain't in shape, sugarcube."
"Ugh, I'm sick of this!" Dusk exclaimed, regaining his footing. "I'm not going to screw up the rest of this journey because I was careless and hurt myself." Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder and looked over to see Butterscotch standing next to him, looking at him with concern.
"How are you going to fix it?" the pegasus asked, inspecting the bandaging with curiosity.
Dusk leaned down and bit the edge of the gauze with his teeth, pulling on it and tightening the knot. "We're going to Zecora," he said, after snapping off the excess bandage.
"Are you certain she'll still recognize us?" Elusive's regal voice sounded. The light colored unicorn was just getting out of the basket, and in a smooth motion, closed the door behind him.
"I can only hope so, Elusive," Dusk said, looking to his fellow unicorn. "If not..."
"Oh, come on, she has to remember me," Blitz said, arrogance lacing his tone. "What other rainbow-maned ponies do you know around here?"
"Blitz' got a point there, Dusk," Applejack added, looking over the light blue pegasus. "I haven't seen anypony else quite like him in all my years livin' in Equestria."
"And even if she doesn't remember us, I can just sing my evil enchantress song!" Bubble Berry suddenly chimed in, hopping in the middle of the group. "She's sure to remember that!"
" Dusk started, with a nervous chuckle. "We'll see what happens, Berry
hopefully you won't have to sing."
" The pink pony pouted, his hopes of being able to burst into song stamped out. In no time at all, however, the thought drifted from his mind.
Dusk turned to the entrance of the forest, peering down the dirt path that he was so familiar with. The dim rays of the setting sun crept over the tree tops, scattering faded orange light throughout the entryway. "Come on, everypony
let's find this last piece." He announced, not averting his gaze from the road.
The others said nothing and nodded, following their unicorn friend into the depths of the forest. Behind them, the upper half of Luna's moon began to creep over the horizon, replacing the darkening orange with luminous white.
- - -
Dusk Shine threaded through the forest, avoiding the rocks and gnarled branches in his way. Finding the encroaching darkness to be troublesome, he closed his eyes and, with a flash of his horn, created light for everypony to follow.
"Thank ya kindly, Dusk," Applejack said in a quiet voice, trailing several feet behind the unicorn.
"No problem..." Dusk replied, looking farther down the path for any sign of Zecora's hut. After a few minutes, he spotted a light in the distance. "I think we're almost there!" he exclaimed, quickening his pace.
"Take it easy there, champ." Blitz said with a light chuckle, while hovering alongside Dusk. He was ready to catch Dusk at a moment's notice, should the unicorn lose his footing again. Dusk glared at Blitz, but took his advice and relented.
After several minutes of walking at Dusk's limping speed, the light in the distance had become the soft glow permeating through the windows of Zecora's hut. The small building looked as it always did, with jars hanging from tree branches and staves, carved heads, and masks gracing the outside. The pungent smell of some mixture or another wafted through the air around the cottage. Dusk Shine's nose scrunched up slightly at the scent as he approached the door, and taking a breath, he leaned against the frame and knocked with his working hoof.
"I shall be right there - do not fret. My brew is done, and just needs to set," Zecora's voice came through the windows on either side of the door. The noise of tools being shuffled around a pot followed, then the soft sound of hoofsteps on the dirt floor. The door of the hut opened, revealing the zebra. She was smiling at first, but the expression changed to that of confusion as she looked over the six ponies in front of her. "I know of a pony with similar hair, but you are a stallion and she is a mare."
"That's because I'm Twilight, Zecora," Dusk said, with a soft frown.
Zecora stepped back in shock, her eyes moving from stallion to stallion, observing each one in full. "That is impossible, how can this be? Is this magic or some other trickery?"
"Here we go!" Blitz said, crossing his forelegs and rolling his eyes.
"It's a bit of a story..." Dusk Shine added, scuffing his hoof against the dirt.
Zecora raised an eyebrow in a mix of curiosity and skepticism, which was unusual for the zebra. "Come inside and tell your tale. How did you change on such a scale?" she said, stepping aside for Dusk Shine and the others.
The violet stallion nodded and thanked her, walking into the building with care. The others repeated the motion, and before long the six of them were in the main room and circled around the simmering cauldron.
Zecora stepped up to the pot and looked upon the stallions. She paused for a moment before asking "Twilight my dear, you are in quite a mess. I have not seen this before, I must confess."
Dusk Shine sighed, shaking his head and staring into the bubbling green liquid of the cauldron, struggling to make out his reflection. What he did see, however, was much different than what he was used to. "It's all because of an old spell I found in my library and tried to cast. Needless to say, it... didn't turn out how I wanted it to." He looked to each of his friends, all of them silent and looking into the cauldron as he was.
"You know of my skills, voodoo and remedies. I can cure sickness, and most terrible disease. A problem like yours, though, I am quite unsure. With magic this strong, I have not a cure," Zecora replied, looking at Dusk over the cauldron and frowning.
"That's what I thought..." he replied. "Which is why I'm here about this." He lifted his hoof, revealing the bandaging to the zebra. "Do you have anything to cure a sprain?"
Zecora nodded her head and smiled, turning around and ruffling through various ingredients on a nearby table. "For a problem so small, a potion can be mixed. Within mere moments, your injury will be fixed."
Dusk, along with the other five, let out a sigh of relief and looked to the busy zebra, who had plucked several berries and cut a few sprigs of herbs, and was now crushing them in a bowl. She took a sample of the liquid in the cauldron and mixed it with the other ingredients, and before long, brought a small cup of liquid over to Dusk.
"A drink from this cup is all that you need, and your injury will be healed at alarming speed," Zecora said, with a caring smile.
Levitating the cup to his mouth, Dusk tipped it back and drank the now faded green liquid. He closed his eyes as his face contorted in disgust, the bitter drink passing into his body. Once he was finished, he set the cup down and stuck his tongue out. "Ugh..." he groaned, smacking his lips together. It was then that a peculiar sensation of warmth encompassed his hoof. Looking down, he felt the heat rise in intensity, and the pain began to dull. After several moments of this, the warmth faded, leaving Dusk's hoof feeling normal. Gritting his teeth and shifting his eyes away, he pushed it down on the floor, but felt nothing. He applied a bit more pressure, and upon feeling no pain, started to grin. "I can't thank you enough, Zecora!" he said, looking to the zebra.
Zecora only nodded and smiled, taking the cup from Dusk and setting it aside. "I knew that potion would do the trick, as long as it stays in your stomach. And although it's not the best of taste, it performs its task with great haste."
"Is your hoof... really fixed, Dusk?" Butterscotch asked, inspecting the lavender stallion's previously injured hoof. He went so far as to lift it up and shake it around, as if testing its stability.
Dusk chuckled, letting the pegasus look at his hoof in awe. "Yes, it's really fixed. I have to say I'm impressed, Zecora."
"Yeah, it's pretty awesome, but shouldn't we, uh, get moving?" Blitz said, raising an eyebrow. He flicked his tail to get his point across.
"Dash is right, you should not linger. In fixing your problem, she is quite eager," Zecora chimed in, organizing several jars of herbs.
"Hey, who you callin' a girl?" Blitz said, shooting a glare to Zecora. His outburst was met with stares from the six others in the room. "What? She called me a 'she'! Do I look like a mare to you?" He met their concerned gazes with a heated one of his own. "What are you all staring at me like that for?"
Dusk gulped, then circled around the cauldron to be in front of Blitz. "I didn't think I'd have to do this so soon, but..."
"What? Do what? What do you think you're- Ah!" The pegasus was cut off as he closed his eyes and reeled back slightly. He stumbled and fell to the ground, the gasps of the others the only thing he heard as he hit the floor. When he came to and opened his eyes, he noticed Dusk lowering the sapphire amulet.
"Blitz, you okay?" Applejack said, hurrying to the cerulean stallion and offering a hoof. Blitz shook his head and brought a hoof to his temple, rubbing it. He reached out, and after missing a few times, got a hold of Applejack, who pulled him up.
"Yeah... I'm good," he replied, still rubbing his head. "You gotta warn me before doing that, dude." He added, looking to Dusk Shine. "Those memories really bucked me in the head..."
Applejack let out a light laugh. "Bet it ain't nothin' next ta me. Now, can you stay on yer hooves or do Ah gotta carry ya?"
Rainbow Blitz shook his head. "Nah, I'll be okay. I just need to stay grounded for a bit..."
A cough from Dusk regained their attention as the unicorn's brows knit together. "I think that's our cue to leave, everypony. I... really don't want to have to do that again." He looked to the ground, scuffing his hoof against the floor.
"Yer right, Dusk. Let's get on outta here and find that fancy artifact," Applejack said, walking to the door and opening it. He motioned outside, and the other five stallions nodded and started to file out of the hut, save for Dusk. The purple unicorn looked to Zecora, who was watching them leave.
"Again, thank you for the help, Zecora. I don't know where I'd be without you."
The zebra simply gave a knowing smile and replied "Do not worry about being a nuisance. You can always come to me if you need assistance."
Dusk Shine opened his mouth as if to say something, but no words came out. He then closed it and approached Zecora, and taking a breath, put his right foreleg around her in a hug. "Thanks." Before she could say anything, Dusk Shine backed away and smiled. "I'll be sure to visit when I'm back to normal."
- - -
It wasn't long before the group had managed to find the castle of the royal pony sisters, still standing and full of overgrowth from its years of solitude. It looked just as it did when they first discovered it - and the bridge was still intact.
"That's quite the relief," Elusive said, looking over the rope bridge as they begin to file across it. "...are you certain this is still safe?"
"It's holdin' up, ain't it?" Applejack replied, moving across without a second thought.
The unicorn studied the old bridge again and shrugged. "Yes, I suppose it is. Just be quick about crossing... I don't trust this shoddy wood." He stepped across with caution, but picked up his pace after confirming the bridge wouldn't snap like a twig at the slightest touch.
After all six had crossed the bridge, Dusk led them into the main chamber of the castle. It was just the same, though this time it was lacking the Elements of Harmony on their large pedestal. With a flash of his horn, he brought out a piece of paper from his saddlebag, which had the Princess's directions to the throne room on it. He skimmed over the text, taking everything to memory, then just as quick, stuffed it back. "Stay close to me, okay? We don't want to get lost in here."
They nodded to Dusk, following him through the halls and old chambers of the castle without a word. It was much bigger than they had thought, with multiple rooms descending into the ground at points, or even climbing into towers they hadn't seen from ground level. More than once had the five trailing behind glanced at one another, unsure if they had taken a wrong turn at some point, or if they had been given wrong instructions. Just as Rainbow Blitz was about to speak up and question their path, they turned into a large room that was at the end of an ascending staircase with two distinct looking chairs at the far end.
"We're here!" Dusk exclaimed, trotting into the chamber. "Oh wow... It's everything I thought it would be. Can you believe the princesses used to rule from here?" He turned to his friends with a wide grin, his eyes almost glistening in joy from all of the historical presence he was taking in.
"I can believe it!" Bubble Berry said, hopping farther into the room. "Look at how big it is. Ooh, and look at those big windows behind the throne!"
Dusk hadn't noticed the windows when he first entered, opting to focus on the old architecture and design instead. A circular section of the right window was just the right size to perfectly encompass the moon, flooding the room with brilliant white light. The glow lit up the surrounding artwork, projecting a full scene onto the floor in front of them. Dusk simply stood in awe of the precision that was necessary for such a design to work. It wasn't until Blitz tapped him on the shoulder that he snapped out of his trance.
"Yeah, it's cool and all, but we have some super old doohickey to find," The pegasus said, glancing around the room.
Dusk could feel his cheeks go hot in embarrassment. "Oh, yeah... right. Artifact." He looked around the room, remembering that the object was supposed to be gold - but nothing like that caught his eye. "Everypony, start looking in an area of the throne room. Try to find anything that might help us get the relic."
The six of them split into different sections of the chamber, searching for anything at all that might help them. Dusk inspected near the windows, checking for any loose bricks in the floor or wall. Elusive sifted through a bookshelf with care, shoving a foreleg into his snout to sneeze every so often from the dust build up. Blitz and Butterscotch took to the air, looking through the remains of old tapestries and around the large columns that supported the room. Berry slid across the floor with one ear glued to the stone, as if he was listening for something in the ground. Applejack rolled his eyes and sighed at Berry's antics, looking over the entryway for anything out of the ordinary.
Their searching, however, ended up being fruitless. "Ain't nothin' around around here... sorry Dusk." Applejack said, sighing and walking to the middle of the room.
"Nothing's up here either!" Blitz called, scanning around the top of the chamber once again. Still not finding anything, he glided down next to Applejack, his hooves making a light screech as his slid to a halt.
"I'm sorry, Dusk." Butterscotch added, landing with a soft thud next to Blitz. "I tried really hard, too."
With a cough, and another sneeze, Elusive joined the rest of them. "Try as I might, I couldn't find anything of the sort. My apologies, Dusk."
In front of the growing group, Bubble Berry slid across the ground and stopped. He looked to the floor in concentration as he listened to the stone, even sticking his tongue out in focus. After a few moments, however, he sighed and stood up. He snorted and walked next to Blitz, then said "Nothing. And I was so sure the rocks would tell me their secrets."
"Well, guess we're outta options, then ain't we? Unless Dusk found somethin' over there..." Applejack said, looking to Dusk Shine. The unicorn was standing still, looking to the ground. His mane, even with its short length, still managed to obscure his eyes. "Dusk? You okay?" Applejack took several steps forward, approaching his friend. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it when his ears perked up and he noticed the faint sound of liquid hitting stone. It didn't take him long to find the origin of the noise: a patch of dark spots on the floor below Dusk.
"It's all my fault..." the lavender stallion said, at an almost inaudible whisper.
"Dusk, you don't have ta-"
Applejack was interrupted by Dusk slamming his hoof on the ground, sending a hollow echo throughout the room. "It's all because of me!" he yelled, looking up to farm pony. His violet eyes were reddened, and glistened with tears that slowly slid down his face, while his brows were creased in anger. "I'm the reason we're all stuck like this!"
The four ponies grouped up said nothing, not even sure what they could say. Bubble glanced to Elusive, and vice versa, both questioning the other with what to do. Butterscotch did the same to Blitz, but the sky blue pony only looked to Dusk, his mouth in a frown and his eyes in a determined gaze.
"It's... It's okay, Dusk. We'll figure somethin' out," Applejack said, in an attempt to calm Dusk down. Unfortunately, this only brought a choked sob from the unicorn.
"That's just the thing... we won't. You heard Celestia, there's only one spell to fix this... and we can't finish it!"
The outburst caused Applejack to take a step back. Now, even he wasn't sure how to get Dusk to relax.
"I never should have tried that spell!" Dusk said, rubbing his eyes with a foreleg and looking down. "I was so... so... so stupid!" He slammed his other hoof down, sending another loud echo through the chamber. "And I got all of you involved... my closest friends... the only ones who cared about me... And I completely abused your trust!"
Elusive opened his mouth to say something, but to his surprise, Blitz put a hoof on the unicorn's shoulder and shook his head. Elusive raised his eyebrow in question, but Blitz returned to looking at Dusk.
"Our lives... our lives will never be the same..." Dusk said, his voice wavering. The unicorn's body shook, part out of fear, and part because of the multitude of emotions going through his head. I'm a failure... They'll never trust me again... Celestia will get a new student...
"I really... failed all of you..." he conceded, looking to the ground. The room went quiet, save for Dusk's occasional sniffle or cough as he continued to weep.
"Dusk..." Elusive began, searching for the words to continue his sentence. "You mustn't be so hard on yo-"
"No, Elusive. I should. This is entirely because of me..." He wiped his eyes again, which didn't do much to stop the tears. "I've ruined all of our lives, all because I couldn't cast a spell right... I don't deserve to be the Element of Magic!" he yelled, breaking down into more audible sobs.
"Dusk, don't go sayin' that... you can do magic better than anypony I know," Applejack replied.
"It doesn't matter how good I am! I... I screwed up when it mattered most, and you were all caught in the aftermath. I don't even... I don't even deserve you as friends!" Dusk cried, looking back to the ground and shaking.
"Dusk Shine, get ready!" Blitz's voice rang out, startling everypony in the room. Dusk looked up, just in time to see Blitz flying at him, a hoof extended outward. With a sickening thud, the pegasi's hoof impacted with Dusk's jaw, with enough force to send the unicorn flying backwards and his saddlebags hurtling to the far wall. Blitz skidded to a halt on the floor just as Dusk collided with the left throne and fell to the ground, coughing. "Pull yourself together!"
The other four ponies stood with their mouths hanging open in shock. They were too stunned to say anything, giving Blitz the time to continue.
"You've done nothing but bring us together as friends, and without you, we probably wouldn't even know each other. You definitely deserve us, and you definitely deserve to be the element of magic. Being stallions for the rest of our lives isn't gonna change that."
It took a moment before Dusk Shine stirred, adjusting his legs to push himself up. With some struggle, he rose, revealing a reddened and swollen area on his muzzle, along with a small trail of blood running from his mouth. Butterscotch turned his head away, while Elusive could only put a hoof to his mouth and gasp. Looking to Blitz, Dusk raised a hoof and wiped the blood away, glancing at the red smear on his foreleg as he did.
Then he smiled. "I appreciate it, Blitz."
"Whu... What?" Applejack suddenly said, looking between Blitz and Dusk. "He jus' punched you dead in the face, and you're thankin' him for it?"
Dusk Shine's gaze switched to Applejack. "Sometimes, AJ... I guess words can't solve a problem." He looked back to Blitz gave a toothy smile. "It takes action."
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about," Blitz replied, returning the grin.
It was then that Elusive spoke up. "Ahem, if I may interject on this little moment of bonding, I think you'll find that Blitz's little action was just what we needed." He motioned to the throne, which had slid back at a slight angle from Dusk's impact.
"Huh. Look at that!" Blitz said, flapping his wings just enough to push him next to the throne. Looking down, he noticed a small gap in the floor, indicating a compartment in the stone. "AJ, wanna help me push this?"
"Sure thing!" the earth pony said, hurrying over to Blitz. The two of them leaned against the seat and pushed. With some strained effort, it slid across the ground, revealing the whole of the chamber. Butterscotch and Bubble Berry hurried over to the hole, and the six stallions peered inside.
"Is... is that it?" Butterscotch asked, noticing the faintest glint of metal at the bottom.
Dusk's horn then lit up, and the faint glow surrounded the object. "Only one way to find out." He lifted the object from the hole, revealing a gleaming, golden statue. Images of the two alicorn sisters were engraved on it, rearing on their hind legs and their backs facing one another. The relic gave off a faint, curious glow itself. "This has to be it. It's just as Celestia described..."
"So we're almost done!" Bubble Berry exclaimed, hopping in place and beaming widely. "We'll finally be back to normal and I can throw a super humongous party for us all and..." he trailed off, bouncing about the group.
"We are almost done... in fact, we just need to get back to Celestia," Dusk said, a smile crawling onto his face. "Come on, everypony, let's get to Canterlot as fast as we can!"
"Finally! Ah was wonderin' when we'd get ta this point." Applejack replied, turning around and making his way to the door.
Turning around, Dusk levitated his bags over to himself and put them back on, then secured the artifact to his back with some spare rope.
"...and we can invite everypony, and I mean everypony in Ponyville to come, and they'll be so super excited and..."
Dusk chuckled, then said "Come on Berry, let's go." The pink pony nodded and hopped to the rest of the group, who were waiting at the door patiently.
"Now, before we go, all of you, take a look." Dusk said, holding the necklace up. "Oh, and like you saw before with Blitz... brace yourself."
The five ponies nodded and stared into the necklace. One by the one, they stumbled a few steps back and shook their heads. Dusk himself was the last to look, but by this point, it barely had any effect on him. Guess I'm out... he thought, frowning as he let the necklace drop.
"Goodness... does it have to be so strong?" Elusive asked, rubbing his temple.
"Eh, it's not so bad the second time around." Blitz said, giving a cheeky grin.
Applejack then kicked at the door, opening it. The sound was enough to get the others to look in his direction. "Enough talkin'," he began, with a smile. "We got a spell to cast."
- - -
Outside the Everfree Forest, the six stallions galloped towards the balloon, which was still sitting where they left it. The balloon had deflated a bit, but Dusk began taking care of it with his magic as he hopped into the balloon. Elusive, Bubble Berry and Applejack followed, closing the door behind them.
"Blitz, Butterscotch, you two help get this thing back in the air," Dusk said, concentrating on the heating element for the balloon.
"Got it, boss," Blitz said, sticking his front two hooves under the basket and flapping his wings. Butterscotch did the same to the opposite side and the balloon began to rise.
"Just a bit longer, guys," Dusk said, his horn ceasing it's glow. He looked over the edge of the basket and watched the ground start to leave them, followed by the treeline. "Thanks!" he called out of basket. Butterscotch flew in with the others, immediately closing his wings and staying near the middle of the group.
"It's the final stretch, everypony," Dusk said, with a smile. "It'll all be over soon..." Looking to the distance, he saw the edges of Canterlot on the mountainside.
"It'll all be over soon."