Up on the wall, Epona's horn glowed brightly as she waited for the cannon to fire. Clover sat behind the controls, pulling the trigger each time she commanded. As the pointed ears of corn and corn stalks shot forward Epona had only a fraction of a second to enchant them before they were out of her range. "Are we actually killing any of them?" Clover yelled over the roar of the machine.
"I think so!" Epona yelled back. "There are a lot of bodies out there that aren't moving anymore."
"Won't they just reanimate?"
"Good point. Pull!" The cannon seemed to suck in a giant gulp of air before discharging three ear of corn and several sharpened corn stalks. Epona managed to enchant three quarters of them before they disappeared into the fray. "The dragons are heading back this way. The harbingers must have stopped coming."
Clover frowned. "For now."
"Just keep firing at anything unfriendly, pony boy."
Epona slid off her goggles and Clover watched. "Where are you going?"
"To tell the princesses the black fire hasn't moved."
"What do you think that means?"
"I think it means it's waiting for them."
In the middle of the city the majority of the fighting seemed to be happening close to the center of Fillydelphia. Though many lifeless harbinger littered the ground there were far too many of the new settlement citizens laying prone as well. Shining Armor had planned on being out front with the majority of the rest of the living unicorns but something had gone wrong. He had been so concentrated on the enemy before them that when the call to fall back was given by Rainbow Dash, he's missed it. Not completely, as he realized what was going on just moments after everyone else began to move, but it had not been fast enough. He'd been too close to the explosion and it threw him several yards. His left flank was badly singed and his ears would not stop ringing. Ever ready for what might come he got to his hooves quickly but was so disoriented that his enemies were upon him in no time, and they were winning. If it hadn't been for Pinkie and her foreleg cross bow he most certainly would have died. Now she guarded him, shooting and reloading her bow at a speed unnatural for anypony not using magic to aid them.
"I'm running out of arrows," she managed to say between shots. There were only three left in her quiver and both knew they were going to have to move soon, and quickly. "Any ideas?"
Shining looked around for a possible way of escape. Overhead dragons and gryphons flew back and forth, trying to find openings in which they could descend and help. With a pensive frown, Shining Armor looked at Pinkie. "How fast can you run?"
"About as fast as a lizard can lick a fly!" When Shining just gave her a blank look she said, "Fast."
"Okay, when I say go we're going to run up those stairs over there. Don't stop running even if you think you should, okay? Trust me?"
"You're Twilight's big brother! Of course I trust you!"
Shining looked skyward again, pacing himself. "Ready....now!" As one, both ponies turned and headed for one of the closest buildings. Shining Armor was the first up the fire escape staircase and thundering up as quickly as he possibly could. Every now and then he would glance back at Pinkie who was keeping perfectly apace with him, or look at the sky. When he reached the roof he kept running and, with only a hint of reservation on his face, ran right off the edge of the roof and out into the air where he landed with a thud on the back of a passing dragon. Looking back, Shining expected with a sinking feeling that Pinkie would be left, frozen, at the edge of the roof. But he almost couldn't help but smile at what he saw.
Pinkie had thrown herself from the roof just as he had, but as she sailed through the air her legs were spread in an acrobatic type manner, her eyes closed and a serene, blissful smile on her face. When she landed on her own dragon she climbed in between the spikes of its spine and hung on, grinning. "How much fun was that?!"
Shining Armor laughed despite the carnage around him, then guided his dragon toward the back of the city.
Everyone was being driven back, even the line of unicorns as the front of the city. Every body that was temporarily relieved of a harbinger through the use of anything other than magic from a unicorn's horn was quickly taken up again. Bodies may have stopped coming but the harbingers did not. Every time they came back they appeared to be stronger and adapting to the tactics being used against them. Eventually the front line had to break up and the unicorns were forced to retreat in hopes of finding better places to make their stands.
As Fancy Pants was pushed farther and farther into the heart of Fillydelphia he fought with everything he could. For a long time Rarity had been at his side and now she was nowhere to be found. Worrying for her would do him little good and he recognized as much. By now he knew exactly how much of a fighter Rarity was, and that if anypony was going to make it out of this alive it would be her. Fancy Pants, on the other hand...he wasn't sure how he'd even lasted this long. Each new assault pushed him back a few more steps. He remembered Twilight mentioning the harbingers herding their prey before and couldn't help but feel like that was exactly what was happening now.
A shrill, high pitched scream behind him made Fancy Pants turn. Little Apple Bloom stood just a few feet away and completely surrounded by enemies. Fancy Pants turned and bucked out with his back legs sending two ponies crashing into several others. He then lowered his head and bound forward, stabbing one harbinger through the side before dislodging his horn and scooping Apple Bloom up with his magic, placing her on his back. "Hold on!" Lunging through the remaining attackers, he finally gave in and decided to head in the direction everypony else was. There was a sudden sharp pain to his side and Apple Bloom screamed again.
"Get off!" With her forelegs still wrapped tightly around Fancy Pants' neck she bucked out with her rear legs, aiming a kick at the pegasus who had her teeth sunk into the right side of her savior. Her hooves made contact with its mouth and the hold was released. The pegasus fell back with a bloody snarl and Apple Bloom looked at the damage left behind. "She got you real good!"
"That's all right," he promised, quickly dispatching another black-eyed pony in his way before continuing. "Just don't let go of me. We're almost there." As he ran he didn't even realize he passed Rarity.
She'd broken off from the front line after seeing the young ones running around. Deciding the rest of the unicorns had things well in hoof she chose to instead make her way deeper into the city to try and help find all the fillies and colts that were running around scared. It was one of those "best laid plans" sort of things, though. Rarity found plenty of the children but getting them to listen to her or follow her was another story entirely. They were all so frightened that they didn't know who to trust and shied at any sort of sudden movement or loud sound. "I'm trying to help you!" she finally screamed when a pink unicorn filly ran away from her.
Her ears perked; she knew that voice! Searching desperately though the ever-changing throng around her she finally found him. Spike was being attacked by two harbingers who were fighting over him as though he was the last scrap of food on the planet. If she'd been angry and frustrated before it was nothing compared to what welled up inside the unicorn now. "LET. HIM. GO." Without thought or concern for herself, Rarity launched at the harbingers who dropped Spike in their confusion. She'd become so skilled at what she was doing it took less than a minute to kill both of them. Then she was turning for Spike.
"Oh, Spike." Rarity had seen a lot of blood that day and many ponies who would bear lasting scars from what they endured during the battle, but this. Nothing could have prepared her for this. Spike was missing an ear and his tail had been nearly chewed clean off, only hanging on by the strength of his scales on the top side. One of his legs was bleeding profusely and his right hand was missing two talons. But the worst of it was the damage to his abdomen. The softest spot on a dragon was his underbelly and it seemed their enemy was aware of that.
"You...saved me." Rarity hiccuped as tears filled her eyes, but she did her best to smile down at Spike.
"Of course I did, darling. You're my Spikey Wikey. How could I do anything but?"
"They're not real," Spike gasped. "They pretend...to be real...but they're not."
Rarity shook her head, not understanding what he was talking about. "Shhh, it's all right."
He coughed, a heavy, liquidy sound in his throat. "Rarity...I have to...tell you something."
She touched a hoof to the side of his face. "You don't have to tell me anything just now. You rest, save your strength and you can tell me later when you're feeling better."
"No." He lifted a hand to hold her hoof to his cheek. "Rarity...I love you."
She sniffled as tears rolled from her cheeks, dropping like rain on his body. "I love you too, Spike. You are the bravest, most valiant dragon I have ever had the pleasure of knowing." Bending, she kissed the top of his head. "My dear, dear friend."
He managed a weak smile. "You should...go. Too...dangerous."
With stubborn resolve she sniffled and squared her withers. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm not going anywhere." There was a whisper of wind and her eyes bulged. Rarity gave a short sharp gasp, looking down at the arrow in her chest. Slowly she lifted her head and found a pony grinning darkly at her. Though her eyes were completely black she had a foreleg crossbow strapped to her and a quiver full of arrows. This pony was one Rarity recognized as being among the new settlers. She must have been killed sometime during the battle and come back to feed and live again.
"Rarity." Spike reached for the arrow as though he could help but his grip was weak and his energy ebbing.
"It's all right, darling," she said quietly. "It...it doesn't really hurt." Her legs gave out and her head hit the ground just inches from Spike. Silently, they held each other's gaze and the battle went on around them.
Twilight, exhausted and covered in gore, had finally found an opening. When the unicorns decided to fall back she had no room to go anywhere. She was left surrounded and had to fight all on her own. Had she not been as proficient in magic as she was there was a good chance she wouldn't have made it out. Even when several winged harbingers soared over the wall and attacked both the cannon and the pony controlling it, there had been nothing she could do. She didn't know if Clover was dead or alive, or laying hurt somewhere and in desperate need of help. But as much as Twilight knew she loved him now, she also understood she'd be of no help to anyone if she died herself.
Her hooves rushed over the city streets, dodging pieces of buildings that were crumbling as the dragons and gryphons had taken them over. Even now as aerial combat progressed more damage was done and she had to be careful about falling debris. It was this very thing she feared when a dark shadow suddenly loomed over her. Twilight looked up expecting stone and saw something much worse. She didn't have time to teleport before the body of an old dragon fell on top of her. It was sheer luck that had her in the right place so that his body didn't crush her but his broken wing fanned over her in complete protection. She could hear the harbingers all over him and choked on a sob. Peeking out from under the wing Twilight could see the dragons's face turned toward her, his open eyes lifeless and unblinking. It was Pyro, Rainbow Dash's friend. She had the urge to retch as all the contents of her stomach stirred, but then one of them found her. Gathering all her wits about herself, Twilight's horn glowed and she disappeared in a pop of magic.
With nothing but a wall of stone and the vast unforgiving sea behind them, the ponies fought on. Celestia and Luna, it seemed, were being purposely separated. They fought as hard and everyone else was, struggling to keep the others alive but also ever striving to get back to one another so they could formulate a plan. If things progressed as they were they would all end up being slaughtered and devoured or forced into the ocean and drowned. Epona had come and gone telling them both of the unmoving black flames. It was this information that made up the minds of the sisters. They didn't need to be able to communicate verbally to know what they needed to do. They had known it for some time now but the idea of leaving everyone behind to fend for themselves was not something either of them could handle well.
Shining Armor and Pinkie Pie dropped down from the sky, Pinkie landing gracefully while the stallion limped. Celestia saw him through her curtain of blood-stained hair and called to him. "Can you produce a shield?"
"I don't know," he answered wearily. "My head's not completely right."
"We will help!" cried Luna, stabbing out with her horn. Without communicating the need for it, Pinkie Pie grabbed more arrows for another quiver and jumped in front of Luna, shooting and fighting. Others saw what she was doing and did the same, freeing up both princesses to help cast the shield spell. In a matter of seconds a bubble of translucent silver magic surrounded them. Harbingers were still in there with them but they could be cast out with enough force. More importantly, no more could get in.
"We need Twilight."
Luna looked up at her sister. "Twilight? Why?"
Turning as though she could see the flames far beyond the city, Celestia's gaze was pensive. "Ever since she was small I knew she was meant for something great, that her unique gifts and strong kinship with magic would forever alter the course of ponykind. I didn't know it then, but I believe that moment, one that will change every life in Equestria, has come. We won't be able to defeat him without her magic."
"Where is she?" Luna looked around. "Where is Twilight Sparkle?"
"I'm here." She hobbled from the crowds, dirty and limping, tears leaving pale rivers of lavender on her cheeks where blood had been.
"Twilight." Celestia lowered her head to nuzzle her. "Are you all right?"
"I don't know," the unicorn answered weakly. "I don't feel all right. I don't think I will for a very long time."
There was understanding in Celestia's gaze but she did not hesitate in presenting her plan. "It is time to put and end to this. Epona said if we can get past the gates we will have a clear path to the Revenant."
"Why don't you just teleport right out to him?"
"Because," said Luna, casting a dirty glance at the harbingers snarling and frothing against the magical shield. "We do not know what we would be teleporting into."
"We will teleport outside the gates," Celestia continued, "and run from there." She paused only briefly. "Twilight, we need you to come with us."
Twilight blinked in confusion. "Me? Why?"
"You are the Element of Magic, my faithful student. You are the very embodiment of the only thing that can defeat these evil creatures. Luna and I were once powerful enough to do this on our own but now we need you. You will be the very thing that links our magic together and overthrow this tyrant."
Feeling a sob in her throat, Twilight shook her head. "I can't. I'm not strong enough! I'm too scared! I have to find Clover!"
"Twilight." Celestia nuzzled her again. "Clover will be found. I know you're scared. We all are. But with your help we can put an end to all of this."
"You can do it, Twilight!" Pinkie encouraged.
Shining Armor nodded, doing his best to give her an encouraging smile. "I have faith in you, Twily."
"We all have faith in you," added Apple Bloom, still clinging to Fancy Pants.
"If anypony can do it," said Cadance, "it's you, Twilight."
Hesitant and still very doubtful, Twilight looked up first at Luna, then Celestia. "Promise me you won't leave me?"
"We will both be right there. Together the three of us will end this."
Twilight took a deep shaking breath in, then nodded. "Okay. Let's do this."