"Hey, Rainbow Daaaash!"
One of the clouds making up Rainbow Dash's cloud home gave off a little grunt. A light snoring followed suit. Scootaloo considered the object in her hoof, weighing it ponderously as she waited. Getting no further response, she called again.
Rainbow Dash gave a groaning noise in response and poked a groggy head out over the edge of the cloud. "What—" A ball of white whizzed through the air and planted itself with a mighty splat squarely between Rainbow's eye. Dash blinked and wiped the snow from her face as Scootaloo set off on her scooter with a roaring laugh. "Oh, you asked for it now, squirt!" Rainbow set off in a great swoop after the smug filly, gliding along the ground at full speed.
Scootaloo glanced over her shoulder and narrowly ducked a shot, the snowball grazing her ear. She stuck out her tongue at her pursuer and took a sharp turn, the small wheels of her scooter screeching against the snowy road. The vehicle careened dangerously and Rainbow Dash was on her before she could regain her course, lifting her off the scooter which sped on off into a snowdrift by the wayside.
Rainbow grinned mischievously as she stopped and dangled her by the hind legs over a large pile of snow, head inches from the cold snow. "Did you really think you could outrun me, pipsqueak? Me!? Rainbow Dash!? The greatest flier to ever come out of Cloudsdale? Better think again!"
"You're too slow, Dash!" Scootaloo taunted smugly. "It's the first snow of the season, and I got the first hit!" Rainbow Dash scowled and opened her mouth. Scootaloo grinned. "Duck!" she said and stuck her front hoof into the drift of snow below her before swiftly swinging it back out, sending a plume of loose snow into Dash's face and open mouth. "And second hit, slowpoke!"
Dash sputtered and shook her head. "Oh you little—" She blinked with a sudden realization and dropped Scootaloo, who landed head first in the pile of snow. "Wait! It's not supposed to snow today!" She glanced around at the thick cover of snow gracing the forests and fields outside Ponyville. "What the hay! If it's that featherbrained Derpy at work again, I'll …" she made a mock strangling gesture with her hooves.
Scootaloo stuck her head out of the pile of snow and shook herself free. "Come on, Dash. Who cares if it's a little early? Let's have fun!" She threw a teasing ball of snow of Rainbow Dash.
"My flank cares!" The ball whizzed lazily past Dash as she lowered herself down onto the ground. " 'Cause it's gonna be all kinds of sore when all the farm ponies find out about this. I'm supposed to be in charge of the weather team, now they'll throw me out! Worse, they'll tie me up in the town square and throw tomatoes at me. Green tomatoes. Frozen green tomatoes!"
"I really don't think they'd do that," Scootaloo said as she crawled out of the snow, shivering as a cold breeze blew across the empty field. "It's not like it's your fault. Somepony else screwed up. Find out who and make them clean it up again. Meanwhile we enjoy it while it lasts, right?" Scootaloo smiled up at Dash, whose face had turned to look towards the sky. "Right, Dash?"
A long shadow crept along the ground and fell over Rainbow Dash's face. Scootaloo glanced down at the growing shade then followed Dash's gaze upwards. "Whoa!" The light of early dawn dimmed as a great shadow moved slowly across the face of the sun, blocking it out. Scootaloo held a hoof to her mouth and whispered breathlessly, "I-is that supposed to happen?"
A freezing gale blew in from the forest, making even Dash shiver. She pulled Scootaloo closer and wrapped a protective wing around her to keep out the cold. "No, squirt … no it's not."
The brisk hoof falls of Celestia echoed down the hall of the grand tower. Golden rays of light followed her, reflecting in the stained glass portraits along her path. Pictures of the past, of Luna and herself from before their friendship drifted apart, of Twilight and her friends, of many other ponies who had known the magic of friendship and overcome great foes. In these halls and their memories Celestia had always found comfort and hope, even in the darkest of times. Yet it was more a sense of desperation than of hope she now felt as she came to a stop in front of the grand, gold-framed door with the sun in the center. A last hope, a last resort. And she had no friends to stand by her side.
A hollow sound echoed in the darkness behind her. Celestia looked over her shoulder and let her gaze drift down the long hallway, her ears perked. The golden light from her horn cast long, flickering shadows along the marble floor and grand pillars. "Somepony there?" she called, the faint response of her own voice all she received back. She turned around again and lowered her head, pointing her horn at the center of the stylized sun in the door. The heavy doors parted silently before her, revealing an empty vault beyond.
Celestia gasped, her face set in a deep scowl. "Not again!" Another low sound as of light hooves against the floor sounded at the opposite end of the hall. Celestia straightened up and turned around, glaring down the hallway. "Show yourself!" she demanded, the voice reverberating along the columns. The echo died slowly and left a deep, oppressive silence behind. Celestia stood for a time, waiting. She was about to turn when unmistakable hoof steps made her stop and narrow her eyes once more. The dark silhouette of a pony appeared far down the hall and turned its head to look at her. It stood for a second, before making a full turn and approaching quickly.
Celestia's pose relaxed slightly as an azure pegasus mare in royal armor emerged from the shadows. Her look was one of grave concern. "Your Highness!" she greeted with a deep bow. "I have been searching all over for you."
The princess gestured for her to stand. "Commander Blue Jet. Shouldn't you be leading the emergency response? My orders were quite clear on the procedures."
The mare stood back up. "I made the calls immediately when I saw the eclipse, as you ordered Your Majesty, but we're getting no responses back. I have reports that guards are missing, some of my key lieutenants among them. Many never reported in for duty, others can not be reached. I have redirected all available guards to protect the castle, but I am having a shortage of bodies. There is also a growing crowd of ponies in the castle courtyard awaiting news on what is happening."
"Tell them to go home and stay inside, for their own protection." Celestia strained to keep a facade of calm control. "It is not safe for them to stay out in the cold."
Blue Jet gave a single nod. "And my guards, Your Majesty?"
"Find them," Celestia said as she turned around. The vault remained empty, nothing on the pedestal where the box should have been. It made no sense then, it made no sense now. What trickery had foiled her wards not once, but twice? "We have an enemy in our midst, Commander. Find your missing guards and we may just find her as well."
The great halls and corridors of the castle lay silent, while outside a howling wind raged. It had not been this silent or lonely since she ordered the entire staff home, but this time she had made no such order. And yet the presence of her guard seemed to dwindle still, only a hoof full left and no further word from Blue Jet. Meanwhile ponies gathered around feeble fires in the grand courtyard, trying to drive out the bitter cold as they waited for news. A deathly cold seemed to hang over the castle, draining away both life and hope.
Celestia turned away from the window towards the table of scrolls. Old friendship reports and other things to remind her, yet all they did now was to make her sad. She had never felt so lonely as she did now, here in the crushing silence of the castle. She picked her way through the scrolls, but could not summon the will to read them. Finally her eyes fell on Luna's old hoofheld mirror. She picked it up and looked past the empty reflection to the mare sprawled on a couch behind her.
At Celestia's notice, a devilish smile crossed Trixie's face, framed by a hoarfrost mane gently flowing, dissolving in the warm golden glow of Celestia's light. "Hello, Celestia. What do you think?"
There was no surprise in Celestia's expression. She watched her enemy closely in the mirror, eyes following every small movement. "What have you done to my sister and her friends? What have you done to my guards?"
"Winter always was my favorite of seasons. It's such a beautiful time of year, it has a certain beautiful harshness to it. Cold, unrelenting beauty." Trixie stretched herself lazily on the couch. "It always resonated with me at some deep level."
"You didn't answer my question. What have you done with my sister?!" Celestia repeated with an obviously restrained anger in her voice.
Trixie shot Celestia a glance. "You didn't answer mine. I have waited long for this occasion and put a lot of work into making it a memorable one for all of Equestria, not least of all you."
"This occasion? Do not think you will have my death so easily," Celestia turned around to face Trixie instead of staring into the mirror.
A gentle laughter escaped Trixie's lips. "Your death? My dear Celestia, I do not wish your death."
"You think I will simply surrender, then?" Celestia sneered, still eying her closely. "Your early winter will kill my ponies. They will all starve. I will not allow anypony to suffer like this!"
"Those who deserve it shall live. I will make this nation stronger then it ever was. And who's going to stop me?" Trixie sat up. "Look around you. Where is your sister? Let me tell you, your sister is dead. As are her little friends. All dead."
Celestia's eyes burned like molten steel. "My sister is not dead! Do not lie to me!"
"Your sister is dead!" Trixie spat back. "Her friends are dead! Your precious Elements are broken." Her horn glowed slightly as she pulled out a small bag from behind her and turned it upside down. A fine golden dust fell on the floor in front of Celestia, who looked down at the pile in dismay. "Your guards have all defected, your once loyal subjects doubt you in their very hearts." She threw the empty bag at Celestia's hooves. "You are alone and friendless."
Celestia looked at the pile of dust. She was alone, and she had never felt it so keenly before. Memories of Twilight, of all her friends, and of Luna made her cry as she looked back up. "What do you want?"
Trixie's smile widened, her teeth shining in the golden light. "I want …" She stood up tall and majestic, eyes level with Celestia's. "I want for you to go out there, in front of your subjects, and renounce your throne, to crown me Queen and surrender yourself to me. Bow down and give yourself unconditionally to me. That is what I want from you."
"And what if I refuse?"
The smile faded a little. "Then I shall simply make you."
Rainbow Dash landed among the crowd of ponies and turned around, letting Scootaloo crawl off her back. Applejack was making her way through the masses towards them with Applebloom in tow. All around ponies were whispering or trying to get a view of the castle while the snow blew about them in a haze of white. Rainbow Dash looked up at the dark castle. "Why does it look so … abandoned? Shouldn't the royal guard be here? I don't see them anywhere."
Applebloom galloped past Applejack to join Scootaloo, both of them trying to look above the heads of the many ponies around them. "Do you think the princess is in danger?"
"Ah don't know," Applejack said as she caught up. "And ah don't like it. But if anypony has answers it's the princess, if only we could get in and find her."
"I could fly up and look inside!" Rainbow Dash said eagerly and set off, but was pulled back down.
Applejack spat out Rainbow's tail. "We stay together, remember?"
Rainbow Dash sulked. "That's no good if we can't get in. I'll just take a quick look!" She spread her wings again, but folded them back up with a frown at Applejack's glare. "Fine. So what's YOUR plan?"
"Ah'm working on it, alright?" Applejack snapped back with a frown. "Ah'm no Twilight, ah can't just … magic up a solution, alright?"
Rainbow Dash gave her a little nudge. "Hey now, don't go thinking like that. But we still need to think of something, and I say flying up and having a look is our best bet. I could do it in ten seconds flat and be back before you knew it, wanna bet?"
"No, ah don't wanna bet." Applejack sighed and held on to her hat in the wind. "Maybe if we get up front," she said, pondering the masses of shivering, huddled-up ponies. "Maybe if Celestia knows it's us she'll let us in." While she spoke the murmur of the crowd silenced as a pair of doors opened on a grand balcony overlooking the courtyard. Everypony turned to look as Celestia walked out and stood in front of the gathered crowds.
A long silence followed as she stood there, gazing out over the courtyard. Her face lacked expression, as if her mind had yet to make a decision. A nervous murmur resumed among the crowd as confusion spread, ponies looking between each other for answers. Finally the princess broke the silence. "Ponies of Equestria, my … my dear ponies. I stand before you on this night, to announce as of this moment my abdication of the throne." Celestia raised her hoof to silence the outcry from the gathered ponies. "I hereby step down as your Princess and give over all rights to the throne of Equestria to … Midnight, your new Queen!"
Horrified cries echoed in the grand courtyard and several ponies fainted as a tall, majestic figure draped in a flowing mane of frost stepped out from the dark gateway behind Celestia. Scootaloo and Applebloom both stared, while Applejack strained to keep back a furious Rainbow Dash. "I knew it! And I TOLD you! I TOLD YOU!" Rainbow Dash cried while Applejack dug her hooves into the ground.
Scootaloo gaped. "Is that … Trixie?"
"What is she doing?!" Applebloom asked of nopony in particular. "What happened to her?"
Trixie's eyes glinted with a cold malevolence as she turned to Celestia and held out a hoof towards her. The princess looked down as she got on her knees, and hesitantly kissed the outstretched hoof. "I live to serve you, my Queen."
Trixie's smile grew as she turned to the assembled ponies. "That, my loyal subjects, is how you are to address your Queen. With unwavering loyalty and reverence!" She held up a hoof towards the outraged crowd. "Silence!" Even Rainbow Dash froze at the frigid voice, a voice as cold and hard as ice.
"Those who obey, those who show proper reverence for their Queen, they shall be rewarded and their lands shall prosper. Those who do not, those who disobey or show disrespect …" Trixie stepped closer to the edge of the balcony and looked down at the crowd, her eyes a piercing stare. "They shall suffer, and any who offer them help shall suffer with them." She held out a hoof towards the crowd. "Show your loyalty to your true Queen! Bow down before the ruler of Equestria!"
Several frightened ponies bowed down, and many others followed more slowly. One by one the heads lowered, only a few hesitating or defiantly held high. Applejack struggled as Rainbow Dash raged and tore at her to get free. The apple farmer's grip failed and as she tumbled backwards, the rainbow mare shot towards the balcony and Trixie. "I will never bow down to you! I bow only to Celestia!"
A great light lit up the sky and a roaring clap of thunder shook the castle. With a cry, Rainbow Dash fell to the ground below, feathers and coat charred. The crowd around her all scrambled to get away from the fallen pegasus as Trixie landed in front of her, folding her great wings as her hooves touched down against the stone. She pulled up Rainbow Dash by the chin, forcing the smoldering pegasus to look at her. Dash's eyes were wide with fear, a light trickle of blood from her lips. "If she will not bow, then she will hang. At dawn! Let this mare serve as an example to you all. Serve, or suffer!" All around, ponies got busy bowing.
Trixie smiled as marching hooves sounded behind the crowd, guards still clad in the royal gold of Celestia marching into the courtyard. "Guards, take this traitor to the gallows. Anypony who doesn't clear out from the courtyard in a timely fashion is to join her at dawn."
The guards gave a brief salute and set about clearing out the masses just as a small voice broke in. "No, please!" Scootaloo pushed her way through the crowd, crying as she fell on her knees before Trixie. "Please don't kill Rainbow Dash!"
A hushed silence fell over the crowd again as Trixie looked down at the young pony with a freezing smile. She held up a hoof to stop the guards. "And why should I stay my judgment, little one?"
"B-because …" Scootaloo looked desperate, struggling to find some reason that might convince the cold-hearted mare. "Because she's my best friend, and … and the coolest pony I know. I don't want her to die."
Trixie leaned down and pulled up her head to look at her. "You look familiar," she said as she looked at the frightened filly. "I remember you. You were in Dappleshore, were you not? You helped foil my plans." She smiled. "But I suppose I should thank you. After all, had you and your friends not done what you did, I would not be here today. Scootaloo, was it?"
Scootaloo cringed, but looked hopeful. "So … so you'll let Rainbow Dash go?"
Trixie let go of the filly. "No. Your actions may have benefited me, but your intentions were perfectly clear. If anything I should have you hanged, or worse, as well. I can not have such a rebellious youth on the loose, can I?" Scootaloo's eyes widened, but Trixie continued. "But! I will give you a chance, a chance to tell me, little one, what will you give to have me spare your best friend's life?"
"I …" Scootaloo cried. "I'll do anything."
Rainbow Dash muttered a feeble "No", shaking her head at Scootaloo, but it was already too late.
Trixie's face lit up in a fiendish smile. "Will you now? Tell me, then, if this is not a fair deal. Her life, for yours." Scootaloo stammered something. "Will you give up your life, so that your friend can have hers?" Rainbow Dash looked with begging eyes at Scootaloo, but Trixie took a step to block her. The young filly struggled, then looked down with a nod. Trixie broke into a deep laughter and gestured for the guards, "Guards, take the rainbow one to the dungeons! Make sure she is properly chained."
Scootaloo looked up in a panic. "No! You promised!"
"I promised nothing!" Trixie said, as several guards dragged off Rainbow Dash. Trixie waited until they were gone. "And the proposed deal was for her life, not her freedom. I shall honor that deal, and that deal alone. Now, as for you …" A smile returned to her face. "I find that I quite like you. You've got spirit, and you understand the things a pony has to do. The price was your life, and a deal is a deal. Your life is now mine, you belong to me for all time. I hereby name you my …" Trixie looked up thoughtfully, her smile widening in an ironic grin. "My heir! Guards! Clear out the courtyard, I am done here!"
Ponies were swiftly ushered out by the guards while Trixie gestured for Scootaloo to follow her as she turned and walked through the doors to the castle. Celestia, who had been kneeling silently on the balcony, got up and followed with bowed head. The grand doors closed silently behind them.